John Brent/Chapter XVIII
A Gallop of Three
We were off, we Three on our Gallop to save and to slay.
Pumps and Fulano took fire at once. They were ready to burst into their top speed, and go off in a frenzy.
“Steady, steady,” cried Brent. “Now we’ll keep this long easy lope for a while, and I’ll tell you my plan.
“They have gone to the southward, — those two men. They could not get away in any other direction. I have heard Murker say he knows all the country between here and the Arkansaw. Thank Heaven! so do I, foot by foot.”
I recalled the sound of galloping hoofs I had heard in the night to the southward.
“I heard them, then,” said I, “in my watch after Fulano’s lariat was cut. The wind lulled, and there came a sound of horses, and another sound, which I then thought a fevered fancy of my own, a far-away scream of a woman.”
Brent had been quite unimpassioned in his manner until now. He groaned, as I spoke of the scream.
“Wade! Richard!” he said, “why did you not know the voice? It was she. They have terrible hours the start.”
He was silent a moment, looking sternly forward. Then he began again, and as he spoke, his iron gray edged on with a looser rein.
“It is well you heard them; it makes their course unmistakable. We know we are on their track. Seven or eight full hours! It is long odds of a start. But they are not mounted as we are mounted. They did not ride as we shall ride. They had a woman to carry, and their mules to drive. They will fear pursuit, and push on without stopping. But we shall catch them; we shall catch them before night, so help us God!”
“You are aiming for the mountains?” I asked.
“For Luggernel Alley,” he said.
I remembered how, in our very first interview, a thousand miles away at the Fulano mine, he had spoken of this spot. All the conversation then, all the talk about my horse, came back to me like a Delphic prophecy suddenly fulfilled. I made a good omen of this remembrance.
“For Luggernel Alley,” said Brent. “Do you recollect my pointing out a notch in the Sierra, yesterday, when I said I would like to spend a honeymoon there, if I could find a woman brave enough for this plains’ life?”
He grew very white as he spoke, and again Pumps led off by a neck, we ranging up instantly.
“They will make for the Luggernel Springs. The Alley is the only gate through the mountains towards the Arkansaw. If they can get by there, they are safe. They can strike off New Mexico way; or keep on to the States out of the line of emigration or any Mormon pursuit. The Springs are the only water to be had at this season, without digging, anywhere in that quarter. They must go there. We are no farther from the spot than we were at Bridger. We have been travelling along the base of the triangle. We have only lost time. And, now that we are fairly under way, I think we might shake out another reef. A little faster, friends, — a little faster yet!”
It was a vast desert level where we were riding. Here and there a scanty tuft of grass appeared, to prove that Nature had tried her benign experiment, and wafted seeds hither to let the scene be verdant, if it would. Nature had failed. The land refused any mantle over its brown desolation. The soil was disintegrated, igneous rock, fine and well beaten down as the most thoroughly laid Macadam.
Behind was the rolling region where the Great Trail passes; before and far away, the faint blue of the Sierra. Not a bird sang in the hot noon; not a cricket chirped. No sound except the beat of our horses’ hoofs on the pavement. We rode side by side, taking our strides together. It was a waiting race. The horses travelled easily. They learned, as a horse with a self-possessed rider will, that they were not to waste strength in rushes. “Spend, but waste not,” — not a step, not a breath, in that gallop for life! This must be our motto.
We three rode abreast over the sere brown plain on our gallop to save and to slay.
Far — ah, how terribly dim and distant! — was the Sierra, a slowly lifting cloud. Slowly, slowly they lifted, those gracious heights, while we sped over the harsh levels of the desert. Harsh levels, abandoned or unvisited by verdancy. But better so; there was no long herbage to check our great pace over the smooth race-course; no thickets here to baffle us; no forests to mislead.
We galloped abreast, — Armstrong at the right. His weird, gaunt white held his own with the best of us. No whip, no spur, for that deathly creature. He went as if his master’s purpose were stirring him through and through. That stern intent made his sinews steel, and put an agony of power into every stride. The man never stirred, save sometimes to put a hand to that bloody blanket bandage across his head and temple. He had told his story, he had spoken his errand, he breathed not a word; but with his lean, pallid face set hard, his gentle blue eyes scourged of their kindliness, and fixed upon those distant mountains where his vengeance lay, he rode on like a relentless fate.
Next in the line I galloped. O my glorious black! The great, killing pace seemed mere playful canter to him, — such as one might ride beside a timid girl, thrilling with her first free dash over a flowery common, or a golden beach between sea and shore. But from time to time he surged a little forward with his great shoulders, and gave a mighty writhe of his body, while his hind legs came lifting his flanks under me, and telling of the giant reserve of speed and power he kept easily controlled. Then his ear would go back, and his large brown eye, with its purple-black pupil, would look round at my bridle hand and then into my eye, saying as well as words could have said it, “This is mere sport, my friend and master. You do not know me. I have stuff in me that you do not dream. Say the word, and I can double this, treble it. Say the word! let me show you how I can spurn the earth.” Then, with the lightest love pressure on the snaffle, I would say, “Not yet! not yet! Patience, my noble friend! Your time will come.”
At the left rode Brent, our leader. He knew the region; he made the plan; he had the hope; his was the ruling passion, — stronger than brotherhood, than revenge. Love made him leader of that galloping three. His iron-gray went grandly, with white mane flapping the air like a signal-flag of reprieve. Eager hope and kindling purpose made the rider’s face more beautiful than ever. He seemed to behold Sidney’s motto written on the golden haze before him, “Viam aut inveniam aut faciam.” I felt my heart grow great, when I looked at his calm features, and caught his assuring smile, — a gay smile but for the dark, fateful resolve beneath it. And when he launched some stirring word of cheer, and shook another ten of seconds out of the gray’s mile, even Armstrong’s countenance grew less deathly, as he turned to our leader in silent response. Brent looked a fit chieftain for such a wild charge over the desert waste, with his buckskin hunting-shirt and leggins with flaring fringes, his otter cap and eagle’s plume, his bronzed face, with its close, brown beard, his elate head, and his seat like a centaur.
So we galloped three abreast, neck and neck, hoof with hoof, steadily quickening our pace over the sere width of desert. We must make the most of the levels. Rougher work, cruel obstacles were before. All the wild, triumphant music I had ever heard came and sang in my ears to the flinging cadence of the resonant feet, tramping on hollow arches of the volcanic rock, over great, vacant chasms underneath. Sweet and soft around us melted the hazy air of October, and its warm, flickering currents shook like a veil of gauzy gold, between us and the blue bloom of the mountains far away, but nearing now and lifting step by step.
On we galloped, the avenger, the friend, the lover, on our errand, to save and to slay.