John Brent/Chapter XX
Yes, John Brent, you were right when you called Luggernel Alley a wonder of our continent.
I remember it now, — I only saw it then; — for those strong scenes of nature assault the soul whether it will or no, fight in against affirmative or negative resistance, and bide their time to be admitted as dominant over the imagination. It seemed to me then that I was not noticing how grand the precipices, how stupendous the cleavages, how rich and gleaming the rock faces in Luggernel Alley. My business was not to stare about, but to look sharp and ride hard; and I did it.
Yet now I can remember, distinct as if I beheld it, every stride of that pass; and everywhere, as I recall foot after foot of that fierce chasm, I see three men with set faces, — one deathly pale and wearing a bloody turban, — all galloping steadily on, on an errand to save and to slay.
Terrible riding it was! A pavement of slippery, sheeny rock; great beds of loose stones; barricades of mighty boulders, where a cliff had fallen an æon ago, before the days of the road-maker race; crevices where an unwary foot might catch; wide rifts where a shaky horse might fall, or a timid horseman drag him down. Terrible riding! A pass where a calm traveller would go quietly picking his steps, thankful if each hour counted him a safe mile.
Terrible riding! Madness to go as we went! Horse and man, any moment either might shatter every limb. But man and horse neither can know what he can do, until he has dared and done. On we went, with the old frenzy growing tenser. Heart almost broken with eagerness.
No whipping or spurring. Our horses were a part of ourselves. While we could go, they would go. Since the water, they were full of leap again. Down in the shady Alley, too, evening had come before its time. Noon’s packing of hot air had been dislodged by a mountain breeze drawing through. Horses and men were braced and cheered to their work; and in such riding as that, the man and the horse must think together and move together, — eye and hand of the rider must choose and command, as bravely as the horse executes. The blue sky was overhead, the red sun upon the castellated walls a thousand feet above us, the purpling chasm opened before. It was late, these were the last moments. But we should save the lady yet.
“Yes,” our hearts shouted to us, “we shall save her yet.”
An arroyo, the channel of a dry torrent, followed the pass. It had made its way as water does, not straightway, but by that potent feminine method of passing under the frowning front of an obstacle, and leaving the dull rock staring there, while the wild creature it would have held is gliding away down the valley. This zigzag channel baffled us; we must leap it without check wherever it crossed our path. Every second now was worth a century. Here was the sign of horses, passed but now. We could not choose ground. We must take our leaps on that cruel rock wherever they offered.
He had carried his master so nobly! There were so few miles to do! He had chased so well; he merited to be in at the death.
Brent lifted him at a leap across the arroyo.
His hind feet slipped on the time-smoothed rock. He fell short. He plunged down a dozen feet among the rough boulders of the torrent-bed. Brent was out of the saddle almost before he struck, raising him.
No, he would never rise again. Both his fore legs were broken at the knee. He rested there, kneeling on the rocks where he fell.
Brent groaned. The horse screamed horribly, horribly, — there is no more agonized sound, — and the scream went echoing high up the cliffs where the red sunlight rested.
It costs a loving master much to butcher his brave and trusty horse, the half of his knightly self; but it costs him more to hear him shriek in such misery. Brent drew his pistol to put poor Pumps out of pain.
Armstrong sprang down and caught his hand.
“Stop!” he said in his hoarse whisper.
He had hardly spoken, since we started. My nerves were so strained, that this mere ghost of a sound rang through me like a death yell, a grisly cry of merciless and exultant vengeance. I seemed to hear its echoes, rising up and swelling in a flood of thick uproar, until they burst over the summit of the pass and were wasted in the crannies of the towering mountain-flanks above.
“Stop!” whispered Armstrong. “No shooting! They’ll hear. The knife!”
He held out his knife to my friend.
Brent hesitated one heart-beat. Could he stain his hand with his faithful servant’s blood?
Pumps screamed again.
Armstrong snatched the knife and drew it across the throat of the crippled horse.
Poor Pumps! He sank and died without a moan. Noble martyr in the old, heroic cause!
I caught the knife from Armstrong. I cut the thong of my girth. The heavy California saddle, with its macheers and roll of blankets, fell to the ground. I cut off my spurs. They had never yet touched Fulano’s flanks. He stood beside me quiet, but trembling to be off.
“Now Brent! up behind me!” I whispered, — for the awe of death was upon us.
I mounted. Brent sprang up behind. I ride light for a tall man. Brent is the slightest body of an athlete I ever saw.
Fulano stood steady till we were firm in our seats.
Then he tore down the defile.
Here was that vast reserve of power; here the tireless spirit; here the hoof striking true as a thunderbolt, where the brave eye saw footing; here that writhing agony of speed; here the great promise fulfilled, the great heart thrilling to mine, the grand body living to the beating heart. Noble Fulano!
I rode with a snaffle. I left it hanging loose. I did not check or guide him. He saw all. He knew all. All was his doing.
We sat firm, clinging as we could, as we must. Fulano dashed along the resounding pass.
Armstrong pressed after, — the gaunt white horse struggled to emulate his leader. Presently we lost them behind the curves of the Alley. No other horse that ever lived could have held with the black in that headlong gallop to save.
Over the slippery rocks, over the sheeny pavement, plunging through the loose stones, staggering over the barricades, leaping the arroyo, down, up, on, always on, — on went the horse, we clinging as we might.
It seemed one beat of time, it seemed an eternity, when between the ring of the hoofs I heard Brent whisper in my ear.
“We are there.”
The crags flung apart, right and left. I saw a sylvan glade. I saw the gleam of gushing water.
Fulano dashed on, uncontrollable!
There they were, — the Murderers.
Arrived but one moment!
The lady still bound to that pack-mule branded A. & A.
Murker just beginning to unsaddle.
Larrap not dismounted, in chase of the other animals as they strayed to graze.
The men heard the tramp and saw us, as we sprang into the glade.
Both my hands were at the bridle.
Brent, grasping my waist with one arm, was awkward with his pistol.
Murker saw us first. He snatched his six-shooter and fired.
Brent shook with a spasm. His pistol arm dropped.
Before the murderer could cock again, Fulano was upon him!
He was ridden down. He was beaten, trampled down upon the grass, — crushed, abolished.
We disentangled ourselves from the mêlée.
Where was the other?
The coward, without firing a shot, was spurring Armstrong’s Flathead horse blindly up the cañon, whence we had issued.
We turned to Murker.
Fulano was up again, and stood there shuddering. But the man?
A hoof had battered in the top of his skull; blood was gushing from his mouth; his ribs were broken; all his body was a trodden, massacred carcass.
He breathed once, as we lifted him.
Then a tranquil, childlike look stole over his face, — that well-known look of the weary body, thankful that the turbulent soul has gone. Murker was dead.
Fulano, and not we, had been executioner. His was the stain of blood.