John Brent/Chapter XXVII
“What a horse beyond all horses yours is!” said Biddulph to me next morning, as we rode along cheerily through the fresh, frosty air of December. “I think, when your continent gets to its finality in horse-flesh, you will beat our island.”
“Think what training such a trip is! This comrade of mine has come two thousand miles with me, — big thought, eh! — and he freshens up with the ozone of this morning, as if he had been in the stable a week, champing asphodel.”
Fulano felt my commendation. He became electrified. He stirred under me. I gave him rein. He shook himself out, and began to recite his accomplishments.
Whatever gait he had in his legs together, or portion of a leap in either pair of them; whatever gesticulations he considered graceful, with toes in the air before, or heels in the air behind; whatever serpentine writhe or sinewy bend of the body, whatever curve of the proud neck, fling of the head, signal of the ear, toss of the mane, whisk of the tail, he knew, — all these he repeated, to remind me what a horse he was, and justify my praise.
What a horse, indeed!
How far away from him every lubberly roadster, every hack that endures the holidays of a tailor, every grandpapa’s cob, every sloucher in a sulky! Of other race and other heart was this steed, both gentle and proud. He was still able to be the better half of a knight-errant when a charger worth a kingdom must be had, — when Love needed his mighty alliance in the battle with Brutality. He was willing now, in piping times of peace, to dance along his way, a gay comrade to the same knight-errant, riding homeward a quiet gentleman, with armor doffed and unsuspecting further war.
What sport we had together that morning! We were drawing near the end of our journey. Not that that was to part us! No, he was to be my companion still. I had a vision of him in a paddock, with a fine young fellow, not unlike myself, patting his head, while an oldish fellow, not unlike myself, in fact very me with another quarter of a century on my head, told the story of the Gallop of Three and the wild charge down Luggernel Alley to that unwearying auditor, while a lady, very like my ideal of a wife, stood by and thrilled again to the tale. Such a vision I had of Fulano’s future.
But now that our journey was ending, he and I were willing, on this exhilarating winter’s day, to talk it over. What had he gained by the chances by flood and field we had encountered together?
“I have not gone,” Fulano notified me, “two thousand miles, since my lonely, riderless days among the herds of Gerrian, since our first meeting on the prairie and my leap through the loop of José’s lasso, — I have not gone my leagues of continent for nothing.
“See what lessons I have learnt, thanks to you, my schoolmaster! This is my light step for heavy sand; this is my cautious step over pebbles; my high step over boulders; my easy, unwasteful travelling gait; my sudden stop without unseating my rider; so I swerve without shying; and so I spring into top speed without a strain. Your lady-love could canter me; your baby could walk me; because I please to be your friend, my friend. But you know me; I am the untamable still, except by love.”
And then he rehearsed the gaits he had studied from the creatures on the plains.
“Look, upper half of the Centaur,” he said, in the Centaur language; “see how an antelope goes!”
He doubled his legs under him and went off in high, jerky leaps, twice his length every one.
“Look! A buffalo!”
He lumbered along, shoulders low, head handled like a battering-ram, and tail stiff out like a steering-oar.
“Here’s a gray wolf.”
And he shambled forward in a loose-jointed canter, looking back furtively, like a thief, sorry he didn’t stop to steal the other goose, but expecting Stop thief! every minute.
“And so go I, Don Fulano, the Indomitable, a chieftain of the chiefest race below the man, — so go I when walk, pace, gallop, run, leap, career, tread space and time out of being, to show the other half of the Centaurship what my half can do for the love of his.”
“Magnificent!” applauded Biddulph at this display.
“His coquetries are as beautiful as a woman’s,” said Brent. “One whose sweet wiles are nature, not artifice.”
And I — but lately trained to believe that a woman may have the myriad charm of coy withdrawal, and yet not be the traitress youth learns from ancient cynics to fear — accepted the comparison.
Ah, peerless Fulano! that was our last love-passage!
The day, after the crisp frostness of its beginning, was a belated day of Indian summer; mild as the golden mornings of that calm, luxurious time. We stopped to noon in a sunny spot of open pasture near a wide muddy slough of the Missouri. This reservoir for the brewage of shakes for Pikes had been refilled in some autumn rise of the river, and lay a great stagnant lake along the road-side, a mile or so long, two hundred yards broad. Not very exhilarating tipple, but still water; the horses would not disdain it, after their education on the plains; we could qualify it with argee from our flasks, and ice it with the little films of ice unmelted along the pool’s edges. We were fortified with a bag of corn for the horses, and a cold chicken for the men.
We camped by a fallen cottonwood near the slough. The atmosphere was hopeful. We picnicked merrily, men and beasts. “Three gentlemen at once” over a chicken soon dissipated this and its trimmings. We lighted the tranquil calumet, and lounged, watching our horses at their corn.
Presently we began to fancy we heard, then to think we heard, at last to be sure we heard the baying of hounds through the mild, golden air.
“Tally-ho!” cried Biddulph, “what a day for a fox-hunt! This haze will make the scent lie almost as well as the clouds.”
“Music! Music!” cried he again, springing up, as the sound, increasing, rose and fell along the peaceful air that lay on earth so lovingly.
“Music, if it were in Merrie England, where the hunt are gentlemen. A cursed uproar here, where the hunt are man-stealers,” said Brent.
“No,” said Biddulph. “Those are fables of the old, barbarous days of the Maroons. I can’t believe in dogs after men, until I see it.”
“I’m afraid it’s our friend Ham they are after. This would be his line of escape.”
At the word, a rustling in the bushes along the slough, and Ham burst through. He turned to run. We shouted. He knew us, and flung himself, livid with terror and panting with flight, on the ground at our feet, — the “pop’lar nigger”!
“Massa!” he gasped. “Dey’s gone sot de dogs on me. What’ll I do!”
“Can you swim,” said I, — for to me he was kneeling.
“No, Massa; or I’d been across this yer sloo fore dis.”
“Can you ride!”
“Reck’n I kin, Massa.”
A burst of baying from the hounds.
The black shook with terror.
I sprang to Fulano. “Work for you, old boy!” said I to him, as I flung the snaffle over his head.
“Take mine!” said my two friends at a breath.
“No; Fulano understands this business. Chase or flight, all one to him, so he baffles the Brutes.”
Fulano neighed and beat the ground with eager hoofs as I buckled the bridle.
“Can’t we show fight?” said Biddulph.
“There’ll be a dozen on the hunt. It is one of the entertainments hereabouts. Besides, they would raise the posse upon us. You forget we’re in a Slave State, an enemy’s country.”
I led Fulano to the brink. He stood motionless, eying me, just as he eyed me in that terrible pause in Luggernel Alley.
“Here, Ham, up with you! Put across the slough. He swims like an alligator. Then make for the north star, and leave the horse for Mr. Richard Wade, at the Tremont House, Chicago. Treat him like a brother, Ham!”
“Lor bress you, Massa! I will dat.”
He vaulted up, like “a sprightly nigger, one of the raal ambitious sort.”
The baying came nearer, nearer, ringing sweetly through the golden quiet of noon.
I launched Fulano with an urgent whisper.
Two hundred yards to swim! and then all clear to Freedom!
Fulano splashed in and took deep water magnificently.
What a sight it is to see a noble horse nobly breast the flood, — to see his shoulders thrust aside the stream, his breath come quick, his eyes flash, his haunches lift, his wake widen after him!
And then — Act 2 — how grand it is to see him paw and struggle up with might and main upon the farther bank, — to see him rise, all glossy and reeking, shake himself, and, with a snort, go galloping free and away! Aha! a sight to be seen!
We stood watching Act 1. The fugitive was half-way across. The baying came closer, closer on his trail.
Two thirds across.
The baying ceased. The whole pack drew a long wail.
“They see him,” said Biddulph.
Almost across! A dozen more plunges, Fulano!
A crowd of armed men on horseback dashed up to the bank two hundred yards above us. It was open where they halted. They could not see us among the bushes on the edge of the slough.
One of them — it was Murker — sprang from his saddle. He pointed his rifle quick and steady. Horse and man, the fugitives, were close to the bank and the thicket of safety.
Almost over, as the rifle cracked. Ham had turned at the sound of his pursuers crashing through the bushes. Fulano swam high. He bore a proud head aloft, conscious of his brave duty. It was but a moment since he had dashed away, and the long lines of his wake still rippled against the hither bank.
We heard the bullet sing. It missed the man as he turned. It struck Fulano. Blood spirted from a great artery. He floundered forward.
Ham caught the bushes on the bank, pulled himself ashore, and clutched for the bridle.
Poor Fulano! He flung his head up and pawed the surface with a great spasm. He screamed a death-scream, like that terrible cry of anguish of his comrade martyred in the old heroic cause in Luggernel Alley. We could see his agonized eye turn back in the socket, sending toward us a glance of farewell.
Noble horse! again a saviour. He yielded and sank slowly away into that base ditch.
But Ham, was he safe? He had disappeared in the thicket. His pursuers called the hounds and galloped off to chase him round the slough.
Ham was safe. He got off to freedom. From his refuge in Chicago he writes me that he is “pop’lar”; that he has “sot up a Livery Institootion, and has a most a bewterful black colt a growin’ up fur me.”
Ham was saved; but Fulano gone. Dead by Murker’s rifle. The brother had strangely avenged his brother, trampled to death in the far-away cañon of the Rocky Mountains. Strange Nemesis for a guiltless crime! That blood-stain for a righteous execution clung to him. Only his own blood-shedding could cleanse him.
We three on the bank looked at each other forlornly. The Horse, our Hero, had passed away from the scene, a martyr.
We turned to our journey with premonitions of sorrowful ill.