The Pinto Stallion
The Pinto Stallion
A Situation That Belongs in the Red-Blooded West, a Tense Drama Revolving Around a Wild-Horse Hunt Which is Just as Serious and as Thrilling as Any Man-Hunt of Fact or Fiction
Author of "Desert Justice," "The Enchanted Cañon," etc.
WILD-HORSE country must of necessity be remote country. It must be adjacent to cow country. And it must be watered and grassed, but not sufficiently to tempt other cattleman sheep-herder.
Such a country is the stamping-ground of the pinto stallion.
Picture to yourself a far range of the Rockies, lifting for a hundred miles or so from the valley of the railroad at four thousand feet elevation, hill on hill, cañon beyond cañon, peak above peak to ultimate, snow-crowned crests at fourteen thousand feet. Many of the lower valleys are unwatered and profoundly alkaline. Even the sage-brush and the cactus are half-starved. But the upper valleys for five months of the year are watered by melted snows. The wild grass is thick, and alfalfa, if the melted snows are impounded and fed to it, grows amazingly. This is cow country, and has been for three generations.
Between the arid valleys and the cow valleys lies country that is neither fish nor flesh, and here run horses that have escaped from the upper ranches and in small, stallion-led herds thrive mightily on the sparse grass and sparser water.
Horse-flesh is held cheap in the upper valleys. It is a poor rancher indeed who has not a dozen or so mounts running in the fields. So the wild horses are not tempting except to the venturesome. The running of these untamed herds is dangerous and to be undertaken only by men of extraordinary prowess as riders and ropers. But for the young bloods who find the round-up tame, the running of wild horses offers excitement worth their mettle. Above all is it a real man's game to go out after the pinto stallion.
Not more than a dozen of the young riders of the upper valleys ever have seen him. Not more than a half-dozen have got near enough to him to flatter themselves that they are running him. And only four or five of them dare boast that they have flung a rope at him. Homer Freeman knew the stallion better than any one in the Lone Bend country. But then Homer, even at thirty or so, was a better range man than any the young dare-devils who dreamed of bronco-busting at Cheyenne's Frontier Day. Particularly was Homer a master runner of wild horses.
Homer played a lone game. Just why, no one in Lone Bend could discover. His grandfather had ridden range in the Lone Bend country. His father had made money enough on his cattle-ranch to send Homer East to college and to make a lawyer of the boy. But at his father's death Homer had come back to live a solitary life at the old ranch-house. He spent two-thirds of his time hunting bear, lynx, wolverine or what-not on the Forest Reserve and running wild horses in the lower valleys. It was said that he was not above shifting a brand or two and that in common with other Lone Benders he seldom beefed his own steers.
But excepting those occasions when he helped Frank Peters put through some wild and mysterious horse deal, Homer played a lone hand, and with few exceptions, when he hunted, he hunted alone.
Aunty Ames, who laid out all the dead and delivered all the babies in Lone Bend, tended Homer when he had the influenza. She claimed that during his delirium she found him with his cheek pillowed on the photograph of a very lovely woman and that there were undried tears on his face. But no one in Lone Bend dared taunt Homer with this.
Homer discovered the pinto stallion. He was returning from hunting sage-hens and had a haunch of antelope venison in a gunny-sack slung across his saddle. He had no desire to meet a forest ranger and was riding through the trailless country far to the east of Lone Bend. Rounding a mesa's blunt nose, he came upon a beautiful stallion, strongly Arabian, who snorted and disappeared so suddenly that Homer rubbed his eyes.
FROM that moment Homer dreamed of capturing that magnificent stallion. Again and again he went after him, always to return empty-banded and with increased admiration for the cleverness of the wild creature. Gradually he developed a certain affection and proprietary pride in the pinto, and when others in the valley began to hunt him Homer resented it.
Yet it was out of this pride that there grew, finally, Homer's grudging consent to take Frank Peters on a hunt after the stalllon. Frank was skeptical as to the stallion's beauty and as to Homer's ability to locate him at will. At last Homer grudgingly consented to Frank's accompanying him and even to Frank's bringing along young Billy Williams the Peters foreman. Yet from month to month he delayed the expedition, pleading now that the heat was too great, now that the snows were too deep.
But one day in early February the forest ranger, who had ridden cross-country from his own station to his neighbor's, fifty miles east, stopped at Lone Bend post-office to thaw out and feed. He reported the drifts as deep and difficult as far south as the Crooked Wash. But there the snow had blown clear of the mesa and there the ranger swore he had seen the pinto stallion with his herd of mares.
A day or so later Homer, Frank and Billy, with pack outfit and each an extra saddle-horse, started at sun-up for the Crooked Wash country.
The three riders jingled out of Peters's corral at the cowman's slow trot.
"Must 'ave six inches of snow fell last night," said Billy. "Who breaks trail?"
"I'll take it on till we reach Crooked Bend Cañon," Frank replied, "then you'll have to lead, Homer. I ain't been up that way in the wintertime in ten years."
Homer nodded and pulled in his horse Theodore after Frank's mare. Homer sat taller in the saddle than either of the other two. He was perhaps thirty, with gray eyes that would have been abstracted had they not been so keen, with a thin mouth that would have been sensitive had it not been set in lines of deliberate immobility. He wore dilapidated Angora chaps of about the same vintage as Frank's, a belt-length leather coat, a Stetson pulled low over the black silk cap that covered his ears, and high-heeled riding-boots.
Frank's outfit duplicated Homer's, but there any likeness between the two men ceased. Frank was about thirty-five, ruddy of face and thick of body where Homer was thin and dark with tan.
Billy was a tall jack-knife youngster with a soft girlish face, not looking his twenty-five years. He was resplendent in leather chaps that were studded with silver and heavily embossed in a design of roses.
The trail led over a low shoulder of Black Mountain, across Lone Bend Creek, gingerly about the shoulder of Agate Mountain, up ten miles or so of sun-lit valley into Crooked Wash Cañon whose multi-colored walls closed in on them rapidly and steeply. They made night camp under a jutting ledge of bright yellow-and-green sandstone and were in the saddle again at dawn, Homer leading, the horses belly-deep in snow. For several hours thus, with no conversation, then Homer turned in his saddle.
"We're only about an hour now from the foot of old Red Mountain," he called. "This is the last firewood we'll see till night-time."
The comment of the other two was to dismount and tie their horses in the dump of cedars that here filled the cañon from edge to edge. There was no snow under the trees and soon a good fire was going and Billy was frying pork.
He dished the dinner and the three squatted around the fire to eat it.
"My idea is," said Homer, "that instead of going up on the mesa this afternoon we climb the back of old Red, here, and work round where we can get a clean view of the mesa top. Make camp there and in the morning locate the pinto with the field-glasses. If we go up on the mesa before we locate him, he'll just make goats of us
"There's going to be a fierce wind blowing up on old Red," suggested Billy.
The older men merely stared at him and Billy, swearing softly, lighted a cigaret and helped to pack up without further protest
A brisk wind had risen. They began to feel some of its force when they left the cedars. It was a gale when Homer led the way around a pink sandstone cliffs to the foot of old Red, which, treeless and trailless, offered them rough passage. Homer urged Theodore slantwise up the first snowy slope and the others followed. On the crest of the third steep shoulder Theodore stopped, head down, and obstinately struggled to turn back. The wind was full of snow. Homer shouted something that the others could not hear above the gale; but when he dismounted and began to lead his horse they followed suit. To the fourth shoulder was a bitter, blinding fight, snow to the waist, a wind that one could not face. At the top of the fourth crest Homer waited for the others to come up.
"It's gawd-awful steep to swing round this shoulder," he shouted, jerking his head toward the sickening depths below and beyond; "but I think we'd better try it rather than straight up. The horses will begin to act in the wind up there."
Billy and Frank nodded and Homer went on corkscrewing up the edge at the abyss that gaped below them until at sunset, just under the summit of the mountain, he led the panting and exhausted outfit into a rough, shallow cave in a mighty, crimson rock-heap. Here there was no wind and little snow.
For a few moments speech was impossible to the panting hunters. Homer recovered first and, shielding his eyes from the last rays of the sun, he swept the astounding landscape with his field-glasses. Immediately below him was the Crooked Wash mesa, in reality a flat-topped mountain, corrugated by many cañons. The mesa was a soft rose tint, the cañon wall, for the most part, brilliant yellow. Beyond the mesa lifted a snow-cover range, pastel blue; and beyond this range, another and a higher, white, shot with cardinal; and beyond this still another, black where it was not gold; all twisting and swirling in the mighty wind-storm.
Homer viewed the horizon only casually, then lowered the glasses to the mesa. The others watched him eagerly; but it was not until a quarter of an hour had passed that Homer spoke.
"THAT ranger sure is not as big a liar as I thought he was."
"Where are they?" exclaimed Frank.
Homer gave him the glasses. "Locate the cañon in the center of the mesa. Stop where it opens into the main wash. Follow down directly under the rim."
"I don't need the glasses!" cried Billy, following Homer's directions. And indeed, now that one knew where to look, a little group of horses was distinguishable in the cañon indicated.
"Here, hawkeye!" Frank laughed excitedly as he handed the glasses to Billy. "See if you can make out the pinto. I can't."
"I saw him," said Homer.
"Sure, he's there! I see him!" shouted Billy. "I see him. Now I'll show those dogies at Lone Bend whether or not I can run a real wild horse!"
"Not but what you've been running them ever since you put on pants," grunted Frank. "Come on, boys, let's make camp before it gets dark."
The cave was large and the horses were driven into one end and given their oats.
"Your horses getting anything but hay this winter, Frank?" asked Homer as he unsaddled Theodore.
"No," replied Frank. "I never was a hand to nurse-bottle a horse like you."
Homer smiled and said nothing, but Billy looked keenly from the well-padded Theodore and Marie, his mate, to his own and Frank's mounts.
"Back East," said Homer, "they don't know how to ride, but they sure know how to treat horse-flesh."
"Never came any Easterner out here that knew whether horses ate hay or beef-steak," growled Frank. Then he added with a grin: "You might have been a real cowman, Homer, if your father hadn't sent you to college."
"Spoiled a good horse-wrangler to make a dogy lawyer!" laughed Billy.
"He wasn't so much of a dogy the time he put over the plea of self-defense when you shot Carl Atkins," said Frank. "You better wrangle some firewood, Billy, and don't try to sass your elders."
Billy went out to attack the scrub cedar below the cave and little more was said until the evening meal had been cooked and eaten. Even then there was the silence that comes less from friendship than from life-long acquaintance. Frank and Billy, at least, knew each others' minds as they knew their own and had lost interest. They had no hope of knowing Homer's, who sat pulling at his pipe and staring at the fire long after the others had gone to bed.
THE morning dawned clear and brilliant with the pinto's band moving slowly along the rim of the cañon far, far below. The hunters left the extra horses in the camp and worked their difficult way down the mountainside, across the wild, rocky valley and up the steep yellow wall of the mesa.
"Now," said Homer, "I'll sneak up on them till they start running. Then I'll try to cut out the pinto. When I do, I'll try to head him back toward this drift and we'll see if we can gaum him in it. Billy, you work up yonder to the left and keep going easy till you see me coming. Then be prepared to ride herd as you never did before. Frank, you patrol this end of the mesa and don't get impatient."
Homer dismounted, looked carefully to his girth, recoiled his lariat, pulled his hat farther down over his ears, vaulted into the saddle and was off. The top of the mesa was covered with fine broken stone and dotted with sage-brush around which grew thick clumps of dried grass. The going would not have been difficult for a horse of Theodore's strength and experience had not the entire tableland been cross-hatched by crevice and draw. Traversing these at a run was heart-breaking work. For a long hour they sneaked up and down cañon and draw until they emerged from the main cañon not a hundred yards from where the wild herd was grazing.
For a moment Homer held Theodore in while, with the familiar quickening of his heart, he once more gazed on the pinto stallion. He was grazing with his flank to the enemy. A bay mare close behind him threw up her head with a loud snort. The pinto turned. He stood perhaps sixteen hands high, with face and mane creamy white, a wild heavy forelock blowing across his burning dark eyes. His legs were straight and slender and mottled with roan, as was his mighty chest and back. He gave Homer a quick, casual glance, wheeled on his hind legs as Homer plunged his spurs into Theodore, and headed due north, his herd following helter-skelter.
It was vicious going from the very start. Now leaping a draw, now dropping into a cañon, now sliding, all fours stiff, into an unexpected wash, now flying up a narrow isthmus of land, broken stone scattering, hoofs thudding. Several brood-mares quit the race after a few moments, shying off into sheltered cañons where, trembling and panting, they watched the chase disappear into the beyond. It was not easy to cut the pinto from the entire band; but after an hour or so only the big bay mare remained, running easily with her nose to her lord's flank. She was not so deft as the pinto in doubling. Now and again the pinto waited a breath for her to follow his tactics. Theodore was quick to take advantage of these pauses and gradually he drew within roping distance.
The pinto was heading into a blind draw as Homer unslung his lariat. There was heavy snow along the bottom, but the three horses scarcely slackened speed. The pinto backed the mare against the blind wall and stood before her, great sides heaving, great eyes flaming, great chest covered with foam and frosting sweat. Homer twirled the rope. The coil shot forward. The stallion, with a scream, reared, bared his teeth and jumping over the loop as it slid toward his fore feet, he charged Theodore and his rider like a maddened bull. His wet shoulder caught Theodore's, his teeth tore one of the chaps from Homer's belt, one hoof grazed Theodore's flank and slit it for six inches. Theodore fell heavily under the charge, and the pinto and the mare thundered over him and were gone.
Homer cleared his feet from the stirrups as they went down and mounted as Theodore rose, which was wise, for the horse was beyond control and bolted savagely after the pinto. Theodore was quite as keen a hunter as was his master.
It was noon when again they began to overhaul the pinto and the bay mare. Little by little Homer had managed to turn the hunt southward, and finally he descried on the rose-flecked floor of the mesa a black dot which told him that Billy was drawing near. The bay mare was tired now. In a straight race Theodore easily could have bested her. But the pinto was using his own and his mate's goat-like agility at scaling cañon and draw to keep them out of roping distance. Theodore, handicapped by a load, found it difficult to press this kind of a chase, but he asked no quarter. And just as Billy came within hail he scrambled out of a draw almost at roping distance. Beyond the draw was a cañon. Into this the pinto leaped, while the mare stood hesitating on the edge. Homer struck the bloody spurs into Theodore. The pinto appeared, covered with snow, on the opposite side of the cañon and stood there nickering at the mare.
THERE was a transverse draw running from the south into the cañon and this separated the pinto from Billy, who now galloped up.
"You can't cross either of these here!" he shouted. "Too much snow! Rope the mare!"
"Wait a minute! Let's see what they do. I can get her any time I want to!"
The pinto nickered again. The bay replied pitifully. And deliberately the stallion plunged back into the cañon. It was drifted to within six feet of the top with snow. At the point of the pinto's crossing the thick-set tops of pines protruded. It was these that made his crossing possible. Neither Homer nor Billy dared risk their mounts in such a trap.
"He sure's gawd's going back for her!" roared Billy. "Rope her quick, Homer!"
Homer twirled his rope. It hit the lunging mare's left hind leg. She kicked viciously and plunged into the depths below. Horses hate snow. Any but a wild horse, bred to the drifts, would have wallowed to his death in such a smother as this. But the two below rolled and groaned, beat the drifts with their hoofs and at last, with unthinkable effort, stood trembling on a ledge under the wall opposite Homer.
Homer, sitting alertly on his panting mount, had watched the struggle with curious intentness. And when the mare had dragged her weary legs up on to the ledge after the stallion, he swore softly to himself.
"Now, you got 'em!" roared Billy. "I can't reach him from here. Rope him, Homer! Rope him!"
"Oh, give him a fighting chancel" replied Homer. "He would have been safe if he hadn't come back after his woman."
"Chance nothing!" cried Billy. "Don't talk like a fool! Quick now! He will be out of there in a moment."
"Wait till he reach the rim," replied Homer grimly.
"What do you mean, you ——!" Billy began to curse wildly. "Do you think that pinto's yours? Do you think just because you call yourself the best wild-horse runner in Lone Bend you can make a monkey out of me and Frank? You horse-thieving, cattle-running, maverick lawyer, you! I'll get that pinto!" and Billy pulled his saddle-gun.
Homer's six-shooter rested easily on his pommel. "If you fire at the pinto, I'll just have to take a pot shot at you," he said with his familiar grin. "Kids with bad tempers have no business running horses anyhow. The pinto's a gentleman and a sport and I don't aim to allow any but sports really to hunt him."
For a moment there was silence, then sullenly Billy slid his gun back into its holster. Theodore whinnied and the pinto leaped from clinging sage-brush to jutting rock, the mare following him. At the rim both of them stood trembling, nose to nose.
Billy started off at a gallop and at his first movement the wild horses moved slowly eastward. Homer waited until he saw Billy race between the main cañon and the pinto, then he turned the weary Theodore to the west and finally made the crossing at the far edge of the mesa.
It was late in the afternoon and a biting wind rising when Homer on the stiffly trotting Theodore met Frank patrolling the drift in which the pinto was long overdue.
"Well," cried Frank, "ain't you even got a broken-down, mangy mare for me, to console me for freezing all day?"
Homer shook his head. "Billy's been on the job three hours. I haven't been able to find him since I crossed the big cañon. Thought he'd be down here by now."
"Haven't laid eyes on him. Led you the usual pace, I see. You didn't give Theodore enough oats, Homer!"
Homer grinned ruefully. "We're both all in. Here comes Billy now."
Billy trotted up dejectedly. "Followed 'em for two hours. Got 'em into a blind draw and lost 'em. I hope he's dead the ——" and Billy cursed with enthusiasm.
"Oh, dry up, Billy, We'll chaw it over after we've had some grub. It makes my teeth ache to talk in the wind."
THEY reached the camp at dusk, did the chores and ate the meal in silence. Then Homer, rolling a cigaret before the fire, said:
"There's a bay mare running with the pinto that looks as if she might be part Hambletonian. And a blue roan gelding that's well bred, too. The mare is the best range horse next to the pinto, that I've ever seen."
"We sure ought to get those, even if we miss out on the pinto," exclaimed Frank.
"We'd had the mare and the pinto, too, if Homer hadn't played the fool!" Billy told the episode which still rankled.
Frank glared at Homer resentfully. "Sometimes I wonder, Homer, whether your wind is broke or if you're just plain ornery. Look here, did you bring us out here just to make monkeys of us?"
"Now don't you talk like a chuckle-head, too!" exclaimed Homer.
"Well, what was the idea?" demanded Frank, his voice rising with his resentment.
"If you don't see, it's not up to me to explain," returned Homer.
"Why ain't it? We come out here on a hunt and you go soft on us. You got the best mount and know the business best, so we have to rely on you. But if you just ain't going to get the pinto anyhow, we might as well quit now."
Homer sat staring at the fire, the other two watching him with angry eyes. Frank went on:
"What's the use of trying to pull this gentleman stuff on us, Homer? We've knowed you too long." Frank's voice thickened with indignation as if old grievances were rising as he spoke. "What's the matter with you, anyhow? What's been the matter with you for years? If you don't like Lone Bend, why don't you go up to Indian Arrow or some other good town and be a honest-to-gawd lawyer instead of a cowman without any guts? You used to be a sure enough man, before you went to college. I suppose you fell in love with some wench back there that wouldn't wipe her feet on you and you let it ruin you!"
Homer's thin face went suddenly hard and cold. "That'll be enough, Frank!"
"It ain't enough! I been waiting for years to get this all off my chest to you. I ain't saying you haven't helped me to put over some awful pretty deals and I ain't saying that you and your knowledge of law ain't pulled me out of some hard scrapes. But I never know where I stand with you. Every little while you pull some soft trick on me."
"Like thrashing you the time I saw you kick your wife," said Homer suddenly.
There was a pause while Frank's face twisted with temper. "Yes, damn you," he grunted finally. "I've never felt the same toward you since and I'll get even with you yet. You went back East for your tell——", so I can't
"Cut that, Frank!"
"I'll not, you ——"
As the impossible epithet crossed Frank's lips, Homer drew his six-shooter.
"Eat that, or I'll shoot it down your throat," snarled the younger man.
Frank's own gun gleamed.
"Here, are you fellows going crazy!" exclaimed Billy.
"Eat it!" growled Homer.
"I'll eat it, but I'll get you yet, you dogy lawyer!"
Again there was silence. Homer rolled another cigaret. "I don't want to quarrel with you, Frank," he said finally. "I'm not sore at the Lone Bend country. I'm sore at myself for being too fond of Lone Bend and—what Lone Bend stands for."
"Get out then!" sneered Frank.
"I don't want to get out. That's my trouble. I ought to get out and I don't want to. If I just had the nerve that pinto has, to run the race come high, come low— I sure do respect that horse! He's a man, he is! Listen!" with sudden inspiration. "I'll make a bargain with you!"
"Why ought you to get out?" insisted Frank. "I don't care about your bargain. I want to know what's eating you."
"Running other folks' horses and slicks down into Utah is what's the matter with me," said Homer shortly. "I'm sick of it. The day for that stuff is gone. This cow country is getting civilized. We've got law now and it's up to us fellows whose fathers took the range from the Indians to show we're a little better than the Indians. And as long as I feel that way I ought to get out."
"You sure ought," sneered Billy. "What's hindering you?"
"Hindering me? Why, the pinto stallion's hindering me!" Then in answer to his companion's bewildered stares, "I mean that a hunt like the one we've had to-day means more to me than a dozen successfully fought legal battles. The big country's bitten me as it bit my father and my grandfather, but I guess there are finer things—" He paused with a sigh so deep that in a gentler man it might have resembled a sob.
"And the woman wouldn't come out here with you, I suppose," grunted Frank.
Homer's lips tightened, but after a pause he laughed. "By heck, let's put it up to the pinto! To-morrow we'll give him another chase. If we catch him, I'll stay here and go into the real cattle business. If he gets away, I'll quit Lone Bend and go in for the law."
Frank and Billy turned this proposition over, puffing slowly at their cigarets.
"I just as soon," said Billy.
"You'll run him fair? No easing of him off?" asked Frank.
"I'll run him till the Marie horse quits on me!" replied Homer.
"I'll take you up!" Frank rose and stretched himself. "If I don't go to bed, I'll freeze to death."
IT WAS noon the next day before they located the pinto and his herd, feeding in a draw at the extreme north end of the mesa. This time there was to be no relaying. They planned to cut him out and ride him till either he or they were ridden out. They cut him from the herd and even from the bay mare, who was stiff and lame. And then at a terrific pace the chase spread far and wide over the mesa. Early in the afternoon Frank, who had been circling to the west, roared: "Here! He's run into this blind cañon!"
Homer and, a few minutes later, Billy galloped up. They drew rein before the narrow entrance to a cañon which opened at right-angles to the wide draw along which they all had followed the stallion.
"Let me rope him!" pleaded Billy.
"It'll take two in there and one to guard this entrance," said Homer. "I'll stay here. You two go in, but remember you've got a fight on your hands."
He followed the others in only far enough to get a clear view of the scene. Bright yellow walls rose sheer on three sides. The floor was belly deep with snow. Milling from wall to wall at the far end was the pinto, tail up, mane flying, steam shooting from his flaring nostrils. Blood followed the wallowing trail of Billy and Frank, for the spurs had to bite deep. They were not fifty feet from the pinto when Billy's horse fell over a hidden rock and rolled in a drift that covered both horse and rider.
At that instant the stallion, squealing like a wild boar, rushed to the attack. He leaped through the wallowing, kicking, cursing maelstrom that lay between him and Frank, dodged Frank's rope, reared and with bared teeth caught Frank's arm. At the same time he struck the rancher's horse with hoofs that made a sound of impact like a sledge on frozen earth. Frank kicked, cursed and as his horse went over, he shot at the pinto with his six-shooter in his left hand. The bullet went wild, but the stallion freed Frank's arm and stormed on to meet Homer, who twirled his rope steadily. But the Marie horse, seasoned cow-pony as she was, had her limitations. She squealed and lunged to one side. The loop slid of the pinto's ears and Homer jumped into a drift just in time to miss the attack. But the stallion was content to see Marie with her four hoofs kicking at the heavens. He disappeared down the draw.
It was a sorry trio that foregathered at the cañon mouth. Billy had a badly twisted knee and a horse whose nerves were gone. Frank's leather jacket was minus the right sleeve and his bare arm was bloody from the slow stream that oozed from two blue-edged holes in his triceps. Homer was uninjured, but the Marie horse had a lame shoulder.
"You can do you as you please," panted Frank. "I've had enough. Only I warn you I'll shoot him if I ever get near enough again."
"That's me, too!" Billy scooped a handful of snow from beneath his shirt collar.
"Looks as if we'd have to quit for a while, anyhow," said Homer grimly.
"Let's go back and get the other horses and bring in the bay mare and the blue roan," said Frank. "Here, one of you two knot this handkerchief round my arm." He plastered a quid of tobacco on his wound and stood wincing while Homer tied the handle.
"Can't count on me!" Homer grinned wryly. "You see, I'm a lawyer now! I'm sure out of luck not to be able to help get that Hambletonian."
"You don't have to turn pure till we get home, do you?" demanded Billy.
"I'm through," said Homer briefly, mounting the very much subdued Marie horse.
The others followed slowly along the draw. "Say," called Billy, "will you loan me Theodore this afternoon?"
"Yes," replied Homer; "but listen. If either of you shoots at that pinto, you'll have me to reckon with; and listen again. I'm playing straight in the cattle and horse business from now on."
So ended the hunt for the pinto stallion. But Frank and Billy had the satisfaction of leading the bay mare and the blue roan gelding into a place of safety in Utah while Homer went home alone.
AND so Lone Bend knew Homer Freeman no more. A Mormon family leased his ranch and Homer went down to the town of Indian Arrow to practise law. The story of Homer's life for the next few years had nothing at all to do with the running of wild horses, though in some ways it was quite as mad and as exciting an adventure as any into which the pinto stallion ever had led him. The story of the cattle country turning civilized and of its better men turning with it is one not to be excelled for drama. But it is enough here to say that Homer was a brilliant and popular lawyer and an honest one, and that when he was elevated to the bench a very few years after leaving Lone Bend his previous history in no way detracted from the Westerners' confidence in him as a just and honorable judge. In fact it only added to their confidence in his ability to administer the law wisely and with keen discrimination. Nor has the story of Homer's struggle with nostalgia for the hunt, for the wide, rose-hued mesas, for the heaven-kissing mountains, for the depth of snows and the far, piercing sadness of the coyotes' wail, a place in this story. We are concerned primarily with the pinto stallion.
A few years ago, perhaps half a dozen years after Homer had left Lone Bend, on a day in January, Billy Williams and a couple of young riders drove a herd of horses into the stock-yards at Indian Arrow. The Great War was raging and horses and yet more horses were needed in France. It was a scraggly bunch of perhaps a hundred brutes picked up off the ranges in bad shape from the heavy winter and from having been driven too hard over the terrible winter trail between Lone Bend and Indian Arrow.
On the evening of that day Oscar Whimpton called at Homer's bachelor quarters. His father and Homer's father had ridden range together. But Oscar had left the upper valley many years before and was ranching in a valley a hundred miles from Lone Bend.
"Hello, Oscar!" said Homer, offering the rancher a cigar. "Aren't you off your trail?"
Oscar settled down with a nod. "Usually take my horses to Frisbie, but that trail's impassable. Say, Homer, about seven years ago I lost a young Hambletonian mare. I always thought a lot of her, she was a wonder on the range. You could ride her to death and not kill her. And she was sired by a stallion my father brought in in the days when you had to hoof it clear from Cheyenne."
"I remember the stallion," said the judge.
"Well," continued Oscar, his heavy snow-burned face set angrily, "I saw that mare to-day."
"You don't mean it! Where?"
"In the stock-yards, in a bunch Peters's men just brought in."
"You must be mistaken! Why, she'd be dead of old age by now!"
"She's exactly twelve years old," retorted Oscar. "She's a little foundered and she's been overworked. Homer, I'll have the law on Peters as sure as there's a God in heaven. I always thought he was a stinkin' brand-shifter, and now I've got the goods on him."
"Are you sure you have? Is Peters up here?"
"No," replied Oscar, "but Billy Williams drove 'em up and he claims he and Peters got her from a herd of wild horses six years ago. He says she was running with a pinto stallion. They sold her to some fellow in Utah as a brood-mare and bought her back again when the fellow said she was no good as a breeder."
"What brand is on her?"
"Peters's, of course"
"Oscar, I'm afraid you're starting something you'll find it hard to finish. I was with Peters on that hunt and I pointed out the mare to him, running with the pinto stallion. I didn't help get her because right then and there was where I quit the horse-running business."
"Did you see her brand?" demanded Oscar.
"No, I went back to Lone Bend and left them running the herd. But you will have hard work getting anything on Peters. He's devilishly clever, and, after all, who in the old days didn't have a shifted brand in his herd?"
"The old days are gone and I want my mare." Oscar's tone was stubborn. "I hate Peters, anyhow. His first wife was my first sweetheart."
The judge nodded understandingly and for several minutes Oscar smoked furiously, then he began to talk of the last drive on the Western Front.
IT WAS two months after this that the sheriff of Lone Bend County met Homer on the street.
"Good morning, Judge! Well it looks as if you'd have to try your old neighbor."
"What do you mean, Jim? I just got in from Denver last night."
"That's why I'm telling you. Frank Peters has been held for trial for shifting horse brands. Seems like he gathered in a favorite mare of Oscar Whimpton's some years back and Oscar just found it out. He couldn't get him on that, but Oscar's a she bear with cubs when he gets started. He's been getting evidence out at Lone Bend. You know Frank ain't got any friends there and Oscar's sure produced the goods. Looks like Frank's fine underground railway for running other folks' horses and cows into Utah is going to be wrecked."
Homer shook his head. "Too bad if Frank is out of luck. I must get to court, Jim."
And thus came on the trial to which even the Eastern papers gave as much as a stick or two, and which was attended by reporters from the big Seattle and Denver dailies.
Frank had indeed perfected a system of cattle and horse stealing that the prosecuting attorney struggled to prove was only a small part of a greater system countenanced if not protected by a national organization. And try as might both prosecution and defense to keep to the main point, extraneous evidence crept in from every witness—evidence which told of forest rangers who must meet with Frank's approval or be removed, of strangers who showed too great an interest in Frank's ranch being run out of the upper valley, and there was revived even the tale of the death, never explained, of old Sheriff Newman who rode out one day to follow Frank in a trip after a herd that ran with a certain pinto stallion.
When Johnny Farnham was on the stand, the prosecuting attorney again and again ordered him to keep to the point.
"You want to find out what the Lone Benders think of Frank Peters, don't you?" demanded Johnny.
Homer, who throughout the trial had sat arms folded on chest, thin somber face concentrated, spoke quickly:
"Better let him tell it his own way, Mr. District Attorney. You can't hurry a cowman."
Johnny grinned and went on. "One day, a while back, I'd been out on the Reserve hunting a steer of mine and I'd shot a—a willow-grouse, and it was a little out of season for willow-grouse, the first snow having fell and——"
"How many tines on that willow-grouse's horns, Mr. Farnham?" demanded the judge.
A laugh went round the courtroom. Johnny grinned again. "And so instead of riding near where the ranger's cabin was I struck off to the north and landed into Lost Basin. It was awful cold, twenty below, I'll bet, and my horse had ice whiskers and the grouse was stiff like a——"
"Get to the point, please," begged the prosecuting attorney.
"I am! You know, Homer, I mean, Judge, that mighty few folks ever gets into Lost Basin, but I bet you've been there. And you'll remember there's a cave in a big pink wall. The cave gapes open on at the front, and in plain sight is the old iron cot with the corpse of old Bill Edger on it. At least what the coyotes and the weather has left of the corpse. He was shot by a posse for horse-stealing, and they just left him lie where he was.
"Well, corpse or no, I decided I'd go up there and camp for the night. It's a hard place to find after night, and the moon didn't help so much because that country's all pink and yaller and the snow's all blue, and when the moon shines bright on it you get kind of color and trail blind. So I was near froze and in no shape to fight when I finally got into the cave and found, away back in it, Frank Peters and the ranger rebranding a calf."
The jury sat with jaws agape as Frank went on with the details of the fight that ensued. But the judge heard little more. Staring across the crowded room, he saw himself and Theodore weltering slowly through Lost Basin drifts, nostrils sticking at each sharply drawn breath as they followed the trail of a mountain lion. Again he saw the opalescent basin sides, the velvet blue spruce and the lonely bed high up in the wall. Again he saw the brown wolverine leap with a snarl from the bed, missing the snorting Theodore's shoulder by a claw's breadth. Homer, heart-sick with desire, drew a quick breath and forced himself back within hearing of the last of Johnny's evidence.
Frank Peters, watching the judge's face, was not seriously perturbed by the nature of the evidence. He knew, as does any man bred to the ranges, the pull of range life. He was counting on just such evidence as Johnny's causing the judge to see with his old eyes, hear with his old ears. He could then, he knew, hope for leniency.
Arthur Fuller was called by the defense and began his story. "Don't go into that!" fumed Frank's attorney. "That has nothing to do with the case."
"I'm like Johnny Farnham was," drawled Fuller. "I got to go my own gait. I was riding range for Peters. He was awful mad when the State law went through that only standard-bred bulls was to be allowed on the range. He'd give all his riders orders to do what could be done to any bulls we see that belonged to the ranchers who had put the law through. I hadn't any idea of doing it, because I hope to live in Lone Bend a long time. But one day I was riding out to locate a mare that we mistrusted a wild stallion had enticed away."
"What kind of a stallion?" asked his honor suddenly.
"The pinto stallion. You remember him, Judge? Some horse!"
Homer nodded and the witness drawled on. "It was pretty cold, January 'twas, and I was pulling along over Bent Creek way. A blizzard was coming down and I was looking for shelter when I heard a shot and a minute later I came on Peters, who had been hunting with Sheriff Newman. He looked mad and said he'd been shooting at a coyote. We was at the foot of the Reserve at a place where there's a little wild spring always tromped round in snow-time by every kind of track, deer slot and lynx cat and coyote and mountain lion and jack and——"
"For the love of heaven, keep to the shooting!" shouted Frank's attorney.
HOMER did not listen for a time. He knew that spring. In the summer it mirrored in the fathomless blue the delicate cups of the yellow lily. How many times, half-mad with thirst, had he and Theodore rushed to its rim! How many winter nights had he lain in the wild raspberry thicket near by and watched the wild folk of the Reserve creep up to drink, to fight and to kill by its edge!
And Frank Peters, watching the judge's face, smiled grimly.
The last witness called in the trial was a young rider named Dick Cramer who had worked for Frank for a year.
"Just what did you do on the Peters ranch?" asked the prosecutor.
"I rode range in summer, helped with the dehornings and such in the winter. Just all the work on the ranch."
"Just why did you leave?"
"I had a row with Frank." The young man shifted his position and his spurs jingled.
"Well, he was licking his kid pretty hard and I stopped him, and then he said I couldn't go out with him after wild horses. But I threatened to let certain folks know of some slicks I'd seen him brand that wasn't slicks at all, and then he let me go with him. But when we got back, he fired me."
"Yes," said the prosecuting attorney. "And so you went after wild horses with him. Did he really go after wild horses?"
"Sure, he went after whatever might be running with the pinto stallion. Up on Crooked Wash mesa we went and we sure had awful luck. We ran the pinto off the mesa up on to Red Mountain and Frank almost had him when his horse broke a leg in a gopher hole. Frank was so mad he shot the pinto and came home with only one mare. She had the Flying Clover brand on to her. Then——"
The judge suddenly sat forward in his chair. The prosecutor paused as if waiting for the judge's objection or query, but none came, and Cramer's evidence continued. Frank's reliance on what he knew of Homer's characteristics had not been altogether misplaced. It was an extremely difficult position in which to put a man of Homer's history and temperament. Guilty as he knew Frank to be, there tugged at the judge's memory, as if to extenuate his old friend's crime, the wild philosophy of the range. Who knew better than Homer the ease with which the world's codes slip from the man who rides herd? Who knew better than he the ease with which the chase becomes a predatory hunt; of the ease with which the law of the wild becomes the law of the dweller within the wild? Every old instinct within the judge fought on Frank's side—until Cramer gave his evidence!
The young rider finished at noon and that night the case went to the jury. Early the next day the foreman reported a verdict of guilty. Frank drew a quick breath and looked at Homer while his lawyer asked for an appeal, which up to the previous day was what Homer had hoped he would do. But now the judge cleared his throat.
"I shall deny the motion for an appeal. The evidence is clear and final. This State has for the past few years been growing civilized. We who love this State have tried to grow civilized with her, have tried to help in enforcing laws to make this a progressive part of the country for a man to bring up his family in. The old days in which men like the defendant were winked at and admired are gone." The judge paused, looked out of the window, then, with his face working, he turned to the prisoner. "Frank," he said, "you should have quit horse rustling when the rest of us did!" There was another silence, then the judge concluded. "I sentence you to fifteen years in the penitentiary at hard labor." And he rose and went into his chambers.
THAT evening Homer sat in the Elks Club, smoking moodily, when Oscar Whimpton joined him.
"Folks around here feel that justice has been done, Homer. I want to tell you I'm as surprised as I am pleased. I never thought you'd warp it to him as you did."
Homer's lips twitched and his voice was furious. "He shouldn't have shot that pinto stallion!"
"But he didn't shoot him! I saw the pinto when I went out to the lower valley last month hunting evidence. Guess he must be twelve years old now, isn't he? But he looks like a four-year-old. I had a good look at him through the glasses. I was talking to Cramer about that to-day. He admits that all he knows positively is that Peters shot at the pinto and that he disappeared, leaving a trail of blood. Well, that evidence was immaterial, anyhow."
Homer stared long at Oscar, some of the old saturnine humor twitching his lips, some of the old sadness in his keen gray eyes. But he said nothing; not even when Oscar added with a deep sigh of satisfaction:
"It's a great thing to have on the bench a man who won't let the past influence his decisions. We sure are, as you say, getting civilized!"