Free Range Lanning/Chapter 31
HORSE AGAINST HORSE
BY one thing he knew the utter desperation of Hal Dozier. For the man had fired while Andrew's back was turned. The bullet had followed the warning cry as swiftly as the strike of a snake follows its rattle. Luck and his sudden leap forward had unbalanced the nice aim of Dozier, and perhaps his mental agitation had contributed to it. But, at any rate, Andrew was troubled as he cleared the edge of the trees and cantered Sally not too swiftly along the Little Silver River toward Las Casas mountains, a little east of south.
He did not hurry her, partly because he wished to stay close and make sure of the number and force of his pursuers, and partly because he already had a lead sufficient to keep out of any but chance rifle shots.
He had not long to wait. Men boiled out of the village like hornets out of a shaken nest. He could see them buckling on belts while they were riding with the reins in their teeth. And they came like the wind, yelling at the sight of their quarry. Who would not kill a horse for the sake of saying that he had been within pistol range of the great outlaw? But, fast as their horses ran, Dozier, on Gray Peter, was able to keep up with them and also to range easily from group to group. Truly, Gray Peter was a glorious animal! For the hundredth time Andrew admitted it. If he were allowed to stretch out after the mare, what would the result be?
The pursuers, under the direction of Dozier, spread across the river bottom and having formed so that no tricky doubling could leave them in the lurch on a blind trail, they began to use a new set of tactics. It was new to Hal Dozier, but it was the old trick of his dead brother.
Dozier kept Gray Peter at a steady pace, never varying his gait. But, on either side of him groups of his followers urged their horses forward at breakneck speed. Three or four would send home the spurs and rush up the river bottom after Andrew. If he did not hurry on they opened fire with their rifles from a short distance and sent a hail of random bullets, but Andrew knew that a random bullet carries just as much force as a well-aimed one, and chance might be on the side of one of those shots. He dared not allow them to come too close. Yet his heart rejoiced as he watched the manner in which Sally accepted these challenges. She never once had to lurch into her racing gait; she took the rushes of the cow ponies behind her by merely lengthening her stride until she seemed to be settling closer and closer to the ground, and always the horses behind her were winded and had to fall back.
Yet they included some fine strains of blood in that bunch; only there was lacking the difference between a good animal and a fine one, in addition to the fact that Sally was long since hardened to just such races as this one.
If Andrew had let out Sally she would have walked away from them all, but he dared not do that. For, after he had run the heart out of the commoner ones, there remained Gray Peter in reserve, never changing his pace, never hurrying, falling often far back, as the groups one after another pushed close to Sally and made her spurt, gaining again when the spurts ended one by one.
After all, there was nothing very new in these tactics. It was the fashion that a team of runners use against one dangerous opponent, challenging him one after the other and running him out so that the best in the team can come through with a spurt at the end and pass the flagging enemy.
There were two hours of daylight; there was one hour of dusk; and all that time the crowd kept thrusting out its small groups, one after the other, reaching after Sally like different arms, and each time she answered the spurt, and always slipped away into a greater lead at the end of it. And then, while the twilight was turning into dark, Andrew looked back and saw the whole crowd rein in their horses and turn back. There remained a single figure following him, and that figure was easily seen, because it was a man on a gray horse. And then Andrew grasped the plan fully. The posse had played its part; the thing for which the mountain desert had waited was come at last, and Hal Dozier was going on to find his man single-handed and pull him down.
Twice, before complete darkness set in, Andrew drew Sally back to a gentler gait, and twice he sent her on again. And each time he had been on the verge of turning and going back to accept the challenge of Hal Dozier. Always two things stopped him. There was first the fear of the man which he frankly admitted, and more than that was the feeling that one thing lay before him to be done before he could meet Dozier and end the long trail. He must see Anne Withero. She was about to be married and be drawn out of his world and into a new one. He felt it was more important than life or death to see her before that transformation took place. They would go East, no doubt. Two thousand miles the law and the mountains would fence him away from her after that.
During the last months he accepted her as he accepted the stars—something far away from him, and yet something which he knew was there and which he could look at perhaps out of his night. And now, by some pretext, by some wile, he must live to see her once more. After that let Hal Dozier meet him when he would.
But with this in mind, as soon as the utter dark shut down, he swerved Sally to the right and worked slowly up through the mountains, heading due southwest and out of the valley of the Little Silver. He kept at it, through a district where the mare could not even trot a great deal of the time, for two or more hours. Then he found a little plateau thick with good grazing for Sally and with a spring near it. There he camped for the night, without food, without fire.
And not once during the hours before morning did he close his eyes. When the first gray touched the sky he was in the saddle again; before the sun was up he had crossed the Las Casas and was going down the great shallow basin of the Roydon River. A fine, drizzling rain was falling, and Sally, tired from her hard work of the day before and the long duels with the horses of the posse, went even more down-heartedly moody than usual, shuffling wearily, but recovering herself with her usual catlike adroitness whenever her footing failed on the steep downslope.
For all her dullness, it was a signal from Sally that saved Andrew. She jerked up her head and turned; he looked in the same direction and saw a form like a gray ghost coming over the hills to his left, a dim shape through the rain. Gloomily Andrew watched Hal Dozier come. Gray Peter had been fresher than Sally at the end of the run of the day before. He was fresher now. Andrew could tell that easily by the stretch of his gallop and the evenness of his pace as he rushed across the slope. He gave the word to Sally. She tossed up her head in mute rebellion at this new call for a race, and then broke into a canter whose first few strides, by way of showing her anger, were as choppy and lifeless as the stride of a plow horse.
That was the beginning of the famous ride from the Las Casas mountains to the Roydon range, and all the distance across the Roydon valley. As a bird flies, it was a full seventy miles; as the horses galloped, winding to and fro to find the easier footing, it must have been a full eighty miles. That distance the gray horse and the bay ran in exactly nine hours and fifty-five minutes. To this time Hal Dozier swore in after days, and, though many a man has shaken his head over the tale, this is the story as it now runs current in the mountain desert, and this is the tale which two big stone pillars confirm. For Hal Dozier put them up to commemorate the run of great Gray Peter on this day—a pillar to mark the start and a pillar to mark the finish. The time is inscribed on the finish post.
It started with a five-mile sprint—literally five miles of hot racing in which each horse did its best. And in that five miles Gray Peter would most unquestionably have won had not one bit of luck fallen the mare. A hedge of young evergreen streaked before Sally, and Andrew put her at the mark; she cleared it like a bird, jumping easily and landing in her stride. It was not the first time she had jumped with Andrew.
But Gray Peter was not a steeplechaser. He had not been trained to it, and he refused. His rider had to whirl and go up the line of shrubs until he found a place to break through. Then he was after Sally again. But the moment that Andrew saw the marshal had been stopped he did not use the interim to push the mare and increase her lead. Very wisely he drew her back to the long, rocking canter which was her natural gait, and Sally got the breath which Gray Peter had run out of her. She also regained priceless lost ground, and when the gray came in view of the quarry again his work was all to do over again.
Hal Dozier tried again in straightaway running. It had been his boast that nothing under the saddle in the mountain desert could keep away from him in a stretch of any distance, and he rode Gray Peter desperately to make his boast good. He failed. If that first stretch had been unbroken—but there his chance was gone, and, starting the second spurt, Andrew came to realize one greatly important truth—Sally could not sprint for any distance, but up to a certain pace she ran easily and without labor. That was the meaning of those comparatively short forelegs and the high croup which gave the slight and awkward down pitch to her figure—she was essentially a distance horse. Gray Peter could outfoot her by many seconds in a mile sprint, but, kept inside a certain maximum, she ran tirelessly. He made it his point to see that she was never urged beyond that pace. He found another thing, that she took a hill in far better style than Peter, and she did far better in the rough, but on the level going he ate up her handicap swiftly.
With a strength of his own found and a weakness in his pursuer, Andrew played remorselessly to that weakness with his strength. He sought the choppy ground as a preference and led the stallion through it wherever he could; he swung to the right, where there was a stretch of rolling hills, and once more Gray Peter had a losing space before him.
So they came to the river itself, with Gray Peter comfortably in the rear, but running well within his strength. Andrew paused in the shallows to allow Sally one swallow; then he went on. But Dozier did not pause for even this. It was a grave mistake.
And so the miles wore on. Sally was still running like a swallow for lightness, but Andrew knew by her breathing that she was giving vital strength to the effort. He talked to her constantly. He told her how Gray Peter ran behind them. He encouraged her with pet words. And Sally seemed to understand, for she flicked one ear back to listen, and then she pricked them both and kept at her work.
It was a heart-tearing thing to see her run to. the point of lather and then keep on.
They were in low hills, and Gray Peter was losing steadily. They reached a broad flat, and the stallion gained with terrible insistence. Looking back, Andrew could see that the marshal had stripped away every vestige of his pack. He followed that example with a groan. And still Gray Peter gained. He went forward in the stirrups to ease the mare by putting more weight on her forehand; and still Gray Peter gained.
It was the last great effort for the stallion. Before them rose the foothills of the Roydon mountains; behind them the Las Casas range was lost in mist. It seemed that they had been galloping like this for an infinity of time, and Andrew was numb from the shoulders down. If he reached those hills Gray Peter was beaten. He knew it; Hal Dozier knew it; and the two great horses gave all their strength to the last duel of the race.
The ears of Sally no longer pricked. They lay flat on her neck. The amazing lift was gone from her gait, and she pounded heavily with the forelegs. And still she struggled on. He looked back, and Gray Peter still gained, an inch at a time, and his stride did not seem to have abated. The one bitter question now was whether Sally would not collapse under the effort. With every lurch of her feet, Andrew expected to feel her crumble beneath him. And yet she went on. Courage? She was all courage! She was all heart, all nerve, and running on it. Behind her came Gray Peter, and he also ran with his head stretched out.
He was within rifle range now. Why did not Dozier fire? Perhaps he had set his heart on actually running Sally down, not dropping his prey with a distant shot.
And still they flew across the flat. The hills were close now, and sometimes, when the drizzling rain which had wet Andrew to the skin and chilled him to the bone lifted, it seemed that the Roydon mountains were exactly above them, leaning out over him like a shadow. He called on Sally again and again. He touched her for the first time in her life with spurs, and she found something in the depths of her heart and her courage to answer with. She ran again with a ghost of her former buoyancy, and Gray Peter was held even.
Not an inch could he gain after that. Andrew saw his pursuer raise his quirt and flog. It was useless. Each horse was running itself out, and no power could get more speed out of the pounding limbs.
And with his head still turned, Andrew felt a shock and flounder. Sally had almost fallen. He jerked sharply up on the reins, and she broke into a staggering trot. Then Andrew saw that they had struck the slope of the first hill, a long, smooth rise which she would have taken at full speed in the beginning of the race, but now it broke her heart to make it. He called to her; he spurred again; the trot quickened, but though she labored bitterly, she could not raise a gallop. The trot was her best effort.
There was a shrill yelling behind, and Andrew saw Dozier, a hand brandished above his head. He had seen Sally break down; Gray Peter would catch her; his horse would win that famous duel of speed and courage. Rifle? He had forgotten his rifle. He would go in, he would overhaul Sally, and then finish the chase with a play of revolvers. And in expectation of that end, Andrew drew his revolver. It hung the length of his arm; he found that his muscles were numb from the cold and the cramped position from the elbow down. Shoot? He was as helpless as though he had no gun at all. His hand shook crazily under the strain. And in the meantime, flogging with his quirt, no doubt the marshal had kept his blood in circulation.
It gave Andrew a nightmare sensation, as of one fleeing in his sleep up a long stairs—only a step to gain safety, and yet his feet are turned to lead, and the horror rushes like the wind upon him from behind. He beat his hands together to bring back the blood. He bit the cold fingers. He thrashed his arms against the pommel of the saddle. There was only a dull pain; it would take long minutes to bring those hands back to the point of service, and in the meantime Gray Peter galloped upon him from behind!
Well, he would let Sally do her best. For the last time he called on her; for the last time she struggled to respond, and Andrew looked back and grimly watched the stallion sweeping across the last portion of the flat ground, closer, closer, and then, at the very base of the slope, Gray Peter tossed up his head, floundered, and went down, hurling his rider over his head.
Andrew, fascinated, let Sally fall into a walk, while he watched. He was now in point-blank range of that deadly rifle, but he forgot his own danger in watching the singular, convulsive struggles of Gray Peter to gain his feet. Hal Dozier was up again; he ran to his horse, caught his head, and at the same moment the stallion grew suddenly limp. The weight of his head dragged the marshal down, and then Andrew saw that Dozier made no effort to rise again.
He sat with the head of the horse in his lap, his own head buried in his hands, and Andrew knew then that Gray Peter was dead.