The night horseman, p.37
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       The Night Horseman, p.37

          

  CHAPTER XXXVII

  THE PIEBALD

  The morning of the doctor's departure witnessed quite a ceremony at theCumberland ranch, for old Joe Cumberland insisted that he be broughtdown from his room to his old place in the living-room. When heattempted to rise from his bed, however, he found that he could notstand; and big Buck Daniels lifted the old man like a child and carriedhim down the stairs. Once ensconced on the sofa in the living-room JoeCumberland beckoned his daughter close to him, and whispered with asmile as she leaned over: "Here's what comes of pretendin', Kate. I beenpretending to be too sick to walk, and now I _can't_ walk; and if I'dpretended to be well, I'd be ridin' Satan right now!"

  He looked about him.

  "Where's Dan?" he asked.

  "Upstairs getting ready for the trip."

  "Trip?"

  "He's riding with Doctor Byrne to town and he'll bring back DoctorByrne's horse."

  The old man grew instantly anxious.

  "They's a lot of things can happen on a long trip like that, Kate."

  She nodded gravely.

  "But we have to try him," she said. "We can't keep him here at the ranchall the time. And if he really cares, Dad, he'll come back."

  "And you let him go of your own free will?" asked Joe Cumberland,wonderingly.

  "I asked him to go," she answered quietly, but some of the colour lefther face.

  "Of course it's going to come out all right," nodded her father.

  "I asked him when he'd be back, and he said he would be here by darkto-night."

  The old man sighed with relief.

  "He don't never slip up on promises," he said. "But oh, lass, I'll beglad when he's back again! Buck, how'd you and Dan come along together?"

  "We don't come," answered Buck gloomily. "I tried to shake hands withhim yesterday and call it quits. But he wouldn't touch me. He jestleaned back and smiled at me and hated me with his eyes, that way hehas. He don't even look at me except when he has to, and when he does Ifeel like someone was sneaking up behind me with a knife ready. And heain't said ten words to me since I come back." He paused and consideredKate with the same dark, lowering glance. "To-morrow I leave."

  "You'll think better of that," nodded Joe Cumberland. "Here's the doctornow."

  He came in with Dan Barry behind him. A changed man was the doctor. Hewas a good two inches taller because he stood so much more erect, andthere was a little spring in his step which gave aspiration and spiritto his carriage. He bade them good-bye one by one, and by Joe Cumberlandhe sat down for an instant and wished him luck. The old ranchman drewthe other down closer.

  "They's no luck for me," he whispered, "but don't tell none of 'em. I'mabout to take a longer trip than you'll ride to-day. But first I'll see'em settled down here--Dan quiet and both of 'em happy. S'long,doc--thanks for takin' care of me. But this here is something that can'tbe beat no way. Too many years'll break the back of any man, doc. Luckto ye!"

  "If you'll step to the door," said the doctor, smiling upon the rest,"you'll have some fun to watch. I'm going to ride on the piebald."

  "Him that throwed you yesterday?" grinned Buck Daniels.

  "The same," said the doctor. "I think I can come to a gentleman'sunderstanding with him. A gentleman from the piebald's point of view isone who is never unintentionally rude. He may change his mind thismorning--or he may break my back. One of the two is sure to happen."

  In front of the house Dan Barry already sat on Satan with Black Bartsitting nearby watching the face of his master. And beside them thelantern-jawed cowpuncher held the bridle of the piebald mustang. Neverin the world was there a lazier appearing beast. His lower lip hungpendulous, a full inch and a half below the upper. His eyes were rolledso that hardly more than the whites showed. He seemed to stand asleep,dreaming of some Nirvana for equine souls. And the only signs of lifewere the long ears, which wobbled, occasionally, back and forth.

  When the doctor mounted, the piebald limited all signs of interest toopening one eye.

  The doctor clucked. The piebald switched his tail. Satan, at a word fromDan Barry, moved gracefully into a soft trot away from the house. Thedoctor slapped his mount on the neck. An ear flicked back and forth. Thedoctor stretched out both legs, and then he dug both spurs deep into theflanks of the mustang.

  It was a perfectly successful maneuvre. The back of the piebald changedfrom an ugly humped line to a decidedly sharp parabola and the horseleft the ground with all four feet. He hit it again, almost in theidentical hoof-marks, and with all legs stiff. The doctor saggeddrunkenly in the saddle, and his head first swung far back, and thensnapped over so that the chin banged against his chest. Nevertheless heclung to the saddle with both hands, and stayed in his seat. The piebaldswung his head around sufficiently to make sure of the surprising fact,and then he commenced to buck in earnest.

  It was a lovely exhibition. He bucked with his head up and his headbetween his knees. He bucked in a circle and in a straight line and thenmixed both styles for variety. He made little spurts at full speed,leaped into the air, and came down stiff-legged at the end of the run,his head between his braced forefeet, and then he whirled as if on a pegand darted back the other way. He bucked criss-cross, jumping from sideto side, and he interspersed this with samples of all his other kinds ofbucking thrown in. That the doctor stuck on the saddle was a miraclebeyond belief. Of course he pulled leather shamelessly throughout thecontest, but riding straight up is a good deal of a myth. Fancy ridingis reserved for circus men. The mountain-desert is a place where menstick close to utility and let style go hang.

  And the doctor stuck in the saddle. He had set his teeth, and he was asea-sick greenish-white. His hat was a-jog over one ear--his shirt tailsflew out behind. And still he remained to battle. Aye, for he ceased thepassive clinging to the saddle. He gathered up the long quirt which hadhitherto dangled idly from his wrist, and at the very moment when thepiebald had let out another notch in his feats, the doctor, holding ondesperately with one hand, with the other brandished the quirt aroundhis head and brought it down with a crack along the flanks of thepiebald.

  The effect was a little short of a miracle. The mustang snorted andleaped once into the air, but he forgot to come down stiff-legged, andthen, instantly, he broke into a little, soft dog trot, and followedhumbly in the trail of the black stallion. The laughter and cheers fromthe house were the sweetest of music in the ears of Doctor RandallByrne; the most sounding sentences of praise from the lips of the mostlearned of professors, after this, would be the most shabby ofanticlimaxes. He waved his arm back to a group standing in front of thehouse--Buck Daniels, Kate, the lantern-jawed cowboy, and Wung Lu wavinghis kitchen apron. In another moment he was beside the rider of thestallion, and the man was whistling one of those melodies which defiedrepetition. It simply ran on and on, smoothly, sweeping throughtransition after transition, soaring and falling in the most effortlessmanner. Now it paused, now it began again. It was never loud, but itcarried like the music of a bird on wing, blown by the wind. There wasabout it, also, something which escaped from the personal. He began toforget that it was a man who whistled, and such a man! He began to lookabout to the hills and the sky and the rocks--for these, it might besaid, were set to music--they, too, had the sweep of line, and thebroken rhythms, the sense of spaciousness, the far horizons.

  That day was a climax of the unusual weather. For a long time the skyhad been periodically blanketed with thick mists, but to-day the windhad freshened and it tore the mists into a thousand mighty fragments.There was never blue sky in sight--only, far up, a diminishing andlighter grey to testify that above it the yellow sun might be shining;but all the lower heavens were a-sweep with vast cloud masses,irregular, huge, hurling across the sky. They hung so low that one couldfollow the speed of their motion and almost gauge it by miles per hour.And in the distance they seemed to brush the tops of the hills. Seeingthis, the doctor remembered what he had heard of rain in this region. Itwould come, they said, in sheets and masses--literal water-falls. Dryarroyos suddenly filled and became swift torrent, rolling big bouldersdown their courses. There were tales of men fording rivers who weresuddenly overwhelmed by terrific walls of water which rushed down fromthe higher mountains in masses four and eight feet high. In coming theymade a thundering among the hills and they plucked up full grown treeslike twigs thrust into wet mud. Indeed, that was the sort of rain onewould expect in such a country, so whipped and naked of life. Even thereviving rainfall was sent in the form of a scourge; and that whichshould make the grass grow might tear it up by the roots.

  That was a time of change and of portent, and a day well fitted to themood of Randall Byrne. He, also, had altered, and there was about tobreak upon him the rain of life, and whether it would destroy him ormake him live, and richly, he could not guess. But he was naked to theskies of chance--naked as this landscape.

  Far past the mid-day they reached the streets of Elkhead and stopped atthe hotel. As the doctor swung down from his saddle, cramped and sorefrom the long ride, thunder rattled over the distant hills and a patterof rain splashed in the dust and sent up a pungent odor to hisnostrils. It was like the voice of the earth proclaiming its thirst. Anda blast of wind leaped down the street and lifted the brim of Barry'shat and set the bandana at his throat fluttering. He looked away intothe teeth of the wind and smiled.

  There was something so curious about him at the instant that RandallByrne wanted to ask him into the hotel--wanted to have him knee to kneefor a long talk. But he remembered an old poem--the sea-shell needs thewaves of the sea--the bird will not sing in the cage. And the yellowlight in the eyes of Barry, phosphorescent, almost--a thing that mightbe nearly seen by night--that, surely, would not shine under any roof.It was the wind which made him smile. These things he understood,without fear.

  So he said good-bye, and the rider waved carelessly and took the reinsof the piebald and turned the stallion back. He noted the catlike graceof the horse in moving, as if his muscles were steel springs; and henoted also that the long ride had scarcely stained the glossy hide withsweat--while the piebald reeked with the labour. Randall Byrne drewthoughtfully back onto the porch of the hotel and followed the riderwith his eyes. In a moment a great cloud of dust poured down the street,covered the rider, and when it was gone he had passed around a cornerand out of the life of the doctor.

 
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