The night horseman, p.40
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       The Night Horseman, p.40

          

  CHAPTER XL

  THE ARROYO

  He disappeared, instantly, in that shivering curtain of greyness. MacStrann sat by the ruined house alone.

  Now, in a time of danger a child will give courage to the strong man.There is a wonderful communion between any two in time of crisis; andwhen Haw-Haw Langley disappeared through the rain it was to Mac Strannas it was to Patroclus when Apollo struck the base of his neck and hisarmour of proof fell from him. Not only was there a singular sense ofnakedness, but it seemed to him also that the roaring of the rain becamea hostile voice of threatening at the same instant.

  He had never in his life feared any living thing. But now there was acertain hollowness in the region of his stomach, and his heart flutteredlike a bird in the air, with appalling lightness. And he wished to befar away.

  With a clear heaven above him--ay, that would be different, but God hadarranged this day and had set the earth like a stage in readiness for adeath. And that was why the rain lashed the earth so fiercely. He lookeddown. After his death the wind would still continue to beat that muddywater to foam. Ay, in that very place all would be as it was at thismoment. He would be gone, but the sky and the senseless earth wouldremain unchanged. A sudden yearning seized him for the cabin among themountains, with the singing of the coffee pot over the fire--the good,warm, yellow fire that smoked between the rocks. And the skins he hadleft leaning against the walls of the cabin to dry--he remembered themall in one glance of memory.

  Why was he here, then, when he should have been so far away, making hisroof snug against this torrent of rain. Now, there would be no rain,surely, in those kindly mountains. Their tall peaks would shut out thestorm clouds. Only this plain, these low hills, were the place of hell!

  He swung the head of his horse to one side, drove deep the spurs, andleaning his head to the volleying of the rain he raced in a directionopposite to that in which Haw-Haw Langley had disappeared, in adirection that led as straight as the line of a flying bird towards thatcabin in the mountains.

  Now and then the forefeet of his great horse smashed into a pool andsent a muddy shower of rain flying up. It crackled against his slicker;it beat like hands against his face. Everything was striving--all theelements of wind and rain--to hold him back.

  Yet flight brought a blessed sense of relief and of safety. He eased thepace of his horse to a moderate gallop, and no longer driving blindlythrough the hills, he made out, by peering into the blast of rain, someof the pools which lay in his path, and swung aside to avoid them.

  The rain lightened again about him; he caught a view of the kindly,sheltering hills on all sides; but as he urged his horse on towards thema shrill flight of whistling fell upon his ears from behind. He drew hishorse at once to a halt and listened with his heart knocking at histeeth.

  It was impossible, manifestly, that the fellow could have followed histrack through the rain. For that matter, if the wolf-fiend could followtraces over a plain awash with water, why might they not as well followthe tracks of Haw-Haw Langley? There was no good reason.

  The whistling? Well, the whistler was far away in the heart of thestorm, and the sound was merely blown against the wind by a chance echo.Yet he remained holding his rein taut, and listening with all his might.

  It came again, suddenly as before, sharp, and keen as a shaft of lightin the blackest heart of night, and Mac Strann leaned over the pommel ofhis saddle with a groan, and drove the spurs home. At the same instantthe rain shut in over the hills again; a fresher wind sprang up anddrove the downpour into his face. Also its roar shut out the possibilityof any sound reaching him from behind.

  He was the worse for that. As long as the whistling might reach him hecould tell how near the pursuer rode; but in this common roar of therain the man might be at any distance behind him--on his very heels,indeed. Ay, Dan Barry might rush upon him from behind. He had seen thatblack stallion and he would never forget--those graceful, agile lines,that generous breast, wide for infinite wind and the great heart. If thestallion were exerted, it could overtake his own mount as if he werestanding still. Not on good footing, perhaps, but in this mucky groundthe weight of his horse was terribly against him. He drove the spurshome again; he looked back again and again, piercing the driving mist ofrain with starting eyes. He was safe still; the destroyer was not insight; yet he might be riding close behind that wall of rain.

  His horse came to a sudden halt, sliding on all four feet and driving upa rush of dirty water before him; even then he had stopped barely intime, for his forefeet were buried to the knees in water. Before MacStrann lay a wide arroyo. In ordinary weather it was dry as all thedesert around, but now it had cupped the water from miles around and ranbank full, a roaring torrent. On its surface the rain beat with acontinual crashing, like axes falling on brittle glass; and the downpourwas now so fearful that Mac Strann, for all his peering, could not lookto the other side.

  He judged the current to see if he might swim his horse across. But evenwhile he stared the stump of a cottonwood went whirling down the stream,struck a rock, perhaps, on the bottom, flung its entire bulk out of thewater with the impact, and then floundered back into the stream againand whirled instantly out of sight in the sheeted rain.

  No horse in the world could live through such a current. But the arroyomight turn. He swung his horse and spurred desperately along the bank,keeping his eye upon the bank. No, the stream cut back in a sharp curveand headed him farther and farther in the direction of the pursuer. Hebrought the mighty horse to another sliding halt and swung about in theopposite direction, for surely there must lie the point of escape.Desperately he rode, for the detour had cost him priceless time, yet itmight be made up. Ay, the stream sloped sharply into the direction inwhich he wished to ride. For a distance he could not judge, sinceseconds were longer than minutes to Mac Strann now.

  And then--the edge of the stream curved back again. He thought it mustbe a short twist in the line of the arroyo, but following it a littlefurther he came to realise the truth. The arroyo described a wide curve,and a sharp one, and to ride down its banks on either side was merely tothrow himself into the arms of Whistling Dan.

  Once he struck his fleshy forehead, and then turned with gritting teethand galloped back for the point at which he had first arrived. To hismaddened brain it occurred that the current of the arroyo might by thishave somewhat abated. He might now make his way across it. So he haltedonce more on the bank at the point where the stream doubled back on itscourse and once more, in an agony, studied the force of the current. Itseemed so placid at the first glance that he was on the verge ofspurring the horse into the wide, brown stream, but even as he loosenedthe reins a gap opened in the middle of the water, widened, whirling atthe brim, and drew swiftly into a fierce vortex with a black, deepbottom. Mac Strann tightened his reins again, and then turned his horse,and waited.

  Back the veriest coward against the wall and he becomes formidable, andMac Strann was one who had never feared before either man or beast orthe powers of the storm. Even now he dreaded no reality, but there dweltin his mind the memory of how Dan Barry had glared at him in the GileadSaloon, and how a flicker of yellow light had glowed in the man'seyes--a strange and phosphorescent glimmer that might be seen in thedarkness of night. When he turned the head of his horse away from thearroyo, he waited as one waits for the coming of a ghost. There was thesame chill tingling in his blood.

  Now the blanket of rain lifted and shook away to comparativeclearness--lifted, and for the first time he could look far away acrossthe plains. Nothing but grey, rain-washed desert met his eyes, and thenthe whistling broke once more upon him at the crest of a thrilling run.Mac Strann strained his eyes through the mist of the storm and then hesaw, vaguely as a phantom, the form of a horseman rushing swiftly intothe very teeth of the wind. The whistle wavered, ended, and in itsplace the long yell of a wolf cut the air. Mac Strann brandished aponderous fist in defiance that was half hysterical. Man or beast alonehe would meet--but a wolf-man!--he whirled the horse again and urged himheedlessly into the water.

  The whirlpool no longer opened before him--it had passed on down thearroyo and left in its wake a comparative calm. So that when the horsetook the water he made good progress for some distance, until Mac Stranncould see, clearly, the farther bank of the stream. In his joy heshouted to his horse, and swung himself clear from his saddle to lightenthe burden. At the same time they struck a heavier current and it struckthem down like a blow from above until the water closed over theirheads.

  It was only for a moment, however; then they emerged, the horse withcourageously pricking ears and snorting nostrils just above the flood.Mac Strann swung clear, gripping the horn of the saddle with one handwhile with the other he hastily divested himself of all superfluousweight. His slicker went first, ripped away from throat and shouldersand whipped off his body by one tug of the current. Next he fumbled athis belt and tossed this also, guns and all, away; striking out with hislegs and his free arm to aid the progress that now forged ahead withnoticeable speed.

  The current, to be sure, was carrying them farther down the stream, butthey were now almost to the centre of the arroyo and, though the waterboiled furiously over the back of the horse, they forged steadily closeand closer to the safe shore.

  It was chance that defeated Mac Strann. It came shooting down the riverand he saw it only an instant too late--a log whipping through thesurface of the stream as though impelled by a living force. And witharrowy straightness it lunged at them. Mac Strann heaved himselfhigh--he screamed at the horse as though the poor brute could understandhis warning, and then the tree-trunk was upon them. Fair and square itstruck the head of the horse with a thud audible even through therushing of the stream. The horse went down like lead, and Mac Strann wasdragged down beneath the surface.

  He came up fighting grimly and hopelessly for life. For he was in thevery centre of the stream, now, and the current swept him relentlesslydown. There seemed to be hands in the middle of the arroyo, and when hestrove to battle his way to the edge of the water the current tangled athis legs and pulled him back. Yet even then he did not fear. It wasdeath, he knew, but at least it was death fighting against a force ofnature rather than destruction at the hands of some weird and unhumanagency. His arms began to grow numb. He raised his head to pick out thenearest point on the shore and make his last struggle for life.

  What he saw was a black head cutting the water just above him, andbeside the horse, one hand upon the beast's mane, swam a man. At thesame instant a hand fastened on his collar and he was drawn slowlyagainst the force of the river.

  In the stunning surprise of the first moment he could make no effort tosave himself, and as a result, all three were washed hopelessly down thecurrent, but a shrill warning from his rescuer set him fighting againwith all the power of his great limbs. After that they forged steadilytowards the shore. The black horse swam with amazing strength, andbreaking the force of the current for the men, they soon passed from thefull grip of the torrent and forged into the smoother shallows at theside of the stream. In a moment firm land was beneath the feet of MacStrann, and he turned his dull eyes of amazement upon Dan Barry. Thelatter stood beside the panting black horse. He had not even thrown offhis slicker in the fording of the stream--there had been no time foreven that small delay if he wished to save Strann. And now he wasthrowing back the folds of the garment to leave free play for his arms.He panted from the fierce effort of the fording, but his head was high,a singular smile lingered about the corners of his mouth, and in hiseyes Mac Strann saw the gleam of yellow, a signal of unfathomabledanger.

  From his holsters Barry drew two revolvers. One he retained; the otherhe tossed towards Mac Strann, and the latter caught it automatically.

  "Now," said the soft voice of Barry, "we're equally armed.--Down,Bart!----" (for the wolf-dog was slinking with ominous intent towardsthe giant) and there's the dog you shot. "If you drop me, you can sendyour next shot into Bart. If I drop you, the teeth of Bart will be inyour throat. Make your own terms; fight in the way you want; knives, ifyou like 'em better than guns, or----" and here the yellow flamedterribly in Barry's eyes--"bare hand to hand!"

  The grim truth sank slowly home in the dull mind of Mac Strann. The manhad saved him from the water to kill him on dry land.

  "Barry," he said slowly, "it was your bullet that brung down Jerry; butyou've paid me back here. They's nothin' left on earth worth fightin'for. There's your gun."

  And he threw the revolver into the mud at Barry's feet, turned on hisheel, and lumbered off into the rain. There was no voice of answerbehind him, except a shrill whine of rage from Black Bart and then asharp command: "Down!" from the master. As the blanket of rain shut overhim, Mac Strann looked back. There stood the strange man with the wolfcrouched at his feet, and the teeth of Bart were bared, and the hum ofhis horrible snarling carried to Strann through the beat of the rain.Mac Strann turned again, and plodded slowly through the storm.

  And Dan Barry? Twice men had stood before him, armed, and twice he hadfailed to kill. Wonder rose in him; wonder and a great fear. Was helosing the desert, and was the desert losing him? Were the chains ofhumanity falling about him to drag him down to a tamed and sordid life?A sudden hatred for all men, Mac Strann, Daniels, Kate, and even poorJoe Cumberland, welled hot in the breast of Whistling Dan. The strengthof men could not conquer him; but how could their very weakness disarmhim? He leaped again on the back of Satan, and rode furiously back intothe storm.

 
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