The night horseman, p.7
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       The Night Horseman, p.7




  The wrath of the Lord seems less terrible when it is localised, and theworld at large gave thanks daily that the range of Jerry Strann waslimited to the Three B's. As everyone in the mountain-desert knows, theThree B's are Bender, Buckskin, and Brownsville; they make the points ofa loose triangle that is cut with canyons and tumbled with mountains,and that triangle was the chosen stamping ground of Jerry Strann. Jerrywas not born in the region of the Three B's and why it should have beenchosen specially by him was matter which the inhabitants could notpuzzle out; but they felt that for their sins the Lord had probably puthis wrath among them in the form of Jerry Strann.

  He was only twenty-four, this Jerry, but he was already grown into aproverb. Men of the Three B's reckoned their conversational dates by thevisits of the youth; if a storm hung over the mountains someone mightremark: "It looks like Jerry Strann is coming," and such a remark wasalways received in gloomy silence; mothers had been known to hush theirchildren by chanting: "Jerry Strann will get you if you don't watchout." Yet he was not an ogre with a red knife between his teeth. Hestood at exactly the perfect romantic height; he was just six feet tall;he was as graceful as a young cotton-wood in a windstorm and he was asstrong and tough as the roots of the mesquite. He was one of those raremen who are beautiful without being unmanly. His face was modelled withthe care a Praxiteles would lavish on a Phoebus. His brown hair wasthick and dark and every touch of wind stirred it, and his hazel eyeswere brilliant with an enduring light--the inextinguishable joy of life.

  Consider that there was no malice in Jerry Strann. But he loved strifeas the young Apollo loved strife--or a pure-blooded bull terrier. Hefought with distinction and grace and abandon and was perfectly willingto use fists or knives or guns at the pleasure of the other contractingparty. In another age, with armour and a golden chain and spurs, JerryStrann would have been--but why think of that? Swords are notforty-fives, and the Twentieth Century is not the Thirteenth. He was, infact, born just six hundred years too late. From his childhood he hadthirsted for battle as other children thirst for milk: and now he rodeanything on hoofs and threw a knife like a Mexican--with eitherhand--and at short range he did snap shooting with two revolvers thatmade rifle experts sick at heart.

  However, the men of the Three B's, as everyone understands, are notgentle or long-enduring, and you will wonder why this young destroyerwas allowed to range at large so long. There was a vital reason. Up inthe mountains lived Mac Strann, the hermit-trapper, who hated everythingin the wide world except his young brother, the beautiful, wild, andsunny Jerry Strann. And Mac Strann loved his brother as much as he hatedeverything else; it is impossible to state it more strongly. It was notlong before the men of the Three B's discovered how Mac Strann feltabout his brother. After Jerry's famous Hallowe'en party in Buckskin,for instance, Williamson, McKenna, and Rath started out to rid thecountry of the disturber. They went out to hunt him as men go out tohunt a wild mustang. And they caught him and bent him down--those threestark men--and he lay in bed for a month; but before the month was overMac Strann came down from his mountain and went to Buckskin and gatheredWilliamson and McKenna and Rath in one public place. And when themorning came Williamson and McKenna and Rath had left this vale of tearsand Mac Strann was back on his mountain. He was not even arrested. Forthere was a devilish cunning about the fellow and he made his victims,without exception, attack him first; then he destroyed them, suddenlyand surely, and retreated to his lair. Things like this happened once ortwice and then the men of the Three B's understood that it was not wiseto lay plots for Jerry Strann. They accepted him, as I have said before,as men accept the wrath of God.

  Let it not be thought that Jerry Strann was a solitary like his brother.When he went out for a frolic the young men of the community gatheredaround him, for Jerry paid all scores and the red-eye flowed in his pathlike wine before the coming of Bacchus; where Jerry went there was nevera dull moment, and young men love action. So it happened that when herode into Brownsville this day he was the leader of a cavalcade. Rumourrode before them, and doors were locked and windows were darkened, andmen sat in the darkness within with their guns across their knees. ForBrownsville lay at the extreme northern tip of the triangle and it wasrarely visited by Jerry; and it is well established that men fear theunfamiliar more than the known.

  As has been said, Jerry headed the train of revellers, partially becauseit was most unwise to cut in ahead of Jerry and partially because therewas not a piece of horseflesh in the Three B's which could outfoot hischestnut. It was a gelding out of the loins of the north wind and siredby the devil himself, and its spirit was one with the spirit of JerryStrann; perhaps because they both served one master. The cavalcade camewith a crash of racing hoofs in a cloud of dust. But in the middle ofthe street Jerry raised his right arm stiffly overhead with a whoop andbrought his chestnut to a sliding stop; the cloud of dust rolled lazilyon ahead. The young men gathered quickly around the leader, and therewas silence as they waited for him to speak--a silence broken only bythe wheezing of the horses, and the stench of sweating horseflesh wasin every man's nostrils.

  "Who owns that hoss?" asked Jerry Strann, and pointed.

  He had stopped just opposite O'Brien's hotel, store, blacksmith shop,and saloon, and by the hitching rack was a black stallion. Now, thereare some men who carry tidings of their inward strength stamped on theirforeheads and written in their eyes. In times of crises crowds will turnto such men and follow them as soldiers follow a captain; for it ispatent at a glance that this is a man of men. It is likewise true thatthere are horses which stand out among their fellows, and this was sucha horse. He was such a creature that, if he had been led to a barrier,the entire crowd at the race track would rise as one man and say: "Whatis that horse?" There were points in which some critics would findfault; most of the men of the mountain-desert, for instance, would havesaid that the animal was too lightly and delicately limbed for longendurance; but as the man of men bears the stamp of his greatness in hisforehead and his eyes, so it was with the black stallion. When thethunder of the cavalcade had rushed upon him down the street he hadturned with catlike grace and raised his head to see; and his foreheadand his eyes arrested Jerry Strann like a levelled rifle. Looking atthat proud head one forgot the body of the horse, the symmetry of curvesexquisite beyond the sculptor's dream, the arching neck and the steelmuscles; one was only conscious of the great spirit. In Human beings werefer to it as "personality."

  After a little pause, seeing that no one offered a suggestion as to theidentity of the owner, Strann said, softly: "That hoss is mine."

  It caused a stir in the crowd of his followers. In the mountain-desertone may deal lightly with a man's wife and lift a random cow or two andsettle the score, at need, with a snug "forty-five" chunk of lead. Butwith horses it is different. A horse in the mountain-desert lies outsideof all laws--and above all laws. It is greater than honour and dearerthan love, and when a man's horse is taken from him the men of thedesert gather together and hunt the thief whether it be a day or whetherit be a month, and when they have reached him they shoot him like a dogand leave his flesh to the buzzards and his bones to the mercilessstars. For all of this there is a reason. But Jerry Strann swung fromhis mount, tossed the reins over the head of the chestnut, and walkedtowards the black with hungry eyes. He was careless, also, and venturingtoo close--the black whirled with his sudden, catlike agility, and twoblack hoofs lashed within a hair's breadth of the man's shoulder. Therewas a shout from the crowd, but Jerry Strann stepped back and smiled sothat his teeth showed.

  "Boys," he said, but he was really speaking to himself, "there's nothingin the world I want as bad as I want that hoss. Nothing! I'm going tobuy him; where's the owner?"

  "Don't look like a hoss a man would want to sell, Jerry," came asuggestion from the cavalcade, who had dismounted and now pressed behindtheir leader.

  Jerry favoured the speaker with another of his enigmatic smiles: "Oh,"he c
huckled, "he'll sell, all right! Maybe he's inside. You gents stickout here and watch for him; I'll step inside."

  And he strode through the swinging doors of the saloon.

  It was a dull time of day for O'Brien, so he sat with his feet on theedge of the bar and sipped a tall glass of beer; he looked up at thewelcome click of the doors, however, and then was instantly on his feet.The good red went out of his face and the freckles over his nose stoodout like ink marks.

  "There's a black hoss outside," said Jerry, "that I'm going to buy.Where's the owner?"

  "Have a drink," said the bartender, and he forced an amiable smile.

  "I got business on my hands, not drinking," said Jerry Strann.

  "Lost your chestnut?" queried O'Brien in concern.

  "The chestnut was all right until I seen the black. And now he ain't ahoss at all. Where's the gent I want?"

  The bartender had fenced for time as long as possible.

  "Over there," he said, and pointed.

  It was a slender fellow sitting at a table in a corner of the longroom, his sombrero pushed back on his head. He was playing solitaire andhis back was towards Jerry Strann, who now made a brief survey, hitchedhis cartridge belt, and approached the stranger with a grin. The man didnot turn; he continued to lay down his cards with monotonous regularity,and while he was doing it he said in the gentlest voice that had everreached the ear of Jerry Strann: "Better stay where you are, stranger.My dog don't like you."

  And Jerry Strann perceived, under the shadow of the table, a blackershadow, huge and formless in the gloom, and two spots of incandescentgreen twinkling towards him. He stopped; he even made a step back; andthen he heard a stifled chuckle from the bartender.

  If it had not been for that untimely mirth of O'Brien's probably nothingof what followed would have passed into the history of the Three B's.

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