Read CHAPTER XV - THE HORSE RAID of The Gold Girl , free online book, by James B. Hendryx, on ReadCentral.com.

Patty did not know how long she had slept when she awoke, tense and listening, sitting bolt upright in bed. Moonlight flooded the room through the windows thrown wide to admit the chill night air. Beyond the valley floor, green with the luxuriant second crop of alfalfa, she could see the mountains looming dim and mysterious in the half-light.

The whole world seemed silent as the grave-and yet, something must have awakened her. She shuddered, partly at the chill that struck at her thinly clad shoulders, and partly at the recollection of some of the scenes those selfsame mountains had witnessed, during the uprisings, and which her hostess had so vividly recounted. The girl smiled, and gazing toward the mountains, pictured long lines of naked horsemen stealing silently into the valley. She started violently. Through the open window came sounds, the muffled thud of hoofs upon the soft ground, the low rattle of bit-chains and spur-rowels, and the creak of saddle leather. There were horsemen in the valley, and the horsemen were passing almost beneath her windows-and they were moving stealthily.

For a moment her heart raced madly-the fancy of those conjured horsemen, and then the mysterious sounds from the night that were not fancy, combined in just the right proportion to overcome her with a momentary terror. She realized that the sounds were passing-growing fainter, and leaping from the bed, rushed to the window and peered out. Only silence-profound, unbroken silence, and the moonlight. In vain she strained her ears to catch a repetition of the faint sounds, and in vain she peered into the dark shadows cast by the bunk house and the pole horse-corral. Her windows commanded the eastern wall of the valley, and its upper reaches. Had there actually been horsemen, or were the sounds part of her vivid vision of the long ago? “No,” she muttered, “those sounds were real,” and she leaned far out of the window in a vain effort to catch a glimpse of the trail that led down the creek toward Pierce’s.

For some time she remained at the window and then, shivering, crept back to bed, where she lay speculating upon the identity of these horsemen who passed in the night. She knew that a horse raid had been expected. Could these raiders have had the audacity to pass through the very dooryard of the ranch, knowing as they must have known, that four armed and determined cowboys occupied the bunk house?

And who were these raiders? At Thompson’s she had heard Monk Bethune’s name mentioned in connection with possible horse-thieving. Bethune had spoken of hurried trips, “to the northward.” She remembered that upon the occasion of their first meeting, she had heard him dickering with Watts for the rent of his horse pasture, and she recollected the incident of the changed name. Then, again, only a few days before, she had parted with him when he struck off the trail to the eastward with the excuse that he was going over onto the east slope on a matter having to do with some horses. Bill had mentioned, in talking to Mrs. Samuelson, that he had been riding through the horses on the east slope. Could it be possible that the suave Bethune was a horse-thief? On the other hand, Bethune had openly hinted that Vil Holland was a horse-thief-and yet, these other people all believed that he was persistently on the trail of the horse-thieves.

For a long time she lay thinking, guessing, trying to recall little scraps of evidence that would bear upon the case. Again, a slight sound brought her to a sitting posture. This time it was the opening of a door across the hall from her room. The sound was followed by the soft padding of slippered feet in the hall, the low tapping, evidently at another door, a few low-voiced words, and a return of the padding steps. A few moments later other steps hurried along the hall past her door and rapidly descended the stairs. Patty heard the opening of an outside door, and once more stealing to the window she saw the Chinaman hurry across the moonlit yard to the bunk house and throw open the door. He entered to emerge a moment later and rush to the horse-corral, where he peered between the poles for a moment and then made his way swiftly back to the house.

Without lighting the lamp Patty dressed hurriedly. Was the Samuelson ranch a place of mystery? What was the meaning of the light sounds-the soft tramp of horses, and the padding of feet upon the stairs? The footsteps paused at the door across the hall. There followed a whispered colloquy and the steps retreated rapidly to the lower regions. Patty opened her door to see Mrs. Samuelson, her face expressing the deepest agitation, and one thin hand catching together the folds of a lavender kimono.

“What is the matter?” asked the girl. “What has happened?”

The old lady closed the door from beyond which came sounds of heavy breathing. “I am afraid he is worse,” she whispered. “Wong Yie went to the bunk house to send the boys for the doctor and for Mrs. Pierce, and he says they are gone! Their horses are not in the corral. I don’t understand it,” she cried. “I told them not to go away. They know, that with my husband sick, we are in momentary danger from the horse-thieves, and they know that their place is right here.”

“You told Bill to stay until he heard from Vil Holland,” reminded Patty. “Maybe they heard from him, and left without disturbing you.”

“That’s it, of course!” cried the woman. “I ought to have known I could trust them. But, for a moment it seemed that-” She stopped abruptly and glanced anxiously into the girl’s face, “But what in the world will we do? Wong Yie can’t ride a step, and if he could, I need him here -”

“I’ll ride to Pierce’s!” exclaimed Patty. “And get Mr. Pierce to go for the doctor, and bring Mrs. Pierce back with me. My horse is in the corral, and I can get down there in no time.”

“Oh, can you? Will you? And you are not afraid-alone at night in the hills? Under any other circumstances I wouldn’t think of letting you do it, child-especially with the horse-thieves about. But, it seems the only way -”

“Of course it’s the only way! And I’m not a bit afraid.”

Hurrying to the corral, Patty saddled her horse, and a few moments later swung into the trail that led down the creek. She glanced at her watch; it was one o’clock. The moon floated high in the heavens and the valley was almost as light as day. Urging her horse into a run, she found a wild exhilaration in riding through the night, splashing across shallows and shooting across short level stretches to plunge through the water again.

After what seemed an interminable wait, Pierce himself appeared at the door in answer to her persistent pounding. Patty thought he eyed her curiously as he stood aside and motioned her into the kitchen. Very deliberately he lighted the lamp and listened in silence until she had finished. Then, coolly, he eyed her from top to toe: “’Pears to me I’ve saw you before,” he announced. “Over on the trail, a while back. An’ you was a-ridin’ with-Monk Bethune.”

“Well?” asked the girl, angered by the man’s tone.

“Well,” mocked Pierce. “So to-night’s the night yer figgerin’ on pullin’ the raid, is it?”

“I’m figuring on pulling the raid! What do you mean?”

“I mean you, an’ Bethune, an’ yer gang. You be’n up a-spottin’ the lay, so’s to tip ’em off, an’ now you come down here an’ tell me the Old Man’s worst so’s I’ll take out to town fer the doc-an’ one less posse-man in the hills. Yer a pretty slick article, Miss, but it hain’t a-goin’ to work.”

Patty listened, speechless with rage. When the man finished she found her tongue. “You-you accuse me of being a-a horse-thief?” she choked.

“Yup,” answered the man. “That’s it-an’ not so fur off, neither. Don’t you s’pose I know that if the Old Man was worst one of his own boys would of be’n a foggin’ it fer town hisself? I’d ort to take an’ lock you up in the root cellar an’ turn you over to Vil Holland, but I guess if we get all the he ones out of yer gang we kin leave you loose. ’Tain’t likely you could run off no horses single-handed.”

A woman whose appearance showed an evident hasty toilet had stepped from an inner room, and stood listening to the man. Patty was about to appeal to her when, from the outside came a thunder of hoofs, and suddenly a man burst into the room. Patty recognized him as Bill, of the Samuelson ranch. “Come on, Jack, quick! Git yer gun, while I slam the kak on yer cayuse. The raid’s on, they’ve cut out a bunch of them three an’ four-year-olds offen the east slope an’ they’re a-foggin’ ’em off.”

“Bill! Oh, Bill!” cried the girl, in desperation. But the man had plunged toward the corral, followed by Pierce, buckling on his cartridge belt as he ran. A moment later both men were in the saddle, and the sound of pounding hoofs grew far away.

In tears, Patty turned to the woman. “Oh, why couldn’t he have believed me?” she cried. “He thinks I’m one of that detestable gang of thieves! But, you-surely you don’t think I’m a horse-thief?” In broken sentences she related the facts to the woman, and finished by begging her to go up to the Samuelson ranch. “I’ll ride on to town for the doctor myself!” she exclaimed. “And surely you can do that much for your neighbor.”

“Do that much fer ’em!” the woman exclaimed. “I reckon they ain’t nothin’ I wouldn’t do fer them. Mebbe Jack’s right, an’ mebbe he’s wrong. I’ve saw him be both, ‘fore now. Anyways, it ain’t a-goin’ to do Samuelsons no harm, nor the horse-thieves no good fer me to go up there. You hit the trail fer town, an’ I’ll ride up the crick.” The woman cut short the girl’s thanks. “You better take straight on down Porky ’til it crosses the trail,” she advised. “It’s a little longer but you won’t git lost that way, an’ chances is you would if I tried to tell you the short cut. Thompsons is great friends with Samuelsons,” called the woman, as Patty mounted. “Better change horses there! Or, mebbe Thompson’ll go on to town fer you.”

Below the Pierce ranch the trail was not so good but, unheeding, the girl held her horse to his pace. In her heart now was no wild exhilaration of moonlight, nor was there any lurking fear of unknown horsemen, only a mighty rage-a rage engendered by Pierce’s accusation, but which expanded with each leap of her horse until it included Vil Holland, Bethune, the Samuelson cowboys, and even Len Christie and the Samuelsons themselves-a senseless, consuming rage that caused the blood to throb hotly to her temples and found vicious expression in driving the rowels into her horse’s sides until the animal tore down the rough, half-lit trail at a pace that sent the loose stones flying from beneath his hoofs in rattling volleys.

Possibly, it was the rattling of loose stones, possibly her anger dulled her sensibilities to the point where they were incapable of taking note of her surroundings, but the fact remains that as she approached the mouth of a wide coulee that gave into the valley from the eastward, she did not hear the rumble of hundreds of pounding hoofs that each second grew louder and more ominous, until as she reached the mouth of the coulee a rider swept into the valley, his horse straining every muscle to keep ahead of the herd that thundered in his wake.

Apparently the horseman did not notice her, and the next moment Patty was engulfed in the herd. The girl lived one wild moment of terror. In front, behind, upon each side were madly plunging horses, eyes staring, mouths agape exposing long white teeth that flashed wickedly in the moonlight, manes tossing wildly, and air whistling through wide-flaring nostrils. On and on they swept down the valley. The roar of hoofs rose to a mighty crescendo of thunder, above which, now and then, the terrified girl caught fierce yells from the flank of the herd. So close were the terrorized horses running that it was impossible for the girl to see the ground before her. Sweating, plunging bodies surged against her legs threatening each moment to scrape her feet from the stirrups. Gripping the horn with both hands she rode in a sort of daze.

Glancing over her shoulder, she caught an occasional flash of white as the men on the flanks waved sheets above their heads, whose flapping, fluttering folds urged the maddened horses into a perfect frenzy of action.

In front, and a little to one side of Patty, a horse went down, a big roan colt, and she got one horrible glimpse of a grotesquely twisted neck, and a tangle of thrashing hoofs as another horse plunged onto his fallen comrade. A horrible scream split the air as he, too, went down, and the sudden side-surge of the herd all but unseated the clinging girl. In a second it was over and the herd thundered on. Patty closed her eyes, and with white, tight-pressed lips, wondered when her horse would go down. She pictured the bloody, battered thing that had been herself, lying flattened and gruesome, in the moonlight when the pounding hoofs swept past.

Time and distance ceased to be. Patty was carried helplessly on, a part of that frenzied flood of flesh, muscles rigid, brain tense-waiting for the inevitable moment-the horrible moment that was to mark the climax of this ride of horrors. She wondered if it would hurt, or would merciful unconsciousness come with the first impact of the fall.

Suddenly she opened her eyes. She sensed a change in the rumble of hoofs. Horses surged together and the pace slackened from a wild rush to a wilder thrashing of uncertainty. In the forefront a thin red spurt of flame leaped forth and above the pounding hoofs rang the report of a shot. The leaders seemed to have stopped and the main body of the herd pressed and struggled against the unyielding front. Other spurts of flame pierced the night, and shots rang viciously from all sides. The horses were milling, churning, about in a huge maelstrom, in which Patty found herself being slowly forced to the outside as the unencumbered free horses crowded to the center away from the terrifying stabs of flame and the crack of guns. She could see a mounted form before her. Evidently it was the man who had ridden in the forefront of the herd. The rider was very close, now, his horse keeping pace with her own which had nearly reached the outer rim of the churning mass of animals. The brim of his hat shadowed his face but Patty could see that the gauntleted hand held a six-gun. A shift of position brought the moonlight full upon the man’s front-upon a scarf of robin’s-egg blue caught together at the throat with the polished tip of buffalo horn. No other horsemen were in sight, but an occasional sharp report sounded from the opposite side of the herd. “Vil!” she screamed. “Vil Holland!” The form stiffened in the saddle and the girl caught the flash of his eyes beneath the hat brim. The next instant the gun had given place to a heavy quirt in his hand, his tall, rangy horse plunged straight toward her, the wild horses, crowding frenziedly to escape the blows as the rider lashed furiously to the right and to the left as he forced his mount to her side.

“Good God! Girl, what are you doing here? I thought you were one of them-and I nearly-” The man leaned suddenly forward and grasped the bit-chain of her bridle. As if knowing exactly what was expected of them, side by side the two horses fought their way free of the herd, the big buckskin with ears laid back, snapping viciously at the crowding horses. A six-gun roared twice. Patty felt a sudden brush of air against her cheek and the next instant the two horses plunged down the steep side of a narrow ravine. In the bottom the man released her bridle. “You stay here!” he commanded gruffly.

“But, the Samuelsons! Mr. Samuelson is-” The words were drowned in a shower of gravel as the rangy buckskin scrambled up the bank and disappeared over the top. The rapid transition from anger to terror, and from terror to relief, proved too much for the girl’s nerves and she burst into a violent fit of sobbing. The tears enraged her and she shouted at the top of her voice. “I won’t stay here!” but the words sounded puny and weak, and she knew that they had not penetrated beyond the rim of the ravine. “I won’t do it! I won’t stay here!” she kept repeating, the sentences broken by the hysterical sobbing. Nevertheless, stay there she did, until with a mighty rumble of hoofs and a scattering volley of shots, the horse herd swept northward, and when finally she succeeded in gaining the upper level, the sounds came to her ears faint and far away.

Hurriedly she glanced about her. What was that stretching to the southward, a long ribbon of white in the moonlight? “The trail!” she cried. “The trail to town-and to Thompson’s!” Just beyond the trail, upon the brown-yellow buffalo grass a dark object lay motionless. Patty stared at it in horror. It was the body of a man. Her first impulse was to put spurs to her horse and fly down that long white ribbon of trail-to place distance between herself and the thing that lay sprawled upon the grass. Then a thought flashed into her brain. Suppose it were he? Vil Holland, the man whom everybody trusted-the man who had calmly braved the shots of the horse-thieves to rescue her from that churning maelstrom of horror.

Unconsciously, but surely, under the influence of those upon whose judgment she knew she could rely, her suspicion and distrust of him had weakened. She had half-realized the fact days ago, when at thought of him she found herself forced to enumerate his apparent offenses over and over again to keep the distrust alive. She thought of him now as he had fought his way to her, lashing the infuriated horses from his path. He had appeared, somehow-different. She closed her eyes and clean cut as though chiseled upon her brain was the picture of him as he forced his way to her side. Like a flash the detail of difference broke upon her-The jug was missing! And close upon the heels of the discovery came the memory of the strange thrill that had shot through her as his leg pressed hers when their horses had been forced together by the milling herd, and the sense of security and well being that replaced the terror in her heart from the moment she had called his name. A sudden indescribable pain gripped her breast, as though icy fingers reached up and slowly clutched her heart. With staring eyes and breath coming heavily between parted lips, she rode toward the thing on the ground. As she drew near, her horse stopped, sniffing nervously. She attempted to urge him forward, but he quivered, shied sidewise, and, snorting his fear, circled the sprawling object with nostrils a-quiver.

Fighting a terrible dread, the girl forced her eyes to focus upon the gruesome form, and the next instant she uttered a quick little cry of relief. The man’s hat had fallen off and lay at some distance from the body. She could see a shock of thick black hair, and noticed that he wore a cheap cotton shirt that had once been white. There were no chaps. One leg of his blue overalls had rolled up and exposed six inches of bare skin which gleamed whitely in the moonlight above the top of his shoe. The sight sickened, disgusted her, and whirling her horse she dashed southward along the trail forgetting for the moment the Samuelsons, the doctor, and everything else in a wild desire to put distance between herself and that awful thing on the ground.

Not until her horse’s hoofs rang upon the hard rock of the canyon floor, did Patty slacken her pace. Thompson’s was only a few miles farther on. It was dark in the high walled canyon and she slowed her horse to a walk. He stopped to drink in the shallow creek and the girl glanced over the back trail. Where was he now! Thundering along with the recaptured horse herd, or following the thieves in a mad flight through the devious fastnesses of the mountains. Was it possible that even at this moment he was lying upon the yellow-brown grass, or among the broken rock fragments of some coulee, twisted, and shapeless, and still-like that other who lay repulsive and ugly, with his bare leg shining white in the moonlight? She shuddered. “No, no, no!” she cried aloud, “they can’t kill him. They’re cowards-and he is brave!” Her voice rang hollow and thin in the rocky chasm, and she started at the sound of it. Her horse moved on, tongueing the bit contentedly. “They were right, and I was wrong,” she muttered. “And-and, I’m glad.”

The canyon was left behind and before her the trail wound among the foothills that rolled away to the open bench. She noticed that the moon had sunk behind the mountains, yet it was not dark. Glancing toward the east, she realized that it was morning. She urged her horse into a lope, and reached Thompson’s just as the ranchman and his two hands were starting for the barn.

“Well, dog my cats, if it ain’t Miss Sinclair!” exclaimed the man, and stood silent for a second as if trying to remember something. He rushed toward her excitedly. “You want that horse?” he cried, and without waiting for an answer, turned to the astonished ranch hands: “You, Mike, throw the shell onto Lightnin’, an’ git him out here, an’ don’t lose no time about it, neither!

“Pete, git that rifle an’ lay along the trail! An’ if anyone comes a-foggin’ along towards town shoot his horse out from in under him! Never mind chawin’-you git! Shoot his horse, an’ I’ll pay the bill. Any skunk that would try fer to beat a lady out of her claim ain’t a-goin’ to expect nothin’ but what he gits around this outfit. An’ say, Pete-if it should be Monk Bethune-an’ you happen to shoot a leetle high fer to hit the horse-don’t worry none-git, now!

“You come right along of me, an’ git a snack from Miz T. while Mike’s a-saddlin’ up. It’s a long drag to town, even on Lightnin’, an’ you ain’t et yet. If the coffee ain’t hot, you can wait a couple o’ minutes-that there Pete-he won’t let nothin’ git by-he kin cut a sage hen’s head off twenty rod with that rifle!” Patty had made several unsuccessful attempts to speak-attempts to which Thompson paid no attention whatever. At last, she managed to make him understand. “No, no! It isn’t the claim, Mr. Thompson-but, let him saddle the horse just the same. Mr. Samuelson is worse and I’m riding for the doctor.”

“You!” exclaimed the astonished Thompson. “What’s the matter with Bill or some of Samuelson’s riders?”

“They’re after the horse-thieves. They ran off a lot of Mr. Samuelson’s horses last night, and they’re after them. And they caught them, and had a battle, and I was in it, and there is a dead man lying back there beside the trail.” Patty talked rapidly, and Thompson stared open-mouthed.

“Run off Samuelson’s horses-battle-dead man-you was in it!” he repeated, in bewilderment. “Who run ’em off? Where’s Vil Holland? Who’s dead?”

“I don’t know who’s dead. A horse-thief, I guess. And Vil Holland’s with them-with the Samuelson cowboys and that horrid Pierce, and that’s why I had to ride for the doctor-because the cowboys were with Vil Holland, and Pierce thought I was one of the horse-thieves.”

“If you know what you’re talkin’ about it’s more’n what I do,” sighed Thompson, resignedly, as the girl concluded the somewhat muddled explanation. “If the raid’s come off, why wasn’t I in on it-an’ me keepin’ Lightnin’ up an’ ready fer it’s goin’ on three months? They’s a thing or two I do know, though. For one, you’ve rode fer enough.” He called to Pete, who, rifle in hand, was making for the trail. “Hey, Pete, come back here with that gun, an’ quick as Mike gits the hull cinched onto Lightnin’, you fork him an’ hightail fer town an’ fetch Doc Mallory out to Samuelson’s. Tell him the Old Man’s worse. Better fetch Len Christie along, too. If there’s a dead man, even if he’s a horse-thief, it’s better he was buried accordin’ to the book. Take Miss Sinclair’s horse to the stable an’ tell Mike to onsaddle him an’ give him a feed.” He turned to Patty: “You come along in an’ rest up ’til Miz T. gits breakfast ready. Then when you’ve et, you kin begin at the beginnin’ an’ tell what’s be’n a-goin’ on in the hills.”

A couple of hours later when Patty concluded her detailed narrative, Thompson leaned back in his chair. “I got a crow to pick with Vil Holland, all right, fer not lettin’ me in on that there raid.”

“Maybe he didn’t have time,” suggested the girl, and suppressed a desire to smile at the readiness with which she sprang to the defense of her “guardian devil of the hills.”

Protesting that she needed no rest after her night of wild adventure, Patty refused the pressing invitation of the Thompsons to remain at the ranch, and mounting her horse, headed for the cabin on Monte’s Creek.

Once through the canyon, she turned abruptly into the hills and as her horse, unguided, topped low divides, and threaded mile after mile of narrow valleys, her thoughts wandered from the all-absorbing topic of her father’s location, to the man for whom she had so recently experienced such a signal revulsion of feeling. “How could I ever have been deceived by that disgusting Monk Bethune?” she muttered. “Especially after he warned me against him. It’s a wonder I couldn’t have seen him for the sleek oily devil that he is. I must have been crazy.” She shuddered at the recollection of that day in the little valley when he boldly made love to her. “It’s just blind luck that-that something awful didn’t happen. I could see the lurking devil in his eyes! And I saw it again, when he sneered at Mr. Christie. And when Pierce showed very plainly what he thought of him, he cursed everybody in the hills, and then offered his glaringly false explanation as to why people hate and distrust him.” At the top of a low divide, she turned her horse into a valley that was not, by any means, the most direct route to the little cabin on Monte’s Creek. A half hour later she came out onto the plateau, upon the edge of which Vil Holland’s little tent nestled against its towering rock fragment.

For just an instant she hesitated, then, blushing, rode boldly across the open space toward the little patch of white that showed through the scrub timber. Pulling up before the tent door the girl glanced about her. Everything was in its place. Her eyes rested approvingly upon the well-scoured cooking utensils that hung in an orderly row. Evidently the camp had not been used the night before. She drew off her glove and, leaning over, felt the blankets that were thrown over the ridgepole. They were still wet with the heavy dew, and the dampened ashes showed that no fire had been built that morning. “Oh, where is he?” whispered the girl, glancing wildly about, “Surely, he has had time to reach here-if he’s-all right.” After a few moments of silence she laughed nervously: “He’s all right,” she assured herself with forced cheerfulness. “Of course, he wouldn’t return here right away. He probably had to help drive those horses back, or-or help bury that man, or something. I wonder what he thinks of me? Pierce will tell him his suspicions, and then-finding me mixed in with those horses-he’ll think I’ve ‘thrown in’ with Bethune, as he would say. I must see him. I must!”

Deciding to return later in the day, Patty headed her horse for the divide and soon found herself at the much trampled notch in the hills. For some moments she sat staring down at the ground. She glanced toward the cabin that showed so distinctly in the valley below. “He certainly watches from here,” she mused. “And not just occasionally either.” Suddenly, she straightened in her saddle, and her eyes glowed: “I wonder if-if he has been watching-Monk Bethune? Watching to see that no harm comes to-me? Oh, if I only knew-if I only knew the real meaning of this trampled grass!” Resolutely, she gathered up her reins. “I will know!” she muttered. “And I’ll know before very long, too. That is, I hope I will,” she qualified, as the bay cayuse began to pick his way carefully down the steep descent to Monte’s Creek.