Read CHAPTER X - A WILD RIDE of The Night Riders A Romance of Early Montana , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on

The intractability of the Lady Jezebel was beyond all bounds.  Her vagaries were legion.  After his experiences with her, Tresler might have been forgiven the vanity of believing, in spite of her sex, that he had fathomed her every mood.  But she was forever springing unpleasant surprises, and her present one was of a more alarming nature than anything that had gone before.  One of her tricks, bolting, was not so very serious, but now she proved herself a “blind bolter.”  And among horsemen there is only one thing to do with a blind bolter shoot it.  A horse of this description seems to be imbued with but one idea a furious desire to go, to run anywhere, to run into anything lying in its course, to run on until its strength is spent, or its career is suddenly terminated by a forcible full stop.

At the bend of the trail the mare took blindly to the bush.  Chance guided her on to a cattle-path which cut through to the pinewoods beyond.  It was but a matter of moments before her rider saw the dark shadow of the woodlands come at him with a rush, and he plunged headlong into the gray twilight of their virgin depths.  He had just time to crouch down in the saddle, with his face buried in the tangle of the creature’s flying mane, when the drooping boughs, laden with their sad foliage, swept his back.  He knew there were only two courses open to him.  Either he must sit tight and chance his luck till the mad frolic was spent, or throw himself headlong from the saddle at the first likely spot.  A more experienced horseman would, no doubt, have chosen the latter course without a second thought.  But he preferred to stay with the mare.  He was loth to admit defeat.  She had never bested him yet, and a sort of petty vanity refused to allow him to acknowledge her triumph now.  They might come to an opening, he told himself, a stretch of open country.  The mare might tire of the forest gloom and turn prairieward.  These things suggested themselves merely as an excuse for his foolhardiness in remaining in the saddle, not that he had any hope of their fulfilment.

And so it was.  Nothing moved the animal out of her course, and it seemed almost as though a miracle were in operation.  For, in all that labyrinth of tree-trunks, a sheer road constantly opened out before them.  Once, and once only, disaster was within an ace of him.  She brushed a mighty black-barked giant with her shoulders.  Tresler’s knee struck it with such painful force that his foot was wrenched from the stirrup and dragged back so that the rowel of his spur was plunged, with terrific force, into the creature’s flank.  She responded to the blow with a sideways leap, and it was only by sheer physical strength her rider retained his seat.  Time and again the reaching boughs swept him and tore at his clothes, frequently lacerating the flesh beneath with the force of their impact.

These things, however, were only minor troubles as he raced down the grim forest aisles.  His thoughts centred themselves on the main chance the chance that embraced life and death.  An ill-fate might, at any moment, plunge horse and rider headlong into one of those silent sentries.  It would mean anything.  Broken limbs at the best.  But Providence ever watches over the reckless horseman, and, in spite of a certain native caution in most things, Tresler certainly was that.  He knew no fear of this jade of a mare, and deep down in his heart there was a wild feeling of joy, a whole-hearted delight in the very madness of the race.

And the animal herself, untamed, unchecked, frothing at her bit, her sides a-lather with foam, her barrel tuckered like that of a finely trained race-horse, rushed blindly on.  The forest echoed and reechoed with the dull thud of her hoofs as they pounded the thick underlay of rotting cones.  And her rider breathed hard as he lay with his head beside the reeking neck, and watched for the coming of the end.

Suddenly, in the midst of the gray, he saw a flash of sunlight.  It was like a beacon light to a storm-driven mariner.  It was only a gleam of sunshine and was gone almost at once, but it told him that he was fast coming on the river.  The final shoals, maybe, where wreck alone awaited him.  Just for an instant his purpose wavered.  There was still time to drop to the ground.  He would have to chance the mare’s flying heels.  And it might save him.

But the idea was driven from his head almost before he realized it; the mare swerved like a skidding vehicle.  He clung desperately to her mane, one arm was even round her neck in a forcible embrace.  The struggle lasted only a few seconds.  Then, as he recovered his equilibrium, he saw that she had turned into what was undoubtedly a well-defined, but long-disused, forest trail.  The way was clear of obstruction.  The trees had parted, opening up a wide avenue, and above him shone the perfect azure of the summer sky.

He was amazed.  Where could such a trail lead?  His answer came immediately.  Away ahead of him, towering above the abundant foliage, he saw the distant shimmer of snowy peaks, and nearer so near as to make him marvel aloud the forest-clad, broken lands of the foot-hills.  Immediate danger was past and he had time to think.  At all cost he must endeavor to stop the racing beast under him.  So he began a vicious sawing at her mouth.  His efforts only drove her faster, and caused her to throw her head higher and higher, until her crown was within six inches of his face.

The futility of his purpose was almost ludicrous.  He desisted.  And the Lady Jezebel lowered her head with an angry snort and rushed on harder than ever.  And now the race continued without relaxing.  Once or twice Tresler thought he detected other hoof-marks on the trail, but his impression of them was very uncertain.  One thing surely struck him, however:  since entering this relic of the old Indian days, a decided change had come over the mare.  She was no longer running blind; more, it seemed to him that she displayed that inexpressible familiarity with her surroundings which a true horseman can always detect, yet never describe.  This knowledge led him to the hope of the passing of her temper.

But his hope was an optimistic mistake.  The sweat pouring from neck, shoulders, and flanks, she still lifted her mud-brown barrel to her mighty stride, with all the vim and lightness of the start.  He felt that, jade that she was, she ran because she loved it; ran with a delight that acted as a safety-valve for her villainous temper.  She would run herself into amiability and then stop, but not before.  And he knew her temper so well that he saw many miles lying ahead of him.

The rift was gradually widening, and the forest on either side thinned.  The trees were wider and more scattered, and the broken hilltops, which but now had been well ahead, were frowning right over him, and he knew, by the steady, gradual rise of the country, that he would soon be well within the maze of forest, crag, and ravine, which composed the mountain foot-hills.

At last the forest broke and the ragged land leapt into full view with magical abruptness.  It was as though Nature had grown her forest within the confines of a field embraced by an imaginary hedge.  There were no outskirts, no dwindling away.  It ended in one clean-cut line.  And beyond lay the rampart hills, fringed and patched with disheveled bluff, split by rifts and yawning chasms.  And ever they rose higher and higher as the distance gained, and, though summer was not yet at its height, it was gaunt-looking, torn, chaotic, a land of desolation.

The mare held straight on.  The change of scene had no effect on her; the trail still lay before her, and she seemed satisfied with it.  Tresler looked for the river.  He knew it was somewhere near by.  He gazed away to the right, and his conjecture was proved at once.  There it lay, the Mosquito River, narrowed and foaming, a torrent with high, clean-cut banks.  He followed its course ahead and saw that the banks lost themselves in the shadow between towering, almost barren hills, which promised the narrow mouth of a valley beyond.

And as he watched these things, a feeling of uneasiness came over him.  The split between the hills looked so narrow.  He looked for the trail.  It seemed to make straight for the opening.  As the ground flew under him, he turned once more to the river and followed its course with his eyes, and suddenly he was thrilled with his first real feeling of apprehension.  The river on the right, and the hill on the left of him were converging.  Nor could he avoid that meeting-point.

He was borne on by the bolting mare.  There was not the smallest hope of restraining her.  Whatever lay before him, he must face it, and face it with every faculty alert and ready.  His mouth parched, and he licked his lips.  He was facing a danger now that was uncertain, and the uncertainty of it strung him with a nervous apprehension.

Bluff succeeded bluff in rapid succession.  The hill on the left had become a sheer cliff, and the general aspect of the country, that of a tremendous gorge.  The trail rose slightly and wound its tortuous way in such an aggravating manner that it was impossible for him to see what lay before him.

At one point he came to a fork where another trail, less defined, branched away to the right.  For a moment he dreaded lest the mare should adopt the new way.  He knew what lay out there the river.  However, his fears were quickly allayed.  The Lady Jezebel had no intention of leaving the road she was on.

They passed the fork, and he sighed his relief.  But his relief was short-lived.  Without a sign or warning the trail he was on died out, and his course lay over a narrow level flat sparsely dotted with small, stubbly bush.  Now he knew that the mare had been true to herself.  She had passed the real trail by, and was running headlong to

He dared think no more.  He knew the crisis was at hand.  He had reached the narrowest point of the opening between the two hills, and there stretched the river right across his path less than fifty yards ahead.  It took no central course as might have been expected through the gorge.  It met the left-hand cliff diagonally, and, further on, adopted its sheer side for its left bank.  He saw the clearly defined cutting, sharp, precise, before it reached the cliff, and he was riding straight for it!

In that first moment of realization he passed through every sensation of fear; but no time was given him for thought.  Fifty yards!  What was that to the raking stride of his untamed mare?  It would be gone in a few seconds.  Action was the only thing to serve him, and such action as instinct prompted him to was utterly unavailing.  With a mighty heave of his body, and with all the strength of his sinewy arms, he tried to pull the creature on to her haunches.  As well try to stem the tide ahead of him.  She threw up her head until it nearly struck him in the face; she pawed the air with her great front legs; then, as he released her, she rushed forward again with a vicious snort.

His case seemed utterly hopeless.  He sat down tight in the saddle, leaning slightly forward.  He held his reins low, keeping a steady strain upon them.  There was a vague, wild thought in his mind.  He knew the river had narrowed.  Was it a possible jump?  He feared the very worst, but clung desperately to the hope.  He would lift the creature to it when it came, anyhow.  Would she see it?  Would she, freakish brute that she was, realize her own danger, and, for once in her desperate life, do one sensible act?  He did not expect it.  He dared not hope for that.  He only wondered.

He could see the full extent of the chasm now.  And he thrilled as he realized that it was broader than he had supposed.  Worse, the far bank was lower, and a fringe of bush hung at its very edge.  His jaws tightened as he came up.  He could hear the roar of the torrent below, and, to his strained fancy, it seemed to come up from the very bowels of the earth.

A few more strides.  He timed his effort with a judgment inspired by the knowledge that his life depended on it it, and the mare.

The chasm now came at him with a rush.  Suddenly he leaned over and let out a wild “halloo!” in the creature’s ears.  At the same time he lifted her and plunged his spurs hard into her flanks.  The effect was instantaneous, electrical.  Just for an instant it seemed to him that some unseen power had suddenly shot her from under him.  He had a sensation of being left behind, while yet he was rushing through the air with the saddle flying from under him.  Then all seemed still, and he was gliding, the lower part of his body struggling to outstrip the rest of him.  He had an impression of some great depth below him, though he knew he saw nothing, heard nothing.  There came a great jolt.  He lurched on to the animal’s neck, recovered himself, and, the next instant, the old desperate gallop was going on as before.

He looked back and shivered as he saw the gaping rift behind him.  The jump had been terrific, and, as he realized the marvel of the feat, he leaned over and patted the mare’s reeking shoulder.  She had performed an act after her own wild heart.

And Tresler laughed aloud at the thought.  He could afford to laugh now, for he saw the end of his journey coming.  He had landed on the trail he had lost, in all probability the continuation across the river of the branch road he had missed on the other side, and this was heading directly for the hill before him.  More, he could see it winding its way up the hill.  Even the Lady Jezebel, he thought, would find that ascent more than to her liking.

And he was right.  She faced it and breasted it like the lion-hearted animal she was, but the loose sandy surface, and the abruptness of the incline, first brought her to a series of plunges, and finally to her knees and a dead halt.

And Tresler was out of the saddle in an instant, and drew the reins over her head, while she, now quite subdued, struggled to her feet.  She was utterly blown, and her master was little better.  They stood together on that hillside and rested.

Now the man had a full view of the river below, and he realized the jump that the mare had made.  And, further down, he beheld an astonishing sight.  At a point where the course of the river narrowed, a rough bridge of pine-logs had been thrown across it.  He stood for some minutes contemplating the scene and busy with his thoughts, which at last culminated in a question uttered aloud

“Where on earth does it lead to?”

And he turned and surveyed the point, where, higher up, the trail vanished round the hillside above him.  The question voiced a natural curiosity which he promptly proceeded to satisfy.  Linking his arm through the reins, he led the mare up the hill.

It was a laborious climb.  Even free of her burden the horse had difficulty in keeping her feet.  The sandy surface was deep, and poured away at every step like the dry sand on the seashore.  And as they labored up, Tresler’s wonder increased at every step.  Why had such a trail been made, and where where could it lead to?

At length the vanishing-point was reached, and horse and rider rounded the bend.  And immediately the reason was made plain.  But even the reason sank into insignificance before the splendor of the scene which presented itself.

He was standing on a sort of shelf cut out of the hillside.  It was not more than fifty yards long, and some twenty wide, but it stood high over a wide, far-reaching valley, scooped out amongst the great foot-hills which reared their crests about him on every side.  Far as the eye could see was spread out the bright, early summer green of the grass-land hollow.  For the most part the surrounding hills were precipitate, and rose sheer from the bed of the valley, but here and there a friendly landslide had made the place accessible.  Just where he stood, and all along the shelf, the face of the hill formed a precipice, both above and below, and the only approach to it was the way he had come round from the other side of the hill.

And the object, the reason, of that hidden road.  A small hut crushed into the side of the sheer cliff.  A dugout of logs, and thatch, and mud plaster.  A hut with one fronting door, and a parchment window; a hut such as might have belonged to some old-time trapper, who had found it necessary to set his home somewhere secure from the attacks of marauding Indians.

And what a strategic position it was!  One approach to be barred and barricaded; one laborious road which the besieged could sweep with his rifle-fire, and beat back almost any horde of Indians in the country.  He led his horse on toward the hut.  The door was closed, and the parchment of the window hid the interior.

The outside appearance showed good repair.  He examined it critically.  He walked round its three sides, and, as he came to the far side of it, and thoughtfully took in the method of its construction, he suddenly became aware of another example of the old trapper’s cunning.  The cliff that rose sheer up for another two or three hundred feet slightly sloped backward at the extremity of the shelf, and here had been cut a rude sort of staircase in the gray limestone of which it was composed.  There were the steps, dangerous enough, and dizzying to look at, rising up, up, to the summit above.  He ventured to the brink where they began, but instantly drew back.  Below was a sheer drop of perhaps five hundred feet.

Turning his eyes upward, his fancy conjured up a picture of the poor wretch, hunted and besieged by the howling Indians, starving perhaps, creeping at dead of night from the little fort he had held so long and so valiantly against such overwhelming odds, and, in desperation, availing himself of his one and only possible escape.  Step by step, he followed him, in imagination, up the awful cliff, clinging for dear life with fingers worn and lacerated by the grinding stone.  Weary and exhausted, he seemed to see him draw near the top.  Then a slip, one slip of his tired feet, and no hold upon the limestone with his hands would have power to save him.  Down, down

He turned back to the hut with a sick feeling in his stomach.  Securing his mare to an iron ring, which he found driven firmly into one of the logs, he proceeded to investigate further.  The door was held by a common latch, and yielded at once when he raised it.  It opened inward, and he waited after throwing it open.  He had a strange feeling of trespass in thus intruding upon what might prove to be the home of some fur-hunter.

No sound followed the opening of the door.  He waited listening; then at last he stepped forward and announced himself with a sharp “Hello!”

His only answer was the echo of his greeting.  Without more ado he stepped in.  For a moment the sharpness of the contrast of light made it impossible for him to see anything; but presently he became used to the twilight of the interior, and looked about him curiously.  It was his first acquaintance with a dugout, nor was he impressed with the comfort it displayed.  The place was dirty, unkempt, and his dream of the picturesque, old-time trapper died out entirely.  He beheld walls bare of all decoration, simply a rough plastering of mud over the lateral logs; a frowsy cupboard, made out of a huge packing-case, containing odd articles for housekeeping purposes.  There were the fragments of two chairs lying in a heap beside a dismembered table, which stood only by the aid of two legs and the centre post which supported the pitch of the roof.  A rough trestle-bed occupied the far end of the hut, and in shape and make it reminded him of his own bed in the bunkhouse.  But there the resemblance ended, for the palliasse was of brown sacking, and a pair of dull-red blankets were tumbled in a heap upon its foot.  One more blanket of similar hue was lying upon the floor; but this was only a torn fragment that had possibly served as a carpet, or, to judge by other fragments lying about, had been used to patch shirts, or even the well-worn bedclothes.

It was a squalid hovel, and reeked of the earth out of which it was dug.  Beyond the bedding, the red blankets, and the few plates and pots in the packing-case cupboard, there was not a sign of the owner, and Tresler found himself wondering as to what manner of man it was who could have endured such meanness.  It did not occur to him that probably the very trapper he had thought of had left his eyrie in peace and taken his belongings with him, leaving behind him only those things which were worthless.

A few minutes satisfied his curiosity.  Probably his ride, and a natural desire to return to the ranch as quickly as possible, had dulled the keenness of his faculties of observation.  Certain it is that, squalid as the place was, there was an air of recent habitation about it that he missed.  He took it for a deserted shack merely, and gave it no second thought.

He passed out into the daylight with an air of relief; he had seen quite enough.  The Lady Jezebel welcomed him with an agitated snort; she too seemed anxious to get away.  He led her down the shelving trail again.  The descent was as laborious as the ascent had been, and much more dangerous.  But it was accomplished at last, and at the foot of the hill he mounted the now docile animal, who cantered off as amiably as though she had never done anything wrong in her life.

And as he rode away his thoughts reverted to the incidents of that morning; he went again over the scenes in which he had taken part, the scenes he had witnessed.  He thought of his brief battle with Jake, of Diane and Joe, of his interview with Fyles.  All these things were of such vital import to him that he had no thought for anything else; even the log bridge spanning the river could not draw from him any kind of interest.  Had his mind been less occupied, he might have paused to ask himself a question about the things he had just seen.  He might even have wondered how the logs of that dugout had been hauled to the shelf on which it stood.  Certain it was that they must have been carried there, for there was not a single tree upon the hillside, only a low bush.  And the bridge; surely it was the work of many hands.  And why was it there on a disused trail?

But he had no thought for such questions just then.  He bustled the mare and hurried on.