Read CHAPTER XXX - ON THE SPAWN CITY TRAIL of The Twins of Suffering Creek , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

Wild Bill’s lean hands clawed the reins with muscles of steel.  For the moment his six horses occupied his every thought.  They were pulling with the madness of high-bred racehorses.  The trail lay before them, their master sat behind.  What more could they want, but that liberty to stretch their willing bodies?

Down the hill and along the wood-lined trail that ran parallel to the sluggish creek they raced.  The dust rose under their feet, and the wheels of the cart left a fog behind them.  It rose in swirling clouds as though to shut off all retreat.  Presently the road narrowed to a mere track, and the dark woods closed in.  But there was no slackening under the hand of the gambler.  Nor had the horses any desire to slacken their headlong rush.  The woods broke and gave to a low bush, and in a moment the track opened upon Scipio’s claim.

Now, for the first time since the start as they swept across it, Bill permitted his gaze to wander from his charges.  He looked away at the mouth of the tunnel Sandy had spent so much labor and such bitter cursing in the process of constructing; and a half-smile flitted across his hard face as he beheld the oozy debris, the idle tools, the winch and buckets.  The sight seemed to afford him amusement.  There was a softening, too, in his hard face.  Maybe it was the result of his amusement.  Maybe it was due to some thought of the little man with whom he was partners.  But he seemed to freeze up again as the claim passed, and the horses floundered over the heavy trail beside the black, oily swamp beyond.  It was bad driving here, and he steadied the racing creatures down with voice and hand.

“Easy, Gipsy.  Easy you, Pete.  Now Maisie.  So!  Steady, boys.  Easy!”

The harsh voice was hushed and gentle.  He was speaking to creatures that were not merely horses to him, but something nearer, perhaps even dearer.

And the well-trained creatures responded at once, slowing to an easy trot, a pace which they kept until the ford of the creek was reached.  Here they dropped to a walk as they splashed their way through the turgid stream.  But the moment the wheels of the cart topped the opposite bank, they once more resumed their headlong gait.

At once the gambler sat up.  He straightened his lean body as a man who opens his lungs to breathe in deep draughts of fresh, bracing air.  His narrow eyes stared out aside of him and beyond.  His nostrils expanded, and his thin lips were tightly shut.

The camp was behind him.  The trail, a hard, wide sand trail, lay ahead.  The wide, wild world was about him on every hand, reminding him of days long gone by, reminding him that to-day his instincts were still the same.  The same fiery, militant spirit that had driven him from one end of his country to the other still left him yearning for the ruthless battle of wild places and wilder men.  The long months of inactivity, the long days of peace, the longer nights of his gambler’s craft, were for the moment gone.  He was setting out, as in the old days, surrounded by all in life he cared for, offering a challenge to all the world, ready to grapple with whatsoever the gods of war might choose to thrust in his way.

The man’s spirits rose.  The swift-flashing eyes brightened.  His body felt to be bursting with a ravishing joy of life.  His purpose was his own.  The joy was his alone.  He had found excuse for satisfying his own greedy lust, a lust for battle which no overwhelming odds could diminish.  He was a savage.  He knew it; he gloried in it.  Peace to him was a wearisome burden of which at all times he was ready to rid himself.  So he was born.  So he had always lived.  So, he knew, he would die.

The trail rose with the upland.  It rose with that gradation which so wears down the ardor of almost any horse.  But the creatures Wild Bill was driving were made of unusual mettle.  Their courage was the courage of the man behind them.  And only when his courage failed him would their spirit falter.  They swept up the long stretch as though the effort were a pastime.  With ears pricked forward, nostrils gushing, their veins standing out like whipcord through their satin coats, they moved as though every stride were an expression of the joy of living.  And the man’s steel muscles were held at tension to keep their gait within the bounds of reason.

As they neared the hill-top he turned and glanced back over his shoulder.  There lay the camp nestling on the far side of the creek.  There stood Minky’s store, lording it over its lesser fellows with the arrogance of successful commerce.  He could see a small patch of figures standing about its veranda, and he knew that many eyes were watching for a final sight of him at the moment when he should vanish over the hill.

They were friendly eyes, too, he knew.  They were the eyes of men who wished him well.  But he doubted if those good wishes were for his own sake.  He knew he was not a man whom men loved.  And he smiled grimly as he glanced down at the chest of gold in the body of the cart.

In a moment his eyes were looking out ahead again, and all thought of those he was leaving behind left his mind.

The hill-top passed, the horses swung down into a deep, long valley.  It was in this valley, some six or seven miles farther on, he had encountered Scipio in Minky’s buckboard.  He thought of that meeting now, and remembered many things; and as recollection stirred his teeth shut tight till his jaw muscles stood out like walnuts through his lean cheeks.  He had promised Scipio that day.  Well, his mind was easier than his feelings.  He was confident.  But he was stirred to a nervous desire to be doing.

Nothing escaped his watchful eyes.  Every tree, every bush, every rise and hollow passed under his closest scrutiny.  But this was simply his way, a way that had long since been forced into a habit.  He did not anticipate any developments yet.  The battle-cry was yet to be sounded.  He knew the men he was likely to deal with better than any other class.  He knew their ways, their subtleties.  Who should know them better?  Had not years of his life been spent ?

He laughed aloud, but his laughter rang without mirth.  And his horses, taking the sound to be a command, broke suddenly into a gallop.  It was the sympathy between man and beast asserting itself.  They, too, possessed that nervous desire to be doing.  Something of the significance of the journey was theirs, and their nerves were braced with the temper of fine steel.

He steadied them down with the patience of a devoted father for a pack of boisterous children.  No harsh words disturbed their sensitive ears.  The certainty of their obedience made it unnecessary to exert any display of violence.  They promptly fell again into their racing trot, and the cart once more ran smoothly over the hard beaten trail.

The higher reaches of the creek cut into the valley from the right, and the trail deviated to a rise of sandy ground.  He had reached the point of his meeting with Scipio.  Nor did he slacken his pace over the dust-laden patch.  It was passed in a choking cloud, and in a moment the rise was topped and a wild, broken country spread out before him.

Five miles farther on he halted beside a small mountain stream and breathed his horses.

But his halt was of the briefest.  He simply let the horses stand in their harness.  It was not time to feed, but he removed their bits and let them nip up the bunches of sweet grass about their feet.  And as he did so he paused a moment at the head of each animal, muttering words of encouragement, and administering caresses with a hand which bore in its touch an affection that no words of his could have conveyed.

Then he went back to the cart and made a few simple dispositions.  One was to securely lash the gold-chest in its place; but its place he changed to the front of the cart.  Another was to leave the lid of the foot-box, built against the dashboard, wide open, and to so secure it that it could not close again.  Another was to adjust the lowered hood of the cart in a certain way that it was raised head-high as he sat in his driving-seat.

Then, with a grim satisfaction in his small eyes as he glanced over his simple preparations, he jumped to the ground and replaced the bits in his horses’ mouths.  In two minutes he was again rushing over the trail, but this time through a world of crag and forest as primitive and rugged as was his own savage soul.

So the journey went on, over mountainous hills, and deep down into valleys as dark as only mountain forests of spruce and pine could make them.  Over a broken road that set the light cart perilously bumping, speeding along the edges of precipices, with little more than inches to spare, at a pace that might well set the nerves jangling with every jolt.  Later a halt for feed and water, and on again, the willing horses taking their rest only as the difficulties of the trail reduced their pace to a laborious walk.

The man sat alert through it all.  There was no question in his mind.  He knew what lay ahead of him somewhere in those vast depths.  He knew that what he looked for was coming just as surely as the Day of Doom.  He did not ask when or where.  That was not his way.  It might come when it chose, for his part.  He was ready and even yearning for the moment of its coming.

So his eyes never rested for a moment.  Scarce a glance or thought did he give to his horses.  Theirs it was to keep to the trail.  Theirs it was to keep their pace.  His was all other responsibility.

The sun was leaning towards the western crags, where, in the distance, they raised their snow-crowned heads towards the heavens.  The ruddy daylight was deepening to that warmth of color which belongs to day’s old age.  The forest shadows appeared to deepen, those dark forests so far below him in the valleys.  Here, where he was racing along at a high level, all was bright, the air was joyous.  Below him lay the brooding stillness where lurked a hundred unknown dangers.  There were only about fifteen more miles of this broken solitude, and beyond that stretched a world of waving, gracious grassland right on to the prairie city whither he was bound.

He stirred; his roving eyes abruptly concentrated.  One distant spot on the rugged landscape held him.  He craned forward.  The movement caused him to ease his hand upon the reins.  Instantly the horses sprang into a gallop.  So intent was he that for the moment the change passed unnoticed.  He seemed only to have eyes and thought for that distant hill-top.  Then of a sudden he realized the dangerous breakneck speed, and turned his attention upon his team.

The animals once more reduced to a sober pace, he turned again to the spot which held his interest; and his eyes grew bright with a smile that had nothing pleasant in it.  He was grinning with a savage joy more fierce, more threatening, than the cruellest frown.  The next time he bestirred himself it was to swing his gun-holsters more handy to the front of his body.

Later on his interest seemed to lessen.  No longer was there that watchfulness in his eyes.  Perhaps it was he deemed there was no longer the necessity for it.  Perhaps what he had seen had satisfied his restless searching.  Anyway, he now sat contemplating the shining backs of his horses as they sped down the hill, and his eyes were friendly as he watched the rolls of muscle writhing under their satin coats.

But when next he looked up his moment of gentleness had passed.  His easier moods were never of long duration.  One swift glance again at the distant hill, and then he turned from it and sat gazing at the dank, oozy prospect of the low-lying flat he was just entering with no sort of friendliness.  The sharp hoofs of his team were flinging mud in every direction, and the rattle of the wheels had deadened to a thick sucking as they sank into the black mud.  It was a heavy pull, but the speed was not checked.  It only needed an extra effort, and this the willing team readily applied.  He knew the spot well; and he knew that beyond lay the hill, the crest of which had so held his attention a few minutes before.

His thoughts traveled no farther than that hill.  For the time at least there was nothing beyond.  Later it would be for him to consider that.  Just ahead of him lay the chances and changes which went to make up such a life as his.  This he knew.  And somehow the thought stimulated his pulses to a fuller appreciation of things.

In a few moments he was nearing the far boundary of the flat, and the ascent of the hill was about to commence.  He smiled.  Yes, it was well calculated.  The hill would have to be taken at a walk.  It was by far the steepest of the journey.  He remembered, too, that the crest of it was reached by a final climb that became almost precipitous.  He remembered, too, that the black woods that crowded its sides at the crest gave place to the skeleton trunks left by some long-forgotten forest fire.  Yes, it was the one spot on the whole journey best calculated for what was to come.

The team no longer labored in the ooze.  The ascent was begun.  With heads held high, with ears pricked and nostrils distended they faced the big effort unflinchingly.

And the driver’s mind was calculating many things.  It was moving with the swiftness of an able general’s in the midst of a big action.  He glanced at the sky.  Already the sun was hidden behind the western hills.  Already the shadows were lengthening and the gray of evening was falling.  The profound woods, dense and ghostly, had closed in.  The trail was so narrow that the dreary, weeping foliage often swept the sides of the cart.  But these things did not occur to him.  His mind was ahead, amongst those aged skeletons left by the raging fire-fiend.

Progress was slow.  It was almost too slow for the man’s eager nerves.  He wanted to reach his goal.  His lean body thrilled with a profound joy.  He lusted for the battle which he knew to lie ahead of him.  But, even so, he gave no outward sign.  His face was set and harsh.  His small eyes bored through the gloom, thrusting to penetrate beyond every bend in the winding road.  Nothing escaped them.  Each small fur that fled in terror at his approach was carefully noted, for they told him things he wanted to know.

Now the final steep was reached.  It was truly precipitous.  The sharp hoofs of the team clawed their way up.  Such was the struggle that even the man found himself leaning forward, instinctively desiring to help the laboring animals.  The bends in the trail were sudden and at brief intervals.  It was as though those responsible for the original clearing of the road had realized the impossibility of a direct ascent, and had chosen the zigzag path as the only means of surmounting the hill.

The moments passed.  Bend followed bend.  The man in the cart found himself mechanically counting them.  Two more.  One more.  The summit was almost reached.  And beyond?  He sighed.  Maybe it was the sigh of a man whose nerves are relieved from their tension, knowing that beyond this last bend lay his goal.  Maybe it was inspired by sympathy for his struggling horses.  Anyway, his whole manner underwent a change.  The watchfulness seemed to have gone from his eyes, his muscles to have relaxed.  He leant back in his seat like a man full of weariness, and securely fastened his reins to an iron rail on the side of the cart.

He was at the bend now.  The leaders were abreast of it.  They were past it.  He

There was a sharp rattle of firearms, and half-a-dozen bullets swept pinging their way over his head.  A hoarse voice shouted a command to halt.  His horses plunged forward.  But, quick as lightning, his hands flew to the reins, and he drew them up to a standstill in the open.

“Hands up!” shouted the same voice; and a horseman appeared on each side of the team.

Then came an exhibition of the gambler as he was, as in the old days he had always been known.  It was all done in the fraction of a second.  Simultaneously his two guns leapt from his holsters and two shots rang out.  There was an ominous echo from the woods.  One horseman reeled in his saddle, and the horse of the other man stumbled and finally fell.

The next moment the man in the cart was crouching down, all but the crown of his head and his gleaming eyes well sheltered by the loose-hanging canvas hood.

“I’m ’most allus ready to put my hands up!” he snarled.  “Come on!”