Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Midnight
Author: Montgomery, Rutherford G. (Rutherford George)
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Midnight" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



THE AUTHOR


Rutherford Montgomery would rather write than do anything else in the
world. Most of his books are about animals and the wilderness he knows
so well. As a boy, Mr. Montgomery would listen to the tales told by
hunters, and his favorite sport then and now is going into the woodland
and sitting quietly on a log, observing the children of the wild. He is
a watcher, not a hunter.

Mr. Montgomery was born in North Dakota, and taught school for
ten years in Wyoming and Colorado after graduating from Colorado
Agricultural College. He saw service in the United States Flying Corps
in World War I. Later, he was a county judge in Colorado and held state
offices there. He now lives in Los Gatos, California.

    *    *    *

Other Books by Rutherford Montgomery

    Broken Fang[A]
    Gray Wolf[A]
    White Mountaineer
    McGonigle’s Lake
    Yellow Eyes[A]
    Kildee House
    Big Brownie
    Ghost Town Adventure[A]

    [A] _Available from Scholastic Book Services_



MIDNIGHT

    RUTHERFORD MONTGOMERY

    =SBS= SCHOLASTIC BOOK SERVICES
    New York  Toronto  London  Auckland  Sydney



    To Earl Hammock
    who knows the value of
    the lonesome places


This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not be resold,
lent, or otherwise circulated in any binding or cover other than that
in which it is published--unless prior written permission has been
obtained from the publisher--and without a similar condition, including
this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Copyright 1940 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Illustrations
copyright 1949 by Pocket Books, Inc. This edition is published by
Scholastic Book Services, a division of Scholastic Magazines, Inc., by
arrangement with Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

    8th Printing      November 1969

    Printed in the U.S.A.



CONTENTS


    CHAPTER                             PAGE

     1. Pals                               1

     2. Wild Horse                        10

     3. Horse Thief                       20

     4. Desert Winter                     25

     5. Wild-Horse Drive                  36

     6. Midnight                          45

     7. The Way of the High Country       62

     8. The Strong Survive                75

     9. Prisoner                          87

    10. Escape                            94

    11. New Trails                       108

    12. Doom of the Band                 120

    13. Tex Takes the Trail              140

    14. Beside the Castle Rocks          147

    15. Home to Stay                     151



[Illustration: Midnight tried to whirl but the ledge was too narrow.]



1. Pals


Sam was meditating. Tipped back in a chair made of river alder and
willow, he leaned against the log wall of his cabin. His shoeless feet
were swathed in wrinkled socks of the kind that come to a point at the
toe where a tuft of thread keeps the cotton yarn from unraveling. Sam’s
blue shirt was faded from too many washings in the creek below the
cabin. The only unfaded portions of the shirt were hidden by his wide,
yellow suspenders.

Sam’s tired, blue eyes stared out over his “stompin’ ground,” which
was a high mesa overlooking the blue depths of Shadow Canyon. Across
the mesa meandered a chain of castle rocks. This outcropping was red
and yellow in color. It stood on edge, silent evidence of the upheaval
which had formed the Crazy Kill Mountains millions of years before.
Sam’s toothless gums clamped down on the stem of his cold pipe. Keeping
the pipe right side up was the heaviest work Sam planned for that
morning.

Out in a lush meadow which crowded like a green carpet around the
castle rocks there was plenty of healthy contrast to the lazy
inactivity that filled Sam. He let his eyes wander fondly over the
scene. Up near the base of the biggest castle five fat yellowbelly
whistlers romped about among the rocks. A sixth sat like a round ball
of silver fur, perched on the top of a high rock. The old rockchuck on
guard was as relaxed and lazy as Sam, except for his beady eyes. Those
eyes saw everything that moved, as far away as the spruce woods which
bordered the upper side of the mesa.

Sam studied the yellowbelly whistlers with a spark of interest in
his faded eyes. They were yellowish animals with long, silvery hairs
covering their brown coats, giving them a shining appearance when they
romped in the sun. They had dark-brown heads and tails, and a whitish
band across their faces. They rolled through the grass and over the
rocks, front end up, hind end up, rocking along on their stubby legs.

Many smaller fellows courted the protection of the yellowbellies,
making good use of the sharp eyes of the sentinel whistler perched high
on his lookout. A dozen rockchips dodged about in the grass while as
many more sat on little rocks and stared away toward the snow-capped
peaks of the Crazy Kill Range. These potbellied little brownies of the
high country were well content with the crumbs from the great one’s
table. The keen eyes and the ready blast of warning from the high rock
removed their chief worries. The sentinel whistler was sure to announce
the arrival of the swift-hawk, the laughing coyote, the martens, or the
bobcat. There were many other enemies of the air and the forest and the
whistler watched for and spotted all of them.

Then there was the calico chip, a two-striped ground squirrel whose
vast energy always made Sam feel tired. The calico chips dashed about
with an energy which had undoubtedly been intended for some much larger
animal, but must have been misplaced when Mother Nature laid out the
blueprints of creation. The calico chips were always too busy chasing
bugs or gathering and storing seeds to pause for meditation. They
left foolish gawking into space to the potbellied rockchips. But their
little ears were always tuned to catch the warning blast of the big
whistler.

There was a sprinkling of lesser chipmunks, a dozen or more. Sam noted
with satisfaction that their number was increasing. He had brought
two pairs in with him several summers before. They were active, noisy
little fellows, dashing about, hoisting their tails like flags when
they came to a halt. Every so often one of them would dash to a rock
and jump on top of it. He would sit very straight and burst into song.

“Chock! Chock! Chock!” in quick succession, like the rattle of an old
alarm clock. Sometimes the song would be pitched higher and would go
“Check, check, check, chir-r-r-up!” No sooner had one chipmunk mounted
his song perch than all the others would dart to theirs, always the
same perches. The meadow would ring with their chorus.

Their round of music never failed to disturb the fat sentinel whistler.
He would shake his silver robe, stretch his neck, then blast three
short, sharp notes on his whistle, after which he would settle back
with a deep chuckle.

Sam’s pipe always rolled to the corner of his mouth and turned upside
down when the chorus began. One fumbling hand would pull out his
ancient, silver watch and he would fix his gaze fiercely on the second
hand. From the chorus he would select one voice and count the “chocks”
while he timed the singer. One hundred and seventy “chocks” per minute
was the best time he had ever recorded. The poorest, seventy per
minute, was made by a fellow whose little round belly hinted that he
might have a bit of rockchip blood in him.

From far down the meadow, where a clear stream foamed over ragged
rocks, came the eager whinny of a horse. Sam’s eyes lighted, and he
shoved the big, silver watch into his pocket. Up the meadow galloped a
trim black mare. Her mane flowed in the wind as she shook her head, and
kicked her heels recklessly.

“Purty, right purty,” Sam muttered as he took his pipe out of his mouth.

The trim mare slowed to a trot as she neared the cabin. With a toss
of her head and a playful leap to one side, she trotted up to Sam and
extended her soft muzzle, nickering eagerly.

“Mornin’, Lady Ebony,” Sam said affectionately. “Think mebby ol’ Sam’s
got a lump o’ sugar?”

Lady Ebony pawed and nickered.

Sam dug a hand into his pants pocket and brought out two dingy lumps of
sugar. He dusted off a grain or two of tobacco and a little chaff, then
held one of them out.

“Jest a bite, ol’ gal,” he said.

Lady Ebony picked the sugar from between his thumb and finger with a
dainty movement of her lips. She crunched the lump eagerly, and when it
was gone she pricked her ears forward and pawed.

Sam grinned widely. “Dang me, if you can’t count,” he said.

The other lump of sugar was extended and Lady Ebony took it. Sam let
the forelegs of the chair down and got to his feet stiffly. He patted
the glistening neck of the mare and talked softly to her. Lady Ebony
accepted the caresses. Sam sat down again and the mare nosed around the
cabin door a while before trotting out into the meadow where she set to
feeding on the tall grass.

The yellowbelly on the lookout perch paid no attention to the mare. The
calico chips and the chipmunks went on chasing bugs and hunting seeds.
They knew the black mare was a friend and that her enemies were their
enemies, the cougar and the gray wolf.

Sam sucked on his pipe. His eyes followed Lady Ebony. Ever since she
was a wobbly colt she had summered in this high pasture. She carried
the brand of Major Howard, an Easterner who had come west to raise
cattle and horses. He had many horses on the range and paid little
attention to any but his purebreds which he kept at the ranch in the
valley. But Sam knew a fine horse. He had owned many slim, tough
saddlers like the black mare. He was too old and stiff to ride but he
wanted to own the black mare, just to have her as a pal. He had babied
her and petted her until she was devoted to him.

Sam looked into the cold bowl of his pipe. He wanted to smoke, but
his tobacco was inside the cabin. It was a terrible nuisance the way
he forgot things like that. His eyes shifted to the fat sentinel on
the rock. The yellowbelly was sitting up very straight. Suddenly he
shook himself and whistled shrilly. Instantly the calico chips, the
rockchips, and the chipmunks vanished into the grass. The feeding
whistlers romped to their holes at the base of the biggest castle rock.

“Tarnation!” Sam muttered angrily. He reached back inside his door, and
dragged out an ancient single-barreled shotgun. Laying the gun across
his knees he squinted up into the sky.

“Thet durn hawk’s been askin’ fer it,” he muttered.

But the danger signal did not herald an air raid. Sam heard the
thudding of ironshod hoofs. He did not bother to turn around. A
horseman galloped up to his door and halted. The rider bent down and
greeted Sam.

“Morning, Sam.”

“Mornin’, major,” Sam answered. A slow grin parted his straggling beard.

Major Howard’s gray eyes roved over the meadow, and came to rest on
the black mare. The major was an energetic, hot-tempered person who
rode hard and drove hard bargains. The easy way of the western mountain
people irritated him. He respected Sam’s squatter rights to the mesa
and the old cabin because he had more grass than he needed.

“I was wonderin’, major,” Sam began slowly, “if you wouldn’t sell me
that black mare. I’d kind of like to have her. Got a feeling like she’s
a pal, havin’ her here so much.”

The major laughed and his gray eyes moved back to Sam’s face. “That
mare is purebred racing stock, Sam. I never paid much attention to her
until I saw her on the run the other day. She’s fast, the fastest thing
I have loose on the range. This fall she’ll clean up the cow-pony races
at the state fair.” The major chuckled.

“Me and the filly has hit it off right nice. I thought mebby you’d sell
her,” Sam said gently.

The major looked down at Sam and his eyes twinkled. “Tell you what,
Sam,” he said jokingly. “I never had anything I wouldn’t sell if I got
my price. I’ll sell you that black filly for five hundred dollars.” He
bent forward until the saddle horn creased his ample waistline. “But I
get to race her at the fair.”

Sam grunted. “Reckon I may take you up,” he said slowly.

The major kept his face straight. He was sure Sam didn’t have ten
dollars to his name. The old prospector always managed to scratch
together enough dust to buy a few groceries, but never had more than
that. He nodded his head. This would be a good joke to tell the boys
at the ranch. His eyes dropped to the ancient shotgun, and to keep
from laughing he asked abruptly:

“What have you been shooting?”

“Got her charged with rock salt an’ bird shot,” Sam explained
seriously. “Makes an ol’ gray wolf hit it lickety-split. And one of
them swift-hawks shore claws air fit to shake out his tail feathers
when I tech him up.” He grinned widely.

The major nodded. “Glad you keep that gun handy. It will keep wolves
and cougars away from the mare.” He recalled stories the old hands
on the ranch told about Sam’s youthful prowess with a carbine and a
forty-five Colt. He supposed the old prospector’s eyes were so bad he
had to use a scatter-gun.

“Got a shank o’ venison on the stove. Cold, but makes right nice
chawin’,” Sam said hospitably, but he didn’t move.

“Thanks, but I’ll have to be hitting the trail. I want to ride down
along the west drift fence today.” The major clicked his tongue, and
touched the flanks of his spirited horse with his spurs. He galloped
away over the meadow.

Sam sat looking out across the waving grass. Five hundred dollars. And
he hadn’t missed the amusement which greeted his offer to buy the mare.
Sam was irritated. He wanted the filly more than ever now. He smiled
and mumbled to himself.

“The major’s goin’ to be plumb surprised when I dish out that five
hundred.”

He got stiffly to his feet and moved into the cabin. Setting the old
gun just inside the door he took a muslin sack from the table and
filled his pipe. Then he absent-mindedly laid the sack back where it
had been. He shuffled about the room looking at the objects he had
hung on the walls, a worn horseshoe, a belt with a holster containing
a forty-five Colt of the frontier model, several bright pictures cut
from calendars. Finally he remembered he hadn’t lighted his pipe. He
shuffled to where a packing box was nailed to the wall back of the
stove and got several matches from a rusty tomato can. After lighting
the pipe he puffed contentedly.

That day Sam stirred around more than usual. He made up a pack of food
and small articles which he wrapped in a blanket roll. The pack was set
beside the door. The job took up most of the afternoon.

The next morning Sam was up early. Lady Ebony came galloping across the
meadow for her morning ration of lump sugar. As he gave it to her he
talked in a low, confidential voice to the mare.

“I don’t reckon nobody but you and me knows that ol’ Sam’s got him
a claim back under the rim.” He chuckled. “Reckon, Lady, it’ll take
ol’ Sam ’bout three weeks to pan out five hundred in yaller dust.” He
patted her sleek, black neck. “You jest stay around here an’ wait in
this medder where there’s good grass. The ol’ yallerbelly’ll keep an
eye out for wolves and cougars.”

The mare watched as he shouldered his pack and trudged slowly up the
slope. She did not follow him, but she nickered several times. At the
edge of the spruce Sam turned around and waved his arm.

Lady Ebony arched her neck and trotted out into the meadow. The fat
whistler on the high rock chuckled and his beady eyes twinkled brightly
as he watched her. The sun wheeled higher, warming the grass, drinking
up the dew. The black mare wandered down the meadow. She came to a halt
near a sharp ledge which broke off into Shadow Canyon. From the blue
depths rose the roar of Crazy River. Lady Ebony stirred uneasily. A
feeling of deep unrest filled her, an urge to run far, to seek other
horses. After a time she wandered back into the meadow and began
feeding, but she jerked up her head often, listening, staring into the
twilight of the spruce.

A few yards from where the black mare fed, a little hill lifted
semibarren, yellow clay. It stood in sharp contrast to the lushness of
the green meadow. On this round knob a prairie-dog town was located.
The main section of the village was a busy scene, with dogs moving,
bellies close to the ground, in quick sprints from one grass patch
to another or romping through the meadow grass. Sam had brought
several pairs of dogs to the mesa. He liked the busy little fellows
and had been lonesome until he had a town started. The dogs posted
sentinels but they could not see far. The dog sentinels depended on the
yellowbelly. They listened for his blasting whistle of warning.

One of the sentinels sat on a mound. His short tail jerked, but no
other part of him moved. Suddenly the air was split by the warning
whistle of the big sentinel on the high rock. The dog sentinels
repeated the warning in a wild chorus of “skr-skrr’s.” Dogs raced in
from the meadow. They paused for a moment to sit upright on their
mounds, then they went down their slides to the tunnels below the
ground. Out from the ground came their defiant voices, “squit-tuck!
squit-tuck!”

A lank coyote stepped out of a clump of rose brier close to the spruce
woods. He stood gazing disgustedly over the meadow, his green eyes
watching the yellowbellies as they romped to their dens at the base
of the castle rocks. The whistlers had warned the dogs and ground
squirrels of his presence. He ran at a lope across the meadow. Lady
Ebony snorted and shook her head as he passed. Her eyes followed the
glinting sun on his fur. When he had vanished down the trail which led
into Shadow Canyon she returned to her feeding.



2. Wild Horse


High up under the snow rims, where the grass was short but rich with
moss and lichens, lay a little lake. Its upper shore line was formed
by a barren rockslide which tumbled down from the naked cliffs above
timber line, its lower edge was fringed with spruce and balsam. Below
the lake nestled a little meadow. On this meadow fed a band of twenty
horses.

At the head of this band of wild horses ran a chestnut stallion, a
heavy-chested, thick-legged fellow with a splashed white star in his
forehead. His protruding eyes were set wide apart and his heavy jaws
and massive neck showed his battling qualities, while his wide chest
and thick barrel indicated great strength.

The chestnut stud moved restlessly as he fed, jerking up his head,
listening, testing the air with flaring nostrils. The mares with their
colts close beside them cropped the short grass, content to let him
keep a wary watch for danger.

And there was danger ahead on every trail. There was the lank cougar
whose desire for colt flesh was greater than any urge in his tawny body
except the hot flames that fired him when the mating call floated up
through the twilight under the high spruce. There was the wolf pack,
not so dangerous in summer but always ready to kill. The chestnut
stallion knew that at this season the old lobos would be running with
their sons and daughters in bachelor packs. They were training their
young to kill and would attack any colt or mare that strayed far from
the band. There was the bear gone killer, the brute who had deserted
his vegetable diet and turned killer. He was not a common enemy, but
one that was terrible in savage lust for slaughter. Lastly, there was
the most dreaded enemy of all, man.

The chestnut had learned that man was the most ruthless and dangerous
of the killers. He walked upright and his eyes were in front of his
head, not at the side as in animals who do not kill but are pursued by
the killers. The ranchers did not like wild horses because they ate the
range grass and often crossed with the ranch mares, who then brought
forth scrubby, worthless colts, mean and useless as saddle stock. The
chestnut stallion stole mares from the range when he could coax or
drive them from their pastures. With savage daring he led his band into
the tall-grass range in the summer. If the cowboys with their rifles
hunted him too persistently he faded away to a distant range down in
the desert. In this he was like the lobo wolf. When poison and traps
and guns become too evident an old lobo shifts his range.

The chestnut stallion had begun to feel that it was time for him to
lead his band out of the Crazy Kill country. He was being steadily
hunted. Rifles spat in the misty dawn, riders swooped down on the mares
when they came out into the open to feed. Major Howard had given orders
to kill or run the wild band off his range. He wanted no crossing of
his good stock. At first he had played with the idea of having the
chestnut stud brought in alive, but his riders could not trap or outrun
the big fellow in the rough, broken country. There were too many
avenues of escape, too many canyons and tangled mats of down timber. So
the major gave the order to shoot the big stud and to exterminate his
band.

The steady drives and constant ambushes had thinned the ranks of the
band from thirty to twenty mares. The big stallion was ready to leave
the tall-grass country. He jerked up his head and snorted shrilly, then
he circled the herd at a fast trot. When he had gone once around it he
halted and stood listening, rigid, his head up, his mane flowing in the
wind. He heard a rock rattle from a trail above; then he saw a man. The
man was on foot and he was toiling upward, a pack strapped on his back.
He did not seem to be interested in the band of wild horses, but the
wind carried a strong man smell to the meadow. The scent was rank with
the odor of an old pipe.

The chestnut stallion laid back his ears and bared his teeth. With a
shrill warning he lunged at the rump of the nearest mare. She whinnied
with fright as she galloped away. The stallion drove the other mares
into a thundering stampede. They charged across the meadow and into the
timber, the colts bounding along at their mothers’ sides.

As soon as they were in deep cover the chestnut took the lead. He
headed up a steep trail and did not stop until the band had reached a
saddle in the snow range. Here he halted to let the mares and colts
blow. The colts shouldered against their mothers, their pink noses and
lips reaching under sweat-streaked flanks in search of milk. Their
curly tails bobbed and jerked as they drank. The mares looked up at the
snow peaks out of big, calm eyes. They were used to the sudden frenzied
retreats of the big stallion, but they never became as excited as he,
except when rifles spat and men raced shouting upon them.

After the rest spell the chestnut led the band down along a wooded
ridge. He kept to deep cover so that an enemy posted on a peak or bare
rim could not see the moving mares and colts. Toward midafternoon he
halted the band in a little meadow to feed. The mares and colts began
pulling the long grass eagerly. They were aware that the rest period
might be short, and wanted to get their bellies filled as quickly as
possible. They were right. The big stallion allowed time for but half a
meal. He did not want them heavy and sleepy from overfeeding.

They moved down the mountain toward the deep, blue slash which was
Shadow Canyon. The chestnut halted at the edge of a wide meadow. His
protruding eyes had sighted a little cabin at the upper end of the
meadow. He was about to lead his band back into the spruce when he
saw a black mare standing with head up and ears pricked forward. He
heard the blast of a whistler sounding a general alarm, and his ears
flattened. The whistlers always annoyed him. He liked to move through
the woods unnoticed and unheralded. But he remained at the edge of the
timber watching the black mare, his nostrils twitching eagerly.

No one came out of the cabin. The stallion pawed and whinnied low. His
call was answered by the black mare. There was eagerness in her whinny.
The chestnut cast caution aside. Here was a sleek and slender mare he
could add to his band. He trotted out into the meadow, neck arched, red
mane floating in the wind.

Lady Ebony stood for a moment looking at the chestnut stallion, then
she arched her neck and kicked her heels high. With a toss of her head
she trotted toward him. They met in the center of the meadow with
the mares watching out of calm, uninterested eyes. The mares fell to
feeding while the colts bucked and bounced.

For a moment the noses of the two horses met, then the black mare
whirled and lashed out at the stallion with her trim hoofs. He dodged
and whinnied shrilly. Lady Ebony broke and ran down the meadow with
the stallion thundering after her. He laid back his ears and charged
with all his speed, but the flying black mare was faster. She pulled
easily away from him and the sight of her slim body slipping away made
the big stallion scream savagely. Never before had a mare been able to
outrun him, to slip away from him with ease.

Seeing that she was leaving the big fellow behind, Lady Ebony whirled
and halted, her front feet on a little hummock of grass. She waited
until he was almost upon her, then she dodged past him and raced toward
the mares. Again she outran him easily.

The chestnut was filled with a wild desire to drive this fleet mare
into his band and lead her away. He swerved and charged. She dodged
and leaped past him. Lady Ebony was not trying to escape, she was
giving play to the pulsing life within her. The coming of the chestnut
stallion was something she had expected. She had been restless and
nervous; now that restlessness was gone and she was filled with surging
energy.

The chestnut raced around the meadow again, trying to overtake Lady
Ebony. He finally halted and stood with heaving sides. There was a
savage light in his protruding eyes. Lady Ebony trotted toward him
and stood nickering softly. She wanted to run some more. But the big
stallion knew he was beaten. He was aware that he had made a great deal
of noise, and noise was likely to bring riders with rifles. He turned
and began driving his band off the meadow.

As they trotted toward the narrow trail leading down into Shadow
Canyon, Lady Ebony tossed her head and trotted after the band. The big
stallion lunged at her with bared teeth. She humped her back and jigged
up and down, warning him that if he nipped her she would lash out at
him. He reached out to snap at her flanks and was met by two small
hoofs which smashed against his wide chest. With a snort he leaped
aside. He did not lunge at her again. She was much to his liking, a
fighter and a swift runner.

Lady Ebony fell in with the mares and the band moved down into the
deep, green twilight of the canyon. They kept going until they reached
the bottom. There they paused, crowding to the edge of the river,
thrusting their muzzles into the cold water foaming over the rocky bed.

When the horses had drunk their fill they moved on down the canyon.
Several miles of fast moving brought them to a high wall of red cliffs.
Here Crazy River turned east and the canyon deepened. The chestnut sent
the band up a trail which switchbacked and looped up out of the depths.
With bared teeth and smashing hoofs he shoved the band up the trail and
onto a mesa. Out on flat ground he let them rest. He was heading toward
the desert where they would be free of attack from armed riders.

The mares fed on the bunch grass which carpeted the mesa. They kept
well together and jerked up their heads, whinnying to their colts when
the little ones strayed. There was danger in each adventurous trip the
colts made, for they had not yet learned to watch and to listen. This
broken country was the natural home of the cougar. It was also the den
area for the gray wolves. When the colts trotted too far, their mothers
followed and herded them back.

Above the mesa towered the snow peaks of the Crazy Kill Range. The
snowbanks were not so close as they had been that morning, but seen
through the high, thin air they seemed to be brooding no more than a
short canter above the tableland. To the south, seen through a forest
of trees and leaves much lighter green than the spruce, lay the desert,
flat, eroded, purple in the evening light. The meadow was bordered
on the lower side by an aspen grove. When the wind came up out of the
canyon, the aspens seemed to shudder. A cross made of aspen wood had
once been lifted on Calvary, so the preachers and the circuit rider
said; possibly the aspens remembered. They quaked and their round
leaves rattled and rustled like a million tiny cymbals. Below the aspen
belt lay the scrub oaks, stunted trees with twigs as tough and hard as
iron.

The chestnut stallion felt safer here on the edge of the wild, high
country. A short run would take his band into the scrub oaks where no
rider could follow without dismounting.

The sun dipped downward and hung on the blue rim of the western
horizon. It looked like a huge ball of red fire. Slowly it settled
from sight. Then shafts of red and gold light radiated upward, filling
the sky and the air with a bloody haze. The wind died down and silence
settled over the aspen grove. For a short space the world was aflame,
then the sunset cooled and steel-blue dusk crept up out of the big
canyon. The round moon, which had been dimmed to faint paleness by the
sunset, flooded the mesa with soft light.

The chestnut moved close to Lady Ebony. He nickered low. She tossed her
head, and they were off on a wild gallop around the meadow. They ran
through the moonlight, disregarding rocks and gopher holes, leaping
over sage clumps and patches of buckbrush, their manes and tails
billowing in the wind, their rushing bodies surging with power. They
circled the meadow twice. Lady Ebony easily keeping ahead of the big
stallion.

After the second round, the black mare swerved and raced to a high,
jutting point. Here she halted and the chestnut charged up beside her.
He pawed and shook his head, then reared on his hind legs and his
powerful forefeet curved under him. When his forefeet settled to the
ground, Lady Ebony moved closer to him, her shoulder pressing against
his muscled chest. The chestnut nickered proudly.

From an aspen stand below the feeding mares leaped five shadowy gray
forms. They ran with long leaps, their black muzzles lifting and
falling with an even, graceful flow of motion. Red tongues lolled over
white fangs and yellow eyes flamed in the moonlight. From shaggy chests
came eager yelps. The chestnut blasted a shrill warning to the mares,
but the wolves did not swerve to attack the colts. They raced across
the mesa, running for the pure joy of giving play to their stringy
muscles.

At the lower edge of the meadow they startled an old doe who had come
out of the aspens to feed. One of the gray killers turned in along the
edge of the woods, the others fanned out and their eager yelps changed
to a chorus of savage howls. The old lobo at their head had sounded the
cry of the kill.

The startled mule deer doubled her slim legs under her and bounded. She
landed many yards down the slope, and bounded again. Her white rump
patch flashed in the silvery light as she fled. Three of the wolves
raced after her while two turned right and leaped away around the hill.
The doe reached the edge of the mesa and bounded down the steep slope
at a pace which rapidly outdistanced her pursuers. When they were out
of sight she swerved and ran around the hill. She intended to return to
her feed ground by doubling back, a trick used by both mule deer and
big rabbits. She broke out on the mesa a little below where she had
been feeding when the killers startled her. Behind her she could hear
the faint yelping of the three following lobos. She suddenly planted
her feet and tried to pivot so she could plunge back down the hill. Two
savage, grinning killers had appeared, one a little above her and one
a little below. They were cutting in on her as fast as they could leap
over the brush and rocks.

The doe whirled back down the slope, but before she had taken three
jumps she was met by the three killers who had stayed on her trail.
They were fanned out, running well apart. She slid to a halt and turned
to run around the hill, but she was too late. The killers swarmed over
her, the two attacking wolves leaping in at almost the same instant.
She went down bleating and kicking.

In a few minutes the night was filled with the snarling and growling of
the feeding pack. Up on the ledge Lady Ebony crowded closer to the big
stallion. He snorted defiantly and rubbed his head against hers.

That night the wild horses stayed on the mesa. The next day Lady Ebony
loped down into the desert, one of the wild band, a willing member of
the chestnut stallion’s harem. They traveled at an easy lope which
their tough bodies could hold for many hours. They halted in little
meadows to feed and sought streams and water holes when they were
thirsty.

As they moved into the canyon-slotted, eroded world of the desert they
left the clear streams behind, and had to depend upon the knowledge of
the chestnut stallion or one of the old mares for the location of pools
and springs. The grass was shorter, curly buffalo and gamma, growing in
clumps that defied shifting sand and hot wind.

The world changed quickly. The spruce, the aspens, and even the scrub
oak vanished and in its place there was juniper--dry, defiant of the
heat, sending its roots deep into the yellow earth, down cracks in the
sand rock. The canyons were walled with red and yellow sandstone. The
washes were bedded deep with sand instead of water, and the wind made
the sand creep along, piling it into the dunes on the mesas, knifing it
out in drifts from the ledges of rimrock. The days were hot and dry,
but the nights were cool to the point of chillness.

From sentinel buttes or rims they sometimes sighted copper-skinned
Navajos riding always at a gallop, on lean, bony ponies. The Navajos
were always hurrying, though they had no place to go and all eternity
to get there in. Once Lady Ebony sighted a summer hogan with two Navajo
women and four children sitting in the shade of a canopy of dry leaves
and cottonwood branches. The women were patiently slipping colored
thread across a loom, back and forth, back and forth, one thread above
another. Below the hogan a sad-looking band of sheep and goats cropped
at the short grass.

The chestnut stallion snorted angrily when he smelled the grass where
the sheep had been. He did not like sheep taint. He led the band far
from the pasture lands of that Navajo family.



3. Horse Thief


Sam’s claim was not a gold strike or a bonanza. It was a pocket, very
definite, and certainly limited in the amount of gravel and black sand
which carried much fine and some coarse gold. Sam knew its extent and
its possibilities. He had kept its location a careful secret. It was
not legally staked, for in staking it he would have brought a swarm of
gold seekers to the ridge, and he wanted this country to himself. He
would take out enough to buy the black mare plus enough to buy supplies
for the winter. When he finished there would still be gold left, a sort
of bank account to be hoarded against the coming seasons.

For three weeks Sam shoveled and panned. At last he had enough yellow
dust in his buck-hide pouch. He carefully buried his shovel, pick, and
pan under a pile of rocks, covered his workings, and faced down the
ridge.

As he trudged slowly through the fields of columbine and mountain
lupine, he smiled softly to himself. The major would be completely
flabbergasted. Sam laughed aloud, startling a cocky jay. The gaily
dressed fellow fluffed his feathers and his purple crest bristled. He
burst into a volley of angry chattering as he hopped about in a young
balsam tree.

“Got a right to ha-ha,” Sam said aloud. “The ol’ glory hole come
through with five hunnert an’ some extra fer grub. Left me a bit fer
seed, too.” He continued to chuckle as he tramped along.

He trudged on until he could see his mesa through the red trunks of
the spruce. Breaking out at the edge of the meadow he halted and
stood looking over the familiar scene. Every detail was so familiar
to him that he seemed to be entering a room where he had lived a long
time. The old yellowbelly whistler sounded a blasting warning and
plunged from his high perch. Ground squirrels romped to their dens.
On the semibarren little hill the dogs began scolding, “squit-tuck!
squit-tuck!” Sam grinned.

“Yuh ol’ fool, don’t yuh go makin’ me out no enemy,” he said aloud.

His eyes moved eagerly up and down the meadow, then he whistled a few
high notes. There was no answering pound of hoofs. The black mare must
be at the far end of the mesa.

“Must be off cattin’ around,” he mumbled as he shuffled to his cabin
door.

Before Sam entered the cabin the old whistler discovered his mistake.
He sounded an all-clear whistle and the meadow came to life. Sam
dropped down on his old chair to watch the busy scene. After a time
he got to his feet and pulled the latch thong. The door swung inward
protestingly. Everything was as he had left it, except that a wandering
cowboy had stopped and made himself a pot of tea and fried a snack of
bacon. Sam knew, because the skillet was carefully washed and polished
and the cracked teapot was washed and turned upside down on the table.

Sam shuffled about the cabin peering at the familiar things within its
walls. He finally built a fire. He was hungry for oven biscuits and
stove-cooked coffee.

He was poking the pine-knot fire to high heat when a voice from the
open door made him turn. His faded eyes lighted up eagerly as he saw
Major Howard standing there. The major had a grim set to his eyes and
his mustache bristled angrily.

“Come on out, Sam,” he said gruffly.

“Howdy, major,” Sam said. He began to chuckle. Might as well spring
the big surprise right away. Then he saw that there were two men with
the major, men wearing nickel-plated stars on the flaps of their wool
shirts. He blinked his eyes.

“Howdy, sheriff,” he said. He barely knew Sheriff Miller, had met him
only a couple of times.

“Now, Sam,” the major broke in harshly, “come clean. What did you do
with that Lady Ebony horse?”

“Me?” Sam stared at the major.

“Yes!” the major snapped. “You took an awful fancy to that filly,
wanted to buy her. You’ve been away a long spell. I brought the sheriff
up here, so you better talk and talk fast.” The major’s face was
beginning to redden as his anger rose.

Sam looked from one man to the other, slowly, his gaze searching their
faces. Yes, they were in earnest. A horse thief? Bony fingers pulled
at his straggling beard. This wasn’t the way men did, it wasn’t square
shooting. He did not pause to consider that Major Howard was not a born
western mountainman. He stared defiantly.

“So yuh came up here to make me out a hoss thief?”

The sheriff stepped forward and spoke gruffly to the major. “I’m not
here, Howard, to help you badger this old coot. You swore out a warrant
for his arrest. I’m here to serve it.” He turned to Sam. “Get whatever
you want to take along. This warrant calls for your arrest--charge is
stealing one black mare.”

Sam blinked and his eyes shifted to the sheriff’s face. In all his
life the law had never laid a hand on him. He had had some experiences
of his own with horse thieves. When he caught a man with the goods he
handled the affair himself. And claim jumpers were met and dealt with
according to a man’s rights. He rubbed his bony fingers together. He
could explain, he could even take the sheriff to his hidden claim, he
could produce the pouch of dust. But it wasn’t the right of any man to
ask where he had been or what he had been doing. Besides, the claim
wasn’t staked and if fools who didn’t know pockets and glory holes
saw that ground there’d be a rush and the whole ridge would be turned
upside down. His eyes glinted brightly as he turned toward his door.

He backed past the table and one hand lifted to the belt hanging from
its willow peg. His gnarled fingers closed around the familiar butt of
his forty-five Colt. The gun slid down and snuggled against his hip.
Then he shuffled toward the door.

“Get! Get--afore I blast yuh!” he whispered hoarsely as he stepped into
the sunshine.

The deputy saw the gun first. He came to life with a jerk and his hand
shot down to his own gun. Sam shot from the hip. His aim wasn’t steady;
the black muzzle wavered a little because Sam’s old eyes couldn’t see
clearly. Black-powder smoke billowed in a blue-white cloud, filling the
doorway. Through the smoke Sam saw the deputy double over, then pitch
forward. He was swinging his gun around to bring it down on the major
when the sheriff’s boot shot upward and sent it spinning from his hand.
The officer’s voice out through the smoke.

“Now you got something to answer for, you old coot!”

He stepped forward and a heavy hand dropped upon Sam’s shoulder. He was
jerked forward and in less than a minute his wrists were handcuffed
together. He stood silently watching the sheriff and the major plug
the deputy’s wound. The man was weak and sick, but he was alive.

The major straightened and glared at Sam. He had never intended to have
the old fellow jailed, he merely wanted to scare him into revealing
what he had done with the black mare. Sam’s reaction irritated and
puzzled him. Now the old fool could take whatever the law handed him;
the major made up his mind to that.

Sheriff Miller had a different slant on the affair. He was a
mountainman himself. All his life he had dealt with cowhands and
miners. He recognized that Sam was acting as most of them would act
under the same conditions. He blamed himself because he had thought Sam
too old to have any fire left.

“I’m not too proud of this job,” he said sourly to the major.

“You’d better do your duty,” the major snapped.

The sheriff nodded his head. He turned to Sam.

“Now get what you want. We’re going. I’ll go into the cabin with you
just to make sure you don’t try anything else.”

“I don’t reckon I need anything,” Sam answered.



4. Desert Winter


Life for the wild horses in the desert was a never-ending battle for
food, for protection, and for the chance to slip through the gray
dawn to a water hole where eager muzzles could be thrust into murky,
yellow water. The chestnut stallion was a hard but wise leader. He
knew that man controlled the best of the grazing lands, that mounted
riders patrolled the foothills and the deep valleys back against the
mountains. He had only savage disdain for the geldings and mares who
submitted to man’s saddle and steel bit. No patriot ever cherished his
freedom more than the chestnut stallion.

In the desert there were Indian hunters to be watched for. The Navajo
people were not like the whites in their way of life. They were
wandering nomads, following their herds, never making a home in any
permanent spot. In summer they built branch-covered shelters. In the
winter they crowded into log and mud hogans. They were children of
the wild, untamed desert, as cunning as the gray lobo. The Navajo had
strange customs. Among them the women owned the sheep, the goats, the
hogan and the children. The men owned the horses, and the hunting
weapons, along with the turquoise jewelry they wore. Horses to a Navajo
were the same as gold to a white man, they were his measure of wealth
and standing. So the Navajo men stalked the wild bands, capturing colts
and mares to add to their wealth.

The Navajos knew every water hole in the desert. Like the tawny cougar
and the savage lobo, they knew the wild bands must drink, that sooner
or later they must slip down to the water hole. So they stalked them
near the water holes and swarmed after them, riding in relays, keeping
the band moving, keeping them from drinking or resting.

The chestnut stud considered all these things in his own way and met
the problems with sharp wits, keen eyes, and keener sense of smell,
keeping a constant, alert watch for enemies. He kept his band in the
broken country where mesas dropped away in sheer, steep slopes to the
depths of the sand washes. From the top of such a mesa the band could
easily thunder down into a canyon at a moment’s warning.

Lady Ebony accepted the hard life. She liked the sudden, wild charges,
the long runs under the white stars, the savage freedom which was so
costly. When the chestnut stallion sounded the alarm she always led
the rushing charge, flying ahead of the reaching, pounding hoofs of
the mares and colts, slowing her speed to allow them to overtake her.
The band foraged for grass at dawn or in the first grayness of dusk,
coming out of a canyon to spread over the mesatop. Then as she pulled
the scant grass she remembered the high mountain mesa where the grass
grew knee-deep and cold, crystal streams rushed over gleaming rocks.
She remembered the red and the yellow and the purple flowers, the solid
masses of blue lupine, the flaming orange of acres of daisies.

This silent, terrible land was in such sharp contrast to the mountain
country that the chestnut’s desire for it seemed foolish to her. Fear
of man grew but slowly within her. Man had always been her friend and
protector. Sam with his lumps of sugar and his petting, Tex riding up
in the fall with the rest of the major’s boys to take her down to the
winter pastures. The savage anger of the big stallion when he smelled
man scent, the mad charge down the rocky slopes, these were confusing
to her, but she accepted them and began to snort and shake her head
when the scent came to her.

The desert was a mass of broken mesas, eroded hills, and deep-gutted
canyons. There were many rivers, but no water. The eyes of the band
could see far, but the scene was the same always. And yet this vast
world was filled with a silence that was calm and restful. The desert
was a canvas of shifting, changing color. Under the white-hot glare
of the day the reds and yellows flamed. At dawn and at sunset it was
purple and mauve and steel blue. And always to the north stood the
shining mountains, etched blue against the sky, with the white snow
line gleaming like a crown above the deep blue of the forests. Lady
Ebony often stood and stared through the haze at the ragged outline of
the Crazy Kill Range.

Summer slipped past, and fall rains woke the short grass to life, a
brief and hurried growth before the cold and the snow came. The wild
ones cropped avidly, pulling the tender shoots from their crowns,
tasting them eagerly before swallowing them. The chestnut stallion
kept the band moving south, down off the higher benches to the deeper
canyons where blizzards would not rage so fiercely.

Indian summer slipped away and the purple mists lifted from the
cathedral rocks and the spires of the ship rocks. The air cleared and
the mornings were cold, with white frost covering the ground. The colts
frisked and bucked and raced in little circles until the sun warmed
their shaggy coats. Even the mares became spirited when the white
frost was on them. Lady Ebony slipped into the slower, less wild way
of the mares. She did not run except when the band took alarm, but she
still ran at the head of the thundering herd.

One day a wind came down out of the north. It carried fine snowflakes
which swirled along the ground and curled upward on the lee side of
rocks. Toward night the storm thickened until it became a driving
blizzard riding a shrieking wind. The horses turned their tails to
the lash of the storm and drifted slowly south, led by one of the old
mares. That night they bunched close together in a deep canyon. They
crowded under a projecting lip of sandstone where the wind and the snow
did not strike them. Fine white particles sifted down, covering their
shaggy coats and making them look like white horses as they stood with
their heads down waiting for the blizzard to blow itself out.

The shelter they had found had been formed centuries before by the
action of wind and water on the layers of rock forming the crust of
the desert. The upper layer was hard and did not weather away as fast
as the lower layers. Thus a great, projecting roof was formed with a
ceiling that sloped back under the cliff. A thousand years earlier,
brown men had passed that way. They had halted in the bed of the canyon
and looked up at the great cave. They had held a council and decided to
build a city under the rim.

Those brown cliff dwellers had built houses of hewn stone, room upon
room, like apartments. Their masonry still stood, back under the rim.
The ceremonial kivas built under the ground in circular form with laced
log roofs had caved in but the tiers of houses stood against the cliff,
their open windows staring into the canyon. The brown men had vanished,
down into the canyon, south toward the plains, and west toward the
great ocean, but their homes remained.

The wild horses saw the houses piled story upon story, the staring
windows and the heaps of broken pottery decorated with strange designs.
They were not afraid of the dead houses because the man smell had long
since vanished, carried away by the wind and the heat, toward the south
and the west.

At night an old lobo wolf halted his bachelor pack on a high rim above
the ancient city. The wind lashed and tore at the gray bodies as though
trying to tear them from the rocky cliff. The old lobo bared his fangs
and lifted his muzzle. He sounded a savage paean of howls and high,
dismal calls and his sons joined in the chorus. Their howls rang down
the wind curling along the face of the cliff to where the wild horses
stood. The mares jerked up their heads, and the big chestnut snorted
savagely. But the howls of the pack had none of the savage cry of the
kill. The gray ones were defying the storm, daring it to sweep them
from their lofty crag. They were answering an age-old urge to challenge
the elements, to dare them to do their worst. After a while the old
lobo led his sons in a wild chase down the ridge. They leaped along,
riding the fierce wind, snapping and snarling eagerly.

For two days the wild band remained under the rim; then the blizzard
broke and the sun struggled through the gray clouds to shine feebly
into the canyon. The mares moved out and began pawing among the tumbled
rocks, digging for grass. They scooped the new snow and swallowed it
to wet their throats. Above them, against the turquoise sky, a pair
of buzzards wheeled and circled, their round, hard eyes peering down
hungrily, watching the horses, eager to see if any showed signs of
weakness. The undertakers of the air would follow the band daily,
hoping the cold and the scant feed would bring death to some of the
band.

The chestnut stallion met the rigors of winter with the same disdain
he held for hunters. The colts were watched more closely because the
snow and the cold had driven the natural food of the cougar and the
wolves to cover. Many of the little dwellers were curled up in deep,
warm burrows sleeping. Most of the birds had flown south. But the big
killers did not sleep. Winter was a time when hunger and famine stalked
their world, when they ran for days with lean, gaunt bellies driving
them on. The hunger which cramped their stomachs made them savage and
daring, it sharpened their cunning, and made their raids more deadly.

One evening a hungry colt strayed from the band, seeking a spot where
the snow was not so deep. His mother was busy pawing through a drift
where she had located a clump of bushes with tender twigs in abundance.
The colt wandered up to a stand of juniper which stood sprawled against
the snow. He dug down experimentally, found no curly buffalo grass and
moved on, farther up the slope, closer to the green trees.

He was pawing into a drift when he heard a savage snarling. He jerked
up his head and snorted, his round eyes staring with fright. Out of the
juniper woods leaped four gray wolves. Their broad chests rose above
the snow, spraying it aside in fine spurts. Their red tongues rolled
between their bared fangs. The pack was lean and gaunt, but they did
not sound the cry of the kill, they ran silently, emitting low snarls.

The colt whirled and floundered toward the mares. The chestnut stallion
was the first to see the wolves. With a squeal of rage he charged
toward them. The colt plunged along but he had wandered far from the
band. Behind him the killers rapidly closed in. Their white fangs
slashed the muscles and tendons of his straining legs, hamstringing
him. He went down plunging and kicking, and the gray killers leaped
upon him ripping and tearing.

At the sound of the chestnut’s shrill warning the mares jerked up their
heads and charged to the rescue of the struggling colt. Lady Ebony
leaped ahead close beside the big stallion. For a moment the wolves
stood their ground, then they faded back, snarling and howling, to
circle around the band. The mares milled and stamped around the colt
while his mother nosed him and whinnied eagerly. He kicked a little,
then lay still.

In the sky above the buzzards shortened their circles and dropped.
Their long wait had been rewarded. The mares kept a close guard around
the carcass of the colt for a long time. The wolves sat on the snow and
stared out of flaming yellow eyes, waiting with slaver-flecked jaws,
sure they would feast in due time. They looked up at the buzzards now
sweeping low above the snow and growled defiantly.

The frantic mother kept nosing her colt, trying to get him to his feet
so that she could lead him away from the blood smell and the wolf
taint. The chestnut charged the wolves many times. They leaped away
before his lashing hoofs, darting behind him, jumping at his legs and
heels. And the buzzards settled down on the snow to wait.

The mares guarded the dead colt for over an hour, then they moved
away leaving the mother alone. She remained standing over the twisted
carcass, whinnying nervously. Then the killers leaped in and circled
around her, darting toward her, two behind and two in front. She lashed
at them, pivoted, kicked wildly, her pounding hoofs striking nothing.
The chestnut stallion came to her rescue and drove the wolves away,
then he drove her down the slope to where the band was feeding. She
went slowly, halting to stand with her head up and nicker softly. The
wolves leaped on the carcass and began devouring it while the buzzards
walked over the snow, halting with their necks stretched out, their
hard eyes glittering. They must wait for their share, which would be
the gnawed bones.

And so the battle against the snow and the cold went on through the
long winter. Another colt was lost to the gray killers, and an old
mare went lame. She dropped behind in spite of the savage nipping and
crowding of the big stallion. That night she bedded down alone in a
little canyon and a gaunt cougar came upon her in the gray dawn. Her
end came swiftly, without a struggle.

Then spring came with rushing torrents, slush in the arroyos, and
slick, yellow mud on the hillsides. Streams boiled out of the dry
canyons thick with raw clay and sand. This was the season when nature
carved deeply into the face of the desert. Only the sand washes and the
dunes on the flats resisted the water. The sand ate it up and packed
hard so that it did not cling and drag when the band galloped over it.

With the speed of a miracle the desert bloomed. The sage flats flared
white with the blossoms of the primrose and the mariposa lily.
Countless other stunted plants put forth flowers, eager to create and
ripen seed before the heat and drought of summer came. And the grass
shot out of the ground, rich and sweet. The band cropped and moved on,
ever searching for taller grass.

The mares were lean and gaunt, their ribs pushing ridges up under
their shedding coats. The chestnut stallion was lean, too, but in a
hard-muscled way. Lady Ebony had lost much of her fire and love for
frolic. The sun was warm and the air soft but she needed rest. She
looked away toward the white slopes of the Crazy Kill Range. Spring
would not reach the high mesa for another month, but she was restless.
She would have headed away into the foothills but the big stallion kept
close watch over his band.

One day a horseman rode out on a rim. He sat on his bony horse and
looked down on the wild band feeding on a bench. For a long time he sat
there looking intently before he rode away. Yellow Man smiled as he
galloped toward his hogan. There were many good colts in the band and
one black mare. The black mare was a horse such as he had never seen
before, the sort of mount he had always dreamed about. He would tell
the other men about the band, but the black mare was to be his because
he had been the first to see her.

He rode to his hogan and picketed his pony. Walking to the glowing fire
which flickered inside the door he stooped and held out his hands. Four
men sat along one wall while a half dozen brown-faced women sat on the
other side. On the men’s side of the hogan lay riding things, bridles
and blankets, a saddle. On the women’s side were the cooking pots and
the blankets. Yellow Man sat down. For a long time he said nothing. His
black eyes were on the fire.

Finally Yellow Man lifted his eyes to the face of an old man beside him.

“I have seen many good horses,” he said.

The old man grunted softly while the others bent forward.

“There is a black mare who will have a colt this spring,” Yellow Man
said.

They all nodded. The black mare was to belong to Yellow Man, that was
understood. Now they waited for him to go on.

“Tomorrow we will run the band. There will be horses for all. The big
one who leads may have to be shot. I will take the rifle. The big one
is strong and will fight.” Yellow Man’s eyes returned to the fire.

The others nodded and began eagerly planning the drive. Through the
long winter they had kept busy with sings and chants, meeting with
other families in religious dances and ceremonies. This would be the
first hunt of the season.

       *       *       *       *       *

To the north, behind the high gray walls of the state prison Sam knew
when spring came. Through a high, barred window he could see a square
of sunlight on the stone wall. Across the upper corner of the square
drooped the branches of a cottonwood tree. Sam watched the buds swell
and burst into pale-green leaves.

The warden and the guards shook their heads when they walked past his
cell. Eight years. The old fellow would be lucky to finish two of them.
He refused to work outside, he hated even to exercise in the closed-in
yard. He wanted to be left alone, to sit and stare out the little
window. But Sam did not share their belief that he would never leave
the gray walls. He was sure he would return to the high mesa. He wasn’t
going to die cooped up in a gloomy cell; when he died it would be out
in the open with his boots on, under a mountain sky.

He did not brood over his trial. His attorney had been irritated to the
point of anger when Sam refused to tell where he had been and what he
was doing during the three weeks of absence from his cabin. That was
his business; he’d need his cache when he got out. Nobody was going
to find out about it. His stubbornness had convinced the jury of his
guilt. Sam had paid the attorney well though the judge had offered to
let the state pay the fee. He didn’t think much about those things, he
just sat and stared at the cottonwood branch.

Tex, Major Howard’s foreman, had talked to him. Tex understood better
than any of the others, but Sam wasn’t trusting anybody. He had learned
from years of battling for gold that the yellow metal was poison to
friendship and trust. Tex was a right fine feller, but there was no
call to push him too far.



5. Wild Horse Drive


The snow had vanished and the desert was dry and thirsty again. Dust
spurted up around the hoofs of the wild horses as they loped down a
long ridge. The east was beginning to show a pale flush of red and day
came quickly to the barren country, lighting the tall spires and castle
rocks and the sharp points of the pinnacles, making the monument valley
below appear alive.

The chestnut stallion swung along behind the mares. At their head ran
an old roan. She was trailwise and wary. Her nose was leading her
unerringly to a big water hole at the base of a cliff. The others
pounded along behind her with the colts frisking beside their mothers.
The chestnut halted every little while to whirl and sniff the morning
air. He held his head high and his protruding eyes rolled as he stared
back over the broken country they had left behind.

The roan trotted off the ridge and down through a jumble of rocks to
the base of a cliff. The horses nickered softly as they smelled water.
The roan’s muzzle was a scant foot from the yellow surface of the
pool when wild yells shattered the morning calm. The band whirled and
stood with heads up, staring toward a rocky slope. Above them the big
chestnut screamed a warning and an order to charge away.

Down the slope toward the water hole galloped four riders. Their naked
bodies gleamed copper-red in the new sunlight as they bent low over the
necks of their lean ponies. With squeals of fright the band whirled
and charged down the canyon. A cloud of yellow dust billowed at their
heels. The chestnut stallion crashed down on their flanks with bared
teeth and pounding hoofs. When a mare lagged he drove her squealing
into the band. The mad charge carried the wild horses away from the
four pursuing Navajos, but the trailers did not give up the chase.

Back of the dust cloud Yellow Man rode beside his three sons. Their
faces were expressionless; only their black eyes showed the eager
excitement that filled them. They did not try to make their gaunt
ponies overtake the thundering band but were content to keep a steady
pace. The trail left by the wild horses was broad and easy to follow.

Lady Ebony ran ahead of the band, keeping well out in front without
effort. She was not badly frightened and the wild panic of the other
horses had not gripped her. But she raced along just the same, enjoying
the surging flight which gave full play to her powerful muscles. The
big chestnut charged in and turned the band up the ridge. As they swept
over the top of the rocky hill they saw the Indians galloping along the
canyon bed below.

Yellow Man shifted his seat on the bare back of his pinto. His black
eyes were following the flight of the black mare, and there was a
fierce eagerness in them. The chestnut leader was doing just what he
wanted him to do. The big fellow was swinging his band into a wide
circle, a curve which would carry them back into the country they had
just left.

The band thundered down off the ridge and headed up a sand wash.
The drag of the sand and the uphill going slowed them but they kept
pounding along, the stallion saw to that. He stayed behind and used his
teeth savagely on the rumps of the laggards.

Yellow Man and his sons galloped up the ridge and dropped into the sand
wash. A thin smile parted the lips of the tall hunter as he noticed how
fagged his horse was. They were chasing no ordinary wild scrub ponies.
The chestnut stallion had trained his band well and kept them in fine
condition. They had run the legs right out from under the Navajo
ponies. He urged his pinto up the sand wash as fast as the little beast
could travel.

The chestnut saw the riders coming and noticed that they were working
their way to the side as though aiming to come up alongside. He
suspected a trick though he was disdainful of the slow-running ponies
coming up from below. He changed his course a little to the north.
Now the pursuers would have to travel much farther than his band to
overtake them. The Navajo riders swung north too, and kept following
close to the dust cloud.

The chase thus took a circular course with the chestnut keeping the
mares moving as fast as the colts could follow. But now the horses’
sides were heaving, sweat was streaking their flanks and caking
in lather-matted ridges above the hair. The big stallion snorted
triumphantly as they topped a ridge. They had run away from their
pursuers. The Indians were plodding along far behind. He allowed the
mares to slow their pace to a lope while he galloped to right and then
to left, looking down into washes and canyons for a hiding place.

Suddenly the mares heard yells from their right. They saw five
red-bronze riders charging down on them from a cover of junipers.
Mounted on fresh horses, these braves came swiftly from their ambush.
The chestnut stallion rushed on his band and sent them racing down
into a canyon. The retreat led over a ledge and down a rocky hill. The
slope was steep and covered with loose stones, but the sure-footed
horses took the broken ground at a mad rush. One of the mares slipped
and went down, rolling over and over, until she was stopped by a big
boulder. She struggled to her feet and staggered around the hill. Her
colt bounded after her nickering wildly.

The charge of the hunters carried them close on the heels of the flying
band. When the mare went down, two of the hunters swerved and followed
her. The chestnut let her go and gave his attention to speeding the
rest of the band. In a few seconds the speed of the wild horses carried
them ahead of the Navajos’ lean ponies. But the three hunters following
the mares kept yelling and galloping.

The two hunters who had swerved to follow the crippled mare and her
colt soon overtook them. They paid no attention to the mare but charged
down on the colt. One of them swung a rope. The loop sailed out and
dropped over the straining neck of the little fellow. The colt fought
and kicked, but the Navajo boy knew how to handle a fighter. He kept
his rope tight, almost to the choking point, and let the little horse
wear himself out. In a short time he had mastered the colt and was
heading toward camp with him. His companion galloped away to overtake
the band.

The chestnut stallion could not understand the attack of the Navajos.
They did not start shooting when they got in close and they did not try
to rope any of the mares. They just kept riding on the heels of his
fast-tiring band, yelling and waving their arms. They were not like the
wolf or the cougar, they did not strike when they got close, but they
never left the heels of the herd. The big stallion shifted his course
and again they began moving in a wide circle.

This time the chestnut widened the circle, cutting back into the steep
hill country, turning up crooked washes, crossing ridges, and doubling
back occasionally. The Navajos stayed on the trail, keeping as close
to the band as they could, cutting across when they sighted the mares
doubling on their course. And now they were hanging close on the heels
of the wild ones. Twice the chestnut stallion whirled and faced the
hunters as though about to challenge them to a fight. The braves slid
their hands down to where their guns hung about their naked waists.
They did not wish to kill the big stallion unless he charged their
ponies, nor did they care to try taming him. They wanted the black mare
and the colts.

The chestnut did not charge his tormentors. Fear of man and man’s
far-killing gun sent him back to biting and shoving the mares into
faster flight. He could not use the tactics which always succeeded
against the wolf or the bear.

Topping another ridge, he headed his band into a deep canyon. He knew
they were almost winded from running uphill. The steep slope would help
them to recover. One of the Navajos shouted:

“He is doubling back! Head him!”

The Indians sent their ponies charging recklessly down the dangerous
slope, leaping over boulders and water-gutted ditches. But the band
would not be headed. Going downhill had eased them and given them new
life. They plunged along with sides heaving and nostrils flaring. Lady
Ebony led them, keeping her pace down to their speed.

One of the hunters headed his pony up out of the canyon. He halted on
a jutting rock and sat looking down over the desert. His black eyes
watched the fine spirals of yellow dust rising from the canyon and
he nodded his head. The scattered groups of hunters would be able to
locate the new direction the band had taken.

The sharp eyes of three hunters hiding in a juniper grove on the rim
of the canyon saw the spirals of dust rising from the dry watercourse
above. They slipped across and waited.

The chestnut began to breathe easier. Once again the band had
outdistanced their pursuers and no raiders could be seen. But he was
nervous and determined to keep the mares moving until they were deep in
the rough, canyon-slotted country to the south. The weary horses slowed
their pace to a trot. They were suffering for water and their hard
muscles were crying for rest. They were used to sudden, wild charges
when they would race at top speed for a while, but they were not used
to a steady grind, hour after hour.

Several of the mares began weaving away from the herd, sniffing for
water, looking for a spot where they could halt and rest. Suddenly the
yells they had come to dread broke the silence and echoed along the
canyon walls. Three riders came charging toward them from below. The
chestnut screamed a warning. For a moment he hesitated. There was an
enemy pack behind them, and now one faced them. With a snort and a toss
of his head he sent the band up the far slope out of the canyon. The
hunters raced whooping and yelling after the mares.

Escape from the canyon did not bring freedom from the worrying red
riders. The desert seemed full of them. After every run, when the big
stallion thought he had slipped away from his pursuers, a new and fresh
band would charge from cover on the jaded mares. In desperation the big
horse headed down a deep canyon. The mares could not travel uphill any
more. They could not move fast but the hunters did not seem anxious
to close in and strike. They kept on the heels of the wild ones. Now
there were a dozen of them and they kept up a savage yelling as they
stayed close to the band.

Up ahead Lady Ebony began to tire. She was not driven by frantic
fear and she was eager to stop and rest. At first she had enjoyed
the flight, but now she was thirsty and her sides were heaving. She
galloped ahead, leaving the band behind. As she raced along she saw a
side canyon. Its floor was solid rock, worn smooth by wind and water.
She slipped into the narrow opening and halted behind a shoulder of
rock. She lowered her head and stood blowing hard. She had left no
tracks on the rocky floor.

The wild horses galloped past the mouth of the side canyon. A great
cloud of dust rolled up after them. Lady Ebony heard the Navajos go
whooping past. She stood listening until the pounding of hoofs and the
yelling died away. Shaking her head, she trotted up the narrow canyon.
She craved water and she wanted to be alone, to lie down and rest. She
headed north because to the north lay the tall-grass meadows with clear
streams bubbling across them. She moved along steadily, keeping to the
bottom of the canyon where she was hidden from sight of any black-eyed
hunter who might be sitting on a rim high above.

A black rain cloud billowed up above the rims to the north. It rolled
down across the desert on the wings of a driving wind which raised
clouds of dust and sand. At dusk it swept over the canyon where Lady
Ebony was marching along steadily north. It drenched her and gave her
needed drinking water, then it moved on down to where the chestnut was
making his last stand.

In the canyon the big stallion had settled down to the grim job of
lashing his mares into movement. They were not able to go fast but he
kept them pounding along, just ahead of the yelling hunters. Their
gaunt bellies were drawn and their dry nostrils flared red inside
their dust-caked rims. The Navajos were shouting to one another, their
spirits high. They were sure of their catch now and eager to close in
as soon as the mares quit.

Then the dusk of evening came and with it the downpour of rain. Nowhere
in the world outside the tropics can so much water fall in so short a
time as in the desert. The storm was bad luck for the hunters, but it
spelled escape for the wild horses. It blotted out everything, bringing
sudden, inky night. Its rushing, swirling waters wiped out the tracks
of the horses. The chestnut stallion played wise. He took a side
canyon, forcing his charges out on a rocky ridge. From that canyon they
crossed another ridge and turned north. The big stallion was headed out
of the desert.

The hunters spread out and worked up and down the canyon but the
darkness and rain defeated them. They finally gave up and turned their
ponies toward their camp.

All that night Lady Ebony kept moving. The storm passed and the moon
came out with stars beyond it, stars that hung low over the barren
country, brilliant with red and blue lights winking outside white
centers.

A pair of gray wolves flashed past like shadows. They leaped along,
side by side, shoulder to shoulder. One was a big, broad-chested fellow
with a wide muzzle and frost-cropped ears. The other was a slim gray
one with slender legs and body. They paid no attention to Lady Ebony.
They were not hunting, they were running, answering the call of spring,
heading for a trysting place on a barren ridge.

Lady Ebony heard them holding their spring concert on a high knoll.
They howled and snarled and yelped. There was much yearning, much that
sounded like deep laughter in their song, and there was tenderness in
the notes of the slim gray one. In their mating time they had lost the
savagery of winter. There was no specter of famine in the springtime,
no blasting blizzards, no deep snow. There was food and there was an
urge to find a snug den.

Something of the feelings expressed by the gray wolves filled Lady
Ebony. Just before dawn she halted and began feeding. She fed on
through the morning. She saw no other horses and heard no savage yells.
At midday she lay down and rested until late afternoon.

When she moved on she headed north, toward the snowy ramparts of the
Crazy Kill Range, and she went at a long, ground-devouring lope. That
night she halted at a spring in the lower foothills. Berrybushes and
willow grew around the spring and there was tall grass. Lady Ebony
pulled the juicy grass contentedly. She was glad to be away from the
teeth and smashing hoofs of the chestnut stallion. She did not miss the
herd at all.

The spring was so much of a change after the parched desert that she
bedded down close beside it and rested until morning. With the gray
dawn she was up and feeding on the lush grass. For several hours she
fed, then she drank deeply and faced northward. Again she set her pace
at a fast lope.



6. Midnight


Lady Ebony held her course until late afternoon. She was high in the
red foothills when she halted. A little stream bubbled over red rocks,
willow grew along the banks, and the grass was green. On each side of
the water red rocks rose high against the sky. Along the base of the
cliffs lay great slabs and piles of stone, broken loose from the walls
by wind and rain, piled in confusion over the floor of the wild gorge.
Lady Ebony moved among the tumbled rocks. A bobcat bounded from a
thicket of rose brier where he had been hunting cottontails. Lady Ebony
snorted and shook her head.

She kept moving slowly along the stream until she came to a grove of
cottonwoods. Close beside the grove grew a dense thicket of tangled
brush. Lady Ebony dropped her head and began pulling the tender gamma
grass. She did not look up at the Crazy Kill Range again. After she had
eaten her fill she drank at the stream and lay down.

Sunset flamed across the sky and died into cool shadows. The red bluffs
changed from deep purple to slate gray. By almost unnoticeable degrees
the moon brightened and flooded the valley and the cliffs changed color
to match the white light. Now they were silvery with bands and squares
of black shadows across them. And the stars hung, big and white, close
to the ragged tops of the rims.

In this garden of red rocks close beside the little stream a colt was
born. The morning sun beating down on the floor of the gorge shone on a
wobbly little horse crowding close to Lady Ebony’s side.

The black colt jerked his curly tail and butted his head against his
mother’s side as he got his first breakfast. His legs were long and
heavy-boned. They were wobbly legs but they showed promise of great
strength. His head was finely molded like his mother’s, and his sleek
coat was all black, except for a white star in his forehead. That white
star and the heavy-boned frame were his inheritance from his father,
the chestnut stallion.

Lady Ebony was proud and excited over her handsome jet-black colt--so
black that he could well be called Midnight. She kept turning her head,
nosing his silky rump, and nickering softly. She was suddenly aware
of many things she had scarcely noticed before. She heard a rustling
in the thicket and sniffed the warm air nervously. A faint odor of
cat came to her and she snorted angrily. A few minutes later a big
bobcat stepped out of the thicket and stood looking at her. Lady Ebony
shook her head and stamped her feet. The bobcat opened his mouth wide,
exposing rows of white teeth and a red tongue. He closed his mouth and
his yellow eyes stared at the mare and her colt. Then he humped his
sleek back and trotted through the sunshine across the meadow to where
his mate was waiting for him.

In one of the big cottonwoods a flicker hammered away at the trunk of
the tree. Even this steady rat-a-tat bothered Lady Ebony. And when the
flicker’s mate sailed down from the sky and alighted on an anthill she
snorted again. The flicker up in the tree deserted his morning task
and came down to join his wife in an ant hunt. They danced and cavorted
on the anthill, picking up the busy little workers as they swarmed out
to repel the invasion.

A yellowbelly whistler came down out of the rocks and set to feeding,
sliding along the ground, sitting up to stare intently across the
meadow, chuckling to himself as he munched the roots he dug up. He was
joined by a pair of cottontail rabbits who stayed close to cover as
they fed.

Midnight finished his breakfast and began walking around on his wobbly
legs, investigating everything he came to with an inquisitive, pink
nose. Lady Ebony followed him nickering nervously. The little fellow
halted beside a clump of rattleweed. His ears pricked forward and he
listened. From the deep shade under the green leaves came a warning
rattle. The buzzing sound was repeated as Midnight’s nose drew closer.
Lady Ebony sprang forward and stamped upon the patch of weeds as she
shouldered her son away from the danger spot. The colt had met his
first enemy, a big rattler.

Lady Ebony showed by her actions that she considered Midnight an
important little horse. She followed his wobbling course down the
stream, then back again. After that he tried to run but his legs
doubled under him and his body failed to do what he wanted of it.
Finally he trotted out into the warm sun and lay down. In a few minutes
he was sound asleep.

Lady Ebony stood over him for a long time with her head down. Finally
she set to cropping grass near where he slept. She knew that she must
be constantly alert, ready to repel attack from killers that had never
bothered her before. The morning serenade of a pair of coyotes above
the rock garden made her nervous. Their mad chorus of yelping laughter
and high, mournful notes caused her to move close to Midnight and stand
there with head erect. The song dogs of the dawn finished their chorus
and raced away across the meadow above.

A great bald eagle wheeled above the tops of the red cliffs, his
round, glassy eyes staring down on the meadow, his wings beating
the air with powerful strokes. He saw the mare and her colt and his
powerful beak clicked several times. His pinions stiffened and were
held as rigid as the wings of a pursuit plane as he banked sharply and
spiraled downward. He saw the black colt get to his feet and wander
away from his mother. With a piercing scream he shortened his circles.
His cry was answered from the deep blue above and a second eagle came
plummeting down on folded wings, her body roaring through the thin air
as she dived. She flattened her terrific plunge just above the red rock
garden and circled with her mate.

Lady Ebony jerked up her head and trotted to her son. She tried to
stand over him but he did not wish to be bothered at the moment. He had
discovered his own shadow and was making a great show of challenging
the flat, black thing following him on the ground. He tossed his head
and laid back his ears, his furry rump bumping up and down a little as
he threatened to kick at his mother.

The eagles soared and dived over the mare and her colt. The kings
of the air were savage killers without fear of any ground dweller.
They had struck down fawns and lambs and they knew they could smash
the wobbly colt if his mother left an opening. Midnight became more
irritated at his mother’s close guard. He tried to lash out at her with
his hind feet. Lady Ebony let him trot away from her. He halted and
snorted at his shadow.

The king of the air saw his opening and dived. His wings were folded
tight against his sides and he dropped like a bolt of lightning. Close
behind him came his mate. The attack was so swift that Lady Ebony could
not reach the side of her son in time to shield him. The diving eagle
spread his wings a few feet above the back of the colt. His heavy
breastbone struck Midnight a smashing blow while his long talons raked
deep into the tender back of the little horse. Midnight went down so
quickly the she-eagle missed him entirely. The blow which had felled
him was the same smashing stroke with which the eagle broke limbs from
trees when building a nest. It was his stroke of death, but he had not
gauged it as well as he had intended. The breastbone struck Midnight
across the hips and not in the middle of the back where it would have
broken him down.

With frantic snorts and eager whinnying Lady Ebony nosed her son as he
staggered to his feet. He crowded close against her, willing now to be
guarded. The eagles rose straight up into the blue for five hundred
feet before they leveled off. They circled and looked down, their
screams ringing along the cliffs. Midnight stayed close to his mother.
His rump was smarting and he felt the need of her strength. After a
time the eagles widened their circles and flew away.

Midnight had learned another lesson. When Lady Ebony sounded a warning
call he rushed to her side instead of humping his back and dancing up
and down. He wanted no more raking talons in his skin. He was beginning
to know the price of life in the wild. He was coming to know that the
strong live while the weak and the foolish die soon.

But the little horse’s fright passed quickly. He was a true child
of the wilderness and fear was a passing shadow. With the circling
killers gone from the sky he forgot them and sought dinner. He was much
stronger now, his legs had stiffened and he was able to bounce up and
down. The blood of his father gave him something Lady Ebony did not
have, a vitality and a savageness all babies of the wild must have
to survive. Had he been born with the band he would have been able to
follow them. He made a short circle among the rocks, then came back to
his mother’s side where he thrust his head under her flank and began
drinking lustily. Lady Ebony was proud of him, but she was worried too,
because there were so many enemies in this wild country. She was a
horse trained to depend upon man, his fences and his protecting rifle.
Vaguely she knew she should be in a shed during this important time.
Midnight shared none of her worries; he was typically a wild horse.

That evening the big bobcat serenaded them from the blue-black depths
of the cottonwood grove. No man or beast who has ever heard the
terrifying yowling of the cat-of-the-mountain when he is struck by a
lonely mood has remained calm and unfrightened. Even the cougar and
the wolf move off when he starts serenading. The big cat began his
plaint with long “me-ows” till after a few minutes his cry was a series
of “row-row-rows,” ending in terrific screeches. The weird screaming
echoed along the rock walls of the gorge. It finally tapered off into
long-drawn wails filled with hopeless despair as though the big fellow
was condemned to a terrible fate and knew his time was near.

Lady Ebony rushed to the side of Midnight and began frantically herding
him up the canyon. She did not have to urge the little horse. He struck
out wildly, running as fast as he could, looking back in terror,
expecting to see a monster leap on him from the woods.

A pair of coyotes trotting up the canyon halted and stood for a moment
staring through the moonlight. They whirled and raced back, casting
glances over their shoulders as they ran.

After a time the big pussy with the bobtail walked out of the grove and
seated himself on a rock. Whatever had been troubling him seemed to
have been chased away by his vocal efforts. He yawned and stretched his
lithe body leisurely, then looked around with a satisfied smirk. He had
the canyon to himself and seemed highly pleased.

He was a male weighing perhaps twenty-five pounds. His ears had black
tufts at the ends, his lips were white with whiskers springing from
black spots. In this he favored the lynx cat. But his eye rings were
white and his reddish-brown body was marked with cloudings suggesting
spots while his feet were small like those of a house cat. His tail
was not more than seven inches long, a stubby bobbed-off tail, but it
jerked nervously as he sat smiling over his kingdom of rock piles and
tall grass. He was not hungry and the hunting mood did not fill him. He
had feasted well on wood rat and rabbit earlier that evening. He had
simply wished to clear all neighbors from his presence. Now that he had
done it he sat and smirked on the top of his big rock.

But the big cat did not reckon with one hunter who was not impressed
by his terrible song. A big, snowy owl came beating along the canyon
wall. His dim shadow floated across the grass toward the rock where
the cat was sitting. The owl had not feasted that evening. Fate had
been unkind. Every rabbit pasture he had swept over had already been
raided by coyotes or cats. The old owl was never choice about his prey.
His way was to strike at any living thing that came under his powerful
beak and talons. He saw the shadow on the rock move. The animal sitting
there was not bigger than many he had killed before. With a scream he
dived.

His smashing body struck the surprised cat on the neck and back. Long
talons sank deep into the stringy muscles while powerful wings battered
the sleek sides, knocking him off his perch and rolling him over.
Instantly the sleepy fellow was changed to a hissing, spitting demon.
He twisted his body and with claws and teeth lashed back at the ripping
beak and beating wings of the owl. The owl drove his fangs deeper and
tore at his snarling victim with his hooked beak.

The bobcat’s fangs found the neck of the owl and sank into it with
crunching swiftness. Blood spattered and fur and feathers filled the
air. The battlers clung to their death holds and exerted all their
strength. The bobcat’s raking hind feet ripped feathers out of his
assailant and found the stringy flesh beneath them; his fangs sank
deeper. Over and over they rolled, the owl flapping and clicking his
beak savagely, the cat hissing and snarling and yowling.

Both fighters weakened quickly because their wounds were deep and
driven into vital parts. They tumbled into a hollow between two big
rocks. There they struggled feebly for a time. Finally they lay still,
the crumpled and tangled body of the owl under that of the cat, his
big, round eyes staring savagely up at the stars. The bobcat lay with
fangs driven into the neck of his antagonist, his yellow eyes closed to
slits, his sleek coat marred by tufts of torn hair.

A little wind stirred down the canyon. It passed over the hollow where
the dead animals lay, it seemed to spread the news that two deadly
hunters had passed out of the red rock garden. The bunnies crept out
to the edge of their thicket homes and the wood mice and rats ventured
into the tall grass. After the way of the wild they started feeding
peacefully.

Lady Ebony and Midnight halted in the middle of a meadow a mile above
the spot where the battle had taken place. Midnight, true to his wild
instinct, had already forgotten the fear that had sent him charging out
of the garden below. He saw a doe and a fawn feeding at the edge of
the meadow and started over to make friends with them. Lady Ebony did
not forget so quickly. She was nervous and excited all that night and
tried to keep her son from walking up to the doe.

Midnight approached the mule deer and her fawn. He nickered softly and
humped his back, doing a little dance to show off before them. The doe
snorted and shook her head. She was not afraid of a colt but she would
take no chances with her baby. She turned about and led the little one
back into the brush.

Lady Ebony stayed in the upper meadow. She wanted to give her son time
to get his legs under him before moving on. By the third day the colt
was able to race around the meadow. He noticed the brightly colored
flowers, and made a great show of fear when a rabbit hopped away before
one of his charges. He was inquisitive and shoved his pink muzzle
close to everything that interested him. That day he met one of the
wilderness dwellers who lived in a burrow under a dead stump. Midnight
was dancing about pretending to be frightened by a pair of rockchips
who sat on a stone scolding and chattering because he had disturbed
them. The stranger walked out of a brier thicket and marched down a
deer trail.

He was sleek and black except for broad stripes of white running down
his back. His tail was a handsome plume of drooping hair, his snout
was pointed, and his little eyes stared out on the world like black
buttons sewed on his face. This stranger showed little interest in his
surroundings. His dull mind held but one thought. Hunting for mice and
bugs had been poor in the thicket near his burrow; he was crossing the
meadow to another thicket. He had no fear of other animals. He claimed
the right of way on every trail and not even a grizzly bear would have
contested that right.

Midnight stared at the striped brother, then shook his head and stamped
his feet. He expected the big skunk to scamper for cover, then he would
chase him. When the striped one paid no attention to him Midnight
advanced a little closer. Perhaps this dull-sighted fellow was a little
deaf. He danced and stamped his feet some more as he extended his nose
toward the skunk. The skunk marched on, ignoring the little horse.
Midnight stamped close to the striped fellow; the skunk’s plume lifted
with a jerk as dirt and rocks showered over him from the colt’s hoofs.
Any other wild creature would have fled from that danger signal. To
Midnight this seemed a friendly gesture. He whinnied eagerly and thrust
his nose closer to the striped one. The plume jerked twice as the skunk
halted in the trail.

Lady Ebony saw the skunk. She whinnied a loud warning. Midnight
jerked up his head and looked around. He expected to see an enemy
descending from the air or rushing out of the woods. His action saved
him considerable pain and surprise. A greenish flare of musk shot by,
close under his nose. Reeking fumes rolled around him. Midnight whirled
and galloped hastily toward his mother. He dashed past her and thrust
his muzzle into the cool water of the stream. Then he ran back to her
side and stood staring at the striped brother, who was marching at an
unhurried pace down the deer trail. The skunk’s aim had been low but he
had taught Midnight another lesson. The striped one was master of all
trails and not to be annoyed or disturbed.

The musky smell hung so rank and strong over the meadow that Lady Ebony
led her son to the lower end of the field where the breeze carried the
smell away from them.

Lady Ebony did not move on up the canyon to the long slopes dropping
away from the higher benches of the Crazy Kill Range. There would
still be chill nights and deep snowdrifts in the spruce near the peaks.
She wandered slowly up the little stream, halting for days at a time
in lush meadows where the grass was green and tender. Midnight grew
rapidly; his legs became strong and steady. Lady Ebony watched over him
constantly, never letting him stray far from her side. When he raced
around a meadow she followed him, running at his side, urging him to
greater speed.

She remembered the things she had learned on the high mesa. When she
made long stops she chose rock-bordered meadows where the yellowbelly
whistlers lived. The yellowbellies always had sentries posted in the
daytime. At night when the whistlers were deep in their burrows she lay
down close beside her son.

An afternoon came when she had need for her vigilance. From a high
perch on a red rim a lank cougar sighted the mare and her colt. He was
lying on a narrow shelf where the warm sun beat down on his sleek hide
as he drowsed. Through slitted eyes he watched Lady Ebony and Midnight
feeding below his lofty perch. There was no flesh he prized more highly
than young colt. He twitched the black tip of his tail and unsheathed
his sharp claws, but he did not move. Slow, sure, and patient methods
were those of the yellow killer. Once he had waited on a ledge for four
days in order to make a kill, a scrawny colt from a wild band. The colt
in the meadow below would be easier prey because there was cover close
to the tall grass.

The king cat lay watching until late afternoon. He yawned many times
and his red tongue arched between his long fangs as he opened his
mouth. As long shadows began to creep out from the canyon walls he
yawned again, a stretching yawn, then got slowly to his feet. He tested
the wind and looked up and down the wall. Lank, sag-backed, with high
shoulders and high, projecting hipbones, he was a killer to be feared
even by a grown horse.

The cougar slid down among the big rocks piled at the base of the
walls. He moved on great padded feet without sound. Halting beside a
rock almost the same color as his tawny robe he stood for a long time
staring through the evening light on the pair below. Midnight was
having his supper. He was feeding hungrily, butting his mother’s side,
twitching his tail. The cougar stood, silent and unmoving, except for
the tip of his tail which snapped back and forth nervously. His nine
feet of stringy muscle and furry tail blended with the great rock
beside him.

He appeared not to be giving much attention to the scene below him.
Really he was surveying the ground he had selected as a hunting spot
and was missing no detail. He could creep out on the windward side of
the mare where a clump of buckbrush grew. From there he would have two
mighty leaps to make. He would wait until the colt had moved away from
his mother’s side. Perhaps the youngster would wander close to the
buckbrush. His black whiskers jerked and his yellow eyes flamed through
slitted lids. Softly, silently he skirted the piled-up rocks and slid
into the timber to windward of the feeding horses. Like a tawny shadow
he passed from one bit of cover to the next, his lank belly close to
the ground. He often halted his unhurried descent to stand staring down
on his victim.

On reaching the last of the cover he flattened his belly to the ground
and crept forward through the tall grass. He kept moving, slowly,
noiselessly, until he lay behind the clump of buckbrush. There he
lifted his head and stared out through the green leaves.

Midnight had finished his supper and was nosing about a few yards from
his mother. Lady Ebony had dropped her head and was pulling grass. She
turned slowly toward the open meadow, her back toward the killer. She
had no thought of danger at the moment. The big cat listened intently.
He wanted to be sure the yellowbelly whistlers had all gone in for the
night. His head rested on his forepaws. There was no sound except that
made by the horses, but he waited, rigid.

The dusk deepened and the big cat stirred. He raised his head and
peered out across the grass. And now his eyes were wide open, yellow
pools of savage eagerness contrasting with his relaxed body. Midnight
was strutting about, sniffing and snorting, humping his back and
shaking his head. Lady Ebony was moving steadily away from the clump of
buckbrush. The cat’s belly dropped to the grass, his hind legs drew up
under him, his head flattened between his massive forepaws. His yellow
eyes had located the exact spot where his first leap would land him,
a bare spot where the grass was dead. From there he would hurtle upon
the unwary colt. He meant to strike the little horse down with a broken
neck so that no matter how well the mare might give battle the colt
would lie waiting for him when she moved away.

For a moment the great body of the king killer was tense and still,
then he leaped, his body arching upward, his great claws reaching out
before him. He landed noiselessly on the patch of dead grass and poised
there a split second while he drew his legs under him; then he leaped
again, rising high, hurling his body toward the colt.

An odd quirk of energy made Midnight jerk up his head. He began bucking
and bouncing. That sudden impulse saved him from the smashing blow the
cougar intended to land. The yellow killer landed where Midnight had
been standing. His scream of blood lust rang out, but his long fangs
and ripping claws missed their target. Midnight squealed in terror as
he saw the yellow killer clawing and lashing beside him. He plunged
toward his mother, and Lady Ebony leaped to his rescue.

She sprang at the enraged lion with uplifted hoofs lashing and
flailing. Mother instinct had completely banished her fear of the
yellow killer. The cougar reared back and lashed at her but he did not
stand his ground. Before her hoofs could smash down on him he leaped
back, spitting and snarling. Lady Ebony did not stop her charge. Her
slender legs pumped madly. The cougar was knocked off his feet and
sent sprawling in the grass. He rolled over, righted himself, then
fled before the pounding hoofs of the infuriated mare. Reaching the
cottonwood timber he bounded up a tree and lay licking his bruises and
spitting angrily.

Lady Ebony charged back to Midnight and shoved him up across the
meadow. The cougar leaped down from the tree. Circling, he followed the
pair, limping. Blood stained the weeds and tall grass along his trail.

Lady Ebony headed out of the meadow and up a deer trail. She kept
moving, forcing Midnight to stay close to her side. The white starlight
dimly outlined rocks and trees. They came to an open meadow but she
did not halt. Midnight forgot the fear that had very nearly paralyzed
him. He wanted to stop and rest. In the center of the meadow his mother
halted and let him drink. As he eagerly fed she kept testing the night
air, stamping her feet nervously and looking back down the trail. When
Midnight had finished his lunch she moved on toward the high, dim hills
looming above the canyon.

The cougar followed the trail of the horses for a while, but his
smashed shoulder was giving him much pain, and he finally climbed on a
ledge where he stretched his tawny length on a rocky bed and fell to
licking the gash. Had he escaped unhurt he would have circled above
the mare and her colt until he found a ledge from which he could attack
again.

Lady Ebony kept moving throughout the night. The gray dawn found her
going steadily upward. Just before noon they entered the oak belt at
the base of the Crazy Kill Range. There she found a stream and an open
meadow. Midnight insisted upon lying down to rest. No amount of coaxing
would rouse him. He lay stretched out in the sun and closed his eyes.
Lady Ebony was hungry. She began feeding close to where he slept. By
the time he had finished his sleep she was grazing peacefully.

Mother and son spent long, sunny days in the meadow surrounded by oak
brush. Lady Ebony seldom thought of the high mountain meadows. She had
no desire to go anywhere at all. Midnight was beginning to feel that he
was a grown horse. He danced and kicked and raced around. He even tried
to make his mother do what he thought she should do. When she calmly
ignored him and went on feeding he would lay back his ears and bare his
teeth, nipping at her until she humped her back and threatened to lash
out at him.

Many enemies passed the meadow and several paused to look at the fat
colt and his mother. Two old lobos halted and calmly watched the colt
at play. Coyotes trotted through the meadow in pairs or singly. An
old bear shambled out of the oak brush and charged after a ground
squirrel. He passed close to the frightened mother and her son but paid
no attention to them. The killers were finding life easy. The hills
abounded with grouse and rabbits as well as every species of squirrel.
There were many mule deer, too. Old does watched over playful fawns
growing strong and independent. The killers need not face the lashing
feet of an infuriated mother horse to kill all they could eat. So they
looked and went their way.

Midnight tried to make friends with the does. They were not afraid of
him but they were not friendly. They stared at him out of calm eyes
when he came near them, and they snorted and trotted at him when he
tried to run with their fawns.

One evening Midnight saw a deer feeding at the edge of a clearing. He
trotted over to the big-eared one in a friendly manner. But this one
was different from the does. He had long, branching antlers and snorted
aggressively when he halted and whinnied eagerly. Midnight stood
staring at the strange deer with branches on his head. The buck snorted
again. His horns were beginning to harden and the velvet was dropping
away from their sharp spikes. With the hardening process his shoulders
had begun to swell and his temper was becoming uncertain.

Midnight moved a little closer. He humped his back and kicked up his
heels. The buck grunted angrily, then snorted. With a shake of his head
he lowered his sweeping antlers and trotted toward the colt. Midnight
circled and the buck circled. Midnight whirled and raced away. This
fellow wanted to play. He’d give him a run around the meadow.

The buck jerked up his head and shook it. He had routed the enemy and
was satisfied. He began feeding again, cropping the weeds and shoots,
champing steadily. Midnight circled and galloped back to the old buck.
This time the big fellow charged. The colt realized that the antlered
deer wanted to fight and not play. Kicking his heels high he fled to
his mother’s side.

Lady Ebony ran toward the buck and the big fellow bounded into the
timber. Midnight felt he had won a great victory. He celebrated by
charging around the meadow at a terrific pace. Lady Ebony watched him
as he ran.

But a day came when the mare felt an urge to move on. Summer had
slipped away and fall had brought frost and sharp winds from the peaks
above. The high, barren reaches above timber line were white with new
snow. Lady Ebony remembered the roundup when riders came to the high
mesa and drove the horses down to the feed grounds in the valley. She
moved about restlessly and finally struck off up the slope. Winter was
coming and she was ready to go down the long trail to the home ranch.
Her brief training with the wild band was forgotten, she was again a
willing captive of man’s way.

       *       *       *       *       *

With the passing of summer Sam grew more listless and weary. He hated
to take his daily walk in the padded yard behind the high walls which
shut out the sight of his mountains. He preferred to sit in his cell
and stare at the changing cottonwood branch. He had chalked another
fall on his cell wall, but he thought about it for a week before he
put the mark down. He was tired but he’d get over that once he was
back on his mountain mesa where he could sit in the sun and watch his
neighbors.



7. The Way of the High Country


There were many inviting meadows along the trail which led up to the
high mesa. The aspen groves were inviting in the daytime, the rugged
hillsides were rich with herbs and frost-ripened grass. Lady Ebony and
Midnight did not hurry. Indian summer filled the valleys below with
purple haze and the air was warm and smoky. They passed through a wild,
rough country, across a high ridge by way of a deep saddle, then they
dropped down to the mesa where Lady Ebony was born and where she had
spent all her summers except one.

Below the mesa the aspen belt flamed in garments of brilliant yellow.
The rustling leaves would cling to the branches for a few more days.
The first gale sweeping down from the snow peaks would loosen them
and send them sailing to their beds along the slope. The oak belt,
below the aspens, was red and purple like the upholstery of a piece
of expensive furniture in its design and blending of color. Fall was
flaunting its brightest colors for a few short days. Lady Ebony stood
on the edge of the meadow and looked across the brown grass to Sam’s
cabin, silent and deserted. She nickered softly and trotted toward
the weathered cabin. Halting before the closed door, she pawed the
ground and whinnied louder. There was no answer. Old Sam did not come
shuffling out to give her lump sugar.

The old yellowbelly sentinel chuckled from his perch on the high rock.
He did not seem to understand that the black mare had been away. He did
not shrill his warning whistle or jump down from his high perch. The
calico chips dashed about in frantic haste, their cheeks pouched out
with seeds and dry bits of roots. They realized that there was but a
short time in which to complete their work of filling caches of food.
The fat-bellied rockchips sat and stared into the blue-and-purple haze.
They intended to do a little more work but the sun was warm and they
were fat and lazy.

A saucy chipmunk jumped to the top of a weed and sat there, swaying
back and forth. His high-pitched “chock, chock, chock” rang across the
meadow. Instantly every member of his tribe mounted a sing perch and
their chorus rang out. The song pitched higher and shifted to “check,
check, check, chir-r-r-up.”

At the far end of the meadow the dog town burst into excited barking
and saucy “squit-tuck’s.” Lady Ebony tossed her head. This was home
and her welcome back was what it should be except for the closed door
of the old cabin. Midnight bounded around, kicking his heels high
and bucking. Lady Ebony walked around the cabin and sniffed eagerly.
Her nose told her something was wrong. The familiar smells were dim
and cold, the taint of Sam’s rank pipe, the pungent smell of the man
himself, a smell so definite and different from that of the dwellers of
the wild. Midnight raced about. He was not greatly interested in the
cabin, though he had never seen or smelled anything like it before. He
wanted to play, so he galloped away across the meadow, dry clods flying
from his pounding hoofs.

Lady Ebony settled down to wait. She expected Sam with his lumps of
sugar and she expected Tex and the boys from the ranch. These thoughts
were rather vague, but they were strong enough to keep her in the
meadow and to overcome her uneasiness as her nose warned her of coming
storms. A week of Indian summer passed with warm hazy days and snapping
cold nights. Both Lady Ebony and Midnight had grown thick, warm coats
and the nights did not bother them. Frost carpeted the meadow with
white jewels every night, and every day the sun melted the frost. Sam
did not come and Tex did not come galloping out of the timber at the
head of his roundup crew. The crew had finished its work in the high
country the week before Lady Ebony’s arrival, and had left the brown
grass and the everlasting green spruce to the blizzards and the deep
snows. The horses and the white-faced cattle were all accounted for.

One afternoon a change came in the weather. The air had been snapping
cold for days with the sun’s rays softening it but little. It became
softer and warmer. Gray clouds raced over the timbered slopes, rolling
low, touching the tops of the highest spruce. The gray wall swept down
over the spruce and over the meadow. Snow began falling, big, soft
flakes that sailed down like loosened leaves. The snow settled through
a deep silence which filled the woods and lay heavy on the meadow. The
chickaree squirrels in the tall spruce worked frantically, cutting
cones from the branches, dropping them to the ground with steady,
thumping sounds. They chattered and scolded as they worked. The old
yellowbelly left his perch and romped to his den under the castle rock.
The calico chips and the chipmunks and the fat-bellied brownies retired
for the long night which was to last until spring came. The mesa was
deserted, leaving only Lady Ebony, Midnight, and the big flakes of snow.

The wind rose and came roaring down. The great spruces swayed and
moaned as the wind rushed through their branches and tore at their
needles. The big flakes were powdered to fine dust and eddied in and
out among the brown grass stems. The aspen leaves danced and swirled as
they floated from the white branches. In less than an hour the uplifted
arms of the silver trees were naked. But where each leaf had loosened
its hold a brown bud peeped down, wrapped up in a warm little muffler
and hood. The round leaves whirled along the ground and piled deep on
the lee side of big trunks and in deep hollows on the slope. Under the
bed of leaves the columbine and the paint weed and the lupine felt
safer and warmer.

Lady Ebony led Midnight to the lee of the cabin where they stood with
heads down, backs to the sifting snow. All afternoon the white wall
pressed close around them. Darkness came early, a black, solid darkness
which blotted out every object, even the cabin wall close to their
noses. In the morning the blizzard was still raging furiously. The snow
was deep on the meadow, as deep as the knees of the black colt.

Lady Ebony fought her way out to the edge of the mesa and began pawing
for grass. Midnight went with her and helped. They dug down and found
a mat of rich, cured grass. With their tails to the lashing wind they
fed. When they had eaten their fill they returned to the lee side of
the cabin and Midnight had a scant but warm meal. Then he lay down.
The snow melted around his body and froze into ice at the edges of the
curves.

For three days the storm raged. When it cleared and the last of the
gray clouds scurried away over the tops of the green spruce on the
wings of the dying wind three feet of snow lay on the level mesa and
four or five feet in the hollows and drifts. In places the wind had
swept the dry snow away from the grass and feeding was easy for the
horses. But snapping, biting cold followed the storm, making their
breath plume out in wreaths of white fog and causing icicles to form on
their nose hair and chins. Their faces were covered with white frost
from their breathing.

Midnight showed keen interest in this new world. It was a white world,
a silent world of snow and green spruce. The biting cold made him
plunge through the deep drifts and snort eagerly. One other dweller of
the high country, who could not sleep through the cold months, came to
the meadow. An old timber-line buck had chosen to stay in the high mesa
country defying the cold and the snow. The does and the fawns and the
spike bucks had drifted downcountry before the storm. The two-points
had gone with them and most of the four-points. The timber-line monarch
stayed because he was wary and shunned the ranch-dotted valleys below
the storm belt. He preferred the savage cold and the stalking killers
to the rifles and dogs of the men who lived in the low country.

He dug down into the snow seeking herbs and twigs. He did not care
for the dry, rich grass, and he watched the mare and her colt without
interest, staring at them, then shaking his heavy antlers and returning
to his feeding. The old fellow knew the dangers he faced, he had met
them before and expected to meet them again.

The clear, cold weather held for a week. The days were sparkling and
crisp, the nights blue and bitterly cold, with white stars reflecting
their countless points of light upon the gleaming snow fields. In
the aspen groves trees snapped and popped as the frost sought their
hearts. Lady Ebony left the lee of the cabin and found a sheltered spot
beside one of the big castle rocks at a point near the edge of the deep
canyon. A narrow ledge trail led up to the shelter and an outthrust
layer of rock furnished a roof so that the earth under the shelter was
free from snow. A shoulder of the wall shut off the wind, making the
retreat really a barn.

A crevice in the roof of the shelter harbored a nest of pack rats.
Sticks, pine cones, bright rocks, and other things dear to the heart of
a trade rat had been crammed into the crevice until they spilled out on
the floor. The whole cave was tainted with rat smell, pungent and musty.

The black robes of the mare and her colt grew shaggy and thick, as
the bitter cold deepened. Lady Ebony and Midnight were forced to seek
grass at the upper end of the meadow below the cabin because the wind
struck that part of the mesa, clearing the snow away. Every morning
they plunged through deep drifts to reach the wind-swept portion of the
meadow, returning again at night to their shelter.

The week of clear weather was broken late one afternoon. Clouds began
to cluster around the high spires of the Crazy Kills. They crept into
high craters and wound around the tall, granite cathedrals on top of
the world like great cats stalking their prey. Above they were silvery
white and gleamed like jeweled blankets, below they were dark gray and,
in spots, black.

A feeble sun shone on the mesa, and two yellow sun-dogs blazoned forth
on either side of it like sentinels. The air was still and the silence
deep. Slowly the temperature rose and Midnight sniffed eagerly and
plunged about in the snow. He was disturbed but did not know why. Lady
Ebony jerked up her head and tested the air. She knew another storm was
coming. Then the clouds rolled down over the spruce, blotting out the
shining mountain peaks, the big soft flakes came and later the lashing
wind. Another blizzard gripped the high mesa. With the wind came
cutting cold that stabbed through even the thick coats of the horses.
Lady Ebony headed across the meadow toward their shelter.

For many days the blizzard raged and roared and the snow fell. When the
storm cleared, the snow was deeper than it had been in many winters.
It piled in great, hundred-foot drifts along the comb ridges, in lips
which thrust themselves out over the spruce below. Slides roared into
the canyons as those lips broke and shot down the steep slopes. The
white terrors mowed swaths through the spruce and tore great boulders
from their beds, grinding them to dingy gray rivers of twisting,
roaring debris which cascaded into the creek bottoms and slid up the
far slopes. The thunder of the slides shook the mesa and the ridges,
starting new rivers of snow.

When the white death roared, Midnight always crowded close to his
mother’s side and stared up at the ridges trying to see the monster
that could roar louder than any animal he had ever heard. Lady Ebony
was disturbed but she nickered reassuringly to her son and did not lead
a charge through the deep snow.

Digging for food was a job which required all the short day. The upper
end of the meadow still offered the best feed ground, though the snow
lay three feet deep on that part of it. The timber-line buck came
down from a bed in the rocks and fed close to the horses. He ate much
grass now because he could not scoop the snow away so easily as the
horses did. And he browsed on willow growing along the stream, but such
feeding meant fighting snow six feet deep. Sometimes he followed the
horses and ate the weeds they uncovered and left untouched.

Lady Ebony and Midnight came to expect the timber-line buck to join
them in their battle for food. The three fed close together in
comradeship. Theirs was a common fight against a common enemy. The buck
no longer charged at Midnight when the little horse walked up to him.
And Lady Ebony no longer whinnied warningly when her son approached the
antlered monarch.

Life was hard for the three on the mesa, but not as hard as it was for
the killers who roamed the silent forests. The gray wolves and the
cougars hunted daily, their sides gaunt. The snowy owls beat along
the edges of the timber, their glassy eyes staring down savagely. But
there was little food. The snow had not crusted and the gray wolves
and the cougars could not overtake the hardy mule deer remaining in
the mountains. They wallowed and floundered while the deer and the elk
bounded up and clear of the clinging drifts. Night and day the killers
hunted with savage intensity, their yellow eyes flaming with savage
hunger. When one of a wolf pack was wounded or crippled, the pack
turned on him and devoured him as they would any lesser prey.

A day came when the weather moderated, the sun shone, and the snow
softened and settled. A warm wind blew from the valleys below. The wind
melted the top snow to a depth of several inches. That night the cold
returned, the trees popped, and the air was still and brittle. Frost
crystals coated the willows along the stream and made brilliant jewelry
of every branch and twig rising above the snow. The trees looked like
rock candy. The slushy snow froze into ice and the world was coated
with a hard armor. And now the gaunt killers could race swiftly over
the surface while deer and elk broke through. The killers slaughtered
savagely, gorging themselves on fresh meat until they could not run.
The coyotes and the owls fed at the tables of the great ones after the
hunters had passed on to fresh kills.

Lady Ebony and Midnight found the battle to reach the cured grass
under the snow much more difficult, now that the ice had come. They
were forced to feed later into the night in order to fill their
bellies. They pawed and smashed at the thick armor covering the
drifts. A full moon shone down, its white light flashing back from the
glistening ice. The air was snapping cold as night settled, but Lady
Ebony delayed returning to their shelter. They had not fed well that
day. She was pawing down the crust, then scooping away the loose snow.
The old timber-line buck followed close behind the two horses. He was
gaunt and lank. His slender hoofs made poor weapons against the ice.

The air was still with the stillness of a dead world. Suddenly Lady
Ebony jerked up her head. From the ridge above the mesa came the cry
of an old lobo wolf and his bachelor pack. They were racing down from
the high barrens seeking prey. The old lobo had not led his sons into
the lower country. He was wise and cunning and had kept his pack high
above the ranches with their poison sets, their traps, and their guns.
He preferred the savage struggle of the snow-locked high country to the
sure death lurking in the open valleys. He had ranged above the belt
where the deer and the elk wintered and had not led his sons to a kill
in more than a week. The slaughter going on lower down the slope had
not been shared by these gaunt killers.

Lady Ebony listened intently. The pack was running down the ridge above
the mesa. She shook her head restlessly and looked across the meadow
toward the castle rocks. Turning she took a few steps toward the lower
end of the meadow. The timber-line buck grunted protestingly as he
floundered out of her way. Midnight kept on digging in the snow. He was
still hungry. The snarling of the pack sounded farther down the ridge
and Lady Ebony turned back to where Midnight was pawing. The howling
rose in savage crescendo. The pack had swerved and was heading toward
the meadow.

The timber-line buck did not wait to listen. He began floundering and
plunging across the open toward the woods where he knew the warm sun
had not softened the snow so that it crusted. Here he could double and
bound; his speed would save him from the gray ones.

Lady Ebony snorted and whirled. She took one long leap, then halted and
looked back, nickering loudly, warningly. Midnight stood looking at
her. He was chewing a mouthful of grass he had pulled from under the
snow. He swallowed the grass and thrust his head back into the hole. He
had found a good mat of grass and meant to finish it. The howling pack
did not disturb him greatly. He had never been attacked by wolves. All
the wolves he had met had loped away when he ran toward them.

Lady Ebony leaped back to his side and crowded against him. She
whinnied excitedly and pawed the snow, then whirled and leaped a few
yards toward the rocky point. Midnight pulled up a tasty mouthful of
grass and munched at it, then dived down for more. Lady Ebony was
frantic. She plunged at him and nipped his rump sharply.

Midnight’s hips jerked and he lashed out with his hoofs, striking his
mother a smashing blow. She had never bitten him so severely before and
his temper flared. Lady Ebony charged at him again. She had to make him
follow her.

Up in the spruce the old lobo heard her whinny and the tone of his
howls changed from hungry yelping to savage eagerness. Instantly his
sons, leaping at his side, took up the cry. After many days of stark
hunger the old one had led them to a kill.

The gray killers burst out of the darkness under the spruce, running
madly, their fangs gleaming, their red tongues lolling. They flashed
into the gleaming moonlight like shadows. Midnight jerked up his head.
He saw the glowing, yellow eyes of the killers, the white fangs, and
the red tongues as the wolves leaped across the crusted snow. Fear
gripped him, and with a wild squeal of fright he plunged away, breaking
through the crust, floundering, stumbling.

Lady Ebony did not rush after him. She knew they could not both escape
the swift shadows so close upon them. With a toss of her flowing mane
she plunged toward the pack. After charging a few yards she halted and
her front hoofs rose. A defiant, screaming cry came from her chest.
The wolves leaped in on her, dodging her flailing hoofs, their fangs
reaching from every side. The old lobo leaped straight at her throat
while his sons swarmed around her. One smashing hoof struck the lobo
and sent him spinning across the glare of ice. But as she hurled the
old one from her, two young wolves ripped her flanks while another tore
a gash in her shoulder. They leaped and lashed and ripped, springing
in, darting away.

Lady Ebony could not run and the deep snow kept her from pivoting to
meet the rear attack. She was doomed and she knew it, but she did not
try to plunge away. Her son was floundering to the safety of the ledge
and she had to hold the pack where they were until he reached the
castle rocks.

The old lobo scrambled to his feet. Lady Ebony’s flank was turned to
him. He leaped and his fangs sank deep, driving toward the tendons
of her leg. He did not waver and spring away. He struck with savage
recklessness. His sharp fangs severed the tendons and Lady Ebony went
down. Instantly the whole pack swarmed over her, tearing at her sleek
coat.

Midnight plunged on across the meadow. The pack was so busy tearing at
the black mare that they did not follow him. He reached the ledge trail
and plunged up to a shelf where there was room for him to whirl about.
He stood staring out across the meadow, listening to the snarling of
the pack as they fed on the carcass lying in the snow. He was still
standing there when the pack turned away from the bloody bones of his
mother and began looking for him.

They picked up his trail and raced across the gleaming snow. He watched
them come, and courage, the courage of a cornered animal, plus the wild
and savage fighting heart given him by the chestnut stallion came to
him. He shrilled a challenge and reared up on his hind feet, his little
ears laid back, his teeth bared.

The old lobo was the first to leap up the ledge trail. He lunged at the
black colt. Midnight’s lashing hoofs met him and sent him tumbling back
upon his leaping sons. The bachelors swept past their father and closed
in. They were not so hungry but the blood lust ran hot within them.
They wanted to kill again and their easy victory over the mare made
them feel certain of their victim.

One of the youngsters leaped at Midnight’s throat. Two lashing hoofs
met the gray body in mid-air. The killer screamed with rage and pain
as his body writhed on the snow. He slid down toward the canyon rim
and over the edge, hurtling into the shadowy depths below. Another
youngster leaped and was smashed back.

The pack backed away from the flailing hoofs. Their bellies were gorged
with meat and much of their savageness had left them. There was no way
to surround the colt or to leap at his flanks. They sat down on the
snow and glared at him, their yellow eyes flaming eagerly, their red
tongues dripping as they extended above white fangs. The old lobo
licked his wounds and growled deep in his chest.

Midnight waited, poised. But they did not attack again. One killer lay
dead at the base of the canyon wall, while another crawled around on
the snow, snarling and whimpering, his ribs caved in by the hoofs of
the little stallion. Presently the old lobo got to his feet. He made a
feint toward Midnight, but when the pounding hoofs lifted menacingly he
turned and trotted away with his pack close behind him. They paid no
attention to the wounded wolf.

Out on the meadow Midnight heard them pause at the carcass of his
mother and begin feeding again. He stood for a long time listening,
nickering softly, calling to his mother, trying to tell her that he had
beaten the pack. There was no answer except the pack’s snarling and the
yelp of a coyote that had smelled the fresh blood and come to the edge
of the woods to wait until the gray ones were done with their banquet.

Midnight stood guard until the pack finished worrying the bones in the
meadow. After they had loped away into the timber he turned back to the
shelter and stood waiting for his mother.



8. The Strong Survive


When the little black stallion came out of his shelter the morning
after the wolf raid the sun was shining on the glare of ice which
covered the meadow. The old timber-line buck was plunging toward the
feed ground. Midnight whinnied eagerly for his mother and shook his
head impatiently. He was hungry and wanted her badly. When he got no
answer he moved down the ledge trail. At the spot where the wolves had
attacked him he halted and sniffed the snow, blowing loudly, pawing the
ground angrily.

He moved out across the meadow. The old buck lifted his head from a
hole in the snow and stared at him. Midnight whinnied again. He was
glad to see the buck calmly feeding. It drove away some of the fear
that he felt because he could not see his mother. The buck dropped his
head to feed. Midnight walked to the place where the snow was spattered
with blood. He sniffed and shied back. Standing with legs apart and
head bent forward, he looked at the frost-coated pile of bones lying
in the trampled snow. Breaking a trail around the spot he moved close
to the monarch and began breaking the crusted snow. The buck let him
feed close to his side but when the little horse would have shouldered
against him he jerked up his head and snorted. He shook his bony
lances threateningly and Midnight backed away.

Midnight set to work pawing, breaking the crust and scooping the
loose snow aside. He worked steadily all through the day, pausing at
intervals to call for his mother. Two lean coyotes came out of the
spruce and slipped across the meadow. A little fox thrust his sleek
head out of a thicket which had been swept clear of snow. He wrinkled
his nose as he crept forward. His furry, red brush waved back and
fourth. Hunger had driven the three hunters into the open in the white
light of day, hunger and the smell of fresh meat. The coyotes poked
among the bones gnawing and snarling. The little fox sat down to watch
and to wait. He was sure there would be a few bits of gristle left for
him.

Midnight snorted and shook his head at the coyotes. He pawed into the
drift savagely, then rushed at the coyotes as far as his trail went.
The coyotes leaped back from the carcass and faced him snarling and
snapping. Midnight stared at them for a long time, then turned and went
back to his feeding. He was learning the lessons of the wild.

A lynx cat with tufted ears and big furry pads on his feet thrust his
head from behind a drift. He, too, had forsaken the twilight of the
spruce country, which was his natural home. He blinked his eyes before
the glare of the sun and stared at the pair of coyotes and the little
fox. His nose twitched hungrily. He seldom ventured far from the green
dusk of the forest but he had eaten only one small morsel in two days,
a field mouse dug from the roots of a dead aspen tree. His green eyes
fixed on the little fox and he shifted his padded feet nervously. He
had feasted on fox before and the stringy meat was to his liking.

At the same moment the fox’s sharp eyes and pointed nose discovered
the lynx cat. Turning, the sly one raced over the crust toward his
burrow in the thicket. The lynx cat bounded over the snow, cutting
across to head the fox away from his hole. The little fox ran swiftly
but he had a greater distance to go. The cat closed in swiftly and the
fox whirled to face him. The lynx arched his back and circled slowly
around his intended victim. He knew the fox had deadly fangs and that
he would use them. The sly one was shy and timid but he could fight
when cornered. The air was filled with the yowling and spitting of the
lynx and the snarling of the fox. Both coyotes sat up and watched.
Midnight and the big buck jerked up their heads and stared at the
battlers. The old buck sniffed the cat scent and made off along his
trail to the timber. Midnight stood still. He was afraid but did not
know what to do.

The big lynx cat circled a second time. He was cautious even though he
was desperately hungry. With a lightning movement he leaped at the fox,
who was crouched down with his chest on the snow. The fox leaped to
meet him and slashed at him savagely. A big tuft of hair from the cat’s
neck scruff sailed high and floated to the snow. The cat backed away
spitting, his big feet planted wide apart.

When the lynx leaped back the little fox whirled and raced for the
timber. He had tricked the cat and his red tongue lolled out over
his white teeth very much as though he was laughing at his clumsy
antagonist.

The lynx bounded after him and the fox whirled again. Again the fox
made a stand and the dweller of the spruce twilight circled around
him. Again the lynx leaped and was met by the lashing fangs of the
slim hunter of mice. The cat leaped back and red drops of blood dotted
the snow. Both times his lashing paws had missed the dodging, weaving
fox. The fox whirled and ran, this time almost to his thicket. The
lynx bounded upon him and he whirled, his brush sweeping across the
glistening snow.

The lynx did not strike again. If the snow had been soft and loose he
would have been the victor and would have feasted upon the carcass of
the tough little fox, because his snowshoe feet would have carried him
over the surface while the fox floundered. The hard crust which spelled
death for the elk and the deer gave the little fox a surer chance to
live. Slowly the fox backed to his den under the bushes. He halted in
the opening and crouched there, his muzzle resting on his forepaws, his
little eyes flaming.

The lynx cat arched his back and sidled up to the den, spitting and
snarling. He halted well out of reach of the flashing attack of the
little hunter. He sat down and stared back at the fox. Finally he
walked away to a drift. He hoped the fox would venture away from his
hole under the bushes. But the fox could see the big fellow seated on
the drift. He drowsed, his eyes half closed, waiting for the killer to
tire and go his way. Finally the lynx cat got up and padded back into
the spruce.

Two eagles came and the great owls beat along the edge of the clearing.
The wolf pack raced down along the ridge at dusk, seeking the little
stallion. But Midnight and the old buck were safe in their shelters
long before dusk. Both remembered the experience of the previous night
and left the feed ground early. They bedded down on stomachs only half
filled, but they rested better than the killers who could not get even
half a meal.

       *       *       *       *       *

There came days of sunshine and days of storm. When the blizzard came
the wind swept the new snow across the hard, smooth surface of the
meadow, piling it in the timber or swirling it into the deep canyon.

One cloudy day a lean cougar padded through the spruce at the upper
edge of the mesa. He halted and stared out over the sheet of glistening
ice. His yellow eyes suddenly flamed with eagerness. He had sighted the
timber-line buck and the little stallion. His amber eyes flicked over
the old buck and fastened on the colt beside him. His nose jerked and
the black tip of his tail twitched. It seemed almost beyond any good
luck to find a fat colt and a buck deer together. He had hunted for
days and was heading toward the lower country. The only living things
he had met were wolves and coyotes as hungry as himself.

The cougar moved to the edge of the woods, his eyes wandering over the
snowy expanse. It did not seem possible for the colt to escape him.
The little horse had a long way to go to reach cover. The snow was
crusted so that the killer could bound over it while the horse would
break through and flounder. He located a drift which ran out into the
meadow like the fin of a great fish. He would slip out along that fin.
He would not need to get close. His eyes roved eagerly over the meadow,
seeking to locate any weak point in his plan of attack.

Midnight and the old buck fed steadily, the buck following the trail
Midnight had broken. He was about twenty yards back of the little
stallion. Midnight pulled a tuft of grass up out of the snow and chewed
it eagerly. Swallowing it he ducked his head and nosed about for more.
He pulled another mouthful and looked around him. He was fast learning
the tricks of the old buck. Look, listen, test the air after every
exploration under the crust.

It was the buck who warned him of danger. The monarch snorted loudly
and whirled about. The wind had shifted and his keen nose had caught
cougar scent. Midnight looked and saw the gaunt killer rising above
the drift in a long, high leap. The big cat screamed savagely,
angered because he had been discovered before he was ready to attack.
Midnight plunged after the old buck. The cougar landed on the hard
crust, skidded, then righted himself and bounded again. His leaps
were terrific and carried him down quickly on the two struggling and
panic-stricken comrades. His ears were flattened and his tail was
lashing. His yellow eyes checked the distance he had to cover. His
last leap must send him smashing down on the back of the colt. His
tawny body shot upward and out in a twenty-foot leap, while his claws
unsheathed and he bared his fangs for the death thrust.

With a wild plunge of speed Midnight charged past the old buck. The
ancient monarch was a scarred warrior. He had been attacked by cougars
before and had always managed to escape. This time he was trapped. He
could not flounder to the deep, soft drifts in the spruce. Like any
wild thing, he whirled to fight because that was all there was left for
him to do. He had lived to old age in the high country because he had
been able to meet desperate situations. When he whirled he lowered his
sharp antlers until they formed a shield for his neck and shoulders.

The leap of the yellow killer had been aimed and timed so that its
force would smash down on the back of the colt. Instead of smashing
upon the unprotected back of the little horse the cougar landed upon
the bony lances of the old buck. His hundred pounds of weight hurtling
down on those horns would have been damaging enough, but the old
timber-line monarch charged forward just as the cat landed, adding to
the effectiveness of the defense. The buck was smashed back on his
haunches, but instantly his powerful legs straightened and with a grunt
he lunged again.

The lances of bone drove deep into the chest and neck and legs of the
cougar. When the buck lunged he twisted those knives and drove them
deeper. He ripped and tore in mad fury. Flight was forgotten now that
he was in a battle. He thought only of destroying his attacker. The
cougar was startled by this attack from a prey which had always fled in
a wild fear before him. He screamed savagely as he struggled to toss
his body out of the path of the ripping horns. Rolling over and over in
the snow he scrambled away from the charging deer.

The buck made another lunge but the big cat had had enough. He bounded
away across the snow leaving a trail of blood which froze in round red
jewels on the crust.

The buck shook his head and snorted savagely. Midnight watched him
from the safety of the ledge. Finally the little horse trotted down
the trail to meet the monarch, who was stalking along, his rump patch
fanned out, his breath whistling angrily. Midnight halted before the
buck, and they stood looking at each other.

After that the bond was a little closer between the two. Midnight
realized that there was safety in being close to the big buck. He
was convinced the old fellow was the master of the yellow killers so
terrifying to him. The monarch gave the matter no thought. He had
escaped from another cougar, but he did not intend to allow one to get
near him if his nose and his keen sight warned him in time. But he
followed Midnight’s trail and ate the weeds and brush tips the little
horse uncovered and left.

So the cold winter passed. The pair who came daily to the meadow kept
vigilant watch for the killers and slipped away from the feed ground
early each night. The little stallion was nearly as quick of sight and
smell as the old buck by the time the snow began to soften. They were
always hungry, never able to dig up enough grass and feed to fill
their stomachs, but they were also wary and alert.

       *       *       *       *       *

Spring waited for them on the snow-bound meadow one morning when they
came down to feed. A chinook wind was blowing and the air was soft,
promising life, alive with earthy smells carried up from the lower
valleys where green things were already growing on the south slopes and
in the canyons. Midnight bucked and pranced excitedly. The old buck
shook his head and grunted. He was a sad-looking monarch now. His sides
were thick with matted hair and he had shed one horn so that he was
forced to carry his head on the side. He moved about more timidly and
seemed eager to be near the black colt.

The snow settled down and down. At night it froze but not with the
bitter hardness of the deep winter. Each day the snow sank lower and
packed harder. It shrank until bare patches of meadow appeared. Then it
retreated into the spruce where it would make its last stand against
the sun. There were blustery days when snow fell and raw winds blew,
but this was spring and nothing could halt its coming.

The wolves and the coyotes raced across the bare ground, leaping over
the dirty drifts in the shade, racing on and on, as fast as the steady
wind which blew up out of the green valleys below. The wolves were not
seeking prey, they were running in pairs, leaping through the dusky
twilight or the pale moonlight, seeking romance on distant ridges,
trysting places under the stars.

The resurrection came swiftly. Grass sprouted and flowers shoved forth
their buds, some of them poking out their hardy blossoms at the edges
of the drifts in the twilight of the woods. But the real and certain
arrival of spring was announced by the yellowbelly whistlers. They
awoke and came out of their dens to blink at the sun. They romped
across the bare meadow and bounded among the rocks at the base of the
castles. A day or so after the whistlers had come out the calico chips
appeared. They had been ready for some time but had been careful not to
hurry.

One day the chipmunks appeared. They held a concert at once, and the
meadow rang with their “chock, chocking.” The fat little brownies came
with the chipmunks. They selected stones and spent much of their time
sitting in silence looking down into the blue valley. Only the cabin at
the edge of the timber remained lifeless and dead. It went on sleeping.
Its one dusty window stared out drearily on the lively scene. Its door
did not open to let the spring air into the cabin, there was no one to
open it. The willow chair sagged beside the doorstone. It sat there
much as though it had stepped outside to wait for the owner of the
cabin.

Midnight became restless. He raced around the meadow and mud flew from
his hoofs as he splashed through puddles in the hollows. The only spot
he avoided was the dog town. There the ground was soft and the holes
made it treacherous. The dogs barked and scolded when he thundered
past but they accepted him as one of them. He whinnied and kicked and
pranced. The old whistler, perched on his high lookout, stretched his
neck, chuckled several times, then pulled his head back into his ball
of fur.

Midnight still used the shelter under the rim. Habit made him return to
it at dusk. The old timber-line buck knocked off his remaining horn,
then wandered into the twilight of the spruce and did not come out
again. He would seek a sun-drenched glade where he could nurse his new
antlers through the period when they were in the velvet. In a short
time nubbins of furry, blood-filled soft horns would appear, rising
from the scars of his old spread. During this time the monarch would
be quiet and shy. He would not fight and he would avoid charges which
would take him into the timber.

Midnight was climbing the ledge trail one night when he was faced by
a strange and terrible creature. A great silvertip, with the sleep of
winter still dulling his little eyes, came shambling down the narrow
ledge. He was gaunt and in a savage mood. Midnight had come to consider
this as his own trail. He had met the wolf pack almost on the spot
where he now stood. He snorted and reared on his hind feet. The old
silvertip kept on shambling toward him. Midnight laid back his ears and
squealed. The ledge was too narrow to turn about easily, and it was his
ledge.

Then the little stallion got a good whiff of rank bear scent and panic
seized him. He tried to whirl about but the ledge was too narrow. The
very thing that had made the ledge safe for him against the wolf pack
made it a trap now. He reared again and his trim hoofs lashed out at
the massive head and hairy chest of the silvertip.

The old bear saw the little horse for the first time when Midnight
reared. His great jaws opened and a roar came up from his chest. He
did not desire meat to eat, he wanted certain herbs and he wanted
cold water, things to help his shrunken stomach adjust itself. But he
never gave the trail to any except the skunk and the wolverine. In his
present mood he was ready to smash anything that tried to halt him.

He straightened up and stood like a shaggy giant, advancing as a
man would. One massive paw swept out. The blow struck Midnight with
glancing force. Had it landed squarely it would have finished him. It
over-balanced him and he slid off the trail. Kicking and lashing he
plunged over the canyon rim.

The old silvertip shoved a swaying head over the edge and growled
deeply, then he ambled down the trail and headed across the meadow,
growling and grunting to himself. The yellow-belly sentinel blasted
shrilly and the little dwellers of the meadow raced to their dens. The
dogs slid down their runways and defiant “squit-tucks” came out of the
ground. The silvertip paid no attention to the commotion he had caused.
He strode on across the mesa.

Midnight dropped a few yards and landed with a thump on another ledge.
A pile of earth matted with grass and berry bushes broke his fall. His
head hung over a yawning chasm. Quickly he gathered himself together
and scrambled to his feet. For a few minutes he stood pressing against
the rock wall and trembling; he saw that he was on a ledge which sloped
gently down to the meadow. There was no chance to leap back to the
trail above, so he moved along the cliff, sliding, crowding against the
wall.

He slid off the ledge onto solid ground matted with dry grass. He was
in a cup-shaped hollow on the side of the canyon wall. He trotted
through a matted tangle of willow and brush to the edge of the basin.
From where he stood he could look down into Shadow Canyon. He could see
the foaming waters of the Crazy Kill River. But a sheer wall prevented
him from climbing down, so he explored the hollow.

There were not more than seven acres in the basin. Aspens grew close
together over most of the ground, except in the center where a beaver
colony had cut them away. In this clearing nestled a tiny lake.
Two old beavers were swimming around in the water, inspecting the
horseshoe-shaped dam at the lower side. When Midnight halted at the
edge of the water the old beavers dived, slapping their tails with
explosive sounds.

Midnight turned away from the lake. He did not like the confining feel
of this little mesa. He limped as he walked and his shoulder pained
him, but he was not hurt badly. He wandered all the way around the mesa
and discovered no trail leading off it except at the lower end where a
ten-foot crevice cut through a ledge along the side of the canyon wall.
He turned back and began feeding uneasily on the green shoots pushing
up through the dead grass.

The old beavers came up again and set to work. A ptarmigan strutted
in the dry leaves under the aspens and a snowshoe rabbit hopped out
of a thicket. The big bunny sat down and began nibbling on a tender
weed-stalk.



9. Prisoner


Midnight fed on the rich, new grass until he was no longer hungry, then
he made another trip around the rim and along the cliff wall. He wanted
to escape from this tight little pasture. The only avenue of escape lay
across the crevice and along the ledge beyond. Midnight stood at the
edge of the yawning abyss and shook his head restlessly. The leap was a
long one, too long for him to try.

The little stallion turned back to the beaver lake. The pair of beavers
were busily lacing willows along the top of their dam. As they wove the
willows into place they plastered black mud on them. They were master
engineers, and their dam was sturdy and strong. They stopped work and
gazed at Midnight but they did not plunge into the water. They accepted
him as one of the dwellers of their little world under the rim, a
harmless animal who would not attack them.

Midnight trotted into the aspen grove and lay down. Above him green
buds were bursting and pale-green leaves had begun to show. The bushes
along the wall were leaved out and many flowers bloomed. The little
mesa lay facing the sun. Its protected acreage afforded growing things
a chance to get started before other mesas came to life. The spot
Midnight had picked for his bed was near the cliff face. He could see
the rim above. A group of five Englemann’s spruce grew near the wall.
Their straight trunks towered well above the rim and looked out across
the high mesa where the cabin stood. One of them grew so close to the
cliff face that its trunk touched the rim above.

Midnight drowsed, his eyes fixed lazily upon the leaning spruce.
Suddenly they popped wide open. He saw a big brown bear slide off the
rim above and come down the trunk, sliding and scraping the bark loose
in a shower of wood bits. The bear was descending tail first, moving
around the tree as he came down.

The black colt scrambled to his feet. The memory of the savage
silvertip was fresh in his mind. He tossed his head and snorted loudly.
The brown bear halted his descent and peered down at him, then began
to slide again. Then Midnight saw another bear, larger than the first,
swinging off the mesa above. The big fellow came down amid a shower of
bark and twigs. Midnight whirled and fled as far as he could get away
from the spruces. He halted and stood watching the two bears, ready to
dodge and run if they charged at him.

The two bears paid no attention to Midnight. They grunted and growled
as they walked into the aspen grove, where they prowled about rooting
into the dead leaves, overturning rotting logs. Then both sat up
letting their big paws droop over their shaggy bellies. They sat
looking up at the spruce trees. Down the leaning tree came two more
bears. Midnight pawed frantically but he was as far away from the bears
as he could get. The two newcomers joined the first pair in the aspen
grove. There was much growling and grunting, with many deep woofs
added. Midnight remained where he was, trembling and pawing the ground.
Within an hour seven bears had arrived by way of the leaning spruce,
and the grove was noisy with their gruff voices.

One he-bear walked to an aspen tree. Lifting himself to his full height
he gashed a mark on the trunk with his teeth. Another male, who had
been sitting watching him, got to his feet and walked to the tree. He
gashed the tree higher than the other had been able to reach. Then
a big fellow with a furry red face strolled to the tree. He grunted
several times as he stood up. He marked the tree a full six inches
above the highest mark, then dropped to the ground and faced the
other bears. The males backed away from him as though recognizing his
superior prowess. He strolled to one of the she-bears and nosed against
her. She accepted the caress and the big male turned toward the spruce
trees. He ambled to the leaning tree and started to climb. The she-bear
followed him obediently.

One of the other males edged close to a female, rumbling in his chest
as he moved toward her. Another male stepped forward and the two big
fellows faced each other. An angry argument followed. The aspen grove
rang with the roars of the two males, but they did not fight. One of
them backed away and the other led the she-bear to the sloping spruce
in triumph. They went up the tree and out on the mesa.

There were two males and one female left. The smaller fellow, a
smudged, black-faced bear, had edged close to the last she-bear. He
woofed and grunted in an attempt to get her to go with him, but she
just sat and looked up into the aspen branches. The larger he-bear
walked toward her. The little bear with the black face crowded in front
of her, growling warningly.

The big bear shuffled up to him, reared, and cuffed him hard alongside
of the head. The little fellow danced up and down and his roars shook
the branches of the aspens and echoed along the rock walls, but he
backed away from the she-bear.

The big fellow walked around her and grunted deeply. Then he headed
toward the leaning tree against the wall. She followed him while the
little bear sat with a sad expression on his face watching them. He
remained where he was until they had climbed out onto the mesa above.
He whined a little, ambled to the tree, and began climbing out of the
basin.

The love moon of the bears had risen. This secluded spot was the scene
of their first summer romancing. The pairs would wander away into the
woods and remain together for a while. Midnight did not understand the
nature of the gathering, but he did realize that they had not come to
the mesa prison to attack him. He edged out toward the grove which
reeked with bear scent. Snorting and jerking his head, he trotted
around to the lower end of the mesa where he nibbled a few blades of
grass. The wind carried the strong bear smell to him and he moved to
the upper end again where he bedded down for the night.

Then next morning while Midnight was feeding close to the beaver lake
he met another stranger. The animal was not large and it waddled
along at a slow pace. It had long, yellowish hair and it seemed
too dull-witted and slow to be dangerous. Midnight advanced. The
dull-witted one lifted the hair on his back but otherwise paid no
attention to the little horse.

Midnight had never met a porcupine. He thought the spines sticking out
of his back were long hairs. The dull gnawer of bark sat down when
Midnight got close to him. Only his tail moved, jerking up and down.
Midnight extended his soft muzzle and sniffed in a friendly manner. He
kept his legs planted wide so that he could leap if the porky came to
life suddenly and attacked him. The gnawer did not move, he huddled
into a ball of spiny fur, pulling his head back until only the tip of
his snout showed. Midnight tossed his head and pawed, his nose extended
closer as he sniffed and sniffed. Suddenly he felt a quick stab of pain
in his tender muzzle. He leaped back with a snort. An ivory barb that
was half black with ebony stuck out of his lower lip.

Midnight galloped away through the aspens, across the little meadow to
the far side. The pain in his lip increased as the barb dug deeper.
He halted and thrust his muzzle into the fresh, black dirt of a
pocket-gopher mound. He raked his nose back and forth in the damp
earth. The cool dirt soothed the burning sting but it also drove the
barb deeper into the tender flesh. Midnight next tried rubbing the
wounded spot against the trunk of a tree. The quill caught in the
rough bark and pulled free. It came away red with a little piece of
Midnight’s flesh clinging to it.

After that he left the dull gnawer of bark strictly alone. The porky
fed on the meadow or in the tops of the low bushes where he hung like a
spiny ball. His clicking grumble could be heard at any time during the
day.

And each day Midnight circled his prison seeking a way to get off the
mesa. He was uneasy and wanted more room. There was plenty of feed
and there was water, but there was no room to gallop. The confinement
worried him. He was not like the dull porky or the beavers, he was used
to wide spaces and an elevation from which he could look down on the
world. From the little mesa he could see nothing but trees, the canyon
wall, and the lake.

One day late in the spring two men rode down past the cabin at the edge
of the mesa. The meadow was green with waving grass, flowers rioted
in their hurry to produce seed before the brief high-country summer
slipped away. The ridges were blue with lupine or gold with mountain
daisies. In the shade clumps of columbine lifted their delicate blue
bells, exposing white hearts. Major Howard and his range boss, Tex,
were riding together.

Tex halted near the upper end of the meadow. He slid to the ground and
bent over a scattered mass of bones. Major Howard lighted his pipe and
waited. The eyes of the range boss were intent. He remained bent over
the bones so long that the major spoke impatiently.

“What’s so interesting about a pile of bones?”

Tex straightened and his eyes wandered to Sam’s cabin thoughtfully.

“Winter kill by a pack of wolves,” he said briefly.

“A horse the boys missed in the roundup?” the major asked with a show
of interest.

Tex nodded. “Some hide and hair left,” he said and his slow smile
showed for a moment. “I reckon this hoss was Lady Ebony.”

The major did not dismount. But he turned his horse and stared down at
the bones. He knew what Tex was thinking and it irritated him. He shook
his head grimly.

“Couldn’t be,” he said shortly.

“I figure it that way,” Tex answered. “It explains a lot of things fer
me.”

“You never did think old Sam stole that mare,” Major Howard said.

“No,” Tex replied quietly.

“I did and I still do. You cow-country boys are too soft-livered. The
old fellow left his cabin for three weeks or so. He refused to tell
where he had been. He had three hundred dollars in cash to pay an
attorney. He refused to tell where he got the money.” The major’s lips
pulled into a tight line. “You’ll have to dig up more proof than that
pile of bones.” He was staring at the desolate cabin, trying hard to
urge away the doubt Tex had raised in his mind. Major Howard was at
heart fair and honest. He smiled suddenly. “I wouldn’t be surprised to
see that mare at one of the races this summer.”

Tex shook his head. “You won’t see her at any track, boss.” He paused
and his gaze was somber; he was watching the chipmunks romping in the
grass over by the castle rocks. Sam had brought those little fellers
in. He’d be right surprised to know there was at least a half dozen
more of them now. Tex made a mental note of the increase. He’d tell Sam
when he stopped by to see him.

“The old fool is better off where he is. He has decent grub and a warm
place to sleep,” the major said gruffly.

“He don’t seem much interested in anything. Did ask if the mare showed
up, though, when I stopped by to see him.” Tex swung into his saddle.

“You let your feelings get the best of you,” the major said. It
irritated him the way Tex stubbornly clung to his belief that Sam was
innocent. “Besides, he came near killing a man,” the major added as
though to clinch the argument.

Tex said no more. The major was not his kind. He was really a stranger
in the high country, and a good deal of a tenderfoot in many ways. Like
Sam, Tex had lived all his life in the rough mountain country. The
range boss had long since ceased trying to understand his employer.

“I reckon he did plug that deputy,” he agreed. His manner and tone said
plainly that he would have done the same thing.

They rode on in silence. Tex drew himself into his shell and spoke only
when he had to answer a question, but he kept thinking about the pile
of bones. He thought of Sam too. The last time Tex visited the old
fellow Sam had a strange look in his eyes. Tex could not forget that
look; it haunted him. It was a homesick, lonesome look.



10. Escape


Midnight was never quite satisfied within the confining walls of his
prison. There was plenty of fine grass, shade, and water, but the
constant feeling that he was being held a prisoner irked him. He worked
out a route around the outer limits of the meadow which gave him a
chance to run. There was an open stretch along the high walls. From
there he made a trail above the beaver lake through a pile of slide
rock that had fallen from the cliff above. The trail swung to the lip
of the canyon, following a crooked course until it curved back and
around the lake again. Big rocks and fallen trees offered barriers.
The little stallion soon learned to take these barriers in clean jumps
which sent the blood pounding through him.

The racing gave him an outlet for his energy, a chance to give play to
his growing muscles. Snorting, shying, and whinnying shrilly he would
race around and around, his mane and tail flying, his nostrils flaring.
The exercise kept his body tough and hard. The blood of the chestnut
stallion which flowed in his veins would not let him surrender to the
peaceful existence offered by the sheltered meadow.

Midsummer found the little horse rapidly growing into a big and
powerful brute with a body which combined the slender legs, the
intelligent head, and the great heart of Lady Ebony with the rugged
strength of his father. His eyes betrayed the wild horse in him. They
flashed white rims when he was excited or angry and he bared his teeth
savagely when roused.

One day Midnight heard sounds which excited him greatly. They came
from the mesa above. He heard the pounding of many hoofs and above
the nickering and snorting of mares rose the squeal of a stallion
challenging the world defiantly. Midnight was resting in the shade of
the aspen grove after a wild run around the meadow. He dashed out into
the open and stood staring at the top of the canyon wall.

As he stood there a horse appeared. A pinto filly stood with lowered
head looking down into the canyon. She was a trim little mare with a
lithe, slender body and a yellow mane and tail which flowed in the
breeze. Midnight called to her eagerly and she turned her head to
locate him. Her ears pricked forward as she answered his call with a
quick eager whinny. Instantly wild excitement surged through the black.
He raced back and forth, keeping in the open, looking up at the pinto
as he danced and kicked.

The little mare seemed to appreciate his efforts. She edged closer
to the rim and nickered softly. The sound of her call sent Midnight
leaping through the timber, pounding around the trail he had made. As
he flashed into the sunlighted spaces below the rim he looked up to
see her standing still, cut sharply against the sky, looking down at
him. Again Midnight raced around his beaten pathway. As he flashed past
the crevice which barred him from escape he halted and stared at the
wide crack in the rock shelf. The trail beyond that fissure led to the
little mare!

Midnight backed away a few yards, lowered his head, and sniffed. He
suddenly lost his fear of the deep gash in the earth. With a defiant
squeal he charged straight at the gaping crack. His flying hoofs sent
rocks sailing into the canyon below. As he charged down on the barrier
he gathered his hard muscles under him for the long leap. Like a black
meteor he shot through the air. Leaping over barriers along this race
course had given Midnight needed training. His body arched as he
hurtled into space above the crevice. His forefeet reached for the
far ledge, landed and clung while he lashed with his hind feet in an
attempt to pull himself to safety. For a moment he hung there, poised
above the chasm, plunging and struggling, then he stumbled forward,
safe on the ledge trail.

Snorting and kicking, he pounded up the ledge until he came to the main
trail leading out of Shadow Canyon. Doubling back along that trail
he charged upward. With a clattering of loose stones he burst out on
the edge of the meadow and halted to look for the pinto. The little
mare had turned away from the rim. She stood looking at him, her neck
arched, her mane blowing around her shoulders. She nickered and pawed
at the grass tufts under her feet.

Midnight plunged toward her, eager to make friends. When he was within
a few yards of her she whirled and fled. Midnight raced after her,
calling wildly. The pinto ran toward the band of mares feeding in the
center of the mesa. Above them the chestnut stallion stood guard, his
sleek coat gleaming in the sun, his massive head erect. His protruding
eyes watched the pinto as she raced toward the mares with the black
colt close behind her. Midnight’s speed was greater than that of the
little mare and he was soon racing shoulder to shoulder with her.

A scream of rage broke from the chestnut stallion. With ears laid back,
nostrils flaring, he charged to meet Midnight. His teeth were bared
and his eyes flamed. He meant to finish this young upstart at once.
Midnight saw him coming and shoved over against the little mare,
heading her away from the band. The boss of the herd came on at top
speed. He was running at an angle to the course the two colts had taken.

Midnight had no fear of the big stallion. He was so wildly glad to see
a band of horses that he had no thought of battling any of them. The
chestnut came on with terrific force. He struck Midnight a smashing
blow which turned the colt halfway around and sent him staggering.
Midnight twisted and fought to keep from going down. The chestnut
reared and lashed out with his forefeet. His teeth reached for the
colt’s shoulder and his scream rang across the meadow.

As Midnight righted himself a terrible rage took him. He wanted to
fight the big stallion, to smash him, to tear him. Swerving, he let the
little mare dart into the band, then he whirled to meet the chestnut.
The big stallion was eager for the kill. He had smashed young stallions
before, driving them out of the band, and he expected to make short
work of this fellow. Midnight answered the challenge by lunging to meet
the leader’s second charge. The big stallion raised his heavy hoofs and
met Midnight’s attack with smashing blows which battered the colt back.
Pain brought a realization that the big stallion wanted to kill him
just as the wolf pack had often tried. He dodged the next attack, but
lunged in as the chestnut missed his target.

His feint only half saved him. The chestnut’s teeth ripped his shoulder
and a crushing blow staggered him. Midnight leaped away from the next
charge, which came as soon as the big fellow could wheel about. The
little black was outweighed and his strength was nothing compared with
that of the chestnut. The band of mares watched without showing much
excitement. The pinto stood in their midst, her ears well forward, her
eyes rolling.

When the chestnut charged again Midnight whirled and fled. He raced
away down the meadow with the big stallion thundering after him. The
chestnut was filled with savage eagerness. The victory was his and he
meant to overtake this black stallion and kill him. But Midnight was
the son of Lady Ebony, and had her fleetness. For a short distance he
sprinted as fast as he could run and in that time discovered that he
could easily outrun the big leader of the band. When he had satisfied
himself of this he circled around the meadow whinnying defiantly and
kicking up his heels.

The chestnut was wild with savage rage. He thundered after the flying
colt, but though he strained every muscle he could not overtake
Midnight. Nor could he seem to outwind or tire him. The colt raced and
dodged without seeming to feel the terrific pace. Around the mesa they
raced, then around again. The chestnut began to tire. His breath was
whistling from his nostrils and his flanks were streaked with lather.
Suddenly he swerved and came to a halt beside the band of mares.
Blowing and snorting he pawed defiantly, challenging Midnight to come
and fight. Midnight halted and nickered eagerly to the pinto filly.

The pinto answered his call. This angered the chestnut and he whirled
to lunge at her. Before the little mare could leap aside, his big body
smashed against her and his teeth sank deep into the fleshy part of
her back. Squealing and kicking, the pinto sprawled on her side in
the grass. The chestnut reared threateningly as she scrambled to her
feet. With a squeal of fright the pinto darted out of the band and ran
away across the mesa. The chestnut did not follow far. He was watching
Midnight, fearing the black would try to steal some of his harem.

Midnight leaped after the pinto. He soon overtook her and raced along
beside her. The chestnut stallion was furious. He forgot the other
mares and plunged after the colts. His speed was great enough to
overtake the pinto, and he forced her back into the band. Midnight
charged the big fellow and the chestnut whirled to give battle. The
filly raced in among the mares and stood watching.

The chestnut was eager to close with Midnight again. He lunged in and
his weight sent Midnight staggering back. Then he lunged once more,
before the black could get his balance. He landed squarely against
Midnight’s shoulder and the colt went down. He rolled and lunged while
massive hoofs pounded him and the chestnut’s teeth ripped gashes along
his side. Finally Midnight staggered to his feet. He ducked drunkenly
and saved himself from another smashing blow from the shoulder of the
chestnut. Pain stabbed through his shoulder joint and hampered his
speed as he tried to run away. The chestnut sensed that his victory was
about to be complete. With squeals of triumph he charged on the colt.
Midnight thought of the ledge trail where he had always found haven
when wolves and cougars came. If he could reach that ledge he would
make a stand.

Desperately the little stallion plunged toward the castle rocks. The
chestnut overtook him and smashed him aside, but Midnight dodged and
raced on, not stopping to fight. Again the chestnut smashed him, his
teeth ripping gashes across Midnight’s rump. The black staggered and
weaved under the terrible battering but he kept going. He reached the
ledge and plunged upward with the chestnut slashing at his back, trying
to smash him to the ground where he could finish the fight.

Midnight tried to whirl about on the ledge. He suddenly realized that
if the big fellow got him trapped in the shelter at the end of the
trail the chestnut would kill him. He managed to turn around and face
the charging leader of the band. They smashed together and Midnight
went down, sprawling and kicking on the narrow ledge. He rolled over
and his hoofs slid over the rim. In a moment he was sliding down over
the edge.

Screaming and pawing, the chestnut glared over the rim. He saw his
adversary land on a shelf below and stagger slowly to his feet. The big
stallion raced up and down the trail but saw no way to reach the colt
below.

       *       *       *       *       *

The spot where Midnight landed was only a few yards below the place
where he had landed when the silvertip shoved him over the edge. He got
to his feet panting and blowing. For a long time he stood trembling,
favoring his pain-raked shoulder. Then with a squeal of defiance he
hobbled along the ledge and down to the little meadow where he had
lived before the band came to the mesa. He was eager to cross the
crevice again and join the horses above, but when he reached the aspen
grove he halted to ease the pains shooting through his shoulder. After
a bit he moved on. He halted at the edge of the crevice and stood
listening. He did not try to leap across the narrow chasm, he would
have to wait until the pain left his shoulder. Above he could hear the
triumphant snorting and calling of the chestnut stallion. Slowly he
turned and walked back to the aspen grove. After a time he lay down on
a bed of dead leaves and grass.

He lay still and listened. From the mesa came the sounds of the feeding
herd. For a time the chestnut pranced about nickering and snorting.
The mares fed eagerly, not paying any attention to him, except when he
came close to one of them. The ears of the little horse in the aspen
grove followed every sound intently. He snorted and struggled painfully
to his feet when the chestnut blasted a warning to the mares. There
was a rolling thunder of hoofs as the wild band charged across the
mesa and into the timber. Midnight tried to race to the crevice but at
the first step he stumbled and almost fell. Slowly he hobbled to the
edge where he stood shaking his head and calling loudly. The rhythm
of the pounding hoofs died away quickly and Midnight was alone again.
He turned back and hobbled at a slow walk toward his bed in the aspen
grove.

In the days which followed Midnight listened for the sound of racing
hoofs and the whinny of the band, but the big stallion did not lead the
mares back to the high mesa. He ranged far up on the side of the Crazy
Kills where the trails were steep and broken and the meadows small and
surrounded by dense cover. In the barrens close to timber line few
cattle ranged and none of Major Howard’s riders cared to make the steep
climb, knowing the stray cows that climbed up that high would come down
long before roundup time.

Midnight dropped into his former way of living. As soon as his shoulder
became sound he began making his usual rounds of the little race
course. And many times he charged to the edge of the crevice where he
would slide to a halt and stand snorting and shaking his head. His leg
was still stiff, too stiff for so long a jump, and he did not have the
nearness of mares to fill him with wild excitement. He did not forget
the wild band and the pinto filly, but his wild desire for freedom was
not hot and driving. His body filled out and his legs and chest took on
a ruggedness which made him lose the coltish look.

The old beavers increased their efforts. Helped by a brood of
youngsters, they cut trees and peeled bark from early morning until
late at night. They had long since ceased to worry about being about by
daylight. The seclusion of the little meadow had changed their habits a
great deal. Their storehouses were bulging but they worked feverishly
anyway, as though they were facing a famine period. And they built
houses over the land openings where their runways came to the surface
of the meadow, tall piles of mud and sticks, laced together and padded
down into a tough, warm masonry which would keep out the biting frosts
of winter. Midnight watched them lazily. He could not know they were
expecting another hard winter. But he did have an uneasy feeling when
the first frosts came. The wild strain in his blood stirred and he
would have left the high country had he been free to go. One morning he
trotted to the edge of the meadow and found it white with glistening
frost. The white carpet disturbed him. He rushed to the edge of the
crevice and stood there snorting and pawing. But he did not try the
long jump.

The frosts deepened. The aspen leaves swirled down to cover the roots,
the bulbs and the seeds bedded under the soft loam. The grass turned
brown and the big spruce trees standing close to the wall moaned as a
cold wind swept down from the new snow fields high on the barren peaks
of the Crazy Kills. The haze of an Indian summer day was swept away by
the first snow of winter and again the world turned white and the air
became snapping cold. Midnight put on his heavy robe of shaggy hair
which turned the sharp blasts whirling downward.

The snow deepened and Midnight dug for grass. He moved his bedground to
a needle-padded spot under a giant spruce where the snow never fell.
Now he was interested only in a battle to keep his belly filled. He was
still growing and his body demanded food for new muscles and sinews as
well as for warmth. The storms came and the snow on the meadow became
deeper and deeper. The mesa above was lashed by bitter winds but the
sheltered meadow did not feel their lash. On its surface the snow
settled down in loose, deep smoothness which formed a warm blanket for
the grass and the flowers. Great drifts formed along the rim above,
fanned out by the wind and the drifting snow on the upper bench. Their
white lips thrust far out over the edge of the canyon like the rounded
curves of giant mushrooms.

One moonlit night as Midnight lay on his dry bed of needles he heard
a strange sound and felt the earth tremble under him. The sound came
from the rim above. He peered upward but could see nothing except the
protruding snowbanks and the gleaming whiteness of the world outside
his shelter. The sound was a deep, grating rumble that reminded him
of distant thunder. One of the overhanging lips of snow had broken
under the great weight of tons of snow and had settled down. For a
few minutes it moved slowly, grinding rocks off the wall, settling,
sliding, packing the snow into ice. Then its speed increased and the
dull rumble broke into a terrible roar as thousands of tons of snow
shot downward. Midnight leaped to his feet and trembled as he watched.

The mass of snow plunged and boiled as it shot downward. It seethed
around a stand of spruce. The big trees, many of them several feet
through at the butt, jerked and swayed like saplings, then went down
to be swallowed up by the maelstrom of ice and snow. Boulders were
torn from their beds and from the face of the cliff. They were ground
to sand in the maw of the slide. The whole cataract became dirty gray
in color. Its roar shook the mesa as it poured into Shadow Canyon.
A startled snowshoe rabbit, routed from his bed under a fallen log,
leaped into the air, plunged forward, then bounced high as the dirty
mass caught him. For a moment he hung above the seething mass, then
dropped into it and vanished, ground to nothingness.

The slide struck the lower end of the little mesa. It shot into the
deep crevice, filling it full, then boiling over to roll on down into
the main canyon. It cut a swath through the spruces and aspens growing
on the steep slope of the big gulch. The timber went down like grass
before the bar of a mowing machine.

The white death was only a few seconds in passing but it struck fear
into the heart of the black stallion. He snorted and pawed excitedly.
And he was not alone in his fear. Up on the high mesa the old
timber-line buck, who had returned to his feed grounds, leaped from his
bed under a spruce. He stood staring out into the white world, rigid,
shaking his heavy antlers and grunting. Every wild creature within
hearing stopped and listened, tense, ready to break and run. They all
knew the terror of the white death and each knew that to try to dash
away would be useless because of the terrible speed and the uncertainty
of the course it would take. They would try to run if it came hurtling
upon them, but until they saw it they did not move. It was an hour
before Midnight bedded down again.

In the morning the colt plowed his way to his feed ground near the
beaver lake. He stood for a time staring at the spot where the crevice
had been. The deep fissure was filled with dirty snow, yellow,
resin-oozing timbers, torn and ripped apart, and broken boulders. It
was packed as hard as the frozen surface of a lake. Carefully Midnight
ventured out on it and found it solid. His weight did not make it
settle at all.

He worked his way step by step across the dirty snow, then headed up
the trail leading to the meadow. The snow was so deep he had to plunge,
rising on his forefeet and lunging. When he rested the snow pressed
close against his sides. Coming out on top he halted to look out across
the meadow. A sharp, icy wind cut at him and loose snow swirled around
his legs. He saw the old timber-line buck digging for weeds near the
timber. Midnight whinnied eagerly and plunged toward the ancient one.
The old buck jerked up his head and watched Midnight as he floundered
across the mesa. They met and stood staring at each other for some
time. Finally the buck turned his back and began digging again.
Midnight set to work pawing for grass.

Bitter winds swept across the meadow and cut through Midnight’s shaggy
coat. Snow swirled before the wind and piled into deep drifts. The mesa
was more bleak and icy than the little meadow under the rim. And the
grass was not so good when it was uncovered. But the black stallion
had companionship of a sort. He worked busily all that day to fill his
belly with grass. At dusk he headed toward his haven under the rim.
Darkness settled before he reached the canyon trail and the moonlight
gleamed on the snow. Midnight was tired when he reached his dry bed
under the big spruce.

After that he stayed on the bench under the rim. It was warmer down
under the wall and the grass was easier to get. He could dig without
much effort. Now that he knew he could leave the little mesa whenever
he chose he did not want to go.

Up on the high mesa the old buck was finding life hard. He had no help
in digging for food and his legs were stiff, with a tightness he had
never felt before. Age was slowing the spring in his powerful muscles.
His horns still held patches of velvet. The patches clung in dry, furry
spots on his polished lances. The old buck had not had the energy to
polish them and scrub them as he should have. Midnight did not know
that he had deserted his friend at a time when the ancient monarch
needed him badly.

Late one afternoon the black stallion was startled by a familiar cry.
A pack of lobo wolves had swept out of the spruce at the edge of the
meadow above. Their cry came when they sighted the old timber-line
buck, and the cry was the cry of the kill. Midnight plunged to his
shelter under the big spruce and stood there tossing his black mane.
His eyes rolled white and he snorted savagely.

Up on the mesa the old buck had whirled about to dash for the safety of
the timber and the castle rocks. He had ample time to escape and should
have outdistanced his pursuers, but his stiffened legs refused to lift
with the smooth power he had always possessed. Before he was halfway to
cover the pack was leaping around him, their yellow eyes flaming, their
red tongues jerking over white fangs.

There on the flat mesa the old monarch made his last stand. With
sweeping, thrusting antlers he met the leaping attack of the gray
killers. They darted and lunged and dodged around him, keeping up a
mad chorus of yelping and snarling. The old buck could not guard his
vital parts against all the wolves. One after another they slid under
his frantic, thrusting antlers to rip gashes in his flanks and legs.
Snorting and blowing savagely he fought with horns and lashing hoofs.

The wolves knew they would win and they kept up their ripping, tearing
tactics, never fastening on the big fellow long enough for his sharp
hoofs to strike them. Weakened by the loss of blood, staggering as
each new wound opened, the old fellow fought his way stubbornly toward
the timber. Every foot of his retreating trail was marked by bloody,
trampled snow.

One of the wolves, taking advantage of the slowing thrusts of the
old buck’s antlers, dodged in and slashed the tendons of a hind leg.
Slowly, with antlers still lashing, the old monarch settled down into
the snow and lay beating with his forelegs and jerking his head.
Instantly every wolf was on him and their howls were more savage than
before.

The end of the monarch was the destined end of all wild dwellers. The
end of a life of struggle and constant alertness. The law of the wild
was fulfilled. While youth and vigor gave him power and speed the buck
lived and went his way, but when that strength slipped from him he went
down before the gray killers.

Under the big spruce Midnight stood listening to the growling and
snarling of the pack as they tore the warm flesh from the bones of the
old buck. He watched and waited, expecting the pack to come leaping
down the ledge trail and across the slide-filled fissure. But they did
not scent him because the wind always blew off the high mesa and seldom
came up out of the canyon except in the spring. When the killers had
stripped the bones and cracked the ones their powerful jaws could break
they left the mangled carcass and raced away through the moonlight,
seeking another victim.

Then the little fox came out of his den and a pair of coyotes trotted
up from the shadows under the spruce at the lower end of the mesa. The
little fox and the coyotes fought over the bones, dragging them away to
spots where they could lie down and gnaw them or crack them and lick
the still warm marrow fat from their centers.



11. New Trails


Spring came with a chinook and a sudden thaw which broke a week of
bitter weather. The transformation was in the nature of a miracle.
Soft breezes blew up from the valleys, warm winds which settled the
snow and filled it with water. Midnight smelled the earthiness of the
wind from the lowlands and pranced eagerly. A change as sudden as the
change in the weather had come over him. For months he had given all
his attention to the gnawing hunger which was always demanding more dry
grass; now he was stirred by another urge. He wanted to be free to run,
to seek something he did not understand.

Shaking his head he galloped through the slush and mud to the ledge
trail. The dirty ice filling the crevice had not settled. The force of
the slide had packed it so hard that it melted only a little on the
surface. Midnight walked across the fissure and up the ledge trail.
He stood on the edge of the meadow and looked across its gleaming
surface. With an eager nicker he plowed through the wet snow. The old
timber-line buck was not there to greet him and the only answer to his
call was the harsh and irritated chatter of a crested jay in the timber.

Midnight moved out on the mesa and began pawing for grass. He was
hungry and now that he was in the open he did not know what he desired
or where he wanted to go, so he set to feeding. After a time he moved
down beside the castle rocks and stood staring into the smoky haze of
the valley country.

Toward evening he went to the castle rocks and climbed up to the
shelter he had shared with Lady Ebony. He sniffed about, pawing and
snorting as he smelled cougar scent. The cat smell mingled with the
pungent odor coming from the pack rat’s nest in the corner. The cat
smell was cold but it stirred him to uneasy anger. He tore to bits the
bed of sticks where the king cat had slept, scattering them about on
the rocky floor.

That night the cold came again and the slushy snow froze into a coating
of ice. In the morning the meadow was locked under a thick rust of icy
armor and Midnight was forced to work hard to get a meal. For several
weeks he battled to keep his stomach filled. But with the passing of
each day the air grew warmer and softer, the snow settled, and bare
spots began to appear. Midnight was able again to eat his fill. He
raced around the meadow giving play to his powerful muscles. He was big
and strong; another season would see him a magnificent black stallion.

As the snow line crept back into the timber to make its last stand in
the shadows under the spruce, the buds on the trees burst and the first
flowers shoved their heads out of the ground. Green shoots pushed up
through the dead grass. Their lush juices tantalized the black horse.
He could not get enough of them, yet he could not let them alone. His
efforts always ended by his eating a great deal of the cured grass in
order to fill his belly.

The bears came ambling across the meadow in pairs and singly to slide
down the leaning spruce for their spring meeting before the flowering
of their love moon. The wolves ran under the spring stars or howled
on barren ridges. Midnight did not pay much attention to the gray
killers. He had come to know by their howls when they were hunting and
when they were serenading. The old tom cougars stalked through the
timber while the she-cats sought them out, which is the way of the big
cats. And the little folk left their winter dens to race about in the
warm sunshine. The yellowbelly whistlers blasted their shrill warning
from the sentinel stone while the calico chips and the rockchips
stayed within the protected area where they could pay attention to the
warnings given by the whistlers. The hawks circled in the blue above,
billowing with the gusts of spring wind, while the eagles circled high
above them in the still upper air. One day the chipmunks came out and
the meadow rang with their chock-chock song as they celebrated their
awakening.

In all this celebrating and excitement the cabin at the edge of the
meadow stood silent and disconsolate, dead and lifeless. It seemed
older and more weathered than before. The weeds on its dirt roof did
not break into green foliage as soon as those in the meadow. One of
the eaves boards had given way, letting the dirt covering slip from a
corner of the roof and exposing the split slabs beneath. The spring
showers made little gullies and seams which looked like wrinkles. At
the door the willow chair lay on its side, tipped over by the snow or
some inquisitive visitor who recognized that the man smell was long
cold and dead.

Midnight visited the cabin often, smelling about. He used its rough log
corners as a scratching post against which he leaned and rubbed while
he grunted with pleasure. The rubbing loosened mats of hair from his
sides and soon his coat was sleek and shining, new as the blue flowers
crowding the shady spots at the edge of the timber. As spring advanced
Midnight became more nervous. He ran more often and for longer at a
time, sometimes circling the meadow several times before halting to paw
restlessly. He did not leave the meadow but he was always listening and
often paused to call shrilly.

Down on the desert the chestnut stallion and his band had met with an
ordeal unusual for them. There had been only light snows all winter
and the spring rains had been so light they did not settle the dust
or harden the sand. The grass was short and poor in quality. The big
stallion had trouble forcing the mares to do as he wished. The wise
old ones knew that there was grass and water in the mountains and were
determined to head that way. Finally the chestnut gave in and led them
toward the Crazy Kill Range. They worked their way quickly through the
foothills where cowboys were shoving white-faced cattle out on the
spring range. The mares would gladly have stayed to feed and put some
fat on their lank frames in the low country where the grass was growing
lustily, but the chestnut drove them higher, toward the bleak meadows
under timber line where the riders would not come.

One morning the band arrived at the high mesa overlooking Shadow
Canyon. The mares and colts came up the narrow trail first, with the
chestnut bringing up the rear. When they broke from the canyon they
spread out and began feeding. The pinto filly was the second one to
reach the mesa. She was stronger and tougher than any of the other
mares and had stood the winter better.

Midnight was resting in the timber close above the clearing by the
cabin when the pinto and her mother walked out into the tall grass. He
plunged to his feet and whinnied loudly. The mare halted and looked
at him without answering his call, but the pinto tossed her head and
nickered eagerly. With a flash of her heels she trotted to meet him.
Midnight charged across the grass and slid to a halt beside her. The
pinto pivoted and lashed out at him with her trim heels. Midnight
dodged and the filly headed across the meadow with the black swinging
along at her side. They raced the full length of the mesa and back
again, to halt at the base of the castle rocks where they stood,
snorting and prancing.

Their second run took them charging through the band of mares spread
out on the meadow. The scrawny colts in the band bounced after the
fleeting racers until they were outdistanced while the mares watched
without interest. Just at that moment they were far too busy pulling
grass to care about this black stallion.

The chestnut trotted out on the meadow and stood looking about for
danger signs. He sighted the black and the pinto racing across the
grass and his eyes rolled, his ears flattened, and he blasted a savage
challenge.

Midnight and the pinto whirled and were standing on high ground at the
upper end of the mesa. The pinto tossed her head and leaped away toward
the mares as she saw the lord of the herd charging toward her. Midnight
sent his own challenge ringing across the meadow as he leaped to meet
the big stallion. His feelings were much different than they had been
at their first meeting. Now he was eager to accept the challenge to
battle, and savage rage, as great as the rage of the chestnut, filled
him. He had his father’s fighting blood in his veins.

The two stallions crashed together and the greater weight and power of
the chestnut sent Midnight staggering back. He was not yet so rugged
and heavy as his father. He recovered his balance and reared with teeth
bared and hoofs pounding. The master of the band raised his massive
hoofs and struck back as he reached for Midnight’s neck with his teeth.
The two stood like boxers, hammering away at each other. Again Midnight
was pounded back.

The chestnut had only one idea in his head and that was to smash this
black stallion who had dared challenge his mastery. It would not have
mattered had he known that Midnight was his son. He was sure he would
soon end the career of the black; he knew his advantage and rushed upon
the colt with savage eagerness.

Midnight met the next charge and was hammered back once more, giving
ground slowly as the heavy hoofs pounded him and the bared teeth ripped
tufts of hair from his shoulders and neck. Slowly the chestnut pushed
him toward the rim of the canyon. But Midnight refused to turn tail and
run. This time he had a different urge to keep him fighting. He was
not a lonesome colt seeking companionship, he was a stallion desiring
the rightful place of a leader. He could easily have outdistanced
the chestnut had he chosen to flee, but he was filled with hot rage.
He had a wild desire to kill the big stallion who was battering him.
Slowly he gave ground, moving down the gentle slope of the mesa toward
the rocky edge of the canyon. Behind him the walls of Shadow Canyon
dropped away in a sheer face a hundred feet in height. There was no
brush-padded ledge close under the rim at that point, but the black
paid no attention to the danger.

Foot by foot the two moved down the slope. Blood spurted from wounds on
shoulders and necks. The smell of it increased the fury of the battling
stallions. Their savage screams rang through the spruce timber and
echoed back from the walls of the castle rocks.

The chestnut reared and plunged, eager to smash his antagonist to the
ground. Midnight met the smashing charge with counterblows, but he
was driven backward though he remained on his feet. A red wound gaped
on his chest and blood trickled down across the white splash on his
forehead but his fury was so great that he did not feel the pain. His
hind feet struck solid rock and stones flew into the canyon behind
him. He was poised on the very edge of the chasm. Then he saw his
danger, as he shifted sidewise to dodge the blows of the big stallion.
His hind feet were planted inches from the rim as he reared to meet
another attack. The chestnut was blind with fury, he did not see the
sheer drop ahead. With a terrible scream he lunged.

Midnight had met every charge squarely, desiring only to match blows
with his foe, but the dizzy space under his feet made him suddenly
change his tactics. He leaped aside to avoid being shoved over the
edge. The chestnut’s lunge carried him forward like an avalanche. Too
late he saw the rim and the empty space ahead. Plunging and sliding he
shot toward the abyss. Midnight’s rump was toward him and close. With
a shrill cry the black lashed out with his hind feet. His hoofs landed
against the side of the struggling stallion poised on the dizzy height.
The chestnut might have saved himself but for that hail of blows. With
a defiant, savage squeal he plunged into space.

Midnight whirled about and stood with lowered head, hot breath
whistling through his flaring nostrils, his eyes rolling so that their
white rims gleamed in the morning sunlight. He watched the body of the
chestnut turn over and over in the air as it shot down to land in a
mangled heap on a pile of rocks. Stamping and snorting he waited for
the chestnut to get to his feet and start back to finish the battle.
The chestnut did not move, but lay, a mangled heap of broken bones
and twisted muscles at the foot of the cliff. Midnight challenged his
adversary many times as he stood there on the high rim. When he got
no reply he turned toward the mares who had not stopped their eager
feeding. The pinto nickered eagerly and left her grass pulling to trot
toward him. The mares lifted their heads for a moment as he came
closer. Midnight trotted to them, dancing as he approached.

With the pinto beside him he raced once around the meadow, then the two
joined the mares. Midnight was too excited to start feeding. He walked
around sniffing at the colts, edging up to the mares. The old ones laid
back their ears and warned him to keep his distance. When he tried to
nose one of their colts they humped their backs warningly. But they
accepted him as the master of the band and waited for him to assert
himself in the savage and harsh manner to which they were accustomed.
But Midnight lacked much in leadership. He really wanted to be a member
of the band and not a leader. He wanted to play with the pinto filly.
His rage had cooled and with it had gone much of the strange power
he had felt while battling the chestnut stallion. The pinto did not
understand why she was interested in Midnight but she stayed close to
his side and divided her attention between him and the lush grass.

Toward evening the mares became restless. They were used to seeking
cover before night fell. One old mare moved away from the band. She
had decided that this new leader was not going to seek a safe retreat.
She shook her head, then moved into the timber. The others followed
her with Midnight and the pinto coming along behind, nipping at each
other and making a great show of kicking their heels and lashing at
each other. And the old mare changed the course the chestnut had so
insistently followed. She headed across the ridge and down into a deep
valley.

The mares followed their new leader. They expected the chestnut
stallion to come charging through the woods after them to drive them
back toward the high ridges, but they did not want to go higher and did
not intend to head that way until he came.

The moon swung up over a spruce ridge and flooded the valley with white
light. The wise old mare selected a sheltered little meadow for a
stopping place. It was small and the band of thirty horses had to crowd
close together, but it smallness offered protection against cougars and
wolves. The cunning and harsh leadership of the chestnut stallion had
taken much of the natural wariness away from the mares. They had always
depended on him to guide them.

Late that night Midnight had his first chance to take his place as
protector and lord of the band. The mares and the colts had bedded
down. Midnight and the pinto had raced around the clearing and come
to a halt on a wooded knoll overlooking the meadow. They stood close
together, snorting and pawing and playing. They pretended to see forms
in the black shadows under the spruce. While they were standing there
a lank cougar passed below the high point. His nose wrinkled and his
long, black-tipped tail lashed as he scented the mares and colts
sleeping in the open.

Circling to windward the yellow killer crept to the edge of the meadow.
He was looking for the sentinel he expected to find on guard over
the band. When he saw no guard he snarled softly and his yellow eyes
flamed. He peered intently at the bedded horses and his eyes fastened
on a colt standing close to his mother who was lying in a deep hollow.
The colt’s head was down and his furry rump was toward the king cat.

Silently, like a tawny shadow, the cat slid through the grass toward
the unsuspecting colt. When he was within striking distance he drew
his powerful legs under him and flattened his head between his massive
forepaws. His long claws moved slowly in and out, sheathing and
unsheathing their sharp points; his lips pulled away from his fangs.

Up on the knoll Midnight was dancing on his hind legs, his ears back,
his bared teeth reaching to nip at the neck of the pinto. She whirled
and lashed out at him with her slender feet. Midnight dodged the blows
and crowded against her, shoving her roughly to one side. She laid back
her ears and sunk her teeth into the loose skin of his shoulder.

The pain angered Midnight and he whirled to teach her a lesson. His
lunge was halted as the savage scream of the cougar cracked the
stillness. His forefeet struck the ground with a thud and he stood
beside the pinto, staring toward the mares. The frightened whinny of a
colt mingled with the cry of the big cat. That cry from the stricken
colt sent a surging rush of rage through Midnight. He plunged straight
down the slope toward the spot where the cat had made his attack. In
the meadow the mares had lurched to their feet and were snorting and
milling about. With a ringing call the black stallion charged to the
rescue.

The cougar had landed on the colt’s back, striking him down instantly.
The little fellow was dead in a moment. Standing on the limp body of
his victim, the yellow killer faced the angry mares who plunged around
him. Midnight charged through the circle and leaped at the killer, his
ears laid back, his battle cry ringing. This was something the cougar
had not expected. He had decided there was no stallion with the band.
Now he arched his back and reared to meet Midnight. He lashed out at
the black as he came in.

The cougar stayed a minute too long in facing the enraged Midnight. He
expected the stallion to swerve and rush past, but Midnight did not
swerve. He lifted his forefeet and struck straight into the face of
the killer. His smashing hoofs descended on the head and shoulders of
the king cat. The blows sent the cat rolling and tumbling over and
over on the grass. Instantly the mares joined the attack. Once a leader
had braved the terrible fangs and claws of the cat they were ready to
finish the job.

Screaming and rolling, the cougar tried to escape, to get to his feet
and leap clear of the smashing hoofs, but the hoofs beat him down and
trampled him. Teeth tore at him as he twisted and lashed. His claws and
teeth were poor protection against the sharp hoofs of the horses. He
was battered back on the grass each time he tried to get his feet under
him. In a minute’s time he was a bloody pulp and the mares had backed
away. They stood in a circle around him, their nostrils flaring, their
eyes rolling.

Midnight danced about snorting and blowing excitedly. He was aware
again of his power and was beginning to understand the job he had taken
over from the chestnut. The mares stood waiting for him to decide what
should be done. When he did not offer to lead them away from the scene
of the kill an old mare struck out and the others followed except the
mother whose colt was dead. She stood over him nickering and calling,
trying to get him to his feet.

The pinto went with the mares. She had been badly frightened by the
attack and wanted to stay close beside her mother. Midnight trotted
after the band and stood by while they bedded down in another meadow
near the scene of the attack. He walked around sniffing and snorting,
expecting another cougar to come out of the night. When nothing
happened, he lay down for a few hours’ rest just before dawn. One of
the old mares at once got up and set to feeding apart from the herd.
She seemed to sense that Midnight had much to learn about leadership.

The next day the band fed in the meadow until the old mare decided they
should move on. Midnight did not offer to lead them, so she struck
out. They headed deeper into the lush grass country. They passed many
white-faced cows and yearling steers. Occasionally a lordly bull would
saunter out of the shade to watch them. The band had invaded Major
Howard’s finest grass belt. They did not know the danger this would
bring, all they thought of was the fine grass and the plentiful supply
of water in the clear, rushing streams. There was aspen shade for the
middle of the day and there was spruce timber for shelter from the
sudden and violent thunderstorms with their cold rain.

The band soon forgot the chestnut stallion. Midnight was an easy
master. He let them wander where they wished. But he was a fierce and
terrible fighter when roused. They accepted him without much concern,
giving way to his few demands.

The thunderstorms seldom lasted over half an hour and the spruce
needles shed the rain. Midnight was happy in the easy life. The pinto
played with him, racing over the grass in the mornings or at dusk. She
did what he demanded without making any demands of her own. And now
Midnight had begun to watch for enemies while the herd fed. He was
slowly learning what was expected of him.



12. Doom of the Band


Tex dropped the saddle he was dragging across the yard. He faced Major
Howard, his lean face expressionless. The major was out of sorts that
morning and when he was in such a mood he was short-spoken. In his
irritation he did not notice that Tex was not in a jovial frame of mind
either.

“The boys tell me there’s a band of thirty wild horses down on the
aspen range. I want you to take a crew up there and clean them out.” He
added as an after-thought, “Use rifles and make sure none of them get
away.”

Tex scowled. He was dead set against shooting any sort of horse, even a
scrub.

“Why not round ’em up and sell ’em?” he asked.

The major grunted disgustedly. He could never understand the quirks in
the nature of his range boss. Tex knew the wild horses were worthless
on the market. They would be tough and mean to handle, half of them
never could be broken, and they would not bring ten dollars a head. To
the major this was a simple matter of business. Tex did not object to
raising fine cattle for slaughtering, therefore he should not object to
killing a few head of worthless horses. The major spoke impatiently.

“You know it would cost more to corral and handle that bunch than we
could get out of them,” he snapped. “Kill them all. While I had more
open range than I could use I wasn’t so particular, but I’ve just
bought two big herds of whitefaces. It will take every foot of grass
I own to run them.” The major noticed that Tex was not convinced. He
added more quietly, “This is business, big business.”

“I reckon so,” Tex answered as he reached down and caught the horn of
his saddle.

The major was ruffled by Tex’s reply.

“If you don’t want to handle this job I’ll get another man to take
charge of it.”

“I’ll handle it,” Tex said grimly. Then he added almost to himself, “I
thought that chestnut stud was the smartest hoss on the range. Never
figured he’d trail his herd down into cow country where the boys ride
regular.”

“Well, he has and I want that scrub stuff killed,” the major answered.

Tex dragged his saddle into the corral and whistled to his bay gelding.
The bay trotted to meet him and Tex let his mouth relax into a grin as
he patted the big fellow’s neck.

“I reckon we’ll have to do the dirty work,” he said softly.

Tex picked four men to go with him, men who could handle saddle
carbines expertly. He did not want any careless shooting. The kills
would have to be clean. When he explained the major’s orders to the
men they growled but none of them refused to go. They all shared Tex’s
dislike for the job, but they would carry out the boss’s orders.

The execution crew rode away from the ranch with thirty-thirty rifles
slapping under their stirrup flaps. The boys who had reported to the
major had given the location of the herd. Tex did not expect to find
the band where the boys had seen them, but by riding to that meadow
they could pick up the trail. Thirty horses would leave plenty of
tracks.

Tex speculated gloomily on the foolish turn the habits of the wild band
had taken. The big stallion at their head must have lost his cunning or
else he had met with disaster and a younger leader had taken his place.

Silently the men rode through the timber and up the long ridges leading
out of the lower valley. They entered the aspen belt and took a trail
which ran along the top of a rocky ridge. From that ridge they crossed
over to another and finally followed a red-granite cliff wall which
led them into a narrow meadow. Towering rims of granite formed a half
circle around the meadow with scattered spruce close to the wall on
the lower side where the meadow broke off into the lower country. The
entrance to the narrow valley was grown over by a stand of young aspen
trees. Tex hoped to pick up the trail of the herd in this meadow and
follow it from there. He halted his men in the dense cover and scowled
across the meadow.

At the upper end fed the band of wild horses he sought. They had not
moved their feed ground since the boys had first located them. Tex
was disgusted with them; they were acting like brood mares in a farm
pasture.

“The chestnut stud isn’t running that bunch,” he said gruffly.

The men nodded agreement and Shorty Spears, horse-breaker for the
ranch, spoke up.

“Must be an old mare at the head of that herd. This is just the spot an
old biddie would pick, grass knee-high, water close in.”

Tex nodded. He was studying the band carefully. Finally he gave his
orders.

“Two of you take the upper side along the wall. Keep in the brush cover
until you work your way down close to them. Make clean jobs, no gut
shooting or broken legs. Shorty, you and Cal take the lower side along
the rim. They won’t break down over that wall. I’ll wait here in the
outlet and pick off any that break past you boys. They have to come out
this way. Now get going.”

The men divided forces and rode away. They were eager to get a bad job
done. It would be no sport for them, shooting down a band of mares
and colts. The horses were trapped and would be helpless before the
repeating rifles. Tex watched them go. He noted grimly that even the
wind was against the wild horses. They had no sentinel posted and Tex
could spot no stallion among them. The execution should be quick and
complete.

Midnight fed beside the pinto filly. They had just finished a race
around the meadow and were standing in a clump of young spruce and
balsam looking down over the lower valleys. The rim at their feet broke
off steeply. It was matted with brush; ragged rocks jutted up through
the green leaves. The black stallion was nervous and uneasy, though he
did not know why. He had a feeling of confinement, similar to that he
had felt while he was a prisoner on the meadow below the high mesa. He
tossed his head and pawed, snorting impatiently. He was making ready to
drive the band out of the closed meadow.

With a sharp nicker he whirled and laid his ears back. The pinto edged
away from him. With mane flaring and tail flowing around her heels she
kicked high into the air and dashed away toward the mares. Midnight
charged after her, sending his warning call ringing across the meadow.
The mares jerked up their heads and stared at him, then looked around
uneasily to see what had startled him. When they saw nothing they fell
to feeding again. They had no intention of leaving this horse heaven
until they were driven out, and their experience with Midnight did not
make them leap into action the way a command from the chestnut would
have acted on them. This meadow was a safe retreat from cougars and
wolves. No killer could slip up on them with the steep rim on one side
and the high walls on the other.

Reaching the first mare, Midnight rushed at her, and when she did not
leap away he fastened his bare teeth on her rump. The mare squealed in
pain and surprise. Humping her back and bucking up and down she fled
before his lashing attack. Midnight rushed at another and sent her
staggering as his powerful chest smashed into her. It had taken him
days to get worked up to this nervous and panicky pitch, but he was
roused now and meant to drive the band out of the meadow.

He was swinging around the band, slashing at the mares with his teeth
or crashing into them to get them to hurry when the silence of the
valley was shattered by two crashing reports from near the base of the
cliff. An old mare near Midnight staggered, turned halfway around,
then sank to the grass without making a sound. Another mare plunged
into the air and slid on her side until she came to rest in a grassy
hollow, her legs beating the air in jerky spasms. The two shots did
more to snap life and action into the band than Midnight had been able
to accomplish. The mares charged wildly toward the aspen grove which
marked the outlet to the trap. Mothers crowded colts along as fast as
the little ones could run. The spitting and crashing of rifles echoed
along the canyon wall and mares plunged into the grass mortally wounded
at every leap the band took. A cloud of dust rolled up behind the
charging band and in that cloud of dust Midnight ripped and lashed as
he drove the wild ones on.

The pinto filly had rushed to her mother when the first two shots rang
out. Together they were leading the flight. Suddenly the mother swerved
and staggered, plunged down into the grass. The pinto planted her feet
and halted. Her sudden checking of speed saved her from a bullet which
had been aimed to break her neck. The lead burned across her forehead
raising a red welt. The little mare whirled and plunged back into the
mass of plunging horses. She found Midnight savagely working to force
the pace, and crowded close to him.

The charging rush of the mares was checked and they swerved in
bewildered fashion as a new burst of flame and death leaped at them
from a scrub-oak clump on the edge of the rim well down toward the
aspen grove. Mares collapsed and colts leaped and ran about wildly.
Midnight had only one thought, to drive the mares out through the aspen
grove and into the open country. This was his first meeting with the
deadly guns of man and, like all wild things, the death which struck
from far off filled him with terror. But he did not desert the mares. A
great rage possessed him and almost crowded out the terror. Screaming
and biting he worried the flanks of the rapidly thinning band.

Death held the little meadow in its bloody grip. The grass was marked
by twisted bodies. But Midnight knew there was one avenue of escape.
When the mares hesitated before the guns of Shorty and Cal he attacked
their flanks with fury and drove them on. This was not just the way Tex
had planned it. He had figured that the fire from the oaks would make
the band circle back around the meadow, giving his men at the lower end
a second chance to kill. He had been sure the band would mill around
and around the mesa until all were shot down. Now he sat in his saddle
waiting grimly. It looked as though he would have to turn them.

Midnight had driven the mares into full gallop again. Many went down as
they swept close to the oak clump where the two men were hidden, but
they charged straight past. Suddenly the vicious crack of a rifle broke
from the edge of the aspens. Tex had opened fire, his carbine working
with speed and murderous accuracy. In the hail of lead mares went down,
bucking and twisting. The attack was too much for the remnant of the
band. They dodged and tried to double back. Midnight reared and plunged
at them, screaming madly. The bewildered and panic-stricken animals
turned toward the rim and the black stallion sent them plunging toward
it. When they would have halted at the dizzy drop, with its matted and
ragged rocks, he lashed them on over the edge. They tumbled downward,
plunging, rolling, sliding, and twisting. One mare went down with a
broken leg, another struck a jagged pinnacle of rock and rolled over.
Behind them Midnight and the pinto took the leap as they came to it.

Tex lowered his rifle. His eyes were on the black stallion and there
was an excited gleam in them. He had never seen such a magnificent
beast or such a feat of reckless daring. But all these feelings were
over-shadowed by something else. He was looking at the long legs, the
powerful chest, and the slender body of the stallion. He was sure he
knew the sire and the dam who had brought him into the world. Here was
the son of the chestnut stallion and Lady Ebony! He wet his lips and
then grinned eagerly. He did not give the escape of a small part of
the herd any thought. His mind was making plans, leaping ahead to what
he would tell Major Howard. He was remembering the voice of Sam saying
that Lady Ebony would come back to the high country. He was roused by
Shorty’s amused voice.

“What’s eatin’ you? You look like you was seein’ angels or somethin’.
Me, I’m plumb sick to my stummick.” Shorty moved over to where he could
see the trail the band had made in escaping. He bent forward and stared
at it. “You don’t mean to say some of ’em went over the side here?”

Tex nodded, reloaded his carbine, and made ready to end the misery of
the mare who had broken her leg.

“How many got away?” Shorty asked. He had a sudden suspicion that Tex
had not taken full advantage of his chance to clean out the band.
Certainly the slope where the wild ones had plunged down to safety was
open and within easy range of the spot where Tex was planted.

“Ten head and a stud,” Tex said and spoke as though to himself.

“Must have been a fire-eater of a stud to force them mares down over a
cliff like that,” Shorty said with a quick grin.

“He’s a fire-eater,” Tex agreed softly.

The other boys had ridden up and were looking at the trail. Cal spoke
in his slow drawl.

“I passed up one shot an’ you can report it to the major if you want.
I had a broadside at a black stud but jest couldn’t find my sights for
watchin’ him tear into those mares.”

“That stud learned something here today that he won’t forget,” Tex said
grimly.

“I’ll bet a month’s pay we don’t ever catch that bunch in a place like
this again,” Shorty said.

The others grinned. They knew the stallion would be wiser and more
wary now that he had met the guns of men. They were not sorry he had
got away. Any horse that would lead a crazy charge down the face of a
brush-matted cliff deserved a break and was no scrub. One of the others
said:

“I caught a glimpse of him through the dust. He’d make any of the
major’s blooded stuff look like a broom tail if they were stood up side
by side. Can’t figure where such a hoss could have come from, must be a
freak.”

Tex grinned but said nothing. He knew where the big black came from. As
he moved away he remarked:

“I reckon he might have some good blood in him.”

A plan was forming in the mind of the range boss and he was eager to
work it out. He wanted to be alone so that he could get it all ready.
He turned to his men.

“You boys ride on down to the ranch and report to the boss. Tell him
I’m staying on the trail of the ones that got away. I’ll be in late
tonight.”

Shorty grinned. “Figure you might be lucky enough to dab a rope on that
black?” he asked.

“I’d trade every horse in my string but the bay for him,” Tex admitted.

Shorty laughed. He had missed the real significance of the remark. He
thought Tex wanted the black as a saddler. Tex was a nut when it came
to saddle stock. He remarked in an amused voice:

“It’ll be a case of sneaking and trailing from now on, and when you do
dab a rope on him you’d best have some help handy. That baby bites and
kicks like a cougar.”

Tex nodded full agreement as he rode away from the men. He took the
regular trail off the mesa and rode around to the foot of the cliff.
He had no desire to send the bay down over the trail the black had
made for the mares. At the bottom of the cliff he picked up the trail
and followed it. He did not have to dismount to tell the tracks of the
stallion and those of the mares. The tracks of the leader were clean
and deep, with perfect alignment. The trail led up the mountain in an
almost straight line and the horses did not halt until they reached the
barrens high under the rims of the Crazy Kill peaks.

As he rode along Tex planned his course of action. He would ambush the
black and drop a rope on him. Taking him now would be possible, Tex
figured, because the black was still a colt and could be handled if
properly worked. If he stayed in the wild another year he might develop
into a horse that could never be broken. He was just learning the
tricks of leadership; that was shown by the trap the mares had walked
into. Tex grinned eagerly as he planned. He was sure he could convince
the major, once he looked at the midnight black, that his theory about
Lady Ebony was correct.

He was also sure that, once convinced that Sam had not stolen the mare,
the major would get the old man out of the pen quickly. Major Howard
was an influential man and a determined one when he set out to do
anything. He was a shrewd judge of blooded horses, and that would help.

Tex was eager to capture the black at once. He had a feeling that if
Sam was ever to come back to his high mesa he would have to be set
free that summer. He had talked to the warden and to the doctor at the
prison and both agreed with him. It was Tex’s way never to consider
failure. The bay he rode was the fastest horse on the range and Tex
had accumulated some money and a great many possessions betting on his
speed. He was at his best in rough country where sure-footed accuracy
counted for more than speed, and he was powerful enough to handle the
black once Tex roped him. The bay could lay a five-year-old maverick on
his side without budging when the bulk of the critter hit the rope.

Tex halted behind a clump of bushes on a ridge and sat looking up a
long, narrow valley. His keen eyes lighted up with excitement as they
rested on a small band of horses feeding close to the timbered edge of
the valley. He spotted the black stallion with a pinto filly feeding
beside him. Deliberately Tex studied the ground and laid plans. It
would take most of an hour to circle the band so as to have the timber
as a screen for his approach and the wind right. And his plan called
for sending them back into the lower country instead of higher into the
barrens where trailing would be tough. He was sure the band would feed
for at least an hour. The mares were fagged and hungry, he could see
that, even at a great distance. Heading the bay up a narrow ledge, he
climbed to the top of the rim overlooking the valley and dropped down
on the far slope.

The pace Midnight had set in driving the mares into the high barrens
had taxed their strength. They had finally refused to go any further
and he had let them pause to feed and rest. But he was nervous and
kept moving about, jerking his head high, sniffing and snorting.
The excitement of the battle on the mesa below was still in him. He
lacked the experience of the chestnut stallion and he did not know the
country into which he was headed. Instinct had made him strike for the
barrens, but he did not know where to go now that he had reached the
rough country. So he let the mares feed while he moved about pulling
a mouthful of grass here and there. The pinto stayed close by him as
though sure he would protect her from all danger.

Midnight fed above the mares and close to the narrow trail leading up
to a saddle on the ridge above. The meadow was really a bench with a
rock wall on one side and a slope on the other. It lay along the edge
of a deep canyon but it was not a trap as the little meadow had been;
it was wide open at both ends and timber grew close, affording shelter
which could be reached in a few seconds. Midnight watched the trail
above and the meadow below, he tested the air, and he listened.

Suddenly he stiffened, his nostrils flaring as he listened intently.
The sound of a loosened stone had come to him. The pinto sensed
something and edged close to his side. Midnight snorted warningly and
the mares instantly lifted their heads, ready to leap to cover.

Then Midnight saw a rider come charging out of the timber above him.
The man was mounted on a bay gelding and he was standing up in his
stirrups whirling a rope around his head. The bay was reaching out with
powerful strides which carried him over the rough ground at terrific
speed. Midnight shrilled a warning to the mares. The pinto froze into
terrified stillness. She did not run but stood rooted beside Midnight,
staring at the oncoming rider. Midnight expected the roar of guns but
no explosions came. He was sure other men were hidden below to cut
off any retreat. But he was on the wrong side of the band of mares to
drive them upward. He did what the charging cowboy least expected,
something the chestnut stallion never would have done. He laid back his
ears, bared his teeth and charged straight at the bay, screaming his
challenge as he leaped forward.

Tex was startled by the action. He gave the bay his head so the big
horse could save himself. The bay swerved, dodging aside as he would
have dodged the charge of an infuriated bull. The loop Tex was swinging
sagged and jerked into a useless snarl as the bay lunged aside.
Midnight plunged in and reared, lashing out with his hoofs, reached for
the bay with his teeth. His pounding hoofs missed the saddler but his
teeth nipped a gash in the horse’s flank. The bay was a high-spirited,
nervous beast. He plunged and ducked his head. Grunting and snorting
he started to pitch. Tex had to ride as he had never ridden before to
control his mount. He saw Midnight whirl past, then wheel to charge
again--the black stallion had gone stark mad. His hand dropped to
the butt of his forty-five. He might have to shoot the big fellow to
save himself. He jerked out his gun and fired twice into the air over
Midnight’s head.

The crashing reports jarred some of the rage out of the black stallion.
He pivoted rapidly. In that moment Tex got the bay under control and
jerked in his rope. The shot had helped quiet the saddler. With the
pinto at his side Midnight broke for the trail leading upward.

Tex set his spurs and sent the bay thundering after the black stallion.
This was just what he wanted. He worked desperately to swing out a
loop. The black had a hundred yards of go in the open the way he was
headed. With the big colt running away Tex could drop a rope on him
and pull him down. He raised himself in the stirrups and swung out his
loop. Then Tex’s eager grin vanished. The black stallion was running
away from his bay! He was leaving the fast saddler behind in a way that
made the saddler seem slow. Tex overhauled the pinto and passed her.
She was running her best, with neck stretched out and mane flowing,
heading upward in an attempt to follow the black.

Tex held on until the black stallion thundered out into the saddle
above and vanished down the far slope. He had not used his spurs on the
bay. He knew his horse had given everything he had. On the ridge Tex
pulled up while the bay blew and pawed. Suddenly Tex laughed. He had
never seen such speed. Now he was certain he had to capture the big
fellow. He just couldn’t have a horse on the range that was faster than
the one he owned. Then his laugh died away. He had a more important
reason for catching the black; in the excitement he had forgotten it.

Midnight charged through the timber and kept going until he reached
the bottom of a canyon. He halted in a dense growth of river alder and
called long and loud to the pinto. From far up the mountainside she
answered him. Her call was frantic and excited. Midnight listened and
heard a shout from the man who had chased him. He kept still for a long
time. Finally he called to the pinto again and she answered him from
lower down the slope. She was hurrying to him as fast as she could
make her way down the rough slope. Midnight waited and listened. After
a time he decided the bay and his rider were not coming down into the
canyon. He could hear the pinto rattling stones and nickering eagerly
but there was no other sound.

The pinto broke into the alder stand in answer to Midnight’s call
as she reached the bottom of the canyon. They stood close together,
watching and listening.

Up on the ridge Tex turned the bay and headed him back down to the long
meadow. Night would soon settle and he would have no chance to trail
the black after dark. His best course was to follow the mares and drive
them into the lower country so that the black stallion would have to
come down to round them up. He sent the bay galloping along the trail
the fleeing mares had made as they raced off the bench.

Deep in the canyon Midnight was undecided what he should do. He was
certain he could not stay where he was. The man would be sure to follow
them. He finally followed his instinct, which was to put many miles
between himself and the country which had proved so dangerous. He did
not have a strong urge to follow the mares and round them up. His
instincts for leadership were not strong enough to make him look for
them. He knew of only one place where he had always found safety and
where he had never been attacked. That place was the little meadow
under the rim below the high mesa. With a snort he headed up the
sloping side of the canyon.

The high mesa was far across the mountain on the southern edge of Major
Howard’s range lands. The old mares had led the band along the backbone
of the continental divide and down into the lower valleys. Midnight’s
wild instinct led him unerringly toward the place of his birth and
early colthood. All that first night the two horses moved steadily
south and east, climbing upward, following the twisting course of the
divide. At dawn Midnight and the pinto fed close to a stand of balsam
and spruce. Five mule deer and a band of elk fed on the same meadow.
Midnight had a feeling that the deer and the elk would take alarm if
anyone approached, or it might have been his early friendship with the
old timber-line buck that made him select the spot as a feed ground.

The deer and the elk paid little attention to the two horses. They
recognized them as friends and harmless. Neither of them was tainted by
man smell or the reek of a saddle blanket pungent with leather oil.

Midnight had learned another of the lessons of the wild, a lesson that
had long since been mastered by the elk and the deer. He would feed at
dawn and at dusk, when the dim light made rifle sights blur and when
the eyes of the upright walking killer play tricks on him. All other
wild things had learned that this was the law. The sunlighted meadows
were death traps by day, but in the soft dusk of early morning or
evening there was safety. The big killers obeyed the rule but they did
it as much because their prey came out of hiding at that time as for
protection.

The band of elk was headed by a lordly bull who was master of the ten
cows by virtue of his power and savage willingness to battle any other
bull who challenged him. As soon as his own sons grew to the age where
their antlers began to spread into sweeping weapons and their desires
led them to notice the cows he drove them out of the band. They were
then lone bulls for a time until they were able to win a harem of their
own. Nor was he satisfied with defense of his cows. He challenged the
world to come and try to wrest supremacy from him. His battle moods
came in midsummer and fall when his shoulder veins were swelling with
hot blood, and his antlers had hardened to polished lances of bone.

The old wapiti bull was beginning to feel this pugnacious mood. For
weeks he had been rubbing and polishing his antlers. They gleamed like
the varnished surface of a piece of fine furniture. During the gray
of dawn he had fed near the cows. Now that the white light from the
sun-bathed peaks above was making the meadow bright he began to show
signs of restlessness. The cows fed on, eager to fill their paunches
before they sought deep cover to lie down. The old wapiti shook his
horns and lifted his muzzle. He trotted to a little knoll well above
his band. He was filled with courage and desire, proud of his fine
antlers, conscious of the power within his twelve hundred pounds of
weight. He halted and filled his lungs with air, raised his muzzle,
and poured forth a guttural roar that increased in pitch to bugle
tones, higher and higher until it was a blasting whistle which screamed
through the still air of the mountainside. The high notes quavered
and faded, ending in a half dozen savage grunts. The old bull seemed
to know that he had just executed one of the most inspiring pieces of
music in all nature’s mountain songs. He shook his head and listened
intently.

From a ridge above the challenge of the lord of the band was answered.
The challenger’s bugle was not so high and shrill nor so powerful,
but it was eager and defiant. The bull on the knoll shook his head and
grunted angrily, then he lifted his muzzle and sent his call ringing
out through the high, thin air. Again the challenge was answered. A
young bull was coming down the slope.

In a few minutes the challenger appeared, breaking out of the spruce at
a trot, his head swinging back and forth. He was lighter than the old
bull by a few pounds and his antlers were not so well filled, but he
was big boned and young, a lone knight seeking the end of the lonesome
trail, desiring to take his place at the head of a band of cows.

The old bull squealed a few short, sharp blasts, his horns swept low,
he charged to meet the invader. The young bull came on, his pace
increasing to a fast lope. The two great brutes crashed together, their
horns locking as they grunted and twisted. For several minutes they
tussled in this manner, each trying to sweep the other off his feet.
The young bull was forced to his knees but came up with a lunge which
set the old one back. Then they parted and backed away, heads still
lowered, spreading horns protecting vital parts of their bodies. For
a moment they halted with eyes glaring and breath whistling into the
grass, then they charged again and the force of the impact sent them
both to their knees. The old bull was well aware of the advantage his
few extra pounds gave him and he kept hammering away, thrusting the
youngster to his knees, eager to weaken him so that he would expose
himself to the ripping thrust of horns.

The combatants had moved down the slope and the young bull was now on
the downhill side, moving slowly toward the spot where Midnight and the
pinto stood watching the battle. A yellow band of sunlight had slipped
out across the grass. The mule deer, led by an old doe, had slipped
into the timber to seek a hiding place for the day. The cow elk ceased
feeding and stood watching the combat out of calm eyes which betrayed
no hint of favor for either warrior. They would accept the lordship of
the winner without question. After all, their real leader was a wise
old cow who knew the ways of the trail and the best hiding places. The
lord of the herd was master only for the time of the love moon.

The smaller bull began to retreat a little before the onslaught of
the old bull. They had been fighting a quarter of an hour and the
youngster’s wind was beginning to give out. They had backed away, the
challenger still savagely willing to charge but very short of breath.
As they lunged together, the young bull went down; this time one foot
slipped and he fell sidewise. Instantly the monarch shook his horns
free, backed away a step and lunged, his lances lowered. The sharp
daggers of bone ripped into the side and flank of the young bull. He
floundered and struggled as the death wound racked him, then he got to
his feet with an effort. Staggering but with his defenses again down
and ready he lunged at the old bull. The monarch smashed at him. This
time he was down with his whole side exposed and the victor was on him.

But the old bull was at the end of his strength, too. He tried to tear
his adversary into shreds but did not have the power. After a half
dozen weak thrusts he backed away and stood, blowing and grunting
savagely, while the youngster got to his feet and staggered toward the
woods seeking a secluded spot where he could lie down.

Midnight snorted and pawed. The cows shook their heads and turned
toward the woods following the lead of the wise old cow. With a savage
grunt the monarch trotted after them.

Midnight turned away. With the pinto filly at his side he trotted
into the timber and there they bedded down for the day. That night
they moved again, heading along a ridge with the white stars lighting
the rocky trail. All night Midnight kept going and dawn found them at
the edge of the high mesa. With the gray light about them they fed
close to Sam’s deserted cabin. Midnight felt safer in these familiar
surroundings. Even the cabin seemed to give a friendly protection
to him. He crossed the meadow and halted near the head of the trail
leading down into Shadow Canyon. The pinto was afraid of the cabin at
first but when Midnight walked up to it in passing across the meadow
and sniffed about, she joined him. The man smell was dead and old. It
lacked the pungent freshness which roused fear and caused flight.

The old yellowbelly whistler mounted his perch on the high rock and
sounded an “all’s-well” whistle. The mesa came to life with the
chipmunks singing their chorus, the prairie dogs barking, and the other
chips racing about. With the coming of life to the meadow Midnight
headed down the trail to cover.

The two horses came to the crevice which lay across the ledge trail.
It was no longer a barrier, being filled with rocks and torn tree
trunks with gravel piled in the cracks. Midnight moved down into the
sunken mass and over it. Together the two plunged up the far side. Now
Midnight felt secure. With the high walls towering above him and the
sheer drop into Shadow Canyon guarding the lower side, there was only
the entrance across the debris-filled crevice and that was hidden from
the main trail by bushes screening the rocky ledge.

He set to feeding and the pinto joined him. They stayed in the shade
of the aspen grove which afforded them complete protection from anyone
who might halt on the rim above and look down. All such a pair of eyes
would see was the pale-green canopy of the aspen grove. They grazed
peacefully until they had eaten their fill, then Midnight led the pinto
to the bed of needles under the Engelmann’s spruce over near the wall.
There they lay down in the cool shade.



13. Tex Takes the Trail


Tex followed the trail of the mares until almost dark. He came up with
them several times and sent them galloping into the lower valleys.
He did not shoot any of them because he wished to leave them as an
attraction for the black stallion. With less than half an hour of
daylight left he headed over a ridge to one of the high-country
cabins where food and horse feed were always kept ready for wandering
cowpunchers and for the boys who rode the high range during the summer.

As he slid from his saddle he saw that someone else was using the
cabin for the night. Yellow light streamed out of its one dusty window
and the smell of frying bacon and boiling coffee floated down to the
corral. Tex unsaddled the bay, watered and grained him, then rubbed him
down. He always cared for his horse before thinking of his own comfort.

As he shoved open the cabin door he saw Major Howard and Shorty sitting
at the plank table nailed to the wall under the window. They were just
finishing a meal of hot biscuit, sugar syrup, bacon, and coffee which
Shorty had fixed.

“Hello,” Tex greeted them. “Any grub left?”

Shorty grinned widely and the major nodded. Shorty shoved aside the
packing box he had been sitting on.

“I’ll scorch some bacon and warm up the coffee,” he said. “I
overestimated the boss’s appetite for biscuits, so there’s plenty.”

“Shorty made enough biscuits for six men,” the major said.

Tex eased his lank frame down on the packing box. He was ravenously
hungry. Reaching for a biscuit he broke it, exposing its snowy center.
The major watched him as he crammed half the biscuit into his mouth.

“I have been down to the meadow where you trapped those wild horses.
You did a nice job, Tex.”

Tex grunted as he shoved the other half of the biscuit into his mouth.

The major added by way of defending himself against killing the mares:

“Not a single head worth rounding up.”

“I reckon not,” Tex agreed. Then he leaned forward and spoke with
considered slowness: “The stud got away and he’s a winner. He outran my
bay on level ground in a straightaway run.”

The major showed his interest at once. He had always wanted to capture
a real wild stallion that had quality. He had an idea he could do some
crossbreeding that might have interesting results.

“Stallion?” he asked.

“A black stud, long two-year-old. Fine racin’ legs, big chest, and the
heart of a winner. He turned on me and come near knockin’ me out of my
saddle.” Tex grinned as he remembered that charge.

The major smiled too, an eager smile. “He must have spirit. Racing legs
and body--h-mmm.” He picked up a biscuit absently and crumbled the
corner of it. Then he shot a penetrating glance at Tex and asked, “And
you think you know his sire and dam?”

“That colt is out of Lady Ebony by the chestnut stud that led the
wild band. The chestnut is the thief that stole your mare, major. The
chestnut is gone, can’t figure exactly how he got killed, but I’m sure
he’s dead. The black colt couldn’t handle him, not yet. But the black
was running the band and he got the job too young.” Tex reached for
another biscuit. “I reckon he’s learning fast, though.”

Major Howard got out his pipe. He loaded it carefully, then lighted it.
He was watching Tex narrowly. For a full minute he puffed deeply, the
blue-white smoke curling up around his graying hair. When he spoke his
voice lacked the assurance it usually carried.

“You never give up once you get an idea, do you, Tex?”

“It’s as clear as day to me,” Tex said simply.

“This long two-year-old can outrun anything on my ranch.” The major
spoke almost to himself.

“And rest while he’s doing it,” Tex said.

“You better bring him in. He may not be so good as he looked today, but
if he has the markings of that black mare I’ll know it. I’d like to
experiment with a stallion like that.”

“I figure on bringing him in if it takes all summer.” Tex leaned
forward. The bacon Shorty had set before him went unnoticed. “If you
figure I’m right you could do something for Sam?” Tex knew he was
treading on dangerous ground. Mention of Sam always irritated the major.

“When I’m convinced, I’ll do what I can,” he said gruffly.

Tex knew there was no use talking any more about it. He would round up
the black and bring him in. Once the major set eyes on the stallion he
would know the black was Lady Ebony’s son. Then the major would get Sam
out of his cell. Tex had the major figured that way.

With supper over the men rolled up in their blankets. The major slept
in the wall bunk while Tex and Shorty bedded down on the floor. They
did not stay up longer than the time it took to wash the dishes and
split some wood for the breakfast fire. They would all be up and in the
saddle by daylight the next morning. Tex meant to ride the upper range
and to map out his campaign. He had a feeling there was need for haste.
The black stallion would have to be brought in that summer. Sam had to
be got back to his high mesa if he was to come at all.

The next morning Tex was up before the other two men had wakened. He
made coffee in the blackened pot and finished up what had been left
of Shorty’s biscuits. With a can of tomatoes, a tin of fish and some
coffee from the cupboard he left the cabin.

The rising sun found him on a high ridge overlooking the sweep of the
lower slopes of the Crazy Kills. He studied the meadows below, watching
the timbered edges of the clearings, but he saw no sign of the black
stallion. After that he set about checking the meadows, following the
trails from valley to valley. About noon he came on two of the wild
mares. He did not alarm them and they did not know he had seen them.
Later he came on three more in a meadow far from where he had located
the first two. At four that afternoon he found two others feeding
beside a stream miles from the others. And he had come across no sign
of the black stallion, not even his tracks. He began to wonder what
had happened to the colt. And he was beginning to wonder if the band
had not separated for good. The mares he had come on had been feeding
or lying down. They had not seemed to be looking for the others. Tex
refused to be worried, but he rode until darkness forced a halt. He
built a little fire to heat water for coffee. He had eaten the tinned
fish and tomatoes at noon. But he was determined to camp where he was
and go on with the search in the morning.

The next day Tex rode until evening without coming on the black
or crossing his trail. He was convinced now that the stallion was
making no effort to round up the mares, that he was too young and
inexperienced to have developed band leadership. He knew he faced a
tough job but he had no idea of quitting. He would need a pack horse
and supplies to stay in the hills more than two days. That meant he
would have to return to the home ranch.

He rode back to the high-line cabin and cooked a meal. There was no one
at the cabin and he rolled up on the bunk as soon as he had eaten. The
next day he headed for the home ranch.

The major did not object when Tex told him his plans. But Tex knew
that a week would probably be all he would be allowed for the hunt.
The major would be calling him in to take charge of other work. He was
convinced his boss was giving him this time so that he would have a
chance to settle the matter that had been between them since Sam was
taken away.

Tex rode into the high country. He laid his plans carefully. He meant
to cover the range from timber line down in a careful check of all
meadows and feed grounds. He was sure he would miss no spot where a
wild horse would stay because he had ridden the Crazy Kill slopes for
fifteen years and knew every foot of the ground.

Methodically he worked, from the north limits toward the south. He
accounted for all the wild horses except Midnight and the pinto filly.
At the end of the week he was worried. The black stallion must have
gone down into the desert or over the divide into the wild country
beyond Major Howard’s range. He had to admit he had failed in a job
that seemed to him important. He knew there was no use trying to make a
ride into the desert. That vast expanse of sand and canyons stretched
clear to the Mexican border, while the wild country beyond the Crazy
Kills was worse than the desert. It was canyon-slotted and grown dense
with timber. No ranchers used it as a range. It was virgin wilderness
and it was a hundred miles deep.

When Major Howard ordered Tex to take charge of the drive that would
bring the new herds of cattle to the high country from the railroad
yards he did not object. He had had his chance and had failed.

       *       *       *       *       *

At the foot of the high walls overlooking Shadow Canyon, Midnight and
the pinto stayed hidden in the aspen grove by day. At night they either
fed in the little meadow or climbed up to the high mesa. When they were
on the high mesa they raced and played. They never stayed after dawn
broke. Twice they scented man smell on the wind and dashed to cover
along the ledge trail.

The day Tex checked the high mesa for tracks or signs they were feeding
below and had not been on top for several days. Rain had come and their
tracks had been washed out. He had passed on after looking inside Sam’s
cabin and noting how it was falling apart from disuse.

The pinto pony trusted Midnight and he had his past experience to make
him feel secure in his hideout. But he did not forget the lessons he
had learned, and no buck deer was more alert and watchful than he.

Many times Midnight led the pinto around the track he had laid out.
They often ran by daylight, around and around, leaping over logs and
rocks and pounding in a reckless chase over the rough trail. Midnight
could easily outdistance the filly, but he never ran away from her when
she dropped behind.

As the days passed, both horses became sleek and fat, but Midnight
did not lose his speed or power. He never became lazy, because of the
nervous, high spirits which filled him. He was fast coming to the place
where he would not be satisfied with the company of one filly, but
another season would pass before he was ready to go forth.

       *       *       *       *       *

In a town below the ridges and wild barrens, behind drab, gray walls
old Sam had at last given up the fight. One morning he did not answer
early call and they found him lying on his cot peacefully sleeping.
He would not stir and seemed not to have the wiry strength that had
carried him along. The warden and the doctor came. Sam was taken to the
hospital and placed on a white bed. Outside the door of his room the
doctor faced the warden.

“The state will not be burdened over a couple of months longer by that
old codger,” he said.

“What ails him?” the warden asked.

“What would ail any wild thing that was cooped up in one of your
cells?” the doctor asked, then turned abruptly away.

The warden went back to his office and looked into Sam’s file. No one
had taken any interest in the case except Tex and he had written only
one letter because writing was something he seldom did. The warden put
the file away and made a note of what the doctor had said.



14. Beside the Castle Rocks


With an uneasy jerk Tex tore open the envelope the major handed him.
He was not used to getting letters and this one was postmarked at the
state prison. He fished out a single sheet of paper and stared at it.
The major had read the postmark and stood waiting for Tex to speak.

There was a brief line at the beginning of the letter. The message was
from Sam and the warden had written the letter for him. Tex turned away
from the major and walked down to the horse corral before he read any
further. He wanted to be alone. Leaning over the pole gate he finished
the letter. The message was brief, very much like Sam. Tex’s lips moved
as he repeated the words to himself.

“I put off writin’ figurin’ to see you. Reckon I won’t, so the warden
is writin’ this to you. They got a buryin’ spot down here they call
Woodpecker Hill. It’s good enough fer an old gopher miner but I still
got a hankerin’ to get back to the top of the world. If it won’t put
you out too much, Tex, I’d like to be planted near the ledge trail at
the foot of the castle rocks. Jest lift the rock under the right front
leg of the stove and you’ll find a poke of dust I cached. There’ll be
enough in it to do the job. I want you should keep what’s left over.
Figure I’ll hang on till I get a letter back from you. The doc says no,
but I’ve fooled ’em before. Sam.”

Tex folded the sheet into a wad and shoved it into the pocket of his
chaps. He stared for a long time through the white sunlight. His bay
gelding came over to the fence and nudged his arm. Tex turned around.

“We shore let old Sam down,” he said grimly. “But this time we’ll not
flop on him.”

He reached over and caught the horn of his saddle which was tossed
across the top pole of the corral. As he was jerking the cinch tight
around the belly of the bay a few minutes later, the major’s shadow
appeared near the gate. Tex did not turn around. He did not feel like
telling the major anything. The last time he had tried to talk to him
about getting Sam freed his boss had been irritated and short in his
refusal. Tex had a feeling the major even believed he had invented the
story about the black stud, with the help of Shorty, in order to get
his sympathy. The major watched in silence until Tex faced the gate,
then he spoke.

“I want to have a look at the new stock. You can ride into the aspen
range with me and show me around.”

Tex nodded. There was no use in writing to Sam now. The mail would not
be picked up until the next day. He could take a couple of days off and
ride in, but he didn’t feel equal to facing the old man after the way
he had let him down.

By midafternoon the pair were high in the aspen country and close to
the spruce belt. Tex had taken the major to the meadows where the new
stock grazed. They had halted on a ridge as the major had a way of
doing and were gazing over the vast country below. The major always got
a thrill out of looking over his vast domain. He never tired of the
rolling foothills and the wide, grassy valleys, all his.

Tex could see the high mesa on the rim of Shadow Canyon. He could see
the castle rocks where Sam wanted to be planted. A desire to ride down
to the spot laid hold of him. He could get the poke of gold while he
was there. When the major was ready to move on, Tex headed down the
slope. Within an hour they broke out on the high meadow. The major
looked across at Tex questioningly but said nothing. He knew none of
the new stock were run that far south. But he was more interested in
the letter Tex had got than he cared to show and was sure this visit
had something to do with it. He feared the old man had died in prison,
and the thought stirred the old train of doubts as to the course he had
followed.

They rode down to the castle rocks before going to the cabin. Tex
dismounted and stood at the base of the rocks where Sam had said he
wanted to lie. When he looked over the expanse of country below he knew
why Sam had picked this spot. From the ledge he could see far across
the hazy lower valley to the distant peaks of the Sleepy Range, while
on the right he could look out over the purple expanse of the desert
with its spires and red rims gleaming in the late sunlight. At his feet
yawned Shadow Canyon. From its twilight depths came the rumble of a
rushing stream. The music rose and fell in steady cadence. Tex drew in
his breath sharply and turned toward the major.

As he turned a flash of movement below caught his eye. He stepped
closer to the canyon rim and looked down on a little meadow. At first
he saw nothing but a little beaver lake, a grove of aspens, and a stand
of spruce. Then a black horse flashed out of the timber running madly.
Close on his heels came a pinto filly. They were heading straight at
a barrier of logs. They reached the barrier and lifted like birds,
sailing over it easily. Their manes and tails flowed out as they
pounded along.

“Look!” Tex called hoarsely as he pointed downward.

The major slid from his horse and stood beside Tex. The flying horses
had vanished into the aspen grove and Tex grunted disgustedly. In a
moment they appeared again and took the log barrier in a mad leap. Both
men stood in silence watching the big black stallion as he cleared the
barrier and raced away. The horses vanished but appeared again as they
charged around the little circle below. Then they vanished and did not
appear again.

For a long minute the two men faced each other. It was the major who
spoke.

“Tex,” he said gruffly, “I’m a stubborn fool.” He held out his hand.
“Let me see that letter you got from the state prison.”

Tex dug out the letter and handed it to him. The major read it quickly.
When he had finished he folded it carefully and handed it back to Tex.
Relief and eagerness showed on his face, as he turned toward his horse.

“We’ll ride for the ranch. If I hit the trail hard enough I can catch
the midnight train at Painted Rocks.”

Tex grinned. He said nothing, but he was in his saddle before the major
reached his horse.



15. Home to Stay


The old yellowbelly whistler was uneasy. He scented the coming of
a cold snap, a heavy snow perhaps. The aspens were flaming yellow,
the oak brush purple and red, its rounded clumps looking like fine
upholstery laid on an immense piece of furniture. The calico chips
darted around in frantic haste as they gathered seeds to add to their
bulging granaries. Even the rockchips were more active than usual. They
did not spend so much time hugging their fat bellies and mooning into
the distance. The dog colony was as noisy and busy as usual but there
was a difference in their chatter. This was a time of uncertainty.
Indian summer had to end. It had held the high country in its drowsy
spell for many days. Now the air had a different feel.

Down by the castle rocks there was a newly made pile of rocks. This
disturbance of the scenery had upset the small folk of the meadow for
a while but now they were used to it. The calico chips used it as a
hiding place and even the whistlers had explored it carefully.

Suddenly the meadow rang with an eager whinny, followed by a loud
snort and the pounding of hoofs against the dry, hard ground. A black
stallion and a pinto filly broke from the head of the Shadow Canyon
trail. They raced wildly around the mesa, kicking and dodging.
They swung down past the castle rocks and the black stallion made a
magnificent show of shying and plunging as they passed the pile of
rocks. Saluting the mound with a flash of his heels he raced back
toward the old cabin.

Midnight slid to a halt before the cabin and called loudly. He advanced
toward the door shaking his head and snorting, his eyes rolling wildly.

The door of the cabin hung open. A blue-white wreath of smoke curled
out and up into the air, then old Sam stepped through the doorway. He
stood for a moment steadying himself, one hand against the casing, then
he shuffled outside and sank down on the ancient willow chair. As he
seated himself he dug into a pocket of his worn jacket and brought out
a handful of dingy lump sugar.

“No human critter could of got me outside today the way my rheumatiz
joints is shoutin’ fer a storm,” he said.

He held out one hand with two lumps of sugar in it. The black stallion
edged closer, his legs trembling, his nostrils flaring eagerly. The
pinto filly crowded ahead of him and her pink nose deftly whisked the
sugar out of Sam’s palm. Old Sam chuckled as he placed two more lumps
in his palm.

“Lady, you act plumb scandalous fer a wild hoss,” he said.

Midnight had edged close now. He gathered up the two lumps and crunched
them eagerly. Even after weeks of coaxing and tempting Sam had not
quieted all the fears in the heart of the stallion. Sam doled out the
sweets slowly, making them last as long as possible. When they were
gone he got to his feet, and picked up a tin pail beside the door.
Walking to a bare spot of ground near the corner of the cabin he
poured out a liberal measure of oats.

Midnight stood watching, ready to charge away. The pinto shouldered up
close to Sam, letting him run his hand along her neck. Watching her
gather up the oats was too much for the black; he crowded in to get his
share, but not until Sam had backed away.

Midnight and the pinto gathered up every grain of oats, then they
trotted out into the meadow and began feeding. Sam filled his pipe and
settled back to let the sun warm his joints. He was glad his visitors
had routed him out. The sun was really fine. After a few minutes of its
warmth he began thinking about walking down to the new prospect hole
he had dug at the base of the castle rocks. He chuckled to himself as
he thought about it but he did not move. He was remembering how he had
written to Tex asking him to dig a hole on that very spot. He wondered
what Tex would have done if he had dug that hole and then discovered
he had uncovered a vein of gold-bearing quartz. Sam had a feeling Tex
would have dug a buryin’ hole and let it go at that. That was what he
thought of Tex.

Out on the meadow a chipmunk had mounted a stone. His voice rang out.
“Chock! Chock! Chock!” like the rattle of an old alarm clock. Instantly
every chipmunk in the meadow raced to his sing perch and the meadow
rang with their song. The fat yellowbelly on guard stretched his neck
and blasted a short whistle, then pulled in his neck with a deep
chuckle. He always disapproved such a chatter.

Sam’s pipe rolled to the corner of his mouth and turned upside down.
One fumbling hand found the gold chain of his big watch. He pulled it
out and bent above the dial. His lips moved as he counted. When the
chorus died away he was grinning happily.

“One hunnert eighty a minnit,” he mumbled. “That there’s a youngster
jest comin’ into his growth. Come spring he’ll do two hunnert.”

As he tucked the ancient watch back into his pocket he sniffed the
air. Twisting his neck he looked up at the spruce ridge. Gray clouds
raced above the tops of the trees, and he could hear the moaning of
a cold wind rushing through the needles. Below the clouds moved a
curtain of white, swirling flakes. Sam got to his feet. His watery eyes
rested for a moment on a pile of baled hay stacked against the end
of the cabin and flanked by a great stack of split firewood. Tex had
fixed everything. Let the snows come, he’d be snug as any one of the
yellowbellies. And the two horses would not have to worry either.

“I reckon I’ll jest hole up fer a spell,” he said.

Down on the meadow Midnight had jerked up his head and was watching the
storm sweep across the mesa. Sam stood at the door looking out on the
scene until the form of the big stallion was swallowed by the wall of
snow.



As handsome as he is wild--that’s

MIDNIGHT

Son of a beautiful purebred mare and a wild stallion, the gangling colt
grows up under the stern law of the wild ... until his flying hooves
and bitterly learned store of experience make him leader of his own
untamed band.

The thrilling tale of a freedom-loving horse in the Western mountains.

    SCHOLASTIC BOOK SERVICES
    =SBS= New York · London · Richmond Hill, Ontario



Transcriber’s Note:

Spelling and hyphenation have been retained as they appear in the
original publication except as follows:

    Page 20
     and cerainly limited _changed to_
     and certainly limited

    Page 95
      Midnight back away a few yards _changed to_
      Midnight backed away a few yards

    Page 103
      One moonlight night as Midnight _changed to_
      One moonlit night as Midnight





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Midnight" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home