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The horses trotted. And the exercise soon warmed Helen, until she was fairly comfortable except in her fingers. In mind, however, she grew more miserable as she more fully realized her situation. The night now became so dark that, although the head of her horse was alongside the flank of Bo's, she could scarcely see Bo. From time to time Helen's anxious query brought from her sister the answer that she was all right.
Helen had not ridden a horse for more than a year, and for several years she had not ridden with any regularity. Despite her thrills upon mounting, she had entertained misgivings. But she was agreeably surprised, for the horse, Ranger, had an easy gait, and she found she had not forgotten how to ride. Bo, having been used to riding on a farm near home, might be expected to acquit herself admirably. It occurred to Helen what a plight they would have been in but for the thick, comfortable riding outfits.
Dark as the night was, Helen could dimly make out the road underneath. It was rocky, and apparently little used. When Dale turned off the road into the low brush or sage of what seemed a level plain, the traveling was harder, rougher, and yet no slower. The horses kept to the gait of the leaders. Helen, discovering it unnecessary, ceased attempting to guide Ranger. There were dim shapes in the gloom ahead, and always they gave Helen uneasiness, until closer approach proved them to be rocks or low, scrubby trees. These increased in both size and number as the horses progressed. Often Helen looked back into the gloom behind. This act was involuntary and occasioned her sensations of dread. Dale expected to be pursued. And Helen experienced, along with the dread, flashes of unfamiliar resentment. Not only was there an attempt afoot to rob her of her heritage, but even her personal liberty. Then she shuddered at the significance of Dale's words regarding her possible abduction by this hired gang. It seemed monstrous, impossible. Yet, manifestly it was true enough to Dale and his allies. The West, then, in reality was raw, hard, inevitable.
Suddenly her horse stopped. He had come up alongside Bo's horse. Dale had halted ahead, and apparently was listening. Roy and the pack-train were out of sight in the gloom.
"What is it?" whispered Helen.
"Reckon I heard a wolf," replied Dale.
"Was that cry a wolf's?" asked Bo. "I heard. It was wild."
"We're gettin' up close to the foot-hills," said Dale. "Feel how much colder the air is."
"I'm warm now," replied Bo. "I guess being near froze was what ailed me. . . . Nell, how 're you?"
"I'm warm, too, but --" Helen answered.
"If you had your choice of being here or back home, snug in bed -- which would you take?" asked Bo.
"Bo!" exclaimed Helen, aghast.
"Well, I'd choose to be right here on this horse," rejoined Bo.
Dale heard her, for he turned an instant, then slapped his horse and started on.
Helen now rode beside Bo, and for a long time they climbed steadily in silence. Helen knew when that dark hour before dawn had passed, and she welcomed an almost imperceptible lightening in the east. Then the stars paled. Gradually a grayness absorbed all but the larger stars. The great white morning star, wonderful as Helen had never seen it, lost its brilliance and life and seemed to retreat into the dimming blue.
Daylight came gradually, so that the gray desert became distinguishable by degrees. Rolling bare hills, half obscured by the gray lifting mantle of night, rose in the foreground, and behind was gray space, slowly taking form and substance. In the east there was a kindling of pale rose and silver that lengthened and brightened along a horizon growing visibly rugged.
"Reckon we'd better catch up with Roy," said Dale, and he spurred his horse.
Ranger and Bo's mount needed no other urging, and they swung into a canter. Far ahead the pack-animals showed with Roy driving them. The cold wind was so keen in Helen's face that tears blurred her eyes and froze her cheeks. And riding Ranger at that pace was like riding in a rocking-chair. That ride, invigorating and exciting, seemed all too short.
"Oh, Nell, I don't care -- what becomes of -- me!" exclaimed Bo, breathlessly.
Her face was white and red, fresh as a rose, her eyes glanced darkly blue, her hair blew out in bright, unruly strands. Helen knew she felt some of the physical stimulation that had so roused Bo, and seemed so irresistible, but somber thought was not deflected thereby.
It was clear daylight when Roy led off round a knoll from which patches of scrubby trees -- cedars, Dale called them -- straggled up on the side of the foot-hills.
"They grow on the north slopes, where the snow stays longest," said Dale.
They descended into a valley that looked shallow, but proved to be deep and wide, and then began to climb another foot-hill. Upon surmounting it Helen saw the rising sun, and so glorious a view confronted her that she was unable to answer Bo's wild exclamations.
Bare, yellow, cedar-dotted slopes, apparently level, so gradual was the ascent, stretched away to a dense ragged line of forest that rose black over range after range, at last to fail near the bare summit of a magnificent mountain, sunrise-flushed against the blue sky.
"Oh, beautiful!" cried Bo. "But they ought to be called Black Mountains."
"Old Baldy, there, is white half the year," replied Dale.
"Look back an' see what you say," suggested Roy.
The girls turned to gaze silently. Helen imagined she looked down upon the whole wide world. How vastly different was the desert! Verily it yawned away from her, red and gold near at hand, growing softly flushed with purple far away, a barren void, borderless and immense, where dark-green patches and black lines and upheaved ridges only served to emphasize distance and space.
"See thet little green spot," said Roy, pointing. "Thet's Snowdrop. An' the other one -- 'way to the right -- thet's Show Down."
"Where is Pine?" queried Helen, eagerly.
"Farther still, up over the foot-hills at the edge of the woods."
"Then we're riding away from it."
"Yes. If we'd gone straight for Pine thet gang could overtake us. Pine is four days' ride. An' by takin' to the mountains Milt can hide his tracks. An' when he's thrown Anson off the scent, then he'll circle down to Pine."
"Mr. Dale, do you think you'll get us there safely -- and soon?" asked Helen, wistfully.
"I won't promise soon, but I promise safe. An' I don't like bein' called Mister," he replied.
"Are we ever going to eat?" inquired Bo, demurely.
At this query Roy Beeman turned with a laugh to look at Bo. Helen saw his face fully in the light, and it was thin and hard, darkly bronzed, with eyes like those of a hawk, and with square chin and lean jaws showing scant, light beard.
"We shore are," he replied. "Soon as we reach the timber. Thet won't be long."
"Reckon we can rustle some an' then take a good rest," said Dale, and he urged his horse into a jog-trot.
During a steady trot for a long hour, Helen's roving eyes were everywhere, taking note of the things from near to far -- the scant sage that soon gave place to as scanty a grass, and the dark blots that proved to be dwarf cedars, and the ravines opening out as if by magic from what had appeared level ground, to wind away widening between gray stone walls, and farther on, patches of lonely pine-trees, two and three together, and then a straggling clump of yellow aspens, and up beyond the fringed border of forest, growing nearer all the while, the black sweeping benches rising to the noble dome of the dominant mountain of the range.
No birds or animals were seen in that long ride up toward the timber, which fact seemed strange to Helen. The air lost something of its cold, cutting edge as the sun rose higher, and it gained sweeter tang of forest-land. The first faint suggestion of that fragrance was utterly new to Helen, yet it brought a vague sensation of familiarity and with it an emotion as strange. It was as if she had smelled that keen, pungent tang long ago, and her physical sense caught it before her memory.
The yellow plain had only appeared to be level. Roy led down into a shallow ravine, where a tiny stream meandered, and he followed this around to the left, coming at length to a point where cedars and dwarf pines formed a little grove. Here, as the others rode up, he sat cross-legged in his saddle, and waited.
"We'll hang up awhile," he said. "Reckon you're tired?"
"I'm hungry, but not tired yet," replied Bo.
Helen dismounted, to find that walking was something she had apparently lost the power to do. Bo laughed at her, but she, too, was awkward when once more upon the ground.
Then Roy got down. Helen was surprised to find him lame. He caught her quick glance.
"A hoss threw me once an' rolled on me. Only broke my collar-bone, five ribs, one arm, an' my bow-legs in two places!"
Notwithstanding this evidence that he was a cripple, as he stood there tall and lithe in his homespun, ragged garments, he looked singularly powerful and capable.
"Reckon walkin' around would be good for you girls," advised Dale. "If you ain't stiff yet, you'll be soon. An' walkin' will help. Don't go far. I'll call when breakfast's ready."
A little while later the girls were whistled in from their walk and found camp-fire and meal awaiting them. Roy was sitting cross-legged, like an Indian, in front of a tarpaulin, upon which was spread a homely but substantial fare. Helen's quick eye detected a cleanliness and thoroughness she had scarcely expected to find in the camp cooking of men of the wilds. Moreover, the fare was good. She ate heartily, and as for Bo's appetite, she was inclined to be as much ashamed of that as amused at it. The young men were all eyes, assiduous in their service to the girls, but speaking seldom. It was not lost upon Helen how Dale's gray gaze went often down across the open country. She divined apprehension from it rather than saw much expression in it.
"I -- declare," burst out Bo, when she could not eat any more, "this isn't believable. I'm dreaming. . . . Nell, the black horse you rode is the prettiest I ever saw."
Ranger, with the other animals, was grazing along the little brook. Packs and saddles had been removed. The men ate leisurely. There was little evidence of hurried flight. Yet Helen could not cast off uneasiness. Roy might have been deep, and careless, with a motive to spare the girls' anxiety, but Dale seemed incapable of anything he did not absolutely mean.
"Rest or walk," he advised the girls. "We've got forty miles to ride before dark."
Helen preferred to rest, but Bo walked about, petting the horses and prying into the packs. She was curious and eager.
Dale and Roy talked in low tones while they cleaned up the utensils and packed them away in a heavy canvas bag.
"You really expect Anson 'll strike my trail this mornin'?" Dale was asking.
"I shore do," replied Roy.
"An' how do you figure that so soon?"
"How'd you figure it -- if you was Snake Anson?" queried Roy, in reply.
"Depends on that rider from Magdalena," Said Dale, soberly. "Although it's likely I'd seen them wheel tracks an' hoss tracks made where we turned off. But supposin' he does."
"Milt, listen. I told you Snake met us boys face to face day before yesterday in Show Down. An' he was plumb curious."
"But he missed seein' or hearin' about me," replied Dale.
"Mebbe he did an' mebbe he didn't. Anyway, what's the difference whether he finds out this mornin' or this evenin'?"
"Then you ain't expectin' a fight if Anson holds up the stage?"
"Wal, he'd have to shoot first, which ain't likely. John an' Hal, since thet shootin'-scrape a year ago, have been sort of gun-shy. Joe might get riled. But I reckon the best we can be shore of is a delay. An' it'd be sense not to count on thet."
"Then you hang up here an' keep watch for Anson's gang -- say long enough so's to be sure they'd be in sight if they find our tracks this mornin'. Makin' sure one way or another, you ride 'cross-country to Big Spring, where I'll camp to-night."
Roy nodded approval of that suggestion. Then without more words both men picked up ropes and went after the horses. Helen was watching Dale, so that when Bo cried out in great excitement Helen turned to see a savage yellow little mustang standing straight up on his hind legs and pawing the air. Roy had roped him and was now dragging him into camp.
"Nell, look at that for a wild pony!" exclaimed Bo.
Helen busied herself getting well out of the way of the infuriated mustang. Roy dragged him to a cedar near by.
"Come now, Buckskin," said Roy, soothingly, and he slowly approached the quivering animal. He went closer, hand over hand, on the lasso. Buckskin showed the whites of his eyes and also his white teeth. But he stood while Roy loosened the loop and, slipping it down over his head, fastened it in a complicated knot round his nose.
"Thet's a hackamore," he said, indicating the knot. He's never had a bridle, an' never will have one, I reckon."
"You don't ride him?" queried Helen.
"Sometimes I do," replied Roy, with a smile. "Would you girls like to try him?"
"Excuse me," answered Helen.
"Gee!" ejaculated Bo. "He looks like a devil. But I'd tackle him -- if you think I could."
The wild leaven of the West had found quick root in Bo Rayner.
"Wal, I'm sorry, but I reckon I'll not let you -- for a spell," replied Roy, dryly.
"He pitches somethin' powerful bad."
"Pitches. You mean bucks?"
In the next half-hour Helen saw more and learned more about how horses of the open range were handled than she had ever heard of. Excepting Ranger, and Roy's bay, and the white pony Bo rode, the rest of the horses had actually to be roped and hauled into camp to be saddled and packed. It was a job for fearless, strong men, and one that called for patience as well as arms of iron. So that for Helen Rayner the thing succeeding the confidence she had placed in these men was respect. To an observing woman that half-hour told much.
When all was in readiness for a start Dale mounted, and said, significantly: "Roy, I'll look for you about sundown. I hope no sooner."
"Wal, it'd be bad if I had to rustle along soon with bad news. Let's hope for the best. We've been shore lucky so far. Now you take to the pine-mats in the woods an' hide your trail."
Dale turned away. Then the girls bade Roy good-by, and followed. Soon Roy and his buckskin-colored mustang were lost to sight round a clump of trees.
The unhampered horses led the way; the pack-animals trotted after them; the riders were close behind. All traveled at a jog-trot. And this gait made the packs bob up and down and from side to side. The sun felt warm at Helen's back and the wind lost its frosty coldness, that almost appeared damp, for a dry, sweet fragrance. Dale drove up the shallow valley that showed timber on the levels above and a black border of timber some few miles ahead. It did not take long to reach the edge of the forest.
Helen wondered why the big pines grew so far on that plain and no farther. Probably the growth had to do with snow, but, as the ground was level, she could not see why the edge of the woods should come just there.
They rode into the forest.
To Helen it seemed a strange, critical entrance into another world, which she was destined to know and to love. The pines were big, brown-barked, seamed, and knotted, with no typical conformation except a majesty and beauty. They grew far apart. Few small pines and little underbrush flourished beneath them. The floor of this forest appeared remarkable in that it consisted of patches of high silvery grass and wide brown areas of pine-needles. These manifestly were what Roy had meant by pine-mats. Here and there a fallen monarch lay riven or rotting. Helen was presently struck with the silence of the forest and the strange fact that the horses seldom made any sound at all, and when they did it was a cracking of dead twig or thud of hoof on log. Likewise she became aware of a springy nature of the ground. And then she saw that the pine-mats gave like rubber cushions under the hoofs of the horses, and after they had passed sprang back to place again, leaving no track. Helen could not see a sign of a trail they left behind. Indeed, it would take a sharp eye to follow Dale through that forest. This knowledge was infinitely comforting to Helen, and for the first time since the flight had begun she felt a lessening of the weight upon mind and heart. It left her free for some of the appreciation she might have had in this wonderful ride under happier circumstances.
Bo, however, seemed too young, too wild, too intense to mind what the circumstances were. She responded to reality. Helen began to suspect that the girl would welcome any adventure, and Helen knew surely now that Bo was a true Auchincloss. For three long days Helen had felt a constraint with which heretofore she had been unfamiliar; for the last hours it had been submerged under dread. But it must be, she concluded, blood like her sister's, pounding at her veins to be set free to race and to burn.
Bo loved action. She had an eye for beauty, but she was not contemplative. She was now helping Dale drive the horses and hold them in rather close formation. She rode well, and as yet showed no symptoms of fatigue or pain. Helen began to be aware of both, but not enough yet to limit her interest.
A wonderful forest without birds did not seem real to her. Of all living creatures in nature Helen liked birds best, and she knew many and could imitate the songs of a few. But here under the stately pines there were no birds. Squirrels, however, began to be seen here and there, and in the course of an hour's travel became abundant. The only one with which she was familiar was the chipmunk. All the others, from the slim bright blacks to the striped russets and the white-tailed grays, were totally new to her. They appeared tame and curious. The reds barked and scolded at the passing cavalcade; the blacks glided to some safe branch, there to watch; the grays paid no especial heed to this invasion of their domain.
Once Dale, halting his horse, pointed with long arm, and Helen, following the direction, descried several gray deer standing in a glade, motionless, with long ears up. They made a wild and beautiful picture. Suddenly they bounded away with remarkable springy strides.
The forest on the whole held to the level, open character, but there were swales and stream-beds breaking up its regular conformity. Toward noon, however, it gradually changed, a fact that Helen believed she might have observed sooner had she been more keen. The general lay of the land began to ascend, and the trees to grow denser.
She made another discovery. Ever since she had entered the forest she had become aware of a fullness in her head and a something affecting her nostrils. She imagined, with regret, that she had taken cold. But presently her head cleared somewhat and she realized that the thick pine odor of the forest had clogged her nostrils as if with a sweet pitch. The smell was overpowering and disagreeable because of its strength. Also her throat and lungs seemed to burn.
When she began to lose interest in the forest and her surroundings it was because of aches and pains which would no longer be denied recognition. Thereafter she was not permitted to forget them and they grew worse. One, especially, was a pain beyond all her experience. It lay in the muscles of her side, above her hip, and it grew to be a treacherous thing, for it was not persistent. It came and went. After it did come, with a terrible flash, it could be borne by shifting or easing the body. But it gave no warning. When she expected it she was mistaken; when she dared to breathe again, then, with piercing swiftness, it returned like a blade in her side. This, then, was one of the riding-pains that made a victim of a tenderfoot on a long ride. It was almost too much to be borne. The beauty of the forest, the living creatures to be seen scurrying away, the time, distance -- everything faded before that stablike pain. To her infinite relief she found that it was the trot that caused this torture. When Ranger walked she did not have to suffer it. Therefore she held him to a walk as long as she dared or until Dale and Bo were almost out of sight; then she loped him ahead until he had caught up.
So the hours passed, the sun got around low, sending golden shafts under the trees, and the forest gradually changed to a brighter, but a thicker, color. This slowly darkened. Sunset was not far away.
She heard the horses splashing in water, and soon she rode up to see the tiny streams of crystal water running swiftly over beds of green moss. She crossed a number of these and followed along the last one into a more open place in the forest where the pines were huge, towering, and far apart. A low, gray bluff of stone rose to the right, perhaps one-third as high as the trees. From somewhere came the rushing sound of running water.
"Big Spring," announced Dale. "We camp here. You girls have done well."
Another glance proved to Helen that all those little streams poured from under this gray bluff.
"I'm dying for a drink," cried Bo. with her customary hyperbole.
"I reckon you'll never forget your first drink here," remarked Dale.
Bo essayed to dismount, and finally fell off, and when she did get to the ground her legs appeared to refuse their natural function, and she fell flat. Dale helped her up.
"What's wrong with me, anyhow?" she demanded, in great amaze.
"Just stiff, I reckon," replied Dale, as he led her a few awkward steps.
"Bo, have you any hurts?" queried Helen, who still sat her horse, loath to try dismounting, yet wanting to beyond all words.
Bo gave her an eloquent glance.
"Nell, did you have one in your side, like a wicked, long darning-needle, punching deep when you weren't ready?"
"That one I'll never get over!" exclaimed Helen, softly. Then, profiting by Bo's experience, she dismounted cautiously, and managed to keep upright. Her legs felt like wooden things.
Presently the girls went toward the spring.
"Drink slow," called out Dale.
Big Spring had its source somewhere deep under the gray, weathered bluff, from which came a hollow subterranean gurgle and roar of water. Its fountainhead must have been a great well rushing up through the cold stone.
Helen and Bo lay flat on a mossy bank, seeing their faces as they bent over, and they sipped a mouthful, by Dale's advice, and because they were so hot and parched and burning they wanted to tarry a moment with a precious opportunity.
The water was so cold that it sent a shock over Helen, made her teeth ache, and a singular, revivifying current steal all through her, wonderful in its cool absorption of that dry heat of flesh, irresistible in its appeal to thirst. Helen raised her head to look at this water. It was colorless as she had found it tasteless.
"Nell -- drink!" panted Bo. "Think of our -- old spring -- in the orchard -- full of pollywogs!"
And then Helen drank thirstily, with closed eyes, while a memory of home stirred from Bo's gift of poignant speech.
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