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Duke of Chimney Butte, The

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<SPAN name="Page_218" id="Page_218">[Pg 218]</SPAN></span> <br /> <hr /> <br /> <h2>CHAPTER XV</h2> <h3>WOLVES OF THE RANGE</h3> <br /> <p>Lambert left his horse at the saloon hitching-rack while he went to the store. Business was brisk in that place, also, requiring a wait of half an hour before his turn came. In a short time thereafter he completed his purchases, tied his package to his saddle, and was ready to go home.</p> <p>The sound of revelry was going forward again in the saloon, the mechanical banjo plugging away on its tiresome tune. There was a gap here and there at the rack where horses had been taken away, but most of them seemed to be anchored there for the night, standing dejectedly with drooping heads.</p> <p>The tinkle of Alta's guitar sounded through the open window of the hotel parlor as he passed, indicating that Taterleg was still in that harbor. It would be selfish to call him, making the most as he was of a clear field. <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_219" id="Page_219">[Pg 219]</SPAN></span>Lambert smiled as he recalled the three-cornered rivalry for Alta's bony hand.</p> <p>There was a lemon-rind slice of new moon low in the southwest, giving a dusky light, the huddling sage clumps at the roadside blotches of deepest shadow. Lambert ruminated on the trouble that had been laid out for him that night as he rode away from town, going slowly, in no hurry to put walls between him and the soft, pleasant night.</p> <p>He was confronted by the disadvantage of an unsought notoriety, or reputation, or whatever his local fame might be called. A man with a fighting name must live up to it, however distasteful the strife and turmoil, or move beyond the circle of his fame. Move he would not, could not, although it seemed a foolish thing, on reflection, to hang on there in the lure of Grace Kerr's dark eyes.</p> <p>What could a man reasonably expect of a girl with such people as Sim Hargus as her daily associates? Surely she had been schooled in their warped view of justice, as her act that day proved. No matter for Omaha and its refinements, she must be a savage under the skin. <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_220" id="Page_220">[Pg 220]</SPAN></span>But gentle or savage, he had a tender regard for her, a feeling of romantic sympathy that had been groping out to find her as a plant in a pit strains toward the light. Now, in the sunshine of her presence, would it flourish and grow green, or wither in its mistaken worship and die?</p> <p>Vesta had warned him, not knowing anything of the peculiar circumstances which brought him to that place, or of his discovery, which seemed a revelation of fate, the conjunction of events shaped before his entry upon the stage, indeed. She had warned him, but in the face of things as they had taken place, what would it avail a man to turn his back on the arrangements of destiny? As it was written, so it must be lived. It was not in his hand or his heart to change it.</p> <p>Turning these things in his mind, flavoring the bitter in the prospect with the sweet of romance, he was drawn out of his wanderings by the sudden starting of his horse. It was not a shying start, but a stiffening of attitude, a leap out of laxity into alertness, with a lifting of the head, a fixing of the ears as if on some object <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_221" id="Page_221">[Pg 221]</SPAN></span>ahead, of which it was at once curious and afraid.</p> <p>Lambert was all tension in a breath. Ahead a little way the road branched at the point of the hill leading to the Philbrook house. His road lay to the right of the jutting plowshare of hill which seemed shaped for the mere purpose of splitting the highway. The other branch led to Kerr's ranch, and beyond. The horse was plainly scenting something in this latter branch of the road, still hidden by the bushes which grew as tall there as the head of a man on horseback.</p> <p>As the horse trotted on, Lambert made out something lying in the road which looked, at that distance, like the body of a man. Closer approach proved this to be the case, indeed. Whether the man was alive or dead, it was impossible to determine from the saddle, but he lay in a huddled heap as if he had been thrown from a horse, his hat in the road some feet beyond.</p> <p>Whetstone would not approach nearer than ten or twelve feet. There he stood, swelling his sides with long-drawn breaths, snorting his <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_222" id="Page_222">[Pg 222]</SPAN></span>warning, it seemed, expressing his suspicion in the best manner that he could command. Lambert spoke to him, but could not quiet his fear. He could feel the sensitive creature tremble under him, and took it as certain that the man must be dead.</p> <p>Dismounting, he led the horse and bent over the man in the road. He could see the fellow's shoulder move as he breathed, and straightened up with a creeping of apprehension that this might be a trap to draw him into just such a situation as he found himself that moment. The nervousness of his horse rather increased than quieted, also, adding color to his fear.</p> <p>His foot was in the stirrup when a quick rush sounded behind him. He saw the man on the ground spring to his feet, and quick on the consciousness of that fact there came a blow that stretched him as stiff as a dead man.</p> <p>Lambert came to himself with a half-drowned sense of suffocation. Water was falling on his head, pouring over his face, and there was the confused sound of human voices around him. As he cleared he realized that somebody was standing over him, pouring water on his head. <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_223" id="Page_223">[Pg 223]</SPAN></span>He struggled to get from under the drowning stream. A man laughed, shook him, cursed him vilely close to his ear.</p> <p>"Wake up, little feller, somebody's a-cuttin' your fence!" said another, taking hold of him from the other side.</p> <p>"Don't hurt him, boys," admonished a third voice, which he knew for Berry Kerr's&mdash;"this is the young man who has come to the Bad Lands with a mission. He's going to teach people to take off their hats to barbed-wire fences. I wouldn't have him hurt for a keg of nails."</p> <p>He came near Lambert now, put a hand on his shoulder, and asked him with a gentle kindness how he felt.</p> <p>Lambert did not answer him, for he had no words adequate to describe his feelings at that moment to a friend, much less an enemy whose intentions were unknown. He sat, fallen forward, in a limp and miserable heap, drenched with water, clusters of fire gathering and breaking like showers of a rocket before his eyes. His head throbbed and ached in maddening pain. This was so great that it seemed to submerge every faculty save that of hearing, to paralyze <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_224" id="Page_224">[Pg 224]</SPAN></span>him so entirely that he could not lift a hand. That blow had all but killed him.</p> <p>"Let him alone&mdash;he'll be all right in a minute," said Kerr's voice, sounding close to his ear as if he stooped to examine him.</p> <p>One was standing behind Lambert, knees against his back to prevent his entire collapse. The others drew off a little way. There followed the sound of horses, as if they prepared to ride. It seemed as if the great pain in Lambert's head attended the return of consciousness, as it attends the return of circulation. It soon began to grow easier, settling down to a throb with each heartbeat, as if all his life forces rushed to that spot and clamored against his skull to be released. He stiffened, and sat straight.</p> <p>"I guess you can stick on your horse now," said the man behind him.</p> <p>The fellow left him at that. Lambert could see the heads and shoulders of men, the heads of horses, against the sky, as if they were below the river bank. He felt for his gun. No surprise was in store for him there; it was gone.</p> <p>He was unable to mount when they brought <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_225" id="Page_225">[Pg 225]</SPAN></span>his horse. He attempted it, in confusion of senses that made it seem the struggle of somebody whom he watched and wanted to help, but could not. They lifted him, tied his feet under the horse, his hands to the saddle-horn. In this fashion they started away with him, one riding ahead, one on either hand. He believed that one or more came following, but of this he was not sure.</p> <p>He knew it would be useless to make inquiry of their intentions. That would bring down on him derision, after their savage way. Stolidly as an Indian he rode among them to what end he could not imagine; but at the worst, he believed they would not go beyond some further torture of him to give him an initiation into what he must expect unless he accepted their decree that he quit the country forthwith.</p> <p>As his senses cleared Lambert recognized the men beside him as Sim Hargus and the half-Indian, Tom. Behind him he believed Nick Hargus rode, making it a family party. In such hands, with such preliminary usage, it began to look very grave for him.</p> <p>When they saw there was no danger of his <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_226" id="Page_226">[Pg 226]</SPAN></span>collapse, they began to increase their pace. Bound as he was, every step of the horse was increased torture to Lambert. He appealed to Sim Hargus to release his hands.</p> <p>"You can tie them behind me if you're afraid," he suggested.</p> <p>Hargus cursed him, refusing to ease his situation. Kerr turned on hearing this outburst and inquired what it meant. Hargus repeated the prisoner's request with obscene embellishment. They made no secret of each other's identity, speaking familiarly, as if in the presence of one who would make no future charges. Kerr found the request reasonable, and ordered Hargus to tie Lambert's hands at his back.</p> <p>"I guess you might as well take your last ride comfortable, kid," Hargus commented, as he shifted the bonds.</p> <p>They proceeded at a trot, keeping it up for two hours or more. Lambert knew it was about ten o'clock when he stopped to investigate the man in the road. There was a feel in the air now that told him it was far past the turn of night. He knew about where they were in relation to the ranch by this time, for a man who <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_227" id="Page_227">[Pg 227]</SPAN></span>lives in the open places develops his sense of direction until it serves him as a mole's in its underground tunneling.</p> <p>There was no talking among his conductors, no sound but the tramp of the horses in unceasing trot, the scraping of the bushes on the stirrups as they passed. Lambert's legs were drawn close to his horse's belly, his feet not in the stirrups, and tied so tightly that he rode in painful rigidity. The brush caught the loose stirrups and flung them against Whetstone's sides, treatment that he resented with all the indignation of a genuine range horse. The twisting and jumping made Lambert's situation doubly uncomfortable. He longed for the end of the journey, no matter what awaited him at its conclusion.</p> <p>For some time Lambert had noticed a glow as of a fire directly ahead of them. It grew and sank as if being fed irregularly, or as if smoke blew before it from time to time. Presently they rounded the base of a hill and came suddenly upon the fire, burning in a gulch, as it seemed, covering a large area, sending up a vast volume of smoke.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_228" id="Page_228">[Pg 228]</SPAN></span>Lambert had seen smoke in this direction many times while riding fence, but could not account for it then any more than he could now for a little while as he stood facing its origin. Then he understood that this was a burning vein of lignite, such as he had seen traces of in the gorgeously colored soil in other parts of the Bad Lands where the fires had died out and cooled long ago.</p> <p>These fires are peculiar to the Bad Lands, and not uncommon there, owing their origin to forest or prairie blazes which spread to the exposed veins of coal. As these broad, deep deposits of lignite lie near the surface, the fire can be seen through crevasses and fallen sections of crust. Sometimes they burn for years.</p> <p>At the foot of the steep bank on which Lambert and his captors stood the crust had caved, giving the fire air to hasten its ravages. The mass of slow-moving fire glowed red and intense, covered in places by its own ashes, now sending up sudden clouds of smoke as an indraft of air livened the combustion, now smoldering in sullen dullness, throwing off a heat that made the horses draw back.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_229" id="Page_229">[Pg 229]</SPAN></span>Kerr drew aside on arriving at the fire, and sat his horse looking at it, the light on his face. Sim Hargus pointed to the glowing pit.</p> <p>"That's our little private hell. What do you think of it, kid?" he said, with his grunting, insulting sneer.</p> <p>The fire was visible only in front of them, in a jagged, irregular strip marking the cave-in of the crust. It ranged from a yard to ten yards across, and appeared to extend on either hand a long distance. The bank on which Lambert's horse stood formed one shore of this fiery stream, which he estimated to be four yards or more across at that point. On the other side a recent settling of earth had exposed the coal, which was burning brightly in a fringe of red flame. Whether the fire underlay the ground beyond that point Lambert could not tell.</p> <p>"Quite a sight by night, isn't it?" said Kerr. "It covers several acres," he explained, as if answering the speculation that rose, irrelevantly in the face of his pain, humiliation and anxiety, in Lambert's mind. What did it matter to him how much ground it covered, or when it began, or when it would die, when his own <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_230" id="Page_230">[Pg 230]</SPAN></span>life was as uncertain that minute as a match-flame in the wind.</p> <p>Why had they brought him there to show him that burning coal-pit? Not out of any desire to display the natural wonders of the land. The answer was in the fact itself. Only the diabolism of a savage mind could contrive or countenance such barbarity as they had come to submit him to.</p> <p>"I lost several head of stock down below here a little way last winter," said Kerr. "They crowded out over the fire in a blizzard and broke through. If a man was to ride in there through ignorance I doubt if he'd ever be able to get out."</p> <p>Kerr sat looking speculatively into the glowing pit below, the firelight red over him in strong contrast of gleam and shadow. Sim Hargus leaned to look Lambert in the face.</p> <p>"You said I was to consider the two days I give you was up," said he.</p> <p>"You understood it right," Lambert told him.</p> <p>Hargus drew back his fist. Kerr interposed, speaking sharply.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_231" id="Page_231">[Pg 231]</SPAN></span>"You'll not hit a man with his arms tied while I'm around, Sim," he said.</p> <p>"Let him loose, then&mdash;put him down before me on his feet!"</p> <p>"Leave the kid alone," said Kerr, in his even, provoking voice. "I think he's the kind of a boy that will take friendly advice if you come up on the right side of him."</p> <p>"Don't be all night about it," said Nick Hargus from his place behind Lambert, breaking silence in sullen voice.</p> <p>Kerr rode up to Lambert and took hold of his reins, stroking old Whetstone's neck as if he didn't harbor an unkind thought for either man or beast.</p> <p>"It's this way, Duke," he said. "You're a stranger here; the customs of this country are not the customs you're familiar with, and it's foolish, very foolish, and maybe dangerous, for you to try to change things around single-handed and alone. We've used you a little rougher than I intended the boys to handle you, but you'll get over it in a little while, and we're going to let you go this time.</p> <p>"But we're going to turn you loose with the <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_232" id="Page_232">[Pg 232]</SPAN></span>warning once more to clear out of this country in as straight a line as you can draw, starting right now, and keeping on till you're out of the state. You'll excuse us if we keep your gun; you can send me your address when you land, and I'll ship it to you. We'll have to start you off tied up, too, much as I hate to do it. You'll find some way to get loose in a little while, I guess, a man that's as resourceful and original as you."</p> <p>Tom Hargus had not said a word since they left the river. Now he leaned over and peered into Lambert's face with an expression of excited malevolence, his eyes glittering in the firelight, his nostrils flaring as if he drew exhilaration with every breath. He betrayed more of their intentions than Kerr had discovered in his words; so much, indeed, that Lambert's heart seemed to gush its blood and fall empty and cold.</p> <p>Lambert forgot his throbbing head and tortured feet, and hands gorged with blood to the strain of bursting below his tight-drawn bonds. The realization of his hopeless situation rushed on him; he looked round him to seize even the <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_233" id="Page_233">[Pg 233]</SPAN></span>most doubtful opening that might lead him out of their hands.</p> <p>There was no chance. He could not wheel his horse without hand on rein, no matter how well the willing beast obeyed the pressure of his knees while galloping in the open field.</p> <p>He believed they intended to kill him and throw his body in the fire. Old Nick Hargus and his son had it in their power at last to take satisfaction for the humiliation to which he had bent them. A thousand regrets for his simplicity in falling into their trap came prickling him with their momentary torture, succeeded by wild gropings, frantic seekings, for some plan to get away.</p> <p>He had no thought of making an appeal to them, no consideration of a surrender of his manhood by giving his promise to leave the country if they would set him free. He was afraid, as any healthy human is afraid when he stands before a danger that he can neither defend against nor assail. Sweat burst out on him; his heart labored and heaved in heavy strokes.</p> <p>Whatever was passing in his mind, no trace <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_234" id="Page_234">[Pg 234]</SPAN></span>of it was betrayed in his bearing. He sat stiff and erect, the red glow of the intense fire on his face. His hat-brim was pressed back as the wind had held it in his ride, the scar of Jim Wilder's knife a shadow adding to the grim strength of his lean face. His bound arms drew his shoulders back, giving him a defiant pose.</p> <p>"Take him out there and head him the right way, boys," Kerr directed.</p> <p>Tom Hargus rode ahead, leading Whetstone by the reins. Kerr was not following. At Lambert's last sight of him he was still looking into the fire, as if fascinated by the sight of it.</p> <p>A hundred yards or less from the fire they stopped. Tom Hargus turned Whetstone to face back the way they had come, threw the reins over the saddle-horn, rode up so close Lambert could feel his breath in his face.</p> <p>"You made me brush off a nigger's hat when you had the drop on me, and carry a post five miles. That's the shoulder I carried it on!"</p> <p>He drove his knife into Lambert's right shoulder with the words. The steel grated on bone.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_235" id="Page_235">[Pg 235]</SPAN></span>"I brushed a nigger off under your gun one time," said old Nick Hargus, spurring up on the other side. "Now I'll brush you a little!"</p> <p>Lambert felt the hot streak of a knife-blade in the thick muscle of his back. Almost at the same moment his horse leaped forward so suddenly that it wrenched every joint in his bound, stiff body, squealing in pain. He knew that one of them had plunged a knife in the animal's haunch. There was loud laughter, the sudden rushing of hooves, yells, and curses as they came after him.</p> <p>But no shots. For a moment Lambert hoped that they were to content themselves with the tortures already inflicted and let him go, to find his way out to help or perish in his bonds, as it might fall. For a moment only, this hope. They came pressing after him, heading his horse directly toward the fire. He struggled to bring pressure to old Whetstone's ribs in the signal that he had answered a thousand times, but he was bound so rigidly that his muscles only twitched on the bone.</p> <p>Whetstone galloped on, mad in the pain of his wound, heading straight toward the fire.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_236" id="Page_236">[Pg 236]</SPAN></span>Lambert believed, as those who urged him on toward it believed, that no horseman ever rode could jump that fiery gorge. On the brink of it his pursuers would stop, while he, powerless to check or turn his horse, would plunge over to perish in his bonds, smothered under his struggling beast, pierced by the transcendent agonies of fire.</p> <p>This was the last thought that rose coherently out of the turmoil of his senses as the firepit opened before his eyes. He heard his horse squeal again in the pain of another knife thrust to madden it to its destructive leap. Then a swirl of the confused senses as of released waters, the lift of his horse as it sprang, the heat of the fire in his face.</p> <p>The healthy human mind recoils from death, and there is no agency among the destructive forces of nature which threatens with so much terror as fire. The senses disband in panic before it, reason flees, the voice appeals in its distress with a note that vibrates horror. In the threat of death by fire, man descends to his primal levels; his tongue speaks again the universal language, its note lending its horrified <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_237" id="Page_237">[Pg 237]</SPAN></span>thrill to the lowest thing that moves by the divine force of life.</p> <p>As Lambert hung over the fire in that mighty leap, his soul recoiled. His strength rushed into one great cry, which still tore at his throat as his horse struck, racking him with a force that seemed to tear him joint from joint.</p> <p>The shock of this landing gathered his dispersed faculties. There was fire around him, there was smoke in his nostrils, but he was alive. His horse was on its feet, struggling to scramble up the bank on which it had landed, the earth breaking under its hinder hoofs, threatening to precipitate it back into the fire that its tremendous leap had cleared.</p> <br /> <br /> <br /><span class='pagenum'>
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