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Duke of Chimney Butte, The





CHAPTER XXIII

UNMASKED


Lambert was out of the saddle at the sound of the shot. He sprang to the shelter of the nearest rock, gun in hand, thinking with a sweep of bitterness that Grace Kerr had led him into a trap. Whetstone was lying still, his chin on the ground, one foreleg bent and gathered under him, not in the posture of a dead horse, although Lambert knew that he was dead. It was as if the brave beast struggled even after life to picture the quality of his unconquerable will, and would not lie in death as other horses lay, cold and inexpressive of anything but death, with stiff limbs straight.

Lambert was incautious of his own safety in his great concern for his horse. He stepped clear of his shelter to look at him, hoping against his conviction that he would rise. Somebody laughed behind the rock on his right, a laugh that plucked his heart up and cast it down, as a drunken hand shatters a goblet upon the floor.

"I guess you'll never race me on that horse again, fence-rider!"

There was the sound of movement behind the rock; in a moment Grace Kerr rode out from her concealment, not more than four rods beyond the place where his horse lay. She rode out boldly and indifferently before his eyes, turned and looked back at him, her face white as an evening primrose in the dusk, as if to tell him that she knew she was safe, even within the distance of his arm, much as she despised his calling and his kind.

Lambert put his gun back in its sheath, and she rode on, disappearing again from his sight around the rock where the blasted valley of stones branched upon its arid way. He took the saddle from his dead horse and hid it behind a rock, not caring much whether he ever found it again, his heart so heavy that it seemed to bow him to the ground.

So at last he knew her for what Vesta Philbrook had told him she was—bad to the core of her heart. Kindness could not regenerate her, love could not purge away the vicious strain of blood. She might have scorned him, and he would have bent his head and loved her more; struck him, and he would have chided her with a look of love. But when she sent her bullet into poor old Whetstone's brain, she placed herself beyond any absolution that even his soft heart could yield.

He bent over Whetstone, caressing his head, speaking to him in his old terms of endearment, thinking of the many fruitless races he had run, believing that his own race in the Bad Lands had come to an end.

If he had but turned back from the foot of the hill where he recognized her, as duty demanded of him that he turn, and not pressed on with his simple intention of friendliness which she was too shallow to appreciate or understand, this heavy loss would have been spared him. For this dead animal was more to him than comrade and friend; more than any man who has not shared the good and evil times with his horse in the silent places can comprehend.

He could not fight a woman; there was no measure of revenge that he could take against her, but he prayed that she might suffer for this deed of treachery to him with a pang intensified a thousand times greater than his that hour. Will-o'-the-wisp she had been to him, indeed, leading him a fool's race since she first came twinkling into his life.

Bitter were his reflections, somber was his heart, as he turned to walk the thirty miles or more that lay between him and the ranch, leaving old Whetstone to the wolves.


Lambert was loading cattle nearly a week later when the sheriff returned Vesta's horse, with apologies for its footsore and beaten state. He had followed Kerr far beyond his jurisdiction, pushing him a hard race through the hills, but the wily cattleman had evaded him in the end.

The sheriff advised Lambert to put in a bill against the county for the loss of his horse, a proposal which Lambert considered with grave face and in silence.

"No," he said at last, "I'll not put in a bill. I'll collect in my own way from the one that owes me the debt."




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