But the going remained bad for a while as the horses sank deep in a soft red earth. This eventually grew more solid and finally dry. Slone worked out of the cedars to what appeared a grassy plateau inclosed by the great green and white slope with its yellow wall overhanging, and distant mesas and cliffs. Here his view was restricted. He was down on the first bench of the great cañon.
Bostil was like a furious, intractable child whose favorite precious treasure had been broken; and he burst out into a torrent of incoherent speech, apparently reasons why this and that were so. Slone did not make out what Bostil meant and he did not care. When Bostil got out of breath Slone said: "We're both wastin' talk.
Half an hour's climbing brought Slone to where he could see that he was entering a vast valley, sloping up and narrowing to a notch in the dark cliffs, above which towered the great red wall and about that the slopes of cedar and the yellow rim-rock. And scarcely a mile distant, bright in the westering sunlight, shone the red stallion, moving slowly. Slone pressed on steadily.
Slone felt that his eyes, deceived by his mind, saw racing images. Many a wild chase he had lived in dreams on some far desert. But what was that beating in his ears sharp, swift, even, rhythmic? Never had his ears played him false. Never had he heard things in his dreams. That running object was a horse and he was coming like the wind. Slone felt something grip his heart.
But suddenly Wildfire broke that silence with a whistle which to Slone's overstrained faculties seemed a blast as piercing as the splitting sound of lightning. And with the whistle Wildfire plunged up toward the pass. Slone yelled at the top of his lungs and fired his gun before he could terrorize the stallion and drive him back down the slope.
Slone had no past to think about, and the future held nothing except a horse, and so his thoughts revolved the possibilities connected with this chase of Wildfire. The chase was hopeless in such country as he was traversing, and if Wildfire chose to roam around valleys like this one Slone would fail utterly.
Then he seemed to expand. His huge bulk jerked into motion and he bellowed like a mad bull. Slone saw the blow coming, made no move to avoid it. The big fist took him square on the mouth and chin and laid him flat on the ground. Sight failed Slone for a little, and likewise ability to move. But he did not lose consciousness.
All the time and endurance and pain and thirst and suspense and longing and hopelessness the agony of the whole endless chase closed tight on his heart in that instant. The running horse halted just in the belt of light cast by the burning grass. There he stood sharply defined, clear as a cameo, not a hundred paces from Slone. It was Wildfire. Slone uttered an involuntary cry.
"Howdy, Slone," drawled Cordts, with hand outstretched. "I sure am glad to meet yuh. I'd like to trade the Sage King for this red stallion!" A roar of laughter greeted this sally, all but Bostil and Slone joining in. The joke was on Bostil, and he showed it. Slone did not even smile. "Howdy, Cordts," he replied. "I'm glad to meet you so I'll know you when I see you again."
But presently they wearied of yelping at him and went away. After that the silence, broken only by the wind as it roared and lulled, seemed beautiful to Slone. He lost completely that sense of vague regret which had remained with him, and he forgot the Stewarts. And suddenly he felt absolutely free, alone, with nothing behind to remember, with wild, thrilling, nameless life before him.