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The Empty Cave








From: The Seventh Man

Through ten months of the year a child of ten could wade the Asper but now
its deep roaring that set the ground quivering under Barry gave him perfect
assurance of safety. Not one of that posse would attempt the crossing, he
felt, but he slipped back through the shrubbery close to the bank to make
sure. He was in time to see Mark Retherton give a command with gestures
that sent reluctant guns into the holsters. Fists were brandished toward
the green covert on the farther side of the river, so close, such an
unreachable distance. One or two rode their horses down to the very edge of
the water, but they gave up the thought and the whole troop turned back
toward Wilsonville; even the horses were down-headed.

Back in the covert he found Bart lying with his head on his paws, his eyes
closed, his sides swelling and closing till every rib seemed broken; yet
now and then he opened one red eye to look at Satan. The stallion lay in
almost exactly the same position, and the rush and rattle of his breathing
was audible even in the noise of the Asper; Barry dropped prone and pressed
his ear against the left side of the horse, just behind the shoulder. The
fierce vibration fairly shook his head; he could hear the rush of the blood
except when that deadly rattling of the breath came. When he rose to his
knees the face of the master was serious, thoughtful.

"Satan!" he called, but the river must have drowned his voice. Only when he
passed his fingers down the wet neck, one of Satan's ears pricked, and fell
instantly back. It would not do to let him lie there in the cool mold by
the water, for he knew that the greatest danger in overheating a horse is
that it may cool too quickly afterward.

He stooped directly in front of Satan and swept up an arm in command; it
brought only a flicker of the eyelid, the eyelid which drooped over a
glazing eye.

"Up!" he commanded.

One ear again pricked; the head lifted barely clear of the ground; the
forelegs stiffened with effort, trembled, and were still again.

"Bart!" shouted the master, "wake him up!"

The voice could not have carried to the wolf through the uproar of the
waters, but the gesture, the expression brought home the order, and Black
Bart came to his feet, staggering. Right against the nose of Satan he bared
his great teeth and his snarl rattled. No living creature could hear that
sound without starting, and the head of Satan raised high. Still before him
Bart growled and under his elbow and his chest the hands of the master
strained up. He swayed with a snort very like a human groan, struggled, the
forelegs secured their purchase, and he came slowly to his feet. There he
stood, braced and head low; a child might have caught him by the mane and
toppled him upon his side, and already his hind legs were buckling.

"Get on!" cried Barry.

There was a lift of the head, a quivering of the tensed nostrils, but that
was all. He seemed to be dying on his feet, when the master whistled. The
sound cut through the rushing of the Asper as a ray of light probes a dark
room, shrill, harsh, like the hissing of some incredible snake, and Satan
went an uncertain step forward, reeled, almost fell; but the shoulder of
the master was at his side lifting up, and the arm of the master was under
his chest, raising. He tried another step; he went on among the trees with
his forelegs sprawling and his head drooped as though he were trying to
crop grass. Black Bart did his part to recall that flagging spirit.
Sometimes it was his snarl that startled the black; sometimes he leaped,
and his teeth clashed a hair's breadth from Satan's nose.

By degrees the congealing blood flowed freely again through Satan's body;
he no longer staggered; and now he lifted a forepaw and struck vaguely at
Bart as the wolf-dog leaped. Barry stepped away.

"Bart!" he called, and the shouting of the Asper was now so far away that
he could be heard. "Come round here, old boy, and stop botherin' him. He's
goin' to pull through."

He leaned against a willow, his face suddenly old and white with something
more than exhaustion, and laughed in such an oddly pitched, cracked tone
that the wolf-dog slunk to him on his belly and licked the dangling hand.
He caught the scarred head of Bart and looked steadily down into the eyes
of the wolf.

"It was a close call, Bart. There wasn't more than half an inch between
Satan and--"

The black turned his head and whinnied feebly.

"Listen to him callin' for help like a new-foaled colt," said the master,
and went to Satan.

The head of the stallion rested on his shoulder as they went slowly on.

"Tonight," said the master, "you get two pieces of pone without askin'."
The cold nose of the jealous wolf-dog thrust against his left hind. "You
too, Bart. You showed us the way."

The rattle had left the breathing of Satan, the stagger was gone from his
walk; with each instant he grew perceptibly larger as they approached the
border of the wood. It fell off to a scattering thicket with the Grizzly
Peaks stepping swiftly up to the sky. This was their magic instant in all
the day, when the sun, grown low in the west, with bulging sides, gave the
mountains a yellow light. They swelled up larger with warm tints of gold
rolling off into the blue of the canyons; at the foot of the nearest slope
a thicket of quaking aspens was struck by a breeze and flashed all silver.
Not many moments more, and all the peaks would be falling back into the
evening,

It seemed that Satan saw this, for he raised his head from the shoulder of
the master and stopped to look.

"Step on," commanded Barry.

The stallion shook himself violently as a dog that knocks the water from
his pelt, but he took no pace forward.

"Satan!"

The order made him sway forward, but he checked the movement.

"I ask you man to man, Bart," said the master in sudden anger, "was there
ever a worse fool hoss than him? He won't budge till I get on his back."

The wolf-dog shoved his nose again into Barry's hand and growled. He seemed
quite willing to go on alone with the master and leave Satan forgotten.

"All right," said Barry. "Satan, are you comin'?"

The horse whinnied, but would not move.

"Then stay here."

He turned his back and walked resolutely across the meadow, but slowly, and
more slowly, until a ringing neigh made him stop and turn. Satan had not
stirred from his first halting place, but now his head was high and his
cars pricked anxiously. He pawed the ground in his impatience.

"Look there, Bart," observed the master gloomily. "There's pride for you.
He won't let on that he's too weak to carry me. Now I'd ought to let him
stay there till he drops."

He whistled suddenly, the call sliding up, breaking, and rising again with
a sharp appeal. Satan neighed again as it died away.

"If that won't bring him, nothin' will. Back we got to go. Bart, you jest
take this to heart: It ain't any use tryin' to bring them to reason that
ain't got any sense."

He went back and sprang lightly to the back of the horse and Satan
staggered a little under the weight but once, as if to prove that his
strength was more than equal to the task, he broke into a trot. A harsh
order called him back to a walk, and so they started up into the Grizzly
Peaks.

By dark, however, a few halts, a chance to crop grass for a moment here and
there, a roll by the next creek and a short draught of water, restored a
great part of the black's strength, and before the night was an hour old he
was heading up through the hills at a long, swift trot.

Even then it was that dark, cold time just before dawn when they wound up
the difficult pass toward the cave. The moon had gone down; a thin, high
mist painted out the stars; and there were only varying degrees of
blackness to show them the way, with peaks and ridges starting here and
there out of the night, very suddenly. It was so dark, indeed, that
sometimes Dan could not see where Bart skulked a little ahead, weaving
among the boulders and picking the easiest way. But all three of them knew
the course by instinct, and when they came to a more or less commanding
rise of ground in the valley Dan checked the stallion and whistled.

Then he sat canting his head to one side to listen more intently. A rising
wind brought about him something like an echo of the sound, but otherwise
there was no answer.

"She ain't heard," muttered Dan to Bart, who came running back at the call,
so familiar to him and to the horse. He whistled again, prolonging the call
until it soared and trembled down the gulch, and this time when he stopped
he sat for a long moment, waiting, until Black Bart whined at his side.

"She ain't learned to sleep light, yet," muttered Barry. "An' I s'pose
she's plumb tired out waitin' for me. But if something's happened--Satan!"

That word sent the stallion leaping ahead at a racing gait, swerving among
rocks which he could not see.

"They's nothin' wrong with her," whispered Barry to himself. "They can't be
nothin' happened to her!"

He was in the cave, a moment later, standing in the center of the place
with the torch high above his head; it flared and glimmered in the great
eyes of Satan and the narrow eyes of Bart. At length he slipped down to a
rock beside him while the torch, fallen from his hand, sputtered and
whispered where it lay on the gravel.

"She's gone," he said to emptiness. "She's lef' me--" Black Bart licked his
limp hand but dared not even whine.





Next: Ben Swann

Previous: The Asper



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