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Unbridled








From: The Light Of Western Stars

In waking and sleeping hours Madeline Hammond could not release herself
from the thralling memory of that tragedy. She was haunted by Monty
Price's terrible smile. Only in action of some kind could she escape;
and to that end she worked, she walked and rode. She even overcame
a strong feeling, which she feared was unreasonable disgust, for the
Mexican girl Bonita, who lay ill at the ranch, bruised and feverish, in
need of skilful nursing.

Madeline felt there was something inscrutable changing her soul. That
strife--the struggle to decide her destiny for East or West--held still
further aloof. She was never spiritually alone. There was a step on her
trail. Indoors she was oppressed. She required the open--the light and
wind, the sight of endless slope, the sounds of corral and pond and
field, physical things, natural things.

One afternoon she rode down to the alfalfa-fields, round them, and back
up to the spillway of the lower lake, where a group of mesquite-trees,
owing to the water that seeped through the sand to their roots, had
taken on bloom and beauty of renewed life. Under these trees there was
shade enough to make a pleasant place to linger. Madeline dismounted,
desiring to rest a little. She liked this quiet, lonely spot. It was
really the only secluded nook near the house. If she rode down into the
valley or out to the mesa or up on the foothills she could not go alone.
Probably now Stillwell or Nels knew her whereabouts. But as she was
comparatively hidden here, she imagined a solitude that was not actually
hers.

Her horse, Majesty, tossed his head and flung his mane and switched his
tail at the flies. He would rather have been cutting the wind down the
valley slope. Madeline sat with her back against a tree, and took off
her sombrero. The soft breeze, fanning her hot face, blowing strands
of her hair, was refreshingly cool. She heard the slow tramp of cattle
going in to drink. That sound ceased, and the grove of mesquites
appeared to be lifeless, except for her and her horse. It was, however,
only after moments of attention that she found the place was far from
being dead. Keen eyes and ears brought reward. Desert quail, as gray as
the bare earth, were dusting themselves in a shady spot. A bee, swift as
light, hummed by. She saw a horned toad, the color of stone, squatting
low, hiding fearfully in the sand within reach of her whip. She extended
the point of the whip, and the toad quivered and swelled and hissed. It
was instinct with fight. The wind faintly stirred the thin foliage of
the mesquites, making a mournful sigh. From far up in the foothills,
barely distinguishable, came the scream of an eagle. The bray of a burro
brought a brief, discordant break. Then a brown bird darted down from
an unseen perch and made a swift, irregular flight after a fluttering
winged insect. Madeline heard the sharp snapping of a merciless beak.
Indeed, there was more than life in the shade of the mesquites.

Suddenly Majesty picked up his long ears and snorted. Then Madeline
heard a slow pad of hoofs. A horse was approaching from the direction
of the lake. Madeline had learned to be wary, and, mounting Majesty, she
turned him toward the open. A moment later she felt glad of her caution,
for, looking back between the trees, she saw Stewart leading a horse
into the grove. She would as lief have met a guerrilla as this cowboy.

Majesty had broken into a trot when a shrill whistle rent the air. The
horse leaped and, wheeling so swiftly that he nearly unseated Madeline,
he charged back straight for the mesquites. Madeline spoke to him, cried
angrily at him, pulled with all her strength upon the bridle, but was
helplessly unable to stop him. He whistled a piercing blast. Madeline
realized then that Stewart, his old master, had called him and that
nothing could turn him. She gave up trying, and attended to the urgent
need of intercepting mesquite boughs that Majesty thrashed into motion.
The horse thumped into an aisle between the trees and, stopping before
Stewart, whinnied eagerly.

Madeline, not knowing what to expect, had not time for any feeling but
amaze. A quick glance showed her Stewart in rough garb, dressed for
the trail, and leading a wiry horse, saddled and packed. When Stewart,
without looking at her, put his arm around Majesty's neck and laid his
face against the flowing mane Madeline's heart suddenly began to beat
with unwonted quickness. Stewart seemed oblivious to her presence.
His eyes were closed. His dark face softened, lost its hardness and
fierceness and sadness, and for an instant became beautiful.

Madeline instantly divined what his action meant. He was leaving the
ranch; this was his good-by to his horse. How strange, sad, fine was
this love between man and beast! A dimness confused Madeline's eyes;
she hurriedly brushed it away, and it came back wet and blurring. She
averted her face, ashamed of the tears Stewart might see. She was sorry
for him. He was going away, and this time, judging from the nature of
his farewell to his horse, it was to be forever. Like a stab from a
cold blade a pain shot through Madeline's heart. The wonder of it, the
incomprehensibility of it, the utter newness and strangeness of this
sharp pain that now left behind a dull pang, made her forget Stewart,
her surroundings, everything except to search her heart. Maybe here was
the secret that had eluded her. She trembled on the brink of something
unknown. In some strange way the emotion brought back her girlhood.
Her mind revolved swift queries and replies; she was living, feeling,
learning; happiness mocked at her from behind a barred door, and the
bar of that door seemed to be an inexplicable pain. Then like lightning
strokes shot the questions: Why should pain hide her happiness? What
was her happiness? What relation had it to this man? Why should she feel
strangely about his departure? And the voices within her were silenced,
stunned, unanswered.

"I want to talk to you," said Stewart.

Madeline started, turned to him, and now she saw the earlier Stewart,
the man who reminded her of their first meeting at El Cajon, of that
memorable meeting at Chiricahua.

"I want to ask you something," he went on. "I've been wanting to know
something. That's why I've hung on here. You never spoke to me, never
noticed me, never gave me a chance to ask you. But now I'm going
over--over the border. And I want to know. Why did you refuse to listen
to me?"

At his last words that hot shame, tenfold more stifling than when it had
before humiliated Madeline, rushed over her, sending the scarlet in a
wave to her temples. It seemed that his words made her realize she was
actually face to face with him, that somehow a shame she would rather
have died than revealed was being liberated. Biting her lips to hold
back speech, she jerked on Majesty's bridle, struck him with her whip,
spurred him. Stewart's iron arm held the horse. Then Madeline, in a
flash of passion, struck at Stewart's face, missed it, struck again, and
hit. With one pull, almost drawing her from the saddle, he tore the whip
from her hands. It was not that action on his part, or the sudden strong
masterfulness of his look, so much as the livid mark on his face where
the whip had lashed that quieted, if it did not check, her fury.

"That's nothing," he said, with something of his old audacity. "That's
nothing to how you've hurt me."

Madeline battled with herself for control. This man would not be denied.
Never before had the hardness of his face, the flinty hardness of these
desert-bred men, so struck her with its revelation of the unbridled
spirit. He looked stern, haggard, bitter. The dark shade was changing to
gray--the gray to ash-color of passion. About him now there was only the
ghost of that finer, gentler man she had helped to bring into being. The
piercing dark eyes he bent upon her burned her, went through her as
if he were looking into her soul. Then Madeline's quick sight caught a
fleeting doubt, a wistfulness, a surprised and saddened certainty in his
eyes, saw it shade and pass away. Her woman's intuition, as keen as her
sight, told her Stewart in that moment had sustained a shock of bitter,
final truth.

For the third time he repeated his question to her. Madeline did not
answer; she could not speak.

"You don't know I love you, do you?" he continued, passionately. "That
ever since you stood before me in that hole at Chiricahua I've loved
you? You can't see I've been another man, loving you, working for you,
living for you? You won't believe I've turned my back on the old wild
life, that I've been decent and honorable and happy and useful--your
kind of a cowboy? You couldn't tell, though I loved you, that I never
wanted you to know it, that I never dared to think of you except as my
angel, my holy Virgin? What do you know of a man's heart and soul? How
could you tell of the love, the salvation of a man who's lived his
life in the silence and loneliness? Who could teach you the actual
truth--that a wild cowboy, faithless to mother and sister, except in
memory, riding a hard, drunken trail straight to hell; had looked into
the face, the eyes of a beautiful woman infinitely beyond him, above
him, and had so loved her that he was saved--that he became faithful
again--that he saw her face in every flower and her eyes in the blue
heaven? Who could tell you, when at night I stood alone under these
Western stars, how deep in my soul I was glad just to be alive, to be
able to do something for you, to be near you, to stand between you and
worry, trouble, danger, to feel somehow that I was a part, just a little
part of the West you had come to love?"

Madeline was mute. She heard her heart thundering in her ears.

Stewart leaped at her. His powerful hand closed on her arm. She
trembled. His action presaged the old instinctive violence.

"No; but you think I kept Bonita up in the mountains, that I went
secretly to meet her, that all the while I served you I was--Oh, I know
what you think! I know now. I never knew till I made you look at me.
Now, say it! Speak!"

White-hot, blinded, utterly in the fiery grasp of passion, powerless to
stem the rush of a word both shameful and revealing and fatal, Madeline
cried:

"YES!"

He had wrenched that word from her, but he was not subtle enough, not
versed in the mystery of woman's motive enough, to divine the deep
significance of her reply.

For him the word had only literal meaning confirming the dishonor in
which she held him. Dropping her arm, he shrank back, a strange action
for the savage and crude man she judged him to be.

"But that day at Chiricahua you spoke of faith," he burst out. "You said
the greatest thing in the world was faith in human nature. You said the
finest men had been those who had fallen low and had risen. You said you
had faith in me! You made me have faith in myself!"

His reproach, without bitterness or scorn, was a lash to her old
egoistic belief in her fairness. She had preached a beautiful principle
that she had failed to live up to. She understood his rebuke, she
wondered and wavered, but the affront to her pride had been too great,
the tumult within her breast had been too startlingly fierce; she could
not speak, the moment passed, and with it his brief, rugged splendor of
simplicity.

"You think I am vile," he said. "You think that about Bonita! And all
the time I've been... I could make you ashamed--I could tell you--"

His passionate utterance ceased with a snap of his teeth. His lips set
in a thin, bitter line. The agitation of his face preceded a convulsive
wrestling of his shoulders. All this swift action denoted an inner
combat, and it nearly overwhelmed him.

"No, no!" he panted. Was it his answer to some mighty temptation? Then,
like a bent sapling released, he sprang erect. "But I'll be the man--the
dog--you think me!"

He laid hold of her arm with rude, powerful clutch. One pull drew her
sliding half out of the saddle into his arms. She fell with her breast
against his, not wholly free of stirrups or horse, and there she hung,
utterly powerless. Maddened, writhing, she tore to release herself. All
she could accomplish was to twist herself, raise herself high enough to
see his face. That almost paralyzed her. Did he mean to kill her? Then
he wrapped his arms around her and crushed her tighter, closer to him.
She felt the pound of his heart; her own seemed to have frozen. Then he
pressed his burning lips to hers. It was a long, terrible kiss. She felt
him shake.

"Oh, Stewart! I--implore--you--let--me--go!" she whispered.

His white face loomed over hers. She closed her eyes. He rained kisses
upon her face, but no more upon her mouth. On her closed eyes, her hair,
her cheeks, her neck he pressed swift lips--lips that lost their fire
and grew cold. Then he released her, and, lifting and righting her in
the saddle, he still held her arm to keep her from falling.

For a moment Madeline sat on her horse with shut eyes. She dreaded the
light.

"Now you can't say you've never been kissed," Stewart said. His voice
seemed a long way off. "But that was coming to you, so be game. Here!"

She felt something hard and cold and metallic thrust into her hand. He
made her fingers close over it, hold it. The feel of the thing revived
her. She opened her eyes. Stewart had given her his gun. He stood with
his broad breast against her knee, and she looked up to see that old
mocking smile on his face.

"Go ahead! Throw my gun on me! Be a thoroughbred!"

Madeline did not yet grasp his meaning.

"You can put me down in that quiet place on the hill--beside Monty
Price."

Madeline dropped the gun with a shuddering cry of horror. The sense
of his words, the memory of Monty, the certainty that she would
kill Stewart if she held the gun an instant longer, tortured the
self-accusing cry from her.

Stewart stooped to pick up the weapon.

"You might have saved me a hell of a lot of trouble," he said, with
another flash of the mocking smile. "You're beautiful and sweet and
proud, but you're no thoroughbred! Majesty Hammond, adios!"

Stewart leaped for the saddle of his horse, and with the flying mount
crashed through the mesquites to disappear.





Next: The Secret Told

Previous: The Sheriff Of El Cajon



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