Unbridled





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.





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