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The Mountain Trail

From: The Light Of Western Stars

As Stewart departed from one door Florence knocked upon another; and
Madeline, far shaken out of her usual serenity, admitted the cool
Western girl with more than gladness. Just to have her near helped
Madeline to get back her balance. She was conscious of Florence's sharp
scrutiny, then of a sweet, deliberate change of manner. Florence might
have been burning with curiosity to know more about the bandits hidden
in the house, the plans of the cowboys, the reason for Madeline's
suppressed emotion; but instead of asking Madeline questions she
introduced the important subject of what to take on the camping trip.
For an hour they discussed the need of this and that article,
selected those things most needful, and then packed them in Madeline's

That done, they decided to lie down, fully dressed as they were in
riding-costume, and sleep, or at least rest, the little remaining time
left before the call to saddle. Madeline turned out the light and,
peeping through her window, saw dark forms standing sentinel-like in the
gloom. When she lay down she heard soft steps on the path. This fidelity
to her swelled her heart, while the need of it presaged that fearful
something which, since Stewart's passionate appeal to her, haunted her
as inevitable.

Madeline did not expect to sleep, yet she did sleep, and it seemed to
have been only a moment until Florence called her. She followed Florence
outside. It was the dark hour before dawn. She could discern saddled
horses being held by cowboys. There was an air of hurry and mystery
about the departure. Helen, who came tip-toeing out with Madeline's
other guests, whispered that it was like an escape. She was delighted.
The others were amused. To Madeline it was indeed an escape.

In the darkness Madeline could not see how many escorts her party was to
have. She heard low voices, the champing of bits and thumping of hoofs,
and she recognized Stewart when he led up Majesty for her to mount.
Then came a pattering of soft feet and the whining of dogs. Cold noses
touched her hands, and she saw the long, gray, shaggy shapes of her pack
of Russian wolf-hounds. That Stewart meant to let them go with her was
indicative of how he studied her pleasure. She loved to be out with the
hounds and her horse.

Stewart led Majesty out into the darkness past a line of mounted horses.

"Guess we're ready?" he said. "I'll make the count." He went back along
the line, and on the return Madeline heard him say several times,
"Now, everybody ride close to the horse in front, and keep quiet till
daylight." Then the snorting and pounding of the big black horse in
front of her told Madeline that Stewart had mounted.

"All right, we're off," he called.

Madeline lifted Majesty's bridle and let the roan go. There was a crack
and crunch of gravel, fire struck from stone, a low whinny, a snort,
and then steady, short, clip-clop of iron hoofs on hard ground. Madeline
could just discern Stewart and his black outlined in shadowy gray before
her. Yet they were almost within touching distance. Once or twice one of
the huge stag-hounds leaped up at her and whined joyously. A thick belt
of darkness lay low, and seemed to thin out above to a gray fog, through
which a few wan stars showed. It was altogether an unusual departure
from the ranch; and Madeline, always susceptible even to ordinary
incident that promised well, now found herself thrillingly sensitive to
the soft beat of hoofs, the feel of cool, moist air, the dim sight of
Stewart's dark figure. The caution, the early start before dawn, the
enforced silence--these lent the occasion all that was needful to make
it stirring.

Majesty plunged into a gully, where sand and rough going made Madeline
stop romancing to attend to riding. In the darkness Stewart was not
so easy to keep close to even on smooth trails, and now she had to
be watchfully attentive to do it. Then followed a long march through
dragging sand. Meantime the blackness gradually changed to gray. At
length Majesty climbed out of the wash, and once more his iron shoes
rang on stone. He began to climb. The figure of Stewart and his horse
loomed more distinctly in Madeline's sight. Bending over, she tried to
see the trail, but could not. She wondered how Stewart could follow
a trail in the dark. His eyes must be as piercing as they sometimes
looked. Over her shoulder Madeline could not see the horse behind her,
but she heard him.

As Majesty climbed steadily Madeline saw the gray darkness grow opaque,
change and lighten, lose its substance, and yield the grotesque shapes
of yucca and ocotillo. Dawn was about to break. Madeline imagined she
was facing east, still she saw no brightening of sky. All at once, to
her surprise, Stewart and his powerful horse stood clear in her sight.
She saw the characteristic rock and cactus and brush that covered the
foothills. The trail was old and seldom used, and it zigzagged and
turned and twisted. Looking back, she saw the short, squat figure of
Monty Price humped over his saddle. Monty's face was hidden under his
sombrero. Behind him rode Dorothy Coombs, and next loomed up the lofty
form of Nick Steele. Madeline and the members of her party were riding
between cowboy escorts.

Bright daylight came, and Madeline saw the trail was leading up through
foothills. It led in a round-about way through shallow gullies full
of stone and brush washed down by floods. At every turn now Madeline
expected to come upon water and the waiting pack-train. But time passed,
and miles of climbing, and no water or horses were met. Expectation in
Madeline gave place to desire; she was hungry.

Presently Stewart's horse went splashing into a shallow pool. Beyond
that damp places in the sand showed here and there, and again more water
in rocky pockets. Stewart kept on. It was eight o'clock by Madeline's
watch when, upon turning into a wide hollow, she saw horses grazing on
spare grass, a great pile of canvas-covered bundles, and a fire round
which cowboys and two Mexican women were busy.

Madeline sat her horse and reviewed her followers as they rode up single
file. Her guests were in merry mood, and they all talked at once.

"Breakfast--and rustle," called out Stewart, without ceremony.

"No need to tell me to rustle," said Helen. "I am simply ravenous. This
air makes me hungry."

For that matter, Madeline observed Helen did not show any marked
contrast to the others. The hurry order, however, did not interfere with
the meal being somewhat in the nature of a picnic. While they ate
and talked and laughed the cowboys were packing horses and burros and
throwing the diamond-hitch, a procedure so interesting to Castleton that
he got up with coffee-cup in hand and tramped from one place to another.

"Heard of that diamond-hitch-up," he observed to a cowboy. "Bally nice
little job!"

As soon as the pack-train was in readiness Stewart started it off in the
lead to break trail. A heavy growth of shrub interspersed with rock and
cactus covered the slopes; and now all the trail appeared to be uphill.
It was not a question of comfort for Madeline and her party, for comfort
was impossible; it was a matter of making the travel possible for him.
Florence wore corduroy breeches and high-top boots, and the advantage
of this masculine garb was at once in evidence. The riding-habits of the
other ladies suffered considerably from the sharp spikes. It took all
Madeline's watchfulness to save her horse's legs, to pick the best bits
of open ground, to make cut-offs from the trail, and to protect herself
from outreaching thorny branches, so that the time sped by without her
knowing it. The pack-train forged ahead, and the trailing couples grew
farther apart. At noon they got out of the foothills to face the real
ascent of the mountains. The sun beat down hot. There was little breeze,
and the dust rose thick and hung in a pall. The view was restricted, and
what scenery lay open to the eye was dreary and drab, a barren monotony
of slow-mounting slopes ridged by rocky canyons.

Once Stewart waited for Madeline, and as she came up he said:

"We're going to have a storm."

"That will be a relief. It's so hot and dusty," replied Madeline.

"Shall I call a halt and make camp?"

"Here? Oh no! What do you think best?"

"Well, if we have a good healthy thunder-storm it will be something new
for your friends. I think we'd be wise to keep on the go. There's no
place to make a good camp. The wind would blow us off this slope if
the rain didn't wash us off. It'll take all-day travel to reach a good
camp-site, and I don't promise that. We're making slow time. If it
rains, let it rain. The pack outfit is well covered. We will have to get

"Surely," replied Madeline; and she smiled at his inference. She knew
what a storm was in that country, and her guests had yet to experience
one. "If it rains, let it rain."

Stewart rode on, and Madeline followed. Up the slope toiled and nodded
the pack-animals, the little burros going easily where the horses
labored. Their packs, like the humps of camels, bobbed from side to
side. Stones rattled down; the heat-waves wavered black; the dust puffed
up and sailed. The sky was a pale blue, like heated steel, except where
dark clouds peeped over the mountain crests. A heavy, sultry atmosphere
made breathing difficult. Down the slope the trailing party stretched
out in twos and threes, and it was easy to distinguish the weary riders.

Half a mile farther up Madeline could see over the foothills to the
north and west and a little south, and she forgot the heat and
weariness and discomfort for her guests in wide, unlimited prospects of
sun-scorched earth. She marked the gray valley and the black mountains
and the wide, red gateway of the desert, and the dim, shadowy peaks,
blue as the sky they pierced. She was sorry when the bleak, gnarled
cedar-trees shut off her view.

Then there came a respite from the steep climb, and the way led in a
winding course through a matted, storm-wrenched forest of stunted trees.
Even up to this elevation the desert reached with its gaunt hand. The
clouds overspreading the sky, hiding the sun, made a welcome change. The
pack-train rested, and Stewart and Madeline waited for the party to come
up. Here he briefly explained to her that Don Carlos and his bandits had
left the ranch some time in the night. Thunder rumbled in the distance,
and a faint wind rustled the scant foliage of the cedars. The air grew
oppressive; the horses panted.

"Sure it'll be a hummer," said Stewart. "The first storm almost always
is bad. I can feel it in the air."

The air, indeed, seemed to be charged with a heavy force that was
waiting to be liberated.

One by one the couples mounted to the cedar forest, and the feminine
contingent declaimed eloquently for rest. But there was to be no
permanent rest until night and then that depended upon reaching the
crags. The pack-train wagged onward, and Stewart fell in behind. The
storm-center gathered slowly around the peaks; low rumble and howl of
thunder increased in frequence; slowly the light shaded as smoky clouds
rolled up; the air grew sultrier, and the exasperating breeze puffed a
few times and then failed.

An hour later the party had climbed high and was rounding the side of a
great bare ridge that long had hidden the crags. The last burro of the
pack-train plodded over the ridge out of Madeline's sight. She looked
backward down the slope, amused to see her guests change wearily from
side to side in their saddles. Far below lay the cedar flat and the
foothills. Far to the west the sky was still clear, with shafts of
sunlight shooting down from behind the encroaching clouds.

Stewart reached the summit of the ridge and, though only a few rods
ahead, he waved to her, sweeping his hand round to what he saw beyond.
It was an impressive gesture, and Madeline, never having climbed as high
as this, anticipated much.

Majesty surmounted the last few steps and, snorting, halted beside
Stewart's black. To Madeline the scene was as if the world had changed.
The ridge was a mountain-top. It dropped before her into a black,
stone-ridged, shrub-patched, many-canyoned gulf. Eastward, beyond the
gulf, round, bare mountain-heads loomed up. Upward, on the right, led
giant steps of cliff and bench and weathered slope to the fir-bordered
and pine-fringed crags standing dark and bare against the stormy sky.
Massed inky clouds were piling across the peaks, obscuring the highest
ones. A fork of white lightning flashed, and, like the booming of an
avalanche, thunder followed.

That bold world of broken rock under the slow mustering of storm-clouds
was a grim, awe-inspiring spectacle. It had beauty, but beauty of the
sublime and majestic kind. The fierce desert had reached up to meet the
magnetic heights where heat and wind and frost and lightning and flood
contended in everlasting strife. And before their onslaught this mighty
upflung world of rugged stone was crumbling, splitting, wearing to ruin.

Madeline glanced at Stewart. He had forgotten her presence. Immovable
as stone, he sat his horse, dark-faced, dark-eyed, and, like an Indian
unconscious of thought, he watched and watched. To see him thus,
to divine the strange affinity between the soul of this man, become
primitive, and the savage environment that had developed him, were
powerful helps to Madeline Hammond in her strange desire to understand
his nature.

A cracking of iron-shod hoofs behind her broke the spell. Monty had
reached the summit.

"Gene, what it won't all be doin' in a minnut Moses hisself couldn't
tell," observed Monty.

Then Dorothy climbed to his side and looked.

"Oh, isn't it just perfectly lovely!" she exclaimed. "But I wish it
wouldn't storm. We'll all get wet."

Once more Stewart faced the ascent, keeping to the slow heave of the
ridge as it rose southward toward the looming spires of rock. Soon he
was off smooth ground, and Madeline, some rods behind him, looked back
with concern at her friends. Here the real toil, the real climb began,
and a mountain storm was about to burst in all its fury.

The slope that Stewart entered upon was a magnificent monument to the
ruined crags above. It was a southerly slope, and therefore semi-arid,
covered with cercocarpus and yucca and some shrub that Madeline believed
was manzanita. Every foot of the trail seemed to slide under Majesty.
What hard ground there was could not be traveled upon, owing to the
spiny covering or masses of shattered rocks. Gullies lined the slope.

Then the sky grew blacker; the slow-gathering clouds appeared to be
suddenly agitated; they piled and rolled and mushroomed and obscured
the crags. The air moved heavily and seemed to be laden with sulphurous
smoke, and sharp lightning flashes began to play. A distant roar of wind
could be heard between the peals of thunder.

Stewart waited for Madeline under the lee of a shelving cliff, where the
cowboys had halted the pack-train. Majesty was sensitive to the flashes
of lightning. Madeline patted his neck and softly called to him. The
weary burros nodded; the Mexican women covered their heads with their
mantles. Stewart untied the slicker at the back of Madeline's saddle
and helped her on with it. Then he put on his own. The other cowboys
followed suit. Presently Madeline saw Monty and Dorothy rounding the
cliff, and hoped the others would come soon.

A blue-white, knotted rope of lightning burned down out of the clouds,
and instantly a thunder-clap crashed, seeming to shake the foundations
of the earth. Then it rolled, as if banging from cloud to cloud, and
boomed along the peaks, and reverberated from deep to low, at last to
rumble away into silence. Madeline felt the electricity in Majesty's
mane, and it seemed to tingle through her nerves. The air had a weird,
bright cast. The ponderous clouds swallowed more and more of the eastern
domes. This moment of the breaking of the storm, with the strange
growing roar of wind, like a moaning monster, was pregnant with a
heart-disturbing emotion for Madeline Hammond. Glorious it was to be
free, healthy, out in the open, under the shadow of the mountain and
cloud, in the teeth of the wind and rain and storm.

Another dazzling blue blaze showed the bold mountain-side and the
storm-driven clouds. In the flare of light Madeline saw Stewart's face.

"Are you afraid?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied, simply.

Then the thunderbolt racked the heavens, and as it boomed away in
lessening power Madeline reflected with surprise upon Stewart's answer.
Something in his face had made her ask him what she considered a foolish
question. His reply amazed her. She loved a storm. Why should he fear
it--he, with whom she could not associate fear?

"How strange! Have you not been out in many storms?"

A smile that was only a gleam flitted over his dark face.

"In hundreds of them. By day, with the cattle stampeding. At night,
alone on the mountain, with the pines crashing and the rocks rolling--in
flood on the desert."

"It's not only the lightning, then?" she asked.

"No. All the storm."

Madeline felt that henceforth she would have less faith in what she had
imagined was her love of the elements. What little she knew! If this
iron-nerved man feared a storm, then there was something about a storm
to fear.

And suddenly, as the ground quaked under her horse's feet, and all
the sky grew black and crisscrossed by flaming streaks, and between
thunderous reports there was a strange hollow roar sweeping down upon
her, she realized how small was her knowledge and experience of the
mighty forces of nature. Then, with that perversity of character of
which she was wholly conscious, she was humble, submissive, reverent,
and fearful even while she gloried in the grandeur of the dark,
cloud-shadowed crags and canyons, the stupendous strife of sound, the
wonderful driving lances of white fire.

With blacker gloom and deafening roar came the torrent of rain. It was
a cloud-burst. It was like solid water tumbling down. For long Madeline
sat her horse, head bent to the pelting rain. When its force lessened
and she heard Stewart call for all to follow, she looked up to see that
he was starting once more. She shot a glimpse at Dorothy and as quickly
glanced away. Dorothy, who would not wear a hat suitable for inclement
weather, nor one of the horrid yellow, sticky slickers, was a drenched
and disheveled spectacle. Madeline did not trust herself to look at the
other girls. It was enough to hear their lament. So she turned her horse
into Stewart's trail.

Rain fell steadily. The fury of the storm, however, had passed, and the
roll of thunder diminished in volume. The air had wonderfully cleared
and was growing cool. Madeline began to feel uncomfortably cold and wet.
Stewart was climbing faster than formerly, and she noted that Monty kept
at her heels, pressing her on. Time had been lost, and the camp-site was
a long way off. The stag-hounds began to lag and get footsore. The sharp
rocks of the trail were cruel to their feet. Then, as Madeline began to
tire, she noticed less and less around her. The ascent grew rougher and
steeper--slow toil for panting horses. The thinning rain grew colder,
and sometimes a stronger whip of wind lashed stingingly in Madeline's
face. Her horse climbed and climbed, and brush and sharp corners of
stone everlastingly pulled and tore at her wet garments. A gray gloom
settled down around her. Night was approaching. Majesty heaved upward
with a snort, the wet saddle creaked, and an even motion told Madeline
she was on level ground. She looked up to see looming crags and spires,
like huge pipe-organs, dark at the base and growing light upward.
The rain had ceased, but the branches of fir-trees and juniper were
water-soaked arms reaching out for her. Through an opening between crags
Madeline caught a momentary glimpse of the west. Red sun-shafts shone
through the murky, broken clouds. The sun had set.

Stewart's horse was on a jog-trot now, and Madeline left the trail more
to Majesty than to her own choosing. The shadows deepened, and the crags
grew gloomy and spectral. A cool wind moaned through the dark trees.
Coyotes, scenting the hounds, kept apace of them, and barked and howled
off in the gloom. But the tired hounds did not appear to notice.

As black night began to envelop her surroundings, Madeline marked that
the fir-trees had given place to pine forest. Suddenly a pin-point of
light pierced the ebony blackness. Like a solitary star in dark sky
it twinkled and blinked. She lost sight of it--found it again. It grew
larger. Black tree-trunks crossed her line of vision. The light was a
fire. She heard a cowboy song and the wild chorus of a pack of coyotes.
Drops of rain on the branches of trees glittered in the rays of the
fire. Stewart's tall figure, with sombrero slouched down, was now and
then outlined against a growing circle of light. And by the aid of that
light she saw him turn every moment or so to look back, probably to
assure himself that she was close behind.

With a prospect of fire and warmth, and food and rest, Madeline's
enthusiasm revived. What a climb! There was promise in this wild ride
and lonely trail and hidden craggy height, not only in the adventure her
friends yearned for, but in some nameless joy and spirit for herself.

Next: The Crags

Previous: Bandits

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