If her soul had been capable of enthusiasm, Marne could have made the trip on schedule time, but she was a burro good for nothing except to carry a pack well nigh half her own weight, live on forage that might have starved a goat, and smell water fifteen miles in time of drought. Speed was not in her vocabulary, and accordingly it was late afternoon rather than morning when Gregg, pointing his course between the ears of Marne, steered her through Murphy's Pass and came out over Alder. There they paused by mutual consent, and the burro flicked one long ear forward to listen to the rushing of the Doane River. It filled the valley with continual murmur, and just below them, where the brown, white-flecked current twisted around an elbow bend, lay Alder tossed down without plan, here a boulder and there a house. They seemed marvelously flimsy structures, and one felt surprise that the weight the winter snow had not crushed them, or that the Doane River had not sent a strong current licking over bank and tossed the whole village crashing down the ravine. One building was very much like other, but Gregg's familiar eye pierced through the roofs and into Widow Sullivan's staggering shack, into Hezekiah Whittleby's hushed sitting-room, down to the moist, dark floor of the Captain's saloon into that amazing junkshop, the General Merchandise store; but first and last he looked to the little flag which gleamed and snapped above the schoolhouse, and it spelled "my country" to Vic.
Marne consented to break into a neat-footed jog-trot going down the last slope, and so she went up the single winding street of Alder, grunting at every step, with Gregg's whistle behind her. In town, he lived with his friend, Dug Pym, who kept their attic room reserved for his occupancy, so he headed straight for that place. What human face would he see first?
It was Mrs. Sweeney's little boy, Jack, who raced into the street whooping, and Vic caught him under the armpits and swung him dizzily into the air.
"By God," muttered Vic, as he strode on, "that's a good kid, that Jack." And he straightway forgot all about that knife which Jackie had purloined from him the summer before. "Me and Betty," he thought, "we'll have kids, like Jack; tougher'n leather."
Old Garrigan saw him next and cackled from his truck garden in the backyard, but Vic went on with a wave of his arm, and on past Gertie Vincent's inviting shout (Gertie had been his particular girl before Betty Neal came to town), and on with the determination of a soldier even past the veranda of Captain Lorrimier's saloon, though Lorrimer himself bellowed a greeting and "Chick" Stewart crooked a significant thumb over his shoulder towards the open door. He only paused at the blacksmith shop and looked in at Dug, who was struggling to make the print of a hot shoe on a hind foot of Simpson's sorrel Glencoe.
Pym raised a grimy, sweating forehead.
"You, boy; easy, damn you! Hello, Vic!" and he propped that restless hind foot on his inner thigh and extended a hand.
"Go an workin', Dug, because I can't stop; I just want a rope to catch Grey Molly."
"You red devil—take that rope over there, Vic. You won't have no work catchin' Molly. Which she's plumb tame. Stand still, damn you. I never seen a Glencoe with any sense!—Where you goin', Vic? Up to the school?"
And his sweaty grin followed Vic as the latter went out with the coil of rope over his shoulder. When Gregg reached the house, Nelly Pym hugged him, which is the privilege of fat and forty, and then she sat at the foot of the stairs and shouted up gossip while he shaved with frantic haste and jumped into his best clothes. He answered her with monosyllables and only half his mind.
"Finish up your work, Vic?"
"You sure worked yourself all thin. I hope somebody appreciates it." She chuckled. "Ain't been sick, have you?"
"Say, who d'you think's in town? Sheriff Glass!"
This information sank in on him while he tugged at a boot at least a size and half too small.
"Pete Glass!" he echoed. Then: "Who's he after?"
"I dunno. Vic, he don't look like such a bad one."
"He's plenty bad enough," Gregg assured her. "Ah-h-h!"
His foot ground into place, torturing his toes.
'"Well," considered Mrs. Pym, in a philosophic rumble, "I s'pose them quiet gents is the dangerous ones, mostly; but looking at Glass you wouldn't think he'd ever killed all those men. Know about the dance?"
"Down to Singer's place. Betty goin' with you?"
He jerked open the door and barked down at her: "Who else would she be goin' with?"
"Don't start pullin' leather before the horse bucks," said Mrs. Pym. "I don't know who else she'd be goin' with. You sure look fine in that red shirt, Vic!"
He grinned, half mollified, half shame-faced, and ducked back into the room, but a moment later he clumped stiffly down the stairs, frowning. He wondered if he could dance in those boots.
"Feel kind of strange in these clothes. How do I look, Nelly?" And he turned in review at the foot of the stairs.
"Slick as a whistle, I'll tell a man." She raised her voice to a shout as he disappeared through the outer door. "Kiss her once for me, Vic."
In the center of the little pasture he stood shaking out the noose, and the three horses raced in a sweeping gallop around the fence, looking for a place of escape, with Grey Molly in the lead. Nothing up the Doane River, or even down the Asper, for that matter, could head Molly when she was full of running, and the eyes of Gregg gleamed as he watched her. She was not a picture horse, for her color was rather a dirty white than a dapple, and besides, there were some who accused her of "tucked up belly." But she had the legs for speed in spite of the sloping croup, and plenty of chest at the girth, and a small, bony head that rejoiced the heart of a horseman. He swung the noose, and while the others darted ahead, stupidly straight into the range of danger, Grey Molly whirled like a doubling coyote and leaped away.
"Good girl!" cried Vic, in involuntary approbation. He ran a few steps. The noose slid up and out, opened in a shaky loop, and swooped down. Too late the gray saw the flying danger, for even as she swerved the riata fell over her head, and she came to a snorting halt with all fours planted, skidding through the grass. The first thing a range horse learns is never to pull against a rope.
A few minutes later she was getting the "pitch" out of her system, as any self-respecting cattle horse must do after a session of pasture and no work. She bucked with enthusiasm and intelligence, as she did all things. Sun-fishing, sun-fishing is the most deadly form of bucking, for it consists of a series of leaps apparently aimed at the sun, and the horse comes down with a sickening jar on stiff front legs. Educated "pitchers" land on only one foot, so that the shock is accompanied by a terrible sidewise, downward wrench that breaks the hearts of the best riders in the world. Grey Molly was educated, and Mrs. Pym stood in the doorway with a broad grin of appreciation on her red face, she knew riding when she saw it. Then, out of the full frenzy, the mare lapsed into high-headed, quivering attention, and Gregg cursed her softly, with deep affection. He understood her from her fetlocks to her teeth. She bucked like a fiend of revolt one instant and cantered like an angel of grace the next; in fact she was more or less of an equine counterpart of her rider.
But now he heard shrill voices passing down the street and he knew that school was out and that he must hurry if he wanted to ride home with Betty, so he waved to Mrs. Pym and cantered away. For over two days he had been rushing towards this meeting; all winter he had hungered for it, but now that the moment loomed before him he weakened; he usually did when he came close to the girl. Not that her beauty overwhelmed him, for though she had a portion of energetic good-health and freckled prettiness, he had chosen her as an Indian chooses flint for his steel; one could strike fire from Betty Neal. When he was far away he loved her without doubt or question and his trust ran towards her like a river setting towards the ocean because he knew that her heart was as big and as true as the heart of Grey Molly herself. Only her ways were fickle, and when she came near, she filled him with uneasiness, suspicion.