The sickness within rose to his mind.And that flashed up whenever he dared to look forward at Lucy's white form.Slone could not bear this sight; it almost made him reel, yet he was driven to look.He saw that the King carried no saddle, so with Lucy on him he was light.He ought to run all day with only that weight.Wildfire carried a heavy saddle, a pack, a water bag, and a rifle.Slone untied the pack and let it drop.He almost threw aside the water-bag, but something withheld his hand, and also he kept his rifle.What were a few more pounds to this desert stallion in his last run? Slone knew it was Wildfire's greatest and last race.
Suddenly Slone's ears rang with a terrible on-coming roar.For an instant the unknown sound stiffened him, robbed him of strength.Only the horn of the saddle, hooking into him, held him on.Then the years of his desert life answered to a call more than human.
He had to race against fire.He must beat the flame to the girl he loved.
There were miles of dry forest, like powder.Fire backed by a heavy gale could rage through dry pine faster than any horse could run.He might fail to save Lucy.Fate had given him a bitter ride.But he swore a grim oath that he would beat the flame.The intense and abnormal rider's passion in him, like Bostil's, dammed up, but never fully controlled, burst within him, and suddenly he awoke to a wild and terrible violence of heart and soul.He had accepted death; he had no fear.All that he wanted to do, the last thing he wanted to do, was to ride down the King and kill Lucy mercifully.How he would have gloried to burn there in the forest, and for a million years in the dark beyond, to save the girl!
He goaded the horse.Then he looked back.
Through the aisles of the forest he saw a strange, streaky, murky something moving, alive, shifting up and down, never an instant the same.It must have been the wind--the heat before the fire.He seemed to see through it, but there was nothing beyond, only opaque, dim, mustering clouds.Hot puffs shot forward into his face.His eyes smarted and stung.His ears hurt and were growing deaf.The tumult was the rear of avalanches, of maelstroms, of rushing seas, of the wreck of the uplands and the ruin of the earth.It grew to be so great a roar that he no longer heard.There was only silence.
And he turned to face ahead.The stallion stretched low on a dead run; the tips of the pines were bending before the wind; and Wildfire, the terrible thing for which his horse was named, was leaping through the forest.But there was no sound.
Ahead of Slone, down the aisles, low under the trees spreading over the running King, floated swiftly some medium, like a transparent veil.It was neither smoke nor air.It carried faint pin points of light, sparks, that resembled atoms of dust floating in sunlight.It was a wave of heat driven before the storm of fire.Slone did not feel pain, but he seemed to be drying up.parching.And Lucy must be suffering now.He goaded the stallion, raking his flanks.Wildfire answered with a scream and a greater speed.All except Lucy and Sage King and Wildfire seemed so strange and unreal--the swift rush between the pines, now growing ghostly in the dimming light, the sense of a pursuing, overpowering force, and yet absolute silence.
Slone fought the desire to look back.But he could not resist it.Some horrible fascination compelled him.All behind had changed.A hot wind, like a blast from a furnace, blew light, stinging particles into his face.The fire was racing in the tree-tops, while below all was yet clear.A lashing, leaping flame engulfed the canopy of pines.It was white, seething, inconceivably swift, with a thousand flashing tongues.It traveled ahead of smoke.It was so thin he could see the branches through it, and the fiery clouds behind.It swept onward, a sublime and an appalling spectacle.Slone could not think of what it looked like.It was fire, liberated, freed from the bowels of the earth, tremendous, devouring.This, then, was the meaning of fire.This, then, was the horrible fate to befall Lucy.
But no! He thought he must be insane not to be overcome in spirit.Yet he was not.He would beat the flame to Lucy.He felt the loss of something, some kind of a sensation which he ought to have had.Still he rode that race to kill his sweetheart better than any race he had ever before ridden.He kept his seat;he dodged the snags; he pulled the maddened horse the shortest way, he kept the King running straight.
No horse had ever run so magnificent a race! Wildfire was outracing wind and fire, and he was overhauling the most noted racer of the uplands against a tremendous handicap.But now he was no longer racing to kill the King; he was running in terror.For miles he held that long, swift, wonderful stride without a break.He was running to his death, whether or not he distanced the fire.Nothing could stop him now but a bursting heart.
Slone untied his lasso and coiled the noose.Almost within reach of the King!
One throw--one sudden swerve--and the King would go down.Lucy would know only a stunning shock.Slone's heart broke.Could he kill her--crush that dear golden head? He could not, yet he must! He saw a long, curved, red welt on Lucy's white shoulders.What was that? Had a branch lashed her? Slone could not see her face.She could not have been dead or in a faint, for she was riding the King, bound as she was!
Closer and closer drew Wildfire.He seemed to go faster and faster as that wind of flame gained upon them.The air was too thick to breathe.It had an irresistible weight.It pushed horses and riders onward in their flight--straws on the crest of a cyclone.