Wildfire had walked straight off the sand into the water.Slone studied the river and shore.The water ran slow, heavily, in sluggish eddies.From far up the canyon came the roar of a rapid, and from below the roar of another, heavier and closer.The river appeared tremendous, in ways Slone felt rather than realized, yet it was not swift.Studying the black, rough wall of rock above him, he saw marks where the river had been sixty feet higher than where he stood on the sand.It was low, then.How lucky for him that he had gotten there before flood season! He believed Wildfire had crossed easily, and he knew Nagger could make it.Then he piled and tied his supplies and weapons high on the saddle, to keep them dry, and looked for a place to take to the water.
Wildfire had sunk deep before reaching the edge.Manifestly he had lunged the last few feet.Slone found a better place, and waded in, urging Nagger.The big horse plunged, almost going under, and began to swim.Slone kept up-stream beside him.He found, presently, that the water was thick and made him tired, so it was necessary to grasp a stirrup and be towed.The river appeared only a few hundred feet wide, but probably it was wider than it looked.Nagger labored heavily near the opposite shore; still, he landed safely upon a rocky bank.There were patches of sand in which Wildfire's tracks showed so fresh that the water had not yet dried out of them.
Slone rested his horse before attempting to climb out of that split in the rock.However, Wildfire had found an easy ascent.On this side of the canyon the bare rock did not predominate.A clear trail led up a dusty, gravelly slope, upon which scant greasewood and cactus appeared.Half an hour's climbing brought Slone to where he could see that he was entering a vast valley, sloping up and narrowing to a notch in the dark cliffs, above which towered the great red wall and about that the slopes of cedar and the yellow rim-rock.
And scarcely a mile distant, bright in the westering sunlight, shone the red stallion, moving slowly.
Slone pressed on steadily.Just before dark he came to an ideal spot to camp.
The valley had closed up, so that the lofty walls cast shadows that met.Aclump of cottonwoods surrounding a spring, abundance of rich grass, willows and flowers lining the banks, formed an oasis in the bare valley.Slone was tired out from the day of ceaseless toil down and up, and he could scarcely keep his eyes open.But he tried to stay awake.The dead silence of the valley, the dry fragrance, the dreaming walls, the advent of night low down, when up on the ramparts the last red rays of the sun lingered, the strange loneliness--these were sweet and comforting to him.
And that night's sleep was as a moment.He opened his eyes to see the crags and towers and peaks and domes, and the lofty walls of that vast, broken chaos of canyons across the river.They were now emerging from the misty gray of dawn, growing pink and lilac and purple under the rising sun.
He arose and set about his few tasks, which, being soon finished, allowed him an early start.
Wildfire had grazed along no more than a mile in the lead.Slone looked eagerly up the narrowing canyon, but he was not rewarded by a sight of the stallion.As he progressed up a gradually ascending trail he became aware of the fact that the notch he had long looked up to was where the great red walls closed in and almost met.And the trail zigzagged up this narrow vent, so steep that only a few steps could be taken without rest.Slone toiled up for an hour--an age--till he was wet, burning, choked, with a great weight on his chest.Yet still he was only half-way up that awful break between the walls.
Sometimes he could have tossed a stone down upon a part of the trail, only a few rods below, yet many, many weary steps of actual toil.As he got farther up the notch widened.What had been scarcely visible from the valley below was now colossal in actual dimensions.The trail was like a twisted mile of thread between two bulging mountain walls leaning their ledges and fronts over this tilted pass.
Slone rested often.Nagger appreciated this and heaved gratefully at every halt.In this monotonous toil Slone forgot the zest of his pursuit.And when Nagger suddenly snorted in fright Slone was not prepared for what he saw.
Above him ran a low, red wall, around which evidently the trail led.At the curve, which was a promontory, scarcely a hundred feet in an airline above him, he saw something red moving, bobbing, coming out into view.It was a horse.
Wildfire--no farther away than the length of three lassoes!
There he stood looking down.He fulfilled all of Slone's dreams.Only he was bigger.But he was so magnificently proportioned that he did not seem heavy.
His coat was shaggy and red.It was not glossy.The color was what made him shine.His mane was like a crest, mounting, then failing low.Slone had never seen so much muscle on a horse.Yet his outline was graceful, beautiful.The head was indeed that of the wildest of all wild creatures--a stallion born wild--and it was beautiful, savage, splendid, everything but noble.Whatever Wildfire was, he was a devil, a murderer--he had no noble attributes.Slone thought that if a horse could express hate, surely Wildfire did then.It was certain that he did express curiosity and fury.
Slone shook a gantleted fist at the stallion, as if the horse were human.That was a natural action for a rider of his kind.Wildfire turned away, showed bright against the dark background, and then disappeared.