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Ronicky Doone

Max Brand

  Produced by Suzanne Shell, Nicolas Hayes, Dorota Sidor and PGDistributed Proofreaders




  Chapter One

  _A Horse in Need_

  He came into the town as a solid, swiftly moving dust cloud. The windfrom behind had kept the dust moving forward at a pace just equal tothe gallop of his horse. Not until he had brought his mount to a haltin front of the hotel and swung down to the ground did either he orhis horse become distinctly visible. Then it was seen that the animalwas in the last stages of exhaustion, with dull eyes and hanging headand forelegs braced widely apart, while the sweat dripped steadilyfrom his flanks into the white dust on the street. Plainly he had beenpushed to the last limit of his strength.

  The rider was almost as far spent as his mount, for he went up thesteps of the hotel with his shoulders sagging with weariness, awide-shouldered, gaunt-ribbed man. Thick layers of dust had turned hisred kerchief and his blue shirt to a common gray. Dust, too, madea mask of his face, and through that mask the eyes peered out,surrounded by pink skin. Even at its best the long, solemn face couldnever have been called handsome. But, on this particular day, heseemed a haunted man, or one fleeing from an inescapable danger.

  The two loungers at the door of the hotel instinctively stepped asideand made room for him to pass, but apparently he had no desire toenter the building. Suddenly he became doubly imposing, as he stood onthe veranda and stared up and down at the idlers. Certainly his throatmust be thick and hot with dust, but an overmastering purpose made himoblivious of thirst.

  "Gents," he said huskily, while a gust of wind fanned a cloud of dustfrom his clothes, "is there anybody in this town can gimme a hoss toget to Stillwater, inside three hours' riding?"

  He waited a moment, his hungry eyes traveling eagerly from face toface. Naturally the oldest man spoke first, since this was a matter oflife and death.

  "Any hoss in town can get you there in that time, if you know theshort way across the mountain."

  "How do you take it? That's the way for me."

  But the old fellow shook his head and smiled in pity. "Not if youain't rode it before. I used to go that way when I was a kid, butnowadays nobody rides that way except Doone. That trail is as trickyas the ways of a coyote; you'd sure get lost without a guide."

  The stranger turned and followed the gesture of the speaker. Themountain rose from the very verge of the town, a ragged mass of sandand rock, with miserable sagebrush clinging here and there, as dulland uninteresting as the dust itself. Then he lowered the hand frombeneath which he had peered and faced about with a sigh. "I guess itain't much good trying that way. But I got to get to Stillwater insideof three hours."

  "They's one hoss in town can get you there," said the old man. "Butyou can't get that hoss today."

  The stranger groaned. "Then I'll make another hoss stretch out anddo."

  "Can't be done. Doone's hoss is a marvel. Nothing else about here cantouch him, and he's the only one that can make the trip around themountain, inside of three hours. You'd kill another hoss trying to doit, what with your weight."

  The stranger groaned again and struck his knuckles against hisforehead. "But why can't I get the hoss? Is Doone out of town withit?"

  "The hoss ain't out of town, but Doone is."

  The traveler clenched his fists. This delay and waste of pricelesstime was maddening him. "Gents," he called desperately, "I got toget to Martindale today. It's more than life or death to me. Where'sDoone's hoss?"

  "Right across the road," said the old man who had spoken first. "Overyonder in the corral--the bay."

  The traveler turned and saw, beyond the road, a beautiful mare, notvery tall, but a mare whose every inch of her fifteen three proclaimedstrength and speed. At that moment she raised her head and lookedacross to him, and the heart of the rider jumped into his throat. Thevery sight of her was an omen of victory, and he made a long stride inher direction, but two men came before him. The old fellow jumped fromthe chair and tapped his arm.

  "You ain't going to take the bay without getting leave from Doone?"

  "Gents, I got to," said the stranger. "Listen! My name's Gregg, BillGregg. Up in my country they know I'm straight; down here you ain'theard of me. I ain't going to keep that hoss, and I'll pay a hundreddollars for the use of her for one day. I'll bring or send her backsafe and sound, tomorrow. Here's the money. One of you gents, that's afriend of Doone, take it for him."

  Not a hand was stretched out; every head shook in negation.

  "I'm too fond of the little life that's left to me," said the oldfellow. "I won't rent out that hoss for him. Why, he loves that marelike she was his sister. He'd fight like a flash rather than seeanother man ride her."

  But Bill Gregg had his eyes on the bay, and the sight of her wasstealing his reason. He knew, as well as he knew that he was a man,that, once in the saddle on her, he would be sure to win. Nothingcould stop him. And straight through the restraining circle he brokewith a groan of anxiety.

  Only the old man who had been the spokesman called after him: "Gregg,don't be a fool. Maybe you don't recognize the name of Doone, but thewhole name is Ronicky Doone. Does that mean anything to you?"

  Into the back of Gregg's mind came several faint memories, but theywere obscure and uncertain. "Blast your Ronicky Doone!" he replied. "Igot to have that hoss, and, if none of you'll take money for her rent,I'll take her free and pay her rent when I come through this waytomorrow, maybe. S'long!"

  While he spoke he had been undoing the cinches of his own horse. Nowhe whipped the saddle and bridle off, shouted to the hotel keeperbrief instructions for the care of the weary animal and ran across theroad with the saddle on his arm.

  In the corral he had no difficulty with the mare. She came straight tohim in spite of all the flopping trappings. With prickly ears and eyeslighted with kindly curiosity she looked the dusty fellow over.

  He slipped the bridle over her head. When he swung the saddle over herback she merely turned her head and carelessly watched it fall. Andwhen he drew up the cinches hard, she only stamped in mock anger. Themoment he was in the saddle she tossed her head eagerly, ready to beoff.

  He looked across the street to the veranda of the hotel, as he passedthrough the gate of the corral. The men were standing in a long andawe-stricken line, their eyes wide, their mouths agape. WhoeverRonicky Doone might be, he was certainly a man who had won the respectof this town. The men on the veranda looked at Bill Gregg as thoughhe were already a ghost. He waved his hand defiantly at them and themare, at a word from him, sprang into a long-striding gallop thatwhirled them rapidly down the street and out of the village.

  The bay mare carried him with amazing speed over the ground. Theyrounded the base of the big mountain, and, glancing up at the raggedcanyons which chopped the face of the peak, he was glad that he hadnot attempted that short cut. If Ronicky Doone could make that trailhe was a skillful horseman.

  Bill Gregg swung up over the left shoulder of the mountain and foundhimself looking down on the wide plain which held Stillwater. The airwas crystal-clear and dry; the shoulder of the mountain was high aboveit; Gregg saw a breathless stretch of the cattle country at one sweepof his eyes.

  Stillwater was still a long way off, and far away across the plain hesaw a tiny moving dot that grew slowly. It was the train heading forStillwater, and that train he must beat to the station. For a momenthis heart stood still; then he saw that the train was distant indeed,and, by the slightest use of the mare's speed, he would be able toreach the town, two or three minutes ahead of it.

  But, just as he was beginning to exult in the victory, after all thehard riding of the past three days, the mare tossed up her head andshortened her stride. The heart of Gregg
stopped, and he went cold. Itwas not only the fear that his journey might be ruined, but the fearthat something had happened to this magnificent creature beneath him.He swung to the side in the saddle and watched her gallop. Certain shewent laboring, very much as though she were trying to run against amighty pull on the reins.

  He looked at her head. It was thrown high, with pricking ears. Perhapsshe was frightened by some foolish thing near the road. He touched herwith the spurs, and she increased her pace to the old length andease of stride; but, just as he had begun to be reassured, her stepshortened and fell to laboring again, and this time she threw her headhigher than before. It was amazing to Bill Gregg; and then it seemedto him that he heard a faint, far whistling, floating down from highabove his head.

  Again that thin, long-drawn sound, and this time, glancing over hisright shoulder, he saw a horseman plunging down the slope of themountain. He knew instantly that it was Ronicky Doone. The man hadcome to recapture his horse and had taken the short cut across themountain to come up with her. Just by a fraction of a minute Doonewould be too late, for, by the time he came down onto the trail,the bay would be well ahead, and certainly no horse lived in thosemountains capable of overtaking her when she felt like running. Greggtouched her again with the spurs, but this time she reared straight upand, whirling to the side, faced steadily toward her onrushing master.