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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

A Gallop of Three

By Theodore Winthrop (1828–1861)

From ‘John Brent’

WE were off, we Three on our Gallop to save and to slay.

Pumps and Fulano took fire at once. They were ready to burst into their top speed, and go off in a frenzy.

“Steady, steady,” cried Brent. “Now we’ll keep this long easy lope for a while, and I’ll tell you my plan.—They have gone to the southward,—those two men. They could not get away in any other direction. I have heard Murker say he knows all the country between here and the Arkansaw. Thank Heaven! so do I, foot by foot.”

I recalled the sound of galloping hoofs I had heard in the night to the southward.

“I heard them, then,” said I, “in my watch after Fulano’s lariat was cut. The wind lulled, and there came a sound of horses, and another sound, which I then thought a fevered fancy of my own,—a far-away scream of a woman.”

Brent had been quite unimpassioned in his manner until now. He groaned as I spoke of the scream.

“O Wade! O Richard!” he said, “why did you not know the voice? It was she. They have terrible hours the start.”

He was silent a moment, looking sternly forward. Then he began again; and as he spoke, his iron-gray edged on with a looser rein.

“It is well you heard them: it makes their course unmistakable. We know we are on their track. Seven or eight full hours! It is long odds of a start. But they are not mounted as we are mounted. They did not ride as we shall ride. They had a woman to carry, and their mules to drive. They will fear pursuit, and push on without stopping. But we shall catch them; we shall catch them before night, so help us God!”

“You are aiming for the mountains?” I asked.

“For Luggernel Alley,” he said.

I remembered how, in our very first interview, a thousand miles away at the Fulano mine, he had spoken of this spot. All the conversation then, all the talk about my horse, came back to me like a Delphic prophecy suddenly fulfilled. I made a good omen of this remembrance.

“For Luggernel Alley,” said Brent. “Do you recollect my pointing out a notch in the sierra, yesterday, when I said I would like to spend a honeymoon there, if I could find a woman brave enough for this plains life?”

He grew very white as he spoke, and again Pumps led off by a neck, we ranging up instantly.

“They will make for the Luggernel Springs. The alley is the only gate through the mountains towards the Arkansaw. If they can get by there, they are safe. They can strike off New Mexico way; or keep on to the States out of the line of emigration or any Mormon pursuit. The Springs are the only water to be had at this season, without digging, anywhere in that quarter. They must go there. We are no farther from the spot than we were at Bridger. We have been traveling along the base of the triangle. We have only lost time. And now that we are fairly under way, I think we might shake out another reef. A little faster, friends—a little faster yet!”

It was a vast desert level where we were riding. Here and there a scanty tuft of grass appeared, to prove that Nature had tried her benign experiment, and wafted seeds hither to let the scene be verdant, if it would. Nature had failed. The land refused any mantle over its brown desolation. The soil was disintegrated, igneous rock, fine and well beaten down as the most thoroughly laid macadam.

Behind was the rolling region where the Great Trail passes; before and far away, the faint blue of the sierra. Not a bird sang in the hot noon; not a cricket chirped. No sound except the beat of our horses’ hoofs on the pavement. We rode side by side, taking our strides together. It was a waiting race. The horses traveled easily. They learned, as a horse with a self-possessed rider will, that they were not to waste strength in rushes. “Spend, but waste not,”—not a step, not a breath, in that gallop for life! This must be our motto.

We three rode abreast over the sere brown plain on our gallop to save and to slay.

Far—ah, how terribly dim and distant!—was the sierra, a slowly lifting cloud. Slowly, slowly they lifted, those gracious heights, while we sped over the harsh levels of the desert. Harsh levels, abandoned or unvisited by verdancy. But better so: there was no long herbage to check our great pace over the smooth race-course; no thickets here to baffle us; no forests to mislead.

We galloped abreast,—Armstrong at the right. His weird, gaunt white held his own with the best of us. No whip, no spur, for that deathly creature. He went as if his master’s purpose were stirring him through and through. That stern intent made his sinews steel, and put an agony of power into every stride. The man never stirred, save sometimes to put a hand to that bloody blanket bandage across his head and temple. He had told his story, he had spoken his errand, he breathed not a word; but with his lean, pallid face set hard, his gentle blue eyes scourged of their kindliness and fixed upon those distant mountains where his vengeance lay, he rode on like a relentless fate.

Next in the line I galloped. Oh, my glorious black! The great killing pace seemed mere playful canter to him,—such as one might ride beside a timid girl, thrilling with her first free dash over a flowery common, or a golden beach between sea and shore. But from time to time he surged a little forward with his great shoulders, and gave a mighty writhe of his body, while his hind legs came lifting his flanks under me, and telling of the giant reserve of speed and power he kept easily controlled. Then his ear would go back, and his large brown eye, with its purple-black pupil, would look round at my bridle hand and then into my eye, saying as well as words could have said it, “This is mere sport, my friend and master. You do not know me. I have stuff in me of which you do not dream. Say the word, and I can double this, treble it. Say the word! let me show you how I can spurn the earth.” Then with the lightest love pressure on the snaffle, I would say, “Not yet! not yet! Patience, my noble friend! Your time will come.”

At the left rode Brent, our leader. He knew the region; he made the plan; he had the hope; his was the ruling passion,—stronger than brotherhood, than revenge. Love made him leader of that galloping three. His iron-gray bent grandly, with white mane flapping the air like a signal flag of reprieve. Eager hope and kindling purpose made the rider’s face more beautiful than ever. He seemed to behold Sidney’s motto written on the golden haze before him, “Viam aut inveniam aut faciam.” I felt my heart grow great when I looked at his calm features, and caught his assuring smile,—a gay smile but for the dark, fateful resolve beneath it. And when he launched some stirring word of cheer, and shook another ten of seconds out of the gray’s mile, even Armstrong’s countenance grew less deathly, as he turned to our leader in silent response. Brent looked a fit chieftain for such a wild charge over the desert waste; with his buckskin hunting-shirt and leggins with flaring fringes, his otter cap and eagle’s plume, his bronze face with its close brown beard, his elate head, and his seat like a centaur.

So we galloped three abreast, neck and neck, hoof with hoof, steadily quickening our pace over the sere width of desert. We must make the most of the levels. Rougher work, cruel obstacles were before. All the wild, triumphant music I had ever heard came and sang in my ears to the flinging cadence of the resonant feet, tramping on hollow arches of the volcanic rock, over great vacant chasms underneath. Sweet and soft around us melted the hazy air of October; and its warm, flickering currents shook like a veil of gauzy gold between us and the blue bloom of the mountains far away, but nearing now and lifting step by step.

On we galloped—the avenger, the friend, the lover—on our errand to save and to slay.

It came afternoon, as we rode on steadily. The country grew rougher. The horses never flinched; but they sweated freely, and foam from their nostrils flecked their shoulders. By-and-by, with little pleasant admonitory puffs, a breeze drew down from the glimmering frosty edges of the sierra and cooled us. Horses and men were cheered and freshened, and lifted anew to their work.

We had seen and heard no life on the desert. Now, in the broken country, a coyote or two scuttled away as we passed. Sometimes a lean gray wolf would skulk out of a brake, canter after us a little way, and then squat on his haunches, staring at our strange speed. Flight and chase he could understand; but ours was not flight for safety, or chase for food. Men are queer mysteries to beasts. So our next companions found. Over the edge of a slope, bending away to a valley of dry scanty pasture at the left, a herd of antelopes appeared. They were close to us, within easy revolver shot. They sprang into graceful flight, some score of them, with tails up and black hoofs glancing. Presently, pausing for curiosity, they saw that we fled, not followed; and they in turn became pursuers, careering after us for a mile or more, until our stern business left their gamboling play far behind.

We held steadily for that notch in the blue sierra. The mountain lines grew sharper, the country where we traveled rougher, every stride. We came upon a wide tract covered with wild sage-bushes. These delayed and baffled us. It was a pigmy forest of trees, mature and complete, but no higher than the knee. Every dwarfed, stunted, gnarled bush had the trunk, limbs, twigs, and gray withered foliage, all in miniature, of some tree, hapless but sturdy, that has had a weather-beaten struggle for life on a storm-threshed crag by the shore, or on a granite side of a mountain, with short allowance of soil to eat and water to drink. Myriads of square miles of that arid region have no important vegetation except this wild sage or Artemisia, and a meaner brother, not even good to burn,—the greasewood.

One may ride through the tearing thickets of a forest primeval, as one may shoulder through a crowd of civilized barbarians at a spectacle. Our gallop over the top of this pigmy wood was as difficult as to find passage over the heads of the same crowd, tall men and short, men hatted with slouched hats, wash-bowls, and stove-pipes. It was a rough scramble. It checked our speed and chafed our horses. Sometimes we could find natural pathways for a few rods. Then these strayed aside or closed up, and we must plunge straight on. We lost time; moments we lost more precious than if every one were marked by a drop in a clepsydra, and each drop as it fell changed itself and tinkled in the basin, a priceless pearl.

“It worries me, this delay,” I said to Brent.

“They lost as much—more time than we,” he said.

And he crowded on more desperately, as a man rides for dearer than life—as a lover rides for love.

We tore along, breaking through and over the sage-bushes, each man where best he could. Fulano began to show me what leaps were in him. I gave him his head. No bridle would have held him. I kept my mastery by the voice, or rather by the perfect identification of his will with mine. Our minds acted together. “Save strength,” I still warned him, “save strength, my friend, for the mountains and the last leaps!”

A little pathway in the sage-bushes suddenly opened before me, as a lane rifts in the press of hurrying legions ’mid the crush of a city thoroughfare. I dashed on a hundred yards in advance of my comrades.

What was this? The bushes trampled and broken down, just as we in our passage were trampling and breaking them. What?

Hoof-marks in the dust!

“The trail!” I cried, “the trail!”

They sprang toward me. Brent followed the line with his eye. He galloped forward with a look of triumph.

Suddenly I saw him fling himself half out of his saddle, and clutch at some object. Still going at speed and holding on by one leg alone, after the Indian fashion for sport or shelter against an arrow or a shot, he picked up something from the bushes, regained his seat, and waved his treasure to us. We ranged up and rode beside him over a gap in the sage.

A lady’s glove!—that was what he had stooped to recover. An old buckskin riding-gauntlet, neatly stitched about the wrist, and pinked on the wristlet. A pretty glove, strangely, almost tragically, feminine in this desolation. A well-worn glove that had seen better days, like its mistress; but never any day so good as this, when it proved to us that we were on the sure path of rescue.

“I take up the gauntlet,” said Brent. “Gare à qui le touche!”

We said nothing more; for this unconscious token, this silent cry for help, made the danger seem more closely imminent. We pressed on. No flinching in any of the horses. Where we could, we were going at speed. Where they could, the horses kept side by side, nerving each other. Companionship sustained them in that terrible ride.

And now in front the purple sierra was growing brown, and rising up a distinct wall, cleft visibly with dell, gully, ravine, and cañon. The saw-teeth of the ridge defined themselves sharply into peak and pinnacle. Broad fields of cool snow gleamed upon the summits.

We were ascending now all the time into subalpine regions. We crossed great sloping savannas, deep in dry, rustling grass, where a nation of cattle might pasture. We plunged through broad wastes of hot sand. We flung ourselves down and up the red sides of water-worn gullies. We took breakneck leaps across dry quebradas in the clay. We clattered across stony arroyos, longing thirstily for the gush of water that had flowed there not many months before.

The trail was everywhere plain. No prairie craft was needed to trace it. Here the chase had gone but a few hours ago; here across grassy slopes, trampling the grass as if a mower had passed that way; here plowing wearily through the sand; here treading the red, crumbling clay; here breaking down the side of a bank; here leaving a sharp hoof-track in the dry mud of a fled torrent. Everywhere a straight path, pointing for that deepening gap in the sierra, Luggernel Alley, the only gate of escape.

Brent’s unerring judgment had divined the course aright. On he led, charging along the trail, as if he were trampling already on the carcasses of the pursued. On he led and we followed, drawing nearer, nearer to our goal.

Our horses suffered bitterly for water. Some five hours we had ridden without a pause. Not one drop or sign of water in all that arid waste. The torrents had poured along the dry watercourses too hastily to let the scanty alders and willows along their line treasure up any sap of growth. The wild sage bushes had plainly never tasted fluid more plenteous than seldom dewdrops doled out on certain rare festal days, enough to keep their meagre foliage a dusty gray. No pleasant streamlet lurked anywhere under the long dry grass of the savannas. The arroyos were parched and hot as rifts in lava.

It became agonizing to listen to the panting and gasping of our horses. Their eyes grew staring and bloodshot. We suffered, ourselves, hardly less than they. It was cruel to press on. But we must hinder a cruder cruelty. Love against Time,—Vengeance against Time! We must not flinch for any weak humanity to the noble allies that struggled on with us, without one token of resistance.

Fulano suffered least. He turned his brave eye back, and beckoned me with his ear to listen, while he seemed to say: “See, this is my Endurance! I hold my Power ready still to show.”

And he curved his proud neck, shook his mane like a banner, and galloped the grandest of all.

We came to a broad strip of sand, the dry bed of a mountain torrent. The trail followed up this disappointing path. Heavy plowing for the tired horses! How would they bear the rough work down the ravine yet to come?

Suddenly our leader pulled up and sprang from the saddle.

“Look!” he cried, “how those fellows spent their time and saved ours. Thank heaven for this! We shall save her, surely, now.”

They had dug a pit deep in the thirsty sand, and found a lurking river buried there. Nature never questioned what manner of men they were that sought. Murderers flying from vengeance and planning now another villain outrage,—still impartial Nature did not change her laws for them. Sunshine, air, water, life,—these boons of hers,—she gave them freely. That higher boon of death, if they were to receive, it must be from some other power, greater than the undiscriminating force of Nature.

Good luck and good omen, this well of water in the sand! It proved that our chase had suffered as we, and had been delayed as we. Before they had dared to pause and waste priceless moments here, their horses must have been drooping terribly. The pit was nearly five feet deep. A good hour’s work, and no less, had dug it with such tools as they could bring. I almost laughed to think of the two, slowly bailing out the sliding sand with a tin plate, perhaps, and a frying-pan, while a score of miles away upon the desert we three were riding hard upon their tracks to follow them the fleeter for this refreshment they had left. “Sic vos non vobis!” I was ready to say triumphantly; but then I remembered the third figure in their group,—a woman, like a Sibyl, growing calmer as her peril grew,—and succor seemed to withdraw. And the pang of this picture crushed back into my heart any thoughts but a mad anxiety, and a frenzy to be driving on.

We drank thankfully of this well by the wayside. No gentle beauty hereabouts to enchant us to delay. No grand old tree, the shelter and the landmark of the fountain, proclaiming an oasis near. Nothing but bare, hot sand. But the water was pure, cool, and bright. It had come underground from the sierra, and still remembered its parent snows. We drank and were grateful—almost to the point of pity. Had we been but avengers, like Armstrong, my friend and I could well-nigh have felt mercy here, and turned back pardoning. But rescue was more imperative than vengeance. Our business tortured us, as with the fanged scourge of Tisiphone, while we dallied. We grudged these moments of refreshment. Before night fell down the west, and night was soon to be climbing up the east, we must overtake—and then?

I wiped the dust and spume away from Fulano’s nostrils and breathed him a moment. Then I let him drain deep, delicious draughts from the stirrup-cup. He whinnied thanks and undying fealty,—my noble comrade! He drank like a reveler. When I mounted again, he gave a jubilant curvet and bound. My weight was a feather to him. All those leagues of our hard, hot gallop were nothing.

The brown sierra here was close at hand. Its glittering, icy summits, above the dark and sheeny walls, far above the black phalanxes of clambering pines, stooped forward and hung over us as we rode. We were now at the foot of the range, where it dipped suddenly down upon the plain. The gap, our goal all day, opened before us, grand and terrible. Some giant force had clutched the mountains, and riven them narrowly apart. The wild defile gaped, and then wound away and closed, lost between its mighty walls, a thousand feet high, and bearing two brother pyramids of purple cliffs aloft far above the snow line. A fearful portal into a scene of the throes and agonies of earth! and my excited eyes seemed to read, gilded over its entrance, in the dead gold of that hazy October sunshine, words from Dante’s inscription,—

  • “Per me si va tra la perduta gente:
  • Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!”
  • “Here we are,” said Brent, speaking hardly above his breath. “This is Luggernel Alley at last, thank God! In an hour, if the horses hold out, we shall be at the Springs; that is, if we can go through this breakneck gorge at the same pace. My horse began to flinch a little before the water. Perhaps that will set him up. How are yours?”

    “Fulano asserts that he has not begun to show himself yet. I may have to carry you en croupe before we are done.”

    Armstrong said nothing, but pointed impatiently down the defile. The gaunt white horse moved on quicker at this gesture. He seemed a tireless machine, not flesh and blood,—a being like his master, living and acting by the force of a purpose alone.

    Our chief led the way into the cañon.

    Yes, John Brent, you were right when you called Luggernel Alley a wonder of our continent.

    I remember it now,—I only saw it then;—for those strong scenes of nature assault the soul whether it will or no, fight in against affirmative or negative resistance, and bide their time to be admitted as dominant over the imagination. It seemed to me then that I was not noticing how grand the precipices, how stupendous the cleavages, how rich and gleaming the rock faces in Luggernel Alley. My business was not to stare about, but to look sharp and ride hard; and I did it.

    Yet now I can remember, distinct as if I beheld it, every stride of that pass; and everywhere, as I recall foot after foot of that fierce chasm, I see three men with set faces,—one deathly pale and wearing a bloody turban,—all galloping steadily on, on an errand to save and to slay.

    Terrible riding it was! A pavement of slippery, sheeny rock; great beds of loose stones; barricades of mighty bowlders, where a cliff had fallen an æon ago, before the days of the road-maker race; crevices where an unwary foot might catch; wide rifts where a shaky horse might fall, or a timid horseman drag him down. Terrible riding! A pass where a calm traveler would go quietly picking his steps, thankful if each hour counted him a safe mile.

    Terrible riding! Madness to go as we went! Horse and man—any moment either might shatter every limb. But man and horse—neither can know what he can do, until he has dared and done. On we went, with the old frenzy growing tenser. Heart almost broken with eagerness.

    No whipping or spurring. Our horses were a part of ourselves. While we could go, they would go. Since the water, they were full of leap again. Down in the shady Alley, too, evening had come before its time. Noon’s packing of hot air had been dislodged by a mountain breeze drawing through. Horses and men were braced and cheered to their work; and in such riding as that, the man and the horse must think together and move together,—eye and hand of the rider must choose and command, as bravely as the horse executes.

    The blue sky was overhead, the red sun upon the castellated walls a thousand feet above us, the purpling chasm opened before. It was late; these were the last moments. But we should save the lady yet.

    “Yes,” our hearts shouted to us, “we shall save her yet.”

    An arroyo, the channel of a dry torrent, followed the pass. It had made its way as water does, not straightway, but by that potent feminine method of passing under the frowning front of an obstacle, and leaving the dull rock staring there, while the wild creature it would have held is gliding away down the valley. This zigzag channel baffled us; we must leap it without check wherever it crossed our path. Every second now was worth a century. Here was the sign of horses, passed but now. We could not choose ground. We must take our leaps on that cruel rock wherever they offered.

    Poor Pumps!

    He had carried his master so nobly! There were so few miles to do! He had chased so well; he merited to be in at the death.

    Brent lifted him at a leap across the arroyo.

    Poor Pumps!

    His hind feet slipped on the time-smoothed rock. He fell short. He plunged down a dozen feet among the rough bowlders of the torrent bed. Brent was out of the saddle almost before he struck, raising him.

    No, he would never rise again. Both his fore legs were broken at the knee. He rested there, kneeling on the rocks where he fell.

    Brent groaned. The horse screamed horribly, horribly,—there is no more agonized sound,—and the scream went echoing high up the cliffs where the red sunlight rested.

    It costs a loving master much to butcher his brave and trusty horse, the half of his knightly self; but it costs him more to hear him shriek in such misery. Brent drew his pistol to put poor Pumps out of pain.

    Armstrong sprang down and caught his hand.

    “Stop!” he said in his hoarse whisper.

    He had hardly spoken since we started. My nerves were so strained that this mere ghost of a sound rang through me like a death yell, a grisly cry of merciless and exultant vengeance. I seemed to hear its echoes, rising up and swelling in a flood of thick uproar, until they burst over the summit of the pass and were wasted in the crannies of the towering mountain flanks above.

    “Stop!” whispered Armstrong. “No shooting! They’ll hear. The knife!”

    He held out his knife to my friend.

    Brent hesitated one heart-beat. Could he stain his hand with his faithful servant’s blood?

    Pumps screamed again.

    Armstrong snatched the knife and drew it across the throat of the crippled horse.

    Poor Pumps! He sank and died without a moan. Noble martyr in the old, heroic cause!

    I caught the knife from Armstrong. I cut the thong of my girth. The heavy California saddle, with its macheers and roll of blankets, fell to the ground. I cut off my spurs. They had never yet touched Fulano’s flanks. He stood beside me quiet, but trembling to be off.

    “Now, Brent! up behind me!” I whispered,—for the awe of death was upon us.

    I mounted. Brent sprang up behind. I ride light for a tall man. Brent is the slightest body of an athlete I ever saw.

    Fulano stood steady till we were firm in our seats.

    Then he tore down the defile.

    Here was that vast reserve of power; here the tireless spirit; here the hoof striking true as a thunderbolt, where the brave eye saw footing; here that writhing agony of speed; here the great promise fulfilled, the great heart thrilling to mine, the grand body living to the beating heart. Noble Fulano!

    I rode with a snaffle. I left it hanging loose. I did not check or guide him. He saw all. He knew all. All was his doing.

    We sat firm, clinging as we could, as we must. Fulano dashed along the resounding pass.

    Armstrong pressed after; the gaunt white horse struggled to emulate his leader. Presently we lost them behind the curves of the Alley. No other horse that ever lived could have held with the black in that headlong gallop to save.

    Over the slippery rocks, over the sheeny pavement, plunging through the loose stones, staggering over the barricades, leaping the arroyo, down, up, on, always on,—on went the horse, we clinging as we might.

    It seemed one beat of time, it seemed an eternity, when between the ring of the hoofs I heard Brent whisper in my ear.

    “We are there.”

    The crags flung apart, right and left. I saw a sylvan glade. I saw the gleam of gushing water.

    Fulano dashed on, uncontrollable!

    There they were,—the Murderers.

    Arrived but one moment!

    The lady still bound to that pack-mule branded A. & A.

    Murker just beginning to unsaddle.

    Larrap not dismounted, in chase of the other animals as they strayed to graze.

    The men heard the tramp and saw us, as we sprang into the glade.

    Both my hands were at the bridle.

    Brent, grasping my waist with one arm, was awkward with his pistol.

    Murker saw us first. He snatched his six-shooter and fired.

    Brent shook with a spasm. His pistol arm dropped.

    Before the murderer could cock again, Fulano was upon him!

    He was ridden down. He was beaten, trampled down upon the grass,—crushed, abolished.

    We disentangled ourselves from the mêlée.

    Where was the other?

    The coward, without firing a shot, was spurring Armstrong’s Flathead horse blindly up the cañon, whence we had issued.

    We turned to Murker.

    Fulano was up again, and stood there shuddering. But the man?

    A hoof had battered in the top of his skull; blood was gushing from his mouth; his ribs were broken; all his body was a trodden, massacred carcass.

    He breathed once, as we lifted him.

    Then a tranquil, childlike look stole over his face,—that well-known look of the weary body, thankful that the turbulent soul has gone. Murker was dead.

    Fulano, and not we, had been executioner. His was the stain of blood.