Small though the sounds were, they convinced Alcatraz that his claim to dominion would be mightily disputed. But what is worth having at all if it is not worth fighting for? He journeyed down the hillside stepping from grass knot to grass knot. All the time he kept his sensitive nostrils alert for the ground-smell of water and raised his head from moment to moment to catch the upper-air scents in case there might be danger. At length, before prime, he came down-wind from a water-hole and galloped gladly to it. It was a muddy place with a slope of greenish sun-baked earth on all sides. Alcatraz stood on the verge, snuffed the stale odor in disgust and then flirted the surface water with his upper lip before he could make himself drink. Yet the taste was far from evil, and there was nothing of man about it. Yonder a deer had stepped, his tiny footprint sun-burned into the mud, and there was the sprawling, sliding track of a steer.
Alcatraz stepped further in. The feel of the cool slush was pleasant, working above his hoofs and over the sensitive skin of the fetlock joint. He drank again, bravely and deep, burying his nose as a good horse should and gulping the water. And when he came out and stamped the mud from his feet he was transformed. He had slept and eaten and drunk in his own home.
After that, he idled through the hills eating much, drinking often, and making up as busily as he could in a few weeks for the long years of semi-starvation under the regime of the Mexican. His body responded amazingly. His coat grew sleek, his barrel rounded, his neck arched with new muscles and the very quality of mane and tail changed; he became the horse of which he had previously been the caricature. It was a lonely life in many ways but the very loneliness was sweet to the stallion. Moreover, there was much to learn, and his brain, man-trained by his long battle against a man, drank in the lessons of the wild country with astonishing rapidity. Had it not been for intervention from the Great Enemy, he might have continued for an indefinite period in the pleasant foothills.
But Man found him. It was after some weeks, while he was intently watching a chipmunk colony one day. Each little animal chattered at the door of his home and so intent was Alcatraz’s attention that he had no warning of the approach of a rider up the wind until the gravel close behind spurted under the rushing hoofs of another horse and the deadly shadow of the rope swept over him. Terror froze him for what seemed a long moment under the swing of the rope, in reality his side-leap was swift as the bound of the wild cat and the curse of the unlucky cowpuncher roared in his ear.