“They’re a little restless to-night, but aren’t they dears, Shorty?” queried Marianne.
“Kind of dear,” said the cowpuncher, “but maybe they’re worth the price.” For all his surliness, however, Shorty was her best ally.
“Wait till you see Lady Mary begin to—but isn’t that a horse beyond the corral? A grey horse? I think it is, but it can’t be.”
“There isn’t a grey horse on the ranch, and—oh!”
For the gate of the corral creaked and then swung wide. They could not see Alcatraz, for the bay mares stood between.
“Don’t move, don’t speak!” whispered the girl. “It’s that stupid Lucas man. I told Lew Hervey that he was too careless to take care of the mares; and the first thing he’s done is to leave the gate unlatched. I’ll steal around and—”
At the first sound of the voice the grey mare had drifted deeper into the safety of the night; Alcatraz with a careful effort pulled open the gate; and the wind, aiding him, blew it wide, and now the soft whinny of invitation to the mares cut into the words of Marianne. She went around the corral bending low, skulking in her run; for once the mares got out the gate they might bolt like crazy things and come to harm in the murderous barbed-wire fences. Shorty was hurrying around on the other side.
Before she had taken half a dozen steps the neigh of the stallion, deafeningly loud, brought her to a halt with her hands clasped. She saw the mares start under the alarm-call and rush for the gate; in a moment their hoofs were volleying down the road and the wail of Marianne went shrilling: “Lew Hervey! Lew Hervey! They’re gone!”
Lew Hervey, in the bunkhouse, pushed away his cards and rose with a curse. “That’s what comes of working for a woman,” he growled. “No peace. No rest. Work day and night. And if you ain’t kept working you’re just kept worried. It’s hell!”
He clumped to the door and cast it open.
“Well?” he called into the darkness.
“Every one out!” cried Marianne. “The mares have broken through the gate and stampeded!”
They came with a rush, at that. The mares the girl prized so highly were, in the phrase of the cowpunchers, “high-headed fools” incapable of taking care of themselves. Running wild through the night, as likely as not they would cut themselves to pieces on the first barbed wired fence that blocked their way. With such a thought to urge them, Marianne’s hired men caught their fastest mounts and saddled like lightning. There was a play of ropes and curses in the big corral, the scuffle of leather as saddle after saddle flopped into place, and then a stream of dim riders darted through the corral gate.