It scarcely seemed to grow any nearer, and an hour had passed before it assumed any regularity of outline. When it had grown into shape, George stopped and looked about. It was fiercely hot, the grass was dazzlingly bright, there was no house or sign of cultivation as far as his sight ranged; but on glancing back he started as he saw three small mounted figures on the plain. They had not been there when he last turned around, and they were moving, spread out about a mile apart. It was obvious that the rustlers were on his trail. For another moment he looked at the bluff, breathing hard, with his lips tight set. If he could reach the wood before he was overtaken, it would offer him cover from a bullet, and if he could not evade his enemies, he might make a stand with the ax among the thicker trees. It was an irrational idea, as he half recognized; but he had grown savage with fatigue, and he had already suffered as much as he was capable of bearing at the hands of the cattle thieves. Now he meant to turn on them; but he would be at their mercy in the open.
His weariness seemed to fall away from him to give place to grim fury as he broke into a run, and he did not look back for a while. When he did so, the figures had grown larger; one could see that they were moving swiftly; and the bluff was still far away. George believed that he had been noticed and he strove to quicken his pace. The beat of hoofs was in his ears when he next looked around; the three horsemen were converging, growing more distinct; and the bluff was still a mile ahead. He was stumbling and reeling, his hat fell off, and he dared not stop to pick it up.
A mile was covered; he would not look back again, though the thud of hoofs had swelled into a sharp staccato drumming. With face fiercely set and the perspiration dripping from him, he held on, scorched and partly dazzled by the glare. The wood was getting closer; he thought it was scarcely a quarter of a mile off. His heart throbbed madly, the pain in his side had grown excruciating; but somehow he must keep going. His eyes smarted with the moisture that ran into them, his lips and mouth were salty; he was suffering torment; but he kept on his feet.
At length, when the trees were close ahead, a faint smudge of smoke appeared on the edge of them; there was a report like a whipcrack, and he stopped in despair. His last refuge was held against him. Then, as he turned in savage desperation to meet the rustlers’ onslaught with the ax, he saw there were only two horsemen, who pulled up suddenly, about sixty yards away. The third was not visible, but his horse, which had fallen, was struggling in the grass. As the meaning of this dawned on George he broke in a wild, breathless yell of exultation; there was another crack behind him, and the two horsemen wheeled. They were not too soon, for a mounted man in khaki with something that flashed across his saddle was riding hard from behind the bluff to cut them off. Another appeared, going at a furious gallop, and George stood watching while the four figures grew smaller upon the prairie.