steady low whine of complaint against the weather and the slowness of their travel. But she did not go off on her own as she might have done had he been himself. And Fors talked to her constantly.

The lane came to the road and he turned into that since it went in the direction he wished. Soil had drifted across the concrete and made mud patches which gave root to spiked plants; but, even with that, it was better footing for an almost one-legged man than the wet ground. Lura scouted ahead, weaving in and out of the bushes and tall grass along the side of the old thoroughfare, testing the wind for alien scents, now and then shaking head or paws vigorously to rid them of clinging raindrops.

All at once she bounded out of the brush to Fors, pushing against him with her body, forcing him gently back toward the ditch which ran nearby. He caught the urgency of her warning and scrambled to cover with all the speed he could muster. As he lay against the greasy red clay bank with his palms spread flat, he felt the pounding long before he heard the hoofs which caused it. Then the herd came into sight, trotting at an easy pace down the old road. For a moment or two Fors searched for the herders and then he realized that none of the horses wore the patches of bright paint which distinguished ownership among the Plainsmen. They must be wild. There were several mares with foals, a snorting stallion bearing the scars of battle on his shoulders, and some yearlings running free.

But there was one mare who had no foal. Her rough, ungroomed coat was a very dark red, her burr-matted tail and mane black. Now and again she dropped to the back, stopping to snatch a mouthful of herbage, a trick which at last earned her a sharp nip from the stallion. She squealed, lashed out with ready hoofs, and then ran swiftly, breaking ahead of the rest of the band. Fors watched her go with regret. If he had had his two feet under him she might have been a possible capture. But no use thinking of that.

Then the herd rounded a curve and was out of sight. Fors took a moment’s breather before he pulled himself back on the road. Lura was there before him, kneading her front paws on a mat of grass, staring after the vanished horses. To her mind there was no difference between one of those foals and the calf she had pulled down. Both were meat and so to be eaten. It was in her mind to trail along behind such a wealth of food. Fors did not argue with her. He still thought of the mare who ran free and followed her own will.

They came up again with the herd before the hour was past. The road made a sudden dip into a valley which was almost cup-shaped. At the bottom rich grass grew tall and there the herd grazed, the watching stallion standing guard halfway up the rise.

But what caught Fors’ eyes was the shell of a building which stood almost directly below. Fire had eaten out its interior so that only the crumbling brick of the outer walls remained. He studied it carefully and then tried to identify the horses beyond.

The mare was apart from the herd, grazing close to the building. Fors wet his lips with his tongue tip. There was just a chance—a very wild chance-It would depend largely upon Lura’s co-operation. And that had never failed him yet. He turned to the great cat and tried to form a mind picture of what must be done. Slowly he thought out each point. Twice he went through it and then Lura crouched and withdrew into the grass. Fors wiped sweat and rain from his forehead and started crawling in turn, edging down into a maze of fallen bricks. They could never do it if the wind was not just right. But fortune was favoring to that extent. He swung himself up on a ledge above the widest gap in the broken wall and unwound from his waist the light tough cord all mountain men carried. The weighted noose at the end was in his hand. Good, the rain had not affected it. Now—!

He whistled, the clear call of one of the Eyrie country birds. And he knew, rather than saw, that Lura was in position and ready to move. If the wind would only hold-!

Suddenly the mare tossed up her head, snorted, and stared suspiciously at a clump of bushes. At the same time the stallion reared and thundered forth a fierce challenge. But he was almost the full length of the valley away, and he stopped to send the rest of his harem out of danger before he came to the mare. She wanted to follow but plainly the hidden menace now lay between her and freedom. She whirled on two feet and pounded back in the direction of the ruin where Fors waited. Twice she tried to go with her mates and both times she was sent back on the opposite course.

Fors coiled his rope. He had only to wait and trust to Lura’s skill. But the seconds that he was forced to do that were very long. At last the mare, her eyes white-rimmed with terror, burst through the gap in the masonry. Fors cast and as quickly snubbed the rope about a girder of rusting steel protruding from the brickwork. The heart of the metal was still sound enough to hold, even against the frantic plunges of the terrified horse. The scream of the aroused stallion, thundering down to the rescue, shook Fors. He did not know much about horses but he could imagine that there was danger now.

But the stallion never reached the ruin. Out of the bushes, directly at his head, leaped Lura, leaped and raked with cruel claws. The stallion reared, trumpeting like a mad thing, slashing out with teeth and hoofs. But Lura was only a flash of light fur covering steel springs and she was never there when the stallion struck. Twice more she got home with a wicked, slashing paw, before the horse gave up the battle and fled back down the valley, following the herd. The mare cried after him. He turned, but Lura was there, and her snarled warning sent him on again dripping blood.

Fors leaned back weakly against a pile of rubble. He had the mare all right, a rope about her neck, a rope which would hold her in spite of all her plunges and kicks. But here was no gentled mount already broken to ride. And how was he, with a bad leg, to conquer the fear-maddened animal?

He made the rope fast, looking ruefully at the burns on his hands. Just now he could not get near her. Might be well to let her become used to captivity for an hour or so—to try to win her—But would she ever lose her fear of Lura? That was another problem to be solved. Only-it must be done, he could not go on in this one-legged way, and he certainly was not going to beg shelter from the Plains camp and so fall into Jarl’s hands. He believed that he could make his own way in the lowlands—now was the time to prove that!

After a time the mare ceased to fight for freedom and stood with drooping head, nervous shudders running along her sweat-enciusted limbs and flanks. Fors stayed where he was but now he began to talk to her, using the same crooning tone with which he called Lura. Then he ventured to limp a few steps closer. Her head went up and she snorted. But he continued to talk to her, making an even monotone of his voice. At last he was close enough to touch her rough coat and as he did so he almost jumped. Still faintly sketched on the hide was a dab or two of fading paintl Then this was a Plainsman’s mount from one of the tame herds. Fors gulpecRveakly. Such luck was a little uncanny. Now, seeing that, he dared to stroke her nose. She shivered under his touch and then she whinnied almost inquiringly. He patted her shoulder and then she nudged him playfully with her nose. Fors laughed, tugging at the ragged forelock which bobbed between her eyes.

“So now you remember, old lady? Good girl, good girl!”

There remained the problem of Lura and that must be solved as quickly as possible. He unfastened the rope and pulled gently. The mare came after him willingly enough, picking her way daintily through the piles of fallen brick.

Why hadn’t she scented the cat on his clothes? Unless the rain had dampened it—But she had shown no fright at his handling.

He whistled the bird call for the second time, after he had snubbed the mare’s lead rope around a small tree. The answer to his summons came from down valley. Apparently Lura was following the herd. Fors stood talking to his captive as he waited. At last he ventured to rub down her flanks with tufts of grass. Then he felt her start and tremble and he turned.

Lura sat in the open, her tail curled neatly over her forepaws. She yawned, her red tongue pointing up and out, her eyes slitted, as if she had very little interest in the mare which her hunting companion chose to fondle so stupidly.

The mare jerked back to the full length of the rope, her eyes showing white. Lura took no notice of the open terror. At length she arose and stretched, then padded to the horse. The mare reared an,d gave a shrill scream. Fors tried to urge Lura back. But the big cat paced in a circle about the captive, eyeing her speculatively from all angles. The mare dropped back on four feet and shook her head, turning to keep her attention ever upon the cat. It seemed as if she were now puzzled when the attack she had expected had not come.

Maybe some message passed between the animals then. Fors never knew. But when Lura finished her inspection, she turned away indifferently and the mare stopped trembling. However, it was more than an hour before Fors improvised a bridle from the rope and a saddle pad from his blanket. He climbed upon the bricks and managed to throw his good leg over the mare’s back.

She had been well trained by the Plainsman who had owned her and her pace was so even that Fors,

Вы читаете Daybreak—2250 A.D.
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