For a long time Thurston lay with wide-open eyes staring up at nothing, listening to the rain and thinking. By and by the rain ceased and he could tell by the dim whiteness of the tent roof that the clouds must have been swept away from before the moon, then just past the full.
He got up carefully so as not to disturb the others, and crept over two or three sleeping forms on his way to the opening, untied the flap and went out. The whole hilltop and the valley below were bathed in mellow radiance. He studied critically the wide sweep of the river. He might almost have thought it the Missouri itself, it stretched so far from bank to bank; indeed, it seemed to know no banks but the hills themselves. He turned toward where the light had shone among the cottonwoods below; there was nothing but a great blot of shade that told him nothing.
A step sounded just behind. A hand, the hand of Park, rested upon his shoulder. "Looks kinda dubious, don't it, kid? Was yuh thinking about riding down there?"
"Yes," Thurston answered simply. "Are you coming?"
"Sure," Park assented.
They got upon their horses and headed down the trail to the Stevens place. Thurston would have put Sunfish to a run, but Park checked him.
"Go easy," he admonished. "If there's swimming to be done and it's a cinch there will be, he's going to need all the wind he's got."
Down the hill they stopped at the edge of a raging torrent and strained their eyes to see what lay on the other side. While they looked, a light twinkled out from among the tree-tops. Thurston caught his breath sharply.
"She's upstairs," he said, and his voice sounded strained and unnatural. "It's just a loft where they store stuff." He started to ride into the flood.
"Come on back here, yuh chump!" Park roared. "Get off and loosen the cinch before yuh go in there, or yuh won't get far. Sunfish'll need room to breathe, once he gets to bucking that current. He's a good water horse, just give him his head and don't get rattled and interfere with him. And we've got to go up a ways before we start in."
He led the way upstream, skirting under the bluff, and Thurston, chafing against the delay, followed obediently. Trees were racing down, their clean-washed roots reaching up in a tangle from the water, their branches waving like imploring arms. A black, tar-papered shack went scudding past, lodged upon a ridge where the water was shallower, and sat there swaying drunkenly. Upon it a great yellow cat clung and yowled his fear.
"That's old Dutch Henry's house," Park shouted above the roar. "I'll bet he's cussing things blue on some pinnacle up there." He laughed at the picture his imagination conjured, and rode out into the swirl.
Thurston kept close behind, mindful of Park's command to give Sunfish his head. Sunfish had carried him safely out of the stampede and he had no fear of him now.
His chief thought was a wish that he might do this thing quite alone. He was jealous of Park's leading, and thought bitterly that Mona would thank Park alone and pass him by with scant praise and he did so want to vindicate himself. The next minute he was cursing his damnable selfishness. A tree had swept down just before him, caught Park and his horse in its branches and hurried on as if ashamed of what it had done. Thurston, in that instant, came near jerking Sunfish around to follow; but he checked the impulse as it was formed and left the reins alone which was wise. He could not have helped Park, and he could very easily have drowned himself. Though it was not thought of himself but of Mona that stayed his hand.
They landed at the gate. Sunfish scrambled with his feet for secure footing, found it and waded up to the front door. The water was a foot deep on the porch. Thurston beat an imperative tattoo upon the door with the butt of his quirt, and shouted. And Mona's voice, shorn of its customary assurance, answered faintly from the loft.
He shouted again, giving directions in a tone of authority which must have sounded strange to her, but which she did not seem to resent and obeyed without protest. She had to wade from the stairs to the door and when Thurston stooped and lifted her up in front of him, she looked as if she were very glad to have him there.
"You didn't 'cope with the situation,' after all," he remarked while she was settling herself firmly in the saddle.
"I went to sleep and didn't notice the water till it was coming in at the door," she explained. "And then—" She stopped abruptly.
"Then what?" he demanded maliciously. "Were you afraid?"
"A little," she confessed reluctantly.
Thurston gloated over it in silence—until he remembered Park. After that he could think of little else. As before, now Sunfish battled as seemed to him best, for Thurston, astride behind the saddle, held Mona somewhat tighter than he need to have done, and let the horse go.
So long as Sunfish had footing he braced himself against the mad rush of waters and forged ahead. But out where the current ran swimming deep he floundered desperately under his double burden. While his strength lasted he kept his head above water, struggling gamely against the flood that lapped over his back and bubbled in his nostrils. Thurston felt his laboring and clutched Mona still tighter. Of a sudden the horse's head went under; the black water came up around Thurston's throat with a hungry swish, and Sunfish went out from under him like an eel.
There was a confused roaring in his ears, a horrid sense of suffocation for a moment. But he had learned to swim when he was a boy at school, and he freed one hand from its grip on Mona and set to paddling with much vigor and considerably less skill. And though the under-current clutched him and the weight of Mona taxed his strength, he managed to keep them both afloat and to make a little headway until the deepest part lay behind them.
How thankful he was when his feet touched bottom, no one but himself ever knew! His ears hummed from the water in them, and the roar of the river was to him as the roar of the sea; his eyes smarted from the clammy touch of the dingy froth that went hurrying by in monster flakes; his lungs ached and his heart pounded heavily against his ribs when he stopped, gasping, beyond reach of the water-devils that lapped viciously behind.
He stood a minute with his arm still around her, and coughed his voice clear. "Park went down," he began, hardly knowing what it was he was saying. "Park—" He stopped, then shouted the name aloud. "Park! Oh-h, Park!"
And from somewhere down the river came a faint reassuring whoop.
"Thank the Lord!" gasped Thurston, and leaned against her for a second. Then he straightened. "Are you all right?" he asked, and drew her toward a rock near at hand—for in truth, the knees of him were shaking. They sat down, and he looked more closely at her face and discovered that it was wet with something more than river water. Mona the self-assured, Mona the strong-hearted, was crying. And instinctively he knew that not the chill alone made her shiver. He was keeping his arm around her waist deliberately, and it pleased him that she let it stay. After a minute she did something which surprised him mightily—and pleased him more: she dropped her face down against the soaked lapels of his coat, and left it there. He laid a hand tenderly against her cheek and wondered if he dared feel so happy.
"Little girl—oh, little girl," he said softly, and stopped. For the crowding emotions in his heart and brain the English language has no words.
Mona lifted her face and looked into his eyes. Her own were soft and shining in the moonlight, and she was smiling a little—the roguish little smile of the imitation pastel portrait. "You—you'll unpack your typewriter, won't you please, and—and stay?"
Thurston crushed her close. "Stay? The range-land will never get rid of me now," he cried jubilantly. "Hank wanted to take me into the Lazy Eight, so now I'll buy an interest, and stay—always."
"You dear!" Mona snuggled close and learned how it feels to be kissed, if she had never known before.
Sunfish, having scrambled ashore a few yards farther down, came up to them and stood waiting, as if to be forgiven for his failure to carry them safe to land, but Thurston, after the first inattentive glance, ungratefully took no heed of him.
There was a sound of scrambling foot-steps and Park came dripping up to them. "Well, say!" he greeted. "Ain't yuh got anything to do but set here and er—look at the moon? Break away and come up to camp. I'll rout out the cook and make him boil us some coffee."
Thurston turned joyfully toward him. "Park, old fellow, I was afraid."
"Yuh better reform and quit being afraid," Park bantered. "I got out uh the mix-up fine, but I guess my horse went on down—poor devil. I was poking around below there looking for him."
"Well, Mona, I see yuh was able to 'cope with the situation,' all right—but yuh needed Bud mighty bad, I reckon. The chances is yuh won't have no house in the morning, so Bud'll have to get busy and rustle one for yuh. I guess you'll own up, now, that the water can get through the gate." He laughed in his teasing way.
Mona stood up, and her shining eyes were turned to Thurston. "I don't care," she asserted with reddened cheeks. "I'm just glad it did get through."
"Same here," said Thurston with much emphasis.
Then, with Mona once more in the saddle, and with Thurston leading Sunfish by the bridle-rein, they trailed damply and happily up the long ridge to where the white tents of the roundup gleamed sharply against the sky-line.