Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Riders of the Purple Sage
Author: Grey, Zane
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Riders of the Purple Sage" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE

By Zane Grey



CHAPTER I. LASSITER

A sharp clip-crop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds
of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.

Jane Withersteen gazed down the wide purple slope with dreamy and
troubled eyes. A rider had just left her and it was his message that
held her thoughtful and almost sad, awaiting the churchmen who were
coming to resent and attack her right to befriend a Gentile.

She wondered if the unrest and strife that had lately come to the
little village of Cottonwoods was to involve her. And then she sighed,
remembering that her father had founded this remotest border settlement
of southern Utah and that he had left it to her. She owned all the
ground and many of the cottages. Withersteen House was hers, and the
great ranch, with its thousands of cattle, and the swiftest horses of
the sage. To her belonged Amber Spring, the water which gave verdure
and beauty to the village and made living possible on that wild purple
upland waste. She could not escape being involved by whatever befell
Cottonwoods.

That year, 1871, had marked a change which had been gradually coming
in the lives of the peace-loving Mormons of the border. Glaze--Stone
Bridge--Sterling, villages to the north, had risen against the
invasion of Gentile settlers and the forays of rustlers. There had been
opposition to the one and fighting with the other. And now Cottonwoods
had begun to wake and bestir itself and grown hard.

Jane prayed that the tranquillity and sweetness of her life would not be
permanently disrupted. She meant to do so much more for her people than
she had done. She wanted the sleepy quiet pastoral days to last always.
Trouble between the Mormons and the Gentiles of the community would
make her unhappy. She was Mormon-born, and she was a friend to poor
and unfortunate Gentiles. She wished only to go on doing good and being
happy. And she thought of what that great ranch meant to her. She loved
it all--the grove of cottonwoods, the old stone house, the amber-tinted
water, and the droves of shaggy, dusty horses and mustangs, the sleek,
clean-limbed, blooded racers, and the browsing herds of cattle and the
lean, sun-browned riders of the sage.

While she waited there she forgot the prospect of untoward change. The
bray of a lazy burro broke the afternoon quiet, and it was comfortingly
suggestive of the drowsy farmyard, and the open corrals, and the green
alfalfa fields. Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as it
rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to
the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out
strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the
gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple
and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded
in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty.
Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose
an up-flinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple
uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and
gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon
shadows.

The rapid beat of hoofs recalled Jane Withersteen to the question at
hand. A group of riders cantered up the lane, dismounted, and threw
their bridles. They were seven in number, and Tull, the leader, a tall,
dark man, was an elder of Jane’s church.

“Did you get my message?” he asked, curtly.

“Yes,” replied Jane.

“I sent word I’d give that rider Venters half an hour to come down to
the village. He didn’t come.”

“He knows nothing of it;” said Jane. “I didn’t tell him. I’ve been
waiting here for you.”

“Where is Venters?”

“I left him in the courtyard.”

“Here, Jerry,” called Tull, turning to his men, “take the gang and fetch
Venters out here if you have to rope him.”

The dusty-booted and long-spurred riders clanked noisily into the grove
of cottonwoods and disappeared in the shade.

“Elder Tull, what do you mean by this?” demanded Jane. “If you must
arrest Venters you might have the courtesy to wait till he leaves my
home. And if you do arrest him it will be adding insult to injury. It’s
absurd to accuse Venters of being mixed up in that shooting fray in the
village last night. He was with me at the time. Besides, he let me take
charge of his guns. You’re only using this as a pretext. What do you
mean to do to Venters?”

“I’ll tell you presently,” replied Tull. “But first tell me why you
defend this worthless rider?”

“Worthless!” exclaimed Jane, indignantly. “He’s nothing of the kind.
He was the best rider I ever had. There’s not a reason why I shouldn’t
champion him and every reason why I should. It’s no little shame to me,
Elder Tull, that through my friendship he has roused the enmity of my
people and become an outcast. Besides I owe him eternal gratitude for
saving the life of little Fay.”

“I’ve heard of your love for Fay Larkin and that you intend to adopt
her. But--Jane Withersteen, the child is a Gentile!”

“Yes. But, Elder, I don’t love the Mormon children any less because I
love a Gentile child. I shall adopt Fay if her mother will give her to
me.”

“I’m not so much against that. You can give the child Mormon teaching,”
 said Tull. “But I’m sick of seeing this fellow Venters hang around you.
I’m going to put a stop to it. You’ve so much love to throw away on
these beggars of Gentiles that I’ve an idea you might love Venters.”

Tull spoke with the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not be
brooked and with the passion of a man in whom jealousy had kindled a
consuming fire.

“Maybe I do love him,” said Jane. She felt both fear and anger stir her
heart. “I’d never thought of that. Poor fellow! he certainly needs some
one to love him.”

“This’ll be a bad day for Venters unless you deny that,” returned Tull,
grimly.

Tull’s men appeared under the cottonwoods and led a young man out into
the lane. His ragged clothes were those of an outcast. But he stood tall
and straight, his wide shoulders flung back, with the muscles of his
bound arms rippling and a blue flame of defiance in the gaze he bent on
Tull.

For the first time Jane Withersteen felt Venters’s real spirit. She
wondered if she would love this splendid youth. Then her emotion cooled
to the sobering sense of the issue at stake.

“Venters, will you leave Cottonwoods at once and forever?” asked Tull,
tensely.

“Why?” rejoined the rider.

“Because I order it.”

Venters laughed in cool disdain.

The red leaped to Tull’s dark cheek.

“If you don’t go it means your ruin,” he said, sharply.

“Ruin!” exclaimed Venters, passionately. “Haven’t you already ruined me?
What do you call ruin? A year ago I was a rider. I had horses and cattle
of my own. I had a good name in Cottonwoods. And now when I come into
the village to see this woman you set your men on me. You hound me. You
trail me as if I were a rustler. I’ve no more to lose--except my life.”

“Will you leave Utah?”

“Oh! I know,” went on Venters, tauntingly, “it galls you, the idea of
beautiful Jane Withersteen being friendly to a poor Gentile. You want
her all yourself. You’re a wiving Mormon. You have use for her--and
Withersteen House and Amber Spring and seven thousand head of cattle!”

Tull’s hard jaw protruded, and rioting blood corded the veins of his
neck.

“Once more. Will you go?”

“NO!”

“Then I’ll have you whipped within an inch of your life,” replied Tull,
harshly. “I’ll turn you out in the sage. And if you ever come back
you’ll get worse.”

Venters’s agitated face grew coldly set and the bronze changed

Jane impulsively stepped forward. “Oh! Elder Tull!” she cried. “You
won’t do that!”

Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her.

“That’ll do from you. Understand, you’ll not be allowed to hold this boy
to a friendship that’s offensive to your Bishop. Jane Withersteen, your
father left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven’t
yet come to see the place of Mormon women. We’ve reasoned with you,
borne with you. We’ve patiently waited. We’ve let you have your fling,
which is more than I ever saw granted to a Mormon woman. But you haven’t
come to your senses. Now, once for all, you can’t have any further
friendship with Venters. He’s going to be whipped, and he’s got to leave
Utah!”

“Oh! Don’t whip him! It would be dastardly!” implored Jane, with slow
certainty of her failing courage.

Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she had
feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now in
different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious
despotism she had known from childhood--the power of her creed.

“Venters, will you take your whipping here or would you rather go out
in the sage?” asked Tull. He smiled a flinty smile that was more
than inhuman, yet seemed to give out of its dark aloofness a gleam of
righteousness.

“I’ll take it here--if I must,” said Venters. “But by God!--Tull you’d
better kill me outright. That’ll be a dear whipping for you and your
praying Mormons. You’ll make me another Lassiter!”

The strange glow, the austere light which radiated from Tull’s face,
might have been a holy joy at the spiritual conception of exalted duty.
But there was something more in him, barely hidden, a something personal
and sinister, a deep of himself, an engulfing abyss. As his religious
mood was fanatical and inexorable, so would his physical hate be
merciless.

“Elder, I--I repent my words,” Jane faltered. The religion in her, the
long habit of obedience, of humility, as well as agony of fear, spoke in
her voice. “Spare the boy!” she whispered.

“You can’t save him now,” replied Tull stridently.

Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the truth,
when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentle
forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was stiffening all that
had been soft and weak in her. She felt a birth in her of something new
and unintelligible. Once more her strained gaze sought the sage-slopes.
Jane Withersteen loved that wild and purple wilderness. In times
of sorrow it had been her strength, in happiness its beauty was her
continual delight. In her extremity she found herself murmuring, “Whence
cometh my help!” It was a prayer, as if forth from those lonely purple
reaches and walls of red and clefts of blue might ride a fearless man,
neither creed-bound nor creed-mad, who would hold up a restraining hand
in the faces of her ruthless people.

The restless movements of Tull’s men suddenly quieted down. Then
followed a low whisper, a rustle, a sharp exclamation.

“Look!” said one, pointing to the west.

“A rider!”

Jane Withersteen wheeled and saw a horseman, silhouetted against the
western sky, coming riding out of the sage. He had ridden down from the
left, in the golden glare of the sun, and had been unobserved till close
at hand. An answer to her prayer!

“Do you know him? Does any one know him?” questioned Tull, hurriedly.

His men looked and looked, and one by one shook their heads.

“He’s come from far,” said one.

“Thet’s a fine hoss,” said another.

“A strange rider.”

“Huh! he wears black leather,” added a fourth.

With a wave of his hand, enjoining silence, Tull stepped forward in such
a way that he concealed Venters.

The rider reined in his mount, and with a lithe forward-slipping
action appeared to reach the ground in one long step. It was a peculiar
movement in its quickness and inasmuch that while performing it the
rider did not swerve in the slightest from a square front to the group
before him.

“Look!” hoarsely whispered one of Tull’s companions. “He packs two
black-butted guns--low down--they’re hard to see--black akin them black
chaps.”

“A gun-man!” whispered another. “Fellers, careful now about movin’ your
hands.”

The stranger’s slow approach might have been a mere leisurely manner of
gait or the cramped short steps of a rider unused to walking; yet, as
well, it could have been the guarded advance of one who took no chances
with men.

“Hello, stranger!” called Tull. No welcome was in this greeting only a
gruff curiosity.

The rider responded with a curt nod. The wide brim of a black sombrero
cast a dark shade over his face. For a moment he closely regarded Tull
and his comrades, and then, halting in his slow walk, he seemed to
relax.

“Evenin’, ma’am,” he said to Jane, and removed his sombrero with quaint
grace.

Jane, greeting him, looked up into a face that she trusted instinctively
and which riveted her attention. It had all the characteristics of
the range rider’s--the leanness, the red burn of the sun, and the set
changelessness that came from years of silence and solitude. But it was
not these which held her, rather the intensity of his gaze, a strained
weariness, a piercing wistfulness of keen, gray sight, as if the man
was forever looking for that which he never found. Jane’s subtle woman’s
intuition, even in that brief instant, felt a sadness, a hungering, a
secret.

“Jane Withersteen, ma’am?” he inquired.

“Yes,” she replied.

“The water here is yours?”

“Yes.”

“May I water my horse?”

“Certainly. There’s the trough.”

“But mebbe if you knew who I was--” He hesitated, with his glance on
the listening men. “Mebbe you wouldn’t let me water him--though I ain’t
askin’ none for myself.”

“Stranger, it doesn’t matter who you are. Water your horse. And if you
are thirsty and hungry come into my house.”

“Thanks, ma’am. I can’t accept for myself--but for my tired horse--”

Trampling of hoofs interrupted the rider. More restless movements on
the part of Tull’s men broke up the little circle, exposing the prisoner
Venters.

“Mebbe I’ve kind of hindered somethin’--for a few moments, perhaps?”
 inquired the rider.

“Yes,” replied Jane Withersteen, with a throb in her voice.

She felt the drawing power of his eyes; and then she saw him look at the
bound Venters, and at the men who held him, and their leader.

“In this here country all the rustlers an’ thieves an’ cut-throats
an’ gun-throwers an’ all-round no-good men jest happen to be Gentiles.
Ma’am, which of the no-good class does that young feller belong to?”

“He belongs to none of them. He’s an honest boy.”

“You KNOW that, ma’am?”

“Yes--yes.”

“Then what has he done to get tied up that way?”

His clear and distinct question, meant for Tull as well as for Jane
Withersteen, stilled the restlessness and brought a momentary silence.

“Ask him,” replied Jane, her voice rising high.

The rider stepped away from her, moving out with the same slow, measured
stride in which he had approached, and the fact that his action placed
her wholly to one side, and him no nearer to Tull and his men, had a
penetrating significance.

“Young feller, speak up,” he said to Venters.

“Here stranger, this’s none of your mix,” began Tull. “Don’t try any
interference. You’ve been asked to drink and eat. That’s more than you’d
have got in any other village of the Utah border. Water your horse and
be on your way.”

“Easy--easy--I ain’t interferin’ yet,” replied the rider. The tone of
his voice had undergone a change. A different man had spoken. Where, in
addressing Jane, he had been mild and gentle, now, with his first speech
to Tull, he was dry, cool, biting. “I’ve lest stumbled onto a queer
deal. Seven Mormons all packin’ guns, an’ a Gentile tied with a rope,
an’ a woman who swears by his honesty! Queer, ain’t that?”

“Queer or not, it’s none of your business,” retorted Tull.

“Where I was raised a woman’s word was law. I ain’t quite outgrowed that
yet.”

Tull fumed between amaze and anger.

“Meddler, we have a law here something different from woman’s
whim--Mormon law!... Take care you don’t transgress it.”

“To hell with your Mormon law!”

The deliberate speech marked the rider’s further change, this time from
kindly interest to an awakening menace. It produced a transformation in
Tull and his companions. The leader gasped and staggered backward at
a blasphemous affront to an institution he held most sacred. The man
Jerry, holding the horses, dropped the bridles and froze in his tracks.
Like posts the other men stood watchful-eyed, arms hanging rigid, all
waiting.

“Speak up now, young man. What have you done to be roped that way?”

“It’s a damned outrage!” burst out Venters. “I’ve done no wrong. I’ve
offended this Mormon Elder by being a friend to that woman.”

“Ma’am, is it true--what he says?” asked the rider of Jane, but his
quiveringly alert eyes never left the little knot of quiet men.

“True? Yes, perfectly true,” she answered.

“Well, young man, it seems to me that bein’ a friend to such a woman
would be what you wouldn’t want to help an’ couldn’t help.... What’s to
be done to you for it?”

“They intend to whip me. You know what that means--in Utah!”

“I reckon,” replied the rider, slowly.

With his gray glance cold on the Mormons, with the restive bit-champing
of the horses, with Jane failing to repress her mounting agitations,
with Venters standing pale and still, the tension of the moment
tightened. Tull broke the spell with a laugh, a laugh without mirth, a
laugh that was only a sound betraying fear.

“Come on, men!” he called.

Jane Withersteen turned again to the rider.

“Stranger, can you do nothing to save Venters?”

“Ma’am, you ask me to save him--from your own people?”

“Ask you? I beg of you!”

“But you don’t dream who you’re askin’.”

“Oh, sir, I pray you--save him!”

“These are Mormons, an’ I...”

“At--at any cost--save him. For I--I care for him!”

Tull snarled. “You love-sick fool! Tell your secrets. There’ll be a way
to teach you what you’ve never learned.... Come men out of here!”

“Mormon, the young man stays,” said the rider.

Like a shot his voice halted Tull.

“What!”

“Who’ll keep him? He’s my prisoner!” cried Tull, hotly. “Stranger, again
I tell you--don’t mix here. You’ve meddled enough. Go your way now or--”

“Listen!... He stays.”

Absolute certainty, beyond any shadow of doubt, breathed in the rider’s
low voice.

“Who are you? We are seven here.”

The rider dropped his sombrero and made a rapid movement, singular in
that it left him somewhat crouched, arms bent and stiff, with the big
black gun-sheaths swung round to the fore.

“LASSITER!”

It was Venters’s wondering, thrilling cry that bridged the fateful
connection between the rider’s singular position and the dreaded name.

Tull put out a groping hand. The life of his eyes dulled to the gloom
with which men of his fear saw the approach of death. But death, while
it hovered over him, did not descend, for the rider waited for the
twitching fingers, the downward flash of hand that did not come. Tull,
gathering himself together, turned to the horses, attended by his pale
comrades.



CHAPTER II. COTTONWOODS

Venters appeared too deeply moved to speak the gratitude his face
expressed. And Jane turned upon the rescuer and gripped his hands.
Her smiles and tears seemingly dazed him. Presently as something like
calmness returned, she went to Lassiter’s weary horse.

“I will water him myself,” she said, and she led the horse to a trough
under a huge old cottonwood. With nimble fingers she loosened the bridle
and removed the bit. The horse snorted and bent his head. The trough was
of solid stone, hollowed out, moss-covered and green and wet and cool,
and the clear brown water that fed it spouted and splashed from a wooden
pipe.

“He has brought you far to-day?”

“Yes, ma’am, a matter of over sixty miles, mebbe seventy.”

“A long ride--a ride that--Ah, he is blind!”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Lassiter.

“What blinded him?”

“Some men once roped an’ tied him, an’ then held white-iron close to his
eyes.”

“Oh! Men? You mean devils.... Were they your enemies--Mormons?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“To take revenge on a horse! Lassiter, the men of my creed are
unnaturally cruel. To my everlasting sorrow I confess it. They have been
driven, hated, scourged till their hearts have hardened. But we women
hope and pray for the time when our men will soften.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am--that time will never come.”

“Oh, it will!... Lassiter, do you think Mormon women wicked? Has your
hand been against them, too?”

“No. I believe Mormon women are the best and noblest, the most
long-sufferin’, and the blindest, unhappiest women on earth.”

“Ah!” She gave him a grave, thoughtful look. “Then you will break bread
with me?”

Lassiter had no ready response, and he uneasily shifted his weight
from one leg to another, and turned his sombrero round and round in his
hands. “Ma’am,” he began, presently, “I reckon your kindness of heart
makes you overlook things. Perhaps I ain’t well known hereabouts, but
back up North there’s Mormons who’d rest uneasy in their graves at the
idea of me sittin’ to table with you.”

“I dare say. But--will you do it, anyway?” she asked.

“Mebbe you have a brother or relative who might drop in an’ be offended,
an’ I wouldn’t want to--”

“I’ve not a relative in Utah that I know of. There’s no one with a right
to question my actions.” She turned smilingly to Venters. “You will come
in, Bern, and Lassiter will come in. We’ll eat and be merry while we
may.”

“I’m only wonderin’ if Tull an’ his men’ll raise a storm down in the
village,” said Lassiter, in his last weakening stand.

“Yes, he’ll raise the storm--after he has prayed,” replied Jane. “Come.”

She led the way, with the bridle of Lassiter’s horse over her arm.
They entered a grove and walked down a wide path shaded by great
low-branching cottonwoods. The last rays of the setting sun sent golden
bars through the leaves. The grass was deep and rich, welcome contrast
to sage-tired eyes. Twittering quail darted across the path, and from a
tree-top somewhere a robin sang its evening song, and on the still air
floated the freshness and murmur of flowing water.

The home of Jane Withersteen stood in a circle of cottonwoods, and was
a flat, long, red-stone structure with a covered court in the center
through which flowed a lively stream of amber-colored water. In the
massive blocks of stone and heavy timbers and solid doors and shutters
showed the hand of a man who had builded against pillage and time; and
in the flowers and mosses lining the stone-bedded stream, in the bright
colors of rugs and blankets on the court floor, and the cozy corner with
hammock and books and the clean-linened table, showed the grace of a
daughter who lived for happiness and the day at hand.

Jane turned Lassiter’s horse loose in the thick grass. “You will want
him to be near you,” she said, “or I’d have him taken to the alfalfa
fields.” At her call appeared women who began at once to bustle about,
hurrying to and fro, setting the table. Then Jane, excusing herself,
went within.

She passed through a huge low ceiled chamber, like the inside of a fort,
and into a smaller one where a bright wood-fire blazed in an old open
fireplace, and from this into her own room. It had the same comfort as
was manifested in the home-like outer court; moreover, it was warm and
rich in soft hues.

Seldom did Jane Withersteen enter her room without looking into her
mirror. She knew she loved the reflection of that beauty which since
early childhood she had never been allowed to forget. Her relatives and
friends, and later a horde of Mormon and Gentile suitors, had fanned
the flame of natural vanity in her. So that at twenty-eight she scarcely
thought at all of her wonderful influence for good in the little
community where her father had left her practically its beneficent
landlord, but cared most for the dream and the assurance and the
allurement of her beauty. This time, however, she gazed into her
glass with more than the usual happy motive, without the usual slight
conscious smile. For she was thinking of more than the desire to be fair
in her own eyes, in those of her friend; she wondered if she were to
seem fair in the eyes of this Lassiter, this man whose name had crossed
the long, wild brakes of stone and plains of sage, this gentle-voiced,
sad-faced man who was a hater and a killer of Mormons. It was not
now her usual half-conscious vain obsession that actuated her as she
hurriedly changed her riding-dress to one of white, and then looked long
at the stately form with its gracious contours, at the fair face
with its strong chin and full firm lips, at the dark-blue, proud, and
passionate eyes.

“If by some means I can keep him here a few days, a week--he will never
kill another Mormon,” she mused. “Lassiter!... I shudder when I think
of that name, of him. But when I look at the man I forget who he is--I
almost like him. I remember only that he saved Bern. He has suffered. I
wonder what it was--did he love a Mormon woman once? How splendidly he
championed us poor misunderstood souls! Somehow he knows--much.”

Jane Withersteen joined her guests and bade them to her board.
Dismissing her woman, she waited upon them with her own hands. It was a
bountiful supper and a strange company. On her right sat the ragged
and half-starved Venters; and though blind eyes could have seen what
he counted for in the sum of her happiness, yet he looked the gloomy
outcast his allegiance had made him, and about him there was the shadow
of the ruin presaged by Tull. On her left sat black-leather-garbed
Lassiter looking like a man in a dream. Hunger was not with him, nor
composure, nor speech, and when he twisted in frequent unquiet movements
the heavy guns that he had not removed knocked against the table-legs.
If it had been otherwise possible to forget the presence of Lassiter
those telling little jars would have rendered it unlikely. And Jane
Withersteen talked and smiled and laughed with all the dazzling play
of lips and eyes that a beautiful, daring woman could summon to her
purpose.

When the meal ended, and the men pushed back their chairs, she leaned
closer to Lassiter and looked square into his eyes.

“Why did you come to Cottonwoods?”

Her question seemed to break a spell. The rider arose as if he had just
remembered himself and had tarried longer than his wont.

“Ma’am, I have hunted all over the southern Utah and Nevada
for--somethin’. An’ through your name I learned where to find it--here
in Cottonwoods.”

“My name! Oh, I remember. You did know my name when you spoke first.
Well, tell me where you heard it and from whom?”

“At the little village--Glaze, I think it’s called--some fifty miles or
more west of here. An’ I heard it from a Gentile, a rider who said you’d
know where to tell me to find--”

“What?” she demanded, imperiously, as Lassiter broke off.

“Milly Erne’s grave,” he answered low, and the words came with a wrench.

Venters wheeled in his chair to regard Lassiter in amazement, and Jane
slowly raised herself in white, still wonder.

“Milly Erne’s grave?” she echoed, in a whisper. “What do you know of
Milly Erne, my best-beloved friend--who died in my arms? What were you
to her?”

“Did I claim to be anythin’?” he inquired. “I know
people--relatives--who have long wanted to know where she’s buried,
that’s all.”

“Relatives? She never spoke of relatives, except a brother who was shot
in Texas. Lassiter, Milly Erne’s grave is in a secret burying-ground on
my property.”

“Will you take me there?... You’ll be offendin’ Mormons worse than by
breakin’ bread with me.”

“Indeed yes, but I’ll do it. Only we must go unseen. To-morrow,
perhaps.”

“Thank you, Jane Withersteen,” replied the rider, and he bowed to her
and stepped backward out of the court.

“Will you not stay--sleep under my roof?” she asked.

“No, ma’am, an’ thanks again. I never sleep indoors. An’ even if I did
there’s that gatherin’ storm in the village below. No, no. I’ll go to
the sage. I hope you won’t suffer none for your kindness to me.”

“Lassiter,” said Venters, with a half-bitter laugh, “my bed too, is the
sage. Perhaps we may meet out there.”

“Mebbe so. But the sage is wide an’ I won’t be near. Good night.”

At Lassiter’s low whistle the black horse whinnied, and carefully picked
his blind way out of the grove. The rider did not bridle him, but walked
beside him, leading him by touch of hand and together they passed slowly
into the shade of the cottonwoods.

“Jane, I must be off soon,” said Venters. “Give me my guns. If I’d had
my guns--”

“Either my friend or the Elder of my church would be lying dead,” she
interposed.

“Tull would be--surely.”

“Oh, you fierce-blooded, savage youth! Can’t I teach you forebearance,
mercy? Bern, it’s divine to forgive your enemies. ‘Let not the sun go
down upon thy wrath.’”

“Hush! Talk to me no more of mercy or religion--after to-day. To-day
this strange coming of Lassiter left me still a man, and now I’ll die a
man!... Give me my guns.”

Silently she went into the house, to return with a heavy cartridge-belt
and gun-filled sheath and a long rifle; these she handed to him, and as
he buckled on the belt she stood before him in silent eloquence.

“Jane,” he said, in gentler voice, “don’t look so. I’m not going out to
murder your churchman. I’ll try to avoid him and all his men. But can’t
you see I’ve reached the end of my rope? Jane, you’re a wonderful woman.
Never was there a woman so unselfish and good. Only you’re blind in one
way.... Listen!”

From behind the grove came the clicking sound of horses in a rapid trot.

“Some of your riders,” he continued. “It’s getting time for the night
shift. Let us go out to the bench in the grove and talk there.”

It was still daylight in the open, but under the spreading cottonwoods
shadows were obscuring the lanes. Venters drew Jane off from one of
these into a shrub-lined trail, just wide enough for the two to walk
abreast, and in a roundabout way led her far from the house to a knoll
on the edge of the grove. Here in a secluded nook was a bench from
which, through an opening in the tree-tops, could be seen the sage-slope
and the wall of rock and the dim lines of canyons. Jane had not spoken
since Venters had shocked her with his first harsh speech; but all the
way she had clung to his arm, and now, as he stopped and laid his rifle
against the bench, she still clung to him.

“Jane, I’m afraid I must leave you.”

“Bern!” she cried.

“Yes, it looks that way. My position is not a happy one--I can’t feel
right--I’ve lost all--”

“I’ll give you anything you--”

“Listen, please. When I say loss I don’t mean what you think. I mean
loss of good-will, good name--that which would have enabled me to stand
up in this village without bitterness. Well, it’s too late.... Now, as to
the future, I think you’d do best to give me up. Tull is implacable.
You ought to see from his intention to-day that--But you can’t see. Your
blindness--your damned religion!... Jane, forgive me--I’m sore within and
something rankles. Well, I fear that invisible hand will turn its hidden
work to your ruin.”

“Invisible hand? Bern!”

“I mean your Bishop.” Venters said it deliberately and would not release
her as she started back. “He’s the law. The edict went forth to ruin me.
Well, look at me! It’ll now go forth to compel you to the will of the
Church.”

“You wrong Bishop Dyer. Tull is hard, I know. But then he has been in
love with me for years.”

“Oh, your faith and your excuses! You can’t see what I know--and if you
did see it you’d not admit it to save your life. That’s the Mormon
of you. These elders and bishops will do absolutely any deed to go on
building up the power and wealth of their church, their empire. Think
of what they’ve done to the Gentiles here, to me--think of Milly Erne’s
fate!”

“What do you know of her story?”

“I know enough--all, perhaps, except the name of the Mormon who brought
her here. But I must stop this kind of talk.”

She pressed his hand in response. He helped her to a seat beside him
on the bench. And he respected a silence that he divined was full of
woman’s deep emotion beyond his understanding.

It was the moment when the last ruddy rays of the sunset brightened
momentarily before yielding to twilight. And for Venters the outlook
before him was in some sense similar to a feeling of his future, and
with searching eyes he studied the beautiful purple, barren waste of
sage. Here was the unknown and the perilous. The whole scene impressed
Venters as a wild, austere, and mighty manifestation of nature. And
as it somehow reminded him of his prospect in life, so it suddenly
resembled the woman near him, only in her there were greater beauty and
peril, a mystery more unsolvable, and something nameless that numbed his
heart and dimmed his eye.

“Look! A rider!” exclaimed Jane, breaking the silence. “Can that be
Lassiter?”

Venters moved his glance once more to the west. A horseman showed dark
on the sky-line, then merged into the color of the sage.

“It might be. But I think not--that fellow was coming in. One of your
riders, more likely. Yes, I see him clearly now. And there’s another.”

“I see them, too.”

“Jane, your riders seem as many as the bunches of sage. I ran into five
yesterday ‘way down near the trail to Deception Pass. They were with the
white herd.”

“You still go to that canyon? Bern, I wish you wouldn’t. Oldring and his
rustlers live somewhere down there.”

“Well, what of that?”

“Tull has already hinted to your frequent trips into Deception Pass.”

“I know.” Venters uttered a short laugh. “He’ll make a rustler of me
next. But, Jane, there’s no water for fifty miles after I leave here,
and the nearest is in the canyon. I must drink and water my horse.
There! I see more riders. They are going out.”

“The red herd is on the slope, toward the Pass.”

Twilight was fast falling. A group of horsemen crossed the dark line
of low ground to become more distinct as they climbed the slope. The
silence broke to a clear call from an incoming rider, and, almost like
the peal of a hunting-horn, floated back the answer. The outgoing riders
moved swiftly, came sharply into sight as they topped a ridge to show
wild and black above the horizon, and then passed down, dimming into the
purple of the sage.

“I hope they don’t meet Lassiter,” said Jane.

“So do I,” replied Venters. “By this time the riders of the night shift
know what happened to-day. But Lassiter will likely keep out of their
way.”

“Bern, who is Lassiter? He’s only a name to me--a terrible name.”

“Who is he? I don’t know, Jane. Nobody I ever met knows him. He talks a
little like a Texan, like Milly Erne. Did you note that?”

“Yes. How strange of him to know of her! And she lived here ten years
and has been dead two. Bern, what do you know of Lassiter? Tell me what
he has done--why you spoke of him to Tull--threatening to become another
Lassiter yourself?”

“Jane, I only heard things, rumors, stories, most of which I
disbelieved. At Glaze his name was known, but none of the riders or
ranchers I knew there ever met him. At Stone Bridge I never heard him
mentioned. But at Sterling and villages north of there he was spoken of
often. I’ve never been in a village which he had been known to visit.
There were many conflicting stories about him and his doings. Some said
he had shot up this and that Mormon village, and others denied it. I’m
inclined to believe he has, and you know how Mormons hide the truth. But
there was one feature about Lassiter upon which all agree--that he was
what riders in this country call a gun-man. He’s a man with a marvelous
quickness and accuracy in the use of a Colt. And now that I’ve seen him
I know more. Lassiter was born without fear. I watched him with eyes
which saw him my friend. I’ll never forget the moment I recognized him
from what had been told me of his crouch before the draw. It was then I
yelled his name. I believe that yell saved Tull’s life. At any rate, I
know this, between Tull and death then there was not the breadth of the
littlest hair. If he or any of his men had moved a finger downward--”

Venters left his meaning unspoken, but at the suggestion Jane shuddered.

The pale afterglow in the west darkened with the merging of twilight
into night. The sage now spread out black and gloomy. One dim star
glimmered in the southwest sky. The sound of trotting horses had
ceased, and there was silence broken only by a faint, dry pattering of
cottonwood leaves in the soft night wind.

Into this peace and calm suddenly broke the high-keyed yelp of a coyote,
and from far off in the darkness came the faint answering note of a
trailing mate.

“Hello! the sage-dogs are barking,” said Venters.

“I don’t like to hear them,” replied Jane. “At night, sometimes when I
lie awake, listening to the long mourn or breaking bark or wild howl, I
think of you asleep somewhere in the sage, and my heart aches.”

“Jane, you couldn’t listen to sweeter music, nor could I have a better
bed.”

“Just think! Men like Lassiter and you have no home, no comfort, no
rest, no place to lay your weary heads. Well!... Let us be patient.
Tull’s anger may cool, and time may help us. You might do some service
to the village--who can tell? Suppose you discovered the long-unknown
hiding-place of Oldring and his band, and told it to my riders? That
would disarm Tull’s ugly hints and put you in favor. For years my riders
have trailed the tracks of stolen cattle. You know as well as I how
dearly we’ve paid for our ranges in this wild country. Oldring drives
our cattle down into the network of deceiving canyons, and somewhere far
to the north or east he drives them up and out to Utah markets. If you
will spend time in Deception Pass try to find the trails.”

“Jane, I’ve thought of that. I’ll try.”

“I must go now. And it hurts, for now I’ll never be sure of seeing you
again. But to-morrow, Bern?”

“To-morrow surely. I’ll watch for Lassiter and ride in with him.”

“Good night.”

Then she left him and moved away, a white, gliding shape that soon
vanished in the shadows.

Venters waited until the faint slam of a door assured him she had
reached the house, and then, taking up his rifle, he noiselessly slipped
through the bushes, down the knoll, and on under the dark trees to the
edge of the grove. The sky was now turning from gray to blue; stars had
begun to lighten the earlier blackness; and from the wide flat sweep
before him blew a cool wind, fragrant with the breath of sage. Keeping
close to the edge of the cottonwoods, he went swiftly and silently
westward. The grove was long, and he had not reached the end when he
heard something that brought him to a halt. Low padded thuds told
him horses were coming this way. He sank down in the gloom, waiting,
listening. Much before he had expected, judging from sound, to his
amazement he descried horsemen near at hand. They were riding along the
border of the sage, and instantly he knew the hoofs of the horses were
muffled. Then the pale starlight afforded him indistinct sight of the
riders. But his eyes were keen and used to the dark, and by peering
closely he recognized the huge bulk and black-bearded visage of Oldring
and the lithe, supple form of the rustler’s lieutenant, a masked rider.
They passed on; the darkness swallowed them. Then, farther out on the
sage, a dark, compact body of horsemen went by, almost without sound,
almost like specters, and they, too, melted into the night.



CHAPTER III. AMBER SPRING

No unusual circumstances was it for Oldring and some of his men to visit
Cottonwoods in the broad light of day, but for him to prowl about in
the dark with the hoofs of his horses muffled meant that mischief was
brewing. Moreover, to Venters the presence of the masked rider with
Oldring seemed especially ominous. For about this man there was mystery,
he seldom rode through the village, and when he did ride through it
was swiftly; riders seldom met by day on the sage, but wherever he rode
there always followed deeds as dark and mysterious as the mask he wore.
Oldring’s band did not confine themselves to the rustling of cattle.

Venters lay low in the shade of the cottonwoods, pondering this chance
meeting, and not for many moments did he consider it safe to move on.
Then, with sudden impulse, he turned the other way and went back along
the grove. When he reached the path leading to Jane’s home he decided
to go down to the village. So he hurried onward, with quick soft steps.
Once beyond the grove he entered the one and only street. It was
wide, lined with tall poplars, and under each row of trees, inside the
foot-path, were ditches where ran the water from Jane Withersteen’s
spring.

Between the trees twinkled lights of cottage candles, and far down
flared bright windows of the village stores. When Venters got closer to
these he saw knots of men standing together in earnest conversation. The
usual lounging on the corners and benches and steps was not in evidence.
Keeping in the shadow Venters went closer and closer until he could hear
voices. But he could not distinguish what was said. He recognized many
Mormons, and looked hard for Tull and his men, but looked in vain.
Venters concluded that the rustlers had not passed along the village
street. No doubt these earnest men were discussing Lassiter’s coming.
But Venters felt positive that Tull’s intention toward himself that day
had not been and would not be revealed.

So Venters, seeing there was little for him to learn, began retracing
his steps. The church was dark, Bishop Dyer’s home next to it was also
dark, and likewise Tull’s cottage. Upon almost any night at this hour
there would be lights here, and Venters marked the unusual omission.

As he was about to pass out of the street to skirt the grove, he once
more slunk down at the sound of trotting horses. Presently he descried
two mounted men riding toward him. He hugged the shadow of a tree. Again
the starlight, brighter now, aided him, and he made out Tull’s stalwart
figure, and beside him the short, froglike shape of the rider Jerry.
They were silent, and they rode on to disappear.

Venters went his way with busy, gloomy mind, revolving events of
the day, trying to reckon those brooding in the night. His thoughts
overwhelmed him. Up in that dark grove dwelt a woman who had been his
friend. And he skulked about her home, gripping a gun stealthily as an
Indian, a man without place or people or purpose. Above her hovered the
shadow of grim, hidden, secret power. No queen could have given more
royally out of a bounteous store than Jane Withersteen gave her people,
and likewise to those unfortunates whom her people hated. She asked only
the divine right of all women--freedom; to love and to live as her heart
willed. And yet prayer and her hope were vain.

“For years I’ve seen a storm clouding over her and the village of
Cottonwoods,” muttered Venters, as he strode on. “Soon it’ll burst. I
don’t like the prospects.” That night the villagers whispered in the
street--and night-riding rustlers muffled horses--and Tull was at work
in secret--and out there in the sage hid a man who meant something
terrible--Lassiter!

Venters passed the black cottonwoods, and, entering the sage, climbed
the gradual slope. He kept his direction in line with a western star.
From time to time he stopped to listen and heard only the usual familiar
bark of coyote and sweep of wind and rustle of sage. Presently a low
jumble of rocks loomed up darkly somewhat to his right, and, turning
that way, he whistled softly. Out of the rocks glided a dog that leaped
and whined about him. He climbed over rough, broken rock, picking his
way carefully, and then went down. Here it was darker, and sheltered
from the wind. A white object guided him. It was another dog, and this
one was asleep, curled up between a saddle and a pack. The animal
awoke and thumped his tail in greeting. Venters placed the saddle for a
pillow, rolled in his blankets, with his face upward to the stars. The
white dog snuggled close to him. The other whined and pattered a few
yards to the rise of ground and there crouched on guard. And in that
wild covert Venters shut his eyes under the great white stars and
intense vaulted blue, bitterly comparing their loneliness to his own,
and fell asleep.

When he awoke, day had dawned and all about him was bright steel-gray.
The air had a cold tang. Arising, he greeted the fawning dogs and
stretched his cramped body, and then, gathering together bunches of dead
sage sticks, he lighted a fire. Strips of dried beef held to the blaze
for a moment served him and the dogs. He drank from a canteen. There was
nothing else in his outfit; he had grown used to a scant fire. Then he
sat over the fire, palms outspread, and waited. Waiting had been his
chief occupation for months, and he scarcely knew what he waited for
unless it was the passing of the hours. But now he sensed action in the
immediate present; the day promised another meeting with Lassiter and
Jane, perhaps news of the rustlers; on the morrow he meant to take the
trail to Deception Pass.

And while he waited he talked to his dogs. He called them Ring and
Whitie; they were sheep-dogs, half collie, half deerhound, superb in
build, perfectly trained. It seemed that in his fallen fortunes these
dogs understood the nature of their value to him, and governed their
affection and faithfulness accordingly. Whitie watched him with somber
eyes of love, and Ring, crouched on the little rise of ground above,
kept tireless guard. When the sun rose, the white dog took the place of
the other, and Ring went to sleep at his master’s feet.

By and by Venters rolled up his blankets and tied them and his meager
pack together, then climbed out to look for his horse. He saw him,
presently, a little way off in the sage, and went to fetch him. In that
country, where every rider boasted of a fine mount and was eager for a
race, where thoroughbreds dotted the wonderful grazing ranges, Venters
rode a horse that was sad proof of his misfortunes.

Then, with his back against a stone, Venters faced the east, and, stick
in hand and idle blade, he waited. The glorious sunlight filled the
valley with purple fire. Before him, to left, to right, waving, rolling,
sinking, rising, like low swells of a purple sea, stretched the sage.
Out of the grove of cottonwoods, a green patch on the purple, gleamed
the dull red of Jane Withersteen’s old stone house. And from there
extended the wide green of the village gardens and orchards marked by
the graceful poplars; and farther down shone the deep, dark richness of
the alfalfa fields. Numberless red and black and white dots speckled the
sage, and these were cattle and horses.

So, watching and waiting, Venters let the time wear away. At length he
saw a horse rise above a ridge, and he knew it to be Lassiter’s
black. Climbing to the highest rock, so that he would show against the
sky-line, he stood and waved his hat. The almost instant turning of
Lassiter’s horse attested to the quickness of that rider’s eye. Then
Venters climbed down, saddled his horse, tied on his pack, and, with
a word to his dogs, was about to ride out to meet Lassiter, when he
concluded to wait for him there, on higher ground, where the outlook was
commanding.

It had been long since Venters had experienced friendly greeting from
a man. Lassiter’s warmed in him something that had grown cold from
neglect. And when he had returned it, with a strong grip of the iron
hand that held his, and met the gray eyes, he knew that Lassiter and he
were to be friends.

“Venters, let’s talk awhile before we go down there,” said Lassiter,
slipping his bridle. “I ain’t in no hurry. Them’s sure fine dogs you’ve
got.” With a rider’s eye he took in the points of Venter’s horse, but
did not speak his thought. “Well, did anythin’ come off after I left you
last night?”

Venters told him about the rustlers.

“I was snug hid in the sage,” replied Lassiter, “an’ didn’t see or hear
no one. Oldrin’s got a high hand here, I reckon. It’s no news up in
Utah how he holes in canyons an’ leaves no track.” Lassiter was silent a
moment. “Me an’ Oldrin’ wasn’t exactly strangers some years back when he
drove cattle into Bostil’s Ford, at the head of the Rio Virgin. But he
got harassed there an’ now he drives some place else.”

“Lassiter, you knew him? Tell me, is he Mormon or Gentile?”

“I can’t say. I’ve knowed Mormons who pretended to be Gentiles.”

“No Mormon ever pretended that unless he was a rustler,” declared
Venters.

“Mebbe so.”

“It’s a hard country for any one, but hardest for Gentiles. Did you ever
know or hear of a Gentile prospering in a Mormon community?”

“I never did.”

“Well, I want to get out of Utah. I’ve a mother living in Illinois. I
want to go home. It’s eight years now.”

The older man’s sympathy moved Venters to tell his story. He had left
Quincy, run off to seek his fortune in the gold fields had never gotten
any farther than Salt Lake City, wandered here and there as helper,
teamster, shepherd, and drifted southward over the divide and across the
barrens and up the rugged plateau through the passes to the last border
settlements. Here he became a rider of the sage, had stock of his own,
and for a time prospered, until chance threw him in the employ of Jane
Withersteen.

“Lassiter, I needn’t tell you the rest.”

“Well, it’d be no news to me. I know Mormons. I’ve seen their women’s
strange love en’ patience en’ sacrifice an’ silence en’ whet I call
madness for their idea of God. An’ over against that I’ve seen the
tricks of men. They work hand in hand, all together, an’ in the dark.
No man can hold out against them, unless he takes to packin’ guns. For
Mormons are slow to kill. That’s the only good I ever seen in their
religion. Venters, take this from me, these Mormons ain’t just right in
their minds. Else could a Mormon marry one woman when he already has a
wife, an’ call it duty?”

“Lassiter, you think as I think,” returned Venters.

“How’d it come then that you never throwed a gun on Tull or some of
them?” inquired the rider, curiously.

“Jane pleaded with me, begged me to be patient, to overlook. She even
took my guns from me. I lost all before I knew it,” replied Venters,
with the red color in his face. “But, Lassiter, listen. Out of the
wreck I saved a Winchester, two Colts, and plenty of shells. I packed
these down into Deception Pass. There, almost every day for six months,
I have practiced with my rifle till the barrel burnt my hands. Practised
the draw--the firing of a Colt, hour after hour!”

“Now that’s interestin’ to me,” said Lassiter, with a quick uplift of
his head and a concentration of his gray gaze on Venters. “Could you
throw a gun before you began that practisin’?”

“Yes. And now...” Venters made a lightning-swift movement.

Lassiter smiled, and then his bronzed eyelids narrowed till his eyes
seemed mere gray slits. “You’ll kill Tull!” He did not question; he
affirmed.

“I promised Jane Withersteen I’d try to avoid Tull. I’ll keep my word.
But sooner or later Tull and I will meet. As I feel now, if he even
looks at me I’ll draw!”

“I reckon so. There’ll be hell down there, presently.” He paused a
moment and flicked a sage-brush with his quirt. “Venters, seein’ as
you’re considerable worked up, tell me Milly Erne’s story.”

Venters’s agitation stilled to the trace of suppressed eagerness in
Lassiter’s query.

“Milly Erne’s story? Well, Lassiter, I’ll tell you what I know. Milly
Erne had been in Cottonwoods years when I first arrived there, and most
of what I tell you happened before my arrival. I got to know her pretty
well. She was a slip of a woman, and crazy on religion. I conceived an
idea that I never mentioned--I thought she was at heart more Gentile
than Mormon. But she passed as a Mormon, and certainly she had the
Mormon woman’s locked lips. You know, in every Mormon village there are
women who seem mysterious to us, but about Milly there was more than
the ordinary mystery. When she came to Cottonwoods she had a beautiful
little girl whom she loved passionately. Milly was not known openly in
Cottonwoods as a Mormon wife. That she really was a Mormon wife I have
no doubt. Perhaps the Mormon’s other wife or wives would not acknowledge
Milly. Such things happen in these villages. Mormon wives wear
yokes, but they get jealous. Well, whatever had brought Milly to this
country--love or madness of religion--she repented of it. She gave up
teaching the village school. She quit the church. And she began to
fight Mormon upbringing for her baby girl. Then the Mormons put on the
screws--slowly, as is their way. At last the child disappeared. ‘Lost’
was the report. The child was stolen, I know that. So do you. That
wrecked Milly Erne. But she lived on in hope. She became a slave. She
worked her heart and soul and life out to get back her child. She never
heard of it again. Then she sank.... I can see her now, a frail thing, so
transparent you could almost look through her--white like ashes--and her
eyes!... Her eyes have always haunted me. She had one real friend--Jane
Withersteen. But Jane couldn’t mend a broken heart, and Milly died.”

For moments Lassiter did not speak, or turn his head.

“The man!” he exclaimed, presently, in husky accents.

“I haven’t the slightest idea who the Mormon was,” replied Venters; “nor
has any Gentile in Cottonwoods.”

“Does Jane Withersteen know?”

“Yes. But a red-hot running-iron couldn’t burn that name out of her!”

Without further speech Lassiter started off, walking his horse and
Venters followed with his dogs. Half a mile down the slope they entered
a luxuriant growth of willows, and soon came into an open space carpeted
with grass like deep green velvet. The rushing of water and singing of
birds filled their ears. Venters led his comrade to a shady bower and
showed him Amber Spring. It was a magnificent outburst of clear, amber
water pouring from a dark, stone-lined hole. Lassiter knelt and drank,
lingered there to drink again. He made no comment, but Venters did not
need words. Next to his horse a rider of the sage loved a spring. And
this spring was the most beautiful and remarkable known to the upland
riders of southern Utah. It was the spring that made old Withersteen a
feudal lord and now enabled his daughter to return the toll which her
father had exacted from the toilers of the sage.

The spring gushed forth in a swirling torrent, and leaped down joyously
to make its swift way along a willow-skirted channel. Moss and ferns and
lilies overhung its green banks. Except for the rough-hewn stones that
held and directed the water, this willow thicket and glade had been left
as nature had made it.

Below were artificial lakes, three in number, one above the other
in banks of raised earth, and round about them rose the lofty
green-foliaged shafts of poplar trees. Ducks dotted the glassy surface
of the lakes; a blue heron stood motionless on a water-gate; kingfishers
darted with shrieking flight along the shady banks; a white hawk
sailed above; and from the trees and shrubs came the song of robins
and cat-birds. It was all in strange contrast to the endless slopes of
lonely sage and the wild rock environs beyond. Venters thought of the
woman who loved the birds and the green of the leaves and the murmur of
the water.

Next on the slope, just below the third and largest lake, were corrals
and a wide stone barn and open sheds and coops and pens. Here were
clouds of dust, and cracking sounds of hoofs, and romping colts and
heehawing burros. Neighing horses trampled to the corral fences. And
on the little windows of the barn projected bobbing heads of bays and
blacks and sorrels. When the two men entered the immense barnyard, from
all around the din increased. This welcome, however, was not seconded by
the several men and boys who vanished on sight.

Venters and Lassiter were turning toward the house when Jane appeared in
the lane leading a horse. In riding-skirt and blouse she seemed to have
lost some of her statuesque proportions, and looked more like a girl
rider than the mistress of Withersteen. She was brightly smiling, and
her greeting was warmly cordial.

“Good news,” she announced. “I’ve been to the village. All is quiet.
I expected--I don’t know what. But there’s no excitement. And Tull has
ridden out on his way to Glaze.”

“Tull gone?” inquired Venters, with surprise. He was wondering what
could have taken Tull away. Was it to avoid another meeting with
Lassiter that he went? Could it have any connection with the probable
nearness of Oldring and his gang?

“Gone, yes, thank goodness,” replied Jane. “Now I’ll have peace for a
while. Lassiter, I want you to see my horses. You are a rider, and
you must be a judge of horseflesh. Some of mine have Arabian blood.
My father got his best strain in Nevada from Indians who claimed their
horses were bred down from the original stock left by the Spaniards.”

“Well, ma’am, the one you’ve been ridin’ takes my eye,” said Lassiter,
as he walked round the racy, clean-limbed, and fine-pointed roan.

“Where are the boys?” she asked, looking about. “Jerd, Paul, where are
you? Here, bring out the horses.”

The sound of dropping bars inside the barn was the signal for the horses
to jerk their heads in the windows, to snort and stamp. Then they came
pounding out of the door, a file of thoroughbreds, to plunge about
the barnyard, heads and tails up, manes flying. They halted afar off,
squared away to look, came slowly forward with whinnies for their
mistress, and doubtful snorts for the strangers and their horses.

“Come--come--come,” called Jane, holding out her hands. “Why,
Bells--Wrangle, where are your manners? Come, Black Star--come, Night.
Ah, you beauties! My racers of the sage!”

Only two came up to her; those she called Night and Black Star. Venters
never looked at them without delight. The first was soft dead black, the
other glittering black, and they were perfectly matched in size, both
being high and long-bodied, wide through the shoulders, with lithe,
powerful legs. That they were a woman’s pets showed in the gloss of
skin, the fineness of mane. It showed, too, in the light of big eyes and
the gentle reach of eagerness.

“I never seen their like,” was Lassiter’s encomium, “an’ in my day I’ve
seen a sight of horses. Now, ma’am, if you was wantin’ to make a long
an’ fast ride across the sage--say to elope--”

Lassiter ended there with dry humor, yet behind that was meaning. Jane
blushed and made arch eyes at him.

“Take care, Lassiter, I might think that a proposal,” she replied,
gaily. “It’s dangerous to propose elopement to a Mormon woman. Well,
I was expecting you. Now will be a good hour to show you Milly Erne’s
grave. The day-riders have gone, and the night-riders haven’t come in.
Bern, what do you make of that? Need I worry? You know I have to be made
to worry.”

“Well, it’s not usual for the night shift to ride in so late,” replied
Venters, slowly, and his glance sought Lassiter’s. “Cattle are usually
quiet after dark. Still, I’ve known even a coyote to stampede your white
herd.”

“I refuse to borrow trouble. Come,” said Jane.

They mounted, and, with Jane in the lead, rode down the lane, and,
turning off into a cattle trail, proceeded westward. Venters’s dogs
trotted behind them. On this side of the ranch the outlook was different
from that on the other; the immediate foreground was rough and the sage
more rugged and less colorful; there were no dark-blue lines of canyons
to hold the eye, nor any uprearing rock walls. It was a long roll and
slope into gray obscurity. Soon Jane left the trail and rode into the
sage, and presently she dismounted and threw her bridle. The men did
likewise. Then, on foot, they followed her, coming out at length on the
rim of a low escarpment. She passed by several little ridges of earth to
halt before a faintly defined mound. It lay in the shade of a sweeping
sage-brush close to the edge of the promontory; and a rider could have
jumped his horse over it without recognizing a grave.

“Here!”

She looked sad as she spoke, but she offered no explanation for the
neglect of an unmarked, uncared-for grave. There was a little bunch of
pale, sweet lavender daisies, doubtless planted there by Jane.

“I only come here to remember and to pray,” she said. “But I leave no
trail!”

A grave in the sage! How lonely this resting-place of Milly Erne! The
cottonwoods or the alfalfa fields were not in sight, nor was there any
rock or ridge or cedar to lend contrast to the monotony. Gray slopes,
tinging the purple, barren and wild, with the wind waving the sage,
swept away to the dim horizon.

Lassiter looked at the grave and then out into space. At that moment he
seemed a figure of bronze.

Jane touched Venters’s arm and led him back to the horses.

“Bern!” cried Jane, when they were out of hearing. “Suppose Lassiter
were Milly’s husband--the father of that little girl lost so long ago!”

“It might be, Jane. Let us ride on. If he wants to see us again he’ll
come.”

So they mounted and rode out to the cattle trail and began to climb.
From the height of the ridge, where they had started down, Venters
looked back. He did not see Lassiter, but his glance, drawn irresistibly
farther out on the gradual slope, caught sight of a moving cloud of
dust.

“Hello, a rider!”

“Yes, I see,” said Jane.

“That fellow’s riding hard. Jane, there’s something wrong.”

“Oh yes, there must be.... How he rides!”

The horse disappeared in the sage, and then puffs of dust marked his
course.

“He’s short-cut on us--he’s making straight for the corrals.”

Venters and Jane galloped their steeds and reined in at the turning of
the lane. This lane led down to the right of the grove. Suddenly into
its lower entrance flashed a bay horse. Then Venters caught the fast
rhythmic beat of pounding hoofs. Soon his keen eye recognized the swing
of the rider in his saddle.

“It’s Judkins, your Gentile rider!” he cried. “Jane, when Judkins rides
like that it means hell!”



CHAPTER IV. DECEPTION PASS

The rider thundered up and almost threw his foam-flecked horse in the
sudden stop. He was a giant form, and with fearless eyes.

“Judkins, you’re all bloody!” cried Jane, in affright. “Oh, you’ve been
shot!”

“Nothin’ much Miss Withersteen. I got a nick in the shoulder. I’m some
wet an’ the hoss’s been throwin’ lather, so all this ain’t blood.”

“What’s up?” queried Venters, sharply.

“Rustlers sloped off with the red herd.”

“Where are my riders?” demanded Jane.

“Miss Withersteen, I was alone all night with the herd. At daylight this
mornin’ the rustlers rode down. They began to shoot at me on sight. They
chased me hard an’ far, burnin’ powder all the time, but I got away.”

“Jud, they meant to kill you,” declared Venters.

“Now I wonder,” returned Judkins. “They wanted me bad. An’ it ain’t
regular for rustlers to waste time chasin’ one rider.”

“Thank heaven you got away,” said Jane. “But my riders--where are they?”

“I don’t know. The night-riders weren’t there last night when I rode
down, en’ this mornin’ I met no day-riders.”

“Judkins! Bern, they’ve been set upon--killed by Oldring’s men!”

“I don’t think so,” replied Venters, decidedly. “Jane, your riders
haven’t gone out in the sage.”

“Bern, what do you mean?” Jane Withersteen turned deathly pale.

“You remember what I said about the unseen hand?”

“Oh!... Impossible!”

“I hope so. But I fear--” Venters finished, with a shake of his head.

“Bern, you’re bitter; but that’s only natural. We’ll wait to see what’s
happened to my riders. Judkins, come to the house with me. Your wound
must be attended to.”

“Jane, I’ll find out where Oldring drives the herd,” vowed Venters.

“No, no! Bern, don’t risk it now--when the rustlers are in such shooting
mood.”

“I’m going. Jud, how many cattle in that red herd?”

“Twenty-five hundred head.”

“Whew! What on earth can Oldring do with so many cattle? Why, a hundred
head is a big steal. I’ve got to find out.”

“Don’t go,” implored Jane.

“Bern, you want a hoss thet can run. Miss Withersteen, if it’s not too
bold of me to advise, make him take a fast hoss or don’t let him go.”

“Yes, yes, Judkins. He must ride a horse that can’t be caught. Which
one--Black Star--Night?”

“Jane, I won’t take either,” said Venters, emphatically. “I wouldn’t
risk losing one of your favorites.”

“Wrangle, then?”

“Thet’s the hoss,” replied Judkins. “Wrangle can outrun Black Star an’
Night. You’d never believe it, Miss Withersteen, but I know. Wrangle’s
the biggest en’ fastest hoss on the sage.”

“Oh no, Wrangle can’t beat Black Star. But, Bern, take Wrangle if you
will go. Ask Jerd for anything you need. Oh, be watchful, careful.... God
speed you.”

She clasped his hand, turned quickly away, and went down a lane with the
rider.

Venters rode to the barn, and, leaping off, shouted for Jerd. The boy
came running. Venters sent him for meat, bread, and dried fruits, to
be packed in saddlebags. His own horse he turned loose into the nearest
corral. Then he went for Wrangle. The giant sorrel had earned his name
for a trait the opposite of amiability. He came readily out of the barn,
but once in the yard he broke from Venters, and plunged about with ears
laid back. Venters had to rope him, and then he kicked down a section
of fence, stood on his hind legs, crashed down and fought the rope. Jerd
returned to lend a hand.

“Wrangle don’t git enough work,” said Jerd, as the big saddle went on.
“He’s unruly when he’s corralled, an’ wants to run. Wait till he smells
the sage!”

“Jerd, this horse is an iron-jawed devil. I never straddled him but
once. Run? Say, he’s swift as wind!”

When Venters’s boot touched the stirrup the sorrel bolted, giving him
the rider’s flying mount. The swing of this fiery horse recalled to
Venters days that were not really long past, when he rode into the sage
as the leader of Jane Withersteen’s riders. Wrangle pulled hard on a
tight rein. He galloped out of the lane, down the shady border of
the grove, and hauled up at the watering-trough, where he pranced and
champed his bit. Venters got off and filled his canteen while the horse
drank. The dogs, Ring and Whitie, came trotting up for their drink. Then
Venters remounted and turned Wrangle toward the sage.

A wide, white trail wound away down the slope. One keen, sweeping glance
told Venters that there was neither man nor horse nor steer within the
limit of his vision, unless they were lying down in the sage. Ring loped
in the lead and Whitie loped in the rear. Wrangle settled gradually into
an easy swinging canter, and Venters’s thoughts, now that the rush and
flurry of the start were past, and the long miles stretched before him,
reverted to a calm reckoning of late singular coincidences.

There was the night ride of Tull’s, which, viewed in the light of
subsequent events, had a look of his covert machinations; Oldring and
his Masked Rider and his rustlers riding muffled horses; the report
that Tull had ridden out that morning with his man Jerry on the trail
to Glaze, the strange disappearance of Jane Withersteen’s riders,
the unusually determined attempt to kill the one Gentile still in her
employ, an intention frustrated, no doubt, only by Judkin’s magnificent
riding of her racer, and lastly the driving of the red herd. These
events, to Venters’s color of mind, had a dark relationship. Remembering
Jane’s accusation of bitterness, he tried hard to put aside his rancor
in judging Tull. But it was bitter knowledge that made him see the
truth. He had felt the shadow of an unseen hand; he had watched till he
saw its dim outline, and then he had traced it to a man’s hate, to
the rivalry of a Mormon Elder, to the power of a Bishop, to the long,
far-reaching arm of a terrible creed. That unseen hand had made its
first move against Jane Withersteen. Her riders had been called in,
leaving her without help to drive seven thousand head of cattle. But to
Venters it seemed extraordinary that the power which had called in these
riders had left so many cattle to be driven by rustlers and harried by
wolves. For hand in glove with that power was an insatiate greed; they
were one and the same.

“What can Oldring do with twenty-five hundred head of cattle?” muttered
Venters. “Is he a Mormon? Did he meet Tull last night? It looks like
a black plot to me. But Tull and his churchmen wouldn’t ruin Jane
Withersteen unless the Church was to profit by that ruin. Where does
Oldring come in? I’m going to find out about these things.”

Wrangle did the twenty-five miles in three hours and walked little of
the way. When he had gotten warmed up he had been allowed to choose his
own gait. The afternoon had well advanced when Venters struck the trail
of the red herd and found where it had grazed the night before. Then
Venters rested the horse and used his eyes. Near at hand were a cow
and a calf and several yearlings, and farther out in the sage some
straggling steers. He caught a glimpse of coyotes skulking near the
cattle. The slow sweeping gaze of the rider failed to find other living
things within the field of sight. The sage about him was breast-high to
his horse, oversweet with its warm, fragrant breath, gray where it
waved to the light, darker where the wind left it still, and beyond the
wonderful haze-purple lent by distance. Far across that wide waste began
the slow lift of uplands through which Deception Pass cut its tortuous
many-canyoned way.

Venters raised the bridle of his horse and followed the broad cattle
trail. The crushed sage resembled the path of a monster snake. In a few
miles of travel he passed several cows and calves that had escaped the
drive. Then he stood on the last high bench of the slope with the floor
of the valley beneath. The opening of the canyon showed in a break of
the sage, and the cattle trail paralleled it as far as he could see.
That trail led to an undiscovered point where Oldring drove cattle
into the pass, and many a rider who had followed it had never returned.
Venters satisfied himself that the rustlers had not deviated from their
usual course, and then he turned at right angles off the cattle trail
and made for the head of the pass.

The sun lost its heat and wore down to the western horizon, where it
changed from white to gold and rested like a huge ball about to roll on
its golden shadows down the slope. Venters watched the lengthening of
the rays and bars, and marveled at his own league-long shadow. The sun
sank. There was instant shading of brightness about him, and he saw a
kind of cold purple bloom creep ahead of him to cross the canyon, to
mount the opposite slope and chase and darken and bury the last golden
flare of sunlight.

Venters rode into a trail that he always took to get down into the
canyon. He dismounted and found no tracks but his own made days
previous. Nevertheless he sent the dog Ring ahead and waited. In a
little while Ring returned. Whereupon Venters led his horse on to the
break in the ground.

The opening into Deception Pass was one of the remarkable natural
phenomena in a country remarkable for vast slopes of sage, uplands
insulated by gigantic red walls, and deep canyons of mysterious source
and outlet. Here the valley floor was level, and here opened a narrow
chasm, a ragged vent in yellow walls of stone. The trail down the five
hundred feet of sheer depth always tested Venters’s nerve. It was
bad going for even a burro. But Wrangle, as Venters led him, snorted
defiance or disgust rather than fear, and, like a hobbled horse on the
jump, lifted his ponderous iron-shod fore hoofs and crashed down over
the first rough step. Venters warmed to greater admiration of the
sorrel; and, giving him a loose bridle, he stepped down foot by foot.
Oftentimes the stones and shale started by Wrangle buried Venters to
his knees; again he was hard put to it to dodge a rolling boulder, there
were times when he could not see Wrangle for dust, and once he and the
horse rode a sliding shelf of yellow, weathered cliff. It was a trail
on which there could be no stops, and, therefore, if perilous, it was at
least one that did not take long in the descent.

Venters breathed lighter when that was over, and felt a sudden assurance
in the success of his enterprise. For at first it had been a reckless
determination to achieve something at any cost, and now it resolved
itself into an adventure worthy of all his reason and cunning, and
keenness of eye and ear.

Pinyon pines clustered in little clumps along the level floor of the
pass. Twilight had gathered under the walls. Venters rode into the trail
and up the canyon. Gradually the trees and caves and objects low down
turned black, and this blackness moved up the walls till night enfolded
the pass, while day still lingered above. The sky darkened; and stars
began to show, at first pale and then bright. Sharp notches of the
rim-wall, biting like teeth into the blue, were landmarks by which
Venters knew where his camping site lay. He had to feel his way through
a thicket of slender oaks to a spring where he watered Wrangle and drank
himself. Here he unsaddled and turned Wrangle loose, having no fear that
the horse would leave the thick, cool grass adjacent to the spring. Next
he satisfied his own hunger, fed Ring and Whitie and, with them curled
beside him, composed himself to await sleep.

There had been a time when night in the high altitude of these Utah
uplands had been satisfying to Venters. But that was before the
oppression of enemies had made the change in his mind. As a rider
guarding the herd he had never thought of the night’s wildness and
loneliness; as an outcast, now when the full silence set in, and the
deep darkness, and trains of radiant stars shone cold and calm, he
lay with an ache in his heart. For a year he had lived as a black fox,
driven from his kind. He longed for the sound of a voice, the touch of
a hand. In the daytime there was riding from place to place, and the
gun practice to which something drove him, and other tasks that at least
necessitated action, at night, before he won sleep, there was strife in
his soul. He yearned to leave the endless sage slopes, the wilderness
of canyons, and it was in the lonely night that this yearning grew
unbearable. It was then that he reached forth to feel Ring or Whitie,
immeasurably grateful for the love and companionship of two dogs.

On this night the same old loneliness beset Venters, the old habit
of sad thought and burning unquiet had its way. But from it evolved a
conviction that his useless life had undergone a subtle change. He had
sensed it first when Wrangle swung him up to the high saddle, he knew
it now when he lay in the gateway of Deception Pass. He had no thrill of
adventure, rather a gloomy perception of great hazard, perhaps death. He
meant to find Oldring’s retreat. The rustlers had fast horses, but none
that could catch Wrangle. Venters knew no rustler could creep upon him
at night when Ring and Whitie guarded his hiding-place. For the rest, he
had eyes and ears, and a long rifle and an unerring aim, which he meant
to use. Strangely his foreshadowing of change did not hold a thought
of the killing of Tull. It related only to what was to happen to him in
Deception Pass; and he could no more lift the veil of that mystery than
tell where the trails led to in that unexplored canyon. Moreover, he did
not care. And at length, tired out by stress of thought, he fell asleep.

When his eyes unclosed, day had come again, and he saw the rim of the
opposite wall tipped with the gold of sunrise. A few moments sufficed
for the morning’s simple camp duties. Near at hand he found Wrangle,
and to his surprise the horse came to him. Wrangle was one of the horses
that left his viciousness in the home corral. What he wanted was to be
free of mules and burros and steers, to roll in dust-patches, and then
to run down the wide, open, windy sage-plains, and at night browse and
sleep in the cool wet grass of a springhole. Jerd knew the sorrel when
he said of him, “Wait till he smells the sage!”

Venters saddled and led him out of the oak thicket, and, leaping
astride, rode up the canyon, with Ring and Whitie trotting behind. An
old grass-grown trail followed the course of a shallow wash where flowed
a thin stream of water. The canyon was a hundred rods wide, its yellow
walls were perpendicular; it had abundant sage and a scant growth of oak
and pinon. For five miles it held to a comparatively straight bearing,
and then began a heightening of rugged walls and a deepening of the
floor. Beyond this point of sudden change in the character of the
canyon Venters had never explored, and here was the real door to the
intricacies of Deception Pass.

He reined Wrangle to a walk, halted now and then to listen, and then
proceeded cautiously with shifting and alert gaze. The canyon assumed
proportions that dwarfed those of its first ten miles. Venters rode on
and on, not losing in the interest of his wide surroundings any of his
caution or keen search for tracks or sight of living thing. If there
ever had been a trail here, he could not find it. He rode through sage
and clumps of pinon trees and grassy plots where long-petaled purple
lilies bloomed. He rode through a dark constriction of the pass no wider
than the lane in the grove at Cottonwoods. And he came out into a great
amphitheater into which jutted huge towering corners of a confluence of
intersecting canyons.

Venters sat his horse, and, with a rider’s eye, studied this wild
cross-cut of huge stone gullies. Then he went on, guided by the course
of running water. If it had not been for the main stream of water
flowing north he would never have been able to tell which of those many
openings was a continuation of the pass. In crossing this amphitheater
he went by the mouths of five canyons, fording little streams that
flowed into the larger one. Gaining the outlet which he took to be the
pass, he rode on again under over hanging walls. One side was dark in
shade, the other light in sun. This narrow passageway turned and twisted
and opened into a valley that amazed Venters.

Here again was a sweep of purple sage, richer than upon the higher
levels. The valley was miles long, several wide, and inclosed by
unscalable walls. But it was the background of this valley that so
forcibly struck him. Across the sage-flat rose a strange up-flinging of
yellow rocks. He could not tell which were close and which were distant.
Scrawled mounds of stone, like mountain waves, seemed to roll up to
steep bare slopes and towers.

In this plain of sage Venters flushed birds and rabbits, and when he had
proceeded about a mile he caught sight of the bobbing white tails of
a herd of running antelope. He rode along the edge of the stream which
wound toward the western end of the slowly looming mounds of stone.
The high slope retreated out of sight behind the nearer protection.
To Venters the valley appeared to have been filled in by a mountain of
melted stone that had hardened in strange shapes of rounded outline.
He followed the stream till he lost it in a deep cut. Therefore Venters
quit the dark slit which baffled further search in that direction, and
rode out along the curved edge of stone where it met the sage. It was
not long before he came to a low place, and here Wrangle readily climbed
up.

All about him was ridgy roll of wind-smoothed, rain-washed rock. Not a
tuft of grass or a bunch of sage colored the dull rust-yellow. He saw
where, to the right, this uneven flow of stone ended in a blunt wall.
Leftward, from the hollow that lay at his feet, mounted a gradual
slow-swelling slope to a great height topped by leaning, cracked,
and ruined crags. Not for some time did he grasp the wonder of that
acclivity. It was no less than a mountain-side, glistening in the sun
like polished granite, with cedar-trees springing as if by magic out of
the denuded surface. Winds had swept it clear of weathered shale, and
rains had washed it free of dust. Far up the curved slope its beautiful
lines broke to meet the vertical rim-wall, to lose its grace in a
different order and color of rock, a stained yellow cliff of cracks and
caves and seamed crags. And straight before Venters was a scene less
striking but more significant to his keen survey. For beyond a mile
of the bare, hummocky rock began the valley of sage, and the mouths of
canyons, one of which surely was another gateway into the pass.


He got off his horse, and, giving the bridle to Ring to hold, he
commenced a search for the cleft where the stream ran. He was not
successful and concluded the water dropped into an underground passage.
Then he returned to where he had left Wrangle, and led him down off the
stone to the sage. It was a short ride to the opening canyons. There was
no reason for a choice of which one to enter. The one he rode into was a
clear, sharp shaft in yellow stone a thousand feet deep, with wonderful
wind-worn caves low down and high above buttressed and turreted
ramparts. Farther on Venters came into a region where deep indentations
marked the line of canyon walls. These were huge, cove-like blind
pockets extending back to a sharp corner with a dense growth of
underbrush and trees.

Venters penetrated into one of these offshoots, and, as he had hoped, he
found abundant grass. He had to bend the oak saplings to get his horse
through. Deciding to make this a hiding-place if he could find water, he
worked back to the limit of the shelving walls. In a little cluster of
silver spruces he found a spring. This inclosed nook seemed an ideal
place to leave his horse and to camp at night, and from which to make
stealthy trips on foot. The thick grass hid his trail; the dense growth
of oaks in the opening would serve as a barrier to keep Wrangle in, if,
indeed, the luxuriant browse would not suffice for that. So Venters,
leaving Whitie with the horse, called Ring to his side, and, rifle in
hand, worked his way out to the open. A careful photographing in mind
of the formation of the bold outlines of rimrock assured him he would be
able to return to his retreat even in the dark.

Bunches of scattered sage covered the center of the canyon, and among
these Venters threaded his way with the step of an Indian. At intervals
he put his hand on the dog and stopped to listen. There was a drowsy
hum of insects, but no other sound disturbed the warm midday stillness.
Venters saw ahead a turn, more abrupt than any yet. Warily he rounded
this corner, once again to halt bewildered.

The canyon opened fan-shaped into a great oval of green and gray
growths. It was the hub of an oblong wheel, and from it, at regular
distances, like spokes, ran the outgoing canyons. Here a dull red color
predominated over the fading yellow. The corners of wall bluntly rose,
scarred and scrawled, to taper into towers and serrated peaks and
pinnacled domes.

Venters pushed on more heedfully than ever. Toward the center of this
circle the sage-brush grew smaller and farther apart He was about to
sheer off to the right, where thickets and jumbles of fallen rock would
afford him cover, when he ran right upon a broad cattle trail. Like a
road it was, more than a trail, and the cattle tracks were fresh. What
surprised him more, they were wet! He pondered over this feature. It
had not rained. The only solution to this puzzle was that the cattle had
been driven through water, and water deep enough to wet their legs.

Suddenly Ring growled low. Venters rose cautiously and looked over the
sage. A band of straggling horsemen were riding across the oval. He
sank down, startled and trembling. “Rustlers!” he muttered. Hurriedly
he glanced about for a place to hide. Near at hand there was
nothing but sage-brush. He dared not risk crossing the open
patches to reach the rocks. Again he peeped over the sage. The
rustlers--four--five--seven--eight in all, were approaching, but not
directly in line with him. That was relief for a cold deadness which
seemed to be creeping inward along his veins. He crouched down with
bated breath and held the bristling dog.

He heard the click of iron-shod hoofs on stone, the coarse laughter of
men, and then voices gradually dying away. Long moments passed. Then he
rose. The rustlers were riding into a canyon. Their horses were tired,
and they had several pack animals; evidently they had traveled far.
Venters doubted that they were the rustlers who had driven the red herd.
Olding’s band had split. Venters watched these horsemen disappear under
a bold canyon wall.

The rustlers had come from the northwest side of the oval. Venters kept
a steady gaze in that direction, hoping, if there were more, to see
from what canyon they rode. A quarter of an hour went by. Reward for his
vigilance came when he descried three more mounted men, far over to the
north. But out of what canyon they had ridden it was too late to tell.
He watched the three ride across the oval and round the jutting red
corner where the others had gone.

“Up that canyon!” exclaimed Venters. “Oldring’s den! I’ve found it!”

A knotty point for Venters was the fact that the cattle tracks all
pointed west. The broad trail came from the direction of the canyon
into which the rustlers had ridden, and undoubtedly the cattle had been
driven out of it across the oval. There were no tracks pointing the
other way. It had been in his mind that Oldring had driven the red herd
toward the rendezvous, and not from it. Where did that broad trail come
down into the pass, and where did it lead? Venters knew he wasted
time in pondering the question, but it held a fascination not easily
dispelled. For many years Oldring’s mysterious entrance and exit to
Deception Pass had been all-absorbing topics to sage-riders.

All at once the dog put an end to Venters’s pondering. Ring sniffed the
air, turned slowly in his tracks with a whine, and then growled. Venters
wheeled. Two horsemen were within a hundred yards, coming straight at
him. One, lagging behind the other, was Oldring’s Masked Rider.

Venters cunningly sank, slowly trying to merge into sage-brush. But,
guarded as his action was, the first horse detected it. He stopped
short, snorted, and shot up his ears. The rustler bent forward, as if
keenly peering ahead. Then, with a swift sweep, he jerked a gun from its
sheath and fired.

The bullet zipped through the sage-brush. Flying bits of wood struck
Venters, and the hot, stinging pain seemed to lift him in one leap.
Like a flash the blue barrel of his rifle gleamed level and he shot
once--twice.

The foremost rustler dropped his weapon and toppled from his saddle, to
fall with his foot catching in a stirrup. The horse snorted wildly and
plunged away, dragging the rustler through the sage.

The Masked Rider huddled over his pommel slowly swaying to one side, and
then, with a faint, strange cry, slipped out of the saddle.



CHAPTER V. THE MASKED RIDER

Venters looked quickly from the fallen rustlers to the canyon where the
others had disappeared. He calculated on the time needed for running
horses to return to the open, if their riders heard shots. He waited
breathlessly. But the estimated time dragged by and no riders appeared.
Venters began presently to believe that the rifle reports had not
penetrated into the recesses of the canyon, and felt safe for the
immediate present.

He hurried to the spot where the first rustler had been dragged by his
horse. The man lay in deep grass, dead, jaw fallen, eyes protruding--a
sight that sickened Venters. The first man at whom he had ever aimed a
weapon he had shot through the heart. With the clammy sweat oozing
from every pore Venters dragged the rustler in among some boulders and
covered him with slabs of rock. Then he smoothed out the crushed trail
in grass and sage. The rustler’s horse had stopped a quarter of a mile
off and was grazing.

When Venters rapidly strode toward the Masked Rider not even the cold
nausea that gripped him could wholly banish curiosity. For he had shot
Oldring’s infamous lieutenant, whose face had never been seen. Venters
experienced a grim pride in the feat. What would Tull say to this
achievement of the outcast who rode too often to Deception Pass?

Venters’s curious eagerness and expectation had not prepared him for the
shock he received when he stood over a slight, dark figure. The rustler
wore the black mask that had given him his name, but he had no weapons.
Venters glanced at the drooping horse, there were no gun-sheaths on the
saddle.

“A rustler who didn’t pack guns!” muttered Venters. “He wears no belt.
He couldn’t pack guns in that rig.... Strange!”

A low, gasping intake of breath and a sudden twitching of body told
Venters the rider still lived.

“He’s alive!... I’ve got to stand here and watch him die. And I shot an
unarmed man.”

Shrinkingly Venters removed the rider’s wide sombrero and the black
cloth mask. This action disclosed bright chestnut hair, inclined to
curl, and a white, youthful face. Along the lower line of cheek and jaw
was a clear demarcation, where the brown of tanned skin met the white
that had been hidden from the sun.

“Oh, he’s only a boy!... What! Can he be Oldring’s Masked Rider?”

The boy showed signs of returning consciousness. He stirred; his lips
moved; a small brown hand clenched in his blouse.

Venters knelt with a gathering horror of his deed. His bullet had
entered the rider’s right breast, high up to the shoulder. With hands
that shook, Venters untied a black scarf and ripped open the blood-wet
blouse.

First he saw a gaping hole, dark red against a whiteness of skin, from
which welled a slender red stream. Then the graceful, beautiful swell of
a woman’s breast!

“A woman!” he cried. “A girl!... I’ve killed a girl!”

She suddenly opened eyes that transfixed Venters. They were fathomless
blue. Consciousness of death was there, a blended terror and pain, but
no consciousness of sight. She did not see Venters. She stared into the
unknown.

Then came a spasm of vitality. She writhed in a torture of reviving
strength, and in her convulsions she almost tore from Ventner’s grasp.
Slowly she relaxed and sank partly back. The ungloved hand sought the
wound, and pressed so hard that her wrist half buried itself in her
bosom. Blood trickled between her spread fingers. And she looked at
Venters with eyes that saw him.

He cursed himself and the unerring aim of which he had been so proud. He
had seen that look in the eyes of a crippled antelope which he was
about to finish with his knife. But in her it had infinitely more--a
revelation of mortal spirit. The instinctive bringing to life was
there, and the divining helplessness and the terrible accusation of the
stricken.

“Forgive me! I didn’t know!” burst out Venters.

“You shot me--you’ve killed me!” she whispered, in panting gasps. Upon
her lips appeared a fluttering, bloody froth. By that Venters knew
the air in her lungs was mixing with blood. “Oh, I knew--it
would--come--some day!... Oh, the burn!... Hold me--I’m sinking--it’s all
dark.... Ah, God!... Mercy--”

Her rigidity loosened in one long quiver and she lay back limp, still,
white as snow, with closed eyes.

Venters thought then that she died. But the faint pulsation of her
breast assured him that life yet lingered. Death seemed only a matter
of moments, for the bullet had gone clear through her. Nevertheless, he
tore sageleaves from a bush, and, pressing them tightly over her wounds,
he bound the black scarf round her shoulder, tying it securely under
her arm. Then he closed the blouse, hiding from his sight that
blood-stained, accusing breast.

“What--now?” he questioned, with flying mind. “I must get out of here.
She’s dying--but I can’t leave her.”

He rapidly surveyed the sage to the north and made out no animate
object. Then he picked up the girl’s sombrero and the mask. This time
the mask gave him as great a shock as when he first removed it from
her face. For in the woman he had forgotten the rustler, and this black
strip of felt-cloth established the identity of Oldring’s Masked Rider.
Venters had solved the mystery. He slipped his rifle under her, and,
lifting her carefully upon it, he began to retrace his steps. The
dog trailed in his shadow. And the horse, that had stood drooping by,
followed without a call. Venters chose the deepest tufts of grass and
clumps of sage on his return. From time to time he glanced over his
shoulder. He did not rest. His concern was to avoid jarring the girl and
to hide his trail. Gaining the narrow canyon, he turned and held close
to the wall till he reached his hiding-place. When he entered the dense
thicket of oaks he was hard put to it to force a way through. But he
held his burden almost upright, and by slipping side wise and bending
the saplings he got in. Through sage and grass he hurried to the grove
of silver spruces.

He laid the girl down, almost fearing to look at her. Though marble pale
and cold, she was living. Venters then appreciated the tax that long
carry had been to his strength. He sat down to rest. Whitie sniffed at
the pale girl and whined and crept to Venters’s feet. Ring lapped the
water in the runway of the spring.

Presently Venters went out to the opening, caught the horse and, leading
him through the thicket, unsaddled him and tied him with a long halter.
Wrangle left his browsing long enough to whinny and toss his head.
Venters felt that he could not rest easily till he had secured the other
rustler’s horse; so, taking his rifle and calling for Ring, he set out.
Swiftly yet watchfully he made his way through the canyon to the oval
and out to the cattle trail. What few tracks might have betrayed him
he obliterated, so only an expert tracker could have trailed him. Then,
with many a wary backward glance across the sage, he started to round
up the rustler’s horse. This was unexpectedly easy. He led the horse to
lower ground, out of sight from the opposite side of the oval along the
shadowy western wall, and so on into his canyon and secluded camp.

The girl’s eyes were open; a feverish spot burned in her cheeks she
moaned something unintelligible to Venters, but he took the movement of
her lips to mean that she wanted water. Lifting her head, he tipped the
canteen to her lips. After that she again lapsed into unconsciousness or
a weakness which was its counterpart. Venters noted, however, that the
burning flush had faded into the former pallor.

The sun set behind the high canyon rim, and a cool shade darkened the
walls. Venters fed the dogs and put a halter on the dead rustlers horse.
He allowed Wrangle to browse free. This done, he cut spruce boughs and
made a lean-to for the girl. Then, gently lifting her upon a blanket,
he folded the sides over her. The other blanket he wrapped about his
shoulders and found a comfortable seat against a spruce-tree that upheld
the little shack. Ring and Whitie lay near at hand, one asleep, the
other watchful.

Venters dreaded the night’s vigil. At night his mind was active, and
this time he had to watch and think and feel beside a dying girl whom
he had all but murdered. A thousand excuses he invented for himself, yet
not one made any difference in his act or his self-reproach.

It seemed to him that when night fell black he could see her white face
so much more plainly.

“She’ll go, presently,” he said, “and be out of agony--thank God!”

Every little while certainty of her death came to him with a shock; and
then he would bend over and lay his ear on her breast. Her heart still
beat.

The early night blackness cleared to the cold starlight. The horses were
not moving, and no sound disturbed the deathly silence of the canyon.

“I’ll bury her here,” thought Venters, “and let her grave be as much a
mystery as her life was.”

For the girl’s few words, the look of her eyes, the prayer, had
strangely touched Venters.

“She was only a girl,” he soliloquized. “What was she to Oldring?
Rustlers don’t have wives nor sisters nor daughters. She was bad--that’s
all. But somehow... well, she may not have willingly become the companion
of rustlers. That prayer of hers to God for mercy!... Life is strange
and cruel. I wonder if other members of Oldring’s gang are women? Likely
enough. But what was his game? Oldring’s Mask Rider! A name to make
villagers hide and lock their doors. A name credited with a dozen
murders, a hundred forays, and a thousand stealings of cattle. What
part did the girl have in this? It may have served Oldring to create
mystery.”

Hours passed. The white stars moved across the narrow strip of dark-blue
sky above. The silence awoke to the low hum of insects. Venters watched
the immovable white face, and as he watched, hour by hour waiting for
death, the infamy of her passed from his mind. He thought only of the
sadness, the truth of the moment. Whoever she was--whatever she had
done--she was young and she was dying.

The after-part of the night wore on interminably. The starlight failed
and the gloom blackened to the darkest hour. “She’ll die at the gray
of dawn,” muttered Venters, remembering some old woman’s fancy. The
blackness paled to gray, and the gray lightened and day peeped over
the eastern rim. Venters listened at the breast of the girl. She
still lived. Did he only imagine that her heart beat stronger, ever so
slightly, but stronger? He pressed his ear closer to her breast. And he
rose with his own pulse quickening.

“If she doesn’t die soon--she’s got a chance--the barest chance to
live,” he said.

He wondered if the internal bleeding had ceased. There was no more film
of blood upon her lips. But no corpse could have been whiter. Opening
her blouse, he untied the scarf, and carefully picked away the sage
leaves from the wound in her shoulder. It had closed. Lifting her
lightly, he ascertained that the same was true of the hole where the
bullet had come out. He reflected on the fact that clean wounds closed
quickly in the healing upland air. He recalled instances of riders who
had been cut and shot apparently to fatal issues; yet the blood had
clotted, the wounds closed, and they had recovered. He had no way to
tell if internal hemorrhage still went on, but he believed that it had
stopped. Otherwise she would surely not have lived so long. He marked
the entrance of the bullet, and concluded that it had just touched the
upper lobe of her lung. Perhaps the wound in the lung had also closed.
As he began to wash the blood stains from her breast and carefully
rebandage the wound, he was vaguely conscious of a strange, grave
happiness in the thought that she might live.

Broad daylight and a hint of sunshine high on the cliff-rim to the west
brought him to consideration of what he had better do. And while busy
with his few camp tasks he revolved the thing in his mind. It would not
be wise for him to remain long in his present hiding-place. And if he
intended to follow the cattle trail and try to find the rustlers he had
better make a move at once. For he knew that rustlers, being riders,
would not make much of a day’s or night’s absence from camp for one
or two of their number; but when the missing ones failed to show up in
reasonable time there would be a search. And Venters was afraid of that.

“A good tracker could trail me,” he muttered. “And I’d be cornered here.
Let’s see. Rustlers are a lazy set when they’re not on the ride. I’ll
risk it. Then I’ll change my hiding-place.”

He carefully cleaned and reloaded his guns. When he rose to go he bent
a long glance down upon the unconscious girl. Then ordering Whitie and
Ring to keep guard, he left the camp.

The safest cover lay close under the wall of the canyon, and here
through the dense thickets Venters made his slow, listening advance
toward the oval. Upon gaining the wide opening he decided to cross it
and follow the left wall till he came to the cattle trail. He scanned
the oval as keenly as if hunting for antelope. Then, stooping, he stole
from one cover to another, taking advantage of rocks and bunches of
sage, until he had reached the thickets under the opposite wall. Once
there, he exercised extreme caution in his surveys of the ground ahead,
but increased his speed when moving. Dodging from bush to bush, he
passed the mouths of two canyons, and in the entrance of a third canyon
he crossed a wash of swift clear water, to come abruptly upon the cattle
trail.

It followed the low bank of the wash, and, keeping it in sight, Venters
hugged the line of sage and thicket. Like the curves of a serpent the
canyon wound for a mile or more and then opened into a valley. Patches
of red showed clear against the purple of sage, and farther out on the
level dotted strings of red led away to the wall of rock.

“Ha, the red herd!” exclaimed Venters.

Then dots of white and black told him there were cattle of other colors
in this inclosed valley. Oldring, the rustler, was also a rancher.
Venters’s calculating eye took count of stock that outnumbered the red
herd.

“What a range!” went on Venters. “Water and grass enough for fifty
thousand head, and no riders needed!”

After his first burst of surprise and rapid calculation Venters lost no
time there, but slunk again into the sage on his back trail. With the
discovery of Oldring’s hidden cattle-range had come enlightenment
on several problems. Here the rustler kept his stock, here was Jane
Withersteen’s red herd; here were the few cattle that had disappeared
from the Cottonwoods slopes during the last two years. Until Oldring had
driven the red herd his thefts of cattle for that time had not been
more than enough to supply meat for his men. Of late no drives had been
reported from Sterling or the villages north. And Venters knew that the
riders had wondered at Oldring’s inactivity in that particular field.
He and his band had been active enough in their visits to Glaze and
Cottonwoods; they always had gold; but of late the amount gambled
away and drunk and thrown away in the villages had given rise to much
conjecture. Oldring’s more frequent visits had resulted in new saloons,
and where there had formerly been one raid or shooting fray in the
little hamlets there were now many. Perhaps Oldring had another range
farther on up the pass, and from there drove the cattle to distant Utah
towns where he was little known But Venters came finally to doubt this.
And, from what he had learned in the last few days, a belief began to
form in Venters’s mind that Oldring’s intimidations of the villages and
the mystery of the Masked Rider, with his alleged evil deeds, and the
fierce resistance offered any trailing riders, and the rustling of
cattle--these things were only the craft of the rustler-chief to conceal
his real life and purpose and work in Deception Pass.

And like a scouting Indian Venters crawled through the sage of the oval
valley, crossed trail after trail on the north side, and at last entered
the canyon out of which headed the cattle trail, and into which he had
watched the rustlers disappear.

If he had used caution before, now he strained every nerve to force
himself to creeping stealth and to sensitiveness of ear. He crawled
along so hidden that he could not use his eyes except to aid himself in
the toilsome progress through the brakes and ruins of cliff-wall. Yet
from time to time, as he rested, he saw the massive red walls growing
higher and wilder, more looming and broken. He made note of the fact
that he was turning and climbing. The sage and thickets of oak and
brakes of alder gave place to pinyon pine growing out of rocky soil.
Suddenly a low, dull murmur assailed his ears. At first he thought it
was thunder, then the slipping of a weathered slope of rock. But it was
incessant, and as he progressed it filled out deeper and from a murmur
changed into a soft roar.

“Falling water,” he said. “There’s volume to that. I wonder if it’s the
stream I lost.”

The roar bothered him, for he could hear nothing else. Likewise,
however, no rustlers could hear him. Emboldened by this and sure that
nothing but a bird could see him, he arose from his hands and knees to
hurry on. An opening in the pinyons warned him that he was nearing the
height of slope.

He gained it, and dropped low with a burst of astonishment. Before him
stretched a short canyon with rounded stone floor bare of grass or sage
or tree, and with curved, shelving walls. A broad rippling stream flowed
toward him, and at the back of the canyon waterfall burst from a wide
rent in the cliff, and, bounding down in two green steps, spread into a
long white sheet.

If Venters had not been indubitably certain that he had entered the
right canyon his astonishment would not have been so great. There had
been no breaks in the walls, no side canyons entering this one where the
rustlers’ tracks and the cattle trail had guided him, and, therefore, he
could not be wrong. But here the canyon ended, and presumably the trails
also.

“That cattle trail headed out of here,” Venters kept saying to himself.
“It headed out. Now what I want to know is how on earth did cattle ever
get in here?”

If he could be sure of anything it was of the careful scrutiny he had
given that cattle track, every hoofmark of which headed straight west.
He was now looking east at an immense round boxed corner of canyon down
which tumbled a thin, white veil of water, scarcely twenty yards wide.
Somehow, somewhere, his calculations had gone wrong. For the first time
in years he found himself doubting his rider’s skill in finding tracks,
and his memory of what he had actually seen. In his anxiety to keep
under cover he must have lost himself in this offshoot of Deception
Pass, and thereby in some unaccountable manner, missed the canyon with
the trails. There was nothing else for him to think. Rustlers could not
fly, nor cattle jump down thousand-foot precipices. He was only proving
what the sage-riders had long said of this labyrinthine system of
deceitful canyons and valleys--trails led down into Deception Pass, but
no rider had ever followed them.

On a sudden he heard above the soft roar of the waterfall an unusual
sound that he could not define. He dropped flat behind a stone and
listened. From the direction he had come swelled something that
resembled a strange muffled pounding and splashing and ringing. Despite
his nerve the chill sweat began to dampen his forehead. What might not
be possible in this stonewalled maze of mystery? The unnatural sound
passed beyond him as he lay gripping his rifle and fighting for
coolness. Then from the open came the sound, now distinct and different.
Venters recognized a hobble-bell of a horse, and the cracking of iron on
submerged stones, and the hollow splash of hoofs in water.

Relief surged over him. His mind caught again at realities, and
curiosity prompted him to peep from behind the rock.

In the middle of the stream waded a long string of packed burros driven
by three superbly mounted men. Had Venters met these dark-clothed,
dark-visaged, heavily armed men anywhere in Utah, let alone in this
robbers’ retreat, he would have recognized them as rustlers. The
discerning eye of a rider saw the signs of a long, arduous trip. These
men were packing in supplies from one of the northern villages. They
were tired, and their horses were almost played out, and the burros
plodded on, after the manner of their kind when exhausted, faithful and
patient, but as if every weary, splashing, slipping step would be their
last.

All this Venters noted in one glance. After that he watched with a
thrilling eagerness. Straight at the waterfall the rustlers drove the
burros, and straight through the middle, where the water spread into a
fleecy, thin film like dissolving smoke. Following closely, the rustlers
rode into this white mist, showing in bold black relief for an instant,
and then they vanished.

Venters drew a full breath that rushed out in brief and sudden
utterance.

“Good Heaven! Of all the holes for a rustler!... There’s a cavern under
that waterfall, and a passageway leading out to a canyon beyond. Oldring
hides in there. He needs only to guard a trail leading down from
the sage-flat above. Little danger of this outlet to the pass being
discovered. I stumbled on it by luck, after I had given up. And now I
know the truth of what puzzled me most--why that cattle trail was wet!”

He wheeled and ran down the slope, and out to the level of the
sage-brush. Returning, he had no time to spare, only now and then,
between dashes, a moment when he stopped to cast sharp eyes ahead. The
abundant grass left no trace of his trail. Short work he made of the
distance to the circle of canyons. He doubted that he would ever see it
again; he knew he never wanted to; yet he looked at the red corners
and towers with the eyes of a rider picturing landmarks never to be
forgotten.

Here he spent a panting moment in a slow-circling gaze of the sage-oval
and the gaps between the bluffs. Nothing stirred except the gentle wave
of the tips of the brush. Then he pressed on past the mouths of several
canyons and over ground new to him, now close under the eastern wall.
This latter part proved to be easy traveling, well screened from
possible observation from the north and west, and he soon covered it
and felt safer in the deepening shade of his own canyon. Then the huge,
notched bulge of red rim loomed over him, a mark by which he knew again
the deep cove where his camp lay hidden. As he penetrated the thicket,
safe again for the present, his thoughts reverted to the girl he had
left there. The afternoon had far advanced. How would he find her? He
ran into camp, frightening the dogs.

The girl lay with wide-open, dark eyes, and they dilated when he knelt
beside her. The flush of fever shone in her cheeks. He lifted her and
held water to her dry lips, and felt an inexplicable sense of lightness
as he saw her swallow in a slow, choking gulp. Gently he laid her back.

“Who--are--you?” she whispered, haltingly.

“I’m the man who shot you,” he replied.

“You’ll--not--kill me--now?”

“No, no.”

“What--will--you--do--with me?”

“When you get better--strong enough--I’ll take you back to the canyon
where the rustlers ride through the waterfall.”

As with a faint shadow from a flitting wing overhead, the marble
whiteness of her face seemed to change.

“Don’t--take--me--back--there!”



CHAPTER VI. THE MILL-WHEEL OF STEERS

Meantime, at the ranch, when Judkins’s news had sent Venters on the
trail of the rustlers, Jane Withersteen led the injured man to her house
and with skilled fingers dressed the gunshot wound in his arm.

“Judkins, what do you think happened to my riders?”

“I--I d rather not say,” he replied.

“Tell me. Whatever you’ll tell me I’ll keep to myself. I’m beginning
to worry about more than the loss of a herd of cattle. Venters hinted
of--but tell me, Judkins.”

“Well, Miss Withersteen, I think as Venters thinks--your riders have
been called in.”

“Judkins!... By whom?”

“You know who handles the reins of your Mormon riders.”

“Do you dare insinuate that my churchmen have ordered in my riders?”

“I ain’t insinuatin’ nothin’, Miss Withersteen,” answered Judkins, with
spirit. “I know what I’m talking about. I didn’t want to tell you.”

“Oh, I can’t believe that! I’ll not believe it! Would Tull leave my
herds at the mercy of rustlers and wolves just because--because--? No,
no! It’s unbelievable.”

“Yes, thet particular thing’s onheard of around Cottonwoods But, beggin’
pardon, Miss Withersteen, there never was any other rich Mormon woman
here on the border, let alone one thet’s taken the bit between her
teeth.”

That was a bold thing for the reserved Judkins to say, but it did not
anger her. This rider’s crude hint of her spirit gave her a glimpse of
what others might think. Humility and obedience had been hers always.
But had she taken the bit between her teeth? Still she wavered. And
then, with quick spurt of warm blood along her veins, she thought of
Black Star when he got the bit fast between his iron jaws and ran wild
in the sage. If she ever started to run! Jane smothered the glow and
burn within her, ashamed of a passion for freedom that opposed her duty.

“Judkins, go to the village,” she said, “and when you have learned
anything definite about my riders please come to me at once.”

When he had gone Jane resolutely applied her mind to a number of tasks
that of late had been neglected. Her father had trained her in the
management of a hundred employees and the working of gardens and fields;
and to keep record of the movements of cattle and riders. And beside the
many duties she had added to this work was one of extreme delicacy, such
as required all her tact and ingenuity. It was an unobtrusive, almost
secret aid which she rendered to the Gentile families of the village.
Though Jane Withersteen never admitted so to herself, it amounted to no
less than a system of charity. But for her invention of numberless kinds
of employment, for which there was no actual need, these families of
Gentiles, who had failed in a Mormon community, would have starved.

In aiding these poor people Jane thought she deceived her keen
churchmen, but it was a kind of deceit for which she did not pray to be
forgiven. Equally as difficult was the task of deceiving the Gentiles,
for they were as proud as they were poor. It had been a great grief to
her to discover how these people hated her people; and it had been a
source of great joy that through her they had come to soften in hatred.
At any time this work called for a clearness of mind that precluded
anxiety and worry; but under the present circumstances it required all
her vigor and obstinate tenacity to pin her attention upon her task.

Sunset came, bringing with the end of her labor a patient calmness and
power to wait that had not been hers earlier in the day. She expected
Judkins, but he did not appear. Her house was always quiet; to-night,
however, it seemed unusually so. At supper her women served her with a
silent assiduity; it spoke what their sealed lips could not utter--the
sympathy of Mormon women. Jerd came to her with the key of the great
door of the stone stable, and to make his daily report about the horses.
One of his daily duties was to give Black Star and Night and the other
racers a ten-mile run. This day it had been omitted, and the boy grew
confused in explanations that she had not asked for. She did inquire if
he would return on the morrow, and Jerd, in mingled surprise and relief,
assured her he would always work for her. Jane missed the rattle and
trot, canter and gallop of the incoming riders on the hard trails. Dusk
shaded the grove where she walked; the birds ceased singing; the wind
sighed through the leaves of the cottonwoods, and the running water
murmured down its stone-bedded channel. The glimmering of the first star
was like the peace and beauty of the night. Her faith welled up in her
heart and said that all would soon be right in her little world. She
pictured Venters about his lonely camp-fire sitting between his faithful
dogs. She prayed for his safety, for the success of his undertaking.

Early the next morning one of Jane’s women brought in word that Judkins
wished to speak to her. She hurried out, and in her surprise to see him
armed with rifle and revolver, she forgot her intention to inquire about
his wound.

“Judkins! Those guns? You never carried guns.”

“It’s high time, Miss Withersteen,” he replied. “Will you come into the
grove? It ain’t jest exactly safe for me to be seen here.”

She walked with him into the shade of the cottonwoods.

“What do you mean?”

“Miss Withersteen, I went to my mother’s house last night. While there,
some one knocked, an’ a man asked for me. I went to the door. He wore
a mask. He said I’d better not ride any more for Jane Withersteen. His
voice was hoarse an’ strange, disguised I reckon, like his face. He said
no more, an’ ran off in the dark.”

“Did you know who he was?” asked Jane, in a low voice.

“Yes.”

Jane did not ask to know; she did not want to know; she feared to know.
All her calmness fled at a single thought.

“Thet’s why I’m packin’ guns,” went on Judkins. “For I’ll never quit
ridin’ for you, Miss Withersteen, till you let me go.”

“Judkins, do you want to leave me?”

“Do I look thet way? Give me a hoss--a fast hoss, an’ send me out on the
sage.”

“Oh, thank you, Judkins! You’re more faithful than my own people. I
ought not accept your loyalty--you might suffer more through it. But
what in the world can I do? My head whirls. The wrong to Venters--the
stolen herd--these masks, threats, this coil in the dark! I can’t
understand! But I feel something dark and terrible closing in around
me.”

“Miss Withersteen, it’s all simple enough,” said Judkins, earnestly.
“Now please listen--an’ beggin’ your pardon--jest turn thet deaf Mormon
ear aside, an’ let me talk clear an’ plain in the other. I went around
to the saloons an’ the stores an’ the loafin’ places yesterday. All your
riders are in. There’s talk of a vigilance band organized to hunt down
rustlers. They call themselves ‘The Riders.’ Thet’s the report--thet’s
the reason given for your riders leavin’ you. Strange thet only a
few riders of other ranchers joined the band! An’ Tull’s man, Jerry
Card--he’s the leader. I seen him en’ his hoss. He ‘ain’t been to Glaze.
I’m not easy to fool on the looks of a hoss thet’s traveled the sage.
Tull an’ Jerry didn’t ride to Glaze!... Well, I met Blake en’ Dorn, both
good friends of mine, usually, as far as their Mormon lights will let
‘em go. But these fellers couldn’t fool me, an’ they didn’t try very
hard. I asked them, straight out like a man, why they left you like
thet. I didn’t forget to mention how you nursed Blake’s poor old mother
when she was sick, an’ how good you was to Dorn’s kids. They looked
ashamed, Miss Withersteen. An’ they jest froze up--thet dark set look
thet makes them strange an’ different to me. But I could tell the
difference between thet first natural twinge of conscience an’ the later
look of some secret thing. An’ the difference I caught was thet they
couldn’t help themselves. They hadn’t no say in the matter. They looked
as if their bein’ unfaithful to you was bein’ faithful to a higher duty.
An’ there’s the secret. Why it’s as plain as--as sight of my gun here.”

“Plain!... My herds to wander in the sage--to be stolen! Jane Withersteen
a poor woman! Her head to be brought low and her spirit broken!... Why,
Judkins, it’s plain enough.”

“Miss Withersteen, let me get what boys I can gather, an’ hold the white
herd. It’s on the slope now, not ten miles out--three thousand head,
an’ all steers. They’re wild, an’ likely to stampede at the pop of a
jack-rabbit’s ears. We’ll camp right with them, en’ try to hold them.”

“Judkins, I’ll reward you some day for your service, unless all is
taken from me. Get the boys and tell Jerd to give you pick of my horses,
except Black Star and Night. But--do not shed blood for my cattle nor
heedlessly risk your lives.”

Jane Withersteen rushed to the silence and seclusion of her room, and
there could not longer hold back the bursting of her wrath. She went
stone-blind in the fury of a passion that had never before showed its
power. Lying upon her bed, sightless, voiceless, she was a writhing,
living flame. And she tossed there while her fury burned and burned, and
finally burned itself out.

Then, weak and spent, she lay thinking, not of the oppression that would
break her, but of this new revelation of self. Until the last few days
there had been little in her life to rouse passions. Her forefathers
had been Vikings, savage chieftains who bore no cross and brooked no
hindrance to their will. Her father had inherited that temper; and at
times, like antelope fleeing before fire on the slope, his people fled
from his red rages. Jane Withersteen realized that the spirit of wrath
and war had lain dormant in her. She shrank from black depths hitherto
unsuspected. The one thing in man or woman that she scorned above all
scorn, and which she could not forgive, was hate. Hate headed a flaming
pathway straight to hell. All in a flash, beyond her control there
had been in her a birth of fiery hate. And the man who had dragged her
peaceful and loving spirit to this degradation was a minister of God’s
word, an Elder of her church, the counselor of her beloved Bishop.

The loss of herds and ranges, even of Amber Spring and the Old Stone
House, no longer concerned Jane Withersteen, she faced the foremost
thought of her life, what she now considered the mightiest problem--the
salvation of her soul.

She knelt by her bedside and prayed; she prayed as she had never prayed
in all her life--prayed to be forgiven for her sin to be immune from
that dark, hot hate; to love Tull as her minister, though she could not
love him as a man; to do her duty by her church and people and those
dependent upon her bounty; to hold reverence of God and womanhood
inviolate.

When Jane Withersteen rose from that storm of wrath and prayer for help
she was serene, calm, sure--a changed woman. She would do her duty as
she saw it, live her life as her own truth guided her. She might never
be able to marry a man of her choice, but she certainly never would
become the wife of Tull. Her churchmen might take her cattle and horses,
ranges and fields, her corrals and stables, the house of Withersteen and
the water that nourished the village of Cottonwoods; but they could not
force her to marry Tull, they could not change her decision or break
her spirit. Once resigned to further loss, and sure of herself, Jane
Withersteen attained a peace of mind that had not been hers for a year.
She forgave Tull, and felt a melancholy regret over what she knew he
considered duty, irrespective of his personal feeling for her. First
of all, Tull, as he was a man, wanted her for himself; and secondly,
he hoped to save her and her riches for his church. She did not believe
that Tull had been actuated solely by his minister’s zeal to save her
soul. She doubted her interpretation of one of his dark sayings--that
if she were lost to him she might as well be lost to heaven. Jane
Withersteen’s common sense took arms against the binding limits of her
religion; and she doubted that her Bishop, whom she had been taught had
direct communication with God--would damn her soul for refusing to marry
a Mormon. As for Tull and his churchmen, when they had harassed her,
perhaps made her poor, they would find her unchangeable, and then she
would get back most of what she had lost. So she reasoned, true at last
to her faith in all men, and in their ultimate goodness.

The clank of iron hoofs upon the stone courtyard drew her hurriedly
from her retirement. There, beside his horse, stood Lassiter, his dark
apparel and the great black gun-sheaths contrasting singularly with his
gentle smile. Jane’s active mind took up her interest in him and her
half-determined desire to use what charm she had to foil his evident
design in visiting Cottonwoods. If she could mitigate his hatred of
Mormons, or at least keep him from killing more of them, not only would
she be saving her people, but also be leading back this bloodspiller to
some semblance of the human.

“Mornin’, ma’am,” he said, black sombrero in hand.

“Lassiter I’m not an old woman, or even a madam,” she replied, with her
bright smile. “If you can’t say Miss Withersteen--call me Jane.”

“I reckon Jane would be easier. First names are always handy for me.”

“Well, use mine, then. Lassiter, I’m glad to see you. I’m in trouble.”

Then she told him of Judkins’s return, of the driving of the red herd,
of Venters’s departure on Wrangle, and the calling-in of her riders.

“‘Pears to me you’re some smilin’ an’ pretty for a woman with so much
trouble,” he remarked.

“Lassiter! Are you paying me compliments? But, seriously I’ve made up
my mind not to be miserable. I’ve lost much, and I’ll lose more.
Nevertheless, I won’t be sour, and I hope I’ll never be unhappy--again.”

Lassiter twisted his hat round and round, as was his way, and took his
time in replying.

“Women are strange to me. I got to back-trailin’ myself from them long
ago. But I’d like a game woman. Might I ask, seein’ as how you take this
trouble, if you’re goin’ to fight?”

“Fight! How? Even if I would, I haven’t a friend except that boy who
doesn’t dare stay in the village.”

“I make bold to say, ma’am--Jane--that there’s another, if you want
him.”

“Lassiter!... Thank you. But how can I accept you as a friend? Think!
Why, you’d ride down into the village with those terrible guns and kill
my enemies--who are also my churchmen.”

“I reckon I might be riled up to jest about that,” he replied, dryly.

She held out both hands to him.

“Lassiter! I’ll accept your friendship--be proud of it--return it--if I
may keep you from killing another Mormon.”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, bluntly, as the gray lightning
formed in his eyes. “You’re too good a woman to be sacrificed as you’re
goin’ to be.... No, I reckon you an’ me can’t be friends on such terms.”

In her earnestness she stepped closer to him, repelled yet fascinated by
the sudden transition of his moods. That he would fight for her was at
once horrible and wonderful.

“You came here to kill a man--the man whom Milly Erne--”

“The man who dragged Milly Erne to hell--put it that way!... Jane
Withersteen, yes, that’s why I came here. I’d tell so much to no other
livin’ soul.... There’re things such a woman as you’d never dream of--so
don’t mention her again. Not till you tell me the name of the man!”

“Tell you! I? Never!”

“I reckon you will. An’ I’ll never ask you. I’m a man of strange beliefs
an’ ways of thinkin’, an’ I seem to see into the future an’ feel things
hard to explain. The trail I’ve been followin’ for so many years
was twisted en’ tangled, but it’s straightenin’ out now. An’, Jane
Withersteen, you crossed it long ago to ease poor Milly’s agony. That,
whether you want or not, makes Lassiter your friend. But you cross it
now strangely to mean somethin to me--God knows what!--unless by your
noble blindness to incite me to greater hatred of Mormon men.”

Jane felt swayed by a strength that far exceeded her own. In a clash of
wills with this man she would go to the wall. If she were to influence
him it must be wholly through womanly allurement. There was that about
Lassiter which commanded her respect. She had abhorred his name; face
to face with him, she found she feared only his deeds. His mystic
suggestion, his foreshadowing of something that she was to mean to him,
pierced deep into her mind. She believed fate had thrown in her way the
lover or husband of Milly Erne. She believed that through her an evil
man might be reclaimed. His allusion to what he called her blindness
terrified her. Such a mistaken idea of his might unleash the bitter,
fatal mood she sensed in him. At any cost she must placate this man; she
knew the die was cast, and that if Lassiter did not soften to a woman’s
grace and beauty and wiles, then it would be because she could not make
him.

“I reckon you’ll hear no more such talk from me,” Lassiter went on,
presently. “Now, Miss Jane, I rode in to tell you that your herd of
white steers is down on the slope behind them big ridges. An’ I seen
somethin’ goin’ on that’d be mighty interestin’ to you, if you could see
it. Have you a field-glass?”

“Yes, I have two glasses. I’ll get them and ride out with you. Wait,
Lassiter, please,” she said, and hurried within. Sending word to Jerd to
saddle Black Star and fetch him to the court, she then went to her room
and changed to the riding-clothes she always donned when going into
the sage. In this male attire her mirror showed her a jaunty, handsome
rider. If she expected some little need of admiration from Lassiter, she
had no cause for disappointment. The gentle smile that she liked, which
made of him another person, slowly overspread his face.

“If I didn’t take you for a boy!” he exclaimed. “It’s powerful queer
what difference clothes make. Now I’ve been some scared of your dignity,
like when the other night you was all in white but in this rig--”

Black Star came pounding into the court, dragging Jerd half off his
feet, and he whistled at Lassiter’s black. But at sight of Jane all his
defiant lines seemed to soften, and with tosses of his beautiful head he
whipped his bridle.

“Down, Black Star, down,” said Jane.

He dropped his head, and, slowly lengthening, he bent one foreleg, then
the other, and sank to his knees. Jane slipped her left foot in the
stirrup, swung lightly into the saddle, and Black Star rose with a
ringing stamp. It was not easy for Jane to hold him to a canter through
the grove, and like the wind he broke when he saw the sage. Jane let him
have a couple of miles of free running on the open trail, and then she
coaxed him in and waited for her companion. Lassiter was not long in
catching up, and presently they were riding side by side. It reminded
her how she used to ride with Venters. Where was he now? She gazed
far down the slope to the curved purple lines of Deception Pass and
involuntarily shut her eyes with a trembling stir of nameless fear.

“We’ll turn off here,” Lassiter said, “en’ take to the sage a mile or
so. The white herd is behind them big ridges.”

“What are you going to show me?” asked Jane. “I’m prepared--don’t be
afraid.”

He smiled as if he meant that bad news came swiftly enough without being
presaged by speech.

When they reached the lee of a rolling ridge Lassiter dismounted,
motioning to her to do likewise. They left the horses standing, bridles
down. Then Lassiter, carrying the field-glasses began to lead the way
up the slow rise of ground. Upon nearing the summit he halted her with a
gesture.

“I reckon we’d see more if we didn’t show ourselves against the sky,”
 he said. “I was here less than an hour ago. Then the herd was seven or
eight miles south, an’ if they ain’t bolted yet--”

“Lassiter!... Bolted?”

“That’s what I said. Now let’s see.”

Jane climbed a few more paces behind him and then peeped over the ridge.
Just beyond began a shallow swale that deepened and widened into a
valley and then swung to the left. Following the undulating sweep of
sage, Jane saw the straggling lines and then the great body of the white
herd. She knew enough about steers, even at a distance of four or
five miles, to realize that something was in the wind. Bringing her
field-glass into use, she moved it slowly from left to right, which
action swept the whole herd into range. The stragglers were restless;
the more compactly massed steers were browsing. Jane brought the glass
back to the big sentinels of the herd, and she saw them trot with quick
steps, stop short and toss wide horns, look everywhere, and then trot in
another direction.

“Judkins hasn’t been able to get his boys together yet,” said Jane. “But
he’ll be there soon. I hope not too late. Lassiter, what’s frightening
those big leaders?”

“Nothin’ jest on the minute,” replied Lassiter. “Them steers are
quietin’ down. They’ve been scared, but not bad yet. I reckon the whole
herd has moved a few miles this way since I was here.”

“They didn’t browse that distance--not in less than an hour. Cattle
aren’t sheep.”

“No, they jest run it, en’ that looks bad.”

“Lassiter, what frightened them?” repeated Jane, impatiently.

“Put down your glass. You’ll see at first better with a naked eye. Now
look along them ridges on the other side of the herd, the ridges where
the sun shines bright on the sage.... That’s right. Now look en’ look
hard en’ wait.”

Long-drawn moments of straining sight rewarded Jane with nothing save
the low, purple rim of ridge and the shimmering sage.

“It’s begun again!” whispered Lassiter, and he gripped her arm.
“Watch.... There, did you see that?”

“No, no. Tell me what to look for?”

“A white flash--a kind of pin-point of quick light--a gleam as from sun
shinin’ on somethin’ white.”

Suddenly Jane’s concentrated gaze caught a fleeting glint. Quickly she
brought her glass to bear on the spot. Again the purple sage, magnified
in color and size and wave, for long moments irritated her with its
monotony. Then from out of the sage on the ridge flew up a broad, white
object, flashed in the sunlight and vanished. Like magic it was, and
bewildered Jane.

“What on earth is that?”

“I reckon there’s some one behind that ridge throwin’ up a sheet or a
white blanket to reflect the sunshine.”

“Why?” queried Jane, more bewildered than ever.

“To stampede the herd,” replied Lassiter, and his teeth clicked.

“Ah!” She made a fierce, passionate movement, clutched the glass
tightly, shook as with the passing of a spasm, and then dropped her
head. Presently she raised it to greet Lassiter with something like a
smile. “My righteous brethren are at work again,” she said, in scorn.
She had stifled the leap of her wrath, but for perhaps the first time
in her life a bitter derision curled her lips. Lassiter’s cool gray eyes
seemed to pierce her. “I said I was prepared for anything; but that was
hardly true. But why would they--anybody stampede my cattle?”

“That’s a Mormon’s godly way of bringin’ a woman to her knees.”

“Lassiter, I’ll die before I ever bend my knees. I might be led I won’t
be driven. Do you expect the herd to bolt?”

“I don’t like the looks of them big steers. But you can never tell.
Cattle sometimes stampede as easily as buffalo. Any little flash or move
will start them. A rider gettin’ down an’ walkin’ toward them sometimes
will make them jump an’ fly. Then again nothin’ seems to scare them.
But I reckon that white flare will do the biz. It’s a new one on me,
an’ I’ve seen some ridin’ an’ rustlin’. It jest takes one of them
God-fearin’ Mormons to think of devilish tricks.”

“Lassiter, might not this trick be done by Oldring’s men?” asked Jane,
ever grasping at straws.

“It might be, but it ain’t,” replied Lassiter. “Oldring’s an honest
thief. He don’t skulk behind ridges to scatter your cattle to the four
winds. He rides down on you, an’ if you don’t like it you can throw a
gun.”

Jane bit her tongue to refrain from championing men who at the very
moment were proving to her that they were little and mean compared even
with rustlers.

“Look!... Jane, them leadin’ steers have bolted. They’re drawin’ the
stragglers, an’ that’ll pull the whole herd.”

Jane was not quick enough to catch the details called out by Lassiter,
but she saw the line of cattle lengthening. Then, like a stream of white
bees pouring from a huge swarm, the steers stretched out from the main
body. In a few moments, with astonishing rapidity, the whole herd got
into motion. A faint roar of trampling hoofs came to Jane’s ears, and
gradually swelled; low, rolling clouds of dust began to rise above the
sage.

“It’s a stampede, an’ a hummer,” said Lassiter.

“Oh, Lassiter! The herd’s running with the valley! It leads into the
canyon! There’s a straight jump-off!”

“I reckon they’ll run into it, too. But that’s a good many miles yet.
An’, Jane, this valley swings round almost north before it goes east.
That stampede will pass within a mile of us.”

The long, white, bobbing line of steers streaked swiftly through the
sage, and a funnel-shaped dust-cloud arose at a low angle. A dull
rumbling filled Jane’s ears.

“I’m thinkin’ of millin’ that herd,” said Lassiter. His gray glance
swept up the slope to the west. “There’s some specks an’ dust way off
toward the village. Mebbe that’s Judkins an’ his boys. It ain’t likely
he’ll get here in time to help. You’d better hold Black Star here on
this high ridge.”

He ran to his horse and, throwing off saddle-bags and tightening the
cinches, he leaped astride and galloped straight down across the valley.

Jane went for Black Star and, leading him to the summit of the ridge,
she mounted and faced the valley with excitement and expectancy. She had
heard of milling stampeded cattle, and knew it was a feat accomplished
by only the most daring riders.

The white herd was now strung out in a line two miles long. The dull
rumble of thousands of hoofs deepened into continuous low thunder, and
as the steers swept swiftly closer the thunder became a heavy roll.
Lassiter crossed in a few moments the level of the valley to the eastern
rise of ground and there waited the coming of the herd. Presently, as
the head of the white line reached a point opposite to where Jane stood,
Lassiter spurred his black into a run.

Jane saw him take a position on the off side of the leaders of the
stampede, and there he rode. It was like a race. They swept on down the
valley, and when the end of the white line neared Lassiter’s first
stand the head had begun to swing round to the west. It swung slowly and
stubbornly, yet surely, and gradually assumed a long, beautiful curve of
moving white. To Jane’s amaze she saw the leaders swinging, turning till
they headed back toward her and up the valley. Out to the right of
these wild plunging steers ran Lassiter’s black, and Jane’s keen eye
appreciated the fleet stride and sure-footedness of the blind horse.
Then it seemed that the herd moved in a great curve, a huge half-moon
with the points of head and tail almost opposite, and a mile apart But
Lassiter relentlessly crowded the leaders, sheering them to the left,
turning them little by little. And the dust-blinded wild followers
plunged on madly in the tracks of their leaders. This ever-moving,
ever-changing curve of steers rolled toward Jane and when below her,
scarce half a mile, it began to narrow and close into a circle. Lassiter
had ridden parallel with her position, turned toward her, then aside,
and now he was riding directly away from her, all the time pushing the
head of that bobbing line inward.

It was then that Jane, suddenly understanding Lassiter’s feat stared
and gasped at the riding of this intrepid man. His horse was fleet and
tireless, but blind. He had pushed the leaders around and around till
they were about to turn in on the inner side of the end of that line
of steers. The leaders were already running in a circle; the end of the
herd was still running almost straight. But soon they would be wheeling.
Then, when Lassiter had the circle formed, how would he escape? With
Jane Withersteen prayer was as ready as praise; and she prayed for this
man’s safety. A circle of dust began to collect. Dimly, as through a
yellow veil, Jane saw Lassiter press the leaders inward to close the gap
in the sage. She lost sight of him in the dust, again she thought she
saw the black, riderless now, rear and drag himself and fall. Lassiter
had been thrown--lost! Then he reappeared running out of the dust into
the sage. He had escaped, and she breathed again.

Spellbound, Jane Withersteen watched this stupendous millwheel of
steers. Here was the milling of the herd. The white running circle
closed in upon the open space of sage. And the dust circles closed above
into a pall. The ground quaked and the incessant thunder of pounding
hoofs rolled on. Jane felt deafened, yet she thrilled to a new sound. As
the circle of sage lessened the steers began to bawl, and when it closed
entirely there came a great upheaval in the center, and a terrible
thumping of heads and clicking of horns. Bawling, climbing, goring, the
great mass of steers on the inside wrestled in a crashing din, heaved
and groaned under the pressure. Then came a deadlock. The inner strife
ceased, and the hideous roar and crash. Movement went on in the outer
circle, and that, too, gradually stilled. The white herd had come to a
stop, and the pall of yellow dust began to drift away on the wind.

Jane Withersteen waited on the ridge with full and grateful heart.
Lassiter appeared, making his weary way toward her through the sage. And
up on the slope Judkins rode into sight with his troop of boys. For the
present, at least, the white herd would be looked after.

When Lassiter reached her and laid his hand on Black Star’s mane, Jane
could not find speech.

“Killed--my--hoss,” he panted.

“Oh! I’m sorry,” cried Jane. “Lassiter! I know you can’t replace him,
but I’ll give you any one of my racers--Bells, or Night, even Black
Star.”

“I’ll take a fast hoss, Jane, but not one of your favorites,” he
replied. “Only--will you let me have Black Star now an’ ride him over
there an’ head off them fellers who stampeded the herd?”

He pointed to several moving specks of black and puffs of dust in the
purple sage.

“I can head them off with this hoss, an’ then--”

“Then, Lassiter?”

“They’ll never stampede no more cattle.”

“Oh! No! No!... Lassiter, I won’t let you go!”

But a flush of fire flamed in her cheeks, and her trembling hands shook
Black Star’s bridle, and her eyes fell before Lassiter’s.



CHAPTER VII. THE DAUGHTER OF WITHERSTEEN

“Lassiter, will you be my rider?” Jane had asked him.

“I reckon so,” he had replied.

Few as the words were, Jane knew how infinitely much they implied. She
wanted him to take charge of her cattle and horse and ranges, and save
them if that were possible. Yet, though she could not have spoken aloud
all she meant, she was perfectly honest with herself. Whatever the price
to be paid, she must keep Lassiter close to her; she must shield from
him the man who had led Milly Erne to Cottonwoods. In her fear she so
controlled her mind that she did not whisper this Mormon’s name to her
own soul, she did not even think it. Besides, beyond this thing she
regarded as a sacred obligation thrust upon her, was the need of a
helper, of a friend, of a champion in this critical time. If she could
rule this gun-man, as Venters had called him, if she could even keep him
from shedding blood, what strategy to play his flame and his presence
against the game of oppression her churchmen were waging against her?
Never would she forget the effect on Tull and his men when Venters
shouted Lassiter’s name. If she could not wholly control Lassiter, then
what she could do might put off the fatal day.

One of her safe racers was a dark bay, and she called him Bells because
of the way he struck his iron shoes on the stones. When Jerd led out
this slender, beautifully built horse Lassiter suddenly became all eyes.
A rider’s love of a thoroughbred shone in them. Round and round Bells he
walked, plainly weakening all the time in his determination not to take
one of Jane’s favorite racers.

“Lassiter, you’re half horse, and Bells sees it already,” said Jane,
laughing. “Look at his eyes. He likes you. He’ll love you, too. How
can you resist him? Oh, Lassiter, but Bells can run! It’s nip and tuck
between him and Wrangle, and only Black Star can beat him. He’s too
spirited a horse for a woman. Take him. He’s yours.”

“I jest am weak where a hoss’s concerned,” said Lassiter. “I’ll take
him, an’ I’ll take your orders, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m glad, but never mind the ma’am. Let it still be Jane.”

From that hour, it seemed, Lassiter was always in the saddle, riding
early and late, and coincident with his part in Jane’s affairs the days
assumed their old tranquillity. Her intelligence told her this was only
the lull before the storm, but her faith would not have it so.

She resumed her visits to the village, and upon one of these she
encountered Tull. He greeted her as he had before any trouble came
between them, and she, responsive to peace if not quick to forget, met
him halfway with manner almost cheerful. He regretted the loss of her
cattle; he assured her that the vigilantes which had been organized
would soon rout the rustlers; when that had been accomplished her riders
would likely return to her.

“You’ve done a headstrong thing to hire this man Lassiter,” Tull went
on, severely. “He came to Cottonwoods with evil intent.”

“I had to have somebody. And perhaps making him my rider may turn out
best in the end for the Mormons of Cottonwoods.”

“You mean to stay his hand?”

“I do--if I can.”

“A woman like you can do anything with a man. That would be well, and
would atone in some measure for the errors you have made.”

He bowed and passed on. Jane resumed her walk with conflicting thoughts.
She resented Elder Tull’s cold, impassive manner that looked down upon
her as one who had incurred his just displeasure. Otherwise he would
have been the same calm, dark-browed, impenetrable man she had known
for ten years. In fact, except when he had revealed his passion in the
matter of the seizing of Venters, she had never dreamed he could be
other than the grave, reproving preacher. He stood out now a strange,
secretive man. She would have thought better of him if he had picked
up the threads of their quarrel where they had parted. Was Tull what
he appeared to be? The question flung itself in-voluntarily over Jane
Withersteen’s inhibitive habit of faith without question. And she
refused to answer it. Tull could not fight in the open. Venters had said,
Lassiter had said, that her Elder shirked fight and worked in the dark.
Just now in this meeting Tull had ignored the fact that he had sued,
exhorted, demanded that she marry him. He made no mention of Venters.
His manner was that of the minister who had been outraged, but
who overlooked the frailties of a woman. Beyond question he seemed
unutterably aloof from all knowledge of pressure being brought to bear
upon her, absolutely guiltless of any connection with secret power over
riders, with night journeys, with rustlers and stampedes of cattle. And
that convinced her again of unjust suspicions. But it was convincement
through an obstinate faith. She shuddered as she accepted it, and that
shudder was the nucleus of a terrible revolt.

Jane turned into one of the wide lanes leading from the main street and
entered a huge, shady yard. Here were sweet-smelling clover, alfalfa,
flowers, and vegetables, all growing in happy confusion. And like these
fresh green things were the dozens of babies, tots, toddlers, noisy
urchins, laughing girls, a whole multitude of children of one family.
For Collier Brandt, the father of all this numerous progeny, was a
Mormon with four wives.

The big house where they lived was old, solid, picturesque the lower
part built of logs, the upper of rough clapboards, with vines growing
up the outside stone chimneys. There were many wooden-shuttered windows,
and one pretentious window of glass proudly curtained in white. As this
house had four mistresses, it likewise had four separate sections, not
one of which communicated with another, and all had to be entered from
the outside.

In the shade of a wide, low, vine-roofed porch Jane found Brandt’s wives
entertaining Bishop Dyer. They were motherly women, of comparatively
similar ages, and plain-featured, and just at this moment anything but
grave. The Bishop was rather tall, of stout build, with iron-gray hair
and beard, and eyes of light blue. They were merry now; but Jane had
seen them when they were not, and then she feared him as she had feared
her father.

The women flocked around her in welcome.

“Daughter of Withersteen,” said the Bishop, gaily, as he took her hand,
“you have not been prodigal of your gracious self of late. A Sabbath
without you at service! I shall reprove Elder Tull.”

“Bishop, the guilt is mine. I’ll come to you and confess,” Jane replied,
lightly; but she felt the undercurrent of her words.

“Mormon love-making!” exclaimed the Bishop, rubbing his hands. “Tull
keeps you all to himself.”

“No. He is not courting me.”

“What? The laggard! If he does not make haste I’ll go a-courting myself
up to Withersteen House.”

There was laughter and further bantering by the Bishop, and then mild
talk of village affairs, after which he took his leave, and Jane was
left with her friend, Mary Brandt.

“Jane, you’re not yourself. Are you sad about the rustling of the
cattle? But you have so many, you are so rich.”

Then Jane confided in her, telling much, yet holding back her doubts of
fear.

“Oh, why don’t you marry Tull and be one of us?

“But, Mary, I don’t love Tull,” said Jane, stubbornly.

“I don’t blame you for that. But, Jane Withersteen, you’ve got to choose
between the love of man and love of God. Often we Mormon women have to
do that. It’s not easy. The kind of happiness you want I wanted once. I
never got it, nor will you, unless you throw away your soul. We’ve all
watched your affair with Venters in fear and trembling. Some dreadful
thing will come of it. You don’t want him hanged or shot--or treated
worse, as that Gentile boy was treated in Glaze for fooling round a
Mormon woman. Marry Tull. It’s your duty as a Mormon. You’ll feel no
rapture as his wife--but think of Heaven! Mormon women don’t marry for
what they expect on earth. Take up the cross, Jane. Remember your father
found Amber Spring, built these old houses, brought Mormons here, and
fathered them. You are the daughter of Withersteen!”

Jane left Mary Brandt and went to call upon other friends. They received
her with the same glad welcome as had Mary, lavished upon her the
pent-up affection of Mormon women, and let her go with her ears ringing
of Tull, Venters, Lassiter, of duty to God and glory in Heaven.

“Verily,” murmured Jane, “I don’t know myself when, through all this, I
remain unchanged--nay, more fixed of purpose.”

She returned to the main street and bent her thoughtful steps toward the
center of the village. A string of wagons drawn by oxen was lumbering
along. These “sage-freighters,” as they were called, hauled grain and
flour and merchandise from Sterling, and Jane laughed suddenly in the
midst of her humility at the thought that they were her property, as was
one of the three stores for which they freighted goods. The water that
flowed along the path at her feet, and turned into each cottage-yard to
nourish garden and orchard, also was hers, no less her private property
because she chose to give it free. Yet in this village of Cottonwoods,
which her father had founded and which she maintained she was not her
own mistress; she was not able to abide by her own choice of a husband.
She was the daughter of Withersteen. Suppose she proved it, imperiously!
But she quelled that proud temptation at its birth.

Nothing could have replaced the affection which the village people had
for her; no power could have made her happy as the pleasure her presence
gave. As she went on down the street past the stores with their rude
platform entrances, and the saloons where tired horses stood with
bridles dragging, she was again assured of what was the bread and wine
of life to her--that she was loved. Dirty boys playing in the ditch,
clerks, teamsters, riders, loungers on the corners, ranchers on dusty
horses, little girls running errands, and women hurrying to the stores
all looked up at her coming with glad eyes.

Jane’s various calls and wandering steps at length led her to the
Gentile quarter of the village. This was at the extreme southern end,
and here some thirty Gentile families lived in huts and shacks and
log-cabins and several dilapidated cottages. The fortunes of these
inhabitants of Cottonwoods could be read in their abodes. Water they had
in abundance, and therefore grass and fruit-trees and patches of alfalfa
and vegetable gardens. Some of the men and boys had a few stray cattle,
others obtained such intermittent employment as the Mormons reluctantly
tendered them. But none of the families was prosperous, many were very
poor, and some lived only by Jane Withersteen’s beneficence.

As it made Jane happy to go among her own people, so it saddened her to
come in contact with these Gentiles. Yet that was not because she was
unwelcome; here she was gratefully received by the women, passionately
by the children. But poverty and idleness, with their attendant
wretchedness and sorrow, always hurt her. That she could alleviate this
distress more now than ever before proved the adage that it was an ill
wind that blew nobody good. While her Mormon riders were in her employ
she had found few Gentiles who would stay with her, and now she was able
to find employment for all the men and boys. No little shock was it to
have man after man tell her that he dare not accept her kind offer.

“It won’t do,” said one Carson, an intelligent man who had seen better
days. “We’ve had our warning. Plain and to the point! Now there’s
Judkins, he packs guns, and he can use them, and so can the daredevil
boys he’s hired. But they’ve little responsibility. Can we risk having
our homes burned in our absence?”

Jane felt the stretching and chilling of the skin of her face as the
blood left it.

“Carson, you and the others rent these houses?” she asked.

“You ought to know, Miss Withersteen. Some of them are yours.”

“I know?... Carson, I never in my life took a day’s labor for rent or a
yearling calf or a bunch of grass, let alone gold.”

“Bivens, your store-keeper, sees to that.”

“Look here, Carson,” went on Jane, hurriedly, and now her cheeks
were burning. “You and Black and Willet pack your goods and move your
families up to my cabins in the grove. They’re far more comfortable than
these. Then go to work for me. And if aught happens to you there I’ll
give you money--gold enough to leave Utah!”

The man choked and stammered, and then, as tears welled into his eyes,
he found the use of his tongue and cursed. No gentle speech could ever
have equaled that curse in eloquent expression of what he felt for Jane
Withersteen. How strangely his look and tone reminded her of Lassiter!

“No, it won’t do,” he said, when he had somewhat recovered himself.
“Miss Withersteen, there are things that you don’t know, and there’s not
a soul among us who can tell you.”

“I seem to be learning many things, Carson. Well, then, will you let me
aid you--say till better times?”

“Yes, I will,” he replied, with his face lighting up. “I see what it
means to you, and you know what it means to me. Thank you! And if better
times ever come, I’ll be only too happy to work for you.”

“Better times will come. I trust God and have faith in man. Good day,
Carson.”

The lane opened out upon the sage-inclosed alfalfa fields, and the last
habitation, at the end of that lane of hovels, was the meanest.
Formerly it had been a shed; now it was a home. The broad leaves of a
wide-spreading cottonwood sheltered the sunken roof of weathered boards.
Like an Indian hut, it had one floor. Round about it were a few scanty
rows of vegetables, such as the hand of a weak woman had time and
strength to cultivate. This little dwelling-place was just outside the
village limits, and the widow who lived there had to carry her water
from the nearest irrigation ditch. As Jane Withersteen entered the
unfenced yard a child saw her, shrieked with joy, and came tearing
toward her with curls flying. This child was a little girl of four
called Fay. Her name suited her, for she was an elf, a sprite, a
creature so fairy-like and beautiful that she seemed unearthly.

“Muvver sended for oo,” cried Fay, as Jane kissed her, “an’ oo never
tome.”

“I didn’t know, Fay; but I’ve come now.”

Fay was a child of outdoors, of the garden and ditch and field, and she
was dirty and ragged. But rags and dirt did not hide her beauty. The
one thin little bedraggled garment she wore half covered her fine, slim
body. Red as cherries were her cheeks and lips; her eyes were violet
blue, and the crown of her childish loveliness was the curling golden
hair. All the children of Cottonwoods were Jane Withersteen’s friends,
she loved them all. But Fay was dearest to her. Fay had few playmates,
for among the Gentile children there were none near her age, and the
Mormon children were forbidden to play with her. So she was a shy, wild,
lonely child.

“Muvver’s sick,” said Fay, leading Jane toward the door of the hut.

Jane went in. There was only one room, rather dark and bare, but it was
clean and neat. A woman lay upon a bed.

“Mrs. Larkin, how are you?” asked Jane, anxiously.

“I’ve been pretty bad for a week, but I’m better now.”

“You haven’t been here all alone--with no one to wait on you?”

“Oh no! My women neighbors are kind. They take turns coming in.”

“Did you send for me?”

“Yes, several times.”

“But I had no word--no messages ever got to me.”

“I sent the boys, and they left word with your women that I was ill and
would you please come.”

A sudden deadly sickness seized Jane. She fought the weakness, as she
fought to be above suspicious thoughts, and it passed, leaving her
conscious of her utter impotence. That, too, passed as her spirit
rebounded. But she had again caught a glimpse of dark underhand
domination, running its secret lines this time into her own household.
Like a spider in the blackness of night an unseen hand had begun to run
these dark lines, to turn and twist them about her life, to plait
and weave a web. Jane Withersteen knew it now, and in the realization
further coolness and sureness came to her, and the fighting courage of
her ancestors.

“Mrs. Larkin, you’re better, and I’m so glad,” said Jane. “But may I
not do something for you--a turn at nursing, or send you things, or take
care of Fay?”

“You’re so good. Since my husband’s been gone what would have become of
Fay and me but for you? It was about Fay that I wanted to speak to you.
This time I thought surely I’d die, and I was worried about Fay. Well,
I’ll be around all right shortly, but my strength’s gone and I won’t
live long. So I may as well speak now. You remember you’ve been asking
me to let you take Fay and bring her up as your daughter?”

“Indeed yes, I remember. I’ll be happy to have her. But I hope the
day--”

“Never mind that. The day’ll come--sooner or later. I refused your
offer, and now I’ll tell you why.”

“I know why,” interposed Jane. “It’s because you don’t want her brought
up as a Mormon.”

“No, it wasn’t altogether that.” Mrs. Larkin raised her thin hand and
laid it appealingly on Jane’s. “I don’t like to tell you. But--it’s
this: I told all my friends what you wanted. They know you, care for
you, and they said for me to trust Fay to you. Women will talk, you
know. It got to the ears of Mormons--gossip of your love for Fay and
your wanting her. And it came straight back to me, in jealousy, perhaps,
that you wouldn’t take Fay as much for love of her as because of your
religious duty to bring up another girl for some Mormon to marry.”

“That’s a damnable lie!” cried Jane Withersteen.

“It was what made me hesitate,” went on Mrs. Larkin, “but I never
believed it at heart. And now I guess I’ll let you--”

“Wait! Mrs. Larkin, I may have told little white lies in my life, but
never a lie that mattered, that hurt any one. Now believe me. I love
little Fay. If I had her near me I’d grow to worship her. When I asked
for her I thought only of that love.... Let me prove this. You and Fay
come to live with me. I’ve such a big house, and I’m so lonely. I’ll
help nurse you, take care of you. When you’re better you can work for
me. I’ll keep little Fay and bring her up--without Mormon teaching.
When she’s grown, if she should want to leave me, I’ll send her, and not
empty-handed, back to Illinois where you came from. I promise you.”

“I knew it was a lie,” replied the mother, and she sank back upon
her pillow with something of peace in her white, worn face. “Jane
Withersteen, may Heaven bless you! I’ve been deeply grateful to you. But
because you’re a Mormon I never felt close to you till now. I don’t know
much about religion as religion, but your God and my God are the same.”



CHAPTER VIII. SURPRISE VALLEY

Back in that strange canyon, which Venters had found indeed a valley of
surprises, the wounded girl’s whispered appeal, almost a prayer, not to
take her back to the rustlers crowned the events of the last few days
with a confounding climax. That she should not want to return to them
staggered Venters. Presently, as logical thought returned, her appeal
confirmed his first impression--that she was more unfortunate than
bad--and he experienced a sensation of gladness. If he had known before
that Oldring’s Masked Rider was a woman his opinion would have been
formed and he would have considered her abandoned. But his first
knowledge had come when he lifted a white face quivering in a convulsion
of agony; he had heard God’s name whispered by blood-stained lips;
through her solemn and awful eyes he had caught a glimpse
of her soul. And just now had come the entreaty to him,
“Don’t--take--me--back--there!”

Once for all Venters’s quick mind formed a permanent conception of this
poor girl. He based it, not upon what the chances of life had made her,
but upon the revelation of dark eyes that pierced the infinite, upon a
few pitiful, halting words that betrayed failure and wrong and misery,
yet breathed the truth of a tragic fate rather than a natural leaning to
evil.

“What’s your name?” he inquired.

“Bess,” she answered.

“Bess what?”

“That’s enough--just Bess.”

The red that deepened in her cheeks was not all the flush of fever.
Venters marveled anew, and this time at the tint of shame in her face,
at the momentary drooping of long lashes. She might be a rustler’s girl,
but she was still capable of shame, she might be dying, but she still
clung to some little remnant of honor.

“Very well, Bess. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “But this matters--what
shall I do with you?”

“Are--you--a rider?” she whispered.

“Not now. I was once. I drove the Withersteen herds. But I lost my
place--lost all I owned--and now I’m--I’m a sort of outcast. My name’s
Bern Venters.”

“You won’t--take me--to Cottonwoods--or Glaze? I’d be--hanged.”

“No, indeed. But I must do something with you. For it’s not safe for
me here. I shot that rustler who was with you. Sooner or later he’ll
be found, and then my tracks. I must find a safer hiding-place where I
can’t be trailed.”

“Leave me--here.”

“Alone--to die!”

“Yes.”

“I will not.” Venters spoke shortly with a kind of ring in his voice.

“What--do you want--to do--with me?” Her whispering grew difficult, so
low and faint that Venters had to stoop to hear her.

“Why, let’s see,” he replied, slowly. “I’d like to take you some place
where I could watch by you, nurse you, till you’re all right.”

“And--then?”

“Well, it’ll be time to think of that when you’re cured of your wound.
It’s a bad one. And--Bess, if you don’t want to live--if you don’t fight
for life--you’ll never--”

“Oh! I want--to live! I’m afraid--to die. But I’d rather--die--than go
back--to--to--”

“To Oldring?” asked Venters, interrupting her in turn.

Her lips moved in an affirmative.

“I promise not to take you back to him or to Cottonwoods or to Glaze.”

The mournful earnestness of her gaze suddenly shone with unutterable
gratitude and wonder. And as suddenly Venters found her eyes beautiful
as he had never seen or felt beauty. They were as dark blue as the sky
at night. Then the flashing changed to a long, thoughtful look, in which
there was a wistful, unconscious searching of his face, a look that
trembled on the verge of hope and trust.

“I’ll try--to live,” she said. The broken whisper just reached his ears.
“Do what--you want--with me.”

“Rest then--don’t worry--sleep,” he replied.

Abruptly he arose, as if words had been decision for him, and with a
sharp command to the dogs he strode from the camp. Venters was conscious
of an indefinite conflict of change within him. It seemed to be a
vague passing of old moods, a dim coalescing of new forces, a moment of
inexplicable transition. He was both cast down and uplifted. He wanted
to think and think of the meaning, but he resolutely dispelled emotion.
His imperative need at present was to find a safe retreat, and this
called for action.

So he set out. It still wanted several hours before dark. This trip he
turned to the left and wended his skulking way southward a mile or more
to the opening of the valley, where lay the strange scrawled rocks. He
did not, however, venture boldly out into the open sage, but clung to
the right-hand wall and went along that till its perpendicular line
broke into the long incline of bare stone.

Before proceeding farther he halted, studying the strange character of
this slope and realizing that a moving black object could be seen far
against such background. Before him ascended a gradual swell of smooth
stone. It was hard, polished, and full of pockets worn by centuries
of eddying rain-water. A hundred yards up began a line of grotesque
cedar-trees, and they extended along the slope clear to its most
southerly end. Beyond that end Venters wanted to get, and he concluded
the cedars, few as they were, would afford some cover.

Therefore he climbed swiftly. The trees were farther up than he
had estimated, though he had from long habit made allowance for the
deceiving nature of distances in that country. When he gained the cover
of cedars he paused to rest and look, and it was then he saw how the
trees sprang from holes in the bare rock. Ages of rain had run down the
slope, circling, eddying in depressions, wearing deep round holes.
There had been dry seasons, accumulations of dust, wind-blown seeds, and
cedars rose wonderfully out of solid rock. But these were not beautiful
cedars. They were gnarled, twisted into weird contortions, as if growth
were torture, dead at the tops, shrunken, gray, and old. Theirs had
been a bitter fight, and Venters felt a strange sympathy for them. This
country was hard on trees--and men.

He slipped from cedar to cedar, keeping them between him and the open
valley. As he progressed, the belt of trees widened and he kept to its
upper margin. He passed shady pockets half full of water, and, as he
marked the location for possible future need, he reflected that there
had been no rain since the winter snows. From one of these shady holes a
rabbit hopped out and squatted down, laying its ears flat.

Venters wanted fresh meat now more than when he had only himself to
think of. But it would not do to fire his rifle there. So he broke off
a cedar branch and threw it. He crippled the rabbit, which started to
flounder up the slope. Venters did not wish to lose the meat, and
he never allowed crippled game to escape, to die lingeringly in some
covert. So after a careful glance below, and back toward the canyon, he
began to chase the rabbit.

The fact that rabbits generally ran uphill was not new to him. But
it presently seemed singular why this rabbit, that might have escaped
downward, chose to ascend the slope. Venters knew then that it had a
burrow higher up. More than once he jerked over to seize it, only in
vain, for the rabbit by renewed effort eluded his grasp. Thus the chase
continued on up the bare slope. The farther Venters climbed the more
determined he grew to catch his quarry. At last, panting and sweating,
he captured the rabbit at the foot of a steeper grade. Laying his rifle
on the bulge of rising stone, he killed the animal and slung it from his
belt.

Before starting down he waited to catch his breath. He had climbed
far up that wonderful smooth slope, and had almost reached the base
of yellow cliff that rose skyward, a huge scarred and cracked bulk. It
frowned down upon him as if to forbid further ascent. Venters bent over
for his rifle, and, as he picked it up from where it leaned against the
steeper grade, he saw several little nicks cut in the solid stone.

They were only a few inches deep and about a foot apart. Venters began
to count them--one--two--three--four--on up to sixteen. That number
carried his glance to the top of his first bulging bench of cliff-base.
Above, after a more level offset, was still steeper slope, and the line
of nicks kept on, to wind round a projecting corner of wall.

A casual glance would have passed by these little dents; if Venters had
not known what they signified he would never have bestowed upon them the
second glance. But he knew they had been cut there by hand, and,
though age-worn, he recognized them as steps cut in the rock by the
cliff-dwellers. With a pulse beginning to beat and hammer away his
calmness, he eyed that indistinct line of steps, up to where the
buttress of wall hid further sight of them. He knew that behind
the corner of stone would be a cave or a crack which could never be
suspected from below. Chance, that had sported with him of late, now
directed him to a probable hiding-place. Again he laid aside his rifle,
and, removing boots and belt, he began to walk up the steps. Like a
mountain goat, he was agile, sure-footed, and he mounted the first bench
without bending to use his hands. The next ascent took grip of fingers
as well as toes, but he climbed steadily, swiftly, to reach the
projecting corner, and slipped around it. Here he faced a notch in the
cliff. At the apex he turned abruptly into a ragged vent that split the
ponderous wall clear to the top, showing a narrow streak of blue sky.

At the base this vent was dark, cool, and smelled of dry, musty dust.
It zigzagged so that he could not see ahead more than a few yards at a
time. He noticed tracks of wildcats and rabbits in the dusty floor. At
every turn he expected to come upon a huge cavern full of little square
stone houses, each with a small aperture like a staring dark eye. The
passage lightened and widened, and opened at the foot of a narrow,
steep, ascending chute.

Venters had a moment’s notice of the rock, which was of the same
smoothness and hardness as the slope below, before his gaze went
irresistibly upward to the precipitous walls of this wide ladder of
granite. These were ruined walls of yellow sandstone, and so split and
splintered, so overhanging with great sections of balancing rim, so
impending with tremendous crumbling crags, that Venters caught his
breath sharply, and, appalled, he instinctively recoiled as if a step
upward might jar the ponderous cliffs from their foundation. Indeed, it
seemed that these ruined cliffs were but awaiting a breath of wind
to collapse and come tumbling down. Venters hesitated. It would be a
foolhardy man who risked his life under the leaning, waiting avalanches
of rock in that gigantic split. Yet how many years had they leaned there
without falling! At the bottom of the incline was an immense heap of
weathered sandstone all crumbling to dust, but there were no huge rocks
as large as houses, such as rested so lightly and frightfully above,
waiting patiently and inevitably to crash down. Slowly split from the
parent rock by the weathering process, and carved and sculptured by ages
of wind and rain, they waited their moment. Venters felt how foolish
it was for him to fear these broken walls; to fear that, after they had
endured for thousands of years, the moment of his passing should be the
one for them to slip. Yet he feared it.

“What a place to hide!” muttered Venters. “I’ll climb--I’ll see where
this thing goes. If only I can find water!”

With teeth tight shut he essayed the incline. And as he climbed he bent
his eyes downward. This, however, after a little grew impossible; he had
to look to obey his eager, curious mind. He raised his glance and saw
light between row on row of shafts and pinnacles and crags that stood
out from the main wall. Some leaned against the cliff, others against
each other; many stood sheer and alone; all were crumbling, cracked,
rotten. It was a place of yellow, ragged ruin. The passage narrowed as
he went up; it became a slant, hard for him to stick on; it was smooth
as marble. Finally he surmounted it, surprised to find the walls still
several hundred feet high, and a narrow gorge leading down on the other
side. This was a divide between two inclines, about twenty yards wide.
At one side stood an enormous rock. Venters gave it a second glance,
because it rested on a pedestal. It attracted closer attention. It was
like a colossal pear of stone standing on its stem. Around the bottom
were thousands of little nicks just distinguishable to the eye. They
were marks of stone hatchets. The cliff-dwellers had chipped and chipped
away at this boulder till it rested its tremendous bulk upon a mere
pin-point of its surface. Venters pondered. Why had the little stone-men
hacked away at that big boulder? It bore no semblance to a statue or an
idol or a godhead or a sphinx. Instinctively he put his hands on it
and pushed; then his shoulder and heaved. The stone seemed to groan, to
stir, to grate, and then to move. It tipped a little downward and hung
balancing for a long instant, slowly returned, rocked slightly, groaned,
and settled back to its former position.

Venters divined its significance. It had been meant for defense. The
cliff-dwellers, driven by dreaded enemies to this last stand, had
cunningly cut the rock until it balanced perfectly, ready to be
dislodged by strong hands. Just below it leaned a tottering crag that
would have toppled, starting an avalanche on an acclivity where no
sliding mass could stop. Crags and pinnacles, splintered cliffs, and
leaning shafts and monuments, would have thundered down to block forever
the outlet to Deception Pass.

“That was a narrow shave for me,” said Venters, soberly. “A balancing
rock! The cliff-dwellers never had to roll it. They died, vanished,
and here the rock stands, probably little changed.... But it might serve
another lonely dweller of the cliffs. I’ll hide up here somewhere, if I
can only find water.”

He descended the gorge on the other side. The slope was gradual, the
space narrow, the course straight for many rods. A gloom hung between
the up-sweeping walls. In a turn the passage narrowed to scarce a dozen
feet, and here was darkness of night. But light shone ahead; another
abrupt turn brought day again, and then wide open space.

Above Venters loomed a wonderful arch of stone bridging the canyon rims,
and through the enormous round portal gleamed and glistened a beautiful
valley shining under sunset gold reflected by surrounding cliffs. He
gave a start of surprise. The valley was a cove a mile long, half
that wide, and its enclosing walls were smooth and stained, and curved
inward, forming great caves. He decided that its floor was far higher
than the level of Deception Pass and the intersecting canyons. No purple
sage colored this valley floor. Instead there were the white of aspens,
streaks of branch and slender trunk glistening from the green of leaves,
and the darker green of oaks, and through the middle of this forest,
from wall to wall, ran a winding line of brilliant green which marked
the course of cottonwoods and willows.

“There’s water here--and this is the place for me,” said Venters. “Only
birds can peep over those walls, I’ve gone Oldring one better.”

Venters waited no longer, and turned swiftly to retrace his steps. He
named the canyon Surprise Valley and the huge boulder that guarded the
outlet Balancing Rock. Going down he did not find himself attended by
such fears as had beset him in the climb; still, he was not easy in
mind and could not occupy himself with plans of moving the girl and his
outfit until he had descended to the notch. There he rested a moment and
looked about him. The pass was darkening with the approach of night. At
the corner of the wall, where the stone steps turned, he saw a spur of
rock that would serve to hold the noose of a lasso. He needed no more
aid to scale that place. As he intended to make the move under cover
of darkness, he wanted most to be able to tell where to climb up. So,
taking several small stones with him, he stepped and slid down to the
edge of the slope where he had left his rifle and boots. He placed the
stones some yards apart. He left the rabbit lying upon the bench where
the steps began. Then he addressed a keen-sighted, remembering gaze to
the rim-wall above. It was serrated, and between two spears of rock,
directly in line with his position, showed a zigzag crack that at night
would let through the gleam of sky. This settled, he put on his belt
and boots and prepared to descend. Some consideration was necessary to
decide whether or not to leave his rifle there. On the return, carrying
the girl and a pack, it would be added encumbrance; and after debating
the matter he left the rifle leaning against the bench. As he went
straight down the slope he halted every few rods to look up at his mark
on the rim. It changed, but he fixed each change in his memory. When he
reached the first cedar-tree, he tied his scarf upon a dead branch, and
then hurried toward camp, having no more concern about finding his trail
upon the return trip.

Darkness soon emboldened and lent him greater speed. It occurred to him,
as he glided into the grassy glade near camp and head the whinny of a
horse, that he had forgotten Wrangle. The big sorrel could not be gotten
into Surprise Valley. He would have to be left here.

Venters determined at once to lead the other horses out through the
thicket and turn them loose. The farther they wandered from this canyon
the better it would suit him. He easily descried Wrangle through the
gloom, but the others were not in sight. Venters whistled low for the
dogs, and when they came trotting to him he sent them out to search for
the horses, and followed. It soon developed that they were not in the
glade nor the thicket. Venters grew cold and rigid at the thought of
rustlers having entered his retreat. But the thought passed, for the
demeanor of Ring and Whitie reassured him. The horses had wandered away.

Under the clump of silver spruces a denser mantle of darkness, yet not
so thick that Venter’s night-practiced eyes could not catch the white
oval of a still face. He bent over it with a slight suspension of breath
that was both caution lest he frighten her and chill uncertainty of
feeling lest he find her dead. But she slept, and he arose to renewed
activity.

He packed his saddle-bags. The dogs were hungry, they whined about
him and nosed his busy hands; but he took no time to feed them nor to
satisfy his own hunger. He slung the saddlebags over his shoulders and
made them secure with his lasso. Then he wrapped the blankets closer
about the girl and lifted her in his arms. Wrangle whinnied and thumped
the ground as Venters passed him with the dogs. The sorrel knew he was
being left behind, and was not sure whether he liked it or not. Venters
went on and entered the thicket. Here he had to feel his way in pitch
blackness and to wedge his progress between the close saplings. Time
meant little to him now that he had started, and he edged along with
slow side movement till he got clear of the thicket. Ring and Whitie
stood waiting for him. Taking to the open aisles and patches of the
sage, he walked guardedly, careful not to stumble or step in dust or
strike against spreading sage-branches.

If he were burdened he did not feel it. From time to time, when he
passed out of the black lines of shade into the wan starlight, he
glanced at the white face of the girl lying in his arms. She had not
awakened from her sleep or stupor. He did not rest until he cleared the
black gate of the canyon. Then he leaned against a stone breast-high to
him and gently released the girl from his hold. His brow and hair
and the palms of his hands were wet, and there was a kind of nervous
contraction of his muscles. They seemed to ripple and string tense. He
had a desire to hurry and no sense of fatigue. A wind blew the scent
of sage in his face. The first early blackness of night passed with the
brightening of the stars. Somewhere back on his trail a coyote yelped,
splitting the dead silence. Venters’s faculties seemed singularly acute.

He lifted the girl again and pressed on. The valley better traveling
than the canyon. It was lighter, freer of sage, and there were no rocks.
Soon, out of the pale gloom shone a still paler thing, and that was the
low swell of slope. Venters mounted it and his dogs walked beside him.
Once upon the stone he slowed to snail pace, straining his sight to
avoid the pockets and holes. Foot by foot he went up. The weird cedars,
like great demons and witches chained to the rock and writhing in silent
anguish, loomed up with wide and twisting naked arms. Venters crossed
this belt of cedars, skirted the upper border, and recognized the tree
he had marked, even before he saw his waving scarf.

Here he knelt and deposited the girl gently, feet first and slowly laid
her out full length. What he feared was to reopen one of her wounds.
If he gave her a violent jar, or slipped and fell! But the supreme
confidence so strangely felt that night admitted no such blunders.

The slope before him seemed to swell into obscurity to lose its definite
outline in a misty, opaque cloud that shaded into the over-shadowing
wall. He scanned the rim where the serrated points speared the sky, and
he found the zigzag crack. It was dim, only a shade lighter than the
dark ramparts, but he distinguished it, and that served.

Lifting the girl, he stepped upward, closely attending to the nature of
the path under his feet. After a few steps he stopped to mark his line
with the crack in the rim. The dogs clung closer to him. While chasing
the rabbit this slope had appeared interminable to him; now, burdened as
he was, he did not think of length or height or toil. He remembered
only to avoid a misstep and to keep his direction. He climbed on, with
frequent stops to watch the rim, and before he dreamed of gaining the
bench he bumped his knees into it, and saw, in the dim gray light, his
rifle and the rabbit. He had come straight up without mishap or swerving
off his course, and his shut teeth unlocked.

As he laid the girl down in the shallow hollow of the little ridge with
her white face upturned, she opened her eyes. Wide, staring black, at
once like both the night and the stars, they made her face seem still
whiter.

“Is--it--you?” she asked, faintly.

“Yes,” replied Venters.

“Oh! Where--are we?”

“I’m taking you to a safe place where no one will ever find you. I must
climb a little here and call the dogs. Don’t be afraid. I’ll soon come
for you.”

She said no more. Her eyes watched him steadily for a moment and then
closed. Venters pulled off his boots and then felt for the little steps
in the rock. The shade of the cliff above obscured the point he wanted
to gain, but he could see dimly a few feet before him. What he had
attempted with care he now went at with surpassing lightness. Buoyant,
rapid, sure, he attained the corner of wall and slipped around it. Here
he could not see a hand before his face, so he groped along, found a
little flat space, and there removed the saddle-bags. The lasso he took
back with him to the corner and looped the noose over the spur of rock.

“Ring--Whitie--come,” he called, softly.

Low whines came up from below.

“Here! Come, Whitie--Ring,” he repeated, this time sharply.

Then followed scraping of claws and pattering of feet; and out of the
gray gloom below him swiftly climbed the dogs to reach his side and pass
beyond.

Venters descended, holding to the lasso. He tested its strength by
throwing all his weight upon it. Then he gathered the girl up, and,
holding her securely in his left arm, he began to climb, at every few
steps jerking his right hand upward along the lasso. It sagged at each
forward movement he made, but he balanced himself lightly during the
interval when he lacked the support of a taut rope. He climbed as if he
had wings, the strength of a giant, and knew not the sense of fear. The
sharp corner of cliff seemed to cut out of the darkness. He reached
it and the protruding shelf, and then, entering the black shade of the
notch, he moved blindly but surely to the place where he had left the
saddle-bags. He heard the dogs, though he could not see them. Once more
he carefully placed the girl at his feet. Then, on hands and knees,
he went over the little flat space, feeling for stones. He removed a
number, and, scraping the deep dust into a heap, he unfolded the outer
blanket from around the girl and laid her upon this bed. Then he went
down the slope again for his boots, rifle, and the rabbit, and, bringing
also his lasso with him, he made short work of that trip.

“Are--you--there?” The girl’s voice came low from the blackness.

“Yes,” he replied, and was conscious that his laboring breast made
speech difficult.

“Are we--in a cave?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, listen!... The waterfall!... I hear it! You’ve brought me back!”

Venters heard a murmuring moan that one moment swelled to a pitch almost
softly shrill and the next lulled to a low, almost inaudible sigh.

“That’s--wind blowing--in the--cliffs,” he panted. “You’re far from
Oldring’s--canyon.”

The effort it cost him to speak made him conscious of extreme lassitude
following upon great exertion. It seemed that when he lay down and drew
his blanket over him the action was the last before utter prostration.
He stretched inert, wet, hot, his body one great strife of throbbing,
stinging nerves and bursting veins. And there he lay for a long while
before he felt that he had begun to rest.

Rest came to him that night, but no sleep. Sleep he did not want. The
hours of strained effort were now as if they had never been, and he
wanted to think. Earlier in the day he had dismissed an inexplicable
feeling of change; but now, when there was no longer demand on his
cunning and strength and he had time to think, he could not catch the
illusive thing that had sadly perplexed as well as elevated his spirit.

Above him, through a V-shaped cleft in the dark rim of the cliff, shone
the lustrous stars that had been his lonely accusers for a long, long
year. To-night they were different. He studied them. Larger, whiter,
more radiant they seemed; but that was not the difference he meant.
Gradually it came to him that the distinction was not one he saw, but
one he felt. In this he divined as much of the baffling change as he
thought would be revealed to him then. And as he lay there, with the
singing of the cliff-winds in his ears, the white stars above the dark,
bold vent, the difference which he felt was that he was no longer alone.



CHAPTER IX. SILVER SPRUCE AND ASPENS

The rest of that night seemed to Venters only a few moments of
starlight, a dark overcasting of sky, an hour or so of gray gloom, and
then the lighting of dawn.

When he had bestirred himself, feeding the hungry dogs and breaking
his long fast, and had repacked his saddle-bags, it was clear daylight,
though the sun had not tipped the yellow wall in the east. He concluded
to make the climb and descent into Surprise Valley in one trip. To that
end he tied his blanket upon Ring and gave Whitie the extra lasso and
the rabbit to carry. Then, with the rifle and saddle-bags slung upon his
back, he took up the girl. She did not awaken from heavy slumber.

That climb up under the rugged, menacing brows of the broken cliffs,
in the face of a grim, leaning boulder that seemed to be weary of its
age-long wavering, was a tax on strength and nerve that Venters
felt equally with something sweet and strangely exulting in its
accomplishment. He did not pause until he gained the narrow divide and
there he rested. Balancing Rock loomed huge, cold in the gray light
of dawn, a thing without life, yet it spoke silently to Venters: “I am
waiting to plunge down, to shatter and crash, roar and boom, to bury
your trail, and close forever the outlet to Deception Pass!”

On the descent of the other side Venters had easy going, but was
somewhat concerned because Whitie appeared to have succumbed to
temptation, and while carrying the rabbit was also chewing on it. And
Ring evidently regarded this as an injury to himself, especially as he
had carried the heavier load. Presently he snapped at one end of the
rabbit and refused to let go. But his action prevented Whitie from
further misdoing, and then the two dogs pattered down, carrying the
rabbit between them.

Venters turned out of the gorge, and suddenly paused stock-still,
astounded at the scene before him. The curve of the great stone bridge
had caught the sunrise, and through the magnificent arch burst a
glorious stream of gold that shone with a long slant down into the
center of Surprise Valley. Only through the arch did any sunlight
pass, so that all the rest of the valley lay still asleep, dark green,
mysterious, shadowy, merging its level into walls as misty and soft as
morning clouds.

Venters then descended, passing through the arch, looking up at its
tremendous height and sweep. It spanned the opening to Surprise Valley,
stretching in almost perfect curve from rim to rim. Even in his hurry
and concern Venters could not but feel its majesty, and the thought came
to him that the cliff-dwellers must have regarded it as an object of
worship.

Down, down, down Venters strode, more and more feeling the weight of his
burden as he descended, and still the valley lay below him. As all
other canyons and coves and valleys had deceived him, so had this deep,
nestling oval. At length he passed beyond the slope of weathered stone
that spread fan-shape from the arch, and encountered a grassy terrace
running to the right and about on a level with the tips of the oaks and
cottonwoods below. Scattered here and there upon this shelf were clumps
of aspens, and he walked through them into a glade that surpassed in
beauty and adaptability for a wild home, any place he had ever seen.
Silver spruces bordered the base of a precipitous wall that rose
loftily. Caves indented its surface, and there were no detached ledges
or weathered sections that might dislodge a stone. The level ground,
beyond the spruces, dropped down into a little ravine. This was one
dense line of slender aspens from which came the low splashing of water.
And the terrace, lying open to the west, afforded unobstructed view of
the valley of green treetops.

For his camp Venters chose a shady, grassy plot between the silver
spruces and the cliff. Here, in the stone wall, had been wonderfully
carved by wind or washed by water several deep caves above the level of
the terrace. They were clean, dry, roomy.

He cut spruce boughs and made a bed in the largest cave and laid the
girl there. The first intimation that he had of her being aroused from
sleep or lethargy was a low call for water.

He hurried down into the ravine with his canteen. It was a shallow,
grass-green place with aspens growing up everywhere. To his delight
he found a tiny brook of swift-running water. Its faint tinge of amber
reminded him of the spring at Cottonwoods, and the thought gave him a
little shock. The water was so cold it made his fingers tingle as he
dipped the canteen. Having returned to the cave, he was glad to see the
girl drink thirstily. This time he noted that she could raise her head
slightly without his help.

“You were thirsty,” he said. “It’s good water. I’ve found a fine place.
Tell me--how do you feel?”

“There’s pain--here,” she replied, and moved her hand to her left side.

“Why, that’s strange! Your wounds are on your right side. I believe
you’re hungry. Is the pain a kind of dull ache--a gnawing?”

“It’s like--that.”

“Then it’s hunger.” Venters laughed, and suddenly caught himself with a
quick breath and felt again the little shock. When had he laughed? “It’s
hunger,” he went on. “I’ve had that gnaw many a time. I’ve got it now.
But you mustn’t eat. You can have all the water you want, but no food
just yet.”

“Won’t I--starve?”

“No, people don’t starve easily. I’ve discovered that. You must lie
perfectly still and rest and sleep--for days.”

“My hands--are dirty; my face feels--so hot and sticky; my boots hurt.”
 It was her longest speech as yet, and it trailed off in a whisper.

“Well, I’m a fine nurse!”

It annoyed him that he had never thought of these things. But then,
awaiting her death and thinking of her comfort were vastly different
matters. He unwrapped the blanket which covered her. What a slender girl
she was! No wonder he had been able to carry her miles and pack her up
that slippery ladder of stone. Her boots were of soft, fine leather,
reaching clear to her knees. He recognized the make as one of a
boot-maker in Sterling. Her spurs, that he had stupidly neglected to
remove, consisted of silver frames and gold chains, and the rowels,
large as silver dollars, were fancifully engraved. The boots slipped off
rather hard. She wore heavy woollen rider’s stockings, half length, and
these were pulled up over the ends of her short trousers. Venters took
off the stockings to note her little feet were red and swollen. He
bathed them. Then he removed his scarf and bathed her face and hands.

“I must see your wounds now,” he said, gently.

She made no reply, but watched him steadily as he opened her blouse and
untied the bandage. His strong fingers trembled a little as he removed
it. If the wounds had reopened! A chill struck him as he saw the angry
red bullet-mark, and a tiny stream of blood winding from it down her
white breast. Very carefully he lifted her to see that the wound in her
back had closed perfectly. Then he washed the blood from her breast,
bathed the wound, and left it unbandaged, open to the air.

Her eyes thanked him.

“Listen,” he said, earnestly. “I’ve had some wounds, and I’ve seen many.
I know a little about them. The hole in your back has closed. If you lie
still three days the one in your breast will close and you’ll be safe.
The danger from hemorrhage will be over.”

He had spoken with earnest sincerity, almost eagerness.

“Why--do you--want me--to get well?” she asked, wonderingly.

The simple question seemed unanswerable except on grounds of humanity.
But the circumstances under which he had shot this strange girl, the
shock and realization, the waiting for death, the hope, had resulted in
a condition of mind wherein Venters wanted her to live more than he had
ever wanted anything. Yet he could not tell why. He believed the killing
of the rustler and the subsequent excitement had disturbed him. For how
else could he explain the throbbing of his brain, the heat of his blood,
the undefined sense of full hours, charged, vibrant with pulsating
mystery where once they had dragged in loneliness?

“I shot you,” he said, slowly, “and I want you to get well so I shall
not have killed a woman. But--for your own sake, too--”

A terrible bitterness darkened her eyes, and her lips quivered.

“Hush,” said Venters. “You’ve talked too much already.”

In her unutterable bitterness he saw a darkness of mood that could not
have been caused by her present weak and feverish state. She hated the
life she had led, that she probably had been compelled to lead. She
had suffered some unforgivable wrong at the hands of Oldring. With that
conviction Venters felt a shame throughout his body, and it marked the
rekindling of fierce anger and ruthlessness. In the past long year he
had nursed resentment. He had hated the wilderness--the loneliness of
the uplands. He had waited for something to come to pass. It had come.
Like an Indian stealing horses he had skulked into the recesses of the
canyons. He had found Oldring’s retreat; he had killed a rustler; he had
shot an unfortunate girl, then had saved her from this unwitting act,
and he meant to save her from the consequent wasting of blood, from
fever and weakness. Starvation he had to fight for her and for himself.
Where he had been sick at the letting of blood, now he remembered it in
grim, cold calm. And as he lost that softness of nature, so he lost his
fear of men. He would watch for Oldring, biding his time, and he would
kill this great black-bearded rustler who had held a girl in bondage,
who had used her to his infamous ends.

Venters surmised this much of the change in him--idleness had passed;
keen, fierce vigor flooded his mind and body; all that had happened to
him at Cottonwoods seemed remote and hard to recall; the difficulties
and perils of the present absorbed him, held him in a kind of spell.

First, then, he fitted up the little cave adjoining the girl’s room
for his own comfort and use. His next work was to build a fireplace of
stones and to gather a store of wood. That done, he spilled the contents
of his saddle-bags upon the grass and took stock. His outfit consisted
of a small-handled axe, a hunting-knife, a large number of cartridges
for rifle or revolver, a tin plate, a cup, and a fork and spoon,
a quantity of dried beef and dried fruits, and small canvas bags
containing tea, sugar, salt, and pepper. For him alone this supply would
have been bountiful to begin a sojourn in the wilderness, but he was no
longer alone. Starvation in the uplands was not an unheard-of thing;
he did not, however, worry at all on that score, and feared only his
possible inability to supply the needs of a woman in a weakened and
extremely delicate condition.

If there was no game in the valley--a contingency he doubted--it would
not be a great task for him to go by night to Oldring’s herd and pack
out a calf. The exigency of the moment was to ascertain if there were
game in Surprise Valley. Whitie still guarded the dilapidated rabbit,
and Ring slept near by under a spruce. Venters called Ring and went to
the edge of the terrace, and there halted to survey the valley.

He was prepared to find it larger than his unstudied glances had made it
appear; for more than a casual idea of dimensions and a hasty conception
of oval shape and singular beauty he had not had time. Again the
felicity of the name he had given the valley struck him forcibly. Around
the red perpendicular walls, except under the great arc of stone, ran
a terrace fringed at the cliff-base by silver spruces; below that first
terrace sloped another wider one densely overgrown with aspens, and the
center of the valley was a level circle of oaks and alders, with the
glittering green line of willows and cottonwood dividing it in half.
Venters saw a number and variety of birds flitting among the trees.
To his left, facing the stone bridge, an enormous cavern opened in the
wall; and low down, just above the tree-tops, he made out a long shelf
of cliff-dwellings, with little black, staring windows or doors. Like
eyes they were, and seemed to watch him. The few cliff-dwellings he had
seen--all ruins--had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude
and of something past. He had come, in a way, to be a cliff-dweller
himself, and those silent eyes would look down upon him, as if in
surprise that after thousands of years a man had invaded the valley.
Venters felt sure that he was the only white man who had ever walked
under the shadow of the wonderful stone bridge, down into that wonderful
valley with its circle of caves and its terraced rings of silver spruce
and aspens.

The dog growled below and rushed into the forest. Venters ran down the
declivity to enter a zone of light shade streaked with sunshine. The
oak-trees were slender, none more than half a foot thick, and they grew
close together, intermingling their branches. Ring came running back
with a rabbit in his mouth. Venters took the rabbit and, holding the
dog near him, stole softly on. There were fluttering of wings among the
branches and quick bird-notes, and rustling of dead leaves and rapid
patterings. Venters crossed well-worn trails marked with fresh tracks;
and when he had stolen on a little farther he saw many birds and running
quail, and more rabbits than he could count. He had not penetrated the
forest of oaks for a hundred yards, had not approached anywhere near the
line of willows and cottonwoods which he knew grew along a stream. But
he had seen enough to know that Surprise Valley was the home of many
wild creatures.

Venters returned to camp. He skinned the rabbits, and gave the dogs the
one they had quarreled over, and the skin of this he dressed and hung
up to dry, feeling that he would like to keep it. It was a particularly
rich, furry pelt with a beautiful white tail. Venters remembered that
but for the bobbing of that white tail catching his eye he would not
have espied the rabbit, and he would never have discovered Surprise
Valley. Little incidents of chance like this had turned him here
and there in Deception Pass; and now they had assumed to him the
significance and direction of destiny.

His good fortune in the matter of game at hand brought to his mind the
necessity of keeping it in the valley. Therefore he took the axe and cut
bundles of aspens and willows, and packed them up under the bridge to
the narrow outlet of the gorge. Here he began fashioning a fence, by
driving aspens into the ground and lacing them fast with willows. Trip
after trip he made down for more building material, and the afternoon
had passed when he finished the work to his satisfaction. Wildcats might
scale the fence, but no coyote could come in to search for prey, and no
rabbits or other small game could escape from the valley.

Upon returning to camp he set about getting his supper at ease, around a
fine fire, without hurry or fear of discovery. After hard work that
had definite purpose, this freedom and comfort gave him peculiar
satisfaction. He caught himself often, as he kept busy round the
camp-fire, stopping to glance at the quiet form in the cave, and at
the dogs stretched cozily near him, and then out across the beautiful
valley. The present was not yet real to him.

While he ate, the sun set beyond a dip in the rim of the curved wall. As
the morning sun burst wondrously through a grand arch into this valley,
in a golden, slanting shaft, so the evening sun, at the moment of
setting, shone through a gap of cliffs, sending down a broad red burst
to brighten the oval with a blaze of fire. To Venters both sunrise and
sunset were unreal.

A cool wind blew across the oval, waving the tips of oaks, and while
the light lasted, fluttering the aspen leaves into millions of facets of
red, and sweeping the graceful spruces. Then with the wind soon came
a shade and a darkening, and suddenly the valley was gray. Night came
there quickly after the sinking of the sun. Venters went softly to look
at the girl. She slept, and her breathing was quiet and slow. He lifted
Ring into the cave, with stern whisper for him to stay there on
guard. Then he drew the blanket carefully over her and returned to the
camp-fire.

Though exceedingly tired, he was yet loath to yield to lassitude, but
this night it was not from listening, watchful vigilance; it was from
a desire to realize his position. The details of his wild environment
seemed the only substance of a strange dream. He saw the darkening rims,
the gray oval turning black, the undulating surface of forest, like a
rippling lake, and the spear-pointed spruces. He heard the flutter
of aspen leaves and the soft, continuous splash of falling water. The
melancholy note of a canyon bird broke clear and lonely from the high
cliffs. Venters had no name for this night singer, and he had never seen
one, but the few notes, always pealing out just at darkness, were as
familiar to him as the canyon silence. Then they ceased, and the rustle
of leaves and the murmur of water hushed in a growing sound that Venters
fancied was not of earth. Neither had he a name for this, only it was
inexpressibly wild and sweet. The thought came that it might be a moan
of the girl in her last outcry of life, and he felt a tremor shake him.
But no! This sound was not human, though it was like despair. He began
to doubt his sensitive perceptions, to believe that he half-dreamed what
he thought he heard. Then the sound swelled with the strengthening
of the breeze, and he realized it was the singing of the wind in the
cliffs.

By and by a drowsiness overcame him, and Venters began to nod, half
asleep, with his back against a spruce. Rousing himself and calling
Whitie, he went to the cave. The girl lay barely visible in the dimness.
Ring crouched beside her, and the patting of his tail on the stone
assured Venters that the dog was awake and faithful to his duty. Venters
sought his own bed of fragrant boughs; and as he lay back, somehow
grateful for the comfort and safety, the night seemed to steal away from
him and he sank softly into intangible space and rest and slumber.

Venters awakened to the sound of melody that he imagined was only the
haunting echo of dream music. He opened his eyes to another surprise
of this valley of beautiful surprises. Out of his cave he saw the
exquisitely fine foliage of the silver spruces crossing a round space
of blue morning sky; and in this lacy leafage fluttered a number of
gray birds with black and white stripes and long tails. They were
mocking-birds, and they were singing as if they wanted to burst their
throats. Venters listened. One long, silver-tipped branch dropped almost
to his cave, and upon it, within a few yards of him, sat one of the
graceful birds. Venters saw the swelling and quivering of its throat
in song. He arose, and when he slid down out of his cave the birds
fluttered and flew farther away.

Venters stepped before the opening of the other cave and looked in. The
girl was awake, with wide eyes and listening look, and she had a hand on
Ring’s neck.

“Mocking-birds!” she said.

“Yes,” replied Venters, “and I believe they like our company.”

“Where are we?”

“Never mind now. After a little I’ll tell you.”

“The birds woke me. When I heard them--and saw the shiny trees--and the
blue sky--and then a blaze of gold dropping down--I wondered--”

She did not complete her fancy, but Venters imagined he understood her
meaning. She appeared to be wandering in mind. Venters felt her face and
hands and found them burning with fever. He went for water, and was glad
to find it almost as cold as if flowing from ice. That water was the
only medicine he had, and he put faith in it. She did not want to drink,
but he made her swallow, and then he bathed her face and head and cooled
her wrists.

The day began with the heightening of the fever. Venters spent the time
reducing her temperature, cooling her hot cheeks and temples. He kept
close watch over her, and at the least indication of restlessness, that
he knew led to tossing and rolling of the body, he held her tightly, so
no violent move could reopen her wounds. Hour after hour she babbled and
laughed and cried and moaned in delirium; but whatever her secret was
she did not reveal it. Attended by something somber for Venters, the day
passed. At night in the cool winds the fever abated and she slept.

The second day was a repetition of the first. On the third he seemed to
see her wither and waste away before his eyes. That day he scarcely went
from her side for a moment, except to run for fresh, cool water; and he
did not eat. The fever broke on the fourth day and left her spent and
shrunken, a slip of a girl with life only in her eyes. They hung upon
Venters with a mute observance, and he found hope in that.

To rekindle the spark that had nearly flickered out, to nourish the
little life and vitality that remained in her, was Venters’s problem.
But he had little resource other than the meat of the rabbits and quail;
and from these he made broths and soups as best he could, and fed her
with a spoon. It came to him that the human body, like the human soul,
was a strange thing and capable of recovering from terrible shocks. For
almost immediately she showed faint signs of gathering strength. There
was one more waiting day, in which he doubted, and spent long hours by
her side as she slept, and watched the gentle swell of her breast rise
and fall in breathing, and the wind stir the tangled chestnut curls. On
the next day he knew that she would live.

Upon realizing it he abruptly left the cave and sought his accustomed
seat against the trunk of a big spruce, where once more he let his
glance stray along the sloping terraces. She would live, and the somber
gloom lifted out of the valley, and he felt relief that was pain. Then
he roused to the call of action, to the many things he needed to do
in the way of making camp fixtures and utensils, to the necessity of
hunting food, and the desire to explore the valley.

But he decided to wait a few more days before going far from camp,
because he fancied that the girl rested easier when she could see him
near at hand. And on the first day her languor appeared to leave her in
a renewed grip of life. She awoke stronger from each short slumber; she
ate greedily, and she moved about in her bed of boughs; and always, it
seemed to Venters, her eyes followed him. He knew now that her recovery
would be rapid. She talked about the dogs, about the caves, the valley,
about how hungry she was, till Venters silenced her, asking her to put
off further talk till another time. She obeyed, but she sat up in her
bed, and her eyes roved to and fro, and always back to him.

Upon the second morning she sat up when he awakened her, and would not
permit him to bathe her face and feed her, which actions she performed
for herself. She spoke little, however, and Venters was quick to
catch in her the first intimations of thoughtfulness and curiosity and
appreciation of her situation. He left camp and took Whitie out to
hunt for rabbits. Upon his return he was amazed and somewhat anxiously
concerned to see his invalid sitting with her back to a corner of the
cave and her bare feet swinging out. Hurriedly he approached, intending
to advise her to lie down again, to tell her that perhaps she might
overtax her strength. The sun shone upon her, glinting on the little
head with its tangle of bright hair and the small, oval face with its
pallor, and dark-blue eyes underlined by dark-blue circles. She looked
at him and he looked at her. In that exchange of glances he imagined
each saw the other in some different guise. It seemed impossible to
Venters that this frail girl could be Oldring’s Masked Rider. It flashed
over him that he had made a mistake which presently she would explain.

“Help me down,” she said.

“But--are you well enough?” he protested. “Wait--a little longer.”

“I’m weak--dizzy. But I want to get down.”

He lifted her--what a light burden now!--and stood her upright beside
him, and supported her as she essayed to walk with halting steps. She
was like a stripling of a boy; the bright, small head scarcely reached
his shoulder. But now, as she clung to his arm, the rider’s costume she
wore did not contradict, as it had done at first, his feeling of her
femininity. She might be the famous Masked Rider of the uplands, she
might resemble a boy; but her outline, her little hands and feet, her
hair, her big eyes and tremulous lips, and especially a something that
Venters felt as a subtle essence rather than what he saw, proclaimed her
sex.

She soon tired. He arranged a comfortable seat for her under the spruce
that overspread the camp-fire.

“Now tell me--everything,” she said.

He recounted all that had happened from the time of his discovery of the
rustlers in the canyon up to the present moment.

“You shot me--and now you’ve saved my life?”

“Yes. After almost killing you I’ve pulled you through.”

“Are you glad?”

“I should say so!”

Her eyes were unusually expressive, and they regarded him steadily; she
was unconscious of that mirroring of her emotions and they shone with
gratefulness and interest and wonder and sadness.

“Tell me--about yourself?” she asked.

He made this a briefer story, telling of his coming to Utah, his
various occupations till he became a rider, and then how the Mormons had
practically driven him out of Cottonwoods, an outcast.

Then, no longer able to withstand his own burning curiosity, he
questioned her in turn.

“Are you Oldring’s Masked Rider?”

“Yes,” she replied, and dropped her eyes.

“I knew it--I recognized your figure--and mask, for I saw you once.
Yet I can’t believe it!... But you never were really that rustler, as we
riders knew him? A thief--a marauder--a kidnapper of women--a murderer
of sleeping riders!”

“No! I never stole--or harmed any one--in all my life. I only rode and
rode--”

“But why--why?” he burst out. “Why the name? I understand Oldring made
you ride. But the black mask--the mystery--the things laid to your
hands--the threats in your infamous name--the night-riding credited
to you--the evil deeds deliberately blamed on you and acknowledged by
rustlers--even Oldring himself! Why? Tell me why?”

“I never knew that,” she answered low. Her drooping head straightened,
and the large eyes, larger now and darker, met Venters’s with a clear,
steadfast gaze in which he read truth. It verified his own conviction.

“Never knew? That’s strange! Are you a Mormon?”

“No.”

“Is Oldring a Mormon?”

“No.”

“Do you--care for him?”

“Yes. I hate his men--his life--sometimes I almost hate him!”

Venters paused in his rapid-fire questioning, as if to brace him self to
ask for a truth that would be abhorrent for him to confirm, but which he
seemed driven to hear.

“What are--what were you to Oldring?”

Like some delicate thing suddenly exposed to blasting heat, the girl
wilted; her head dropped, and into her white, wasted cheeks crept the
red of shame.

Venters would have given anything to recall that question. It seemed
so different--his thought when spoken. Yet her shame established in his
mind something akin to the respect he had strangely been hungering to
feel for her.

“D--n that question!--forget it!” he cried, in a passion of pain for her
and anger at himself. “But once and for all--tell me--I know it, yet I
want to hear you say so--you couldn’t help yourself?”

“Oh no.”

“Well, that makes it all right with me,” he went on, honestly. “I--I
want you to feel that... you see--we’ve been thrown together--and--and I
want to help you--not hurt you. I thought life had been cruel to me, but
when I think of yours I feel mean and little for my complaining. Anyway,
I was a lonely outcast. And now!... I don’t see very clearly what it all
means. Only we are here--together. We’ve got to stay here, for long,
surely till you are well. But you’ll never go back to Oldring. And I’m
sure helping you will help me, for I was sick in mind. There’s something
now for me to do. And if I can win back your strength--then get you
away, out of this wild country--help you somehow to a happier life--just
think how good that’ll be for me!”



CHAPTER X. LOVE

During all these waiting days Venters, with the exception of the
afternoon when he had built the gate in the gorge, had scarcely gone
out of sight of camp and never out of hearing. His desire to explore
Surprise Valley was keen, and on the morning after his long talk with
the girl he took his rifle and, calling Ring, made a move to start. The
girl lay back in a rude chair of boughs he had put together for her. She
had been watching him, and when he picked up the gun and called the dog
Venters thought she gave a nervous start.

“I’m only going to look over the valley,” he said.

“Will you be gone long?”

“No,” he replied, and started off. The incident set him thinking of his
former impression that, after her recovery from fever, she did not seem
at ease unless he was close at hand. It was fear of being alone, due, he
concluded, most likely to her weakened condition. He must not leave her
much alone.

As he strode down the sloping terrace, rabbits scampered before him,
and the beautiful valley quail, as purple in color as the sage on the
uplands, ran fleetly along the ground into the forest. It was pleasant
under the trees, in the gold-flecked shade, with the whistle of quail
and twittering of birds everywhere. Soon he had passed the limit of his
former excursions and entered new territory. Here the woods began to
show open glades and brooks running down from the slope, and presently
he emerged from shade into the sunshine of a meadow. The shaking of the
high grass told him of the running of animals, what species he could
not tell, but from Ring’s manifest desire to have a chase they were
evidently some kind wilder than rabbits. Venters approached the willow
and cottonwood belt that he had observed from the height of slope.
He penetrated it to find a considerable stream of water and great
half-submerged mounds of brush and sticks, and all about him were old
and new gnawed circles at the base of the cottonwoods.

“Beaver!” he exclaimed. “By all that’s lucky! The meadow’s full of
beaver! How did they ever get here?”

Beaver had not found a way into the valley by the trail of the
cliff-dwellers, of that he was certain; and he began to have more than
curiosity as to the outlet or inlet of the stream. When he passed some
dead water, which he noted was held by a beaver dam, there was a current
in the stream, and it flowed west. Following its course, he soon entered
the oak forest again, and passed through to find himself before massed
and jumbled ruins of cliff wall. There were tangled thickets of
wild plum-trees and other thorny growths that made passage extremely
laborsome. He found innumerable tracks of wildcats and foxes. Rustlings
in the thick undergrowth told him of stealthy movements of these
animals. At length his further advance appeared futile, for the reason
that the stream disappeared in a split at the base of immense rocks over
which he could not climb. To his relief he concluded that though beaver
might work their way up the narrow chasm where the water rushed, it
would be impossible for men to enter the valley there.

This western curve was the only part of the valley where the walls had
been split asunder, and it was a wildly rough and inaccessible corner.
Going back a little way, he leaped the stream and headed toward the
southern wall. Once out of the oaks he found again the low terrace of
aspens, and above that the wide, open terrace fringed by silver spruces.
This side of the valley contained the wind or water worn caves. As he
pressed on, keeping to the upper terrace, cave after cave opened out of
the cliff; now a large one, now a small one. Then yawned, quite suddenly
and wonderfully above him, the great cavern of the cliff-dwellers.

It was still a goodly distance, and he tried to imagine, if it appeared
so huge from where he stood, what it would be when he got there. He
climbed the terrace and then faced a long, gradual ascent of weathered
rock and dust, which made climbing too difficult for attention to
anything else. At length he entered a zone of shade, and looked up.
He stood just within the hollow of a cavern so immense that he had no
conception of its real dimensions. The curved roof, stained by ages
of leakage, with buff and black and rust-colored streaks, swept up and
loomed higher and seemed to soar to the rim of the cliff. Here again was
a magnificent arch, such as formed the grand gateway to the valley, only
in this instance it formed the dome of a cave instead of the span of a
bridge.

Venters passed onward and upward. The stones he dislodged rolled down
with strange, hollow crack and roar. He had climbed a hundred rods
inward, and yet he had not reached the base of the shelf where the
cliff-dwellings rested, a long half-circle of connected stone house,
with little dark holes that he had fancied were eyes. At length he
gained the base of the shelf, and here found steps cut in the rock.
These facilitated climbing, and as he went up he thought how easily this
vanished race of men might once have held that stronghold against an
army. There was only one possible place to ascend, and this was narrow
and steep.

Venters had visited cliff-dwellings before, and they had been in ruins,
and of no great character or size but this place was of proportions that
stunned him, and it had not been desecrated by the hand of man, nor had
it been crumbled by the hand of time. It was a stupendous tomb. It had
been a city. It was just as it had been left by its builders. The little
houses were there, the smoke-blackened stains of fires, the pieces of
pottery scattered about cold hearths, the stone hatchets; and stone
pestles and mealing-stones lay beside round holes polished by years
of grinding maize--lay there as if they had been carelessly dropped
yesterday. But the cliff-dwellers were gone!

Dust! They were dust on the floor or at the foot of the shelf, and their
habitations and utensils endured. Venters felt the sublimity of that
marvelous vaulted arch, and it seemed to gleam with a glory of something
that was gone. How many years had passed since the cliff-dwellers gazed
out across the beautiful valley as he was gazing now? How long had it
been since women ground grain in those polished holes? What time had
rolled by since men of an unknown race lived, loved, fought, and died
there? Had an enemy destroyed them? Had disease destroyed them, or only
that greatest destroyer--time? Venters saw a long line of blood-red
hands painted low down upon the yellow roof of stone. Here was strange
portent, if not an answer to his queries. The place oppressed him. It
was light, but full of a transparent gloom. It smelled of dust and musty
stone, of age and disuse. It was sad. It was solemn. It had the look
of a place where silence had become master and was now irrevocable and
terrible and could not be broken. Yet, at the moment, from high up in
the carved crevices of the arch, floated down the low, strange wail of
wind--a knell indeed for all that had gone.

Venters, sighing, gathered up an armful of pottery, such pieces as he
thought strong enough and suitable for his own use, and bent his steps
toward camp. He mounted the terrace at an opposite point to which he
had left. He saw the girl looking in the direction he had gone. His
footsteps made no sound in the deep grass, and he approached close
without her being aware of his presence. Whitie lay on the ground near
where she sat, and he manifested the usual actions of welcome, but the
girl did not notice them. She seemed to be oblivious to everything near
at hand. She made a pathetic figure drooping there, with her sunny hair
contrasting so markedly with her white, wasted cheeks and her hands
listlessly clasped and her little bare feet propped in the framework of
the rude seat. Venters could have sworn and laughed in one breath at the
idea of the connection between this girl and Oldring’s Masked Rider. She
was the victim of more than accident of fate--a victim to some deep
plot the mystery of which burned him. As he stepped forward with a
half-formed thought that she was absorbed in watching for his return,
she turned her head and saw him. A swift start, a change rather than
rush of blood under her white cheeks, a flashing of big eyes that fixed
their glance upon him, transformed her face in that single instant of
turning, and he knew she had been watching for him, that his return was
the one thing in her mind. She did not smile; she did not flush; she
did not look glad. All these would have meant little compared to her
indefinite expression. Venters grasped the peculiar, vivid, vital
something that leaped from her face. It was as if she had been in a
dead, hopeless clamp of inaction and feeling, and had been suddenly shot
through and through with quivering animation. Almost it was as if she
had returned to life.

And Venters thought with lightning swiftness, “I’ve saved her--I’ve
unlinked her from that old life--she was watching as if I were all she
had left on earth--she belongs to me!” The thought was startlingly new.
Like a blow it was in an unprepared moment. The cheery salutation he had
ready for her died unborn and he tumbled the pieces of pottery awkwardly
on the grass while some unfamiliar, deep-seated emotion, mixed with pity
and glad assurance of his power to succor her, held him dumb.

“What a load you had!” she said. “Why, they’re pots and crocks! Where
did you get them?”

Venters laid down his rifle, and, filling one of the pots from his
canteen, he placed it on the smoldering campfire.

“Hope it’ll hold water,” he said, presently. “Why, there’s an enormous
cliff-dwelling just across here. I got the pottery there. Don’t you
think we needed something? That tin cup of mine has served to make tea,
broth, soup--everything.”

“I noticed we hadn’t a great deal to cook in.”

She laughed. It was the first time. He liked that laugh, and though he
was tempted to look at her, he did not want to show his surprise or his
pleasure.

“Will you take me over there, and all around in the valley--pretty soon,
when I’m well?” she added.

“Indeed I shall. It’s a wonderful place. Rabbits so thick you can’t step
without kicking one out. And quail, beaver, foxes, wildcats. We’re in a
regular den. But--haven’t you ever seen a cliff-dwelling?”

“No. I’ve heard about them, though. The--the men say the Pass is full of
old houses and ruins.”

“Why, I should think you’d have run across one in all your riding
around,” said Venters. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully,
and he essayed a perfectly casual manner, and pretended to be busy
assorting pieces of pottery. She must have no cause again to suffer
shame for curiosity of his. Yet never in all his days had he been so
eager to hear the details of anyone’s life.

“When I rode--I rode like the wind,” she replied, “and never had time to
stop for anything.”

“I remember that day I--I met you in the Pass--how dusty you were, how
tired your horse looked. Were you always riding?”

“Oh, no. Sometimes not for months, when I was shut up in the cabin.”

Venters tried to subdue a hot tingling.

“You were shut up, then?” he asked, carelessly.

“When Oldring went away on his long trips--he was gone for months
sometimes--he shut me up in the cabin.”

“What for?”

“Perhaps to keep me from running away. I always threatened that. Mostly,
though, because the men got drunk at the villages. But they were always
good to me. I wasn’t afraid.”

“A prisoner! That must have been hard on you?”

“I liked that. As long as I can remember I’ve been locked up there at
times, and those times were the only happy ones I ever had. It’s a big
cabin, high up on a cliff, and I could look out. Then I had dogs and
pets I had tamed, and books. There was a spring inside, and food stored,
and the men brought me fresh meat. Once I was there one whole winter.”

It now required deliberation on Venters’s part to persist in his
unconcern and to keep at work. He wanted to look at her, to volley
questions at her.

“As long as you can remember--you’ve lived in Deception Pass?” he went
on.

“I’ve a dim memory of some other place, and women and children; but I
can’t make anything of it. Sometimes I think till I’m weary.”

“Then you can read--you have books?”

“Oh yes, I can read, and write, too, pretty well. Oldring is educated.
He taught me, and years ago an old rustler lived with us, and he had
been something different once. He was always teaching me.”

“So Oldring takes long trips,” mused Venters. “Do you know where he
goes?”

“No. Every year he drives cattle north of Sterling--then does not return
for months. I heard him accused once of living two lives--and he killed
the man. That was at Stone Bridge.”

Venters dropped his apparent task and looked up with an eagerness he no
longer strove to hide.

“Bess,” he said, using her name for the first time, “I suspected Oldring
was something besides a rustler. Tell me, what’s his purpose here in the
Pass? I believe much that he has done was to hide his real work here.”

“You’re right. He’s more than a rustler. In fact, as the men say, his
rustling cattle is now only a bluff. There’s gold in the canyons!”

“Ah!”

“Yes, there’s gold, not in great quantities, but gold enough for him and
his men. They wash for gold week in and week out. Then they drive a few
cattle and go into the villages to drink and shoot and kill--to bluff
the riders.”

“Drive a few cattle! But, Bess, the Withersteen herd, the red
herd--twenty-five hundred head! That’s not a few. And I tracked them
into a valley near here.”

“Oldring never stole the red herd. He made a deal with Mormons. The
riders were to be called in, and Oldring was to drive the herd and keep
it till a certain time--I won’t know when--then drive it back to the
range. What his share was I didn’t hear.”

“Did you hear why that deal was made?” queried Venters.

“No. But it was a trick of Mormons. They’re full of tricks. I’ve heard
Oldring’s men tell about Mormons. Maybe the Withersteen woman wasn’t
minding her halter! I saw the man who made the deal. He was a little,
queer-shaped man, all humped up. He sat his horse well. I heard one of
our men say afterward there was no better rider on the sage than this
fellow. What was the name? I forget.”

“Jerry Card?” suggested Venters.

“That’s it. I remember--it’s a name easy to remember--and Jerry Card
appeared to be on fair terms with Oldring’s men.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” replied Venters, thoughtfully. Verification of his
suspicions in regard to Tull’s underhand work--for the deal with Oldring
made by Jerry Card assuredly had its inception in the Mormon Elder’s
brain, and had been accomplished through his orders--revived in Venters
a memory of hatred that had been smothered by press of other emotions.
Only a few days had elapsed since the hour of his encounter with Tull,
yet they had been forgotten and now seemed far off, and the interval
one that now appeared large and profound with incalculable change in his
feelings. Hatred of Tull still existed in his heart, but it had lost its
white heat. His affection for Jane Withersteen had not changed in the
least; nevertheless, he seemed to view it from another angle and see it
as another thing--what, he could not exactly define. The recalling of
these two feelings was to Venters like getting glimpses into a self
that was gone; and the wonder of them--perhaps the change which was too
illusive for him--was the fact that a strange irritation accompanied
the memory and a desire to dismiss it from mind. And straightway he did
dismiss it, to return to thoughts of his significant present.

“Bess, tell me one more thing,” he said. “Haven’t you known any
women--any young people?”

“Sometimes there were women with the men; but Oldring never let me know
them. And all the young people I ever saw in my life was when I rode
fast through the villages.”

Perhaps that was the most puzzling and thought-provoking thing she had
yet said to Venters. He pondered, more curious the more he learned, but
he curbed his inquisitive desires, for he saw her shrinking on the
verge of that shame, the causing of which had occasioned him such
self-reproach. He would ask no more. Still he had to think, and he
found it difficult to think clearly. This sad-eyed girl was so utterly
different from what it would have been reason to believe such a
remarkable life would have made her. On this day he had found her simple
and frank, as natural as any girl he had ever known. About her there was
something sweet. Her voice was low and well modulated. He could not look
into her face, meet her steady, unabashed, yet wistful eyes, and think
of her as the woman she had confessed herself. Oldring’s Masked Rider
sat before him, a girl dressed as a man. She had been made to ride at
the head of infamous forays and drives. She had been imprisoned for many
months of her life in an obscure cabin. At times the most vicious of men
had been her companions; and the vilest of women, if they had not been
permitted to approach her, had, at least, cast their shadows over her.
But--but in spite of all this--there thundered at Venters some truth
that lifted its voice higher than the clamoring facts of dishonor,
some truth that was the very life of her beautiful eyes; and it was
innocence.

In the days that followed, Venters balanced perpetually in mind this
haunting conception of innocence over against the cold and sickening
fact of an unintentional yet actual gift. How could it be possible for
the two things to be true? He believed the latter to be true, and he
would not relinquish his conviction of the former; and these conflicting
thoughts augmented the mystery that appeared to be a part of Bess. In
those ensuing days, however, it became clear as clearest light that
Bess was rapidly regaining strength; that, unless reminded of her long
association with Oldring, she seemed to have forgotten it; that, like an
Indian who lives solely from moment to moment, she was utterly absorbed
in the present.

Day by day Venters watched the white of her face slowly change to brown,
and the wasted cheeks fill out by imperceptible degrees. There came a
time when he could just trace the line of demarcation between the part
of her face once hidden by a mask and that left exposed to wind and sun.
When that line disappeared in clear bronze tan it was as if she had been
washed clean of the stigma of Oldring’s Masked Rider. The suggestion of
the mask always made Venters remember; now that it was gone he seldom
thought of her past. Occasionally he tried to piece together the several
stages of strange experience and to make a whole. He had shot a masked
outlaw the very sight of whom had been ill omen to riders; he had
carried off a wounded woman whose bloody lips quivered in prayer; he
had nursed what seemed a frail, shrunken boy; and now he watched a girl
whose face had become strangely sweet, whose dark-blue eyes were ever
upon him without boldness, without shyness, but with a steady, grave,
and growing light. Many times Venters found the clear gaze embarrassing
to him, yet, like wine, it had an exhilarating effect. What did she
think when she looked at him so? Almost he believed she had no thought
at all. All about her and the present there in Surprise Valley, and
the dim yet subtly impending future, fascinated Venters and made him
thoughtful as all his lonely vigils in the sage had not.

Chiefly it was the present that he wished to dwell upon; but it was the
call of the future which stirred him to action. No idea had he of
what that future had in store for Bess and him. He began to think
of improving Surprise Valley as a place to live in, for there was
no telling how long they would be compelled to stay there. Venters
stubbornly resisted the entering into his mind of an insistent thought
that, clearly realized, might have made it plain to him that he did
not want to leave Surprise Valley at all. But it was imperative that he
consider practical matters; and whether or not he was destined to stay
long there, he felt the immediate need of a change of diet. It would be
necessary for him to go farther afield for a variety of meat, and also
that he soon visit Cottonwoods for a supply of food.

It occurred again to Venters that he could go to the canyon where
Oldring kept his cattle, and at little risk he could pack out some beef.
He wished to do this, however, without letting Bess know of it till
after he had made the trip. Presently he hit upon the plan of going
while she was asleep.

That very night he stole out of camp, climbed up under the stone bridge,
and entered the outlet to the Pass. The gorge was full of luminous
gloom. Balancing Rock loomed dark and leaned over the pale descent.
Transformed in the shadowy light, it took shape and dimensions of a
spectral god waiting--waiting for the moment to hurl himself down upon
the tottering walls and close forever the outlet to Deception Pass. At
night more than by day Venters felt something fearful and fateful in
that rock, and that it had leaned and waited through a thousand years to
have somehow to deal with his destiny.

“Old man, if you must roll, wait till I get back to the girl, and then
roll!” he said, aloud, as if the stones were indeed a god.

And those spoken words, in their grim note to his ear, as well as
contents to his mind, told Venters that he was all but drifting on a
current which he had not power nor wish to stem.

Venters exercised his usual care in the matter of hiding tracks from the
outlet, yet it took him scarcely an hour to reach Oldring’s cattle.
Here sight of many calves changed his original intention, and instead
of packing out meat he decided to take a calf out alive. He roped one,
securely tied its feet, and swung it over his shoulder. Here was an
exceedingly heavy burden, but Venters was powerful--he could take up
a sack of grain and with ease pitch it over a pack-saddle--and he made
long distance without resting. The hardest work came in the climb up to
the outlet and on through to the valley. When he had accomplished it,
he became fired with another idea that again changed his intention.
He would not kill the calf, but keep it alive. He would go back to
Oldring’s herd and pack out more calves. Thereupon he secured the calf
in the best available spot for the moment and turned to make a second
trip.

When Venters got back to the valley with another calf, it was close upon
daybreak. He crawled into his cave and slept late. Bess had no inkling
that he had been absent from camp nearly all night, and only remarked
solicitously that he appeared to be more tired than usual, and more in
the need of sleep. In the afternoon Venters built a gate across a small
ravine near camp, and here corralled the calves; and he succeeded in
completing his task without Bess being any the wiser.

That night he made two more trips to Oldring’s range, and again on the
following night, and yet another on the next. With eight calves in his
corral, he concluded that he had enough; but it dawned upon him then
that he did not want to kill one. “I’ve rustled Oldring’s cattle,” he
said, and laughed. He noted then that all the calves were red. “Red!”
 he exclaimed. “From the red herd. I’ve stolen Jane Withersteen’s
cattle!... That’s about the strangest thing yet.”

One more trip he undertook to Oldring’s valley, and this time he roped
a yearling steer and killed it and cut out a small quarter of beef. The
howling of coyotes told him he need have no apprehension that the work
of his knife would be discovered. He packed the beef back to camp and
hung it upon a spruce-tree. Then he sought his bed.

On the morrow he was up bright and early, glad that he had a surprise
for Bess. He could hardly wait for her to come out. Presently she
appeared and walked under the spruce. Then she approached the camp-fire.
There was a tinge of healthy red in the bronze of her cheeks, and her
slender form had begun to round out in graceful lines.

“Bess, didn’t you say you were tired of rabbit?” inquired Venters. “And
quail and beaver?”

“Indeed I did.”

“What would you like?”

“I’m tired of meat, but if we have to live on it I’d like some beef.”

“Well, how does that strike you?” Venters pointed to the quarter hanging
from the spruce-tree. “We’ll have fresh beef for a few days, then we’ll
cut the rest into strips and dry it.”

“Where did you get that?” asked Bess, slowly.

“I stole that from Oldring.”

“You went back to the canyon--you risked--” While she hesitated the
tinge of bloom faded out of her cheeks.

“It wasn’t any risk, but it was hard work.”

“I’m sorry I said I was tired of rabbit. Why! How--When did you get that
beef?”

“Last night.”

“While I was asleep?”

“Yes.”

“I woke last night sometime--but I didn’t know.”

Her eyes were widening, darkening with thought, and whenever they did
so the steady, watchful, seeing gaze gave place to the wistful light. In
the former she saw as the primitive woman without thought; in the latter
she looked inward, and her gaze was the reflection of a troubled mind.
For long Venters had not seen that dark change, that deepening of blue,
which he thought was beautiful and sad. But now he wanted to make her
think.

“I’ve done more than pack in that beef,” he said. “For five nights I’ve
been working while you slept. I’ve got eight calves corralled near a
ravine. Eight calves, all alive and doing fine!”

“You went five nights!”

All that Venters could make of the dilation of her eyes, her slow
pallor, and her exclamation, was fear--fear for herself or for him.

“Yes. I didn’t tell you, because I knew you were afraid to be left
alone.”

“Alone?” She echoed his word, but the meaning of it was nothing to her.
She had not even thought of being left alone. It was not, then, fear for
herself, but for him. This girl, always slow of speech and action, now
seemed almost stupid. She put forth a hand that might have indicated the
groping of her mind. Suddenly she stepped swiftly to him, with a look
and touch that drove from him any doubt of her quick intelligence or
feeling.

“Oldring has men watch the herds--they would kill you. You must never go
again!”

When she had spoken, the strength and the blaze of her died, and she
swayed toward Venters.

“Bess, I’ll not go again,” he said, catching her.

She leaned against him, and her body was limp and vibrated to a long,
wavering tremble. Her face was upturned to his. Woman’s face, woman’s
eyes, woman’s lips--all acutely and blindly and sweetly and terribly
truthful in their betrayal! But as her fear was instinctive, so was her
clinging to this one and only friend.

Venters gently put her from him and steadied her upon her feet; and all
the while his blood raced wild, and a thrilling tingle unsteadied his
nerve, and something--that he had seen and felt in her--that he could
not understand--seemed very close to him, warm and rich as a fragrant
breath, sweet as nothing had ever before been sweet to him.

With all his will Venters strove for calmness and thought and judgment
unbiased by pity, and reality unswayed by sentiment. Bess’s eyes were
still fixed upon him with all her soul bright in that wistful light.
Swiftly, resolutely he put out of mind all of her life except what had
been spent with him. He scorned himself for the intelligence that made
him still doubt. He meant to judge her as she had judged him. He was
face to face with the inevitableness of life itself. He saw destiny in
the dark, straight path of her wonderful eyes. Here was the simplicity,
the sweetness of a girl contending with new and strange and enthralling
emotions here the living truth of innocence; here the blind terror of a
woman confronted with the thought of death to her savior and protector.
All this Venters saw, but, besides, there was in Bess’s eyes a
slow-dawning consciousness that seemed about to break out in glorious
radiance.

“Bess, are you thinking?” he asked.

“Yes--oh yes!”

“Do you realize we are here alone--man and woman?”

“Yes.”

“Have you thought that we may make our way out to civilization, or we
may have to stay here--alone--hidden from the world all our lives?”

“I never thought--till now.”

“Well, what’s your choice--to go--or to stay here--alone with me?”

“Stay!” New-born thought of self, ringing vibrantly in her voice, gave
her answer singular power.

Venters trembled, and then swiftly turned his gaze from her face--from
her eyes. He knew what she had only half divined--that she loved him.



CHAPTER XI. FAITH AND UNFAITH

At Jane Withersteen’s home the promise made to Mrs. Larkin to care for
little Fay had begun to be fulfilled. Like a gleam of sunlight through
the cottonwoods was the coming of the child to the gloomy house of
Withersteen. The big, silent halls echoed with childish laughter. In the
shady court, where Jane spent many of the hot July days, Fay’s tiny
feet pattered over the stone flags and splashed in the amber stream. She
prattled incessantly. What difference, Jane thought, a child made in her
home! It had never been a real home, she discovered. Even the tidiness
and neatness she had so observed, and upon which she had insisted to her
women, became, in the light of Fay’s smile, habits that now lost their
importance. Fay littered the court with Jane’s books and papers, and
other toys her fancy improvised, and many a strange craft went floating
down the little brook.

And it was owing to Fay’s presence that Jane Withersteen came to see
more of Lassiter. The rider had for the most part kept to the sage. He
rode for her, but he did not seek her except on business; and Jane had
to acknowledge in pique that her overtures had been made in vain. Fay,
however, captured Lassiter the moment he first laid eyes on her.

Jane was present at the meeting, and there was something about it which
dimmed her sight and softened her toward this foe of her people. The
rider had clanked into the court, a tired yet wary man, always looking
for the attack upon him that was inevitable and might come from any
quarter; and he had walked right upon little Fay. The child had been
beautiful even in her rags and amid the surroundings of the hovel in the
sage, but now, in a pretty white dress, with her shining curls brushed
and her face clean and rosy, she was lovely. She left her play and
looked up at Lassiter.

If there was not an instinct for all three of them in that meeting, an
unreasoning tendency toward a closer intimacy, then Jane Withersteen
believed she had been subject to a queer fancy. She imagined any child
would have feared Lassiter. And Fay Larkin had been a lonely, a solitary
elf of the sage, not at all an ordinary child, and exquisitely shy
with strangers. She watched Lassiter with great, round, grave eyes, but
showed no fear. The rider gave Jane a favorable report of cattle and
horses; and as he took the seat to which she invited him, little Fay
edged as much as half an inch nearer. Jane replied to his look of
inquiry and told Fay’s story. The rider’s gray, earnest gaze troubled
her. Then he turned to Fay and smiled in a way that made Jane doubt her
sense of the true relation of things. How could Lassiter smile so at a
child when he had made so many children fatherless? But he did smile,
and to the gentleness she had seen a few times he added something that
was infinitely sad and sweet. Jane’s intuition told her that Lassiter
had never been a father, but if life ever so blessed him he would be a
good one. Fay, also, must have found that smile singularly winning. For
she edged closer and closer, and then, by way of feminine capitulation,
went to Jane, from whose side she bent a beautiful glance upon the
rider.

Lassiter only smiled at her.

Jane watched them, and realized that now was the moment she should
seize, if she was ever to win this man from his hatred. But the step was
not easy to take. The more she saw of Lassiter the more she respected
him, and the greater her respect the harder it became to lend herself to
mere coquetry. Yet as she thought of her great motive, of Tull, and
of that other whose name she had schooled herself never to think of
in connection with Milly Erne’s avenger, she suddenly found she had no
choice. And her creed gave her boldness far beyond the limit to which
vanity would have led her.

“Lassiter, I see so little of you now,” she said, and was conscious of
heat in her cheeks.

“I’ve been riding hard,” he replied.

“But you can’t live in the saddle. You come in sometimes. Won’t you come
here to see me--oftener?”

“Is that an order?”

“Nonsense! I simply ask you to come to see me when you find time.”

“Why?”

The query once heard was not so embarrassing to Jane as she might have
imagined. Moreover, it established in her mind a fact that there existed
actually other than selfish reasons for her wanting to see him. And as
she had been bold, so she determined to be both honest and brave.

“I’ve reasons--only one of which I need mention,” she answered. “If it’s
possible I want to change you toward my people. And on the moment I can
conceive of little I wouldn’t do to gain that end.”

How much better and freer Jane felt after that confession! She meant to
show him that there was one Mormon who could play a game or wage a fight
in the open.

“I reckon,” said Lassiter, and he laughed.

It was the best in her, if the most irritating, that Lassiter always
aroused.

“Will you come?” She looked into his eyes, and for the life of her could
not quite subdue an imperiousness that rose with her spirit. “I never
asked so much of any man--except Bern Venters.”

“‘Pears to me that you’d run no risk, or Venters, either. But mebbe that
doesn’t hold good for me.”

“You mean it wouldn’t be safe for you to be often here? You look for
ambush in the cottonwoods?”

“Not that so much.”

At this juncture little Fay sidled over to Lassiter.

“Has oo a little dirl?” she inquired.

“No, lassie,” replied the rider.

Whatever Fay seemed to be searching for in Lassiter’s sun-reddened face
and quiet eyes she evidently found. “Oo tan tom to see me,” she added,
and with that, shyness gave place to friendly curiosity. First his
sombrero with its leather band and silver ornaments commanded her
attention; next his quirt, and then the clinking, silver spurs. These
held her for some time, but presently, true to childish fickleness, she
left off playing with them to look for something else. She laughed in
glee as she ran her little hands down the slippery, shiny surface
of Lassiter’s leather chaps. Soon she discovered one of the hanging
gun--sheaths, and she dragged it up and began tugging at the huge black
handle of the gun. Jane Withersteen repressed an exclamation. What
significance there was to her in the little girl’s efforts to dislodge
that heavy weapon! Jane Withersteen saw Fay’s play and her beauty and
her love as most powerful allies to her own woman’s part in a game that
suddenly had acquired a strange zest and a hint of danger. And as for
the rider, he appeared to have forgotten Jane in the wonder of this
lovely child playing about him. At first he was much the shyer of the
two. Gradually her confidence overcame his backwardness, and he had the
temerity to stroke her golden curls with a great hand. Fay rewarded his
boldness with a smile, and when he had gone to the extreme of closing
that great hand over her little brown one, she said, simply, “I like
oo!”

Sight of his face then made Jane oblivious for the time to his character
as a hater of Mormons. Out of the mother longing that swelled her breast
she divined the child hunger in Lassiter.

He returned the next day, and the next; and upon the following he came
both at morning and at night. Upon the evening of this fourth day Jane
seemed to feel the breaking of a brooding struggle in Lassiter. During
all these visits he had scarcely a word to say, though he watched her
and played absent-mindedly with Fay. Jane had contented herself with
silence. Soon little Fay substituted for the expression of regard, “I
like oo,” a warmer and more generous one, “I love oo.”

Thereafter Lassiter came oftener to see Jane and her little protegee.
Daily he grew more gentle and kind, and gradually developed a quaintly
merry mood. In the morning he lifted Fay upon his horse and let her
ride as he walked beside her to the edge of the sage. In the evening he
played with the child at an infinite variety of games she invented,
and then, oftener than not, he accepted Jane’s invitation to supper. No
other visitor came to Withersteen House during those days. So that in
spite of watchfulness he never forgot, Lassiter began to show he felt at
home there. After the meal they walked into the grove of cottonwoods or
up by the lakes, and little Fay held Lassiter’s hand as much as she held
Jane’s. Thus a strange relationship was established, and Jane liked it.
At twilight they always returned to the house, where Fay kissed them and
went in to her mother. Lassiter and Jane were left alone.

Then, if there were anything that a good woman could do to win a man
and still preserve her self-respect, it was something which escaped the
natural subtlety of a woman determined to allure. Jane’s vanity, that
after all was not great, was soon satisfied with Lassiter’s silent
admiration. And her honest desire to lead him from his dark,
blood-stained path would never have blinded her to what she owed
herself. But the driving passion of her religion, and its call to save
Mormons’ lives, one life in particular, bore Jane Withersteen close to
an infringement of her womanhood. In the beginning she had reasoned that
her appeal to Lassiter must be through the senses. With whatever means
she possessed in the way of adornment she enhanced her beauty. And she
stooped to artifices that she knew were unworthy of her, but which
she deliberately chose to employ. She made of herself a girl in every
variable mood wherein a girl might be desirable. In those moods she was
not above the methods of an inexperienced though natural flirt. She
kept close to him whenever opportunity afforded; and she was forever
playfully, yet passionately underneath the surface, fighting him for
possession of the great black guns. These he would never yield to her.
And so in that manner their hands were often and long in contact. The
more of simplicity that she sensed in him the greater the advantage she
took.

She had a trick of changing--and it was not altogether voluntary--from
this gay, thoughtless, girlish coquettishness to the silence and the
brooding, burning mystery of a woman’s mood. The strength and passion
and fire of her were in her eyes, and she so used them that Lassiter had
to see this depth in her, this haunting promise more fitted to her years
than to the flaunting guise of a wilful girl.

The July days flew by. Jane reasoned that if it were possible for her to
be happy during such a time, then she was happy. Little Fay completely
filled a long aching void in her heart. In fettering the hands of this
Lassiter she was accomplishing the greatest good of her life, and to do
good even in a small way rendered happiness to Jane Withersteen. She had
attended the regular Sunday services of her church; otherwise she had
not gone to the village for weeks. It was unusual that none of her
churchmen or friends had called upon her of late; but it was neglect
for which she was glad. Judkins and his boy riders had experienced no
difficulty in driving the white herd. So these warm July days were free
of worry, and soon Jane hoped she had passed the crisis; and for her to
hope was presently to trust, and then to believe. She thought often of
Venters, but in a dreamy, abstract way. She spent hours teaching and
playing with little Fay. And the activity of her mind centered around
Lassiter. The direction she had given her will seemed to blunt any
branching off of thought from that straight line. The mood came to
obsess her.

In the end, when her awakening came, she learned that she had builded
better than she knew. Lassiter, though kinder and gentler than ever, had
parted with his quaint humor and his coldness and his tranquillity to
become a restless and unhappy man. Whatever the power of his deadly
intent toward Mormons, that passion now had a rival, the one equally
burning and consuming. Jane Withersteen had one moment of exultation
before the dawn of a strange uneasiness. What if she had made of herself
a lure, at tremendous cost to him and to her, and all in vain!

That night in the moonlit grove she summoned all her courage and,
turning suddenly in the path, she faced Lassiter and leaned close to
him, so that she touched him and her eyes looked up to his.

“Lassiter!... Will you do anything for me?”

In the moonlight she saw his dark, worn face change, and by that change
she seemed to feel him immovable as a wall of stone.

Jane slipped her hands down to the swinging gun-sheaths, and when she
had locked her fingers around the huge, cold handles of the guns, she
trembled as with a chilling ripple over all her body.

“May I take your guns?”

“Why?” he asked, and for the first time to her his voice carried a harsh
note. Jane felt his hard, strong hands close round her wrists. It was
not wholly with intent that she leaned toward him, for the look of his
eyes and the feel of his hands made her weak.

“It’s no trifle--no woman’s whim--it’s deep--as my heart. Let me take
them?”

“Why?”

“I want to keep you from killing more men--Mormons. You must let me save
you from more wickedness--more wanton bloodshed--” Then the truth forced
itself falteringly from her lips. “You must--let--help me to keep my vow
to Milly Erne. I swore to her--as she lay dying--that if ever any one
came here to avenge her--I swore I would stay his hand. Perhaps I--I
alone can save the--the man who--who--Oh, Lassiter!... I feel that I
can’t change you--then soon you’ll be out to kill--and you’ll kill
by instinct--and among the Mormons you kill will be the
one--who... Lassiter, if you care a little for me--let me--for my
sake--let me take your guns!”

As if her hands had been those of a child, he unclasped their clinging
grip from the handles of his guns, and, pushing her away, he turned his
gray face to her in one look of terrible realization and then strode off
into the shadows of the cottonwoods.

When the first shock of her futile appeal to Lassiter had passed, Jane
took his cold, silent condemnation and abrupt departure not so much as a
refusal to her entreaty as a hurt and stunned bitterness for her
attempt at his betrayal. Upon further thought and slow consideration of
Lassiter’s past actions, she believed he would return and forgive her.
The man could not be hard to a woman, and she doubted that he could
stay away from her. But at the point where she had hoped to find him
vulnerable she now began to fear he was proof against all persuasion.
The iron and stone quality that she had early suspected in him had
actually cropped out as an impregnable barrier. Nevertheless, if
Lassiter remained in Cottonwoods she would never give up her hope and
desire to change him. She would change him if she had to sacrifice
everything dear to her except hope of heaven. Passionately devoted as
she was to her religion, she had yet refused to marry a Mormon. But a
situation had developed wherein self paled in the great white light of
religious duty of the highest order. That was the leading motive,
the divinely spiritual one; but there were other motives, which, like
tentacles, aided in drawing her will to the acceptance of a possible
abnegation. And through the watches of that sleepless night Jane
Withersteen, in fear and sorrow and doubt, came finally to believe that
if she must throw herself into Lassiter’s arms to make him abide by
“Thou shalt not kill!” she would yet do well.

In the morning she expected Lassiter at the usual hour, but she was not
able to go at once to the court, so she sent little Fay. Mrs. Larkin was
ill and required attention. It appeared that the mother, from the time
of her arrival at Withersteen House, had relaxed and was slowly
losing her hold on life. Jane had believed that absence of worry and
responsibility coupled with good nursing and comfort would mend Mrs.
Larkin’s broken health. Such, however, was not the case.

When Jane did get out to the court, Fay was there alone, and at the
moment embarking on a dubious voyage down the stone-lined amber stream
upon a craft of two brooms and a pillow. Fay was as delightfully wet as
she could possibly wish to get.

Clatter of hoofs distracted Fay and interrupted the scolding she was
gleefully receiving from Jane. The sound was not the light-spirited trot
that Bells made when Lassiter rode him into the outer court. This was
slower and heavier, and Jane did not recognize in it any of her other
horses. The appearance of Bishop Dyer startled Jane. He dismounted with
his rapid, jerky motion flung the bridle, and, as he turned toward the
inner court and stalked up on the stone flags, his boots rang. In his
authoritative front, and in the red anger unmistakably flaming in his
face, he reminded Jane of her father.

“Is that the Larkin pauper?” he asked, bruskly, without any greeting to
Jane.

“It’s Mrs. Larkin’s little girl,” replied Jane, slowly.

“I hear you intend to raise the child?”

“Yes.”

“Of course you mean to give her Mormon bringing-up?”

“No.”

His questions had been swift. She was amazed at a feeling that some one
else was replying for her.

“I’ve come to say a few things to you.” He stopped to measure her with
stern, speculative eye.

Jane Withersteen loved this man. From earliest childhood she had been
taught to revere and love bishops of her church. And for ten years
Bishop Dyer had been the closest friend and counselor of her father,
and for the greater part of that period her own friend and Scriptural
teacher. Her interpretation of her creed and her religious activity in
fidelity to it, her acceptance of mysterious and holy Mormon truths,
were all invested in this Bishop. Bishop Dyer as an entity was next
to God. He was God’s mouthpiece to the little Mormon community at
Cottonwoods. God revealed himself in secret to this mortal.

And Jane Withersteen suddenly suffered a paralyzing affront to her
consciousness of reverence by some strange, irresistible twist of
thought wherein she saw this Bishop as a man. And the train of thought
hurdled the rising, crying protests of that other self whose poise she
had lost. It was not her Bishop who eyed her in curious measurement. It
was a man who tramped into her presence without removing his hat, who
had no greeting for her, who had no semblance of courtesy. In looks,
as in action, he made her think of a bull stamping cross-grained into a
corral. She had heard of Bishop Dyer forgetting the minister in the fury
of a common man, and now she was to feel it. The glance by which she
measured him in turn momentarily veiled the divine in the ordinary.
He looked a rancher; he was booted, spurred, and covered with dust; he
carried a gun at his hip, and she remembered that he had been known
to use it. But during the long moment while he watched her there was
nothing commonplace in the slow-gathering might of his wrath.

“Brother Tull has talked to me,” he began. “It was your father’s wish
that you marry Tull, and my order. You refused him?”

“Yes.”

“You would not give up your friendship with that tramp Venters?”

“No.”

“But you’ll do as _I_ order!” he thundered. “Why, Jane Withersteen, you
are in danger of becoming a heretic! You can thank your Gentile friends
for that. You face the damning of your soul to perdition.”

In the flux and reflux of the whirling torture of Jane’s mind, that new,
daring spirit of hers vanished in the old habitual order of her life.
She was a Mormon, and the Bishop regained ascendance.

“It’s well I got you in time, Jane Withersteen. What would your father
have said to these goings-on of yours? He would have put you in a
stone cage on bread and water. He would have taught you something about
Mormonism. Remember, you’re a born Mormon. There have been Mormons who
turned heretic--damn their souls!--but no born Mormon ever left us yet.
Ah, I see your shame. Your faith is not shaken. You are only a wild
girl.” The Bishop’s tone softened. “Well, it’s enough that I got to you
in time.... Now tell me about this Lassiter. I hear strange things.”

“What do you wish to know?” queried Jane.

“About this man. You hired him?”

“Yes, he’s riding for me. When my riders left me I had to have any one I
could get.”

“Is it true what I hear--that he’s a gun-man, a Mormon-hater, steeped in
blood?”

“True--terribly true, I fear.”

“But what’s he doing here in Cottonwoods? This place isn’t notorious
enough for such a man. Sterling and the villages north, where there’s
universal gun-packing and fights every day--where there are more men
like him, it seems to me they would attract him most. We’re only a wild,
lonely border settlement. It’s only recently that the rustlers have made
killings here. Nor have there been saloons till lately, nor the drifting
in of outcasts. Has not this gun-man some special mission here?”

Jane maintained silence.

“Tell me,” ordered Bishop Dyer, sharply.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Do you know what it is?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me that.”

“Bishop Dyer, I don’t want to tell.”

He waved his hand in an imperative gesture of command. The red once more
leaped to his face, and in his steel-blue eyes glinted a pin-point of
curiosity.

“That first day,” whispered Jane, “Lassiter said he came here to
find--Milly Erne’s grave!”

With downcast eyes Jane watched the swift flow of the amber water. She
saw it and tried to think of it, of the stones, of the ferns; but, like
her body, her mind was in a leaden vise. Only the Bishop’s voice could
release her. Seemingly there was silence of longer duration than all her
former life.

“For what--else?” When Bishop Dyer’s voice did cleave the silence it was
high, curiously shrill, and on the point of breaking. It released Jane’s
tongue, but she could not lift her eyes.

“To kill the man who persuaded Milly Erne to abandon her home and her
husband--and her God!”

With wonderful distinctness Jane Withersteen heard her own clear voice.
She heard the water murmur at her feet and flow on to the sea; she heard
the rushing of all the waters in the world. They filled her ears with
low, unreal murmurings--these sounds that deadened her brain and
yet could not break the long and terrible silence. Then, from
somewhere--from an immeasurable distance--came a slow, guarded,
clinking, clanking step. Into her it shot electrifying life. It released
the weight upon her numbed eyelids. Lifting her eyes she saw--ashen,
shaken, stricken--not the Bishop but the man! And beyond him, from
round the corner came that soft, silvery step. A long black boot with a
gleaming spur swept into sight--and then Lassiter! Bishop Dyer did not
see, did not hear: he stared at Jane in the throes of sudden revelation.

“Ah, I understand!” he cried, in hoarse accents. “That’s why you made
love to this Lassiter--to bind his hands!”

It was Jane’s gaze riveted upon the rider that made Bishop Dyer turn.
Then clear sight failed her. Dizzily, in a blur, she saw the Bishop’s
hand jerk to his hip. She saw gleam of blue and spout of red. In her
ears burst a thundering report. The court floated in darkening circles
around her, and she fell into utter blackness.

The darkness lightened, turned to slow-drifting haze, and lifted.
Through a thin film of blue smoke she saw the rough-hewn timbers of
the court roof. A cool, damp touch moved across her brow. She smelled
powder, and it was that which galvanized her suspended thought. She
moved, to see that she lay prone upon the stone flags with her head on
Lassiter’s knee, and he was bathing her brow with water from the stream.
The same swift glance, shifting low, brought into range of her sight a
smoking gun and splashes of blood.

“Ah-h!” she moaned, and was drifting, sinking again into darkness, when
Lassiter’s voice arrested her.

“It’s all right, Jane. It’s all right.”

“Did--you--kill--him?” she whispered.

“Who? That fat party who was here? No. I didn’t kill him.”

“Oh!... Lassiter!”

“Say! It was queer for you to faint. I thought you were such a strong
woman, not faintish like that. You’re all right now--only some pale.
I thought you’d never come to. But I’m awkward round women folks. I
couldn’t think of anythin’.”

“Lassiter!... the gun there!... the blood!”

“So that’s troublin’ you. I reckon it needn’t. You see it was this way.
I come round the house an’ seen that fat party an’ heard him talkin’
loud. Then he seen me, an’ very impolite goes straight for his gun. He
oughtn’t have tried to throw a gun on me--whatever his reason was. For
that’s meetin’ me on my own grounds. I’ve seen runnin’ molasses that
was quicker ‘n him. Now I didn’t know who he was, visitor or friend
or relation of yours, though I seen he was a Mormon all over, an’ I
couldn’t get serious about shootin’. So I winged him--put a bullet
through his arm as he was pullin’ at his gun. An’ he dropped the
gun there, an’ a little blood. I told him he’d introduced himself
sufficient, an’ to please move out of my vicinity. An’ he went.”

Lassiter spoke with slow, cool, soothing voice, in which there was a
hint of levity, and his touch, as he continued to bathe her brow, was
gentle and steady. His impassive face, and the kind gray eyes, further
stilled her agitation.

“He drew on you first, and you deliberately shot to cripple him--you
wouldn’t kill him--you--Lassiter?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

Jane kissed his hand.

All that was calm and cool about Lassiter instantly vanished.

“Don’t do that! I won’t stand it! An’ I don’t care a damn who that fat
party was.”

He helped Jane to her feet and to a chair. Then with the wet scarf he
had used to bathe her face he wiped the blood from the stone flags and,
picking up the gun, he threw it upon a couch. With that he began to
pace the court, and his silver spurs jangled musically, and the great
gun-sheaths softly brushed against his leather chaps.

“So--it’s true--what I heard him say?” Lassiter asked, presently halting
before her. “You made love to me--to bind my hands?”

“Yes,” confessed Jane. It took all her woman’s courage to meet the gray
storm of his glance.

“All these days that you’ve been so friendly an’ like a pardner--all
these evenin’s that have been so bewilderin’ to me--your
beauty--an’--an’ the way you looked an’ came close to me--they were
woman’s tricks to bind my hands?”

“Yes.”

“An’ your sweetness that seemed so natural, an’ your throwin’ little Fay
an’ me so much together--to make me love the child--all that was for the
same reason?”

“Yes.”

Lassiter flung his arms--a strange gesture for him.

“Mebbe it wasn’t much in your Mormon thinkin’, for you to play that
game. But to ring the child in--that was hellish!”

Jane’s passionate, unheeding zeal began to loom darkly.

“Lassiter, whatever my intention in the beginning, Fay loves you
dearly--and I--I’ve grown to--to like you.”

“That’s powerful kind of you, now,” he said. Sarcasm and scorn made his
voice that of a stranger. “An’ you sit there an’ look me straight in the
eyes! You’re a wonderful strange woman, Jane Withersteen.”

“I’m not ashamed, Lassiter. I told you I’d try to change you.”

“Would you mind tellin’ me just what you tried?”

“I tried to make you see beauty in me and be softened by it. I wanted
you to care for me so that I could influence you. It wasn’t easy. At
first you were stone-blind. Then I hoped you’d love little Fay, and
through that come to feel the horror of making children fatherless.”

“Jane Withersteen, either you’re a fool or noble beyond my
understandin’. Mebbe you’re both. I know you’re blind. What you meant is
one thing--what you did was to make me love you.”

“Lassiter!”

“I reckon I’m a human bein’, though I never loved any one but my sister,
Milly Erne. That was long--”

“Oh, are you Milly’s brother?”

“Yes, I was, an’ I loved her. There never was any one but her in my life
till now. Didn’t I tell you that long ago I back-trailed myself from
women? I was a Texas ranger till--till Milly left home, an’ then I
became somethin’ else--Lassiter! For years I’ve been a lonely man set on
one thing. I came here an’ met you. An’ now I’m not the man I was. The
change was gradual, an’ I took no notice of it. I understand now that
never-satisfied longin’ to see you, listen to you, watch you, feel you
near me. It’s plain now why you were never out of my thoughts. I’ve had
no thoughts but of you. I’ve lived an’ breathed for you. An’ now when I
know what it means--what you’ve done--I’m burnin’ up with hell’s fire!”

“Oh, Lassiter--no--no--you don’t love me that way!” Jane cased.

“If that’s what love is, then I do.”

“Forgive me! I didn’t mean to make you love me like that. Oh, what a
tangle of our lives! You--Milly Erne’s brother! And I--heedless, mad to
melt your heart toward Mormons. Lassiter, I may be wicked but not wicked
enough to hate. If I couldn’t hate Tull, could I hate you?”

“After all, Jane, mebbe you’re only blind--Mormon blind. That only can
explain what’s close to selfishness--”

“I’m not selfish. I despise the very word. If I were free--”

“But you’re not free. Not free of Mormonism. An’ in playin’ this game
with me you’ve been unfaithful.”

“Un-faithful!” faltered Jane.

“Yes, I said unfaithful. You’re faithful to your Bishop an’ unfaithful
to yourself. You’re false to your womanhood an’ true to your
religion. But for a savin’ innocence you’d have made yourself low an’
vile--betrayin’ yourself, betrayin’ me--all to bind my hands an’ keep me
from snuffin’ out Mormon life. It’s your damned Mormon blindness.”

“Is it vile--is it blind--is it only Mormonism to save human life? No,
Lassiter, that’s God’s law, divine, universal for all Christians.”

“The blindness I mean is blindness that keeps you from seein’ the truth.
I’ve known many good Mormons. But some are blacker than hell. You won’t
see that even when you know it. Else, why all this blind passion to save
the life of that--that....”

Jane shut out the light, and the hands she held over her eyes trembled
and quivered against her face.

“Blind--yes, en’ let me make it clear en’ simple to you,” Lassiter went
on, his voice losing its tone of anger. “Take, for instance, that idea
of yours last night when you wanted my guns. It was good an’ beautiful,
an’ showed your heart--but--why, Jane, it was crazy. Mind I’m assumin’
that life to me is as sweet as to any other man. An’ to preserve that
life is each man’s first an’ closest thought. Where would any man be on
this border without guns? Where, especially, would Lassiter be? Well,
I’d be under the sage with thousands of other men now livin’ an’ sure
better men than me. Gun-packin’ in the West since the Civil War has
growed into a kind of moral law. An’ out here on this border it’s the
difference between a man an’ somethin’ not a man. Look what your takin’
Venters’s guns from him all but made him! Why, your churchmen carry
guns. Tull has killed a man an’ drawed on others. Your Bishop has shot
a half dozen men, an’ it wasn’t through prayers of his that they
recovered. An’ to-day he’d have shot me if he’d been quick enough on the
draw. Could I walk or ride down into Cottonwoods without my guns?
This is a wild time, Jane Withersteen, this year of our Lord eighteen
seventy-one.”

“No time--for a woman!” exclaimed Jane, brokenly. “Oh, Lassiter, I feel
helpless--lost--and don’t know where to turn. If I am blind--then--I
need some one--a friend--you, Lassiter--more than ever!”

“Well, I didn’t say nothin’ about goin’ back on you, did I?”



CHAPTER XII. THE INVISIBLE HAND

Jane received a letter from Bishop Dyer, not in his own handwriting,
which stated that the abrupt termination of their interview had left
him in some doubt as to her future conduct. A slight injury had
incapacitated him from seeking another meeting at present, the letter
went on to say, and ended with a request which was virtually a command,
that she call upon him at once.

The reading of the letter acquainted Jane Withersteen with the fact that
something within her had all but changed. She sent no reply to Bishop
Dyer nor did she go to see him. On Sunday she remained absent from the
service--for the second time in years--and though she did not actually
suffer there was a dead-lock of feelings deep within her, and the
waiting for a balance to fall on either side was almost as bad as
suffering. She had a gloomy expectancy of untoward circumstances,
and with it a keen-edged curiosity to watch developments. She had
a half-formed conviction that her future conduct--as related to her
churchmen--was beyond her control and would be governed by their
attitude toward her. Something was changing in her, forming, waiting for
decision to make it a real and fixed thing. She had told Lassiter that
she felt helpless and lost in the fateful tangle of their lives; and now
she feared that she was approaching the same chaotic condition of mind
in regard to her religion. It appalled her to find that she questioned
phases of that religion. Absolute faith had been her serenity. Though
leaving her faith unshaken, her serenity had been disturbed, and now
it was broken by open war between her and her ministers. That something
within her--a whisper--which she had tried in vain to hush had become
a ringing voice, and it called to her to wait. She had transgressed
no laws of God. Her churchmen, however invested with the power and the
glory of a wonderful creed, however they sat in inexorable judgment of
her, must now practice toward her the simple, common, Christian virtue
they professed to preach, “Do unto others as you would have others do
unto you!”

Jane Withersteen, waiting in darkness of mind, remained faithful still.
But it was darkness that must soon be pierced by light. If her faith
were justified, if her churchmen were trying only to intimidate her, the
fact would soon be manifest, as would their failure, and then she would
redouble her zeal toward them and toward what had been the best work
of her life--work for the welfare and happiness of those among whom she
lived, Mormon and Gentile alike. If that secret, intangible power closed
its coils round her again, if that great invisible hand moved here and
there and everywhere, slowly paralyzing her with its mystery and its
inconceivable sway over her affairs, then she would know beyond doubt
that it was not chance, nor jealousy, nor intimidation, nor ministerial
wrath at her revolt, but a cold and calculating policy thought out long
before she was born, a dark, immutable will of whose empire she and all
that was hers was but an atom.

Then might come her ruin. Then might come her fall into black storm.
Yet she would rise again, and to the light. God would be merciful to a
driven woman who had lost her way.

A week passed. Little Fay played and prattled and pulled at Lassiter’s
big black guns. The rider came to Withersteen House oftener than ever.
Jane saw a change in him, though it did not relate to his kindness and
gentleness. He was quieter and more thoughtful. While playing with Fay
or conversing with Jane he seemed to be possessed of another self that
watched with cool, roving eyes, that listened, listened always as if the
murmuring amber stream brought messages, and the moving leaves whispered
something. Lassiter never rode Bells into the court any more, nor did
he come by the lane or the paths. When he appeared it was suddenly and
noiselessly out of the dark shadow of the grove.

“I left Bells out in the sage,” he said, one day at the end of that
week. “I must carry water to him.”

“Why not let him drink at the trough or here?” asked Jane, quickly.

“I reckon it’ll be safer for me to slip through the grove. I’ve been
watched when I rode in from the sage.”

“Watched? By whom?”

“By a man who thought he was well hid. But my eyes are pretty sharp.
An’, Jane,” he went on, almost in a whisper, “I reckon it’d be a good
idea for us to talk low. You’re spied on here by your women.”

“Lassiter!” she whispered in turn. “That’s hard to believe. My women
love me.”

“What of that?” he asked. “Of course they love you. But they’re Mormon
women.”

Jane’s old, rebellious loyalty clashed with her doubt.

“I won’t believe it,” she replied, stubbornly.

“Well then, just act natural an’ talk natural, an’ pretty soon--give
them time to hear us--pretend to go over there to the table, en’ then
quick-like make a move for the door en’ open it.”

“I will,” said Jane, with heightened color. Lassiter was right; he never
made mistakes; he would not have told her unless he positively knew. Yet
Jane was so tenacious of faith that she had to see with her own eyes,
and so constituted that to employ even such small deceit toward her
women made her ashamed, and angry for her shame as well as theirs. Then
a singular thought confronted her that made her hold up this simple
ruse--which hurt her, though it was well justified--against the deceit
she had wittingly and eagerly used toward Lassiter. The difference was
staggering in its suggestion of that blindness of which he had accused
her. Fairness and justice and mercy, that she had imagined were
anchor-cables to hold fast her soul to righteousness had not been hers
in the strange, biased duty that had so exalted and confounded her.

Presently Jane began to act her little part, to laugh and play with
Fay, to talk of horses and cattle to Lassiter. Then she made deliberate
mention of a book in which she kept records of all pertaining to her
stock, and she walked slowly toward the table, and when near the door
she suddenly whirled and thrust it open. Her sharp action nearly knocked
down a woman who had undoubtedly been listening.

“Hester,” said Jane, sternly, “you may go home, and you need not come
back.”

Jane shut the door and returned to Lassiter. Standing unsteadily, she
put her hand on his arm. She let him see that doubt had gone, and how
this stab of disloyalty pained her.

“Spies! My own women!... Oh, miserable!” she cried, with flashing,
tearful eyes.

“I hate to tell you,” he replied. By that she knew he had long spared
her. “It’s begun again--that work in the dark.”

“Nay, Lassiter--it never stopped!”

So bitter certainty claimed her at last, and trust fled Withersteen
House and fled forever. The women who owed much to Jane Withersteen
changed not in love for her, nor in devotion to their household work,
but they poisoned both by a thousand acts of stealth and cunning and
duplicity. Jane broke out once and caught them in strange, stone-faced,
unhesitating falsehood. Thereafter she broke out no more. She forgave
them because they were driven. Poor, fettered, and sealed Hagars, how
she pitied them! What terrible thing bound them and locked their
lips, when they showed neither consciousness of guilt toward their
benefactress nor distress at the slow wearing apart of long-established
and dear ties?

“The blindness again!” cried Jane Withersteen. “In my sisters as in
me!... O God!”

There came a time when no words passed between Jane and her women.
Silently they went about their household duties, and secretly they went
about the underhand work to which they had been bidden. The gloom of
the house and the gloom of its mistress, which darkened even the bright
spirit of little Fay, did not pervade these women. Happiness was not
among them, but they were aloof from gloom. They spied and listened;
they received and sent secret messengers; and they stole Jane’s books
and records, and finally the papers that were deeds of her possessions.
Through it all they were silent, rapt in a kind of trance. Then one by
one, without leave or explanation or farewell, they left Withersteen
House, and never returned.

Coincident with this disappearance Jane’s gardeners and workers in the
alfalfa fields and stable men quit her, not even asking for their wages.
Of all her Mormon employees about the great ranch only Jerd remained. He
went on with his duty, but talked no more of the change than if it had
never occurred.

“Jerd,” said Jane, “what stock you can’t take care of turn out in the
sage. Let your first thought be for Black Star and Night. Keep them in
perfect condition. Run them every day and watch them always.”

Though Jane Withersteen gave them such liberality, she loved her
possessions. She loved the rich, green stretches of alfalfa, and the
farms, and the grove, and the old stone house, and the beautiful,
ever-faithful amber spring, and every one of a myriad of horses and
colts and burros and fowls down to the smallest rabbit that nipped her
vegetables; but she loved best her noble Arabian steeds. In common with
all riders of the upland sage Jane cherished two material things--the
cold, sweet, brown water that made life possible in the wilderness and
the horses which were a part of that life. When Lassiter asked her what
Lassiter would be without his guns he was assuming that his horse was
part of himself. So Jane loved Black Star and Night because it was her
nature to love all beautiful creatures--perhaps all living things; and
then she loved them because she herself was of the sage and in her
had been born and bred the rider’s instinct to rely on his four-footed
brother. And when Jane gave Jerd the order to keep her favorites trained
down to the day it was a half-conscious admission that presaged a time
when she would need her fleet horses.

Jane had now, however, no leisure to brood over the coils that were
closing round her. Mrs. Larkin grew weaker as the August days began;
she required constant care; there was little Fay to look after; and such
household work as was imperative. Lassiter put Bells in the stable with
the other racers, and directed his efforts to a closer attendance upon
Jane. She welcomed the change. He was always at hand to help, and it was
her fortune to learn that his boast of being awkward around women had
its root in humility and was not true.

His great, brown hands were skilled in a multiplicity of ways which a
woman might have envied. He shared Jane’s work, and was of especial help
to her in nursing Mrs. Larkin. The woman suffered most at night, and
this often broke Jane’s rest. So it came about that Lassiter would stay
by Mrs. Larkin during the day, when she needed care, and Jane would make
up the sleep she lost in night-watches. Mrs. Larkin at once took kindly
to the gentle Lassiter, and, without ever asking who or what he was,
praised him to Jane. “He’s a good man and loves children,” she said. How
sad to hear this truth spoken of a man whom Jane thought lost beyond all
redemption! Yet ever and ever Lassiter towered above her, and behind
or through his black, sinister figure shone something luminous that
strangely affected Jane. Good and evil began to seem incomprehensibly
blended in her judgment. It was her belief that evil could not come
forth from good; yet here was a murderer who dwarfed in gentleness,
patience, and love any man she had ever known.

She had almost lost track of her more outside concerns when early one
morning Judkins presented himself before her in the courtyard.

Thin, hard, burnt, bearded, with the dust and sage thick on him, with
his leather wrist-bands shining from use, and his boots worn through on
the stirrup side, he looked the rider of riders. He wore two guns and
carried a Winchester.

Jane greeted him with surprise and warmth, set meat and bread and
drink before him; and called Lassiter out to see him. The men exchanged
glances, and the meaning of Lassiter’s keen inquiry and Judkins’s bold
reply, both unspoken, was not lost upon Jane.

“Where’s your hoss?” asked Lassiter, aloud.

“Left him down the slope,” answered Judkins. “I footed it in a ways, an’
slept last night in the sage. I went to the place you told me you ‘moss
always slept, but didn’t strike you.”

“I moved up some, near the spring, an’ now I go there nights.”

“Judkins--the white herd?” queried Jane, hurriedly.

“Miss Withersteen, I make proud to say I’ve not lost a steer. Fer a good
while after thet stampede Lassiter milled we hed no trouble. Why, even
the sage dogs left us. But it’s begun agin--thet flashin’ of lights
over ridge tips, an’ queer puffin’ of smoke, en’ then at night strange
whistles en’ noises. But the herd’s acted magnificent. An’ my boys, say,
Miss Withersteen, they’re only kids, but I ask no better riders. I got
the laugh in the village fer takin’ them out. They’re a wild lot, an’
you know boys hev more nerve than grown men, because they don’t know
what danger is. I’m not denyin’ there’s danger. But they glory in it,
an’ mebbe I like it myself--anyway, we’ll stick. We’re goin’ to drive
the herd on the far side of the first break of Deception Pass. There’s
a great round valley over there, an’ no ridges or piles of rocks to aid
these stampeders. The rains are due. We’ll hev plenty of water fer a
while. An’ we can hold thet herd from anybody except Oldrin’. I come
in fer supplies. I’ll pack a couple of burros an’ drive out after dark
to-night.”

“Judkins, take what you want from the store-room. Lassiter will help
you. I--I can’t thank you enough... but--wait.”

Jane went to the room that had once been her father’s, and from a secret
chamber in the thick stone wall she took a bag of gold, and, carrying it
back to the court, she gave it to the rider.

“There, Judkins, and understand that I regard it as little for your
loyalty. Give what is fair to your boys, and keep the rest. Hide it.
Perhaps that would be wisest.”

“Oh... Miss Withersteen!” ejaculated the rider. “I couldn’t earn so much
in--in ten years. It’s not right--I oughtn’t take it.”

“Judkins, you know I’m a rich woman. I tell you I’ve few faithful
friends. I’ve fallen upon evil days. God only knows what will become of
me and mine! So take the gold.”

She smiled in understanding of his speechless gratitude, and left him
with Lassiter. Presently she heard him speaking low at first, then in
louder accents emphasized by the thumping of his rifle on the stones.
“As infernal a job as even you, Lassiter, ever heerd of.”

“Why, son,” was Lassiter’s reply, “this breakin’ of Miss Withersteen may
seem bad to you, but it ain’t bad--yet. Some of these wall-eyed fellers
who look jest as if they was walkin’ in the shadow of Christ himself,
right down the sunny road, now they can think of things en’ do things
that are really hell-bent.”

Jane covered her ears and ran to her own room, and there like caged
lioness she paced to and fro till the coming of little Fay reversed her
dark thoughts.

The following day, a warm and muggy one threatening rain awhile Jane was
resting in the court, a horseman clattered through the grove and up to
the hitching-rack. He leaped off and approached Jane with the manner
of a man determined to execute difficult mission, yet fearful of its
reception. In the gaunt, wiry figure and the lean, brown face Jane
recognized one of her Mormon riders, Blake. It was he of whom Judkins
had long since spoken. Of all the riders ever in her employ Blake owed
her the most, and as he stepped before her, removing his hat and making
manly efforts to subdue his emotion, he showed that he remembered.

“Miss Withersteen, mother’s dead,” he said.

“Oh--Blake!” exclaimed Jane, and she could say no more.

“She died free from pain in the end, and she’s buried--resting at last,
thank God!... I’ve come to ride for you again, if you’ll have me. Don’t
think I mentioned mother to get your sympathy. When she was living
and your riders quit, I had to also. I was afraid of what might be
done--said to her.... Miss Withersteen, we can’t talk of--of what’s going
on now--”

“Blake, do you know?”

“I know a great deal. You understand, my lips are shut. But without
explanation or excuse I offer my services. I’m a Mormon--I hope a good
one. But--there are some things!... It’s no use, Miss Withersteen, I
can’t say any more--what I’d like to. But will you take me back?”

“Blake!... You know what it means?”

“I don’t care. I’m sick of--of--I’ll show you a Mormon who’ll be true to
you!”

“But, Blake--how terribly you might suffer for that!”

“Maybe. Aren’t you suffering now?”

“God knows indeed I am!”

“Miss Withersteen, it’s a liberty on my part to speak so, but I know you
pretty well--know you’ll never give in. I wouldn’t if I were you. And
I--I must--Something makes me tell you the worst is yet to come. That’s
all. I absolutely can’t say more. Will you take me back--let me ride for
you--show everybody what I mean?”

“Blake, it makes me happy to hear you. How my riders hurt me when they
quit!” Jane felt the hot tears well to her eyes and splash down upon her
hands. “I thought so much of them--tried so hard to be good to them. And
not one was true. You’ve made it easy to forgive. Perhaps many of
them really feel as you do, but dare not return to me. Still, Blake, I
hesitate to take you back. Yet I want you so much.”

“Do it, then. If you’re going to make your life a lesson to Mormon
women, let me make mine a lesson to the men. Right is right. I believe
in you, and here’s my life to prove it.”

“You hint it may mean your life!” said Jane, breathless and low.

“We won’t speak of that. I want to come back. I want to do what every
rider aches in his secret heart to do for you.... Miss Withersteen, I
hoped it’d not be necessary to tell you that my mother on her deathbed
told me to have courage. She knew how the thing galled me--she told me
to come back.... Will you take me?”

“God bless you, Blake! Yes, I’ll take you back. And will you--will you
accept gold from me?”

“Miss Withersteen!”

“I just gave Judkins a bag of gold. I’ll give you one. If you will
not take it you must not come back. You might ride for me a few
months--weeks--days till the storm breaks. Then you’d have nothing, and
be in disgrace with your people. We’ll forearm you against poverty, and
me against endless regret. I’ll give you gold which you can hide--till
some future time.”

“Well, if it pleases you,” replied Blake. “But you know I never thought
of pay. Now, Miss Withersteen, one thing more. I want to see this man
Lassiter. Is he here?”

“Yes, but, Blake--what--Need you see him? Why?” asked Jane, instantly
worried. “I can speak to him--tell him about you.”

“That won’t do. I want to--I’ve got to tell him myself. Where is he?”

“Lassiter is with Mrs. Larkin. She is ill. I’ll call him,” answered
Jane, and going to the door she softly called for the rider. A faint,
musical jingle preceded his step--then his tall form crossed the
threshold.

“Lassiter, here’s Blake, an old rider of mine. He has come back to me
and he wishes to speak to you.”

Blake’s brown face turned exceedingly pale.

“Yes, I had to speak to you,” he said, swiftly. “My name’s Blake. I’m a
Mormon and a rider. Lately I quit Miss Withersteen. I’ve come to beg her
to take me back. Now I don’t know you; but I know--what you are. So
I’ve this to say to your face. It would never occur to this woman to
imagine--let alone suspect me to be a spy. She couldn’t think it
might just be a low plot to come here and shoot you in the back. Jane
Withersteen hasn’t that kind of a mind.... Well, I’ve not come for that.
I want to help her--to pull a bridle along with Judkins and--and you.
The thing is--do you believe me?”

“I reckon I do,” replied Lassiter. How this slow, cool speech contrasted
with Blake’s hot, impulsive words! “You might have saved some of your
breath. See here, Blake, cinch this in your mind. Lassiter has met some
square Mormons! An’ mebbe--”

“Blake,” interrupted Jane, nervously anxious to terminate a colloquy
that she perceived was an ordeal for him. “Go at once and fetch me a
report of my horses.”

“Miss Withersteen!... You mean the big drove--down in the sage-cleared
fields?”

“Of course,” replied Jane. “My horses are all there, except the blooded
stock I keep here.”

“Haven’t you heard--then?”

“Heard? No! What’s happened to them?”

“They’re gone, Miss Withersteen, gone these ten days past. Dorn told me,
and I rode down to see for myself.”

“Lassiter--did you know?” asked Jane, whirling to him.

“I reckon so.... But what was the use to tell you?”

It was Lassiter turning away his face and Blake studying the stone flags
at his feet that brought Jane to the understanding of what she betrayed.
She strove desperately, but she could not rise immediately from such a
blow.

“My horses! My horses! What’s become of them?”

“Dorn said the riders report another drive by Oldring.... And I trailed
the horses miles down the slope toward Deception Pass.”

“My red herd’s gone! My horses gone! The white herd will go next. I can
stand that. But if I lost Black Star and Night, it would be like parting
with my own flesh and blood. Lassiter--Blake--am I in danger of losing
my racers?”

“A rustler--or--or anybody stealin’ hosses of yours would most of all
want the blacks,” said Lassiter. His evasive reply was affirmative
enough. The other rider nodded gloomy acquiescence.

“Oh! Oh!” Jane Withersteen choked, with violent utterance.

“Let me take charge of the blacks?” asked Blake. “One more rider won’t
be any great help to Judkins. But I might hold Black Star and Night, if
you put such store on their value.”

“Value! Blake, I love my racers. Besides, there’s another reason why I
mustn’t lose them. You go to the stables. Go with Jerd every day when
he runs the horses, and don’t let them out of your sight. If you would
please me--win my gratitude, guard my black racers.”

When Blake had mounted and ridden out of the court Lassiter regarded
Jane with the smile that was becoming rarer as the days sped by.

“‘Pears to me, as Blake says, you do put some store on them hosses. Now
I ain’t gainsayin’ that the Arabians are the handsomest hosses I ever
seen. But Bells can beat Night, an’ run neck en’ neck with Black Star.”

“Lassiter, don’t tease me now. I’m miserable--sick. Bells is fast, but
he can’t stay with the blacks, and you know it. Only Wrangle can do
that.”

“I’ll bet that big raw-boned brute can more’n show his heels to your
black racers. Jane, out there in the sage, on a long chase, Wrangle
could kill your favorites.”

“No, no,” replied Jane, impatiently. “Lassiter, why do you say that
so often? I know you’ve teased me at times, and I believe it’s only
kindness. You’re always trying to keep my mind off worry. But you mean
more by this repeated mention of my racers?”

“I reckon so.” Lassiter paused, and for the thousandth time in her
presence moved his black sombrero round and round, as if counting the
silver pieces on the band. “Well, Jane, I’ve sort of read a little
that’s passin’ in your mind.”

“You think I might fly from my home--from Cottonwoods--from the Utah
border?”

“I reckon. An’ if you ever do an’ get away with the blacks I wouldn’t
like to see Wrangle left here on the sage. Wrangle could catch you. I
know Venters had him. But you can never tell. Mebbe he hasn’t got him
now.... Besides--things are happenin’, an’ somethin’ of the same queer
nature might have happened to Venters.”

“God knows you’re right!... Poor Bern, how long he’s gone! In my trouble
I’ve been forgetting him. But, Lassiter, I’ve little fear for him. I’ve
heard my riders say he’s as keen as a wolf.... As to your reading my
thoughts--well, your suggestion makes an actual thought of what was
only one of my dreams. I believe I dreamed of flying from this wild
borderland, Lassiter. I’ve strange dreams. I’m not always practical
and thinking of my many duties, as you said once. For instance--if I
dared--if I dared I’d ask you to saddle the blacks and ride away with
me--and hide me.”

“Jane!”

The rider’s sunburnt face turned white. A few times Jane had seen
Lassiter’s cool calm broken--when he had met little Fay, when he had
learned how and why he had come to love both child and mistress, when he
had stood beside Milly Erne’s grave. But one and all they could not be
considered in the light of his present agitation. Not only did Lassiter
turn white--not only did he grow tense, not only did he lose his
coolness, but also he suddenly, violently, hungrily took her into his
arms and crushed her to his breast.

“Lassiter!” cried Jane, trembling. It was an action for which she took
sole blame. Instantly, as if dazed, weakened, he released her. “Forgive
me!” went on Jane. “I’m always forgetting your--your feelings. I thought
of you as my faithful friend. I’m always making you out more than
human... only, let me say--I meant that--about riding away. I’m wretched,
sick of this--this--Oh, something bitter and black grows on my heart!”

“Jane, the hell--of it,” he replied, with deep intake of breath, “is you
can’t ride away. Mebbe realizin’ it accounts for my grabbin’ you--that
way, as much as the crazy boy’s rapture your words gave me. I don’t
understand myself.... But the hell of this game is--you can’t ride away.”

“Lassiter!... What on earth do you mean? I’m an absolutely free woman.”

“You ain’t absolutely anythin’ of the kind.... I reckon I’ve got to tell
you!”

“Tell me all. It’s uncertainty that makes me a coward. It’s faith and
hope--blind love, if you will, that makes me miserable. Every day I
awake believing--still believing. The day grows, and with it doubts,
fears, and that black bat hate that bites hotter and hotter into my
heart. Then comes night--I pray--I pray for all, and for myself--I
sleep--and I awake free once more, trustful, faithful, to believe--to
hope! Then, O my God! I grow and live a thousand years till night
again!... But if you want to see me a woman, tell me why I can’t ride
away--tell me what more I’m to lose--tell me the worst.”

“Jane, you’re watched. There’s no single move of yours, except when
you’re hid in your house, that ain’t seen by sharp eyes. The cottonwood
grove’s full of creepin’, crawlin’ men. Like Indians in the grass. When
you rode, which wasn’t often lately, the sage was full of sneakin’ men.
At night they crawl under your windows into the court, an’ I reckon into
the house. Jane Withersteen, you know, never locked a door! This here
grove’s a hummin’ bee-hive of mysterious happenin’s. Jane, it ain’t so
much that these soles keep out of my way as me keepin’ out of theirs.
They’re goin’ to try to kill me. That’s plain. But mebbe I’m as hard to
shoot in the back as in the face. So far I’ve seen fit to watch
only. This all means, Jane, that you’re a marked woman. You can’t get
away--not now. Mebbe later, when you’re broken, you might. But that’s
sure doubtful. Jane, you’re to lose the cattle that’s left--your home
an’ ranch--an’ Amber Spring. You can’t even hide a sack of gold! For it
couldn’t be slipped out of the house, day or night, an’ hid or buried,
let alone be rid off with. You may lose all. I’m tellin’ you, Jane,
hopin’ to prepare you, if the worst does come. I told you once before
about that strange power I’ve got to feel things.”

“Lassiter, what can I do?”

“Nothin’, I reckon, except know what’s comin’ an’ wait an’ be game. If
you’d let me make a call on Tull, an’ a long-deferred call on--”

“Hush!... Hush!” she whispered.

“Well, even that wouldn’t help you any in the end.”

“What does it mean? Oh, what does it mean? I am my father’s daughter--a
Mormon, yet I can’t see! I’ve not failed in religion--in duty. For years
I’ve given with a free and full heart. When my father died I was rich.
If I’m still rich it’s because I couldn’t find enough ways to become
poor. What am I, what are my possessions to set in motion such intensity
of secret oppression?”

“Jane, the mind behind it all is an empire builder.”

“But, Lassiter, I would give freely--all I own to avert this--this
wretched thing. If I gave--that would leave me with faith still. Surely
my--my churchmen think of my soul? If I lose my trust in them--”

“Child, be still!” said Lassiter, with a dark dignity that had in it
something of pity. “You are a woman, fine en’ big an’ strong, an’ your
heart matches your size. But in mind you’re a child. I’ll say a little
more--then I’m done. I’ll never mention this again. Among many thousands
of women you’re one who has bucked against your churchmen. They tried
you out, an’ failed of persuasion, an’ finally of threats. You meet now
the cold steel of a will as far from Christlike as the universe is wide.
You’re to be broken. Your body’s to be held, given to some man, made,
if possible, to bring children into the world. But your soul?... What do
they care for your soul?”



CHAPTER XIII. SOLITUDE AND STORM

In his hidden valley Venters awakened from sleep, and his ears rang
with innumerable melodies from full-throated mockingbirds, and his eyes
opened wide upon the glorious golden shaft of sunlight shining through
the great stone bridge. The circle of cliffs surrounding Surprise Valley
lay shrouded in morning mist, a dim blue low down along the terraces,
a creamy, moving cloud along the ramparts. The oak forest in the center
was a plumed and tufted oval of gold.

He saw Bess under the spruces. Upon her complete recovery of strength
she always rose with the dawn. At the moment she was feeding the
quail she had tamed. And she had begun to tame the mocking-birds. They
fluttered among the branches overhead and some left off their songs to
flit down and shyly hop near the twittering quail. Little gray and white
rabbits crouched in the grass, now nibbling, now laying long ears flat
and watching the dogs.

Venters’s swift glance took in the brightening valley, and Bess and her
pets, and Ring and Whitie. It swept over all to return again and rest
upon the girl. She had changed. To the dark trousers and blouse she had
added moccasins of her own make, but she no longer resembled a boy.
No eye could have failed to mark the rounded contours of a woman. The
change had been to grace and beauty. A glint of warm gold gleamed from
her hair, and a tint of red shone in the clear dark brown of cheeks. The
haunting sweetness of her lips and eyes, that earlier had been illusive,
a promise, had become a living fact. She fitted harmoniously into that
wonderful setting; she was like Surprise Valley--wild and beautiful.

Venters leaped out of his cave to begin the day.

He had postponed his journey to Cottonwoods until after the passing of
the summer rains. The rains were due soon. But until their arrival and
the necessity for his trip to the village he sequestered in a far corner
of mind all thought of peril, of his past life, and almost that of the
present. It was enough to live. He did not want to know what lay hidden
in the dim and distant future. Surprise Valley had enchanted him. In
this home of the cliff-dwellers there were peace and quiet and solitude,
and another thing, wondrous as the golden morning shaft of sunlight,
that he dared not ponder over long enough to understand.

The solitude he had hated when alone he had now come to love. He was
assimilating something from this valley of gleams and shadows. From this
strange girl he was assimilating more.

The day at hand resembled many days gone before. As Venters had no tools
with which to build, or to till the terraces, he remained idle. Beyond
the cooking of the simple fare there were no tasks. And as there were no
tasks, there was no system. He and Bess began one thing, to leave it;
to begin another, to leave that; and then do nothing but lie under the
spruces and watch the great cloud-sails majestically move along the
ramparts, and dream and dream. The valley was a golden, sunlit world.
It was silent. The sighing wind and the twittering quail and the singing
birds, even the rare and seldom-occurring hollow crack of a sliding
weathered stone, only thickened and deepened that insulated silence.

Venters and Bess had vagrant minds.

“Bess, did I tell you about my horse Wrangle?” inquired Venters.

“A hundred times,” she replied.

“Oh, have I? I’d forgotten. I want you to see him. He’ll carry us both.”

“I’d like to ride him. Can he run?”

“Run? He’s a demon. Swiftest horse on the sage! I hope he’ll stay in
that canyon.

“He’ll stay.”

They left camp to wander along the terraces, into the aspen ravines,
under the gleaming walls. Ring and Whitie wandered in the fore, often
turning, often trotting back, open-mouthed and solemn-eyed and happy.
Venters lifted his gaze to the grand archway over the entrance to
the valley, and Bess lifted hers to follow his, and both were silent.
Sometimes the bridge held their attention for a long time. To-day a
soaring eagle attracted them.

“How he sails!” exclaimed Bess. “I wonder where his mate is?”

“She’s at the nest. It’s on the bridge in a crack near the top. I see
her often. She’s almost white.”

They wandered on down the terrace, into the shady, sun-flecked forest.
A brown bird fluttered crying from a bush. Bess peeped into the leaves.
“Look! A nest and four little birds. They’re not afraid of us. See how
they open their mouths. They’re hungry.”

Rabbits rustled the dead brush and pattered away. The forest was full
of a drowsy hum of insects. Little darts of purple, that were running
quail, crossed the glades. And a plaintive, sweet peeping came from the
coverts. Bess’s soft step disturbed a sleeping lizard that scampered
away over the leaves. She gave chase and caught it, a slim creature of
nameless color but of exquisite beauty.

“Jewel eyes,” she said. “It’s like a rabbit--afraid. We won’t eat you.
There--go.”

Murmuring water drew their steps down into a shallow shaded ravine where
a brown brook brawled softly over mossy stones. Multitudes of strange,
gray frogs with white spots and black eyes lined the rocky bank and
leaped only at close approach. Then Venters’s eye descried a very thin,
very long green snake coiled round a sapling. They drew closer and
closer till they could have touched it. The snake had no fear and
watched them with scintillating eyes.

“It’s pretty,” said Bess. “How tame! I thought snakes always ran.”

“No. Even the rabbits didn’t run here till the dogs chased them.”

On and on they wandered to the wild jumble of massed and broken
fragments of cliff at the west end of the valley. The roar of the
disappearing stream dinned in their ears. Into this maze of rocks they
threaded a tortuous way, climbing, descending, halting to gather wild
plums and great lavender lilies, and going on at the will of fancy. Idle
and keen perceptions guided them equally.

“Oh, let us climb there!” cried Bess, pointing upward to a small space
of terrace left green and shady between huge abutments of broken cliff.
And they climbed to the nook and rested and looked out across the valley
to the curling column of blue smoke from their campfire. But the cool
shade and the rich grass and the fine view were not what they had
climbed for. They could not have told, although whatever had drawn
them was well-satisfying. Light, sure-footed as a mountain goat, Bess
pattered down at Venters’s heels; and they went on, calling the dogs,
eyes dreamy and wide, listening to the wind and the bees and the
crickets and the birds.

Part of the time Ring and Whitie led the way, then Venters, then Bess;
and the direction was not an object. They left the sun-streaked shade of
the oaks, brushed the long grass of the meadows, entered the green
and fragrant swaying willows, to stop, at length, under the huge old
cottonwoods where the beavers were busy.

Here they rested and watched. A dam of brush and logs and mud and stones
backed the stream into a little lake. The round, rough beaver houses
projected from the water. Like the rabbits, the beavers had become shy.
Gradually, however, as Venters and Bess knelt low, holding the dogs, the
beavers emerged to swim with logs and gnaw at cottonwoods and pat mud
walls with their paddle-like tails, and, glossy and shiny in the sun, to
go on with their strange, persistent industry. They were the builders.
The lake was a mud-hole, and the immediate environment a scarred and
dead region, but it was a wonderful home of wonderful animals.

“Look at that one--he puddles in the mud,” said Bess. “And there! See
him dive! Hear them gnawing! I’d think they’d break their teeth. How’s
it they can stay out of the water and under the water?”

And she laughed.

Then Venters and Bess wandered farther, and, perhaps not all
unconsciously this time, wended their slow steps to the cave of the
cliff-dwellers, where she liked best to go.

The tangled thicket and the long slant of dust and little chips of
weathered rock and the steep bench of stone and the worn steps all
were arduous work for Bess in the climbing. But she gained the shelf,
gasping, hot of cheek, glad of eye, with her hand in Venters’s. Here
they rested. The beautiful valley glittered below with its millions
of wind-turned leaves bright-faced in the sun, and the mighty bridge
towered heavenward, crowned with blue sky. Bess, however, never rested
for long. Soon she was exploring, and Venters followed; she dragged
forth from corners and shelves a multitude of crudely fashioned and
painted pieces of pottery, and he carried them. They peeped down into
the dark holes of the kivas, and Bess gleefully dropped a stone and
waited for the long-coming hollow sound to rise. They peeped into the
little globular houses, like mud-wasp nests, and wondered if these had
been store-places for grain, or baby cribs, or what; and they crawled
into the larger houses and laughed when they bumped their heads on the
low roofs, and they dug in the dust of the floors. And they brought from
dust and darkness armloads of treasure which they carried to the light.
Flints and stones and strange curved sticks and pottery they found; and
twisted grass rope that crumbled in their hands, and bits of whitish
stone which crushed to powder at a touch and seemed to vanish in the
air.

“That white stuff was bone,” said Venters, slowly. “Bones of a
cliff-dweller.”

“No!” exclaimed Bess.

“Here’s another piece. Look!... Whew! dry, powdery smoke! That’s bone.”

Then it was that Venters’s primitive, childlike mood, like a savage’s,
seeing, yet unthinking, gave way to the encroachment of civilized
thought. The world had not been made for a single day’s play or fancy or
idle watching. The world was old. Nowhere could be gotten a better
idea of its age than in this gigantic silent tomb. The gray ashes in
Venters’s hand had once been bone of a human being like himself. The
pale gloom of the cave had shadowed people long ago. He saw that Bess
had received the same shock--could not in moments such as this escape
her feeling living, thinking destiny.

“Bern, people have lived here,” she said, with wide, thoughtful eyes.

“Yes,” he replied.

“How long ago?”

“A thousand years and more.”

“What were they?”

“Cliff-dwellers. Men who had enemies and made their homes high out of
reach.”

“They had to fight?”

“Yes.”

“They fought for--what?”

“For life. For their homes, food, children, parents--for their women!”

“Has the world changed any in a thousand years?”

“I don’t know--perhaps a little.”

“Have men?”

“I hope so--I think so.”

“Things crowd into my mind,” she went on, and the wistful light in her
eyes told Venters the truth of her thoughts. “I’ve ridden the border of
Utah. I’ve seen people--know how they live--but they must be few of all
who are living. I had my books and I studied them. But all that doesn’t
help me any more. I want to go out into the big world and see it. Yet I
want to stay here more. What’s to become of us? Are we cliff-dwellers?
We’re alone here. I’m happy when I don’t think. These--these bones that
fly into dust--they make me sick and a little afraid. Did the people who
lived here once have the same feelings as we have? What was the good of
their living at all? They’re gone! What’s the meaning of it all--of us?”

“Bess, you ask more than I can tell. It’s beyond me. Only there was
laughter here once--and now there’s silence. There was life--and now
there’s death. Men cut these little steps, made these arrow-heads and
mealing-stones, plaited the ropes we found, and left their bones to
crumble in our fingers. As far as time is concerned it might all have
been yesterday. We’re here to-day. Maybe we’re higher in the scale of
human beings--in intelligence. But who knows? We can’t be any higher in
the things for which life is lived at all.”

“What are they?”

“Why--I suppose relationship, friendship--love.”

“Love!”

“Yes. Love of man for woman--love of woman for man. That’s the nature,
the meaning, the best of life itself.”

She said no more. Wistfulness of glance deepened into sadness.

“Come, let us go,” said Venters.

Action brightened her. Beside him, holding his hand she slipped down
the shelf, ran down the long, steep slant of sliding stones, out of the
cloud of dust, and likewise out of the pale gloom.

“We beat the slide,” she cried.

The miniature avalanche cracked and roared, and rattled itself into an
inert mass at the base of the incline. Yellow dust like the gloom of the
cave, but not so changeless, drifted away on the wind; the roar clapped
in echo from the cliff, returned, went back, and came again to die
in the hollowness. Down on the sunny terrace there was a different
atmosphere. Ring and Whitie leaped around Bess. Once more she was
smiling, gay, and thoughtless, with the dream-mood in the shadow of her
eyes.

“Bess, I haven’t seen that since last summer. Look!” said Venters,
pointing to the scalloped edge of rolling purple clouds that peeped over
the western wall. “We’re in for a storm.”

“Oh, I hope not. I’m afraid of storms.”

“Are you? Why?”

“Have you ever been down in one of these walled-up pockets in a bad
storm?”

“No, now I think of it, I haven’t.”

“Well, it’s terrible. Every summer I get scared to death and hide
somewhere in the dark. Storms up on the sage are bad, but nothing to
what they are down here in the canyons. And in this little valley--why,
echoes can rap back and forth so quick they’ll split our ears.”

“We’re perfectly safe here, Bess.”

“I know. But that hasn’t anything to do with it. The truth is I’m afraid
of lightning and thunder, and thunder-claps hurt my head. If we have a
bad storm, will you stay close to me?”

“Yes.”

When they got back to camp the afternoon was closing, and it was
exceedingly sultry. Not a breath of air stirred the aspen leaves, and
when these did not quiver the air was indeed still. The dark-purple
clouds moved almost imperceptibly out of the west.

“What have we for supper?” asked Bess.

“Rabbit.”

“Bern, can’t you think of another new way to cook rabbit?” went on Bess,
with earnestness.

“What do you think I am--a magician?” retorted Venters.

“I wouldn’t dare tell you. But, Bern, do you want me to turn into a
rabbit?”

There was a dark-blue, merry flashing of eyes and a parting of lips;
then she laughed. In that moment she was naive and wholesome.

“Rabbit seems to agree with you,” replied Venters. “You are well and
strong--and growing very pretty.”

Anything in the nature of compliment he had never before said to her,
and just now he responded to a sudden curiosity to see its effect. Bess
stared as if she had not heard aright, slowly blushed, and completely
lost her poise in happy confusion.

“I’d better go right away,” he continued, “and fetch supplies from
Cottonwoods.”

A startlingly swift change in the nature of her agitation made him
reproach himself for his abruptness.

“No, no, don’t go!” she said. “I didn’t mean--that about the rabbit.
I--I was only trying to be--funny. Don’t leave me all alone!”

“Bess, I must go sometime.”

“Wait then. Wait till after the storms.”

The purple cloud-bank darkened the lower edge of the setting sun, crept
up and up, obscuring its fiery red heart, and finally passed over the
last ruddy crescent of its upper rim.

The intense dead silence awakened to a long, low, rumbling roll of
thunder.

“Oh!” cried Bess, nervously.

“We’ve had big black clouds before this without rain,” said Venters.
“But there’s no doubt about that thunder. The storms are coming. I’m
glad. Every rider on the sage will hear that thunder with glad ears.”

Venters and Bess finished their simple meal and the few tasks around the
camp, then faced the open terrace, the valley, and the west, to watch
and await the approaching storm.

It required keen vision to see any movement whatever in the purple
clouds. By infinitesimal degrees the dark cloud-line merged upward into
the golden-red haze of the afterglow of sunset. A shadow lengthened from
under the western wall across the valley. As straight and rigid as steel
rose the delicate spear-pointed silver spruces; the aspen leaves, by
nature pendant and quivering, hung limp and heavy; no slender blade
of grass moved. A gentle splashing of water came from the ravine. Then
again from out of the west sounded the low, dull, and rumbling roll of
thunder.

A wave, a ripple of light, a trembling and turning of the aspen leaves,
like the approach of a breeze on the water, crossed the valley from the
west; and the lull and the deadly stillness and the sultry air passed
away on a cool wind.

The night bird of the canyon, with clear and melancholy notes announced
the twilight. And from all along the cliffs rose the faint murmur and
moan and mourn of the wind singing in the caves. The bank of clouds now
swept hugely out of the western sky. Its front was purple and black,
with gray between, a bulging, mushrooming, vast thing instinct with
storm. It had a dark, angry, threatening aspect. As if all the power of
the winds were pushing and piling behind, it rolled ponderously across
the sky. A red flare burned out instantaneously, flashed from the west
to east, and died. Then from the deepest black of the purple cloud burst
a boom. It was like the bowling of a huge boulder along the crags and
ramparts, and seemed to roll on and fall into the valley to bound and
bang and boom from cliff to cliff.

“Oh!” cried Bess, with her hands over her ears. “What did I tell you?”

“Why, Bess, be reasonable!” said Venters.

“I’m a coward.”

“Not quite that, I hope. It’s strange you’re afraid. I love a storm.”

“I tell you a storm down in these canyons is an awful thing. I know
Oldring hated storms. His men were afraid of them. There was one who
went deaf in a bad storm, and never could hear again.”

“Maybe I’ve lots to learn, Bess. I’ll lose my guess if this storm isn’t
bad enough. We’re going to have heavy wind first, then lightning and
thunder, then the rain. Let’s stay out as long as we can.”

The tips of the cottonwoods and the oaks waved to the east, and the
rings of aspens along the terraces twinkled their myriad of bright faces
in fleet and glancing gleam. A low roar rose from the leaves of the
forest, and the spruces swished in the rising wind. It came in gusts,
with light breezes between. As it increased in strength the lulls
shortened in length till there was a strong and steady blow all the
time, and violent puffs at intervals, and sudden whirling currents. The
clouds spread over the valley, rolling swiftly and low, and twilight
faded into a sweeping darkness. Then the singing of the wind in the
caves drowned the swift roar of rustling leaves; then the song swelled
to a mourning, moaning wail; then with the gathering power of the
wind the wail changed to a shriek. Steadily the wind strengthened and
constantly the strange sound changed.

The last bit of blue sky yielded to the on-sweep of clouds. Like angry
surf the pale gleams of gray, amid the purple of that scudding front,
swept beyond the eastern rampart of the valley. The purple deepened to
black. Broad sheets of lightning flared over the western wall. There
were not yet any ropes or zigzag streaks darting down through the
gathering darkness. The storm center was still beyond Surprise Valley.

“Listen!... Listen!” cried Bess, with her lips close to Venters’s ear.
“You’ll hear Oldring’s knell!”

“What’s that?”

“Oldring’s knell. When the wind blows a gale in the caves it makes what
the rustlers call Oldring’s knell. They believe it bodes his death.
I think he believes so, too. It’s not like any sound on earth.... It’s
beginning. Listen!”

The gale swooped down with a hollow unearthly howl. It yelled and pealed
and shrilled and shrieked. It was made up of a thousand piercing cries.
It was a rising and a moving sound. Beginning at the western break of
the valley, it rushed along each gigantic cliff, whistling into the
caves and cracks, to mount in power, to bellow a blast through the great
stone bridge. Gone, as into an engulfing roar of surging waters, it
seemed to shoot back and begin all over again.

It was only wind, thought Venters. Here sped and shrieked the sculptor
that carved out the wonderful caves in the cliffs. It was only a gale,
but as Venters listened, as his ears became accustomed to the fury and
strife, out of it all or through it or above it pealed low and perfectly
clear and persistently uniform a strange sound that had no counterpart
in all the sounds of the elements. It was not of earth or of life. It
was the grief and agony of the gale. A knell of all upon which it blew!

Black night enfolded the valley. Venters could not see his companion,
and knew of her presence only through the tightening hold of her hand
on his arm. He felt the dogs huddle closer to him. Suddenly the dense,
black vault overhead split asunder to a blue-white, dazzling streak of
lightning. The whole valley lay vividly clear and luminously bright in
his sight. Upreared, vast and magnificent, the stone bridge glimmered
like some grand god of storm in the lightning’s fire. Then all flashed
black again--blacker than pitch--a thick, impenetrable coal-blackness.
And there came a ripping, crashing report. Instantly an echo resounded
with clapping crash. The initial report was nothing to the echo. It was
a terrible, living, reverberating, detonating crash. The wall threw the
sound across, and could have made no greater roar if it had slipped
in avalanche. From cliff to cliff the echo went in crashing retort and
banged in lessening power, and boomed in thinner volume, and clapped
weaker and weaker till a final clap could not reach across the waiting
cliff.

In the pitchy darkness Venters led Bess, and, groping his way, by feel
of hand found the entrance to her cave and lifted her up. On the instant
a blinding flash of lightning illumined the cave and all about him. He
saw Bess’s face white now with dark, frightened eyes. He saw the dogs
leap up, and he followed suit. The golden glare vanished; all was black;
then came the splitting crack and the infernal din of echoes.

Bess shrank closer to him and closer, found his hands, and pressed them
tightly over her ears, and dropped her face upon his shoulder, and hid
her eyes.

Then the storm burst with a succession of ropes and streaks and shafts
of lightning, playing continuously, filling the valley with a broken
radiance; and the cracking shots followed each other swiftly till the
echoes blended in one fearful, deafening crash.

Venters looked out upon the beautiful valley--beautiful now as never
before--mystic in its transparent, luminous gloom, weird in the
quivering, golden haze of lightning. The dark spruces were tipped with
glimmering lights; the aspens bent low in the winds, as waves in a
tempest at sea; the forest of oaks tossed wildly and shone with gleams
of fire. Across the valley the huge cavern of the cliff-dwellers yawned
in the glare, every little black window as clear as at noonday; but the
night and the storm added to their tragedy. Flung arching to the black
clouds, the great stone bridge seemed to bear the brunt of the storm. It
caught the full fury of the rushing wind. It lifted its noble crown to
meet the lightnings. Venters thought of the eagles and their lofty nest
in a niche under the arch. A driving pall of rain, black as the clouds,
came sweeping on to obscure the bridge and the gleaming walls and the
shining valley. The lightning played incessantly, streaking down through
opaque darkness of rain. The roar of the wind, with its strange knell
and the re-crashing echoes, mingled with the roar of the flooding rain,
and all seemingly were deadened and drowned in a world of sound.

In the dimming pale light Venters looked down upon the girl. She had
sunk into his arms, upon his breast, burying her face. She clung to him.
He felt the softness of her, and the warmth, and the quick heave of her
breast. He saw the dark, slender, graceful outline of her form. A woman
lay in his arms! And he held her closer. He who had been alone in the
sad, silent watches of the night was not now and never must be again
alone. He who had yearned for the touch of a hand felt the long tremble
and the heart-beat of a woman. By what strange chance had she come to
love him! By what change--by what marvel had she grown into a treasure!

No more did he listen to the rush and roar of the thunder-storm.
For with the touch of clinging hands and the throbbing bosom he grew
conscious of an inward storm--the tingling of new chords of thought,
strange music of unheard, joyous bells sad dreams dawning to wakeful
delight, dissolving doubt, resurging hope, force, fire, and freedom,
unutterable sweetness of desire. A storm in his breast--a storm of real
love.



CHAPTER XIV. WEST WIND

When the storm abated Venters sought his own cave, and late in the
night, as his blood cooled and the stir and throb and thrill subsided,
he fell asleep.

With the breaking of dawn his eyes unclosed. The valley lay drenched
and bathed, a burnished oval of glittering green. The rain-washed walls
glistened in the morning light. Waterfalls of many forms poured over
the rims. One, a broad, lacy sheet, thin as smoke, slid over the western
notch and struck a ledge in its downward fall, to bound into broader
leap, to burst far below into white and gold and rosy mist.

Venters prepared for the day, knowing himself a different man.

“It’s a glorious morning,” said Bess, in greeting.

“Yes. After the storm the west wind,” he replied.

“Last night was I--very much of a baby?” she asked, watching him.

“Pretty much.”

“Oh, I couldn’t help it!”

“I’m glad you were afraid.”

“Why?” she asked, in slow surprise.

“I’ll tell you some day,” he answered, soberly. Then around the
camp-fire and through the morning meal he was silent; afterward he
strolled thoughtfully off alone along the terrace. He climbed a great
yellow rock raising its crest among the spruces, and there he sat down
to face the valley and the west.

“I love her!”

Aloud he spoke--unburdened his heart--confessed his secret. For an
instant the golden valley swam before his eyes, and the walls waved, and
all about him whirled with tumult within.

“I love her!... I understand now.”

Reviving memory of Jane Withersteen and thought of the complications of
the present amazed him with proof of how far he had drifted from his
old life. He discovered that he hated to take up the broken threads, to
delve into dark problems and difficulties. In this beautiful valley he
had been living a beautiful dream. Tranquillity had come to him, and the
joy of solitude, and interest in all the wild creatures and crannies of
this incomparable valley--and love. Under the shadow of the great stone
bridge God had revealed Himself to Venters.

“The world seems very far away,” he muttered, “but it’s there--and I’m
not yet done with it. Perhaps I never shall be.... Only--how glorious it
would be to live here always and never think again!”

Whereupon the resurging reality of the present, as if in irony of his
wish, steeped him instantly in contending thought. Out of it all he
presently evolved these things: he must go to Cottonwoods; he must bring
supplies back to Surprise Valley; he must cultivate the soil and raise
corn and stock, and, most imperative of all, he must decide the future
of the girl who loved him and whom he loved. The first of these things
required tremendous effort, the last one, concerning Bess, seemed simply
and naturally easy of accomplishment. He would marry her. Suddenly, as
from roots of poisonous fire, flamed up the forgotten truth concerning
her. It seemed to wither and shrivel up all his joy on its hot, tearing
way to his heart. She had been Oldring’s Masked Rider. To Venters’s
question, “What were you to Oldring?” she had answered with scarlet
shame and drooping head.

“What do I care who she is or what she was!” he cried, passionately. And
he knew it was not his old self speaking. It was this softer, gentler
man who had awakened to new thoughts in the quiet valley. Tenderness,
masterful in him now, matched the absence of joy and blunted the
knife-edge of entering jealousy. Strong and passionate effort of will,
surprising to him, held back the poison from piercing his soul.

“Wait!... Wait!” he cried, as if calling. His hand pressed his breast,
and he might have called to the pang there. “Wait! It’s all so
strange--so wonderful. Anything can happen. Who am I to judge her? I’ll
glory in my love for her. But I can’t tell it--can’t give up to it.”

Certainly he could not then decide her future. Marrying her was
impossible in Surprise Valley and in any village south of Sterling. Even
without the mask she had once worn she would easily have been recognized
as Oldring’s Rider. No man who had ever seen her would forget her,
regardless of his ignorance as to her sex. Then more poignant than all
other argument was the fact that he did not want to take her away from
Surprise Valley. He resisted all thought of that. He had brought her to
the most beautiful and wildest place of the uplands; he had saved her,
nursed her back to strength, watched her bloom as one of the valley
lilies; he knew her life there to be pure and sweet--she belonged to
him, and he loved her. Still these were not all the reasons why he
did not want to take her away. Where could they go? He feared the
rustlers--he feared the riders--he feared the Mormons. And if he should
ever succeed in getting Bess safely away from these immediate perils, he
feared the sharp eyes of women and their tongues, the big outside world
with its problems of existence. He must wait to decide her future,
which, after all, was deciding his own. But between her future and his
something hung impending. Like Balancing Rock, which waited darkly over
the steep gorge, ready to close forever the outlet to Deception Pass,
that nameless thing, as certain yet intangible as fate, must fall and
close forever all doubts and fears of the future.

“I’ve dreamed,” muttered Venters, as he rose. “Well, why not?... To dream
is happiness! But let me just once see this clearly wholly; then I can
go on dreaming till the thing falls. I’ve got to tell Jane Withersteen.
I’ve dangerous trips to take. I’ve work here to make comfort for this
girl. She’s mine. I’ll fight to keep her safe from that old life. I’ve
already seen her forget it. I love her. And if a beast ever rises in me
I’ll burn my hand off before I lay it on her with shameful intent. And,
by God! sooner or later I’ll kill the man who hid her and kept her in
Deception Pass!”

As he spoke the west wind softly blew in his face. It seemed to soothe
his passion. That west wind was fresh, cool, fragrant, and it carried
a sweet, strange burden of far-off things--tidings of life in other
climes, of sunshine asleep on other walls--of other places where reigned
peace. It carried, too, sad truth of human hearts and mystery--of
promise and hope unquenchable. Surprise Valley was only a little niche
in the wide world whence blew that burdened wind. Bess was only one of
millions at the mercy of unknown motive in nature and life. Content had
come to Venters in the valley; happiness had breathed in the slow, warm
air; love as bright as light had hovered over the walls and descended to
him; and now on the west wind came a whisper of the eternal triumph of
faith over doubt.

“How much better I am for what has come to me!” he exclaimed. “I’ll let
the future take care of itself. Whatever falls, I’ll be ready.”

Venters retraced his steps along the terrace back to camp, and found
Bess in the old familiar seat, waiting and watching for his return.

“I went off by myself to think a little,” he explained.

“You never looked that way before. What--what is it? Won’t you tell me?”

“Well, Bess, the fact is I’ve been dreaming a lot. This valley makes a
fellow dream. So I forced myself to think. We can’t live this way much
longer. Soon I’ll simply have to go to Cottonwoods. We need a whole pack
train of supplies. I can get--”

“Can you go safely?” she interrupted.

“Why, I’m sure of it. I’ll ride through the Pass at night. I haven’t any
fear that Wrangle isn’t where I left him. And once on him--Bess, just
wait till you see that horse!”

“Oh, I want to see him--to ride him. But--but, Bern, this is what
troubles me,” she said. “Will--will you come back?”

“Give me four days. If I’m not back in four days you’ll know I’m dead.
For that only shall keep me.”

“Oh!”

“Bess, I’ll come back. There’s danger--I wouldn’t lie to you--but I can
take care of myself.”

“Bern, I’m sure--oh, I’m sure of it! All my life I’ve watched hunted
men. I can tell what’s in them. And I believe you can ride and shoot and
see with any rider of the sage. It’s not--not that I--fear.”

“Well, what is it, then?”

“Why--why--why should you come back at all?”

“I couldn’t leave you here alone.”

“You might change your mind when you get to the village--among old
friends--”

“I won’t change my mind. As for old friends--” He uttered a short,
expressive laugh.

“Then--there--there must be a--a woman!” Dark red mantled the clear tan
of temple and cheek and neck. Her eyes were eyes of shame, upheld a long
moment by intense, straining search for the verification of her fear.
Suddenly they drooped, her head fell to her knees, her hands flew to her
hot cheeks.

“Bess--look here,” said Venters, with a sharpness due to the violence
with which he checked his quick, surging emotion.

As if compelled against her will--answering to an irresistible
voice--Bess raised her head, looked at him with sad, dark eyes, and
tried to whisper with tremulous lips.

“There’s no woman,” went on Venters, deliberately holding her glance
with his. “Nothing on earth, barring the chances of life, can keep me
away.”

Her face flashed and flushed with the glow of a leaping joy; but like
the vanishing of a gleam it disappeared to leave her as he had never
beheld her.

“I am nothing--I am lost--I am nameless!”

“Do you want me to come back?” he asked, with sudden stern coldness.
“Maybe you want to go back to Oldring!”

That brought her erect, trembling and ashy pale, with dark, proud eyes
and mute lips refuting his insinuation.

“Bess, I beg your pardon. I shouldn’t have said that. But you angered
me. I intend to work--to make a home for you here--to be a--a brother
to you as long as ever you need me. And you must forget what you
are--were--I mean, and be happy. When you remember that old life you are
bitter, and it hurts me.”

“I was happy--I shall be very happy. Oh, you’re so good that--that it
kills me! If I think, I can’t believe it. I grow sick with wondering
why. I’m only a let me say it--only a lost, nameless--girl of the
rustlers. Oldring’s Girl, they called me. That you should save me--be so
good and kind--want to make me happy--why, it’s beyond belief. No wonder
I’m wretched at the thought of your leaving me. But I’ll be wretched
and bitter no more. I promise you. If only I could repay you even a
little--”

“You’ve repaid me a hundredfold. Will you believe me?”

“Believe you! I couldn’t do else.”

“Then listen!... Saving you, I saved myself. Living here in this valley
with you, I’ve found myself. I’ve learned to think while I was dreaming.
I never troubled myself about God. But God, or some wonderful spirit,
has whispered to me here. I absolutely deny the truth of what you say
about yourself. I can’t explain it. There are things too deep to tell.
Whatever the terrible wrongs you’ve suffered, God holds you blameless.
I see that--feel that in you every moment you are near me. I’ve a
mother and a sister ‘way back in Illinois. If I could I’d take you to
them--to-morrow.”

“If it were true! Oh, I might--I might lift my head!” she cried.

“Lift it then--you child. For I swear it’s true.”

She did lift her head with the singular wild grace always a part of her
actions, with that old unconscious intimation of innocence which always
tortured Venters, but now with something more--a spirit rising from the
depths that linked itself to his brave words.

“I’ve been thinking--too,” she cried, with quivering smile and swelling
breast. “I’ve discovered myself--too. I’m young--I’m alive--I’m so
full--oh! I’m a woman!”

“Bess, I believe I can claim credit of that last discovery--before you,”
 Venters said, and laughed.

“Oh, there’s more--there’s something I must tell you.”

“Tell it, then.”

“When will you go to Cottonwoods?”

“As soon as the storms are past, or the worst of them.”

“I’ll tell you before you go. I can’t now. I don’t know how I shall
then. But it must be told. I’d never let you leave me without knowing.
For in spite of what you say there’s a chance you mightn’t come back.”

Day after day the west wind blew across the valley. Day after day the
clouds clustered gray and purple and black. The cliffs sang and the
caves rang with Oldring’s knell, and the lightning flashed, the thunder
rolled, the echoes crashed and crashed, and the rains flooded the
valley. Wild flowers sprang up everywhere, swaying with the lengthening
grass on the terraces, smiling wanly from shady nooks, peeping
wondrously from year-dry crevices of the walls. The valley bloomed
into a paradise. Every single moment, from the breaking of the gold bar
through the bridge at dawn on to the reddening of rays over the western
wall, was one of colorful change. The valley swam in thick, transparent
haze, golden at dawn, warm and white at noon, purple in the twilight. At
the end of every storm a rainbow curved down into the leaf-bright forest
to shine and fade and leave lingeringly some faint essence of its rosy
iris in the air.

Venters walked with Bess, once more in a dream, and watched the lights
change on the walls, and faced the wind from out of the west.

Always it brought softly to him strange, sweet tidings of far-off
things. It blew from a place that was old and whispered of youth. It
blew down the grooves of time. It brought a story of the passing hours.
It breathed low of fighting men and praying women. It sang clearly the
song of love. That ever was the burden of its tidings--youth in the
shady woods, waders through the wet meadows, boy and girl at the
hedgerow stile, bathers in the booming surf, sweet, idle hours on
grassy, windy hills, long strolls down moonlit lanes--everywhere in
far-off lands, fingers locked and bursting hearts and longing lips--from
all the world tidings of unquenchable love.

Often, in these hours of dreams he watched the girl, and asked himself
of what was she dreaming? For the changing light of the valley reflected
its gleam and its color and its meaning in the changing light of her
eyes. He saw in them infinitely more than he saw in his dreams. He saw
thought and soul and nature--strong vision of life. All tidings the west
wind blew from distance and age he found deep in those dark-blue depths,
and found them mysteries solved. Under their wistful shadow he softened,
and in the softening felt himself grow a sadder, a wiser, and a better
man.

While the west wind blew its tidings, filling his heart full, teaching
him a man’s part, the days passed, the purple clouds changed to white,
and the storms were over for that summer.

“I must go now,” he said.

“When?” she asked.

“At once--to-night.”

“I’m glad the time has come. It dragged at me. Go--for you’ll come back
the sooner.”

Late in the afternoon, as the ruddy sun split its last flame in the
ragged notch of the western wall, Bess walked with Venters along the
eastern terrace, up the long, weathered slope, under the great stone
bridge. They entered the narrow gorge to climb around the fence long
before built there by Venters. Farther than this she had never been.
Twilight had already fallen in the gorge. It brightened to waning shadow
in the wider ascent. He showed her Balancing Rock, of which he had
often told her, and explained its sinister leaning over the outlet.
Shuddering, she looked down the long, pale incline with its closed-in,
toppling walls.

“What an awful trail! Did you carry me up here?”

“I did, surely,” replied he.

“It frightens me, somehow. Yet I never was afraid of trails. I’d ride
anywhere a horse could go, and climb where he couldn’t. But there’s
something fearful here. I feel as--as if the place was watching me.”

“Look at this rock. It’s balanced here--balanced perfectly. You know I
told you the cliff-dwellers cut the rock, and why. But they’re gone and
the rock waits. Can’t you see--feel how it waits here? I moved it once,
and I’ll never dare again. A strong heave would start it. Then it would
fall and bang, and smash that crag, and jar the walls, and close forever
the outlet to Deception Pass!”

“Ah! When you come back I’ll steal up here and push and push with all
my might to roll the rock and close forever the outlet to the Pass!”
 She said it lightly, but in the undercurrent of her voice was a heavier
note, a ring deeper than any ever given mere play of words.

“Bess!... You can’t dare me! Wait till I come back with supplies--then
roll the stone.”

“I--was--in--fun.” Her voice now throbbed low. “Always you must be free
to go when you will. Go now... this place presses on me--stifles me.”

“I’m going--but you had something to tell me?”

“Yes.... Will you--come back?”

“I’ll come if I live.”

“But--but you mightn’t come?”

“That’s possible, of course. It’ll take a good deal to kill me. A man
couldn’t have a faster horse or keener dog. And, Bess, I’ve guns, and
I’ll use them if I’m pushed. But don’t worry.”

“I’ve faith in you. I’ll not worry until after four days. Only--because
you mightn’t come--I must tell you--”

She lost her voice. Her pale face, her great, glowing, earnest eyes,
seemed to stand alone out of the gloom of the gorge. The dog whined,
breaking the silence.

“I must tell you--because you mightn’t come back,” she whispered. “You
must know what--what I think of your goodness--of you. Always I’ve been
tongue-tied. I seemed not to be grateful. It was deep in my heart.
Even now--if I were other than I am--I couldn’t tell you. But I’m
nothing--only a rustler’s girl--nameless--infamous. You’ve saved me--and
I’m--I’m yours to do with as you like.... With all my heart and soul--I
love you!”



CHAPTER XV. SHADOWS ON THE SAGE-SLOPE

In the cloudy, threatening, waning summer days shadows lengthened
down the sage-slope, and Jane Withersteen likened them to the shadows
gathering and closing in around her life.

Mrs. Larkin died, and little Fay was left an orphan with no known
relative. Jane’s love redoubled. It was the saving brightness of a
darkening hour. Fay turned now to Jane in childish worship. And Jane
at last found full expression for the mother-longing in her heart. Upon
Lassiter, too, Mrs. Larkin’s death had some subtle reaction. Before,
he had often, without explanation, advised Jane to send Fay back to any
Gentile family that would take her in. Passionately and reproachfully
and wonderingly Jane had refused even to entertain such an idea. And
now Lassiter never advised it again, grew sadder and quieter in his
contemplation of the child, and infinitely more gentle and loving.
Sometimes Jane had a cold, inexplicable sensation of dread when she saw
Lassiter watching Fay. What did the rider see in the future? Why did he,
day by day, grow more silent, calmer, cooler, yet sadder in prophetic
assurance of something to be?

No doubt, Jane thought, the rider, in his almost superhuman power of
foresight, saw behind the horizon the dark, lengthening shadows that
were soon to crowd and gloom over him and her and little Fay. Jane
Withersteen awaited the long-deferred breaking of the storm with a
courage and embittered calm that had come to her in her extremity. Hope
had not died. Doubt and fear, subservient to her will, no longer gave
her sleepless nights and tortured days. Love remained. All that she had
loved she now loved the more. She seemed to feel that she was defiantly
flinging the wealth of her love in the face of misfortune and of
hate. No day passed but she prayed for all--and most fervently for her
enemies. It troubled her that she had lost, or had never gained,
the whole control of her mind. In some measure reason and wisdom and
decision were locked in a chamber of her brain, awaiting a key. Power
to think of some things was taken from her. Meanwhile, abiding a day of
judgment, she fought ceaselessly to deny the bitter drops in her cup,
to tear back the slow, the intangibly slow growth of a hot, corrosive
lichen eating into her heart.

On the morning of August 10th, Jane, while waiting in the court for
Lassiter, heard a clear, ringing report of a rifle. It came from the
grove, somewhere toward the corrals. Jane glanced out in alarm. The day
was dull, windless, soundless. The leaves of the cottonwoods drooped, as
if they had foretold the doom of Withersteen House and were now ready to
die and drop and decay. Never had Jane seen such shade. She pondered
on the meaning of the report. Revolver shots had of late cracked from
different parts of the grove--spies taking snap-shots at Lassiter from
a cowardly distance! But a rifle report meant more. Riders seldom used
rifles. Judkins and Venters were the exceptions she called to mind. Had
the men who hounded her hidden in her grove, taken to the rifle to rid
her of Lassiter, her last friend? It was probable--it was likely. And
she did not share his cool assumption that his death would never come at
the hands of a Mormon. Long had she expected it. His constancy to
her, his singular reluctance to use the fatal skill for which he was
famed--both now plain to all Mormons--laid him open to inevitable
assassination. Yet what charm against ambush and aim and enemy he
seemed to bear about him! No, Jane reflected, it was not charm; only
a wonderful training of eye and ear, and sense of impending peril.
Nevertheless that could not forever avail against secret attack.

That moment a rustling of leaves attracted her attention; then the
familiar clinking accompaniment of a slow, soft, measured step, and
Lassiter walked into the court.

“Jane, there’s a fellow out there with a long gun,” he said, and,
removing his sombrero, showed his head bound in a bloody scarf.

“I heard the shot; I knew it was meant for you. Let me see--you can’t be
badly injured?”

“I reckon not. But mebbe it wasn’t a close call!... I’ll sit here in this
corner where nobody can see me from the grove.” He untied the scarf and
removed it to show a long, bleeding furrow above his left temple.

“It’s only a cut,” said Jane. “But how it bleeds! Hold your scarf over
it just a moment till I come back.”

She ran into the house and returned with bandages; and while she bathed
and dressed the wound Lassiter talked.

“That fellow had a good chance to get me. But he must have flinched when
he pulled the trigger. As I dodged down I saw him run through the trees.
He had a rifle. I’ve been expectin’ that kind of gun play. I reckon now
I’ll have to keep a little closer hid myself. These fellers all seem to
get chilly or shaky when they draw a bead on me, but one of them might
jest happen to hit me.”

“Won’t you go away--leave Cottonwoods as I’ve begged you to--before some
one does happen to hit you?” she appealed to him.

“I reckon I’ll stay.”

“But, oh, Lassiter--your blood will be on my hands!”

“See here, lady, look at your hands now, right now. Aren’t they fine,
firm, white hands? Aren’t they bloody now? Lassiter’s blood! That’s a
queer thing to stain your beautiful hands. But if you could only see
deeper you’d find a redder color of blood. Heart color, Jane!”

“Oh!... My friend!”

“No, Jane, I’m not one to quit when the game grows hot, no more than
you. This game, though, is new to me, an’ I don’t know the moves yet,
else I wouldn’t have stepped in front of that bullet.”

“Have you no desire to hunt the man who fired at you--to find
him--and--and kill him?”

“Well, I reckon I haven’t any great hankerin’ for that.”

“Oh, the wonder of it!... I knew--I prayed--I trusted. Lassiter, I almost
gave--all myself to soften you to Mormons. Thank God, and thank you, my
friend.... But, selfish woman that I am, this is no great test. What’s
the life of one of those sneaking cowards to such a man as you? I think
of your great hate toward him who--I think of your life’s implacable
purpose. Can it be--”

“Wait!... Listen!” he whispered. “I hear a hoss.”

He rose noiselessly, with his ear to the breeze. Suddenly he pulled his
sombrero down over his bandaged head and, swinging his gun-sheaths round
in front, he stepped into the alcove.

“It’s a hoss--comin’ fast,” he added.

Jane’s listening ear soon caught a faint, rapid, rhythmic beat of hoofs.
It came from the sage. It gave her a thrill that she was at a loss to
understand. The sound rose stronger, louder. Then came a clear, sharp
difference when the horse passed from the sage trail to the hard-packed
ground of the grove. It became a ringing run--swift in its bell-like
clatterings, yet singular in longer pause than usual between the
hoofbeats of a horse.

“It’s Wrangle!... It’s Wrangle!” cried Jane Withersteen. “I’d know him
from a million horses!”

Excitement and thrilling expectancy flooded out all Jane Withersteen’s
calm. A tight band closed round her breast as she saw the giant sorrel
flit in reddish-brown flashes across the openings in the green. Then
he was pounding down the lane--thundering into the court--crashing his
great iron-shod hoofs on the stone flags. Wrangle it was surely, but
shaggy and wild-eyed, and sage-streaked, with dust-caked lather staining
his flanks. He reared and crashed down and plunged. The rider leaped
off, threw the bridle, and held hard on a lasso looped round Wrangle’s
head and neck. Janet’s heart sank as she tried to recognize Venters in
the rider. Something familiar struck her in the lofty stature in the
sweep of powerful shoulders. But this bearded, longhaired, unkempt man,
who wore ragged clothes patched with pieces of skin, and boots that
showed bare legs and feet--this dusty, dark, and wild rider could not
possibly be Venters.

“Whoa, Wrangle, old boy! Come down. Easy now. So--so--so. You’re home,
old boy, and presently you can have a drink of water you’ll remember.”

In the voice Jane knew the rider to be Venters. He tied Wrangle to the
hitching-rack and turned to the court.

“Oh, Bern!... You wild man!” she exclaimed.

“Jane--Jane, it’s good to see you! Hello, Lassiter! Yes, it’s Venters.”

Like rough iron his hard hand crushed Jane’s. In it she felt the
difference she saw in him. Wild, rugged, unshorn--yet how splendid! He
had gone away a boy--he had returned a man. He appeared taller, wider of
shoulder, deeper-chested, more powerfully built. But was that only her
fancy--he had always been a young giant--was the change one of spirit?
He might have been absent for years, proven by fire and steel, grown
like Lassiter, strong and cool and sure. His eyes--were they keener,
more flashing than before?--met hers with clear, frank, warm regard, in
which perplexity was not, nor discontent, nor pain.

“Look at me long as you like,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m not much to
look at. And, Jane, neither you nor Lassiter, can brag. You’re paler
than I ever saw you. Lassiter, here, he wears a bloody bandage under
his hat. That reminds me. Some one took a flying shot at me down in the
sage. It made Wrangle run some.... Well, perhaps you’ve more to tell me
than I’ve got to tell you.”

Briefly, in few words, Jane outlined the circumstances of her undoing in
the weeks of his absence.

Under his beard and bronze she saw his face whiten in terrible wrath.

“Lassiter--what held you back?”

No time in the long period of fiery moments and sudden shocks had Jane
Withersteen ever beheld Lassiter as calm and serene and cool as then.

“Jane had gloom enough without my addin’ to it by shootin’ up the
village,” he said.

As strange as Lassiter’s coolness was Venters’s curious, intent scrutiny
of them both, and under it Jane felt a flaming tide wave from bosom to
temples.

“Well--you’re right,” he said, with slow pause. “It surprises me a
little, that’s all.”

Jane sensed then a slight alteration in Venters, and what it was, in her
own confusion, she could not tell. It had always been her intention
to acquaint him with the deceit she had fallen to in her zeal to move
Lassiter. She did not mean to spare herself. Yet now, at the moment,
before these riders, it was an impossibility to explain.

Venters was speaking somewhat haltingly, without his former frankness.
“I found Oldring’s hiding-place and your red herd. I learned--I
know--I’m sure there was a deal between Tull and Oldring.” He paused
and shifted his position and his gaze. He looked as if he wanted to say
something that he found beyond him. Sorrow and pity and shame seemed
to contend for mastery over him. Then he raised himself and spoke with
effort. “Jane I’ve cost you too much. You’ve almost ruined yourself
for me. It was wrong, for I’m not worth it. I never deserved such
friendship. Well, maybe it’s not too late. You must give me up. Mind,
I haven’t changed. I am just the same as ever. I’ll see Tull while I’m
here, and tell him to his face.”

“Bern, it’s too late,” said Jane.

“I’ll make him believe!” cried Venters, violently.

“You ask me to break our friendship?”

“Yes. If you don’t, I shall.”

“Forever?”

“Forever!”

Jane sighed. Another shadow had lengthened down the sage slope to
cast further darkness upon her. A melancholy sweetness pervaded her
resignation. The boy who had left her had returned a man, nobler,
stronger, one in whom she divined something unbending as steel. There
might come a moment later when she would wonder why she had not fought
against his will, but just now she yielded to it. She liked him as
well--nay, more, she thought, only her emotions were deadened by the
long, menacing wait for the bursting storm.

Once before she had held out her hand to him--when she gave it; now she
stretched it tremblingly forth in acceptance of the decree circumstance
had laid upon them. Venters bowed over it kissed it, pressed it hard,
and half stifled a sound very like a sob. Certain it was that when he
raised his head tears glistened in his eyes.

“Some--women--have a hard lot,” he said, huskily. Then he shook his
powerful form, and his rags lashed about him. “I’ll say a few things to
Tull--when I meet him.”

“Bern--you’ll not draw on Tull? Oh, that must not be! Promise me--”

“I promise you this,” he interrupted, in stern passion that thrilled
while it terrorized her. “If you say one more word for that plotter I’ll
kill him as I would a mad coyote!”

Jane clasped her hands. Was this fire-eyed man the one whom she had
once made as wax to her touch? Had Venters become Lassiter and Lassiter
Venters?

“I’ll--say no more,” she faltered.

“Jane, Lassiter once called you blind,” said Venters. “It must be true.
But I won’t upbraid you. Only don’t rouse the devil in me by praying for
Tull! I’ll try to keep cool when I meet him. That’s all. Now there’s one
more thing I want to ask of you--the last. I’ve found a valley down in
the Pass. It’s a wonderful place. I intend to stay there. It’s so hidden
I believe no one can find it. There’s good water, and browse, and game.
I want to raise corn and stock. I need to take in supplies. Will you
give them to me?”

“Assuredly. The more you take the better you’ll please me--and perhaps
the less my--my enemies will get.”

“Venters, I reckon you’ll have trouble packin’ anythin’ away,” put in
Lassiter.

“I’ll go at night.”

“Mebbe that wouldn’t be best. You’d sure be stopped. You’d better go
early in the mornin’--say, just after dawn. That’s the safest time to
move round here.”

“Lassiter, I’ll be hard to stop,” returned Venters, darkly.

“I reckon so.”

“Bern,” said Jane, “go first to the riders’ quarters and get yourself a
complete outfit. You’re a--a sight. Then help yourself to whatever else
you need--burros, packs, grain, dried fruits, and meat. You must take
coffee and sugar and flour--all kinds of supplies. Don’t forget corn and
seeds. I remember how you used to starve. Please--please take all you
can pack away from here. I’ll make a bundle for you, which you mustn’t
open till you’re in your valley. How I’d like to see it! To judge by you
and Wrangle, how wild it must be!”

Jane walked down into the outer court and approached the sorrel.
Upstarting, he laid back his ears and eyed her.

“Wrangle--dear old Wrangle,” she said, and put a caressing hand on his
matted mane. “Oh, he’s wild, but he knows me! Bern, can he run as fast
as ever?”

“Run? Jane, he’s done sixty miles since last night at dark, and I could
make him kill Black Star right now in a ten-mile race.”

“He never could,” protested Jane. “He couldn’t even if he was fresh.”

“I reckon mebbe the best hoss’ll prove himself yet,” said Lassiter,
“an’, Jane, if it ever comes to that race I’d like you to be on
Wrangle.”

“I’d like that, too,” rejoined Venters. “But, Jane, maybe Lassiter’s
hint is extreme. Bad as your prospects are, you’ll surely never come to
the running point.”

“Who knows!” she replied, with mournful smile.

“No, no, Jane, it can’t be so bad as all that. Soon as I see Tull
there’ll be a change in your fortunes. I’ll hurry down to the
village.... Now don’t worry.”

Jane retired to the seclusion of her room. Lassiter’s subtle forecasting
of disaster, Venters’s forced optimism, neither remained in mind.
Material loss weighed nothing in the balance with other losses she
was sustaining. She wondered dully at her sitting there, hands folded
listlessly, with a kind of numb deadness to the passing of time and the
passing of her riches. She thought of Venters’s friendship. She had not
lost that, but she had lost him. Lassiter’s friendship--that was more
than love--it would endure, but soon he, too, would be gone. Little
Fay slept dreamlessly upon the bed, her golden curls streaming over the
pillow. Jane had the child’s worship. Would she lose that, too? And if
she did, what then would be left? Conscience thundered at her that there
was left her religion. Conscience thundered that she should be grateful
on her knees for this baptism of fire; that through misfortune,
sacrifice, and suffering her soul might be fused pure gold. But the old,
spontaneous, rapturous spirit no more exalted her. She wanted to be a
woman--not a martyr. Like the saint of old who mortified his flesh,
Jane Withersteen had in her the temper for heroic martyrdom, if by
sacrificing herself she could save the souls of others. But here the
damnable verdict blistered her that the more she sacrificed herself the
blacker grew the souls of her churchmen. There was something terribly
wrong with her soul, something terribly wrong with her churchmen and her
religion. In the whirling gulf of her thought there was yet one shining
light to guide her, to sustain her in her hope; and it was that, despite
her errors and her frailties and her blindness, she had one absolute and
unfaltering hold on ultimate and supreme justice. That was love. “Love
your enemies as yourself!” was a divine word, entirely free from any
church or creed.

Jane’s meditations were disturbed by Lassiter’s soft, tinkling step in
the court. Always he wore the clinking spurs. Always he was in readiness
to ride. She passed out and called him into the huge, dim hall.

“I think you’ll be safer here. The court is too open,” she said.

“I reckon,” replied Lassiter. “An’ it’s cooler here. The day’s sure
muggy. Well, I went down to the village with Venters.”

“Already! Where is he?” queried Jane, in quick amaze.

“He’s at the corrals. Blake’s helpin’ him get the burros an’ packs
ready. That Blake is a good fellow.”

“Did--did Bern meet Tull?”

“I guess he did,” answered Lassiter, and he laughed dryly.

“Tell me! Oh, you exasperate me! You’re so cool, so calm! For Heaven’s
sake, tell me what happened!”

“First time I’ve been in the village for weeks,” went on Lassiter,
mildly. “I reckon there ‘ain’t been more of a show for a long time. Me
an’ Venters walkin’ down the road! It was funny. I ain’t sayin’ anybody
was particular glad to see us. I’m not much thought of hereabouts, an’
Venters he sure looks like what you called him, a wild man. Well, there
was some runnin’ of folks before we got to the stores. Then everybody
vamoosed except some surprised rustlers in front of a saloon. Venters
went right in the stores an’ saloons, an’ of course I went along. I
don’t know which tickled me the most--the actions of many fellers we
met, or Venters’s nerve. Jane, I was downright glad to be along. You
see that sort of thing is my element, an’ I’ve been away from it for
a spell. But we didn’t find Tull in one of them places. Some Gentile
feller at last told Venters he’d find Tull in that long buildin’ next to
Parsons’s store. It’s a kind of meetin’-room; and sure enough, when we
peeped in, it was half full of men.

“Venters yelled: ‘Don’t anybody pull guns! We ain’t come for that!’ Then
he tramped in, an’ I was some put to keep alongside him. There was a
hard, scrapin’ sound of feet, a loud cry, an’ then some whisperin’, an’
after that stillness you could cut with a knife. Tull was there,
an’ that fat party who once tried to throw a gun on me, an’ other
important-lookin’ men, en’ that little frog-legged feller who was with
Tull the day I rode in here. I wish you could have seen their faces,
‘specially Tull’s an’ the fat party’s. But there ain’t no use of me
tryin’ to tell you how they looked.

“Well, Venters an’ I stood there in the middle of the room with that
batch of men all in front of us, en’ not a blamed one of them winked an
eyelash or moved a finger. It was natural, of course, for me to notice
many of them packed guns. That’s a way of mine, first noticin’ them
things. Venters spoke up, an’ his voice sort of chilled an’ cut, en’ he
told Tull he had a few things to say.”

Here Lassiter paused while he turned his sombrero round and round, in
his familiar habit, and his eyes had the look of a man seeing over again
some thrilling spectacle, and under his red bronze there was strange
animation.

“Like a shot, then, Venters told Tull that the friendship between you
an’ him was all over, an’ he was leaving your place. He said you’d
both of you broken off in the hope of propitiatin’ your people, but you
hadn’t changed your mind otherwise, an’ never would.

“Next he spoke up for you. I ain’t goin’ to tell you what he said.
Only--no other woman who ever lived ever had such tribute! You had a
champion, Jane, an’ never fear that those thick-skulled men don’t know
you now. It couldn’t be otherwise. He spoke the ringin’, lightnin’
truth.... Then he accused Tull of the underhand, miserable robbery of a
helpless woman. He told Tull where the red herd was, of a deal made with
Oldrin’, that Jerry Card had made the deal. I thought Tull was goin’ to
drop, an’ that little frog-legged cuss, he looked some limp an’ white.
But Venters’s voice would have kept anybody’s legs from bucklin’. I was
stiff myself. He went on an’ called Tull--called him every bad name ever
known to a rider, an’ then some. He cursed Tull. I never hear a man
get such a cursin’. He laughed in scorn at the idea of Tull bein’ a
minister. He said Tull an’ a few more dogs of hell builded their
empire out of the hearts of such innocent an’ God-fearin’ women as Jane
Withersteen. He called Tull a binder of women, a callous beast who hid
behind a mock mantle of righteousness--an’ the last an’ lowest coward
on the face of the earth. To prey on weak women through their
religion--that was the last unspeakable crime!

“Then he finished, an’ by this time he’d almost lost his voice. But his
whisper was enough. ‘Tull,’ he said, ‘she begged me not to draw on you
to-day. She would pray for you if you burned her at the stake.... But
listen!... I swear if you and I ever come face to face again, I’ll kill
you!’

“We backed out of the door then, an’ up the road. But nobody follered
us.”

Jane found herself weeping passionately. She had not been conscious of
it till Lassiter ended his story, and she experienced exquisite pain and
relief in shedding tears. Long had her eyes been dry, her grief deep;
long had her emotions been dumb. Lassiter’s story put her on the rack;
the appalling nature of Venters’s act and speech had no parallel as an
outrage; it was worse than bloodshed. Men like Tull had been shot, but
had one ever been so terribly denounced in public? Over-mounting her
horror, an uncontrollable, quivering passion shook her very soul. It was
sheer human glory in the deed of a fearless man. It was hot, primitive
instinct to live--to fight. It was a kind of mad joy in Venters’s
chivalry. It was close to the wrath that had first shaken her in the
beginning of this war waged upon her.

“Well, well, Jane, don’t take it that way,” said Lassiter, in evident
distress. “I had to tell you. There’s some things a feller jest can’t
keep. It’s strange you give up on hearin’ that, when all this long time
you’ve been the gamest woman I ever seen. But I don’t know women. Mebbe
there’s reason for you to cry. I know this--nothin’ ever rang in my soul
an’ so filled it as what Venters did. I’d like to have done it, but--I’m
only good for throwin’ a gun, en’ it seems you hate that.... Well, I’ll
be goin’ now.”

“Where?”

“Venters took Wrangle to the stable. The sorrel’s shy a shoe, an’ I’ve
got to help hold the big devil an’ put on another.”

“Tell Bern to come for the pack I want to give him--and--and to say
good-by,” called Jane, as Lassiter went out.

Jane passed the rest of that day in a vain endeavor to decide what and
what not to put in the pack for Venters. This task was the last she
would ever perform for him, and the gifts were the last she would ever
make him. So she picked and chose and rejected, and chose again, and
often paused in sad revery, and began again, till at length she filled
the pack.

It was about sunset, and she and Fay had finished supper and were
sitting in the court, when Venters’s quick steps rang on the stones.
She scarcely knew him, for he had changed the tattered garments, and
she missed the dark beard and long hair. Still he was not the Venters of
old. As he came up the steps she felt herself pointing to the pack,
and heard herself speaking words that were meaningless to her. He said
good-by; he kissed her, released her, and turned away. His tall figure
blurred in her sight, grew dim through dark, streaked vision, and then
he vanished.

Twilight fell around Withersteen House, and dusk and night. Little
Fay slept; but Jane lay with strained, aching eyes. She heard the wind
moaning in the cottonwoods and mice squeaking in the walls. The night
was interminably long, yet she prayed to hold back the dawn. What would
another day bring forth? The blackness of her room seemed blacker
for the sad, entering gray of morning light. She heard the chirp of
awakening birds, and fancied she caught a faint clatter of hoofs. Then
low, dull distant, throbbed a heavy gunshot. She had expected it, was
waiting for it; nevertheless, an electric shock checked her heart, froze
the very living fiber of her bones. That vise-like hold on her faculties
apparently did not relax for a long time, and it was a voice under her
window that released her.

“Jane!... Jane!” softly called Lassiter.

She answered somehow.

“It’s all right. Venters got away. I thought mebbe you’d heard that
shot, en’ I was worried some.”

“What was it--who fired?”

“Well--some fool feller tried to stop Venters out there in the sage--an’
he only stopped lead!... I think it’ll be all right. I haven’t seen or
heard of any other fellers round. Venters’ll go through safe. An’, Jane,
I’ve got Bells saddled, an’ I’m going to trail Venters. Mind, I won’t
show myself unless he falls foul of somebody an’ needs me. I want to see
if this place where he’s goin’ is safe for him. He says nobody can track
him there. I never seen the place yet I couldn’t track a man to. Now,
Jane, you stay indoors while I’m gone, an’ keep close watch on Fay. Will
you?”

“Yes! Oh yes!”

“An’ another thing, Jane,” he continued, then paused for long--“another
thing--if you ain’t here when I come back--if you’re gone--don’t fear,
I’ll trail you--I’ll find you out.”

“My dear Lassiter, where could I be gone--as you put it?” asked Jane, in
curious surprise.

“I reckon you might be somewhere. Mebbe tied in an old barn--or
corralled in some gulch--or chained in a cave! Milly Erne was--till she
give in! Mebbe that’s news to you.... Well, if you’re gone I’ll hunt for
you.”

“No, Lassiter,” she replied, sadly and low. “If I’m gone just forget the
unhappy woman whose blinded selfish deceit you repaid with kindness and
love.”

She heard a deep, muttering curse, under his breath, and then the
silvery tinkling of his spurs as he moved away.

Jane entered upon the duties of that day with a settled, gloomy calm.
Disaster hung in the dark clouds, in the shade, in the humid west wind.
Blake, when he reported, appeared without his usual cheer; and Jerd
wore a harassed look of a worn and worried man. And when Judkins put
in appearance, riding a lame horse, and dismounted with the cramp of
a rider, his dust-covered figure and his darkly grim, almost dazed
expression told Jane of dire calamity. She had no need of words.

“Miss Withersteen, I have to report--loss of the--white herd,” said
Judkins, hoarsely.

“Come, sit down, you look played out,” replied Jane, solicitously. She
brought him brandy and food, and while he partook of refreshments, of
which he appeared badly in need, she asked no questions.

“No one rider--could hev done more--Miss Withersteen,” he went on,
presently.

“Judkins, don’t be distressed. You’ve done more than any other rider.
I’ve long expected to lose the white herd. It’s no surprise. It’s
in line with other things that are happening. I’m grateful for your
service.”

“Miss Withersteen, I knew how you’d take it. But if anythin’, that makes
it harder to tell. You see, a feller wants to do so much fer you, an’
I’d got fond of my job. We led the herd a ways off to the north of
the break in the valley. There was a big level an’ pools of water an’
tip-top browse. But the cattle was in a high nervous condition. Wild--as
wild as antelope! You see, they’d been so scared they never slept. I
ain’t a-goin’ to tell you of the many tricks that were pulled off out
there in the sage. But there wasn’t a day for weeks thet the herd didn’t
get started to run. We allus managed to ride ‘em close an’ drive ‘em
back an’ keep ‘em bunched. Honest, Miss Withersteen, them steers was
thin. They was thin when water and grass was everywhere. Thin at this
season--thet’ll tell you how your steers was pestered. Fer instance, one
night a strange runnin’ streak of fire run right through the herd. That
streak was a coyote--with an oiled an’ blazin’ tail! Fer I shot it an’
found out. We had hell with the herd that night, an’ if the sage an’
grass hadn’t been wet--we, hosses, steers, an’ all would hev burned up.
But I said I wasn’t goin’ to tell you any of the tricks.... Strange
now, Miss Withersteen, when the stampede did come it was from natural
cause--jest a whirlin’ devil of dust. You’ve seen the like often. An’
this wasn’t no big whirl, fer the dust was mostly settled. It had dried
out in a little swale, an’ ordinarily no steer would ever hev run fer
it. But the herd was nervous en’ wild. An’ jest as Lassiter said, when
that bunch of white steers got to movin’ they was as bad as buffalo.
I’ve seen some buffalo stampedes back in Nebraska, an’ this bolt of the
steers was the same kind.

“I tried to mill the herd jest as Lassiter did. But I wasn’t equal to
it, Miss Withersteen. I don’t believe the rider lives who could hev
turned thet herd. We kept along of the herd fer miles, an’ more ‘n one
of my boys tried to get the steers a-millin’. It wasn’t no use. We got
off level ground, goin’ down, an’ then the steers ran somethin’ fierce.
We left the little gullies an’ washes level-full of dead steers. Finally
I saw the herd was makin’ to pass a kind of low pocket between ridges.
There was a hog-back--as we used to call ‘em--a pile of rocks stickin’
up, and I saw the herd was goin’ to split round it, or swing out to the
left. An’ I wanted ‘em to go to the right so mebbe we’d be able to drive
‘em into the pocket. So, with all my boys except three, I rode hard to
turn the herd a little to the right. We couldn’t budge ‘em. They went on
en’ split round the rocks, en’ the most of ‘em was turned sharp to the
left by a deep wash we hedn’t seen--hed no chance to see.

“The other three boys--Jimmy Vail, Joe Willis, an’ thet little Cairns
boy--a nervy kid! they, with Cairns leadin’, tried to buck thet herd
round to the pocket. It was a wild, fool idee. I couldn’t do nothin’.
The boys got hemmed in between the steers an’ the wash--thet they hedn’t
no chance to see, either. Vail an’ Willis was run down right before our
eyes. An’ Cairns, who rode a fine hoss, he did some ridin’. I never seen
equaled, en’ would hev beat the steers if there’d been any room to run
in. I was high up an’ could see how the steers kept spillin’ by twos an’
threes over into the wash. Cairns put his hoss to a place thet was too
wide fer any hoss, an’ broke his neck an’ the hoss’s too. We found that
out after, an’ as fer Vail an’ Willis--two thousand steers ran over the
poor boys. There wasn’t much left to pack home fer burying!... An’, Miss
Withersteen, thet all happened yesterday, en’ I believe, if the white
herd didn’t run over the wall of the Pass, it’s runnin’ yet.”

On the morning of the second day after Judkins’s recital, during which
time Jane remained indoors a prey to regret and sorrow for the boy
riders, and a new and now strangely insistent fear for her own person,
she again heard what she had missed more than she dared honestly
confess--the soft, jingling step of Lassiter. Almost overwhelming relief
surged through her, a feeling as akin to joy as any she could have
been capable of in those gloomy hours of shadow, and one that suddenly
stunned her with the significance of what Lassiter had come to mean to
her. She had begged him, for his own sake, to leave Cottonwoods. She
might yet beg that, if her weakening courage permitted her to dare
absolute loneliness and helplessness, but she realized now that if she
were left alone her life would become one long, hideous nightmare.

When his soft steps clinked into the hall, in answer to her greeting,
and his tall, black-garbed form filled the door, she felt an
inexpressible sense of immediate safety. In his presence she lost her
fear of the dim passageways of Withersteen House and of every sound.
Always it had been that, when he entered the court or the hall, she
had experienced a distinctly sickening but gradually lessening shock
at sight of the huge black guns swinging at his sides. This time the
sickening shock again visited her, it was, however, because a revealing
flash of thought told her that it was not alone Lassiter who was
thrillingly welcome, but also his fatal weapons. They meant so much. How
she had fallen--how broken and spiritless must she be--to have still
the same old horror of Lassiter’s guns and his name, yet feel somehow a
cold, shrinking protection in their law and might and use.

“Did you trail Venters--find his wonderful valley?” she asked, eagerly.

“Yes, an’ I reckon it’s sure a wonderful place.”

“Is he safe there?”

“That’s been botherin’ me some. I tracked him an’ part of the trail was
the hardest I ever tackled. Mebbe there’s a rustler or somebody in this
country who’s as good at trackin’ as I am. If that’s so Venters ain’t
safe.”

“Well--tell me all about Bern and his valley.”

To Jane’s surprise Lassiter showed disinclination for further talk about
his trip. He appeared to be extremely fatigued. Jane reflected that
one hundred and twenty miles, with probably a great deal of climbing
on foot, all in three days, was enough to tire any rider. Moreover, it
presently developed that Lassiter had returned in a mood of singular
sadness and preoccupation. She put it down to a moodiness over the loss
of her white herd and the now precarious condition of her fortune.

Several days passed, and as nothing happened, Jane’s spirits began to
brighten. Once in her musings she thought that this tendency of hers
to rebound was as sad as it was futile. Meanwhile, she had resumed her
walks through the grove with little Fay.

One morning she went as far as the sage. She had not seen the slope
since the beginning of the rains, and now it bloomed a rich deep purple.
There was a high wind blowing, and the sage tossed and waved and colored
beautifully from light to dark. Clouds scudded across the sky and their
shadows sailed darkly down the sunny slope.

Upon her return toward the house she went by the lane to the stables,
and she had scarcely entered the great open space with its corrals and
sheds when she saw Lassiter hurriedly approaching. Fay broke from her
and, running to a corral fence, began to pat and pull the long, hanging
ears of a drowsy burro.

One look at Lassiter armed her for a blow.

Without a word he led her across the wide yard to the rise of the ground
upon which the stable stood.

“Jane--look!” he said, and pointed to the ground.

Jane glanced down, and again, and upon steadier vision made out
splotches of blood on the stones, and broad, smooth marks in the dust,
leading out toward the sage.

“What made these?” she asked.

“I reckon somebody has dragged dead or wounded men out to where there
was hosses in the sage.”

“Dead--or--wounded--men!”

“I reckon--Jane, are you strong? Can you bear up?”

His hands were gently holding hers, and his eyes--suddenly she could no
longer look into them. “Strong?” she echoed, trembling. “I--I will be.”

Up on the stone-flag drive, nicked with the marks made by the iron-shod
hoofs of her racers, Lassiter led her, his grasp ever growing firmer.

“Where’s Blake--and--and Jerb?” she asked, haltingly.

“I don’t know where Jerb is. Bolted, most likely,” replied Lassiter, as
he took her through the stone door. “But Blake--poor Blake! He’s gone
forever!... Be prepared, Jane.”

With a cold prickling of her skin, with a queer thrumming in her ears,
with fixed and staring eyes, Jane saw a gun lying at her feet with
chamber swung and empty, and discharged shells scattered near.

Outstretched upon the stable floor lay Blake, ghastly white--dead--one
hand clutching a gun and the other twisted in his bloody blouse.

“Whoever the thieves were, whether your people or rustlers--Blake killed
some of them!” said Lassiter.

“Thieves?” whispered Jane.

“I reckon. Hoss-thieves!... Look!” Lassiter waved his hand toward the
stalls.

The first stall--Bells’s stall--was empty. All the stalls were empty. No
racer whinnied and stamped greeting to her. Night was gone! Black Star
was gone!



CHAPTER XVI. GOLD

As Lassiter had reported to Jane, Venters “went through” safely, and
after a toilsome journey reached the peaceful shelter of Surprise
Valley. When finally he lay wearily down under the silver spruces,
resting from the strain of dragging packs and burros up the slope and
through the entrance to Surprise Valley, he had leisure to think, and
a great deal of the time went in regretting that he had not been frank
with his loyal friend, Jane Withersteen.

But, he kept continually recalling, when he had stood once more face to
face with her and had been shocked at the change in her and had heard
the details of her adversity, he had not had the heart to tell her of
the closer interest which had entered his life. He had not lied; yet he
had kept silence.

Bess was in transports over the stores of supplies and the outfit he had
packed from Cottonwoods. He had certainly brought a hundred times
more than he had gone for; enough, surely, for years, perhaps to make
permanent home in the valley. He saw no reason why he need ever leave
there again.

After a day of rest he recovered his strength and shared Bess’s pleasure
in rummaging over the endless packs, and began to plan for the future.
And in this planning, his trip to Cottonwoods, with its revived hate
of Tull and consequent unleashing of fierce passions, soon faded out
of mind. By slower degrees his friendship for Jane Withersteen and his
contrition drifted from the active preoccupation of his present thought
to a place in memory, with more and more infrequent recalls.

And as far as the state of his mind was concerned, upon the second day
after his return, the valley, with its golden hues and purple shades,
the speaking west wind and the cool, silent night, and Bess’s watching
eyes with their wonderful light, so wrought upon Venters that he might
never have left them at all.

That very afternoon he set to work. Only one thing hindered him upon
beginning, though it in no wise checked his delight, and that in the
multiplicity of tasks planned to make a paradise out of the valley he
could not choose the one with which to begin. He had to grow into the
habit of passing from one dreamy pleasure to another, like a bee going
from flower to flower in the valley, and he found this wandering habit
likely to extend to his labors. Nevertheless, he made a start.

At the outset he discovered Bess to be both a considerable help in some
ways and a very great hindrance in others. Her excitement and joy were
spurs, inspirations; but she was utterly impracticable in her ideas,
and she flitted from one plan to another with bewildering vacillation.
Moreover, he fancied that she grew more eager, youthful, and sweet; and
he marked that it was far easier to watch her and listen to her than
it was to work. Therefore he gave her tasks that necessitated her going
often to the cave where he had stored his packs.

Upon the last of these trips, when he was some distance down the terrace
and out of sight of camp, he heard a scream, and then the sharp barking
of the dogs.

For an instant he straightened up, amazed. Danger for her had been
absolutely out of his mind. She had seen a rattlesnake--or a wildcat.
Still she would not have been likely to scream at sight of either; and
the barking of the dogs was ominous. Dropping his work, he dashed back
along the terrace. Upon breaking through a clump of aspens he saw the
dark form of a man in the camp. Cold, then hot, Venters burst into
frenzied speed to reach his guns. He was cursing himself for a
thoughtless fool when the man’s tall form became familiar and he
recognized Lassiter. Then the reversal of emotions changed his run to
a walk; he tried to call out, but his voice refused to carry; when he
reached camp there was Lassiter staring at the white-faced girl. By that
time Ring and Whitie had recognized him.

“Hello, Venters! I’m makin’ you a visit,” said Lassiter, slowly. “An’
I’m some surprised to see you’ve a--a young feller for company.”

One glance had sufficed for the keen rider to read Bess’s real sex, and
for once his cool calm had deserted him. He stared till the white of
Bess’s cheeks flared into crimson. That, if it were needed, was the
concluding evidence of her femininity, for it went fittingly with her
sun-tinted hair and darkened, dilated eyes, the sweetness of her mouth,
and the striking symmetry of her slender shape.

“Heavens! Lassiter!” panted Venters, when he caught his breath. “What
relief--it’s only you! How--in the name of all that’s wonderful--did you
ever get here?”

“I trailed you. We--I wanted to know where you was, if you had a safe
place. So I trailed you.”

“Trailed me,” cried Venters, bluntly.

“I reckon. It was some of a job after I got to them smooth rocks. I was
all day trackin’ you up to them little cut steps in the rock. The rest
was easy.”

“Where’s your hoss? I hope you hid him.”

“I tied him in them queer cedars down on the slope. He can’t be seen
from the valley.”

“That’s good. Well, well! I’m completely dumfounded. It was my idea that
no man could track me in here.”

“I reckon. But if there’s a tracker in these uplands as good as me he
can find you.”

“That’s bad. That’ll worry me. But, Lassiter, now you’re here I’m glad
to see you. And--and my companion here is not a young fellow!... Bess,
this is a friend of mine. He saved my life once.”

The embarrassment of the moment did not extend to Lassiter. Almost at
once his manner, as he shook hands with Bess, relieved Venters and put
the girl at ease. After Venters’s words and one quick look at Lassiter,
her agitation stilled, and, though she was shy, if she were conscious
of anything out of the ordinary in the situation, certainly she did not
show it.

“I reckon I’ll only stay a little while,” Lassiter was saying. “An’ if
you don’t mind troublin’, I’m hungry. I fetched some biscuits along, but
they’re gone. Venters, this place is sure the wonderfullest ever seen.
Them cut steps on the slope! That outlet into the gorge! An’ it’s like
climbin’ up through hell into heaven to climb through that gorge into
this valley! There’s a queer-lookin’ rock at the top of the passage. I
didn’t have time to stop. I’m wonderin’ how you ever found this place.
It’s sure interestin’.”

During the preparation and eating of dinner Lassiter listened mostly,
as was his wont, and occasionally he spoke in his quaint and dry way.
Venters noted, however, that the rider showed an increasing interest in
Bess. He asked her no questions, and only directed his attention to her
while she was occupied and had no opportunity to observe his scrutiny.
It seemed to Venters that Lassiter grew more and more absorbed in his
study of Bess, and that he lost his coolness in some strange, softening
sympathy. Then, quite abruptly, he arose and announced the necessity
for his early departure. He said good-by to Bess in a voice gentle and
somewhat broken, and turned hurriedly away. Venters accompanied him, and
they had traversed the terrace, climbed the weathered slope, and passed
under the stone bridge before either spoke again.

Then Lassiter put a great hand on Venters’s shoulder and wheeled him to
meet a smoldering fire of gray eyes.

“Lassiter, I couldn’t tell Jane! I couldn’t,” burst out Venters, reading
his friend’s mind. “I tried. But I couldn’t. She wouldn’t understand,
and she has troubles enough. And I love the girl!”

“Venters, I reckon this beats me. I’ve seen some queer things in my
time, too. This girl--who is she?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t know! What is she, then?”

“I don’t know that, either. Oh, it’s the strangest story you ever heard.
I must tell you. But you’ll never believe.”

“Venters, women were always puzzles to me. But for all that, if this
girl ain’t a child, an’ as innocent, I’m no fit person to think of
virtue an’ goodness in anybody. Are you goin’ to be square with her?”

“I am--so help me God!”

“I reckoned so. Mebbe my temper oughtn’t led me to make sure. But, man,
she’s a woman in all but years. She’s sweeter ‘n the sage.”

“Lassiter, I know, I know. And the hell of it is that in spite of her
innocence and charm she’s--she’s not what she seems!”

“I wouldn’t want to--of course, I couldn’t call you a liar, Venters,”
 said the older man.

“What’s more, she was Oldring’s Masked Rider!”

Venters expected to floor his friend with that statement, but he was not
in any way prepared for the shock his words gave. For an instant he was
astounded to see Lassiter stunned; then his own passionate eagerness
to unbosom himself, to tell the wonderful story, precluded any other
thought.

“Son, tell me all about this,” presently said Lassiter as he seated
himself on a stone and wiped his moist brow.

Thereupon Venters began his narrative at the point where he had shot the
rustler and Oldring’s Masked Rider, and he rushed through it, telling
all, not holding back even Bess’s unreserved avowal of her love or his
deepest emotions.

“That’s the story,” he said, concluding. “I love her, though I’ve never
told her. If I did tell her I’d be ready to marry her, and that seems
impossible in this country. I’d be afraid to risk taking her anywhere.
So I intend to do the best I can for her here.”

“The longer I live the stranger life is,” mused Lassiter, with downcast
eyes. “I’m reminded of somethin’ you once said to Jane about hands in
her game of life. There’s that unseen hand of power, an’ Tull’s black
hand, an’ my red one, an’ your indifferent one, an’ the girl’s little
brown, helpless one. An’, Venters there’s another one that’s all-wise
an’ all-wonderful. That’s the hand guidin’ Jane Withersteen’s game of
life!... Your story’s one to daze a far clearer head than mine. I can’t
offer no advice, even if you asked for it. Mebbe I can help you. Anyway,
I’ll hold Oldrin’ up when he comes to the village an’ find out about
this girl. I knew the rustler years ago. He’ll remember me.”

“Lassiter, if I ever meet Oldring I’ll kill him!” cried Venters, with
sudden intensity.

“I reckon that’d be perfectly natural,” replied the rider.

“Make him think Bess is dead--as she is to him and that old life.”

“Sure, sure, son. Cool down now. If you’re goin’ to begin pullin’ guns
on Tull an’ Oldin’ you want to be cool. I reckon, though, you’d better
keep hid here. Well, I must be leavin’.”

“One thing, Lassiter. You’ll not tell Jane about Bess? Please don’t!”

“I reckon not. But I wouldn’t be afraid to bet that after she’d got
over anger at your secrecy--Venters, she’d be furious once in her
life!--she’d think more of you. I don’t mind sayin’ for myself that I
think you’re a good deal of a man.”

In the further ascent Venters halted several times with the intention of
saying good-by, yet he changed his mind and kept on climbing till they
reached Balancing Rock. Lassiter examined the huge rock, listened to
Venters’s idea of its position and suggestion, and curiously placed a
strong hand upon it.

“Hold on!” cried Venters. “I heaved at it once and have never gotten
over my scare.”

“Well, you do seem uncommon nervous,” replied Lassiter, much amused.
“Now, as for me, why I always had the funniest notion to roll stones!
When I was a kid I did it, an’ the bigger I got the bigger stones I’d
roll. Ain’t that funny? Honest--even now I often get off my hoss just to
tumble a big stone over a precipice, en’ watch it drop, en’ listen to it
bang an’ boom. I’ve started some slides in my time, an’ don’t you forget
it. I never seen a rock I wanted to roll as bad as this one! Wouldn’t
there jest be roarin’, crashin’ hell down that trail?”

“You’d close the outlet forever!” exclaimed Venters. “Well, good-by,
Lassiter. Keep my secret and don’t forget me. And be mighty careful how
you get out of the valley below. The rustlers’ canyon isn’t more than
three miles up the Pass. Now you’ve tracked me here, I’ll never feel
safe again.”

In his descent to the valley, Venters’s emotion, roused to stirring
pitch by the recital of his love story, quieted gradually, and in its
place came a sober, thoughtful mood. All at once he saw that he was
serious, because he would never more regain his sense of security while
in the valley. What Lassiter could do another skilful tracker might
duplicate. Among the many riders with whom Venters had ridden he
recalled no one who could have taken his trail at Cottonwoods and have
followed it to the edge of the bare slope in the pass, let alone up that
glistening smooth stone. Lassiter, however, was not an ordinary rider.
Instead of hunting cattle tracks he had likely spent a goodly portion
of his life tracking men. It was not improbable that among Oldring’s
rustlers there was one who shared Lassiter’s gift for trailing. And the
more Venters dwelt on this possibility the more perturbed he grew.

Lassiter’s visit, moreover, had a disquieting effect upon Bess, and
Venters fancied that she entertained the same thought as to future
seclusion. The breaking of their solitude, though by a well-meaning
friend, had not only dispelled all its dream and much of its charm, but
had instilled a canker of fear. Both had seen the footprint in the sand.

Venters did no more work that day. Sunset and twilight gave way to
night, and the canyon bird whistled its melancholy notes, and the wind
sang softly in the cliffs, and the camp-fire blazed and burned down to
red embers. To Venters a subtle difference was apparent in all of these,
or else the shadowy change had been in him. He hoped that on the morrow
this slight depression would have passed away.

In that measure, however, he was doomed to disappointment. Furthermore,
Bess reverted to a wistful sadness that he had not observed in her since
her recovery. His attempt to cheer her out of it resulted in dismal
failure, and consequently in a darkening of his own mood. Hard work
relieved him; still, when the day had passed, his unrest returned.
Then he set to deliberate thinking, and there came to him the startling
conviction that he must leave Surprise Valley and take Bess with him.
As a rider he had taken many chances, and as an adventurer in Deception
Pass he had unhesitatingly risked his life, but now he would run no
preventable hazard of Bess’s safety and happiness, and he was too keen
not to see that hazard. It gave him a pang to think of leaving the
beautiful valley just when he had the means to establish a permanent
and delightful home there. One flashing thought tore in hot temptation
through his mind--why not climb up into the gorge, roll Balancing Rock
down the trail, and close forever the outlet to Deception Pass? “That
was the beast in me--showing his teeth!” muttered Venters, scornfully.
“I’ll just kill him good and quick! I’ll be fair to this girl, if it’s
the last thing I do on earth!”

Another day went by, in which he worked less and pondered more and
all the time covertly watched Bess. Her wistfulness had deepened into
downright unhappiness, and that made his task to tell her all the
harder. He kept the secret another day, hoping by some chance she might
grow less moody, and to his exceeding anxiety she fell into far deeper
gloom. Out of his own secret and the torment of it he divined that she,
too, had a secret and the keeping of it was torturing her. As yet he had
no plan thought out in regard to how or when to leave the valley, but
he decided to tell her the necessity of it and to persuade her to go.
Furthermore, he hoped his speaking out would induce her to unburden her
own mind.

“Bess, what’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she answered, with averted face.

Venters took hold of her gently, though masterfully, forced her to meet
his eyes.

“You can’t look at me and lie,” he said. “Now--what’s wrong with you?
You’re keeping something from me. Well, I’ve got a secret, too, and I
intend to tell it presently.”

“Oh--I have a secret. I was crazy to tell you when you came back.
That’s why I was so silly about everything. I kept holding my secret
back--gloating over it. But when Lassiter came I got an idea--that
changed my mind. Then I hated to tell you.”

“Are you going to now?”

“Yes--yes. I was coming to it. I tried yesterday, but you were so cold.
I was afraid. I couldn’t keep it much longer.”

“Very well, most mysterious lady, tell your wonderful secret.”

“You needn’t laugh,” she retorted, with a first glimpse of reviving
spirit. “I can take the laugh out of you in one second.”

“It’s a go.”

She ran through the spruces to the cave, and returned carrying something
which was manifestly heavy. Upon nearer view he saw that whatever she
held with such evident importance had been bound up in a black scarf
he well remembered. That alone was sufficient to make him tingle with
curiosity.

“Have you any idea what I did in your absence?” she asked.

“I imagine you lounged about, waiting and watching for me,” he replied,
smiling. “I’ve my share of conceit, you know.”

“You’re wrong. I worked. Look at my hands.” She dropped on her knees
close to where he sat, and, carefully depositing the black bundle, she
held out her hands. The palms and inside of her fingers were white,
puckered, and worn.

“Why, Bess, you’ve been fooling in the water,” he said.

“Fooling? Look here!” With deft fingers she spread open the black scarf,
and the bright sun shone upon a dull, glittering heap of gold.

“Gold!” he ejaculated.

“Yes, gold! See, pounds of gold! I found it--washed it out of the
stream--picked it out grain by grain, nugget by nugget!”

“Gold!” he cried.

“Yes. Now--now laugh at my secret!”

For a long minute Venters gazed. Then he stretched forth a hand to feel
if the gold was real.

“Gold!” he almost shouted. “Bess, there are hundreds--thousands of
dollars’ worth here!”

He leaned over to her, and put his hand, strong and clenching now, on
hers.

“Is there more where this came from?” he whispered.

“Plenty of it, all the way up the stream to the cliff. You know I’ve
often washed for gold. Then I’ve heard the men talk. I think there’s no
great quantity of gold here, but enough for--for a fortune for you.”

“That--was--your--secret!”

“Yes. I hate gold. For it makes men mad. I’ve seen them drunk with joy
and dance and fling themselves around. I’ve seen them curse and rave.
I’ve seen them fight like dogs and roll in the dust. I’ve seen them kill
each other for gold.”

“Is that why you hated to tell me?”

“Not--not altogether.” Bess lowered her head. “It was because I knew
you’d never stay here long after you found gold.”

“You were afraid I’d leave you?”

“Yes.

“Listen!... You great, simple child! Listen... You sweet, wonderful, wild,
blue-eyed girl! I was tortured by my secret. It was that I knew we--we
must leave the valley. We can’t stay here much longer. I couldn’t think
how we’d get away--out of the country--or how we’d live, if we ever got
out. I’m a beggar. That’s why I kept my secret. I’m poor. It takes money
to make way beyond Sterling. We couldn’t ride horses or burros or walk
forever. So while I knew we must go, I was distracted over how to go
and what to do. Now! We’ve gold! Once beyond Sterling, we’ll be safe from
rustlers. We’ve no others to fear.

“Oh! Listen! Bess!” Venters now heard his voice ringing high and sweet,
and he felt Bess’s cold hands in his crushing grasp as she leaned toward
him pale, breathless. “This is how much I’d leave you! You made me live
again! I’ll take you away--far away from this wild country. You’ll begin
a new life. You’ll be happy. You shall see cities, ships, people. You
shall have anything your heart craves. All the shame and sorrow of your
life shall be forgotten--as if they had never been. This is how much I’d
leave you here alone--you sad-eyed girl. I love you! Didn’t you know it?
How could you fail to know it? I love you! I’m free! I’m a man--a man
you’ve made--no more a beggar!... Kiss me! This is how much I’d leave
you here alone--you beautiful, strange, unhappy girl. But I’ll make you
happy. What--what do I care for--your past! I love you! I’ll take you
home to Illinois--to my mother. Then I’ll take you to far places. I’ll
make up all you’ve lost. Oh, I know you love me--knew it before you told
me. And it changed my life. And you’ll go with me, not as my companion
as you are here, nor my sister, but, Bess, darling!... As my wife!”



CHAPTER XVII. WRANGLE’S RACE RUN

The plan eventually decided upon by the lovers was for Venters to go to
the village, secure a horse and some kind of a disguise for Bess, or
at least less striking apparel than her present garb, and to return
post-haste to the valley. Meanwhile, she would add to their store of
gold. Then they would strike the long and perilous trail to ride out of
Utah. In the event of his inability to fetch back a horse for her, they
intended to make the giant sorrel carry double. The gold, a little food,
saddle blankets, and Venters’s guns were to compose the light outfit
with which they would make the start.

“I love this beautiful place,” said Bess. “It’s hard to think of leaving
it.”

“Hard! Well, I should think so,” replied Venters. “Maybe--in years--”
 But he did not complete in words his thought that might be possible to
return after many years of absence and change.

Once again Bess bade Venters farewell under the shadow of Balancing
Rock, and this time it was with whispered hope and tenderness and
passionate trust. Long after he had left her, all down through the
outlet to the Pass, the clinging clasp of her arms, the sweetness of
her lips, and the sense of a new and exquisite birth of character in her
remained hauntingly and thrillingly in his mind. The girl who had sadly
called herself nameless and nothing had been marvelously transformed
in the moment of his avowal of love. It was something to think over,
something to warm his heart, but for the present it had absolutely to be
forgotten so that all his mind could be addressed to the trip so fraught
with danger.

He carried only his rifle, revolver, and a small quantity of bread and
meat, and thus lightly burdened, he made swift progress down the slope
and out into the valley. Darkness was coming on, and he welcomed it.
Stars were blinking when he reached his old hiding-place in the split of
canyon wall, and by their aid he slipped through the dense thickets to
the grassy enclosure. Wrangle stood in the center of it with his head
up, and he appeared black and of gigantic proportions in the dim light.
Venters whistled softly, began a slow approach, and then called. The
horse snorted and, plunging away with dull, heavy sound of hoofs, he
disappeared in the gloom. “Wilder than ever!” muttered Venters. He
followed the sorrel into the narrowing split between the walls, and
presently had to desist because he could not see a foot in advance. As
he went back toward the open Wrangle jumped out of an ebony shadow of
cliff and like a thunderbolt shot huge and black past him down into
the starlit glade. Deciding that all attempts to catch Wrangle at night
would be useless, Venters repaired to the shelving rock where he had
hidden saddle and blanket, and there went to sleep.

The first peep of day found him stirring, and as soon as it was light
enough to distinguish objects, he took his lasso off his saddle and went
out to rope the sorrel. He espied Wrangle at the lower end of the cove
and approached him in a perfectly natural manner. When he got near
enough, Wrangle evidently recognized him, but was too wild to stand.
He ran up the glade and on into the narrow lane between the walls. This
favored Venters’s speedy capture of the horse, so, coiling his noose
ready to throw, he hurried on. Wrangle let Venters get to within a
hundred feet and then he broke. But as he plunged by, rapidly getting
into his stride, Venters made a perfect throw with the rope. He had
time to brace himself for the shock; nevertheless, Wrangle threw him and
dragged him several yards before halting.

“You wild devil,” said Venters, as he slowly pulled Wrangle up. “Don’t
you know me? Come now--old fellow--so--so--”

Wrangle yielded to the lasso and then to Venters’s strong hand. He was
as straggly and wild-looking as a horse left to roam free in the sage.
He dropped his long ears and stood readily to be saddled and bridled.
But he was exceedingly sensitive, and quivered at every touch and sound.
Venters led him to the thicket, and, bending the close saplings to let
him squeeze through, at length reached the open. Sharp survey in each
direction assured him of the usual lonely nature of the canyon, then he
was in the saddle, riding south.

Wrangle’s long, swinging canter was a wonderful ground-gainer. His
stride was almost twice that of an ordinary horse; and his endurance was
equally remarkable. Venters pulled him in occasionally, and walked him
up the stretches of rising ground and along the soft washes. Wrangle
had never yet shown any indication of distress while Venters rode him.
Nevertheless, there was now reason to save the horse, therefore Venters
did not resort to the hurry that had characterized his former trip.
He camped at the last water in the Pass. What distance that was to
Cottonwoods he did not know; he calculated, however, that it was in the
neighborhood of fifty miles.

Early in the morning he proceeded on his way, and about the middle of
the forenoon reached the constricted gap that marked the southerly end
of the Pass, and through which led the trail up to the sage-level. He
spied out Lassiter’s tracks in the dust, but no others, and dismounting,
he straightened out Wrangle’s bridle and began to lead him up the trail.
The short climb, more severe on beast than on man, necessitated a rest
on the level above, and during this he scanned the wide purple reaches
of slope.

Wrangle whistled his pleasure at the smell of the sage. Remounting,
Venters headed up the white trail with the fragrant wind in his face. He
had proceeded for perhaps a couple of miles when Wrangle stopped with a
suddenness that threw Venters heavily against the pommel.

“What’s wrong, old boy?” called Venters, looking down for a loose shoe
or a snake or a foot lamed by a picked-up stone. Unrewarded, he raised
himself from his scrutiny. Wrangle stood stiff head high, with his
long ears erect. Thus guided, Venters swiftly gazed ahead to make out a
dust-clouded, dark group of horsemen riding down the slope. If they had
seen him, it apparently made no difference in their speed or direction.

“Wonder who they are!” exclaimed Venters. He was not disposed to run.
His cool mood tightened under grip of excitement as he reflected that,
whoever the approaching riders were, they could not be friends. He
slipped out of the saddle and led Wrangle behind the tallest sage-brush.
It might serve to conceal them until the riders were close enough for
him to see who they were; after that he would be indifferent to how soon
they discovered him.

After looking to his rifle and ascertaining that it was in working
order, he watched, and as he watched, slowly the force of a bitter
fierceness, long dormant, gathered ready to flame into life. If those
riders were not rustlers he had forgotten how rustlers looked and rode.
On they came, a small group, so compact and dark that he could not tell
their number. How unusual that their horses did not see Wrangle! But
such failure, Venters decided, was owing to the speed with which they
were traveling. They moved at a swift canter affected more by rustlers
than by riders. Venters grew concerned over the possibility that these
horsemen would actually ride down on him before he had a chance to
tell what to expect. When they were within three hundred yards he
deliberately led Wrangle out into the trail.

Then he heard shouts, and the hard scrape of sliding hoofs, and saw
horses rear and plunge back with up-flung heads and flying manes.
Several little white puffs of smoke appeared sharply against the black
background of riders and horses, and shots rang out. Bullets struck far
in front of Venters, and whipped up the dust and then hummed low into
the sage. The range was great for revolvers, but whether the shots were
meant to kill or merely to check advance, they were enough to fire that
waiting ferocity in Venters. Slipping his arm through the bridle, so
that Wrangle could not get away, Venters lifted his rifle and pulled the
trigger twice.

He saw the first horseman lean sideways and fall. He saw another lurch
in his saddle and heard a cry of pain. Then Wrangle, plunging in fright,
lifted Venters and nearly threw him. He jerked the horse down with
a powerful hand and leaped into the saddle. Wrangle plunged again,
dragging his bridle, that Venters had not had time to throw in place.
Bending over with a swift movement, he secured it and dropped the loop
over the pommel. Then, with grinding teeth, he looked to see what the
issue would be.

The band had scattered so as not to afford such a broad mark for
bullets. The riders faced Venters, some with red-belching guns. He heard
a sharper report, and just as Wrangle plunged again he caught the whim
of a leaden missile that would have hit him but for Wrangle’s sudden
jump. A swift, hot wave, turning cold, passed over Venters. Deliberately
he picked out the one rider with a carbine, and killed him. Wrangle
snorted shrilly and bolted into the sage. Venters let him run a few
rods, then with iron arm checked him.

Five riders, surely rustlers, were left. One leaped out of the saddle to
secure his fallen comrade’s carbine. A shot from Venters, which missed
the man but sent the dust flying over him made him run back to his
horse. Then they separated. The crippled rider went one way; the one
frustrated in his attempt to get the carbine rode another, Venters
thought he made out a third rider, carrying a strange-appearing bundle
and disappearing in the sage. But in the rapidity of action and vision
he could not discern what it was. Two riders with three horses swung
out to the right. Afraid of the long rifle--a burdensome weapon seldom
carried by rustlers or riders--they had been put to rout.

Suddenly Venters discovered that one of the two men last noted was
riding Jane Withersteen’s horse Bells--the beautiful bay racer she had
given to Lassiter. Venters uttered a savage outcry. Then the small,
wiry, frog-like shape of the second rider, and the ease and grace of his
seat in the saddle--things so strikingly incongruous--grew more and more
familiar in Venters’s sight.

“Jerry Card!” cried Venters.

It was indeed Tull’s right-hand man. Such a white hot wrath inflamed
Venters that he fought himself to see with clearer gaze.

“It’s Jerry Card!” he exclaimed, instantly. “And he’s riding Black Star
and leading Night!”

The long-kindling, stormy fire in Venters’s heart burst into flame. He
spurred Wrangle, and as the horse lengthened his stride Venters slipped
cartridges into the magazine of his rifle till it was once again full.
Card and his companion were now half a mile or more in advance, riding
easily down the slope. Venters marked the smooth gait, and understood it
when Wrangle galloped out of the sage into the broad cattle trail,
down which Venters had once tracked Jane Withersteen’s red herd. This
hard-packed trail, from years of use, was as clean and smooth as a road.
Venters saw Jerry Card look back over his shoulder, the other rider did
likewise. Then the three racers lengthened their stride to the point
where the swinging canter was ready to break into a gallop.

“Wrangle, the race’s on,” said Venters, grimly. “We’ll canter with them
and gallop with them and run with them. We’ll let them set the pace.”

Venters knew he bestrode the strongest, swiftest, most tireless horse
ever ridden by any rider across the Utah uplands. Recalling Jane
Withersteen’s devoted assurance that Night could run neck and neck with
Wrangle, and Black Star could show his heels to him, Venters wished
that Jane were there to see the race to recover her blacks and in the
unqualified superiority of the giant sorrel. Then Venters found himself
thankful that she was absent, for he meant that race to end in Jerry
Card’s death. The first flush, the raging of Venters’s wrath, passed, to
leave him in sullen, almost cold possession of his will. It was a deadly
mood, utterly foreign to his nature, engendered, fostered, and released
by the wild passions of wild men in a wild country. The strength in
him then--the thing rife in him that was not hate, but something as
remorseless--might have been the fiery fruition of a whole lifetime of
vengeful quest. Nothing could have stopped him.

Venters thought out the race shrewdly. The rider on Bells would probably
drop behind and take to the sage. What he did was of little moment
to Venters. To stop Jerry Card, his evil hidden career as well as
his present flight, and then to catch the blacks--that was all that
concerned Venters. The cattle trail wound for miles and miles down the
slope. Venters saw with a rider’s keen vision ten, fifteen, twenty miles
of clear purple sage. There were no on-coming riders or rustlers to aid
Card. His only chance to escape lay in abandoning the stolen horses and
creeping away in the sage to hide. In ten miles Wrangle could run
Black Star and Night off their feet, and in fifteen he could kill them
outright. So Venters held the sorrel in, letting Card make the running.
It was a long race that would save the blacks.

In a few miles of that swinging canter Wrangle had crept appreciably
closer to the three horses. Jerry Card turned again, and when he saw how
the sorrel had gained, he put Black Star to a gallop. Night and Bells,
on either side of him, swept into his stride.

Venters loosened the rein on Wrangle and let him break into a gallop.
The sorrel saw the horses ahead and wanted to run. But Venters
restrained him. And in the gallop he gained more than in the canter.
Bells was fast in that gait, but Black Star and Night had been trained
to run. Slowly Wrangle closed the gap down to a quarter of a mile, and
crept closer and closer.

Jerry Card wheeled once more. Venters distinctly saw the red flash of
his red face. This time he looked long. Venters laughed. He knew what
passed in Card’s mind. The rider was trying to make out what horse it
happened to be that thus gained on Jane Withersteen’s peerless racers.
Wrangle had so long been away from the village that not improbably Jerry
had forgotten. Besides, whatever Jerry’s qualifications for his fame as
the greatest rider of the sage, certain it was that his best point was
not far-sightedness. He had not recognized Wrangle. After what must have
been a searching gaze he got his comrade to face about. This action gave
Venters amusement. It spoke so surely of the facts that neither Card
nor the rustler actually knew their danger. Yet if they kept to the
trail--and the last thing such men would do would be to leave it--they
were both doomed.

This comrade of Card’s whirled far around in his saddle, and he even
shaded his eyes from the sun. He, too, looked long. Then, all at once,
he faced ahead again and, bending lower in the saddle, began to fling
his right arm up and down. That flinging Venters knew to be the lashing
of Bells. Jerry also became active. And the three racers lengthened out
into a run.

“Now, Wrangle!” cried Venters. “Run, you big devil! Run!”

Venters laid the reins on Wrangle’s neck and dropped the loop over
the pommel. The sorrel needed no guiding on that smooth trail. He was
surer-footed in a run than at any other fast gait, and his running gave
the impression of something devilish. He might now have been actuated by
Venters’s spirit; undoubtedly his savage running fitted the mood of his
rider. Venters bent forward swinging with the horse, and gripped his
rifle. His eye measured the distance between him and Jerry Card.

In less than two miles of running Bells began to drop behind the blacks,
and Wrangle began to overhaul him. Venters anticipated that the rustler
would soon take to the sage. Yet he did not. Not improbably he reasoned
that the powerful sorrel could more easily overtake Bells in the heavier
going outside of the trail. Soon only a few hundred yards lay between
Bells and Wrangle. Turning in his saddle, the rustler began to shoot,
and the bullets beat up little whiffs of dust. Venters raised his rifle,
ready to take snap shots, and waited for favorable opportunity when
Bells was out of line with the forward horses. Venters had it in him
to kill these men as if they were skunk-bitten coyotes, but also he had
restraint enough to keep from shooting one of Jane’s beloved Arabians.

No great distance was covered, however, before Bells swerved to the
left, out of line with Black Star and Night. Then Venters, aiming high
and waiting for the pause between Wrangle’s great strides, began to take
snap shots at the rustler. The fleeing rider presented a broad target
for a rifle, but he was moving swiftly forward and bobbing up and down.
Moreover, shooting from Wrangle’s back was shooting from a thunderbolt.
And added to that was the danger of a low-placed bullet taking effect
on Bells. Yet, despite these considerations, making the shot exceedingly
difficult, Venters’s confidence, like his implacability, saw a speedy
and fatal termination of that rustler’s race. On the sixth shot the
rustler threw up his arms and took a flying tumble off his horse. He
rolled over and over, hunched himself to a half-erect position, fell,
and then dragged himself into the sage. As Venters went thundering by he
peered keenly into the sage, but caught no sign of the man. Bells ran a
few hundred yards, slowed up, and had stopped when Wrangle passed him.

Again Venters began slipping fresh cartridges into the magazine of his
rifle, and his hand was so sure and steady that he did not drop a single
cartridge. With the eye of a rider and the judgment of a marksman he
once more measured the distance between him and Jerry Card. Wrangle had
gained, bringing him into rifle range. Venters was hard put to it now
not to shoot, but thought it better to withhold his fire. Jerry, who, in
anticipation of a running fusillade, had huddled himself into a little
twisted ball on Black Star’s neck, now surmising that this pursuer would
make sure of not wounding one of the blacks, rose to his natural seat in
the saddle.

In his mind perhaps, as certainly as in Venters’s, this moment was the
beginning of the real race.

Venters leaned forward to put his hand on Wrangle’s neck, then backward
to put it on his flank. Under the shaggy, dusty hair trembled and
vibrated and rippled a wonderful muscular activity. But Wrangle’s flesh
was still cold. What a cold-blooded brute thought Venters, and felt in
him a love for the horse he had never given to any other. It would not
have been humanly possible for any rider, even though clutched by hate
or revenge or a passion to save a loved one or fear of his own life, to
be astride the sorrel to swing with his swing, to see his magnificent
stride and hear the rapid thunder of his hoofs, to ride him in that race
and not glory in the ride.

So, with his passion to kill still keen and unabated, Venters lived out
that ride, and drank a rider’s sage-sweet cup of wildness to the dregs.

When Wrangle’s long mane, lashing in the wind, stung Venters in the
cheek, the sting added a beat to his flying pulse. He bent a downward
glance to try to see Wrangle’s actual stride, and saw only twinkling,
darting streaks and the white rush of the trail. He watched the sorrel’s
savage head, pointed level, his mouth still closed and dry, but his
nostrils distended as if he were snorting unseen fire. Wrangle was the
horse for a race with death. Upon each side Venters saw the sage merged
into a sailing, colorless wall. In front sloped the lay of ground with
its purple breadth split by the white trail. The wind, blowing with
heavy, steady blast into his face, sickened him with enduring, sweet
odor, and filled his ears with a hollow, rushing roar.

Then for the hundredth time he measured the width of space separating
him from Jerry Card. Wrangle had ceased to gain. The blacks were proving
their fleetness. Venters watched Jerry Card, admiring the little rider’s
horsemanship. He had the incomparable seat of the upland rider, born in
the saddle. It struck Venters that Card had changed his position, or
the position of the horses. Presently Venters remembered positively that
Jerry had been leading Night on the right-hand side of the trail. The
racer was now on the side to the left. No--it was Black Star. But,
Venters argued in amaze, Jerry had been mounted on Black Star. Another
clearer, keener gaze assured Venters that Black Star was really
riderless. Night now carried Jerry Card.

“He’s changed from one to the other!” ejaculated Venters, realizing the
astounding feat with unstinted admiration. “Changed at full speed! Jerry
Card, that’s what you’ve done unless I’m drunk on the smell of sage. But
I’ve got to see the trick before I believe it.”

Thenceforth, while Wrangle sped on, Venters glued his eyes to the little
rider. Jerry Card rode as only he could ride. Of all the daring
horsemen of the uplands, Jerry was the one rider fitted to bring out the
greatness of the blacks in that long race. He had them on a dead run,
but not yet at the last strained and killing pace. From time to time he
glanced backward, as a wise general in retreat calculating his chances
and the power and speed of pursuers, and the moment for the last
desperate burst. No doubt, Card, with his life at stake, gloried in that
race, perhaps more wildly than Venters. For he had been born to the sage
and the saddle and the wild. He was more than half horse. Not until the
last call--the sudden up-flashing instinct of self-preservation--would
he lose his skill and judgment and nerve and the spirit of that race.
Venters seemed to read Jerry’s mind. That little crime-stained rider was
actually thinking of his horses, husbanding their speed, handling them
with knowledge of years, glorying in their beautiful, swift, racing
stride, and wanting them to win the race when his own life hung
suspended in quivering balance. Again Jerry whirled in his saddle and
the sun flashed red on his face. Turning, he drew Black Star closer and
closer toward Night, till they ran side by side, as one horse. Then Card
raised himself in the saddle, slipped out of the stirrups, and, somehow
twisting himself, leaped upon Black Star. He did not even lose the swing
of the horse. Like a leech he was there in the other saddle, and as the
horses separated, his right foot, that had been apparently doubled under
him, shot down to catch the stirrup. The grace and dexterity and daring
of that rider’s act won something more than admiration from Venters.

For the distance of a mile Jerry rode Black Star and then changed back
to Night. But all Jerry’s skill and the running of the blacks could
avail little more against the sorrel.

Venters peered far ahead, studying the lay of the land. Straightaway
for five miles the trail stretched, and then it disappeared in hummocky
ground. To the right, some few rods, Venters saw a break in the sage,
and this was the rim of Deception Pass. Across the dark cleft gleamed
the red of the opposite wall. Venters imagined that the trail went down
into the Pass somewhere north of those ridges. And he realized that
he must and would overtake Jerry Card in this straight course of five
miles.

Cruelly he struck his spurs into Wrangle’s flanks. A light touch of spur
was sufficient to make Wrangle plunge. And now, with a ringing, wild
snort, he seemed to double up in muscular convulsions and to shoot
forward with an impetus that almost unseated Venters. The sage blurred
by, the trail flashed by, and the wind robbed him of breath and hearing.
Jerry Card turned once more. And the way he shifted to Black Star showed
he had to make his last desperate running. Venters aimed to the side of
the trail and sent a bullet puffing the dust beyond Jerry. Venters
hoped to frighten the rider and get him to take to the sage. But Jerry
returned the shot, and his ball struck dangerously close in the dust
at Wrangle’s flying feet. Venters held his fire then, while the rider
emptied his revolver. For a mile, with Black Star leaving Night behind
and doing his utmost, Wrangle did not gain; for another mile he gained
little, if at all. In the third he caught up with the now galloping
Night and began to gain rapidly on the other black.

Only a hundred yards now stretched between Black Star and Wrangle. The
giant sorrel thundered on--and on--and on. In every yard he gained
a foot. He was whistling through his nostrils, wringing wet, flying
lather, and as hot as fire. Savage as ever, strong as ever, fast as
ever, but each tremendous stride jarred Venters out of the saddle!
Wrangle’s power and spirit and momentum had begun to run him off his
legs. Wrangle’s great race was nearly won--and run. Venters seemed to
see the expanse before him as a vast, sheeted, purple plain sliding
under him. Black Star moved in it as a blur. The rider, Jerry Card,
appeared a mere dot bobbing dimly. Wrangle thundered on--on--on! Venters
felt the increase in quivering, straining shock after every leap. Flecks
of foam flew into Venters’s eyes, burning him, making him see all the
sage as red. But in that red haze he saw, or seemed to see, Black Star
suddenly riderless and with broken gait. Wrangle thundered on to change
his pace with a violent break. Then Venters pulled him hard. From run
to gallop, gallop to canter, canter to trot, trot to walk, and walk to
stop, the great sorrel ended his race.

Venters looked back. Black Star stood riderless in the trail. Jerry
Card had taken to the sage. Far up the white trail Night came trotting
faithfully down. Venters leaped off, still half blind, reeling dizzily.
In a moment he had recovered sufficiently to have a care for Wrangle.
Rapidly he took off the saddle and bridle. The sorrel was reeking,
heaving, whistling, shaking. But he had still the strength to stand, and
for him Venters had no fears.

As Venters ran back to Black Star he saw the horse stagger on shaking
legs into the sage and go down in a heap. Upon reaching him Venters
removed the saddle and bridle. Black Star had been killed on his legs,
Venters thought. He had no hope for the stricken horse. Black Star
lay flat, covered with bloody froth, mouth wide, tongue hanging, eyes
glaring, and all his beautiful body in convulsions.

Unable to stay there to see Jane’s favorite racer die, Venters hurried
up the trail to meet the other black. On the way he kept a sharp lookout
for Jerry Card. Venters imagined the rider would keep well out of range
of the rifle, but, as he would be lost on the sage without a horse, not
improbably he would linger in the vicinity on the chance of getting back
one of the blacks. Night soon came trotting up, hot and wet and run out.
Venters led him down near the others, and unsaddling him, let him loose
to rest. Night wearily lay down in the dust and rolled, proving himself
not yet spent.

Then Venters sat down to rest and think. Whatever the risk, he was
compelled to stay where he was, or comparatively near, for the night.
The horses must rest and drink. He must find water. He was now seventy
miles from Cottonwoods, and, he believed, close to the canyon where the
cattle trail must surely turn off and go down into the Pass. After a
while he rose to survey the valley.

He was very near to the ragged edge of a deep canyon into which the
trail turned. The ground lay in uneven ridges divided by washes, and
these sloped into the canyon. Following the canyon line, he saw where
its rim was broken by other intersecting canyons, and farther down red
walls and yellow cliffs leading toward a deep blue cleft that he made
sure was Deception Pass. Walking out a few rods to a promontory, he
found where the trail went down. The descent was gradual, along a
stone-walled trail, and Venters felt sure that this was the place where
Oldring drove cattle into the Pass. There was, however, no indication at
all that he ever had driven cattle out at this point. Oldring had many
holes to his burrow.

In searching round in the little hollows Venters, much to his relief,
found water. He composed himself to rest and eat some bread and meat,
while he waited for a sufficient time to elapse so that he could safely
give the horses a drink. He judged the hour to be somewhere around noon.
Wrangle lay down to rest and Night followed suit. So long as they
were down Venters intended to make no move. The longer they rested
the better, and the safer it would be to give them water. By and by he
forced himself to go over to where Black Star lay, expecting to find
him dead. Instead he found the racer partially if not wholly recovered.
There was recognition, even fire, in his big black eyes. Venters was
overjoyed. He sat by the black for a long time. Black Star presently
labored to his feet with a heave and a groan, shook himself, and snorted
for water. Venters repaired to the little pool he had found, filled
his sombrero, and gave the racer a drink. Black Star gulped it at one
draught, as if it were but a drop, and pushed his nose into the hat
and snorted for more. Venters now led Night down to drink, and after a
further time Black Star also. Then the blacks began to graze.

The sorrel had wandered off down the sage between the trail and the
canyon. Once or twice he disappeared in little swales. Finally Venters
concluded Wrangle had grazed far enough, and, taking his lasso, he went
to fetch him back. In crossing from one ridge to another he saw where
the horse had made muddy a pool of water. It occurred to Venters then
that Wrangle had drunk his fill, and did not seem the worse for it, and
might be anything but easy to catch. And, true enough, he could not come
within roping reach of the sorrel. He tried for an hour, and gave up in
disgust. Wrangle did not seem so wild as simply perverse. In a quandary
Venters returned to the other horses, hoping much, yet doubting more,
that when Wrangle had grazed to suit himself he might be caught.

As the afternoon wore away Venters’s concern diminished, yet he kept
close watch on the blacks and the trail and the sage. There was no
telling of what Jerry Card might be capable. Venters sullenly acquiesced
to the idea that the rider had been too quick and too shrewd for him.
Strangely and doggedly, however, Venters clung to his foreboding of
Card’s downfall.

The wind died away; the red sun topped the far distant western rise of
slope; and the long, creeping purple shadows lengthened. The rims of the
canyons gleamed crimson and the deep clefts appeared to belch forth blue
smoke. Silence enfolded the scene.

It was broken by a horrid, long-drawn scream of a horse and the thudding
of heavy hoofs. Venters sprang erect and wheeled south. Along the canyon
rim, near the edge, came Wrangle, once more in thundering flight.

Venters gasped in amazement. Had the wild sorrel gone mad? His head
was high and twisted, in a most singular position for a running horse.
Suddenly Venters descried a frog-like shape clinging to Wrangle’s neck.
Jerry Card! Somehow he had straddled Wrangle and now stuck like a huge
burr. But it was his strange position and the sorrel’s wild scream that
shook Venters’s nerves. Wrangle was pounding toward the turn where the
trail went down. He plunged onward like a blind horse. More than one of
his leaps took him to the very edge of the precipice.

Jerry Card was bent forward with his teeth fast in the front of
Wrangle’s nose! Venters saw it, and there flashed over him a memory of
this trick of a few desperate riders. He even thought of one rider
who had worn off his teeth in this terrible hold to break or control
desperate horses. Wrangle had indeed gone mad. The marvel was what
guided him. Was it the half-brute, the more than half-horse instinct of
Jerry Card? Whatever the mystery, it was true. And in a few more rods
Jerry would have the sorrel turning into the trail leading down into the
canyon.

“No--Jerry!” whispered Venters, stepping forward and throwing up the
rifle. He tried to catch the little humped, frog-like shape over the
sights. It was moving too fast; it was too small. Yet Venters shot
once... twice... the third time... four times... five! all wasted shots and
precious seconds!

With a deep-muttered curse Venters caught Wrangle through the sights and
pulled the trigger. Plainly he heard the bullet thud. Wrangle uttered
a horrible strangling sound. In swift death action he whirled, and
with one last splendid leap he cleared the canyon rim. And he whirled
downward with the little frog-like shape clinging to his neck!

There was a pause which seemed never ending, a shock, and an instant’s
silence.

Then up rolled a heavy crash, a long roar of sliding rocks dying away in
distant echo, then silence unbroken.

Wrangle’s race was run.



CHAPTER XVIII. OLDRING’S KNELL

Some forty hours or more later Venters created a commotion in
Cottonwoods by riding down the main street on Black Star and leading
Bells and Night. He had come upon Bells grazing near the body of a dead
rustler, the only incident of his quick ride into the village.

Nothing was farther from Venters’s mind than bravado. No thought came
to him of the defiance and boldness of riding Jane Withersteen’s racers
straight into the arch-plotter’s stronghold. He wanted men to see the
famous Arabians; he wanted men to see them dirty and dusty, bearing all
the signs of having been driven to their limit; he wanted men to see and
to know that the thieves who had ridden them out into the sage had not
ridden them back. Venters had come for that and for more--he wanted to
meet Tull face to face; if not Tull, then Dyer; if not Dyer, then anyone
in the secret of these master conspirators. Such was Venters’s passion.
The meeting with the rustlers, the unprovoked attack upon him, the
spilling of blood, the recognition of Jerry Card and the horses, the
race, and that last plunge of mad Wrangle--all these things, fuel on
fuel to the smoldering fire, had kindled and swelled and leaped into
living flame. He could have shot Dyer in the midst of his religious
services at the altar; he could have killed Tull in front of wives and
babes.

He walked the three racers down the broad, green-bordered village road.
He heard the murmur of running water from Amber Spring. Bitter waters
for Jane Withersteen! Men and women stopped to gaze at him and the
horses. All knew him; all knew the blacks and the bay. As well as if it
had been spoken, Venters read in the faces of men the intelligence that
Jane Withersteen’s Arabians had been known to have been stolen. Venters
reined in and halted before Dyer’s residence. It was a low, long, stone
structure resembling Withersteen House. The spacious front yard was
green and luxuriant with grass and flowers; gravel walks led to the huge
porch; a well-trimmed hedge of purple sage separated the yard from the
church grounds; birds sang in the trees; water flowed musically along
the walks; and there were glad, careless shouts of children. For Venters
the beauty of this home, and the serenity and its apparent happiness,
all turned red and black. For Venters a shade overspread the lawn, the
flowers, the old vine-clad stone house. In the music of the singing
birds, in the murmur of the running water, he heard an ominous sound.
Quiet beauty--sweet music--innocent laughter! By what monstrous abortion
of fate did these abide in the shadow of Dyer?

Venters rode on and stopped before Tull’s cottage. Women stared at him
with white faces and then flew from the porch. Tull himself appeared
at the door, bent low, craning his neck. His dark face flashed out of
sight; the door banged; a heavy bar dropped with a hollow sound.

Then Venters shook Black Star’s bridle, and, sharply trotting, led the
other horses to the center of the village. Here at the intersecting
streets and in front of the stores he halted once more. The usual
lounging atmosphere of that prominent corner was not now in evidence.
Riders and ranchers and villagers broke up what must have been absorbing
conversation. There was a rush of many feet, and then the walk was lined
with faces.

Venters’s glance swept down the line of silent stone-faced men. He
recognized many riders and villagers, but none of those he had hoped
to meet. There was no expression in the faces turned toward him. All
of them knew him, most were inimical, but there were few who were
not burning with curiosity and wonder in regard to the return of Jane
Withersteen’s racers. Yet all were silent. Here were the familiar
characteristics--masked feeling--strange secretiveness--expressionless
expression of mystery and hidden power.

“Has anybody here seen Jerry Card?” queried Venters, in a loud voice.

In reply there came not a word, not a nod or shake of head, not so much
as dropping eye or twitching lip--nothing but a quiet, stony stare.

“Been under the knife? You’ve a fine knife-wielder here--one Tull, I
believe!... Maybe you’ve all had your tongues cut out?”

This passionate sarcasm of Venters brought no response, and the stony
calm was as oil on the fire within him.

“I see some of you pack guns, too!” he added, in biting scorn. In the
long, tense pause, strung keenly as a tight wire, he sat motionless on
Black Star. “All right,” he went on. “Then let some of you take this
message to Tull. Tell him I’ve seen Jerry Card! ... Tell him Jerry Card
will never return!”

Thereupon, in the same dead calm, Venters backed Black Star away from
the curb, into the street, and out of range. He was ready now to ride up
to Withersteen House and turn the racers over to Jane.

“Hello, Venters!” a familiar voice cried, hoarsely, and he saw a man
running toward him. It was the rider Judkins who came up and gripped
Venters’s hand. “Venters, I could hev dropped when I seen them hosses.
But thet sight ain’t a marker to the looks of you. What’s wrong? Hev
you gone crazy? You must be crazy to ride in here this way--with them
hosses--talkie’ thet way about Tull en’ Jerry Card.”

“Jud, I’m not crazy--only mad clean through,” replied Venters.

“Mad, now, Bern, I’m glad to hear some of your old self in your voice.
Fer when you come up you looked like the corpse of a dead rider with
fire fer eyes. You hed thet crowd too stiff fer throwin’ guns. Come,
we’ve got to hev a talk. Let’s go up the lane. We ain’t much safe here.”

Judkins mounted Bells and rode with Venters up to the cottonwood grove.
Here they dismounted and went among the trees.

“Let’s hear from you first,” said Judkins. “You fetched back them
hosses. Thet is the trick. An’, of course, you got Jerry the same as you
got Horne.”

“Horne!”

“Sure. He was found dead yesterday all chewed by coyotes, en’ he’d been
shot plumb center.”

“Where was he found?”

“At the split down the trail--you know where Oldring’s cattle trail runs
off north from the trail to the pass.”

“That’s where I met Jerry and the rustlers. What was Horne doing with
them? I thought Horne was an honest cattle-man.”

“Lord--Bern, don’t ask me thet! I’m all muddled now tryin’ to figure
things.”

Venters told of the fight and the race with Jerry Card and its tragic
conclusion.

“I knowed it! I knowed all along that Wrangle was the best hoss!”
 exclaimed Judkins, with his lean face working and his eyes lighting.
“Thet was a race! Lord, I’d like to hev seen Wrangle jump the cliff with
Jerry. An’ thet was good-by to the grandest hoss an’ rider ever on the
sage!... But, Bern, after you got the hosses why’d you want to bolt right
in Tull’s face?”

“I want him to know. An’ if I can get to him I’ll--”

“You can’t get near Tull,” interrupted Judkins. “Thet vigilante bunch
hev taken to bein’ bodyguard for Tull an’ Dyer, too.”

“Hasn’t Lassiter made a break yet?” inquired Venters, curiously.

“Naw!” replied Judkins, scornfully. “Jane turned his head. He’s mad in
love over her--follers her like a dog. He ain’t no more Lassiter! He’s
lost his nerve, he doesn’t look like the same feller. It’s village talk.
Everybody knows it. He hasn’t thrown a gun, an’ he won’t!”

“Jud, I’ll bet he does,” replied Venters, earnestly. “Remember what I
say. This Lassiter is something more than a gun-man. Jud, he’s big--he’s
great!... I feel that in him. God help Tull and Dyer when Lassiter does
go after them. For horses and riders and stone walls won’t save them.”

“Wal, hev it your way, Bern. I hope you’re right. Nat’rully I’ve been
some sore on Lassiter fer gittin’ soft. But I ain’t denyin’ his nerve,
or whatever’s great in him thet sort of paralyzes people. No later ‘n
this mornin’ I seen him saunterin’ down the lane, quiet an’ slow. An’
like his guns he comes black--black, thet’s Lassiter. Wal, the crowd
on the corner never batted an eye, en’ I’ll gamble my hoss thet there
wasn’t one who hed a heartbeat till Lassiter got by. He went in Snell’s
saloon, an’ as there wasn’t no gun play I had to go in, too. An’ there,
darn my pictures, if Lassiter wasn’t standin’ to the bar, drinking en’
talkin’ with Oldrin’.”

“Oldring!” whispered Venters. His voice, as all fire and pulse within
him, seemed to freeze.

“Let go my arm!” exclaimed Judkins. “Thet’s my bad arm. Sure it was
Oldrin’. What the hell’s wrong with you, anyway? Venters, I tell you
somethin’s wrong. You’re whiter ‘n a sheet. You can’t be scared of the
rustler. I don’t believe you’ve got a scare in you. Wal, now, jest let
me talk. You know I like to talk, an’ if I’m slow I allus git there
sometime. As I said, Lassiter was talkie’ chummy with Oldrin’. There
wasn’t no hard feelin’s. An’ the gang wasn’t payin’ no pertic’lar
attention. But like a cat watchin’ a mouse I hed my eyes on them two
fellers. It was strange to me, thet confab. I’m gittin’ to think a lot,
fer a feller who doesn’t know much. There’s been some queer deals lately
an’ this seemed to me the queerest. These men stood to the bar alone,
an’ so close their big gun-hilts butted together. I seen Oldrin’ was
some surprised at first, an’ Lassiter was cool as ice. They talked, an’
presently at somethin’ Lassiter said the rustler bawled out a curse, an’
then he jest fell up against the bar, an’ sagged there. The gang in the
saloon looked around an’ laughed, an’ thet’s about all. Finally Oldrin’
turned, and it was easy to see somethin’ hed shook him. Yes, sir, thet
big rustler--you know he’s as broad as he is long, an’ the powerfulest
build of a man--yes, sir, the nerve had been taken out of him. Then,
after a little, he began to talk an’ said a lot to Lassiter, an’ by an’
by it didn’t take much of an eye to see thet Lassiter was gittin’ hit
hard. I never seen him anyway but cooler ‘n ice--till then. He seemed to
be hit harder ‘n Oldrin’, only he didn’t roar out thet way. He jest kind
of sunk in, an’ looked an’ looked, an’ he didn’t see a livin’ soul
in thet saloon. Then he sort of come to, an’ shakin’ hands--mind you,
shakin’ hands with Oldrin’--he went out. I couldn’t help thinkin’ how
easy even a boy could hev dropped the great gun-man then!... Wal, the
rustler stood at the bar fer a long time, en’ he was seein’ things far
off, too; then he come to an’ roared fer whisky, an’ gulped a drink thet
was big enough to drown me.”

“Is Oldring here now?” whispered Venters. He could not speak above a
whisper. Judkins’s story had been meaningless to him.

“He’s at Snell’s yet. Bern, I hevn’t told you yet thet the rustlers hev
been raisin’ hell. They shot up Stone Bridge an’ Glaze, an’ fer three
days they’ve been here drinkin’ an’ gamblin’ an’ throwin’ of gold. These
rustlers hev a pile of gold. If it was gold dust or nugget gold I’d hev
reason to think, but it’s new coin gold, as if it had jest come from the
United States treasury. An’ the coin’s genuine. Thet’s all been proved.
The truth is Oldrin’s on a rampage. A while back he lost his Masked
Rider, an’ they say he’s wild about thet. I’m wonderin’ if Lassiter
could hev told the rustler anythin’ about thet little masked,
hard-ridin’ devil. Ride! He was most as good as Jerry Card. An’, Bern,
I’ve been wonderin’ if you know--”

“Judkins, you’re a good fellow,” interrupted Venters. “Some day I’ll
tell you a story. I’ve no time now. Take the horses to Jane.”

Judkins stared, and then, muttering to himself, he mounted Bells, and
stared again at Venters, and then, leading the other horses, he rode
into the grove and disappeared.

Once, long before, on the night Venters had carried Bess through the
canyon and up into Surprise Valley, he had experienced the strangeness
of faculties singularly, tinglingly acute. And now the same sensation
recurred. But it was different in that he felt cold, frozen, mechanical
incapable of free thought, and all about him seemed unreal, aloof,
remote. He hid his rifle in the sage, marking its exact location with
extreme care. Then he faced down the lane and strode toward the center
of the village. Perceptions flashed upon him, the faint, cold touch of
the breeze, a cold, silvery tinkle of flowing water, a cold sun shining
out of a cold sky, song of birds and laugh of children, coldly distant.
Cold and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and
tighter stretched the skin over his face; colder and harder grew the
polished butts of his guns; colder and steadier became his hands as he
wiped the clammy sweat from his face or reached low to his gun-sheaths.
Men meeting him in the walk gave him wide berth. In front of Bevin’s
store a crowd melted apart for his passage, and their faces and whispers
were faces and whispers of a dream. He turned a corner to meet Tull
face to face, eye to eye. As once before he had seen this man pale to
a ghastly, livid white so again he saw the change. Tull stopped in his
tracks, with right hand raised and shaking. Suddenly it dropped, and he
seemed to glide aside, to pass out of Venters’s sight. Next he saw
many horses with bridles down--all clean-limbed, dark bays or
blacks--rustlers’ horses! Loud voices and boisterous laughter, rattle of
dice and scrape of chair and clink of gold, burst in mingled din from an
open doorway. He stepped inside.

With the sight of smoke-hazed room and drinking, cursing, gambling,
dark-visaged men, reality once more dawned upon Venters.

His entrance had been unnoticed, and he bent his gaze upon the drinkers
at the bar. Dark-clothed, dark-faced men they all were, burned by the
sun, bow-legged as were most riders of the sage, but neither lean nor
gaunt. Then Venters’s gaze passed to the tables, and swiftly it swept
over the hard-featured gamesters, to alight upon the huge, shaggy, black
head of the rustler chief.

“Oldring!” he cried, and to him his voice seemed to split a bell in his
ears.

It stilled the din.

That silence suddenly broke to the scrape and crash of Oldring’s chair
as he rose; and then, while he passed, a great gloomy figure, again the
thronged room stilled in silence yet deeper.

“Oldring, a word with you!” continued Venters.

“Ho! What’s this?” boomed Oldring, in frowning scrutiny.

“Come outside, alone. A word for you--from your Masked Rider!”

Oldring kicked a chair out of his way and lunged forward with a stamp
of heavy boot that jarred the floor. He waved down his muttering, rising
men.

Venters backed out of the door and waited, hearing, as no sound had ever
before struck into his soul, the rapid, heavy steps of the rustler.

Oldring appeared, and Venters had one glimpse of his great breadth and
bulk, his gold-buckled belt with hanging guns, his high-top boots
with gold spurs. In that moment Venters had a strange, unintelligible
curiosity to see Oldring alive. The rustler’s broad brow, his large
black eyes, his sweeping beard, as dark as the wing of a raven, his
enormous width of shoulder and depth of chest, his whole splendid
presence so wonderfully charged with vitality and force and strength,
seemed to afford Venters an unutterable fiendish joy because for that
magnificent manhood and life he meant cold and sudden death.

“Oldring, Bess is alive! But she’s dead to you--dead to the life you
made her lead--dead as you will be in one second!”

Swift as lightning Venters’s glance dropped from Oldring’s rolling
eyes to his hands. One of them, the right, swept out, then toward his
gun--and Venters shot him through the heart.

Slowly Oldring sank to his knees, and the hand, dragging at the gun,
fell away. Venters’s strangely acute faculties grasped the meaning
of that limp arm, of the swaying hulk, of the gasp and heave, of the
quivering beard. But was that awful spirit in the black eyes only one of
vitality?

“Man--why--didn’t--you--wait? Bess--was--” Oldring’s whisper died under
his beard, and with a heavy lurch he fell forward.

Bounding swiftly away, Venters fled around the corner, across the
street, and, leaping a hedge, he ran through yard, orchard, and garden
to the sage. Here, under cover of the tall brush, he turned west and ran
on to the place where he had hidden his rifle. Securing that, he again
set out into a run, and, circling through the sage, came up behind Jane
Withersteen’s stable and corrals. With laboring, dripping chest, and
pain as of a knife thrust in his side, he stopped to regain his breath,
and while resting his eyes roved around in search of a horse. Doors
and windows of the stable were open wide and had a deserted look. One
dejected, lonely burro stood in the near corral. Strange indeed was the
silence brooding over the once happy, noisy home of Jane Withersteen’s
pets.

He went into the corral, exercising care to leave no tracks, and led the
burro to the watering-trough. Venters, though not thirsty, drank till he
could drink no more. Then, leading the burro over hard ground, he struck
into the sage and down the slope.

He strode swiftly, turning from time to time to scan the slope for
riders. His head just topped the level of sage-brush, and the burro
could not have been seen at all. Slowly the green of Cottonwoods sank
behind the slope, and at last a wavering line of purple sage met the
blue of sky.

To avoid being seen, to get away, to hide his trail--these were the sole
ideas in his mind as he headed for Deception Pass, and he directed all
his acuteness of eye and ear, and the keenness of a rider’s judgment for
distance and ground, to stern accomplishment of the task. He kept to the
sage far to the left of the trail leading into the Pass. He walked ten
miles and looked back a thousand times. Always the graceful, purple wave
of sage remained wide and lonely, a clear, undotted waste. Coming to a
stretch of rocky ground, he took advantage of it to cross the trail and
then continued down on the right. At length he persuaded himself that he
would be able to see riders mounted on horses before they could see him
on the little burro, and he rode bareback.

Hour by hour the tireless burro kept to his faithful, steady trot. The
sun sank and the long shadows lengthened down the slope. Moving veils of
purple twilight crept out of the hollows and, mustering and forming on
the levels, soon merged and shaded into night. Venters guided the
burro nearer to the trail, so that he could see its white line from the
ridges, and rode on through the hours.

Once down in the Pass without leaving a trail, he would hold himself
safe for the time being. When late in the night he reached the break in
the sage, he sent the burro down ahead of him, and started an avalanche
that all but buried the animal at the bottom of the trail. Bruised and
battered as he was, he had a moment’s elation, for he had hidden his
tracks. Once more he mounted the burro and rode on. The hour was the
blackest of the night when he made the thicket which inclosed his old
camp. Here he turned the burro loose in the grass near the spring, and
then lay down on his old bed of leaves.

He felt only vaguely, as outside things, the ache and burn and throb
of the muscles of his body. But a dammed-up torrent of emotion at last
burst its bounds, and the hour that saw his release from immediate
action was one that confounded him in the reaction of his spirit. He
suffered without understanding why. He caught glimpses into himself,
into unlit darkness of soul. The fire that had blistered him and the
cold which had frozen him now united in one torturing possession of his
mind and heart, and like a fiery steed with ice-shod feet, ranged his
being, ran rioting through his blood, trampling the resurging good,
dragging ever at the evil.

Out of the subsiding chaos came a clear question. What had happened?
He had left the valley to go to Cottonwoods. Why? It seemed that he had
gone to kill a man--Oldring! The name riveted his consciousness upon the
one man of all men upon earth whom he had wanted to meet. He had met the
rustler. Venters recalled the smoky haze of the saloon, the dark-visaged
men, the huge Oldring. He saw him step out of the door, a splendid
specimen of manhood, a handsome giant with purple-black and sweeping
beard. He remembered inquisitive gaze of falcon eyes. He heard himself
repeating: “OLDRING, BESS IS ALIVE! BUT SHE’S DEAD TO YOU,” and he felt
himself jerk, and his ears throbbed to the thunder of a gun, and he
saw the giant sink slowly to his knees. Was that only the vitality
of him--that awful light in the eyes--only the hard-dying life of
a tremendously powerful brute? A broken whisper, strange as death:
“MAN--WHY--DIDN’T--YOU WAIT! BESS--WAS--” And Oldring plunged face
forward, dead.

“I killed him,” cried Venters, in remembering shock. “But it wasn’t
THAT. Ah, the look in his eyes and his whisper!”

Herein lay the secret that had clamored to him through all the tumult
and stress of his emotions. What a look in the eyes of a man shot
through the heart! It had been neither hate nor ferocity nor fear of
men nor fear of death. It had been no passionate glinting spirit of a
fearless foe, willing shot for shot, life for life, but lacking physical
power. Distinctly recalled now, never to be forgotten, Venters saw
in Oldring’s magnificent eyes the rolling of great, glad
surprise--softness--love! Then came a shadow and the terrible superhuman
striving of his spirit to speak. Oldring shot through the heart, had
fought and forced back death, not for a moment in which to shoot or
curse, but to whisper strange words.

What words for a dying man to whisper! Why had not Venters waited? For
what? That was no plea for life. It was regret that there was not a
moment of life left in which to speak. Bess was--Herein lay renewed
torture for Venters. What had Bess been to Oldring? The old question,
like a specter, stalked from its grave to haunt him. He had overlooked,
he had forgiven, he had loved and he had forgotten; and now, out of the
mystery of a dying man’s whisper rose again that perverse, unsatisfied,
jealous uncertainty. Bess had loved that splendid, black-crowned
giant--by her own confession she had loved him; and in Venters’s soul
again flamed up the jealous hell. Then into the clamoring hell burst the
shot that had killed Oldring, and it rang in a wild fiendish gladness,
a hateful, vengeful joy. That passed to the memory of the love and
light in Oldring’s eyes and the mystery in his whisper. So the changing,
swaying emotions fluctuated in Venters’s heart.

This was the climax of his year of suffering and the crucial struggle
of his life. And when the gray dawn came he rose, a gloomy, almost
heartbroken man, but victor over evil passions. He could not change the
past; and, even if he had not loved Bess with all his soul, he had grown
into a man who would not change the future he had planned for her. Only,
and once for all, he must know the truth, know the worst, stifle all
these insistent doubts and subtle hopes and jealous fancies, and kill
the past by knowing truly what Bess had been to Oldring. For that matter
he knew--he had always known, but he must hear it spoken. Then, when
they had safely gotten out of that wild country to take up a new and an
absorbing life, she would forget, she would be happy, and through that,
in the years to come, he could not but find life worth living.

All day he rode slowly and cautiously up the Pass, taking time to peer
around corners, to pick out hard ground and grassy patches, and to make
sure there was no one in pursuit. In the night sometime he came to the
smooth, scrawled rocks dividing the valley, and here set the burro at
liberty. He walked beyond, climbed the slope and the dim, starlit gorge.
Then, weary to the point of exhaustion, he crept into a shallow cave and
fell asleep.

In the morning, when he descended the trail, he found the sun was
pouring a golden stream of light through the arch of the great stone
bridge. Surprise Valley, like a valley of dreams, lay mystically soft
and beautiful, awakening to the golden flood which was rolling away its
slumberous bands of mist, brightening its walled faces.

While yet far off he discerned Bess moving under the silver spruces, and
soon the barking of the dogs told him that they had seen him. He heard
the mocking-birds singing in the trees, and then the twittering of the
quail. Ring and Whitie came bounding toward him, and behind them ran
Bess, her hands outstretched.

“Bern! You’re back! You’re back!” she cried, in joy that rang of her
loneliness.

“Yes, I’m back,” he said, as she rushed to meet him.

She had reached out for him when suddenly, as she saw him closely,
something checked her, and as quickly all her joy fled, and with it her
color, leaving her pale and trembling.

“Oh! What’s happened?”

“A good deal has happened, Bess. I don’t need to tell you what. And I’m
played out. Worn out in mind more than body.”

“Dear--you look strange to me!” faltered Bess.

“Never mind that. I’m all right. There’s nothing for you to be scared
about. Things are going to turn out just as we have planned. As soon as
I’m rested we’ll make a break to get out of the country. Only now, right
now, I must know the truth about you.”

“Truth about me?” echoed Bess, shrinkingly. She seemed to be casting
back into her mind for a forgotten key. Venters himself, as he saw her,
received a pang.

“Yes--the truth. Bess, don’t misunderstand. I haven’t changed that way.
I love you still. I’ll love you more afterward. Life will be just as
sweet--sweeter to us. We’ll be--be married as soon as ever we can. We’ll
be happy--but there’s a devil in me. A perverse, jealous devil! Then
I’ve queer fancies. I forgot for a long time. Now all those fiendish
little whispers of doubt and faith and fear and hope come torturing me
again. I’ve got to kill them with the truth.”

“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” she replied, frankly.

“Then by Heaven! we’ll have it over and done with!... Bess--did Oldring
love you?”

“Certainly he did.”

“Did--did you love him?”

“Of course. I told you so.”

“How can you tell it so lightly?” cried Venters, passionately. “Haven’t
you any sense of--of--” He choked back speech. He felt the rush of pain
and passion. He seized her in rude, strong hands and drew her close. He
looked straight into her dark-blue eyes. They were shadowing with the
old wistful light, but they were as clear as the limpid water of the
spring. They were earnest, solemn in unutterable love and faith and
abnegation. Venters shivered. He knew he was looking into her soul.
He knew she could not lie in that moment; but that she might tell the
truth, looking at him with those eyes, almost killed his belief in
purity.

“What are--what were you to--to Oldring?” he panted, fiercely.

“I am his daughter,” she replied, instantly.

Venters slowly let go of her. There was a violent break in the force of
his feeling--then creeping blankness.

“What--was it--you said?” he asked, in a kind of dull wonder.

“I am his daughter.”

“Oldring’s daughter?” queried Venters, with life gathering in his voice.

“Yes.”

With a passionately awakening start he grasped her hands and drew her
close.

“All the time--you’ve been Oldring’s daughter?”

“Yes, of course all the time--always.”

“But Bess, you told me--you let me think--I made out you were--a--so--so
ashamed.”

“It is my shame,” she said, with voice deep and full, and now the
scarlet fired her cheek. “I told you--I’m nothing--nameless--just Bess,
Oldring’s girl!”

“I know--I remember. But I never thought--” he went on, hurriedly,
huskily. “That time--when you lay dying--you prayed--you--somehow I got
the idea you were bad.”

“Bad?” she asked, with a little laugh.

She looked up with a faint smile of bewilderment and the absolute
unconsciousness of a child. Venters gasped in the gathering might of the
truth. She did not understand his meaning.

“Bess! Bess!” He clasped her in his arms, hiding her eyes against his
breast. She must not see his face in that moment. And he held her while
he looked out across the valley. In his dim and blinded sight, in
the blur of golden light and moving mist, he saw Oldring. She was the
rustler’s nameless daughter. Oldring had loved her. He had so guarded
her, so kept her from women and men and knowledge of life that her mind
was as a child’s. That was part of the secret--part of the mystery.
That was the wonderful truth. Not only was she not bad, but good, pure,
innocent above all innocence in the world--the innocence of lonely
girlhood.

He saw Oldring’s magnificent eyes, inquisitive, searching, softening. He
saw them flare in amaze, in gladness, with love, then suddenly strain in
terrible effort of will. He heard Oldring whisper and saw him sway like
a log and fall. Then a million bellowing, thundering voices--gunshots of
conscience, thunderbolts of remorse--dinned horribly in his ears. He had
killed Bess’s father. Then a rushing wind filled his ears like a moan of
wind in the cliffs, a knell indeed--Oldring’s knell.

He dropped to his knees and hid his face against Bess, and grasped her
with the hands of a drowning man.

“My God!... My God!... Oh, Bess!... Forgive me! Never mind what I’ve
done--what I’ve thought. But forgive me. I’ll give you my life. I’ll
live for you. I’ll love you. Oh, I do love you as no man ever loved
a woman. I want you to know--to remember that I fought a fight for
you--however blind I was. I thought--I thought--never mind what I
thought--but I loved you--I asked you to marry me. Let that--let me have
that to hug to my heart. Oh, Bess, I was driven! And I might have known!
I could not rest nor sleep till I had this mystery solved. God! how
things work out!”

“Bern, you’re weak--trembling--you talk wildly,” cried Bess. “You’ve
overdone your strength. There’s nothing to forgive. There’s no mystery
except your love for me. You have come back to me!”

And she clasped his head tenderly in her arms and pressed it closely to
her throbbing breast.



CHAPTER XIX. FAY

At the home of Jane Withersteen Little Fay was climbing Lassiter’s knee.

“Does oo love me?” she asked.

Lassiter, who was as serious with Fay as he was gentle and loving,
assured her in earnest and elaborate speech that he was her devoted
subject. Fay looked thoughtful and appeared to be debating the duplicity
of men or searching for a supreme test to prove this cavalier.

“Does oo love my new muvver?” she asked, with bewildering suddenness.

Jane Withersteen laughed, and for the first time in many a day she felt
a stir of her pulse and warmth in her cheek.

It was a still drowsy summer of afternoon, and the three were sitting
in the shade of the wooded knoll that faced the sage-slope. Little Fay’s
brief spell of unhappy longing for her mother--the childish, mystic
gloom--had passed, and now where Fay was there were prattle and laughter
and glee. She had emerged from sorrow to be the incarnation of joy and
loveliness. She had grown supernaturally sweet and beautiful. For Jane
Withersteen the child was an answer to prayer, a blessing, a possession
infinitely more precious than all she had lost. For Lassiter, Jane
divined that little Fay had become a religion.

“Does oo love my new muvver?” repeated Fay.

Lassiter’s answer to this was a modest and sincere affirmative.

“Why don’t oo marry my new muvver an’ be my favver?”

Of the thousands of questions put by little Fay to Lassiter this was the
first he had been unable to answer.

“Fay--Fay, don’t ask questions like that,” said Jane.

“Why?”

“Because,” replied Jane. And she found it strangely embarrassing to meet
the child’s gaze. It seemed to her that Fay’s violet eyes looked through
her with piercing wisdom.

“Oo love him, don’t oo?”

“Dear child--run and play,” said Jane, “but don’t go too far. Don’t go
from this little hill.”

Fay pranced off wildly, joyous over freedom that had not been granted
her for weeks.

“Jane, why are children more sincere than grown-up persons?” asked
Lassiter.

“Are they?”

“I reckon so. Little Fay there--she sees things as they appear on the
face. An Indian does that. So does a dog. An’ an Indian an’ a dog are
most of the time right in what they see. Mebbe a child is always right.”

“Well, what does Fay see?” asked Jane.

“I reckon you know. I wonder what goes on in Fay’s mind when she sees
part of the truth with the wise eyes of a child, an’ wantin’ to know
more, meets with strange falseness from you? Wait! You are false in a
way, though you’re the best woman I ever knew. What I want to say is
this. Fay has taken you’re pretendin’ to--to care for me for the thing
it looks on the face. An’ her little formin’ mind asks questions. An’
the answers she gets are different from the looks of things. So she’ll
grow up gradually takin’ on that falseness, an’ be like the rest of the
women, an’ men, too. An’ the truth of this falseness to life is proved
by your appearin’ to love me when you don’t. Things aren’t what they
seem.”

“Lassiter, you’re right. A child should be told the absolute truth.
But--is that possible? I haven’t been able to do it, and all my life
I’ve loved the truth, and I’ve prided myself upon being truthful. Maybe
that was only egotism. I’m learning much, my friend. Some of those
blinding scales have fallen from my eyes. And--and as to caring for you,
I think I care a great deal. How much, how little, I couldn’t say. My
heart is almost broken, Lassiter. So now is not a good time to judge of
affection. I can still play and be merry with Fay. I can still dream.
But when I attempt serious thought I’m dazed. I don’t think. I don’t
care any more. I don’t pray!... Think of that, my friend! But in spite of
my numb feeling I believe I’ll rise out of all this dark agony a better
woman, with greater love of man and God. I’m on the rack now; I’m
senseless to all but pain, and growing dead to that. Sooner or later I
shall rise out of this stupor. I’m waiting the hour.”

“It’ll soon come, Jane,” replied Lassiter, soberly. “Then I’m afraid for
you. Years are terrible things, an’ for years you’ve been bound.
Habit of years is strong as life itself. Somehow, though, I believe as
you--that you’ll come out of it all a finer woman. I’m waitin’, too. An’
I’m wonderin’--I reckon, Jane, that marriage between us is out of all
human reason?”

“Lassiter!... My dear friend!... It’s impossible for us to marry!”

“Why--as Fay says?” inquired Lassiter, with gentle persistence.

“Why! I never thought why. But it’s not possible. I am Jane, daughter of
Withersteen. My father would rise out of his grave. I’m of Mormon
birth. I’m being broken. But I’m still a Mormon woman. And you--you are
Lassiter!”

“Mebbe I’m not so much Lassiter as I used to be.”

“What was it you said? Habit of years is strong as life itself! You
can’t change the one habit--the purpose of your life. For you still pack
those black guns! You still nurse your passion for blood.”

A smile, like a shadow, flickered across his face.

“No.”

“Lassiter, I lied to you. But I beg of you--don’t you lie to me. I’ve
great respect for you. I believe you’re softened toward most, perhaps
all, my people except--But when I speak of your purpose, your hate, your
guns, I have only him in mind. I don’t believe you’ve changed.”

For answer he unbuckled the heavy cartridge-belt, and laid it with the
heavy, swing gun-sheaths in her lap.

“Lassiter!” Jane whispered, as she gazed from him to the black, cold
guns. Without them he appeared shorn of strength, defenseless, a smaller
man. Was she Delilah? Swiftly, conscious of only one motive--refusal to
see this man called craven by his enemies--she rose, and with blundering
fingers buckled the belt round his waist where it belonged.

“Lassiter, I am a coward.”

“Come with me out of Utah--where I can put away my guns an’ be a man,”
 he said. “I reckon I’ll prove it to you then! Come! You’ve got Black
Star back, an’ Night an’ Bells. Let’s take the racers an’ little Fay,
en’ race out of Utah. The hosses an’ the child are all you have left.
Come!”

“No, no, Lassiter. I’ll never leave Utah. What would I do in the world
with my broken fortunes and my broken heart? I’ll never leave these
purple slopes I love so well.”

“I reckon I ought to ‘ve knowed that. Presently you’ll be livin’ down
here in a hovel, en’ presently Jane Withersteen will be a memory. I only
wanted to have a chance to show you how a man--any man--can be better ‘n
he was. If we left Utah I could prove--I reckon I could prove this
thing you call love. It’s strange, an’ hell an’ heaven at once, Jane
Withersteen. ‘Pears to me that you’ve thrown away your big heart on
love--love of religion an’ duty an’ churchmen, an’ riders an’ poor
families an’ poor children! Yet you can’t see what love is--how it
changes a person!... Listen, an’ in tellin’ you Milly Erne’s story I’ll
show you how love changed her.

“Milly an’ me was children when our family moved from Missouri to Texas,
an’ we growed up in Texas ways same as if we’d been born there. We had
been poor, an’ there we prospered. In time the little village where we
went became a town, an’ strangers an’ new families kept movin’ in. Milly
was the belle them days. I can see her now, a little girl no bigger ‘n
a bird, an’ as pretty. She had the finest eyes, dark blue-black when she
was excited, an’ beautiful all the time. You remember Milly’s eyes! An’
she had light-brown hair with streaks of gold, an’ a mouth that every
feller wanted to kiss.

“An’ about the time Milly was the prettiest an’ the sweetest, along came
a young minister who began to ride some of a race with the other fellers
for Milly. An’ he won. Milly had always been strong on religion, an’
when she met Frank Erne she went in heart an’ soul for the salvation of
souls. Fact was, Milly, through study of the Bible an’ attendin’ church
an’ revivals, went a little out of her head. It didn’t worry the old
folks none, an’ the only worry to me was Milly’s everlastin’ prayin’ an’
workin’ to save my soul. She never converted me, but we was the best
of comrades, an’ I reckon no brother an’ sister ever loved each other
better. Well, Frank Erne an me hit up a great friendship. He was a
strappin’ feller, good to look at, an’ had the most pleasin’ ways. His
religion never bothered me, for he could hunt an’ fish an’ ride an’ be a
good feller. After buffalo once, he come pretty near to savin’ my life.
We got to be thick as brothers, an’ he was the only man I ever seen who
I thought was good enough for Milly. An’ the day they were married I got
drunk for the only time in my life.

“Soon after that I left home--it seems Milly was the only one who could
keep me home--an’ I went to the bad, as to prosperin’ I saw some pretty
hard life in the Pan Handle, an’ then I went North. In them days Kansas
an’ Nebraska was as bad, come to think of it, as these days right here
on the border of Utah. I got to be pretty handy with guns. An’
there wasn’t many riders as could beat me ridin’. An’ I can say all
modest-like that I never seen the white man who could track a hoss or a
steer or a man with me. Afore I knowed it two years slipped by, an’ all
at once I got homesick, en’ purled a bridle south.

“Things at home had changed. I never got over that homecomin’. Mother
was dead an’ in her grave. Father was a silent, broken man, killed
already on his feet. Frank Erne was a ghost of his old self, through
with workin’, through with preachin’, almost through with livin’, an’
Milly was gone!... It was a long time before I got the story. Father had
no mind left, an’ Frank Erne was afraid to talk. So I had to pick up
whet ‘d happened from different people.

“It ‘pears that soon after I left home another preacher come to the
little town. An’ he an’ Frank become rivals. This feller was different
from Frank. He preached some other kind of religion, and he was quick
an’ passionate, where Frank was slow an’ mild. He went after people,
women specially. In looks he couldn’t compare to Frank Erne, but he had
power over women. He had a voice, an’ he talked an’ talked an’ preached
an’ preached. Milly fell under his influence.. She became mightily
interested in his religion. Frank had patience with her, as was his way,
an’ let her be as interested as she liked. All religions were devoted to
one God, he said, an’ it wouldn’t hurt Milly none to study a different
point of view. So the new preacher often called on Milly, an’ sometimes
in Frank’s absence. Frank was a cattle-man between Sundays.

“Along about this time an incident come off that I couldn’t get much
light on. A stranger come to town, an’ was seen with the preacher. This
stranger was a big man with an eye like blue ice, an’ a beard of gold.
He had money, an’ he ‘peered a man of mystery, an’ the town went to
buzzin’ when he disappeared about the same time as a young woman
known to be mightily interested in the new preacher’s religion. Then,
presently, along comes a man from somewheres in Illinois, en’ he up an’
spots this preacher as a famous Mormon proselyter. That riled Frank Erne
as nothin’ ever before, an’ from rivals they come to be bitter enemies.
An’ it ended in Frank goin’ to the meetin’-house where Milly
was listenin’, en’ before her en’ everybody else he called that
preacher--called him, well, almost as hard as Venters called Tull here
sometime back. An’ Frank followed up that call with a hosswhippin’, en’
he drove the proselyter out of town.

“People noticed, so ‘twas said, that Milly’s sweet disposition changed.
Some said it was because she would soon become a mother, en’ others
said she was pinin’ after the new religion. An’ there was women who
said right out that she was pinin’ after the Mormon. Anyway, one mornin’
Frank rode in from one of his trips, to find Milly gone. He had no real
near neighbors--livin’ a little out of town--but those who was nearest
said a wagon had gone by in the night, an’ they thought it stopped at her
door. Well, tracks always tell, an’ there was the wagon tracks an’ hoss
tracks an’ man tracks. The news spread like wildfire that Milly had run
off from her husband. Everybody but Frank believed it an’ wasn’t slow in
tellin’ why she run off. Mother had always hated that strange streak of
Milly’s, takin’ up with the new religion as she had, an’ she believed
Milly ran off with the Mormon. That hastened mother’s death, an’ she
died unforgivin’. Father wasn’t the kind to bow down under disgrace or
misfortune but he had surpassin’ love for Milly, an’ the loss of her
broke him.

“From the minute I heard of Milly’s disappearance I never believed she
went off of her own free will. I knew Milly, an’ I knew she couldn’t
have done that. I stayed at home awhile, tryin’ to make Frank Erne talk.
But if he knowed anythin’ then he wouldn’t tell it. So I set out to find
Milly. An’ I tried to get on the trail of that proselyter. I knew if I
ever struck a town he’d visited that I’d get a trail. I knew, too, that
nothin’ short of hell would stop his proselytin’. An’ I rode from town
to town. I had a blind faith that somethin’ was guidin’ me. An’ as the
weeks an’ months went by I growed into a strange sort of a man, I guess.
Anyway, people were afraid of me. Two years after that, way over in a
corner of Texas, I struck a town where my man had been. He’d jest left.
People said he came to that town without a woman. I back-trailed my man
through Arkansas an’ Mississippi, an’ the old trail got hot again in
Texas. I found the town where he first went after leavin’ home. An’ here
I got track of Milly. I found a cabin where she had given birth to her
baby. There was no way to tell whether she’d been kept a prisoner or
not. The feller who owned the place was a mean, silent sort of a skunk,
an’ as I was leavin’ I jest took a chance an’ left my mark on him. Then
I went home again.

“It was to find I hadn’t any home, no more. Father had been dead a year.
Frank Erne still lived in the house where Milly had left him. I stayed
with him awhile, an’ I grew old watchin’ him. His farm had gone to weed,
his cattle had strayed or been rustled, his house weathered till it
wouldn’t keep out rain nor wind. An’ Frank set on the porch and whittled
sticks, an’ day by day wasted away. There was times when he ranted about
like a crazy man, but mostly he was always sittin’ an’ starin’ with eyes
that made a man curse. I figured Frank had a secret fear that I needed
to know. An’ when I told him I’d trailed Milly for near three years an’
had got trace of her, an’ saw where she’d had her baby, I thought he
would drop dead at my feet. An’ when he’d come round more natural-like
he begged me to give up the trail. But he wouldn’t explain. So I let him
alone, an’ watched him day en’ night.

“An’ I found there was one thing still precious to him, an’ it was a
little drawer where he kept his papers. This was in the room where he
slept. An’ it ‘peered he seldom slept. But after bein’ patient I got the
contents of that drawer an’ found two letters from Milly. One was a long
letter written a few months after her disappearance. She had been bound
an’ gagged an’ dragged away from her home by three men, an’ she named
them--Hurd, Metzger, Slack. They was strangers to her. She was taken
to the little town where I found trace of her two years after. But she
didn’t send the letter from that town. There she was penned in. ‘Peared
that the proselytes, who had, of course, come on the scene, was not
runnin’ any risks of losin’ her. She went on to say that for a time
she was out of her head, an’ when she got right again all that kept
her alive was the baby. It was a beautiful baby, she said, an’ all she
thought an’ dreamed of was somehow to get baby back to its father, an’
then she’d thankfully lay down and die. An’ the letter ended abrupt, in
the middle of a sentence, en’ it wasn’t signed.

“The second letter was written more than two years after the first. It
was from Salt Lake City. It simply said that Milly had heard her brother
was on her trail. She asked Frank to tell her brother to give up the
search because if he didn’t she would suffer in a way too horrible
to tell. She didn’t beg. She just stated a fact an’ made the simple
request. An’ she ended that letter by sayin’ she would soon leave Salt
Lake City with the man she had come to love, en’ would never be heard of
again.

“I recognized Milly’s handwritin’, an’ I recognized her way of puttin’
things. But that second letter told me of some great change in her.
Ponderin’ over it, I felt at last she’d either come to love that feller
an’ his religion, or some terrible fear made her lie an’ say so. I
couldn’t be sure which. But, of course, I meant to find out. I’ll say
here, if I’d known Mormons then as I do now I’d left Milly to her fate.
For mebbe she was right about what she’d suffer if I kept on her trail.
But I was young an’ wild them days. First I went to the town where she’d
first been taken, an’ I went to the place where she’d been kept. I got
that skunk who owned the place, an’ took him out in the woods, an’ made
him tell all he knowed. That wasn’t much as to length, but it was pure
hell’s-fire in substance. This time I left him some incapacitated for
any more skunk work short of hell. Then I hit the trail for Utah.

“That was fourteen years ago. I saw the incomin’ of most of the Mormons.
It was a wild country an’ a wild time. I rode from town to town, village
to village, ranch to ranch, camp to camp. I never stayed long in one
place. I never had but one idea. I never rested. Four years went by, an’
I knowed every trail in northern Utah. I kept on an’ as time went by,
an’ I’d begun to grow old in my search, I had firmer, blinder faith in
whatever was guidin’ me. Once I read about a feller who sailed the seven
seas an’ traveled the world, an’ he had a story to tell, an’ whenever he
seen the man to whom he must tell that story he knowed him on sight. I
was like that, only I had a question to ask. An’ always I knew the man
of whom I must ask. So I never really lost the trail, though for many
years it was the dimmest trail ever followed by any man.

“Then come a change in my luck. Along in Central Utah I rounded up Hurd,
an’ I whispered somethin’ in his ear, an’ watched his face, an’ then
throwed a gun against his bowels. An’ he died with his teeth so tight
shut I couldn’t have pried them open with a knife. Slack an’ Metzger
that same year both heard me whisper the same question, an’ neither
would they speak a word when they lay dyin’. Long before I’d learned
no man of this breed or class--or God knows what--would give up any
secrets! I had to see in a man’s fear of death the connections with
Milly Erne’s fate. An’ as the years passed at long intervals I would
find such a man.

“So as I drifted on the long trail down into southern Utah my name
preceded me, an’ I had to meet a people prepared for me, an’ ready with
guns. They made me a gun-man. An’ that suited me. In all this time signs
of the proselyter an’ the giant with the blue-ice eyes an’ the gold
beard seemed to fade dimmer out of the trail. Only twice in ten years
did I find a trace of that mysterious man who had visited the proselyter
at my home village. What he had to do with Milly’s fate was beyond all
hope for me to learn, unless my guidin’ spirit led me to him! As for
the other man, I knew, as sure as I breathed en’ the stars shone en’ the
wind blew, that I’d meet him some day.

“Eighteen years I’ve been on the trail. An’ it led me to the last lonely
villages of the Utah border. Eighteen years!... I feel pretty old now. I
was only twenty when I hit that trail. Well, as I told you, back here a
ways a Gentile said Jane Withersteen could tell me about Milly Erne an’
show me her grave!”

The low voice ceased, and Lassiter slowly turned his sombrero round and
round, and appeared to be counting the silver ornaments on the band.
Jane, leaning toward him, sat as if petrified, listening intently,
waiting to hear more. She could have shrieked, but power of tongue and
lips were denied her. She saw only this sad, gray, passion-worn man, and
she heard only the faint rustling of the leaves.

“Well, I came to Cottonwoods,” went on Lassiter, “an’ you showed me
Milly’s grave. An’ though your teeth have been shut tighter ‘n them of
all the dead men lyin’ back along that trail, jest the same you told me
the secret I’ve lived these eighteen years to hear! Jane, I said you’d
tell me without ever me askin’. I didn’t need to ask my question here.
The day, you remember, when that fat party throwed a gun on me in your
court, an’--”

“Oh! Hush!” whispered Jane, blindly holding up her hands.

“I seen in your face that Dyer, now a bishop, was the proselyter who
ruined Milly Erne.”

For an instant Jane Withersteen’s brain was a whirling chaos and she
recovered to find herself grasping at Lassiter like one drowning. And as
if by a lightning stroke she sprang from her dull apathy into exquisite
torture.

“It’s a lie! Lassiter! No, no!” she moaned. “I swear--you’re wrong!”

“Stop! You’d perjure yourself! But I’ll spare you that. You poor woman!
Still blind! Still faithful!... Listen. I know. Let that settle it. An’ I
give up my purpose!”

“What is it--you say?”

“I give up my purpose. I’ve come to see an’ feel differently. I can’t
help poor Milly. An’ I’ve outgrowed revenge. I’ve come to see I can be
no judge for men. I can’t kill a man jest for hate. Hate ain’t the same
with me since I loved you and little Fay.”

“Lassiter! You mean you won’t kill him?” Jane whispered.

“No.”

“For my sake?”

“I reckon. I can’t understand, but I’ll respect your feelin’s.”

“Because you--oh, because you love me?... Eighteen years! You were that
terrible Lassiter! And now--because you love me?”

“That’s it, Jane.”

“Oh, you’ll make me love you! How can I help but love you? My heart must
be stone. But--oh, Lassiter, wait, wait! Give me time. I’m not what I
was. Once it was so easy to love. Now it’s easy to hate. Wait! My faith
in God--some God--still lives. By it I see happier times for you, poor
passion-swayed wanderer! For me--a miserable, broken woman. I loved your
sister Milly. I will love you. I can’t have fallen so low--I can’t be
so abandoned by God--that I’ve no love left to give you. Wait! Let us
forget Milly’s sad life. Ah, I knew it as no one else on earth! There’s
one thing I shall tell you--if you are at my death-bed, but I can’t
speak now.”

“I reckon I don’t want to hear no more,” said Lassiter.

Jane leaned against him, as if some pent-up force had rent its way
out, she fell into a paroxysm of weeping. Lassiter held her in silent
sympathy. By degrees she regained composure, and she was rising,
sensible of being relieved of a weighty burden, when a sudden start on
Lassiter’s part alarmed her.

“I heard hosses--hosses with muffled hoofs!” he said; and he got up
guardedly.

“Where’s Fay?” asked Jane, hurriedly glancing round the shady knoll. The
bright-haired child, who had appeared to be close all the time, was not
in sight.

“Fay!” called Jane.

No answering shout of glee. No patter of flying feet. Jane saw Lassiter
stiffen.

“Fay--oh--Fay!” Jane almost screamed.

The leaves quivered and rustled; a lonesome cricket chirped in the
grass, a bee hummed by. The silence of the waning afternoon breathed
hateful portent. It terrified Jane. When had silence been so infernal?

“She’s--only--strayed--out--of earshot,” faltered Jane, looking at
Lassiter.

Pale, rigid as a statue, the rider stood, not in listening, searching
posture, but in one of doomed certainty. Suddenly he grasped Jane with
an iron hand, and, turning his face from her gaze, he strode with her
from the knoll.

“See--Fay played here last--a house of stones an’ sticks.... An’ here’s
a corral of pebbles with leaves for hosses,” said Lassiter, stridently,
and pointed to the ground. “Back an’ forth she trailed here.... See,
she’s buried somethin’--a dead grasshopper--there’s a tombstone... here
she went, chasin’ a lizard--see the tiny streaked trail... she pulled
bark off this cottonwood... look in the dust of the path--the letters you
taught her--she’s drawn pictures of birds en’ hosses an’ people.... Look,
a cross! Oh, Jane, your cross!”

Lassiter dragged Jane on, and as if from a book read the meaning of
little Fay’s trail. All the way down the knoll, through the shrubbery,
round and round a cottonwood, Fay’s vagrant fancy left records of her
sweet musings and innocent play. Long had she lingered round a bird-nest
to leave therein the gaudy wing of a butterfly. Long had she played
beside the running stream sending adrift vessels freighted with pebbly
cargo. Then she had wandered through the deep grass, her tiny feet
scarcely turning a fragile blade, and she had dreamed beside some old
faded flowers. Thus her steps led her into the broad lane. The little
dimpled imprints of her bare feet showed clean-cut in the dust they went
a little way down the lane; and then, at a point where they stopped, the
great tracks of a man led out from the shrubbery and returned.



CHAPTER XX. LASSITER’S WAY

Footprints told the story of little Fay’s abduction. In anguish Jane
Withersteen turned speechlessly to Lassiter, and, confirming her fears,
she saw him gray-faced, aged all in a moment, stricken as if by a mortal
blow.

Then all her life seemed to fall about her in wreck and ruin.

“It’s all over,” she heard her voice whisper. “It’s ended. I’m
going--I’m going--”

“Where?” demanded Lassiter, suddenly looming darkly over her.

“To--to those cruel men--”

“Speak names!” thundered Lassiter.

“To Bishop Dyer--to Tull,” went on Jane, shocked into obedience.

“Well--what for?”

“I want little Fay. I can’t live without her. They’ve stolen her as they
stole Milly Erne’s child. I must have little Fay. I want only her. I
give up. I’ll go and tell Bishop Dyer--I’m broken. I’ll tell him I’m
ready for the yoke--only give me back Fay--and--and I’ll marry Tull!”

“Never!” hissed Lassiter.

His long arm leaped at her. Almost running, he dragged her under the
cottonwoods, across the court, into the huge hall of Withersteen House,
and he shut the door with a force that jarred the heavy walls. Black
Star and Night and Bells, since their return, had been locked in this
hall, and now they stamped on the stone floor.

Lassiter released Jane and like a dizzy man swayed from her with a
hoarse cry and leaned shaking against a table where he kept his rider’s
accoutrements. He began to fumble in his saddlebags. His action brought
a clinking, metallic sound--the rattling of gun-cartridges. His fingers
trembled as he slipped cartridges into an extra belt. But as he buckled
it over the one he habitually wore his hands became steady. This second
belt contained two guns, smaller than the black ones swinging low, and
he slipped them round so that his coat hid them. Then he fell to swift
action. Jane Withersteen watched him, fascinated but uncomprehending and
she saw him rapidly saddle Black Star and Night. Then he drew her into
the light of the huge windows, standing over her, gripping her arm with
fingers like cold steel.

“Yes, Jane, it’s ended--but you’re not goin’ to Dyer!... I’m goin’
instead!”

Looking at him--he was so terrible of aspect--she could not comprehend
his words. Who was this man with the face gray as death, with eyes
that would have made her shriek had she the strength, with the strange,
ruthlessly bitter lips? Where was the gentle Lassiter? What was this
presence in the hall, about him, about her--this cold, invisible
presence?

“Yes, it’s ended, Jane,” he was saying, so awfully quiet and cool and
implacable, “an’ I’m goin’ to make a little call. I’ll lock you in here,
an’ when I get back have the saddle-bags full of meat an bread. An’ be
ready to ride!”

“Lassiter!” cried Jane.

Desperately she tried to meet his gray eyes, in vain, desperately she
tried again, fought herself as feeling and thought resurged in torment,
and she succeeded, and then she knew.

“No--no--no!” she wailed. “You said you’d foregone your vengeance. You
promised not to kill Bishop Dyer.”

“If you want to talk to me about him--leave off the Bishop. I don’t
understand that name, or its use.”

“Oh, hadn’t you foregone your vengeance on--on Dyer?

“Yes.”

“But--your actions--your words--your guns--your terrible looks!... They
don’t seem foregoing vengeance?”

“Jane, now it’s justice.”

“You’ll--kill him?”

“If God lets me live another hour! If not God--then the devil who drives
me!”

“You’ll kill him--for yourself--for your vengeful hate?”

“No!”

“For Milly Erne’s sake?”

“No.”

“For little Fay’s?”

“No!”

“Oh--for whose?”

“For yours!”

“His blood on my soul!” whispered Jane, and she fell to her knees.
This was the long-pending hour of fruition. And the habit of years--the
religious passion of her life--leaped from lethargy, and the long months
of gradual drifting to doubt were as if they had never been. “If you
spill his blood it’ll be on my soul--and on my father’s. Listen.”
 And she clasped his knees, and clung there as he tried to raise her.
“Listen. Am I nothing to you?”

“Woman--don’t trifle at words! I love you! An’ I’ll soon prove it.”

“I’ll give myself to you--I’ll ride away with you--marry you, if only
you’ll spare him?”

His answer was a cold, ringing, terrible laugh.

“Lassiter--I’ll love you. Spare him!”

“No.”

She sprang up in despairing, breaking spirit, and encircled his neck
with her arms, and held him in an embrace that he strove vainly to
loosen. “Lassiter, would you kill me? I’m fighting my last fight for
the principles of my youth--love of religion, love of father. You don’t
know--you can’t guess the truth, and I can’t speak ill. I’m losing
all. I’m changing. All I’ve gone through is nothing to this hour. Pity
me--help me in my weakness. You’re strong again--oh, so cruelly, coldly
strong! You’re killing me. I see you--feel you as some other Lassiter!
My master, be merciful--spare him!”

His answer was a ruthless smile.

She clung the closer to him, and leaned her panting breast on him, and
lifted her face to his. “Lassiter, I do love you! It’s leaped out of my
agony. It comes suddenly with a terrible blow of truth. You are a man!
I never knew it till now. Some wonderful change came to me when you
buckled on these guns and showed that gray, awful face. I loved you
then. All my life I’ve loved, but never as now. No woman can love like
a broken woman. If it were not for one thing--just one thing--and yet! I
can’t speak it--I’d glory in your manhood--the lion in you that means to
slay for me. Believe me--and spare Dyer. Be merciful--great as it’s in
you to be great.... Oh, listen and believe--I have nothing, but I’m a
woman--a beautiful woman, Lassiter--a passionate, loving woman--and I
love you! Take me--hide me in some wild place--and love me and mend my
broken heart. Spare him and take me away.”

She lifted her face closer and closer to his, until their lips nearly
touched, and she hung upon his neck, and with strength almost spent
pressed and still pressed her palpitating body to his.

“Kiss me!” she whispered, blindly.

“No--not at your price!” he answered. His voice had changed or she had
lost clearness of hearing.

“Kiss me!... Are you a man? Kiss me and save me!”

“Jane, you never played fair with me. But now you’re blisterin’ your
lips--blackenin’ your soul with lies!”

“By the memory of my mother--by my Bible--no! No, I have no Bible! But
by my hope of heaven I swear I love you!”

Lassiter’s gray lips formed soundless words that meant even her love
could not avail to bend his will. As if the hold of her arms was that of
a child’s he loosened it and stepped away.

“Wait! Don’t go! Oh, hear a last word!... May a more just and merciful
God than the God I was taught to worship judge me--forgive me--save me!
For I can no longer keep silent!... Lassiter, in pleading for Dyer I’ve
been pleading more for my father. My father was a Mormon master, close
to the leaders of the church. It was my father who sent Dyer out to
proselyte. It was my father who had the blue-ice eye and the beard of
gold. It was my father you got trace of in the past years. Truly, Dyer
ruined Milly Erne--dragged her from her home--to Utah--to Cottonwoods.
But it was for my father! If Milly Erne was ever wife of a Mormon that
Mormon was my father! I never knew--never will know whether or not she
was a wife. Blind I may be, Lassiter--fanatically faithful to a false
religion I may have been but I know justice, and my father is beyond
human justice. Surely he is meeting just punishment--somewhere. Always
it has appalled me--the thought of your killing Dyer for my father’s
sins. So I have prayed!”

“Jane, the past is dead. In my love for you I forgot the past. This
thing I’m about to do ain’t for myself or Milly or Fay. It’s not because
of anythin’ that ever happened in the past, but for what is happenin’
right now. It’s for you!... An’ listen. Since I was a boy I’ve never
thanked God for anythin’. If there is a God--an’ I’ve come to believe
it--I thank Him now for the years that made me Lassiter!... I can reach
down en’ feel these big guns, en’ know what I can do with them. An’,
Jane, only one of the miracles Dyer professes to believe in can save
him!”

Again for Jane Withersteen came the spinning of her brain in darkness,
and as she whirled in endless chaos she seemed to be falling at the feet
of a luminous figure--a man--Lassiter--who had saved her from herself,
who could not be changed, who would slay rightfully. Then she slipped
into utter blackness.

When she recovered from her faint she became aware that she was lying on
a couch near the window in her sitting-room. Her brow felt damp and cold
and wet, some one was chafing her hands; she recognized Judkins, and
then saw that his lean, hard face wore the hue and look of excessive
agitation.

“Judkins!” Her voice broke weakly.

“Aw, Miss Withersteen, you’re comin’ round fine. Now jest lay still a
little. You’re all right; everythin’s all right.”

“Where is--he?”

“Who?”

“Lassiter!”

“You needn’t worry none about him.”

“Where is he? Tell me--instantly.”

“Wal, he’s in the other room patchin’ up a few triflin’ bullet holes.”

“Ah!... Bishop’ Dyer?”

“When I seen him last--a matter of half an hour ago, he was on his
knees. He was some busy, but he wasn’t prayin’!”

“How strangely you talk! I’ll sit up. I’m--well, strong again. Tell me.
Dyer on his knees! What was he doing?”

“Wal, beggin’ your pardon fer blunt talk, Miss Withersteen, Dyer was
on his knees an’ not prayin’. You remember his big, broad hands? You’ve
seen ‘em raised in blessin’ over old gray men an’ little curly-headed
children like--like Fay Larkin! Come to think of thet, I disremember
ever hearin’ of his liftin’ his big hands in blessin’ over a woman. Wal,
when I seen him last--jest a little while ago--he was on his knees,
not prayin’, as I remarked--an’ he was pressin’ his big hands over some
bigger wounds.”

“Man, you drive me mad! Did Lassiter kill Dyer?”

“Yes.”

“Did he kill Tull?”

“No. Tull’s out of the village with most of his riders. He’s expected
back before evenin’. Lassiter will hev to git away before Tull en’ his
riders come in. It’s sure death fer him here. An’ wuss fer you, too,
Miss Withersteen. There’ll be some of an uprisin’ when Tull gits back.”

“I shall ride away with Lassiter. Judkins, tell me all you saw--all you
know about this killing.” She realized, without wonder or amaze, how
Judkins’s one word, affirming the death of Dyer--that the catastrophe
had fallen--had completed the change whereby she had been molded or
beaten or broken into another woman. She felt calm, slightly cold,
strong as she had not been strong since the first shadow fell upon her.

“I jest saw about all of it, Miss Withersteen, an’ I’ll be glad to tell
you if you’ll only hev patience with me,” said Judkins, earnestly. “You
see, I’ve been pecooliarly interested, an’ nat’rully I’m some excited.
An’ I talk a lot thet mebbe ain’t necessary, but I can’t help thet.

“I was at the meetin’-house where Dyer was holdin’ court. You know he
allus acts as magistrate an’ judge when Tull’s away. An’ the trial
was fer tryin’ what’s left of my boy riders--thet helped me hold your
cattle--fer a lot of hatched-up things the boys never did. We’re used to
thet, an’ the boys wouldn’t hev minded bein’ locked up fer a while,
or hevin’ to dig ditches, or whatever the judge laid down. You see, I
divided the gold you give me among all my boys, an’ they all hid it,
en’ they all feel rich. Howsomever, court was adjourned before the judge
passed sentence. Yes, ma’m, court was adjourned some strange an’ quick,
much as if lightnin’ hed struck the meetin’-house.

“I hed trouble attendin’ the trial, but I got in. There was a good many
people there, all my boys, an’ Judge Dyer with his several clerks. Also
he hed with him the five riders who’ve been guardin’ him pretty close of
late. They was Carter, Wright, Jengessen, an’ two new riders from Stone
Bridge. I didn’t hear their names, but I heard they was handy men with
guns an’ they looked more like rustlers than riders. Anyway, there they
was, the five all in a row.

“Judge Dyer was tellin’ Willie Kern, one of my best an’ steadiest
boys--Dyer was tellin’ him how there was a ditch opened near Willie’s
home lettin’ water through his lot, where it hadn’t ought to go. An’
Willie was tryin’ to git a word in to prove he wasn’t at home all the
day it happened--which was true, as I know--but Willie couldn’t git a
word in, an’ then Judge Dyer went on layin’ down the law. An’ all to
onct he happened to look down the long room. An’ if ever any man turned
to stone he was thet man.

“Nat’rully I looked back to see what hed acted so powerful strange on
the judge. An’ there, half-way up the room, in the middle of the wide
aisle, stood Lassiter! All white an’ black he looked, an’ I can’t think
of anythin’ he resembled, onless it’s death. Venters made thet same room
some still an’ chilly when he called Tull; but this was different. I
give my word, Miss Withersteen, thet I went cold to my very marrow. I
don’t know why. But Lassiter had a way about him thet’s awful. He spoke
a word--a name--I couldn’t understand it, though he spoke clear as a
bell. I was too excited, mebbe. Judge Dyer must hev understood it, an’ a
lot more thet was mystery to me, for he pitched forrard out of his chair
right onto the platform.

“Then them five riders, Dyer’s bodyguards, they jumped up, an’ two of
them thet I found out afterward were the strangers from Stone Bridge,
they piled right out of a winder, so quick you couldn’t catch your
breath. It was plain they wasn’t Mormons.

“Jengessen, Carter, an’ Wright eyed Lassiter, for what must hev been a
second an’ seemed like an hour, an’ they went white en’ strung. But they
didn’t weaken nor lose their nerve.

“I hed a good look at Lassiter. He stood sort of stiff, bendin’ a
little, an’ both his arms were crooked an’ his hands looked like a
hawk’s claws. But there ain’t no tellin’ how his eyes looked. I know
this, though, an’ thet is his eyes could read the mind of any man about
to throw a gun. An’ in watchin’ him, of course, I couldn’t see the
three men go fer their guns. An’ though I was lookin’ right at
Lassiter--lookin’ hard--I couldn’t see how he drawed. He was quicker ‘n
eyesight--thet’s all. But I seen the red spurtin’ of his guns, en’ heard
his shots jest the very littlest instant before I heard the shots of the
riders. An’ when I turned, Wright an’ Carter was down, en’ Jengessen,
who’s tough like a steer, was pullin’ the trigger of a wabblin’ gun. But
it was plain he was shot through, plumb center. An’ sudden he fell with
a crash, an’ his gun clattered on the floor.

“Then there was a hell of a silence. Nobody breathed. Sartin I didn’t,
anyway. I saw Lassiter slip a smokin’ gun back in a belt. But he hadn’t
throwed either of the big black guns, an’ I thought thet strange. An’
all this was happenin’ quick--you can’t imagine how quick.

“There come a scrapin’ on the floor an’ Dyer got up, his face like lead.
I wanted to watch Lassiter, but Dyer’s face, onct I seen it like thet,
glued my eyes. I seen him go fer his gun--why, I could hev done better,
quicker--an’ then there was a thunderin’ shot from Lassiter, an’ it
hit Dyer’s right arm, an’ his gun went off as it dropped. He looked at
Lassiter like a cornered sage-wolf, an’ sort of howled, an’ reached down
fer his gun. He’d jest picked it off the floor an’ was raisin’ it when
another thunderin’ shot almost tore thet arm off--so it seemed to me.
The gun dropped again an’ he went down on his knees, kind of flounderin’
after it. It was some strange an’ terrible to see his awful earnestness.
Why would such a man cling so to life? Anyway, he got the gun with left
hand an’ was raisin’ it, pullin’ trigger in his madness, when the third
thunderin’ shot hit his left arm, an’ he dropped the gun again. But
thet left arm wasn’t useless yet, fer he grabbed up the gun, an’ with
a shakin’ aim thet would hev been pitiful to me--in any other man--he
began to shoot. One wild bullet struck a man twenty feet from Lassiter.
An’ it killed thet man, as I seen afterward. Then come a bunch of
thunderin’ shots--nine I calkilated after, fer they come so quick I
couldn’t count them--an’ I knew Lassiter hed turned the black guns loose
on Dyer.

“I’m tellin’ you straight, Miss Withersteen, fer I want you to know.
Afterward you’ll git over it. I’ve seen some soul-rackin’ scenes on this
Utah border, but this was the awfulest. I remember I closed my eyes, an’
fer a minute I thought of the strangest things, out of place there, such
as you’d never dream would come to mind. I saw the sage, an’ runnin’
hosses--an’ thet’s the beautfulest sight to me--an’ I saw dim things
in the dark, an’ there was a kind of hummin’ in my ears. An’ I remember
distinctly--fer it was what made all these things whirl out of my mind
an’ opened my eyes--I remember distinctly it was the smell of gunpowder.

“The court had about adjourned fer thet judge. He was on his knees, en’
he wasn’t prayin’. He was gaspin’ an’ tryin’ to press his big,
floppin’, crippled hands over his body. Lassiter had sent all those last
thunderin’ shots through his body. Thet was Lassiter’s way.

“An’ Lassiter spoke, en’ if I ever forgit his words I’ll never forgit
the sound of his voice.

“‘Proselyter, I reckon you’d better call quick on thet God who reveals
Hisself to you on earth, because He won’t be visitin’ the place you’re
goin’ to!”

“An’ then I seen Dyer look at his big, hangin’ hands thet wasn’t big
enough fer the last work he set them to. An’ he looked up at Lassiter.
An’ then he stared horrible at somethin’ thet wasn’t Lassiter, nor
anyone there, nor the room, nor the branches of purple sage peepin’
into the winder. Whatever he seen, it was with the look of a man who
discovers somethin’ too late. Thet’s a terrible look!... An’ with a
horrible understandin’ cry he slid forrard on his face.”

Judkins paused in his narrative, breathing heavily while he wiped his
perspiring brow.

“Thet’s about all,” he concluded. “Lassiter left the meetin’-house an’ I
hurried to catch up with him. He was bleedin’ from three gunshots,
none of them much to bother him. An’ we come right up here. I found you
layin’ in the hall, an’ I hed to work some over you.”

Jane Withersteen offered up no prayer for Dyer’s soul.

Lassiter’s step sounded in the hall--the familiar soft, silver-clinking
step--and she heard it with thrilling new emotions in which was a vague
joy in her very fear of him. The door opened, and she saw him, the old
Lassiter, slow, easy, gentle, cool, yet not exactly the same Lassiter.
She rose, and for a moment her eyes blurred and swam in tears.

“Are you--all--all right?” she asked, tremulously.

“I reckon.”

“Lassiter, I’ll ride away with you. Hide me till danger is past--till
we are forgotten--then take me where you will. Your people shall be my
people, and your God my God!”

He kissed her hand with the quaint grace and courtesy that came to him
in rare moments.

“Black Star an’ Night are ready,” he said, simply.

His quiet mention of the black racers spurred Jane to action. Hurrying
to her room, she changed to her rider’s suit, packed her jewelry, and
the gold that was left, and all the woman’s apparel for which there
was space in the saddle-bags, and then returned to the hall. Black Star
stamped his iron-shod hoofs and tossed his beautiful head, and eyed her
with knowing eyes.

“Judkins, I give Bells to you,” said Jane. “I hope you will always keep
him and be good to him.”

Judkins mumbled thanks that he could not speak fluently, and his eyes
flashed.

Lassiter strapped Jane’s saddle-bags upon Black Star, and led the racers
out into the court.

“Judkins, you ride with Jane out into the sage. If you see any riders
comin’ shout quick twice. An’, Jane, don’t look back! I’ll catch up
soon. We’ll get to the break into the Pass before midnight, an’ then
wait until mornin’ to go down.”

Black Star bent his graceful neck and bowed his noble head, and his
broad shoulders yielded as he knelt for Jane to mount.

She rode out of the court beside Judkins, through the grove, across
the wide lane into the sage, and she realized that she was leaving
Withersteen House forever, and she did not look back. A strange, dreamy,
calm peace pervaded her soul. Her doom had fallen upon her, but, instead
of finding life no longer worth living she found it doubly significant,
full of sweetness as the western breeze, beautiful and unknown as the
sage-slope stretching its purple sunset shadows before her. She became
aware of Judkins’s hand touching hers; she heard him speak a husky
good-by; then into the place of Bells shot the dead-black, keen, racy
nose of Night, and she knew Lassiter rode beside her.

“Don’t--look--back!” he said, and his voice, too, was not clear.

Facing straight ahead, seeing only the waving, shadowy sage, Jane held
out her gauntleted hand, to feel it enclosed in strong clasp. So she
rode on without a backward glance at the beautiful grove of Cottonwoods.
She did not seem to think of the past of what she left forever, but of
the color and mystery and wildness of the sage-slope leading down to
Deception Pass, and of the future. She watched the shadows lengthen down
the slope; she felt the cool west wind sweeping by from the rear; and
she wondered at low, yellow clouds sailing swiftly over her and beyond.

“Don’t look--back!” said Lassiter.

Thick-driving belts of smoke traveled by on the wind, and with it came a
strong, pungent odor of burning wood.

Lassiter had fired Withersteen House! But Jane did not look back.

A misty veil obscured the clear, searching gaze she had kept steadfastly
upon the purple slope and the dim lines of canyons. It passed, as passed
the rolling clouds of smoke, and she saw the valley deepening into the
shades of twilight. Night came on, swift as the fleet racers, and stars
peeped out to brighten and grow, and the huge, windy, eastern heave of
sage-level paled under a rising moon and turned to silver. Blanched
in moonlight, the sage yet seemed to hold its hue of purple and was
infinitely more wild and lonely. So the night hours wore on, and Jane
Withersteen never once looked back.



CHAPTER XXI. BLACK STAR AND NIGHT

The time had come for Venters and Bess to leave their retreat. They were
at great pains to choose the few things they would be able to carry with
them on the journey out of Utah.

“Bern, whatever kind of a pack’s this, anyhow?” questioned Bess, rising
from her work with reddened face.

Venters, absorbed in his own task, did not look up at all, and in reply
said he had brought so much from Cottonwoods that he did not recollect
the half of it.

“A woman packed this!” Bess exclaimed.

He scarcely caught her meaning, but the peculiar tone of her voice
caused him instantly to rise, and he saw Bess on her knees before an
open pack which he recognized as the one given him by Jane.

“By George!” he ejaculated, guiltily, and then at sight of Bess’s face
he laughed outright.

“A woman packed this,” she repeated, fixing woeful, tragic eyes on him.

“Well, is that a crime?’

“There--there is a woman, after all!”

“Now Bess--”

“You’ve lied to me!”

Then and there Venters found it imperative to postpone work for the
present. All her life Bess had been isolated, but she had inherited
certain elements of the eternal feminine.

“But there was a woman and you did lie to me,” she kept repeating, after
he had explained.

“What of that? Bess, I’ll get angry at you in a moment. Remember you’ve
been pent up all your life. I venture to say that if you’d been out in
the world you’d have had a dozen sweethearts and have told many a lie
before this.”

“I wouldn’t anything of the kind,” declared Bess, indignantly.

“Well--perhaps not lie. But you’d have had the sweethearts--You couldn’t
have helped that--being so pretty.”

This remark appeared to be a very clever and fortunate one; and the
work of selecting and then of stowing all the packs in the cave went on
without further interruption.

Venters closed up the opening of the cave with a thatch of willows and
aspens, so that not even a bird or a rat could get in to the sacks
of grain. And this work was in order with the precaution habitually
observed by him. He might not be able to get out of Utah, and have to
return to the valley. But he owed it to Bess to make the attempt, and in
case they were compelled to turn back he wanted to find that fine store
of food and grain intact. The outfit of implements and utensils he
packed away in another cave.

“Bess, we have enough to live here all our lives,” he said once,
dreamily.

“Shall I go roll Balancing Rock?” she asked, in light speech, but with
deep-blue fire in her eyes.

“No--no.”

“Ah, you don’t forget the gold and the world,” she sighed.

“Child, you forget the beautiful dresses and the travel--and
everything.”

“Oh, I want to go. But I want to stay!”

“I feel the same way.”

They let the eight calves out of the corral, and kept only two of the
burros Venters had brought from Cottonwoods. These they intended to
ride. Bess freed all her pets--the quail and rabbits and foxes.

The last sunset and twilight and night were both the sweetest and
saddest they had ever spent in Surprise Valley. Morning brought keen
exhilaration and excitement. When Venters had saddled the two burros,
strapped on the light packs and the two canteens, the sunlight was
dispersing the lazy shadows from the valley. Taking a last look at the
caves and the silver spruces, Venters and Bess made a reluctant start,
leading the burros. Ring and Whitie looked keen and knowing. Something
seemed to drag at Venters’s feet and he noticed Bess lagged behind.
Never had the climb from terrace to bridge appeared so long.

Not till they reached the opening of the gorge did they stop to rest and
take one last look at the valley. The tremendous arch of stone curved
clear and sharp in outline against the morning sky. And through it
streaked the golden shaft. The valley seemed an enchanted circle of
glorious veils of gold and wraiths of white and silver haze and dim,
blue, moving shade--beautiful and wild and unreal as a dream.

“We--we can--th--think of it--always--re--remember,” sobbed Bess.

“Hush! Don’t cry. Our valley has only fitted us for a better life
somewhere. Come!”

They entered the gorge and he closed the willow gate. From rosy, golden
morning light they passed into cool, dense gloom. The burros pattered
up the trail with little hollow-cracking steps. And the gorge widened to
narrow outlet and the gloom lightened to gray. At the divide they halted
for another rest. Venters’s keen, remembering gaze searched Balancing
Rock, and the long incline, and the cracked toppling walls, but failed
to note the slightest change.

The dogs led the descent; then came Bess leading her burro; then Venters
leading his. Bess kept her eyes bent downward. Venters, however, had
an irresistible desire to look upward at Balancing Rock. It had always
haunted him, and now he wondered if he were really to get through the
outlet before the huge stone thundered down. He fancied that would be
a miracle. Every few steps he answered to the strange, nervous fear and
turned to make sure the rock still stood like a giant statue. And, as
he descended, it grew dimmer in his sight. It changed form; it swayed it
nodded darkly; and at last, in his heightened fancy, he saw it heave and
roll. As in a dream when he felt himself falling yet knew he would never
fall, so he saw this long-standing thunderbolt of the little stone-men
plunge down to close forever the outlet to Deception Pass.

And while he was giving way to unaccountable dread imaginations the
descent was accomplished without mishap.

“I’m glad that’s over,” he said, breathing more freely. “I hope I’m by
that hanging rock for good and all. Since almost the moment I first saw
it I’ve had an idea that it was waiting for me. Now, when it does fall,
if I’m thousands of miles away, I’ll hear it.”

With the first glimpses of the smooth slope leading down to the
grotesque cedars and out to the Pass, Venters’s cool nerve returned. One
long survey to the left, then one to the right, satisfied his caution.
Leading the burros down to the spur of rock, he halted at the steep
incline.

“Bess, here’s the bad place, the place I told you about, with the cut
steps. You start down, leading your burro. Take your time and hold on to
him if you slip. I’ve got a rope on him and a half-hitch on this point
of rock, so I can let him down safely. Coming up here was a killing job.
But it’ll be easy going down.”

Both burros passed down the difficult stairs cut by the cliff-dwellers,
and did it without a misstep. After that the descent down the slope and
over the mile of scrawled, ripped, and ridged rock required only careful
guidance, and Venters got the burros to level ground in a condition that
caused him to congratulate himself.

“Oh, if we only had Wrangle!” exclaimed Venters. “But we’re lucky.
That’s the worst of our trail passed. We’ve only men to fear now. If we
get up in the sage we can hide and slip along like coyotes.”

They mounted and rode west through the valley and entered the canyon.
From time to time Venters walked, leading his burro. When they got by
all the canyons and gullies opening into the Pass they went faster and
with fewer halts. Venters did not confide in Bess the alarming fact that
he had seen horses and smoke less than a mile up one of the intersecting
canyons. He did not talk at all. And long after he had passed this
canyon and felt secure once more in the certainty that they had been
unobserved he never relaxed his watchfulness. But he did not walk any
more, and he kept the burros at a steady trot. Night fell before they
reached the last water in the Pass and they made camp by starlight.
Venters did not want the burros to stray, so he tied them with long
halters in the grass near the spring. Bess, tired out and silent, laid
her head in a saddle and went to sleep between the two dogs. Venters
did not close his eyes. The canyon silence appeared full of the low,
continuous hum of insects. He listened until the hum grew into a roar,
and then, breaking the spell, once more he heard it low and clear. He
watched the stars and the moving shadows, and always his glance returned
to the girl’s dimly pale face. And he remembered how white and still
it had once looked in the starlight. And again stern thought fought his
strange fancies. Would all his labor and his love be for naught? Would
he lose her, after all? What did the dark shadow around her portend? Did
calamity lurk on that long upland trail through the sage? Why should his
heart swell and throb with nameless fear? He listened to the silence
and told himself that in the broad light of day he could dispel this
leaden-weighted dread.

At the first hint of gray over the eastern rim he awoke Bess, saddled
the burros, and began the day’s travel. He wanted to get out of the Pass
before there was any chance of riders coming down. They gained the break
as the first red rays of the rising sun colored the rim.

For once, so eager was he to get up to level ground, he did not send
Ring or Whitie in advance. Encouraging Bess to hurry pulling at his
patient, plodding burro, he climbed the soft, steep trail.

Brighter and brighter grew the light. He mounted the last broken edge of
rim to have the sun-fired, purple sage-slope burst upon him as a glory.
Bess panted up to his side, tugging on the halter of her burro.

“We’re up!” he cried, joyously. “There’s not a dot on the sage. We’re
safe. We’ll not be seen! Oh, Bess--”

Ring growled and sniffed the keen air and bristled. Venters clutched
at his rifle. Whitie sometimes made a mistake, but Ring never. The dull
thud of hoofs almost deprived Venters of power to turn and see from
where disaster threatened. He felt his eyes dilate as he stared at
Lassiter leading Black Star and Night out of the sage, with Jane
Withersteen, in rider’s costume, close beside them.

For an instant Venters felt himself whirl dizzily in the center of vast
circles of sage. He recovered partially, enough to see Lassiter standing
with a glad smile and Jane riveted in astonishment.

“Why, Bern!” she exclaimed. “How good it is to see you! We’re riding
away, you see. The storm burst--and I’m a ruined woman!... I thought you
were alone.”

Venters, unable to speak for consternation, and bewildered out of all
sense of what he ought or ought not to do, simply stared at Jane.

“Son, where are you bound for?” asked Lassiter.

“Not safe--where I was. I’m--we’re going out of Utah--back East,” he
found tongue to say.

“I reckon this meetin’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to you an’
to me--an’ to Jane--an’ to Bess,” said Lassiter, coolly.

“Bess!” cried Jane, with a sudden leap of blood to her pale cheek.

It was entirely beyond Venters to see any luck in that meeting.

Jane Withersteen took one flashing, woman’s glance at Bess’s scarlet
face, at her slender, shapely form.

“Venters! is this a girl--a woman?” she questioned, in a voice that
stung.

“Yes.”

“Did you have her in that wonderful valley?”

“Yes, but Jane--”

“All the time you were gone?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t tell--”

“Was it for her you asked me to give you supplies? Was it for her that
you wanted to make your valley a paradise?”

“Oh--Jane--”

“Answer me.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, you liar!” And with these passionate words Jane Withersteen
succumbed to fury. For the second time in her life she fell into the
ungovernable rage that had been her father’s weakness. And it was worse
than his, for she was a jealous woman--jealous even of her friends.

As best he could, he bore the brunt of her anger. It was not only his
deceit to her that she visited upon him, but her betrayal by religion,
by life itself.

Her passion, like fire at white heat, consumed itself in little time.
Her physical strength failed, and still her spirit attempted to go on in
magnificent denunciation of those who had wronged her. Like a tree
cut deep into its roots, she began to quiver and shake, and her anger
weakened into despair. And her ringing voice sank into a broken, husky
whisper. Then, spent and pitiable, upheld by Lassiter’s arm, she turned
and hid her face in Black Star’s mane.

Numb as Venters was when at length Jane Withersteen lifted her head and
looked at him, he yet suffered a pang.

“Jane, the girl is innocent!” he cried.

“Can you expect me to believe that?” she asked, with weary, bitter eyes.

“I’m not that kind of a liar. And you know it. If I lied--if I kept
silent when honor should have made me speak, it was to spare you. I came
to Cottonwoods to tell you. But I couldn’t add to your pain. I intended
to tell you I had come to love this girl. But, Jane I hadn’t forgotten
how good you were to me. I haven’t changed at all toward you. I prize
your friendship as I always have. But, however it may look to you--don’t
be unjust. The girl is innocent. Ask Lassiter.”

“Jane, she’s jest as sweet an’ innocent as little Fay,” said Lassiter.
There was a faint smile upon his face and a beautiful light.

Venters saw, and knew that Lassiter saw, how Jane Withersteen’s tortured
soul wrestled with hate and threw it--with scorn doubt, suspicion, and
overcame all.

“Bern, if in my misery I accused you unjustly, I crave forgiveness,” she
said. “I’m not what I once was. Tell me--who is this girl?”

“Jane, she is Oldring’s daughter, and his Masked Rider. Lassiter will
tell you how I shot her for a rustler, saved her life--all the story.
It’s a strange story, Jane, as wild as the sage. But it’s true--true as
her innocence. That you must believe.”

“Oldring’s Masked Rider! Oldring’s daughter!” exclaimed Jane “And she’s
innocent! You ask me to believe much. If this girl is--is what you say,
how could she be going away with the man who killed her father?”

“Why did you tell that?” cried Venters, passionately.

Jane’s question had roused Bess out of stupefaction. Her eyes suddenly
darkened and dilated. She stepped toward Venters and held up both hands
as if to ward off a blow.

“Did--did you kill Oldring?”

“I did, Bess, and I hate myself for it. But you know I never dreamed
he was your father. I thought he’d wronged you. I killed him when I was
madly jealous.”

For a moment Bess was shocked into silence.

“But he was my father!” she broke out, at last. “And now I must go
back--I can’t go with you. It’s all over--that beautiful dream. Oh, I
knew it couldn’t come true. You can’t take me now.”

“If you forgive me, Bess, it’ll all come right in the end!” implored
Venters.

“It can’t be right. I’ll go back. After all, I loved him. He was good to
me. I can’t forget that.”

“If you go back to Oldring’s men I’ll follow you, and then they’ll kill
me,” said Venters, hoarsely.

“Oh no, Bern, you’ll not come. Let me go. It’s best for you to forget
me. I’ve brought you only pain and dishonor.”

She did not weep. But the sweet bloom and life died out of her face.
She looked haggard and sad, all at once stunted; and her hands dropped
listlessly; and her head drooped in slow, final acceptance of a hopeless
fate.

“Jane, look there!” cried Venters, in despairing grief. “Need you have
told her? Where was all your kindness of heart? This girl has had a
wretched, lonely life. And I’d found a way to make her happy. You’ve
killed it. You’ve killed something sweet and pure and hopeful, just as
sure as you breathe.”

“Oh, Bern! It was a slip. I never thought--I never thought!” replied
Jane. “How could I tell she didn’t know?”

Lassiter suddenly moved forward, and with the beautiful light on his
face now strangely luminous, he looked at Jane and Venters and then let
his soft, bright gaze rest on Bess.

“Well, I reckon you’ve all had your say, an’ now it’s Lassiter’s turn.
Why, I was jest praying for this meetin’. Bess, jest look here.”

Gently he touched her arm and turned her to face the others, and then
outspread his great hand to disclose a shiny, battered gold locket.

“Open it,” he said, with a singularly rich voice.

Bess complied, but listlessly.

“Jane--Venters--come closer,” went on Lassiter. “Take a look at the
picture. Don’t you know the woman?”

Jane, after one glance, drew back.

“Milly Erne!” she cried, wonderingly.

Venters, with tingling pulse, with something growing on him, recognized
in the faded miniature portrait the eyes of Milly Erne.

“Yes, that’s Milly,” said Lassiter, softly. “Bess, did you ever see her
face--look hard--with all your heart an’ soul?”

“The eyes seem to haunt me,” whispered Bess. “Oh, I can’t
remember--they’re eyes of my dreams--but--but--”

Lassiter’s strong arm went round her and he bent his head.

“Child, I thought you’d remember her eyes. They’re the same beautiful
eyes you’d see if you looked in a mirror or a clear spring. They’re your
mother’s eyes. You are Milly Erne’s child. Your name is Elizabeth Erne.
You’re not Oldring’s daughter. You’re the daughter of Frank Erne, a man
once my best friend. Look! Here’s his picture beside Milly’s. He was
handsome, an’ as fine an’ gallant a Southern gentleman as I ever seen.
Frank came of an old family. You come of the best of blood, lass, and
blood tells.”

Bess slipped through his arm to her knees and hugged the locket to her
bosom, and lifted wonderful, yearning eyes.

“It--can’t--be--true!”

“Thank God, lass, it is true,” replied Lassiter. “Jane an’ Bern
here--they both recognize Milly. They see Milly in you. They’re so
knocked out they can’t tell you, that’s all.”

“Who are you?” whispered Bess.

“I reckon I’m Milly’s brother an’ your uncle!... Uncle Jim! Ain’t that
fine?”

“Oh, I can’t believe--Don’t raise me! Bern, let me kneel. I see truth
in your face--in Miss Withersteen’s. But let me hear it all--all on my
knees. Tell me how it’s true!”

“Well, Elizabeth, listen,” said Lassiter. “Before you was born your
father made a mortal enemy of a Mormon named Dyer. They was both
ministers an’ come to be rivals. Dyer stole your mother away from her
home. She gave birth to you in Texas eighteen years ago. Then she was
taken to Utah, from place to place, an’ finally to the last border
settlement--Cottonwoods. You was about three years old when you was
taken away from Milly. She never knew what had become of you. But she
lived a good while hopin’ and prayin’ to have you again. Then she gave
up an’ died. An’ I may as well put in here your father died ten years
ago. Well, I spent my time tracin’ Milly, an’ some months back I landed
in Cottonwoods. An’ jest lately I learned all about you. I had a talk
with Oldrin’ an’ told him you was dead, an’ he told me what I had so
long been wantin’ to know. It was Dyer, of course, who stole you from
Milly. Part reason he was sore because Milly refused to give you Mormon
teachin’, but mostly he still hated Frank Erne so infernally that he
made a deal with Oldrin’ to take you an’ bring you up as an infamous
rustler an’ rustler’s girl. The idea was to break Frank Erne’s heart
if he ever came to Utah--to show him his daughter with a band of low
rustlers. Well--Oldrin’ took you, brought you up from childhood, an’
then made you his Masked Rider. He made you infamous. He kept that part
of the contract, but he learned to love you as a daughter an’ never let
any but his own men know you was a girl. I heard him say that with my
own ears, an’ I saw his big eyes grow dim. He told me how he had guarded
you always, kept you locked up in his absence, was always at your side
or near you on those rides that made you famous on the sage. He said he
an’ an old rustler whom he trusted had taught you how to read an’ write.
They selected the books for you. Dyer had wanted you brought up the
vilest of the vile! An’ Oldrin’ brought you up the innocentest of the
innocent. He said you didn’t know what vileness was. I can hear his big
voice tremble now as he said it. He told me how the men--rustlers an’
outlaws--who from time to time tried to approach you familiarly--he told
me how he shot them dead. I’m tellin’ you this ‘specially because you’ve
showed such shame--sayin’ you was nameless an’ all that. Nothin’ on
earth can be wronger than that idea of yours. An’ the truth of it is
here. Oldrin’ swore to me that if Dyer died, releasin’ the contract,
he intended to hunt up your father an’ give you back to him. It seems
Oldrin’ wasn’t all bad, en’ he sure loved you.”

Venters leaned forward in passionate remorse.

“Oh, Bess! I know Lassiter speaks the truth. For when I shot Oldring he
dropped to his knees and fought with unearthly power to speak. And he
said: ‘Man--why--didn’t--you--wait? Bess was--’ Then he fell dead.
And I’ve been haunted by his look and words. Oh, Bess, what a strange,
splendid thing for Oldring to do! It all seems impossible. But, dear,
you really are not what you thought.”

“Elizabeth Erne!” cried Jane Withersteen. “I loved your mother and I see
her in you!”

What had been incredible from the lips of men became, in the tone,
look, and gesture of a woman, a wonderful truth for Bess. With little
tremblings of all her slender body she rocked to and fro on her knees.
The yearning wistfulness of her eyes changed to solemn splendor of joy.
She believed. She was realizing happiness. And as the process of thought
was slow, so were the variations of her expression. Her eyes reflected
the transformation of her soul. Dark, brooding, hopeless belief--clouds
of gloom--drifted, paled, vanished in glorious light. An exquisite rose
flush--a glow--shone from her face as she slowly began to rise from her
knees. A spirit uplifted her. All that she had held as base dropped from
her.

Venters watched her in joy too deep for words. By it he divined
something of what Lassiter’s revelation meant to Bess, but he knew he
could only faintly understand. That moment when she seemed to be lifted
by some spiritual transfiguration was the most beautiful moment of his
life. She stood with parted, quivering lips, with hands tightly clasping
the locket to her heaving breast. A new conscious pride of worth
dignified the old wild, free grace and poise.

“Uncle Jim!” she said, tremulously, with a different smile from any
Venters had ever seen on her face.

Lassiter took her into his arms.

“I reckon. It’s powerful fine to hear that,” replied Lassiter,
unsteadily.

Venters, feeling his eyes grow hot and wet, turned away, and found
himself looking at Jane Withersteen. He had almost forgotten her
presence. Tenderness and sympathy were fast hiding traces of her
agitation. Venters read her mind--felt the reaction of her noble
heart--saw the joy she was beginning to feel at the happiness of others.
And suddenly blinded, choked by his emotions, he turned from her also.
He knew what she would do presently; she would make some magnificent
amend for her anger; she would give some manifestation of her love;
probably all in a moment, as she had loved Milly Erne, so would she love
Elizabeth Erne.

“‘Pears to me, folks, that we’d better talk a little serious now,”
 remarked Lassiter, at length. “Time flies.”

“You’re right,” replied Venters, instantly. “I’d forgotten
time--place--danger. Lassiter, you’re riding away. Jane’s leaving
Withersteen House?”

“Forever,” replied Jane.

“I fired Withersteen House,” said Lassiter.

“Dyer?” questioned Venters, sharply.

“I reckon where Dyer’s gone there won’t be any kidnappin’ of girls.”

“Ah! I knew it. I told Judkins--And Tull?” went on Venters,
passionately.

“Tull wasn’t around when I broke loose. By now he’s likely on our trail
with his riders.”

“Lassiter, you’re going into the Pass to hide till all this storm blows
over?”

“I reckon that’s Jane’s idea. I’m thinkin’ the storm’ll be a powerful
long time blowin’ over. I was comin’ to join you in Surprise Valley.
You’ll go back now with me?”

“No. I want to take Bess out of Utah. Lassiter, Bess found gold in the
valley. We’ve a saddle-bag full of gold. If we can reach Sterling--”

“Man! how’re you ever goin’ to do that? Sterlin’ is a hundred miles.”

“My plan is to ride on, keeping sharp lookout. Somewhere up the trail
we’ll take to the sage and go round Cottonwoods and then hit the trail
again.”

“It’s a bad plan. You’ll kill the burros in two days.”

“Then we’ll walk.”

“That’s more bad an’ worse. Better go back down the Pass with me.”

“Lassiter, this girl has been hidden all her life in that lonely place,”
 went on Venters. “Oldring’s men are hunting me. We’d not be safe there
any longer. Even if we would be I’d take this chance to get her out.
I want to marry her. She shall have some of the pleasures of life--see
cities and people. We’ve gold--we’ll be rich. Why, life opens sweet
for both of us. And, by Heaven! I’ll get her out or lose my life in the
attempt!”

“I reckon if you go on with them burros you’ll lose your life all right.
Tull will have riders all over this sage. You can’t get out on them
burros. It’s a fool idea. That’s not doin’ best by the girl. Come with
me en’ take chances on the rustlers.”

Lassiter’s cool argument made Venters waver, not in determination to go,
but in hope of success.

“Bess, I want you to know. Lassiter says the trip’s almost useless now.
I’m afraid he’s right. We’ve got about one chance in a hundred to go
through. Shall we take it? Shall we go on?”

“We’ll go on,” replied Bess.

“That settles it, Lassiter.”

Lassiter spread wide his hands, as if to signify he could do no more,
and his face clouded.

Venters felt a touch on his elbow. Jane stood beside him with a hand
on his arm. She was smiling. Something radiated from her, and like an
electric current accelerated the motion of his blood.

“Bern, you’d be right to die rather than not take Elizabeth out of
Utah--out of this wild country. You must do it. You’ll show her the
great world, with all its wonders. Think how little she has seen! Think
what delight is in store for her! You have gold, You will be free; you
will make her happy. What a glorious prospect! I share it with you. I’ll
think of you--dream of you--pray for you.”

“Thank you, Jane,” replied Venters, trying to steady his voice. “It does
look bright. Oh, if we were only across that wide, open waste of sage!”

“Bern, the trip’s as good as made. It’ll be safe--easy. It’ll be a
glorious ride,” she said, softly.

Venters stared. Had Jane’s troubles made her insane? Lassiter, too,
acted queerly, all at once beginning to turn his sombrero round in hands
that actually shook.

“You are a rider. She is a rider. This will be the ride of your lives,”
 added Jane, in that same soft undertone, almost as if she were musing to
herself.

“Jane!” he cried.

“I give you Black Star and Night!”

“Black Star and Night!” he echoed.

“It’s done. Lassiter, put our saddle-bags on the burros.”

Only when Lassiter moved swiftly to execute her bidding did Venters’s
clogged brain grasp at literal meanings. He leaped to catch Lassiter’s
busy hands.

“No, no! What are you doing?” he demanded, in a kind of fury. “I won’t
take her racers. What do you think I am? It’d be monstrous. Lassiter!
stop it, I say!... You’ve got her to save. You’ve miles and miles to go.
Tull is trailing you. There are rustlers in the Pass. Give me back that
saddle-bag!”

“Son--cool down,” returned Lassiter, in a voice he might have used to a
child. But the grip with which he tore away Venters’s grasping hands was
that of a giant. “Listen--you fool boy! Jane’s sized up the situation.
The burros’ll do for us. We’ll sneak along an’ hide. I’ll take your dogs
an’ your rifle. Why, it’s the trick. The blacks are yours, an’ sure as I
can throw a gun you’re goin’ to ride safe out of the sage.”

“Jane--stop him--please stop him,” gasped Venters. “I’ve lost my
strength. I can’t do--anything. This is hell for me! Can’t you see that?
I’ve ruined you--it was through me you lost all. You’ve only Black Star
and Night left. You love these horses. Oh! I know how you must love them
now! And--you’re trying to give them to me. To help me out of Utah! To
save the girl I love!”

“That will be my glory.”

Then in the white, rapt face, in the unfathomable eyes, Venters saw Jane
Withersteen in a supreme moment. This moment was one wherein she reached
up to the height for which her noble soul had ever yearned. He, after
disrupting the calm tenor of her peace, after bringing down on her head
the implacable hostility of her churchmen, after teaching her a bitter
lesson of life--he was to be her salvation. And he turned away again,
this time shaken to the core of his soul. Jane Withersteen was the
incarnation of selflessness. He experienced wonder and terror, exquisite
pain and rapture. What were all the shocks life had dealt him compared
to the thought of such loyal and generous friendship?

And instantly, as if by some divine insight, he knew himself in the
remaking--tried, found wanting; but stronger, better, surer--and he
wheeled to Jane Withersteen, eager, joyous, passionate, wild, exalted.
He bent to her; he left tears and kisses on her hands.

“Jane, I--I can’t find words--now,” he said. “I’m beyond words. Only--I
understand. And I’ll take the blacks.”

“Don’t be losin’ no more time,” cut in Lassiter. “I ain’t certain, but
I think I seen a speck up the sage-slope. Mebbe I was mistaken. But,
anyway, we must all be movin’. I’ve shortened the stirrups on Black
Star. Put Bess on him.”

Jane Withersteen held out her arms.

“Elizabeth Erne!” she cried, and Bess flew to her.

How inconceivably strange and beautiful it was for Venters to see Bess
clasped to Jane Withersteen’s breast!

Then he leaped astride Night.

“Venters, ride straight on up the slope,” Lassiter was saying, “‘an
if you don’t meet any riders keep on till you’re a few miles from the
village, then cut off in the sage an’ go round to the trail. But you’ll
most likely meet riders with Tull. Jest keep right on till you’re jest
out of gunshot an’ then make your cut-off into the sage. They’ll ride
after you, but it won’t be no use. You can ride, an’ Bess can ride.
When you’re out of reach turn on round to the west, an’ hit the trail
somewhere. Save the hosses all you can, but don’t be afraid. Black Star
and Night are good for a hundred miles before sundown, if you have to
push them. You can get to Sterlin’ by night if you want. But better make
it along about to-morrow mornin’. When you get through the notch on the
Glaze trail, swing to the right. You’ll be able to see both Glaze an’
Stone Bridge. Keep away from them villages. You won’t run no risk of
meetin’ any of Oldrin’s rustlers from Sterlin’ on. You’ll find water in
them deep hollows north of the Notch. There’s an old trail there, not
much used, en’ it leads to Sterlin’. That’s your trail. An’ one thing
more. If Tull pushes you--or keeps on persistent-like, for a few
miles--jest let the blacks out an’ lose him an’ his riders.”

“Lassiter, may we meet again!” said Venters, in a deep voice.

“Son, it ain’t likely--it ain’t likely. Well, Bess Oldrin’--Masked
Rider--Elizabeth Erne--now you climb on Black Star. I’ve heard you could
ride. Well, every rider loves a good horse. An’, lass, there never was
but one that could beat Black Star.”

“Ah, Lassiter, there never was any horse that could beat Black Star,”
 said Jane, with the old pride.

“I often wondered--mebbe Venters rode out that race when he brought back
the blacks. Son, was Wrangle the best hoss?”

“No, Lassiter,” replied Venters. For this lie he had his reward in
Jane’s quick smile.

“Well, well, my hoss-sense ain’t always right. An’ here I’m talkin’ a
lot, wastin’ time. It ain’t so easy to find an’ lose a pretty niece all
in one hour! Elizabeth--good-by!”

“Oh, Uncle Jim!... Good-by!”

“Elizabeth Erne, be happy! Good-by,” said Jane.

“Good-by--oh--good-by!” In lithe, supple action Bess swung up to Black
Star’s saddle.

“Jane Withersteen!... Good-by!” called Venters hoarsely.

“Bern--Bess--riders of the purple sage--good-by!”



CHAPTER XXII. RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE

Black Star and Night, answering to spur, swept swiftly westward along
the white, slow-rising, sage-bordered trail. Venters heard a mournful
howl from Ring, but Whitie was silent. The blacks settled into their
fleet, long-striding gallop. The wind sweetly fanned Venters’s hot face.
From the summit of the first low-swelling ridge he looked back. Lassiter
waved his hand; Jane waved her scarf. Venters replied by standing in his
stirrups and holding high his sombrero. Then the dip of the ridge hid
them. From the height of the next he turned once more. Lassiter, Jane,
and the burros had disappeared. They had gone down into the Pass.
Venters felt a sensation of irreparable loss.

“Bern--look!” called Bess, pointing up the long slope.

A small, dark, moving dot split the line where purple sage met blue sky.
That dot was a band of riders.

“Pull the black, Bess.”

They slowed from gallop to canter, then to trot. The fresh and eager
horses did not like the check.

“Bern, Black Star has great eyesight.”

“I wonder if they’re Tull’s riders. They might be rustlers. But it’s all
the same to us.”

The black dot grew to a dark patch moving under low dust clouds. It grew
all the time, though very slowly. There were long periods when it was in
plain sight, and intervals when it dropped behind the sage. The blacks
trotted for half an hour, for another half-hour, and still the moving
patch appeared to stay on the horizon line. Gradually, however, as time
passed, it began to enlarge, to creep down the slope, to encroach upon
the intervening distance.

“Bess, what do you make them out?” asked Venters. “I don’t think they’re
rustlers.”

“They’re sage-riders,” replied Bess. “I see a white horse and several
grays. Rustlers seldom ride any horses but bays and blacks.”

“That white horse is Tull’s. Pull the black, Bess. I’ll get down and
cinch up. We’re in for some riding. Are you afraid?”

“Not now,” answered the girl, smiling.

“You needn’t be. Bess, you don’t weigh enough to make Black Star know
you’re on him. I won’t be able to stay with you. You’ll leave Tull and
his riders as if they were standing still.”

“How about you?”

“Never fear. If I can’t stay with you I can still laugh at Tull.”

“Look, Bern! They’ve stopped on that ridge. They see us.”

“Yes. But we’re too far yet for them to make out who we are. They’ll
recognize the blacks first. We’ve passed most of the ridges and the
thickest sage. Now, when I give the word, let Black Star go and ride!”

Venters calculated that a mile or more still intervened between them
and the riders. They were approaching at a swift canter. Soon Venters
recognized Tull’s white horse, and concluded that the riders had
likewise recognized Black Star and Night. But it would be impossible for
Tull yet to see that the blacks were not ridden by Lassiter and Jane.
Venters noted that Tull and the line of horsemen, perhaps ten or twelve
in number, stopped several times and evidently looked hard down the
slope. It must have been a puzzling circumstance for Tull. Venters
laughed grimly at the thought of what Tull’s rage would be when he
finally discovered the trick. Venters meant to sheer out into the sage
before Tull could possibly be sure who rode the blacks.

The gap closed to a distance of half a mile. Tull halted. His riders
came up and formed a dark group around him. Venters thought he saw him
wave his arms and was certain of it when the riders dashed into the
sage, to right and left of the trail. Tull had anticipated just the move
held in mind by Venters.

“Now Bess!” shouted Venters. “Strike north. Go round those riders and
turn west.”

Black Star sailed over the low sage, and in a few leaps got into his
stride and was running. Venters spurred Night after him. It was hard
going in the sage. The horses could run as well there, but keen eyesight
and judgment must constantly be used by the riders in choosing ground.
And continuous swerving from aisle to aisle between the brush, and
leaping little washes and mounds of the pack-rats, and breaking through
sage, made rough riding. When Venters had turned into a long aisle he
had time to look up at Tull’s riders. They were now strung out into an
extended line riding northeast. And, as Venters and Bess were holding
due north, this meant, if the horses of Tull and his riders had the
speed and the staying power, they would head the blacks and turn them
back down the slope. Tull’s men were not saving their mounts; they were
driving them desperately. Venters feared only an accident to Black Star
or Night, and skilful riding would mitigate possibility of that. One
glance ahead served to show him that Bess could pick a course through
the sage as well as he. She looked neither back nor at the running
riders, and bent forward over Black Star’s neck and studied the ground
ahead.

It struck Venters, presently, after he had glanced up from time to time,
that Bess was drawing away from him as he had expected. He had, however,
only thought of the light weight Black Star was carrying and of his
superior speed; he saw now that the black was being ridden as never
before, except when Jerry Card lost the race to Wrangle. How easily,
gracefully, naturally, Bess sat her saddle! She could ride! Suddenly
Venters remembered she had said she could ride. But he had not dreamed
she was capable of such superb horsemanship. Then all at once, flashing
over him, thrilling him, came the recollection that Bess was Oldring’s
Masked Rider.

He forgot Tull--the running riders--the race. He let Night have a free
rein and felt him lengthen out to suit himself, knowing he would keep to
Black Star’s course, knowing that he had been chosen by the best rider
now on the upland sage. For Jerry Card was dead. And fame had rivaled
him with only one rider, and that was the slender girl who now swung so
easily with Black Star’s stride. Venters had abhorred her notoriety, but
now he took passionate pride in her skill, her daring, her power over
a horse. And he delved into his memory, recalling famous rides which he
had heard related in the villages and round the camp-fires. Oldring’s
Masked Rider! Many times this strange rider, at once well known and
unknown, had escaped pursuers by matchless riding. He had to run the
gantlet of vigilantes down the main street of Stone Bridge, leaving dead
horses and dead rustlers behind. He had jumped his horse over the Gerber
Wash, a deep, wide ravine separating the fields of Glaze from the
wild sage. He had been surrounded north of Sterling; and he had broken
through the line. How often had been told the story of day stampedes,
of night raids, of pursuit, and then how the Masked Rider, swift as the
wind, was gone in the sage! A fleet, dark horse--a slender, dark form--a
black mask--a driving run down the slope--a dot on the purple sage--a
shadowy, muffled steed disappearing in the night!

And this Masked Rider of the uplands had been Elizabeth Erne!

The sweet sage wind rushed in Venters’s face and sang a song in his
ears. He heard the dull, rapid beat of Night’s hoofs; he saw Black Star
drawing away, farther and farther. He realized both horses were swinging
to the west. Then gunshots in the rear reminded him of Tull. Venters
looked back. Far to the side, dropping behind, trooped the riders. They
were shooting. Venters saw no puffs or dust, heard no whistling bullets.
He was out of range. When he looked back again Tull’s riders had given
up pursuit. The best they could do, no doubt, had been to get near
enough to recognize who really rode the blacks. Venters saw Tull
drooping in his saddle.

Then Venters pulled Night out of his running stride. Those few miles had
scarcely warmed the black, but Venters wished to save him. Bess turned,
and, though she was far away, Venters caught the white glint of her
waving hand. He held Night to a trot and rode on, seeing Bess and Black
Star, and the sloping upward stretch of sage, and from time to time the
receding black riders behind. Soon they disappeared behind a ridge, and
he turned no more. They would go back to Lassiter’s trail and follow it,
and follow in vain. So Venters rode on, with the wind growing sweeter
to taste and smell, and the purple sage richer and the sky bluer in his
sight; and the song in his ears ringing. By and by Bess halted to wait
for him, and he knew she had come to the trail. When he reached her it
was to smile at sight of her standing with arms round Black Star’s neck.

“Oh, Bern! I love him!” she cried. “He’s beautiful; he knows; and how
he can run! I’ve had fast horses. But Black Star!... Wrangle never beat
him!”

“I’m wondering if I didn’t dream that. Bess, the blacks are grand. What
it must have cost Jane--ah!--well, when we get out of this wild country
with Star and Night, back to my old home in Illinois, we’ll buy a
beautiful farm with meadows and springs and cool shade. There we’ll turn
the horses free--free to roam and browse and drink--never to feel a spur
again--never to be ridden!”

“I would like that,” said Bess.

They rested. Then, mounting, they rode side by side up the white trail.
The sun rose higher behind them. Far to the left a low line of green
marked the site of Cottonwoods. Venters looked once and looked no
more. Bess gazed only straight ahead. They put the blacks to the
long, swinging rider’s canter, and at times pulled them to a trot, and
occasionally to a walk. The hours passed, the miles slipped behind, and
the wall of rock loomed in the fore. The Notch opened wide. It was a
rugged, stony pass, but with level and open trail, and Venters and Bess
ran the blacks through it. An old trail led off to the right, taking
the line of the wall, and this Venters knew to be the trail mentioned by
Lassiter.

The little hamlet, Glaze, a white and green patch in the vast waste of
purple, lay miles down a slope much like the Cottonwoods slope, only
this descended to the west. And miles farther west a faint green spot
marked the location of Stone Bridge. All the rest of that world was
seemingly smooth, undulating sage, with no ragged lines of canyons to
accentuate its wildness.

“Bess, we’re safe--we’re free!” said Venters. “We’re alone on the sage.
We’re half way to Sterling.”

“Ah! I wonder how it is with Lassiter and Miss Withersteen.”

“Never fear, Bess. He’ll outwit Tull. He’ll get away and hide her
safely. He might climb into Surprise Valley, but I don’t think he’ll go
so far.”

“Bern, will we ever find any place like our beautiful valley?”

“No. But, dear, listen. Well go back some day, after years--ten years.
Then we’ll be forgotten. And our valley will be just as we left it.”

“What if Balancing Rock falls and closes the outlet to the Pass?”

“I’ve thought of that. I’ll pack in ropes and ropes. And if the outlet’s
closed we’ll climb up the cliffs and over them to the valley and go down
on rope ladders. It could be done. I know just where to make the climb,
and I’ll never forget.”

“Oh yes, let us go back!”

“It’s something sweet to look forward to. Bess, it’s like all the future
looks to me.”

“Call me--Elizabeth,” she said, shyly.

“Elizabeth Erne! It’s a beautiful name. But I’ll never forget Bess. Do
you know--have you thought that very soon--by this time to-morrow--you
will be Elizabeth Venters?”

So they rode on down the old trail. And the sun sloped to the west, and
a golden sheen lay on the sage. The hours sped now; the afternoon waned.
Often they rested the horses. The glisten of a pool of water in a hollow
caught Venters’s eye, and here he unsaddled the blacks and let them roll
and drink and browse. When he and Bess rode up out of the hollow the sun
was low, a crimson ball, and the valley seemed veiled in purple fire
and smoke. It was that short time when the sun appeared to rest before
setting, and silence, like a cloak of invisible life, lay heavy on all
that shimmering world of sage.

They watched the sun begin to bury its red curve under the dark horizon.

“We’ll ride on till late,” he said. “Then you can sleep a little,
while I watch and graze the horses. And we’ll ride into Sterling early
to-morrow. We’ll be married!... We’ll be in time to catch the stage.
We’ll tie Black Star and Night behind--and then--for a country not wild
and terrible like this!”

“Oh, Bern!... But look! The sun is setting on the sage--the last time
for us till we dare come again to the Utah border. Ten years! Oh, Bern,
look, so you will never forget!”

Slumbering, fading purple fire burned over the undulating sage ridges.
Long streaks and bars and shafts and spears fringed the far western
slope. Drifting, golden veils mingled with low, purple shadows. Colors
and shades changed in slow, wondrous transformation.

Suddenly Venters was startled by a low, rumbling roar--so low that it
was like the roar in a sea-shell.

“Bess, did you hear anything?” he whispered.

“No.”

“Listen!... Maybe I only imagined--Ah!”

Out of the east or north from remote distance, breathed an infinitely
low, continuously long sound--deep, weird, detonating, thundering,
deadening--dying.



CHAPTER XXIII. THE FALL OF BALANCING ROCK

Through tear-blurred sight Jane Withersteen watched Venters and
Elizabeth Erne and the black racers disappear over the ridge of sage.

“They’re gone!” said Lassiter. “An’ they’re safe now. An’ there’ll never
be a day of their comin’ happy lives but what they’ll remember Jane
Withersteen an’--an’ Uncle Jim!... I reckon, Jane, we’d better be on our
way.”

The burros obediently wheeled and started down the break with little
cautious steps, but Lassiter had to leash the whining dogs and lead
them. Jane felt herself bound in a feeling that was neither listlessness
nor indifference, yet which rendered her incapable of interest. She was
still strong in body, but emotionally tired. That hour at the entrance
to Deception Pass had been the climax of her suffering--the flood of
her wrath--the last of her sacrifice--the supremity of her love--and the
attainment of peace. She thought that if she had little Fay she would
not ask any more of life.

Like an automaton she followed Lassiter down the steep trail of dust and
bits of weathered stone; and when the little slides moved with her or
piled around her knees she experienced no alarm. Vague relief came to
her in the sense of being enclosed between dark stone walls, deep hidden
from the glare of sun, from the glistening sage. Lassiter lengthened the
stirrup straps on one of the burros and bade her mount and ride close
to him. She was to keep the burro from cracking his little hard hoofs on
stones. Then she was riding on between dark, gleaming walls. There were
quiet and rest and coolness in this canyon. She noted indifferently that
they passed close under shady, bulging shelves of cliff, through patches
of grass and sage and thicket and groves of slender trees, and over
white, pebbly washes, and around masses of broken rock. The burros
trotted tirelessly; the dogs, once more free, pattered tirelessly; and
Lassiter led on with never a stop, and at every open place he looked
back. The shade under the walls gave place to sunlight. And presently
they came to a dense thicket of slender trees, through which they passed
to rich, green grass and water. Here Lassiter rested the burros for a
little while, but he was restless, uneasy, silent, always listening,
peering under the trees. She dully reflected that enemies were behind
them--before them; still the thought awakened no dread or concern or
interest.

At his bidding she mounted and rode on close to the heels of his burro.
The canyon narrowed; the walls lifted their rugged rims higher; and
the sun shone down hot from the center of the blue stream of sky above.
Lassiter traveled slower, with more exceeding care as to the ground
he chose, and he kept speaking low to the dogs. They were now
hunting-dogs--keen, alert, suspicious, sniffing the warm breeze.
The monotony of the yellow walls broke in change of color and smooth
surface, and the rugged outline of rims grew craggy. Splits appeared
in deep breaks, and gorges running at right angles, and then the Pass
opened wide at a junction of intersecting canyons.

Lassiter dismounted, led his burro, called the dogs close, and proceeded
at snail pace through dark masses of rock and dense thickets under the
left wall. Long he watched and listened before venturing to cross the
mouths of side canyons. At length he halted, tied his burro, lifted a
warning hand to Jane, and then slipped away among the boulders, and,
followed by the stealthy dogs, disappeared from sight. The time he
remained absent was neither short nor long to Jane Withersteen.

When he reached her side again he was pale, and his lips were set in a
hard line, and his gray eyes glittered coldly. Bidding her dismount, he
led the burros into a covert of stones and cedars, and tied them.

“Jane, I’ve run into the fellers I’ve been lookin’ for, an’ I’m goin’
after them,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I reckon I won’t take time to tell you.”

“Couldn’t we slip by without being seen?”

“Likely enough. But that ain’t my game. An’ I’d like to know, in case I
don’t come back, what you’ll do.”

“What can I do?”

“I reckon you can go back to Tull. Or stay in the Pass an’ be taken off
by rustlers. Which’ll you do?”

“I don’t know. I can’t think very well. But I believe I’d rather be
taken off by rustlers.”

Lassiter sat down, put his head in his hands, and remained for a few
moments in what appeared to be deep and painful thought. When he lifted
his face it was haggard, lined, cold as sculptured marble.

“I’ll go. I only mentioned that chance of my not comin’ back. I’m pretty
sure to come.”

“Need you risk so much? Must you fight more? Haven’t you shed enough
blood?”

“I’d like to tell you why I’m goin’,” he continued, in coldness he had
seldom used to her. She remarked it, but it was the same to her as if he
had spoken with his old gentle warmth. “But I reckon I won’t. Only, I’ll
say that mercy an’ goodness, such as is in you, though they’re the grand
things in human nature, can’t be lived up to on this Utah border. Life’s
hell out here. You think--or you used to think--that your religion made
this life heaven. Mebbe them scales on your eyes has dropped now. Jane,
I wouldn’t have you no different, an’ that’s why I’m going to try to
hide you somewhere in this Pass. I’d like to hide many more women, for
I’ve come to see there are more like you among your people. An’ I’d like
you to see jest how hard an’ cruel this border life is. It’s bloody.
You’d think churches an’ churchmen would make it better. They make it
worse. You give names to things--bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism,
duty, faith, glory. You dream--or you’re driven mad. I’m a man, an’
I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves,
ranchers, rustlers, riders. An’ we have--what you’ve lived through these
last months. It can’t be helped. But it can’t last always. An’ remember
this--some day the border’ll be better, cleaner, for the ways of ten like
Lassiter!”

She saw him shake his tall form erect, look at her strangely and
steadfastly, and then, noiselessly, stealthily slip away amid the rocks
and trees. Ring and Whitie, not being bidden to follow, remained with
Jane. She felt extreme weariness, yet somehow it did not seem to be of
her body. And she sat down in the shade and tried to think. She saw a
creeping lizard, cactus flowers, the drooping burros, the resting dogs,
an eagle high over a yellow crag. Once the meanest flower, a color,
the flight of the bee, or any living thing had given her deepest joy.
Lassiter had gone off, yielding to his incurable blood lust, probably
to his own death; and she was sorry, but there was no feeling in her
sorrow.

Suddenly from the mouth of the canyon just beyond her rang out a clear,
sharp report of a rifle. Echoes clapped. Then followed a piercingly
high yell of anguish, quickly breaking. Again echoes clapped, in grim
imitation. Dull revolver shots--hoarse yells--pound of hoofs--shrill
neighs of horses--commingling of echoes--and again silence! Lassiter
must be busily engaged, thought Jane, and no chill trembled over her,
no blanching tightened her skin. Yes, the border was a bloody place.
But life had always been bloody. Men were blood-spillers. Phases of the
history of the world flashed through her mind--Greek and Roman wars,
dark, mediaeval times, the crimes in the name of religion. On sea, on
land, everywhere--shooting, stabbing, cursing, clashing, fighting men!
Greed, power, oppression, fanaticism, love, hate, revenge, justice,
freedom--for these, men killed one another.

She lay there under the cedars, gazing up through the delicate lacelike
foliage at the blue sky, and she thought and wondered and did not care.

More rattling shots disturbed the noonday quiet. She heard a sliding of
weathered rock, a hoarse shout of warning, a yell of alarm, again the
clear, sharp crack of the rifle, and another cry that was a cry of
death. Then rifle reports pierced a dull volley of revolver shots.
Bullets whizzed over Jane’s hiding-place; one struck a stone and whined
away in the air. After that, for a time, succeeded desultory shots; and
then they ceased under long, thundering fire from heavier guns.

Sooner or later, then, Jane heard the cracking of horses’ hoofs on the
stones, and the sound came nearer and nearer. Silence intervened until
Lassiter’s soft, jingling step assured her of his approach. When he
appeared he was covered with blood.

“All right, Jane,” he said. “I come back. An’ don’t worry.”

With water from a canteen he washed the blood from his face and hands.

“Jane, hurry now. Tear my scarf in two, en’ tie up these places. That
hole through my hand is some inconvenient, worse ‘n this at over my ear.
There--you’re doin’ fine! Not a bit nervous--no tremblin’. I reckon I
ain’t done your courage justice. I’m glad you’re brave jest now--you’ll
need to be. Well, I was hid pretty good, enough to keep them from
shootin’ me deep, but they was slingin’ lead close all the time. I used
up all the rifle shells, an’ en I went after them. Mebbe you heard. It
was then I got hit. Had to use up every shell in my own gun, an’ they
did, too, as I seen. Rustlers an’ Mormons, Jane! An’ now I’m packin’
five bullet holes in my carcass, an’ guns without shells. Hurry, now.”

He unstrapped the saddle-bags from the burros, slipped the saddles and
let them lie, turned the burros loose, and, calling the dogs, led the
way through stones and cedars to an open where two horses stood.

“Jane, are you strong?” he asked.

“I think so. I’m not tired,” Jane replied.

“I don’t mean that way. Can you bear up?”

“I think I can bear anything.”

“I reckon you look a little cold an’ thick. So I’m preparin’ you.”

“For what?”

“I didn’t tell you why I jest had to go after them fellers. I couldn’t
tell you. I believe you’d have died. But I can tell you now--if you’ll
bear up under a shock?”

“Go on, my friend.”

“I’ve got little Fay! Alive--bad hurt--but she’ll live!”

Jane Withersteen’s dead-locked feeling, rent by Lassiter’s deep,
quivering voice, leaped into an agony of sensitive life.

“Here,” he added, and showed her where little Fay lay on the grass.

Unable to speak, unable to stand, Jane dropped on her knees. By that
long, beautiful golden hair Jane recognized the beloved Fay. But Fay’s
loveliness was gone. Her face was drawn and looked old with grief. But
she was not dead--her heart beat--and Jane Withersteen gathered strength
and lived again.

“You see I jest had to go after Fay,” Lassiter was saying, as he knelt
to bathe her little pale face. “But I reckon I don’t want no more
choices like the one I had to make. There was a crippled feller in that
bunch, Jane. Mebbe Venters crippled him. Anyway, that’s why they were
holding up here. I seen little Fay first thing, en’ was hard put to it
to figure out a way to get her. An’ I wanted hosses, too. I had to take
chances. So I crawled close to their camp. One feller jumped a hoss with
little Fay, an’ when I shot him, of course she dropped. She’s stunned
an’ bruised--she fell right on her head. Jane, she’s comin’ to! She
ain’t bad hurt!”

Fay’s long lashes fluttered; her eyes opened. At first they seemed
glazed over. They looked dazed by pain. Then they quickened, darkened,
to shine with intelligence--bewilderment--memory--and sudden wonderful
joy.

“Muvver--Jane!” she whispered.

“Oh, little Fay, little Fay!” cried Jane, lifting, clasping the child to
her.

“Now, we’ve got to rustle!” said Lassiter, in grim coolness. “Jane, look
down the Pass!”

Across the mounds of rock and sage Jane caught sight of a band of riders
filing out of the narrow neck of the Pass; and in the lead was a white
horse, which, even at a distance of a mile or more, she knew.

“Tull!” she almost screamed.

“I reckon. But, Jane, we’ve still got the game in our hands. They’re
ridin’ tired hosses. Venters likely give them a chase. He wouldn’t
forget that. An’ we’ve fresh hosses.”

Hurriedly he strapped on the saddle-bags, gave quick glance to girths
and cinches and stirrups, then leaped astride.

“Lift little Fay up,” he said.

With shaking arms Jane complied.

“Get back your nerve, woman! This’s life or death now. Mind that. Climb
up! Keep your wits. Stick close to me. Watch where your hoss’s goin’ en’
ride!”

Somehow Jane mounted; somehow found strength to hold the reins, to spur,
to cling on, to ride. A horrible quaking, craven fear possessed her
soul. Lassiter led the swift flight across the wide space, over washes,
through sage, into a narrow canyon where the rapid clatter of hoofs
rapped sharply from the walls. The wind roared in her ears; the gleaming
cliffs swept by; trail and sage and grass moved under her. Lassiter’s
bandaged, blood-stained face turned to her; he shouted encouragement; he
looked back down the Pass; he spurred his horse. Jane clung on, spurring
likewise. And the horses settled from hard, furious gallop into a
long-striding, driving run. She had never ridden at anything like that
pace; desperately she tried to get the swing of the horse, to be of some
help to him in that race, to see the best of the ground and guide
him into it. But she failed of everything except to keep her seat the
saddle, and to spur and spur. At times she closed her eyes unable to
bear sight of Fay’s golden curls streaming in the wind. She could not
pray; she could not rail; she no longer cared for herself. All of life,
of good, of use in the world, of hope in heaven entered in Lassiter’s
ride with little Fay to safety. She would have tried to turn the
iron-jawed brute she rode, she would have given herself to that
relentless, dark-browed Tull. But she knew Lassiter would turn with her,
so she rode on and on.

Whether that run was of moments or hours Jane Withersteen could not
tell. Lassiter’s horse covered her with froth that blew back in white
streams. Both horses ran their limit, were allowed slow down in time to
save them, and went on dripping, heaving, staggering.

“Oh, Lassiter, we must run--we must run!”

He looked back, saying nothing. The bandage had blown from his head,
and blood trickled down his face. He was bowing under the strain
of injuries, of the ride, of his burden. Yet how cool and gay he
looked--how intrepid!

The horses walked, trotted, galloped, ran, to fall again to walk. Hours
sped or dragged. Time was an instant--an eternity. Jane Withersteen felt
hell pursuing her, and dared not look back for fear she would fall from
her horse.

“Oh, Lassiter! Is he coming?”

The grim rider looked over his shoulder, but said no word. Fay’s golden
hair floated on the breeze. The sun shone; the walls gleamed; the sage
glistened. And then it seemed the sun vanished, the walls shaded, the
sage paled. The horses walked--trotted--galloped--ran--to fall again
to walk. Shadows gathered under shelving cliffs. The canyon turned,
brightened, opened into a long, wide, wall-enclosed valley. Again the
sun, lowering in the west, reddened the sage. Far ahead round, scrawled
stone appeared to block the Pass.

“Bear up, Jane, bear up!” called Lassiter. “It’s our game, if you don’t
weaken.”

“Lassiter! Go on--alone! Save little Fay!”

“Only with you!”

“Oh!--I’m a coward--a miserable coward! I can’t fight or think or hope
or pray! I’m lost! Oh, Lassiter, look back! Is he coming? I’ll not--hold
out--”

“Keep your breath, woman, an’ ride not for yourself or for me, but for
Fay!”

A last breaking run across the sage brought Lassiter’s horse to a walk.

“He’s done,” said the rider.

“Oh, no--no!” moaned Jane.

“Look back, Jane, look back. Three--four miles we’ve come across this
valley, en’ no Tull yet in sight. Only a few more miles!”

Jane looked back over the long stretch of sage, and found the narrow gap
in the wall, out of which came a file of dark horses with a white horse
in the lead. Sight of the riders acted upon Jane as a stimulant. The
weight of cold, horrible terror lessened. And, gazing forward at the
dogs, at Lassiter’s limping horse, at the blood on his face, at the
rocks growing nearer, last at Fay’s golden hair, the ice left her veins,
and slowly, strangely, she gained hold of strength that she believed
would see her to the safety Lassiter promised. And, as she gazed,
Lassiter’s horse stumbled and fell.

He swung his leg and slipped from the saddle.

“Jane, take the child,” he said, and lifted Fay up. Jane clasped her
arms suddenly strong. “They’re gainin’,” went on Lassiter, as he watched
the pursuing riders. “But we’ll beat ‘em yet.”

Turning with Jane’s bridle in his hand, he was about to start when he
saw the saddle-bag on the fallen horse.

“I’ve jest about got time,” he muttered, and with swift fingers that
did not blunder or fumble he loosened the bag and threw it over his
shoulder. Then he started to run, leading Jane’s horse, and he ran, and
trotted, and walked, and ran again. Close ahead now Jane saw a rise of
bare rock. Lassiter reached it, searched along the base, and, finding
a low place, dragged the weary horse up and over round, smooth stone.
Looking backward, Jane saw Tull’s white horse not a mile distant, with
riders strung out in a long line behind him. Looking forward, she saw
more valley to the right, and to the left a towering cliff. Lassiter
pulled the horse and kept on.

Little Fay lay in her arms with wide-open eyes--eyes which were still
shadowed by pain, but no longer fixed, glazed in terror. The golden
curls blew across Jane’s lips; the little hands feebly clasped her arm;
a ghost of a troubled, trustful smile hovered round the sweet lips. And
Jane Withersteen awoke to the spirit of a lioness.

Lassiter was leading the horse up a smooth slope toward cedar trees of
twisted and bleached appearance. Among these he halted.

“Jane, give me the girl en’ get down,” he said. As if it wrenched him he
unbuckled the empty black guns with a strange air of finality. He then
received Fay in his arms and stood a moment looking backward. Tull’s
white horse mounted the ridge of round stone, and several bays or blacks
followed. “I wonder what he’ll think when he sees them empty guns. Jane,
bring your saddle-bag and climb after me.”

A glistening, wonderful bare slope, with little holes, swelled up and
up to lose itself in a frowning yellow cliff. Jane closely watched her
steps and climbed behind Lassiter. He moved slowly. Perhaps he was only
husbanding his strength. But she saw drops of blood on the stone, and
then she knew. They climbed and climbed without looking back. Her breast
labored; she began to feel as if little points of fiery steel were
penetrating her side into her lungs. She heard the panting of Lassiter
and the quicker panting of the dogs.

“Wait--here,” he said.

Before her rose a bulge of stone, nicked with little cut steps, and
above that a corner of yellow wall, and overhanging that a vast,
ponderous cliff.

The dogs pattered up, disappeared round the corner. Lassiter mounted
the steps with Fay, and he swayed like a drunken man, and he too
disappeared. But instantly he returned alone, and half ran, half slipped
down to her.

Then from below pealed up hoarse shouts of angry men. Tull and several
of his riders had reached the spot where Lassiter had parted with his
guns.

“You’ll need that breath--mebbe!” said Lassiter, facing downward, with
glittering eyes.

“Now, Jane, the last pull,” he went on. “Walk up them little steps. I’ll
follow an’ steady you. Don’t think. Jest go. Little Fay’s above. Her
eyes are open. She jest said to me, ‘Where’s muvver Jane?’”

Without a fear or a tremor or a slip or a touch of Lassiter’s hand Jane
Withersteen walked up that ladder of cut steps.

He pushed her round the corner of the wall. Fay lay, with wide staring
eyes, in the shade of a gloomy wall. The dogs waited. Lassiter picked
up the child and turned into a dark cleft. It zigzagged. It widened.
It opened. Jane was amazed at a wonderfully smooth and steep incline
leading up between ruined, splintered, toppling walls. A red haze
from the setting sun filled this passage. Lassiter climbed with slow,
measured steps, and blood dripped from him to make splotches on the
white stone. Jane tried not to step in his blood, but was compelled, for
she found no other footing. The saddle-bag began to drag her down; she
gasped for breath, she thought her heart was bursting. Slower, slower
yet the rider climbed, whistling as he breathed. The incline widened.
Huge pinnacles and monuments of stone stood alone, leaning fearfully.
Red sunset haze shone through cracks where the wall had split. Jane did
not look high, but she felt the overshadowing of broken rims above.
She felt that it was a fearful, menacing place. And she climbed on in
heartrending effort. And she fell beside Lassiter and Fay at the top of
the incline in a narrow, smooth divide.

He staggered to his feet--staggered to a huge, leaning rock that rested
on a small pedestal. He put his hand on it--the hand that had been shot
through--and Jane saw blood drip from the ragged hole. Then he fell.

“Jane--I--can’t--do--it!” he whispered.

“What?”

“Roll the--stone!... All my--life I’ve loved--to roll stones--en’ now
I--can’t!”

“What of it? You talk strangely. Why roll that stone?”

“I planned to--fetch you here--to roll this stone. See! It’ll smash the
crags--loosen the walls--close the outlet!”

As Jane Withersteen gazed down that long incline, walled in by crumbling
cliffs, awaiting only the slightest jar to make them fall asunder,
she saw Tull appear at the bottom and begin to climb. A rider followed
him--another--and another.

“See! Tull! The riders!”

“Yes--they’ll get us--now.”

“Why? Haven’t you strength left to roll the stone?”

“Jane--it ain’t that--I’ve lost my nerve!”

“You!... Lassiter!”

“I wanted to roll it--meant to--but I--can’t. Venters’s valley is down
behind here. We could--live there. But if I roll the stone--we’re shut
in for always. I don’t dare. I’m thinkin’ of you!”

“Lassiter! Roll the stone!” she cried.

He arose, tottering, but with set face, and again he placed the bloody
hand on the Balancing Rock. Jane Withersteen gazed from him down the
passageway. Tull was climbing. Almost, she thought, she saw his dark,
relentless face. Behind him more riders climbed. What did they mean for
Fay--for Lassiter--for herself?

“Roll the stone!... Lassiter, I love you!”

Under all his deathly pallor, and the blood, and the iron of seared
cheek and lined brow, worked a great change. He placed both hands on the
rock and then leaned his shoulder there and braced his powerful body.

ROLL THE STONE!

It stirred, it groaned, it grated, it moved, and with a slow grinding,
as of wrathful relief, began to lean. It had waited ages to fall, and
now was slow in starting. Then, as if suddenly instinct with life, it
leaped hurtlingly down to alight on the steep incline, to bound more
swiftly into the air, to gather momentum, to plunge into the lofty
leaning crag below. The crag thundered into atoms. A wave of air--a
splitting shock! Dust shrouded the sunset red of shaking rims; dust
shrouded Tull as he fell on his knees with uplifted arms. Shafts and
monuments and sections of wall fell majestically.

From the depths there rose a long-drawn rumbling roar. The outlet to
Deception Pass closed forever.





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Riders of the Purple Sage" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home