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Riders of the Purple Sage

Part 2 out of 7

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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 fill 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!"

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