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Riders of the Purple Sage

Part 3 out of 7

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

"That's--wind blowing--in the--cliffs," he panted. "You're far
from Oldring's--canyon."

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

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

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

CHAPTER IX. SILVER SPRUCE AND ASPENS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"There's pain--here," she replied, and moved her hand to her left
side.

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

"It's like--that."

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

"Won't I--starve?"

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

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

"Well, I'm a fine nurse!"

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

"I must see your wounds now," he said, gently.

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

Her eyes thanked him.

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

He had spoken with earnest sincerity, almost eagerness.

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

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

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

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

"Hush," said Venters. "You've talked too much already."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Mocking-birds!" she said.

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

"Where are we?"

"Never mind now. After a little I'll tell you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Help me down," she said.

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

"I'm weak--dizzy. But I want to get down."

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

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

"Now tell me--everything," she said.

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

"You shot me--and now you've saved my life?"

"Yes. After almost killing you I've pulled you through."

"Are you glad?"

"I should say so!"

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

"Tell me--about yourself?" she asked.

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

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

"Are you Oldring's Masked Rider?"

"Yes," she replied, and dropped her eyes.

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

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

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

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

"Never knew? That's strange! Are you a Mormon?"

"No."

"Is Oldring a Mormon?"

"No."

"Do you--care for him?"

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

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

"What are--what were you to Oldring?"

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

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

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

"Oh no."

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

CHAPTER X. LOVE

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

"I'm only going to look over the valley," he said.

"Will you be gone long?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I noticed we hadn't a great deal to cook in."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venters tried to subdue a hot tingling.

"You were shut up, then?" he asked, carelessly.

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

"What for?"

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

"A prisoner! That must have been hard on you?"

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

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

"As long as you can remember--you've lived in Deception Pass?" he
went on.

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

"Then you can read--you have books?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ah!"

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

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

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

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

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

"Jerry Card?" suggested Venters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Bess, didn't you say you were tired of rabbit?" inquired
Venters. "And quail and beaver?"

"Indeed I did."

"What would you like?"

"I'm tired of meat, but if we have to live on it I'd like some
beef."

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

"Where did you get that?" asked Bess, slowly.

"I stole that from Oldring."

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

"It wasn't any risk, but it was hard work."

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

"Last night."

"While I was asleep?"

"Yes."

"I woke last night sometime--but I didn't know."

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

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

"You went five nights!"

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

"Yes. I didn't tell you, because I knew you were afraid to be
left alone."

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

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

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

"Bess, I'll not go again," he said, catching her.

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

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

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

"Bess, are you thinking?" he asked.

"Yes--oh yes!"

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

"Yes."

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

"I never thought--till now."

"Well, what's your choice--to go--or to stay here--alone with
me?"

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

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

CHAPTER XI. FAITH AND UNFAITH

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

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

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

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

Lassiter only smiled at her.

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

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

"I've been riding hard," he replied.

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

"Is that an order?"

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

"Why?"

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

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

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

"I reckon," said Lassiter, and he laughed.

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

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

"'Pears to me that you'd run no risk, or Venters, either. But
mebbe that doesn't hold good for me."

"You mean it wouldn't be safe for you to be often here? You look
for ambush in the cottonwoods?"

"Not that so much."

At this juncture little Fay sidled over to Lassiter.

"Has oo a little dirl?" she inquired.

"No, lassie," replied the rider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That night in the moonlit grove she summoned all her courage and,
turning suddenly in the path, she faced Lassiter and leaned close
to him, so that she touched him and her eyes looked up to his.

"Lassiter!...Will you do anything for me?"

In the moonlight she saw his dark, worn face change, and by that
change she seemed to feel him immovable as a wall of stone.

Jane slipped her hands down to the swinging gun-sheaths, and when
she had locked her fingers around the huge, cold handles of the
guns, she trembled as with a chilling ripple over all her body.

"May I take your guns?"

"Why?" he asked, and for the first time to her his voice carried
a harsh note. Jane felt his hard, strong hands close round her
wrists. It was not wholly with intent that she leaned toward him,
for the look of his eyes and the feel of his hands made her weak.

"It's no trifle--no woman's whim--it's deep--as my heart. Let me
take them?"

"Why?"

"I want to keep you from killing more men--Mormons. You must let
me save you from more wickedness--more wanton bloodshed--" Then
the truth forced itself falteringly from her lips. "You
must--let--help me to keep my vow to Milly Erne. I swore to
her--as she lay dying--that if ever any one came here to avenge
her--I swore I would stay his hand. Perhaps I--I alone can save
the--the man who--who--Oh, Lassiter!...I feel that I can't change
you--then soon you'll be out to kill--and you'll kill by
instinct--and among the Mormons you kill will be the
one--who...Lassiter, if you care a little for me--let me--for my
sake--let me take your guns!"

As if her hands had been those of a child, he unclasped their
clinging grip from the handles of his guns, and, pushing her
away, he turned his gray face to her in one look of terrible
realization and then strode off into the shadows of the
cottonwoods.

When the first shock of her futile appeal to Lassiter had passed,
Jane took his cold, silent condemnation and abrupt departure not
so much as a refusal to her entreaty as a hurt and stunned
bitterness for her attempt at his betrayal. Upon further thought
and slow consideration of Lassiter's past actions, she believed
he would return and forgive her. The man could not be hard to a
woman, and she doubted that he could stay away from her. But at
the point where she had hoped to find him vulnerable she now
began to fear he was proof against all persuasion. The iron and
stone quality that she had early suspected in him had actually
cropped out as an impregnable barrier. Nevertheless, if Lassiter
remained in Cottonwoods she would never give up her hope and
desire to change him. She would change him if she had to
sacrifice everything dear to her except hope of heaven.
Passionately devoted as she was to her religion, she had yet
refused to marry a Mormon. But a situation had developed wherein
self paled in the great white light of religious duty of the
highest order. That was the leading motive, the divinely
spiritual one; but there were other motives, which, like
tentacles, aided in drawing her will to the acceptance of a
possible abnegation. And through the watches of that sleepless
night Jane Withersteen, in fear and sorrow and doubt, came
finally to believe that if she must throw herself into Lassiter's
arms to make him abide by "Thou shalt not kill!" she would yet do
well.

In the morning she expected Lassiter at the usual hour, but she
was not able to go at once to the court, so she sent little Fay.
Mrs. Larkin was ill and required attention. It appeared that the
mother, from the time of her arrival at Withersteen House, had
relaxed and was slowly losing her hold on life. Jane had believed
that absence of worry and responsibility coupled with good
nursing and comfort would mend Mrs. Larkin's broken health. Such,
however, was not the case.

When Jane did get out to the court, Fay was there alone, and at
the moment embarking on a dubious voyage down the stone-lined
amber stream upon a craft of two brooms and a pillow. Fay was as
delightfully wet as she could possibly wish to get.

Clatter of hoofs distracted Fay and interrupted the scolding she
was gleefully receiving from Jane. The sound was not the
light-spirited trot that Bells made when Lassiter rode him into
the outer court. This was slower and heavier, and Jane did not
recognize in it any of her other horses. The appearance of Bishop
Dyer startled Jane. He dismounted with his rapid, jerky motion
flung the bridle, and, as he turned toward the inner court and
stalked up on the stone flags, his boots rang. In his
authoritative front, and in the red anger unmistakably flaming in
his face, he reminded Jane of her father.

"Is that the Larkin pauper?" he asked, bruskly, without any
greeting to Jane.

"It's Mrs. Larkin's little girl," replied Jane, slowly.

"I hear you intend to raise the child?"

"Yes."

"Of course you mean to give her Mormon bringing-up?"

"No."

His questions had been swift. She was amazed at a feeling that
some one else was replying for her.

"I've come to say a few things to you." He stopped to measure her
with stern, speculative eye.

Jane Withersteen loved this man. From earliest childhood she had
been taught to revere and love bishops of her church. And for ten
years Bishop Dyer had been the closest friend and counselor of
her father, and for the greater part of that period her own
friend and Scriptural teacher. Her interpretation of her creed
and her religious activity in fidelity to it, her acceptance of
mysterious and holy Mormon truths, were all invested in this
Bishop. Bishop Dyer as an entity was next to God. He was God's
mouthpiece to the little Mormon community at Cottonwoods. God
revealed himself in secret to this mortal.

And Jane Withersteen suddenly suffered a paralyzing affront to
her consciousness of reverence by some strange, irresistible
twist of thought wherein she saw this Bishop as a man. And the
train of thought hurdled the rising, crying protests of that
other self whose poise she had lost. It was not her Bishop who
eyed her in curious measurement. It was a man who tramped into
her presence without removing his hat, who had no greeting for
her, who had no semblance of courtesy. In looks, as in action, he
made her think of a bull stamping cross-grained into a corral.
She had heard of Bishop Dyer forgetting the minister in the fury
of a common man, and now she was to feel it. The glance by which
she measured him in turn momentarily veiled the divine in the
ordinary. He looked a rancher; he was booted, spurred, and
covered with dust; he carried a gun at his hip, and she
remembered that he had been known to use it. But during the long
moment while he watched her there was nothing commonplace in the
slow-gathering might of his wrath.

"Brother Tull has talked to me," he began. "It was your father's
wish that you marry Tull, and my order. You refused
him?"

"Yes."

"You would not give up your friendship with that tramp Venters?"

"No."

"But you'll do as _I_ order!" he thundered. "Why, Jane Withersteen,
you are in danger of becoming a heretic! You can thank your
Gentile friends for that. You face the damning of your soul to
perdition."

In the flux and reflux of the whirling torture of Jane's mind,
that new, daring spirit of hers vanished in the old habitual
order of her life. She was a Mormon, and the Bishop regained
ascendance.

"It's well I got you in time, Jane Withersteen. What would your
father have said to these goings-on of yours? He would have put
you in a stone cage on bread and water. He would have taught you
something about Mormonism. Remember, you're a born Mormon. There
have been Mormons who turned heretic--damn their souls!--but no
born Mormon ever left us yet. Ah, I see your shame. Your faith is
not shaken. You are only a wild girl." The Bishop's tone
softened. "Well, it's enough that I got to you in time....Now
tell me about this Lassiter. I hear strange things."

"What do you wish to know?" queried Jane.

"About this man. You hired him?"

"Yes, he's riding for me. When my riders left me I had to have
any one I could get."

"Is it true what I hear--that he's a gun-man, a Mormon-hater,
steeped in blood?"

"True--terribly true, I fear."

"But what's he doing here in Cottonwoods? This place isn't
notorious enough for such a man. Sterling and the villages north,
where there's universal gun-packing and fights every day--where
there are more men like him, it seems to me they would attract
him most. We're only a wild, lonely border settlement. It's only
recently that the rustlers have made killings here. Nor have
there been saloons till lately, nor the drifting in of outcasts.
Has not this gun-man some special mission here?"

Jane maintained silence.

"Tell me," ordered Bishop Dyer, sharply.

"Yes," she replied.

"Do you know what it is?"

"Yes."

"Tell me that."

"Bishop Dyer, I don't want to tell."

He waved his hand in an imperative gesture of command. The red
once more leaped to his face, and in his steel-blue eyes glinted
a pin-point of curiosity.

"That first day," whispered Jane, "Lassiter said he came here to
find-- Milly Erne's grave!"

With downcast eyes Jane watched the swift flow of the amber
water. She saw it and tried to think of it, of the stones, of the
ferns; but, like her body, her mind was in a leaden vise. Only
the Bishop's voice could release her. Seemingly there was silence
of longer duration than all her former life.

"For what--else?" When Bishop Dyer's voice did cleave the silence
it was high, curiously shrill, and on the point of breaking. It
released Jane's tongue, but she could not lift her eyes.

"To kill the man who persuaded Milly Erne to abandon her home and
her husband--and her God!"

With wonderful distinctness Jane Withersteen heard her own clear
voice. She heard the water murmur at her feet and flow on to the
sea; she heard the rushing of all the waters in the world. They
filled her ears with low, unreal murmurings--these sounds that
deadened her brain and yet could not break the long and terrible
silence. Then, from somewhere-- from an immeasurable
distance--came a slow, guarded, clinking, clanking step. Into her
it shot electrifying life. It released the weight upon her numbed
eyelids. Lifting her eyes she saw--ashen, shaken, stricken-- not
the Bishop but the man! And beyond him, from round the corner
came that soft, silvery step. A long black boot with a gleaming
spur swept into sight--and then Lassiter! Bishop Dyer did not
see, did not hear: he stared at Jane in the throes of sudden
revelation.

"Ah, I understand!" he cried, in hoarse accents. "That's why you
made love to this Lassiter--to bind his hands!"

It was Jane's gaze riveted upon the rider that made Bishop Dyer
turn. Then clear sight failed her. Dizzily, in a blur, she saw
the Bishop's hand jerk to his hip. She saw gleam of blue and
spout of red. In her ears burst a thundering report. The court
floated in darkening circles around her, and she fell into utter
blackness.

The darkness lightened, turned to slow-drifting haze, and lifted.
Through a thin film of blue smoke she saw the rough-hewn timbers
of the court roof. A cool, damp touch moved across her brow. She
smelled powder, and it was that which galvanized her suspended
thought. She moved, to see that she lay prone upon the stone
flags with her head on Lassiter's knee, and he was bathing her
brow with water from the stream. The same swift glance, shifting
low, brought into range of her sight a smoking gun and splashes
of blood.

"Ah-h!" she moaned, and was drifting, sinking again into
darkness, when Lassiter's voice arrested her.

"It's all right, Jane. It's all right."

"Did--you--kill--him?" she whispered.

"Who? That fat party who was here? No. I didn't kill
him."

"Oh!...Lassiter!"

"Say! It was queer for you to faint. I thought you were such a
strong woman, not faintish like that. You're all right now--only
some pale. I thought you'd never come to. But I'm awkward round
women folks. I couldn't think of anythin'."

"Lassiter!...the gun there!...the blood!"

"So that's troublin' you. I reckon it needn't. You see it was
this way. I come round the house an' seen that fat party an'
heard him talkin' loud. Then he seen me, an' very impolite goes
straight for his gun. He oughtn't have tried to throw a gun on
me--whatever his reason was. For that's meetin' me on my own
grounds. I've seen runnin' molasses that was quicker 'n him. Now
I didn't know who he was, visitor or friend or relation of yours,
though I seen he was a Mormon all over, an' I couldn't get
serious about shootin'. So I winged him--put a bullet through his
arm as he was pullin' at his gun. An' he dropped the gun there,
an' a little blood. I told him he'd introduced himself
sufficient, an' to please move out of my vicinity. An' he
went."

Lassiter spoke with slow, cool, soothing voice, in which there
was a hint of levity, and his touch, as he continued to bathe her
brow, was gentle and steady. His impassive face, and the kind
gray eyes, further stilled her agitation.

"He drew on you first, and you deliberately shot to cripple
him--you wouldn't kill him--you--Lassiter?"

"That's about the size of it."

Jane kissed his hand.

All that was calm and cool about Lassiter instantly vanished.

"Don't do that! I won't stand it! An' I don't care a damn who
that fat party was."

He helped Jane to her feet and to a chair. Then with the wet
scarf he had used to bathe her face he wiped the blood from the
stone flags and, picking up the gun, he threw it upon a couch.
With that he began to pace the court, and his silver spurs
jangled musically, and the great gun-sheaths softly brushed
against his leather chaps.

"So--it's true--what I heard him say?" Lassiter asked, presently
halting before her. "You made love to me--to bind my hands?"

"Yes," confessed Jane. It took all her woman's courage to meet
the gray storm of his glance.

"All these days that you've been so friendly an' like a
pardner--all these evenin's that have been so bewilderin' to
me--your beauty--an'--an' the way you looked an' came close to
me--they were woman's tricks to bind my hands?"

"Yes."

"An' your sweetness that seemed so natural, an' your throwin'
little Fay an' me so much together--to make me love the
child--all that was for the same reason?"

"Yes."

Lassiter flung his arms--a strange gesture for him.

"Mebbe it wasn't much in your Mormon thinkin', for you to play
that game. But to ring the child in--that was hellish!"

Jane's passionate, unheeding zeal began to loom darkly.

"Lassiter, whatever my intention in the beginning, Fay loves you
dearly-- and I--I've grown to--to like you."

"That's powerful kind of you, now," he said. Sarcasm and scorn
made his voice that of a stranger. "An' you sit there an' look me
straight in the eyes! You're a wonderful strange woman, Jane
Withersteen."

"I'm not ashamed, Lassiter. I told you I'd try to change you."

"Would you mind tellin' me just what you tried?"

"I tried to make you see beauty in me and be softened by it. I
wanted you to care for me so that I could influence you. It
wasn't easy. At first you were stone-blind. Then I hoped you'd
love little Fay, and through that come to feel the horror of
making children fatherless."

"Jane Withersteen, either you're a fool or noble beyond my
understandin'. Mebbe you're both. I know you're blind. What you
meant is one thing--what you did was to make me love you."

"Lassiter!"

"I reckon I'm a human bein', though I never loved any one but my
sister, Milly Erne. That was long--"

"Oh, are you Milly's brother?"

"Yes, I was, an' I loved her. There never was any one but her in
my life till now. Didn't I tell you that long ago I back-trailed
myself from women? I was a Texas ranger till--till Milly left
home, an' then I became somethin' else--Lassiter! For years I've
been a lonely man set on one thing. I came here an' met you. An'
now I'm not the man I was. The change was gradual, an' I took no
notice of it. I understand now that never-satisfied longin' to
see you, listen to you, watch you, feel you near me. It's plain
now why you were never out of my thoughts. I've had no thoughts
but of you. I've lived an' breathed for you. An' now when I know
what it means--what you've done--I'm burnin' up with hell's
fire!"

"Oh, Lassiter--no--no--you don't love me that way!" Jane cased.

"If that's what love is, then I do."

"Forgive me! I didn't mean to make you love me like that. Oh,
what a tangle of our lives! You--Milly Erne's brother! And
I--heedless, mad to melt your heart toward Mormons. Lassiter, I
may be wicked but not wicked enough to hate. If I couldn't hate
Tull, could I hate you?"

"After all, Jane, mebbe you're only blind--Mormon blind. That
only can explain what's close to selfishness--"

"I'm not selfish. I despise the very word. If I were free--"

"But you're not free. Not free of Mormonism. An' in playin' this
game with me you've been unfaithful."

"Un-faithful!" faltered Jane.

"Yes, I said unfaithful. You're faithful to your Bishop an'
unfaithful to yourself. You're false to your womanhood an' true
to your religion. But for a savin' innocence you'd have made
yourself low an' vile-- betrayin' yourself, betrayin' me--all to
bind my hands an' keep me from snuffin' out Mormon life. It's
your damned Mormon blindness."

"Is it vile--is it blind--is it only Mormonism to save human
life? No, Lassiter, that's God's law, divine, universal for all
Christians."

"The blindness I mean is blindness that keeps you from seein' the
truth. I've known many good Mormons. But some are blacker than
hell. You won't see that even when you know it. Else, why all
this blind passion to save the life of that--that...."

Jane shut out the light, and the hands she held over her eyes
trembled and quivered against her face.

"Blind--yes, en' let me make it clear en' simple to you,"
Lassiter went on, his voice losing its tone of anger. "Take, for
instance, that idea of yours last night when you wanted my guns.
It was good an' beautiful, an' showed your heart--but--why, Jane,
it was crazy. Mind I'm assumin' that life to me is as sweet as to
any other man. An' to preserve that life is each man's first an'
closest thought. Where would any man be on this border without
guns? Where, especially, would Lassiter be? Well, I'd be under
the sage with thousands of other men now livin' an' sure better
men than me. Gun-packin' in the West since the Civil War has
growed into a kind of moral law. An' out here on this border it's
the difference between a man an' somethin' not a man. Look what
your takin' Venters's guns from him all but made him! Why, your
churchmen carry guns. Tull has killed a man an' drawed on others.
Your Bishop has shot a half dozen men, an' it wasn't through
prayers of his that they recovered. An' to-day he'd have shot me
if he'd been quick enough on the draw. Could I walk or ride down
into Cottonwoods without my guns? This is a wild time, Jane
Withersteen, this year of our Lord eighteen seventy- one."

"No time--for a woman!" exclaimed Jane, brokenly. "Oh, Lassiter,
I feel helpless--lost--and don't know where to turn. If I am
blind--then--I need some one--a friend--you, Lassiter--more than
ever!"

"Well, I didn't say nothin' about goin' back on you, did I?"

CHAPTER XII. THE INVISIBLE HAND

Jane received a letter from Bishop Dyer, not in his own
handwriting, which stated that the abrupt termination of their
interview had left him in some doubt as to her future conduct. A
slight injury had incapacitated him from seeking another meeting
at present, the letter went on to say, and ended with a request
which was virtually a command, that she call upon him at once.

The reading of the letter acquainted Jane Withersteen with the
fact that something within her had all but changed. She sent no
reply to Bishop Dyer nor did she go to see him. On Sunday she
remained absent from the service--for the second time in
years--and though she did not actually suffer there was a
dead-lock of feelings deep within her, and the waiting for a
balance to fall on either side was almost as bad as suffering.
She had a gloomy expectancy of untoward circumstances, and with
it a keen-edged curiosity to watch developments. She had a
half-formed conviction that her future conduct--as related to her
churchmen--was beyond her control and would be governed by their
attitude toward her. Something was changing in her, forming,
waiting for decision to make it a real and fixed thing. She had
told Lassiter that she felt helpless and lost in the fateful
tangle of their lives; and now she feared that she was
approaching the same chaotic condition of mind in regard to her
religion. It appalled her to find that she questioned phases of
that religion. Absolute faith had been her serenity. Though
leaving her faith unshaken, her serenity had been disturbed, and
now it was broken by open war between her and her ministers. That
something within her--a whisper--which she had tried in vain to
hush had become a ringing voice, and it called to her to wait.
She had transgressed no laws of God. Her churchmen, however
invested with the power and the glory of a wonderful creed,
however they sat in inexorable judgment of her, must now practice
toward her the simple, common, Christian virtue they professed to
preach, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto
you!"

Jane Withersteen, waiting in darkness of mind, remained faithful
still. But it was darkness that must soon be pierced by light. If
her faith were justified, if her churchmen were trying only to
intimidate her, the fact would soon be manifest, as would their
failure, and then she would redouble her zeal toward them and
toward what had been the best work of her life--work for the
welfare and happiness of those among whom she lived, Mormon and
Gentile alike. If that secret, intangible power closed its toils
round her again, if that great invisible hand moved here and
there and everywhere, slowly paralyzing her with its mystery and
its inconceivable sway over her affairs, then she would know
beyond doubt that it was not chance, nor jealousy, nor
intimidation, nor ministerial wrath at her revolt, but a cold and
calculating policy thought out long before she was born, a dark,
immutable will of whose empire she and all that was hers was but
an atom.

Then might come her ruin. Then might come her fall into black
storm. Yet she would rise again, and to the light. God would be
merciful to a driven woman who had lost her way.

A week passed. Little Fay played and prattled and pulled at
Lassiter's big black guns. The rider came to Withersteen House
oftener than ever. Jane saw a change in him, though it did not
relate to his kindness and gentleness. He was quieter and more
thoughtful. While playing with Fay or conversing with Jane he
seemed to be possessed of another self that watched with cool,
roving eyes, that listened, listened always as if the murmuring
amber stream brought messages, and the moving leaves whispered
something. Lassiter never rode Bells into the court any more, nor
did he come by the lane or the paths. When he appeared it was
suddenly and noiselessly out of the dark shadow of the grove.

"I left Bells out in the sage," he said, one day at the end of
that week. "I must carry water to him."

"Why not let him drink at the trough or here?" asked Jane,
quickly.

"I reckon it'll be safer for me to slip through the grove. I've
been watched when I rode in from the sage."

"Watched? By whom?"

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