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  • 1912
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Shrinkingly Venters removed the rider’s wide sombrero and the black cloth mask. This action disclosed bright chestnut hair, inclined to curl, and a white, youthful face. Along the lower line of cheek and jaw was a clear demarcation, where the brown of tanned skin met the white that had been hidden from the sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha, the red herd!” exclaimed Venters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll–not–kill me–now?”

“No, no.”

“What–will–you–do–with me?”

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

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

“Don’t–take–me–back–there!”

CHAPTER VI. THE MILL-WHEEL OF STEERS

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

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

“I–I d rather not say,” he replied.

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

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

“Judkins!…By whom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She walked with him into the shade of the cottonwoods.

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Judkins, do you want to leave me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She held out both hands to him.

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell you! I? Never!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Down, Black Star, down,” said Jane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lassiter!…Bolted?”

“That’s what I said. Now let’s see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no. Tell me what to look for?”

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

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

“What on earth is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Killed–my–hoss,” he panted.

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

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

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

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

“Then, Lassiter?”

“They’ll never stampede no more cattle.”

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

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

CHAPTER VII. THE DAUGHTER OF WITHERSTEEN

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

“I reckon so,” he had replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean to stay his hand?”

“I do–if I can.”

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

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

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

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

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

The women flocked around her in welcome.

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

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

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

“No. He is not courting me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you send for me?”

“Yes, several times.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER VIII. SURPRISE VALLEY

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

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

“What’s your name?” he inquired.

“Bess,” she answered.

“Bess what?”

“That’s enough–just Bess.”

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

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

“Are–you–a rider?” she whispered.

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

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

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

“Leave me–here.”

“Alone–to die!”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“And–then?”

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

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

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

Her lips moved in an affirmative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is–it–you?” she asked, faintly.

“Yes,” replied Venters.

“Oh! Where–are we?”

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

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

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

Low whines came up from below.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we–in a cave?”

“Yes.”

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