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  • 1912
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“By a man who thought he was well hid. But my eyes are pretty sharp. An’, Jane,” he went on, almost in a whisper, “I reckon it’d be a good idea for us to talk low. You’re spied on here by your women.”

“Lassiter!” she whispered in turn. “That’s hard to believe. My women love me.”

“What of that?” he asked. “Of course they love you. But they’re Mormon women.”

Jane’s old, rebellious loyalty clashed with her doubt.

“I won’t believe it,” she replied, stubbornly.

“Well then, just act natural an’ talk natural, an’ pretty soon–give them time to hear us–pretend to go over there to the table, en’ then quick-like make a move for the door en’ open it.”

“I will,” said Jane, with heightened color. Lassiter was right; he never made mistakes; he would not have told her unless he positively knew. Yet Jane was so tenacious of faith that she had to see with her own eyes, and so constituted that to employ even such small deceit toward her women made her ashamed, and angry for her shame as well as theirs. Then a singular thought confronted her that made her hold up this simple ruse– which hurt her, though it was well justified–against the deceit she had wittingly and eagerly used toward Lassiter. The difference was staggering in its suggestion of that blindness of which he had accused her. Fairness and justice and mercy, that she had imagined were anchor-cables to hold fast her soul to righteousness had not been hers in the strange, biased duty that had so exalted and confounded her.

Presently Jane began to act her little part, to laugh and play with Fay, to talk of horses and cattle to Lassiter. Then she made deliberate mention of a book in which she kept records of all pertaining to her stock, and she walked slowly toward the table, and when near the door she suddenly whirled and thrust it open. Her sharp action nearly knocked down a woman who had undoubtedly been listening.

“Hester,” said Jane, sternly, “you may go home, and you need not come back.”

Jane shut the door and returned to Lassiter. Standing unsteadily, she put her hand on his arm. She let him see that doubt had gone, and how this stab of disloyalty pained her.

“Spies! My own women!…Oh, miserable!” she cried, with flashing, tearful eyes.

“I hate to tell you,” he replied. By that she knew he had long spared her. “It’s begun again–that work in the dark.”

“Nay, Lassiter–it never stopped!”

So bitter certainty claimed her at last, and trust fled Withersteen House and fled forever. The women who owed much to Jane Withersteen changed not in love for her, nor in devotion to their household work, but they poisoned both by a thousand acts of stealth and cunning and duplicity. Jane broke out once and caught them in strange, stone-faced, unhesitating falsehood. Thereafter she broke out no more. She forgave them because they were driven. Poor, fettered, and sealed Hagars, how she pitied them! What terrible thing bound them and locked their lips, when they showed neither consciousness of guilt toward their benefactress nor distress at the slow wearing apart of long-established and dear ties?

“The blindness again!” cried Jane Withersteen. “In my sisters as in me!…O God!”

There came a time when no words passed between Jane and her women. Silently they went about their household duties, and secretly they went about the underhand work to which they had been bidden. The gloom of the house and the gloom of its mistress, which darkened even the bright spirit of little Fay, did not pervade these women. Happiness was not among them, but they were aloof from gloom. They spied and listened; they received and sent secret messengers; and they stole Jane’s books and records, and finally the papers that were deeds of her possessions. Through it all they were silent, rapt in a kind of trance. Then one by one, without leave or explanation or farewell, they left Withersteen House, and never returned.

Coincident with this disappearance Jane’s gardeners and workers in the alfalfa fields and stable men quit her, not even asking for their wages. Of all her Mormon employees about the great ranch only Jerd remained. He went on with his duty, but talked no more of the change than if it had never occurred.

“Jerd,” said Jane, “what stock you can’t take care of turn out in the sage. Let your first thought be for Black Star and Night. Keep them in perfect condition. Run them every day and watch them always.”

Though Jane Withersteen gave them such liberality, she loved her possessions. She loved the rich, green stretches of alfalfa, and the farms, and the grove, and the old stone house, and the beautiful, ever-faithful amber spring, and every one of a myriad of horses and colts and burros and fowls down to the smallest rabbit that nipped her vegetables; but she loved best her noble Arabian steeds. In common with all riders of the upland sage Jane cherished two material things–the cold, sweet, brown water that made life possible in the wilderness and the horses which were a part of that life. When Lassiter asked her what Lassiter would be without his guns he was assuming that his horse was part of himself. So Jane loved Black Star and Night because it was her nature to love all beautiful creatures–perhaps all living things; and then she loved them because she herself was of the sage and in her had been born and bred the rider’s instinct to rely on his four-footed brother. And when Jane gave Jerd the order to keep her favorites trained down to the day it was a half-conscious admission that presaged a time when she would need her fleet horses.

Jane had now, however, no leisure to brood over the coils that were closing round her. Mrs. Larkin grew weaker as the August days began; she required constant care; there was little Fay to look after; and such household work as was imperative. Lassiter put Bells in the stable with the other racers, and directed his efforts to a closer attendance upon Jane. She welcomed the change. He was always at hand to help, and it was her fortune to learn that his boast of being awkward around women had its root in humility and was not true.

His great, brown hands were skilled in a multiplicity of ways which a woman might have envied. He shared Jane’s work, and was of especial help to her in nursing Mrs. Larkin. The woman suffered most at night, and this often broke Jane’s rest. So it came about that Lassiter would stay by Mrs. Larkin during the day, when she needed care, and Jane would make up the sleep she lost in night-watches. Mrs. Larkin at once took kindly to the gentle Lassiter, and, without ever asking who or what he was, praised him to Jane. “He’s a good man and loves children,” she said. How sad to hear this truth spoken of a man whom Jane thought lost beyond all redemption! Yet ever and ever Lassiter towered above her, and behind or through his black, sinister figure shone something luminous that strangely affected Jane. Good and evil began to seem incomprehensibly blended in her judgment. It was her belief that evil could not come forth from good; yet here was a murderer who dwarfed in gentleness, patience, and love any man she had ever known.

She had almost lost track of her more outside concerns when early one morning Judkins presented himself before her in the courtyard.

Thin, hard, burnt, bearded, with the dust and sage thick on him, with his leather wrist-bands shining from use, and his boots worn through on the stirrup side, he looked the rider of riders. He wore two guns and carried a Winchester.

Jane greeted him with surprise and warmth, set meat and bread and drink before him; and called Lassiter out to see him. The men exchanged glances, and the meaning of Lassiter’s keen inquiry and Judkins’s bold reply, both unspoken, was not lost upon Jane.

“Where’s your hoss?” asked Lassiter, aloud.

“Left him down the slope,” answered Judkins. “I footed it in a ways, an’ slept last night in the sage. I went to the place you told me you ‘moss always slept, but didn’t strike you.”

“I moved up some, near the spring, an’ now I go there nights.”

“Judkins–the white herd?” queried Jane, hurriedly.

“Miss Withersteen, I make proud to say I’ve not lost a steer. Fer a good while after thet stampede Lassiter milled we hed no trouble. Why, even the sage dogs left us. But it’s begun agin–thet flashin’ of lights over ridge tips, an’ queer puffin’ of smoke, en’ then at night strange whistles en’ noises. But the herd’s acted magnificent. An’ my boys, say, Miss Withersteen, they’re only kids, but I ask no better riders. I got the laugh in the village fer takin’ them out. They’re a wild lot, an’ you know boys hev more nerve than grown men, because they don’t know what danger is. “I’m not denyin’ there’s danger. But they glory in it, an’ mebbe I like it myself–anyway, we’ll stick. We’re goin’ to drive the herd on the far side of the first break of Deception Pass. There’s a great round valley over there, an’ no ridges or piles of rocks to aid these stampeders. The rains are due. We’ll hev plenty of water fer a while. An’ we can hold thet herd from anybody except Oldrin’. I come in fer supplies. I’ll pack a couple of burros an’ drive out after dark to-night.”

“Judkins, take what you want from the store-room. Lassiter will help you. I–I can’t thank you enough…but–wait.”

Jane went to the room that had once been her father’s, and from a secret chamber in the thick stone wall she took a bag of gold, and, carrying it back to the court, she gave it to the rider.

“There, Judkins, and understand that I regard it as little for your loyalty. Give what is fair to your boys, and keep the rest. Hide it. Perhaps that would be wisest.”

“Oh…Miss Withersteen!” ejaculated the rider. “I couldn’t earn so much in–in ten years. It’s not right–I oughtn’t take it.”

“Judkins, you know I’m a rich woman. I tell you I’ve few faithful friends. I’ve fallen upon evil days. God only knows what will become of me and mine! So take the gold.”

She smiled in understanding of his speechless gratitude, and left him with Lassiter. Presently she heard him speaking low at first, then in louder accents emphasized by the thumping of his rifle on the stones. “As infernal a job as even you, Lassiter, ever heerd of.”

“Why, son,” was Lassiter’s reply, “this breakin’ of Miss Withersteen may seem bad to you, but it ain’t bad–yet. Some of these wall-eyed fellers who look jest as if they was walkin’ in the shadow of Christ himself, right down the sunny road, now they can think of things en’ do things that are really hell-bent.”

Jane covered her ears and ran to her own room, and there like caged lioness she paced to and fro till the coming of little Fay reversed her dark thoughts.

The following day, a warm and muggy one threatening rain awhile Jane was resting in the court, a horseman clattered through he grove and up to the hitching-rack. He leaped off and approached Jane with the manner of a man determined to execute difficult mission, yet fearful of its reception. In the gaunt, wiry figure and the lean, brown face Jane recognized one of her Mormon riders, Blake. It was he of whom Judkins had long since spoken. Of all the riders ever in her employ Blake owed her the most, and as he stepped before her, removing his hat and making manly efforts to subdue his emotion, he showed that he remembered.

“Miss Withersteen, mother’s dead,” he said.

“Oh–Blake!” exclaimed Jane, and she could say no more.

“She died free from pain in the end, and she’s buried–resting at last, thank God!…I’ve come to ride for you again, if you’ll have me. Don’t think I mentioned mother to get your sympathy. When she was living and your riders quit, I had to also. I was afraid of what might be done–said to her….Miss Withersteen, we can’t talk of–of what’s going on now–”

“Blake, do you know?”

“I know a great deal. You understand, my lips are shut. But without explanation or excuse I offer my services. I’m a Mormon–I hope a good one. But–there are some things!…It’s no use, Miss Withersteen, I can’t say any more–what I’d like to. But will you take me back?”

“Blake!…You know what it means?”

“I don’t care. I’m sick of–of–I’ll show you a Mormon who’ll be true to you!”

“But, Blake–how terribly you might suffer for that!”

“Maybe. Aren’t you suffering now?”

“God knows indeed I am!”

“Miss Withersteen, it’s a liberty on my part to speak so, but I know you pretty well–know you’ll never give in. I wouldn’t if I were you. And I–I must–Something makes me tell you the worst is yet to come. That’s all. I absolutely can’t say more. Will you take me back–let me ride for you–show everybody what I mean?”

“Blake, it makes me happy to hear you. How my riders hurt me when they quit!” Jane felt the hot tears well to her eyes and splash down upon her hands. “I thought so much of them–tried so hard to be good to them. And not one was true. You’ve made it easy to forgive. Perhaps many of them really feel as you do, but dare not return to me. Still, Blake, I hesitate to take you back. Yet I want you so much.”

“Do it, then. If you’re going to make your life a lesson to Mormon women, let me make mine a lesson to the men. Right is right. I believe in you, and here’s my life to prove it.”

“You hint it may mean your life!” said Jane, breathless and low.

“We won’t speak of that. I want to come back. I want to do what every rider aches in his secret heart to do for you….Miss Withersteen, I hoped it’d not be necessary to tell you that my mother on her deathbed told me to have courage. She knew how the thing galled me–she told me to come back….Will you take me?”

“God bless you, Blake! Yes, I’ll take you back. And will you–will you accept gold from me?”

“Miss Withersteen!”

“I just gave Judkins a bag of gold. I’ll give you one. If you will not take it you must not come back. You might ride for me a few months– weeks–days till the storm breaks. Then you’d have nothing, and be in disgrace with your people. We’ll forearm you against poverty, and me against endless regret. I’ll give you gold which you can hide–till some future time.”

“Well, if it pleases you,” replied Blake. “But you know I never thought of pay. Now, Miss Withersteen, one thing more. I want to see this man Lassiter. Is he here?”

“Yes, but, Blake–what–Need you see him? Why?” asked Jane, instantly worried. “I can speak to him–tell him about you.”

“That won’t do. I want to–I’ve got to tell him myself. Where is he?”

“Lassiter is with Mrs. Larkin. She is ill. I’ll call him,” answered Jane, and going to the door she softly called for the rider. A faint, musical jingle preceded his step–then his tall form crossed the threshold.

“Lassiter, here’s Blake, an old rider of mine. He has come back to me and he wishes to speak to you.”

Blake’s brown face turned exceedingly pale.

“Yes, I had to speak to you,” he said, swiftly. “My name’s Blake. I’m a Mormon and a rider. Lately I quit Miss Withersteen. I’ve come to beg her to take me back. Now I don’t know you; but I know–what you are. So I’ve this to say to your face. It would never occur to this woman to imagine–let alone suspect me to be a spy. She couldn’t think it might just be a low plot to come here and shoot you in the back. Jane Withersteen hasn’t that kind of a mind….Well, I’ve not come for that. I want to help her–to pull a bridle along with Judkins and–and you. The thing is–do you believe me?”

“I reckon I do,” replied Lassiter. How this slow, cool speech contrasted with Blake’s hot, impulsive words! “You might have saved some of your breath. See here, Blake, cinch this in your mind. Lassiter has met some square Mormons! An’ mebbe–”

“Blake,” interrupted Jane, nervously anxious to terminate a colloquy that she perceived was an ordeal for him. “Go at once and fetch me a report of my horses.”

“Miss Withersteen!…You mean the big drove–down in the sage-cleared fields?”

“Of course,” replied Jane. “My horses are all there, except the blooded stock I keep here.”

“Haven’t you heard–then?”

“Heard? No! What’s happened to them?”

“They’re gone, Miss Withersteen, gone these ten days past. Dorn told me, and I rode down to see for myself.”

“Lassiter–did you know?” asked Jane, whirling to him.

“I reckon so….But what was the use to tell you?”

It was Lassiter turning away his face and Blake studying the stone flags at his feet that brought Jane to the understanding of what she betrayed. She strove desperately, but she could not rise immediately from such a blow.

“My horses! My horses! What’s become of them?”

“Dorn said the riders report another drive by Oldring….And I trailed the horses miles down the slope toward Deception Pass.”

“My red herd’s gone! My horses gone! The white herd will go next. I can stand that. But if I lost Black Star and Night, it would be like parting with my own flesh and blood. Lassiter–Blake–am I in danger of losing my racers?”

“A rustler–or–or anybody stealin’ hosses of yours would most of all want the blacks,” said Lassiter. His evasive reply was affirmative enough. The other rider nodded gloomy acquiescence.

“Oh! Oh!” Jane Withersteen choked, with violent utterance.

“Let me take charge of the blacks?” asked Blake. “One more rider won’t be any great help to Judkins. But I might hold Black Star and Night, if you put such store on their value.”

“Value! Blake, I love my racers. Besides, there’s another reason why I mustn’t lose them. You go to the stables. Go with Jerd every day when he runs the horses, and don’t let them out of your sight. If you would please me–win my gratitude, guard my black racers.”

When Blake had mounted and ridden out of the court Lassiter regarded Jane with the smile that was becoming rarer as the days sped by.

“‘Pears to me, as Blake says, you do put some store on them hosses. Now I ain’t gainsayin’ that the Arabians are the handsomest hosses I ever seen. But Bells can beat Night, an’ run neck en’ neck with Black Star.”

“Lassiter, don’t tease me now. I’m miserable–sick. Bells is fast, but he can’t stay with the blacks, and you know it. Only Wrangle can do that.”

“I’ll bet that big raw-boned brute can more’n show his heels to your black racers. Jane, out there in the sage, on a long chase, Wrangle could kill your favorites.”

“No, no,” replied Jane, impatiently. “Lassiter, why do you say that so often? I know you’ve teased me at times, and I believe it’s only kindness. You’re always trying to keep my mind off worry. But you mean more by this repeated mention of my racers?”

“I reckon so.” Lassiter paused, and for the thousandth time in her presence moved his black sombrero round and round, as if counting the silver pieces on the band. “Well, Jane, I’ve sort of read a little that’s passin’ in your mind.”

“You think I might fly from my home–from Cottonwoods–from the Utah border?”

“I reckon. An’ if you ever do an’ get away with the blacks I wouldn’t like to see Wrangle left here on the sage. Wrangle could catch you. I know Venters had him. But you can never tell. Mebbe he hasn’t got him now….Besides–things are happenin’, an’ somethin’ of the same queer nature might have happened to Venters.”

“God knows you’re right!…Poor Bern, how long he’s gone! In my trouble I’ve been forgetting him. But, Lassiter, I’ve little fear for him. I’ve heard my riders say he’s as keen as a wolf…. “As to your reading my thoughts–well, your suggestion makes an actual thought of what was only one of my dreams. I believe I dreamed of flying from this wild borderland, Lassiter. I’ve strange dreams. I’m not always practical and thinking of my many duties, as you said once. For instance–if I dared–if I dared I’d ask you to saddle the blacks and ride away with me–and hide me.”

“Jane!”

The rider’s sunburnt face turned white. A few times Jane had seen Lassiter’s cool calm broken–when he had met little Fay, when he had learned how and why he had come to love both child and mistress, when he had stood beside Milly Erne’s grave. But one and all they could not be considered in the light of his present agitation. Not only did Lassiter turn white–not only did he grow tense, not only did he lose his coolness, but also he suddenly, violently, hungrily took her into his arms and crushed her to his breast.

“Lassiter!” cried Jane, trembling. It was an action for which she took sole blame. Instantly, as if dazed, weakened, he released her. “Forgive me!” went on Jane. “I’m always forgetting your–your feelings. I thought of you as my faithful friend. I’m always making you out more than human…only, let me say–I meant that–about riding away. I’m wretched, sick of this–this–Oh, something bitter and black grows on my heart!”

“Jane, the hell–of it,” he replied, with deep intake of breath, “is you can’t ride away. Mebbe realizin’ it accounts for my grabbin’ you–that way, as much as the crazy boy’s rapture your words gave me. I don’t understand myself….But the hell of this game is–you can’t ride away.”

“Lassiter!…What on earth do you mean? I’m an absolutely free woman.”

“You ain’t absolutely anythin’ of the kind….I reckon I’ve got to tell you!”

“Tell me all. It’s uncertainty that makes me a coward. It’s faith and hope–blind love, if you will, that makes me miserable. Every day I awake believing–still believing. The day grows, and with it doubts, fears, and that black bat hate that bites hotter and hotter into my heart. Then comes night–I pray–I pray for all, and for myself–I sleep–and I awake free once more, trustful, faithful, to believe–to hope! Then, O my God! I grow and live a thousand years till night again!…But if you want to see me a woman, tell me why I can’t ride away–tell me what more I’m to lose–tell me the worst.”

“Jane, you’re watched. There’s no single move of yours, except when you’re hid in your house, that ain’t seen by sharp eyes. The cottonwood grove’s full of creepin’, crawlin’ men. Like Indians in the grass. When you rode, which wasn’t often lately, the sage was full of sneakin’ men. At night they crawl under your windows into the court, an’ I reckon into the house. Jane Withersteen, you know, never locked a door! This here grove’s a hummin’ bee-hive of mysterious happenin’s. Jane, it ain’t so much that these soles keep out of my way as me keepin’ out of theirs. They’re goin’ to try to kill me. That’s plain. But mebbe I’m as hard to shoot in the back as in the face. So far I’ve seen fit to watch only. This all means, Jane, that you’re a marked woman. You can’t get away– not now. Mebbe later, when you’re broken, you might. But that’s sure doubtful. Jane, you’re to lose the cattle that’s left–your home en’ ranch–en’ amber Spring. You can’t even hide a sack of gold! For it couldn’t be slipped out of the house, day or night, an’ hid or buried, let alone be rid off with. You may lose all. I’m tellin’ you, Jane, hopin’ to prepare you, if the worst does come. I told you once before about that strange power I’ve got to feel things.”

“Lassiter, what can I do?”

“Nothin’, I reckon, except know what’s comin’ an’ wait an’ be game. If you’d let me make a call on Tull, an’ a long-deferred call on–”

“Hush!…Hush!” she whispered.

“Well, even that wouldn’t help you any in the end.”

“What does it mean? Oh, what does it mean? I am my father’s daughter–a Mormon, yet I can’t see! I’ve not failed in religion–in duty. For years I’ve given with a free and full heart. When my father died I was rich. If I’m still rich it’s because I couldn’t find enough ways to become poor. What am I, what are my possessions to set in motion such intensity of secret oppression?”

“Jane, the mind behind it all is an empire builder.”

“But, Lassiter, I would give freely–all I own to avert this–this wretched thing. If I gave–that would leave me with faith still. Surely my–my churchmen think of my soul? If I lose my trust in them–”

“Child, be still!” said Lassiter, with a dark dignity that had in it something of pity. “You are a woman, fine en’ big an’ strong, an’ your heart matches your size. But in mind you’re a child. I’ll say a little more–then I’m done. I’ll never mention this again. Among many thousands of women you’re one who has bucked against your churchmen. They tried you out, an’ failed of persuasion, an’ finally of threats. You meet now the cold steel of a will as far from Christlike as the universe is wide. You’re to be broken. Your body’s to be held, given to some man, made, if possible, to bring children into the world. But your soul?…What do they care for your soul?”

CHAPTER XIII. SOLITUDE AND STORM

In his hidden valley Venters awakened from sleep, and his ears rang with innumerable melodies from full-throated mockingbirds, and his eyes opened wide upon the glorious golden shaft of sunlight shining through the great stone bridge. The circle of cliffs surrounding Surprise Valley lay shrouded in morning mist, a dim blue low down along the terraces, a creamy, moving cloud along the ramparts. The oak forest in the center was a plumed and tufted oval of gold.

He saw Bess under the spruces. Upon her complete recovery of strength she always rose with the dawn. At the moment she was feeding the quail she had tamed. And she had begun to tame the mocking-birds. They fluttered among the branches overhead and some left off their songs to flit down and shyly hop near the twittering quail. Little gray and white rabbits crouched in the grass, now nibbling, now laying long ears flat and watching the dogs.

Venters’s swift glance took in the brightening valley, and Bess and her pets, and Ring and Whitie. It swept over all to return again and rest upon the girl. She had changed. To the dark trousers and blouse she had added moccasins of her own make, but she no longer resembled a boy. No eye could have failed to mark the rounded contours of a woman. The change had been to grace and beauty. A glint of warm gold gleamed from her hair, and a tint of red shone in the clear dark brown of cheeks. The haunting sweetness of her lips and eyes, that earlier had been illusive, a promise, had become a living fact. She fitted harmoniously into that wonderful setting; she was like Surprise Valley–wild and beautiful.

Venters leaped out of his cave to begin the day.

He had postponed his journey to Cottonwoods until after the passing of the summer rains. The rains were due soon. But until their arrival and the necessity for his trip to the village he sequestered in a far corner of mind all thought of peril, of his past life, and almost that of the present. It was enough to live. He did not want to know what lay hidden in the dim and distant future. Surprise Valley had enchanted him. In this home of the cliff-dwellers there were peace and quiet and solitude, and another thing, wondrous as the golden morning shaft of sunlight, that he dared not ponder over long enough to understand.

The solitude he had hated when alone he had now come to love. He was assimilating something from this valley of gleams and shadows. From this strange girl he was assimilating more.

The day at hand resembled many days gone before. As Venters had no tools with which to build, or to till the terraces, he remained idle. Beyond the cooking of the simple fare there were no tasks. And as there were no tasks, there was no system. He and Bess began one thing, to leave it; to begin another, to leave that; and then do nothing but lie under the spruces and watch the great cloud-sails majestically move along the ramparts, and dream and dream. The valley was a golden, sunlit world. It was silent. The sighing wind and the twittering quail and the singing birds, even the rare and seldom-occurring hollow crack of a sliding weathered stone, only thickened and deepened that insulated silence.

Venters and Bess had vagrant minds.

“Bess, did I tell you about my horse Wrangle?” inquired Venters.

“A hundred times,” she replied.

“Oh, have I? I’d forgotten. I want you to see him. He’ll carry us both.”

“I’d like to ride him. Can he run?”

“Run? He’s a demon. Swiftest horse on the sage! I hope he’ll stay in that canyon.

“He’ll stay.”

They left camp to wander along the terraces, into the aspen ravines, under the gleaming walls. Ring and Whitie wandered in the fore, often turning, often trotting back, open-mouthed and solemn-eyed and happy. Venters lifted his gaze to the grand archway over the entrance to the valley, and Bess lifted hers to follow his, and both were silent. Sometimes the bridge held their attention for a long time. To-day a soaring eagle attracted them.

“How he sails!” exclaimed Bess. “I wonder where his mate is?”

“She’s at the nest. It’s on the bridge in a crack near the top. I see her often. She’s almost white.”

They wandered on down the terrace, into the shady, sun-flecked forest. A brown bird fluttered crying from a bush. Bess peeped into the leaves. “Look! A nest and four little birds. They’re not afraid of us. See how they open their mouths. They’re hungry.”

Rabbits rustled the dead brush and pattered away. The forest was full of a drowsy hum of insects. Little darts of purple, that were running quail, crossed the glades. And a plaintive, sweet peeping came from the coverts. Bess’s soft step disturbed a sleeping lizard that scampered away over the leaves. She gave chase and caught it, a slim creature of nameless color but of exquisite beauty.

“Jewel eyes,” she said. “It’s like a rabbit–afraid. We won’t eat you. There–go.”

Murmuring water drew their steps down into a shallow shaded ravine where a brown brook brawled softly over mossy stones. Multitudes of strange, gray frogs with white spots and black eyes lined the rocky bank and leaped only at close approach. Then Venters’s eye descried a very thin, very long green snake coiled round a sapling. They drew closer and closer till they could have touched it. The snake had no fear and watched them with scintillating eyes.

“It’s pretty,” said Bess. “How tame! I thought snakes always ran.”

“No. Even the rabbits didn’t run here till the dogs chased them.”

On and on they wandered to the wild jumble of massed and broken fragments of cliff at the west end of the valley. The roar of the disappearing stream dinned in their ears. Into this maze of rocks they threaded a tortuous way, climbing, descending, halting to gather wild plums and great lavender lilies, and going on at the will of fancy. Idle and keen perceptions guided them equally.

“Oh, let us climb there!” cried Bess, pointing upward to a small space of terrace left green and shady between huge abutments of broken cliff. And they climbed to the nook and rested and looked out across the valley to the curling column of blue smoke from their campfire. But the cool shade and the rich grass and the fine view were not what they had climbed for. They could not have told, although whatever had drawn them was well-satisfying. Light, sure-footed as a mountain goat, Bess pattered down at Venters’s heels; and they went on, calling the dogs, eyes dreamy and wide, listening to the wind and the bees and the crickets and the birds.

Part of the time Ring and Whitie led the way, then Venters, then Bess; and the direction was not an object. They left the sun-streaked shade of the oaks, brushed the long grass of the meadows, entered the green and fragrant swaying willows, to stop, at length, under the huge old cottonwoods where the beavers were busy.

Here they rested and watched. A dam of brush and logs and mud and stones backed the stream into a little lake. The round, rough beaver houses projected from the water. Like the rabbits, the beavers had become shy. Gradually, however, as Venters and Bess knelt low, holding the dogs, the beavers emerged to swim with logs and gnaw at cottonwoods and pat mud walls with their paddle-like tails, and, glossy and shiny in the sun, to go on with their strange, persistent industry. They were the builders. The lake was a mud-hole, and the immediate environment a scarred and dead region, but it was a wonderful home of wonderful animals.

“Look at that one–he puddles in the mud,” said Bess. “And there! See him dive! Hear them gnawing! I’d think they’d break their teeth. How’s it they can stay out of the water and under the water?”

And she laughed.

Then Venters and Bess wandered farther, and, perhaps not all unconsciously this time, wended their slow steps to the cave of the cliff-dwellers, where she liked best to go.

The tangled thicket and the long slant of dust and little chips of weathered rock and the steep bench of stone and the worn steps all were arduous work for Bess in the climbing. But she gained the shelf, gasping, hot of cheek, glad of eye, with her hand in Venters’s. Here they rested. The beautiful valley glittered below with its millions of wind-turned leaves bright-faced in the sun, and the mighty bridge towered heavenward, crowned with blue sky. Bess, however, never rested for long. Soon she was exploring, and Venters followed; she dragged forth from corners and shelves a multitude of crudely fashioned and painted pieces of pottery, and he carried them. They peeped down into the dark holes of the kivas, and Bess gleefully dropped a stone and waited for the long-coming hollow sound to rise. They peeped into the little globular houses, like mud-wasp nests, and wondered if these had been store-places for grain, or baby cribs, or what; and they crawled into the larger houses and laughed when they bumped their heads on the low roofs, and they dug in the dust of the floors. And they brought from dust and darkness armloads of treasure which they carried to the light. Flints and stones and strange curved sticks and pottery they found; and twisted grass rope that crumbled in their hands, and bits of whitish stone which crushed to powder at a touch and seemed to vanish in the air.

“That white stuff was bone,” said Venters, slowly. “Bones of a cliff-dweller.”

“No!” exclaimed Bess.

“Here’s another piece. Look!…Whew! dry, powdery smoke! That’s bone.”

Then it was that Venters’s primitive, childlike mood, like a savage’s, seeing, yet unthinking, gave way to the encroachment of civilized thought. The world had not been made for a single day’s play or fancy or idle watching. The world was old. Nowhere could be gotten a better idea of its age than in this gigantic silent tomb. The gray ashes in Venters’s hand had once been bone of a human being like himself. The pale gloom of the cave had shadowed people long ago. He saw that Bess had received the same shock–could not in moments such as this escape her feeling living, thinking destiny.

“Bern, people have lived here,” she said, with wide, thoughtful eyes.

“Yes,” he replied.

“How long ago?”

“A thousand years and more.”

“What were they?”

“Cliff-dwellers. Men who had enemies and made their homes high out of reach.”

“They had to fight?”

“Yes.”

“They fought for–what?”

“For life. For their homes, food, children, parents–for their women!”

“Has the world changed any in a thousand years?”

“I don’t know–perhaps a little.”

“Have men?”

“I hope so–I think so.”

“Things crowd into my mind,” she went on, and the wistful light in her eyes told Venters the truth of her thoughts. “I’ve ridden the border of Utah. I’ve seen people–know how they live–but they must be few of all who are living. I had my books and I studied them. But all that doesn’t help me any more. I want to go out into the big world and see it. Yet I want to stay here more. What’s to become of us? Are we cliff-dwellers? We’re alone here. I’m happy when I don’t think. These–these bones that fly into dust–they make me sick and a little afraid. Did the people who lived here once have the same feelings as we have? What was the good of their living at all? They’re gone! What’s the meaning of it all–of us?”

“Bess, you ask more than I can tell. It’s beyond me. Only there was laughter here once–and now there’s silence. There was life–and now there’s death. Men cut these little steps, made these arrow-heads and mealing-stones, plaited the ropes we found, and left their bones to crumble in our fingers. As far as time is concerned it might all have been yesterday. We’re here to-day. Maybe we’re higher in the scale of human beings–in intelligence. But who knows? We can’t be any higher in the things for which life is lived at all.”

“What are they?”

“Why–I suppose relationship, friendship–love.”

“Love!”

“Yes. Love of man for woman–love of woman for man. That’s the nature, the meaning, the best of life itself.”

She said no more. Wistfulness of glance deepened into sadness.

“Come, let us go,” said Venters.

Action brightened her. Beside him, holding his hand she slipped down the shelf, ran down the long, steep slant of sliding stones, out of the cloud of dust, and likewise out of the pale gloom.

“We beat the slide,” she cried.

The miniature avalanche cracked and roared, and rattled itself into an inert mass at the base of the incline. Yellow dust like the gloom of the cave, but not so changeless, drifted away on the wind; the roar clapped in echo from the cliff, returned, went back, and came again to die in the hollowness. Down on the sunny terrace there was a different atmosphere. Ring and Whitie leaped around Bess. Once more she was smiling, gay, and thoughtless, with the dream-mood in the shadow of her eyes.

“Bess, I haven’t seen that since last summer. Look!” said Venters, pointing to the scalloped edge of rolling purple clouds that peeped over the western wall. “We’re in for a storm.”

“Oh, I hope not. I’m afraid of storms.”

“Are you? Why?”

“Have you ever been down in one of these walled-up pockets in a bad storm?”

“No, now I think of it, I haven’t.”

“Well, it’s terrible. Every summer I get scared to death and hide somewhere in the dark. Storms up on the sage are bad, but nothing to what they are down here in the canyons. And in this little valley–why, echoes can rap back and forth so quick they’ll split our ears.”

“We’re perfectly safe here, Bess.”

“I know. But that hasn’t anything to do with it. The truth is I’m afraid of lightning and thunder, and thunder-claps hurt my head. If we have a bad storm, will you stay close to me?”

“Yes.”

When they got back to camp the afternoon was closing, and it was exceedingly sultry. Not a breath of air stirred the aspen leaves, and when these did not quiver the air was indeed still. The dark-purple clouds moved almost imperceptibly out of the west.

“What have we for supper?” asked Bess.

“Rabbit.”

“Bern, can’t you think of another new way to cook rabbit?” went on Bess, with earnestness.

“What do you think I am–a magician?” retorted Venters.

“I wouldn’t dare tell you. But, Bern, do you want me to turn into a rabbit?”

There was a dark-blue, merry flashing of eyes and a parting of lips; then she laughed. In that moment she was naive and wholesome.

“Rabbit seems to agree with you,” replied Venters. “You are well and strong–and growing very pretty.”

Anything in the nature of compliment he had never before said to her, and just now he responded to a sudden curiosity to see its effect. Bess stared as if she had not heard aright, slowly blushed, and completely lost her poise in happy confusion.

“I’d better go right away,” he continued, “and fetch supplies from Cottonwoods.”

A startlingly swift change in the nature of her agitation made him reproach himself for his abruptness.

“No, no, don’t go!” she said. “I didn’t mean–that about the rabbit. I–I was only trying to be–funny. Don’t leave me all alone!”

“Bess, I must go sometime.”

“Wait then. Wait till after the storms.”

The purple cloud-bank darkened the lower edge of the setting sun, crept up and up, obscuring its fiery red heart, and finally passed over the last ruddy crescent of its upper rim.

The intense dead silence awakened to a long, low, rumbling roll of thunder.

“Oh!” cried Bess, nervously.

“We’ve had big black clouds before this without rain,” said Venters. “But there’s no doubt about that thunder. The storms are coming. I’m glad. Every rider on the sage will hear that thunder with glad ears.”

Venters and Bess finished their simple meal and the few tasks around the camp, then faced the open terrace, the valley, and the west, to watch and await the approaching storm.

It required keen vision to see any movement whatever in the purple clouds. By infinitesimal degrees the dark cloud-line merged upward into the golden-red haze of the afterglow of sunset. A shadow lengthened from under the western wall across the valley. As straight and rigid as steel rose the delicate spear-pointed silver spruces; the aspen leaves, by nature pendant and quivering, hung limp and heavy; no slender blade of grass moved. A gentle splashing of water came from the ravine. Then again from out of the west sounded the low, dull, and rumbling roll of thunder.

A wave, a ripple of light, a trembling and turning of the aspen leaves, like the approach of a breeze on the water, crossed the valley from the west; and the lull and the deadly stillness and the sultry air passed away on a cool wind.

The night bird of the canyon, with clear and melancholy notes announced the twilight. And from all along the cliffs rose the faint murmur and moan and mourn of the wind singing in the caves. The bank of clouds now swept hugely out of the western sky. Its front was purple and black, with gray between, a bulging, mushrooming, vast thing instinct with storm. It had a dark, angry, threatening aspect. As if all the power of the winds were pushing and piling behind, it rolled ponderously across the sky. A red flare burned out instantaneously, flashed from the west to east, and died. Then from the deepest black of the purple cloud burst a boom. It was like the bowling of a huge boulder along the crags and ramparts, and seemed to roll on and fall into the valley to bound and bang and boom from cliff to cliff.

“Oh!” cried Bess, with her hands over her ears. “What did I tell you?”

“Why, Bess, be reasonable!” said Venters.

“I’m a coward.”

“Not quite that, I hope. It’s strange you’re afraid. I love a storm.”

“I tell you a storm down in these canyons is an awful thing. I know Oldring hated storms. His men were afraid of them. There was one who went deaf in a bad storm, and never could hear again.”

“Maybe I’ve lots to learn, Bess. I’ll lose my guess if this storm isn’t bad enough. We’re going to have heavy wind first, then lightning and thunder, then the rain. Let’s stay out as long as we can.”

The tips of the cottonwoods and the oaks waved to the east, and the rings of aspens along the terraces twinkled their myriad of bright faces in fleet and glancing gleam. A low roar rose from the leaves of the forest, and the spruces swished in the rising wind. It came in gusts, with light breezes between. As it increased in strength the lulls shortened in length till there was a strong and steady blow all the time, and violent puffs at intervals, and sudden whirling currents. The clouds spread over the valley, rolling swiftly and low, and twilight faded into a sweeping darkness. Then the singing of the wind in the caves drowned the swift roar of rustling leaves; then the song swelled to a mourning, moaning wail; then with the gathering power of the wind the wail changed to a shriek. Steadily the wind strengthened and constantly the strange sound changed.

The last bit of blue sky yielded to the on-sweep of clouds. Like angry surf the pale gleams of gray, amid the purple of that scudding front, swept beyond the eastern rampart of the valley. The purple deepened to black. Broad sheets of lightning flared over the western wall. There were not yet any ropes or zigzag streaks darting down through the gathering darkness. The storm center was still beyond Surprise Valley.

“Listen!…Listen!” cried Bess, with her lips close to Venters’s ear. “You’ll hear Oldring’s knell!”

“What’s that?”

“Oldring’s knell. When the wind blows a gale in the caves it makes what the rustlers call Oldring’s knell. They believe it bodes his death. I think he believes so, too. It’s not like any sound on earth….It’s beginning. Listen!”

The gale swooped down with a hollow unearthly howl. It yelled and pealed and shrilled and shrieked. It was made up of a thousand piercing cries. It was a rising and a moving sound. Beginning at the western break of the valley, it rushed along each gigantic cliff, whistling into the caves and cracks, to mount in power, to bellow a blast through the great stone bridge. Gone, as into an engulfing roar of surging waters, it seemed to shoot back and begin all over again.

It was only wind, thought Venters. Here sped and shrieked the sculptor that carved out the wonderful caves in the cliffs. It was only a gale, but as Venters listened, as his ears became accustomed to the fury and strife, out of it all or through it or above it pealed low and perfectly clear and persistently uniform a strange sound that had no counterpart in all the sounds of the elements. It was not of earth or of life. It was the grief and agony of the gale. A knell of all upon which it blew!

Black night enfolded the valley. Venters could not see his companion, and knew of her presence only through the tightening hold of her hand on his arm. He felt the dogs huddle closer to him. Suddenly the dense, black vault overhead split asunder to a blue-white, dazzling streak of lightning. The whole valley lay vividly clear and luminously bright in his sight. Upreared, vast and magnificent, the stone bridge glimmered like some grand god of storm in the lightning’s fire. Then all flashed black again–blacker than pitch–a thick, impenetrable coal-blackness. And there came a ripping, crashing report. Instantly an echo resounded with clapping crash. The initial report was nothing to the echo. It was a terrible, living, reverberating, detonating crash. The wall threw the sound across, and could have made no greater roar if it had slipped in avalanche. From cliff to cliff the echo went in crashing retort and banged in lessening power, and boomed in thinner volume, and clapped weaker and weaker till a final clap could not reach across the waiting cliff.

In the pitchy darkness Venters led Bess, and, groping his way, by feel of hand found the entrance to her cave and lifted her up. On the instant a blinding flash of lightning illumined the cave and all about him. He saw Bess’s face white now with dark, frightened eyes. He saw the dogs leap up, and he followed suit. The golden glare vanished; all was black; then came the splitting crack and the infernal din of echoes.

Bess shrank closer to him and closer, found his hands, and pressed them tightly over her ears, and dropped her face upon his shoulder, and hid her eyes.

Then the storm burst with a succession of ropes and streaks and shafts of lightning, playing continuously, filling the valley with a broken radiance; and the cracking shots followed each other swiftly till the echoes blended in one fearful, deafening crash.

Venters looked out upon the beautiful valley–beautiful now as never before–mystic in its transparent, luminous gloom, weird in the quivering, golden haze of lightning. The dark spruces were tipped with glimmering lights; the aspens bent low in the winds, as waves in a tempest at sea; the forest of oaks tossed wildly and shone with gleams of fire. Across the valley the huge cavern of the cliff-dwellers yawned in the glare, every little black window as clear as at noonday; but the night and the storm added to their tragedy. Flung arching to the black clouds, the great stone bridge seemed to bear the brunt of the storm. It caught the full fury of the rushing wind. It lifted its noble crown to meet the lightnings. Venters thought of the eagles and their lofty nest in a niche under the arch. A driving pall of rain, black as the clouds, came sweeping on to obscure the bridge and the gleaming walls and the shining valley. The lightning played incessantly, streaking down through opaque darkness of rain. The roar of the wind, with its strange knell and the re-crashing echoes, mingled with the roar of the flooding rain, and all seemingly were deadened and drowned in a world of sound.

In the dimming pale light Venters looked down upon the girl. She had sunk into his arms, upon his breast, burying her face. She clung to him. He felt the softness of her, and the warmth, and the quick heave of her breast. He saw the dark, slender, graceful outline of her form. A woman lay in his arms! And he held her closer. He who had been alone in the sad, silent watches of the night was not now and never must be again alone. He who had yearned for the touch of a hand felt the long tremble and the heart-beat of a woman. By what strange chance had she come to love him! By what change–by what marvel had she grown into a treasure!

No more did he listen to the rush and roar of the thunder-storm. For with the touch of clinging hands and the throbbing bosom he grew conscious of an inward storm–the tingling of new chords of thought, strange music of unheard, joyous bells sad dreams dawning to wakeful delight, dissolving doubt, resurging hope, force, fire, and freedom, unutterable sweetness of desire. A storm in his breast–a storm of real love.

CHAPTER XIV. WEST WIND

When the storm abated Venters sought his own cave, and late in the night, as his blood cooled and the stir and throb and thrill subsided, he fell asleep.

With the breaking of dawn his eyes unclosed. The valley lay drenched and bathed, a burnished oval of glittering green. The rain-washed walls glistened in the morning light. Waterfalls of many forms poured over the rims. One, a broad, lacy sheet, thin as smoke, slid over the western notch and struck a ledge in its downward fall, to bound into broader leap, to burst far below into white and gold and rosy mist.

Venters prepared for the day, knowing himself a different man.

“It’s a glorious morning,” said Bess, in greeting.

“Yes. After the storm the west wind,” he replied.

“Last night was I–very much of a baby?” she asked, watching him.

“Pretty much.”

“Oh, I couldn’t help it!”

“I’m glad you were afraid.”

“Why?” she asked, in slow surprise.

“I’ll tell you some day,” he answered, soberly. Then around the camp-fire and through the morning meal he was silent; afterward he strolled thoughtfully off alone along the terrace. He climbed a great yellow rock raising its crest among the spruces, and there he sat down to face the valley and the west.

“I love her!”

Aloud he spoke–unburdened his heart–confessed his secret. For an instant the golden valley swam before his eyes, and the walls waved, and all about him whirled with tumult within.

“I love her!…I understand now.”

Reviving memory of Jane Withersteen and thought of the complications of the present amazed him with proof of how far he had drifted from his old life. He discovered that he hated to take up the broken threads, to delve into dark problems and difficulties. In this beautiful valley he had been living a beautiful dream. Tranquillity had come to him, and the joy of solitude, and interest in all the wild creatures and crannies of this incomparable valley–and love. Under the shadow of the great stone bridge God had revealed Himself to Venters.

“The world seems very far away,” he muttered, “but it’s there–and I’m not yet done with it. Perhaps I never shall be….Only–how glorious it would be to live here always and never think again!”

Whereupon the resurging reality of the present, as if in irony of his wish, steeped him instantly in contending thought. Out of it all he presently evolved these things: he must go to Cottonwoods; he must bring supplies back to Surprise Valley; he must cultivate the soil and raise corn and stock, and, most imperative of all, he must decide the future of the girl who loved him and whom he loved. The first of these things required tremendous effort, the last one, concerning Bess, seemed simply and naturally easy of accomplishment. He would marry her. Suddenly, as from roots of poisonous fire, flamed up the forgotten truth concerning her. It seemed to wither and shrivel up all his joy on its hot, tearing way to his heart. She had been Oldring’s Masked Rider. To Venters’s question, “What were you to Oldring?” she had answered with scarlet shame and drooping head.

“What do I care who she is or what she was!” he cried, passionately. And he knew it was not his old self speaking. It was this softer, gentler man who had awakened to new thoughts in the quiet valley. Tenderness, masterful in him now, matched the absence of joy and blunted the knife-edge of entering jealousy. Strong and passionate effort of will, surprising to him, held back the poison from piercing his soul.

“Wait!…Wait!” he cried, as if calling. His hand pressed his breast, and he might have called to the pang there. “Wait! It’s all so strange–so wonderful. Anything can happen. Who am I to judge her? I’ll glory in my love for her. But I can’t tell it–can’t give up to it.”

Certainly he could not then decide her future. Marrying her was impossible in Surprise Valley and in any village south of Sterling. Even without the mask she had once worn she would easily have been recognized as Oldring’s Rider. No man who had ever seen her would forget her, regardless of his ignorance as to her sex. Then more poignant than all other argument was the fact that he did not want to take her away from Surprise Valley. He resisted all thought of that. He had brought her to the most beautiful and wildest place of the uplands; he had saved her, nursed her back to strength, watched her bloom as one of the valley lilies; he knew her life there to be pure and sweet–she belonged to him, and he loved her. Still these were not all the reasons why he did not want to take her away. Where could they go? He feared the rustlers–he feared the riders–he feared the Mormons. And if he should ever succeed in getting Bess safely away from these immediate perils, he feared the sharp eyes of women and their tongues, the big outside world with its problems of existence. He must wait to decide her future, which, after all, was deciding his own. But between her future and his something hung impending. Like Balancing Rock, which waited darkly over the steep gorge, ready to close forever the outlet to Deception Pass, that nameless thing, as certain yet intangible as fate, must fall and close forever all doubts and fears of the future.

“I’ve dreamed,” muttered Venters, as he rose. “Well, why not?…To dream is happiness! But let me just once see this clearly wholly; then I can go on dreaming till the thing falls. I’ve got to tell Jane Withersteen. I’ve dangerous trips to take. I’ve work here to make comfort for this girl. She’s mine. I’ll fight to keep her safe from that old life. I’ve already seen her forget it. I love her. And if a beast ever rises in me I’ll burn my hand off before I lay it on her with shameful intent. And, by God! sooner or later I’ll kill the man who hid her and kept her in Deception Pass!”

As he spoke the west wind softly blew in his face. It seemed to soothe his passion. That west wind was fresh, cool, fragrant, and it carried a sweet, strange burden of far-off things–tidings of life in other climes, of sunshine asleep on other walls–of other places where reigned peace. It carried, too, sad truth of human hearts and mystery–of promise and hope unquenchable. Surprise Valley was only a little niche in the wide world whence blew that burdened wind. Bess was only one of millions at the mercy of unknown motive in nature and life. Content had come to Venters in the valley; happiness had breathed in the slow, warm air; love as bright as light had hovered over the walls and descended to him; and now on the west wind came a whisper of the eternal triumph of faith over doubt.

“How much better I am for what has come to me!” he exclaimed. “I’ll let the future take care of itself. Whatever falls, I’ll be ready.”

Venters retraced his steps along the terrace back to camp, and found Bess in the old familiar seat, waiting and watching for his return.

“I went off by myself to think a little,” he explained.

“You never looked that way before. What–what is it? Won’t you tell me?”

“Well, Bess, the fact is I’ve been dreaming a lot. This valley makes a fellow dream. So I forced myself to think. We can’t live this way much longer. Soon I’ll simply have to go to Cottonwoods. We need a whole pack train of supplies. I can get–”

“Can you go safely?” she interrupted.

“Why, I’m sure of it. I’ll ride through the Pass at night. I haven’t any fear that Wrangle isn’t where I left him. And once on him–Bess, just wait till you see that horse!”

“Oh, I want to see him–to ride him. But–but, Bern, this is what troubles me,” she said. “Will–will you come back?”

“Give me four days. If I’m not back in four days you’ll know I’m dead. For that only shall keep me.”

“Oh!”

“Bess, I’ll come back. There’s danger–I wouldn’t lie to you–but I can take care of myself.”

“Bern, I’m sure–oh, I’m sure of it! All my life I’ve watched hunted men. I can tell what’s in them. And I believe you can ride and shoot and see with any rider of the sage. It’s not–not that I–fear.”

“Well, what is it, then?”

“Why–why–why should you come back at all?”

“I couldn’t leave you here alone.”

“You might change your mind when you get to the village–among old friends–”

“I won’t change my mind. As for old friends–” He uttered a short, expressive laugh.

“Then–there–there must be a–a woman!” Dark red mantled the clear tan of temple and cheek and neck. Her eyes were eyes of shame, upheld a long moment by intense, straining search for the verification of her fear. Suddenly they drooped, her head fell to her knees, her hands flew to her hot cheeks.

“Bess–look here,” said Venters, with a sharpness due to the violence with which he checked his quick, surging emotion.

As if compelled against her will–answering to an irresistible voice– Bess raised her head, looked at him with sad, dark eyes, and tried to whisper with tremulous lips.

“There’s no woman,” went on Venters, deliberately holding her glance with his. “Nothing on earth, barring the chances of life, can keep me away.”

Her face flashed and flushed with the glow of a leaping joy; but like the vanishing of a gleam it disappeared to leave her as he had never beheld her.

“I am nothing–I am lost–I am nameless!”

“Do you want me to come back?” he asked, with sudden stern coldness. “Maybe you want to go back to Oldring!”

That brought her erect, trembling and ashy pale, with dark, proud eyes and mute lips refuting his insinuation.

“Bess, I beg your pardon. I shouldn’t have said that. But you angered me. I intend to work–to make a home for you here–to be a–a brother to you as long as ever you need me. And you must forget what you are– were–I mean, and be happy. When you remember that old life you are bitter, and it hurts me.”

“I was happy–I shall be very happy. Oh, you’re so good that–that it kills me! If I think, I can’t believe it. I grow sick with wondering why. I’m only a let me say it–only a lost, nameless–girl of the rustlers. Oldring’s Girl, they called me. That you should save me–be so good and kind–want to make me happy–why, it’s beyond belief. No wonder I’m wretched at the thought of your leaving me. But I’ll be wretched and bitter no more. I promise you. If only I could repay you even a little–”

“You’ve repaid me a hundredfold. Will you believe me?”

“Believe you! I couldn’t do else.”

“Then listen!…Saving you, I saved myself. Living here in this valley with you, I’ve found myself. I’ve learned to think while I was dreaming. I never troubled myself about God. But God, or some wonderful spirit, has whispered to me here. I absolutely deny the truth of what you say about yourself. I can’t explain it. There are things too deep to tell. Whatever the terrible wrongs you’ve suffered, God holds you blameless. I see that–feel that in you every moment you are near me. I’ve a mother and a sister ‘way back in Illinois. If I could I’d take you to them–to-morrow.”

“If it were true! Oh, I might–I might lift my head!” she cried.

“Lift it then–you child. For I swear it’s true.”

She did lift her head with the singular wild grace always a part of her actions, with that old unconscious intimation of innocence which always tortured Venters, but now with something more–a spirit rising from the depths that linked itself to his brave words.

“I’ve been thinking–too,” she cried, with quivering smile and swelling breast. “I’ve discovered myself–too. I’m young–I’m alive–I’m so full–oh! I’m a woman!”

“Bess, I believe I can claim credit of that last discovery–before you,” Venters said, and laughed.

“Oh, there’s more–there’s something I must tell you.”

“Tell it, then.”

“When will you go to Cottonwoods?”

“As soon as the storms are past, or the worst of them.”

“I’ll tell you before you go. I can’t now. I don’t know how I shall then. But it must be told. I’d never let you leave me without knowing. For in spite of what you say there’s a chance you mightn’t come back.”

Day after day the west wind blew across the valley. Day after day the clouds clustered gray and purple and black. The cliffs sang and the caves rang with Oldring’s knell, and the lightning flashed, the thunder rolled, the echoes crashed and crashed, and the rains flooded the valley. Wild flowers sprang up everywhere, swaying with the lengthening grass on the terraces, smiling wanly from shady nooks, peeping wondrously from year-dry crevices of the walls. The valley bloomed into a paradise. Every single moment, from the breaking of the gold bar through the bridge at dawn on to the reddening of rays over the western wall, was one of colorful change. The valley swam in thick, transparent haze, golden at dawn, warm and white at noon, purple in the twilight. At the end of every storm a rainbow curved down into the leaf-bright forest to shine and fade and leave lingeringly some faint essence of its rosy iris in the air.

Venters walked with Bess, once more in a dream, and watched the lights change on the walls, and faced the wind from out of the west.

Always it brought softly to him strange, sweet tidings of far-off things. It blew from a place that was old and whispered of youth. It blew down the grooves of time. It brought a story of the passing hours. It breathed low of fighting men and praying women. It sang clearly the song of love. That ever was the burden of its tidings–youth in the shady woods, waders through the wet meadows, boy and girl at the hedgerow stile, bathers in the booming surf, sweet, idle hours on grassy, windy hills, long strolls down moonlit lanes–everywhere in far-off lands, fingers locked and bursting hearts and longing lips–from all the world tidings of unquenchable love.

Often, in these hours of dreams he watched the girl, and asked himself of what was she dreaming? For the changing light of the valley reflected its gleam and its color and its meaning in the changing light of her eyes. He saw in them infinitely more than he saw in his dreams. He saw thought and soul and nature–strong vision of life. All tidings the west wind blew from distance and age he found deep in those dark-blue depths, and found them mysteries solved. Under their wistful shadow he softened, and in the softening felt himself grow a sadder, a wiser, and a better man.

While the west wind blew its tidings, filling his heart full, teaching him a man’s part, the days passed, the purple clouds changed to white, and the storms were over for that summer.

“I must go now,” he said.

“When?” she asked.

“At once–to-night.”

“I’m glad the time has come. It dragged at me. Go–for you’ll come back the sooner.”

Late in the afternoon, as the ruddy sun split its last flame in the ragged notch of the western wall, Bess walked with Venters along the eastern terrace, up the long, weathered slope, under the great stone bridge. They entered the narrow gorge to climb around the fence long before built there by Venters. Farther than this she had never been. Twilight had already fallen in the gorge. It brightened to waning shadow in the wider ascent. He showed her Balancing Rock, of which he had often told her, and explained its sinister leaning over the outlet. Shuddering, she looked down the long, pale incline with its closed-in, toppling walls.

“What an awful trail! Did you carry me up here?”

“I did, surely,” replied he.

“It frightens me, somehow. Yet I never was afraid of trails. I’d ride anywhere a horse could go, and climb where he couldn’t. But there’s something fearful here. I feel as–as if the place was watching me.”

“Look at this rock. It’s balanced here–balanced perfectly. You know I told you the cliff-dwellers cut the rock, and why. But they’re gone and the rock waits. Can’t you see–feel how it waits here? I moved it once, and I’ll never dare again. A strong heave would start it. Then it would fall and bang, and smash that crag, and jar the walls, and close forever the outlet to Deception Pass!”

“Ah! When you come back I’ll steal up here and push and push with all my might to roll the rock and close forever the outlet to the Pass!” She said it lightly, but in the undercurrent of her voice was a heavier note, a ring deeper than any ever given mere play of words.

“Bess!…You can’t dare me! Wait till I come back with supplies– then roll the stone.”

“I–was–in–fun.” Her voice now throbbed low. “Always you must be free to go when you will. Go now…this place presses on me–stifles me.”

“I’m going–but you had something to tell me?”

“Yes….Will you–come back?”

“I’ll come if I live.”

“But–but you mightn’t come?”

“That’s possible, of course. It’ll take a good deal to kill me. A man couldn’t have a faster horse or keener dog. And, Bess, I’ve guns, and I’ll use them if I’m pushed. But don’t worry.”

“I’ve faith in you. I’ll not worry until after four days. Only– because you mightn’t come–I must tell you–”

She lost her voice. Her pale face, her great, glowing, earnest eyes, seemed to stand alone out of the gloom of the gorge. The dog whined, breaking the silence.

“I must tell you–because you mightn’t come back,” she whispered. “You must know what–what I think of your goodness–of you. Always I’ve been tongue-tied. I seemed not to be grateful. It was deep in my heart. Even now–if I were other than I am–I couldn’t tell you. But I’m nothing–only a rustler’s girl–nameless–infamous. You’ve saved me– and I’m–I’m yours to do with as you like….With all my heart and soul–I love you!”

CHAPTER XV. SHADOWS ON THE SAGE-SLOPE

In the cloudy, threatening, waning summer days shadows lengthened down the sage-slope, and Jane Withersteen likened them to the shadows gathering and closing in around her life.

Mrs. Larkin died, and little Fay was left an orphan with no known relative. Jane’s love redoubled. It was the saving brightness of a darkening hour. Fay turned now to Jane in childish worship. And Jane at last found full expression for the mother-longing in her heart. Upon Lassiter, too, Mrs. Larkin’s death had some subtle reaction. Before, he had often, without explanation, advised Jane to send Fay back to any Gentile family that would take her in. Passionately and reproachfully and wonderingly Jane had refused even to entertain such an idea. And now Lassiter never advised it again, grew sadder and quieter in his contemplation of the child, and infinitely more gentle and loving. Sometimes Jane had a cold, inexplicable sensation of dread when she saw Lassiter watching Fay. What did the rider see in the future? Why did he, day by day, grow more silent, calmer, cooler, yet sadder in prophetic assurance of something to be?

No doubt, Jane thought, the rider, in his almost superhuman power of foresight, saw behind the horizon the dark, lengthening shadows that were soon to crowd and gloom over him and her and little Fay. Jane Withersteen awaited the long-deferred breaking of the storm with a courage and embittered calm that had come to her in her extremity. Hope had not died. Doubt and fear, subservient to her will, no longer gave her sleepless nights and tortured days. Love remained. All that she had loved she now loved the more. She seemed to feel that she was defiantly flinging the wealth of her love in the face of misfortune and of hate. No day passed but she prayed for all–and most fervently for her enemies. It troubled her that she had lost, or had never gained, the whole control of her mind. In some measure reason and wisdom and decision were locked in a chamber of her brain, awaiting a key. Power to think of some things was taken from her. Meanwhile, abiding a day of judgment, she fought ceaselessly to deny the bitter drops in her cup, to tear back the slow, the intangibly slow growth of a hot, corrosive lichen eating into her heart.

On the morning of August 10th, Jane, while waiting in the court for Lassiter, heard a clear, ringing report of a rifle. It came from the grove, somewhere toward the corrals. Jane glanced out in alarm. The day was dull, windless, soundless. The leaves of the cottonwoods drooped, as if they had foretold the doom of Withersteen House and were now ready to die and drop and decay. Never had Jane seen such shade. She pondered on the meaning of the report. Revolver shots had of late cracked from different parts of the grove–spies taking snap-shots at Lassiter from a cowardly distance! But a rifle report meant more. Riders seldom used rifles. Judkins and Venters were the exceptions she called to mind. Had the men who hounded her hidden in her grove, taken to the rifle to rid her of Lassiter, her last friend? It was probable–it was likely. And she did not share his cool assumption that his death would never come at the hands of a Mormon. Long had she expected it. His constancy to her, his singular reluctance to use the fatal skill for which he was famed– both now plain to all Mormons–laid him open to inevitable assassination. Yet what charm against ambush and aim and enemy he seemed to bear about him! No, Jane reflected, it was not charm; only a wonderful training of eye and ear, and sense of impending peril. Nevertheless that could not forever avail against secret attack.

That moment a rustling of leaves attracted her attention; then the familiar clinking accompaniment of a slow, soft, measured step, and Lassiter walked into the court.

“Jane, there’s a fellow out there with a long gun,” he said, and, removing his sombrero, showed his head bound in a bloody scarf.

“I heard the shot; I knew it was meant for you. Let me see–you can’t be badly injured?”

“I reckon not. But mebbe it wasn’t a close call!…I’ll sit here in this corner where nobody can see me from the grove.” He untied the scarf and removed it to show a long, bleeding furrow above his left temple.

“It’s only a cut,” said Jane. “But how it bleeds! Hold your scarf over it just a moment till I come back.”

She ran into the house and returned with bandages; and while she bathed and dressed the wound Lassiter talked.

“That fellow had a good chance to get me. But he must have flinched when he pulled the trigger. As I dodged down I saw him run through the trees. He had a rifle. I’ve been expectin’ that kind of gun play. I reckon now I’ll have to keep a little closer hid myself. These fellers all seem to get chilly or shaky when they draw a bead on me, but one of them might jest happen to hit me.”

“Won’t you go away–leave Cottonwoods as I’ve begged you to–before some one does happen to hit you?” she appealed to him.

“I reckon I’ll stay.”

“But, oh, Lassiter–your blood will be on my hands!”

“See here, lady, look at your hands now, right now. Aren’t they fine, firm, white hands? Aren’t they bloody now? Lassiter’s blood! That’s a queer thing to stain your beautiful hands. But if you could only see deeper you’d find a redder color of blood. Heart color, Jane!”

“Oh!…My friend!”

“No, Jane, I’m not one to quit when the game grows hot, no more than you. This game, though, is new to me, an’ I don’t know the moves yet, else I wouldn’t have stepped in front of that bullet.”

“Have you no desire to hunt the man who fired at you–to find him–and– and kill him?”

“Well, I reckon I haven’t any great hankerin’ for that.”

“Oh, the wonder of it!…I knew–I prayed–I trusted. Lassiter, I almost gave–all myself to soften you to Mormons. Thank God, and thank you, my friend….But, selfish woman that ] am, this is no great test. What’s the life of one of those sneaking cowards to such a man as you? I think of your great hate toward him who–I think of your life’s implacable purpose. Can it be–”

“Wait!…Listen!” he whispered. “I hear a hoss.”

He rose noiselessly, with his ear to the breeze. Suddenly he pulled his sombrero down over his bandaged head and, swinging his gun-sheaths round in front, he stepped into the alcove.

“It’s a hoss–comin’ fast,” he added.

Jane’s listening ear soon caught a faint, rapid, rhythmic beat of hoofs. It came from the sage. It gave her a thrill that she was at a loss to understand. The sound rose stronger, louder. Then came a clear, sharp difference when the horse passed from the sage trail to the hard-packed ground of the grove. It became a ringing run–swift in its bell-like clatterings, yet singular in longer pause than usual between the hoofbeats of a horse.

“It’s Wrangle!…It’s Wrangle!” cried Jane Withersteen. “I’d know him from a million horses!”

Excitement and thrilling expectancy flooded out all Jane Withersteen s calm. A tight band closed round her breast as she saw the giant sorrel flit in reddish-brown flashes across the openings in the green. Then he was pounding down the lane–thundering into the court–crashing his great iron-shod hoofs on the stone flags. Wrangle it was surely, but shaggy and wild-eyed, and sage-streaked, with dust-caked lather staining his flanks. He reared and crashed down and plunged. The rider leaped off, threw the bridle, and held hard on a lasso looped round Wrangle’s head and neck. Janet’s heart sank as she tried to recognize Venters in the rider. Something familiar struck her in the lofty stature in the sweep of powerful shoulders. But this bearded, longhaired, unkempt man, who wore ragged clothes patched with pieces of skin, and boots that showed bare legs and feet–this dusty, dark, and wild rider could not possibly be Venters.

“Whoa, Wrangle, old boy! Come down. Easy now. So–so–so. You re home, old boy, and presently you can have a drink of water you’ll remember.”

In the voice Jane knew the rider to be Venters. He tied Wrangle to the hitching-rack and turned to the court.

“Oh, Bern!…You wild man!” she exclaimed.

“Jane–Jane, it’s good to see you! Hello, Lassiter! Yes, it’s Venters.”

Like rough iron his hard hand crushed Jane’s. In it she felt the difference she saw in him. Wild, rugged, unshorn–yet how splendid! He had gone away a boy–he had returned a man. He appeared taller, wider of shoulder, deeper-chested, more powerfully built. But was that only her fancy–he had always been a young giant–was the change one of spirit? He might have been absent for years, proven by fire and steel, grown like Lassiter, strong and cool and sure. His eyes–were they keener, more flashing than before?–met hers with clear, frank, warm regard, in which perplexity was not, nor discontent, nor pain.

“Look at me long as you like,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m not much to look at. And, Jane, neither you nor Lassiter, can brag. You’re paler than I ever saw you. Lassiter, here, he wears a bloody bandage under his hat. That reminds me. Some one took a flying shot at me down in the sage. It made Wrangle run some….Well, perhaps you’ve more to tell me than I’ve got to tell you.”

Briefly, in few words, Jane outlined the circumstances of her undoing in the weeks of his absence.

Under his beard and bronze she saw his face whiten in terrible wrath.

“Lassiter–what held you back?”

No time in the long period of fiery moments and sudden shocks had Jane Withersteen ever beheld Lassiter as calm and serene and cool as then.

“Jane had gloom enough without my addin’ to it by shootin’ up the village,” he said.

As strange as Lassiter’s coolness was Venters’s curious, intent scrutiny of them both, and under it Jane felt a flaming tide wave from bosom to temples.

“Well–you’re right,” he said, with slow pause. “It surprises me a little, that’s all.”

Jane sensed then a slight alteration in Venters, and what it was, in her own confusion, she could not tell. It had always been her intention to acquaint him with the deceit she had fallen to in her zeal to move Lassiter. She did not mean to spare herself. Yet now, at the moment, before these riders, it was an impossibility to explain.

Venters was speaking somewhat haltingly, without his former frankness. “I found Oldring’s hiding-place and your red herd. I learned–I know– I’m sure there was a deal between Tull and Oldring.” He paused and shifted his position and his gaze. He looked as if he wanted to say something that he found beyond him. Sorrow and pity and shame seemed to contend for mastery over him. Then he raised himself and spoke with effort. “Jane I’ve cost you too much. You’ve almost ruined yourself for me. It was wrong, for I’m not worth it. I never deserved such friendship. Well, maybe it’s not too late. You must give me up. Mind, I haven’t changed. I am just the same as ever. I’ll see Tull while I’m here, and tell him to his face.”

“Bern, it’s too late,” said Jane.

“I’ll make him believe!” cried Venters, violently.

“You ask me to break our friendship?”

“Yes. If you don’t, I shall.”

“Forever?”

“Forever!”

Jane sighed. Another shadow had lengthened down the sage slope to cast further darkness upon her. A melancholy sweetness pervaded her resignation. The boy who had left her had returned a man, nobler, stronger, one in whom she divined something unbending as steel. There might come a moment later when she would wonder why she had not fought against his will, but just now she yielded to it. She liked him as well–nay, more, she thought, only her emotions were deadened by the long, menacing wait for the bursting storm.

Once before she had held out her hand to him–when she gave it; now she stretched it tremblingly forth in acceptance of the decree circumstance had laid upon them. Venters bowed over it kissed it, pressed it hard, and half stifled a sound very like a sob. Certain it was that when he raised his head tears glistened in his eyes.

“Some–women–have a hard lot,” he said, huskily. Then he shook his powerful form, and his rags lashed about him. “I’ll say a few things to Tull–when I meet him.”

“Bern–you’ll not draw on Tull? Oh, that must not be! Promise me–”

“I promise you this,” he interrupted, in stern passion that thrilled while it terrorized her. “If you say one more word for that plotter I’ll kill him as I would a mad coyote!”

Jane clasped her hands. Was this fire-eyed man the one whom she had once made as wax to her touch? Had Venters become Lassiter and Lassiter Venters?

“I’ll–say no more,” she faltered.

“Jane, Lassiter once called you blind,” said Venters. “It must be true. But I won’t upbraid you. Only don’t rouse the devil in me by praying for Tull! I’ll try to keep cool when I meet him. That’s all. Now there’s one more thing I want to ask of you–the last. I’ve found a valley down in the Pass. It’s a wonderful place. I intend to stay there. It’s so hidden I believe no one can find it. There’s good water, and browse, and game. I want to raise corn and stock. I need to take in supplies. Will you give them to me?”

“Assuredly. The more you take the better you’ll please me–and perhaps the less my–my enemies will get.”

“Venters, I reckon you’ll have trouble packin’ anythin’ away,” put in Lassiter.

“I’ll go at night.”

“Mebbe that wouldn’t be best. You’d sure be stopped. You’d better go early in the mornin’–say, just after dawn. That’s the safest time to move round here.”

“Lassiter, I’ll be hard to stop,” returned Venters, darkly.

“I reckon so.”

“Bern,” said Jane, “go first to the riders’ quarters and get yourself a complete outfit. You’re a–a sight. Then help yourself to whatever else you need–burros, packs, grain, dried fruits, and meat. You must take coffee and sugar and flour–all kinds of supplies. Don’t forget corn and seeds. I remember how you used to starve. Please–please take all you can pack away from here. I’ll make a bundle for you, which you mustn’t open till you’re in your valley. How I’d like to see it! To judge by you and Wrangle, how wild it must be!”

Jane walked down into the outer court and approached the sorrel. Upstarting, he laid back his ears and eyed her.

“Wrangle–dear old Wrangle,” she said, and put a caressing hand on his matted mane. “Oh, he’s wild, but he knows me! Bern, can he run as fast as ever?”

“Run? Jane, he’s done sixty miles since last night at dark, and I could make him kill Black Star right now in a ten-mile race.”

“He never could,” protested Jane. “He couldn’t even if he was fresh.”

“I reckon mebbe the best hoss’ll prove himself yet,” said Lassiter, “an’, Jane, if it ever comes to that race I’d like you to be on Wrangle.”

“I’d like that, too,” rejoined Venters. “But, Jane, maybe Lassiter’s hint is extreme. Bad as your prospects are, you’ll surely never come to the running point.”

“Who knows!” she replied, with mournful smile.

“No, no, Jane, it can’t be so bad as all that. Soon as I see Tull there’ll be a change in your fortunes. I’ll hurry down to the village….Now don’t worry.”

Jane retired to the seclusion of her room. Lassiter’s subtle forecasting of disaster, Venters’s forced optimism, neither remained in mind. Material loss weighed nothing in the balance with other losses she was sustaining. She wondered dully at her sitting there, hands folded listlessly, with a kind of numb deadness to the passing of time and the passing of her riches. She thought of Venters’s friendship. She had not lost that, but she had lost him. Lassiter’s friendship–that was more than love–it would endure, but soon he, too, would be gone. Little Fay slept dreamlessly upon the bed, her golden curls streaming over the pillow. Jane had the child’s worship. Would she lose that, too? And if she did, what then would be left? Conscience thundered at her that there was left her religion. Conscience thundered that she should be grateful on her knees for this baptism of fire; that through misfortune, sacrifice, and suffering her soul might be fused pure gold. But the old, spontaneous, rapturous spirit no more exalted her. She wanted to be a woman–not a martyr. Like the saint of old who mortified his flesh, Jane Withersteen had in her the temper for heroic martyrdom, if by sacrificing herself she could save the souls of others. But here the damnable verdict blistered her that the more she sacrificed herself the blacker grew the souls of her churchmen. There was something terribly wrong with her soul, something terribly wrong with her churchmen and her religion. In the whirling gulf of her thought there was yet one shining light to guide her, to sustain her in her hope; and it was that, despite her errors and her frailties and her blindness, she had one absolute and unfaltering hold on ultimate and supreme justice. That was love. “Love your enemies as yourself!” was a divine word, entirely free from any church or creed.

Jane’s meditations were disturbed by Lassiter’s soft, tinkling step in the court. Always he wore the clinking spurs. Always he was in readiness to ride. She passed out and called him into the huge, dim hall.

“I think you’ll be safer here. The court is too open,” she said.

“I reckon,” replied Lassiter. “An’ it’s cooler here. The day’s sure muggy. Well, I went down to the village with Venters.”

“Already! Where is he?” queried Jane, in quick amaze.

“He’s at the corrals. Blake’s helpin’ him get the burros an’ packs ready. That Blake is a good fellow.”

“Did–did Bern meet Tull?”

“I guess he did,” answered Lassiter, and he laughed dryly.

“Tell me! Oh, you exasperate me! You’re so cool, so calm! For Heaven’s sake, tell me what happened!”

“First time I’ve been in the village for weeks,” went on Lassiter, mildly. “I reckon there ‘ain’t been more of a show for a long time. Me an’ Venters walkin’ down the road! It was funny. I ain’t sayin’ anybody was particular glad to see us. I’m not much thought of hereabouts, an’ Venters he sure looks like what you called him, a wild man. Well, there was some runnin’ of folks before we got to the stores. Then everybody vamoosed except some surprised rustlers in front of a saloon. Venters went right in the stores an’ saloons, an’ of course I went along. I don’t know which tickled me the most–the actions of many fellers we met, or Venters’s nerve. Jane, I was downright glad to be along. You see that sort of thing is my element, an’ I’ve been away from it for a spell. But we didn’t find Tull in one of them places. Some Gentile feller at last told Venters he’d find Tull in that long buildin’ next to Parsons’s store. It’s a kind of meetin’-room; and sure enough, when we peeped in, it was half full of men.

“Venters yelled: ‘Don’t anybody pull guns! We ain’t come for that!’ Then he tramped in, an’ I was some put to keep alongside him. There was a hard, scrapin’ sound of feet, a loud cry, an’ then some whisperin’, an’ after that stillness you could cut with a knife. Tull was there, an’ that fat party who once tried to throw a gun on me, an’ other important-lookin’ men, en’ that little frog-legged feller who was with Tull the day I rode in here. I wish you could have seen their faces, ‘specially Tull’s an’ the fat party’s. But there ain’t no use of me tryin’ to tell you how they looked.

“Well, Venters an’ I stood there in the middle of the room with that batch of men all in front of us, en’ not a blamed one of them winked an eyelash or moved a finger. It was natural, of course, for me to notice many of them packed guns. That’s a way of mine, first noticin’ them things. Venters spoke up, an’ his voice sort of chilled an’ cut, en’ he told Tull he had a few things to say.”

Here Lassiter paused while he turned his sombrero round and round, in his familiar habit, and his eyes had the look of a man seeing over again some thrilling spectacle, and under his red bronze there was strange animation.

“Like a shot, then, Venters told Tull that the friendship between you an’ him was all over, an’ he was leaving your place. He said you’d both of you broken off in the hope of propitiatin’ your people, but you hadn’t changed your mind otherwise, an’ never would.

“Next he spoke up for you. I ain’t goin’ to tell you what he said. Only–no other woman who ever lived ever had such tribute! You had a champion, Jane, an’ never fear that those thick-skulled men don’t know you now. It couldn’t be otherwise. He spoke the ringin’, lightnin’ truth….Then he accused Tull of the underhand, miserable robbery of a helpless woman. He told Tull where the red herd was, of a deal made with Oldrin’, that Jerry Card had made the deal. I thought Tull was goin’ to drop, an’ that little frog-legged cuss, he looked some limp an’ white. But Venters’s voice would have kept anybody’s legs from bucklin’. I was stiff myself. He went on an’ called Tull–called him every bad name ever known to a rider, an’ then some. He cursed Tull. I never hear a man get such a cursin’. He laughed in scorn at the idea of Tull bein’ a minister. He said Tull an’ a few more dogs of hell builded their empire out of the hearts of such innocent an’ God-fearin’ women as Jane Withersteen. He called Tull a binder of women, a callous beast who hid behind a mock mantle of righteousness–an’ the last an’ lowest coward on the face of the earth. To prey on weak women through their religion–that was the last unspeakable crime!

“Then he finished, an’ by this time he’d almost lost his voice. But his whisper was enough. ‘Tull,’ he said, ‘she begged me not to draw on you to-day. She would pray for you if you burned her at the stake….But listen!…I swear if you and I ever come face to face again, I’ll kill you!’

“We backed out of the door then, an’ up the road. But nobody follered us.”

Jane found herself weeping passionately. She had not been conscious of it till Lassiter ended his story, and she experienced exquisite pain and relief in shedding tears. Long had her eyes been dry, her grief deep; long had her emotions been dumb. Lassiter’s story put her on the rack; the appalling nature of Venters’s act and speech had no parallel as an outrage; it was worse than bloodshed. Men like Tull had been shot, but had one ever been so terribly denounced in public? Over-mounting her horror, an uncontrollable, quivering passion shook her very soul. It was sheer human glory in the deed of a fearless man. It was hot, primitive instinct to live–to fight. It was a kind of mad joy in Venters’s chivalry. It was close to the wrath that had