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  • 1912
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first shaken her in the beginning of this war waged upon her.

“Well, well, Jane, don’t take it that way,” said Lassiter, in evident distress. “I had to tell you. There’s some things a feller jest can’t keep. It’s strange you give up on hearin’ that, when all this long time you’ve been the gamest woman I ever seen. But I don’t know women. Mebbe there’s reason for you to cry. I know this–nothin’ ever rang in my soul an’ so filled it as what Venters did. I’d like to have done it, but–I’m only good for throwin’ a gun, en’ it seems you hate that….Well, I’ll be goin’ now.”

“Where?”

“Venters took Wrangle to the stable. The sorrel’s shy a shoe, an’ I’ve got to help hold the big devil an’ put on another.”

“Tell Bern to come for the pack I want to give him–and–and to say good-by,” called Jane, as Lassiter went out.

Jane passed the rest of that day in a vain endeavor to decide what and what not to put in the pack for Venters. This task was the last she would ever perform for him, and the gifts were the last she would ever make him. So she picked and chose and rejected, and chose again, and often paused in sad revery, and began again, till at length she filled the pack.

It was about sunset, and she and Fay had finished supper and were sitting in the court, when Venters’s quick steps rang on the stones. She scarcely knew him, for he had changed the tattered garments, and she missed the dark beard and long hair. Still he was not the Venters of old. As he came up the steps she felt herself pointing to the pack, and heard herself speaking words that were meaningless to her. He said good-by; he kissed her, released her, and turned away. His tall figure blurred in her sight, grew dim through dark, streaked vision, and then he vanished.

Twilight fell around Withersteen House, and dusk and night. Little Fay slept; but Jane lay with strained, aching eyes. She heard the wind moaning in the cottonwoods and mice squeaking in the walls. The night was interminably long, yet she prayed to hold back the dawn. What would another day bring forth? The blackness of her room seemed blacker for the sad, entering gray of morning light. She heard the chirp of awakening birds, and fancied she caught a faint clatter of hoofs. Then low, dull distant, throbbed a heavy gunshot. She had expected it, was waiting for it; nevertheless, an electric shock checked her heart, froze the very living fiber of her bones. That vise-like hold on her faculties apparently did not relax for a long time, and it was a voice under her window that released her.

“Jane!…Jane!” softly called Lassiter.

She answered somehow.

“It’s all right. Venters got away. I thought mebbe you’d heard that shot, en’ I was worried some.”

“What was it–who fired?”

“Well–some fool feller tried to stop Venters out there in the sage–an’ he only stopped lead!…I think it’ll be all right. I haven’t seen or heard of any other fellers round. Venters’ll go through safe. An’, Jane, I’ve got Bells saddled, an’ I’m going to trail Venters. Mind, I won’t show myself unless he falls foul of somebody an’ needs me. I want to see if this place where he’s goin’ is safe for him. He says nobody can track him there. I never seen the place yet I couldn’t track a man to. Now, Jane, you stay indoors while I’m gone, an’ keep close watch on Fay. Will you?”

“Yes! Oh yes!”

“An’ another thing, Jane,” he continued, then paused for long–“another thing–if you ain’t here when I come back–if you’re gone–don’t fear, I’ll trail you–I’ll find you out.”

“My dear Lassiter, where could I be gone–as you put it?” asked Jane, in curious surprise.

“I reckon you might be somewhere. Mebbe tied in an old barn–or corralled in some gulch–or chained in a cave! Milly Erne was–till she give in! Mebbe that’s news to you….Well, if you’re gone I’ll hunt for you.”

“No, Lassiter,” she replied, sadly and low. “If I’m gone just forget the unhappy woman whose blinded selfish deceit you repaid with kindness and love.”

She heard a deep, muttering curse, under his breath, and then the silvery tinkling of his spurs as he moved away.

Jane entered upon the duties of that day with a settled, gloomy calm. Disaster hung in the dark clouds, in the shade, in the humid west wind. Blake, when he reported, appeared without his usual cheer; and Jerd wore a harassed look of a worn and worried man. And when Judkins put in appearance, riding a lame horse, and dismounted with the cramp of a rider, his dust-covered figure and his darkly grim, almost dazed expression told Jane of dire calamity. She had no need of words.

“Miss Withersteen, I have to report–loss of the–white herd,” said Judkins, hoarsely.

“Come, sit down, you look played out,” replied Jane, solicitously. She brought him brandy and food, and while he partook of refreshments, of which he appeared badly in need, she asked no questions.

“No one rider–could hev done more–Miss Withersteen,” he went on, presently.

“Judkins, don’t be distressed. You’ve done more than any other rider. I’ve long expected to lose the white herd. It’s no surprise. It’s in line with other things that are happening. I’m grateful for your service.”

“Miss Withersteen, I knew how you’d take it. But if anythin’, that makes it harder to tell. You see, a feller wants to do so much fer you, an’ I’d got fond of my job. We led the herd a ways off to the north of the break in the valley. There was a big level an’ pools of water an’ tip-top browse. But the cattle was in a high nervous condition. Wild– as wild as antelope! You see, they’d been so scared they never slept. I ain’t a-goin’ to tell you of the many tricks that were pulled off out there in the sage. But there wasn’t a day for weeks thet the herd didn’t get started to run. We allus managed to ride ’em close an’ drive ’em back an’ keep ’em bunched. Honest, Miss Withersteen, them steers was thin. They was thin when water and grass was everywhere. Thin at this season–thet’ll tell you how your steers was pestered. Fer instance, one night a strange runnin’ streak of fire run right through the herd. That streak was a coyote–with an oiled an’ blazin’ tail! Fer I shot it an’ found out. We had hell with the herd that night, an’ if the sage an’ grass hadn’t been wet–we, hosses, steers, an’ all would hev burned up. But I said I wasn’t goin’ to tell you any of the tricks….Strange now, Miss Withersteen, when the stampede did come it was from natural cause– jest a whirlin’ devil of dust. You’ve seen the like often. An’ this wasn’t no big whirl, fer the dust was mostly settled. It had dried out in a little swale, an’ ordinarily no steer would ever hev run fer it. But the herd was nervous en’ wild. An’ jest as Lassiter said, when that bunch of white steers got to movin’ they was as bad as buffalo. I’ve seen some buffalo stampedes back in Nebraska, an’ this bolt of the steers was the same kind.

“I tried to mill the herd jest as Lassiter did. But I wasn’t equal to it, Miss Withersteen. I don’t believe the rider lives who could hev turned thet herd. We kept along of the herd fer miles, an’ more ‘n one of my boys tried to get the steers a-millin’. It wasn’t no use. We got off level ground, goin’ down, an’ then the steers ran somethin’ fierce. We left the little gullies an’ washes level-full of dead steers. Finally I saw the herd was makin’ to pass a kind of low pocket between ridges. There was a hog-back–as we used to call ’em–a pile of rocks stickin’ up, and I saw the herd was goin’ to split round it, or swing out to the left. An’ I wanted ’em to go to the right so mebbe we’d be able to drive ’em into the pocket. So, with all my boys except three, I rode hard to turn the herd a little to the right. We couldn’t budge ’em. They went on en’ split round the rocks, en’ the most of ’em was turned sharp to the left by a deep wash we hedn’t seen–hed no chance to see.

“The other three boys–Jimmy Vail, Joe Willis, an’ thet little Cairns boy–a nervy kid! they, with Cairns leadin’, tried to buck thet herd round to the pocket. It was a wild, fool idee. I couldn’t do nothin’. The boys got hemmed in between the steers an’ the wash–thet they hedn’t no chance to see, either. Vail an’ Willis was run down right before our eyes. An’ Cairns, who rode a fine hoss, he did some ridin’. I never seen equaled, en’ would hev beat the steers if there’d been any room to run in. I was high up an’ could see how the steers kept spillin’ by twos an’ threes over into the wash. Cairns put his hoss to a place thet was too wide fer any hoss, an’ broke his neck an’ the hoss’s too. We found that out after, an’ as fer Vail an’ Willis–two thousand steers ran over the poor boys. There wasn’t much left to pack home fer burying!…An’, Miss Withersteen, thet all happened yesterday, en’ I believe, if the white herd didn’t run over the wall of the Pass, it’s runnin’ yet.”

On the morning of the second day after Judkins’s recital, during which time Jane remained indoors a prey to regret and sorrow for the boy riders, and a new and now strangely insistent fear for her own person, she again heard what she had missed more than she dared honestly confess–the soft, jingling step of Lassiter. Almost overwhelming relief surged through her, a feeling as akin to joy as any she could have been capable of in those gloomy hours of shadow, and one that suddenly stunned her with the significance of what Lassiter had come to mean to her. She had begged him, for his own sake, to leave Cottonwoods. She might yet beg that, if her weakening courage permitted her to dare absolute loneliness and helplessness, but she realized now that if she were left alone her life would become one long, hideous nightmare.

When his soft steps clinked into the hall, in answer to her greeting, and his tall, black-garbed form filled the door, she felt an inexpressible sense of immediate safety. In his presence she lost her fear of the dim passageways of Withersteen House and of every sound. Always it had been that, when he entered the court or the hall, she had experienced a distinctly sickening but gradually lessening shock at sight of the huge black guns swinging at his sides. This time the sickening shock again visited her, it was, however, because a revealing flash of thought told her that it was not alone Lassiter who was thrillingly welcome, but also his fatal weapons. They meant so much. How she had fallen–how broken and spiritless must she be–to have still the same old horror of Lassiter’s guns and his name, yet feel somehow a cold, shrinking protection in their law and might and use.

“Did you trail Venters–find his wonderful valley?” she asked, eagerly.

“Yes, an’ I reckon it’s sure a wonderful place.”

“Is he safe there?”

“That’s been botherin’ me some. I tracked him an’ part of the trail was the hardest I ever tackled. Mebbe there’s a rustler or somebody in this country who’s as good at trackin’ as I am. If that’s so Venters ain’t safe.”

“Well–tell me all about Bern and his valley.”

To Jane’s surprise Lassiter showed disinclination for further talk about his trip. He appeared to be extremely fatigued. Jane reflected that one hundred and twenty miles, with probably a great deal of climbing on foot, all in three days, was enough to tire any rider. Moreover, it presently developed that Lassiter had returned in a mood of singular sadness and preoccupation. She put it down to a moodiness over the loss of her white herd and the now precarious condition of her fortune.

Several days passed, and as nothing happened, Jane’s spirits began to brighten. Once in her musings she thought that this tendency of hers to rebound was as sad as it was futile. Meanwhile, she had resumed her walks through the grove with little Fay.

One morning she went as far as the sage. She had not seen the slope since the beginning of the rains, and now it bloomed a rich deep purple. There was a high wind blowing, and the sage tossed and waved and colored beautifully from light to dark. Clouds scudded across the sky and their shadows sailed darkly down the sunny slope.

Upon her return toward the house she went by the lane to the stables, and she had scarcely entered the great open space with its corrals and sheds when she saw Lassiter hurriedly approaching. Fay broke from her and, running to a corral fence, began to pat and pull the long, hanging ears of a drowsy burro.

One look at Lassiter armed her for a blow.

Without a word he led her across the wide yard to the rise of the ground upon which the stable stood.

“Jane–look!” he said, and pointed to the ground.

Jane glanced down, and again, and upon steadier vision made out splotches of blood on the stones, and broad, smooth marks in the dust, leading out toward the sage.

“What made these?” she asked.

“I reckon somebody has dragged dead or wounded men out to where there was hosses in the sage.”

“Dead–or–wounded–men!”

“I reckon–Jane, are you strong? Can you bear up?”

His hands were gently holding hers, and his eyes–suddenly she could no longer look into them. “Strong?” she echoed, trembling. “I–I will be.”

Up on the stone-flag drive, nicked with the marks made by the iron-shod hoofs of her racers, Lassiter led her, his grasp ever growing firmer.

“Where’s Blake–and–and Jerb?” she asked, haltingly.

“I don’t know where Jerb is. Bolted, most likely,” replied Lassiter, as he took her through the stone door. “But Blake–poor Blake! He’s gone forever!…Be prepared, Jane.”

With a cold prickling of her skin, with a queer thrumming in her ears, with fixed and staring eyes, Jane saw a gun lying at her feet with chamber swung and empty, and discharged shells scattered near.

Outstretched upon the stable floor lay Blake, ghastly white–dead–one hand clutching a gun and the other twisted in his bloody blouse.

“Whoever the thieves were, whether your people or rustlers–Blake killed some of them!” said Lassiter.

“Thieves?” whispered Jane.

“I reckon. Hoss-thieves!…Look!” Lassiter waved his hand toward the stalls.

The first stall–Bells’s stall–was empty. All the stalls were empty. No racer whinnied and stamped greeting to her. Night was gone! Black Star was gone!

CHAPTER XVI. GOLD

As Lassiter had reported to Jane, Venters “went through” safely, and after a toilsome journey reached the peaceful shelter of Surprise Valley. When finally he lay wearily down under the silver spruces, resting from the strain of dragging packs and burros up the slope and through the entrance to Surprise Valley, he had leisure to think, and a great deal of the time went in regretting that he had not been frank with his loyal friend, Jane Withersteen.

But, he kept continually recalling, when he had stood once more face to face with her and had been shocked at the change in her and had heard the details of her adversity, he had not had the heart to tell her of the closer interest which had entered his life. He had not lied; yet he had kept silence.

Bess was in transports over the stores of supplies and the outfit he had packed from Cottonwoods. He had certainly brought a hundred times more than he had gone for; enough, surely, for years, perhaps to make permanent home in the valley. He saw no reason why he need ever leave there again.

After a day of rest he recovered his strength and shared Bess’s pleasure in rummaging over the endless packs, and began to plan for the future. And in this planning, his trip to Cottonwoods, with its revived hate of Tull and consequent unleashing of fierce passions, soon faded out of mind. By slower degrees his friendship for Jane Withersteen and his contrition drifted from the active preoccupation of his present thought to a place in memory, with more and more infrequent recalls.

And as far as the state of his mind was concerned, upon the second day after his return, the valley, with its golden hues and purple shades, the speaking west wind and the cool, silent night, and Bess’s watching eyes with their wonderful light, so wrought upon Venters that he might never have left them at all.

That very afternoon he set to work. Only one thing hindered him upon beginning, though it in no wise checked his delight, and that in the multiplicity of tasks planned to make a paradise out of the valley he could not choose the one with which to begin. He had to grow into the habit of passing from one dreamy pleasure to another, like a bee going from flower to flower in the valley, and he found this wandering habit likely to extend to his labors. Nevertheless, he made a start.

At the outset he discovered Bess to be both a considerable help in some ways and a very great hindrance in others. Her excitement and joy were spurs, inspirations; but she was utterly impracticable in her ideas, and she flitted from one plan to another with bewildering vacillation. Moreover, he fancied that she grew more eager, youthful, and sweet; and he marked that it was far easier to watch her and listen to her than it was to work. Therefore he gave her tasks that necessitated her going often to the cave where he had stored his packs.

Upon the last of these trips, when he was some distance down the terrace and out of sight of camp, he heard a scream, and then the sharp barking of the dogs.

For an instant he straightened up, amazed. Danger for her had been absolutely out of his mind. She had seen a rattlesnake–or a wildcat. Still she would not have been likely to scream at sight of either; and the barking of the dogs was ominous. Dropping his work, he dashed back along the terrace. Upon breaking through a clump of aspens he saw the dark form of a man in the camp. Cold, then hot, Venters burst into frenzied speed to reach his guns. He was cursing himself for a thoughtless fool when the man’s tall form became familiar and he recognized Lassiter. Then the reversal of emotions changed his run to a walk; he tried to call out, but his voice refused to carry; when he reached camp there was Lassiter staring at the white-faced girl. By that time Ring and Whitie had recognized him.

“Hello, Venters! I’m makin’ you a visit,” said Lassiter, slowly. “An’ I’m some surprised to see you’ve a–a young feller for company.”

One glance had sufficed for the keen rider to read Bess’s real sex, and for once his cool calm had deserted him. He stared till the white of Bess’s cheeks flared into crimson. That, if it were needed, was the concluding evidence of her femininity, for it went fittingly with her sun-tinted hair and darkened, dilated eyes, the sweetness of her mouth, and the striking symmetry of her slender shape.

“Heavens! Lassiter!” panted Venters, when he caught his breath. “What relief–it’s only you! How–in the name of all that’s wonderful–did you ever get here?”

“I trailed you. We–I wanted to know where you was, if you had a safe place. So I trailed you.”

“Trailed me,” cried Venters, bluntly.

“I reckon. It was some of a job after I got to them smooth rocks. I was all day trackin’ you up to them little cut steps in the rock. The rest was easy.”

“Where’s your hoss? I hope you hid him.”

“I tied him in them queer cedars down on the slope. He can’t be seen from the valley.”

“That’s good. Well, well! I’m completely dumfounded. It was my idea that no man could track me in here.”

“I reckon. But if there’s a tracker in these uplands as good as me he can find you.”

“That’s bad. That’ll worry me. But, Lassiter, now you’re here I’m glad to see you. And–and my companion here is not a young fellow!…Bess, this is a friend of mine. He saved my life once.”

The embarrassment of the moment did not extend to Lassiter. Almost at once his manner, as he shook hands with Bess, relieved Venters and put the girl at ease. After Venters’s words and one quick look at Lassiter, her agitation stilled, and, though she was shy, if she were conscious of anything out of the ordinary in the situation, certainly she did not show it.

“I reckon I’ll only stay a little while,” Lassiter was saying. “An’ if you don’t mind troublin’, I’m hungry. I fetched some biscuits along, but they’re gone. Venters, this place is sure the wonderfullest ever seen. Them cut steps on the slope! That outlet into the gorge! An’ it’s like climbin’ up through hell into heaven to climb through that gorge into this valley! There’s a queer-lookin’ rock at the top of the passage. I didn’t have time to stop. I’m wonderin’ how you ever found this place. It’s sure interestin’.”

During the preparation and eating of dinner Lassiter listened mostly, as was his wont, and occasionally he spoke in his quaint and dry way. Venters noted, however, that the rider showed an increasing interest in Bess. He asked her no questions, and only directed his attention to her while she was occupied and had no opportunity to observe his scrutiny. It seemed to Venters that Lassiter grew more and more absorbed in his study of Bess, and that he lost his coolness in some strange, softening sympathy. Then, quite abruptly, he arose and announced the necessity for his early departure. He said good-by to Bess in a voice gentle and somewhat broken, and turned hurriedly away. Venters accompanied him, and they had traversed the terrace, climbed the weathered slope, and passed under the stone bridge before either spoke again.

Then Lassiter put a great hand on Venters’s shoulder and wheeled him to meet a smoldering fire of gray eyes.

“Lassiter, I couldn’t tell Jane! I couldn’t,” burst out Venters, reading his friend’s mind. “I tried. But I couldn’t. She wouldn’t understand, and she has troubles enough. And I love the girl!”

“Venters, I reckon this beats me. I’ve seen some queer things in my time, too. This girl–who is she?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t know! What is she, then?”

“I don’t know that, either. Oh, it’s the strangest story you ever heard. I must tell you. But you’ll never believe.”

“Venters, women were always puzzles to me. But for all that, if this girl ain’t a child, an’ as innocent, I’m no fit person to think of virtue an’ goodness in anybody. Are you goin’ to be square with her?”

“I am–so help me God!”

“I reckoned so. Mebbe my temper oughtn’t led me to make sure. But, man, she’s a woman in all but years. She’s sweeter ‘n the sage.”

“Lassiter, I know, I know. And the hell of it is that in spite of her innocence and charm she’s–she’s not what she seems!”

“I wouldn’t want to–of course, I couldn’t call you a liar, Venters,” said the older man.

“What’s more, she was Oldring’s Masked Rider!”

Venters expected to floor his friend with that statement, but he was not in any way prepared for the shock his words gave. For an instant he was astounded to see Lassiter stunned; then his own passionate eagerness to unbosom himself, to tell the wonderful story, precluded any other thought.

“Son, tell me all about this,” presently said Lassiter as he seated himself on a stone and wiped his moist brow.

Thereupon Venters began his narrative at the point where he had shot the rustler and Oldring’s Masked Rider, and he rushed through it, telling all, not holding back even Bess’s unreserved avowal of her love or his deepest emotions.

“That’s the story,” he said, concluding. “I love her, though I’ve never told her. If I did tell her I’d be ready to marry her, and that seems impossible in this country. I’d be afraid to risk taking her anywhere. So I intend to do the best I can for her here.”

“The longer I live the stranger life is,” mused Lassiter, with downcast eyes. “I’m reminded of somethin’ you once said to Jane about hands in her game of life. There’s that unseen hand of power, an’ Tull’s black hand, an’ my red one, an’ your indifferent one, an’ the girl’s little brown, helpless one. An’, Venters there’s another one that’s all-wise an’ all-wonderful. That’s the hand guidin’ Jane Withersteen’s game of life!…Your story’s one to daze a far clearer head than mine. I can’t offer no advice, even if you asked for it. Mebbe I can help you. Anyway, I’ll hold Oldrin’ up when he comes to the village an’ find out about this girl. I knew the rustler years ago. He’ll remember me.”

“Lassiter, if I ever meet Oldring I’ll kill him!” cried Venters, with sudden intensity.

“I reckon that’d be perfectly natural,” replied the rider.

“Make him think Bess is dead–as she is to him and that old life.”

“Sure, sure, son. Cool down now. If you’re goin’ to begin pullin’ guns on Tull an’ Oldin’ you want to be cool. I reckon, though, you’d better keep hid here. Well, I must be leavin’.”

“One thing, Lassiter. You’ll not tell Jane about Bess? Please don’t!”

“I reckon not. But I wouldn’t be afraid to bet that after she’d got over anger at your secrecy–Venters, she’d be furious once in her life!–she’d think more of you. I don’t mind sayin’ for myself that I think you’re a good deal of a man.”

In the further ascent Venters halted several times with the intention of saying good-by, yet he changed his mind and kept on climbing till they reached Balancing Rock. Lassiter examined the huge rock, listened to Venters’s idea of its position and suggestion, and curiously placed a strong hand upon it.

“Hold on!” cried Venters. “I heaved at it once and have never gotten over my scare.”

“Well, you do seem uncommon nervous,” replied Lassiter, much amused. “Now, as for me, why I always had the funniest notion to roll stones! When I was a kid I did it, an’ the bigger I got the bigger stones I’d roll. Ain’t that funny? Honest–even now I often get off my hoss just to tumble a big stone over a precipice, en’ watch it drop, en’ listen to it bang an’ boom. I’ve started some slides in my time, an’ don’t you forget it. I never seen a rock I wanted to roll as bad as this one! Wouldn’t there jest be roarin’, crashin’ hell down that trail?”

“You’d close the outlet forever!” exclaimed Venters. “Well, good-by, Lassiter. Keep my secret and don’t forget me. And be mighty careful how you get out of the valley below. The rustlers’ canyon isn’t more than three miles up the Pass. Now you’ve tracked me here, I’ll never feel safe again.”

In his descent to the valley, Venters’s emotion, roused to stirring pitch by the recital of his love story, quieted gradually, and in its place came a sober, thoughtful mood. All at once he saw that he was serious, because he would never more regain his sense of security while in the valley. What Lassiter could do another skilful tracker might duplicate. Among the many riders with whom Venters had ridden he recalled no one who could have taken his trail at Cottonwoods and have followed it to the edge of the bare slope in the pass, let alone up that glistening smooth stone. Lassiter, however, was not an ordinary rider. Instead of hunting cattle tracks he had likely spent a goodly portion of his life tracking men. It was not improbable that among Oldring’s rustlers there was one who shared Lassiter’s gift for trailing. And the more Venters dwelt on this possibility the more perturbed he grew.

Lassiter’s visit, moreover, had a disquieting effect upon Bess, and Venters fancied that she entertained the same thought as to future seclusion. The breaking of their solitude, though by a well-meaning friend, had not only dispelled all its dream and much of its charm, but had instilled a canker of fear. Both had seen the footprint in the sand.

Venters did no more work that day. Sunset and twilight gave way to night, and the canyon bird whistled its melancholy notes, and the wind sang softly in the cliffs, and the camp-fire blazed and burned down to red embers. To Venters a subtle difference was apparent in all of these, or else the shadowy change had been in him. He hoped that on the morrow this slight depression would have passed away.

In that measure, however, he was doomed to disappointment. Furthermore, Bess reverted to a wistful sadness that he had not observed in her since her recovery. His attempt to cheer her out of it resulted in dismal failure, and consequently in a darkening of his own mood. Hard work relieved him; still, when the day had passed, his unrest returned. Then he set to deliberate thinking, and there came to him the startling conviction that he must leave Surprise Valley and take Bess with him. As a rider he had taken many chances, and as an adventurer in Deception Pass he had unhesitatingly risked his life, but now he would run no preventable hazard of Bess’s safety and happiness, and he was too keen not to see that hazard. It gave him a pang to think of leaving the beautiful valley just when he had the means to establish a permanent and delightful home there. One flashing thought tore in hot temptation through his mind–why not climb up into the gorge, roll Balancing Rock down the trail, and close forever the outlet to Deception Pass? “That was the beast in me–showing his teeth!” muttered Venters, scornfully. “I’ll just kill him good and quick! I’ll be fair to this girl, if it’s the last thing I do on earth!”

Another day went by, in which he worked less and pondered more and all the time covertly watched Bess. Her wistfulness had deepened into downright unhappiness, and that made his task to tell her all the harder. He kept the secret another day, hoping by some chance she might grow less moody, and to his exceeding anxiety she fell into far deeper gloom. Out of his own secret and the torment of it he divined that she, too, had a secret and the keeping of it was torturing her. As yet he had no plan thought out in regard to how or when to leave the valley, but he decided to tell her the necessity of it and to persuade her to go. Furthermore, he hoped his speaking out would induce her to unburden her own mind.

“Bess, what’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she answered, with averted face.

Venters took hold of her gently, though masterfully, forced her to meet his eyes.

“You can’t look at me and lie,” he said. “Now–what’s wrong with you? You’re keeping something from me. Well, I’ve got a secret, too, and I intend to tell it presently.”

“Oh–I have a secret. I was crazy to tell you when you came back. That’s why I was so silly about everything. I kept holding my secret back–gloating over it. But when Lassiter came I got an idea–that changed my mind. Then I hated to tell you.”

“Are you going to now?”

“Yes–yes. I was coming to it. I tried yesterday, but you were so cold. I was afraid. I couldn’t keep it much longer.”

“Very well, most mysterious lady, tell your wonderful secret.”

“You needn’t laugh,” she retorted, with a first glimpse of reviving spirit. “I can take the laugh out of you in one second.”

“It’s a go.”

She ran through the spruces to the cave, and returned carrying something which was manifestly heavy. Upon nearer view he saw that whatever she held with such evident importance had been bound up in a black scarf he well remembered. That alone was sufficient to make him tingle with curiosity.

“Have you any idea what I did in your absence?” she asked.

“I imagine you lounged about, waiting and watching for me,” he replied, smiling. “I’ve my share of conceit, you know.”

“You’re wrong. I worked. Look at my hands.” She dropped on her knees close to where he sat, and, carefully depositing the black bundle, she held out her hands. The palms and inside of her fingers were white, puckered, and worn.

“Why, Bess, you’ve been fooling in the water,” he said.

“Fooling? Look here!” With deft fingers she spread open the black scarf, and the bright sun shone upon a dull, glittering heap of gold.

“Gold!” he ejaculated.

“Yes, gold! See, pounds of gold! I found it–washed it out of the stream–picked it out grain by grain, nugget by nugget!”

“Gold!” he cried.

“Yes. Now–now laugh at my secret!”

For a long minute Venters gazed. Then he stretched forth a hand to feel if the gold was real.

“Gold!” he almost shouted. “Bess, there are hundreds–thousands of dollars’ worth here!”

He leaned over to her, and put his hand, strong and clenching now, on hers.

“Is there more where this came from?” he whispered.

“Plenty of it, all the way up the stream to the cliff. You know I’ve often washed for gold. Then I’ve heard the men talk. I think there’s no great quantity of gold here, but enough for–for a fortune for you.”

“That–was–your–secret! ”

“Yes. I hate gold. For it makes men mad. I’ve seen them drunk with joy and dance and fling themselves around. I’ve seen them curse and rave. I’ve seen them fight like dogs and roll in the dust. I’ve seen them kill each other for gold.”

“Is that why you hated to tell me?”

“Not–not altogether.” Bess lowered her head. “It was because I knew you’d never stay here long after you found gold.”

“You were afraid I’d leave you?”

“Yes.

“Listen!…You great, simple child! Listen…You sweet, wonderful, wild, blue-eyed girl! I was tortured by my secret. It was that I knew we–we must leave the valley. We can’t stay here much longer. I couldn’t think how we’d get away–out of the country–or how we’d live, if we ever got out. I’m a beggar. That’s why I kept my secret. I’m poor. It takes money to make way beyond Sterling. We couldn’t ride horses or burros or walk forever. So while I knew we must go, I was distracted over how to go and what to do. Now! We’ve gold! Once beyond Sterling, well be safe from rustlers. We’ve no others to fear.

“Oh! Listen! Bess!” Venters now heard his voice ringing high and sweet, and he felt Bess’s cold hands in his crushing grasp as she leaned toward him pale, breathless. “This is how much I’d leave you! You made me live again! I’ll take you away–far away from this wild country. You’ll begin a new life. You’ll be happy. You shall see cities, ships, people. You shall have anything your heart craves. All the shame and sorrow of your life shall be forgotten–as if they had never been. This is how much I’d leave you here alone–you sad-eyed girl. I love you! Didn’t you know it? How could you fail to know it? I love you! I’m free! I’m a man–a man you’ve made–no more a beggar!…Kiss me! This is how much I’d leave you here alone–you beautiful, strange, unhappy girl. But I’ll make you happy. What–what do I care for–your past! I love you! I’ll take you home to Illinois–to my mother. Then I’ll take you to far places. I’ll make up all you’ve lost. Oh, I know you love me–knew it before you told me. And it changed my life. And you’ll go with me, not as my companion as you are here, nor my sister, but, Bess, darling!…As my wife!”

CHAPTER XVII. WRANGLE’S RACE RUN

The plan eventually decided upon by the lovers was for Venters to go to the village, secure a horse and some kind of a disguise for Bess, or at least less striking apparel than her present garb, and to return post-haste to the valley. Meanwhile, she would add to their store of gold. Then they would strike the long and perilous trail to ride out of Utah. In the event of his inability to fetch back a horse for her, they intended to make the giant sorrel carry double. The gold, a little food, saddle blankets, and Venters’s guns were to compose the light outfit with which they would make the start.

“I love this beautiful place,” said Bess. “It’s hard to think of leaving it.”

“Hard! Well, I should think so,” replied Venters. “Maybe–in years–” But he did not complete in words his thought that might be possible to return after many years of absence and change.

Once again Bess bade Venters farewell under the shadow of Balancing Rock, and this time it was with whispered hope and tenderness and passionate trust. Long after he had left her, all down through the outlet to the Pass, the clinging clasp of her arms, the sweetness of her lips, and the sense of a new and exquisite birth of character in her remained hauntingly and thrillingly in his mind. The girl who had sadly called herself nameless and nothing had been marvelously transformed in the moment of his avowal of love. It was something to think over, something to warm his heart, but for the present it had absolutely to be forgotten so that all his mind could be addressed to the trip so fraught with danger.

He carried only his rifle, revolver, and a small quantity of bread and meat, and thus lightly burdened, he made swift progress down the slope and out into the valley. Darkness was coming on, and he welcomed it. Stars were blinking when he reached his old hiding-place in the split of canyon wall, and by their aid he slipped through the dense thickets to the grassy enclosure. Wrangle stood in the center of it with his head up, and he appeared black and of gigantic proportions in the dim light. Venters whistled softly, began a slow approach, and then called. The horse snorted and, plunging away with dull, heavy sound of hoofs, he disappeared in the gloom. “Wilder than ever!” muttered Venters. He followed the sorrel into the narrowing split between the walls, and presently had to desist because he could not see a foot in advance. As he went back toward the open Wrangle jumped out of an ebony shadow of cliff and like a thunderbolt shot huge and black past him down into the starlit glade. Deciding that all attempts to catch Wrangle at night would be useless, Venters repaired to the shelving rock where he had hidden saddle and blanket, and there went to sleep.

The first peep of day found him stirring, and as soon as it was light enough to distinguish objects, he took his lasso off his saddle and went out to rope the sorrel. He espied Wrangle at the lower end of the cove and approached him in a perfectly natural manner. When he got near enough, Wrangle evidently recognized him, but was too wild to stand. He ran up the glade and on into the narrow lane between the walls. This favored Venters’s speedy capture of the horse, so, coiling his noose ready to throw, he hurried on. Wrangle let Venters get to within a hundred feet and then he broke. But as he plunged by, rapidly getting into his stride, Venters made a perfect throw with the rope. He had time to brace himself for the shock; nevertheless, Wrangle threw him and dragged him several yards before halting.

“You wild devil,” said Venters, as he slowly pulled Wrangle up. “Don’t you know me? Come now–old fellow–so–so–”

Wrangle yielded to the lasso and then to Venters’s strong hand. He was as straggly and wild-looking as a horse left to roam free in the sage. He dropped his long ears and stood readily to be saddled and bridled. But he was exceedingly sensitive, and quivered at every touch and sound. Venters led him to the thicket, and, bending the close saplings to let him squeeze through, at length reached the open. Sharp survey in each direction assured him of the usual lonely nature of the canyon, then he was in the saddle, riding south.

Wrangle’s long, swinging canter was a wonderful ground-gainer. His stride was almost twice that of an ordinary horse; and his endurance was equally remarkable. Venters pulled him in occasionally, and walked him up the stretches of rising ground and along the soft washes. Wrangle had never yet shown any indication of distress while Venters rode him. Nevertheless, there was now reason to save the horse, therefore Venters did not resort to the hurry that had characterized his former trip. He camped at the last water in the Pass. What distance that was to Cottonwoods he did not know; he calculated, however, that it was in the neighborhood of fifty miles.

Early in the morning he proceeded on his way, and about the middle of the forenoon reached the constricted gap that marked the southerly end of the Pass, and through which led the trail up to the sage-level. He spied out Lassiter’s tracks in the dust, but no others, and dismounting, he straightened out Wrangle’s bridle and began to lead him up the trail. The short climb, more severe on beast than on man, necessitated a rest on the level above, and during this he scanned the wide purple reaches of slope.

Wrangle whistled his pleasure at the smell of the sage. Remounting, Venters headed up the white trail with the fragrant wind in his face. He had proceeded for perhaps a couple of miles when Wrangle stopped with a suddenness that threw Venters heavily against the pommel.

“What’s wrong, old boy?” called Venters, looking down for a loose shoe or a snake or a foot lamed by a picked-up stone. Unrewarded, he raised himself from his scrutiny. Wrangle stood stiff head high, with his long ears erect. Thus guided, Venters swiftly gazed ahead to make out a dust-clouded, dark group of horsemen riding down the slope. If they had seen him, it apparently made no difference in their speed or direction.

“Wonder who they are!” exclaimed Venters. He was not disposed to run. His cool mood tightened under grip of excitement as he reflected that, whoever the approaching riders were, they could not be friends. He slipped out of the saddle and led Wrangle behind the tallest sage-brush. It might serve to conceal them until the riders were close enough for him to see who they were; after that he would be indifferent to how soon they discovered him.

After looking to his rifle and ascertaining that it was in working order, he watched, and as he watched, slowly the force of a bitter fierceness, long dormant, gathered ready to flame into life. If those riders were not rustlers he had forgotten how rustlers looked and rode. On they came, a small group, so compact and dark that he could not tell their number. How unusual that their horses did not see Wrangle! But such failure, Venters decided, was owing to the speed with which they were traveling. They moved at a swift canter affected more by rustlers than by riders. Venters grew concerned over the possibility that these horsemen would actually ride down on him before he had a chance to tell what to expect. When they were within three hundred yards he deliberately led Wrangle out into the trail.

Then he heard shouts, and the hard scrape of sliding hoofs, and saw horses rear and plunge back with up-flung heads and flying manes. Several little white puffs of smoke appeared sharply against the black background of riders and horses, and shots rang out. Bullets struck far in front of Venters, and whipped up the dust and then hummed low into the sage. The range was great for revolvers, but whether the shots were meant to kill or merely to check advance, they were enough to fire that waiting ferocity in Venters. Slipping his arm through the bridle, so that Wrangle could not get away, Venters lifted his rifle and pulled the trigger twice.

He saw the first horseman lean sideways and fall. He saw another lurch in his saddle and heard a cry of pain. Then Wrangle, plunging in fright, lifted Venters and nearly threw him. He jerked the horse down with a powerful hand and leaped into the saddle. Wrangle plunged again, dragging his bridle, that Venters had not had time to throw in place. Bending over with a swift movement, he secured it and dropped the loop over the pommel. Then, with grinding teeth, he looked to see what the issue would be.

The band had scattered so as not to afford such a broad mark for bullets. The riders faced Venters, some with red-belching guns. He heard a sharper report, and just as Wrangle plunged again he caught the whim of a leaden missile that would have hit him but for Wrangle’s sudden jump. A swift, hot wave, turning cold, passed over Venters. Deliberately he picked out the one rider with a carbine, and killed him. Wrangle snorted shrilly and bolted into the sage. Venters let him run a few rods, then with iron arm checked him.

Five riders, surely rustlers, were left. One leaped out of the saddle to secure his fallen comrade’s carbine. A shot from Venters, which missed the man but sent the dust flying over him made him run back to his horse. Then they separated. The crippled rider went one way; the one frustrated in his attempt to get the carbine rode another, Venters thought he made out a third rider, carrying a strange-appearing bundle and disappearing in the sage. But in the rapidity of action and vision he could not discern what it was. Two riders with three horses swung out to the right. Afraid of the long rifle–a burdensome weapon seldom carried by rustlers or riders–they had been put to rout.

Suddenly Venters discovered that one of the two men last noted was riding Jane Withersteen’s horse Bells–the beautiful bay racer she had given to Lassiter. Venters uttered a savage outcry. Then the small, wiry, frog-like shape of the second rider, and the ease and grace of his seat in the saddle–things so strikingly incongruous–grew more and more familiar in Venters’s sight.

“Jerry Card!” cried Venters.

It was indeed Tull’s right-hand man. Such a white hot wrath inflamed Venters that he fought himself to see with clearer gaze.

“It’s Jerry Card!” he exclaimed, instantly. “And he’s riding Black Star and leading Night!”

The long-kindling, stormy fire in Venters’s heart burst into flame. He spurred Wrangle, and as the horse lengthened his stride Venters slipped cartridges into the magazine of his rifle till it was once again full. Card and his companion were now half a mile or more in advance, riding easily down the slope. Venters marked the smooth gait, and understood it when Wrangle galloped out of the sage into the broad cattle trail, down which Venters had once tracked Jane Withersteen’s red herd. This hard-packed trail, from years of use, was as clean and smooth as a road. Venters saw Jerry Card look back over his shoulder, the other rider did likewise. Then the three racers lengthened their stride to the point where the swinging canter was ready to break into a gallop.

“Wrangle, the race’s on,” said Venters, grimly. “We’ll canter with them and gallop with them and run with them. We’ll let them set the pace.”

Venters knew he bestrode the strongest, swiftest, most tireless horse ever ridden by any rider across the Utah uplands. Recalling Jane Withersteen’s devoted assurance that Night could run neck and neck with Wrangle, and Black Star could show his heels to him, Venters wished that Jane were there to see the race to recover her blacks and in the unqualified superiority of the giant sorrel. Then Venters found himself thankful that she was absent, for he meant that race to end in Jerry Card’s death. The first flush, the raging of Venters’s wrath, passed, to leave him in sullen, almost cold possession of his will. It was a deadly mood, utterly foreign to his nature, engendered, fostered, and released by the wild passions of wild men in a wild country. The strength in him then–the thing rife in him that was note hate, but something as remorseless–might have been the fiery fruition of a whole lifetime of vengeful quest. Nothing could have stopped him.

Venters thought out the race shrewdly. The rider on Bells would probably drop behind and take to the sage. What he did was of little moment to Venters. To stop Jerry Card, his evil hidden career as well as his present flight, and then to catch the blacks–that was all that concerned Venters. The cattle trail wound for miles and miles down the slope. Venters saw with a rider’s keen vision ten, fifteen, twenty miles of clear purple sage. There were no on-coming riders or rustlers to aid Card. His only chance to escape lay in abandoning the stolen horses and creeping away in the sage to hide. In ten miles Wrangle could run Black Star and Night off their feet, and in fifteen he could kill them outright. So Venters held the sorrel in, letting Card make the running. It was a long race that would save the blacks.

In a few miles of that swinging canter Wrangle had crept appreciably closer to the three horses. Jerry Card turned again, and when he saw how the sorrel had gained, he put Black Star to a gallop. Night and Bells, on either side of him, swept into his stride.

Venters loosened the rein on Wrangle and let him break into a gallop. The sorrel saw the horses ahead and wanted to run. But Venters restrained him. And in the gallop he gained more than in the canter. Bells was fast in that gait, but Black Star and Night had been trained to run. Slowly Wrangle closed the gap down to a quarter of a mile, and crept closer and closer.

Jerry Card wheeled once more. Venters distinctly saw the red flash of his red face. This time he looked long. Venters laughed. He knew what passed in Card’s mind. The rider was trying to make out what horse it happened to be that thus gained on Jane Withersteen’s peerless racers. Wrangle had so long been away from the village that not improbably Jerry had forgotten. Besides, whatever Jerry’s qualifications for his fame as the greatest rider of the sage, certain it was that his best point was not far-sightedness. He had not recognized Wrangle. After what must have been a searching gaze he got his comrade to face about. This action gave Venters amusement. It spoke so surely of the facts that neither Card nor the rustler actually knew their danger. Yet if they kept to the trail–and the last thing such men would do would be to leave it–they were both doomed.

This comrade of Card’s whirled far around in his saddle, and he even shaded his eyes from the sun. He, too, looked long. Then, all at once, he faced ahead again and, bending lower in the saddle, began to fling his right arm up and down. That flinging Venters knew to be the lashing of Bells. Jerry also became active. And the three racers lengthened out into a run.

“Now, Wrangle!” cried Venters. “Run, you big devil! Run!”

Venters laid the reins on Wrangle’s neck and dropped the loop over the pommel. The sorrel needed no guiding on that smooth trail. He was surer-footed in a run than at any other fast gait, and his running gave the impression of something devilish. He might now have been actuated by Venters’s spirit; undoubtedly his savage running fitted the mood of his rider. Venters bent forward swinging with the horse, and gripped his rifle. His eye measured the distance between him and Jerry Card.

In less than two miles of running Bells began to drop behind the blacks, and Wrangle began to overhaul him. Venters anticipated that the rustler would soon take to the sage. Yet he did not. Not improbably he reasoned that the powerful sorrel could more easily overtake Bells in the heavier going outside of the trail. Soon only a few hundred yards lay between Bells and Wrangle. Turning in his saddle, the rustler began to shoot, and the bullets beat up little whiffs of dust. Venters raised his rifle, ready to take snap shots, and waited for favorable opportunity when Bells was out of line with the forward horses. Venters had it in him to kill these men as if they were skunk-bitten coyotes, but also he had restraint enough to keep from shooting one of Jane’s beloved Arabians.

No great distance was covered, however, before Bells swerved to the left, out of line with Black Star and Night. Then Venters, aiming high and waiting for the pause between Wrangle’s great strides, began to take snap shots at the rustler. The fleeing rider presented a broad target for a rifle, but he was moving swiftly forward and bobbing up and down. Moreover, shooting from Wrangle’s back was shooting from a thunderbolt. And added to that was the danger of a low-placed bullet taking effect on Bells. Yet, despite these considerations, making the shot exceedingly difficult, Venters’s confidence, like his implacability, saw a speedy and fatal termination of that rustler’s race. On the sixth shot the rustler threw up his arms and took a flying tumble off his horse. He rolled over and over, hunched himself to a half-erect position, fell, and then dragged himself into the sage. As Venters went thundering by he peered keenly into the sage, but caught no sign of the man. Bells ran a few hundred yards, slowed up, and had stopped when Wrangle passed him.

Again Venters began slipping fresh cartridges into the magazine of his rifle, and his hand was so sure and steady that he did not drop a single cartridge. With the eye of a rider and the judgment of a marksman he once more measured the distance between him and Jerry Card. Wrangle had gained, bringing him into rifle range. Venters was hard put to it now not to shoot, but thought it better to withhold his fire. Jerry, who, in anticipation of a running fusillade, had huddled himself into a little twisted ball on Black Star’s neck, now surmising that this pursuer would make sure of not wounding one of the blacks, rose to his natural seat in the saddle.

In his mind perhaps, as certainly as in Venters’s, this moment was the beginning of the real race.

Venters leaned forward to put his hand on Wrangle’s neck, then backward to put it on his flank. Under the shaggy, dusty hair trembled and vibrated and rippled a wonderful muscular activity. But Wrangle’s flesh was still cold. What a cold-blooded brute thought Venters, and felt in him a love for the horse he had never given to any other. It would not have been humanly possible for any rider, even though clutched by hate or revenge or a passion to save a loved one or fear of his own life, to be astride the sorrel to swing with his swing, to see his magnificent stride and hear the rapid thunder of his hoofs, to ride him in that race and not glory in the ride.

So, with his passion to kill still keen and unabated, Venters lived out that ride, and drank a rider’s sage-sweet cup of wildness to the dregs.

When Wrangle’s long mane, lashing in the wind, stung Venters in the cheek, the sting added a beat to his flying pulse. He bent a downward glance to try to see Wrangle’s actual stride, and saw only twinkling, darting streaks and the white rush of the trail. He watched the sorrel’s savage head, pointed level, his mouth still closed and dry, but his nostrils distended as if he were snorting unseen fire. Wrangle was the horse for a race with death. Upon each side Venters saw the sage merged into a sailing, colorless wall. In front sloped the lay of ground with its purple breadth split by the white trail. The wind, blowing with heavy, steady blast into his face, sickened him with enduring, sweet odor, and filled his ears with a hollow, rushing roar.

Then for the hundredth time he measured the width of space separating him from Jerry Card. Wrangle had ceased to gain. The blacks were proving their fleetness. Venters watched Jerry Card, admiring the little rider’s horsemanship. He had the incomparable seat of the upland rider, born in the saddle. It struck Venters that Card had changed his position, or the position of the horses. Presently Venters remembered positively that Jerry had been leading Night on the right-hand side of the trail. The racer was now on the side to the left. No–it was Black Star. But, Venters argued in amaze, Jerry had been mounted on Black Star. Another clearer, keener gaze assured Venters that Black Star was really riderless. Night now carried Jerry Card.

“He’s changed from one to the other!” ejaculated Venters, realizing the astounding feat with unstinted admiration. “Changed at full speed! Jerry Card, that’s what you’ve done unless I’m drunk on the smell of sage. But I’ve got to see the trick before I believe it.”

Thenceforth, while Wrangle sped on, Venters glued his eyes to the little rider. Jerry Card rode as only he could ride. Of all the daring horsemen of the uplands, Jerry was the one rider fitted to bring out the greatness of the blacks in that long race. He had them on a dead run, but not yet at the last strained and killing pace. From time to time he glanced backward, as a wise general in retreat calculating his chances and the power and speed of pursuers, and the moment for the last desperate burst. No doubt, Card, with his life at stake, gloried in that race, perhaps more wildly than Venters. For he had been born to the sage and the saddle and the wild. He was more than half horse. Not until the last call–the sudden up-flashing instinct of self-preservation–would he lose his skill and judgment and nerve and the spirit of that race. Venters seemed to read Jerry’s mind. That little crime-stained rider was actually thinking of his horses, husbanding their speed, handling them with knowledge of years, glorying in their beautiful, swift, racing stride, and wanting them to win the race when his own life hung suspended in quivering balance. Again Jerry whirled in his saddle and the sun flashed red on his face. Turning, he drew Black Star closer and closer toward Night, till they ran side by side, as one horse. Then Card raised himself in the saddle, slipped out of the stirrups, and, somehow twisting himself, leaped upon Black Star. He did not even lose the swing of the horse. Like a leech he was there in the other saddle, and as the horses separated, his right foot, that had been apparently doubled under him, shot down to catch the stirrup. The grace and dexterity and daring of that rider’s act won something more than admiration from Venters.

For the distance of a mile Jerry rode Black Star and then changed back to Night. But all Jerry’s skill and the running of the blacks could avail little more against the sorrel.

Venters peered far ahead, studying the lay of the land. Straightaway for five miles the trail stretched, and then it disappeared in hummocky ground. To the right, some few rods, Venters saw a break in the sage, and this was the rim of Deception Pass. Across the dark cleft gleamed the red of the opposite wall. Venters imagined that the trail went down into the Pass somewhere north of those ridges. And he realized that he must and would overtake Jerry Card in this straight course of five miles.

Cruelly he struck his spurs into Wrangle’s flanks. A light touch of spur was sufficient to make Wrangle plunge. And now, with a ringing, wild snort, he seemed to double up in muscular convulsions and to shoot forward with an impetus that almost unseated Venters. The sage blurred by, the trail flashed by, and the wind robbed him of breath and hearing. Jerry Card turned once more. And the way he shifted to Black Star showed he had to make his last desperate running. Venters aimed to the side of the trail and sent a bullet puffing the dust beyond Jerry. Venters hoped to frighten the rider and get him to take to the sage. But Jerry returned the shot, and his ball struck dangerously close in the dust at Wrangle’s flying feet. Venters held his fire then, while the rider emptied his revolver. For a mile, with Black Star leaving Night behind and doing his utmost, Wrangle did not gain; for another mile he gained little, if at all. In the third he caught up with the now galloping Night and began to gain rapidly on the other black.

Only a hundred yards now stretched between Black Star and Wrangle. The giant sorrel thundered on–and on–and on. In every yard he gained a foot. He was whistling through his nostrils, wringing wet, flying lather, and as hot as fire. Savage as ever, strong as ever, fast as ever, but each tremendous stride jarred Venters out of the saddle! Wrangle’s power and spirit and momentum had begun to run him off his legs. Wrangle’s great race was nearly won–and run. Venters seemed to see the expanse before him as a vast, sheeted, purple plain sliding under him. Black Star moved in it as a blur. The rider, Jerry Card, appeared a mere dot bobbing dimly. Wrangle thundered on–on–on! Venters felt the increase in quivering, straining shock after every leap. Flecks of foam flew into Venters’s eyes, burning him, making him see all the sage as red. But in that red haze he saw, or seemed to see, Black Star suddenly riderless and with broken gait. Wrangle thundered on to change his pace with a violent break. Then Venters pulled him hard. From run to gallop, gallop to canter, canter to trot, trot to walk, and walk to stop, the great sorrel ended his race.

Venters looked back. Black Star stood riderless in the trail. Jerry Card had taken to the sage. Far up the white trail Night came trotting faithfully down. Venters leaped off, still half blind, reeling dizzily. In a moment he had recovered sufficiently to have a care for Wrangle. Rapidly he took off the saddle and bridle. The sorrel was reeking, heaving, whistling, shaking. But he had still the strength to stand, and for him Venters had no fears.

As Venters ran back to Black Star he saw the horse stagger on shaking legs into the sage and go down in a heap. Upon reaching him Venters removed the saddle and bridle. Black Star had been killed on his legs, Venters thought. He had no hope for the stricken horse. Black Star lay flat, covered with bloody froth, mouth wide, tongue hanging, eyes glaring, and all his beautiful body in convulsions.

Unable to stay there to see Jane’s favorite racer die, Venters hurried up the trail to meet the other black. On the way he kept a sharp lookout for Jerry Card. Venters imagined the rider would keep well out of range of the rifle, but, as he would be lost on the sage without a horse, not improbably he would linger in the vicinity on the chance of getting back one of the blacks. Night soon came trotting up, hot and wet and run out. Venters led him down near the others, and unsaddling him, let him loose to rest. Night wearily lay down in the dust and rolled, proving himself not yet spent.

Then Venters sat down to rest and think. Whatever the risk, he was compelled to stay where he was, or comparatively near, for the night. The horses must rest and drink. He must find water. He was now seventy miles from Cottonwoods, and, he believed, close to the canyon where the cattle trail must surely turn off and go down into the Pass. After a while he rose to survey the valley.

He was very near to the ragged edge of a deep canyon into which the trail turned. The ground lay in uneven ridges divided by washes, and these sloped into the canyon. Following the canyon line, he saw where its rim was broken by other intersecting canyons, and farther down red walls and yellow cliffs leading toward a deep blue cleft that he made sure was Deception Pass. Walking out a few rods to a promontory, he found where the trail went down. The descent was gradual, along a stone-walled trail, and Venters felt sure that this was the place where Oldring drove cattle into the Pass. There was, however, no indication at all that he ever had driven cattle out at this point. Oldring had many holes to his burrow.

In searching round in the little hollows Venters, much to his relief, found water. He composed himself to rest and eat some bread and meat, while he waited for a sufficient time to elapse so that he could safely give the horses a drink. He judged the hour to be somewhere around noon. Wrangle lay down to rest and Night followed suit. So long as they were down Venters intended to make no move. The longer they rested the better, and the safer it would be to give them water. By and by he forced himself to go over to where Black Star lay, expecting to find him dead. Instead he found the racer partially if not wholly recovered. There was recognition, even fire, in his big black eyes. Venters was overjoyed. He sat by the black for a long time. Black Star presently labored to his feet with a heave and a groan, shook himself, and snorted for water. Venters repaired to the little pool he had found, filled his sombrero, and gave the racer a drink. Black Star gulped it at one draught, as if it were but a drop, and pushed his nose into the hat and snorted for more. Venters now led Night down to drink, and after a further time Black Star also. Then the blacks began to graze.

The sorrel had wandered off down the sage between the trail and the canyon. Once or twice he disappeared in little swales. Finally Venters concluded Wrangle had grazed far enough, and, taking his lasso, he went to fetch him back. In crossing from one ridge to another he saw where the horse had made muddy a pool of water. It occurred to Venters then that Wrangle had drunk his fill, and did not seem the worse for it, and might be anything but easy to catch. And, true enough, he could not come within roping reach of the sorrel. He tried for an hour, and gave up in disgust. Wrangle did not seem so wild as simply perverse. In a quandary Venters returned to the other horses, hoping much, yet doubting more, that when Wrangle had grazed to suit himself he might be caught.

As the afternoon wore away Venters’s concern diminished, yet he kept close watch on the blacks and the trail and the sage. There was no telling of what Jerry Card might be capable. Venters sullenly acquiesced to the idea that the rider had been too quick and too shrewd for him. Strangely and doggedly, however, Venters clung to his foreboding of Card’s downfall.

The wind died away; the red sun topped the far distant western rise of slope; and the long, creeping purple shadows lengthened. The rims of the canyons gleamed crimson and the deep clefts appeared to belch forth blue smoke. Silence enfolded the scene.

It was broken by a horrid, long-drawn scream of a horse and the thudding of heavy hoofs. Venters sprang erect and wheeled south. Along the canyon rim, near the edge, came Wrangle, once more in thundering flight.

Venters gasped in amazement. Had the wild sorrel gone mad? His head was high and twisted, in a most singular position for a running horse. Suddenly Venters descried a frog-like shape clinging to Wrangle’s neck. Jerry Card! Somehow he had straddled Wrangle and now stuck like a huge burr. But it was his strange position and the sorrel’s wild scream that shook Venters’s nerves. Wrangle was pounding toward the turn where the trail went down. He plunged onward like a blind horse. More than one of his leaps took him to the very edge of the precipice.

Jerry Card was bent forward with his teeth fast in the front of Wrangle’s nose! Venters saw it, and there flashed over him a memory of this trick of a few desperate riders. He even thought of one rider who had worn off his teeth in this terrible hold to break or control desperate horses. Wrangle had indeed gone mad. The marvel was what guided him. Was it the half-brute, the more than half-horse instinct of Jerry Card? Whatever the mystery, it was true. And in a few more rods Jerry would have the sorrel turning into the trail leading down into the canyon.

“No–Jerry!” whispered Venters, stepping forward and throwing up the rifle. He tried to catch the little humped, frog-like shape over the sights. It was moving too fast; it was too small. Yet Venters shot once …twice…the third time…four times…five! all wasted shots and precious seconds!

With a deep-muttered curse Venters caught Wrangle through the sights and pulled the trigger. Plainly he heard the bullet thud. Wrangle uttered a horrible strangling sound. In swift death action he whirled, and with one last splendid leap he cleared the canyon rim. And he whirled downward with the little frog-like shape clinging to his neck!

There was a pause which seemed never ending, a shock, and an instant s silence.

Then up rolled a heavy crash, a long roar of sliding rocks dying away in distant echo, then silence unbroken.

Wrangle’s race was run.

CHAPTER XVIII. OLDRING’S KNELL

Some forty hours or more later Venters created a commotion in Cottonwoods by riding down the main street on Black Star and leading Bells and Night. He had come upon Bells grazing near the body of a dead rustler, the only incident of his quick ride into the village.

Nothing was farther from Venters’s mind than bravado. No thought came to him of the defiance and boldness of riding Jane Withersteen’s racers straight into the arch-plotter’s stronghold. He wanted men to see the famous Arabians; he wanted men to see them dirty and dusty, bearing all the signs of having been driven to their limit; he wanted men to see and to know that the thieves who had ridden them out into the sage had not ridden them back. Venters had come for that and for more–he wanted to meet Tull face to face; if not Tull, then Dyer; if not Dyer, then anyone in the secret of these master conspirators. Such was Venters’s passion. The meeting with the rustlers, the unprovoked attack upon him, the spilling of blood, the recognition of Jerry Card and the horses, the race, and that last plunge of mad Wrangle–all these things, fuel on fuel to the smoldering fire, had kindled and swelled and leaped into living flame. He could have shot Dyer in the midst of his religious services at the altar; he could have killed Tull in front of wives and babes.

He walked the three racers down the broad, green-bordered village road. He heard the murmur of running water from Amber Spring. Bitter waters for Jane Withersteen! Men and women stopped to gaze at him and the horses. All knew him; all knew the blacks and the bay. As well as if it had been spoken, Venters read in the faces of men the intelligence that Jane Withersteen’s Arabians had been known to have been stolen. Venters reined in and halted before Dyer’s residence. It was a low, long, stone structure resembling Withersteen House. The spacious front yard was green and luxuriant with grass and flowers; gravel walks led to the huge porch; a well-trimmed hedge of purple sage separated the yard from the church grounds; birds sang in the trees; water flowed musically along the walks; and there were glad, careless shouts of children. For Venters the beauty of this home, and the serenity and its apparent happiness, all turned red and black. For Venters a shade overspread the lawn, the flowers, the old vine-clad stone house. In the music of the singing birds, in the murmur of the running water, he heard an ominous sound. Quiet beauty–sweet music–innocent laughter! By what monstrous abortion of fate did these abide in the shadow of Dyer?

Venters rode on and stopped before Tull’s cottage. Women stared at him with white faces and then flew from the porch. Tull himself appeared at the door, bent low, craning his neck. His dark face flashed out of sight; the door banged; a heavy bar dropped with a hollow sound.

Then Venters shook Black Star’s bridle, and, sharply trotting, led the other horses to the center of the village. Here at the intersecting streets and in front of the stores he halted once more. The usual lounging atmosphere of that prominent corner was not now in evidence. Riders and ranchers and villagers broke up what must have been absorbing conversation. There was a rush of many feet, and then the walk was lined with faces.

Venters’s glance swept down the line of silent stone-faced men. He recognized many riders and villagers, but none of those he had hoped to meet. There was no expression in the faces turned toward him. All of them knew him, most were inimical, but there were few who were not burning with curiosity and wonder in regard to the return of Jane Withersteen’s racers. Yet all were silent. Here were the familiar characteristics–masked feeling–strange secretiveness–expressionless expression of mystery and hidden power.

“Has anybody here seen Jerry Card?” queried Venters, in a loud voice.

In reply there came not a word, not a nod or shake of head, not so much as dropping eye or twitching lip–nothing but a quiet, stony stare.

“Been under the knife? You’ve a fine knife-wielder here–one Tull, I believe!…Maybe you’ve all had your tongues cut out?”

This passionate sarcasm of Venters brought no response, and the stony calm was as oil on the fire within him.

“I see some of you pack guns, too!” he added, in biting scorn. In the long, tense pause, strung keenly as a tight wire, he sat motionless on Black Star. “All right,” he went on. “Then let some of you take this message to Tull. Tell him I’ve seen Jerry Card! …Tell him Jerry Card will never return!”

Thereupon, in the same dead calm, Venters backed Black Star away from the curb, into the street, and out of range. He was ready now to ride up to Withersteen House and turn the racers over to Jane.

“Hello, Venters!” a familiar voice cried, hoarsely, and he saw a man running toward him. It was the rider Judkins who came up and gripped Venters’s hand. “Venters, I could hev dropped when I seen them hosses. But thet sight ain’t a marker to the looks of you. What’s wrong? Hev you gone crazy? You must be crazy to ride in here this way–with them hosses–talkie’ thet way about Tull en’ Jerry Card.”

“Jud, I’m not crazy–only mad clean through,” replied Venters.

“Mad, now, Bern, I’m glad to hear some of your old self in your voice. Fer when you come up you looked like the corpse of a dead rider with fire fer eyes. You hed thet crowd too stiff fer throwin’ guns. Come, we’ve got to hev a talk. Let’s go up the lane. We ain’t much safe here.”

Judkins mounted Bells and rode with Venters up to the cottonwood grove. Here they dismounted and went among the trees.

“Let’s hear from you first,” said Judkins. “You fetched back them hosses. Thet is the trick. An’, of course, you got Jerry the same as you got Horne.”

“Horne!”

“Sure. He was found dead yesterday all chewed by coyotes, en’ he’d been shot plumb center.”

“Where was he found?”

“At the split down the trail–you know where Oldring’s cattle trail runs off north from the trail to the pass.”

“That’s where I met Jerry and the rustlers. What was Horne doing with them? I thought Horne was an honest cattle-man.”

“Lord–Bern, don’t ask me thet! I’m all muddled now tryin’ to figure things.”

Venters told of the fight and the race with Jerry Card and its tragic conclusion.

“I knowed it! I knowed all along that Wrangle was the best hoss!” exclaimed Judkins, with his lean face working and his eyes lighting. “Thet was a race! Lord, I’d like to hev seen Wrangle jump the cliff with Jerry. An’ thet was good-by to the grandest hoss an’ rider ever on the sage!…But, Bern, after you got the hosses why’d you want to bolt right in Tull’s face?”

“I want him to know. An’ if I can get to him I’ll–”

“You can’t get near Tull,” interrupted Judkins. “Thet vigilante bunch hev taken to bein’ bodyguard for Tull an’ Dyer, too.”

“Hasn’t Lassiter made a break yet?” inquired Venters, curiously.

“Naw!” replied Judkins, scornfully. “Jane turned his head. He’s mad in love over her–follers her like a dog. He ain’t no more Lassiter! He’s lost his nerve, he doesn’t look like the same feller. It’s village talk. Everybody knows it. He hasn’t thrown a gun, an’ he won’t!”

“Jud, I’ll bet he does,” replied Venters, earnestly. “Remember what I say. This Lassiter is something more than a gun-man. Jud, he’s big–he’s great!…I feel that in him. God help Tull and Dyer when Lassiter does go after them. For horses and riders and stone walls won’t save them.”

“Wal, hev it your way, Bern. I hope you’re right. Nat’rully I’ve been some sore on Lassiter fer gittin’ soft. But I ain’t denyin’ his nerve, or whatever’s great in him thet sort of paralyzes people. No later ‘n this mornin’ I seen him saunterin’ down the lane, quiet an’ slow. An’ like his guns he comes black–black, thet’s Lassiter. Wal, the crowd on the corner never batted an eye, en’ I’ll gamble my hoss thet there wasn’t one who hed a heartbeat till Lassiter got by. He went in Snell’s saloon, an’ as there wasn’t no gun play I had to go in, too. An’ there, darn my pictures, if Lassiter wasn’t standin’ to the bar, drinking en’ talkin’ with Oldrin’.”

“Oldring!” whispered Venters. His voice, as all fire and pulse within him, seemed to freeze.

“Let go my arm!” exclaimed Judkins. “Thet’s my bad arm. Sure it was Oldrin’. What the hell’s wrong with you, anyway? Venters, I tell you somethin’s wrong. You’re whiter ‘n a sheet. You can’t be scared of the rustler. I don’t believe you’ve got a scare in you. Wal, now, jest let me talk. You know I like to talk, an’ if I’m slow I allus git there sometime. As I said, Lassiter was talkie’ chummy with Oldrin’. There wasn’t no hard feelin’s. An’ the gang wasn’t payin’ no pertic’lar attention. But like a cat watchin’ a mouse I hed my eyes on them two fellers. It was strange to me, thet confab. I’m gittin’ to think a lot, fer a feller who doesn’t know much. There’s been some queer deals lately an’ this seemed to me the queerest. These men stood to the bar alone, an’ so close their big gun-hilts butted together. I seen Oldrin’ was some surprised at first, an’ Lassiter was cool as ice. They talked, an’ presently at somethin’ Lassiter said the rustler bawled out a curse, an’ then he jest fell up against the bar, an’ sagged there. The gang in the saloon looked around an’ laughed, an’ thet’s about all. Finally Oldrin’ turned, and it was easy to see somethin’ hed shook him. Yes, sir, thet big rustler–you know he’s as broad as he is long, an’ the powerfulest build of a man–yes, sir, the nerve had been taken out of him. Then, after a little, he began to talk an’ said a lot to Lassiter, an’ by an’ by it didn’t take much of an eye to see thet Lassiter was gittin’ hit hard. I never seen him anyway but cooler ‘n ice–till then. He seemed to be hit harder ‘n Oldrin’, only he didn’t roar out thet way. He jest kind of sunk in, an’ looked an’ looked, an’ he didn’t see a livin’ soul in thet saloon. Then he sort of come to, an’ shakin’ hands–mind you, shakin’ hands with Oldrin’–he went out. I couldn’t help thinkin’ how easy even a boy could hev dropped the great gun-man then!…Wal, the rustler stood at the bar fer a long time, en’ he was seein’ things far off, too; then he come to an’ roared fer whisky, an’ gulped a drink thet was big enough to drown me.”

“Is Oldring here now?” whispered Venters. He could not speak above a whisper. Judkins’s story had been meaningless to him.

“He’s at Snell’s yet. Bern, I hevn’t told you yet thet the rustlers hev been raisin’ hell. They shot up Stone Bridge an’ Glaze, an’ fer three days they’ve been here drinkin’ an’ gamblin’ an’ throwin’ of gold. These rustlers hev a pile of gold. If it was gold dust or nugget gold I’d hev reason to think, but it’s new coin gold, as if it had jest come from the United States treasury. An’ the coin’s genuine. Thet’s all been proved. The truth is Oldrin’s on a rampage. A while back he lost his Masked Rider, an’ they say he’s wild about thet. I’m wonderin’ if Lassiter could hev told the rustler anythin’ about thet little masked, hard-ridin’ devil. Ride! He was most as good as Jerry Card. An’, Bern, I’ve been wonderin’ if you know–”

“Judkins, you’re a good fellow,” interrupted Venters. “Some day I’ll tell you a story. I’ve no time now. Take the horses to Jane.”

Judkins stared, and then, muttering to himself, he mounted Bells, and stared again at Venters, and then, leading the other horses, he rode into the grove and disappeared.

Once, long before, on the night Venters had carried Bess through the canyon and up into Surprise Valley, he had experienced the strangeness of faculties singularly, tinglingly acute. And now the same sensation recurred. But it was different in that he felt cold, frozen, mechanical incapable of free thought, and all about him seemed unreal, aloof, remote. He hid his rifle in the sage, marking its exact location with extreme care. Then he faced down the lane and strode toward the center of the village. Perceptions flashed upon him, the faint, cold touch of the breeze, a cold, silvery tinkle of flowing water, a cold sun shining out of a cold sky, song of birds and laugh of children, coldly distant. Cold and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and tighter stretched the skin over his face; colder and harder grew the polished butts of his guns; colder and steadier became his hands as he wiped the clammy sweat from his face or reached low to his gun-sheaths. Men meeting him in the walk gave him wide berth. In front of Bevin’s store a crowd melted apart for his passage, and their faces and whispers were faces and whispers of a dream. He turned a corner to meet Tull face to face, eye to eye. As once before he had seen this man pale to a ghastly, livid white so again he saw the change. Tull stopped in his tracks, with right hand raised and shaking. Suddenly it dropped, and he seemed to glide aside, to pass out of Venters’s sight. Next he saw many horses with bridles down–all clean-limbed, dark bays or blacks–rustlers’ horses! Loud voices and boisterous laughter, rattle of dice and scrape of chair and clink of gold, burst in mingled din from an open doorway. He stepped inside.

With the sight of smoke-hazed room and drinking, cursing, gambling, dark-visaged men, reality once more dawned upon Venters.

His entrance had been unnoticed, and he bent his gaze upon the drinkers at the bar. Dark-clothed, dark-faced men they all were, burned by the sun, bow-legged as were most riders of the sage, but neither lean nor gaunt. Then Venters’s gaze passed to the tables, and swiftly it swept over the hard-featured gamesters, to alight upon the huge, shaggy, black head of the rustler chief.

“Oldring!” he cried, and to him his voice seemed to split a bell in his ears.

It stilled the din.

That silence suddenly broke to the scrape and crash of Oldring’s chair as he rose; and then, while he passed, a great gloomy figure, again the thronged room stilled in silence yet deeper.

“Oldring, a word with you!” continued Venters.

“Ho! What’s this?” boomed Oldring, in frowning scrutiny.

“Come outside, alone. A word for you–from your Masked Rider!”

Oldring kicked a chair out of his way and lunged forward with a stamp of heavy boot that jarred the floor. He waved down his muttering, rising men.

Venters backed out of the door and waited, hearing, as no sound had ever before struck into his soul, the rapid, heavy steps of the rustler.

Oldring appeared, and Venters had one glimpse of his great breadth and bulk, his gold-buckled belt with hanging guns, his high-top boots with gold spurs. In that moment Venters had a strange, unintelligible curiosity to see Oldring alive. The rustler’s broad brow, his large black eyes, his sweeping beard, as dark as the wing of a raven, his enormous width of shoulder and depth of chest, his whole splendid presence so wonderfully charged with vitality and force and strength, seemed to afford Venters an unutterable fiendish joy because for that magnificent manhood and life he meant cold and sudden death.

“Oldring, Bess is alive! But she’s dead to you–dead to the life you made her lead–dead as you will be in one second!”

Swift as lightning Venters’s glance dropped from Oldring’s rolling eyes to his hands. One of them, the right, swept out, then toward his gun–and Venters shot him through the heart.

Slowly Oldring sank to his knees, and the hand, dragging at the gun, fell away. Venters’s strangely acute faculties grasped the meaning of that limp arm, of the swaying hulk, of the gasp and heave, of the quivering beard. But was that awful spirit in the black eyes only one of vitality?

“Man–why–didn’t–you–wait? Bess–was–” Oldring’s whisper died under his beard, and with a heavy lurch he fell forward.

Bounding swiftly away, Venters fled around the corner, across the street, and, leaping a hedge, he ran through yard, orchard, and garden to the sage. Here, under cover of the tall brush, he turned west and ran on to the place where he had hidden his rifle. Securing that, he again set out into a run, and, circling through the sage, came up behind Jane Withersteen’s stable and corrals. With laboring, dripping chest, and pain as of a knife thrust in his side, he stopped to regain his breath, and while resting his eyes roved around in search of a horse. Doors and windows of the stable were open wide and had a deserted look. One dejected, lonely burro stood in the near corral. Strange indeed was the silence brooding over the once happy, noisy home of Jane Withersteen’s pets.

He went into the corral, exercising care to leave no tracks, and led the burro to the watering-trough. Venters, though not thirsty, drank till he could drink no more. Then, leading the burro over hard ground, he struck into the sage and down the slope.

He strode swiftly, turning from time to time to scan the slope for riders. His head just topped the level of sage-brush, and the burro could not have been seen at all. Slowly the green of Cottonwoods sank behind the slope, and at last a wavering line of purple sage met the blue of sky.

To avoid being seen, to get away, to hide his trail–these were the sole ideas in his mind as he headed for Deception Pass, and he directed all his acuteness of eye and ear, and the keenness of a rider’s judgment for distance and ground, to stern accomplishment of the task. He kept to the sage far to the left of the trail leading into the Pass. He walked ten miles and looked back a thousand times. Always the graceful, purple wave of sage remained wide and lonely, a clear, undotted waste. Coming to a stretch of rocky ground, he took advantage of it to cross the trail and then continued down on the right. At length he persuaded himself that he would be able to see riders mounted on horses before they could see him on the little burro, and he rode bareback.

Hour by hour the tireless burro kept to his faithful, steady trot. The sun sank and the long shadows lengthened down the slope. Moving veils of purple twilight crept out of the hollows and, mustering and forming on the levels, soon merged and shaded into night. Venters guided the burro nearer to the trail, so that he could see its white line from the ridges, and rode on through the hours.

Once down in the Pass without leaving a trail, he would hold himself safe for the time being. When late in the night he reached the break in the sage, he sent the burro down ahead of him, and started an avalanche that all but buried the animal at the bottom of the trail. Bruised and battered as he was, he had a moment’s elation, for he had hidden his tracks. Once more he mounted the burro and rode on. The hour was the blackest of the night when he made the thicket which inclosed his old camp. Here he turned the burro loose in the grass near the spring, and then lay down on his old bed of leaves.

He felt only vaguely, as outside things, the ache and burn and throb of the muscles of his body. But a dammed-up torrent of emotion at last burst its bounds, and the hour that saw his release from immediate action was one that confounded him in the reaction of his spirit. He suffered without understanding why. He caught glimpses into himself, into unlit darkness of soul. The fire that had blistered him and the cold which had frozen him now united in one torturing possession of his mind and heart, and like a fiery steed with ice-shod feet, ranged his being, ran rioting through his blood, trampling the resurging good, dragging ever at the evil.

Out of the subsiding chaos came a clear question. What had happened? He had left the valley to go to Cottonwoods. Why? It seemed that he had gone to kill a man–Oldring! The name riveted his consciousness upon the one man of all men upon earth whom he had wanted to meet. He had met the rustler. Venters recalled the smoky haze of the saloon, the dark-visaged men, the huge Oldring. He saw him step out of the door, a splendid specimen of manhood, a handsome giant with purple-black and sweeping beard. He remembered inquisitive gaze of falcon eyes. He heard himself repeating: “OLDRING, BESS IS ALIVE! BUT SHE’S DEAD TO YOU,” and he felt himself jerk, and his ears throbbed to the thunder of a gun, and he saw the giant sink slowly to his knees. Was that only the vitality of him–that awful light in the eyes–only the hard-dying life of a tremendously powerful brute? A broken whisper, strange as death: “MAN–WHY–DIDN’T–YOU WAIT! BESS–WAS–” And Oldring plunged face forward, dead.

“I killed him,” cried Venters, in remembering shock. “But it wasn’t THAT. Ah, the look in his eyes and his whisper!”

Herein lay the secret that had clamored to him through all the tumult and stress of his emotions. What a look in the eyes of a man shot through the heart! It had been neither hate nor ferocity nor fear of men nor fear of death. It had been no passionate glinting spirit of a fearless foe, willing shot for shot, life for life, but lacking physical power. Distinctly recalled now, never to be forgotten, Venters saw in Oldring’s magnificent eyes the rolling of great, glad surprise–softness–love! Then came a shadow and the terrible superhuman striving of his spirit to speak. Oldring shot through the heart, had fought and forced back death, not for a moment in which to shoot or curse, but to whisper strange words.

What words for a dying man to whisper! Why had not Venters waited? For what? That was no plea for life. It was regret that there was not a moment of life left in which to speak. Bess was–Herein lay renewed torture for Venters. What had Bess been to Oldring? The old question, like a specter, stalked from its grave to haunt him. He had overlooked, he had forgiven, he had loved and he had forgotten; and now, out of the mystery of a dying man’s whisper rose again that perverse, unsatisfied, jealous uncertainty. Bess had loved that splendid, black-crowned giant–by her own confession she had loved him; and in Venters’s soul again flamed up the jealous hell. Then into the clamoring hell burst the shot that had killed Oldring, and it rang in a wild fiendish gladness, a hateful, vengeful joy. That passed to the memory of the love and light in Oldring’s eyes and the mystery in his whisper. So the changing, swaying emotions fluctuated in Venters’s heart.

This was the climax of his year of suffering and the crucial struggle of his life. And when the gray dawn came he rose, a gloomy, almost heartbroken man, but victor over evil passions. He could not change the past; and, even if he had not loved Bess with all his soul, he had grown into a man who would not change the future he had planned for her. Only, and once for all, he must know the truth, know the worst, stifle all these insistent doubts and subtle hopes and jealous fancies, and kill the past by knowing truly what Bess had been to Oldring. For that matter he knew–he had always known, but he must hear it spoken. Then, when they had safely gotten out of that wild country to take up a new and an absorbing life, she would forget, she would be happy, and through that, in the years to come, he could not but find life worth living.

All day he rode slowly and cautiously up the Pass, taking time to peer around corners, to pick out hard ground and grassy patches, and to make sure there was no one in pursuit. In the night sometime he came to the smooth, scrawled rocks dividing the valley, and here set the burro at liberty. He walked beyond, climbed the slope and the dim, starlit gorge. Then, weary to the point of exhaustion, he crept into a shallow cave and fell asleep.

In the morning, when he descended the trail, he found the sun was pouring a golden stream of light through the arch of the great stone bridge. Surprise Valley, like a valley of dreams, lay mystically soft and beautiful, awakening to the golden flood which was rolling away its slumberous bands of mist, brightening its walled faces.

While yet far off he discerned Bess moving under the silver spruces, and soon the barking of the dogs told him that they had seen him. He heard the mocking-birds singing in the trees, and then the twittering of the quail. Ring and Whitie came bounding toward him, and behind them ran Bess, her hands outstretched.

“Bern! You’re back! You’re back!” she cried, in joy that rang of her loneliness.

“Yes, I’m back,” he said, as she rushed to meet him.

She had reached out for him when suddenly, as she saw him closely, something checked her, and as quickly all her joy fled, and with it her color, leaving her pale and trembling.

“Oh! What’s happened?”

“A good deal has happened, Bess. I don’t need to tell you what. And I’m played out. Worn out in mind more than body.”

“Dear–you look strange to me!” faltered Bess.

“Never mind that. I’m all right. There’s nothing for you to be scared about. Things are going to turn out just as we have planned. As soon as I’m rested we’ll make a break to get out of the country. Only now, right now, I must know the truth about you.”

“Truth about me?” echoed Bess, shrinkingly. She seemed to be casting back into her mind for a forgotten key. Venters himself, as he saw her, received a pang.

“Yes–the truth. Bess, don’t misunderstand. I haven’t changed that way. I love you still. I’ll love you more afterward. Life will be just as sweet–sweeter to us. We’ll be–be married as soon as ever we can. We’ll be happy–but there’s a devil in me. A perverse, jealous devil! Then I’ve queer fancies. I forgot for a long time. Now all those fiendish little whispers of doubt and faith and fear and hope come torturing me again. I’ve got to kill them with the truth.”

“I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” she replied, frankly.

“Then by Heaven! we’ll have it over and done with!…Bess–did Oldring love you?”

“Certainly he did.”

“Did–did you love him?”

“Of course. I told you so.”

“How can you tell it so lightly?” cried Venters, passionately. “Haven’t you any sense of–of–” He choked back speech. He felt the rush of pain and passion. He seized her in rude, strong hands and drew her close. He looked straight into her dark-blue eyes. They were shadowing with the old wistful light, hut they were as clear as the limpid water of the spring. They were earnest, solemn in unutterable love and faith and abnegation. Venters shivered. He knew he was looking into her soul. He knew she could not lie in that moment; but that she might tell the truth, looking at him with those eyes, almost killed his belief in purity.

“What are–what were you to–to Oldring?” he panted, fiercely.

“I am his daughter,” she replied, instantly.

Venters slowly let go of her. There was a violent break in the force of his feeling–then creeping blankness.

“What–was it–you said?” he asked, in a kind of dull wonder.

“I am his daughter.”

“Oldring’s daughter?” queried Venters, with life gathering in his voice.

“Yes.”

With a passionately awakening start he grasped her hands and drew her close.

“All the time–you’ve been Oldring’s daughter?”

“Yes, of course all the time–always.”

“But Bess, you told me–you let me think–I made out you were–a–so–so ashamed.”

“It is my shame,” she said, with voice deep and full, and now the scarlet fired her cheek. “I told you–I’m nothing–nameless–just Bess, Oldring’s girl!”

“I know–I remember. But I never thought–” he went on, hurriedly, huskily. “That time–when you lay dying–you prayed–you–somehow I got the idea you were bad.”

“Bad?” she asked, with a little laugh.

She looked up with a faint smile of bewilderment and the absolute unconsciousness of a child. Venters gasped in the gathering might of the truth. She did not understand his meaning.

“Bess! Bess!” He clasped her in his arms, hiding her eyes against his breast. She must not see his face in that moment. And he held her while he looked out across the valley. In his dim and blinded sight, in the blur of golden light and moving mist, he saw Oldring. She was the rustler’s nameless daughter. Oldring had loved her. He had so guarded her, so kept her from women and men and knowledge of life that her mind was as a child’s. That was part of the secret–part of the mystery. That was the wonderful truth. Not only was she not bad, but good, pure, innocent above all innocence in the world–the innocence of lonely girlhood.

He saw Oldring’s magnificent eyes, inquisitive, searching, softening. He saw them flare in amaze, in gladness, with love, then suddenly strain in terrible effort of will. He heard Oldring whisper and saw him sway like a log and fall. Then a million bellowing, thundering voices–gunshots of conscience, thunderbolts of remorse–dinned horribly in his ears. He had killed Bess’s father. Then a rushing wind filled his ears like a moan of wind in the cliffs, a knell indeed–Oldring’s knell.

He dropped to his knees and hid his face against Bess, and grasped her with the hands of a drowning man.

“My God!…My God!…Oh, Bess!…Forgive me! Never mind what I’ve done–what I’ve thought. But forgive me. I’ll give you my life. I’ll live for you. I’ll love you. Oh, I do love you as no man ever loved a woman. I want you to know–to remember that I fought a fight for you–however blind I was. I thought–I thought–never mind what I thought–but I loved you–I asked you to marry me. Let that–let me have that to hug to my heart. Oh, Bess, I was driven! And I might have known! I could not rest nor sleep till I had this mystery solved. God! how things work out!”

“Bern, you’re weak–trembling–you talk wildly,” cried Bess. “You’ve overdone your strength. There’s nothing to forgive. There’s no mystery except your love for me. You have come back to me!”

And she clasped his head tenderly in her arms and pressed it closely to her throbbing breast.