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CHAPTER XIX. FAY

At the home of Jane Withersteen Little Fay was climbing Lassiter’s knee.

“Does oo love me?” she asked.

Lassiter, who was as serious with Fay as he was gentle and loving, assured her in earnest and elaborate speech that he was her devoted subject. Fay looked thoughtful and appeared to be debating the duplicity of men or searching for a supreme test to prove this cavalier.

“Does oo love my new mower?” she asked, with bewildering suddenness.

Jane Withersteen laughed, and for the first time in many a day she felt a stir of her pulse and warmth in her cheek.

It was a still drowsy summer of afternoon, and the three were sitting in the shade of the wooded knoll that faced the sage-slope Little Fay’s brief spell of unhappy longing for her mother–the childish, mystic gloom–had passed, and now where Fay was there were prattle and laughter and glee. She had emerged Iron sorrow to be the incarnation of joy and loveliness. She had growl supernaturally sweet and beautiful. For Jane Withersteen the child was an answer to prayer, a blessing, a possession infinitely more precious than all she had lost. For Lassiter, Jane divined that little Fay had become a religion.

“Does oo love my new mower?” repeated Fay.

Lassiter’s answer to this was a modest and sincere affirmative.

“Why don’t oo marry my new mower an’ be my favver?”

Of the thousands of questions put by little Fay to Lassiter the was the first he had been unable to answer.

“Fay–Fay, don’t ask questions like that,” said Jane.

“Why?”

“Because,” replied Jane. And she found it strangely embarrassing to meet the child’s gaze. It seemed to her that Fay’s violet eyes looked through her with piercing wisdom.

“Oo love him, don’t oo?”

“Dear child–run and play,” said Jane, “but don’t go too far. Don’t go from this little hill.”

Fay pranced off wildly, joyous over freedom that had not been granted her for weeks.

“Jane, why are children more sincere than grown-up persons?” asked Lassiter.

“Are they?”

“I reckon so. Little Fay there–she sees things as they appear on the face. An Indian does that. So does a dog. An’ an Indian an’ a dog are most of the time right in what they see. Mebbe a child is always right.”

“Well, what does Fay see?” asked Jane.

“I reckon you know. I wonder what goes on in Fay’s mind when she sees part of the truth with the wise eyes of a child, an’ wantin’ to know more, meets with strange falseness from you? Wait! You are false in a way, though you’re the best woman I ever knew. What I want to say is this. Fay has taken you’re pretendin’ to–to care for me for the thing it looks on the face. An’ her little formin’ mind asks questions. An’ the answers she gets are different from the looks of things. So she’ll grow up gradually takin’ on that falseness, an’ be like the rest of the women, an’ men, too. An’ the truth of this falseness to life is proved by your appearin’ to love me when you don’t. Things aren’t what they seem.”

“Lassiter, you’re right. A child should be told the absolute truth. But–is that possible? I haven’t been able to do it, and all my life I’ve loved the truth, and I’ve prided myself upon being truthful. Maybe that was only egotism. I’m learning much, my friend. Some of those blinding scales have fallen from my eyes. And–and as to caring for you, I think I care a great deal. How much, how little, I couldn’t say. My heart is almost broken. Lassiter. So now is not a good time to judge of affection. I can still play and be merry with Fay. I can still dream. But when I attempt serious thought I’m dazed. I don’t think. I don’t care any more. I don’t pray!…Think of that, my friend! But in spite of my numb feeling I believe I’ll rise out of all this dark agony a better woman, with greater love of man and God. I’m on the rack now; I’m senseless to all but pain, and growing dead to that. Sooner or later I shall rise out of this stupor. I’m waiting the hour.”

“It’ll soon come, Jane,” replied Lassiter, soberly. “Then I’m afraid for you. Years are terrible things, an’ for years you’ve been bound. Habit of years is strong as life itself. Somehow, though, I believe as you–that you’ll come out of it all a finer woman. I’m waitin’, too. An’ I’m wonderin’–I reckon, Jane, that marriage between us is out of all human reason?”

“Lassiter!…My dear friend!…It’s impossible for us to marry!”

“Why–as Fay says?” inquired Lassiter, with gentle persistence.

“Why! I never thought why. But it’s not possible. I am Jane, daughter of Withersteen. My father would rise out of his grave. I’m of Mormon birth. I’m being broken. But I’m still a Mormon woman. And you–you are Lassiter!”

“Mebbe I’m not so much Lassiter as I used to be.”

“What was it you said? Habit of years is strong as life itself! You can’t change the one habit–the purpose of your life. For you still pack those black guns! You still nurse your passion for blood.”

A smile, like a shadow, flickered across his face.

“No.”

“Lassiter, I lied to you. But I beg of you–don’t you lie to me. I’ve great respect for you. I believe you’re softened toward most, perhaps all, my people except–But when I speak of your purpose, your hate, your guns, I have only him in mind. I don’t believe you’ve changed.”

For answer he unbuckled the heavy cartridge-belt, and laid it with the heavy, swing gun-sheaths in her lap.

“Lassiter!” Jane whispered, as she gazed from him to the black, cold guns. Without them he appeared shorn of strength, defenseless, a smaller man. Was she Delilah? Swiftly, conscious of only one motive–refusal to see this man called craven by his enemies–she rose, and with blundering fingers buckled the belt round his waist where it belonged.

“Lassiter, I am a coward.”

“Come with me out of Utah–where I can put away my guns an’ be a man,” he said. “I reckon I’ll prove it to you then! Come! You’ve got Black Star back, an’ Night an’ Bells. Let’s take the racers an’ little Fay, en’ race out of Utah. The hosses an’ the child are all you have left. Come!”

“No, no, Lassiter. I’ll never leave Utah. What would I do in the world with my broken fortunes and my broken heart? Ill never leave these purple slopes I love so well.”

“I reckon I ought to ‘ve knowed that. Presently you’ll be livin’ down here in a hovel, en’ presently Jane Withersteen will be a memory. I only wanted to have a chance to show you how a man–any man–can be better ‘n he was. If we left Utah I could prove–I reckon I could prove this thing you call love. It’s strange, an’ hell an’ heaven at once, Jane Withersteen. ‘Pears to me that you’ve thrown away your big heart on love–love of religion an’ duty an’ churchmen, an’ riders an’ poor families an’ poor children! Yet you can’t see what love is–how it changes a person!…Listen, an’ in tellin’ you Milly Erne’s story I’ll show you how love changed her.

“Milly an’ me was children when our family moved from Missouri to Texas, an’ we growed up in Texas ways same as if we’d been born there. We had been poor, an’ there we prospered. In time the little village where we went became a town, an’ strangers an’ new families kept movin’ in. Milly was the belle them days. I can see her now, a little girl no bigger ‘n a bird, an’ as pretty. She had the finest eyes, dark blue-black when she was excited, an’ beautiful all the time. You remember Milly’s eyes! An’ she had light-brown hair with streaks of gold, an’ a mouth that every feller wanted to kiss.

“An’ about the time Milly was the prettiest an’ the sweetest, along came a young minister who began to ride some of a race with the other fellers for Milly. An’ he won. Milly had always been strong on religion, an’ when she met Frank Erne she went in heart an’ soul for the salvation of souls. Fact was, Milly, through study of the Bible an’ attendin’ church an’ revivals, went a little out of her head. It didn’t worry the old folks none, an’ the only worry to me was Milly’s everlastin’ prayin’ an’ workin’ to save my soul. She never converted me, but we was the best of comrades, an’ I reckon no brother an’ sister ever loved each other better. Well, Frank Erne an me hit up a great friendship. He was a strappin’ feller, good to look at, an’ had the most pleasin’ ways. His religion never bothered me, for he could hunt an’ fish an’ ride an’ be a good feller. After buffalo once, he come pretty near to savin’ my life. We got to be thick as brothers, an’ he was the only man I ever seen who I thought was good enough for Milly. An’ the day they were married I got drunk for the only time in my life.

“Soon after that I left home–it seems Milly was the only one who could keep me home–an’ I went to the bad, as to prosperin’ I saw some pretty hard life in the Pan Handle, an’ then I went North. In them days Kansas an’ Nebraska was as bad, come to think of it, as these days right here on the border of Utah. I got to be pretty handy with guns. An’ there wasn’t many riders as could beat me ridin’. An’ I can say all modest-like that I never seen the white man who could track a hoss or a steer or a man with me. Afore I knowed it two years slipped by, an’ all at once I got homesick, en’ purled a bridle south.

“Things at home had changed. I never got over that homecomin’. Mother was dead an’ in her grave. Father was a silent, broken man, killed already on his feet. Frank Erne was a ghost of his old self, through with workin’, through with preachin’, almost through with livin’, an’ Milly was gone!…It was a long time before I got the story. Father had no mind left, an’ Frank Erne was afraid to talk. So I had to pick up whet ‘d happened from different people.

“It ‘pears that soon after I left home another preacher come to the little town. An’ he an’ Frank become rivals. This feller was different from Frank. He preached some other kind of religion, and he was quick an’ passionate, where Frank was slow an’ mild. He went after people, women specially. In looks he couldn’t compare to Frank Erne, but he had power over women. He had a voice, an’ he talked an’ talked an’ preached an’ preached. Milly fell under his influence.. She became mightily interested in his religion. Frank had patience with her, as was his way, an’ let her be as interested as she liked. All religions were devoted to one God, he said, an’ it wouldn’t hurt Milly none to study a different point of view. So the new preacher often called on Milly, an’ sometimes in Frank’s absence. Frank was a cattle-man between Sundays.

“Along about this time an incident come off that I couldn’t get much light on. A stranger come to town, an’ was seen with the preacher. This stranger was a big man with an eye like blue ice, an’ a beard of gold. He had money, an’ he ‘peered a man of mystery, an’ the town went to buzzin’ when he disappeared about the same time as a young woman known to be mightily interested in the new preacher’s religion. Then, presently, along comes a man from somewheres in Illinois, en’ he up an’ spots this preacher as a famous Mormon proselyter. That riled Frank Erne as nothin’ ever before, an’ from rivals they come to be bitter enemies. An’ it ended in Frank goin’ to the meetin’-house where Milly was listenin’, en’ before her en’ everybody else he called that preacher–called him, well, almost as hard as Venters called Tull here sometime back. An’ Frank followed up that call with a hosswhippin’, en’ he drove the proselyter out of town.

“People noticed, so ’twas said, that Milly’s sweet disposition changed. Some said it was because she would soon become a mother, en’ others said she was pinin’ after the new religion. An’ there was women who said right out that she was pinin’ after the Mormon. Anyway, one mornin’ Frank rode in from one of his trips, to find Milly gone. He had no real near neighbors–livin’ a little out of town–but those who was nearest said a wagon had gone by in the night, an’ they though it stopped at her door. Well, tracks always tell, an’ there was the wagon tracks an’ hoss tracks an’ man tracks. The news spread like wildfire that Milly had run off from her husband. Everybody but Frank believed it an’ wasn’t slow in tellin’ why she run off. Mother had always hated that strange streak of Milly’s, takin’ up with the new religion as she had, an’ she believed Milly ran off with the Mormon. That hastened mother’s death, an’ she died unforgivin’. Father wasn’t the kind to bow down under disgrace or misfortune but he had surpassin’ love for Milly, an’ the loss of her broke him.

“From the minute I heard of Milly’s disappearance I never believed she went off of her own free will. I knew Milly, an’ I knew she couldn’t have done that. I stayed at home awhile, tryin’ to make Frank Erne talk. But if he knowed anythin’ then he wouldn’t tell it. So I set out to find Milly. An’ I tried to get on the trail of that proselyter. I knew if I ever struck a town he’d visited that I’d get a trail. I knew, too, that nothin’ short of hell would stop his proselytin’. An’ I rode from town to town. I had a blind faith that somethin’ was guidin’ me. An’ as the weeks an’ months went by I growed into a strange sort of a man, I guess. Anyway, people were afraid of me. Two years after that, way over in a corner of Texas, I struck a town where my man had been. He’d jest left. People said he came to that town without a woman. I back-trailed my man through Arkansas an’ Mississippi, an’ the old trail got hot again in Texas. I found the town where he first went after leavin’ home. An’ here I got track of Milly. I found a cabin where she had given birth to her baby. There was no way to tell whether she’d been kept a prisoner or not. The feller who owned the place was a mean, silent sort of a skunk, an’ as I was leavin’ I jest took a chance an’ left my mark on him. Then I went home again.

“It was to find I hadn’t any home, no more. Father had been dead a year. Frank Erne still lived in the house where Milly had left him. I stayed with him awhile, an’ I grew old watchin’ him. His farm had gone to weed, his cattle had strayed or been rustled, his house weathered till it wouldn’t keep out rain nor wind. An’ Frank set on the porch and whittled sticks, an’ day by day wasted away. There was times when he ranted about like a crazy man, but mostly he was always sittin’ an’ starin’ with eyes that made a man curse. I figured Frank had a secret fear that I needed to know. An’ when I told him I’d trailed Milly for near three years an’ had got trace of her, an’ saw where she’d had her baby, I thought he would drop dead at my feet. An’ when he’d come round more natural-like he begged me to give up the trail. But he wouldn’t explain. So I let him alone, an’ watched him day en’ night.

“An’ I found there was one thing still precious to him, an’ it was a little drawer where he kept his papers. This was in the room where he slept. An’ it ‘peered he seldom slept. But after bein’ patient I got the contents of that drawer an’ found two letters from Milly. One was a long letter written a few months after her disappearance. She had been bound an’ gagged an’ dragged away from her home by three men, an’ she named them–Hurd, Metzger, Slack. They was strangers to her. She was taken to the little town where I found trace of her two years after. But she didn’t send the letter from that town. There she was penned in. ‘Peared that the proselytes, who had, of course, come on the scene, was not runnin’ any risks of losin’ her. She went on to say that for a time she was out of her head, an’ when she got right again all that kept her alive was the baby. It was a beautiful baby, she said, an’ all she thought an’ dreamed of was somehow to get baby back to its father, an’ then she’d thankfully lay down and die. An’ the letter ended abrupt, in the middle of a sentence, en’ it wasn’t signed.

“The second letter was written more than two years after the first. It was from Salt Lake City. It simply said that Milly had heard her brother was on her trail. She asked Frank to tell her brother to give up the search because if he didn’t she would suffer in a way too horrible to tell. She didn’t beg. She just stated a fact an’ made the simple request. An’ she ended that letter by sayin’ she would soon leave Salt Lake City with the man she had come to love, en’ would never be heard of again.

“I recognized Milly’s handwritin’, an’ I recognized her way of puttin’ things. But that second letter told me of some great change in her. Ponderin’ over it, I felt at last she’d either come to love that feller an’ his religion, or some terrible fear made her lie an’ say so. I couldn’t be sure which. But, of course, I meant to find out. I’ll say here, if I’d known Mormons then as I do now I’d left Milly to her fate. For mebbe she was right about what she’d suffer if I kept on her trail. But I was young an’ wild them days. First I went to the town where she’d first been taken, an’ I went to the place where she’d been kept. I got that skunk who owned the place, an’ took him out in the woods, an’ made him tell all he knowed. That wasn’t much as to length, but it was pure hell’s-fire in substance. This time I left him some incapacitated for any more skunk work short of hell. Then I hit the trail for Utah.

“That was fourteen years ago. I saw the incomin’ of most of the Mormons. It was a wild country an’ a wild time. I rode from town to town, village to village, ranch to ranch, camp to camp. I never stayed long in one place. I never had but one idea. I never rested. Four years went by, an’ I knowed every trail in northern Utah. I kept on an’ as time went by, an’ I’d begun to grow old in my search, I had firmer, blinder faith in whatever was guidin’ me. Once I read about a feller who sailed the seven seas an’ traveled the world, an’ he had a story to tell, an’ whenever he seen the man to whom he must tell that story he knowed him on sight. I was like that, only I had a question to ask. An’ always I knew the man of whom I must ask. So I never really lost the trail, though for many years it was the dimmest trail ever followed by any man.

“Then come a change in my luck. Along in Central Utah I rounded up Hurd, an’ I whispered somethin’ in his ear, an’ watched his face, an’ then throwed a gun against his bowels. An’ he died with his teeth so tight shut I couldn’t have pried them open with a knife. Slack an’ Metzger that same year both heard me whisper the same question, an’ neither would they speak a word when they lay dyin’. Long before I’d learned no man of this breed or class–or God knows what–would give up any secrets! I had to see in a man’s fear of death the connections with Milly Erne’s fate. An’ as the years passed at long intervals I would find such a man.

“So as I drifted on the long trail down into southern Utah my name preceded me, an’ I had to meet a people prepared for me, an’ ready with guns. They made me a gun-man. An’ that suited me. In all this time signs of the proselyter an’ the giant with the blue-ice eyes an’ the gold beard seemed to fade dimmer out of the trail. Only twice in ten years did I find a trace of that mysterious man who had visited the proselyter at my home village. What he had to do with Milly’s fate was beyond all hope for me to learn, unless my guidin’ spirit led me to him! As for the other man, I knew, as sure as I breathed en’ the stars shone en’ the wind blew, that I’d meet him some day.

“Eighteen years I’ve been on the trail. An’ it led me to the last lonely villages of the Utah border. Eighteen years!…I feel pretty old now. I was only twenty when I hit that trail. Well, as I told you, back here a ways a Gentile said Jane Withersteen could tell me about Milly Erne an’ show me her grave!”

The low voice ceased, and Lassiter slowly turned his sombrero round and round, and appeared to be counting the silver ornaments on the band. Jane, leaning toward him, sat as if petrified, listening intently, waiting to hear more. She could have shrieked, but power of tongue and lips were denied her. She saw only this sad, gray, passion-worn man, and she heard only the faint rustling of the leaves.

“Well, I came to Cottonwoods,” went on Lassiter, “an’ you showed me Milly’s grave. An’ though your teeth have been shut tighter ‘n them of all the dead men lyin’ back along that trail, jest the same you told me the secret I’ve lived these eighteen years to hear! Jane, I said you’d tell me without ever me askin’. I didn’t need to ask my question here. The day, you remember, when that fat party throwed a gun on me in your court, an’–”

“Oh! Hush!” whispered Jane, blindly holding up her hands.

“I seen in your face that Dyer, now a bishop, was the proselyter who ruined Milly Erne.”

For an instant Jane Withersteen’s brain was a whirling chaos and she recovered to find herself grasping at Lassiter like one drowning. And as if by a lightning stroke she sprang from her dull apathy into exquisite torture.

“It’s a lie! Lassiter! No, no!” she moaned. “I swear–you’re wrong!”

“Stop! You’d perjure yourself! But I’ll spare you that. You poor woman! Still blind! Still faithful!…Listen. I know. Let that settle it. An’ I give up my purpose!”

“What is it–you say?”

“I give up my purpose. I’ve come to see an’ feel differently. I can’t help poor Milly. An’ I’ve outgrowed revenge. I’ve come to see I can be no judge for men. I can’t kill a man jest for hate. Hate ain’t the same with me since I loved you and little Fay.”

“Lassiter! You mean you won’t kill him?” Jane whispered.

“No.”

“For my sake?”

“I reckon. I can’t understand, but I’ll respect your feelin’s.”

“Because you–oh, because you love me?…Eighteen years! You were that terrible Lassiter! And now–because you love me?”

“That’s it, Jane.”

“Oh, you’ll make me love you! How can I help but love you? My heart must be stone. But–oh, Lassiter, wait, wait! Give me time. I’m not what I was. Once it was so easy to love. Now it’s easy to hate. Wait! My faith in God–some God–still lives. By it I see happier times for you, poor passion-swayed wanderer! For me–a miserable, broken woman. I loved your sister Milly. I will love you. I can’t have fallen so low–I can’t be so abandoned by God–that I’ve no love left to give you. Wait! Let us forget Milly’s sad life. Ah, I knew it as no one else on earth! There’s one thing I shall tell you–if you are at my death-bed, but I can’t speak now.”

“I reckon I don’t want to hear no more,” said Lassiter.

Jane leaned against him, as if some pent-up force had rent its way out, she fell into a paroxysm of weeping. Lassiter held her in silent sympathy. By degrees she regained composure, and she was rising, sensible of being relieved of a weighty burden, when a sudden start on Lassiter’s part alarmed her.

“I heard hosses–hosses with muffled hoofs!” he said; and he got up guardedly.

“Where’s Fay?” asked Jane, hurriedly glancing round the shady knoll. The bright-haired child, who had appeared to be close all the time, was not in sight.

“Fay!” called Jane.

No answering shout of glee. No patter of flying feet. Jane saw Lassiter stiffen.

“Fay–oh–Fay!” Jane almost screamed.

The leaves quivered and rustled; a lonesome cricket chirped in the grass, a bee hummed by. The silence of the waning afternoon breathed hateful portent. It terrified Jane. When had silence been so infernal?

“She’s–only–strayed–out–of earshot,” faltered Jane, looking at Lassiter.

Pale, rigid as a statue, the rider stood, not in listening, searching posture, but in one of doomed certainty. Suddenly he grasped Jane with an iron hand, and, turning his face from her gaze, he strode with her from the knoll.

“See–Fay played here last–a house of stones an’ sticks….An’ here’s a corral of pebbles with leaves for hosses,” said Lassiter, stridently, and pointed to the ground. “Back an’ forth she trailed here….See, she’s buried somethin’–a dead grasshopper–there’s a tombstone… here she went, chasin’ a lizard–see the tiny streaked trail…she pulled bark off this cottonwood…look in the dust of the path–the letters you taught her–she’s drawn pictures of birds en’ hosses an’ people….Look, a cross! Oh, Jane, your cross!”

Lassiter dragged Jane on, and as if from a book read the meaning of little Fay’s trail. All the way down the knoll, through the shrubbery, round and round a cottonwood, Fay’s vagrant fancy left records of her sweet musings and innocent play. Long had she lingered round a bird-nest to leave therein the gaudy wing of a butterfly. Long had she played beside the running stream sending adrift vessels freighted with pebbly cargo. Then she had wandered through the deep grass, her tiny feet scarcely turning a fragile blade, and she had dreamed beside some old faded flowers. Thus her steps led her into the broad lane. The little dimpled imprints of her bare feet showed clean-cut in the dust they went a little way down the lane; and then, at a point where they stopped, the great tracks of a man led out from the shrubbery and returned.

CHAPTER XX. LASSITER’S WAY

Footprints told the story of little Fay’s abduction. In anguish Jane Withersteen turned speechlessly to Lassiter, and, confirming her fears, she saw him gray-faced, aged all in a moment, stricken as if by a mortal blow.

Then all her life seemed to fall about her in wreck and ruin.

“It’s all over,” she heard her voice whisper. “It’s ended. I’m going–I’m going–”

“Where?” demanded Lassiter, suddenly looming darkly over her.

“To–to those cruel men–”

“Speak names!” thundered Lassiter.

“To Bishop Dyer–to Tull,” went on Jane, shocked into obedience.

“Well–what for?”

“I want little Fay. I can’t live without her. They’ve stolen her as they stole Milly Erne’s child. I must have little Fay. I want only her. I give up. I’ll go and tell Bishop Dyer–I’m broken. I’ll tell him I’m ready for the yoke–only give me back Fay–and–and I’ll marry Tull!”

“Never!” hissed Lassiter.

His long arm leaped at her. Almost running, he dragged her under the cottonwoods, across the court, into the huge hall of Withersteen House, and he shut the door with a force that jarred the heavy walls. Black Star and Night and Bells, since their return, had been locked in this hall, and now they stamped on the stone floor.

Lassiter released Jane and like a dizzy man swayed from her with a hoarse cry and leaned shaking against a table where he kept his rider’s accoutrements. He began to fumble in his saddlebags. His action brought a clinking, metallic sound–the rattling of gun-cartridges. His fingers trembled as he slipped cartridges into an extra belt. But as he buckled it over the one he habitually wore his hands became steady. This second belt contained two guns, smaller than the black ones swinging low, and he slipped them round so that his coat hid them. Then he fell to swift action. Jane Withersteen watched him, fascinated but uncomprehending and she saw him rapidly saddle Black Star and Night. Then he drew her into the light of the huge windows, standing over her, gripping her arm with fingers like cold steel.

“Yes, Jane, it’s ended–but you’re not goin’ to Dyer!…I’m goin’ instead!”

Looking at him–he was so terrible of aspect–she could not comprehend his words. Who was this man with the face gray as death, with eyes that would have made her shriek had she the strength, with the strange, ruthlessly bitter lips? Where was the gentle Lassiter? What was this presence in the hall, about him, about her–this cold, invisible presence?

“Yes, it’s ended, Jane,” he was saying, so awfully quiet and cool and implacable, “an’ I’m goin’ to make a little call. I’ll lock you in here, an’ when I get back have the saddle-bags full of meat an bread. An’ be ready to ride!”

“Lassiter!” cried Jane.

Desperately she tried to meet his gray eyes, in vain, desperately she tried again, fought herself as feeling and thought resurged in torment, and she succeeded, and then she knew.

“No–no–no!” she wailed. “You said you’d foregone your vengeance. You promised not to kill Bishop Dyer.”

“If you want to talk to me about him–leave off the Bishop. I don’t understand that name, or its use.”

“Oh, hadn’t you foregone your vengeance on–on Dyer?

“Yes.”

But–your actions–your words–your guns–your terrible looks!… They don’t seem foregoing vengeance?”

“Jane, now it’s justice.”

“You’ll–kill him?”

“If God lets me live another hour! If not God–then the devil who drives me!”

“You’ll kill him–for yourself–for your vengeful hate?”

“No!”

“For Milly Erne’s sake?”

“No.”

“For little Fay’s?”

“No!”

“Oh–for whose?”

“For yours!”

“His blood on my soul!” whispered Jane, and she fell to her knees. This was the long-pending hour of fruition. And the habit of years–the religious passion of her life–leaped from lethargy, and the long months of gradual drifting to doubt were as if they had never been. “If you spill his blood it’ll be on my soul–and on my father’s. Listen.” And she clasped his knees, and clung there as he tried to raise her. “Listen. Am I nothing to you?”

“Woman–don’t trifle at words! I love you! An’ I’ll soon prove it.”

“I’ll give myself to you–I’ll ride away with you–marry you, if only you’ll spare him?”

His answer was a cold, ringing, terrible laugh.

“Lassiter–I’ll love you. Spare him!”

“No.”

She sprang up in despairing, breaking spirit, and encircled his neck with her arms, and held him in an embrace that he strove vainly to loosen. “Lassiter, would you kill me? I’m fighting my last fight for the principles of my youth–love of religion, love of father. You don’t know–you can’t guess the truth, and I can’t speak ill. I’m losing all. I’m changing. All I’ve gone through is nothing to this hour. Pity me– help me in my weakness. You’re strong again–oh, so cruelly, coldly strong! You’re killing me. I see you–feel you as some other Lassiter! My master, be merciful–spare him!”

His answer was a ruthless smile.

She clung the closer to him, and leaned her panting breast on him, and lifted her face to his. “Lassiter, I do love you! It’s leaped out of my agony. It comes suddenly with a terrible blow of truth. You are a man! I never knew it till now. Some wonderful change came to me when you buckled on these guns and showed that gray, awful face. I loved you then. All my life I’ve loved, but never as now. No woman can love like a broken woman. If it were not for one thing–just one thing–and yet! I can’t speak it–I’d glory in your manhood–the lion in you that means to slay for me. Believe me–and spare Dyer. Be merciful–great as it’s in you to be great….Oh, listen and believe–I have nothing, but I’m a woman–a beautiful woman, Lassiter–a passionate, loving woman–and I love you! Take me–hide me in some wild place–and love me and mend my broken heart. Spare him and take me away.”

She lifted her face closer and closer to his, until their lips nearly touched, and she hung upon his neck, and with strength almost spent pressed and still pressed her palpitating body to his.

“Kiss me!” she whispered, blindly.

“No–not at your price!” he answered. His voice had changed or she had lost clearness of hearing.

“Kiss me!…Are you a man? Kiss me and save me!”

“Jane, you never played fair with me. But now you’re blisterin’ your lips–blackenin’ your soul with lies!”

“By the memory of my mother–by my Bible–no! No, I have no Bible! But by my hope of heaven I swear I love you!”

Lassiter’s gray lips formed soundless words that meant even her love could not avail to bend his will. As if the hold of her arms was that of a child’s he loosened it and stepped away.

“Wait! Don’t go! Oh, hear a last word!…May a more just and merciful God than the God I was taught to worship judge me–forgive me–save me! For I can no longer keep silent!…Lassiter, in pleading for Dyer I’ve been pleading more for my father. My father was a Mormon master, close to the leaders of the church. It was my father who sent Dyer out to proselyte. It was my father who had the blue-ice eye and the beard of gold. It was my father you got trace of in the past years. Truly, Dyer ruined Milly Erne–dragged her from her home–to Utah–to Cottonwoods. But it was for my father! If Milly Erne was ever wife of a Mormon that Mormon was my father! I never knew–never will know whether or not she was a wife. Blind I may be, Lassiter–fanatically faithful to a false religion I may have been but I know justice, and my father is beyond human justice. Surely he is meeting just punishment–somewhere. Always it has appalled me–the thought of your killing Dyer for my father’s sins. So I have prayed!”

“Jane, the past is dead. In my love for you I forgot the past. This thing I’m about to do ain’t for myself or Milly or Fay. It s not because of anythin’ that ever happened in the past, but for what is happenin’ right now. It’s for you!…An’ listen. Since I was a boy I’ve never thanked God for anythin’. If there is a God–an’ I’ve come to believe it–I thank Him now for the years that made me Lassiter!…I can reach down en’ feel these big guns, en’ know what I can do with them. An’, Jane, only one of the miracles Dyer professes to believe in can save him!”

Again for Jane Withersteen came the spinning of her brain in darkness, and as she whirled in endless chaos she seemed to be falling at the feet of a luminous figure–a man–Lassiter–who had saved her from herself, who could not be changed, who would slay rightfully. Then she slipped into utter blackness.

When she recovered from her faint she became aware that she was lying on a couch near the window in her sitting-room. Her brow felt damp and cold and wet, some one was chafing her hands; she recognized Judkins, and then saw that his lean, hard face wore the hue and look of excessive agitation.

“Judkins!” Her voice broke weakly.

“Aw, Miss Withersteen, you’re comin’ round fine. Now jest lay still a little. You’re all right; everythin’s all right.”

“Where is–he?”

“Who?”

“Lassiter!”

“You needn’t worry none about him.”

“Where is he? Tell me–instantly.”

“Wal, he’s in the other room patchin’ up a few triflin’ bullet holes.”

“Ah!…Bishop’ Dyer?”

“When I seen him last–a matter of half an hour ago, he was on his knees. He was some busy, but he wasn’t prayin’!”

“How strangely you talk! I’ll sit up. I’m–well, strong again. Tell me. Dyer on his knees! What was he doing?”

“Wal, beggin’ your pardon fer blunt talk, Miss Withersteen, Dyer was on his knees an’ not prayin’. You remember his big, broad hands? You’ve seen ’em raised in blessin’ over old gray men an’ little curly-headed children like–like Fay Larkin! Come to think of thet, I disremember ever hearin’ of his liftin’ his big hands in blessin’ over a woman. Wal, when I seen him last–jest a little while ago–he was on his knees, not prayin’, as I remarked–an’ he was pressin’ his big hands over some bigger wounds.”

“Man, you drive me mad! Did Lassiter kill Dyer?”

“Yes.”

“Did he kill Tull?”

“No. Tull’s out of the village with most of his riders. He’s expected back before evenin’. Lassiter will hev to git away before Tull en’ his riders come in. It’s sure death fer him here. An’ wuss fer you, too, Miss Withersteen. There’ll be some of an uprisin’ when Tull gits back.”

“I shall ride away with Lassiter. Judkins, tell me all you saw–all you know about this killing.” She realized, without wonder or amaze, how Judkins’s one word, affirming the death of Dyer–that the catastrophe had fallen–had completed the change whereby she had been molded or beaten or broken into another woman. She felt calm, slightly cold, strong as she had not been strong since the first shadow fell upon her.

“I jest saw about all of it, Miss Withersteen, an’ I’ll be glad to tell you if you’ll only hev patience with me,” said Judkins, earnestly. “You see, I’ve been pecooliarly interested, an’ nat’rully I’m some excited. An’ I talk a lot thet mebbe ain’t necessary, but I can’t help thet.

“I was at the meetin’-house where Dyer was holdin’ court. You know he allus acts as magistrate an’ judge when Tull’s away. An’ the trial was fer tryin’ what’s left of my boy riders–thet helped me hold your cattle–fer a lot of hatched-up things the boys never did. We’re used to thet, an’ the boys wouldn’t hev minded bein’ locked up fer a while, or hevin’ to dig ditches, or whatever the judge laid down. You see, I divided the gold you give me among all my boys, an’ they all hid it, en’ they all feel rich. Howsomever, court was adjourned before the judge passed sentence. Yes, ma’m, court was adjourned some strange an’ quick, much as if lightnin’ hed struck the meetin’-house.

“I hed trouble attendin’ the trial, but I got in. There was a good many people there, all my boys, an’ Judge Dyer with his several clerks. Also he hed with him the five riders who’ve been guardin’ him pretty close of late. They was Carter, Wright, Jengessen, an’ two new riders from Stone Bridge. I didn’t hear their names, but I heard they was handy men with guns an’ they looked more like rustlers than riders. Anyway, there they was, the five all in a row.

“Judge Dyer was tellin’ Willie Kern, one of my best an’ steadiest boys– Dyer was tellin’ him how there was a ditch opened near Willie’s home lettin’ water through his lot, where it hadn’t ought to go. An’ Willie was tryin’ to git a word in to prove he wasn’t at home all the day it happened–which was true, as I know–but Willie couldn’t git a word in, an’ then Judge Dyer went on layin’ down the law. An’ all to onct he happened to look down the long room. An’ if ever any man turned to stone he was thet man.

“Nat’rully I looked back to see what hed acted so powerful strange on the judge. An’ there, half-way up the room, in the middle of the wide aisle, stood Lassiter! All white an’ black he looked, an’ I can’t think of anythin’ he resembled, onless it’s death. Venters made thet same room some still an’ chilly when he called Tull; but this was different. I give my word, Miss Withersteen, thet I went cold to my very marrow. I don’t know why. But Lassiter had a way about him thet’s awful. He spoke a word–a name–I couldn’t understand it, though he spoke clear as a bell. I was too excited, mebbe. Judge Dyer must hev understood it, an’ a lot more thet was mystery to me, for he pitched forrard out of his chair right onto the platform.

“Then them five riders, Dyer’s bodyguards, they jumped up, an’ two of them thet I found out afterward were the strangers from Stone Bridge, they piled right out of a winder, so quick you couldn’t catch your breath. It was plain they wasn’t Mormons.

“Jengessen, Carter, an’ Wright eyed Lassiter, for what must hev been a second an’ seemed like an hour, an’ they went white en’ strung. But they didn’t weaken nor lose their nerve.

“I hed a good look at Lassiter. He stood sort of stiff, bendin’ a little, an’ both his arms were crooked an’ his hands looked like a hawk’s claws. But there ain’t no tellin’ how his eyes looked. I know this, though, an’ thet is his eyes could read the mind of any man about to throw a gun. An’ in watchin’ him, of course, I couldn’t see the three men go fer their guns. An’ though I was lookin’ right at Lassiter–lookin’ hard–I couldn’t see how he drawed. He was quicker ‘n eyesight–thet’s all. But I seen the red spurtin’ of his guns, en’ heard his shots jest the very littlest instant before I heard the shots of the riders. An’ when I turned, Wright an’ Carter was down, en’ Jengessen, who’s tough like a steer, was pullin’ the trigger of a wabblin’ gun. But it was plain he was shot through, plumb center. An’ sudden he fell with a crash, an’ his gun clattered on the floor.

“Then there was a hell of a silence. Nobody breathed. Sartin I didn’t, anyway. I saw Lassiter slip a smokin’ gun back in a belt. But he hadn’t throwed either of the big black guns, an’ I thought thet strange. An’ all this was happenin’ quick–you can’t imagine how quick.

“There come a scrapin’ on the floor an’ Dyer got up, his face like lead. I wanted to watch Lassiter, but Dyer’s face, onct I seen it like thet, glued my eyes. I seen him go fer his gun–why, I could hev done better, quicker–an’ then there was a thunderin’ shot from Lassiter, an’ it hit Dyer’s right arm, an’ his gun went off as it dropped. He looked at Lassiter like a cornered sage-wolf, an’ sort of howled, an’ reached down fer his gun. He’d jest picked it off the floor an’ was raisin’ it when another thunderin’ shot almost tore thet arm off–so it seemed to me. The gun dropped again an’ he went down on his knees, kind of flounderin’ after it. It was some strange an’ terrible to see his awful earnestness. Why would such a man cling so to life? Anyway, he got the gun with left hand an’ was raisin’ it, pullin’ trigger in his madness, when the third thunderin’ shot hit his left arm, an’ he dropped the gun again. But thet left arm wasn’t useless yet, fer he grabbed up the gun, an’ with a shakin’ aim thet would hev been pitiful to me–in any other man–he began to shoot. One wild bullet struck a man twenty feet from Lassiter. An’ it killed thet man, as I seen afterward. Then come a bunch of thunderin’ shots–nine I calkilated after, fer they come so quick I couldn’t count them–an’ I knew Lassiter hed turned the black guns loose on Dyer.

“I’m tellin’ you straight, Miss Withersteen, fer I want you to know. Afterward you’ll git over it. I’ve seen some soul-rackin’ scenes on this Utah border, but this was the awfulest. I remember I closed my eyes, an’ fer a minute I thought of the strangest things, out of place there, such as you’d never dream would come to mind. I saw the sage, an’ runnin’ hosses–an’ thet’s the beautfulest sight to me–an’ I saw dim things in the dark, an’ there was a kind of hummin’ in my ears. An’ I remember distinctly–fer it was what made all these things whirl out of my mind an’ opened my eyes–I remember distinctly it was the smell of gunpowder.

“The court had about adjourned fer thet judge. He was on his knees, en’ he wasn’t prayin’. He was gaspin’ an’ tryin’ to press his big, floppin’, crippled hands over his body. Lassiter had sent all those last thunderin’ shots through his body. Thet was Lassiter’s way.

“An’ Lassiter spoke, en’ if I ever forgit his words I’ll never forgit the sound of his voice.

“‘Proselyter, I reckon you’d better call quick on thet God who reveals Hisself to you on earth, because He won’t be visitin’ the place you’re goin’ to!”

“An’ then I seen Dyer look at his big, hangin’ hands thet wasn’t big enough fer the last work he set them to. An’ he looked up at Lassiter. An’ then he stared horrible at somethin’ thet wasn’t Lassiter, nor anyone there, nor the room, nor the branches of purple sage peepin’ into the winder. Whatever he seen, it was with the look of a man who discovers somethin’ too late. Thet’s a terrible look!…An’ with a horrible understandin’ cry he slid forrard on his face.”

Judkins paused in his narrative, breathing heavily while he wiped his perspiring brow.

“Thet’s about all,” he concluded. “Lassiter left the meetin’-house an’ I hurried to catch up with him. He was bleedin’ from three gunshots, none of them much to bother him. An’ we come right up here. I found you layin’ in the hall, an’ I hed to work some over you.”

Jane Withersteen offered up no prayer for Dyer’s soul.

Lassiter’s step sounded in the hall–the familiar soft, silver-clinking step–and she heard it with thrilling new emotions in which was a vague joy in her very fear of him. The door opened, and she saw him, the old Lassiter, slow, easy, gentle, cool, yet not exactly the same Lassiter. She rose, and for a moment her eyes blurred and swam in tears.

“Are you–all–all right?” she asked, tremulously.

“I reckon.”

“Lassiter, I’ll ride away with you. Hide me till danger is past–till we are forgotten–then take me where you will. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God!”

He kissed her hand with the quaint grace and courtesy that came to him in rare moments.

“Black Star an’ Night are ready,” he said, simply.

His quiet mention of the black racers spurred Jane to action. Hurrying to her room, she changed to her rider’s suit, packed her jewelry, and the gold that was left, and all the woman’s apparel for which there was space in the saddle-bags, and then returned to the hall. Black Star stamped his iron-shod hoofs and tossed his beautiful head, and eyed her with knowing eyes.

“Judkins, I give Bells to you,” said Jane. “I hope you will always keep him and be good to him.”

Judkins mumbled thanks that he could not speak fluently, and his eyes flashed.

Lassiter strapped Jane’s saddle-bags upon Black Star, and led the racers out into the court.

“Judkins, you ride with Jane out into the sage. If you see any riders comin’ shout quick twice. An’, Jane, don’t look back! I’ll catch up soon. We’ll get to the break into the Pass before midnight, an’ then wait until mornin’ to go down.”

Black Star bent his graceful neck and bowed his noble head, and his broad shoulders yielded as he knelt for Jane to mount.

She rode out of the court beside Judkins, through the grove, across the wide lane into the sage, and she realized that she was leaving Withersteen House forever, and she did not look back. A strange, dreamy, calm peace pervaded her soul. Her doom had fallen upon her, but, instead of finding life no longer worth living she found it doubly significant, full of sweetness as the western breeze, beautiful and unknown as the sage-slope stretching its purple sunset shadows before her. She became aware of Judkins’s hand touching hers; she heard him speak a husky good-by; then into the place of Bells shot the dead-black, keen, racy nose of Night, and she knew Lassiter rode beside her.

“Don’t–look–back!” he said, and his voice, too, was not clear.

Facing straight ahead, seeing only the waving, shadowy sage, Jane held out her gauntleted hand, to feel it enclosed in strong clasp. So she rode on without a backward glance at the beautiful grove of Cottonwoods. She did not seem to think of the past of what she left forever, but of the color and mystery and wildness of the sage-slope leading down to Deception Pass, and of the future. She watched the shadows lengthen down the slope; she felt the cool west wind sweeping by from the rear; and she wondered at low, yellow clouds sailing swiftly over her and beyond.

“Don’t look–back!” said Lassiter.

Thick-driving belts of smoke traveled by on the wind, and with it came a strong, pungent odor of burning wood.

Lassiter had fired Withersteen House! But Jane did not look back.

A misty veil obscured the clear, searching gaze she had kept steadfastly upon the purple slope and the dim lines of canyons. It passed, as passed the rolling clouds of smoke, and she saw the valley deepening into the shades of twilight. Night came on, swift as the fleet racers, and stars peeped out to brighten and grow, and the huge, windy, eastern heave of sage-level paled under a rising moon and turned to silver. Blanched in moonlight, the sage yet seemed to hold its hue of purple and was infinitely more wild and lonely. So the night hours wore on, and Jane Withersteen never once looked back.

CHAPTER XXI. BLACK STAR AND NIGHT

The time had come for Venters and Bess to leave their retreat. They were at great pains to choose the few things they would be able to carry with them on the journey out of Utah.

“Bern, whatever kind of a pack’s this, anyhow?” questioned Bess, rising from her work with reddened face.

Venters, absorbed in his own task, did not look up at all, and in reply said he had brought so much from Cottonwoods that he did not recollect the half of it.

“A woman packed this!” Bess exclaimed.

He scarcely caught her meaning, but the peculiar tone of her voice caused him instantly to rise, and he saw Bess on her knees before an open pack which he recognized as the one given him by Jane.

“By George!” he ejaculated, guiltily, and then at sight of Bess’s face he laughed outright.

“A woman packed this,” she repeated, fixing woeful, tragic eyes on him.

“Well, is that a crime?’

“There–there is a woman, after all!”

“Now Bess–”

“You’ve lied to me!”

Then and there Venters found it imperative to postpone work for the present. All her life Bess had been isolated, but she had inherited certain elements of the eternal feminine.

“But there was a woman and you did lie to me,” she kept repeating, after he had explained.

“What of that? Bess, I’ll get angry at you in a moment. Remember you’ve been pent up all your life. I venture to say that if you’d been out in the world you d have had a dozen sweethearts and have told many a lie before this.”

“I wouldn’t anything of the kind,” declared Bess, indignantly.

“Well–perhaps not lie. But you’d have had the sweethearts–You couldn’t have helped that–being so pretty.”

This remark appeared to be a very clever and fortunate one; and the work of selecting and then of stowing all the packs in the cave went on without further interruption.

Venters closed up the opening of the cave with a thatch of willows and aspens, so that not even a bird or a rat could get in to the sacks of grain. And this work was in order with the precaution habitually observed by him. He might not be able to get out of Utah, and have to return to the valley. But he owed it to Bess to make the attempt, and in case they were compelled to turn back he wanted to find that fine store of food and grain intact. The outfit of implements and utensils he packed away in another cave.

“Bess, we have enough to live here all our lives,” he said once, dreamily.

“Shall I go roll Balancing Rock?” she asked, in light speech, but with deep-blue fire in her eyes.

“No–no.”

“Ah, you don’t forget the gold and the world,” she sighed.

“Child, you forget the beautiful dresses and the travel–and everything.”

“Oh, I want to go. But I want to stay!”

“I feel the same way.”

They let the eight calves out of the corral, and kept only two of the burros Venters had brought from Cottonwoods. These they intended to ride. Bess freed all her pets–the quail and rabbits and foxes.

The last sunset and twilight and night were both the sweetest and saddest they had ever spent in Surprise Valley. Morning brought keen exhilaration and excitement. When Venters had saddled the two burros, strapped on the light packs and the two canteens, the sunlight was dispersing the lazy shadows from the valley. Taking a last look at the caves and the silver spruces, Venters and Bess made a reluctant start, leading the burros. Ring and Whitie looked keen and knowing. Something seemed to drag at Venters’s feet and he noticed Bess lagged behind. Never had the climb from terrace to bridge appeared so long.

Not till they reached the opening of the gorge did they stop to rest and take one last look at the valley. The tremendous arch of stone curved clear and sharp in outline against the morning sky. And through it streaked the golden shaft. The valley seemed an enchanted circle of glorious veils of gold and wraiths of white and silver haze and dim, blue, moving shade–beautiful and wild and unreal as a dream.

“We–we can–th–think of it–always–re–remember,” sobbed Bess.

“Hush! Don’t cry. Our valley has only fitted us for a better life somewhere. Come!”

They entered the gorge and he closed the willow gate. From rosy, golden morning light they passed into cool, dense gloom. The burros pattered up the trail with little hollow-cracking steps. And the gorge widened to narrow outlet and the gloom lightened to gray. At the divide they halted for another rest. Venters’s keen, remembering gaze searched Balancing Rock, and the long incline, and the cracked toppling walls, but failed to note the slightest change.

The dogs led the descent; then came Bess leading her burro; then Venters leading his. Bess kept her eyes bent downward. Venters, however, had an irresistible desire to look upward at Balancing Rock. It had always haunted him, and now he wondered if he were really to get through the outlet before the huge stone thundered down. He fancied that would be a miracle. Every few steps he answered to the strange, nervous fear and turned to make sure the rock still stood like a giant statue. And, as he descended, it grew dimmer in his sight. It changed form; it swayed it nodded darkly; and at last, in his heightened fancy, he saw it heave and roll. As in a dream when he felt himself falling yet knew he would never fall, so he saw this long-standing thunderbolt of the little stone-men plunge down to close forever the outlet to Deception Pass.

And while he was giving way to unaccountable dread imaginations the descent was accomplished without mishap.

“I’m glad that’s over,” he said, breathing more freely. “I hope I’m by that hanging rock for good and all. Since almost the moment I first saw it I’ve had an idea that it was waiting for me. Now, when it does fall, if I’m thousands of miles away, I’ll hear it.”

With the first glimpses of the smooth slope leading down to the grotesque cedars and out to the Pass, Venters’s cool nerve returned. One long survey to the left, then one to the right, satisfied his caution. Leading the burros down to the spur of rock, he halted at the steep incline.

“Bess, here’s the bad place, the place I told you about, with the cut steps. You start down, leading your burro. Take your time and hold on to him if you slip. I’ve got a rope on him and a half-hitch on this point of rock, so I can let him down safely. Coming up here was a killing job. But it’ll be easy going down.”

Both burros passed down the difficult stairs cut by the cliff-dwellers, and did it without a misstep. After that the descent down the slope and over the mile of scrawled, ripped, and ridged rock required only careful guidance, and Venters got the burros to level ground in a condition that caused him to congratulate himself.

“Oh, if we only had Wrangle!” exclaimed Venters. “But we’re lucky. That’s the worst of our trail passed. We’ve only men to fear now. If we get up in the sage we can hide and slip along like coyotes.”

They mounted and rode west through the valley and entered the canyon. From time to time Venters walked, leading his burro. When they got by all the canyons and gullies opening into the Pass they went faster and with fewer halts. Venters did not confide in Bess the alarming fact that he had seen horses and smoke less than a mile up one of the intersecting canyons. He did not talk at all. And long after he had passed this canyon and felt secure once more in the certainty that they had been unobserved he never relaxed his watchfulness. But he did not walk any more, and he kept the burros at a steady trot. Night fell before they reached the last water in the Pass and they made camp by starlight. Venters did not want the burros to stray, so he tied them with long halters in the grass near the spring. Bess, tired out and silent, laid her head in a saddle and went to sleep between the two dogs. Venters did not close his eyes. The canyon silence appeared full of the low, continuous hum of insects. He listened until the hum grew into a roar, and then, breaking the spell, once more he heard it low and clear. He watched the stars and the moving shadows, and always his glance returned to the girl’s dimly pale face. And he remembered how white and still it had once looked in the starlight. And again stern thought fought his strange fancies. Would all his labor and his love be for naught? Would he lose her, after all? What did the dark shadow around her portend? Did calamity lurk on that long upland trail through the sage? Why should his heart swell and throb with nameless fear? He listened to the silence and told himself that in the broad light of day he could dispel this leaden-weighted dread.

At the first hint of gray over the eastern rim he awoke Bess, saddled the burros, and began the day’s travel. He wanted to get out of the Pass before there was any chance of riders coming down. They gained the break as the first red rays of the rising sun colored the rim.

For once, so eager was he to get up to level ground, he did not send Ring or Whitie in advance. Encouraging Bess to hurry pulling at his patient, plodding burro, he climbed the soft, steep trail.

Brighter and brighter grew the light. He mounted the last broken edge of rim to have the sun-fired, purple sage-slope burst upon him as a glory. Bess panted up to his side, tugging on the halter of her burro.

“We’re up!” he cried, joyously. “There’s not a dot on the sage We’re safe. We’ll not be seen! Oh, Bess–”

Ring growled and sniffed the keen air and bristled. Venters clutched at his rifle. Whitie sometimes made a mistake, but Ring never. The dull thud of hoofs almost deprived Venters of power to turn and see from where disaster threatened. He felt his eyes dilate as he stared at Lassiter leading Black Star and Night out of the sage, with Jane Withersteen, in rider’s costume, close beside them.

For an instant Venters felt himself whirl dizzily in the center of vast circles of sage. He recovered partially, enough to see Lassiter standing with a glad smile and Jane riveted in astonishment.

“Why, Bern!” she exclaimed. “How good it is to see you! We’re riding away, you see. The storm burst–and I’m a ruined woman!…I thought you were alone.”

Venters, unable to speak for consternation, and bewildered out of all sense of what he ought or ought not to do, simply stared at Jane.

“Son, where are you bound for?” asked Lassiter.

“Not safe–where I was. I’m–we’re going out of Utah–back East,” he found tongue to say.

“I reckon this meetin’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to you an’ to me–an’ to Jane–an’ to Bess,” said Lassiter, coolly.

“Bess!” cried Jane, with a sudden leap of blood to her pale cheek.

It was entirely beyond Venters to see any luck in that meeting.

Jane Withersteen took one flashing, woman’s glance at Bess’s scarlet face, at her slender, shapely form.

“Venters! is this a girl–a woman?” she questioned, in a voice that stung.

“Yes.”

“Did you have her in that wonderful valley?”

“Yes, but Jane–”

“All the time you were gone?”

“Yes, but I couldn’t tell–”

“Was it for her you asked me to give you supplies? Was it for her that you wanted to make your valley a
paradise?”

“Oh–Jane–”

“Answer me.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, you liar!” And with these passionate words Jane Withersteen succumbed to fury. For the second time in her life she fell into the ungovernable rage that had been her father’s weakness. And it was worse than his, for she was a jealous woman–jealous even of her friends.

As best he could, he bore the brunt of her anger. It was not only his deceit to her that she visited upon him, but her betrayal by religion, by life itself.

Her passion, like fire at white heat, consumed itself in little time. Her physical strength failed, and still her spirit attempted to go on in magnificent denunciation of those who had wronged her. Like a tree cut deep into its roots, she began to quiver and shake, and her anger weakened into despair. And her ringing voice sank into a broken, husky whisper. Then, spent and pitiable, upheld by Lassiter’s arm, she turned and hid her face in Black Star’s mane.

Numb as Venters was when at length Jane Withersteen lifted her head and looked at him, he yet suffered a pang.

“Jane, the girl is innocent!” he cried.

“Can you expect me to believe that?” she asked, with weary, bitter eyes.

“I’m not that kind of a liar. And you know it. If I lied–if I kept silent when honor should have made me speak, it was to spare you. I came to Cottonwoods to tell you. But I couldn’t add to your pain. I intended to tell you I had come to love this girl. But, Jane I hadn’t forgotten how good you were to me. I haven’t changed at all toward you. I prize your friendship as I always have. But, however it may look to you–don’t be unjust. The girl is innocent. Ask Lassiter.”

“Jane, she’s jest as sweet an’ innocent as little Fay,” said Lassiter. There was a faint smile upon his face and a beautiful light.

Venters saw, and knew that Lassiter saw, how Jane Withersteen’s tortured soul wrestled with hate and threw it–with scorn doubt, suspicion, and overcame all.

“Bern, if in my misery I accused you unjustly, I crave forgiveness,” she said. “I’m not what I once was. Tell me–who is this girl?”

“Jane, she is Oldring’s daughter, and his Masked Rider. Lassiter will tell you how I shot her for a rustler, saved her life–all the story. It’s a strange story, Jane, as wild as the sage. But it’s true–true as her innocence. That you must believe,”

“Oldring’s Masked Rider! Oldring’s daughter!” exclaimed Jane “And she’s innocent! You ask me to believe much. If this girl is–is what you say, how could she be going away with the man who killed her father?”

“Why did you tell that?” cried Venters, passionately.

Jane’s question had roused Bess out of stupefaction. Her eyes suddenly darkened and dilated. She stepped toward Venters and held up both hands as if to ward off a blow.

“Did–did you kill Oldring?”

“I did, Bess, and I hate myself for it. But you know I never dreamed he was your father. I thought he’d wronged you. I killed him when I was madly jealous.”

For a moment Bess was shocked into silence.

“But he was my father!” she broke out, at last. “And now I must go back–I can’t go with you. It’s all over–that beautiful dream. Oh, I knew it couldn’t come true. You can’t take me now.”

“If you forgive me, Bess, it’ll all come right in the end!” implored Venters.

“It can’t be right. I’ll go back. After all, I loved him. He was good to me. I can’t forget that.”

“If you go back to Oldring’s men I’ll follow you, and then they’ll kill me,” said Venters, hoarsely.

“Oh no, Bern, you’ll not come. Let me go. It’s best for you to forget mot I’ve brought you only pain and dishonor.”

She did not weep. But the sweet bloom and life died out of her face. She looked haggard and sad, all at once stunted; and her hands dropped listlessly; and her head drooped in slow, final acceptance of a hopeless fate.

“Jane. look there!” cried Venters, in despairing grief. “Need you have told her? Where was all your kindness of heart? This girl has had a wretched, lonely life. And I’d found a way to make her happy. You’ve killed it. You’ve killed something sweet and pure and hopeful, just as sure as you breathe.”

“Oh, Bern! It was a slip. I never thought–I never thought!” replied Jane. “How could I tell she didn’t know?”

Lassiter suddenly moved forward, and with the beautiful light on his face now strangely luminous, he looked at Jane and Venters and then let his soft, bright gaze rest on Bess.

“Well, I reckon you’ve all had your say, an’ now it’s Lassiter’s turn. Why, I was jest praying for this meetin’. Bess, jest look here.”

Gently he touched her arm and turned her to face the others, and then outspread his great hand to disclose a shiny, battered gold locket.

“Open it,” he said, with a singularly rich voice.

Bess complied, but listlessly.

“Jane–Venters–come closer,” went on Lassiter. “Take a look at the picture. Don’t you know the woman?”

Jane, after one glance, drew back.

“Milly Erne!” she cried, wonderingly.

Venters, with tingling pulse, with something growing on him, recognized in the faded miniature portrait the eyes of Milly Erne.

“Yes, that’s Milly,” said Lassiter, softly. “Bess, did you ever see her face–look hard–with all your heart an’ soul?”

“The eyes seem to haunt me,” whispered Bess. “Oh, I can’t remember– they’re eyes of my dreams–but–but–”

Lassiter’s strong arm went round her and he bent his head.

“Child, I thought you’d remember her eyes. They’re the same beautiful eyes you’d see if you looked in a mirror or a clear spring. They’re your mother’s eyes. You are Milly Erne’s child. Your name is Elizabeth Erne. You’re not Oldring’s daughter. You’re the daughter of Frank Erne, a man once my best friend. Look! Here’s his picture beside Milly’s. He was handsome, an’ as fine an’ gallant a Southern gentleman as I ever seen. Frank came of an old family. You come of the best of blood, lass, and blood tells.”

Bess slipped through his arm to her knees and hugged the locket to her bosom, and lifted wonderful, yearning eyes.

“It–can’t–be–true!”

“Thank God, lass, it is true,” replied Lassiter. “Jane an’ Bern here–they both recognize Milly. They see Milly in you. They’re so knocked out they can’t tell you, that’s all.”

“Who are you?” whispered Bess.

“I reckon I’m Milly’s brother an’ your uncle!…Uncle Jim! Ain’t that fine?”

“Oh, I can’t believe–Don’t raise me! Bern, let me kneel. I see truth in your face–in Miss Withersteen’s. But let me hear it all–all on my knees. Tell me how it’s true!”

“Well, Elizabeth, listen,” said Lassiter. “Before you was born your father made a mortal enemy of a Mormon named Dyer. They was both ministers an’ come to be rivals. Dyer stole your mother away from her home. She gave birth to you in Texas eighteen years ago. Then she was taken to Utah, from place to place, an’ finally to the last border settlement–Cottonwoods. You was about three years old when you was taken away from Milly. She never knew what had become of you. But she lived a good while hopin’ and prayin’ to have you again. Then she gave up an’ died. An’ I may as well put in here your father died ten years ago. Well, I spent my time tracin’ Milly, an’ some months back I landed in Cottonwoods. An’ jest lately I learned all about you. I had a talk with Oldrin’ an’ told him you was dead, an’ he told me what I had so long been wantin’ to know. It was Dyer, of course, who stole you from Milly. Part reason he was sore because Milly refused to give you Mormon teachin’, but mostly he still hated Frank Erne so infernally that he made a deal with Oldrin’ to take you an’ bring you up as an infamous rustler an’ rustler’s girl. The idea was to break Frank Erne’s heart if he ever came to Utah–to show him his daughter with a band of low rustlers. Well–Oldrin’ took you, brought you up from childhood, an’ then made you his Masked Rider. He made you infamous. He kept that part of the contract, but he learned to love you as a daughter an’ never let any but his own men know you was a girl. I heard him say that with my own ears, an’ I saw his big eyes grow dim. He told me how he had guarded you always, kept you locked up in his absence, was always at your side or near you on those rides that made you famous on the sage. He said he an’ an old rustler whom he trusted had taught you how to read an’ write. They selected the books for you. Dyer had wanted you brought up the vilest of the vile! An’ Oldrin’ brought you up the innocentest of the innocent. He said you didn’t know what vileness was. I can hear his big voice tremble now as he said it. He told me how the men–rustlers an’ outlaws–who from time to time tried to approach you familiarly–he told me how he shot them dead. I’m tellin’ you this ‘specially because you’ve showed such shame–sayin’ you was nameless an’ all that. Nothin’ on earth can be wronger than that idea of yours. An’ the truth of it is here. Oldrin’ swore to me that if Dyer died, releasin’ the contract, he intended to hunt up your father an’ give you back to him. It seems Oldrin’ wasn’t all bad, en’ he sure loved you.”

Venters leaned forward in passionate remorse.

“Oh, Bess! I know Lassiter speaks the truth. For when I shot Oldring he dropped to his knees and fought with unearthly power to speak. And he said: ‘Man–why–didn’t–you–wait? Bess was–‘ Then he fell dead. And I’ve been haunted by his look and words. Oh, Bess, what a strange, splendid thing for Oldring to do! It all seems impossible. But, dear, you really are not what you thought.”

“Elizabeth Erne!” cried Jane Withersteen. “I loved your mother and I see her in you!”

What had been incredible from the lips of men became, in the tone, look, and gesture of a woman, a wonderful truth for Bess. With little tremblings of all her slender body she rocked to and fro on her knees. The yearning wistfulness of her eyes changed to solemn splendor of joy. She believed. She was realizing happiness. And as the process of thought was slow, so were the variations of her expression. Her eyes reflected the transformation of her soul. Dark, brooding, hopeless belief–clouds of gloom–drifted, paled, vanished in glorious light. An exquisite rose flush–a glow–shone from her face as she slowly began to rise from her knees. A spirit uplifted her. All that she had held as base dropped from her.

Venters watched her in joy too deep for words. By it he divined something of what Lassiter’s revelation meant to Bess, but he knew he could only faintly understand. That moment when she seemed to be lifted by some spiritual transfiguration was the most beautiful moment of his life. She stood with parted, quivering lips, with hands tightly clasping the locket to her heaving breast. A new conscious pride of worth dignified the old wild, free grace and poise.

“Uncle Jim!” she said, tremulously, with a different smile from any Venters had ever seen on her face.

Lassiter took her into his arms.

“I reckon. It’s powerful fine to hear that,” replied Lassiter, unsteadily.

Venters, feeling his eyes grow hot and wet, turned away, and found himself looking at Jane Withersteen. He had almost forgotten her presence. Tenderness and sympathy were fast hiding traces of her agitation. Venters read her mind–felt the reaction of her noble heart–saw the joy she was beginning to feel at the happiness of others. And suddenly blinded, choked by his emotions, he turned from her also. He knew what she would do presently; she would make some magnificent amend for her anger; she would give some manifestation of her love; probably all in a moment, as she had loved Milly Erne, so would she love Elizabeth Erne.

“‘Pears to me, folks, that we’d better talk a little serious now,” remarked Lassiter, at length. “Time flies.”

“You’re right,” replied Venters, instantly. “I’d forgotten time–place– danger. Lassiter, you’re riding away. Jane’s leaving Withersteen House?”

“Forever,” replied Jane.

“I fired Withersteen House,” said Lassiter.

“Dyer?” questioned Venters, sharply.

“I reckon where Dyer’s gone there won’t be any kidnappin’ of girls.”

“Ah! I knew it. I told Judkins–And Tull?” went on Venters, passionately.

“Tull wasn’t around when I broke loose. By now he’s likely on our trail with his riders.”

“Lassiter, you’re going into the Pass to hide till all this storm blows over?”

“I reckon that’s Jane’s idea. I’m thinkin’ the storm’ll be a powerful long time blowin’ over. I was comin’ to join you in Surprise Valley. You’ll go back now with me?”

“No. I want to take Bess out of Utah. Lassiter, Bess found gold in the valley. We’ve a saddle-bag full of gold. If we can reach Sterling–”

“Man! how’re you ever goin’ to do that? Sterlin’ is a hundred miles.”

“My plan is to ride on, keeping sharp lookout. Somewhere up the trail we’ll take to the sage and go round Cottonwoods and then hit the trail again.”

“It’s a bad plan. You’ll kill the burros in two days.”

“Then we’ll walk.”

“That’s more bad an’ worse. Better go back down the Pass with me.”

“Lassiter, this girl has been hidden all her life in that lonely place,” went on Venters. “Oldring’s men are hunting me. We’d not be safe there any longer. Even if we would be I’d take this chance to get her out. I want to marry her. She shall have some of the pleasures of life–see cities and people. We’ve gold–we’ll be rich. Why, life opens sweet for both of us. And, by Heaven! I’ll get her out or lose my life in the attempt!”

“I reckon if you go on with them burros you’ll lose your life all right. Tull will have riders all over this sage. You can’t get out on them burros. It’s a fool idea. That’s not doin’ best by the girl. Come with me en’ take chances on the rustlers.”

Lassiter’s cool argument made Venters waver, not in determination to go, but in hope of success.

“Bess, I want you to know. Lassiter says the trip’s almost useless now. I’m afraid he’s right. We’ve got about one chance in a hundred to go through. Shall we take it? Shall we go on?”

“We’ll go on,” replied Bess.

“That settles it, Lassiter.”

Lassiter spread wide his hands, as if to signify he could do no more, and his face clouded.

Venters felt a touch on his elbow. Jane stood beside him with a hand on his arm. She was smiling. Something radiated from her, and like an electric current accelerated the motion of his blood.

“Bern, you’d be right to die rather than not take Elizabeth out of Utah–out of this wild country. You must do it. You’ll show her the great world, with all its wonders. Think how little she has seen! Think what delight is in store for her! You have gold, You will be free; you will make her happy. What a glorious prospect! I share it with you. I’ll think of you–dream of you–pray for you.”

“Thank you, Jane,” replied Venters, trying to steady his voice. “It does look bright. Oh, if we were only across that wide, open waste of sage!”

“Bern, the trip’s as good as made. It’ll be safe–easy. It’ll be a glorious ride,” she said, softly.

Venters stared. Had Jane’s troubles made her insane? Lassiter, too, acted queerly, all at once beginning to turn his sombrero round in hands that actually shook.

“You are a rider. She is a rider. This will be the ride of your lives,” added Jane, in that same soft undertone, almost as if she were musing to herself.

“Jane!” he cried.

“I give you Black Star and Night!”

“Black Star and Night!” he echoed.

“It’s done. Lassiter, put our saddle-bags on the burros.”

Only when Lassiter moved swiftly to execute her bidding did Venters’s clogged brain grasp at literal meanings. He leaped to catch Lassiter’s busy hands.

“No, no! What are you doing?” he demanded, in a kind of fury. “I won’t take her racers. What do you think I am? It’d be monstrous. Lassiter! stop it, I say!…You’ve got her to save. You’ve miles and miles to go. Tull is trailing you. There are rustlers in the Pass. Give me back that saddle-bag!”

“Son–cool down,” returned Lassiter, in a voice he might have used to a child. But the grip with which he tore away Venters’s grasping hands was that of a giant. “Listen–you fool boyl Jane’s sized up the situation. The burros’ll do for us. Well sneak along an’ hide. I’ll take your dogs an’ your rifle. Why, it’s the trick. The blacks are yours, an’ sure as I can throw a gun you’re goin’ to ride safe out of the sage.”

“Jane–stop him–please stop him,” gasped Venters. “I’ve lost my strength. I can’t do–anything. This is hell for me! Can’t you see that? I’ve ruined you–it was through me you lost all. You’ve only Black Star and Night left. You love these horses. Oh! I know how you must love them now! And–you’re trying to give them to me. To help me out of Utah! To save the girl I love!”

“That will be my glory.”

Then in the white, rapt face, in the unfathomable eyes, Venters saw Jane Withersteen in a supreme moment. This moment was one wherein she reached up to the height for which her noble soul had ever yearned. He, after disrupting the calm tenor of her peace, after bringing down on her head the implacable hostility of her churchmen, after teaching her a bitter lesson of life–he was to be her salvation. And he turned away again, this time shaken to the core of his soul. Jane Withersteen was the incarnation of selflessness. He experienced wonder and terror, exquisite pain and rapture. What were all the shocks life had dealt him compared to the thought of such loyal and generous friendship?

And instantly, as if by some divine insight, he knew himself in the remaking–tried, found wanting; but stronger, better, surer–and he wheeled to Jane Withersteen, eager, joyous, passionate, wild, exalted. He bent to her; he left tears and kisses on her hands.

“Jane, I–I can’t find words–now,” he said. “I’m beyond words. Only–I understand. And I’ll take the blacks.”

“Don’t be losin’ no more time,” cut in Lassiter. “I ain’t certain, but I think I seen a speck up the sage-slope. Mebbe I was mistaken. But, anyway, we must all be movin’. I’ve shortened the stirrups on Black Star. Put Bess on him.”

Jane Withersteen held out her arms.

“Elizabeth Erne!” she cried, and Bess flew to her.

How inconceivably strange and beautiful it was for Venters to see Bess clasped to Jane Withersteen’s breast!

Then he leaped astride Night.

“Venters, ride straight on up the slope,” Lassiter was saying, “‘an if you don’t meet any riders keep on till you’re a few miles from the village, then cut off in the sage an’ go round to the trail. But you’ll most likely meet riders with Tull. Jest keep right on till you’re jest out of gunshot an’ then make your cut-off into the sage. They’ll ride after you, but it won’t be no use. You can ride, an’ Bess can ride. When you’re out of reach turn on round to the west, an’ hit the trail somewhere. Save the hosses all you can, but don’t be afraid. Black Star and Night are good for a hundred miles before sundown, if you have to push them. You can get to Sterlin’ by night if you want. But better make it along about to-morrow mornin’. When you get through the notch on the Glaze trail, swing to the right. You’ll be able to see both Glaze an’ Stone Bridge. Keep away from them villages. You won’t run no risk of meetin’ any of Oldrin’s rustlers from Sterlin’ on. You’ll find water in them deep hollows north of the Notch. There’s an old trail there, not much used, en’ it leads to Sterlin’. That’s your trail. An’ one thing more. If Tull pushes you–or keeps on persistent-like, for a few miles–jest let the blacks out an’ lose him an’ his riders.”

“Lassiter, may we meet again!” said Venters, in a deep voice.

“Son, it ain’t likely–it ain’t likely. Well, Bess Oldrin’–Masked Rider–Elizabeth Erne–now you climb on Black Star. I’ve heard you could ride. Well, every rider loves a good horse. An’, lass, there never was but one that could beat Black Star.”

“Ah, Lassiter, there never was any horse that could beat Black Star,” said Jane, with the old pride.

“I often wondered–mebbe Venters rode out that race when he brought back the blacks. Son, was Wrangle the best hoss?”

“No, Lassiter,” replied Venters. For this lie he had his reward in Jane’s quick smile.

“Well, well, my hoss-sense ain’t always right. An’ here I’m talkie’ a lot, wastin’ time. It ain’t so easy to find an’ lose a pretty niece all in one hour! Elizabeth–good-by!”

“Oh, Uncle Jim!…Good-by!”

“Elizabeth Erne, be happy! Good-by,” said Jane.

“Good-by–oh–good-by!” In lithe, supple action Bess swung up to Black Star’s saddle.

“Jane Withersteen!…Good-by!” called Venters hoarsely.

“Bern–Bess–riders of the purple sage–good-by!”

CHAPTER XXII. RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE

Black Star and Night, answering to spur, swept swiftly westward along the white, slow-rising, sage-bordered trail. Venters heard a mournful howl from Ring, but Whitie was silent. The blacks settled into their fleet, long-striding gallop. The wind sweetly fanned Venters’s hot face. From the summit of the first low-swelling ridge he looked back. Lassiter waved his hand; Jane waved her scarf. Venters replied by standing in his stirrups and holding high his sombrero. Then the dip of the ridge hid them. From the height of the next he turned once more. Lassiter, Jane, and the burros had disappeared. They had gone down into the Pass. Venters felt a sensation of irreparable loss.

“Bern–look!” called Bess, pointing up the long slope.

A small, dark, moving dot split the line where purple sage met blue sky. That dot was a band of riders.

“Pull the black, Bess.”

They slowed from gallop to canter, then to trot. The fresh and eager horses did not like the check.

“Bern, Black Star has great eyesight.”

“I wonder if they’re Tull’s riders. They might be rustlers. But it’s all the same to us.”

The black dot grew to a dark patch moving under low dust clouds. It grew all the time, though very slowly. There were long periods when it was in plain sight, and intervals when it dropped behind the sage. The blacks trotted for half an hour, for another half-hour, and still the moving patch appeared to stay on the horizon line. Gradually, however, as time passed, it began to enlarge, to creep down the slope, to encroach upon the intervening distance.

“Bess, what do you make them out?” asked Venters. “I don’t think they’re rustlers.”

“They’re sage-riders,” replied Bess. “I see a white horse and several grays. Rustlers seldom ride any horses but bays and blacks.”

“That white horse is Tull’s. Pull the black, Bess. I’ll get down and cinch up. We’re in for some riding. Are you afraid?”

“Not now,” answered the girl, smiling.

“You needn’t be. Bess, you don’t weigh enough to make Black Star know you’re on him. I won’t be able to stay with you. You’ll leave Tull and his riders as if they were standing still.”

“How about you?”

“Never fear. If I can’t stay with you I can still laugh at Tull.”

“Look, Bern! They’ve stopped on that ridge. They see us.”

“Yes. But we’re too far yet for them to make out who we are. They’ll recognize the blacks first. We’ve passed most of the ridges and the thickest sage. Now, when I give the word, let Black Star go and ride!”

Venters calculated that a mile or more still intervened between them and the riders. They were approaching at a swift canter. Soon Venters recognized Tull’s white horse, and concluded that the riders had likewise recognized Black Star and Night. But it would be impossible for Tull yet to see that the blacks were not ridden by Lassiter and Jane. Venters noted that Tull and the line of horsemen, perhaps ten or twelve in number, stopped several times and evidently looked hard down the slope. It must have been a puzzling circumstance for Tull. Venters laughed grimly at the thought of what Tull’s rage would be when he finally discovered the trick. Venters meant to sheer out into the sage before Tull could possibly be sure who rode the blacks.

The gap closed to a distance to half a mile. Tull halted. His riders came up and formed a dark group around him. Venters thought he saw him wave his arms and was certain of it when the riders dashed into the sage, to right and left of the trail. Tull had anticipated just the move held in mind by Venters.

“Now Bess!” shouted Venters. “Strike north. Go round those riders and turn west.”

Black Star sailed over the low sage, and in a few leaps got into his stride and was running. Venters spurred Night after him. It was hard going in the sage. The horses could run as well there, but keen eyesight and judgment must constantly be used by the riders in choosing ground. And continuous swerving from aisle to aisle between the brush, and leaping little washes and mounds of the pack-rats, and breaking through sage, made rough riding. When Venters had turned into a long aisle he had time to look up at Tull’s riders. They were now strung out into an extended line riding northeast. And, as Venters and Bess were holding due north, this meant, if the horses of Tull and his riders had the speed and the staying power, they would head the blacks and turn them back down the slope. Tull’s men were not saving their mounts; they were driving them desperately. Venters feared only an accident to Black Star or Night, and skilful riding would mitigate possibility of that. One glance ahead served to show him that Bess could pick a course through the sage as well as he. She looked neither back nor at the running riders, and bent forward over Black Star’s neck and studied the ground ahead.

It struck Venters, presently, after he had glanced up from time to time, that Bess was drawing away from him as he had expected. He had, however, only thought of the light weight Black Star was carrying and of his superior speed; he saw now that the black was being ridden as never before, except when Jerry Card lost the race to Wrangle. How easily, gracefully, naturally, Bess sat her saddle! She could ride! Suddenly Venters remembered she had said she could ride. But he had not dreamed she was capable of such superb horsemanship. Then all at once, flashing over him, thrilling him, came the recollection that Bess was Oldring’s Masked Rider.

He forgot Tull–the running riders–the race. He let Night have a free rein and felt him lengthen out to suit himself, knowing he would keep to Black Star’s course, knowing that he had been chosen by the best rider now on the upland sage. For Jerry Card was dead. And fame had rivaled him with only one rider, and that was the slender girl who now swung so easily with Black Star’s stride. Venters had abhorred her notoriety, but now he took passionate pride in her skill, her daring, her power over a horse. And he delved into his memory, recalling famous rides which he had heard related in the villages and round the camp-fires. Oldring’s Masked Rider! Many times this strange rider, at once well known and unknown, had escaped pursuers by matchless riding. He had to run the gantlet of vigilantes down the main street of Stone Bridge, leaving dead horses and dead rustlers behind. He had jumped his horse over the Gerber Wash, a deep, wide ravine separating the fields of Glaze from the wild sage. He had been surrounded north of Sterling; and he had broken through the line. How often had been told the story of day stampedes, of night raids, of pursuit, and then how the Masked Rider, swift as the wind, was gone in the sage! A fleet, dark horse–a slender, dark form–a black mask–a driving run down the slope–a dot on the purple sage–a shadowy, muffled steed disappearing in the night!

And this Masked Rider of the uplands had been Elizabeth Erne!

The sweet sage wind rushed in Venters’s face and sang a song in his ears. He heard the dull, rapid beat of Night’s hoofs; he saw Black Star drawing away, farther and farther. He realized both horses were swinging to the west. Then gunshots in the rear reminded him of Tull. Venters looked back. Far to the side, dropping behind, trooped the riders. They were shooting. Venters saw no puffs or dust, heard no whistling bullets. He was out of range. When he looked back again Tull’s riders had given up pursuit. The best they could do, no doubt, had been to get near enough to recognize who really rode the blacks. Venters saw Tull drooping in his saddle.

Then Venters pulled Night out of his running stride. Those few miles had scarcely warmed the black, but Venters wished to save him. Bess turned, and, though she was far away, Venters caught the white glint of her waving hand. He held Night to a trot and rode on, seeing Bess and Black Star, and the sloping upward stretch of sage, and from time to time the receding black riders behind. Soon they disappeared behind a ridge, and he turned no more. They would go back to Lassiter’s trail and follow it, and follow in vain. So Venters rode on, with the wind growing sweeter to taste and smell, and the purple sage richer and the sky bluer in his sight; and the song in his ears ringing. By and by Bess halted to wait for him, and he knew she had come to the trail. When he reached her it was to smile at sight of her standing with arms round Black Star’s neck.

“Oh, Bern! I love him!” she cried. “He’s beautiful; he knows; and how he can run! I’ve had fast horses. But Black Star!…Wrangle never beat him!”

“I’m wondering if I didn’t dream that. Bess, the blacks are grand. What it must have cost Jane–ah!–well, when we get out of this wild country with Star and Night, back to my old home in Illinois, we’ll buy a beautiful farm with meadows and springs and cool shade. There we’ll turn the horses free–free to roam and browse and drink–never to feel a spur again–never to be ridden!”

“I would like that,” said Bess.

They rested. Then, mounting, they rode side by side up the white trail. The sun rose higher behind them. Far to the left a low fine of green marked the site of Cottonwoods. Venters looked once and looked no more. Bess gazed only straight ahead. They put the blacks to the long, swinging rider’s canter, and at times pulled them to a trot, and occasionally to a walk. The hours passed, the miles slipped behind, and the wall of rock loomed in the fore. The Notch opened wide. It was a rugged, stony pass, but with level and open trail, and Venters and Bess ran the blacks through it. An old trail led off to the right, taking the line of the wall, and his Venters knew to be the trail mentioned by Lassiter.