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Oldring's Knell








From: Riders Of The Purple Sage

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.





Next: Fay

Previous: Wrangle's Race Run



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