VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


Shadows On The Sage-slope








From: Riders Of The Purple Sage

In the cloudy, threatening, waning summer days shadows lengthened

down the sage-slope, and Jane Withersteen likened them to the

shadows gathering and closing in around her life.



Mrs. Larkin died, and little Fay was left an orphan with no known

relative. Jane's love redoubled. It was the saving brightness of

a darkening hour. Fay turned now to Jane in childish worship. And

Jane at last found full expression for the mother-longing in her

heart. Upon Lassiter, too, Mrs. Larkin's death had some subtle

reaction. Before, he had often, without explanation, advised Jane

to send Fay back to any Gentile family that would take her in.

Passionately and reproachfully and wonderingly Jane had refused

even to entertain such an idea. And now Lassiter never advised it

again, grew sadder and quieter in his contemplation of the child,

and infinitely more gentle and loving. Sometimes Jane had a cold,

inexplicable sensation of dread when she saw Lassiter watching

Fay. What did the rider see in the future? Why did he, day by

day, grow more silent, calmer, cooler, yet sadder in prophetic

assurance of something to be?



No doubt, Jane thought, the rider, in his almost superhuman power

of foresight, saw behind the horizon the dark, lengthening

shadows that were soon to crowd and gloom over him and her and

little Fay. Jane Withersteen awaited the long-deferred breaking

of the storm with a courage and embittered calm that had come to

her in her extremity. Hope had not died. Doubt and fear,

subservient to her will, no longer gave her sleepless nights and

tortured days. Love remained. All that she had loved she now

loved the more. She seemed to feel that she was defiantly

flinging the wealth of her love in the face of misfortune and of

hate. No day passed but she prayed for all--and most fervently

for her enemies. It troubled her that she had lost, or had never

gained, the whole control of her mind. In some measure reason and

wisdom and decision were locked in a chamber of her brain,

awaiting a key. Power to think of some things was taken from her.

Meanwhile, abiding a day of judgment, she fought ceaselessly to

deny the bitter drops in her cup, to tear back the slow, the

intangibly slow growth of a hot, corrosive lichen eating into her

heart.



On the morning of August 10th, Jane, while waiting in the court

for Lassiter, heard a clear, ringing report of a rifle. It came

from the grove, somewhere toward the corrals. Jane glanced out in

alarm. The day was dull, windless, soundless. The leaves of the

cottonwoods drooped, as if they had foretold the doom of

Withersteen House and were now ready to die and drop and decay.

Never had Jane seen such shade. She pondered on the meaning of

the report. Revolver shots had of late cracked from different

parts of the grove--spies taking snap-shots at Lassiter from a

cowardly distance! But a rifle report meant more. Riders seldom

used rifles. Judkins and Venters were the exceptions she called

to mind. Had the men who hounded her hidden in her grove, taken

to the rifle to rid her of Lassiter, her last friend? It was

probable--it was likely. And she did not share his cool

assumption that his death would never come at the hands of a

Mormon. Long had she expected it. His constancy to her, his

singular reluctance to use the fatal skill for which he was

famed-- both now plain to all Mormons--laid him open to

inevitable assassination. Yet what charm against ambush and aim

and enemy he seemed to bear about him! No, Jane reflected, it was

not charm; only a wonderful training of eye and ear, and sense of

impending peril. Nevertheless that could not forever avail

against secret attack.



That moment a rustling of leaves attracted her attention; then

the familiar clinking accompaniment of a slow, soft, measured

step, and Lassiter walked into the court.



"Jane, there's a fellow out there with a long gun," he said, and,

removing his sombrero, showed his head bound in a bloody scarf.



"I heard the shot; I knew it was meant for you. Let me see--you

can't be badly injured?"



"I reckon not. But mebbe it wasn't a close call!...I'll sit here

in this corner where nobody can see me from the grove." He untied

the scarf and removed it to show a long, bleeding furrow above

his left temple.



"It's only a cut," said Jane. "But how it bleeds! Hold your scarf

over it just a moment till I come back."



She ran into the house and returned with bandages; and while she

bathed and dressed the wound Lassiter talked.



"That fellow had a good chance to get me. But he must have

flinched when he pulled the trigger. As I dodged down I saw him

run through the trees. He had a rifle. I've been expectin' that

kind of gun play. I reckon now I'll have to keep a little closer

hid myself. These fellers all seem to get chilly or shaky when

they draw a bead on me, but one of them might jest happen to hit

me."



"Won't you go away--leave Cottonwoods as I've begged you

to--before some one does happen to hit you?" she appealed to him.



"I reckon I'll stay."



"But, oh, Lassiter--your blood will be on my hands!"



"See here, lady, look at your hands now, right now. Aren't they

fine, firm, white hands? Aren't they bloody now? Lassiter's

blood! That's a queer thing to stain your beautiful hands. But if

you could only see deeper you'd find a redder color of blood.

Heart color, Jane!"



"Oh!...My friend!"



"No, Jane, I'm not one to quit when the game grows hot, no more

than you. This game, though, is new to me, an' I don't know the

moves yet, else I wouldn't have stepped in front of that bullet."



"Have you no desire to hunt the man who fired at you--to find

him--and-- and kill him?"



"Well, I reckon I haven't any great hankerin' for that."



"Oh, the wonder of it!...I knew--I prayed--I trusted. Lassiter, I

almost gave--all myself to soften you to Mormons. Thank God, and

thank you, my friend....But, selfish woman that ] am, this is no

great test. What's the life of one of those sneaking cowards to

such a man as you? I think of your great hate toward him who--I

think of your life's implacable purpose. Can it

be--"



"Wait!...Listen!" he whispered. "I hear a hoss."



He rose noiselessly, with his ear to the breeze. Suddenly he

pulled his sombrero down over his bandaged head and, swinging his

gun-sheaths round in front, he stepped into the alcove.



"It's a hoss--comin' fast," he added.



Jane's listening ear soon caught a faint, rapid, rhythmic beat of

hoofs. It came from the sage. It gave her a thrill that she was

at a loss to understand. The sound rose stronger, louder. Then

came a clear, sharp difference when the horse passed from the

sage trail to the hard-packed ground of the grove. It became a

ringing run--swift in its bell-like clatterings, yet singular in

longer pause than usual between the hoofbeats of a horse.



"It's Wrangle!...It's Wrangle!" cried Jane Withersteen. "I'd know

him from a million horses!"



Excitement and thrilling expectancy flooded out all Jane

Withersteen s calm. A tight band closed round her breast as she

saw the giant sorrel flit in reddish-brown flashes across the

openings in the green. Then he was pounding down the

lane--thundering into the court--crashing his great iron-shod

hoofs on the stone flags. Wrangle it was surely, but shaggy and

wild-eyed, and sage-streaked, with dust-caked lather staining his

flanks. He reared and crashed down and plunged. The rider leaped

off, threw the bridle, and held hard on a lasso looped round

Wrangle's head and neck. Janet's heart sank as she tried to

recognize Venters in the rider. Something familiar struck her in

the lofty stature in the sweep of powerful shoulders. But this

bearded, longhaired, unkempt man, who wore ragged clothes patched

with pieces of skin, and boots that showed bare legs and

feet--this dusty, dark, and wild rider could not possibly be

Venters.



"Whoa, Wrangle, old boy! Come down. Easy now. So--so--so. You re

home, old boy, and presently you can have a drink of water you'll

remember."



In the voice Jane knew the rider to be Venters. He tied Wrangle

to the hitching-rack and turned to the court.



"Oh, Bern!...You wild man!" she exclaimed.



"Jane--Jane, it's good to see you! Hello, Lassiter! Yes, it's

Venters."



Like rough iron his hard hand crushed Jane's. In it she felt the

difference she saw in him. Wild, rugged, unshorn--yet how

splendid! He had gone away a boy--he had returned a man. He

appeared taller, wider of shoulder, deeper-chested, more

powerfully built. But was that only her fancy--he had always been

a young giant--was the change one of spirit? He might have been

absent for years, proven by fire and steel, grown like Lassiter,

strong and cool and sure. His eyes--were they keener, more

flashing than before?--met hers with clear, frank, warm regard,

in which perplexity was not, nor discontent, nor pain.



"Look at me long as you like," he said, with a laugh. "I'm not

much to look at. And, Jane, neither you nor Lassiter, can brag.

You're paler than I ever saw you. Lassiter, here, he wears a

bloody bandage under his hat. That reminds me. Some one took a

flying shot at me down in the sage. It made Wrangle run

some....Well, perhaps you've more to tell me than I've got to

tell you."



Briefly, in few words, Jane outlined the circumstances of her

undoing in the weeks of his absence.



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

wrath.



"Lassiter--what held you back?"



No time in the long period of fiery moments and sudden shocks had

Jane Withersteen ever beheld Lassiter as calm and serene and cool

as then.



"Jane had gloom enough without my addin' to it by shootin' up the

village," he said.



As strange as Lassiter's coolness was Venters's curious, intent

scrutiny of them both, and under it Jane felt a flaming tide wave

from bosom to temples.



"Well--you're right," he said, with slow pause. "It surprises me

a little, that's all."



Jane sensed then a slight alteration in Venters, and what it was,

in her own confusion, she could not tell. It had always been her

intention to acquaint him with the deceit she had fallen to in

her zeal to move Lassiter. She did not mean to spare herself. Yet

now, at the moment, before these riders, it was an impossibility

to explain.



Venters was speaking somewhat haltingly, without his former

frankness. "I found Oldring's hiding-place and your red herd. I

learned--I know-- I'm sure there was a deal between Tull and

Oldring." He paused and shifted his position and his gaze. He

looked as if he wanted to say something that he found beyond him.

Sorrow and pity and shame seemed to contend for mastery over him.

Then he raised himself and spoke with effort. "Jane I've cost you

too much. You've almost ruined yourself for me. It was wrong, for

I'm not worth it. I never deserved such friendship. Well, maybe

it's not too late. You must give me up. Mind, I haven't changed.

I am just the same as ever. I'll see Tull while I'm here, and

tell him to his face."



"Bern, it's too late," said Jane.



"I'll make him believe!" cried Venters, violently.



"You ask me to break our friendship?"



"Yes. If you don't, I shall."



"Forever?"



"Forever!"



Jane sighed. Another shadow had lengthened down the sage slope to

cast further darkness upon her. A melancholy sweetness pervaded

her resignation. The boy who had left her had returned a man,

nobler, stronger, one in whom she divined something unbending as

steel. There might come a moment later when she would wonder why

she had not fought against his will, but just now she yielded to

it. She liked him as well--nay, more, she thought, only her

emotions were deadened by the long, menacing wait for the

bursting storm.



Once before she had held out her hand to him--when she gave it;

now she stretched it tremblingly forth in acceptance of the

decree circumstance had laid upon them. Venters bowed over it

kissed it, pressed it hard, and half stifled a sound very like a

sob. Certain it was that when he raised his head tears glistened

in his eyes.



"Some--women--have a hard lot," he said, huskily. Then he shook

his powerful form, and his rags lashed about him. "I'll say a few

things to Tull--when I meet him."



"Bern--you'll not draw on Tull? Oh, that must not be! Promise

me--"



"I promise you this," he interrupted, in stern passion that

thrilled while it terrorized her. "If you say one more word for

that plotter I'll kill him as I would a mad coyote!"



Jane clasped her hands. Was this fire-eyed man the one whom she

had once made as wax to her touch? Had Venters become Lassiter

and Lassiter Venters?



"I'll--say no more," she faltered.



"Jane, Lassiter once called you blind," said Venters. "It must be

true. But I won't upbraid you. Only don't rouse the devil in me

by praying for Tull! I'll try to keep cool when I meet him.

That's all. Now there's one more thing I want to ask of you--the

last. I've found a valley down in the Pass. It's a wonderful

place. I intend to stay there. It's so hidden I believe no one

can find it. There's good water, and browse, and game. I want to

raise corn and stock. I need to take in supplies. Will you give

them to me?"



"Assuredly. The more you take the better you'll please me--and

perhaps the less my--my enemies will get."



"Venters, I reckon you'll have trouble packin' anythin' away,"

put in Lassiter.



"I'll go at night."



"Mebbe that wouldn't be best. You'd sure be stopped. You'd better

go early in the mornin'--say, just after dawn. That's the safest

time to move round here."



"Lassiter, I'll be hard to stop," returned Venters, darkly.



"I reckon so."



"Bern," said Jane, "go first to the riders' quarters and get

yourself a complete outfit. You're a--a sight. Then help yourself

to whatever else you need--burros, packs, grain, dried fruits,

and meat. You must take coffee and sugar and flour--all kinds of

supplies. Don't forget corn and seeds. I remember how you used to

starve. Please--please take all you can pack away from here. I'll

make a bundle for you, which you mustn't open till you're in your

valley. How I'd like to see it! To judge by you and Wrangle, how

wild it must be!"



Jane walked down into the outer court and approached the sorrel.

Upstarting, he laid back his ears and eyed her.



"Wrangle--dear old Wrangle," she said, and put a caressing hand

on his matted mane. "Oh, he's wild, but he knows me! Bern, can he

run as fast as ever?"



"Run? Jane, he's done sixty miles since last night at dark, and I

could make him kill Black Star right now in a ten-mile race."



"He never could," protested Jane. "He couldn't even if he was

fresh."



"I reckon mebbe the best hoss'll prove himself yet," said

Lassiter, "an', Jane, if it ever comes to that race I'd like you

to be on Wrangle."



"I'd like that, too," rejoined Venters. "But, Jane, maybe

Lassiter's hint is extreme. Bad as your prospects are, you'll

surely never come to the running point."



"Who knows!" she replied, with mournful smile.



"No, no, Jane, it can't be so bad as all that. Soon as I see Tull

there'll be a change in your fortunes. I'll hurry down to the

village....Now don't worry."



Jane retired to the seclusion of her room. Lassiter's subtle

forecasting of disaster, Venters's forced optimism, neither

remained in mind. Material loss weighed nothing in the balance

with other losses she was sustaining. She wondered dully at her

sitting there, hands folded listlessly, with a kind of numb

deadness to the passing of time and the passing of her riches.

She thought of Venters's friendship. She had not lost that, but

she had lost him. Lassiter's friendship--that was more than

love--it would endure, but soon he, too, would be gone. Little

Fay slept dreamlessly upon the bed, her golden curls streaming

over the pillow. Jane had the child's worship. Would she lose

that, too? And if she did, what then would be left? Conscience

thundered at her that there was left her religion. Conscience

thundered that she should be grateful on her knees for this

baptism of fire; that through misfortune, sacrifice, and

suffering her soul might be fused pure gold. But the old,

spontaneous, rapturous spirit no more exalted her. She wanted to

be a woman--not a martyr. Like the saint of old who mortified his

flesh, Jane Withersteen had in her the temper for heroic

martyrdom, if by sacrificing herself she could save the souls of

others. But here the damnable verdict blistered her that the more

she sacrificed herself the blacker grew the souls of her

churchmen. There was something terribly wrong with her soul,

something terribly wrong with her churchmen and her religion. In

the whirling gulf of her thought there was yet one shining light

to guide her, to sustain her in her hope; and it was that,

despite her errors and her frailties and her blindness, she had

one absolute and unfaltering hold on ultimate and supreme

justice. That was love. "Love your enemies as yourself!" was a

divine word, entirely free from any church or creed.



Jane's meditations were disturbed by Lassiter's soft, tinkling

step in the court. Always he wore the clinking spurs. Always he

was in readiness to ride. She passed out and called him into the

huge, dim hall.



"I think you'll be safer here. The court is too open," she said.



"I reckon," replied Lassiter. "An' it's cooler here. The day's

sure muggy. Well, I went down to the village with

Venters."



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



"He's at the corrals. Blake's helpin' him get the burros an'

packs ready. That Blake is a good fellow."



"Did--did Bern meet Tull?"



"I guess he did," answered Lassiter, and he laughed dryly.



"Tell me! Oh, you exasperate me! You're so cool, so calm! For

Heaven's sake, tell me what happened!"



"First time I've been in the village for weeks," went on

Lassiter, mildly. "I reckon there 'ain't been more of a show for

a long time. Me an' Venters walkin' down the road! It was funny.

I ain't sayin' anybody was particular glad to see us. I'm not

much thought of hereabouts, an' Venters he sure looks like what

you called him, a wild man. Well, there was some runnin' of folks

before we got to the stores. Then everybody vamoosed except some

surprised rustlers in front of a saloon. Venters went right in

the stores an' saloons, an' of course I went along. I don't know

which tickled me the most--the actions of many fellers we met, or

Venters's nerve. Jane, I was downright glad to be along. You see

that sort of thing is my element, an' I've been away from it for

a spell. But we didn't find Tull in one of them places. Some

Gentile feller at last told Venters he'd find Tull in that long

buildin' next to Parsons's store. It's a kind of meetin'-room;

and sure enough, when we peeped in, it was half full of men.



"Venters yelled: 'Don't anybody pull guns! We ain't come for

that!' Then he tramped in, an' I was some put to keep alongside

him. There was a hard, scrapin' sound of feet, a loud cry, an'

then some whisperin', an' after that stillness you could cut with

a knife. Tull was there, an' that fat party who once tried to

throw a gun on me, an' other important-lookin' men, en' that

little frog-legged feller who was with Tull the day I rode in

here. I wish you could have seen their faces, 'specially Tull's

an' the fat party's. But there ain't no use of me tryin' to tell

you how they looked.



"Well, Venters an' I stood there in the middle of the room with

that batch of men all in front of us, en' not a blamed one of

them winked an eyelash or moved a finger. It was natural, of

course, for me to notice many of them packed guns. That's a way

of mine, first noticin' them things. Venters spoke up, an' his

voice sort of chilled an' cut, en' he told Tull he had a few

things to say."



Here Lassiter paused while he turned his sombrero round and

round, in his familiar habit, and his eyes had the look of a man

seeing over again some thrilling spectacle, and under his red

bronze there was strange animation.



"Like a shot, then, Venters told Tull that the friendship between

you an' him was all over, an' he was leaving your place. He said

you'd both of you broken off in the hope of propitiatin' your

people, but you hadn't changed your mind otherwise, an' never

would.



"Next he spoke up for you. I ain't goin' to tell you what he

said. Only--no other woman who ever lived ever had such tribute!

You had a champion, Jane, an' never fear that those thick-skulled

men don't know you now. It couldn't be otherwise. He spoke the

ringin', lightnin' truth....Then he accused Tull of the

underhand, miserable robbery of a helpless woman. He told Tull

where the red herd was, of a deal made with Oldrin', that Jerry

Card had made the deal. I thought Tull was goin' to drop, an'

that little frog-legged cuss, he looked some limp an' white. But

Venters's voice would have kept anybody's legs from bucklin'. I

was stiff myself. He went on an' called Tull--called him every

bad name ever known to a rider, an' then some. He cursed Tull. I

never hear a man get such a cursin'. He laughed in scorn at the

idea of Tull bein' a minister. He said Tull an' a few more dogs

of hell builded their empire out of the hearts of such innocent

an' God-fearin' women as Jane Withersteen. He called Tull a

binder of women, a callous beast who hid behind a mock mantle of

righteousness--an' the last an' lowest coward on the face of the

earth. To prey on weak women through their religion--that was the

last unspeakable crime!



"Then he finished, an' by this time he'd almost lost his voice.

But his whisper was enough. 'Tull,' he said, 'she begged me not

to draw on you to-day. She would pray for you if you burned her

at the stake....But listen!...I swear if you and I ever come face

to face again, I'll kill you!'



"We backed out of the door then, an' up the road. But nobody

follered us."



Jane found herself weeping passionately. She had not been

conscious of it till Lassiter ended his story, and she

experienced exquisite pain and relief in shedding tears. Long had

her eyes been dry, her grief deep; long had her emotions been

dumb. Lassiter's story put her on the rack; the appalling nature

of Venters's act and speech had no parallel as an outrage; it was

worse than bloodshed. Men like Tull had been shot, but had one

ever been so terribly denounced in public? Over-mounting her

horror, an uncontrollable, quivering passion shook her very soul.

It was sheer human glory in the deed of a fearless man. It was

hot, primitive instinct to live--to fight. It was a kind of mad

joy in Venters's chivalry. It was close to the wrath that had

first shaken her in the beginning of this war waged upon

her.



"Well, well, Jane, don't take it that way," said Lassiter, in

evident distress. "I had to tell you. There's some things a

feller jest can't keep. It's strange you give up on hearin' that,

when all this long time you've been the gamest woman I ever seen.

But I don't know women. Mebbe there's reason for you to cry. I

know this--nothin' ever rang in my soul an' so filled it as what

Venters did. I'd like to have done it, but--I'm only good for

throwin' a gun, en' it seems you hate that....Well, I'll be goin'

now."



"Where?"



"Venters took Wrangle to the stable. The sorrel's shy a shoe, an'

I've got to help hold the big devil an' put on another."



"Tell Bern to come for the pack I want to give him--and--and to

say good-by," called Jane, as Lassiter went out.



Jane passed the rest of that day in a vain endeavor to decide

what and what not to put in the pack for Venters. This task was

the last she would ever perform for him, and the gifts were the

last she would ever make him. So she picked and chose and

rejected, and chose again, and often paused in sad revery, and

began again, till at length she filled the pack.



It was about sunset, and she and Fay had finished supper and were

sitting in the court, when Venters's quick steps rang on the

stones. She scarcely knew him, for he had changed the tattered

garments, and she missed the dark beard and long hair. Still he

was not the Venters of old. As he came up the steps she felt

herself pointing to the pack, and heard herself speaking words

that were meaningless to her. He said good-by; he kissed her,

released her, and turned away. His tall figure blurred in her

sight, grew dim through dark, streaked vision, and then he

vanished.



Twilight fell around Withersteen House, and dusk and night.

Little Fay slept; but Jane lay with strained, aching eyes. She

heard the wind moaning in the cottonwoods and mice squeaking in

the walls. The night was interminably long, yet she prayed to

hold back the dawn. What would another day bring forth? The

blackness of her room seemed blacker for the sad, entering gray

of morning light. She heard the chirp of awakening birds, and

fancied she caught a faint clatter of hoofs. Then low, dull

distant, throbbed a heavy gunshot. She had expected it, was

waiting for it; nevertheless, an electric shock checked her

heart, froze the very living fiber of her bones. That vise-like

hold on her faculties apparently did not relax for a long time,

and it was a voice under her window that released

her.



"Jane!...Jane!" softly called Lassiter.



She answered somehow.



"It's all right. Venters got away. I thought mebbe you'd heard

that shot, en' I was worried some."



"What was it--who fired?"



"Well--some fool feller tried to stop Venters out there in the

sage--an' he only stopped lead!...I think it'll be all right. I

haven't seen or heard of any other fellers round. Venters'll go

through safe. An', Jane, I've got Bells saddled, an' I'm going to

trail Venters. Mind, I won't show myself unless he falls foul of

somebody an' needs me. I want to see if this place where he's

goin' is safe for him. He says nobody can track him there. I

never seen the place yet I couldn't track a man to. Now, Jane,

you stay indoors while I'm gone, an' keep close watch on Fay.

Will you?"



"Yes! Oh yes!"



"An' another thing, Jane," he continued, then paused for

long--"another thing--if you ain't here when I come back--if

you're gone--don't fear, I'll trail you--I'll find you out."



"My dear Lassiter, where could I be gone--as you put it?" asked

Jane, in curious surprise.



"I reckon you might be somewhere. Mebbe tied in an old barn--or

corralled in some gulch--or chained in a cave! Milly Erne

was--till she give in! Mebbe that's news to you....Well, if

you're gone I'll hunt for you."



"No, Lassiter," she replied, sadly and low. "If I'm gone just

forget the unhappy woman whose blinded selfish deceit you repaid

with kindness and love."



She heard a deep, muttering curse, under his breath, and then the

silvery tinkling of his spurs as he moved away.



Jane entered upon the duties of that day with a settled, gloomy

calm. Disaster hung in the dark clouds, in the shade, in the

humid west wind. Blake, when he reported, appeared without his

usual cheer; and Jerd wore a harassed look of a worn and worried

man. And when Judkins put in appearance, riding a lame horse, and

dismounted with the cramp of a rider, his dust-covered figure and

his darkly grim, almost dazed expression told Jane of dire

calamity. She had no need of words.



"Miss Withersteen, I have to report--loss of the--white herd,"

said Judkins, hoarsely.



"Come, sit down, you look played out," replied Jane,

solicitously. She brought him brandy and food, and while he

partook of refreshments, of which he appeared badly in need, she

asked no questions.



"No one rider--could hev done more--Miss Withersteen," he went

on, presently.



"Judkins, don't be distressed. You've done more than any other

rider. I've long expected to lose the white herd. It's no

surprise. It's in line with other things that are happening. I'm

grateful for your service."



"Miss Withersteen, I knew how you'd take it. But if anythin',

that makes it harder to tell. You see, a feller wants to do so

much fer you, an' I'd got fond of my job. We led the herd a ways

off to the north of the break in the valley. There was a big

level an' pools of water an' tip-top browse. But the cattle was

in a high nervous condition. Wild-- as wild as antelope! You see,

they'd been so scared they never slept. I ain't a-goin' to tell

you of the many tricks that were pulled off out there in the

sage. But there wasn't a day for weeks thet the herd didn't get

started to run. We allus managed to ride 'em close an' drive 'em

back an' keep 'em bunched. Honest, Miss Withersteen, them steers

was thin. They was thin when water and grass was everywhere. Thin

at this season--thet'll tell you how your steers was pestered.

Fer instance, one night a strange runnin' streak of fire run

right through the herd. That streak was a coyote--with an oiled

an' blazin' tail! Fer I shot it an' found out. We had hell with

the herd that night, an' if the sage an' grass hadn't been

wet--we, hosses, steers, an' all would hev burned up. But I said

I wasn't goin' to tell you any of the tricks....Strange now, Miss

Withersteen, when the stampede did come it was from natural

cause-- jest a whirlin' devil of dust. You've seen the like

often. An' this wasn't no big whirl, fer the dust was mostly

settled. It had dried out in a little swale, an' ordinarily no

steer would ever hev run fer it. But the herd was nervous en'

wild. An' jest as Lassiter said, when that bunch of white steers

got to movin' they was as bad as buffalo. I've seen some buffalo

stampedes back in Nebraska, an' this bolt of the steers was the

same kind.



"I tried to mill the herd jest as Lassiter did. But I wasn't

equal to it, Miss Withersteen. I don't believe the rider lives

who could hev turned thet herd. We kept along of the herd fer

miles, an' more 'n one of my boys tried to get the steers

a-millin'. It wasn't no use. We got off level ground, goin' down,

an' then the steers ran somethin' fierce. We left the little

gullies an' washes level-full of dead steers. Finally I saw the

herd was makin' to pass a kind of low pocket between ridges.

There was a hog-back--as we used to call 'em--a pile of rocks

stickin' up, and I saw the herd was goin' to split round it, or

swing out to the left. An' I wanted 'em to go to the right so

mebbe we'd be able to drive 'em into the pocket. So, with all my

boys except three, I rode hard to turn the herd a little to the

right. We couldn't budge 'em. They went on en' split round the

rocks, en' the most of 'em was turned sharp to the left by a deep

wash we hedn't seen--hed no chance to see.



"The other three boys--Jimmy Vail, Joe Willis, an' thet little

Cairns boy--a nervy kid! they, with Cairns leadin', tried to buck

thet herd round to the pocket. It was a wild, fool idee. I

couldn't do nothin'. The boys got hemmed in between the steers

an' the wash--thet they hedn't no chance to see, either. Vail an'

Willis was run down right before our eyes. An' Cairns, who rode a

fine hoss, he did some ridin'. I never seen equaled, en' would

hev beat the steers if there'd been any room to run in. I was

high up an' could see how the steers kept spillin' by twos an'

threes over into the wash. Cairns put his hoss to a place thet

was too wide fer any hoss, an' broke his neck an' the hoss's too.

We found that out after, an' as fer Vail an' Willis--two thousand

steers ran over the poor boys. There wasn't much left to pack

home fer burying!...An', Miss Withersteen, thet all happened

yesterday, en' I believe, if the white herd didn't run over the

wall of the Pass, it's runnin' yet."



On the morning of the second day after Judkins's recital, during

which time Jane remained indoors a prey to regret and sorrow for

the boy riders, and a new and now strangely insistent fear for

her own person, she again heard what she had missed more than she

dared honestly confess--the soft, jingling step of Lassiter.

Almost overwhelming relief surged through her, a feeling as akin

to joy as any she could have been capable of in those gloomy

hours of shadow, and one that suddenly stunned her with the

significance of what Lassiter had come to mean to her. She had

begged him, for his own sake, to leave Cottonwoods. She might yet

beg that, if her weakening courage permitted her to dare absolute

loneliness and helplessness, but she realized now that if she

were left alone her life would become one long, hideous

nightmare.



When his soft steps clinked into the hall, in answer to her

greeting, and his tall, black-garbed form filled the door, she

felt an inexpressible sense of immediate safety. In his presence

she lost her fear of the dim passageways of Withersteen House and

of every sound. Always it had been that, when he entered the

court or the hall, she had experienced a distinctly sickening but

gradually lessening shock at sight of the huge black guns

swinging at his sides. This time the sickening shock again

visited her, it was, however, because a revealing flash of

thought told her that it was not alone Lassiter who was

thrillingly welcome, but also his fatal weapons. They meant so

much. How she had fallen--how broken and spiritless must she

be--to have still the same old horror of Lassiter's guns and his

name, yet feel somehow a cold, shrinking protection in their law

and might and use.



"Did you trail Venters--find his wonderful valley?" she asked,

eagerly.



"Yes, an' I reckon it's sure a wonderful place."



"Is he safe there?"



"That's been botherin' me some. I tracked him an' part of the

trail was the hardest I ever tackled. Mebbe there's a rustler or

somebody in this country who's as good at trackin' as I am. If

that's so Venters ain't safe."



"Well--tell me all about Bern and his valley."



To Jane's surprise Lassiter showed disinclination for further

talk about his trip. He appeared to be extremely fatigued. Jane

reflected that one hundred and twenty miles, with probably a

great deal of climbing on foot, all in three days, was enough to

tire any rider. Moreover, it presently developed that Lassiter

had returned in a mood of singular sadness and preoccupation. She

put it down to a moodiness over the loss of her white herd and

the now precarious condition of her fortune.



Several days passed, and as nothing happened, Jane's spirits

began to brighten. Once in her musings she thought that this

tendency of hers to rebound was as sad as it was futile.

Meanwhile, she had resumed her walks through the grove with

little Fay.



One morning she went as far as the sage. She had not seen the

slope since the beginning of the rains, and now it bloomed a rich

deep purple. There was a high wind blowing, and the sage tossed

and waved and colored beautifully from light to dark. Clouds

scudded across the sky and their shadows sailed darkly down the

sunny slope.



Upon her return toward the house she went by the lane to the

stables, and she had scarcely entered the great open space with

its corrals and sheds when she saw Lassiter hurriedly

approaching. Fay broke from her and, running to a corral fence,

began to pat and pull the long, hanging ears of a drowsy burro.



One look at Lassiter armed her for a blow.



Without a word he led her across the wide yard to the rise of the

ground upon which the stable stood.



"Jane--look!" he said, and pointed to the ground.



Jane glanced down, and again, and upon steadier vision made out

splotches of blood on the stones, and broad, smooth marks in the

dust, leading out toward the sage.



"What made these?" she asked.



"I reckon somebody has dragged dead or wounded men out to where

there was hosses in the sage."



"Dead--or--wounded--men!"



"I reckon--Jane, are you strong? Can you bear up?"



His hands were gently holding hers, and his eyes--suddenly she

could no longer look into them. "Strong?" she echoed, trembling.

"I--I will be."



Up on the stone-flag drive, nicked with the marks made by the

iron-shod hoofs of her racers, Lassiter led her, his grasp ever

growing firmer.



"Where's Blake--and--and Jerb?" she asked, haltingly.



"I don't know where Jerb is. Bolted, most likely," replied

Lassiter, as he took her through the stone door. "But Blake--poor

Blake! He's gone forever!...Be prepared, Jane."



With a cold prickling of her skin, with a queer thrumming in her

ears, with fixed and staring eyes, Jane saw a gun lying at her

feet with chamber swung and empty, and discharged shells

scattered near.



Outstretched upon the stable floor lay Blake, ghastly

white--dead--one hand clutching a gun and the other twisted in

his bloody blouse.



"Whoever the thieves were, whether your people or rustlers--Blake

killed some of them!" said Lassiter.



"Thieves?" whispered Jane.



"I reckon. Hoss-thieves!...Look!" Lassiter waved his hand toward

the stalls.



The first stall--Bells's stall--was empty. All the stalls were

empty. No racer whinnied and stamped greeting to her. Night was

gone! Black Star was gone!





Next: Gold

Previous: West Wind



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 489