Cottonwoods





Venters appeared too deeply moved to speak the gratitude his face



expressed. And Jane turned upon the rescuer and gripped his



hands. Her smiles and tears seemingly dazed him. Presently as



something like calmness returned, she went to Lassiter's weary



horse.







"I will water him myself," she said, and she led the horse to a



trough under a huge old cottonwood. With nimble fingers she



loosened the bridle and removed the bit. The horse snorted and



bent his head. The trough was of solid stone, hollowed out,



moss-covered and green and wet and cool, and the clear brown



water that fed it spouted and splashed from a wooden pipe.







"He has brought you far to-day?"







"Yes, ma'am, a matter of over sixty miles, mebbe seventy."







"A long ride--a ride that--Ah, he is blind!"







"Yes, ma'am," replied Lassiter.







"What blinded him?"







"Some men once roped an' tied him, an' then held white-iron close



to his eyes."







"Oh! Men? You mean devils....Were they your



enemies--Mormons?"







"Yes, ma'am."







"To take revenge on a horse! Lassiter, the men of my creed are



unnaturally cruel. To my everlasting sorrow I confess it. They



have been driven, hated, scourged till their hearts have



hardened. But we women hope and pray for the time when our men



will soften."







"Beggin' your pardon, ma'am--that time will never come."







"Oh, it will!...Lassiter, do you think Mormon women wicked? Has



your hand been against them, too?"







"No. I believe Mormon women are the best and noblest, the most



long-sufferin', and the blindest, unhappiest women on earth."







"Ah!" She gave him a grave, thoughtful look. "Then you will break



bread with me?"







Lassiter had no ready response, and he uneasily shifted his



weight from one leg to another, and turned his sombrero round and



round in his hands. "Ma'am," he began, presently, "I reckon your



kindness of heart makes you overlook things. Perhaps I ain't well



known hereabouts, but back up North there's Mormons who'd rest



uneasy in their graves at the idea of me sittin' to table with



you."







"I dare say. But--will you do it, anyway?" she asked.







"Mebbe you have a brother or relative who might drop in an' be



offended, an' I wouldn't want to--"







"I've not a relative in Utah that I know of. There's no one with



a right to question my actions." She turned smilingly to Venters.



"You will come in, Bern, and Lassiter will come in. We'll eat and



be merry while we may."







"I'm only wonderin' if Tull an' his men'll raise a storm down in



the village," said Lassiter, in his last weakening stand.







"Yes, he'll raise the storm--after he has prayed," replied Jane.



"Come."







She led the way, with the bridle of Lassiter's horse over her



arm. They entered a grove and walked down a wide path shaded by



great low-branching cottonwoods. The last rays of the setting sun



sent golden bars through the leaves. The grass was deep and rich,



welcome contrast to sage-tired eyes. Twittering quail darted



across the path, and from a tree-top somewhere a robin sang its



evening song, and on the still air floated the freshness and



murmur of flowing water.







The home of Jane Withersteen stood in a circle of cottonwoods,



and was a flat, long, red-stone structure with a covered court in



the center through which flowed a lively stream of amber-colored



water. In the massive blocks of stone and heavy timbers and solid



doors and shutters showed the hand of a man who had builded



against pillage and time; and in the flowers and mosses lining



the stone-bedded stream, in the bright colors of rugs and



blankets on the court floor, and the cozy corner with hammock and



books and the clean-linened table, showed the grace of a daughter



who lived for happiness and the day at hand.







Jane turned Lassiter's horse loose in the thick grass. "You will



want him to be near you," she said, "or I'd have him taken to the



alfalfa fields." At her call appeared women who began at once to



bustle about, hurrying to and fro, setting the table. Then Jane,



excusing herself, went within.







She passed through a huge low ceiled chamber, like the inside of



a fort, and into a smaller one where a bright wood-fire blazed in



an old open fireplace, and from this into her own room. It had



the same comfort as was manifested in the home-like outer court;



moreover, it was warm and rich in soft hues.







Seldom did Jane Withersteen enter her room without looking into



her mirror. She knew she loved the reflection of that beauty



which since early childhood she had never been allowed to forget.



Her relatives and friends, and later a horde of Mormon and



Gentile suitors, had fanned the flame of natural vanity in her.



So that at twenty-eight she scarcely thought at all of her



wonderful influence for good in the little community where her



father had left her practically its beneficent landlord, but



cared most for the dream and the assurance and the allurement of



her beauty. This time, however, she gazed into her glass with



more than the usual happy motive, without the usual slight



conscious smile. For she was thinking of more than the desire to



be fair in her own eyes, in those of her friend; she wondered if



she were to seem fair in the eyes of this Lassiter, this man



whose name had crossed the long, wild brakes of stone and plains



of sage, this gentle-voiced, sad-faced man who was a hater and a



killer of Mormons. It was not now her usual half-conscious vain



obsession that actuated her as she hurriedly changed her



riding-dress to one of white, and then looked long at the stately



form with its gracious contours, at the fair face with its strong



chin and full firm lips, at the dark-blue, proud, and passionate



eyes.







"If by some means I can keep him here a few days, a week--he will



never kill another Mormon," she mused. "Lassiter!...I shudder



when I think of that name, of him. But when I look at the man I



forget who he is--I almost like him. I remember only that he



saved Bern. He has suffered. I wonder what it was--did he love a



Mormon woman once? How splendidly he championed us poor



misunderstood souls! Somehow he knows--much."







Jane Withersteen joined her guests and bade them to her board.



Dismissing her woman, she waited upon them with her own hands. It



was a bountiful supper and a strange company. On her right sat



the ragged and half-starved Venters; and though blind eyes could



have seen what he counted for in the sum of her happiness, yet he



looked the gloomy outcast his allegiance had made him, and about



him there was the shadow of the ruin presaged by Tull. On her



left sat black-leather-garbed Lassiter looking like a man in a



dream. Hunger was not with him, nor composure, nor speech, and



when he twisted in frequent unquiet movements the heavy guns that



he had not removed knocked against the table-legs. If it had been



otherwise possible to forget the presence of Lassiter those



telling little jars would have rendered it unlikely. And Jane



Withersteen talked and smiled and laughed with all the dazzling



play of lips and eyes that a beautiful, daring woman could summon



to her purpose.







When the meal ended, and the men pushed back their chairs, she



leaned closer to Lassiter and looked square into his eyes.







"Why did you come to Cottonwoods?"







Her question seemed to break a spell. The rider arose as if he



had just remembered himself and had tarried longer than his wont.







"Ma'am, I have hunted all over the southern Utah and Nevada for--



somethin'. An' through your name I learned where to find it--here



in Cottonwoods."







"My name! Oh, I remember. You did know my name when you spoke



first. Well, tell me where you heard it and from whom?"







"At the little village--Glaze, I think it's called--some fifty



miles or more west of here. An' I heard it from a Gentile, a



rider who said you'd know where to tell me to find--"







"What?" she demanded, imperiously, as Lassiter broke off.







"Milly Erne's grave," he answered low, and the words came with a



wrench.







Venters wheeled in his chair to regard Lassiter in amazement, and



Jane slowly raised herself in white, still wonder.







"Milly Erne's grave?" she echoed, in a whisper. "What do you know



of Milly Erne, my best-beloved friend--who died in my arms? What



were you to her?"







"Did I claim to be anythin'?" he inquired. "I know



people--relatives-- who have long wanted to know where she's



buried, that's all."







"Relatives? She never spoke of relatives, except a brother who



was shot in Texas. Lassiter, Milly Erne's grave is in a secret



burying-ground on my property."







"Will you take me there?...You'll be offendin' Mormons worse than



by breakin' bread with me."







"Indeed yes, but I'll do it. Only we must go unseen. To-morrow,



perhaps."







"Thank you, Jane Withersteen," replied the rider, and he bowed to



her and stepped backward out of the court.







"Will you not stay--sleep under my roof?" she asked.







"No, ma'am, an' thanks again. I never sleep indoors. An' even if



I did there's that gatherin' storm in the village below. No, no.



I'll go to the sage. I hope you won't suffer none for your



kindness to me."







"Lassiter," said Venters, with a half-bitter laugh, "my bed too,



is the sage. Perhaps we may meet out there."







"Mebbe so. But the sage is wide an' I won't be near. Good night."







At Lassiter's low whistle the black horse whinnied, and carefully



picked his blind way out of the grove. The rider did not bridle



him, but walked beside him, leading him by touch of hand and



together they passed slowly into the shade of the cottonwoods.







"Jane, I must be off soon," said Venters. "Give me my guns. If



I'd had my guns--"







"Either my friend or the Elder of my church would be lying dead,"



she interposed







"Tull would be--surely."







"Oh, you fierce-blooded, savage youth! Can't I teach you



forebearance, mercy? Bern, it's divine to forgive your enemies.



'Let not the sun go down upon thy wrath.'"







"Hush! Talk to me no more of mercy or religion--after to-day.



To-day this strange coming of Lassiter left me still a man, and



now I'll die a man!...Give me my guns."







Silently she went into the house, to return with a heavy



cartridge-belt and gun-filled sheath and a long rifle; these she



handed to him, and as he buckled on the belt she stood before him



in silent eloquence.







"Jane," he said, in gentler voice, "don't look so. I'm not going



out to murder your churchman. I'll try to avoid him and all his



men. But can't you see I've reached the end of my rope? Jane,



you're a wonderful woman. Never was there a woman so unselfish



and good. Only you're blind in one way....Listen!"







From behind the grove came the clicking sound of horses in a



rapid trot.







"Some of your riders," he continued. "It's getting time for the



night shift. Let us go out to the bench in the grove and talk



there."







It was still daylight in the open, but under the spreading



cottonwoods shadows were obscuring the lanes. Venters drew Jane



off from one of these into a shrub-lined trail, just wide enough



for the two to walk abreast, and in a roundabout way led her far



from the house to a knoll on the edge of the grove. Here in a



secluded nook was a bench from which, through an opening in the



tree-tops, could be seen the sage-slope and the wall of rock and



the dim lines of canyons. Jane had not spoken since Venters had



shocked her with his first harsh speech; but all the way she had



clung to his arm, and now, as he stopped and laid his rifle



against the bench, she still clung to him.







"Jane, I'm afraid I must leave you."







"Bern!" she cried.







"Yes, it looks that way. My position is not a happy one--I can't



feel right--I've lost all--"







"I'll give you anything you--"







"Listen, please. When I say loss I don't mean what you think. I



mean loss of good-will, good name--that which would have enabled



me to stand up in this village without bitterness. Well, it's too



late....Now, as to the future, I think you'd do best to give me



up. Tull is implacable. You ought to see from his intention



to-day that--But you can't see. Your blindness--your damned



religion!...Jane, forgive me--I'm sore within and something



rankles. Well, I fear that invisible hand will turn its hidden



work to your ruin."







"Invisible hand? Bern!"







"I mean your Bishop." Venters said it deliberately and would not



release her as she started back. "He's the law. The edict went



forth to ruin me. Well, look at me! It'll now go forth to compel



you to the will of the Church."







"You wrong Bishop Dyer. Tull is hard, I know. But then he has



been in love with me for years."







"Oh, your faith and your excuses! You can't see what I know--and



if you did see it you'd not admit it to save your life. That's



the Mormon of you. These elders and bishops will do absolutely



any deed to go on building up the power and wealth of their



church, their empire. Think of what they've done to the Gentiles



here, to me--think of Milly Erne's fate!"







"What do you know of her story?"







"I know enough--all, perhaps, except the name of the Mormon who



brought her here. But I must stop this kind of talk."







She pressed his hand in response. He helped her to a seat beside



him on the bench. And he respected a silence that he divined was



full of woman's deep emotion beyond his understanding.







It was the moment when the last ruddy rays of the sunset



brightened momentarily before yielding to twilight. And for



Venters the outlook before him was in some sense similar to a



feeling of his future, and with searching eyes he studied the



beautiful purple, barren waste of sage. Here was the unknown and



the perilous. The whole scene impressed Venters as a wild,



austere, and mighty manifestation of nature. And as it somehow



reminded him of his prospect in life, so it suddenly resembled



the woman near him, only in her there were greater beauty and



peril, a mystery more unsolvable, and something nameless that



numbed his heart and dimmed his eye.







"Look! A rider!" exclaimed Jane, breaking the silence. "Can that



be Lassiter?"







Venters moved his glance once more to the west. A horseman showed



dark on the sky-line, then merged into the color of the sage.







"It might be. But I think not--that fellow was coming in. One of



your riders, more likely. Yes, I see him clearly now. And there's



another."







"I see them, too."







"Jane, your riders seem as many as the bunches of sage. I ran



into five yesterday 'way down near the trail to Deception Pass.



They were with the white herd."







"You still go to that canyon? Bern, I wish you wouldn't. Oldring



and his rustlers live somewhere down there."







"Well, what of that?"







"Tull has already hinted to your frequent trips into Deception



Pass."







"I know." Venters uttered a short laugh. "He'll make a rustler of



me next. But, Jane, there's no water for fifty miles after I



leave here, and the nearest is in the canyon. I must drink and



water my horse. There! I see more riders. They are going out."







"The red herd is on the slope, toward the Pass."







Twilight was fast falling. A group of horsemen crossed the dark



line of low ground to become more distinct as they climbed the



slope. The silence broke to a clear call from an incoming rider,



and, almost like the peal of a hunting-horn, floated back the



answer. The outgoing riders moved swiftly, came sharply into



sight as they topped a ridge to show wild and black above the



horizon, and then passed down, dimming into the purple of the



sage.







"I hope they don't meet Lassiter," said Jane.







"So do I," replied Venters. "By this time the riders of the night



shift know what happened to-day. But Lassiter will likely keep



out of their way."







"Bern, who is Lassiter? He's only a name to me--a terrible name."







"Who is he? I don't know, Jane. Nobody I ever met knows him. He



talks a little like a Texan, like Milly Erne. Did you note that?"







"Yes. How strange of him to know of her! And she lived here ten



years and has been dead two. Bern, what do you know of Lassiter?



Tell me what he has done--why you spoke of him to



Tull--threatening to become another Lassiter yourself?"







"Jane, I only heard things, rumors, stories, most of which I



disbelieved. At Glaze his name was known, but none of the riders



or ranchers I knew there ever met him. At Stone Bridge I never



heard him mentioned. But at Sterling and villages north of there



he was spoken of often. I've never been in a village which he had



been known to visit. There were many conflicting stories about



him and his doings. Some said he had shot up this and that Mormon



village, and others denied it. I'm inclined to believe he has,



and you know how Mormons hide the truth. But there was one



feature about Lassiter upon which all agree--that he was what



riders in this country call a gun-man. He's a man with a



marvelous quickness and accuracy in the use of a Colt. And now



that I've seen him I know more. Lassiter was born without fear. I



watched him with eyes which saw him my friend. I'll never forget



the moment I recognized him from what had been told me of his



crouch before the draw. It was then I yelled his name. I believe



that yell saved Tull's life. At any rate, I know this, between



Tull and death then there was not the breadth of the littlest



hair. If he or any of his men had moved a finger downward--"







Venters left his meaning unspoken, but at the suggestion Jane



shuddered.







The pale afterglow in the west darkened with the merging of



twilight into night. The sage now spread out black and gloomy.



One dim star glimmered in the southwest sky. The sound of



trotting horses had ceased, and there was silence broken only by



a faint, dry pattering of cottonwood leaves in the soft night



wind.







Into this peace and calm suddenly broke the high-keyed yelp of a



coyote, and from far off in the darkness came the faint answering



note of a trailing mate.







"Hello! the sage-dogs are barking," said Venters.







"I don't like to hear them," replied Jane. "At night, sometimes



when I lie awake, listening to the long mourn or breaking bark or



wild howl, I think of you asleep somewhere in the sage, and my



heart aches."







"Jane, you couldn't listen to sweeter music, nor could I have a



better bed."







"Just think! Men like Lassiter and you have no home, no comfort,



no rest, no place to lay your weary heads. Well!...Let us be



patient. Tull's anger may cool, and time may help us. You might



do some service to the village--who can tell? Suppose you



discovered the long-unknown hiding-place of Oldring and his band,



and told it to my riders? That would disarm Tull's ugly hints and



put you in favor. For years my riders have trailed the tracks of



stolen cattle. You know as well as I how dearly we've paid for



our ranges in this wild country. Oldring drives our cattle down



into the network of deceiving canyons, and somewhere far to the



north or east he drives them up and out to Utah markets. If you



will spend time in Deception Pass try to find the trails."







"Jane, I've thought of that. I'll try."







"I must go now. And it hurts, for now I'll never be sure of



seeing you again. But to-morrow, Bern?"







"To-morrow surely. I'll watch for Lassiter and ride in with him."







"Good night."







Then she left him and moved away, a white, gliding shape that



soon vanished in the shadows.







Venters waited until the faint slam of a door assured him she had



reached the house, and then, taking up his rifle, he noiselessly



slipped through the bushes, down the knoll, and on under the dark



trees to the edge of the grove. The sky was now turning from gray



to blue; stars had begun to lighten the earlier blackness; and



from the wide flat sweep before him blew a cool wind, fragrant



with the breath of sage. Keeping close to the edge of the



cottonwoods, he went swiftly and silently westward. The grove was



long, and he had not reached the end when he heard something that



brought him to a halt. Low padded thuds told him horses were



coming this way. He sank down in the gloom, waiting, listening.



Much before he had expected, judging from sound, to his amazement



he descried horsemen near at hand. They were riding along the



border of the sage, and instantly he knew the hoofs of the horses



were muffled. Then the pale starlight afforded him indistinct



sight of the riders. But his eyes were keen and used to the dark,



and by peering closely he recognized the huge bulk and



black-bearded visage of Oldring and the lithe, supple form of the



rustler's lieutenant, a masked rider. They passed on; the



darkness swallowed them. Then, farther out on the sage, a dark,



compact body of horsemen went by, almost without sound, almost



like specters, and they, too, melted into the night.





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