Oldring's Knell





Some forty hours or more later Venters created a commotion in



Cottonwoods by riding down the main street on Black Star and



leading Bells and Night. He had come upon Bells grazing near the



body of a dead rustler, the only incident of his quick ride into



the village.







Nothing was farther from Venters's mind than bravado. No thought



came to him of the defiance and boldness of riding Jane



Withersteen's racers straight into the arch-plotter's stronghold.



He wanted men to see the famous Arabians; he wanted men to see



them dirty and dusty, bearing all the signs of having been driven



to their limit; he wanted men to see and to know that the thieves



who had ridden them out into the sage had not ridden them back.



Venters had come for that and for more--he wanted to meet Tull



face to face; if not Tull, then Dyer; if not Dyer, then anyone in



the secret of these master conspirators. Such was Venters's



passion. The meeting with the rustlers, the unprovoked attack



upon him, the spilling of blood, the recognition of Jerry Card



and the horses, the race, and that last plunge of mad



Wrangle--all these things, fuel on fuel to the smoldering fire,



had kindled and swelled and leaped into living flame. He could



have shot Dyer in the midst of his religious services at the



altar; he could have killed Tull in front of wives and babes.







He walked the three racers down the broad, green-bordered village



road. He heard the murmur of running water from Amber Spring.



Bitter waters for Jane Withersteen! Men and women stopped to gaze



at him and the horses. All knew him; all knew the blacks and the



bay. As well as if it had been spoken, Venters read in the faces



of men the intelligence that Jane Withersteen's Arabians had been



known to have been stolen. Venters reined in and halted before



Dyer's residence. It was a low, long, stone structure resembling



Withersteen House. The spacious front yard was green and



luxuriant with grass and flowers; gravel walks led to the huge



porch; a well-trimmed hedge of purple sage separated the yard



from the church grounds; birds sang in the trees; water flowed



musically along the walks; and there were glad, careless shouts



of children. For Venters the beauty of this home, and the



serenity and its apparent happiness, all turned red and black.



For Venters a shade overspread the lawn, the flowers, the old



vine-clad stone house. In the music of the singing birds, in the



murmur of the running water, he heard an ominous sound. Quiet



beauty--sweet music--innocent laughter! By what monstrous



abortion of fate did these abide in the shadow of Dyer?







Venters rode on and stopped before Tull's cottage. Women stared



at him with white faces and then flew from the porch. Tull



himself appeared at the door, bent low, craning his neck. His



dark face flashed out of sight; the door banged; a heavy bar



dropped with a hollow sound.







Then Venters shook Black Star's bridle, and, sharply trotting,



led the other horses to the center of the village. Here at the



intersecting streets and in front of the stores he halted once



more. The usual lounging atmosphere of that prominent corner was



not now in evidence. Riders and ranchers and villagers broke up



what must have been absorbing conversation. There was a rush of



many feet, and then the walk was lined with faces.







Venters's glance swept down the line of silent stone-faced men.



He recognized many riders and villagers, but none of those he had



hoped to meet. There was no expression in the faces turned toward



him. All of them knew him, most were inimical, but there were few



who were not burning with curiosity and wonder in regard to the



return of Jane Withersteen's racers. Yet all were silent. Here



were the familiar characteristics--masked feeling--strange



secretiveness--expressionless expression of mystery and hidden



power.







"Has anybody here seen Jerry Card?" queried Venters, in a loud



voice.







In reply there came not a word, not a nod or shake of head, not



so much as dropping eye or twitching lip--nothing but a quiet,



stony stare.







"Been under the knife? You've a fine knife-wielder here--one



Tull, I believe!...Maybe you've all had your tongues cut out?"







This passionate sarcasm of Venters brought no response, and the



stony calm was as oil on the fire within him.







"I see some of you pack guns, too!" he added, in biting scorn. In



the long, tense pause, strung keenly as a tight wire, he sat



motionless on Black Star. "All right," he went on. "Then let some



of you take this message to Tull. Tell him I've seen Jerry Card!



...Tell him Jerry Card will never return!"







Thereupon, in the same dead calm, Venters backed Black Star away



from the curb, into the street, and out of range. He was ready



now to ride up to Withersteen House and turn the racers over to



Jane.







"Hello, Venters!" a familiar voice cried, hoarsely, and he saw a



man running toward him. It was the rider Judkins who came up and



gripped Venters's hand. "Venters, I could hev dropped when I seen



them hosses. But thet sight ain't a marker to the looks of you.



What's wrong? Hev you gone crazy? You must be crazy to ride in



here this way--with them hosses--talkie' thet way about Tull en'



Jerry Card."







"Jud, I'm not crazy--only mad clean through," replied Venters.







"Mad, now, Bern, I'm glad to hear some of your old self in your



voice. Fer when you come up you looked like the corpse of a dead



rider with fire fer eyes. You hed thet crowd too stiff fer



throwin' guns. Come, we've got to hev a talk. Let's go up the



lane. We ain't much safe here."







Judkins mounted Bells and rode with Venters up to the cottonwood



grove. Here they dismounted and went among the trees.







"Let's hear from you first," said Judkins. "You fetched back them



hosses. Thet is the trick. An', of course, you got Jerry the same



as you got Horne."







"Horne!"







"Sure. He was found dead yesterday all chewed by coyotes, en'



he'd been shot plumb center."







"Where was he found?"







"At the split down the trail--you know where Oldring's cattle



trail runs off north from the trail to the pass."







"That's where I met Jerry and the rustlers. What was Horne doing



with them? I thought Horne was an honest cattle-man."







"Lord--Bern, don't ask me thet! I'm all muddled now tryin' to



figure things."







Venters told of the fight and the race with Jerry Card and its



tragic conclusion.







"I knowed it! I knowed all along that Wrangle was the best hoss!"



exclaimed Judkins, with his lean face working and his eyes



lighting. "Thet was a race! Lord, I'd like to hev seen Wrangle



jump the cliff with Jerry. An' thet was good-by to the grandest



hoss an' rider ever on the sage!...But, Bern, after you got the



hosses why'd you want to bolt right in Tull's face?"







"I want him to know. An' if I can get to him I'll--"







"You can't get near Tull," interrupted Judkins. "Thet vigilante



bunch hev taken to bein' bodyguard for Tull an' Dyer, too."







"Hasn't Lassiter made a break yet?" inquired Venters, curiously.







"Naw!" replied Judkins, scornfully. "Jane turned his head. He's



mad in love over her--follers her like a dog. He ain't no more



Lassiter! He's lost his nerve, he doesn't look like the same



feller. It's village talk. Everybody knows it. He hasn't thrown a



gun, an' he won't!"







"Jud, I'll bet he does," replied Venters, earnestly. "Remember



what I say. This Lassiter is something more than a gun-man. Jud,



he's big--he's great!...I feel that in him. God help Tull and



Dyer when Lassiter does go after them. For horses and riders and



stone walls won't save them."







"Wal, hev it your way, Bern. I hope you're right. Nat'rully I've



been some sore on Lassiter fer gittin' soft. But I ain't denyin'



his nerve, or whatever's great in him thet sort of paralyzes



people. No later 'n this mornin' I seen him saunterin' down the



lane, quiet an' slow. An' like his guns he comes black--black,



thet's Lassiter. Wal, the crowd on the corner never batted an



eye, en' I'll gamble my hoss thet there wasn't one who hed a



heartbeat till Lassiter got by. He went in Snell's saloon, an' as



there wasn't no gun play I had to go in, too. An' there, darn my



pictures, if Lassiter wasn't standin' to the bar, drinking en'



talkin' with Oldrin'."







"Oldring!" whispered Venters. His voice, as all fire and pulse



within him, seemed to freeze.







"Let go my arm!" exclaimed Judkins. "Thet's my bad arm. Sure it



was Oldrin'. What the hell's wrong with you, anyway? Venters, I



tell you somethin's wrong. You're whiter 'n a sheet. You can't be



scared of the rustler. I don't believe you've got a scare in you.



Wal, now, jest let me talk. You know I like to talk, an' if I'm



slow I allus git there sometime. As I said, Lassiter was talkie'



chummy with Oldrin'. There wasn't no hard feelin's. An' the gang



wasn't payin' no pertic'lar attention. But like a cat watchin' a



mouse I hed my eyes on them two fellers. It was strange to me,



thet confab. I'm gittin' to think a lot, fer a feller who doesn't



know much. There's been some queer deals lately an' this seemed



to me the queerest. These men stood to the bar alone, an' so



close their big gun-hilts butted together. I seen Oldrin' was



some surprised at first, an' Lassiter was cool as ice. They



talked, an' presently at somethin' Lassiter said the rustler



bawled out a curse, an' then he jest fell up against the bar, an'



sagged there. The gang in the saloon looked around an' laughed,



an' thet's about all. Finally Oldrin' turned, and it was easy to



see somethin' hed shook him. Yes, sir, thet big rustler--you know



he's as broad as he is long, an' the powerfulest build of a



man--yes, sir, the nerve had been taken out of him. Then, after a



little, he began to talk an' said a lot to Lassiter, an' by an'



by it didn't take much of an eye to see thet Lassiter was gittin'



hit hard. I never seen him anyway but cooler 'n ice--till then.



He seemed to be hit harder 'n Oldrin', only he didn't roar out



thet way. He jest kind of sunk in, an' looked an' looked, an' he



didn't see a livin' soul in thet saloon. Then he sort of come to,



an' shakin' hands--mind you, shakin' hands with Oldrin'--he went



out. I couldn't help thinkin' how easy even a boy could hev



dropped the great gun-man then!...Wal, the rustler stood at the



bar fer a long time, en' he was seein' things far off, too; then



he come to an' roared fer whisky, an' gulped a drink thet was big



enough to drown me."







"Is Oldring here now?" whispered Venters. He could not speak



above a whisper. Judkins's story had been meaningless to him.







"He's at Snell's yet. Bern, I hevn't told you yet thet the



rustlers hev been raisin' hell. They shot up Stone Bridge an'



Glaze, an' fer three days they've been here drinkin' an' gamblin'



an' throwin' of gold. These rustlers hev a pile of gold. If it



was gold dust or nugget gold I'd hev reason to think, but it's



new coin gold, as if it had jest come from the United States



treasury. An' the coin's genuine. Thet's all been proved. The



truth is Oldrin's on a rampage. A while back he lost his Masked



Rider, an' they say he's wild about thet. I'm wonderin' if



Lassiter could hev told the rustler anythin' about thet little



masked, hard-ridin' devil. Ride! He was most as good as Jerry



Card. An', Bern, I've been wonderin' if you know--"







"Judkins, you're a good fellow," interrupted Venters. "Some day



I'll tell you a story. I've no time now. Take the horses to



Jane."







Judkins stared, and then, muttering to himself, he mounted Bells,



and stared again at Venters, and then, leading the other horses,



he rode into the grove and disappeared.







Once, long before, on the night Venters had carried Bess through



the canyon and up into Surprise Valley, he had experienced the



strangeness of faculties singularly, tinglingly acute. And now



the same sensation recurred. But it was different in that he felt



cold, frozen, mechanical incapable of free thought, and all about



him seemed unreal, aloof, remote. He hid his rifle in the sage,



marking its exact location with extreme care. Then he faced down



the lane and strode toward the center of the village. Perceptions



flashed upon him, the faint, cold touch of the breeze, a cold,



silvery tinkle of flowing water, a cold sun shining out of a cold



sky, song of birds and laugh of children, coldly distant. Cold



and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and



tighter stretched the skin over his face; colder and harder grew



the polished butts of his guns; colder and steadier became his



hands as he wiped the clammy sweat from his face or reached low



to his gun-sheaths. Men meeting him in the walk gave him wide



berth. In front of Bevin's store a crowd melted apart for his



passage, and their faces and whispers were faces and whispers of



a dream. He turned a corner to meet Tull face to face, eye to



eye. As once before he had seen this man pale to a ghastly, livid



white so again he saw the change. Tull stopped in his tracks,



with right hand raised and shaking. Suddenly it dropped, and he



seemed to glide aside, to pass out of Venters's sight. Next he



saw many horses with bridles down--all clean-limbed, dark bays or



blacks--rustlers' horses! Loud voices and boisterous laughter,



rattle of dice and scrape of chair and clink of gold, burst in



mingled din from an open doorway. He stepped inside.







With the sight of smoke-hazed room and drinking, cursing,



gambling, dark-visaged men, reality once more dawned upon



Venters.







His entrance had been unnoticed, and he bent his gaze upon the



drinkers at the bar. Dark-clothed, dark-faced men they all were,



burned by the sun, bow-legged as were most riders of the sage,



but neither lean nor gaunt. Then Venters's gaze passed to the



tables, and swiftly it swept over the hard-featured gamesters, to



alight upon the huge, shaggy, black head of the rustler



chief.







"Oldring!" he cried, and to him his voice seemed to split a bell



in his ears.







It stilled the din.







That silence suddenly broke to the scrape and crash of Oldring's



chair as he rose; and then, while he passed, a great gloomy



figure, again the thronged room stilled in silence yet deeper.







"Oldring, a word with you!" continued Venters.







"Ho! What's this?" boomed Oldring, in frowning scrutiny.







"Come outside, alone. A word for you--from your Masked Rider!"







Oldring kicked a chair out of his way and lunged forward with a



stamp of heavy boot that jarred the floor. He waved down his



muttering, rising men.







Venters backed out of the door and waited, hearing, as no sound



had ever before struck into his soul, the rapid, heavy steps of



the rustler.







Oldring appeared, and Venters had one glimpse of his great



breadth and bulk, his gold-buckled belt with hanging guns, his



high-top boots with gold spurs. In that moment Venters had a



strange, unintelligible curiosity to see Oldring alive. The



rustler's broad brow, his large black eyes, his sweeping beard,



as dark as the wing of a raven, his enormous width of shoulder



and depth of chest, his whole splendid presence so wonderfully



charged with vitality and force and strength, seemed to afford



Venters an unutterable fiendish joy because for that magnificent



manhood and life he meant cold and sudden death.







"Oldring, Bess is alive! But she's dead to you--dead to the life



you made her lead--dead as you will be in one second!"







Swift as lightning Venters's glance dropped from Oldring's



rolling eyes to his hands. One of them, the right, swept out,



then toward his gun--and Venters shot him through the heart.







Slowly Oldring sank to his knees, and the hand, dragging at the



gun, fell away. Venters's strangely acute faculties grasped the



meaning of that limp arm, of the swaying hulk, of the gasp and



heave, of the quivering beard. But was that awful spirit in the



black eyes only one of vitality?







"Man--why--didn't--you--wait? Bess--was--" Oldring's whisper died



under his beard, and with a heavy lurch he fell



forward.







Bounding swiftly away, Venters fled around the corner, across the



street, and, leaping a hedge, he ran through yard, orchard, and



garden to the sage. Here, under cover of the tall brush, he



turned west and ran on to the place where he had hidden his



rifle. Securing that, he again set out into a run, and, circling



through the sage, came up behind Jane Withersteen's stable and



corrals. With laboring, dripping chest, and pain as of a knife



thrust in his side, he stopped to regain his breath, and while



resting his eyes roved around in search of a horse. Doors and



windows of the stable were open wide and had a deserted look. One



dejected, lonely burro stood in the near corral. Strange indeed



was the silence brooding over the once happy, noisy home of Jane



Withersteen's pets.







He went into the corral, exercising care to leave no tracks, and



led the burro to the watering-trough. Venters, though not



thirsty, drank till he could drink no more. Then, leading the



burro over hard ground, he struck into the sage and down the



slope.







He strode swiftly, turning from time to time to scan the slope



for riders. His head just topped the level of sage-brush, and the



burro could not have been seen at all. Slowly the green of



Cottonwoods sank behind the slope, and at last a wavering line of



purple sage met the blue of sky.







To avoid being seen, to get away, to hide his trail--these were



the sole ideas in his mind as he headed for Deception Pass, and



he directed all his acuteness of eye and ear, and the keenness of



a rider's judgment for distance and ground, to stern



accomplishment of the task. He kept to the sage far to the left



of the trail leading into the Pass. He walked ten miles and



looked back a thousand times. Always the graceful, purple wave of



sage remained wide and lonely, a clear, undotted waste. Coming to



a stretch of rocky ground, he took advantage of it to cross the



trail and then continued down on the right. At length he



persuaded himself that he would be able to see riders mounted on



horses before they could see him on the little burro, and he rode



bareback.







Hour by hour the tireless burro kept to his faithful, steady



trot. The sun sank and the long shadows lengthened down the



slope. Moving veils of purple twilight crept out of the hollows



and, mustering and forming on the levels, soon merged and shaded



into night. Venters guided the burro nearer to the trail, so that



he could see its white line from the ridges, and rode on through



the hours.







Once down in the Pass without leaving a trail, he would hold



himself safe for the time being. When late in the night he



reached the break in the sage, he sent the burro down ahead of



him, and started an avalanche that all but buried the animal at



the bottom of the trail. Bruised and battered as he was, he had a



moment's elation, for he had hidden his tracks. Once more he



mounted the burro and rode on. The hour was the blackest of the



night when he made the thicket which inclosed his old camp. Here



he turned the burro loose in the grass near the spring, and then



lay down on his old bed of leaves.







He felt only vaguely, as outside things, the ache and burn and



throb of the muscles of his body. But a dammed-up torrent of



emotion at last burst its bounds, and the hour that saw his



release from immediate action was one that confounded him in the



reaction of his spirit. He suffered without understanding why. He



caught glimpses into himself, into unlit darkness of soul. The



fire that had blistered him and the cold which had frozen him now



united in one torturing possession of his mind and heart, and



like a fiery steed with ice-shod feet, ranged his being, ran



rioting through his blood, trampling the resurging good, dragging



ever at the evil.







Out of the subsiding chaos came a clear question. What had



happened? He had left the valley to go to Cottonwoods. Why? It



seemed that he had gone to kill a man--Oldring! The name riveted



his consciousness upon the one man of all men upon earth whom he



had wanted to meet. He had met the rustler. Venters recalled the



smoky haze of the saloon, the dark-visaged men, the huge Oldring.



He saw him step out of the door, a splendid specimen of manhood,



a handsome giant with purple-black and sweeping beard. He



remembered inquisitive gaze of falcon eyes. He heard himself



repeating: "OLDRING, BESS IS ALIVE! BUT SHE'S DEAD TO YOU," and



he felt himself jerk, and his ears throbbed to the thunder of a



gun, and he saw the giant sink slowly to his knees. Was that only



the vitality of him--that awful light in the eyes--only the



hard-dying life of a tremendously powerful brute? A broken





whisper, strange as death: "MAN--WHY--DIDN'T--YOU WAIT!



BESS--WAS--" And Oldring plunged face forward, dead.







"I killed him," cried Venters, in remembering shock. "But it



wasn't THAT. Ah, the look in his eyes and his whisper!"







Herein lay the secret that had clamored to him through all the



tumult and stress of his emotions. What a look in the eyes of a



man shot through the heart! It had been neither hate nor ferocity



nor fear of men nor fear of death. It had been no passionate



glinting spirit of a fearless foe, willing shot for shot, life



for life, but lacking physical power. Distinctly recalled now,



never to be forgotten, Venters saw in Oldring's magnificent eyes



the rolling of great, glad surprise--softness--love! Then came a



shadow and the terrible superhuman striving of his spirit to



speak. Oldring shot through the heart, had fought and forced back



death, not for a moment in which to shoot or curse, but to



whisper strange words.







What words for a dying man to whisper! Why had not Venters



waited? For what? That was no plea for life. It was regret that



there was not a moment of life left in which to speak. Bess



was--Herein lay renewed torture for Venters. What had Bess been



to Oldring? The old question, like a specter, stalked from its



grave to haunt him. He had overlooked, he had forgiven, he had



loved and he had forgotten; and now, out of the mystery of a



dying man's whisper rose again that perverse, unsatisfied,



jealous uncertainty. Bess had loved that splendid, black-crowned



giant--by her own confession she had loved him; and in Venters's



soul again flamed up the jealous hell. Then into the clamoring



hell burst the shot that had killed Oldring, and it rang in a



wild fiendish gladness, a hateful, vengeful joy. That passed to



the memory of the love and light in Oldring's eyes and the



mystery in his whisper. So the changing, swaying emotions



fluctuated in Venters's heart.







This was the climax of his year of suffering and the crucial



struggle of his life. And when the gray dawn came he rose, a



gloomy, almost heartbroken man, but victor over evil passions. He



could not change the past; and, even if he had not loved Bess



with all his soul, he had grown into a man who would not change



the future he had planned for her. Only, and once for all, he



must know the truth, know the worst, stifle all these insistent



doubts and subtle hopes and jealous fancies, and kill the past by



knowing truly what Bess had been to Oldring. For that matter he



knew--he had always known, but he must hear it spoken. Then, when



they had safely gotten out of that wild country to take up a new



and an absorbing life, she would forget, she would be happy, and



through that, in the years to come, he could not but find life



worth living.







All day he rode slowly and cautiously up the Pass, taking time to



peer around corners, to pick out hard ground and grassy patches,



and to make sure there was no one in pursuit. In the night



sometime he came to the smooth, scrawled rocks dividing the



valley, and here set the burro at liberty. He walked beyond,



climbed the slope and the dim, starlit gorge. Then, weary to the



point of exhaustion, he crept into a shallow cave and fell



asleep.







In the morning, when he descended the trail, he found the sun was



pouring a golden stream of light through the arch of the great



stone bridge. Surprise Valley, like a valley of dreams, lay



mystically soft and beautiful, awakening to the golden flood



which was rolling away its slumberous bands of mist, brightening



its walled faces.







While yet far off he discerned Bess moving under the silver



spruces, and soon the barking of the dogs told him that they had



seen him. He heard the mocking-birds singing in the trees, and



then the twittering of the quail. Ring and Whitie came bounding



toward him, and behind them ran Bess, her hands



outstretched.







"Bern! You're back! You're back!" she cried, in joy that rang of



her loneliness.







"Yes, I'm back," he said, as she rushed to meet him.







She had reached out for him when suddenly, as she saw him



closely, something checked her, and as quickly all her joy fled,



and with it her color, leaving her pale and trembling.







"Oh! What's happened?"







"A good deal has happened, Bess. I don't need to tell you what.



And I'm played out. Worn out in mind more than body."







"Dear--you look strange to me!" faltered Bess.







"Never mind that. I'm all right. There's nothing for you to be



scared about. Things are going to turn out just as we have



planned. As soon as I'm rested we'll make a break to get out of



the country. Only now, right now, I must know the truth about



you."







"Truth about me?" echoed Bess, shrinkingly. She seemed to be



casting back into her mind for a forgotten key. Venters himself,



as he saw her, received a pang.







"Yes--the truth. Bess, don't misunderstand. I haven't changed



that way. I love you still. I'll love you more afterward. Life



will be just as sweet--sweeter to us. We'll be--be married as



soon as ever we can. We'll be happy--but there's a devil in me. A



perverse, jealous devil! Then I've queer fancies. I forgot for a



long time. Now all those fiendish little whispers of doubt and



faith and fear and hope come torturing me again. I've got to kill



them with the truth."







"I'll tell you anything you want to know," she replied, frankly.







"Then by Heaven! we'll have it over and done with!...Bess--did



Oldring love you?"







"Certainly he did."







"Did--did you love him?"







"Of course. I told you so."







"How can you tell it so lightly?" cried Venters, passionately.



"Haven't you any sense of--of--" He choked back speech. He felt



the rush of pain and passion. He seized her in rude, strong hands



and drew her close. He looked straight into her dark-blue eyes.



They were shadowing with the old wistful light, hut they were as



clear as the limpid water of the spring. They were earnest,



solemn in unutterable love and faith and abnegation. Venters



shivered. He knew he was looking into her soul. He knew she could



not lie in that moment; but that she might tell the truth,



looking at him with those eyes, almost killed his belief in



purity.







"What are--what were you to--to Oldring?" he panted, fiercely.







"I am his daughter," she replied, instantly.







Venters slowly let go of her. There was a violent break in the



force of his feeling--then creeping blankness.







"What--was it--you said?" he asked, in a kind of dull wonder.







"I am his daughter."







"Oldring's daughter?" queried Venters, with life gathering in his



voice.







"Yes."







With a passionately awakening start he grasped her hands and drew



her close.







"All the time--you've been Oldring's daughter?"







"Yes, of course all the time--always."







"But Bess, you told me--you let me think--I made out you



were--a--so--so ashamed."







"It is my shame," she said, with voice deep and full, and now the



scarlet fired her cheek. "I told you--I'm nothing--nameless--just



Bess, Oldring's girl!"







"I know--I remember. But I never thought--" he went on,



hurriedly, huskily. "That time--when you lay dying--you



prayed--you--somehow I got the idea you were bad."







"Bad?" she asked, with a little laugh.







She looked up with a faint smile of bewilderment and the absolute



unconsciousness of a child. Venters gasped in the gathering might



of the truth. She did not understand his meaning.







"Bess! Bess!" He clasped her in his arms, hiding her eyes against



his breast. She must not see his face in that moment. And he held



her while he looked out across the valley. In his dim and blinded



sight, in the blur of golden light and moving mist, he saw



Oldring. She was the rustler's nameless daughter. Oldring had



loved her. He had so guarded her, so kept her from women and men



and knowledge of life that her mind was as a child's. That was



part of the secret--part of the mystery. That was the wonderful



truth. Not only was she not bad, but good, pure, innocent above



all innocence in the world--the innocence of lonely girlhood.







He saw Oldring's magnificent eyes, inquisitive, searching,



softening. He saw them flare in amaze, in gladness, with love,



then suddenly strain in terrible effort of will. He heard Oldring



whisper and saw him sway like a log and fall. Then a million



bellowing, thundering voices--gunshots of conscience,



thunderbolts of remorse--dinned horribly in his ears. He had



killed Bess's father. Then a rushing wind filled his ears like a



moan of wind in the cliffs, a knell indeed--Oldring's knell.







He dropped to his knees and hid his face against Bess, and



grasped her with the hands of a drowning man.







"My God!...My God!...Oh, Bess!...Forgive me! Never mind what I've



done--what I've thought. But forgive me. I'll give you my life.



I'll live for you. I'll love you. Oh, I do love you as no man



ever loved a woman. I want you to know--to remember that I fought



a fight for you--however blind I was. I thought--I thought--never



mind what I thought--but I loved you--I asked you to marry me.



Let that--let me have that to hug to my heart. Oh, Bess, I was



driven! And I might have known! I could not rest nor sleep till I



had this mystery solved. God! how things work out!"







"Bern, you're weak--trembling--you talk wildly," cried Bess.



"You've overdone your strength. There's nothing to forgive.



There's no mystery except your love for me. You have come back to



me!"







And she clasped his head tenderly in her arms and pressed it



closely to her throbbing breast.





Old Wives Tales Oleson facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback