Shadows On The Sage-slope





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!





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