A September Sun, Losing Some Of Its Heat If Not Its Brilliance, Was Dropping Low In The West Over The Black Colorado Range. Purple haze began to thicken in the timbered notches. Gray foothills, round and billowy, rolled down from the higher country. They were smooth, sweeping, with long velvety slopes and isolated patches of aspens that blazed in autumn gold. Splotches of red vine colored the soft gray of sage. Old White Slides, a mountain scarred by avalanche, towered with bleak rocky peak above the valley, sheltering it from the north.
A girl rode along the slope, with gaze on the sweep and range and color of the mountain fastness that was her home. She followed an old trail which led to a bluff overlooking an arm of the valley. Once it had been a familiar lookout for her, but she had not visited the place of late. It was associated with serious hours of her life. Here seven years before, when she was twelve, she had made a hard choice to please her guardian-the old rancher whom she loved and called father, who had indeed been a father to her. That choice had been to go to school in Denver. Four years she had lived away from her beloved gray hills and black mountains. Only once since her return had she climbed to this height, and that occasion, too, was memorable as an unhappy hour. It had been three years ago. To-day girlish ordeals and griefs seemed back in the past: she was a woman at nineteen and face to face with the first great problem in her life.
The trail came up back of the bluff, through a clump of aspens with white trunks and yellow fluttering leaves, and led across a level bench of luxuriant grass and wild flowers to the rocky edge.
She dismounted and threw the bridle. Her mustang, used to being petted, rubbed his sleek, dark head against her and evidently expected like demonstration in return, but as none was forthcoming he bent his nose to the grass and began grazing. The girl's eyes were intent upon some waving, slender, white-and-blue flowers. They smiled up wanly, like pale stars, out of the long grass that had a tinge of gold.
"Columbines," she mused, wistfully, as she plucked several of the flowers and held them up to gaze wonderingly at them, as if to see in them some revelation of the mystery that shrouded her birth and her name. Then she stood with dreamy gaze upon the distant ranges.
"Columbine!... So they named me-those miners who found me-a baby-lost in the woods-asleep among the columbines." She spoke aloud, as if the sound of her voice might convince her.
So much of the mystery of her had been revealed that day by the man she had always called father. Vaguely she had always been conscious of some mystery, something strange about her childhood, some relation never explained.
"No name but Columbine," she whispered, sadly, and now she understood a strange longing of her heart.
Scarcely an hour back, as she ran down the Wide porch of White Slides ranch-house, she had encountered the man who had taken care of her all her life. He had looked upon her as kindly and fatherly as of old, yet with a difference. She seemed to see him as old Bill Belllounds, pioneer and rancher, of huge frame and broad face, hard and scarred and grizzled, with big eyes of blue fire.
"Collie," the old man had said, "I reckon hyar's news. A letter from Jack.... He's comin' home."
Belllounds had waved the letter. His huge hand trembled as he reached to put it on her shoulder. The hardness of him seemed strangely softened. Jack was his son. Buster Jack, the range had always called him, with other terms, less kind, that never got to the ears of his father. Jack had been sent away three years ago, just before Columbine's return from school. Therefore she had not seen him for over seven years. But she remembered him well-a big, rangy boy, handsome and wild, who had made her childhood almost unendurable.
"Yes-my son-Jack-he's comin' home," said Belllounds, with a break in his voice. "An', Collie-now I must tell you somethin'."
"Yes, dad," she had replied, with strong clasp of the heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Thet's just it, lass. I ain't your dad. I've tried to be a dad to you an' I've loved you as my own. But you're not flesh an' blood of mine. An' now I must tell you."
The brief story followed. Seventeen years ago miners working a claim of Belllounds's in the mountains above Middle Park had found a child asleep in the columbines along the trail. Near that point Indians, probably Arapahoes coming across the mountains to attack the Utes, had captured or killed the occupants of a prairie-schooner. There was no other clue. The miners took the child to their camp, fed and cared for it, and, after the manner of their kind, named it Columbine. Then they brought it to Belllounds.
"Collie," said the old rancher, "it needn't never have been told, an' wouldn't but fer one reason. I'm gettin' old. I reckon I'd never split my property between you an' Jack. So I mean you an' him to marry. You always steadied Jack. With a wife like you'll be-wal, mebbe Jack'll-"
"Dad!" burst out Columbine. "Marry Jack!... Why I-I don't even remember him!"
"Haw! Haw!" laughed Belllounds. "Wal, you dog-gone soon will. Jack's in Kremmlin', an' he'll be hyar to-night or to-morrow."
"But-I-I don't l-love him," faltered Columbine.
The old man lost his mirth; the strong-lined face resumed its hard cast; the big eyes smoldered. Her appealing objection had wounded him. She was reminded of how sensitive the old man had always been to any reflection cast upon his son.
"Wal, thet's onlucky;" he replied, gruffly. "Mebbe you'll change. I reckon no girl could help a boy much, onless she cared for him. Anyway, you an' Jack will marry."
He had stalked away and Columbine had ridden her mustang far up the valley slope where she could be alone. Standing on the verge of the bluff, she suddenly became aware that the quiet and solitude of her lonely resting-place had been disrupted. Cattle were bawling below her and along the slope of old White Slides and on the grassy uplands above. She had forgotten that the cattle were being driven down into the lowlands for the fall round-up. A great red-and-white-spotted herd was milling in the park just beneath her. Calves and yearlings were making the dust fly along the mountain slope; wild old steers were crashing in the sage, holding level, unwilling to be driven down; cows were running and lowing for their lost ones. Melodious and clear rose the clarion calls of the cowboys. The cattle knew those calls and only the wild steers kept up-grade.
Columbine also knew each call and to which cowboy it belonged. They sang and yelled and swore, but it was all music to her. Here and there along the slope, where the aspen groves clustered, a horse would flash across an open space; the dust would fly, and a cowboy would peal out a lusty yell that rang along the slope and echoed under the bluff and lingered long after the daring rider had vanished in the steep thickets.
"I wonder which is Wils," murmured Columbine, as she watched and listened, vaguely conscious of a little difference, a strange check in her remembrance of this particular cowboy. She felt the change, yet did not understand. One after one she recognized the riders on the slopes below, but Wilson Moore was not among them. He must be above her, then, and she turned to gaze across the grassy bluff, up the long, yellow slope, to where the gleaming aspens half hid a red bluff of mountain, towering aloft. Then from far to her left, high up a scrubby ridge of the slope, rang down a voice that thrilled her: "Go-aloong-you-ooooo ." Red cattle dashed pell-mell down the slope, raising the dust, tearing the brush, rolling rocks, and letting out hoarse bawls.
"Whoop-ee!" High-pitched and pealing came a clearer yell.
Columbine saw a white mustang flash out on top of the ridge, silhouetted against the blue, with mane and tail flying. His gait on that edge of steep slope proved his rider to be a reckless cowboy for whom no heights or depths had terrors. She would have recognized him from the way he rode, if she had not known the slim, erect figure. The cowboy saw her instantly. He pulled the mustang, about to plunge down the slope, and lifted him, rearing and wheeling. Then Columbine waved her hand. The cowboy spurred his horse along the crest of the ridge, disappeared behind the grove of aspens, and came in sight again around to the right, where on the grassy bench he slowed to a walk in descent to the bluff.
The girl watched him come, conscious of an unfamiliar sense of uncertainty in this meeting, and of the fact that she was seeing him differently from any other time in the years he had been a playmate, a friend, almost like a brother. He had ridden for Belllounds for years, and was a cowboy because he loved cattle well and horses better, and above all a life in the open. Unlike most cowboys, he had been to school; he had a family in Denver that objected to his wild range life, and often importuned him to come home; he seemed aloof sometimes and not readily understood.
While many thoughts whirled through Columbine's mind she watched the cowboy ride slowly down to her, and she became more concerned with a sudden restraint. How was Wilson going to take the news of this forced change about to come in her life? That thought leaped up. It gave her a strange pang. But she and he were only good friends. As to that, she reflected, of late they had not been the friends and comrades they formerly were. In the thrilling uncertainty of this meeting she had forgotten his distant manner and the absence of little attentions she had missed.
By this time the cowboy had reached the level, and with the lazy grace of his kind slipped out of the saddle. He was tall, slim, round-limbed, with the small hips of a rider, and square, though not broad shoulders. He stood straight like an Indian. His eyes were hazel, his features regular, his face bronzed. All men of the open had still, lean, strong faces, but added to this in him was a steadiness of expression, a restraint that seemed to hide sadness.
"Howdy, Columbine!" he said. "What are you doing up here? You might get run over."
"Hello, Wils!" she replied, slowly. "Oh, I guess I can keep out of the way."
"Some bad steers in that bunch. If any of them run over here Pronto will leave you to walk home. That mustang hates cattle. And he's only half broke, you know."
"I forgot you were driving to-day," she replied, and looked away from him. There was a moment's pause-long, it seemed to her.
"What'd you come for?" he asked, curiously.
"I wanted to gather columbines. See." She held out the nodding flowers toward him. "Take one.... Do you like them?"
"Yes. I like columbine," he replied, taking one of them. His keen hazel eyes, softened, darkened. "Colorado's flower."
"Columbine!... It is my name."
"Well, could you have a better? It sure suits you."
"Why?" she asked, and she looked at him again.
"You're slender-graceful. You sort of hold your head high and proud. Your skin is white. Your eyes are blue. Not bluebell blue, but columbine blue-and they turn purple when you're angry."
"Compliments! Wilson, this is new kind of talk for you," she said.
"You're different to-day."
"Yes, I am." She looked across the valley toward the westering sun, and the slight flush faded from her cheeks. "I have no right to hold my head proud. No one knows who I am-where I came from."
"As if that made any difference!" he exclaimed.
"Belllounds is not my dad. I have no dad. I was a waif. They found me in the woods-a baby-lost among the flowers. Columbine Belllounds I've always been. But that is not my name. No one can tell what my name really is."
"I knew your story years ago, Columbine," he replied, earnestly. "Everybody knows. Old Bill ought to have told you long before this. But he loves you. So does-everybody. You must not let this knowledge sadden you.... I'm sorry you've never known a mother or a sister. Why, I could tell you of many orphans who-whose stories were different."
"You don't understand. I've been happy. I've not longed for any-any one except a mother. It's only-"
"What don't I understand?"
"I've not told you all."
"No? Well, go on," he said, slowly.
Meaning of the hesitation and the restraint that had obstructed her thought now flashed over Columbine. It lay in what Wilson Moore might think of her prospective marriage to Jack Belllounds. Still she could not guess why that should make her feel strangely uncertain of the ground she stood on or how it could cause a constraint she had to fight herself to hide. Moreover, to her annoyance, she found that she was evading his direct request for the news she had withheld.
"Jack Belllounds is coming home to-night or to-morrow," she said. Then, waiting for her companion to reply, she kept an unseeing gaze upon the scanty pines fringing Old White Slides. But no reply appeared to be forthcoming from Moore. His silence compelled her to turn to him. The cowboy's face had subtly altered; it was darker with a tinge of red under the bronze; and his lower lip was released from his teeth, even as she looked. He had his eyes intent upon the lasso he was coiling. Suddenly he faced her and the dark fire of his eyes gave her a shock.
I've been expecting that shorthorn back for months." he said, bluntly.
"You-never-liked Jack?" queried Columbine, slowly. That was not what she wanted to say, but the thought spoke itself.
"I should smile I never did."
"Ever since you and he fought-long ago-all over-"
His sharp gesture made the coiled lasso loosen.
"Ever since I licked him good-don't forget that," interrupted Wilson. The red had faded from the bronze.
"Yes, you licked him," mused Columbine. "I remember that. And Jack's hated you ever since."
"There's been no love lost."
"But, Wils, you never before talked this way-spoke out so-against Jack," she protested.
"Well, I'm not the kind to talk behind a fellow's back. But I'm not mealy-mouthed, either, and-and-"
He did not complete the sentence and his meaning was enigmatic. Altogether Moore seemed not like himself. The fact disturbed Columbine. Always she had confided in him. Here was a most complex situation-she burned to tell him, yet somehow feared to-she felt an incomprehensible satisfaction in his bitter reference to Jack-she seemed to realize that she valued Wilson's friendship more than she had known, and now for some strange reason it was slipping from her.
"We-we were such good friends-pards," said Columbine, hurriedly and irrelevantly.
"Who?" He stared at her.
"Why, you-and me."
"Oh!" His tone softened, but there was still disapproval in his glance. "What of that?"
"Something has happened to make me think I've missed you-lately-that's all."
"Ahuh!" His tone held finality and bitterness, but he would not commit himself. Columbine sensed a pride in him that seemed the cause of his aloofness.
"Wilson, why have you been different lately?" she asked, plaintively.
"What's the good to tell you now?" he queried, in reply.
That gave her a blank sense of actual loss. She had lived in dreams and he in realities. Right now she could not dispel her dream-see and understand all that he seemed to. She felt like a child, then, growing old swiftly. The strange past longing for a mother surged up in her like a strong tide. Some one to lean on, some one who loved her, some one to help her in this hour when fatality knocked at the door of her youth-how she needed that!
"It might be bad for me-to tell me, but tell me, anyhow," she said, finally, answering as some one older than she had been an hour ago-to something feminine that leaped up. She did not understand this impulse, but it was in her.
"No!" declared Moore, with dark red staining his face. He slapped the lasso against his saddle, and tied it with clumsy hands. He did not look at her. His tone expressed anger and amaze.
"Dad says I must marry Jack," she said, with a sudden return to her natural simplicity.
"I heard him tell that months ago," snapped Moore.
"You did! Was that-why?" she whispered.
"It was," he answered, ringingly.
"But that was no reason for you to be-be-to stay away from me," she declared, with rising spirit.
He laughed shortly.
"Wils, didn't you like me any more after dad said that?" she queried.
"Columbine, a girl nineteen years and about to-to get married-ought not be a fool," he replied, with sarcasm.
"I'm not a fool," she rejoined, hotly.
"You ask fool questions."
"Well, youdidn't like me afterward or you'd never have mistreated me."
"If you say I mistreated you-you say what's untrue," he replied, just as hotly.
They had never been so near a quarrel before. Columbine experienced a sensation new to her-a commingling of fear, heat, and pang, it seemed, all in one throb. Wilson was hurting her. A quiver ran all over her, along her veins, swelling and tingling.
"You mean I lie?" she flashed.
"Yes, I do-if-"
But before he could conclude she slapped his face. It grew pale then, while she began to tremble.
"Oh-I didn't intend that. Forgive me," she faltered.
He rubbed his cheek. The hurt had not been great, so far as the blow was concerned. But his eyes were dark with pain and anger.
"Oh, don't distress yourself," he burst out. "You slapped me before-once, years ago-for kissing you. I-I apologize for saying you lied. You're only out of your head. So am I."
That poured oil upon the troubled waters. The cowboy appeared to be hesitating between sudden flight and the risk of staying longer.
"Maybe that's it," replied Columbine, with a half-laugh. She was not far from tears and fury with herself. "Let us make up-be friends again."
Moore squared around aggressively. He seemed to fortify himself against something in her. She felt that. But his face grew harder and older than she had ever seen it.
"Columbine, do you know where Jack Belllounds has been for these three years?" he asked, deliberately, entirely ignoring her overtures of friendship.
"No. Somebody said Denver. Some one else said Kansas City. I never asked dad, because I knew Jack had been sent away. I've supposed he was working-making a man of himself."
"Well, I hope to Heaven-for your sake-what you suppose comes true," returned Moore, with exceeding bitterness.
"Doyou know where he has been?" asked Columbine. Some strange feeling prompted that. There was a mystery here. Wilson's agitation seemed strange and deep.
"Yes, I do." The cowboy bit that out through closing teeth, as if locking them against an almost overmastering temptation.
Columbine lost her curiosity. She was woman enough to realize that there might well be facts which would only make her situation harder.
"Wilson," she began, hurriedly, "I owe all I am to dad. He has cared for me-sent me to school. He has been so good to me. I've loved him always. It would be a shabby return for all his protection and love if-if I refused-"
"Old Bill is the best man ever," interrupted Moore, as if to repudiate any hint of disloyalty to his employer. "Everybody in Middle Park and all over owes Bill something. He's sure good. There never was anything wrong with him except his crazy blindness about his son. Buster Jack-the-the-"
Columbine put a hand over Moore's lips.
"The man I must marry," she said, solemnly.
"You must-you will?" he demanded.
"Of course. What else could I do? I never thought of refusing."
"Columbine!" Wilson's cry was so poignant, his gesture so violent, his dark eyes so piercing that Columbine sustained a shock that held her trembling and mute. "How can you love Jack Belllounds? You were twelve years old when you saw him last. How can you love him?"
"I don't" replied Columbine.
"Then how could you marry him?"
"I owe dad obedience. It's his hope that I can steady Jack."
"Steady Jack!" exclaimed Moore, passionately. "Why, you girl-you white-faced flower!You with your innocence and sweetness steady that damned pup! My Heavens! He was a gambler and a drunkard. He-"
"Hush!" implored Columbine.
"He cheated at cards," declared the cowboy, with a scorn that placed that vice as utterly base.
"But Jack was only a wild boy," replied Columbine, trying with brave words to champion the son of the man she loved as her father. "He has been sent away to work. He'll have outgrown that wildness. He'll come home a man."
"Bah!" cried Moore, harshly.
Columbine felt a sinking within her. Where was her strength? She, who could walk and ride so many miles, to become sick with an inward quaking! It was childish. She struggled to hide her weakness from him.
"It's not like you to be this way," she said. "You used to be generous. Am I to blame? Did I choose my life?"
Moore looked quickly away from her, and, standing with a hand on his horse, he was silent for a moment. The squaring of his shoulders bore testimony to his thought. Presently he swung up into the saddle. The mustang snorted and champed the bit and tossed his head, ready to bolt.
"Forget my temper," begged the cowboy, looking down upon Columbine. "I take it all back. I'm sorry. Don't let a word of mine worry you. I was only jealous."
"Jealous!" exclaimed Columbine, wonderingly.
"Yes. That makes a fellow see red and green. Bad medicine! You never felt it."
"What were you jealous of?" asked Columbine.
The cowboy had himself in hand now and he regarded her with a grim amusement.
"Well, Columbine, it's like a story," he replied. "I'm the fellow disowned by his family-a wanderer of the wilds-no good-and no prospects.... Now our friend Jack, he's handsome and rich. He has a doting old dad. Cattle, horses-ranches! He wins the girl. See!"
Spurring his mustang, the cowboy rode away. At the edge of the slope he turned in the saddle. "I've got to drive in this bunch of cattle. It's late. You hurry home." Then he was gone. The stones cracked and rolled down under the side of the bluff.
Columbine stood where he had left her: dubious, yet with the blood still hot in her cheeks.
"Jealous?... He wins the girl?" she murmured in repetition to herself. "What ever could he have meant? He didn't mean-he didn't-"
The simple, logical interpretation of Wilson's words opened Columbine's mind to a disturbing possibility of which she had never dreamed. That he might love her! If he did, why had he not said so? Jealous, maybe, but he did not love her! The next throb of thought was like a knock at a door of her heart-a door never yet opened, inside which seemed a mystery of feeling, of hope, despair, unknown longing, and clamorous voices. The woman just born in her, instinctive and self-preservative, shut that door before she had more than a glimpse inside. But then she felt her heart swell with its nameless burdens.
Pronto was grazing near at hand. She caught him and mounted. It struck her then that her hands were numb with cold. The wind had ceased fluttering the aspens, but the yellow leaves were falling, rustling. Out on the brow of the slope she faced home and the west.
A glorious Colorado sunset had just reached the wonderful height of its color and transformation. The sage slopes below her seemed rosy velvet; the golden aspens on the farther reaches were on fire at the tips; the foothills rolled clear and mellow and rich in the light; the gulf of distance on to the great black range was veiled in mountain purple; and the dim peaks beyond the range stood up, sunset-flushed and grand. The narrow belt of blue sky between crags and clouds was like a river full of fleecy sails and wisps of silver. Above towered a pall of dark cloud, full of the shades of approaching night.
"Oh, beautiful!" breathed the girl, with all her worship of nature. That wild world of sunset grandeur and loneliness and beauty was hers. Over there, under a peak of the black range, was the place where she had been found, a baby, lost in the forest. She belonged to that, and so it belonged to her. Strength came to her from the glory of light on the hills.
Pronto shot up his ears and checked his trot.
"What is it, boy?" called Columbine. The trail was getting dark. Shadows were creeping up the slope as she rode down to meet them. The mustang had keen sight and scent. She reined him to a halt.
All was silent. The valley had begun to shade on the far side and the rose and gold seemed fading from the nearer. Below, on the level floor of the valley, lay the rambling old ranch-house, with the cabins nestling around, and the corrals leading out to the soft hay-fields, misty and gray in the twilight. A single light gleamed. It was like a beacon.
The air was cold with a nip of frost. From far on the other side of the ridge she had descended came the bawls of the last straggling cattle of the round-up. But surely Pronto had not shot up his ears for them. As if in answer a wild sound pealed down the slope, making the mustang jump. Columbine had heard it before.
"Pronto, it's only a wolf," she soothed him.
The peal was loud, rather harsh at first, then softened to a mourn, wild, lonely, haunting. A pack of coyotes barked in angry answer, a sharp, staccato, yelping chorus, the more piercing notes biting on the cold night air. These mountain mourns and yelps were music to Columbine. She rode on down the trail in the gathering darkness, less afraid of the night and its wild denizens than of what awaited her at White Slides Ranch.
* * *
Columbine was awakened in the gray dawn by the barking of coyotes. She dreaded the daylight thus heralded. Never before in her life had she hated the rising of the sun. Resolutely she put the past behind her and faced the future, believing now that with the great decision made she needed only to keep her mind off what might have been, and to attend to her duty.
At breakfast she found the rancher in better spirits than he had been for weeks. He informed her that Jack had ridden off early for Kremmling, there to make arrangements for the wedding on October first.
"Jack's out of his head," said Belllounds. "Wal, thet comes only onct in a man's life. I remember ... Jack's goin' to drive you to Kremmlin' an' ther take stage fer Denver. I allow you'd better put in your best licks on fixin' up an' packin' the clothes you'll need. Women-folk naturally want to look smart on weddin'-trips."
"Dad!" exclaimed Columbine, in dismay. "I never thought of clothes. And I don't want to leave White Slides."
"But, lass, you're goin' to be married!" expostulated Belllounds.
"Didn't it occur to Jack to take me to Kremmling? I can't make new dresses out of old ones."
"Wal, I reckon neither of us thought of thet. But you can buy what you like in Denver."
Columbine resigned herself. After all, what did it matter to her? The vague, haunting dreams of girlhood would never come true. So she went to her wardrobe and laid out all her wearing apparel. Taking stock of it this way caused her further dismay, for she had nothing fit to wear in which either to be married or to take a trip to Denver. There appeared to be nothing to do but take the rancher's advice, and Columbine set about refurbishing her meager wardrobe. She sewed all day.
What with self-control and work and the passing of hours, Columbine began to make some approach to tranquillity. In her simplicity she even began to hope that being good and steadfast and dutiful would earn her a little meed of happiness. Some haunting doubt of this flashed over her mind like a swift shadow of a black wing, but she dispelled that as she had dispelled the fear and disgust which often rose up in her mind.
To Columbine's surprise and to the rancher's concern the prospective bridegroom did not return from Kremmling on the second day. When night came Belllounds reluctantly gave up looking for him.
Jack's non-appearance suited Columbine, and she would have been glad to be let alone until October first, which date now seemed appallingly close. On the afternoon of Jack's third day of absence from the ranch Columbine rode out for some needed exercise. Pronto not being available, she rode another mustang and one that kept her busy. On the way back to the ranch she avoided the customary trail which led by the cabins of Wade and the cowboys. Columbine had not seen one of her friends since the unfortunate visit to the Andrews ranch. She particularly shrank from meeting Wade, which feeling was in strange contrast to her former impulses.
As she rode around the house she encountered Wilson Moore seated in a light wagon. Her mustang reared, almost unseating her. But she handled him roughly, being suddenly surprised and angry at this unexpected meeting with the cowboy.
"Howdy, Columbine!" greeted Wilson, as she brought the mustang to his feet. "You're sure learning to handle a horse-since I left this here ranch. Wonder who's teaching you! I never could get you to rake even a bronc!"
The cowboy had drawled out his admiring speech, half amused and half satiric.
"I'm-mad!" declared Columbine. "That's why."
"What're you mad at?" queried Wilson.
She did not reply, but kept on gazing steadily at him. Moore still looked pale and drawn, but he had improved since last she saw him.
"Aren't you going to speak to a fellow?" he went on.
"How are you, Wils?" she asked.
"Pretty good for a club-footed has-been cow puncher."
"I wish you wouldn't call yourself such names," rejoined Columbine, peevishly. "You're not a club-foot. I hate that word!"
"Me, too. Well, joking aside, I'm better. My foot is fine. Now, if I don't hurt it again I'll sure never be a club-foot."
"You must be careful," she said, earnestly.
"Sure. But it's hard for me to be idle. Think of me lying still all day with nothing to do but read! That's what knocked me out. I wouldn't have minded the pain if I could have gotten about.... Columbine, I've moved in!"
"What! Moved in?" she queried, blankly.
"Sure. I'm in my cabin on the hill. It's plumb great. Tom Andrews and Bert and your hunter Wade fixed up the cabin for me. That Wade is sure a good fellow. And say! what he can do with his hands! He's been kind to me. Took an interest in me, and between you and me he sort of cheered me up."
"Cheered you up! Wils, were you unhappy?" she asked, directly.
"Well, rather. What'd you expect of a cowboy who'd crippled himself-and lost his girl?"
Columbine felt the smart of tingling blood in her face, and she looked from Wilson to the wagon. It contained saddles, blankets, and other cowboy accoutrements for which he had evidently come.
"That's a double misfortune," she replied, evenly. "It's too bad both came at once. It seems to me if I were a cowboy and-and felt so toward a girl, I'd have let her know."
"This girl I mean knew, all right," he said, nodding his head.
"She didn't-she didn't!" cried Columbine.
"How do you know?" he queried, with feigned surprise. He was bent upon torturing her.
"You meant me. I'm the girl you lost!"
"Yes, you are-God help me!" replied Moore, with genuine emotion.
"But you-you never told me-you never told me," faltered Columbine, in distress.
"Never told you what? That you were my girl?"
"No-no. But that you-you cared-"
"Columbine Belllounds, I told you-let you see-in every way under the sun," he flashed at her.
"Let me see-what?" faltered Columbine, feeling as if the world were about to end.
"That I loved you."
"Oh!... Wilson!" whispered Columbine, wildly.
"Yes-loved you. Could you have been so innocent-so blind you never knew? I can't believe it."
"But I never dreamed you-you-" She broke off dazedly, overwhelmed by a tragic, glorious truth.
"Collie!... Would it have made any difference?"
"Oh, all the difference in the world!" she wailed.
"What difference?" he asked, passionately.
Columbine gazed wide-eyed and helpless at the young man. She did not know how to tell him what all the difference in the world really was.
Suddenly Wilson turned away from her to listen. Then she heard rapid beating of hoofs on the road.
"That's Buster Jack," said the cowboy. "Just my luck! There wasn't any one here when I arrived. Reckon I oughtn't have stayed. Columbine, you look pretty much upset."
"What do I care how I look!" she exclaimed, with a sharp resentment attending this abrupt and painful break in her agitation.
Next moment Jack Belllounds galloped a foam-lashed horse into the courtyard and hauled up short with a recklessness he was noted for. He swung down hard and violently cast the reins from him.
"Ahuh! I gambled on just this," he declared, harshly.
Columbine's heart sank. His gaze was fixed on her face, with its telltale evidences of agitation.
"What've you been crying about?" he demanded.
"I haven't been," she retorted.
His bold and glaring eyes, hot with sudden temper, passed slowly from her to the cowboy. Columbine became aware then that Jack was under the influence of liquor. His heated red face grew darker with a sneering contempt.
"Where's dad?" he asked, wheeling toward her.
"I don't know. He's not here," replied Columbine, dismounting. The leap of thought and blood to Jack's face gave her a further sinking of the heart. The situation unnerved her.
Wilson Moore had grown a shade paler. He gathered up his reins, ready to drive off.
"Belllounds, I came up after my things I'd left in the bunk," he said, coolly. "Happened to meet Columbine and stopped to chat a minute."
"That's whatyou say," sneered Belllounds. "You were making love to Columbine. I saw that in her face. You know it-and she knows it-and I know it.... You're a liar!"
"Belllounds, I reckon I am," replied Moore, turning white. "I did tell Columbine what I thought she knew-what I ought to have told long ago."
"Ahuh! Well, I don't want to hear it. But I'm going to search that wagon."
"What!" ejaculated the cowboy, dropping his reins as if they stung him.
"You just hold on till I see what you've got in there," went on Belllounds, and he reached over into the wagon and pulled at a saddle.
"Say, do you mean anything?... This stuff's mine, every strap of it. Take your hands off."
Belllounds leaned on the wagon and looked up with insolent, dark intent.
"Moore, I wouldn't trust you. I think you'd steal anything you got your hands on."
Columbine uttered a passionate little cry of shame and protest.
"Jack, how dare you!"
"You shut up! Go in the house!" he ordered.
"You insult me," she replied, in bitter humiliation.
"Will you go in?" he shouted.
"No, I won't."
"All right, look on, then. I'd just as lief have you." Then he turned to the cowboy. "Moore, show up that wagon-load of stuff unless you want me to throw it out in the road."
"Belllounds, you know I can't do that," replied Moore, coldly. "And I'll give you a hunch. You'd better shut up yourself and let me drive on.... If not for her sake, then for your own."
Belllounds grasped the reins, and with a sudden jerk pulled them out of the cowboy's hands.
"You damn club-foot! Your gift of gab doesn't go with me," yelled Belllounds, as he swung up on the hub of the wheel. But it was manifest that his desire to search the wagon was only a pretense, for while he pulled at this and that his evil gaze was on the cowboy, keen to meet any move that might give excuse for violence. Moore evidently read this, for, gazing at Columbine, he shook his head, as if to acquaint her with a situation impossible to help.
"Columbine, please hand me up the reins," he said. "I'm lame, you know. Then I'll be going."
Columbine stepped forward to comply, when Belllounds, leaping down from the wheel, pushed her hack with masterful hand. Opposition to him was like waving a red flag in the face of a bull. Columbine recoiled from his look as well as touch.
"You keep out of this or I'll teach you who's boss here," he said, stridently.
"You're going too far!" burst out Columbine.
Meanwhile Wilson had laboriously climbed down out of the wagon, and, utilizing his crutch, he hobbled to where Belllounds had thrown the reins, and stooped to pick them up. Belllounds shoved Columbine farther back, and then he leaped to confront the cowboy.
"I've got you now, Moore," he said, hoarse and low. Stripped of all pretense, he showed the ungovernable nature of his temper. His face grew corded and black. The hand he thrust out shook like a leaf. "You smooth-tongued liar! I'm on to your game. I know you'd put her against me. I know you'd try to win her-less than a week before her wedding-day.... But it's not for that I'm going to beat hell out of you! It's because I hate you! Ever since I can remember my father held you up to me! And he sent me to-to-he sent me away because of you. By God! that's why I hate you!"
All that was primitive and violent and base came out with strange frankness in Belllounds's tirade. Only when calm could his mind be capable of hidden calculation. The devil that was in him now seemed rampant.
"Belllounds, you're mighty brave to stack up this way against a one-legged man," declared the cowboy, with biting sarcasm.
"If you had two club-feet I'd only be the gladder," yelled Belllounds, and swinging his arm, he slapped Moore so that it nearly toppled him over. Only the injured foot, coming down hard, saved him.
When Columbine saw that, and then how Wilson winced and grew deathly pale, she uttered a low cry, and she seemed suddenly rooted to the spot, weak, terrified at what was now inevitable, and growing sick and cold and faint.
"It's a damn lucky thing for you I'm not packing a gun," said Moore, grimly. "But you knew-or you'd never hit me-you coward."
"I'll make you swallow that," snarled Belllounds, and this time he swung his fist, aiming a heavy blow at Moore.
Then the cowboy whirled aloft the heavy crutch. "If you hit at me again I'll let out what little brains you've got. God knows that's little enough!... Belllounds, I'm going to call you to your face-before this girl your bat-eyed old man means to give you. You're not drunk. You're only ugly-mean. You've got a chance now to lick me because I'm crippled. And you're going to make the most of it. Why, you cur, I could come near licking you with only one leg. But if you touch me again I'll brain you!... You never were any good. You're no good now. You never will be anything but Buster Jack-half dotty, selfish as hell, bull-headed and mean!... And that's the last word I'll ever waste on you."
"I'll kill you!" bawled Belllounds, black with fury.
Moore wielded the crutch menacingly, but as he was not steady on his feet he was at the disadvantage his adversary had calculated upon. Belllounds ran around the cowboy, and suddenly plunged in to grapple with him. The crutch descended, but to little purpose. Belllounds's heavy onslaught threw Moore to the ground. Before he could rise Belllounds pounced upon him.
Columbine saw all this dazedly. As Wilson fell she closed her eyes, fighting a faintness that almost overcame her. She heard wrestling, threshing sounds, and sodden thumps, and a scattering of gravel. These noises seemed at first distant, then grew closer. As she gazed again with keener perception, Moore's horse plunged away from the fiercely struggling forms that had rolled almost under his feet. During the ensuing moments it was an equal battle so far as Columbine could tell. Repelled, yet fascinated, she watched. They beat each other, grappled and rolled over, first one on top, then the other. But the advantage of being uppermost presently was Belllounds's. Moore was weakening. That became noticeable more and more after each time he had wrestled and rolled about. Then Belllounds, getting this position, lay with his weight upon Moore, holding him down, and at the same time kicking with all his might. He was aiming to disable the cowboy by kicking the injured foot. And he was succeeding. Moore let out a strangled cry, and struggled desperately. But he was held and weighted down. Belllounds raised up now and, looking backward, he deliberately and furiously kicked Moore's bandaged foot; once, twice, again and again, until the straining form under him grew limp. Columbine, slowly freezing with horror, saw all this. She could not move. She could not scream. She wanted to rush in and drag Jack off of Wilson, to hurt him, to kill him, but her muscles were paralyzed. In her agony she could not even look away. Belllounds got up astride his prostrate adversary and began to beat him brutally, swinging heavy, sodden blows. His face then was terrible to see. He meant murder.
Columbine heard approaching voices and the thumping of hasty feet. That unclamped her cloven tongue. Wildly she screamed. Old Bill Belllounds appeared, striding off the porch. And the hunter Wade came running down the path.
"Dad! he's killing Wilson!" cried Columbine.
"Hyar, you devil!" roared the rancher.
Jack Belllounds got up. Panting, disheveled, with hair ruffled and face distorted, he was not a pleasant sight for even the father. Moore lay unconscious, with ghastly, bloody features, and his bandaged foot showed great splotches of red.
"My Gawd, son!" gasped Old Bill. "You didn't pick on this hyar crippled boy?"
The evidence was plain, in Moore's quiet, pathetic form, in the panting, purple-faced son. Jack Belllounds did not answer. He was in the grip of a passion that had at last been wholly unleashed and was still unsatisfied. Yet a malignant and exultant gratification showed in his face.
"That-evens us-up, Moore," he panted, and stalked away.
By this time Wade reached the cowboy and knelt beside him. Columbine came running to fall on her knees. The old rancher seemed stricken.
"Oh-Oh! it was terrible-" cried Columbine. "Oh-he's so white-and the blood-"
"Now, lass, that's no way for a woman," said Wade, and there was something in his kind tone, in his look, in his presence, that calmed Columbine. "I'll look after Moore. You go get some water an' a towel."
Columbine rose to totter into the house. She saw a red stain on the hand she had laid upon the cowboy's face, and with a strange, hot, bursting sensation, strong and thrilling, she put that red place to her lips. Running out with the things required by Wade, she was in time to hear the rancher say, "Looks hurt bad, to me."
"Yes, I reckon," replied Wade.
While Columbine held Moore's head upon her lap the hunter bathed the bloody face. It was battered and bruised and cut, and in some places, as fast as Wade washed away the red, it welled out again.
Columbine watched that quiet face, while her heart throbbed and swelled with emotions wholly beyond her control and understanding. When at last Wilson opened his eyes, fluttering at first, and then wide, she felt a surge that shook her whole body. He smiled wanly at her, and at Wade, and then his gaze lifted to Belllounds.
"I guess-he licked me," he said, in weak voice. "He kept kicking my sore foot-till I fainted. But he licked me-all right."
"Wils, mebbe he did lick you," replied the old rancher, brokenly, "but I reckon he's damn little to be proud of-lickin' a crippled man-thet way."
"Boss, Jack'd been drinking," said Moore, weakly. "And he sure had-some excuse for going off his head. He caught me-talking sweet to Columbine ... and then-I called him all the names-I could lay my tongue to."
"Ahuh!" The old man seemed at a loss for words, and presently he turned away, sagging in the shoulders, and plodded into the house.
The cowboy, supported by Wade on one side, with Columbine on the other, was helped to an upright position, and with considerable difficulty was gotten into the wagon. He tried to sit up, but made a sorry showing of it.
"I'll drive him home an' look after him," said Wade. "Now, Miss Collie, you're upset, which ain't no wonder. But now you brace. It might have been worse. Just you go to your room till you're sure of yourself again."
Moore smiled another wan smile at her. "I'm sorry," he said.
"What for? Me?" she asked.
"I mean I'm sorry I was so infernal unlucky-running into you-and bringing all this distress-to you. It was my fault. If I'd only kept-my mouth shut!"
"You need not be sorry you met me," she said, with her eyes straight upon his. "I'm glad.... But oh! if your foot is badly hurt I'll never-never-'
"Don't say it," interrupted Wilson.
"Lass, you're bent on doin' somethin'," said Wade, in his gentle voice.
"Bent?" she echoed, with something deep and rich in her voice. "Yes, I'm bent-bentlike your name-to speak my mind!"
Then she ran toward the house and up on the porch, to enter the living-room with heaving breast and flashing eyes. Manifestly the rancher was berating his son. The former gaped at sight of her and the latter shrank.
"Jack Belllounds," she cried, "you're not half a man.... You're a coward and a brute!"
One tense moment she stood there, lightning scorn and passion in her gaze, and then she rushed out, impetuously, as she had come.
* * *
Wade noticed that after her trying experience with him and Wilson and Belllounds Columbine did not ride frequently.
He managed to get a word or two with her whenever he went to the ranch-house, and he needed only look at her to read her sensitive mind. All was well with Columbine, despite her trouble. She remained upheld in spirit, while yet she seemed to brood over an unsolvable problem. She had said, "But-let what will come!"-and she was waiting.
Wade hunted for more than lions and wolves these days. Like an Indian scout who scented peril or heard an unknown step upon his trail, Wade rode the hills, and spent long hours hidden on the lonely slopes, watching with somber, keen eyes. They were eyes that knew what they were looking for. They had marked the strange sight of the son of Bill Belllounds, gliding along that trail where Moore had met Columbine, sneaking and stooping, at last with many a covert glance about, to kneel in the trail and compare the horse tracks there with horseshoes he took from his pocket. That alone made Bent Wade eternally vigilant. He kept his counsel. He worked more swiftly, so that he might have leisure for his peculiar seeking. He spent an hour each night with the cowboys, listening to their recounting of the day and to their homely and shrewd opinions. He haunted the vicinity of the ranch-house at night, watching and listening for that moment which was to aid him in the crisis that was impending. Many a time he had been near when Columbine passed from the living-room to her corner of the house. He had heard her sigh and could almost have touched her.
Buster Jack had suffered a regurgitation of the old driving and insatiate temper, and there was gloom in the house of Belllounds. Trouble clouded the old man's eyes.
May came with the spring round-up. Wade was called to use a rope and brand calves under the order of Jack Belllounds, foreman of White Slides. That round-up showed a loss of one hundred head of stock, some branded steers, and yearlings, and many calves, in all a mixed herd. Belllounds received the amazing news with a roar. He had been ready for something to roar at. The cowboys gave as reasons winter-kill, and lions, and perhaps some head stolen since the thaw. Wade emphatically denied this. Very few cattle had fallen prey to the big cats, and none, so far as he could find, had been frozen or caught in drifts. It was the young foreman who stunned them all. "Rustled," he said, darkly. "There's too many loafers and homesteaders in these hills!" And he stalked out to leave his hearers food for reflection.
Jack Belllounds drank, but no one saw him drunk, and no one could tell where he got the liquor. He rode hard and fast; he drove the cowboys one way while he went another; he had grown shifty, cunning, more intolerant than ever. Some nights he rode to Kremmling, or said he had been there, when next day the cowboys found another spent and broken horse to turn out. On other nights he coaxed and bullied them into playing poker. They won more of his money than they cared to count.
Columbine confided to Wade, with mournful whisper, that Jack paid no attention to her whatever, and that the old rancher attributed this coldness, and Jack's backsliding, to her irresponsiveness and her tardiness in setting the wedding-day that must be set. To this Wade had whispered in reply, "Don't ever forget what I said to you an' Wils that day!"
So Wade upheld Columbine with his subtle dominance, and watched over her, as it were, from afar. No longer was he welcome in the big living-room. Belllounds reacted to his son's influence.
Twice in the early mornings Wade had surprised Jack Belllounds in the blacksmith shop. The meetings were accidental, yet Wade ever remembered how coincidence beckoned him thither and how circumstance magnified strange reflections. There was no reason why Jack should not be tinkering in the blacksmith shop early of a morning. But Wade followed an uncanny guidance. Like his hound Fox, he never split on trails. When opportunity afforded he went into the shop and looked it over with eyes as keen as the nose of his dog. And in the dust of the floor he had discovered little circles with dots in the middle, all uniform in size. Sight of them did not shock him until they recalled vividly the little circles with dots in the earthen floor of Wilson Moore's cabin. Little marks made by the end of Moore's crutch! Wade grinned then like a wolf showing his fangs. And the vitals of a wolf could no more strongly have felt the instinct to rend.
For Wade, the cloud on his horizon spread and darkened, gathered sinister shape of storm, harboring lightning and havoc. It was the cloud in his mind, the foreshadowing of his soul, the prophetic sense of like to like. Where he wandered there the blight fell!
* * * * *
Significant was the fact that Belllounds hired new men. Bludsoe had quit. Montana Jim grew surly these days and packed a gun. Lem Billings had threatened to leave. New and strange hands for Jack Belllounds to direct had a tendency to release a strain and tide things over.
Every time the old rancher saw Wade he rolled his eyes and wagged his head, as if combating superstition with an intelligent sense of justice. Wade knew what troubled Belllounds, and it strengthened the gloomy mood that, like a poison lichen, seemed finding root.
Every day Wade visited his friend Wilson Moore, and most of their conversation centered round that which had become a ruling passion for both. But the time came when Wade deviated from his gentleness of speech and leisure of action.
"Bent, you're not like you were," said Moore, once, in surprise at the discovery. "You're losing hope and confidence."
"No. I've only somethin' on my mind."
"I reckon I'm not goin' to tell you now."
"You've gothell on your mind!" flashed the cowboy, in grim inspiration.
Wade ignored the insinuation and turned the conversation to another subject.
"Wils, you're buyin' stock right along?"
"Sure am. I saved some money, you know. And what's the use to hoard it? I'll buy cheap. In five years I'll have five hundred, maybe a thousand head. Wade, my old dad will be pleased to find out I've made the start I have."
"Well, it's a fine start, I'll allow. Have you picked up any unbranded stock?"
"Sure I have. Say, pard, are you worrying about this two-bit rustler work that's been going on?"
"Wils, it ain't two bits any more. I reckon it's gettin' into the four-bit class."
"I've been careful to have my business transactions all in writing," said Moore. "It makes these fellows sore, because some of them can't write. And they're not used to it. But I'm starting this game in my own way."
"Have you sold any stock?"
"Not yet. But the Andrews boys are driving some thirty-odd head to Kremmling for me to be sold."
"Ahuh! Well, I'll be goin'," Wade replied, and it was significant of his state of mind that he left his young friend sorely puzzled. Not that Wade did not see Moore's anxiety! But the drift of events at White Slides had passed beyond the stage where sympathetic and inspiring hope might serve Wade's purpose. Besides, his mood was gradually changing as these events, like many fibers of a web, gradually closed in toward a culminating knot.
That night Wade lounged with the cowboys and new hands in front of the little storehouse where Belllounds kept supplies for all. He had lounged there before in the expectation of seeing the rancher's son. And this time anticipation was verified. Jack Belllounds swaggered over from the ranch-house. He met civility and obedience now where formerly he had earned but ridicule and opposition. So long as he worked hard himself the cowboys endured. The subtle change in him seemed of sterner stuff. The talk, as usual, centered round the stock subjects and the banter and gossip of ranch-hands. Wade selected an interval when there was a lull in the conversation, and with eyes that burned under the shadow of his broad-brimmed sombrero he watched the son of Belllounds.
"Say, boys, Wils Moore has begun sellin' cattle," remarked Wade, casually. "The Andrews brothers are drivin' for him."
"Wal, so Wils's spread-eaglin' into a real rancher!" ejaculated Lem Billings. "Mighty glad to hear it. Thet boy shore will git rich."
Wade's remark incited no further expressions of interest. But it was Jack Belllounds's secret mind that Wade wished to pierce. He saw the leaping of a thought that was neither interest nor indifference nor contempt, but a creative thing which lent a fleeting flash to the face, a slight shock to the body. Then Jack Belllounds bent his head, lounged there for a little while longer, lost in absorption, and presently he strolled away.
Whatever that mounting thought of Jack Belllounds's was it brought instant decision to Wade. He went to the ranch-house and knocked upon the living-room door. There was a light within, sending rays out through the windows into the semi-darkness. Columbine opened the door and admitted Wade. A bright fire crackled in the hearth. Wade flashed a reassuring look at Columbine.
"Evenin', Miss Collie. Is your dad in?"
"Oh, it's you, Ben!" she replied, after her start. "Yes, dad's here."
The old rancher looked up from his reading. "Howdy, Wade! What can I do fer you?"
"Belllounds, I've cleaned out the cats an' most of the varmints on your range. An' my work, lately, has been all sorts, not leavin' me any time for little jobs of my own. An' I want to quit."
"Wade, you've clashed with Jack!" exclaimed the rancher, jerking erect.
"Nothin' of the kind. Jack an' me haven't had words a good while. I'm not denyin' we might, an' probably would clash sooner or later. But that's not my reason for quittin'."
Manifestly this put an entirely different complexion upon the matter. Belllounds appeared immensely relieved.
"Wal, all right. I'll pay you at the end of the month. Let's see, thet's not long now. You can lay off to-morrow."
Wade thanked him and waited for further remarks. Columbine had fixed big, questioning eyes upon Wade, which he found hard to endure. Again he tried to flash her a message of reassurance. But Columbine did not lose her look of blank wonder and gravity.
"Ben! Oh, you're not going to leave White Slides?" she asked.
"Reckon I'll hang around yet awhile," he replied.
Belllounds was wagging his head regretfully and ponderingly.
"Wal, I remember the day when no man quit me. Wal, wal!-times change. I'm an old man now. Mebbe, mebbe I'm testy. An' then thar's thet boy!"
With a shrug of his broad shoulders he dismissed what seemed an encroachment of pessimistic thought.
"Wade, you're packin' off, then, on the trail? Always on the go, eh?"
"No, I'm not hurryin' off," replied Wade.
"Wal, might I ask what you're figgerin' on?"
"Sure. I'm considerin' a cattle deal with Moore. He's a pretty keen boy an' his father has big ranchin' interests. I've saved a little money an' I'm no spring chicken any more. Wils has begun to buy an' sell stock, so I reckon I'll go in with him."
"Ahuh!" Belllounds gave a grunt of comprehension. He frowned, and his big eyes set seriously upon the blazing fire. He grasped complications in this information.
"Wal, it's a free country," he said at length, and evidently his personal anxieties were subjected to his sense of justice. "Owin' to the peculiar circumstances hyar at my range, I'd prefer thet Moore an' you began somewhar else. Thet's natural. But you've my good will to start on an' I hope I've yours."
"Belllounds, you've every man's good will," replied Wade. "I hope you won't take offense at my leavin'. You see I'm on Wils Moore's side in-in what you called these peculiar circumstances. He's got nobody else. An' I reckon you can look back an' remember how you've taken sides with some poor devil an' stuck to him. Can't you?"
"Wal, I reckon I can. An' I'm not thinkin' less of you fer speakin' out like thet."
"All right. Now about the dogs. I turn the pack over to you, an' it's a good one. I'd like to buy Fox."
"Buy nothin', man. You can have Fox, an' welcome."
"Much obliged," returned the hunter, as he turned to go. "Fox will sure be help for me. Belllounds, I'm goin' to round up this outfit that's rustlin' your cattle. They're gettin' sort of bold."
"Wade, you'll do thet on your own hook?" asked the rancher, in surprise.
"Sure. I like huntin' men more than other varmints. Then I've a personal interest. You know the hint about homesteaders hereabouts reflects some on Wils Moore."
"Stuff!" exploded the rancher, heartily. "Do you think any cattleman in these hills would believe Wils Moore a rustler?"
"The hunch has been whispered," said Wade. "An' you know how all ranchers say they rustled a little on the start."
"Aw, hell! Thet's different. Every new rancher drives in a few unbranded calves an' keeps them. But stealin' stock-thet's different. An' I'd as soon suspect my own son of rustlin' as Wils Moore."
Belllounds spoke with a sincere and frank ardor of defense for a young man once employed by him and known to be honest. The significance of the comparison he used had not struck him. His was the epitome of a successful rancher, sure in his opinions, speaking proudly and unreflectingly of his own son, and being just to another man.
Wade bowed and backed out of the door. "Sure that's what I'd reckon you'd say, Belllounds.... I'll drop in on you if I find any sign in the woods. Good night."
Columbine went with him to the end of the porch, as she had used to go before the shadow had settled over the lives of the Belllounds.
"Ben, you're up to something," she whispered, seizing him with hands that shook.
"Sure. But don't you worry," he whispered back.
"Do they hint that Wilson is a rustler?" she asked, intensely.
"Somebody did, Collie."
"How vile! Who? Who?" she demanded, and her face gleamed white.
"Hush, lass! You're all a-tremble," he returned, warily, and he held her hands.
"Ben, they're pressing me hard to set another wedding-day. Dad is angry with me now. Jack has begun again to demand. Oh, I'm afraid of him! He has no respect for me. He catches at me with hands like claws. I have to jerk away.... Oh, Ben, Ben! dear friend, what on earth shall I do?"
"Don't give in. Fight Jack! Tell the old man you must have time. Watch your chance when Jack is away an' ride up the Buffalo Park trail an' look for me."
Wade had to release his hands from her clasp and urge her gently back. How pale and tragic her face gleamed!
* * * * *
Wade took his horses, his outfit, and the dog Fox, and made his abode with Wilson Moore. The cowboy hailed Wade's coming with joy and pestered him with endless questions.
From that day Wade haunted the hills above White Slides, early and late, alone with his thoughts, his plans, more and more feeling the suspense of happenings to come. It was on a June day when Jack Belllounds rode to Kremmling that Wade met Columbine on the Buffalo Park trail. She needed to see him, to find comfort and strength. Wade far exceeded his own confidence in his effort to uphold her. Columbine was in a strange state, not of vacillation between two courses, but of a standstill, as if her will had become obstructed and waited for some force to upset the hindrance. She did not inquire as to the welfare of Wilson Moore, and Wade vouchsafed no word of him. But she importuned the hunter to see her every day or no more at all. And Wade answered her appeal and her need by assuring her that he would see her, come what might. So she was to risk more frequent rides.
During the second week of June Wade rode up to visit the prospector, Lewis, and learned that which complicated the matter of the rustlers. Lewis had been suspicious, and active on his own account. According to the best of his evidence and judgment there had been a gang of rough men come of late to Gore Peak, where they presumably were prospecting. This gang was composed of strangers to Lewis. They had ridden to his cabin, bought and borrowed of him, and, during his absence, had stolen from him. He believed they were in hiding, probably being guilty of some depredation in another locality. They gave both Kremmling and Elgeria a wide berth. On the other hand, the Smith gang from Elgeria rode to and fro, like ranchers searching for lost horses. There were only three in this gang, including Smith. Lewis had seen these men driving unbranded stock. And lastly, Lewis casually imparted the information, highly interesting to Wade, that he had seen Jack Belllounds riding through the forest. The prospector did not in the least, however, connect the appearance of the son of Belllounds with the other facts so peculiarly interesting to Wade. Cowboys and hunters rode trails across the range, and though they did so rather infrequently, there was nothing unusual about encountering them.
Wade remained all night with Lewis, and next morning rode six miles along the divide, and then down into a valley, where at length he found a cabin described by the prospector. It was well hidden in the edge of the forest, where a spring gushed from under a low cliff. But for water and horse tracks Wade would not have found it easily. Rifle in hand, and on foot, he slipped around in the woods, as a hunter might have, to stalk drinking deer. There were no smoke, no noise, no horses anywhere round the cabin, and after watching awhile Wade went forward to look at it. It was an old ramshackle hunter's or prospector's cabin, with dirt floor, a crumbling fireplace and chimney, and a bed platform made of boughs. Including the door, it had three apertures, and the two smaller ones, serving as windows, looked as if they had been intended for port-holes as well. The inside of the cabin was large and unusually well lighted, owing to the windows and to the open chinks between the logs. Wade saw a deck of cards lying bent and scattered in one corner, as if a violent hand had flung them against the wall. Strange that Wade's memory returned a vivid picture of Jack Belllounds in just that act of violence! The only other thing around the place which earned scrutiny from Wade was a number of horseshoe tracks outside, with the left front shoe track familiar to him. He examined the clearest imprints very carefully. If they had not been put there by Wilson Moore's white mustang, Spottie, then they had been made by a horse with a strangely similar hoof and shoe. Spottie had a hoof malformed, somewhat in the shape of a triangle, and the iron shoe to fit it always had to be bent, so that the curve was sharp and the ends closer together than those of his other shoes.
Wade rode down to White Slides that day, and at the evening meal he casually asked Moore if he had been riding Spottie of late.
"Sure. What other horse could I ride? Do you think I'm up to trying one of those broncs?" asked Moore, in derision.
"Reckon you haven't been leavin' any tracks up Buffalo Park way?"
The cowboy slammed down his knife. "Say, Wade, are you growing dotty? Good Lord! if I'd ridden that far-if I was able to do it-wouldn't you hear me yell?"
"Reckon so, come to think of it. I just saw a track like Spottie's, made two days ago."
"Well, it wasn't his, you can gamble on that," returned the cowboy.
* * * * *
Wade spent four days hiding in an aspen grove, on top of one of the highest foothills above White Slides Ranch. There he lay at ease, like an Indian, calm and somber, watching the trails below, waiting for what he knew was to come.
On the fifth morning he was at his post at sunrise. A casual remark of one of the new cowboys the night before accounted for the early hour of Wade's reconnoiter. The dawn was fresh and cool, with sweet odor of sage on the air; the jays were squalling their annoyance at this early disturber of their grove; the east was rosy above the black range and soon glowed with gold and then changed to fire. The sun had risen. All the mountain world of black range and gray hill and green valley, with its shining stream, was transformed as if by magic color. Wade sat down with his back to an aspen-tree, his gaze down upon the ranch-house and the corrals. A lazy column of blue smoke curled up toward the sky, to be lost there. The burros were braying, the calves were bawling, the colts were whistling. One of the hounds bayed full and clear.
The scene was pastoral and beautiful. Wade saw it clearly and whole. Peace and plenty, a happy rancher's home, the joy of the dawn and the birth of summer, the rewards of toil-all seemed significant there. But Wade pondered on how pregnant with life that scene was-nature in its simplicity and freedom and hidden cruelty, and the existence of people, blindly hating, loving, sacrificing, mostly serving some noble aim, and yet with baseness among them, the lees with the wine, evil intermixed with good.
By and by the cowboys appeared on their spring mustangs, and in twos and threes they rode off in different directions. But none rode Wade's way. The sun rose higher, and there was warmth in the air. Bees began to hum by Wade, and fluttering moths winged uncertain flight over him.
At the end of another hour Jack Belllounds came out of the house, gazed around him, and then stalked to the barn where he kept his horses. For a little while he was not in sight; then he reappeared, mounted on a white horse, and he rode into the pasture, and across that to the hay-field, and along the edge of this to the slope of the hill. Here he climbed to a small clump of aspens. This grove was not so far from Wilson Moore's cabin; in fact, it marked the boundary-line between the rancher's range and the acres that Moore had acquired. Jack vanished from sight here, but not before Wade had made sure he was dismounting.
"Reckon he kept to that grassy ground for a reason of his own-and plainer to me than any tracks," soliloquized Wade, as he strained his eyes. At length Belllounds came out of the grove, and led his horse round to where Wade knew there was a trail leading to and from Moore's cabin. At this point Jack mounted and rode west. Contrary to his usual custom, which was to ride hard and fast, he trotted the white horse as a cowboy might have done when going out on a day's work. Wade had to change his position to watch Belllounds, and his somber gaze followed him across the hill, down the slope, along the willow-bordered brook, and so on to the opposite side of the great valley, where Jack began to climb in the direction of Buffalo Park.
After Belllounds had disappeared and had been gone for an hour, Wade went down on the other side of the hill, found his horse where he had left him, in a thicket, and, mounting, he rode around to strike the trail upon which Belllounds had ridden. The imprint of fresh horse tracks showed clear in the soft dust. And the left front track had been made by a shoe crudely triangular in shape, identical with that peculiar to Wilson Moore's horse.
"Ahuh!" muttered Wade, in greeting to what he had expected to see. "Well, Buster Jack, it's a plain trail now-damn your crooked soul!"
The hunter took up that trail, and he followed it into the woods. There he hesitated. Men who left crooked trails frequently ambushed them, and Belllounds had made no effort to conceal his tracks. Indeed, he had chosen the soft, open ground, even after he had left the trail to take to the grassy, wooded benches. There were cattle here, but not as many as on the more open aspen slopes across the valley. After deliberating a moment, Wade decided that he must risk being caught trailing Belllounds. But he would go slowly, trusting to eye and ear, to outwit this strangely acting foreman of White Slides Ranch.
To that end he dismounted and took the trail. Wade had not followed it far before he became convinced that Belllounds had been looking in the thickets for cattle; and he had not climbed another mile through the aspens and spruce before he discovered that Belllounds was driving cattle. Thereafter Wade proceeded more cautiously. If the long grass had not been wet he would have encountered great difficulty in trailing Belllounds. Evidence was clear now that he was hiding the tracks of the cattle by keeping to the grassy levels and slopes which, after the sun had dried them, would not leave a trace. There were stretches where even the keen-eyed hunter had to work to find the direction taken by Belllounds. But here and there, in other localities, there showed faint signs of cattle and horse tracks.
The morning passed, with Wade slowly climbing to the edge of the black timber. Then, in a hollow where a spring gushed forth, he saw the tracks of a few cattle that had halted to drink, and on top of these the tracks of a horse with a crooked left front shoe. The rider of this horse had dismounted. There was an imprint of a cowboy's boot, and near it little sharp circles with dots in the center.
"Well, I'll be damned!" ejaculated Wade. "I call that mighty cunnin'. Here they are-proofs as plain as writin'-that Wils Moore rustled Old Bill's cattle!... Buster Jack, you're not such a fool as I thought.... He's made somethin' like the end of Wils's crutch. An' knowin' how Wils uses that every time he gets off his horse, why, the dirty pup carried his instrument with him an' made these tracks!"
Wade left the trail then, and, leading his horse to a covert of spruce, he sat down to rest and think. Was there any reason for following Belllounds farther? It did not seem needful to take the risk of being discovered. The forest above was open. No doubt Belllounds would drive the cattle somewhere and turn them over to his accomplices.
"Buster Jack's outbusted himself this time, sure," soliloquized Wade. "He's double-crossin' his rustler friends, same as he is Moore. For he's goin' to blame this cattle-stealin' onto Wils. An' to do that he's layin' his tracks so he can follow them, or so any good trailer can. It doesn't concern me so much now who're his pards in this deal. Reckon it's Smith an' some of his gang."
Suddenly it dawned upon Wade that Jack Belllounds was stealing cattle from his father. "Whew!" he whistled softly. "Awful hard on the old man! Who's to tell him when all this comes out? Aw, I'd hate to do it. I wouldn't. There's some things even I'd not tell."
Straightway this strange aspect of the case confronted Wade and gripped his soul. He seemed to feel himself changing inwardly, as if a gray, gloomy, sodden hand, as intangible as a ghostly dream, had taken him bodily from himself and was now leading him into shadows, into drear, lonely, dark solitude, where all was cold and bleak; and on and on over naked shingles that marked the world of tragedy. Here he must tell his tale, and as he plodded on his relentless leader forced him to tell his tale anew.
Wade recognized this as his black mood. It was a morbid dominance of the mind. He fought it as he would have fought a devil. And mastery still was his. But his brow was clammy and his heart was leaden when he had wrested that somber, mystic control from his will.
"Reckon I'd do well to take up this trail to-morrow an' see where it leads," he said, and as a gloomy man, burdened with thought, he retraced his way down the long slope, and over the benches, to the grassy slopes and aspen groves, and thus to the sage hills.
It was dark when he reached the cabin, and Moore had supper almost ready.
"Well, old-timer, you look fagged out," called out the cowboy, cheerily. "Throw off your boots, wash up, and come and get it!"
"Pard Wils, I'm not reboundin' as natural as I'd like. I reckon I've lived some years before I got here, an' a lifetime since."
"Wade, you have a queer look, lately," observed Moore, shaking his head solemnly. "Why, I've seen a dying man look just like you-now-round the mouth-but most in the eyes!"
"Maybe the end of the long trail is White Slides Ranch," replied Wade, sadly and dreamily, as if to himself.
"If Collie heard you say that!" exclaimed Moore, in anxious concern.
"Collie an' you will hear me say a lot before long," returned Wade. "But, as it's calculated to make you happy-why, all's well. I'm tired an' hungry."
Wade did not choose to sit round the fire that night, fearing to invite interrogation from his anxious friend, and for that matter from his other inquisitively morbid self.
Next morning, though Wade felt rested, and the sky was blue and full of fleecy clouds, and the melody of birds charmed his ear, and over all the June air seemed thick and beating with the invisible spirit he loved, he sensed the oppression, the nameless something that presaged catastrophe.
Therefore, when he looked out of the door to see Columbine swiftly riding up the trail, her fair hair flying and shining in the sunlight, he merely ejaculated, "Ahuh!"
"What's that?" queried Moore, sharp to catch the inflection.
"Look out," replied Wade, as he began to fill his pipe.
"Heavens! It's Collie! Look at her riding! Uphill, too!"
Wade followed him outdoors. Columbine was not long in arriving at the cabin, and she threw the bridle and swung off in the same motion, landing with a light thud. Then she faced them, pale, resolute, stern, all the sweetness gone to bitter strength-another and a strange Columbine.
"I've not slept a wink!" she said. "And I came as soon as I could get away."
Moore had no word for her, not even a greeting. The look of her had stricken him. It could have only one meaning.
"Mornin', lass," said the hunter, and he took her hand. "I couldn't tell you looked sleepy, for all you said. Let's go into the cabin."
So he led Columbine in, and Moore followed. The girl manifestly was in a high state of agitation, but she was neither trembling nor frightened nor sorrowful. Nor did she betray any lack of an unflinching and indomitable spirit. Wade read the truth of what she imagined was her doom in the white glow of her, in the matured lines of womanhood that had come since yesternight, in the sustained passion of her look.
"Ben! Wilson! The worst has come!" she announced.
Moore could not speak. Wade held Columbine's hand in both of his.
"Worst! Now, Collie, that's a terrible word. I've heard it many times. An' all my life the worst's been comin'. An' it hasn't come yet. You-only twenty years old-talkin' wild-the worst has come!... Tell me your trouble now an' I'll tell you where you're wrong."
"Jack's a thief-a cattle-thief!" rang Columbine's voice, high and clear.
"Ahuh! Well, go on," said Wade.
"Jack has taken money from rustlers-for cattle stolen from his father!"
Wade felt the lift of her passion, and he vibrated to it.
"Reckon that's no news to me," he replied.
Then she quivered up to a strong and passionate delivery of the thing that had transformed her.
"I'M GOING TO MARRY JACK BELLLOUNDS!"
Wilson Moore leaped toward her with a cry, to be held back by Wade's hand.
"Now, Collie," he soothed, "tell us all about it."
Columbine, still upheld by the strength of her spirit, related how she had ridden out the day before, early in the afternoon, in the hope of meeting Wade. She rode over the sage hills, along the edges of the aspen benches, everywhere that she might expect to meet or see the hunter, but as he did not appear, and as she was greatly desirous of talking with him, she went on up into the woods, following the line of the Buffalo Park trail, though keeping aside from it. She rode very slowly and cautiously, remembering Wade's instructions. In this way she ascended the aspen benches, and the spruce-bordered ridges, and then the first rise of the black forest. Finally she had gone farther than ever before and farther than was wise.
When she was about to turn back she heard the thud of hoofs ahead of her. Pronto shot up his ears. Alarmed and anxious, Columbine swiftly gazed about her. It would not do for her to be seen. Yet, on the other hand, the chances were that the approaching horse carried Wade. It was lucky that she was on Pronto, for he could be trusted to stand still and not neigh. Columbine rode into a thick clump of spruces that had long, shelving branches, reaching down. Here she hid, holding Pronto motionless.
Presently the sound of hoofs denoted the approach of several horses. That augmented Columbine's anxiety. Peering out of her covert, she espied three horsemen trotting along the trail, and one of them was Jack Belllounds. They appeared to be in strong argument, judging from gestures and emphatic movements of their heads. As chance would have it they halted their horses not half a dozen rods from Columbine's place of concealment. The two men with Belllounds were rough-looking, one of them, evidently a leader, having a dark face disfigured by a horrible scar.
Naturally they did not talk loud, and Columbine had to strain her ears to catch anything. But a word distinguished here and there, and accompanying actions, made transparent the meaning of their presence and argument. The big man refused to ride any farther. Evidently he had come so far without realizing it. His importunities were for "more head of stock." His scorn was for a "measly little bunch not worth the risk." His anger was for Belllounds's foolhardiness in "leavin' a trail." Belllounds had little to say, and most of that was spoken in a tone too low to be heard. His manner seemed indifferent, even reckless. But he wanted "money." The scar-faced man's name was "Smith." Then Columbine gathered from Smith's dogged and forceful gestures, and his words, "no money" and "bigger bunch," that he was unwilling to pay what had been agreed upon unless Belllounds promised to bring a larger number of cattle. Here Belllounds roundly cursed the rustler, and apparently argued that course "next to impossible." Smith made a sweeping movement with his arm, pointing south, indicating some place afar, and part of his speech was "Gore Peak." The little man, companion of Smith, got into the argument, and, dismounting from his horse, he made marks upon the smooth earth of the trail. He was drawing a rude map showing direction and locality. At length, when Belllounds nodded as if convinced or now informed, this third member of the party remounted, and seemed to have no more to say. Belllounds pondered sullenly. He snatched a switch from off a bough overhead and flicked his boot and stirrup with it, an action that made his horse restive. Smith leered and spoke derisively, of which speech Columbine heard, "Aw hell!" and "yellow streak," and "no one'd ever," and "son of Bill Belllounds," and "rustlin' stock." Then this scar-faced man drew out a buckskin bag. Either the contempt or the gold, or both, overbalanced vacillation in the weak mind of Jack Belllounds, for he lifted his head, showing his face pale and malignant, and without trace of shame or compunction he snatched the bag of gold, shouted a hoarse, "All right, damn you!" and, wheeling the white mustang, he spurred away, quickly disappearing.
The rustlers sat their horses, gazing down the trail, and Smith wagged his dark head doubtfully. Then he spoke quite distinctly, "I ain't a-trustin' thet Belllounds pup!" and his comrade replied, "Boss, we ain't stealin' the stock, so what th' hell!" Then they turned their horses and trotted out of sight and hearing up the timbered slope.
Columbine was so stunned, and so frightened and horrified, that she remained hidden there for a long time before she ventured forth. Then, heading homeward, she skirted the trail and kept to the edge of the forest, making a wide detour over the hills, finally reaching the ranch at sunset. Jack did not appear at the evening meal. His father had one of his spells of depression and seemed not to have noticed her absence. She lay awake all night thinking and praying.
Columbine concluded her narrative there, and, panting from her agitation and hurry, she gazed at the bowed figure of Moore, and then at Wade.
"Ihad to tell you this shameful secret," she began again. "I'm forced. If you do not help me, if something is not done, there'll be a horrible-end to all!"
"We'll help you, but how?" asked Moore, raising a white face.
"I don't know yet. I onlyfeel -I onlyfeel what may happen, if I don't prevent it.... Wilson, you must go home-at least for a while."
"It'll not look right for Wils to leave White Slides now," interposed Wade, positively.
"But why? Oh, I fear-"
"Never mind now, lass. It's a good reason. An' you mustn't fear anythin'. I agree with you-we've got to prevent this-this that's goin' to happen."
"Oh, Ben, my dear friend, we must prevent it-youmust! "
"Ahuh!... So I was figurin'."
"Ben, you must go to Jack an' tell him-show him the peril-frighten him terribly-so that he will not do-do this shameful thing again."
"Lass, I reckon I could scare Jack out of his skin. But what good would that do?"
"It'll stop this-this madness.... Then I'll marry him-and keep him safe-after that!"
"Collie, do you think marryin' Buster Jack will stop his bustin' out?"
"Oh, Iknow it will. He had conquered over the evil in him. I saw that. I felt it. He conquered over his baser nature for love of me. Then-when he heard-from my own lips-that I loved Wilson-why, then he fell. He didn't care. He drank again. He let go. He sank. And now he'll ruin us all. Oh, it looks as if he meant it that way!... But I can change him. I will marry him. I will love him-or I will live a lie! I will make him think I love him!"
Wilson Moore, deadly pale, faced her with flaming eyes.
"Collie,why? For God's sake, explain why you will shame your womanhood and ruin me-all for that coward-that thief?"
Columbine broke from Wade and ran to Wilson, as if to clasp him, but something halted her and she stood before him.
"Because dad will kill him!" she cried.
"My God! what are you saying?" exclaimed Moore, incredulously. "Old Bill would roar and rage, but hurt that boy of his-never!"
"Wils, I reckon Collie is right. You haven't got Old Bill figured. I know," interposed Wade, with one of his forceful gestures.
"Wilson, listen, and don't set your heart against me. For Imust do this thing," pleaded Columbine. "I heard dad swear he'd kill Jack. Oh, I'll never forget! He was terrible! If he ever finds out that Jack stole from his own father-stole cattle like a common rustler, and sold them for gold to gamble and drink with-he will kill him!... That's as true as fate.... Think how horrible that would be for me! Because I'm to blame here, mostly. I fell in love with you , Wilson Moore, otherwise I could have saved Jack already.
"But it's not that I think of myself. Dad has loved me. He has been as a father to me. You know he's not my real father. Oh, if I only had a real one!... And I owe him so much. But then it's not because I owe him or because I love him. It's because of his own soul!... That splendid, noble old man, who has been so good to every one-who had only one fault, and that love of his son-must he be let go in blinded and insane rage at the failure of his life, the ruin of his son-must he be allowed to kill his own flesh and blood?... It would bemurder! It would damn dad's soul to everlasting torment. No! No! I'll not let that be!"
"Collie-how about-your own soul?" whispered Moore, lifting himself as if about to expend a tremendous breath.
"That doesn't matter," she replied.
"Collie-Collie-" he stammered, but could not go on.
Then it seemed to Wade that they both turned to him unconscious of the inevitableness of his relation to this catastrophe, yet looking to him for the spirit, the guidance that became habitual to them. It brought the warm blood back to Wade's cold heart. It was his great reward. How intensely and implacably did his soul mount to that crisis!
"Collie, I'll never fail you," he said, and his gentle voice was deep and full. "If Jack can be scared into haltin' in his mad ride to hell-then I'll do it. I'm not promisin' so much for him. But I'll swear to you that Old Belllounds's hands will never be stained with his son's blood!"
"Oh, Ben! Ben!" she cried, in passionate gratitude. "I'll love you-bless you all my life!"
"Hush, lass! I'm not one to bless.... An' now you must do as I say. Go home an' tell them you'll marry Jack in August. Say August thirteenth."
"So long! Oh, why put it off? Wouldn't it be better-safer, to settle it all-once and forever?"
"No man can tell everythin'. But that's my judgment."
"Why August thirteenth?" she queried, with strange curiosity. "An unlucky date!"
"Well, it just happened to come to my mind-that date," replied Wade, in his slow, soft voice of reminiscence. "I was married on August thirteenth-twenty-one years ago.... An', Collie, my wife looked somethin' like you. Isn't that strange, now? It's a little world.... An' she's been gone eighteen years!"
"Ben, I never dreamed you ever had a wife," said Columbine, softly, with her hands going to his shoulder. "You must tell me of her some day.... But now-if you want time-if you think it best-I'll not marry Jack till August thirteenth."
"That'll give me time," replied Wade. "I'm thinkin' Jack ought to be-reformed, let's call it-before you marry him. If all you say is true-why we can turn him round. Your promise will do most.... So, then, it's settled?"
"Yes-dear-friends," faltered the girl, tremulously, on the verge of a breakdown, now that the ordeal was past.
Wilson Moore stood gazing out of the door, his eyes far away on the gray slopes.
"Queer how things turn out," he said, dreamily. "August thirteenth!... That's about the time the columbines blow on the hills.... And I always meant columbine-time-"
Here he sharply interrupted himself, and the dreamy musing gave way to passion. "But I mean it yet! I'll-I'll die before I give up hope of you!"
Gore Peak was the highest point of the black range that extended for miles westward from Buffalo Park. It was a rounded dome, covered with timber and visible as a landmark from the surrounding country. All along the eastern slope of that range an unbroken forest of spruce and pine spread down to the edge of the valley. This valley narrowed toward its source, which was Buffalo Park. A few well-beaten trails crossed that country, one following Red Brook down to Kremmling; another crossing from the Park to White Slides; and another going over the divide down to Elgeria. The only well-known trail leading to Gore Peak was a branch-off from the valley, and it went round to the south and more accessible side of the mountain.
All that immense slope of timbered ridges, benches, ravines, and swales west of Buffalo Park was exceedingly wild and rough country. Here the buffalo took to cover from hunters, and were safe until they ventured forth into the parks again. Elk and deer and bear made this forest their home.
Bent Wade, hunter now for bigger game than wild beasts of the range, left his horse at Lewis's cabin and penetrated the dense forest alone, like a deer-stalker or an Indian in his movements. Lewis had acted as scout for Wade, and had ridden furiously down to Sage Valley with news of the rustlers. Wade had accompanied him back to Buffalo Park that night, riding in the dark. There were urgent reasons for speed. Jack Belllounds had ridden to Kremmling, and the hunter did not believe he would return by the road he had taken.
Fox, Wade's favorite dog, much to his disgust, was left behind with Lewis. The bloodhound, Kane, accompanied Wade. Kane had been ill-treated and then beaten by Jack Belllounds, and he had left White Slides to take up his home at Moore's cabin. And at last he had seemed to reconcile himself to the hunter, not with love, but without distrust. Kane never forgave; but he recognized his friend and master. Wade carried his rifle and a buckskin pouch containing meat and bread. His belt, heavily studded with shells, contained two guns, both now worn in plain sight, with the one on the right side hanging low. Wade's character seemed to have undergone some remarkable change, yet what he represented then was not unfamiliar.
He headed for the concealed cabin on the edge of the high valley, under the black brow of Gore Peak. It was early morning of a July day, with summer fresh and new to the forest. Along the park edges the birds and squirrels were holding carnival. The grass was crisp and bediamonded with sparkling frost. Tracks of game showed sharp in the white patches. Wade paused once, listening. Ah! That most beautiful of forest melodies for him-the bugle of an elk. Clear, resonant, penetrating, with these qualities held and blended by a note of wildness, it rang thrillingly through all Wade's being. The hound listened, but was not interested. He kept close beside the hunter or at his heels, a stealthily stepping, warily glancing hound, not scenting the four-footed denizens of the forest. He expected his master to put him on the trail of men.
The distance from the Park to Gore Peak, as a crow would have flown, was not great. But Wade progressed slowly; he kept to the dense parts of the forest; he avoided the open aisles, the swales, the glades, the high ridges, the rocky ground. When he came to the Elgeria trail he was not disappointed to find it smooth, untrodden by any recent travel. Half a mile farther on through the forest, however, he encountered tracks of three horses, made early the day before. Still farther on he found cattle and horse tracks, now growing old and dim. These tracks, pointed toward Elgeria, were like words of a printed page to Wade.
About noon he climbed a rocky eminence that jutted out from a slow-descending ridge, and from this vantage-point he saw down the wavering black and green bosom of the mountain slope. A narrow valley, almost hidden, gleamed yellow in the sunlight. At the edge of this valley a faint column of blue smoke curled upward.
"Ahuh!" muttered the hunter, as he looked. The hound whined and pushed a cool nose into Wade's hand.
Then Wade resumed his noiseless and stealthy course through the woods. He began a descent, leading off somewhat to the right of the point where the smoke had arisen. The presence of the rustlers in the cabin was of importance, yet not so paramount as another possibility. He expected Jack Belllounds to be with them or meet them there, and that was the thing he wanted to ascertain. When he got down below the little valley he swung around to the left to cross the trail that came up from the main valley, some miles still farther down. He found it, and was not surprised to see fresh horse tracks, made that morning. He recognized those tracks. Jack Belllounds was with the rustlers, come, no doubt, to receive his pay.
Then the change in Wade, and the actions of a trailer of men, became more singularly manifest. He reverted to some former habit of mind and body. He was as slow as a shadow, absolutely silent, and the gaze that roved ahead and all around must have taken note of every living thing, of every moving leaf or fern or bough. The hound, with hair curling up stiff on his back, stayed close to Wade, watching, listening, and stepping with him. Certainly Wade expected the rustlers to have some one of their number doing duty as an outlook. So he kept uphill, above the cabin, and made his careful way through the thicket coverts, which at that place were dense and matted clumps of jack-pine and spruce. At last he could see the cabin and the narrow, grassy valley just beyond. To his relief the horses were unsaddled and grazing. No man was in sight. But there might be a dog. The hunter, in his slow advance, used keen and unrelaxing vigilance, and at length he decided that if there had been a dog he would have been tied outside to give an alarm.
Wade had now reached his objective point. He was some eighty paces from the cabin, in line with an open aisle down which he could see into the cleared space before the door. On his left were thick, small spruces, with low-spreading branches, and they extended all the way to the cabin on that side, and in fact screened two walls of it. Wade knew exactly what he was going to do. No longer did he hesitate. Laying down his rifle, he tied the hound to a little spruce, patting him and whispering for him to stay there and be still.
Then Wade's action in looking to his belt-guns was that of a man who expected to have recourse to them speedily and by whom the necessity was neither regretted nor feared. Stooping low, he entered the thicket of spruces. The soft, spruce-matted ground, devoid of brush or twig, did not give forth the slightest sound of step, nor did the brushing of the branches against his body. In some cases he had to bend the boughs. Thus, swiftly and silently, with the gliding steps of an Indian, he approached the cabin till the brown-barked logs loomed before him, shutting off the clearer light.
He smelled a mingling of wood and tobacco smoke; he heard low, deep voices of men; the shuffling and patting of cards; the musical click of gold. Resting on his knees a moment the hunter deliberated. All was exactly as he had expected. Luck favored him. These gamblers would be absorbed in their game. The door of the cabin was just around the corner, and he could glide noiselessly to it or gain it in a few leaps. Either method would serve. But which he must try depended upon the position of the men inside and that of their weapons.
Rising silently, Wade stepped up to the wall and peeped through a chink between the logs. The sunshine streamed through windows and door. Jack Belllounds sat on the ground, full in its light, back to the wall. He was in his shirt-sleeves. The gambling fever and the grievous soreness of a loser shone upon his pale face. Smith sat with back to Wade, opposite Belllounds. The other men completed the square. All were close enough together to reach comfortably for the cards and gold before them. Wade's keen eyes took this in at a single glance, and then steadied searchingly for smaller features of the scene. Belllounds had no weapon. Smith's belt and gun lay in the sunlight on the hard, clay floor, out of reach except by violent effort. The other two rustlers both wore their weapons. Wade gave a long scrutiny to the faces of these comrades of Smith, and evidently satisfied himself as to what he had to expect from them.
Wade hesitated; then stooping low, he softly swept aside the intervening boughs of spruce, glided out of the thicket into the open. Two noiseless bounds! Another, and he was inside the door!
"Howdy, rustlers! Don't move!" he called.
The surprise of his appearance, or his voice, or both, stunned the four men. Belllounds dropped his cards, and his jaw dropped at the same instant. These were absolutely the only visible movements.
"I'm in talkin' humor, an' the longer you listen the longer you'll have to live," said Wade. "But don't move!"
"We ain't movin'," burst out Smith. "Who're you, an' what d'ye want?"
It was singular that the rustler leader had not had a look at Wade, whose movements had been swift and who now stood directly behind him. Also it was obvious that Smith was sitting very stiff-necked and straight. Not improbably he had encountered such situations before.
"Who're you?" he shouted, hoarsely.
"You ought to know me." The voice was Wade's, gentle, cold, with depth and ring in it.
"I've heerd your voice somewhars-I'll gamble on thet."
"Sure. You ought to recognize my voice, Cap," returned Wade.
The rustler gave a violent start-a start that he controlled instantly.
"Cap! You callin' me thet?"
"Sure. We're old friends-Cap Folsom!"
In the silence, then, the rustler's hard breathing could be heard; his neck bulged red; only the eyes of his two comrades moved; Belllounds began to recover somewhat from his consternation. Fear had clamped him also, but not fear of personal harm or peril. His mind had not yet awakened to that.
"You've got me pat! But who're you?" said Folsom, huskily.
Wade kept silent.
"Who'n hell is thet man?" yelled the rustler It was not a query to his comrades any more than to the four winds. It was a furious questioning of a memory that stirred and haunted, and as well a passionate and fearful denial.
"His name's Wade," put in Belllounds, harshly. "He's the friend of Wils Moore. He's the hunter I told you about-worked for my father last winter."
"Wade?... What?Wade! You never told me his name. It ain't-it ain't-"
"Yes, it is, Cap," interrupted Wade. "It's the old boy that spoiled your handsome mug-long ago."
"Hell-Bent Wade!" gasped Folsom, in terrible accents. He shook all over. An ashen paleness crept into his face. Instinctively his right hand jerked toward his gun; then, as in his former motion, froze in the very act.
"Careful, Cap!" warned Wade. "It'd be a shame not to hear me talk a little.... Turn around now an' greet an old pard of the Gunnison days."
Folsom turned as if a resistless, heavy force was revolving his head.
"By Gawd!... Wade!" he ejaculated. The tone of his voice, the light in his eyes, must have been a spiritual acceptance of a dreadful and irrefutable fact-perhaps the proximity of death. But he was no coward. Despite the hunter's order, given as he stood there, gun drawn and ready, Folsom wheeled back again, savagely to throw the deck of cards in Belllounds's face. He cursed horribly.... "You spoiled brat of a rich rancher! Why'n hell didn't you tell me thet varmint-hunter was Wade."
"I did tell you," shouted Belllounds, flaming of face.
"You're a liar! You never said Wade-W-a-d-e, right out, so I'd hear it. An' I'd never passed by Hell-Bent Wade."
"Aw, that name made me tired," replied Belllounds, contemptuously.
"Haw! Haw! Haw!" bawled the rustler. "Made you tired, hey? Think you're funny? Wal, if you knowed how many men thet name's made tired-an' tired fer keeps-you'd not think it so damn funny."
"Say, what're you giving me? That Sheriff Burley tried to tell me and dad a lot of rot about this Wade. Why, he's only a little, bow-legged, big-nosed meddler-a man with a woman's voice-a sneaking cook and camp-doctor and cow-milker, and God only knows what else."
"Boy, you're correct. God only knows what else!... It's theelse you've got to learn. An' I'll gamble you'll learn it.... Wade, have you changed or grown old thet you let a pup like this yap such talk?"
"Well, Cap, he's very amusin' just now, an' I want you-all to enjoy him. Because, if you don't force my hand I'm goin' to tell you some interestin' stuff about this Buster Jack.... Now, will you be quiet an' listen-an' answer for your pards?"
"Wade, I answer fer no man. But, so far as I've noticed, my pards ain't hankerin' to make any loud noise," Folsom replied, indicating his comrades, with sarcasm.
The red-bearded one, a man of large frame and gaunt face, wicked and wild-looking, spoke out, "Say, Smith, or whatever the hell's yore right handle-is this hyar a game we're playin'?"
"I reckon. An' if you turn a trick you'll be damn lucky," growled Folsom.
The other rustler did not speak. He was small, swarthy-faced, with sloe-black eyes and matted hair, evidently a white man with Mexican blood. Keen, strung, furtive, he kept motionless, awaiting events.
"Buster Jack, these new pards of yours are low-down rustlers, an' one of them's worse, as I could prove," said Wade, "but compared with you they're all gentlemen."
Belllounds leered. But he was losing his bravado. Something began to dawn upon his obtuse consciousness.
"What do I care for you or your gabby talk?" he flashed, sullenly.
"You'll care when I tell these rustlers how you double-crossed them."
Belllounds made a spring, like that of a wolf in a trap; but when half-way up he slipped. The rustler on his right kicked him, and he sprawled down again, back to the wall.
"Buster, look into this!" called Wade, and he leveled the gun that quivered momentarily, like a compass needle, and then crashed fire and smoke. The bullet spat into a log. But it had cut the lobe of Belllounds's ear, bringing blood. His face turned a ghastly, livid hue. All in a second terror possessed him-shuddering, primitive terror of death.
Folsom haw-hawed derisively and in crude delight. "Say, Buster Jack, don't get any idee thet my ole pard Wade was shootin' at your head. Aw, no!"
The other rustlers understood then, if Belllounds had not, that the situation was in control of a man not in any sense ordinary.
"Cap, did you know Buster Jack accused my friend, Wils Moore, of stealin' these cattle you're sellin'?" asked Wade, deliberately.
"What cattle did you say?" asked the rustler, as if he had not heard aright.
"The cattle Buster Jack stole from his father an' sold to you."
"Wal, now! Bent Wade at his old tricks! I might have knowed it, once I seen you.... Naw, I'd no idee Belllounds blamed thet stealin' on to any one."
"Ahuh! Wal, who's this Wils Moore?"
"He's a cowboy, as fine a youngster as ever straddled a horse. Buster Jack hates him. He licked Jack a couple of times an' won the love of a girl that Jack wants."
"Ho! Ho! Quite romantic, I declare.... Say, thar's some damn queer notions I'm gettin' about you, Buster Jack."
Belllounds lay propped against the wall, sagging there, laboring of chest, sweating of face. The boldness of brow held, because it was fixed, but that of his eyes had gone; and his mouth and chin showed craven weakness. He stared in dread suspense at Wade.
"Listen. An' all of you sit tight," went on Wade, swiftly. "Jack stole the cattle from his father. He's a thief at heart. But he had a double motive. He left a trail-he left tracks behind. He made a crooked horseshoe, like that Wils Moore's horse wears, an' he put that on his own horse. An' he made a contraption-a little iron ring with a dot in it, an' he left the crooked shoe tracks, an' he left the little ring tracks-"
"By Gawd! I seen them funny tracks!" ejaculated Folsom. "At the water-hole an' right hyar in front of the cabin. I seen them. I knowed Jack made them, somehow, but I didn't think. His white hoss has a crooked left front shoe."
"Yes, he has, when Jack takes off the regular shoe an' nails on the crooked one.... Men, I followed those tracks They lead up here to your cabin. Belllounds made them with a purpose.... An' he went to Kremmlin' to get Sheriff Burley. An' he put him wise to the rustlin' of cattle to Elgeria. An' he fetched him up to White Slides to accuse Wils Moore. An' he trailed his own tracks up here, showin' Burley the crooked horse track an' the little circle-that was supposed to be made by the end of Moore's crutch-an' he led Burley with his men right to this cabin an' to the trail where you drove the cattle over the divide.... An' then he had Burley dig out some cakes of mud holdin' these tracks, an' they fetched them down to White Slides. Buster Jack blamed the stealin' on to Moore. An' Burley arrested Moore. The trial comes off next week at Kremmlin'."
"Damn me!" exclaimed Folsom, wonderingly. "A man's never too old to learn! I knowed this pup was stealin' from his own father, but I reckoned he was jest a natural-born, honest rustler, with a hunch fer drink an' cards."
"Well, he's double-crossed you, Cap. An' if I hadn't rounded you up your chances would have been good for swingin'."
"Ahuh! Wade, I'd sure preferred them chances of swingin' to your over-kind interferin' in my bizness. Allus interferin', Wade, thet's your weakness!... But gimmie a gun!"
"I reckon not, Cap."
"Gimme a gun!" roared the rustler. "Lemme sit hyar an' shoot the eyes outen this-lyin' pup of a Belllounds!... Wade, put a gun in my hand-a gun with two shells-or only one. You can stand with your gun at my head.... Let me kill this skunk!"
For all Belllounds could tell, death was indeed close. No trace of a Belllounds was apparent about him then, and his face was a horrid spectacle for a man to be forced to see. A froth foamed over his hanging lower lip.
"Cap, I ain't trustin' you with a gun just this particular minute," said Wade.
Folsom then bawled his curses to his comrades.
"--! Kill him! Throw your guns an' bore him-right in them bulgin' eyes!... I'm tellin' you-we've gotta fight, anyhow. We're agoin' to cash right hyar. But kill him first!"
Neither of Folsom's lieutenants yielded to the fierce exhortation of their leader or to their own evilly expressed passions. It was Wade who dominated them. Then ensued a silence fraught with suspense, growing more charged every long instant. The balance here seemed about to be struck.
"Wade, I've been a gambler all my life, an' a damn smart one, if I do say it myself," declared the rustler leader, his voice inharmonious with the facetiousness of his words. "An' I'll make a last bet."
"Go ahead, Cap. What'll you bet?" answered the cold voice, still gentle, but different now in its inflection.
"By Gawd! I'll bet all the gold hyar that Hell-Bent Wade wouldn't shoot any man in the back!"
Slowly and stiffly the rustler rose to his feet. When he reached his height he deliberately swung his leg to kick Belllounds in the face.
"Thar! I'd like to have a reckonin' with you, Buster Jack," he said. "I ain't dealin' the cards hyar. But somethin' tells me thet, shaky as I am in my boots, I'd liefer be in mine than yours."
With that, and expelling a heavy breath, he wrestled around to confront the hunter.
"Wade. I've no hunch to your game, but it's slower'n I recollect you."
"Why, Cap, I was in a talkin' humor," replied Wade.
"Hell! You're up to some dodge. What'd you care fer my learnin' thet pup had double-crossed me? You won't let me kill him."
"I reckon I wanted him to learn what real men thought of him."
"Ahuh! Wal, an' now I've onlightened him, what's the next deal?"
"You'll all go to Kremmlin' with me an' I'll turn you over to Sheriff Burley."
That was the gauntlet thrown down by Wade. It was not unexpected, and acceptance seemed a relief. Folsom's eyeballs became living fire with the desperate gleam of the reckless chances of life. Cutthroat he might have been, but he was brave, and he proved the significance of Wade's attitude.
"Pards, hyar's to luck!" he rang out, hoarsely, and with pantherish quickness he leaped for his gun.
A tense, surcharged instant-then all four men, as if released by some galvanized current of rapidity, flashed into action. Guns boomed in unison. Spurts of red, clouds of smoke, ringing reports, and hoarse cries filled the cabin. Wade had fired as he leaped. There was a thudding patter of lead upon the walls. The hunter flung himself prostrate behind the bough framework that had served as bedstead. It was made of spruce boughs, thick and substantial. Wade had not calculated falsely in estimating it as a bulwark of defense. Pulling his second gun, he peeped from behind the covert.
Smoke was lifting, and drifting out of door and windows. The atmosphere cleared. Belllounds sagged against the wall, pallid, with protruding eyes of horror on the scene before him. The dark-skinned little man lay writhing. All at once a tremor stilled his convulsions. His body relaxed limply. As if by magic his hand loosened on the smoking gun. Folsom was on his knees, reeling and swaying, waving his gun, peering like a drunken man for some lost object. His temple appeared half shot away, a bloody and horrible sight.
"Pards, I got him!" he said, in strange, half-strangled whisper. "I got him!... Hell-Bent Wade! My respects! I'll meet you-thar!"
His reeling motion brought his gaze in line with Belllounds. The violence of his start sent drops of blood flying from his gory temple.
"Ahuh! The cards run-my way. Belllounds, hyar's to your-lyin' eyes!"
The gun wavered and trembled and circled. Folsom strained in last terrible effort of will to aim it straight. He fired. The bullet tore hair from Belllounds's head, but missed him. Again the rustler aimed, and the gun wavered and shook. He pulled trigger. The hammer clicked upon an empty chamber. With low and gurgling cry of baffled rage Folsom dropped the gun and sank face forward, slowly stretching out.
The red-bearded rustler had leaped behind the stone chimney that all but hid his body. The position made it difficult for him to shoot because his gun-hand was on the inside, and he had to press his body tight to squeeze it behind the corner of ragged stone. Wade had the advantage. He was lying prone with his right hand round the corner of the framework. An overhang of the bough-ends above protected his head when he peeped out. While he watched for a chance to shoot he loaded his empty gun with his left hand. The rustler strained and writhed his body, twisting his neck, and suddenly darting out his head and arm, he shot. His bullet tore the overhang of boughs above Wade's face. And Wade's answering shot, just a second too late, chipped the stone corner where the rustler's face had flashed out. The bullet, glancing, hummed out of the window. It was a close shave. The rustler let out a hissing, inarticulate cry. He was trapped. In his effort to press in closer he projected his left elbow beyond the corner of the chimney. Wade's quick shot shattered his arm.
There was no asking or offering of quarter here. This was the old feud of the West-of the vicious and the righteous in strife-both reared in the same stern school. The rustler gave his body such contortion that he was twisted almost clear around, with his right hand over his left shoulder. He punched the muzzle of his gun into a crack between two stones, and he pried to open them. The dry clay cement crumbled, the crack widened. Sighting along the barrel he aimed it with the narrow strip of Wades shoulder that was visible above the framework. Then he shot and hit. Wade shrank flatter and closer, hiding himself to better advantage. The rustler made his great blunder then, for in that moment he might have rushed out and killed his adversary. But, instead, he shot again-another time-a third. And his heavy bullets tore and splintered the boughs dangerously close to the hunter's head. Then came an awkward, almost hopeless task for the rustler, in maintaining his position while reloading his gun. He did it, and his panting attested to the labor and pain it cost him.
So much, in fact, that he let his knee protrude. Wade fired, breaking that knee. The rustler sagged in his tracks, his hip stuck out to afford a target for the remorseless Wade. Still the doomed man did not cry out, though it was evident that he could not now keep his body from sagging into sight of the hunter. Then with a desperate courage worthy of a better cause, and with a spirit great in its defeat, the rustler plunged out from his hiding-place, gun extended. His red beard, his gaunt face, fierce and baleful, his wabbling plunge that was really a fall, made a sight which was terrible. He hopped out of that fall. His gun began to blaze. But it only matched the blazes of Wade's. And the rustler pitched headlong over the framework, falling heavily against the wall beyond.
Then there was silence for a long moment. Wade stirred, as if to look around. Belllounds also stirred, and gulped, as if to breathe. The three prostrate rustlers lay inert, their positions singularly tragic and settled. The smoke again began to lift, to float out of the door and windows. In another moment the big room seemed less hazy.
Wade rose, not without effort, and he had a gun in each hand. Those hands were bloody; there was blood on his face, and his left shoulder was red. He approached Belllounds.
Wade was terrible then-terrible with a ruthlessness that was no pretense. To Belllounds it must have represented death-a bloody death which he was not prepared to meet.
"Come out of your trance, you pup rustler!" yelled Wade.
"For God's sake, don't kill me!" implored Belllounds, stricken with terror.
"Why not? Look around! My busy day, Buster!... An' for that Cap Folsom it's been ten years comin'.... I'm goin' to shoot you in the belly an' watch you get sick to your stomach!"
Belllounds, with whisper, and hands, and face, begged for his life in an abjectness of sheer panic.
"What!" roared the hunter. "Didn't you know I come to kill you?"
"Yes-yes! I've seen-that. It's awful!... I never harmed you.... Don't kill me! Let me live, Wade. I swear to God I'll-I'll never do it again.... For dad's sake-for Collie's sake-don't kill me!"
"I'm Hell-Bent Wade!... You wouldn't listen to them-when they wanted to tell you who I am!"
Every word of Wade's drove home to this boy the primal meaning of sudden death. It inspired him with an unutterable fear. That was what clamped his brow in a sweaty band and upreared his hair and rolled his eyeballs. His magnified intelligence, almost ghastly, grasped a hope in Wade's apparent vacillation and in the utterance of the name of Columbine. Intuition, a subtle sense, inspired him to beg in that name.
"Swear you'll give up Collie!" demanded Wade, brandishing his guns with bloody hands.
"Yes-yes! My God, I'll do anything!" moaned Belllounds.
"Swear you'll tell your father you'd had a change of heart. You'll give Collie up!... Let Moore have her!"
"I swear!... But if you tell dad-I stole his cattle-he'll do for me!"
"We won't squeal that. I'll save you if you give up the girl. Once more, Buster Jack-try an' make me believe you'll square the deal."
Belllounds had lost his voice. But his mute, fluttering lips were infinite proof of the vow he could not speak. The boyishness, the stunted moral force, replaced the manhood in him then. He was only a factor in the lives of others, protected even from this Nemesis by the greatness of his father's love.
"Get up, an' take my scarf," said Wade, "an' bandage these bullet-holes I got."
* * *
Wade's wounds were not in any way serious, and with Belllounds's assistance he got to the cabin of Lewis, where weakness from loss of blood made it necessary that he remain. Belllounds went home.
The next day Wade sent Lewis with pack-horse down to the rustler's cabin, to bury the dead men and fetch back their effects. Lewis returned that night, accompanied by Sheriff Burley and two deputies, who had been busy on their own account. They had followed horse tracks from the water-hole under Gore Peak to the scene of the fight, and had arrived to find Lewis there. Burley had appropriated the considerable amount of gold, which he said could be identified by cattlemen who had bought the stolen cattle.
When opportunity afforded Burley took advantage of it to speak to Wade when the others were out of earshot.
"Thar was another man in thet cabin when the fight come off," announced the sheriff. "An' he come up hyar with you."
"Jim, you're locoed," replied Wade.
The sheriff laughed, and his shrewd eyes had a kindly, curious gleam.
"Next you'll be givin' me a hunch thet you're in a fever an' out of your head."
"Jim, I'm not as clear-headed as I might be."
"Wal, tell me or not, jest as you like. I seen his tracks-follered them. An' Wade, old pard, I've reckoned long ago thar's a nigger in the wood-pile."
"Sure. An' you know me. I'd take it friendly of you to put Moore's trial off fer a while-till I'm able to ride to Krernmlin'. Maybe then I can tell you a story."
Burley threw up his hands in genuine apprehension. "Not much! You ain't agoin' to tellme no story!... But I'll wait on you, an' welcome. Reckon I owe you a good deal on this rustler round-up. Wade, thet must have been a man-sized fight, even fer you. I picked up twenty-six empty shells. An' the little half-breed had one empty shell an' five loaded ones in his gun. You must have got him quick. Hey?"
"Jim, I'm observin' you're a heap more curious than ever, an' you always was an inquisitive cuss," complained Wade. "I don't recollect what happened."
"Wal, wal, have it your own way," replied Burley, with good nature. "Now, Wade, I'll pitch camp hyar in the park to-night, an' to-morrer I'll ride down to White Slides on my way to Kremmlin'. What're you wantin' me to tell Belllounds?"
The hunter pondered a moment.
"Reckon it's just as well that you tell him somethin'.... You can say the rustlers are done for an' that he'll get his stock back. I'd like you to tell him that the rustlers were more to blame than Wils Moore. Just say that an' nothin' else about Wils. Don't mention about your suspectin' there was another man around when the fight come off.... Tell the cowboys that I'll be down in a few days. An' if you happen to get a chance for a word alone with Miss Collie, just say I'm not bad hurt an' that all will be well."
"Ahuh!" Burley grunted out the familiar exclamation. He did not say any more then, but he gazed thoughtfully down upon the pale hunter, as if that strange individual was one infinitely to respect, but never to comprehend.
* * * * *
Wade's wounds healed quickly; nevertheless, it was more than several days before he felt spirit enough to undertake the ride. He had to return to White Slides, but he was reluctant to do so. Memory of Jack Belllounds dragged at him, and when he drove it away it continually returned. This feeling was almost equivalent to an augmentation of his gloomy foreboding, which ever hovered on the fringe of his consciousness. But one morning he started early, and, riding very slowly, with many rests, he reached the Sage Valley cabin before sunset. Moore saw him coming, yelled his delight and concern, and almost lifted him off the horse. Wade was too tired to talk much, but he allowed himself to be fed and put to bed and worked over.
"Boot's on the other foot now, pard," said Moore, with delight at the prospect of returning service. "Say, you're all shot up! And it's I who'll be nurse!"
"Wils, I'll be around to-morrow," replied the hunter. "Have you heard any news from down below?"
"Sure. I've met Lem every night."
Then he related Burley's version of Wade's fight with the rustlers in the cabin. From the sheriff's lips the story gained much. Old Bill Belllounds had received the news in a singular mood; he offered no encomiums to the victor; contrary to his usual custom of lauding every achievement of labor or endurance, he now seemed almost to regret the affray. Jack Belllounds had returned from Kremmling and he was present when Burley brought news of the rustlers. What he thought none of the cowboys vouchsafed to say, but he was drunk the next day, and he lost a handful of gold to them. Never had he gambled so recklessly. Indeed, it was as if he hated the gold he lost. Little had been seen of Columbine, but little was sufficient to make the cowboys feel concern.
Wade made scarcely any comment upon this news from the ranch; next day, however, he was up, and caring for himself, and he told Moore about the fight and how he had terrorized Belllounds and exhorted the promises from him.
"Never in God's world will Buster Jack live up to those promises!" cried Moore, with absolute conviction. "I know him, Ben. He meant them when he made them. He'd swear his soul away-then next day he'd lie or forget or betray."
"I'm not believin' that till I know," replied the hunter, gloomily. "But I'm afraid of him.... I've known bad men to change. There's a grain of good in all men-somethin' divine. An' it comes out now an' then. Men rise on steppin'-stones of their dead selves to higher things!... This is Belllounds's chance for the good in him. If it's not there he will do as you say. If it is-that scare he had will be the turnin'-point in his life. I'm hopin', but I'm afraid."
"Ben, you wait and see," said Moore, earnestly. "Heaven knows I'm not one to lose hope for my fellowmen-hope for the higher things you've taught me.... But human nature is human nature. Jackcan't give Collie up, just the same as I can't . That's self-preservation as well as love."
* * * * *
The day came when Wade walked down to White Slides. There seemed to be a fever in his blood, which he tried to convince himself was a result of his wounds instead of the condition of his mind. It was Sunday, a day of sunshine and squall, of azure-blue sky, and great, sailing, purple clouds. The sage of the hills glistened and there was a sweetness in the air.
The cowboys made much of Wade. But the old rancher, seeing him from the porch, abruptly went into the house. No one but Wade noticed this omission of courtesy. Directly, Columbine appeared, waving her hand, and running to meet him.
"Dad saw you. He told me to come out and excuse him.... Oh, Ben, I'm so happy to see you! You don't look hurt at all. What a fight you had!... Oh, I was sick! But let me forget that.... How are you? And how's Wils?"
Thus she babbled until out of breath.
"Collie, it's sure good to see you," said Wade, feeling the old, rich thrill at her presence. "I'm comin' on tolerable well. I wasn't bad hurt, but I bled a lot. An' I reckon I'm older 'n I was when packin' gun-shot holes was nothin'. Every year tells. Only a man doesn't know till after.... An' how are you, Collie?"
Her blue eyes clouded, and a tremor changed the expression of her sweet lips.
"I am unhappy, Ben," she said. "But what could we expect? It might be worse. For instance, you might have been killed. I've much to be thankful for."
"I reckon so. We all have.... I fetched a message from Wils, but I oughtn't tell it."
"Please do," she begged, wistfully.
"Well, Wils says, tell Collie I love her every day more an' more, an' that my love keeps up my courage an' my belief in God, an' if she ever marries Jack Belllounds she can come up to visit my grave among the columbines on the hill."
Strange how Wade experienced comfort in thus torturing her! She was rosy at the beginning of his speech and white at its close. "Oh, it's true! it's true!" she whispered. "It'll kill him, as it will me!"
"Cheer up, Columbine," said Wade. "It's a long time till August thirteenth.... An' now tell me, why did Old Bill run when he saw me comin'?"
"Ben, I suspect dad has the queerest notion you want to tell him some awful bloody story about the rustlers."
"Ahuh! Well, not yet.... An' how's Jack Belllounds actin' these days?"
Wade felt the momentousness of that query, but it seemed her face had been telltale enough, without confirmation of words.
"My friend, somehow I hate to tell you. You're always so hopeful, so ready to think good instead of evil.... But Jack has been rough with me, almost brutal. He was drunk once. Every day he drinks, sometimes a little, sometimes more. But drink changes him. And it's dragging dad down. Dad doesn't say so, yet I feel he's afraid of what will come next.... Jack has nagged me to marry him right off. He wanted to the day he came back from Kremmling. He's eager to leave White Slides. Dad knows that, also, and it worries him. But of course I refused."
The presence of Columbine, so vivid and sweet and stirring, and all about her the sunlight, the golden gleams on the sage hills, and Wade's heart and brain and spirit sustained a subtle transformation. It was as if what had been beautiful with light had suddenly, strangely darkened. Then Wade imagined he stood alone in a gloomy house, which was his own heart, and he was listening to the arrival of a tragic messenger whose foot sounded heavy on the stairs, whose hand turned slowly upon the knob, whose gray presence opened the door and crossed the threshold.
"Buster Jack didn't break off with you, Collie?" asked the hunter.
"Break off with me!... No, indeed! Whatever possessed you to say that?"
"An' he didn't offer to give you up to Wils Moore?"
"Ben, are you crazy?" cried Columbine.
"Collie; listen. I'll tell you." The old urge knocked at Wade's mind. "Buster Jack was in the cabin, gamblin' with the rustlers, when I cornered them. You remember I meant to scare Buster Jack within an inch of his life? Well, I made use of my opportunity. I worked up the rustlers. Then I told Jack I'd give away his secret. He made to jump an' run, I reckon. But he hadn't the nerve. I shot a piece out of his ear, just to begin the fun. An' then I told the rustlers how Jack had double-crossed them. Folsom, the boss rustler, roared like a mad steer. He was wild to kill Jack. He begged for a gun to shoot out Jack's eyes. An' so were the other rustlers burnin' to kill him. Bad outfit. There was a fight, which, I'm bound to confess, was not short an' sweet. There was a lot of shootin'. An' in a cabin gun-shots almost lift the roof. Folsom was on his knees, dyin', wavin' his gun, whisperin' in fiendish glee that he had done for me. When he saw Jack an' remembered he shook so with fury that he scattered blood all over. An' he took long aim at Jack, tryin' to steady his gun. He couldn't, an' he missed, an' then fell over dead with his head on Jack's knees. That left the red-bearded rustler, who had hid behind the chimney. Jack watched the rest of that fight, an' for a youngster it must have been nerve-rackin'. I broke the rustler's arm, an' then his knee, an' then I got him in the hip two more times before he hobbled out to his finish. He'd shot me up considerable, so that when I braced Jack I must have been a hair-raisin' sight. I made Jack believe I meant to murder him. He begged an' cried, an' he got to prayin' for his life for your sake. It was sickenin', but it was what I wanted. So then I made him swear he'd free you an' give you up to Moore."
"Oh! Oh, Ben, how awful!" whispered Columbine, shuddering. "Howcould you tell me such a horrible story?"
"Reckon I wanted you to know how Jack come to make the promises an' what they were."
"Promises! What are promises or oaths to Jack Belllounds?" she cried, in passionate contempt. "You wasted your breath. Coward-liar that he is!"
"Ahuh!" Wade looked straight ahead of him as if he saw some expected and unpleasant thing far in the distance. Then with irresistible steps, neither swift nor slow, but ponderous, he strode to the porch and mounted the steps.
"Why, Ben, where are you going?" called Columbine, in surprise, as she followed him.
He did not answer. He approached the closed door of the living-room.
"Ben!" cried Columbine, in alarm.
But he had no reply for her-indeed, no thought of her. Without knocking, he opened the door with rude and powerful hand, and, striding in, closed it after him.
Bill Belllounds was standing, back against the great stone chimney, arms folded, a stolid and grim figure, apparently fortified against an intrusion he had expected.
"Wal, what do you want?" he asked, gruffly. He had sensed catastrophe in the first sight of the hunter.
"Belllounds, I reckon I want a hell of a lot," replied Wade. "An' I'm askin' you to see we're not disturbed."
"Bar the door."
Wade dropped the bar in place, and then, removing his sombrero, he wiped his moist brow.
"Do you see an enemy in me?" he asked, curiously.
"Speakin' out fair, Wade, there ain't any reason I can see that you're an enemy to me," replied Belllounds. "But I feel somethin'. It ain't because I'm takin' my son's side. It's more than that. A queer feelin', an' one I never had before. I got it first when you told the story of the Gunnison feud."
"Belllounds, we can't escape our fates. An' it was written long ago I was to tell you a worse an' harder story than that."
"Wal, mebbe I'll listen an' mebbe I won't. I ain't promisin', these days."
"Are you goin' to make Collie marry Jack?" demanded the hunter.
"You know that's not true. Collie's willin' to sacrifice love, honor, an' life itself, to square her debt to you."
The old rancher flushed a burning red, and in his eyes flared a spirit of earlier years.
"Wade, you can go too far," he warned. "I'm appreciatin' your good-heartedness. It sort of warms me toward you.... But this is my business. You've no call to interfere. You've done that too much already. An' I'm reckonin' Collie would be married to Jack now if it hadn't been for you."
"Ahuh!... That's why I'm thankin' God I happened along to White Slides. Belllounds, your big mistake is thinkin' your son is good enough for this girl. An' you're makin' mistakes about me. I've interfered here, an' you may take my word for it I had the right."
"Strange talk, Wade, but I'll make allowances."
"You needn't. I'll back my talk.... But, first, I'm askin' you-an' if this talk hurts, I'm sorry-why don't you give some of your love for your no-good Buster Jack to Collie?"
Belllounds clenched his huge fists and glared. Anger leaped within him. He recognized in Wade an outspoken, bitter adversary to his cherished hopes for his son and his stubborn, precious pride.
"By Heaven! Wade, I'll-"
"Belllounds, I can make you swallow that kind of talk," interrupted Wade. "It's man to man now. An' I'm a match for you any day. Savvy?... Do you think I'm damn fool enough to come here an' brace you unless I knew that. Talk to me as you'd talk about some other man's son."
"It ain't possible," rejoined the rancher, stridently.
"Then listen to me first.... Your son Jack, to say the least, will ruin Collie. Do you see that?"
"By Gawd! I'm afraid so," groaned Belllounds, big in his humiliation. "But it's my one last bet, an' I'm goin' to play it."
"Do you know marryin' him willkill her?"
"What!... You're overdoin' your fears, Wade. Women don't die so easy."
"Some of them die, an' Collie's one that will,if she ever marries Jack."
"If!... Wal, she's goin' to."
"We don't agree," said Wade, curtly.
"Are you runnin' my family?"
"No. But I'm runnin' a large-sizedif in this game. You'll admit that presently.... Belllounds, you make me mad. You don't meet me man to man. You're not the Bill Belllounds of old. Why, all over this state of Colorado you're known as the whitest of the white. Your name's a byword for all that's square an' big an' splendid. But you're so blinded by your worship of that wild boy that you're another man in all pertainin' to him. I don't want to harp on his short-comm's. I'm for the girl. She doesn't love him. She can't. She will only drag herself down an' die of a broken heart.... Now, I'm askin' you, before it's too late-give up this marriage."
"Wade! I've shot men for less than you've said!" thundered the rancher, beside himself with rage and shame.
"Ahuh! I reckon you have. But not men like me.... I tell you, straight to your face, it's a fool deal you're workin'-a damn selfish one-a dirty job, to put on an innocent, sweet girl-an' as sure as you stand there, if you do it, you'll ruin four lives!"
"Four!" exclaimed Belllounds. But any word would have expressed his humiliation.
"I should have said three, leavin' Jack out. I meant Collie's an' yours an' Wils Moore's."
"Moore's is about ruined already, I've a hunch."
"You can get hunches you never dreamed of, Belllounds, old as you are. An' I'll give you one presently.... But we drift off. Can't you keep cool?"
"Cool! With you rantin' hell-bent for election? Haw! Raw!... Wade, you're locoed. You always struck me queer.... An' if you'll excuse me, I'm gettin' tired of this talk. We're as far apart as the poles. An' to save what good feelin's we both have, let's quit."
"You don't love Collie, then?" queried Wade, imperturbably.
"Yes, I do. That's a fool idee of yours. It puts me out of patience."
"Belllounds, you're not her real father."
The rancher gave a start, and he stared as he had stared before, fixedly and perplexedly at Wade.
"No, I'm not."
"If shewere your real daughter-your own flesh an' blood-an' Jack Belllounds was my son, would you let her marry him?"
"Wal, Wade, I reckon I wouldn't."
"Then how can you expect my consent to her marriage with your son?"
"WHAT!" Belllounds lunged over to Wade, leaned down, shaken by overwhelming amaze.
"Collie is my daughter!"
A loud expulsion of breath escaped Belllounds. Lower he leaned, and looked with piercing gaze into the face and eyes that in this moment bore strange resemblance to Columbine.
"So help me Gawd!... That's the secret?... Hell-Bent Wade! An' you've been on my trail!"
He staggered to his big chair and fell into it. No trace of doubt showed in his face. The revelation had struck home because of its very greatness.
Wade took the chair opposite. His likeness to Columbine had faded now. It had been love, a spirit, a radiance, a glory. It was gone. And Wade's face became the emblem of tragedy.
"Listen, Belllounds. I'll tell you!... The ways of God are inscrutable. I've been twenty years tryin' to atone for the wrong I did Collie's mother. I've been a prospector for the trouble of others. I've been a bearer of their burdens. An' if I can save Collie's happiness an' her soul, I reckon I won't be denied the peace of meetin' her mother in the other world.... I recognized Collie the moment I laid eyes on her. She favors her mother in looks, an' she has her mother's sensitiveness, her fire an' pride, an' she even has her voice. It's low an' sweet-alto, they used to call it.... But I'd recognized Collie as my own if I'd been blind an' deaf.... It's over eighteen years ago that we had the trouble. I was no boy, but I was terribly in love with Lucy. An' she loved me with a passion I never learned till too late. We came West from Missouri. She was born in Texas. I had a rovin' disposition an' didn't stick long at any kind of work. But I was lookin' for a ranch. My wife had some money an' I had high hopes. We spent our first year of married life travelin' through Kansas. At Dodge I got tied up for a while. You know, in them days Dodge was about the wildest camp on the plains. My wife's brother run a place there. He wasn't much good. But she thought he was perfect. Strange how blood-relations can't see the truth about their own people! Anyway, her brother Spencer had no use for me, because I could tell how slick he was with the cards an' beat him at his own game. Spencer had a gamblin' pard, a cowboy run out of Texas, one Cap Fol-But no matter about his name. One night they were fleecin' a stranger an' I broke into the game, winnin' all they had. The game ended in a fight, with bloodshed, but nobody killed. That set Spencer an' his pard Cap against me. The stranger was a planter from Louisiana. He'd been an officer in the rebel army. A high-strung, handsome Southerner, fond of wine an' cards an' women. Well, he got to payin' my wife a good deal of attention when I was away, which happened to be often. She never told me. I was jealous those days.
"My little girl you call Columbine was born there durin' a long absence of mine. When I got home Lucy an' the baby were gone. Also the Southerner!... Spencer an' his pard Cap, an' others they had in the deal, proved to me, so it seemed, that the little girl was not really mine!... An' so I set out on a hunt for my wife an' her lover. I found them. An' I killed him before her eyes. But she was innocent, an' so was he, as came out too late. He'd been, indeed, her friend. She scorned me. She told me how her brother Spencer an' his friends had established guilt of mine that had driven her from me.
"I went back to Dodge to have a little quiet smoke with these men who had ruined me. They were gone. The trail led to Colorado. Nearly a year later I rounded them all up in a big wagon-train post north of Denver. Another brother of my wife's, an' her father, had come West, an' by accident or fate we all met there. We had a family quarrel. My wife would not forgive me-would not speak to me, an' her people backed her up. I made the great mistake to take her father an' other brothers to belong to the same brand as Spencer. In this I wronged them an' her.
"What I did to them, Belllounds, is one story I'll never tell to any man who might live to repeat it. But it drove my wife near crazy. An' it made me Hell-Bent Wade!... She ran off from me there, an' I trailed her all over Colorado. An' the end of that trail was not a hundred miles from where we stand now. The last trace I had was of the burnin' of a prairie-schooner by Arapahoes as they were goin' home from a foray on the Utes.... The little girl might have toddled off the trail. But I reckon she was hidden or dropped by her mother, or some one fleein' for life. Your men found her in the columbines."
Belllounds drew a long, deep breath.
"What a man never expects always comes true.... Wade, the lass is yours. I can see it in the way you look at me. I can feel it.... She's been like my own. I've done my best, accordin' to my conscience. An' I've loved her, for all they say I couldn't see aught but Jack.... You'll take her away from me?"
"No. Never," was the melancholy reply.
"What! Why not?"
"Because she loves you.... I could never reveal myself to Collie. I couldn't win her love with a lie. An' I'd have to lie, to be false as hell.... False to her mother an' to Collie an' to all I hold high! I'd have to tell Collie the truth-the wrong I did her mother-thehell I visited upon her mother's people.... She'd fear me."
"Ahuh!... An' you'll never change-I reckon that!" exclaimed Belllounds.
"No. I changed once, eighteen years ago. I can't go back.... I can't undo all I hoped was good."
"You think Collie'd fear you?"
"She'd neverlove me as she does you, or as she loves me even now. That is my rock of refuge."
"She'd hate you, Wade."
"I reckon. An' so she must never know."
"Ahuh!... Wal, wal, life is a hell of a deal! Wade, if you could live yours over again, knowin' what you know now, an' that you'd love an' suffer the same-would you want to do it?"
"Yes. I love life, with all it brings. I wouldn't have the joy without the pain. But I reckon only men who've come to our years would want it over again."
"Wal, I'm with you thar. I'd take what came. Rain an' sun!... But all this you tell, an' the hell you hint at, ain't changin' this hyar deal of Jack's an' Collie's. Not one jot!... If she remains my adopted daughter she marries my son.... Wade, I'm haltered like the north star in that."
"Belllounds, will you take a day to think it over?" appealed Wade.
"Ahuh! But that won't change me."
"Won't it change you to know that if you force this marriage you'll lose all?"
"All! Ain't that more queer talk?"
"I mean lose all-your son, your adopted daughter-his chance of reformin', her hope of happiness. These ought to be all in life left to you."
"Wal, they are. But I can't see your argument. You're beyond me, Wade. You're holdin' back, like you did with your hell-bent story."
Ponderously, as if the burden and the doom of the world weighed him down, the hunter got up and fronted Belllounds.
"When I'm driven to tell I'll come.... But, once more, old man, choose between generosity an' selfishness. Between blood tie an' noble loyalty to your good deed in its beginnin'.... Will you give up this marriage for your son-so that Collie can have the man she loves?"
"You mean your young pard an' two-bit of a rustler-Wils Moore?"
"Wils Moore, yes. My friend, an' a man, Belllounds, such as you or I never was."
"No!" thundered the rancher, purple in the face.
With bowed head and dragging step Wade left the room.
* * * * *
By slow degrees of plodding steps, and periods of abstracted lagging, the hunter made his way back to Moore's cabin. At his entrance the cowboy leaped up with a startled cry.
"Oh, Wade!... Is Collie dead?" he cried.
Such was the extent of calamity he imagined from the somber face of Wade.
"No. Collie's well."
"Then, man, what on earth's happened?"
"Nothin' yet.... But somethin' is goin' on in my mind.... Moore, I'd like you to let me alone."
At sunset Wade was pacing the aspen grove on the hill. There was sunlight and shade under the trees, a rosy gold on the sage slopes, a purple-and-violet veil between the black ranges and the sinking sun.
Twilight fell. The stars came out white and clear. Night cloaked the valley with dark shadows and the hills with its obscurity. The blue vault overhead deepened and darkened. The hunter patrolled his beat, and hours were moments to him. He heard the low hum of the insects, the murmur of running water, the rustle of the wind. A coyote cut the keen air with high-keyed, staccato cry. The owls hooted, with dismal and weird plaint, one to the other. Then a wolf mourned. But these sounds only accentuated the loneliness and wildness of the silent night.
Wade listened to them, to the silence. He felt the wildness and loneliness of the place, the breathing of nature; he peered aloft at the velvet blue of the mysterious sky with its deceiving stars. All that had been of help to him through days of trial was now as if it had never been. When he lifted his eyes to the great, dark peak, so bold and clear-cut against the sky, it was not to receive strength again. Nature in its cruelty mocked him. His struggle had to do with the most perfect of nature's works-man.
Wade was now in passionate strife with the encroaching mood that was a mocker of his idealism. Many times during the strange, long martyrdom of his penance had he faced this crisis, only to go down to defeat before elemental instincts. His soul was steeped in gloom, but his intelligence had not yet succumbed to passion. The beauty of Columbine's character and the nobility of Moore's were not illusions to Wade. They were true. These two were of the finest fiber of human nature. They loved. They represented youth and hope-a progress through the ages toward a better race. Wade believed in the good to be, in the future of men. Nevertheless, all that was fine and worthy in Columbine and Moore was to go unrewarded, unfulfilled, because of the selfish pride of an old man and the evil passion of the son. It was a conflict as old as life. Of what avail were Columbine's high sense of duty, Moore's fine manhood, the many victories they had won over the headlong and imperious desires of love? What avail were Wade's good offices, his spiritual teaching, his eternal hope in the order of circumstances working out to good? These beautiful characteristics of virtue were not so strong as the unchangeable passion of old Belllounds and the vicious depravity of his son. Wade could not imagine himself a god, proving that the wages of sin was death. Yet in his life he had often been an impassive destiny, meting out terrible consequences. Here he was incalculably involved. This was the cumulative end of years of mounting plots, tangled and woven into the web of his pain and his remorse and his ideal. But hope was dying. That was his strife-realization against the morbid clairvoyance of his mind. He could not help Jack Belllounds to be a better man. He could not inspire the old rancher to a forgetfulness of selfish and blinded aims. He could not prove to Moore the truth of the reward that came from unflagging hope and unassailable virtue. He could not save Columbine with his ideals.
The night wore on, and Wade plodded under the rustling aspens. The insects ceased to hum, the owls to hoot, the wolves to mourn. The shadows of the long spruces gradually merged into the darkness of night. Above, infinitely high, burned the pale stars, wise and cold, aloof and indifferent, eyes of other worlds of mystery.
In those night hours something in Wade died, but his idealism, unquenchable and inexplicable, the very soul of the man, saw its justification and fulfilment in the distant future.
The gray of the dawn stole over the eastern range, and before its opaque gloom the blackness of night retreated, until valley and slope and grove were shrouded in spectral light, where all seemed unreal.
And with it the gray-gloomed giant of Wade's mind, the morbid and brooding spell, had gained its long-encroaching ascendancy. He had again found the man to whom he must tell his story. Tragic and irrevocable decree! It was his life that forced him, his crime, his remorse, his agony, his endless striving. How true had been his steps! They had led, by devious and tortuous paths, to the home of his daughter.
Wade crouched under the aspens, accepting this burden as a man being physically loaded with tremendous weights. His shoulders bent to them. His breast was sunken and labored. All his muscles were cramped. His blood flowed sluggishly. His heart beat with slow, muffled throbs in his ears. There was a creeping cold in his veins, ice in his marrow, and death in his soul. The giant that had been shrouded in gray threw off his cloak, to stand revealed, black and terrible. And it was he who spoke to Wade, in dreadful tones, like knells. Bent Wade-man of misery-who could find no peace on earth-whose presence unknit the tranquil lives of people and poisoned their blood and marked them for doom! Wherever he wandered there followed the curse! Always this had been so. He was the harbinger of catastrophe. He who preached wisdom and claimed to be taught by the flowers, who loved life and hated injustice, who mingled with his kind, ever searching for that one who needed him, he must become the woe and the bane and curse of those he would only serve! Insupportable and pitiful fate! The fiends of the past mocked him, like wicked ghouls, voiceless and dim. The faces of the men he had killed were around him in the gray gloom, pale, drifting visages of distortion, accusing him, claiming him. Likewise, these gleams of faces were specters of his mind, a procession eternal, mournful, and silent, wending their way on and on through the regions of his thought. All were united, all drove him, all put him on the trail of catastrophe. They foreshadowed the future, they inclosed events, they lured him with his endless illusions. He was in the vortex of a vast whirlpool, not of water or of wind, but of life. Alas! he seemed indeed the very current of that whirlpool, a monstrous force, around which evil circled and lurked and conquered. Wade-who had the ill-omened croak of the raven-Wade-who bent his driven steps toward hell!
* * * * *
In the brilliant sunlight of the summer morning Wade bent his resistless steps down toward White Slides Ranch. The pendulum had swung. The hours were propitious. Seemingly, events that already cast their shadows waited for him. He saw Jack Belllounds going out on the fast and furious ride which had become his morning habit.
Columbine intercepted Wade. The shade of woe and tragedy in her face were the same as he had pictured there in his gloomy vigil of the night.
"My friend, I was coming to you.... Oh, I can bear no more!"
Her hair was disheveled, her dress disordered, the hands she tremblingly held out bore discolored marks. Wade led her into the seclusion of the willow trail.
"Oh, Ben!... He fought me-like-a beast!" she panted.
"Collie, you needn't tell me more," said Wade, gently. "Go up to Wils. Tell him."
"But I must tell you. I can bear-no more.... He fought me-hurt me-and when dad heard us-and came-Jack lied.... Oh, the dog!... Ben, his father believed-when Jack swore he was only mad-only trying to shake me-for my indifference and scorn.... But, my God!-Jack meant...."
"Collie, go up to Wils," interposed the hunter.
"I want to see Wils. I need to-I must. But I'm afraid.... Oh, it will make things worse!"
She turned away, actuated by more than her will.
"Collie!" came the call, piercingly and strangely after her. Bewildered, startled by the wildness of that cry, she wheeled. But Wade was gone. The shaking of the willows attested to his hurry.
* * * * *
Old Belllounds braced his huge shoulders against the wall in the attitude of a man driven to his last stand.
"Ahuh!" he rolled, sonorously. "So hyar you are again?... Wal, tell your worst, Hell-Bent Wade, an' let's have an end to your croakin'."
Belllounds had fortified himself, not with convictions or with illusions, but with the last desperate courage of a man true to himself.
"I'll tell you...." began the hunter.
And the rancher threw up his hands in a mockery that was furious, yet with outward shrinking.
"Just now, when Buster Jack fought with Collie, he meant bad by her!"
"Aw, no!... He was jest rude-tryin' to be masterful.... An' the lass's like a wild filly. She needs a tamin' down."
Wade stretched forth a lean and quivering hand that seemed the symbol of presaged and tragic truth.
"Listen, Belllounds, an' I'll tell you.... No use tryin' to hatch a rotten egg! There's no good in your son. His good intentions he paraded for virtues, believin' himself that he'd changed. But a flip of the wind made him Buster Jack again.... Collie would sacrifice her life for duty to you-whom she loves as her father. Wils Moore sacrificed his honor for Collie-rather than let you learn the truth.... But they call me Hell-Bent Wade, an' I will tell you!"
The straining hulk of Belllounds crouched lower, as if to gather impetus for a leap. Both huge hands were outspread as if to ward off attack from an unseen but long-dreaded foe. The great eyes rolled. And underneath the terror and certainty and tragedy of his appearance seemed to surge the resistless and rising swell of a dammed-up, terrible rage.
"I'll tell you ..." went on the remorseless voice. "I watched your Buster Jack. I watched him gamble an' drink. I trailed him. I found the little circles an' the crooked horse tracks-made to trap Wils Moore.... A damned cunnin' trick!... Burley suspects a nigger in the wood-pile. Wils Moore knows the truth. He lied for Collie's sake an' yours. He'd have stood the trial-an' gone to jail to save Collie from what she dreaded.... Belllounds, your son was in the cabin gamblin' with the rustlers when I cornered them.... I offered to keep Jack's secret if he'd swear to give Collie up. He swore on his knees, beggin' in her name!... An' he comes back to bully her, an' worse.... Buster Jack!... He's the thorn in your heart, Belllounds. He's the rustler who stole your cattle!... Your pet son-a sneakin' thief!"
* * *
Jack Belllounds came riding down the valley trail. His horse was in a lather of sweat. Both hair and blood showed on the long spurs this son of a great pioneer used in his pleasure rides. He had never loved a horse.
At a point where the trail met the brook there were thick willow patches, with open, grassy spots between. As Belllounds reached this place a man stepped out of the willows and laid hold of the bridle. The horse shied and tried to plunge, but an iron arm held him.
"Get down, Buster," ordered the man.
It was Wade.
Belllounds had given as sharp a start as his horse. He was sober, though the heated red tinge of his face gave indication of a recent use of the bottle. That color quickly receded. Events of the last month had left traces of the hardening and lowering of Jack Belllounds's nature.
"Wha-at?... Let go of that bridle!" he ejaculated.
Wade held it fast, while he gazed up into the prominent eyes, where fear shone and struggled with intolerance and arrogance and quickening gleams of thought.
"You an' I have somethin' to talk over," said the hunter.
Belllounds shrank from the low, cold, even voice, that evidently reminded him of the last time he had heard it.
"No, we haven't," he declared, quickly. He seemed to gather assurance with his spoken thought, and conscious fear left him. "Wade, you took advantage of me that day-when you made me swear things. I've changed my mind.... And as for that deal with the rustlers, I've got my story. It's as good as yours. I've been waiting for you to tell my father. You've got some reason for not telling him. I've a hunch it's Collie. I'm on to you, and I've got my nerve back. You can gamble I-"
He had grown excited when Wade interrupted him.
"Will you get off that horse?"
"No, I won't," replied Belllounds, bluntly.
With swift and powerful lunge Wade pulled Belllounds down, sliding him shoulders first into the grass. The released horse shied again and moved away. Buster Jack raised himself upon his elbow, pale with rage and alarm. Wade kicked him, not with any particular violence.
"Get up!" he ordered.
The kick had brought out the rage in Belllounds at the expense of the amaze and alarm.
"Did you kickme? " he shouted.
"Buster, I was only handin' you a bunch of flowers-some columbines, as your taste runs," replied Wade, contemptuously.
"I'll-I'll-" returned Buster Jack, wildly, bursting for expression. His hand went to his gun.
"Go ahead, Buster. Throw your gun on me. That'll save maybe a hell of a lot of talk."
It was then Jack Belllounds's face turned livid. Comprehension had dawned upon him.
"You-you want me to fight you?" he queried, in hoarse accents.
"I reckon that's what I meant."
No affront, no insult, no blow could have affected Buster Jack as that sudden knowledge.
"Why-why-you're crazy! Me fight you-a gunman," he stammered. "No-no. It wouldn't be fair. Not an even break!... No, I'd have no chance on earth!"
"I'll give you first shot," went on Wade, in his strange, monotonous voice.
"Bah! You're lying to me," replied Belllounds, with pale grimace. "You just want me to get a gun in my hand-then you'll drop me, and claim an even break."
"No. I'm square. You saw me play square with your rustler pard. He was a lifelong enemy of mine. An' a gun-fighter to boot!... Pull your gun an' let drive. I'll take my chances."
Buster Jack's eyes dilated. He gasped huskily. He pulled his gun, but actually did not have strength or courage enough to raise it. His arm shook so that the gun rattled against his chaps.
"No nerve, hey? Not half a man!... Buster Jack, why don't you finish game? Make up for your low-down tricks. At the last try to be worthy of your dad. In his day he was a real man.... Let him have the consolation that you faced Hell-Bent Wade an' died in your boots!"
"I-can't-fight you!" panted Belllounds. "I know now!... I saw you throw a gun! It wouldn't be fair!"
"But I'll make you fight me," returned Wade, in steely tones. "I'm givin' you a chance to dig up a little manhood. Askin' you to meet me man to man! Handin' you a little the best of it to make the odds even!... Once more, will you be game?"
"Wade, I'll not fight-I'm going-" replied Belllounds, and he moved as if to turn.
"Halt!..." Wade leaped at the white Belllounds. "If you run I'll break a leg for you-an' then I'll beat your miserable brains out!... Have you no sense? Can't you recognize what's comin'?...I'm goin' to kill you, Buster Jack! "
"My God!" whispered the other, understanding fully at last.
"Here's where you pay for your dirty work. The time comes to every man. You've a choice, not to live-for you'll never get away from Hell-Bent Wade-but to rise above yourself at last."
"But what for? Why do you want to kill me? I never harmed you."
"Columbine is my daughter!" replied the hunter.
"Ah!" breathed Belllounds.
"She loves Wils Moore, who's as white a man as you are black."
Across the pallid, convulsed face of Belllounds spread a slow, dull crimson.
"Aha, Buster Jack! I struck home there," flashed Wade, his voice rising. "That gives your eyes the ugly look.... I hate them lyin', bulgin' eyes of yours. An' when my time comes to shoot I'm goin' to put them both out."
"By Heaven! Wade, you'll have to kill me if you ever expect that club-foot Moore to get Collie!"
"He'll get her," replied Wade, triumphantly. "Collie's with him now. I sent her. I told her to tell Wils how you tried to force her-"
Belllounds began to shake all over. A torture of jealous hate and deadly terror convulsed him.
"Buster, did you ever think you'd get her kisses-as Wils's gettin' right now?" queried the hunter. "Good Lord! the conceit of some men!... Why, you poor, weak-minded, cowardly pet of a blinded old man-you conceited ass-you selfish an' spoiled boy!... Collie never had any use for you. An' now she hates you."
"It was you who made her!" yelled Belllounds, foaming at the mouth.
"Sure," went on the deliberate voice, ringing with scorn. "An' only a little while ago she called you a dog.... I reckon she meant a different kind of a dog than the hounds over there. For to say they were like you would be an insult to them.... Sure she hates you, an' I'll gamble right now she's got her arms around Wils's neck!"
"--!" hissed Belllounds.
"Well, you've got a gun in your hand," went on the taunting voice. "Ahuh!... Have it your way. I'm warmin' up now, an' I'd like to tell you ..."
"Shut up!" interrupted the other, frantically. The blood in him was rising to a fever heat. But fear still clamped him. He could not raise the gun and he seemed in agony.
"Your father knows you're a thief," declared Wade, with remorseless, deliberate intent. "I told him how I watched you-trailed you-an' learned the plot you hatched against Wils Moore.... Buster Jack busted himself at last, stealin' his own father's cattle.... I've seen some ragin' men in my day, but Old Bill had them beaten. You've disgraced him-broken his heart-embittered the end of his life.... An' he'd mean for you what I mean now!"
"He'd never-harm me!" gasped Buster Jack, shuddering.
"He'd kill you-you white-livered pup!" cried Wade, with terrible force. "Kill you before he'd let you go to worse dishonor!... An' I'm goin' to save him stainin' his hands."
"I'll killyou! " burst out Belllounds, ending in a shriek. But this was not the temper that always produced heedless action in him. It was hate. He could not raise the gun. His intelligence still dominated his will. Yet fury had mitigated his terror.
"You'll be doin' me a service, Buster.... But you're mighty slow at startin'. I reckon I'll have to play my last trump to make you fight. Oh, by God! I can tell you!... Belllounds, there're dead men callin' me now. Callin' me not to murder you in cold blood! I killed one man once-a man who wouldn't fight-an innocent man! I killed him with my bare hands, an' if I tell you my story-an' how I killed him-an' that I'll do the same for you.... You'll save me that, Buster. No man with a gun in his hands could face what he knew.... But save me more. Save me the tellin'!"
"No! No! I won't listen!"
"Maybe I won't have to," replied Wade, mournfully. He paused, breathing heavily. The sober calm was gone.
Belllounds lowered the half-raised gun, instantly answering to the strange break in Wade's strained dominance.
"Don't tell me-any more! I'll not listen!... I won't fight! Wade, you're crazy! Let me off an' I swear-"
"Buster, I told Collie you were three years in jail!" suddenly interrupted Wade.
A mortal blow dealt Belllounds would not have caused such a shock of amaze, of torture. The secret of the punishment meted out to him by his father! The hideous thing which, instead of reforming, had ruined him! All of hell was expressed in his burning eyes.
"Ahuh!... I've known it long!" cried Wade, tragically. "Buster Jack, you're the man who must hear my story....I'll tell you ...."
* * * * *
In the aspen grove up the slope of Sage Valley Columbine and Wilson were sitting on a log. Whatever had been their discourse, it had left Moore with head bowed in his hands, and with Columbine staring with sad eyes that did not see what they looked at. Columbine's mind then seemed a dull blank. Suddenly she started.
"Wils!" she cried. "Did you hear-anything?"
"No," he replied, wearily raising his head.
"I thought I heard a shot," said Columbine. "It-it sort of made me jump. I'm nervous."
Scarcely had she finished speaking when two clear, deep detonations rang out. Gun-shots!
"There!... Oh, Wils! Did you hear?"
"Hear!" whispered Moore. He grew singularly white. "Yes-yes!... Collie-"
"Wils," she interrupted, wildly, as she began to shake. "Just a little bit ago-I saw Jack riding down the trail!"
"Collie!... Those two shots came from Wade's guns I'd know it among a thousand!... Are you sure you heard a shot before?"
"Oh, something dreadful has happened! Yes, I'm sure. Perfectly sure. A shot not so loud or heavy."
"My God!" exclaimed Moore, staring aghast at Columbine.
"Maybe that's what Wade meant. I never saw through him."
"Tell me. Oh, I don't understand!" wailed Columbine, wringing her hands.
Moore did not explain what he meant. For a crippled man, he made quick time in getting to his horse and mounting.
"Collie, I'll ride down there. I'm afraid something has happened.... I never understood him!... I forgot he was Hell-Bent Wade! If there's been a-a fight or any trouble-I'll ride back and meet you."
Then he rode down the trail.
Columbine had come without her horse, and she started homeward on foot. Her steps dragged. She knew something dreadful had happened. Her heart beat slowly and painfully; there was an oppression upon her breast; her brain whirled with contending tides of thought. She remembered Wade's face. How blind she had been! It exhausted her to walk, though she went so slowly. There seemed to be a chill and a darkening in the atmosphere, an unreality in the familiar slopes and groves, a strangeness and shadow upon White Slides Valley.
Moore did not return to meet her. His white horse grazed in the pasture opposite the first clump of willows, where Sage Valley merged into the larger valley. Then she saw other horses, among them Lem Billings's bay mustang. Columbine faltered on, when suddenly she recognized the horse Jack had ridden-a sorrel, spent and foam-covered, standing saddled, with bridle down and riderless-then certainty of something awful clamped her with horror. Men's husky voices reached her throbbing ears. Some one was running. Footsteps thudded and died away. Then she saw Lem Billings come out of the willows, look her way, and hurry toward her. His awkward, cowboy gait seemed too slow for his earnestness. Columbine felt the piercing gaze of his eyes as her own became dim.
"Miss Collie, thar's been-turrible fight!" he panted.
"Oh, Lem!... I know. It was Ben-and Jack," she cried.
"Shore. Your hunch's correct. An' it couldn't be no wuss!"
Columbine tried to see his face, the meaning that must have accompanied his hoarse voice; but she seemed going blind.
"Then-then-" she whispered, reaching out for Lem.
"Hyar, Miss Collie," he said, in great concern, as he took kind and gentle hold of her. "Reckon you'd better wait. Let me take you home."
"Yes. But tell-tell me first," she cried, frantically. She could not bear suspense, and she felt her senses slipping away from her.
"My Gawd! who'd ever have thought such hell would come to White Slides!" exclaimed Lem, with strong emotion. "Miss Collie, I'm powerful sorry fer you. But mebbe it's best so.... They're both dead!... Wade just died with his head on Wils's lap. But Jack never knowed what hit him. He was shot plumb center-both his eyes shot out!... Wade was shot low down.... Montana an' me agreed thet Jack throwed his gun first an' Wade killed him after bein' mortal shot himself."
* * * * *
Late that afternoon, as Columbine lay upon her bed, the strange stillness of the house was disturbed by a heavy tread. It passed out of the living-room and came down the porch toward her door. Then followed a knock.
"Dad!" she called, swiftly rising.
Belllounds entered, leaving the door ajar. The sunlight streamed in.
"Wal, Collie, I see you're bracin' up," he said.
"Oh yes, dad, I'm-I'm all right," she replied, eager to help or comfort him.
The old rancher seemed different from the man of the past months. The pallor of a great shock, the havoc of spent passion, the agony of terrible hours, showed in his face. But Old Bill Belllounds had come into his own again-back to the calm, iron pioneer who had lived all events, over whom storm of years had broken, whose great spirit had accepted this crowning catastrophe as it had all the others, who saw his own life clearly, now that its bitterest lesson was told.
"Are you strong enough to bear another shock, my lass, an' bear it now-so to make an end-so to-morrer we can begin anew?" he asked, with the voice she had not heard for many a day. It was the voice that told of consideration for her.
"Yes, dad," she replied, going to him.
"Wal, come with me. I want you to see Wade."
He led her out upon the porch, and thence into the living-room, and from there into the room where lay the two dead men, one on each side. Blankets covered the prone, quiet forms.
Columbine had meant to beg to see Wade once before he was laid away forever. She dreaded the ordeal, yet strangely longed for it. And here she was self-contained, ready for some nameless shock and uplift, which she divined was coming as she had divined the change in Belllounds.
Then he stripped back the blanket, disclosing Wade's face. Columbine thrilled to the core of her heart. Death was there, white and cold and merciless, but as it had released the tragic soul, the instant of deliverance had been stamped on the rugged, cadaverous visage, by a beautiful light; not of peace, nor of joy, nor of grief, but of hope! Hope had been the last emotion of Hell-Bent Wade.
"Collie, listen," said the old rancher, in deep and trembling tones. "When a man's dead, what he's been comes to us with startlin' truth. Wade was the whitest man I ever knew. He had a queer idee-a twist in his mind-an' it was thet his steps were bent toward hell. He imagined thet everywhere he traveled there he fetched hell. But he was wrong. His own trouble led him to the trouble of others. He saw through life. An' he was as big in his hope fer the good as he was terrible in his dealin' with the bad. I never saw his like.... He loved you, Collie, better than you ever knew. Better than Jack, or Wils, or me! You know what the Bible says about him who gives his life fer his friend. Wal, Wade was my friend, an' Jack's, only we never could see!... An' he was Wils's friend. An' to you he must have been more than words can tell.... We all know what child's play it would have been fer Wade to kill Jack without bein' hurt himself. But he wouldn't do it. So he spared me an' Jack, an' I reckon himself. Somehow he made Jack fight an' die like a man. God only knows how he did that. But it saved me from-from hell-an' you an' Wils from misery.... Wade could have taken you from me an' Jack. He had only to tell you his secret, an' he wouldn't. He saw how you loved me, as if you were my real child.... But. Collie, lass, it washe who was your father!"
With bursting heart Columbine fell upon her knees beside that cold, still form.
Belllounds softly left the room and closed the door behind him.
* * *