The Rainbow Trail by Zane Grey
XV. Wild Justice
A crescent moon hung above the lofty peak over the valley and a train of white stars ran along the bold rim of the western wall. A few young frogs peeped plaintively. The night was cool, yet had a touch of balmy spring, and a sweeter fragrance, as if the cedars and pinyons had freshened in the warm sun of that day.
Shefford and Fay were walking in the aisles of moonlight and the patches of shade, and Nas Ta Bega, more than ever a shadow of his white brother, followed them silently.
"Fay, it's growing late. Feel the dew?" said Shefford. "Come, I must take you back."
"But the time's so short. I have said nothing that I wanted to say," she replied.
"Say it quickly, then, as we go."
"After all, it's only--will you take me away soon?"
"Yes, very soon. The Indian and I have talked. But we've made no plan yet. There are only three ways to get out of this country. By Stonebridge, by Kayenta and Durango, and by Red Lake. We must choose one. All are dangerous. We must lose time finding Surprise Valley. I hoped the Indian could find it. Then we'd bring Lassiter and Jane here and hide them near till dark, then take you and go. That would give us a night's start. But you must help us to Surprise Valley."
"I can go right to it, blindfolded, or in the dark. . . . Oh, John, hurry! I dread the wait. He might come again."
"Joe says--they won't come very soon."
"Is it far--where we're going--out of the country?"
"Ten days' hard riding."
"Oh! That night ride to and from Stonebridge nearly killed me. But I could walk very far, and climb for ever."
"Fay, we'll get out of the country if I have to carry you."
When they arrived at the cabin Fay turned on the porch step and, with her face nearer a level with his, white and sweet in the moonlight, with her eyes shining and unfathomable, she was more than beautiful.
"You've never been inside my house," she said. "Come in. I've something for you."
"But it's late," he remonstrated. "I suppose you've got me a cake or pie--something to eat. You women all think Joe and I have to be fed."
"No. You'd never guess. Come in," she said, and the rare smile on her face was something Shefford would have gone far to see.
"Well, then, for a minute."
He crossed the porch, the threshold, and entered her home. Her dim, white shape moved in the darkness. And he followed into a room where the moon shone through the open window, giving soft, mellow, shadowy light. He discerned objects, but not clearly, for his senses seemed absorbed in the strange warmth and intimacy of being for the first time with her in her home.
"No, it's not good to eat," she said, and her laugh was happy. "Here--"
Suddenly she abruptly ceased speaking. Shefford saw her plainly, and the slender form had stiffened, alert and strained. She was listening.
"What was that?" she whispered.
"I didn't hear anything," he whispered back.
He stepped softly nearer the open window and listened.
Clip-clop! clip-clop! clip-clop! Hard hoofs on the hard path outside!
A strong and rippling thrill went over Shefford. In the soft light her eyes seemed unnaturally large and black and fearful.
The horse stopped outside. Then followed a metallic clink of spur against stirrup--thud of boots on hard ground--heavy footsteps upon the porch.
A swift, cold contraction of throat, of breast, convulsed Shefford. His only thought was that he could not think.
A voice liberated both Shefford's muscle and mind--a voice of strange, vibrant power. Authority of religion and cruelty of will--these Mormon attributes constituted that power. And Shefford suffered a transformation which must have been ordered by demons. That sudden flame seemed to curl and twine and shoot along his veins with blasting force. A rancorous and terrible cry leaped to his lips.
"Ho--Mary!" Then came a heavy tread across the threshold of the outer room.
Shefford dared not look at Fay. Yet, dimly, from the corner of his eye, he saw her, a pale shadow, turned to stone, with her arms out. If he looked, if he made sure of that, he was lost. When had he drawn his gun? It was there, a dark and glinting thing in his hand. He must fly--not through cowardice and fear, but because in one more moment he would kill a man. Swift as the thought he dove through the open window. And, leaping up, he ran under the dark pinyons toward camp.
Joe Lake had been out late himself. He sat by the fire, smoking his pipe. He must have seen or heard Shefford coming, for he rose with unwonted alacrity, and he kicked the smoldering logs into a flickering blaze.
Shefford, realizing his deliverance, came panting, staggering into the light. The Mormon uttered an exclamation. Then he spoke, anxiously, but what he said was not clear in Shefford's thick and throbbing ears. He dropped his pipe, a sign of perturbation, and he stared.
But Shefford, without a word, lunged swiftly away into the shadow of the cedars. He found relief in action. He began a steep ascent of the east wall, a dangerous slant he had never dared even in daylight, and he climbed it without a slip. Danger, steep walls, perilous heights, night, and black canyon the same--these he never thought of. But something drove him to desperate effort, that the hours might seem short.
. . . . . . . . . .
The red sun was tipping the eastern wall when he returned to camp, and he was neither calm nor sure of himself nor ready for sleep or food. Only he had put the night behind him.
The Indian showed no surprise. But Joe Lake's jaw dropped and his eyes rolled. Moreover, Joe bore a singular aspect, the exact nature of which did not at once dawn upon Shefford.
"By God! you've got nerve--or you're crazy!" he ejaculated, hoarsely.
Then it was Shefford's turn to stare. The Mormon was haggard, grieved, frightened, and utterly amazed. He appeared to be trying to make certain of Shefford's being there in the flesh and then to find reason for it.
"I've no nerve and I am crazy," replied Shefford. "But, Joe--what do you mean? Why do you look at me like that?"
"I reckon if I get your horse that'll square us. Did you come back for him? You'd better hit the trail quick."
"It's you now who're crazy," burst out Shefford.
"Wish to God I was," replied Joe.
It was then Shefford realized catastrophe, and cold fear gnawed at his vitals, so that he was sick.
"Joe, what has happened?" he asked, with the blood thick in his heart.
"Hadn't you better tell me?" demanded the Mormon, and a red wave blotted out the haggard shade of his face.
"You talk like a fool," said Shefford, sharply, and he strode right up to Joe.
"See here, Shefford, we've been pards. You're making it hard for me. Reckon you ain't square."
Shefford shot out a long arm and his hand clutched the Mormon's burly shoulder.
"Why am I not square? What do you mean?"
Joe swallowed hard and gave himself a shake. Then he eyed his comrade steadily.
"I was afraid you'd kill him. I reckon I can't blame you. I'll help you get away. And I'm a Mormon! Do you take the hunch? . . . But don't deny you killed him!"
"Killed whom?" gasped Shefford.
Shefford seemed stricken by a slow, paralyzing horror. The Mormon's changing face grew huge and indistinct and awful in his sight. He was clutched and shaken in Joe's rude hands, yet scarcely felt them. Joe seemed to be bellowing at him, but the voice was far off. Then Shefford began to see, to hear through some cold and terrible deadness that had come between him and everything.
"Say you killed him!" hoarsely supplicated the Mormon.
Shefford had not yet control of speech. Something in his gaze appeared to drive Joe frantic.
"Damn you! Tell me quick. Say you killed him! . . . If you want to know my stand, why, I'm glad! . . . Shefford, don't look so stony! . . . For her sake, say you killed him!"
Shefford stood with a face as gray and still as stone. With a groan the Mormon drew away from him and sank upon a log. He bowed his head; his broad shoulders heaved; husky sounds came from him. Then with a violent wrench he plunged to his feet and shook himself like a huge, savage dog.
"Reckon it's no time to weaken," he said, huskily, and with the words a dark, hard, somber bitterness came to his face.
"Where--is--she?" whispered Shefford.
"Shut up in the school-house," he replied.
"Did she--did she--"
"She neither denied nor confessed."
"Have you--seen her?"
"How did--she look?"
"Cool and quiet as the Indian there. . . . Game as hell! She always had stuff in her."
"Oh, Joe! . . . It's unbelievable!" cried Shefford. "That lovely, innocent girl! She couldn't--she couldn't."
"She's fixed him. Don't think of that. It's too late. We ought to have saved her."
"God! . . . She begged me to hurry--to take her away."
"Think what we can do now to save her," cut in the Mormon.
Shefford sustained a vivifying shock. "To save her?" he echoed.
"Joe, I can hit the trail and let you tell them I killed him," burst out Shefford in panting excitement.
"Reckon I can."
"So help me God I'll do it!"
The Mormon turned a dark and austere glance upon Shefford.
"You mustn't leave her. She killed him for your sake. . . . You must fight for her now--save her--take her away."
"But the law!"
"Law!" scoffed Joe. "In these wilds men get killed and there's no law. But if she's taken back to Stonebridge those iron-jawed old Mormons will make law enough to--to . . . Shefford, the thing is--get her away. Once out of the country, she's safe. Mormons keep their secrets."
"I'll take her. Joe, will you help me?"
Shefford, even in his agitation, felt the Mormon's silence to be a consent that need not have been asked. And Shefford had a passionate gratefulness toward his comrade. That stultifying and blinding prejudice which had always seemed to remove a Mormon outside the pale of certain virtue suffered final eclipse; and Joe Lake stood out a man, strange and crude, but with a heart and a soul.
"Joe, tell me what to do," said Shefford, with a simplicity that meant he needed only to be directed.
"Pull yourself together. Get your nerve back," replied Joe. "Reckon you'd better show yourself over there. No one saw you come in this morning--your absence from camp isn't known. It's better you seem curious and shocked like the rest of us. Come on. We'll go over. And afterward we'll get the Indian, and plan."
They left camp and, crossing the brook, took the shaded path toward the village. Hope of saving Fay, the need of all his strength and nerve and cunning to effect that end, gave Shefford the supreme courage to overcome his horror and fear. On that short walk under the pinyons to Fay's cabin he had suffered many changes of emotion, but never anything like this change which made him fierce and strong to fight, deep and crafty to plan, hard as iron to endure.
The village appeared very quiet, though groups of women stood at the doors of cabins. If they talked, it was very low. Henninger and Smith, two of the three Mormon men living in the village, were standing before the closed door of the school-house. A tigerish feeling thrilled Shefford when he saw them on guard there. Shefford purposely avoided looking at Fay's cabin as long as he could keep from it. When he had to look he saw several hooded, whispering women in the yard, and Beal, the other Mormon man, standing in the cabin door. Upon the porch lay the long shape of a man, covered with blankets.
Shefford experienced a horrible curiosity.
"Say, Beal, I've fetched Shefford over," said Lake. "He's pretty much cut up."
Beal wagged a solemn head, but said nothing. His mind seemed absent or steeped in gloom, and he looked up as one silently praying.
Joe Lake strode upon the little porch and, reaching down, he stripped the blanket from the shrouded form.
Shefford saw a sharp, cold, ghastly face. "Waggoner!" he whispered.
"Yes," replied Lake.
Waggoner! Shefford remembered the strange power in his face, and, now that life had gone, that power was stripped of all disguise. Death, in Shefford's years of ministry, had lain under his gaze many times and in a multiplicity of aspects, but never before had he seen it stamped so strangely. Shefford did not need to be told that here was a man who believed he had conversed with God on earth, who believed he had a divine right to rule women, who had a will that would not yield itself to death utterly. Waggoner, then, was the devil who had come masked to Surprise Valley, had forced a martyrdom upon Fay Larkin. And this was the Mormon who had made Fay Larkin a murderess. Shefford had hated him living, and now he hated him dead. Death here was robbed of all nobility, of pathos, of majesty. It was only retribution. Wild justice! But alas! that it had to be meted out by a white-soled girl whose innocence was as great as the unconscious savagery which she had assimilated from her lonely and wild environment. Shefford laid a despairing curse upon his own head, and a terrible remorse knocked at his heart. He had left her alone, this girl in whom love had made the great change--like a coward he had left her alone. That curse he visited upon himself because he had been the spirit and the motive of this wild justice, and his should have been the deed.
Joe Lake touched Shefford's arm and pointed at the haft of a knife protruding from Waggoner's breast. It was a wooden haft. Shefford had seen it before somewhere.
Then he was struck with what perhaps Joe meant him to see--the singular impression the haft gave of one sweeping, accurate, powerful stroke. A strong arm had driven that blade home. The haft was sunk deep; there was a little depression in the cloth; no blood showed; and the weapon looked as if it could not be pulled out. Shefford's thought went fatally and irresistibly to Fay Larkin's strong arm. He saw her flash that white arm and lift the heavy bucket from the spring with an ease he wondered at. He felt the strong clasp of her hand as she had given it to him in a flying leap across a crevice upon the walls. Yes, her fine hand and the round, strong arm possessed the strength to have given that blade its singular directness and force. The marvel was not in the physical action. It hid inscrutably in the mystery of deadly passion rising out of a gentle and sad heart.
Joe Lake drew up the blanket and shut from Shefford's fascinated gaze that spare form, that accusing knife, that face of strange, cruel power.
"Anybody been sent for?" asked Lake of Beal.
"Yes. An Indian boy went for the Piute. We'll send him to Stonebridge," replied the Mormon.
"How soon do you expect any one here from Stonebridge?"
"To-morrow, mebbe by noon."
"Meantime what's to be done with--this?"
"Elder Smith thinks the body should stay right here where it fell till they come from Stonebridge."
"Waggoner was found here, then?"
"Who found him?"
"Mother Smith. She came over early. An' the sight made her scream. The women all came runnin'. Mother Smith had to be put to bed."
"See here, Joe, I told you all I knowed once before," replied the Mormon, testily.
"I've forgotten. Was sort of bewildered. Tell me again. . . . Who found--her?"
"The women folks. She laid right inside the door, in a dead faint. She hadn't undressed. There was blood on her hands an' a cut or scratch. The women fetched her to. But she wouldn't talk. Then Elder Smith come an' took her. They've got her locked up."
Then Joe led Shefford away from the cabin farther on into the village. When they were halted by the somber, grieving women it was Joe who did the talking. They passed the school-house, and here Shefford quickened his step. He could scarcely bear the feeling that rushed over him. And the Mormon gripped his arm as if he understood.
"Shefford, which one of these younger women do you reckon your best friend? Ruth?" asked Lake, earnestly.
"Ruth, by all means. Just lately I haven't seen her often. But we've been close friends. I think she'd do much for me."
"Maybe there'll be a chance to find out. Maybe we'll need Ruth. Let's have a word with her. I haven't seen her out among the women."
They stopped at the door of Ruth's cabin. It was closed. When Joe knocked there came a sound of footsteps inside, a hand drew aside the window-blind, and presently the door opened. Ruth stood there, dressed in somber hue. She was a pretty, slender, blue-eyed, brown-haired young woman.
Shefford imagined from her pallor and the set look of shock upon her face, that the tragedy had affected her more powerfully than it had the other women. When he remembered that she had been more friendly with Fay Larkin than any other neighbor, he made sure he was right in his conjecture.
"Come in," was Ruth's greeting.
"No. We just wanted to say a word. I noticed you've not been out. Do you know--all about it?"
She gave them a strange glance.
"Any of the women folks been in?" added Joe.
"Hester ran over. She told me through the window. Then I barred my door to keep the other women out."
"What for?" asked Joe, curiously.
"Please come in," she said, in reply.
They entered, and she closed the door after them. The change that came over her then was the loosing of restraint.
"Joe--what will they do with Mary?" she queried, tensely.
The Mormon studied her with dark, speculative eyes. "Hang her!" he rejoined in brutal harshness.
"O Mother of Saints!" she cried, and her hands went up.
"You're sorry for Mary, then?" asked Joe, bluntly.
"My heart is breaking for her."
"Well, so's Shefford's," said the Mormon, huskily. "And mine's kind of damn shaky."
Ruth glided to Shefford with a woman's swift softness.
"You've been my good--my best friend. You were hers, too. Oh, I know! . . . Can't you do something for her?"
"I hope to God I can," replied Shefford.
Then the three stood looking from one to the other, in a strong and subtly realizing moment drawn together.
"Ruth," whispered Joe, hoarsely, and then he glanced fearfully around, at the window and door, as if listeners were there. It was certain that his dark face had paled. He tried to whisper more, only to fail. Shefford divined the weight of Mormonism that burdened Joe Lake then. Joe was faithful to a love for Fay Larkin, noble in friendship to Shefford, desperate in a bitter strait with his own manliness, but the power of that creed by which he had been raised struck his lips mute. For to speak on meant to be false to that creed. Already in his heart he had decided, yet he could not voice the thing.
"Ruth"--Shefford took up the Mormon's unfinished whisper--"if we plan to save her--if we need you--will you help?"
Ruth turned white, but an instant and splendid fire shone in her eyes.
"Try me," she whispered back. "I'll change places with her--so you can get her away. They can't do much to me."
Shefford wrung her hands. Joe licked his lips and found his voice: "We'll come back later." Then he led the way out and Shefford followed. They were silent all the way back to camp.
Nas Ta Bega sat in repose where they had left him, a thoughtful, somber figure. Shefford went directly to the Indian, and Joe tarried at the camp-fire, where he raked out some red embers and put one upon the bowl of his pipe. He puffed clouds of white smoke, then found a seat beside the others.
"Shefford, go ahead. Talk. It'll take a deal of talk. I'll listen. Then I'll talk. It'll be Nas Ta Bega who makes the plan out of it all."
Shefford launched himself so swiftly that he scarcely talked coherently. But he made clear the points that he must save Fay, get her away from the village, let her lead him to Surprise Valley, rescue Lassiter and Jane Withersteen, and take them all out of the country.
Joe Lake dubiously shook his head. Manifestly the Surprise Valley part of the situation presented a new and serious obstacle. It changed the whole thing. To try to take the three out by way of Kayenta and Durango was not to be thought of, for reasons he briefly stated. The Red Lake trail was the only one left, and if that were taken the chances were against Shefford. It was five days over sand to Red Lake--impossible to hide a trail--and even with a day's start Shefford could not escape the hard-riding men who would come from Stonebridge. Besides, after reaching Red Lake, there were days and days of desert-travel needful to avoid places like Blue Canyon, Tuba, Moencopie, and the Indian villages.
"We'll have to risk all that," declared Shefford, desperately.
"It's a fool risk," retorted Joe. "Listen. By tomorrow noon all of Stonebridge, more or less, will be riding in here. You've got to get away to-night with the girl--or never! And to-morrow you've got to find that Lassiter and the woman in Surprise Valley. This valley must be back, deep in the canyon country. Well, you've got to come out this way again. No trail through here would be safe. Why, you'd put all your heads in a rope! . . . You mustn't come through this way. It'll have to be tried across country, off the trails, and that means hell-- day-and-night travel, no camp, no feed for horses--maybe no water. Then you'll have the best trackers in Utah like hounds on your trail."
When the Mormon ceased his forceful speech there was a silence fraught with hopeless meaning. He bowed his head in gloom. Shefford, growing sick again to his marrow, fought a cold, hateful sense of despair.
"Bi Nai!" In his extremity he called to the Indian.
"The Navajo has heard," replied Nas Ta Bega, strangely speaking in his own language.
With a long, slow heave of breast Shefford felt his despair leave him. In the Indian lay his salvation. He knew it. Joe Lake caught the subtle spirit of the moment and looked up eagerly.
Nas Ta Bega stretched an arm toward the east, and spoke in Navajo. But Shefford, owing to the hurry and excitement of his mind, could not translate. Joe Lake listened, gave a violent start, leaped up with all his big frame quivering, and then fired question after question at the Indian. When the Navajo had replied to all, Joe drew himself up as if facing an irrevocable decision which would wring his very soul. What did he cast off in that moment? What did he grapple with? Shefford had no means to tell, except by the instinct which baffled him. But whether the Mormon's trial was one of spiritual rending or the natural physical fear of a perilous, virtually impossible venture, the fact was he was magnificent in his acceptance of it. He turned to Shefford, white, cold, yet glowing.
"Nas Ta Bega believes he can take you down a canyon to the big river-- the Colorado. He knows the head of this canyon. Nonnezoshe Boco it's called--canyon of the rainbow bridge. He has never been down it. Only two or three living Indians have ever seen the great stone bridge. But all have heard of it. They worship it as a god. There's water runs down this canyon and water runs to the river. Nas Ta Bega thinks he can take you down to the river."
"Go on," cried Shefford breathlessly, as Joe paused.
"The Indian plans this way. God, it's great! . . . If only I can do my end! . . . He plans to take mustangs to-day and wait with them for you to-night or to-morrow till you come with the girl. You'll go get Lassiter and the woman out of Surprise Valley. Then you'll strike east for Nonnezoshe Boco. If possible, you must take a pack of grub. You may be days going down--and waiting for me at the mouth of the canyon, at the river."
"Joe! Where will you be?"
"I'll ride like hell for Kayenta, get another horse there, and ride like hell for the San Juan River. There's a big flatboat at the Durango crossing. I'll go down the San Juan in that--into the big river. I'll drift down by day, tie up by night, and watch for you at the mouth of every canyon till I come to Nonnezoshe Boco."
Shefford could not believe the evidence of his ears. He knew the treacherous San Juan River. He had heard of the great, sweeping, terrible red Colorado and its roaring rapids.
"Oh, it seems impossible!" he gasped. "You'll just lose your life for nothing."
"The Indian will turn the trick, I tell you. Take my hunch. It's nothing for me to drift down a swift river. I worked a ferry-boat once."
Shefford, to whom flying straws would have seemed stable, caught the inflection of defiance and daring and hope of the Mormon's spirit.
"What then--after you meet us at the mouth of Nonnezoshe Boco?" he queried.
"We'll all drift down to Lee's Ferry. That's at the head of Marble Canyon. We'll get out on the south side of the river, thus avoiding any Mormons at the ferry. Nas Ta Bega knows the country. It's open desert--on the other side of these plateaus. He can get horses from Navajos. Then you'll strike south for Willow Springs."
"Willow Springs? That's Presbrey's trading-post," said Shefford.
"Never met him. But he'll see you safe out of the Painted Desert. . . . The thing that worries me most is how not to miss you all at the mouth of Nonnezoshe. You must have sharp eyes. But I forget the Indian. A bird couldn't pass him. . . . And suppose Nonnezoshe Boco has a steep-walled, narrow mouth opening into a rapids! . . . Whew! Well, the Indian will figure that, too. Now, let's put our heads together and plan how to turn this end of the trick here. Getting the girl!"
After a short colloquy it was arranged that Shefford would go to Ruth and talk to her of the aid she had promised. Joe averred that this aid could be best given by Ruth going in her somber gown and hood to the school-house, and there, while Joe and Shefford engaged the guards outside, she would change apparel and places with Fay and let her come forth.
"What'll they do to Ruth?" demanded Shefford. "We can't accept her sacrifice if she's to suffer--or be punished."
"Reckon Ruth has a strong hunch that she can get away with it. Did you notice how strange she said that? Well, they can't do much to her. The bishop may damn her soul. But--Ruth--"
Here Lake hesitated and broke off. Not improbably he had meant to say that of all the Mormon women in the valley Ruth was the least likely to suffer from punishment inflicted upon her soul.
"Anyway, it's our only chance," went on Joe, "unless we kill a couple of men. Ruth will gladly take what comes to help you."
"All right; I consent," replied Shefford, with emotion. "And now after she comes out--the supposed Ruth--what then?"
"You can be natural-like. Go with her back to Ruth's cabin. Then stroll off into the cedars. Then climb the west wall. Meanwhile Nas Ta Bega will ride off with a pack of grub and Nack-yal and several other mustangs. He'll wait for you or you'll wait for him, as the case may be, at some appointed place. When you're gone I'll jump my horse and hit the trail for Kayenta and the San Juan."
"Very well; that's settled," said Shefford, soberly. "I'll go at once to see Ruth. You and Nas Ta Bega decide on where I'm to meet him."
"Reckon you'd do just as well to walk round and come up to Ruth's from the other side--instead of going through the village," suggested Joe.
Shefford approached Ruth's cabin in a roundabout way; nevertheless, she saw him coming before he got there and, opening the door, stood pale, composed, and quietly bade him enter. Briefly, in low and earnest voice, Shefford acquainted her with the plan.
"You love her so much," she said, wistfully, wonderingly.
"Indeed I do. Is it too much to ask of you to do this thing?" he asked.
"Do it?" she queried, with a flash of spirit. "Of course I'll do it."
"Ruth, I can't thank you. I can't. I've only a faint idea what you're risking. That distresses me. I'm afraid of what may happen to you."
She gave him another of the strange glances. "I don't risk so much as you think," she said, significantly.
She came close to him, and her hands clasped his arms and she looked up at him, her eyes darkening and her face growing paler. "Will you swear to keep my secret?" she asked, very low.
"Yes, I swear."
"I was one of Waggoner's sealed wives!"
"God Almighty!" broke out Shefford, utterly overwhelmed.
"Yes. That's why I say I don't risk so much. I will make up a story to tell the bishop and everybody. I'll tell that Waggoner was jealous, that he was brutal to Mary, that I believed she was goaded to her mad deed, that I thought she ought to be free. They'll be terrible. But what can they do to me? My husband is dead . . . and if I have to go to hell to keep from marrying another married Mormon, I'll go!"
In that low, passionate utterance Shefford read the death-blow to the old Mormon polygamous creed. In the uplift of his spirit, in the joy at this revelation, he almost forgot the stern matter at hand. Ruth and Joe Lake belonged to a younger generation of Mormons. Their nobility in this instance was in part a revolt at the conditions of their lives. Doubt was knocking at Joe Lake's heart, and conviction had come to this young sealed wife, bitter and hopeless while she had been fettered, strong and mounting now that she was free. In a flash of inspiration Shefford saw the old order changing. The Mormon creed might survive, but that part of it which was an affront to nature, a horrible yoke on women's necks, was doomed. It could not live. It could never have survived more than a generation or two of religious fanatics. Shefford had marked a different force and religious fervor in the younger Mormons, and now he understood them.
"Ruth, you talk wildly," he said. "But I understand. I see. You are free and you're going to stay free. . . . It stuns me to think of that man of many wives. What did you feel when you were told he was dead?"
"I dare not think of that. It makes me--wicked. And he was good to me. . . . Listen. Last night about midnight he came to my window and woke me. I got up and let him in. He was in a terrible state. I thought he was crazy. He walked the floor and called on his saints and prayed. When I wanted to light a lamp he wouldn't let me. He was afraid I'd see his face. But I saw well enough in the moonlight. And I knew something had happened. So I soothed and coaxed him. He had been a man as close-mouthed as a stone. Yet then I got him to talk. . . . He had gone to Mary's, and upon entering, thought he heard some one with her. She didn't answer him at first. When he found her in her bedroom she was like a ghost. He accused her. Her silence made him furious. Then he berated her, brought down the wrath of God upon her, threatened her with damnation. All of which she never seemed to hear. But when he tried to touch her she flew at him like a she- panther. That's what he called her. She said she'd kill him! And she drove him out of her house. . . . He was all weak and unstrung, and I believe scared, too, when he came to me. She must have been a fury. Those quiet, gentle women are furies when they're once roused. Well, I was hours up with him and finally he got over it. He didn't pray any more. He paced the room. It was just daybreak when he said the wrath of God had come to him. I tried to keep him from going back to Mary. But he went. . . . An hour later the women ran to tell me he had been found dead at Mary's door."
"Ruth--she was mad--driven--she didn't know what she--was doing," said Shefford, brokenly.
"She was always a strange girl, more like an Indian than any one I ever knew. We called her the Sago Lily. I gave her the name. She was so sweet, lovely, white and gold, like those flowers. . . . And to think! Oh, it's horrible for her! You must save her. If you get her away there never will be anything come of it. The Mormons will hush it up."
"Ruth, time is flying," rejoined Shefford, hurriedly. "I must go back to Joe. You be ready for us when we come. Wear something loose, easily thrown off, and don't forget the long hood."
"I'll be ready and watching," she said. "The sooner the better, I'd say."
He left her and returned toward camp in the same circling route by which he had come. The Indian had disappeared and so had his mustang. This significant fact augmented Shefford's hurried, thrilling excitement. But one glance at Joe's face changed all that to a sudden numbness, a sinking of his heart.
"What is it?" he queried.
"Look there!" exclaimed the Mormon.
Shefford's quick eye caught sight of horses and men down the valley. He saw several Indians and three or four white men. They were making camp.
"Who are they?" demanded Shefford.
"Shadd and some of his gang. Reckon that Piute told the news. By to- morrow the valley will be full as a horse-wrangler's corral. . . . Lucky Nas Ta Bega got away before that gang rode in. Now things won't look as queer as they might have looked. The Indian took a pack of grub, six mustangs, and my guns. Then there was your rifle in your saddle-sheath. So you'll be well heeled in case you come to close quarters. Reckon you can look for a running fight. For now, as soon as your flight is discovered, Shadd will hit your trail. He's in with the Mormons. You know him--what you'll have to deal with. But the advantage will all be yours. You can ambush the trail."
"We're in for it. And the sooner we're off the better," replied Shefford, grimly.
"Reckon that's gospel. Well--come on!"
The Mormon strode off, and Shefford, catching up with him, kept at his side. Shefford's mind was full, but Joe's dark and gloomy face did not invite communication. They entered the pinyon grove and passed the cabin where the tragedy had been enacted. A tarpaulin had been stretched across the front porch. Beal was not in sight, nor were any of the women.
"I forgot," said Shefford, suddenly. "Where am I to meet the Indian?"
"Climb the west wall, back of camp," replied Joe. "Nas Ta Bega took the Stonebridge trail. But he'll leave that, climb the rocks, then hide the outfit and come back to watch for you. Reckon he'll see you when you top the wall."
They passed on into the heart of the village. Joe tarried at the window of a cabin, and passed a few remarks to a woman there, and then he inquired for Mother Smith at her house. When they left here the Mormon gave Shefford a nudge. Then they separated, Joe going toward the school-house, while Shefford bent his steps in the direction of Ruth's home.
Her door opened before he had a chance to knock. He entered. Ruth, white and resolute, greeted him with a wistful smile.
"All ready?" she asked.
"Yes. Are you?" he replied, low-voiced.
"I've only to put on my hood. I think luck favors you. Hester was here and she said Elder Smith told some one that Mary hadn't been offered anything to eat yet. So I'm taking her a little. It'll be a good excuse for me to get in the school-house to see her. I can throw off this dress and she can put it on in a minute. Then the hood. I mustn't forget to hide her golden hair. You know how it flies. But this is a big hood. . . . Well, I'm ready now. And--this 's our last time together."
"Ruth, what can I say--how can I thank you?"
"I don't want any thanks. It'll be something to think of always--to make me happy. . . . Only I'd like to feel you--you cared a little."
The wistful smile was there, a tremor on the sad lips, and a shadow of soul-hunger in her eyes. Shefford did not misunderstand her. She did not mean love, although it was a yearning for real love that she mutely expressed.
"Care! I shall care all my life," he said, with strong feeling. "I shall never forget you."
"It's not likely I'll forget you. . . . Good-by, John!"
Shefford took her in his arms and held her close. "Ruth--good-by!" he said, huskily.
Then he released her. She adjusted the hood and, taking up a little tray which held food covered with a napkin, she turned to the door. He opened it and they went out.
They did not speak another word.
It was not a long walk from Ruth's home to the school-house, yet if it were to be measured by Shefford's emotion the distance would have been unending. The sacrifice offered by Ruth and Joe would have been noble under any circumstances had they been Gentiles or persons with no particular religion, but, considering that they were Mormons, that Ruth had been a sealed-wife, that Joe had been brought up under the strange, secret, and binding creed, their action was no less than tremendous in its import. Shefford took it to mean vastly more than loyalty to him and pity for Fay Larkin. As Ruth and Joe had arisen to this height, so perhaps would other young Mormons, have arisen. It needed only the situation, the climax, to focus these long-insulated, slow-developing and inquiring minds upon the truth--that one wife, one mother of children, for one man at one time as a law of nature, love, and righteousness. Shefford felt as if he were marching with the whole younger generation of Mormons, as if somehow he had been a humble instrument in the working out of their destiny, in the awakening that was to eliminate from their religion the only thing which kept it from being as good for man, and perhaps as true, as any other religion.
And then suddenly he turned the corner of school-house to encounter Joe talking with the Mormon Henninger. Elder Smith was not present.
"Why, hello, Ruth!" greeted Joe. "You've fetched Mary some dinner. Now that's good of you."
"May I go in?" asked Ruth.
"Reckon so," replied Henninger, scratching his head. He appeared to be tractable, and probably was good-natured under pleasant conditions. "She ought to have somethin' to eat. An' nobody 'pears--to have remembered that--we're so set up."
He unbarred the huge, clumsy door and allowed Ruth to pass in.
"Joe, you can go in if you want," he said. "But hurry out before Elder Smith comes back from his dinner."
Joe mumbled something, gave a husky cough, and then went in.
Shefford experienced great difficulty in presenting to this mild Mormon a natural and unagitated front. When all his internal structure seemed to be in a state of turmoil he did not see how it was possible to keep the fact from showing in his face. So he turned away and took aimless steps here and there.
"'Pears like we'd hev rain," observed Henninger. "It's right warm an' them clouds are onseasonable."
"Yes," replied Shefford. "Hope so. A little rain would be good for the grass."
"Joe tells me Shadd rode in, an' some of his fellers."
"So I see. About eight in the party."
Shefford was gritting his teeth and preparing to endure the ordeal of controlling his mind and expression when the door opened and Joe stalked out. He had his sombrero pulled down so that it hid the upper half of his face. His lips were a shade off healthy color. He stood there with his back to the door.
"Say, what Mary needs is quiet--to be left alone," he said. "Ruth says if she rests, sleeps a little, she won't get fever. . . . Henninger, don't let anybody disturb her till night."
"All right, Joe," replied the Mormon. "An' I take it good of Ruth an' you to concern yourselves."
A slight tap on the inside of the door sent Shefford's pulses to throbbing. Joe opened it with a strong and vigorous sweep that meant more than the mere action.
"Ruth--reckon you didn't stay long," he said, and his voice rang clear. "Sure you feel sick and weak. Why, seeing her flustered even me!"
A slender, dark-garbed woman wearing a long black hood stepped uncertainly out. She appeared to be Ruth. Shefford's heart stood still because she looked so like Ruth. But she did not step steadily, she seemed dazed, she did not raise the hooded head.
"Go home," said Joe, and his voice rang a little louder. "Take her home, Shefford. Or, better, walk her round some. She's faintish . . . . And see here, Henninger--"
Shefford led the girl away with a hand in apparent carelessness on her arm. After a few rods she walked with a freer step and then a swifter. He found it necessary to make that hold on her arm a real one, so as to keep her from walking too fast. No one, however, appeared to observe them. When they passed Ruth's house then Shefford began to lose his fear that this was not Fay Larkin. He was far from being calm or clear-sighted. He thought he recognized that free step; nevertheless, he could not make sure. When they passed under the trees, crossed the brook, and turned down along the west wall, then doubt ceased in Shefford's mind. He knew this was not Ruth. Still, so strange was his agitation, so keen his suspense, that he needed confirmation of ear, of eye. He wanted to hear her voice, to see her face. Yet just as strangely there was a twist of feeling, a reluctance, a sadness that kept off the moment.
They reached the low, slow-swelling slant of wall and started to ascend. How impossible not to recognize Fay Larkin now in that swift grace and skill on the steep wall! Still, though he knew her, he perversely clung to the unreality of the moment. But when a long braid of dead-gold hair tumbled from under the hood, then his heart leaped. That identified Fay Larkin. He had freed her. He was taking her away. Then a sadness embittered his joy.
As always before, she distanced him in the ascent to the top. She went on without looking back. But Shefford had an irresistible desire to took again and the last time at this valley where he had suffered and loved so much.