The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
November was well advanced before there came indications that winter was near at hand.
One morning, when Wade rode up to Moore's cabin, the whole world seemed obscured in a dense gray fog, through which he could not see a rod ahead of him. Later, as he left, the fog had lifted shoulder-high to the mountains, and was breaking to let the blue sky show. Another morning it was worse, and apparently thicker and grayer. As Wade climbed the trail up toward the mountain-basin, where he hunted most these days, he expected the fog to lift. But it did not. The trail under the hoofs of the horse was scarcely perceptible to him, and he seemed lost in a dense, gray, soundless obscurity.
Suddenly Wade emerged from out the fog into brilliant sunshine. In amaze he halted. This phenomenon was new to him. He was high up on the mountain-side, the summit of which rose clear-cut and bold into the sky. Below him spread what resembled a white sea. It was an immense cloud-bank, filling all the valleys as if with creamy foam or snow, soft, thick, motionless, contrasting vividly with the blue sky above. Old White Slides stood out, gray and bleak and brilliant, as if it were an island rock in a rolling sea of fleece. Far across this strange, level cloud-floor rose the black line of the range. Wade watched the scene with a kind of rapture. He was alone on the heights. There was not a sound. The winds were stilled. But there seemed a mighty being awake all around him, in the presence of which Wade felt how little were his sorrows and hopes.
Another day brought dull-gray scudding clouds, and gusts of wind and squalls of rain, and a wailing through the bare aspens. It grew colder and bleaker and darker. Rain changed to sleet and sleet to snow. That night brought winter.
Next morning, when Wade plodded up to Moore's cabin, it was through two feet of snow. A beautiful glistening white mantle covered valley and slope and mountain, transforming all into a world too dazzlingly brilliant for the unprotected gaze of man.
When Wade pushed open the door of the cabin and entered he awakened the cowboy.
"Mornin', Wils," drawled Wade, as he slapped the snow from boots and legs. "Summer has gone, winter has come, an' the flowers lay in their graves! How are you, boy?"
Moore had grown paler and thinner during his long confinement in bed. A weary shade shone in his face and a shadow of pain in his eyes. But the spirit of his smile was the same as always.
"Hello, Bent, old pard!" replied Moore. "I guess I'm fine. Nearly froze last night. Didn't sleep much."
"Well, I was worried about that," said the hunter. "We've got to arrange things somehow."
"I heard it snowing. Gee! how the wind howled! And I'm snowed in?"
"Sure are. Two feet on a level. It's good I snaked down a lot of fire-wood. Now I'll set to work an' cut it up an' stack it round the cabin. Reckon I'd better sleep up here with you, Wils."
"Won't Old Bill make a kick?"
"Let him kick. But I reckon he doesn't need to know anythin' about it. It is cold in here. Well, I'll soon warm it up.... Here's some letters Lem got at Kremmlin' the other day. You read while I rustle some grub for you."
Moore scanned the addresses on the several envelopes and sighed.
"From home! I hate to read them."
"Why?" queried Wade.
"Oh, because when I wrote I didn't tell them I was hurt. I feel like a liar."
"It's just as well, Wils, because you swear you'll not go home."
"Me? I should smile not.... Bent--I--I--hoped Collie might answer the note you took her from me."
"Not yet. Wils, give the lass time."
"Time? Heavens! it's three weeks and more."
"Go ahead an' read your letters or I'll knock you on the head with one of these chunks," ordered Wade, mildly.
The hunter soon had the room warm and cheerful, with steaming breakfast on the red-hot coals. Presently, when he made ready to serve Moore, he was surprised to find the boy crying over one of the letters.
"Wils, what's the trouble?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing. I--I--just feel bad, that's all," replied Moore.
"Ahuh! So it seems. Well, tell me about it?"
"Pard, my father--has forgiven me."
"The old son-of-a-gun! Good! What for? You never told me you'd done anythin'."
"I know--but I did--do a lot. I was sixteen then. We quarreled. And I ran off up here to punch cows. But after a while I wrote home to mother and my sister. Since then they've tried to coax me to come home. This letter's from the old man himself. Gee!... Well, he says he's had to knuckle. That he's ready to forgive me. But I must come home and take charge of his ranch. Isn't that great?... Only I can't go. And I couldn't--I couldn't ever ride a horse again--if I did go."
"Who says you couldn't?" queried Wade. "I never said so. I only said you'd never be a bronco-bustin' cowboy again. Well, suppose you're not? You'll be able to ride a little, if I can save that leg.... Boy, your letter is damn good news. I'm sure glad. That will make Collie happy."
The cowboy had a better appetite that morning, which fact mitigated somewhat the burden of Wade's worry. There was burden enough, however, and Wade had set this day to make important decisions about Moore's injured foot. He had dreaded to remove the last dressing because conditions at that time had been unimproved. He had done all he could to ward off the threatened gangrene.
"Wils, I'm goin' to look at your foot an' tell you things," declared Wade, when the dreaded time could be put off no longer.
"Go ahead.... And, pard, if you say my leg has to be cut off--why just pass me my gun!"
The cowboy's voice was gay and bantering, but his eyes were alight with a spirit that frightened the hunter.
"Ahuh!... I know how you feel. But, boy, I'd rather live with one leg an' be loved by Collie Belllounds than have nine legs for some other lass."
Wilson Moore groaned his helplessness.
"Damn you, Bent Wade! You always say what kills me!... Of course I would!"
"Well, lie quiet now, an' let me look at this poor, messed-up foot."
Wade's deft fingers did not work with the usual precision and speed natural to them. But at last Moore's injured member lay bare, discolored and misshapen. The first glance made the hunter quicker in his movements, closer in his scrutiny. Then he yelled his joy.
"Boy, it's better! No sign of gangrene! We'll save your leg!"
"Pard, I never feared I'd lose that. All I've feared was that I'd be club-footed.... Let me look," replied the cowboy, and he raised himself on his elbow. Wade lifted the unsightly foot.
"My God, it's crooked!" cried Moore, passionately. "Wade, it's healed. It'll stay that way always! I can't move it!... Oh, but Buster Jack's ruined me!"
The hunter pushed him back with gentle hands. "Wils, it might have been worse."
"But I never gave up hope," replied Moore, in poignant grief. "I couldn't. But now!... How can you look at that--that club-foot, and not swear?"
"Well, well, boy, cussin' won't do any good. Now lay still an' let me work. You've had lots of good news this mornin'. So I think you can stand to hear a little bad news."
"What! Bad news?" queried Moore, with a start.
"I reckon. Now listen.... The reason Collie hasn't answered your note is because she's been sick in bed for three weeks."
"Oh no!" exclaimed the cowboy, in amaze and distress.
"Yes, an' I'm her doctor," replied Wade, with pride. "First off they had Mrs. Andrews. An' Collie kept askin' for me. She was out of her head, you know. An' soon as I took charge she got better."
"Heavens! Collie ill and you never told me!" cried Moore. "I can't believe it. She's so healthy and strong. What ailed her, Bent?"
"Well, Mrs. Andrews said it was nervous breakdown. An' Old Bill was afraid of consumption. An' Jack Belllounds swore she was only shammin'."
The cowboy cursed violently.
"Here--I won't tell you any more if you're goin' to cuss that way an' jerk around," protested Wade.
"I--I'll shut up," appealed Moore.
"Well, that puddin'-head Jack is more'n you called him, if you care to hear my opinion.... Now, Wils, the fact is that none of them know what ails Collie. But I know. She'd been under a high strain leadin' up to October first. An' the way that weddin'-day turned out--with Old Bill layin' Jack cold, an' with no marriage at all--why, Collie had a shock. An' after that she seemed pale an' tired all the time an' she didn't eat right. Well, when Buster Jack got over that awful punch he'd got from the old man he made up to Collie harder than ever. She didn't tell me then, but I saw it. An' she couldn't avoid him, except by stayin' in her room, which she did a good deal. Then Jack showed a streak of bein' decent. He surprised everybody, even Collie. He delighted Old Bill. But he didn't pull the wool over my eyes. He was like a boy spoilin' for a new toy, an' he got crazy over Collie. He's sure terribly in love with her, an' for days he behaved himself in a way calculated to make up for his drinkin' too much. It shows he can behave himself when he wants to. I mean he can control his temper an' impulse. Anyway, he made himself so good that Old Bill changed his mind, after what he swore that day, an' set another day for the weddin'. Right off, then, Collie goes down on her back.... They didn't send for me very soon. But when I did get to see her, an' felt the way she grabbed me--as if she was drownin'--then I knew what ailed her. It was love."
"Love!" gasped Moore, breathlessly.
"Sure. Jest love for a dog-gone lucky cowboy named Wils Moore!... Her heart was breakin', an' she'd have died but for me! Don't imagine, Wils, that people can't die of broken hearts. They do. I know. Well, all Collie needed was me, an' I cured her ravin' and made her eat, an' now she's comin' along fine."
"Wade, I've believed in Heaven since you came down to White Slides," burst out Moore, with shining eyes. "But tell me--what did you tell her?"
"Well, my particular medicine first off was to whisper in her ear that she'd never have to marry Jack Belllounds. An' after that I gave her daily doses of talk about you."
"Pard! She loves me--still?" he whispered.
"Wils, hers is the kind that grows stronger with time. I know."
Moore strained in his intensity of emotion, and he clenched his fists and gritted his teeth.
"Oh God! this's hard on me!" he cried. "I'm a man. I love that girl more than life. And to know she's suffering for love of me--for fear of that marriage being forced upon her--to know that while I lie here a helpless cripple--it's almost unbearable."
"Boy, you've got to mend now. We've the best of hope now--for you--for her--for everythin'."
"Wade, I think I love you, too," said the cowboy. "You're saving me from madness. Somehow I have faith in you--to do whatever you want. But how could you tell Collie she'd never have to marry Buster Jack?"
"Because I know she never will," replied Wade, with his slow, gentle smile.
"You know that?"
"How on earth can you prevent it? Belllounds will never give up planning that marriage for his son. Jack will nag Collie till she can't call her soul her own. Between them they will wear her down. My friend, how can you prevent it?"
"Wils, fact is, I haven't reckoned out how I'm goin' to save Collie. But that's no matter. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. I will do it. You can gamble on me, Wils. You must use that hope an' faith to help you get well. For we mustn't forget that you're in more danger than Collie."
"I will gamble on you--my life--my very soul," replied Moore, fervently. "By Heaven! I'll be the man I might have been. I'll rise out of despair. I'll even reconcile myself to being a cripple."
"An', Wils, will you rise above hate?" asked Wade, softly.
"Hate! Hate of whom?"
The cowboy stared, and his lean, pale face contracted.
"Pard, you wouldn't--you couldn't expect me to--to forgive him?"
"No. I reckon not. But you needn't hate him. I don't. An' I reckon I've some reason, more than you could guess.... Wils, hate is a poison in the blood. It's worse for him who feels it than for him against whom it rages. I know.... Well, if you put thought of Jack out of your mind--quit broodin' over what he did to you--an' realize that he's not to blame, you'll overcome your hate. For the son of Old Bill is to be pitied. Yes, Jack Belllounds needs pity. He was ruined before he was born. He never should have been born. An' I want you to understand that, an' stop hatin' him. Will you try?"
"Wade, you're afraid I'll kill him?" whispered Moore.
"Sure. That's it. I'm afraid you might. An' consider how hard that would be for Columbine. She an' Jack were raised sister an' brother, almost. It would be hard on her. You see, Collie has a strange an' powerful sense of duty to Old Bill. If you killed Jack it would likely kill the old man, an' Collie would suffer all her life. You couldn't cure her of that. You want her to be happy."
"I do--I do. Wade, I swear I'll never kill Buster Jack. And for Collie's sake I'll try not to hate him."
"Well, that's fine. I'm sure glad to hear you promise that. Now I'll go out an' chop some wood. We mustn't let the fire go out any more."
"Pard, I'll write another note--a letter to Collie. Hand me the blank-book there. And my pencil.... And don't hurry with the wood."
Wade went outdoors with his two-bladed ax and shovel. The wood-pile was a great mound of snow. He cleaned a wide space and a path to the side of the cabin. Working in snow was not unpleasant for him. He liked the cleanness, the whiteness, the absolute purity of new-fallen snow. The air was crisp and nipping, the frost crackled under his feet, the smoke from his pipe seemed no thicker than the steam from his breath, the ax rang on the hard aspens. Wade swung this implement like a born woodsman. The chips flew and the dead wood smelled sweet. Some logs he chopped into three-foot pieces; others he chopped and split. When he tired a little of swinging the ax he carried the cut pieces to the cabin and stacked them near the door. Now and then he would halt a moment to gaze away across the whitened slopes and rolling hills. The sense of his physical power matched something within, and his heart warmed with more than the vigorous exercise.
When he had worked thus for about two hours and had stacked a pile of wood almost as large as the cabin he considered it sufficient for the day. So he went indoors. Moore was so busily and earnestly writing that he did not hear Wade come in. His face wore an eloquent glow.
"Say, Wils, are you writin' a book?" he inquired.
"Hello! Sure I am. But I'm 'most done now.... If Columbine doesn't answer this ..."
"By the way, I'll have two letters to give her, then--for I never gave her the first one," replied Wade.
"Well, hurry along, boy. I'll be goin' now. Here's a pole I've fetched in. You keep it there, where you can reach it, an' when the fire needs more wood you roll one of these logs on. I'll be up to-night before dark, an' if I don't fetch you a letter it'll be because I can't persuade Collie to write."
"Pard, if you bring me a letter I'll obey you--I'll lie still--I'll sleep--I'll stand anything."
"Ahuh! Then I'll fetch one," replied Wade, as he took the little book and deposited it in his pocket. "Good-by, now, an' think of your good news that come with the snow."
"Good-by, Heaven-Sent Hell-Bent Wade!" called Moore. "It's no joke of a name any more. It's a fact."
Wade plodded down through the deep snow, stepping in his old tracks, and as he toiled on his thoughts were deep and comforting. He was thinking that if he had his life to live over again he would begin at once to find happiness in other people's happiness. Upon arriving at his cabin he set to work cleaning a path to the dog corral. The snow had drifted there and he had no easy task. It was well that he had built an inclosed house for the hounds to winter in. Such a heavy snow as this one would put an end to hunting for the time being. The ranch had ample supply of deer, bear, and elk meat, all solidly frozen this morning, that would surely keep well until used. Wade reflected that his tasks round the ranch would be feeding hounds and stock, chopping wood, and doing such chores as came along in winter-time. The pack of hounds, which he had thinned out to a smaller number, would be a care on his hands. Kane had become a much-prized possession of Columbine's and lived at the house, where he had things his own way, and always greeted Wade with a look of disdain and distrust. Kane would never forgive the hand that had hurt him. Sampson and Jim and Fox, of course, shared Wade's cabin, and vociferously announced his return.
Early in the afternoon Wade went down to the ranch-house. The snow was not so deep there, having blown considerably in the open places. Some one was pounding iron in the blacksmith shop; horses were cavorting in the corrals; cattle were bawling round the hay-ricks in the barn-yard.
The hunter knocked on Columbine's door.
"Come in," she called.
Wade entered, to find her alone. She was sitting up in bed, propped up with pillows, and she wore a warm, woolly jacket or dressing-gown. Her paleness was now marked, and the shadows under her eyes made them appear large and mournful.
"Ben Wade, you don't care for me any more!" she exclaimed, reproachfully.
"Why not, lass?" he asked.
"You were so long in coming," she replied, now with petulance. "I guess now I don't want you at all."
"Ahuh! That's the reward of people who worry an' work for others. Well, then, I reckon I'll go back an' not give you what I brought."
He made a pretense of leaving, and he put a hand to his pocket as if to insure the safety of some article. Columbine blushed. She held out her hands. She was repentant of her words and curious as to his.
"Why, Ben Wade, I count the minutes before you come," she said. "What'd you bring me?"
"Who's been in here?" he asked, going forward. "That's a poor fire. I'll have to fix it."
"Mrs. Andrews just left. It was good of her to drive up. She came in the sled, she said. Oh, Ben, it's winter. There was snow on my bed when I woke up. I think I am better to-day. Jack hasn't been in here yet!"
At this Wade laughed, and Columbine followed suit.
"Well, you look a little sassy to-day, which I take is a good sign," said Wade. "I've got some news that will come near to makin' you well."
"Oh, tell it quick!" she cried.
"Wils won't lose his leg. It's gettin' well. An' there was a letter from his father, forgivin' him for somethin' he never told me."
"My prayers were answered!" whispered Columbine, and she closed her eyes tight.
"An' his father wants him to come home to run the ranch," went on Wade.
"Oh!" Her eyes popped open with sudden fright. "But he can't--he won't go?"
"I reckon not. He wouldn't if he could. But some day he will, an' take you home with him."
Columbine covered her face with her hands, and was silent a moment.
"Such prophecies! They--they--" She could not conclude.
"Ahuh! I know. The strange fact is, lass, that they all come true. I wish I had all happy ones, instead of them black, croakin' ones that come like ravens.... Well, you're better to-day?"
"Yes. Oh yes. Ben, what have you got for me?"
"You're in an awful hurry. I want to talk to you, an' if I show what I've got then there will be no talkin'. You say Jack hasn't been in to-day?"
"Not yet, thank goodness."
"How about Old Bill?"
"Ben, you never call him my dad. I wish you would. When you don't it always reminds me that he's really not my dad."
"Ahuh! Well, well!" replied Wade, with his head bowed. "It is just queer I can never remember.... An' how was he to-day?"
"For a wonder he didn't mention poor me. He was full of talk about going to Kremmling. Means to take Jack along. Do you know, Ben, dad can't fool me. He's afraid to leave Jack here alone with me. So dad talked a lot about selling stock an' buying supplies, and how he needed Jack to go, and so forth. I'm mighty glad he means to take him. But my! won't Jack be sore."
"I reckon. It's time he broke out."
"And now, dear Ben--what have you got for me? I know it's from Wilson," she coaxed.
"Lass, would you give much for a little note from Wils?" asked Wade, teasingly.
"Would I? When I've been hoping and praying for just that!"
"Well, if you'd give so much for a note, how much would you give me for a whole bookful that took Wils two hours to write?"
"Ben! Oh, I'd--I'd give--" she cried, wild with delight. "I'd kiss you!"
"You mean it?" he queried, waving the book aloft.
"Mean it? Come here!"
There was fun in this for Wade, but also a deep and beautiful emotion that quivered through him. Bending over her, he placed the little book in her hand. He did not see clearly, then, as she pulled him lower and kissed him on the cheek, generously, with sweet, frank gratitude and affection.
Moments strong and all-satisfying had been multiplying for Bent Wade of late. But this one magnified all. As he sat back upon the chair he seemed a little husky of voice.
"Well, well, an' so you kissed ugly old Bent Wade?"
"Yes, and I've wanted to do it before," she retorted. The dark excitation in her eyes, the flush of her pale cheeks, made her beautiful then.
"Lass, now you read your letter an' answer it. You can tear out the pages. I'll sit here an' be makin' out to be readin' aloud out of this book here, if any one happens in sudden-like!"
"Oh, how you think of everything!"
The hunter sat beside her pretending to be occupied with the book he had taken from the table when really he was stealing glances at her face. Indeed, she was more than pretty then. Illness and pain had enhanced the sweetness of her expression. As she read on it was manifest that she had forgotten the hunter's presence. She grew pink, rosy, scarlet, radiant. And Wade thrilled with her as she thrilled, loved her more and more as she loved. Moore must have written words of enchantment. Wade's hungry heart suffered a pang of jealousy, but would not harbor it. He read in her perusal of that letter what no other dreamed of, not even the girl herself; and it was certitude of tragic and brief life for her if she could not live for Wilson Moore. Those moments of watching her were unutterably precious to Wade. He saw how some divine guidance had directed his footsteps to this home. How many years had it taken him to get there! Columbine read and read and reread--a girl with her first love-letter. And for Wade, with his keen eyes that seemed to see the senses and the soul, there shone something infinite through her rapture. Never until that unguarded moment had he divined her innocence, nor had any conception been given him of the exquisite torture of her maiden fears or the havoc of love fighting for itself. He learned then much of the mystery and meaning of a woman's heart.