The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
Spring came early that year at White Slides Ranch. The snow melted off the valleys, and the wild flowers peeped from the greening grass while yet the mountain domes were white. The long stone slides were glistening wet, and the brooks ran full-banked, noisy and turbulent and roily.
Soft and fresh of color the gray old sage slopes came out from under their winter mantle; the bleached tufts of grass waved in the wind and showed tiny blades of green at the roots; the aspens and oaks, and the vines on fences and cliffs, and the round-clumped, brook-bordering willows took on a hue of spring.
The mustangs and colts in the pastures snorted and ran and kicked and cavorted; and on the hillsides the cows began to climb higher, searching for the tender greens, bawling for the new-born calves. Eagles shrieked the release of the snow-bound peaks, and the elks bugled their piercing calls. The grouse-cocks spread their gorgeous brown plumage in parade before their twittering mates, and the jays screeched in the woods, and the sage-hens sailed along the bosom of the gray slopes.
Black bears, and browns, and grizzlies came out of their winter's sleep, and left huge, muddy tracks on the trails; the timber wolves at dusk mourned their hungry calls for life, for meat, for the wildness that was passing; the coyotes yelped at sunset, joyous and sharp and impudent.
But winter yielded reluctantly its hold on the mountains. The black, scudding clouds, and the squalls of rain and sleet and snow, whitening and melting and vanishing, and the cold, clear nights, with crackling frost, all retarded the work of the warming sun. The day came, however, when the greens held their own with the grays; and this was the assurance of nature that spring could not be denied, and that summer would follow.
* * * * *
Bent Wade was hiding in the willows along the trail that followed one of the brooks. Of late, on several mornings, he had skulked like an Indian under cover, watching for some one. On this morning, when Columbine Belllounds came riding along, he stepped out into the trail in front of her.
"Oh, Ben! you startled me!" she exclaimed, as she held hard on the frightened horse.
"Good mornin', Collie," replied Wade. "I'm sorry to scare you, but I'm particular anxious to see you. An' considerin' how you avoid me these days, I had to waylay you in regular road-agent style."
Wade gazed up searchingly at her. It had been some time since he had been given the privilege and pleasure of seeing her close at hand. He needed only one look at her to confirm his fears. The pale, sweet, resolute face told him much.
"Well, now you've waylaid me, what do you want?" she queried, deliberately.
"I'm goin' to take you to see Wils Moore," replied Wade, watching her closely.
"No!" she cried, with the red staining her temples.
"Collie, see here. Did I ever oppose anythin' you wanted to do?"
"Not--yet," she said.
"I reckon you expect me to?"
She did not answer that. Her eyes drooped, and she nervously twisted the bridle reins.
"Do you doubt my--my good intentions toward you--my love for you?" he asked, in gentle and husky voice.
"Oh, Ben! No! No! It's that I'm afraid of your love for me! I can't bear--what I have to bear--if I see you, if I listen to you."
"Then you've weakened? You're no proud, high-strung, thoroughbred girl any more? You're showin' yellow?"
"Ben Wade, I deny that," she answered, spiritedly, with an uplift of her head. "It's not weakness, but strength I've found."
"Ahuh! Well, I reckon I understand. Collie, listen. Wils let me read your last letter to him."
"I expected that. I think I told him to. Anyway, I wanted you to know--what--what ailed me."
"Lass, it was a fine, brave letter--written by a girl facin' an upheaval of conscience an' soul. But in your own trouble you forget the effect that letter might have on Wils Moore."
"Ben!... I--I've lain awake at night--Oh, was he hurt?"
"Collie, I reckon if you don't see Wils he'll kill himself or kill Buster Jack," replied Wade, gravely.
"I'll see--him!" she faltered. "But oh, Ben--you don't mean that Wilson would be so base--so cowardly?"
"Collie, you're a child. You don't realize the depths to which a man can sink. Wils has had a long, hard pull this winter. My nursin' an' your letters have saved his life. He's well, now, but that long, dark spell of mind left its shadow on him. He's morbid."
"What does he--want to see me--for?" asked Columbine, tremulously. There were tears in her eyes. "It'll only cause more pain--make matters worse."
"Reckon I don't agree with you. Wils just wants an' needs to see you. Why, he appreciated your position. I've heard him cry like a woman over it an' our helplessness. What ails him is lovesickness, the awful feelin' which comes to a man who believes he has lost his sweetheart's love."
"Poor boy! So he imagines I don't love him any more? Good Heavens! How stupid men are!... I'll see him, Ben. Take me to him."
For answer, Wade grasped the bridle of her horse and, turning him, took a course leading away behind the hill that lay between them and the ranch-house. The trail was narrow and brushy, making it necessary for him to walk ahead of the horse. So the hunter did not speak to her or look at her for some time. He plodded on with his eyes downcast. Something tugged at Wade's mind, an old, familiar, beckoning thing, vague and mysterious and black, a presage of catastrophe. But it was only an opening wedge into his mind. It had not entered. Gravity and unhappiness occupied him. His senses, nevertheless, were alert. He heard the low roar of the flooded brook, the whir of rising grouse ahead, the hoofs of deer on stones, the song of spring birds. He had an eye also for the wan wild flowers in the shaded corners. Presently he led the horse out of the willows into the open and up a low-swelling, long slope of fragrant sage. Here he dropped back to Columbine's side and put his hand upon the pommel of her saddle. It was not long until her own hand softly fell upon his and clasped it. Wade thrilled under the warm touch. How well he knew her heart! When she ceased to love any one to whom she had given her love then she would have ceased to breathe.
"Lass, this isn't the first mornin' I've waited for you," he said, presently. "An' when I had to go back to Wils without you--well, it was hard."
"Then he wants to see me--so badly?" she asked.
"Reckon you've not thought much about him or me lately," said Wade.
"No. I've tried to put you out of my mind. I've had so much to think of--why, even the sleepless nights have flown!"
"Are you goin' to confide in me--as you used to?"
"Ben, there's nothing to confide. I'm just where I left off in that letter to Wilson. And the more I think the more muddled I get."
Wade greeted this reply with a long silence. It was enough to feel her hand upon his and to have the glad comfort and charm of her presence once more. He seemed to have grown older lately. The fragrant breath of the sage slopes came to him as something precious he must feel and love more. A haunting transience mocked him from these rolling gray hills. Old White Slides loomed gray and dark up into the blue, grim and stern reminder of age and of fleeting time. There was a cloud on Wade's horizon.
"Wils is waitin' down there," said Wade, pointing to a grove of aspens below. "Reckon it's pretty close to the house, an' a trail runs along there. But Wils can't ride very well yet, an' this appeared to be the best place."
"Ben, I don't care if dad or Jack know I've met Wilson. I'll tell them," said Columbine.
"Ahuh! Well, if I were you I wouldn't," he replied.
They went down the slope and entered the grove. It was an open, pretty spot, with grass and wild flowers, and old, bleached logs, half sunny and half shady under the new-born, fluttering aspen leaves. Wade saw Moore sitting on his horse. And it struck the hunter significantly that the cowboy should be mounted when an hour back he had left him sitting disconsolately on a log. Moore wanted Columbine to see him first, after all these months of fear and dread, mounted upon his horse. Wade heard Columbine's glad little cry, but he did not turn to look at her then. But when they reached the spot where Moore stood Wade could not resist the desire to see the meeting between the lovers.
Columbine, being a woman, and therefore capable of hiding agitation, except in moments of stress, met that trying situation with more apparent composure than the cowboy. Moore's long, piercing gaze took the rose out of Columbine's cheeks.
"Oh, Wilson! I'm so happy to see you on your horse again!" she exclaimed. "It's too good to be true. I've prayed for that more than anything else. Can you get up into your saddle like you used to? Can you ride well again?... Let me see your foot."
Moore held out a bulky foot. He wore a shoe, and it was slashed.
"I can't wear a boot," he explained.
"Oh, I see!" exclaimed Columbine, slowly, with her glad smile fading. "You can't put that--that foot in a stirrup, can you?"
"But--it--it will--you'll be able to wear a boot soon," she implored.
"Never again, Collie," he said, sadly.
And then Wade perceived that, like a flash, the old spirit leaped up in Columbine. It was all he wanted to see.
"Now, folks," he said, "I reckon two's company an' three's a crowd. I'll go off a little ways an' keep watch."
"Ben, you stay here," replied Columbine, hurriedly.
"Why, Collie? Are you afraid--or ashamed to be with me alone?" asked Moore, bitterly.
Columbine's eyes flashed. It was seldom they lost their sweet tranquillity. But now they had depth and fire.
"No, Wilson, I'm neither afraid nor ashamed to be with you alone," she declared. "But I can be as natural--as much myself with Ben here as I could be alone. Why can't you be? If dad and Jack heard of our meeting the fact of Ben's presence might make it look different to them. And why should I heap trouble upon my shoulders?"
"I beg pardon, Collie," said the cowboy. "I've just been afraid of--of things."
"My horse is restless," returned Columbine. "Let's get off and talk."
So they dismounted. It warmed Wade's gloomy heart to see the woman-look in Columbine's eyes as she watched the cowboy get off and walk. For a crippled man he did very well. But that moment was fraught with meaning for Wade. These unfortunate lovers, brave and fine in their suffering, did not realize the peril they invited by proximity. But Wade knew. He pitied them, he thrilled for them, he lived their torture with them.
"Tell me--everything," said Columbine, impulsively.
Moore, with dragging step, approached an aspen log that lay off the ground, propped by the stump, and here he leaned for support. Columbine laid her gloves on the log.
"There's nothing to tell that you don't know," replied Moore. "I wrote you all there was to write, except"--here he dropped his head--"except that the last three weeks have been hell."
"They've not been exactly heaven for me," replied Columbine, with a little laugh that gave Wade a twinge.
Then the lovers began to talk about spring coming, about horses and cattle, and feed, about commonplace ranch matters not interesting to them, but which seemed to make conversation and hide their true thoughts. Wade listened, and it seemed to him that he could read their hearts.
"Lass, an' you, Wils--you're wastin' time an' gettin' nowhere," interposed Wade. "Now let me go, so's you'll be alone."
"You stay right there," ordered Moore.
"Why, Ben, I'm ashamed to say that I actually forgot you were here," said Columbine.
"Then I'll remind you," rejoined the hunter. "Collie, tell us about Old Bill an' Jack."
"Tell you? What?"
"Well, I've seen changes in both. So has Wils, though Wils hasn't seen as much as he's heard from Lem an' Montana an' the Andrews boys."
"Oh!..." Columbine choked a little over her exclamation of understanding. "Dad has gotten a new lease on life, I guess. He's happy, like a boy sometimes, an' good as gold.... It's all because of the change in Jack. That is remarkable. I've not been able to believe my own eyes. Since that night Jack came home and had the--the understanding with dad he has been another person. He has left me alone. He treats me with deference, but not a familiar word or look. He's kind. He offers the little civilities that occur, you know. But he never intrudes upon me. Not one word of the past! It is as if he would earn my respect, and have that or nothing.... Then he works as he never worked before--on dad's books, in the shop, out on the range. He seems obsessed with some thought all the time. He talks little. All the old petulance, obstinacy, selfishness, and especially his sudden, queer impulses, and bull-headed tenacity--all gone! He has suffered physical distress, because he never was used to hard work. And more, he's suffered terribly for the want of liquor. I've heard him say to dad: 'It's hell--this burning thirst. I never knew I had it. I'll stand it, if it kills me.... But wouldn't it be easier on me to take a drink now and then, at these bad times?'... And dad said: 'No, son. Break off for keeps! This taperin' off is no good way to stop drinkin'. Stand the burnin'. An' when it's gone you'll be all the gladder an' I'll be all the prouder.'... I have not forgotten all Jack's former failings, but I am forgetting them, little by little. For dad's sake I'm overjoyed. For Jack's I am glad. I'm convinced now that he's had his lesson--that he's sowed his wild oats--that he has become a man."
Moore listened eagerly, and when she had concluded he thoughtfully bent his head and began to cut little chips out of the log with his knife.
"Collie, I've heard a good deal of the change in Jack," he said, earnestly. "Honest Injun, I'm glad--glad for his father's sake, for his own, and for yours. The boys think Jack's locoed. But his reformation is not strange to me. If I were no good--just like he was--well, I could change as greatly for--for you."
Columbine hastily averted her face. Wade's keen eyes, apparently hidden under his old hat, saw how wet her lashes were, how her lips trembled.
"Wilson, you think then--you believe Jack will last--will stick to his new ways?" she queried, hurriedly.
"Yes, I do," he replied, nodding.
"How good of you! Oh! Wilson, it's like you to be noble--splendid. When you might have--when it'd have been so natural for you to doubt--to scorn him!"
"Collie, I'm honest about that. And now you be just as honest. Do you think Jack will stand to his colors? Never drink--never gamble--never fly off the handle again?"
"Yes, I honestly believe that--providing he gets--providing I--"
Her voice trailed off faintly.
Moore wheeled to address the hunter.
"Pard, what do you think? Tell me now. Tell us. It will help me, and Collie, too. I've asked you before, but you wouldn't--Tell us now, do you believe Buster Jack will live up to his new ideals?"
Wade had long parried that question, because the time to answer it had not come till this moment.
"No," he replied, gently.
Columbine uttered a little cry.
"Why not?" demanded Moore, his face darkening.
"Reckon there are reasons that you young folks wouldn't think of, an' couldn't know."
"Wade, it's not like you to be hopeless for any man," said Moore.
"Yes, I reckon it is, sometimes," replied Wade, wagging his head solemnly. "Young folks, I'm grantin' all you say as to Jack's reformation, except that it's permanent. I'm grantin' he's sincere--that he's not playin' a part--that his vicious instincts are smothered under a noble impulse to be what he ought to be. It's no trick. Buster Jack has all but done the impossible."
"Then why isn't his sincerity and good work to be permanent?" asked Moore, impatiently, and his gesture was violent.
"Wils, his change is not moral force. It's passion."
The cowboy paled. Columbine stood silent, with intent eyes upon the hunter. Neither of them seemed to understand him well enough to make reply.
"Love can work marvels in any man," went on Wade. "But love can't change the fiber of a man's heart. A man is born so an' so. He loves an' hates an' feels accordin' to the nature. It'd be accordin' to nature for Jack Belllounds to stay reformed if his love for Collie lasted. An' that's the point. It can't last. Not in a man of his stripe."
"Why not?" demanded Moore.
"Because Jack's love will never be returned--satisfied. It takes a man of different caliber to love a woman who'll never love him. Jack's obsessed by passion now. He'd perform miracles. But that's not possible. The miracle necessary here would be for him to change his moral force, his blood, the habits of his mind. That's beyond his power."
Columbine flung out an appealing hand.
"Ben, I could pretend to love him--I might make myself love him, if that would give him the power."
"Lass, don't delude yourself. You can't do that," replied Wade.
"How do you know what I can do?" she queried, struggling with her helplessness.
"Why, child, I know you better than you know yourself."
"Wilson, he's right, he's right!" she cried. "That's why it's so terrible for me now. He knows my very heart. He reads my soul.... I can never love Jack Belllounds. Nor ever pretend love!"
"Collie, if Ben knows you so well, you ought to listen to him, as you used to," said Moore, touching her hand with infinite sympathy.
Wade watched them. His pity and affection did not obstruct the ruthless expression of his opinions or the direction of his intentions.
"Lass, an' you, Wils, listen," he said, with all his gentleness. "It's bad enough without you makin' it worse. Don't blind yourselves. That's the hell with so many people in trouble. It's hard to see clear when you're sufferin' and fightin'. But I see clear.... Now with just a word I could fetch this new Jack Belllounds back to his Buster Jack tricks!"
"Oh, Ben! No! No! No!" cried Columbine, in a distress that showed how his force dominated her.
Moore's face turned as white as ashes.
Wade divined then that Moore was aware of what he himself knew about Jack Belllounds. And to his love for Moore was added an infinite respect.
"I won't unless Collie forces me to," he said, significantly.
This was the critical moment, and suddenly Wade answered to it without restraint. He leaped up, startling Columbine.
"Wils, you call me pard, don't you? I reckon you never knew me. Why, the game's `most played out, an' I haven't showed my hand!... I'd see Jack Belllounds in hell before I'd let him have Collie. An' if she carried out her strange an' lofty idea of duty--an' married him right this afternoon--I could an' I would part them before night!"
He ended that speech in a voice neither had ever heard him use before. And the look of him must have been in harmony with it. Columbine, wide-eyed and gasping, seemed struck to the heart. Moore's white face showed awe and fear and irresponsible primitive joy. Wade turned away from them, the better to control the passion that had mastered him. And it did not subside in an instant. He paced to and fro, his head bowed. Presently, when he faced around, it was to see what he had expected to see.
Columbine was clasped in Moore's arms.
"Collie, you didn't--you haven't--promised to marry him--again!"
"No, oh--no! I haven't! I was only--only trying to--to make up my mind. Wilson, don't look at me so terribly!"
"You'll not agree again? You'll not set another day?" demanded Moore, passionately. He strained her to him, yet held her so he could see her face, thus dominating her with both strength and will. His face was corded now, and darkly flushed. His jaw quivered. "You'll never marry Jack Belllounds! You'll not let sudden impulse--sudden persuasion or force change you? Promise! Swear you'll never marry him. Swear!"
"Oh, Wilson, I promise--I swear!" she cried. "Never! I'm yours. It would be a sin. I've been mad to--to blind myself."
"You love me! You love me!" he cried, in a sudden transport.
"Oh, yes, yes! I do."
"Say it then! Say it--so I'll never doubt--never suffer again!"
"I love you, Wilson! I--I love you--unutterably," the whispered. "I love you--so--I'm broken-hearted now. I'll never live without you. I'll die--I love you so!"
"You--you flower--you angel!" he whispered in return. "You woman! You precious creature! I've been crazed at loss of you!"
Wade paced out of earshot, and this time he remained away for a considerable time. He lived again moments of his own past, unforgetable and sad. When at length he returned toward the young couple they were sitting apart, composed once more, talking earnestly. As he neared them Columbine rose to greet him with wonderful eyes, in which reproach blended with affection.
"Ben, so this is what you've done!" she exclaimed.
"Lass, I'm only a humble instrument, an' I believe God guides me right," replied the hunter.
"I love you more, it seems, for what you make me suffer," she said, and she kissed him with a serious sweetness. "I'm only a leaf in the storm. But--let what will come.... Take me home."
They said good-by to Wilson, who sat with head bowed upon his hands. His voice trembled as he answered them. Wade found the trail while Columbine mounted. As they went slowly down the gentle slope, stepping over the numerous logs fallen across the way, Wade caught out of the tail of his eye a moving object along the outer edge of the aspen grove above them. It was the figure of a man, skulking behind the trees. He disappeared. Wade casually remarked to Columbine that now she could spur the pony and hurry on home. But Columbine refused. When they got a little farther on, out of sight of Moore and somewhat around to the left, Wade espied the man again. He carried a rifle. Wade grew somewhat perturbed.
"Collie, you run on home," he said, sharply.
"Why? You've complained of not seeing me. Now that I want to be with you ... Ben, you see some one!"
Columbine's keen faculties evidently sensed the change in Wade, and the direction of his uneasy glance convinced her.
"Oh, there's a man!... Ben, it is--yes, it's Jack," she exclaimed, excitedly.
"Reckon you'd have it better if you say Buster Jack," replied Wade, with his tragic smile.
"Ah!" whispered Columbine, as she gazed up at the aspen slope, with eyes lighting to battle.
"Run home, Collie, an' leave him to me," said Wade.
"Ben, you mean he--he saw us up there in the grove? Saw me in Wilson's arms--saw me kissing him?"
"Sure as you're born, Collie. He watched us. He saw all your love-makin'. I can tell that by the way he walks. It's Buster Jack again! Alas for the new an' noble Jack! I told you, Collie. Now you run on an' leave him to me."
Wade became aware that she turned at his last words and regarded him attentively. But his gaze was riveted on the striding form of Belllounds.
"Leave him to you? For what reason, my friend?" she asked.
"Buster Jack's on the rampage. Can't you see that? He'll insult you. He'll--"
"I will not go," interrupted Columbine, and, halting her pony, she deliberately dismounted.
Wade grew concerned with the appearance of young Belllounds, and it was with a melancholy reminder of the infallibility of his presentiments. As he and Columbine halted in the trail, Belllounds's hurried stride lengthened until he almost ran. He carried the rifle forward in a most significant manner. Black as a thunder-cloud was his face. Alas for the dignity and pain and resolve that had only recently showed there!
Belllounds reached them. He was frothing at the mouth. He cocked the rifle and thrust it toward Wade, holding low down.
"You--meddling sneak! If you open your trap I'll bore you!" he shouted, almost incoherently.
Wade knew when danger of life loomed imminent. He fixed his glance upon the glaring eyes of Belllounds.
"Jack, seein' I'm not packin' a gun, it'd look sorta natural, along with your other tricks, if you bored me."
His gentle voice, his cool mien, his satire, were as giant's arms to drag Belllounds back from murder. The rifle was raised, the hammer reset, the butt lowered to the ground, while Belllounds, snarling and choking, fought for speech.
"I'll get even--with you," he said, huskily. "I'm on to your game now. I'll fix you later. But--I'll do you harm now if you mix in with this!"
Then he wheeled to Columbine, and as if he had just recognized her, a change that was pitiful and shocking convulsed his face. He leaned toward her, pointing with shaking, accusing hand.
"I saw you--up there. I watched--you," he panted.
Columbine faced him, white and mute.
"It was you--wasn't it?" he yelled.
"Yes, of course it was."
She might have struck him, for the way he flinched.
"What was that--a trick--a game--a play all fixed up for my benefit?"
"I don't understand you," she replied.
"Bah! You--you white-faced cat!... I saw you! Saw you in Moore's arms! Saw him hug you--kiss you!... Then--I saw--you put up your arms--round his neck--kiss him--kiss him--kiss him!... I saw all that--didn't I?"
"You must have, since you say so," she returned, with perfect composure.
"But did you?" he almost shrieked, the blood cording and bulging red, as if about to burst the veins of temples and neck.
"Yes, I did," she flashed. There was primitive woman uppermost in her now, and a spirit no man might provoke with impunity.
"You love him?" he asked, very low, incredulously, with almost insane eagerness for denial in his query.
Then Wade saw the glory of her--saw her mother again in that proud, fierce uplift of face, that flamed red and then blazed white--saw hate and passion and love in all their primal nakedness.
"Love him! Love Wilson Moore? Yes, you fool! I love him! Yes! Yes! YES!"
That voice would have pierced the heart of a wooden image, so Wade thought, as all his strung nerves quivered and thrilled.
Belllounds uttered a low cry of realization, and all his instinctive energy seemed on the verge of collapse. He grew limp, he sagged, he tottered. His sensorial perceptions seemed momentarily blunted.
Wade divined the tragedy, and a pang of great compassion overcame him. Whatever Jack Belllounds was in character, he had inherited his father's power to love, and he was human. Wade felt the death in that stricken soul, and it was the last flash of pity he ever had for Jack Belllounds.
"You--you--" muttered Belllounds, raising a hand that gathered speed and strength in the action. The moment of a great blow had passed, like a storm-blast through a leafless tree. Now the thousand devils of his nature leaped into ascendancy. "You!--" He could not articulate. Dark and terrible became his energy. It was like a resistless current forced through leaping thought and leaping muscle.
He struck her on the mouth, a cruel blow that would have felled her but for Wade: and then he lunged away, bowed and trembling, yet with fierce, instinctive motion, as if driven to run with the spirit of his rage.