The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
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 tell me 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. Jack can'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. "How could 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 will kill 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-sized if 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 she were 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--the hell 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 never love 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!"