The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
Darkness settled down like a black mantle over the valley. Columbine rather hoped to find Wilson waiting to take care of her horse, as used to be his habit, but she was disappointed. No light showed from the cabin in which the cowboys lived; he had not yet come in from the round-up. She unsaddled, and turned Pronto loose in the pasture.
The windows of the long, low ranch-house were bright squares in the blackness, sending cheerful rays afar. Columbine wondered in trepidation if Jack Belllounds had come home. It required effort of will to approach the house. Yet since she must meet him, the sooner the ordeal was over the better. Nevertheless she tiptoed past the bright windows, and went all the length of the long porch, and turned around and went back, and then hesitated, fighting a slow drag of her spirit, an oppression upon her heart. The door was crude and heavy. It opened hard.
Columbine entered a big room lighted by a lamp on the upper table and by blazing logs in a huge stone fireplace. This was the living-room, rather gloomy in the corners, and bare, but comfortable, for all simple needs. The logs were new and the chinks between them filled with clay, still white, showing that the house was of recent build.
The rancher, Belllounds, sat in his easy-chair before the fire, his big, horny hands extended to the warmth. He was in his shirt-sleeves, a gray, bold-faced man, of over sixty years, still muscular and rugged.
At Columbine's entrance he raised his drooping head, and so removed the suggestion of sadness in his posture.
"Wal, lass, hyar you are," was his greeting. "Jake has been hollerin' thet chuck was ready. Now we can eat."
"Dad--did--did your son come?" asked Columbine.
"No. I got word jest at sundown. One of Baker's cowpunchers from up the valley. He rode up from Kremmlin' an' stopped to say Jack was celebratin' his arrival by too much red liquor. Reckon he won't be home to-night. Mebbe to-morrow."
Belllounds spoke in an even, heavy tone, without any apparent feeling. Always he was mercilessly frank and never spared the truth. But Columbine, who knew him well, felt how this news flayed him. Resentment stirred in her toward the wayward son, but she knew better than to voice it.
"Natural like, I reckon, fer Jack to feel gay on gettin' home. I ain't holdin' thet ag'in' him. These last three years must have been gallin' to thet boy."
Columbine stretched her hands to the blaze.
"It's cold, dad," she averred. "I didn't dress warmly, so I nearly froze. Autumn is here and there's frost in the air. Oh, the hills were all gold and red--the aspen leaves were falling. I love autumn, but it means winter is so near."
"Wal, wal, time flies," sighed the old man. "Where'd you ride?"
"Up the west slope to the bluff. It's far. I don't go there often."
"Meet any of the boys? I sent the outfit to drive stock down from the mountain. I've lost a good many head lately. They're eatin' some weed thet poisons them. They swell up an' die. Wuss this year than ever before."
"Why, that is serious, dad! Poor things! That's worse than eating loco.... Yes, I met Wilson Moore driving down the slope."
"Ahuh! Wal, let's eat."
They took seats at the table which the cook, Jake, was loading with steaming victuals. Supper appeared to be a rather sumptuous one this evening, in honor of the expected guest, who had not come. Columbine helped the old man to his favorite dishes, stealing furtive glances at his lined and shadowed face. She sensed a subtle change in him since the afternoon, but could not see any sign of it in his look or demeanor. His appetite was as hearty as ever.
"So you met Wils. Is he still makin' up to you?" asked Belllounds, presently.
"No, he isn't. I don't see that he ever did--that--dad," she replied.
"You're a kid in mind an' a woman in body. Thet cowpuncher has been lovesick over you since you were a little girl. It's what kept him hyar ridin' fer me."
"Dad, I don't believe it," said Columbine, feeling the blood at her temples. "You always imagined such things about Wilson, and the other boys as well."
"Ahuh! I'm an old fool about wimmen, hey? Mebbe I was years ago. But I can see now.... Didn't Wils always get ory-eyed when any of the other boys shined up to you?"
"I can't remember that he did," replied Columbine. She felt a desire to laugh, yet the subject was anything but amusing to her.
"Wal, you've always been innocent-like. Thank the Lord you never leaned to tricks of most pretty lasses, makin' eyes at all the men. Anyway, a matter of three months ago I told Wils to keep away from you--thet you were not fer any poor cowpuncher."
"You never liked him. Why? Was it fair, taking him as boys come?"
"Wal, I reckon it wasn't," replied Belllounds, and as he looked up his broad face changed to ruddy color. "Thet boy's the best rider an' roper I've had in years. He ain't the bronco-bustin' kind. He never drank. He was honest an' willin'. He saves his money. He's good at handlin' stock. Thet boy will be a rich rancher some day."
"Strange, then, you never liked him," murmured Columbine. She felt ashamed of the good it did her to hear Wilson praised.
"No, it ain't strange. I have my own reasons," replied Belllounds, gruffly, as he resumed eating.
Columbine believed she could guess the cause of the old rancher's unreasonable antipathy for this cowboy. Not improbably it was because Wilson had always been superior in every way to Jack Belllounds. The boys had been natural rivals in everything pertaining to life on the range. What Bill Belllounds admired most in men was paramount in Wilson and lacking in his own son.
"Will you put Jack in charge of your ranches, now?" asked Columbine.
"Not much. I reckon I'll try him hyar at White Slides as foreman. An' if he runs the outfit, then I'll see."
"Dad, he'll never run the White Slides outfit," asserted Columbine.
"Wal, it is a hard bunch, I'll agree. But I reckon the boys will stay, exceptin', mebbe, Wils. An' it'll be jest as well fer him to leave."
"It's not good business to send away your best cowboy. I've heard you complain lately of lack of men."
"I sure do need men," replied Belllounds, seriously. "Stock gettin' more 'n we can handle. I sent word over the range to Meeker, hopin' to get some men there. What I need most jest now is a fellar who knows dogs an' who'll hunt down the wolves an' lions an' bears thet're livin' off my cattle."
"Dad, you need a whole outfit to handle the packs of hounds you've got. Such an assortment of them! There must be a hundred. Only yesterday some man brought a lot of mangy, long-eared canines. It's funny. Why, dad, you're the laughing-stock of the range!'
"Yes, an' the range'll be thankin' me when I rid it of all these varmints," declared Belllounds. "Lass, I swore I'd buy every dog fetched to me, until I had enough to kill off the coyotes an' lofers an' lions. I'll do it, too. But I need a hunter."
"Why not put Wilson Moore in charge of the hounds? He's a hunter."
"Wal, lass, thet might be a good idee," replied the rancher, nodding his grizzled head. "Say, you're sort of wantin' me to keep Wils on."
"Why? Do you like him so much?"
"I like him--of course. He has been almost a brother to me."
"Ahuh! Wal, are you sure you don't like him more'n you ought--considerin' what's in the wind?"
"Yes, I'm sure I don't," replied Columbine, with tingling cheeks.
"Wal, I'm glad of thet. Reckon it'll be no great matter whether Wils stays or leaves. If he wants to I'll give him a job with the hounds."
That evening Columbine went to her room early. It was a cozy little blanketed nest which she had arranged and furnished herself. There was a little square window cut through the logs and through which many a night the snow had blown in upon her bed. She loved her little isolated refuge. This night it was cold, the first time this autumn, and the lighted lamp, though brightening the room, did not make it appreciably warmer. There was a stone fireplace, but as she had neglected to bring in wood she could not start a fire. So she undressed, blew out the lamp, and went to bed. Columbine was soon warm, and the darkness of her little room seemed good to her. Sleep she felt never would come that night. She wanted to think; she could not help but think; and she tried to halt the whirl of her mind. Wilson Moore occupied the foremost place in her varying thoughts--a fact quite remarkable and unaccountable. She tried to change it. In vain! Wilson persisted--on his white mustang flying across the ridge-top--coming to her as never before--with his anger and disapproval--his strange, poignant cry, "Columbine!" that haunted her--with his bitter smile and his resignation and his mocking talk of jealousy. He persisted and grew with the old rancher's frank praise.
"I must not think of him," she whispered. "Why, I'll be--be married soon.... Married!"
That word transformed her thought, and where she had thrilled she now felt cold. She revolved the fact in mind.
"It's true, I'll be married, because I ought--I must," she said, half aloud. "Because I can't help myself. I ought to want to--for dad's sake.... But I don't--I don't."
She longed above all things to be good, loyal, loving, helpful, to show her gratitude for the home and the affection that had been bestowed upon a nameless waif. Bill Belllounds had not been under any obligation to succor a strange, lost child. He had done it because he was big, noble. Many splendid deeds had been laid at the old rancher's door. She was not of an ungrateful nature. She meant to pay. But the significance of the price began to dawn upon her.
"It will change my whole life," she whispered, aghast.
But how? Columbine pondered. She must go over the details of that change. No mother had ever taught her. The few women that had been in the Belllounds home from time to time had not been sympathetic or had not stayed long enough to help her much. Even her school life in Denver had left her still a child as regarded the serious problems of women.
"If I'm his wife," she went on, "I'll have to be with him--I'll have to give up this little room--I'll never be free--alone--happy, any more."
That was the first detail she enumerated. It was also the last. Realization came with a sickening little shudder. And that moment gave birth to the nucleus of an unconscious revolt.
The coyotes were howling. Wild, sharp, sweet notes! They soothed her troubled, aching head, lulled her toward sleep, reminded her of the gold-and-purple sunset, and the slopes of sage, the lonely heights, and the beauty that would never change. On the morrow, she drowsily thought, she would persuade Wilson not to kill all the coyotes; to leave a few, because she loved them.
* * * * *
Bill Belllounds had settled in Middle Park in 1860. It was wild country, a home of the Ute Indians, and a natural paradise for elk, deer, antelope, buffalo. The mountain ranges harbored bear. These ranges sheltered the rolling valley land which some explorer had named Middle Park in earlier days.
Much of this inclosed table-land was prairie, where long grass and wild flowers grew luxuriantly. Belllounds was a cattleman, and he saw the possibilities there. To which end he sought the friendship of Piah, chief of the Utes. This noble red man was well disposed toward the white settlers, and his tribe, during those troublous times, kept peace with these invaders of their mountain home.
In 1868 Belllounds was instrumental in persuading the Utes to relinquish Middle Park. The slopes of the hills were heavily timbered; gold and silver had been found in the mountains. It was a country that attracted prospectors, cattlemen, lumbermen. The summer season was not long enough to grow grain, and the nights too frosty for corn; otherwise Middle Park would have increased rapidly in population.
In the years that succeeded the departure of the Utes Bill Belllounds developed several cattle-ranches and acquired others. White Slides Ranch lay some twenty-odd miles from Middle Park, being a winding arm of the main valley land. Its development was a matter of later years, and Belllounds lived there because the country was wilder. The rancher, as he advanced in years, seemed to want to keep the loneliness that had been his in earlier days. At the time of the return of his son to White Slides Belllounds was rich in cattle and land, but he avowed frankly that he had not saved any money, and probably never would. His hand was always open to every man and he never remembered an obligation. He trusted every one. A proud boast of his was that neither white man nor red man had ever betrayed his trust. His cowboys took advantage of him, his neighbors imposed upon him, but none were there who did not make good their debts of service or stock. Belllounds was one of the great pioneers of the frontier days to whom the West owed its settlement; and he was finer than most, because he proved that the Indians, if not robbed or driven, would respond to friendliness.
* * * * *
Belllounds was not seen at his customary tasks on the day he expected his son. He walked in the fields and around the corrals; he often paced up and down the porch, scanning the horizon below, where the road from Kremmling showed white down the valley; and part of the time he stayed indoors.
It so happened that early in the afternoon he came out in time to see a buckboard, drawn by dust-and-lather-stained horses, pull into the yard. And then he saw his son. Some of the cowboys came running. There were greetings to the driver, who appeared well known to them.
Jack Belllounds did not look at them. He threw a bag out of the buckboard and then clambered down slowly, to go toward the porch.
"Wal, Jack--my son--I'm sure glad you're back home," said the old rancher, striding forward. His voice was deep and full, singularly rich. But that was the only sign of feeling he showed.
"Howdy--dad!" replied the son, not heartily, as he put out his hand to his father's.
Jack Belllounds's form was tail, with a promise of his father's bulk. But he did not walk erect; he slouched a little. His face was pale, showing he had not of late been used to sun and wind. Any stranger would have seen the resemblance of boy to man would have granted the handsome boldness, but denied the strength. The lower part of Jack Belllounds's face was weak.
The constraint of this meeting was manifest mostly in the manner of the son. He looked ashamed, almost sullen. But if he had been under the influence of liquor at Kremmling, as reported the day before, he had entirely recovered.
"Come on in," said the rancher.
When they got into the big living-room, and Belllounds had closed the doors, the son threw down his baggage and faced his father aggressively.
"Do they all know where I've been?" he asked, bitterly. Broken pride and shame flamed in his face.
"Nobody knows. The secret's been kept." replied Belllounds.
Amaze and relief transformed the young man. "Aw, now, I'm--glad--" he exclaimed, and he sat down, half covering his face with shaking hands.
"Jack, we'll start over," said Belllounds, earnestly, and his big eyes shone with a warm and beautiful light. "Right hyar. We'll never speak of where you've been these three years. Never again!"
Jack gazed up, then, with all the sullenness and shadow gone.
"Father, you were wrong about--doing me good. It's done me harm. But now, if nobody knows--why, I'll try to forget it."
"Mebbe I blundered," replied Belllounds, pathetically. "Yet, God knows I meant well. You sure were--But thet's enough palaver.... You'll go to work as foreman of White Slides. An' if you make a success of it I'll be only too glad to have you boss the ranch. I'm gettin' along in years, son. An' the last year has made me poorer. Hyar's a fine range, but I've less stock this year than last. There's been some rustlin' of cattle, an a big loss from wolves an' lions an' poison-weed.... What d'you say, son?"
"I'll run White Slides," replied Jack, with a wave of his hand. "I hadn't hoped for such a chance. But it's due me. Who's in the outfit I know?"
"Reckon no one, except Wils Moore."
"Is that cowboy here yet? I don't want him."
"Wal, I'll put him to chasin' varmints with the hounds. An' say, son, this outfit is bad. You savvy--it's bad. You can't run that bunch. The only way you can handle them is to get up early an' come back late. Sayin' little, but sawin' wood. Hard work."
Jack Belllounds did not evince any sign of assimilating the seriousness of his father's words.
"I'll show them," he said. "They'll find out who's boss. Oh, I'm aching to get into boots and ride and tear around."
Belllounds stroked his grizzled beard and regarded his son with mingled pride and doubt. Not at this moment, most assuredly, could he get away from the wonderful fact that his only son was home.
"Thet's all right, son. But you've been off the range fer three years. You'll need advice. Now listen. Be gentle with hosses. You used to be mean with a hoss. Some cowboys jam their hosses around an' make 'em pitch an' bite. But it ain't the best way. A hoss has got sense. I've some fine stock, an' don't want it spoiled. An' be easy an' quiet with the boys. It's hard to get help these days. I'm short on hands now.... You'd do best, son, to stick to your dad's ways with hosses an' men."
"Dad, I've seen you kick horses an' shoot at men" replied Jack.
"Right, you have. But them was particular bad cases. I'm not advisin' thet way.... Son, it's close to my heart--this hope I have thet you'll--"
The full voice quavered and broke. It would indeed have been a hardened youth who could not have felt something of the deep and unutterable affection in the old man. Jack Belllounds put an arm around his father's shoulder.
"Dad, I'll make you proud of me yet. Give me a chance. And don't be sore if I can't do wonders right at first."
"Son, you shall have every chance. An' thet reminds me. Do you remember Columbine?"
"I should say so," replied Jack, eagerly. "They spoke of her in Kremmling. Where is she?"
"I reckon somewheres about. Jack, you an' Columbine are to marry."
"Marry! Columbine and me?" he ejaculated.
"Yes. You're my son an' she's my adopted daughter. I won't split my property. An' it's right she had a share. A fine, strong, quiet, pretty lass, Jack, an' she'll make a good wife. I've set my heart on the idee."
"But Columbine always hated me."
"Wal, she was a kid then an' you teased her. Now she's a woman, an' willin' to please me. Jack, you'll not buck ag'in' this deal?"
"That depends," replied Jack. "I'd marry `most any girl you wanted me to. But if Columbine were to flout me as she used to--why, I'd buck sure enough.... Dad, are you sure she knows nothing, suspects nothing of where you--you sent me?"
"Son, I swear she doesn't."
"Do you mean you'd want us to marry soon?"
"Wal, yes, as soon as Collie would think reasonable. Jack, she's shy an' strange, an' deep, too. If you ever win her heart you'll be richer than if you owned all the gold in the Rockies. I'd say go slow. But contrariwise, it'd mebbe be surer to steady you, keep you home, if you married right off."
"Married right off!" echoed Jack, with a laugh. "It's like a story. But wait till I see her."
* * * * *
At that very moment Columbine was sitting on the topmost log of a high corral, deeply interested in the scene before her.
Two cowboys were in the corral with a saddled mustang. One of them carried a canvas sack containing tools and horseshoes. As he dropped it with a metallic clink the mustang snorted and jumped and rolled the whites of his eyes. He knew what that clink meant.
"Miss Collie, air you-all goin' to sit up thar?" inquired the taller cowboy, a lean, supple, and powerful fellow, with a rough, red-blue face, hard as a rock, and steady, bright eyes.
"I sure am, Jim," she replied, imperturbably.
"But we've gotta hawg-tie him," protested the cowboy.
"Yes, I know. And you're going to be gentle about it."
Jim scratched his sandy head and looked at his comrade, a little gnarled fellow, like the bleached root of a tree. He seemed all legs.
"You hear, you Wyomin' galoot," he said to Jim. "Them shoes goes on Whang right gentle."
Jim grinned, and turned to speak to his mustang. "Whang, the law's laid down an' we wanta see how much hoss sense you hev."
The shaggy mustang did not appear to be favorably impressed by this speech. It was a mighty distrustful look he bent upon the speaker.
"Jim, seein' as how this here job's aboot the last Miss Collie will ever boss us on, we gotta do it without Whang turnin' a hair," drawled the other cowboy.
"Lem, why is this the last job I'll ever boss you boys?" demanded Columbine, quickly.
Jim gazed quizzically at her, and Lem assumed that blank, innocent face Columbine always associated with cowboy deviltry.
"Wal, Miss Collie, we reckon the new boss of White Slides rode in to-day."
"You mean Jack Belllounds came home," said Columbine. "Well, I'll boss you boys the same as always."
"Thet'd be mighty fine for us, but I'm feared it ain't writ in the fatal history of White Slides," replied Jim.
"Buster Jack will run over the ole man an' marry you," added Lem.
"Oh, so that's your idea," rejoined Columbine, lightly. "Well, if such a thing did come to pass I'd be your boss more than ever."
"I reckon no, Miss Collie, for we'll not be ridin' fer White Sides," said Jim, simply.
Columbine had sensed this very significance long before when the possibility of Buster Jack's return had been rumored. She knew cowboys. As well try to change the rocks of the hills!
"Boys, the day you leave White Slides will be a sad one for me," sighed Columbine.
"Miss Collie, we 'ain't gone yet," put in Lem, with awkward softness. "Jim has long hankered fer Wyomin' an' he jest talks thet way."
Then the cowboys turned to the business in hand. Jim removed the saddle, but left the bridle on. This move, of course, deceived Whang. He had been broken to stand while his bridle hung, and, like a horse that would have been good if given a chance, he obeyed as best he could, shaking in every limb. Jim, apparently to hobble Whang, roped his forelegs together, low down, but suddenly slipped the rope over the knees. Then Whang knew he had been deceived. He snorted fire, let out a scream, and, rearing on his hind legs, he pawed the air savagely. Jim hauled on the rope while Whang screamed and fought with his forefeet high in the air. Then Jim, with a powerful jerk, pulled Whang down and threw him, while Lem, seizing the bridle, hauled him over on his side and sat upon his head. Whereupon Jim slipped the loop off one front hoof and pulled the other leg back across one of the hind ones, where both were secured by a quick hitch. Then the lasso was wound and looped around front and back hoofs together. When this had been done the mustang was rolled over on his other side, his free front hoof lassoed and pulled back to the hind one, where both were secured, as had been the others. This rendered the mustang powerless, and the shoeing proceeded.
Columbine hated to sit by and watch it, but she always stuck to her post, when opportunity afforded, because she knew the cowboys would not be brutal while she was there.
"Wal, he'll step high to-morrer," said Lem, as he got up from his seat on the head of Whang.
"Ahuh! An', like a mule, he'll be my friend fer twenty years jest to get a chance to kick me." replied Jim.
For Columbine, the most interesting moment of this incident was when the mustang raised his head to look at his legs, in order to see what had been done to them. There was something almost human in that look. It expressed intelligence and fear and fury.
The cowboys released his legs and let him get up. Whang stamped his iron-shod hoofs.
"It was a mean trick, Whang," said Columbine. "If I owned you that'd never be done to you."
"I reckon you can have him fer the askin'," said Jim, as he threw on the saddle. "Nobody but me can ride him. Do you want to try?"
"Not in these clothes," replied Columbine, laughing.
"Wal, Miss Collie, you're shore dressed up fine to-day, fer some reason or other," said Lem, shaking his head, while he gathered up the tools from the ground.
"Ahuh! An' here comes the reason," exclaimed Jim, in low, hoarse whisper.
Columbine heard the whisper and at the same instant a sharp footfall on the gravel road. She quickly turned, almost losing her balance. And she recognized Jack Belllounds. The boy Buster Jack she remembered so well was approaching, now a young man, taller, heavier, older, with paler face and bolder look. Columbine had feared this meeting, had prepared herself for it. But all she felt when it came was annoyance at the fact that he had caught her sitting on top of the corral fence, with little regard for dignity. It did not occur to her to jump down. She merely sat straight, smoothed down her skirt, and waited.
Jim led the mustang out of the corral and Lem followed. It looked as if they wanted to avoid the young man, but he prevented that.
"Howdy, boys! I'm Jack Belllounds," he said, rather loftily. But his manner was nonchalant. He did not offer to shake hands.
Jim mumbled something, and Lem said, "Hod do."
"That's an ornery--looking bronc," went on Belllounds, and he reached with careless hand for the mustang. Whang jerked so hard that he pulled Jim half over.
"Wal, he ain't a bronc, but I reckon he's all the rest." drawled Jim.
Both cowboys seemed slow, careless. They were neither indifferent nor responsive. Columbine saw their keen, steady glances go over Belllounds. Then she took a second and less hasty look at him. He wore high-heeled, fancy-topped boots, tight-fitting trousers of dark material, a heavy belt with silver buckle, and a white, soft shirt, with wide collar, open at the neck. He was bareheaded.
"I'm going to run White Slides," he said to the cowboys. "What're your names?"
Columbine wanted to giggle, which impulse she smothered. The idea of any one asking Jim his name! She had never been able to find out.
"My handle is Lemuel Archibawld Billings," replied Lem, blandly. The middle name was an addition no one had ever heard.
Belllounds then directed his glance and steps toward the girl. The cowboys dropped their heads and shuffled on their way.
"There's only one girl on the ranch," said Belllounds, "so you must be Columbine."
"Yes. And you're Jack," she replied, and slipped off the fence. "I'm glad to welcome you home."
She offered her hand, and he held it until she extricated it. There was genuine surprise and pleasure in his expression.
"Well, I'd never have known you," he said, surveying her from head to foot. "It's funny. I had the clearest picture of you in mind. But you're not at all like I imagined. The Columbine I remember was thin, white-faced, and all eyes."
"It's been a long time. Seven years," she replied. "But I knew you. You're older, taller, bigger, but the same Buster Jack."
"I hope not," he said, frankly condemning that former self. "Dad needs me. He wants me to take charge here--to be a man. I'm back now. It's good to be home. I never was worth much. Lord! I hope I don't disappoint him again."
"I hope so, too," she murmured. To hear him talk frankly, seriously, like this counteracted the unfavorable impression she had received. He seemed earnest. He looked down at the ground, where he was pushing little pebbles with the toe of his boot. She had a good opportunity to study his face, and availed herself of it. He did look like his father, with his big, handsome head, and his blue eyes, bolder perhaps from their prominence than from any direct gaze or fire. His face was pale, and shadowed by worry or discontent. It seemed as though a repressed character showed there. His mouth and chin were undisciplined. Columbine could not imagine that she despised anything she saw in the features of this young man. Yet there was something about him that held her aloof. She had made up her mind to do her part unselfishly. She would find the best in him, like him for it, be strong to endure and to help. Yet she had no power to control her vague and strange perceptions. Why was it that she could not feel in him what she liked in Jim Montana or Lem or Wilson Moore?
"This was my second long stay away from home," said Belllounds. "The first was when I went to school in Kansas City. I liked that. I was sorry when they turned me out--sent me home.... But the last three years were hell."
His face worked, and a shade of dark blood rippled over it.
"Did you work?" queried Columbine.
"Work! It was worse than work.... Sure I worked," he replied.
Columbine's sharp glance sought his hands. They looked as soft and unscarred as her own. What kind of work had he done, if he told the truth?
"Well, if you work hard for dad, learn to handle the cowboys, and never take up those old bad habits--"
"You mean drink and cards? I swear I'd forgotten them for three years--until yesterday. I reckon I've the better of them."
"Then you'll make dad and me happy. You'll be happy, too."
Columbine thrilled at the touch of fineness coming out in him. There was good in him, whatever the mad, wild pranks of his boyhood.
"Dad wants us to marry," he said, suddenly, with shyness and a strange, amused smile. "Isn't that funny? You and me--who used to fight like cat and dog! Do you remember the time I pushed you into the old mud-hole? And you lay in wait for me, behind the house, to hit me with a rotten cabbage?"
"Yes, I remember," replied Columbine, dreamily. "It seems so long ago."
"And the time you ate my pie, and how I got even by tearing off your little dress, so you had to run home almost without a stitch on?"
"Guess I've forgotten that," replied Columbine, with a blush. "I must have been very little then."
"You were a little devil.... Do you remember the fight I had with Moore--about you?"
She did not answer, for she disliked the fleeting expression that crossed his face. He remembered too well.
"I'll settle that score with Moore," he went on. "Besides, I won't have him on the ranch."
"Dad needs good hands," she said, with her eyes on the gray sage slopes. Mention of Wilson Moore augmented the aloofness in her. An annoyance pricked along her veins.
"Before we get any farther I'd like to know something. Has Moore ever made love to you?"
Columbine felt that prickling augment to a hot, sharp wave of blood. Why was she at the mercy of strange, quick, unfamiliar sensations? Why did she hesitate over that natural query from Jack Belllounds?
"No. He never has," she replied, presently.
"That's damn queer. You used to like him better than anybody else. You sure hated me.... Columbine, have you outgrown that?"
"Yes, of course," she answered. "But I hardly hated you."
"Dad said you were willing to marry me. Is that so?"
Columbine dropped her head. His question, kindly put, did not affront her, for it had been expected. But his actual presence, the meaning of his words, stirred in her an unutterable spirit of protest. She had already in her will consented to the demand of the old man; she was learning now, however, that she could not force her flesh to consent to a surrender it did not desire.
"Yes, I'm willing," she replied, bravely.
"Soon?" he flashed, with an eager difference in his voice.
"If I had my way it'd not be--too soon," she faltered. Her downcast eyes had seen the stride he had made closer to her, and she wanted to run.
"Why? Dad thinks it'd be good for me," went on Belllounds, now, with strong, self-centered thought. "It'd give me responsibility. I reckon I need it. Why not soon?"
"Wouldn't it be better to wait awhile?" she asked. "We do not know each other--let alone care--"
"Columbine, I've fallen in love with you." he declared, hotly.
"Oh, how could you!" cried Columbine, incredulously.
"Why, I always was moony over you--when we were kids," he said. "And now to meet you grown up like this--so pretty and sweet--such a--a healthy, blooming girl.... And dad's word that you'd be my wife soon--mine--why, I just went off my head at sight of you."
Columbine looked up at him and was reminded of how, as a boy, he had always taken a quick, passionate longing for things he must and would have. And his father had not denied him. It might really be that Jack had suddenly fallen in love with her.
"Would you want to take me without my--my love?" she asked, very low. "I don't love you now. I might some time, if you were good--if you made dad happy--if you conquered--"
"Take you! I'd take you if you--if you hated me," he replied, now in the grip of passion.
"I'll tell dad how I feel," she said, faintly, "and--and marry you when he says."
He kissed her, would have embraced her had she not put him back.
"Don't! Some--some one will see."
"Columbine, we're engaged," he asserted, with a laugh of possession. "Say, you needn't look so white and scared. I won't eat you. But I'd like to.... Oh, you're a sweet girl! Here I was hating to come home. And look at my luck!"
Then with a sudden change, that seemed significant of his character, he lost his ardor, dropped the half-bold, half-masterful air, and showed the softer side.
"Collie, I never was any good," he said. "But I want to be better. I'll prove it. I'll make a clean breast of everything. I won't marry you with any secret between us. You might find out afterward and hate me.... Do you have any idea where I've been these last three years?"
"No," answered Columbine.
"I'll tell you right now. But you must promise never to mention it to any one--or throw it up to me--ever."
He spoke hoarsely, and had grown quite white. Suddenly Columbine thought of Wilson Moore! He had known where Jack had spent those years. He had resisted a strong temptation to tell her. That was as noble in him as the implication of Jack's whereabouts had been base.
"Jack, that is big of you," she replied, hurriedly. "I respect you--like you for it. But you needn't tell me. I'd rather you didn't. I'll take the will for the deed."
Belllounds evidently experienced a poignant shock of amaze, of relief, of wonder, of gratitude. In an instant he seemed transformed.
"Collie, if I hadn't loved you before I'd love you now. That was going to be the hardest job I ever had--to tell you my--my story. I meant it. And now I'll not have to feel your shame for me and I'll not feel I'm a cheat or a liar.... But I will tell you this--if you love me you'll make a man of me!"