The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
Nature was prodigal with her colors that autumn. The frosts came late, so that the leaves did not gradually change their green. One day, as if by magic, there was gold among the green, and in another there was purple and red. Then the hilltops blazed with their crowns of aspen groves; and the slopes of sage shone mellow gray in the sunlight; and the vines on the stone fences straggled away in lines of bronze; and the patches of ferns under the cliffs faded fast; and the great rock slides and black-timbered reaches stood out in their somber shades.
Columbines bloomed in all the dells among the spruces, beautiful stalks with heavy blossoms, the sweetest and palest of blue-white flowers. Motionless they lifted their faces to the light. Out in the aspen groves, where the grass was turning gold, the columbines blew gracefully in the wind, nodding and swaying. The most exquisite and finest of these columbines hid in the shaded nooks, star-sweet in the silent gloom of the woods.
Wade's last few whispered words to Moore had been interpreted that the hunter desired to be buried among the columbines in the aspen grove on the slope above Sage Valley. Here, then, had been made his grave.
* * * * *
One day Belllounds sent Columbine to fetch Moore down to White Slides. It was a warm, Indian-summer afternoon, and the old rancher sat out on the porch in his shirt-sleeves. His hair was white now, but no other change was visible in him. No restraint attended his greeting to the cowboy.
"Wils, I reckon I'd be glad if you'd take your old job as foreman of White Slides," he said.
"Are you asking me?" queried Moore, eagerly.
"Wal, I reckon so."
"Yes, I'll come," replied the cowboy.
"What'll your dad say?"
"I don't know. That worries me. He's coming to visit me. I heard from him again lately, and he means to take stage for Kremmling soon."
"Wal, that's fine. I'll be glad to see him.... Wils, you're goin' to be a big cattleman before you know it. Hey, Collie?"
"If you say so, dad, it'll come true," replied Columbine, with her hand on his shoulder.
"Wils, you'll be runnin' White Slides Ranch before long, unless Collie runs you. Haw! Haw!"
Collie could not reply to this startling announcement from the old rancher, and Moore appeared distressed with embarrassment.
"Wal, I reckon you young folks had better ride down to Kremmlin' an' get married."
This kindly, matter-of-fact suggestion completely stunned the cowboy, and all Columbine could do was to gaze at the rancher.
"Say, I hope I ain't intrudin' my wishes on a young couple that's got over dyin' fer each other," dryly continued Belllounds, with his huge smile.
"Dad!" cried Columbine, and then she threw her arms around him and buried her head on his shoulder.
"Wal, wal, I reckon that answers that," he said, holding her close. "Moore, she's yours, with my blessin' an' all I have.... An' you must understand I'm glad things have worked out to your good an' to Collie's happiness.... Life's not over fer me yet. But I reckon the storms are past, thank God!... We learn as we live. I'd hold it onworthy not to look forward an' to hope. I'm wantin' peace an' quiet now, with grandchildren around me in my old age.... So ride along to Kremmlin' an' hurry home."
* * * * *
The evening of the day Columbine came home to White Slides the bride of Wilson Moore she slipped away from the simple festivities in her honor and climbed to the aspen grove on the hill to spend a little while beside the grave of her father.
The afterglow of sunset burned dull gold and rose in the western sky, rendering glorious the veil of purple over the ranges. Down in the lowlands twilight had come, softly gray. The owls were hooting; a coyote barked; from far away floated the mourn of a wolf.
Under the aspens it was silent and lonely and sad. The leaves quivered without any sound of rustling. Columbine's heart was full of a happiness that she longed to express somehow, there beside this lonely grave. It was what she owed the strange man who slept here in the shadows. Grief abided with her, and always there would be an eternal remorse and regret. Yet she had loved him. She had been his, all unconsciously. His life had been terrible, but it had been great. As the hours of quiet thinking had multiplied, Columbine had grown in her divination of Wade's meaning. His had been the spirit of man lighting the dark places; his had been the ruthless hand against all evil, terrible to destroy.
Her father! After all, how closely was she linked to the past! How closely protected, even in the hours of most helpless despair! Thus she understood him. Love was the food of life, and hope was its spirituality, and beauty was its reward to the seeing eye. Wade had lived these great virtues, even while he had earned a tragic name.
"I will live them. I will have faith and hope and love, for I am his daughter," she said. A faint, cool breeze strayed through the aspens, rustling the leaves whisperingly, and the slender columbines, gleaming pale in the twilight, lifted their sweet faces.