The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
Bent Wade rode out of the forest to look down upon the White Slides country at the hour when it was most beautiful.
"Never seen the beat of that!" he exclaimed, as he halted.
The hour was sunset, with the golden rays and shadows streaking ahead of him down the rolling sage hills, all rosy and gray with rich, strange softness. Groves of aspens stood isolated from one another--here crowning a hill with blazing yellow, and there fringing the brow of another with gleaming gold, and lower down reflecting the sunlight with brilliant red and purple. The valley seemed filled with a delicate haze, almost like smoke. White Slides Ranch was hidden from sight, as it lay in the bottomland. The gray old peak towered proud and aloof, clear-cut and sunset-flushed against the blue. The eastern slope of the valley was a vast sweep of sage and hill and grassy bench and aspen bench, on fire with the colors of autumn made molten by the last flashing of the sun. Great black slopes of forest gave sharp contrast, and led up to the red-walled ramparts of the mountain range.
Wade watched the scene until the fire faded, the golden shafts paled and died, the rosy glow on sage changed to cold steel gray. Then he rode out upon the foothills. The trail led up and down slopes of sage. Grass grew thicker as he descended. Once he startled a great flock of prairie-chickens, or sage-hens, large gray birds, lumbering, swift fliers, that whirred up, and soon plumped down again into the sage. Twilight found him on a last long slope of the foothills, facing the pasture-land of the valley, with the ranch still five miles distant, now showing misty and dim in the gathering shadows.
Wade made camp where a brook ran near an aspen thicket. He had no desire to hurry to meet events at White Slides Ranch, although he longed to see this girl that belonged to Belllounds. Night settled down over the quiet foothills. A pack of roving coyotes visited Wade, and sat in a half-circle in the shadows back of the camp-fire. They howled and barked. Nevertheless sleep visited Wade's tired eyelids the moment he lay down and closed them.
* * * * *
Next morning, rather late, Wade rode down to White Slides Ranch. It looked to him like the property of a rich rancher who held to the old and proven customs of his generation. The corrals were new, but their style was old. Wade reflected that it would be hard for rustlers or horse-thieves to steal out of those corrals. A long lane led from the pasture-land, following the brook that ran through the corrals and by the back door of the rambling, comfortable-looking cabin. A cowboy was leading horses across a wide square between the main ranch-house and a cluster of cabins and sheds. He saw the visitor and waited.
"Mornin'," said Wade, as he rode up.
"Hod do," replied the cowboy.
Then these two eyed each other, not curiously nor suspiciously, but with that steady, measuring gaze common to Western men.
"My name's Wade," said the traveler. "Come from Meeker way. I'm lookin' for a job with Belllounds."
"I'm Lem Billings," replied the other. "Ridin' fer White Slides fer years. Reckon the boss'll be glad to take you on."
"Is he around?"
"Sure. I jest seen him," replied Billings, as he haltered his horses to a post. "I reckon I ought to give you a hunch."
"I'd take that as a favor."
"Wal, we're short of hands," said the cowboy. "Jest got the round-up over. Hudson was hurt an' Wils Moore got crippled. Then the boss's son has been put on as foreman. Three of the boys quit. Couldn't stand him. This hyar son of Belllounds is a son-of-a-gun! Me an' pards of mine, Montana an' Bludsoe, are stickin' on--wal, fer reasons thet ain't egzactly love fer the boss. But Old Bill's the best of bosses.... Now the hunch is--thet if you git on hyar you'll hev to do two or three men's work."
"Much obliged," replied Wade. "I don't shy at that."
"Wal, git down an' come in," added Billings, heartily.
He led the way across the square, around the corner of the ranch-house, and up on a long porch, where the arrangement of chairs and blankets attested to the hand of a woman. The first door was open, and from it issued voices; first a shrill, petulant boy's complaint, and then a man's deep, slow, patient reply.
Lem Billings knocked on the door-jamb.
"Wal, what's wanted?" called Belllounds.
"Boss, thar's a man wantin' to see you," replied Lem.
Heavy steps approached the doorway and it was filled with the large figure of the rancher. Wade remembered Belllounds and saw only a gray difference in years.
"Good mornin', Lem, an' good moinin' to you, stranger," was the rancher's greeting, his bold, blue glance, honest and frank and keen, with all his long experience of men, taking Wade in with one flash.
Lem discreetly walked to the end of the porch as another figure, that of the son who resembled the father, filled the doorway, with eyes less kind, bent upon the visitor.
"My name's Wade. I'm over from Meeker way, hopin' to find a job with you," said Wade.
"Glad to meet you," replied Belllounds, extending his huge hand to shake Wade's. "I need you, sure bad. What's your special brand of work?"
"I reckon any kind."
"Set down, stranger," replied Belllounds, pulling up a chair. He seated himself on a bench and leaned against the log wall. "Now, when a boy comes an' says he can do anythin', why I jest haw! haw! at him. But you're a man, Wade, an' one as has been there. Now I'm hard put fer hands. Jest speak out now fer yourself. No one else can speak fer you, thet's sure. An' this is bizness."
"Any work with stock, from punchin' steers to doctorin' horses," replied Wade, quietly. "Am fair carpenter an' mason. Good packer. Know farmin'. Can milk cows an' make butter. I've been cook in many outfits. Read an' write an' not bad at figures. Can do work on saddles an' harness, an-"
"Hold on!" yelled Belllounds, with a hearty laugh. "I ain't imposin' on no man, no matter how I need help. You're sure a jack of all range trades. An' I wish you was a hunter."
"I was comin' to that. You didn't give me time."
"Say, do you know hounds?" queried Belllounds, eagerly.
"Yes. Was raised where everybody had packs. I'm from Kentucky. An' I've run hounds off an' on for years. I'll tell you--"
Belllounds interrupted Wade.
"By all that's lucky! An' last, can you handle guns? We 'ain't had a good shot on this range fer Lord knows how long. I used to hit plumb center with a rifle. My eyes are pore now. An' my son can't hit a flock of haystacks. An' the cowpunchers are 'most as bad. Sometimes right hyar where you could hit elk with a club we're out of fresh meat."
"Yes, I can handle guns," replied Wade, with a quiet smile and a lowering of his head. "Reckon you didn't catch my name."
"Wal--no, I didn't," slowly replied Belllounds, and his pause, with the keener look he bestowed upon Wade, told how the latter's query had struck home.
"Wade--Bent Wade," said Wade, with quiet distinctness.
"Not Hell-Bent Wade!" ejaculated Belllounds.
"The same.... I ain't proud of the handle, but I never sail under false colors."
"Wal, I'll be damned!" went on the rancher. "Wade, I've heerd of you fer years. Some bad, but most good, an' I reckon I'm jest as glad to meet you as if you'd been somebody else."
"You'll give me the job?"
"I should smile."
"I'm thankin' you. Reckon I was some worried. Jobs are hard for me to get an' harder to keep."
"Thet's not onnatural, considerin' the hell which's said to camp on your trail," replied Belllounds, dryly. "Wade, I can't say I take a hell of a lot of stock in such talk. Fifty years I've been west of the Missouri. I know the West an' I know men. Talk flies from camp to ranch, from diggin's to town, an' always some one adds a little more. Now I trust my judgment an' I trust men. No one ever betrayed me yet."
"I'm that way, too," replied Wade. "But it doesn't pay, an' yet I still kept on bein' that way.... Belllounds, my name's as bad as good all over western Colorado. But as man to man I tell you--I never did a low-down trick in my life.... Never but once."
"An' what was thet?" queried the rancher, gruffly.
"I killed a man who was innocent," replied Wade, with quivering lips, "an'--an' drove the woman I loved to her death."
"Aw! we all make mistakes some time in our lives," said Belllounds, hurriedly. "I made 'most as big a one as yours--so help me God!..."
"I'll tell you--" interrupted Wade.
"You needn't tell me anythin'," said Belllounds, interrupting in his turn. "But at thet some time I'd like to hear about the Lascelles outfit over on the Gunnison. I knowed Lascelles. An' a pardner of mine down in Middle Park came back from the Gunnison with the dog-gondest story I ever heerd. Thet was five years ago this summer. Of course I knowed your name long before, but this time I heerd it powerful strong. You got in thet mix-up to your neck.... Wal, what consarns me now is this. Is there any sense in the talk thet wherever you land there's hell to pay?"
"Belllounds, there's no sense in it, but a lot of truth," confessed Wade, gloomily.
"Ahuh!... Wal, Hell-Bent Wade, I'll take a chance on you," boomed the rancher's deep voice, rich with the intent of his big heart. "I've gambled all my life. An' the best friends I ever made were men I'd helped.... What wages do you ask?"
"I'll take what you offer."
"I'm payin' the boys forty a month, but thet's not enough fer you."
"Yes, that'll do."
"Good, it's settled," concluded Belllounds, rising. Then he saw his son standing inside the door. "Say, Jack, shake hands with Bent Wade, hunter an' all-around man. Wade, this's my boy. I've jest put him on as foreman of the outfit, an' while I'm at it I'll say thet you'll take orders from me an' not from him."
Wade looked up into the face of Jack Belllounds, returned his brief greeting, and shook his limp hand. The contact sent a strange chill over Wade. Young Belllounds's face was marred by a bruise and shaded by a sullen light.
"Get Billin's to take you out to thet new cabin an' sheds I jest had put up," said the rancher. "You'll bunk in the cabin.... Aw, I know. Men like you sleep in the open. But you can't do thet under Old White Slides in winter. Not much! Make yourself to home, an' I'll walk out after a bit an' we'll look over the dog outfit. When you see thet outfit you'll holler fer help."
Wade bowed his thanks, and, putting on his sombrero, he turned away. As he did so he caught a sound of light, quick footsteps on the far end of the porch.
"Hello, you-all!" cried a girl's voice, with melody in it that vibrated piercingly upon Wade's sensitive ears.
"Mornin', Columbine," replied the rancher.
Bent Wade's heart leaped up. This girlish voice rang upon the chord of memory. Wade had not the strength to look at her then. It was not that he could not bear to look, but that he could not bear the disillusion sure to follow his first glimpse of this adopted daughter of Belllounds. Sweet to delude himself! Ah! the years were bearing sterner upon his head! The old dreams persisted, sadder now for the fact that from long use they had become half-realities! Wade shuffled slowly across the green square to where the cowboy waited for him. His eyes were dim, and a sickness attended the sinking of his heart.
"Wade, I ain't a bettin' fellar, but I'll bet Old Bill took you up," vouchsafed Billings, with interest.
"Glad to say he did," replied Wade. "You're to show me the new cabin where I'm to bunk."
"Come along," said Lem, leading off. "Air you agoin' to handle stock or chase coyotes?"
"My job's huntin'."
"Wal, it may be thet from sunup to sundown, but between times you'll be sure busy otherwise, I opine," went on Lem. "Did you meet the boss's son?"
"Yes, he was there. An' Belllounds made it plain I was to take orders from him an' not from his son."
"Thet'll make your job a million times easier," declared Lem, as if to make up for former hasty pessimism. He led the way past some log cabins, and sheds with dirt roofs, and low, flat-topped barns, out across another brook where willow-trees were turning yellow. Then the new cabin came into view. It was small, with one door and one window, and a porch across the front. It stood on a small elevation, near the swift brook, and overlooking the ranch-house perhaps a quarter of a mile below. Above it, and across the brook, had been built a high fence constructed of aspen poles laced closely together. The sounds therefrom proclaimed this stockade to be the dog-pen.
Lem helped Wade unpack and carry his outfit into the cabin. It contained one room, the corner of which was filled with blocks and slabs of pine, evidently left there after the construction of the cabin, and meant for fire-wood. The ample size of the stone fireplace attested to the severity of the winters.
"Real sawed boards on the floor!" exclaimed Lem, meaning to impress the new-comer. "I call this a plumb good bunk."
"Much too good for me," replied Wade.
"Wal, I'll look after your hosses," said Lem. "I reckon you'll fix up your bunk. Take my hunch an' ask Miss Collie to find you some furniture an' sich like. She's Ole Bill's daughter, an' she makes up fer--fer--wal, fer a lot we hev to stand. I'll fetch the boys over later."
"Do you smoke?" asked Wade. "I've somethin' fine I fetched up from Leadville."
"Smoke! Me? I'll give you a hoss right now for a cigar. I git one onct a year, mebbe."
"Here's a box I've been packin' for long," replied Wade, as he handed it up to Billings. "They're Spanish, all right. Too rich for my blood!"
A box of gold could not have made that cowboy's eyes shine any brighter.
"Whoop-ee!" he yelled. "Why, man, you're like the fairy in the kid's story! Won't I make the outfit wild? Aw, I forgot. Thar's only Jim an' Blud left. Wal, I'll divvy with them. Sure, Wade, you hit me right. I was dyin' fer a real smoke. An' I reckon what's mine is yours."
Then he strode out of the cabin, whistling a merry cowboy tune.
Wade was left sitting in the middle of the room on his roll of bedding, and for a long time he remained there motionless, with his head bent, his worn hands idly clasped. A heavy footfall outside aroused him from his meditation.
"Hey, Wade!" called the cheery voice of Belllounds. Then the rancher appeared at the door. "How's this bunk suit you?"
"Much too fine for an old-timer like me," replied Wade.
"Old-timer! Say, you're young yet. Look at me. Sixty-eight last birthday! Wal, every dog has his day.... What're you needin' to fix this bunk comfortable like?"
"Reckon I don't need much."
"Wal, you've beddin' an' cook outfit. Go get a table, an' a chair an' a bench from thet first cabin. The boys thet had it are gone. Somethin' with a back to it, a rockin'-chair, if there's one. You'll find tools, an' boxes, an' stuff in the workshop, if you want to make a cupboard or anythin'."
"How about a lookin'-glass?" asked Wade. "I had a piece, but I broke it."
"Haw! Haw! Mebbe we can rustle thet, too. My girl's good on helpin' the boys fix up. Woman-like, you know. An' she'll fetch you some decorations on her own hook. Now let's take a look at the hounds."
Belllounds led the way out toward the crude dog-corral, and the way he leaped the brook bore witness to the fact that he was still vigorous and spry. The door of the pen was made of boards hung on wire. As Belllounds opened it there came a pattering rush of many padded feet, and a chorus of barks and whines. Wade's surprised gaze took in forty or fifty dogs, mostly hounds, browns and blacks and yellows, all sizes--a motley, mangy, hungry pack, if he had ever seen one.
"I swore I'd buy every hound fetched to me, till I'd cleaned up the varmints around White Slides. An' sure I was imposed on," explained the rancher.
"Some good-lookin' hounds in the bunch," replied Wade. "An' there's hardly too many. I'll train two packs, so I can rest one when the other's huntin'."
"Wal, I'll be dog-goned!" ejaculated Belllounds, with relief. "I sure thought you'd roar. All this rabble to take care of!"
"No trouble after I've got acquainted," said Wade. "Have they been hunted any?"
"Some of the boys took out a bunch. But they split on deer tracks an' elk tracks an' Lord knows what all. Never put up a lion! Then again Billings took some out after a pack of coyotes, an' gol darn me if the coyotes didn't lick the hounds. An' wuss! Jack, my son, got it into his head thet he was a hunter. The other mornin' he found a fresh lion track back of the corral. An' he ups an' puts the whole pack of hounds on the trail. I had a good many more hounds in the pack than you see now. Wal, anyway, it was great to hear the noise thet pack made. Jack lost every blamed hound of them. Thet night an' next day an' the followin' they straggled in. But twenty some never did come back."
Wade laughed. "They may come yet. I reckon, though, they've gone home where they came from. Are any of these hounds recommended?"
"Every consarned one of them," declared Belllounds.
"That's funny. But I guess it's natural. Do you know for sure whether you bought any good dogs?"
"Yes, I gave fifty dollars for two hounds. Got them of a friend in Middle Park whose pack killed off the lions there. They're good dogs, trained on lion, wolf, an' bear."
"Pick 'em out," said Wade.
With a throng of canines crowding and fawning round him, and snapping at one another, it was difficult for the rancher to draw the two particular ones apart so they could be looked over. At length he succeeded, and Wade drove back the rest of the pack.
"The big fellar's Sampson an' the other's Jim," said Belllounds.
Sampson was a huge hound, gray and yellow, with mottled black marks, very long ears, and big, solemn eyes. Jim, a good-sized dog, but small in comparison with the other, was black all over, except around the nose and eyes. Jim had many scars. He was old, yet not past a vigorous age, and he seemed a quiet, dignified, wise hound, quite out of his element in that mongrel pack.
"If they're as good as they look we're lucky," said Wade, as he tied the ends of his rope round their necks. "Now are there any more you know are good?"
"Denver, come hyar!" yelled Belllounds. A white, yellow-spotted hound came wagging his tail. "I'll swear by Denver. An' there's one more--Kane. He's half bloodhound, a queer, wicked kind of dog. He keeps to himself.... Kane! Come hyar!"
Belllounds tramped around the corral, and finally found the hound in question, asleep in a dusty hole. Kane was the only beautiful dog in the lot. If half of him was bloodhound the other half was shepherd, for his black and brown hair was inclined to curl, and his head had the fine thoroughbred contour of the shepherd. His ears, long and drooping and thin, betrayed the hound in him. Kane showed no disposition to be friendly. His dark eyes, sad and mournful, burned with the fires of doubt.
Wade haltered Kane, Jim, and Sampson, which act almost precipitated a fight, and led them out of the corral. Denver, friendly and glad, followed at the rancher's heels.
"I'll keep them with me an' make lead dogs out of them," said Wade. "Belllounds, that bunch hasn't had enough to eat. They're half starved."
"Wal, thet's worried me more'n you'll guess," declared Belllounds, with irritation. "What do a lot of cow-punchin' fellars know about dogs? Why, they nearly ate Bludsoe up. He wouldn't feed 'em. An' Wils, who seemed good with dogs, was taken off bad hurt the other day. Lem's been tryin' to rustle feed fer them. Now we'll give back the dogs you don't want to keep, an' thet way thin out the pack."
"Yes, we won't need `em all. An' I reckon I'll take the worry of this dog-pack off your mind."
"Thet's your job, Wade. My orders are fer you to kill off the varmints. Lions, wolves, coyotes. An' every fall some ole silvertip gits bad, an' now an' then other bears. Whatever you need in the way of supplies jest ask fer. We send regular to Kremmlin'. You can hunt fer two months yet, barrin' an onusual early winter.... I'm askin' you--if my son tramps on your toes--I'd take it as a favor fer you to be patient. He's only a boy yet, an' coltish."
Wade divined that was a favor difficult for Belllounds to ask. The old rancher, dominant and forceful and self-sufficient all his days, had begun to feel an encroachment of opposition beyond his control. If he but realized it, the favor he asked of Wade was an appeal.
"Belllounds, I get along with everybody," Wade assured him. "An' maybe I can help your son. Before I'd reached here I'd heard he was wild, an' so I'm prepared."
"If you'd do thet--wal, I'd never forgit it," replied the rancher, slowly. "Jack's been away fer three years. Only got back a week or so ago. I calkilated he'd be sobered, steadied, by--thet--thet work I put him to. But I'm not sure. He's changed. When he gits his own way he's all I could ask. But thet way he wants ain't always what it ought to be. An' so thar's been clashes. But Jack's a fine young man. An' he'll outgrow his temper an' crazy notions. Work'll do it."
"Boys will be boys," replied Wade, philosophically. "I've not forgotten when I was a boy."
"Neither hev I. Wal, I'll be goin', Wade. I reckon Columbine will be up to call on you. Bein' the only woman-folk in my house, she sort of runs it. An' she's sure interested in thet pack of hounds."
Belllounds trudged away, his fine old head erect, his gray hair shining in the sun.
Wade sat down upon the step of his cabin, pondering over the rancher's remarks about his son. Recalling the young man's physiognomy, Wade began to feel that it was familiar to him. He had seen Jack Belllounds before. Wade never made mistakes in faces, though he often had a task to recall names. And he began to go over the recent past, recalling all that he could remember of Meeker, and Cripple Creek, where he had worked for several months, and so on, until he had gone back as far as his last trip to Denver.
"Must have been there," mused Wade, thoughtfully, and he tried to recall all the faces he had seen. This was impossible, of course, yet he remembered many. Then he visualized the places in Denver that for one reason or another had struck him particularly. Suddenly into one of these flashed the pale, sullen, bold face of Jack Belllounds.
"It was there!" he exclaimed, incredulously. "Well!... If thet's not the strangest yet! Could I be mistaken? No. I saw him.... Belllounds must have known it--must have let him stay there.... Maybe put him there! He's just the kind of a man to go to extremes to reform his son."
Singular as was this circumstance, Wade dwelt only momentarily on it. He dismissed it with the conviction that it was another strange happening in the string of events that had turned his steps toward White Slides Ranch. Wade's mind stirred to the probability of an early sight of Columbine Belllounds. He would welcome it, both as interesting and pleasurable, and surely as a relief. The sooner a meeting with her was over the better. His life had been one long succession of shocks, so that it seemed nothing the future held could thrill him, amaze him, torment him. And yet how well he knew that his heart was only the more responsive for all it had withstood! Perhaps here at White Slides he might meet with an experience dwarfing all others. It was possible; it was in the nature of events. And though he repudiated such a possibility, he fortified himself against a subtle divination that he might at last have reached the end of his long trail, where anything might happen.
Three of the hounds lay down at Wade's feet. Kane, the bloodhound, stood watching this new master, after the manner of a dog who was a judge of men. He sniffed at Wade. He grew a little less surly.
Wade's gaze, however, was on the path that led down along the border of the brook to disappear in the willows. Above this clump of yellowing trees could be seen the ranch-house. A girl with fair hair stepped off the porch. She appeared to be carrying something in her arms, and shortly disappeared behind the willows. Wade saw her and surmised that she was coming to his cabin. He did not expect any more or think any more. His faculties condensed to the objective one of sight.
The girl, when she reappeared, was perhaps a hundred yards distant. Wade bent on her one keen, clear glance. Then his brain and his blood beat wildly. He saw a slender girl in riding-costume, lithe and strong, with the free step of one used to the open. It was this form, this step that struck Wade. "My--God! how like Lucy!" he whispered, and he tried to pierce the distance to see her face. It gleamed in the sunshine. Her fair hair waved in the wind. She was coming, but so slowly! All of Wade that was physical and emotional seemed to wait--clamped. The moment was age-long, with nothing beyond it. While she was still at a distance her face became distinct. And Wade sustained a terrible shock.... Then, as one in a dream, as in a blur of strained peering into a maze, he saw the face of his sweetheart, his wife, the Lucy of his early manhood. It moved him out of the past. Closer! Pang on pang quivered in his heart. Was this only a nightmare? Or had he at last gone mad! This girl raised her head. She was looking--she saw him. Terror mounted upon Wade's consciousness.
"That's Lucy's face!" he gasped. "So help--me, God!... It's for this--I wandered here! She's my flesh an' blood--my Lucy's child--my own!"
Fear and presentiment and blank amaze and stricken consciousness left him in the lightning-flash of divination that was recognition as well. A shuddering cataclysm enveloped him, a passion so stupendous that it almost brought oblivion.
The three hounds leaped up with barks and wagging tails. They welcomed this visitor. Kane lost still more of his canine aloofness.
Wade's breast heaved. The blue sky, the gray hills, the green willows, all blurred in his sight, that seemed to hold clear only the face floating closer.
"I'm Columbine Belllounds," said a voice.
It stilled the storm in Wade. It was real. It was a voice of twenty years ago. The burden on his breast lifted. Then flashed the spirit, the old self-control of a man whose life had held many terrible moments.
"Mornin', miss. I'm glad to meet you," he replied, and there was no break, no tone unnatural in his greeting.
So they gazed at each other, she with that instinctive look peculiar to women in its intuitive powers, but common to all persons who had lived far from crowds and to whom a new-comer was an event. Wade's gaze, intense and all-embracing, found that face now closer in resemblance to the imagined Lucy's--a pretty face, rather than beautiful, but strong and sweet--its striking qualities being a colorless fairness of skin that yet held a rose and golden tint, and the eyes of a rare and exquisite shade of blue.
"Oh! Are you feeling ill?" she asked. "You look so--so pale."
"No. I'm only tuckered out," replied Wade, easily, as he wiped the clammy drops from his brow. "It was a long ride to get here."
"I'm the lady of the house," she said, with a smile. "I'm glad to welcome you to White Slides, and hope you'll like it."
"Well, Miss Columbine, I reckon I will," he replied, returning the smile. "Now if I was younger I'd like it powerful much."
She laughed at that. "Men are all alike, young or old."
"Don't ever think so," said Wade, earnestly.
"No? I guess you're right about that. I've fetched you up some things for your cabin. May I peep in?"
"Come in," replied Wade, rising. "You must excuse my manners. It's long indeed since I had a lady caller."
She went in, and Wade, standing on the threshold, saw her survey the room with a woman's sweeping glance.
"I told dad to put some--"
"Miss, your dad told me to go get them, an' I've not done it yet. But I will presently."
"Very well. I'll leave these things and come back later," she replied, depositing a bundle upon the floor. "You won't mind if I try to--to make you a little comfortable. It's dreadful the way outdoor men live when they do get indoors."
"I reckon I'll be slow in lettin' you see what a good housekeeper I am," he replied. "Because then, maybe, I'll see more of you."
"Weren't you a sad flatterer in your day?" she queried, archly.
Her intonation, the tilt of her head, gave Wade such a pang that he could not answer. And to hide his momentary restraint he turned back to the hounds. Then she came out upon the porch.
"I love hounds," she said, patting Denver, which caress immediately made Jim and Sampson jealous. "I've gotten on pretty well with these, but that Kane won't make up. Isn't he splendid? But he's afraid--no, not afraid of me, but he doesn't like me."
"It's mistrust. He's been hurt. I reckon he'll get over that after a while."
"You don't beat dogs?" she asked, eagerly.
"No, miss. That's not the way to get on with hounds or horses."
Her glance was a blue flash of pleasure.
"How glad that makes me! Why, I quit coming here to see and feed the dogs because somebody was always kicking them around."
Wade handed the rope to her. "You hold them, so when I come out with some meat they won't pile over me." He went inside, took all that was left of the deer haunch out of his pack, and, picking up his knife, returned to the porch. The hounds saw the meat and yelped. They pulled on the rope.
"You hounds behave," ordered Wade, as he sat down on the step and began to cut the meat. "Jim, you're the oldest an' hungriest. Here.... Now you, Sampson. Here!"... The big hound snapped at the meat. Whereupon Wade slapped him. "Are you a pup or a wolf that you grab for it? Here." Sampson was slower to act, but he snapped again. Whereupon Wade hit him again, with open hand, not with violence or rancor, but a blow that meant Sampson must obey.
Next time the hound did not snap. Denver had to be cuffed several times before he showed deference to this new master. But the bloodhound Kane refused to take any meat out of Wade's hand. He growled and showed his teeth, and sniffed hungrily.
"Kane will have to be handled carefully," observed Wade. "He'd bite pretty quick."
"But, he's so splendid," said the girl. "I don't like to think he's mean. You'll be good to him--try to win him?"
"I'll do my best with him."
"Dad's full of glee that he has a real hunter at White Slides at last. Now I'm glad, and sorry, too. I hate to think of little calves being torn and killed by lions and wolves. And it's dreadful to know bears eat grown-up cattle. But I love the mourn of a wolf and the yelp of a coyote. I can't help hoping you don't kill them all--quite."
"It's not likely, miss," he replied. "I'll be pretty sure to clean out the lions an' drive off the bears. But the wolf family can't be exterminated. No animal so cunnin' as a wolf!... I'll tell you.... Some years ago I went to cook on a ranch north of Denver, on the edge of the plains. An' right off I began to hear stories about a big lobo--a wolf that was an old residenter. He'd been known for long, an' he got meaner an' wiser as he was hunted. His specialty got to be yearlings, an' the ranchers all over rose up in arms against him. They hired all the old hunters an' trappers in the country to kill him. No good! Old Lobo went right on pullin' down yearlings. Every night he'd get one or more. An' he was so cute an' so swift that he'd work on different ranches on different nights. Finally he killed eleven yearlings for my boss on one night. Eleven! Think of that. An' then I said to my boss, 'I reckon you'd better let me go kill that gray butcher.' An' my boss laughed at me. But he let me go. He'd have tried anythin'. I took a hunk of meat, a blanket, my gun, an' a pair of snow-shoes, an' I set out on old Lobo's tracks.... An', Miss Columbine, I walked old Lobo to death in the snow!"
"Why, how wonderful!" exclaimed the girl, breathless and glowing with interest. "Oh, it seems a pity such a splendid brute should be killed. Wild animals are cruel. I wish it were different."
"Life is cruel, miss, an' I echo your wish," replied Wade, sadly.
"You have had great experiences. Dad said to me, 'Collie, here at last is a man who can tell you enough stories!'... But I don't believe you ever could."
"You like stories?" asked Wade, curiously.
"Love them. All kinds, but I like adventure best. I should have been a boy. Isn't it strange, I can't hurt anything myself or bear to see even a steer slaughtered? But you can't tell too bloody and terrible stories for me. Except I hate Indian stories. The very thought of Indians makes me shudder.... Some day I'll tell you a story."
Wade could not find his tongue readily.
"I must go now," she continued, and moved off the porch. Then she hesitated, and turned with a smile that was wistful and impulsive. "I--I believe we'll be good friends."
"Miss Columbine, we sure will, if I can live up to my part," replied Wade.
Her smile deepened, even while her gaze grew unconsciously penetrating. Wade felt how subtly they were drawn to each other. But she had no inkling of that.
"It takes two to make a bargain," she replied, seriously. "I've my part. Good-by."
Wade watched her lithe stride, and as she drew away the restraint he had put upon himself loosened. When she disappeared his feeling burst all bounds. Dragging the dogs inside, he closed the door. Then, like one broken and spent, he fell face against the wall, with the hoarsely whispered words, "I'm thankin' God!"