THE MAN OF THE FOREST, THE U.P. TRAIL, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, THE DESERT OF WHEAT, ETC.
That round-up showed a loss of one hundred head of stock. Belllounds received the amazing news with a roar .............................. Frontispiece
"I know why you're going. It's to see that club-footed cowboy Moore!... Don't let me catch you with him" ........................... Facing p. 98
"I'm beginnin' to feel that I couldn't let her marry that Buster Jack," soliloquized Wade, as he rode along the grassy trail ......................... " 164
"Jack Belllounds!" she cried. "You put the sheriff on that trail!" ............................. " 280
THE MYSTERIOUS RIDER
A September sun, losing some of its heat if not its brilliance, was dropping low in the west over the black Colorado range. Purple haze began to thicken in the timbered notches. Gray foothills, round and billowy, rolled down from the higher country. They were smooth, sweeping, with long velvety slopes and isolated patches of aspens that blazed in autumn gold. Splotches of red vine colored the soft gray of sage. Old White Slides, a mountain scarred by avalanche, towered with bleak rocky peak above the valley, sheltering it from the north.
A girl rode along the slope, with gaze on the sweep and range and color of the mountain fastness that was her home. She followed an old trail which led to a bluff overlooking an arm of the valley. Once it had been a familiar lookout for her, but she had not visited the place of late. It was associated with serious hours of her life. Here seven years before, when she was twelve, she had made a hard choice to please her guardian—the old rancher whom she loved and called father, who had indeed been a father to her. That choice had been to go to school in Denver. Four years she had lived away from her beloved gray hills and black mountains. Only once since her return had she climbed to this height, and that occasion, too, was memorable as an unhappy hour. It had been three years ago. To-day girlish ordeals and griefs seemed back in the past: she was a woman at nineteen and face to face with the first great problem in her life.
The trail came up back of the bluff, through a clump of aspens with white trunks and yellow fluttering leaves, and led across a level bench of luxuriant grass and wild flowers to the rocky edge.
She dismounted and threw the bridle. Her mustang, used to being petted, rubbed his sleek, dark head against her and evidently expected like demonstration in return, but as none was forthcoming he bent his nose to the grass and began grazing. The girl's eyes were intent upon some waving, slender, white-and-blue flowers. They smiled up wanly, like pale stars, out of the long grass that had a tinge of gold.
"Columbines," she mused, wistfully, as she plucked several of the flowers and held them up to gaze wonderingly at them, as if to see in them some revelation of the mystery that shrouded her birth and her name. Then she stood with dreamy gaze upon the distant ranges.
"Columbine!... So they named me—those miners who found me—a baby—lost in the woods—asleep among the columbines." She spoke aloud, as if the sound of her voice might convince her.
So much of the mystery of her had been revealed that day by the man she had always called father. Vaguely she had always been conscious of some mystery, something strange about her childhood, some relation never explained.
"No name but Columbine," she whispered, sadly, and now she understood a strange longing of her heart.
Scarcely an hour back, as she ran down the Wide porch of White Slides ranch-house, she had encountered the man who had taken care of her all her life. He had looked upon her as kindly and fatherly as of old, yet with a difference. She seemed to see him as old Bill Belllounds, pioneer and rancher, of huge frame and broad face, hard and scarred and grizzled, with big eyes of blue fire.
"Collie," the old man had said, "I reckon hyar's news. A letter from Jack.... He's comin' home."
Belllounds had waved the letter. His huge hand trembled as he reached to put it on her shoulder. The hardness of him seemed strangely softened. Jack was his son. Buster Jack, the range had always called him, with other terms, less kind, that never got to the ears of his father. Jack had been sent away three years ago, just before Columbine's return from school. Therefore she had not seen him for over seven years. But she remembered him well—a big, rangy boy, handsome and wild, who had made her childhood almost unendurable.
"Yes—my son—Jack—he's comin' home," said Belllounds, with a break in his voice. "An', Collie—now I must tell you somethin'."
"Yes, dad," she had replied, with strong clasp of the heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Thet's just it, lass. I ain't your dad. I've tried to be a dad to you an' I've loved you as my own. But you're not flesh an' blood of mine. An' now I must tell you."
The brief story followed. Seventeen years ago miners working a claim of Belllounds's in the mountains above Middle Park had found a child asleep in the columbines along the trail. Near that point Indians, probably Arapahoes coming across the mountains to attack the Utes, had captured or killed the occupants of a prairie-schooner. There was no other clue. The miners took the child to their camp, fed and cared for it, and, after the manner of their kind, named it Columbine. Then they brought it to Belllounds.
"Collie," said the old rancher, "it needn't never have been told, an' wouldn't but fer one reason. I'm gettin' old. I reckon I'd never split my property between you an' Jack. So I mean you an' him to marry. You always steadied Jack. With a wife like you'll be—wal, mebbe Jack'll—"
"Dad!" burst out Columbine. "Marry Jack!... Why I—I don't even remember him!"
"Haw! Haw!" laughed Belllounds. "Wal, you dog-gone soon will. Jack's in Kremmlin', an' he'll be hyar to-night or to-morrow."
"But—I—I don't l-love him," faltered Columbine.
The old man lost his mirth; the strong-lined face resumed its hard cast; the big eyes smoldered. Her appealing objection had wounded him. She was reminded of how sensitive the old man had always been to any reflection cast upon his son.
"Wal, thet's onlucky;" he replied, gruffly. "Mebbe you'll change. I reckon no girl could help a boy much, onless she cared for him. Anyway, you an' Jack will marry."
He had stalked away and Columbine had ridden her mustang far up the valley slope where she could be alone. Standing on the verge of the bluff, she suddenly became aware that the quiet and solitude of her lonely resting-place had been disrupted. Cattle were bawling below her and along the slope of old White Slides and on the grassy uplands above. She had forgotten that the cattle were being driven down into the lowlands for the fall round-up. A great red-and-white-spotted herd was milling in the park just beneath her. Calves and yearlings were making the dust fly along the mountain slope; wild old steers were crashing in the sage, holding level, unwilling to be driven down; cows were running and lowing for their lost ones. Melodious and clear rose the clarion calls of the cowboys. The cattle knew those calls and only the wild steers kept up-grade.
Columbine also knew each call and to which cowboy it belonged. They sang and yelled and swore, but it was all music to her. Here and there along the slope, where the aspen groves clustered, a horse would flash across an open space; the dust would fly, and a cowboy would peal out a lusty yell that rang along the slope and echoed under the bluff and lingered long after the daring rider had vanished in the steep thickets.
"I wonder which is Wils," murmured Columbine, as she watched and listened, vaguely conscious of a little difference, a strange check in her remembrance of this particular cowboy. She felt the change, yet did not understand. One after one she recognized the riders on the slopes below, but Wilson Moore was not among them. He must be above her, then, and she turned to gaze across the grassy bluff, up the long, yellow slope, to where the gleaming aspens half hid a red bluff of mountain, towering aloft. Then from far to her left, high up a scrubby ridge of the slope, rang down a voice that thrilled her: "Go—aloong—you-ooooo." Red cattle dashed pell-mell down the slope, raising the dust, tearing the brush, rolling rocks, and letting out hoarse bawls.
"Whoop-ee!" High-pitched and pealing came a clearer yell.
Columbine saw a white mustang flash out on top of the ridge, silhouetted against the blue, with mane and tail flying. His gait on that edge of steep slope proved his rider to be a reckless cowboy for whom no heights or depths had terrors. She would have recognized him from the way he rode, if she had not known the slim, erect figure. The cowboy saw her instantly. He pulled the mustang, about to plunge down the slope, and lifted him, rearing and wheeling. Then Columbine waved her hand. The cowboy spurred his horse along the crest of the ridge, disappeared behind the grove of aspens, and came in sight again around to the right, where on the grassy bench he slowed to a walk in descent to the bluff.
The girl watched him come, conscious of an unfamiliar sense of uncertainty in this meeting, and of the fact that she was seeing him differently from any other time in the years he had been a playmate, a friend, almost like a brother. He had ridden for Belllounds for years, and was a cowboy because he loved cattle well and horses better, and above all a life in the open. Unlike most cowboys, he had been to school; he had a family in Denver that objected to his wild range life, and often importuned him to come home; he seemed aloof sometimes and not readily understood.
While many thoughts whirled through Columbine's mind she watched the cowboy ride slowly down to her, and she became more concerned with a sudden restraint. How was Wilson going to take the news of this forced change about to come in her life? That thought leaped up. It gave her a strange pang. But she and he were only good friends. As to that, she reflected, of late they had not been the friends and comrades they formerly were. In the thrilling uncertainty of this meeting she had forgotten his distant manner and the absence of little attentions she had missed.
By this time the cowboy had reached the level, and with the lazy grace of his kind slipped out of the saddle. He was tall, slim, round-limbed, with the small hips of a rider, and square, though not broad shoulders. He stood straight like an Indian. His eyes were hazel, his features regular, his face bronzed. All men of the open had still, lean, strong faces, but added to this in him was a steadiness of expression, a restraint that seemed to hide sadness.
"Howdy, Columbine!" he said. "What are you doing up here? You might get run over."
"Hello, Wils!" she replied, slowly. "Oh, I guess I can keep out of the way."
"Some bad steers in that bunch. If any of them run over here Pronto will leave you to walk home. That mustang hates cattle. And he's only half broke, you know."
"I forgot you were driving to-day," she replied, and looked away from him. There was a moment's pause—long, it seemed to her.
"What'd you come for?" he asked, curiously.
"I wanted to gather columbines. See." She held out the nodding flowers toward him. "Take one.... Do you like them?"
"Yes. I like columbine," he replied, taking one of them. His keen hazel eyes, softened, darkened. "Colorado's flower."
"Columbine!... It is my name."
"Well, could you have a better? It sure suits you."
"Why?" she asked, and she looked at him again.
"You're slender—graceful. You sort of hold your head high and proud. Your skin is white. Your eyes are blue. Not bluebell blue, but columbine blue—and they turn purple when you're angry."
"Compliments! Wilson, this is new kind of talk for you," she said.
"You're different to-day."
"Yes, I am." She looked across the valley toward the westering sun, and the slight flush faded from her cheeks. "I have no right to hold my head proud. No one knows who I am—where I came from."
"As if that made any difference!" he exclaimed.
"Belllounds is not my dad. I have no dad. I was a waif. They found me in the woods—a baby—lost among the flowers. Columbine Belllounds I've always been. But that is not my name. No one can tell what my name really is."
"I knew your story years ago, Columbine," he replied, earnestly. "Everybody knows. Old Bill ought to have told you long before this. But he loves you. So does—everybody. You must not let this knowledge sadden you.... I'm sorry you've never known a mother or a sister. Why, I could tell you of many orphans who—whose stories were different."
"You don't understand. I've been happy. I've not longed for any—any one except a mother. It's only—"
"What don't I understand?"
"I've not told you all."
"No? Well, go on," he said, slowly.
Meaning of the hesitation and the restraint that had obstructed her thought now flashed over Columbine. It lay in what Wilson Moore might think of her prospective marriage to Jack Belllounds. Still she could not guess why that should make her feel strangely uncertain of the ground she stood on or how it could cause a constraint she had to fight herself to hide. Moreover, to her annoyance, she found that she was evading his direct request for the news she had withheld.
"Jack Belllounds is coming home to-night or to-morrow," she said. Then, waiting for her companion to reply, she kept an unseeing gaze upon the scanty pines fringing Old White Slides. But no reply appeared to be forthcoming from Moore. His silence compelled her to turn to him. The cowboy's face had subtly altered; it was darker with a tinge of red under the bronze; and his lower lip was released from his teeth, even as she looked. He had his eyes intent upon the lasso he was coiling. Suddenly he faced her and the dark fire of his eyes gave her a shock.
I've been expecting that shorthorn back for months." he said, bluntly.
"You—never—liked Jack?" queried Columbine, slowly. That was not what she wanted to say, but the thought spoke itself.
"I should smile I never did."
"Ever since you and he fought—long ago—all over—"
His sharp gesture made the coiled lasso loosen.
"Ever since I licked him good—don't forget that," interrupted Wilson. The red had faded from the bronze.
"Yes, you licked him," mused Columbine. "I remember that. And Jack's hated you ever since."
"There's been no love lost."
"But, Wils, you never before talked this way—spoke out so—against Jack," she protested.
"Well, I'm not the kind to talk behind a fellow's back. But I'm not mealy-mouthed, either, and—and—"
He did not complete the sentence and his meaning was enigmatic. Altogether Moore seemed not like himself. The fact disturbed Columbine. Always she had confided in him. Here was a most complex situation—she burned to tell him, yet somehow feared to—she felt an incomprehensible satisfaction in his bitter reference to Jack—she seemed to realize that she valued Wilson's friendship more than she had known, and now for some strange reason it was slipping from her.
"We—we were such good friends—pards," said Columbine, hurriedly and irrelevantly.
"Who?" He stared at her.
"Why, you—and me."
"Oh!" His tone softened, but there was still disapproval in his glance. "What of that?"
"Something has happened to make me think I've missed you—lately—that's all."
"Ahuh!" His tone held finality and bitterness, but he would not commit himself. Columbine sensed a pride in him that seemed the cause of his aloofness.
"Wilson, why have you been different lately?" she asked, plaintively.
"What's the good to tell you now?" he queried, in reply.
That gave her a blank sense of actual loss. She had lived in dreams and he in realities. Right now she could not dispel her dream—see and understand all that he seemed to. She felt like a child, then, growing old swiftly. The strange past longing for a mother surged up in her like a strong tide. Some one to lean on, some one who loved her, some one to help her in this hour when fatality knocked at the door of her youth—how she needed that!
"It might be bad for me—to tell me, but tell me, anyhow," she said, finally, answering as some one older than she had been an hour ago—to something feminine that leaped up. She did not understand this impulse, but it was in her.
"No!" declared Moore, with dark red staining his face. He slapped the lasso against his saddle, and tied it with clumsy hands. He did not look at her. His tone expressed anger and amaze.
"Dad says I must marry Jack," she said, with a sudden return to her natural simplicity.
"I heard him tell that months ago," snapped Moore.
"You did! Was that—why?" she whispered.
"It was," he answered, ringingly.
"But that was no reason for you to be—be—to stay away from me," she declared, with rising spirit.
He laughed shortly.
"Wils, didn't you like me any more after dad said that?" she queried.
"Columbine, a girl nineteen years and about to—to get married—ought not be a fool," he replied, with sarcasm.
"I'm not a fool," she rejoined, hotly.
"You ask fool questions."
"Well, you didn't like me afterward or you'd never have mistreated me."
"If you say I mistreated you—you say what's untrue," he replied, just as hotly.
They had never been so near a quarrel before. Columbine experienced a sensation new to her—a commingling of fear, heat, and pang, it seemed, all in one throb. Wilson was hurting her. A quiver ran all over her, along her veins, swelling and tingling.
"You mean I lie?" she flashed.
"Yes, I do—if—"
But before he could conclude she slapped his face. It grew pale then, while she began to tremble.
"Oh—I didn't intend that. Forgive me," she faltered.
He rubbed his cheek. The hurt had not been great, so far as the blow was concerned. But his eyes were dark with pain and anger.
"Oh, don't distress yourself," he burst out. "You slapped me before—once, years ago—for kissing you. I—I apologize for saying you lied. You're only out of your head. So am I."
That poured oil upon the troubled waters. The cowboy appeared to be hesitating between sudden flight and the risk of staying longer.
"Maybe that's it," replied Columbine, with a half-laugh. She was not far from tears and fury with herself. "Let us make up—be friends again."
Moore squared around aggressively. He seemed to fortify himself against something in her. She felt that. But his face grew harder and older than she had ever seen it.
"Columbine, do you know where Jack Belllounds has been for these three years?" he asked, deliberately, entirely ignoring her overtures of friendship.
"No. Somebody said Denver. Some one else said Kansas City. I never asked dad, because I knew Jack had been sent away. I've supposed he was working—making a man of himself."
"Well, I hope to Heaven—for your sake—what you suppose comes true," returned Moore, with exceeding bitterness.
"Do you know where he has been?" asked Columbine. Some strange feeling prompted that. There was a mystery here. Wilson's agitation seemed strange and deep.
"Yes, I do." The cowboy bit that out through closing teeth, as if locking them against an almost overmastering temptation.
Columbine lost her curiosity. She was woman enough to realize that there might well be facts which would only make her situation harder.
"Wilson," she began, hurriedly, "I owe all I am to dad. He has cared for me—sent me to school. He has been so good to me. I've loved him always. It would be a shabby return for all his protection and love if—if I refused—"
"Old Bill is the best man ever," interrupted Moore, as if to repudiate any hint of disloyalty to his employer. "Everybody in Middle Park and all over owes Bill something. He's sure good. There never was anything wrong with him except his crazy blindness about his son. Buster Jack—the—the—"
Columbine put a hand over Moore's lips.
"The man I must marry," she said, solemnly.
"You must—you will?" he demanded.
"Of course. What else could I do? I never thought of refusing."
"Columbine!" Wilson's cry was so poignant, his gesture so violent, his dark eyes so piercing that Columbine sustained a shock that held her trembling and mute. "How can you love Jack Belllounds? You were twelve years old when you saw him last. How can you love him?"
"I don't" replied Columbine.
"Then how could you marry him?"
"I owe dad obedience. It's his hope that I can steady Jack."
"Steady Jack!" exclaimed Moore, passionately. "Why, you girl—you white-faced flower! You with your innocence and sweetness steady that damned pup! My Heavens! He was a gambler and a drunkard. He—"
"Hush!" implored Columbine.
"He cheated at cards," declared the cowboy, with a scorn that placed that vice as utterly base.
"But Jack was only a wild boy," replied Columbine, trying with brave words to champion the son of the man she loved as her father. "He has been sent away to work. He'll have outgrown that wildness. He'll come home a man."
"Bah!" cried Moore, harshly.
Columbine felt a sinking within her. Where was her strength? She, who could walk and ride so many miles, to become sick with an inward quaking! It was childish. She struggled to hide her weakness from him.
"It's not like you to be this way," she said. "You used to be generous. Am I to blame? Did I choose my life?"
Moore looked quickly away from her, and, standing with a hand on his horse, he was silent for a moment. The squaring of his shoulders bore testimony to his thought. Presently he swung up into the saddle. The mustang snorted and champed the bit and tossed his head, ready to bolt.
"Forget my temper," begged the cowboy, looking down upon Columbine. "I take it all back. I'm sorry. Don't let a word of mine worry you. I was only jealous."
"Jealous!" exclaimed Columbine, wonderingly.
"Yes. That makes a fellow see red and green. Bad medicine! You never felt it."
"What were you jealous of?" asked Columbine.
The cowboy had himself in hand now and he regarded her with a grim amusement.
"Well, Columbine, it's like a story," he replied. "I'm the fellow disowned by his family—a wanderer of the wilds—no good—and no prospects.... Now our friend Jack, he's handsome and rich. He has a doting old dad. Cattle, horses—ranches! He wins the girl. See!"
Spurring his mustang, the cowboy rode away. At the edge of the slope he turned in the saddle. "I've got to drive in this bunch of cattle. It's late. You hurry home." Then he was gone. The stones cracked and rolled down under the side of the bluff.
Columbine stood where he had left her: dubious, yet with the blood still hot in her cheeks.
"Jealous?... He wins the girl?" she murmured in repetition to herself. "What ever could he have meant? He didn't mean—he didn't—"
The simple, logical interpretation of Wilson's words opened Columbine's mind to a disturbing possibility of which she had never dreamed. That he might love her! If he did, why had he not said so? Jealous, maybe, but he did not love her! The next throb of thought was like a knock at a door of her heart—a door never yet opened, inside which seemed a mystery of feeling, of hope, despair, unknown longing, and clamorous voices. The woman just born in her, instinctive and self-preservative, shut that door before she had more than a glimpse inside. But then she felt her heart swell with its nameless burdens.
Pronto was grazing near at hand. She caught him and mounted. It struck her then that her hands were numb with cold. The wind had ceased fluttering the aspens, but the yellow leaves were falling, rustling. Out on the brow of the slope she faced home and the west.
A glorious Colorado sunset had just reached the wonderful height of its color and transformation. The sage slopes below her seemed rosy velvet; the golden aspens on the farther reaches were on fire at the tips; the foothills rolled clear and mellow and rich in the light; the gulf of distance on to the great black range was veiled in mountain purple; and the dim peaks beyond the range stood up, sunset-flushed and grand. The narrow belt of blue sky between crags and clouds was like a river full of fleecy sails and wisps of silver. Above towered a pall of dark cloud, full of the shades of approaching night.
"Oh, beautiful!" breathed the girl, with all her worship of nature. That wild world of sunset grandeur and loneliness and beauty was hers. Over there, under a peak of the black range, was the place where she had been found, a baby, lost in the forest. She belonged to that, and so it belonged to her. Strength came to her from the glory of light on the hills.
Pronto shot up his ears and checked his trot.
"What is it, boy?" called Columbine. The trail was getting dark. Shadows were creeping up the slope as she rode down to meet them. The mustang had keen sight and scent. She reined him to a halt.
All was silent. The valley had begun to shade on the far side and the rose and gold seemed fading from the nearer. Below, on the level floor of the valley, lay the rambling old ranch-house, with the cabins nestling around, and the corrals leading out to the soft hay-fields, misty and gray in the twilight. A single light gleamed. It was like a beacon.
The air was cold with a nip of frost. From far on the other side of the ridge she had descended came the bawls of the last straggling cattle of the round-up. But surely Pronto had not shot up his ears for them. As if in answer a wild sound pealed down the slope, making the mustang jump. Columbine had heard it before.
"Pronto, it's only a wolf," she soothed him.
The peal was loud, rather harsh at first, then softened to a mourn, wild, lonely, haunting. A pack of coyotes barked in angry answer, a sharp, staccato, yelping chorus, the more piercing notes biting on the cold night air. These mountain mourns and yelps were music to Columbine. She rode on down the trail in the gathering darkness, less afraid of the night and its wild denizens than of what awaited her at White Slides Ranch.
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!"
The rancher thought it best to wait till after the round-up before he turned over the foremanship to his son. This was wise, but Jack did not see it that way. He showed that his old, intolerant spirit had, if anything, grown during his absence. Belllounds patiently argued with him, explaining what certainly should have been clear to a young man brought up in Colorado. The fall round-up was the most important time of the year, and during the strenuous drive the appointed foreman should have absolute control. Jack gave in finally with a bad grace.
It was unfortunate that he went directly from his father's presence out to the corrals. Some of the cowboys who had ridden all the day before and stood guard all night had just come in. They were begrimed with dust, weary, and sleepy-eyed.
"This hyar outfit won't see my tracks no more," said one, disgustedly. "I never kicked on doin' two men's work. But when it comes to rustlin' day and night, all the time, I'm a-goin' to pass."
"Turn in, boys, and sleep till we get back with the chuck-wagon," said Wilson Moore. "We'll clean up that bunch to-day."
"Ain't you tired, Wils?" queried Bludsoe, a squat, bow-legged cowpuncher who appeared to be crippled or very lame.
"Me? Naw!" grunted Moore, derisively. "Blud, you sure ask fool questions.... Why, you—mahogany-colored, stump-legged, biped of a cowpuncher, I've had three hours' sleep in four nights!"
"What's a biped?" asked Bludsoe, dubiously.
Nobody enlightened him.
"Wils, you-all air the only eddicated cowman I ever loved, but I'm a son-of-a-gun if we ain't agoin' to come to blows some day," declared Bludsoe.
"He shore can sling English," drawled Lem Billings. "I reckon he swallowed a dictionary onct."
"Wal, he can sling a rope, too, an' thet evens up," added Jim Montana.
Just at this moment Jack Belllounds appeared upon the scene. The cowboys took no notice of him. Jim was bandaging a leg of his horse; Bludsoe was wearily gathering up his saddle and trappings; Lem was giving his tired mustang a parting slap that meant much. Moore evidently awaited a fresh mount. A Mexican lad had come in out of the pasture leading several horses, one of which was the mottled white mustang that Moore rode most of the time.
Belllounds lounged forward with interest as Moore whistled, and the mustang showed his pleasure. Manifestly he did not like the Mexican boy and he did like Moore.
"Spottie, it's drag yearlings around for you to-day," said the cowboy, as he caught the mustang. Spottie tossed his head and stepped high until the bridle was on. When the saddle was thrown and strapped in place the mustang showed to advantage. He was beautiful, but not too graceful or sleek or fine-pointed or prancing to prejudice any cowboy against his qualities for work.
Jack Belllounds admiringly walked all around the mustang a little too close to please Spottie.
"Moore, he's a fair-to-middling horse," said Belllounds, with the air of judge of horseflesh. "What's his name?"
"Spottie," replied Moore, shortly, as he made ready to mount.
"Hold on, will you!" ordered Jack, peremptorily. "I like this horse. I want to look him over."
When he grasped the bridle-reins out of the cowboy's hand Spottie jumped as if he had been shot at. Belllounds jerked at him and went closer. The mustang reared, snorting, plunging to get loose. Then Jack Belllounds showed the sudden temper for which he was noted. Red stained his pale cheeks.
"Damn you—come down!" he shouted, infuriated at the mustang, and with both hands he gave a powerful lunge. Spottie came down, and stood there, trembling all over, his ears laid back, his eyes showing fright and pain. Blood dripped from his mouth where the bit had cut him.
"I'll teach you to stand," said Belllounds, darkly. "Moore, lend me your spurs. I want to try him out."
"I don't lend my spurs—or my horse, either," replied the cowboy, quietly, with a stride that put him within reach of Spottie.
The other cowboys had dropped their trappings and stood at attention, with intent gaze and mute lips.
"Is he your horse?" demanded Jack, with a quick flush.
"I reckon so," replied Moore, slowly. "No one but me ever rode him."
"Does my father own him or do you own him?"
"Well, if that's the way you figure—he belongs to White Slides," returned the cowboy. "I never bought him. I only raised him from a colt, broke him, and rode him."
"I thought so. Moore, he's mine, and I'm going to ride him now. Lend me spurs, one of you cowpunchers."
Nobody made any motion to comply. There seemed to be a suspense at hand that escaped Belllounds.
"I'll ride him without spurs," he declared, presently, and again he turned to mount the mustang.
"Belllounds, it'd be better for you not to ride him now," said Moore, coolly.
"Why, I'd like to know?" demanded Belllounds, with the temper of one who did not tolerate opposition.
"He's the only horse left for me to ride," answered the cowboy. "We're branding to-day. Hudson was hurt yesterday. He was foreman, and he appointed me to fill his place. I've got to rope yearlings. Now, if you get up on Spottie you'll excite him. He's high-strung, nervous. That'll be bad for him, as he hates cutting-out and roping."
The reasonableness of this argument was lost upon Belllounds.
"Moore, maybe it'd interest you to know that I'm foreman of White Slides," he asserted, not without loftiness.
His speech manifestly decided something vital for the cowboy.
"Ahuh!... I'm sure interested this minute," replied Moore, and then, stepping to the side of the mustang, with swift hands he unbuckled the cinch, and with one sweep he drew saddle and blanket to the ground.
The action surprised Belllounds. He stared. There seemed something boyish in his lack of comprehension. Then his temper flamed.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded, with a strident note in his voice. "Put that saddle back."
"Not much. It's my saddle. Cost sixty dollars at Kremmling last year. Good old hard-earned saddle!... And you can't ride it. Savvy?"
"Yes, I savvy," replied Belllounds, violently. "Now you'll savvy what I say. I'll have you discharged."
"Nope. Too late," said Moore, with cool, easy scorn. "I figured that. And I quit a minute ago—when you showed what little regard you had for a horse."
"You quit!... Well, it's damned good riddance. I wouldn't have you in the outfit."
"You couldn't have kept me, Buster Jack."
The epithet must have been an insult to Belllounds. "Don't you dare call me that," he burst out, furiously.
Moore pretended surprise. "Why not? It's your range name. We all get a handle, whether we like it or not. There's Montana and Blud and Lemme Two Bits. They call me Professor. Why should you kick on yours?"
"I won't stand it now. Not from any one—especially not you."
"Ahuh! Well, I'm afraid it'll stick," replied Moore, with sarcasm. "It sure suits you. Don't you bust everything you monkey with? Your old dad will sure be glad to see you bust the round-up to-day—and I reckon the outfit to-morrow."
"You insolent cowpuncher!" shouted Belllounds, growing beside himself with rage. "If you don't shut up I'll bust your face."
"Shut up!... Me? Nope. It can't be did. This is a free country, Buster Jack." There was no denying Moore's cool, stinging repetition of the epithet that had so affronted Belllounds.
"I always hated you!" he rasped out, hoarsely. Striking hard at Moore, he missed, but a second effort landed a glancing blow on the cowboy's face.
Moore staggered back, recovered his balance, and, hitting out shortly, he returned the blow. Belllounds fell against the corral fence, which upheld him.
"Buster Jack—you're crazy!" cried the cowboy, his eyes flashing. "Do you think you can lick me—after where you've been these three years?"
Like a maddened boy Belllounds leaped forward, this time his increased violence and wildness of face expressive of malignant rage. He swung his arms at random. Moore avoided his blows and planted a fist squarely on his adversary's snarling mouth. Belllounds fell with a thump. He got up with clumsy haste, but did not rush forward again. His big, prominent eyes held a dark and ugly look. His lower jaw wabbled as he panted for breath and speech at once.
"Moore—I'll kill—you!" he hissed, with glance flying everywhere for a weapon. From ground to cowboys he looked. Bludsoe was the only one packing a gun. Belllounds saw it, and he was so swift in bounding forward that he got a hand on it before Bludsoe could prevent.
"Let go! Give me—that gun! By God! I'll fix him!" yelled Belllounds, as Bludsoe grappled with him.
There was a sharp struggle. Bludsoe wrenched the other's hands free, and, pulling the gun, he essayed to throw it. But Belllounds blocked his action and the gun fell at their feet.
"Grab it!" sang out Bludsoe, ringingly. "Quick, somebody! The damned fool'll kill Wils."
Lem, running in, kicked the gun just as Belllounds reached for it. When it rolled against the fence Jim was there to secure it. Lem likewise grappled with the struggling Belllounds.
"Hyar, you Jack Belllounds," said Lem, "couldn't you see Wils wasn't packin' no gun? A-r'arin' like thet!... Stop your rantin' or we'll sure handle you rough."
"The old man's comin'," called Jim, warningly.
The rancher appeared. He strode swiftly, ponderously. His gray hair waved. His look was as stern as that of an eagle.
"What the hell's goin' on?" he roared.
The cowboys released Jack. That worthy, sullen and downcast, muttering to himself, stalked for the house.
"Jack, stand your ground," called old Belllounds.
But the son gave no heed. Once he looked back over his shoulder, and his dark glance saw no one save Moore.
"Boss, thar's been a little argyment," explained Jim, as with swift hand he hid Bludsoe's gun. "Nuthin' much."
"Jim, you're a liar," replied the old rancher.
"Aw!" exclaimed Jim, crestfallen.
"What're you hidin'?... You've got somethin' there. Gimme thet gun."
Without more ado Jim handed the gun over.
"It's mine, boss," put in Bludsoe.
"Ahuh? Wal, what was Jim hidin' it fer?" demanded Belllounds.
"Why, I jest tossed it to him—when I—sort of j'ined in with the argyment. We was tusslin' some an' I didn't want no gun."
How characteristic of cowboys that they lied to shield Jack Belllounds! But it was futile to attempt to deceive the old rancher. Here was a man who had been forty years dealing with all kinds of men and events.
"Bludsoe, you can't fool me," said old Bill, calmly. He had roared at them, and his eyes still flashed like blue fire, but he was calm and cool. Returning the gun to its owner, he continued: "I reckon you'd spare my feelin's an' lie about some trick of Jack's. Did he bust out?"
"Wal, tolerable like," replied Bludsoe, dryly.
"Ahuh! Tell me, then—an' no lies."
Belllounds's shrewd eyes had rested upon Wilson Moore. The cowboy's face showed the red marks of battle and the white of passion.
"I'm not going to lie, you can bet on that," he declared, forcefully.
"Ahuh! I might hev knowed you an' Jack'd clash," said Belllounds, gruffly. "What happened?"
"He hurt my horse. If it hadn't been for that there'd been no trouble."
A light leaped up in the old man's bold eyes. He was a lover of horses. Many hard words, and blows, too, he had dealt cowboys for being brutal.
"What'd he do?"
"Look at Spottie's mouth."
The rancher's way of approaching a horse was singularly different from his son's, notwithstanding the fact that Spottie knew him and showed no uneasiness. The examination took only a moment.
"Tongue cut bad. Thet's a damn shame. Take thet bridle off.... There. If it'd been an ornery hoss, now.... Moore, how'd this happen?"
"We just rode in," replied Wilson, hurriedly. "I was saddling Spottie when Jack came up. He took a shine to the mustang and wanted to ride him. When Spottie reared—he's shy with strangers—why, Jack gave a hell of a jerk on the bridle. The bit cut Spottie.... Well, that made me mad, but I held in. I objected to Jack riding Spottie. You see, Hudson was hurt yesterday and he appointed me foreman for to-day. I needed Spottie. But your son couldn't see it, and that made me sore. Jack said the mustang was his—"
"His?" interrupted Belllounds.
"Yes. He claimed Spottie. Well, he wasn't really mine, so I gave in. When I threw off the saddle, which was mine, Jack began to roar. He said he was foreman and he'd have me discharged. But I said I'd quit already. We both kept getting sorer and I called him Buster Jack.... He hit me first. Then we fought. I reckon I was getting the best of him when he made a dive for Bludsoe's gun. And that's all."
"Boss, as sure as I'm a born cowman," put in Bludsoe, "he'd hev plugged Wils if he'd got my gun. At thet he damn near got it!"
The old man stroked his scant gray beard with his huge, steady hand, apparently not greatly concerned by the disclosure.
"Montana, what do you say?" he queried, as if he held strong store by that quiet cowboy's opinion.
"Wal, boss," replied Jim, reluctantly, "Buster Jack's temper was bad onct, but now it's plumb wuss."
Whereupon Belllounds turned to Moore with a gesture and a look of a man who, in justice to something in himself, had to speak.
"Wils, it's onlucky you clashed with Jack right off," he said. "But thet was to be expected. I reckon Jack was in the wrong. Thet hoss was yours by all a cowboy holds right an' square. Mebbe by law Spottie belonged to White Slides Ranch—to me. But he's yours now, fer I give him to you."
"Much obliged, Belllounds. I sure do appreciate that," replied Moore, warmly. "It's what anybody'd gamble Bill Belllounds would do."
"Ahuh! An' I'd take it as a favor if you'd stay on to-day an' get thet brandin' done:"
"All right, I'll do that for you," replied Moore. "Lem, I guess you won't get your sleep till to-night. Come on."
"Awl" sighed Lem, as he picked up his bridle.
* * * * *
Late that afternoon Columbine sat upon the porch, watching the sunset. It had been a quiet day for her, mostly indoors. Once only had she seen Jack, and then he was riding by toward the pasture, whirling a lasso round his head. Jack could ride like one born to the range, but he was not an adept in the use of a rope. Nor had Columbine seen the old rancher since breakfast. She had heard his footsteps, however, pacing slowly up and down his room.
She was watching the last rays of the setting sun rimming with gold the ramparts of the mountain eastward, and burning a crown for Old White Slides peak. A distant bawl and bellow of cattle had died away. The branding was over for that fall. How glad she felt! The wind, beginning to grow cold as the sun declined, cooled her hot face. In the solitude of her room Columbine had cried enough that day to scald her cheeks.
Presently, down the lane between the pastures, she saw a cowboy ride into view. Very slowly he came, leading another horse. Columbine recognized Lem a second before she saw that he was leading Pronto. That struck her as strange. Another glance showed Pronto to be limping. Apparently he could just get along, and that was all. Columbine ran out in dismay, reaching the corral gate before Lem did. At first she had eyes only for her beloved mustang.
"Oh, Lem—Pronto's hurt!" she cried.
"Wal, I should smile he is," replied Lem.
But Lem was not smiling. And when he wore a serious face for Columbine something had indeed happened. The cowboy was the color of dust and so tired that he reeled.
"Lem, he's all bloody!" exclaimed Columbine, as she ran toward Pronto.
"Hyar, you jest wait," ordered Lem, testily. "Pronto's all cut up, an' you gotta hustle some linen an' salve."
Columbine flew away to do his bidding, and so quick and violent was she that when she got back to the corral she was out of breath. Pronto whinnied as she fell, panting, on her knees beside Lem, who was examining bloody gashes on the legs of the mustang.
"Wal, I reckon no great harm did," said Lem, with relief. "But he shore hed a close shave. Now you help me doctor him up."
"Yes—I'll help," panted Columbine. "I've done this kind—of thing often—but never—to Pronto.... Oh, I was afraid—he'd been gored by a steer."
"Wal, he come damn near bein'," replied Lem, grimly. "An' if it hedn't been fer ridin' you don't see every day, why thet ornery Texas steer'd hev got him."
"Who was riding? Lem, was it you? Oh, I'll never be able to do enough for you!"
"Wuss luck, it weren't me," said Lem.
"No? Who, then?"
"Wal, it was Wils, an' he made me swear to tell you nuthin'—leastways about him."
"Wils! Did he save Pronto?... And didn't want you to tell me? Lem, something has happened. You're not like yourself."
"Miss Collie, I reckon I'm nigh all in," replied Lem, wearily. "When I git this bandagin' done I'll fall right off my hoss."
"But you're on the ground now, Lem," said Columbine, with a nervous laugh. "What happened?"
"Did you hear about the argyment this mawnin'?"
"You can ask Ole Bill aboot thet. The way Pronto was hurt come off like this. Buster Jack rode out to where we was brandin' an' jumped his hoss over a fence into the pasture. He hed a rope an' he got to chasin' some hosses over thar. One was Pronto, an' the son-of-a-gun somehow did git the noose over Pronto's head. But he couldn't hold it, or didn't want to, fer Pronto broke loose an' jumped the fence. This wasn't so bad as far as it went. But one of them bad steers got after Pronto. He run an' sure stepped on the rope, an' fell. The big steer nearly piled on him. Pronto broke some records then. He shore was scared. Howsoever he picked out rough ground an' run plumb into some dead brush. Reckon thar he got cut up. We was all a good ways off. The steer went bawlin' an' plungin' after Pronto. Wils yelled fer a rifle, but nobody hed one. Nor a six-shooter, either.... I'm goin' back to packin' a gun. Wal, Wils did some ridin' to git over thar in time to save Pronto."
"Lem, that is not all," said Columbine, earnestly, as the cowboy concluded. Her knowledge of the range told her that Lem had narrated nothing so far which could have been cause for his cold, grim, evasive manner; and her woman's intuition divined a catastrophe.
"Nope.... Wils's hoss fell on him."
Lem broke that final news with all a cowboy's bluntness.
"Was he hurt—Lem!" cried Columbine.
"Say, Miss Collie," remonstrated Lem, "we're doctorin' up your hoss. You needn't drop everythin' an' grab me like thet. An' you're white as a sheet, too. It ain't nuthin' much fer a cowboy to hev a hoss fall on him."
"Lem Billings, I'll hate you if you don't tell me quick," flashed Columbine, fiercely.
"Ahuh! So thet's how the land lays," replied Lem, shrewdly. "Wal, I'm sorry to tell you thet Wils was bad hurt. Now, not real bad!... The hoss fell on his leg an' broke it. I cut off his boot. His foot was all smashed. But thar wasn't any other hurt—honest! They're takin' him to Kremmlin'."
"Ah!" Columbine's low cry sounded strangely in her ears, as if some one else had uttered it.
"Buster Jack made two bursts this hyar day," concluded Lem, reflectively. "Miss Collie, I ain't shore how you're regardin' thet individool, but I'm tellin' you this, fer your own good. He's bad medicine. He has his old man's temper thet riles up at nuthin' an' never felt a halter. Wusser'n thet, he's spoiled an' he acts like a colt thet'd tasted loco. The idee of his ropin' Pronto right thar near the round-up! Any one would think he jest come West. Old Bill is no fool. But he wears blinders when he looks at his son. I'm predictin' bad days fer White Slides Ranch."
Only one man at Meeker appeared to be attracted by the news that Rancher Bill Belllounds was offering employment. This was a little cadaverous-looking fellow, apparently neither young nor old, who said his name was Bent Wade. He had drifted into Meeker with two poor horses and a pack.
"Whar you from?" asked the innkeeper, observing how Wade cared for his horses before he thought of himself. The query had to be repeated.
"Cripple Creek. I was cook for some miners an' I panned gold between times," was the reply.
"Humph! Thet oughter been a better-payin' job than any to be hed hereabouts."
"Yes, got big pay there," said Wade, with a sigh.
"What'd you leave fer?"
"We hed a fight over the diggin's an' I was the only one left. I'll tell you...." Whereupon Wade sat down on a box, removed his old sombrero, and began to talk. An idler sauntered over, attracted by something. Then a miner happened by to halt and join the group.
Next, old Kemp, the patriarch of the village, came and listened attentively. Wade seemed to have a strange magnetism, a magic tongue.
He was small of stature, but wiry and muscular. His garments were old, soiled, worn. When he removed the wide-brimmed sombrero he exposed a remarkable face. It was smooth except for a drooping mustache, and pallid, with drops of sweat standing out on the high, broad forehead; gaunt and hollow-cheeked, with an enormous nose, and cavernous eyes set deep under shaggy brows. These features, however, were not so striking in themselves. Long, sloping, almost invisible lines of pain, the shadow of mystery and gloom in the deep-set, dark eyes, a sad harmony between features and expression, these marked the man's face with a record no keen eye could miss.
Wade told a terrible tale of gold and blood and death. It seemed to relieve him. His face changed, and lost what might have been called its tragic light, its driven intensity.
His listeners shook their heads in awe. Hard tales were common in Colorado, but this one was exceptional. Two of the group left without comment. Old Kemp stared with narrow, half-recognizing eyes at the new-comer.
"Wal! Wal!" ejaculated the innkeeper. "It do beat hell what can happen!... Stranger, will you put up your hosses an' stay?"
"I'm lookin' for work," replied Wade.
It was then that mention was made of Belllounds sending to Meeker for hands.
"Old Bill Belllounds thet settled Middle Park an' made friends with the Utes," said Wade, as if certain of his facts.
"Yep, you have Bill to rights. Do you know him?"
"I seen him once twenty years ago."
"Ever been to Middle Park? Belllounds owns ranches there," said the innkeeper.
"He ain't livin' in the Park now," interposed Kemp. "He's at White Slides, I reckon, these last eight or ten years. Thet's over the Gore Range."
"Prospected all through that country," said Wade.
"Wal, it's a fine part of Colorado. Hay an' stock country—too high fer grain. Did you mean you'd been through the Park?"
"Once—long ago," replied Wade, staring with his great, cavernous eyes into space. Some memory of Middle Park haunted him.
"Wal, then, I won't be steerin' you wrong," said the innkeeper. "I like thet country. Some people don't. An' I say if you can cook or pack or punch cows or 'most anythin' you'll find a bunk with Old Bill. I understand he was needin' a hunter most of all. Lions an' wolves bad! Can you hunt?"
"Hey?" queried Wade, absently, as he inclined his ear. "I'm deaf on one side."
"Are you a good man with dogs an' guns?" shouted his questioner.
"Tolerable," replied Wade.
"Then you're sure of a job."
"I'll go. Much obliged to you."
"Not a-tall. I'm doin' Belllounds a favor. Reckon you'll put up here to-night?"
"I always sleep out. But I'll buy feed an' supplies," replied Wade, as he turned to his horses.
Old Kemp trudged down the road, wagging his gray head as if he was contending with a memory sadly failing him. An hour later when Bent Wade rode out of town he passed Kemp, and hailed him. The old-timer suddenly slapped his leg: "By Golly! I knowed I'd met him before!"
Later, he said with a show of gossipy excitement to his friend the innkeeper, "Thet fellar was Bent Wade!"
"So he told me," returned the other.
"But didn't you never hear of him? Bent Wade?"
"Now you tax me, thet name do 'pear familiar. But dash take it, I can't remember. I knowed he was somebody, though. Hope I didn't wish a gun-fighter or outlaw on Old Bill. Who was he, anyhow?"
"They call him Hell-Bent Wade. I seen him in Wyomin', whar he were a stage-driver. But I never heerd who he was an' what he was till years after. Thet was onct I dropped down into Boulder. Wade was thar, all shot up, bein' nussed by Sam Coles. Sam's dead now. He was a friend of Wade's an' knowed him fer long. Wal, I heerd all thet anybody ever heerd about him, I reckon. Accordin' to Coles this hyar Hell-Bent Wade was a strange, wonderful sort of fellar. He had the most amazin' ways. He could do anythin' under the sun better'n any one else. Bad with guns! He never stayed in one place fer long. He never hunted trouble, but trouble follered him. As I remember Coles, thet was Wade's queer idee—he couldn't shake trouble. No matter whar he went, always thar was hell. Thet's what gave him the name Hell-Bent.... An' Coles swore thet Wade was the whitest man he ever knew. Heart of gold, he said. Always savin' somebody, helpin' somebody, givin' his money or time—never thinkin' of himself a-tall.... When he began to tell thet story about Cripple Creek then my ole head begun to ache with rememberin'. Fer I'd heerd Bent Wade talk before. Jest the same kind of story he told hyar, only wuss. Lordy! but thet fellar has seen times. An' queerest of all is thet idee he has how hell's on his trail an' everywhere he roams it ketches up with him, an' thar he meets the man who's got to hear his tale!"
* * * * *
Sunset found Bent Wade far up the valley of White River under the shadow of the Flat Top Mountains. It was beautiful country. Grassy hills, with colored aspen groves, swelled up on his left, and across the brawling stream rose a league-long slope of black spruce, above which the bare red-and-gray walls of the range towered, glorious with the blaze of sinking sun. White patches of snow showed in the sheltered nooks. Wade's gaze rested longest on the colored heights.
By and by the narrow valley opened into a park, at the upper end of which stood a log cabin. A few cattle and horses grazed in an inclosed pasture. The trail led by the cabin. As Wade rode up a bushy-haired man came out of the door, rifle in hand. He might have been going out to hunt, but his scrutiny of Wade was that of a lone settler in a wild land.