Chapter II. Cottonwoods
Venters appeared too deeply moved to speak the gratitude his face expressed. And Jane turned upon the rescuer and gripped his hands. Her smiles and tears seemingly dazed him. Presently as something like calmness returned, she went to Lassiter's weary horse.
"I will water him myself," she said, and she led the horse to a trough under a huge old cottonwood. With nimble fingers she loosened the bridle and removed the bit. The horse snorted and bent his head. The trough was of solid stone, hollowed out, moss-covered and green and wet and cool, and the clear brown water that fed it spouted and splashed from a wooden pipe.
"He has brought you far to-day?"
"Yes, ma'am, a matter of over sixty miles, mebbe seventy."
"A long ride--a ride that--Ah, he is blind!"
"Yes, ma'am," replied Lassiter.
"What blinded him?"
"Some men once roped an' tied him, an' then held white-iron close to his eyes."
"Oh! Men? You mean devils....Were they your enemies--Mormons?"
"To take revenge on a horse! Lassiter, the men of my creed are unnaturally cruel. To my everlasting sorrow I confess it. They have been driven, hated, scourged till their hearts have hardened. But we women hope and pray for the time when our men will soften."
"Beggin' your pardon, ma'am--that time will never come."
"Oh, it will!...Lassiter, do you think Mormon women wicked? Has your hand been against them, too?"
"No. I believe Mormon women are the best and noblest, the most long-sufferin', and the blindest, unhappiest women on earth."
"Ah!" She gave him a grave, thoughtful look. "Then you will break bread with me?"
Lassiter had no ready response, and he uneasily shifted his weight from one leg to another, and turned his sombrero round and round in his hands. "Ma'am," he began, presently, "I reckon your kindness of heart makes you overlook things. Perhaps I ain't well known hereabouts, but back up North there's Mormons who'd rest uneasy in their graves at the idea of me sittin' to table with you."
"I dare say. But--will you do it, anyway?" she asked.
"Mebbe you have a brother or relative who might drop in an' be offended, an' I wouldn't want to--"
"I've not a relative in Utah that I know of. There's no one with a right to question my actions." She turned smilingly to Venters. "You will come in, Bern, and Lassiter will come in. We'll eat and be merry while we may."
"I'm only wonderin' if Tull an' his men'll raise a storm down in the village," said Lassiter, in his last weakening stand.
"Yes, he'll raise the storm--after he has prayed," replied Jane. "Come."
She led the way, with the bridle of Lassiter's horse over her arm. They entered a grove and walked down a wide path shaded by great low-branching cottonwoods. The last rays of the setting sun sent golden bars through the leaves. The grass was deep and rich, welcome contrast to sage-tired eyes. Twittering quail darted across the path, and from a tree-top somewhere a robin sang its evening song, and on the still air floated the freshness and murmur of flowing water.
The home of Jane Withersteen stood in a circle of cottonwoods, and was a flat, long, red-stone structure with a covered court in the center through which flowed a lively stream of amber-colored water. In the massive blocks of stone and heavy timbers and solid doors and shutters showed the hand of a man who had builded against pillage and time; and in the flowers and mosses lining the stone-bedded stream, in the bright colors of rugs and blankets on the court floor, and the cozy corner with hammock and books and the clean-linened table, showed the grace of a daughter who lived for happiness and the day at hand.
Jane turned Lassiter's horse loose in the thick grass. "You will want him to be near you," she said, "or I'd have him taken to the alfalfa fields." At her call appeared women who began at once to bustle about, hurrying to and fro, setting the table. Then Jane, excusing herself, went within.
She passed through a huge low ceiled chamber, like the inside of a fort, and into a smaller one where a bright wood-fire blazed in an old open fireplace, and from this into her own room. It had the same comfort as was manifested in the home-like outer court; moreover, it was warm and rich in soft hues.
Seldom did Jane Withersteen enter her room without looking into her mirror. She knew she loved the reflection of that beauty which since early childhood she had never been allowed to forget. Her relatives and friends, and later a horde of Mormon and Gentile suitors, had fanned the flame of natural vanity in her. So that at twenty-eight she scarcely thought at all of her wonderful influence for good in the little community where her father had left her practically its beneficent landlord, but cared most for the dream and the assurance and the allurement of her beauty. This time, however, she gazed into her glass with more than the usual happy motive, without the usual slight conscious smile. For she was thinking of more than the desire to be fair in her own eyes, in those of her friend; she wondered if she were to seem fair in the eyes of this Lassiter, this man whose name had crossed the long, wild brakes of stone and plains of sage, this gentle-voiced, sad-faced man who was a hater and a killer of Mormons. It was not now her usual half-conscious vain obsession that actuated her as she hurriedly changed her riding-dress to one of white, and then looked long at the stately form with its gracious contours, at the fair face with its strong chin and full firm lips, at the dark-blue, proud, and passionate eyes.
"If by some means I can keep him here a few days, a week--he will never kill another Mormon," she mused. "Lassiter!...I shudder when I think of that name, of him. But when I look at the man I forget who he is--I almost like him. I remember only that he saved Bern. He has suffered. I wonder what it was--did he love a Mormon woman once? How splendidly he championed us poor misunderstood souls! Somehow he knows--much."
Jane Withersteen joined her guests and bade them to her board. Dismissing her woman, she waited upon them with her own hands. It was a bountiful supper and a strange company. On her right sat the ragged and half-starved Venters; and though blind eyes could have seen what he counted for in the sum of her happiness, yet he looked the gloomy outcast his allegiance had made him, and about him there was the shadow of the ruin presaged by Tull. On her left sat black-leather-garbed Lassiter looking like a man in a dream. Hunger was not with him, nor composure, nor speech, and when he twisted in frequent unquiet movements the heavy guns that he had not removed knocked against the table-legs. If it had been otherwise possible to forget the presence of Lassiter those telling little jars would have rendered it unlikely. And Jane Withersteen talked and smiled and laughed with all the dazzling play of lips and eyes that a beautiful, daring woman could summon to her purpose.
When the meal ended, and the men pushed back their chairs, she leaned closer to Lassiter and looked square into his eyes.
"Why did you come to Cottonwoods?"
Her question seemed to break a spell. The rider arose as if he had just remembered himself and had tarried longer than his wont.
"Ma'am, I have hunted all over the southern Utah and Nevada for-- somethin'. An' through your name I learned where to find it--here in Cottonwoods."
"My name! Oh, I remember. You did know my name when you spoke first. Well, tell me where you heard it and from whom?"
"At the little village--Glaze, I think it's called--some fifty miles or more west of here. An' I heard it from a Gentile, a rider who said you'd know where to tell me to find--"
"What?" she demanded, imperiously, as Lassiter broke off.
"Milly Erne's grave," he answered low, and the words came with a wrench.
Venters wheeled in his chair to regard Lassiter in amazement, and Jane slowly raised herself in white, still wonder.
"Milly Erne's grave?" she echoed, in a whisper. "What do you know of Milly Erne, my best-beloved friend--who died in my arms? What were you to her?"
"Did I claim to be anythin'?" he inquired. "I know people--relatives-- who have long wanted to know where she's buried, that's all."
"Relatives? She never spoke of relatives, except a brother who was shot in Texas. Lassiter, Milly Erne's grave is in a secret burying-ground on my property."
"Will you take me there?...You'll be offendin' Mormons worse than by breakin' bread with me."
"Indeed yes, but I'll do it. Only we must go unseen. To-morrow, perhaps."
"Thank you, Jane Withersteen," replied the rider, and he bowed to her and stepped backward out of the court.
"Will you not stay--sleep under my roof?" she asked.
"No, ma'am, an' thanks again. I never sleep indoors. An' even if I did there's that gatherin' storm in the village below. No, no. I'll go to the sage. I hope you won't suffer none for your kindness to me."
"Lassiter," said Venters, with a half-bitter laugh, "my bed too, is the sage. Perhaps we may meet out there."
"Mebbe so. But the sage is wide an' I won't be near. Good night."
At Lassiter's low whistle the black horse whinnied, and carefully picked his blind way out of the grove. The rider did not bridle him, but walked beside him, leading him by touch of hand and together they passed slowly into the shade of the cottonwoods.
"Jane, I must be off soon," said Venters. "Give me my guns. If I'd had my guns--"
"Either my friend or the Elder of my church would be lying dead," she interposed
"Tull would be--surely."
"Oh, you fierce-blooded, savage youth! Can't I teach you forebearance, mercy? Bern, it's divine to forgive your enemies. 'Let not the sun go down upon thy wrath.'"
"Hush! Talk to me no more of mercy or religion--after to-day. To-day this strange coming of Lassiter left me still a man, and now I'll die a man!...Give me my guns."
Silently she went into the house, to return with a heavy cartridge-belt and gun-filled sheath and a long rifle; these she handed to him, and as he buckled on the belt she stood before him in silent eloquence.
"Jane," he said, in gentler voice, "don't look so. I'm not going out to murder your churchman. I'll try to avoid him and all his men. But can't you see I've reached the end of my rope? Jane, you're a wonderful woman. Never was there a woman so unselfish and good. Only you're blind in one way....Listen!"
From behind the grove came the clicking sound of horses in a rapid trot.
"Some of your riders," he continued. "It's getting time for the night shift. Let us go out to the bench in the grove and talk there."
It was still daylight in the open, but under the spreading cottonwoods shadows were obscuring the lanes. Venters drew Jane off from one of these into a shrub-lined trail, just wide enough for the two to walk abreast, and in a roundabout way led her far from the house to a knoll on the edge of the grove. Here in a secluded nook was a bench from which, through an opening in the tree-tops, could be seen the sage-slope and the wall of rock and the dim lines of canyons. Jane had not spoken since Venters had shocked her with his first harsh speech; but all the way she had clung to his arm, and now, as he stopped and laid his rifle against the bench, she still clung to him.
"Jane, I'm afraid I must leave you."
"Bern!" she cried.
"Yes, it looks that way. My position is not a happy one--I can't feel right--I've lost all--"
"I'll give you anything you--"
"Listen, please. When I say loss I don't mean what you think. I mean loss of good-will, good name--that which would have enabled me to stand up in this village without bitterness. Well, it's too late....Now, as to the future, I think you'd do best to give me up. Tull is implacable. You ought to see from his intention to-day that--But you can't see. Your blindness--your damned religion!...Jane, forgive me--I'm sore within and something rankles. Well, I fear that invisible hand will turn its hidden work to your ruin."
"Invisible hand? Bern!"
"I mean your Bishop." Venters said it deliberately and would not release her as she started back. "He's the law. The edict went forth to ruin me. Well, look at me! It'll now go forth to compel you to the will of the Church."
"You wrong Bishop Dyer. Tull is hard, I know. But then he has been in love with me for years."
"Oh, your faith and your excuses! You can't see what I know--and if you did see it you'd not admit it to save your life. That's the Mormon of you. These elders and bishops will do absolutely any deed to go on building up the power and wealth of their church, their empire. Think of what they've done to the Gentiles here, to me--think of Milly Erne's fate!"
"What do you know of her story?"
"I know enough--all, perhaps, except the name of the Mormon who brought her here. But I must stop this kind of talk."
She pressed his hand in response. He helped her to a seat beside him on the bench. And he respected a silence that he divined was full of woman's deep emotion beyond his understanding.
It was the moment when the last ruddy rays of the sunset brightened momentarily before yielding to twilight. And for Venters the outlook before him was in some sense similar to a feeling of his future, and with searching eyes he studied the beautiful purple, barren waste of sage. Here was the unknown and the perilous. The whole scene impressed Venters as a wild, austere, and mighty manifestation of nature. And as it somehow reminded him of his prospect in life, so it suddenly resembled the woman near him, only in her there were greater beauty and peril, a mystery more unsolvable, and something nameless that numbed his heart and dimmed his eye.
"Look! A rider!" exclaimed Jane, breaking the silence. "Can that be Lassiter?"
Venters moved his glance once more to the west. A horseman showed dark on the sky-line, then merged into the color of the sage.
"It might be. But I think not--that fellow was coming in. One of your riders, more likely. Yes, I see him clearly now. And there's another."
"I see them, too."
"Jane, your riders seem as many as the bunches of sage. I ran into five yesterday 'way down near the trail to Deception Pass. They were with the white herd."
"You still go to that canyon? Bern, I wish you wouldn't. Oldring and his rustlers live somewhere down there."
"Well, what of that?"
"Tull has already hinted to your frequent trips into Deception Pass."
"I know." Venters uttered a short laugh. "He'll make a rustler of me next. But, Jane, there's no water for fifty miles after I leave here, and the nearest is in the canyon. I must drink and water my horse. There! I see more riders. They are going out."
"The red herd is on the slope, toward the Pass."
Twilight was fast falling. A group of horsemen crossed the dark line of low ground to become more distinct as they climbed the slope. The silence broke to a clear call from an incoming rider, and, almost like the peal of a hunting-horn, floated back the answer. The outgoing riders moved swiftly, came sharply into sight as they topped a ridge to show wild and black above the horizon, and then passed down, dimming into the purple of the sage.
"I hope they don't meet Lassiter," said Jane.
"So do I," replied Venters. "By this time the riders of the night shift know what happened to-day. But Lassiter will likely keep out of their way."
"Bern, who is Lassiter? He's only a name to me--a terrible name."
"Who is he? I don't know, Jane. Nobody I ever met knows him. He talks a little like a Texan, like Milly Erne. Did you note that?"
"Yes. How strange of him to know of her! And she lived here ten years and has been dead two. Bern, what do you know of Lassiter? Tell me what he has done--why you spoke of him to Tull--threatening to become another Lassiter yourself?"
"Jane, I only heard things, rumors, stories, most of which I disbelieved. At Glaze his name was known, but none of the riders or ranchers I knew there ever met him. At Stone Bridge I never heard him mentioned. But at Sterling and villages north of there he was spoken of often. I've never been in a village which he had been known to visit. There were many conflicting stories about him and his doings. Some said he had shot up this and that Mormon village, and others denied it. I'm inclined to believe he has, and you know how Mormons hide the truth. But there was one feature about Lassiter upon which all agree--that he was what riders in this country call a gun-man. He's a man with a marvelous quickness and accuracy in the use of a Colt. And now that I've seen him I know more. Lassiter was born without fear. I watched him with eyes which saw him my friend. I'll never forget the moment I recognized him from what had been told me of his crouch before the draw. It was then I yelled his name. I believe that yell saved Tull's life. At any rate, I know this, between Tull and death then there was not the breadth of the littlest hair. If he or any of his men had moved a finger downward--"
Venters left his meaning unspoken, but at the suggestion Jane shuddered.
The pale afterglow in the west darkened with the merging of twilight into night. The sage now spread out black and gloomy. One dim star glimmered in the southwest sky. The sound of trotting horses had ceased, and there was silence broken only by a faint, dry pattering of cottonwood leaves in the soft night wind.
Into this peace and calm suddenly broke the high-keyed yelp of a coyote, and from far off in the darkness came the faint answering note of a trailing mate.
"Hello! the sage-dogs are barking," said Venters.
"I don't like to hear them," replied Jane. "At night, sometimes when I lie awake, listening to the long mourn or breaking bark or wild howl, I think of you asleep somewhere in the sage, and my heart aches."
"Jane, you couldn't listen to sweeter music, nor could I have a better bed."
"Just think! Men like Lassiter and you have no home, no comfort, no rest, no place to lay your weary heads. Well!...Let us be patient. Tull's anger may cool, and time may help us. You might do some service to the village--who can tell? Suppose you discovered the long-unknown hiding-place of Oldring and his band, and told it to my riders? That would disarm Tull's ugly hints and put you in favor. For years my riders have trailed the tracks of stolen cattle. You know as well as I how dearly we've paid for our ranges in this wild country. Oldring drives our cattle down into the network of deceiving canyons, and somewhere far to the north or east he drives them up and out to Utah markets. If you will spend time in Deception Pass try to find the trails."
"Jane, I've thought of that. I'll try."
"I must go now. And it hurts, for now I'll never be sure of seeing you again. But to-morrow, Bern?"
"To-morrow surely. I'll watch for Lassiter and ride in with him."
Then she left him and moved away, a white, gliding shape that soon vanished in the shadows.
Venters waited until the faint slam of a door assured him she had reached the house, and then, taking up his rifle, he noiselessly slipped through the bushes, down the knoll, and on under the dark trees to the edge of the grove. The sky was now turning from gray to blue; stars had begun to lighten the earlier blackness; and from the wide flat sweep before him blew a cool wind, fragrant with the breath of sage. Keeping close to the edge of the cottonwoods, he went swiftly and silently westward. The grove was long, and he had not reached the end when he heard something that brought him to a halt. Low padded thuds told him horses were coming this way. He sank down in the gloom, waiting, listening. Much before he had expected, judging from sound, to his amazement he descried horsemen near at hand. They were riding along the border of the sage, and instantly he knew the hoofs of the horses were muffled. Then the pale starlight afforded him indistinct sight of the riders. But his eyes were keen and used to the dark, and by peering closely he recognized the huge bulk and black-bearded visage of Oldring and the lithe, supple form of the rustler's lieutenant, a masked rider. They passed on; the darkness swallowed them. Then, farther out on the sage, a dark, compact body of horsemen went by, almost without sound, almost like specters, and they, too, melted into the night.