Chapter XXI. Black Star And Night
The time had come for Venters and Bess to leave their retreat. They were at great pains to choose the few things they would be able to carry with them on the journey out of Utah.
"Bern, whatever kind of a pack's this, anyhow?" questioned Bess, rising from her work with reddened face.
Venters, absorbed in his own task, did not look up at all, and in reply said he had brought so much from Cottonwoods that he did not recollect the half of it.
"A woman packed this!" Bess exclaimed.
He scarcely caught her meaning, but the peculiar tone of her voice caused him instantly to rise, and he saw Bess on her knees before an open pack which he recognized as the one given him by Jane.
"By George!" he ejaculated, guiltily, and then at sight of Bess's face he laughed outright.
"A woman packed this," she repeated, fixing woeful, tragic eyes on him.
"Well, is that a crime?'
"There--there is a woman, after all!"
"You've lied to me!"
Then and there Venters found it imperative to postpone work for the present. All her life Bess had been isolated, but she had inherited certain elements of the eternal feminine.
"But there was a woman and you did lie to me," she kept repeating, after he had explained.
"What of that? Bess, I'll get angry at you in a moment. Remember you've been pent up all your life. I venture to say that if you'd been out in the world you d have had a dozen sweethearts and have told many a lie before this."
"I wouldn't anything of the kind," declared Bess, indignantly.
"Well--perhaps not lie. But you'd have had the sweethearts--You couldn't have helped that--being so pretty."
This remark appeared to be a very clever and fortunate one; and the work of selecting and then of stowing all the packs in the cave went on without further interruption.
Venters closed up the opening of the cave with a thatch of willows and aspens, so that not even a bird or a rat could get in to the sacks of grain. And this work was in order with the precaution habitually observed by him. He might not be able to get out of Utah, and have to return to the valley. But he owed it to Bess to make the attempt, and in case they were compelled to turn back he wanted to find that fine store of food and grain intact. The outfit of implements and utensils he packed away in another cave.
"Bess, we have enough to live here all our lives," he said once, dreamily.
"Shall I go roll Balancing Rock?" she asked, in light speech, but with deep-blue fire in her eyes.
"Ah, you don't forget the gold and the world," she sighed.
"Child, you forget the beautiful dresses and the travel--and everything."
"Oh, I want to go. But I want to stay!"
"I feel the same way."
They let the eight calves out of the corral, and kept only two of the burros Venters had brought from Cottonwoods. These they intended to ride. Bess freed all her pets--the quail and rabbits and foxes.
The last sunset and twilight and night were both the sweetest and saddest they had ever spent in Surprise Valley. Morning brought keen exhilaration and excitement. When Venters had saddled the two burros, strapped on the light packs and the two canteens, the sunlight was dispersing the lazy shadows from the valley. Taking a last look at the caves and the silver spruces, Venters and Bess made a reluctant start, leading the burros. Ring and Whitie looked keen and knowing. Something seemed to drag at Venters's feet and he noticed Bess lagged behind. Never had the climb from terrace to bridge appeared so long.
Not till they reached the opening of the gorge did they stop to rest and take one last look at the valley. The tremendous arch of stone curved clear and sharp in outline against the morning sky. And through it streaked the golden shaft. The valley seemed an enchanted circle of glorious veils of gold and wraiths of white and silver haze and dim, blue, moving shade--beautiful and wild and unreal as a dream.
"We--we can--th--think of it--always--re--remember," sobbed Bess.
"Hush! Don't cry. Our valley has only fitted us for a better life somewhere. Come!"
They entered the gorge and he closed the willow gate. From rosy, golden morning light they passed into cool, dense gloom. The burros pattered up the trail with little hollow-cracking steps. And the gorge widened to narrow outlet and the gloom lightened to gray. At the divide they halted for another rest. Venters's keen, remembering gaze searched Balancing Rock, and the long incline, and the cracked toppling walls, but failed to note the slightest change.
The dogs led the descent; then came Bess leading her burro; then Venters leading his. Bess kept her eyes bent downward. Venters, however, had an irresistible desire to look upward at Balancing Rock. It had always haunted him, and now he wondered if he were really to get through the outlet before the huge stone thundered down. He fancied that would be a miracle. Every few steps he answered to the strange, nervous fear and turned to make sure the rock still stood like a giant statue. And, as he descended, it grew dimmer in his sight. It changed form; it swayed it nodded darkly; and at last, in his heightened fancy, he saw it heave and roll. As in a dream when he felt himself falling yet knew he would never fall, so he saw this long-standing thunderbolt of the little stone-men plunge down to close forever the outlet to Deception Pass.
And while he was giving way to unaccountable dread imaginations the descent was accomplished without mishap.
"I'm glad that's over," he said, breathing more freely. "I hope I'm by that hanging rock for good and all. Since almost the moment I first saw it I've had an idea that it was waiting for me. Now, when it does fall, if I'm thousands of miles away, I'll hear it."
With the first glimpses of the smooth slope leading down to the grotesque cedars and out to the Pass, Venters's cool nerve returned. One long survey to the left, then one to the right, satisfied his caution. Leading the burros down to the spur of rock, he halted at the steep incline.
"Bess, here's the bad place, the place I told you about, with the cut steps. You start down, leading your burro. Take your time and hold on to him if you slip. I've got a rope on him and a half-hitch on this point of rock, so I can let him down safely. Coming up here was a killing job. But it'll be easy going down."
Both burros passed down the difficult stairs cut by the cliff-dwellers, and did it without a misstep. After that the descent down the slope and over the mile of scrawled, ripped, and ridged rock required only careful guidance, and Venters got the burros to level ground in a condition that caused him to congratulate himself.
"Oh, if we only had Wrangle!" exclaimed Venters. "But we're lucky. That's the worst of our trail passed. We've only men to fear now. If we get up in the sage we can hide and slip along like coyotes."
They mounted and rode west through the valley and entered the canyon. From time to time Venters walked, leading his burro. When they got by all the canyons and gullies opening into the Pass they went faster and with fewer halts. Venters did not confide in Bess the alarming fact that he had seen horses and smoke less than a mile up one of the intersecting canyons. He did not talk at all. And long after he had passed this canyon and felt secure once more in the certainty that they had been unobserved he never relaxed his watchfulness. But he did not walk any more, and he kept the burros at a steady trot. Night fell before they reached the last water in the Pass and they made camp by starlight. Venters did not want the burros to stray, so he tied them with long halters in the grass near the spring. Bess, tired out and silent, laid her head in a saddle and went to sleep between the two dogs. Venters did not close his eyes. The canyon silence appeared full of the low, continuous hum of insects. He listened until the hum grew into a roar, and then, breaking the spell, once more he heard it low and clear. He watched the stars and the moving shadows, and always his glance returned to the girl's dimly pale face. And he remembered how white and still it had once looked in the starlight. And again stern thought fought his strange fancies. Would all his labor and his love be for naught? Would he lose her, after all? What did the dark shadow around her portend? Did calamity lurk on that long upland trail through the sage? Why should his heart swell and throb with nameless fear? He listened to the silence and told himself that in the broad light of day he could dispel this leaden-weighted dread.
At the first hint of gray over the eastern rim he awoke Bess, saddled the burros, and began the day's travel. He wanted to get out of the Pass before there was any chance of riders coming down. They gained the break as the first red rays of the rising sun colored the rim.
For once, so eager was he to get up to level ground, he did not send Ring or Whitie in advance. Encouraging Bess to hurry pulling at his patient, plodding burro, he climbed the soft, steep trail.
Brighter and brighter grew the light. He mounted the last broken edge of rim to have the sun-fired, purple sage-slope burst upon him as a glory. Bess panted up to his side, tugging on the halter of her burro.
"We're up!" he cried, joyously. "There's not a dot on the sage We're safe. We'll not be seen! Oh, Bess--"
Ring growled and sniffed the keen air and bristled. Venters clutched at his rifle. Whitie sometimes made a mistake, but Ring never. The dull thud of hoofs almost deprived Venters of power to turn and see from where disaster threatened. He felt his eyes dilate as he stared at Lassiter leading Black Star and Night out of the sage, with Jane Withersteen, in rider's costume, close beside them.
For an instant Venters felt himself whirl dizzily in the center of vast circles of sage. He recovered partially, enough to see Lassiter standing with a glad smile and Jane riveted in astonishment.
"Why, Bern!" she exclaimed. "How good it is to see you! We're riding away, you see. The storm burst--and I'm a ruined woman!...I thought you were alone."
Venters, unable to speak for consternation, and bewildered out of all sense of what he ought or ought not to do, simply stared at Jane.
"Son, where are you bound for?" asked Lassiter.
"Not safe--where I was. I'm--we're going out of Utah--back East," he found tongue to say.
"I reckon this meetin's the luckiest thing that ever happened to you an' to me--an' to Jane--an' to Bess," said Lassiter, coolly.
"Bess!" cried Jane, with a sudden leap of blood to her pale cheek.
It was entirely beyond Venters to see any luck in that meeting.
Jane Withersteen took one flashing, woman's glance at Bess's scarlet face, at her slender, shapely form.
"Venters! is this a girl--a woman?" she questioned, in a voice that stung.
"Did you have her in that wonderful valley?"
"Yes, but Jane--"
"All the time you were gone?"
"Yes, but I couldn't tell--"
"Was it for her you asked me to give you supplies? Was it for her that you wanted to make your valley a paradise?"
"Oh, you liar!" And with these passionate words Jane Withersteen succumbed to fury. For the second time in her life she fell into the ungovernable rage that had been her father's weakness. And it was worse than his, for she was a jealous woman--jealous even of her friends.
As best he could, he bore the brunt of her anger. It was not only his deceit to her that she visited upon him, but her betrayal by religion, by life itself.
Her passion, like fire at white heat, consumed itself in little time. Her physical strength failed, and still her spirit attempted to go on in magnificent denunciation of those who had wronged her. Like a tree cut deep into its roots, she began to quiver and shake, and her anger weakened into despair. And her ringing voice sank into a broken, husky whisper. Then, spent and pitiable, upheld by Lassiter's arm, she turned and hid her face in Black Star's mane.
Numb as Venters was when at length Jane Withersteen lifted her head and looked at him, he yet suffered a pang.
"Jane, the girl is innocent!" he cried.
"Can you expect me to believe that?" she asked, with weary, bitter eyes.
"I'm not that kind of a liar. And you know it. If I lied--if I kept silent when honor should have made me speak, it was to spare you. I came to Cottonwoods to tell you. But I couldn't add to your pain. I intended to tell you I had come to love this girl. But, Jane I hadn't forgotten how good you were to me. I haven't changed at all toward you. I prize your friendship as I always have. But, however it may look to you--don't be unjust. The girl is innocent. Ask Lassiter."
"Jane, she's jest as sweet an' innocent as little Fay," said Lassiter. There was a faint smile upon his face and a beautiful light.
Venters saw, and knew that Lassiter saw, how Jane Withersteen's tortured soul wrestled with hate and threw it--with scorn doubt, suspicion, and overcame all.
"Bern, if in my misery I accused you unjustly, I crave forgiveness," she said. "I'm not what I once was. Tell me--who is this girl?"
"Jane, she is Oldring's daughter, and his Masked Rider. Lassiter will tell you how I shot her for a rustler, saved her life--all the story. It's a strange story, Jane, as wild as the sage. But it's true--true as her innocence. That you must believe,"
"Oldring's Masked Rider! Oldring's daughter!" exclaimed Jane "And she's innocent! You ask me to believe much. If this girl is--is what you say, how could she be going away with the man who killed her father?"
"Why did you tell that?" cried Venters, passionately.
Jane's question had roused Bess out of stupefaction. Her eyes suddenly darkened and dilated. She stepped toward Venters and held up both hands as if to ward off a blow.
"Did--did you kill Oldring?"
"I did, Bess, and I hate myself for it. But you know I never dreamed he was your father. I thought he'd wronged you. I killed him when I was madly jealous."
For a moment Bess was shocked into silence.
"But he was my father!" she broke out, at last. "And now I must go back--I can't go with you. It's all over--that beautiful dream. Oh, I knew it couldn't come true. You can't take me now."
"If you forgive me, Bess, it'll all come right in the end!" implored Venters.
"It can't be right. I'll go back. After all, I loved him. He was good to me. I can't forget that."
"If you go back to Oldring's men I'll follow you, and then they'll kill me," said Venters, hoarsely.
"Oh no, Bern, you'll not come. Let me go. It's best for you to forget mot I've brought you only pain and dishonor."
She did not weep. But the sweet bloom and life died out of her face. She looked haggard and sad, all at once stunted; and her hands dropped listlessly; and her head drooped in slow, final acceptance of a hopeless fate.
"Jane. look there!" cried Venters, in despairing grief. "Need you have told her? Where was all your kindness of heart? This girl has had a wretched, lonely life. And I'd found a way to make her happy. You've killed it. You've killed something sweet and pure and hopeful, just as sure as you breathe."
"Oh, Bern! It was a slip. I never thought--I never thought!" replied Jane. "How could I tell she didn't know?"
Lassiter suddenly moved forward, and with the beautiful light on his face now strangely luminous, he looked at Jane and Venters and then let his soft, bright gaze rest on Bess.
"Well, I reckon you've all had your say, an' now it's Lassiter's turn. Why, I was jest praying for this meetin'. Bess, jest look here."
Gently he touched her arm and turned her to face the others, and then outspread his great hand to disclose a shiny, battered gold locket.
"Open it," he said, with a singularly rich voice.
Bess complied, but listlessly.
"Jane--Venters--come closer," went on Lassiter. "Take a look at the picture. Don't you know the woman?"
Jane, after one glance, drew back.
"Milly Erne!" she cried, wonderingly.
Venters, with tingling pulse, with something growing on him, recognized in the faded miniature portrait the eyes of Milly Erne.
"Yes, that's Milly," said Lassiter, softly. "Bess, did you ever see her face--look hard--with all your heart an' soul?"
"The eyes seem to haunt me," whispered Bess. "Oh, I can't remember-- they're eyes of my dreams--but--but--"
Lassiter's strong arm went round her and he bent his head.
"Child, I thought you'd remember her eyes. They're the same beautiful eyes you'd see if you looked in a mirror or a clear spring. They're your mother's eyes. You are Milly Erne's child. Your name is Elizabeth Erne. You're not Oldring's daughter. You're the daughter of Frank Erne, a man once my best friend. Look! Here's his picture beside Milly's. He was handsome, an' as fine an' gallant a Southern gentleman as I ever seen. Frank came of an old family. You come of the best of blood, lass, and blood tells."
Bess slipped through his arm to her knees and hugged the locket to her bosom, and lifted wonderful, yearning eyes.
"Thank God, lass, it is true," replied Lassiter. "Jane an' Bern here--they both recognize Milly. They see Milly in you. They're so knocked out they can't tell you, that's all."
"Who are you?" whispered Bess.
"I reckon I'm Milly's brother an' your uncle!...Uncle Jim! Ain't that fine?"
"Oh, I can't believe--Don't raise me! Bern, let me kneel. I see truth in your face--in Miss Withersteen's. But let me hear it all--all on my knees. Tell me how it's true!"
"Well, Elizabeth, listen," said Lassiter. "Before you was born your father made a mortal enemy of a Mormon named Dyer. They was both ministers an' come to be rivals. Dyer stole your mother away from her home. She gave birth to you in Texas eighteen years ago. Then she was taken to Utah, from place to place, an' finally to the last border settlement--Cottonwoods. You was about three years old when you was taken away from Milly. She never knew what had become of you. But she lived a good while hopin' and prayin' to have you again. Then she gave up an' died. An' I may as well put in here your father died ten years ago. Well, I spent my time tracin' Milly, an' some months back I landed in Cottonwoods. An' jest lately I learned all about you. I had a talk with Oldrin' an' told him you was dead, an' he told me what I had so long been wantin' to know. It was Dyer, of course, who stole you from Milly. Part reason he was sore because Milly refused to give you Mormon teachin', but mostly he still hated Frank Erne so infernally that he made a deal with Oldrin' to take you an' bring you up as an infamous rustler an' rustler's girl. The idea was to break Frank Erne's heart if he ever came to Utah--to show him his daughter with a band of low rustlers. Well--Oldrin' took you, brought you up from childhood, an' then made you his Masked Rider. He made you infamous. He kept that part of the contract, but he learned to love you as a daughter an' never let any but his own men know you was a girl. I heard him say that with my own ears, an' I saw his big eyes grow dim. He told me how he had guarded you always, kept you locked up in his absence, was always at your side or near you on those rides that made you famous on the sage. He said he an' an old rustler whom he trusted had taught you how to read an' write. They selected the books for you. Dyer had wanted you brought up the vilest of the vile! An' Oldrin' brought you up the innocentest of the innocent. He said you didn't know what vileness was. I can hear his big voice tremble now as he said it. He told me how the men--rustlers an' outlaws--who from time to time tried to approach you familiarly--he told me how he shot them dead. I'm tellin' you this 'specially because you've showed such shame--sayin' you was nameless an' all that. Nothin' on earth can be wronger than that idea of yours. An' the truth of it is here. Oldrin' swore to me that if Dyer died, releasin' the contract, he intended to hunt up your father an' give you back to him. It seems Oldrin' wasn't all bad, en' he sure loved you."
Venters leaned forward in passionate remorse.
"Oh, Bess! I know Lassiter speaks the truth. For when I shot Oldring he dropped to his knees and fought with unearthly power to speak. And he said: 'Man--why--didn't--you--wait? Bess was--' Then he fell dead. And I've been haunted by his look and words. Oh, Bess, what a strange, splendid thing for Oldring to do! It all seems impossible. But, dear, you really are not what you thought."
"Elizabeth Erne!" cried Jane Withersteen. "I loved your mother and I see her in you!"
What had been incredible from the lips of men became, in the tone, look, and gesture of a woman, a wonderful truth for Bess. With little tremblings of all her slender body she rocked to and fro on her knees. The yearning wistfulness of her eyes changed to solemn splendor of joy. She believed. She was realizing happiness. And as the process of thought was slow, so were the variations of her expression. Her eyes reflected the transformation of her soul. Dark, brooding, hopeless belief--clouds of gloom--drifted, paled, vanished in glorious light. An exquisite rose flush--a glow--shone from her face as she slowly began to rise from her knees. A spirit uplifted her. All that she had held as base dropped from her.
Venters watched her in joy too deep for words. By it he divined something of what Lassiter's revelation meant to Bess, but he knew he could only faintly understand. That moment when she seemed to be lifted by some spiritual transfiguration was the most beautiful moment of his life. She stood with parted, quivering lips, with hands tightly clasping the locket to her heaving breast. A new conscious pride of worth dignified the old wild, free grace and poise.
"Uncle Jim!" she said, tremulously, with a different smile from any Venters had ever seen on her face.
Lassiter took her into his arms.
"I reckon. It's powerful fine to hear that," replied Lassiter, unsteadily.
Venters, feeling his eyes grow hot and wet, turned away, and found himself looking at Jane Withersteen. He had almost forgotten her presence. Tenderness and sympathy were fast hiding traces of her agitation. Venters read her mind--felt the reaction of her noble heart--saw the joy she was beginning to feel at the happiness of others. And suddenly blinded, choked by his emotions, he turned from her also. He knew what she would do presently; she would make some magnificent amend for her anger; she would give some manifestation of her love; probably all in a moment, as she had loved Milly Erne, so would she love Elizabeth Erne.
"'Pears to me, folks, that we'd better talk a little serious now," remarked Lassiter, at length. "Time flies."
"You're right," replied Venters, instantly. "I'd forgotten time--place-- danger. Lassiter, you're riding away. Jane's leaving Withersteen House?"
"Forever," replied Jane.
"I fired Withersteen House," said Lassiter.
"Dyer?" questioned Venters, sharply.
"I reckon where Dyer's gone there won't be any kidnappin' of girls."
"Ah! I knew it. I told Judkins--And Tull?" went on Venters, passionately.
"Tull wasn't around when I broke loose. By now he's likely on our trail with his riders."
"Lassiter, you're going into the Pass to hide till all this storm blows over?"
"I reckon that's Jane's idea. I'm thinkin' the storm'll be a powerful long time blowin' over. I was comin' to join you in Surprise Valley. You'll go back now with me?"
"No. I want to take Bess out of Utah. Lassiter, Bess found gold in the valley. We've a saddle-bag full of gold. If we can reach Sterling--"
"Man! how're you ever goin' to do that? Sterlin' is a hundred miles."
"My plan is to ride on, keeping sharp lookout. Somewhere up the trail we'll take to the sage and go round Cottonwoods and then hit the trail again."
"It's a bad plan. You'll kill the burros in two days."
"Then we'll walk."
"That's more bad an' worse. Better go back down the Pass with me."
"Lassiter, this girl has been hidden all her life in that lonely place," went on Venters. "Oldring's men are hunting me. We'd not be safe there any longer. Even if we would be I'd take this chance to get her out. I want to marry her. She shall have some of the pleasures of life--see cities and people. We've gold--we'll be rich. Why, life opens sweet for both of us. And, by Heaven! I'll get her out or lose my life in the attempt!"
"I reckon if you go on with them burros you'll lose your life all right. Tull will have riders all over this sage. You can't get out on them burros. It's a fool idea. That's not doin' best by the girl. Come with me en' take chances on the rustlers."
Lassiter's cool argument made Venters waver, not in determination to go, but in hope of success.
"Bess, I want you to know. Lassiter says the trip's almost useless now. I'm afraid he's right. We've got about one chance in a hundred to go through. Shall we take it? Shall we go on?"
"We'll go on," replied Bess.
"That settles it, Lassiter."
Lassiter spread wide his hands, as if to signify he could do no more, and his face clouded.
Venters felt a touch on his elbow. Jane stood beside him with a hand on his arm. She was smiling. Something radiated from her, and like an electric current accelerated the motion of his blood.
"Bern, you'd be right to die rather than not take Elizabeth out of Utah--out of this wild country. You must do it. You'll show her the great world, with all its wonders. Think how little she has seen! Think what delight is in store for her! You have gold, You will be free; you will make her happy. What a glorious prospect! I share it with you. I'll think of you--dream of you--pray for you."
"Thank you, Jane," replied Venters, trying to steady his voice. "It does look bright. Oh, if we were only across that wide, open waste of sage!"
"Bern, the trip's as good as made. It'll be safe--easy. It'll be a glorious ride," she said, softly.
Venters stared. Had Jane's troubles made her insane? Lassiter, too, acted queerly, all at once beginning to turn his sombrero round in hands that actually shook.
"You are a rider. She is a rider. This will be the ride of your lives," added Jane, in that same soft undertone, almost as if she were musing to herself.
"Jane!" he cried.
"I give you Black Star and Night!"
"Black Star and Night!" he echoed.
"It's done. Lassiter, put our saddle-bags on the burros."
Only when Lassiter moved swiftly to execute her bidding did Venters's clogged brain grasp at literal meanings. He leaped to catch Lassiter's busy hands.
"No, no! What are you doing?" he demanded, in a kind of fury. "I won't take her racers. What do you think I am? It'd be monstrous. Lassiter! stop it, I say!...You've got her to save. You've miles and miles to go. Tull is trailing you. There are rustlers in the Pass. Give me back that saddle-bag!"
"Son--cool down," returned Lassiter, in a voice he might have used to a child. But the grip with which he tore away Venters's grasping hands was that of a giant. "Listen--you fool boyl Jane's sized up the situation. The burros'll do for us. Well sneak along an' hide. I'll take your dogs an' your rifle. Why, it's the trick. The blacks are yours, an' sure as I can throw a gun you're goin' to ride safe out of the sage."
"Jane--stop him--please stop him," gasped Venters. "I've lost my strength. I can't do--anything. This is hell for me! Can't you see that? I've ruined you--it was through me you lost all. You've only Black Star and Night left. You love these horses. Oh! I know how you must love them now! And--you're trying to give them to me. To help me out of Utah! To save the girl I love!"
"That will be my glory."
Then in the white, rapt face, in the unfathomable eyes, Venters saw Jane Withersteen in a supreme moment. This moment was one wherein she reached up to the height for which her noble soul had ever yearned. He, after disrupting the calm tenor of her peace, after bringing down on her head the implacable hostility of her churchmen, after teaching her a bitter lesson of life--he was to be her salvation. And he turned away again, this time shaken to the core of his soul. Jane Withersteen was the incarnation of selflessness. He experienced wonder and terror, exquisite pain and rapture. What were all the shocks life had dealt him compared to the thought of such loyal and generous friendship?
And instantly, as if by some divine insight, he knew himself in the remaking--tried, found wanting; but stronger, better, surer--and he wheeled to Jane Withersteen, eager, joyous, passionate, wild, exalted. He bent to her; he left tears and kisses on her hands.
"Jane, I--I can't find words--now," he said. "I'm beyond words. Only--I understand. And I'll take the blacks."
"Don't be losin' no more time," cut in Lassiter. "I ain't certain, but I think I seen a speck up the sage-slope. Mebbe I was mistaken. But, anyway, we must all be movin'. I've shortened the stirrups on Black Star. Put Bess on him."
Jane Withersteen held out her arms.
"Elizabeth Erne!" she cried, and Bess flew to her.
How inconceivably strange and beautiful it was for Venters to see Bess clasped to Jane Withersteen's breast!
Then he leaped astride Night.
"Venters, ride straight on up the slope," Lassiter was saying, "'an if you don't meet any riders keep on till you're a few miles from the village, then cut off in the sage an' go round to the trail. But you'll most likely meet riders with Tull. Jest keep right on till you're jest out of gunshot an' then make your cut-off into the sage. They'll ride after you, but it won't be no use. You can ride, an' Bess can ride. When you're out of reach turn on round to the west, an' hit the trail somewhere. Save the hosses all you can, but don't be afraid. Black Star and Night are good for a hundred miles before sundown, if you have to push them. You can get to Sterlin' by night if you want. But better make it along about to-morrow mornin'. When you get through the notch on the Glaze trail, swing to the right. You'll be able to see both Glaze an' Stone Bridge. Keep away from them villages. You won't run no risk of meetin' any of Oldrin's rustlers from Sterlin' on. You'll find water in them deep hollows north of the Notch. There's an old trail there, not much used, en' it leads to Sterlin'. That's your trail. An' one thing more. If Tull pushes you--or keeps on persistent-like, for a few miles--jest let the blacks out an' lose him an' his riders."
"Lassiter, may we meet again!" said Venters, in a deep voice.
"Son, it ain't likely--it ain't likely. Well, Bess Oldrin'--Masked Rider--Elizabeth Erne--now you climb on Black Star. I've heard you could ride. Well, every rider loves a good horse. An', lass, there never was but one that could beat Black Star."
"Ah, Lassiter, there never was any horse that could beat Black Star," said Jane, with the old pride.
"I often wondered--mebbe Venters rode out that race when he brought back the blacks. Son, was Wrangle the best hoss?"
"No, Lassiter," replied Venters. For this lie he had his reward in Jane's quick smile.
"Well, well, my hoss-sense ain't always right. An' here I'm talkie' a lot, wastin' time. It ain't so easy to find an' lose a pretty niece all in one hour! Elizabeth--good-by!"
"Oh, Uncle Jim!...Good-by!"
"Elizabeth Erne, be happy! Good-by," said Jane.
"Good-by--oh--good-by!" In lithe, supple action Bess swung up to Black Star's saddle.
"Jane Withersteen!...Good-by!" called Venters hoarsely.
"Bern--Bess--riders of the purple sage--good-by!"