The mysterious rider, p.1
Produced by Rick Niles, Charlie Kirschner and the PG OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team.
That round-up showed a loss of one hundred headof stock. Belllounds received the amazing news with a roar.]
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 headof stock. Belllounds received the amazingnews with a roar .............................. _Frontispiece_
"I know why you're going. It's to see that club-footedcowboy Moore!... Don't let mecatch you with him" ........................... _Facing p._ 98
"I'm beginnin' to feel that I couldn't let her marrythat Buster Jack," soliloquized Wade, as herode along the grassy trail ......................... " 164
"Jack Belllounds!" she cried. "You put thesheriff on that trail!" ............................. " 280
THE MYSTERIOUS RIDER
A September sun, losing some of its heat if not its brilliance, wasdropping low in the west over the black Colorado range. Purple hazebegan to thicken in the timbered notches. Gray foothills, round andbillowy, rolled down from the higher country. They were smooth,sweeping, with long velvety slopes and isolated patches of aspens thatblazed in autumn gold. Splotches of red vine colored the soft gray ofsage. Old White Slides, a mountain scarred by avalanche, towered withbleak rocky peak above the valley, sheltering it from the north.
A girl rode along the slope, with gaze on the sweep and range and colorof the mountain fastness that was her home. She followed an old trailwhich led to a bluff overlooking an arm of the valley. Once it had beena familiar lookout for her, but she had not visited the place of late.It was associated with serious hours of her life. Here seven yearsbefore, when she was twelve, she had made a hard choice to please herguardian--the old rancher whom she loved and called father, who hadindeed been a father to her. That choice had been to go to school inDenver. Four years she had lived away from her beloved gray hills andblack mountains. Only once since her return had she climbed to thisheight, and that occasion, too, was memorable as an unhappy hour. Ithad been three years ago. To-day girlish ordeals and griefs seemed backin the past: she was a woman at nineteen and face to face with the firstgreat problem in her life.
The trail came up back of the bluff, through a clump of aspens withwhite trunks and yellow fluttering leaves, and led across a level benchof 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 likedemonstration in return, but as none was forthcoming he bent his nose tothe grass and began grazing. The girl's eyes were intent upon somewaving, slender, white-and-blue flowers. They smiled up wanly, like palestars, out of the long grass that had a tinge of gold.
"Columbines," she mused, wistfully, as she plucked several of theflowers and held them up to gaze wonderingly at them, as if to see inthem some revelation of the mystery that shrouded her birth and hername. Then she stood with dreamy gaze upon the distant ranges.
"Columbine!... So they named me--those miners who found me--a baby--lostin the woods--asleep among the columbines." She spoke aloud, as if thesound of her voice might convince her.
So much of the mystery of her had been revealed that day by the man shehad always called father. Vaguely she had always been conscious of somemystery, something strange about her childhood, some relation neverexplained.
"No name but Columbine," she whispered, sadly, and now she understood astrange longing of her heart.
Scarcely an hour back, as she ran down the Wide porch of White Slidesranch-house, she had encountered the man who had taken care of her allher life. He had looked upon her as kindly and fatherly as of old, yetwith a difference. She seemed to see him as old Bill Belllounds, pioneerand rancher, of huge frame and broad face, hard and scarred andgrizzled, with big eyes of blue fire.
"Collie," the old man had said, "I reckon hyar's news. A letter fromJack.... He's comin' home."
Belllounds had waved the letter. His huge hand trembled as he reached toput it on her shoulder. The hardness of him seemed strangely softened.Jack was his son. Buster Jack, the range had always called him, withother terms, less kind, that never got to the ears of his father. Jackhad been sent away three years ago, just before Columbine's return fromschool. Therefore she had not seen him for over seven years. But sheremembered him well--a big, rangy boy, handsome and wild, who had madeher childhood almost unendurable.
"Yes--my son--Jack--he's comin' home," said Belllounds, with a break inhis voice. "An', Collie--now I must tell you somethin'."
"Yes, dad," she had replied, with strong clasp of the heavy hand on hershoulder.
"Thet's just it, lass. I ain't your dad. I've tried to be a dad to youan' 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 ofBelllounds's in the mountains above Middle Park had found a child asleepin the columbines along the trail. Near that point Indians, probablyArapahoes coming across the mountains to attack the Utes, had capturedor 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 itto 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 splitmy property between you an' Jack. So I mean you an' him to marry. Youalways 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 rememberhim!"
"Haw! Haw!" laughed Belllounds. "Wal, you dog-gone soon will. Jack's inKremmlin', 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 wasreminded of how sensitive the old man had always been to any reflectioncast upon his son.
"Wal, thet's onlucky;" he replied, gruffly. "Mebbe you'll change. Ireckon 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 thevalley slope where she could be alone. Standing on the verge of thebluff, she suddenly became aware that the quiet and solitude of herlonely resting-place had been disrupted. Cattle were bawling below herand along the slope of old White Slides and on the grassy uplands above.She had forgotten that the cattle were being driven down into thelowlands for the fall round-up. A great red-and-white-spotted herd wasmilling in the park just beneath her. Calves and yearlings were makingthe dust fly along the mountain slope; wild old steers were crashing inthe sage, holding level, unwilling to be driven down; cows were runningand lowing for their lost ones. Melodious and clear rose the clarioncalls of the cowboys. The cattle knew those calls and only the wildsteers kept up-grade.
Columbine also knew each call and to which cowboy it belonged. They sangand yelled and swore, but it was all music to her. Here and there alongthe slope, where the aspen groves clustered, a horse would flash acrossan open space; the dust would fly, and a cowboy would peal out a lustyyell that rang along the slope and echoed under the bluff and lingeredlong after the daring rider had vanished in the steep thickets.
"I wonder which is Wils," murmured Columbine, as she watched andlistened, vaguely conscious
"_Whoop-ee_!" High-pitched and pealing came a clearer yell.
Columbine saw a white mustang flash out on top of the ridge, silhouettedagainst the blue, with mane and tail flying. His gait on that edge ofsteep slope proved his rider to be a reckless cowboy for whom no heightsor depths had terrors. She would have recognized him from the way herode, if she had not known the slim, erect figure. The cowboy saw herinstantly. He pulled the mustang, about to plunge down the slope, andlifted him, rearing and wheeling. Then Columbine waved her hand. Thecowboy spurred his horse along the crest of the ridge, disappearedbehind 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 ofuncertainty in this meeting, and of the fact that she was seeing himdifferently from any other time in the years he had been a playmate, afriend, almost like a brother. He had ridden for Belllounds for years,and was a cowboy because he loved cattle well and horses better, andabove all a life in the open. Unlike most cowboys, he had been toschool; 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 notreadily understood.
While many thoughts whirled through Columbine's mind she watched thecowboy ride slowly down to her, and she became more concerned with asudden restraint. How was Wilson going to take the news of this forcedchange about to come in her life? That thought leaped up. It gave her astrange pang. But she and he were only good friends. As to that, shereflected, of late they had not been the friends and comrades theyformerly were. In the thrilling uncertainty of this meeting she hadforgotten his distant manner and the absence of little attentions shehad missed.
By this time the cowboy had reached the level, and with the lazy graceof 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 featuresregular, his face bronzed. All men of the open had still, lean, strongfaces, but added to this in him was a steadiness of expression, arestraint that seemed to hide sadness.
"Howdy, Columbine!" he said. "What are you doing up here? You might getrun over."
"Hello, Wils!" she replied, slowly. "Oh, I guess I can keep out of theway."
"Some bad steers in that bunch. If any of them run over here Pronto willleave you to walk home. That mustang hates cattle. And he's only halfbroke, you know."
"I forgot you were driving to-day," she replied, and looked away fromhim. 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 flowerstoward him. "Take one.... Do you like them?"
"Yes. I like columbine," he replied, taking one of them. His keen hazeleyes, 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 columbineblue--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, andthe slight flush faded from her cheeks. "I have no right to hold my headproud. 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 inthe woods--a baby--lost among the flowers. Columbine Belllounds I'vealways been. But that is not my name. No one can tell what my namereally is."
"I knew your story years ago, Columbine," he replied, earnestly."Everybody knows. Old Bill ought to have told you long before this. Buthe loves you. So does--everybody. You must not let this knowledge saddenyou.... I'm sorry you've never known a mother or a sister. Why, I couldtell you of many orphans who--whose stories were different."
"You don't understand. I've been happy. I've not longed for any--any oneexcept 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 herthought now flashed over Columbine. It lay in what Wilson Moore mightthink of her prospective marriage to Jack Belllounds. Still she couldnot guess why that should make her feel strangely uncertain of theground she stood on or how it could cause a constraint she had to fightherself to hide. Moreover, to her annoyance, she found that she wasevading 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 thescanty pines fringing Old White Slides. But no reply appeared to beforthcoming from Moore. His silence compelled her to turn to him. Thecowboy's face had subtly altered; it was darker with a tinge of redunder the bronze; and his lower lip was released from his teeth, evenas 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 whatshe 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'shated you ever since."
"There's been no love lost."
"But, Wils, you never before talked this way--spoke out so--againstJack," she protested.
"Well, I'm not the kind to talk behind a fellow's back. But I'm notmealy-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--sheburned to tell him, yet somehow feared to--she felt an incomprehensiblesatisfaction in his bitter reference to Jack--she seemed to realize thatshe valued Wilson's friendship more than she had known, and now for somestrange reason it was slipping from her.
"We--we were such good friends--pards," said Columbine, hurriedly andirrelevantly.
"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'sall."
"Ahuh!" His tone held finality and bitterness, but he would not commithimself. Columbine sensed a pride in him that seemed the cause of hisaloofness.
"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 andhe in realities. Right now she could not dispel her dream--see andunderstand all that he seemed to. She felt like a child,
"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--tosomething 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 thelasso against his saddle, and tied it with clumsy hands. He did not lookat her. His tone expressed anger and amaze.
"Dad says I must marry Jack," she said, with a sudden return to hernatural 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," shedeclared, 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--oughtnot 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 mistreatedme."
"If you say I mistreated you--you say what's untrue," he replied, justas hotly.
They had never been so near a quarrel before. Columbine experienced asensation 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 wasconcerned. But his eyes were dark with pain and anger.
"Oh, don't distress yourself," he burst out. "You slapped mebefore--once, years ago--for kissing you. I--I apologize for saying youlied. You're only out of your head. So am I."
That poured oil upon the troubled waters. The cowboy appeared to behesitating between sudden flight and the risk of staying longer.
"Maybe that's it," replied Columbine, with a half-laugh. She was notfar from tears and fury with herself. "Let us make up--befriends again."
Moore squared around aggressively. He seemed to fortify himself againstsomething in her. She felt that. But his face grew harder and older thanshe had ever seen it.
"Columbine, do you know where Jack Belllounds has been for these threeyears?" he asked, deliberately, entirely ignoring her overtures offriendship.
"No. Somebody said Denver. Some one else said Kansas City. I never askeddad, because I knew Jack had been sent away. I've supposed he wasworking--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 feelingprompted that. There was a mystery here. Wilson's agitation seemedstrange and deep.
"Yes, I do." The cowboy bit that out through closing teeth, as iflocking them against an almost overmastering temptation.
Columbine lost her curiosity. She was woman enough to realize that theremight well be facts which would only make her situation harder.
"Wilson," she began, hurriedly, "I owe all I am to dad. He has cared forme--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 Irefused--"
"Old Bill is the best man ever," interrupted Moore, as if to repudiateany hint of disloyalty to his employer. "Everybody in Middle Park andall over owes Bill something. He's sure good. There never was anythingwrong with him except his crazy blindness about his son. BusterJack--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, hisdark eyes so piercing that Columbine sustained a shock that held hertrembling and mute. "How can you love Jack Belllounds? You were twelveyears 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--youwhite-faced flower! _You_ with your innocence and sweetness steady thatdamned 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 placedthat vice as utterly base.
"But Jack was only a wild boy," replied Columbine, trying with bravewords to champion the son of the man she loved as her father. "He hasbeen sent away to work. He'll have outgrown that wildness. He'll comehome a man."
"Bah!" cried Moore, harshly.
Columbine felt a sinking within her. Where was her strength? She, whocould walk and ride so many miles, to become sick with an inwardquaking! 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 hishorse, he was silent for a moment. The squaring of his shoulders boretestimony to his thought. Presently he swung up into the saddle. Themustang snorted and champed the bit and tossed his head, ready to bolt.
"Forget my temper," begged the cowboy, looking down upon Columbine. "Itake it all back. I'm sorry. Don't let a word of mine worry you. I wasonly jealous."
"Jealous!" exclaimed Columbine, wonderingly.
"Yes. That makes a fellow see red and green. Bad medicine! You neverfelt it."
"What were you jealous of?" asked Columbine.
The cowboy had himself in hand now and he regarded her with a grimamusement.
"Well, Columbine, it's like a story," he replied. "I'm the fellowdisowned by his family--a wanderer of the wilds--no good--and noprospects.... Now our friend Jack, he's handsome and rich. He has adoting old dad. Cattle, horses--ranches! He wins the girl. See!"
Spurring his mustang, the cowboy rode away. At the edge of the slope heturned in the saddle. "I've got to drive in this bunch of cattle. It'slate. You hurry home." Then he was gone. The stones cracked and rolleddown under the side of the bluff.
Columbine stood where he had left her: dubious, yet with the blood stillhot 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'smind to a disturbing possibility of which she had never dreamed. Thathe 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 adoor of her heart--a door never yet opened, inside which seemed amystery of feeling, of hope, despair, unknown longing, and clamorousvoices. The woman just born in her, instinctive and self-preservative,shut that door before she had more than a glimpse inside. But then shefelt her heart swell with its nameless burdens.
Pronto was grazing near at hand. She caught him and mounted. It struckher then that her hands were numb with cold. The wind had ceasedfluttering the aspens, but the yellow leaves were falling, rustling. Outon the brow of the slope she faced home and the west.
A glorious Colorado sunset had just reached the wonderful height of itscolor and transformation. The sage slopes below her seemed rosy velvet;the golden aspens on the farther reaches were on fire at
"Oh, beautiful!" breathed the girl, with all her worship of nature. Thatwild world of sunset grandeur and loneliness and beauty was hers. Overthere, under a peak of the black range, was the place where she had beenfound, a baby, lost in the forest. She belonged to that, and so itbelonged to her. Strength came to her from the glory of light onthe 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. Themustang 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 therose and gold seemed fading from the nearer. Below, on the level floorof the valley, lay the rambling old ranch-house, with the cabinsnestling around, and the corrals leading out to the soft hay-fields,misty and gray in the twilight. A single light gleamed. It was likea beacon.
The air was cold with a nip of frost. From far on the other side of theridge she had descended came the bawls of the last straggling cattle ofthe round-up. But surely Pronto had not shot up his ears for them. As ifin 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, asharp, staccato, yelping chorus, the more piercing notes biting on thecold night air. These mountain mourns and yelps were music to Columbine.She rode on down the trail in the gathering darkness, less afraid of thenight and its wild denizens than of what awaited her at WhiteSlides Ranch.
The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey / Western have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on15 votes