The mysterious rider, p.16
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       The Mysterious Rider, p.16
 

           Zane Grey
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  CHAPTER XVI

  Wade, watching Columbine ride down the slope on her homeward way, didsome of the hardest thinking he had yet been called upon to do. It wasnot necessary to acquaint Wilson Moore with the deeper and more subtlemotives that had begun to actuate him. It would not utterly break thecowboy's spirit to live in suspense. Columbine was safe for the present.He had insured her against fatality. Time was all he needed. Possibilityof an actual consummation of her marriage to Jack Belllounds did notlodge for an instant in Wade's consciousness. In Moore's case, however,the present moment seemed critical. What should he tell Moore--whatshould he conceal from him?

  "Son, come in here," he called to the cowboy.

  "Pard, it looks--bad!" said Moore, brokenly.

  Wade looked at the tragic face and cursed under his breath.

  "Buck up! It's never as bad as it looks. Anyway, we _know_ now what toexpect, an' that's well."

  Moore shook his head. "Couldn't you see how like steel Collie was?...But I'm on to you, Wade. You think by persuading Collie to put thatmarriage off that we'll gain time. You're gambling with time. You swearBuster Jack will hang himself. You won't quit fighting this deal."

  "Buster Jack has slung the noose over a tree, an' he's about ready toslip his head into it," replied Wade.

  "Bah!... You drive me wild," cried Moore, passionately. "How can you?Where's all that feeling you seemed to have for me? You nursed me--yousaved my leg--and my life. You must have cared about me. But now--youtalk about that dolt--that spoiled old man's pet--that damned cur, as ifyou believed he'd ruin himself. No such luck! no such hope!... Every daythings grow worse. Yet the worse they grow the stronger you seem! It'sall out of proportion. It's dreams. Wade, I hate to say it, but I'm sureyou're not always--just right in your mind."

  "Wils, now ain't that queer?" replied Wade, sadly. "I'm agreein' withyou."

  "Aw!" Moore shook himself savagely and laid an affectionate andappealing arm on his friend's shoulder. "Forgive me, pard!... It's mewho's out of his head.... But my heart's broken."

  "That's what you think," rejoined Wade, stoutly. "But a man's heartcan't break in a day. I know.... An' the God's truth is Buster Jack willhang himself!"

  Moore raised his head sharply, flinging himself back from his friend soas to scrutinize his face. Wade felt the piercing power of that gaze.

  "Wade, what do you mean?"

  "Collie told us some interestin' news about Jack, didn't she? Well, shedidn't know what I know. Jack Belllounds had laid a cunnin' an' devilishtrap to prove you guilty of rustlin' his father's cattle."

  "Absurd!" ejaculated Moore, with white lips.

  "I'd never given him credit for brains to hatch such a plot," went onWade. "Now listen. Not long ago Buster Jack made a remark in front ofthe whole outfit, includin' his father, that the homesteaders on therange were rustlin' cattle. It fell sort of flat, that remark. But noone could calculate on his infernal cunnin'. I quit workin' forBelllounds that night, an' I've put my time in spyin' on the boy. In myday I've done a good deal of spyin', but I've never run across any oneslicker than Buster Jack. To cut it short--he got himself awhite-speckled mustang that's a dead ringer for Spottie. He measured thetracks of your horse's left front foot--the bad hoof, you know, an' hemade a shoe exactly the same as Spottie wears. Also, he made some kindof a contraption that's like the end of your crutch. These he packs withhim. I saw him ride across the pasture to hide his tracks, climb up thesage for the same reason, an' then hide in that grove of aspens overthere near the trail you use. Here, you can bet, he changed shoes on theleft front foot of his horse. Then he took to the trail, an' he lefttracks for a while, an' then he was careful to hide them again. He stolehis father's stock an' drove it up over the grassy benches where evenyou or I couldn't track him next day. But up on top, when it suited him,he left some horse tracks, an' in the mud near a spring-hole he gets offhis horse, steppin' with one foot--an' makin' little circles with dotslike those made by the end of your crutch. Then 'way over in the woodsthere's a cabin where he meets his accomplices. Here he leaves the samehorse tracks an' crutch tracks.... Simple as a b c, Wils, when you seehow he did it. But I'll tell you straight--if I hadn't been suspiciousof Buster Jack--that trick of his would have made you a rustler!"

  "Damn him!" hissed the cowboy, in utter consternation and fury.

  "Ahuh! That's my sentiment exactly."

  "I swore to Collie I'd never kill him!"

  "Sure you did, son. An' you've got to keep that oath. I pin you down toit. You can't break faith with Collie.... An' you don't want his badblood on your hands."

  "No! No!" he replied, violently. "Of course I don't. I won't. But God!how sweet it would be to tear out his lying tongue--to--"

  "I reckon it would. Only don't talk about that," interrupted Wade,bluntly. "You see, now, don't you, how he's about hanged himself."

  "No, pard, I don't. We can't squeal that on him, any more than we cansqueal what Collie told us."

  "Son, you're young in dealin' with crooked men. You don't get the driftof motives. Buster Jack is not only robbin' his father an' hatchin' adirty trap for you, but he's double-crossin' the rustlers he's sellin'the cattle to. He's riskin' their necks. He's goin' to find _your_tracks, showin' you dealt with them. Sure, he won't give them away, an'he's figurin' on their gettin' out of it, maybe by leavin' the range, ora shootin'-fray, or some way. The big thing with Jack is that he's goin'to accuse you of rustlin' an' show your tracks to his father. Well,that's a risk he's given the rustlers. It happens that I know thisscar-face Smith. We've met before. Now it's easy to see from what Collieheard that Smith is not trustin' Buster Jack. So, all underneath thisJack Belllounds's game, there's forces workin' unbeknown to him, beyondhis control, an' sure to ruin him."

  "I see. I see. By Heaven! Wade, nothing else but ruin seems possible!...But suppose it works out his way!... What then? What of Collie?"

  "Son, I've not got that far along in my reckonin'," replied Wade.

  "But for my sake--think. If Buster Jack gets away with his trick--if hedoesn't hang himself by some blunder or fit of temper or spree--whatthen of Collie?"

  Wade could not answer this natural and inevitable query for the reasonthat he had found it impossible of consideration.

  "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," he replied.

  "Wade, you've said that before. It helped me. But now I need more than afew words from the Bible. My faith is low. I ... oh, I tried to praybecause Collie told me she had prayed! But what are prayers? We'redealing with a stubborn, iron-willed old man who idolizes his son; we'redealing with a crazy boy, absolutely self-centered, crafty, and vicious,who'll stop at nothing. And, lastly, we're dealing with a girl who's sonoble and high-souled that she'll sacrifice her all--her life to pay herdebt. If she were really Bill Belllounds's daughter she'd _never_ marryJack, saying, of course, that he was not her brother.... Do you knowthat it will _kill_ her, if she marries him?"

  "Ahuh! I reckon it would," replied Wade, with his head bowed. Mooreroused his gloomy forebodings. He did not care to show this feeling orthe effect the cowboy's pleading had upon him.

  "Ah! so you admit it? Well, then, what of Collie?"

  "_If_ she marries him--she'll have to die, I suppose," replied Wade.

  Then Wilson Moore leaped at his friend and with ungentle hands liftedhim, pushed him erect.

  "Damn you, Wade! You're not square with me! You don't tell me all!" hecried, hoarsely.

  "Now, Wils, you're set up. I've told you all I know. I swear that."

  "But you couldn't stand the thought of Collie dying for that brute! Youcouldn't! Oh, I know. I can feel some things that are hard to tell. So,you're either out of your head or you've something up your sleeve. It'shard to explain how you affect me. One minute I'm ready to choke youfor that damned strangeness--whatever it is. The next minute I feelit--I trust it, myself.... Wade, you're not--you _can't_ be infallible!"

  "I'm only a man, Wils, an' your friend. I reckon you do find me queer.But
that's no matter. Now let's look at this deal--each from his ownside of the fence. An' each actin' up to his own lights! You do whatyour conscience dictates, always thinkin' of Collie--not of yourself!An' I'll live up to my principles. Can we do more?"

  "No, indeed, Wade, we can't," replied Moore, eloquently.

  "Well, then, here's my hand. I've talked too much, I reckon. An' thetime for talkin' is past."

  In silence Moore gripped the hand held out to him, trying to read Wade'smind, apparently once more uplifted and strengthened by that which hecould not divine.

  * * * * *

  Wade's observations during the following week brought forth the factthat Jack Belllounds was not letting any grass grow under his feet. Heendeavored to fulfil his agreement with Smith, and drove a number ofcattle by moonlight. These were part of the stock that the rancher hadsold to buyers at Kremmling, and which had been collected and held inthe big, fenced pasture down the valley next to the Andrews ranch. Theloss was not discovered until the cattle had been counted at Kremmling.Then they were credited to loss by straying. In driving a considerableherd of half-wild steers, with an inadequate force of cowboys, it was nounusual thing to lose a number.

  Wade, however, was in possession of the facts not later than the dayafter this midnight steal in the moonlight. He was forced toacknowledge that no one would have believed it possible for JackBelllounds to perform a feat which might well have been difficult forthe best of cowboys. But Jack accomplished it and got back home beforedaylight. And Wade was bound to admit that circumstantial evidenceagainst Wilson Moore, which, of course, Jack Belllounds would soonpresent, would be damning and apparently irrefutable.

  Waiting for further developments, Wade closely watched the ranch-house,which duty interfered with his attention to the outlying trails. What hedid not want to miss was being present when Jack Belllounds accusedWilson Moore of rustling cattle.

  So it chanced that Wade was chatting with the cowboys one Sundayafternoon when Jack, accompanied by three strangers, all mounted ondusty, tired horses, rode up to the porch and dismounted.

  Lem Billings manifested unusual excitement.

  "Montana, ain't thet Sheriff Burley from Kremmlin'?" he queried.

  "Shore looks like him.... Yep, thet's him. Now, what's doin'?"

  The cowboys exchanged curious glances, and then turned to Wade.

  "Bent, what do you make of thet?" asked Lem, as he waved his hand towardthe house. "Buster Jack ridin' up with Sheriff Burley."

  The rancher, Belllounds, who was on the porch, greeted the visitors, andthen they all went into the house.

  "Boys, it's what I've been lookin' for," replied Wade.

  "Shore. Reckon we all have idees. An' if my idee is correct I'm agoin'to git pretty damn sore pronto," declared Lem.

  They were all silent for a few moments, meditating over this singularoccurrence, and watching the house. Presently Old Bill Belllounds strodeout upon the porch, and, walking out into the court, he peered around asif looking for some one. Then he espied the little group of cowboys.

  "Hey!" he yelled. "One of you boys ride up an' fetch Wils Moore downhyar!"

  "All right, boss," called Lem, in reply, as he got up and gave a hitchto his belt.

  The rancher hurried back, head down, as if burdened.

  "Wade, I reckon you want to go fetch Wils?" queried Lem.

  "If it's all the same to you. I'd rather not," replied Wade.

  "By Golly! I don't blame you. Boys, shore'n hell, Burley's after Wils."

  "Wal, suppos'n' he is," said Montana. "You can gamble Wils ain't agoin'to run. I'd jest like to see him face thet outfit. Burley's a prettysquare fellar. An' he's no fool."

  "It's as plain as your nose, Montana, an' thet's shore big enough,"returned Lem, with a hard light in his eyes. "Buster Jack's busted out,an' he's figgered Wils in some deal thet's rung in the sheriff. Wal,I'll fetch Wils." And, growling to himself, the cowboy slouched offafter his horse.

  Wade got up, deliberate and thoughtful, and started away.

  "Say, Bent, you're shore goin' to see what's up?" asked Montana, insurprise.

  "I'll be around, Jim," replied Wade, and he strolled off to be alone. Hewanted to think over this startling procedure of Jack Belllounds's. Wadewas astonished. He had expected that an accusation would be madeagainst Moore by Jack, and an exploitation of such proofs as had beencraftily prepared, but he had never imagined Jack would be bold enoughto carry matters so far. Sheriff Burley was a man of wide experience,keen, practical, shrewd. He was also one of the countless men Wade hadrubbed elbows with in the eventful past. It had been Wade's idea thatJack would be satisfied to face his father with the accusation of Moore,and thus cover his tracks. Whatever Old Belllounds might have felt overthe loss of a few cattle, he would never have hounded and arrested acowboy who had done well by him. Burley, however, was a sheriff, and aconscientious one, and he happened to be particularly setagainst rustlers.

  Here was a complication of circumstances. What would Jack Bellloundsinsist upon? How would Columbine take this plot against the honor andliberty of Wilson Moore? How would Moore himself react to it? Wadeconfessed that he was helpless to solve these queries, and there seemedto be a further one, insistent and gathering--what was to be his ownattitude here? That could not be answered, either, because only a futuremoment, over which he had no control, and which must decide events, heldthat secret. Worry beset Wade, but he still found himself proof againstthe insidious gloom ever hovering near, like his shadow.

  He waited near the trail to intercept Billings and Moore on their way tothe ranch-house; and to his surprise they appeared sooner than it wouldhave been reasonable to expect them. Wade stepped out of the willows andheld up his hand. He did not see anything unusual in Moore's appearance.

  "Wils, I reckon we'd do well to talk this over," said Wade.

  "Talk what over?" queried the cowboy, sharply.

  "Jack Belllounds!" she cried. "You put the sheriff onthat trail!"]

  "Why, Old Bill's sendin' for you, an' the fact of Sheriff Burley bein'here."

  "Talk nothing. Let's see what they want, and then talk. Pard, youremember the agreement we made not long ago?"

  "Sure. But I'm sort of worried, an' maybe--"

  "You needn't worry about me. Come on," interrupted Moore. "I'd like youto be there. And, Lem, fetch the boys."

  "I shore will, an' if you need any backin' you'll git it."

  When they reached the open Lem turned off toward the corrals, and Wadewalked beside Moore's horse up to the house.

  Belllounds appeared at the door, evidently having heard the sound ofhoofs.

  "Hello, Moore! Get down an' come in," he said, gruffly.

  "Belllounds, if it's all the same to you I'll take mine in the open,"replied the cowboy, coolly.

  The rancher looked troubled. He did not have the ease and force habitualto him in big moments.

  "Come out hyar, you men," he called in the door.

  Voices, heavy footsteps, the clinking of spurs, preceded the appearanceof the three strangers, followed by Jack Belllounds. The foremost was atall man in black, sandy-haired and freckled, with clear gray eyes, anda drooping mustache that did not hide stern lips and rugged chin. Hewore a silver star on his vest, packed a gun in a greasy holster wornlow down on his right side, and under his left arm he carried a package.

  It suited Wade, then, to step forward; and if he expected surprise andpleasure to break across the sheriff's stern face he certainly had notreckoned in vain.

  "Wal, I'm a son-of-a-gun!" ejaculated Burley, bending low, with quickmovement, to peer at Wade.

  "Howdy, Jim. How's tricks?" said Wade, extending his hand, and the smilethat came so seldom illumined his sallow face.

  "Hell-Bent Wade, as I'm a born sinner!" shouted the sheriff, and hishand leaped out to grasp Wade's and grip it and wring it. His faceworked. "My Gawd! I'm glad to see you, old-timer! Wal, you haven'tchanged at all!... Ten years! How time flies! An' it's sh
ore you?"

  "Same, Jim, an' powerful glad to meet you," replied Wade.

  "Shake hands with Bridges an' Lindsay," said Burley, indicating his twocomrades. "Stockmen from Grand Lake.... Boys, you've heerd me talk abouthim. Wade an' I was both in the old fight at Blair's ranch on theGunnison. An' I've shore reason to recollect him!... Wade, what're youdoin' up in these diggin's?"

  "Drifted over last fall, Jim, an' have been huntin' varmints forBelllounds," replied Wade. "Cleaned the range up fair to middlin'. An'since I quit Belllounds I've been hangin' round with my young pard here,Wils Moore, an' interestin' myself in lookin' up cattle tracks."

  Burley's back was toward Belllounds and his son, so it was impossiblefor them to see the sudden little curious light that gleamed in his eyesas he looked hard at Wade, and then at Moore.

  "Wils Moore. How d'ye do? I reckon I remember you, though I don't rideup this way much of late years."

  The cowboy returned the greeting civilly enough, but with brevity.

  Belllounds cleared his throat and stepped forward. His manner showed hehad a distasteful business at hand.

  "Moore, I sent for you on a serious matter, I'm sorry to say."

  "Well, here I am. What is it?" returned the cowboy, with clear, hazeleyes, full of fire, steady on the old rancher's.

  "Jack, you know, is foreman of White Slides now. An' he's made a chargeagainst you."

  "Then let him face me with it," snapped Moore.

  Jack Belllounds came forward, hands in his pockets, self-possessed, evena little swaggering, and his pale face and bold eyes showed the gravityof the situation and his mastery over it.

  Wade watched this meeting of the rivals and enemies with an attentionpowerfully stimulated by the penetrating scrutiny Burley laid upon them.Jack did not speak quickly. He looked hard into the tense face of Moore.Wade detected a vibration of Jack's frame and a gleam of eye that showedhim not wholly in control of exultation and revenge. Fear had notstruck him yet.

  "Well, Buster Jack, what's the charge?" demanded Moore, impatiently.

  The old name, sharply flung at Jack by this cowboy, seemed to sting andreveal and inflame. But he restrained himself as with roving glance hesearched Moore's person for sight of a weapon. The cowboy was unarmed.

  "I accuse you of stealing my father's cattle," declared Jack, in low,husky accents. After he got the speech out he swallowed hard.

  Moore's face turned a dead white. For a fleeting instant a red andsavage gleam flamed in his steady glance. Then it vanished.

  The cowboys, who had come up, moved restlessly. Lem Billings dropped hishead, muttering. Montana Jim froze in his tracks.

  Moore's dark eyes, scornful and piercing, never moved from Jack's face.It seemed as if the cowboy would never speak again.

  "You call me thief! You?" at length he exclaimed.

  "Yes, I do," replied Belllounds, loudly.

  "Before this sheriff and your father you accuse me of stealing cattle?"

  "Yes."

  "And you accuse me before this man who saved my life, who _knows_me--before Hell-Bent Wade?" demanded Moore, as he pointed to the hunter.

  Mention of Wade in that significant tone of passion and wonder was notwithout effect upon Jack Belllounds.

  "What in hell do I care for Wade?" he burst out, with the oldintolerance. "Yes, I accuse you. Thief, rustler!... And for all I knowyour precious Hell-Bent Wade may be--"

  He was interrupted by Burley's quick and authoritative interference.

  "Hyar, young man, I'm allowin' for your natural feelin's," he said,dryly, "but I advise you to bite your tongue. I ain't acquainted withMister Moore, but I happen to know Wade. Do you savvy?... Wal, then, ifyou've any more to say to Moore get it over."

  "I've had my say," replied Belllounds, sullenly.

  "On what grounds do you accuse me?" demanded Moore.

  "I trailed you. I've got my proofs."

  Burley stepped off the porch and carefully laid down his package.

  "Moore, will you get off your hoss?" he asked. And when the cowboy haddismounted and limped aside the sheriff continued, "Is this the hoss youride most?"

  "He's the only one I have."

  Burley sat down upon the edge of the porch and, carefully unwrapping thepackage, he disclosed some pieces of hard-baked yellow mud. The smallerones bore the imprint of a circle with a dot in the center, very clearlydefined. The larger piece bore the imperfect but reasonably clear trackof a curiously shaped horseshoe, somewhat triangular. The sheriff placedthese pieces upon the ground. Then he laid hold of Moore's crutch, whichwas carried like a rifle in a sheath hanging from the saddle, and,drawing it forth, he carefully studied the round cap on the end. Next heinserted this end into both the little circles on the pieces of mud.They fitted perfectly. The cowboys bent over to get a closer view, andBillings was wagging his head. Old Belllounds had an earnest eye forthem, also. Burley's next move was to lift the left front foot ofMoore's horse and expose the bottom to view. Evidently the white mustangdid not like these proceedings, but he behaved himself. The iron shoe onthis hoof was somewhat triangular in shape. When Burley held the largerpiece of mud, with its imprint, close to the hoof, it was not possibleto believe that this iron shoe had not made the triangular-shaped track.

  Burley let go of the hoof and laid the pieces of mud down. Slowly theother men straightened up. Some one breathed hard.

  "Moore, what do them tracks look like to you?" asked the sheriff.

  "They look like mine," replied the cowboy.

  "They are yours."

  "I'm not denying that."

  "I cut them pieces of mud from beside a water-hole over hyar under GorePeak. We'd trailed the cattle Belllounds lost, an' then we kept ontrailin' them, clear to the road that goes over the ridge toElgeria.... Now Bridges an' Lindsay hyar bought stock lately fromstrange cattlemen who didn't give no clear idee of their range. Jestbuyin' an' sellin', they claimed.... I reckon the extra hoss tracks werun across at Gore Peak connects up them buyers an' sellers with whoeverdrove Belllounds's cattle up thar.... Have you anythin' more to say?"

  "No. Not here," replied Moore, quietly.

  "Then I'll have to arrest you an' take you to Kremmlin' fer trial."

  "All right. I'll go."

  The old rancher seemed genuinely shocked. Red tinged his cheek and aflame flared in his eyes.

  "Wils, you done me dirt," he said, wrathfully. "An' I always swore byyou.... Make a clean breast of the whole damn bizness, if you want me totreat you white. You must have been locoed or drunk, to double-cross methet way. Come on, out with it."

  "I've nothing to say," replied Moore.

  "You act amazin' strange fer a cowboy I've knowed to lean towardfightin' at the drop of a hat. I tell you, speak out an' I'll do rightby you.... I ain't forgettin' thet White Slides gave you a hard knock.An' I was young once an' had hot blood."

  The old rancher's wrathful pathos stirred the cowboy to astraining-point of his unnatural, almost haughty composure. He seemedabout to break into violent utterance. Grief and horror and anger seemedat the back of his trembling lips. The look he gave Belllounds wasassuredly a strange one, to come from a cowboy who was supposed to havestolen his former employer's cattle. Whatever he might have replied wascut off by the sudden appearance of Columbine.

  "Dad, I heard you!" she cried, as she swept upon them, fearful andwide-eyed. "What has Wilson Moore done--that you'll do right by him?"

  "Collie, go back in the house," he ordered.

  "No. There's something wrong here," she said, with mounting dread in theswift glance she shot from man to man. "Oh! You're--Sheriff Burley!"she gasped.

  "I reckon I am, miss, an' if young Moore's a friend of yours I'm sorry Icame," replied Burley.

  Wade himself reacted subtly and thrillingly to the presence of the girl.She was alive, keen, strung, growing white, with darkening eyes of bluefire, beginning to grasp intuitively the meaning here.

  "My friend! He _was_ more than that--not long ago.... What has he
done?Why are you here?"

  "Miss, I'm arrestin' him."

  "Oh!... For what?"

  "Rustlin' your father's cattle."

  For a moment Columbine was speechless. Then she burst out, "Oh, there'sa terrible mistake!"

  "Miss Columbine, I shore hope so," replied Burley, much embarrassed anddistressed. Like most men of his kind, he could not bear to hurt awoman. "But it looks bad fer Moore.... See hyar! There! Look at thetracks of his hoss--left front foot-shoe all crooked. Thet's his hoss's.He acknowledges thet. An', see hyar. Look at the little circles an'dots.... I found these 'way over at Gore Peak, with the tracks of thestolen cattle. An' no _other_ tracks, Miss Columbine!"

  "Who put you on that trail?" she asked, piercingly.

  "Jack, hyar. He found it fust, an' rode to Kremmlin' fer me."

  "Jack! Jack Belllounds!" she cried, bursting into wild and furiouslaughter. Like a tigress she leaped at Jack as if to tear him to pieces."You put the sheriff on that trail! You accuse Wilson Moore of stealingdad's cattle!"

  "Yes, and I proved it," replied Jack, hoarsely.

  "You! _You_ proved it? So that's your revenge?... But you're to reckonwith me, Jack Belllounds! You villain! You devil! You--" Suddenly sheshrank back with a strong shudder. She gasped. Her face grew ghastlywhite. "_Oh, my God!_ ... horrible--unspeakable!"... She covered herface with her hands, and every muscle of her seemed to contract untilshe was stiff. Then her hands shot out to Moore.

  "Wilson Moore, what have _you_ to say--to this sheriff--to JackBelllounds--to _me?_"

  Moore bent upon her a gaze that must have pierced her soul, so like itwas to a lightning flash of love and meaning and eloquence.

  "Collie, they've got the proof. I'll take my medicine.... Your dad isgood. He'll be easy on me!'

  "_You lie!_" she whispered. "And I will tell why you lie!"

  Moore did not show the shame and guilt that should have been naturalwith his confession. But he showed an agony of distress. His hand soughtWade and dragged at him.

  It did not need this mute appeal to tell Wade that in another momentColumbine would have flung the shameful truth into the face of JackBelllounds. She was rising to that. She was terrible and beautifulto see.

  "Collie," said Wade, with that voice he knew had strange power over her,with a clasp of her outflung hand, "no more! This is a man's game. It'snot for a woman to judge. Not here! It's Wils's game--an' it's _mine_.I'm his friend. Whatever his trouble or guilt, I take it on myshoulders. An' it will be as if it were not!"

  Moaning and wringing her hands, Columbine staggered with the burden ofthe struggle in her.

  "I'm quite--quite mad--or dreaming. Oh, Ben!" she cried.

  "Brace up, Collie. It's sure hard. Wils, your friend and playmate somany years--it's hard to believe! We all understand, Collie. Now you goin, an' don't listen to any more or look any more."

  He led her down the porch to the door of her room, and as he pushed itopen he whispered, "I will save you, Collie, an' Wils, an' the old manyou call dad!"

  Then he returned to the silent group in the yard.

  "Jim, if I answer fer Wils Moore bein' in Kremmlin' the day you say,will you leave him with me?"

  "Wal, I shore will, Wade," replied Burley, heartily.

  "I object to that," interposed Jack Belllounds, stridently. "Heconfessed. He's got to go to jail."

  "Wal, my hot-tempered young fellar, thar ain't any jail nearer 'nDenver. Did you know that?" returned Burley, with his dry, grim humor."Moore's under arrest. An' he'll be as well off hyar with Wade as withme in Kremmlin', an' a damn sight happier."

  The cowboy had mounted, and Wade walked beside him as he startedhomeward. They had not progressed far when Wade's keen ears caught thewords, "Say, Belllounds, I got it figgered thet you an' your son don'tsavvy this fellar Wade."

  "Wal, I reckon not," replied the old rancher.

  And his son let out a peal of laughter, bitter and scornful andunsatisfied.

 
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