The mysterious rider, p.9
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       The Mysterious Rider, p.9
 

           Zane Grey
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  CHAPTER IX

  A new spirit, or a liberation of her own, had fired Columbine, and wasnow burning within her, unquenchable and unutterable. Some divine sparkhad penetrated into that mysterious depth of her, to inflame and toillumine, so that when she arose from this hour of calamity she feltthat to the tenderness and sorrow and fidelity in her soul had beenadded the lightning flash of passion.

  "Oh, Ben--shall I be able to hold onto this?" she cried, flinging wideher arms, as if to embrace the winds of heaven.

  "This what, lass?" he asked.

  "This--this _woman!_" she answered, passionately, with her handssweeping back to press her breast.

  "No woman who wakes ever goes back to a girl again," he said, sadly.

  "I wanted to die--and now I want to live--to fight.... Ben, you'veuplifted me. I was little, weak, miserable.... But in my dreams, or insome state I can't remember or understand, I've waited for your verywords. I was ready. It's as if I knew you in some other world, before Iwas born on this earth; and when you spoke to me here, sowonderfully--as my mother might have spoken--my heart leaped up inrecognition of you and your call to my womanhood!... Oh, how strange andbeautiful!"

  "Miss Collie," he replied, slowly, as he bent to his saddle-straps,"you're young, an' you've no understandin' of what's strange an'terrible in life. An' beautiful, too, as you say.... Who knows? Maybe insome former state I was somethin' to you. I believe in that. Reckon Ican't say how or what. Maybe we were flowers or birds. I've a weaknessfor that idea."

  "Birds! I like the thought, too," replied Columbine. "I love most birds.But there are hawks, crows, buzzards!"

  "I reckon. Lass, there's got to be balance in nature. If it weren't forthe ugly an' the evil, we wouldn't know the beautiful an' good.... An'now let's ride home. It's gettin' late."

  "Ben, ought I not go back to Wilson right now?" she asked, slowly.

  "What for?"

  "To tell him--something--and why I can't come to-morrow, or everafterward," she replied, low and tremulously.

  Wade pondered over her words. It seemed to Columbine that her sharpenedfaculties sensed something of hostility, of opposition in him.

  "Reckon to-morrow would be better," he said, presently. "Wilson's hadenough excitement for one day."

  "Then I'll go to-morrow," she returned.

  In the gathering, cold twilight they rode down the trail in silence.

  "Good night, lass," said Wade, as he reached his cabin. "An' rememberyou're not alone any more."

  "Good night, my friend," she replied, and rode on.

  Columbine encountered Jim Montana at the corrals, and it was not toodark for her to see his foam-lashed horse. Jim appeared non-committal,almost surly. But Columbine guessed that he had ridden to Kremmling andback in one day, on some order of Jack's.

  "Miss Collie, I'll tend to Pronto," he offered. "An' yore supper'll bewaitin'."

  A bright fire blazed on the living-room hearth. The rancher was readingby its light.

  "Hello, rosy-cheeks!" greeted the rancher, with unusual amiability."Been ridin' ag'in' the wind, hey? Wal, if you ain't pretty, then myeyes are pore!"

  "It's cold, dad," she replied, "and the wind stings. But I didn't ridefast nor far.... I've been up to see Wilson Moore."

  "Ahuh! Wal, how's the boy?" asked Belllounds, gruffly.

  "He said he was all right, but--but I guess that's not so," respondedColumbine.

  "Any friends lookin' after him?"

  "Oh yes--he must have friends--the Andrewses and others. I'm glad to sayhis cabin is comfortable. He'll be looked after."

  "Wal, I'm glad to hear thet. I'll send Lem or Wade up thar an' see if wecan do anythin' fer the boy."

  "Dad--that's just like you," replied Columbine, with her hand seekinghis broad shoulder.

  "Ahuh! Say, Collie, hyar's letters from 'most everybody in Kremmlin'wantin' to be invited up fer October first. How about askin' 'em?"

  "The more the merrier," replied Columbine.

  "Wal, I reckon I'll not ask anybody."

  "Why not, dad?"

  "No one can gamble on thet son of mine, even on his weddin'-day,"replied Belllounds, gloomily.

  "Dad, What'd Jack do to-day?"

  "I'm not sayin' he did anythin'," answered the rancher.

  "Dad, you can gamble on me."

  "Wal, I should smile," he said, putting his big arm around her. "I wishyou was Jack an' Jack was you."

  At that moment the young man spoken of slouched into the room, with hishead bandaged, and took a seat at the supper-table.

  "Wal, Collie, let's go an' get it," said the rancher, cheerily. "I canalways eat, anyhow."

  "I'm hungry as a bear," rejoined Columbine, as she took her seat, whichwas opposite Jack.

  "Where 'ye you been?" he asked, curiously.

  "Why, good evening, Jack! Did you finally notice me?... I've been ridingPronto, the first time since he was hurt. Had a lovely ride--up throughSage Valley."

  Jack glowered at her with the one unbandaged eye, and growled somethingunder his breath, and then began to stab meat and potatoes withhis fork.

  "What's the matter, Jack? Aren't you well?" asked Columbine, with asolicitude just a little too sweet to be genuine.

  "Yes, I'm well," snapped Jack.

  "But you look sick. That is, what I can see of your face looks sick.Your mouth droops at the corners. You're very pale--and red in spots.And your one eye glows with unearthly woe, as if you were not long forthis world!"

  The amazing nature of this speech, coming from the girl who had alwaysbeen so sweet and quiet and backward, was attested to by theconsternation of Jack and the mirth of his father.

  "Are you making fun of me?" demanded Jack.

  "Why, Jack! Do you think I would make fun of you? I only wanted to sayhow queer you look.... Are you going to be married with one eye?"

  Jack collapsed at that, and the old man, after a long stare ofopen-mouthed wonder, broke out: "Haw! Haw! Haw!... By Golly! lass--I'dnever believed thet was in you.... Jack, be game an' take yourmedicine.... An' both of you forgive an' forget. Thar'll be quarrelsenough, mebbe, without rakin' over the past."

  When alone again Columbine reverted to a mood vastly removed from herapparent levity with the rancher and his son. A grave andinward-searching thought possessed her, and it had to do with theuplift, the spiritual advance, the rise above mere personal welfare,that had strangely come to her through Bent Wade. From their firstmeeting he had possessed a singular attraction for her that now, in thelight of the meaning of his life, seemed to Columbine to be the man'snobility and wisdom, arising out of his travail, out of the terribleyears that had left their record upon his face.

  And so Columbine strove to bind forever in her soul the spirit which hadarisen in her, interpreting from Wade's rude words of philosophy thatwhich she needed for her own light and strength.

  She appreciated her duty toward the man who had been a father to her.Whatever he asked that would she do. And as for the son she must livewith the rest of her life, her duty there was to be a good wife, to bearwith his faults, to strive always to help him by kindness, patience,loyalty, and such affection as was possible to her. Hate had to bereckoned with, and hate, she knew, had no place in a good woman's heart.It must be expelled, if that were humanly possible. All this was hard,would grow harder, but she accepted it, and knew her mind.

  Her soul was her own, unchangeable through any adversity. She could bewith that alone always, aloof from the petty cares and troubles commonto people. Wade's words had thrilled her with their secret, with theirlimitless hope of an unknown world of thought and feeling. Happiness, inthe ordinary sense, might never be hers. Alas for her dreams! But therehad been given her a glimpse of something higher than pleasure andcontentment. Dreams were but dreams. But she could still dream of whathad been, of what might have been, of the beauty and mystery of life, ofsomething in nature that called sweetly and irresistibly to her. Whocould rob her of the rolling, gray, velvety hills, and the purple peak
sand the black ranges, among which she had been found a waif, a littlelost creature, born like a columbine under the spruces?

  Love, sudden-dawning, inexplicable love, was her secret, stilltremulously new, and perilous in its sweetness. That only did she fearto realize and to face, because it was an unknown factor, a threateningflame. Her sudden knowledge of it seemed inextricably merged with themounting, strong, and steadfast stream of her spirit.

  "I'll go to him. I'll tell him," she murmured. "He shall have _that!_...Then I must bid him--good-by--forever!"

  To tell Wilson would be sweet; to leave him would be bitter. Vaguepossibilities haunted her. What might come of the telling? How darkloomed the bitterness! She could not know what hid in either of theseacts until they were fulfilled. And the hours became long, and sleep faroff, and the quietness of the house a torment, and the melancholy wailof coyotes a reminder of happy girlhood, never to return.

  * * * * *

  When next day the long-deferred hour came Columbine selected a horsethat she could run, and she rode up the winding valley swift as thewind. But at the aspen grove, where Wade's keen, gentle voice had givenher secret life, she suffered a reaction that made her halt and ascendthe slope very slowly and with many stops.

  Sight of Wade's horse haltered near the cabin relieved Columbinesomewhat of a gathering might of emotion. The hunter would be inside andso she would not be compelled at once to confess her secret. Thisexpectancy gave impetus to her lagging steps. Before she reached theopen door she called out.

  "Collie, you're late," answered Wilson, with both joy and reproach, asshe entered. The cowboy lay upon his bed, and he was alone in the room.

  "Oh!... Where is Ben?" exclaimed Columbine.

  "He was here. He cooked my dinner. We waited, but you never came. Thedinner got cold. I made sure you'd backed out--weren't coming atall--and I couldn't eat.... Wade said he knew you'd come. He went offwith the hounds, somewhere ... and oh, Collie, it's all right now!"

  Columbine walked to his bedside and looked down upon him with a feelingas if some giant hand was tugging at her heart. He looked better. Theswelling and redness of his face were less marked. And at that moment nopain shadowed his eyes. They were soft, dark, eloquent. If Columbine hadnot come with her avowed resolution and desire to unburden her heart shewould have found that look in his eyes a desperately hard one to resist.Had it ever shone there before? Blind she had been.

  "You're better," she said, happily.

  "Sure--_now_. But I had a bad night. Didn't sleep till near daylight.Wade found me asleep.... Collie, it's good of you to come. You lookso--so wonderful! I never saw your face glow like that. And youreyes--oh!"

  "You think I'm pretty, then?" she asked, dreamily, not occupied at allwith that thought.

  He uttered a contemptuous laugh.

  "Come closer," he said, reaching for her with a clumsy bandaged hand.

  Down upon her knees Columbine fell. Both hands flew to cover her face.And as she swayed forward she shook violently, and there escaped herlips a little, muffled sound.

  "Why--Collie!" cried Moore, astounded. "Good Heavens! Don't cry! I--Ididn't mean anything. I only wanted to feel you--touch your hand."

  "Here," she answered, blindly holding out her hand, groping for his tillshe found it. Her other was still pressed to her eyes. One moment longerwould Columbine keep her secret--hide her eyes--revel in the unutterablejoy and sadness of this crisis that could come to a woman only once.

  "What in the world?" ejaculated the cowboy, now bewildered. But hepossessed himself of the trembling hand offered. "Collie, you act sostrange.... You're not crying!... Am I only locoed, or flighty, or what?Dear, look at me."

  Columbine swept her hand from her eyes with a gesture of uttersurrender.

  "Wilson, I'm ashamed--and sad--and gloriously happy," she said, withswift breathlessness.

  "Why?" he asked.

  "Because of--of something I have to tell you," she whispered.

  "What is that?"

  She bent over him.

  "Can't you guess?"

  He turned pale, and his eyes burned with intense fire.

  "I won't guess ... I daren't guess."

  "It's something that's been true for years--forever, it seems--somethingI never dreamed of till last night," she went on, softly.

  "Collie!" he cried. "Don't torture me!"

  "Do you remember long ago--when we quarreled so dreadfully--because youkissed me?" she asked.

  "Do you think I could kiss _you_--and live to forget?"

  "I love you!" she whispered, shyly, feeling the hot blood burn her.

  That whisper transformed Wilson Moore. His arm flashed round her neckand pulled her face down to his, and, holding her in a close embrace, hekissed her lips and cheeks and wet eyes, and then again her lips,passionately and tenderly.

  Then he pressed her head down upon his breast.

  "My God! I can't believe! Say it again!" he cried, hoarsely.

  Columbine buried her flaming face in the blanket covering him, and herhands clutched it tightly. The wildness of his joy, the strange strengthand power of his kisses, utterly changed her. Upon his breast she lay,without desire to lift her face. All seemed different, wilder, as sheresponded to his appeal: "Yes, I love you! Oh, I love--love--love you!"

  "Dearest!... Lift your face.... It's true now. I know. It's proved. Butlet me look at you."

  Columbine lifted herself as best she could. But she was blinded by tearsand choked with utterance that would not come, and in the grip of ashuddering emotion that was realization of loss in a moment when shelearned the supreme and imperious sweetness of love.

  "Kiss me, Columbine," he demanded.

  Through blurred eyes she saw his face, white and rapt, and she bent toit, meeting his lips with her first kiss which was her last.

  "Again, Collie--again!" he begged.

  "No--no more," she whispered, very low, and encircling his neck with herarms she hid her face and held him convulsively, and stifled the sobsthat shook her.

  Then Moore was silent, holding her with his free hand, breathing hard,and slowly quieting down. Columbine felt then that he knew that therewas something terribly wrong, and that perhaps he dared not voice hisfear. At any rate, he silently held her, waiting. That silent wait grewunendurable for Columbine. She wanted to prolong this moment that was tobe all she could ever surrender. But she dared not do so, for she knewif he ever kissed her again her duty to Belllounds would vanish likemist in the sun.

  To release her hold upon him seemed like a tearing of her heartstrings.She sat up, she wiped the tears from her eyes, she rose to her feet, allthe time striving for strength to face him again.

  A loud voice ringing from the cliffs outside, startled Columbine. Itcame from Wade calling the hounds. He had returned, and the factstirred her.

  "I'm to marry Jack Belllounds on October first."

  The cowboy raised himself up as far as he was able. It was agonizing forColumbine to watch the changing and whitening of his face!

  "No--no!" he gasped.

  "Yes, it's true," she replied, hopelessly.

  "_No!_" he exclaimed, hoarsely.

  "But, Wilson, I tell you yes. I came to tell you. It's true--oh, it'strue!"

  "But, girl, you said you love me," he declared, transfixing her withdark, accusing eyes.

  "That's just as terribly true."

  He softened a little, and something of terror and horror took the placeof anger.

  Just then Wade entered the cabin with his soft tread, hesitated, andthen came to Columbine's side. She could not unrivet her gaze from Mooreto look at her friend, but she reached out with trembling hand to him.Wade clasped it in a horny palm.

  Wilson fought for self-control in vain.

  "Collie, if you love me, how can you marry Jack Belllounds?" hedemanded.

  "I must."

  "Why must you?"

  "I owe my life and my bringing up to his father. He wants me to do it.Hi
s heart is set upon my helping Jack to become a man.... Dad loves me,and I love him. I must stand by him. I must repay him. It is my duty."

  "You've a duty to yourself--as a woman!" he rejoined, passionately."Belllounds is wrapped up in his son. He's blind to the shame of such amarriage. But you're not."

  "Shame?" faltered Columbine.

  "Yes. The shame of marrying one man when you love another. You can'tlove two men.... You'll give yourself. You'll be his _wife_! Do youunderstand what that means?"

  "I--I think--I do," replied Columbine, faintly. Where had vanished allher wonderful spirit? This fire-eyed boy was breaking her heart withhis reproach.

  "But you'll bear his children," cried Wilson. "Mother of--them--when youlove me!... Didn't you think of that?"

  "Oh no--I never did--I never did!" wailed Columbine.

  "Then you'll think before it's too late?" he implored, wildly. "DearestCollie, think! You won't ruin yourself! You won't? Say you won't!"

  "But--Oh, Wilson, what can I say? I've got to marry him."

  "Collie, I'll kill him before he gets you."

  "You mustn't talk so. If you fought again--if anything terriblehappened, it'd kill me."

  "You'd be better off!" he flashed, white as a sheet.

  Columbine leaned against Wade for support. She was fast weakening instrength, although her spirit held. She knew what was inevitable. ButWilson's agony was rending her.

  "Listen," began the cowboy again. "It's your life--your happiness--yoursoul.... Belllounds is crazy over that spoiled boy. He thinks the sunrises and sets in him.... But Jack Belllounds is no good on this earth!Collie dearest, don't think that's my jealousy. I am horribly jealous.But I know him. He's not worth you! No man is--and he the least. He'llbreak your heart, drag you down, ruin your health--kill you, as sure asyou stand there. I want you to know I could prove to you what he is. Butdon't make me. Trust me, Collie. Believe me."

  "Wilson, I do believe you," cried Columbine. "But it doesn't make anydifference. It only makes my duty harder."

  "He'll treat you like he treats a horse or a dog. He'll beat you--"

  "He never will! If he ever lays a hand on me--"

  "If not that, he'll tire of you. Jack Belllounds never stuck to anythingin his life, and never will. It's not in him. He wants what he can'thave. If he gets it, then right off he doesn't want it. Oh, I've knownhim since he was a kid.... Columbine, you've a mistaken sense of duty.No girl need sacrifice her all because some man found her a lost babyand gave her a home. A woman owes more to herself than to any one."

  "Oh, that's true, Wilson. I've thought it all.... But you'reunjust--hard. You make no allowance for--for some possible good in everyone. Dad swears I can reform Jack. Maybe I can. I'll pray for it."

  "Reform Jack Belllounds! How can you save a bad egg? That damned coward!Didn't he prove to you what he was when he jumped on me and kicked mybroken foot till I fainted?... What do you want?"

  "Don't say any more--please," cried Columbine. "Oh, I'm so sorry.... Ioughtn't have come.... Ben, take me home."

  "But, Collie, I love you," frantically urged Wilson. "And he--he maylove you--but he's--Collie--he's been--"

  Here Moore seemed to bite his tongue, to hold back speech, to fightsomething terrible and desperate and cowardly in himself.

  Columbine heard only his impassioned declaration of love, and to thatshe vibrated.

  "You speak as if this was one--sided," she burst out, as once more thegush of hot blood surged over her. "You don't love me any more than Ilove you. Not as much, for I'm a woman!... I love with all my heartand soul!"

  Moore fell back upon the bed, spent and overcome.

  "Wade, my friend, for God's sake do something," he whispered, appealingto the hunter as if in a last hope. "Tell Collie what it'll mean for herto marry Belllounds. If that doesn't change her, then tell her whatit'll mean to me. I'll never go home. I'll never leave here. If shehadn't told me she loved me then, I might have stood anything. But now Ican't. It'll kill me, Wade."

  "Boy, you're talkin' flighty again," replied Wade. "This mornin' when Icome you were dreamin' an' talkin'--clean out of your head.... Well,now, you an' Collie listen. You're right an' she's right. I reckon Inever run across a deal with two people fixed just like you. But thatdoesn't hinder me from feelin' the same about it as I'd feel aboutsomethin' I was used to."

  He paused, and, gently releasing Columbine, he went to Moore, and retiedhis loosened bandage, and spread out the disarranged blankets. Then hesat down on the edge of the bed and bent over a little, running aroughened hand through the scant hair that had begun to silver upon hishead. Presently he looked up, and from that sallow face, with its linesand furrows, and from the deep, inscrutable eyes, there fell a lightwhich, however sad and wise in its infinite understanding of pain andstrife, was still ruthless and unquenchable in its hope.

  "Wade, for God's sake save Columbine!" importuned Wilson.

  "Oh, if you only could!" cried Columbine, impelled beyond her power toresist by that prayer.

  "Lass, you stand by your convictions," he said, impressively. "An'Moore, you be a man an' don't make it so hard for her. Neither of youcan do anythin'.... Now there's old Belllounds--he'll never change. Hemight r'ar up for this or that, but he'll never change his cherishedhopes for his son.... But Jack might change! Lookin' back over all theyears I remember many boys like this Buster Jack, an' I remember how inthe nature of their doin's they just hanged themselves. I've a queerforesight about people whose trouble I've made my own. It's somethin'that never fails. When their trouble's goin' to turn out bad then I feela terrible yearnin' to tell the story of Hell-Bent Wade. That foresightof trouble gave me my name.... But it's not operatin' here.... An' so,my young friends, you can believe me when I say somethin' will happen.As far as October first is concerned, or any time near, Collie isn'tgoin' to marry Jack Belllounds."

 
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