It was half in jest that she had said to Smythe, "He shall tell me!" But in the night, by some strange alchemy, that jest had been transmuted into a purpose of which she was still doubtful, if not afraid. And yet to go forward seemed less difficult than to go back. For she had let the days of Seth's recovery and convalescence slip by without telling Claire of her experience in the Forbidden Pasture and on the road to Paradise. The duel at the post-office, she argued, surely had made it unnecessary to warn Huntington of Haig's anger. And yet, as their guest, as Claire's cousin—But had they been quite fair to her? They had not warned her of the hostility across the Ridge; they had let her go blundering into the Forbidden Pasture; not that it mattered so much, though it might have been worse—
Her thoughts were becoming very much confused. She had permitted a man to treat her most offensively, and she had seen him shoot down another without compunction; and that other was her cousin, in whose house she was a guest. And yet she felt no resentment, no detestation, no censure, no rebuke. Instead, here she was running away to think out a plan whereby she might hear the whole story of the feud, and more, from Haig himself.
The morning advanced in rose and pearl nuances. A hundred tantalizing perfumes filled the air; field-spiders' webs sparkled in the dew like silver gossamer; meadow larks rose at her feet, and wove delicate patterns in the air with threads of melody. Who could think amid such diverting beauty? She lifted her head, and went singing through the meadows, knee-deep in the wet and clinging grass, and laughing when the parted branches of the willows splashed her face and drenched her. And then, at the first cast she made into a still, deep pool, where the night loitered under the very eye of day, an imprudent trout took the gray hackle fly, and made off with it. The splash, and the "zip" of the tightening line through the water; and then the fight, and the capture—Well, if they were going to rise like that—
The sun was high before she became aware that she was very hot and tired and hungry. Her shoes were soaking wet, her skirts and stockings splashed with mud; one shoulder was being sunburned where a twig had caught and ripped her white flannel waist; and Seth's red silk handkerchief around her neck was scarcely a deeper crimson than her face.
"But I can't catch them all in one day!" she exclaimed reluctantly, leaning wearily against a tree.
At that instant, under her very eyes, a trout leaped in the nearby pool.
"Impudence!" she cried. "I'll just get you, and then quit."
But it was one pool too many; for at the second cast her hook caught in the rough bark of a log that projected far out into the stream.
"Oh! Now I've done it!" she groaned.
Several smart tugs at the line, with a whipping of the rod to right and left of the log, convinced her that the hook was too deeply embedded to be released by any such operation. Sinking down on a heap of driftwood on the bank, she gloomily contemplated the consequences of her greed. There were two ways to go about it now,—to break the line and leave the hook to its fate, or to crawl out on the log and rescue it. The first was unsportsmanlike, the second was very likely to be dangerous.
"Um-m-m!" she muttered, with a grimace. "It's not easy."
The log ran out, at a slight inclination upward, from the center of the heap of driftwood, and its free end, where the hackle fly reposed at a distance of fully twenty feet from the bank, was suspended barely two feet above the middle of the pool. She leaned forward, and gazed into its dark depths, which appeared to be scarcely stirred by the current, though five yards away the stream was making a merry racket over the shallows.
She stood up, and looked around her. Through the screen of willows and cottonwoods on each sloping bank she saw the meadows lying green and silent in the sun. There was no sound except the prattle of the Brightwater and the murmur of the breeze in the foliage. She assured herself that she was quite alone.
Next she folded and pinned up her skirt so that it hung just to her knees, and after a final glance in all directions, stepped cautiously out to the edge of the driftwood, knelt down on the fallen trunk, and began to creep warily out toward the embedded hook. The log was round, and none too large; her knees, protected only by thin stockings, were bruised by the rough and partly-loosened bark; and she scarcely dared to breathe lest she should lose her balance, and tumble into the yawning pool. Once she incautiously looked down, and saw her image waving dizzily on the slow-moving surface of the water.
"Oh!" she gasped, as she drew back her gaze, and dug her nails into the log.
But for all her fears, and because of them, it was tremendously exciting, and she became deeply absorbed in her task. Now clinging close to the log in sudden panic, now laughing tremulously at her trepidation, she forgot everything except her goal, and the inches by which she was approaching it. She had arrived within two feet of the hook, and was just about to reach a trembling hand to detach it, when she received a shock that was near to ending her expedition in an ignominious splash.
"Wait!" called out a voice, somewhere behind her. "I'll help you!"
The fright first nearly caused her to lose her grip on the log, and then left her cold and shivering. After that a wave of heat swept over her, and the blood tingled in her flushed and perspiring face.
Who was it? Philip Haig, by all the ill luck in the world? Who else could have had the effrontery? She dared not turn to look, both in fear of falling, and in shame at being caught in that absurd predicament. What a sight! she thought. Her skirt was above her knees, and one stocking, caught by a projection of bark, had slipped down to her ankle. And that was not all!... With a desperate effort, she lifted one hand from its hold on the log, and tried to adjust her skirt; but the movement only unbalanced her. With a shriek she flattened herself, and lay there panting and miserable.
"Wait!" the voice cried, more sharply than before. "No move—for minute!"
She was arrested by the words. "No move for minute!" It was not the voice of Philip Haig, but in that assurance there was only a doubtful consolation. If not Haig—who? There was something oddly foreign in that heavy, harsh, and yet not displeasing voice. A new fear presently mingled with the others. It was a wild country after all; and she had taken no note of the distance she had come, and little of her surroundings. But she could only obey, and wait.
There came the sound of quick splashing in the water, and a few seconds later a man's head and shoulders appeared in the stream at her side. At sight of the strange, dark countenance suddenly upturned to her, within a foot of her own, she almost fainted. It was a face she had never seen before, solemn, stolid, with a copper-colored skin, high cheek bones, and deep-set, black eyes in which there was no more expression than there was on the thin, straight lips. She closed her eyes.
But that was only for an instant, since nothing terrible was happening. When she dared to look again the man was quietly releasing the offending fly. He tossed it back in the direction of the bank, then stood for a moment regarding her, still without the trace of an expression on his dark face.
"Don't be 'fraid!" he said. "Hold still!"
She obeyed him, though his next move was one to have brought a scream to her lips if she had not become incapable of utterance. Standing in the water, which came almost up to his armpits, he had kept his arms high above the surface of the pool. Now he stretched them out toward her, clasped both her ankles with one huge hand, slipped the other under her waist, and with what seemed incredible strength and assurance, lifted her off the log. Then, without so much as wetting the edge of her skirt, he bore her to the bank, and seated her gently on the heap of driftwood from which she had ventured so bravely only a little while before.
Should she weep, or laugh, or rage at him? Through eyes half-blinded by tears, she searched his face; but he met her troubled and fiery gaze with the most perfect calm. Then, after a moment, he deliberately turned, and stood facing squarely away from her,—an act of stoicism that at once removed her fears and completed her discomfiture. She took the hint implied in his movement, and bent down, blushing furiously, to pull up the fallen stocking, and let down her skirt.
When she sat erect again the man had not changed his position; and she seized the opportunity to study him. His figure, though she had just had proof of his strength, was lean almost to thinness, very straight, and borne, she fancied, with a certain dignity and even majesty in its erectness. The straight, black hair under the sombrero was touched with gray. He was not young, past middle age perhaps; but she could hazard no nearer guess at his age. No matter! Looking at him thus, she began to feel her resentment falling away, as if every shaft from her angry eyes had broken harmlessly on that serene and unoffending back. Even her embarrassment began to seem inexcusable. The man had carried her ashore in much the manner he would have used if she had been a sack of oats to be saved from wetting.
"You are very strong!" Marion said at last.
He turned slowly toward her. His face was grave and expressionless, but by no means dull; and his eyes were very black and bright.
"You—are—all—right—now?" he asked, ignoring her praise.
There was a curious slowness and lack of emphasis in his speech, with a pause after each word, that gave a singular impressiveness to all he said.
"But why did you do it?" she demanded.
"'Fraid you fall," was his simple answer.
"But I don't mind getting wet."
"Easy drown in little water," he said laconically.
She laughed at the idea of her drowning in a pool like that—she who had battled triumphantly with the breakers at Atlantic City, Newport, and Bar Harbor.
"But I can swim!" she assured him.
"I not know that," he replied, unmoved.
True. And she must have appeared to be greatly in need of assistance.
"Anyhow, I thank you!" she said sincerely. "But who am I thanking, please?"
"Pete! Pete who?"
"But have you no other name?"
"Yes. Indian name."
And he rolled out a string of guttural syllables that sounded like names of places in the Maine woods.
Indian name! Marion started; and in a flash she knew. Haig's man Friday! Here was luck indeed.
"You are Mr. Haig's—" She hesitated.
"Friend," he said, completing her sentence.
Marion was again embarrassed. She did not know what to say next, fearing to say the wrong thing, and so to throw away a golden opportunity. In her search for the right lead, her eyes lighted on a fishing basket that lay on the ground not far from her own.
"Oh!" she cried. "But it's strange I didn't hear or see you!"
"Indian not make noise."
"I should say not!" she retorted, laughing.
"Trout very smart," he added quietly.
"I've caught fourteen," she volunteered eagerly. "And you?"
For answer he fetched his creel, and opened it.
"Oh!" she cried, in envy and admiration, seeing that the creel was almost full, and that not a fish in sight was as small as her largest prize.
"I give you some," he said, glancing at her own basket.
"No! No!" she protested quickly. "I have plenty."
She showed him her catch, which was by no means insignificant. Nevertheless Pete took three of his largest trout, and transferred them to her basket, ignoring her protests.
"But they are for—him, aren't they?" she asked.
"Biggest you no see. At bottom."
That satisfied her, and she watched him silently while he found her rod, and reeled in the offending fly.
"Brown fly better now," he said. "You ought see what trout eating before you try catch big ones."
On this he drew a book of flies from his pocket, and replaced the gray hackle with a brown one. She questioned him eagerly, following this plain lead; and presently they were seated on the pile of driftwood, while he told her about the native trout and the rainbow and the California, of little brooks far up among the mountains where the trout were small but of a delicious flavor, of the time for flies and the time for worms, of famous catches he had made, of the way the Indians fished before the white man showed them patent rods and reels. By slow degrees Pete's iron features softened, and he smiled at her, not with his lips, but with his eyes, which were the blackest, surely, in the world.
But Marion was not diverted from the questions that were next her heart. With all her woman's cunning of indirection, she brought the talk around to Philip Haig. Did he fish? Sometimes. Did he hunt? Much, when the deer came down from the heights with the first snows. Then—she could resist no longer.
"It must have been terrible—the accident," she said, placing a finger on her cheek.
He looked at her strangely, while she held her breath.
"That no accident," he said at last, after what seemed to her an interminable interval of suspense.
"No accident?" she repeated, trying not to appear too eager.
"He call it accident, maybe. He say it is nothing. Pete say it is much. It is big debt. Some day Pete pay."
There was deep silence for a moment. The stream gurgled and splashed; the breeze whispered through the cottonwoods; and over all, or under all, was the vague, insistent, seductive sound that the summer makes in the fulness of its power.
Marion hesitated, quivering with eagerness and uncertainty. She was afraid to ask more, lest she should be shortly rebuffed, and lose her opportunity. But Pete was looking at her steadily. She felt a flush coming into her face again. Had he guessed—something—already in her manner, in her impulsive questions? More likely it was the charm that, for once unconsciously, she wielded—the elusive charm of woman that makes men want to tell, without the asking.
"You like to hear?" Pete said; and her heart leaped.
And she was keenly disappointed. She had expected something romantic, something ennobling and fine. And it was only a barroom brawl, though Philip was not in it until the end, to be sure! Five Mexican sheep herders against the lone Indian. Guns and knives in the reeking border saloon; and afterwards in the street; and the Indian almost done for, bleeding from a dozen wounds; and then a voice ringing out above the fracas: "No, I'm damned if you do! Five to one, and greasers at that!" And Philip Haig had jumped from his horse, and plunged into the melee, disdaining to draw his gun on greasers. Smash! Bang! went his fists, front and right and left.
Pete had accounted for one Mexican, who would herd sheep no more on the plains of Conejos. The others fled. Then Haig, despite the knife-wound in his face, grabbed the Indian, and somehow lifted him up behind him on his horse.
"Quick, Indian!" he cried. "This town's full of greasers. You've got no chance here."
And then the long ride to Del Norte, with the Indian drooping on Haig's back; and a doctor of Haig's acquaintance, who sheltered and cured the silent savage. And Pete, convalescent, had come straight to Haig's ranch, and remained there, despite Haig's protests that he did not need another hand.
"Pete stay until big debt is paid," said the Indian solemnly. And then, with a straight look into Marion's eyes, "You ought tell Huntington he is damn fool."
Marion started. There it was again—the warning!
"But why?" she managed to ask.
"Haig is brave man. Brave man always good man. So—Huntington got no chance."
THE WAY OF A MAID WITH A MAN
She rode casually down the Brightwater, and casually up the Brightwater; she loitered at crossroads, and tarried at Thompson's store; and not one glimpse did she catch of Philip Haig. Then one morning she rose at dawn, as she had risen on the day of her fishing exploit, with a purpose. But this time she dressed with exceeding care, in a riding suit she had not yet worn in the Park. It was soft dove-gray in color, with a long coat that showed the fine lines of her figure and, when she rode, revealed snug-fitting breeches above the tops of the polished boots,—a very different costume from the black divided skirts and the short jacket in which she had galloped about the Park.
Thus arrayed and resolute, she rode straight down the valley to the branch road that had once tempted her to adventure; straight up the hill; and straight through the woods until she halted once more in the shade of the outpost pine that stood beyond its clustered fellows like a sentinel above the valley. Her valley! She waited a moment, wondering if it welcomed her. There was the stream, still flashing in the sun, the meadows as brightly green as then, the grass of the pasture running in bronze waves before the breeze. From the heart of a wild rose a gorgeous red and brown butterfly flew out and fluttered over her head. Not a dozen yards below her a meadow lark, unseen, burst into sudden, thrilling song; and somewhere down the hill another took up the strain, then another and another, until the air was charged and quivering with melody, piercing sweet. She listened, her heart throbbing to the music, until the chorus died away in dripping cadences, and only a drowsy murmur came from the ripening fields to mingle with the low droning of the pine organ on the hill. Yes! Her valley welcomed her.
She rode on down the hill, with only a quick and embarrassed glance into the Forbidden Pasture; and suddenly raised herself excitedly in the stirrups. There again was the spiral of blue smoke; then a chimney and a red roof; and finally the house itself, and barn and corrals, all tucked away against the foot of the hill. Dismounting, she led Tuesday back a few yards, and left him to feed along the roadside. Then she returned, and seated herself on a rock, half-hidden by a blackberry bush, to study the group of houses lying low and silent in the sun.
There were more buildings than at Huntington's, but she saw no beds of flowers, no wide veranda screened with potted plants; a certain bareness and air of inhospitality, she thought. No tea and angel cake for visitors! Behind the ranch house were two cottages of unpainted pine, scorched to a yellow-brown by many a summer sun. One of them, doubtless, was the hermit's lodge. The barn, larger than Seth's, had a red roof, newly painted. And in one of the corrals—yes—the flash of a golden hide.
"Sunnysides!" murmured Marion.
Then her heart stood still. She had descried the figure of a man seated with his back against the bars of this corral. But it was not Philip Haig; Sunnysides' guard, no doubt, for he never left his post until relieved by another an hour or so later, when the dinner bell had been rung at the door of the ranch house.
She had scarcely time to feel her disappointment before a man emerged from the stable leading a saddle horse. Another immediately followed, and this time there was no mistake. The second man was Philip Haig. He mounted quickly, and started off; then stopped to address a word or two, apparently, to the man at the stable door; and finally galloped past the ranch house and the cottages, and up the slope behind them toward the pines, across the valley from where she sat.
"Oh!" cried Marion, in a tone of vexation and reproach.
She watched him until he had disappeared among the trees; and tears started in her eyes. Would he always be riding away from her, behind the hills, the woods, a turn of the road? She sat a while in deep dejection; but not for long. Her spirit was too resilient for futile moping, and her purpose too firmly held to be abandoned on one reverse. She reflected that if he had gone he must as certainly return; and so, with a toss of her head, she presently arose, and fetched her raincoat and her luncheon from the saddle. The coat she spread out on the ground, seated herself on it with her back against the rock, and settled down to eat, and watch, and wait.
Morning mounted hot and humming into noon, and noon dropped languidly into afternoon. The blazing sun centered his rays upon her; insects found and pestered her; discomfort cramped her limbs, and weariness weighted down her eyelids. Twice she dozed, and wakened with a start of fear lest she had slept her chance away. But each time she was reassured by a hurried survey of the group of buildings, where no one stirred, and there was no sign of Philip Haig. So the hours dragged their slow length along.
It was late in the afternoon before her vigil was rewarded. Not from just the direction in which he had galloped away, but from farther up the valley, Haig reappeared. He rode as rapidly as before, straight to the door of the stable, reined up a moment there, and was off again,—this time down the valley on a white road that was visible to Marion until it curved behind the distant point of the ridge on which she sat.
"Now where's he going?" she murmured, wrinkling her forehead as she saw him once more vanish from her sight.
She did not know that road, but guessed that it joined the main highway somewhere far down the Brightwater. No matter! Here was her opportunity; for she saw, with quick appreciation, that she would now be able to place herself between him and the ranch buildings without showing herself to the men at the corrals. And then? She could not "hold him up" like a highwayman; and if she did not stop him he would raise his hat (perhaps), and ride past her without a word. And how was she to stop him? She had come there with a very definite purpose, but with no clear plan, trusting to the inspiration of the moment. And now the moment had arrived; but where was the inspiration? She had risen impulsively to her feet, and stood staring between narrowed eyelids, and beneath a puckered brow, at the white road, now quite empty again. Then suddenly—
"Ah!" she gasped.
And thereupon she blushed, and looked furtively around her, as if she had been caught in some doubtful, if not discreditable, act. But there was no time for moral subtleties. She staggered—for her legs were stiff from inaction—to her pony, replaced her raincoat behind the saddle, mounted in hot haste, and rode down the steep hill toward the houses. At a little distance from them the road she traveled joined the other. There she turned abruptly, and followed the unfamiliar road until she was safely out of sight of any chance observer at the barn, and yet not so far from the trail she had just left but that she could return to it if, by any chance, he should come back that way.
Dismounting quickly at the chosen spot, she turned Tuesday until he stood squarely across the road. Then her nimble fingers flew at the cinches of the saddle.
"There now!" she exclaimed, hot with excitement and exertion.
She stepped back to view her handiwork, and laughed nervously. Next she drew a tiny mirror and a bit of chamois skin from her bosom, and swiftly removed some of the dust and moisture from her flushed face. Then her hair, always somewhat unruly, required a touch or two. That done, she smoothed down the gray coat over her slender hips, adjusted the gray silk tie at her throat, and waited.
He came, in his habitual cloud of dust; pulled up his pony within ten feet of the obstruction; saw the saddle hanging at a dangerous angle over Tuesday's side; and accepted the obvious conclusion that Miss Marion Gaylord, looking very warm and embarrassed, but certainly very pretty in her confusion, had narrowly escaped a fall.
"I think I'd better help you with that, Miss Gaylord," he said.
"Thank you!" she said, with an appealing reluctance. "I can do it—I often saddle my own horse, and—"
"I should judge that you had saddled him this time," he interrupted her to say, without the slightest trace of irony in his tone.
She bit her lip, as she silently made way for him, and stood at Tuesday's head, stroking his neck with one small, gloved hand while Haig adjusted the blanket, fitted the saddle firmly, and tightened the double cinch. He was dressed in the nondescript costume he had worn at their first meeting. That same hat, uniquely insolent, soiled and limp and disreputable, was stuck on the back of his head, revealing a full, clean-moulded brow, over which, at one side, his thick black hair fell carelessly. His eyes were calm gray rather than stormy black to-day, but a gray that was singularly dark and deep and luminous. His manner was in the strangest contrast with the two different moods in which she had already seen him—as if the fires were out, as if all emotion and interest had been dissolved in listlessness. And she divined at once that her chance of success was small.
"That will hold, I think," he said gravely; and started toward his horse.
"It wasn't Tuesday's fault," she said eagerly.
Haig paused, on one foot as it were, and looked over his shoulder.
"It was fortunate for you that he's been well gentled," he said. "You should look to your cinches rather often when you ride these hills."
("You should keep your feet dry, and come in when it rains," he might as well have said, she thought angrily.)
"Yes, it was careless of me," she answered, trying to say it brightly, but really wanting to shriek.
"It happens to everybody once in a while," he said.
On that, he stepped to his pony, put a foot in the stirrup, and one hand on the saddle horn, and paused.
She could easily have flopped down in the road, and wept. Once he had raged at her, once he had thrilled her with a look, and now he was simply dismissing her,—leaving her, as her father would have put it, "to stew in her own juice." She saw all her elaborate strategy, her long vigil on the hill, her struggle with the saddle, her appealing' glances—all, all about to go for nothing.
"He might at least help me on my horse!" she thought, in bitter resentment.
Perhaps tears blinded her. At any rate—and this was without pretence, and no part of her scheme—she did not see clearly what she was doing. It was nothing new to mount her pony from the level; she had done it a hundred times without mishap. But now, in her agitation, she stood somewhat too far away from Tuesday's shoulder; and the pony, as ponies will sometimes do, started forward the instant he felt the weight in the stirrup.
"Look out!" cried Haig.
It was too late. She missed the saddle; her right foot struck Tuesday's back, and slipped off; and she fell sprawling on the ground, with her left foot fast in the stirrup.
"Whoa, Tuesday!" she cried shrilly as she fell.
Luckily the horse did not take alarm and run, as a less reliable animal might have done, dragging the girl under his heels. He stopped in his tracks, and stood obediently, even turning his head as if to see what damage had been done. It was enough. Marion was uninjured, but badly frightened; and her humiliation was complete. She lay on her back, struggling vainly to extricate her foot from the stirrup. Her coat skirts had fallen back, and—Thank Heaven for the riding breeches, and not what she had worn under divided skirts!
"Lie still!" yelled Haig, remembering what he had seen happen to men in such circumstances.
In three leaps he was at her side. With a swift movement (and none too gentle), he wrenched her foot loose from the stirrup, and helped her to sit up, dazed and trembling and very white.
"Your ankle—is it hurt?" he asked sharply.
"I don't know," she said.
And then the expected "inspiration of the moment" came.
"A little," she added.
And so it was done. Her foot had indeed been twisted slightly; she had truly, truly felt a twinge of pain. At another time she would have thought no more about it, but now—The color rushed back into her cheeks; she fetched a smile that was half a grimace; and the game was on again.
Haig reached a hand to her. She took it, and let him draw her to her feet.
"Try the ankle—just a step!" he commanded.
She rested her weight on her left foot.
"Oh!" she cried out, and looked helplessly at Haig.
A shadow, unmistakably of annoyance, passed over his face.
"You're not going to faint, are you?" he asked, looking keenly at her.
Her color always came and went easily, and now, a little frightened by her bold deception, she was pale again.
"No—I think not," she said. ("At any rate not here," she might have added.)
"Can you ride to the corrals?" was his next question.
The look of annoyance was now fixed on his face, but it did not discourage her.
She looked doubtfully at Tuesday. Thereupon, without a word, Haig led the horse close to her, but placed so that she was at Tuesday's right side instead of the left. Then, while she supported herself with one hand on his shoulder, he raised her right foot, and thrust it into the stirrup; and, with a hand under each of her arms, lifted her until she was able to throw the left foot over, and her body into the saddle. Once more Marion bit her lip. His action was as devoid of personal interest as Pete's had been when he carried her out of the pool; and she had not come to Philip Haig to be treated like a sack of oats!
Haig mounted his pony, and rode up close beside her; and thus, in unbroken silence, they arrived at the door of the stable. There Haig dismounted quickly, stepped briskly around her horse, and almost before she was aware of his intention, lifted her out of the saddle, and set her on her feet—all very carefully and gently, but also very scrupulously, without an unnecessary pressure, without even a glance into her waiting eyes. What was the man made of? Why would he not look at her? Why did he not rage at her—if he could do nothing better? Well, the cat had at least seven lives left!
She almost forgot to limp, but bethought herself in time, and gasped as he led her to an empty soap box at the side of the stable door. Having seated her there, he called out to the man on guard at Sunnysides' corral: "Where's Curly?"
"Down by the crick," was the answer.
"Bring him here! I'll watch the horse."
Thereupon he took the man's place, and stood with his arms crossed on the top rail of the fence, his eyes fixed on the golden horse. And Marion felt a real pain at last,—a pang of jealousy. So he preferred to look at the horse, did he? If he had chanced at that instant to glance at her he would have seen a pair of blue eyes blazing with wrath.
The two men came hurrying from the creek.
"Here, Curly!" said Haig, resigning his post. "Miss Gaylord has hurt her ankle. I found her unseated down the road yonder." He paused, as if to let that be thoroughly understood. "I want you to hitch up the sorrels and drive her home."
"Right!" responded Curly, going into the stable.
Marion then did almost faint. She had not foreseen that manoeuver.
"I'd rather not, please," she said, as sweetly as she could in her dismay.
"Rather not what?" asked Haig, turning at last to her.
"I'd rather rest a while—somewhere—" Her glance went past him in the direction of the cottage. "Then I can ride home—alone."
"And tumble off in the road somewhere!" he retorted, with a touch of derision in his tone.
"Oh, no!" she pleaded. "It's not as bad as that."
"No matter! I can't allow you to take any chances," he insisted curtly.
"Really, I need only a little rest," she persisted. "If I could lie down a few minutes—" her eyes again were turned toward the cottage.
He saw what she meant, and frowned.
"No!" he snapped. Then, checking himself, "I don't mean to be inhospitable, but you ought to know that's impossible."
"You mean—Cousin Seth?"
He shot a look at her that frightened her, but gratified her too. Was she rousing him at last?
"Yes, if you like," he said, quietly enough. "I'm having a hard enough time with the fool without a woman being mixed up in the affair."
"I don't understand," said Marion.
"You don't understand!" he repeated. "Of course not. Women never understand—until afterwards. I'll make it plainer. I'm a bad man, as you have doubtless heard. What would Paradise Park say when it learned that you had been inveigled into my house?"
She was silent a moment.
"Well then, let me sit here and rest!" she insisted.
"But why?" he demanded impatiently.
She took her courage in both hands, and plunged.
"I want to talk to you," she said eagerly. "I want to ask you if there is no way—"
"Excuse me!" he broke in. "I don't want you to talk to me. If I did—"
He stopped, with a shrug. Marion felt her face reddening, but she dissembled her embarrassment.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "You're not afraid of me, are you?"
It was spoken archly, in her most playful, most kittenish manner, and so she was amazed to see his face distorted as if by some violent emotion. But he spoke with restraint, though in a tone that was hard and harsh.
"Yes, I am afraid of you. The only thing in the world a man needs to fear is a woman."
The first effect of this speech was to surprise and shock her. The next was to make her heart leap. Had she come near the secret, after all? Then, finally, something deep in the man's eyes roused in her a thrill of pity. In another minute she would have melted, in her compassion, and begged him humbly to pardon her. But at that instant Curly emerged from the barn, leading the sorrels; and the devil that lurks behind a woman's tongue spoke for her before she was aware of it.
"So you'd rather one of your men took me to Cousin Seth!"
It was scarcely out before she regretted it with all her heart. If there was a devil behind her tongue there was another back of the somber shadows in Haig's eyes. He flashed one comprehending look at her; his whole manner underwent a swift and terrifying change; he was again the Philip Haig of that day at the post office.
"Great!" he exclaimed. "That will be the best joke of all. I'll drive you home myself, of course."
For a moment Marion sat very still on the soap box, stunned, staring open-mouthed at Haig. What had she done? That mad speech! Then she leaped to her feet.
"No! No!" she cried. "You shall not!"
He smiled at her.
"Shall not?" he repeated sardonically.
"I mean—please not that!" she faltered.
"Why not?" he demanded, almost gaily.
"Oh, please! I didn't mean it that way."
"Of course you didn't mean it! Women never do mean it—that way. And I suppose you didn't mean to let those men ride on to Paradise when they told you the horse was mine, did you?"
"Oh!" cried Marion, almost in a scream. "How did you—know?"
"I happened to ask Larkin if he had met nobody on the road who could have directed him. He said there was no one but a 'purty girl.' That was you, wasn't it?"
She was speechless.
"And my warning to Huntington. Did you deliver that?"
"No," she answered, scarcely above a whisper.
"Of course not. That would have been too simple and honest and direct. You can't be honest and straightforward to save your lives. You live by deception, and boast about your love of truth. Your deepest craving is for violence, while you prate about your gentle influence over men. I haven't the least doubt in the world that Mrs. Huntington, for all her baby face, is back of all Huntington's violence—thinks she's a wonderful inspiration to him, with a special genius for the cattle business! And when she gets him killed—with your assistance—she'll flop down, and weep—and you too, both of you—and wail that you didn't mean it!"
She recoiled from him, and leaned helplessly against the wall of the stable.
"So you let the men ride on to Paradise," he went on with relentless mockery, "and you let Huntington plunge into that business when you knew, from me, exactly what it meant. And you rode over here to-day—I wonder, now, if your foot's really hurt, or if that also is some trick!"
It was the merest chance shot. He had no suspicion that she had been shamming, for he had been too much annoyed by the whole incident to be critical of her demeanor. But the shot went home. The girl, without a word or cry, suddenly sank down on the box, with her face buried in her hands.
There ensued a moment of tense silence. For all the bitterness that surged under his railing speech, Haig was not untouched by the sight of the girl, bent and cowering before him. But at the same time he was exasperated anew by the scene that was being enacted under the eyes of his two men.
"Come!" he said presently, not without reluctant gentleness. "It's growing late. We must start at once."
The words increased her terror. Through the hands that covered her eyes she could see Haig and Huntington—with revolvers drawn; and Claire's white face—She rose impulsively, dropping her hands from her hot and tear-stained cheeks. She would confess all to him, though it should betray the inmost secret of her heart; and would beseech him not to go—
"Don't say it—here!" he commanded sharply, lowering his voice as he bent toward her. "They think there's something queer about all this. Come!"
She obeyed him silently, her resolution vanishing before his authority. Besides, there was yet time, somewhere on the road.
THE END OF HER STRATAGEM
For some minutes there was no speech, no sound except the swift beat of the horses' hoofs on the hard roadway, and the crisp crunching of wheels in the sand. Marion sat rigid, staring straight in front of her, yet seeing nothing. Dazed and benumbed, her thoughts were in a hopeless tangle, without beginnings, without ends. How she had bungled the whole thing! And she might have been so happy, there at his side.
Twilight was coming on in the serene, clear beauty of the mountains: the distant peaks glowed like great opals in the sundown hues; there was an indescribable sweetness in the air, something magical in the soft but cold night breeze that began to pour down upon the valley from the eternal snows.
Timidly, out of the corner of her eye, Marion glanced at Haig, and saw that he was gazing steadily at the changing colors on the distant range. But there was no beauty for her in that perfect panorama. The fire had gone out of her, and she was shivering. He must have felt her movement, for suddenly he leaned forward, lifted the edge of the heavy lap-robe that had lain neglected at their feet, and tucked it around her. She drew back with a quick intake of breath as his face was for an instant close to her own. A moment later he began to speak in a tone that surprised and encouraged her, so little did it resemble the tones he had employed before. It was as if nothing had happened, as if they had long been talking of things casual, impersonal to them both.
"It's different in the San Luis," he said. "There's red down there. Nature's palette is a little short of red in this valley. Too much blue. Even nature sometimes gets a one-color obsession, like the painters. Here she's gone off on blue. It's the most dangerous color. Darwin says it was the last color produced in nature's laboratory. Ordinarily it's the least common in flowers and birds and insects. Hearn—Have you read Lafcadio Hearn? No? But you ought to, that is, if you care for such things. He goes after blue—the misuse of it. He says it's the color most pleasureable to the eye in its purest intensity. But you mustn't dab it on. A blue house is a crime. Blue's overdone here too, blue sky, blue mists, blue shadows, blue lakes, blue flowers,—anemones, harebells, columbines and the rest. It's a relief to get into the reds of the San Luis—"
"Where Sunnysides came from!" interrupted Marion, eager despite her misery.
"Tell me about him, please!"
She wanted him to continue in that strain, and even Sunnysides was a less dangerous subject than—another.
"Well, about Sangre de Cristo first. That's a great range that stands up high and white along the east. Sangre de Cristo is Spanish for Blood of Christ. I can see those pious old rascal adventurers uncovering their blessed heads when they first glimpsed it. At sunset it takes the color—not always, not often, in fact, perhaps a dozen times a year. There are days and days when the range is only white and cold, days when it's black with storms, and days when it's dismal gray. Then there comes an evening when the sun goes down red behind the San Juan, and the snows on Sangre de Cristo run like blood. The whole world, for a few minutes, seems to halt and stand still in awe at that weird and mysterious spectacle—trainmen setting the brakes on squealing ore trains on Marshall Pass, and miners coming out of their tunnels above Creed all stop and look; Mexican sheep-herders in Conejos pause to cross themselves; ranchmen by their lonely corrals up and down the San Luis, and cowboys in the saddle on the open range—all spellbound. It gives you a strange feeling—something that goes back to the primitive instincts of mankind—something of reverence, something of wonder, something of fear—the fear that the first men had when they gazed on the phenomena they could not understand, and began to make their myths and their religions. Primitive superstition, primitive terror will never quite down in us, no matter how wise and practical we become. There's always, in beauty—in sheer beauty something terrifying, as well as something sad. But—do I bore you with my dithyrambs?"
"No! No!" she exclaimed.
"The scene couldn't have been set better for that spectacle. There's a green strip along the river, then bare sagebrush flats, and beyond the flats are sand dunes where nothing grows but cactus and mesquite, and here and there some tufts of grass as tough and dry as wire. In summer the dunes are a parched and blistered inferno. In October they are raw gray desolation. I don't want to know what they are like in winter. The wind never ceases there. It builds the dunes into new shapes every day, and the sagebrush is always bent and lopsided and torn, and the colors are the gray and brown of the world's secret tragedy. But when the red sunset is on the dunes there's nothing I have ever seen so wild and passionate and beautiful.
"It was late in the autumn. I rode out of a deep arroya, and came, without warning, into all that weird and solemn glory. There was a cold gush of air from up the valley. Far in the north were purple patches on the flats, and violet shadows in the foothills. But the dunes were all vermilion, and I can't tell you what hue of red lay spread out deep and vivid on the Sangre de Cristo peaks,—a living, passionate, terrible blood-red. I'm not very devout, but I tell you candidly that I reined up my horse, took off my hat, and sat there gazing, with the queerest feelings, and saying, like the old Spaniards, 'Sangre de Cristo! Blood of Christ!'
"Then something queer happened to me. You've seen a flash of sunlight reflected from a window, far off? Well, it wasn't like that, except in the sharpness of its effect. And I knew there was no house in all that waste of sand. It was just a flash, and was gone. I searched the horizon, and saw nothing but red dunes, and little puffs of sand kicked up by the rising wind. Must have been some trick of vision, I thought, and I looked away again toward the blood-red peaks. And there it was again, in the corner of my eye. But it was gone when I tried to fix it. I put spurs to my horse, and rode toward the dunes, and caught the flash again—just a bright yellow speck in the darkening vermilion. It came and went, and seemed then to have been lost completely. I was about convinced that the red sunset had gone to my head—that I was following something that existed only in my brain.
"Then, as I loped up to the top of a dune—there he stood, on another dune, perhaps two hundred yards away. His golden hide reflected the red glow like polished metal, his mane flamed in the wind. You cannot possibly imagine the effect of it, in that unreal light, in that setting of desolation, with the crimson mountains behind him. He stood alone on the hill, with his head high, motionless as a statue. For as long as half a minute he let me look at him. Then he turned, and was gone like a flash of fire. I had just one more glimpse of him, flying over the dunes, and followed by a score or more of wild horses of all colors except his color, and none worth looking at. With him the red went out of the landscape, the peaks turned white, and I sat alone in the gray, raw twilight. But right there I made up my mind about one thing: I must have that horse. You know the rest."
"But what do you mean to do with him?" asked Marion, vaguely troubled.
"Don't!" she gasped.
"Why not?" he demanded.
"He'll kill you!"
"Oh, I think not!"
"But what is the use?"
"What's the use of anything?"
"Mere folly, you think?"
"Now you don't mean that at all, Miss Gaylord. You know perfectly well that if I were doing it to please you—to win your admiration—you wouldn't call it folly."
"You will please me—and win my admiration—if you don't do it. Please!"
"But I don't want—You'll pardon me?—I don't want to win your admiration."
What could she say to that? There was a moment of silence.
"When?" she asked quietly.
"I'm waiting for Farrish, my foreman. He's the only man I can absolutely depend upon. He's in Omaha. He'll be back next week."
"And you won't begin without him?"
She had no choice but to be satisfied with a few days of grace. Moreover, something might happen before the return of Farrish; the outlaw might escape, or she might find another opportunity to plead with Haig, or—What was she thinking of? Something was going to happen that very evening; and she had almost forgotten it, in her absorption!
She had meant to do, long before now, what he had prevented her doing at the stable,—to confess her deception, to plead for mercy, to beg him to go back. Failing in that, there was Tuesday trotting behind the trap; she could leap out, prove to Haig that her foot was uninjured, and insist upon riding home alone. But now the confession seemed ten times more difficult than it had seemed in the first flush of her resolution. They were far up the Brightwater by this time; a few minutes more would bring them to the branch road that led to Huntington's. Yet how could she tell him?
"My foot doesn't hurt any more," she began, compromising with her resolution.
"That's because you've been sitting still," he replied.
"But it doesn't hurt when I move it. See!"
She lifted the foot, and rested it on the dashboard, bending and twisting it.
"By which you mean to tell me that I am to go back," he said.
"No!" he answered curtly.
"It wasn't badly sprained at all," she persisted. "I was only—" She caught herself, with a shock. "I was only frightened, I think."
"I don't believe you."
"But it's the truth."
"Then it was not the truth in the first place."
There it was now, her best occasion to come out with it. But no; she could not.
"It's not so bad as I feared," she stammered.
"I trust not. A sprain is a bad business."
"But you'll go back now!" she pleaded.
"Oh, why won't you?"
"That's not the reason!" she cried desperately.
"True, there's another reason. That makes two."
"What other reason?"
"I want to ask Huntington about his health."
The deviltry had come back into his voice; and just ahead of them she saw the fork of the road.
"There's a third reason too, I'm afraid," she answered bitterly.
"What's that, do you think?"
"You want to punish me!"
"Do you think that's—"
"Noble? Manly? Kind? Generous?" he broke in.
"Do you really think it's worth your while to punish me?" she asked with passionate irony.
"Because I hope to be let alone hereafter."
At that her anger rose.
"Do you think that is the way a man should speak to a woman?"
"It seems to be the only way to make a woman understand. And even then—"
She felt that he shrugged his shoulders in the darkness.
"Then I'm sorry for the women you have known!" she retorted.
"That should make it all the easier for you to avoid any more accidents in my part of the Park," he answered unperturbed. "It's your own fault if I'm rude. I haven't forced my attentions upon you. If you feel that you've been mistreated, there's another reason—that makes four, doesn't it?—for my going to Huntington's. We'll be there in five minutes. You can tell him."
She could find no answer to all this. Brutal as it was, she knew that she had deserved it. Her anger fell away, for she had found already that she could not be angry with him long; and now, even in her torment, she began to be sorry for him, wondering what he had passed through that had so hardened and embittered him.
But the team had turned into the branch road; and she must act at once. There remained but one thing for her to do: to leap out of the trap, and refuse to go farther with him. On the thought, she measured the distance to the ground, the speed of the trotting sorrels. Perhaps she moved a little. Or had he actually read her thoughts? For suddenly, but very quietly, he laid a hand on her shoulder.
"No!" he said. "You might really hurt yourself this time."
She sank back in dismay, but with a thrill of admiration. What was this man, who knew her thoughts before she herself knew them, who mastered her—and despised her? She trembled, and was glad of the night that concealed her flushed face from him. As for her purpose, she was at the end of her resources. No confession, no plea would avail to shake his determination. She could do no more; and judgment was upon her—soon.
"Hold the reins, please!" commanded Haig.
He leaped out of the trap, opened the gate, and closed it when he had led the sorrels through. Then he climbed into the trap, and drove on. There was no moon. The ranch buildings lay huddled and indistinct in the dim starlight.
At the sound of the hoofs and wheels a man emerged from the stable, bearing a lantern. He hurried up to them, stumbling sleepily, and peering at the figures vaguely seen in the gloom.
"Here, Williams!" Haig said shortly. "Hold my team, will you! I'll be only a few minutes."
The lantern fell from the man's hand, struck the ground with a clatter, and lay on its side, flaming and smoking.
"Pick it up!" ordered Haig.
The man obeyed, with the suddenness of a jack-in-the-box, and stood as if petrified.
"Quick! The horses! They're no damned broncos!"
Williams jumped to the bridles; and a gleam from the lantern showed Marion his face. His mouth was open, his eyes staring with incredulity and alarm. She was seized with a preposterous desire to laugh at that comical visage, made grotesque by the wavering light of the lantern that danced in the fellow's hand. She was on the verge of hysteria.
Haig leaped out, and held up his arms for her, snapping his fingers impatiently. In almost complete inertia, yet with every nerve quivering, she let him help her to the ground, where he placed her arm in his, and started toward the ranch house.
"Limp! Limp!" he whispered in her ear.
She obeyed him mechanically. Everything seemed to have become very still and cold; feeling had frozen in her limbs; terror clutched at her icily out of the gloom. There were two lighted windows in front of her, two baleful yellow gleams, like the eyes of a monster of the night. At any instant the door would open, gulping her in.
She choked down a cry. Her feet were like lead now, and she stumbled on the first of the half-dozen steps that led to the veranda. Haig pulled her up quickly, flung his right arm around her waist, and fairly carried her up the steps. At that moment, just as they stood on the level floor, the door was opened, and Huntington's huge body appeared in silhouette against the lamplight.
"That you, Marion?" he called out, peering into the darkness. Then, almost instantly: "Somebody with you, Marion?"
Haig answered for her.
"Good evening, Cousin Seth!" he called out cheerily. "I just dropped in to ask about your health."
For perhaps as long as it took him to catch his arrested breath, Huntington stood motionless. Then, with an oath, he bounded back into the room, and disappeared, as Marion dully realized, in the direction of his room, where his revolver hung on a rack. She felt the form beside her straighten out like a loosed spring; and the next instant she was borne swiftly forward into the light, into the house, into the scene she had pictured, the scene she herself had prepared. The arm that supported her was quickly withdrawn, and she was left standing at one side of the door, while Haig leaped away from her, and stood waiting at the other.
Even as this was done, Huntington reappeared at the door of his bedroom. The revolver in his right hand moved slowly upward. In the kitchen doorway was Claire—a stricken thing in blue and gold—clinging to the doorpost, her lips parted, her eyes wide with terror. But Haig! Could anything have been more horrible than that smile? It was fearless, mocking, insolent. And his whole attitude matched it perfectly. He stood carelessly erect, with arms folded, disdaining Huntington's weapon. But not the slightest motion of his enemy—perhaps not even the thought before it—could have escaped him. Marion knew him; and she felt as certain as if it had already happened that if Seth lifted his revolver by so much as another inch he would be stretched out on the floor there as he had been on the ground at Paradise.
All this she saw in an interval as brief as that between two clicks of the shutter of her kodak. Then the clock on the mantel began to strike. It was a friendly clock, with a musical, soft note. But now its stroke crashed upon the silence like a tolling bell. It seemed to have its part in that halted scene, as if all waited on its last solemn count. If she could only move, think, speak, before it finished!
The next thing she knew she was in the middle of the room, directly between the two men, and speaking.
"Wait, Seth!" she heard herself saying. "I did it. I brought him here to—to make peace with you."
She ended on the clock's last note; and silence fell again. Huntington's jaw dropped; amazement was printed on his face, and incredulity. Marion walked quietly up to him, took the revolver from his hand, and left him standing in the doorway, his arms hanging loose at his side. She crossed the room to Haig, slowly, somewhat gropingly like a somnambulist, with a half-smiling, strange expression fixed on her chalk-white face. She stretched out her left hand to him, her right still clasping Seth's six-shooter. There was something magnetic, curiously compelling in her manner; for she said nothing, made no sound. Haig stared at her, the odious smile fading from his lips; his arms slowly fell apart, one hand in the direction of the revolver at his hip; and for a moment it seemed that he too would yield to her. But suddenly he threw back his head, and laughed.
"By Jupiter!" he cried. "I didn't think it was in you. You almost got me too. Good night—all!"
On that he turned on his heel, and vanished into the night. Marion heard him laughing still as his boots crunched on the gravel; heard his voice in brief and sharp command at the stable; heard the beat of the sorrels' hoofs on the road, and the fragment of a song wafted back to her,—something rollicking and insolent, in a foreign tongue. She stood listening until the sounds had died away in the night, and silence enveloped her. Then, just as Huntington leaped forward with a bellow of rage,—too late, as ever,—and Claire, with a shriek, rushed to throw herself between him and the door, Marion's head drooped forward, her knees gave way, and she fell senseless on the floor.
Huntington's big revolver, slipping from her nerveless fingers as she fell, struck the Navajo rug with a muffled thump, bounced and rolled over, and settled down harmlessly on a patch of barbaric red.
Seth recovered his revolver, and lunged toward the door. But Claire was before him. She flung herself upon him, clutching the lapels of his coat.
"Seth! Seth!" she shrieked. "What are you doing?"
"I'll follow him!" he roared. "I'll follow him! I'll end the whole thing! I'll finish it, I tell you!"
"No! No!" she wailed; and clung to him frantically.
He was beside himself, almost incoherent, for the moment quite irresponsible. It is very likely that, but for Claire, he would have mounted a horse and pursued Haig to his ranch, with such consequences as anybody except himself could easily have foreseen. But he was not so far gone in frenzy as to hurt Claire, as he must have done in tearing himself loose from her. He stood a moment in tragic helplessness, grinding his teeth, and hurling muttered imprecations out into the night that covered Philip Haig. Then he looked down at the golden head pressed against his breast, and felt the frail body quivering; and some sense of what he was doing, or was about to do, reached his brain through the fumes of rage. There was yet a long struggle; for he was too ponderous for quick decisions, and at the same time too outright for successful equivocation. Defeat was always a staggering blow to him, since he had no art to mask it. And now, lacking the sagacity to swallow his mortification and to bide his time, he could only suffer, rending himself in lieu of another on whom to pour his fury.
In the midst of this futile passion his roving eyes fell on Marion. She lay where she had fallen, in a dead faint, limp on the red-and-yellow rug. Seth stared at her a full minute, while an indefinable suspicion grew in the back of his brain. She had said, "I've brought him here to make peace with you." And Haig himself had given the lie to that speech! What did it all mean? By God, he would find out!
"Come, Claire!" he said. "Attend to Marion!" And he began to loosen her fingers from his coat.
But she only clutched it the tighter.
"You'll go!" she cried.
"No! Not to-night!"
"Yes! Yes!" he growled.
She looked steadily up at him, questioning, fearful, until he bent down and kissed her.
"There!" he said, roughly and yet not ungently. "Now go to Marion!"
They picked her up, and laid her on the couch at one side of the big room; and Claire unbuttoned her dress at the throat, and bathed her face and neck with cold water, while Seth rubbed and slapped her hands.
Her first impulse, on opening her eyes and seeing Claire and Seth leaning over her, was to raise her head, and look toward the door. She saw only a patch of darkness, empty and still. Then she remembered how she had heard his mocking voice fade away in the night; and her eyes returned to Seth and Claire. Their faces told her what to expect: and she knew that they were right in demanding, as they would demand, the fullest explanation.
"Water, please!" she murmured, moistening her dry lips with her tongue.
She sat up, slowly emptied the glass that Claire placed in her trembling hand, then buttoned her collar over her bare throat, and began to pin up the locks of hair that had fallen about her face and neck. Her hands, she thought, were very thin and white. She had never fainted before, and was still a little frightened and surprised.
"What does it all mean, Marion?" demanded Huntington.
"Wait, Seth, can't you?" warned Claire. Then to Marion: "There's no hurry, dear. When you feel better."
But her eyes denied her words. There was indeed no way out of it. Marion must speak, and without delay.
"I'm cold," she said, shivering.
"Of course!" cried Claire. "Come to the fire. And Seth! Close the door, please!"
Huntington strode to the door, and slammed it shut. Then he returned to the chimney piece, and watched Marion as she leaned toward the blaze. He could barely restrain himself, waiting for her to begin.
"I've been a silly fool, I suppose," she said presently, sitting erect again, and facing her cousins courageously. "It was all my fault. You mustn't blame him."
An impatient exclamation by Huntington drew a warning glance from Claire.
"Tell us just what happened, dear!" she urged gently.
"I don't exactly know—I can't just understand how it happened," Marion began. "I had an accident—in the road. My foot was hurt—my ankle was twisted—or I thought it was—and I was frightened."
"An accident?" said Claire.
"I was off my pony—the cinches were loose—and—when I tried to mount again—I slipped—somehow—and fell. He was just in time to help me, and—"
"Where was that?" asked Huntington.
"Just below his place. He was coming back—"
"But what were you doing over there?" demanded Huntington.
"Riding," she said calmly, perhaps a little defiantly.
"Yes, I know that. But on his land?"
"Did you ever tell me anything about that?" she retorted.
"Then how was I to know?"
"But you've heard—"
"Yes, I heard some things at the post-office. You've told me nothing."
Huntington's face reddened angrily.
"Never mind that now!" cried Claire sharply, sending another warning look at Seth. "Go on, dear!"
Marion went on, very carefully. With Claire alone she might have been more frank and confiding, but Seth's belligerent attitude had begun to stir resentment in her.
"He thought I had a bad sprain. He was annoyed; he didn't take any pains to conceal that from me. But he lifted me into the saddle, and rode with me to his stable, and told one of his men to hitch up a team, and drive me home. That would have been—all right, and he had no intention—until—something I said—I must have been hysterical—something made him angry, and he—said he would drive me home himself."
"And you let him!" cried Claire reproachfully.
"No, I didn't let him. He did it in spite of all I could do. I pleaded with him, I tried every way to stop him. Once I started to leap out of the trap. But he caught me. He laughed at me But he was very angry too; he scolded me dreadfully. Said I needed to be punished for—I don't know what. He hates women, and says we're always meddling in men's affairs. It served me right, of course. And please remember it was all my fault—truly!"
"Did he say anything about making peace?" asked Claire.
"No. That was all mine. I had to do something quickly. You know that."
"But what did he say about me?" growled Huntington, who was far from satisfied, and still suspicious.
"Not much. Oh, yes!" she added impulsively. "He said you and he could probably come to an understanding quickly enough if—"
She paused, embarrassed.
"If what?" demanded Huntington.
"That was only because he dislikes women, I think. He said—if Claire—Mrs. Huntington, he said,—would let you alone."
"I?" cried Claire. It was almost a scream of astonishment and indignation.
"I'll show him!" shouted Huntington. "He'd better keep her name out of it, or I'll—"
"I haven't done anything!" wailed Claire.
"I'll make him pay for that!" bellowed Huntington, bringing his fist down on the mantel.
"You mustn't blame him!" protested Marion hastily. "He was angry at me, and I don't think he's as bad as you think he is."
"Marion!" cried Claire, her eyes widening with wonder.
Then Marion had the misfortune to blush under Claire's curious gaze. She blushed, at first, merely because she had gone too far in her effort to clear Haig of responsibility for what had occurred that evening; and then the blood stormed into her cheeks as she encountered Claire's look, and attached a deeper meaning to it than it actually conveyed.
Huntington leaned forward, and gazed suspiciously into Marion's crimsoned face.
"Well, I'll be damned!" he broke out. "You'd think the girl was in love with this ruffian!"
For an instant there was a silence much like the silence that follows a clap of thunder. Then Marion rose slowly to her feet, quivering, her eyes ablaze.
"Ruffian?" she cried. "If there's any ruffian it's—"
She caught herself. She was innately gentle and fastidious, and she could not, without shame, have forced her lips to say the things that she felt in her outraged heart. But she looked at him; and under that look Seth quailed and shrank. What had he said to evoke this luminous hatred? He had not meant—
"And I think she's right, Seth Huntington!" exclaimed Claire, coming to Marion, and putting an arm, around her. "If there's any ruffian it's you, and I'm ashamed of you!"
Huntington's jaw dropped, and he stared at them, his eyes bulging with astonishment. Then suddenly he turned, and bolted from the room. The door leading to the kitchen was flung shut behind him; then the outer door banged; and in a moment his heavy footsteps were heard on the veranda, where he strode to and fro in helpless rage and shame and wonder. He had a feeling of soreness over all his body, as if some one had roundly pummelled him; his face itched beneath his beard; he could not find a comfortable place for his hands. Well, he agreed with Haig about one thing: women were hell! And here was Claire siding with Marion against him; and calling him a ruffian! Was he a ruffian? What had he said to merit that? Couldn't they take a joke? But this casuistry did not go down, though he tried to hammer it down with many violent gestures. He began to have certain qualms that he recognized as premonitory signs of weakening; and he struggled to bolster up his anger. Damn Haig! If he had only finished him that day in the timber, when the others had wanted to! But this was a vain regret. There remained the present situation. Gradually his steps faltered. He stopped often to look vacantly at the stars. They had nothing to say to him. He felt very solitary, alone in the world.
After a time the kitchen door was opened softly.
"Seth!" came a whisper from that direction.
"Well?" he answered uncertainly.
"Aren't you cold?"
"Well, we are. The fire's going out."
"Won't you please fetch some wood?"
No reply. Claire slipped out, and crept up to him.
"Come!" she commanded softly. "Do you want us to freeze?"
Still no reply.
"Oh, you do, do you?"
"It's time you went to bed."
"No, it isn't. We're not going to bed until you come in and beg Marion's pardon."
"No, I'll be—"
She tried to clap her hand over his mouth, but succeeded only in hitting his nose a smart tap, which was just as effective, since it checked him.
"No swearing, either!" she went on. "You've been rude enough for one night, don't you think? I'll tell you my opinion of it later. She's going to be easy with you because she's sorry about it all. Come!"
Huntington did not move, or answer her.
"Do you want her to leave by the next stage—and have this all over the Park too—like Haig's visit? Come!"
He groaned, but followed her. At the door of the living room he caught sight of Marion seated before the fireplace, where only embers glowed dull red.
"I'll get some wood," he said quickly, glad of even a few minutes' grace.
Fortune tossed him a small favor: the wood bin near the kitchen door was empty—almost. Another time that would have brought a storm down on the head of the unlucky stable hand whose duty it was to keep the bin filled. But now Seth rejoiced at having to go to the wood yard, and found it much too near.
He re-entered the house with an armload of sticks, and placed them carefully on the embers; stirred up the glowing mass with a poker; readjusted the fresh wood; provoked the red coals once more; and at last, having exhausted the dilatory possibilities of the fire, stood up clumsily to face the ordeal.
"Well, Marion," he began awkwardly, "I'm in for it, I reckon."
She did not reply; she only looked at him. There were dark shadows around her eyes that heightened the pallor of her cheeks; but the eyes themselves were clear and piercing, and as cold now as they had been fiery before. For once in his life Huntington was conscious of his bulk; he felt conspicuous; and the wound in his shoulder, almost healed, began to itch and ache.—There were worse things than being shot.—If she would only turn those eyes away from him! And then it dawned upon him that she was waiting.
"I beg your pardon, Marion!" he stammered. "I was ugly. I didn't really mean—I hope you'll forgive me."
For a minute longer she let him stew in his kettle, then lifted him out scrupulously, at the end of a very long fork, and dropped him steaming, as if he had been a lump of unsavory fat.
"Yes, I forgive you," she said, very, very distantly. "You probably weren't thinking."
If that was forgiveness! But he did not know—even Claire did not know then—how deeply he had wounded Marion with his rude and accusing speech,—as if he had called a jeering crowd to look at the little flower that blooms but once, and very secretly, in a woman's heart. Forgive him? She never would forgive him for that blundering outburst, which was indeed the more unforgivable because he did not seriously mean, and certainly did not believe, the thing he said.
"Thank you, Marion dear!" said Claire softly.
At that Marion suddenly rushed to Claire, and knelt by her chair. She had her own faults to be forgiven.
"I've been very foolish!" she cried. "I've caused you pain and humiliation. I'm sorry. Please forgive me!"
So they cried it out in each other's arms, while Huntington rolled a cigarette, took one whiff of it, and tossed it into the fire. It required a stronger narcotic than tobacco to soothe his fevered spirits. After a while he whirled around and faced the two women.
"See here, Marion!" he said. "It's all our fault for not telling you about Haig. But we didn't want to annoy you with our troubles, and we never imagined you'd stumble on to him. Do you know now what this is all about?"
She spared him the answer that she had heard something on that point the day of the shooting.
"No; that is, very little."
"Well, it's just this: Before he came here we were all playing the game peacefully together. Each of us had just about enough land, with the cut hay and the winter pastures, to pull through the winter, and there was just enough free grazing up in the edges of the timber to keep the cattle going through the summer and early fall."
"That was government land," explained Claire.
"And open to all of us," added Seth. "We never had any dispute with the Englishman who owned Haig's ranch before him, and he got fair treatment, though he wasn't here much of the time to look after it. We heard he had some family trouble, and one day when he'd been gone a long time—"
"That's four years now," interrupted Claire.
"Yes. Haig showed up, and said the ranch was his. He started in straight off to hog the whole thing. Bought a thousand head of cattle—that made thirteen hundred head—almost as many as all the rest of us had put together. He turned the thirteen hundred into the open range, and hired men to keep them moving the right way for the good feed, and—"
"He had a perfect right to do that, you see," Claire put in hastily.
"Legal right, maybe," Huntington went on. "But he didn't have any real right to more than his share. We organized, bunched our cattle, and stayed with 'em. That way we were stronger than he, and soon had his cattle starving. Then he disappeared, and we didn't see anything of him for three weeks. And what do you suppose the damned skunk—"
"Seth!" cried Claire warningly, with an anxious look at Marion.
Marion merely shook her head.
"Well, he fooled us. He went to Denver, got a lawyer on the job, looked up the records, found there'd been a mistake in the surveys, and came back to us with a government deed to almost half the forest reserve that we'd been using as free pasture. Then he ordered us off, and we went, with six Winchesters pointed at our fool backs. What do you think of that, Marion?"
"But why?" asked Marion. "I mean what was his motive in all that? He isn't a cattleman. I mean—I don't think he cares enough—"
She stopped, finding herself in dangerous waters.
"Why? Because he's a—" Huntington checked himself. "Anyhow, he barely escaped a lynching that night. And if he only knew it, I'm the one that stopped it. I said we'd find some other way. But we haven't found it. We had to bring most of our stock down to the pastures we needed for winter, and in winter we had to buy hay at eighteen dollars a ton. And Haig had hay to sell. Three of our men were driven out of business. Tom Jenkins, being dead broke and discouraged, with a family, killed himself. I had to sell off a third of my cattle, and twenty head disappeared, and I never saw them again. And maybe you can understand now how I felt when I saw him this evening, standing there in my own house, grinning at me. God!"
He turned, grabbed up the poker, and began jabbing viciously at the fire.
Yes, Marion could understand that, but—She was not satisfied. There was something missing from Seth's narrative. Haig's accusations that day at the post-office—his missing cattle, and the cut wires at the Forbidden Pasture—And if all that Seth had said was true, which she doubted, the mystery was only deepened. She was sure that Haig was only playing a part, that he was not a cattleman by choice, and that his heart was not in the game, whatever it was. She wanted to ask questions, but refrained, lest she should again arouse Seth's suspicions. She would see Smythe.
The next afternoon Huntington, with painful diffidence, yet anxious to come to some sort of terms with Marion, proposed that she should begin her shooting lessons. She acquiesced in a manner that relieved him immensely, for she, on her side, was sorely in need of distraction. So they were presently on the hillside behind the ranch house with the rifles,—Seth's Winchester and the little Savage he had bought for Claire, who, to his great disappointment, did not like guns, and never could be taught to see the sights with one eye closed. His delight, therefore, was unbounded when Marion took to the Savage with almost the quick adaptability of a man. True, her first shots went high and wild among the foliage, but she was fast getting the grip of the gun, and had actually once scraped the bark of the tree on which the target of white paper was tacked, when they were hailed by a cheerful voice demanding permission for an unarmed and perfectly harmless man to approach.
"Smythe!" growled Huntington, resenting the interruption. Then aloud, as heartily as he could: "Hello, Smythe! You're quite safe."
"What's going on here, anyhow?" asked Smythe.
"Where are your boasted powers of observation?" retorted Marion.
"It's more polite to ask."
"In Paradise Park?" she queried, in a tone of mild surprise.
Seth's face reddened as he stooped over a half-empty cartridge-box. He had congratulated himself too soon. But while Smythe and Marion exchanged more badinage he refilled the magazine of the Savage, and held it ready.
"Will you have another try?" he asked.
"Yes, please, if Mr. Smythe will only keep still. I know I can never hit anything if he talks."
"I'm mum!" he answered.
The first shot went wild. So, indeed, the second and third.
"There! What did I tell you?" cried Marion petulantly.
"But I didn't say a word!" protested Smythe.
"What were you thinking, then?"
"What a charming Diana—"
"Don't think any more, please!"
"But I can't stop thinking!"
"In that case you'd better talk. You certainly talk enough without thinking."
"Bull's-eye!" he cried joyously. "Now try again!"
"I suppose I must learn not to be bothered."
She pressed her lips together, and steadied herself resolutely. She would show him! The next shot cut a furrow in the bark of the pine; the second struck within two inches of the target; and the third pinked the edge of the paper itself.
"That will do for this time," she said, in some elation, as she handed the gun to Huntington.
"To-morrow you'll do better," he assured her. "And then we'll try it at longer range."
He began to pick up the cartridge boxes and his own rifle.
"You're not riding to-day?" said Smythe.
"How did you guess it?" she demanded, laughing.
"Oh, a truce! A truce!" he pleaded. "I mean, if you are not going for a ride, will you walk up the hill there?"
He pointed toward the pines.
"To please me," he answered.
But she caught a look in his eyes that decided her.
"Certainly, if you are so easily pleased."
"Oh, I'm a very Lazarus at the table of life!" he retorted gaily. "Every crumb comforts me."
She laughed, and stepped away with him among the rocks, while Huntington, still swearing at Smythe for a meddling fool, strode down the hill.
Marion surmised that Smythe had something to say to her. Had he heard already? Had the news of yesterday's comedy, that was so near a tragedy, already spread far and wide over the Park? But that was scarcely possible, since Haig's men would be silent, and Seth had kept Williams too busy all day for gossip.
They climbed the rocky slope without more words, clambering over bowlders and fallen tree trunks, until they reached the summit of the hill, and flung themselves down, hot and panting, on a great flat rock that commanded a sweeping view of the Park. At one side more hills rose, small mountains in themselves, thickly wooded, with white peaks towering behind. On the other, the valley of the Brightwater lay green and bronze in the sun, with the white stream curling and curving among the meadows. Far across the valley, beyond the ridge that divided the Park in unequal halves—that fateful ridge!—the western range of mountains glittered, dazzling white.
Marion's eyes at once sought out Thunder Mountain. What would it say to her to-day? Storm! Its top was half-hidden in a gray-black swirl of clouds, though the sun was bright on the snow-clad peaks around it.
"What do you see?" asked Smythe, as soon as his lungs would consent to speech.
"My mountain," she answered, without turning her head.
"Which is that?"
"Umph! You're welcome to it!"
She was silent.
"Why your mountain?" he asked presently.
"I don't know."
"But there must be a reason—or something."
"That's just it—something. It's hideous, but it fascinates me. I can't help thinking that—"
"I don't know."
They laughed together.
"It's got a bad reputation," said Smythe.
"Perhaps that's the reason."
Then she was embarrassed, thinking unexpectedly of another bad reputation in the Park.
"Perhaps," he answered, smiling at the back of her head, where the tawny hair curved up adorably from the soft, white neck.
"Tell me about it!" she said at length.
"It's a death trap."
"You mean—men have gone up there?"
"There's a trail, what's left of it. The Warpath, they call it."
"Yes. It was first a war trail, when fighting tribes lived in these mountains. But even the Indians didn't use it often—only in midsummer. It's a trail over bare rocks, marked by stones set up at long intervals. The Indians didn't mark it. They had their own ways of knowing it. But after the Indians came trappers, hunters, prospectors, and some of them set up the stones. It would be a valuable short cut between the Park and the San Luis country, if it were safe. But it's not. I'm told that many lives have been lost on it. I can't find details except of one tragedy. Some ten years ago a party of English people, guests at the ranch that Haig now owns, went on a pleasure trip to Thunder Mountain. They meant to go only as far as timber line. It's not difficult as far as the foot of the scarp that lifts to the flat top you see yonder. It's done on horseback to that point—and across too, if you care to try it. But on top—that's another matter. It isn't the mountain itself that gets you. It's the storms. The English party ventured on top, and three of them never came back. The wind hurled them into a chasm, and their bodies were never recovered. That's enough for me, thank you!"
"Has nobody in the Park ever been across?" Marion persisted.
"Old Parker—Jim Parker's father—crossed it once, many years ago. But he came back another way, around by Tellurium. Young Parker has been as far as the Devil's Chair. That's the top of the notch where the wind sucks you into it—unless, by good chance, it blows you away from it."
"And no one else?" Marion insisted, breathless.
"One other man has gone to the Twin Sisters. That's halfway over."
"Who was that?" she asked; as if she did not know.
"He balked at the women, you see."
"The Twin Sisters," Smythe went on, "are two huge gray rocks, I'm told, vaguely resembling carved figures. The trail passes between them. There's no other possible way, and when the wind is blowing it shoots out between them like water from a fire-hose. Haig was caught just there by a storm. He came back fighting mad, and swore he'd cross Thunder Mountain yet, or die there. But that reminds me. I've got news for you."
"News?" asked Marion, with a start.
Her first thought was of Sunnysides. Had Haig decided not to wait for Farrish? But no! It would be something about yesterday's sensation.
"It keeps well, I see," she said lightly.
"I didn't want to excite you so soon after that long climb."
"Thank you! If you think I can't stand it you just keep it to yourself—if you can!"
"But I came expressly to tell you."
"Then why don't you expressly tell me? Don't be exasperating, Mr. Smythe!"
He grinned exultantly.
"Well," he said, "I've been eavesdropping."
"Not intentionally. Pure accident. But I didn't stick my fingers in my ears."
"No, I can understand that."
"Thanks. It was this way: I was fishing—for fish, really. Under a clump of willows, just where the road from Haig's joins the main valley road. You know?"
"Haig and another man, Higgins, it turned out to be—he's a Denver lawyer—with his family for an outing down at Cobalt Lake. It appeared he'd been up to see Haig partly on business and partly just for a friendly visit. They separated there, after a little conversation.
"'It's strange you've never heard a word from him,' said Higgins.
"'Four years,' answered Haig.
"'He's probably off in South Africa somewhere.'
"'Or India. It's a long trail be followed, no doubt.'