The rider's sunburnt face turned white. A few times Jane had seen Lassiter's cool calm broken--when he had met little Fay, when he had learned how and why he had come to love both child and mistress, when he had stood beside Milly Erne's grave. But one and all they could not be considered in the light of his present agitation. Not only did Lassiter turn white--not only did he grow tense, not only did he lose his coolness, but also he suddenly, violently, hungrily took her into his arms and crushed her to his breast.
"Lassiter!" cried Jane, trembling. It was an action for which she took sole blame. Instantly, as if dazed, weakened, he released her. "Forgive me!" went on Jane. "I'm always forgetting your--your feelings. I thought of you as my faithful friend. I'm always making you out more than human...only, let me say--I meant that--about riding away. I'm wretched, sick of this--this--Oh, something bitter and black grows on my heart!"
"Jane, the hell--of it," he replied, with deep intake of breath, "is you can't ride away. Mebbe realizin' it accounts for my grabbin' you--that way, as much as the crazy boy's rapture your words gave me. I don't understand myself....But the hell of this game is--you can't ride away."
"Lassiter!...What on earth do you mean? I'm an absolutely free woman."
"You ain't absolutely anythin' of the kind....I reckon I've got to tell you!"
"Tell me all. It's uncertainty that makes me a coward. It's faith and hope--blind love, if you will, that makes me miserable. Every day I awake believing--still believing. The day grows, and with it doubts, fears, and that black bat hate that bites hotter and hotter into my heart. Then comes night--I pray--I pray for all, and for myself--I sleep--and I awake free once more, trustful, faithful, to believe--to hope! Then, O my God! I grow and live a thousand years till night again!...But if you want to see me a woman, tell me why I can't ride away--tell me what more I'm to lose--tell me the worst."
"Jane, you're watched. There's no single move of yours, except when you're hid in your house, that ain't seen by sharp eyes. The cottonwood grove's full of creepin', crawlin' men. Like Indians in the grass. When you rode, which wasn't often lately, the sage was full of sneakin' men. At night they crawl under your windows into the court, an' I reckon into the house. Jane Withersteen, you know, never locked a door! This here grove's a hummin' bee-hive of mysterious happenin's. Jane, it ain't so much that these soles keep out of my way as me keepin' out of theirs.