Venters dreaded the night's vigil. At night his mind was active, and this time he had to watch and think and feel beside a dying girl whom he had all but murdered. A thousand excuses he invented for himself, yet not one made any difference in his act or his self-reproach.
It seemed to him that when night fell black he could see her white face so much more plainly.
"She'll go, presently," he said, "and be out of agony--thank God!"
Every little while certainty of her death came to him with a shock; and then he would bend over and lay his ear on her breast.
Her heart still beat.
The early night blackness cleared to the cold starlight. The horses were not moving, and no sound disturbed the deathly silence of the canyon.
"I'll bury her here," thought Venters, "and let her grave be as much a mystery as her life was."
For the girl's few words, the look of her eyes, the prayer, had strangely touched Venters.
"She was only a girl," he soliloquized. "What was she to Oldring?
Rustlers don't have wives nor sisters nor daughters. She was bad--that's all. But somehow...well, she may not have willingly become the companion of rustlers. That prayer of hers to God for mercy!...Life is strange and cruel. I wonder if other members of Oldring's gang are women? Likely enough. But what was his game?
Oldring's Mask Rider! A name to make villagers hide and lock their doors. A name credited with a dozen murders, a hundred forays, and a thousand stealings of cattle. What part did the girl have in this? It may have served Oldring to create mystery."
Hours passed. The white stars moved across the narrow strip of dark-blue sky above. The silence awoke to the low hum of insects.
Venters watched the immovable white face, and as he watched, hour by hour waiting for death, the infamy of her passed from his mind. He thought only of the sadness, the truth of the moment.
Whoever she was--whatever she had done--she was young and she was dying.
The after-part of the night wore on interminably. The starlight failed and the gloom blackened to the darkest hour. "She'll die at the gray of dawn," muttered Venters, remembering some old woman's fancy. The blackness paled to gray, and the gray lightened and day peeped over the eastern rim. Venters listened at the breast of the girl. She still lived. Did he only imagine that her heart beat stronger, ever so slightly, but stronger? He pressed his ear closer to her breast. And he rose with his own pulse quickening.