Back in that strange canyon, which Venters had found indeed a valley of surprises, the wounded girl's whispered appeal, almost a prayer, not to take her back to the rustlers crowned the events of the last few days with a confounding climax. That she should not want to return to them staggered Venters. Presently, as logical thought returned, her appeal confirmed his first impression--that she was more unfortunate than bad-- and he experienced a sensation of gladness. If he had known before that Oldring's Masked Rider was a woman his opinion would have been formed and he would have considered her abandoned. But his first knowledge had come when he lifted a white face quivering in a convulsion of agony; he had heard God's name whispered by blood-stained lips; through her solemn and awful eyes he had caught a glimpse of her soul. And just now had come the entreaty to him, "Don't--take--me--back--there!"
Once for all Venters's quick mind formed a permanent conception of this poor girl. He based it, not upon what the chances of life had made her, but upon the revelation of dark eyes that pierced the infinite, upon a few pitiful, halting words that betrayed failure and wrong and misery, yet breathed the truth of a tragic fate rather than a natural leaning to evil.
"What's your name?" he inquired.
"Bess," she answered.
"That's enough--just Bess."
The red that deepened in her cheeks was not all the flush of fever. Venters marveled anew, and this time at the tint of shame in her face, at the momentary drooping of long lashes. She might be a rustler's girl, but she was still capable of shame, she might be dying, but she still clung to some little remnant of honor.
"Very well, Bess. It doesn't matter," he said. "But this matters--what shall I do with you?"
"Are--you--a rider?" she whispered.
"Not now. I was once. I drove the Withersteen herds. But I lost my place--lost all I owned--and now I'm--I'm a sort of outcast.
My name's Bern Venters."
"You won't--take me--to Cottonwoods--or Glaze? I'd be--hanged."
"No, indeed. But I must do something with you. For it's not safe for me here. I shot that rustler who was with you. Sooner or later he'll be found, and then my tracks. I must find a safer hiding-place where I can't be trailed."
"I will not." Venters spoke shortly with a kind of ring in his voice.
"What--do you want--to do--with me?" Her whispering grew difficult, so low and faint that Venters had to stoop to hear her.
"Why, let's see," he replied, slowly. "I'd like to take you some place where I could watch by you, nurse you, till you're all right."