"Bess, didn't you say you were tired of rabbit?" inquired Venters. "And quail and beaver?"
"Indeed I did."
"What would you like?"
"I'm tired of meat, but if we have to live on it I'd like some beef."
"Well, how does that strike you?" Venters pointed to the quarter hanging from the spruce-tree. "We'll have fresh beef for a few days, then we'll cut the rest into strips and dry it."
"Where did you get that?" asked Bess, slowly.
"I stole that from Oldring."
"You went back to the canyon--you risked--" While she hesitated the tinge of bloom faded out of her cheeks.
"It wasn't any risk, but it was hard work."
"I'm sorry I said I was tired of rabbit. Why! How--When did you get that beef?"
"While I was asleep?"
"I woke last night sometime--but I didn't know."
Her eyes were widening, darkening with thought, and whenever they did so the steady, watchful, seeing gaze gave place to the wistful light. In the former she saw as the primitive woman without thought; in the latter she looked inward, and her gaze was the reflection of a troubled mind. For long Venters had not seen that dark change, that deepening of blue, which he thought was beautiful and sad. But now he wanted to make her think.
"I've done more than pack in that beef," he said. "For five nights I've been working while you slept. I've got eight calves corralled near a ravine. Eight calves, all alive and doing fine!"
"You went five nights!"
All that Venters could make of the dilation of her eyes, her slow pallor, and her exclamation, was fear--fear for herself or for him.
"Yes. I didn't tell you, because I knew you were afraid to be left alone."
"Alone?" She echoed his word, but the meaning of it was nothing to her. She had not even thought of being left alone. It was not, then, fear for herself, but for him. This girl, always slow of speech and action, now seemed almost stupid. She put forth a hand that might have indicated the groping of her mind. Suddenly she stepped swiftly to him, with a look and touch that drove from him any doubt of her quick intelligence or feeling.
"Oldring has men watch the herds--they would kill you. You must never go again!"
When she had spoken, the strength and the blaze of her died, and she swayed toward Venters.
"Bess, I'll not go again," he said, catching her.
She leaned against him, and her body was limp and vibrated to a long, wavering tremble. Her face was upturned to his. Woman's face, woman's eyes, woman's lips--all acutely and blindly and sweetly and terribly truthful in their betrayal! But as her fear was instinctive, so was her clinging to this one and only friend.