On the morning which followed his interview with the Mormon Prophet, Joh_errier went in to Salt Lake City, and having found his acquaintance, who wa_ound for the Nevada Mountains, he entrusted him with his message to Jefferso_ope. In it he told the young man of the imminent danger which threatene_hem, and how necessary it was that he should return. Having done thus he fel_asier in his mind, and returned home with a lighter heart.
As he approached his farm, he was surprised to see a horse hitched to each o_he posts of the gate. Still more surprised was he on entering to find tw_oung men in possession of his sitting-room. One, with a long pale face, wa_eaning back in the rocking-chair, with his feet cocked up upon the stove. Th_ther, a bull-necked youth with coarse bloated features, was standing in fron_f the window with his hands in his pocket, whistling a popular hymn. Both o_hem nodded to Ferrier as he entered, and the one in the rocking-chai_ommenced the conversation.
"Maybe you don't know us," he said. "This here is the son of Elder Drebber, and I'm Joseph Stangerson, who travelled with you in the desert when the Lor_tretched out His hand and gathered you into the true fold."
"As He will all the nations in His own good time," said the other in a nasa_oice; "He grindeth slowly but exceeding small."
John Ferrier bowed coldly. He had guessed who his visitors were.
"We have come," continued Stangerson, "at the advice of our fathers to solici_he hand of your daughter for whichever of us may seem good to you and to her.
As I have but four wives and Brother Drebber here has seven, it appears to m_hat my claim is the stronger one."
"Nay, nay, Brother Stangerson," cried the other; "the question is not how man_ives we have, but how many we can keep. My father has now given over hi_ills to me, and I am the richer man."
"But my prospects are better," said the other, warmly. "When the Lord remove_y father, I shall have his tanning yard and his leather factory. Then I a_our elder, and am higher in the Church."
"It will be for the maiden to decide," rejoined young Drebber, smirking at hi_wn reflection in the glass. "We will leave it all to her decision."
During this dialogue, John Ferrier had stood fuming in the doorway, hardl_ble to keep his riding-whip from the backs of his two visitors.
"Look here," he said at last, striding up to them, "when my daughter summon_ou, you can come, but until then I don't want to see your faces again."
The two young Mormons stared at him in amazement. In their eyes thi_ompetition between them for the maiden's hand was the highest of honours bot_o her and her father.
"There are two ways out of the room," cried Ferrier; "there is the door, an_here is the window. Which do you care to use?"
His brown face looked so savage, and his gaunt hands so threatening, that hi_isitors sprang to their feet and beat a hurried retreat. The old farme_ollowed them to the door.
"Let me know when you have settled which it is to be," he said, sardonically.
"You shall smart for this!" Stangerson cried, white with rage. "You hav_efied the Prophet and the Council of Four. You shall rue it to the end o_our days."
"The hand of the Lord shall be heavy upon you," cried young Drebber; "He wil_rise and smite you!"
"Then I'll start the smiting," exclaimed Ferrier furiously, and would hav_ushed upstairs for his gun had not Lucy seized him by the arm and restraine_im. Before he could escape from her, the clatter of horses' hoofs told hi_hat they were beyond his reach.
"The young canting rascals!" he exclaimed, wiping the perspiration from hi_orehead; "I would sooner see you in your grave, my girl, than the wife o_ither of them."
"And so should I, father," she answered, with spirit; "but Jefferson will soo_e here."
"Yes. It will not be long before he comes. The sooner the better, for we d_ot know what their next move may be."
It was, indeed, high time that someone capable of giving advice and hel_hould come to the aid of the sturdy old farmer and his adopted daughter. I_he whole history of the settlement there had never been such a case of ran_isobedience to the authority of the Elders. If minor errors were punished s_ternly, what would be the fate of this arch rebel. Ferrier knew that hi_ealth and position would be of no avail to him. Others as well known and a_ich as himself had been spirited away before now, and their goods given ove_o the Church. He was a brave man, but he trembled at the vague, shadow_errors which hung over him. Any known danger he could face with a firm lip, but this suspense was unnerving. He concealed his fears from his daughter, however, and affected to make light of the whole matter, though she, with th_een eye of love, saw plainly that he was ill at ease.
He expected that he would receive some message or remonstrance from Young a_o his conduct, and he was not mistaken, though it came in an unlooked-fo_anner. Upon rising next morning he found, to his surprise, a small square o_aper pinned on to the coverlet of his bed just over his chest. On it wa_rinted, in bold straggling letters:—
"Twenty-nine days are given you for amendment, and then —"
The dash was more fear-inspiring than any threat could have been. How thi_arning came into his room puzzled John Ferrier sorely, for his servants slep_n an outhouse, and the doors and windows had all been secured. He crumple_he paper up and said nothing to his daughter, but the incident struck a chil_nto his heart. The twenty-nine days were evidently the balance of the mont_hich Young had promised. What strength or courage could avail against a_nemy armed with such mysterious powers? The hand which fastened that pi_ight have struck him to the heart, and he could never have known who ha_lain him.
Still more shaken was he next morning. They had sat down to their breakfas_hen Lucy with a cry of surprise pointed upwards. In the centre of the ceilin_as scrawled, with a burned stick apparently, the number 28. To his daughte_t was unintelligible, and he did not enlighten her. That night he sat up wit_is gun and kept watch and ward. He saw and he heard nothing, and yet in th_orning a great 27 had been painted upon the outside of his door.
Thus day followed day; and as sure as morning came he found that his unsee_nemies had kept their register, and had marked up in some conspicuou_osition how many days were still left to him out of the month of grace.
Sometimes the fatal numbers appeared upon the walls, sometimes upon th_loors, occasionally they were on small placards stuck upon the garden gate o_he railings. With all his vigilance John Ferrier could not discover whenc_hese daily warnings proceeded. A horror which was almost superstitious cam_pon him at the sight of them. He became haggard and restless, and his eye_ad the troubled look of some hunted creature. He had but one hope in lif_ow, and that was for the arrival of the young hunter from Nevada.
Twenty had changed to fifteen and fifteen to ten, but there was no news of th_bsentee. One by one the numbers dwindled down, and still there came no sig_f him. Whenever a horseman clattered down the road, or a driver shouted a_is team, the old farmer hurried to the gate thinking that help had arrived a_ast. At last, when he saw five give way to four and that again to three, h_ost heart, and abandoned all hope of escape. Single-handed, and with hi_imited knowledge of the mountains which surrounded the settlement, he kne_hat he was powerless. The more-frequented roads were strictly watched an_uarded, and none could pass along them without an order from the Council.
Turn which way he would, there appeared to be no avoiding the blow which hun_ver him. Yet the old man never wavered in his resolution to part with lif_tself before he consented to what he regarded as his daughter's dishonour.
He was sitting alone one evening pondering deeply over his troubles, an_earching vainly for some way out of them. That morning had shown the figure _pon the wall of his house, and the next day would be the last of the allotte_ime. What was to happen then? All manner of vague and terrible fancies fille_is imagination. And his daughter — what was to become of her after he wa_one? Was there no escape from the invisible network which was drawn all roun_hem. He sank his head upon the table and sobbed at the thought of his ow_mpotence.
What was that? In the silence he heard a gentle scratching sound — low, bu_ery distinct in the quiet of the night. It came from the door of the house.
Ferrier crept into the hall and listened intently. There was a pause for a fe_oments, and then the low insidious sound was repeated. Someone was evidentl_apping very gently upon one of the panels of the door. Was it some midnigh_ssassin who had come to carry out the murderous orders of the secre_ribunal? Or was it some agent who was marking up that the last day of grac_ad arrived. John Ferrier felt that instant death would be better than th_uspense which shook his nerves and chilled his heart. Springing forward, h_rew the bolt and threw the door open.
Outside all was calm and quiet. The night was fine, and the stars wer_winkling brightly overhead. The little front garden lay before the farmer'_yes bounded by the fence and gate, but neither there nor on the road was an_uman being to be seen. With a sigh of relief, Ferrier looked to right and t_eft, until happening to glance straight down at his own feet he saw to hi_stonishment a man lying flat upon his face upon the ground, with arms an_egs all asprawl.
So unnerved was he at the sight that he leaned up against the wall with hi_and to his throat to stifle his inclination to call out. His first though_as that the prostrate figure was that of some wounded or dying man, but as h_atched it he saw it writhe along the ground and into the hall with th_apidity and noiselessness of a serpent. Once within the house the man spran_o his feet, closed the door, and revealed to the astonished farmer the fierc_ace and resolute expression of Jefferson Hope.
"Good God!" gasped John Ferrier. "How you scared me! Whatever made you come i_ike that."
"Give me food," the other said, hoarsely. "I have had no time for bite or su_or eight-and-forty hours." He flung himself upon the cold meat and brea_hich were still lying upon the table from his host's supper, and devoured i_oraciously. "Does Lucy bear up well?" he asked, when he had satisfied hi_unger.
"Yes. She does not know the danger," her father answered.
"That is well. The house is watched on every side. That is why I crawled m_ay up to it. They may be darned sharp, but they're not quite sharp enough t_atch a Washoe hunter."
John Ferrier felt a different man now that he realized that he had a devote_lly. He seized the young man's leathery hand and wrung it cordially. "You'r_ man to be proud of," he said. "There are not many who would come to shar_ur danger and our troubles."
"You've hit it there, pard," the young hunter answered. "I have a respect fo_ou, but if you were alone in this business I'd think twice before I put m_ead into such a hornet's nest. It's Lucy that brings me here, and before har_omes on her I guess there will be one less o' the Hope family in Utah."
"What are we to do?"
"To-morrow is your last day, and unless you act to-night you are lost. I hav_ mule and two horses waiting in the Eagle Ravine. How much money have you?"
"Two thousand dollars in gold, and five in notes."
"That will do. I have as much more to add to it. We must push for Carson Cit_hrough the mountains. You had best wake Lucy. It is as well that the servant_o not sleep in the house."
While Ferrier was absent, preparing his daughter for the approaching journey, Jefferson Hope packed all the eatables that he could find into a small parcel, and filled a stoneware jar with water, for he knew by experience that th_ountain wells were few and far between. He had hardly completed hi_rrangements before the farmer returned with his daughter all dressed an_eady for a start. The greeting between the lovers was warm, but brief, fo_inutes were precious, and there was much to be done.
"We must make our start at once," said Jefferson Hope, speaking in a low bu_esolute voice, like one who realizes the greatness of the peril, but ha_teeled his heart to meet it. "The front and back entrances are watched, bu_ith caution we may get away through the side window and across the fields.
Once on the road we are only two miles from the Ravine where the horses ar_aiting. By daybreak we should be half-way through the mountains."
"What if we are stopped," asked Ferrier.
Hope slapped the revolver butt which protruded from the front of his tunic.
"If they are too many for us we shall take two or three of them with us," h_aid with a sinister smile.
The lights inside the house had all been extinguished, and from the darkene_indow Ferrier peered over the fields which had been his own, and which he wa_ow about to abandon for ever. He had long nerved himself to the sacrifice, however, and the thought of the honour and happiness of his daughte_utweighed any regret at his ruined fortunes. All looked so peaceful an_appy, the rustling trees and the broad silent stretch of grain-land, that i_as difficult to realize that the spirit of murder lurked through it all. Ye_he white face and set expression of the young hunter showed that in hi_pproach to the house he had seen enough to satisfy him upon that head.
Ferrier carried the bag of gold and notes, Jefferson Hope had the scant_rovisions and water, while Lucy had a small bundle containing a few of he_ore valued possessions. Opening the window very slowly and carefully, the_aited until a dark cloud had somewhat obscured the night, and then one by on_assed through into the little garden. With bated breath and crouching figure_hey stumbled across it, and gained the shelter of the hedge, which the_kirted until they came to the gap which opened into the cornfields. They ha_ust reached this point when the young man seized his two companions an_ragged them down into the shadow, where they lay silent and trembling.
It was as well that his prairie training had given Jefferson Hope the ears o_ lynx. He and his friends had hardly crouched down before the melanchol_ooting of a mountain owl was heard within a few yards of them, which wa_mmediately answered by another hoot at a small distance. At the same moment _ague shadowy figure emerged from the gap for which they had been making, an_ttered the plaintive signal cry again, on which a second man appeared out o_he obscurity.
"To-morrow at midnight," said the first who appeared to be in authority. "Whe_he Whip-poor-Will calls three times."
"It is well," returned the other. "Shall I tell Brother Drebber?"
"Pass it on to him, and from him to the others. Nine to seven!"
"Seven to five!" repeated the other, and the two figures flitted away i_ifferent directions. Their concluding words had evidently been some form o_ign and countersign. The instant that their footsteps had died away in th_istance, Jefferson Hope sprang to his feet, and helping his companion_hrough the gap, led the way across the fields at the top of his speed, supporting and half-carrying the girl when her strength appeared to fail her.
"Hurry on! hurry on!" he gasped from time to time. "We are through the line o_entinels. Everything depends on speed. Hurry on!"
Once on the high road they made rapid progress. Only once did they mee_nyone, and then they managed to slip into a field, and so avoid recognition.
Before reaching the town the hunter branched away into a rugged and narro_ootpath which led to the mountains. Two dark jagged peaks loomed above the_hrough the darkness, and the defile which led between them was the Eagl_anon in which the horses were awaiting them. With unerring instinct Jefferso_ope picked his way among the great boulders and along the bed of a dried-u_atercourse, until he came to the retired corner, screened with rocks, wher_he faithful animals had been picketed. The girl was placed upon the mule, an_ld Ferrier upon one of the horses, with his money-bag, while Jefferson Hop_ed the other along the precipitous and dangerous path.
It was a bewildering route for anyone who was not accustomed to face Nature i_er wildest moods. On the one side a great crag towered up a thousand feet o_ore, black, stern, and menacing, with long basaltic columns upon its rugge_urface like the ribs of some petrified monster. On the other hand a wil_haos of boulders and debris made all advance impossible. Between the two ra_he irregular track, so narrow in places that they had to travel in India_ile, and so rough that only practised riders could have traversed it at all.
Yet in spite of all dangers and difficulties, the hearts of the fugitives wer_ight within them, for every step increased the distance between them and th_errible despotism from which they were flying.
They soon had a proof, however, that they were still within the jurisdictio_f the Saints. They had reached the very wildest and most desolate portion o_he pass when the girl gave a startled cry, and pointed upwards. On a roc_hich overlooked the track, showing out dark and plain against the sky, ther_tood a solitary sentinel. He saw them as soon as they perceived him, and hi_ilitary challenge of "Who goes there?" rang through the silent ravine.
"Travelers for Nevada," said Jefferson Hope, with his hand upon the rifl_hich hung by his saddle.
They could see the lonely watcher fingering his gun, and peering down at the_s if dissatisfied at their reply.
"By whose permission?" he asked.
"The Holy Four," answered Ferrier. His Mormon experiences had taught him tha_hat was the highest authority to which he could refer.
"Nine from seven," cried the sentinel.
"Seven from five," returned Jefferson Hope promptly, remembering th_ountersign which he had heard in the garden.
"Pass, and the Lord go with you," said the voice from above. Beyond his pos_he path broadened out, and the horses were able to break into a trot. Lookin_ack, they could see the solitary watcher leaning upon his gun, and knew tha_hey had passed the outlying post of the chosen people, and that freedom la_efore them.