To The Last Man by Zane Grey
When Ellen, utterly spent in body and mind, reached home that day a melancholy, sultry twilight was falling. Fitful flares of sheet lightning swept across the dark horizon to the east. The cabins were deserted. Antonio and the Mexican woman were gone. The circumstances made Ellen wonder, but she was too tired and too sunken in spirit to think long about it or to care. She fed and watered her horse and left him in the corral. Then, supperless and without removing her clothes, she threw herself upon the bed, and at once sank into heavy slumber.
Sometime during the night she awoke. Coyotes were yelping, and from that sound she concluded it was near dawn. Her body ached; her mind seemed dull. Drowsily she was sinking into slumber again when she heard the rapid clip-clop of trotting horses. Startled, she raised her head to listen. The men were coming back. Relief and dread seemed to clear her stupor.
The trotting horses stopped across the lane from her cabin, evidently at the corral where she had left Spades. She heard him whistle. From the sound of hoofs she judged the number of horses to be six or eight. Low voices of men mingled with thuds and cracking of straps and flopping of saddles on the ground. After that the heavy tread of boots sounded on the porch of the cabin opposite. A door creaked on its hinges. Next a slow footstep, accompanied by clinking of spurs, approached Ellen's door, and a heavy hand banged upon it. She knew this person could not be her father.
She recognized the voice as belonging to Colter. Somehow its tone, or something about it, sent a little shiver clown her spine. It acted like a revivifying current. Ellen lost her dragging lethargy.
"Hey, Ellen, are y'u there?" added Colter, louder voice.
"Yes. Of course I'm heah," she replied. What do y'u want?"
"Wal--I'm shore glad y'u're home," he replied. "Antonio's gone with his squaw. An' I was some worried aboot y'u."
"Who's with y'u, Colter?" queried Ellen, sitting up.
"Rock Wells an' Springer. Tad Jorth was with us, but we had to leave him over heah in a cabin."
"What's the matter with him?"
"Wal, he's hurt tolerable bad," was the slow reply.
Ellen heard Colter's spurs jangle, as if he had uneasily shifted his feet.
"Where's dad an' Uncle Jackson?" asked Ellen.
A silence pregnant enough to augment Ellen's dread finally broke to Colter's voice, somehow different. "Shore they're back on the trail. An' we're to meet them where we left Tad."
"Are yu goin' away again?"
"I reckon. . . . An', Ellen, y'u're goin' with us."
"I am not," she retorted.
"Wal, y'u are, if I have to pack y'u," he replied, forcibly. "It's not safe heah any more. That damned half-breed Isbel with his gang are on our trail."
That name seemed like a red-hot blade at Ellen's leaden heart. She wanted to fling a hundred queries on Colter, but she could not utter one.
"Ellen, we've got to hit the trail an' hide," continued Colter, anxiously. "Y'u mustn't stay heah alone. Suppose them Isbels would trap y'u! . . . They'd tear your clothes off an' rope y'u to a tree. Ellen, shore y'u're goin'. . . . Y'u heah me! "
"Yes--I'll go," she replied, as if forced.
"Wal--that's good," he said, quickly. "An' rustle tolerable lively. We've got to pack."
The slow jangle of Colter's spurs and his slow steps moved away out of Ellen's hearing. Throwing off the blankets, she put her feet to the floor and sat there a moment staring at the blank nothingness of the cabin interior in the obscure gray of dawn. Cold, gray, dreary, obscure--like her life, her future! And she was compelled to do what was hateful to her. As a Jorth she must take to the unfrequented trails and hide like a rabbit in the thickets. But the interest of the moment, a premonition of events to be, quickened her into action.
Ellen unbarred the door to let in the light. Day was breaking with an intense, clear, steely light in the east through which the morning star still shone white. A ruddy flare betokened the advent of the sun. Ellen unbraided her tangled hair and brushed and combed it. A queer, still pang came to her at sight of pine needles tangled in her brown locks. Then she washed her hands and face. Breakfast was a matter of considerable work and she was hungry.
The sun rose and changed the gray world of forest. For the first time in her life Ellen hated the golden brightness, the wonderful blue of sky, the scream of the eagle and the screech of the jay; and the squirrels she had always loved to feed were neglected that morning.
Colter came in. Either Ellen had never before looked attentively at him or else he had changed. Her scrutiny of his lean, hard features accorded him more Texan attributes than formerly. His gray eyes were as light, as clear, as fierce as those of an eagle. And the sand gray of his face, the long, drooping, fair mustache hid the secrets of his mind, but not its strength. The instant Ellen met his gaze she sensed a power in him that she instinctively opposed. Colter had not been so bold nor so rude as Daggs, but he was the same kind of man, perhaps the more dangerous for his secretiveness, his cool, waiting inscrutableness.
"'Mawnin', Ellen!" he drawled. "Y'u shore look good for sore eyes."
"Don't pay me compliments, Colter," replied Ellen. "An' your eyes are not sore."
"Wal, I'm shore sore from fightin' an' ridin' an' layin' out," he said, bluntly.
"Tell me--what's happened," returned Ellen.
"Girl, it's a tolerable long story," replied Colter. "An' we've no time now. Wait till we get to camp."
"Am I to pack my belongin's or leave them heah?" asked Ellen.
"Reckon y'u'd better leave--them heah."
"But if we did not come back--"
"Wal, I reckon it's not likely we'll come--soon, " he said, rather evasively.
"Colter, I'll not go off into the woods with just the clothes I have on my back."
"Ellen, we shore got to pack all the grab we can. This shore ain't goin' to be a visit to neighbors. We're shy pack hosses. But y'u make up a bundle of belongin's y'u care for, an' the things y'u'll need bad. We'll throw it on somewhere."
Colter stalked away across the lane, and Ellen found herself dubiously staring at his tall figure. Was it the situation that struck her with a foreboding perplexity or was her intuition steeling her against this man? Ellen could not decide. But she had to go with him. Her prejudice was unreasonable at this portentous moment. And she could not yet feel that she was solely responsible to herself.
When it came to making a small bundle of her belongings she was in a quandary. She discarded this and put in that, and then reversed the order. Next in preciousness to her mother's things were the long-hidden gifts of Jean Isbel. She could part with neither.
While she was selecting and packing this bundle Colter again entered and, without speaking, began to rummage in the corner where her father kept his possessions. This irritated Ellen.
"What do y'u want there?" she demanded.
"Wal, I reckon your dad wants his papers--an' the gold he left heah-- an' a change of clothes. Now doesn't he?" returned Colter, coolly.
"Of course. But I supposed y'u would have me pack them."
Colter vouchsafed no reply to this, but deliberately went on rummaging, with little regard for how he scattered things. Ellen turned her back on him. At length, when he left, she went to her father's corner and found that, as far as she was able to see, Colter had taken neither papers nor clothes, but only the gold. Perhaps, however, she had been mistaken, for she had not observed Colter's departure closely enough to know whether or not he carried a package. She missed only the gold. Her father's papers, old and musty, were scattered about, and these she gathered up to slip in her own bundle.
Colter, or one of the men, had saddled Spades, and he was now tied to the corral fence, champing his bit and pounding the sand. Ellen wrapped bread and meat inside her coat, and after tying this behind her saddle she was ready to go. But evidently she would have to wait, and, preferring to remain outdoors, she stayed by her horse. Presently, while watching the men pack, she noticed that Springer wore a bandage round his head under the brim of his sombrero. His motions were slow and lacked energy. Shuddering at the sight, Ellen refused to conjecture. All too soon she would learn what had happened, and all too soon, perhaps, she herself would be in the midst of another fight. She watched the men. They were making a hurried slipshod job of packing food supplies from both cabins. More than once she caught Colter's gray gleam of gaze on her, and she did not like it.
"I'll ride up an' say good-by to Sprague," she called to Colter.
"Shore y'u won't do nothin' of the kind," he called back.
There was authority in his tone that angered Ellen, and something else which inhibited her anger. What was there about Colter with which she must reckon? The other two Texans laughed aloud, to be suddenly silenced by Colter's harsh and lowered curses. Ellen walked out of hearing and sat upon a log, where she remained until Colter hailed her.
"Get up an' ride," he called.
Ellen complied with this order and, riding up behind the three mounted men, she soon found herself leaving what for years had been her home. Not once did she look back. She hoped she would never see the squalid, bare pretension of a ranch again.
Colter and the other riders drove the pack horses across the meadow, off of the trails, and up the slope into the forest. Not very long did it take Ellen to see that Colter's object was to hide their tracks. He zigzagged through the forest, avoiding the bare spots of dust, the dry, sun-baked flats of clay where water lay in spring, and he chose the grassy, open glades, the long, pine-needle matted aisles. Ellen rode at their heels and it pleased her to watch for their tracks. Colter manifestly had been long practiced in this game of hiding his trail, and he showed the skill of a rustler. But Ellen was not convinced that he could ever elude a real woodsman. Not improbably, however, Colter was only aiming to leave a trail difficult to follow and which would allow him and his confederates ample time to forge ahead of pursuers. Ellen could not accept a certainty of pursuit. Yet Colter must have expected it, and Springer and Wells also, for they had a dark, sinister, furtive demeanor that strangely contrasted with the cool, easy manner habitual to them.
They were not seeking the level routes of the forest land, that was sure. They rode straight across the thick-timbered ridge down into another canyon, up out of that, and across rough, rocky bluffs, and down again. These riders headed a little to the northwest and every mile brought them into wilder, more rugged country, until Ellen, losing count of canyons and ridges, had no idea where she was. No stop was made at noon to rest the laboring, sweating pack animals.
Under circumstances where pleasure might have been possible Ellen would have reveled in this hard ride into a wonderful forest ever thickening and darkening. But the wild beauty of glade and the spruce slopes and the deep, bronze-walled canyons left her cold. She saw and felt, but had no thrill, except now and then a thrill of alarm when Spades slid to his haunches down some steep, damp, piny declivity.
All the woodland, up and down, appeared to be richer greener as they traveled farther west. Grass grew thick and heavy. Water ran in all ravines. The rocks were bronze and copper and russet, and some had green patches of lichen.
Ellen felt the sun now on her left cheek and knew that the day was waning and that Colter was swinging farther to the northwest. She had never before ridden through such heavy forest and down and up such wild canyons. Toward sunset the deepest and ruggedest canyon halted their advance. Colter rode to the right, searching for a place to get down through a spruce thicket that stood on end. Presently he dismounted and the others followed suit. Ellen found she could not lead Spades because he slid down upon her heels, so she looped the end of her reins over the pommel and left him free. She herself managed to descend by holding to branches and sliding all the way down that slope. She heard the horses cracking the brush, snorting and heaving. One pack slipped and had to be removed from the horse, and rolled down. At the bottom of this deep, green-walled notch roared a stream of water. Shadowed, cool, mossy, damp, this narrow gulch seemed the wildest place Ellen had ever seen. She could just see the sunset-flushed, gold-tipped spruces far above her. The men repacked the horse that had slipped his burden, and once more resumed their progress ahead, now turning up this canyon. There was no horse trail, but deer and bear trails were numerous. The sun sank and the sky darkened, but still the men rode on; and the farther they traveled the wilder grew the aspect of the canyon.
At length Colter broke a way through a heavy thicket of willows and entered a side canyon, the mouth of which Ellen had not even descried. It turned and widened, and at length opened out into a round pocket, apparently inclosed, and as lonely and isolated a place as even pursued rustlers could desire. Hidden by jutting wall and thicket of spruce were two old log cabins joined together by roof and attic floor, the same as the double cabin at the Jorth ranch.
Ellen smelled wood smoke, and presently, on going round the cabins, saw a bright fire. One man stood beside it gazing at Colter's party, which evidently he had heard approaching.
"Hullo, Queen!" said Colter. How's Tad?"
"He's holdin' on fine," replied Queen, bending over the fire, where he turned pieces of meat.
"Where's father?" suddenly asked Ellen, addressing Colter.
As if he had not heard her, he went on wearily loosening a pack.
Queen looked at her. The light of the fire only partially shone on his face. Ellen could not see its expression. But from the fact that Queen did not answer her question she got further intimation of an impending catastrophe. The long, wild ride had helped prepare her for the secrecy and taciturnity of men who had resorted to flight. Perhaps her father had been delayed or was still off on the deadly mission that had obsessed him; or there might, and probably was, darker reason for his absence. Ellen shut her teeth and turned to the needs of her horse. And presently. returning to the fire, she thought of her uncle.
"Queen, is my uncle Tad heah?" she asked.
"Shore. He's in there," replied Queen, pointing at the nearer cabin.
Ellen hurried toward the dark doorway. She could see how the logs of the cabin had moved awry and what a big, dilapidated hovel it was. As she looked in, Colter loomed over her--placed a familiar and somehow masterful hand upon her. Ellen let it rest on her shoulder a moment. Must she forever be repulsing these rude men among whom her lot was cast? Did Colter mean what Daggs had always meant? Ellen felt herself weary, weak in body, and her spent spirit had not rallied. Yet, whatever Colter meant by his familiarity, she could not bear it. So she slipped out from under his hand.
"Uncle Tad, are y'u heah?" she called into the blackness. She heard the mice scamper and rustle and she smelled the musty, old, woody odor of a long-unused cabin.
"Hello, Ellen!" came a voice she recognized as her uncle's, yet it was strange. "Yes. I'm heah--bad luck to me! . . . How 're y'u buckin' up, girl?"
"I'm all right, Uncle Tad--only tired an' worried. I--"
"Tad, how's your hurt?" interrupted Colter.
"Reckon I'm easier," replied Jorth, wearily, "but shore I'm in bad shape. I'm still spittin' blood. I keep tellin' Queen that bullet lodged in my lungs-but he says it went through."
"Wal, hang on, Tad!" replied Colter, with a cheerfulness Ellen sensed was really indifferent.
"Oh, what the hell's the use!" exclaimed Jorth. "It's all--up with us--Colter!"
"Wal, shut up, then," tersely returned Colter. "It ain't doin' y'u or us any good to holler."
Tad Jorth did not reply to this. Ellen heard his breathing and it did not seem natural. It rasped a little--came hurriedly--then caught in his throat. Then he spat. Ellen shrunk back against the door. He was breathing through blood.
"Uncle, are y'u in pain?" she asked.
"Yes, Ellen--it burns like hell," he said.
"Oh! I'm sorry. . . . Isn't there something I can do?"
"I reckon not. Queen did all anybody could do for me--now-- unless it's pray."
Colter laughed at this--the slow, easy, drawling laugh of a Texan. But Ellen felt pity for this wounded uncle. She had always hated him. He had been a drunkard, a gambler, a waster of her father's property; and now he was a rustler and a fugitive, lying in pain, perhaps mortally hurt.
"Yes, uncle--I will pray for y'u," she said, softly.
The change in his voice held a note of sadness that she had been quick to catch.
"Ellen, y'u're the only good Jorth--in the whole damned lot," he said. "God! I see it all now. . . . We've dragged y'u to hell!"
"Yes, Uncle Tad, I've shore been dragged some--but not yet--to hell," she responded, with a break in her voice.
"Y'u will be--Ellen--unless--"
"Aw, shut up that kind of gab, will y'u?" broke in Colter, harshly.
It amazed Ellen that Colter should dominate her uncle, even though he was wounded. Tad Jorth had been the last man to take orders from anyone, much less a rustler of the Hash Knife Gang. This Colter began to loom up in Ellen's estimate as he loomed physically over her, a lofty figure, dark motionless, somehow menacing.
"Ellen, has Colter told y'u yet--aboot--aboot Lee an' Jackson?" inquired the wounded man.
The pitch-black darkness of the cabin seemed to help fortify Ellen to bear further trouble.
"Colter told me dad an' Uncle Jackson would meet us heah," she rejoined, hurriedly.
Jorth could be heard breathing in difficulty, and he coughed and spat again, and seemed to hiss.
"Ellen, he lied to y'u. They'll never meet us--heah!"
"Why not?" whispered Ellen.
"Because--Ellen-- " he replied, in husky pants, "your dad an'--uncle Jackson--are daid--an' buried!"
If Ellen suffered a terrible shock it was a blankness, a deadness, and a slow, creeping failure of sense in her knees. They gave way under her and she sank on the grass against the cabin wall. She did not faint nor grow dizzy nor lose her sight, but for a while there was no process of thought in her mind. Suddenly then it was there--the quick, spiritual rending of her heart--followed by a profound emotion of intimate and irretrievable loss--and after that grief and bitter realization.
An hour later Ellen found strength to go to the fire and partake of the food and drink her body sorely needed.
Colter and the men waited on her solicitously, and in silence, now and then stealing furtive glances at her from under the shadow of their black sombreros. The dark night settled down like a blanket. There were no stars. The wind moaned fitfully among the pines, and all about that lonely, hidden recess was in harmony with Ellen's thoughts.
"Girl, y'u're shore game," said Colter, admiringly. "An' I reckon y'u never got it from the Jorths."
"Tad in there--he's game," said Queen, in mild protest.
"Not to my notion," replied Colter. "Any man can be game when he's croakin', with somebody around. . . . But Lee Jorth an' Jackson--they always was yellow clear to their gizzards. They was born in Louisiana --not Texas. . . . Shore they're no more Texans than I am. Ellen heah, she must have got another strain in her blood.
To Ellen their words had no meaning. She rose and asked, "Where can I sleep?"
"I'll fetch a light presently an' y'u can make your bed in there by Tad," replied Colter.
"Yes, I'd like that."
"Wal, if y'u reckon y'u can coax him to talk you're shore wrong, "declared Colter, with that cold timbre of voice that struck like steel on Ellen's nerves. "I cussed him good an' told him he'd keep his mouth shut. Talkin' makes him cough an' that fetches up the blood. . . Besides, I reckon I'm the one to tell y'u how your dad an' uncle got killed. Tad didn't see it done, an' he was bad hurt when it happened. Shore all the fellars left have their idee aboot it. But I've got it straight."
"Colter--tell me now," cried Ellen.
"Wal, all right. Come over heah, "he replied, and drew her away from the camp fire, out in the shadow of gloom. "Poor kid! I shore feel bad aboot it." He put a long arm around her waist and drew her against him. Ellen felt it, yet did not offer any resistance. All her faculties seemed absorbed in a morbid and sad anticipation.
"Ellen, y'u shore know I always loved y'u--now don't y 'u?" he asked, with suppressed breath.
"No, Colter. It's news to me--an' not what I want to heah."
"Wal, y'u may as well heah it right now," he said. "It's true. An' what's more--your dad gave y'u to me before he died."
"What! Colter, y'u must be a liar."
"Ellen, I swear I'm not lyin'," he returned, in eager passion. "I was with your dad last an' heard him last. He shore knew I'd loved y'u for years. An' he said he'd rather y'u be left in my care than anybody's."
"My father gave me to y'u in marriage!" ejaculated Ellen, in bewilderment.
Colter's ready assurance did not carry him over this point. It was evident that her words somewhat surprised and disconcerted him for the moment.
"To let me marry a rustler--one of the Hash Knife Gang!" exclaimed Ellen, with weary incredulity.
"Wal, your dad belonged to Daggs's gang, same as I do," replied Colter, recovering his cool ardor.
"No!" cried Ellen.
"Yes, he shore did, for years," declared Colter, positively. "Back in Texas. An' it was your dad that got Daggs to come to Arizona."
Ellen tried to fling herself away. But her strength and her spirit were ebbing, and Colter increased the pressure of his arm. All at once she sank limp. Could she escape her fate? Nothing seemed left to fight with or for.
"All right--don't hold me--so tight," she panted. "Now tell me how dad was killed . . . an' who--who--"
Colter bent over so he could peer into her face. In the darkness Ellen just caught the gleam of his eyes. She felt the virile force of the man in the strain of his body as he pressed her close. It all seemed unreal--a hideous dream--the gloom, the moan of the wind, the weird solitude, and this rustler with hand and will like cold steel.
"We'd come back to Greaves's store," Colter began. "An' as Greaves was daid we all got free with his liquor. Shore some of us got drunk. Bruce was drunk, an' Tad in there--he was drunk. Your dad put away more 'n I ever seen him. But shore he wasn't exactly drunk. He got one of them weak an' shaky spells. He cried an' he wanted some of us to get the Isbels to call off the fightin'. . . . He shore was ready to call it quits. I reckon the killin' of Daggs--an' then the awful way Greaves was cut up by Jean Isbel--took all the fight out of your dad. He said to me, 'Colter, we'll take Ellen an' leave this heah country--an' begin life all over again--where no one knows us.'"
"Oh, did he really say that? . . . Did he--really mean it?" murmured Ellen, with a sob.
"I'll swear it by the memory of my daid mother," protested Colter. "Wal, when night come the Isbels rode down on us in the dark an' began to shoot. They smashed in the door--tried to burn us out--an' hollered around for a while. Then they left an' we reckoned there'd be no more trouble that night. All the same we kept watch. I was the soberest one an' I bossed the gang. We had some quarrels aboot the drinkin'. Your dad said if we kept it up it 'd be the end of the Jorths. An' he planned to send word to the Isbels next mawnin' that he was ready for a truce. An' I was to go fix it up with Gaston Isbel. Wal, your dad went to bed in Greaves's room, an' a little while later your uncle Jackson went in there, too. Some of the men laid down in the store an' went to sleep. I kept guard till aboot three in the mawnin'. An' I got so sleepy I couldn't hold my eyes open. So I waked up Wells an' Slater an' set them on guard, one at each end of the store. Then I laid down on the counter to take a nap."
Colter's low voice, the strain and breathlessness of him, the agitation with which he appeared to be laboring, and especially the simple, matter-of-fact detail of his story, carried absolute conviction to Ellen Jorth. Her vague doubt of him had been created by his attitude toward her. Emotion dominated her intelligence. The images, the scenes called up by Colter's words, were as true as the gloom of the wild gulch and the loneliness of the night solitude--as true as the strange fact that she lay passive in the arm of a rustler.
"Wall, after a while I woke up," went on Colter, clearing his throat. "It was gray dawn. All was as still as death. . . . An' somethin' shore was wrong. Wells an' Slater had got to drinkin' again an' now laid daid drunk or asleep. Anyways, when I kicked them they never moved. Then I heard a moan. It came from the room where your dad an' uncle was. I went in. It was just light enough to see. Your uncle Jackson was layin' on the floor--cut half in two--daid as a door nail. . . . Your dad lay on the bed. He was alive, breathin' his last. . . . He says, 'That half-breed Isbel--knifed us--while we slept!' . . . The winder shutter was open. I seen where Jean Isbel had come in an' gone out. I seen his moccasin tracks in the dirt outside an' I seen where he'd stepped in Jackson's blood an' tracked it to the winder. Y'u shore can see them bloody tracks yourself, if y'u go back to Greaves's store. . . . Your dad was goin' fast. . . . He said, 'Colter--take care of Ellen,' an' I reckon he meant a lot by that. He kept sayin', 'My God! if I'd only seen Gaston Isbel before it was too late!' an' then he raved a little, whisperin' out of his haid. . . . An' after that he died. . . . I woke up the men, an' aboot sunup we carried your dad an' uncle out of town an' buried them. . . . An' them Isbels shot at us while we were buryin' our daid! That's where Tad got his hurt. . . . Then we hit the trail for Jorth's ranch. . . . An now, Ellen, that's all my story. Your dad was ready to bury the hatchet with his old enemy. An' that Nez Perce Jean Isbel, like the sneakin' savage he is, murdered your uncle an' your dad. . . . Cut him horrible--made him suffer tortures of hell--all for Isbel revenge!"
When Colter's husky voice ceased Ellen whispered through lips as cold and still as ice, "Let me go . . . leave me--heah--alone!"
"Why, shore! I reckon I understand," replied Colter. "I hated to tell y'u. But y'u had to heah the truth aboot that half-breed. . . . I'll carry your pack in the cabin an' unroll your blankets."
Releasing her, Colter strode off in the gloom. Like a dead weight, Ellen began to slide until she slipped down full length beside the log. And then she lay in the cool, damp shadow, inert and lifeless so far as outward physical movement was concerned. She saw nothing and felt nothing of the night, the wind, the cold, the falling dew. For the moment or hour she was crushed by despair, and seemed to see herself sinking down and down into a black, bottomless pit, into an abyss where murky tides of blood and furious gusts of passion contended between her body and her soul. Into the stormy blast of hell! In her despair she longed, she ached for death. Born of infidelity, cursed by a taint of evil blood, further cursed by higher instinct for good and happy life, dragged from one lonely and wild and sordid spot to another, never knowing love or peace or joy or home, left to the companionship of violent and vile men, driven by a strange fate to love with unquenchable and insupportable love a' half-breed, a savage, an Isbel, the hereditary enemy of her people, and at last the. ruthless murderer of her father-- what in the name of God had she left to live for? Revenge! An eye for an eye! A life for a life! But she could not kill Jean Isbel. Woman's love could turn to hate, but not the love of Ellen Jorth. He could drag her by the hair in the dust, beat her, and make her a thing to loathe, and cut her mortally in his savage and implacable thirst for revenge--but with her last gasp she would whisper she loved him and that she had lied to him to kill his faith. It was that--his strange faith in her purity--which had won her love. Of all men, that he should be the one to recognize the truth of her, the womanhood yet unsullied--how strange, how terrible, how overpowering! False, indeed, was she to the Jorths! False as her mother had been to an Isbel! This agony and destruction of her soul was the bitter Dead Sea fruit --the sins of her parents visited upon her.
"I'll end it all," she whispered to the night shadows that hovered over her. No coward was she--no fear of pain or mangled flesh or death or the mysterious hereafter could ever stay her. It would be easy, it would be a last thrill, a transport of self-abasement and supreme self-proof of her love for Jean Isbel to kiss the Rim rock where his feet had trod and then fling herself down into the depths. She was the last Jorth. So the wronged Isbels would be avenged.
"But he would never know--never know--I lied to him!" she wailed to the night wind.
She was lost--lost on earth and to hope of heaven. She had right neither to live nor to die. She was nothing but a little weed along the trail of life, trampled upon, buried in the mud. She was nothing but a single rotten thread in a tangled web of love and hate and revenge. And she had broken.
Lower and lower she seemed to sink. Was there no end to this gulf of despair? If Colter had returned he would have found her a rag and a toy--a creature degraded, fit for his vile embrace. To be thrust deeper into the mire--to be punished fittingly for her betrayal of a man's noble love and her own womanhood--to be made an end of, body, mind, and soul.
But Colter did not return.
The wind mourned, the owls hooted, the leaves rustled, the insects whispered their melancholy night song, the camp-fire flickered and faded. Then the wild forestland seemed to close imponderably over Ellen. All that she wailed in her deapair, all that she confessed in her abasement, was true, and hard as life could be--but she belonged to nature. If nature had not failed her, had God failed her? It was there--the lonely land of tree and fern and flower and brook, full of wild birds and beasts, where the mossy rocks could speak and the solitude had ears, where she had always felt herself unutterably a part of creation. Thus a wavering spark of hope quivered through the blackness of her soul and gathered light.
The gloom of the sky, the shifting clouds of dull shade, split asunder to show a glimpse of a radiant star, piercingly white, cold, pure, a steadfast eye of the universe, beyond all understanding and illimitable with its meaning of the past and the present and the future. Ellen watched it until the drifting clouds once more hid it from her strained sight.
What had that star to do with hell? She might be crushed and destroyed by life, but was there not something beyond? Just to be born, just to suffer, just to die--could that be all? Despair did not loose its hold on Ellen, the strife and pang of her breast did not subside. But with the long hours and the strange closing in of the forest around her and the fleeting glimpse of that wonderful star, with a subtle divination of the meaning of her beating heart and throbbing mind, and, lastly, with a voice thundering at her conscience that a man's faith in a woman must not be greater, nobler, than her faith in God and eternity --with these she checked the dark flight of her soul toward destruction.