To The Last Man by Zane Grey
Then followed the leathery flop of saddles to the soft turf and the stamp, of loosened horses.
Jean heard a noise at the cabin door, a rustle, and then a knock of something hard against wood. Silently he moved his head to look down through a crack between the rafters. He saw the glint of a rifle leaning against the sill. Then the doorstep was darkened. Ellen Jorth sat down with a long, tired sigh. She took off her sombrero and the light shone on the rippling, dark-brown hair, hanging in a tangled braid. The curved nape of her neck showed a warm tint of golden tan. She wore a gray blouse, soiled and torn, that clung to her lissome shoulders.
"Colter, what are y'u goin' to do?" she asked, suddenly. Her voice carried something Jean did not remember. It thrilled into the icy fixity of his senses.
"We'll stay heah," was the response, and it was followed by a clinking step of spurred boot.
"Shore I won't stay heah," declared Ellen. "It makes me sick when I think of how Uncle Tad died in there alone--helpless--sufferin'. The place seems haunted."
"Wal, I'll agree that it's tough on y'u. But what the hell can we do?"
A long silence ensued which Ellen did not break.
"Somethin' has come off round heah since early mawnin'," declared Colter. "Somers an' Springer haven't got back. An' Antonio's gone. . . . Now, honest, Ellen, didn't y'u heah rifle shots off somewhere?"
"I reckon I did," she responded, gloomily.
"An' which way?"
"Sounded to me up on the bluff, back pretty far."
"Wal, shore that's my idee. An' it makes me think hard. Y'u know Somers come across the last camp of the Isbels. An' he dug into a grave to find the bodies of Jim Gordon an' another man he didn't know. Queen kept good his brag. He braced that Isbel gang an' killed those fellars. But either him or Jean Isbel went off leavin' bloody tracks. If it was Queen's y'u can bet Isbel was after him. An' if it was Isbel's tracks, why shore Queen would stick to them. Somers an' Springer couldn't follow the trail. They're shore not much good at trackin'. But for days they've been ridin' the woods, hopin' to run across Queen. . . . Wal now, mebbe they run across Isbel instead. An' if they did an' got away from him they'll be heah sooner or later. If Isbel was too many for them he'd hunt for my trail. I'm gamblin' that either Queen or Jean Isbel is daid. I'm hopin' it's Isbel. Because if he ain't daid he's the last of the Isbels, an' mebbe I'm the last of Jorth's gang. . . . Shore I'm not hankerin' to meet the half-breed. That's why I say we'll stay heah. This is as good a hidin' place as there is in the country. We've grub. There's water an' grass."
"Me--stay heah with y'u--alone!"
The tone seemed a contradiction to the apparently accepted sense of her words. Jean held his breath. But he could not still the slowly mounting and accelerating faculties within that were involuntarily rising to meet some strange, nameless import. He felt it. He imagined it would be the catastrophe of Ellen Jorth's calm acceptance of Colter's proposition. But down in Jean's miserable heart lived something that would not die. No mere words could kill it. How poignant that moment of her silence! How terribly he realized that if his intelligence and his emotion had believed her betraying words, his soul had not!
But Ellen Jorth did not speak. Her brown head hung thoughtfully. Her supple shoulders sagged a little.
"Ellen, what's happened to y'u?" went on Colter.
"All the misery possible to a woman," she replied, dejectedly.
"Shore I don't mean that way," he continued, persuasively. "I ain't gainsayin' the hard facts of your life. It's been bad. Your dad was no good. . . . But I mean I can't figger the change in y'u."
"No, I reckon y'u cain't," she said. "Whoever was responsible for your make-up left out a mind--not to say feeling."
Colter drawled a low laugh.
"Wal, have that your own way. But how much longer are yu goin' to be like this heah?"
"Like what?" she rejoined, sharply.
"Wal, this stand-offishness of yours?"
"Colter, I told y'u to let me alone," she said, sullenly.
"Shore. An' y'u did that before. But this time y'u're different. . . . An' wal, I'm gettin' tired of it."
Here the cool, slow voice of the Texan sounded an inflexibility before absent, a timber that hinted of illimitable power.
Ellen Jorth shrugged her lithe shoulders and, slowly rising, she picked up the little rifle and turned to step into the cabin.
"Colter," she said, "fetch my pack an' my blankets in heah."
" Shore," he returned, with good nature.
Jean saw Ellen Jorth lay the rifle lengthwise in a chink between two logs and then slowly turn, back to the wall. Jean knew her then, yet did not know her. The brown flash of her face seemed that of an older, graver woman. His strained gaze, like his waiting mind, had expected something, he knew not what--a hardened face, a ghost of beauty, a recklessness, a distorted, bitter, lost expression in keeping with her fortunes. But he had reckoned falsely. She did not look like that. There was incalculable change, but the beauty remained, somehow different. Her red lips were parted. Her brooding eyes, looking out straight from under the level, dark brows, seemed sloe black and wonderful with their steady, passionate light.
Jean, in his eager, hungry devouring of the beloved face, did not on the first instant grasp the significance of its expression. He was seeing the features that had haunted him. But quickly he interpreted her expression as the somber, hunted look of a woman who would bear no more. Under the torn blouse her full breast heaved. She held her hands clenched at her sides. She was' listening, waiting for that jangling, slow step. It came, and with the sound she subtly changed. She was a woman hiding her true feelings. She relaxed, and that strong, dark look of fury seemed to fade back into her eyes.
Colter appeared at the door, carrying a roll of blankets and a pack.
"Throw them heah," she said. "I reckon y'u needn't bother coming in."
That angered the man. With one long stride he stepped over the doorsill, down into the cabin, and flung the blankets at her feet and then the pack after it. Whereupon he deliberately sat down in the door, facing her. With one hand he slid off his sombrero, which fell outside, and with the other he reached in his upper vest pocket for the little bag of tobacco that showed there. All the time he looked at her. By the light now unobstructed Jean descried Colter's face; and sight of it then sounded the roll and drum of his passions.
"Wal, Ellen, I reckon we'll have it out right now an' heah," he said, and with tobacco in one hand, paper in the other he began the operations of making a cigarette. However, he scarcely removed his glance from her.
"Yes?" queried Ellen Jorth.
"I'm goin' to have things the way they were before--an' more," he declared. The cigarette paper shook in his fingers.
"What do y'u mean?" she demanded.
"Y'u know what I mean," he retorted. Voice and action were subtly unhinging this man's control over himself.
"Maybe I don't. I reckon y'u'd better talk plain."
The rustler had clear gray-yellow eyes, flawless, like, crystal, and suddenly they danced with little fiery flecks.
"The last time I laid my hand on y'u I got hit for my pains. An' shore that's been ranklin'."
"Colter, y'u'll get hit again if y'u. put your hands on me," she said, dark, straight glance on him. A frown wrinkled the level brows.
"Y'u mean that?" he asked, thickly.
"I shore, do."
Manifestly he accepted her assertion. Something of incredulity and bewilderment, that had vied with his resentment, utterly disappeared from his face.
"Heah I've been waitin' for y'u to love me," he declared, with a gesture not without dignified emotion. "Your givin' in without that wasn't so much to me."
And at these words of the rustler's Jean Isbel felt an icy, sickening shudder creep into his soul. He shut his eyes. The end of his dream had been long in coming, but at last it had arrived. A mocking voice, like a hollow wind, echoed through that region--that lonely and ghost-like hall of his heart which had harbored faith.
She burst into speech, louder and sharper, the first words of which Jean's strangely throbbing ears did not distinguish.
"-- -- you! . . . I never gave in to y'u an' I never will."
"But, girl--I kissed y'u--hugged y'u--handled y'u--" he expostulated, and the making of the cigarette ceased.
"Yes, y'u did--y'u brute--when I was so downhearted and weak I couldn't lift my hand," she flashed.
"Ahuh! Y'u mean I couldn't do that now?"
"I should smile I do, Jim Colter!" she replied.
"Wal, mebbe--I'll see--presently," he went on, straining with words. "But I'm shore curious. . . . Daggs, then--he was nothin' to y'u?"
"No more than y'u," she said, morbidly. "He used to run after me-- long ago, it seems. . . . . I was only a girl then--innocent--an' I'd not known any but rough men. I couldn't all the time--every day, every hour--keep him at arm's length. Sometimes before I knew--I didn't care. I was a child. A kiss meant nothing to me. But after I knew--"
Ellen dropped her head in brooding silence.
"Say, do y'u expect me to believe that?" he queried, with a derisive leer.
"Bah! What do I care what y'u believe?" she cried, with lifting head.
"How aboot Simm Brace?"
"That coyote! . . . He lied aboot me, Jim Colter. And any man half a man would have known he lied."
"Wal, Simm. always bragged aboot y'u bein' his girl," asserted Colter. "An' he wasn't over--particular aboot details of your love-makin'."
Ellen gazed out of the door, over Colter's head, as if the forest out there was a refuge. She evidently sensed more about the man than appeared in his slow talk, in his slouching position. Her lips shut in a firm line, as if to hide their trembling and to still her passionate tongue. Jean, in his absorption, magnified his perceptions. Not yet was Ellen Jorth afraid of this man, but she feared the situation. Jean's heart was at bursting pitch. All within him seemed chaos--a wreck of beliefs and convictions. Nothing was true. He would wake presently out of a nightmare. Yet, as surely as he quivered there, he felt the imminence of a great moment--a lightning flash--a thunderbolt--a balance struck.
Colter attended to the forgotten cigarette. He rolled it, lighted it, all the time with lowered, pondering head, and when he had puffed a cloud of smoke he suddenly looked up with face as hard as flint, eyes as fiery as molten steel.
"Wal, Ellen--how aboot Jean Isbel--our half-breed Nez Perce friend--who was shore seen handlin' y'u familiar?" he drawled.
Ellen Jorth quivered as under a lash, and her brown face turned a dusty scarlet, that slowly receding left her pale.
"Damn y'u, Jim Colter!" she burst out, furiously. "I wish Jean Isbel would jump in that door--or down out of that loft! . . . He killed Greaves for defiling my name! . . . He'd kill Y'U for your dirty insult. . . . And I'd like to watch him do it. . . . Y'u cold-blooded Texan! Y'u thieving rustler! Y'u liar! . . . Y'u lied aboot my father's death. And I know why. Y'u stole my father's gold. . . . An' now y'u want me-- y'u expect me to fall into your arms. . . . My Heaven! cain't y'u tell a decent woman? Was your mother decent? Was your sister decent? . . . Bah! I'm appealing to deafness. But y'u'll heah this, Jim Colter! . . . I'm not what yu think I am! I'm not the--the damned hussy y'u liars have made me out. . . . I'm a Jorth, alas! I've no home, no relatives, no friends! I've been forced to live my life with rustlers --vile men like y'u an' Daggs an' the rest of your like. . . . But I've been good! Do y'u heah that? . . . I am good--so help me God, y'u an' all your rottenness cain't make me bad!"
Colter lounged to his tall height and the laxity of the man vanished.
Vanished also was Jean Isbel's suspended icy dread, the cold clogging of his fevered mind--vanished in a white, living, leaping flame.
Silently he drew his knife and lay there watching with the eyes of a wildcat. The instant Colter stepped far enough over toward the edge of the loft Jean meant to bound erect and plunge down upon him. But Jean could wait now. Colter had a gun at his hip. He must never have a chance to draw it.
"Ahuh! So y'u wish Jean Isbel would hop in heah, do y'u?" queried Colter. "Wal, if I had any pity on y'u, that's done for it."
A sweep of his long arm, so swift Ellen had no time to move, brought his hand in clutching contact with her. And the force of it flung her half across the cabin room, leaving the sleeve of her blouse in his grasp. Pantingly she put out that bared arm and her other to ward him off as he took long, slow strides toward her.
Jean rose half to his feet, dragged by almost ungovernable passion to risk all on one leap. But the distance was too great. Colter, blind as he was to all outward things, would hear, would see in time to make Jean's effort futile. Shaking like a leaf, Jean sank back, eye again to the crack between the rafters.
Ellen did not retreat, nor scream, nor move. Every line of her body was instinct with fight, and the magnificent blaze of her eyes would have checked a less callous brute.
Colter's big hand darted between Ellen's arms and fastened in the front of her blouse. He did not try to hold her or draw her close. The unleashed passion of the man required violence. In one savage pull he tore off her blouse, exposing her white, rounded shoulders and heaving bosom, where instantly a wave of red burned upward.
Overcome by the tremendous violence and spirit of the rustler, Ellen sank to her knees, with blanched face and dilating eyes, trying with folded arms and trembling hand to hide her nudity.
At that moment the rapid beat of hoofs on the hard trail outside halted Colter in his tracks.
"Hell!" he exclaimed. "An' who's that?" With a fierce action he flung the remnants of Ellen's blouse in her face and turned to leap out the door.
Jean saw Ellen catch the blouse and try to wrap it around her, while she sagged against the wall and stared at the door. The hoof beats pounded to a solid thumping halt just outside.
"Jim--thar's hell to pay!" rasped out a panting voice.
"Wal, Springer, I reckon I wished y'u'd paid it without spoilin' my deals," retorted Colter, cool and sharp.
"Deals? Ha! Y'u'll be forgettin'--your lady lovein a minnit," replied Springer. "When I catch--my breath."
"Where's Somers?" demanded Colter.
"I reckon he's all shot up--if my eyes didn't fool me."
"Where is he?" yelled Colter.
"Jim--he's layin' up in the bushes round thet bluff. I didn't wait to see how he was hurt. But he shore stopped some lead. An' he flopped like a chicken with its--haid cut off."
"He run like the greaser he is," declared Springer, disgustedly.
"Ahuh! An' where's Queen?" queried Colter, after a significant pause.
The silence ensuing was fraught with a suspense that held Jean in cold bonds. He saw the girl below rise from her knees, one hand holding the blouse to her breast, the other extended, and with strange, repressed, almost frantic look she swayed toward the door.
"Wal, talk," ordered Colter, harshly.
"Jim, there ain't a hell of a lot," replied Springer; drawing a deep breath, "but what there is is shore interestin'. . . . Me an' Somers took Antonio with us. He left his woman with the sheep. An' we rode up the canyon, clumb out on top, an' made a circle back on the ridge. That's the way we've been huntin' fer tracks. Up thar in a bare spot we run plump into Queen sittin' against a tree, right out in the open. Queerest sight y'u ever seen! The damn gunfighter had set down to wait for Isbel, who was trailin' him, as we suspected---an' he died thar. He wasn't cold when we found him. . . . Somers was quick to see a trick. So he propped Queen up an' tied the guns to his hands--an', Jim, the queerest thing aboot that deal was this--Queen's guns was empty! Not a shell left! It beat us holler. . . . We left him thar, an' hid up high on the bluff, mebbe a hundred yards off. The hosses we left back of a thicket. An' we waited thar a long time. But, sure enough, the half-breed come. He was too smart. Too much Injun! He would not cross the open, but went around. An' then he seen Queen. It was great to watch him. After a little he shoved his rifle out an' went right fer Queen. This is when I wanted to shoot. I could have plugged him. But Somers says wait an' make it sure. When Isbel got up to Queen he was sort of half hid by the tree. An' I couldn't wait no longer, so I shot. I hit him, too. We all begun to shoot. Somers showed himself, an' that's when Isbel opened up. He used up a whole magazine on Somers an' then, suddenlike, he quit. It didn't take me long to figger mebbe he was out of shells. When I seen him run I was certain of it. Then we made for the hosses an' rode after Isbel. Pretty soon I seen him runnin' like a deer down the ridge. I yelled an' spurred after him. There is where Antonio quit me. But I kept on. An' I got a shot at Isbel. He ran out of sight. I follered him by spots of blood on the stones an' grass until I couldn't trail him no more. He must have gone down over the cliffs. He couldn't have done nothin' else without me seein' him. I found his rifle, an' here it is to prove what I say. I had to go back to climb down off the Rim, an' I rode fast down the canyon. He's somewhere along that west wall, hidin' in the brush, hard hit if I know anythin' aboot the color of blood."
"Wal! . . . that beats me holler, too," ejaculated Colter.
"Jim, what's to be done?" inquired Springer, eagerly. If we're sharp we can corral that half-breed. He's the last of the Isbels."
"More, pard. He's the last of the Isbel outfit," declared Colter. "If y'u can show me blood in his tracks I'll trail him."
"Y'u can bet I'll show y'u," rejoined the other rustler. "But listen! Wouldn't it be better for us first to see if he crossed the canyon? I reckon he didn't. But let's make sure. An' if he didn't we'll have him somewhar along that west canyon wall. He's not got no gun. He'd never run thet way if he had. . . . Jim, he's our meat!"
"Shore, he'll have that knife, " pondered Colter.
"We needn't worry about thet," said the other, positively. "He's hard hit, I tell y'u. All we got to do is find thet bloody trail again an' stick to it--goin' careful. He's layin' low like a crippled wolf."
"Springer, I want the job of finishin' that half-breed," hissed Colter. "I'd give ten years of my life to stick a gun down his throat an' shoot it off."
"All right. Let's rustle. Mebbe y'u'll not have to give much more 'n ten minnits. Because I tell y'u I can find him. It'd been easy--but, Jim, I reckon I was afraid."
"Leave your hoss for me an' go ahaid," the rustler then said, brusquely. "I've a job in the cabin heah."
"Haw-haw! . . . Wal, Jim, I'll rustle a bit down the trail an' wait. No huntin' Jean Isbel alone--not fer me. I've had a queer feelin' about thet knife he used on Greaves. An' I reckon y'u'd oughter let thet Jorth hussy alone long enough to--"
"Springer, I reckon I've got to hawg-tie her--" His voice became indistinguishable, and footfalls attested to a slow moving away of the men.
Jean had listened with ears acutely strung to catch every syllable while his gaze rested upon Ellen who stood beside the door. Every line of her body denoted a listening intensity. Her back was toward Jean, so that he could not see her face. And he did not want to see, but could not help seeing her naked shoulders. She put her head out of the door. Suddenly she drew it in quickly and half turned her face, slowly raising her white arm. This was the left one and bore the marks of Colter's hard fingers.
She gave a little gasp. Her eyes became large and staring. They were bent on the hand that she had removed from a step on the ladder. On hand and wrist showed a bright-red smear of blood.
Jean, with a convulsive leap of his heart, realized that he had left his bloody tracks on the ladder as he had climbed. That moment seemed the supremely terrible one of his life.
Ellen Jorth's face blanched and her eyes darkened and dilated with exceeding amaze and flashing thought to become fixed with horror. That instant was the one in which her reason connected the blood on the ladder with the escape of Jean Isbel.
One moment she leaned there, still as a stone except for her heaving breast, and then her fixed gaze changed to a swift, dark blaze, comprehending, yet inscrutable, as she flashed it up the ladder to the loft. She could see nothing, yet she knew and Jean knew that she knew he was there. A marvelous transformation passed over her features and even over her form. Jean choked with the ache in his throat. Slowly she put the bloody hand behind her while with the other she still held the torn blouse to her breast.
Colter's slouching, musical step sounded outside. And it might have been a strange breath of infinitely vitalizing and passionate life blown into the well-springs of Ellen Jorth's being. Isbel had no name for her then. The spirit of a woman had been to him a thing unknown.
She swayed back from the door against the wall in singular, softened poise, as if all the steel had melted out of her body. And as Colter's tall shadow fell across the threshold Jean Isbel felt himself staring with eyeballs that ached--straining incredulous sight at this woman who in a few seconds had bewildered his senses with her transfiguration. He saw but could not comprehend.
"Jim--I heard--all Springer told y'u," she said. The look of her dumfounded Colter and her voice seemed to shake him visibly.
"Suppose y'u did. What then?" he demanded, harshly, as he halted with one booted foot over the threshold. Malignant and forceful, he eyed her darkly, doubtfully.
"I'm afraid," she whispered.
"What of? Me?"
"No. Of--of Jean Isbel. He might kill y'u and--then where would I be?"
"Wal, I'm damned!" ejaculated the rustler. "What's got into y'u?" He moved to enter, but a sort of fascination bound him.
"Jim, I hated y'u a moment ago," she burst out. "But now--with that Jean Isbel somewhere near--hidin'--watchin' to kill y'u--an' maybe me, too--I--I don't hate y'u any more. . . . Take me away."
"Girl, have y'u lost your nerve?" he demanded.
"My God! Colter--cain't y'u see?" she implored. "Won't y'u take me away?"
"I shore will--presently," he replied, grimly. "But y'u'll wait till I've shot the lights out of this Isbel."
"No!" she cried. "Take me away now. . . . An' I'll give in--I'll be what y'u--want. . . . Y'u can do with me--as y'u like."
Colter's lofty frame leaped as if at the release of bursting blood. With a lunge he cleared the threshold to loom over her.
"Am I out of my haid, or are y'u?" he asked, in low, hoarse voice. His darkly corded face expressed extremest amaze.
"Jim, I mean it," she whispered, edging an inch nearer him, her white face uplifted, her dark eyes unreadable in their eloquence and mystery. "I've no friend but y'u. I'll be--yours. . . . I'm lost. . . . What does it matter? If y'u want me--take me now--before I kill myself."
"Ellen Jorth, there's somethin' wrong aboot y'u," he responded. "Did y'u tell the truth--when y'u denied ever bein' a sweetheart of Simm Bruce?"
"Yes, I told y'u the truth."
"Ahuh! An' how do y'u account for layin' me out with every dirty name y'u could give tongue to?"
"Oh, it was temper. I wanted to be let alone."
"Temper! Wal, I reckon y'u've got one," he retorted, grimly. An' I'm not shore y'u're not crazy or lyin'. An hour ago I couldn't touch y'u."
"Y'u may now--if y'u promise to take me away--at once. This place has got on my nerves. I couldn't sleep heah with that Isbel hidin' around. Could y'u?"
"Wal, I reckon I'd not sleep very deep."
"Then let us go."
He shook his lean, eagle-like head in slow, doubtful vehemence, and his piercing gaze studied her distrustfully. Yet all the while there was manifest in his strung frame an almost irrepressible violence, held in abeyance to his will.
"That aboot your bein' so good?" he inquired, with a return of the mocking drawl.
"Never mind what's past," she flashed, with passion dark as his. "I've made my offer."
"Shore there's a lie aboot y'u somewhere," he muttered, thickly.
"Man, could I do more?" she demanded, in scorn.
"No. But it's a lie," he returned. "Y'u'll get me to take y'u away an' then fool me--run off--God knows what. Women are all liars."
Manifestly he could not believe in her strange transformation. Memory of her wild and passionate denunciation of him and his kind must have seared even his calloused soul. But the ruthless nature of him had not weakened nor softened in the least as to his intentions. This weather-vane veering of hers bewildered him, obsessed him with its possibilities. He had the look of a man who was divided between love of her and hate, whose love demanded a return, but whose hate required a proof of her abasement. Not proof of surrender, but proof of her shame! The ignominy of him thirsted for its like. He could grind her beauty under his heel, but he could not soften to this feminine inscrutableness.
And whatever was the truth of Ellen Jorth in this moment, beyond Colter's gloomy and stunted intelligence, beyond even the love of Jean Isbel, it was something that held the balance of mastery. She read Colter's mind. She dropped the torn blouse from her hand and stood there, unashamed, with the wave of her white breast pulsing, eyes black as night and full of hell, her face white, tragic, terrible, yet strangely lovely.
"Take me away," she whispered, stretching one white arm toward him, then the other.
Colter, even as she moved, had leaped with inarticulate cry and radiant face to meet her embrace. But it seemed, just as her left arm flashed up toward his neck, that he saw her bloody hand and wrist. Strange how that checked his ardor--threw up his lean head like that striking bird of prey.
"Blood! What the hell!" he ejaculated, and in one sweep he grasped her. "How'd yu do that? Are y'u cut? . . . Hold still."
Ellen could not release her hand.
"I scratched myself," she said.
"Where?. . . All that blood!" And suddenly he flung her hand back with fierce gesture, and the gleams of his yellow eyes were like the points of leaping flames. They pierced her--read the secret falsity of her. Slowly he stepped backward, guardedly his hand moved to his gun, and his glance circled and swept the interior of the cabin. As if he had the nose of a hound and sight to follow scent, his eyes bent to the dust of the ground before the door. He quivered, grew rigid as stone, and then moved his head with exceeding slowness as if searching through a microscope in the dust--farther to the left--to the foot of the ladder --and up one step--another--a third--all the way up to the loft. Then he whipped out his gun and wheeled to face the girl.
"Ellen, y'u've got your half-breed heah!" he said, with a terrible smile.
She neither moved nor spoke. There was a suggestion of collapse, but it was only a change where the alluring softness of her hardened into a strange, rapt glow. And in it seemed the same mastery that had characterized her former aspect. Herein the treachery of her was revealed. She had known what she meant to do in any case.
Colter, standing at the door, reached a long arm toward the ladder, where he laid his hand on a rung. Taking it away he held it palm outward for her to see the dark splotch of blood.
"Yes, I see," she said, ringingly.
Passion wrenched him, transformed him. "All that--aboot leavin' heah --with me--aboot givin' in--was a lie!"
"No, Colter. It was the truth. I'll go--yet--now--if y'u'll spare--him!" She whispered the last word and made a slight movement of her hand toward the loft. "Girl!" he exploded, incredulously. "Y'u love this half-breed--this Isbel! . . . Y'u love him!"
"With all my heart! . . . Thank God! It has been my glory. . . . It might have been my salvation. . . . But now I'll go to hell with y'u--if y'u'll spare him."
"Damn my soul!" rasped out the rustler, as if something of respect was wrung from that sordid deep of him. "Y'u--y'u woman! . . . Jorth will turn over in his grave. He'd rise out of his grave if this Isbel got y'u,"
"Hurry! Hurry!" implored Ellen. "Springer may come back. I think I heard a call."
"Wal, Ellen Jorth, I'll not spare Isbel--nor y'u," he returned, with dark and meaning leer, as he turned to ascend the ladder.
Jean Isbel, too, had reached the climax of his suspense. Gathering all his muscles in a knot he prepared to leap upon Colter as he mounted the ladder. But, Ellen Jorth screamed piercingly and snatched her rifle from its resting place and, cocking it, she held it forward and low.
Her scream and his uttered name stiffened him.
"Y'u will spare Jean Isbel!" she rang out. "Drop that gun-drop it!"
"Shore, Ellen. . . . Easy now. Remember your temper. . . . I'll let Isbel off," he panted, huskily, and all his body sank quiveringly to a crouch.
"Drop your gun! Don't turn round. . . . Colter!--I'll kill y'u!"
But even then he failed to divine the meaning and the spirit of her.
"Aw, now, Ellen," he entreated, in louder, huskier tones, and as if dragged by fatal doubt of her still, he began to turn.
Crash! The rifle emptied its contents in Colter's breast. All his body sprang up. He dropped the gun. Both hands fluttered toward her. And an awful surprise flashed over his face.
"So--help--me--God! he whispered, with blood thick in his voice. Then darkly, as one groping, he reached for her with shaking hands. "Y'u--y'u white-throated hussy!. . . I'll . . ."
He grasped the quivering rifle barrel. Crash! She shot him again. As he swayed over her and fell she had to leap aside, and his clutching hand tore the rifle from her grasp. Then in convulsion he writhed, to heave on his back, and stretch out--a ghastly spectacle. Ellen backed away from it, her white arms wide, a slow horror blotting out the passion of her face.
Then from without came a shrill call and the sound of rapid footsteps. Ellen leaned against the wall, staring still at Colter. "Hey, Jim --what's the shootin'?" called Springer, breathlessly.
As his form darkened the doorway Jean once again gathered all his muscular force for a tremendous spring.
Springer saw the girl first and he appeared thunderstruck. His jaw dropped. He needed not the white gleam of her person to transfix him. Her eyes did that and they were riveted in unutterable horror upon something on the ground. Thus instinctively directed, Springer espied Colter.
"Y'u--y'u shot him!" he shrieked. "What for--y'u hussy? . . . Ellen Jorth, if y'u've killed him, I'll. . ."
He strode toward where Colter lay.
Then Jean, rising silently, took a step and like a tiger he launched himself into the air, down upon the rustler. Even as he leaped Springer gave a quick, upward look. And be cried out. Jean's moccasined feet struck him squarely and sent him staggering into the wall, where his head hit hard. Jean fell, but bounded up as the half-stunned Springer drew his gun. Then Jean lunged forward with a single sweep of his arm --and looked no more.
Ellen ran swaying out of the door, and, once clear of the threshold, she tottered out on the grass, to sink to her knees. The bright, golden sunlight gleamed upon her white shoulders and arms. Jean had one foot out of the door when he saw her and he whirled back to get her blouse. But Springer had fallen upon it. Snatching up a blanket, Jean ran out.
"Ellen! Ellen! Ellen!" he cried. "It's over! And reaching her, he tried to wrap her in the blanket.
She wildly clutched his knees. Jean was conscious only of her white, agonized face and the dark eyes with their look of terrible strain.
"Did y'u--did y'u . . . " she whispered.
"Yes--it's over," he said, gravely. "Ellen, the Isbel-Jorth feud is ended."
"Oh, thank--God!" she cried, in breaking voice. "Jean--y'u are wounded . . the blood on the step!"
"My arm. See. It's not bad. . . . Ellen, let me wrap this round you." Folding the blanket around her shoulders, he held it there and entreated her to get up. But she only clung the closer. She hid her face on his knees. Long shudders rippled over her, shaking the blanket, shaking Jean's hands. Distraught, he did not know what to do. And his own heart was bursting.
"Ellen, you must not kneel--there--that way," he implored.
"Jean! Jean!" she moaned, and clung the tighter.
He tried to lift her up, but she was a dead weight, and with that hold on him seemed anchored at his feet.
"I killed Colter," she gasped. "I had to--kill him! . . . I offered --to fling myself away. . . ."
"For me!" he cried, poignantly. "Oh, Ellen! Ellen! the world has come to an end! . . . Hush! don't keep sayin' that. Of course you killed him. You saved my life. For I'd never have let you go off with him . . . . Yes, you killed him. . . . You're a Jorth an' I'm an Isbel . . . We've blood on our hands--both of us--I for you an' you for me!"
His voice of entreaty and sadness strengthened her and she raised her white face, loosening her clasp to lean back and look up. Tragic, sweet, despairing, the loveliless of her--the significance of her there on her knees--thrilled him to his soul.
"Blood on my hands!" she whispered. "Yes. It was awful--killing him. . . But--all I care for in this world is for your forgiveness--and your faith that saved my soul! "
"Child, there's nothin' to forgive," he responded. "Nothin'. . . Please, Ellen. . ."
"I lied to y'u!" she cried. "I lied to y'u!"
"Ellen, listen--darlin'." And the tender epithet brought her head and arms back close-pressed to him. "I know--now," he faltered on. "I found out to-day what I believed. An' I swear to God--by the memory of my dead mother--down in my heart I never, never, never believed what they--what y'u tried to make me believe. Never! "
"Jean--I love y'u--love y'u--love y'u!" she breathed with exquisite, passionate sweetness. Her dark eyes burned up into his.
"Ellen, I can't lift you up," he said, in trembling eagerness, signifiying his crippled arm. "But I can kneel with you! . . ."