To The Last Man by Zane Grey
Old John Sprague launched into his narrative with evident zest.
"I hung round Greaves' store most of two days. An' I heerd a heap. Some of it was jest plain ole men's gab, but I reckon I got the drift of things concernin' Grass Valley. Yestiddy mornin' I was packin' my burros in Greaves' back yard, takin' my time carryin' out supplies from the store. An' as last when I went in I seen a strange fellar was thar. Strappin' young man--not so young, either--an' he had on buckskin. Hair black as my burros, dark face, sharp eyes--you'd took him fer an Injun. He carried a rifle--one of them new forty-fours--an' also somethin' wrapped in paper thet he seemed partickler careful about. He wore a belt round his middle an' thar was a bowie-knife in it, carried like I've seen scouts an' Injun fighters hev on the frontier in the 'seventies. That looked queer to me, an' I reckon to the rest of the crowd thar. No one overlooked the big six-shooter he packed Texas fashion. Wal, I didn't hev no idee this fellar was an Isbel until I heard Greaves call him thet.
"'Isbel,' said Greaves, 'reckon your money's counterfeit hyar. I cain't sell you anythin'.'
"'Counterfeit? Not much,' spoke up the young fellar, an' he flipped some gold twenties on the bar, where they rung like bells. 'Why not? Ain't this a store? I want a cinch strap.'
"Greaves looked particular sour thet mornin'. I'd been watchin' him fer two days. He hedn't hed much sleep, fer I hed my bed back of the store, an' I heerd men come in the night an' hev long confabs with him. Whatever was in the wind hedn't pleased him none. An' I calkilated thet young Isbel wasn't a sight good fer Greaves' sore eyes, anyway. But he paid no more attention to Isbel. Acted jest as if he hedn't heerd Isbel say he wanted a cinch strap.
"I stayed inside the store then. Thar was a lot of fellars I'd seen, an' some I knowed. Couple of card games goin', an' drinkin', of course. I soon gathered thet the general atmosphere wasn't friendly to Jean Isbel. He seen thet quick enough, but he didn't leave. Between you an' me I sort of took a likin' to him. An' I sure watched him as close as I could, not seemin' to, you know. Reckon they all did the same, only you couldn't see it. It got jest about the same as if Isbel hedn't been in thar, only you knowed it wasn't really the same. Thet was how I got the hunch the crowd was all sheepmen or their friends. The day before I'd heerd a lot of talk about this young Isbel, an' what he'd come to Grass Valley fer, an' what a bad hombre he was. An' when I seen him I was bound to admit he looked his reputation.
"Wal, pretty soon in come two more fellars, an' I knowed both of them. You know them, too, I'm sorry to say. Fer I'm comin' to facts now thet will shake you. The first fellar was your father's Mexican foreman, Lorenzo, and the other was Simm Bruce. I reckon Bruce wasn't drunk, but he'd sure been lookin' on red licker. When he seen Isbel darn me if he didn't swell an' bustle all up like a mad ole turkey gobbler.
"'Greaves,' he said, 'if thet fellar's Jean Isbel I ain't hankerin' fer the company y'u keep.' An' he made no bones of pointin' right at Isbel. Greaves looked up dry an' sour an' he bit out spiteful-like: 'Wal, Simm, we ain't hed a hell of a lot of choice in this heah matter. Thet's Jean Isbel shore enough. Mebbe you can persuade him thet his company an' his custom ain't wanted round heah!'
"Jean Isbel set on the counter an took it all in, but he didn't say nothin'. The way he looked at Bruce was sure enough fer me to see thet thar might be a surprise any minnit. I've looked at a lot of men in my day, an' can sure feel events comin'. Bruce got himself a stiff drink an' then he straddles over the floor in front of Isbel.
"'Air you Jean Isbel, son of ole Gass Isbel?' asked Bruce, sort of lolling back an' givin' a hitch to his belt.
"'Yes sir, you've identified me,' said Isbel, nice an' polite.
"'My name's Bruce. I'm rangin' sheep heahaboots, an, I hev interest in Kurnel Lee Jorth's bizness.'
"'Hod do, Mister Bruce,' replied Isbel, very civil ant cool as you please. Bruce hed an eye fer the crowd thet was now listenin' an' watchin'. He swaggered closer to Isbel.
"'We heerd y'u come into the Tonto Basin to run us sheepmen off the range. How aboot thet?'
"'Wal, you heerd wrong,' said Isbel, quietly. 'I came to work fer my father. Thet work depends on what happens.'
" Bruce began to git redder of face, an' he shook a husky hand in front of Isbel. 'I'll tell y'u this heah, my Nez Perce Isbel--' an' when he sort of choked fer more wind Greaves spoke up, 'Simm, I shore reckon thet Nez Perce handle will stick.' An' the crowd haw-hawed. Then Bruce got goin' ag'in. 'I'll tell y'u this heah, Nez Perce. Thar's been enough happen already to run y'u out of Arizona.'
"'Wal, you don't say! What, fer instance?, asked Isbel, quick an' sarcastic.
"Thet made Bruce bust out puffin' an' spittin': 'Wha-tt, fer instance? Huh! Why, y'u darn half-breed, y'u'll git run out fer makin' up to Ellen Jorth. Thet won't go in this heah country. Not fer any Isbel.'
"'You're a liar,' called Isbel, an' like a big cat he dropped off the counter. I heerd his moccasins pat soft on the floor. An' I bet to myself thet he was as dangerous as he was quick. But his voice an' his looks didn't change even a leetle.
"'I'm not a liar,' yelled Bruce. 'I'll make y'u eat thet. I can prove what I say. . . . Y'u was seen with Ellen Jorth--up on the Rim--day before yestiddy. Y'u was watched. Y'u was with her. Y'u made up to her. Y'u grabbed her an' kissed her! . . . An' I'm heah to say, Nez Perce, thet y'u're a marked man on this range.'
"'Who saw me?' asked Isbel, quiet an' cold. I seen then thet he'd turned white in the face.
"'Yu cain't lie out of it,' hollered Bruce, wavin' his hands. 'We got y'u daid to rights. Lorenzo saw y'u--follered y'u--watched y'u.' Bruce pointed at the grinnin' greaser. 'Lorenzo is Kurnel Jorth's foreman. He seen y'u maulin' of Ellen Jorth. An' when he tells the Kurnel an' Tad Jorth an' Jackson Jorth! . . . Haw! Haw! Haw! Why, hell 'd be a cooler place fer yu then this heah Tonto.'
"Greaves an' his gang hed come round, sure tickled clean to thar gizzards at this mess. I noticed, howsomever, thet they was Texans enough to keep back to one side in case this Isbel started any action. . . . Wal, Isbel took a look at Lorenzo. Then with one swift grab he jerked the little greaser off his feet an' pulled him close. Lorenzo stopped grinnin'. He began to look a leetle sick. But it was plain he hed right on his side.
"'You say you saw me?' demanded Isbel.
"'Si, senor,' replied Lorenzo.
"What did you see?'
"'I see senor an' senorita. I hide by manzanita. I see senorita like grande senor ver mooch. She like senor keese. She--'
"Then Isbel hit the little greaser a back-handed crack in the mouth. Sure it was a crack! Lorenzo went over the counter backward an' landed like a pack load of wood. An' he didn't git up.
"'Mister Bruce,' said Isbel, 'an' you fellars who heerd thet lyin' greaser, I did meet Ellen Jorth. An' I lost my head. I 'I kissed her. . . . But it was an accident. I meant no insult. I apologized--I tried to explain my crazy action. . . . Thet was all. The greaser lied. Ellen Jorth was kind enough to show me the trail. We talked a little. Then--I suppose--because she was young an' pretty an' sweet--I lost my head. She was absolutely innocent. Thet damned greaser told a bare-faced lie when he said she liked me. The fact was she despised me. She said so. An' when she learned I was Jean Isbel she turned her back on me an' walked away."'
At this point of his narrative the old man halted as if to impress Ellen not only with what just had been told, but particularly with what was to follow. The reciting of this tale had evidently given Sprague an unconscious pleasure. He glowed. He seemed to carry the burden of a secret that he yearned to divulge. As for Ellen, she was deadlocked in breathless suspense. All her emotions waited for the end. She begged Sprague to hurry.
"Wal, I wish I could skip the next chapter an' hev only the last to tell," rejoined the old man, and he put a heavy, but solicitous, hand upon hers. . . . Simm Bruce haw-hawed loud an' loud. . . . 'Say, Nez Perce,' he calls out, most insolent-like, 'we air too good sheepmen heah to hev the wool pulled over our eyes. We shore know what y'u meant by Ellen Jorth. But y'u wasn't smart when y'u told her y'u was Jean Isbel! . . . Haw-haw!'
"Isbel flashed a strange, surprised look from the red-faced Bruce to Greaves and to the other men. I take it he was wonderin' if he'd heerd right or if they'd got the same hunch thet 'd come to him. An' I reckon he determined to make sure.
"'Why wasn't I smart?' he asked.
"'Shore y'u wasn't smart if y'u was aimin' to be one of Ellen Jorth's lovers,' said Bruce, with a leer. 'Fer if y'u hedn't give y'urself away y'u could hev been easy enough.'
"Thar was no mistakin' Bruce's meanin' an' when he got it out some of the men thar laughed. Isbel kept lookin' from one to another of them. Then facin' Greaves, he said, deliberately: 'Greaves, this drunken Bruce is excuse enough fer a show-down. I take it that you are sheepmen, an' you're goin' on Jorth's side of the fence in the matter of this sheep rangin'.'
"'Wal, Nez Perce, I reckon you hit plumb center,' said Greaves, dryly. He spread wide his big hands to the other men, as if to say they'd might as well own the jig was up.
"'All right. You're Jorth's backers. Have any of you a word to say in Ellen Jorth's defense? I tell you the Mexican lied. Believin' me or not doesn't matter. But this vile-mouthed Bruce hinted against thet girl's honor.'
"Ag'in some of the men laughed, but not so noisy, an' there was a nervous shufflin' of feet. Isbel looked sort of queer. His neck had a bulge round his collar. An' his eyes was like black coals of fire. Greaves spread his big hands again, as if to wash them of this part of the dirty argument.
"'When it comes to any wimmen I pass--much less play a hand fer a wildcat like Jorth's gurl,' said Greaves, sort of cold an' thick. 'Bruce shore ought to know her. Accordin' to talk heahaboots an' what he says, Ellen Jorth has been his gurl fer two years.'
"Then Isbel turned his attention to Bruce an' I fer one begun to shake in my boots.
"'Say thet to me!' he called.
"'Shore she's my gurl, an' thet's why Im a-goin' to hev y'u run off this range.'
"Isbel jumped at Bruce. 'You damned drunken cur! You vile-mouthed liar! . . . . I may be an Isbel, but by God you cain't slander thet girl to my face! . . . Then he moved so quick I couldn't see what he did. But I heerd his fist hit Bruce. It sounded like an ax ag'in' a beef. Bruce fell clear across the room. An' by Jinny when he landed Isbel was thar. As Bruce staggered up, all bloody-faced, bellowin' an' spittin' out teeth Isbel eyed Greaves's crowd an' said: 'If any of y'u make a move it 'll mean gun-play.' Nobody moved, thet's sure. In fact, none of Greaves's outfit was packin' guns, at least in sight. When Bruce got all the way up--he's a tall fellar--why Isbel took a full swing at him an' knocked him back across the room ag'in' the counter. Y'u know when a fellar's hurt by the way he yells. Bruce got thet second smash right on his big red nose. . . . I never seen any one so quick as Isbel. He vaulted over thet counter jest the second Bruce fell back on it, an' then, with Greaves's gang in front so he could catch any moves of theirs, he jest slugged Bruce right an' left, an' banged his head on the counter. Then as Bruce sunk limp an' slipped down, lookin' like a bloody sack, Isbel let him fall to the floor. Then he vaulted back over the counter. Wipin' the blood off his hands, he throwed his kerchief down in Bruce's face. Bruce wasn't dead or bad hurt. He'd jest been beaten bad. He was moanin' an' slobberin'. Isbel kicked him, not hard, but jest sort of disgustful. Then he faced thet crowd. 'Greaves, thet's what I think of your Simm Bruce. Tell him next time he sees me to run or pull a gun.' An' then Isbel grabbed his rifle an' package off the counter an' went out. He didn't even look back. I seen him nount his horse an' ride away. . . . Now, girl, what hev you to say?"
Ellen could only say good-by and the word was so low as to be almost inaudible. She ran to her burro. She could not see very clearly through tear-blurred eyes, and her shaking fingers were all thumbs. It seemed she had to rush away--somewhere, anywhere--not to get away from old John Sprague, but from herself--this palpitating, bursting self whose feet stumbled down the trail. All--all seemed ended for her. That interminable story! It had taken so long. And every minute of it she had been helplessly torn asunder by feelings she had never known she possessed. This Ellen Jorth was an unknown creature. She sobbed now as she dragged the burro down the canyon trail. She sat down only to rise. She hurried only to stop. Driven, pursued, barred, she had no way to escape the flaying thoughts, no time or will to repudiate them. The death of her girlhood, the rending aside of a veil of maiden mystery only vaguely instinctively guessed, the barren, sordid truth of her life as seen by her enlightened eyes, the bitter realization of the vileness of men of her clan in contrast to the manliness and chivalry of an enemy, the hard facts of unalterable repute as created by slander and fostered by low minds, all these were forces in a cataclysm that had suddenly caught her heart and whirled her through changes immense and agonizing, to bring her face to face with reality, to force upon her suspicion and doubt of all she had trusted, to warn her of the dark, impending horror of a tragic bloody feud, and lastly to teach her the supreme truth at once so glorious and so terrible--that she could not escape the doom of womanhood.
About noon that day Ellen Jorth arrived at the Knoll, which was the location of her father's ranch. Three canyons met there to form a larger one. The knoll was a symmetrical hill situated at the mouth of the three canyons. It was covered with brush and cedars, with here and there lichened rocks showing above the bleached grass. Below the Knoll was a wide, grassy flat or meadow through which a willow-bordered stream cut its rugged boulder-strewn bed. Water flowed abundantly at this season, and the deep washes leading down from the slopes attested to the fact of cloudbursts and heavy storms. This meadow valley was dotted with horses and cattle, and meandered away between the timbered slopes to lose itself in a green curve. A singular feature of this canyon was that a heavy growth of spruce trees covered the slope facing northwest; and the opposite slope, exposed to the sun and therefore less snowbound in winter, held a sparse growth of yellow pines. The ranch house of Colonel Jorth stood round the rough comer of the largest of the three canyons, and rather well hidden, it did not obtrude its rude and broken-down log cabins, its squalid surroundings, its black mud-holes of corrals upon the beautiful and serene meadow valley.
Ellen Jorth approached her home slowly, with dragging, reluctant steps; and never before in the three unhappy years of her existence there had the ranch seemed so bare, so uncared for, so repugnant to her. As she had seen herself with clarified eyes, so now she saw her home. The cabin that Ellen lived in with her father was a single-room structure with one door and no windows. It was about twenty feet square. The huge, ragged, stone chimney had been built on the outside, with the wide open fireplace set inside the logs. Smoke was rising from the chimney. As Ellen halted at the door and began unpacking her burro she heard the loud, lazy laughter of men. An adjoining log cabin had been built in two sections, with a wide roofed hall or space between them. The door in each cabin faced the other, and there was a tall man standing in one. Ellen recognized Daggs, a neighbor sheepman, who evidently spent more time with her father than at his own home, wherever that was. Ellen had never seen it. She heard this man drawl, "Jorth, heah's your kid come home."
Ellen carried her bed inside the cabin, and unrolled it upon a couch built of boughs in the far corner. She had forgotten Jean Isbel's package, and now it fell out under her sight. Quickly she covered it. A Mexican woman, relative of Antonio, and the only servant about the place, was squatting Indian fashion before the fireplace, stirring a pot of beans. She and Ellen did not get along well together, and few words ever passed between them. Ellen had a canvas curtain stretched upon a wire across a small triangular comer, and this afforded her a little privacy. Her possessions were limited in number. The crude square table she had constructed herself. Upon it was a little old-fashioned walnut-framed mirror, a brush and comb, and a dilapidated ebony cabinet which contained odds and ends the sight of which always brought a smile of derisive self-pity to her lips. Under the table stood an old leather trunk. It had come with her from Texas, and contained clothing and belongings of her mother's. Above the couch on pegs hung her scant wardrobe. A tiny shelf held several worn-out books.
When her father slept indoors, which was seldom except in winter, he occupied a couch in the opposite corner. A rude cupboard had been built against the logs next to the fireplace. It contained supplies and utensils. Toward the center, somewhat closer to the door, stood a crude table and two benches. The cabin was dark and smelled of smoke, of the stale odors of past cooked meals, of the mustiness of dry, rotting timber. Streaks of light showed through the roof where the rough-hewn shingles had split or weathered. A strip of bacon hung upon one side of the cupboard, and upon the other a haunch of venison. Ellen detested the Mexican woman because she was dirty. The inside of the cabin presented the same unkempt appearance usual to it after Ellen had been away for a few days. Whatever Ellen had lost during the retrogression of the Jorths, she had kept her habits of cleanliness, and straightway upon her return she set to work.
The Mexican woman sullenly slouched away to her own quarters outside and Ellen was left to the satisfaction of labor. Her mind was as busy as her hands. As she cleaned and swept and dusted she heard from time to time the voices of men, the clip-clop of shod horses, the bellow of cattle. And a considerable time elapsed before she was disturbed,
A tall shadow darkened the doorway.
"Howdy, little one!" said a lazy, drawling voice. "So y'u-all got home?"
Ellen looked up. A superbly built man leaned against the doorpost. Like most Texans, he was light haired and light eyed. His face was lined and hard. His long, sandy mustache hid his mouth and drooped with a curl. Spurred, booted, belted, packing a heavy gun low down on his hip, he gave Ellen an entirely new impression. Indeed. she was seeing everything strangely.
"Hello, Daggs!" replied Ellen. "Where's my dad?"
"He's playin' cairds with Jackson an' Colter. Shore's playin' bad, too, an' it's gone to his haid."
"Gamblin'?" queried Ellen.
"Mah child, when'd Kurnel Jorth ever play for fun?" said Daggs, with a lazy laugh. "There's a stack of gold on the table. Reckon yo' uncle Jackson will win it. Colter's shore out of luck."
Daggs stepped inside. He was graceful and slow. His long' spurs clinked. He laid a rather compelling hand on Ellen's shoulder.
"Heah, mah gal, give us a kiss," he said.
"Daggs, I'm not your girl," replied Ellen as she slipped out from under his hand.
Then Daggs put his arm round her, not with violence or rudeness, but with an indolent, affectionate assurance, at once bold and self-contained. Ellen, however, had to exert herself to get free of him, and when she had placed the table between them she looked him square in the eyes.
"Daggs, y'u keep your paws off me," she said.
"Aw, now, Ellen, I ain't no bear," he remonstrated. "What's the matter, kid?"
"I'm not a kid. And there's nothin' the matter. Y'u're to keep your hands to yourself, that's all."
He tried to reach her across the table, and his movements were lazy and slow, like his smile. His tone was coaxing.
"Mah dear, shore you set on my knee just the other day, now, didn't you?"
Ellen felt the blood sting her cheeks.
"I was a child," she returned.
"Wal, listen to this heah grown-up young woman. All in a few days! . . . Doon't be in a temper, Ellen. . . . Come, give us a kiss."
She deliberately gazed into his eyes. Like the eyes of an eagle, they were clear and hard, just now warmed by the dalliance of the moment, but there was no light, no intelligence in them to prove he understood her. The instant separated Ellen immeasurably from him and from all of his ilk.
"Daggs, I was a child," she said. "I was lonely--hungry for affection --I was innocent. Then I was careless, too, and thoughtless when I should have known better. But I hardly understood y'u men. I put such thoughts out of my mind. I know now--know what y'u mean--what y'u have made people believe I am."
"Ahuh! Shore I get your hunch," he returned, with a change of tone. "But I asked you to marry me?"
"Yes y'u did. The first day y'u got heah to my dad's house. And y'u asked me to marry y'u after y'u found y'u couldn't have your way with me. To y'u the one didn't mean any more than the other."
"Shore I did more than Simm Bruce an' Colter," he retorted. "They never asked you to marry."
"No, they didn't. And if I could respect them at all I'd do it because they didn't ask me."
"Wal, I'll be dog-goned!" ejaculated Daggs, thoughtfully, as he stroked his long mustache.
"I'll say to them what I've said to y'u," went on Ellen. "I'll tell dad to make y'u let me alone. I wouldn't marry one of y'u--y'u loafers to save my life. I've my suspicions about y'u. Y'u're a bad lot."
Daggs changed subtly. The whole indolent nonchalance of the man vanished in an instant.
"Wal, Miss Jorth, I reckon you mean we're a bad lot of sheepmen?" he queried, in the cool, easy speech of a Texan.
"No," flashed Ellen. "Shore I don't say sheepmen. I say y'u're a bad lot."
"Oh, the hell you say!" Daggs spoke as he might have spoken to a man; then turning swiftly on his heel he left her. Outside he encountered Ellen's father. She heard Daggs speak: "Lee, your little wildcat is shore heah. An' take mah hunch. Somebody has been talkin' to her."
"Who has?" asked her father, in his husky voice. Ellen knew at once that he had been drinking.
"Lord only knows," replied Daggs. "But shore it wasn't any friends of ours."
"We cain't stop people's tongues," said Jorth, resignedly
"Wal, I ain't so shore," continued Daggs, with his slow, cool laugh. "Reckon I never yet heard any daid men's tongues wag."
Then the musical tinkle of his spurs sounded fainter. A moment later Ellen's father entered the cabin. His dark, moody face brightened at sight of her. Ellen knew she was the only person in the world left for him to love. And she was sure of his love. Her very presence always made him different. And through the years, the darker their misfortunes, the farther he slipped away from better days, the more she loved him.
"Hello, my Ellen!" he said, and he embraced her. When he had been drinking he never kissed her. "Shore I'm glad you're home. This heah hole is bad enough any time, but when you're gone it's black. . . . I'm hungry."
Ellen laid food and drink on the table; and for a little while she did not look directly at him. She was concerned about this new searching power of her eyes. In relation to him she vaguely dreaded it.
Lee Jorth had once been a singularly handsome man. He was tall, but did not have the figure of a horseman. His dark hair was streaked with gray, and was white over his ears. His face was sallow and thin, with deep lines. Under his round, prominent, brown eyes, like deadened furnaces, were blue swollen welts. He had a bitter mouth and weak chin, not wholly concealed by gray mustache and pointed beard. He wore a long frock coat and a wide-brimmed sombrero, both black in color, and so old and stained and frayed that along with the fashion of them they betrayed that they had come from Texas with him. Jorth always persisted in wearing a white linen shirt, likewise a relic of his Southern prosperity, and to-day it was ragged and soiled as usual.
Ellen watched her father eat and waited for him to speak. It occured to her strangely that he never asked about the sheep or the new-born lambs. She divined with a subtle new woman's intuition that he cared nothing for his sheep.
"Ellen, what riled Daggs?" inquired her father, presently. "He shore had fire in his eye."
Long ago Ellen had betrayed an indignity she had suffered at the hands of a man. Her father had nearly killed him. Since then she had taken care to keep her troubles to herself. If her father had not been blind and absorbed in his own brooding he would have seen a thousand things sufficient to inflame his Southern pride and temper.
"Daggs asked me to marry him again and I said he belonged to a bad lot," she replied.
Jorth laughed in scorn. "Fool! My God! Ellen, I must have dragged you low--that every damned ru--er--sheepman--who comes along thinks he can marry you."
At the break in his words, the incompleted meaning, Ellen dropped her eyes. Little things once never noted by her were now come to have a fascinating significance.
"Never mind, dad," she replied. "They cain't marry me."
"Daggs said somebody had been talkin' to you. How aboot that?"
"Old John Sprague has just gotten back from Grass Valley," said Ellen. "I stopped in to see him. Shore he told me all the village gossip."
"Anythin' to interest me?" he queried, darkly.
"Yes, dad, I'm afraid a good deal," she said, hesitatingly. Then in accordance with a decision Ellen had made she told him of the rumored war between sheepmen and cattlemen; that old Isbel had Blaisdell, Gordon, Fredericks, Blue and other well-known ranchers on his side; that his son Jean Isbel had come from Oregon with a wonderful reputation as fighter and scout and tracker; that it was no secret how Colonel Lee Jorth was at the head of the sheepmen; that a bloody war was sure to come.
"Hah!" exclaimed Jorth, with a stain of red in his sallow cheek. "Reckon none of that is news to me. I knew all that."
Ellen wondered if he had heard of her meeting with Jean Isbel. If not he would hear as soon as Simm Bruce and Lorenzo came back. She decided to forestall them.
"Dad, I met Jean Isbel. He came into my camp. Asked the way to the Rim. I showed him. We--we talked a little. And shore were gettin' acquainted when--when he told me who he was. Then I left him--hurried back to camp."
"Colter met Isbel down in the woods," replied Jorth, ponderingly. "Said he looked like an Indian--a hard an' slippery customer to reckon with."
"Shore I guess I can indorse what Colter said," returned Ellen, dryly. She could have laughed aloud at her deceit. Still she had not lied.
"How'd this heah young Isbel strike you?" queried her father, suddenly glancing up at her.
Ellen felt the slow, sickening, guilty rise of blood in her face. She was helpless to stop it. But her father evidently never saw it. He was looking at her without seeing her.
"He--he struck me as different from men heah," she stammered.
"Did Sprague tell you aboot this half-Indian Isbel--aboot his reputation?"
"Did he look to you like a real woodsman?"
"Indeed he did. He wore buckskin. He stepped quick and soft. He acted at home in the woods. He had eyes black as night and sharp as lightnin'. They shore saw about all there was to see."
Jorth chewed at his mustache and lost himself in brooding thought.
"Dad, tell me, is there goin' to be a war?" asked Ellen, presently.
What a red, strange, rolling flash blazed in his eyes! His body jerked.
"Shore. You might as well know."
"Between sheepmen and cattlemen?"
"With y'u, dad, at the haid of one faction and Gaston Isbel the other? "
"Daughter, you have it correct, so far as you go."
"Oh! . . . Dad, can't this fight be avoided?"
"You forget you're from Texas," he replied.
"Cain't it be helped?" she repeated, stubbornly.
"No!" he declared, with deep, hoarse passion.
"Wal, we sheepmen are goin' to run sheep anywhere we like on the range. An' cattlemen won't stand for that."
"But, dad, it's so foolish," declared Ellen, earnestly. "Y'u sheepmen do not have to run sheep over the cattle range."
"I reckon we do."
"Dad, that argument doesn't go with me. I know the country. For years to come there will be room for both sheep and cattle without overrunnin'. If some of the range is better in water and grass, then whoever got there first should have it. That shore is only fair. It's common sense, too."
"Ellen, I reckon some cattle people have been prejudicin' you," said Jorth, bitterly.
"Dad!" she cried, hotly.
This had grown to be an ordeal for Jorth. He seemed a victim of contending tides of feeling. Some will or struggle broke within him and the change was manifest. Haggard, shifty-eyed, with wabbling chin, he burst into speech.
"See heah, girl. You listen. There's a clique of ranchers down in the Basin, all those you named, with Isbel at their haid. They have resented sheepmen comin' down into the valley. They want it all to themselves. That's the reason. Shore there's another. All the Isbels are crooked. They're cattle an' horse thieves--have been for years. Gaston Isbel always was a maverick rustler. He's gettin' old now an' rich, so he wants to cover his tracks. He aims to blame this cattle rustlin' an' horse stealin' on to us sheepmen, an' run us out of the country."
Gravely Ellen Jorth studied her father's face, and the newly found truth-seeing power of her eyes did not fail her. In part, perhaps in all, he was telling lies. She shuddered a little, loyally battling against the insidious convictions being brought to fruition. Perhaps in his brooding over his failures and troubles he leaned toward false judgments. Ellen could not attach dishonor to her father's motives or speeches. For long, however, something about him had troubled her, perplexed her. Fearfully she believed she was coming to some revelation, and, despite her keen determination to know, she found herself shrinking.
"Dad, mother told me before she died that the Isbels had ruined you," said Ellen, very low. It hurt her so to see her father cover his face that she could hardly go on. "If they ruined you they ruined all of us. I know what we had once--what we lost again and again--and I see what we are come to now. Mother hated the Isbels. She taught me to hate the very name. But I never knew how they ruined you--or why-- or when. And I want to know now."
Then it was not the face of a liar that Jorth disclosed. The present was forgotten. He lived in the past. He even seemed younger 'in the revivifying flash of hate that made his face radiant. The lines burned out. Hate gave him back the spirit of his youth.
"Gaston Isbel an' I were boys together in Weston, Texas," began Jorth, in swift, passionate voice. "We went to school together. We loved the same girl--your mother. When the war broke out she was engaged to Isbel. His family was rich. They influenced her people. But she loved me. When Isbel went to war she married me. He came back an' faced us. God! I'll never forget that. Your mother confessed her unfaithfulness--by Heaven! She taunted him with it. Isbel accused me of winnin' her by lies. But she took the sting out of that.
Isbel never forgave her an' he hounded me to ruin. He made me out a card-sharp, cheatin' my best friends. I was disgraced. Later he tangled me in the courts--he beat me out of property--an' last by convictin' me of rustlin' cattle he run me out of Texas."
Black and distorted now, Jorth's face was a spectacle to make Ellen sick with a terrible passion of despair and hate. The truth of her father's ruin and her own were enough. What mattered all else? Jorth beat the table with fluttering, nerveless hands that seemed all the more significant for their lack of physical force.
"An' so help me God, it's got to be wiped out in blood!" he hissed.
That was his answer to the wavering and nobility of Ellen. And she in her turn had no answer to make. She crept away into the corner behind the curtain, and there on her couch in the semidarkness she lay with strained heart, and a resurging, unconquerable tumult in her mind. And she lay there from the middle of that afternoon until the next morning.
When she awakened she expected to be unable to rise--she hoped she could not--but life seemed multiplied in her, and inaction was impossible. Something young and sweet and hopeful that had been in her did not greet the sun this morning. In their place was a woman's passion to learn for herself, to watch events, to meet what must come, to survive.
After breakfast, at which she sat alone, she decided to put Isbel's package out of the way, so that it would not be subjecting her to continual annoyance. The moment she picked it up the old curiosity assailed her.
"Shore I'll see what it is, anyway," she muttered, and with swift hands she opened the package. The action disclosed two pairs of fine, soft shoes, of a style she had never seen, and four pairs of stockings, two of strong, serviceable wool, and the others of a finer texture. Ellen looked at them in amaze. Of all things in the world, these would have been the last she expected to see. And, strangely, they were what she wanted and needed most. Naturally, then, Ellen made the mistake of taking them in her hands to feel their softness and warmth.
"Shore! He saw my bare legs! And he brought me these presents he'd intended for his sister. . . . He was ashamed for me--sorry for me. . . And I thought he looked at me bold-like, as I'm used to be looked at heah! Isbel or not, he's shore. . ."
But Ellen Jorth could not utter aloud the conviction her intelligence tried to force upon her.
"It'd be a pity to burn them," she mused. "I cain't do it. Sometime I might send them to Ann Isbel."
Whereupon she wrapped them up again and hid them in the bottom of the old trunk, and slowly, as she lowered the lid, looking darkly, blankly at the wall, she whispered: "Jean Isbel! . . . I hate him!"
Later when Ellen went outdoors she carried her rifle, which was unusual for her, unless she intended to go into the woods.
The morning was sunny and warm. A group of shirt-sleeved men lounged in the hall and before the porch of the double cabin. Her father was pacing up and down, talking forcibly. Ellen heard his hoarse voice. As she approached he ceased talking and his listeners relaxed their attention. Ellen's glance ran over them swiftly--Daggs, with his superb head, like that of a hawk, uncovered to the sun; Colter with his lowered, secretive looks, his sand-gray lean face; Jackson Jorth, her uncle, huge, gaunt, hulking, with white in his black beard and hair, and the fire of a ghoul in his hollow eyes; Tad Jorth, another brother of her father's, younger, red of eye and nose, a weak-chinned drinker of rum. Three other limber-legged Texans lounged there, partners of Daggs, and they were sun-browned, light-haired, blue-eyed men singularly alike in appearance, from their dusty high-heeled boots to their broad black sombreros. They claimed to be sheepmen. All Ellen could be sure of was that Rock Wells spent most of his time there, doing nothing but look for a chance to waylay her; Springer was a gambler; and the third, who answered to the strange name of Queen, was a silent, lazy, watchful-eyed man who never wore a glove on his right hand and who never was seen without a gun within easy reach of that hand.
"Howdy, Ellen. Shore you ain't goin' to say good mawnin' to this heah bad lot?" drawled Daggs, with good-natured sarcasm.
"Why, shore! Good morning, y'u hard-working industrious manana sheep raisers," replied Ellen, coolly.
Daggs stared. The others appeared taken back by a greeting so foreign from any to which they were accustomed from her. Jackson Jorth let out a gruff haw-haw. Some of them doffed their sombreros, and Rock Wells managed a lazy, polite good morning. Ellen's father seemed most significantly struck by her greeting, and the least amused.
"Ellen, I'm not likin' your talk, " he said, with a frown.
"Dad, when y'u play cards don't y'u call a spade a spade?"
"Why, shore I do."
"Well, I'm calling spades spades."
"Ahuh!" grunted Jorth, furtively dropping his eyes. "Where you goin' with your gun? I'd rather you hung round heah now."
"Reckon I might as well get used to packing my gun all the time," replied Ellen. "Reckon I'll be treated more like a man."
Then the event Ellen had been expecting all morning took place. Simm Bruce and Lorenzo rode around the slope of the Knoll and trotted toward the cabin. Interest in Ellen was relegated to the background.
"Shore they're bustin' with news," declared Daggs.
"They been ridin' some, you bet," remarked another.
"Huh!" exclaimed Jorth. "Bruce shore looks queer to me."
"Red liquor," said Tad Jorth, sententiously. "You-all know the brand Greaves hands out."
"Naw, Simm ain't drunk," said Jackson Jorth. "Look at his bloody shirt."
The cool, indolent interest of the crowd vanished at the red color pointed out by Jackson Jorth. Daggs rose in a single springy motion to his lofty height. The face Bruce turned to Jorth was swollen and bruised, with unhealed cuts. Where his right eye should have been showed a puffed dark purple bulge. His other eye, however, gleamed with hard and sullen light. He stretched a big shaking hand toward Jorth.
Thet Nez Perce Isbel beat me half to death," he bellowed.
Jorth stared hard at the tragic, almost grotesque figure, at the battered face. But speech failed him. It was Daggs who answered Bruce.
"Wal, Simm, I'll be damned if you don't look it."
"Beat you! What with?" burst out Jorth, explosively.
"I thought he was swingin' an ax, but Greaves swore it was his fists," bawled Bruce, in misery and fury.
"Where was your gun?" queried Jorth, sharply.
"Gun? Hell!" exclaimed Bruce, flinging wide his arms. "Ask Lorenzo. He had a gun. An' he got a biff in the jaw before my turn come. Ask him?"
Attention thus directed to the Mexican showed a heavy discolored swelling upon the side of his olive-skinned face. Lorenzo looked only serious.
"Hah! Speak up," shouted Jorth, impatiently.
"Senor Isbel heet me ver quick," replied Lorenzo, with expressive gesture. "I see thousand stars--then moocho black--all like night."
At that some of Daggs's men lolled back with dry crisp laughter. Daggs's hard face rippled with a smile. But there was no humor in anything for Colonel Jorth.
"Tell us what come off. Quick!" he ordered. "Where did it happen? Why? Who saw it? What did you do? "
Bruce lapsed into a sullen impressiveness. "Wal, I happened in Greaves's store an' run into Jean Isbel. Shore was lookin' fer him. I had my mind made up what to do, but I got to shootin' off my gab instead of my gun. I called him Nez Perce--an' I throwed all thet talk in his face about old Gass Isbel sendin' fer him---an' I told him he'd git run out of the Tonto. Reckon I was jest warmin' up. . . . But then it all happened. He slugged Lorenzo jest one. An' Lorenzo slid peaceful-like to bed behind the counter. I hadn't time to think of throwin' a gun before he whaled into me. He knocked out two of my teeth. An' I swallered one of them."
Ellen stood in the background behind three of the men and in the shadow. She did not join in the laugh that followed Bruce's remarks. She had known that he would lie. Uncertain yet of her reaction to this, but more bitter and furious as he revealed his utter baseness, she waited for more to be said.
"Wal, I'll be doggoned," drawled Daggs.
"What do you make of this kind of fightin'?" queried Jorth,
"Darn if I know," replied Daggs in perplexity. "Shore an' sartin it's not the way of a Texan. Mebbe this young Isbel really is what old Gass swears he is. Shore Bruce ain't nothin' to give an edge to a real gun fighter. Looks to me like Isbel bluffed Greaves an' his gang an' licked your men without throwin' a gun."
"Maybe Isbel doesn't want the name of drawin' first blood," suggested Jorth.
"That 'd be like Gass," spoke up Rock Wells, quietly. I onct rode fer Gass in Texas."
"Say, Bruce," said Daggs, "was this heah palaverin' of yours an' Jean Isbel's aboot the old stock dispute? Aboot his father's range an' water? An' partickler aboot, sheep?"
"Wal--I--I yelled a heap," declared Bruce, haltingly, "but I don't recollect all I said--I was riled. . . . Shore, though it was the same old argyment thet's been fetchin' us closer an' closer to trouble."
Daggs removed his keen hawklike gaze from Bruce. Wal, Jorth, all I'll say is this. If Bruce is tellin' the truth we ain't got a hell of a lot to fear from this young Isbel. I've known a heap of gun fighters in my day. An' Jean Isbel don't ran true to class. Shore there never was a gunman who'd risk cripplin' his right hand by sluggin' anybody."
"Wal," broke in Bruce, sullenly. "You-all can take it daid straight or not. I don't give a damn. But you've shore got my hunch thet Nez Perce Isbel is liable to handle any of you fellars jest as he did me, an' jest as easy. What's more, he's got Greaves figgered. An' you-all know thet Greaves is as deep in--"
"Shut up that kind of gab," demanded Jorth, stridently. "An' answer me. Was the row in Greaves's barroom aboot sheep?"
"Aw, hell! I said so, didn't I?" shouted Bruce, with a fierce uplift of his distorted face.
Ellen strode out from the shadow of the tall men who had obscured her.
"Bruce, y'u're a liar," she said, bitingly.
The surprise of her sudden appearance seemed to root Bruce to the spot. All but the discolored places on his face turned white. He held his breath a moment, then expelled it hard. His effort to recover from the shock was painfully obvious. He stammered incoherently.
"Shore y'u're more than a liar, too," cried Ellen, facing him with blazing eyes. And the rifle, gripped in both hands, seemed to declare her intent of menace. "That row was not about sheep. . . . Jean Isbel didn't beat y'u for anythin' about sheep. . . . Old John Sprague was in Greaves's store. He heard y'u. He saw Jean Isbel beat y'u as y'u deserved. . . . An' he told me!"
Ellen saw Bruce shrink in fear of his life; and despite her fury she was filled with disgust that he could imagine she would have his blood on her hands. Then she divined that Bruce saw more in the gathering storm in her father's eyes than he had to fear from her.
"Girl, what the hell are y'u sayin'?" hoarsely called Jorth, in dark amaze.
"Dad, y'u leave this to me," she retorted.
Daggs stepped beside Jorth, significantly on his right side. "Let her alone Lee," he advised, coolly. "She's shore got a hunch on Bruce."
"Simm Bruce, y'u cast a dirty slur on my name," cried Ellen, passionately.
It was then that Daggs grasped Jorth's right arm and held it tight, "Jest what I thought," he said. "Stand still, Lee. Let's see the kid make him showdown."
"That's what jean Isbel beat y'u for," went on Ellen. "For slandering a girl who wasn't there. . . . Me! Y'u rotten liar!"
"But, Ellen, it wasn't all lies," said Bruce, huskily. "I was half drunk--an' horrible jealous. . . . You know Lorenzo seen Isbel kissin' you. I can prove thet."
Ellen threw up her head and a scarlet wave of shame and wrath flooded her face.
"Yes," she cried, ringingly. "He saw Jean Isbel kiss me. Once! . . . An' it was the only decent kiss I've had in years. He meant no insult. I didn't know who be was. An' through his kiss I learned a difference between men. . . . Y'u made Lorenzo lie. An' if I had a shred of good name left in Grass Valley you dishonored it. . . . Y'u made him think I was your girl! Damn y'u! I ought to kill y'u. . . . Eat your words now--take them back--or I'll cripple y'u for life!"
Ellen lowered the cocked rifle toward his feet.
"Shore, Ellen, I take back--all I said," gulped Bruce. He gazed at the quivering rifle barrel and then into the face of Ellen's father. Instinct told him where his real peril lay.
Here the cool and tactful Daggs showed himself master of the situation.
"Heah, listen!" he called. "Ellen, I reckon Bruce was drunk an' out of his haid. He's shore ate his words. Now, we don't want any cripples in this camp. Let him alone. Your dad got me heah to lead the Jorths, an' that's my say to you. . . . Simm, you're shore a low-down lyin' rascal. Keep away from Ellen after this or I'll bore you myself. . . . Jorth, it won't be a bad idee for you to forget you're a Texan till you cool off. Let Bruce stop some Isbel lead. Shore the Jorth-Isbel war is aboot on, an' I reckon we'd be smart to believe old Gass's talk aboot his Nez Perce son."