To The Last Man by Zane Grey
From this hour Ellen Jorth bent all of her lately awakened intelligence and will to the only end that seemed to hold possible salvation for her. In the crisis sure to come she did not want to be blind or weak. Dreaming and indolence, habits born in her which were often a comfort to one as lonely as she, would ill fit her for the hard test she divined and dreaded. In the matter of her father's fight she must stand by him whatever the issue or the outcome; in what pertained to her own principles, her womanhood, and her soul she stood absolutely alone.
Therefore, Ellen put dreams aside, and indolence of mind and body behind her. Many tasks she found, and when these were done for a day she kept active in other ways, thus earning the poise and peace of labor.
Jorth rode off every day, sometimes with one or two of the men, often with a larger number. If he spoke of such trips to Ellen it was to give an impression of visiting the ranches of his neighbors or the various sheep camps. Often he did not return the day he left. When he did get back he smelled of rum and appeared heavy from need of sleep. His horses were always dust and sweat covered. During his absences Ellen fell victim to anxious dread until he returned. Daily he grew darker and more haggard of face, more obsessed by some impending fate. Often he stayed up late, haranguing with the men in the dim-lit cabin, where they drank and smoked, but seldom gambled any more. When the men did not gamble something immediate and perturbing was on their minds. Ellen had not yet lowered herself to the deceit and suspicion of eavesdropping, but she realized that there was a climax approaching in which she would deliberately do so.
In those closing May days Ellen learned the significance of many things that previously she had taken as a matter of course. Her father did not run a ranch. There was absolutely no ranching done, and little work. Often Ellen had to chop wood herself. Jorth did not possess a plow. Ellen was bound to confess that the evidence of this lack dumfounded her. Even old John Sprague raised some hay, beets, turnips. Jorth's cattle and horses fared ill during the winter. Ellen remembered how they used to clean up four-inch oak saplings and aspens. Many of them died in the snow. The flocks of sheep, however, were driven down into the Basin in the fall, and across the Reno Pass to Phoenix and Maricopa.
Ellen could not discover a fence post on the ranch. nor a piece of salt for the horses and cattle, nor a wagon, nor any sign of a sheep-shearing outfit. She had never seen any sheep sheared. Ellen could never keep track of the many and different horses running loose and hobbled round the ranch. There were droves of horses in the woods, and some of them wild as deer. According to her long-established understanding, her father and her uncles were keen on horse trading and buying.
Then the many trails leading away from the Jorth ranch--these grew to have a fascination for Ellen; and the time came when she rode out on them to see for herself where they led. The sheep ranch of Daggs, supposed to be only a few miles across the ridges, down in Bear Canyon, never materialized at all for Ellen. This circumstance so interested her that she went up to see her friend Sprague and got him to direct her to Bear Canyon, so that she would be sure not to miss it. And she rode from the narrow, maple-thicketed head of it near the Rim down all its length. She found no ranch, no cabin, not even a corral in Bear Canyon. Sprague said there was only one canyon by that name. Daggs had assured her of the exact location on his place, and so had her father. Had they lied? Were they mistaken in the canyon? There were many canyons, all heading up near the Rim, all running and widening down for miles through the wooded mountain, and vastly different from the deep, short, yellow-walled gorges that cut into the Rim from the Basin side. Ellen investigated the canyons within six or eight miles of her home, both to east and to west. All she discovered was a couple of old log cabins, long deserted. Still, she did not follow out all the trails to their ends. Several of them led far into the deepest, roughest, wildest brakes of gorge and thicket that she had seen. No cattle or sheep had ever been driven over these trails.
This riding around of Ellen's at length got to her father's ears. Ellen expected that a bitter quarrel would ensue, for she certainly would refuse to be confined to the camp; but her father only asked her to limit her riding to the meadow valley, and straightway forgot all about it. In fact, his abstraction one moment, his intense nervousness the next, his harder drinking and fiercer harangues with the men, grew to be distressing for Ellen. They presaged his further deterioration and the ever-present evil of the growing feud.
One day Jorth rode home in the early morning, after an absence of two nights. Ellen heard the clip-clop of, horses long before she saw them.
"Hey, Ellen! Come out heah," called her father.
Ellen left her work and went outside. A stranger had ridden in with her father, a young giant whose sharp-featured face appeared marked by ferret-like eyes and a fine, light, fuzzy beard. He was long, loose jointed, not heavy of build, and he had the largest hands and feet Ellen bad ever seen. Next Ellen espied a black horse they had evidently brought with them. Her father was holding a rope halter. At once the black horse struck Ellen as being a beauty and a thoroughbred.
"Ellen, heah's a horse for you," said Jorth, with something of pride. "I made a trade. Reckon I wanted him myself, but he's too gentle for me an' maybe a little small for my weight."
Delight visited Ellen for the first time in many days. Seldom had she owned a good horse, and never one like this.
"Oh, dad! " she exclaimed, in her gratitude.
"Shore he's yours on one condition," said her father.
"What's that?" asked Ellen, as she laid caressing hands on the restless horse.
"You're not to ride him out of the canyon."
"Agreed. . . . All daid black, isn't he, except that white face? What's his name, dad?
"I forgot to ask," replied Jorth. as he began unsaddling his own horse. "Slater, what's this heah black's name?"
The lanky giant grinned. "I reckon it was Spades."
"Spades?" ejaculated Ellen, blankly. "What a name! . . . Well, I guess it's as good as any. He's shore black."
"Ellen, keep him hobbled when you're not ridin' him," was her father's parting advice as he walked off with the stranger.
Spades was wet and dusty and his satiny skin quivered. He had fine, dark, intelligent eyes that watched Ellen's every move. She knew how her father and his friends dragged and jammed horses through the woods and over the rough trails. It did not take her long to discover that this horse had been a pet. Ellen cleaned his coat and brushed him and fed him. Then she fitted her bridle to suit his head and saddled him. His evident response to her kindness assured her that he was gentle, so she mounted and rode him, to discover he had the easiest gait she had ever experienced. He walked and trotted to suit her will, but when left to choose his own gait he fell into a graceful little pace that was very easy for her. He appeared quite ready to break into a run at her slightest bidding, but Ellen satisfied herself on this first ride with his slower gaits.
"Spades, y'u've shore cut out my burro Jinny," said Ellen, regretfully. "Well, I reckon women are fickle."
Next day she rode up the canyon to show Spades to her friend John Sprague. The old burro breeder was not at home. As his door was open, however, and a fire smoldering, Ellen concluded he would soon return. So she waited. Dismounting, she left Spades free to graze on the new green grass that carpeted the ground. The cabin and little level clearing accentuated the loneliness and wildness of the forest. Ellen always liked it here and had once been in the habit of visiting the old man often. But of late she had stayed away, for the reason that Sprague's talk and his news and his poorly hidden pity depressed her.
Presently she heard hoof beats on the hard, packed trail leading down the canyon in the direction from which she had come. Scarcely likely was it that Sprague should return from this direction. Ellen thought her father had sent one of the herders for her. But when she caught a glimpse of the approaching horseman, down in the aspens, she failed to recognize him. After he had passed one of the openings she heard his horse stop. Probably the man had seen her; at least she could not otherwise account for his stopping. The glimpse she had of him had given her the impression that he was bending over, peering ahead in the trail, looking for tracks. Then she heard the rider come on again, more slowly this time. At length the horse trotted out into the opening, to be hauled up short. Ellen recognized the buckskin-clad figure, the broad shoulders, the dark face of Jean Isbel.
Ellen felt prey to the strangest quaking sensation she had ever suffered. It took violence of her new-born spirit to subdue that feeling.
Isbel rode slowly across the clearing toward her. For Ellen his approach seemed singularly swift--so swift that her surprise, dismay, conjecture, and anger obstructed her will. The outwardly calm and cold Ellen Jorth was a travesty that mocked her--that she felt he would discern.
The moment Isbel drew close enough for Ellen to see his face she experienced a strong, shuddering repetition of her first shock of recognition. He was not the same. The light, the youth was gone. This, however, did not cause her emotion. Was it not a sudden transition of her nature to the dominance of hate? Ellen seemed to feel the shadow of her unknown self standing with her.
Isbel halted his horse. Ellen had been standing near the trunk of a fallen pine and she instinctively backed against it. How her legs trembled! Isbel took off his cap and crushed it nervously in his bare, brown hand.
"Good mornin', Miss Ellen! " he said.
Ellen did not return his greeting, but queried, almost breathlessly, "Did y'u come by our ranch?"
"No. I circled," he replied.
"Jean Isbel! What do y'u want heah?" she demanded.
"Don't you know?" he returned. His eyes were intensely black and piercing. They seemed to search Ellen's very soul. To meet their gaze was an ordeal that only her rousing fury sustained.
Ellen felt on her lips a scornful allusion to his half-breed Indian traits and the reputation that had preceded him. But she could not utter it.
"No" she replied.
"It's hard to call a woman a liar," he returned, bitterly. But you must be--seein' you're a Jorth.
"Liar! Not to y'u, Jean Isbel," she retorted. "I'd not lie to y'u to save my life."
He studied her with keen, sober, moody intent. The dark fire of his eyes thrilled her.
"If that's true, I'm glad," he said.
"Shore it's true. I've no idea why y'u came heah."
Ellen did have a dawning idea that she could not force into oblivion. But if she ever admitted it to her consciousness, she must fail in the contempt and scorn and fearlessness she chose to throw in this man's face.
"Does old Sprague live here?" asked Isbel.
"Yes. I expect him back soon. . . . Did y'u come to see him? "
"No. . . . Did Sprague tell you anythin' about the row he saw me in?"
"He--did not," replied Ellen, lying with stiff lips. She who had sworn she could not lie! She felt the hot blood leaving her heart, mounting in a wave. All her conscious will seemed impelled to deceive. What had she to hide from Jean Isbel? And a still, small voice replied that she had to hide the Ellen Jorth who had waited for him that day, who had spied upon him, who had treasured a gift she could not destroy, who had hugged to her miserable heart the fact that he had fought for her name.
"I'm glad of that," Isbel was saying, thoughtfully.
"Did you come heah to see me?" interrupted Ellen. She felt that she could not endure this reiterated suggestion of fineness, of consideration in him. She would betray herself--betray what she did not even realize herself. She must force other footing--and that should be the one of strife between the Jorths and Isbels.
"No--honest, I didn't, Miss Ellen," he rejoined, humbly. "I'll tell you, presently, why I came. But it wasn't to see you. . . . I don't deny I wanted . . . but that's no matter. You didn't meet me that day on the Rim."
"Meet y'u!" she echoed, coldly. "Shore y'u never expected me?"
"Somehow I did," he replied, with those penetrating eyes on her. "I put somethin' in your tent that day. Did you find it?"
"Yes," she replied, with the same casual coldness.
"What did you do with it?"
"I kicked it out, of course," she replied.
She saw him flinch.
"And you never opened it?"
"Certainly not," she retorted, as if forced. "Doon't y'u know anythin' about--about people? . . . Shore even if y'u are an Isbel y'u never were born in Texas."
"Thank God I wasn't!" he replied. "I was born in a beautiful country of green meadows and deep forests and white rivers, not in a barren desert where men live dry and hard as the cactus. Where I come from men don't live on hate. They can forgive."
"Forgive! . . . Could y'u forgive a Jorth?"
"Yes, I could."
"Shore that's easy to say--with the wrongs all on your side," she declared, bitterly.
"Ellen Jorth, the first wrong was on your, side," retorted Jean, his voice fall. "Your father stole my father's sweetheart--by lies, by slander, by dishonor, by makin' terrible love to her in his absence."
"It's a lie," cried Ellen, passionately.
"It is not," he declared, solemnly.
"Jean Isbel, I say y'u lie!"
"No! I say you've been lied to," he thundered.
The tremendous force of his spirit seemed to fling truth at Ellen. It weakened her.
"But--mother loved dad--best."
"Yes, afterward. No wonder, poor woman! . . . But it was the action of your father and your mother that ruined all these lives. You've got to know the truth, Ellen Jorth. . . . All the years of hate have borne their fruit. God Almighty can never save us now. Blood must be spilled. The Jorths and the Isbels can't live on the same earth. . . And you've got to know the truth because the worst of this hell falls on you and me."
The hate that he spoke of alone upheld her.
"Never, Jean Isbel! " she cried. "I'll never know truth from y'u. . . . I'll never share anythin' with y'u--not even hell."
Isbel dismounted and stood before her, still holding his bridle reins. The bay horse champed his bit and tossed his head.
"Why do you hate me so?" he asked. "I just happen to be my father's son. I never harmed you or any of your people. I met you . . . fell in love with you in a flash--though I never knew it till after. . . . Why do you hate me so terribly?"
Ellen felt a heavy, stifling pressure within her breast. "Y'u're an Isbel. . . . Doon't speak of love to me."
"I didn't intend to. But your--your hate seems unnatural. And we'll probably never meet again. . . . I can't help it. I love you. Love at first sight! Jean Isbel and Ellen Jorth! Strange, isn't it? . . . It was all so strange. My meetin' you so lonely and unhappy, my seein' you so sweet and beautiful, my thinkin' you so good in spite of--"
"Shore it was strange," interrupted Ellen, with scornful laugh. She had found her defense. In hurting him she could hide her own hurt. "Thinking me so good in spite of-- Ha-ha! And I said I'd been kissed before!"
"Yes, in spite of everything," he said.
Ellen could not look at him as he loomed over her. She felt a wild tumult in her heart. All that crowded to her lips for utterance was false.
"Yes--kissed before I met you--and since," she said, mockingly. "And I laugh at what y'u call love, Jean Isbel."
"Laugh if you want--but believe it was sweet, honorable--the best in me," he replied, in deep earnestness.
"Bah!" cried Ellen, with all the force of her pain and shame and hate.
"By Heaven, you must be different from what I thought!" exclaimed Isbel, huskily.
"Shore if I wasn't, I'd make myself. . . . Now, Mister Jean Isbel, get on your horse an' go!"
Something of composure came to Ellen with these words of dismissal, and she glanced up at him with half-veiled eyes. His changed aspect prepared her for some blow.
"That's a pretty black horse."
"Yes," replied Ellen, blankly.
"Do you like him?"
"I--I love him. "
"All right, I'll give him to you then. He'll have less work and kinder treatment than if I used him. I've got some pretty hard rides ahead of me."
"Y'u--y'u give--" whispered Ellen, slowly stiffening. "Yes. He's mine," replied Isbel. With that he turned to whistle. Spades threw up his head, snorted, and started forward at a trot. He came faster the closer he got, and if ever Ellen saw the joy of a horse at sight of a beloved master she saw it then. Isbel laid a hand on the animal's neck and caressed him, then, turning back to Ellen, he went on speaking: "I picked him from a lot of fine horses of my father's. We got along well. My sister Ann rode him a good deal. . . . He was stolen from our pasture day before yesterday. I took his trail and tracked him up here. Never lost his trail till I got to your ranch, where I had to circle till I picked it up again."
"Stolen--pasture--tracked him up heah?" echoed Ellen, without any evidence of emotion whatever. Indeed, she seemed to have been turned to stone.
"Trackin' him. was easy. I wish for your sake it 'd been impossible," he said, bluntly.
"For my sake?" she echoed, in precisely the same tone,
Manifestly that tone irritated Isbel beyond control. He misunderstood it. With a hand far from gentle he pushed her bent head back so he could look into her face.
"Yes, for your sake!" he declared, harshly. "Haven't you sense enough to see that? . . . What kind of a game do you think you can play with me?"
"Game I . . . Game of what? " she asked.
"Why, a--a game of ignorance--innocence--any old game to fool a man who's tryin' to be decent."
This time Ellen mutely looked her dull, blank questioning. And it inflamed Isbel.
"You know your father's a horse thief!" he thundered.
Outwardly Ellen remained the same. She had been prepared for an unknown and a terrible blow. It had fallen. And her face, her body, her hands, locked with the supreme fortitude of pride and sustained by hate, gave no betrayal of the crashing, thundering ruin within her mind and soul. Motionless she leaned there, meeting the piercing fire of Isbel's eyes, seeing in them a righteous and terrible scorn. In one flash the naked truth seemed blazed at her. The faith she had fostered died a sudden death. A thousand perplexing problems were solved in a second of whirling, revealing thought.
"Ellen Jorth, you know your father's in with this Hash Knife Gang of rustlers," thundered Isbel.
"Shore," she replied, with the cool, easy, careless defiance of a Texan.
"You know he's got this Daggs to lead his faction against the Isbels?"
You know this talk of sheepmen buckin' the cattlemen is all a blind?"
"Shore," reiterated Ellen.
Isbel gazed darkly down upon her. With his anger spent for the moment, he appeared ready to end the interview. But he seemed fascinated by the strange look of her, by the incomprehensible something she emanated. Havoc gleamed in his pale, set face. He shook his dark head and his broad hand went to his breast.
"To think I fell in love with such as you!" he exclaimed, and his other hand swept out in a tragic gesture of helpless pathos and impotence.
The hell Isbel had hinted at now possessed Ellen--body, mind, and soul. Disgraced, scorned by an Isbel! Yet loved by him! In that divination there flamed up a wild, fierce passion to hurt, to rend, to flay, to fling back upon him a stinging agony. Her thought flew upon her like whips. Pride of the Jorths! Pride of the old Texan blue blood! It lay dead at her feet, killed by the scornful words of the last of that family to whom she owed her degradation. Daughter of a horse thief and rustler! Dark and evil and grim set the forces within her, accepting her fate, damning her enemies, true to the blood of the Jorths. The sins of the father must be visited upon the daughter.
"Shore y'u might have had me--that day on the Rim--if y'u hadn't told your name," she said, mockingly, and she gazed into his eyes with all the mystery of a woman's nature.
Isbel's powerful frame shook as with an ague. "Girl, what do you mean?"
"Shore, I'd have been plumb fond of havin' y'u make up to me," she drawled. It possessed her now with irresistible power, this fact of the love he could not help. Some fiendish woman's satisfaction dwelt in her consciousness of her power to kill the noble, the faithful, the good in him.
"Ellen Jorth, you lie!" he burst out, hoarsely.
"Jean, shore I'd been a toy and a rag for these rustlers long enough. I was tired of them. . . . I wanted a new lover. . . . And if y'u hadn't give yourself away--"
Isbel moved so swiftly that she did not realize his intention until his hard hand smote her mouth. Instantly she tasted the hot, salty blood from a cut lip.
"Shut up, you hussy!" he ordered, roughly. "Have you no shame? . . . My sister Ann spoke well of you. She made excuses--she pitied you."
That for Ellen seemed the culminating blow under which she almost sank. But one moment longer could she maintain this unnatural and terrible poise.
"Jean Isbel--go along with y'u," she said, impatiently. "I'm waiting heah for Simm Bruce!"
At last it was as if she struck his heart. Because of doubt of himself and a stubborn faith in her, his passion and jealousy were not proof against this last stab. Instinctive subtlety inherent in Ellen had prompted the speech that tortured Isbel. How the shock to him rebounded on her! She gasped as he lunged for her, too swift for her to move a hand. One arm crushed round her like a steel band; the other, hard across her breast and neck, forced her head back. Then she tried to wrestle away. But she was utterly powerless. His dark face bent down closer and closer. Suddenly Ellen ceased trying to struggle. She was like a stricken creature paralyzed by the piercing, hypnotic eyes of a snake. Yet in spite of her terror, if he meant death by her, she welcomed it.
"Ellen Jorth, I'm thinkin' yet--you lie!" he said, low and tense between his teeth.
"No! No!" she screamed, wildly. Her nerve broke there. She could no longer meet those terrible black eyes. Her passionate denial was not only the last of her shameful deceit; it was the woman of her, repudiating herself and him, and all this sickening, miserable situation.
Isbel took her literally. She had convinced him. And the instant held blank horror for Ellen.
"By God--then I'll have somethin'--of you anyway!" muttered Isbel, thickly.
Ellen saw the blood bulge in his powerful neck. She saw his dark, hard face, strange now, fearful to behold, come lower and lower, till it blurred and obstructed her gaze. She felt the swell and ripple and stretch--then the bind of his muscles, like huge coils of elastic rope. Then with savage rude force his mouth closed on hers. All Ellen's senses reeled, as if she were swooning. She was suffocating. The spasm passed, and a bursting spurt of blood revived her to acute and terrible consciousness. For the endless period of one moment he held her so that her breast seemed crushed. His kisses burned and braised her lips. And then, shifting violently to her neck, they pressed so hard that she choked under them. It was as if a huge bat had fastened upon her throat.
Suddenly the remorseless binding embraces--the hot and savage kisses-- fell away from her. Isbel had let go. She saw him throw up his hands, and stagger back a little, all the while with his piercing gaze on her. His face had been dark purple: now it was white.
"No--Ellen Jorth," he panted, "I don't--want any of you--that way." And suddenly he sank on the log and covered his face with his hands. "What I loved in you--was what I thought--you were."
Like a wildcat Ellen sprang upon him, beating him with her fists, tearing at his hair, scratching his face, in a blind fury. Isbel made no move to stop her, and her violence spent itself with her strength. She swayed back from him, shaking so that she could scarcely stand.
"Y'u--damned--Isbel!" she gasped, with hoarse passion. "Y'u insulted me!"
"Insulted you?. . ."laughed Isbel, in bitter scorn. "It couldn't be done."
"Oh! . . . I'll kill y'u!" she hissed.
Isbel stood up and wiped the red scratches on his face. "Go ahead. There's my gun," he said, pointing to his saddle sheath." Somebody's got to begin this Jorth-Isbel feud. It'll be a dirty business. I'm sick of it already. . . . Kill me! . . . First blood for Ellen Jorth!"
Suddenly the dark grim tide that had seemed to engulf Ellen's very soul cooled and receded, leaving her without its false strength. She began to sag. She stared at Isbel's gun. "Kill him," whispered the retreating voices of her hate. But she was as powerless as if she were still held in Jean Isbel's giant embrace.
"I--I want to--kill y'u," she whispered, "but I cain't. . . . Leave me."
"You're no Jorth--the same as I'm no Isbel. We oughtn't be mixed in this deal," he said, somberly. "I'm sorrier for you than I am for myself. . . . You're a girl. . . . You once had a good mother--a decent home. And this life you've led here--mean as it's been--is nothin' to what you'll face now. Damn the men that brought you to this! I'm goin' to kill some of them."
With that he mounted and turned away. Ellen called out for him to take his horse. He did not stop nor look back. She called again, but her voice was fainter, and Isbel was now leaving at a trot. Slowly she sagged against the tree, lower and lower. He headed into the trail leading up the canyon. How strange a relief Ellen felt! She watched him ride into the aspens and start up the slope, at last to disappear in the pines. It seemed at the moment that he took with him something which had been hers. A pain in her head dulled the thoughts that wavered to and fro. After he had gone she could not see so well. Her eyes were tired. What had happened to her? There was blood on her hands. Isbel's blood! She shuddered. Was it an omen? Lower she sank against the tree and closed her eyes.
Old John Sprague did not return. Hours dragged by--dark hours for Ellen Jorth lying prostrate beside the tree, hiding the blue sky and golden sunlight from her eyes. At length the lethargy of despair, the black dull misery wore away; and she gradually returned to a condition of coherent thought.
What had she learned? Sight of the black horse grazing near seemed to prompt the trenchant replies. Spades belonged to Jean Isbel. He had been stolen by her father or by one of her father's accomplices. Isbel's vaunted cunning as a tracker had been no idle boast. Her father was a horse thief, a rustler, a sheepman only as a blind, a consort of Daggs, leader of the Hash Knife Gang. Ellen well remembered the ill repute of that gang, way back in Texas, years ago. Her father had gotten in with this famous band of rustlers to serve his own ends--the extermination of the Isbels. It was all very plain now to Ellen.
"Daughter of a horse thief an' rustler!" she muttered.
And her thoughts sped back to the days of her girlhood. Only the very early stage of that time had been happy. In the light of Isbel's revelation the many changes of residence, the sudden moves to unsettled parts of Texas, the periods of poverty and sudden prosperity, all leading to the final journey to this God-forsaken Arizona--these were now seen in their true significance. As far back as she could remember her father had been a crooked man. And her mother had known it. He had dragged her to her ruin. That degradation had killed her. Ellen realized that with poignant sorrow, with a sudden revolt against her father. Had Gaston Isbel truly and dishonestly started her father on his downhill road? Ellen wondered. She hated the Isbels with unutterable and growing hate, yet she had it in her to think, to ponder, to weigh judgments in their behalf. She owed it to something in herself to be fair. But what did it matter who was to blame for the Jorth-Isbel feud? Somehow Ellen was forced to confess that deep in her soul it mattered terribly. To be true to herself--the self that she alone knew--she must have right on her side. If the Jorths were guilty, and she clung to them and their creed, then she would be one of them.
"But I'm not," she mused, aloud. "My name's Jorth, an' I reckon I have bad blood. . . . But it never came out in me till to-day. I've been honest. I've been good--yes, good, as my mother taught me to be--in spite of all. . . . Shore my pride made me a fool. . . . An' now have I any choice to make? I'm a Jorth. I must stick to my father.
All this summing up, however, did not wholly account for the pang in her breast.
What had she done that day? And the answer beat in her ears like a great throbbing hammer-stroke. In an agony of shame, in the throes of hate, she had perjured herself. She had sworn away her honor. She had basely made herself vile. She had struck ruthlessly at the great heart of a man who loved her. Ah! That thrust had rebounded to leave this dreadful pang in her breast. Loved her? Yes, the strange truth, the insupportable truth! She had to contend now, not with her father and her disgrace, not with the baffling presence of Jean Isbel, but with the mysteries of her own soul. Wonder of all wonders was it that such love had been born for her. Shame worse than all other shame was it that she should kill it by a poisoned lie. By what monstrous motive had she done that? To sting Isbel as he had stung her! But that had been base. Never could she have stopped so low except in a moment of tremendous tumult. If she had done sore injury to Isbel what bad she done to herself? How strange, how tenacious had been his faith in her honor! Could she ever forget? She must forget it. But she could never forget the way he had scorned those vile men in Greaves's store--the way he had beaten Bruce for defiling her name--the way he had stubbornly denied her own insinuations. She was a woman now. She had learned something of the complexity of a woman's heart. She could not change nature. And all her passionate being thrilled to the manhood of her defender. But even while she thrilled she acknowledged her hate. It was the contention between the two that caused the pang in her breast. "An' now what's left for me?" murmured Ellen. She did not analyze the significance of what had prompted that query. The most incalculable of the day's disclosures was the wrong she had done herself. "Shore I'm done for, one way or another. . . . I must stick to Dad. . . . or kill myself?"
Ellen rode Spades back to the ranch. She rode like the wind. When she swung out of the trail into the open meadow in plain sight of the ranch her appearance created a commotion among the loungers before the cabin. She rode Spades at a full run.
"Who's after you?" yelled her father, as she pulled the black to a halt. Jorth held a rifle. Daggs, Colter, the other Jorths were there, likewise armed, and all watchful, strung with expectancy.
"Shore nobody's after me," replied Ellen. "Cain't I run a horse round heah without being chased?"
Jorth appeared both incensed and relieved.
"Hah! . . . What you mean, girl, runnin' like a streak right down on us? You're actin' queer these days, an' you look queer. I'm not likin' it."
"Reckon these are queer times--for the Jorths," replied Ellen, sarcastically.
"Daggs found strange horse tracks crossin' the meadow," said her father. "An' that worried us. Some one's been snoopin' round the ranch. An' when we seen you runnin' so wild we shore thought you was bein' chased."
"No. I was only trying out Spades to see how fast he could run," returned Ellen. "Reckon when we do get chased it'll take some running to catch me."
"Haw! Haw!" roared Daggs. "It shore will, Ellen."
"Girl, it's not only your runnin' an' your looks that's queer," declared Jorth, in dark perplexity. "You talk queer."
"Shore, dad, y'u're not used to hearing spades called spades," said Ellen, as she dismounted.
"Humph!" ejaculated her father, as if convinced of the uselessness of trying to understand a woman. "Say, did you see any strange horse tracks?" "
"I reckon I did. And I know who made them."
Jorth stiffened. All the men behind him showed a sudden intensity of suspense.
"Who?" demanded Jorth.
"Shore it was Jean Isbel," replied Ellen, coolly. "He came up heah tracking his black horse."
"Jean--Isbel--trackin'--his--black horse, " repeated her father.
"Yes. He's not overrated as a tracker, that's shore."
Blank silence ensued. Ellen cast a slow glance over her father and the others, then she began to loosen the cinches of her saddle. Presently Jorth burst the silence with a curse, and Daggs followed with one of his sardonic laughs.
"Wal, boss, what did I tell you?" he drawled.
Jorth strode to Ellen, and, whirling her around with a strong hand, he held her facing him.
"Did y'u see Isbel?"
"Yes," replied Ellen, just as sharply as her father had asked.
"Did y'u talk to him?"
"What did he want up heah?"
"I told y'u. He was tracking the black horse y'u stole."
Jorth's hand and arm dropped limply. His sallow face turned a livid hue. Amaze merged into discomfiture and that gave place to rage. He raised a hand as if to strike Ellen. And suddenly Daggs's long arm shot out to clutch Jorth's wrist. Wrestling to free himself, Jorth cursed under his breath. "Let go, Daggs," he shouted, stridently. "Am I drunk that you grab me? "
"Wal, y'u ain't drunk, I reckon," replied the rustler, with sarcasm. "But y'u're shore some things I'll reserve for your private ear."
Jorth gained a semblance of composure. But it was evident that he labored under a shock.
"Ellen, did Jean Isbel see this black horse?"
"Yes. He asked me how I got Spades an' I told him."
"Did he say Spades belonged to him?"
"Shore I reckon he, proved it. Y'u can always tell a horse that loves its master."
"Did y'u offer to give Spades back?"
"Yes. But Isbel wouldn't take him."
"Hah! . . . An' why not?"
"He said he'd rather I kept him. He was about to engage in a dirty, blood-spilling deal, an' he reckoned he'd not be able to care for a fine horse. . . . I didn't want Spades. I tried to make Isbel take him. But he rode off. . . . And that's all there is to that."
"Maybe it's not," replied Jorth, chewing his mustache and eying Ellen with dark, intent gaze. "Y'u've met this Isbel twice."
"It wasn't any fault of mine," retorted Ellen.
"I heah he's sweet on y'u. How aboot that?"
Ellen smarted under the blaze of blood that swept to neck and cheek and temple. But it was only memory which fired this shame. What her father and his crowd might think were matters of supreme indifference. Yet she met his suspicious gaze with truthful blazing eyes.
"I heah talk from Bruce an' Lorenzo," went on her father. "An' Daggs heah--"
"Daggs nothin'!" interrupted that worthy. "Don't fetch me in. I said nothin' an' I think nothin'."
"Yes, Jean Isbel was sweet on me, dad . . . but he will never be again," returned Ellen, in low tones. With that she pulled her saddle off Spades and, throwing it over her shoulder, she walked off to her cabin.
Hardly had she gotten indoors when her father entered.
"Ellen, I didn't know that horse belonged to Isbel," he began, in the swift, hoarse, persuasive voice so familiar to Ellen. "I swear I didn't. I bought him--traded with Slater for him. . . . Honest to God, I never had any idea he was stolen! . . . Why, when y'u said 'that horse y'u stole,' I felt as if y'u'd knifed me. . . ."
Ellen sat at the table and listened while her father paced to and fro and, by his restless action and passionate speech, worked himself into a frenzy. He talked incessantly, as if her silence was condemnatory and as if eloquence alone could convince her of his honesty. It seemed that Ellen saw and heard with keener faculties than ever before. He had a terrible thirst for her respect. Not so much for her love, she divined, but that she would not see how he had fallen!
She pitied him with all her heart. She was all he had, as he was all the world to her. And so, as she gave ear to his long, illogical rigmarole of argument and defense, she slowly found that her pity and her love were making vital decisions for her. As of old, in poignant moments, her father lapsed at last into a denunciation of the Isbels and what they had brought him to. His sufferings were real, at least, in Ellen's presence. She was the only link that bound him to long-past happier times. She was her mother over again--the woman who had betrayed another man for him and gone with him to her ruin and death.
"Dad, don't go on so," said Ellen, breaking in upon her father's rant. "I will be true to y'u--as my mother was. . . . I am a Jorth. Your place is my place--your fight is my fight. . . . Never speak of the past to me again. If God spares us through this feud we will go away and begin all over again, far off where no one ever heard of a Jorth. . . . If we're not spared we'll at least have had our whack at these damned Isbels."