The Last Trail by Zane Grey
Colonel Zane paced to and fro on the porch. His genial smile had not returned; he was grave and somber. Information had just reached him that Jonathan had hailed from the island, and that one of the settlers had started across the river in a boat.
Betty came out accompanied by Mrs. Zane.
"What's this I hear?" asked Betty, flashing an anxious glance toward the river. "Has Jack really come in?"
"Yes," replied the colonel, pointing to a throng of men on the river bank.
"Now there'll be trouble," said Mrs. Zane nervously. "I wish with all my heart Brandt had not thrown himself, as he called it, on your mercy."
"So do I," declared Colonel Zane.
"What will be done?" she asked. "There! that's Jack! Silas has hold of his arm."
"He's lame. He has been hurt," replied her husband.
A little procession of men and boys followed the borderman from the river, and from the cabins appeared the settlers and their wives. But there was no excitement except among the children. The crowd filed into the colonel's yard behind Jonathan and Silas.
Colonel Zane silently greeted his brother with an iron grip of the hand which was more expressive than words. No unusual sight was it to see the borderman wet, ragged, bloody, worn with long marches, hollow-eyed and gloomy; yet he had never before presented such an appearance at Fort Henry. Betty ran forward, and, though she clasped his arm, shrank back. There was that in the borderman's presence to cause fear.
"Wetzel?" Jonathan cried sharply.
The colonel raised both hands, palms open, and returned his brother's keen glance. Then he spoke. "Lew hasn't come in. He chased Brandt across the river. That's all I know."
"Brandt's here, then?" hissed the borderman.
The colonel nodded gloomily.
"In the long room over the fort. I locked him in there."
"Why did he come here?"
Colonel Zane shrugged his shoulders. "It's beyond me. He said he'd rather place himself in my hands than be run down by Wetzel or you. He didn't crawl; I'll say that for him. He just said, 'I'm your prisoner.' He's in pretty bad shape; barked over the temple, lame in one foot, cut under the arm, starved and worn out."
"Take me to him," said the borderman, and he threw his rifle on a bench.
"Very well. Come along," replied the colonel. He frowned at those following them. "Here, you women, clear out!" But they did not obey him.
It was a sober-faced group that marched in through the big stockade gate, under the huge, bulging front of the fort, and up the rough stairway. Colonel Zane removed a heavy bar from before a door, and thrust it open with his foot. The long guardroom brilliantly lighted by sunshine coming through the portholes, was empty save for a ragged man lying on a bench.
The noise aroused him; he sat up, and then slowly labored to his feet. It was the same flaring, wild-eyed Brandt, only fiercer and more haggard. He wore a bloody bandage round his head. When he saw the borderman he backed, with involuntary, instinctive action, against the wall, yet showed no fear.
In the dark glance Jonathan shot at Brandt shone a pitiless implacability; no scorn, nor hate, nor passion, but something which, had it not been so terrible, might have been justice.
"I think Wetzel was hurt in the fight with Legget," said Jonathan deliberately, "an' ask if you know?"
"I believe he was," replied Brandt readily. "I was asleep when he jumped us, and was awakened by the Indian's yell. Wetzel must have taken a snap shot at me as I was getting up, which accounts, probably, for my being alive. I fell, but did not lose consciousness. I heard Wetzel and Legget fighting, and at last struggled to my feet. Although dizzy and bewildered, I could see to shoot; but missed. For a long time, it seemed to me, I watched that terrible fight, and then ran, finally reaching the river, where I recovered somewhat."
"Did you see Wetzel again?"
"Once, about a quarter of a mile behind me. He was staggering along on my trail."
At this juncture there was a commotion among the settlers crowding behind Colonel Zane and Jonathan, and Helen Sheppard appeared, white, with her big eyes strangely dilated.
"Oh!" she cried breathlessly, clasping both hands around Jonathan's arm. "I'm not too late? You're not going to----"
"Helen, this is no place for you," said Colonel Zane sternly. "This is business for men. You must not interfere."
Helen gazed at him, at Brandt, and then up at the borderman. She did not loose his arm.
"Outside some one told me you intended to shoot him. Is it true?"
Colonel Zane evaded the searching gaze of those strained, brilliant eyes. Nor did he answer.
As Helen stepped slowly back a hush fell upon the crowd. The whispering, the nervous coughing, and shuffling of feet, ceased.
In those around her Helen saw the spirit of the border. Colonel Zane and Silas wore the same look, cold, hard, almost brutal. The women were strangely grave. Nellie Douns' sweet face seemed changed; there was pity, even suffering on it, but no relenting. Even Betty's face, always so warm, piquant, and wholesome, had taken on a shade of doubt, of gloom, of something almost sullen, which blighted its dark beauty. What hurt Helen most cruelly was the borderman's glittering eyes.
She fought against a shuddering weakness which threatened to overcome her.
"Whose prisoner is Brandt?" she asked of Colonel Zane.
"He gave himself up to me, naturally, as I am in authority here," replied the colonel. "But that signifies little. I can do no less than abide by Jonathan's decree, which, after all, is the decree of the border."
"And that is?"
"Death to outlaws and renegades."
"But cannot you spare him?" implored Helen. "I know he is a bad man; but he might become a better one. It seems like murder to me. To kill him in cold blood, wounded, suffering as he is, when he claimed your mercy. Oh! it is dreadful!"
The usually kind-hearted colonel, soft as wax in the hands of a girl, was now colder and harder than flint.
"It is useless," he replied curtly. "I am sorry for you. We all understand your feelings, that yours are not the principles of the border. If you had lived long here you could appreciate what these outlaws and renegades have done to us. This man is a hardened criminal; he is a thief, a murderer."
"He did not kill Mordaunt," replied Helen quickly. "I saw him draw first and attack Brandt."
"No matter. Come, Helen, cease. No more of this," Colonel Zane cried with impatience.
"But I will not!" exclaimed Helen, with ringing voice and flashing eye. She turned to her girl friends and besought them to intercede for the outlaw. But Nell only looked sorrowfully on, while Betty met her appealing glance with a fire in her eyes that was no dim reflection of her brother's.
"Then I must make my appeal to you," said Helen, facing the borderman. There could be no mistaking how she regarded him. Respect, honor and love breathed from every line of her beautiful face.
"Why do you want him to go free?" demanded Jonathan. "You told me to kill him."
"Oh, I know. But I was not in my right mind. Listen to me, please. He must have been very different once; perhaps had sisters. For their sake give him another chance. I know he has a better nature. I feared him, hated him, scorned him, as if he were a snake, yet he saved me from that monster Legget!"
"Well, yes, I can't deny that. But he could have ruined me, wrecked me, yet he did not. At least, he meant marriage by me. He said if I would marry him he would flee over the border and be an honest man."
"Have you no other reason?"
"Yes." Helen's bosom swelled and a glory shone in her splendid eyes. "The other reason is, my own happiness!"
Plain to all, if not through her words, from the light in her eyes, that she could not love a man who was a party to what she considered injustice.
The borderman's white face became flaming red.
It was difficult to refuse this glorious girl any sacrifice she demanded for the sake of the love so openly avowed.
Sweetly and pityingly she turned to Brandt: "Will not you help me?"
"Lass, if it were for me you were asking my life I'd swear it yours for always, and I'd be a man," he replied with bitterness; "but not to save my soul would I ask anything of him."
The giant passions, hate and jealousy, flamed in his gray eyes.
"If I persuade them to release you, will you go away, leave this country, and never come back?"
"I'll promise that, lass, and honestly," he replied.
She wheeled toward Jonathan, and now the rosy color chased the pallor from her cheeks.
"Jack, do you remember when we parted at my home; when you left on this terrible trail, now ended, thank God! Do you remember what an ordeal that was for me? Must I go through it again?"
Bewitchingly sweet she was then, with the girlish charm of coquetry almost lost in the deeper, stranger power of the woman.
The borderman drew his breath sharply; then he wrapped his long arms closely round her. She, understanding that victory was hers, sank weeping upon his breast. For a moment he bowed his face over her, and when he lifted it the dark and terrible gloom had gone.
"Eb, let him go, an' at once," ordered Jonathan. "Give him a rifle, some meat, an' a canoe, for he can't travel, an' turn him loose. Only be quick about it, because if Wetzel comes in, God himself couldn't save the outlaw."
It was an indescribable glance that Brandt cast upon the tearful face of the girl who had saved his life. But without a word he followed Colonel Zane from the room.
The crowd slowly filed down the steps. Betty and Nell lingered behind, their eyes beaming through happy tears. Jonathan, long so cold, showed evidence of becoming as quick and passionate a lover as he had been a borderman. At least, Helen had to release herself from his embrace, and it was a blushing, tear-stained face she turned to her friends.
When they reached the stockade gate Colonel Zane was hurrying toward the river with a bag in one hand, and a rifle and a paddle in the other. Brandt limped along after him, the two disappearing over the river bank.
Betty, Nell, and the lovers went to the edge of the bluff.
They saw Colonel Zane choose a canoe from among a number on the beach. He launched it, deposited the bag in the bottom, handed the rifle and paddle to Brandt, and wheeled about.
The outlaw stepped aboard, and, pushing off slowly, drifted down and out toward mid-stream. When about fifty yards from shore he gave a quick glance around, and ceased paddling. His face gleamed white, and his eyes glinted like bits of steel in the sun.
Suddenly he grasped the rifle, and, leveling it with the swiftness of thought, fired at Jonathan.
The borderman saw the act, even from the beginning, and must have read the outlaw's motive, for as the weapon flashed he dropped flat on the bank. The bullet sang harmlessly over him, imbedding itself in the stockade fence with a distinct thud.
The girls were so numb with horror that they could not even scream.
Colonel Zane swore lustily. "Where's my gun? Get me a gun. Oh! What did I tell you?"
"Look!" cried Jonathan as he rose to his feet.
Upon the sand-bar opposite stood a tall, dark, familiar figure.
"By all that's holy, Wetzel!" exclaimed Colonel Zane.
They saw the giant borderman raise a long, black rifle, which wavered and fell, and rose again. A little puff of white smoke leaped out, accompanied by a clear, stinging report.
Brandt dropped the paddle he had hurriedly begun plying after his traitor's act. His white face was turned toward the shore as it sank forward to rest at last upon the gunwale of the canoe. Then his body slowly settled, as if seeking repose. His hand trailed outside in the water, drooping inert and lifeless. The little craft drifted down stream.
"You see, Helen, it had to be," said Colonel Zane gently. "What a dastard! A long shot, Jack! Fate itself must have glanced down the sights of Wetzel's rifle."