Chapter XIX
 

Jack Belllounds came riding down the valley trail. His horse was in a lather of sweat. Both hair and blood showed on the long spurs this son of a great pioneer used in his pleasure rides. He had never loved a horse.

At a point where the trail met the brook there were thick willow patches, with open, grassy spots between. As Belllounds reached this place a man stepped out of the willows and laid hold of the bridle. The horse shied and tried to plunge, but an iron arm held him.

"Get down, Buster," ordered the man.

It was Wade.

Belllounds had given as sharp a start as his horse. He was sober, though the heated red tinge of his face gave indication of a recent use of the bottle. That color quickly receded. Events of the last month had left traces of the hardening and lowering of Jack Belllounds's nature.

"Wha-at?... Let go of that bridle!" he ejaculated.

Wade held it fast, while he gazed up into the prominent eyes, where fear shone and struggled with intolerance and arrogance and quickening gleams of thought.

"You an' I have somethin' to talk over," said the hunter.

Belllounds shrank from the low, cold, even voice, that evidently reminded him of the last time he had heard it.

"No, we haven't," he declared, quickly. He seemed to gather assurance with his spoken thought, and conscious fear left him. "Wade, you took advantage of me that day--when you made me swear things. I've changed my mind.... And as for that deal with the rustlers, I've got my story. It's as good as yours. I've been waiting for you to tell my father. You've got some reason for not telling him. I've a hunch it's Collie. I'm on to you, and I've got my nerve back. You can gamble I--"

He had grown excited when Wade interrupted him.

"Will you get off that horse?"

"No, I won't," replied Belllounds, bluntly.

With swift and powerful lunge Wade pulled Belllounds down, sliding him shoulders first into the grass. The released horse shied again and moved away. Buster Jack raised himself upon his elbow, pale with rage and alarm. Wade kicked him, not with any particular violence.

"Get up!" he ordered.

The kick had brought out the rage in Belllounds at the expense of the amaze and alarm.

"Did you kick me?" he shouted.

"Buster, I was only handin' you a bunch of flowers--some columbines, as your taste runs," replied Wade, contemptuously.

"I'll--I'll--" returned Buster Jack, wildly, bursting for expression. His hand went to his gun.

"Go ahead, Buster. Throw your gun on me. That'll save maybe a hell of a lot of talk."

It was then Jack Belllounds's face turned livid. Comprehension had dawned upon him.

"You--you want me to fight you?" he queried, in hoarse accents.

"I reckon that's what I meant."

No affront, no insult, no blow could have affected Buster Jack as that sudden knowledge.

"Why--why--you're crazy! Me fight you--a gunman," he stammered. "No--no. It wouldn't be fair. Not an even break!... No, I'd have no chance on earth!"

"I'll give you first shot," went on Wade, in his strange, monotonous voice.

"Bah! You're lying to me," replied Belllounds, with pale grimace. "You just want me to get a gun in my hand--then you'll drop me, and claim an even break."

"No. I'm square. You saw me play square with your rustler pard. He was a lifelong enemy of mine. An' a gun-fighter to boot!... Pull your gun an' let drive. I'll take my chances."

Buster Jack's eyes dilated. He gasped huskily. He pulled his gun, but actually did not have strength or courage enough to raise it. His arm shook so that the gun rattled against his chaps.

"No nerve, hey? Not half a man!... Buster Jack, why don't you finish game? Make up for your low-down tricks. At the last try to be worthy of your dad. In his day he was a real man.... Let him have the consolation that you faced Hell-Bent Wade an' died in your boots!"

"I--can't--fight you!" panted Belllounds. "I know now!... I saw you throw a gun! It wouldn't be fair!"

"But I'll make you fight me," returned Wade, in steely tones. "I'm givin' you a chance to dig up a little manhood. Askin' you to meet me man to man! Handin' you a little the best of it to make the odds even!... Once more, will you be game?"

"Wade, I'll not fight--I'm going--" replied Belllounds, and he moved as if to turn.

"Halt!..." Wade leaped at the white Belllounds. "If you run I'll break a leg for you--an' then I'll beat your miserable brains out!... Have you no sense? Can't you recognize what's comin'?... I'm goin' to kill you, Buster Jack!"

"My God!" whispered the other, understanding fully at last.

"Here's where you pay for your dirty work. The time comes to every man. You've a choice, not to live--for you'll never get away from Hell-Bent Wade--but to rise above yourself at last."

"But what for? Why do you want to kill me? I never harmed you."

"Columbine is my daughter!" replied the hunter.

"Ah!" breathed Belllounds.

"She loves Wils Moore, who's as white a man as you are black."

Across the pallid, convulsed face of Belllounds spread a slow, dull crimson.

"Aha, Buster Jack! I struck home there," flashed Wade, his voice rising. "That gives your eyes the ugly look.... I hate them lyin', bulgin' eyes of yours. An' when my time comes to shoot I'm goin' to put them both out."

"By Heaven! Wade, you'll have to kill me if you ever expect that club-foot Moore to get Collie!"

"He'll get her," replied Wade, triumphantly. "Collie's with him now. I sent her. I told her to tell Wils how you tried to force her--"

Belllounds began to shake all over. A torture of jealous hate and deadly terror convulsed him.

"Buster, did you ever think you'd get her kisses--as Wils's gettin' right now?" queried the hunter. "Good Lord! the conceit of some men!... Why, you poor, weak-minded, cowardly pet of a blinded old man--you conceited ass--you selfish an' spoiled boy!... Collie never had any use for you. An' now she hates you."

"It was you who made her!" yelled Belllounds, foaming at the mouth.

"Sure," went on the deliberate voice, ringing with scorn. "An' only a little while ago she called you a dog.... I reckon she meant a different kind of a dog than the hounds over there. For to say they were like you would be an insult to them.... Sure she hates you, an' I'll gamble right now she's got her arms around Wils's neck!"

"----!" hissed Belllounds.

"Well, you've got a gun in your hand," went on the taunting voice. "Ahuh!... Have it your way. I'm warmin' up now, an' I'd like to tell you ..."

"Shut up!" interrupted the other, frantically. The blood in him was rising to a fever heat. But fear still clamped him. He could not raise the gun and he seemed in agony.

"Your father knows you're a thief," declared Wade, with remorseless, deliberate intent. "I told him how I watched you--trailed you--an' learned the plot you hatched against Wils Moore.... Buster Jack busted himself at last, stealin' his own father's cattle.... I've seen some ragin' men in my day, but Old Bill had them beaten. You've disgraced him--broken his heart--embittered the end of his life.... An' he'd mean for you what I mean now!"

"He'd never--harm me!" gasped Buster Jack, shuddering.

"He'd kill you--you white-livered pup!" cried Wade, with terrible force. "Kill you before he'd let you go to worse dishonor!... An' I'm goin' to save him stainin' his hands."

"I'll kill you!" burst out Belllounds, ending in a shriek. But this was not the temper that always produced heedless action in him. It was hate. He could not raise the gun. His intelligence still dominated his will. Yet fury had mitigated his terror.

"You'll be doin' me a service, Buster.... But you're mighty slow at startin'. I reckon I'll have to play my last trump to make you fight. Oh, by God! I can tell you!... Belllounds, there're dead men callin' me now. Callin' me not to murder you in cold blood! I killed one man once--a man who wouldn't fight--an innocent man! I killed him with my bare hands, an' if I tell you my story--an' how I killed him--an' that I'll do the same for you.... You'll save me that, Buster. No man with a gun in his hands could face what he knew.... But save me more. Save me the tellin'!"

"No! No! I won't listen!"

"Maybe I won't have to," replied Wade, mournfully. He paused, breathing heavily. The sober calm was gone.

Belllounds lowered the half-raised gun, instantly answering to the strange break in Wade's strained dominance.

"Don't tell me--any more! I'll not listen!... I won't fight! Wade, you're crazy! Let me off an' I swear--"

"Buster, I told Collie you were three years in jail!" suddenly interrupted Wade.

A mortal blow dealt Belllounds would not have caused such a shock of amaze, of torture. The secret of the punishment meted out to him by his father! The hideous thing which, instead of reforming, had ruined him! All of hell was expressed in his burning eyes.

"Ahuh!... I've known it long!" cried Wade, tragically. "Buster Jack, you're the man who must hear my story.... I'll tell you...."

       *       *       *       *       *

In the aspen grove up the slope of Sage Valley Columbine and Wilson were sitting on a log. Whatever had been their discourse, it had left Moore with head bowed in his hands, and with Columbine staring with sad eyes that did not see what they looked at. Columbine's mind then seemed a dull blank. Suddenly she started.

"Wils!" she cried. "Did you hear--anything?"

"No," he replied, wearily raising his head.

"I thought I heard a shot," said Columbine. "It--it sort of made me jump. I'm nervous."

Scarcely had she finished speaking when two clear, deep detonations rang out. Gun-shots!

"There!... Oh, Wils! Did you hear?"

"Hear!" whispered Moore. He grew singularly white. "Yes--yes!... Collie--"

"Wils," she interrupted, wildly, as she began to shake. "Just a little bit ago--I saw Jack riding down the trail!"

"Collie!... Those two shots came from Wade's guns I'd know it among a thousand!... Are you sure you heard a shot before?"

"Oh, something dreadful has happened! Yes, I'm sure. Perfectly sure. A shot not so loud or heavy."

"My God!" exclaimed Moore, staring aghast at Columbine.

"Maybe that's what Wade meant. I never saw through him."

"Tell me. Oh, I don't understand!" wailed Columbine, wringing her hands.

Moore did not explain what he meant. For a crippled man, he made quick time in getting to his horse and mounting.

"Collie, I'll ride down there. I'm afraid something has happened.... I never understood him!... I forgot he was Hell-Bent Wade! If there's been a--a fight or any trouble--I'll ride back and meet you."

Then he rode down the trail.

Columbine had come without her horse, and she started homeward on foot. Her steps dragged. She knew something dreadful had happened. Her heart beat slowly and painfully; there was an oppression upon her breast; her brain whirled with contending tides of thought. She remembered Wade's face. How blind she had been! It exhausted her to walk, though she went so slowly. There seemed to be a chill and a darkening in the atmosphere, an unreality in the familiar slopes and groves, a strangeness and shadow upon White Slides Valley.

Moore did not return to meet her. His white horse grazed in the pasture opposite the first clump of willows, where Sage Valley merged into the larger valley. Then she saw other horses, among them Lem Billings's bay mustang. Columbine faltered on, when suddenly she recognized the horse Jack had ridden--a sorrel, spent and foam-covered, standing saddled, with bridle down and riderless--then certainty of something awful clamped her with horror. Men's husky voices reached her throbbing ears. Some one was running. Footsteps thudded and died away. Then she saw Lem Billings come out of the willows, look her way, and hurry toward her. His awkward, cowboy gait seemed too slow for his earnestness. Columbine felt the piercing gaze of his eyes as her own became dim.

"Miss Collie, thar's been--turrible fight!" he panted.

"Oh, Lem!... I know. It was Ben--and Jack," she cried.

"Shore. Your hunch's correct. An' it couldn't be no wuss!"

Columbine tried to see his face, the meaning that must have accompanied his hoarse voice; but she seemed going blind.

"Then--then--" she whispered, reaching out for Lem.

"Hyar, Miss Collie," he said, in great concern, as he took kind and gentle hold of her. "Reckon you'd better wait. Let me take you home."

"Yes. But tell--tell me first," she cried, frantically. She could not bear suspense, and she felt her senses slipping away from her.

"My Gawd! who'd ever have thought such hell would come to White Slides!" exclaimed Lem, with strong emotion. "Miss Collie, I'm powerful sorry fer you. But mebbe it's best so.... They're both dead!... Wade just died with his head on Wils's lap. But Jack never knowed what hit him. He was shot plumb center--both his eyes shot out!... Wade was shot low down.... Montana an' me agreed thet Jack throwed his gun first an' Wade killed him after bein' mortal shot himself."

       *       *       *       *       *

Late that afternoon, as Columbine lay upon her bed, the strange stillness of the house was disturbed by a heavy tread. It passed out of the living-room and came down the porch toward her door. Then followed a knock.

"Dad!" she called, swiftly rising.

Belllounds entered, leaving the door ajar. The sunlight streamed in.

"Wal, Collie, I see you're bracin' up," he said.

"Oh yes, dad, I'm--I'm all right," she replied, eager to help or comfort him.

The old rancher seemed different from the man of the past months. The pallor of a great shock, the havoc of spent passion, the agony of terrible hours, showed in his face. But Old Bill Belllounds had come into his own again--back to the calm, iron pioneer who had lived all events, over whom storm of years had broken, whose great spirit had accepted this crowning catastrophe as it had all the others, who saw his own life clearly, now that its bitterest lesson was told.

"Are you strong enough to bear another shock, my lass, an' bear it now--so to make an end--so to-morrer we can begin anew?" he asked, with the voice she had not heard for many a day. It was the voice that told of consideration for her.

"Yes, dad," she replied, going to him.

"Wal, come with me. I want you to see Wade."

He led her out upon the porch, and thence into the living-room, and from there into the room where lay the two dead men, one on each side. Blankets covered the prone, quiet forms.

Columbine had meant to beg to see Wade once before he was laid away forever. She dreaded the ordeal, yet strangely longed for it. And here she was self-contained, ready for some nameless shock and uplift, which she divined was coming as she had divined the change in Belllounds.

Then he stripped back the blanket, disclosing Wade's face. Columbine thrilled to the core of her heart. Death was there, white and cold and merciless, but as it had released the tragic soul, the instant of deliverance had been stamped on the rugged, cadaverous visage, by a beautiful light; not of peace, nor of joy, nor of grief, but of hope! Hope had been the last emotion of Hell-Bent Wade.

"Collie, listen," said the old rancher, in deep and trembling tones. "When a man's dead, what he's been comes to us with startlin' truth. Wade was the whitest man I ever knew. He had a queer idee--a twist in his mind--an' it was thet his steps were bent toward hell. He imagined thet everywhere he traveled there he fetched hell. But he was wrong. His own trouble led him to the trouble of others. He saw through life. An' he was as big in his hope fer the good as he was terrible in his dealin' with the bad. I never saw his like.... He loved you, Collie, better than you ever knew. Better than Jack, or Wils, or me! You know what the Bible says about him who gives his life fer his friend. Wal, Wade was my friend, an' Jack's, only we never could see!... An' he was Wils's friend. An' to you he must have been more than words can tell.... We all know what child's play it would have been fer Wade to kill Jack without bein' hurt himself. But he wouldn't do it. So he spared me an' Jack, an' I reckon himself. Somehow he made Jack fight an' die like a man. God only knows how he did that. But it saved me from--from hell--an' you an' Wils from misery.... Wade could have taken you from me an' Jack. He had only to tell you his secret, an' he wouldn't. He saw how you loved me, as if you were my real child.... But. Collie, lass, it was he who was your father!"

With bursting heart Columbine fell upon her knees beside that cold, still form.

Belllounds softly left the room and closed the door behind him.