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Keith of the Border by Randall Parrish

Part 5 out of 5

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report, and Keith reeled backward, dropping to his knees, one hand
clutching the sand. Again Hawley fired, but the horse, startled by the
double report, leaped aside, and the ball went wild. Keith wheeled about,
steadying himself with his outstretched hand, and let drive, pressing the
trigger, until, through the haze over his eyes, he saw Hawley go stumbling
down, shooting wildly as he fell. The man never moved, and Keith
endeavored to get up, his gun still held ready, the smoke circling about
them. He had been shot treacherously, as a cowardly cur might shoot, and
he could not clear his mind of the thought that this last act hid
treachery also. But he could not raise himself, could not stand; red and
black shadows danced before his eyes; he believed he saw the arm of the
other move. Like a snake he crept forward, holding himself up with one
hand, his head dizzily reeling, but his gun held steadily on that black,
shapeless object lying on the sand. Then the revolver hand began to
quiver, to shake, to make odd circles; he couldn't see; it was all black,
all nothingness. Suddenly he went down face first into the sand.

They both lay motionless, the thirsty sand drinking in their life blood,
Hawley huddled up upon his left side, his hat still shading the glazing
eyes, Keith lying flat, his face in the crook of an arm whose hand still
gripped a revolver. There was a grim smile on his lips, as if, even as he
pitched forward, he knew that, after he had been shot to death, he had
gotten his man. The riderless horses gazed at the two figures, and drifted
away, slowly, fearfully, still held in mute subjection to their dead
masters by dangling reins. The sun blazed down from directly overhead, the
heat waves rising and falling, the dead, desolate desert stretching to the
sky. An hour, two hours passed. The horses were now a hundred yards away,
nose to nose; all else was changeless. Then into the far northern sky
there rose a black speck, growing larger and larger; others came from east
and west, beating the air with widely outspread wings, great beaks
stretched forward. Out from their nests of foulness the desert scavengers
were coming for their spoil.

Chapter XXXVII

At the Water-Hole

Up from the far, dim southwest they rode slowly, silently, wearied still
by the exertions of the past night, and burned by the fierce rays of the
desert sun. No wind of sufficient force had blown since Keith passed that
way, and they could easily follow the hoof prints of his horse across the
sand waste. Bristoe was ahead, hat brim drawn low, scanning the horizon
line unceasingly. Somewhere out in the midst of that mystery was hidden
tragedy, and he dreaded the knowledge of its truth. Behind him Fairbain,
and Hope rode together, their lips long since grown silent, the man ever
glancing uneasily aside at her, the girl drooping slightly in the saddle,
with pale face and heavy eyes. Five prisoners, lashed together, the
binding ropes fastened to the pommels of the two "Bar X" men's saddles,
were bunched together, and behind all came Neb, his black face glistening
in the heat.

Suddenly Bristoe drew rein, and rose to his full length in the stirrups,
shading his eyes from the sun's glare, as he stared ahead. Two motionless
black specks were visible--yet were they motionless? or was it the heat
waves which seemed to yield them movement? He drove in his spurs, driving
his startled horse to the summit of a low sand ridge, and again halted,
gazing intently forward. He was not mistaken--they were horses. Knowing
instantly what it meant--those riderless animals drifting derelict in the
heart of the desert--his throat dry with fear, the scout wheeled, and
spurred back to his party, quickly resolving on a course of action. Hawley
and Keith had met; both had fallen, either dead or wounded. A moment's
delay now might cost a life; he would need Fairbain, but he must keep the
girl back, if possible. But could he? She straightened up in the saddle as
he came spurring toward them; her eyes wide open, one hand clutching at
her throat.

"Doctor," he called as soon as he was near enough, his horse circling,
"thar is somethin' showin' out yonder I'd like ter take a look at, an' I
reckon you better go 'long. The nigger kin com' up ahead yere with Miss

She struck her horse, and he plunged forward, bringing her face to face
with Bristoe.

"What is it? Tell me, what is it?"

"Nothin' but a loose hoss, Miss."

"A horse! here on the desert?" looking about, her eyes dark with horror.
"But how could that be? Could--could it be Captain Keith's?"

Bristoe cast an appealing glance at Fairbain, mopping his face vigorously,
not knowing what to say, and the other attempted to turn the tide.

"Not likely--not likely at all--no reason why it should be--probably just
a stray horse--you stay back here, Miss Hope--Ben and I will find out, and
let you know."

She looked at the two faces, realizing intuitively that they were
concealing something.

"No, I'm going," she cried, stifling a sob in her throat. "It would kill
me to wait here."

She was off before either might raise hand or voice in protest, and they
could only urge their horses in effort to overtake her, the three racing
forward fetlock deep in sand. Mounted upon a swifter animal Fairbain
forged ahead; he could see the two horses now plainly, their heads
uplifted, their reins dangling. Without perceiving more he knew already
what was waiting them there on the sand, and swore fiercely, spurring his
horse mercilessly, forgetful of all else, even the girl, in his intense
desire to reach and touch the bodies. He had begged to do this himself, to
be privileged to seek this man Hawley, to kill him--but now he was the
physician, with no other thought except a hope to save. Before his horse
had even stopped he flung himself from the saddle, ran forward and dropped
on his knees beside Keith, bending his ear to the chest, grasping the
wrist in his fingers. As the others approached, he glanced up, no
conception now of aught save his own professional work.

"Water, Bristoe," he exclaimed sharply, "Dash some brandy in it. Quick
now. There, that's it; hold his head up--higher. Yes, you do it, Miss
Hope; here, Ben, take this, and pry his teeth open--well, he got a swallow
anyhow. Hold him just as he is--can you stand it? I've got to find where
he was hit."

"Yes--yes," she answered, "don't--don't mind me."

He tore open the woolen shirt, soaked with blood already hardening, felt
within with skilled fingers, his eyes keen, his lips muttering

"Quarter of an inch--quarter of an inch too high--scraped the lung--Lord,
if I can only get it out--got to do it now--can't wait--here, Bristoe,
that leather case on my saddle--run, damn you--we'll save him yet, girl--
there, drop his head in your lap--yes, cry if you want to--only hold
still--open the case, will you--down here, where I can reach it--now
water--all our canteens--Hope, tear me off a strip of your under-skirt--
what am I going to do?--extract the ball--got to do it--blood poison in
this sun."

She ripped her skirt, handing it to him without a word; then dropped her
white face in her hands, bending, with closed eyes, over the whiter face
resting on her lap, her lips trembling with the one prayer, "Oh, God! Oh,
God!" How long he was at it, or what he did, she scarcely knew--she heard
the splash of water; caught the flash of the sun on the probe; felt the
half conscious shudder of the wounded man, whose head was in her lap, the
deft, quick movements of Fairbain, and then--

"That's it--I've got it--missed the lung by a hair--damn me I'm proud of
that job--you're a good girl."

She looked at him, scarce able to see, her eyes blinded with tears.

"Will--will he live? Oh, tell me!"

"Live! Why shouldn't he?--nothing but a hole to close up--nature'll do
that, with a bit of nursing--here, now, don't you keel over--give me the
rest of that skirt."

He bandaged the wound, then glanced about suddenly.

"How's the other fellow?"

"Dead," returned Bristoe, "shot through the heart."

"Thought so--have seen Keith shoot before--I wonder how the cuss ever
managed to get him."

As he arose to his feet, his red face glistening with perspiration, and
began strapping his leather case, the others rode up, and Bristoe,
explaining the situation, set the men to making preparations for pushing
on to the water-hole. Blankets were swung between ponies, and the bodies
of the dead and wounded deposited therein, firm hands on the bridles. Hope
rode close beside Keith, struggling to keep back the tears, as she watched
him lying motionless, unconscious, scarcely breathing. So, under the early
glow of the desert stars, they came to the water-hole, and halted.

The wounded man opened his eyes, and looked about him unable to
comprehend. At first all was dark, silent; then he saw the stars overhead,
and a breath of air fanned the near-by fire, the ruddy glow of flame
flashing across his face. He heard voices faintly, and thus, little by
little, consciousness asserted itself and memory struggled back into his
bewildered brain. The desert--the lonely leagues of sand--his fingers
gripped as if they felt the stock of a gun--yet that was all over--he was
not there--but he was somewhere--and alive, alive. It hurt him to move, to
breathe even, and after one effort to turn over, he lay perfectly still,
staring up into the black arch of sky, endeavoring to think, to
understand--where was he? How had he come there? Was Hawley alive also? A
face bent over him, the features faintly visible in the flash of
firelight. His dull eyes lit up in sudden recollection.

"Doc! is that you?"

"Sure, old man," the pudgy fingers feeling his pulse, the gray eyes
twinkling. "Narrow squeak you had--going to pull through all right,
though--no sign of fever."

"Where am I?"

"At the water-hole; sling you in a blanket, and get you into Larned

There was a moment's silence, Keith finding it hard to speak.

"Hawley--?" he whispered at last.

"Oh, don't worry; you got him all right. Say," his voice sobering, "maybe
it was just as well you took that job. If it had been me I would have been
in bad."

The wounded man's eyes questioned.

"It's a bad mix-up, Keith. Waite never told us all of it. I reckon he
didn't want her to know, and she never shall, if I can help it. I Ve been
looking over some papers in his pocket--he'd likely been after them this
trip--and his name ain't Hawley. He's Bartlett Gale, Christie's father."

Keith could not seem to grasp the thought, his eyes half-closed.

"Her--her father?" ne questioned, weakly. "Do you suppose he knew?"

"No; not at first, anyhow; not at Sheridan. He was too interested in his
scheme to even suspicion he had actually stumbled onto the real girl. I
think he just found out."

A coyote howled somewhere in the darkness, a melancholy chorus joining in
with long-drawn cadence. A shadow swept into the radius of dancing

"Is he conscious, Doctor?"

Fairbain drew back silently, and she dropped on her knees at Keith's side,
bending low to look into his face.


"Yes, dear, and you are going to live now--live for me."

He found her hand, and held it, clasped within his own, his eyes wide

"I have never told you," he said, softly, "how much I love you."

She bent lower until her cheek touched his.

"No, Jack, but you may now."


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