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To The Last Man by Zane Grey

Part 4 out of 6

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high and seemed too large for his breast. The hot blood beat and
surged all over his body. Sweat poured off him. His teeth were
clenched tight as a vise, and it took effort on his part to open
his mouth so he could breathe more freely and deeply. But these
physical sensations were as nothing compared to the tumult of his mind.
Then the instinct, the spell, let go its grip and he could think.
He had avenged Guy, he bad depleted the ranks of the Jorths, he had
made good the brag of his father, all of which afforded him satisfaction.
But these thoughts were not accountable for all that be felt, especially
for the bittersweet sting of the fact that death to the defiler of Ellen
Jorth could not efface the doubt, the regret which seemed to grow with
the hours.

Groping his way into the woodshed, he entered the kitchen and,
calling low, he went on into the main cabin.

"Jean! Jean!" came his father's shaking voice.

"Yes, I'm back," replied Jean.

"Are--you--all right?"

"Yes. I think I've got a bullet crease on my leg. I didn't know I
had it till now. . . . It's bleedin' a little. But it's nothin'."

Jean heard soft steps and some one reached shaking hands for him.
They belonged to his sister Ann. She embraced him. Jean felt the
heave and throb of her breast.

"Why, Ann, I'm not hurt," he said, and held her close. "Now you
lie down an' try to sleep."

In the black darkness of the cabin Jean led her back to the corner
and his heart was full. Speech was difficult, because the very touch
of Ann's hands had made him divine that the success of his venture in
no wise changed the plight of the women.

"Wal, what happened out there?" demanded Blaisdell.

"I got two of them," replied Jean. "That fellow who was shootin'
from the ridge west. An' the other was Greaves."

"Hah!" exclaimed his father.

"Shore then it was Greaves yellin'," declared Blaisdell. "By God,
I never heard such yells! Whad 'd you do, Jean?"

"I knifed him. You see, I'd planned to slip up on one after another.
An' I didn't want to make noise. But I didn't get any farther than
Greaves."

"Wal, I reckon that 'll end their shootin' in the dark," muttered
Gaston Isbel. "We've got to be on the lookout for somethin' else--
fire, most likely."

The old rancher's surmise proved to be partially correct. Jorth's
faction ceased the shooting. Nothing further was seen or heard from
them. But this silence and apparent break in the siege were harder
to bear than deliberate hostility. The long, dark hours dragged by.
The men took turns watching and resting, but none of them slept.
At last the blackness paled and gray dawn stole out of the east.
The sky turned rose over the distant range and daylight came.

The children awoke hungry and noisy, having slept away their fears.
The women took advantage of the quiet morning hour to get a hot breakfast.

"Maybe they've gone away," suggested Guy Isbel's wife, peering out of
the window. She had done that several times since daybreak. Jean saw
her somber gaze search the pasture until it rested upon the dark, prone
shape of her dead husband, lying face down in the grass. Her look
worried Jean.

"No, Esther, they've not gone yet," replied Jean. "I've seen some of
them out there at the edge of the brush."

Blaisdell was optimistic. He said Jean's night work would have its
effect and that the Jorth contingent would not renew the siege very
determinedly. It turned out, however, that Blaisdell was wrong.
Directly after sunrise they began to pour volleys from four sides
and from closer range. During the night Jorth's gang had thrown
earth banks and constructed log breastworks, from behind which they
were now firing. Jean and his comrades could see the flashes of fire
and streaks of smoke to such good advantage that they began to return
the volleys.

In half an hour the cabin was so full of smoke that Jean could not see
the womenfolk in their corner. The fierce attack then abated somewhat,
and the firing became more intermittent, and therefore more carefully
aimed. A glancing bullet cut a furrow in Blaisdell's hoary head,
making a painful, though not serious wound. It was Esther Isbel who
stopped the flow of blood and bound Blaisdell's head, a task which
she performed skillfully and without a tremor. The old Texan could
not sit still during this operation. Sight of the blood on his hands,
which he tried to rub off, appeared to inflame him to a great degree.

"Isbel, we got to go out thar," he kept repeating, "an' kill them all."

"No, we're goin' to stay heah," replied Gaston Isbel. "Shore I'm
lookin' for Blue an' Fredericks an' Gordon to open up out there.
They ought to be heah, an' if they are y'u shore can bet they've
got the fight sized up. "

Isbel's hopes did not materialize. The shooting continued without
any lull until about midday. Then the Jorth faction stopped.

"Wal, now what's up?" queried Isbel. "Boys, hold your fire an'
let's wait."

Gradually the smoke wafted out of the windows and doors, until the
room was once more clear. And at this juncture Esther Isbel came
over to take another gaze out upon the meadows. Jean saw her suddenly
start violently, then stiffen, with a trembling hand outstretched.

"Look!" she cried.

"Esther, get back," ordered the old rancher. "Keep away from that
window."

"What the hell!" muttered Blaisdell. "She sees somethin', or she's
gone dotty."

Esther seemed turned to stone. "Look! The hogs have broken into
the pasture! . . . They'll eat Guy's body!"

Everyone was frozen with horror at Esther's statement. Jean took a
swift survey of the pasture. A bunch of big black hogs had indeed
appeared on the scene and were rooting around in the grass not far
from where lay the bodies of Guy Isbel and Jacobs. This herd of hogs
belonged to the rancher and was allowed to run wild.

"Jane, those hogs--" stammered Esther Isbel, to the wife of Jacobs.
"Come! Look! . . . Do y'u know anythin' about hogs?"

The woman ran to the window and looked out. She stiffened as had Esther.

"Dad, will those hogs--eat human flesh? " queried Jean, breathlessly.

The old man stared out of the window. Surprise seemed to hold him.
A completely unexpected situation had staggered him.

"Jean--can you--can you shoot that far?" he asked, huskily.

"To those hogs? No, it's out of range."

Then, by God, we've got to stay trapped in heah an' watch an awful
sight," ejaculated the old man, completely unnerved. "See that break
in the fence! . . Jorth's done that. . . . To let in the hogs!"

"Aw, Isbel, it's not so bad as all that," remonstrated Blaisdell,
wagging his bloody head. "Jorth wouldn't do such a hell-bent trick."

"It's shore done."

"Wal, mebbe the hogs won't find Guy an' Jacobs," returned Blaisdell,
weakly. Plain it was that he only hoped for such a contingency and
certainly doubted it.

"Look!" cried Esther Isbel, piercingly. They're workin' straight up
the pasture!"

Indeed, to Jean it appeared to be the fatal truth. He looked blankly,
feeling a little sick. Ann Isbel came to peer out of the window and
she uttered a cry. Jacobs's wife stood mute, as if dazed.

Blaisdell swore a mighty oath. "-- -- --! Isbel, we cain't stand
heah an' watch them hogs eat our people!"

"Wal, we'll have to. What else on earth can we do?"

Esther turned to the men. She was white and cold, except her eyes,
which resembled gray flames.

"Somebody can run out there an' bury our dead men," she said.

"Why, child, it'd be shore death. Y'u saw what happened to Guy an'
Jacobs. . . . We've jest got to bear it. Shore nobody needn't look
out--an' see."

Jean wondered if it would be possible to keep from watching. The
thing had a horrible fascination. The big hogs were rooting and
tearing in the grass, some of them lazy, others nimble, and all were
gradually working closer and closer to the bodies. The leader, a huge,
gaunt boar, that had fared ill all his life in this barren country, was
scarcely fifty feet away from where Guy Isbel lay.

"Ann, get me some of your clothes, an' a sunbonnet--quick," said Jean,
forced out of his lethargy. "I'll run out there disguised. Maybe I
can go through with it."

"No!" ordered his father, positively, and with dark face flaming.
"Guy an' Jacobs are dead. We cain't help them now."

"But, dad--" pleaded Jean. He had been wrought to a pitch by Esther's
blaze of passion, by the agony in the face of the other woman.

"I tell y'u no!" thundered Gaston Isbel, flinging his arms wide.

"I WILL GO!" cried Esther, her voice ringing.

"You won't go alone!" instantly answered the wife of Jacobs, repeating
unconsciously the words her husband had spoken.

"You stay right heah," shouted Gaston Isbel, hoarsely.

"I'm goin'," replied Esther. "You've no hold over me. My husband is
dead. No one can stop me. I'm goin' out there to drive those hogs
away an' bury him."

"Esther, for Heaven's sake, listen," replied Isbel. "If y'u show
yourself outside, Jorth an' his gang will kin y'u."

"They may be mean, but no white men could be so low as that."

Then they pleaded with her to give up her purpose. But in vain!
She pushed them back and ran out through the kitchen with Jacobs's
wife following her. Jean turned to the window in time to see both
women run out into the lane. Jean looked fearfully, and listened
for shots. But only a loud, "Haw! Haw!" came from the watchers
outside. That coarse laugh relieved the tension in Jean's breast.
Possibly the Jorths were not as black as his father painted them.
The two women entered an open shed and came forth with a shovel
and spade.

"Shore they've got to hurry," burst out Gaston Isbel.

Shifting his gaze, Jean understood the import of his father's speech.
The leader of the hogs had no doubt scented the bodies. Suddenly he
espied them and broke into a trot.

"Run, Esther, run!" yelled Jean, with all his might.

That urged the women to flight. Jean began to shoot. The hog reached
the body of Guy. Jean's shots did not reach nor frighten the beast.
All the hogs now had caught a scent and went ambling toward their
leader. Esther and her companion passed swiftly out of sight behind
a corral. Loud and piercingly, with some awful note, rang out their
screams. The hogs appeared frightened. The leader lifted his long
snout, looked, and turned away. The others had halted. Then they,
too, wheeled and ran off.

All was silent then in the cabin and also outside wherever the Jorth
faction lay concealed. All eyes manifestly were fixed upon the brave
wives. They spaded up the sod and dug a grave for Guy Isbel. For a
shroud Esther wrapped him in her shawl. Then they buried him. Next
they hurried to the side of Jacobs, who lay some yards away. They
dug a grave for him. Mrs. Jacobs took off her outer skirt to wrap
round him. Then the two women labored hard to lift him and lower him.
Jacobs was a heavy man. When he had been covered his widow knelt
beside his grave. Esther went back to the other. But she remained
standing and did not look as if she prayed. Her aspect was tragic--
that of a woman who had lost father, mother, sisters, brother, and now
her husband, in this bloody Arizona land.

The deed and the demeanor of these wives of the murdered men surely
must have shamed Jorth and his followers. They did not fire a shot
during the ordeal nor give any sign of their presence.

Inside the cabin all were silent, too. Jean's eyes blurred so that he
continually had to wipe them. Old Isbel made no effort to hide his
tears. Blaisdell nodded his shaggy head and swallowed hard. The
women sat staring into space. The children, in round-eyed dismay,
gazed from one to the other of their elders.

"Wal, they're comin' back," declared Isbel, in immense relief.
"An' so help me--Jorth let them bury their daid!"

The fact seemed to have been monstrously strange to Gaston Isbel.
When the women entered the old man said, brokenly: "I'm shore glad.
. . . An' I reckon I was wrong to oppose you . . . an' wrong to say
what I did aboot Jorth."

No one had any chance to reply to Isbel, for the Jorth gang, as if
to make up for lost time and surcharged feelings of shame, renewed
the attack with such a persistent and furious volleying that the
defenders did not risk a return shot. They all had to lie flat next
to the lowest log in order to keep from being hit. Bullets rained in
through the window. And all the clay between the logs low down was
shot away. This fusillade lasted for more than an hour, then gradually
the fire diminished on one side and then on the other until it became
desultory and finally ceased.

"Ahuh! Shore they've shot their bolt," declared Gaston Isbel.

"Wal, I doon't know aboot that," returned Blaisdell, "but they've shot
a hell of a lot of shells."

"Listen," suddenly called Jean. "Somebody's yellin'."

"Hey, Isbel!" came in loud, hoarse voice. "Let your women fight
for you."

Gaston Isbel sat up with a start and his face turned livid. Jean
needed no more to prove that the derisive voice from outside had
belonged to Jorth. The old rancher lunged up to his full height
and with reckless disregard of life he rushed to the window.
"Jorth," he roared, "I dare you to meet me--man to man!"

This elicited no answer. Jean dragged his father away from the window.
After that a waiting silence ensued, gradually less fraught with
suspense. Blaisdell started conversation by saying he believed the
fight was over for that particular time. No one disputed him.
Evidently Gaston Isbel was loath to believe it. Jean, however,
watching at the back of the kitchen, eventually discovered that the
Jorth gang had lifted the siege. Jean saw them congregate at the edge
of the brush, somewhat lower down than they had been the day before.
A team of mules, drawing a wagon, appeared on the road, and turned
toward the slope. Saddled horses were led down out of the junipers.
Jean saw bodies, evidently of dead men, lifted into the wagon, to be
hauled away toward the village. Seven mounted men, leading four
riderless horses, rode out into the valley and followed the wagon.

"Dad, they've gone," declared Jean. "We had the best of this fight.
. . . If only Guy an' Jacobs had listened!"

The old man nodded moodily. He had aged considerably during these two
trying days. His hair was grayer. Now that the blaze and glow of the
fight had passed he showed a subtle change, a fixed and morbid sadness,
a resignation to a fate he had accepted.

The ordinary routine of ranch life did not return for the Isbels.
Blaisdell returned home to settle matters there, so that he could
devote all his time to this feud. Gaston Isbel sat down to wait for
the members of his clan.

The male members of the family kept guard in turn over the ranch that
night. And another day dawned. It brought word from Blaisdell that
Blue, Fredericks, Gordon, and Colmor were all at his house, on the way
to join the Isbels. This news appeared greatly to rejuvenate Gaston
Isbel. But his enthusiasm did not last long. Impatient and moody by
turns, he paced or moped around the cabin, always looking out, sometimes
toward Blaisdell's ranch, but mostly toward Grass Valley.

It struck Jean as singular that neither Esther Isbel nor Mrs. Jacobs
suggested a reburial of their husbands. The two bereaved women did not
ask for assistance, but repaired to the pasture, and there spent several
hours working over the graves. They raised mounds, which they sodded,
and then placed stones at the heads and feet. Lastly, they fenced in
the graves.

"I reckon I'll hitch up an' drive back home," said Mrs. Jacobs, when
she returned to the cabin. "I've much to do an' plan. Probably I'll
go to my mother's home. She's old an' will be glad to have me."

"If I had any place to go to I'd sure go," declared Esther Isbel,
bitterly.

Gaston Isbel heard this remark. He raised his face from his hands,
evidently both nettled and hurt.

"Esther, shore that's not kind," he said.

The red-haired woman--for she did not appear to be a girl any more--
halted before his chair and gazed down at him, with a terrible flare
of scorn in her gray eyes.

"Gaston Isbel, all I've got to say to you is this," she retorted, with
the voice of a man. "Seein' that you an' Lee Jorth hate each other,
why couldn't you act like men? . . . You damned Texans, with your bloody
feuds, draggin' in every relation, every friend to murder each other!
That's not the way of Arizona men. . . . We've all got to suffer--an'
we women be ruined for life--because YOU had differences with Jorth.
If you were half a man you'd go out an' kill him yourself, an' not leave
a lot of widows an' orphaned children!"

Jean himself writhed under the lash of her scorn. Gaston Isbel turned
a dead white. He could not. answer her. He seemed stricken with
merciless truth. Slowly dropping his head, he remained motionless,
a pathetic and tragic figure; and he did not stir until the rapid beat
of hoofs denoted the approach of horsemen. Blaisdell appeared on his
white charger, leading a pack animal. And behind rode a group of men,
all heavily armed, and likewise with packs.

"Get down an' come in," was Isbel's greeting. "Bill--you look after
their packs. Better leave the hosses saddled."

The booted and spurred riders trooped in, and their demeanor fitted
their errand. Jean was acquainted with all of them. Fredericks was
a lanky Texan, the color of dust, and he had yellow, clear eyes, like
those of a hawk. His mother had been an Isbel. Gordon, too, was
related to Jean's family, though distantly. He resembled an industrious
miner more than a prosperous cattleman. Blue was the most striking of
the visitors, as he was the most noted. A little, shrunken gray-eyed
man, with years of cowboy written all over him, he looked the quiet,
easy, cool, and deadly Texan he was reputed to be. Blue's Texas record
was shady, and was seldom alluded to, as unfavorable comment had turned
out to be hazardous. He was the only one of the group who did not carry
a rifle. But he packed two guns, a habit not often noted in Texans, and
almost never in Arizonians.

Colmor, Ann Isbel's fiance, was the youngest member of the clan, and
the one closest to Jean. His meeting with Ann affected Jean powerfully,
and brought to a climax an idea that had been developing in Jean's mind.
His sister devotedly loved this lean-faced, keen-eyed Arizonian; and it
took no great insight to discover that Colmor reciprocated her affection.
They were young. They had long life before them. It seemed to Jean a
pity that Colmor should be drawn into this war. Jean watched them, as
they conversed apart; and he saw Ann's hands creep up to Colmor's breast,
and he saw her dark eyes, eloquent, hungry, fearful, lifted with queries
her lips did not speak. Jean stepped beside them, and laid an arm over
both their shoulders.

"Colmor, for Ann's sake you'd better back out of this Jorth-Isbel fight,"
he whispered.

Colmor looked insulted. "But, Jean, it's Ann's father," he said.
"I'm almost one of the family."

"You're Ann's sweetheart, an', by Heaven, I say you oughtn't to go
with us!" whispered Jean.

"Go--with--you," faltered Ann.

"Yes. Dad is goin' straight after Jorth. Can't you tell that? An'
there 'll be one hell of a fight."

Ann looked up into Colmor's face with all her soul in her eyes, but she
did not speak. Her look was noble. She yearned to guide him right,
yet her lips were sealed. And Colmor betrayed the trouble of his soul.
The code of men held him bound, and he could not break from it, though
he divined in that moment how truly it was wrong.

"Jean, your dad started me in the cattle business," said Colmor,
earnestly. "An' I'm doin' well now. An' when I asked him for Ann
he said he'd be glad to have me in the family. . . . Well, when this
talk of fight come up, I asked your dad to let me go in on his side.
He wouldn't hear of it. But after a while, as the time passed an' he
made more enemies, he finally consented. I reckon he needs me now.
An' I can't back out, not even for Ann."

"I would if I were you," replied jean, and knew that he lied.

"Jean, I'm gamblin' to come out of the fight," said Colmor, with a smile.
He had no morbid fears nor presentiments, such as troubled jean.

"Why, sure--you stand as good a chance as anyone," rejoined Jean.
"It wasn't that I was worryin' about so much."

"What was it, then?" asked Ann, steadily.

"If Andrew DOES come through alive he'll have blood on his hands,"
returned Jean, with passion. "He can't come through without it. . . .
I've begun to feel what it means to have killed my fellow men. . . .
An' I'd rather your husband an' the father of your children never
felt that."

Colmor did not take Jean as subtly as Ann did. She shrunk a little.
Her dark eyes dilated. But Colmor showed nothing of her spiritual
reaction. He was young. He had wild blood. He was loyal to the Isbels.

"Jean, never worry about my conscience," he said, with a keen look.
"Nothin' would tickle me any more than to get a shot at every damn
one of the Jorths."

That established Colmor's status in regard to the Jorth-Isbel feud.
Jean had no more to say. He respected Ann's friend and felt poignant
sorrow for Ann.

Gaston Isbel called for meat and drink to be set on the table for his
guests. When his wishes had been complied with the women took the
children into the adjoining cabin and shut the door.

"Hah! Wal, we can eat an' talk now."

First the newcomers wanted to hear particulars of what had happened.
Blaisdell had told all he knew and had seen, but that was not
sufficient. They plied Gaston Isbel with questions. Laboriously
and ponderously he rehearsed the experiences of the fight at the
ranch, according to his impressions. Bill Isbel was exhorted to
talk, but he had of late manifested a sullen and taciturn disposition.
In spite of Jean's vigilance Bill had continued to imbibe red liquor.
Then Jean was called upon to relate all he had seen and done. It had
been Jean's intention to keep his mouth shut, first for his own sake
and, secondly, because he did not like to talk of his deeds. But when
thus appealed to by these somber-faced, intent-eyed men he divined that
the more carefully he described the cruelty and baseness of their
enemies, and the more vividly he presented his participation in the
first fight of the feud the more strongly he would bind these friends
to the Isbel cause. So he talked for an hour, beginning with his
meeting with Colter up on the Rim and ending with an account of his
killing Greaves. His listeners sat through this long narrative with
unabated interest and at the close they were leaning forward, breathless
and tense.

"Ah! So Greaves got his desserts at last," exclaimed Gordon.

All the men around the table made comments, and the last, from Blue,
was the one that struck Jean forcibly.

"Shore thet was a strange an' a hell of a way to kill Greaves.
Why'd you do thet, Jean?"

"I told you. I wanted to avoid noise an' I hoped to get more of them."

Blue nodded his lean, eagle-like head and sat thoughtfully, as if not
convinced of anything save Jean's prowess. After a moment Blue spoke
again.

"Then, goin' back to Jean's tellin' aboot trackin' rustled Cattle,
I've got this to say. I've long suspected thet somebody livin' right
heah in the valley has been drivin' off cattle an' dealin' with
rustlers. An' now I'm shore of it."

This speech did not elicit the amaze from Gaston Isbel that Jean
expected it would.

"You mean Greaves or some of his friends?"

"No. They wasn't none of them in the cattle business, like we are.
Shore we all knowed Greaves was crooked. But what I'm figgerin' is
thet some so-called honest man in our settlement has been makin'
crooked deals.

Blue was a man of deeds rather than words, and so much strong speech
from him, whom everybody knew to be remarkably reliable and keen,
made a profound impression upon most of the Isbel faction. But,
to Jean's surprise, his father did not rave. It was Blaisdell who
supplied the rage and invective. Bill Isbel, also, was strangely
indifferent to this new element in the condition of cattle dealing.
Suddenly Jean caught a vague flash of thought, as if he had intercepted
the thought of another's mind, and he wondered--could his brother Bill
know anything about this crooked work alluded to by Blue? Dismissing
the conjecture, Jean listened earnestly.

"An' if it's true it shore makes this difference--we cain't blame all
the rustlin' on to Jorth," concluded Blue.

"Wal, it's not true," declared Gaston Isbel, roughly. "Jorth an' his
Hash Knife Gang are at the bottom of all the rustlin' in the valley
for years back. An' they've got to be wiped out!"

"Isbel, I reckon we'd all feel better if we talk straight, replied Blue,
coolly. "I'm heah to stand by the Isbels. An' y'u know what thet means.
But I'm not heah to fight Jorth because he may be a rustler. The others
may have their own reasons, but mine is this--you once stood by me in
Texas when I was needin' friends. Wal, I'm standin' by y'u now.
Jorth is your enemy, an' so he is mine."

Gaston Isbel bowed to this ultimatum, scarcely less agitated than when
Esther Isbel had denounced him. His rabid and morbid hate of Jorth had
eaten into his heart to take possession there, like the parasite that
battened upon the life of its victim. Blue's steely voice, his cold,
gray eyes, showed the unbiased truth of the man, as well as his fidelity
to his creed. Here again, but in a different manner, Gaston Isbel
had the fact flung at him that other men must suffer, perhaps die,
for his hate. And the very soul of the old rancher apparently rose
in Passionate revolt against the blind, headlong, elemental strength
of his nature. So it seemed to Jean, who, in love and pity that hourly
grew, saw through his father. Was it too late? Alas! Gaston Isbel
could never be turned back! Yet something was altering his brooding,
fixed mind.

"Wal," said Blaisdell, gruffly, "let's get down to business. . . .
I'm for havin' Blue be foreman of this heah outfit, an' all of us to
do as he says."

Gaston Isbel opposed this selection and indeed resented it.
He intended to lead the Isbel faction.

"All right, then. Give us a hunch what we're goin' to do,"
replied Blaisdell.

"We're goin' to ride off on Jorth's trail--an' one way or another--
kill him--KILL HIM! . . . I reckon that'll end the fight."

What did old Isbel have in his mind? His listeners shook their heads.

"No," asserted Blaisdell. "Killin' Jorth might be the end of your
desires, Isbel, but it 'd never end our fight. We'll have gone too far.
. . . If we take Jorth's trail from heah it means we've got to wipe out
that rustier gang, or stay to the last man."

"Yes, by God!" exclaimed Fredericks.

"Let's drink to thet!" said Blue. Strangely they turned to this Texas
gunman, instinctively recognizing in him the brain and heart, and the
past deeds, that fitted him for the leadership of such a clan. Blue
had all in life to lose, and nothing to gain. Yet his spirit was such
that he could not lean to all the possible gain of the future, and
leave a debt unpaid. Then his voice, his look, his influence were
those of a fighter. They all drank with him, even Jean, who hated
liquor. And this act of drinking seemed the climax of the council.
Preparations were at once begun for their departure on Jorth's trail.

Jean took but little time for his own needs. A horse, a blanket,
a knapsack of meat and bread, a canteen, and his weapons, with all
the ammunition he could pack, made up his outfit. He wore his buckskin
suit, leggings, and moccasins. Very soon the cavalcade was ready to
depart. Jean tried not to watch Bill Isbel say good-by to his children,
but it was impossible not to. Whatever Bill was, as a man, he was
father of those children, and he loved them. How strange that the
little ones seemed to realize the meaning of this good-by? They were
grave, somber-eyed, pale up to the last moment, then they broke down
and wept. Did they sense that their father would never come back?
Jean caught that dark, fatalistic presentiment. Bill Isbel's convulsed
face showed that he also caught it. Jean did not see Bill say good-by
to his wife. But he heard her. Old Gaston Isbel forgot to speak to
the children, or else could not. He never looked at them. And his
good-by to Ann was as if he were only riding to the village for a day.
Jean saw woman's love, woman's intuition, woman's grief in her eyes.
He could not escape her. "Oh, Jean! oh, brother!" she whispered as
she enfolded him. "It's awful! It's wrong! Wrong! Wrong! . . .
Good-by! . . . If killing MUST be--see that y'u kill the Jorths!
. . . Good-by!"

Even in Ann, gentle and mild, the Isbel blood spoke at the last.
Jean gave Ann over to the pale-faced Colmor, who took her in his arms.
Then Jean fled out to his horse. This cold-blooded devastation of a
home was almost more than he could bear. There was love here.
What would be left?

Colmor was the last one to come out to the horses. He did not walk
erect, nor as one whose sight was clear. Then, as the silent, tense,
grim men mounted their horses, Bill Isbel's eldest child, the boy,
appeared in the door. His little form seemed instinct with a force
vastly different from grief. His face was the face of an Isbel.

"Daddy--kill 'em all!" he shouted, with a passion all the fiercer
for its incongruity to the treble voice.

So the poison had spread from father to son.

CHAPTER IX

Half a mile from the Isbel ranch the cavalcade passed the log cabin
of Evarts, father of the boy who had tended sheep with Bernardino.

It suited Gaston Isbel to halt here. No need to call! Evarts and
his son appeared so quickly as to convince observers that they had
been watching.

"Howdy, Jake!" said Isbel. "I'm wantin' a word with y'u alone."

"Shore, boss, git down an' come in," replied Evarts.

Isbel led him aside, and said something forcible that Jean divined
from the very gesture which accompanied it. His father was telling
Evarts that he was not to join in the Isbel-Jorth war. Evarts had
worked for the Isbels a long time, and his faithfulness, along with
something stronger and darker, showed in his rugged face as he
stubbornly opposed Isbel. The old man raised his voice: "No, I tell
you. An' that settles it."

They returned to the horses, and, before mounting, Isbel, as if he
remembered something, directed his somber gaze on young Evarts.

"Son, did you bury Bernardino?"

"Dad an' me went over yestiddy," replied the lad. "I shore was glad
the coyotes hadn't been round."

"How aboot the sheep?"

"I left them there. I was goin' to stay, but bein' all alone--I got
skeered. . . . The sheep was doin' fine. Good water an' some grass.
An' this ain't time fer varmints to hang round."

"Jake, keep your eye on that flock," returned Isbel. "An' if I
shouldn't happen to come back y'u can call them sheep yours. . . .
I'd like your boy to ride up to the village. Not with us, so anybody
would see him. But afterward. We'll be at Abel Meeker's."

Again Jean was confronted with an uneasy premonition as to some idea
or plan his father had not shared with his followers. When the
cavalcade started on again Jean rode to his father's side and asked
him why he had wanted the Evarts boy to come to Grass Valley. And the
old man replied that, as the boy could run to and fro in the village
without danger, he might be useful in reporting what was going on at
Greaves's store, where undoubtedly the Jorth gang would hold forth.
This appeared reasonable enough, therefore Jean smothered the objection
he had meant to make.

The valley road was deserted. When, a mile farther on, the riders
passed a group of cabins, just on the outskirts of the village,
Jean's quick eye caught sight of curious and evidently frightened
people trying to see while they avoided being seen. No doubt the
whole settlement was in a state of suspense and terror. Not unlikely
this dark, closely grouped band of horsemen appeared to them as Jorth's
gang had looked to Jean. It was an orderly, trotting march that
manifested neither hurry nor excitement. But any Western eye could
have caught the singular aspect of such a group, as if the intent of
the riders was a visible thing.

Soon they reached the outskirts of the village. Here their approach
bad been watched for or had been already reported. Jean saw men, women,
children peeping from behind cabins and from half-opened doors. Farther
on Jean espied the dark figures of men, slipping out the back way
through orchards and gardens and running north, toward the center of
the village. Could these be friends of the Jorth crowd, on the way
with warnings of the approach of the Isbels? Jean felt convinced of it.
He was learning that his father had not been absolutely correct in his
estimation of the way Jorth and his followers were regarded by their
neighbors. Not improbably there were really many villagers who, being
more interested in sheep raising than in cattle, had an honest leaning
toward the Jorths. Some, too, no doubt, had leanings that were
dishonest in deed if not in sincerity.

Gaston Isbel led his clan straight down the middle of the wide road
of Grass Valley until he reached a point opposite Abel Meeker's cabin.
Jean espied the same curiosity from behind Meeker's door and windows
as had been shown all along the road. But presently, at Isbel's call,
the door opened and a short, swarthy man appeared. He carried a rifle.

"Howdy, Gass!" he said. "What's the good word?"

"Wal, Abel, it's not good, but bad. An' it's shore started," replied
Isbel. "I'm askin' y'u to let me have your cabin."

"You're welcome. I'll send the folks 'round to Jim's," returned Meeker.
"An' if y'u want me, I'm with y'u, Isbel."

"Thanks, Abel, but I'm not leadin' any more kin an' friends into this
heah deal."

"Wal, jest as y'u say. But I'd like damn bad to jine with y'u. . . .
My brother Ted was shot last night."

"Ted! Is he daid?" ejaculated Isbel, blankly.

"We can't find out," replied Meeker. "Jim says thet Jeff Campbell said
thet Ted went into Greaves's place last night. Greaves allus was
friendly to Ted, but Greaves wasn't thar--"

"No, he shore wasn't," interrupted Isbel, with a dark smile,
"an' he never will be there again."

Meeker nodded with slow comprehension and a shade crossed his face.

"Wal, Campbell claimed he'd heerd from some one who was thar. Anyway,
the Jorths were drinkin' hard, an' they raised a row with Ted--same old
sheep talkan' somebody shot him. Campbell said Ted was thrown out back,
an' he was shore he wasn't killed."

"Ahuh! Wal, I'm sorry, Abel, your family had to lose in this. Maybe
Ted's not bad hurt. I shore hope so. . . . An' y'u an' Jim keep out
of the fight, anyway."

"All right, Isbel. But I reckon I'll give y'u a hunch. If this heah
fight lasts long the whole damn Basin will be in it, on one side or
t'other."

"Abe, you're talkin' sense," broke in Blaisdell. "An' that's why
we're up heah for quick action."

"I heerd y'u got Daggs," whispered Meeker, as he peered all around.

"Wal, y'u heerd correct," drawled Blaisdell.

Meeker muttered strong words into his beard. "Say, was Daggs in
thet Jorth outfit? "

"He WAS. But he walked right into Jean's forty-four. . . .
An' I reckon his carcass would show some more."

"An' whar's Guy Isbel?" demanded Meeker.

"Daid an' buried, Abel," repled Gaston Isbel. "An' now I'd be obliged
if y'u 'll hurry your folks away, an' let us have your cabin an' corral.
Have yu got any hay for the hosses?"

"Shore. The barn's half full," replied Meeker, as he turned away.
"Come on in."

"No. We'll wait till you've gone."

When Meeker had gone, Isbel and his men sat their horses and looked
about them and spoke low. Their advent had been expected, and the
little town awoke to the imminence of the impending battle. Inside
Meeker's house there was the sound of indistinct voices of women and
the bustle incident to a hurried vacating.

Across the wide road people were peering out on all sides, some hiding,
others walking to and fro, from fence to fence, whispering in little
groups. Down the wide road, at the point where it turned, stood
Greaves's fort-like stone house. Low, flat, isolated, with its dark,
eye-like windows, it presented a forbidding and sinister aspect.
Jean distinctly saw the forms of men, some dark, others in shirt
sleeves, come to the wide door and look down the road.

"Wal, I reckon only aboot five hundred good hoss steps are separatin'
us from that outfit," drawled Blaisdell.

No one replied to his jocularity. Gaston Isbel's eyes narrowed to a
slit in his furrowed face and he kept them fastened upon Greaves's store.
Blue, likewise, had a somber cast of countenance, not, perhaps, any
darker nor grimmer than those of his comrades, but more representative
of intense preoccupation of mind. The look of him thrilled Jean, who
could sense its deadliness, yet could not grasp any more. Altogether,
the manner of the villagers and the watchful pacing to and fro of the
Jorth followers and the silent, boding front of Isbel and his men summed
up for Jean the menace of the moment that must very soon change to a
terrible reality.

At a call from Meeker, who stood at the back of the cabin, Gaston Isbel
rode into the yard, followed by the others of his party. "Somebody look
after the hosses," ordered Isbel, as he dismounted and took his rifle
and pack. "Better leave the saddles on, leastways till we see what's
comin' off."

Jean and Bill Isbel led the horses back to the corral. While watering
and feeding them, Jean somehow received the impression that Bill was
trying to speak, to confide in him, to unburden himself of some load.
This peculiarity of Bill's had become marked when he was perfectly sober.
Yet he had never spoken or even begun anything unusual. Upon the
present occasion, however, Jean believed that his brother might have
gotten rid of his emotion, or whatever it was, had they not been
interrupted by Colmor.

"Boys, the old man's orders are for us to sneak round on three sides
of Greaves's store, keepin' out of gunshot till we find good cover,
an' then crawl closer an' to pick off any of Jorth's gang who shows
himself."

Bill Isbel strode off without a reply to Colmor.

"Well, I don't think so much of that," said Jean, ponderingly.
"Jorth has lots of friends here. Somebody might pick us off."

"I kicked, but the old man shut me up. He's not to be bucked ag'in'
now. Struck me as powerful queer. But no wonder."

"Maybe he knows best. Did he say anythin' about what he an' the rest
of them are goin' to do?"

"Nope. Blue taxed him with that an' got the same as me. I reckon
we'd better try it out, for a while, anyway."

"Looks like he wants us to keep out of the fight, replied Jean,
thoughtfully. "Maybe, though . . . Dad's no fool. Colmor, you wait
here till I get out of sight. I'll go round an' come up as close as
advisable behind Greaves's store. You take the right side.
An' keep hid."

With that Jean strode off, going around the barn, straight out the
orchard lane to the open flat, and then climbing a fence to the north
of the village. Presently he reached a line of sheds and corrals, to
which he held until he arrived at the road. This point was about a
quarter of a mile from Greaves's store, and around the bend. Jean
sighted no one. The road, the fields, the yards, the backs of the
cabins all looked deserted. A blight had settled down upon the peaceful
activities of Grass Valley. Crossing the road, Jean began to circle
until he came close to several cabins, around which he made a wide
detour. This took him to the edge of the slope, where brush and
thickets afforded him a safe passage to a line directly back of
Greaves's store. Then he turned toward it. Soon he was again
approaching a cabin of that side, and some of its inmates descried him,
Their actions attested to their alarm. Jean half expected a shot from
this quarter, such were his growing doubts, but he was mistaken. A man,
unknown to Jean, closely watched his guarded movements and then waved a
hand, as if to signify to Jean that he had nothing to fear. After this
act he disappeared. Jean believed that he had been recognized by some
one not antagonistic to the Isbels. Therefore he passed the cabin and,
coming to a thick scrub-oak tree that offered shelter, he hid there to
watch. From this spot he could see the back of Greaves's store, at a
distance probably too far for a rifle bullet to reach. Before him,
as far as the store, and on each side, extended the village common.
In front of the store ran the road. Jean's position was such that he
could not command sight of this road down toward Meeker's house, a fact
that disturbed him. Not satisfied with this stand, he studied his
surroundings in the hope of espying a better. And he discovered what
he thought would be a more favorable position, although he could not
see much farther down the road. Jean went back around the cabin and,
coming out into the open to the right, he got the corner of Greaves's
barn between him and the window of the store. Then he boldly hurried
into the open, and soon reached an old wagon, from behind which he
proposed to watch. He could not see either window or door of the store,
but if any of the Jorth contingent came out the back way they would be
within reach of his rifle. Jean took the risk of being shot at from
either side.

So sharp and roving was his sight that he soon espied Colmor slipping
along behind the trees some hundred yards to the left. All his efforts
to catch a glimpse of Bill, however, were fruitless. And this appeared
strange to Jean, for there were several good places on the right from
which Bill could have commanded the front of Greaves's store and the
whole west side.

Colmor disappeared among some shrubbery, and Jean seemed left alone to
watch a deserted, silent village. Watching and listening, he felt that
the time dragged. Yet the shadows cast by the sun showed him that,
no matter how tense he felt and how the moments seemed hours, they were
really flying.

Suddenly Jean's ears rang with the vibrant shock of a rifle report.
He jerked up, strung and thrilling. It came from in front of the store.
It was followed by revolver shots, heavy, booming. Three he counted,
and the rest were too close together to enumerate. A single hoarse
yell pealed out, somehow trenchant and triumphant. Other yells,
not so wild and strange, muffled the first one. Then silence clapped
down on the store and the, open square.

Jean was deadly certain that some of the Jorth clan would show
themselves. He strained to still the trembling those sudden shots
and that significant yell had caused him. No man appeared. No more
sounds caught Jean's ears. The suspense, then, grew unbearable.
It was not that he could not wait for an enemy to appear, but that he
could not wait to learn what had happened. Every moment that he stayed
there, with hands like steel on his rifle, with eyes of a falcon, but
added to a dreadful, dark certainty of disaster. A rifle shot swiftly
followed by revolver shots! What could, they mean? Revolver shots of
different caliber, surely fired by different men! What could they mean?
It was not these shots that accounted for Jean's dread, but the yell
which had followed. All his intelligence and all his nerve were not
sufficient to fight down the feeling of calamity. And at last, yielding
to it, he left his post, and ran like a deer across the open, through
the cabin yard, and around the edge of the slope to the road. Here his
caution brought him to a halt. Not a living thing crossed his vision.
Breaking into a run, he soon reached the back of Meeker's place and
entered, to hurry forward to the cabin.

Colmor was there in the yard, breathing hard, his face working, and in
front of him crouched several of the men with rifles ready. The road,
to Jean's flashing glance, was apparently deserted. Blue sat on the
doorstep, lighting a cigarette. Then on the moment Blaisdell strode
to the door of the cabin. Jean had never seen him look like that.

"Jean--look--down the road," he said, brokenly, and with big hand
shaking he pointed down toward Greaves's store.

Like lightning Jean's glance shot down--down--down--until it stopped
to fix upon the prostrate form of a man, lying in the middle of the road.
A man of lengthy build, shirt-sleeved arms flung wide, white head in the
dust--dead! Jean's recognition was as swift as his sight. His father!
They had killed him! The Jorths! It was done. His father's premonition
of death had not been false. And then, after these flashing thoughts,
came a sense of blankness, momentarily almost oblivion, that gave place
to a rending of the heart. That pain Jean had known only at the death
of his mother. It passed, this agonizing pang, and its icy pressure
yielded to a rushing gust of blood, fiery as hell.

"Who--did it?" whispered Jean.

"Jorth!" replied Blaisdell, huskily. "Son, we couldn't hold your dad back.
. . . We couldn't. He was like a lion. . . . An' he throwed his life away!
Oh, if it hadn't been for that it 'd not be so awful. Shore, we come
heah to shoot an' be shot. But not like that. . . . By God, it was
murder--murder!"

Jean's mute lips framed a query easily read.

"Tell him, Blue. I cain't," continued Blaisdell, and he tramped
back into the cabin.

"Set down, Jean, an' take things easy," said Blue, calmly. "You know
we all reckoned we'd git plugged one way or another in this deal.
An' shore it doesn't matter much how a fellar gits it. All thet
ought to bother us is to make shore the other outfit bites the dust
--same as your dad had to."

Under this man's tranquil presence, all the more quieting because it
seemed to be so deadly sure and cool, Jean felt the uplift of his dark
spirit, the acceptance of fatality, the mounting control of faculties
that must wait. The little gunman seemed to have about his inert
presence something that suggested a rattlesnake's inherent knowledge
of its destructiveness. Jean sat down and wiped his clammy face.

"Jean, your dad reckoned to square accounts with Jorth, an' save us all,"
began Blue, puffing out a cloud of smoke. "But he reckoned too late.
Mebbe years; ago--or even not long ago--if he'd called Jorth out man
to man there'd never been any Jorth-Isbel war. Gaston Isbel's
conscience woke too late. That's how I figger it."

"Hurry! Tell me--how it--happen," panted Jean.

"Wal, a little while after y'u left I seen your dad writin' on a leaf
he tore out of a book--Meeker's Bible, as yu can see. I thought thet
was funny. An' Blaisdell gave me a hunch. Pretty soon along comes
young Evarts. The old man calls him out of our hearin' an' talks to him.
Then I seen him give the boy somethin', which I afterward figgered was
what he wrote on the leaf out of the Bible. Me an' Blaisdell both tried
to git out of him what thet meant. But not a word. I kept watchin' an'
after a while I seen young Evarts slip out the back way. Mebbe half an
hour I seen a bare-legged kid cross, the road an' go into Greaves's
store. . . . Then shore I tumbled to your dad. He'd sent a note to
Jorth to come out an' meet him face to face, man to man! . . .
Shore it was like readin' what your dad had wrote. But I didn't say
nothin' to Blaisdell. I jest watched."

Blue drawled these last words, as if he enjoyed remembrance of his keen
reasoning. A smile wreathed his thin lips. He drew twice on the
cigarette and emitted another cloud of smoke. Quite suddenly then
he changed. He made a rapid gesture--the whip of a hand, significant
and passionate. And swift words followed:

"Colonel Lee Jorth stalked out of the store--out into the road--mebbe
a hundred steps. Then he halted. He wore his long black coat an' his
wide black hat, an' he stood like a stone.

"'What the hell!' burst out Blaisdell, comin' out of his trance.

"The rest of us jest looked. I'd forgot your dad, for the minnit.
So had all of us. But we remembered soon enough when we seen him
stalk out. Everybody had a hunch then. I called him. Blaisdell
begged him to come back. All the fellars; had a say. No use!
Then I shore cussed him an' told him it was plain as day thet Jorth
didn't hit me like an honest man. I can sense such things. I knew
Jorth had trick up his sleeve. I've not been a gun fighter fer nothin'.

"Your dad had no rifle. He packed his gun at his hip. He jest stalked
down thet road like a giant, goin' faster an' faster, holdin' his head
high. It shore was fine to see him. But I was sick. I heerd Blaisdell
groan, an' Fredericks thar cussed somethin' fierce. . . . When your dad
halted--I reckon aboot fifty steps from Jorth--then we all went numb.
I heerd your dad's voice--then Jorth's. They cut like knives.
Y'u could shore heah the hate they hed fer each other."

Blue had become a little husky. His speech had grown gradually to
denote his feeling. Underneath his serenity there was a different
order of man.

"I reckon both your dad an' Jorth went fer their guns at the same time
--an even break. But jest as they drew, some one shot a rifle from the
store. Must hev been a forty-five seventy. A big gun! The bullet must
have hit your dad low down, aboot the middle. He acted thet way, sinkin'
to his knees. An' he was wild in shootin'--so wild thet he must hev
missed. Then he wabbled--an' Jorth run in a dozen steps, shootin' fast,
till your dad fell over. . . . Jorth run closer, bent over him, an' then
straightened up with an Apache yell, if I ever heerd one. . . . An' then
Jorth backed slow--lookin' all the time--backed to the store, an' went in."

Blue's voice ceased. Jean seemed suddenly released from an impelling
magnet that now dropped him to some numb, dizzy depth. Blue's lean
face grew hazy. Then Jean bowed his head in his hands, and sat there,
while a slight tremor shook all his muscles at once. He grew deathly
cold and deathly sick. This paroxysm slowly wore away, and Jean grew
conscious of a dull amaze at the apparent deadness of his spirit.
Blaisdell placed a huge, kindly hand on his shoulder.

"Brace up, son!" he said, with voice now clear and resonant. "Shore
it's what your dad expected--an' what we all must look for. . . .
If yu was goin' to kill Jorth before--think how -- -- shore y'u're goin'
to kill him now."

"Blaisdell's talkin'," put in Blue, and his voice had a cold ring.
"Lee Jorth will never see the sun rise ag'in!"

These calls to the primitive in Jean, to the Indian, were not in vain.
But even so, when the dark tide rose in him, there was still a haunting
consciousness of the cruelty of this singular doom imposed upon him.
Strangely Ellen Jorth's face floated back in the depths of his vision,
pale, fading, like the face of a spirit floating by.

"Blue," said Blaisdell, "let's get Isbel's body soon as we dare,
an' bury it. Reckon we can, right after dark."

"Shore," replied Blue. "But y'u fellars figger thet out. I'm thinkin'
hard. I've got somethin' on my mind."

Jean grew fascinated by the looks and speech and action of the little
gunman. Blue, indeed, had something on his mind. And it boded ill to
the men in that dark square stone house down the road. He paced to and
fro in the yard, back and forth on the path to the gate, and then he
entered the cabin to stalk up and down, faster and faster, until all
at once he halted as if struck, to upfling his right arm in a singular
fierce gesture.

"Jean, call the men in," he said, tersely.

They all filed in, sinister and silent, with eager faces turned to the
little Texan. His dominance showed markedly.

Gordon, y'u stand in the door an' keep your eye peeled," went on Blue.
. . . Now, boys, listen! I've thought it all out. This game of man
huntin' is the same to me as cattle raisin' is to y'u. An' my life in
Texas all comes back to me, I reckon, in good stead fer us now. I'm
goin' to kill Lee Jorth! Him first, an' mebbe his brothers. I had
to think of a good many ways before I hit on one I reckon will be shore.
It's got to be SHORE. Jorth has got to die! Wal, heah's my plan. . . .
Thet Jorth outfit is drinkin' some, we can gamble on it. They're not
goin' to leave thet store. An' of course they'll be expectin' us to
start a fight. I reckon they'll look fer some such siege as they held
round Isbel's ranch. But we shore ain't goin' to do thet. I'm goin'
to surprise thet outfit. There's only one man among them who is
dangerous, an' thet's Queen. I know Queen. But he doesn't know me.
An' I'm goin' to finish my job before he gets acquainted with me.
After thet, all right!"

Blue paused a moment, his eyes narrowing down, his whole face setting
in hard cast of intense preoccupation, as if he visualized a scene of
extraordinary nature.

"Wal, what's your trick?" demanded Blaisdell.

"Y'u all know Greaves's store," continued Blue. "How them winders have
wooden shutters thet keep a light from showin' outside? Wal, I'm gamblin'
thet as soon as it's dark Jorth's gang will be celebratin. They'll be
drinkin' an' they'll have a light, an' the winders will be shut. They're
not goin' to worry none aboot us. Thet store is like a fort. It won't
burn. An' shore they'd never think of us chargin' them in there. Wal,
as soon as it's dark, we'll go round behind the lots an' come up jest
acrost the road from Greaves's. I reckon we'd better leave Isbel where
he lays till this fight's over. Mebbe y'u 'll have more 'n him to bury.
We'll crawl behind them bushes in front of Coleman's yard. An' heah's
where Jean comes in. He'll take an ax, an' his guns, of course, an' do
some of his Injun sneakin' round to the back of Greaves's store. . . .
An', Jean, y'u must do a slick job of this. But I reckon it 'll be easy
fer you. Back there it 'll be dark as pitch, fer anyone lookin' out of
the store. An' I'm figgerin' y'u can take your time an' crawl right up.
Now if y'u don't remember how Greaves's back yard looks I'll tell y'u."

Here Blue dropped on one knee to the floor and with a finger he traced
a map of Greaves's barn and fence, the back door and window, and
especially a break in the stone foundation which led into a kind of
cellar where Greaves stored wood and other things that could be left
outdoors.

"Jean, I take particular pains to show y'u where this hole is," said
Blue, "because if the gang runs out y'u could duck in there an' hide.
An' if they run out into the yard--wal, y'u'd make it a sorry run fer
them. . . . Wal, when y'u've crawled up close to Greaves's back door,
an' waited long enough to see an' listen--then you're to run fast an'
swing your ax smash ag'in' the winder. Take a quick peep in if y'u
want to. It might help. Then jump quick an' take a swing at the door.
Y'u 'll be standin' to one side, so if the gang shoots through the door
they won't hit y'u. Bang thet door good an' hard. . . . Wal, now's
where I come in. When y'u swing thet ax I'll shore run fer the front
of the store. Jorth an' his outfit will be some attentive to thet
poundin' of yours on the back door. So I reckon. An' they'll be
lookin' thet way. I'll run in--yell--an' throw my guns on Jorth."

"Humph! Is that all?" ejaculated Blaisdell.

"I reckon thet's all an' I'm figgerin' it's a hell of a lot," responded
Blue, dryly. "Thet's what Jorth will think."

"Where do we come in?"

"Wal, y'u all can back me up," replied Blue, dubiously. Y'u see,
my plan goes as far as killin' Jorth--an' mebbe his brothers. Mebbe
I'll get a crack at Queen. But I'll be shore of Jorth. After thet
all depends. Mebbe it 'll be easy fer me to get out. An' if I do
y'u fellars will know it an' can fill thet storeroom full of bullets."

"Wal, Blue, with all due respect to y'u, I shore don't like your plan,"
declared Blaisdell. "Success depends upon too many little things any
one of which might go wrong."

"Blaisdell, I reckon I know this heah game better than y'u," replied
Blue. "A gun fighter goes by instinct. This trick will work."

"But suppose that front door of Greaves's store is barred," protested
Blaisdell.

"It hasn't got any bar," said Blue.

"Y'u're shore?"

"Yes, I reckon," replied Blue.

"Hell, man! Aren't y'u takin' a terrible chance?" queried Blaisdell.

Blue's answer to that was a look that brought the blood to Blaisdell's
face. Only then did the rancher really comprehend how the little gunman
had taken such desperate chances before, and meant to take them now,
not with any hope or assurance of escaping with his life, but to live
up to his peculiar code of honor.

"Blaisdell, did y'u ever heah of me in Texas?" he queried, dryly.

"Wal, no, Blue, I cain't swear I did," replied the rancher,
apologetically. "An' Isbel was always sort of' mysterious aboot
his acquaintance with you."

"My name's not Blue."

"Ahuh! Wal, what is it, then--if I'm safe to ask?" returned
Blaisdell, gruffly.

"It's King Fisher," replied Blue.

The shock that stiffened Blaisdell must have been communicated to the
others. Jean certainly felt amaze, and some other emotion not fully
realized, when he found himself face to face with one of the most
notorious characters ever known in Texas--an outlaw long supposed
to be dead.

"Men, I reckon I'd kept my secret if I'd any idee of comin' out of this
Isbel-Jorth war alive," said Blue. "But I'm goin' to cash. I feel it
heah. . . . Isbel was my friend. He saved me from bein' lynched in
Texas. An' so I'm goin' to kill Jorth. Now I'll take it kind of y'u
--if any of y'u come out of this alive--to tell who I was an' why I was
on the Isbel side. Because this sheep an' cattle war--this talk of
Jorth an' the Hash Knife Gang--it makes me, sick. I KNOW there's been
crooked work on Isbel's side, too. An' I never want it on record thet
I killed Jorth because he was a rustler."

"By God, Blue! it's late in the day for such talk," burst out
Blaisdell, in rage and amaze. "But I reckon y'u know what y'u're
talkin' aboot. . . . Wal, I shore don't want to heah it."

At this juncture Bill Isbel quietly entered the cabin, too late to hear
any of Blue's statement. Jean was positive of that, for as Blue was
speaking those last revealing words Bill's heavy boots had resounded
on the gravel path outside. Yet something in Bill's look or in the way
Blue averted his lean face or in the entrance of Bill at that particular
moment, or all these together, seemed to Jean to add further mystery to
the long secret causes leading up to the Jorth-Isbel war. Did Bill know
what Blue knew? Jean had an inkling that he did. And on the moment,
so perplexing and bitter, Jean gazed out the door, down the deserted
road to where his dead father lay, white-haired and ghastly in the
sunlight.

"Blue, you could have kept that to yourself, as well as your real name,"
interposed Jean, with bitterness. "It's too late now for either to do
any good. . . . But I appreciate your friendship for dad, an' I'm ready
to help carry out your plan."

That decision of Jean's appeared to put an end to protest or argument
from Blaisdell or any of the others. Blue's fleeting dark smile was
one of satisfaction. Then upon most of this group of men seemed to
settle a grim restraint. They went out and walked and watched; they
came in again, restless and somber. Jean thought that he must have
bent his gaze a thousand times down the road to the tragic figure of
his father. That sight roused all emotions in his breast, and the
one that stirred there most was pity. The pity of it! Gaston Isbel
lying face down in the dust of the village street! Patches of blood
showed on the back of his vest and one white-sleeved shoulder. He had
been shot through. Every time Jean saw this blood he had to stifle a
gathering of wild, savage impulses.

Meanwhile the afternoon hours dragged by and the village remained as
if its inhabitants had abandoned it. Not even a dog showed on the
side road. Jorth and some of his men came out in front of the store
and sat on the steps, in close convening groups. Every move they,
made seemed significant of their confidence and importance. About
sunset they went back into the store, closing door and window
shutters. Then Blaisdell called the Isbel faction to have food and
drink. Jean felt no hunger. And Blue, who had kept apart from the
others, showed no desire to eat. Neither did he smoke, though early
in the day he had never been without a cigarette between his lips.

Twilight fell and darkness came. Not a light showed anywhere in
the blackness.

"Wal, I reckon it's aboot time," said Blue, and he led the way out of
the cabin to the back of the lot. Jean strode behind him, carrying
his rifle and an ax. Silently the other men followed. Blue turned
to the left and led through the field until he came within sight of
a dark line of trees.

"Thet's where the road turns off," he said to Jean. "An' heah's the
back of Coleman's place. . . . Wal, Jean, good luck!"

Jean felt the grip of a steel-like hand, and in the darkness he caught
the gleam of Blue's eyes. Jean had no response in words for the laconic
Blue, but he wrung the hard, thin hand and hurried away in the darkness.

Once alone, his part of the business at hand rushed him into eager
thrilling action. This was the sort of work he was fitted to do.
In this instance it was important, but it seemed to him that Blue
had coolly taken the perilous part. And this cowboy with gray in his
thin hair was in reality the great King Fisher! Jean marveled at the
fact. And he shivered all over for Jorth. In ten minutes--fifteen,
more or less, Jorth would lie gasping bloody froth and sinking down.
Something in the dark, lonely, silent, oppressive summer night told
Jean this. He strode on swiftly. Crossing the road at a run, he kept
on over the ground he had traversed during the afternoon, and in a few
moments he stood breathing hard at the edge of the common behind
Greaves's store.

A pin point of light penetrated the blackness. It made Jean's heart
leap. The Jorth contingent were burning the big lamp that hung in the
center of Greaves's store. Jean listened. Loud voices and coarse
laughter sounded discord on the melancholy silence of the night. What
Blue had called his instinct had surely guided him aright. Death of
Gaston Isbel was being celebrated by revel.

In a few moments Jean had regained his breath. Then all his faculties
set intensely to the action at hand. He seemed to magnify his hearing
and his sight. His movements made no sound. He gained the wagon,
where he crouched a moment.

The ground seemed a pale, obscure medium, hardly more real than the
gloom above it. Through this gloom of night, which looked thick like
a cloud, but was really clear, shone the thin, bright point of light,
accentuating the black square that was Greaves's store. Above this
stood a gray line of tree foliage, and then the intensely dark-blue
sky studded with white, cold stars.

A hound bayed lonesomely somewhere in the distance. Voices of men
sounded more distinctly, some deep and low, others loud, unguarded,
with the vacant note of thoughtlessness.

Jean gathered all his forces, until sense of sight and hearing were in
exquisite accord with the suppleness and lightness of his movements.
He glided on about ten short, swift steps before he halted. That was
as far as his piercing eyes could penetrate. If there had been a guard
stationed outside the store Jean would have seen him before being seen.
He saw the fence, reached it, entered the yard, glided in the dense
shadow of the barn until the black square began to loom gray--the color
of stone at night. Jean peered through the obscurity. No dark figure
of a man showed against that gray wall--only a black patch, which must
be the hole in the foundation mentioned. A ray of light now streaked
out from the little black window. To the right showed the wide,
black door.

Farther on Jean glided silently. Then he halted. There was no guard
outside. Jean heard the clink of a cap, the lazy drawl of a Texan,
and then a strong, harsh voice--Jorth's. It strung Jean's whole being
tight and vibrating. Inside he was on fire while cold thrills rippled
over his skin. It took tremendous effort of will to hold himself back
another instant to listen, to look, to feel, to make sure. And that
instant charged him with a mighty current of hot blood, straining,
throbbing, damming.

When Jean leaped this current burst. In a few swift bounds he gained
his point halfway between door and window. He leaned his rifle against
the stone wall. Then he swung the ax. Crash! The window shutter split
and rattled to the floor inside. The silence then broke with a hoarse,
"What's thet?"

With all his might Jean swung the heavy ax on the door. Smash! The
lower half caved in and banged to the floor. Bright light flared out
the hole.

"Look out!" yelled a man, in loud alarm. "They're batterin' the
back door!"

Jean swung again, high on the splintered door. Crash! Pieces flew inside.

"They've got axes," hoarsely shouted another voice. "Shove the counter
ag'in' the door."

"No!" thundered a voice of authority that denoted terror as well.
"Let them come in. Pull your guns an' take to cover!"

"They ain't comin' in," was the hoarse reply. "They'll shoot in
on us from the dark."

"Put out the lamp!" yelled another.

Jean's third heavy swing caved in part of the upper half of the door.
Shouts and curses intermingled with the sliding of benches across the
floor and the hard shuffle of boots. This confusion seemed to be split
and silenced by a piercing yell, of different caliber, of terrible
meaning. It stayed Jean's swing--caused him to drop the ax and snatch
up his rifle.

"DON'T ANYBODY MOVE!"

Like a steel whip this voice cut the silence. It belonged to Blue.
Jean swiftly bent to put his eye to a crack in the door. Most of those
visible seemed to have been frozen into unnatural positions. Jorth stood
rather in front of his men, hatless and coatless, one arm outstretched,
and his dark profile set toward a little man just inside the door. This
man was Blue. Jean needed only one flashing look at Blue's face, at his
leveled, quivering guns, to understand why he had chosen this trick.

"Who're---you?" demanded Jorth, in husky pants.

"Reckon I'm Isbel's right-hand man," came the biting reply.
"Once tolerable well known in Texas. . . . KING FISHER!"

The name must have been a guarantee of death. Jorth recognized this
outlaw and realized his own fate. In the lamplight his face turned
a pale greenish white. His outstretched hand began to quiver down.

Blue's left gun seemed to leap up and flash red and explode. Several
heavy reports merged almost as one. Jorth's arm jerked limply, flinging
his gun. And his body sagged in the middle. His hands fluttered like
crippled wings and found their way to his abdomen. His death-pale face
never changed its set look nor position toward Blue. But his gasping
utterance was one of horrible mortal fury and terror. Then he began
to sway, still with that strange, rigid set of his face toward his
slayer, until he fell.

His fall broke the spell. Even Blue, like the gunman he was, had paused
to watch Jorth in his last mortal action. Jorth's followers began to
draw and shoot. Jean saw Blue's return fire bring down a huge man,
who fell across Jorth's body. Then Jean, quick as the thought that
actuated him, raised his rifle and shot at the big lamp. It burst in
a flare. It crashed to the floor. Darkness followed--a blank, thick,
enveloping mantle. Then red flashes of guns emphasized the blackness.
Inside the store there broke loose a pandemonium of shots, yells, curses,
and thudding boots. Jean shoved his rifle barrel inside the door and,
holding it low down, he moved it to and fro while he worked lever and
trigger until the magazine was empty. Then, drawing his six-shooter,
he emptied that. A roar of rifles from the front of the store told
Jean that his comrades had entered the fray. Bullets zipped through
the door he had broken. Jean ran swiftly round the corner, taking care
to sheer off a little to the left, and when he got clear of the building
he saw a line of flashes in the middle of the road. Blaisdell and the
others were firing into the door of the store. With nimble fingers
Jean reloaded his rifle. Then swiftly he ran across the road and down
to get behind his comrades. Their shooting had slackened. Jean saw
dark forms coming his way.

"Hello, Blaisdell!" he called, warningly.

"That y'u, Jean?" returned the rancher, looming up. "Wal, we wasn't
worried aboot y'u."

"Blue?" queried Jean, sharply.

A little, dark figure shuffled past Jean. "Howdy, Jean!" said Blue,
dryly. "Y'u shore did your part. Reckon I'll need to be tied up,
but I ain't hurt much."

"Colmor's hit," called the voice of Gordon, a few yards distant.
"Help me, somebody!"

Jean ran to help Gordon uphold the swaying Colmor. "Are you hurt-bad?"
asked Jean, anxiously. The young man's head rolled and hung. He was
breathing hard and did not reply. They had almost to carry him.

"Come on, men!" called Blaisdell, turning back toward the others who
were still firing. "We'll let well enough alone. . . . Fredericks,
y'u an' Bill help me find the body of the old man. It's heah somewhere."

Farther on down the road the searchers stumbled over Gaston Isbel.
They picked him up and followed Jean and Gordon, who were supporting
the wounded Colmor. Jean looked back to see Blue dragging himself
along in the rear. It was too dark to see distinctly; nevertheless,
Jean got the impression that Blue was more severely wounded than he
had claimed to be. The distance to Meeker's cabin was not far, but
it took what Jean felt to be a long and anxious time to get there.
Colmor apparently rallied somewhat. When this procession entered
Meeker's yard, Blue was lagging behind.

"Blue, how air y'u? " called Blaisdell, with concern.

"Wal, I got--my boots--on--anyhow," replied Blue, huskily.

He lurched into the yard and slid down on the grass and stretched out.

"Man! Y'u're hurt bad!" exclaimed Blaisdell. The others halted in
their slow march and, as if by tacit, unspoken word, lowered the body
of Isbel to the ground. Then Blaisdell knelt beside Blue. Jean left
Colmor to Gordon and hurried to peer down into Blue's dim face.

"No, I ain't--hurt," said Blue, in a much weaker voice. I'm--jest
killed! . . . It was Queen! . . . Y'u all heerd me--Queen was--only
bad man in that lot. I knowed it. . . . I could--hev killed him. . . .
But I was--after Lee Jorth an' his brothers. . . ."

Blue's voice failed there.

"Wal!" ejaculated Blaisdell.

"Shore was funny--Jorth's face--when I said--King Fisher," whispered
Blue. "Funnier--when I bored--him through. . . . But it--was--Queen--"

His whisper died away.

"Blue!" called Blaisdell, sharply. Receiving no answer, he bent lower
in the starlight and placed a hand upon the man's breast.

"Wal, he's gone. . . . I wonder if he really was the old Texas King
Fisher. No one would ever believe it. . . . But if he killed the Jorths,
I'll shore believe him.

CHAPTER X

Two weeks of lonely solitude in the forest had worked incalculable
change in Ellen Jorth.

Late in June her father and her two uncles had packed and ridden off
with Daggs, Colter, and six other men, all heavily armed, some somber
with drink, others hard and grim with a foretaste of fight. Ellen had
not been given any orders. Her father had forgotten to bid her good-by
or had avoided it. Their dark mission was stamped on their faces.

They had gone and, keen as had been Ellen's pang, nevertheless, their
departure was a relief. She had heard them bluster and brag so often
that she had her doubts of any great Jorth-Isbel war. Barking dogs did
not bite. Somebody, perhaps on each side, would be badly wounded,
possibly killed, and then the feud would go on as before, mostly talk.
Many of her former impressions had faded. Development had been so
rapid and continuous in her that she could look back to a day-by-day
transformation. At night she had hated the sight of herself and when
the dawn came she would rise, singing.

Jorth had left Ellen at home with the Mexican woman and Antonio.
Ellen saw them only at meal times, and often not then, for she
frequently visited old John Sprague or came home late to do her
own cooking.

It was but a short distance up to Sprague's cabin, and since she had
stopped riding the black horse, Spades, she walked. Spades was
accustomed to having grain, and in the mornings he would come down
to the ranch and whistle. Ellen had vowed she would never feed the
horse and bade Antonio do it. But one morning Antonio was absent.
She fed Spades herself. When she laid a hand on him and when he rubbed
his nose against her shoulder she was not quite so sure she hated him.
"Why should I?" she queried. "A horse cain't help it if he belongs
to--to--" Ellen was not sure of anything except that more and more
it grew good to be alone.

A whole day in the lonely forest passed swiftly, yet it left a feeling
of long time. She lived by her thoughts. Always the morning was bright,
sunny, sweet and fragrant and colorful, and her mood was pensive, wistful,
dreamy. And always, just as surely as the hours passed, thought intruded
upon her happiness, and thought brought memory, and memory brought shame,
and shame brought fight. Sunset after sunset she had dragged herself
back to the ranch, sullen and sick and beaten. Yet she never ceased
to struggle.

The July storms came, and the forest floor that had been so sear and
brown and dry and dusty changed as if by magic. The green grass shot
up, the flowers bloomed, and along the canyon beds of lacy ferns swayed
in the wind and bent their graceful tips over the amber-colored water.
Ellen haunted these cool dells, these pine-shaded, mossy-rocked ravines
where the brooks tinkled and the deer came down to drink. She wandered
alone. But there grew to be company in the aspens and the music of the
little waterfalls. If she could have lived in that solitude always,
never returning to the ranch home that reminded her of her name, she
could have forgotten and have been happy.

She loved the storms. It was a dry country and she had learned through
years to welcome the creamy clouds that rolled from the southwest. They
came sailing and clustering and darkening at last to form a great, purple,
angry mass that appeared to lodge against the mountain rim and burst into
dazzling streaks of lightning and gray palls of rain. Lightning seldom
struck near the ranch, but up on the Rim there was never a storm that
did not splinter and crash some of the noble pines. During the storm
season sheep herders and woodsmen generally did not camp under the pines.
Fear of lightning was inborn in the natives, but for Ellen the dazzling
white streaks or the tremendous splitting, crackling shock, or the
thunderous boom and rumble along the battlements of the Rim had no
terrors. A storm eased her breast. Deep in her heart was a hidden
gathering storm. And somehow, to be out when the elements were warring,
when the earth trembled and the heavens seemed to burst asunder,
afforded her strange relief.

The summer days became weeks, and farther and farther they carried Ellen
on the wings of solitude and loneliness until she seemed to look back
years at the self she had hated. And always, when the dark memory
impinged upon peace, she fought and fought until she seemed to be
fighting hatred itself. Scorn of scorn and hate of hate! Yet even
her battles grew to be dreams. For when the inevitable retrospect
brought back Jean Isbel and his love and her cowardly falsehood she
would shudder a little and put an unconscious hand to her breast and
utterly fail in her fight and drift off down to vague and wistful dreams.
The clean and healing forest, with its whispering wind and imperious
solitude, had come between Ellen and the meaning of the squalid sheep
ranch, with its travesty of home, its tragic owner. And it was coming
between her two selves, the one that she had been forced to be and the
other that she did not know--the thinker, the dreamer, the romancer,
the one who lived in fancy the life she loved.

The summer morning dawned that brought Ellen strange tidings. They
must have been created in her sleep, and now were realized in the
glorious burst of golden sun, in the sweep of creamy clouds across
the blue, in the solemn music of the wind in the pines, in the wild
screech of the blue jays and the noble bugle of a stag. These heralded
the day as no ordinary day. Something was going to happen to her.
She divined it. She felt it. And she trembled. Nothing beautiful,
hopeful, wonderful could ever happen to Ellen Jorth. She had been born
to disaster, to suffer, to be forgotten, and die alone. Yet all nature
about her seemed a magnificent rebuke to her morbidness. The same spirit
that came out there with the thick, amber light was in her. She lived,
and something in her was stronger than mind.

Ellen went to the door of her cabin, where she flung out her arms,
driven to embrace this nameless purport of the morning. And a
well-known voice broke in upon her rapture.

"Wal, lass, I like to see you happy an' I hate myself fer comin'.
Because I've been to Grass Valley fer two days an' I've got news."

Old John Sprague stood there, with a smile that did not hide a
troubled look.

"Oh! Uncle John! You startled me," exclaimed Ellen, shocked back
to reality. And slowly she added: "Grass Valley! News?"

She put out an appealing hand, which Sprague quickly took in his own,
as if to reassure her.

"Yes, an' not bad so far as you Jorths are concerned," he replied.
"The first Jorth-Isbel fight has come off. . . . Reckon you remember
makin' me promise to tell you if I heerd anythin'. Wal, I didn't
wait fer you to come up."

"So Ellen heard her voice calmly saying. What was this lying calm
when there seemed to be a stone hammer at her heart? The first fight
--not so bad for the Jorths! Then it had been bad for the Isbels.
A sudden, cold stillness fell upon her senses.

"Let's sit down--outdoors," Sprague was saying. "Nice an' sunny this
--mornin'. I declare--I'm out of breath. Not used to walkin'. An'
besides, I left Grass Valley, in the night--an' I'm tired. But excoose
me from hangin' round thet village last night! There was shore--"

"Who--who was killed?" interrupted Ellen, her voice breaking low and deep.

"Guy Isbel an' Bill Jacobs on the Isbel side, an' Daggs, Craig, an'
Greaves on your father's side," stated Sprague, with something of
awed haste.

"Ah!" breathed Ellen, and she relaxed to sink back against the cabin wall.

Sprague seated himself on the log beside her, turning to face her,
and he seemed burdened with grave and important matters.

"I heerd a good many conflictin' stories," he said, earnestly. "The
village folks is all skeered an' there's no believin' their gossip.
But I got what happened straight from Jake Evarts. The fight come
off day before yestiddy. Your father's gang rode down to Isbel's ranch.
Daggs was seen to be wantin' some of the Isbel hosses, so Evarts says.
An' Guy Isbel an' Jacobs ran out in the pasture. Daggs an' some others
shot them down

"Killed them--that way?" put in Ellen, sharply.

"So Evarts says. He was on the ridge an' swears he seen it all. They
killed Guy an' Jacobs in cold blood. No chance fer their lives--not
even to fight! . . . Wall, hen they surrounded the Isbel cabin. The
fight last all thet day an' all night an' the next day. Evarts says
Guy an' Jacobs laid out thar all this time. An' a herd of hogs broke
in the pasture an' was eatin' the dead bodies . . ."

"My God!" burst out Ellen. "Uncle John, y'u shore cain't mean my
father wouldn't stop fightin' long enough to drive the hogs off an'
bury those daid men?"

"Evarts says they stopped fightin', all right, but it was to watch
the hogs," declared Sprague. "An' then, what d' ye think? The
wimminfolks come out--the red-headed one, Guy's wife, an' Jacobs's
wife--they drove the hogs away an' buried their husbands right there
in the pasture. Evarts says he seen the graves."

"It is the women who can teach these bloody Texans a lesson,"
declared Ellen, forcibly.

"Wal, Daggs was drunk, an' he got up from behind where the gang was
hidin', an' dared the Isbels to come out. They shot him to pieces.
An' thet night some one of the Isbels shot Craig, who was alone on guard.
. . . An' last--this here's what I come to tell you--Jean Isbel slipped
up in the dark on Greaves an' knifed him."

"Why did y'u want to tell me that particularly?" asked Ellen, slowly.

"Because I reckon the facts in the case are queer--an' because, Ellen,
your name was mentioned," announced Sprague, positively.

"My name--mentioned?" echoed Ellen. Her horror and disgust gave way to
a quickening process of thought, a mounting astonishment. "By whom?"

"Jean Isbel," replied Sprague, as if the name and the fact were momentous.

Ellen sat still as a stone, her hands between her knees. Slowly she
felt the blood recede from her face, prickling her kin down below her
neck. That name locked her thought.

"Ellen, it's a mighty queer story--too queer to be a lie," went on
Sprague. "Now you listen! Evarts got this from Ted Meeker. An' Ted
Meeker heerd it from Greaves, who didn't die till the next day after
Jean Isbel knifed him. An' your dad shot Ted fer tellin' what he heerd.
. . . No, Greaves wasn't killed outright. He was cut somethin' turrible
--in two places. They wrapped him all up an' next day packed him in a
wagon back to Grass Valley. Evarts says Ted Meeker was friendly with
Greaves an' went to see him as he was layin' in his room next to the
store. Wal, accordin' to Meeker's story, Greaves came to an' talked.
He said he was sittin' there in the dark, shootin' occasionally at
Isbel's cabin, when he heerd a rustle behind him in the grass. He
knowed some one was crawlin' on him. But before he could get his gun
around he was jumped by what he thought was a grizzly bear. But it was
a man. He shut off Greaves's wind an' dragged him back in the ditch.
An' he said: 'Greaves, it's the half-breed. An' he's goin' to cut you
--FIRST FOR ELLEN JORTH! an' then for Gaston Isbel!' . . . Greaves said
Jean ripped him with a bowie knife. . . . An' thet was all Greaves
remembered. He died soon after tellin' this story. He must hev fought
awful hard. Thet second cut Isbel gave him went clear through him. . . .
Some of the gang was thar when Greaves talked, an' naturally they
wondered why Jean Isbel had said 'first for Ellen Jorth.' . . . Somebody
remembered thet Greaves had cast a slur on your good name, Ellen. An'
then they had Jean Isbel's reason fer sayin' thet to Greaves. It caused
a lot of talk. An' when Simm Bruce busted in some of the gang haw-hawed
him an' said as how he'd get the third cut from Jean Isbel's bowie.
Bruce was half drunk an' he began to cuss an' rave about Jean Isbel
bein' in love with his girl. . . . As bad luck would have it, a couple
of more fellars come in an' asked Meeker questions. He jest got to
thet part, 'Greaves, it's the half-breed, an' he's goin' to cut you--
FIRST FOR ELLEN JORTH,' when in walked your father! . . . Then it all
had to come out--what Jean Isbel had said an' done--an' why.
How Greaves had backed Simm Bruce in slurrin' you!"

Sprague paused to look hard at Ellen.

"Oh! Then--what did dad do?" whispered Ellen.

"He said, 'By God! half-breed or not, there's one Isbel who's a man!'
An' he killed Bruce on the spot an' gave Meeker a nasty wound.
Somebody grabbed him before he could shoot Meeker again. They threw
Meeker out an' he crawled to a neighbor's house, where he was when
Evarts seen him."

Ellen felt Sprague's rough but kindly hand shaking her. "An' now what
do you think of Jean Isbel?" he queried.

A great, unsurmountable wall seemed to obstruct Ellen's thought.
It seemed gray in color. It moved toward her. It was inside her brain.

"I tell you, Ellen Jorth," declared the old man, "thet Jean Isbel loves
you-loves you turribly--an' he believes you're good."

"Oh no--he doesn't!" faltered Ellen.

"Wal, he jest does."

"Oh, Uncle John, he cain't believe that!" she cried.

"Of course he can. He does. You are good--good as gold, Ellen, an'
he knows it. . . . What a queer deal it all is! Poor devil! To love
you thet turribly an' hev to fight your people! Ellen, your dad had
it correct. Isbel or not, he's a man. . . . An' I say what a shame
you two are divided by hate. Hate thet you hed nothin' to do with."
Sprague patted her head and rose to go. "Mebbe thet fight will end
the trouble. I reckon it will. Don't cross bridges till you come to
them, Ellen. , . . I must hurry back now. I didn't take time to unpack
my burros. Come up soon. . . . An', say, Ellen, don't think hard any
more of thet Jean Isbel."

Sprague strode away, and Ellen neither heard nor saw him go. She sat
perfectly motionless, yet had a strange sensation of being lifted by
invisible and mighty power. It was like movement felt in a dream.
She was being impelled upward when her body seemed immovable as stone.
When her blood beat down this deadlock of an her physical being and
rushed on and on through her veins it gave her an irresistible impulse
to fly, to sail through space, to ran and run and ran.

And on the moment the black horse, Spades, coming from the meadow,
whinnied at sight of her. Ellen leaped up and ran swiftly, but her
feet seemed to be stumbling. She hugged the horse and buried her hot
face in his mane and clung to him. Then just as violently she rushed
for her saddle and bridle and carried the heavy weight as easily as if
it had been an empty sack. Throwing them upon him, she buckled and
strapped with strong, eager hands. It never occurred to her that she
was not dressed to ride. Up she flung herself. And the horse, sensing
her spirit, plunged into strong, free gait down the canyon trail.

The ride, the action, the thrill, the sensations of violence were not
all she needed. Solitude, the empty aisles of the forest, the far miles
of lonely wilderness--were these the added all? Spades took a swinging,
rhythmic lope up the winding trail. The wind fanned her hot face. The
sting of whipping aspen branches was pleasant. A deep rumble of thunder
shook the sultry air. Up beyond the green slope of the canyon massed
the creamy clouds, shading darker and darker. Spades loped on the
levels, leaped the washes, trotted over the rocky ground, and took to
a walk up the long slope. Ellen dropped the reins over the pommel.
Her hands could not stay set on anything. They pressed her breast
and flew out to caress the white aspens and to tear at the maple leaves,
and gather the lavender juniper berries, and came back again to her heart.
Her heart that was going to burst or break! As it had swelled, so now
it labored. It could not keep pace with her needs. All that was physical,
all that was living in her had to be unleashed.

Spades gained the level forest. How the great, brown-green pines seemed
to bend their lofty branches over her, protectively, understandingly.
Patches of azure-blue sky flashed between the trees. The great white
clouds sailed along with her, and shafts of golden sunlight, flecked
with gleams of falling pine needles, shone down through the canopy
overhead. Away in front of her, up the slow heave of forest land,
boomed the heavy thunderbolts along the battlements of the Rim.

Was she riding to escape from herself? For no gait suited her until
Spades was running hard and fast through the glades. Then the pressure
of dry wind, the thick odor of pine, the flashes of brown and green and
gold and blue, the soft, rhythmic thuds of hoofs, the feel of the powerful
horse under her, the whip of spruce branches on her muscles contracting
and expanding in hard action--all these sensations seemed to quell for
the time the mounting cataclysm in her heart.

The oak swales, the maple thickets, the aspen groves, the pine-shaded
aisles, and the miles of silver spruce all sped by her, as if she had
ridden the wind; and through the forest ahead shone the vast open of
the Basin, gloomed by purple and silver cloud, shadowed by gray storm,
and in the west brightened by golden sky.

Straight to the Rim she had ridden, and to the point where she had
watched Jean Isbel that unforgetable day. She rode to the promontory
behind the pine thicket and beheld a scene which stayed her restless
hands upon her heaving breast.

The world of sky and cloud and earthly abyss seemed one of storm-sundered
grandeur. The air was sultry and still, and smelled of the peculiar
burnt-wood odor caused by lightning striking trees. A few heavy drops
of rain were pattering down from the thin, gray edge of clouds overhead.
To the east hung the storm--a black cloud lodged against the Rim, from
which long, misty veils of rain streamed down into the gulf. The roar
of rain sounded like the steady roar of the rapids of a river. Then a
blue-white, piercingly bright, ragged streak of lightning shot down out
of the black cloud. It struck with a splitting report that shocked the
very wall of rock under Ellen. Then the heavens seemed to burst open
with thundering crash and close with mighty thundering boom. Long roar
and longer rumble rolled away to the eastward. The rain poured down in
roaring cataracts.

The south held a panorama of purple-shrouded range and canyon, canyon
and range, on across the rolling leagues to the dim, lofty peaks, all
canopied over with angry, dusky, low-drifting clouds, horizon-wide,
smoky, and sulphurous. And as Ellen watched, hands pressed to her
breast, feeling incalculable relief in sight of this tempest and gulf
that resembled her soul, the sun burst out from behind the long bank
of purple cloud in the west and flooded the world there with golden
lightning.

"It is for me!" cried Ellen. "My mind--my heart--my very soul. . . .
Oh, I know! I know now! . . . I love him--love him--love him!"

She cried it out to the elements. "Oh, I love Jean Isbel--an' my
heart will burst or break!"

The might of her passion was like the blaze of the sun. Before it all
else retreated, diminished. The suddenness of the truth dimmed her sight.
But she saw clearly enough to crawl into the pine thicket, through the
clutching, dry twigs, over the mats of fragrant needles to the covert
where she had once spied upon Jean Isbel. And here she lay face down
for a while, hands clutching the needles, breast pressed hard upon the
ground, stricken and spent. But vitality was exceeding strong in her.
It passed, that weakness of realization, and she awakened to the
consciousness of love.

But in the beginning it was not consciousness of the man. It was new,
sensorial life, elemental, primitive, a liberation of a million inherited
instincts, quivering and physical, over which Ellen had no more control
than she had over the glory of the sun. If she thought at all it was
of her need to be hidden, like an animal, low down near the earth,
covered by green thicket, lost in the wildness of nature. She went
to nature, unconsciously seeking a mother. And love was a birth from
the depths of her, like a rushing spring of pure water, long underground,
and at last propelled to the surface by a convulsion.

Ellen gradually lost her tense rigidity and relaxed. Her body softened.
She rolled over until her face caught the lacy, golden shadows cast by
sun and bough. Scattered drops of rain pattered around her. The air
was hot, and its odor was that of dry pine and spruce fragrance penetrated
by brimstone from the lightning. The nest where she lay was warm and
sweet. No eye save that of nature saw her in her abandonment. An
ineffable and exquisite smile wreathed her lips, dreamy, sad, sensuous,
the supremity of unconscious happiness. Over her dark and eloquent eyes,
as Ellen gazed upward, spread a luminous film, a veil. She was looking
intensely, yet she did not see. The wilderness enveloped her with its
secretive, elemental sheaths of rock, of tree, of cloud, of sunlight.
Through her thrilling skin poured the multiple and nameless sensations
of the living organism stirred to supreme sensitiveness. She could not
lie still, but all her movements were gentle, involuntary. The slow
reaching out of her hand, to grasp at nothing visible, was similar to
the lazy stretching of her limbs, to the heave of her breast, to the
ripple of muscle.

Ellen knew not what she felt. To live that sublime hour was beyond
thought. Such happiness was like the first dawn of the world to the
sight of man. It had to do with bygone ages. Her heart, her blood,
her flesh, her very bones were filled with instincts and emotions common
to the race before intellect developed , when the savage lived only with
his sensorial perceptions. Of all happiness, joy, bliss, rapture to
which man was heir, that of intense and exquisite preoccupation of the
senses, unhindered and unburdened by thought, was the greatest. Ellen
felt that which life meant with its inscrutable design. Love was only
the realization of her mission on the earth.

The dark storm cloud with its white, ragged ropes of lightning and
down-streaming gray veils of rain, the purple gulf rolling like a
colored sea to the dim mountains, the glorious golden light of the
sun--these had enchanted her eyes with her beauty of the universe.
They had burst the windows of her blindness. When she crawled into
the green-brown covert it was to escape too great perception. She
needed to be encompassed by close, tangible things. And there her
body paid the tribute to the realization of life. Shock, convulsion,
pain, relaxation, and then unutterable and insupportable sensing of
her environment and the heart! In one way she was a wild animal
alone in the woods, forced into the mating that meant reproduction
of its kind. In another she was an infinitely higher being shot
through and through with the most resistless and mysterious transport
that life could give to flesh.

And when that spell slackened its hold there wedged into her mind a
consciousness of the man she loved--Jean Isbel. Then emotion and
thought strove for mastery over her. It was not herself or love that
she loved, but a living man. Suddenly he existed so clearly for her
that she could see him, hear him, almost feel him. Her whole soul,
her very life cried out to him for protection, for salvation, for love,
for fulfillment. No denial, no doubt marred the white blaze of her
realization. From the instant that she had looked up into Jean Isbel's
dark face she had loved him. Only she had not known. She bowed now,
and bent, and humbly quivered under the mastery of something beyond
her ken. Thought clung to the beginnings of her romance--to the
three times she had seen him. Every look, every word, every act of
his returned to her now in the light of the truth. Love at first sight!
He had sworn it, bitterly, eloquently, scornful of her doubts. And now
a blind, sweet, shuddering ecstasy swayed her. How weak and frail
seemed her body--too small, too slight for this monstrous and terrible
engine of fire and lightning and fury and glory--her heart! It must
burst or break. Relentlessly memory pursued Ellen, and her thoughts
whirled and emotion conquered her. At last she quivered up to her
knees as if lashed to action. It seemed that first kiss of Isbel's,
cool and gentle and timid, was on her lips. And her eyes closed and
hot tears welled from under her lids. Her groping hands found only
the dead twigs and the pine boughs of the trees. Had she reached out
to clasp him? Then hard and violent on her mouth and cheek and neck
burned those other kisses of Isbel's, and with the flashing, stinging
memory came the truth that now she would have bartered her soul for them.
Utterly she surrendered to the resistlessness of this love. Her loss
of mother and friends, her wandering from one wild place to another,
her lonely life among bold and rough men, had developed her for violent
love. It overthrew all pride, it engendered humility, it killed hate.
Ellen wiped the tears from her eyes, and as she knelt there she swept
to her breast a fragrant spreading bough of pine needles. "I'll go to
him," she whispered. "I'll tell him of--of my--my love. I'll tell him
to take me away--away to the end of the world--away from heah--before
it's too late!"

It was a solemn, beautiful moment. But the last spoken words lingered
hauntingly. "Too late?" she whispered.

And suddenly it seemed that death itself shuddered in her soul.
Too late! It was too late. She had killed his love. That Jorth
blood in her--that poisonous hate--had chosen the only way to strike
this noble Isbel to the heart. Basely, with an abandonment of womanhood,
she had mockingly perjured her soul with a vile lie. She writhed, she
shook under the whip of this inconceivable fact. Lost! Lost! She
wailed her misery. She might as well be what she had made Jean Isbel
think she was. If she had been shamed before, she was now abased,
degraded, lost in her own sight. And if she would have given her
soul for his kisses, she now would have killed herself to earn back
his respect. Jean Isbel had given her at sight the deference that
she had unconsciously craved, and the love that would have been her
salvation. What a horrible mistake she had made of her life! Not her
mother's blood, but her father's--the Jorth blood--had been her ruin.

Again Ellen fell upon the soft pine-needle mat, face down, and she
groveled and burrowed there, in an agony that could not bear the sense
of light. All she had suffered was as nothing to this. To have awakened
to a splendid and uplifting love for a man whom she had imagined she
hated, who had fought for her name and had killed in revenge for the
dishonor she had avowed--to have lost his love and what was infinitely
more precious to her now in her ignominy--his faith in her purity--this
broke her heart.

CHAPTER XI

When Ellen, utterly spent in body and mind, reached home that day a
melancholy, sultry twilight was falling. Fitful flares of sheet
lightning swept across the dark horizon to the east. The cabins were
deserted. Antonio and the Mexican woman were gone. The circumstances
made Ellen wonder, but she was too tired and too sunken in spirit to
think long about it or to care. She fed and watered her horse and
left him in the corral. Then, supperless and without removing her
clothes, she threw herself upon the bed, and at once sank into heavy
slumber.

Sometime during the night she awoke. Coyotes were yelping, and from
that sound she concluded it was near dawn. Her body ached; her mind
seemed dull. Drowsily she was sinking into slumber again when she
heard the rapid clip-clop of trotting horses. Startled, she raised
her head to listen. The men were coming back. Relief and dread
seemed to clear her stupor.

The trotting horses stopped across the lane from her cabin, evidently
at the corral where she had left Spades. She heard him whistle.
>From the sound of hoofs she judged the number of horses to be six or
eight. Low voices of men mingled with thuds and cracking of straps
and flopping of saddles on the ground. After that the heavy tread
of boots sounded on the porch of the cabin opposite. A door creaked
on its hinges. Next a slow footstep, accompanied by clinking of spurs,
approached Ellen's door, and a heavy hand banged upon it. She knew
this person could not be her father.

"Hullo, Ellen!"

She recognized the voice as belonging to Colter. Somehow its tone,
or something about it, sent a little shiver clown her spine. It acted
like a revivifying current. Ellen lost her dragging lethargy.

"Hey, Ellen, are y'u there?" added Colter, louder voice.

"Yes. Of course I'm heah," she replied. What do y'u want?"

"Wal--I'm shore glad y'u're home," he replied. "Antonio's gone with
his squaw. An' I was some worried aboot y'u."

"Who's with y'u, Colter?" queried Ellen, sitting up.

"Rock Wells an' Springer. Tad Jorth was with us, but we had to leave
him over heah in a cabin."

"What's the matter with him?"

"Wal, he's hurt tolerable bad," was the slow reply.

Ellen heard Colter's spurs jangle, as if he had uneasily shifted his feet.

"Where's dad an' Uncle Jackson?" asked Ellen.

A silence pregnant enough to augment Ellen's dread finally broke to
Colter's voice, somehow different. "Shore they're back on the trail.
An' we're to meet them where we left Tad."

"Are yu goin' away again?"

"I reckon. . . . An', Ellen, y'u're goin' with us."

"I am not," she retorted.

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