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To The Last Man by Zane Grey

Part 5 out of 6

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"Wal, y'u are, if I have to pack y'u," he replied, forcibly. "It's not
safe heah any more. That damned half-breed Isbel with his gang are on
our trail."

That name seemed like a red-hot blade at Ellen's leaden heart.
She wanted to fling a hundred queries on Colter, but she could
not utter one.

"Ellen, we've got to hit the trail an' hide," continued Colter,
anxiously. "Y'u mustn't stay heah alone. Suppose them Isbels would
trap y'u! . . . They'd tear your clothes off an' rope y'u to a tree.
Ellen, shore y'u're goin'. . . . Y'u heah me! "

"Yes--I'll go," she replied, as if forced.

"Wal--that's good," he said, quickly. "An' rustle tolerable lively.
We've got to pack."

The slow jangle of Colter's spurs and his slow steps moved away out of
Ellen's hearing. Throwing off the blankets, she put her feet to the
floor and sat there a moment staring at the blank nothingness of the
cabin interior in the obscure gray of dawn. Cold, gray, dreary,
obscure--like her life, her future! And she was compelled to do what
was hateful to her. As a Jorth she must take to the unfrequented trails
and hide like a rabbit in the thickets. But the interest of the moment,
a premonition of events to be, quickened her into action.

Ellen unbarred the door to let in the light. Day was breaking with an
intense, clear, steely light in the east through which the morning star
still shone white. A ruddy flare betokened the advent of the sun.
Ellen unbraided her tangled hair and brushed and combed it. A queer,
still pang came to her at sight of pine needles tangled in her brown
locks. Then she washed her hands and face. Breakfast was a matter
of considerable work and she was hungry.

The sun rose and changed the gray world of forest. For the first time
in her life Ellen hated the golden brightness, the wonderful blue of sky,
the scream of the eagle and the screech of the jay; and the squirrels
she had always loved to feed were neglected that morning.

Colter came in. Either Ellen had never before looked attentively at
him or else he had changed. Her scrutiny of his lean, hard features
accorded him more Texan attributes than formerly. His gray eyes were
as light, as clear, as fierce as those of an eagle. And the sand gray
of his face, the long, drooping, fair mustache hid the secrets of his
mind, but not its strength. The instant Ellen met his gaze she sensed
a power in him that she instinctively opposed. Colter had not been so
bold nor so rude as Daggs, but he was the same kind of man, perhaps the
more dangerous for his secretiveness, his cool, waiting inscrutableness.

"'Mawnin', Ellen!" he drawled. "Y'u shore look good for sore eyes."

"Don't pay me compliments, Colter," replied Ellen. "An' your eyes
are not sore."

"Wal, I'm shore sore from fightin' an' ridin' an' layin' out,"
he said, bluntly.

"Tell me--what's happened," returned Ellen.

"Girl, it's a tolerable long story," replied Colter. "An' we've no
time now. Wait till we get to camp."

"Am I to pack my belongin's or leave them heah?" asked Ellen.

"Reckon y'u'd better leave--them heah."

"But if we did not come back--"

"Wal, I reckon it's not likely we'll come--soon, " he said, rather
evasively.

"Colter, I'll not go off into the woods with just the clothes I have
on my back."

"Ellen, we shore got to pack all the grab we can. This shore ain't
goin' to be a visit to neighbors. We're shy pack hosses. But y'u
make up a bundle of belongin's y'u care for, an' the things y'u'll
need bad. We'll throw it on somewhere."

Colter stalked away across the lane, and Ellen found herself dubiously
staring at his tall figure. Was it the situation that struck her with
a foreboding perplexity or was her intuition steeling her against this
man? Ellen could not decide. But she had to go with him. Her prejudice
was unreasonable at this portentous moment. And she could not yet feel
that she was solely responsible to herself.

When it came to making a small bundle of her belongings she was in a
quandary. She discarded this and put in that, and then reversed the
order. Next in preciousness to her mother's things were the long-hidden
gifts of Jean Isbel. She could part with neither.

While she was selecting and packing this bundle Colter again entered and,
without speaking, began to rummage in the corner where her father kept
his possessions. This irritated Ellen.

"What do y'u want there?" she demanded.

"Wal, I reckon your dad wants his papers--an' the gold he left heah--
an' a change of clothes. Now doesn't he?" returned Colter, coolly.

"Of course. But I supposed y'u would have me pack them."

Colter vouchsafed no reply to this, but deliberately went on rummaging,
with little regard for how he scattered things. Ellen turned her back
on him. At length, when he left, she went to her father's corner and
found that, as far as she was able to see, Colter had taken neither
papers nor clothes, but only the gold. Perhaps, however, she had been
mistaken, for she had not observed Colter's departure closely enough
to know whether or not he carried a package. She missed only the gold.
Her father's papers, old and musty, were scattered about, and these she
gathered up to slip in her own bundle.

Colter, or one of the men, had saddled Spades, and he was now tied to
the corral fence, champing his bit and pounding the sand. Ellen wrapped
bread and meat inside her coat, and after tying this behind her saddle
she was ready to go. But evidently she would have to wait, and,
preferring to remain outdoors, she stayed by her horse. Presently,
while watching the men pack, she noticed that Springer wore a bandage
round his head under the brim of his sombrero. His motions were slow
and lacked energy. Shuddering at the sight, Ellen refused to conjecture.
All too soon she would learn what had happened, and all too soon,
perhaps, she herself would be in the midst of another fight. She
watched the men. They were making a hurried slipshod job of packing
food supplies from both cabins. More than once she caught Colter's
gray gleam of gaze on her, and she did not like it.

"I'll ride up an' say good-by to Sprague," she called to Colter.

"Shore y'u won't do nothin' of the kind," he called back.

There was authority in his tone that angered Ellen, and something else
which inhibited her anger. What was there about Colter with which she
must reckon? The other two Texans laughed aloud, to be suddenly silenced
by Colter's harsh and lowered curses. Ellen walked out of hearing and
sat upon a log, where she remained until Colter hailed her.

"Get up an' ride," he called.

Ellen complied with this order and, riding up behind the three mounted
men, she soon found herself leaving what for years had been her home.
Not once did she look back. She hoped she would never see the squalid,
bare pretension of a ranch again.

Colter and the other riders drove the pack horses across the meadow,
off of the trails, and up the slope into the forest. Not very long
did it take Ellen to see that Colter's object was to hide their tracks.
He zigzagged through the forest, avoiding the bare spots of dust, the
dry, sun-baked flats of clay where water lay in spring, and he chose the
grassy, open glades, the long, pine-needle matted aisles. Ellen rode at
their heels and it pleased her to watch for their tracks. Colter
manifestly had been long practiced in this game of hiding his trail,
and he showed the skill of a rustler. But Ellen was not convinced that
he could ever elude a real woodsman. Not improbably, however, Colter
was only aiming to leave a trail difficult to follow and which would
allow him and his confederates ample time to forge ahead of pursuers.
Ellen could not accept a certainty of pursuit. Yet Colter must have
expected it, and Springer and Wells also, for they had a dark, sinister,
furtive demeanor that strangely contrasted with the cool, easy manner
habitual to them.

They were not seeking the level routes of the forest land, that was sure.
They rode straight across the thick-timbered ridge down into another
canyon, up out of that, and across rough, rocky bluffs, and down again.
These riders headed a little to the northwest and every mile brought
them into wilder, more rugged country, until Ellen, losing count of
canyons and ridges, had no idea where she was. No stop was made at
noon to rest the laboring, sweating pack animals.

Under circumstances where pleasure might have been possible Ellen would
have reveled in this hard ride into a wonderful forest ever thickening
and darkening. But the wild beauty of glade and the spruce slopes and
the deep, bronze-walled canyons left her cold. She saw and felt, but
had no thrill, except now and then a thrill of alarm when Spades slid
to his haunches down some steep, damp, piny declivity.

All the woodland, up and down, appeared to be richer greener as they
traveled farther west. Grass grew thick and heavy. Water ran in all
ravines. The rocks were bronze and copper and russet, and some had
green patches of lichen.

Ellen felt the sun now on her left cheek and knew that the day was
waning and that Colter was swinging farther to the northwest. She
had never before ridden through such heavy forest and down and up
such wild canyons. Toward sunset the deepest and ruggedest canyon
halted their advance. Colter rode to the right, searching for a place
to get down through a spruce thicket that stood on end. Presently he
dismounted and the others followed suit. Ellen found she could not
lead Spades because he slid down upon her heels, so she looped the end
of her reins over the pommel and left him free. She herself managed to
descend by holding to branches and sliding all the way down that slope.
She heard the horses cracking the brush, snorting and heaving. One pack
slipped and had to be removed from the horse, and rolled down. At the
bottom of this deep, green-walled notch roared a stream of water.
Shadowed, cool, mossy, damp, this narrow gulch seemed the wildest place
Ellen had ever seen. She could just see the sunset-flushed, gold-tipped
spruces far above her. The men repacked the horse that had slipped his
burden, and once more resumed their progress ahead, now turning up this
canyon. There was no horse trail, but deer and bear trails were
numerous. The sun sank and the sky darkened, but still the men
rode on; and the farther they traveled the wilder grew the aspect
of the canyon.

At length Colter broke a way through a heavy thicket of willows and
entered a side canyon, the mouth of which Ellen had not even descried.
It turned and widened, and at length opened out into a round pocket,
apparently inclosed, and as lonely and isolated a place as even pursued
rustlers could desire. Hidden by jutting wall and thicket of spruce
were two old log cabins joined together by roof and attic floor, the
same as the double cabin at the Jorth ranch.

Ellen smelled wood smoke, and presently, on going round the cabins,
saw a bright fire. One man stood beside it gazing at Colter's party,
which evidently he had heard approaching.

"Hullo, Queen!" said Colter. How's Tad?"

"He's holdin' on fine," replied Queen, bending over the fire,
where he turned pieces of meat.

"Where's father?" suddenly asked Ellen, addressing Colter.

As if he had not heard her, he went on wearily loosening a pack.

Queen looked at her. The light of the fire only partially shone on
his face. Ellen could not see its expression. But from the fact that
Queen did not answer her question she got further intimation of an
impending catastrophe. The long, wild ride had helped prepare her for
the secrecy and taciturnity of men who had resorted to flight. Perhaps
her father had been delayed or was still off on the deadly mission that
had obsessed him; or there might, and probably was, darker reason for
his absence. Ellen shut her teeth and turned to the needs of her horse.
And presently. returning to the fire, she thought of her uncle.

"Queen, is my uncle Tad heah?" she asked.

"Shore. He's in there," replied Queen, pointing at the nearer cabin.

Ellen hurried toward the dark doorway. She could see how the logs of
the cabin had moved awry and what a big, dilapidated hovel it was.
As she looked in, Colter loomed over her--placed a familiar and somehow
masterful hand upon her. Ellen let it rest on her shoulder a moment.
Must she forever be repulsing these rude men among whom her lot was cast?
Did Colter mean what Daggs had always meant? Ellen felt herself weary,
weak in body, and her spent spirit had not rallied. Yet, whatever Colter
meant by his familiarity, she could not bear it. So she slipped out
from under his hand.

"Uncle Tad, are y'u heah?" she called into the blackness. She heard
the mice scamper and rustle and she smelled the musty, old, woody odor
of a long-unused cabin.

"Hello, Ellen!" came a voice she recognized as her uncle's, yet it
was strange. "Yes. I'm heah--bad luck to me! . . . How 're y'u
buckin' up, girl?"

"I'm all right, Uncle Tad--only tired an' worried. I--"

"Tad, how's your hurt?" interrupted Colter.

"Reckon I'm easier," replied Jorth, wearily, "but shore I'm in bad shape.
I'm still spittin' blood. I keep tellin' Queen that bullet lodged in my
lungs-but he says it went through."

"Wal, hang on, Tad!" replied Colter, with a cheerfulness Ellen sensed
was really indifferent.

"Oh, what the hell's the use!" exclaimed Jorth. "It's all--up
with us--Colter!"

"Wal, shut up, then," tersely returned Colter. "It ain't doin'
y'u or us any good to holler."

Tad Jorth did not reply to this. Ellen heard his breathing and it did
not seem natural. It rasped a little--came hurriedly--then caught in
his throat. Then he spat. Ellen shrunk back against the door.
He was breathing through blood.

"Uncle, are y'u in pain?" she asked.

"Yes, Ellen--it burns like hell," he said.

"Oh! I'm sorry. . . . Isn't there something I can do?"

"I reckon not. Queen did all anybody could do for me--now--
unless it's pray."

Colter laughed at this--the slow, easy, drawling laugh of a Texan.
But Ellen felt pity for this wounded uncle. She had always hated him.
He had been a drunkard, a gambler, a waster of her father's property;
and now he was a rustler and a fugitive, lying in pain, perhaps
mortally hurt.

"Yes, uncle--I will pray for y'u," she said, softly.

The change in his voice held a note of sadness that she had been
quick to catch.

"Ellen, y'u're the only good Jorth--in the whole damned lot," he said.
"God! I see it all now. . . . We've dragged y'u to hell!"

"Yes, Uncle Tad, I've shore been dragged some--but not yet--to hell,"
she responded, with a break in her voice.

"Y'u will be--Ellen--unless--"

"Aw, shut up that kind of gab, will y'u?" broke in Colter, harshly.

It amazed Ellen that Colter should dominate her uncle, even though he
was wounded. Tad Jorth had been the last man to take orders from anyone,
much less a rustler of the Hash Knife Gang. This Colter began to loom
up in Ellen's estimate as he loomed physically over her, a lofty figure,
dark motionless, somehow menacing.

"Ellen, has Colter told y'u yet--aboot--aboot Lee an' Jackson?"
inquired the wounded man.

The pitch-black darkness of the cabin seemed to help fortify Ellen
to bear further trouble.

"Colter told me dad an' Uncle Jackson would meet us heah," she rejoined,
hurriedly.

Jorth could be heard breathing in difficulty, and he coughed and
spat again, and seemed to hiss.

"Ellen, he lied to y'u. They'll never meet us--heah!"

"Why not?" whispered Ellen.

"Because--Ellen-- " he replied, in husky pants, "your dad an'--uncle
Jackson--are daid--an' buried!"

If Ellen suffered a terrible shock it was a blankness, a deadness,
and a slow, creeping failure of sense in her knees. They gave way
under her and she sank on the grass against the cabin wall. She did
not faint nor grow dizzy nor lose her sight, but for a while there was
no process of thought in her mind. Suddenly then it was there--the
quick, spiritual rending of her heart--followed by a profound emotion
of intimate and irretrievable loss--and after that grief and bitter
realization.

An hour later Ellen found strength to go to the fire and partake of
the food and drink her body sorely needed.

Colter and the men waited on her solicitously, and in silence, now and
then stealing furtive glances at her from under the shadow of their
black sombreros. The dark night settled down like a blanket. There
were no stars. The wind moaned fitfully among the pines, and all about
that lonely, hidden recess was in harmony with Ellen's thoughts.

"Girl, y'u're shore game," said Colter, admiringly. "An' I reckon
y'u never got it from the Jorths."

"Tad in there--he's game," said Queen, in mild protest.

"Not to my notion," replied Colter. "Any man can be game when he's
croakin', with somebody around. . . . But Lee Jorth an' Jackson--they
always was yellow clear to their gizzards. They was born in Louisiana
--not Texas. . . . Shore they're no more Texans than I am. Ellen heah,
she must have got another strain in her blood.

To Ellen their words had no meaning. She rose and asked,
"Where can I sleep?"

"I'll fetch a light presently an' y'u can make your bed in there by
Tad," replied Colter.

"Yes, I'd like that."

"Wal, if y'u reckon y'u can coax him to talk you're shore wrong,
"declared Colter, with that cold timbre of voice that struck like
steel on Ellen's nerves. "I cussed him good an' told him he'd keep
his mouth shut. Talkin' makes him cough an' that fetches up the blood.
. . Besides, I reckon I'm the one to tell y'u how your dad an' uncle
got killed. Tad didn't see it done, an' he was bad hurt when it
happened. Shore all the fellars left have their idee aboot it.
But I've got it straight."

"Colter--tell me now," cried Ellen.

"Wal, all right. Come over heah, "he replied, and drew her away from
the camp fire, out in the shadow of gloom. "Poor kid! I shore feel
bad aboot it." He put a long arm around her waist and drew her against
him. Ellen felt it, yet did not offer any resistance. All her faculties
seemed absorbed in a morbid and sad anticipation.

"Ellen, y'u shore know I always loved y'u--now don't y 'u?" he asked,
with suppressed breath.

"No, Colter. It's news to me--an' not what I want to heah."

"Wal, y'u may as well heah it right now," he said. "It's true.
An' what's more--your dad gave y'u to me before he died."

"What! Colter, y'u must be a liar."

"Ellen, I swear I'm not lyin'," he returned, in eager passion. "I was
with your dad last an' heard him last. He shore knew I'd loved y'u for
years. An' he said he'd rather y'u be left in my care than anybody's."

"My father gave me to y'u in marriage!" ejaculated Ellen, in bewilderment.

Colter's ready assurance did not carry him over this point. It was
evident that her words somewhat surprised and disconcerted him for
the moment.

"To let me marry a rustler--one of the Hash Knife Gang!" exclaimed Ellen,
with weary incredulity.

"Wal, your dad belonged to Daggs's gang, same as I do," replied Colter,
recovering his cool ardor.

"No!" cried Ellen.

"Yes, he shore did, for years," declared Colter, positively.
"Back in Texas. An' it was your dad that got Daggs to come to Arizona."

Ellen tried to fling herself away. But her strength and her spirit
were ebbing, and Colter increased the pressure of his arm. All at
once she sank limp. Could she escape her fate? Nothing seemed left
to fight with or for.

"All right--don't hold me--so tight," she panted. "Now tell me how
dad was killed . . . an' who--who--"

Colter bent over so he could peer into her face. In the darkness Ellen
just caught the gleam of his eyes. She felt the virile force of the
man in the strain of his body as he pressed her close. It all seemed
unreal--a hideous dream--the gloom, the moan of the wind, the weird
solitude, and this rustler with hand and will like cold steel.

"We'd come back to Greaves's store," Colter began. "An' as Greaves
was daid we all got free with his liquor. Shore some of us got drunk.
Bruce was drunk, an' Tad in there--he was drunk. Your dad put away
more 'n I ever seen him. But shore he wasn't exactly drunk. He got
one of them weak an' shaky spells. He cried an' he wanted some of us
to get the Isbels to call off the fightin'. . . . He shore was ready
to call it quits. I reckon the killin' of Daggs--an' then the awful
way Greaves was cut up by Jean Isbel--took all the fight out of your
dad. He said to me, 'Colter, we'll take Ellen an' leave this heah
country--an' begin life all over again--where no one knows us.'"

"Oh, did he really say that? . . . Did he--really mean it?" murmured
Ellen, with a sob.

"I'll swear it by the memory of my daid mother," protested Colter.
"Wal, when night come the Isbels rode down on us in the dark an' began
to shoot. They smashed in the door--tried to burn us out--an' hollered
around for a while. Then they left an' we reckoned there'd be no more
trouble that night. All the same we kept watch. I was the soberest one
an' I bossed the gang. We had some quarrels aboot the drinkin'. Your
dad said if we kept it up it 'd be the end of the Jorths. An' he planned
to send word to the Isbels next mawnin' that he was ready for a truce.
An' I was to go fix it up with Gaston Isbel. Wal, your dad went to bed
in Greaves's room, an' a little while later your uncle Jackson went in
there, too. Some of the men laid down in the store an' went to sleep.
I kept guard till aboot three in the mawnin'. An' I got so sleepy I
couldn't hold my eyes open. So I waked up Wells an' Slater an' set
them on guard, one at each end of the store. Then I laid down on the
counter to take a nap."

Colter's low voice, the strain and breathlessness of him, the agitation
with which he appeared to be laboring, and especially the simple,
matter-of-fact detail of his story, carried absolute conviction to
Ellen Jorth. Her vague doubt of him had been created by his attitude
toward her. Emotion dominated her intelligence. The images, the scenes
called up by Colter's words, were as true as the gloom of the wild gulch
and the loneliness of the night solitude--as true as the strange fact
that she lay passive in the arm of a rustler.

"Wall, after a while I woke up," went on Colter, clearing his throat.
"It was gray dawn. All was as still as death. . . . An' somethin' shore
was wrong. Wells an' Slater had got to drinkin' again an' now laid daid
drunk or asleep. Anyways, when I kicked them they never moved. Then I
heard a moan. It came from the room where your dad an' uncle was. I
went in. It was just light enough to see. Your uncle Jackson was layin'
on the floor--cut half in two--daid as a door nail. . . . Your dad lay
on the bed. He was alive, breathin' his last. . . . He says, 'That
half-breed Isbel--knifed us--while we slept!' . . . The winder shutter
was open. I seen where Jean Isbel had come in an' gone out. I seen
his moccasin tracks in the dirt outside an' I seen where he'd stepped
in Jackson's blood an' tracked it to the winder. Y'u shore can see
them bloody tracks yourself, if y'u go back to Greaves's store. . . .
Your dad was goin' fast. . . . He said, 'Colter--take care of Ellen,'
an' I reckon he meant a lot by that. He kept sayin', 'My God! if I'd
only seen Gaston Isbel before it was too late!' an' then he raved a
little, whisperin' out of his haid. . . . An' after that he died. . . .
I woke up the men, an' aboot sunup we carried your dad an' uncle out of
town an' buried them. . . . An' them Isbels shot at us while we were
buryin' our daid! That's where Tad got his hurt. . . . Then we hit
the trail for Jorth's ranch. . . . An now, Ellen, that's all my story.
Your dad was ready to bury the hatchet with his old enemy. An' that
Nez Perce Jean Isbel, like the sneakin' savage he is, murdered your
uncle an' your dad. . . . Cut him horrible--made him suffer tortures
of hell--all for Isbel revenge!"

When Colter's husky voice ceased Ellen whispered through lips as cold
and still as ice, "Let me go . . . leave me--heah--alone!"

"Why, shore! I reckon I understand," replied Colter. "I hated to
tell y'u. But y'u had to heah the truth aboot that half-breed. . . .
I'll carry your pack in the cabin an' unroll your blankets."

Releasing her, Colter strode off in the gloom. Like a dead weight,
Ellen began to slide until she slipped down full length beside the log.
And then she lay in the cool, damp shadow, inert and lifeless so far
as outward physical movement was concerned. She saw nothing and felt
nothing of the night, the wind, the cold, the falling dew. For the
moment or hour she was crushed by despair, and seemed to see herself
sinking down and down into a black, bottomless pit, into an abyss where
murky tides of blood and furious gusts of passion contended between her
body and her soul. Into the stormy blast of hell! In her despair she
longed, she ached for death. Born of infidelity, cursed by a taint of
evil blood, further cursed by higher instinct for good and happy life,
dragged from one lonely and wild and sordid spot to another, never
knowing love or peace or joy or home, left to the companionship of
violent and vile men, driven by a strange fate to love with unquenchable
and insupportable love a' half-breed, a savage, an Isbel, the hereditary
enemy of her people, and at last the. ruthless murderer of her father--
what in the name of God had she left to live for? Revenge! An eye for
an eye! A life for a life! But she could not kill Jean Isbel.
Woman's love could turn to hate, but not the love of Ellen Jorth.
He could drag her by the hair in the dust, beat her, and make her a
thing to loathe, and cut her mortally in his savage and implacable
thirst for revenge--but with her last gasp she would whisper she loved
him and that she had lied to him to kill his faith. It was that--his
strange faith in her purity--which had won her love. Of all men, that
he should be the one to recognize the truth of her, the womanhood yet
unsullied--how strange, how terrible, how overpowering! False, indeed,
was she to the Jorths! False as her mother had been to an Isbel!
This agony and destruction of her soul was the bitter Dead Sea fruit
--the sins of her parents visited upon her.

"I'll end it all," she whispered to the night shadows that hovered
over her. No coward was she--no fear of pain or mangled flesh or death
or the mysterious hereafter could ever stay her. It would be easy, it
would be a last thrill, a transport of self-abasement and supreme
self-proof of her love for Jean Isbel to kiss the Rim rock where his
feet had trod and then fling herself down into the depths. She was the
last Jorth. So the wronged Isbels would be avenged.

"But he would never know--never know--I lied to him!" she wailed
to the night wind.

She was lost--lost on earth and to hope of heaven. She had right
neither to live nor to die. She was nothing but a little weed along
the trail of life, trampled upon, buried in the mud. She was nothing
but a single rotten thread in a tangled web of love and hate and revenge.
And she had broken.

Lower and lower she seemed to sink. Was there no end to this gulf of
despair? If Colter had returned he would have found her a rag and a
toy--a creature degraded, fit for his vile embrace. To be thrust deeper
into the mire--to be punished fittingly for her betrayal of a man's
noble love and her own womanhood--to be made an end of, body, mind,
and soul.

But Colter did not return.

The wind mourned, the owls hooted, the leaves rustled, the insects
whispered their melancholy night song, the camp-fire flickered and faded.
Then the wild forestland seemed to close imponderably over Ellen. All
that she wailed in her deapair, all that she confessed in her abasement,
was true, and hard as life could be--but she belonged to nature. If
nature had not failed her, had God failed her? It was there--the lonely
land of tree and fern and flower and brook, full of wild birds and beasts,
where the mossy rocks could speak and the solitude had ears, where she
had always felt herself unutterably a part of creation. Thus a wavering
spark of hope quivered through the blackness of her soul and gathered
light.

The gloom of the sky, the shifting clouds of dull shade, split asunder
to show a glimpse of a radiant star, piercingly white, cold, pure,
a steadfast eye of the universe, beyond all understanding and
illimitable with its meaning of the past and the present and the
future. Ellen watched it until the drifting clouds once more hid
it from her strained sight.

What had that star to do with hell? She might be crushed and destroyed
by life, but was there not something beyond? Just to be born, just to
suffer, just to die--could that be all? Despair did not loose its hold
on Ellen, the strife and pang of her breast did not subside. But with
the long hours and the strange closing in of the forest around her and
the fleeting glimpse of that wonderful star, with a subtle divination
of the meaning of her beating heart and throbbing mind, and, lastly,
with a voice thundering at her conscience that a man's faith in a
woman must not be greater, nobler, than her faith in God and eternity
--with these she checked the dark flight of her soul toward destruction.

CHAPTER XII

A chill, gray, somber dawn was breaking when Ellen dragged herself
into the cabin and crept under her blankets, there to sleep the sleep
of exhaustion.

When she awoke the hour appeared to be late afternoon. Sun and sky
shone through the sunken and decayed roof of the old cabin. Her uncle,
Tad Jorth, lay upon a blanket bed upheld by a crude couch of boughs.
The light fell upon his face, pale, lined, cast in a still mold of
suffering. He was not dead, for she heard his respiration.

The floor underneath Ellen's blankets was bare clay. She and Jorth
were alone in this cabin. It contained nothing besides their beds
and a rank growth of weeds along the decayed lower logs. Half of the
cabin had a rude ceiling of rough-hewn boards which formed a kind of loft.
This attic extended through to the adjoining cabin, forming the ceiling
of the porch-like space between the two structures. There was no
partition. A ladder of two aspen saplings, pegged to the logs, and
with braces between for steps, led up to the attic.

Ellen smelled wood smoke and the odor of frying meat, and she heard the
voices of men. She looked out to see that Slater and Somers had joined
their party--an addition that might have strengthened it for defense,
but did not lend her own situation anything favorable. Somers had
always appeared the one best to avoid.

Colter espied her and called her to "Come an' feed your pale face."
His comrades laughed, not loudly, but guardedly, as if noise was
something to avoid. Nevertheless, they awoke Tad Jorth, who began
to toss and moan on the bed.

Ellen hurried to his side and at once ascertained that he had a high
fever and was in a critical condition. Every time he tossed he opened
a wound in his right breast, rather high up. For all she could see,
nothing had been done for him except the binding of a scarf round his
neck and under his arm. This scant bandage had worked loose. Going to
the door, she called out:

"Fetch me some water." When Colter brought it, Ellen was rummaging
in her pack for some clothing or towel that she could use for bandages.

"Weren't any of y'u decent enough to look after my uncle?" she queried.

"Huh! Wal, what the hell!" rejoined Colter. "We shore did all we could.
I reckon y'u think it wasn't a tough job to pack him up the Rim. He was
done for then an' I said so."

"I'll do all I can for him," said Ellen.

"Shore. Go ahaid. When I get plugged or knifed by that half-breed
I shore hope y'u'll be round to nurse me."

"Y'u seem to be pretty shore of your fate, Colter."

"Shore as hell!" he bit out, darkly. "Somers saw Isbel an' his gang
trailin' us to the Jorth ranch."

"Are y'u goin' to stay heah--an' wait for them?"

"Shore I've been quarrelin' with the fellars out there over that very
question. I'm for leavin' the country. But Queen, the damn gun fighter,
is daid set to kill that cowman, Blue, who swore he was King Fisher,
the old Texas outlaw. None but Queen are spoilin' for another fight.
All the same they won't leave Tad Jorth heah alone."

Then Colter leaned in at the door and whispered: "Ellen, I cain't boss
this outfit. So let's y'u an' me shake 'em. I've got your dad's gold.
Let's ride off to-night an' shake this country."

Colter, muttering under his breath, left the door and returned to his
comrades. Ellen had received her first intimation of his cowardice;
and his mention of her father's gold started a train of thought that
persisted in spite of her efforts to put all her mind to attending
her uncle. He grew conscious enough to recognize her working over him,
and thanked her with a look that touched Ellen deeply. It changed the
direction of her mind. His suffering and imminent death, which she was
able to alleviate and retard somewhat, worked upon her pity and compassion
so that she forgot her own plight. Half the night she was tending him,
cooling his fever, holding him quiet. Well she realized that but for
her ministrations he would have died. At length he went to sleep.

And Ellen, sitting beside him in the lonely, silent darkness of that
late hour, received again the intimation of nature, those vague and
nameless stirrings of her innermost being, those whisperings out of
the night and the forest and the sky. Something great would not let
go of her soul. She pondered.

Attention to the wounded man occupied Ellen; and soon she redoubled
her activities in this regard, finding in them something of protection
against Colter.

He had waylaid her as she went to a spring for water, and with a lunge
like that of a bear he had tried to embrace her. But Ellen had been
too quick.

"Wal, are y'u goin' away with me?" he demanded.

"No. I'll stick by my uncle," she replied.

That motive of hers seemed to obstruct his will. Ellen was keen to see
that Colter and his comrades were at a last stand and disintegrating
under a severe strain. Nerve and courage of the open and the wild they
possessed, but only in a limited degree. Colter seemed obsessed by his
passion for her, and though Ellen in her stubborn pride did not yet fear
him, she realized she ought to. After that incident she watched closely,
never leaving her uncle's bedside except when Colter was absent. One or
more of the men kept constant lookout somewhere down the canyon.

Day after day passed on the wings of suspense, of watching, of ministering
to her uncle, of waiting for some hour that seemed fixed.

Colter was like a hound upon her trail. At every turn he was there to
importune her to run off with him, to frighten her with the menace of
the Isbels, to beg her to give herself to him. It came to pass that
the only relief she had was when she ate with the men or barred the
cabin door at night. Not much relief, however, was there in the shut
and barred door. With one thrust of his powerful arm Colter could have
caved it in. He knew this as well as Ellen. Still she did not have
the fear she should have had. There was her rifle beside her, and
though she did not allow her mind to run darkly on its possible use,
still the fact of its being there at hand somehow strengthened her.
Colter was a cat playing with a mouse, but not yet sure of his quarry.

Ellen came to know hours when she was weak--weak physically, mentally,
spiritually, morally--when under the sheer weight of this frightful
and growing burden of suspense she was not capable of fighting her
misery, her abasement, her low ebb of vitality, and at the same time
wholly withstanding Colter's advances.

He would come into the cabin and, utterly indifferent to Tad Jorth,
he would try to make bold and unrestrained love to Ellen. When he
caught her in one of her unresisting moments and was able to hold
her in his arms and kiss her he seemed to be beside himself with the
wonder of her. At such moments, if he had any softness or gentleness
in him, they expressed themselves in his sooner or later letting her go,
when apparently she was about to faint. So it must have become
fascinatingly fixed in Colter's mind that at times Ellen repulsed
him with scorn and at others could not resist him.

Ellen had escaped two crises in her relation with this man, and as a
morbid doubt, like a poisonous fungus, began to strangle her mind,
she instinctively divined that there was an approaching and final
crisis. No uplift of her spirit came this time--no intimations--no
whisperings. How horrible it all was! To long to be good and noble
--to realize that she was neither--to sink lower day by day! Must she
decay there like one of these rotting logs? Worst of all, then, was
the insinuating and ever-growing hopelessness. What was the use?
What did it matter? Who would ever think of Ellen Jorth? "O God!"
she whispered in her distraction, "is there nothing left--nothing at all?"

A period of several days of less torment to Ellen followed. Her uncle
apparently took a turn for the better and Colter let her alone. This
last circumstance nonplused Ellen. She was at a loss to understand it
unless the Isbel menace now encroached upon Colter so formidably that
he had forgotten her for the present.

Then one bright August morning, when she had just begun to relax her
eternal vigilance and breathe without oppression, Colter encountered
her and, darkly silent and fierce, he grasped her and drew her off her
feet. Ellen struggled violently, but the total surprise had deprived
her of strength. And that paralyzing weakness assailed her as never
before. Without apparent effort Colter carried her, striding rapidly
away from the cabins into the border of spruce trees at the foot of
the canyon wall.

"Colter--where--oh, where are Y'u takin' me?" she found voice to cry out.

"By God! I don't know," he replied, with strong, vibrant passion.
"I was a fool not to carry y'u off long ago. But I waited. I was
hopin' y'u'd love me! . . . An' now that Isbel gang has corralled us.
Somers seen the half-breed up on the rocks. An' Springer seen the
rest of them sneakin' around. I run back after my horse an' y'u."

"But Uncle Tad! . . . We mustn't leave him alone," cried Ellen.

"We've got to," replied Colter, grimly. "Tad shore won't worry y'u
no more--soon as Jean Isbel gets to him."

"Oh, let me stay," implored Ellen. "I will save him."

Colter laughed at the utter absurdity of her appeal and claim.
Suddenly he set her down upon her feet. "Stand still," he ordered.
Ellen saw his big bay horse, saddled, with pack and blanket, tied
there in the shade of a spruce. With swift hands Colter untied him
and mounted him, scarcely moving his piercing gaze from Ellen. He
reached to grasp her. "Up with y'u! . . . Put your foot in the
stirrup!" His will, like his powerful arm, was irresistible for Ellen
at that moment. She found herself swung up behind him. Then the horse
plunged away. What with the hard motion and Colter's iron grasp on her
Ellen was in a painful position. Her knees and feet came into violent
contact with branches and snags. He galloped the horse, tearing through
the dense thicket of willows that served to hide the entrance to the
side canyon, and when out in the larger and more open canyon he urged
him to a run. Presently when Colter put the horse to a slow rise of
ground, thereby bringing him to a walk, it was just in time to save
Ellen a serious bruising. Again the sunlight appeared to shade over.
They were in the pines. Suddenly with backward lunge Colter halted
the horse. Ellen heard a yell. She recognized Queen's voice.

"Turn back, Colter! Turn back!"

With an oath Colter wheeled his mount. "If I didn't run plump into
them," he ejaculated, harshly. And scarcely had the goaded horse gotten
a start when a shot rang out. Ellen felt a violent shock, as if her
momentum had suddenly met with a check, and then she felt herself
wrenched from Colter, from the saddle, and propelled into the air.
She alighted on soft ground and thick grass, and was unhurt save for
the violent wrench and shaking that had rendered her breathless. Before
she could rise Colter was pulling at her, lifting her to her feet. She
saw the horse lying with bloody head. Tall pines loomed all around.
Another rifle cracked. "Run!" hissed Colter, and he bounded off,
dragging her by the hand. Another yell pealed out. "Here we are,
Colter!". Again it was Queen's shrill voice. Ellen ran with all her
might, her heart in her throat, her sight failing to record more than
a blur of passing pines and a blank green wall of spruce. Then she
lost her balance, was falling, yet could not fall because of that steel
grip on her hand, and was dragged, and finally carried, into a dense
shade. She was blinded. The trees whirled and faded. Voices and shots
sounded far away. Then something black seemed to be wiped across her
feeling.

It turned to gray, to moving blankness, to dim, hazy objects, spectral
and tall, like blanketed trees, and when Ellen fully recovered
consciousness she was being carried through the forest.

"Wal, little one, that was a close shave for y'u," said Colter's hard
voice, growing clearer. "Reckon your keelin' over was natural enough."

He held her lightly in both arms, her head resting above his left elbow.
Ellen saw his face as a gray blur, then taking sharper outline, until
it stood out distinctly, pale and clammy, with eyes cold and wonderful
in their intense flare. As she gazed upward Colter turned his head to
look back through the woods, and his motion betrayed a keen, wild
vigilance. The veins of his lean, brown neck stood out like whipcords.
Two comrades were stalking beside him. Ellen heard their stealthy
steps, and she felt Colter sheer from one side or the other. They were
proceeding cautiously, fearful of the rear, but not wholly trusting to
the fore.

"Reckon we'd better go slow an' look before we leap," said one whose
voice Ellen recognized as Springer's.

"Shore. That open slope ain't to my likin', with our Nez Perce friend
prowlin' round," drawled Colter, as he set Ellen down on her feet.

Another of the rustlers laughed. "Say, can't he twinkle through the
forest? I had four shots at him. Harder to hit than a turkey runnin'
crossways."

This facetious speaker was the evil-visaged, sardonic Somers.
He carried two rifles and wore two belts of cartridges.

"Ellen, shore y'u ain't so daid white as y'u was," observed Colter,
and he chucked her under the chin with familiar hand. "Set down heah.
I don't want y'u stoppin' any bullets. An' there's no tellin'."

Ellen was glad to comply with his wish. She had begun to recover wits
and strength, yet she still felt shaky. She observed that their position
then was on the edge of a well-wooded slope from which she could see the
grassy canyon floor below. They were on a level bench, projecting out
from the main canyon wall that loomed gray and rugged and pine fringed.
Somers and Cotter and Springer gave careful attention to all points of
the compass, especially in the direction from which they had come.
They evidently anticipated being trailed or circled or headed off,
but did not manifest much concern. Somers lit a cigarette; Springer
wiped his face with a grimy hand and counted the shells in his belt,
which appeared to be half empty. Colter stretched his long neck like
a vulture and peered down the slope and through the aisles of the forest
up toward the canyon rim.

"Listen!" he said, tersely, and bent his head a little to one side,
ear to the slight breeze.

They all listened. Ellen heard the beating of her heart, the rustle
of leaves, the tapping of a woodpecker, and faint, remote sounds that
she could not name.

"Deer, I reckon," spoke up Somers.

"Ahuh! Wal, I reckon they ain't trailin' us yet," replied Colter.
"We gave them a shade better 'n they sent us."

"Short an' sweet!" ejaculated Springer, and he removed his black
sombrero to poke a dirty forefinger through a buffet hole in the crown.
"Thet's how close I come to cashin'. I was lyin' behind a log,
listenin' an' watchin', an' when I stuck my head up a little--zam!
Somebody made my bonnet leak."

"Where's Queen?" asked Colter.

"He was with me fust off," replied Somers. "An' then when the shootin'
slacked--after I'd plugged thet big, red-faced, white-haired pal of
Isbel's--"

"Reckon thet was Blaisdell," interrupted Springer.

"Queen--he got tired layin' low," went on Somers. "He wanted action.
I heerd him chewin' to himself, an' when I asked him what was eatin'
him he up an' growled he was goin' to quit this Injun fightin'.
An' he slipped off in the woods."

"Wal, that's the gun fighter of it," declared Colter, wagging his head,
"Ever since that cowman, Blue, braced us an' said he was King Fisher,
why Queen has been sulkier an' sulkier. He cain't help it. He'll do
the same trick as Blue tried. An' shore he'll get his everlastin'.
But he's the Texas breed all right."

"Say, do you reckon Blue really is King Fisher?" queried Somers.

"Naw!" ejaculated Colter, with downward sweep of his hand. "Many a
would-be gun slinger has borrowed Fisher's name. But Fisher is daid
these many years."

"Ahuh! Wal, mebbe, but don't you fergit it--thet Blue was no would-be,"
declared Somers. "He was the genuine article."

"I should smile!" affirmed Springer.

The subject irritated Colter, and he dismissed it with another forcible
gesture and a counter question.

"How many left in that Isbel outfit?"

"No tellin'. There shore was enough of them," replied Somers. "Anyhow,
the woods was full of flyin' bullets. . . . Springer, did you account
for any of them?"

"Nope--not thet I noticed," responded Springer, dryly. "I had my
chance at the half-breed. . . . Reckon I was nervous."

"Was Slater near you when he yelled out?"

"No. He was lyin' beside Somers."

"Wasn't thet a queer way fer a man to act?" broke in Somers. "A bullet
hit Slater, cut him down the back as he was lyin' flat. Reckon it wasn't
bad. But it hurt him so thet he jumped right up an' staggered around.
He made a target big as a tree. An' mebbe them Isbels didn't riddle him!"

"That was when I got my crack at Bill Isbel," declared Colter, with grim
satisfaction. "When they shot my horse out from under me I had Ellen to
think of an' couldn't get my rifle. Shore had to run, as yu seen. Wal,
as I only had my six-shooter, there was nothin' for me to do but lay low
an' listen to the sping of lead. Wells was standin' up behind a tree
about thirty yards off. He got plugged, an' fallin' over he began to
crawl my way, still holdin' to his rifle. I crawled along the log to
meet him. But he dropped aboot half-way. I went on an' took his rifle
an' belt. When I peeped out from behind a spruce bush then I seen Bill
Isbel. He was shootin' fast, an' all of them was shootin' fast. That
war, when they had the open shot at Slater. . . . Wal, I bored Bill Isbel
right through his middle. He dropped his rifle an', all bent double,
he fooled around in a circle till he flopped over the Rim. I reckon
he's layin' right up there somewhere below that daid spruce. I'd shore
like to see him."

"I Wal, you'd be as crazy as Oueen if you tried thet, declared Somers.
"We're not out of the woods yet."

"I reckon not," replied Colter. "An' I've lost my horse. Where'd y'u
leave yours?"

"They're down the canyon, below thet willow brake. An' saddled an'
none of them tied. Reckon we'll have to look them up before dark."

"Colter, what 're we goin' to do?" demanded Springer.

"Wait heah a while--then cross the canyon an' work round up under
the bluff, back to the cabin."

"An' then what?" queried Somers, doubtfully eying Colter.

"We've got to eat--we've got to have blankets," rejoined Colter,
testily. "An' I reckon we can hide there an' stand a better show
in a fight than runnin' for it in the woods."

"Wal, I'm givin' you a hunch thet it looked like you was runnin'
fer it," retorted Somers.

"Yes, an' packin' the girl," added Springer. "Looks funny to me."

Both rustlers eyed Colter with dark and distrustful glances. What he
might have replied never transpired, for the reason that his gaze,
always shifting around, had suddenly fixed on something.

"Is that a wolf?" he asked, pointing to the Rim.

Both his comrades moved to get in line with his finger. Ellen could
not see from her position.

"Shore thet's a big lofer," declared Somers. "Reckon he scented us."

"There he goes along the Rim," observed Colter. "He doesn't act leary.
Looks like a good sign to me. Mebbe the Isbels have gone the other way."

"Looks bad to me," rejoined Springer, gloomily.

"An' why?" demanded Colter.

"I seen thet animal. Fust time I reckoned it was a lofer. Second time
it was right near them Isbels. An' I'm damned now if I don't believe
it's thet half-lofer sheep dog of Gass Isbel's."

"Wal, what if it is?"

"Ha! . . . Shore we needn't worry about hidin' out," replied Springer,
sententiously. "With thet dog Jean Isbel could trail a grasshopper."

"The hell y'u say!" muttered Colter. Manifestly such a possibility put
a different light upon the present situation. The men grew silent and
watchful, occupied by brooding thoughts and vigilant surveillance of
all points. Somers slipped off into the brush, soon to return,
with intent look of importance.

"I heerd somethin'," he whispered, jerking his thumb backward.
"Rollin' gravel--crackin' of twigs. No deer! . . . Reckon it'd
be a good idee for us to slip round acrost this bench."

"Wal, y'u fellars go, an' I'll watch heah," returned Colter.

"Not much," said Somers, while Springer leered knowingly.

Colter became incensed, but he did not give way to it. Pondering a
moment, he finally turned to Ellen. "Y'u wait heah till I come back.
An' if I don't come in reasonable time y'u slip across the canyon an'
through the willows to the cabins. Wait till aboot dark." With that
he possessed himself of one of the extra rifles and belts and silently
joined his comrades. Together they noiselessly stole into the brush.

Ellen had no other thought than to comply with Colter's wishes.
There was her wounded uncle who had been left unattended, and she
was anxious to get back to him. Besides, if she had wanted to run
off from Colter, where could she go? Alone in the woods, she would
get lost and die of starvation. Her lot must be cast with the Jorth
faction until the end. That did not seem far away.

Her strained attention and suspense made the moments fly. By and by
several shots pealed out far across the side canyon on her right,
and they were answered by reports sounding closer to her. The fight
was on again. But these shots were not repeated. The flies buzzed,
the hot sun beat down and sloped to the west, the soft, warm breeze
stirred the aspens, the ravens croaked, the red squirrels and blue
jays chattered.

Suddenly a quick, short, yelp electrified Ellen, brought her upright
with sharp, listening rigidity. Surely it was not a wolf and hardly
could it be a coyote. Again she heard it. The yelp of a sheep dog!
She had heard that' often enough to know. And she rose to change her
position so she could command a view of the rocky bluff above. Presently
she espied what really appeared to be a big timber wolf. But another
yelp satisfied her that it really was a dog. She watched him. Soon
it became evident that he wanted to get down over the bluff. He ran
to and fro, and then out of sight. In a few moments his yelp sounded
from lower down, at the base of the bluff, and it was now the cry of
an intelligent dog that was trying to call some one to his aid. Ellen
grew convinced that the dog was near where Colter had said Bill Isbel
had plunged over the declivity. Would the dog yelp that way if the
man was dead? Ellen thought not.

No one came, and the continuous yelping of the dog got on Ellen's nerves.
It was a call for help. And finally she surrendered to it. Since her
natural terror when Colter's horse was shot from under her and she had
been dragged away, she had not recovered from fear of the Isbels. But
calm consideration now convinced her that she could hardly be in a worse
plight in their hands than if she remained in Colter's. So she started
out to find the dog.

The wooded bench was level for a few hundred yards, and then it began
to heave in rugged, rocky bulges up toward the Rim. It did not appear
far to where the dog was barking, but the latter part of the distance
proved to be a hard climb over jumbled rocks and through thick brush.
Panting and hot, she at length reached the base of the bluff, to find
that it was not very high.

The dog espied her before she saw him, for he was coming toward her
when she discovered him. Big, shaggy, grayish white and black,
with wild, keen face and eyes he assuredly looked the reputation
Springer had accorded him. But sagacious, guarded as was his approach,
he appeared friendly.

"Hello--doggie!" panted Ellen. "What's--wrong--up heah? "

He yelped, his ears lost their stiffness, his body sank a little,
and his bushy tail wagged to and fro. What a gray, clear, intelligent
look he gave her! Then he trotted back.

Ellen followed him around a corner of bluff to see the body of a man
lying on his back. Fresh earth and gravel lay about him, attesting to
his fall from above. He had on neither coat nor hat, and the position
of his body and limbs suggested broken bones. As Ellen hurried to his
side she saw that the front of his shirt, low down, was a bloody blotch.
But he could lift his head; his eyes were open; he was perfectly
conscious. Ellen did not recognize the dusty, skinned face, yet
the mold of features, the look of the eyes, seemed strangely familiar.

"You're--Jorth's--girl," he said, in faint voice of surprise.

"Yes, I'm Ellen Jorth," she replied. "An' are y'u Bill Isbel?"

"All thet's left of me. But I'm thankin' God somebody come--even a Jorth."

Ellen knelt beside him and examined the wound in his abdomen.
A heavy bullet had indeed, as Colter had avowed, torn clear through
his middle. Even if he had not sustained other serious injury from
the fall over the cliff, that terrible bullet wound meant death very
shortly. Ellen shuddered. How inexplicable were men! How cruel,
bloody, mindless!

"Isbel, I'm sorry--there's no hope," she said, low voiced. "Y'u've not
long to live. I cain't help y'u. God knows I'd do so if I could."

"All over!" he sighed, with his eyes looking beyond her. "I reckon--I'm
glad. . . . But y'u can--do somethin' for or me. Will y'u?"

"Indeed, Yes. Tell me," she replied, lifting his dusty head on her knee.
Her hands trembled as she brushed his wet hair back from his clammy brow.

"I've somethin'--on my conscience," he whispered.

The woman, the sensitive in Ellen, understood and pitied him then.

"Yes," she encouraged him.

"I stole cattle--my dad's an ' Blaisdell's--an' made deals--with Daggs.
. . . All the crookedness--wasn't on--Jorth's side. . . . I want--my
brother Jean--to know."

"I'll try--to tell him," whispered Ellen, out of her great amaze.

"We were all--a bad lot--except Jean," went on Isbel. "Dad wasn't fair.
. . . God! how he hated Jorth! Jorth, yes, who was--your father. . . .
Wal, they're even now."

"How--so?" faltered Ellen.

"Your father killed dad. . . . At the last--dad wanted to--save us.
He sent word--he'd meet him--face to face--an' let thet end the feud.
They met out in the road. . . . But some one shot dad down--with a
rifle--an' then your father finished him."

"An' then, Isbel," added Ellen, with unconscious mocking bitterness,
"Your brother murdered my dad!"

"What!" whispered Bill Isbel. "Shore y'u've got--it wrong. I reckon
Jean--could have killed--your father. . . . But he didn't. Queer,
we all thought."

"Ah! . . . Who did kill my father?" burst out Ellen, and her voice
rang like great hammers at her ears.

"It was Blue. He went in the store--alone--faced the whole gang alone.
Bluffed them--taunted them--told them he was King Fisher. . . . Then he
killed--your dad--an' Jackson Jorth. . . . Jean was out--back of the
store. We were out--front. There was shootin'. Colmor was hit.
Then Blue ran out--bad hurt. . . . Both of them--died in Meeker's yard."

"An' so Jean Isbel has not killed a Jorth!" said Ellen, in strange,
deep voice.

"No," replied Isbel, earnestly. "I reckon this feud--was hardest on
Jean. He never lived heah. . . . An' my sister Ann said--he got sweet
on y'u. . . . Now did he?"

Slow, stinging tears filled Ellen's eyes, and her head sank low and lower.

"Yes--he did," she murmured, tremulously.

"Ahuh! Wal, thet accounts," replied Isbel, wonderingly. "Too bad! . . .
It might have been. . . . A man always sees--different when--he's dyin'.
. . . If I had--my life--to live over again! . . . My poor kids--deserted
in their babyhood--ruined for life! All for nothin'. . . .
May God forgive--"

Then he choked and whispered for water.

Ellen laid his head back and, rising, she took his sombrero and started
hurriedly down the slope, making dust fly and rocks roll. Her mind was
a seething ferment. Leaping, bounding, sliding down the weathered slope,
she gained the bench, to run across that, and so on down into the open
canyon to the willow-bordered brook. Here she filled the sombrero with
water and started back, forced now to walk slowly and carefully. It was
then, with the violence and fury of intense muscular activity denied her,
that the tremendous import of Bill Isbel's revelation burst upon her
very flesh and blood and transfiguring the very world of golden light
and azure sky and speaking forestland that encompassed her.

Not a drop of the precious water did she spill. Not a misstep did she
make. Yet so great was the spell upon her that she was not aware she
had climbed the steep slope until the dog yelped his welcome. Then
with all the flood of her emotion surging and resurging she knelt to
allay the parching thirst of this dying enemy whose words had changed
frailty to strength, hate to love, and, the gloomy hell of despair to
something unutterable. But she had returned too late. Bill Isbel
was dead.

CHAPTER XIII

Jean Isbel, holding the wolf-dog Shepp in leash, was on the trail of
the most dangerous of Jorth's gang, the gunman Queen. Dark drops of
blood on the stones and plain tracks of a rider's sharp-heeled boots
behind coverts indicated the trail of a wounded, slow-traveling
fugitive. Therefore, Jean Isbel held in the dog and proceeded with
the wary eye and watchful caution of an Indian.

Queen, true to his class, and emulating Blue with the same magnificent
effrontery and with the same paralyzing suddenness of surprise, had
appeared as if by magic at the last night camp of the Isbel faction.
Jean had seen him first, in time to leap like a panther into the shadow.
But he carried in his shoulder Queen's first bullet of that terrible
encounter. Upon Gordon and Fredericks fell the brunt of Queen's
fusillade. And they, shot to pieces, staggering and falling, held
passionate grip on life long enough to draw and still Queen's guns
and send him reeling off into the darkness of the forest.

Unarmed, and hindered by a painful wound, Jean had kept a vigil near
camp all that silent and menacing night. Morning disclosed Gordon and
Fredericks stark and ghastly beside the burned-out camp-fire, their guns
clutched immovably in stiffened hands. Jean buried them as best he could,
and when they were under ground with flat stones on their graves he knew
himself to be indeed the last of the Isbel clan. And all that was wild
and savage in his blood and desperate in his spirit rose to make him
more than man and less than human. Then for the third time during
these tragic last days the wolf-dog Shepp came to him.

Jean washed the wound Queen had given him and bound it tightly.
The keen pang and burn of the lead was a constant and all-powerful
reminder of the grim work left for him to do. The whole world was no
longer large enough for him and whoever was left of the Jorths. The
heritage of blood his father had bequeathed him, the unshakable love
for a worthless girl who had so dwarfed and obstructed his will and
so bitterly defeated and reviled his poor, romantic, boyish faith,
the killing of hostile men, so strange in its after effects, the
pursuits and fights, and loss of one by one of his confederates--these
had finally engendered in Jean Isbel a wild, unslakable thirst, these
had been the cause of his retrogression, these had unalterably and
ruthlessly fixed in his darkened mind one fierce passion--to live
and die the last man of that Jorth-Isbel feud.

At sunrise Jean left this camp, taking with him only a small knapsack
of meat and bread, and with the eager, wild Shepp in leash he set out
on Queen's bloody trail.

Black drops of blood on the stones and an irregular trail of footprints
proved to Jean that the gunman was hard hit. Here he had fallen, or
knelt, or sat down, evidently to bind his wounds. Jean found strips
of scarf, red and discarded. And the blood drops failed to show on
more rocks. In a deep forest of spruce, under silver-tipped spreading
branches, Queen had rested, perhaps slept. Then laboring with dragging
steps, not improbably with a lame leg, he had gone on, up out of the
dark-green ravine to the open, dry, pine-tipped ridge. Here he had
rested, perhaps waited to see if he were pursued. From that point his
trail spoke an easy language for Jean's keen eye. The gunman knew he
was pursued. He had seen his enemy. Therefore Jean proceeded with a
slow caution, never getting within revolver range of ambush, using all
his woodcraft to trail this man and yet save himself. Queen traveled
slowly, either because he was wounded or else because he tried to ambush
his pursuer, and Jean accommodated his pace to that of Queen. From noon
of that day they were never far apart, never out of hearing of a rifle shot.

The contrast of the beauty and peace and loneliness of the surroundings
to the nature of Queen's flight often obtruded its strange truth into
the somber turbulence of Jean's mind, into that fixed columnar idea
around which fleeting thoughts hovered and gathered like shadows.

Early frost had touched the heights with its magic wand. And the forest
seemed a temple in which man might worship nature and life rather than
steal through the dells and under the arched aisles like a beast of prey.
The green-and-gold leaves of aspens quivered in the glades; maples in the
ravines fluttered their red-and-purple leaves. The needle-matted carpet
under the pines vied with the long lanes of silvery grass, alike enticing
to the eye of man and beast. Sunny rays of light, flecked with dust and
flying insects, slanted down from the overhanging brown-limbed,
green-massed foliage. Roar of wind in the distant forest alternated
with soft breeze close at hand. Small dove-gray squirrels ran all over
the woodland, very curious about Jean and his dog, rustling the twigs,
scratching the bark of trees, chattering and barking, frisky, saucy,
and bright-eyed. A plaintive twitter of wild canaries came from the
region above the treetops--first voices of birds in their pilgrimage
toward the south. Pine cones dropped with soft thuds. The blue jays
followed these intruders in the forest, screeching their displeasure.
Like rain pattered the dropping seeds from the spruces. A woody,
earthy, leafy fragrance, damp with the current of life, mingled with
a cool, dry, sweet smell of withered grass and rotting pines.

Solitude and lonesomeness, peace and rest, wild life and nature,
reigned there. It was a golden-green region, enchanting to the gaze
of man. An Indian would have walked there with his spirits.

And even as Jean felt all this elevating beauty and inscrutable spirit
his keen eye once more fastened upon the blood-red drops Queen had
again left on the gray moss and rock. His wound had reopened.
Jean felt the thrill of the scenting panther.

The sun set, twilight gathered, night fell. Jean crawled under a dense,
low-spreading spruce, ate some bread and meat, fed the dog, and lay down
to rest and sleep. His thoughts burdened him, heavy and black as the
mantle of night. A wolf mourned a hungry cry for a mate. Shepp quivered
under Jean's hand. That was the call which had lured him from the ranch.
The wolf blood in him yearned for the wild. Jean tied the cowhide leash
to his wrist. When this dark business was at an end Shepp could be free
to join the lonely mate mourning out there in the forest. Then Jean slept.

Dawn broke cold, clear, frosty, with silvered grass sparkling, with a
soft, faint rustling of falling aspen leaves. When the sun rose red
Jean was again on the trail of Queen. By a frosty-ferned brook, where
water tinkled and ran clear as air and cold as ice, Jean quenched his
thirst, leaning on a stone that showed drops of blood. Queen, too,
had to quench his thirst. What good, what help, Jean wondered, could
the cold, sweet, granite water, so dear to woodsmen and wild creatures,
do this wounded, hunted rustler? Why did he not wait in the open to
fight and face the death he had meted? Where was that splendid and
terrible daring of the gunman? Queen's love of life dragged him on
and on, hour by hour, through the pine groves and spruce woods, through
the oak swales and aspen glades, up and down the rocky gorges, around
the windfalls and over the rotting logs.

The time came when Queen tried no more ambush. He gave up trying to
trap his pursuer by lying in wait. He gave up trying to conceal his
tracks. He grew stronger or, in desperation, increased his energy,
so that he redoubled his progress through the wilderness. That,
at best, would count only a few miles a day. And he began to circle
to the northwest, back toward the deep canyon where Blaisdell and Bill
Isbel had reached the end of their trails. Queen had evidently left
his comrades, had lone-handed it in his last fight, but was now trying
to get back to them. Somewhere in these wild, deep forest brakes the
rest of the Jorth faction had found a hiding place. Jean let Queen
lead him there.

Ellen Jorth would be with them. Jean had seen her. It had been his
shot that killed Colter's horse. And he had withheld further fire
because Colter had dragged the girl behind him, protecting his body
with hers. Sooner or later Jean would come upon their camp. She would
be there. The thought of her dark beauty, wasted in wantonness upon
these rustlers, added a deadly rage to the blood lust and righteous
wrath of his vengeance. Let her again flaunt her degradation in his
face and, by the God she had forsaken, he would kill her, and so end
the race of Jorths!

Another night fell, dark and cold, without starlight. The wind moaned
in the forest. Shepp was restless. He sniffed the air. There was a
step on his trail. Again a mournful, eager, wild, and hungry wolf cry
broke the silence. It was deep and low, like that of a baying hound,
but infinitely wilder. Shepp strained to get away. During the night,
while Jean slept, he managed to chew the cowhide leash apart and run off.

Next day no dog was needed to trail Queen. Fog and low-drifting clouds
in the forest and a misty rain had put the rustler off his bearings.
He was lost, and showed that he realized it. Strange how a matured man,
fighter of a hundred battles, steeped in bloodshed, and on his last
stand, should grow panic-stricken upon being lost! So Jean Isbel read
the signs of the trail.

Queen circled and wandered through the foggy, dripping forest until he
headed down into a canyon. It was one that notched the Rim and led down
and down, mile after mile into the Basin. Not soon had Queen discovered
his mistake. When he did do so, night overtook him.

The weather cleared before morning. Red and bright the sun burst out
of the east to flood that low basin land with light. Jean found that
Queen had traveled on and on, hoping, no doubt, to regain what he had
lost. But in the darkness he had climbed to the manzanita slopes instead
of back up the canyon. And here he had fought the hold of that strange
brush of Spanish name until he fell exhausted.

Surely Queen would make his stand and wait somewhere in this devilish
thicket for Jean to catch up with him. Many and many a place Jean would
have chosen had he been in Queen's place. Many a rock and dense thicket
Jean circled or approached with extreme care. Manzanita grew in patches
that were impenetrable except for a small animal. The brush was a few
feet high, seldom so high that Jean could not look over it, and of a
beautiful appearance, having glossy, small leaves, a golden berry, and
branches of dark-red color. These branches were tough and unbendable.
Every bush, almost, had low branches that were dead, hard as steel,
sharp as thorns, as clutching as cactus. Progress was possible only
by endless detours to find the half-closed aisles between patches,
or else by crashing through with main strength or walking right over
the tops. Jean preferred this last method, not because it was the
easiest, but for the reason that he could see ahead so much farther.
So he literally walked across the tips of the manzanita brush. Often
he fell through and had to step up again; many a branch broke with him,
letting him down; but for the most part he stepped from fork to fork,
on branch after branch, with balance of an Indian and the patience of
a man whose purpose was sustaining and immutable.

On that south slope under the Rim the sun beat down hot. There was no
breeze to temper the dry air. And before midday Jean was laboring,
wet with sweat, parching with thirst, dusty and hot and tiring.
It amazed him, the doggedness and tenacity of life shown by this
wounded rustler. The time came when under the burning rays of the sun
he was compelled to abandon the walk across the tips of the manzanita
bushes and take to the winding, open threads that ran between. It would
have been poor sight indeed that could not have followed Queen's
labyrinthine and broken passage through the brush. Then the time
came when Jean espied Queen, far ahead and above, crawling like a
black bug along the bright-green slope. Sight then acted upon Jean
as upon a hound in the chase. But he governed his actions if he
could not govern his instincts. Slowly but surely he followed the
dusty, hot trail, and never a patch of blood failed to send a thrill
along his veins.

Queen, headed up toward the Rim, finally vanished from sight. Had he
fallen? Was he hiding? But the hour disclosed that he was crawling.
Jean's keen eye caught the slow moving of the brush and enabled him
to keep just so close to the rustler, out of range of the six-shooters
he carried. And so all the interminable hours of the hot afternoon
that snail-pace flight and pursuit kept on.

Halfway up the Rim the growth of manzanita gave place to open, yellow,
rocky slope dotted with cedars. Queen took to a slow-ascending ridge
and left his bloody tracks all the way to the top, where in the
gathering darkness the weary pursuer lost them.

Another night passed. Daylight was relentless to the rustler. He could
not hide his trail. But somehow in a desperate last rally of strength
he reached a point on the heavily timbered ridge that Jean recognized
as being near the scene of the fight in the canyon. Queen was nearing
the rendezvous of the rustlers. Jean crossed tracks of horses, and then
more tracks that he was certain had been made days past by his own party.
To the left of this ridge must be the deep canyon that had frustrated
his efforts to catch up with the rustlers on the day Blaisdell lost his
life, and probably Bill Isbel, too. Something warned Jean that he was
nearing the end of the trail, and an unaccountable sense of imminent
catastrophe seemed foreshadowed by vague dreads and doubts in his
gloomy mind. Jean felt the need of rest, of food, of ease from the
strain of the last weeks. But his spirit drove him implacably.

Queen's rally of strength ended at the edge of an open, bald ridge that
was bare of brush or grass and was surrounded by a line of forest on
three sides, and on the fourth by a low bluff which raised its gray
head above the pines. Across this dusty open Queen had crawled,
leaving unmistakable signs of his condition. Jean took long survey
of the circle of trees and of the low, rocky eminence, neither of which
he liked. It might be wiser to keep to cover, Jean thought, and work
around to where Queen's trail entered the forest again. But he was
tired, gloomy, and his eternal vigilance was failing. Nevertheless,
he stilled for the thousandth time that bold prompting of his vengeance
and, taking to the edge of the forest, he went to considerable pains to
circle the open ground. And suddenly sight of a man sitting back
against a tree halted Jean.

He stared to make sure his eyes did not deceive him. Many times stumps
and snags and rocks had taken on strange resemblance to a standing or
crouching man. This was only another suggestive blunder of the mind
behind his eyes--what he wanted to see he imagined he saw. Jean glided
on from tree to tree until he made sure that this sitting image indeed
was that of a man. He sat bolt upright, facing back across the open,
hands resting on his knees--and closer scrutiny showed Jean that he
held a gun in each hand.

Queen! At the last his nerve had revived. He could not crawl any
farther, he could never escape, so with the courage of fatality he
chose the open, to face his foe and die. Jean had a thrill of
admiration for the rustler. Then he stalked out from under the
pines and strode forward with his rifle ready.

A watching man could not have failed to espy Jean. But Queen never
made the slightest move. Moreover, his stiff, unnatural position
struck Jean so singularly that he halted with a muttered exclamation.
He was now about fifty paces from Queen, within range of those small
guns. Jean called, sharply, "QUEEN!" Still the figure never relaxed
in the slightest.

Jean advanced a few more paces, rifle up, ready to fire the instant
Queen lifted a gun. The man's immobility brought the cold sweat to
Jean's brow. He stopped to bend the full intense power of his gaze
upon this inert figure. Suddenly over Jean flashed its meaning.
Queen was dead. He had backed up against the pine, ready to face
his foe, and he had died there. Not a shadow of a doubt entered Jean's
mind as he started forward again. He knew. After all, Queen's blood
would not be on his hands. Gordon and Fredericks in their death throes
had given the rustler mortal wounds. Jean kept on, marveling the while.
How ghastly thin and hard! Those four days of flight had been hell
for Queen.

Jean reached him--looked down with staring eyes. The guns were tied
to his hands. Jean started violently as the whole direction of his
mind shifted. A lightning glance showed that Queen had been propped
against the tree--another showed boot tracks in the dust.

"By Heaven, they've fooled me!" hissed Jean, and quickly as he leaped
behind the pine he was not quick enough to escape the cunning rustlers
who had waylaid him thus. He felt the shock, the bite and burn of lead
before he heard a rifle crack. A bullet had ripped through his left
forearm. From behind the tree he saw a puff of white smoke along the
face of the bluff--the very spot his keen and gloomy vigilance had
descried as one of menace. Then several puffs of white smoke and
ringing reports betrayed the ambush of the tricksters. Bullets barked
the pine and whistled by. Jean saw a man dart from behind a rock and,
leaning over, run for another. Jean's swift shot stopped him midway.
He fell, got up, and floundered behind a bush scarcely large enough to
conceal him. Into that bush Jean shot again and again. He had no pain
in his wounded arm, but the sense of the shock clung in his consciousness,
and this, with the tremendous surprise of the deceit, and sudden release
of long-dammed overmastering passion, caused him to empty the magazine of
his Winchester in a terrible haste to kill the man he had hit.

These were all the loads he had for his rifle. Blood passion had made
him blunder. Jean cursed himself, and his hand moved to his belt. His
six-shooter was gone. The sheath had been loose. He had tied the gun
fast. But the strings had been torn apart. The rustlers were shooting
again. Bullets thudded into the pine and whistled by. Bending
carefully, Jean reached one of Queen's guns and jerked it from his hand.
The weapon was empty. Both of his guns were empty. Jean peeped out
again to get the line in which the bullets were coming and, marking a
course from his position to the cover of the forest, he ran with all
his might. He gained the shelter. Shrill yells behind warned him that
he had been seen, that his reason for flight had been guessed. Looking
back, he saw two or three men scrambling down the bluff. Then the loud
neigh of a frightened horse pealed out.

Jean discarded his useless rifle, and headed down the ridge slope,
keeping to the thickest line of pines and sheering around the clumps
of spruce. As he ran, his mind whirled with grim thoughts of escape,
of his necessity to find the camp where Gordon and Fredericks were
buried, there to procure another rifle and ammunition. He felt the
wet blood dripping down his arm, yet no pain. The forest was too open
for good cover. He dared not run uphill. His only course was ahead,
and that soon ended in an abrupt declivity too precipitous to descend.
As be halted, panting for breath, he heard the ring of hoofs on stone,
then the thudding beat of running horses on soft ground. The rustlers
had sighted the direction he had taken. Jean did not waste time to
look. Indeed, there was no need, for as he bounded along the cliff to
the right a rifle cracked and a bullet whizzed over his head. It lent
wings to his feet. Like a deer he sped along, leaping cracks and logs
and rocks, his ears filled by the rush of wind, until his quick eye
caught sight of thick-growing spruce foliage close to the precipice.
He sprang down into the green mass. His weight precipitated him through
the upper branches. But lower down his spread arms broke his fall,
then retarded it until he caught. A long, swaying limb let him down
and down, where he grasped another and a stiffer one that held his weight.
Hand over hand he worked toward the trunk of this spruce and, gaining it,
he found other branches close together down which he hastened, hold by
hold and step by step, until all above him was black, dense foliage,
and beneath him the brown, shady slope. Sure of being unseen from above,
he glided noiselessly down under the trees, slowly regaining freedom
from that constriction of his breast.

Passing on to a gray-lichened cliff, overhanging and gloomy, he paused
there to rest and to listen. A faint crack of hoof on stone came to
him from above, apparently farther on to the right. Eventually his
pursuers would discover that he had taken to the canyon. But for the
moment he felt safe. The wound in his forearm drew his attention.
The bullet had gone clear through without breaking either bone.
His shirt sleeve was soaked with blood. Jean rolled it back and
tightly wrapped his scarf around the wound, yet still the dark-red
blood oozed out and dripped down into his hand. He became aware of
a dull, throbbing pain.

Not much time did Jean waste in arriving at what was best to do.
For the time being he had escaped, and whatever had been his peril,
it was past. In dense, rugged country like this he could not be
caught by rustlers. But he had only a knife left for a weapon,
and there was very little meat in the pocket of his coat. Salt and
matches he possessed. Therefore the imperative need was for him to
find the last camp, where he could get rifle and ammunition, bake bread,
and rest up before taking again the trail of the rustlers. He had reason
to believe that this canyon was the one where the fight on the Rim,
and later, on a bench of woodland below, had taken place.

Thereupon he arose and glided down under the spruces toward the level,
grassy open he could see between the trees. And as he proceeded,
with the slow step and wary eye of an Indian, his mind was busy.

Queen had in his flight unerringly worked in the direction of this
canyon until he became lost in the fog; and upon regaining his bearings
he had made a wonderful and heroic effort to surmount the manzanita
slope and the Rim and find the rendezvous of his comrades. But he had
failed up there on the ridge. In thinking it over Jean arrived at a
conclusion that Queen, finding be could go no farther, had waited,
guns in hands, for his pursuer. And he had died in this position.
Then by strange coincidence his comrades had happened to come across
him and, recognizing the situation, they had taken the shells from his
guns and propped him up with the idea of luring Jean on. They had
arranged a cunning trick and ambush, which had all but snuffed out
the last of the Isbels. Colter probably had been at the bottom of
this crafty plan. Since the fight at the Isbel ranch, now seemingly
far back in the past, this man Colter had loomed up more and more as
a stronger and more dangerous antagonist then either Jorth or Daggs.
Before that he had been little known to any of the Isbel faction.
And it was Colter now who controlled the remnant of the gang and who
had Ellen Jorth in his possession.

The canyon wall above Jean, on the right, grew more rugged and loftier,
and the one on the left began to show wooded slopes and brakes, and at
last a wide expanse with a winding, willow border on the west and a long,
low, pine-dotted bench on the east. It took several moments of study
for Jean to recognize the rugged bluff above this bench. On up that
canyon several miles was the site where Queen had surprised Jean and
his comrades at their campfire. Somewhere in this vicinity was the
hiding place of the rustlers.

Thereupon Jean proceeded with the utmost stealth, absolutely certain
that he would miss no sound, movement, sign, or anything unnatural to
the wild peace of the canyon. And his first sense to register something
was his keen smell. Sheep! He was amazed to smell sheep. There must
be a flock not far away. Then from where he glided along under the
trees he saw down to open places in the willow brake and noticed sheep
tracks in the dark, muddy bank of the brook. Next he heard faint tinkle
of bells, and at length, when he could see farther into the open
enlargement of the canyon, his surprised gaze fell upon an immense gray,
woolly patch that blotted out acres and acres of grass. Thousands of
sheep were grazing there. Jean knew there were several flocks of
Jorth's sheep on the mountain in the care of herders, but he had
never thought of them being so far west, more than twenty miles from
Chevelon Canyon. His roving eyes could not descry any herders or dogs.
But he knew there must be dogs close to that immense flock. And,
whatever his cunning, he could not hope to elude the scent and sight
of shepherd dogs. It would be best to go back the way he bad come,
wait for darkness, then cross the canyon and climb out, and work around
to his objective point. Turning at once, he started to glide back.
But almost immediately he was brought stock-still and thrilling by
the sound of hoofs.

Horses were coming in the direction he wished to take. They were close.
His swift conclusion was that the men who had pursued him up on the Rim
had worked down into the canyon. One circling glance showed him that
he had no sure covert near at hand. It would not do to risk their
passing him there. The border of woodland was narrow and not dense
enough for close inspection. He was forced to turn back up the canyon,
in the hope of soon finding a hiding place or a break in the wall where
be could climb up.

Hugging the base of the wall, he slipped on, passing the point where
he had espied the sheep, and gliding on until he was stopped by a bend
in the dense line of willows. It sheered to the west there and ran
close to the high wall. Jean kept on until he was stooping under a
curling border of willow thicket, with branches slim and yellow and
masses of green foliage that brushed against the wall. Suddenly he
encountered an abrupt corner of rock. He rounded it, to discover that
it ran at right angles with the one he had just passed. Peering up
through the willows, he ascertained that there was a narrow crack in
the main wall of the canyon. It had been concealed by willows low down
and leaning spruces above. A wild, hidden retreat! Along the base of
the wall there were tracks of small animals. The place was odorous,
like all dense thickets, but it was not dry. Water ran through there
somewhere. Jean drew easier breath. All sounds except the rustling of
birds or mice in the willows had ceased. The brake was pervaded by a
dreamy emptiness. Jean decided to steal on a little farther, then wait
till he felt he might safely dare go back.

The golden-green gloom suddenly brightened. Light showed ahead, and
parting the willows, he looked out into a narrow, winding canyon,
with an open, grassy, willow-streaked lane in the center and on
each side a thin strip of woodland.

His surprise was short lived. A crashing of horses back of him in the
willows gave him a shock. He ran out along the base of the wall, back
of the trees. Like the strip of woodland in the main canyon, this one
was scant and had but little underbrush. There were young spruces
growing with thick branches clear to the grass, and under these he
could have concealed himself. But, with a certainty of sheep dogs
in the vicinity, he would not think of hiding except as a last resource.
These horsemen, whoever they were, were as likely to be sheep herders
as not. Jean slackened his pace to look back. He could not see any
moving objects, but he still heard horses, though not so close now.
Ahead of him this narrow gorge opened out like the neck of a bottle.
He would run on to the head of it and find a place to climb to the top.

Hurried and anxious as Jean was, he yet received an impression of
singular, wild nature of this side gorge. It was a hidden, pine-fringed
crack in the rock-ribbed and canyon-cut tableland. Above him the sky
seemed a winding stream of blue. The walls were red and bulged out in
spruce-greened shelves. From wall to wall was scarcely a distance of a
hundred feet. Jumbles of rock obstructed his close holding to the wall.
He had to walk at the edge of the timber. As he progressed, the gorge
widened into wilder, ruggeder aspect. Through the trees ahead he saw
where the wall circled to meet the cliff on the left, forming an oval
depression, the nature of which he could not ascertain. But it appeared
to be a small opening surrounded by dense thickets and the overhanging
walls. Anxiety augmented to alarm. He might not be able to find a
place to scale those rough cliffs. Breathing hard, Jean halted again.
The situation was growing critical again. His physical condition was
worse. Loss of sleep and rest, lack of food, the long pursuit of Queen,
the wound in his arm, and the desperate run for his life--these had
weakened him to the extent that if he undertook any strenuous effort
he would fail. His cunning weighed all chances.

The shade of wall and foliage above, and another jumble of ruined cliff,
hindered his survey of the ground ahead, and he almost stumbled upon a
cabin, hidden on three sides, with a small, bare clearing in front.
It was an old, ramshackle structure like others he had run across in
the canons. Cautiously he approached and peeped around the corner.
At first swift glance it had all the appearance of long disuse. But
Jean had no time for another look. A clip-clop of trotting horses on
hard ground brought the same pell-mell rush of sensations that had
driven him to wild flight scarcely an hour past. His body jerked with
its instinctive impulse, then quivered with his restraint. To turn
back would be risky, to run ahead would be fatal, to hide was his one
hope. No covert behind! And the clip-clop of hoofs sounded closer.
One moment longer Jean held mastery over his instincts of
self-preservation. To keep from running was almost impossible.
It was the sheer primitive animal sense to escape. He drove it back
and glided along the front of the cabin.

Here he saw that the cabin adjoined another. Reaching the door, he
was about to peep in when the thud of hoofs and voices close at hand
transfixed him with a grim certainty that he had not an instant to lose.
Through the thin, black-streaked line of trees he saw moving red objects.
Horses! He must run. Passing the door, his keen nose caught a musty,
woody odor and the tail of his eye saw bare dirt floor. This cabin
was unused. He halted-gave a quick look back. And the first thing
his eye fell upon was a ladder, right inside the door, against the wall.
He looked up. It led to a loft that, dark and gloomy, stretched halfway
across the cabin. An irresistible impulse drove Jean. Slipping inside,
he climbed up the ladder to the loft. It was like night up there. But
he crawled on the rough-hewn rafters and, turning with his head toward
the opening, he stretched out and lay still.

What seemed an interminable moment ended with a trample of hoofs outside
the cabin. It ceased. Jean's vibrating ears caught the jingle of spurs
and a thud of boots striking the ground.

"Wal, sweetheart, heah we are home again," drawled a slow, cool,
mocking Texas voice.

"Home! I wonder, Colter--did y'u ever have a home--a mother--a sister
--much less a sweetheart?" was the reply, bitter and caustic.

Jean's palpitating, hot body suddenly stretched still and cold with
intensity of shock. His very bones seemed to quiver and stiffen into ice.
During the instant of realization his heart stopped. And a slow,
contracting pressure enveloped his breast and moved up to constrict
his throat. That woman's voice belonged to Ellen Jorth. The sound
of it had lingered in his dreams. He had stumbled upon the rendezvous
of the Jorth faction. Hard indeed had been the fates meted out to those
of the Isbels and Jorths who had passed to their deaths. But, no ordeal,
not even Queen's, could compare with this desperate one Jean must endure.
He had loved Ellen Jorth, strangely, wonderfully, and he had scorned
repute to believe her good. He had spared her father and her uncle.
He had weakened or lost the cause of the Isbels. He loved her now,
desperately, deathlessly, knowing from her own lips that she was
worthless--loved her the more because he had felt her terrible shame.
And to him--the last of the Isbels--had come the cruelest of dooms
--to be caught like a crippled rat in a trap; to be compelled to lie
helpless, wounded, without a gun; to listen, and perhaps to see Ellen
Jorth enact the very truth of her mocking insinuation. His will,
his promise, his creed, his blood must hold him to the stem decree
that he should be the last man of the Jorth-Isbel war. But could he
lie there to hear--to see--when he had a knife and an arm?

CHAPTER XIV

Then followed the leathery flop of saddles to the soft turf and the
stamp, of loosened horses.

Jean heard a noise at the cabin door, a rustle, and then a knock of
something hard against wood. Silently he moved his head to look down
through a crack between the rafters. He saw the glint of a rifle
leaning against the sill. Then the doorstep was darkened. Ellen Jorth
sat down with a long, tired sigh. She took off her sombrero and the
light shone on the rippling, dark-brown hair, hanging in a tangled braid.
The curved nape of her neck showed a warm tint of golden tan. She wore
a gray blouse, soiled and torn, that clung to her lissome shoulders.

"Colter, what are y'u goin' to do?" she asked, suddenly. Her voice
carried something Jean did not remember. It thrilled into the icy
fixity of his senses.

"We'll stay heah," was the response, and it was followed by a clinking
step of spurred boot.

"Shore I won't stay heah," declared Ellen. "It makes me sick when I
think of how Uncle Tad died in there alone--helpless--sufferin'.
The place seems haunted."

"Wal, I'll agree that it's tough on y'u. But what the hell CAN we do?"

A long silence ensued which Ellen did not break.

"Somethin' has come off round heah since early mawnin'," declared Colter.
"Somers an' Springer haven't got back. An' Antonio's gone. . . .
Now, honest, Ellen, didn't y'u heah rifle shots off somewhere?"

"I reckon I did," she responded, gloomily.

"An' which way?"

"Sounded to me up on the bluff, back pretty far."

"Wal, shore that's my idee. An' it makes me think hard. Y'u know
Somers come across the last camp of the Isbels. An' he dug into a
grave to find the bodies of Jim Gordon an' another man he didn't know.
Queen kept good his brag. He braced that Isbel gang an' killed those
fellars. But either him or Jean Isbel went off leavin' bloody tracks.
If it was Queen's y'u can bet Isbel was after him. An' if it was
Isbel's tracks, why shore Queen would stick to them. Somers an'
Springer couldn't follow the trail. They're shore not much good at
trackin'. But for days they've been ridin' the woods, hopin' to run
across Queen. . . . Wal now, mebbe they run across Isbel instead. An'
if they did an' got away from him they'll be heah sooner or later. If
Isbel was too many for them he'd hunt for my trail. I'm gamblin' that
either Queen or Jean Isbel is daid. I'm hopin' it's Isbel. Because if
he ain't daid he's the last of the Isbels, an' mebbe I'm the last of
Jorth's gang. . . . Shore I'm not hankerin' to meet the half-breed.
That's why I say we'll stay heah. This is as good a hidin' place as
there is in the country. We've grub. There's water an' grass."

"Me--stay heah with y'u--alone!"

The tone seemed a contradiction to the apparently accepted sense of
her words. Jean held his breath. But he could not still the slowly
mounting and accelerating faculties within that were involuntarily
rising to meet some strange, nameless import. He felt it. He imagined
it would be the catastrophe of Ellen Jorth's calm acceptance of Colter's
proposition. But down in Jean's miserable heart lived something that
would not die. No mere words could kill it. How poignant that moment
of her silence! How terribly he realized that if his intelligence and
his emotion had believed her betraying words, his soul had not!

But Ellen Jorth did not speak. Her brown head hung thoughtfully.
Her supple shoulders sagged a little.

"Ellen, what's happened to y'u?" went on Colter.

"All the misery possible to a woman," she replied, dejectedly.

"Shore I don't mean that way," he continued, persuasively. "I ain't
gainsayin' the hard facts of your life. It's been bad. Your dad was
no good. . . . But I mean I can't figger the change in y'u."

"No, I reckon y'u cain't," she said. "Whoever was responsible for
your make-up left out a mind--not to say feeling."

Colter drawled a low laugh.

"Wal, have that your own way. But how much longer are yu goin' to
be like this heah?"

"Like what?" she rejoined, sharply.

"Wal, this stand-offishness of yours?"

"Colter, I told y'u to let me alone," she said, sullenly.

"Shore. An' y'u did that before. But this time y'u're different.
. . . An' wal, I'm gettin' tired of it."

Here the cool, slow voice of the Texan sounded an inflexibility before
absent, a timber that hinted of illimitable power.

Ellen Jorth shrugged her lithe shoulders and, slowly rising, she picked
up the little rifle and turned to step into the cabin.

"Colter," she said, "fetch my pack an' my blankets in heah."

" Shore," he returned, with good nature.

Jean saw Ellen Jorth lay the rifle lengthwise in a chink between two
logs and then slowly turn, back to the wall. Jean knew her then,
yet did not know her. The brown flash of her face seemed that of an
older, graver woman. His strained gaze, like his waiting mind, had
expected something, he knew not what--a hardened face, a ghost of beauty,
a recklessness, a distorted, bitter, lost expression in keeping with her
fortunes. But he had reckoned falsely. She did not look like that.
There was incalculable change, but the beauty remained, somehow
different. Her red lips were parted. Her brooding eyes, looking out
straight from under the level, dark brows, seemed sloe black and
wonderful with their steady, passionate light.

Jean, in his eager, hungry devouring of the beloved face, did not on
the first instant grasp the significance of its expression. He was
seeing the features that had haunted him. But quickly he interpreted
her expression as the somber, hunted look of a woman who would bear no
more. Under the torn blouse her full breast heaved. She held her hands
clenched at her sides. She was' listening, waiting for that jangling,
slow step. It came, and with the sound she subtly changed. She was a
woman hiding her true feelings. She relaxed, and that strong, dark
look of fury seemed to fade back into her eyes.

Colter appeared at the door, carrying a roll of blankets and a pack.

"Throw them heah," she said. "I reckon y'u needn't bother coming in."

That angered the man. With one long stride he stepped over the doorsill,
down into the cabin, and flung the blankets at her feet and then the pack
after it. Whereupon he deliberately sat down in the door, facing her.
With one hand he slid off his sombrero, which fell outside, and with
the other he reached in his upper vest pocket for the little bag of
tobacco that showed there. All the time he looked at her. By the
light now unobstructed Jean descried Colter's face; and sight of it
then sounded the roll and drum of his passions.

"Wal, Ellen, I reckon we'll have it out right now an' heah," he said,
and with tobacco in one hand, paper in the other he began the operations
of making a cigarette. However, he scarcely removed his glance from her.

"Yes?" queried Ellen Jorth.

"I'm goin' to have things the way they were before--an' more," he
declared. The cigarette paper shook in his fingers.

"What do y'u mean?" she demanded.

"Y'u know what I mean," he retorted. Voice and action were subtly
unhinging this man's control over himself.

"Maybe I don't. I reckon y'u'd better talk plain."

The rustler had clear gray-yellow eyes, flawless, like, crystal,
and suddenly they danced with little fiery flecks.

"The last time I laid my hand on y'u I got hit for my pains.
An' shore that's been ranklin'."

"Colter, y'u'll get hit again if y'u. put your hands on me," she said,
dark, straight glance on him. A frown wrinkled the level brows.

"Y'u mean that?" he asked, thickly.

"I shore, do."

Manifestly he accepted her assertion. Something of incredulity and
bewilderment, that had vied with his resentment, utterly disappeared
from his face.

"Heah I've been waitin' for y'u to love me," he declared, with a gesture
not without dignified emotion. "Your givin' in without that wasn't so
much to me."

And at these words of the rustler's Jean Isbel felt an icy, sickening
shudder creep into his soul. He shut his eyes. The end of his dream
had been long in coming, but at last it had arrived. A mocking voice,
like a hollow wind, echoed through that region--that lonely and
ghost-like hall of his heart which had harbored faith.

She burst into speech, louder and sharper, the first words of which
Jean's strangely throbbing ears did not distinguish.

"-- -- you! . . . I never gave in to y'u an' I never will."

"But, girl--I kissed y'u--hugged y'u--handled y'u--" he expostulated,
and the making of the cigarette ceased.

"Yes, y'u did--y'u brute--when I was so downhearted and weak I
couldn't lift my hand," she flashed.

"Ahuh! Y'u mean I couldn't do that now?"

"I should smile I do, Jim Colter!" she replied.

"Wal, mebbe--I'll see--presently," he went on, straining with words.
"But I'm shore curious. . . . Daggs, then--he was nothin' to y'u?"

"No more than y'u," she said, morbidly. "He used to run after me--
long ago, it seems. . . . . I was only a girl then--innocent--an' I'd
not known any but rough men. I couldn't all the time--every day, every
hour--keep him at arm's length. Sometimes before I knew--I didn't care.
I was a child. A kiss meant nothing to me. But after I knew--"

Ellen dropped her head in brooding silence.

"Say, do y'u expect me to believe that?" he queried, with a derisive leer.

"Bah! What do I care what y'u believe?" she cried, with lifting head.

"How aboot Simm Brace?"

"That coyote! . . . He lied aboot me, Jim Colter. And any man half
a man would have known he lied."

"Wal, Simm. always bragged aboot y'u bein' his girl," asserted Colter.
"An' he wasn't over--particular aboot details of your love-makin'."

Ellen gazed out of the door, over Colter's head, as if the forest
out there was a refuge. She evidently sensed more about the man than
appeared in his slow talk, in his slouching position. Her lips shut
in a firm line, as if to hide their trembling and to still her
passionate tongue. Jean, in his absorption, magnified his perceptions.
Not yet was Ellen Jorth afraid of this man, but she feared the situation.
Jean's heart was at bursting pitch. All within him seemed chaos--a
wreck of beliefs and convictions. Nothing was true. He would wake
presently out of a nightmare. Yet, as surely as he quivered there,
he felt the imminence of a great moment--a lightning flash--a
thunderbolt--a balance struck.

Colter attended to the forgotten cigarette. He rolled it, lighted it,
all the time with lowered, pondering head, and when he had puffed a
cloud of smoke he suddenly looked up with face as hard as flint,
eyes as fiery as molten steel.

"Wal, Ellen--how aboot Jean Isbel--our half-breed Nez Perce friend--who
was shore seen handlin' y'u familiar?" he drawled.

Ellen Jorth quivered as under a lash, and her brown face turned a dusty
scarlet, that slowly receding left her pale.

"Damn y'u, Jim Colter!" she burst out, furiously. "I wish Jean Isbel
would jump in that door--or down out of that loft! . . . He killed
Greaves for defiling my name! . . . He'd kill Y'U for your dirty insult.
. . . And I'd like to watch him do it. . . . Y'u cold-blooded Texan!
Y'u thieving rustler! Y'u liar! . . . Y'u lied aboot my father's death.
And I know why. Y'u stole my father's gold. . . . An' now y'u want me--
y'u expect me to fall into your arms. . . . My Heaven! cain't y'u tell
a decent woman? Was your mother decent? Was your sister decent?
. . . Bah! I'm appealing to deafness. But y'u'll HEAH this, Jim Colter!
. . . I'm not what yu think I am! I'm not the--the damned hussy y'u
liars have made me out. . . . I'm a Jorth, alas! I've no home, no
relatives, no friends! I've been forced to live my life with rustlers
--vile men like y'u an' Daggs an' the rest of your like. . . . But I've
been good! Do y'u heah that? . . . I AM good--so help me God, y'u an'
all your rottenness cain't make me bad!"

Colter lounged to his tall height and the laxity of the man vanished.

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