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To The Last Man by Zane Grey

Part 6 out of 6

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Vanished also was Jean Isbel's suspended icy dread, the cold clogging
of his fevered mind--vanished in a white, living, leaping flame.

Silently he drew his knife and lay there watching with the eyes of a
wildcat. The instant Colter stepped far enough over toward the edge
of the loft Jean meant to bound erect and plunge down upon him. But
Jean could wait now. Colter had a gun at his hip. He must never have
a chance to draw it.

"Ahuh! So y'u wish Jean Isbel would hop in heah, do y'u?" queried Colter.
"Wal, if I had any pity on y'u, that's done for it."

A sweep of his long arm, so swift Ellen had no time to move, brought
his hand in clutching contact with her. And the force of it flung her
half across the cabin room, leaving the sleeve of her blouse in his grasp.
Pantingly she put out that bared arm and her other to ward him off as
he took long, slow strides toward her.

Jean rose half to his feet, dragged by almost ungovernable passion to
risk all on one leap. But the distance was too great. Colter, blind
as he was to all outward things, would hear, would see in time to make
Jean's effort futile. Shaking like a leaf, Jean sank back, eye again
to the crack between the rafters.

Ellen did not retreat, nor scream, nor move. Every line of her body
was instinct with fight, and the magnificent blaze of her eyes would
have checked a less callous brute.

Colter's big hand darted between Ellen's arms and fastened in the front
of her blouse. He did not try to hold her or draw her close. The
unleashed passion of the man required violence. In one savage pull
he tore off her blouse, exposing her white, rounded shoulders and
heaving bosom, where instantly a wave of red burned upward.

Overcome by the tremendous violence and spirit of the rustler, Ellen
sank to her knees, with blanched face and dilating eyes, trying with
folded arms and trembling hand to hide her nudity.

At that moment the rapid beat of hoofs on the hard trail outside halted
Colter in his tracks.

"Hell!" he exclaimed. "An' who's that?" With a fierce action he flung
the remnants of Ellen's blouse in her face and turned to leap out the door.

Jean saw Ellen catch the blouse and try to wrap it around her, while she
sagged against the wall and stared at the door. The hoof beats pounded
to a solid thumping halt just outside.

"Jim--thar's hell to pay!" rasped out a panting voice.

"Wal, Springer, I reckon I wished y'u'd paid it without spoilin'
my deals," retorted Colter, cool and sharp.

"Deals? Ha! Y'u'll be forgettin'--your lady lovein a minnit,"
replied Springer. "When I catch--my breath."

"Where's Somers?" demanded Colter.

"I reckon he's all shot up--if my eyes didn't fool me."

"Where is he?" yelled Colter.

"Jim--he's layin' up in the bushes round thet bluff. I didn't wait
to see how he was hurt. But he shore stopped some lead. An' he flopped
like a chicken with its--haid cut off."

"Where's Antonio?"

"He run like the greaser he is," declared Springer, disgustedly.

"Ahuh! An' where's Queen?" queried Colter, after a significant pause.

"Dead!"

The silence ensuing was fraught with a suspense that held Jean in cold
bonds. He saw the girl below rise from her knees, one hand holding the
blouse to her breast, the other extended, and with strange, repressed,
almost frantic look she swayed toward the door.

"Wal, talk," ordered Colter, harshly.

"Jim, there ain't a hell of a lot," replied Springer; drawing a deep
breath, "but what there is is shore interestin'. . . . Me an' Somers
took Antonio with us. He left his woman with the sheep. An' we rode
up the canyon, clumb out on top, an' made a circle back on the ridge.
That's the way we've been huntin' fer tracks. Up thar in a bare spot
we run plump into Queen sittin' against a tree, right out in the open.
Queerest sight y'u ever seen! The damn gunfighter had set down to wait
for Isbel, who was trailin' him, as we suspected---an' he died thar.
He wasn't cold when we found him. . . . Somers was quick to see a trick.
So he propped Queen up an' tied the guns to his hands--an', Jim, the
queerest thing aboot that deal was this--Queen's guns was empty! Not
a shell left! It beat us holler. . . . We left him thar, an' hid up
high on the bluff, mebbe a hundred yards off. The hosses we left back
of a thicket. An' we waited thar a long time. But, sure enough,
the half-breed come. He was too smart. Too much Injun! He would not
cross the open, but went around. An' then he seen Queen. It was great
to watch him. After a little he shoved his rifle out an' went right
fer Queen. This is when I wanted to shoot. I could have plugged him.
But Somers says wait an' make it sure. When Isbel got up to Queen he
was sort of half hid by the tree. An' I couldn't wait no longer,
so I shot. I hit him, too. We all begun to shoot. Somers showed
himself, an' that's when Isbel opened up. He used up a whole magazine
on Somers an' then, suddenlike, he quit. It didn't take me long to
figger mebbe he was out of shells. When I seen him run I was certain
of it. Then we made for the hosses an' rode after Isbel. Pretty soon
I seen him runnin' like a deer down the ridge. I yelled an' spurred
after him. There is where Antonio quit me. But I kept on. An' I got
a shot at Isbel. He ran out of sight. I follered him by spots of blood
on the stones an' grass until I couldn't trail him no more. He must
have gone down over the cliffs. He couldn't have done nothin' else
without me seein' him. I found his rifle, an' here it is to prove what
I say. I had to go back to climb down off the Rim, an' I rode fast
down the canyon. He's somewhere along that west wall, hidin' in the
brush, hard hit if I know anythin' aboot the color of blood."

"Wal! . . . that beats me holler, too," ejaculated Colter.

"Jim, what's to be done?" inquired Springer, eagerly. If we're sharp
we can corral that half-breed. He's the last of the Isbels."

"More, pard. He's the last of the Isbel outfit," declared Colter.
"If y'u can show me blood in his tracks I'll trail him."

"Y'u can bet I'll show y'u," rejoined the other rustler. "But listen!
Wouldn't it be better for us first to see if he crossed the canyon?
I reckon he didn't. But let's make sure. An' if he didn't we'll have
him somewhar along that west canyon wall. He's not got no gun. He'd
never run thet way if he had. . . . Jim, he's our meat!"

"Shore, he'll have that knife, " pondered Colter.

"We needn't worry about thet," said the other, positively. "He's hard
hit, I tell y'u. All we got to do is find thet bloody trail again an'
stick to it--goin' careful. He's layin' low like a crippled wolf."

"Springer, I want the job of finishin' that half-breed," hissed Colter.
"I'd give ten years of my life to stick a gun down his throat an' shoot
it off."

"All right. Let's rustle. Mebbe y'u'll not have to give much more 'n
ten minnits. Because I tell y'u I can find him. It'd been easy--but,
Jim, I reckon I was afraid."

"Leave your hoss for me an' go ahaid," the rustler then said, brusquely.
"I've a job in the cabin heah."

"Haw-haw! . . . Wal, Jim, I'll rustle a bit down the trail an' wait.
No huntin' Jean Isbel alone--not fer me. I've had a queer feelin'
about thet knife he used on Greaves. An' I reckon y'u'd oughter let
thet Jorth hussy alone long enough to--"

"Springer, I reckon I've got to hawg-tie her--" His voice became
indistinguishable, and footfalls attested to a slow moving away of
the men.

Jean had listened with ears acutely strung to catch every syllable while
his gaze rested upon Ellen who stood beside the door. Every line of her
body denoted a listening intensity. Her back was toward Jean, so that he
could not see her face. And he did not want to see, but could not help
seeing her naked shoulders. She put her head out of the door. Suddenly
she drew it in quickly and half turned her face, slowly raising her white
arm. This was the left one and bore the marks of Colter's hard fingers.

She gave a little gasp. Her eyes became large and staring. They were
bent on the hand that she had removed from a step on the ladder. On hand
and wrist showed a bright-red smear of blood.

Jean, with a convulsive leap of his heart, realized that he had left his
bloody tracks on the ladder as he had climbed. That moment seemed the
supremely terrible one of his life.

Ellen Jorth's face blanched and her eyes darkened and dilated with
exceeding amaze and flashing thought to become fixed with horror.
That instant was the one in which her reason connected the blood
on the ladder with the escape of Jean Isbel.

One moment she leaned there, still as a stone except for her heaving
breast, and then her fixed gaze changed to a swift, dark blaze,
comprehending, yet inscrutable, as she flashed it up the ladder to
the loft. She could see nothing, yet she knew and Jean knew that
she knew he was there. A marvelous transformation passed over her
features and even over her form. Jean choked with the ache in his throat.
Slowly she put the bloody hand behind her while with the other she still
held the torn blouse to her breast.

Colter's slouching, musical step sounded outside. And it might have
been a strange breath of infinitely vitalizing and passionate life
blown into the well-springs of Ellen Jorth's being. Isbel had no name
for her then. The spirit of a woman had been to him a thing unknown.

She swayed back from the door against the wall in singular, softened
poise, as if all the steel had melted out of her body. And as Colter's
tall shadow fell across the threshold Jean Isbel felt himself staring
with eyeballs that ached--straining incredulous sight at this woman who
in a few seconds had bewildered his senses with her transfiguration.
He saw but could not comprehend.

"Jim--I heard--all Springer told y'u," she said. The look of her
dumfounded Colter and her voice seemed to shake him visibly.

"Suppose y'u did. What then?" he demanded, harshly, as he halted with
one booted foot over the threshold. Malignant and forceful, he eyed
her darkly, doubtfully.

"I'm afraid," she whispered.

"What of? Me?"

"No. Of--of Jean Isbel. He might kill y'u and--then where would I be?"

"Wal, I'm damned!" ejaculated the rustler. "What's got into y'u?"
He moved to enter, but a sort of fascination bound him.

"Jim, I hated y'u a moment ago," she burst out. "But now--with that
Jean Isbel somewhere near--hidin'--watchin' to kill y'u--an' maybe me,
too--I--I don't hate y'u any more. . . . Take me away."

"Girl, have y'u lost your nerve?" he demanded.

"My God! Colter--cain't y'u see?" she implored. "Won't y'u take me away?"

"I shore will--presently," he replied, grimly. "But y'u'll wait till
I've shot the lights out of this Isbel."

"No!" she cried. "Take me away now. . . . An' I'll give in--I'll be
what y'u--want. . . . Y'u can do with me--as y'u like."

Colter's lofty frame leaped as if at the release of bursting blood.
With a lunge he cleared the threshold to loom over her.

"Am I out of my haid, or are y'u?" he asked, in low, hoarse voice.
His darkly corded face expressed extremest amaze.

"Jim, I mean it," she whispered, edging an inch nearer him, her white
face uplifted, her dark eyes unreadable in their eloquence and mystery.
"I've no friend but y'u. I'll be--yours. . . . I'm lost. . . . What does
it matter? If y'u want me--take me NOW--before I kill myself."

"Ellen Jorth, there's somethin' wrong aboot y'u," he responded.
"Did y'u tell the truth--when y'u denied ever bein' a sweetheart
of Simm Bruce?"

"Yes, I told y'u the truth."

"Ahuh! An' how do y'u account for layin' me out with every dirty name
y'u could give tongue to?"

"Oh, it was temper. I wanted to be let alone."

"Temper! Wal, I reckon y'u've got one," he retorted, grimly. An' I'm
not shore y'u're not crazy or lyin'. An hour ago I couldn't touch y'u."

"Y'u may now--if y'u promise to take me away--at once. This place has
got on my nerves. I couldn't sleep heah with that Isbel hidin' around.
Could y'u?"

"Wal, I reckon I'd not sleep very deep."

"Then let us go."

He shook his lean, eagle-like head in slow, doubtful vehemence,
and his piercing gaze studied her distrustfully. Yet all the while
there was manifest in his strung frame an almost irrepressible violence,
held in abeyance to his will.

"That aboot your bein' so good?" he inquired, with a return of the
mocking drawl.

"Never mind what's past," she flashed, with passion dark as his.
"I've made my offer."

"Shore there's a lie aboot y'u somewhere," he muttered, thickly.

"Man, could I do more?" she demanded, in scorn.

"No. But it's a lie," he returned. "Y'u'll get me to take y'u away
an' then fool me--run off--God knows what. Women are all liars."

Manifestly he could not believe in her strange transformation. Memory
of her wild and passionate denunciation of him and his kind must have
seared even his calloused soul. But the ruthless nature of him had
not weakened nor softened in the least as to his intentions. This
weather-vane veering of hers bewildered him, obsessed him with its
possibilities. He had the look of a man who was divided between love
of her and hate, whose love demanded a return, but whose hate required
a proof of her abasement. Not proof of surrender, but proof of her shame!
The ignominy of him thirsted for its like. He could grind her beauty
under his heel, but he could not soften to this feminine inscrutableness.

And whatever was the truth of Ellen Jorth in this moment, beyond
Colter's gloomy and stunted intelligence, beyond even the love of
Jean Isbel, it was something that held the balance of mastery. She read
Colter's mind. She dropped the torn blouse from her hand and stood there,
unashamed, with the wave of her white breast pulsing, eyes black as night
and full of hell, her face white, tragic, terrible, yet strangely lovely.

"Take me away," she whispered, stretching one white arm toward him,
then the other.

Colter, even as she moved, had leaped with inarticulate cry and radiant
face to meet her embrace. But it seemed, just as her left arm flashed
up toward his neck, that he saw her bloody hand and wrist. Strange how
that checked his ardor--threw up his lean head like that striking bird
of prey.

"Blood! What the hell!" he ejaculated, and in one sweep he grasped her.
"How'd yu do that? Are y'u cut? . . . Hold still."

Ellen could not release her hand.

"I scratched myself," she said.

"Where?. . . All that blood!" And suddenly he flung her hand back with
fierce gesture, and the gleams of his yellow eyes were like the points
of leaping flames. They pierced her--read the secret falsity of her.
Slowly he stepped backward, guardedly his hand moved to his gun, and
his glance circled and swept the interior of the cabin. As if he had
the nose of a hound and sight to follow scent, his eyes bent to the dust
of the ground before the door. He quivered, grew rigid as stone, and
then moved his head with exceeding slowness as if searching through a
microscope in the dust--farther to the left--to the foot of the ladder
--and up one step--another--a third--all the way up to the loft.
Then he whipped out his gun and wheeled to face the girl.

"Ellen, y'u've got your half-breed heah!" he said, with a terrible smile.

She neither moved nor spoke. There was a suggestion of collapse, but
it was only a change where the alluring softness of her hardened into
a strange, rapt glow. And in it seemed the same mastery that had
characterized her former aspect. Herein the treachery of her was
revealed. She had known what she meant to do in any case.

Colter, standing at the door, reached a long arm toward the ladder,
where he laid his hand on a rung. Taking it away he held it palm
outward for her to see the dark splotch of blood.

"See?"

"Yes, I see," she said, ringingly.

Passion wrenched him, transformed him. "All that--aboot leavin' heah
--with me--aboot givin' in--was a lie!"

"No, Colter. It was the truth. I'll go--yet--now--if y'u'll spare--HIM!"
She whispered the last word and made a slight movement of her hand
toward the loft. "Girl!" he exploded, incredulously. "Y'u love this
half-breed--this ISBEL! . . . Y'u LOVE him!"

"With all my heart! . . . Thank God! It has been my glory. . . .
It might have been my salvation. . . . But now I'll go to hell with
y'u--if y'u'll spare him."

"Damn my soul!" rasped out the rustler, as if something of respect was
wrung from that sordid deep of him. "Y'u--y'u woman! . . . Jorth will
turn over in his grave. He'd rise out of his grave if this Isbel got y'u,"

"Hurry! Hurry!" implored Ellen. "Springer may come back.
I think I heard a call."

"Wal, Ellen Jorth, I'll not spare Isbel--nor y'u," he returned,
with dark and meaning leer, as he turned to ascend the ladder.

Jean Isbel, too, had reached the climax of his suspense. Gathering
all his muscles in a knot he prepared to leap upon Colter as he mounted
the ladder. But, Ellen Jorth screamed piercingly and snatched her rifle
from its resting place and, cocking it, she held it forward and low.

"COLTER!"

Her scream and his uttered name stiffened him.

"Y'u will spare Jean Isbel!" she rang out. "Drop that gun-drop it!"

"Shore, Ellen. . . . Easy now. Remember your temper. . . . I'll let
Isbel off," he panted, huskily, and all his body sank quiveringly to
a crouch.

"Drop your gun! Don't turn round. . . . Colter!--I'LL KILL Y'U!"

But even then he failed to divine the meaning and the spirit of her.

"Aw, now, Ellen," he entreated, in louder, huskier tones, and as if
dragged by fatal doubt of her still, he began to turn.

Crash! The rifle emptied its contents in Colter's breast. All his
body sprang up. He dropped the gun. Both hands fluttered toward her.
And an awful surprise flashed over his face.

"So--help--me--God! he whispered, with blood thick in his voice.
Then darkly, as one groping, he reached for her with shaking hands.
"Y'u--y'u white-throated hussy!. . . I'll . . ."

He grasped the quivering rifle barrel. Crash! She shot him again.
As he swayed over her and fell she had to leap aside, and his clutching
hand tore the rifle from her grasp. Then in convulsion he writhed,
to heave on his back, and stretch out--a ghastly spectacle. Ellen
backed away from it, her white arms wide, a slow horror blotting out
the passion of her face.

Then from without came a shrill call and the sound of rapid footsteps.
Ellen leaned against the wall, staring still at Colter. "Hey, Jim
--what's the shootin'?" called Springer, breathlessly.

As his form darkened the doorway Jean once again gathered all his
muscular force for a tremendous spring.

Springer saw the girl first and he appeared thunderstruck. His jaw
dropped. He needed not the white gleam of her person to transfix him.
Her eyes did that and they were riveted in unutterable horror upon
something on the ground. Thus instinctively directed, Springer espied
Colter.

"Y'u--y'u shot him!" he shrieked. "What for--y'u hussy? . . .
Ellen Jorth, if y'u've killed him, I'll. . ."

He strode toward where Colter lay.

Then Jean, rising silently, took a step and like a tiger he launched
himself into the air, down upon the rustler. Even as he leaped Springer
gave a quick, upward look. And be cried out. Jean's moccasined feet
struck him squarely and sent him staggering into the wall, where his
head hit hard. Jean fell, but bounded up as the half-stunned Springer
drew his gun. Then Jean lunged forward with a single sweep of his arm
--and looked no more.

Ellen ran swaying out of the door, and, once clear of the threshold,
she tottered out on the grass, to sink to her knees. The bright,
golden sunlight gleamed upon her white shoulders and arms. Jean had
one foot out of the door when he saw her and he whirled back to get her
blouse. But Springer had fallen upon it. Snatching up a blanket, Jean
ran out.

"Ellen! Ellen! Ellen!" he cried. "It's over! And reaching her,
he tried to wrap her in the blanket.

She wildly clutched his knees. Jean was conscious only of her white,
agonized face and the dark eyes with their look of terrible strain.

"Did y'u--did y'u . . . " she whispered.

"Yes--it's over," he said, gravely. "Ellen, the Isbel-Jorth feud
is ended."

"Oh, thank--God!" she cried, in breaking voice. "Jean--y'u are wounded
. . the blood on the step!"

"My arm. See. It's not bad. . . . Ellen, let me wrap this round you."
Folding the blanket around her shoulders, he held it there and entreated
her to get up. But she only clung the closer. She hid her face on his
knees. Long shudders rippled over her, shaking the blanket, shaking
Jean's hands. Distraught, he did not know what to do. And his own
heart was bursting.

"Ellen, you must not kneel--there--that way," he implored.

"Jean! Jean!" she moaned, and clung the tighter.

He tried to lift her up, but she was a dead weight, and with that
hold on him seemed anchored at his feet.

"I killed Colter," she gasped. "I HAD to--kill him! . . . I offered
--to fling myself away. . . ."

"For me!" he cried, poignantly. "Oh, Ellen! Ellen! the world has come
to an end! . . . Hush! don't keep sayin' that. Of course you killed him.
You saved my life. For I'd never have let you go off with him . . . .
Yes, you killed him. . . . You're a Jorth an' I'm an Isbel . . .
We've blood on our hands--both of us--I for you an' you for me!"

His voice of entreaty and sadness strengthened her and she raised her
white face, loosening her clasp to lean back and look up. Tragic,
sweet, despairing, the loveliless of her--the significance of her
there on her knees--thrilled him to his soul.

"Blood on my hands!" she whispered. "Yes. It was awful--killing him.
. . But--all I care for in this world is for your forgiveness--and
your faith that saved my soul! "

"Child, there's nothin' to forgive," he responded. "Nothin'. . .
Please, Ellen. . ."

"I lied to y'u!" she cried. "I lied to y'u!"

"Ellen, listen--darlin'." And the tender epithet brought her head and
arms back close-pressed to him. "I know--now," he faltered on. "I found
out to-day what I believed. An' I swear to God--by the memory of my
dead mother--down in my heart I never, never, never believed what
they--what y'u tried to make me believe. NEVER! "

"Jean--I love y'u--love y'u--love y'u!" she breathed with exquisite,
passionate sweetness. Her dark eyes burned up into his.

"Ellen, I can't lift you up," he said, in trembling eagerness, signifiying
his crippled arm. "But I can kneel with you! . . ."

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