WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders

Under the Tonto Rim

Country of origin: USA USA
Available texts by the same author here Dokument

Chapter 14

   Congenial work with happy, eager, simple people made the days speed by so swiftly that Lucy could not keep track of them.
   She let six weeks and more pass before she gave heed to the message Clara sent from the school-house by the Claypool children. From other sources Lucy learned that Clara was the best teacher ever employed by the school board. She was making a success of it, from a standpoint of both good for the pupils and occupation for herself.
   Joe Denmeade happened to ride by Claypool's one day, and he stopped to see Lucy. Even in the few weeks since she left the Denmeades there seemed to be marked improvement in Joe, yet in a way she could hardly define. Something about him rang so true and manly.
   During Joe's short visit it chanced that all the Claypools gathered on the porch, and Gerd, lately come from Cedar Ridge, narrated with great gusto the gossip. It was received with the interest of lonely people who seldom had opportunities to hear about what was going on. Gerd's report of the latest escapade of one of the village belles well known to them all was received with unrestrained mirth. Such incident would have passed unmarked by Lucy had she not caught the expression that fleeted across Joe Denmeade's face. That was all the more marked because of the fact of Joe's usually serene, intent impassibility. Lucy conceived the certainty that this boy would suffer intensely if he ever learned of Clara's misfortune. It might not change his love, but it would surely kill something in him--the very something that appealed so irresistibly to Clara.
   The moment was fraught with a regurgitation of Lucy's dread--the strange premonition that had haunted her--that out of the past must come reckoning. It remained with her more persistently than ever before, and was not readily shaken off.
   Some days later, one Friday toward the end of May, Lucy rode down the school-house trail to meet Clara and fetch her back to Claypool's to stay over Sunday. It had been planned for some time, and Lucy had looked forward to the meeting with both joy and apprehension.
   This school-house trail was new to her, and therefore one of manifold pleasure. It led through forest and glade, along a tiny brook, and on downhill toward the lower country.
   Lucy was keen to catch all the woodland features that had become part of her existence, without which life in this wilderness would have lost most of its charm. Only a year had passed since first it had claimed her! The time measured in work, trial, change, seemed immeasurably longer. Yet Lucy could not say that she would have had it otherwise. Always she was putting off a fateful hour or day until she was ready to meet it. Her work had engrossed her. In a few weeks she had accomplished as much with the Claypools as she had been able to do for the Denmeades in months. She had learned her work. Soon she could go to the Johnsons. Then back to the Denmeades! To the higher and wilder forest land under the Rim! But she was honest enough to confess that there were other reasons for the joy. Lucy lingered along the trail until a meeting with the Claypool and Miller children told her that school was out. They were riding burros and ponies, in some cases two astride one beast, and they were having fun. Lucy was hailed with the familiarity of long-established regard, a shrill glad clamour that swelled her heart with its message.
   "Hurry home, you rascals," admonished Lucy, as she rode back into the trail behind them. Then she urged her horse into a lope, and enjoyed the sweet forest scents fanning her face, and the moving by of bright-coloured glades and shady green dells. In a short time she reached the clearing and the schoolhouse. She had not been there for a long time. Yet how well she remembered it!
   At first glance she could not see any horses hitched about, but she heard one neigh. It turned out to be Baldy, and he was poking his nose over the bars of a small corral that had recently been erected in the shade of pines at the edge of the clearing. Lucy tied her horse near and then ran for the school-house.
   The door was open. Lucy rushed in, to espy Clara at the desk, evidently busy with her work.
   "Howdy, little schoolmarm!" shouted Lucy. Clara leaped up, suddenly radiant.
   "Howdy yourself, you old backwoods Samaritan!" returned Clara, and ran to embrace her.
   Then, after the first flush of this meeting, they both talked at once, without any particular attention to what the other was saying. But that wore off presently and they became rational.
   "Where's Joe?" queried Lucy, desirous of coming at once to matters about which she had a dearth of news.
   "He and Mr. Denmeade have gone to Winbrook to buy things for Joe's cabin."
   "Are you riding the trails alone?" asked Lucy quickly.
   "I haven't yet," replied Clara, with a laugh. "Joe has taken good care of that. Edd rode down with me this morning. He went to Cedar Ridge to get the mail. Said he'd get back to ride up with us."
   "You told him I was coming after you?"
   "Shore did, an' reckon he looked silly," drawled Clara.
   "Oh Indeed?..." Lucy then made haste to change the subject. She had not set eyes upon Edd since the day she had shut her door in his face, after the audacious and irreparable kiss she had bestowed upon his cheek. She did not want to see him, either, and yet she did want to tremendously.
   "Let's not wait for him," she said hurriedly.
   "What's wrong with you?" demanded Clara. "Edd seems quite out of his head these days. When I mention you he blushes...Yes!"
   "How funny--for that big bee hunter!" replied Lucy, essaying a casual laugh.
   "Well, I've a hunch you're the one who should blush," said Clara dryly.
   "Clara, sometimes I don't know about you," observed Lucy musingly, as she gazed thoughtfully at her sister.
   "How many times have I heard you say that!" returned Clara, with a mingling of pathos and mirth. "Lucy, the fact is you never knew about me. You never had me figured. You were always so big yourself that you couldn't see the littleness of me."
   "Ahuh!" drawled Lucy. Then more seriously she went on: "Clara, I'm not big. I've a big love for you, but that's about all."
   "Have it your own way. All the same, I'm going to tell you about yourself. That's why I sent word by the children. You didn't seem very curious or anxious to see me."
   "Clara, I was only in fun. I don't want to--to know any more about you--unless it is you're happy--and have forgotten--your--your trouble," rejoined Lucy soberly.
   "That's just why I must tell you," said her sister, with swift resolution. "I did forget because I was happy. But my conscience won't let me be happy any longer until I tell you."
   Lucy's heart contracted. She felt a sensation of inward chill. Why had Clara's brown tan changed to pearly white? Her eyes had darkened unusually and were strained in unflinching courage. Yet full of fear!
   "All right. Get it over then," replied Lucy.
   Notwithstanding Clara's resolve, it was evidently hard for her to speak. "Lucy, since--March the second--I've been--Joe Denmeade's wife," she whispered huskily.
   Lucy, braced for something utterly different and connected with Clara's past, suddenly succumbed to amaze. She sat down on one of the school benches.
   "Good heavens!" she gasped, and then could only stare.
   "Darling, don't be angry," implored Clara, and came to her and knelt beside her. Again Lucy felt those clinging, loving hands always so potent in their power.
   "I'm not angry--yet," replied Lucy. "I'm just flabbergasted. I--I can't think. It's a terrible surprise...Your second elopement!"
   "Yes. And this made up for the--the other," murmured Clara.
   "March the second? That was the day you took the long ride with Joe? Got back late. On a Saturday. You were exhausted, pale, excited...I remember now. And you never told me!"
   "Lucy, don't reproach me," protested Clara. "I meant to. Joe wanted to let you into our secret. But I couldn't. It's hard to tell you things."
   "Why? Can't I be trusted?"
   "It's because you do trust so--so beautifully. It's because you are so--so good, so strong yourself. Before I did it I felt it would be easy. Afterwards I found out differently."
   "Well, too late now," said Lucy sadly. "But how'd you do it? Where? Why?"
   "We rode down to Gordon," replied Clara hurriedly. "That's a little village below Cedar Ridge. We hired a man to drive us to Menlo. More than fifty miles. There we were married...Came home the same way. It was a terrible trip. But for the excitement it'd have killed me."
   "March the second! You've kept it secret all this time?"
   "Yes. And want still to keep it, except from you."
   "Clara--I don't know what to say," rejoined Lucy helplessly. "What on earth made you do it?"
   "Joe! Joe!" cried Clara wildly. "Oh, let me tell you. Don't condemn me till you hear...From the very first Joe Denmeade made love to me. You could never dream what's in that boy. He loved me. My refusals only made him worse. He waylaid me at every turn. He wrote me notes. He never let me forget for an hour that he worshipped me...And it grew to be sweet. Sweet to my bitter heart! I was hungry for love. I wanted, needed the very thing he felt. I fought--oh, how I fought! The idea of being loved was beautiful, wonderful, saving. But to fall in love--myself--that seemed impossible, wicked. It mocked me. But I did fall in love. I woke up one morning to another world...Then I was as weak as water."
   Lucy took the palpitating Clara in her arms and held her close. After all, she could not blame her sister. If no dark shadow loomed up out of the past, then it would be well. Then as the first flush of excitement began to fade Lucy's logical mind turned from cause to effect.
   "Clara, you didn't tell Joe about your past," asserted Lucy, very low. She did not question. She affirmed. She knew. And when Clara's head drooped to her bosom, to hide her face there, Lucy had double assurance.
   "I couldn't. I couldn't," said Clara brokenly. "Between my fears and Joe's ridiculous faith in me, I couldn't. Time and time again--when he was making love to me--before I cared--I told him I was no good--selfish, callous little flirt! He would only laugh and make harder love to me. I tried to tell him about the cowboy beaux I'd had. He'd say the more I'd had, the luckier he was to win me. To him I was good, innocent, noble. An angel! He wouldn't listen to me...Then when I fell in love with him it wasn't easy--the idea of telling. I quit trying until the night before the day we ran off to get married. Honestly I meant seriously to tell him. But I'd hardly gotten a word out when he grabbed me--and--kissed me till I couldn't talk...Then--I was sort--of carried away--the--second time."
   She ended in a sobbing whisper. All was revealed in those last few words. Lucy could only pity and cherish.
   "You poor child! I understand. I don't blame you. I'm glad. If you love him so well and he loves you so well--it must--it shall come out all right...Don't cry, Clara. I'm not angry. I'm just stunned and--and frightened."
   Clara responded to kindness as to nothing else, and her passion of gratitude further strengthened Lucy's resolve to serve.
   "Frightened! Yes, that's what I've become lately," she said. "Suppose Joe should find out--all about me. It's not probable, but it might happen. He would never forgive me. He's queer that way. He doesn't understand women. Edd Denmeade, now--he could. He'd stick to a girl--if--if--! But Joe wouldn't, I know. At that I can tell him now, if you say I must. But it's my last chance for happiness--for a home. I hate the thought that I'm not the angel he believes me. I know I could become anything in time--I love him so well. Always I remember that I wasn't wicked. I was only a fool."
   "Dear, regrets are useless," replied Lucy gravely. "Let's face the future. It seems to me you should tell Joe. After all, he hasn't so much to forgive. He's queer, I know--"
   "But, Lucy," interrupted Clara, and she looked up with a strange, sad frankness, "there was a baby."
   "My God!" cried Lucy, in horrified distress.
   "Yes...a girl--my own. She was born in Kingston at the home of the woman with whom I lived--a Mrs. Gerald. She had no family. She ran a little restaurant for miners. No one else knew, except the doctor, who came from the next town, and he was a good old soul. In my weakness I told Mrs. Gerald my story--whom I'd run off with--all about it. She offered to adopt the baby if I'd help support it. So we arranged to do that."
   "That was the debt you spoke of," replied Lucy, huskily. "Why you needed money often."
   "Yes. And that's why I was in such a hurry to find work--to take up this teaching...She had written me she would return the child or write to its--its father unless I kept my part of the bargain. I was so scared I couldn't sleep...I was late in sending money, but I'm sure it's all right."
   "You married Joe--with this--hanging over you?" queried Lucy incredulously.
   "I told you how that came about. I know what I felt. I suffered. But it all came about. It happened," answered Clara, as if driven to desperation.
   "Only a miracle can keep Joe from learning it some day."
   "Miracles sometimes happen. For instance, your giving me a home. And my love for this boy!...You can never understand how close I was to death or hell...Kingston is a long way off. This is a wilderness. It might happen that God won't quite forget me."
   "Oh, the pity of it!" wailed Lucy, wringing her hands. "Clara, how can you repudiate your own flesh and blood?"
   "I had to," replied Clara sadly. "But I've lived with the memory, and I've changed...I'll meet Mrs. Gerald's demands, and some day I'll make other and happier arrangements."
   "If you only hadn't married Joe! Why, oh, why didn't you come to me?" cried Lucy.
   Clara offered no reply to that protest. She straightened up and turned away.
   "I hear a horse," she said, rising to look at Lucy. "Must be Edd," returned Lucy nervously.
   "Riding pretty fast for Edd. You know he never runs a horse unless there's a reason."
   The sisters stood a moment facing each other. Perhaps their emotions presaged catastrophe. Outside the sound of rapid hoofbeats thudded to a sliding halt. Lucy was occupied with anticipation of being compelled to face Edd Denmeade. Less prepared than at any time since her sentimental impulse at Claypool's, she could not on such short notice master her feelings.
   Nevertheless, under the strain of the moment she hurried toward the door, to make her hope that the arrival was not Edd a certainty.
   Clara went to the window and looked out.
   Lucy reached the threshold just as her keen ear caught the musical jingle of spurs. Then a step too quick and short for Edd! In another second a tall slim young man confronted her. He wore the flashy garb of a rider. Lucy wondered where she had seen that striking figure, the young, handsome, heated red face with its wicked blue eyes. He doffed a wide sombrero. When Lucy saw the blaze of his golden hair she recognised him as the individual once pointed out to her at Cedar Ridge. Comrade of Bud Sprall!
   "Howdy, Luce! Reckon your kid sister is heah," he said coolly.
   Lucy's heart seemed to sink within her. Dread and anger leaped to take the place of softer emotions now vanishing.
   "How dare you?" she demanded.
   "Wal, I'm a darin' hombre," he drawled, taking a step closer. "An' I'm goin' in there to even up a little score with Clara."
   "Who are you?" queried Lucy wildly.
   "None of your business. Get out of my way," he said roughly.
   Lucy blocked the door. Open opposition did much to stabilise the whirl of her head.
   "You're not coming in," cried Lucy. "I warn you. Edd Denmeade's expected here any moment. It'll be bad for you if he finds you."
   "Wal, I reckon Edd won't get heah pronto," rejoined this cowboy impertinently. "I left my pard, Bud Sprall, down the trail. An' he's a-rarin' to stop Edd one way or another. Bud an' I have been layin' for this chance. Savvy, Luce?"
   She gave him a stinging slap in the face--so hard a blow that even her open hand staggered him.
   "Don't you believe it, Mr. Red-face," retorted Lucy furiously. "It'd take more than you or Bud Sprall to stop Edd Denmeade."
   "Wild cat, huh? All same Clara!" he ejaculated, with his hand going to his face. The wicked eyes flashed like blue fire. Then he lunged at her, and grasping her arm, in a single pull he swung her out of the doorway. Lucy nearly lost her balance.
   Recovering, she rushed back into the school-house in time to see this stranger confront Clara. For Lucy it was a terrible thing to see her sister's face.
   "Howdy, kid! Reckon you was lookin' for me," he said.
   "Jim Middleton!" burst out Clara in queer, strangled voice. Then she slipped limply to the floor In a faint.
   For Lucy uncertainty passed. She realised her sister's reckoning had come, like a lightning flash out of a clear sky, and it roused all the tigress in her. Running to Clara, she knelt at her side, to find her white and cold and unconscious. Then she rose to confront the intruder with a determination to get rid of him before Clara recovered consciousness.
   "So you're Jim Middleton?" she queried, in passionate scorn. "If I had a gun I'd shoot you. If I had a whip I'd beat you as I would a dog. Get out of here. You shall not talk to my sister. She hates you. Nothing you can have to say will interest her."
   "Wal, I'm not so shore," returned Middleton, without the coolness or nonchalance that before had characterised his speech. He looked considerably shaken. What contrasting gleams of passion--hate--wonder--love--changed the blue gaze he bent upon Clara's white face! "I've a letter she'll want to read."
   "A letter! From Mrs. Gerald?" flashed Lucy, quivering all over as his hand went to his breast.
   "Yes, if it's anythin' to you," retorted the cowboy, shaking a letter at her.
   "Mrs. Gerald wants money?" Lucy went on.
   "She shore does," he answered resentfully.
   "I suppose you're going to send it to her?"
   "I am like hell!"
   "Also I suppose you'll want to right the wrong you did Clara? You'll want to marry her truly?" demanded Lucy, with infinite sarcasm.
   "You've got the wrong hunch, Luce," he replied, laughing coarsely. "I jest want to read her this letter. Shore I've been keepin' it secret these days for her to see first. Then I'll tell Joe Denmeade an' every other man in this woods."
   "Haven't you made Clara suffer enough?" queried Lucy, trying to keep her voice steady and her wits working.
   "She ran off from me. I reckon with another man."
   "You're a liar! Oh, I'll make you pay for this!" cried Lucy, in desperation.
   Suddenly she saw him turn his head. Listening. He had not heard her outburst. Then Lucy's strained hearing caught the welcome clatter of hoofs. Quick as a flash she snatched the letter out of Middleton's hands.
   "Heah, give that back!" he shouted fiercely.
   Like a cat Lucy leaped over desks into another aisle, and then, facing about, she thrust the letter into the bosom of her blouse. Middleton leaned forward, glaring in amaze and fury.
   "I'll tear your clothes off," he shouted, low and hard.
   "Jim Middleton, if you know when you're well off you'll get out of here and out of the country before these Denmeades learn what you've done," returned Lucy.
   "An' I'll beat you good while I'm tearin' your clothes off," he declared as he crouched.
   "Edd Denmeade will kill you!" whispered Lucy, beginning to weaken.
   "Once more," he hissed venomously, "give me that letter...It's my proof about the baby!"
   And on the instant a quick jangling step outside drew the blood from Lucy's heart. Middleton heard it and wheeled with muttered curse.
   Edd Denmeade leaped over the threshold and seemed to fill the schoolroom with his presence. Blood flowed from his bare head, down his cheek. His eyes, like pale flames, swept from Lucy to Middleton, to the limp figure of the girl on the floor, and then back to Lucy. The thrill that flooded over her then seemed wave on wave of shock. He had been fighting. His clothes were in rags and wringing wet. He advanced slowly, with long strides, his piercing gaze shifting to Middleton.
   "Howdy, cowboy! I met your pard, Bud Sprall, down the trail. Reckon you'd better go rake up what's left of him an' pack it out of here."
   "The hell you say!" ejaculated Middleton, stepping to meet Edd half-way. He was slow, cautious, menacing, and somehow sure of himself. "Wal, I'd as lief meet one Denmeade as another. An' I've shore got somethin' to say."
   "You can't talk to me," returned Edd, with measured coldness. "I don't know nothin' about you--'cept you're a pard of Sprall's. That's enough...Now go along with you pronto."
   The red of Middleton's face had faded to a pale white except for the livid mark across his cheek. But to Lucy it seemed his emotion was a passionate excitement rather than fear. He swaggered closer to Edd.
   "Say, you wild-bee hunter, you're goin' to hear somethin' aboot this Watson girl."
   Edd took a slow, easy step, then launched body and arm into pantherish agility. Lucy did not see the blow, but she heard it. Sharp and sudden, it felled Middleton to the floor half a dozen paces toward the stove. He fell so heavily that he shook the school-house. For a moment he lay gasping while Edd stepped closer. Then he raised himself on his elbow and turned a distorted face, the nose of which appeared smashed flat. He looked a fiend inflamed with lust to murder. But cunningly as he turned away and began to labour to get to his feet, he did not deceive Lucy.
   "Watch out, Edd! He has a gun!" she screamed.
   Even then Middleton wheeled, wrenching the gun from his hip. Lucy saw its sweep as she saw Edd leap, and suddenly bereft of strength she slipped to the floor, back against a desk, eyes tight shut, senses paralysed, waiting for the report she expected. But it did not come. Scrape of boots, clash of spurs, hard expulsions of breath, attested to another kind of fight.
   She opened wide her eyes. Edd and Middleton each had two hands on the weapon, and were leaning back at arm's-length, pulling with all their might.
   "I'm agonna bore you--you damn' wild-bee hunter!" panted the cowboy, and then he bent to bite at Edd's hands. Edd gave him a tremendous kick that brought a bawl of pain and rage from Middleton.
   Then began a terrific struggle for possession of the gun. Lucy crouched there, fascinated with horror. Yet how the hot nerves of her body tingled! She awoke to an awful attention, to a dim recollection of a fierce glory in man's prowess, in blood, in justice. Edd was the heavier and stronger. He kept the cowboy at arm's-length and swung him off his feet. But Middleton always came down like a cat, He was swung against the desks, demolishing them; then his spurred boots crashed over the teacher's table. They wrestled from there to the stove, knocking that down. A cloud of soot puffed down from the stove-pipe. The cowboy ceased to waste breath in curses. His sinister expression changed to a panic-stricken fear for his own life. He was swung with violence against the wall. Yet he held on to the gun in a wild tenacity. They fought all around the room, smashing desk after desk. The time came when Middleton ceased to jerk at the gun, but put all a waning strength in efforts to hold it.
   When they were on the other side of the room Lucy could not see them. What she heard was sufficient to keep her in convulsive suspense.
   Suddenly out of the corner of her eye she saw Clara sit up and reel from side to side, and turn her white face toward the furiously struggling men.
   "Clara--don't look!" cried Lucy huskily, almost unable to speak. She moved to go to her sister, but she was spent with fright, and when Clara's purple eyes fixed in an appalling stare, she quite gave out. Then crash and thud and scrape, harder, swifter, and the whistle of men's breath moved back across the room into the field of her vision. Edd was dragging Middleton, flinging him. The fight was going to the implacable bee-hunter.
   "Let go, cowboy. I won't kill you!" thundered Edd.
   Middleton's husky reply was incoherent. For a moment renewed strength seemed to come desperately, and closing in with Edd he wrestled with the frenzy of a madman.
   Suddenly there burst out a muffled bellow of the gun. Edd seemed released from a tremendous strain. He staggered back toward Lucy. For a single soul-riving instant she watched, all faculties but sight shocked into suspension. Then Middleton swayed aside from Edd, both his hands pressed to his breast. He sank to his knees. Lucy's distended eyes saw blood gush out over his hands. Dragging her gaze up to his face, she recoiled in a fearful awe.
   "She--she was--" he gasped thickly, his changed eyes wavering, fixing down the room. Then he lurched over on his side and lay doubled up in a heap.
   Edd's long arm spread out and his hand went low, to release the smoking gun, while he bent rigidly over the fallen man.
   "It went--off," he panted. "I was only--tryin' to get it--away from him...Lucy, you saw."
   "Oh yes, I saw," cried Lucy. "It wasn't--your fault. He'd have killed you...Is he--is he--?"
   Edd straightened up and drew a deep breath.
   "Reckon he's about gone."
   Then he came to help Lucy to her feet and to support her. "Wal, you need a little fresh air, an' I reckon some won't hurt me."
   "But Clara!...Oh, she has fainted again!"
   "No wonder. Shore she was lucky not to see the--the fight. That fellow was a devil compared to Bud Sprall."
   "Oh!...Edd, you didn't kill him, too?" implored Lucy.
   "Not quite. But he's bad used up," declared Edd as he half carried her across the threshold and lowered her to a seat on the steps. "Brace up now, city girl. Reckon this is your first real backwoods experience...Wal, it might have been worse... Now wouldn't you have had a fine time makin' Bud an' his pard better men?...There, you're comin' around. We need to do some tall figurin'...But I reckon, far as I'm concerned, there's nothin' to worry over."
   After a moment he let go of Lucy and rose from the step. "Lucy, what was it all about?" he queried quietly.
   She covered her face with her hands, and a strong shudder shook her frame.
   "Wal," he went on, very gently, "I heard that fellow ravin' as I come in. But all I understood was proof about the baby."
   "That was enough to hear, don't you think?" replied Lucy, all at once recovering her composure. Out of the chaos of her conflicting emotions had arisen an inspiration.
   "Reckon it was a good deal," he said simply, and smiled down on her. "But you needn't tell me nothin' unless you want to. I always knew you'd had some trouble."
   "Trouble!" sighed Lucy. Then averting her gaze she continued: "Edd, I ask you to keep my secret...The baby he spoke of--was--is mine."
   He did not reply at once, nor in any way she could see or hear express whatever feeling he might have had. Lucy, once the damnable falsehood had crossed her lips, was stricken as by a plague. When she had thrown that off there was a horrible remorse pounding at the gates of her heart, Her body seemed first to receive the brunt of the blow she had dealt herself.
   "Wal, wal--so that's it," said Edd, in a queer, broken voice. He paused a long moment, then went on, in more usual tone. "Shore I'll never tell...I'm doggone sorry, Lucy. An' I'm not askin' questions. I reckon it doesn't make no difference to me...Now let's think what's best to do. I'll have to send word from Johnson's about this fight. But I'm goin' to see you home first, unless you think you can get there all right."
   "That depends on Clara. Come with me."
   They went back into the schoolhouse to find Clam showing signs of returning consciousness.
   "Please carry her outside," said Lucy.
   As he lifted the girl in his arms Lucy's fearful gaze roved round the room. Amid the ruins of the crude furniture lay the inert form of Jim Middleton, face down, hands outstretched in a pool of blood. Though the sight sickened her, Lucy gazed until she had convinced herself that there was no life in the prostrate form. Then she hurried after Edd and reeled out into the sunlight and the sweet fresh air. Edd carried Clara to the shade of pines at the edge of the clearing.
   "I'll go down to the brook," he said. "Reckon we don't want her seein' me all over blood."
   Presently Clara's pale eyelids fluttered and unclosed, to reveal eyes with purple abysses, hard for Lucy to gaze into. She raised Clara's head in her arms.
   "There, dear, you're all right again, aren't you?"
   "Where is he?" whispered Clara.
   "Edd's gone down to the brook to fetch some water. He's all right."
   "I mean--him...Ah, I saw!" went on Clara. "Edd killed him!"
   "I fear so," said Lucy hurriedly. "But it was an accident. Edd fought to get the gun. It went off...Don't think of that. God has delivered you. I have the letter Mrs. Gerald wrote Middleton. He did not betray you. And now he's dead...Edd knows nothing about your relation to this cowboy. See that you keep silent."
   Edd returned at this juncture with a shining face, except for a wound over his temple; and he handed his wet scarf to Lucy.
   "Wal, shore she's come to," he drawled, with all his old coolness "That's good...Now I'll saddle up her horse an' pretty soon she'll be able to ride home."
   "I think she will," returned Lucy. "But what shall I say about--about this?"
   "Say nothin'," he replied tersely. "I'll do the talkin' when I get home...An', Lucy, on my way to Johnson's I'll take a look at my old friend Bud Sprall. If he's alive, which I reckon he is, I'll tell him damn' good an' short what happened to his pard, an' that he'll get the same unless he moves out of the country. These woods ain't big enough for us two."
   "He might waylay you again as he did this time--and shoot you," said Lucy fearfully.
   "Wal, way-layin' me once will be enough, I reckon. Bud has a bad name, an' this sneaky trick on you girls will fix him. They'll run him out of the country."
   While Edd saddled Clara's horse Lucy walked her to and fro a little.
   "Let's go. I can ride," averred Clara. "I'd rather fall off than stay here."
   Edd helped her mount and walked beside her to where the trail entered the clearing. Lucy caught up with them, full of misgiving, yet keen to get out of sight of the school-house.
   "Go right home," said Edd. "I'll stop at Claypool's on my way up an' tell them somethin'. Shore I won't be long. An' if you're not home I'll come a-rarin' down the trail to meet you."
   "Oh, Edd--be careful!" whispered Lucy. She hardly knew what she meant, and she could not look at him. Clara rode on into the leaf-bordered trail. Lucy made haste to follow. Soon the golden light of the clearing no longer sent gleams into the forest. They entered the green, silent sanctuary of the pines. Lucy felt unutterable relief. How shaded, how, protecting, how helpful the great trees! They had the primitive influence of nature. They strengthened her under the burden she had assumed. Whatever had been the wild prompting of her sacrifice, she had no regret for herself, nor could she alter it.
   Clara reeled in her saddle, clinging to the pommel but as she rode on it appeared she gathered strength until Lucy came to believe she would finish out the ride. And what a tragic ride that was! Clara never once looked back, never spoke. The pearly pallor still showed under her tan. Lucy felt what was going on in her sister's soul, and pitied her. Scorn for Clara's weakness, anger at her duplicity, had no power against love. The reckoning had come and the worst had befallen. Lucy experienced relief in the knowledge of this. Clara's future must be her care. It was not right, but she would make it right; it was not safe, yet she must insure its safety. And all at once she realised how she loved Edd Denmeade, and that eventually she would have gone to him as naturally as a bird to its mate. Then the green forest seemed to pierce her agony with a thousand eyes.

Chapter 15 >