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Under the Tonto Rim
Zane Grey (1926) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
At the conclusion of that ride Clara collapsed and had to be carried into her tent, where she fell victim to hysteria and exhaustion. Lucy had her hands full attending to her sister and keeping the kindly Denmeades from hearing some of Clara's ravings.
Next day Clara was better, and on Sunday apparently herself again. To Lucy's amaze she announced she could and would go back to school next day.
"But, Clara--how can you, considering--" faltered Lucy.
"I know what you mean," replied her sister. "It'll be rather sickening, to say the least. Yet I'd prefer to be sick than have the awful feeling of dread I had before."
Nevertheless, Lucy would not hear of Clara's going to teach for at least a week. Amy Claypool would be glad to act as substitute teacher for a few days, or, failing that, the pupils could be given a vacation. Clara did not readily yield this point, though at last she was prevailed upon. During these days Lucy avoided much contact with the Denmeades. It was not possible, however, not to hear something about what had happened.
Upon his return Edd had conducted himself precisely as before the tragedy, a circumstance that had subtle effect upon Lucy. By degrees this bee-hunter had grown big in her sight, strong and natural in those qualities which to her mind constituted a man. From Joe she learned certain developments of the case. Bud Sprall, late on the day of the fight, had been carried to Johnson's, the nearest ranch, and there he lay severely injured. Middleton had not been removed until after the sheriff had viewed his remains on Saturday. Gossip from all quarters was rife, all of it decidedly favourable to Edd. The dead cowboy had not been well known at Cedar Ridge, and not at all by the name of Middleton.
On Monday Lucy returned to her work at Claypool's, leaving the situation unchanged so far as she was concerned. She and Edd had not mentioned the thing that naturally concerned them both so vitally nor had Lucy confessed to Clara what she had take upon herself. There would be need of that, perhaps, after the sheriff's investigation.
Lucy's work did not in this instance alleviate a heavy heart. Once more alone, away from the worry about Clara's health and the excitement of the Denmeades, she was assailed by grief. Clara's act, viewed in any light possible, seemed a sin, no less terrible because of unfortunate and mitigating circumstances. It was something that had been fostered long ago in the family. Lucy had expected it. She blamed the past, the lack of proper home training and ideals, the influence inevitable from her father's business.
After her work hours each day she would walk off into the deep forest, and there, hidden from any eyes she would yield to the moods of the moment. seemed as various as the aspects of her trouble. But whatever the mood happened to be, grief was its dominant note. Clara had gotten beyond her now. She was married, and settled, providing Joe Denmeade was as fine a boy as he seemed. But if Clara's true story became public property and Joe repudiated her, cast her off--then her future was hopeless. Lucy could not face this possibility. It quite baffled her.
Then there was something else quite as insupportable to face. Sooner or later she must take up the burden she had claimed as her own. It would be hard. It meant she must abandon her welfare work there among the people she had come to love. They needed her. She would have to go farther afield or take up some other kind of work. It was not conceivable that her sister's child could be left to the bringing up of strangers. That would only be shifting the responsibility of the weak Watson blood upon someone else. It did not make in the least for the ideal for which Lucy was ready to lay down her life.
Perhaps hardest of all was the blow to what now she recognised as her unconscious hopes of love, dreams of happy toil as a pioneer's wife. She knew now, when it was too late, what she could have been capable of for Edd Denmeade. She had found a fine big love for a man she had helped develop. She would rather have had such consciousness than to have met and loved a man superior in all ways to Edd. Somehow the struggle was the great thing. And yet she had loved Edd also because he was self-sufficient without her help. How she cared for him now, since the killing of one enemy and crippling of another, was hard for her to define. So that this phase of her grief was acute, poignant, ever-present, growing with the days.
She found out, presently, that going into the forest was a source of comfort. When there seemed no comfort she went to the lonely solitude of trees and brush, of green coverts and fragrant wild dells, and always she was soothed, sustained. She could not understand why, but it was so. She began to prolong the hours spent in the woods, under a looming canyon wall, or beside a densely foliaged gorge from which floated up the drowsy murmur of a stream. All that the wild forest land consisted of passed into her innermost being. She sensed that the very ground she trod was full of graves of races of human beings who had lived and fought there, suffered in their blindness and ignorance, loved and reared their young, and had grown old and died. No trace left! No more than autumn leaves! It seemed to be this lesson of nature that gradually came to her. Thereafter she went to the woods early in the mornings as well as the afternoons, and finally she had courage to go at night.
And it was at night she came to feel deepest. Darkness emphasised the mystery of the forest. Night birds and crickets, prowling coyotes with their haunting barks, the wind sad and low in the pines, the weird canopy of foliage overhead studded with stars of white fire--these taught her the littleness of her life and the tremendousness of the spirit from which she had sprung. She was part of the universe. The very fear she had of the blackness, the beasts, and the unknown told of her inheritance. She came at length to realise that this spell engendered by nature, if it could be grasped in its entirety and held, would make bearable all aches of heart and miseries of mind. Her contact with actual life covered twenty little years in a town among many people; her instincts, the blood that beat at her temples, the longings of her bones, had been bred of a million years in the solitude and wild environment of the dim past. That was why the forest helped her.
A Saturday in June was the day set for an investigation of the fight that had resulted in the death of Jim Middleton. It would be an ordeal for which Lucy had endeavoured to prepare herself.
But from what she heard and saw of the people interested she judged the day was to be rather a gala one. Certainly the Denmeades were not worried. Lucy did not see Edd, but Joe seemed more than usually cheerful, and evidently he had prevailed somewhat upon Clara. If she had any misgivings as to what might develop, she certainly did not show them. She rode by with Joe and the other Denmeades before Lucy was ready. Allie and Gerd dressed up for the occasion as if they were going to a dance. Lucy rode with them as far as Johnson's where she was invited to go the rest of the way in a car with Sam and other of the Johnsons. During this part of the ride Lucy had little chance to think or brood. The party was a merry one, and their attitude toward the occasion was manifested by a remark Sam finally made to Lucy:
"Say, cheer up. You're worryin' about this investigation. It won't amount to shucks. Everybody in the country is glad of what Edd did. Shore there won't be any court proceedings. This whole case would have been over long ago an' forgotten if Bud Sprall hadn't been too bad crippled to talk. Just you wait."
Lucy found some little grain of assurance in Sam's words, and bore up under her dread. Perhaps she worried too much, and felt too deeply, she thought. Sam drove as if he were going to a party, and the twenty miles or more seemed as nothing. Cedar Ridge was full of people, to judge from the horses, cars, and vehicles along each side of the main street. When Sam halted with a grand flourish before the hotel Lucy was thrilled to see Edd Denmeade step out from a motley crowd. He was looking for her, and he smiled as he met her glance. He read her mind.
"Howdy, Lucy I Reckon you needn't be scared. Shore it's all right," he said, pressing her hand as he helped her out. "Howdy there, you Sam! Just saw Sadie an' she shore looks pert. Howdy, you-all!"
Lucy was conducted into the hotel parlour by the sheriff, who seemed very gallant and apologetic and most desirous of impressing her with the fact that this meeting was a pleasure to him.
The magistrate she met there appeared equally affable. He was a little man, with sharp blue eyes and ruddy shaven face, and he had only one ann.
"Wal, now, it was too bad to drag you away from thet good work we're all a-hearin' aboot," he said.
"Judge," spoke up the sheriff, "we got Edd's story an' now all we want is this girl's. She see the fight over the gun."
"Sit down, miss, an' pray don't look so white," said the magistrate, with a kindly smile. "We see no call to take this case to court. Jest answer a few questions an' we'll let you off...You was the only one who see the fight between Edd an' thet cowboy?"
"Yes. My sister had fainted and lay on the floor," replied Lucy. "But just at the last of it I saw her sit up. And after, when I looked back, she had fainted again."
"Now we know thet Harv Sprall threw a gun on Edd--"
"Sprall!" interrupted Lucy. "You're mistaken. The other fellow was Bud Sprall and he wasn't in the schoolroom. Edd had the fight for the gun with--"
"Excuse me, miss," interrupted the judge in turn. "The dead cowboy was Harv Sprall, a cousin of Bud's. He wasn't well known in these parts, but we got a line on him from men over Winbrook way...Now jest tell us what you saw."
Whereupon Lucy began with the blow Edd had delivered at the so-called Herv Sprall, and related hurriedly and fluently the details of the fight.
"Wal, thet'll be aboot all," said the judge, with his genial smile, as he bent over to begin writing. "I'm much obliged."
"All! May--I go--now?" faltered Lucy.
"Go. I should smile. I'm escortin' you out. Not thet we're not sorry to have you go," replied the sheriff, and forthwith he led her out to where the others were waiting in the porch.
Lucy came in for considerable attention from the surrounding crowd; and by reason of this and the solicitude of her friends she quickly regained her composure. Presently she was carried away to the house of friends of the Johnsons. She wondered where Clara was, and Joe and Edd, but being swift to grasp the fact that the investigation had been trivial, she was happy to keep her curiosity to herself.
During the several hours she remained in town, however, she was destined to learn a good deal, and that by merely listening. The name Jim Middleton was mentioned as one of several names under which Harv Sprall had long carried on dealings not exactly within the law. He had been known to absent himself for long periods from the several places where he was supposed to work. If Bud Sprall had known anything about his cousin's affairs with Clara, he had kept his mouth shut. The investigation had turned a light on his own unsavoury reputation, and what with one thing and another he was liable to be sent to state prison. The judge had made it known that he would give Sprall a chance to leave the country.
It seemed to be the universally accepted idea that the two Spralls had planned to waylay Edd or Joe Denmeade, and then surprise the young school teacher or overtake her on the trail. Their plans had miscarried and they had gotten their just deserts; and that evidently closed the incident.
Lucy did not see Edd again on this occasion, and someone said he had ridden off alone toward home. Clara and Joe did not show inclination for company; and they too soon departed.
Before dark that night Lucy got back with the Claypools, too tired from riding, and weary with excitement and the necessity for keeping up appearances, to care about eating, or her usual walk after supper. She went to bed, and in the darkness and silence of her little hut she felt as alone as if she were lost in the forest. To-morrow would be Sunday. She would spend the whole day thinking over her problem and deciding how to meet it. If only the hours could be lengthened--time made to stand still!
That Sunday passed by and then another, leaving Lucy more at sea than ever. But she finished her work with the Claypools. July was to have been the time set for her to go to the Johnsons or the Millers. When the date arrived Lucy knew that she had no intention of going. Her own day of reckoning had come. Somehow she was glad in a sad kind way.
The Denmeades welcomed her as one of the family; and their unstinted delight did not make her task any easier. They all had some characteristic remark to thrill and yet hurt her. Denmeade grinned and said: "Wal, I reckon you're back for good. It shore, looks like a go between Joe an' your sister."
Meeting Clara was torturing. "Well, old mysterious, get it off your chest," said her sister, with a shrewd bright look. "Something's killing you. Is it me or Edd?"
"Goodness! Do I show my troubles as plainly as that?" replied Lucy pathetically.
"You're white and almost thin," returned Clara solicitously. "You ought to stay here and rest--ride around--go to school with me."
"Perhaps I do need a change...And you, Clara--how are you? Have you found it hard to go down there--to be in that schoolroom every day?"
"Me? Oh, I'm fine. It bothered me some at first--especially that--that big stain on the floor. I couldn't scrub it out. So I took down a rug. I'm not so squeamish as I was. But I go late, and you bet I don't keep any of my scholars in after school hours."
"Don't you ever think of--of--" faltered Lucy, hardly knowing what she meant.
"Of course, you ninny," retorted Clara. "Am I a clod? I think too much. I have my fight...But, Lucy, I'm happy. Every day I find more in Joe to love. I'm going to pull out and make a success of life. First I thought it was for Joe's sake--then yours. But I guess I've begun to think of myself a little."
"Have you heard from Mrs. Gerald?" queried Lucy finally.
"Yes. As soon as she got my letter. Evidently it was all right again. But she never mentioned writing to Jim."
"She would be glad to get rid of her charge--I imagine?" went on Lucy casually.
"I've guessed that, myself," rejoined Clara soberly. "It worries me some, yet I--"
She did not conclude her remark, and Lucy did not press the subject any further at the moment, though she knew this was the time to do it. But Lucy rather feared a scene with Clara and did not want it to occur during the waking hours of the Denmeades.
"Have you and Joe told your secret?" queried Lucy.
"Not yet," replied Clara briefly.
"Where is Joe now?"
"He's working at his homestead. Has twenty acres planted, and more cleared. They're all helping him. Edd has taken a great interest in Joe's place since he lost interest in his own."
"Then Edd has given up work on his own farm. Since when?"
"I don't know. But it was lately. I heard his father talking about it. Edd's not the same since he--since that accident. Joe comes home here every night and he tells me how Edd's changed. Hasn't he been to see you, Lucy?"
"Of course Edd's down in the mouth about you. I don't think killing that cowboy worries him. I heard him say he was sorry he hadn't done for Bud Sprall, too, and that if he'd known the job those two put up on him there'd have been a different story to tell...No. It's just that Edd's horribly in love with you."
"Poor--Edd, if it's so!" murmured Lucy. "But maybe you take too much for granted, just because Joe feels that way about you."
"Maybe," replied her sister mockingly. "Edd will probably come home to-day with Joe, as he hasn't been here lately. Take the trouble to look at him and see what you think."
"Are you trying to awaken my sympathies?" queried Lucy satirically.
"I wish to goodness I could," returned Clara under her breath.
Lucy realised that she was not her old self, and this had affected Clara vexatiously, perhaps distressingly. Lucy strove against the bitterness and sorrow which in spite of her will influenced her thought and speech. She would not let another day go by without telling Clara what she had taken upon herself. That would be destroying her last bridge behind her; she could go forth free to meet new life somewhere else, knowing she had done the last faithful service to her family.
The Denmeade boys came home early, but Lucy did not see Edd until at supper, which, as usual, was eaten on the porch between the cabins. He did seem changed, and the difference was not physical. He was as big and brawny and brown as ever. Sight of him reopened a wound she thought had healed.
"Come down an' see my bees," he invited her after supper.
The time was near sunset and the green gully seemed full of murmuring of bees and stream and wind. Edd had added several new hives to his collection, all of which were sections of trees that he had sawed out and packed home.
"How'd you ever keep the bees in?" she asked wonderingly.
"I stuffed the hole up an' then cut out the piece," he replied. "It can't be done with every bee tree, by a long shot."
For once he seemed not to be keen to talk about his beloved bees, nor, for that matter, about anything. He sat down ponderingly, as a man weighted by cares beyond his comprehension. But the stubborn strength of him was manifest. Lucy had at first to revert to the thought that the flying bees were harmless. With them humming round her, alighting on her, this association of safety did not come at once. She walked to and fro over the green grass and by the sturdy pines, trying to bring back a self that had gone for ever. The sun sank behind purple silver-edged clouds, and the golden rim stood up to catch the last bright flare of dying day.
"Wal, you're leavin' us soon?" queried Edd presently.
"Yes. How did you know?" replied Lucy, halting before him.
"Reckon I guessed it...I'm awful sorry. We're shore goin' to miss you."
That was all. He did not put queries Lucy feared she could not answer. He showed no sign of thoughts that pried into her secret affairs. Somehow he gave Lucy the impression of a faithful animal which had been beaten. He was dumb. Yet she imagined his apparent stolidity came from her aloofness. Lucy, in her misery, essayed to talk commonplaces. But this failed, and she was forced to choose between falling on her knees before him and flying back to the tent. So she left him sitting there, and then from the bench above she spied down through the foliage upon him until dusk hid him from view.
Was she a traitor to the best in herself? Had she not betrayed this backwoods boy who had responded so nobly to every good impulse she had fostered in him? But blood ties were stronger than love. How terribly remorse flayed her! And doubts flew thick as leaves in a storm. Nevertheless, she could not weaken, could never depart in any degree from the course she had prescribed for herself. That was a dark hour. Her deepest emotions were augmented to passion. She was reaching a crisis, the effect of which she could not see.
Later the moon arose and blanched the lofty Rim and the surrounding forest. Black shadows of trees fell across the trail and lane. The air had a delicious mountain coolness, and the silence was impressive. Lucy drank it all in, passionately loath to make the move that must of its very momentum end these wilderness joys for her. But at last she dragged herself away from the moonlit, black-barred trail.
She found Clara and Joe sitting in lover-like, proximity on the rustic bench near the tent. As she approached them she did not espy any sign of their embarrassment.
"Joe. I want to have a serious talk with Clara. Would you oblige me by letting me have her alone for a while?" said Lucy.
"If it's serious, why can't I hear it?" queried Joe.
"I can't discuss a purely family matter before you," returned Lucy. "I'm going away soon. And this matter concerns us--me---and things back home."
"Lucy, I belong to your family now," said Joe, as slowly he disengaged himself from Clara and stood up.
"So you do," replied Lucy, labouring to keep composed. "What of it?"
"I've a hunch you haven't figured us Denmeades," he rejoined rather curtly, and strode away.
"What'd he mean?" asked Lucy, as she stared down at Clara, whose big eyes looked black in the moonlight.
"I'm pretty sure he meant the Denmeades are not fair-weather friends," said Clara thoughtfully. "He's been trying to pump me. Wants to know why you're here and going away--why you look so troubled...I told him, and Edd, too, that I wasn't in your confidence. It's no lie. And here I've been scared stiff at the look of you."
"If you're not more than scared you're lucky. Come in the tent," said Lucy.
Inside, the light was a pale radiance, filtering through the canvas. Lucy shut the door and locked it, poignantly aware of Clara's lingering close to her. Her eyes seemed like great staring gulfs.
Lucy drew a deep breath and cast off the fetters that bound her.
"Clara, do you remember the day of the fight in the school-house--that you were unconscious when Edd arrived?" queried Lucy in low, forceful voice.
"Yes," whispered Clara.
"Then of course you could not have heard what Jim Middleton said. He was about to leap upon me to get the letter I had snatched. He threatened to tear my clothes off. Then he said it was his proof about the baby...Edd ran into the schoolroom just in time to hear the last few words...Later he said he'd heard--and he asked me--whose it was. I told him--mine!"
"Good--God!" cried Clara faintly, and sat down upon the bed as if strength to stand had left her.
"I spoke impulsively, yet it was the same as if I had thought for hours," went on Lucy hurriedly. "I never could have given you away...and I couldn't lie--by saying it--it was somebody's else."
"Lie! It's a--terrible lie!" burst out Clara hoarsely. "It's horrible...You've ruined your good name...You've broken Edd's heart. Now I know what ails him...But I won't stand for your taking my shame--my burden on your shoulders."
"The thing is done," declared Lucy with finality.
"I won't--I won't!" flashed her sister passionately. "What do you take me for? I've done enough."
"Yes, you have. And since you've shirked your responsibilities--cast off your own flesh and blood to be brought up by a greedy, callous woman--I intend to do what is right by that poor, unfortunate child."
Her cutting words wrought Clara into a frenzy of grief, shame, rage and despair. For a while she was beside herself, and Lucy let her rave, sometimes holding her forcibly from wrecking the tent and crying out too loud. She even found a grain of consolation in Clara's breakdown. What manner of woman would her sister have been if she had not shown terrible agitation?
At length Clara became coherent and less violent, and she begged Lucy to abandon this idea. Lucy answered as gently and kindly as was possible for her, under the circumstances, but she could not be changed. Clara was wildly importunate. Her conscience had stricken her as never before. She loved Lucy and could not bear this added catastrophe. Thus it was that Clara's weak though impassioned pleas and Lucy's efforts to be kind yet firm, to control her own temper, now at white heat, finally led to a terrible quarrel. Once before, as girls, they had quarrelled bitterly over an escapade of Clara's. Now, as women, they clinched again in such passion as could only be born of blood ties, of years of sacrifice on the part of one, of realisation of ignominy on the part of the other. And the battle went to Lucy, gradually, because of the might of her will and right of her cause.
"You can't see what you've done," concluded Lucy in spent passion. "You're like our father. Poor weak thing that you are, I can't blame you. It's in the family...If only you'd had the sense and the honour to tell me the truth!--before you married this clean simple-minded boy! Somehow we might have escaped the worst of it. But you married him, you selfish, callous little egotist! And now it's too late. Go on. Find what happiness you can. Be a good wife to this boy and let that make what little amends is possible for you...I'll shoulder your disgrace. I'll be a mother to your child. I'll fight the taint in the Watson blood--the thing that made you what you are. To my mind your failure to make such fight yourself is the crime. I don't hold your love, your weakness against you. But you abandoned part of yourself to go abroad in the world to grow up as you did. To do the same thing over!...You are little, miserable, wicked. But you are my sister--all I have left to love. And I'll do what you cannot!"
Clara fell back upon the pillow, dishevelled, white as death under the pale moonlit tent. Her nerveless hands loosened their clutch on her breast. She shrank as if burned, and her tragic eyes closed to hide her accuser.
"Oh, Lucy--Lucy!" she moaned. "God help me!"
Lucy walked alone in the dark lane, and two hours were but as moments. Upon her return to the tent she found Clara asleep. Lucy did not light the lamp or fully undress, so loath was she to awaken her sister. And, exhausted herself, in a few moments she sank into slumber. Morning found her refreshed in strength and spirit.
She expected an ordeal almost as trying as the conflict of wills the night before--that she would have to face a cringing, miserable girl, wrung by remorse and shame. But Clara awoke in strange mood, proud, tragic-eyed and aloof, reminding Lucy of their youthful days when her sister had been reproved for some misdemeanour. Lucy accepted this as a welcome surprise, and, deep in her own perturbation, she did not dwell seriously upon it. The great fact of her crisis crowded out aught else--she must leave the Denmeade ranch that day, and the wilderness home which was really the only home she had ever loved, Delay would be only a cruelty to herself. Still, the ordeal was past and she had consolation in her victory. At least she would not fail. This was her supreme and last debt to her family.
Never before had the forest been so enchanting as on that summer morning. She punished herself ruthlessly by going to the fragrant glade where she had learned her first lessons from the wilderness. Weeks had passed, yet every pine needle seemed in its place. Woodpeckers hammered on the dead trunks; sap suckers glided head downward round the brown-barked trees; woodland butterflies fluttered across the sunlit spaces; blue jays swooped screechin' from bough to bough; red squirrels tore scratchingly in chattering pursuit of one another. Crows and hawks and eagles sailed the sunny world between the forest tips and the lofty Rim. It was hot in the sun; cool in the shade. The scent of pine was overpoweringly sweet. A hot, drowsy summer breeze stirred through the foliage. And the golden aisle near Lucy's retreat seemed a stream for myriads of Edd's homing bees, humming by to the hives.
Lucy tried to convince herself that all forests possessed the same qualities as this one--that the beauty and charm and strength of it came from her eye and heart--that wherever she went to work she now could take this precious knowledge with her. Trees and creatures of the wild were ministers to a harmony with nature.
A forest was a thing of infinite mystery, a multiple detail, of immeasurable design. Trees, rocks, brush, brook could not explain the home instinct engendered in the wild coverts, the shaded dells, the dark caverns, the lonely aisles, the magnificent archways. The green leaves of the trees brought the rain from the sea and created what they lived upon. The crystal springs under the mossy cliffs were born of thirsty foliage, of the pulse in the roots of the trees. These springs were the sources of rivers. They were the fountains of all life. If the forests perished, there would be left only desert, desolate and dead.
Lucy sat under her favourite pine, her back against the rough bark, and she could reach her hand out of the shade into the sun. She thought for what seemed a long time. Then the forgot herself in a moment of abandon. She kissed and smelled the fragrant bark; she crushed handfuls of the brown pine needles, pricking her fingers till they bled; she gathered the pine cones to her, soiling her hands with the hot pitch. And suddenly overcome by these physical sensations, she lifted face and arms to the green canopy above and uttered an inarticulate cry, poignant and wild.
Then a rustling in the brush startled her; and as if in answer to her cry Edd Denmeade strode out of the green wall of thicket, right upon her.
"Reckon you was callin' me," he said, in his cool, easy drawl.
"Oh-h!...You frightened me!" she exclaimed, staring up at him. He wore his bee-hunting garb, ragged from service and redolent of the woods. His brown, brawny shoulder bulged through a rent. In one hand he carried a short-handled axe. His clean-shaven, tanned face shone almost golden, and his clear grey eyes held a singular piercing softness. How tall and lithe and strong he looked! A wild-bee hunter! But that was only a name. Lucy would not have had him different.
"Where'd you come from?" she asked, suddenly realising the imminence of some question that dwarfed all other problems.
"Wal, I trailed you," he replied.
"You saw me come here?...You've been watching me?"
"Shore. I was standin' in that thicket of pines, peepin' through at you."
"Was that--nice of you--Edd?" she faltered.
"Reckon I don't know. All I wanted to find out was how you really felt about leavin' us all--an' my woods."
"Well, did you learn?" she asked, very low.
"I shore did."
"And what is it?"
"Wal, I reckon you feel pretty bad," he answered simply. "First off I thought it was only your old trouble. But after a while I could see you hated to leave our woods. An' shore we're all part of the woods. If I hadn't seen that I'd never have let you know I was there watchin' you."
"Edd, I do hate to leave your woods--and all your folks--and you--more than I can tell," she said sadly.
"Wal, then, what're you leavin' for?" he asked bluntly.
"Reckon that don't mean much to me. Why must you?"
"It won't do any good to talk about it. You wouldn't understand--and I'll be upset. Please don't ask me."
"But, Lucy, is it fair not to tell me anythin'?" he queried ponderingly. "You know I love you like you told me a man does when he thinks of a girl before himself."
"Oh no--it isn't!" burst out Lucy poignantly, suddenly, strangely overcome by his unexpected declaration.
"Wal, then, tell me all about it," he entreated.
Lucy stared hard at the clusters of fragrant pine needles she had gathered in her lap. Alarming symptoms in her breast gave her pause. She was not mistress of her emotions. She could be taken unawares. This boy had supreme power over her, if he knew how to employ it. Lucy struggled with a new and untried situation.
"Edd, I owe a duty to--to myself--and to my family," she said, and tried bravely to look at him.
"An' to somebody else?" he demanded, with sudden passion. He dropped on his knees and reached for Lucy. His hands were like iron. They lifted her to her knees and drew her close. He was rough. His clasp hurt. But these things were nothing to the expression she caught in his eyes--a terrible flash that could mean only jealousy.
"Let me go!" she cried wildly, trying to get away. Her gaze drooped. It seemed she had no anger. Her heart swelled as if bursting. Weakness of will and muscle attacked her.
"Be still an' listen," he ordered, shaking her. He need not have employed violence. "Reckon you've had your own way too much...I lied to you about how I killed that cowboy."
"Oh, Edd--then it wasn't an accident?" cried Lucy, sinking limp against him. All force within her seemed to coalesce.
"It shore wasn't," he replied grimly. "But I let you an' everybody think so. That damned skunk! He was tryin' his best to murder me. I had no gun...I told him I wouldn't hurt him...Then what'd he do? He was cunnin' as hell. He whispered things--hissed them at me like a snake--vile words about you--what you were. It was a trick. Shore he meant to surprise me--make me lose my nerve...so he could get the gun. An' all the time he pulled only the harder. He could feel I loved you. An' his trick near worked. But I seen through it--an I turned the gun against him."
"Oh, my God! you killed him--intentionally!" exclaimed Lucy.
"Yes. An' it wasn't self-defence. I killed him because of what he called you."
"Me!...Oh, of course," cried Lucy hysterically. A deadly sweetness of emotion was fast taking the remnant of her sense and strength. In another moment she would betray herself--her love, bursting at its dam--and what was infinitely worse, her sister.
"Lucy, it don't make no difference what that cowboy said--even if it was true," he went on, now huskily. "But--were you his wife or anybody's?"
"No!" flashed Lucy passionately, and she spoke the truth in a fierce pride that had nothing to do with her situation, or the duty she had assumed.
"Aw--now!" he panted, and let go of her. Rising, he seemed to be throwing off an evil spell.
Lucy fell back against the pine tree, unable even to attempt to fly from him. Staring at Edd, she yet saw the green and blue canopy overhead, and the golden gleam of the great wall. Was that the summer wind thundering in her ears? How strangely Edd's grimness had fled; Then--there he was looming over her again--eager now, rapt with some overwhelming thought. He fell beside her, close, and took her hand in an action that was a caress.
"Lucy--will you let me talk--an' listen close?" he asked, in a tone she had never heard.
She could not see his face now and dared not move.
"Yes," she whispered, her head sinking a little, drooping away from his eyes.
"Wal, it all come to me like lightnin'," he began, in a swift, full voice, singularly rich. And he smoothed her hand as if to soothe a child. "I've saved up near a thousand dollars. Reckon it's not much, but it'll help us start. An' I can work at anythin'. Shore you must have a little money, too...Wal, we'll get your baby an' then go far off some place where nobody knows you, same as when you come here. We'll work an' make a home for it. Ever since you told me I've been findin' out I was goin' to love your baby...It'll be the same as if it was mine. We can come back here to live, after a few years. I'd hate never to come back. I've set my heart on that mesa homestead...Wal, no one will ever know. I'll forget your--your trouble, an' so will you. I don't want to know any more than you've told me. I don't hold that against you. It might have happened to me. But for you it would have happened to my sister Mertie...Life is a good deal like bee-huntin'. You get stung a lot. But the honey is only the sweeter...All this seems to have come round for the best, an' I'm not sorry, if only I can make you happy."
Lucy sac as if in a vice, shocked through and through with some tremendous current.
"Edd Denmeade," she whispered, "are you asking me--to--to marry you?"
"I'm more than askin', Lucy darlin'."
"After what I confessed?" she added unbelievingly.
"Shore. But for that I'd never had the courage to ask again...I've come to hope maybe you'll love me some day."
This moment seemed the climax of the strain under which Lucy had long kept up. It had the shocking power of complete surprise and unhoped-for rapture. It quite broke down her weakened reserve.
"I--love you now--you big--big--" she burst out, choking at the last, and blinded by tears she turned her face to Edd's and, kissing his cheek, she sank on his shoulder. But she was not so close to fainting that she failed to feel the effect of her declaration upon him. He gave a wild start, and for a second Lucy felt as if she were in the arms of a giant. Then he let go of her, and sat rigidly against the tree, supporting her head on his shoulder. She could hear the thump of his heart. Backwoodsman though he was, he divined that this was not the time to forget her surrender and her weakness. In the quiet of the succeeding moments Lucy came wholly into a realisation of the splendour of her love.
It was late in the day when they returned to the clearing. Hours had flown on the wings of happiness and the thrill of plans. Lucy forgot the dark shadow. And not until they emerged from the forest to see Clara standing in the tent door, with intent gaze upon them, did Lucy remember the bitter drops in her cup. Clara beckoned imperiously, with something in her look or action that struck Lucy singularly. She let go of Edd's hand, which she had been holding almost unconsciously.
"Wal, I reckon your sharp-eyed sister is on to us," drawled Edd.
"It seems so. But, Edd--she'll be glad, I know."
"Shore. An' so will Joe an' all the Denmeades. It's a mighty good day for us."
"The good fortune is all on my side," whispered Lucy, as they approached the tent.
Clara stood on the threshold, holding the door wide. Her face had the pearly pallor and her eyes the purple blackness usual to them in moments of agitation. She did not seem a girl any longer. Her beauty was something to strike the heart.
"Lucy--come in--you and your gentleman friend," she said, her voice trembling with emotion. Yet there was a faint note of pride or mockery of self or of them in it.
"Wal, Clara, you may as well kiss me an' be done with it," drawled Edd, as he entered behind Lucy. "For you're goin' to be my sister two ways."
Clara's response was electrifying. Her face seemed to blaze with rapture and the swift kiss she gave Edd admitted of no doubt as to her acceptance of Edd's blunt speech. But she made no move to approach Lucy.
Joe Denmeade sat on the edge of the bed, white and spent. Sight of him caused Lucy's heart to leap to her throat.
"Howdy, Lucy!" he said, with a smile that was beautiful, "Is my brother Edd talkin' straight?"
"Yes, Joe. I'm going to be doubly your sister," she replied.
"I couldn't ask no more," he rejoined, with deep feeling.
There followed a moment of constraint. Lucy could not grasp the situation, but she felt its tensity. Then, trembling, she turned to face Clara.
"I have told Joe," said Clara as Lucy met her eyes.
Lucy received this blow fully, without preparation, and following hard on stress of feeling that had left her spent. Her intelligence was swift to accept the wondrous and almost incredible fact of Clara's regeneration, but her emotions seemed dead or locked in her breast. Mutely she stared at this beloved sister. She saw an incalculable change, if she saw clearly at all. She might have been dazed. In that endless moment there was a slow action of her own mind, but something she expressed wrought havoc in Clara. The glow, the rapture, the exaltation that so enhanced Clara's beauty, suddenly faded and died. Even her moment of supreme victory had been full of thought of self. But Lucy's agony transformed it.
"I--told him," burst out Clara, sobbing. "I couldn't stand it--any longer. I wanted him to know...I could have gone on--living a lie--if you had not taken my--my shame. But that was too much. It killed something in me...So I told him I couldn't let you do it. I must do it myself. And I gave Joe up...But, Lucy, he forgave me!...He will stand by me!"
"Oh, Joe--how splendid--of you!" gasped Lucy, and with the hard utterance her bound faculties seemed to loosen. She ran to Joe's side. "But how can you meet this--this terrible situation?"
Joe took her trembling hands in his.
"Why, Lucy, don't be upset!" he said. "It's not so bad. If Clara had told me long ago I reckon you'd both been saved a lot of heart-breakin'...There's only one way. The preacher who married Clara an' me will keep our secret. An' he'll marry us again. We'll just leave out tellin' anybody that this--this cowboy forgot to marry Clara himself."
"Yes--yes!" cried Lucy wildly.
"Reckon thet's aboot all," continued Joe, with his rare smile. "Clara an' I will tell the folks, an' leave at once...An' we'll come back with the baby!"
Here Edd Denmeade strode to a position before them, and though he seemed to be about to address Joe, he certainly looked at Lucy.
"Reckon you'd do well to have the parson meet you in Cedar Ridge an' marry you there," he said.
Lucy could have laughed had she not been fighting tears. "Edd, are you talking to Joe--or me?"
"Lucy, would you marry me at the same time?" he queried hoarsely.
"I--I fear the crowd at Cedar Ridge. They'll storm us," faltered Clara.
"Shore we can fool them," returned Edd.
"All right. We've settled it all," said Joe, in a grave kind of happiness. "I'll go in an' tell the folks."
"Wal, I'm goin' with you," rejoined Edd as Joe rose. They strode out together, and Edd's brawny arm went round his brother's shoulder. "Joe, I reckon it's as good one way as another. It's all in the family. The three of them'll be Denmeades."
Lucy closed the tent door after them and turned to her sister. Clara's eyes were shining through tears.
"Aren't they good?" she murmured. "'It's all in the family,' Edd said. Either he or Joe would have been happy to be father to my baby...Oh, I did not appreciate them. I did not understand Joe--or you--or myself...I did not know what love was...Now I can atone for the past."
At sunset Lucy escaped the hilarious Denmeades and slipped into the forest, to hide in an unfrequented glade. She had to be alone.
The profound transformations of the day were less baffling and incredible once she found herself in the loneliness and solitude of the forest. Life was real and earnest, beautiful and terrible, inexplicable as the blaze of the setting sun, so fiery golden on the rugged, towering Rim. In the depths of the quiet woods she could understand something of simplicity. For her and Clara life had been throbbing and poignant. For the Denmeades life seemed like that of the trees and denizens of the forest.
The sun sank, the birds ceased their plaintive notes, and a dreaming silence pervaded the green world of foliage. Late bees hummed by. The drowsy summer heat began to cool.
Lucy's heart was full of reverent gratitude to whatever had wrought the change in Clara. Love, suffering, the influence of nature, all had combined to burn out the baneful, selfish weakness that had made Clara a victim to circumstances. And these were only other names for God.
How inscrutably had things worked to this happy end! She tried to look backward and understand. But that seemed impossible. Yet she realised how stubbornly, miserably, she had clung to her ideal. If she had only known the reward!
The great solemn forest land was after all to be her home. She would go on with her work among these simple people, grateful that she would be received by them, happy that she could bring good to their lonely homes. The thing she had prayed most for had become a reality. If doubt ever assailed her again, it would be of short duration. She thought of the bee-hunter She would be his wife on the morrow!
Dusk mantled the forest. A faint night wind arose, mournful and sweet. Lucy threaded her way back toward the clearing. And the peace of the wilderness seemed to have permeated her soul. She was just one little atom in a vast world of struggling humans, like a little pine sapling lifting itself among millions of its kind toward the light. But that lifting was the great and the beautiful secret.