Border Legion (1990) (7 page)

BOOK: Border Legion (1990)
11.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The cunning of a woman! I ought--to know. A good woman's--more terrible than a--bad woman. ... But I deserved this. Once I used--to be. ... Only, the torture! ... Why didn't you--kill me outright? ...

Joan--Randle--watch me--die! Since I had--to die--by rope or bullet-

-I'm glad you--you--did for me. ... Man or beast--I believe--I loved you!"

Joan dropped the gun and sank beside him, helpless, horror-stricken, wringing her hands. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, that he drove her to it, that he must let her pray for him. But she could not speak. Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth and she seemed strangling.

Another change, slower and more subtle, passed over Kells. He did not see Joan. He forgot her. The white shaded out of his face, leaving a gray like that of his somber eyes. Spirit, sense, life, were fading from him. The quivering of a racked body ceased. And all that seemed left was a lonely soul groping on the verge of the dim borderland between life and death. Presently his shoulders slipped along the wall and he fell, to lie limp and motionless before Joan.

Then she fainted.


When Joan returned to consciousness she was lying half outside the opening of the cabin and above her was a drift of blue gun-smoke, slowly floating upward. Almost as swiftly as perception of that smoke came a shuddering memory. She lay still, listening. She did not hear a sound except the tinkle and babble and gentle rush of the brook. Kells was dead, then. And overmastering the horror of her act was a relief, a freedom, a lifting of her soul out of the dark dread, a something that whispered justification of the fatal deed.

She got up and, avoiding to look within the cabin, walked away. The sun was almost at the zenith. Where had the morning hours gone?

"I must get away," she said, suddenly. The thought quickened her.

Down the canon the horses were grazing. She hurried along the trail, trying to decide whether to follow this dim old trail or endeavor to get out the way she had been brought in. She decided upon the latter. If she traveled slowly, and watched for familiar landmarks, things she had seen once, and hunted carefully for the tracks, she believed she might be successful. She had the courage to try. Then she caught her pony and led him back to camp.

"What shall I take?" she pondered. She decided upon very little--a blanket, a sack of bread and meat, and a canteen of water. She might need a weapon, also. There was only one, the gun with which she had killed Kells. It seemed utterly impossible to touch that hateful thing. But now that she had liberated herself, and at such cost, she must not yield to sentiment. Resolutely she started for the cabin, but when she reached it her steps were dragging. The long, dull-blue gun lay where she had dropped it. And out of the tail of averted eyes she saw a huddled shape along the wall. It was a sickening moment when she reached a shaking hand for the gun. And at that instant a low moan transfixed her.

She seemed frozen rigid. Was the place already haunted? Her heart swelled in her throat and a dimness came before her eyes. But another moan brought a swift realization--Kells was alive. And the cold, clamping sickness, the strangle in her throat, all the feelings of terror, changed and were lost in a flood of instinctive joy. He was not dead. She had not killed him. She did not have blood on her hands. She was not a murderer.

She whirled to look at him. There he lay, ghastly as a corpse. And all her woman's gladness fled. But there was compassion left to her, and, forgetting all else, she knelt beside him. He was as cold as stone. She felt no stir, no beat of pulse in temple or wrist. Then she placed her ear against his breast. His heart beat weakly.

"He's alive," she whispered. "But--he's dying. ... What shall I do?"

Many thoughts flashed across her mind. She could not help him now; he would be dead soon; she did not need to wait there beside him; there was a risk of some of his comrades riding into that rendezvous. Suppose his back was not broken after all! Suppose she stopped the flow of blood, tended him, nursed him, saved his life?

For if there were one chance of his living, which she doubted, it must be through her. Would he not be the same savage the hour he was well and strong again? What difference could she make in such a nature? The man was evil. He could not conquer evil. She had been witness to that. He had driven Roberts to draw and had killed him.

No doubt he had deliberately and coldly murdered the two ruffians, Bill and Halloway, just so he could be free of their glances at her and be alone with her. He deserved to die there like a dog.

What Joan Randle did was surely a woman's choice. Carefully she rolled Kells over. The back of his vest and shirt was wet with blood. She got up to find a knife, towel, and water. As she returned to the cabin he moaned again.

Joan had dressed many a wound. She was not afraid of blood. The difference was that she had shed it. She felt sick, but her hands were firm as she cut open the vest and shirt, rolled them aside, and bathed his back. The big bullet had made a gaping wound, having apparently gone through the small of his back. The blood still flowed. She could not tell whether or not Kell's spine was broken, but she believed that the bullet had gone between bone and muscle, or had glanced. There was a blue welt just over his spine, in line with the course of the wound. She tore her scarf into strips and used it for compresses and bandages. Then she laid him back upon a saddle-blanket. She had done all that was possible for the present, and it gave her a strange sense of comfort. She even prayed for his life, and, if that must go, for his soul. Then she got up. He was unconscious, white, death-like. It seemed that his torture, his near approach to death, had robbed his face of ferocity, of ruthlessness, and of that strange amiable expression. But then, his eyes, those furnace-windows, were closed.

Joan waited for the end to come. The afternoon passed and she did not leave the cabin. It was possible that he might come to and want water. She had once administered to a miner who had been fatally crushed in an avalanche; and never could forget his husky call for water and the gratitude in his eyes.

Sunset, twilight, and night fell upon the canon. And she began to feel solitude as something tangible. Bringing saddle and blankets into the cabin, she made a bed just inside, and, facing the opening and the stars, she lay down to rest, if not to sleep. The darkness did not keep her from seeing the prostrate figure of Kells. He lay there as silent as if he were already dead. She was exhausted, weary for sleep, and unstrung. In the night her courage fled and she was frightened at shadows. The murmuring of insects seemed augmented into a roar; the mourn of wolf and scream of cougar made her start; the rising wind moaned like a lost spirit. Dark fancies beset her.

Troop on troop of specters moved out of the black night, assembling there, waiting for Kells to join them. She thought she was riding homeward over the back trail, sure of her way, remembering every rod of that rough travel, until she got out of the mountains, only to be turned back by dead men. Then fancy and dream, and all the haunted gloom of canon and cabin, seemed slowly to merge into one immense blackness.

The sun, rimming the east wall, shining into Joan's face, awakened her. She had slept hours. She felt rested, stronger. Like the night, something dark had passed away from her. It did not seem strange to her that she should feel that Kells still lived. She knew it. And examination proved her right. In him there had been no change except that he had ceased to bleed. There was just a flickering of life in him, manifest only in his slow, faint heart-beats.

Joan spent most of that day in sitting beside Kells. The whole day seemed only an hour. Sometimes she would look down the canon trail, half expecting to see horsemen riding up. If any of Kells's comrades happened to come, what could she tell them? They would be as bad as he, without that one trait which had kept him human for a day. Joan pondered upon this. It would never do to let them suspect she had shot Kells. So, carefully cleaning the gun, she reloaded it. If any men came, she would tell them that Bill had done the shooting.

Kells lingered. Joan began to feel that he would live, though everything indicated the contrary. Her intelligence told her he would die, and her feeling said he would not. At times she lifted his head and got water into his mouth with a spoon. When she did this he would moan. That night, during the hours she lay awake, she gathered courage out of the very solitude and loneliness. She had nothing to fear, unless someone came to the canon. The next day in no wise differed from the preceding. And then there came the third day, with no change in Kells till near evening, when she thought he was returning to consciousness. But she must have been mistaken. For hours she watched patiently. He might return to consciousness just before the end, and want to speak, to send a message, to ask a prayer, to feel a human hand at the last.

That night the crescent moon hung over the canon. In the faint light Joan could see the blanched face of Kells, strange and sad, no longer seeming evil. The time came when his lips stirred. He tried to talk. She moistened his lips and gave him a drink. He murmured incoherently, sank again into a stupor, to rouse once more and babble tike a madman. Then he lay quietly for long--so long that sleep was claiming Joan. Suddenly he startled her by calling very faintly but distinctly: "Water! Water!"

Joan bent over him, lifting his head, helping him to drink. She could see his eyes, like dark holes in something white.

"Is--that--you--mother?" he whispered.

"Yes," replied Joan.

He sank immediately into another stupor or sleep, from which he did not rouse. That whisper of his--mother--touched Joan. Bad men had mothers just the same as any other kind of men. Even this Kells had a mother. He was still a young man. He had been youth, boy, child, baby. Some mother had loved him, cradled him, kissed his rosy baby hands, watched him grow with pride and glory, built castles in her dreams of his manhood, and perhaps prayed for him still, trusting he was strong and honored among men. And here he lay, a shattered wreck, dying for a wicked act, the last of many crimes. It was a tragedy. It made Joan think of the hard lot of mothers, and then of this unsettled Western wild, where men flocked in packs like wolves, and spilled blood like water, and held life nothing.

Joan sought her rest and soon slept. In the morning she did not at once go to Kells. Somehow she dreaded finding him conscious, almost as much as she dreaded the thought of finding him dead. When she did bend over him he was awake, and at sight of her he showed a faint amaze.

"Joan!" he whispered.

"Yes," she replied.

"Are you--with me still?"

"Of course, I couldn't leave you."

The pale eyes shadowed strangely, darkly. "I'm alive yet. And you stayed! ... Was it yesterday--you threw my gun--on me?"

"No. Four days ago."

"Four! Is my back broken?"

"I don't know. I don't think so. It's a terrible wound. I--I did all I could."

"You tried to kill me--then tried to save me?"

She was silent to that.

"You're good--and you've been noble," he said. "But I wish--you'd only been bad. Then I'd curse you--and strangle you--presently."

"Perhaps you had best be quiet," replied Joan.

"No. I've been shot before. I'll get over this--if my back's not broken. How can we tell?"

"I've no idea."

"Lift me up."

"But you might open your wound," protested Joan.

"Lift me up!" The force of the man spoke even in his low whisper.

"But why--why?" asked Joan.

"I want to see--if I can sit up. If I can't--give me my gun."

"I won't let you have it," replied Joan. Then she slipped her arms under his and, carefully raising him to a sitting posture, released her hold.

"I'm--a--rank coward--about pain," he gasped, with thick drops standing out on his white face. "I can't--stand it."

But tortured or not, he sat up alone, and even had the will to bend his back. Then with a groan he fainted and fell into Joan's arms.

She laid him down and worked over him for some time before she could bring him to. Then he was wan, suffering, speechless. But she believed he would live and told him so. He received that with a strange smile. Later, when she came to him with broth, he drank it gratefully.

"I'll beat this out," he said, weakly. "I'll recover. My back's not broken. I'll get well. Now you bring water and food in here--then go."

"Go?" she echoed.

"Yes. Don't go down the canon. You'd be worse off. ... Take the back trail. You've got a chance to get out. ... Go!"

"Leave you here? So weak you can't lift a cup! I won't."

"I'd rather you did."


"Because in a few days I'll begin to mend. Then I'll grow like-- myself. ... I think--I'm afraid I loved you. ... It could only be hell for you. Go now, before it's too late! ... If you stay--till I'm well--I'll never let you go!"

"Kells, I believe it would be cowardly for me to leave you here alone," she replied, earnestly. "You can't help yourself. You'd die."

"All the better. But I won't die. I'm hard to kill. Go, I tell you."

She shook her head. "This is bad for you--arguing. You're excited.

BOOK: Border Legion (1990)
11.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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