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The Trail Forks








From: Desert Dust

So there I stood, amidst silence, gaping foolishly, breathing hard, my
revolver smoking in my fingers and my enemy in a shockingly prone posture
at my feet, gradually reddening the white of the torn soil. He was upon
his face, his revolver hand outflung. He was harmless. The moment had
arrived and passed. I was standing here alive, I had killed him.

Then I heard myself babbling.

"Have I killed him? I didn't want to. I tell you, I didn't want to."

Figures rushed in between. Hands grasped me, impelled me away, through a
haze; voices spoke in my ear while I feebly resisted, a warm salty taste
in my throat.

"I killed him. I didn't want to kill him. He made me do it. He shot
first."

"Yes, yes," they said, soothing gruffly. "Shore he did; shore you didn't.
It's all right. Come along, come along."

Then----

"Pick him up. He's bad hurt, himself. See that blood? No, 'tain't his arm,
is it? He's bleedin' internal. Whar's the hole? Wait! He's busted
something."

They would have carried me.

"No," I cried, while their bearded faces swam. "He said "Nuf'--he shot me
afterward. Not bad, is it? I can walk."

"Not bad. Creased you in the arm, if that's all. What you spittin' blood
for?"

As they hustled me onward I wiped my swollen lips; the back of my hand
seemed to be covered with thin blood.

"Where he struck me, once," I wheezed.

"Yes, mebbe so. But come along, come along. We'll tend to you."

The world had grown curiously darkened, so that we moved as through an
obscuring veil; and I dumbly wondered whether this was night (had it been
morning or evening when I started for the pond?) or whether I was dying
myself. I peered and again made out the sober, stern faces hedging me, but
they gave me no answer to my mutely anxious query. Across a great distance
we stumbled by the wagons (the same wagons of a time agone), and halted at
a fire.

"Set down. Fetch a blanket, somebody. Whar's the water? Set down till we
look you over."

I let them sit me down.

"Wash your mouth out."

That was done, pinkish; and a second time, clearer.

"You're all right." Jenks apparently was ministering to me. "Swaller
this."

The odor of whiskey fumed into my nostrils. I obediently swallowed, and
gasped and choked. Jenks wiped my face with a sopping cloth. Hands were
rummaging at my left arm; a bandage being wound about.

"Nothin' much," was the report. "Creased him, is all. Lucky he dodged. It
was comin' straight for his heart."

"He's all right," Jenks again asserted.

Under the bidding of the liquor the faintness from the exertion and
reaction was leaving me. The slight hemorrhage from the strain to my weak
lungs had ceased. I would live, I would live. But he--Daniel?

"Did I kill him?" I besought. "Not that! I didn't aim--I don't know how I
shot--but I had to. Didn't I?"

"You did. He'll not bother you ag'in. She's yourn."

That hurt.

"But it wasn't about her, it wasn't over Mrs. Montoyo. He bullied
me--dared me. We were man to man, boys. He made me fight him."

"Yes, shore," they agreed--and they were not believing. They still linked
me with a woman, whereas she had figured only as a transient occasion.

Then she herself, My Lady, appeared, running in breathless and appealing.

"Is Mr. Beeson hurt? Badly? Where is he? Let me help."

She knelt beside me, her hand grasped mine, she gazed wide-eyed and
imploring.

"No, he's all right, ma'am."

"I'm all right, I assure you," I mumbled thickly, and helpless as a babe
to the clinging of her cold fingers.

"How's the other man?" they abruptly asked.

"I don't know. He was carried away. But I think he's dead. I hope so--oh,
I hope so. The coward, the beast!"

"There, there," they quieted. "That's all over with. What he got is his
own business now. He hankered for it and was bound to have it. You'd best
stay right hyar a spell. It's the place for you at present."

They grouped apart, on the edge of the flickering fire circle. The dusk
had heightened apace (for nightfall this really was), the glow and flicker
barely touched their blackly outlined forms, the murmur of their voices
sounded ominous. In the circle we two sat, her hand upon mine, thrilling
me comfortably yet abashing me. She surveyed me unwinkingly and grave--a
triumph shining from her eyes albeit there were seamy shadows etched into
her white face. It was as though she were welcoming me through the
outposts of hell.

"You killed him. I knew you would--I knew you'd have to."

"I knew it, too," I miserably faltered. "But I didn't want to--I shot
without thinking. I might have waited."

"Waited! How could you wait? 'Twas either you or he."

"Then I wish it had been I," I attempted.

"What nonsense," she flashed. "We all know you did your best to avoid it.
But tell me: Do you think I dragged you into it? Do you hate me for it?"

"No. It happened when you were there. That's all. I'm sorry; only sorry.
What's to be done next?"

"That will be decided, of course," she said. "You will be protected, if
necessary. You acted in self-defense. They all will swear to that and back
you up."

"But you?" I asked, arousing from this unmanly despair which played me for
a weakling. "You must be protected also. You can't go to that other camp,
can you?"

She laughed and withdrew her hand; laughed hardly, even scornfully.

"I? Above all things, don't concern yourself about me, please. I shall
take care of myself. He is out of the way. You have freed me of that much,
Mr. Beeson, whether intentionally or not. And you shall be free, yourself,
to act as your friends advise. You must leave me out of your plans
altogether. Yes, I know; you killed him. Why not? But he wasn't a man; he
was a wild animal. And you'll find there are matters more serious than
killing even a man, in this country."

"You! You!" I insisted. "You shall be looked out for. We are partners in
this. He used your name; he made that an excuse. We shall have to make
some new arrangements for you--put you on the stage as soon as we can. And
meanwhile----"

"There is no partnership, and I shall require no looking after, sir," she
interrupted. "If you are sorry that you killed him, I am not; but you are
entirely free."

The group at the edge of the fire circle dissolved. Jenks came and seated
himself upon his hams, beside us.

"Wall, how you feelin' now?" he questioned of me.

"I'm myself again," said I.

"Your arm won't trouble you. Jest a flesh wound. There's nothin' better
than axle grease. And you, ma'am?"

"Perfectly well, thank you."

"You're the coolest of the lot, and no mistake," he praised admiringly.
"Wall, there'll be no more fracas to-night. Anyhow, the boys'll be on
guard ag'in it; they're out now. You two can eat and rest a bit, whilst
gettin' good and ready; and if you set out 'fore moon-up you can easy get
cl'ar, with what help we give you. We'll furnish mounts, grub, anything
you need. I'll make shift without Frank."

"Mounts!" I blurted, with a start that waked my arm to throbbing. "'Set
out,' you say? Why? And where?"

"Anywhar. The stage road south'ard is your best bet. You didn't think to
stay, did you? Not after that--after you'd plugged a Mormon, the son of
the old man, besides! We reckoned you two had it arranged, by this time."

"No! Never!" I protested. "You're crazy, man. I've never dreamed of any
such thing; nor Mrs. Montoyo, either. You mean that I--we--should run
away? I'll not leave the train and neither shall she, until the proper
time. Or do I understand that you disown us; turn your backs upon us;
deliver us over?"

"Hold on," Jenks bade. "You're barkin' up the wrong tree. 'Tain't a
question of disownin' you. Hell, we'd fight for you and proud to do it,
for you're white. But I tell you, you've killed one o' that party ahead,
you've killed the wagon boss's son; and Hyrum, he's consider'ble of a man
himself. He stands well up, in the church. But lettin' that alone, he's
captain of this train, he's got a dozen and more men back of him; and when
he comes in the mornin' demandin' of you for trial by his Mormons, what
can we do? Might fight him off; yes. Not forever, though. He's nearest to
the water, sech as it is, and our casks are half empty, critters dry. We
sha'n't surrender you; if we break with him we break ourselves and likely
lose our scalps into the bargain. Why, we hadn't any idee but that you and
her were all primed to light out, with our help. For if you stay you won't
be safe anywhere betwixt here and Salt Lake; and over in Utah they'll
vigilant you, shore as kingdom. As for you, ma'am," he bluntly addressed,
"we'd protect you to the best of ability, o' course; but you can see for
yourself that Hyrum won't feel none too kindly toward you, and that if
you'll pull out along with Beeson as soon as convenient you'll avoid a
heap of unpleasantness. We'll take the chance on sneakin' you both away,
and facin' the old man."

"Mr. Beeson should go," she said. "But I shall return to the Adams camp. I
am not afraid, sir."

"Tut, tut!" he rapped. "I know you're not afraid; nevertheless we won't
let you do it."

"They wouldn't lay hands on me."

"Um-m," he mused. "Mebbe not. No, reckon they wouldn't. I'll say that
much. But by thunder they'd make you wish they did. They'd claim you
trapped Dan'l. You'd suffer for that, and in place of this boy, and
a-plenty. Better foller your new man, lady, and let him stow you in
safety. Better go back to Benton."

"Never to Benton," she declared. "And he's not my 'new man.' I apologize
to him for that, from you, sir."

"If you stay, I stay, then," said I. "But I think we'd best go. It's the
only way." And it was. We were twain in menace to the outfit and to each
other but inseparable. We were yoked. The fact appalled. It gripped me
coldly. I seemed to have bargained for her with word and fist and bullet,
and won her; now I should appear to carry her off as my booty: a wife and
a gambler's wife. Yet such must be.

"You shall go without me."

"I shall not."

With a little sob she buried her face in her hands.

"If you don't hate me now you soon will," she uttered. "The cards don't
fall right--they don't, they don't. They've been against me from the
first. I'm always forcing the play."

Whereupon I knew that go together we should, or I was no man.

"Pshaw, pshaw," Jenks soothed. "Matters ain't so bad. We'll fix ye out and
cover your trail. Moon'll be up in a couple o' hours. I'd advise you to
take an hour's start of it, so as to get away easier. If you travel
straight south'ard you'll strike the stage road sometime in the mornin'.
When you reach a station you'll have ch'ice either way."

"I have money," she said; and sat erect.





Next: Voices In The Void

Previous: I Do The Deed



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