The Death-grapple





There was something so sinister in the rider's disregard of stone and

tree and pace, something so menacing in the forward thrust of his body,

that Berrie was able to divine his wrath, and was smitten into

irresolution--all her hardy, boyish self-reliance swallowed up in the

weakness of the woman. She forgot the pistol at her belt, and awaited the

assault with rigid pose.



As Belden neared them Norcross also perceived that the rider's face was

distorted with passion, and that his glance was not directed upon Berrie,

but upon himself, and he braced himself for the attack.



Leaving his saddle with one flying leap, which the cowboy practises at

play, Belden hurled himself upon his rival with the fury of a panther.



The slender youth went down before the big rancher as though struck by a

catapult; and the force of his fall against the stony earth stunned him

so that he lay beneath his enemy as helpless as a child.



Belden snarled between his teeth: "I told you I'd kill you, and I will."



But this was not to be. Berea suddenly recovered her native force. With a

cry of pain, of anger, she flung herself on the maddened man's back. Her

hands encircled his neck like a collar of bronze. Hardened by incessant

use of the cinch and the rope, her fingers sank into the sinews of his

great throat, shutting off both blood and breath.



"Let go!" she commanded, with deadly intensity. "Let go, or I'll choke

the life out of you! Let go, I say!"



He raised a hand to beat her off, but she was too strong, too desperate

to be driven away. She was as blind to pain as a mother eagle, and bent

above him so closely that he could not bring the full weight of his fist

to bear. With one determined hand still clutching his throat, she ran the

fingers of her other hand into his hair and twisted his head upward with

a power which he could not resist. And so, looking into his upturned,

ferocious eyes, she repeated with remorseless fury: "Let go, I say!"



His swollen face grew rigid, his mouth gaped, his tongue protruded, and

at last, releasing his hold on his victim, he rose, flinging Berrie off

with a final desperate effort. "I'll kill you, too!" he gasped.



Up to this moment the girl had felt no fear of herself; but now she

resorted to other weapons. Snatching her pistol from its holster, she

leveled it at his forehead. "Stop!" she said; and something in her voice

froze him into calm. He was not a fiend; he was not a deliberate

assassin; he was only a jealous, despairing, insane lover, and as he

looked into the face he knew so well, and realized that nothing but hate

and deadly resolution lit the eyes he had so often kissed, his heart gave

way, and, dropping his head, he said: "Kill me if you want to. I've

nothing left to live for."



There was something unreal, appalling in this sudden reversion to

weakness, and Berrie could not credit his remorse. "Give me your gun,"

she said.



He surrendered it to her and she threw it aside; then turned to Wayland,

who was lying white and still with face upturned to the sky. With a moan

of anguish she bent above him and called upon his name. He did not stir,

and when she lifted his head to her lap his hair, streaming with blood,

stained her dress. She kissed him and called again to him, then turned

with accusing frenzy to Belden: "You've killed him! Do you hear? You've

killed him!"



The agony, the fury of hate in her voice reached the heart of the

conquered man. He raised his head and stared at her with mingled fear and

remorse. And so across that limp body these two souls, so lately lovers,

looked into each other's eyes as though nothing but words of hate and

loathing had ever passed between them. The girl saw in him only a savage,

vengeful, bloodthirsty beast; the man confronted in her an accusing

angel.



"I didn't mean to kill him," he muttered.



"Yes, you did! You meant it. You crushed his life out with your big

hands--and now I'm going to kill you for it!"



A fierce calm had come upon her. Some far-off ancestral deep of passion

called for blood revenge. She lifted the weapon with steady hand and

pointed it at his heart.



His fear passed as his wrath had passed. His head drooped, his glance

wavered. "Shoot!" he commanded, sullenly. "I'd sooner die than

live--now."



His words, his tone, brought back to her a vision of the man he had

seemed when she first met and admired him. Her hand fell, the woman in

her reasserted itself. A wave of weakness, of indecision, of passionate

grief overwhelmed her. "Oh, Cliff!" she moaned. "Why did you do it? He

was so gentle and sweet."



He did not answer. His glance wandered to his horse, serenely cropping

the grass in utter disregard of this tumultuous human drama; but the

wind, less insensate than the brute, swept through the grove of dwarfed,

distorted pines with a desolate, sympathetic moan which filled the man's

heart with a new and exalted sorrow. "You're right," he said. "I was

crazy. I deserve killing."



But Berrie was now too deep in her own desolation to care what he said or

did. She kissed the cold lips of the still youth, murmuring passionately:

"I don't care to live without you--I shall go with you!"



Belden's hand was on her wrist before she could raise her weapon. "Don't,

for God's sake, don't do that! He may not be dead."



She responded but dully to the suggestion. "No, no. He's gone. His breath

is gone."



"Maybe not. Let me see."



Again she bent to the quiet face on which the sunlight fell with mocking

splendor. It seemed all a dream till she felt once more the stain of his

blood upon her hands. It was all so incredibly sudden. Only just now he

was exulting over the warmth and beauty of the day--and now--



How beautiful he was. He seemed asleep. The conies crying from their

runways suddenly took on poignant pathos. They appeared to be grieving

with her; but the eagles spoke of revenge.



A sharp cry, a note of joy sprang from her lips. "He is alive! I saw

his eyelids quiver--quick! Bring some water."



The man leaped to his feet, and, running down to the pool, filled his

sombrero with icy water. He was as eager now to save his rival as he had

been mad to destroy him. "Let me help," he pleaded. But she would not

permit him to touch the body.



Again, while splashing the water upon his face, the girl called upon her

love to return. "He hears me!" she exulted to her enemy. "He is breathing

now. He is opening his eyes."



The wounded man did, indeed, open his eyes, but his look was a blank,

uncomprehending stare, which plunged her back into despair. "He don't

know me!" she said, with piteous accent. She now perceived the source of

the blood upon her arm. It came from a wound in the boy's head which had

been dashed upon a stone.



The sight of this wound brought back the blaze of accusing anger to her

eyes. "See what you did!" she said, with cold malignity. Then by sudden

shift she bent to the sweet face in her arms and kissed it passionately.

"Open your eyes, darling. You must not die! I won't let you die! Can't

you hear me? Don't you know where you are?"



He opened his eyes once more, quietly, and looked up into her face with a

faint, drowsy smile. He could not yet locate himself in space and time,

but he knew her and was comforted. He wondered why he should be looking

up into a sunny sky. He heard the wind and the sound of a horse cropping

grass, and the voice of the girl penetratingly sweet as that of a young

mother calling her baby back to life, and slowly his benumbed brain began

to resolve the mystery.



Belden, forgotten, ignored as completely as the conies, sat with choking

throat and smarting eyes. For him the world was only dust and ashes--a

ruin which his own barbaric spirit had brought upon itself.



Slowly the youth's eyes took on expression. "Are we still on the hill?"

he asked.



"Yes, dearest," she assured him. Then to Belden, "He knows where he is!"



Wayland again struggled with reality. "What has happened to me?"



"You fell and hurt your head."



He turned slightly and observed the other man looking down at her with

dark and tragic glance. "Hello, Belden," he said, feebly. "How came you

here?" Then noting Berrie's look, he added: "I remember. He tried to kill

me." He again searched his antagonist's face. "Why didn't you finish the

job?"



The girl tried to turn his thought aside. "It's all right now, darling.

He won't make any more trouble. Don't mind him. I don't care for anybody

now you are coming back to me."



Wayland wonderingly regarded the face of the girl. "And you--are you

hurt?"



"No, I'm not hurt. I am perfectly happy now." She turned to Belden with

quick, authoritative command. "Unsaddle the horses and set up the tent.

We won't be able to leave here to-night."



He rose with instant obedience, glad of a chance to serve her, and soon

had the tent pegged to its place and the bedding unrolled. Together they

lifted the wounded youth and laid him upon his blankets beneath the low

canvas roof which seemed heavenly helpful to Berea.



"There!" she said, caressingly. "Now you are safe, no matter whether it

rains or not."



He smiled. "It seems I'm to have my way after all. I hope I shall be able

to see the sun rise. I've sort of lost my interest in the sunset."



"Now, Cliff," she said, as soon as the camp was in order and a fire

started, "I reckon you'd better ride on. I haven't any further use for

you."



"Don't say that, Berrie," he pleaded. "I can't leave you here alone with

a sick man. Let me stay and help."



She looked at him for a long time before she replied. "I shall never be

able to look at you again without hating you," she said. "I shall always

remember you as you looked when you were killing that boy. So you'd

better ride on and keep a-riding. I'm going to forget all this just as

soon as I can, and it don't help me any to have you around. I never want

to see you or hear your name again."



"You don't mean that, Berrie!"



"Yes, I do," she asserted, bitterly. "I mean just that. So saddle up and

pull out. All I ask of you is to say nothing about what has happened

here. You'd better leave the state. If Wayland should get worse it might

go hard with you."



He accepted his banishment. "All right. If you feel that way I'll ride.

But I'd like to do something for you before I go. I'll pile up some

wood--"



"No. I'll take care of that." And without another word of farewell she

turned away and re-entered the tent.



Mounting his horse with painful slowness, as though suddenly grown old,

the reprieved assassin rode away up the mountain, his head low, his eyes

upon the ground.





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