John Brent/Chapter XXI
“I am shot,” gasped Brent, and sank down fainting.
Which first? the lady, or my friend, slain perhaps for her sake?
“Her! see to her!” he moaned.
I unbound her from the saddle. I could not utter a word for pity. She essayed to speak; but her lips only moved. She could not change her look. So many hours hardening herself to repel, she could not soften yet, even to accept my offices with a smile of gratitude. She was cruelly cramped by her lashings to the rough pack-saddle, rudely cushioned with blankets. But the horror had not maddened her; the torture had not broken her; the dread of worse had not slain her. She was still unblenching and indomitable. And still she seemed to rule her fate with quiet, steady eyes, — gray eyes with violet lights.
I carried her a few steps to the side of a jubilant fountain lifting beneath a rock, and left her there to Nature, kindliest leech.
Then I took a cup of that brilliant water to my friend, my brother.
“I can die now,” he said feebly.
“There is no death in you. You have won the right to live. Keep a brave heart. Drink!”
And in that exquisite spot, that fair glade of the sparkling fountains, I gave the noble fellow long draughts of sweet refreshment. The rescued lady trailed herself across the grass and knelt beside us. My horse, still heaving with his honorable gallop, drooped his head over the group. A picture to be remembered!
Who says that knighthood is no more? Who says the days of chivalry are past? Who says it, is a losel.
Brent was roughly, but not dangerously, shot along the arm. The bullet had ploughed an ugly path along the muscles of the fore-arm and upper-arm, and was lodged in the shoulder. A bad wound; but no bones broken. If he could but have rest and peace and surgery! But if not, after the fever of our day, after the wearing anguish of our doubtful gallop; if not? —
Ellen Clitheroe revived in a moment, when she saw another needed her care. Woman’s gentle duty of nurse found her ready for its offices. My blundering good-will gave place willingly to her fine-fingered skilfulness. She forgot, her own weariness, while she was magnetizing away the pangs of the wounded man by her delicate touch.
He looked at me, and smiled with total content.
“My father?” asked the lady, faintly, as if she dreaded the answer.
“Safe!” said I. “Free from the Mormons. He is waiting for you with a friend.”
Her tears began to flow. She was busy bandaging the wound. All was silent about us, except the pleasant gurgle of the fountains, when we heard a shot up the defile.
The sharp sound of a pistol-shot came leaping down the narrow chasm, flying before the pursuit of its own thundering echoes. Those grand old walls of the Alley, facing each other there for the shade and sunshine of long, peaceful æons, gilded by the glow of countless summers, splashed with the gray of antique lichens on their purple fronts, draped for unnumbered Octobers with the scarlet wreaths of frost-ripened trailers, — those solemn walls standing there in old silence, unbroken save by the uproar of winter floods, or by the humming flight of summer winds, or the louder march of tempests crowding on, — those silent walls, written close with the record of God’s handiwork in the long cycles of creation, lifted up their indignant voices when the shot within proclaimed to them the undying warfare of man with man, and, roaring after, they hurled that murderous noise forth from their presence. The quick report sprang out from the chasm into the quiet glade, where the lady knelt, busy with offices of mercy, and there it lost its vengeful tone, and was blended with the rumble of the mingled rivulets of the springs. The thundering echoes paused within, slowly proclaiming quiet up from crag to crag, until one after another they whispered themselves to silence. No sound remained, save the rumble of the stream, as it flowed away down the opening valley into the haze, violet under gold, of that warm October sunset.
I sprang up when I heard the shot, and stood on the alert. There were two up the Alley; which, after the shot, was living, and which dead?
Not many moments had passed, when I heard hoofs coming, and Armstrong rode into view. The gaunt white horse galloped with the long, careless fling I had noticed all day. He moved machine-like, as if without choice or volition of his own, a horse commissioned to carry a Fate. Larrap’s stolen horse trotted along by his old master.
Armstrong glanced at Murker’s body lying there, a battered mass.
“Both!” he whispered. “The other was sent right into my hands to be put to death. I knew all the time it would be sent to me to do killing. He was spurring up the Alley on my own horse. He snapped at me. My pistol did not know how to snap. See here!”
And he showed me, hanging from his saddle-horn, that loathliest of all objects a man’s eyes ever lighted upon, a fresh scalp. It sickened me.
“Shame!” said I. “Do you call yourself a man, to bring such a thing into a lady’s presence?”
“It was rather mean to take the fellow’s hair,” says Armstrong. “I don’t believe brother Bill would have did it. But I felt orful ugly, when I saw that fat, low-lived devil, and thought of my brother, a big, hul-hearted man as never gave a bad word to nobody, and never held on to a dollar or a slug when ayry man wanted it more ’n him. Come, I’ll throw the nasty thing away, if you say so.”
“Help me drag off this corpse, and we’ll bury man and scalp together,” I said.
We buried him at the gate of the Alley, under a great cairn of stones.
“God forgive them both,” said I, as I flung the last stone, “that they were brutes, and not men.”
“Brutes they was, stranger,” says Armstrong , “but these things is ordered somehow. I allow your pardener and you is glad to get that gal out of a Mormon camp, ef it did cost him a horse and both on you an all day’s tremble. Men don’t ride so hard, and look so wolfish, as you two men have did, onless their heart is into it.”
“It is, indeed, strange,” said I, rather thinking aloud than addressing my companion, “that this brute force should have achieved for us by outrage what love failed in. Fate seems to have played Brute against Brute, that Love might step between and claim the victory. The lady is safe; but the lover may have won her life and lost his own.”
“Look here, stranger,” says Armstrong, “part of this is yourn,” pointing to the money-belt, which, with the dead man’s knife and pistol, he had taken from the corpse. “Halves of this and the other fellow’s plunder belongs to your party.”
I suppose I looked disgusted; yet I have seen gentle ladies wearing boastfully brooches that their favorite heroes had taken from Christian men dead on the field at Inkermann, and shawls of the loot of Delhi cover many shoulders that would shudder over a dead worm.
“I’m not squimmidge,” said Armstrong. “It’s my own and my brother’s money in them belts. I’ll count that out, and then, ef you wont take your part, I’ll pass it over to the gal’s father. I allowed from signs ther was, that that thar boss Mormon had about tuk the old man’s pile. Most likely these shiners they won last night is some of the very sufferins Sizzum got from him. It’s right he should hev ’em back.”
I acknowledged the justice of this restitution.
“Now,” said Armstrong again, “you want to stay by your friend and the gal, so I’ll take one of the pack mules and fetch your two saddles along before dark lights down. It was too bad to lose that iron gray; but there’s more ’n two horses into the hide of that black of yourn. He was the best man of the lot for the goin’, the savin’, and the killin’. Stranger, I’ve ben byin’ and sellin’ and breedin’ kettrypids ever since I was raised myself; but I allow I never seed a horse till I seed him lunge off with you two on his back.”
Armstrong rode up the Alley again. Another man he was since his commission of vengeance had been accomplished. In those lawless wilds, vendetta takes the place of justice, becomes justice indeed. Armstrong, now that his stern duty was done, was again the kindly, simple fellow nature made him, the type of a class between pioneer and settler, and a strong, brave, effective class it is. It was the education, in youth, in the sturdy habits of this class, that made our Washington the manly chief he was.
I returned to my friends by the Springs.
Emerging from the austere grandeur of the Alley, dim with the shadows of twilight, the scene without was doubly sweet and almost domestic. The springs, four or five in number, and one carrying with it a thread of hot steam, sprang rigorously out along the bold edges of the cliffs. All the ground was verdure, — green, tender, and brilliant, a feast to the eyes after long staring over sere deserts. The wild creatures that came there every day for refreshment, and perhaps for intoxication in the aerated tipple of the Champagne Spring, kept the grass grazed short as the turf of a park. Two great spruce-trees, each with one foot under the rocks, and one edging fountainward, stood, pillar under pyramid. Some wreaths of drooping creepers, floating from the crags, had caught and clung, and so gone winding among the dark foliage of the twin trees; and now their leaves, ripened by autumn, shook amid the dusky green like an alighting of orioles. Except for the spruces posted against the cliffs, the grassy area of an acre about the springs was clear of other growth than grass. Below, the rivulet disappeared in a green thicket, and farther down were large cottonwoods, and one tall stranger tree, the feminine presence of a drooping elm, as much unlooked for here as the sweet, delicate woman whom strange chances had brought to dignify and grace the spot. This stranger elm filled my heart with infinite tender memories of home, and of those early boyish days when Brent and I lay under the Berkeley College elms, or strayed beneath the elm-built arches up and down the avenues of that fair city clustered round the College. In those bright days, before sorrow came to him, or to me my harsh necessity, we two in brotherhood had trained each other to high thoughts of courtesy and love, — a dreamed-of love for large heroic souls of women, when our time of full-completed worthiness should come. And his time had come. And yet it might be that the wounded knight would never know his lady, as much loving as beloved; it might be that he would never find a sweeter soothing in her touch, than the mere touch of gratitude and common charity; it might be that he would fever away his beautiful life with the fever of his wound, and never feel the holy quiet of a lover’s joy when the full bliss of love returned is his.
I gave a few moments to the horses and mules. They were still to be unsaddled. Healthy Fulano had found his own way to water, and now was feasting on the crisp, short grass along the outlet of the Champagne Spring, tickling his nose with the bubbles of gas as they sped by. Sup, Fulano! This spot was worth the gallop to see. Sup, Fulano, the brave, and may no stain of this day’s righteous death-doing rest upon your guiltless life!
Brent was lying under the spruces, drowsing with fatigue, reaction, and loss of blood. Miss Clitheroe sat by watching him. These fine beings have an exquisitely tenacious vitality. The happiness of release had suddenly kindled all her life again. As she rose to meet me, there was light in her eyes and color in her cheeks. Her whole soul leaped up and spoke its large gratitude in a smile.
“My dear friend,” she said; and then, with sudden tearfulness, “God be thanked for your heroism!”
“God be thanked!” I repeated. “We have been strangely selected and sent, — you from England, my friend and I, and my horse, the hero of the day, from the Pacific, — to interfere here in each other’s lives.”
“It would seem romance, but for the sharp terror of this day, coming after the long agony of my journey with my poor, errant father.”
“A sharp terror, indeed!”
“But only terror!” and a glow of maidenly thankfulness passed over her face. “Except one moment of rough usage, when I slipped away my gag and screamed as they carried me off, those men were considerate to me. They never halted except to dig a well in the sand of a river-bed. I learned from their talk that they had made an attempt to steal your horses in the night, and, failing, dreaded lest you, and especially Mr. Brent, would follow them close. So they rode hard. They supposed that, when I was found missing, whoever went in pursuit, and you they always feared, would lose time along the emigrant road, searching eastward.”
“We might have done so; but we had ourselves ridden off that way in despair of aiding you,” — and I gave her a sketch of the events of the morning.
“It was the hope of succor from you that sustained me. After what your friend said to me last evening, I knew he could not abandon me, if he had power to act.” And she looked very tenderly at the sleeper, — a look to repay him for a thousand wounds.
“Did you find my glove?” she asked.
“He has it. That token assured us. Ah! you should have seen that dear wounded boy, our leader, when he knew we were not astray.”
I continued my story of our pursuit, — the lulling beat of the stream undertoning my words in the still twilight. When I came to that last wild burst of Fulano, and told how his heroic charge had fulfilled his faithful ardor of the day, she sprang up, thrilled out of all weariness, and ran to the noble fellow, where he was taking his dainty banquet by the brookside.
She flung her arms around his neck and rested her head upon his shoulder. Locks of her black hair, escaping into curls, mingled with his mane.
Presently Miss Clitheroe seemed to feel a maidenly consciousness that her caresses of the horse might remind the horse’s master that he was not unworthy of a like reward. She returned to my friend. He was stirring a little in pain. She busied herself about him tenderly, and yet with a certain distance of manner, building a wall of delicate decorum between him and herself. Indeed, from the beginning of our acquaintance yesterday, and now in this meeting of to-day, she had drawn apart from Brent, and frankly approached me. Her fine instinct knew the brother from the lover.
Armstrong presently rode out again.
“When he saw his brother’s sorrel horse feeding with the others, he wept like a child.
We two, the lady and I, were greatly touched.
“I’ve got a daughter myself, to home to the Umpqua,” said Armstrong, turning to Miss Clitheroe; “jest about your settin’ up, and jest about as many corn shuckins old. Ellen is her name.”
“Ellen is my name.”
“That’s pretty” (pooty he pronounced it). “Well, I’ll stand father to you, just as ef you was my own gal. I know what a gal in trouble wants more ’n young fellows can.”
Ellen Clitheroe gave her hand to Armstrong in frank acceptance of his offer. He became the paternal element in our party, — he protecting her and she humanizing him.
We lighted our camp-fire and supped heartily. Except for Brent’s uneasy stir and unwilling moans, we might have forgotten the deadly business of that day.
We made the wounded man comfortable as might be with blankets, under the sheltering spruces. After all, if he must be hurt, he could not have fallen upon a better hospital than the pure open air of this beautiful shelter; and surely nowhere was a gentler nurse than his.
Armstrong and I built the lady a bower, a little lodge of bushes from the thicket.
Then he and I kept watch and watch beneath the starlight.
Sleeping or waking, our souls and our bodies thanked God for this peace of a peaceful night, after the terror and tramp and battle of that trembling day.