Read CHAPTER XVII of Where the Trail Divides, free online book, by Will Lillibridge, on ReadCentral.com.

SACRIFICE

A week had gone by. Each day of the seven the thoroughbred with the slender legs and the tiny sensitive ears had stood in the barren dooryard before Elizabeth Landor’s home. Moreover, with each repetition the arrival had been earlier, the halt longer. Though the weather was perfect, nevertheless the beast had grown impatient under the long waits, and telltale, a glaring black mound had come into being where he had pawed his displeasure. At first Craig on departing had carefully concealed the testimony of his presence beneath a sprinkling of dooryard litter; but at last he had ceased to do so, and bit by bit the mound had grown. Day had succeeded day, and no one had appeared to question the visitor’s right of coming or of going. Even the wolf was no longer present to stare his disapproval. Verily, unchallenged, the king had come into his own in this realm of one; and as a monarch absolute ever rules, Clayton Craig had reigned, was reigning now.

For he no longer halted perforce at the doorstep. He had never been invited to enter, yet he had entered and the girl had spoken no word to prevent. Not by request were his cap and riding stick hanging from a peg beside the few belongings of How Landor; yet, likewise unchallenged, they were there. Not by the girl’s solicitation was he lounging intimately in the single rocker the room boasted; yet once again the bald fact remained that though it was not yet nine by the clock, he was present, his legs comfortably crossed, his eyes, beneath drooping lids, whimsically observing the girl as she went about the perfunctory labour of putting the place to rights.

“I say, Bess,” he remarked casually at length, “you’ve dusted that unoffending table three times by actual count since I’ve been watching. Wouldn’t it be proper to rest a bit now and entertain your company?”

The girl did not smile.

“Perhaps.” She put away the cloth judicially. “I fancied you were tolerably amused as it was. However, if you prefer ” She drew another chair opposite, and, sitting down, folded her hands in her lap.

A moment longer the man sat smiling at her; then shade by shade the whimsical expression vanished, and the normal proprietary look he had grown to assume in her presence took its place.

“By the way, Bess,” he commented, “isn’t it about time to drop sarcasm when you and I are together? I know I’ve been a most reprehensible offender, but haven’t I been punished enough?”

“Punished?” There was just the ghost of a smile. “Is this your idea of punishment?”

The man flushed involuntarily. His face had cleared remarkably in the past week of abstinence, and through the fair skin the colour showed plain.

“Well, perhaps punishment is a little too severe. Leastways you’ve held me at arm’s length until I’m beginning to despair.”

“Despair?” Again the ghost smiled forth. “Do you fancy I’m so dull that I don’t realise what I’m doing, what you’ve done?”

For the second time the involuntary colour appeared; but the rôle that the man was playing, the rôle of the injured, was too effective to abandon at once.

“You can’t deny that you’ve held me away all this last week, Bess,” he objected. “You’ve permitted me to call and call again; but that is all. Otherwise we’re not a bit nearer than we were when I first returned.”

“Nearer?” This time the smile did not come. Even the ghost refused to appear. “I wonder if that’s true.” A pause. “At least I’ve gotten immeasurably farther away from another.”

“Your husband you mean?”

“I mean How. There are but you and he in my life.”

The pose was abandoned. It was useless now.

“Tell me, Bess,” said the man intimately. “You and I mean too much to each other not to know everything there is to know.”

“There’s nothing to tell.” The girl did not dissimulate now. The inevitable was in sight, approaching swiftly and she herself had chosen. “He’s merely given me up.”

“He knows, Bess?” Blank unbelief was on the questioner’s face, something else as well, something akin to exultation.

“Yes,” repressedly. “He’s known since that first night.”

“And he hasn’t objected, hasn’t done anything at all?”

Just for an instant, ere came second thought, the old defiance, the old pride, broke forth.

“Do you fancy you would be here now, that you wouldn’t have known before this if he objected?” she flamed.

“Bess!”

“I beg your pardon. I shouldn’t have said that.” Already the blaze had died, never to be rekindled. “Forget that I said that. I didn’t mean to.”

The man did not answer, he scarcely heard. Almost as by a miracle, the last obstacle had been removed from his way. He had counted upon blindness, the unsuspicion of perfect confidence; but a passive, conscious conformity such as this The thing was unbelievable, providential, too unnaturally good to last. The present was a strategic moment, the time for immediate, irrevocable action, ere there came a change of heart. It had not been a part of Clayton Craig’s plans to permit a meeting between himself and the Indian. As a matter of fact he had taken elaborate, and, as it proved, unnecessary precautions to avoid such a consummation. Even now, the necessity passed, he did not alter his plans. Not that he was afraid of the red man. He had proven to himself by an incontrovertible process of reasoning that such was not the case. It was merely to avoid unpleasantness for himself and for the girl particularly for the latter. Moreover, no possible object could be gained by such a meeting. Things were as they were and inevitable. He merely decided to hasten the move. It was the forming of this decision that had held him silent. It was under its influence that he spoke.

“When is it to be, Bess,” he asked abruptly, “the final break, I mean?”

“It has already been, I tell you. It’s all over.”

“The new life, then,” guided the man. “You can’t go on this way any longer. It’s intolerable for both of us.”

“Yes,” dully, “it’s intolerable for all of us.”

Craig arose and, walking to the door, looked out. In advance he had imagined that the actual move, when all was ready, would be easy. Now that the time had really arrived, he found it strangely difficult. He hardly knew how to begin.

“Bess.” Of a sudden he had returned swiftly and, very erect, very dominant, stood looking down at her. “Bess,” repeated, “we’ve avoided the obvious long enough, too long. As I said, you’ve succeeded in keeping me at arm’s length all the last week; but I won’t be denied any longer. I’m willing to take all the blame of the past, and all the responsibility of the future. I love you, Bess. I’ve told you that before, but I repeat it now. I want you to go away with me, away from this God-cursed land that’s driving us both mad at least leave for a time. After a while, when we both feel different, we can come back if we wish; but for the present I can’t stand this uncertainty another week, another day.” He paused for breath, came a step nearer.

“Your marrying this Indian was a hideous mistake,” he rushed on; “but we can’t help that now. All we can do is to get away and forget it.” He cleared his throat needlessly. “It’s this getting away that I’ve arranged for since I’ve been here. I’ve not been entirely idle the last week, and every detail is complete. There are three relays of horses waiting between here and the railroad. One team is all ready at the ranch house the minute I give the signal. They’ll get us to town before morning. You’ve only to say the word, and I’ll give the sign.” Again, nervously, shortly, he repeated the needless rasp, “How may, as you say, not interfere; but it’s useless, to take any chances. There’s been enough tragedy already between you two, without courting more. Besides, the past is dead; dead as though it had never been. My lawyer is over at the ranch house now. He’ll straighten out everything after we’re gone. Things here are all in your name; you can do as you please with them. There’s no possible excuse for delay.” He bent over her, his hands on her shoulders, his eyes looking into hers compellingly. “God knows you’ve been buried here long enough, girl. I’ll teach you to live; to live, do you hear? We’ll be very happy together, you and I, Bess; happier than you ever dreamed of being. Will you come?”

He was silent, and of a sudden the place became very still; still as the dead past the man had suggested. Wide-eyed, motionless, the girl sat looking up at him. She did not speak; she scarcely seemed to breathe. As she had chosen, so had it come to pass; yet involuntarily she delayed. Deliverance from the haunting solitude that had oppressed her like an evil dream was beckoning; yet impotent, she held back. Of a sudden, within her being, something she had fancied dormant had awakened. The instinct of convention, fundamental, inbred, more vital to a woman than life itself, intruded preventingly, fair in her path. Warning, pleading, distinct as a spoken admonition, its voice sounded a negative in her ears. She tried to silence it, tried to overwhelm it with her newborn philosophy; but it was useless. Fear of the future, as she had said, she had none. Good or bad as the man might be, she had chosen. With full knowledge of his deficiencies she had chosen. But to go away with him so, without sanction of law or of clergy; she, Bess Landor, who was a wife .

The hands on her shoulders tightened insistently, the compelling face drew nearer.

“Answer me, Bess,” demanded a tense voice; “don’t keep me in suspense. Will you go?”

With the motion of a captured wild thing, the girl arose, drew back until she was free.

“Don’t,” she pleaded. “Don’t hurry me so. Give me a little time to think.” She caught her breath from the effort. “I’ll go with you, yes; but to-day, now I can’t. We must see How first. He must know, must consent ”

“See How!” The man checked himself. “You must be mad,” he digressed. “I can’t see How, nor won’t. I tell you it’s between How and myself you must choose. I love you, Bess. I’m proving I love you; but I’m not insane absolutely. I ask you again: will you come?”

The girl shook her head, nervously, jerkily.

“I can’t now, as things are.”

“And why not?” passionately. “Haven’t you said you care for me?”

For answer the red lower lip trembled. That was all.

The man came a step forward, and another.

“Tell me, Bess,” he demanded. “Don’t you love me?”

“I have told you,” said a low voice.

Answering, coercing, swift as the swoop of a prairie hawk, as a human being in abandon, the man’s arms were about her. Ere the girl could move or resist, his lips were upon her lips. “You must go then,” he commanded. “I’ll compel you to go.” He kissed her again, hungrily, irresistibly. “I won’t take no for an answer. You will go.”

“Don’t, please,” pleaded a voice, breathless from its owner’s impotent effort to be free. “You must not, we must not yet. I’m bad, I know, but not wholly. Please let me go.”

Unconscious of time, unconscious of place, oblivious to aught save the moment, the man held his ground, joying in his victory, in her effort to escape. Save that one casual glance long before, he had not looked out of doors. Had he done so, had he seen .

But he had forgotten that a world existed without those four walls. His back was toward the door. His own great shoulders walled the girl in. Neither he nor she dreamed of a dark figure that had drifted from out the prairie swiftly into the dooryard, dreamed that that same all-knowing shadow, on soundless moccasined feet, had advanced to the doorway, stood silent, watching therein. As the first man and the first woman were alone, they fancied themselves alone. As the first man might have exulted over his mate, Clayton Craig exulted now.

“Let you go, Bess,” he baited, “let you go now that I’ve just gotten you?” He laughed passionately. “You must think that I’m made of clay and not of flesh and blood.” He drew her closer and closer, until she could no longer struggle, until she lay still in his arms. “I’ll never let you go again, girl, not if God himself were to demand your release. You’re mine, Bess, mine by right of capture, mine ”

The sentence halted midway; halted in a gasp and an unintelligible muttering in the throat. Of a sudden, darkening, ominous, fateful, the shadow within the entrance had silently advanced until it stood beside them, paused so with folded arms. Simultaneously the wife and the invader saw, realised. Instantly, instinctively, like similar repellent poles, they sprang apart. Enveloped in a maze of surging divergent passions, the two guilty humans stood silent so, staring at the intruder in breathless expectation, breathless fascination.

While an observer could have counted ten slowly, and repeated the count, the three remained precisely as they were. While the same mythical spectator could have counted ten more, the silence held; but inaction had ceased. While time, the relentless, checked off another measure, there was still no interruption; then of a sudden, desperately tense, desperately challenging, a voice sounded: the voice of Clayton Craig.

“Well,” he queried, “why don’t you do something?” He moistened his lips and shuffled his feet restlessly. “You’ve seen enough to understand, I guess. What are you going to do about it?”

The Indian had not been looking at him. Since that first moment when the two had sprang separate he had not even appeared conscious of his presence. Nor did he alter now. Erect as a maize plant, dressed once more in the flannels and corduroys of his station, as tall and graceful, he merely stood there with folded arms, looking down on the girl. More maddening than an execration, than physical menace itself, was that passionless, ignoring isolation to the other man. Answering, the hot blood flooded his blonde face, swelled the arteries of his throat until his collar choked him. Involuntarily his hand went to his neckband, tugged until it was free. Equally involuntarily he took a step forward menacingly.

“Curse you, How Landor,” he blazed, “you’ve learned at last, perhaps, not to dare me to take something of yours away from you.” Word by word his voice had risen until he fairly shouted. “You’ve lost, fool; lost, lost! Are you blind that you can’t see? You’ve lost, I say!”

From pure inability to articulate more, the white man halted; and that instant the room became deathly still.

A second, or the fraction of a second thereof, it remained so; then, white-faced, apprehensive, the girl sprang between the two, paused so, motionless: for of a sudden a voice, an even, passionless voice, was speaking.

“You don’t know me even yet, do you, Elizabeth?” it chided. Just a step the speaker moved backward, and for the first time he recognised the white man’s presence. His eyes were steady and level. His voice, unbelievably low in contrast to that of the other, when he spoke was even as before.

“I won’t forgive you for what you’ve just done, Mr. Craig,” he said. “I’ll merely forget that you’ve done anything at all. One thing I expect, however, and that is that you’ll not interrupt again. You may listen or not, as you wish. Later, I may have a word to say to you; but now there is nothing to be said.” Just a moment longer the look held, a moment wherein the other man felt his tongue grow dumb; then with the old impassivity, the old isolation, the black eyes shifted until they rested on the face of the girl.

But for still another moment he was as deliberate as nature herself, this man he stood so, looking down. Always slender, he had grown more so these last weeks. Moreover, he had the look of one weary unto death. His black eyes were bright, mysteriously bright, and on his thin hands, folded across his chest, the veins stood out full and prominent; but look where one would on the lithe body, the muscles lay distinct beneath the close-fitting clothes, distinct to emaciation. Standing there now, very grave, very repressed, there was nevertheless no reproach in his expression, no trace of bitterness; only a haunting tenderness, infinite in its pathos. When he spoke the same incredible tolerance throbbed in the low-pitched voice.

“I’ve just a few things I wish to say to you, Bess,” he began, “and a request to make and that is all. I didn’t come back so, unexpectedly, to be unpleasant, or to interfere with what you wish to do. I came because I fancied you were going to do an unwise thing: because I had reason to believe you were going to run away.” Unconsciously, one of the folded hands loosened, passed absently over his forehead; then returned abruptly to its place. “Perhaps I was mistaken. If so I beg your pardon for the suspicion; but at least, if I can prevent, I don’t want you to do so. It’s this I came to tell you.” Again the voice halted, and into it there came a new note: a self-conquered throb that lingered in the girl’s recollection while memory lasted.

“It’s useless to talk of yourself and of myself, Bess,” he went on. “Things are as they are and final. I don’t judge you, I understand. Above everything else in life, I wish you to be happy; and I realise now I can’t make you so. Another perhaps can; I hope so and trust so. At least I shall not stand in your way any longer. It is that I came to tell you. It is I who shall leave and not you, Bess.” Of a sudden he stepped back and lifted one hand free, preventingly. “Just a moment, please,” he requested. “Don’t interrupt me until I say what I came to say.” His arms folded back as before, his eyes held hers compellingly.

“I said I had a request to make. This is it that you don’t leave until you are married again. You won’t have to wait long if I leave. I have inquired and found out. A few days, a few weeks at the longest, and you will be free. Meanwhile stay here. Everything is yours. I never owned anything except the house, and that is yours also.” For the last time he halted; then even, distinct, came the question direct. “Will you promise me this, Bess?” he asked.

Save once, when she had tried to interrupt, the girl had listened through it all without a move, without a sound. Now that he was silent, and it was her turn to speak, she still stood so, passive, waiting. Ever in times of stress his will had dominated her will; and the present was no exception. There was an infinity of things she might have said. A myriad which she should have spoken, would occur to her when he was gone. But at the present, when the opportunity was hers, there seemed nothing to offer; nothing to gainsay. She even forgot that she was expected to answer at all, that he had asked a question.

“Won’t you promise me this one thing, Bess?” repeated the voice gently. “I’ve never made a request of you before, and I probably never shall again.”

At last the girl aroused; and of a sudden she realised that her lips were very dry and hot. She moistened them with her tongue.

“Yes, How,” she said dully, “I promise.”

Silence fell, a silence deathly in its significance, in its finality; but the girl did not break it, said no more and forever the moment, her moment, vanished into the past.

“Thank you, Bess,” acknowledged the man monotonously. Slowly, strangely different from his usual alert certainty, he moved across the room. “There are just a few things here I’d like to take with me,” he explained apologetically. “They’d only be in your way if I left them.”

With a hand that fumbled a bit, he took down a battered telescope satchel from a peg on the wall and began packing. He moved about slowly here and there, his moccasined feet patting dully on the bare floor. No one offered to assist him, no one interrupted; and in dead silence, except for the sound he himself made, he went about his work. Into the satchel went a few books from the shelf on the wall: an old army greatcoat that had been Colonel William Landor’s: a weather-stained cap which had been a present likewise: a handful of fossils he had gathered in one of his journeys to the Bad Lands: an inexpensive trinket here and there, that the girl herself had made for him. The satchel was small, and soon, pitifully soon, it was full. A moment thereafter he stood beside it, looking about him; then with an effort he put on the cover and began tightening the straps. The leather was old and the holes large, but he found difficulty even then in fastening the buckles. At last, though, it was done, and he straightened. Both the white man and the girl were watching him; but no one spoke. For the second time, the last time, the Indian stood so while his intense black eyes shifted from nook to nook, taking in every detail of the place that had once been his heaven, his nest, but now his no more; then of a sudden he lifted his burden and started to leave. Opposite the girl he paused and held out his hand.

“Good-bye, Bess,” he said. He looked her deep in the eyes, deep into her very soul. “If I knew what religion is, I’d say God bless you, girl; but I don’t, so I’ll only say good-bye and I wish you happiness.” Just a moment longer he remained so; then at something he saw, he dropped her hand and drew away swiftly, preventingly.

“Don’t, Bess,” he pleaded, “don’t say it as you cared for me once. Don’t make things any harder make them impossible!” Desperately, without another pause, ere she could disobey, he started for the door. Beside the entrance for he was not watching these last minutes stood the white man; and just for a moment at his side the Indian halted. Despite the will of Clayton Craig, their eyes met. For an instant, wherein time lapsed, they stood face to face; then swiftly as he did everything, now the Indian spoke: and, as once before in his life, those words and the look that accompanied them went with the alien to his grave.

“As for you, Mr. Craig,” said the voice, “I have one thing only to say. Make Bess happy. There’s nothing in the world to prevent your doing so, if you will. If you do not ” a pause of horrible ice-cold menace “if you do not,” repeated, “suicide.” Just for the fraction of a second not a civilised man but a savage stared the listener in the face. “I shall know if you fail, and believe me, it were better, a thousand times better, if you do as I say.”

Again, as beside the girl, there was a mute, throbbing lapse; then, similarly before there could be an answer, upon the tense silence there broke the swift pat of moccasined feet, and he was gone.