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"He thought it was I burned out that, brand; did you notice what he said?" Val, as frequently happens in times of stress, spoke first of a trivial matter, before her mind would grasp the greater issues.
"He'll never make it," said Kent, speaking involuntarily his thought. "There comes old Jake Bondy, now, down the hill. Still, I dunno--if Michael takes to the water all right--"
"If the sheriff comes here, what shall we tell him? Shall we--"
"He won't. He's turning off, don't you see? He must have got a sight of Man from the top of the hill. Michael's tolerably fresh, and Jake's horse isn't; that makes a big difference."
Val weakened unexpectedly, as the full meaning of it all swept through her mind.
"Oh, it's horrible!" she whispered. "Kent, what can we do?"
"Not a thing, only keep our heads, and don't give way to nerves," he hinted. "It's something out of our reach; let's not go all to pieces over it, pal."
She steadied under his calm voice.
"I'm always acting foolish just at the wrong time--but to think he could--"
"Don't think! You'll have enough of that to do, managing your own affairs. All this doesn't change a thing for you. It makes you feel bad--and for that I could kill him, almost!" So much flashed out, and them he brought himself in hand again. "You've still got to pack your trunks, and take the train home, just the same as if this hadn't happened. I didn't like the idea at first, but now I see it's the best thing you can do, for the present. After awhile--we'll see about it. Don't look out, if it upsets you, Val. You can't do any good, and you've got to save your nerves. Let pull down the shade--"
"Oh, I've got to see!" Perversely, she caught up the field glasses from the table, drew them from their case, and, letting down the upper window sash with a slam, focused the glasses upon the river. "He usually crosses right at the mouth of the coulee--" She swung the glasses slowly about. "Oh, there he is--just on the bank. The river looks rather high--oh, your horse doesn't want to go in, Kent. He whirls on his hind feet, and tried to bolt when Manley started in--"
Kent had been watching her face jealously. "Here, let me take a look, will you? I can tell--" She yielded reluctantly, and in a moment he had caught the focus.
"Tell me what you see, Kent--everything," she begged, looking anxiously from his face to the river.
"Well, old Jake is fogging along down the coulee--but he ain't to the river yet, not by a long shot! Ah-h! Man's riding back to take a run in. That's the stuff--got Michael's feet wet that time, the old freak! They came near going clean outa sight."
"The sheriff--is he close enough--" Val began fearfully. "Oh, we're too far away to do a thing!"
Kent kept his eyes to the glasses. "We couldn't do a thing if we were right there. Man's in swimming water already. Jake ain't riding in--from the motions he's ordering Man back."
"Oh, please let me look a minute! I won't get excited, Kent, and I'll tell you everything I see--please!" Val's teeth were fairly chattering with excitement, so that Kent hesitated before he gave up the glasses. But it seemed boorish to refuse. She snatched at them as he took them from his eyes, and placed them nervously to her own.
"Oh, I see them both!" she cried, after a second or two. "The sheriff's got his rifle in his hands--Kent, do you suppose he'd--"
"Just a bluff, pal. They all do it. What--"
Val gave a start. "Oh, he shot, Kent! I saw him take aim--it looked as if he pointed it straight at Manley, and the smoke--" She moved the glasses slowly, searching the river.
"Well, he'd have to be a dandy, to hit anything on the water, and with the sun in his eyes, too," Kent assured her, hardly taking his eyes from her face with its varying expression. Almost he could see what was taking place at the river, just by watching her.
"Oh, there's Manley, away out! Why, your Michael is swimming beautifully, Kent! His head is high out of the water, and the water is churning like--Oh, Manley's holding his rifle up over his head--he's looking back toward shore. I wonder," she added softly, "what he's thinking about! Manley! you're my husband--and once I--"
"Draw a bead on that gazabo on shore," Kent interrupted her faint faring up of sentiment toward the man she had once loved and loved no more.
Val drew a long breath and turned the glasses reluctantly from the fugitive. "I don't see him--oh, yes! He's down beside a rock, on one knee, and he's taking a rest across the rock, and is squinting along--oh, he can't hit him at that distance, can he, Kent? Would he dare--why, it would be murder, wouldn't it? Oh-h--he shot again!"
Kent reached up a hand and took the glasses from her eyes with a masterful gesture. "You let me look," he said laconically. "I'm steadier than you."
Val crept closer to him, and looked up into his face. She could read nothing there; his mouth was shut tight so that it was a stern, straight line, but that told her nothing. He always looked so when he was intent upon something, or thinking deeply. She turned her eyes toward the river, flowing smoothly across the mouth of the coulee. Between, the land lay sleeping lazily in the hazy sunlight of mid-autumn. The grass was brown, the rocky outcroppings of the coulee wall yellow and gray and red--and the river was so blue, and so quiet! Surely that sleepy coulee and that placid river could not be witnessing a tragedy. She turned her head, irritated by its very calmness. Her eyes dwelt wistfully upon Kent's half-concealed face.
"What are they doing now, Kent?" Her tone was hushed.
"I can't--exactly--" He mumbled absently, his mind a mile away. She waited a moment.
"Can you see--Manley?"
This time he did not answer at all; he seemed terribly far off, as if only his shell of a body remained with her in the room.
"Why don't you talk?" she wailed. She waited until she could endure no more, then reached up and snatched the glasses from his eyes.
"I can't help it--I shall go crazy standing here. I've just got to see!" she panted.
For a moment he clung to the glasses and stared down at her. "You better not, sweetheart," he urged gently, but when she still held fast he let them go. She raised them hurriedly to her eyes, and turned to the river with a shrinking impatience to know the worst and have it over with.
"E-everything j-joggles so," she whimpered complainingly, trying vainly to steady the glasses. He slipped his arms around her, and let her lean against him; she did not even seem to realize it. Just then she had caught sight of something, and her intense interest steadied her so that she stood perfectly still.
"Why, your horse--" she gasped. "Michael--he's got his feet straight up in the air--oh, Kent, he's rolling over sad over! I can't see--" She held her breath.
The glasses sagged as if they had grown all at once too heavy to hold. "I--I thought I saw--" She shivered and hid her face upon one upflung arm.
Kent caught up the glasses and looked long at the river, unmindful of the girl sobbing wildly beside him. Finally he turned to her, hesitated, and then gathered her close in his arms. The glasses slid unheeded to the floor.
"Don't cry--it's better this way, though it's hard enough, God knows." His voice was very gentle. "Think how awful it would have been, Val, if the law had got him. Don't cry like that! Such things are happening every day, somewhere--" He realized suddenly that this was no way to comfort her, and stopped. He patted her shoulder with a sense of blank helplessness. He could make love--but this was not the time for love-making; and since he was denied that outlet for his feelings, he did not know what to do, except that he led her to the couch, and settled her among the cushions so that she would be physically comfortable, at least. He turned restlessly to the window, looked; out, and then went to the couch and bent over her.
"I'm going out to the gate--I want to see Jake Bondy. He's coming up the coulee," he said. "I won't be far. Poor little girl--poor little pal, I wish I could help you." He touched his lips to her hair, so lightly she could not feel it, and left her.
At the gate he met, not the sheriff, who was riding slowly, and had just passed through the field gate, but Arline and Hank, rattling up in the Hawley buck-board.
"Thank the good Lord!" he exclaimed when he helped her from the rig. "I never was so glad to see anybody in my life. Go on in--she's in there crying her heart out. Man's dead--the sheriff shot him in the river--oh, there's been hell to pay out here!"
"My heavens above!" Arline stared up at him while she grasped the significance of his words. "I knowed he'd hit for here--I followed right out as quick as Hank could hitch up the team. Did you hear about Fred--"
"Yes, yes, yes, I know all about it!" Kent was guilty of pulling her through the gate, and then pushing her toward the house. "You go and do something for that poor girl. Pack her up and take her to town as quick as God'll let you. There's been misery enough for her out here to kill a dozen women."
He watched until she had reached the porch, and then swung back to Hank, sitting calmly in the buckboard, with the lines gripped between his knees while he filled his pipe.
"I can take care of the man's side of this business, fast enough," Kent confessed whimsically, "but there's some things it takes a woman to handle." He glanced again over his shoulder, gave a huge sigh of relief when he glimpsed Arline's thin face as she passed the window and knelt beside the couch, and turned with a lighter heart to meet the sheriff.
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