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   Chapter 18 No.18

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 14750

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The Lie

VB's eyes burned after Gail as she drove away. He followed the car in its flight until it disappeared over the hump in the road; then continued staring in that direction with eyes that did not see-that merely burned like his throat.

Jed came up the gulch with a load of wood, and VB still stood by the gate.

"I never can get used to these here city ways," he grumbled, "no more'n can these ponies."

VB noticed casually that a tug had been broken and was patched with rope.

"Runaway?" he asked, scarcely conscious of putting the question.

"Oh, Bob Thorpe's girl come drivin' her automobile along fit to ram straight through kingdom come, an' don't turn out till she gets so close I thought we was done for; to be sure, I did. Peter, here, took a jump an' busted a tug." He looked keenly at VB. "Funny!" he remarked. "She didn't see me, I know. An' she looked as if she'd been cryin'!"

He could not know the added torture those words carried to the heart of the young fellow battling there silently, covering up his agony, trying to appear at ease.

For the thirst had returned with manifold force, augmenting those other agonies which racked him. All former ordeals were forgotten before the fury of this assault. By the need of stimulant he was subjected to every fiendish whim of singing nerves; from knowing that in him was a love which must be killed to save a woman from sacrifice arose a torment that reached into his very vitals.

The glands of his mouth stopped functioning, and it seemed as though only one thing would take the cursed dryness from his tongue and lips. His fingers would not be still; they kept plucking and reaching out for that hidden chord which would draw him back to himself, or on down into the depths-somehow, he did not care which. Anything to be out of that killing uncertainty!

As he had gained in strength during those months, so it now seemed had the thirst grown. It battered down his spirit, whipped it to a pulp, and dragged it through the sloughs of doubt and despair. His will-did he have a will? He did not know; nor did he seem to care.

It had come-the slipping backward. He had battled well, but now he could feel himself going, little by little, weakening, fighting outwardly but at heart knowing the futility of it all. And going because of Gail Thorpe! "I can't put this mark on her!" he moaned against the Captain's neck. "She said it-that even those we love must bear the mark. And she said it was all good. She was wrong, wrong! Such a thing can't be good!

"Suppose I did keep above it, was sure of myself for a time in a sham way, wouldn't it only be running the risk of a greater disaster? Wouldn't it surely come some time? Wouldn't it, if-

"And then it would kill her, too!"

He hammered the Captain's shoulder with his clenched fist and the great stallion snuggled his cheek closer to the man, trying to understand, trying to comfort.

Then would come moments when his will rallied and Young VB fought with the ferocity of a jungle cat, walking back and forth across the corral, talking to the Captain, condemning his weaker self, gesticulating, promising. At those times he doubted whether it was so much the actual thirst that tore him as it was wondering if he could be worthy of her. Then the old desire would come again, in an engulfing wave, and his fighting would become empty words.

Jed, who had ridden up the gulch to look after a gap in the fence, returned at dusk. As he watched VB feed the Captain he saw in the gloom the straining of the boy's face; heard him talk to the stallion piteously; and the old man's lips framed silent words.

"If it's that girl," he declared, shaking his fist at the skies-"if it's that girl, she ought to be-ought to be spanked. An' if it's th' wantin' of whisky, God pity th' boy!"

Supper was a curious affair. VB tried to help in the preparation but spoiled everything he touched, so far removed was his mind from the work of his hands. Jed ate alone. VB sat down, but could not touch the food offered. He gulped coffee so steaming hot that Jed cried aloud a warning.

"Burned?" scoffed VB. "Burned by that stuff? Jed, you don't know what burning is!"

He got to his feet and paced the floor, one hand pressed against his throat.

The boy sat down twice again and drank from the cup the old man kept filled, but his lips rebelled at food; his hands would not carry it from the plate.

Once Jed rose and tried to restrain the pacing.

"VB, boy," he implored, "set down an' take it easy. Please do! It's been bad before, you know, but it's always turned out good in th' end. It will this time-same as always. Just-"

"Don't, Jed." He spoke weakly, averting his white face and pushing the old man away gently with trembling hands. "You don't understand; you don't understand!"

For the first time he was beyond comfort from the little old man who had showed him the lighted way, who had encouraged and comforted and held faith in him.

After a while a calm fell on VB and he stopped his walking, helped with the work, and then sat, still and white, in his chair. Jed watched him narrowly and comfort came to the old soul, for he believed the boy had won another fight over the old foe; was so sure of it that he whistled as he prepared for the night.

The candle burned on, low against the neck of the bottle, but still bright and steady. VB watched it, fascinated, thought tagging thought through his mind. Then a tremor shot through his body.

"Jed," he said in a voice that was strained but even, "let's play a little pitch, won't you?"

It was his last hope, the last attempt to divert the attack on his will and bolster his waning forces. His nerves jumped and cringed and quivered, but outwardly he was calm, his face drawn to mask the torture.

Jed, aroused, rubbed his sleepy eyes and lighted his pipe. He put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and took down the greasy, cornerless deck of cards to shuffle them slowly, with method, as though it were a rite.

VB sat motionless and a little limp in his chair, too far from the table for comfortable playing. Jed peered at him over his glasses.

"You might get th' coffee beans," he said, with a great yawn.

When the other did not answer he said again: "You might get th' coffee beans, VB. Sleepy?"

The young chap arose then to follow the suggestion, but ignored the query. He went to the cupboard and brought back a handful of the beans, the cowman's poker chips. His hand was waiting for him.

"Good deal?" Jed asked.

VB shook his head. "Not better than a couple."

"O-ho, I'm better off!" and Jed slammed down the ace of hearts.

VB leaned low and played the four-spot, almost viciously, gritting his teeth to force his mind into the game. It rebelled, told him the uselessness of such things, the hopelessness before him, tried to play on the aridness of his throat. But for the moment his will was strong and he followed the game as though gambling for a life.

Suddenly the thought surged through him that he was gambling for a life-his own life, and possibly for a woman's life!

Jed made his points, and again, on his own bid, he swept up the coffee counters. Then he took off his glasses and laid them aside with another yawn.

VB wanted to cry aloud to him to keep on playing; he wanted to let Jed Avery know a

ll that the simple, foolish little game of cards meant to him. But somehow his waning faith had taken with it the power to confide.

Jed made four inexcusable blunders in playing that hand, and each time his muttered apologies became shorter. When the hand was over and he had won a point he did not notice that the boy failed to give him the counter.

VB dealt, picked up his cards, and waited for the bid. But Jed's chin was on his breast, one hand lay loosely over the scattered cards before him; the other hung at his side limply. His breath came and went regularly. Sleep had stolen in on VB's final stand!

Oh, if Jed Avery had only known! If his kindly old heart had only read VB better, divining the difference between calm and peace! For a long time VB looked at the old man, his breath gradually quickening, the flame in his eyes growing sharper, more keen, as the consuming fire in him ate away the last barriers of resistance. Once his gaze went to the candle, burning so low against the bottle, yet so brightly, its molten wax running down and adding to the incrustment. He stared wanly at the bright little beacon and shook his head, terror wiping out the vestiges of a smile.

Action! That was what he wanted! Action! He must move or lose his mind and babble and scream! He must move and move rapidly-as rapidly as the rush of those thoughts through his inflamed mind.

He trembled in every limb as he sat there, realizing the need for bodily activity.

And yet, guilefully, craftily, softly, that voice down within him told that action could be of only one sort, could take him only in one direction. It whined and wheedled and gave him a cowardly assurance, made him lie in his own thoughts; made him cautious in his sneaking determination, for he knew any question Jed might ask would bring frenzy.

VB rose, slowly, carefully, so that there might be no creaking of the boots or scraping of chair legs. He picked up his hat, his muffler, his jumper, and moved stealthily toward the door, opened it inch by inch, and shut it behind him quickly, silently, cutting off the draft of night air-for such a thing might be as disastrous as a cry aloud.

The moon rode above the ridge and the air had lost its winter's edge. It was mild, but with the tang of mountain nights. It was quiet below, but as he stood in the open, pulling on his jumper, he heard the stirring of wind on the points above. It was a soughing, the sort of wind that makes stock uneasy; and VB caught that disquieting vibration.

He stepped out from the cabin and a soft calling from the corral reached him.

"Coming, Captain, coming," he answered.

And with a guilty glance behind him he felt for the gun nestling against his side. His jaw-muscles tightened as he assured himself it was fastened there securely.

The Captain was waiting at the gate. VB let it swing open, then turned and walked toward the saddle rack. The horse followed closely, ears up as though in wonder at this procedure.

"It's all right, Captain," VB whispered as he threw on the saddle blanket. As he drew the cinch tight he muttered: "Or else all wrong!"

Action, action! his body begged. He must have it; nothing else would suffice! He wanted to fly along, skimming the tops of those ghost bushes, ripping through the night, feeling the ripple of wind on that throat, the cooling currents of air against those hammering temples.

And VB knew it was a lie! A rank, deliberate, hypocritical lie! He knew what that action meant, he knew in what direction it would take him. He knew; he knew!

"Oh, Captain!" he sobbed, drawing the bridled head against his chest. "You know what it is to fight! You know what it is to yield! But the yielding didn't break you, boy! It couldn't. You were too big, too great to be broken; they could only bend and-"

With a breath of nervous rage he was in the saddle. The Captain's feet rattled on the hard ground with impatience. An instant VB hesitated, gathering the reins, separating them from the strands of thick mane. Then, leaning low, uttering a throaty wail, he gave the Captain his head and into the veiled night they bolted.

The cattle were coming on him, and he was powerless to move! They were bunched, running shoulder to shoulder, and his bed was in their path! Jed tried to raise his arms and could barely move them; his legs rebelled. The stampede was roaring at him! Oh, the rumble of those hoofs, those sharp, cloven, blind, merciless hoofs, that would mangle and tear and trample!

Jed Avery awoke with a start. He was on his feet in the middle of the floor before consciousness came, gasping quickly at the horror of his dream, his excited heart racing!

But it was no stampede. Running hoofs, but no stampede! He stumbled to the door and flung it open. His old eyes caught the flash of a lean, dark object as it raced across the dooryard straight at the gate, never pausing, never hesitating, and taking the bars with a sturdy leap that identified the horse instantly.

"VB!"

He called the name shrilly into the night, but his cry was drowned to the rider's ears, for the Captain's hoofs had caught ground again and were spurning it viciously as he clawed for the speed, the action, that was to satisfy the outraged nerves of his master!

That lie! It was not the action that would satisfy. The flight was only an accessory, an agency that would transport VB to the scene of the renunciation of all that for which he had battled through those long months.

For a long moment Jed stood in the doorway as he had poised at first, stiff, rigid. The sounds of the rushing horse diminuendoed quickly and became only a murmur in the night. Jed Avery's figure lost its tensity, went slack, and he leaned limply against the door frame.

"He's gone!" he moaned. "He's gone! It's broke in on him-Oh, VB, I'm afraid it has! No good takes you south at this time, after th' spell you've had!"

He slammed the door shut and turned back into the room. Unsteady feet took him to his chair, and he settled into it heavily, leaning against the table, his eyes registering the sight of no objects.

"He was fightin' harder'n ever," he whispered dryly, "an' I set here sleepin'. To be sure, I wasn't on hand when VB needed me most!"

The ending of his self-accusation was almost a sob, and his head dropped forward. He sat like that for an hour. The fire in the stove went out, and the cool of night penetrated the log walls of the cabin. He gazed unblinkingly at the floor; now and then his lips formed soundless words.

The candle, burning low, fed the flame too fiercely with the last bit of itself. The neck of the bottle was a globule of molten wax in which the short wick swam. The flame had become larger, but it was dead and the smoke rose thickly from its heavy edges. The grease seemed to be disturbed. It quivered, steadied, then settled. The flame slipped down the neck of the bottle and was snuffed out by the confines of the thing.

Jed Avery drew a long, quivering breath, a breath of horror. He turned his face toward the place where the light had been, hoping that his sight had failed. Then he reached out and found the bottle. His hard fingers ran over it, felt the empty neck, paused, and drew away as though it were an infectious thing.

The old man sagged forward to the table, his face in his arms.

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