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   Chapter 7 No.7

Westerfelt By Will N. Harben Characters: 14723

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Dr. Lash came a little earlier than he was expected. The wound was not really a fatal one, he said, but if Miss Harriet had not been so attentive and skilful in keeping the cut closed, the man would have bled to death.

Westerfelt dropped to sleep, and when he awoke it was night. A lamp, the light of which was softened by a pink shade, stood on a sewing-machine near the fireplace. At first he could not recall what had happened nor where he was, and he felt very weak and sleepy. After awhile, however, he became conscious of the fact that he was not alone. A slight figure was moving silently about the room, now at the fireplace, again at a table where some lint, bandages, and phials had been left. The figure approached his bed cautiously. It was Harriet Floyd. When she saw that he was awake, she started to move away, but he detained her.

"I'm a lot of trouble for a new boarder," he said, smiling. "This is my first day, and yet I've turned your house into a fortification and a hospital."

"You are not a bit of trouble; the doctor said let you sleep as much as possible."

"I don't need sleep; I've been hurt worse than this before."

She put her hand on his brow. "It'll make you feverish to talk, Mr.

Westerfelt; go to sleep."

"Did they jail Wambush?"

"Yes."

"Toughest customer I ever tackled." He laughed, dryly.

She made no reply. She went to the fire and began stirring the contents of a three-legged pot on the coals. To see her better, he turned over on his side. The bed slats creaked.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, running to him, "you'll break the stitches, and bleed again. Don't move that way."

He raised the blanket and looked down at his wound.

"I reckon they are holding all right, though I did feel a little twinge."

"You have not had any dinner or supper," she went on. "Dr. Lash said if you wanted anything I might give you some gruel and milk. I've made it, and it is keeping warm at the fire. Will you take some?"

"No, I thank you; I can wait till breakfast. Then I'll set up at the table and eat a square meal; somehow, I'm not hungry. Wambush objected mightily to being jailed, didn't he?"

"You ought not to wait till breakfast," she said, looking at the fire; "you'd better let me give you some of this gruel."

"All right; you are the doctor."

She dipped up some of the gruel in a bowl, and, adding some milk to it, came back to him. But she was confronted by a difficulty. He could not eat gruel and milk from a spoon while lying on his back. He saw this, and put his hands on either side of him and started to sit up.

"Oh, don't!" she cried, setting the bowl on the floor and gently pushing him back on his pillow; "you must not!"

He laughed. "Just like a woman. You surely don't think I'm going to lie here for a week, like a sick cat, for such a little scratch. I've lost some blood, that's all." And before she could prevent it, he had drawn himself up and was smiling broadly.

"I can't look after sick folks," she said, in despair. "The doctor will blame me."

"I heard him say if you hadn't held my cut so well I'd have bled to death."

"Anybody else could have done it."

"Nobody else didn't."

"Do you want the gruel? Take it quick, and lie down again; you'll lose strength sitting up."

"You'll have to feed me," he said, opening his mouth. "I'm too blamed weak to sit up without propping with my hands, and they don't seem very good supports. Look how that one is wobbling."

She sat down on the edge of the bed, and without a word placed the bowl in her lap and her arm round him. Then neither spoke as she filled the spoon and held it to his lips. She felt him trying to steady his arms to keep his weight from her.

"It's really good," he said, as she filled the spoon the second time,

"I had no idea I was so hungry; you say you made it?"

"Yes; there now, I'll have to wipe your chin; you ought not to talk when you are eating."

For several minutes neither spoke. He finished the bowl of gruel and lay down again.

"I feel as mean as a dog," he said, as she rose and drew the cover over him; "here I am being nursed by the very fellow's sweetheart I tried my level best to do up."

She turned and placed the bowl on the table, and then went to the fire.

"I heard you were his girl last night," he went on. "Well, I'm glad I didn't kill him. I wouldn't have tried in anything but self-defence, for even if he did use a gun and knife, when I had none, he's got bulldog pluck, and plenty of it. Do you know, I felt like mashing the head of that sheriff for beating him like he did."

She sat down before the fire, but soon rose again. "If I stay here," she said, abruptly, and rather sharply, "you'll keep talking, and not sleep at all. I'm going into the next room-the parlor. If you want anything, call me and I'll come."

A few minutes after she left him he fell asleep. She put a piece of wood on the fire in the next room and sat down before it. She had left the door of his room ajar, and a ray of light from his lamp fell across the dark carpet and dimly illuminated the room. The hours passed slowly. No one in the house was astir. No sound came from the outside save the dismal barking of a dog down the road. She was fatigued and almost asleep, when she was suddenly roused by a far-off shout.

"Whoopee! Whoopee!"

It seemed to come from the road leading down from the loftiest mountain peak. She held her breath and listened.

"Whoopee! Whoopee!" It was nearer. Then she heard the steady tramp of horses' hoofs. She rose and went to the window, moving softly, that her ear might not lose any of the sounds. She raised the window cautiously and looked out. The moon was shining brightly, and down the street beyond the livery-stable she saw a body of horsemen.

"Great Heavens!" she exclaimed; "it's the 'Whitecaps'!"

She drew back behind the curtains as the horsemen rode up to the hotel and stopped. There were twenty or more, and each wore a white cap, a white mask, and a white sheet over the body.

"Thar's whar the scrimmage tuck place," explained some one in a muffled voice, and a white figure pointed to the spot where Westerfelt and Wambush had fought. "We must hurry an' take 'im out, an' have it over."

Harriet Floyd heard some one breathing behind her. It was Westerfelt.

His elbow touched her as he leaned towards the window and peered out.

"Oh, it's you!" she cried. "Go back to bed, you-"

He did not seem to hear her. The moonlight fell on his face. It was ghastly pale. He suddenly drew back beside her to keep from being observed by the men outside. His lips moved, but they made no sound.

"Go back to bed," she repeated. She put out her hand and touched him, but she did not look at him, being unable to resist the fascination of the sight in the street.

"What do they want?" he whispered. He put his hand on an old-fashioned what-not behind him, and the shells and ornaments on it began to rattle.

"I don't know," she said; "don't let 'em see you; you couldn't do anything against so many. They are a band sworn to protect one another."

"His friends?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Ah, I see." He glanced at the two doors, one opening into the hall, the other into his room, and then he swayed and clutched the curtain.

She caught his arm and braced him up. "Oh, you

must go lie down; you'll-"

A noise outside drew her back to the window. The band was crossing the street to the jail.

"What are they going to do?" He steadied himself, resting his hand on her shoulder, and looked through a pane above her head.

"To take Toot out."

"An' then he'll lead them, won't he?"

"I don't know! I reckon so-oh, I can't tell!" She faced him for an instant, a look of helpless indecision in her eyes; then she turned again to the window.

"I'll go slip on my coat," he said. "I-I'm cold. I'd better get ready. You see, he may want to-call me out. I wish I had a gun-or something."

She made no answer, and he went into his room. He turned up the lamp, but quickly lowered it again. He found his coat on a chair and put it on. He wondered if he were actually afraid. Surely he had never felt so before; perhaps his mind was not right-his wound and all his mental trouble had affected his nerves, and then a genuine thrill of horror went over him. Might not this be the particular form of punishment Providence had singled out for the murderer of Sally Dawson-might it not be the grewsome, belated answer to her mother's prayer?

Just then Harriet entered the room softly and turned his light down still lower.

"Stay back here," she said, her tone almost a command.

"Why?"

"If they get Toot out, it would be just like him to try to- You-you are not strong enough to get out of their way. Oh, I don't know what to do!" She went back to the window in the next room. He followed her, and stood by her side.

The white figures had dismounted at the jail. They paused at the gate a moment, then filed into the yard and stood at the door. The leader rapped on it loudly.

"Hello in thar, Tarpley Brown, show yorese'f!" he cried.

There was a silence for a moment. In the moonlight the body of men looked like a snowdrift against the jail. The same voice spoke again:

"Don't you keep us waitin' long, nuther, Tarp. You kin know what sort we are by our grave-clothes ef you'll take the trouble to peep out o' the winder."

"What do you-uns want?" It was the quavering voice of the jailer, from the wing of the house occupied by him and his family.

His voice roused a sleeping infant, and it began to cry. The cry was smothered by some one's hand over the child's mouth.

"You know what we-uns want," answered the leader. "We come after Toot

Wambush; turn 'im out, ef you know what's good fer you."

"Gentlemen, I'm a sworn officer of the law, I-"

"Drap that! Open that cell door, ur we'll put daylight through you."

This was followed by the low, pleading voice of the jailer's wife, begging her husband to comply with the demand, and the wailing of two or three children.

"Wait, then!" yielded the jailer. Westerfelt heard a door slam and chains clank and rattle on the wooden floor; a bolt was slid back, the front door opened, and the white drift parted to receive a dark form.

"Whar's my hoss?" doggedly asked Toot Wambush.

"Out thar hitched to the fence," answered the leader.

"You-uns was a hell of a time comin'," retorted Wambush.

"Had to git together; most uv us never even heerd uv yore capture tell a hour by sun. Huh, you'd better thank yore stars we re'ched you when we did."

The band filed out of the gate and mounted their horses. Toot Wambush was a little in advance of the others. He suddenly turned his horse towards the hotel.

Westerfelt instinctively drew back behind the curtain, Harriet caught his arm and clung to it.

"Go to your room!" she whispered. "You'd better; you must not stay here." He seemed not to hear; he leaned forward and peered again through the window. The leader and Wambush had just reined their horses in at the edge of the sidewalk.

"Come on, Toot; whar you gwine?" asked the leader.

"I want to take that feller with us; I'll never budge 'thout him, you kin bet your bottom dollar on that."

"He's bad hurt-'bout ter die; don't be a fool!"

"Huh! Doc Lash sent me word he was safe. I didn't hurt 'im; but he did me; he damaged my feelings, and I want to pay 'im fer it. Are you fellers goin' back on me?"

"Not this chicken," a voice muttered, and a white form whipped his horse over to Wambush's. "I'm with you," said another. Then there was a clamor of voices, and all the gang gathered round Wambush. He chuckled and swore softly. "That's the stuff!" he said. "Them's Cohutta men a-talkin'; you kin bet yore sweet life."

Harriet turned to Westerfelt. "They are drinking," she said. "Haven't you got a pistol?"

"No."

"You stay here then; don't let them see you; I'm going up-stairs and speak to Toot from the veranda. It's the only chance. Sh!"

She did not wait for a reply, but opened the door noiselessly and went out into the hall. He heard the rustle of her skirts as she went up the stairs. A moment later the door leading to the veranda on the floor above opened with a creak, and she appeared over the heads of the band.

"Toot! Toot Wambush!" she called out in a clear, steady voice. "I want to speak to you!"

Wambush, in a spirit of bravado, had just ridden on to the veranda, and could hear nothing above the thunderous clatter of his horse's hoofs on the floor.

"Here, thar, you jail-bird, yore wanted!" cried out the leader. "Stop that infernal racket!"

"What is it?" asked Wambush, riding back among his fellows.

"Toot Wambush!" Harriet repeated.

He looked up at her. "What do you want?" he asked, doggedly, after gazing up at her steadily for a moment.

"Get away as fast as you can," she replied. "His wound has broke again. He's bleeding to death!"

"Well, that's certainly good news!" Wambush did not move.

"You'd better go," she urged. "It will be wilful murder. You made the attack. He was unarmed, and you used a pistol and a knife. Do you want to be hung?"

He sat on his horse silent and motionless, his face upraised in the full moonlight. There was no sound except the champing of bits, the creaking of saddles.

"Come on, Toot," urged the leader in a low tone. "You've settled yore man's hash; what more do you want? We've got you out o' jail, now let us put you whar you'll be safe from the law."

Wambush had not taken his eyes from the girl. He now spoke as if his words were meant for her only.

"If I go," he said, "will you come? Will you follow me? You know I'm not a-goin' to leave 'thout you, Harriet."

It seemed to Westerfelt that she hesitated before speaking, and at that moment a realization of what she had become to him and what she doubtless was to Wambush came upon him with such stunning force that he forgot even his peril in contemplating what seemed almost as bad as death.

"This is no time nor place to speak of such things," he heard the girl say, finally. "Go this minute and save yourself while you can."

"Hold on, Harriet!" Wambush cried out, as she was moving away. Westerfelt could no longer see her, and then he heard her close the door and start down-stairs.

"Come on, Toot"-the leader whipped his horse up against that of

Wambush.

Some of the others had already started away.

Toot did not move. He was still looking at the spot where Harriet

Floyd had stood.

"It simply means the halter, you blamed fool!"

Wambush stared into the mask of the speaker, and then reluctantly rode away.

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