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- The Desert Valley - 46/46 -

kill him, there is an end! Call it what you please, if it is not murder, it is a man killing a man. And it is horrible!'

Mystified, he stared at her.

'What can I do?' he muttered. 'You would not have me run from him, Helen? You do not want me to turn coward like that?'

'If you kill him,' she told him, her face dead-white, 'I will never marry you. I will go away to-morrow. If you would promise me not to shoot him, I would marry you this minute.'

He looked down into the ravine trail. Longstreet was appreciably nearer. So was Courtot. Behind Sanchia lagged spiritlessly, seeming of a mind to stop and turn back. He looked at Helen; she had had no sleep, she was unstrung, nervous, distraught. He gnawed at his lip and looked again toward Courtot.

'If you love me!' pleaded Helen wildly.

'I love you,' he said grimly. 'That is all that counts.'

He waited until she looked away from him. Then silently he drew his gun from its holster; the thing was madness, but just now there was no sanity in the universe. He could not run; he must not kill Courtot. He dropped the gun behind him and with the heel of his boot thrust it away from him so that it fell into a fissure in the rock. He turned again to watch Courtot coming on.

The eerie light of uncertainty which is neither day nor night lay across the hills. It was utterly silent. Then, the rattle of stones below; horse and rider were so close that they could see Longstreet's upturned face. Courtot was close behind him; Courtot looked up and they could see his face.

'You must go, now,' whispered Helen. 'You have promised me.'

'I am keeping my promise,' he said sternly. 'But I am not going to run from him. You would hate me for being a coward, Helen.'

She looked at him, puzzled. Then she saw that the holster at his hip was empty.

'Oh,' cried Helen wildly, 'not that! You must kill him, Alan. I was mad with fear. I----'

Stopping the flow of her words there swept over her the paralyzing certainty that it was useless to batter against fate; that a man's destiny was not to be thrust aside by a woman's love. For out of the silence there burst a sound which to her quivering nerves was fraught with word of death; that sound which in countless human hearts presages a death before the dawn--the long, lugubrious howling of a dog. It seemed to her to burst out of the nothingness of the sky, to arise in the void of an unseen ghostly world where spirit voices foretold the onrush of destruction.

Jim Courtot was hurrying up the slope. They saw him stop dead in his tracks. He, too, seemed turned to stone by the sound. It came again, the terrible howling of a dog, nearer as though the creature sped across the hills on the wings of the quickening morning wind. Sanchia stopped and began to draw back. Longstreet came on unconcernedly.

A third time, and again nearer, came the strange baying. Courtot held where he was, balancing briefly. Then they heard him cry out, his voice strange and hoarse; he whirled about and began to run. He was going down the trail now, running as a man runs only from his death, stumbling, cursing, rising and plunging on.

'Look!' Howard's fingers had locked upon Helen's arm. 'It is Kish Taka!'

She looked. Behind them, outlined against the sky, were a strange pair. A great beast, head down, howling as it ran, that was bigger than a desert wolf, and close behind it, gaunt body doubled, speeding like an arrow, a naked man. They flashed across the open space and sped down the steep slope of the ravine where, in the shadows, they became mere ghost figures.

'It is Kish Taka!' said Howard a second time. 'And again Kish Taka has saved my life.'

Dazed, the girl did not yet understand. She shivered and drew close to her lover, stepping into his arms. He held her tight, and they turned their fascinated eyes below. The speed of Jim Courtot in the grip of his terror was great; but it looked like lingering leisure compared to the speed of Kish Taka and his great hungering dog. And, now, behind Kish Taka came a second dog, like the first; and behind it a second man, like Kish Taka.

If Jim Courtot remembered his revolver, it must have been to know that not long would that stand between him and the two rushing, slavering beasts and the two avenging Indians behind him. His one hope was his hidden cave with its small orifice and concealed exit. And Jim Courtot must have realized how small was his chance of coming to it.

They saw him plunge on. The light slowly increased. They saw how the dogs and men gained upon him. They lost sight of all down in the ravine among the shadows. They saw Courtot again, still in the lead but losing ground. They lost sight of him again. They heard a wild scream, a gun fired, the howl of a dog. Another scream, tortured and terrified. Then, in the passes of the hills, it was as still as death.

Longstreet, alone, had not seen all of this; the dogs had swept on, but to him, deep in his own thoughts, they were but dogs barking as dogs have a way of doing. Sanchia sat in a crumpled heap, her face in her hands. Longstreet's face was smiling when he came to where his daughter stood with her lover's arms tight about her.

'I gave that woman her chance, and she was not innocent,' he announced equably. 'I wanted to make sure, but I had my doubts of her, my dear. Do you know,' he went on brightly, as though he were but now making a fresh discovery of tremendous importance to the world, 'I am inclined to believe that she is entirely untrustworthy! I first began to suspect her when she appeared to be in love with me!' He came closer and patted Helen's hand; his kindly eyes, passing over the stakes of his claim, were gentle as he peered reminiscently across the dead departed years. 'Why, no woman ever did that except your mother, my dear!'

The Desert Valley - 46/46

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