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Title: The Border Legion
Author: Grey, Zane
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Border Legion" ***

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THE BORDER LEGION

By Zane Grey



1

Joan Randle reined in her horse on the crest of the cedar ridge, and
with remorse and dread beginning to knock at her heart she gazed before
her at the wild and looming mountain range.

“Jim wasn’t fooling me,” she said. “He meant it. He’s going straight for
the border... Oh, why did I taunt him!”

It was indeed a wild place, that southern border of Idaho, and that year
was to see the ushering in of the wildest time probably ever known
in the West. The rush for gold had peopled California with a horde of
lawless men of every kind and class. And the vigilantes and then the
rich strikes in Idaho had caused a reflux of that dark tide of humanity.
Strange tales of blood and gold drifted into the camps, and prospectors
and hunters met with many unknown men.

Joan had quarreled with Jim Cleve, and she was bitterly regretting it.
Joan was twenty years old, tall, strong, dark. She had been born in
Missouri, where her father had been well-to-do and prominent, until,
like many another man of his day, he had impeded the passage of a
bullet. Then Joan had become the protegee of an uncle who had responded
to the call of gold; and the latter part of her life had been spent in
the wilds.

She had followed Jim’s trail for miles out toward the range. And now she
dismounted to see if his tracks were as fresh as she had believed. He
had left the little village camp about sunrise. Someone had seen him
riding away and had told Joan. Then he had tarried on the way, for it
was now midday. Joan pondered. She had become used to his idle threats
and disgusted with his vacillations. That had been the trouble--Jim
was amiable, lovable, but since meeting Joan he had not exhibited any
strength of character. Joan stood beside her horse and looked away
toward the dark mountains. She was daring, resourceful, used to horses
and trails and taking care of herself; and she did not need anyone to
tell her that she had gone far enough. It had been her hope to come up
with Jim. Always he had been repentant. But this time was different. She
recalled his lean, pale face--so pale that freckles she did not know he
had showed through--and his eyes, usually so soft and mild, had glinted
like steel. Yes, it had been a bitter, reckless face. What had she said
to him? She tried to recall it.

The night before at twilight Joan had waited for him. She had given
him precedence over the few other young men of the village, a fact she
resentfully believed he did not appreciate. Jim was unsatisfactory in
every way except in the way he cared for her. And that also--for he
cared too much.

When Joan thought how Jim loved her, all the details of that night
became vivid. She sat alone under the spruce-trees near the cabin. The
shadows thickened, and then lightened under a rising moon. She heard the
low hum of insects, a distant laugh of some woman of the village, and
the murmur of the brook. Jim was later than usual. Very likely, as
her uncle had hinted, Jim had tarried at the saloon that had lately
disrupted the peace of the village. The village was growing, and
Joan did not like the change. There were too many strangers, rough,
loud-voiced, drinking men. Once it had been a pleasure to go to the
village store; now it was an ordeal. Somehow Jim had seemed to be
unfavorably influenced by these new conditions. Still, he had never
amounted to much. Her resentment, or some feeling she had, was reaching
a climax. She got up from her seat. She would not wait any longer for
him, and when she did see him it would be to tell him a few blunt facts.

Just then there was a slight rustle behind her. Before she could turn
someone seized her in powerful arms. She was bent backward in a bearish
embrace, so that she could neither struggle nor cry out. A dark face
loomed over hers--came closer. Swift kisses closed her eyes, burned her
cheeks, and ended passionately on her lips. They had some strange power
over her. Then she was released.

Joan staggered back, frightened, outraged. She was so dazed she did not
recognize the man, if indeed she knew him. But a laugh betrayed him. It
was Jim.

“You thought I had no nerve,” he said. “What do you think of that?”

Suddenly Joan was blindly furious. She could have killed him. She had
never given him any right, never made him any promise, never let him
believe she cared. And he had dared--! The hot blood boiled in her
cheeks. She was furious with him, but intolerably so with herself,
because somehow those kisses she had resented gave her unknown pain
and shame. They had sent a shock through all her being. She thought she
hated him.

“You--you--” she broke out. “Jim Cleve, that ends you with me!”

“Reckon I never had a beginning with you,” he replied, bitterly. “It was
worth a good deal... I’m not sorry... By Heaven--I’ve--kissed you!”

He breathed heavily. She could see how pale he had grown in the shadowy
moonlight. She sensed a difference in him--a cool, reckless defiance.

“You’ll be sorry,” she said. “I’ll have nothing to do with you any
more.”

“All right. But I’m not, and I won’t be sorry.”

She wondered whether he had fallen under the influence of drink. Jim
had never cared for liquor, which virtue was about the only one he
possessed. Remembering his kisses, she knew he had not been drinking.
There was a strangeness about him, though, that she could not fathom.
Had he guessed his kisses would have that power? If he dared again--!
She trembled, and it was not only rage. But she would teach him a
lesson.

“Joan, I kissed you because I can’t be a hangdog any longer,” he said.
“I love you and I’m no good without you. You must care a little for me.
Let’s marry... I’ll--”

“Never!” she replied, like flint. “You’re no good at all.”

“But I am,” he protested, with passion. “I used to do things. But
since--since I’ve met you I’ve lost my nerve. I’m crazy for you. You
let the other men run after you. Some of them aren’t fit to--to--Oh, I’m
sick all the time! Now it’s longing and then it’s jealousy. Give me a
chance, Joan.”

“Why?” she queried, coldly. “Why should I? You’re shiftless. You won’t
work. When you do find a little gold you squander it. You have nothing
but a gun. You can’t do anything but shoot.”

“Maybe that’ll come in handy,” he said, lightly.

“Jim Cleve, you haven’t it in you even to be BAD,” she went on,
stingingly.

At that he made a violent gesture. Then he loomed over her. “Joan
Handle, do you mean that?” he asked.

“I surely do,” she responded. At last she had struck fire from him. The
fact was interesting. It lessened her anger.

“Then I’m so low, so worthless, so spineless that I can’t even be bad?”

“Yes, you are.”

“That’s what you think of me--after I’ve ruined myself for love of you?”

She laughed tauntingly. How strange and hot a glee she felt in hurting
him!

“By God, I’ll show you!” he cried, hoarsely.

“What will you do, Jim?” she asked, mockingly.

“I’ll shake this camp. I’ll rustle for the border. I’ll get in with
Kells and Gulden... You’ll hear of me, Joan Randle!”

These were names of strange, unknown, and wild men of a growing and
terrible legion on the border. Out there, somewhere, lived desperados,
robbers, road-agents, murderers. More and more rumor had brought tidings
of them into the once quiet village. Joan felt a slight cold sinking
sensation at her heart. But this was only a magnificent threat of Jim’s.
He could not do such a thing. She would never let him, even if he could.
But after the incomprehensible manner of woman, she did not tell him
that.

“Bah! You haven’t the nerve!” she retorted, with another mocking laugh.

Haggard and fierce, he glared down at her a moment, and then without
another word he strode away. Joan was amazed, and a little sick, a
little uncertain: still she did not call him back.

And now at noon of the next day she had tracked him miles toward the
mountains. It was a broad trail he had taken, one used by prospectors
and hunters. There was no danger of her getting lost. What risk she
ran was of meeting some of these border ruffians that had of late been
frequent visitors in the village. Presently she mounted again and rode
down the ridge. She would go a mile or so farther.

Behind every rock and cedar she expected to find Jim. Surely he had only
threatened her. But she had taunted him in a way no man could stand, and
if there were any strength of character in him he would show it now. Her
remorse and dread increased. After all, he was only a boy--only a couple
of years older than she was. Under stress of feeling he might go to any
extreme. Had she misjudged him? If she had not, she had at least been
brutal. But he had dared to kiss her! Every time she thought of that
a tingling, a confusion, a hot shame went over her. And at length Joan
marveled to find that out of the affront to her pride, and the quarrel,
and the fact of his going and of her following, and especially out of
this increasing remorseful dread, there had flourished up a strange and
reluctant respect for Jim Cleve.

She climbed another ridge and halted again. This time she saw a horse
and rider down in the green. Her heart leaped. It must be Jim returning.
After all, then, he had only threatened. She felt relieved and glad, yet
vaguely sorry. She had been right in her conviction.

She had not watched long, however, before she saw that this was not the
horse Jim usually rode. She took the precaution then to hide behind some
bushes, and watched from there. When the horseman approached closer
she discerned that instead of Jim it was Harvey Roberts, a man of the
village and a good friend of her uncle’s. Therefore she rode out of her
covert and hailed him. It was a significant thing that at the sound
of her voice Roberts started suddenly and reached for his gun. Then he
recognized her.

“Hello, Joan!” he exclaimed, turning her way. “Reckon you give me a
scare. You ain’t alone way out here?”

“Yes. I was trailing Jim when I saw you,” she replied. “Thought you were
Jim.”

“Trailin’ Jim! What’s up?”

“We quarreled. He swore he was going to the devil. Over on the border!
I was mad and told him to go.... But I’m sorry now--and have been trying
to catch up with him.”

“Ahuh!... So that’s Jim’s trail. I sure was wonderin’. Joan, it turns
off a few miles back an’ takes the trail for the border. I know. I’ve
been in there.”

Joan glanced up sharply at Roberts. His scarred and grizzled face seemed
grave and he avoided her gaze.

“You don’t believe--Jim’ll really go?” she asked, hurriedly.

“Reckon I do, Joan,” he replied, after a pause. “Jim is just fool
enough. He had been gettrn’ recklessler lately. An’, Joan, the times
ain’t provocatin’ a young feller to be good. Jim had a bad fight the
other night. He about half killed young Bradley. But I reckon you know.”

“I’ve heard nothing,” she replied. “Tell me. Why did they fight?”

“Report was that Bradley talked oncomplementary about you.”

Joan experienced a sweet, warm rush of blood--another new and strange
emotion. She did not like Bradley. He had been persistent and offensive.

“Why didn’t Jim tell me?” she queried, half to herself.

“Reckon he wasn’t proud of the shape he left Bradley in,” replied
Roberts, with a laugh. “Come on, Joan, an’ make back tracks for home.”

Joan was silent a moment while she looked over the undulating green
ridges toward the great gray and black walls. Something stirred deep
within her. Her father in his youth had been an adventurer. She felt the
thrill and the call of her blood. And she had been unjust to a man who
loved her.

“I’m going after him,” she said.

Roberts did not show any surprise. He looked at the position of the sun.
“Reckon we might overtake him an’ get home before sundown,” he said,
laconically, as he turned his horse. “We’ll make a short cut across here
a few miles, an’ strike his trail. Can’t miss it.”

Then he set off at a brisk trot and Joan fell in behind. She had a busy
mind, and it was a sign of her preoccupation that she forgot to thank
Roberts. Presently they struck into a valley, a narrow depression
between the foothills and the ridges, and here they made faster time.
The valley appeared miles long. Toward the middle of it Roberts called
out to Joan, and, looking down, she saw they had come up with Jim’s
trail. Here Roberts put his mount to a canter, and at that gait they
trailed Jim out of the valley and up a slope which appeared to be a
pass into the mountains. Time flew by for Joan, because she was always
peering ahead in the hope and expectation of seeing Jim off in the
distance. But she had no glimpse of him. Now and then Roberts would
glance around at the westering sun. The afternoon had far advanced. Joan
began to worry about home. She had been so sure of coming up with Jim
and returning early in the day that she had left no word as to her
intentions. Probably by this time somebody was out looking for her.

The country grew rougher, rock-strewn, covered with cedars and patches
of pine. Deer crashed out of the thickets and grouse whirred up from
under the horses. The warmth of the summer afternoon chilled.

“Reckon we’d better give it up,” called Roberts back to her.

“No--no. Go on,” replied Joan.

And they urged their horses faster. Finally they reached the summit of
the slope. From that height they saw down into a round, shallow valley,
which led on, like all the deceptive reaches, to the ranges. There was
water down there. It glinted like red ribbon in the sunlight. Not a
living thing was in sight. Joan grew more discouraged. It seemed there
was scarcely any hope of overtaking Jim that day. His trail led off
round to the left and grew difficult to follow. Finally, to make matters
worse, Roberts’s horse slipped in a rocky wash and lamed himself. He did
not want to go on, and, when urged, could hardly walk.

Roberts got off to examine the injury. “Wal, he didn’t break his leg,”
 he said, which was his manner of telling how bad the injury was. “Joan,
I reckon there’ll be some worryin’ back home tonight. For your horse
can’t carry double an’ I can’t walk.”

Joan dismounted. There was water in the wash, and she helped Roberts
bathe the sprained and swelling joint. In the interest and sympathy of
the moment she forgot her own trouble.

“Reckon we’ll have to make camp right here,” said Roberts, looking
around. “Lucky I’ve a pack on that saddle. I can make you comfortable.
But we’d better be careful about a fire an’ not have one after dark.”

“There’s no help for it,” replied Joan. “Tomorrow we’ll go on after
Jim. He can’t be far ahead now.” She was glad that it was impossible to
return home until the next day.

Roberts took the pack off his horse, and then the saddle. And he was
bending over in the act of loosening the cinches of Joan’s saddle when
suddenly he straightened up with a jerk.

“What’s that?”

Joan heard soft, dull thumps on the turf and then the sharp crack of an
unshod hoof upon stone. Wheeling, she saw three horsemen. They were
just across the wash and coming toward her. One rider pointed in her
direction. Silhouetted against the red of the sunset they made dark and
sinister figures. Joan glanced apprehensively at Roberts. He was staring
with a look of recognition in his eyes. Under his breath he muttered a
curse. And although Joan was not certain, she believed that his face had
shaded gray.

The three horsemen halted on the rim of the wash. One of them was
leading a mule that carried a pack and a deer carcass. Joan had seen
many riders apparently just like these, but none had ever so subtly and
powerfully affected her.

“Howdy,” greeted one of the men.

And then Joan was positive that the face of Roberts had turned ashen
gray.



2

“It ain’t you--KELLS?”

Roberts’s query was a confirmation of his own recognition. And the
other’s laugh was an answer, if one were needed.

The three horsemen crossed the wash and again halted, leisurely, as if
time was no object. They were all young, under thirty. The two who had
not spoken were rough-garbed, coarse-featured, and resembled in general
a dozen men Joan saw every day. Kells was of a different stamp. Until he
looked at her he reminded her of someone she had known back in Missouri;
after he looked at her she was aware, in a curious, sickening way, that
no such person as he had ever before seen her. He was pale, gray-eyed,
intelligent, amiable. He appeared to be a man who had been a gentleman.
But there was something strange, intangible, immense about him. Was that
the effect of his presence or of his name? Kells! It was only a word to
Joan. But it carried a nameless and terrible suggestion. During the
last year many dark tales had gone from camp to camp in Idaho--some too
strange, too horrible for credence--and with every rumor the fame of
Kells had grown, and also a fearful certainty of the rapid growth of a
legion of evil men out on the border. But no one in the village or from
any of the camps ever admitted having seen this Kells. Had fear kept
them silent? Joan was amazed that Roberts evidently knew this man.

Kells dismounted and offered his hand. Roberts took it and shook it
constrainedly.

“Where did we meet last?” asked Kells.

“Reckon it was out of Fresno,” replied Roberts, and it was evident that
he tried to hide the effect of a memory.

Then Kells touched his hat to Joan, giving her the fleetest kind of a
glance. “Rather off the track aren’t you?” he asked Roberts.

“Reckon we are,” replied Roberts, and he began to lose some of his
restraint. His voice sounded clearer and did not halt. “Been trailin’
Miss Randle’s favorite hoss. He’s lost. An’ we got farther ‘n we had any
idee. Then my hoss went lame. ‘Fraid we can’t start home to-night.”

“Where are you from?”

“Hoadley. Bill Hoadley’s town, back thirty miles or so.”

“Well, Roberts, if you’ve no objection we’ll camp here with you,”
 continued Kells. “We’ve got some fresh meat.”

With that he addressed a word to his comrades, and they repaired to a
cedar-tree near-by, where they began to unsaddle and unpack.

Then Roberts, bending nearer Joan, as if intent on his own pack, began
to whisper, hoarsely: “That’s Jack Kells, the California road-agent.
He’s a gun fighter--a hell-bent rattlesnake. When I saw him last he
had a rope round his neck an’ was bein’ led away to be hanged. I heerd
afterward he was rescued by pals. Joan, if the idee comes into his
head he’ll kill me. I don’t know what to do. For God’s sake think of
somethin’!... Use your woman’s wits!... We couldn’t be in a wuss fix!”

Joan felt rather unsteady on her feet, so that it was a relief to sit
down. She was cold and sick inwardly, almost stunned. Some great peril
menaced her. Men like Roberts did not talk that way without cause. She
was brave; she was not unused to danger. But this must be a different
kind, compared with which all she had experienced was but insignificant.
She could not grasp Roberts’s intimation. Why should he be killed? They
had no gold, no valuables. Even their horses were nothing to inspire
robbery. It must be that there was peril to Roberts and to her because
she was a girl, caught out in the wilds, easy prey for beasts of evil
men. She had heard of such things happening. Still, she could not
believe it possible for her. Roberts could protect her. Then this
amiable, well-spoken Kells, he was no Western rough--he spoke like an
educated man; surely he would not harm her. So her mind revolved round
fears, conjectures, possibilities; she could not find her wits. She
could not think how to meet the situation, even had she divined what the
situation was to be.

While she sat there in the shade of a cedar the men busied themselves
with camp duties. None of them appeared to pay any attention to Joan.
They talked while they worked, as any other group of campers might have
talked, and jested and laughed. Kells made a fire, and carried water,
then broke cedar boughs for later camp-fire use; one of the strangers
whom they called Bill hobbled the horses; the other unrolled the pack,
spread a tarpaulin, and emptied the greasy sacks; Roberts made biscuit
dough for the oven.

The sun sank red and a ruddy twilight fell. It soon passed. Darkness had
about set in when Roberts came over to Joan, carrying bread, coffee, and
venison.

“Here’s your supper, Joan,” he called, quite loud and cheerily, and then
he whispered: “Mebbe it ain’t so bad. They-all seem friendly. But I’m
scared, Joan. If you jest wasn’t so dam’ handsome, or if only he hadn’t
seen you!”

“Can’t we slip off in the dark?” she whispered in return.

“We might try. But it’d be no use if they mean bad. I can’t make up my
mind yet what’s comin’ off. It’s all right for you to pretend you’re
bashful. But don’t lose your nerve.”

Then he returned to the camp-fire. Joan was hungry. She ate and drank
what had been given her, and that helped her to realize reality. And
although dread abided with her, she grew curious. Almost she imagined
she was fascinated by her predicament. She had always been an emotional
girl of strong will and self-restraint. She had always longed for she
knew not what--perhaps freedom. Certain places had haunted her. She had
felt that something should have happened to her there. Yet nothing ever
had happened. Certain books had obsessed her, even when a child, and
often to her mother’s dismay; for these books had been of wild places
and life on the sea, adventure, and bloodshed. It had always been said
of her that she should have been a boy.

Night settled down black. A pale, narrow cloud, marked by a train of
stars, extended across the dense blue sky. The wind moaned in the cedars
and roared in the replenished camp-fire. Sparks flew away into the
shadows. And on the puffs of smoke that blew toward her came the sweet,
pungent odor of burning cedar. Coyotes barked off under the brush, and
from away on the ridge drifted the dismal defiance of a wolf.

Camp-life was no new thing to Joan. She had crossed the plains in
a wagon-train, that more than once had known the long-drawn yell of
hostile Indians. She had prospected and hunted in the mountains with her
uncle, weeks at a time. But never before this night had the wildness,
the loneliness, been so vivid to her.

Roberts was on his knees, scouring his oven with wet sand. His big,
shaggy head nodded in the firelight. He seemed pondering and thick and
slow. There was a burden upon him. The man Bill and his companion lay
back against stones and conversed low. Kells stood up in the light of
the blaze. He had a pipe at which he took long pulls and then sent up
clouds of smoke. There was nothing imposing in his build or striking in
his face, at that distance; but it took no second look to see here was
a man remarkably out of the ordinary. Some kind of power and intensity
emanated from him. From time to time he appeared to glance in Joan’s
direction; still, she could not be sure, for his eyes were but shadows.
He had cast aside his coat. He wore a vest open all the way, and a
checked soft shirt, with a black tie hanging untidily. A broad belt
swung below his hip and in the holster was a heavy gun. That was a
strange place to carry a gun, Joan thought. It looked awkward to her.
When he walked it might swing round and bump against his leg. And he
certainly would have to put it some other place when he rode.

“Say, have you got a blanket for that girl?” asked Kells, removing his
pipe from his lips to address Roberts.

“I got saddle-blankets,” responded Roberts. “You see, we didn’t expect
to be caught out.”

“I’ll let you have one,” said Kells, walking away from the fire. “It
will be cold.” He returned with a blanket, which he threw to Roberts.

“Much obliged,” muttered Roberts.

“I’ll bunk by the fire,” went on the other, and with that he sat down
and appeared to become absorbed in thought.

Roberts brought the borrowed blanket and several saddle-blankets over to
where Joan was, and laying them down he began to kick and scrape stones
and brush aside.

“Pretty rocky place, this here is,” he said. “Reckon you’ll sleep some,
though.”

Then he began arranging the blankets into a bed. Presently Joan felt a
tug at her riding-skirt. She looked down.

“I’ll be right by you,” he whispered, with his big hand to his mouth,
“an’ I ain’t a-goin’ to sleep none.”

Whereupon he returned to the camp-fire. Presently Joan, not because she
was tired or sleepy, but because she wanted to act naturally, lay down
on the bed and pulled a blanket up over her. There was no more talking
among the men. Once she heard the jingle of spurs and the rustle of
cedar brush. By and by Roberts came back to her, dragging his saddle,
and lay down near her. Joan raised up a little to see Kells motionless
and absorbed by the fire. He had a strained and tense position. She sank
back softly and looked up at the cold bright stars. What was going to
happen to her? Something terrible! The very night shadows, the silence,
the presence of strange men, all told her. And a shudder that was a
thrill ran over and over her.

She would lie awake. It would be impossible to sleep. And suddenly into
her full mind flashed an idea to slip away in the darkness, find her
horse, and so escape from any possible menace. This plan occupied her
thoughts for a long while. If she had not been used to Western ways she
would have tried just that thing. But she rejected it. She was not
sure that she could slip away, or find her horse, or elude pursuit,
and certainly not sure of her way home. It would be best to stay with
Roberts.

When that was settled her mind ceased to race. She grew languid and
sleepy. The warmth of the blankets stole over her. She had no idea of
sleeping, yet she found sleep more and more difficult to resist.
Time that must have been hours passed. The fire died down and then
brightened; the shadows darkened and then lightened. Someone now and
then got up to throw on wood. The thump of hobbled hoofs sounded out in
the darkness. The wind was still and the coyotes were gone. She could
no longer open her eyes. They seemed glued shut. And then gradually all
sense of the night and the wild, of the drowsy warmth, faded.

When she awoke the air was nipping cold. Her eyes snapped open clear and
bright. The tips of the cedars were ruddy in the sunrise. A camp-fire
crackled. Blue smoke curled upward. Joan sat up with a rush of memory.
Roberts and Kells were bustling round the fire. The man Bill was
carrying water. The other fellow had brought in the horses and was
taking off the hobbles. No one, apparently, paid any attention to Joan.
She got up and smoothed out her tangled hair, which she always wore in
a braid down her back when she rode. She had slept, then, and in her
boots! That was the first time she had ever done that. When she went
down to the brook to bathe her face and wash her hands, the men still,
apparently, took no notice of her. She began to hope that Roberts had
exaggerated their danger. Her horse was rather skittish and did not care
for strange hands. He broke away from the bunch. Joan went after him,
even lost sight of camp. Presently, after she caught him, she led him
back to camp and tied him up. And then she was so far emboldened as to
approach the fire and to greet the men.

“Good morning,” she said, brightly.

Kells had his back turned at the moment. He did not move or speak or
give any sign he had heard. The man Bill stared boldly at her, but
without a word. Roberts returned her greeting, and as she glanced
quickly at him, drawn by his voice, he turned away. But she had seen
that his face was dark, haggard, worn.

Joan’s cheer and hope sustained a sudden and violent check. There was
something wrong in this group, and she could not guess what it was. She
seemed to have a queer, dragging weight at her limbs. She was glad
to move over to a stone and sink down upon it. Roberts brought her
breakfast, but he did not speak or look at her. His hands shook. And
this frightened Joan. What was going to happen? Roberts went back to
the camp-fire. Joan had to force herself to eat. There was one thing of
which she was sure--that she would need all the strength and fortitude
she could summon.

Joan became aware, presently, that Kells was conversing with Roberts,
but too low for her to hear what was said. She saw Roberts make a
gesture of fierce protest. About the other man there was an air cool,
persuading, dominant. He ceased speaking, as if the incident were
closed. Roberts hurried and blundered through his task with his pack and
went for his horse. The animal limped slightly, but evidently was not in
bad shape. Roberts saddled him, tied on the pack. Then he saddled Joan’s
horse. That done, he squared around with the front of a man who had to
face something he dreaded.

“Come on, Joan. We’re ready,” he called. His voice was loud, but not
natural.

Joan started to cross to him when Kells strode between them. She might
not have been there, for all the sign this ominous man gave of her
presence. He confronted Roberts in the middle of the camp-circle, and
halted, perhaps a rod distant.

“Roberts, get on your horse and clear out,” he said.

Roberts dropped his halter and straightened up. It was a bolder action
than any he had heretofore given. Perhaps the mask was off now; he was
wholly sure of what he had only feared; subterfuge and blindness were
in vain; and now he could be a man. Some change worked in his face--a
blanching, a setting.

“No, I won’t go without the girl,” he said.

“But you can’t take her!”

Joan vibrated to a sudden start. So this was what was going to happen.
Her heart almost stood still. Breathless and quivering, she watched
these two men, about whom now all was strangely magnified.

“Reckon I’ll go along with you, then,” replied Roberts.

“Your company’s not wanted.”

“Wal, I’ll go anyway.”

This was only play at words, Joan thought. She divined in Roberts a
cold and grim acceptance of something he had expected. And the voice
of Kells--what did that convey? Still the man seemed slow, easy, kind,
amiable.

“Haven’t you got any sense, Roberts?” he asked.

Roberts made no reply to that.

“Go on home. Say nothing or anything--whatever you like,” continued
Kells. “You did me a favor once over in California. I like to remember
favors. Use your head now. Hit the trail.”

“Not without her. I’ll fight first,” declared Roberts, and his hands
began to twitch and jerk.

Joan did not miss the wonderful intentness of the pale-gray eyes that
watched Roberts--his face, his glance, his hands.

“What good will it do to fight?” asked Kells. He laughed coolly. “That
won’t help her... You ought to know what you’ll get.”

“Kells--I’ll die before I leave that girl in your clutches,” flashed
Roberts. “An’ I ain’t a-goin’ to stand here an’ argue with you. Let her
come--or--”

“You don’t strike me as a fool,” interrupted Kells. His voice was suave,
smooth, persuasive, cool. What strength--what certainty appeared behind
it! “It’s not my habit to argue with fools. Take the chance I offer
you. Hit the trail. Life is precious, man!... You’ve no chance here. And
what’s one girl more or less to you?”

“Kells, I may be a fool, but I’m a man,” passionately rejoined Roberts.
“Why, you’re somethin’ inhuman! I knew that out in the gold-fields. But
to think you can stand there--an’ talk sweet an’ pleasant--with no idee
of manhood!... Let her come now--or--or I’m a-goin’ for my gun!”

“Roberts, haven’t you a wife--children?”

“Yes, I have,” shouted Roberts, huskily. “An’ that wife would disown me
if I left Joan Randle to you. An’ I’ve got a grown girl. Mebbe some day
she might need a man to stand between her an’ such as you, Jack Kells!”

All Roberts’ pathos and passion had no effect, unless to bring out by
contrast the singular and ruthless nature of Jack Kells.

“Will you hit the trail?”

“No!” thundered Roberts.

Until then Joan Randle had been fascinated, held by the swift
interchange between her friend and enemy. But now she had a convulsion
of fear. She had seen men fight, but never to the death. Roberts
crouched like a wolf at bay. There was a madness upon him. He shook like
a rippling leaf. Suddenly his shoulder lurched--his arm swung.

Joan wheeled away in horror, shutting her eyes, covering her ears,
running blindly. Then upon her muffled hearing burst the boom of a gun.



3

Joan ran on, stumbling over rocks and brush, with a darkness before her
eyes, the terror in her soul. She was out in the cedars when someone
grasped her from behind. She felt the hands as the coils of a snake.
Then she was ready to faint, but she must not faint. She struggled away,
stood free. It was the man Bill who had caught her. He said something
that was unintelligible. She reached for the snag of a dead cedar and,
leaning there, fought her weakness, that cold black horror which seemed
a physical thing in her mind, her blood, her muscles.

When she recovered enough for the thickness to leave her sight she saw
Kells coming, leading her horse and his own. At sight of him a strange,
swift heat shot through her. Then she was confounded with the thought of
Roberts.

“Ro--Roberts?” she faltered.

Kells gave her a piercing glance. “Miss Randle, I had to take the fight
out of your friend,” he said.

“You--you--Is he--dead?”

“I just crippled his gun arm. If I hadn’t he would have hurt somebody.
He’ll ride back to Hoadley and tell your folks about it. So they’ll know
you’re safe.”

“Safe!” she whispered.

“That’s what I said, Miss Randle. If you’re going to ride out into the
border--if it’s possible to be safe out there you’ll be so with me.”

“But I want to go home. Oh, please let me go!”

“I couldn’t think of it.”

“Then--what will you--do with me?”

Again that gray glance pierced her. His eyes were clear, flawless, like
crystal, without coldness, warmth, expression. “I’ll get a barrel of
gold out of you.”

“How?” she asked, wonderingly.

“I’ll hold you for ransom. Sooner or later those prospectors over there
are going to strike gold. Strike it rich! I know that. I’ve got to make
a living some way.”

Kells was tightening the cinch on her saddle while he spoke. His voice,
his manner, the amiable smile on his intelligent face, they all appeared
to come from sincerity. But for those strange eyes Joan would have
wholly believed him. As it was, a half doubt troubled her. She
remembered the character Roberts had given this man. Still, she was
recovering her nerve. It had been the certainty of disaster to Roberts
that had made her weaken. As he was only slightly wounded and free to
ride home safely, she had not the horror of his death upon her.
Indeed, she was now so immensely uplifted that she faced the situation
unflinchingly.

“Bill,” called Kells to the man standing there with a grin on his coarse
red face, “you go back and help Halloway pack. Then take my trail.”

Bill nodded, and was walking away when Kells called after him: “And say,
Bill, don’t say anything to Roberts. He’s easily riled.”

“Haw! Haw! Haw!” laughed Bill.

His harsh laughter somehow rang jarringly in Joan’s ears. But she was
used to violent men who expressed mirth over mirthless jokes.

“Get up, Miss Randle,” said Kells as he mounted. “We’ve a long ride.
You’ll need all your strength. So I advise you to come quietly with me
and not try to get away. It won’t be any use trying.”

Joan climbed into her saddle and rode after him. Once she looked back
in hope of seeing Roberts, of waving a hand to him. She saw his horse
standing saddled, and she saw Bill struggling under a pack, but there
was no sign of Roberts. Then more cedars intervened and the camp site
was lost to view. When she glanced ahead her first thought was to take
in the points of Kells’s horse. She had been used to horses all her
life. Kells rode a big rangy bay--a horse that appeared to snort speed
and endurance. Her pony could never run away from that big brute. Still
Joan had the temper to make an attempt to escape, if a favorable way
presented.

The morning was rosy, clear, cool; there was a sweet, dry tang in
the air; white-tailed deer bounded out of the open spaces; and the
gray-domed, glistening mountains, with their bold, black-fringed slopes,
overshadowed the close foot-hills.

Joan was a victim to swift vagaries of thought and conflicting emotions.
She was riding away with a freebooter, a road-agent, to be held for
ransom. The fact was scarcely credible. She could not shake the dread
of nameless peril. She tried not to recall Roberts’s words, yet they
haunted her. If she had not been so handsome, he had said! Joan knew
she possessed good looks, but they had never caused her any particular
concern. That Kells had let that influence him--as Roberts had
imagined--was more than absurd. Kells had scarcely looked at her. It was
gold such men wanted. She wondered what her ransom would be, where her
uncle would get it, and if there really was a likelihood of that rich
strike. Then she remembered her mother, who had died when she was a
little girl, and a strange, sweet sadness abided with her. It passed.
She saw her uncle--that great, robust, hearty, splendid old man, with
his laugh and his kindness, and his love for her, and his everlasting
unquenchable belief that soon he would make a rich gold-strike. What a
roar and a stampede he would raise at her loss! The village camp might
be divided on that score, she thought, because the few young women in
that little settlement hated her, and the young men would have more
peace without her. Suddenly her thought shifted to Jim Cleve, the
cause of her present misfortune. She had forgotten Jim. In the interval
somehow he had grown. Sweet to remember how he had fought for her and
kept it secret! After all, she had misjudged him. She had hated him
because she liked him. Maybe she did more! That gave her a shock. She
recalled his kisses and then flamed all over. If she did not hate him
she ought to. He had been so useless; he ran after her so; he was the
laughing-stock of the village; his actions made her other admirers and
friends believe she cared for him, was playing fast-and-loose with him.
Still, there was a difference now. He had terribly transgressed. He had
frightened her with threats of dire ruin to himself. And because of that
she had trailed him, to fall herself upon a hazardous experience.
Where was Jim Cleve now? Like a flash then occurred to her the singular
possibility. Jim had ridden for the border with the avowed and desperate
intention of finding Kells and Gulden and the bad men of that trackless
region. He would do what he had sworn he would. And here she was, the
cause of it all, a captive of this notorious Kells! She was being led
into that wild border country. Somewhere out there Kells and Jim Cleve
would meet. Jim would find her in Kells’s hands. Then there would be
hell, Joan thought. The possibility, the certainty, seemed to strike
deep into her, reviving that dread and terror. Yet she thrilled again; a
ripple that was not all cold coursed through her. Something had a birth
in her then, and the part of it she understood was that she welcomed
the adventure with a throbbing heart, yet looked with awe and shame and
distrust at this new, strange side of her nature.

And while her mind was thus thronged the morning hours passed swiftly,
the miles of foot-hills were climbed and descended. A green gap of
canon, wild and yellow-walled, yawned before her, opening into the
mountain.

Kells halted on the grassy bank of a shallow brook. “Get down. We’ll
noon here and rest the horses,” he said to Joan. “I can’t say that
you’re anything but game. We’ve done perhaps twenty-five miles this
morning.”

The mouth of this canon was a wild, green-flowered, beautiful place.
There were willows and alders and aspens along the brook. The green
bench was like a grassy meadow. Joan caught a glimpse of a brown object,
a deer or bear, stealing away through spruce-trees on the slope. She
dismounted, aware now that her legs ached and it was comfortable
to stretch them. Looking backward across the valley toward the last
foot-hill, she saw the other men, with horses and packs, coming. She had
a habit of close observation, and she thought that either the men with
the packs had now one more horse than she remembered, or else she had
not seen the extra one. Her attention shifted then. She watched Kells
unsaddle the horses. He was wiry, muscular, quick with his hands. The
big, blue-cylindered gun swung in front of him. That gun had a queer
kind of attraction for her. The curved black butt made her think of a
sharp grip of hand upon it. Kells did not hobble the horses. He slapped
his bay on the haunch and drove him down toward the brook. Joan’s pony
followed. They drank, cracked the stones, climbed the other bank, and
began to roll in the grass. Then the other men with the packs trotted
up. Joan was glad. She had not thought of it before, but now she felt
she would rather not be alone with Kells. She remarked then that there
was no extra horse in the bunch. It seemed strange, her thinking that,
and she imagined she was not clear-headed.

“Throw the packs, Bill,” said Kells.

Another fire was kindled and preparations made toward a noonday meal.
Bill and Halloway appeared loquacious, and inclined to steal glances at
Joan when Kells could not notice. Halloway whistled a Dixie tune. Then
Bill took advantage of the absence of Kells, who went down to the brook,
and he began to leer at Joan and make bold eyes at her. Joan appeared
not to notice him, and thereafter averted; her gaze. The men chuckled.

“She’s the proud hussy! But she ain’t foolin’ me. I’ve knowed a heap of
wimmen.” Whereupon Halloway guffawed, and between them, in lower tones,
they exchanged mysterious remarks. Kells returned with a bucket of
water.

“What’s got into you men?” he queried.

Both of them looked around, blusteringily innocent.

“Reckon it’s the same that’s ailin’ you,” replied Bill. He showed that
among wild, unhampered men how little could inflame and change.

“Boss, it’s the onaccustomed company,” added Halloway, with a
conciliatory smile. “Bill sort of warms up. He jest can’t help it. An’
seein’ what a thunderin’ crab he always is, why I’m glad an’ welcome.”

Kells vouchsafed no reply to this and, turning away, continued his
tasks. Joan had a close look at his eyes and again she was startled.
They were not like eyes, but just gray spaces, opaque openings, with
nothing visible behind, yet with something terrible there.

The preparations for the meal went on, somewhat constrainedly on the
part of Bill and Halloway, and presently were ended. Then the men
attended to it with appetites born of the open and of action. Joan sat
apart from them on the bank of the brook, and after she had appeased
her own hunger she rested, leaning back in the shade of an alderbush.
A sailing shadow crossed near her, and, looking up, she saw an eagle
flying above the ramparts of the canon. Then she had a drowsy spell, but
she succumbed to it only to the extent of closing her eyes. Time dragged
on. She would rather have been in the saddle. These men were leisurely,
and Kells was provokingly slow. They had nothing to do with time but
waste it. She tried to combat the desire for hurry, for action; she
could not gain anything by worry. Nevertheless, resignation would
not come to her and her hope began to flag. Something portended
evil--something hung in the balance.

The snort and tramp of horses roused her, and upon sitting up she saw
the men about to pack and saddle again. Kells had spoken to her only
twice so far that day. She was grateful for his silence, but could not
understand it. He seemed to have a preoccupied air that somehow did not
fit the amiableness of his face. He looked gentle, good-natured; he
was soft-spoken; he gave an impression of kindness. But Joan began to
realize that he was not what he seemed. He had something on his mind. It
was not conscience, nor a burden: it might be a projection, a plan,
an absorbing scheme, a something that gained food with thought. Joan
wondered doubtfully if it were the ransom of gold he expected to get.

Presently, when all was about in readiness for a fresh start, she rose
to her feet. Kells’s bay was not tractable at the moment. Bill held
out Joan’s bridle to her and their hands touched. The contact was an
accident, but it resulted in Bill’s grasping back at her hand. She
jerked it away, scarcely comprehending. Then all under the brown of his
face she saw creep a dark, ruddy tide. He reached for her then--put
his hand on her breast. It was an instinctive animal action. He meant
nothing. She divined that he could not help it. She had lived with rough
men long enough to know he had no motive--no thought at all. But at the
profanation of such a touch she shrank back, uttering a cry.

At her elbow she heard a quick step and a sharp-drawn breath or hiss.

“AW, JACK!” cried Bill.

Then Kells, in lithe and savage swiftness, came between them. He swung
his gun, hitting Bill full in the face. The man fell, limp and heavy,
and he lay there, with a bloody gash across his brow. Kells stood over
him a moment, slowly lowering the gun. Joan feared he meant to shoot.

“Oh, don’t--don’t!” she cried. “He--he didn’t hurt me.”

Kells pushed her back. When he touched her she seemed to feel the shock
of an electric current. His face had not changed, but his eyes were
terrible. On the background of gray were strange, leaping red flecks.

“Take your horse,” he ordered. “No. Walk across the brook. There’s a
trail. Go up the canon. I’ll come presently. Don’t run and don’t hide.
It’ll be the worse for you if you do. Hurry!”

Joan obeyed. She flashed past the open-jawed Halloway, and, running down
to the brook, stepped across from stone to stone. She found the trail
and hurriedly followed it. She did not look back. It never occurred
to her to hide, to try to get away. She only obeyed, conscious of some
force that dominated her. Once she heard loud voices, then the shrill
neigh of a horse. The trail swung under the left wall of the canon and
ran along the noisy brook. She thought she heard shots and was startled,
but she could not be sure. She stopped to listen. Only the babble of
swift water and the sough of wind in the spruces greeted her ears.
She went on, beginning to collect her thoughts, to conjecture on the
significance of Kells’s behavior.

But had that been the spring of his motive? She doubted it--she doubted
all about him, save that subtle essence of violence, of ruthless force
and intensity, of terrible capacity, which hung round him.

A halloo caused her to stop and turn. Two pack-horses were jogging up
the trail. Kells was driving them and leading her pony. Nothing could be
seen of the other men. Kells rapidly overhauled her, and she had to get
out of the trail to let the pack-animals pass. He threw her bridle to
her.

“Get up,” he said.

She complied. And then she bravely faced him. “Where are--the other
men?”

“We parted company,” he replied, curtly.

“Why?” she persisted.

“Well, if you’re anxious to know, it was because you were winning
their--regard--too much to suit me.”

“Winning their regard!” Joan exclaimed, blankly.

Here those gray, piercing eyes went through her, then swiftly shifted.
She was quick to divine from that the inference in his words--he
suspected her of flirting with those ruffians, perhaps to escape him
through them. That had only been his suspicion--groundless after his
swift glance at her. Perhaps unconsciousness of his meaning, a simulated
innocence, and ignorance might serve her with this strange man. She
resolved to try it, to use all her woman’s intuition and wit and
cunning. Here was an educated man who was a criminal--an outcast. Deep
within him might be memories of a different life. They might be stirred.
Joan decided in that swift instant that, if she could understand him,
learn his real intentions toward her, she could cope with him.

“Bill and his pard were thinking too much of--of the ransom I’m after,”
 went on Kells, with a short laugh. “Come on now. Ride close to me.”

Joan turned into the trail with his laugh ringing in her ears. Did she
only imagine a mockery in it? Was there any reason to believe a word
this man said? She appeared as helpless to see through him as she was in
her predicament.

They had entered a canon, such as was typical of that mountain range,
and the winding trail which ran beneath the yellow walls was one unused
to travel. Joan could not make out any old tracks, except those of deer
and cougar. The crashing of wild animals into the chaparral, and
the scarcely frightened flight of rabbits and grouse attested to the
wildness of the place. They passed an old tumbledown log cabin, once
used, no doubt, by prospectors and hunters. Here the trail ended. Yet
Kells kept on up the canon. And for all Joan could tell the walls grew
only the higher and the timber heavier and the space wilder.

At a turn, when the second pack-horse, that appeared unused to his task,
came fully into Joan’s sight, she was struck with his resemblance to
some horse with which she was familiar. It was scarcely an impression
which she might have received from seeing Kells’s horse or Bill’s or any
one’s a few times. Therefore she watched this animal, studying his gait
and behavior. It did not take long for her to discover that he was not
a pack-horse. He resented that burden. He did not know how to swing it.
This made her deeply thoughtful and she watched closer than ever. All
at once there dawned on her the fact that the resemblance here was to
Roberts’s horse. She caught her breath and felt again that cold gnawing
of fear within her. Then she closed her eyes the better to remember
significant points about Roberts’s sorrel--a white left front foot, an
old diamond brand, a ragged forelock, and an unusual marking, a light
bar across his face. When Joan had recalled these, she felt so certain
that she would find them on this pack-horse that she was afraid to open
her eyes. She forced herself to look, and it seemed that in one glance
she saw three of them. Still she clung to hope. Then the horse, picking
his way, partially turning toward her, disclosed the bar across his
face.

Joan recognized it. Roberts was not on his way home. Kells had lied.
Kells had killed him. How plain and fearful the proof! It verified
Roberts’s gloomy prophecy. Joan suddenly grew sick and dizzy. She reeled
in her saddle. It was only by dint of the last effort of strength and
self-control that she kept her seat. She fought the horror as if it were
a beast. Hanging over the pommel, with shut eyes, letting her pony
find the way, she sustained this shock of discovery and did not let it
utterly overwhelm her. And as she conquered the sickening weakness her
mind quickened to the changed aspect of her situation. She understood
Kells and the appalling nature of her peril. She did not know how she
understood him now, but doubt had utterly fled. All was clear, real,
grim, present. Like a child she had been deceived, for no reason she
could see. That talk of ransom was false. Likewise Kells’s assertion
that he had parted company with Halloway and Bill because he would not
share the ransom--that, too, was false. The idea of a ransom, in this
light, was now ridiculous. From that first moment Kells had wanted her;
he had tried to persuade Roberts to leave her, and, failing, had killed
him; he had rid himself of the other two men--and now Joan knew she had
heard shots back there. Kells’s intention loomed out of all his
dark brooding, and it stood clear now to her, dastardly, worse than
captivity, or torture, or death--the worst fate that could befall a
woman.

The reality of it now was so astounding. True--as true as those stories
she had deemed impossible! Because she and her people and friends had
appeared secure in their mountain camp and happy in their work and
trustful of good, they had scarcely credited the rumors of just such
things as had happened to her. The stage held up by roadagents, a lonely
prospector murdered and robbed, fights in the saloons and on the trails,
and useless pursuit of hardriding men out there on the border, elusive
as Arabs, swift as Apaches--these facts had been terrible enough,
without the dread of worse. The truth of her capture, the meaning of
it, were raw, shocking spurs to Joan Randle’s intelligence and courage.
Since she still lived, which was strange indeed in the illuminating
light of her later insight into Kells and his kind, she had to meet him
with all that was catlike and subtle and devilish at the command of a
woman. She had to win him, foil him, kill him--or go to her death. She
was no girl to be dragged into the mountain fastness by a desperado and
made a plaything. Her horror and terror had worked its way deep into
the depths of her and uncovered powers never suspected, never before
required in her scheme of life. She had no longer any fear. She matched
herself against this man. She anticipated him. And she felt like a woman
who had lately been a thoughtless girl, who, in turn, had dreamed
of vague old happenings of a past before she was born, of impossible
adventures in her own future. Hate and wrath and outraged womanhood were
not wholly the secret of Joan Randle’s flaming spirit.



4

Joan Randle rode on and on, through the canon, out at its head and over
a pass into another canon, and never did she let it be possible for
Kells to see her eyes until she knew beyond peradventure of a doubt that
they hid the strength and spirit and secret of her soul.

The time came when traveling was so steep and rough that she must think
first of her horse and her own safety. Kells led up over a rock-jumbled
spur of range, where she had sometimes to follow on foot. It seemed
miles across that wilderness of stone. Foxes and wolves trotted over
open places, watching stealthily. All around dark mountain peaks stood
up. The afternoon was far advanced when Kells started to descend again,
and he rode a zigzag course on weathered slopes and over brushy benches,
down and down into the canons again.

A lonely peak was visible, sunset-flushed against the blue, from the
point where Kells finally halted. That ended the longest ride Joan had
ever made in one day. For miles and miles they had climbed and descended
and wound into the mountains. Joan had scarcely any idea of direction.
She was completely turned around and lost. This spot was the wildest and
most beautiful she had ever seen. A canon headed here. It was narrow,
low-walled, and luxuriant with grass and wild roses and willow and
spruce and balsam. There were deer standing with long ears erect,
motionless, curious, tame as cattle. There were moving streaks through
the long grass, showing the course of smaller animals slipping away.

Then under a giant balsam, that reached aloft to the rim-wall, Joan saw
a little log cabin, open in front. It had not been built very long; some
of the log ends still showed yellow. It did not resemble the hunters’
and prospectors’ cabins she had seen on her trips with her uncle.

In a sweeping glance Joan had taken in these features. Kells had
dismounted and approached her. She looked frankly, but not directly, at
him.

“I’m tired--almost too tired to get off,” she said.

“Fifty miles of rock and brush, up and down! Without a kick!” he
exclaimed, admiringly. “You’ve got sand, girl!”

“Where are we?”

“This is Lost Canon. Only a few men know of it. And they are--attached
to me. I intend to keep you here.”

“How long?” She felt the intensity of his gaze.

“Why--as long as--” he replied, slowly, “till I get my ransom.”

“What amount will you ask?”

“You’re worth a hundred thousand in gold right now... Maybe later I
might let you go for less.”

Joan’s keen-wrought perception registered his covert, scarcely veiled
implication. He was studying her.

“Oh, poor uncle. He’ll never, never get so much.”

“Sure he will,” replied Kells, bluntly.

Then he helped her out of the saddle. She was stiff and awkward, and she
let herself slide. Kells handled her gently and like a gentleman,
and for Joan the first agonizing moment of her ordeal was past. Her
intuition had guided her correctly. Kells might have been and probably
was the most depraved of outcast men; but the presence of a girl like
her, however it affected him, must also have brought up associations
of a time when by family and breeding and habit he had been infinitely
different. His action here, just like the ruffian Bill’s, was
instinctive, beyond his control. Just this slight thing, this frail link
that joined Kells to his past and better life, immeasurably inspirited
Joan and outlined the difficult game she had to play.

“You’re a very gallant robber,” she said.

He appeared not to hear that or to note it; he was eying her up and
down; and he moved closer, perhaps to estimate her height compared to
his own.

“I didn’t know you were so tall. You’re above my shoulder.”

“Yes, I’m very lanky.”

“Lanky! Why you’re not that. You’ve a splendid figure--tall, supple,
strong; you’re like a Nez Perce girl I knew once.... You’re a beautiful
thing. Didn’t you know that?”

“Not particularly. My friends don’t dare flatter me. I suppose I’ll have
to stand it from you. But I didn’t expect compliments from Jack Kells of
the Border Legion.”

“Border Legion? Where’d you hear that name?”

“I didn’t hear it. I made it up--thought of it myself.”

“Well, you’ve invented something I’ll use.... And what’s your name--your
first name? I heard Roberts use it.”

Joan felt a cold contraction of all her internal being, but outwardly
she never so much as nicked an eyelash. “My name’s Joan.”

“Joan!” He placed heavy, compelling hands on her shoulders and turned
her squarely toward him.

Again she felt his gaze, strangely, like the reflection of sunlight from
ice. She had to look at him. This was her supreme test. For hours
she had prepared for it, steeled herself, wrought upon all that was
sensitive in her; and now she prayed, and swiftly looked up into his
eyes. They were windows of a gray hell. And she gazed into that naked
abyss, at that dark, uncovered soul, with only the timid anxiety and
fear and the unconsciousness of an innocent, ignorant girl.

“Joan! You know why I brought you here?”

“Yes, of course; you told me,” she replied, steadily. “You want to
ransom me for gold.... And I’m afraid you’ll have to take me home
without getting any.”

“You know what I mean to do to you,” he went on, thickly.

“Do to me?” she echoed, and she never quivered a muscle. “You--you
didn’t say.... I haven’t thought.... But you won’t hurt me, will you?
It’s not my fault if there’s no gold to ransom me.”

He shook her. His face changed, grew darker. “You KNOW what I mean.”

“I don’t.” With some show of spirit she essayed to slip out of his
grasp. He held her the tighter.

“How old are you?”

It was only in her height and development that Joan looked anywhere near
her age. Often she had been taken for a very young girl.

“I’m seventeen,” she replied. This was not the truth. It was a lie that
did not falter on lips which had scorned falsehood.

“Seventeen!” he ejaculated in amaze. “Honestly, now?”

She lifted her chin scornfully and remained silent.

“Well, I thought you were a woman. I took you to be twenty-five--at
least twenty-two. Seventeen, with that shape! You’re only a girl--a kid.
You don’t know anything.”

Then he released her, almost with violence, as if angered at her or
himself, and he turned away to the horses. Joan walked toward the little
cabin. The strain of that encounter left her weak, but once from under
his eyes, certain that she had carried her point, she quickly regained
her poise. There might be, probably would be, infinitely more trying
ordeals for her to meet than this one had been; she realized, however,
that never again would she be so near betrayal of terror and knowledge
and self.

The scene of her isolation had a curious fascination for her.
Something--and she shuddered--was to happen to her here in this lonely,
silent gorge. There were some flat stones made into a rude seat under
the balsam-tree, and a swift, yard-wide stream of clear water ran by.
Observing something white against the tree, Joan went closer. A card,
the ace of hearts, had been pinned to the bark by a small cluster of
bullet-holes, every one of which touched the red heart, and one of them
had obliterated it. Below the circle of bulletholes, scrawled in rude
letters with a lead-pencil, was the name “Gulden.” How little, a few
nights back, when Jim Cleve had menaced Joan with the names of Kells and
Gulden, had she imagined they were actual men she was to meet and fear!
And here she was the prisoner of one of them. She would ask Kells who
and what this Gulden was. The log cabin was merely a shed, without
fireplace or window, and the floor was a covering of balsam boughs, long
dried out and withered. A dim trail led away from it down the canon.
If Joan was any judge of trails, this one had not seen the imprint of
a horse track for many months. Kells had indeed brought her to a hiding
place, one of those, perhaps, that camp gossip said was inaccessible to
any save a border hawk. Joan knew that only an Indian could follow the
tortuous and rocky trail by which Kells had brought her in. She would
never be tracked there by her own people.

The long ride had left her hot, dusty, scratched, with tangled hair and
torn habit. She went over to her saddle, which Kells had removed
from her pony, and, opening the saddlebag, she took inventory of her
possessions. They were few enough, but now, in view of an unexpected and
enforced sojourn in the wilds, beyond all calculation of value. And
they included towel, soap, toothbrush, mirror and comb and brush, a red
scarf, and gloves. It occurred to her how seldom she carried that bag on
her saddle, and, thinking back, referred the fact to accident, and
then with honest amusement owned that the motive might have been also
a little vanity. Taking the bag, she went to a flat stone by the brook
and, rolling up her sleeves, proceeded to improve her appearance. With
deft fingers she rebraided her hair and arranged it as she had worn
it when only sixteen. Then, resolutely, she got up and crossed over to
where Kells was unpacking.

“I’ll help you get supper,” she said.

He was on his knees in the midst of a jumble of camp duffle that had
been hastily thrown together. He looked up at her--from her shapely,
strong, brown arms to the face she had rubbed rosy.

“Say, but you’re a pretty girl!”

He said it enthusiastically, in unstinted admiration, without the
slightest subtlety or suggestion; and if he had been the devil himself
it would have been no less a compliment, given spontaneously to youth
and beauty.

“I’m glad if it’s so, but please don’t tell me,” she rejoined, simply.

Then with swift and business-like movements she set to helping him with
the mess the inexperienced pack-horse had made of that particular pack.
And when that was straightened out she began with the biscuit dough
while he lighted a fire. It appeared to be her skill, rather than her
willingness, that he yielded to. He said very little, but he looked at
her often. And he had little periods of abstraction. The situation was
novel, strange to him. Sometimes Joan read his mind and sometimes he
was an enigma. But she divined when he was thinking what a picture she
looked there, on her knees before the bread-pan, with flour on her
arms; of the difference a girl brought into any place; of how strange it
seemed that this girl, instead of lying a limp and disheveled rag under
a tree, weeping and praying for home, made the best of a bad situation
and unproved it wonderfully by being a thoroughbred.

Presently they sat down, cross-legged, one on each side of the
tarpaulin, and began the meal. That was the strangest supper Joan ever
sat down to; it was like a dream where there was danger that tortured
her; but she knew she was dreaming and would soon wake up. Kells was
almost imperceptibly changing. The amiability of his face seemed to have
stiffened. The only time he addressed her was when he offered to help
her to more meat or bread or coffee. After the meal was finished he
would not let her wash the pans and pots, and attended to that himself.

Joan went to the seat by the tree, near the camp-fire. A purple twilight
was shadowing the canon. Far above, on the bold peak the last warmth of
the afterglow was fading. There was no wind, no sound, no movement. Joan
wondered where Jim Cleve was then. They had often sat in the twilight.
She felt an unreasonable resentment toward him, knowing she was to
blame, but blaming him for her plight. Then suddenly she thought of her
uncle, of home, of her kindly old aunt who always worried so about her.
Indeed, there was cause to worry. She felt sorrier for them than for
herself. And that broke her spirit momentarily. Forlorn, and with a wave
of sudden sorrow and dread and hopelessness, she dropped her head upon
her knees and covered her face. Tears were a relief. She forgot Kells
and the part she must play. But she remembered swiftly--at the rude
touch of his hand.

“Here! Are you crying?” he asked, roughly.

“Do you think I’m laughing?” Joan retorted. Her wet eyes, as she raised
them, were proof enough.

“Stop it.”

“I can’t help--but cry--a little. I was th--thinking of home--of those
who’ve been father and mother to me--since I was a baby. I wasn’t
crying--for myself. But they--they’ll be so miserable. They loved me
so.”

“It won’t help matters to cry.”

Joan stood up then, no longer sincere and forgetful, but the girl with
her deep and cunning game. She leaned close to him in the twilight.

“Did you ever love any one? Did you ever have a sister--a girl like me?”

Kells stalked away into the gloom.

Joan was left alone. She did not know whether to interpret his
abstraction, his temper, and his action as favorable or not. Still she
hoped and prayed they meant that he had some good in him. If she could
only hide her terror, her abhorrence, her knowledge of him and his
motive! She built up a bright camp-fire. There was an abundance of wood.
She dreaded the darkness and the night. Besides, the air was growing
chilly. So, arranging her saddle and blankets near the fire, she
composed herself in a comfortable seat to await Kells’s return and
developments. It struck her forcibly that she had lost some of her fear
of Kells and she did not know why. She ought to fear him more every
hour--every minute. Presently she heard his step brushing the grass
and then he emerged out of the gloom. He had a load of fire-wood on his
shoulder.

“Did you get over your grief?” he asked, glancing down upon her.

“Yes,” she replied.

Kells stooped for a red ember, with which he lighted his pipe, and then
he seated himself a little back from the fire. The blaze threw a bright
glare over him, and in it he looked neither formidable nor vicious nor
ruthless. He asked her where she was born, and upon receiving an answer
he followed that up with another question. And he kept this up until
Joan divined that he was not so much interested in what he apparently
wished to learn as he was in her presence, her voice, her personality.
She sensed in him loneliness, hunger for the sound of a voice. She had
heard her uncle speak of the loneliness of lonely camp-fires and how all
men working or hiding or lost in the wilderness would see sweet faces
in the embers and be haunted by soft voices. After all, Kells was
human. And she talked as never before in her life, brightly, willingly,
eloquently, telling the facts of her eventful youth and girlhood--the
sorrow and the joy and some of the dreams--up to the time she had come
to Camp Hoadley.

“Did you leave any sweethearts over there at Hoadley?” he asked, after a
silence.

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“A whole campful,” she replied, with a laugh, “but admirers is a better
name for them.”

“Then there’s no one fellow?”

“Hardly--yet.”

“How would you like being kept here in this lonesome place for--well,
say for ever?”

“I wouldn’t like that,” replied Joan. “I’d like this--camping out like
this now--if my folks only knew I am alive and well and safe. I love
lonely, dreamy places. I’ve dreamed of being in just such a one as this.
It seems so far away here--so shut in by the walls and the blackness.
So silent and sweet! I love the stars. They speak to me. And the wind
in the spruces. Hear it.... Very low, mournful! That whispers to
me--to-morrow I’d like it here if I had no worry. I’ve never grown
up yet. I explore and climb trees and hunt for little birds and
rabbits--young things just born, all fuzzy and sweet, frightened, piping
or squealing for their mothers. But I won’t touch one for worlds. I
simply can’t hurt anything. I can’t spur my horse or beat him. Oh, I
HATE pain!”

“You’re a strange girl to live out here on this border,” he said.

“I’m no different from other girls. You don’t know girls.”

“I knew one pretty well. She put a rope round my neck,” he replied,
grimly.

“A rope!”

“Yes, I mean a halter, a hangman’s noose. But I balked her!”

“Oh!... A good girl?”

“Bad! Bad to the core of her black heart--bad as I am!” he exclaimed,
with fierce, low passion.

Joan trembled. The man, in an instant, seemed transformed, somber as
death. She could not look at him, but she must keep on talking.

“Bad? You don’t seem bad to me--only violent, perhaps, or wild.... Tell
me about yourself.”

She had stirred him. His neglected pipe fell from his hand. In the gloom
of the camp-fire he must have seen faces or ghosts of his past.

“Why not?” he queried, strangely. “Why not do what’s been impossible for
years--open my lips? It’ll not matter--to a girl who can never tell!...
Have I forgotten? God!--I have not! Listen, so that you’ll KNOW I’m bad.
My name’s not Kells. I was born in the East, and went to school there
till I ran away. I was young, ambitious, wild. I stole. I ran away--came
West in ‘fifty-one to the gold-fields in California. There I became a
prospector, miner, gambler, robber--and road-agent. I had evil in me, as
all men have, and those wild years brought it out. I had no chance. Evil
and gold and blood--they are one and the same thing. I committed every
crime till no place, bad as it might be, was safe for me. Driven and
hunted and shot and starved--almost hanged!... And now I’m--Kells! of
that outcast crew you named ‘the Border Legion!’ Every black crime but
one--the blackest--and that haunting me, itching my hands to-night.”

“Oh, you speak so--so dreadfully!” cried Joan. “What can I say? I’m
sorry for you. I don’t believe it all. What--what black crime haunts
you? Oh! what could be possible tonight--here in this lonely canon--with
only me?”

Dark and terrible the man arose.

“Girl,” he said, hoarsely. “To-night--to-night--I’ll.... What have you
done to me? One more day--and I’ll be mad to do right by you--instead of
WRONG.... Do you understand that?”

Joan leaned forward in the camp-fire light with outstretched hands
and quivering lips, as overcome by his halting confession of one last
remnant of honor as she was by the dark hint of his passion.

“No--no--I don’t understand--nor believe!” she cried. “But you frighten
me--so! I am all--all alone with you here. You said I’d be safe.
Don’t--don’t--”

Her voice broke then and she sank back exhausted in her seat. Probably
Kells had heard only the first words of her appeal, for he took to
striding back and forth in the circle of the camp-fire light. The
scabbard with the big gun swung against his leg. It grew to be a dark
and monstrous thing in Joan’s sight. A marvelous intuition born of that
hour warned her of Kells’s subjection to the beast in him, even while,
with all the manhood left to him, he still battled against it. Her
girlish sweetness and innocence had availed nothing, except mock him
with the ghost of dead memories. He could not be won or foiled. She must
get her hands on that gun--kill him--or--! The alternative was death for
herself. And she leaned there, slowly gathering all the unconquerable
and unquenchable forces of a woman’s nature, waiting, to make one
desperate, supreme, and final effort.



5

Kells strode there, a black, silent shadow, plodding with bent head, as
if all about and above him were demons and furies.

Joan’s perceptions of him, of the night, of the inanimate and
imponderable black walls, and of herself, were exquisitely and
abnormally keen. She saw him there, bowed under his burden, gloomy and
wroth and sick with himself because the man in him despised the coward.
Men of his stamp were seldom or never cowards. Their lives did not breed
cowardice or baseness. Joan knew the burning in her breast--that thing
which inflamed and swept through her like a wind of fire--was hate. Yet
her heart held a grain of pity for him. She measured his forbearance,
his struggle, against the monstrous cruelty and passion engendered by
a wild life among wild men at a wild time. And, considering his
opportunities of the long hours and lonely miles, she was grateful, and
did not in the least underestimate what it cost him, how different from
Bill or Halloway he had been. But all this was nothing, and her thinking
of it useless, unless he conquered himself. She only waited, holding on
to that steel-like control of her nerves, motionless and silent.

She leaned back against her saddle, a blanket covering her, with
wide-open eyes, and despite the presence of that stalking figure and the
fact of her mind being locked round one terrible and inevitable thought,
she saw the changing beautiful glow of the fire-logs and the cold,
pitiless stars and the mustering shadows under the walls. She heard,
too, the low rising sigh of the wind in the balsam and the silvery
tinkle of the brook, and sounds only imagined or nameless. Yet a stern
and insupportable silence weighed her down. This dark canon seemed
at the ends of the earth. She felt encompassed by illimitable and
stupendous upflung mountains, insulated in a vast, dark, silent tomb.

Kells suddenly came to her, treading noiselessly, and he leaned over
her. His visage was a dark blur, but the posture of him was that of a
wolf about to spring. Lower he leaned--slowly--and yet lower. Joan
saw the heavy gun swing away from his leg; she saw it black and clear
against the blaze; a cold, blue light glinted from its handle. And then
Kells was near enough for her to see his face and his eyes that were but
shadows of flames. She gazed up at him steadily, open-eyed, with no fear
or shrinking. His breathing was quick and loud. He looked down at her
for an endless moment, then, straightening his bent form, he resumed his
walk to and fro.

After that for Joan time might have consisted of moments or hours, each
of which was marked by Kells looming over her. He appeared to approach
her from all sides; he round her wide-eyed, sleepless; his shadowy
glance gloated over her lithe, slender shape; and then he strode away
into the gloom. Sometimes she could no longer hear his steps and then
she was quiveringly alert, listening, fearful that he might creep upon
her like a panther. At times he kept the camp-fire blazing brightly; at
others he let it die down. And these dark intervals were frightful
for her. The night seemed treacherous, in league with her foe. It was
endless. She prayed for dawn--yet with a blank hopelessness for what
the day might bring. Could she hold out through more interminable hours?
Would she not break from sheer strain? There were moments when she
wavered and shook like a leaf in the wind, when the beating of her heart
was audible, when a child could have seen her distress. There were
other moments when all was ugly, unreal, impossible like things in a
nightmare. But when Kells was near or approached to look at her, like
a cat returned to watch a captive mouse, she was again strong, waiting,
with ever a strange and cold sense of the nearness of that swinging gun.
Late in the night she missed him, for how long she had no idea. She had
less trust in his absence than his presence. The nearer he came to her
the stronger she grew and the clearer of purpose. At last the black void
of canon lost its blackness and turned to gray. Dawn was at hand. The
horrible endless night, in which she had aged from girl to woman, had
passed. Joan had never closed her eyes a single instant.

When day broke she got up. The long hours in which she had rested
motionlessly had left her muscles cramped and dead. She began to walk
off the feeling. Kells had just stirred from his blanket under the
balsam-tree. His face was dark, haggard, lined. She saw him go down to
the brook and plunge his hands into the water and bathe his face with a
kind of fury. Then he went up to the smoldering fire. There was a gloom,
a somberness, a hardness about him that had not been noticeable the day
before.

Joan found the water cold as ice, soothing to the burn beneath her skin.
She walked away then, aware that Kells did not appear to care, and went
up to where the brook brawled from under the cliff. This was a hundred
paces from camp, though in plain sight. Joan looked round for her
horse, but he was not to be seen. She decided to slip away the first
opportunity that offered, and on foot or horseback, any way, to get out
of Kells’s clutches if she had to wander, lost in the mountains, till
she starved. Possibly the day might be endurable, but another night
would drive her crazy. She sat on a ledge, planning and brooding, till
she was startled by a call from Kells. Then slowly she retraced her
steps.

“Don’t you want to eat?” he asked.

“I’m not hungry,” she replied.

“Well, eat anyhow--if it chokes you,” he ordered.

Joan seated herself while he placed food and drink before her. She did
not look at him and did not feel his gaze upon her. Far asunder as they
had been yesterday the distance between them to-day was incalculably
greater. She ate as much as she could swallow and pushed the rest
away. Leaving the camp-fire, she began walking again, here and there,
aimlessly, scarcely seeing what she looked at. There was a shadow over
her, an impending portent of catastrophe, a moment standing dark and
sharp out of the age-long hour. She leaned against the balsam and then
she rested in the stone seat, and then she had to walk again. It might
have been long, that time; she never knew how long or short. There came
a strange flagging, sinking of her spirit, accompanied by vibrating,
restless, uncontrollable muscular activity. Her nerves were on the verge
of collapse.

It was then that a call from Kells, clear and ringing, thrilled all the
weakness from her in a flash, and left her limp and cold. She saw him
coming. His face looked amiable again, bright against what seemed a
vague and veiled background. Like a mountaineer he strode. And she
looked into his strange, gray glance to see unmasked the ruthless power,
the leaping devil, the ungovernable passion she had sensed in him.

He grasped her arm and with a single pull swung her to him. “YOU’VE got
to pay that ransom!”

He handled her as if he thought she resisted, but she was unresisting.
She hung her head to hide her eyes. Then he placed an arm round her
shoulders and half led, half dragged her toward the cabin.



Joan saw with startling distinctness the bits of balsam and pine at
her feet and pale pink daisies in the grass, and then the dry withered
boughs. She was in the cabin.

“Girl!... I’m hungry--for you!” he breathed, hoarsely. And turning her
toward him, he embraced her, as if his nature was savage and he had to
use a savage force.

If Joan struggled at all, it was only slightly, when she writhed and
slipped, like a snake, to get her arm under his as it clasped her
neck. Then she let herself go. He crushed her to him. He bent her
backward--tilted her face with hard and eager hand. Like a madman, with
hot working lips, he kissed her. She felt blinded--scorched. But her
purpose was as swift and sure and wonderful as his passion was wild. The
first reach of her groping hand found his gun-belt. Swift as light her
hand slipped down. Her fingers touched the cold gun--grasped with thrill
on thrill--slipped farther down, strong and sure to raise the hammer.
Then with a leaping, strung intensity that matched his own she drew the
gun. She raised it while her eyes were shut. She lay passive under his
kisses--the devouring kisses of one whose manhood had been denied the
sweetness, the glory, the fire, the life of woman’s lips. It was a
moment in which she met his primitive fury of possession with a woman’s
primitive fury of profanation. She pressed the gun against his side and
pulled the trigger.

A thundering, muffled, hollow boom! The odor of burned powder stung
her nostrils. Kells’s hold on her tightened convulsively, loosened
with strange, lessening power. She swayed back free of him, still with
tight-shut eyes. A horrible cry escaped him--a cry of mortal agony. It
wrenched her. And she looked to see him staggering amazed, stricken, at
bay, like a wolf caught in cruel steel jaws. His hands came away from
both sides, dripping with blood. They shook till the crimson drops
spattered on the wall, on the boughs. Then he seemed to realize and he
clutched at her with these bloody hands.

“God Almighty!” he panted. “You shot me!... You--you girl!... You
she-cat... You knew--all the time... You she-cat!... Give me--that gun!”

“Kells, get back! I’ll kill you!” she cried. The big gun, outstretched
between them, began to waver.

Kells did not see the gun. In his madness he tried to move, to reach
her, but he could not; he was sinking. His legs sagged under him, let
him down to his knees, and but for the wall he would have fallen. Then a
change transformed him. The black, turgid, convulsed face grew white and
ghastly, with beads of clammy sweat and lines of torture. His strange
eyes showed swiftly passing thought--wonder, fear, scorn--even
admiration.

“Joan, you’ve done--for me!” he gasped. “You’ve broken my back!... It’ll
kill me! Oh the pain--the pain! And I can’t stand pain! You--you
girl! You innocent seventeen-year-old girl! You that couldn’t hurt any
creature! You so tender--so gentle!... Bah! you fooled me. The cunning
of a woman! I ought--to know. A good woman’s--more terrible than
a--bad woman.... But I deserved this. Once I used--to be.... Only, the
torture!... Why didn’t you--kill me outright?... Joan--Randle--watch
me--die! Since I had--to die--by rope or bullet--I’m glad you--you--did
for me.... Man or beast--I believe--I loved you!”

Joan dropped the gun and sank beside him, helpless, horror-stricken,
wringing her hands. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, that he drove
her to it, that he must let her pray for him. But she could not speak.
Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth and she seemed strangling.

Another change, slower and more subtle, passed over Kells. He did not
see Joan. He forgot her. The white shaded out of his face, leaving a
gray like that of his somber eyes. Spirit, sense, life, were fading from
him. The quivering of a racked body ceased. And all that seemed left was
a lonely soul groping on the verge of the dim borderland between life
and death. Presently his shoulders slipped along the wall and he fell,
to lie limp and motionless before Joan. Then she fainted.



6

When Joan returned to consciousness she was lying half outside the
opening of the cabin and above her was a drift of blue gun-smoke, slowly
floating upward. Almost as swiftly as perception of that smoke came a
shuddering memory. She lay still, listening. She did not hear a sound
except the tinkle and babble and gentle rush of the brook. Kells was
dead, then. And overmastering the horror of her act was a relief, a
freedom, a lifting of her soul out of the dark dread, a something that
whispered justification of the fatal deed.

She got up and, avoiding to look within the cabin, walked away. The sun
was almost at the zenith. Where had the morning hours gone?

“I must get away,” she said, suddenly. The thought quickened her. Down
the canon the horses were grazing. She hurried along the trail, trying
to decide whether to follow this dim old trail or endeavor to get out
the way she had been brought in. She decided upon the latter. If she
traveled slowly, and watched for familiar landmarks, things she had seen
once, and hunted carefully for the tracks, she believed she might be
successful. She had the courage to try. Then she caught her pony and led
him back to camp.

“What shall I take?” she pondered. She decided upon very little--a
blanket, a sack of bread and meat, and a canteen of water. She might
need a weapon, also. There was only one, the gun with which she had
killed Kells. It seemed utterly impossible to touch that hateful thing.
But now that she had liberated herself, and at such cost, she must not
yield to sentiment. Resolutely she started for the cabin, but when she
reached it her steps were dragging. The long, dull-blue gun lay where
she had dropped it. And out of the tail of averted eyes she saw a
huddled shape along the wall. It was a sickening moment when she reached
a shaking hand for the gun. And at that instant a low moan transfixed
her.

She seemed frozen rigid. Was the place already haunted? Her heart
swelled in her throat and a dimness came before her eyes. But another
moan brought a swift realization--Kells was alive. And the cold,
clamping sickness, the strangle in her throat, all the feelings of
terror, changed and were lost in a flood of instinctive joy. He was not
dead. She had not killed him. She did not have blood on her hands. She
was not a murderer.

She whirled to look at him. There he lay, ghastly as a corpse. And all
her woman’s gladness fled. But there was compassion left to her, and,
forgetting all else, she knelt beside him. He was as cold as stone. She
felt no stir, no beat of pulse in temple or wrist. Then she placed her
ear against his breast. His heart beat weakly.

“He’s alive,” she whispered. “But--he’s dying.... What shall I do?”

Many thoughts flashed across her mind. She could not help him now; he
would be dead soon; she did not need to wait there beside him; there was
a risk of some of his comrades riding into that rendezvous. Suppose his
back was not broken after all! Suppose she stopped the flow of blood,
tended him, nursed him, saved his life? For if there were one chance of
his living, which she doubted, it must be through her. Would he not be
the same savage the hour he was well and strong again? What difference
could she make in such a nature? The man was evil. He could not conquer
evil. She had been witness to that. He had driven Roberts to draw and
had killed him. No doubt he had deliberately and coldly murdered the two
ruffians, Bill and Halloway, just so he could be free of their glances
at her and be alone with her. He deserved to die there like a dog.

What Joan Randle did was surely a woman’s choice. Carefully she rolled
Kells over. The back of his vest and shirt was wet with blood. She got
up to find a knife, towel, and water. As she returned to the cabin he
moaned again.

Joan had dressed many a wound. She was not afraid of blood. The
difference was that she had shed it. She felt sick, but her hands were
firm as she cut open the vest and shirt, rolled them aside, and bathed
his back. The big bullet had made a gaping wound, having apparently gone
through the small of his back. The blood still flowed. She could not
tell whether or not Kell’s spine was broken, but she believed that the
bullet had gone between bone and muscle, or had glanced. There was a
blue welt just over his spine, in line with the course of the wound. She
tore her scarf into strips and used it for compresses and bandages.
Then she laid him back upon a saddle-blanket. She had done all that was
possible for the present, and it gave her a strange sense of comfort.
She even prayed for his life, and, if that must go, for his soul. Then
she got up. He was unconscious, white, death-like. It seemed that his
torture, his near approach to death, had robbed his face of ferocity,
of ruthlessness, and of that strange amiable expression. But then, his
eyes, those furnace-windows, were closed.

Joan waited for the end to come. The afternoon passed and she did not
leave the cabin. It was possible that he might come to and want water.
She had once administered to a miner who had been fatally crushed in
an avalanche; and never could forget his husky call for water and the
gratitude in his eyes.

Sunset, twilight, and night fell upon the canon. And she began to feel
solitude as something tangible. Bringing saddle and blankets into the
cabin, she made a bed just inside, and, facing the opening and the
stars, she lay down to rest, if not to sleep. The darkness did not keep
her from seeing the prostrate figure of Kells. He lay there as silent
as if he were already dead. She was exhausted, weary for sleep, and
unstrung. In the night her courage fled and she was frightened at
shadows. The murmuring of insects seemed augmented into a roar; the
mourn of wolf and scream of cougar made her start; the rising wind
moaned like a lost spirit. Dark fancies beset her. Troop on troop of
specters moved out of the black night, assembling there, waiting for
Kells to join them. She thought she was riding homeward over the back
trail, sure of her way, remembering every rod of that rough travel,
until she got out of the mountains, only to be turned back by dead men.
Then fancy and dream, and all the haunted gloom of canon and cabin,
seemed slowly to merge into one immense blackness.

The sun, rimming the east wall, shining into Joan’s face, awakened
her. She had slept hours. She felt rested, stronger. Like the night,
something dark had passed away from her. It did not seem strange to
her that she should feel that Kells still lived. She knew it. And
examination proved her right. In him there had been no change except
that he had ceased to bleed. There was just a flickering of life in him,
manifest only in his slow, faint heart-beats.

Joan spent most of that day in sitting beside Kells. The whole day
seemed only an hour. Sometimes she would look down the canon trail, half
expecting to see horsemen riding up. If any of Kells’s comrades happened
to come, what could she tell them? They would be as bad as he, without
that one trait which had kept him human for a day. Joan pondered upon
this. It would never do to let them suspect she had shot Kells. So,
carefully cleaning the gun, she reloaded it. If any men came, she would
tell them that Bill had done the shooting.

Kells lingered. Joan began to feel that he would live, though everything
indicated the contrary. Her intelligence told her he would die, and her
feeling said he would not. At times she lifted his head and got water
into his mouth with a spoon. When she did this he would moan. That
night, during the hours she lay awake, she gathered courage out of the
very solitude and loneliness. She had nothing to fear, unless someone
came to the canon. The next day in no wise differed from the preceding.
And then there came the third day, with no change in Kells till near
evening, when she thought he was returning to consciousness. But she
must have been mistaken. For hours she watched patiently. He might
return to consciousness just before the end, and want to speak, to send
a message, to ask a prayer, to feel a human hand at the last.

That night the crescent moon hung over the canon. In the faint light
Joan could see the blanched face of Kells, strange and sad, no longer
seeming evil. The time came when his lips stirred. He tried to talk. She
moistened his lips and gave him a drink. He murmured incoherently, sank
again into a stupor, to rouse once more and babble tike a madman. Then
he lay quietly for long--so long that sleep was claiming Joan. Suddenly
he startled her by calling very faintly but distinctly: “Water! Water!”

Joan bent over him, lifting his head, helping him to drink. She could
see his eyes, like dark holes in something white.

“Is--that--you--mother?” he whispered.

“Yes,” replied Joan.

He sank immediately into another stupor or sleep, from which he did not
rouse. That whisper of his--mother--touched Joan. Bad men had mothers
just the same as any other kind of men. Even this Kells had a mother. He
was still a young man. He had been youth, boy, child, baby. Some mother
had loved him, cradled him, kissed his rosy baby hands, watched him grow
with pride and glory, built castles in her dreams of his manhood, and
perhaps prayed for him still, trusting he was strong and honored among
men. And here he lay, a shattered wreck, dying for a wicked act, the
last of many crimes. It was a tragedy. It made Joan think of the hard
lot of mothers, and then of this unsettled Western wild, where men
flocked in packs like wolves, and spilled blood like water, and held
life nothing.

Joan sought her rest and soon slept. In the morning she did not at once
go to Kells. Somehow she dreaded finding him conscious, almost as much
as she dreaded the thought of finding him dead. When she did bend over
him he was awake, and at sight of her he showed a faint amaze.

“Joan!” he whispered.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Are you--with me still?”

“Of course, I couldn’t leave you.”

The pale eyes shadowed strangely, darkly. “I’m alive yet. And you
stayed!... Was it yesterday--you threw my gun--on me?”

“No. Four days ago.”

“Four! Is my back broken?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. It’s a terrible wound. I--I did all I
could.”

“You tried to kill me--then tried to save me?”

She was silent to that.

“You’re good--and you’ve been noble,” he said. “But I wish--you’d only
been bad. Then I’d curse you--and strangle you--presently.”

“Perhaps you had best be quiet,” replied Joan.

“No. I’ve been shot before. I’ll get over this--if my back’s not broken.
How can we tell?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“Lift me up.”

“But you might open your wound,” protested Joan.

“Lift me up!” The force of the man spoke even in his low whisper.

“But why--why?” asked Joan.

“I want to see--if I can sit up. If I can’t--give me my gun.”

“I won’t let you have it,” replied Joan. Then she slipped her arms under
his and, carefully raising him to a sitting posture, released her hold.

“I’m--a--rank coward--about pain,” he gasped, with thick drops standing
out on his white face. “I can’t--stand it.”

But tortured or not, he sat up alone, and even had the will to bend his
back. Then with a groan he fainted and fell into Joan’s arms. She laid
him down and worked over him for some time before she could bring him
to. Then he was wan, suffering, speechless. But she believed he would
live and told him so. He received that with a strange smile. Later, when
she came to him with broth, he drank it gratefully.

“I’ll beat this out,” he said, weakly. “I’ll recover. My back’s not
broken. I’ll get well. Now you bring water and food in here--then go.”

“Go?” she echoed.

“Yes. Don’t go down the canon. You’d be worse off.... Take the back
trail. You’ve got a chance to get out.... Go!”

“Leave you here? So weak you can’t lift a cup! I won’t.”

“I’d rather you did.”

“Why?”

“Because in a few days I’ll begin to mend. Then I’ll grow
like--myself.... I think--I’m afraid I loved you.... It could only be
hell for you. Go now, before it’s too late!... If you stay--till I’m
well--I’ll never let you go!”

“Kells, I believe it would be cowardly for me to leave you here alone,”
 she replied, earnestly. “You can’t help yourself. You’d die.”

“All the better. But I won’t die. I’m hard to kill. Go, I tell you.”

She shook her head. “This is bad for you--arguing. You’re excited.
Please be quiet.”

“Joan Randle, if you stay--I’ll halter you--keep you naked in a
cave--curse you--beat you--murder you! Oh, it’s in me!... Go, I tell
you!”

“You’re out of your head. Once for all--no!” she replied, firmly.

“You--you--” His voice failed in a terrible whisper....

In the succeeding days Kells did not often speak. His recovery was
slow--a matter of doubt. Nothing was any plainer than the fact that if
Joan had left him he would not have lived long. She knew it. And he knew
it. When he was awake, and she came to him, a mournful and beautiful
smile lit his eyes. The sight of her apparently hurt him and uplifted
him. But he slept twenty hours out of every day, and while he slept he
did not need Joan.

She came to know the meaning of solitude. There were days when she did
not hear the sound of her own voice. A habit of silence, one of the
significant forces of solitude, had grown upon her. Daily she thought
less and felt more. For hours she did nothing. When she roused herself,
compelled herself to think of these encompassing peaks of the lonely
canon walls, the stately trees, all those eternally silent and changless
features of her solitude, she hated them with a blind and unreasoning
passion. She hated them because she was losing her love for them,
because they were becoming a part of her, because they were fixed and
content and passionless. She liked to sit in the sun, feel its warmth,
see its brightness; and sometimes she almost forgot to go back to her
patient. She fought at times against an insidious change--a growing
older--a going backward; at other times she drifted through hours that
seemed quiet and golden, in which nothing happened. And by and by when
she realized that the drifting hours were gradually swallowing up the
restless and active hours, then strangely, she remembered Jim Cleve.
Memory of him came to save her. She dreamed of him during the long,
lonely, solemn days, and in the dark, silent climax of unbearable
solitude--the night. She remembered his kisses, forgot her anger
and shame, accepted the sweetness of their meaning, and so in the
interminable hours of her solitude she dreamed herself into love for
him.

Joan kept some record of days, until three weeks or thereabout passed,
and then she lost track of time. It dragged along, yet looked at as the
past, it seemed to have sped swiftly. The change in her, the growing
old, the revelation and responsibility of serf, as a woman, made this
experience appear to have extended over months.

Kells slowly became convalescent and then he had a relapse. Something
happened, the nature of which Joan could not tell, and he almost died.
There were days when his life hung in the balance, when he could not
talk; and then came a perceptible turn for the better.

The store of provisions grew low, and Joan began to face another serious
situation. Deer and rabbit were plentiful in the canon, but she could
not kill one with a revolver. She thought she would be forced to
sacrifice one of the horses. The fact that Kells suddenly showed a
craving for meat brought this aspect of the situation to a climax. And
that very morning while Joan was pondering the matter she saw a number
of horsemen riding up the canon toward the cabin. At the moment she was
relieved, and experienced nothing of the dread she had formerly felt
while anticipating this very event.

“Kells,” she said, quickly, “there are men riding up the trail.”

“Good,” he exclaimed, weakly, with a light on his drawn face. “They’ve
been long in--getting here. How many?”

Joan counted them--five riders, and several pack-animals.

“Yes. It’s Gulden.”

“Gulden!” cried Joan, with a start.

Her exclamation and tone made Kells regard her attentively.

“You’ve heard of him? He’s the toughest nut--on this border.... I never
saw his like. You won’t be safe. I’m so helpless.... What to say--to
tell him!... Joan, if I should happen to croak--you want to get away
quick... or shoot yourself.”

How strange to hear this bandit warn her of peril the like of which she
had encountered through him! Joan secured the gun and hid it in a niche
between the logs. Then she looked out again.

The riders were close at hand now. The foremost one, a man of Herculean
build, jumped his mount across the brook, and leaped off while he hauled
the horse to a stop. The second rider came close behind him; the others
approached leisurely, with the gait of the pack-animals.

“Ho, Kells!” called the big man. His voice had a loud, bold, sonorous
kind of ring.

“Reckon he’s here somewheres,” said the other man, presently.

“Sure. I seen his hoss. Jack ain’t goin’ to be far from thet hoss.”

Then both of them approached the cabin. Joan had never before seen two
such striking, vicious-looking, awesome men. The one was huge--so wide
and heavy and deep-set that he looked short--and he resembled a gorilla.
The other was tall, slim, with a face as red as flame, and an expression
of fierce keenness. He was stoop shouldered, yet he held his head erect
in a manner that suggested a wolf scenting blood.

“Someone here, Pearce,” boomed the big man.

“Why, Gul, if it ain’t a girl!”

Joan moved out of the shadow of the wall of the cabin, and she pointed
to the prostrate figure on the blankets.

“Howdy boys!” said Kells, wanly.

Gulden cursed in amaze while Pearce dropped to his knee with an
exclamation of concern. Then both began to talk at once. Kells
interrupted them by lifting a weak hand.

“No, I’m not going--to cash,” he said. “I’m only starved--and in need of
stimulants. Had my back half shot off.”

“Who plugged you, Jack?”

“Gulden, it was your side-partner, Bill.”

“Bill?” Gulden’s voice held a queer, coarse constraint. Then he added,
gruffly. “Thought you and him pulled together.”

“Well, we didn’t.”

“And--where’s Bill now?” This time Joan heard a slow, curious, cold note
in the heavy voice, and she interpreted it as either doubt or deceit.

“Bill’s dead and Halloway, too,” replied Kells.

Gulden turned his massive, shaggy head in the direction of Joan. She had
not the courage to meet the gaze upon her. The other man spoke:

“Split over the girl, Jack?”

“No,” replied Kells, sharply. “They tried to get familiar with--MY
WIFE--and I shot them both.”

Joan felt a swift leap of hot blood all over her and then a coldness, a
sickening, a hateful weakness.

“Wife!” ejaculated Gulden.

“Your real wife, Jack?” queried Pearce.

“Well, I guess, I’ll introduce you... Joan, here are two of my
friends--Sam Gulden and Red Pearce.”

Gulden grunted something.

“Mrs. Kells, I’m glad to meet you,” said Pearce.

Just then the other three men entered the cabin and Joan took advantage
of the commotion they made to get out into the air. She felt sick,
frightened, and yet terribly enraged. She staggered a little as she
went out, and she knew she was as pale as death. These visitors thrust
reality upon her with a cruel suddenness. There was something terrible
in the mere presence of this Gulden. She had not yet dared to take a
good look at him. But what she felt was overwhelming. She wanted to
run. Yet escape now was infinitely more of a menace than before. If she
slipped away it would be these new enemies who would pursue her, track
her like hounds. She understood why Kells had introduced her as his
wife. She hated the idea with a shameful and burning hate, but a
moment’s reflection taught her that Kells had answered once more to
a good instinct. At the moment he had meant that to protect her.
And further reflection persuaded Joan that she would be wise to act
naturally and to carry out the deception as far as it was possible for
her. It was her only hope. Her position had again grown perilous. She
thought of the gun she had secreted, and it gave her strength to control
her agitation and to return to the cabin outwardly calm.

The men had Kells half turned over with the flesh of his back exposed.

“Aw, Gul, it’s whisky he needs,” said one.

“If you let out any more blood he’ll croak sure,” protested another.

“Look how weak he is,” said Red Pearce.

“It’s a hell of a lot you know,” roared Gulden. “I served my time--but
that’s none of your business.... Look here! See that blue spot!” Gulden
pressed a huge finger down upon the blue welt on Kells’s back. The
bandit moaned. “That’s lead--that’s the bullet,” declared Gulden.

“Wall, if you ain’t correct!” exclaimed Pearce.

Kells turned his head. “When you punched that place--it made me numb all
over. Gul, if you’ve located the bullet, cut it out.”

Joan did not watch the operation. As she went away to the seat under the
balsam she heard a sharp cry and then cheers. Evidently the grim Gulden
had been both swift and successful.

Presently the men came out of the cabin and began to attend to their
horses and the pack-train.

Pearce looked for Joan, and upon seeing her called out, “Kells wants
you.”

Joan found the bandit half propped up against a saddle with a damp and
pallid face, but an altogether different look.

“Joan, that bullet was pressing on my spine,” he said. “Now it’s out,
all that deadness is gone. I feel alive. I’ll get well, soon.... Gulden
was curious over the bullet. It’s a forty-four caliber, and neither Bill
Bailey nor Halloway used that caliber of gun. Gulden remembered. He’s
cunning. Bill was as near being a friend to this Gulden as any man I
know of. I can’t trust any of these men, particularly Gulden. You stay
pretty close by me.”

“Kells, you’ll let me go soon--help me to get home?” implored Joan in a
low voice.

“Girl, it’d never be safe now,” he replied.

“Then later--soon--when it is safe?”

“We’ll see.... But you’re my wife now!”

With the latter words the man subtly changed. Something of the power she
had felt in him before his illness began again to be manifested. Joan
divined that these comrades had caused the difference in him.

“You won’t dare--!” Joan was unable to conclude her meaning. A tight
band compressed her breast and throat, and she trembled.

“Will you dare go out there and tell them you’re NOT my wife?” he
queried. His voice had grown stronger and his eyes were blending shadows
of thought.

Joan knew that she dared not. She must choose the lesser of two evils.
“No man--could be such a beast to a woman--after she’d saved his life,”
 she whispered.

“I could be anything. You had your chance. I told you to go. I said if I
ever got well I’d be as I was--before.”

“But you’d have died.”

“That would have been better for you..... Joan, I’ll do this. Marry
you honestly and leave the country. I’ve gold. I’m young. I love you. I
intend to have you. And I’ll begin life over again. What do you say?”

“Say? I’d die before--I’d marry you!” she panted.

“All right, Joan Randle,” he replied, bitterly. “For a moment I saw a
ghost. My old dead better self!... It’s gone.... And you stay with me.”



7

After dark Kells had his men build a fire before the open side of the
cabin. He lay propped up on blankets and his saddle, while the others
lounged or sat in a half-circle in the light, facing him.

Joan drew her blankets into a corner where the shadows were thick and
she could see without being seen. She wondered how she would ever sleep
near all these wild men--if she could ever sleep again. Yet she seemed
more curious and wakeful than frightened. She had no way to explain
it, but she felt the fact that her presence in the camp had a subtle
influence, at once restraining and exciting. So she looked out upon the
scene with wide-open eyes.

And she received more strongly than ever an impression of wildness. Even
the camp-fire seemed to burn wildly; it did not glow and sputter and
pale and brighten and sing like an honest camp-fire. It blazed in red,
fierce, hurried flames, wild to consume the logs. It cast a baleful
and sinister color upon the hard faces there. Then the blackness of the
enveloping night was pitchy, without any bold outline of canon wall
or companionship of stars. The coyotes were out in force and from all
around came their wild sharp barks. The wind rose and mourned weirdly
through the balsams.

But it was in the men that Joan felt mostly that element of wildness.
Kells lay with his ghastly face clear in the play of the moving flare
of light. It was an intelligent, keen, strong face, but evil. Evil power
stood out in the lines, in the strange eyes, stranger then ever, now
in shadow; and it seemed once more the face of an alert, listening,
implacable man, with wild projects in mind, driving him to the doom he
meant for others. Pearce’s red face shone redder in that ruddy light. It
was hard, lean, almost fleshless, a red mask stretched over a grinning
skull. The one they called Frenchy was little, dark, small-featured,
with piercing gimlet-like eyes, and a mouth ready to gush forth hate
and violence. The next two were not particularly individualized by any
striking aspect, merely looking border ruffians after the type of Bill
and Halloway. But Gulden, who sat at the end of the half-circle, was
an object that Joan could scarcely bring her gaze to study. Somehow her
first glance at him put into her mind a strange idea--that she was a
woman and therefore of all creatures or things in the world the farthest
removed from him. She looked away, and found her gaze returning,
fascinated, as if she were a bird and he a snake. The man was of huge
frame, a giant whose every move suggested the acme of physical power. He
was an animal--a gorilla with a shock of light instead of black hair,
of pale instead of black skin. His features might have been hewn and
hammered out with coarse, dull, broken chisels. And upon his face, in
the lines and cords, in the huge caverns where his eyes hid, and in the
huge gash that held strong, white fangs, had been stamped by nature
and by life a terrible ferocity. Here was a man or a monster in whose
presence Joan felt that she would rather be dead. He did not smoke; he
did not indulge in the coarse, good-natured raillery, he sat there like
a huge engine of destruction that needed no rest, but was forced to rest
because of weaker attachments. On the other hand, he was not sullen or
brooding. It was that he did not seem to think.

Kells had been rapidly gaining strength since the extraction of
the bullet, and it was evident that his interest was growing
proportionately. He asked questions and received most of his replies
from Red Pearce. Joan did not listen attentively at first, but presently
she regretted that she had not. She gathered that Kells’s fame as
the master bandit of the whole gold region of Idaho, Nevada, and
northeastern California was a fame that he loved as much as the gold he
stole. Joan sensed, through the replies of these men and their attitude
toward Kells, that his power was supreme. He ruled the robbers and
ruffians in his bands, and evidently they were scattered from Bannack
to Lewiston and all along the border. He had power, likewise, over the
border hawks not directly under his leadership. During the weeks of his
enforced stay in the canon there had been a cessation of operations--the
nature of which Joan merely guessed--and a gradual accumulation of
idle wailing men in the main camp. Also she gathered, but vaguely, that
though Kells had supreme power, the organization he desired was yet
far from being consummated. He showed thoughtfulness and irritation by
turns, and it was the subject of gold that drew his intensest interest.

“Reckon you figgered right, Jack,” said Red Pearce, and paused as
if before a long talk, while he refilled his pipe. “Sooner or later
there’ll be the biggest gold strike ever made in the West. Wagon-trains
are met every day comin’ across from Salt Lake. Prospectors are workin’
in hordes down from Bannack. All the gulches an’ valleys in the Bear
Mountains have their camps. Surface gold everywhere an’ easy to get
where there’s water. But there’s diggin’s all over. No big strike yet.
It’s bound to come sooner or later. An’ then when the news hits the
main-traveled roads an’ reaches back into the mountains there’s goin’ to
be a rush that’ll make ‘49 an’ ‘51 look sick. What do you say, Bate?”

“Shore will,” replied a grizzled individual whom Kells had called Bate
Wood. He was not so young as his companions, more sober, less wild,
and slower of speech. “I saw both ‘49 and ‘51. Them was days! But I’m
agreein’ with Red. There shore will be hell on this Idaho border sooner
or later. I’ve been a prospector, though I never hankered after the hard
work of diggin’ gold. Gold is hard to dig, easy to lose, an’ easy to get
from some other feller. I see the signs of a comin’ strike somewhere in
this region. Mebbe it’s on now. There’s thousands of prospectors in twos
an’ threes an’ groups, out in the hills all over. They ain’t a-goin’ to
tell when they do make a strike. But the gold must be brought out. An’
gold is heavy. It ain’t easy hid. Thet’s how strikes are discovered. I
shore reckon thet this year will beat ‘49 an’ ‘51. An’ fer two reasons.
There’s a steady stream of broken an’ disappointed gold-seekers
back-trailin’ from California. There’s a bigger stream of hopeful an’
crazy fortune hunters travelin’ in from the East. Then there’s the
wimmen an’ gamblers an’ such thet hang on. An’ last the men thet the
war is drivin’ out here. Whenever an’ wherever these streams meet, if
there’s a big gold strike, there’ll be the hellishest time the world
ever saw!”

“Boys,” said Kells, with a ring in his weak voice, “it’ll be a harvest
for my Border Legion.”

“Fer what?” queried Bate Wood, curiously.

All the others except Gulden turned inquiring and interested faces
toward the bandit.

“The Border Legion,” replied Kells.

“An’ what’s that?” asked Red Pearce, bluntly.

“Well, if the time’s ripe for the great gold fever you say is coming,
then it’s ripe for the greatest band ever organized. I’ll organize. I’ll
call it the Border Legion.”

“Count me in as right-hand, pard,” replied Red, with enthusiasm.

“An’ shore me, boss,” added Bate Wood.

The idea was received vociferously, at which demonstration the giant
Gulden raised his massive head and asked, or rather growled, in a heavy
voice what the fuss was about. His query, his roused presence, seemed to
act upon the others, even Kells, with a strange, disquieting or halting
force, as if here was a character or an obstacle to be considered. After
a moment of silence Red Pearce explained the project.

“Huh! Nothing new in that,” replied Gulden. “I belonged to one once. It
was in Algiers. They called it the Royal Legion.”

“Algiers. What’s thet?” asked Bate Wood.

“Africa,” replied Gulden.

“Say, Gul, you’ve been around some,” said Red Pearce, admiringly. “What
was the Royal Legion?”

“Nothing but a lot of devils from all over. The border there was the
last place. Every criminal was safe from pursuit.”

“What’d you do?”

“Fought among ourselves. Wasn’t many in the Legion when I left.”

“Shore thet ain’t strange!” exclaimed Wood, significantly. But his
inference was lost upon Gulden.

“I won’t allow fighting in my Legion,” said Kells, coolly. “I’ll pick
this band myself.”

“Thet’s the secret,” rejoined Wood. “The right fellers. I’ve been in all
kinds of bands. Why, I even was a vigilante in ‘51.”

This elicited a laugh from his fellows, except the wooden-faced Gulden.

“How many do we want?” asked Red Pearce.

“The number doesn’t matter. But they must be men I can trust and
control. Then as lieutenants I’ll need a few young fellows, like you,
Red. Nervy, daring, cool, quick of wits.”

Red Pearce enjoyed the praise bestowed upon him and gave his shoulders
a swagger. “Speakin’ of that, boss,” he said, “reminds me of a chap who
rode into Cabin Gulch a few weeks ago. Braced right into Beard’s place,
where we was all playin’ faro, an’ he asks for Jack Kells. Right off
we all thought he was a guy who had a grievance, an’ some of us was for
pluggin’ him. But I kinda liked him an’ I cooled the gang down. Glad
I did that. He wasn’t wantin’ to throw a gun. His intentions were
friendly. Of course I didn’t show curious about who or what he was.
Reckoned he was a young feller who’d gone bad sudden-like an’ was
huntin’ friends. An’ I’m here to say, boss, that he was wild.”

“What’s his name?” asked Kells.

“Jim Cleve, he said,” replied Pearce.

Joan Randle, hidden back in the shadows, forgotten or ignored by this
bandit group, heard the name Jim Cleve with pain and fear, but not
amaze. From the moment Pearce began his speech she had been prepared
for the revelation of her runaway lover’s name. She trembled, and grew
a little sick. Jim had made no idle threat. What would she have given to
live over again the moment that had alienated him?

“Jim Cleve,” mused Kells. “Never heard of him. And I never forget a name
or a face. What’s he like?”

“Clean, rangy chap, big, but not too big,” replied Pearce. “All muscle.
Not more’n twenty three. Hard rider, hard fighter, hard gambler an’
drinker--reckless as hell. If only you can steady him, boss! Ask Bate
what he thinks.”

“Well!” exclaimed Kells in surprise. “Strangers are everyday occurrences
on this border. But I never knew one to impress you fellows as this
Cleve.... Bate, what do you say? What’s this Cleve done? You’re an old
head. Talk, sense, now.”

“Done?” echoed Wood, scratching his grizzled head. “What in the hell
ain’t he done?... He rode in brazener than any feller thet ever stacked
up against this outfit. An’ straight-off he wins the outfit. I don’t
know how he done it. Mebbe it was because you seen he didn’t care fer
anythin’ or anybody on earth. He stirred us up. He won all the money we
had in camp--broke most of us--an’ give it all back. He drank more’n the
whole outfit, yet didn’t get drunk. He threw his gun on Beady Jones
fer cheatin’ an’ then on Beady’s pard, Chick Williams. Didn’t shoot to
kill--jest winged ‘em. But say, he’s the quickest and smoothest hand to
throw a gun thet ever hit this border. Don’t overlook thet.... Kells,
this Jim Cleve’s a great youngster goin’ bad quick. An’ I’m here to add
that he’ll take some company along.”

“Bate, you forgot to tell how he handled Luce,” said Red Pearee. “You
was there. I wasn’t. Tell Kells that.”

“Luce. I know the man. Go ahead, Bate,” responded Kells.

“Mebbe it ain’t any recommendation fer said Jim Cleve,” replied Wood.
“Though it did sorta warm me to him.... Boss, of course, you recollect
thet little Brander girl over at Bear Lake village. She’s old Brander’s
girl--worked in his store there. I’ve seen you talk sweet to her myself.
Wal, it seems the old man an’ some of his boys took to prospectin’ an’
fetched the girl along. Thet’s how I understood it. Luce came bracin’ in
over at Cabin Gulch one day. As usual, we was drinkin’ an’ playin’. But
young Cleve wasn’t doin’ neither. He had a strange, moody spell thet
day, as I recollect. Luce sprung a job on us. We never worked with him
or his outfit, but mebbe--you can’t tell what’d come off if it hadn’t
been for Cleve. Luce had a job put up to ride down where ole Brander was
washin’ fer gold, take what he had--AN’ the girl. Fact was the gold was
only incidental. When somebody cornered Luce he couldn’t swear there was
gold worth goin’ after. An’ about then Jim Cleve woke up. He cussed Luce
somethin’ fearful. An’ when Luce went for his gun, natural-like, why
this Jim Cleve took it away from him. An’ then he jumped Luce. He
knocked an’ threw him around an’ he near beat him to death before we
could interfere. Luce was shore near dead. All battered up--broken
bones--an’ what-all I can’t say. We put him to bed an’ he’s there yet,
an’ he’ll never be the same man he was.”

A significant silence fell upon the group at the conclusion of Wood’s
narrative. Wood had liked the telling, and it made his listeners
thoughtful. All at once the pale face of Kells turned slightly toward
Gulden.

“Gulden, did you hear that?” asked Kells.

“Yes,” replied the man.

“What do you think about this Jim Cleve--and the job he prevented?”

“Never saw Cleve. I’ll look him up when we get back to camp. Then I’ll
go after the Brander girl.”

How strangely his brutal assurance marked a line between him and his
companions! There was something wrong, something perverse in this
Gulden. Had Kells meant to bring that point out or to get an impression
of Cleve?

Joan could not decide. She divined that there was antagonism between
Gulden and all the others. And there was something else, vague and
intangible, that might have been fear. Apparently Gulden was a
criminal for the sake of crime. Joan regarded him with a growing
terror--augmented the more because he alone kept eyes upon the corner
where she was hidden--and she felt that compared with him the
others, even Kells, of whose cold villainy she was assured, were but
insignificant men of evil. She covered her head with a blanket to shut
out sight of that shaggy, massive head and the great dark caves of eyes.

Thereupon Joan did not see or hear any more of the bandits. Evidently
the conversation died down, or she, in the absorption of new thoughts,
no longer heard. She relaxed, and suddenly seemed to quiver all over
with the name she whispered to herself. “Jim! Jim! Oh, Jim!” And the
last whisper was an inward sob. What he had done was terrible. It
tortured her. She had not believed it in him. Yet, now she thought, how
like him. All for her--in despair and spite--he had ruined himself. He
would be killed out there in some drunken brawl, or, still worse, he
would become a member of this bandit crew and drift into crime. That was
a great blow to Joan--that the curse she had put upon him. How silly,
false, and vain had been her coquetry, her indifference! She loved Jim
Cleve. She had not known that when she started out to trail him, to
fetch him back, but she knew it now. She ought to have known before.

The situation she had foreseen loomed dark and monstrous and terrible in
prospect. Just to think of it made her body creep and shudder with cold
terror. Yet there was that strange, inward, thrilling burn round her
heart. Somewhere and soon she was coming face to face with this changed
Jim Cleve--this boy who had become a reckless devil. What would he
do? What could she do? Might he not despise her, scorn her, curse her,
taking her at Kells’s word, the wife of a bandit? But no! he would
divine the truth in the flash of an eye. And then! She could not think
what might happen, but it must mean blood-death. If he escaped Kells,
how could he ever escape this Gulden--this huge vulture of prey?

Still, with the horror thick upon her, Joan could not wholly give up.
The moment Jim Cleve’s name and his ruin burst upon her ears, in the
gossip of these bandits, she had become another girl--a girl wholly
become a woman, and one with a driving passion to save if it cost her
life. She lost her fear of Kells, of the others, of all except Gulden.
He was not human, and instinctively she knew she could do nothing with
him. She might influence the others, but never Gulden.

The torment in her brain eased then, and gradually she quieted down,
with only a pang and a weight in her breast. The past seemed far away.
The present was nothing. Only the future, that contained Jim Cleve,
mattered to her. She would not have left the clutches of Kells, if at
that moment she could have walked forth free and safe. She was going on
to Cabin Gulch. And that thought was the last one in her weary mind as
she dropped to sleep.



8

In three days--during which time Joan attended Kells as faithfully as if
she were indeed his wife--he thought that he had gained sufficiently to
undertake the journey to the main camp, Cabin Gulch. He was eager to get
back there and imperious in his overruling of any opposition. The men
could take turns at propping him in a saddle. So on the morning of the
fourth day they packed for the ride.

During these few days Joan had verified her suspicion that Kells had
two sides to his character; or it seemed, rather, that her presence
developed a latent or a long-dead side. When she was with him, thereby
distracting his attention, he was entirely different from what he was
when his men surrounded him. Apparently he had no knowledge of this. He
showed surprise and gratitude at Joan’s kindness though never pity or
compassion for her. That he had become infatuated with her Joan could no
longer doubt. His strange eyes followed her; there was a dreamy light in
them; he was mostly silent with her.

Before those few days had come to an end he had developed two things--a
reluctance to let Joan leave his sight and an intolerance of the
presence of the other men, particularly Gulden. Always Joan felt the
eyes of these men upon her, mostly in unobtrusive glances, except
Gulden’s. The giant studied her with slow, cavernous stare, without
curiosity or speculation or admiration. Evidently a woman was a new and
strange creature to him and he was experiencing unfamiliar sensations.
Whenever Joan accidentally met his gaze--for she avoided it as much as
possible--she shuddered with sick memory of a story she had heard--how
a huge and ferocious gorilla had stolen into an African village and run
off with a white woman. She could not shake the memory. And it was this
that made her kinder to Kells than otherwise would have been possible.

All Joan’s faculties sharpened in this period. She felt her own
development--the beginning of a bitter and hard education--an
instinctive assimilation of all that nature taught its wild people
and creatures, the first thing in elemental life--self-preservation.
Parallel in her heart and mind ran a hopeless despair and a driving,
unquenchable spirit. The former was fear, the latter love. She believed
beyond a doubt that she had doomed herself along with Jim Cleve; she
felt that she had the courage, the power, the love to save him, if
not herself. And the reason that she did not falter and fail in this
terrible situation was because her despair, great as it was, did not
equal her love.

That morning, before being lifted upon his horse, Kells buckled on his
gun-belt. The sheath and full round of shells and the gun made this belt
a burden for a weak man. And so Red Pearce insisted. But Kells laughed
in his face. The men, always excepting Gulden, were unfailing in
kindness and care. Apparently they would have fought for Kells to the
death. They were simple and direct in their rough feelings. But in
Kells, Joan thought, was a character who was a product of this border
wildness, yet one who could stand aloof from himself and see the
possibilities, the unexpected, the meaning of that life. Kells knew that
a man and yet another might show kindness and faithfulness one moment,
but the very next, out of a manhood retrograded to the savage, out
of the circumstance or chance, might respond to a primitive force far
sundered from thought or reason, and rise to unbridled action. Joan
divined that Kells buckled on his gun to be ready to protect her. But
his men never dreamed his motive. Kells was a strong, bad man set among
men like him, yet he was infinitely different because he had brains.

On the start of the journey Joan was instructed to ride before Kells
and Pearce, who supported the leader in his saddle. The pack-drivers
and Bate Wood and Frenchy rode ahead; Gulden held to the rear. And this
order was preserved till noon, when the cavalcade halted for a rest in
a shady, grassy, and well-watered nook. Kells was haggard, and his
brow wet with clammy dew, and lined with pain. Yet he was cheerful and
patient. Still he hurried the men through their tasks.

In an hour the afternoon travel was begun. The canon and its
surroundings grew more rugged and of larger dimensions. Yet the
trail appeared to get broader and better all the time. Joan noticed
intersecting trails, running down from side canons and gulches. The
descent was gradual, and scarcely evident in any way except in the
running water and warmer air.

Kells, tired before the middle of the afternoon, and he would have
fallen from his saddle but for the support of his fellows. One by one
they held him up. And it was not easy work to ride alongside, holding
him up. Joan observed that Gulden did not offer his services. He seemed
a part of this gang, yet not of it. Joan never lost a feeling of his
presence behind her, and from time to time, when he rode closer, the
feeling grew stronger. Toward the close of that afternoon she became
aware of Gulden’s strange attention. And when a halt was made for camp
she dreaded something nameless.

This halt occurred early, before sunset, and had been necessitated by
the fact that Kells was fainting. They laid him out on blankets, with
his head in his saddle. Joan tended him, and he recovered somewhat,
though he lacked the usual keenness.

It was a busy hour with saddles, packs, horses, with wood to cut and
fire to build and meal to cook. Kells drank thirstily, but refused food.

“Joan,” he whispered, at an opportune moment, “I’m only tired--dead for
sleep. You stay beside me. Wake me quick--if you want to!”

He closed his eyes wearily, without explaining, and soon slumbered.
Joan did not choose to allow these men to see that she feared them or
distrusted them or disliked them. She ate with them beside the fire.
And this was their first opportunity to be close to her. The fact had
an immediate and singular influence. Joan had no vanity, though she knew
she was handsome. She forced herself to be pleasant, agreeable, even
sweet. Their response was instant and growing. At first they were bold,
then familiar and coarse. For years she had been used to rough men
of the camps. These however, were different, and their jokes and
suggestions had no effect because they were beyond her. And when this
became manifest to them that aspect of their relation to her changed.
She grasped the fact intuitively, and then she verified it by proof. Her
heart beat strong and high. If she could hide her hate, her fear, her
abhorrence, she could influence these wild men. But it all depended upon
her charm, her strangeness, her femininity. Insensibly they had been
influenced, and it proved that in the worst of men there yet survived
some good. Gulden alone presented a contrast and a problem. He appeared
aware of her presence while he sat there eating like a wolf, but it was
as if she were only an object. The man watched as might have an animal.

Her experience at the camp-fire meal inclined her to the belief that,
if there were such a possibility as her being safe at all, it would be
owing to an unconscious and friendly attitude toward the companions she
had been forced to accept. Those men were pleased, stirred at being in
her vicinity. Joan came to a melancholy and fearful cognizance of her
attraction. While at home she seldom had borne upon her a reality--that
she was a woman. Her place, her person were merely natural. Here it
was all different. To these wild men, developed by loneliness,
fierce-blooded, with pulses like whips, a woman was something that
thrilled, charmed, soothed, that incited a strange, insatiable,
inexplicable hunger for the very sight of her. They did not realize it,
but Joan did.

Presently Joan finished her supper and said: “I’ll go hobble my horse.
He strays sometimes.”

“Shore I’ll go, miss,” said Bate Wood. He had never called her Mrs.
Kells, but Joan believed he had not thought of the significance.
Hardened old ruffian that he was. Joan regarded him as the best of a bad
lot. He had lived long, and some of his life had not been bad.

“Let me go,” added Pearce.

“No, thanks. I’ll go myself,” she replied.

She took the rope hobble off her saddle and boldly swung down the trail.
Suddenly she heard two or more of the men speak at once, and then, low
and clear: “Gulden, where’n hell are you goin’?” This was Red Pearce’s
voice.

Joan glanced back. Gulden had started down the trail after her. Her
heart quaked, her knees shook, and she was ready to run back. Gulden
halted, then turned away, growling. He acted as if caught in something
surprising to himself.

“We’re on to you, Gulden,” continued Pearce, deliberately. “Be careful
or we’ll put Kells on.”

A booming, angry curse was the response. The men grouped closer and a
loud altercation followed. Joan almost ran down the trail and heard no
more. If any one of them had started her way now she would have plunged
into the thickets like a frightened deer. Evidently, however, they meant
to let her alone. Joan found her horse, and before hobbling him she was
assailed by a temptation to mount him and ride away. This she did not
want to do and would not do under any circumstances; still, she could
not prevent the natural instinctive impulse of a woman.

She crossed to the other side of the brook and returned toward camp
under the spruce and balsam trees, She did not hurry. It was good to
be alone, out of sight of those violent men, away from that constant
wearing physical proof of catastrophe. Nevertheless, she did not feel
free or safe for a moment; she peered fearfully into the shadows of the
rocks and trees; and presently it was a relief to get back to the side
of the sleeping Kells. He lay in a deep slumber of exhaustion. She
arranged her own saddle and blankets near him, and prepared to meet the
night as best she could. Instinctively she took a position where in one
swift snatch she could get possession of Kells’s gun.

It was about time of sunset, warm and still in the canon, with rosy
lights fading upon the peaks. The men were all busy with one thing and
another. Strange it was to see that Gulden, who Joan thought might be
a shirker, did twice the work of any man, especially the heavy work. He
seemed to enjoy carrying a log that would have overweighted two ordinary
men. He was so huge, so active, so powerful that it was fascinating to
watch him. They built the camp-fire for the night uncomfortably near
Joan’s position; however, remembering how cold the air would become
later, she made no objection. Twilight set in and the men, through for
the day, gathered near the fire.

Then Joan was not long in discovering that the situation had begun
to impinge upon the feelings of each of these men. They looked at her
differently. Some of them invented pretexts to approach her, to ask
something, to offer service--anything to get near her. A personal and
individual note had been injected into the attitude of each. Intuitively
Joan guessed that Gulden’s arising to follow her had turned their eyes
inward. Gulden remained silent and inactive at the edge of the camp-fire
circle of light, which flickered fitfully around him, making him seem a
huge, gloomy ape of a man. So far as Joan could tell, Gulden never cast
his eyes in her direction. That was a difference which left cause for
reflection. Had that hulk of brawn and bone begun to think? Bate Wood’s
overtures to Joan were rough, but inexplicable to her because she dared
not wholly trust him.

“An’ shore, miss,” he had concluded, in a hoarse whisper, “we-all know
you ain’t Kells’s wife. Thet bandit wouldn’t marry no woman. He’s a
woman-hater. He was famous fer thet over in California. He’s run off
with you--kidnapped you, thet’s shore.... An’ Gulden swears he shot his
own men an’ was in turn shot by you. Thet bullet-hole in his back was
full of powder. There’s liable to be a muss-up any time.... Shore, miss,
you’d better sneak off with me tonight when they’re all asleep. I’ll git
grub an’ hosses, an’ take you off to some prospector’s camp. Then you
can git home.”

Joan only shook her head. Even if she could have felt trust in Wood--and
she was of half a mind to believe him--it was too late. Whatever befell
her mattered little if in suffering it she could save Jim Cleve from the
ruin she had wrought.

Since this wild experience of Joan’s had begun she had been sick so
many times with raw and naked emotions hitherto unknown to her, that
she believed she could not feel another new fear or torture. But these
strange sensations grew by what they had been fed upon.

The man called Frenchy, was audacious, persistent, smiling,
amorous-eyed, and rudely gallant. He cared no more for his companions
than if they had not been there. He vied with Pearce in his attention,
and the two of them discomfited the others. The situation might have
been amusing had it not been so terrible. Always the portent was a
shadow behind their interest and amiability and jealousy. Except for
that one abrupt and sinister move of Gulden’s--that of a natural man
beyond deceit--there was no word, no look, no act at which Joan could
have been offended. They were joking, sarcastic, ironical, and sullen
in their relation to each other; but to Joan each one presented what was
naturally or what he considered his kindest and most friendly front. A
young and attractive woman had dropped into the camp of lonely wild men;
and in their wild hearts was a rebirth of egotism, vanity, hunger
for notice. They seemed as foolish as a lot of cock grouse preening
themselves and parading before a single female. Surely in some heart was
born real brotherhood for a helpless girl in peril. Inevitably in some
of them would burst a flame of passion as it had in Kells.

Between this amiable contest for Joan’s glances and replies, with its
possibility of latent good to her, and the dark, lurking, unspoken
meaning, such as lay in Gulden’s brooding, Joan found another new and
sickening torture.

“Say, Frenchy, you’re no lady’s man,” declared Red Pearce, “an’ you,
Bate, you’re too old. Move--pass by--sashay!” Pearce, good-naturedly,
but deliberately, pushed the two men back.

“Shore she’s Kells’s lady, ain’t she?” drawled Wood. “Ain’t you all
forgettin’ thet?”

“Kells is asleep or dead,” replied Pearce, and he succeeded in getting
the field to himself.

“Where’d you meet Kells anyway?” he asked Joan, with his red face
bending near hers.

Joan had her part to play. It was difficult, because she divined
Pearce’s curiosity held a trap to catch her in a falsehood. He
knew--they all knew she was not Kells’s wife. But if she were a prisoner
she seemed a willing and contented one. The query that breathed in
Pearce’s presence was how was he to reconcile the fact of her submission
with what he and his comrades had potently felt as her goodness?

“That doesn’t concern anybody,” replied Joan.

“Reckon not,” said Pearce. Then he leaned nearer with intense face.
“What I want to know--is Gulden right? Did you shoot Kells?”

In the dusk Joan reached back and clasped Kells hand.

For a man as weak and weary as he had been, it was remarkable how
quickly a touch awakened him. He lifted his head.

“Hello! Who’s that?” he called out, sharply.

Pearce rose guardedly, startled, but not confused. “It’s only me,
boss,” he replied. “I was about to turn in, an’ I wanted to know how you
are--if I could do anythin’.”

“I’m all right, Red,” replied Kells, coolly. “Clear out and let me
alone. All of you.”

Pearce moved away with an amiable good-night and joined the others at
the camp-fire. Presently they sought their blankets, leaving Gulden
hunching there silent in the gloom.

“Joan, why did you wake me?” whispered Kells.

“Pearce asked me if I shot you,” replied Joan. “I woke you instead of
answering him.”

“He did!” exclaimed Kells under his breath. Then he laughed. “Can’t fool
that gang. I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’d be well if they knew
you shot me.”

He appeared thoughtful, and lay there with the fading flare of the fire
on his pale face. But he did not speak again. Presently he fell asleep.

Joan leaned back, within reach of him, with her head in her saddle, and
pulling a blanket up over her, relaxed her limbs to rest. Sleep seemed
the furthest thing from her. She wondered that she dared to think of it.
The night had grown chilly; the wind was sweeping with low roar through
the balsams; the fire burned dull and red. Joan watched the black,
shapeless hulk that she knew to be Gulden. For a long time he remained
motionless. By and by he moved, approached the fire, stood one moment
in the dying ruddy glow, his great breadth and bulk magnified, with
all about him vague and shadowy, but the more sinister for that. The
cavernous eyes were only black spaces in that vast face, yet Joan saw
them upon her. He lay down then among the other men and soon his deep
and heavy breathing denoted the tranquil slumber of an ox.

For hours through changing shadows and starlight Joan lay awake, while
a thousand thoughts besieged her, all centering round that vital and
compelling one of Jim Cleve.

Only upon awakening, with the sun in her face, did Joan realize that she
had actually slept.

The camp was bustling with activity. The horses were in, fresh and
quarrelsome, with ears laid back. Kells was sitting upon a rock near the
fire with a cup of coffee in his hand. He was looking better. When
he greeted Joan his voice sounded stronger. She walked by Pearce and
Frenchy and Gulden on her way to the brook, but they took no notice of
her. Bate Wood, however, touched his sombrero and said: “Mornin’, miss.”
 Joan wondered if her memory of the preceding night were only a bad
dream. There was a different atmosphere by daylight, and it was
dominated by Kells. Presently she returned to camp refreshed and hungry.
Gulden was throwing a pack, which action he performed with ease and
dexterity. Pearce was cinching her saddle. Kells was talking, more like
his old self than at any time since his injury.

Soon they were on the trail. For Joan time always passed swiftly on
horseback. Movement and changing scene were pleasurable to her. The
passing of time now held a strange expectancy, a mingled fear and hope
and pain, for at the end of this trail was Jim Cleve. In other days she
had flouted him, made fun of him, dominated him, everything except loved
and feared him. And now she was assured of her love and almost convinced
of her fear. The reputation these wild bandits gave Jim was astounding
and inexplicable to Joan. She rode the miles thinking of Jim, dreading
to meet him, longing to see him, and praying and planning for him.

About noon the cavalcade rode out of the mouth of a canon into a wide
valley, surrounded by high, rounded foot-hills. Horses and cattle were
grazing on the green levels. A wide, shallow, noisy stream split the
valley. Joan could tell from the tracks at the crossing that this place,
whatever and wherever it was, saw considerable travel; and she concluded
the main rendezvous of the bandits was close at hand.

The pack drivers led across the stream and the valley to enter an
intersecting ravine. It was narrow, rough-sided, and floored, but the
trail was good. Presently it opened out into a beautiful V-shaped gulch,
very different from the high-walled, shut-in canons. It had a level
floor, through which a brook flowed, and clumps of spruce and pine, with
here and there a giant balsam. Huge patches of wild flowers gave rosy
color to the grassy slopes. At the upper end of this gulch Joan saw a
number of widely separated cabins. This place, then, was Cabin Gulch.

Upon reaching the first cabin the cavalcade split up. There were men
here who hallooed a welcome. Gulden halted with his pack-horse. Some of
the others rode on. Wood drove other pack-animals off to the right, up
the gentle slope. And Red Pearce, who was beside Kells, instructed Joan
to follow them. They rode up to a bench of straggling spruce-trees, in
the midst of which stood a large log cabin. It was new, as in fact all
the structures in the Gulch appeared to be, and none of them had seen a
winter. The chinks between the logs were yet open. This cabin was of
the rudest make of notched logs one upon another, and roof of brush
and earth. It was low and flat, but very long, and extending before
the whole of it was a porch roof supported by posts. At one end was
a corral. There were doors and windows with nothing in them. Upon the
front wall, outside, hung saddles and bridles.

Joan had a swift, sharp gaze for the men who rose from their lounging
to greet the travelers. Jim Cleve was not among them. Her heart left her
throat then, and she breathed easier. How could she meet him?

Kells was in better shape than at noon of the preceding day. Still, he
had to be lifted off his horse. Joan heard all the men talking at once.
They crowded round Pearce, each lending a hand. However, Kells appeared
able to walk into the cabin. It was Bate Wood who led Joan inside.

There was a long room, with stone fireplace, rude benches and a table,
skins and blankets on the floor, and lanterns and weapons on the
wall. At one end Joan saw a litter of cooking utensils and shelves of
supplies.

Suddenly Kells’s impatient voice silenced the clamor of questions. “I’m
not hurt,” he said. “I’m all right--only weak and tired. Fellows, this
girl is my wife.... Joan, you’ll find a room there--at the back of the
cabin. Make yourself comfortable.”

Joan was only too glad to act upon his suggestion. A door had been cut
through the back wall. It was covered with a blanket. When she swept
this aside she came upon several steep steps that led up to a smaller,
lighter cabin of two rooms, separated by a partition of boughs. She
dropped the blanket behind her and went up the steps. Then she saw
that the new cabin had been built against an old one. It had no door or
opening except the one by which she had entered. It was light because
the chinks between the logs were open. The furnishings were a wide bench
of boughs covered with blankets, a shelf with a blurred and cracked
mirror hanging above it, a table made of boxes, and a lantern. This
room was four feet higher than the floor of the other cabin. And at
the bottom of the steps leaned a half-dozen slender trimmed poles. She
gathered presently that these poles were intended to be slipped under
crosspieces above and fastened by a bar below, which means effectually
barricaded the opening. Joan could stand at the head of the steps and
peep under an edge of the swinging blanket into the large room, but that
was the only place she could see through, for the openings between
the logs of each wall were not level. These quarters were comfortable,
private, and could be shut off from intruders. Joan had not expected so
much consideration from Kells and she was grateful.

She lay down to rest and think. It was really very pleasant here. There
were birds nesting in the chinks; a ground squirrel ran along one of the
logs and chirped at her; through an opening near her face she saw a
wild rose-bush and the green slope of the gulch; a soft, warm, fragrant
breeze blew in, stirring her hair. How strange that there could be
beautiful and pleasant things here in this robber den; that time was
the same here as elsewhere; that the sun shone and the sky gleamed blue.
Presently she discovered that a lassitude weighted upon her and she
could not keep her eyes open. She ceased trying, but intended to remain
awake--to think, to listen, to wait. Nevertheless, she did fall asleep
and did not awaken till disturbed by some noise. The color of the
western sky told her that the afternoon was far spent. She had slept
hours. Someone was knocking. She got up and drew aside the blanket. Bate
Wood was standing near the door.

“Now, miss, I’ve supper ready,” he said, “an’ I was reckonin’ you’d like
me to fetch yours.”

“Yes, thank you, I would,” replied Joan.

In a few moments Wood returned carrying the top of a box upon which were
steaming pans and cups. He handed this rude tray up to Joan.

“Shore I’m a first-rate cook, miss, when I’ve somethin’ to cook,” he
said with a smile that changed his hard face.

She returned the smile with her thanks. Evidently Kells had a
well-filled larder, and as Joan had fared on coarse and hard food for
long, this supper was a luxury and exceedingly appetizing. While she was
eating, the blanket curtain moved aside and Kells appeared. He dropped
it behind him, but did not step up into the room. He was in his
shirt-sleeves, had been clean shaven, and looked a different man.

“How do you like your--home?” he inquired, with a hint of his former
mockery.

“I’m grateful for the privacy,” she replied.

“You think you could be worse off, then?”

“I know it.”

“Suppose Gulden kills me--and rules the gang--and takes you?... There’s
a story about him, the worst I’ve heard on this border. I’ll tell you
some day when I want to scare you bad.”

“Gulden!” Joan shivered as she pronounced the name. “Are you and he
enemies?”

“No man can have a friend on this border. We flock together like
buzzards. There’s safety in numbers, but we fight together, like
buzzards over carrion.”

“Kells, you hate this life?”

“I’ve always hated my life, everywhere. The only life I ever loved was
adventure.... I’m willing to try a new one, if you’ll go with me.”

Joan shook her head.

“Why not? I’ll marry you,” he went on, speaking lower. “I’ve got gold;
I’ll get more.”

“Where did you get the gold?” she asked

“I’ve relieved a good many overburdened travelers and prospectors,” he
replied.

“Kells, you’re a--a villain!” exclaimed Joan, unable to contain her
sudden heat. “You must be utterly mad--to ask me to marry you.”

“No, I’m not mad,” he rejoined, with a laugh. “Gulden’s the mad one.
He’s crazy. He’s got a twist in his brain. I’m no fool.... I’ve only
lost my head over you. But compare marrying me, living and traveling
among decent people and comfort, to camps like this. If I don’t get
drunk I’ll be half decent to you. But I’ll get shot sooner or later.
Then you’ll be left to Gulden.”

“Why do you say HIM?” she queried, in a shudder of curiosity.

“Well, Gulden haunts me.”

“He does me, too. He makes me lose my sense of proportion. Beside him
you and the others seem good. But you ARE wicked.”

“Then you won’t marry me and go away somewhere?... Your choice is
strange. Because I tell you the truth.”

“Kells! I’m a woman. Something deep in me says you won’t keep me
here--you can’t be so base. Not now, after I saved your life! It would
be horrible--inhuman. I can’t believe any man born of a woman could do
it.”

“But I want you--I love you!” he said, low and hard.

“Love! That’s not love,” she replied in scorn. “God only knows what it
is.”

“Call it what you like,” he went on, bitterly. “You’re a young,
beautiful, sweet woman. It’s wonderful to be near you. My life has been
hell. I’ve had nothing. There’s only hell to look forward to--and hell
at the end. Why shouldn’t I keep you here?”

“But, Kells, listen,” she whispered, earnestly, “suppose I am young
and beautiful and sweet--as you said. I’m utterly in your power. I’m
compelled to seek your protection from even worse men. You’re different
from these others. You’re educated. You must have had--a--a good mother.
Now you’re bitter, desperate, terrible. You hate life. You seem to think
this charm you see in me will bring you something. Maybe a glimpse of
joy! But how can it? You know better. How can it... unless I--I love
you?”

Kells stared at her, the evil and hardness of his passion corded in
his face. And the shadows of comprehending thought in his strange eyes
showed the other side of the man. He was still staring at her while he
reached to put aside the curtains; then he dropped his head and went
out.

Joan sat motionless, watching the door where he had disappeared,
listening to the mounting beats of her heart. She had only been frank
and earnest with Kells. But he had taken a meaning from her last
few words that she had not intended to convey. All that was woman in
her--mounting, righting, hating--leaped to the power she sensed in
herself. If she could be deceitful, cunning, shameless in holding out to
Kells a possible return of his love, she could do anything with him. She
knew it. She did not need to marry him or sacrifice herself. Joan was
amazed that the idea remained an instant before her consciousness. But
something had told her this was another kind of life than she had known,
and all that was precious to her hung in the balance. Any falsity
was justifiable, even righteous, under the circumstances. Could she
formulate a plan that this keen bandit would not see through? The
remotest possibility of her even caring for Kells--that was as much as
she dared hint. But that, together with all the charm and seductiveness
she could summon, might be enough. Dared she try it? If she tried and
failed Kells would despise her, and then she was utterly lost. She was
caught between doubt and hope. All that was natural and true in her
shrank from such unwomanly deception; all that had been born of her wild
experience inflamed her to play the game, to match Kells’s villainy with
a woman’s unfathomable duplicity.

And while Joan was absorbed in thought the sun set, the light failed,
twilight stole into the cabin, and then darkness. All this hour there
had been a continual sound of men’s voices in the large cabin, sometimes
low and at other times loud. It was only when Joan distinctly heard the
name Jim Cleve that she was startled out of her absorption, thrilling
and flushing. In her eagerness she nearly fell as she stepped and
gropped through the darkness to the door, and as she drew aside the
blanket her hand shook.

The large room was lighted by a fire and half a dozen lanterns. Through
a faint tinge of blue smoke Joan saw men standing and sitting and
lounging around Kells, who had a seat where the light fell full upon
him. Evidently a lull had intervened in the talk. The dark faces Joan
could see were all turned toward the door expectantly.

“Bring him in, Bate, and let’s look him over,” said Kells.

Then Bate Wood appeared, elbowing his way in, and he had his hand on the
arm of a tall, lithe fellow. When they got into the light Joan quivered
as if she had been stabbed. That stranger with Wood was Jim Cleve--Jim
Cleve in frame and feature, yet not the same she knew.

“Cleve, glad to meet you,” greeted Kells, extending his hand.

“Thanks. Same to you,” replied Cleve, and he met the proffered hand. His
voice was cold and colorless, unfamiliar to Joan. Was this man really
Jim Cleve?

The meeting of Kells and Cleve was significant because of Kells’s
interest and the silent attention of the men of his clan. It did not
seem to mean anything to the white-faced, tragic-eyed Cleve. Joan gazed
at him with utter amazement. She remembered a heavily built, florid Jim
Cleve, an overgrown boy with a good-natured, lazy smile on his full
face and sleepy eyes. She all but failed to recognize him in the man who
stood there now, lithe and powerful, with muscles bulging in his coarse,
white shirt. Joan’s gaze swept over him, up and down, shivering at the
two heavy guns he packed, till it was transfixed on his face. The old,
or the other, Jim Cleve had been homely, with too much flesh on his face
to show force or fire. This man seemed beautiful. But it was a beauty of
tragedy. He was as white as Kells, but smoothly, purely white,
without shadow or sunburn. His lips seemed to have set with a bitter,
indifferent laugh. His eyes looked straight out, piercing, intent,
haunted, and as dark as night. Great blue circles lay under them,
lending still further depth and mystery. It was a sad, reckless face
that wrung Joan’s very heartstrings. She had come too late to save his
happiness, but she prayed that it was not too late to save his honor and
his soul.

While she gazed there had been further exchange of speech between Kells
and Cleve, and she had heard, though not distinguished, what was said.
Kells was unmistakably friendly, as were the other men within range of
Joan’s sight. Cleve was surrounded; there were jesting and laughter;
and then he was led to the long table where several men were already
gambling.

Joan dropped the curtain, and in the darkness of her cabin she saw that
white, haunting face, and when she covered her eyes she still saw it.
The pain, the reckless violence, the hopeless indifference, the wreck
and ruin in that face had been her doing. Why? How had Jim Cleve wronged
her? He had loved her at her displeasure and had kissed her against her
will. She had furiously upbraided him, and when he had finally turned
upon her, threatening to prove he was no coward, she had scorned him
with a girl’s merciless injustice. All her strength and resolve left
her, momentarily, after seeing Jim there. Like a woman, she weakened.
She lay on the bed and writhed. Doubt, hopelessness, despair, again
seized upon her, and some strange, yearning maddening emotion. What had
she sacrificed? His happiness and her own--and both their lives!

The clamor in the other cabin grew so boisterous that suddenly when it
stilled Joan was brought sharply to the significance of it. Again she
drew aside the curtain and peered out.

Gulden, huge, stolid, gloomy, was entering the cabin. The man fell into
the circle and faced Kell with the fire-light dancing in his cavernous
eyes.

“Hello, Gulden!” said Kells, coolly. “What ails you?”

“Anybody tell you about Bill Bailey?” asked Gulden, heavily.

Kells did not show the least concern. “Tell me what?”

“That he died in a cabin, down in the valley?”

Kells gave a slight start and his eyes narrowed and shot steely glints.
“No. It’s news to me.”

“Kells, you left Bailey for dead. But he lived. He was shot through,
but he got there somehow--nobody knows. He was far gone when Beady Jones
happened along. Before he died he sent word to me by Beady.... Are you
curious to know what it was?”

“Not the least,” replied Kells. “Bailey was--well, offensive to my wife.
I shot him.”

“He swore you drew on him in cold blood,” thundered Gulden. “He swore it
was for nothing--just so you could be alone with that girl!”

Kells rose in wonderful calmness, with only his pallor and a slight
shaking of his hands to betray excitement. An uneasy stir and murmur ran
through the room. Red Pearce, nearest at hand, stepped to Kells’s side.
All in a moment there was a deadly surcharged atmosphere there.

“Well, he swore right!... Now what’s it to you?”

Apparently the fact and its confession were nothing particular to
Gulden, or else he was deep where all considered him only dense and
shallow.

“It’s done. Bill’s dead,” continued Gulden. “But why do you double-cross
the gang? What’s the game? You never did it before.... That girl isn’t
your--”

“Shut up!” hissed Kells. Like a flash his hand flew out with his gun,
and all about him was dark menace.

Gulden made no attempt to draw. He did not show surprise nor fear nor
any emotion. He appeared plodding in mind. Red Pearce stepped between
Kells and Gulden. There was a realization in the crowd, loud breaths,
scraping of feet. Gulden turned away. Then Kells resumed his seat and
his pipe as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.



9

Joan turned away from the door in a cold clamp of relief. The shadow
of death hovered over these men. She must fortify herself to live
under that shadow, to be prepared for any sudden violence, to stand a
succession of shocks that inevitably would come. She listened. The men
were talking and laughing now; there came a click of chips, the spat of
a thrown card, the thump of a little sack of gold. Ahead of her lay the
long hours of night in which these men would hold revel. Only a faint
ray of light penetrated her cabin, but it was sufficient for her
to distinguish objects. She set about putting the poles in place to
barricade the opening. When she had finished she knew she was safe at
least from intrusion. Who had constructed that rude door and for what
purpose? Then she yielded to the temptation to peep once more under the
edge of the curtain.

The room was cloudy and blue with smoke. She saw Jim Cleve at a table
gambling with several ruffians. His back was turned, yet Joan felt the
contrast of his attitude toward the game, compared with that of the
others. They were tense, fierce, and intent upon every throw of a
card. Cleve’s very poise of head and movement of arm betrayed his
indifference. One of the gamblers howled his disgust, slammed down his
cards, and got up.

“He’s cleaned out,” said one, in devilish glee.

“Naw, he ain’t,” voiced another. “He’s got two fruit-cans full of dust.
I saw ‘em.... He’s just lay down--like a poisoned coyote.”

“Shore I’m glad Cleve’s got the luck, fer mebbe he’ll give my gold
back,” spoke up another gamester, with a laugh.

“Wal, he certainlee is the chilvalus card sharp,” rejoined the last
player. “Jim, was you allus as lucky in love as in cards?”

“Lucky in love?... Sure!” answered Jim Cleve, with a mocking, reckless
ring in his voice.

“Funny, ain’t thet, boys? Now there’s the boss. Kells can sure win the
gurls, but he’s a pore gambler.” Kells heard this speech, and he laughed
with the others. “Hey, you greaser, you never won any of my money,” he
said.

“Come an’ set in, boss. Come an’ see your gold fade away. You can’t
stop this Jim Cleve. Luck--bull luck straddles his neck. He’ll win your
gold--your hosses an’ saddles an’ spurs an’ guns--an’ your shirt, if
you’ve nerve enough to bet it.”

The speaker slapped his cards upon the table while he gazed at Cleve in
grieved admiration. Kells walked over to the group and he put his hand
on Cleve’s shoulder.

“Say youngster,” he said, genially, “you said you were just as lucky in
love.... Now I had a hunch some BAD luck with a girl drove you out here
to the border.”

Kells spoke jestingly, in a way that could give no offense, even to the
wildest of boys, yet there was curiosity, keenness, penetration, in his
speech. It had not the slightest effect upon Jim Cleve.

“Bad luck and a girl?... To hell with both!” he said.

“Shore you’re talkin’ religion. Thet’s where both luck an’ gurls come
from,” replied the unlucky gamester. “Will one of you hawgs pass the
whiskey?”

The increased interest with which Kells looked down upon Jim Cleve was
not lost upon Joan. But she had seen enough, and, turning away, she
stumbled to the bed and lay there with an ache in her heart.

“Oh,” she whispered to herself, “he is ruined--ruined--ruined!... God
forgive me!” She saw bright, cold stars shining between the logs. The
night wind swept in cold and pure, with the dew of the mountain in it.
She heard the mourn of wolves, the hoot of an owl, the distant cry of
a panther, weird and wild. Yet outside there was a thick and lonely
silence. In that other cabin, from which she was mercifully shut out,
there were different sounds, hideous by contrast. By and by she covered
her ears, and at length, weary from thought and sorrow, she drifted into
slumber.

Next morning, long after she had awakened, the cabin remained quiet,
with no one stirring. Morning had half gone before Wood knocked and
gave her a bucket of water, a basin and towels. Later he came with her
breakfast. After that she had nothing to do but pace the floor of her
two rooms. One appeared to be only an empty shed, long in disuse. Her
view from both rooms was restricted to the green slope of the gulch up
to yellow crags and the sky. But she would rather have had this to watch
than an outlook upon the cabins and the doings of these bandits.

About noon she heard the voice of Kells in low and earnest conversation
with someone; she could not, however, understand what was said. That
ceased, and then she heard Kells moving around. There came a clatter
of hoofs as a horse galloped away from the cabin, after which a knock
sounded on the wall.

“Joan,” called Kells. Then the curtain was swept aside and Kells,
appearing pale and troubled, stepped into her room.

“What’s the matter?” asked Joan, hurriedly.

“Gulden shot two men this morning. One’s dead. The other’s in bad shape,
so Red tells me. I haven’t seen him.”

“Who--who are they?” faltered Joan. She could not think of any man
except Jim Cleve.

“Dan Small’s the one’s dead. The other they call Dick. Never heard his
last name.”

“Was it a fight?”

“Of course. And Gulden picked it. He’s a quarrelsome man. Nobody can
go against him. He’s all the time like some men when they’re drunk. I’m
sorry I didn’t bore him last night. I would have done it if it hadn’t
been for Red Pearce.”

Kells seemed gloomy and concentrated on his situation and he talked
naturally to Joan, as if she were one to sympathize. A bandit, then, in
the details of his life, the schemes, troubles, friendships, relations,
was no different from any other kind of a man. He was human, and things
that might constitute black evil for observers were dear to him, a part
of him. Joan feigned the sympathy she could not feel.

“I thought Gulden was your enemy.”

Kells sat down on one of the box seats, and his heavy gun-sheath rested
upon the floor. He looked at Joan now, forgetting she was a woman and
his prisoner.

“I never thought of that till now,” he said. “We always got along
because I understood him. I managed him. The man hasn’t changed in the
least. He’s always what he is. But there’s a difference. I noticed that
first over in Lost Canon. And Joan, I believe it’s because Gulden saw
you.”

“Oh, no!” cried Joan, trembling.

“Maybe I’m wrong. Anyway something’s wrong. Gulden never had a friend or
a partner. I don’t misunderstand his position regarding Bailey. What did
he care for that soak? Gulden’s cross-grained. He opposes anything or
anybody. He’s got a twist in his mind that makes him dangerous.... I
wanted to get rid of him. I decided to--after last night. But now it
seems that’s no easy job.”

“Why?” asked Joan, curiously.

“Pearce and Wood and Beard, all men I rely on, said it won’t do. They
hint Gulden is strong with my gang here, and all through the border.
I was wild. I don’t believe it. But as I’m not sure--what can I do?...
They’re all afraid of Gulden. That’s it.... And I believe I am, too.”

“You!” exclaimed Joan.

Kells actually looked ashamed. “I believe I am, Joan,” he replied. “That
Gulden is not a man. I never was afraid of a real man. He’s--he’s an
animal.”

“He made me think of a gorrilla,” said Joan.

“There’s only one man I know who’s not afraid of Gulden. He’s a
new-comer here on the border. Jim Cleve he calls himself. A youngster I
can’t figure! But he’d slap the devil himself in the face. Cleve won’t
last long out here. Yet you can never tell. Men like him, who laugh at
death, sometimes avert it for long. I was that way once.... Cleve heard
me talking to Pearce about Gulden. And he said, ‘Kells, I’ll pick a
fight with this Gulden and drive him out of the camp or kill him.’”

“What did you say?” queried Joan, trying to steady her voice as she
averted her eyes.

“I said ‘Jim, that wins me. But I don’t want you killed.’... It
certainly was nervy of the youngster. Said it just the same as--as he’d
offer to cinch my saddle. Gulden can whip a roomful of men. He’s done
it. And as for a killer--I’ve heard of no man with his record.”

“And that’s why you fear him?”

“It’s not,” replied Kells, passionately, as if his manhood had been
affronted. “It’s because he’s Gulden. There’s something uncanny about
him.... Gulden’s a cannibal!”

Joan looked as if she had not heard aright.

“It’s a cold fact. Known all over the border. Gulden’s no braggart.
But he’s been known to talk. He was a sailor--a pirate. Once he was
shipwrecked. Starvation forced him to be a cannibal. He told this in
California, and in Nevada camps. But no one believed him. A few years
ago he got snowed-up in the mountains back of Lewiston. He had two
companions with him. They all began to starve. It was absolutely
necessary to try to get out. They started out in the snow. Travel
was desperately hard. Gulden told that his companions dropped. But he
murdered them--and again saved his life by being a cannibal. After this
became known his sailor yarns were no longer doubted.... There’s another
story about him. Once he got hold of a girl and took her into the
mountains. After a winter he returned alone. He told that he’d kept her
tied in a cave, without any clothes, and she froze to death.”

“Oh, horrible!” moaned Joan.

“I don’t know how true it is. But I believe it. Gulden is not a man. The
worst of us have a conscience. We can tell right from wrong. But Gulden
can’t. He’s beneath morals. He has no conception of manhood, such as
I’ve seen in the lowest of outcasts. That cave story with the girl--that
betrays him. He belongs back in the Stone Age. He’s a thing.... And here
on the border, if he wants, he can have all the more power because of
what he is.”

“Kells, don’t let him see me!” entreated Joan.

The bandit appeared not to catch the fear in Joan’s tone and look. She
had been only a listener. Presently with preoccupied and gloomy mien, he
left her alone.

Joan did not see him again, except for glimpses under the curtain, for
three days. She kept the door barred and saw no one except Bate Wood,
who brought her meals. She paced her cabin like a caged creature. During
this period few men visited Kells’s cabin, and these few did not remain
long. Joan was aware that Kells was not always at home. Evidently he
was able to go out. Upon the fourth day he called to her and knocked for
admittance. Joan let him in, and saw that he was now almost well again,
once more cool, easy, cheerful, with his strange, forceful air.

“Good day, Joan. You don’t seem to be pining for your--negligent
husband.”

He laughed as if he mocked himself, but there was gladness in the very
sight of her, and some indefinable tone in his voice that suggested
respect.

“I didn’t miss you,” replied Joan. Yet it was a relief to see him.

“No, I imagine not,” he said, dryly. “Well, I’ve been busy with
men--with plans. Things are working out to my satisfaction. Red Pearce
got around Gulden. There’s been no split. Besides, Gulden rode off.
Someone said he went after a little girl named Brander. I hope he gets
shot.... Joan, we’ll be leaving Cabin Gulch soon. I’m expecting news
that’ll change things. I won’t leave you here. You’ll have to ride the
roughest trails. And your clothes are in tatters now. You’ve got to have
something to wear.”

“I should think so,” replied Joan, fingering the thin, worn, ragged
habit that had gone to pieces. “The first brush I ride through will tear
this off.”

“That’s annoying,” said Kells, with exasperation at himself. “Where on
earth can I get you a dress? We’re two hundred miles from everywhere.
The wildest kind of country.... Say, did you ever wear a man’s outfit?”

“Ye-es, when I went prospecting and hunting with my uncle,” she replied,
reluctantly.

Suddenly he had a daring and brilliant smile that changed his face
completely. He rubbed his palms together. He laughed as if at a huge
joke. He cast a measuring glance up and down her slender form.

“Just wait till I come back,” he said.

He left her and she heard him rummaging around in the pile of trappings
she had noted in a corner of the other cabin. Presently he returned
carrying a bundle. This he unrolled on the bed and spread out the
articles.

“Dandy Dale’s outfit,” he said, with animation. “Dandy was a would-be
knight of the road. He dressed the part. But he tried to hold up a stage
over here and an unappreciative passenger shot him. He wasn’t killed
outright. He crawled away and died. Some of my men found him and they
fetched his clothes. That outfit cost a fortune. But not a man among us
could get into it.”

There was a black sombrero with heavy silver band; a dark-blue blouse
and an embroidered buckskin vest; a belt full of cartridges and a
pearl-handled gun; trousers of corduroy; high-top leather boots and gold
mounted spurs, all of the finest material and workmanship.

“Joan, I’ll make you a black mask out of the rim of a felt hat, and then
you’ll be grand.” He spoke with the impulse and enthusiasm of a boy.

“Kells, you don’t mean me to wear these?” asked Joan, incredulously.

“Certainly. Why not? Just the thing. A little fancy, but then you’re a
girl. We can’t hide that. I don’t want to hide it.”

“I won’t wear them,” declared Joan.

“Excuse me--but you will,” he replied, coolly and pleasantly.

“I won’t!” cried Joan. She could not keep cool.

“Joan, you’ve got to take long rides with me. At night sometimes. Wild
rides to elude pursuers sometimes. You’ll go into camps with me. You’ll
have to wear strong, easy, free clothes. You’ll have to be masked. Here
the outfit is--as if made for you. Why, you’re dead lucky. For this
stuff is good and strong. It’ll stand the wear, yet it’s fit for a
girl.... You put the outfit on, right now.”

“I said I wouldn’t!” Joan snapped.

“But what do you care if it belonged to a fellow who’s dead?... There!
See that hole in the shirt. That’s a bullet-hole. Don’t be squeamish.
It’ll only make your part harder.”

“Mr. Kells, you seem to have forgotten entirely that I’m a--a girl.”

He looked blank astonishment. “Maybe I have.... I’ll remember. But you
said you’d worn a man’s things.”

“I wore my brother’s coat and overalls, and was lost in them,” replied
Joan.

His face began to work. Then he laughed uproariously. “I--under--stand.
This’ll fit--you--like a glove.... Fine! I’m dying to see you.”

“You never will.”

At that he grew sober and his eyes glinted. “You can’t take a little
fun. I’ll leave you now for a while. When I come back you’ll have that
suit on!”

There was that in his voice then which she had heard when he ordered
men.

Joan looked her defiance.

“If you don’t have it on when I come I’ll--I’ll tear your rags off!... I
can do that. You’re a strong little devil, and maybe I’m not well enough
yet to put this outfit on you. But I can get help.... If you anger me I
might wait for--Gulden!”

Joan’s legs grew weak under her, so that she had to sink on the
bed. Kells would do absolutely and literally what he threatened. She
understood now the changing secret in his eyes. One moment he was a
certain kind of a man and the very next he was incalculably different.
She instinctively recognized this latter personality as her enemy. She
must use all the strength and wit and cunning and charm to keep his
other personality in the ascendancy, else all was futile.

“Since you force me so--then I must,” she said.

Kells left her without another word.

Joan removed her stained and torn dress and her worn-out boots; then
hurriedly, for fear Kells might return, she put on the dead boy-bandit’s
outfit. Dandy Dale assuredly must have been her counterpart, for his
things fitted her perfectly. Joan felt so strange that she scarcely had
courage enough to look into the mirror. When she did look she gave a
start that was of both amaze and shame. But for her face she never could
have recognized herself. What had become of her height, her slenderness?
She looked like an audacious girl in a dashing boy masquerade. Her
shame was singular, inasmuch as it consisted of a burning hateful
consciousness that she had not been able to repress a thrill of delight
at her appearance, and that this costume strangely magnified every curve
and swell of her body, betraying her feminity as nothing had ever done.

And just at that moment Kells knocked on the door and called, “Joan, are
you dressed?”

“Yes,” she replied. But the word seemed involuntary.

Then Kells came in.

It was an instinctive and frantic impulse that made Joan snatch up a
blanket and half envelop herself in it. She stood with scarlet face
and dilating eyes, trembling in every limb. Kells had entered with
an expectant smile and that mocking light in his gaze. Both faded. He
stared at the blanket--then at her face. Then he seemed to comprehend
this ordeal. And he looked sorry for her.

“Why you--you little--fool!” he exclaimed, with emotion. And that
emotion seemed to exasperate him. Turning away from her, he gazed out
between the logs. Again, as so many times before, he appeared to be
remembering something that was hard to recall, and vague.

Joan, agitated as she was, could not help but see the effect of her
unexpected and unconscious girlishness. She comprehended that with the
mind of the woman which had matured in her. Like Kells, she too, had
different personalities.

“I’m trying to be decent to you,” went on Kells, without turning. “I
want to give you a chance to make the best of a bad situation. But
you’re a kid--a girl!... And I’m a bandit. A man lost to all good, who
means to have you!”

“But you’re NOT lost to all good,” replied Joan, earnestly. “I can’t
understand what I do feel. But I know--if it had been Gulden instead of
you--that I wouldn’t have tried to hide my--myself behind this blanket.
I’m no longer--AFRAID of you. That’s why I acted--so--just like a girl
caught.... Oh! can’t you see!”

“No, I can’t see,” he replied. “I wish I hadn’t fetched you here. I wish
the thing hadn’t happened. Now it’s too late.”

“It’s never too late.... You--you haven’t harmed me yet.”

“But I love you,” he burst out. “Not like I have. Oh! I see this--that
I never really loved any woman before. Something’s gripped me. It feels
like that rope at my throat--when they were going to hang me.”

Then Joan trembled in the realization that a tremendous passion had
seized upon this strange, strong man. In the face of it she did not know
how to answer him. Yet somehow she gathered courage in the knowledge.

Kells stood silent a long moment, looking out at the green slope. And
then, as if speaking to himself, he said: “I stacked the deck and dealt
myself a hand--a losing hand--and now I’ve got to play it!”

With that he turned to Joan. It was the piercing gaze he bent upon her
that hastened her decision to resume the part she had to play. And she
dropped the blanket. Kells’s gloom and that iron hardness vanished.
He smiled as she had never seen him smile. In that and his speechless
delight she read his estimate of her appearance; and, notwithstanding
the unwomanliness of her costume, and the fact of his notorious
character, she knew she had never received so great a compliment.
Finally he found his voice.

“Joan, if you’re not the prettiest thing I ever saw in my life!”

“I can’t get used to this outfit,” said Joan. “I can’t--I won’t go away
from this room in it.”

“Sure you will. See here, this’ll make a difference, maybe. You’re so
shy.”

He held out a wide piece of black felt that evidently he had cut from a
sombrero. This he measured over her forehead and eyes, and then taking
his knife he cut it to a desired shape. Next he cut eyeholes in it and
fastened to it a loop made of a short strip of buckskin.

“Try that.... Pull it down--even with your eyes. There!--take a look at
yourself.”

Joan faced the mirror and saw merely a masked stranger. She was no
longer Joan Randle. Her identity had been absolutely lost.

“No one--who ever knew me--could recognize me now,” she murmured, and
the relieving thought centered round Jim Cleve.

“I hadn’t figured on that,” replied Kells. “But you’re right.... Joan,
if I don’t miss my guess, it won’t be long till you’ll be the talk of
mining-towns and camp-fires.”

This remark of Kells’s brought to Joan proof of his singular pride in
the name he bore, and proof of many strange stories about bandits and
wild women of the border. She had never believed any of these stories.
They had seemed merely a part of the life of this unsettled wild
country. A prospector would spend a night at a camp-fire and tell a
weird story and pass on, never to be seen there again. Could there have
been a stranger story than her life seemed destined to be? Her mind
whirled with vague, circling thought--Kells and his gang, the wild
trails, the camps, and towns, gold and stage-coaches, robbery, fights,
murder, mad rides in the dark, and back to Jim Cleve and his ruin.

Suddenly Kells stepped to her from behind and put his arms around her.
Joan grew stiff. She had been taken off her guard. She was in his arms
and could not face him.

“Joan, kiss me,” he whispered, with a softness, a richer, deeper note in
his voice.

“No!” cried Joan, violently.

There was a moment of silence in which she felt his grasp slowly
tighten--the heave of his breast.

“Then I’ll make you,” he said. So different was the voice now that
another man might have spoken. Then he bent her backward, and, freeing
one hand, brought it under her chin and tried to lift her face.

But Joan broke into fierce, violent resistance. She believed she was
doomed, but that only made her the fiercer, the stronger. And with her
head down, her arms straining, her body hard and rigidly unyielding
she fought him all over the room, knocking over the table and seats,
wrestling from wall to wall, till at last they fell across the bed and
she broke his hold. Then she sprang up, panting, disheveled, and backed
away from him. It had been a sharp, desperate struggle on her part and
she was stronger than he. He was not a well man. He raised himself and
put one hand to his breast. His face was haggard, wet, working with
passion, gray with pain. In the struggle she had hurt him, perhaps
reopened his wound.

“Did you--knife me--that it hurts so?” he panted, raising a hand that
shook.

“I had--nothing.... I just--fought,” cried Joan, breathlessly.

“You hurt me--again--damn you! I’m never free--from pain. But this’s
worse.... And I’m a coward.... And I’m a dog, too! Not half a man!--You
slip of a girl--and I couldn’t--hold you!”

His pain and shame were dreadful for Joan to see, because she felt sorry
for him, and divined that behind them would rise the darker, grimmer
force of the man. And she was right, for suddenly he changed. That
which had seemed almost to make him abject gave way to a pale and bitter
dignity. He took up Dandy Dale’s belt, which Joan had left on the bed,
and, drawing the gun from its sheath, he opened the cylinder to see if
it was loaded, and then threw the gun at Joan’s feet.

“There! Take it--and make a better job this time,” he said.

The power in his voice seemed to force Joan to pick up the gun.

“What do--you mean?” she queried, haltingly.

“Shoot me again! Put me out of my pain--my misery.... I’m sick of it
all. I’d be glad to have you kill me!”

“Kells!” exclaimed Joan, weakly.

“Take your chance--now--when I’ve no strength--to force you.... Throw
the gun on me.... Kill me!”

He spoke with a terrible impelling earnestness, and the strength of his
will almost hypnotized Joan into execution of his demand.

“You are mad,” she said. “I don’t want to kill you. I couldn’t.... I
just want you to--to be--decent to me.”

“I have been--for me. I was only in fun this time--when I grabbed you.
But the FEEL of you!... I can’t be decent any more. I see things clear
now.... Joan Randle, it’s my life or your soul!”

He rose now, dark, shaken, stripped of all save the truth.

Joan dropped the gun from nerveless grasp.

“Is that your choice?” he asked hoarsely.

“I can’t murder you!”

“Are you afraid of the other men--of Gulden? Is that why you can’t kill
me? You’re afraid to be left--to try to get away?”

“I never thought of them.”

“Then--my life or your soul!”

He stalked toward her, loomed over her, so that she put out trembling
hands. After the struggle a reaction was coming to her. She was
weakening. She had forgotten her plan.

“If you’re merciless--then it must be--my soul,” she whispered. “For I
CAN’T murder you.... Could you take that gun now--and press it here--and
murder ME?”

“No. For I love you.”

“You don’t love me. It’s a blacker crime to murder the soul than the
body.”

Something in his strange eyes inspired Joan with a flashing, reviving
divination. Back upon her flooded all that tide of woman’s subtle
incalculable power to allure, to charge, to hold. Swiftly she went
close to Kells. She stretched out her hands. One was bleeding from rough
contract with the log wall during the struggle. Her wrists were red,
swollen, bruised from his fierce grasp.

“Look! See what you’ve done. You were a beast. You made me fight like a
beast. My hands were claws--my whole body one hard knot of muscle. You
couldn’t hold me--you couldn’t kiss me.... Suppose you ARE able to hold
me--later. I’ll only be the husk of a woman. I’ll just be a cold shell,
doubled-up, unrelaxed, a callous thing never to yield.... All that’s
ME, the girl, the woman you say you love--will be inside, shrinking,
loathing, hating, sickened to death. You will only kiss--embrace--a
thing you’ve degraded. The warmth, the sweetness, the quiver, the
thrill, the response, the life--all that is the soul of a woman and
makes her lovable will be murdered.”

Then she drew still closer to Kells, and with all the wondrous subtlety
of a woman in a supreme moment where a life and a soul hang in the
balance, she made of herself an absolute contrast to the fierce, wild,
unyielding creature who had fought him off.

“Let me show--you the difference,” she whispered, leaning to him,
glowing, soft, eager, terrible, with her woman’s charm. “Something tells
me--gives me strength.... What MIGHT be!... Only barely possible--if
in my awful plight--you turned out to be a man, good instead of bad!...
And--if it were possible--see the differences--in the woman.... I show
you--to save my soul!”

She gave the fascinated Kells her hands, slipped into his arms, to
press against his breast, and leaned against him an instant, all one
quivering, surrendered body; and then lifting a white face, true in
its radiance to her honest and supreme purpose to give him one fleeting
glimpse of the beauty and tenderness and soul of love, she put warm and
tremulous lips to his.

Then she fell away from him, shrinking and terrified. But he stood there
as if something beyond belief had happened to him, and the evil of his
face, the hard lines, the brute softened and vanished in a light of
transformation.

“My God!” he breathed softly. Then he awakened as if from a trance,
and, leaping down the steps, he violently swept aside the curtain and
disappeared.

Joan threw herself upon the bed and spent the last of her strength in
the relief of blinding tears. She had won. She believed she need never
fear Kells again. In that one moment of abandon she had exalted him. But
at what cost!



10

Next day, when Kells called Joan out into the other cabin, she verified
her hope and belief, not so much in the almost indefinable aging and
sadness of the man, as in the strong intuitive sense that her attraction
had magnified for him and had uplifted him.

“You mustn’t stay shut up in there any longer,” he said. “You’ve lost
weight and you’re pale. Go out in the air and sun. You might as well get
used to the gang. Bate Wood came to me this morning and said he thought
you were the ghost of Dandy Dale. That name will stick to you. I don’t
care how you treat my men. But if you’re friendly you’ll fare better.
Don’t go far from the cabin. And if any man says or does a thing you
don’t like--flash your gun. Don’t yell for me. You can bluff this gang
to a standstill.”

That was a trial for Joan, when she walked out into the light in Dandy
Dale’s clothes. She did not step very straight, and she could feel the
cold prick of her face under the mask. It was not shame, but fear that
gripped her. She would rather die than have Jim Cleve recognize her
in that bold disguise. A line of dusty saddled horses stood heads and
bridles down before the cabin, and a number of lounging men ceased
talking when she appeared. It was a crowd that smelled of dust and
horses and leather and whisky and tobacco. Joan did not recognize any
one there, which fact aided her in a quick recovery of her composure.
Then she found amusement in the absolute sensation she made upon these
loungers. They stared, open-mouthed and motionless. One old fellow
dropped his pipe from bearded lips and did not seem to note the loss. A
dark young man, dissipated and wild-looking, with years of lawlessness
stamped upon his face, was the first to move; and he, with awkward
gallantry, but with amiable disposition. Joan wanted to run, yet she
forced herself to stand there, apparently unconcerned before this
battery of bold and curious eyes. That, once done, made the rest
easier. She was grateful for the mask. And with her first low, almost
incoherent, words in reply Joan entered upon the second phase of her
experience with these bandits. Naturalness did not come soon, but it did
come, and with it her wit and courage.

Used as she had become to the villainous countenances of the border
ruffians, she yet upon closer study discovered wilder and more abandoned
ones. Yet despite that, and a brazen, unconcealed admiration, there
was not lacking kindliness and sympathy and good nature. Presently Joan
sauntered away, and she went among the tired, shaggy horses and made
friends with them. An occasional rider swung up the trail to dismount
before Kells’s cabin, and once two riders rode in, both staring--all
eyes--at her. The meaning of her intent alertness dawned upon her then.
Always, whatever she was doing or thinking or saying, behind it all hid
the driving watchfulness for Jim Cleve. And the consciousness of this
fixed her mind upon him. Where was he? What was he doing? Was he drunk
or gambling or fighting or sleeping? Was he still honest? When she did
meet him what would happen? How could she make herself and circumstances
known to him before he killed somebody? A new fear had birth and
grew--Cleve would recognize her in that disguise, mask and all.

She walked up and down for a while, absorbed with this new idea. Then
an unusual commotion among the loungers drew her attention to a group of
men on foot surrounding and evidently escorting several horsemen. Joan
recognized Red Pearce and Frenchy, and then, with a start, Jim Cleve.
They were riding up the trail. Joan’s heart began to pound. She could
not meet Jim; she dared not trust this disguise; all her plans were as
if they had never been. She forgot Kells. She even forgot her fear of
what Cleve might do. The meeting--the inevitable recognition--the pain
Jim Cleve must suffer when the fact and apparent significance of her
presence there burst upon him, these drove all else from Joan’s mind.
Mask or no mask, she could not face his piercing eyes, and like a little
coward she turned to enter the cabin.

Before she got in, however, it was forced upon her that something
unusual had roused the loungers. They had arisen and were interested in
the approaching group. Loud talk dinned in Joan’s ears. Then she went
in the door as Kells stalked by, eyes agleam, without even noticing her.
Once inside her cabin, with the curtain drawn, Joan’s fear gave place to
anxiety and curiosity.

There was no one in the large cabin. Through the outer door she caught
sight of a part of the crowd, close together, heads up, all noisy. Then
she heard Kells’s authoritative voice, but she could understand nothing.
The babel of hoarse voices grew louder. Kells appeared, entering the
door with Pearce. Jim Cleve came next, and, once the three were inside,
the crowd spilled itself after them like angry bees. Kells was talking,
Pearce was talking, but their voices were lost. Suddenly Kells vented
his temper.

“Shut up--the lot of you!” he yelled, and his power and position might
have been measured by the menace he showed.

The gang became suddenly quiet.

“Now--what’s up?” demanded Kells.

“Keep your shirt on, boss,” replied Pearce, with good humor. “There
ain’t much wrong.... Cleve, here, throwed a gun on Gulden, that’s all.”

Kells gave a slight start, barely perceptible, but the intensity of it,
and a fleeting tigerish gleam across his face, impressed Joan with the
idea that he felt a fiendish joy. Her own heart clamped in a cold amaze.

“Gulden!” Kells’s exclamation was likewise a passionate query.

“No, he ain’t cashed,” replied Pearce. “You can’t kill that bull so
easy. But he’s shot up some. He’s layin’ over at Beard’s. Reckon you’d
better go over an’ dress them shots.”

“He can rot before I doctor him,” replied Kells. “Where’s Bate Wood?...
Bate, you can take my kit and go fix Gulden up. And now, Red, what was
all the roar about?”

“Reckon that was Gulden’s particular pards tryin’ to mix it with Cleve
an’ Cleve tryin’ to mix it with them--an’ ME in between!... I’m here to
say, boss, that I had a time stavin’ off a scrap.”

During this rapid exchange between Kells and his lieutenant, Jim Cleve
sat on the edge of the table, one dusty boot swinging so that his spur
jangled, a wisp of a cigarette in his lips. His face was white except
where there seemed to be bruises under his eyes. Joan had never seen him
look like this. She guessed that he had been drunk--perhaps was still
drunk. That utterly abandoned face Joan was so keen to read made her
bite her tongue to keep from crying out. Yes, Jim was lost.

“What’d they fight about?” queried Kells.

“Ask Cleve,” replied Pearce. “Reckon I’d just as lief not talk any more
about him.”

Then Kells turned to Cleve and stepped before him. Somehow these two men
face to face thrilled Joan to her depths. They presented such contrasts.
Kells was keen, imperious, vital, strong, and complex, with an
unmistakable friendly regard for this young outcast. Cleve seemed aloof,
detached, indifferent to everything, with a white, weary, reckless
scorn. Both men were far above the gaping ruffians around them.

“Cleve, why’d you draw on Gulden?” asked Kells, sharply.

“That’s my business,” replied Cleve, slowly, and with his piercing eyes
on Kells he blew a long, thin, blue stream of smoke upward.

“Sure.... But I remember what you asked me the other day--about Gulden.
Was that why?”

“Nope,” replied Cleve. “This was my affair.”

“All right. But I’d like to know. Pearce says you’re in bad with
Gulden’s friends. If I can’t make peace between you I’ll have to take
sides.”

“Kells, I don’t need any one on my side,” said Cleve, and he flung the
cigarette away.

“Yes, you do,” replied Kells, persuasively. “Every man on this border
needs that. And he’s lucky when he gets it.”

“Well, I don’t ask for it; I don’t want it.”

“That’s your own business, too. I’m not insisting or advising.”

Kells’s force and ability to control men manifested itself in his
speech and attitude. Nothing could have been easier than to rouse the
antagonism of Jim Cleve, abnormally responding as he was to the wild
conditions of this border environment.

“Then you’re not calling my hand?” queried Cleve, with his dark,
piercing glance on Kells.

“I pass, Jim,” replied the bandit, easily.

Cleve began to roll another cigarette. Joan saw his strong, brown hands
tremble, and she realized that this came from his nervous condition, not
from agitation. Her heart ached for him. What a white, somber face, so
terribly expressive of the overthrow of his soul! He had fled to the
border in reckless fury at her--at himself. There in its wildness he
had, perhaps, lost thought of himself and memory of her. He had plunged
into the unrestrained border life. Its changing, raw, and fateful
excitement might have made him forget, but behind all was the terrible
seeking to destroy and be destroyed. Joan shuddered when she remembered
how she had mocked this boy’s wounded vanity--how scathingly she had
said he did not possess manhood and nerve enough even to be bad.

“See here, Red,” said Kells to Pearce, “tell me what happened--what you
saw. Jim can’t object to that.”

“Sure,” replied Pearce, thus admonished. “We was all over at Beard’s
an’ several games was on. Gulden rode into camp last night. He’s always
sore, but last night it seemed more’n usual. But he didn’t say much an’
nothin’ happened. We all reckoned his trip fell through. Today he was
restless. He walked an’ walked just like a cougar in a pen. You know how
Gulden has to be on the move. Well, we let him alone, you can bet. But
suddenlike he comes up to our table--me an’ Cleve an’ Beard an’ Texas
was playin’ cards--an’ he nearly kicks the table over. I grabbed the
gold an’ Cleve he saved the whisky. We’d been drinkin’ an’ Cleve most of
all. Beard was white at the gills with rage an’ Texas was soffocatin’.
But we all was afraid of Gulden, except Cleve, as it turned out. But he
didn’t move or look mean. An’ Gulden pounded on the table an’ addressed
himself to Cleve.

“‘I’ve a job you’ll like. Come on.’

“‘Job? Say, man, you couldn’t have a job I’d like,’ replied Cleve, slow
an’ cool.

“You know how Gulden gets when them spells come over him. It’s just
plain cussedness. I’ve seen gunfighters lookin’ for trouble--for someone
to kill. But Gulden was worse than that. You all take my hunch--he’s got
a screw loose in his nut.

“‘Cleve,’ he said, ‘I located the Brander gold-diggin’s--an’ the girl
was there.’

“Some kind of a white flash went over Cleve. An’ we all, rememberin’
Luce, began to bend low, ready to duck. Gulden didn’t look no different
from usual. You can’t see any change in him. But I for one felt all hell
burnin’ in him.

“‘Oho! You have,’ said Cleve, quick, like he was pleased. ‘An’ did you
get her?’

“‘Not yet. Just looked over the ground. I’m pickin’ you to go with me.
We’ll split on the gold, an’ I’ll take the girl.’

“Cleve swung the whisky-bottle an’ it smashed on Gulden’s mug, knockin’
him flat. Cleve was up, like a cat, gun burnin’ red. The other fellers
were dodgin’ low. An’ as I ducked I seen Gulden, flat on his back,
draggin’ at his gun. He stopped short an’ his hand flopped. The side of
his face went all bloody. I made sure he’d cashed, so I leaped up an’
grabbed Cleve.

“It’d been all right if Gulden had only cashed. But he hadn’t. He came
to an’ bellered fer his gun an’ fer his pards. Why, you could have heard
him for a mile.... Then, as I told you, I had trouble in holdin’ back a
general mix-up. An’ while he was hollerin’ about it I led them all over
to you. Gulden is layin’ back there with his ear shot off. An’ that’s
all.”

Kells, with thoughtful mien, turned from Pearce to the group of
dark-faced men. “This fight settles one thing,” he said to them. “We’ve
got to have organization. If you’re not all a lot of fools you’ll see
that. You need a head. Most of you swear by me, but some of you are for
Gulden. Just because he’s a bloody devil. These times are the wildest
the West ever knew, and they’re growing wilder. Gulden is a great
machine for execution. He has no sense of fear. He’s a giant. He loves
to fight--to kill. But Gulden’s all but crazy. This last deal proves
that. I leave it to your common sense. He rides around hunting for some
lone camp to rob. Or some girl to make off with. He does not plan with
me or the men whose judgment I have confidence in. He’s always without
gold. And so are most of his followers. I don’t know who they are. And
I don’t care. But here we split--unless they and Gulden take advice and
orders from me. I’m not so much siding with Cleve. Any of you ought to
admit that Gulden’s kind of work will disorganize a gang. He’s been with
us for long. And he approaches Cleve with a job. Cleve is a stranger.
He may belong here, but he’s not yet one of us. Gulden oughtn’t have
approached him. It was no straight deal. We can’t figure what Gulden
meant exactly, but it isn’t likely he wanted Cleve to go. It was a
bluff. He got called.... You men think this over--whether you’ll stick
to Gulden or to me. Clear out now.”

His strong, direct talk evidently impressed them, and in silence they
crowded out of the cabin, leaving Pearce and Cleve behind.

“Jim, are you just hell-bent on fighting or do you mean to make yourself
the champion of every poor girl in these wilds?”

Cleve puffed a cloud of smoke that enveloped his head “I don’t pick
quarrels,” he replied.

“Then you get red-headed at the very mention of a girl.”

A savage gesture of Cleve’s suggested that Kells was right.

“Here, don’t get red-headed at me,” called Kells, with piercing
sharpness. “I’ll be your friend if you let me.... But declare yourself
like a man--if you want me for a friend!”

“Kells, I’m much obliged,” replied Cleve, with a semblance of
earnestness. “I’m no good or I wouldn’t be out here... But I can’t stand
for these--these deals with girls.”

“You’ll change,” rejoined Kells, bitterly. “Wait till you live a few
lonely years out here! You don’t understand the border. You’re young.
I’ve seen the gold-fields of California and Nevada. Men go crazy with
the gold fever. It’s gold that makes men wild. If you don’t get killed
you’ll change. If you live you’ll see life on this border. War debases
the moral force of a man, but nothing like what you’ll experience here
the next few years. Men with their wives and daughters are pouring
into this range. They’re all over. They’re finding gold. They’ve tasted
blood. Wait till the great gold strike comes! Then you’ll see men and
women go back ten thousand years... And then what’ll one girl more or
less matter?”

“Well, you see, Kells, I was loved so devotedly by one and made such a
hero of--that I just can’t bear to see any girl mistreated.”

He almost drawled the words, and he was suave and cool, and his face was
inscrutable, but a bitterness in his tone gave the lie to all he said
and looked.

Pearce caught the broader inference and laughed as if at a great joke.
Kells shook his head doubtfully, as if Cleve’s transparent speech only
added to the complexity. And Cleve turned away, as if in an instant he
had forgotten his comrades.

Afterward, in the silence and darkness of night, Joan Randle lay
upon her bed sleepless, haunted by Jim’s white face, amazed at the
magnificent madness of him, thrilled to her soul by the meaning of his
attack on Gulden, and tortured by a love that had grown immeasurably
full of the strength of these hours of suspense and the passion of this
wild border.

Even in her dreams Joan seemed to be bending all her will toward that
inevitable and fateful moment when she must stand before Jim Cleve. It
had to be. Therefore she would absolutely compel herself to meet it,
regardless of the tumult that must rise within her. When all had been
said, her experience so far among the bandits, in spite of the shocks
and suspense that had made her a different girl, had been infinitely
more fortunate than might have been expected. She prayed for this luck
to continue and forced herself into a belief that it would.

That night she had slept in Dandy Dale’s clothes, except for the boots;
and sometimes while turning in restless slumber she had been awakened by
rolling on the heavy gun, which she had not removed from the belt. And
at such moments, she had to ponder in the darkness, to realize that
she, Joan Randle, lay a captive in a bandit’s camp, dressed in a dead
bandit’s garb, and packing his gun--even while she slept. It was such an
improbable, impossible thing. Yet the cold feel of the polished gun sent
a thrill of certainty through her.

In the morning she at least did not have to suffer the shame of getting
into Dandy Dale’s clothes, for she was already in them. She found a
grain of comfort even in that. When she had put on the mask and sombrero
she studied the effect in her little mirror. And she again decided
that no one, not even Jim Cleve, could recognize her in that disguise.
Likewise she gathered courage from the fact that even her best girl
friend would have found her figure unfamiliar and striking where once
it had been merely tall and slender and strong, ordinarily dressed. Then
how would Jim Cleve ever recognize her? She remembered her voice that
had been called a contralto, low and deep; and how she used to sing the
simple songs she knew. She could not disguise that voice. But she need
not let Jim hear it. Then there was a return of the idea that he would
instinctively recognize her--that no disguise could be proof to a lover
who had ruined himself for her. Suddenly she realized how futile all
her worry and shame. Sooner or later she must reveal her identity to Jim
Cleve. Out of all this complexity of emotion Joan divined that what
she yearned most for was to spare Cleve the shame consequent upon
recognition of her and then the agony he must suffer at a false
conception of her presence there. It was a weakness in her. When death
menaced her lover and the most inconceivably horrible situation yawned
for her, still she could only think of her passionate yearning to have
him know, all in a flash, that she loved him, that she had followed him
in remorse, that she was true to him and would die before being anything
else.

And when she left her cabin she was in a mood to force an issue.

Kells was sitting at the table and being served by Bate Wood.

“Hello, Dandy!” he greeted her, in surprise and pleasure. “This’s early
for you.”

Joan returned his greeting and said that she could not sleep all the
time.

“You’re coming round. I’ll bet you hold up a stage before a month is
out.”

“Hold up a stage?” echoed Joan.

“Sure. It’ll be great fun,” replied Kells, with a laugh. “Here--sit down
and eat with me.... Bate, come along lively with breakfast.... It’s
fine to see you there. That mask changes you, though. No one can see how
pretty you are.... Joan, your admirer, Gulden, has been incapacitated
for the present.”

Then in evident satisfaction Kells repeated the story that Joan had
heard Red Pearce tell the night before; and in the telling Kells
enlarged somewhat upon Jim Cleve.

“I’ve taken a liking to Cleve,” said Kells. “He’s a strange youngster.
But he’s more man than boy. I think he’s broken-hearted over some rotten
girl who’s been faithless or something. Most women are no good, Joan. A
while ago I’d have said ALL women were that, but since I’ve known you I
think--I know different. Still, one girl out of a million doesn’t change
a world.”

“What will this J--jim C--cleve do--when he sees--me?” asked Joan, and
she choked over the name.

“Don’t eat so fast, girl,” said Kells. “You’re only seventeen years old
and you’ve plenty of time.... Well, I’ve thought some about Cleve.
He’s not crazy like Gulden, but he’s just as dangerous. He’s dangerous
because he doesn’t know what he’s doing--has absolutely no fear of
death--and then he’s swift with a gun. That’s a bad combination. Cleve
will kill a man presently. He’s shot three already, and in Gulden’s
case he meant to kill. If once he kills a man--that’ll make him a
gun-fighter. I’ve worried a little about his seeing you. But I can
manage him, I guess. He can’t be scared or driven. But he may be led.
I’ve had Red Pearce tell him you are my wife. I hope he believes it,
for none of the other fellows believe it. Anyway, you’ll meet this
Cleve soon, maybe to-day, and I want you to be friendly. If I can steady
him--stop his drinking--he’ll be the best man for me on this border.”

“I’m to help persuade him to join your band?” asked Joan, and she could
not yet control her voice.

“Is that so black a thing?” queried Kells, evidently nettled, and he
glared at her.

“I--I don’t know,” faltered Joan. “Is this--this boy a criminal yet?”

“No. He’s only a fine, decent young chap gone wild--gone bad for some
girl. I told you that. You don’t seem to grasp the point. If I can
control him he’ll be of value to me--he’ll be a bold and clever and
dangerous man--he’ll last out here. If I can’t win him, why, he won’t
last a week longer. He’ll be shot or knifed in a brawl. Without my
control Cleve’ll go straight to the hell he’s headed for.”

Joan pushed back her plate and, looking up, steadily eyed the bandit.

“Kells, I’d rather he ended his--his career quick--and went to--to--than
live to be a bandit and murderer at your command.”

Kells laughed mockingly, yet the savage action with which he threw his
cup against the wall attested to the fact that Joan had strange power to
hurt him.

“That’s your sympathy, because I told you some girl drove him out here,”
 said the bandit. “He’s done for. You’ll know that the moment you see
him. I really think he or any man out here would be the better for my
interest. Now, I want to know if you’ll stand by me--put in a word to
help influence this wild boy.”

“I’ll--I’ll have to see him first,” replied Joan.

“Well, you take it sort of hard,” growled Kells. Then presently he
brightened. “I seem always to forget that you’re only a kid. Listen! Now
you do as you like. But I want to warn you that you’ve got to get back
the same kind of nerve”--here he lowered his voice and glanced at
Bate Wood--“that you showed when you shot me. You’re going to see some
sights.... A great gold strike! Men grown gold-mad! Woman of no more
account than a puff of cottonseed!... Hunger, toil, pain, disease,
starvation, robbery, blood, murder, hanging, death--all nothing,
nothing! There will be only gold. Sleepless nights--days of hell--rush
and rush--all strangers with greedy eyes! The things that made life
will be forgotten and life itself will be cheap. There will be only that
yellow stuff--gold--over which men go mad and women sell their souls!”

After breakfast Kells had Joan’s horse brought out of the corral and
saddled.

“You must ride some every day. You must keep in condition,” he said.
“Pretty soon we may have a chase, and I don’t want it to tear you to
pieces.”

“Where shall I ride?” asked Joan.

“Anywhere you like up and down the gulch.”

“Are you going to have me watched?”

“Not if you say you won’t run off.”

“You trust me?”

“Yes.”

“All right. I promise. And if I change my mind I’ll tell you.”

“Lord! don’t do it, Joan. I--I--Well, you’ve come to mean a good deal
to me. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.” As she mounted the horse
Kells added, “Don’t stand any raw talk from any of the gang.”

Joan rode away, pondering in mind the strange fact that though she hated
this bandit, yet she had softened toward him. His eyes lit when he saw
her; his voice mellowed; his manner changed. He had meant to tell her
again that he loved her, yet he controlled it. Was he ashamed? Had he
seen into the depths of himself and despised what he had imagined love?
There were antagonistic forces at war within him.

It was early morning and a rosy light tinged the fresh green. She let
the eager horse break into a canter and then a gallop; and she rode up
the gulch till the trail started into rough ground. Then turning, she
went back, down under the pines and by the cabins, to where the gulch
narrowed its outlet into the wide valley. Here she met several dusty
horsemen driving a pack-train. One, a jovial ruffian, threw up his hands
in mock surrender.

“Hands up, pards!” he exclaimed. “Reckon we’ve run agin’ Dandy Dale come
to life.”

His companions made haste to comply and then the three regarded her with
bold and roguish eyes. Joan had run square into them round a corner of
slope and, as there was no room to pass, she had halted.

“Shore it’s the Dandy Dale we heerd of,” vouchsafed another.

“Thet’s Dandy’s outfit with a girl inside,” added the third.

Joan wheeled her horse and rode back up the trail. The glances of these
ruffians seemed to scorch her with the reality of her appearance. She
wore a disguise, but her womanhood was more manifest in it than in her
feminine garb. It attracted the bold glances of these men. If there were
any possible decency among them, this outrageous bandit costume rendered
it null. How could she ever continue to wear it? Would not something
good and sacred within her be sullied by a constant exposure to the
effect she had upon these vile border men? She did not think it could
while she loved Jim Cleve; and with thought of him came a mighty throb
of her heart to assure her that nothing mattered if only she could save
him.

Upon the return trip up the gulch Joan found men in sight leading
horses, chopping wood, stretching arms in cabin doors. Joan avoided
riding near them, yet even at a distance she was aware of their gaze.
One rowdy, half hidden by a window, curved hands round his mouth and
called, softly, “Hullo, sweetheart!”

Joan was ashamed that she could feel insulted. She was amazed at the
temper which seemed roused in her. This border had caused her feelings
she had never dreamed possible to her. Avoiding the trail, she headed
for the other side of the gulch. There were clumps of willows along
the brook through which she threaded a way, looking for a good place to
cross. The horse snorted for water. Apparently she was not going to find
any better crossing, so she turned the horse into a narrow lane through
the willows and, dismounting on a mossy bank, she slipped the bridle so
the horse could drink.

Suddenly she became aware that she was not alone. But she saw no one
in front of her or on the other side of her horse. Then she turned. Jim
Cleve was in the act of rising from his knees. He had a towel in his
hand. His face was wet. He stood no more than ten steps from her.

Joan could not have repressed a little cry to save her life. The
surprise was tremendous. She could not move a finger. She expected to
hear him call her name.

Cleve stared at her. His face, in the morning light, was as drawn and
white as that of a corpse. Only his eyes seemed alive and they were
flames. A lightning flash of scorn leaped to them. He only recognized
in her a woman, and his scorn was for the creature that bandit garb
proclaimed her to be. A sad and bitter smile crossed his face; and then
it was followed by an expression that was a lash upon Joan’s bleeding
spirit. He looked at her shapely person with something of the brazen
and evil glance that had been so revolting to her in the eyes of those
ruffians. That was the unexpected--the impossible--in connection with
Jim Cleve. How could she stand there under it--and live?

She jerked at the bridle, and, wading blindly across the brook, she
mounted somehow, and rode with blurred sight back to the cabin. Kells
appeared busy with men outside and did not accost her. She fled to her
cabin and barricaded the door.

Then she hid her face on her bed, covered herself to shut out the light,
and lay there, broken-hearted. What had been that other thing she had
imagined was shame--that shrinking and burning she had suffered through
Kells and his men? What was that compared to this awful thing? A brand
of red-hot pitch, blacker and bitterer than death, had been struck
brutally across her soul. By the man she loved--whom she would have died
to save! Jim Cleve had seen in her only an abandoned creature of the
camps. His sad and bitter smile had been for the thought that he could
have loved anything of her sex. His scorn had been for the betrayed
youth and womanhood suggested by her appearance. And then the thing
that struck into Joan’s heart was the fact that her grace and charm
of person, revealed by this costume forced upon her, had aroused Jim
Cleve’s first response to the evil surrounding him, the first call to
that baseness he must be assimilating from these border ruffians. That
he could look at her so! The girl he had loved! Joan’s agony lay not
in the circumstance of his being as mistaken in her character as he had
been in her identity, but that she, of all women, had to be the one who
made him answer, like Kells and Gulden and all those ruffians, to the
instincts of a beast.

“Oh, he’d been drunk--he was drunk!” whispered Joan. “He isn’t to be
blamed. He’s not my old Jim. He’s suffering--he’s changed--he doesn’t
care. What could I expect--standing there like a hussy before him--in
this--this indecent rig?... I must see him. I must tell him. If he
recognized me now--and I had no chance to tell him why I’m here--why I
look like this--that I love him--am still good--and true to him--if I
couldn’t tell him I’d--I’d shoot myself!”

Joan sobbed out the final words and then broke down. And when the spell
had exercised its sway, leaving her limp and shaken and weak, she was
the better for it. Slowly calmness returned so that she could look at
her wild and furious rush from the spot where she had faced Jim Cleve,
at the storm of shame ending in her collapse. She realized that if she
had met Jim Cleve here in the dress in which she had left home there
would have been the same shock of surprise and fear and love. She owed
part of that breakdown to the suspense she had been under and then the
suddenness of the meeting. Looking back at her agitation, she felt that
it had been natural--that if she could only tell the truth to Jim Cleve
the situation was not impossible. But the meeting, and all following it,
bore tremendous revelation of how through all this wild experience she
had learned to love Jim Cleve. But for his reckless flight and her blind
pursuit, and then the anxiety, fear, pain, toil, and despair, she would
never have known her woman’s heart and its capacity for love.



11

Following that meeting, with all its power to change and strengthen
Joan, there were uneventful days in which she rode the gulch trails
and grew able to stand the jests and glances of the bandit’s gang. She
thought she saw and heard everything, yet insulated her true self in a
callous and unreceptive aloofness from all that affronted her.

The days were uneventful because, while always looking for Jim Cleve,
she never once saw him. Several times she heard his name mentioned. He
was here and there--at Beard’s off in the mountains. But he did not come
to Kells’s cabin, which fact, Joan gathered, had made Kells anxious. He
did not want to lose Cleve. Joan peered from her covert in the evenings,
and watched for Jim, and grew weary of the loud talk and laughter, the
gambling and smoking and drinking. When there seemed no more chance of
Cleve’s coming, then Joan went to bed.

On these occasions Joan learned that Kells was passionately keen to
gamble, that he was a weak hand at cards, an honest gambler, and,
strangely enough, a poor loser. Moreover, when he lost he drank heavily,
and under the influence of drink he was dangerous. There were quarrels
when curses rang throughout the cabin, when guns were drawn, but
whatever Kells’s weaknesses might be, he was strong and implacable in
the governing of these men.

That night when Gulden strode into the cabin was certainly not
uneventful for Joan. Sight of him sent a chill to her marrow while a
strange thrill of fire inflamed her. Was that great hulk of a gorilla
prowling about to meet Jim Cleve? Joan thought that it might be the
worse for him if he were. Then she shuddered a little to think that she
had already been influenced by the wildness around her.

Gulden appeared well and strong, and but for the bandage on his head
would have been as she remembered him. He manifested interest in the
gambling of the players by surly grunts. Presently he said something to
Kells.

“What?” queried the bandit, sharply, wheeling, the better to see Gulden.

The noise subsided. One gamester laughed knowingly.

“Lend me a sack of dust?” asked Gulden.

Kells’s face showed amaze and then a sudden brightness.

“What! You want gold from me?”

“Yes. I’ll pay it back.”

“Gulden, I wasn’t doubting that. But does your asking mean you’ve taken
kindly to my proposition?”

“You can take it that way,” growled Gulden. “I want gold.” “I’m mighty
glad, Gulden,” replied Kells, and he looked as if he meant it. “I need
you. We ought to get along.... Here.”

He handed a small buckskin sack to Gulden. Someone made room for him
on the other side of the table, and the game was resumed. It was
interesting to watch them gamble. Red Pearce had a scale at his end of
the table, and he was always measuring and weighing out gold-dust. The
value of the gold appeared to be fifteen dollars to the ounce, but the
real value of money did not actuate the gamblers. They spilled the dust
on the table and ground as if it were as common as sand. Still there did
not seem to be any great quantity of gold in sight. Evidently these were
not profitable times for the bandits. More than once Joan heard them
speak of a gold strike as honest people spoke of good fortune. And these
robbers could only have meant that in case of a rich strike there would
be gold to steal. Gulden gambled as he did everything else. At first
he won and then he lost, and then he borrowed more from Kells, to
win again. He paid back as he had borrowed and lost and won--without
feeling. He had no excitement. Joan’s intuition convinced her that if
Gulden had any motive at all in gambling it was only an antagonism to
men of his breed. Gambling was a contest, a kind of fight.

Most of the men except Gulden drank heavily that night. There had been
fresh liquor come with the last pack-train. Many of them were drunk when
the game broke up. Red Pearce and Wood remained behind with Kells after
the others had gone, and Pearce was clever enough to cheat Kells before
he left.

“Boss--thet there Red double--crossed you,” said Bate Wood.

Kells had lost heavily, and he was under the influence of drink. He
drove Wood out of the cabin, cursing him sullenly. Then he put in place
the several bars that served as a door of his cabin. After that he
walked unsteadily around, and all about his action and manner that was
not aimless seemed to be dark and intermittent staring toward Joan’s
cabin. She felt sickened again with this new aspect of her situation,
but she was not in the least afraid of Kells. She watched him till he
approached her door and then she drew back a little. He paused before
the blanket as if he had been impelled to halt from fear. He seemed to
be groping in thought. Then he cautiously and gradually, by degrees,
drew aside the blanket. He could not see Joan in the darkness, but she
saw him plainly. He fumbled at the poles, and, finding that he could not
budge them, he ceased trying. There was nothing forceful or strong about
him, such as was manifest when he was sober. He stood there a moment,
breathing heavily, in a kind of forlorn, undecided way, and then he
turned back. Joan heard him snap the lanterns. The lights went out and
all grew dark and silent.

Next morning at breakfast he was himself again, and if he had any
knowledge whatever of his actions while he was drunk, he effectually
concealed it from Joan.

Later, when Joan went outside to take her usual morning exercise, she
was interested to see a rider tearing up the slope on a foam-flecked
horse. Men shouted at him from the cabins and then followed without
hats or coats. Bate Wood dropped Joan’s saddle and called to Kells. The
bandit came hurriedly out.

“Blicky!” he exclaimed, and then he swore under his breath in elation.

“Shore is Blicky!” said Wood, and his unusually mild eyes snapped with a
glint unpleasant for Joan to see.

The arrival of this Blicky appeared to be occasion for excitement and
Joan recalled the name as belonging to one of Kells’s trusted men. He
swung his leg and leaped from his saddle as the horse plunged to a halt.
Blicky was a lean, bronzed young man, scarcely out of his teens, but
there were years of hard life in his face. He slapped the dust in little
puffs from his gloves. At sight of Kells he threw the gloves aloft and
took no note of them when they fell. “STRIKE!” he called, piercingly.

“No!” ejaculated Kells, intensely.

Bate Wood let out a whoop which was answered by the men hurrying up the
slope.

“Been on--for weeks!” panted Blicky. “It’s big. Can’t tell how big. Me
an’ Jesse Smith an’ Handy Oliver hit a new road--over here fifty miles
as a crow flies--a hundred by trail. We was plumb surprised. An’ when
we met pack-trains an’ riders an’ prairie-schooners an’ a stage-coach we
knew there was doin’s over in the Bear Mountain range. When we came
to the edge of the diggin’s an’ seen a whalin’ big camp--like a
beehive--Jesse an’ Handy went on to get the lay of the land an’ I
hit the trail back to you. I’ve been a-comin’ on an’ off since before
sundown yesterday.... Jesse gave one look an’ then hollered. He said,
‘Tell Jack it’s big an’ he wants to plan big. We’ll be back there in a
day or so with all details.’”

Joan watched Kells intently while he listened to this breathless
narrative of a gold strike, and she was repelled by the singular flash
of brightness--a radiance--that seemed to be in his eyes and on his
face. He did not say a word, but his men shouted hoarsely around Blicky.
He walked a few paces to and fro with hands strongly clenched, his lips
slightly parted, showing teeth close-shut like those of a mastiff.
He looked eager, passionate, cunning, hard as steel, and that strange
brightness of elation slowly shaded to a dark, brooding menace. Suddenly
he wheeled to silence the noisy men.

“Where’re Pearce and Gulden? Do they know?” he demanded.

“Reckon no one knows but who’s right here,” replied Blicky.

“Red an’ Gul are sleepin’ off last night’s luck,” said Bate Wood.

“Have any of you seen young Cleve?” Kells went on. His voice rang quick
and sharp.

No one spoke, and presently Kells cracked his fist into his open hand.

“Come on. Get the gang together at Beard’s.... Boys, the time we’ve been
gambling on has come. Jesse Smith saw ‘49 and ‘51. He wouldn’t send me
word like this--unless there was hell to pay.... Come on!”

He strode off down the slope with the men close around him, and they
met other men on the way, all of whom crowded into the group, jostling,
eager, gesticulating.

Joan was left alone. She felt considerably perturbed, especially at
Kells’s sharp inquiry for Jim Cleve. Kells might persuade him to join
that bandit legion. These men made Joan think of wolves, with Kells the
keen and savage leader. No one had given a thought to Blicky’s horse
and that neglect in border men was a sign of unusual preoccupation. The
horse was in bad shape. Joan took off his saddle and bridle, and rubbed
the dust-caked lather from his flanks, and led him into the corral. Then
she fetched a bucket of water and let him drink sparingly, a little at a
time.

Joan did not take her ride that morning. Anxious and curious, she waited
for the return of Kells. But he did not come. All afternoon Joan waited
and watched, and saw no sign of him or any of the other men. She knew
Kells was forging with red-hot iron and blood that organization which
she undesignedly had given a name--the Border Legion. It would be a
terrible legion, of that she was assured. Kells was the evil genius to
create an unparalleled scheme of crime; this wild and remote border,
with its inaccessible fastness for hiding-places, was the place;
all that was wanting was the time, which evidently had arrived. She
remembered how her uncle had always claimed that the Bear Mountain range
would see a gold strike which would disrupt the whole West and amaze the
world. And Blicky had said a big strike had been on for weeks. Kells’s
prophecy of the wild life Joan would see had not been without warrant.
She had already seen enough to whiten her hair, she thought, yet she
divined her experience would shrink in comparison with what was to come.
Always she lived in the future. She spent sleeping and waking hours
in dreams, thoughts, actions, broodings, over all of which hung an
ever-present shadow of suspense. When would she meet Jim Cleve again?
When would he recognize her? What would he do? What could she do? Would
Kells be a devil or a man at the end? Was there any justification of her
haunting fear of Gulden--of her suspicion that she alone was the
cause of his attitude toward Kells--of her horror at the unshakable
presentiment and fancy that he was a gorilla and meant to make off with
her? These, and a thousand other fears, some groundless, but many real
and present, besieged Joan and left her little peace. What would happen
next?

Toward sunset she grew tired of waiting, and hungry, besides, so she
went into the cabin and prepared her own meal. About dark Kells strode
in, and it took but a glance for Joan to see that matters had not gone
to his liking. The man seemed to be burning inwardly. Sight of Joan
absolutely surprised him. Evidently in the fever of this momentous hour
he had forgotten his prisoner. Then, whatever his obsession, he looked
like a man whose eyes were gladdened at sight of her and who was sorry
to behold her there. He apologized that her supper had not been
provided for her and explained that he had forgotten. The men had been
crazy--hard to manage--the issue was not yet settled. He spoke gently.
Suddenly he had that thoughtful mien which Joan had become used to
associating with weakness in him.

“I wish I hadn’t dragged you here,” he said, taking her hands. “It’s too
late. I CAN’T lose you.... But the--OTHER WAY--isn’t too late!”

“What way? What do you mean?” asked Joan.

“Girl, will you ride off with me to-night?” he whispered, hoarsely. “I
swear I’ll marry you--and become an honest man. To-morrow will be too
late!... Will you?”

Joan shook her head. She was sorry for him. When he talked like this he
was not Kells, the bandit. She could not resist a strange agitation
at the intensity of his emotion. One moment he had entered--a bandit
leader, planning blood, murder; the next, as his gaze found her, he
seemed weakened, broken in the shaking grip of a hopeless love for her.

“Speak, Joan!” he said, with his hands tightening and his brow clouding.

“No, Kells,” she replied.

“Why? Because I’m a red-handed bandit?”

“No. Because I--I don’t love you.”

“But wouldn’t you rather be my wife--and have me honest--than become
a slave here, eventually abandoned to--to Gulden and his cave and his
rope?” Kells’s voice rose as that other side of him gained dominance.

“Yes, I would.... But I KNOW you’ll never harm me--or abandon me to--to
that Gulden.”

“HOW do you know?” he cried, with the blood thick at his temples.

“Because you’re no beast any more.... And you--you do love me.”

Kells thrust her from him so fiercely that she nearly fell.

“I’ll get over it.... Then--look out!” he said, with dark bitterness.

With that he waved her back, apparently ordering her to her cabin, and
turned to the door, through which the deep voices of men sounded nearer
and nearer.

Joan stumbled in the darkness up the rude steps to her room, and, softly
placing the poles in readiness to close her door, she composed herself
to watch and wait. The keen edge of her nerves, almost amounting to
pain, told her that this night of such moment for Kells would be one of
singular strain and significance for her. But why she could not fathom.
She felt herself caught by the changing tide of events--a tide that must
sweep her on to flood. Kells had gone outside. The strong, deep voices’
grew less distinct. Evidently the men were walking away. In her suspense
Joan was disappointed. Presently, however, they returned; they had been
walking to and fro. After a few moments Kells entered alone. The cabin
was now so dark that Joan could barely distinguish the bandit. Then he
lighted the lanterns. He hung up several on the wall and placed two upon
the table. From somewhere among his effects he produced a small book and
a pencil; these, with a heavy, gold-mounted gun, he laid on the table
before the seat he manifestly meant to occupy. That done, he began a
slow pacing up and down the room, his hands behind his back, his head
bent in deep and absorbing thought. What a dark, sinister, plotting
figure! Joan had seen many men in different attitudes of thought, but
here was a man whose mind seemed to give forth intangible yet terrible
manifestations of evil. The inside of that gloomy cabin took on another
aspect; there was a meaning in the saddles and bridles and weapons on
the wall; that book and pencil and gun seemed to contain the dark deeds
of wild men; and all about the bandit hovered a power sinister in its
menace to the unknown and distant toilers for gold.

Kells lifted his head, as if listening, and then the whole manner of the
man changed. The burden that weighed upon him was thrown aside. Like a
general about to inspect a line of soldiers Kells faced the door, keen,
stern, commanding. The heavy tread of booted men, the clink of spurs,
the low, muffled sound of voices, warned Joan that the gang had arrived.
Would Jim Cleve be among them?

Joan wanted a better position in which to watch and listen. She thought
a moment, and then carefully felt her way around to the other side of
the steps, and here, sitting down with her feet hanging over the drop,
she leaned against the wall and through a chink between the logs had
a perfect view of the large cabin. The men were filing in silent and
intense. Joan counted twenty-seven in all. They appeared to fall into
two groups, and it was significant that the larger group lined up on the
side nearest Kells, and the smaller back of Gulden. He had removed the
bandage, and with a raw, red blotch where his right ear had been shot
away, he was hideous. There was some kind of power emanating from him,
but it was not that which, was so keenly vital and impelling in Kells.
It was brute ferocity, dominating by sheer physical force. In any but
muscular clash between Kells and Gulden the latter must lose. The men
back of Gulden were a bearded, check-shirted, heavily armed group, the
worst of that bad lot. All the younger, cleaner-cut men like Red Pearce
and Frenchy and Beady Jones and Williams and the scout Blicky, were
on the other side. There were two factions here, yet scarcely an
antagonism, except possibly in the case of Kells. Joan felt that
the atmosphere was supercharged with suspense and fatality and
possibility--and anything might happen. To her great joy, Jim Cleve was
not present.

“Where’re Beard and Wood?” queried Kells.

“Workin’ over Beard’s sick hoss,” replied Pearce. “They’ll show up by
an’ by. Anythin’ you say goes with them, you know.”

“Did you find young Cleve?”

“No. He camps up in the timber somewheres. Reckon he’ll be along, too.”

Kells sat down at the head of the table, and, taking up the little book,
he began to finger it while his pale eyes studied the men before him.

“We shuffled the deck pretty well over at Beard’s,” he said. “Now for
the deal.... Who wants cards?... I’ve organized my Border Legion. I’ll
have absolute control, whether there’re ten men or a hundred. Now, whose
names go down in my book?”

Red Pearce stepped up and labored over the writing of his name. Blicky,
Jones, Williams, and others followed suit. They did not speak, but
each shook hands with the leader. Evidently Kells exacted no oath, but
accepted each man’s free action and his word of honor. There was that
about the bandit which made such action as binding as ties of blood. He
did not want men in his Legion who had not loyalty to him. He seemed the
kind of leader to whom men would be true.

“Kells, say them conditions over again,” requested one of the men, less
eager to hurry with the matter.

At this juncture Joan was at once thrilled and frightened to see Jim
Cleve enter the cabin. He appeared whiter of face, almost ghastly, and
his piercing eyes swept the room, from Kells to Gulden, from men to men.
Then he leaned against the wall, indistinct in the shadow. Kells gave no
sign that he had noted the advent of Cleve.

“I’m the leader,” replied Kells, deliberately. “I’ll make the plans.
I’ll issue orders. No jobs without my knowledge. Equal shares in
gold--man to man.... Your word to stand by me!”

A muttering of approval ran through the listening group.

“Reckon I’ll join,” said the man who had wished the conditions repeated.
With that he advanced to the table and, apparently not being able to
write, he made his mark in the book. Kells wrote the name below.
The other men of this contingent one by one complied with Kells’s
requirements. This action left Gulden and his group to be dealt with.

“Gulden, are you still on the fence?” demanded Kells, coolly.

The giant strode stolidly forward to the table. As always before to
Joan, he seemed to be a ponderous hulk, slow, heavy, plodding, with a
mind to match.

“Kells, if we can agree I’ll join,” he said in his sonorous voice.

“You can bet you won’t join unless we do agree,” snapped Kells.
“But--see here, Gulden. Let’s be friendly. The border is big enough for
both of us. I want you. I need you. Still, if we can’t agree, let’s not
split and be enemies. How about it?”

Another muttering among the men attested to the good sense and good will
of Kells’s suggestion.

“Tell me what you’re going to do--how you’ll operate,” replied Gulden.

Keils had difficulty in restraining his impatience and annoyance.

“What’s that to you or any of you?” he queried. “You all know I’m the
man to think of things. That’s been proved. First it takes brains. I’ll
furnish them. Then it takes execution. You and Pearce and the gang will
furnish that. What more do you need to know?”

“How’re you going to operate?” persisted Gulden.

Kells threw up both hands as if it was useless to argue or reason with
this desperado.

“All right, I’ll tell you,” he replied. “Listen.... I can’t say what
definite plans I’ll make till Jesse Smith reports, and then when I get
on the diggings. But here’s a working basis. Now don’t miss a word of
this, Gulden--nor any of you men. We’ll pack our outfits down to this
gold strike. We’ll build cabins on the outskirts of the town, and we
won’t hang together. The gang will be spread out. Most of you must make
a bluff at digging gold. Be like other miners. Get in with cliques and
clans. Dig, drink, gamble like the rest of them. Beard will start a
gambling-place. Red Pearce will find some other kind of work. I’ll buy
up claims--employ miners to work them. I’ll disguise myself and get
in with the influential men and have a voice in matters. You’ll all be
scouts. You’ll come to my cabin at night to report. We’ll not tackle
any little jobs. Miners going out with fifty or a hundred pounds of
gold--the wagons--the stage-coach--these we’ll have timed to rights, and
whoever I detail on the job will hold them up. You must all keep sober,
if that’s possible. You must all absolutely trust to my judgment. You
must all go masked while on a job. You must never speak a word that
might direct suspicion to you. In this way we may work all summer
without detection. The Border Legion will become mysterious and famous.
It will appear to be a large number of men, operating all over. The
more secretive we are the more powerful the effect on the diggings. In
gold-camps, when there’s a strike, all men are mad. They suspect each
other. They can’t organize. We shall have them helpless.... And in
short, if it’s as rich a strike as looks due here in these hills, before
winter we can pack out all the gold our horses can carry.”

Kells had begun under restraint, but the sound of his voice, the
liberation of his great idea, roused him to a passion. The man radiated
with passion. This, then, was his dream--the empire he aspired to.

He had a powerful effect upon his listeners, except Gulden; and it was
evident to Joan that the keen bandit was conscious of his influence.
Gulden, however, showed nothing that he had not already showed. He
was always a strange, dominating figure. He contested the relations of
things. Kells watched him--the men watched him--and Jim Cleve’s piercing
eyes glittered in the shadow, fixed upon that massive face. Manifestly
Gulden meant to speak, but in his slowness there was no laboring, no
pause from emotion. He had an idea and it moved like he moved.

“DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES!” The words boomed deep from his cavernous
chest, a mutter that was a rumble, with something almost solemn in its
note and certainly menacing, breathing murder. As Kells had propounded
his ideas, revealing his power to devise a remarkable scheme and
his passion for gold, so Gulden struck out with the driving inhuman
blood-lust that must have been the twist, the knot, the clot in his
brain. Kells craved notoriety and gold; Gulden craved to kill. In the
silence that followed his speech these wild border ruffians judged him,
measured him, understood him, and though some of them grew farther
aloof from him, more of them sensed the safety that hid in his terrible
implication.

But Kells rose against him.

“Gulden, you mean when we steal gold--to leave only dead men behind?” he
queried, with a hiss in his voice.

The giant nodded grimly.

“But only fools kill--unless in self-defense,” declared Kells,
passionately.

“We’d last longer,” replied Gulden, imperturbably.

“No--no. We’d never last so long. Killings rouse a mining-camp after a
while--gold fever or no. That means a vigilante band.”

“We can belong to the vigilantes, just as well as to your Legion,” said
Gulden.

The effect of this was to make Gulden appear less of a fool than
Kells supposed him. The ruffians nodded to one another. They stirred
restlessly. They were animated by a strange and provocative influence.
Even Red Pearce and the others caught its subtlety. It was evil
predominating in evil hearts. Blood and death loomed like a shadow here.
The keen Kells saw the change working toward a transformation and he
seemed craftily fighting something within him that opposed this cold
ruthlessness of his men.

“Gulden, suppose I don’t see it your way?” he asked.

“Then I won’t join your Legion.”

“What WILL you do?”

“I’ll take the men who stand by me and go clean up that gold-camp.”

From the fleeting expression on Kells’s face Joan read that he knew
Gulden’s project would defeat his own and render both enterprises fatal.

“Gulden, I don’t want to lose you,” he said.

“You won’t lose me if you see this thing right,” replied Gulden. “You’ve
got the brains to direct us. But, Kells, you’re losing your nerve....
It’s this girl you’ve got here!”

Gulden spoke without rancor or fear or feeling of any kind. He merely
spoke the truth. And it shook Kells with an almost ungovernable fury.

Joan saw the green glare of his eyes--his gray working face--the flutter
of his hand. She had an almost superhuman insight into the workings of
his mind. She knew that then--he was fighting whether or not to kill
Gulden on the spot. And she recognized that this was the time when Kells
must kill Gulden or from that moment see a gradual diminishing of his
power on the border. But Kells did not recognize that crucial height of
his career. His struggle with his fury and hate showed that the thing
uppermost in his mind was the need of conciliating Gulden and thus
regaining a hold over the men.

“Gulden, suppose we waive the question till we’re on the grounds?” he
suggested.

“Waive nothing. It’s one or the other with me,” declared Gulden.

“Do you want to be leader of this Border Legion?” went on Kells,
deliberately.

“No.”

“Then what do you want?”

Gulden appeared at a loss for an instant reply. “I want plenty to do,”
 he replied, presently. “I want to be in on everything. I want to be free
to kill a man when I like.”

“When you like!” retorted Kells, and added a curse. Then as if by magic
his dark face cleared and there was infinite depth and craftiness in
him. His opposition, and that hint of hate and loathing which detached
him from Gulden, faded from his bearing. “Gulden, I’ll split the
difference between us. I’ll leave you free to do as you like. But all
the others--every man--must take orders from me.”

Gulden reached out a huge hand. His instant acceptance evidently amazed
Kells and the others.

“LET HER RIP!” Gulden exclaimed. He shook Kells’s hand and then
laboriously wrote his name in the little book.

In that moment Gulden stood out alone in the midst of wild abandoned
men. What were Kells and this Legion to him? What was the stealing of
more or less gold?

“Free to do as you like except fight my men,” said Kells. “That’s
understood.”

“If they don’t pick a fight with me,” added the giant, and he grinned.

One by one his followers went through with the simple observances that
Kells’s personality made a serious and binding compact.

“Anybody else?” called Kells, glancing round. The somberness was leaving
his face.

“Here’s Jim Cleve,” said Pearce, pointing toward the wall.

“Hello, youngster! Come here. I’m wanting you bad,” said Kells.

Cleve sauntered out of the shadow, and his glittering eyes were fixed
on Gulden. There was an instant of waiting. Gulden looked at Cleve. Then
Kells quickly strode between them.

“Say, I forgot you fellows had trouble,” he said. He attended solely
to Gulden. “You can’t renew your quarrel now. Gulden, we’ve all fought
together more or less, and then been good friends. I want Cleve to join
us, but not against your ill will. How about it?”

“I’ve no ill will,” replied the giant, and the strangeness of his remark
lay in its evident truth. “But I won’t stand to lose my other ear!”

Then the ruffians guffawed in hoarse mirth. Gulden, however, did not
seem to see any humor in his remark. Kells laughed with the rest. Even
Cleve’s white face relaxed into a semblance of a smile.

“That’s good. We’re getting together,” declared Kells. Then he faced
Cleve, all about him expressive of elation, of assurance, of power.
“Jim, will you draw cards in this deal?”

“What’s the deal?” asked Cleve.

Then in swift, eloquent speech Kells launched the idea of his Border
Legion, its advantages to any loose-footed, young outcast, and he ended
his brief talk with much the same argument he had given Joan. Back there
in her covert Joan listened and watched, mindful of the great need of
controlling her emotions. The instant Jim Cleve had stalked into the
light she had been seized by a spasm of trembling.

“Kells, I don’t care two straws one way or another,” replied Cleve.

The bandit appeared nonplussed. “You don’t care whether you join my
Legion or whether you don’t?”

“Not a damn,” was the indifferent answer.

“Then do me a favor,” went on Kells. “Join to please me. We’ll be good
friends. You’re in bad out here on the border. You might as well fall in
with us.”

“I’d rather go alone.”

“But you won’t last.”

“It’s a lot I care.”

The bandit studied the reckless, white face. “See here, Cleve--haven’t
you got the nerve to be bad--thoroughly bad?”

Cleve gave a start as if he had been stung. Joan shut her eyes to blot
out what she saw in his face. Kells had used part of the very speech
with which she had driven Jim Cleve to his ruin. And those words
galvanized him. The fatality of all this! Joan hated herself. Those
very words of hers would drive this maddened and heartbroken boy to join
Kells’s band. She knew what to expect from Jim even before she opened
her eyes; yet when she did open them it was to see him transformed and
blazing.

Then Kells either gave way to leaping passion or simulated it in the
interest of his cunning.

“Cleve, you’re going down for a woman?” he queried, with that sharp,
mocking ring in his voice.

“If you don’t shut up you’ll get there first,” replied Cleve,
menacingly.

“Bah!... Why do you want to throw a gun on me? I’m your friend: You’re
sick. You’re like a poisoned pup. I say if you’ve got nerve you won’t
quit. You’ll take a run for your money. You’ll see life. You’ll fight.
You’ll win some gold. There are other women. Once I thought I would quit
for a woman. But I didn’t. I never found the right one till I had gone
to hell--out here on this border.... If you’ve got nerve, show me. Be a
man instead of a crazy youngster. Spit out the poison.... Tell it before
us all!... Some girl drove you to us?”

“Yes--a girl!” replied Cleve, hoarsely, as if goaded.

“It’s too late to go back?”

“Too late!”

“There’s nothing left but wild life that makes you forget?”

“Nothing.... Only I--can’t forget!” he panted.

Cleve was in a torture of memory, of despair, of weakness. Joan saw how
Kells worked upon Jim’s feelings. He was only a hopeless, passionate
boy in the hands of a strong, implacable man. He would be like wax to a
sculptor’s touch. Jim would bend to this bandit’s will, and through his
very tenacity of love and memory be driven farther on the road to drink,
to gaming, and to crime.

Joan got to her feet, and with all her woman’s soul uplifting and
inflaming her she stood ready to meet the moment that portended.

Kells made a gesture of savage violence. “Show your nerve!... Join
with me!... You’ll make a name on this border that the West will never
forget!”

That last hint of desperate fame was the crafty bandit’s best trump. And
it won. Cleve swept up a weak and nervous hand to brush the hair from
his damp brow. The keenness, the fire, the aloofness had departed from
him. He looked shaken as if by something that had been pointed out as
his own cowardice.

“Sure, Kells,” he said, recklessly. “Let me in the game.... And--by
God--I’ll play--the hand out!” He reached for the pencil and bent over
the book.

“Wait!... Oh, WAIT!” cried Joan. The passion of that moment, the
consciousness of its fateful portent and her situation, as desperate
as Cleve’s, gave her voice a singularly high and piercingly sweet
intensity. She glided from behind the blanket--out of the shadow--into
the glare of the lanterns--to face Kells and Cleve.

Kells gave one astounded glance at her, and then, divining her purpose,
he laughed thrillingly and mockingly, as if the sight of her was a spur,
as if her courage was a thing to admire, to permit, and to regret.

“Cleve, my wife, Dandy Dale,” he said, suave and cool. “Let her persuade
you--one way or another!”

The presence of a woman, however disguised, following her singular
appeal, transformed Cleve. He stiffened erect and the flush died out of
his face, leaving it whiter than ever, and the eyes that had grown dull
quickened and began to burn. Joan felt her cheeks blanch. She all but
fainted under that gaze. But he did not recognize her, though he was
strangely affected.

“Wait!” she cried again, and she held to that high voice, so different
from her natural tone. “I’ve been listening. I’ve heard all that’s been
said. Don’t join this Border Legion.... You’re young--and still, honest.
For God’s sake--don’t go the way of these men! Kells will make you a
bandit.... Go home--boy--go home!”

“Who are you--to speak to me of honesty--of home?” Cleve demanded.

“I’m only a--a woman.... But I can feel how wrong you are.... Go back
to that girl--who--who drove you to the border.... She must repent. In
a day you’ll be too late.... Oh, boy, go home! Girls never know their
minds--their hearts. Maybe your girl--loved you!... Oh, maybe her heart
is breaking now!”

A strong, muscular ripple went over Cleve, ending in a gesture of fierce
protest. Was it pain her words caused, or disgust that such as she dared
mention the girl he had loved? Joan could not tell. She only knew
that Cleve was drawn by her presence, fascinated and repelled, subtly
responding to the spirit of her, doubting what he heard and believing
with his eyes.

“You beg me not to become a bandit?” he asked, slowly, as if revolving a
strange idea.

“Oh, I implore you!”

“Why?”

“I told you. Because you’re still good at heart. You’ve only been
wild.... Because--”

“Are you the wife of Kells?” he flashed at her.

A reply seemed slowly wrenched from Joan’s reluctant lips. “No!”

The denial left a silence behind it. The truth that all knew when spoken
by her was a kind of shock. The ruffians gaped in breathless attention.
Kells looked on with a sardonic grin, but he had grown pale. And upon
the face of Cleve shone an immeasurable scorn.

“Not his wife!” exclaimed Cleve, softly.

His tone was unendurable to Joan. She began to shrink. A flame curled
within her. How he must hate any creature of her sex!

“And you appeal to me!” he went on. Suddenly a weariness came over him.
The complexity of women was beyond him. Almost he turned his back upon
her. “I reckon such as you can’t keep me from Kells--or blood--or hell!”

“Then you’re a narrow-souled weakling--born to crime!” she burst out in
magnificent wrath. “For however appearances are against me--I am a good
woman!”

That stunned him, just as it drew Kells upright, white and watchful.
Cleve seemed long in grasping its significance. His face was half
averted. Then he turned slowly, all strung, and his hands clutched
quiveringly at the air. No man of coolness and judgment would have
addressed him or moved a step in that strained moment. All expected some
such action as had marked his encounter with Luce and Gulden.

Then Cleve’s gaze in unmistakable meaning swept over Joan’s person. How
could her appearance and her appeal be reconciled? One was a lie! And
his burning eyes robbed Joan of spirit.

“He forced me to--to wear these,” she faltered. “I’m his prisoner. I’m
helpless.”

With catlike agility Cleve leaped backward, so that he faced all the
men, and when his hands swept to a level they held gleaming guns. His
utter abandon of daring transfixed these bandits in surprise as much as
fear. Kells appeared to take most to himself the menace.

“_I_ CRAWL!” he said, huskily. “She speaks the God’s truth.... But you
can’t help matters by killing me. Maybe she’d be worse off!”

He expected this wild boy to break loose, yet his wit directed him to
speak the one thing calculated to check Cleve.

“Oh, don’t shoot!” moaned Joan.

“You go outside,” ordered Cleve. “Get on a horse and lead another near
the door.... Go! I’ll take you away from this.”

Both temptation and terror assailed Joan. Surely that venture would mean
only death to Jim and worse for her. She thrilled at the thought--at the
possibility of escape--at the strange front of this erstwhile nerveless
boy. But she had not the courage for what seemed only desperate folly.

“I’ll stay,” she whispered. “You go!”

“Hurry, woman!”

“No! No!”

“Do you want to stay with this bandit?”

“Oh, I must!”

“Then you love him?”

All the fire of Joan’s heart flared up to deny the insult and all her
woman’s cunning fought to keep back words that inevitably must lead to
revelation. She drooped, unable to hold up under her shame, yet strong
to let him think vilely of her, for his sake. That way she had a barest
chance.

“Get out of my sight!” he ejaculated, thickly. “I’d have fought for
you.”

Again that white, weary scorn radiated from him. Joan bit her tongue to
keep from screaming. How could she live under this torment? It was she,
Joan Randle, that had earned that scorn, whether he knew her or not. She
shrank back, step by step, almost dazed, sick with a terrible inward,
coldness, blinded by scalding tears. She found her door and stumbled in.

“Kells, I’m what you called me.” She heard Cleve’s voice, strangely far
off. “There’s no excuse... unless I’m not just right in my head about
women.... Overlook my break or don’t--as you like. But if you want me
I’m ready for your Border Legion!”



12

Those bitter words of Cleve’s, as if he mocked himself, were the last
Joan heard, and they rang in her ears and seemed to reverberate through
her dazed mind like a knell of doom. She lay there, all blackness about
her, weighed upon by an insupportable burden; and she prayed that day
might never dawn for her; a nightmare of oblivion ended at last with her
eyes opening to the morning light.

She was cold and stiff. She had lain uncovered all the long hours of
night. She had not moved a finger since she had fallen upon the bed,
crushed by those bitter words with which Cleve had consented to join
Kells’s Legion. Since then Joan felt that she had lived years. She could
not remember a single thought she might have had during those black
hours; nevertheless, a decision had been formed in her mind, and it was
that to-day she would reveal herself to Jim Cleve if it cost both their
lives. Death was infinitely better than the suspense and fear and agony
she had endured; and as for Jim, it would at least save him from crime.

Joan got up, a little dizzy and unsteady upon her feet. Her hands
appeared clumsy and shaky. All the blood in her seemed to surge from
heart to brain and it hurt her to breathe. Removing her mask, she bathed
her face and combed her hair. At first she conceived an idea to go out
without her face covered, but she thought better of it. Cleve’s reckless
defiance had communicated itself to her. She could not now be stopped.

Kells was gay and excited that morning. He paid her compliments. He said
they would soon be out of this lonely gulch and she would see the sight
of her life--a gold strike. She would see men wager a fortune on the
turn of a card, lose, laugh, and go back to the digging. He said he
would take her to Sacramento and ‘Frisco and buy her everything any
girl could desire. He was wild, voluble, unreasoning--obsessed by the
anticipated fulfilment of his dream.

It was rather late in the morning and there were a dozen or more men in
and around the cabin, all as excited as Kells. Preparations were already
under way for the expected journey to the gold-field. Packs were being
laid out, overhauled, and repacked; saddles and bridles and weapons
were being worked over; clothes were being awkwardly mended. Horses
were being shod, and the job was as hard and disagreeable for men as for
horses. Whenever a rider swung up the slope, and one came every now and
then, all the robbers would leave off their tasks and start eagerly for
the newcomer. The name Jesse Smith was on everybody’s lips. Any hour he
might be expected to arrive and corroborate Blicky’s alluring tale.

Joan saw or imagined she saw that the glances in the eyes of these men
were yellow, like gold fire. She had seen miners and prospectors whose
eyes shone with a strange glory of light that gold inspired, but never
as those of Kells’s bandit Legion. Presently Joan discovered that,
despite the excitement, her effect upon them was more marked then ever,
and by a difference that she was quick to feel. But she could not tell
what this difference was--how their attitude had changed. Then she set
herself the task of being useful. First she helped Bate Wood. He was
roughly kind. She had not realized that there was sadness about her
until he whispered: “Don’t be downcast, miss. Mebbe it’ll come out
right yet!” That amazed Joan. Then his mysterious winks and glances,
the sympathy she felt in him, all attested to some kind of a change. She
grew keen to learn, but she did not know how. She felt the change in
all the men. Then she went to Pearce and with all a woman’s craft she
exaggerated the silent sadness that had brought quick response from
Wood. Red Pearce was even quicker. He did not seem to regard her
proximity as that of a feminine thing which roused the devil in him.
Pearce could not be other than coarse and vulgar, but there was pity
in him. Joan sensed pity and some other quality still beyond her. This
lieutenant of the bandit Kells was just as mysterious as Wood. Joan
mended a great jagged rent in his buckskin shirt. Pearce appeared proud
of her work; he tried to joke; he said amiable things. Then as she
finished he glanced furtively round; he pressed her hand: “I had a
sister once!” he whispered. And then with a dark and baleful hate:
“Kells!--he’ll get his over in the gold-camp!”

Joan turned away from Pearce still more amazed. Some strange, deep
undercurrent was working here. There had been unmistakable hate for
Kells in his dark look and a fierce implication in his portent of
fatality. What had caused this sudden impersonal interest in her
situation? What was the meaning of the subtle animosity toward the
bandit leader? Was there no honor among evil men banded together for
evil deeds? Were jealousy, ferocity, hate and faithlessness fostered by
this wild and evil border life, ready at an instant’s notice to break
out? Joan divined the vain and futile and tragical nature of Kell’s
great enterprise. It could not succeed. It might bring a few days or
weeks of fame, of blood-stained gold, of riotous gambling, but by its
very nature it was doomed. It embraced failure and death.

Joan went from man to man, keener now on the track of this inexplicable
change, sweetly and sadly friendly to each; and it was not till she
encountered the little Frenchman that the secret was revealed. Frenchy
was of a different race. Deep in the fiber of his being inculcated a
sentiment, a feeling, long submerged in the darkness of a wicked life,
and now that something came fleeting out of the depths--and it was
respect for a woman. To Joan it was a flash of light. Yesterday these
ruffians despised her; to-day they respected her. So they had believed
what she had so desperately flung at Jim Cleve. They believed her good,
they pitied her, they respected her, they responded to her effort
to turn a boy back from a bad career. They were bandits, desperados,
murderers, lost, but each remembered in her a mother or a sister. What
each might have felt or done had he possessed her, as Kells possessed
her, did not alter the case as it stood. A strange inconsistency of
character made them hate Kells for what they might not have hated in
themselves. Her appeal to Cleve, her outburst of truth, her youth
and misfortune, had discovered to each a human quality. As in Kells
something of nobility still lingered, a ghost among his ruined ideals,
so in the others some goodness remained. Joan sustained an uplifting
divination--no man was utterly bad. Then came the hideous image of the
giant Gulden, the utter absence of soul in him, and she shuddered.
Then came the thought of Jim Cleve, who had not believed her, who had
bitterly made the fatal step, who might in the strange reversion of his
character be beyond influence.

And it was at the precise moment when this thought rose to counteract
the hope revived by the changed attitude of the men that Joan looked out
to see Jim Cleve sauntering up, careless, untidy, a cigarette between
his lips, blue blotches on his white face, upon him the stamp of
abandonment. Joan suffered a contraction of heart that benumbed her
breast. She stood a moment battling with herself. She was brave enough,
desperate enough, to walk straight up to Cleve, remove her mask and say,
“I am Joan!” But that must be a last resource. She had no plan, yet she
might force an opportunity to see Cleve alone.

A shout rose above the hubbub of voices. A tall man was pointing across
the gulch where dust-clouds showed above the willows. Men crowded round
him, all gazing in the direction of his hand, all talking at once.

“Jesse Smith’s hoss, I swear!” shouted the tall man. “Kells, come out
here!”

Kells appeared, dark and eager, at the door, and nimbly he leaped to the
excited group. Pearce and Wood and others followed.

“What’s up?” called the bandit. “Hello! Who’s that riding bareback?”

“He’s shore cuttin’ the wind,” said Wood.

“Blicky!” exclaimed the tall man. “Kells, there’s news. I seen Jesse’s
hoss.”

Kells let out a strange, exultant cry. The excited talk among the men
gave place, to a subdued murmur, then subsided. Blicky was running a
horse up the road, hanging low over him, like an Indian. He clattered to
the bench, scattered the men in all directions. The fiery horse plunged
and pounded. Blicky was gray of face and wild of aspect.

“Jesse’s come!” he yelled, hoarsely, at Kells. “He jest fell off his
hoss--all in! He wants you--an’ all the gang! He’s seen a million
dollars in gold-dust!”

Absolute silence ensued after that last swift and startling speech. It
broke to a commingling of yells and shouts. Blicky wheeled his horse and
Kells started on a run. And there was a stampede and rush after him.

Joan grasped her opportunity. She had seen all this excitement, but she
had not lost sight of Cleve. He got up from a log and started after the
others. Joan flew to him, grasped him, startled him with the suddenness
of her onslaught. But her tongue seemed cloven to the roof of her mouth,
her lips weak and mute. Twice she strove to speak.

“Meet me--there!--among the pines--right away!” she whispered, with
breathless earnestness. “It’s life--or death--for me!”

As she released his arm he snatched at her mask. But she eluded him.

“Who ARE you?” he flashed.

Kells and his men were piling into the willows, leaping the brook,
hurrying on. They had no thought but to get to Jesse Smith to hear of
the gold strike. That news to them was as finding gold in the earth was
to honest miners.

“Come!” cried Joan. She hurried away toward the corner of the cabin,
then halted to see if he was following. He was, indeed. She ran round
behind the cabin, out on the slope, halting at the first trees. Cleve
came striding after her. She ran on, beginning to pant and stumble. The
way he strode, the white grimness of him, frightened her. What would he,
do? Again she went on, but not running now. There were straggling pines
and spruces that soon hid the cabins. Beyond, a few rods, was a dense
clump of pines, and she made for that. As she reached it she turned
fearfully. Only Cleve was in sight. She uttered a sob of mingled relief,
joy, and thankfulness. She and Cleve had not been observed. They would
be out of sight in this little pine grove. At last! She could reveal
herself, tell him why she was there, that she loved him, that she was as
good as ever she had been. Why was she shaking like a leaf in the wind?
She saw Cleve through a blur. He was almost running now. Involuntarily
she fled into the grove. It was dark and cool; it smelled sweetly of
pine; there were narrow aisles and little sunlit glades. She hurried
on till a fallen tree blocked her passage. Here she turned--she would
wait--the tree was good to lean against. There came Cleve, a dark,
stalking shadow. She did not remember him like that. He entered the
glade.

“Speak again!” he said, thickly. “Either I’m drunk or crazy!”

But Joan could not speak. She held out hands that shook--swept them to
her face--tore at the mask. Then with a gasp she stood revealed.

If she had stabbed him straight through the heart he could not have been
more ghastly. Joan saw him, in all the terrible transfiguration
that came over him, but she had no conceptions, no thought of what
constituted that change. After that check to her mind came a surge of
joy.

“Jim!... Jim! It’s Joan!” she breathed, with lips almost mute.

“JOAN!” he gasped, and the sound of his voice seemed to be the passing
from horrible doubt to certainty.

Like a panther he leaped at her, fastened a powerful hand at the neck of
her blouse, jerked her to her knees, and began to drag her. Joan fought
his iron grasp. The twisting and tightening of her blouse choked her
utterance. He did not look down upon her, but she could see him, the
rigidity of his body set in violence, the awful shade upon his face, the
upstanding hair on his head. He dragged her as if she had been an empty
sack. Like a beast he was seeking a dark place--a hole to hide her.
She was strangling; a distorted sight made objects dim; and now she
struggled instinctively. Suddenly the clutch at her neck loosened;
gaspingly came the intake of air to her lungs; the dark-red veil left
her eyes. She was still upon her knees. Cleve stood before her, like a
gray-faced demon, holding his gun level, ready to fire.

“Pray for your soul--and mine!”

“Jim! Oh Jim!... Will you kill yourself, too?”

“Yes! But pray, girl--quick!”

“Then I pray to God--not for my soul--but just for one more moment of
life... TO TELL YOU, JIM!”

Cleve’s face worked and the gun began to waver. Her reply had been a
stroke of lightning into the dark abyss of his jealous agony.

Joan saw it, and she raised her quivering face, and she held up her arms
to him. “To tell--you--Jim!” she entreated.

“What?” he rasped out.

“That I’m innocent--that I’m as good--a girl--as ever.. ever.... Let me
tell you.... Oh, you’re mistaken--terribly mistaken.”

“Now, I know I’m drunk.... You, Joan Randle! You in that rig! You
the companion of Jack Kells! Not even his wife! The jest of these
foul-mouthed bandits! And you say you’re innocent--good?... When you
refused to leave him!”

“I was afraid to go--afraid you’d be killed,” she moaned, beating her
breast.

It must have seemed madness to him, a monstrous nightmare, a delirium of
drink, that Joan Randle was there on her knees in a brazen male attire,
lifting her arms to him, beseeching him, not to spare her life, but to
believe in her innocence.

Joan burst into swift, broken utterance: “Only listen! I trailed you
out--twenty miles from Hoadley. I met Roberts. He came with me. He lamed
his horse--we had to camp. Kells rode down on us. He had two men. They
camped there. Next morning he--killed Roberts--made off with me.... Then
he killed his men--just to have me--alone to himself.... We crossed a
range--camped in the canon. There he attacked me--and I--I shot him!...
But I couldn’t leave him--to die!” Joan hurried on with her narrative,
gaining strength and eloquence as she saw the weakening of Cleve. “First
he said I was his wife to fool that Gulden--and the others,” she went
on. “He meant to save me from them. But they guessed or found out....
Kells forced me into these bandit clothes. He’s depraved, somehow. And
I had to wear something. Kells hasn’t harmed me--no one has. I’ve
influence over him. He can’t resist it. He’s tried to force me to marry
him. And he’s tried to give up to his evil intentions. But he can’t.
There’s good in him. I can make him feel it.... Oh, he loves me, and I’m
not afraid of him any more.... It has been a terrible time for me, Jim,
but I’m still--the same girl you knew--you used to--”

Cleve dropped the gun and he waved his hand before his eyes as if to
dispel a blindness.

“But why--why?” he asked, incredulously. “Why did you leave Hoadley?
That’s forbidden. You knew the risk.”

Joan gazed steadily up at him, to see the whiteness slowly fade out of
his face. She had imagined it would be an overcoming of pride to
betray her love, but she had been wrong. The moment was so full, so
overpowering, that she seemed dumb. He had ruined himself for her, and
out of that ruin had come the glory of her love. Perhaps it was all too
late, but at least he would know that for love of him she had in turn
sacrificed herself.

“Jim,” she whispered, and with the first word of that betrayal a thrill,
a tremble, a rush went over her, and all her blood seemed hot at her
neck and face, “that night when you kissed me I was furious. But the
moment you had gone I repented. I must have--cared for you then, but I
didn’t know.... Remorse seized me. And I set out on your trail to save
you from yourself. And with the pain and fear and terror there was
sometimes--the--the sweetness of your kisses. Then I knew I cared....
And with the added days of suspense and agony--all that told me of your
throwing your life away--there came love.... Such love as otherwise I’d
never have been big enough for! I meant to find you--to save you--to
send you home!... I have found you, maybe too late to save your life,
but not your soul, thank God!... That’s why I’ve been strong enough to
hold back Kells. I love you, Jim!... I love you! I couldn’t tell you
enough. My heart is bursting.... Say you believe me! Say you know I’m
good--true to you--your Joan!... And kiss me--like you did that night
when we were such blind fools. A boy and a girl who didn’t know--and
couldn’t tell!--Oh, the sadness of it!.... Kiss me, Jim, before
I--drop--at your feet!... If only you--believe--”

Joan was blinded by tears and whispering she knew not what when
Cleve broke from his trance and caught her to his breast. She was
fainting--hovering at the border of unconsciousness when his violence
held her back from oblivion. She seemed wrapped to him and held so
tightly there was no breath in her body, no motion, no stir of
pulse. That vague, dreamy moment passed. She heard his husky, broken
accents--she felt the pound of his heart against her breast. And he
began to kiss her as she had begged him to. She quickened to thrilling,
revivifying life. And she lifted her face, and clung round his neck, and
kissed him, blindly, sweetly, passionately, with all her heart and soul
in her lips, wanting only one thing in the world--to give that which she
had denied him.

“Joan!... Joan!... Joan!” he murmured when their lips parted. “Am I
dreaming--drunk--or crazy?”

“Oh, Jim, I’m real--you have me in your arms,” she whispered. “Dear
Jim--kiss me again--and say you believe me.”

“Believe you?... I’m out of my mind with joy.... You loved me! You
followed me!... And--that idea of mine--only an absurd, vile suspicion!
I might have known--had I been sane!”

“There.... Oh, Jim!... Enough of madness. We’ve got to plan. Remember
where we are. There’s Kells, and this terrible situation to meet!”

He stared at her, slowly realizing, and then it was his turn to shake.
“My God! I’d forgotten. I’ll HAVE to kill you now!”

A reaction set in. If he had any self-control left he lost it, and like
a boy whose fling into manhood had exhausted his courage he sank beside
her and buried his face against her. And he cried in a low, tense,
heartbroken way. For Joan it was terrible to hear him. She held his hand
to her breast and implored him not to weaken now. But he was stricken
with remorse--he had run off like a coward, he had brought her to this
calamity--and he could not rise under it. Joan realized that he had long
labored under stress of morbid emotion. Only a supreme effort could lift
him out of it to strong and reasoning equilibrium, and that must come
from her.

She pushed him away from her, and held him back where he must see her,
and white-hot with passionate purpose, she kissed him. “Jim Cleve, if
you’ve NERVE enough to be BAD you’ve nerve enough to save the girl who
LOVES you--who BELONGS to you!”

He raised his face and it flashed from red to white. He caught the
subtlety of her antithesis. With the very two words which had driven him
away under the sting of cowardice she uplifted him; and with all that
was tender and faithful and passionate in her meaning of surrender she
settled at once and forever the doubt of his manhood. He arose trembling
in every limb. Like a dog he shook himself. His breast heaved. The
shades of scorn and bitterness and abandon might never have haunted his
face. In that moment he had passed from the reckless and wild, sick rage
of a weakling to the stern, realizing courage of a man. His suffering
on this wild border had developed a different fiber of character; and at
the great moment, the climax, when his moral force hung balanced
between elevation and destruction, the woman had called to him, and her
unquenchable spirit passed into him.

“There’s only one thing--to get away,” he said.

“Yes, but that’s a terrible risk,” she replied.

“We’ve a good chance now. I’ll get horses. We can slip away while
they’re all excited.”

“No--no. I daren’t risk so much. Kells would find out at once. He’d be
like a hound on our trail. But that’s not all. I’ve a horror of Gulden.
I can’t explain. I FEEL it. He would know--he would take the trail. I’d
never try to escape with Gulden in camp.... Jim, do you know what he’s
done?”

“He’s a cannibal. I hate the sight of him. I tried to kill him. I wish I
had killed him.”

“I’m never safe while he’s near.”

“Then I will kill him.”

“Hush! you’ll not be desperate unless you have to be.... Listen. I’m
safe with Kells for the present. And he’s friendly to you. Let us wait.
I’ll keep trying to influence him. I have won the friendship of some of
his men. We’ll stay with him--travel with him. Surely we’d have a better
chance to excape after we reach that gold-camp. You must play your part.
But do it without drinking and fighting. I couldn’t bear that. We’ll see
each other somehow. We’ll plan. Then we’ll take the first chance to get
away.”

“We might never have a better chance than we’ve got right now,” he
remonstrated.

“It may seem so to you. But I KNOW. I haven’t watched these ruffians for
nothing. I tell you Gulden has split with Kells because of me. I don’t
know how I know. And I think I’d die of terror out on the trail with two
hundred miles to go--and that gorilla after me.”

“But, Joan, if we once got away Gulden would never take you alive,” said
Jim, earnestly. “So you needn’t fear that.”

“I’ve uncanny horror of him. It’s as if he were a gorilla--and would
take me off even if I were dead!... No, Jim, let us wait. Let me select
the time. I can do it. Trust me. Oh, Jim, now that I’ve saved you
from being a bandit, I can do anything. I can fool Kells or Pearce or
Wood--any of them, except Gulden.”

“If Kells had to choose now between trailing you and rushing for the
gold-camp, which would he do?”

“He’d trail me,” she said.

“But Kells is crazy over gold. He has two passions. To steal gold, and
to gamble with it.”

“That may be. But he’d go after me first. So would Gulden. We can’t ride
these hills as they do. We don’t know the trails--the water. We’d get
lost. We’d be caught. And somehow I know that Gulden and his gang would
find us first.”

“You’re probably right, Joan,” replied Cleve. “But you condemn me to a
living death.... To let you out of my sight with Kells or any of them!
It’ll be worse almost than my life was before.”

“But, Jim, I’ll be safe,” she entreated. “It’s the better choice of two
evils. Our lives depend on reason, waiting, planning. And, Jim, I want
to live for you.”

“My brave darling, to hear you say that!” he exclaimed, with deep
emotion. “When I never expected to see you again!... But the past is
past. I begin over from this hour. I’ll be what you want--do what you
want.”

Joan seemed irresistibly drawn to him again, and the supplication, as
she lifted her blushing face, and the yielding, were perilously sweet.

“Jim, kiss me and hold me--the way--you did that night!”

And it was not Joan who first broke that embrace.

“Find my mask,” she said.

Cleve picked up his gun and presently the piece of black felt. He held
it as if it were a deadly thing.

“Put it on me.”

He slipped the cord over her head and adjusted the mask so the holes
came right for her eyes.

“Joan, it hides the--the GOODNESS of you,” he cried. “No one can see
your eyes now. No one will look at your face. That rig shows your--shows
you off so! It’s not decent.... But, O Lord! I’m bound to confess how
pretty, how devilish, how seductive you are! And I hate it.”

“Jim, I hate it, too. But we must stand it. Try not to shame me any
more.... And now good-by. Keep watch for me--as I will for you--all the
time.”

Joan broke from him and glided out of the grove, away under the
straggling pines, along the slope. She came upon her horse and she led
him back to the corral. Many of the horses had strayed. There was no one
at the cabin, but she saw men striding up the slope, Kells in the lead.
She had been fortunate. Her absence could hardly have been noted. She
had just strength left to get to her room, where she fell upon the bed,
weak and trembling and dizzy and unutterably grateful at her deliverance
from the hateful, unbearable falsity of her situation.



13

It was afternoon before Joan could trust herself sufficiently to go out
again, and when she did she saw that she attracted very little attention
from the bandits.

Kells had a springy step, a bright eye, a lifted head, and he seemed to
be listening. Perhaps he was--to the music of his sordid dreams.
Joan watched him sometimes with wonder. Even a bandit--plotting gold
robberies, with violence and blood merely means to an end--built castles
in the air and lived with joy!

All that afternoon the bandits left camp in twos and threes, each party
with pack burros and horses, packed as Joan had not seen them before on
the border. Shovels and picks and old sieves and pans, these swinging or
tied in prominent places, were evidence that the bandits meant to assume
the characters of miners and prospectors. They whistled and sang. It was
a lark. The excitement had subsided and the action begun. Only in Kells,
under his radiance, could be felt the dark and sinister plot. He was the
heart of the machine.

By sundown Kells, Pearce, Wood, Jim Cleve, and a robust, grizzled
bandit, Jesse Smith, were left in camp. Smith was lame from his ride,
and Joan gathered that Kells would have left camp but for the fact that
Smith needed rest. He and Kells were together all the time, talking
endlessly. Joan heard them argue a disputed point--would the men abide
by Kells’s plan and go by twos and threes into the gold-camp, and hide
their relations as a larger band? Kells contended they would and Smith
had his doubts.

“Jack, wait till you see Alder Creek!” ejaculated Smith, wagging his
grizzled head. “Three thousand men, old an’ young, of all kinds--gone
gold--crazy! Alder Creek has got California’s ‘49 and’ ‘51 cinched to
the last hole!” And the bandit leader rubbed his palms in great glee.

That evening they all had supper together in Kell’s cabin. Bate Wood
grumbled because he had packed most of his outfit. It so chanced that
Joan sat directly opposite Jim Cleve, and while he ate he pressed her
foot with his under the table. The touch thrilled Joan. Jim did not
glance at her, but there was such a change in him that she feared it
might rouse Kells’s curiosity. This night, however, the bandit could not
have seen anything except a gleam of yellow. He talked, he sat at table,
but did not eat. After supper he sent Joan to her cabin, saying they
would be on the trail at daylight. Joan watched them awhile from
her covert. They had evidently talked themselves out, and Kells grew
thoughtful. Smith and Pearce went outside, apparently to roll their beds
on the ground under the porch roof. Wood, who said he was never a good
sleeper, smoked his pipe. And Jim Cleve spread blankets along the wall
in the shadow and and lay down. Joan could see his eyes shining toward
the door. Of course he was thinking of her. But could he see her eyes?
Watching her chance, she slipped a hand from behind the curtain, and she
knew Cleve saw it. What a comfort that was! Joan’s heart swelled. All
might yet be well. Jim Cleve would be near her while she slept. She
could sleep now without those dark dreams--without dreading to awaken to
the light. Again she saw Kells pacing the room, silent, bent, absorbed,
hands behind his back, weighted with his burden. It was impossible not
to feel sorry for him. With all his intelligence and cunning power,
his cause was hopeless. Joan knew that as she knew so many other things
without understanding why. She had not yet sounded Jesse Smith, but not
a man of all the others was true to Kells. They would be of his Border
Legion, do his bidding, revel in their ill-gotten gains, and then, when
he needed them most, be false to him.

When Joan was awakened her room was shrouded in gray gloom. A bustle
sound from the big cabin, and outside horses stamped and men talked.

She sat alone at breakfast and ate by lantern-light. It was necessary
to take a lantern back to her cabin, and she was so long in her
preparations there that Kells called again. Somehow she did not want to
leave this cabin. It seemed protective and private, and she feared she
might not find such quarters again. Besides, upon the moment of leaving
she discovered that she had grown attached to the place where she had
suffered and thought and grown so much.

Kells had put out the lights. Joan hurried through the cabin and
outside. The gray obscurity had given way to dawn. The air was cold,
sweet, bracing with the touch of mountain purity in it. The men, except
Kells, were all mounted, and the pack-train was in motion. Kells dragged
the rude door into position, and then, mounting, he called to Joan to
follow. She trotted her horse after him, down the slope, across the
brook and through the wet willows, and out upon the wide trail. She
glanced ahead, discerning that the third man from her was Jim Cleve; and
that fact, in the start for Alder Creek, made all the difference in the
world.

When they rode out of the narrow defile into the valley the sun was
rising red and bright in a notch of the mountains. Clouds hung over
distant peaks, and the patches of snow in the high canons shone blue and
pink. Smith in the lead turned westward up the valley. Horses trooped
after the cavalcade and had to be driven back. There were also cattle in
the valley, and all these Kells left behind like an honest rancher
who had no fear for his stock. Deer stood off with long ears pointed
forward, watching the horses go by. There were flocks of quail, and
whirring grouse, and bounding jack-rabbits, and occasionally a brace
of sneaking coyotes. These and the wild flowers, and the waving
meadow-grass, the yellow-stemmed willows, and the patches of alder, all
were pleasurable to Joan’s eyes and restful to her mind.

Smith soon led away from this valley up out of the head of a ravine,
across a rough rock-strewn ridge, down again into a hollow that grew to
be a canon. The trail was bad. Part of the time it was the bottom of a
boulder-strewn brook where the horses slipped on the wet, round stones.
Progress was slow and time passed. For Joan, however, it was a relief;
and the slower they might travel the better she would like it. At the
end of that journey there were Gulden and the others, and the gold-camp
with its illimitable possibilities for such men.

At noon the party halted for a rest. The camp site was pleasant and the
men were all agreeable. During the meal Kells found occasion to remark
to Cleve:

“Say youngster, you’ve brightened up. Must be because of our prospects
over here.”

“Not that so much,” replied Cleve. “I quit the whisky. To be honest,
Kells, I was almost seeing snakes.”

“I’m glad you quit. When you’re drinking you’re wild. I never yet saw
the man who could drink hard and keep his head. I can’t. But I don’t
drink much.”

His last remark brought a response in laughter. Evidently his companions
thought he was joking. He laughed himself and actually winked at Joan.

It happened to be Cleve whom Kells told to saddle Joan’s horse, and as
Joan tried the cinches, to see if they were too tight to suit her, Jim’s
hand came in contact with hers. That touch was like a message. Joan was
thrilling all over as she looked at Jim, but he kept his face averted.
Perhaps he did not trust his eyes.

Travel was resumed up the canon and continued steadily, though
leisurely. But the trail was so rough, and so winding, that Joan
believed the progress did not exceed three miles an hour. It was the
kind of travel in which a horse could be helped and that entailed
attention to the lay of the ground. Before Joan realized the hours were
flying, the afternoon had waned. Smith kept on, however, until nearly
dark before halting for camp.

The evening camp was a scene of activity, and all except Joan had work
to do. She tried to lend a hand, but Wood told her to rest. This she was
glad to do. When called to supper she had almost fallen asleep. After
a long day’s ride the business of eating precluded conversation. Later,
however, the men began to talk between puffs on their pipes, and from
the talk no one could have guessed that here was a band of robbers
on their way to a gold camp. Jesse Smith had a sore foot and he was
compared to a tenderfoot on his first ride. Smith retaliated in kind.
Every consideration was shown Joan, and Wood particularly appeared
assiduous in his desire for her comfort. All the men except Cleve paid
her some kind attention; and he, of course, neglected her because he was
afraid to go near her. Again she felt in Red Pearce a condemnation of
the bandit leader who was dragging a girl over hard trails, making her
sleep in the open, exposing her to danger and to men like himself and
Gulden. In his own estimate Pearce, like every one of his kind, was not
so slow as the others.

Joan watched and listened from her blankets, under a leafy tree, some
few yards from the camp-fire. Once Kells turned to see how far distant
she was, and then, lowering his voice, he told a story. The others
laughed. Pearce followed with another, and he, too, took care that Joan
could not hear. They grew closer for the mirth, and Smith, who evidently
was a jolly fellow, set them to roaring. Jim Cleve laughed with them.

“Say, Jim, you’re getting over it,” remarked Kells.

“Over what?”

Kells paused, rather embarrassed for a reply, as evidently in the humor
of the hour he had spoken a thought better left unsaid. But there was no
more forbidding atmosphere about Cleve. He appeared to have rounded to
good-fellowship after a moody and quarrelsome drinking spell.

“Why, over what drove you out here--and gave me a lucky chance at you,”
 replied Kells, with a constrained laugh.

“Oh, you mean the girl?... Sure, I’m getting over that, except when I
drink.”

“Tell us, Jim,” said Kells, curiously.

“Aw, you’ll give me the laugh!” retorted Cleve.

“No, we won’t unless your story’s funny.”

“You can gamble it wasn’t funny,” put in Red Pearce.

They all coaxed him, yet none of them, except Kells, was particularly
curious; it was just that hour when men of their ilk were lazy and
comfortable and full fed and good-humored round the warm, blazing
camp-fire.

“All right,” replied Cleve, and apparently, for all his complaisance, a
call upon memory had its pain. “I’m from Montana. Range-rider in winter
and in summer I prospected. Saved quite a little money, in spite of a
fling now and then at faro and whisky.... Yes, there was a girl, I guess
yes. She was pretty. I had a bad case over her. Not long ago I left all
I had--money and gold and things--in her keeping, and I went prospecting
again. We were to get married on my return. I stayed out six months, did
well, and got robbed of all my dust.”

Cleve was telling this fabrication in a matter-of-fact way, growing a
little less frank as he proceeded, and he paused while he lifted sand
and let it drift through his fingers, watching it curiously. All the men
were interested and Kells hung on every word.

“When I got back,” went on Cleve, “my girl had married another fellow.
She’d given him all I left with her. Then I got drunk. While I was drunk
they put up a job on me. It was her word that disgraced me and run me
out of town.... So I struck west and drifted to the border.”

“That’s not all,” said Kells, bluntly.

“Jim, I reckon you ain’t tellin’ what you did to thet lyin’ girl an’ the
feller. How’d you leave them?” added Pearce.

But Cleve appeared to become gloomy and reticent.

“Wimmen can hand the double-cross to a man, hey, Kells?” queried Smith,
with a broad grin.

“By gosh! I thought you’d been treated powerful mean!” exclaimed Bate
Wood, and he was full of wrath.

“A treacherous woman!” exclaimed Kells, passionately. He had taken
Cleve’s story hard. The man must have been betrayed by women, and
Cleve’s story had irritated old wounds.

Directly Kells left the fire and repaired to his blankets, near where
Joan lay. Probably he believed her asleep, for he neither looked nor
spoke. Cleve sought his bed, and likewise Wood and Smith. Pearce was the
last to leave, and as he stood up the light fell upon his red face, lean
and bold like an Indian’s. Then he passed Joan, looking down upon her
and then upon the recumbent figure of Kells; and if his glance was not
baleful and malignant, as it swept over the bandit, Joan believed her
imagination must be vividly weird, and running away with her judgment.

The next morning began a day of toil. They had to climb over the
mountain divide, a long, flat-topped range of broken rocks. Joan spared
her horse to the limit of her own endurance. If there were a trail Smith
alone knew it, for none was in evidence to the others. They climbed out
of the notched head of the canon, and up a long slope of weathered shale
that let the horses slide back a foot for every yard gained, and through
a labyrinth of broken cliffs, and over bench and ridge to the height of
the divide. From there Joan had a magnificent view. Foot-hills rolled
round heads below, and miles away, in a curve of the range, glistened
Bear Lake. The rest here at this height was counteracted by the fact
that the altitude affected Joan. She was glad to be on the move again,
and now the travel was downhill, so that she could ride. Still it was
difficult, for horses were more easily lamed in a descent. It took
two hours to descend the distance that had consumed all the morning to
ascend. Smith led through valley after valley between foot-hills, and
late in the afternoon halted by a spring in a timbered spot.

Joan ached in every muscle and she was too tired to care what happened
round the camp-fire. Jim had been close to her all day and that had kept
up her spirit. It was not yet dark when she lay down for the night.

“Sleep well, Dandy Dale,” said Kells, cheerfully, yet not without
pathos. “Alder Creek to-morrow!... Then you’ll never sleep again!”

At times she seemed to feel that he regretted her presence, and always
this fancy came to her with mocking or bantering suggestion that the
costume and mask she wore made her a bandit’s consort, and she could not
escape the wildness of this gold-seeking life. The truth was that Kells
saw the insuperable barrier between them, and in the bitterness of his
love he lied to himself, and hated himself for the lie.

About the middle of the afternoon of the next day the tired cavalcade
rode down out of the brush and rock into a new, broad, dusty road. It
was so new that the stems of the cut brush along the borders were still
white. But that road had been traveled by a multitude.

Out across the valley in the rear Joan saw a canvas-topped wagon, and
she had not ridden far on the road when she saw a bobbing pack-burros to
the fore. Kells had called Wood and Smith and Pearce and Cleve together,
and now they went on in a bunch, all driving the pack-train. Excitement
again claimed Kells; Pearce was alert and hawk-eyed; Smith looked like a
hound on a scent; Cleve showed genuine feeling. Only Bate Wood remained
proof to the meaning of that broad road.

All along, on either side, Joan saw wrecks of wagons, wheels, harness,
boxes, old rags of tents blown into the brush, dead mules and burros.
It seemed almost as if an army had passed that way. Presently the road
crossed a wide, shallow brook of water, half clear and half muddy; and
on the other side the road followed the course of the brook. Joan heard
Smith call the stream Alder Creek, and he asked Kells if he knew what
muddied water meant. The bandit’s eyes flashed fire. Joan thrilled, for
she, too, knew that up-stream there were miners washing earth for gold.

A couple of miles farther on creek and road entered the mouth of a wide
spruce-timbered gulch. These trees hid any view of the slopes or floor
of the gulch, and it was not till several more miles had been passed
that the bandit rode out into what Joan first thought was a hideous
slash in the forest made by fire. But it was only the devastation
wrought by men. As far as she could see the timber was down, and
everywhere began to be manifested signs that led her to expect
habitations. No cabins showed, however, in the next mile. They passed
out of the timbered part of the gulch into one of rugged, bare, and
stony slopes, with bunches of sparse alder here and there. The gulch
turned at right angles and a great gray slope shut out sight of what
lay beyond. But, once round that obstruction, Kells halted his men with
short, tense exclamation.

Joan saw that she stood high up on the slope, looking down upon the
gold-camp. It was an interesting scene, but not beautiful. To Kells it
must have been so, but to Joan it was even more hideous than the slash
in the forest. Here and there, everywhere, were rude dugouts, little
huts of brush, an occasional tent, and an occasional log cabin; and
as she looked farther and farther these crude habitations of miners
magnified in number and in dimensions till the white and black broken,
mass of the town choked the narrow gulch.

“Wal, boss, what do you say to thet diggin’s?” demanded Jesse Smith.

Kells drew a deep breath. “Old forty-niner, this beats all I ever saw!”

“Shore I’ve seen Sacramento look like thet!” added Bate Wood.

Pearce and Cleve gazed with fixed eyes, and, however different their
emotions, they rivaled each other in attention.

“Jesse, what’s the word?” queried Kells, with a sharp return to the
business of the matter.

“I’ve picked a site on the other side of camp. Best fer us,” he replied.

“Shall we keep to the road?”

“Certain-lee,” he returned, with his grin.

Kells hesitated, and felt of his beard, probably conjecturing the
possibilities of recognition.

“Whiskers make another man of you. Reckon you needn’t expect to be known
over here.”

That decided Kells. He pulled his sombrero well down, shadowing his
face. Then he remembered Joan and made a slight significant gesture at
her mask.

“Kells, the people in this here camp wouldn’t look at an army ridin’
through,” responded Smith. “It’s every man fer hisself. An’ wimmen, say!
there’s all kinds. I seen a dozen with veils, an’ them’s the same
as masks.” Nevertheless, Kells had Joan remove the mask and pull her
sombrero down, and instructed her to ride in the midst of the group.
Then they trotted on, soon catching up with the jogging pack-train.

What a strange ride that was for Joan! The slope resembled a magnified
ant-hill with a horde of frantic ants in action. As she drew closer she
saw these ants were men, digging for gold. Those near at hand could be
plainly seen--rough, ragged, bearded men and smooth-faced boys. Farther
on and up the slope, along the waterways and ravines, were miners so
close they seemed almost to interfere with one another. The creek
bottom was alive with busy, silent, violent men, bending over the water,
washing and shaking and paddling, all desperately intent upon something.
They had not time to look up. They were ragged, unkempt, barearmed and
bare-legged, every last one of them with back bent. For a mile or more
Kells’s party trotted through this part of the diggings, and everywhere,
on rocky bench and gravel bar and gray slope, were holes with men
picking and shoveling in them. Some were deep and some were shallow;
some long trenches and others mere pits. If all of these prospectors
were finding gold, then gold was everywhere. And presently Joan did not
need to have Kells tell her that all of these diggers were finding dust.
How silent they were--how tense! They were not mechanical. It was a soul
that drove them. Joan had seen many men dig for gold, and find a little
now and then, but she had never seen men dig when they knew they were
going to strike gold. That made the strange difference.

Joan calculated she must have seen a thousand miners in less than two
miles of the gulch, and then she could not see up the draws and washes
that intersected the slope, and she could not see beyond the camp.

But it was not a camp which she was entering; it was a tent-walled
town, a city of squat log cabins, a long, motley, checkered jumble of
structures thrown up and together in mad haste. The wide road split it
in the middle and seemed a stream of color and life. Joan rode
between two lines of horses, burros, oxen, mules, packs and loads and
canvas-domed wagons and gaudy vehicles resembling gipsy caravans. The
street was as busy as a beehive and as noisy as a bedlam. The sidewalks
were rough-hewn planks and they rattled under the tread of booted men.
There were tents on the ground and tents on floors and tents on log
walls. And farther on began the lines of cabins-stores and shops and
saloons--and then a great, square, flat structure with a flaring sign in
crude gold letters, “Last Nugget,” from which came the creak of iddles
and scrape of boots, and hoarse mirth. Joan saw strange, wild-looking
creatures--women that made her shrink; and several others of her sex,
hurrying along, carrying sacks or buckets, worn and bewildered-looking
women, the sight of whom gave her a pang. She saw lounging Indians and
groups of lazy, bearded men, just like Kells’s band, and gamblers in
long, black coats, and frontiersmen in fringed buckskin, and Mexicans
with swarthy faces under wide, peaked sombreros; and then in great
majority, dominating that stream of life, the lean and stalwart miners,
of all ages, in their check shirts and high boots, all packing guns,
jostling along, dark-browed, somber, and intent. These last were the
workers of this vast beehive; the others were the drones, the parasites.

Kell’s party rode on through the town, and Smith halted them beyond the
outskirts, near a grove of spruce-trees, where camp was to be made.

Joan pondered over her impression of Alder Creek. It was confused; she
had seen too much. But out of what she had seen and heard loomed two
contrasting features: a throng of toiling miners, slaves to their lust
for gold and actuated by ambitions, hopes, and aims, honest, rugged,
tireless workers, but frenzied in that strange pursuit; and a lesser
crowd, like leeches, living for and off the gold they did not dig with
blood of hand and sweat of brow.

Manifestly Jesse Smith had selected the spot for Kells’s permanent
location at Alder Creek with an eye for the bandit’s peculiar needs. It
was out of sight of town, yet within a hundred rods of the nearest huts,
and closer than that to a sawmill. It could be approached by a shallow
ravine that wound away toward the creek. It was backed up against a
rugged bluff in which there was a narrow gorge, choked with pieces of
weathered cliff; and no doubt the bandits could go and come in that
direction. There was a spring near at hand and a grove of spruce-trees.
The ground was rocky, and apparently unfit for the digging of gold.

While Bate Wood began preparations for supper, and Cleve built the fire,
and Smith looked after the horses, Kells and Pearce stepped off the
ground where the cabin was to be erected. They selected a level bench
down upon which a huge cracked rock, as large as a house, had rolled.
The cabin was to be backed up against this stone, and in the rear, under
cover of it, a secret exit could be made and hidden. The bandit wanted
two holes to his burrow.

When the group sat down to the meal the gulch was full of sunset colors.
And, strangely, they were all some shade of gold. Beautiful golden
veils, misty, ethereal, shone in rays across the gulch from the broken
ramparts; and they seemed so brilliant, so rich, prophetic of the
treasures of the hills. But that golden sunset changed. The sun went
down red, leaving a sinister shadow over the gulch, growing darker and
darker. Joan saw Cleve thoughtfully watching this transformation, and
she wondered if he had caught the subtle mood of nature. For whatever
had been the hope and brightness, the golden glory of this new Eldorado,
this sudden uprising Alder Creek with its horde of brave and toiling
miners, the truth was that Jack Kells and Gulden had ridden into the
camp and the sun had gone down red. Joan knew that great mining-camps
were always happy, rich, free, lucky, honest places till the fame of
gold brought evil men. And she had not the slightest doubt that the sun
of Alder Creek’s brief and glad day had set forever.

Twilight was stealing down from the hills when Kells announced to his
party: “Bate, you and Jesse keep camp. Pearce, you look out for any of
the gang. But meet in the dark!... Cleve, you can go with me.” Then he
turned to Joan. “Do you want to go with us to see the sights or would
you rather stay here?”

“I’d like to go, if only I didn’t look so--so dreadful in this suit,”
 she replied.

Kells laughed, and the camp-fire glare lighted the smiling faces of
Pearce and Smith.

“Why, you’ll not be seen. And you look far from dreadful.”

“Can’t you give me a--a longer coat?” faltered Joan.

Cleve heard, and without speaking he went to his saddle and unrolled his
pack. Inside a slicker he had a gray coat. Joan had seen it many a time,
and it brought a pang with memories of Hoadley. Had that been years ago?
Cleve handed this coat to Joan.

“Thank you,” she said.

Kells held the coat for her and she slipped into it. She seemed lost. It
was long, coming way below her hips, and for the first time in days she
felt she was Joan Randle again.

“Modesty is all very well in a woman, but it’s not always
becoming,” remarked Kells. “Turn up your collar.... Pull down your
hat--farther--There! If you won’t go as a youngster now I’ll eat Dandy
Dale’s outfit and get you silk dresses. Ha-ha!”

Joan was not deceived by his humor. He might like to look at her in
that outrageous bandit costume; it might have pleased certain vain
and notoriety-seeking proclivities of his, habits of his California
road-agent days; but she felt that notwithstanding this, once she had
donned the long coat he was relieved and glad in spite of himself. Joan
had a little rush of feeling. Sometimes she almost liked this bandit.
Once he must have been something very different.

They set out, Joan between Kells and Cleve. How strange for her! She
had daring enough to feel for Jim’s hand in the dark and to give it a
squeeze. Then he nearly broke her fingers. She felt the fire in him. It
was indeed a hard situation for him. The walking was rough, owing to the
uneven road and the stones. Several times Joan stumbled and her spurs
jangled. They passed ruddy camp-fires, where steam and smoke arose with
savory odors, where red-faced men were eating; and they passed other
camp-fires, burned out and smoldering. Some tents had dim lights,
throwing shadows on the canvas, and others were dark. There were men on
the road, all headed for town, gay, noisy and profane.

Then Joan saw uneven rows of lights, some dim and some bright, and
crossing before them were moving dark figures. Again Kells bethought
himself of his own disguise, and buried his chin in his scarf and pulled
his wide-brimmed hat down so that hardly a glimpse of his face could be
seen. Joan could not have recognized him at the distance of a yard.

They walked down the middle of the road, past the noisy saloons,
past the big, flat structure with its sign “Last Nugget” and its open
windows, where shafts of light shone forth, and all the way down to the
end of town. Then Kells turned back. He scrutinized each group of men he
met. He was looking for members of his Border Legion. Several times he
left Cleve and Joan standing in the road while he peered into saloons.
At these brief intervals Joan looked at Cleve with all her heart in her
eyes. He never spoke. He seemed under a strain. Upon the return, when
they reached the Last Nugget, Kells said:

“Jim, hang on to her like grim death! She’s worth more than all the gold
in Alder Creek!”

Then they started for the door.

Joan clung to Cleve on one side, and on the other, instinctively with a
frightened girl’s action, she let go Kells’s arm and slipped her hand in
his. He seemed startled. He bent to her ear, for the din made ordinary
talk indistinguishable. That involuntary hand in his evidently had
pleased and touched him, even hurt him, for his whisper was husky.

“It’s all right--you’re perfectly safe.”

First Joan made out a glare of smoky lamps, a huge place full of smoke
and men and sounds. Kells led the way slowly. He had his own reason for
observance. There was a stench that sickened Joan--a blended odor of
tobacco and rum and wet sawdust and smoking oil. There was a noise that
appeared almost deafening--the loud talk and vacant laughter of drinking
men, and a din of creaky fiddles and scraping boots and boisterous
mirth. This last and dominating sound came from an adjoining room, which
Joan could see through a wide opening. There was dancing, but Joan could
not see the dancers because of the intervening crowd. Then her gaze came
back to the features nearer at hand. Men and youths were lined up to a
long bar nearly as high as her head. Then there were excited shouting
groups round gambling games. There were men in clusters, sitting on
upturned kegs, round a box for a table, and dirty bags of gold-dust were
in evidence. The gamblers at the cards were silent, in strange contrast
with the others; and in each group was at least one dark-garbed,
hard-eyed gambler who was not a miner. Joan saw boys not yet of age,
flushed and haggard, wild with the frenzy of winning and cast down in
defeat. There were jovial, grizzled, old prospectors to whom this
scene and company were pleasant reminders of bygone days. There were
desperados whose glittering eyes showed they had no gold with which to
gamble.

Joan suddenly felt Kells start and she believed she heard a low, hissing
exclamation. And she looked for the cause. Then she saw familiar dark
faces; they belonged to men of Kells’s Legion. And with his broad back
to her there sat the giant Gulden. Already he and his allies had gotten
together in defiance of or indifference to Kells’s orders. Some of them
were already under the influence of drink, but, though they saw Kells,
they gave no sign of recognition. Gulden did not see Joan, and for that
she was thankful. And whether or not his presence caused it, the fact
was that she suddenly felt as much of a captive as she had in Cabin
Gulch, and feared that here escape would be harder because in a
community like this Kells would watch her closely.

Kells led Joan and Cleve from one part of the smoky hall to another, and
they looked on at the games and the strange raw life manifested there.
The place was getting packed with men. Kells’s party encountered Blicky
and Beady Jones together. They passed by as strangers. Then Joan saw
Beard and Chick Williams arm in arm, strolling about, like roystering
miners. Williams telegraphed a keen, fleeting glance at Kells, then went
on, to be lost in the crowd. Handy Oliver brushed by Kells, jostled him,
apparently by accident, and he said, “Excuse me, mister!” There were
other familiar faces. Kells’s gang were all in Alder Creek and the dark
machinations of the bandit leader had been put into operation.
What struck Joan forcibly was that, though there were hilarity and
comradeship, they were not manifested in any general way. These miners
were strangers to one another; the groups were strangers; the gamblers
were strangers; the newcomers were strangers; and over all hung an
atmosphere of distrust. Good fellowship abided only in the many small
companies of men who stuck together. The mining-camps that Joan had
visited had been composed of an assortment of prospectors and hunters
who made one big, jolly family. This was a gold strike, and the
difference was obvious. The hunting for gold was one thing, in its
relation to the searchers; after it had been found, in a rich field,
the conditions of life and character changed. Gold had always seemed
wonderful and beautiful to Joan; she absorbed here something that was
the nucleus of hate. Why could not these miners, young and old, stay in
their camps and keep their gold? That was the fatality. The pursuit
was a dream--a glittering allurement; the possession incited a lust for
more, and that was madness. Joan felt that in these reckless, honest
miners there was a liberation of the same wild element which was the
driving passion of Kells’s Border Legion. Gold, then, was a terrible
thing.

“Take me in there,” said Joan, conscious of her own excitement, and she
indicated the dance-hall.

Kells laughed as if at her audacity. But he appeared reluctant.

“Please take me--unless--” Joan did not know what to add, but she meant
unless it was not right for her to see any more. A strange curiosity
had stirred in her. After all, this place where she now stood was not
greatly different from the picture imagination had conjured up. That
dance-hall, however, was beyond any creation of Joan’s mind.

“Let me have a look first,” said Kells, and he left Joan with Cleve.

When he had gone Joan spoke without looking at Cleve, though she held
fast to his arm.

“Jim, it could be dreadful here--all in a minute!” she whispered.

“You’ve struck it exactly,” he replied. “All Alder Creek needed to make
it hell was Kells and his gang.”

“Thank Heaven I turned you back in time!... Jim, you’d have--have gone
the pace here.”

He nodded grimly. Then Kells returned and led them back through the room
to another door where spectators were fewer. Joan saw perhaps a dozen
couples of rough, whirling, jigging dancers in a half-circle of watching
men. The hall was a wide platform of boards with posts holding a canvas
roof. The sides, were open; the lights were situated at each end-huge,
round, circus tent lamps. There were rude benches and tables where
reeling men surrounded a woman. Joan saw a young miner in dusty boots
and corduroys lying drunk or dead in the sawdust. Her eyes were drawn
back to the dancers, and to the dance that bore some semblance to a
waltz. In the din the music could scarcely be heard. As far as the
men were concerned this dance was a bold and violent expression of
excitement on the part of some, and for the rest a drunken, mad fling.
Sight of the women gave Joan’s curiosity a blunt check. She felt queer.
She had not seen women like these, and their dancing, their actions,
their looks, were beyond her understanding. Nevertheless, they shocked
her, disgusted her, sickened her. And suddenly when it dawned upon her
in unbelievable vivid suggestion that they were the wildest and most
terrible element of this dark stream of humanity lured by gold, then she
was appalled.

“Take me out of here!” she besought Kells, and he led her out instantly.
They went through the gambling-hall and into the crowded street, back
toward camp.

“You saw enough,” said Kells, “but nothing to what will break out by and
by. This camp is new. It’s rich. Gold is the cheapest thing. It passes
from hand to hand. Ten dollars an ounce. Buyers don’t look at the
scales. Only the gamblers are crooked. But all this will change.”

Kells did not say what that change might be, but the click of his teeth
was expressive. Joan did not, however, gather from it, and the dark
meaning of his tone, that the Border Legion would cause this change.
That was in the nature of events. A great strike of gold might enrich
the world, but it was a catastrophe.

Long into the night Joan lay awake, and at times, stirring the silence,
there was wafted to her on a breeze the low, strange murmur of the
gold-camp’s strife.

Joan slept late next morning, and was awakened by the unloading of
lumber. Teams were drawing planks from the sawmill. Already a skeleton
framework for Kells’s cabin had been erected. Jim Cleve was working with
the others, and they were sacrificing thoroughness to haste. Joan had
to cook her own breakfast, which task was welcome, and after it had been
finished she wished for something more to occupy her mind. But nothing
offered. Finding a comfortable seat among some rocks where she would be
inconspicuous, she looked on at the building of Kells’s cabin. It seemed
strange, and somehow comforting, to watch Jim Cleve work. He had never
been a great worker. Would this experience on the border make a man of
him? She felt assured of that.

If ever a cabin sprang up like a mushroom, that bandit rendezvous was
the one. Kells worked himself, and appeared no mean hand. By noon the
roof of clapboards was on, and the siding of the same material had been
started. Evidently there was not to a be a fireplace inside.

Then a teamster drove up with a wagon-load of purchases Kells had
ordered. Kells helped unload this and evidently was in search of
articles. Presently he found them, and then approached Joan, to deposit
before her an assortment of bundles little and big.

“There Miss Modestly,” he said. “Make yourself some clothes. You can
shake Dandy Dale’s outfit, except when we’re on the trail.... And, say,
if you knew what I had to pay for this stuff you’d think there was a
bigger robber in Alder Creek than Jack Kells.... And, come to think of
it, my name’s now Blight. You’re my daughter, if any one asks.” Joan was
so grateful to him for the goods and the permission to get out of Dandy
Dale’s suit as soon as possible, that she could only smile her thanks.
Kells stared at her, then turned abruptly away. Those little unconscious
acts of hers seemed to affect him strangely. Joan remembered that he
had intended to parade her in Dandy Dale’s costume to gratify some vain
abnormal side of his bandit’s proclivities. He had weakened. Here was
another subtle indication of the deterioration of the evil of him. How
far would it go? Joan thought dreamily, and with a swelling heart, of
her influence upon this hardened bandit, upon that wild boy, Jim Cleve.

All that afternoon, and part of the evening in the campfire light, and
all of the next day Joan sewed, so busy that she scarcely lifted her
eyes from her work. The following day she finished her dress, and with
no little pride, for she had both taste and skill. Of the men, Bate Wood
had been most interested in her task; and he would let things burn on
the fire to watch her.

That day the rude cabin was completed. It contained one long room; and
at the back a small compartment partitioned off from the rest, and built
against and around a shallow cavern in the huge rock. This compartment
was for Joan. There were a rude board door with padlock and key, a bench
upon which blankets had been flung, a small square hole cut in the wall
to serve as a window. What with her own few belongings and the articles
of furniture that Kells bought for her, Joan soon had a comfortable
room, even a luxury compared to what she had been used to for weeks.
Certain it was that Kells meant to keep her a prisoner, or virtually
so. Joan had no sooner spied the little window than she thought that it
would be possible for Jim Cleve to talk to her there from the outside.

Kells verified Joan’s suspicion by telling her that she was not to leave
the cabin of her own accord, as she had been permitted to do back in
Cabin Gulch; and Joan retorted that there she had made him a promise not
to run away, which promise she now took back. That promise had worried
her. She was glad to be honest with Kells. He gazed at her somberly.

“You’ll be worse off it you do--and I’ll be better off,” he said. And
then as an afterthought he added: “Gulden might not think you--a white
elephant on his hands!... Remember his way, the cave and the rope!”

So, instinctively or cruelly he chose the right name to bring shuddering
terror into Joan’s soul.



14

Joan’s opportunity for watching Kells and his men and overhearing
their colloquies was as good as it had been back in Cabin Gulch. But it
developed that where Kells had been open and frank he now became secret
and cautious. She was aware that men, singly and in couples, visited him
during the early hours of the night, and they had conferences in low,
earnest tones. She could peer out of her little window and see dark,
silent forms come up from the ravine at the back of the cabin, and leave
the same way. None of them went round to the front door, where Bate
Wood smoked and kept guard. Joan was able to hear only scraps of these
earnest talks; and from part of one she gathered that for some reason
or other Kells desired to bring himself into notice. Alder Creek must
be made to know that a man of importance had arrived. It seemed to
Joan that this was the very last thing which Kells ought to do.
What magnificent daring the bandit had! Famous years before in
California--with a price set upon his life in Nevada--and now the noted,
if unknown, leader of border robbers in Idaho, he sought to make himself
prominent, respected, and powerful. Joan found that in spite of her
horror at the sinister and deadly nature of the bandit’s enterprise she
could not avoid an absorbing interest in his fortunes.

Next day Joan watched for an opportunity to tell Jim Cleve that he might
come to her little window any time after dark to talk and plan with her.
No chance presented itself. Joan wore the dress she had made, to the
evident pleasure of Bate Wood and Pearce. They had conceived as strong
an interest in her fortunes as she had in Kells’s. Wood nodded his
approval and Pearce said she was a lady once more. Strange it was to
Joan that this villain Pearce, whom she could not have dared trust, grew
open in his insinuating hints of Kells’s blackguardism. Strange because
Pearce was absolutely sincere!

When Jim Cleve did see Joan in her dress the first time he appeared so
glad and relieved and grateful that she feared he might betray himself,
so she got out of his sight.

Not long after that Kells called her from her room. He wore his somber
and thoughtful cast of countenance. Red Pearce and Jesse Smith were
standing at attention. Cleve was sitting on the threshold of the door
and Wood leaned against the wall.

“Is there anything in the pack of stuff I bought you that you could use
for a veil?” asked Kells of Joan.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Get it,” he ordered. “And your hat, too.”

Joan went to her room and returned with the designated articles, the hat
being that which she had worn when she left Hoadley.

“That’ll do. Put it on--over your face--and let’s see how you look.”

Joan complied with this request, all the time wondering what Kells
meant.

“I want it to disguise you, but not to hide your youth--your good
looks,” he said, and he arranged it differently about her face.
“There!... You’d sure make any man curious to see you now.... Put on the
hat.”

Joan did so. Then Kells appeared to become more forcible.

“You’re to go down into the town. Walk slow as far as the Last Nugget.
Cross the road and come back. Look at every man you meet or see standing
by. Don’t be in the least frightened. Pearce and Smith will be right
behind you. They’d get to you before anything could happen.... Do you
understand?”

“Yes,” replied Joan.

Red Pearce stirred uneasily. “Jack, I’m thinkin’ some rough talk’ll come
her way,” he said, darkly.

“Will you shut up!” replied Kells in quick passion. He resented some
implication. “I’ve thought of that. She won’t hear what’s said to
her.... Here,” and he turned again to Joan, “take some cotton--or
anything--and stuff up your ears. Make a good job of it.”

Joan went back to her room and, looking about for something with which
to execute Kells’s last order, she stripped some soft, woolly bits from
a fleece-lined piece of cloth. With these she essayed to deaden her
hearing. Then she returned. Kells spoke to her, but, though she seemed
dully to hear his voice, she could not distinguish what he said. She
shook her head. With that Kells waved her out upon her strange errand.

Joan brushed against Cleve as she crossed the threshold. What would he
think of this? She would not see his face. When she reached the first
tents she could not resist the desire to look back. Pearce was within
twenty yards of her and Smith about the same distance farther back. Joan
was more curious than anything else. She divined that Kells wanted her
to attract attention, but for what reason she was at a loss to say. It
was significant that he did not intend to let her suffer any indignity
while fulfilling this mysterious mission.

Not until Joan got well down the road toward the Last Nugget did any one
pay any attention to her. A Mexican jabbered at her, showing his white
teeth, flashing his sloe-black eyes. Young miners eyed her curiously,
and some of them spoke. She met all kinds of men along the plank walk,
most of whom passed by, apparently unobserving. She obeyed Kells to the
letter. But for some reason she was unable to explain, when she got to
the row of saloons, where lounging, evil-eyed rowdies accosted her, she
found she had to disobey him, at least in one particular. She walked
faster. Still that did not make her task much easier. It began to be an
ordeal. The farther she got the bolder men grew. Could it have been that
Kells wanted this sort of thing to happen to her? Joan had no idea what
these men meant, but she believed that was because for the time being
she was deaf. Assuredly their looks were not a compliment to any girl.
Joan wanted to hurry now, and she had to force herself to walk at a
reasonable gait. One persistent fellow walked beside her for several
steps. Joan was not fool enough not to realize now that these wayfarers
wanted to make her acquaintance. And she decided she would have
something to say to Kells when she got back.

Below the Last Nugget she crossed the road and started upon the return
trip. In front of this gambling-hell there were scattered groups of men,
standing, and going in. A tall man in black detached himself and started
out, as if to intercept her. He wore a long black coat, a black bow tie,
and a black sombrero. He had little, hard, piercing eyes, as black as
his dress. He wore gloves and looked immaculate, compared with the
other men. He, too, spoke to Joan, turned to walk with her. She looked
straight ahead now, frightened, and she wanted to run. He kept beside
her, apparently talking. Joan heard only the low sound of his voice.
Then he took her arm, gently, but with familiarity. Joan broke from him
and quickened her pace.

“Say, there! Leave thet girl alone!”

This must have been yelled, for Joan certainly heard it. She recognized
Red Pearce’s voice. And she wheeled to look. Pearce had overhauled the
gambler, and already men were approaching. Involuntarily Joan halted.
What would happen? The gambler spoke to Pearce, made what appeared
deprecating gestures, as if to explain. But Pearce looked angry.

“I’ll tell her daddy!” he shouted.

Joan waited for no more. She almost ran. There would surely be a fight.
Could that have been Kells’s intention? Whatever it was, she had been
subjected to a mortifying and embarrassing affront. She was angry, and
she thought it might be just as well to pretend to be furious. Kells
must not use her for his nefarious schemes. She hurried on, and, to her
surprise, when she got within sight of the cabin both Pearce and Smith
had almost caught up with her. Jim Cleve sat where she had last seen
him. Also Kells was outside. The way he strode to and fro showed Joan
his anxiety. There was more to this incident than she could fathom.
She took the padding from her ears, to her intense relief, and, soon
reaching the cabin, she tore off the veil and confronted Kells.

“Wasn’t that a--a fine thing for you to do?” she demanded, furiously.
And with the outburst she felt her face blazing. “If I’d any idea what
you meant--you couldn’t--have driven me!... I trusted you. And you sent
me down there on some--shameful errand of yours. You’re no gentleman!”

Joan realized that her speech, especially the latter part, was absurd.
But it had a remarkable effect upon Kells. His face actually turned red.
He stammered something and halted, seemingly at a loss for words. How
singularly the slightest hint of any act or word of hers that approached
a possible respect or tolerance worked upon this bandit! He started
toward Joan appealingly, but she passed him in contempt and went to
her room. She heard him cursing Pearce in a rage, evidently blaming his
lieutenant for whatever had angered her.

“But you wanted her insulted!” protested Pearce, hotly.

“You mullet-head!” roared Kells. “I wanted some man--any man--to get
just near enough to her so I could swear she’d been insulted. You let
her go through that camp to meet real insult!... Why--! Pearce, I’ve a
mind to shoot you!”

“Shoot!” retorted Pearce. “I obeyed orders as I saw them.... An’ I want
to say right here thet when it comes to anythin’ concernin’ this girl
you’re plumb off your nut. That’s what. An’ you can like it or lump it!
I said before you’d split over this girl. An’ I say it now!”

Through the door Joan had a glimpse of Cleve stepping between the angry
men. This seemed unnecessary, however, for Pearce’s stinging assertion
had brought Kells to himself. There were a few more words, too low for
Joan’s ears, and then, accompanied by Smith, the three started off,
evidently for the camp. Joan left her room and watched them from the
cabin door. Bate Wood sat outside smoking.

“I’m declarin’ my hand,” he said to Joan, feelingly. “I’d never hev
stood for thet scurvy trick. Now, miss, this’s the toughest camp I ever
seen. I mean tough as to wimmen! For it ain’t begun to fan guns an’
steal gold yet.”

“Why did Kells want me insulted?” asked Joan.

“Wal, he’s got to hev a reason for raisin’ an orful fuss,” replied Wood.

“Fuss?”

“Shore,” replied Wood, dryly.

“What for?”

“Jest so he can walk out on the stage,” rejoined Wood, evasively.

“It’s mighty strange,” said Joan.

“I reckon all about Mr. Kells is some strange these days. Red Pearce had
it correct. Kells is a-goin’ to split on you!”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Wal, he’ll go one way an’ the gang another.”

“Why?” asked Joan, earnestly.

“Miss, there’s some lot of reasons,” said Wood, deliberately. “Fust, he
did for Halloway an’ Bailey, not because they wanted to treat you as he
meant to, but just because he wanted to be alone. We’re all wise thet
you shot him--an’ thet you wasn’t his wife. An’ since then we’ve seen
him gradually lose his nerve. He organized his Legion an’ makes his plan
to run this Alder Creek red. He still hangs on to you. He’d kill any
man thet batted an eye at you.... An’ through all this, because he’s
not Jack Kells of old, he’s lost his pull with the gang. Sooner or later
he’ll split.”

“Have I any real friends among you?” asked Joan.

“Wal, I reckon.”

“Are you my friend, Bate Wood?” she went on in sweet wistfulness.

The grizzled old bandit removed his pipe and looked at her with a glint
in his bloodshot eyes,

“I shore am. I’ll sneak you off now if you’ll go. I’ll stick a knife in
Kells if you say so.”

“Oh, no, I’m afraid to run off--and you needn’t harm Kells. After all,
he’s good to me.”

“Good to you!... When he keeps you captive like an Indian would? When
he’s given me orders to watch you--keep you locked up?”

Wood’s snort of disgust and wrath was thoroughly genuine. Still Joan
knew that she dared not trust him, any more than Pearce or the others.
Their raw emotions would undergo a change if Kells’s possession of her
were transferred to them. It occurred to Joan, however, that she might
use Wood’s friendliness to some advantage.

“So I’m to be locked up?” she asked.

“You’re supposed to be.”

“Without any one to talk to?”

“Wal, you’ll hev me, when you want. I reckon thet ain’t much to look
forward to. But I can tell you a heap of stories. An’ when Kells ain’t
around, if you’re careful not to get me ketched, you can do as you
want.”

“Thank you, Bate. I’m going to like you,” replied Joan, sincerely, and
then she went back to her room. There was sewing to do, and while she
worked she thought, so that the hours sped. When the light got so poor
that she could sew no longer she put the work aside and stood at her
little window, watching the sunset. From the front of the cabin came the
sound of subdued voices. Probably Kells and his men had returned, and
she was sure of this when she heard the ring of Bate Wood’s ax.

All at once an object darker than the stones arrested Joan’s gaze. There
was a man sitting on the far side of the little ravine. Instantly she
recognized Jim Cleve. He was looking at the little window--at her. Joan
believed he was there for just that purpose. Making sure that no one
else was near to see, she put out her hand and waved it. Jim gave a
guarded perceptible sign that he had observed her action, and almost
directly got up and left. Joan needed no more than that to tell her how
Jim’s idea of communicating with her corresponded with her own. That
night she would talk with him and she was thrilled through. The secrecy,
the peril, somehow lent this prospect a sweetness, a zest, a delicious
fear. Indeed, she was not only responding to love, but to daring, to
defiance, to a wilder nameless element born of her environment and the
needs of the hour.

Presently, Bate Wood called her in to supper. Pearce, Smith, and Cleve
were finding seats at the table, but Kells looked rather sick. Joan
observed him then more closely. His face was pale and damp, strangely
shaded as if there were something dark under the pale skin. Joan had
never seen him appear like this, and she shrank as from another and
forbidding side of the man. Pearce and Smith acted naturally, ate with
relish, and talked about the gold-diggings. Cleve, however, was not
as usual; and Joan could not quite make out what constituted the
dissimilarity. She hurried through her own supper and back to her room.

Already it was dark outside. Joan lay down to listen and wait. It seemed
long, but probably was not long before she heard the men go outside, and
the low thump of their footsteps as they went away. Then came the rattle
and bang of Bate Wood’s attack on the pans and pots. Bate liked to cook,
but he hated to clean up afterward. By and by he settled down outside
for his evening smoke and there was absolute quiet. Then Joan rose to
stand at the window. She could see the dark mass of rock overhanging the
cabin, the bluff beyond, and the stars. For the rest all was gloom.

She did not have to wait long. A soft step, almost indistinguishable,
made her pulse beat quicker. She put her face out of the window, and on
the instant a dark form seemed to loom up to meet her out of the shadow.
She could not recognize that shape, yet she knew it belonged to Cleve.

“Joan,” he whispered.

“Jim,” she replied, just as low and gladly.

He moved closer, so that the hand she had gropingly put out touched him,
then seemed naturally to slip along his shoulder, round his neck. And
his face grew clearer in the shadow. His lips met hers, and Joan closed
her eyes to that kiss. What hope, what strength for him and for her now
in that meeting of lips!

“Oh, Jim! I’m so glad--to have you near--to touch you,” she whispered.

“Do you love me still?” he whispered back, tensely.

“Still? More--more!”

“Say it, then.”

“Jim, I love you!”

And their lips met again and clung, and it was he who drew back first.

“Dearest, why didn’t you let me make a break to get away with
you--before we came to this camp?”

“Oh, Jim, I told you. I was afraid. We’d have been caught. And Gulden--”

“We’ll never have half the chance here. Kells means to keep you closely
guarded. I heard the order. He’s different now. He’s grown crafty and
hard. And the miners of this Alder Creek! Why, I’m more afraid to trust
them than men like Wood or Pearce. They’ve gone clean crazy. Gold-mad!
If you shouted for your life they wouldn’t hear you. And if you could
make them hear they wouldn’t believe. This camp has sprung up in a
night. It’s not like any place I ever heard of. It’s not human. It’s so
strange--so--Oh, I don’t know what to say. I think I mean that men in a
great gold strike become like coyotes at a carcass. You’ve seen that. No
relation at all!”

“I’m frightened, too, Jim. I wish I’d had the courage to run when we
were back in Cabin Gulch, But don’t ever give up, not for a second! We
can get away. We must plan and wait. Find out where we are--how far from
Hoadley--what we must expect--whether it’s safe to approach any one in
this camp.”

“Safe! I guess not, after to-day,” he whispered, grimly.

“Why? What’s happened?” she asked quickly.

“Joan, have you guessed yet why Kells sent you down into camp alone?”

“No.”

“Listen.... I went with Kells and Smith and Pearce. They hurried
straight to the Last Nugget. There was a crowd of men in front of the
place. Pearce walked straight up to one--a gambler by his clothes.
And he said in a loud voice. ‘Here’s the man!’... The gambler looked
startled, turned pale, and went for his gun. But Kells shot him!... He
fell dead, without a word. There was a big shout, then silence. Kells
stood there with his smoking gun. I never saw the man so cool--so
masterful. Then he addressed the crowd: ‘This gambler insulted my
daughter! My men here saw him. My name’s Blight. I came here to buy up
gold claims. And I want to say this: Your Alder Creek has got the gold.
But it needs some of your best citizens to run it right, so a girl can
be safe on the street.’”

“Joan, I tell you it was a magnificent bluff,” went on Jim, excitedly.
“And it worked. Kells walked away amid cheers. He meant to give an
impression of character and importance. He succeeded. So far as I could
tell, there wasn’t a man present who did not show admiration for him. I
saw that dead gambler kicked.”

“Jim!” breathed Joan. “He killed him--just for that?”

“Just for that--the bloody devil!”

“But still--what for? Oh, it was cold-blooded murder.”

“No, an even break. Kells made the gambler go for his gun. I’ll have to
say that for Kells.”

“It doesn’t change the thing. I’d forgotten what a monster he is.”

“Joan, his motive is plain. This new gold-camp has not reached the
blood-spilling stage yet. It hadn’t, I should say. The news of this
killing will fly. It’ll focus minds on this claim-buyer, Blight. His
deed rings true--like that of an honest man with a daughter to protect.
He’ll win sympathy. Then he talks as if he were prosperous. Soon
he’ll be represented in this changing, growing population as a man of
importance. He’ll play the card for all he’s worth. Meanwhile, secretly
he’ll begin to rob the miners. It’ll be hard to suspect him. His plot is
just like the man--great!”

“Jim, oughtn’t we tell?” whispered Joan, trembling.

“I’ve thought of that. Somehow I seem to feel guilty. But whom on
earth could we tell? We wouldn’t dare speak here.... Remember--you’re a
prisoner. I’m supposed to be a bandit--one of the Border Legion. How to
get away from here and save our lives--that’s what tortures me.”

“Something tells me we’ll escape, if only we can plan the right way.
Jim, I’ll have to be penned here, with nothing to do but wait. You must
come every night!... Won’t you?”

For an answer he kissed her again.

“Jim, what’ll you do meanwhile?” she asked, anxiously.

“I’m going to work a claim. Dig for gold. I told Kells so to-day, and he
was delighted. He said he was afraid his men wouldn’t like the working
part of his plan. It’s hard to dig gold. Easy to steal it. But I’ll dig
a hole as big as a hill!... Wouldn’t it be funny if I struck it rich?”

“Jim, you’re getting the fever.”

“Joan, if I did happen to run into a gold-pocket--there’re lots of them
found--would--you--marry me?”

The tenderness, the timidity, and the yearning in Cleve’s voice told
Joan as never before how he had hoped and feared and despaired. She
patted his cheek with her hand, and in the darkness, with her heart
swelling to make up for what she had done to him, she felt a boldness
and a recklessness, sweet, tumultuous, irresistible.

“Jim, I’ll marry you--whether you strike gold or not,” she whispered.

And there was another blind, sweet moment. Then Cleve tore himself away,
and Joan leaned at the window, watching the shadow, with tears in her
eyes and an ache in her breast.

From that day Joan lived a life of seclusion in the small room. Kells
wanted it so, and Joan thought best for the time being not to take
advantage of Bate Wood’s duplicity. Her meals were brought to her by
Wood, who was supposed to unlock and lock her door. But Wood never
turned the key in that padlock.

Prisoner though Joan was, the days and nights sped swiftly.

Kells was always up till late in the night and slept half of the next
morning. It was his wont to see Joan every day about noon. He had a care
for his appearance. When he came in he was dark, forbidding, weary, and
cold. Manifestly he came to her to get rid of the imponderable burden
of the present. He left it behind him. He never spoke a word of Alder
Creek, of gold, of the Border Legion. Always he began by inquiring for
her welfare, by asking what he could do for her, what he could bring
her. Joan had an abhorrence of Keils in his absence that she never felt
when he was with her; and the reason must have been that she thought of
him, remembered him as the bandit, and saw him as another and growing
character. Always mindful of her influence, she was as companionable,
as sympathetic, as cheerful, and sweet as it was possible for her to be.
Slowly he would warm and change under her charm, and the grim gloom, the
dark strain, would pass from him. When that left he was indeed another
person. Frankly he told Joan that the glimpse of real love she had
simulated back there in Cabin Gulch was seldom out of his mind. No woman
had ever kissed him like she had. That kiss had transfigured him. It
haunted him. If he could not win kisses like that from Joan’s lips, of
her own free will, then he wanted none. No other woman’s lips would ever
touch his. And he begged Joan in the terrible earnestness of a stern and
hungering outcast for her love. And Joan could only sadly shake her head
and tell him she was sorry for him, that the more she really believed
he loved her the surer she was that he would give her up. Then always
he passionately refused. He must have her to keep, to look at as his
treasure, to dream over, and hope against hope that she would love him
some day. Women sometimes learned to love their captors, he said; and if
she only learned, then he would take her away to Australia, to distant
lands. But most of all he begged her to show him again what it meant to
be loved by a good woman. And Joan, who knew that her power now lay in
her unattainableness, feigned a wavering reluctance, when in truth any
surrender was impossible. He left her with a spirit that her presence
gave him, in a kind of trance, radiant, yet with mocking smile, as if he
foresaw the overthrow of his soul through her, and in the light of that
his waning power over his Legion was as nothing.

In the afternoon he went down into camp to strengthen the associations
he had made, to buy claims, and to gamble. Upon his return Joan, peeping
through a crack between the boards, could always tell whether he had
been gambling, whether he had won or lost.

Most of the evenings he remained in his cabin, which after dark became
a place of mysterious and stealthy action. The members of his Legion
visited him, sometimes alone, never more than two together. Joan could
hear them slipping in at the hidden aperture in the back of the cabin;
she could hear the low voices, but seldom what was said; she could hear
these night prowlers as they departed. Afterward Kells would have the
lights lit, and then Joan could see into the cabin. Was that dark,
haggard man Kells? She saw him take little buckskin sacks full of
gold-dust and hide them under the floor. Then he would pace the room
in his old familiar manner, like a caged tiger. Later his mood usually
changed with the advent of Wood and Pearce and Smith and Cleve, who took
turns at guard and going down into camp. Then Kells would join them in
a friendly game for small stakes. Gambler though he was, he refused to
allow any game there that might lead to heavy wagering. From the talk
sometimes Joan learned that he played for exceedingly large stakes with
gamblers and prosperous miners, usually with the same result--a loss.
Sometimes he won, however, and then he would crow over Pearce and Smith,
and delight in telling them how cunningly he had played.

Jim Cleve had his bed up under the bulge of bluff, in a sheltered nook.
Kells had appeared to like this idea, for some reason relative to his
scout system, which he did not explain. And Cleve was happy about it
because this arrangement left him absolutely free to have his nightly
rendezvous with Joan at her window, sometime between dark and midnight.
Her bed was right under the window: if awake she could rest on her knees
and look out; and if she was asleep he could thrust a slender stick
between the boards to awaken her. But the fact was that Joan lived for
these stolen meetings, and unless he could not come until very late she
waited wide-eyed and listening for him. Then, besides, as long as Kells
was stirring in the cabin she spent her time spying upon him.

Jim Cleve had gone to an unfrequented part of the gulch, for no
particular reason, and here he had located his claim. The very first
day he struck gold. And Kells, more for advertisement than for any
other motive, had his men stake out a number of claims near Cleve’s, and
bought them. Then they had a little field of their own. All found the
rich pay-dirt, but it was Cleve to whom the goddess of fortune turned
her bright face. As he had been lucky at cards, so he was lucky at
digging. His claim paid big returns. Kells spread the news, and that
part of the gulch saw a rush of miners.

Every night Joan had her whispered hour with Cleve, and each succeeding
one was the sweeter. Jim had become a victim of the gold fever. But,
having Joan to steady him, he did not lose his head. If he gambled
it was to help out with his part. He was generous to his comrades. He
pretended to drink, but did not drink at all. Jim seemed to regard his
good fortune as Joan’s also. He believed if he struck it rich he could
buy his sweetheart’s freedom. He claimed that Kells was drunk for gold
to gamble away. Joan let Jim talk, but she coaxed him and persuaded him
to follow a certain line of behavior, she planned for him, she thought
for him, she influenced him to hide the greater part of his gold-dust,
and let it be known that he wore no gold-belt. She had a growing fear
that Jim’s success was likely to develop a temper in him inimical to
the cool, waiting, tolerant policy needed to outwit Kells in the end.
It seemed the more gold Jim acquired the more passionate he became, the
more he importuned Joan, the more he hated Kells. Gold had gotten into
his blood, and it was Joan’s task to keep him sane. Naturally she gained
more by yielding herself to Jim’s caresses than by any direct advice or
admonishment. It was her love that held Jim in check.

One night, the instant their hands met Joan knew that Jim was greatly
excited or perturbed.

“Joan,” he whispered, thrillingly, with his lips at her ear, “I’ve made
myself solid with Kells! Oh, the luck of it!”

“Tell me!” whispered Joan, and she leaned against those lips.

“It was early to-night at the Nugget. I dropped in as usual. Kells was
playing faro again with that gambler they call Flash. He’s won a lot of
Kells’s gold--a crooked gambler. I looked on. And some of the gang
were there--Pearce, Blicky, Handy Oliver, and of course Gulden, but all
separated. Kells was losing and sore. But he was game. All at once he
caught Flash in a crooked trick, and he yelled in a rage. He sure had
the gang and everybody else looking. I expected--and so did all the
gang--to see Kells pull his gun. But strange how gambling affects him!
He only cursed Flash--called him right. You know that’s about as bad as
death to a professional gambler in a place like Alder Creek. Flash threw
a derringer on Kells. He had it up his sleeve. He meant to kill Kells,
and Kells had no chance. But Flash, having the drop, took time to talk,
to make his bluff go strong with the crowd. And that’s where he made
a mistake. I jumped and knocked the gun out of his hand. It went
off--burned my wrist. Then I slugged Mr. Flash good--he didn’t get
up.... Kells called the crowd around and, showing the cards as they lay,
coolly proved that Flash was what everybody suspected. Then Kells said
to me--I’ll never forget how he looked: ‘Youngster, he meant to do for
me. I never thought of my gun. You see!... I’ll kill him the next time
we meet.... I’ve owed my life to men more than once. I never forget. You
stood pat with me before. And now you’re ace high!’”

“Was it fair of you?” asked Joan.

“Yes. Flash is a crooked gambler. I’d rather be a bandit.... Besides,
all’s fair in love! And I was thinking of you when I saved Kells!”

“Flash will be looking for you,” said Joan, fearfully.

“Likely. And if he finds me he wants to be quick. But Kells will drive
him out of camp or kill him. I tell you, Kells is the biggest man in
Alder Creek. There’s talk of office--a mayor and all that--and if
the miners can forget gold long enough they’ll elect Kells. But the
riffraff, these bloodsuckers who live off the miners, they’d rather not
have any office in Alder Creek.”

And upon another night Cleve in serious and somber mood talked about
the Border Legion and its mysterious workings. The name had found
prominence, no one knew how, and Alder Creek knew no more peaceful
sleep. This Legion was supposed to consist of a strange, secret band of
unknown bandits and road-agents, drawing its members from all that
wild and trackless region called the border. Rumor gave it a leader of
cunning and ruthless nature. It operated all over the country at the
same time, and must have been composed of numerous smaller bands,
impossible to detect. Because its victims never lived to tell how or by
whom they had been robbed! This Legion worked slowly and in the dark.
It did not bother to rob for little gain. It had strange and unerring
information of large quantities of gold-dust. Two prospectors going out
on the Bannack road, packing fifty pounds of gold, were found shot
to pieces. A miner named Black, who would not trust his gold to the
stage-express, and who left Adler Creek against advice, was never
seen or heard of again. Four other miners of the camp, known to carry
considerable gold, were robbed and killed at night on their way to their
cabins. And another was found dead in his bed. Robbers had crept to his
tent, slashed the canvas, murdered him while he slept, and made off with
his belt of gold.

An evil day of blood had fallen upon Alder Creek. There were terrible
and implacable men in the midst of the miners, by day at honest toil,
learning who had gold, and murdering by night. The camp had never been
united, but this dread fact disrupted any possible unity. Every man, or
every little group of men, distrusted the other, watched and spied and
lay awake at night. But the robberies continued, one every few days, and
each one left no trace. For dead men could not talk.

Thus was ushered in at Alder Creek a regime of wildness that had
no parallel in the earlier days of ‘49 and ‘51. Men frenzied by the
possession of gold or greed for it responded to the wildness of that
time and took their cue from this deadly and mysterious Border Legion.
The gold-lust created its own blood-lust. Daily the population of Alder
Creek grew in the new gold-seekers and its dark records kept pace. With
distrust came suspicion and with suspicion came fear, and with fear came
hate--and these, in already distorted minds, inflamed a hell. So that
the most primitive passions of mankind found outlet and held sway. The
operations of the Border Legion were lost in deeds done in the gambling
dens, in the saloons, and on the street, in broad day. Men fought for
no other reason than that the incentive was in the charged air. Men
were shot at gaming-tables--and the game went on. Men were killed in the
dance-halls, dragged out, marking a line of blood on the rude floor--and
the dance went on. Still the pursuit of gold went on, more frenzied than
ever, and still the greater and richer claims were struck. The price of
gold soared and the commodities of life were almost beyond the dreams
of avarice. It was a tune in which the worst of men’s natures stalked
forth, hydra-headed and deaf, roaring for gold, spitting fire, and
shedding blood. It was a time when gold and fire and blood were one. It
was a tune when a horde of men from every class and nation, of all ages
and characters, met on a field were motives and ambitions and faiths and
traits merged into one mad instinct of gain. It was worse than the
time of the medieval crimes of religion; it made war seem a brave and
honorable thing; it robbed manhood of that splendid and noble trait,
always seen in shipwrecked men or those hopelessly lost in the barren
north, the divine will not to retrograde to the savage. It was a time,
for all it enriched the world with yellow treasure, when might was
right, when men were hopeless, when death stalked rampant. The sun rose
gold and it set red. It was the hour of Gold!

One afternoon late, while Joan was half dreaming, half dozing the hours
away, she was thoroughly aroused by the tramp of boots and loud voices
of excited men. Joan slipped to the peephole in the partition. Bate Wood
had raised a warning hand to Kells, who stood up, facing the door. Red
Pearce came bursting in, wild-eyed and violent. Joan imagined he was
about to cry out that Kells had been betrayed.

“Kells, have you--heard?” he panted.

“Not so loud, you--!” replied Kells, coolly. “My name’s Blight.... Who’s
with you?”

“Only Jesse an’ some of the gang. I couldn’t steer them away. But
there’s nothin’ to fear.”

“What’s happened? What haven’t I heard?”

“The camp’s gone plumb ravin’ crazy.... Jim Cleve found the biggest
nugget ever dug in Idaho!... THIRTY POUNDS!”

Kells seemed suddenly to inflame, to blaze with white passion. “Good for
Jim!” he yelled, ringingly. He could scarcely have been more elated if
he had made the strike himself.

Jesse Smith came stamping in, with a crowd elbowing their way behind
him. Joan had a start of the old panic at sight of Gulden. For once the
giant was not slow nor indifferent. His big eyes glared. He brought
back to Joan the sickening sense of the brute strength of his massive
presence. Some of his cronies were with him. For the rest, there
were Blicky and Handy Oliver and Chick Williams. The whole group bore
resemblance to a pack of wolves about to leap upon its prey. Yet,
in each man, excepting Gulden, there was that striking aspect of
exultation.

“Where’s Jim?” demanded Kells.

“He’s comin’ along,” replied Pearce. “He’s sure been runnin’ a gantlet.
His strike stopped work in the diggin’s. What do you think of that,
Kells? The news spread like smoke before wind. Every last miner in camp
has jest got to see thet lump of gold.”

“Maybe I don’t want to see it!” exclaimed Kells. “A thirty-pounder! I
heard of one once, sixty pounds, but I never saw it. You can’t believe
till you see.”

“Jim’s comin’ up the road now,” said one of the men near the door. “Thet
crowd hangs on.... But I reckon he’s shakin’ them.”

“What’ll Cleve do with this nugget?”

Gulden’s big voice, so powerful, yet feelingless, caused a momentary
silence. The expression of many faces changed. Kells looked startled,
then annoyed.

“Why, Gulden, that’s not my affair--nor yours,” replied Kells. “Cleve
dug it and it belongs to him.”

“Dug or stole--it’s all the same,” responded Gulden.

Kell’s threw up his hands as if it were useless and impossible to reason
with this man.

Then the crowd surged round the door with shuffling boots and hoarse,
mingled greetings to Cleve, who presently came plunging in out of the
melee.

His face wore a flush of radiance; his eyes were like diamonds. Joan
thrilled and thrilled at sight of him. He was beautiful. Yet there was
about him a more striking wildness. He carried a gun in one hand and in
the other an object wrapped in his scarf. He flung this upon the table
in front of Kells. It made a heavy, solid thump. The ends of the scarf
flew aside, and there lay a magnificent nugget of gold, black and rusty
in parts, but with a dull, yellow glitter in others.

“Boss, what’ll you bet against that?” cried Cleve, with exulting laugh.
He was like a boy.

Kells reached for the nugget as if it were not an actual object, and
when his hands closed on it he fondled it and weighed it and dug his
nails into it and tasted it.

“My God!” he ejaculated, in wondering ecstasy. Then this, and the
excitement, and the obsession all changed into sincere gladness. “Jim,
you’re born lucky. You, the youngster born unlucky in love! Why, you
could buy any woman with this!”

“Could I? Find me one,” responded Cleve, with swift boldness.

Kells laughed. “I don’t know any worth so much.”

“What’ll I do with it?” queried Cleve.

“Why, you fool youngster! Has it turned your head, too? What’d you do
with the rest of your dust? You’ve certainly been striking it rich.”

“I spent it--lost it--lent it--gave some away and--saved a little.”

“Probably you’ll do the same with this. You’re a good fellow, Jim.”

“But this nugget means a lot of money. Between six and seven thousand
dollars.”

“You won’t need advice how to spend it, even if it was a million....
Tell me, Jim, how’d you strike it?”

“Funny about that,” replied Cleve. “Things were poor for several days.
Dug off branches into my claim. One grew to be a deep hole in gravel,
hard to dig. My claim was once the bed of a stream, full of rocks that
the water had rolled down once. This hole sort of haunted me. I’d leave
it when my back got so sore I couldn’t bend, but always I’d return. I’d
say there wasn’t a darned grain of gold in that gravel; then like a fool
I’d go back and dig for all I was worth. No chance of finding blue dirt
down there! But I kept on. And to-day when my pick hit what felt like a
soft rock--I looked and saw the gleam of gold!... You ought to have seen
me claw out that nugget! I whooped and brought everybody around. The
rest was a parade.... Now I’m embarrassed by riches. What to do with
it?”

“Wal, go back to Montana an’ make thet fool girl sick,” suggested one of
the men who had heard Jim’s fictitious story of himself.

“Dug or stole is all the same!” boomed the imperturbable Gulden.

Kells turned white with rage, and Cleve swept a swift and shrewd glance
at the giant.

“Sure, that’s my idea,” declared Cleve. “I’ll divide as--as we planned.”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” retorted Kells. “You dug for that gold
and it’s yours.”

“Well, boss, then say a quarter share to you and the same to me--and
divide the rest among the gang.”

“No!” exclaimed Kells, violently.

Joan imagined he was actuated as much by justice to Cleve as opposition
to Gulden.

“Jim Cleve, you’re a square pard if I ever seen one,” declared Pearce,
admiringly. “An’ I’m here to say thet I wouldn’t hev a share of your
nugget.”

“Nor me,” spoke up Jesse Smith.

“I pass, too,” said Chick Williams.

“Jim, if I was dyin’ fer a drink I wouldn’t stand fer thet deal,” added
Blicky, with a fine scorn.

These men, and others who spoke or signified their refusal, attested to
the living truth that there was honor even among robbers. But there was
not the slightest suggestion of change in Gulden’s attitude or of those
back of him.

“Share and share alike for me!” he muttered, grimly, with those great
eyes upon the nugget.

Kells, with an agile bound, reached the table and pounded it with his
fist, confronting the giant.

“So you say!” he hissed in dark passion. “You’ve gone too far, Gulden.
Here’s where I call you!... You don’t get a gram of that gold nugget.
Jim’s worked like a dog. If he digs up a million I’ll see he gets it
all. Maybe you loafers haven’t a hunch what Jim’s done for you. He’s
helped our big deal more than you or I. His honest work has made it easy
for me to look honest. He’s supposed to be engaged to marry my daughter.
That more than anything was a blind. It made my stand, and I tell you
that stand is high in this camp. Go down there and swear Blight is Jack
Kells! See what you get!... That’s all.... I’m dealing the cards in this
game!”

Kells did not cow Gulden--for it was likely the giant lacked the feeling
of fear--but he overruled him by sheer strength of spirit.

Gulden backed away stolidly, apparently dazed by his own movements; then
he plunged out the door, and the ruffians who had given silent but sure
expression of their loyalty tramped after him.

“Reckon thet starts the split!” declared Red Pearce.

“Suppose you’d been in Jim’s place!” flashed Kells.

“Jack, I ain’t sayin’ a word. You was square. I’d want you to do the
same by me.... But fetchin’ the girl into the deal--”

Kells’s passionate and menacing gesture shut Pearce’s lips. He lifted a
hand, resignedly, and went out.

“Jim,” said Kells, earnestly, “take my hunch. Hide your nugget. Don’t
send it out with the stage to Bannack. It’d never get there.... And
change the place where you sleep!”

“Thanks,” replied Cleve, brightly. “I’ll hide my nugget all right. And
I’ll take care of myself.”

Later that night Joan waited at her window for Jim. It was so quiet that
she could hear the faint murmur of the shallow creek. The sky was dusky
blue; the stars were white, the night breeze sweet and cool. Her first
flush of elation for Jim having passed, she experienced a sinking of
courage. Were they not in peril enough without Jim’s finding a fortune?
How dark and significant had been Kells’s hint! There was something
splendid in the bandit. Never had Joan felt so grateful to him. He was
a villain, yet he was a man. What hatred he showed for Gulden! These
rivals would surely meet in a terrible conflict--for power--for gold.
And for her!--she added, involuntarily, with a deep, inward shudder.
Once the thought had flashed through her mind, it seemed like a word of
revelation.

Then she started as a dark form rose out of the shadow under her and a
hand clasped hers. Jim! and she lifted her face.

“Joan! Joan! I’m rich! rich!” he babbled, wildly.

“Ssssh!” whispered Joan, softly, in his ear. “Be careful. You’re wild
to-night.... I saw you come in with the nugget. I heard you.... Oh, you
lucky Jim! I’ll tell you what to do with it!”

“Darling! It’s all yours. You’ll marry me now?”

“Sir! Do you take me for a fortune-hunter? I marry you for your gold?
Never!”

“Joan!”

“I’ve promised,” she said.

“I won’t go away now. I’ll work my claim,” he began, excitedly. And he
went on so rapidly that Joan could not keep track of his words. He
was not so cautious as formerly. She remonstrated with him, all to
no purpose. Not only was he carried away by possession of gold
and assurance of more, but he had become masterful, obstinate, and
illogical. He was indeed hopeless to-night--the gold had gotten into his
blood. Joan grew afraid he would betray their secret and realized there
had come still greater need for a woman’s wit. So she resorted to a
never-failing means of silencing him, of controlling him--her lips on
his.



15

For several nights these stolen interviews were apparently the safer
because of Joan’s tender blinding of her lover. But it seemed that in
Jim’s condition of mind this yielding of her lips and her whispers of
love had really been a mistake. Not only had she made the situation
perilously sweet for herself, but in Jim’s case she had added the spark
to the powder. She realized her blunder when it was too late. And the
fact that she did not regret it very much, and seemed to have lost
herself in a defiant, reckless spell, warned her again that she, too,
was answering to the wildness of the time and place. Joan’s intelligence
had broadened wonderfully in this period of her life, just as all
her feelings had quickened. If gold had developed and intensified and
liberated the worst passions of men, so the spirit of that atmosphere
had its baneful effect upon her. Joan deplored this, yet she had the
keenness to understand that it was nature fitting her to survive.

Back upon her fell that weight of suspense--what would happen next?
Here in Alder Creek there did not at present appear to be the same peril
which had menaced her before, but she would suffer through fatality to
Cleve or Kells. And these two slept at night under a shadow that held
death, and by day they walked on a thin crust over a volcano. Joan grew
more and more fearful of the disclosures made when Kells met his men
nightly in the cabin. She feared to hear, but she must hear, and even
if she had not felt it necessary to keep informed of events, the
fascination of the game would have impelled her to listen. And gradually
the suspense she suffered augmented into a magnified, though vague,
assurance of catastrophe, of impending doom. She could not shake off
the gloomy presentiment. Something terrible was going to happen. An
experience begun as tragically as hers could only end in a final and
annihilating stroke. Yet hope was unquenchable, and with her fear kept
pace a driving and relentless spirit.

One night at the end of a week of these interviews, when Joan attempted
to resist Jim, to plead with him, lest in his growing boldness he betray
them, she found him a madman.

“I’ll pull you right out of this window,” he said, roughly, and then
with his hot face pressed against hers tried to accomplish the thing he
threatened.

“Go on--pull me to pieces!” replied Joan, in despair and pain. “I’d be
better off dead! And--you--hurt me--so!”

“Hurt you!” he whispered, hoarsely, as if he had never dreamed of such
possibility. And then suddenly he was remorseful. He begged her to
forgive him. His voice was broken, husky, pleading. His remorse, like
every feeling of his these days, was exaggerated, wild, with that raw
tinge of gold-blood in it. He made so much noise that Joan, more fearful
than ever of discovery, quieted him with difficulty.

“Does Kells see you often--these days?” asked Jim, suddenly.

Joan had dreaded this question, which she had known would inevitably
come. She wanted to lie; she knew she ought to lie; but it was
impossible.

“Every day,” she whispered. “Please--Jim--never mind that. Kells
is good--he’s all right to me.... And you and I have so little time
together.”

“Good!” exclaimed Cleve. Joan felt the leap of his body under her touch.
“Why, if I’d tell you what he sends that gang to do--you’d--you’d kill
him in his sleep.”

“Tell me,” replied Joan. She had a morbid, irresistible desire to learn.

“No.... And WHAT does Kells do--when he sees you every day?”

“He talks.”

“What about?”

“Oh, everything except about what holds him here. He talks to me to
forget himself.”

“Does he make love to you?”

Joan maintained silence. What would she do with this changed and
hopeless Jim Cleve?

“Tell me!” Jim’s hands gripped her with a force that made her wince.
And now she grew as afraid of him as she had been for him. But she had
spirit enough to grow angry, also.

“Certainly he does.”

Jim Cleve echoed her first word, and then through grinding teeth he
cursed. “I’m going to--stop it!” he panted, and his eyes looked big and
dark and wild in the starlight.

“You can’t. I belong to Kells. You at least ought to have sense enough
to see that.”

“Belong to him!... For God’s sake! By what right?”

“By the right of possession. Might is right here on the border. Haven’t
you told me that a hundred times? Don’t you hold your claim--your
gold--by the right of your strength? It’s the law of this border. To be
sure Kells stole me. But just now I belong to him. And lately I see his
consideration--his kindness in the light of what he could do if he held
to that border law.... And of all the men I’ve met out here Kells is the
least wild with this gold fever. He sends his men out to do murder for
gold; he’d sell his soul to gamble for gold; but just the same, he’s
more of a man than---”

“Joan!” he interrupted, piercingly. “You love this bandit!”

“You’re a fool!” burst out Joan.

“I guess--I--am,” he replied in terrible, slow earnestness. He raised
himself and appeared to loom over her and released his hold.

But Joan fearfully retained her clasp on his arm, and when he surged to
get away she was hard put to it to hold him.

“Jim! Where are you going?”

He stood there a moment, a dark form against the night shadow, like an
outline of a man cut from black stone.

“I’ll just step around--there.”

“Oh, what for?” whispered Joan.

“I’m going to kill Kells.”

Joan got both arms round his neck and with her head against him she
held him tightly, trying, praying to think how to meet this long-dreaded
moment. After all, what was the use to try? This was the hour of Gold!
Sacrifice, hope, courage, nobility, fidelity--these had no place here
now. Men were the embodiment of passion--ferocity. They breathed only
possession, and the thing in the balance was death. Women were creatures
to hunger and fight for, but womanhood was nothing. Joan knew all this
with a desperate hardening certainty, and almost she gave in. Strangely,
thought of Gulden flashed up to make her again strong! Then she raised
her face and began the old pleading with Jim, but different this time,
when it seemed that absolutely all was at stake. She begged him, she
importuned him, to listen to reason, to be guided by her, to fight the
wildness that had obsessed him, to make sure that she would not be left
alone. All in vain! He swore he would kill Kells and any other bandit
who stood in the way of his leading her free out of that cabin. He was
wild to fight. He might never have felt fear of these robbers. He would
not listen to any possibility of defeat for himself, or the possibility
that in the event of Kells’s death she would be worse off. He laughed at
her strange, morbid fears of Gulden. He was immovable.

“Jim!... Jim! You’ll break my heart!” she whispered, wailingly. “Oh!
WHAT can I do?”

Then Joan released her clasp and gave up to utter defeat. Cleve was
silent. He did not seem to hear the shuddering little sobs that shook
her. Suddenly he bent close to her.

“There’s one thing you can do. If you’ll do it I won’t kill Kells. I’ll
obey your every word.”

“What is it? Tell me!”

“Marry me!” he whispered, and his voice trembled.

“MARRY YOU!” exclaimed Joan. She was confounded. She began to fear Jim
was out of his head.

“I mean it. Marry me. Oh, Joan, will you--will you? It’ll make the
difference. That’ll steady me. Don’t you want to?”

“Jim, I’d be the happiest girl in the world if--if I only COULD marry
you!” she breathed, passionately.

“But will you--will you? Say yes! Say yes!”

“YES!” replied Joan in her desperation. “I hope that pleases you. But
what on earth is the use to talk about it now?”

Cleve seemed to expand, to grow taller, to thrill under her nervous
hands. And then he kissed her differently. She sensed a shyness,
a happiness, a something hitherto foreign to his attitude. It was
spiritual, and somehow she received an uplift of hope.

“Listen,” he whispered. “There’s a preacher down in camp. I’ve seen
him--talked with him. He’s trying to do good in that hell down there.
I know I can trust him. I’ll confide in him--enough. I’ll fetch him up
here tomorrow night--about this time. Oh, I’ll be careful--very careful.
And he can marry us right here by the window. Joan, will you do it?...
Somehow, whatever threatens you or me--that’ll be my salvation!... I’ve
suffered so. It’s been burned in my heart that YOU would never marry me.
Yet you say you love me!... Prove it!... MY WIFE!... Now, girl, a word
will make a man of me!”

“Yes!” And with the word she put her lips to his with all her heart in
them. She felt him tremble. Yet almost instantly he put her from him.

“Look for me to-morrow about this time,” he whispered. “Keep your
nerve.... Good night.”

That night Joan dreamed strange, weird, unremembered dreams. The next
day passed like a slow, unreal age. She ate little of what was brought
to her. For the first time she denied Kells admittance and she only
vaguely sensed his solicitations. She had no ear for the murmur of
voices in Kells’s room. Even the loud and angry notes of a quarrel
between Kells and his men did not distract her.

At sunset she leaned out of the little window, and only then, with the
gold fading on the peaks and the shadow gathering under the bluff, did
she awaken to reality. A broken mass of white cloud caught the glory
of the sinking sun. She had never seen a golden radiance like that. It
faded and dulled. But a warm glow remained. At twilight and then at dusk
this glow lingered.

Then night fell. Joan was exceedingly sensitive to the sensations of
light and shadow, of sound and silence, of dread and hope, of sadness
and joy.

That pale, ruddy glow lingered over the bold heave of the range in
the west. It was like a fire that would not go out, that would live
to-morrow, and burn golden. The sky shone with deep, rich blue color
fired with a thousand stars, radiant, speaking, hopeful. And there was a
white track across the heavens. The mountains flung down their shadows,
impenetrable, like the gloomy minds of men; and everywhere under
the bluffs and slopes, in the hollows and ravines, lay an enveloping
blackness, hiding its depth and secret and mystery.

Joan listened. Was there sound or silence? A faint and indescribably
low roar, so low that it might have been real or false, came on the soft
night breeze. It was the roar of the camp down there--the strife, the
agony, the wild life in ceaseless action--the strange voice of gold,
roaring greed and battle and death over the souls of men. But above
that, presently, rose the murmur of the creek, a hushed and dreamy flow
of water over stones. It was hurrying to get by this horde of wild men,
for it must bear the taint of gold and blood. Would it purge itself and
clarify in the valleys below, on its way to the sea? There was in its
murmur an imperishable and deathless note of nature, of time; and this
was only a fleeting day of men and gold.

Only by straining her ears could Joan hear these sounds, and when she
ceased that, then she seemed to be weighed upon and claimed by silence.
It was not a silence like that of Lost Canon, but a silence of solitude
where her soul stood alone. She was there on earth, yet no one could
hear her mortal cry. The thunder of avalanches or the boom of the sea
might have lessened her sense of utter loneliness.

And that silence fitted the darkness, and both were apostles of dread.
They spoke to her. She breathed dread on that silent air and it filled
her breast. There was nothing stable in the night shadows. The ravine
seemed to send forth stealthy, noiseless shapes, specter and human, man
and phantom, each on the other’s trail.

If Jim would only come and let her see that he was safe for the hour! A
hundred times she imagined she saw him looming darker than the shadows.
She had only to see him now, to feel his hand, and dread might be lost.
Love was something beyond the grasp of mind. Love had confounded Jim
Cleve; it had brought up kindness and honor from the black depths of a
bandit’s heart; it had transformed her from a girl into a woman. Surely
with all its greatness it could not be lost; surely in the end it must
triumph over evil.

Joan found that hope was fluctuating, but eternal. It took no stock of
intelligence. It was a matter of feeling. And when she gave rein to
it for a moment, suddenly it plunged her into sadness. To hope was to
think! Poor Jim! It was his fool’s paradise. Just to let her be his
wife! That was the apex of his dream. Joan divined that he might yield
to her wisdom, he might become a man, but his agony would be greater.
Still, he had been so intense, so strange, so different that she could
not but feel joy in his joy.

Then at a soft footfall, a rustle, and a moving shadow Joan’s mingled
emotions merged into a poignant sense of the pain and suspense and
tenderness of the actual moment.

“Joan--Joan,” came the soft whisper.

She answered, and there was a catch in her breath.

The moving shadow split into two shadows that stole closer, loomed
before her. She could not tell which belonged to Jim till he touched
her. His touch was potent. It seemed to electrify her.

“Dearest, we’re here--this is the parson,” said Jim, like a happy boy.
“I--”

“Ssssh!” whispered Joan. “Not so loud.... Listen!”

Kells was holding a rendezvous with members of his Legion. Joan even
recognized his hard and somber tone, and the sharp voice of Red Pearce,
and the drawl of Handy Oliver.

“All right. I’ll be quiet,” responded Cleve, cautiously. “Joan, you’re
to answer a few questions.”

Then a soft hand touched Joan, and a voice differently keyed from any
she had heard on the border addressed her.

“What is your name?” asked the preacher.

Joan told him.

“Can you tell anything about yourself? This young man is--is almost
violent. I’m not sure. Still I want to--”

“I can’t tell much,” replied Joan, hurriedly. “I’m an honest girl. I’m
free to--to marry him. I--I love him!... Oh, I want to help him. We--we
are in trouble here. I daren’t say how.”

“Are you over eighteen?” “Yes, sir.”

“Do your parents object to this young man?”

“I have no parents. And my uncle, with whom I lived before I was brought
to this awful place, he loves Jim. He always wanted me to marry him.”

“Take his hand, then.”

Joan felt the strong clasp of Jim’s fingers, and that was all which
seemed real at the moment. It seemed so dark and shadowy round these two
black forms in front of her window. She heard a mournful wail of a lone
wolf and it intensified the weird dream that bound her. She heard her
shaking, whispered voice repeating the preacher’s words. She caught a
phrase of a low-murmured prayer. Then one dark form moved silently away.
She was alone with Jim.

“Dearest Joan!” he whispered. “It’s over! It’s done!... Kiss me!”

She lifted her lips and Jim seemed to kiss her more sweetly, with less
violence.

“Oh, Joan, that you’d really have me! I can’t believe it.... Your
HUSBAND.”

That word dispelled the dream and the pain which had held Joan, leaving
only the tenderness, magnified now a hundredfold.

And that instant when she was locked in Cleve’s arms, when the silence
was so beautiful and full, she heard the heavy pound of a gun-butt upon
the table in Kells’s room.

“Where is Cleve?” That was the voice of Kells, stern, demanding.

Joan felt a start, a tremor run over Jim. Then he stiffened.

“I can’t locate him,” replied Red Pearce. “It was the same last night
an’ the one before. Cleve jest disappears these nights--about this
time.... Some woman’s got him!”

“He goes to bed. Can’t you find where he sleeps?”

“No.”

“This job’s got to go through and he’s got to do it.”

“Bah!” taunted Pearce. “Gulden swears you can’t make Cleve do a job. And
so do I!”

“Go out and yell for Cleve!... Damn you all! I’ll show you!”

Then Joan heard the tramp of heavy boots, then a softer tramp on the
ground outside the cabin. Joan waited, holding her breath. She felt
Jim’s heart beating. He stood like a post. He, like Joan, was listening,
as if for a trumpet of doom.

“HALLO, JIM!” rang out Pearce’s stentorian call. It murdered the
silence. It boomed under the bluff, and clapped in echo, and wound away,
mockingly. It seemed to have shrieked to the whole wild borderland the
breaking-point of the bandit’s power.

So momentous was the call that Jim Cleve seemed to forget Joan, and she
let him go without a word. Indeed, he was gone before she realized it,
and his dark form dissolved in the shadows. Joan waited, listening with
abated breathing. On this side of the cabin there was absolute silence.
She believed that Jim would slip around under cover of night and return
by the road from camp. Then what would he do? The question seemed to
puzzle her.

Joan leaned there at her window for moments greatly differing from those
vaguely happy ones just passed. She had sustained a shock that had left
her benumbed with a dull pain. What a rude, raw break the voice of Kells
had made in her brief forgetfulness! She was returning now to reality.
Presently she would peer through the crevice between the boards into the
other room, and she shrank from the ordeal. Kells, and whoever was with
him, maintained silence. Occasionally she heard the shuffle of a boot
and a creak of the loose floor boards. She waited till anxiety and fear
compelled her to look.

The lamps were burning; the door was wide open. Apparently Kells’s rule
of secrecy had been abandoned. One glance at Kells was enough to show
Joan that he was sick and desperate. Handy Oliver did not wear his usual
lazy good humor. Red Pearce sat silent and sullen, a smoking, unheeded
pipe in his hand. Jesse Smith was gloomy. The only other present was
Bate Wood, and whatever had happened had in no wise affected him. These
bandits were all waiting. Presently quick footsteps on the path outside
caused them all to look toward the door. That tread was familiar to
Joan, and suddenly her mouth was dry, her tongue stiff. What was Jim
Cleve coming to meet? How sharp and decided his walk! Then his dark
form crossed the bar of light outside the door, and he entered, bold and
cool, and with a weariness that must have been simulated.

“Howdy boys!” he said.

Only Kells greeted him in response. The bandit eyed him curiously. The
others added suspicion to their glances.

“Did you hear Red’s yell?” queried Kells, presently.

“I’d have heard that roar if I’d been dead,” replied Cleve, bluntly.
“And I didn’t like it!... I was coming up the road and I heard Pearce
yell. I’ll bet every man in camp heard it.”

“How’d you know Pearce yelled for you?”

“I recognized his voice.”

Cleve’s manner recalled to Joan her first sight of him over in Cabin
Gulch. He was not so white or haggard, but his eyes were piercing,
and what had once been recklessness now seemed to be boldness. He
deliberately studied Pearce. Joan trembled, for she divined what none of
these robbers knew, and it was that Pearce was perilously near death. It
was there for Joan to read in Jim’s dark glance.

“Where’ve you been all these nights?” queried the bandit leader.

“Is that any of your business--when you haven’t had need of me?”
 returned Cleve.

“Yes, it’s my business. And I’ve sent for you. You couldn’t be found.”

“I’ve been here for supper every night.”

“I don’t talk to any men in daylight. You know my hours for meeting. And
you’ve not come.”

“You should have told me. How was I to know?”

“I guess you’re right. But where’ve you been?”

“Down in camp. Faro, most of the time. Bad luck, too.”

Red Pearce’s coarse face twisted into a scornful sneer. It must have
been a lash to Kells.

“Pearce says you’re chasing a woman,” retorted the bandit leader.

“Pearce lies!” flashed Cleve. His action was as swift. And there he
stood with a gun thrust hard against Pearce’s side.

“JIM! Don’t kill him!” yelled Kells, rising.

Pearce’s red face turned white. He stood still as a stone, with his gaze
fixed in fascinated fear upon Cleve’s gun.

A paralyzing surprise appeared to hold the group.

“Can you prove what you said?” asked Cleve, low and hard.

Joan knew that if Pearce did have the proof which would implicate her he
would never live to tell it.

“Cleve--I don’t--know nothin’,” choked out Pearce. “I jest figgered--it
was a woman!”

Cleve slowly lowered the gun and stepped back. Evidently that satisfied
him. But Joan had an intuitive feeling that Pearce lied.

“You want to be careful how you talk about me,” said Cleve.

Kells purled out a suspended breath and he flung the sweat from
his brow. There was about him, perhaps more than the others, a dark
realization of how close the call had been for Pearce.

“Jim, you’re not drunk?”

“No.”

“But you’re sore?”

“Sure I’m sore. Pearce put me in bad with you, didn’t he?”

“No. You misunderstood me. Red hasn’t a thing against you. And neither
he nor anybody else could put you in bad with me.”

“All right. Maybe I was hasty. But I’m not wasting time these days,”
 replied Cleve. “I’ve no hard feelings.... Pearce, do you want to shake
hands--or hold that against me?”

“He’ll shake, of course,” said Kells.

Pearce extended his hand, but with a bad grace. He was dominated. This
affront of Cleve’s would rankle in him.

“Kells, what do you want with me?” demanded Cleve.

A change passed over Kells, and Joan could not tell just what it was,
but somehow it seemed to suggest a weaker man.

“Jim, you’ve been a great card for me,” began Kells, impressively.
“You’ve helped my game--and twice you saved my life. I think a lot
of you.... If you stand by me now I swear I’ll return the trick some
day.... Will you stand by me?”

“Yes,” replied Cleve, steadily, but he grew pale. “What’s the trouble?”

“By--, it’s bad enough!” exclaimed Kells, and as he spoke the shade
deepened in his haggard face. “Gulden has split my Legion. He has drawn
away more than half my men. They have been drunk and crazy ever since.
They’ve taken things into their own hands. You see the result as well as
I. That camp down there is fire and brimstone. Some one of that drunken
gang has talked. We’re none of us safe any more. I see suspicion
everywhere. I’ve urged getting a big stake and then hitting the trail
for the border. But not a man sticks to me in that. They all want the
free, easy, wild life of this gold-camp. So we’re anchored till--till...
But maybe it’s not too late. Pearce, Oliver, Smith--all the best of my
Legion--profess loyalty to me. If we all pull together maybe we can
win yet. But they’ve threatened to split, too. And it’s all on your
account!”

“Mine?” ejaculated Cleve.

“Yes. Now it’s nothing to make you flash your gun. Remember you said
you’d stand by me.... Jim, the fact is--all the gang to a man believe
you’re double-crossing me!”

“In what way?” queried Cleve, blanching.

“They think you’re the one who has talked. They blame you for the
suspicion that’s growing.”

“Well, they’re absolutely wrong,” declared Cleve, in a ringing voice.

“I know they are. Mind you I’m not hinting I distrust you. I don’t. I
swear by you. But Pearce--”

“So it’s Pearce,” interrupted Cleve, darkly. “I thought you said he
hadn’t tried to put me in bad with you.”

“He hasn’t. He simply spoke his convictions. He has a right to them.
So have all the men. And, to come to the point, they all think you’re
crooked because you’re honest!”

“I don’t understand,” replied Cleve, slowly.

“Jim, you rode into Cabin Gulch, and you raised some trouble. But you
were no bandit. You joined my Legion, but you’ve never become a bandit.
Here you’ve been an honest miner. That suited my plan and it helped.
But it’s got so it doesn’t suit my men. You work every day hard. You’ve
struck it rich. You’re well thought of in Alder Creek. You’ve never done
a dishonest thing. Why, you wouldn’t turn a crooked trick in a card game
for a sack full of gold. This has hurt you with my men. They can’t see
as I see, that you’re as square as you are game. They see you’re an
honest miner. They believe you’ve got into a clique--that you’ve given
us away. I don’t blame Pearce or any of my men. This is a time when
men’s intelligence, if they have any, doesn’t operate. Their brains
are on fire. They see gold and whisky and blood, and they feel gold
and whisky and blood. That’s all. I’m glad that the gang gives you the
benefit of a doubt and a chance to stand by me.”

“A chance!”

“Yes. They’ve worked out a job for you alone. Will you undertake it?”

“I’ll have to,” replied Cleve.

“You certainly will if you want the gang to justify my faith in you.
Once you pull off a crooked deal, they’ll switch and swear by you. Then
we’ll get together, all of us, and plan what to do about Gulden and
his outfit. They’ll run our heads, along with their own, right into the
noose.”

“What is this--this job?” labored Cleve. He was sweating now and his
hair hung damp over his brow. He lost that look which had made him a
bold man and seemed a boy again, weak, driven, bewildered.

Kells averted his gaze before speaking again. He hated to force this
task upon Cleve. Joan felt, in the throbbing pain of the moment, that if
she never had another reason to like this bandit, she would like him for
the pity he showed.

“Do you know a miner named Creede?” asked Kells, rapidly.

“A husky chap, short, broad, something like Gulden for shape, only not
so big--fellow with a fierce red beard?” asked Cleve.

“I never saw him,” replied Kells. “But Pearce has. How does Cleve’s
description fit Creede?”

“He’s got his man spotted,” answered Pearce.

“All right, that’s settled,” went on Kells, warming to his subject.
“This fellow Creede wears a heavy belt of gold. Blicky never makes a
mistake. Creede’s partner left on yesterday’s stage for Bannack.
He’ll be gone a few days. Creede is a hard worker-one of the hardest.
Sometimes he goes to sleep at his supper. He’s not the drinking kind.
He’s slow, thick-headed. The best time for this job will be early in the
evening--just as soon as his lights are out. Locate the tent. It stands
at the head of a little wash and there’s a bleached pine-tree right by
the tent. To-morrow night as soon as it gets dark crawl up this wash--be
careful--wait till the right time--then finish the job quick!”

“How--finish--it?” asked Cleve, hoarsely.

Kells was scintillating now, steely, cold, radiant. He had forgotten the
man before him in the prospect of the gold.

“Creede’s cot is on the side of the tent opposite the tree. You won’t
have to go inside. Slit the canvas. It’s a rotten old tent. Kill Creede
with your knife.... Get his belt.... Be bold, cautious, swift! That’s
your job. Now what do you say?”

“All right,” responded Cleve, somberly, and with a heavy tread he left
the room.

After Jim had gone Joan still watched and listened. She was in distress
over his unfortunate situation, but she had no fear that he meant to
carry out Kells’s plan. This was a critical time for Jim, and therefore
for her. She had no idea what Jim could do; all she thought was what he
would not do.

Kells gazed triumphantly at Pearce. “I told you the youngster would
stand by me. I never put him on a job before.”

“Reckon I figgered wrong, boss,” replied Pearce.

“He looked sick to me, but game,” said Handy Oliver. “Kells is right,
Red, an’ you’ve been sore-headed over nothin’!”

“Mebbe. But ain’t it good figgerin’ to make Cleve do some kind of a job,
even if he is on the square?”

They all acquiesced to this, even Kells slowly nodding his head.

“Jack, I’ve thought of another an’ better job for young Cleve,” spoke up
Jesse Smith, with his characteristic grin.

“You’ll all be setting him jobs now,” replied Kells. “What’s yours?”

“You spoke of plannin’ to get together once more--what’s left of us. An’
there’s thet bull-head Gulden.”

“You’re sure right,” returned the leader, grimly, and he looked at Smith
as if he would welcome any suggestion.

“I never was afraid to speak my mind,” went on Smith. Here he lost his
grin and his coarse mouth grew hard. “Gulden will have to be killed if
we’re goin’ to last!”

“Wood, what do you say?” queried Kells, with narrowing eyes.

Bate Wood nodded as approvingly as if he had been asked about his bread.

“Oliver, what do you say?”

“Wal, I’d love to wait an’ see Gul hang, but if you press me, I’ll agree
to stand pat with the cards Jesse’s dealt,” replied Handy Oliver.

Then Kells turned with a bright gleam upon his face. “And you--Pearce?”

“I’d say yes in a minute if I’d not have to take a hand in thet job,”
 replied Pearce, with a hard laugh. “Gulden won’t be so easy to kill.
He’ll pack a gunful of lead. I’ll gamble if the gang of us cornered him
in this cabin he’d do for most of us before we killed him.”

“Gul sleep alone, no one knows where,” said Handy Oliver. “An’ he can’t
be surprised. Red’s correct. How’re we goin’ to kill him?”

“If you gents will listen you’ll find out,” rejoined Jesse Smith.
“Thet’s the job for young Cleve. He can do it. Sure Gulden never was
afraid of any man. But somethin’ about Cleve bluffed him. I don’t
know what. Send Cleve out after Gulden. He’ll call him face to face,
anywhere, an’ beat him to a gun!... Take my word for it.”

“Jesse, that’s the grandest idea you ever had,” said Kells, softly. His
eyes shone. The old power came back to his face. “I split on Gulden.
With him once out of the way--!”

“Boss, are you goin’ to make thet Jim Cleve’s second job?” inquired
Pearce, curiously.

“I am,” replied Kells, with his jaw corded and stiff. “If he pulls thet
off you’ll never hear a yap from me so long as I live. An’ I’ll eat out
of Cleve’s hand.”

Joan could bear to hear no more. She staggered to her bed and fell
there, all cramped as if in a cold vise. However Jim might meet the
situation planned for murdering Creede, she knew he would not shirk
facing Gulden with deadly intent. He hated Gulden because she had a
horror of him. Would these hours of suspense never end? Must she pass
from one torture to another until--?

Sleep did not come for a long time. And when it did she suffered with
nightmares from which it seemed she could never awaken.

The day, when at last it arrived, was no better than the night. It
wore on endlessly, and she who listened so intently found it one of the
silent days. Only Bate Wood remained at the cabin. He appeared kinder
than usual, but Joan did not want to talk. She ate her meals, and passed
the hours watching from the window and lying on the bed. Dusk brought
Kells and Pearce and Smith, but not Jim Cleve. Handy Oliver and Blicky
arrived at supper-time.

“Reckon Jim’s appetite is pore,” remarked Bate Wood, reflectively. “He
ain’t been in to-day.”

Some of the bandits laughed, but Kells had a twinge, if Joan ever saw a
man have one. The dark, formidable, stern look was on his face. He alone
of the men ate sparingly, and after the meal he took to his bent posture
and thoughtful pacing. Joan saw the added burden of another crime upon
his shoulders. Conversation, which had been desultory, and such as any
miners or campers might have indulged in, gradually diminished to a
word here and there, and finally ceased. Kells always at this hour had
a dampening effect upon his followers. More and more he drew aloof from
them, yet he never realized that. He might have been alone. But often he
glanced out of the door, and appeared to listen. Of course he expected
Jim Cleve to return, but what did he expect of him? Joan had a blind
faith that Jim would be cunning enough to fool Kells and Pearce. So much
depended upon it!

Some of the bandits uttered an exclamation. Then silently, like a
shadow, Jim Cleve entered.

Joan’s heart leaped and seemed to stand still. Jim could not have locked
more terrible if he were really a murderer. He opened his coat. Then
he flung a black object upon the table and it fell with a soft, heavy,
sodden thud. It was a leather belt packed with gold.

When Kells saw that he looked no more at the pale Cleve. His clawlike
hand swept out for the belt, lifted and weighed it. Likewise the other
bandits, with gold in sight, surged round Kells, forgetting Cleve.

“Twenty pounds!” exclaimed Kells, with a strange rapture in his voice.

“Let me heft it?” asked Pearce, thrillingly.

Joan saw and heard so much, then through a kind of dimness, that she
could not wipe away, her eyes beheld Jim. What was the awful thing that
she interpreted from his face, his mien? Was this a part he was playing
to deceive Kells? The slow-gathering might of her horror came with the
meaning of that gold-belt. Jim had brought back the gold-belt of the
miner Creede. He had, in his passion to remain near her, to save her in
the end, kept his word to Kells and done the ghastly deed.

Joan reeled and sank back upon the bed, blindly, with darkening sight
and mind.



16

Joan returned to consciousness with a sense of vague and unlocalized
pain which she thought was that old, familiar pang of grief. But once
fully awakened, as if by a sharp twinge, she became aware that the pain
was some kind of muscular throb in her shoulder. The instant she was
fully sure of this the strange feeling ceased. Then she lay wide-eyed in
the darkness, waiting and wondering.

Suddenly the slight sharp twing was repeated. It seemed to come from
outside her flesh. She shivered a little, thinking it might be a
centipede. When she reached for her shoulder her hand came in contact
with a slender stick that had been thrust through a crack between the
boards. Jim was trying to rouse her. This had been his method on several
occasions when she had fallen asleep after waiting long for him.

Joan got up to the window, dizzy and sick with the resurging memory of
Jim’s return to Kells with that gold-belt.

Jim rose out of the shadow and felt for her, clasped her close. Joan
had none of the old thrill; her hands slid loosely round his; and every
second the weight inwardly grew heavier.

“Joan! I had a time waking you,” whispered Jim, and then he kissed her.
“Why, you’re as cold as ice.”

“Jim--I--I must have fainted,” she replied.

“What for?” “I was peeping into Kells’s cabin, when you--you--”

“Poor kid!” he interrupted, tenderly. “You’ve had so much to bear!...
Joan, I fooled Kells. Oh, I was slick!... He ordered me out on a job--to
kill a miner! Fancy that! And what do you think? I know Creede well.
He’s a good fellow. I traded my big nugget for his gold-belt!”

“You TRADED--you--didn’t--kill him!” faltered Joan.

“Hear the child talk!” exclaimed Cleve, with a low laugh.

Joan suddenly clung to him with all her might, quivering in a silent
joy. It had not occurred to Jim what she might have thought.

“Listen,” he went on. “I traded my nugget. It was worth a great deal
more than Creede’s gold-belt. He knew this. He didn’t want to trade. But
I coaxed him. I persuaded him to leave camp--to walk out on the road to
Bannack. To meet the stage somewhere and go on to Bannack, and stay a
few days. He sure was curious. But I kept my secret.... Then I came
back here, gave the belt to Kells, told him I had followed Creede in
the dark, had killed him and slid him into a deep hole in the creek....
Kells and Pearce--none of them paid any attention to my story. I had
the gold-belt. That was enough. Gold talks--fills the ears of these
bandits.... I have my share of Creede’s gold-dust in my pocket. Isn’t
that funny? Alas for my--YOUR big nugget! But we’ve got to play the
game. Besides, I’ve sacks and cans of gold hidden away. Joan, what’ll
we do with it all? You’re my wife now. And, oh! If we can only get away
with it you’ll be rich!”

Joan could not share his happiness any more than she could understand
his spirit. She remembered.

“Jim--dear--did Kells tell you what your--next job was to be?” she
whispered, haltingly.

Cleve swore under his breath, but loud enough to make Joan swiftly put
her hand over his lips and caution him.

“Joan, did you hear that about Gulden?” he asked.

“Oh yes.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to tell you. Yes, I’ve got my second job. And
this one I can’t shirk or twist around.”

Joan held to him convulsively. She could scarcely speak.

“Girl, don’t lose your nerve!” he said, sternly. “When you married me
you made me a man. I’ll play my end of the game. Don’t fear for me. You
plan when we can risk escape. I’ll obey you to the word.”

“But Jim--oh, Jim!” she moaned. “You’re as wild as these bandits. You
can’t see your danger.... That terrible Gulden!... You don’t mean to
meet him--fight him?... Say you won’t!”

“Joan, I’ll meet him--and I’ll KILL him,” whispered Jim, with a piercing
intensity. “You never knew I was swift with a gun. Well, I didn’t,
either, till I struck the border. I know now. Kells is the only man
I’ve seen who can throw a gun quicker than I. Gulden is a big bull. He’s
slow. I’ll get into a card-game with him--I’ll quarrel over gold--I’ll
smash him as I did once before--and this time I won’t shoot off his ear.
I’ve my nerve now. Kells swore he’d do anything for me if I stand by
him now. I will. You never can tell. Kells is losing his grip. And my
standing by him may save you.”

Joan drew a deep breath. Jim Cleve had indeed come into manhood. She
crushed down her womanish fears and rose dauntless to the occasion. She
would never weaken him by a lack of confidence.

“Jim, Kells’s plot draws on to a fatal close,” she said, earnestly. “I
feel it. He’s doomed. He doesn’t realize that yet. He hopes and plots
on. When he falls, then he’ll be great--terrible. We must get away
before that comes. What you said about Creede has given me an idea.
Suppose we plan to slip out some night soon, and stop the stage next day
on its way to Bannack?”

“I’ve thought of that. But we must have horses.”

“Let’s go afoot. We’d be safer. There’d not be so much to plan.”

“But if we go on foot we must pack guns and grub--and there’s my
gold-dust. Fifty pounds or more! It’s yours, Joan.... You’ll need it
all. You love pretty clothes and things. And now I’ll get them for you
or--or die.”

“Hush! That’s foolish talk, with our very lives at stake. Let me plan
some more. Oh, I think so hard!... And, Jim, there’s another thing. Red
Pearce was more than suspicious about your absence from the cabin at
certain hours. What he hinted to Kells about a woman in the case! I’m
afraid he suspects or knows.”

“He had me cold, too,” replied Cleve, thoughtfully. “But he swore he
knew nothing.”

“Jim, trust a woman’s instinct. Pearce lied. That gun at his side made
him a liar. He knew you’d kill him if he betrayed himself by a word. Oh,
look out for him!”

Cleve did not reply. It struck Joan that he was not listening, at least
to her. His head was turned, rigid and alert. He had his ear to the soft
wind. Suddenly Joan heard a faint rustle-then another. They appeared
to come from the corner of the cabin. Silently Cleve sank down into the
shadow and vanished. Low, stealthy footsteps followed, but Joan was not
sure whether or not Cleve made them. They did not seem to come from the
direction he usually took. Besides, when he was careful he never made
the slightest noise. Joan strained her ears, only to catch the faint
sounds of the night. She lay back upon her bed, worried and anxious
again, and soon the dread returned. There were to be no waking or
sleeping hours free from this portent of calamity.

Next morning Joan awaited Kells, as was her custom, but he did not
appear. This was the third time in a week that he had forgotten or
avoided her or had been prevented from seeing her. Joan was glad,
yet the fact was not reassuring. The issue for Kells was growing from
trouble to disaster.

Early in the afternoon she heard Kells returning from camp. He had men
with him. They conversed in low, earnest tones. Joan was about to spy up
on them when Kells’s step approached her door. He rapped and spoke:

“Put on Dandy Dale’s suit and mask, and come out here,” he said.

The tone of his voice as much as the content of his words startled Joan
so that she did not at once reply.

“Do you hear?” he called, sharply.

“Yes,” replied Joan.

Then he went back to his men, and the low, earnest conversation was
renewed.

Reluctantly Joan took down Dandy Dale’s things from the pegs, and with
a recurring shame she divested herself of part of her clothes and donned
the suit and boots and mask and gun. Her spirit rose, however, at the
thought that this would be a disguise calculated to aid her in the
escape with Cleve. But why had Kells ordered the change? Was he
in danger and did he mean to flee from Alder Creek? Joan found the
speculation a relief from that haunting, persistent thought of Jim Cleve
and Gulden. She was eager to learn, still she hesitated at the door. It
was just as hard as ever to face those men.

But it must be, so with a wrench she stepped out boldly.

Kells looked worn and gray. He had not slept. But his face did not wear
the shade she had come to associate with his gambling and drinking. Six
other men were present, and Joan noted coats and gloves and weapons and
spurs. Kells turned to address her. His face lighted fleetingly.

“I want you to be ready to ride any minute,” he said.

“Why?” asked Joan.

“We may HAVE to, that’s all,” he replied.

His men, usually so keen when they had a chance to ogle Joan, now
scarcely gave her a glance. They were a dark, grim group, with hard eyes
and tight lips. Handy Oliver was speaking.

“I tell you, Gulden swore he seen Creede--on the road--in the
lamplight--last night AFTER Jim Cleve got here.”

“Gulden must have been mistaken,” declared Kells, impatiently.

“He ain’t the kind to make mistakes,” replied Oliver.

“Gul’s seen Creede’s ghost, thet’s what,” suggested Blicky, uneasily.
“I’ve seen a few in my time.”

Some of the bandits nodded gloomily.

“Aw!” burst out Red Pearce. “Gulden never seen a ghost in his life. If
he seen Creede he’s seen him ALIVE!”

“Shore you’re right, Red,” agreed Jesse Smith.

“But, men--Cleve brought in Creede’s belt--and we’ve divided the gold,”
 said Kells. “You all know Creede would have to be dead before that belt
could be unbuckled from him. There’s a mistake.”

“Boss, it’s my idee thet Gul is only makin’ more trouble,” put in Bate
Wood. “I seen him less than an hour ago. I was the first one Gul talked
to. An’ he knew Jim Cleve did for Creede. How’d he know? Thet was
supposed to be a secret. What’s more, Gul told me Cleve was on the job
to kill him. How’d he ever find thet out?... Sure as God made little
apples Cleve never told him!”

Kells’s face grew livid and his whole body vibrated. “Maybe one of
Gulden’s gang was outside, listening when we planned Cleve’s job,” he
suggested. But his look belied his hope.

“Naw! There’s a nigger in the wood-pile, you can gamble on thet,”
 blurted out the sixth bandit, a lean faced, bold-eye, blond-mustached
fellow whose name Joan had never heard.

“I won’t believe it,” replied Kells, doggedly. “And you, Budd, you’re
accusing somebody present of treachery--or else Cleve. He’s the only one
not here who knew.”

“Wal, I always said thet youngster was slick,” replied Budd.

“Will you accuse him to his face?”

“I shore will. Glad of the chance.”

“Then you’re drunk or just a fool.”

“Thet so?”

“Yes, that’s so,” flashed Kells. “You don’t know Cleve. He’ll kill you.
He’s lightning with a gun. Do you suppose I’d set him on Gulden’s trail
if I wasn’t sure? Why I wouldn’t care to--”

“Here comes Cleve,” interrupted Pearce, sharply.

Rapid footsteps sounded without. Then Joan saw Jim Cleve darken the
doorway. He looked keen and bold. Upon sight of Joan in her changed
attire he gave a slight start.

“Budd, here’s Cleve,” called out Red Pearce, mockingly. “Now, say it to
his face!”

In the silence that ensued Pearce’s spirit dominated the moment with its
cunning, hate, and violence. But Kells savagely leaped in front of the
men, still master of the situation.

“Red, what’s got into you?” he hissed. “You’re cross-grained lately.
You’re sore. Any more of this and I’ll swear you’re a disorganizer....
Now, Budd, you keep your mouth shut. And you, Cleve, you pay no heed to
Budd if he does gab.... We’re in bad and all the men have chips on their
shoulders. We’ve got to stop fighting among ourselves.”

“Wal, boss, there’s a power of sense in a good example,” dryly remarked
Bate Wood. His remark calmed Kells and eased the situation.

“Jim, did you meet Gulden?” queried Kells, eagerly.

“Can’t find him anywhere,” replied Cleve. “I’ve loafed in the saloons
and gambling-hells where he hangs out. But he didn’t show up. He’s in
camp. I know that for a fact. He’s laying low for some reason.”

“Gulden’s been tipped off, Jim,” said Kells, earnestly. “He told Bate
Wood you were out to kill him.”

“I’m glad. It wasn’t a fair hand you were going to deal him,” responded
Cleve. “But who gave my job away? Someone in this gang wants me done
for--more than Gulden.”

Cleve’s flashing gaze swept over the motionless men and fixed hardest
upon Red Pearce. Pearce gave back hard look for hard look.

“Gulden told Oliver more,” continued Kells, and he pulled Cleve around
to face him. “Gulden swore he saw Creede alive last night.... LATE LAST
NIGHT!”

“That’s funny,” replied Cleve, without the flicker of an eyelash.

“It’s not funny. But it’s queer. Gulden hasn’t the moral sense to lie.
Bate says he wants to make trouble between you and me. I doubt that.
I don’t believe Gulden could see a ghost, either. He’s simply mistaken
some miner for Creede.”

“He sure has, unless Creede came back to life. I’m not sitting on his
chest now, holding him down.”

Kells drew back, manifestly convinced and relieved. This action seemed
to be a magnet for Pearce. He detached himself from the group, and,
approaching Kells, tapped him significantly on the shoulder; and whether
by design or accident the fact was that he took a position where Kells
was between him and Cleve.

“Jack, you’re being double-crossed here--an’ by more ‘n one,” he said,
deliberately. “But if you want me to talk you’ve got to guarantee no
gun-play.”

“Speak up, Red,” replied Kells, with a glinting eye. “I swear there
won’t be a gun pulled.”

The other men shifted from one foot to another and there were deep-drawn
breaths. Jim Cleve alone seemed quiet and cool. But his eyes were
ablaze.

“Fust off an’ for instance here’s one who’s double-crossin’ you,” said
Pearce, in slow, tantalizing speech, as if he wore out this suspense to
torture Kells. And without ever glancing at Joan he jerked a thumb, in
significant gesture, at her.

Joan leaned back against the wall, trembling and cold all over. She read
Pearce’s mind. He knew her secret and meant to betray her and Jim. He
hated Kells and wanted to torture him. If only she could think quickly
and speak! But she seemed dumb and powerless.

“Pearce, what do you mean?” demanded Kells.

“The girl’s double-crossin’ you,” replied Pearce. With the uttered words
he grew pale and agitated.

Suddenly Kells appeared to become aware of Joan’s presence and that the
implication was directed toward her. Then, many and remarkable as had
been the changes Joan had seen come over him, now occurred one wholly
greater. It had all his old amiability, his cool, easy manner, veiling a
deep and hidden ruthlessness, terrible in contrast.

“Red, I thought our talk concerned men and gold and--things,” he said,
with a cool, slow softness that had a sting, “but since you’ve nerve
enough or are crazy enough to speak of--her--why, explain your meaning.”

Pearce’s jaw worked so that he could scarcely talk. He had gone too
far--realized it too late.

“She meets a man--back there--at her window,” he panted. “They whisper
in the dark for hours. I’ve watched an’ heard them. An’ I’d told you
before, but I wanted to make sure who he was.... I know him now!... An’
remember I seen him climb in an’ out--”

Kells’s whole frame leaped. His gun was a flash of blue and red and
white all together. Pearce swayed upright, like a tree chopped at the
roots, and then fell, face up, eyes set--dead. The bandit leader stood
over him with the smoking gun.

“My Gawd, Jack!” gasped Handy Oliver. “You swore no one would pull
a gun--an’ here you’ve killed him yourself!... YOU’VE DOUBLE-CROSSED
YOURSELF! An’ if I die for it I’ve got to tell you Red wasn’t lyin’
then!”

Kells’s radiance fled, leaving him ghastly. He stared at Oliver.

“You’ve double-crossed yourself an’ your pards,” went on Oliver,
pathetically. “What’s your word amount to? Do you expect the gang
to stand for this?... There lays Red Pearce dead. An’ for what? Jest
once--relyin’ on your oath--he speaks out what might have showed you.
An’ you kill him!... If I knowed what he knowed I’d tell you now with
thet gun in your hand! But I don’t know. Only I know he wasn’t lyin’....
Ask the girl!... An’ as for me, I reckon I’m through with you an’ your
Legion. You’re done, Kells--your head’s gone--you’ve broke over thet
slip of a woman!”

Oliver spoke with a rude and impressive dignity. When he ended he strode
out into the sunlight.

Kells was shaken by this forceful speech, yet he was not in any sense
a broken man. “Joan--you heard Pearce,” said he, passionately. “He lied
about you. I had to kill him. He hinted--Oh, the low-lived dog! He could
not know a good woman. He lied--and there he is--dead! I wouldn’t fetch
him back for a hundred Legions!”

“But it--it wasn’t--all--a lie,” said Joan, and her words came haltingly
because a force stronger than her cunning made her speak. She had
reached a point where she could not deceive Kells to save her life.

“WHAT!” he thundered.

“Pearce told the truth--except that no one ever climbed in my window.
That’s false. No one could climb in. It’s too small.... But I did
whisper--to someone.”

Kells had to moisten his lips to speak. “Who?”

“I’ll never tell you.”

“Who?... I’ll kill him!”

“No--no. I won’t tell. I won’t let you kill another man on my account.”

“I’ll choke it out of you.”

“You can’t. There’s no use to threaten me, or hurt me, either.”

Kells seemed dazed. “Whisper! For hours! In the dark!... But, Joan, what
for? Why such a risk?”

Joan shook her head.

“Were you just unhappy--lonesome? Did some young miner happen to see
you there in daylight--then come at night? Wasn’t it only accident? Tell
me.”

“I won’t--and I won’t because I don’t want you to spill more blood.”

“For my sake,” he queried, with the old, mocking tone. Then he grew dark
with blood in his face, fierce with action of hands and body as he
bent nearer her. “Maybe you like him too well to see him shot?... Did
you--whisper often to this stranger?”

Joan felt herself weakening. Kells was so powerful in spirit and passion
that she seemed unable to fight him. She strove to withhold her reply,
but it burst forth, involuntarily.

“Yes--often.”

That roused more than anger and passion. Jealousy flamed from him and it
transformed him into a devil.

“You held hands out of that window--and kissed--in the dark?” he cried,
with working lips.

Joan had thought of this so fearfully and intensely--she had battled so
to fortify herself to keep it secret--that he had divined it, had read
her mind. She could not control herself. The murder of Pearce had almost
overwhelmed her. She had not the strength to bite her tongue. Suggestion
alone would have drawn her then--and Kells’s passionate force was
hypnotic.

“Yes,” she whispered.

He appeared to control a developing paroxysm of rage.

“That settles you,” he declared darkly. “But I’ll do one more decent
thing by you. I’ll marry you.” Then he wheeled to his men. “Blicky,
there’s a parson down in camp. Go on the run. Fetch him back if you have
to push him with a gun.”

Blicky darted through the door and his footsteps thudded out of hearing.

“You can’t force me to marry you,” said Joan. “I--I won’t open my lips.”

“That’s your affair. I’ve no mind to coax you,” he replied, bitterly.
“But if you don’t I’ll try Gulden’s way with a woman.... You remember.
Gulden’s way! A cave and a rope!”

Joan’s legs gave out under her and she sank upon a pile of blankets.
Then beyond Kells she saw Jim Cleve. With all that was left of her
spirit she flashed him a warning--a meaning--a prayer not to do the
deed she divined was his deadly intent. He caught it and obeyed. And he
flashed back a glance which meant that, desperate as her case was, it
could never be what Kells threatened.

“Men, see me through this,” said Kells to the silent group. “Then any
deal you want--I’m on. Stay here or--sack the camp! Hold up the stage
express with gold for Bannack! Anything for a big stake! Then the trail
and the border.”

He began pacing the floor. Budd and Smith strolled outside. Bate Wood
fumbled in his pockets for pipe and tobacco. Cleve sat down at the table
and leaned on his hands. No one took notice of the dead Pearce. Here was
somber and terrible sign of the wildness of the border clan--that Kells
could send out for a parson to marry him to a woman he hopelessly loved,
there in the presence of murder and death, with Pearce’s distorted face
upturned in stark and ghastly significance.

It might have been a quarter of an hour, though to Joan it seemed an
endless time, until footsteps and voices outside announced the return of
Blicky.

He held by the arm a slight man whom he was urging along with no gentle
force. This stranger’s face presented as great a contrast to Blicky’s as
could have been imagined. His apparel proclaimed his calling. There were
consternation and bewilderment in his expression, but very little fear.

“He was preachin’ down there in a tent,” said Blicky, “an I jest waltzed
him up without explainin’.”

“Sir, I want to be married at once,” declared Kells, peremptorily.

“Certainly. I’m at your service,” replied the preacher. “But I deplore
the--the manner in which I’ve been approached.”

“You’ll excuse haste,” rejoined the bandit. “I’ll pay you well.” Kells
threw a small buckskin sack of gold-dust upon the table, and then he
turned to Joan. “Come, Joan,” he said, in the tone that brooked neither
resistance nor delay.

It was at that moment that the preacher first noticed Joan. Was her
costume accountable for his start? Joan had remembered his voice and she
wondered if he would remember hers. Certainly Jim had called her Joan
more than once on the night of the marriage. The preacher’s eyes grew
keener. He glanced from Joan to Kells, and then at the other men, who
had come in. Jim Cleve stood behind Jesse Smith’s broad person, and
evidently the preacher did not see him. That curious gaze, however, next
discovered the dead man on the floor. Then to the curiosity and anxiety
upon the preacher’s face was added horror.

“A minister of God is needed here, but not in the capacity you name,” he
said. “I’ll perform no marriage ceremony in the presence of--murder.”

“Mr. Preacher, you’ll marry me quick or you’ll go along with him,”
 replied Kells, deliberately.

“I cannot be forced.” The preacher still maintained some dignity, but he
had grown pale.

“_I_ can force you. Get ready now!... Joan, come here!”

Kells spoke sternly, yet something of the old, self-mocking spirit was
in his tone. His intelligence was deriding the flesh and blood of him,
the beast, the fool. It spoke that he would have his way and that the
choice was fatal for him.

Joan shook her head. In one stride Kells reached her and swung her
spinning before him. The physical violence acted strangely upon
Joan--roused her rage.

“I wouldn’t marry you to save my life--even if I could!” she burst out.

At her declaration the preacher gave a start that must have been
suspicion or confirmation, or both. He bent low to peer into the face of
the dead Pearce. When he arose he was shaking his head. Evidently he had
decided that Pearce was not the man to whom he had married Joan.

“Please remove your mask,” he said to Joan.

She did so, swiftly, without a tremor. The preacher peered into her
face again, as he had upon the night he had married her to Jim. He faced
Kells again.

“I am beyond your threats,” he said, now with calmness. “I can’t marry
you to a woman who already has a husband.... But I don’t see that
husband here.”

“You don’t see that husband here!” echoed the bewildered Kells. He
stared with open mouth. “Say, have you got a screw loose?”

The preacher, in his swift glance, had apparently not observed the
half-hidden Cleve. Certainly it appeared now that he would have
no attention for any other than Kells. The bandit was a study. His
astonishment was terrific and held him like a chain. Suddenly he
lurched.

“What did you say?” he roared, his face flaming.

“I can’t marry you to a woman who already has a husband.”

Swift as light the red flashed out of Kells’s face. “Did you ever see
her before?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied the preacher.

“Where and when?”

“Here--at the back of this cabin--a few nights ago.”

It hurt Joan to look at Kells now, yet he seemed wonderful to behold.
She felt as guilty as if she had really been false to him. Her
heart labored high in her breast. This was the climax--the moment of
catastrophe. Another word and Jim Cleve would be facing Kells. The blood
pressure in Joan’s throat almost strangled her.

“At the back of this cabin!... At her window?”

“Yes.”

“What were you there for?”

“In my capacity as minister. I was summoned to marry her.”

“To marry her?” gasped Kells.

“Yes. She is Joan Randle, from Hoadley, Idaho. She is over eighteen. I
understood she was detained here against her will. She loved an honest
young miner of the camp. He brought me up here one night. And I married
them.”

“YOU--MARRIED--THEM!”

“Yes.”

Kells was slow in assimilating the truth and his action corresponded
with his mind. Slowly his hand moved toward his gun. He drew it, threw
it aloft. And then all the terrible evil in the man flamed forth. But
as he deliberately drew down on the preacher Blicky leaped forward and
knocked up the gun. Flash and report followed; the discharge went into
the roof. Blicky grasped Kells’s arm and threw his weight upon it to
keep it down.

“I fetched thet parson here,” he yelled, “an you ain’t a-goin’ to kill
him!... Help, Jesse!... He’s crazy! He’ll do it!”

Jesse Smith ran to Blicky’s aid and tore the gun out of Kells’s hand.
Jim Cleve grasped the preacher by the shoulders and, whirling him
around, sent him flying out of the door.

“Run for your life!” he shouted.

Blicky and Jesse Smith were trying to hold the lunging Kells.

“Jim, you block the door,” called Jesse. “Bate, you grab any loose guns
an’ knives.... Now, boss, rant an’ be damned!”

They released Kells and backed away, leaving him the room. Joan’s limbs
seemed unable to execute her will.

“Joan! It’s true,” he exclaimed, with whistling breath.

“Yes.”

“WHO?” he bellowed.

“I’ll never tell.”

He reached for her with hands like claws, as if he meant to tear her,
rend her. Joan was helpless, weak, terrified. Those shaking, clutching
hands reached for her throat and yet never closed round it. Kells wanted
to kill her, but he could not. He loomed over her, dark, speechless,
locked in his paroxysm of rage. Perhaps then came a realization of ruin
through her. He hated her because he loved her. He wanted to kill her
because of that hate, yet he could not harm her, even hurt her. And his
soul seemed in conflict with two giants--the evil in him that was hate,
and the love that was good. Suddenly he flung her aside. She stumbled
over Pearce’s body, almost falling, and staggered back to the wall.
Kells had the center of the room to himself. Like a mad steer in a
corral he gazed about, stupidly seeking some way to escape. But the
escape Kells longed for was from himself. Then either he let himself go
or was unable longer to control his rage. He began to plunge around. His
actions were violent, random, half insane. He seemed to want to destroy
himself and everything. But the weapons were guarded by his men and the
room contained little he could smash. There was something magnificent
in his fury, yet childish and absurd. Even under its influence and his
abandonment he showed a consciousness of its futility. In a few moments
the inside of the cabin was in disorder and Kells seemed a disheveled,
sweating, panting wretch. The rapidity and violence of his action,
coupled with his fury, soon exhausted him. He fell from plunging here
and there to pacing the floor. And even the dignity of passion passed
from him. He looked a hopeless, beaten, stricken man, conscious of
defeat.

Jesse Smith approached the bandit leader. “Jack, here’s your gun,” he
said. “I only took it because you was out of your head.... An’ listen,
boss. There’s a few of us left.”

That was Smith’s expression of fidelity, and Kells received it with a
pallid, grateful smile.

“Bate, you an’ Jim clean up this mess,” went on Smith. “An’, Blicky,
come here an’ help me with Pearce. We’ll have to plant him.”

The stir begun by the men was broken by a sharp exclamation from Cleve.

“Kells, here comes Gulden--Beady Jones, Williams, Beard!”

The bandit raised his head and paced back to where he could look out.

Bate Wood made a violent and significant gesture. “Somethin’ wrong,” he
said, hurriedly. “An’ it’s more’n to do with Gul!... Look down the road.
See thet gang. All excited an’ wavin’ hands an’ runnin’. But they’re
goin’ down into camp.”

Jesse Smith turned a gray face toward Kells. “Boss, there’s hell to pay!
I’ve seen THET kind of excitement before.”

Kells thrust the men aside and looked out. He seemed to draw upon a
reserve strength, for he grew composed even while he gazed. “Jim, get in
the other room,” he ordered, sharply. “Joan--you go, too. Keep still.”

Joan hurried to comply. Jim entered after her and closed the door.
Instinctively they clasped hands, drew close together.

“Jim, what does it mean?” she whispered, fearfully. “Gulden!”

“He must be looking for me,” replied Jim. “But there’s more doing. Did
you see that crowd down the road?”

“No. I couldn’t see out.”

“Listen.”

Heavy tramp boots sounded without. Silently Joan led Jim to the crack
between the boards through which she had spied upon the bandits. Jim
peeped through, and Joan saw his hand go to his gun. Then she looked.

Gulden was being crowded into the cabin by fierce, bulging-jawed men
who meant some kind of dark business. The strangest thing about that
entrance was its silence. In a moment they were inside, confronting
Kells with his little group. Beard, Jones, Williams, former faithful
allies of Kells, showed a malignant opposition. And the huge Gulden
resembled an enraged gorilla. For an instant his great, pale, cavernous
eyes glared. He had one hand under his coat and his position had a
sinister suggestion. But Kells stood cool and sure. When Gulden moved
Kells’s gun was leaping forth. But he withheld his fire, for Gulden had
only a heavy round object wrapped in a handkerchief.

“Look there!” he boomed, and he threw the object on the table.

The dull, heavy, sodden thump had a familiar ring. Joan heard Jim gasp
and his hand tightened spasmodically upon hers.

Slowly the ends of the red scarf slid down to reveal an irregularly
round, glinting lump. When Joan recognized it her heart seemed to burst.

“Jim Cleve’s nugget!” ejaculated Kells. “Where’d you get that?”

Gulden leaned across the table, his massive jaw working. “I found it on
the miner Creede,” replied the giant, stridently.

Then came a nervous shuffling of boots on the creaky boards. In the
silence a low, dull murmur of distant voices could be heard, strangely
menacing. Kells stood transfixed, white as a sheet.

“On Creede!”

“Yes.”

“Where was his--his body?”

“I left it out on the Bannack trail.”

The bandit leader appeared mute.

“Kells, I followed Creede out of camp last night,” fiercely declared
Gulden.... “I killed him!... I found this nugget on him!”



17

Apparently to Kells that nugget did not accuse Jim Cleve of treachery.
Not only did this possibility seem lost upon the bandit leader, but also
the sinister intent of Gulden and his associates.

“Then Jim didn’t kill Creede!” cried Kells.

A strange light flashed across his face. It fitted the note of gladness
in his exclamation. How strange that in his amaze there should be relief
instead of suspicion! Joan thought she understood Kells. He was glad
that he had not yet made a murderer out of Cleve.

Gulden appeared slow in rejoining. “I told you I got Creede,” he said.
“And we want to know if this says to you what it says to us.”

His huge, hairy hand tapped the nugget. Then Kells caught the
implication.

“What does it say to you?” he queried, coolly, and he eyed Gulden and
then the grim men behind him.

“Somebody in the gang is crooked. Somebody’s giving you the
double-cross. We’ve known that for long. Jim Cleve goes out to kill
Creede. He comes in with Creede’s gold-belt--and a lie!... We think
Cleve is the crooked one.”

“No! You’re way off, Gulden,” replied Kells, earnestly. “That boy is
absolutely square. He’s lied to me about Creede. But I can excuse
that. He lost his nerve. He’s only a youngster. To knife a man in his
sleep--that was too much for Jim!... And I’m glad! I see it all now.
Jim’s swapped his big nugget for Creede’s belt. And in the bargain
he exacted that Creede hit the trail out of camp. You happened to see
Creede and went after him yourself.... Well, I don’t see where you’ve
any kick coming. For you’ve ten times the money in Cleve’s nugget that
there was in a share of Creede’s gold.”

“That’s not my kick,” declared Gulden. “What you say about Cleve may be
true. But I don’t believe it. And the gang is sore. Things have leaked
out. We’re watched. We’re not welcome in the gambling-places any more.
Last night I was not allowed to sit in the game at Belcher’s.”

“You think Cleve has squealed?” queried Kells.

“Yes.”

“I’ll bet you every ounce of dust I’ve got that you’re wrong,” declared
Kells. “A straight, square bet against anything you want to put up!”

Kells’s ringing voice was nothing if not convincing.

“Appearances are against Cleve,” growled Gulden, dubiously. Always he
had been swayed by the stronger mind of the leader.

“Sure they are,” agreed Kells.

“Then what do you base your confidence on?”

“Just my knowledge of men. Jim Cleve wouldn’t squeal.... Gulden, did
anybody tell you that?”

“Yes,” replied Gulden, slowly. “Red Pearce.”

“Pearce was a liar,” said Kells, bitterly. “I shot him for lying to me.”

Gulden stared. His men muttered and gazed at one another and around the
cabin.

“Pearce told me you set Cleve to kill me,” suddenly spoke up the giant.

If he expected to surprise Kells he utterly failed.

“That’s another and bigger lie,” replied the bandit leader, disgustedly.
“Gulden, do you think my mind’s gone?”

“Not quite,” replied Gulden, and he seemed as near a laugh as was
possible for him.

“Well, I’ve enough mind left not to set a boy to kill such a man as
you.”

Gulden might have been susceptible to flattery. He turned to his men.
They, too, had felt Kells’s subtle influence. They were ready to veer
round like weather-vanes.

“Red Pearce has cashed, an’ he can’t talk for himself,” said Beady
Jones, as if answering to the unspoken thought of all.

“Men, between you and me, I had more queer notions about Pearce than
Cleve,” announced Gulden, gruffly. “But I never said so because I had no
proof.”

“Red shore was sore an’ strange lately,” added Chick Williams. “Me an’
him were pretty thick once--but not lately.”

The giant Gulden scratched his head and swore. Probably he had no sense
of justice and was merely puzzled.

“We’re wastin’ a lot of time,” put in Beard, anxiously. “Don’t fergit
there’s somethin’ comin’ off down in camp, an’ we ain’t sure what.”

“Bah! Haven’t we heard whispers of vigilantes for a week?” queried
Gulden.

Then some one of the men looked out of the door and suddenly whistled.

“Who’s thet on a hoss?”

Gulden’s gang crowded to the door.

“Thet’s Handy Oliver.”

“No!”

“Shore is. I know him. But it ain’t his hoss.... Say, he’s hurryin’.”

Low exclamations of surprise and curiosity followed. Kells and his men
looked attentively, but no one spoke. The clatter of hoofs on the stony
road told of a horse swiftly approaching--pounding to a halt before the
cabin.

“Handy!... Air you chased?... What’s wrong?... You shore look pale round
the gills.” These and other remarks were flung out the door.

“Where’s Kells? Let me in,” replied Oliver, hoarsely.

The crowd jostled and split to admit the long, lean Oliver. He stalked
straight toward Kells, till the table alone stood between them. He was
gray of face, breathing hard, resolute and stern.

“Kells, I throwed--you--down!” he said, with outstretched hand. It was a
gesture of self-condemnation and remorse.

“What of that?” demanded Kells, with his head leaping like the strike of
an eagle.

“I’m takin’ it back!”

Kells met the outstretched hand with his own and wrung it. “Handy, I
never knew you to right--about--face. But I’m glad.... What’s changed
you so quickly?”

“VIGILANTES!”

Kells’s animation and eagerness suddenly froze. “VIGILANTES!” he ground
out.

“No rumor, Kells, this time. I’ve sure some news.... Come close, all
you fellows. You, Gulden, come an’ listen. Here’s where we git together
closer’n ever.”

Gulden surged forward with his group. Handy Oliver was surrounded by
pale, tight faces, dark-browed and hardeyed.

He gazed at them, preparing them for a startling revelation. “Men, of
all the white-livered traitors as ever was Red Pearce was the worst!” he
declared, hoarsely.

No one moved or spoke.

“AN’ HE WAS A VIGILANTE!”

A low, strange sound, almost a roar, breathed through the group.

“Listen now an’ don’t interrupt. We ain’t got a lot of time.... So never
mind how I happened to find out about Pearce. It was all accident, an’
jest because I put two an’ two together.... Pearce was approached by one
of this secret vigilante band, an’ he planned to sell the Border Legion
outright. There was to be a big stake in it for him. He held off
day after day, only tippin’ off some of the gang. There’s Dartt an’
Singleton an’ Frenchy an’ Texas all caught red-handed at jobs. Pearce
put the vigilantes to watchin’ them jest to prove his claim.... Aw! I’ve
got the proofs! Jest wait. Listen to me!... You all never in your lives
seen a snake like Red Pearce. An’ the job he had put up on us was grand.
To-day he was to squeal on the whole gang. You know how he began on
Kells--an’ how with his oily tongue he asked a guarantee of no gun-play.
But he figgered Kells wrong for once. He accused Kells’s girl an’ got
killed for his pains. Mebbe it was part of his plan to git the girl
himself. Anyway, he had agreed to betray the Border Legion to-day. An’
if he hadn’t been killed by this time we’d all be tied up, ready for the
noose!... Mebbe thet wasn’t a lucky shot of the boss’s. Men, I was the
first to declare myself against Kells, an’ I’m here now to say thet I
was a fool. So you’ve all been fools who’ve bucked against him. If this
ain’t provin’ it, what can!

“But I must hustle with my story.... They was havin’ a trial down at
the big hall, an’ thet place was sure packed. No diggin’ gold to-day!...
Think of what thet means for Alder Creek. I got inside where I could
stand on a barrel an’ see. Dartt an’ Singleton an’ Frenchy an’ Texas was
bein’ tried by a masked court. A man near me said two of them had been
proved guilty. It didn’t take long to make out a case against Texas
an’ Frenchy. Miners there recognized them an’ identified them. They was
convicted an’ sentenced to be hung!.. Then the offer was made to let
them go free out of the border if they’d turn state’s evidence an’ give
away the leader an’ men of the Border Legion. Thet was put up to each
prisoner. Dartt he never answered at all. An’ Singleton told them to go
to hell. An’ Texas he swore he was only a common an’ honest road-agent,
an’ never heard of the Legion. But the Frenchman showed a yellow streak.
He might have taken the offer. But Texas cussed him tumble, an’ made him
ashamed to talk. But if they git Frenchy away from Texas they’ll make
him blab. He’s like a greaser. Then there was a delay. The big crowd
of miners yelled for ropes. But the vigilantes are waitin’, an’ it’s my
hunch they’re waitin’ for Pearce.”

“So! And where do we stand?” cried Kells, clear and cold.

“We’re not spotted yet, thet’s certain,” replied Oliver, “else them
masked vigilantes would have been on the job before now. But it’s not
sense to figger we can risk another day.... I reckon it’s hit the trail
back to Cabin Gulch.”

“Gulden, what do you say?” queried Kells, sharply.

“I’ll go or stay--whatever you want,” replied the giant. In this crisis
he seemed to be glad to have Kells decide the issue. And his followers
resembled sheep ready to plunge after the leader.

But though Kells, by a strange stroke, had been made wholly master of
the Legion, he did not show the old elation or radiance. Perhaps he saw
more clearly than ever before. Still he was quick, decisive, strong,
equal to the occasion.

“Listen--all of you,” he said. “Our horses and outfits are hidden in a
gulch several miles below camp. We’ve got to go that way. We can’t pack
any grub or stuff from here. We’ll risk going through camp. Now leave
here two or three at a time, and wait down there on the edge of the
crowd for me. When I come we’ll stick together. Then all do as I do.”

Gulden put the nugget under his coat and strode out, accompanied by Budd
and Jones. They hurried away. The others went in couples. Soon only Bate
Wood and Handy Oliver were left with Kells.

“Now you fellows go,” said Kells. “Be sure to round up the gang down
there and wait for me.”

When they had gone he called for Jim and Joan to come out.

All this time Joan’s hand had been gripped in Jim’s, and Joan had been
so absorbed that she had forgotten the fact. He released her and faced
her, silent, pale. Then he went out. Joan swiftly followed.

Kells was buckling on his spurs. “You heard?” he said, the moment he saw
Jim’s face.

“Yes,” replied Jim.

“So much the better. We’ve got to rustle.... Joan, put on that long
coat of Cleve’s. Take off your mask.... Jim, get what gold you have, and
hurry. If we’re gone when you come back hurry down the road. I want you
with me.”

Cleve stalked out, and Joan ran into her room and put on the long coat.
She had little time to choose what possessions she could take; and that
choice fell upon the little saddle-bag, into which she hurriedly stuffed
comb and brush and soap--all it would hold. Then she returned to the
larger room.

Kells had lifted a plank of the floor, and was now in the act of putting
small buckskin sacks of gold into his pockets. They made his coat bulge
at the sides.

“Joan, stick some meat and biscuits in your pockets,” he said. “I’d
never get hungry with my pockets full of gold. But you might.”

Joan rummaged around in Bate Wood’s rude cupboard.

“These biscuits are as heavy as gold--and harder,” she said.

Kells flashed a glance at her that held pride, admiration, and sadness.
“You are the gamest girl I ever knew! I wish I’d--But that’s too
late!... Joan, if anything happens to me stick close to Cleve. I believe
you can trust him. Come on now.”

Then he strode out of the cabin. Joan had almost to run to keep up
with him. There were no other men now in sight. She knew that Jim would
follow soon, because his gold-dust was hidden in the cavern back of
her room, and he would not need much time to get it. Nevertheless,
she anxiously looked back. She and Kells had gone perhaps a couple of
hundred yards before Jim appeared, and then he came on the run. At a
point about opposite the first tents he joined Kells.

“Jim, how about guns?” asked the bandit.

“I’ve got two,” replied Cleve.

“Good! There’s no telling--Jim, I’m afraid of the gang. They’re crazy.
What do you think?”

“I don’t know. It’s a hard proposition.”

“We’ll get away, all right. Don’t worry about that. But the gang will
never come together again.” This singular man spoke with melancholy.
“Slow up a little now,” he added. “We don’t want to attract
attention.... But where is there any one to see us?... Jim, did I have
you figured right about the Creede job?”

“You sure did. I just lost my nerve.”

“Well, no matter.”

Then Kells appeared to forget that. He stalked on with keen glances
searching everywhere, until suddenly, when he saw round a bend of the
road, he halted with grating teeth. That road was empty all the way to
the other end of camp, but there surged a dark mob of men. Kells stalked
forward again. The Last Nugget appeared like an empty barn. How vacant
and significant the whole center of camp! Kells did not speak another
word.

Joan hurried on between Kells and Cleve. She was trying to fortify
herself to meet what lay at the end of the road. A strange, hoarse roar
of men and an upflinging of arms made her shudder. She kept her eyes
lowered and clung to the arms of her companions.

Finally they halted. She felt the crowd before she saw it. A motley
assemblage with what seemed craned necks and intent backs! They were all
looking forward and upward. But she forced her glance down.

Kells stood still. Jim’s grip was hard upon her arm. Presently men
grouped round Kells. She heard whispers. They began to walk slowly, and
she was pushed and led along. More men joined the group. Soon she and
Kells and Jim were hemmed in a circle. Then she saw the huge form
of Gulden, the towering Oliver, and Smith and Blicky, Beard, Jones,
Williams, Budd, and others. The circle they formed appeared to be only
one of many groups, all moving, whispering, facing from her. Suddenly a
sound like the roar of a wave agitated that mass of men. It was harsh,
piercing, unnatural, yet it had a note of wild exultation. Then came the
stamp and surge, and then the upflinging of arms, and then the abrupt
strange silence, broken only by a hiss or an escaping breath, like a
sob. Beyond all Joan’s power to resist was a deep, primitive desire to
look.

There over the heads of the mob--from the bench of the slope--rose
grotesque structures of new-hewn lumber. On a platform stood black,
motionless men in awful contrast with a dangling object that doubled up
and curled upon itself in terrible convulsions. It lengthened while it
swayed; it slowed its action while it stretched. It took on the form of
a man. He swung by a rope round his neck. His head hung back. His hands
beat. A long tremor shook the body; then it was still, and swayed to and
fro, a dark, limp thing.

Joan’s gaze was riveted in horror. A dim, red haze made her vision
imperfect. There was a sickening riot within her.

There were masked men all around the platform--a solid phalanx of them
on the slope above. They were heavily armed. Other masked men stood on
the platform. They seemed rigid figures--stiff, jerky when they moved.
How different from the two forms swaying below!

The structure was a rude scaffold and the vigilantes had already hanged
two bandits.

Two others with hands bound behind their backs stood farther along the
platform under guard. Before each dangled a noose.

Joan recognized Texas and Frenchy. And on the instant the great crowd
let out a hard breath that ended in silence.

The masked leader of the vigilantes was addressing Texas: “We’ll spare
your life if you confess. Who’s the head of this Border Legion?”

“Shore it’s Red Pearce!... Haw! Haw! Haw!”

“We’ll give you one more chance,” came the curt reply.

Texas appeared to become serious and somber. “I swear to God it’s
Pearce!” he declared.

“A lie won’t save you. Come, the truth! We think we know, but we want
proof! Hurry!”

“You can go where it’s hot!” responded Texas.

The leader moved his hand and two other masked men stepped forward.

“Have you any message to send any one--anything to say?” he asked.

“Nope.”

“Have you any request to make?”

“Hang that Frenchman before me! I want to see him kick.”

Nothing more was said. The two men adjusted the noose round the doomed
man’s neck. Texas refused the black cap. And he did not wait for the
drop to be sprung. He walked off the platform into space as Joan closed
her eyes.

Again that strange, full, angry, and unnatural roar waved through the
throng of watchers. It was terrible to hear. Joan felt the violent
action of that crowd, although the men close round her were immovable as
stones. She imagined she could never open her eyes to see Texas hanging
there. Yet she did--and something about his form told her that he had
died instantly. He had been brave and loyal even in dishonor. He had
more than once spoken a kind word to her. Who could tell what had made
him an outcast? She breathed a prayer for his soul.

The vigilantes were bolstering up the craven Frenchy. He could not
stand alone. They put the rope round his neck and lifted him off the
platform--then let him down. He screamed in his terror. They cut short
his cries by lifting him again. This time they held him up several
seconds. His face turned black. His eyes bulged. His breast heaved. His
legs worked with the regularity of a jumping-jack. They let him down and
loosened the noose. They were merely torturing him to wring a confession
from him. He had been choked severely and needed a moment to recover.
When he did it was to shrink back in abject terror from that loop of
rope dangling before his eyes.

The vigilante leader shook the noose in his face and pointed to the
swaying forms of the dead bandits.

Frenchy frothed at the mouth as he shrieked out words in his native
tongue, but any miner there could have translated their meaning.

The crowd heaved forward, as if with one step, then stood in a strained
silence.

“Talk English!” ordered the vigilante.

“I’ll tell! I’ll tell!”

Joan became aware of a singular tremor in Kells’s arm, which she still
clasped. Suddenly it jerked. She caught a gleam of blue. Then the bellow
of a gun almost split her ears. Powder burned her cheek. She saw Frenchy
double up and collapse on the platform.

For an instant there was a silence in which every man seemed petrified.
Then burst forth a hoarse uproar and the stamp of many boots. All in
another instant pandemonium broke out. The huge crowd split in every
direction. Joan felt Cleve’s strong arm around her--felt herself borne
on a resistless tide of yelling, stamping, wrestling men. She had a
glimpse of Kells’s dark face drawing away from her; another of Gulden’s
giant form in Herculean action, tossing men aside like ninepins; another
of weapons aloft. Savage, wild-eyed men fought to get into the circle
whence that shot had come. They broke into it, but did not know then
whom to attack or what to do. And the rushing of the frenzied miners all
around soon disintegrated Kells’s band and bore its several groups in
every direction. There was not another shot fired.

Joan was dragged and crushed in the melee. Not for rods did her feet
touch the ground. But in the clouds of dust and confusion of struggling
forms she knew Jim still held her, and she clasped him with all her
strength. Presently her feet touched the earth; she was not jostled
and pressed; then she felt free to walk; and with Jim urging her they
climbed a rock-strewn slope till a cabin impeded further progress. But
they had escaped the stream.

Below was a strange sight. A scaffold shrouded in dust-clouds; a band
of bewildered vigilantes with weapons drawn, waiting for they knew not
what; three swinging, ghastly forms and a dead man on the platform; and
all below, a horde of men trying to escape from one another. That shot
of Kells’s had precipitated a rush. No miner knew who the vigilantes
were nor the members of the Border Legion. Every man there expected
a bloody battle--distrusted the man next to him--and had given way to
panic. The vigilantes had tried to crowd together for defense and
all the others had tried to escape. It was a wild scene, born of wild
justice and blood at fever-heat, the climax of a disordered time where
gold and violence reigned supreme. It could only happen once, but it
was terrible while it lasted. It showed the craven in men; it proved the
baneful influence of gold; it brought, in its fruition, the destiny of
Alder Creek Camp. For it must have been that the really brave and
honest men in vast majority retraced their steps while the vicious kept
running. So it seemed to Joan.

She huddled against Jim there in the shadow of the cabin wall, and not
for long did either speak. They watched and listened. The streams
of miners turned back toward the space around the scaffold where the
vigilantes stood grouped, and there rose a subdued roar of excited
voices. Many small groups of men conversed together, until the vigilante
leader brought all to attention by addressing the populace in general.
Joan could not hear what he said and had no wish to hear.

“Joan, it all happened so quickly, didn’t it?” whispered Jim, shaking
his head as if he was not convinced of reality.

“Wasn’t he--terrible!” whispered Joan in reply.

“He! Who?”

“Kells.” In her mind the bandit leader dominated all that wild scene.

“Terrible, if you like. But I’d say great!... The nerve of him! In the
face of a hundred vigilantes and thousands of miners! But he knew what
that shot would do!”

“Never! He never thought of that,” declared Joan, earnestly. “I felt him
tremble. I had a glimpse of his face.... Oh!... First in his mind was
his downfall, and, second, the treachery of Frenchy. I think that shot
showed Kells as utterly desperate, but weak. He couldn’t have helped
it--if that had been the last bullet in his gun.”

Jim Cleve looked strangely at Joan, as if her eloquence was both
persuasive and incomprehensible.

“Well, that was a lucky shot for us--and him, too.”

“Do you think he got away?” she asked, eagerly.

“Sure. They all got away. Wasn’t that about the maddest crowd you ever
saw?”

“No wonder. In a second every man there feared the man next to him would
shoot. That showed the power of Kells’s Border Legion. If his men had
been faithful and obedient he never would have fallen.”

“Joan! You speak as if you regret it!”

“Oh, I am ashamed,” replied Joan. “I don’t mean that. I don’t know what
I do mean. But still I’m sorry for Kells. I suffered so much.... Those
long, long hours of suspense.... And his fortunes seemed my fortunes--my
very life--and yours, too, Jim.”

“I think I understand, dear,” said Jim, soberly.

“Jim, what’ll we do now? Isn’t it strange to feel free?”

“I feel as queer as you. Let me think,” replied Jim.

They huddled there in comparative seclusion for a long time after that.
Joan tried to think of plans, but her mind seemed, unproductive. She
felt half dazed. Jim, too, appeared to be laboring under the same kind
of burden. Moreover, responsibility had been added to his.

The afternoon waned till the sun tipped the high range in the west. The
excitement of the mining populace gradually wore away, and toward
sunset strings of men filed up the road and across the open. The masked
vigilantes disappeared, and presently only a quiet and curious crowd
was left round the grim scaffold and its dark swinging forms. Joan’s one
glance showed that the vigilantes had swung Frenchy’s dead body in the
noose he would have escaped by treachery. They had hanged him dead. What
a horrible proof of the temper of these newborn vigilantes! They had
left the bandits swinging. What sight was so appalling as these limp,
dark, swaying forms? Dead men on the ground had a dignity--at least the
dignity of death. And death sometimes had a majesty. But here both life
and death had been robbed and there was only horror. Joan felt that all
her life she would be haunted.

“Joan, we’ve got to leave Alder Creek,” declared Cleve, finally. He rose
to his feet. The words seemed to have given him decision. “At first I
thought every bandit in the gang would run as far as he could from here.
But--you can’t tell what these wild men will do. Gulden, for instance!
Common sense ought to make them hide for a spell. Still, no matter
what’s what, we must leave.... Now, how to go?”

“Let’s walk. If we buy horses or wait for the stage we’ll have to see
men here--and I’m afraid--”

“But, Joan, there’ll be bandits along the road sure. And the trails,
wherever they are, would be less safe.”

“Let’s travel by night and rest by day.”

“That won’t do, with so far to go and no pack.”

“Then part of the way.”

“No. We’d better take the stage for Bannack. If it starts at all it’ll
be under armed guard. The only thing is--will it leave soon?... Come,
Joan, we’ll go down into camp.”

Dusk had fallen and lights had begun to accentuate the shadows. Joan
kept close beside Jim, down the slope, and into the road. She felt like
a guilty thing and every passing man or low-conversing group frightened
her. Still she could not help but see that no one noticed her or Jim,
and she began to gather courage. Jim also acquired confidence. The
growing darkness seemed a protection. The farther up the street they
passed, the more men they met. Again the saloons were in full blast.
Alder Creek had returned to the free, careless tenor of its way. A
few doors this side of the Last Nugget was the office of the stage and
express company. It was a wide tent with the front canvas cut out and
a shelf-counter across the opening. There was a dim, yellow lamplight.
Half a dozen men lounged in front, and inside were several more, two of
whom appeared to be armed guards. Jim addressed no one in particular.

“When does the next stage leave for Bannack?”

A man looked up sharply from the papers that littered a table before
him. “It leaves when we start it,” he replied, curtly.

“Well, when will that be?”

“What’s that to you?” he replied, with a question still more curt.

“I want to buy seats for two.”

“That’s different. Come in and let’s look you over.... Hello! it’s young
Cleve. I didn’t recognize you. Excuse me. We’re a little particular
these days.”

The man’s face lighted. Evidently he knew Jim and thought well of him.
This reassured Joan and stilled the furious beating of her heart. She
saw Jim hand over a sack of gold, from which the agent took the amount
due for the passage. Then he returned the sack and whispered something
in Jim’s ear. Jim rejoined her and led her away, pressing her arm close
to his side.

“It’s all right,” he whispered, excitedly. “Stage leaves just before
daylight. It used to leave in the middle of the fore-noon. But they want
a good start to-morrow.”

“They think it might be held up?”

“He didn’t say so. But there’s every reason to suspect that.... Joan, I
sure hope it won’t. Me with all this gold. Why, I feel as if I weighed a
thousand pounds.”

“What’ll we do now?” she inquired.

Jim halted in the middle of the road. It was quite dark now. The lights
of the camp were flaring; men were passing to and fro; the loose boards
on the walks rattled to their tread; the saloons had begun to hum; and
there was a discordant blast from the Last Nugget.

“That’s it--what’ll we do?” he asked in perplexity.

Joan had no idea to advance, but with the lessening of her fear and the
gradual clearing of her mind she felt that she would not much longer be
witless.

“We’ve got to eat and get some rest,” said Jim, sensibly.

“I’ll try to eat--but I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight,”
 replied Joan.

Jim took her to a place kept by a Mexican. It appeared to consist of
two tents, with opening in front and door between. The table was a plank
resting upon two barrels, and another plank, resting upon kegs, served
as a seat. There was a smoking lamp that flickered. The Mexican’s
tableware was of a crudeness befitting his house, but it was clean and
he could cook--two facts that Joan appreciated after her long experience
of Bate Wood. She and Jim were the only customers of the Mexican, who
spoke English rather well and was friendly. Evidently it pleased him to
see the meal enjoyed. Both the food and the friendliness had good effect
upon Jim Cleve. He ceased to listen all the time and to glance furtively
out at every footstep.

“Joan, I guess it’ll turn out all right,” he said, clasping her hand
as it rested upon the table. Suddenly he looked bright-eyed and shy. He
leaned toward her. “Do you remember--we are married?” he whispered.

Joan was startled. “Of course,” she replied hastily. But had she
forgotten?

“You’re my wife.”

Joan looked at him and felt her nerves begin to tingle. A soft, warm
wave stole over her.

Like a boy he laughed. “This was our first meal together--on our
honeymoon!”

“Jim!” The blood burned in Joan’s face.

“There you sit--you beautiful... But you’re not a girl now. You’re Dandy
Dale.”

“Don’t call me that!” exclaimed Joan.

“But I shall--always. We’ll keep that bandit suit always. You can dress
up sometimes to show off--to make me remember--to scare the--the kids--”

“Jim Cleve!”

“Oh, Joan, I’m afraid to be happy. But I can’t help it. We’re going to
get away. You belong to me. And I’ve sacks and sacks of gold-dust. Lord!
I’ve no idea how much! But you can never spend all the money. Isn’t it
just like a dream?”

Joan smiled through tears, and failed trying to look severe.

“Get me and the gold away--safe--before you crow,” she said.

That sobered him. He led her out again into the dark street with its
dark forms crossing to and fro before the lights.

“It’s a long time before morning. Where can I take you--so you can sleep
a little?” he muttered.

“Find a place where we can sit down and wait,” she suggested.

“No.” He pondered a moment. “I guess there’s no risk.”

Then he led her up the street and through that end of camp out upon the
rough, open slope. They began to climb. The stars were bright, but even
so Joan stumbled often over the stones. She wondered how Jim could get
along so well in the dark and she clung to his arm. They did not speak
often, and then only in whispers. Jim halted occasionally to listen or
to look up at the bold, black bluff for his bearings. Presently he led
her among broken fragments of cliff, and half carried her over rougher
ground, into a kind of shadowy pocket or niche.

“Here’s where I slept,” he whispered.

He wrapped a blanket round her, and then they sat down against the rock,
and she leaned upon his shoulder.

“I have your coat and the blanket, too,” she said. “Won’t you be cold?”

He laughed. “Now don’t talk any more. You’re white and fagged-out. You
need to rest--to sleep.”

“Sleep? How impossible!” she murmured.

“Why, your eyes are half shut now.... Anyway, I’ll not talk to you. I
want to think.”

“Jim!... kiss me--good night,” she whispered.

He bent over rather violently, she imagined. His head blotted out the
light of the stars. He held her tightly for a moment. She felt him
shake. Then he kissed her on the cheek and abruptly drew away. How
strange he seemed!

For that matter, everything was strange. She had never seen the stars so
bright, so full of power, so close. All about her the shadows gathered
protectingly, to hide her and Jim. The silence spoke. She saw Jim’s face
in the starlight and it seemed so keen, so listening, so thoughtful, so
beautiful. He would sit there all night, wide-eyed and alert, guarding
her, waiting for the gray of dawn. How he had changed! And she was his
wife! But that seemed only a dream. It needed daylight and sight of her
ring to make that real.

A warmth and languor stole over her; she relaxed comfortably; after all,
she would sleep. But why did that intangible dread hang on to her soul?
The night was so still and clear and perfect--a radiant white night of
stars--and Jim was there, holding her--and to-morrow they would ride
away. That might be, but dark, dangling shapes haunted her, back in her
mind, and there, too, loomed Kells. Where was he now? Gone--gone on his
bloody trail with his broken fortunes and his desperate bitterness! He
had lost her. The lunge of that wild mob had parted them. A throb
of pain and shame went through her, for she was sorry. She could not
understand why, unless it was because she had possessed some strange
power to instil or bring up good in him. No woman could have been proof
against that. It was monstrous to know that she had power to turn him
from an evil life, yet she could not do it. It was more than monstrous
to realize that he had gone on spilling blood and would continue to go
on when she could have prevented it--could have saved many poor miners
who perhaps had wives or sweethearts somewhere. Yet there was no help
for it. She loved Jim Cleve. She might have sacrificed herself, but she
would not sacrifice him for all the bandits and miners on the border.

Joan felt that she would always be haunted and would always suffer that
pang for Kells. She would never lie down in the peace and quiet of
her home, wherever that might be, without picturing Kells, dark and
forbidding and burdened, pacing some lonely cabin or riding a lonely
trail or lying with his brooding face upturned to the lonely stars.
Sooner or later he would meet his doom. It was inevitable. She pictured
over that sinister scene of the dangling forms; but no--Kells would
never end that way. Terrible as he was, he had not been born to be
hanged. He might be murdered in his sleep, by one of that band of
traitors who were traitors because in the nature of evil they had to be.
But more likely some gambling-hell, with gold and life at stake,
would see his last fight. These bandits stole gold and gambled among
themselves and fought. And that fight which finished Kells must
necessarily be a terrible one. She seemed to see into a lonely cabin
where a log fire burned low and lamps flickered and blue smoke floated
in veils and men lay prone on the floor--Kells, stark and bloody, and
the giant Gulden, dead at last and more terrible in death, and on the
rude table bags of gold and dull, shining heaps of gold, and scattered
on the floor, like streams of sand and useless as sand, dust of
gold--the Destroyer.



18

All Joan’s fancies and dreams faded into obscurity, and when she was
aroused it seemed she had scarcely closed her eyes. But there was the
gray gloom of dawn. Jim was shaking her gently.

“No, you weren’t sleepy--it’s just a mistake,” he said, helping her to
arise. “Now we’ll get out of here.”

They threaded a careful way out of the rocks, then hurried down the
slope. In the grayness Joan saw the dark shape of a cabin and it
resembled the one Kells had built. It disappeared. Presently when Jim
led her into a road she felt sure that this cabin had been the one where
she had been a prisoner for so long. They hurried down the road and
entered the camp. There were no lights. The tents and cabins looked
strange and gloomy. The road was empty. Not a sound broke the stillness.
At the bend Joan saw a stage-coach and horses looming up in what seemed
gray distance. Jim hurried her on.

They reached the stage. The horses were restive. The driver was on the
seat, whip and reins in hand. Two men sat beside him with rifles across
their knees. The door of the coach hung open. There were men inside, one
of whom had his head out of the window. The barrel of a rifle protruded
near him. He was talking in a low voice to a man apparently busy at the
traces.

“Hello, Cleve! You’re late,” said another man, evidently the agent.
“Climb aboard. When’ll you be back?”

“I hardly know,” replied Cleve, with hesitation.

“All right. Good luck to you.” He closed the coach door after Joan and
Jim. “Let ‘em go, Bill.”

The stage started with a jerk. To Joan what an unearthly creak and
rumble it made, disturbing the silent dawn! Jim squeezed her hand with
joy. They were on the way!

Joan and Jim had a seat to themselves. Opposite sat three men--the
guard with his head half out of the window, a bearded miner who appeared
stolid or drowsy, and a young man who did not look rough and robust
enough for a prospector. None of the three paid any particular attention
to Joan and Jim.

The road had a decided slope down-hill, and Bill, the driver, had the
four horses on a trot. The rickety old stage appeared to be rattling
to pieces. It lurched and swayed, and sometimes jolted over rocks and
roots. Joan was hard put to it to keep from being bumped off the seat.
She held to a brace on one side and to Jim on the other. And when the
stage rolled down into the creek and thumped over boulders Joan made
sure that every bone in her body would be broken. This crossing marked
the mouth of the gulch, and on the other side the road was smooth.

“We’re going the way we came,” whispered Jim in her ear.

This was surprising, for Joan had been sure that Bannack lay in the
opposite direction. Certainly this fact was not reassuring to her.
Perhaps the road turned soon.

Meanwhile the light brightened, the day broke, and the sun reddened the
valley. Then it was as light inside the coach as outside. Joan might
have spared herself concern as to her fellow-passengers. The only
one who noticed her was the young man, and he, after a stare and a
half-smile, lapsed into abstraction. He looked troubled, and there was
about him no evidence of prosperity. Jim held her hand under a fold of
the long coat, and occasionally he spoke of something or other outside
that caught his eye. And the stage rolled on rapidly, seemingly in
pursuit of the steady roar of hoofs.

Joan imagined she recognized the brushy ravine out of which Jesse Smith
had led that day when Kells’s party came upon the new road. She believed
Jim thought so, too, for he gripped her hand unusually hard. Beyond that
point Joan began to breathe more easily. There seemed no valid reason
now why every mile should not separate them farther from the bandits,
and she experienced relief.

Then the time did not drag so. She wanted to talk to Jim, yet did not,
because of the other passengers. Jim himself appeared influenced by
their absorption in themselves. Besides, the keen, ceaseless vigilance
of the guard was not without its quieting effect. Danger lurked ahead
in the bends of that road. Joan remembered hearing Kells say that the
Bannack stage had never been properly held up by road-agents, but that
when he got ready for the job it would be done right. Riding grew to be
monotonous and tiresome. With the warmth of the sun came the dust and
flies, and all these bothered Joan. She did not have her usual calmness,
and as the miles steadily passed her nervousness increased.

The road left the valley and climbed between foot-hills and wound
into rockier country. Every dark gulch brought to Joan a trembling,
breathless spell. What places for ambush! But the stage bowled on.

At last her apprehensions wore out and she permitted herself the luxury
of relaxing, of leaning back and closing her eyes. She was tired,
drowsy, hot. There did not seem to be a breath of air.

Suddenly Joan’s ears burst to an infernal crash of guns. She felt
the whip and sting of splinters sent flying by bullets. Harsh yells
followed, then the scream of a horse in agony, the stage lurching and
slipping to a halt, and thunder of heavy guns overhead.

Jim yelled at her--threw her down on the seat. She felt the body of the
guard sink against her knees. Then she seemed to feel, to hear through
an icy, sickening terror.

A scattering volley silenced the guns above. Then came the pound of
hoofs, the snort of frightened horses.

“Jesse Smith! Stop!” called Jim, piercingly.

“Hold on thar, Beady!” replied a hoarse voice. “Damn if it ain’t Jim
Cleve!”

“Ho, Gul!” yelled another voice, and Joan recognized it as Blicky’s.

Then Jim lifted her head, drew her up. He was white with fear.

“Dear--are--you--hurt?”

“No. I’m only--scared,” she replied.

Joan looked out to see bandits on foot, guns in hand, and others
mounted, all gathering near the coach. Jim opened the door, and,
stepping out, bade her follow. Joan had to climb over the dead guard.
The miner and the young man huddled down on their seat.

“If it ain’t Jim an’ Kells’s girl--Dandy Dale!” ejaculated Smith.
“Fellers, this means somethin’.... Say, youngster, hope you ain’t
hurt--or the girl?”

“No. But that’s not your fault,” replied Cleve. “Why did you want to
plug the coach full of lead?”

“This beats me,” said Smith. “Kells sent you out in the stage! But
when he gave us the job of holdin’ it up he didn’t tell us you’d be in
there.... When an’ where’d you leave him?”

“Sometime last night--in camp--near our cabin,” replied Jim, quick as
a flash. Manifestly he saw his opportunity “He left Dandy Dale with me.
Told us to take the stage this morning. I expected him to be in it or to
meet us.”

“Didn’t you have no orders?”

“None, except to take care of the girl till he came. But he did tell me
he’d have more to say.”

Smith gazed blankly from Cleve to Blicky, and then at Gulden, who came
slowly forward, his hair ruffed, his gun held low. Joan followed the
glance of his great gray eyes, and she saw the stage-driver hanging dead
over his seat, and the guards lying back of him. The off-side horse of
the leaders lay dead in his traces, with his mate nosing at him.

“Who’s in there?” boomed Gulden, and he thrust hand and gun in at the
stage door. “Come out!”

The young man stumbled out, hands above his head, pallid and shaking, so
weak he could scarcely stand.

Gulden prodded the bearded miner. “Come out here, you!”

The man appeared to be hunched forward in a heap.

“Guess he’s plugged,” said Smith. “But he ain’t cashed. Hear him
breathe?... Heaves like a sick hoss.”

Gulden reached with brawny arm and with one pull he dragged the miner
off the seat and out into the road, where he flopped with a groan.
There was blood on his neck and hands. Gulden bent over him, tore at his
clothes, tore harder at something, and then, with a swing, he held aloft
a broad, black belt, sagging heavy with gold.

“Hah!” he boomed. It was just an exclamation, horrible to hear, but it
did not express satisfaction or exultation. He handed the gold-belt to
the grinning Budd, and turned to the young man.

“Got any gold?”

“No. I--I wasn’t a miner,” replied the youth huskily.

Gulden felt for a gold-belt, then slapped at his pockets. “Turn round!”
 ordered the giant.

“Aw, Gul let him go!” remonstrated Jesse Smith.

Blicky laid a restraining hand upon Gulden’s broad shoulder.

“Turn round!” repeated Gulden, without the slightest sign of noticing
his colleagues.

But the youth understood and he turned a ghastly livid hue.

“For God’s sake--don’t murder me!” he gasped. “I had--nothing--no
gold--no gun!”

Gulden spun him round like a top and pushed him forward. They went half
a dozen paces, then the youth staggered, and turning, he fell on his
knees.

“Don’t--kill--me!” he entreated.

Joan, seeing Jim Cleve stiffen and crouch, thought of him even in that
horrible moment; and she gripped his arm with all her might. They must
endure.

The other bandits muttered, but none moved a hand.

Gulden thrust out the big gun. His hair bristled on his head, and his
huge frame seemed instinct with strange vibration, like some object of
tremendous weight about to plunge into resistless momentum.

Even the stricken youth saw his doom. “Let--me--pray!” he begged.

Joan did not fault, but a merciful unclamping of muscle-bound rigidity
closed her eyes.

“Gul!” yelled Blicky, with passion. “I ain’t a-goin’ to let you kill
this kid! There’s no sense in it. We’re spotted back in Alder Creek....
Run, kid! Run!”

Then Joan opened her eyes to see the surly Gulden’s arm held by Blicky,
and the youth running blindly down the road. Joan’s relief and joy were
tremendous. But still she answered to the realizing shock of what Gulden
had meant to do. She leaned against Cleve, all within and without a
whirling darkness of fire. The border wildness claimed her then. She had
the spirit, though not the strength, to fight. She needed the sight
and sound of other things to restore her equilibrium. She would have
welcomed another shock, an injury. And then she was looking down upon
the gasping miner. He was dying. Hurriedly Joan knelt beside him to lift
his head. At her call Cleve brought a canteen. But the miner could not
drink and he died with some word unspoken.

Dizzily Joan arose, and with Cleve half supporting her she backed off
the road to a seat on the bank. She saw the bandits now at business-like
action. Blicky and Smith were cutting the horses out of their harness:
Beady Jones, like a ghoul, searched the dead men; the three bandits whom
Joan knew only by sight were making up a pack; Budd was standing beside
the stage with his, expectant grin; and Gulden, with the agility of the
gorilla he resembled, was clambering over the top of the stage. Suddenly
from under the driver’s seat he hauled a buckskin sack. It was small,
but heavy. He threw it down to Budd, almost knocking over that bandit.
Budd hugged the sack and yelled like an Indian. The other men whooped
and ran toward him. Gulden hauled out another sack. Hands to the number
of a dozen stretched clutchingly. When he threw the sack there was a mad
scramble. They fought, but it was only play. They were gleeful. Blicky
secured the prize and he held it aloft in triumph. Assuredly he would
have waved it had it not been so heavy. Gulden drew out several small
sacks, which he provokingly placed on the seat in front of him. The
bandits below howled in protest. Then the giant, with his arm under the
seat, his huge frame bowed, heaved powerfully upon something, and
his face turned red. He halted in his tugging to glare at his bandit
comrades below. If his great cavernous eyes expressed any feeling it was
analogous to the reluctance manifest in his posture--he regretted
the presence of his gang. He would rather have been alone. Then with
deep-muttered curse and mighty heave he lifted out a huge buckskin sack,
tied and placarded and marked.

“ONE HUNDRED POUNDS!” he boomed.

It seemed to Joan then that a band of devils surrounded the stage, all
roaring at the huge, bristling demon above, who glared and bellowed down
at them.

Finally Gulden stilled the tumult, which, after all, was one of frenzied
joy.

“Share and share alike!” he thundered, now black in the face. “Do you
fools want to waste time here on the road, dividing up this gold?”

“What you say goes,” shouted Budd.

There was no dissenting voice.

“What a stake!” ejaculated Blicky. “Gul, the boss had it figgered.
Strange, though, he hasn’t showed up!”

“Where’ll we go?” queried Gulden. “Speak up, you men.”

The unanimous selection was Cabin Gulch. Plainly Gulden did not like
this, but he was just.

“All right. Cabin Gulch it is. But nobody outside of Kells and us gets a
share in this stake.”

Many willing hands made short work of preparation. Gulden insisted
on packing all the gold upon his saddle, and had his will. He seemed
obsessed; he never glanced at Joan. It was Jesse Smith who gave the
directions and orders. One of the stage-horses was packed. Another, with
a blanket for a saddle, was given Cleve to ride. Blicky gallantly gave
his horse to Joan, shortened his stirrups to fit her, and then whistled
at the ridgy back of the stage-horse he elected to ride. Gulden was in a
hurry, and twice he edged off, to be halted by impatient calls. Finally
the cavalcade was ready; Jesse Smith gazed around upon the scene with
the air of a general overlooking a vanquished enemy.

“Whoever fust runs acrost this job will have blind staggers, don’t you
forgit thet!”

“What’s Kells goin’ to figger?” asked Blicky, sharply.

“Nothin’ fer Kells! He wasn’t in at the finish!” declared Budd.

Blicky gazed darkly at him, but made no comment.

“I tell you Blick, I can’t git this all right in my head,” said Smith.

“Say, ask Jim again. Mebbe, now the job’s done, he can talk,” suggested
Blicky.

Jim Cleve heard and appeared ready for that question.

“I don’t know much more than I told you. But I can guess. Kells had this
big shipment of gold spotted. He must have sent us in the stage for some
reason. He said he’d tell me what to expect and do. But he didn’t come
back. Sure he knew you’d do the job. And just as sure he expected to be
on hand. He’ll turn up soon.”

This ruse of Jim’s did not sound in the least logical or plausible to
Joan, but it was readily accepted by the bandits. Apparently what they
knew of Kells’s movements and plans since the break-up at Alder Creek
fitted well with Cleve’s suggestions.

“Come on!” boomed Gulden, from the fore. “Do you want to rot here?”

Then without so much as a backward glance at the ruin they left behind
the bandits fell into line. Jesse Smith led straight off the road into
a shallow brook and evidently meant to keep in it. Gulden followed; next
came Beady Jones; then the three bandits with the pack-horse and the
other horses; Cleve and Joan, close together, filed in here; and last
came Budd and Blicky. It was rough, slippery traveling and the riders
spread out. Cleve, however, rode beside Joan. Once, at an opportune
moment, he leaned toward her.

“We’d better run for it at the first chance,” he said, somberly.

“No!... GULDEN!” Joan had to moisten her lips to speak the monster’s
name.

“He’ll never think of you while he has all that gold.”

Joan’s intelligence grasped this, but her morbid dread, terribly
augmented now, amounted almost to a spell. Still, despite the darkness
of her mind, she had a flash of inspiration and of spirit.

“Kells is my only hope!... If he doesn’t join us soon--then we’ll
run!... And if we can’t escape that”--Joan made a sickening gesture
toward the fore--“you must kill me before--before--”

Her voice trailed off, failing.

“I will!” he promised through locked teeth.

And then they rode on, with dark, faces bent over the muddy water and
treacherous stones.

When Jesse Smith led out of that brook it was to ride upon bare rock. He
was not leaving any trail. Horses and riders were of no consideration.
And he was a genius for picking hard ground and covering it. He never
slackened his gait, and it seemed next to impossible to keep him in
sight.

For Joan the ride became toil and the toil became pain. But there was no
rest. Smith kept mercilessly onward. Sunset and twilight and night found
the cavalcade still moving. Then it halted just as Joan was about to
succumb. Jim lifted her off her horse and laid her upon the grass. She
begged for water, and she drank and drank. But she wanted no food. There
was a heavy, dull beating in her ears, a band tight round her forehead.
She was aware of the gloom, of the crackling of fires, of leaping
shadows, of the passing of men to and fro near her, and, most of all,
rendering her capable of a saving shred of self-control, she was aware
of Jim’s constant companionship and watchfulness. Then sounds grew far
off and night became a blur.

Morning when it came seemed an age removed from that hideous night. Her
head had cleared, and but for the soreness of body and limb she would
have begun the day strong. There appeared little to eat and no time to
prepare it. Gulden was rampant for action. Like a miser he guarded the
saddle packed with gold. This tune his comrades were as eager as he to
be on the move. All were obsessed by the presence of gold. Only one hour
loomed in their consciousness--that of the hour of division. How fatal
and pitiful and terrible! Of what possible use or good was gold to them?

The ride began before sunrise. It started and kept on at a steady
trot. Smith led down out of the rocky slopes and fastnesses into
green valleys. Jim Cleve, riding bareback on a lame horse, had his
difficulties. Still he kept close beside or behind Joan all the way.
They seldom spoke, and then only a word relative to this stern business
of traveling in the trail of a hard-riding bandit. Joan bore up better
this day, as far as her mind was concerned. Physically she had all
she could do to stay in the saddle. She learned of what steel she was
actually made--what her slender frame could endure. That day’s ride
seemed a thousand miles long, and never to end. Yet the implacable Smith
did finally halt, and that before dark.

Camp was made near water. The bandits were a jovial lot, despite a lack
of food. They talked of the morrow. All--the world--lay beyond the next
sunrise. Some renounced their pipes and sought their rest just to hurry
on the day. But Gulden, tireless, sleepless, eternally vigilant, guarded
the saddle of gold and brooded over it, and seemed a somber giant carved
out of the night. And Blicky, nursing some deep and late-developed
scheme, perhaps in Kells’s interest or his own, kept watch over Gulden
and all.

Jim cautioned Joan to rest, and importuned her and promised to watch
while she slept.

Joan saw the stars through her shut eyelids. All the night seemed to
press down and softly darken.

The sun was shining red when the cavalcade rode up Cabin Gulch. The
grazing cattle stopped to watch and the horses pranced and whistled.
There were flowers and flitting birds, and glistening dew on leaves,
and a shining swift flow of water--the brightness of morning and nature
smiled in Cabin Gulch.

Well indeed Joan remembered the trail she had ridden so often. How that
clump of willow where first she had confronted Jim thrilled her now! The
pines seemed welcoming her. The gulch had a sense of home in it for her,
yet it was fearful. How much had happened there! What might yet happen!

Then a clear, ringing call stirred her pulse. She glanced up the slope.
Tall and straight and dark, there on the bench, with hand aloft, stood
the bandit Kells.



19

The weary, dusty cavalcade halted on the level bench before the bandit’s
cabin. Gulden boomed a salute to Kells. The other men shouted greeting.
In the wild exultation of triumph they still held him as chief.
But Kells was not deceived. He even passed by that heavily laden,
gold-weighted saddle. He had eyes only for Joan.

“Girl, I never was so glad to see any one!” he exclaimed in husky amaze.
“How did it happen? I never--”

Jim Cleve leaned over to interrupt Kells. “It was great, Kells--that
idea of yours putting us in the stagecoach you meant to hold up,” said
Cleve, with a swift, meaning glance. “But it nearly was the end of us.
You didn’t catch up. The gang didn’t know we were inside, and they shot
the old stage full of holes.”

“Aha! So that’s it,” replied Kells, slowly. “But the main point is--you
brought her through. Jim, I can’t ever square that.”

“Oh, maybe you can,” laughed Cleve, as he dismounted.

Suddenly Kells became aware of Joan’s exhaustion and distress. “Joan,
you’re not hurt?” he asked in swift anxiety.

“No, only played out.”

“You look it. Come.” He lifted her out of the saddle and, half carrying,
half leading her, took her into the cabin, and through the big room to
her old apartment. How familiar it seemed to Joan! A ground-squirrel
frisked along a chink between the logs, chattering welcome. The place
was exactly as Joan had left it.

Kells held Joan a second, as if he meant to embrace her, but he did not.
“Lord, it’s good to see you! I never expected to again.... But you
can tell me all about yourself after you rest.... I was just having
breakfast. I’ll fetch you some.”

“Were you alone here?” asked Joan.

“Yes. I was with Bate and Handy--”

“Hey, Kells!” roared the gang, from the outer room.

Kells held aside the blanket curtain so that Joan was able to see
through the door. The men were drawn up in a half-circle round the
table, upon which were the bags of gold.

Kells whistled low. “Joan, there’ll be trouble now,” he said, “but don’t
you fear. I’ll not forget you.”

Despite his undoubted sincerity Joan felt a subtle change in him, and
that, coupled with the significance of his words, brought a return of
the strange dread. Kells went out and dropped the curtain behind him.
Joan listened.

“Share and share alike!” boomed the giant Gulden.

“Say!” called Kells, gaily, “aren’t you fellows going to eat first?”

Shouts of derision greeted his sally.

“I’ll eat gold-dust,” added Budd.

“Have it your own way, men,” responded Kells. “Blicky, get the scales
down off of that shelf.... Say, I’ll bet anybody I’ll have the most dust
by sundown.”

More shouts of derision were flung at him.

“Who wants to gamble now?”

“Boss, I’ll take thet bet.”

“Haw! Haw! You won’t look so bright by sundown.”

Then followed a moment’s silence, presently broken by a clink of metal
on the table.

“Boss, how’d you ever git wind of this big shipment of gold?” asked
Jesse Smith.

“I’ve had it spotted. But Handy Oliver was the scout.”

“We’ll shore drink to Handy!” exclaimed one of the bandits.

“An’ who was sendin’ out this shipment?” queried the curious Smith.
“Them bags are marked all the same.”

“It was a one-man shipment,” replied Kells. “Sent out by the boss miner
of Alder Creek. They call him Overland something.”

That name brought Joan to her feet with a thrilling fire. Her uncle, old
Bill Hoadley, was called “Overland.” Was it possible that the bandits
meant him? It could hardly be; that name was a common one in the
mountains.

“Shore, I seen Overland lots of times,” said Budd. “An’ he got wise to
my watchin’ him.”

“Somebody tipped it off that the Legion was after his gold,” went on
Kells. “I suppose we have Pearce to thank for that. But it worked out
well for us. The hell we raised there at the lynching must have thrown
a scare into Overland. He had nerve enough to try to send his dust to
Bannack on the very next stage. He nearly got away with it, too. For it
was only lucky accident that Handy heard the news.”

The name Overland drew Joan like a magnet and she arose to take her old
position, where she could peep in upon the bandits. One glance at Jim
Cleve told her that he, too, had been excited by the name. Then it
occurred to Joan that her uncle could hardly have been at Alder Creek
without Jim knowing it. Still, among thousands of men, all wild and
toiling and self-sufficient, hiding their identities, anything might be
possible. After a few moments, however, Joan leaned to the improbability
of the man being her uncle.

Kells sat down before the table and Blicky stood beside him with the
gold-scales. The other bandits lined up opposite. Jim Cleve stood to one
side, watching, brooding.

“You can’t weigh it all on these scales,” said Blicky.

“That’s sure,” replied Kells. “We’ll divide the small bags first.... Ten
shares--ten equal parts!... Spill out the bags. Blick. And hurry. Look
how hungry Gulden looks!... Somebody cook your breakfast while we divide
the gold.”

“Haw! Haw!”

“Ho! Ho!”

“Who wants to eat?”

The bandits were gay, derisive, scornful, eager, like a group of boys,
half surly, half playful, at a game.

“Wal, I shore want to see my share weighted,” drawled Budd.

Kells moved--his gun flashed--he slammed it hard upon the table.

“Budd, do you question my honesty?” he asked, quick and hard.

“No offense, boss. I was just talkin’.”

That quick change of Kells’s marked a subtle difference in the spirit of
the bandits and the occasion. Gaiety and good humor and badinage ended.
There were no more broad grins or friendly leers or coarse laughs.
Gulden and his groups clustered closer to the table, quiet, intense,
watchful, suspicious.

It did not take Kells and his assistant long to divide the smaller
quantity of the gold.

“Here, Gulden,” he said, and handed the giant a bag. Jesse....
Bossert.... Pike.... Beady.... Braverman... “Blicky.”

“Here, Jim Cleve, get in the game,” he added, throwing a bag at Jim. It
was heavy. It hit Jim with a thud and dropped to the ground. He stooped
to reach it.

“That leaves one for Handy and one for me,” went on Kells. “Blicky,
spill out the big bag.”

Presently Joan saw a huge mound of dull, gleaming yellow. The color of
it leaped to the glinting eyes of the bandits. And it seemed to her
that a shadow hovered over them. The movements of Kells grew tense and
hurried. Beads of sweat stood out upon his brow. His hands were not
steady.

Soon larger bags were distributed to the bandits. That broke the
waiting, the watchfulness, but not the tense eagerness. The bandits were
now like leashed hounds. Blicky leaned before Kells and hit the table
with his fist.

“Boss, I’ve a kick comin’,” he said.

“Come on with it,” replied the leader.

“Ain’t Gulden a-goin’ to divide up thet big nugget?”

“He is if he’s square.”

A chorus of affirmatives from the bandits strengthened Kells’s
statement. Gulden moved heavily and ponderously, and he pushed some of
his comrades aside to get nearer to Kells.

“Wasn’t it my right to do a job by myself--when I wanted?” he demanded.

“No. I agreed to let you fight when you wanted. To kill a man when you
liked!... That was the agreement.”

“What’d I kill a man for?”

No one answered that in words, but the answer was there, in dark faces.

“I know what I meant,” continued Gulden. “And I’m going to keep this
nugget.”

There was a moment’s silence. It boded ill to the giant.

“So--he declares himself,” said Blicky, hotly. “Boss, what you say
goes.”

“Let him keep it,” declared Kells, scornfully. “I’ll win it from him and
divide it with the gang.”

That was received with hoarse acclaims by all except Gulden. He glared
sullenly. Kells stood up and shook a long finger in the giant’s face.

“I’ll win your nugget,” he shouted. “I’ll beat you at any game.... I
call your hand.... Now if you’ve got any nerve!”

“Come on!” boomed the giant, and he threw his gold down upon the table
with a crash.

The bandits closed in around the table with sudden, hard violence, all
crowding for seats.

“I’m a-goin’ to set in the game!” yelled Blicky.

“We’ll all set in,” declared Jesse Smith.

“Come on!” was Gulden’s acquiescence.

“But we all can’t play at once,” protested Kells. “Let’s make up two
games.”

“Naw!”

“Some of you eat, then, while the others get cleaned out.”

“Thet’s it--cleaned out!” ejaculated Budd, meanly. “You seem to be sure,
Kells. An’ I guess I’ll keep shady of thet game.”

“That’s twice for you, Budd,” flashed the bandit leader. “Beware of the
third time!”

“Hyar, fellers, cut the cards fer who sets in an’ who sets out,” called
Blicky, and he slapped a deck of cards upon the table.

With grim eagerness, as if drawing lots against fate, the bandits bent
over and drew cards. Budd, Braverman, and Beady Jones were the ones
excluded from the game.

“Beady, you fellows unpack those horses and turn them loose. And bring
the stuff inside,” said Kells.

Budd showed a surly disregard, but the other two bandits got up
willingly and went out.

Then the game began, with only Cleve standing, looking on. The bandits
were mostly silent; they moved their hands, and occasionally bent
forward. It was every man against his neighbor. Gulden seemed implacably
indifferent and played like a machine. Blicky sat eager and excited,
under a spell. Jesse Smith was a slow, cool, shrewed gambler. Bossert
and Pike, two ruffians almost unknown to Joan, appeared carried away
by their opportunity. And Kells began to wear that strange, rapt, weak
expression that gambling gave him.

Presently Beady Jones and Braverman bustled in, carrying the packs. Then
Budd jumped up and ran to them. He returned to the table, carrying a
demijohn, which he banged upon the table.

“Whisky!” exclaimed Kells. “Take that away. We can’t drink and gamble.”

“Watch me!” replied Blicky.

“Let them drink, Kells,” declared Gulden. “We’ll get their dust quicker.
Then we can have our game.”

Kells made no more comment. The game went on and the aspect of it
changed. When Kells himself began to drink, seemingly unconscious of the
fact, Joan’s dread increased greatly, and, leaving the peep-hole, she
lay back upon the bed. Always a sword had hung over her head. Time after
time by some fortunate circumstance or by courage or wit or by an act of
Providence she had escaped what strangely menaced. Would she escape it
again? For she felt the catastrophe coming. Did Jim recognize that fact?
Remembering the look on his face, she was assured that he did. Then he
would be quick to seize upon any possible chance to get her away; and
always he would be between her and those bandits. At most, then, she had
only death to fear--death that he would mercifully deal to her if the
worst came. And as she lay there listening to the slow-rising murmur of
the gamblers, with her thought growing clearer, she realized it was love
of Jim and fear for him--fear that he would lose her--that caused her
cold dread and the laboring breath and the weighted heart. She had cost
Jim this terrible experience and she wanted to make up to him for it, to
give him herself and all her life.

Joan lay there a long time, thinking and suffering, while the strange,
morbid desire to watch Kells and Gulden grew stronger and stronger,
until it was irresistible. Her fate, her life, lay in the balance
between these two men. She divined that.

She returned to her vantage-point, and as she glanced through she
vibrated to a shock. The change that had begun subtly, intangibly, was
now a terrible and glaring difference. That great quantity of gold, the
equal chance of every gambler, the marvelous possibilities presented to
evil minds, and the hell that hid in that black bottle--these had made
playthings of every bandit except Gulden. He was exactly the same as
ever. But to see the others sent a chill of ice along Joan’s veins.
Kells was white and rapt. Plain to see--he had won! Blicky was wild with
rage. Jesse Smith sat darker, grimmer, but no longer cool. There was
hate in the glance he fastened upon Kells as he bet. Beady Jones and
Braverman showed an inflamed and impotent eagerness to take their turn.
Budd sat in the game now, and his face wore a terrible look. Joan could
not tell what passion drove him, but she knew he was a loser. Pike and
Bossert likewise were losers, and stood apart, sullen, watching with
sick, jealous rage. Jim Cleve had reacted to the strain, and he was
white, with nervous, clutching hands and piercing glances. And the game
went on with violent slap of card or pound of fist upon the table, with
the slide of a bag of gold or the little, sodden thump of its weight,
with savage curses at loss and strange, raw exultation at gain, with
hurry and violence--more than all, with the wildness of the hour and
the wildness of these men, drawing closer and closer to the dread climax
that from the beginning had been foreshadowed.

Suddenly Budd rose and bent over the table, his cards clutched in a
shaking hand, his face distorted and malignant, his eyes burning at
Kells. Passionately he threw the cards down.

“There!” he yelled, hoarsely, and he stilled the noise.

“No good!” replied Kells, tauntingly. “Is there any other game you
play?”

Budd bent low to see the cards in Kells’s hand, and then, straightening
his form, he gazed with haggard fury at the winner. “You’ve done me!...
I’m cleaned--I’m busted!” he raved.

“You were easy. Get out of the game,” replied Kells, with an exultant
contempt. It was not the passion of play that now obsessed him, but the
passion of success.

“I said you done me,” burst out Budd, insanely. “You’re slick with the
cards!”

The accusation acted like magic to silence the bandits, to check
movement, to clamp the situation. Kells was white and radiant; he seemed
careless and nonchalant.

“All right, Budd,” he replied, but his tone did not suit his strange
look. “That’s three times for you!”

Swift as a flash he shot. Budd fell over Gulden, and the giant with one
sweep of his arm threw the stricken bandit off. Budd fell heavily, and
neither moved nor spoke.

“Pass me the bottle,” went on Kells, a little hoarse shakiness in his
voice. “And go on with the game!”

“Can I set in now?” asked Beady Jones, eagerly.

“You and Jack wait. This’s getting to be all between Kells an’ me,” said
Gulden.

“We’ve sure got Blicky done!” exclaimed Kells. There was something
taunting about the leader’s words. He did not care for the gold. It was
the fight to win. It was his egotism.

“Make this game faster an’ bigger, will you?” retorted Blicky, who
seemed inflamed.

“Boss, a little luck makes you lofty,” interposed Jesse Smith in dark
disdain. “Pretty soon you’ll show yellow clear to your gizzard!”

The gold lay there on the table. It was only a means to an end. It
signified nothing. The evil, the terrible greed, the brutal lust, were
in the hearts of the men. And hate, liberated, rampant, stalked out
unconcealed, ready for blood.

“Gulden, change the game to suit these gents,” taunted Kells.

“Double stakes. Cut the cards!” boomed the giant, instantly.

Blicky lasted only a few more deals of the cards, then he rose, loser of
all his share, a passionate and venomous bandit, ready for murder. But
he kept his mouth shut and looked wary.

“Boss, can’t we set in now?” demanded Beady Jones.

“Say, Beady, you’re in a hurry to lose your gold,” replied Kells. “Wait
till I beat Gulden and Smith.”

Luck turned against Jesse Smith. He lost first to Gulden, then to
Kells, and presently he rose, a beaten, but game man. He reached for the
whisky.

“Fellers, I reckon I can enjoy Kells’s yellow streak more when I ain’t
playin’,” he said.

The bandit leader eyed Smith with awakening rancor, as if a persistent
hint of inevitable weakness had its effect. He frowned, and the radiance
left his face for the forbidding cast.

“Stand around, you men, and see some real gambling,” he said.

At this moment in the contest Kells had twice as much gold as Gulden,
there being a huge mound of little buckskin sacks in front of him.

They began staking a bag at a time and cutting the cards, the higher
card winning. Kells won the first four cuts. How strangely that radiance
returned to his face! Then he lost and won, and won and lost. The other
bandits grouped around, only Jones and Braverman now manifesting any
eagerness. All were silent. There were suspense, strain, mystery in the
air. Gulden began to win consistently and Kells began to change. It
was a sad and strange sight to see this strong man’s nerve and force
gradually deteriorate under a fickle fortune. The time came when half
the amount he had collected was in front of Gulden. The giant was
imperturbable. He might have been a huge animal, or destiny, or
something inhuman that knew the run of luck would be his. As he had
taken losses so he greeted gains--with absolute indifference. While
Kells’s hands shook the giant’s were steady and slow and sure. It must
have been hateful to Kells--this faculty of Gulden’s to meet victory
identically as he met defeat. The test of a great gambler’s nerve was
not in sustaining loss, but in remaining cool with victory. The fact
grew manifest that Gulden was a great gambler and Kells was not. The
giant had no emotion, no imagination. And Kells seemed all fire and
whirling hope and despair and rage. His vanity began to bleed to death.
This game was the deciding contest. The scornful and exultant looks of
his men proved how that game was going. Again and again Kells’s unsteady
hand reached for one of the whisky bottles. Once with a low curse he
threw an empty bottle through the door.

“Hey, boss, ain’t it about time--” began Jesse Smith. But whatever
he had intended to say, he thought better of, withholding it. Kells’s
sudden look and movement were unmistakable.

The goddess of chance, as false as the bandit’s vanity, played with him.
He brightened under a streak of winning. But just as his face began to
lose its haggard shade, to glow, the tide again turned against him.
He lost and lost, and with each bag of gold-dust went something of his
spirit. And when he was reduced to his original share he indeed showed
that yellow streak which Jesse Smith had attributed to him. The bandit’s
effort to pull himself together, to be a man before that scornful gang,
was pitiful and futile. He might have been magnificent, confronted by
other issues, of peril or circumstance, but there he was craven. He was
a man who should never have gambled.

One after the other, in quick succession, he lost the two bags of gold,
his original share. He had lost utterly. Gulden had the great heap of
dirty little buckskin sacks, so significant of the hidden power within.

Joan was amazed and sick at sight of Kells then, and if it had been
possible she would have withdrawn her gaze. But she was chained there.
The catastrophe was imminent.

Kells stared down at the gold. His jaw worked convulsively. He had the
eyes of a trapped wolf. Yet he seemed not wholly to comprehend what had
happened to him.

Gulden rose, slow, heavy, ponderous, to tower over his heap of gold.
Then this giant, who had never shown an emotion, suddenly, terribly
blazed.

“One more bet--a cut of the cards--my whole stake of gold!” he boomed.

The bandits took a stride forward as one man, then stood breathless.

“One bet!” echoed Kells, aghast. “Against what?”

“AGAINST THE GIRL!”

Joan sank against the wall, a piercing torture in her breast. She
clutched the logs to keep from falling. So that was the impending
horror. She could not unrivet her eyes from the paralyzed Kells, yet
she seemed to see Jim Cleve leap straight up, and then stand, equally
motionless, with Kells.

“One cut of the cards--my gold against the girl!” boomed the giant.

Kells made a movement as if to go for his gun. But it failed. His hand
was a shaking leaf.

“You always bragged on your nerve!” went on Gulden, mercilessly. “You’re
the gambler of the border!... Come on.”

Kells stood there, his doom upon him. Plain to all was his torture,
his weakness, his defeat. It seemed that with all his soul he combated
something, only to fail.

“ONE CUT--MY GOLD AGAINST YOUR GIRL!”

The gang burst into one concerted taunt. Like snarling, bristling wolves
they craned their necks at Kells.

“No, damn--you! No!” cried Kells, in hoarse, broken fury. With both
hands before him he seemed to push back the sight of that gold, of
Gulden, of the malignant men, of a horrible temptation.

“Reckon, boss, thet yellow streak is operatin’!” sang out Jesse Smith.

But neither gold, nor Gulden, nor men, nor taunts ruined Kells at this
perhaps most critical crisis of his life. It was the mad, clutching,
terrible opportunity presented. It was the strange and terrible nature
of the wager. What vision might have flitted through the gambler’s mind!
But neither vision of loss nor gain moved him. There, licking like a
flame at his soul, consuming the good in him at a blast, overpowering
his love, was the strange and magnificent gamble. He could not resist
it.

Speechless, with a motion of his hand, he signified his willingness.

“Blicky, shuffle the cards,” boomed Gulden.

Blicky did so and dropped the deck with a slap in the middle of the
table.

“Cut!” called Gulden.

Kells’s shaking hand crept toward the deck.

Jim Cleve suddenly appeared to regain power of speech and motion.
“Don’t, Kells, don’t!” he cried, piercingly, as he leaped forward.

But neither Kells nor the others heard him, or even saw his movement.

Kells cut the deck. He held up his card. It was the king of hearts. What
a transformation! His face might have been that of a corpse suddenly
revivified with glorious, leaping life.

“Only an ace can beat thet!” muttered Jesse Smith into the silence.

Gulden reached for the deck as if he knew every card left was an ace.
His cavernous eyes gloated over Kells. He cut, and before he looked
himself he let Kells see the card.

“You can’t beat my streak!” he boomed.

Then he threw the card upon the table. It was the ace of spades.

Kells seemed to shrivel, to totter, to sink. Jim Cleve went quickly to
him, held to him.

“Kells, go say good--by to your girl!” boomed Gulden. “I’ll want her
pretty soon.... Come on, you Beady and Braverman. Here’s your chance to
get even.”

Gulden resumed his seat, and the two bandits invited to play were eager
to comply, while the others pressed close once more.

Jim Cleve led the dazed Kells toward the door into Joan’s cabin. For
Joan just then all seemed to be dark.

When she recovered she was lying on the bed and Jim was bending over
her. He looked frantic with grief and desperation and fear.

“Jim! Jim!” she moaned, grasping his hands. He helped her to sit up.
Then she saw Kells standing there. He looked abject, stupid, drunk. Yet
evidently he had begun to comprehend the meaning of his deed.

“Kells,” began Cleve, in low, hoarse tones, as he stepped forward with a
gun. “I’m going to kill you--and Joan--and myself!”

Kells stared at Cleve. “Go ahead. Kill me. And kill the girl, too.
That’ll be better for her now. But why kill yourself?”

“I love her. She’s my wife!”

The deadness about Kells suddenly changed. Joan flung herself before
him.

“Kells--listen,” she whispered in swift, broken passion. “Jim Cleve
was--my sweetheart--back in Hoadley. We quarreled. I taunted him. I said
he hadn’t nerve enough--even to be bad. He left me--bitterly enraged.
Next day I trailed him. I wanted to fetch him back.... You remember--how
you met me with Robert--how you killed Roberts? And all the rest?...
When Jim and I met out here--I was afraid to tell you. I tried to
influence him. I succeeded--till we got to Alder Creek. There he went
wild. I married him--hoping to steady him.... Then the day of the
lynching--we were separated from you in the crowd. That night we
hid--and next morning took the stage. Gulden and his gang held up the
stage. They thought you had put us there. We fooled them, but we had to
come on--here to Cabin Gulch--hoping to tell--that you’d let us go....
And now--now--”

Joan had not strength to go on. The thought of Gulden made her faint.

“It’s true, Kells,” added Cleve, passionately, as he faced the
incredulous bandit. “I swear it. Why, you ought to see now!”

“My God, boy, I DO see!” gasped Kells. That dark, sodden thickness of
comprehension and feeling, indicative of the hold of drink, passed away
swiftly. The shock had sobered him.

Instantly Joan saw it--saw in him the return of the other and better
Kells, how stricken with remorse. She slipped to her knees and clasped
her arms around him. He tried to break her hold, but she held on.

“Get up!” he ordered, violently. “Jim, pull her away!... Girl, don’t do
that in front of me... I’ve just gambled away--”

“Her life, Kells, only that, I swear,” cried Cleve.

“Kells, listen,” began Joan, pleadingly. “You will not let that--that
CANNIBAL have me?”

“No, by God!” replied Kells, thickly. “I was drunk--crazy.... Forgive
me, girl! You see--how did I know--what was coming?... Oh, the whole
thing is hellish!”

“You loved me once,” whispered Joan, softly. “Do you love me still?...
Kells, can’t you see? It’s not too late to save my life--and YOUR
soul!... Can’t you see? You have been bad. But if you save me now--from
Gulden--save me for this boy I’ve almost ruined--you--you.... God will
forgive you!... Take us away--go with us--and never come back to the
border.”

“Maybe I can save you,” he muttered, as if to himself. He appeared to
want to think, but to be bothered by the clinging arms around him. Joan
felt a ripple go over his body and he seemed to heighten, and the touch
of his hands thrilled.

Then, white and appealing, Cleve added his importunity.

“Kells, I saved your life once. You said you’d remember it some day.
Now--now!... For God’s sake don’t make me shoot her!”

Joan rose from her knees, but she still clasped Kells. She seemed to
feel the mounting of his spirit, to understand how in this moment he was
rising out of the depths. How strangely glad she was for him!

“Joan, once you showed me what the love of a good woman really was. I’ve
never seen the same since then. I’ve grown better in one way--worse
in all others.... I let down. I was no man for the border. Always that
haunted me. Believe me, won’t you--despite all?”

Joan felt the yearning in him for what he dared not ask. She read his
mind. She knew he meant, somehow, to atone for his wrong.

“I’ll show you again,” she whispered. “I’ll tell you more. If I’d never
loved Jim Cleve--if I’d met you, I’d have loved you.... And, bandit or
not, I’d have gone with you to the end of the world!”

“Joan!” The name was almost a sob of joy and pain. Sight of his face
then blinded Joan with her tears. But when he caught her to him, in a
violence that was a terrible renunciation, she gave her embrace, her
arms, her lips without the vestige of a lie, with all of womanliness and
sweetness and love and passion. He let her go and turned away, and in
that instant Joan had a final divination that this strange man could
rise once to heights as supreme as the depths of his soul were dark.
She dashed away her tears and wiped the dimness from her eyes. Hope
resurged. Something strong and sweet gave her strength.

When Kells wheeled he was the Kells of her earlier experience--cool,
easy, deadly, with the smile almost amiable, and the strange, pale eyes.
Only the white radiance of him was different. He did not look at her.

“Jim, will you do exactly what I tell you?”

“Yes, I promise,” replied Jim.

“How many guns have you?”

“Two.”

“Give me one of them.”

Cleve held out the gun that all the while he had kept in his hand. Kells
took it and put it in his pocket.

“Pull your other gun--be ready,” said he, swiftly. “But don’t you shoot
once till I go down!... Then do your best.... Save the last bullet for
Joan--in case--”

“I promise,” replied Cleve, steadily.

Then Kells drew a knife from a sheath at his belt. It had a long, bright
blade. Joan had seen him use it many a time round the camp-fire. He
slipped the blade up his sleeve, retaining the haft of the knife in his
hand. He did not speak another word. Nor did he glance at Joan again.
She had felt his gaze while she had embraced him, as she raised her
lips. That look had been his last. Then he went out. Jim knelt beside
the door, peering between post and curtain.

Joan staggered to the chink between the logs. She would see that fight
if it froze her blood--the very marrow of her bones.

The gamblers were intent upon their game. Not a dark face looked up as
Kells sauntered toward the table. Gulden sat with his back to the
door. There was a shaft of sunlight streaming in, and Kells blocked it,
sending a shadow over the bent heads of the gamesters. How significant
that shadow--a blackness barring gold! Still no one paid any attention
to Kells.

He stepped closer. Suddenly he leaped into swift and terrible violence.
Then with a lunge he drove the knife into Gulden’s burly neck.

Up heaved the giant, his mighty force overturning table and benches and
men. An awful boom, strangely distorted and split, burst from him.

Then Kells blocked the door with a gun in each hand, but only the one
in his right hand spurted white and red. Instantly there followed a
mad scramble--hoarse yells, over which that awful roar of Gulden’s
predominated--and the bang of guns. Clouds of white smoke veiled the
scene, and with every shot the veil grew denser. Red flashes burst from
the ground where men were down, and from each side of Kells. His form
seemed less instinct with force; it had shortened; he was sagging. But
at intervals the red spurt and report of his gun showed he was fighting.
Then a volley from one side made him stagger against the door. The clear
spang of a Winchester spoke above the heavy boom of the guns.

Joan’s eyesight recovered from its blur or else the haze of smoke
drifted, for she saw better. Gulden’s actions fascinated her, horrified
her. He had evidently gone crazy. He groped about the room, through the
smoke, to and fro before the fighting, yelling bandits, grasping with
huge hands for something. His sense of direction, his equilibrium, had
become affected. His awful roar still sounded above the din, but it was
weakening. His giant’s strength was weakening. His legs bent and buckled
under him. All at once he whipped out his two big guns and began to fire
as he staggered--at random. He killed the wounded Blicky. In the melee
he ran against Jesse Smith and thrust both guns at him. Jesse saw the
peril and with a shriek he fired point-blank at Gulden. Then as Gulden
pulled triggers both men fell. But Gulden rose, bloody-browed, bawling,
still a terrible engine of destruction. He seemed to glare in one
direction and shoot in another. He pointed the guns and apparently
pulled the triggers long after the shots had all been fired.

Kells was on his knees now with only one gun. This wavered and fell,
wavered and fell. His left arm hung broken. But his face flashed white
through the thin, drifting clouds of smoke.

Besides Gulden the bandit Pike was the only one not down, and he was
hard hit. When he shot his last he threw the gun away, and, drawing a
knife, he made at Kells. Kells shot once more, and hit Pike, but did
not stop him. Silence, after the shots and yells, seemed weird, and the
groping giant, trying to follow Pike, resembled a huge phantom. With one
wrench he tore off a leg of the overturned table and brandished that. He
swayed now, and there was a whistle where before there had been a roar.

Pike fell over the body of Blicky and got up again. The bandit leader
staggered to his feet, flung the useless gun in Pike’s face, and closed
with him in weak but final combat. They lurched and careened to and fro,
with the giant Gulden swaying after them. Thus they struggled until
Pike moved under Gulden’s swinging club. The impetus of the blow
carried Gulden off his balance. Kells seized the haft of the knife still
protruding from the giant’s neck, and he pulled upon it with all his
might. Gulden heaved up again, and the movement enabled Kells to pull
out the knife. A bursting gush of blood, thick and heavy, went flooding
before the giant as he fell.

Kells dropped the knife, and, tottering, surveyed the scene before
him--the gasping Gulden, and all the quiet forms. Then he made a few
halting steps, and dropped near the door.

Joan tried to rush out, but what with the unsteadiness of her limbs
and Jim holding her as he went out, too, she seemed long in getting to
Kells.

She knelt beside him, lifted his head. His face was white--his eyes were
open. But they were only the windows of a retreating soul. He did not
know her. Consciousness was gone. Then swiftly life fled.



20

Cleve steadied Joan in her saddle, and stood a moment beside her,
holding her hands. The darkness seemed clearing before her eyes and the
sick pain within her seemed numbing out.

“Brace up! Hang--to your saddle!” Jim was saying, earnestly. “Any moment
some of the other bandits might come.... You lead the way. I’ll follow
and drive the pack-horse.”

“But, Jim, I’ll never be able to find the back-trail,” said Joan.

“I think you will. You’ll remember every yard of the trail on which you
were brought in here. You won’t realize that till you see.”

Joan started and did not look back. Cabin Gulch was like a place in
a dream. It was a relief when she rode out into the broad valley. The
grazing horses lifted their heads to whistle. Joan saw the clumps of
bushes and the flowers, the waving grass, but never as she had seen them
before. How strange that she knew exactly which way to turn, to head, to
cross! She trotted her horse so fast that Jim called to say he could
not drive a pack-animal and keep to her gait. Every rod of the trail
lessened a burden. Behind was something hideous and incomprehensible and
terrible; before beckoned something beginning to seem bright. And it
was not the ruddy, calm sunset, flooding the hills with color. That
something called from beyond the hills.

She led straight to a camp-site she remembered long before she came to
it; and the charred logs of the fire, the rocks, the tree under which
she had lain--all brought back the emotions she had felt there. She grew
afraid of the twilight, and when night settled down there were phantoms
stalking in the shadows. When Cleve, in his hurried camp duties, went
out of her sight, she wanted to cry out to him, but had not the voice;
and when he was close still she trembled and was cold. He wrapped
blankets round her and held her in his arms, yet the numb chill and the
dark clamp of mind remained with her. Long she lay awake. The stars were
pitiless. When she shut her eyes the blackness seemed unendurable. She
slept, to wake out of nightmare, and she dared sleep no more. At last
the day came.

For Joan that faint trail seemed a broad road, blazoned through the wild
canons and up the rocky fastness and through the thick brakes. She led
on and on and up and down, never at fault, with familiar landmarks near
and far. Cleve hung close to her, and now his call to her or to the
pack-horse took on a keener note. Every rough and wild mile behind them
meant so much. They did not halt at the noon hour. They did not halt
at the next camp-site, still more darkly memorable to Joan. And sunset
found them miles farther on, down on the divide, at the head of Lost
Canon.

Here Joan ate and drank, and slept the deep sleep of exhaustion. Sunrise
found them moving, and through the winding, wild canon they made fast
travel. Both time and miles passed swiftly. At noon they reached the
little open cabin, and they dismounted for a rest and a drink at the
spring. Joan did not speak a word here. That she could look into the
cabin where she had almost killed a bandit, and then, through silent,
lonely weeks, had nursed him back to life, was a proof that the long
ride and distance were helping her, sloughing away the dark deadlock to
hope and brightness. They left the place exactly as they had found
it, except that Cleve plucked the card from the bark of the
balsam-tree--Gulden’s ace--of--hearts target with its bullet--holes.

Then they rode on, out of that canon, over the rocky ridge, down into
another canon, on and on, past an old camp-site, along a babbling brook
for miles, and so at last out into the foot--hills.

Toward noon of the next day, when approaching a clump of low trees in a
flat valley, Joan pointed ahead.

“Jim--it was in there--where Roberts and I camped--and--”

“You ride around. I’ll catch up with you,” replied Cleve.

She made a wide detour, to come back again to her own trail, so
different here. Presently Cleve joined her. His face was pale and
sweaty, and he looked sick. They rode on silently, and that night they
camped without water on her own trail, made months before. The single
tracks were there, sharp and clear in the earth, as if imprinted but a
day.

Next morning Joan found that as the wild border lay behind her so did
the dark and hateful shadow of gloom. Only the pain remained, and it had
softened. She could think now.

Jim Cleve cheered up. Perhaps it was her brightening to which he
responded. They began to talk and speech liberated feeling. Miles of
that back-trail they rode side by side, holding hands, driving the
pack-horse ahead, and beginning to talk of old associations. Again it
was sunset when they rode down the hill toward the little village of
Hoadley. Joan’s heart was full, but Jim was gay.

“Won’t I have it on your old fellows!” he teased. But he was grim, too.

“Jim! You--won’t tell--just yet!” she faltered.

“I’ll introduce you as my wife! They’ll all think we eloped.”

“No. They’ll say I ran after you!... Please, Jim! Keep it secret a
little. It’ll be hard for me. Aunt Jane will never understand.”

“Well, I’ll keep it secret till you want to tell--for two things,” he
said.

“What?”

“Meet me to--night, under the spruces where we had that quarrel. Meet
just like we did then, but differently. Will you?”

“I’ll be--so glad.”

“And put on your mask now!... You know, Joan, sooner or later your story
will be on everybody’s tongue. You’ll be Dandy Dale as long as you
live near this border. Wear the mask, just for fun. Imagine your Aunt
Jane--and everybody!”

“Jim! I’d forgotten how I look!” exclaimed Joan in dismay. “I didn’t
bring your long coat. Oh, I can’t face them in this suit!”

“You’ll have to. Besides, you look great. It’s going to tickle me--the
sensation you make. Don’t you see, they’ll never recognize you till you
take the mask off.... Please, Joan.”

She yielded, and donned the black mask, not without a twinge. And thus
they rode across the log bridge over the creek into the village. The few
men and women they met stared in wonder, and, recognizing Cleve, they
grew excited. They followed, and others joined them.

“Joan, won’t it be strange if Uncle Bill really is the Overland of Alder
Creek? We’ve packed out every pound of Overland’s gold. Oh! I hope--I
believe he’s your uncle.... Wouldn’t it be great, Joan?”

But Joan could not answer. The word gold was a stab. Besides, she saw
Aunt Jane and two neighbors standing before a log cabin, beginning to
show signs of interest in the approaching procession.

Joan fell back a little, trying to screen herself behind Jim. Then Jim
halted with a cheery salute.

“For the land’s sake!” ejaculated a sweet-faced, gray-haired woman.

“If it isn’t Jim Cleve!” cried another.

Jim jumped off and hugged the first speaker. She seemed overjoyed to see
him and then overcome. Her face began to work.

“Jim! We always hoped you’d--you’d fetch Joan back!”

“Sure!” shouted Jim, who had no heart now for even an instant’s
deception. “There she is!”

“Who?... What?”

Joan slipped out of her saddle and, tearing off the mask, she leaped
forward with a little sob.

“Auntie! Auntie!... It’s Joan--alive--well!... Oh, so glad to be
home!... Don’t look at my clothes--look at me!”

Aunt Jane evidently sustained a shock of recognition, joy, amaze,
consternation, and shame, of which all were subservient to the joy.
She cried over Joan and murmured over her. Then, suddenly alive to the
curious crowd, she put Joan from her.

“You--you wild thing! You desperado! I always told Bill you’d run wild
some day!... March in the house and get out of that indecent rig!”

That night under the spruces, with the starlight piercing the lacy
shadows, Joan waited for Jim Cleve. It was one of the white, silent,
mountain nights. The brook murmured over the stones and the wind rustled
the branches.

The wonder of Joan’s home-coming was in learning that Uncle Bill Hoadley
was indeed Overland, the discoverer of Alder Creek. Years and years of
profitless toil had at last been rewarded in this rich gold strike.

Joan hated to think of gold. She had wanted to leave the gold back in
Cabin Gulch, and she would have done so had Jim permitted it. And to
think that all that gold which was not Jim Cleve’s belonged to her
uncle! She could not believe it.

Fatal and terrible forever to Joan would be the significance of gold.
Did any woman in the world or any man know the meaning of gold as well
as she knew it? How strange and enlightening and terrible had been her
experience! She had grown now not to blame any man, honest miner or
bloody bandit. She blamed only gold. She doubted its value. She could
not see it a blessing. She absolutely knew its driving power to change
the souls of men. Could she ever forget that vast ant-hill of toiling
diggers and washers, blind and deaf and dumb to all save gold?

Always limned in figures of fire against the black memory would be
the forms of those wild and violent bandits! Gulden, the monster, the
gorilla, the cannibal! Horrible as was the memory of him, there was
no horror in thought of his terrible death. That seemed to be the one
memory that did not hurt.

But Kells was indestructible--he lived in her mind. Safe out of the
border now and at home, she could look back clearly. Still all was
not clear and never would be. She saw Kells the ruthless bandit, the
organizer, the planner, and the blood-spiller. He ought have no place in
a good woman’s memory. Yet he had. She never condoned one of his deeds
or even his intentions. She knew her intelligence was not broad enough
to grasp the vastness of his guilt. She believed he must have been the
worst and most terrible character on that wild border. That border had
developed him. It had produced the time and the place and the man. And
therein lay the mystery. For over against this bandit’s weakness and
evil she could contrast strength and nobility. She alone had known the
real man in all the strange phases of his nature, and the darkness of
his crime faded out of her mind. She suffered remorse--almost regret.
Yet what could she have done? There had been no help for that impossible
situation as, there was now no help for her in a right and just placing
of Kells among men. He had stolen her--wantonly murdering for the
sake of lonely, fruitless hours with her; he had loved her--and he had
changed; he had gambled away her soul and life--a last and terrible
proof of the evil power of gold; and in the end he had saved her--he
had gone from her white, radiant, cool, with strange, pale eyes and
his amiable, mocking smile, and all the ruthless force of his life had
expended itself in one last magnificent stand. If only he had known her
at the end--when she lifted his head! But no--there had been only the
fading light--the strange, weird look of a retreating soul, already
alone forever.

A rustling of leaves, a step thrilled Joan out of her meditation.

Suddenly she was seized from behind, and Jim Cleve showed that though
he might be a joyous and grateful lover, he certainly would never be
an actor. For if he desired to live over again that fatal meeting and
quarrel which had sent them out to the border, he failed utterly in his
part. There was possession in the gentle grasp of his arms and bliss in
the trembling of his lips.

“Jim, you never did it that way!” laughed Joan. “If you had--do you
think I could ever have been furious?”

Jim in turn laughed happily. “Joan, that’s exactly the way I stole upon
you and mauled you!”.

“You think so! Well, I happen to remember. Now you sit here and make
believe you are Joan. And let me be Jim Cleve!... I’ll show you!”

Joan stole away in the darkness, and noiselessly as a shadow she stole
back--to enact that violent scene as it lived in her memory.

Jim was breathless, speechless, choked.

“That’s how you treated me,” she said.

“I--I don’t believe I could have--been such a--a bear!” panted Jim.

“But you were. And consider--I’ve not half your strength.”

“Then all I say is--you did right to drive me off.... Only you should
never have trailed me out to the border.”

“Ah!... But, Jim, in my fury I discovered my love!”





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