"Whether you want to or not, Jack, we'll go to this dance to-night."
Jacqueline's hand fell away from her eyes. She seemed suddenly glad again.
"Do you want to take me, Pierre?"
He explained: "Of course. Besides, we have to keep an eye on Wilbur. This girl with the yellow hair—"
She had altered swiftly again. There was no understanding her or following her moods this day. He decided to disregard them, as he had often done before.
"Black Gandil swears that I'm bringing bad luck to the boys at last. Patterson has disappeared; Wilbur has lost his head about a girl. We've got to save Dick."
He knew that she was fond of Wilbur, but she showed no enthusiasm now.
"Let him go his own way. He's big enough to take care of himself."
"But it's common talk, Jack, that the end of Wilbur will come through a woman. It was that that sent him on the long trail, you know. And this girl with the yellow hair—"
"Why do you harp on her?"
"Harp on her?"
"Every other word—nothing but yellow hair. I'm sick of it. I know the kind—faded corn color—dyed, probably. Pierre, you are all blind, and you most of all."
This being obviously childish, Pierre brushed the consideration of it from his mind.
"And for clothes, Jack?"
They were both dumb. It had been years since she had worn the clothes of a woman. She had danced with the men of her father's gang many a time while some one whistled or played on a mouth-organ, and there was the time they rode into Beulah Ferry and held up the dance-hall, and Jim Boone and Mansie lined up the crowd with their hands held high above their heads while the sweating musicians played fast and furious and Jack and Pierre danced down the center of the hall.
She had danced many a time, but never in the clothes of a woman; so they stared, mutely puzzled.
A thought came first to Jacqueline. It obliterated even the memory of the yellow-haired girl and set her eyes dancing. She stepped close and murmured her suggestion in the ear of Pierre. Whatever it was, it made his jaw set hard and brought grave lines into his face.
She stepped back, asking: "Well?"
"We'll do it. What a little demon you are, Jack!"
"Then we'll have to start now. There's barely time."
They ran from the room together, and as they passed through the room below Wilbur called after them: "The dance?"
"Wait and go with me."
"We ride in a roundabout way."
They were through the door as Pierre called back, and a moment later the hoofs of their horses scattered the gravel down the hillside. Jacqueline rode a black stallion sired by her father's mighty Thunder, who had grown old but still could do the work of three ordinary horses in carrying the great bulk of his master. The son of Thunder was little like his sire, but a slender-limbed racer, graceful, nervous, eager. A clumsy rider would have ruined the horse in a single day's hard work among the trails of the mountain-desert, but Jacqueline, fairly reading the mind of the black, nursed his strength when it was needed and let him run free and swift when the ground before him was level.
Now she picked her course dexterously down the hillside with the cream-colored mare of Pierre following half a length behind.
After the first down-pitch of ground was covered they passed into difficult terrain, and for half an hour went at a jog trot, winding in and out among the rocks, climbing steadily up and up through the hills.
Here the ground opened up again, and they roved on at a free gallop, the black always half a length in front. In all the length of the mountain-desert there was no other picture which could compare with these two in their youth and their pride and their fearlessness.
They rode alert, high-headed like their horses, and there was about them a suggestion of the patience which carries a man endlessly after one purpose, and a suggestion of the eagerness, too, which makes him strike swift and hard and surely when the time for action comes.
Along the ridge of a crest, an almost level stretch of a mile or more, Jack eased the grip on the reins, and the black responded with a sudden lengthening of stride and lowered his head with ears pressed back flat while he fairly flew over the ground.
Nothing could match that speed. The strong mare fell to the rear, fighting gamely, but beaten by that effort of the stallion.
Jack swerved in the saddle and looked back, laughing her triumph. Pierre smiled grimly in response and leaned forward, shifting his weight more over the withers of Mary. He spoke to her, and one of her pricking ears fell back as if to listen to his voice. He spoke again and the other ear fell back, her neck straightened, she gave her whole heart to her work.
First she held the stallion even, then she began to gain. That was the meaning of those round, strong hips, and the breadth of the chest. She needed a half-mile of running to warm her to her work, and now the black came back to her with every leap.
The thunder of the approaching hoofs warned the girl. One more glance she cast in apprehension over her shoulder, and then brought her spurs into play again and again. Still the rush of hoofs behind her grew louder and louder, and now there was a panting at her side and the head of cream-colored Mary drew up and past.
She gave up the battle with a little shout of anger and slowed up her mount with a sharp pull on the reins. It needed only a word from Pierre and his mare drew down to a hand-gallop, twisting her head a little toward the black as if she called for some recognition of her superiority.
"It's always this way," cried Jack, and jerked at the reins with a childish impotence of anger. "I beat you for the first quarter of a mile and then this fool of a horse—I'm going to give him away."
"The black," said Pierre, assuming an air of quiet and superior knowing which always aggravated her most, "is a good second-rate cayuse when some one who knows horses is in the saddle. I'd give you fifty for him on the strength of his looks and keep him for a decoration."
She could only glare her speechless rage for a moment. Then she changed swiftly and threw out her hands in a little gesture of surrender.
"After all, what difference does it make? Your Mary can beat him in a long run or a short one, but it's your horse, Pierre, and that takes the sting away. If it were any one else's I'd—well, I'd shoot either the horse or the rider. But my partner's horse is my horse, you know."
She broke into song, the clear voice flinging back from the mountainside to the canon that dropped on their right:
"My partner's horse is my horse, bunky— From his fetlock to the bucking-strap, From his flying hoofs to the saddle-flap— My partner's horse is my horse, bunky.
"My partner's gun is my gun, bunky— From the chamber to the trigger-guard; And the butt like a friend's hand gripping hard— My partner's gun is my gun, bunky.
"My partner's heart is my heart, bunky— And like matched horses galloping well, They will beat together through heaven and hell— My partner's heart is my heart, bunky."
He swerved his mare sharply to the left and took her hand with a strong grip.
"Jack, of all the men I've ever known, I'd rather walk with you, I'd rather talk with you, I'd rather ride with you, I'd rather fight for you. Jack, you're the best pal that ever wore spurs, and the gamest sport."
"Of all the men you ever knew," she said, "I suppose that I am."
He did not hear the low voice, for he was looking out over the canon and whistling the refrain of her song happily. A few moments later they swung out onto the very crest of the range.
On all sides the hills dropped away through the gloom of the evening, brown near by, but falling off through a faint blue haze and growing blue-black with the distance. A sharp wind, chill with the coming of night, cut at them. Not a hundred feet overhead shot a low-winging hawk back from his day's hunting and rising only high enough to clear the range and then plunge down toward his nest.
Like the hawks they peered down from their point of vantage into the profound gloom of the valley below. They shaded their eyes and studied it with a singular interest for long moments, patient, silent, quiet as the hawk when he steadies himself in leisurely circles high in the heart of heaven and fixes his eyes surely on his prey far, far below—then folds his wings and shoots suddenly down, a veritable bolt from the blue.
So these two marauders stared until she raised a hand slowly and then pointed down. He followed the direction she indicated, and there, through the haze of the evening, he made out a glimmer of lights.
He said sharply: "I know the place, but we'll have a devil of a ride to get there."
And like the swooping hawk they started down the slope. It was precipitous in many places, but Pierre kept almost at a gallop, making the mare take the slopes often crouched back on her haunches with forefeet braced forward, and sliding many yards at a time.
In between the boulders he darted, twisting here and there, and always erect and jaunty in the saddle, swaying easily with every movement of Mary. Not far behind him came the girl. Fine rider that she was, she could not hope to compete with such matchless horsemanship where man and horse were only one piece of strong brawn and muscle, one daring spirit. Many a time the chances seemed too desperate to her, but she followed blindly where he led, setting her teeth at each succeeding venture, and coming out safe every time, until they swung out at last through a screen of brush and onto the level floor of the valley.
In the heart of that valley two roads crossed. Many a year before a man with some imagination and illimitable faith was moved by the crossing of those roads to build a general merchandise store.
Time justified his faith, in a small way, and now McGuire's store was famed for leagues and leagues about, for he dared to take chances with all manner of novelties, and the curious, when their pocketbooks were full, went to McGuire's to find inspiration.
Business was dull this night, however; there was not a single patron at the bar, and the store itself was empty, so he went to put out the big gasoline lamp which hung from the ceiling in the center of the room, and was on the ladder, reaching high above his head, when a singular chill caught him in the center of his plump back and radiated from that spot in all directions, freezing his blood. He swallowed the lump in his throat and with his arms still stretched toward the lamp he turned his head and glanced behind.
Two men stood watching him from a position just inside the door. How they had come there he could never guess, for the floor creaked at the lightest step. Nevertheless, these fantoms had appeared silently, and now they must be dealt with. He turned on the ladder to face them, and still he kept the arms automatically above his head while he descended to the floor.
However, on a closer examination, these two did not seem particularly formidable. They were both quite young, one with dark-red hair and a somewhat overbright eye; the other was hardly more than a boy, very slender, delicately made, the sort of handsome young scoundrel whom women cannot resist.
Having made these observations McGuire ventured to lower his arms by jerks; nothing happened; he was safe. So he vented his feelings by scowling on the strangers.
"Well," he snapped, "what's up? Too late for business. I'm closin' up."
The two quite disregarded him. Their eyes were wandering calmly about the place, and now they rested on the pride of McGuire's store. The figure of a man in evening clothes, complete from shoes to gloves and silk hat, stood beside a girl of wax loveliness. She wore a low-cut gown of dark green, and over her shimmering, cold white shoulders was draped a scarf of dull gold. Above, a sign said: "You only get married once; why don't you do it up right?"
"That," said the taller stranger, "ought to do very nicely for us, eh?"
And the younger replied in a curiously light, pleasant voice: "Just what we want. But how'll I get away with all that fluffy stuff, eh?"
The elder explained: "We're going to a bit of a dance and we'll take those evening clothes."
The heart of McGuire beat faster and his little eyes took in the strangers again from head to foot.
"They ain't for sale," he said. "They's just samples. But right over here—"
"This isn't a question of selling," said the red-headed man. "We've come to accept a little donation, McGuire."
The storekeeper grew purple and white in patches. Still there was no show of violence, no display of guns; he moved his hand toward his own weapon, and still the strangers merely smiled quietly on him. He decided that he had misunderstood, and went on: "Over here I got a line of goods that you'll like. Just step up and—"
The younger man, frowning now, replied: "We don't want to see any more of your junk. The clothes on the models suit us all right. Slip 'em off, McGuire."
"But—" began McGuire and then stopped.
His first suspicion returned with redoubled force; above all, that head of dark red hair made him thoughtful. He finished hoarsely: "What the hell's this?"
"Why," smiled the taller man, "you've never done much in the interests of charity, and now's a good time for you to start. Hurry up, McGuire; we're late already!"
There was a snarl from the storekeeper, and he went for his gun, but something in the peculiarly steady eyes of the two made him stop with his fingers frozen hard around the butt. A mighty sickness overwhelmed McGuire, and before his eyes there swam a dark mist.
He whispered: "You're Red Pierre?"
"The clothes," repeated Pierre sternly, "on the jump, McGuire."
And with a jump McGuire obeyed. His hands trembled so that he could hardly remove the scarf from the shoulders of the model, but afterward fear made his fingers supple. He lifted up the green gown; white, filmy clothes showed underneath.
There came a sharp cry from Jack: "Turn away, Pierre; turn quick and don't dare to look. I'll take care of McGuire."
And Pierre le Rouge turned, grinning. When she told him that he could look again, he found her with a bright spot of color in either cheek, and her eyes avoided his. It thrilled Pierre, and yet it troubled him, for she seemed changed, all at once, less of a comrade, and strangely aloof. McGuire was doing up the clothes in two bundles.
Jacqueline took one of them and Pierre the other under his left arm; with his right hand he drew out some yellow coins.
"I didn't buy these clothes because I didn't have the time to dicker with you, McGuire. I've heard you talk prices before, you know. But here's what the clothes are worth to us."
And into the quaking hands of McGuire he poured a chinking stream of gold pieces.
Relief, amazement, and a very wholesome fear struggled in the face of McGuire as he saw himself threefold overpaid. At that little yellow heap he remained staring, unheeding the sound of the retreating outlaws. At it he still stared with fascinated eyes while the door banged and the clatter of galloping hoofs began.
"It ain't possible," he said at last, "thieves have begun to pay."
His eyes sought the ceiling.
"So that's Red Pierre?" said McGuire.
As for Pierre and Jacqueline, they were instantly safe in the black heart of the mountains. Many a mile of hard riding lay before them, however, and already the dance must be nearly ready to begin in the Crittenden schoolhouse. There was no road, not even a trail that they could follow. They had never even seen the Crittenden schoolhouse; they knew its location only by vague descriptions.
But they had ridden a thousand times in places far more bewildering and less known to them. Like all true denizens of the mountain-desert, they had a sense of direction as uncanny as that of an Eskimo. Now they struck off confidently through the dark and trailed up and down through the mountains until they reached a hollow in the center of which shone a group of dim lights. It was the schoolhouse near the Barnes place, the scene of the dance.
So they turned back behind the hills and in the covert of a group of cottonwoods they kindled two more little fires, shading them on three sides with rocks and leaving them open for the sake of light on the fourth.
They worked busily for a time, without a word spoken by either of them. The only sound was the rustling of Jacqueline's stolen silks and the purling of a small stream of water near them, some meager spring.
But presently: "P-P-Pierre, I'm f-freezing."
He himself was numbed by the chill air and paused in the task of thrusting a leg into the trousers, which persisted in tangling and twisting under his foot.
"So'm I. It's c-c-cold as the d-d-d-devil."
"And these—th-things—aren't any thicker than spider webs."
"Wait. I'll build you a great big fire."
And he scooped up a number of dead twigs.
"P-P-Pierre! D-d-d-don't you d-d-dare c-come in s-sight of m-me."
"D-d-damn it! I don't want to see you."
"P-Pierre! Aren't you ash-sh-sh-shamed to talk like that?"
"Jack, this damned collar won't button."
"Come help me."
"Pierre! How can I come dressed like th-th-this?"
"I'm n-n-not going to the dance."
"Then I am."
"Jack, you're a flirt."
"I hate you, Pierre!"
"Thank G-G-G-God! The collar's on."
"I can't tie this—th-th-thing."
"I'll come help you."
"What is it?"
"The thing that g-g-goes around me."
"But this damned tie isn't!"
"I'll do it for you."
And then: "N-n-no. Go b-b-b-back!"
He fixed the eye-glass on his nose and laughed at the thought of himself.
"I've got the dress on."
"Then I can come?"
He was warm enough now, with the suit on and even the tie knotted, after a fashion.
"No. I st-t-till feel just n-n-n-naked, Pierre."
"Is there something missing?"
"Yes. Around the shoulders."
"Take the scarf."
There was an interlude of more rustling, then:
"I wish I had a m-m-m-mirror."
"Jack, are you vain?"
A cry of delight answered him. He threw caution to the winds and advanced on her. He found her kneeling above a pool of water fed by the soft sliding little stream from the spring. With one hand she held a burning twig by way of a torch, and with the other she patted her hair into shape and finally thrust the comb into the glittering, heavy coils.
She started, as if she felt his presence without looking, and knelt with body erect.
"C-c-c-close your eyes."
She stood with the torch high overhead, and he saw a beauty so glorious that he closed his eyes involuntarily and still he saw the vision in the dull-green gown, with the scarf of old gold about her shoulders and the skin peering out here and there, dazzling white. And there were two lights, the barbaric red of the jewels in her hair, and the black shimmer of her eyes. He drew back a step more. It was a picture to be looked at from a distance.
She ran to him with a cry of dismay:
"Pierre, what's wrong with me?"
His arms went round her of their own accord. It was the only place they could go. And all this fragrant, marvelous beauty was held in the circle of his will.
"It isn't that, but you're so wonderful, Jack, so glorious, that I hardly know you. You're like a different person."
He felt the warm body trembling, and the thought that it was not entirely from the cold set his heart beating like a trip-hammer. What he felt was so strange to him that he stepped back in a vague alarm, and then laughed. She stood with a half whimsical half expectant smile.
"Jack, how am I to risk you in the arms of all the strangers in that dance?"
The light of Alexander when he dreamed of new worlds to conquer came into those wide black eyes.
"It's late. Listen!"
She cupped a hand at her ear and leaned to listen. Up from the hollow below them came a faint strain of music, a very light sound that was drowned a moment later by the solemn rushing of the wind through the great trees above them.
They looked up of one accord.
"Pierre, what was that?"
"Nothing; the wind in the branches, that's all."
"It was a hushing sound. It was like—it was like a warning, almost."
But he was already turning away, and she followed him hastily.
Jacqueline could never back a horse in that gown, or even sit sidewise in the saddle without hopelessly crumpling it, so they walked to the schoolhouse. It was a slow progress, for she had to step lightly and carefully for fear of the slippers. He took her bare arm and helped her; he would never have thought of it under ordinary conditions, but since she had put on this gown she was greatly changed to him, no longer the wild, free rider of the mountain-desert, but a defenseless, strangely weak being. Her strength was now something other than the skill to ride hard and shoot straight and quick.
Greatest wonder of all, she accepted the new relation tacitly, and leaned more and more weight on his hand, and even looked up and laughed with pleasure when he almost lifted her over a muddy runlet. It was all new, very strange, and, oddly enough, not unpleasant. Each was viewing the other from such an altered point that neither spoke.
So they came to the schoolhouse in this silence, and reached the long line of buggies, buckboards, and, most of all, saddled horses. They flooded the horse-shed where the school children stabled their mounts in the winter weather. They were tethered to the posts of the fence; they were grouped about the trees.
It was a prodigious gathering, and a great affair for the mountain-desert. They knew this even before they had set foot within the building.
They stopped here and adjusted their masks carefully. They were made from a strip of black lining which Jack had torn from one of the coats in the trunk which lay far back in the hills.
Those masks had to be tied firmly and well, for some jester might try to pull away that of Pierre, and if his face were seen, it would be death—a slaughter without defense, for he had not been able to conceal his big Colt in these tight-fitting clothes. Even as it was, there was peril from the moment that the lights within should shine on that head of dark-red hair.
As for Jack, there was little fear that she would be recognized. She was strange even to Pierre every time he looked down at her, for she had ceased to be Jack and had become very definitely "Jacqueline." But the masks were on; the scarf adjusted about the throat and bare, shivering shoulders of Jack, and they stood arm in arm before the door out of which streamed the voices and the music.
"Are you ready?"
"Pierre—if they should find us out—"
"Never in a thousand years. Are you ready?"
But she was trembling so, either from fear, or excitement, or both, that he had to take a firm hold on her arm and almost carry her up the steps, shove the door open, and force her in.
A hundred eyes were instantly upon them, practised, suspicious eyes, accustomed to search into all things and take nothing for granted; eyes of men who, when a rap came at their door, looked to see whether or not the shadow of the stranger fell full in the center of the crack beneath the door. If it fell to one side the man might be an enemy, and therefore they would stand at one side of the room, their hands upon the butt of the six-gun, and shout: "Come in." Such was the battery of glances from the men, and the color of Pierre altered, paled.
He knew some of those faces, for those who hunt and are hunted never forget the least gestures of their enemies. There was a mighty temptation to turn back even then, but he set his teeth and forced himself to stand calmly, adjust the absurd eye-glass on his nose, and stare about the room.
The chuckle which replied to this maneuver freed him for the moment. Suspicion was lulled. Moreover, the red-jeweled hair of Jacqueline and her lighted eyes called all attention almost immediately upon her. She shifted the golden scarf—the white arms and breast flashed in the light—a gasp responded. There would be talk to-morrow; there were whispers even now.
It was not the main hall that they stood in, for this school, having been built by an aspiring community, contained two rooms; this smaller room, used by the little ones of the school, was now converted into a hat-and-cloak room, and here also were a dozen baskets and boxes filled with comforters and blankets.
It was because of what lay in those baskets that the men and the women walked and talked softly in this room. They were wary lest they should arouse a sound which not even the loudest music could quite drown—a sound which makes all women sit up straight and sniff like hunted animals at bay, and makes all men frown and glance about for places of refuge.
Now and then some girl came panting and flushed from the dance-hall within and tiptoed to one of these baskets, and raised an edge of a blanket and looked down at the contents with a singular smile. Pierre hung up his hat, removed his gloves slowly, nerving himself to endure the sharp glances, and opened the door for Jacqueline.
If she had held back tremulously before, something she had seen in the eyes of those in the first room, something in the whisper and murmur which rose the moment she started to leave, gave her courage. She stepped into the dance-hall like a queen going forth to address devoted subjects.
The second ordeal was easier than the first. There were many times more people in that crowded room, but each was intent upon his own pleasure. A wave of warmth and light swept upon them, and a blare of music, and a stir and hum of voices, and here and there the sweet sound of a happy girl's laughter. They raised their heads, these two wild rangers of the mountain-desert, and breathed deep of the fantastic scene.
It was marvelous, indeed, that so much gay life could exist within the arms of those gaunt, naked hills beyond the windows. There was no attempt at beauty in the costumes of the masqueraders. Here and there some girl achieved a novel and pleasing effect; but on the whole they strove for cheaper and more stirring things in the line of the grotesque.
Here passed a youth wearing a beard made from the stiff, red bristles of the tail of a sorrel horse. Another wore a bear's head cunningly stuffed, the grinning teeth flashing over his head and the skin draped over his shoulders. A third disfigured himself horribly by painting after the fashion of an Indian on the war-path, with crimson streaks down his forehead and red and black across his cheeks.
But not more than a third of all the assembly made any effort to masquerade, beyond the use of the simple black mask across the upper part of the face. The rest of the men and women contented themselves with wearing the very finest clothes they could afford to buy, and there was through the air a scent of the general merchandise store which not even a liberal use of cheap perfume and all the drifts of pale-blue cigarette smoke could quite overcome.
As for the music, it was furnished by two very old men, relics of the days when there were contests in fiddling; a stout fellow of middle age, with cheeks swelled almost to bursting as he thundered out terrific blasts on a slide trombone; a youth who rattled two sticks on an overturned dish-pan in lieu of a drum, and a cornetist of real skill.
In an interlude, before very long, he would amuse with a solo, including all sorts of runs and whistling notes, and be a source of talk for many a month to come.
There were hard faces in the crowd, most of them, of men who had set their teeth against hard weather and hard men, and fought their way through, not to happiness, but to existence, so that fighting had become their pleasure.
Now they relaxed their eternal vigilance, their eternal suspicion. Another phase of their nature weakened. Some of them were smiling and laughing for the first time in months, perhaps, of bitter labor and loneliness on the range. With the gates of good-nature opened, a veritable flood of gaiety burst out. It glittered in their eyes, it rose to their lips in a wild laughter. They seemed to be dancing more furiously fast in order to forget the life which they had left, and to which they must return.
And through all the cheapness there was a great note of poetry as well; but one caught this only by a sense of intuition, or by remembering that these were the conquerors of the bitter nature of the mountain-desert. There was beauty here, the beauty of strength in the men and a brown loveliness in the girls; just as in the music, the blatancy of the rattling dish-pan and the blaring trombone were more than balanced by the real skill of the violinists, who kept a high, sweet, singing tone through all the clamor.
One could close his ears to the rest of the noise, if he strove to do so, and hear nothing but that harmonious moaning of the strings, steady and clear, like the aspirations of a man divorced from the facts of his weakness and his crudeness in practical life.
And Pierre le Rouge and Jacqueline? They stood aghast for a moment when that crash of noise broke around them; but they came from a life where there was nothing of beauty except the lonely strength of the mountains and the appalling silences of the stars that roll above the desert. Almost at once they caught the overtone of human joyousness, and they turned with strange smiles to each other, and it was "Pierre?" "Jack?" Then a nod, and she was in his arms, and they glided into the dance.
When a crowd gathers in the street, there rises a babel of voices, a confused and pointless clamor, no matter what the purpose of the gathering, until some man who can think as well as shout begins to speak. Then the crowd murmurs a moment, and after a few seconds composes itself to listen.
So it was with the noise in the hall when Pierre and Jacqueline began to dance. First there were smiles of derision and envy around them, but after a moment a little hush came where they moved, and then men began to note the smile of the girl and the whiteness of that round throat, and the grace of the bare, tapering arms.
So a whisper went around the room, and there began a craning of necks and an exchange of nods. All that crowd became in a moment no more than the chorus which fills the background of the stage when the principals step out from the wings.
They could not help but dance well, for they had youth and grace and strength, and the glances of applause and envy were like wine to quicken their blood, while above all they caught the overtone of the singing violins, and danced by that alone. The music ended with a long flourish just as they whirled to a stop in a corner of the room. At once an eddy of men started toward them.
"Who shall it be?" smiled Pierre. "With whom do you want to dance? It's your triumph, Jack."
She was alight and alive with the victory, and her eyes roved over the crowd.
"The big man with the tawny hair."
"But he's making right past us."
"No; he'll turn and come back."
"How do you know?"
For answer she glanced up and laughed, and he realized with a singular sense of loneliness that she knew many things which were beyond his ken. Some one touched his arm, and a voice, many voices, beset him:
"How's the chances for a dance with the girl, partner?"
"My name's McCormack. Riley? Glad to know you. I've got a flask on the hip, Riley; what's the chance of making a trade on this next dance?"
"How do we swap partners? Mine is the rangy girl with the red topknot. Not much on looks, Bill, but a cayuse don't cover ground on his looks. Dance? Say, Bill, she'll rock you to sleep!"
"This dance is already booked," Pierre answered, and kept his eyes on the tall man with the scarred face and the resolute jaw. He wondered profoundly why Jacqueline had chosen such a partner.
At least she had prophesied correctly, for the big man turned toward them just as he seemed about to head for another part of the hall. The crowd gave way before him, not that he shouldered them aside, but they seemed to feel the coming of his shadow before him, and separated as they would have done before the shadow of a falling tree.
In another moment Pierre found himself looking up to the giant. No mask could disguise him, neither cover that long, twisting mark of white down his cheek, nor hide the square set of the jaw, nor dim the keen steady eyes. Upon him there was written at large: "This is a man."
And there came to Pierre an exceedingly great uneasiness in his right hand, and a twitching of the fingers low down on his thigh where the familiar holster should have hung. His left hand rose, following the old instinct, and touched beneath his throat where the cold cross lay.
He was saying easily: "This is your dance, isn't it?"
"Right, Bud," answered the big man in a mellow voice as great as his size. "Sorry I can't swap partners with you, but I hunt alone."
An overwhelming desire to get a distance between himself and this huge unknown came to Pierre.
He said: "There goes the music. You're off."
And the other, moving toward Jack, leaned down a little and murmured at the ear of the outlaw: "Thanks, Pierre."
Then he was gone, and Jacqueline was laughing over his shoulder back to Pierre.
Through his daze and through the rising clamor of the music, a voice said beside him: "You look sort of sick, dude. Who's your friend?"
"Don't you know him?" asked Pierre.
"No more than I do you; but I've ridden the range for ten years around here, and I know that he's new to these parts. If I'd ever glimpsed him before, I'd remember him. He'd be a bad man in a mix, eh?"
And Pierre answered with devout earnestness: "He would."
"But where 'd you buy those duds, pal? Hey, look! Here's what I've been waiting for—the Barneses and the girl that's visitin' 'em from the East."
The Barnes group was passing through the door, and last came the unmistakable form of Dick Wilbur, masked, but not masked enough to hide his familiar smile or cover the well-known sound of his laughter as it drifted to Pierre across the hall, and on his arm was a girl in an evening dress of blue, with a small, black mask across her eyes, and deep-golden hair.
Pausing before she swung into the dance with Wilbur, she made a gesture with the white arm, and looked up laughing to big, handsome Dick. Pierre trembled, and his heart beat once and stopped.
As he watched, the song which Dick had sung came like a monotonous, religious chant within him:
They call me poor, yet I am rich In the touch of her golden hair; My heart is filled like a miser's hands With the red-gold of her hair.
The only sky I ride beneath Is the dear blue of her eyes, The only heaven I desire Is the blue of her dear eyes.
But even the memory of the song died in him while he watched her dance, and saw the lights and shadows flit across the smooth shoulders; and when he saw the hands of Wilbur about her, a red rage came up in him.
Dick in passing, marked that stare above the heads of the crowd, and frowned with trouble. The hungry eyes of Pierre followed them as they circled the hall again; and this time Wilbur, perhaps fearing that something had gone wrong with Pierre, steered close to the edge of the dancing crowd and looked inquisitively across.
He leaned and spoke to the girl, and she turned her head, smiling, to Pierre. Then the smile went out, and even despite the mask, he saw that her eyes had widened. The heart of Pierre grew thunderous with music. She had stopped and slipped from the arm of Wilbur, and came step by step slowly toward him like one walking in her sleep.
There, by the edge of the dancers, with the noise of the music and the laughter and the shuffling feet to cover them, they met. The hands she held to him were cold and trembling. He only knew that they were marvelously soft, and that they faltered and closed strongly about his own.
"Is it you?"
"It is I."
That was all; and then the shadow of Wilbur loomed above them.
"What's this? Do you know each other? It isn't possible! Pierre, are you playing a game with me?"
But under the glance of Pierre he fell back a step, and reached for the gun which was not there. They were alone once more.
"But you are dead!"
"No, no! But you—Pierre——"
"It was a miracle—the cross—that saved me."
"Where can we go?"
"Hold my arm close—so I'll know it isn't just dreaming. And go quickly!"
"They are staring at us—the fools—as if they were trying to understand."
"We'll be followed?"
"Do you need a wrap?"
"But it is cold outside, and your shoulders are bare."
"Then take that cloak. But quickly, Pierre, before we're followed."
He drew it about her; he led her through the door; it clicked shut; they were alone with the sweet, frosty air about them. She tore away the mask, and her beauty struck him like the moon when it drops suddenly through a mist of clouds.
"And yours, Pierre?"
"Because there are people. Hurry. Now here, with just the trees around us——"
And he tore off the mask.
The white, cold moon shone over them, slipping down between the dark tops of the trees, and the wind stirred slowly through the branches with a faint, hushing sound, as if once more a warning were coming to Pierre this night. He looked up, his left hand at the cross.
"Look down. You are afraid of something, Pierre. What is it?"
"With your arms around my neck, there's nothing in the world I fear. Mary, I loved you all this time."
"But you have grown so tall—so strange—I can hardly feel——"
"And you—so stern and old."
"I never dreamed I could love anything more than the little girl who lay in the snow, and died there that night."
"And I never dreamed I could smile at any man except the boy who lay by me that night. And he died."
"What miracle saved you?"
She said: "It was wonderful, and yet very simple. You remember how the tree crushed me down into the snow? Well, when the landslide moved, it carried the tree before it; the weight of the trunk was lifted from me. Perhaps it was a rock that struck me over the head then, for I lost consciousness. The slide didn't bury me, but the rush carried me before it like a stick before a wave, you see.
"When I woke I was almost completely covered with a blanket of debris, but I could move my arms, and managed to prop myself up in a sitting posture. It was there that my father and his searching party found me; he had been combing that district all night. They carried me back, terribly bruised, but without even a bone broken. It was a miracle that I escaped, and the miracle must have been worked by your cross; do you remember?"
He shuddered and threw a hand up before his eyes.
"It's nothing—but the cross—for every good fortune it has brought me, it has brought bad luck to others."
"Hush, Pierre. Put your arms around me. I am all yours—all. You must not think of the trouble or the cross."
He obeyed and drew her close to him, and the warm slender body gave to him and lay close against his; and her head went back, and the curve of her soft lips was close to his. He kissed her, reverently, and then, with passion, the lips, the eyes, the throat, that quivered as if she were singing.
"Pierre, I have said good night to you every time before I went to sleep all these years."
"And I've looked for you in the face of every woman."
"And I used to think that a still, small voice answered me out of the night."
"Oh, my dear, there was a voice; for I've loved you so hard that it must have been like a hand at your shoulder tapping, and asking you to remember me. Mary, you are crying."
"I'm so happy; I can't help it. It's as if—as if—Pierre——"
"Dear, my dear."
"Hold me closer. I want to feel your strength around me, so that I know I can never lose you again."
"Tell me again that you love me."
"I love you."
"I love you, Pierre."
Then the wind spoke for them, using the trees for a harp above them. She looked up to him, and saw the nodding branches above his head, and higher still, the cold and changeless radiance of the stars. He bent back her head and stared so grimly down into her eyes that her smile ceased tremulously.
"Mary, what is the perfume?"
"None, except the scent of the pines and the sweet, cold air of the night, Pierre."
"There is something more. It's as if the wind had taken all the fragrance from a thousand miles of wild flowers, and brought them blended and faint and sweeter than anything else in the world. It is you, Mary, you are so beautiful. How many men have told you that you are beautiful?"
"None have told me; at least I've listened to them with only half my heart."
"What have they told you?"
"Nothing, except words about eyes and lips, and things like that."
"And your hair?"
"Oh, yes, they never forget that."
"Then there is nothing left for me to say, except that God made you so that I could love you with all my heart. And while I hold you here and hunt for things to say, my mind goes rushing out to great things—the sea, the mountains, the wind, the cold, quiet, beautiful stars. But you are unhappy to hear me. Look! The big tears come one by one in your eyes, and roll down your face."
"I'm so happy, Pierre, that I cannot help but be sad a little."
"But never after this. We will always be happy."
"Always and always."
"Mary, I have ridden all day over a burning hot desert and come under the mountains at night and looked up, and I've seen the white, pure snow with the blue of the sky behind it. You are like that to me. But you will be cold out here; I musn't go on saying nothings like this."
"I love it, Pierre. I won't have you stop."
"Sit here on this stump—now, I'll sit at your feet."
"No, beside me, please, Pierre."
"I will not move. Give me your hands. Now, when I look up your face is framed by a tree-top that goes nodding from one side to the other, and I look up at your eyes and past them at the stars until I know that our love is like them, and free as the wind. Mary, my dearest, your cold hand that I kiss is more to me than oceans of silver, or mountains of gold."
"Now, if we could both die, this would never end. But it will never end in spite of to-morrow, will it? You will go back home with me."
"Go home with you?"
"Take my hand again. Pierre, what has happened? What have I done? What have I said?"
THE FEAR OF THE LIVING
But he only stared gravely up to her with such a sorrow that her heart went cold.
"Nothing—but I've remembered."
"It's the cross. It brings luck and bad fortune together. Mary, I'll throw it away, now—and then—no, it makes no difference. We are done for."
"Don't you see, Mary, or are you still blind as I was ever since I saw you tonight? It's all in that name—Pierre."
"There nothing in it, Pierre, that I don't love."
He rose, and she with him. His head was bowed as if with the weight of the doom which he foresaw.
"You have heard of the wild men of the mountains, and the long-riders?"
He knew that she nodded, though she could not speak.
"I am Red Pierre."
Yet he had the courage to raise his head and watch her shrink with horror. It was only an instant. Then she was beside him again, and one arm around him, while she turned her head and glanced fearfully back at the lighted schoolhouse. The faint music mocked them.
"And you dared to come to the dance? We must go. Look, there are horses! We'll ride off into the mountains, and they'll never find us—we'll——"
"Hush! One day's riding would kill you—riding as I ride."
"I'm strong—-very strong, and the love of you, Pierre, will give me more strength. But quickly, for if they knew you, every man in that place would come armed and ready to kill. I know, for I've heard them talk. Tell me, are one-half of all the terrible things they say——"
"They are true, I guess."
"I won't think of them. Whatever you've done, it was not you, but some devil that forced you on. Pierre, I love you more than ever. Will you go East with me, and home? We will lose ourselves in New York. The millions of the crowd will hide us."
"Mary, there are some men from whom even the night can't hide me. If they were blind their hate would give them eyes to find me."
"Pierre, you are not turning away from me—Pierre!"
"God help me."
"He will. There's some ghost of a chance for us. Will you take that chance and come with me?"
He thought of many things, but what he answered was: "I will."
"Then let's go at once. The railroad——"
"Not that way. No one in that house suspects me now. We'll go back and put on our masks again, and—hush, what's there?"
"There is—a man's step."
And she, seeing the look on his face, covered her eyes in nameless horror. When she looked up a great form was looming through the dark, and then the voice of Wilbur came, hard and cold.
"I've looked everywhere for you. Miss Brown, they are anxious about you in the schoolhouse. Will you go back?"
But Pierre commanded: "Go back."
So she turned, and he ordered again: "I think our friend has something to say to me. You can find your way easily. To-morrow——"
"I shall be waiting."
With what a voice she said it! And then she was gone.
He turned quietly to big Dick Wilbur, on whose contorted face the moonlight fell.
"Say it, Dick, and have it out in cursing me, if that 'll help."
The big man stood with his hands gripped hard behind him, fighting for self-control.
"Pierre, I've cared for you more than I've cared for any other man. I've thought of you like a kid brother. Now tell me that you haven't done this thing, and I'll believe you rather than my senses. Tell me you haven't come like a thief in the night and stolen the girl I love away from me; tell me——"
"If you keep on like that, you'll end by jumping at my throat. Hold yourself, Dick."
"I will if you'll tell me that you haven't——"
"I love her, Dick."
"Damn you! And she?"
"She'll forget me; God knows I hope she'll forget me."
"I brought two guns with me. Here they are."
He held out the weapons.
"Take your choice."
"Does it have to be this way?"
"If you'd rather have me shoot you down in cold blood?"
"I suppose this is as good a way as any."
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. Give me a gun."
"Here. This is ten paces. Are you ready?"
"Pierre. God forgive you for what you've done. She liked me, I know. If it weren't for you, I would have won her and a chance for real life again—but now—damn you!"
"I'll count to ten, slowly and evenly. When I reach ten we fire?"
"I'll trust you not to beat the count, Dick."
"And I you. Start."
He counted quietly, evenly: "One, two, three, four, five six, seven, eight, nine—ten."
The gun jerked up in the hand of Wilbur, but he stayed the movement with his finger pressing still upon the trigger. The hand of Pierre had not moved.
He cried: "By God, Pierre, what do you mean?"
There was no answer. He strode across the intervening space dropped his gun, and caught the other by the shoulders. Out of the nerveless fingers of Pierre the revolver slipped and crushed a dead twig on the ground, and a pair of lifeless eyes stared up to Dick Wilbur.
"In the name of God, Pierre, what has happened to you?"
"Dick, why didn't you fire?"
"Fire? Murder you?"
"You shoot straight—I know—it would have been over quickly."
"What is it, boy? You look dead—there's no color in your face, no light in your eyes, even your voice is dead. I know it isn't fear. What is it?"
"You're wrong. It's fear."
"Fear and Red Pierre. The two don't mate."
"Fear of living, Dick."
"So that's it? God help you. Pierre, forgive me. I should have known that you had met her before, but I was mad, and didn't know what I was doing, couldn't think."
"It's over and forgotten. I have to go back and get Jack. Will you ride home with us?"
"Jack? She's not in the hall. She left shortly after you went, and she means some deviltry. There's a jealous fiend in that girl. I watched her eyes when they followed you and Mary from the hall."
"Then we'll ride back alone."
"Not I. Carry the word to Jim that I'm through with the game. I'm going to wash some of the grime off my conscience and try to make myself fit to speak to this girl again."
"It's the cross," said Pierre.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. The bad luck has come to poor old Jim at last, because he saved me out of the snow. Patterson has gone, and now you, and perhaps Jack—well, this is good-by, Dick?"
Their hands met, a long, strong grip.
"You forgive me, Dick?"
"With all my heart, old fellow."
"I'll try to wish you luck. Stay close to her. Live clean for her sake and worship her like a saint. Perhaps you'll win her."
"I'll do what one man can."
"But if you succeed, ride out of the mountain-desert with her—never let me hear of it."
"I don't understand. Will you tell me what's between you, Pierre? You've some sort of claim on her. What is it?"
"I've said good-by. Only one thing more. Never mention my name to her."
So he turned and walked out into the moonlight in the immaculate dress-suit and big Wilbur stared after him until he disappeared beyond the shoulder of a hill.
THE LUCK OF THE SHIPWRECKED
It was early morning before Pierre reached the refuge of Boone's gang, but there was still a light through the window of the large room, and he entered to find Boone, Mansie, and Gandil grouped about the fire, all ominously silent, all ominously wakeful. They looked up to him and big Jim nodded his gray head. Otherwise there was no greeting.
From a shadowy corner Jacqueline rose and went toward the door. He crossed quickly and barred the way.
"What is it, Jack?"
"Get out of the way."
"Not till you tell me what's wrong."
A veritable devil of fury came blazing in her eyes, and her hand twitched nervously back to her hip where the dark holster hung. She said in a voice that shook with anger: "Don't try your bluff on me. I ain't no shorthorn, Pierre le Rouge."
He stepped aside, frowning.
"To-morrow I'll argue the point with you, Jack."
She turned at the door and snapped back: "You? You ain't fast enough on the draw to argue with me!"
And she was gone. He turned to face the mocking smile of Black Gandil and a rapid volley of questions.
"No more idea than you have."
"What's become of Branch? Hasn't he returned?"
"No. And Dick Wilbur?"
"Boys, he's done with this life and I'm glad of it. He's starting on a new track."
"After a woman?" sneered Bud Mansie.
"Shut up, Bud," broke in Boone, and then slowly to Pierre: "Patterson is gone for two days now. You ought to know what that means. Branch ought to have returned from looking for him, and Branch is still out. Wilbur is gone. Out of seven we're only four left. Who's next?"
He stared gloomily from face to face, and Gandil snarled: "A fellow who saves a shipwrecked man—"
"Damn you, keep still, Gandil."
"Don't damn me, Pierre le Rouge, but damn the luck you've brought to Jim Boone."
"Jim, do you chalk all this up against me?"
"I, lad? No, no! But it's queer. Patterson's done for; there's no doubt of that. Good-natured Garry Patterson. God, boy, how we'll miss him! And Branch seems to have gone the same way. If neither of them show up before morning we can cross 'em off the list. Now Wilbur has gone and Jack has ridden home looking like a small-sized thunder storm, and now you come with a white face and a blank eye. What hell is trailin' us, Pierre, what hell is in store for us. You've seen something, and we want to know what it is."
"A ghost, Jim, that's all. Just a ghost."
Bud Mansie said softly: "There's only one ghost that could make you look like this. Was it McGurk, Pierre?"
Boone commanded: "No more of that, Bud. Boy's we're going to turn in, and to-morrow we'll climb the hills looking for the two we've lost. But there's something or some one after us. Lads, I'm thinking our good days are over. The seven of us have been too many for a small posse and too fast for a big one, but the seven are down to four. The good days are over."
And the three answered in a solemn chorus: "The good days are over."
All eyes fixed on Pierre, and his glance was settled on the floor.
The morning brought them no better cheer, for Jack, whose singing generally wakened them, was not to be coaxed into speech, and when Pierre entered the room she rose and left the breakfast-table. The sad eyes of Jim Boone followed her and then turned to Pierre. No explanation was forthcoming, and he asked for none. The old fatalist had accepted the worst, and now he waited for doom to descend.
They took their horses after breakfast and rode out to search the hills, for it was quite possible that an accident had crippled at least one of the two lost men, either Patterson or Branch. Not a gully within miles was left unsearched, but toward evening they rode back, one by one, with no tidings.
One by one they rode up, and whistled to announce their coming, and then rode on to the stable to unsaddle their horses. About the supper table all gathered with the exception of Bud Mansie. So they waited the meal and each from time to time stole a glance at the fifth plate where Bud should sit.
It was Jack who finally stirred herself from her dumb gloom to take up that fifth and carry it out of the room. It was as if she had announced the death of Mansie.
After that, they ate what they could and then went back around the fire. The evening waned, but it brought no sign of any of the missing three. The wood burned low in the fire. The first to break the long silence was Jim Boone, with "Who brings in the wood?"
And Black Gandil answered: "We'll match, eh?"
In an outburst of energy the day before he disappeared Garry Patterson had chopped up some wood and left a pile of it at the corner of the house. It was a very little thing to bring in an armful of that wood, but long-riders do not love work, and now they started the matching seriously. The odd man was out, and Pierre went out on the first toss of the coins.
"You see," said Gandil. "Bad luck to every one but himself."
At the next throw Jacqueline was the lucky one, and her father afterward. Gandil rose and stretched himself leisurely, yet as he sauntered toward the door his backward glance at Pierre was black indeed. He glanced curiously toward Jack—who looked away sharply—and then turned his eyes to her father.
The latter was considering him with a gloomy, foreboding stare and considering over and over again, as Pierre le Rouge well knew, the prophecy of Black Morgan Gandil.
He fell in turn into a solemn brooding, and many a picture out of the past came up beside him and stood near till he could almost feel its presence. He was roused by the creaking of the floor beneath the ponderous step of Jim Boone, who flung the door open and shouted: "Oh, Morgan."
In the silence he turned and stared back at Pierre.
"What's up with Gandil?"
"God knows, not I."
Pierre rose and ran from the room and around the side of the building. There by the woodpile lay the prostrate body. It was a mere limp weight when he turned and raised it in his arms. So he walked back into the house carrying all that was left of Black Morgan Gandil, and placed his burden on a bunk at the side of the room.
There had been no outcry from either Jim Boone or his daughter, but they came quickly to him, and Jacqueline pressed her ear over the heart of the hurt man.
She said; "He's still alive, but nearly gone. Where's the wound?"
They found it when they drew off his coat—a small cut high on the right breast, and another lower and more to the left. Either of them would been fatal, and about each the flesh was discolored where the hilt of the knife or the fist of the striker had driven home the blade.
They stood back and made no hopeless effort to save him. It was uncanny that Black Morgan Gandil, after all of his battles, should die without a struggle in this way. And it had been no cowardly attack from the rear. Both wounds were in the front. A hope came to them when his color increased at one time, but it was for only a moment; it went out again as if some one were erasing paint from his cheeks.
But just as they were about to turn away his body stirred with a slight convulsion, the eyes opened wide, and he strove to speak. A red froth came on his lips. He made another desperate effort, and twisting himself onto one elbow pointed a rigid arm at Pierre. He gasped: "McGurk—God!" and dropped. He was dead before his head touched the blanket.
It was Jacqueline who closed the staring eyes, for the two men were frozen where they stood. They had heard the story of Patterson and Branch and Mansie in one word from the lips of the dying man.
McGurk was back. McGurk was prowling about the last of the gang of Boone, and the lone wolf had pulled down four of the band one by one on successive days. Only two remained, and these two looked at one another with a common thought.
"The lights!" cried Jacqueline, turning from the body of Gandil. "He can shoot us down through the windows at his leisure."
"But he won't," said her father. "I've lived too long with the name of McGurk in my ears not to know the man. He'll never kill by stealth, but openly and man to man. I know him, damn him. He'll wait till he meets us alone, and then we'll finish as poor Gandil, there, or Patterson and Branch and Bud Mansie, all of them fallen somewhere in the mountains with the buzzards left to bury 'em. That's how we'll finish with McGurk on our trail. And you—Gandil was right—it's you that's brought him on us. A shipwrecked man—by God, Gandil was right!"
His right hand froze on the butt of his gun and his face convulsed with impotent rage, for he knew, as both the others knew, that long before that gun was clear of the holster the bullet from Pierre's gun would be on its way. But Pierre threw his arms wide, and standing so, his shadow made a black cross on the wall behind him. He even smiled to tempt the big man further.
Jacqueline ran between and caught the hand of her father, crying:
"Are you going to finish the work of McGurk before he has a chance to start it? He hunted the rest down one by one. Dad, if you put out Pierre what is left? Can you face that devil alone?"
And the old man groaned: "But it's his luck that's ruined me. It's his damned luck which has broken up the finest fellowship that ever mocked at law on the ranges. Oh, Jack, the heart in me's broken. I wish to God that I lay where Gandil lies. What's the use of fighting any longer? No man can stand up against McGurk!"
And the cold which had come in the blood of Pierre agreed with him. He was a slayer of men, but McGurk was a devil incarnate. His father had died at the hand of this lone rider; it was fitting, it was fate that he himself should die in the same way. The girl looked from face to face, and sensed their despondency. It seemed that their fear gave her the greater courage. Her face flushed as she stood glaring her scorn.
"The yellow streak took a long time in showin', but it's in you, all right, Pierre le Rouge."
"You've hated me ever since the dance, Jack. Why?"
"Because I knew you were yellow—like this!"
He shrugged his shoulders like one who gives up the fight against a woman, and seeing it, she changed suddenly and made a gesture with both hands toward him, a sudden gesture filled with grace and a queer tenderness.
She said: "Pierre, have you forgotten that when you were only a boy you stood up to McGurk and drew blood from him? Are you afraid of him now?"
"I'll take my chance with any man—but McGurk—"
"He has no cross to bring him luck."
"Aye, and he has no friends for that luck to ruin. Look at Gandil, Jack, and then speak to me of the cross."
"Pierre, that first time you met you almost beat him to the draw. Oh, if I were a man, I'd—Pierre, it was to get McGurk that you rode out to the range. You've been here six years, and McGurk is still alive, and now you're ready to run from his shadow."
"Run?" he said hotly. "I swear to God that as I stand here I've no fear of death and no hope for the life ahead."
She sneered: "You're white while you say it. Your will may be brave, but your blood's a coward, Pierre. It deserts you."
"Jack, you devil—"
"Aye, you can threaten me safely. But if McGurk were here—"
"Let him come."
"I mean it."
"Then give me one promise."
"A thousand of 'em."
"Let me hunt him with you."
He stared at her with a mute wonder. She had never been so beautiful.
"Jack, what a heart you have! If you were a man we could rule the mountains, you and I."
"Even as I am, what prevents us, Pierre?"
And looking at her he forgot the sorrow which had been his ever since he looked up to the face framed with red-gold hair and the dark tree behind and the cold stars steady above it. It would come to him again, but now it was gone, and he murmured, smiling: "I wonder?"
They made their plans that night, sitting all three together. It was better to go out and hunt the hunter than to wait there and be tracked down. Jack, for she insisted on it, would ride out with Pierre the next morning and hunt through the hills for the hiding-place of McGurk.
Some covert he must have, so as to be near his victims. Nothing else could explain the ease with which he kept on their track. They would take the trail, and Jim Boone, no longer agile enough to be effective on the trail, would guard the house and the body of Gandil in it.
There was little danger that even McGurk would try to rush a hostile house, but they took no chances. The guns of Jim Boone were given a thorough overhauling, and he wore as usual at his belt the heavy-handled hunting knife, a deadly weapon in a hand-to-hand fight. Thus equipped, they left him and took the trail.
They had not ridden a hundred yards when a whistle followed them, the familiar whistle of the gang. They reined short and saw big Dick Wilbur riding his bay after them, but at some distance he halted and shouted: "Pierre!"
"He's come back to us!" cried Jack.
"No. It's only some message."
"Do you know?"
"Yes. Stay here. This is for me alone."
And he rode back to Wilbur, who swung his horse close alongside. However hard he had followed in the pursuit of happiness and the golden hair of Mary Brown, his face was drawn with lines of age and his eyes circled with shadows.
He said: "I've kept close on her trail, Pierre, and the nearest she has come to kindness has been to send me back with a message to you."
He laughed without mirth, and the sound stopped abruptly.
"This is the message in her own words: 'I love him, Dick, and there's nothing in the world for me without him. Bring him back to me. I don't care how; but bring him back.' So tell Jack to ride the trail alone to-day and go back with me. I give her up, not freely, but because I know there's no hope for me."
But Pierre answered: "Wherever I've gone there's been luck for me and hell for every one around me. I lived with a priest, Dick, and left him when I was nearly old enough to begin repaying his care. I came South and found a father and lost him the same day. I gambled for money with which to bury him, and a man died that night and another was hurt. I escaped from the town by riding a horse to death. I was nearly killed in a landslide, and now the men who saved me from that are done for.
"It's all one story, the same over and over. Can I carry a fortune like that back to her? Dick, it would haunt me by day and by night. She would be the next. I know it as I know that I'm sitting in the saddle here. That's my answer. Carry it back to her."
"I won't lie and tell you I'm sorry, because I'm a fool and still have a ghost of a hope, but this will be hard news to tell her, and I'd rather give five years of life than face the look that will come in her eyes."
"I know it, Dick."
"But this is final?"
"Then good-bye again, and—God bless you, Pierre."
"And you, old fellow."
They swerved their horses in opposite directions and galloped apart.
"It was nothing," said Pierre to Jack, when he came up with her and drew his horse down to a trot. But he knew that she had read his mind, and for an hour they could not look each other in the face.
But all day through the mazes of canon and hill and rolling ground they searched patiently. There was no cranny in the rocks too small for them to reconnoiter with caution. There was no group of trees they did not examine.
Yet it was not strange that they failed. In the space of every square mile there were a hundred hiding-places which might have served McGurk. It would have taken a month to comb the country. They had only a day, and left the result to chance, but chance failed them. When the shadows commenced to swing across the gullies they turned back and rode with downward heads, silent.
One hill lay between them and the old ranch-house which had been the headquarters for their gang so many days, when they saw a faint drift of smoke across the sky—not a thin column of smoke such as rises from a chimney, but a broad stream of pale mist, as if a dozen chimneys were spouting wood-smoke at once.
They exchanged glances and spurred their horses up the last slope. As always in a short spurt, the long-legged black of Jacqueline out-distanced the cream-colored mare, and it was she who first topped the rise of land. The girl whirled in her saddle with raised arm, screamed back at Pierre, and rode on at a still more furious pace.
What he saw when he reached a corresponding position was the ranch-house wreathed in smoke, and through all the lower windows was the red dance of flames. Before him fled Jacqueline with all the speed of the black. He loosened the reins, spoke to the mare, and she responded with a mighty rush. Even that tearing pace could not quite take him up to the girl, but he flung himself from the saddle and was at her side when she ran across the smoking veranda and wrenched at the front door.
The whole frame gave back at her, and as Pierre snatched her to one side the doorway fell crashing on the porch, while a mighty volume of smoke burst out at them like a puff from the pit.
They stood sputtering, coughing, and choking, and when they could look again they saw a solid wall of red flame, thick, impenetrable, shuddering with the breath of the wind.
While they stared a stronger breath of that wind tore the wall of flames apart, driving it back in a raging tide to either side. The fire had circled the walls of the entire room, but it had scarcely encroached on the center, and there, seated at the table, was Boone.
He had scarcely changed from the position in which they last saw him, save that he was fallen somewhat deeper in the chair, his head resting against the top of the back. He greeted them, through that infernal furnace, with laughter, and wide, steady eyes. At least it seemed laughter, for the mouth was agape and the lips grinned back, but there was no sound from the lips and no light in the fixed eyes.
Laughter indeed it was, but it was the laughter of death, as if the soul of the man, in dying, recognized its natural wild element and had burst into convulsive mirth. So he sat there, untouched as yet by the wide river of fire, chuckling at his destiny. The wall of fire closed across the doorway again and the work of red ruin went on with a crashing of timbers from the upper part of the building.
As that living wall shut solidly, Jacqueline leaped forward, shouting, like a man, words of hope and rescue; Pierre caught her barely in time—a precarious grasp on the wrist from which she nearly wrenched herself free and gained the entrance to the fire. But the jerk threw her off balance for the least fraction of an instant, and the next moment she was safe in his arms.
Safe? He might as well have held a wildcat, or captured with his bare hands a wild eagle, strong of talon and beak. She tore and raged in a wild fury.
"Pierre, coward, devil!"
"Are you going to let him die?"
"Don't you see? He's already dead."
"You lie. You only fear the fire!"
"I tell you, McGurk has been here before us."
Her arm was freed by a twisting effort and she beat him furiously across the face. One blow cut his lip and a steady trickle of hot blood left a taste of salt in his mouth.
"You young fiend!" he cried, and grasped both her wrists with a crushing force.
She leaned and gnashed at his hands, but he whirled her about and held her from behind, impotent, raging still.
"A hundred McGurks could never have killed him!"
There was a sharp explosion from the midst of the fire.
"See! He's fighting against his death!"
"No! No! It's only the falling of a timber!"
Yet with a panic at his heart he knew that it was the sharp crack of a firearm.
"Liar again! Pierre, for God's sake, do something for him. Father! He's fighting for his life!"
Another and another explosion from the midst of the fire. He understood then.
"The flames have reached his guns. That's all, Jack. Don't you see? We'd be throwing ourselves away to run into those flames."
Realization came to her at last. A heavy weight slumped down suddenly over his arms. He held her easily, lightly. Her head had tilted back, and the red flare of the fire beat across her face and throat. The roar of the flames shut out all other thought of the world and cast a wide inferno of light around them.
Higher and higher rose the fires, and the wind cut off great fragments and hurried them off into the night, blowing them, it seemed, straight up against the piled thunder of the clouds. Then the roof sagged, swayed, and fell crashing, while a vast cloud of sparks and livid fires shot up a hundred feet into the air. It was as if the soul of old Boone had departed in that final flare.
It started the girl into sudden life, surprising Pierre, so that she managed to wrench herself free and ran from him. He sprang after her with a shout, fearing that in her hysteria she might fling herself into the fire, but that was not her purpose. Straight to the black horse she ran, swung into the saddle with the ease of a man, and rode furiously off through the falling of the night.
He watched her with a curious closing of loneliness like a hand about his heart. He had failed, and because of that failure even Jacqueline was leaving him. It was strange, for since the loss of the girl of the yellow hair and those deep blue eyes, he had never dreamed that another thing in life could pain him.
So at length he mounted the mare again and rode slowly down the hill and out toward the distant ranges, trotting mile after mile with downward head, not caring even if McGurk should cross him, for surely this was the final end of the world to Pierre le Rouge.
About midnight he halted at last, for the uneasy sway of the mare showed that she was nearly dead on her feet with weariness. He found a convenient place for a camp, built his fire, and wrapped his blanket about him without thinking of food.
He never knew how long he sat there, for his thoughts circled the world and back again and found all a prospect of desert before him and behind, until a sound, a vague sound out of the night startled him into alertness. He slipped from beside the fire and into the shadow of a steep rock, watching with eyes that almost pierced the dark on all sides.
And there he saw her creeping up on the outskirts of the firelight, prone on her hands and knees, dragging herself up like a young wildcat hunting prey; it was the glimmer of her eyes that he caught first through the gloom. A cold thought came to him that she had returned with her gun ready.
Inch by inch she came closer, and now he was aware of her restless glances probing on all sides of the camp-fire. Silence—only the crackling of a pitchy stick. And then he heard a muffled sound, soft, soft as the beating of a heart in the night, and regularly pulsing. It hurt him infinitely, and he called gently: "Jack, why are you weeping?"
She started up with her fingers twisted at the butt of her gun.
"It's a lie," called a tremulous voice. "Why should I weep?"
And then she ran to him.
"Oh, Pierre, I thought you were gone!"
That silence which came between them was thick with understanding greater than speech. He said at last:
"I've made my plan. I am going straight for the higher mountains and try to shake McGurk off my trail. There's one chance in ten I may succeed, and if I do then I'll wait for my chance and come down on him, for sooner or later we have to fight this out to the end."
"I know a place he could never find," said Jacqueline. "The old cabin in the gulley between the Twin Bears. We'll start for it to-night."
"Not we," he answered. "Jack, here's the end of our riding together."
She frowned with puzzled wonder.
He explained: "One man is stronger than a dozen. That's the strength of McGurk—that he rides alone. He's finished your father's men. There's only Wilbur left, and Wilbur will go next—then me!"
She stretched her hands to him. She seemed to be pleading for her very life.
"But if he finds us and has to fight us both—I shoot as straight as a man, Pierre!"
"Straighter than most. And you're a better pal than any I've ever ridden with. But I must go alone. It's only a lone wolf that will ever bring down McGurk. Think how he's rounded us up like a herd of cattle and brought us down one by one."
"By getting each man alone and killing him from behind."
"From the front, Jack. No, he's fought square with each one. The wounds of Black Gandil were all in front, and when McGurk and I meet it's going to be face to face."
Her tone changed, softened: "But what of me, Pierre?"
"You have to leave this life. Go down to the city, Jack. Live like a woman; marry some lucky fellow; be happy."
"Can you leave me so easily?"
"No, it's hard, devilish hard to part with a pal like you, Jack; but all the rest of my life I've got hard things to face, partner."
"Partner!" she repeated with an indescribable emphasis. "Pierre, I can't leave you."
"I'm afraid to go. Let me stay!"
He said gloomily: "No good will come of it."
"I'll never trouble you—never!"
"No, the bad luck comes on the people who are with me, but never on me. It's struck them all down, one by one; your turn is next, Jack. If I could leave the cross behind—"
He covered his face, and groaned: "But I don't dare; I don't dare! I have to face McGurk. Jack, I hate myself for it, but I can't help it. I'm afraid of McGurk, afraid of that damned white face, that lowered, fluttering eyelid, that sneering mouth. Without the cross to bring me luck, how could I meet him? But while I keep the cross there's ruin and hell without end for every one with me."
She was white and shaking. She said: "I'm not afraid. I've one friend left; there's nothing else to care for."
"So it's to be this way, Jack?"
"This way, and no other."
"Partner, I'm glad. My God, Jack, what a man you would have made!"
Their hands met and clung together, and her head had drooped, perhaps in acquiescence.
A GAME OF SUPPOSE
Dick Wilbur, telling Mary how Pierre had cut himself adrift, did not even pretend to sorrow, and she listened to him with her eyes fixed steadily on his own. As a matter of fact, she had shown neither hope nor excitement from the moment he came back to her and started to tell his message. But if she showed neither hope nor excitement for herself, surely she gave Dick still fewer grounds for any optimistic foresights.
So he finished gloomily: "And as far as I can make out, Pierre is right. There's some rotten bad luck that follows him. It may not be the cross—I don't suppose you believe in superstition like that, Miss Brown?"
She said: "It saved my life."
"Then Pierre—you mean—you met before the dance—you mean—"
He was stammering so that he couldn't finish his thoughts, and she broke in: "If he will not come to me, then I must go to him."
"Follow Pierre le Rouge?" queried Wilbur. "Miss Brown, you're an optimist. But that's because you've never seen him ride. I consider it a good day's work to start out with him and keep within sight till night, but as for following and overtaking him—ha, ha, ha, ha!"
He laughed heartily at the thought.
And she smiled a little sadly, answering: "But I have the most boundless patience in the world. He may gallop all the way, but I will walk, and keep on walking, and reach him in the end. I am not very strong, but—"
Her hands moved out as though testing their power, gripping at the air.
"Where will you go to hunt for him?"
"I don't know. But every evening, when I look out at the sunset hills, with the purple along the valleys, I think that he must be out there somewhere, going toward the highest ranges. If I were up in that country I know that I could find him."
"Never in a thousand years."
"Because he's on the trail—"
"On the trail?"
"What is this man McGurk? I hear of him on all sides. If one of the men rides a bucking horse successfully, some one is sure to say: 'Who taught you what you know, Bud—McGurk?' And then the rest laugh. The other day a man was pointed out to me as an expert shot. 'Not as fast as McGurk,' it was said, 'but he shoots just as straight.' Finally I asked some one about McGurk. The only answer I received was: 'I hope you never find out what he is.' Tell me, what is McGurk?"
Wilbur considered the question gravely.
He said at last: "McGurk is—hell!"
He expanded his statement: "Think of a man who can ride anything that walks on four feet, who never misses with either a rifle or a revolver, who doesn't know the meaning of fear, and then imagine that man living by himself and fighting the rest of the world like a lone wolf. That's McGurk. He's never had a companion; he's never trusted any man. Perhaps that's why they say about him the same thing that they say about me."
"You will smile when you hear. They say that McGurk will lose out in the end on account of some woman."
"And they say that of you?"
"They say right of me. I know it myself. Look at me now? What right have I here? If I'm found I'm the meat of the first man who sights me, but here I stay, and wait and watch for your smiles—like a love-sick boy. By Jove, you must despise me, Mary!"
"I don't try to understand you Westerners," she answered, "and that's why I have never questioned you before. Tell me, why is it that you come so stealthily to see me and run away as soon as any one else appears?"
He said with wonder: "Haven't you guessed?"
"I don't dare guess."
"But you have, and your guess was right. There's a price on my head. By right, I should be out there on the ranges with Pierre le Rouge and McGurk. There's the only safe place; but I saw you and I came down out of the wilds and can't go back. I'll stay, I suppose, till I run my head into a halter."
She was too much moved to speak for a moment, and then: "You come to me in spite of that? Dick, whatever you have done, I know that it's only chance which made you go wrong, just as it made Pierre. I wish—"
The dimness of her eyes encouraged him with a great hope. He stole closer to her.
He repeated: "You wish—"
"That you could be satisfied with a mere friendship. I could give you that, Dick, with all my heart."
He stepped back and smiled somewhat grimly on her.
She went on: "And this McGurk—what do you mean when you say that Pierre is on his trail?"
"Hunting him with a gun."
She grew paler and trembled, but her voice remained steady. It was always that way; at the very moment when he expected her to quail, some inner strength bore her up and baffled him.
"But in all those miles of mountains they may never meet?"
"They can't stay apart any more than iron can stay away from a magnet. Listen: half a dozen years ago McGurk had the reputation of bearing a charmed life. He had been in a hundred fights and he was never touched with either a knife or a bullet. Then he crossed Pierre le Rouge when Pierre was only a youngster just come onto the range. He put two bullets through Pierre, but the boy shot him from the floor and wounded him for the first time. The charm of McGurk was broken.
"For half a dozen years McGurk was gone; there was never a whisper about him. Then he came back and went on the trail of Pierre. He has killed the friends of Pierre one by one; Pierre himself is the next in order—Pierre or myself. And when those two meet there will be the greatest fight that was ever staged in the mountain-desert."
She stood straight, staring past Wilbur with hungry eyes.
"I knew he needed me. I have to save him, Dick. You see that? I have to bring him down from the mountains and keep him safe from McGurk. McGurk! somehow the sound means what 'devil' used to mean to me."
"You've never traveled alone, and yet you'd go up there and brave everything that comes for the sake of Pierre? What has he done to deserve it, Mary?"
"What have I done, Dick, to deserve the care you have for me?"
He stared gloomily on her.
"When do you start?"
"Your friends won't let you go."
"I'll steal away and leave a note behind me."
"And you'll go alone?"
She caught at a hope.
"Unless you'll go with me, Dick?"
"I? Take you—to Pierre?"
She did not speak to urge him, but in the silence her beauty pleaded for her.
He said: "Mary, how lovely you are. If I go I will have you for a few days—for a week at most, all to myself."
She shook her head. From the window behind her the sunset light flared in her hair, flooding it with red-gold against which her skin was marvelously delicate and white, and the eyes of the deepest blue.
"All the time that we are gone, you will never say things like this, Dick?"
"I suppose not. I should be near you, but terribly far away from your thoughts all the while. Still, you will be near. You will be very beautiful, Mary, riding up the trail through the pines, with all the scents of the evergreens blowing about you, and I—well, I must go back to a second childhood and play a game of suppose—"
"A game of what?"
"Of supposing that you are really mine, Mary, and riding out into the wilderness for my sake."
She stepped a little closer, peering into his face.
"No matter what you suppose, I'm sure you'll leave that part of it merely a game, Dick!"
He laughed suddenly, though the sound broke off as short and sharp as it began.
"Haven't I played a game all my life with the fair ladies? And have I anything to show for it except laughter? I'll go with you, Mary, if you'll let me."
"Dick, you've a heart of gold! What shall I take?"
"I'll make the pack up, and I'll be back here an hour after dark and whistle. Like this—"
And he gave the call of Boone's gang.
"I understand. I'll be ready. Hurry, Dick, for we've very little time."
He hesitated, then: "All the time we're on the trail you must be far from me, and at the end of it will be Pierre le Rouge—and happiness for you. Before we start, Mary, I'd like to—"
It seemed that she read his mind, for she slipped suddenly inside his arms, kissed him, and was gone from the room. He stood a moment with a hand raised to his face.
"After all," he muttered, "that's enough to die for, and—" He threw up his long arms in a gesture of infinite resignation.
"The will of God be done!" said Wilbur, and laughed again.
She was ready, crouched close to the window of her room, when the signal came, but first she was not sure, because the sound was as faint as a memory. Moreover, it might have been a freakish whistling in the wind, which rose stronger and stronger. It had piled the thunder-clouds high and higher, and now and again a heavy drop of rain tapped at her window like a thrown pebble.
So she waited, and at last heard the whistle a second time, unmistakably clear. In a moment she was hurrying down to the stable, climbed into the saddle, and rode at a cautious trot out among the sand-hills.
For a time she saw no one, and commenced to fear that the whole thing had been a gruesomely real, practical jest. So she stopped her horse and imitated the signal whistle as well as she could. It was repeated immediately behind her—almost in her ear, and she turned to make out the dark form of a tall horseman.
"A bad night for the start," called Wilbur. "Do you want to wait till to-morrow?"
She could not answer for a moment, the wind whipping against her face, while a big drop stung her lips.
She said at length: "Would a night like this stop Pierre—or McGurk?"
For answer she heard his laughter.
"Then I'll start. I must never stop for weather."
He rode up beside her.
"This is the start of the finish."
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. But somewhere on this ride, I've an idea a question will be answered for me."
Instead of replying he said: "You've got a slicker on?"
"Then follow me. We'll gallop into the wind a while and get the horses warmed up. Afterward we'll take the valley of the Old Crow and follow it up to the crest of the range."
His horse lunged out ahead of hers, and she followed, leaning far forward against a wind that kept her almost breathless. For several minutes they cantered steadily, and before the end of the gallop she was sitting straight up, her heart beating fast, a faint smile on her lips, and the blood running hot in her veins. For the battle was begun, she knew, by that first sharp gallop, and here at the start she felt confident of her strength. When she met Pierre she could force him to turn back with her.
Wilbur checked his horse to a trot; they climbed a hill, and just as the rain broke on them with a rattling gust they swung into the valley of the Old Crow. Above them in the sky the thunder rode; the rain whipped against the rocks like the rattle of a thousand flying hoofs; and now and again the lightning flashed across the sky.
Through that vast accompaniment they moved on in the night straight toward the heart of the mountains which sprang into sight with every flash of the lightning and seemed toppling almost above them, yet they were weary miles away, as she knew.
By those same flashes she caught glimpses of the face of Wilbur. She hardly knew him. She had seen him always big, gentle, handsome, good-natured; now he was grown harder, with a stern set of the jaw, and a certain square outline of face. It had seemed impossible. Now she began to guess how the law could have placed a price upon his head. For he belonged out here with the night and the crash of the storm, with free, strong, lawless things about him.
An awe grew up in her, and she was filled half with dread and half with curiosity at the thought of facing him, as she must many a time, across the camp-fire. In a way, he was the ladder by which she climbed to an understanding of Pierre le Rouge, Red Pierre. For that Pierre, she knew, was to big Wilbur what Dick himself was to the great mass of law-abiding men. Accident had cut Wilbur adrift, but it was more than accident which started Pierre on the road to outlawry; it was the sheer love of dangerous chance, the glory in fighting other men. This was Pierre.
What was the man for whom Pierre hunted? What was McGurk? Not even the description of Wilbur had proved very enlightening. Her thought of him was vague, nebulous, and taking many forms. Sometimes he was tall and dark and stern. Again he was short and heavy and somewhat deformed of body. But always he was everywhere in the night about her.
She guessed at his voice rumbling through an echo of the thunder; she heard the sound of his pursuing horse in the rattle of the following rain. Her work was to keep this relentless lone rider away from Pierre; it was as if she strove to keep the ocean tide away from the shore. They seemed doomed to meet and shock.