"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."
"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."
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.
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.
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.