"There's only one thing—to get away," he said.
"Yes, but that's a terrible risk," she replied.
"We've a good chance now. I'll get horses. We can slip away while they're all excited."
"No—no. I daren't risk so much. Kells would find out at once. He'd be like a hound on our trail. But that's not all. I've a horror of Gulden. I can't explain. I FEEL it. He would know—he would take the trail. I'd never try to escape with Gulden in camp.... Jim, do you know what he's done?"
"He's a cannibal. I hate the sight of him. I tried to kill him. I wish I had killed him."
"I'm never safe while he's near."
"Then I will kill him."
"Hush! you'll not be desperate unless you have to be.... Listen. I'm safe with Kells for the present. And he's friendly to you. Let us wait. I'll keep trying to influence him. I have won the friendship of some of his men. We'll stay with him—travel with him. Surely we'd have a better chance to excape after we reach that gold-camp. You must play your part. But do it without drinking and fighting. I couldn't bear that. We'll see each other somehow. We'll plan. Then we'll take the first chance to get away."
"We might never have a better chance than we've got right now," he remonstrated.
"It may seem so to you. But I KNOW. I haven't watched these ruffians for nothing. I tell you Gulden has split with Kells because of me. I don't know how I know. And I think I'd die of terror out on the trail with two hundred miles to go—and that gorilla after me."
"But, Joan, if we once got away Gulden would never take you alive," said Jim, earnestly. "So you needn't fear that."
"I've uncanny horror of him. It's as if he were a gorilla—and would take me off even if I were dead!... No, Jim, let us wait. Let me select the time. I can do it. Trust me. Oh, Jim, now that I've saved you from being a bandit, I can do anything. I can fool Kells or Pearce or Wood—any of them, except Gulden."
"If Kells had to choose now between trailing you and rushing for the gold-camp, which would he do?"
"He'd trail me," she said.
"But Kells is crazy over gold. He has two passions. To steal gold, and to gamble with it."
"That may be. But he'd go after me first. So would Gulden. We can't ride these hills as they do. We don't know the trails—the water. We'd get lost. We'd be caught. And somehow I know that Gulden and his gang would find us first."
"You're probably right, Joan," replied Cleve. "But you condemn me to a living death.... To let you out of my sight with Kells or any of them! It'll be worse almost than my life was before."
"But, Jim, I'll be safe," she entreated. "It's the better choice of two evils. Our lives depend on reason, waiting, planning. And, Jim, I want to live for you."
"My brave darling, to hear you say that!" he exclaimed, with deep emotion. "When I never expected to see you again!... But the past is past. I begin over from this hour. I'll be what you want—do what you want."
Joan seemed irresistibly drawn to him again, and the supplication, as she lifted her blushing face, and the yielding, were perilously sweet.
"Jim, kiss me and hold me—the way—you did that night!"
And it was not Joan who first broke that embrace.
"Find my mask," she said.
Cleve picked up his gun and presently the piece of black felt. He held it as if it were a deadly thing.
"Put it on me."
He slipped the cord over her head and adjusted the mask so the holes came right for her eyes.
"Joan, it hides the—the GOODNESS of you," he cried. "No one can see your eyes now. No one will look at your face. That rig shows your—shows you off so! It's not decent.... But, O Lord! I'm bound to confess how pretty, how devilish, how seductive you are! And I hate it."
"Jim, I hate it, too. But we must stand it. Try not to shame me any more.... And now good-by. Keep watch for me—as I will for you—all the time."
Joan broke from him and glided out of the grove, away under the straggling pines, along the slope. She came upon her horse and she led him back to the corral. Many of the horses had strayed. There was no one at the cabin, but she saw men striding up the slope, Kells in the lead. She had been fortunate. Her absence could hardly have been noted. She had just strength left to get to her room, where she fell upon the bed, weak and trembling and dizzy and unutterably grateful at her deliverance from the hateful, unbearable falsity of her situation.
It was afternoon before Joan could trust herself sufficiently to go out again, and when she did she saw that she attracted very little attention from the bandits.
Kells had a springy step, a bright eye, a lifted head, and he seemed to be listening. Perhaps he was—to the music of his sordid dreams. Joan watched him sometimes with wonder. Even a bandit—plotting gold robberies, with violence and blood merely means to an end—built castles in the air and lived with joy!
All that afternoon the bandits left camp in twos and threes, each party with pack burros and horses, packed as Joan had not seen them before on the border. Shovels and picks and old sieves and pans, these swinging or tied in prominent places, were evidence that the bandits meant to assume the characters of miners and prospectors. They whistled and sang. It was a lark. The excitement had subsided and the action begun. Only in Kells, under his radiance, could be felt the dark and sinister plot. He was the heart of the machine.
By sundown Kells, Pearce, Wood, Jim Cleve, and a robust, grizzled bandit, Jesse Smith, were left in camp. Smith was lame from his ride, and Joan gathered that Kells would have left camp but for the fact that Smith needed rest. He and Kells were together all the time, talking endlessly. Joan heard them argue a disputed point—would the men abide by Kells's plan and go by twos and threes into the gold-camp, and hide their relations as a larger band? Kells contended they would and Smith had his doubts.
"Jack, wait till you see Alder Creek!" ejaculated Smith, wagging his grizzled head. "Three thousand men, old an' young, of all kinds—gone gold—crazy! Alder Creek has got California's '49 and' '51 cinched to the last hole!" And the bandit leader rubbed his palms in great glee.
That evening they all had supper together in Kell's cabin. Bate Wood grumbled because he had packed most of his outfit. It so chanced that Joan sat directly opposite Jim Cleve, and while he ate he pressed her foot with his under the table. The touch thrilled Joan. Jim did not glance at her, but there was such a change in him that she feared it might rouse Kells's curiosity. This night, however, the bandit could not have seen anything except a gleam of yellow. He talked, he sat at table, but did not eat. After supper he sent Joan to her cabin, saying they would be on the trail at daylight. Joan watched them awhile from her covert. They had evidently talked themselves out, and Kells grew thoughtful. Smith and Pearce went outside, apparently to roll their beds on the ground under the porch roof. Wood, who said he was never a good sleeper, smoked his pipe. And Jim Cleve spread blankets along the wall in the shadow and and lay down. Joan could see his eyes shining toward the door. Of course he was thinking of her. But could he see her eyes? Watching her chance, she slipped a hand from behind the curtain, and she knew Cleve saw it. What a comfort that was! Joan's heart swelled. All might yet be well. Jim Cleve would be near her while she slept. She could sleep now without those dark dreams—without dreading to awaken to the light. Again she saw Kells pacing the room, silent, bent, absorbed, hands behind his back, weighted with his burden. It was impossible not to feel sorry for him. With all his intelligence and cunning power, his cause was hopeless. Joan knew that as she knew so many other things without understanding why. She had not yet sounded Jesse Smith, but not a man of all the others was true to Kells. They would be of his Border Legion, do his bidding, revel in their ill-gotten gains, and then, when he needed them most, be false to him.
When Joan was awakened her room was shrouded in gray gloom. A bustle sound from the big cabin, and outside horses stamped and men talked.
She sat alone at breakfast and ate by lantern-light. It was necessary to take a lantern back to her cabin, and she was so long in her preparations there that Kells called again. Somehow she did not want to leave this cabin. It seemed protective and private, and she feared she might not find such quarters again. Besides, upon the moment of leaving she discovered that she had grown attached to the place where she had suffered and thought and grown so much.
Kells had put out the lights. Joan hurried through the cabin and outside. The gray obscurity had given way to dawn. The air was cold, sweet, bracing with the touch of mountain purity in it. The men, except Kells, were all mounted, and the pack-train was in motion. Kells dragged the rude door into position, and then, mounting, he called to Joan to follow. She trotted her horse after him, down the slope, across the brook and through the wet willows, and out upon the wide trail. She glanced ahead, discerning that the third man from her was Jim Cleve; and that fact, in the start for Alder Creek, made all the difference in the world.
When they rode out of the narrow defile into the valley the sun was rising red and bright in a notch of the mountains. Clouds hung over distant peaks, and the patches of snow in the high canons shone blue and pink. Smith in the lead turned westward up the valley. Horses trooped after the cavalcade and had to be driven back. There were also cattle in the valley, and all these Kells left behind like an honest rancher who had no fear for his stock. Deer stood off with long ears pointed forward, watching the horses go by. There were flocks of quail, and whirring grouse, and bounding jack-rabbits, and occasionally a brace of sneaking coyotes. These and the wild flowers, and the waving meadow-grass, the yellow-stemmed willows, and the patches of alder, all were pleasurable to Joan's eyes and restful to her mind.
Smith soon led away from this valley up out of the head of a ravine, across a rough rock-strewn ridge, down again into a hollow that grew to be a canon. The trail was bad. Part of the time it was the bottom of a boulder-strewn brook where the horses slipped on the wet, round stones. Progress was slow and time passed. For Joan, however, it was a relief; and the slower they might travel the better she would like it. At the end of that journey there were Gulden and the others, and the gold-camp with its illimitable possibilities for such men.
At noon the party halted for a rest. The camp site was pleasant and the men were all agreeable. During the meal Kells found occasion to remark to Cleve:
"Say youngster, you've brightened up. Must be because of our prospects over here."
"Not that so much," replied Cleve. "I quit the whisky. To be honest, Kells, I was almost seeing snakes."
"I'm glad you quit. When you're drinking you're wild. I never yet saw the man who could drink hard and keep his head. I can't. But I don't drink much."
His last remark brought a response in laughter. Evidently his companions thought he was joking. He laughed himself and actually winked at Joan.
It happened to be Cleve whom Kells told to saddle Joan's horse, and as Joan tried the cinches, to see if they were too tight to suit her, Jim's hand came in contact with hers. That touch was like a message. Joan was thrilling all over as she looked at Jim, but he kept his face averted. Perhaps he did not trust his eyes.
Travel was resumed up the canon and continued steadily, though leisurely. But the trail was so rough, and so winding, that Joan believed the progress did not exceed three miles an hour. It was the kind of travel in which a horse could be helped and that entailed attention to the lay of the ground. Before Joan realized the hours were flying, the afternoon had waned. Smith kept on, however, until nearly dark before halting for camp.
The evening camp was a scene of activity, and all except Joan had work to do. She tried to lend a hand, but Wood told her to rest. This she was glad to do. When called to supper she had almost fallen asleep. After a long day's ride the business of eating precluded conversation. Later, however, the men began to talk between puffs on their pipes, and from the talk no one could have guessed that here was a band of robbers on their way to a gold camp. Jesse Smith had a sore foot and he was compared to a tenderfoot on his first ride. Smith retaliated in kind. Every consideration was shown Joan, and Wood particularly appeared assiduous in his desire for her comfort. All the men except Cleve paid her some kind attention; and he, of course, neglected her because he was afraid to go near her. Again she felt in Red Pearce a condemnation of the bandit leader who was dragging a girl over hard trails, making her sleep in the open, exposing her to danger and to men like himself and Gulden. In his own estimate Pearce, like every one of his kind, was not so slow as the others.
Joan watched and listened from her blankets, under a leafy tree, some few yards from the camp-fire. Once Kells turned to see how far distant she was, and then, lowering his voice, he told a story. The others laughed. Pearce followed with another, and he, too, took care that Joan could not hear. They grew closer for the mirth, and Smith, who evidently was a jolly fellow, set them to roaring. Jim Cleve laughed with them.
"Say, Jim, you're getting over it," remarked Kells.
Kells paused, rather embarrassed for a reply, as evidently in the humor of the hour he had spoken a thought better left unsaid. But there was no more forbidding atmosphere about Cleve. He appeared to have rounded to good-fellowship after a moody and quarrelsome drinking spell.
"Why, over what drove you out here—and gave me a lucky chance at you," replied Kells, with a constrained laugh.
"Oh, you mean the girl?... Sure, I'm getting over that, except when I drink."
"Tell us, Jim," said Kells, curiously.
"Aw, you'll give me the laugh!" retorted Cleve.
"No, we won't unless your story's funny."
"You can gamble it wasn't funny," put in Red Pearce.
They all coaxed him, yet none of them, except Kells, was particularly curious; it was just that hour when men of their ilk were lazy and comfortable and full fed and good-humored round the warm, blazing camp-fire.
"All right," replied Cleve, and apparently, for all his complaisance, a call upon memory had its pain. "I'm from Montana. Range-rider in winter and in summer I prospected. Saved quite a little money, in spite of a fling now and then at faro and whisky.... Yes, there was a girl, I guess yes. She was pretty. I had a bad case over her. Not long ago I left all I had—money and gold and things—in her keeping, and I went prospecting again. We were to get married on my return. I stayed out six months, did well, and got robbed of all my dust."
Cleve was telling this fabrication in a matter-of-fact way, growing a little less frank as he proceeded, and he paused while he lifted sand and let it drift through his fingers, watching it curiously. All the men were interested and Kells hung on every word.
"When I got back," went on Cleve, "my girl had married another fellow. She'd given him all I left with her. Then I got drunk. While I was drunk they put up a job on me. It was her word that disgraced me and run me out of town.... So I struck west and drifted to the border."
"That's not all," said Kells, bluntly.
"Jim, I reckon you ain't tellin' what you did to thet lyin' girl an' the feller. How'd you leave them?" added Pearce.
But Cleve appeared to become gloomy and reticent.
"Wimmen can hand the double-cross to a man, hey, Kells?" queried Smith, with a broad grin.
"By gosh! I thought you'd been treated powerful mean!" exclaimed Bate Wood, and he was full of wrath.
"A treacherous woman!" exclaimed Kells, passionately. He had taken Cleve's story hard. The man must have been betrayed by women, and Cleve's story had irritated old wounds.
Directly Kells left the fire and repaired to his blankets, near where Joan lay. Probably he believed her asleep, for he neither looked nor spoke. Cleve sought his bed, and likewise Wood and Smith. Pearce was the last to leave, and as he stood up the light fell upon his red face, lean and bold like an Indian's. Then he passed Joan, looking down upon her and then upon the recumbent figure of Kells; and if his glance was not baleful and malignant, as it swept over the bandit, Joan believed her imagination must be vividly weird, and running away with her judgment.
The next morning began a day of toil. They had to climb over the mountain divide, a long, flat-topped range of broken rocks. Joan spared her horse to the limit of her own endurance. If there were a trail Smith alone knew it, for none was in evidence to the others. They climbed out of the notched head of the canon, and up a long slope of weathered shale that let the horses slide back a foot for every yard gained, and through a labyrinth of broken cliffs, and over bench and ridge to the height of the divide. From there Joan had a magnificent view. Foot-hills rolled round heads below, and miles away, in a curve of the range, glistened Bear Lake. The rest here at this height was counteracted by the fact that the altitude affected Joan. She was glad to be on the move again, and now the travel was downhill, so that she could ride. Still it was difficult, for horses were more easily lamed in a descent. It took two hours to descend the distance that had consumed all the morning to ascend. Smith led through valley after valley between foot-hills, and late in the afternoon halted by a spring in a timbered spot.
Joan ached in every muscle and she was too tired to care what happened round the camp-fire. Jim had been close to her all day and that had kept up her spirit. It was not yet dark when she lay down for the night.
"Sleep well, Dandy Dale," said Kells, cheerfully, yet not without pathos. "Alder Creek to-morrow!... Then you'll never sleep again!"
At times she seemed to feel that he regretted her presence, and always this fancy came to her with mocking or bantering suggestion that the costume and mask she wore made her a bandit's consort, and she could not escape the wildness of this gold-seeking life. The truth was that Kells saw the insuperable barrier between them, and in the bitterness of his love he lied to himself, and hated himself for the lie.
About the middle of the afternoon of the next day the tired cavalcade rode down out of the brush and rock into a new, broad, dusty road. It was so new that the stems of the cut brush along the borders were still white. But that road had been traveled by a multitude.
Out across the valley in the rear Joan saw a canvas-topped wagon, and she had not ridden far on the road when she saw a bobbing pack-burros to the fore. Kells had called Wood and Smith and Pearce and Cleve together, and now they went on in a bunch, all driving the pack-train. Excitement again claimed Kells; Pearce was alert and hawk-eyed; Smith looked like a hound on a scent; Cleve showed genuine feeling. Only Bate Wood remained proof to the meaning of that broad road.
All along, on either side, Joan saw wrecks of wagons, wheels, harness, boxes, old rags of tents blown into the brush, dead mules and burros. It seemed almost as if an army had passed that way. Presently the road crossed a wide, shallow brook of water, half clear and half muddy; and on the other side the road followed the course of the brook. Joan heard Smith call the stream Alder Creek, and he asked Kells if he knew what muddied water meant. The bandit's eyes flashed fire. Joan thrilled, for she, too, knew that up-stream there were miners washing earth for gold.
A couple of miles farther on creek and road entered the mouth of a wide spruce-timbered gulch. These trees hid any view of the slopes or floor of the gulch, and it was not till several more miles had been passed that the bandit rode out into what Joan first thought was a hideous slash in the forest made by fire. But it was only the devastation wrought by men. As far as she could see the timber was down, and everywhere began to be manifested signs that led her to expect habitations. No cabins showed, however, in the next mile. They passed out of the timbered part of the gulch into one of rugged, bare, and stony slopes, with bunches of sparse alder here and there. The gulch turned at right angles and a great gray slope shut out sight of what lay beyond. But, once round that obstruction, Kells halted his men with short, tense exclamation.
Joan saw that she stood high up on the slope, looking down upon the gold-camp. It was an interesting scene, but not beautiful. To Kells it must have been so, but to Joan it was even more hideous than the slash in the forest. Here and there, everywhere, were rude dugouts, little huts of brush, an occasional tent, and an occasional log cabin; and as she looked farther and farther these crude habitations of miners magnified in number and in dimensions till the white and black broken, mass of the town choked the narrow gulch.
"Wal, boss, what do you say to thet diggin's?" demanded Jesse Smith.
Kells drew a deep breath. "Old forty-niner, this beats all I ever saw!"
"Shore I've seen Sacramento look like thet!" added Bate Wood.
Pearce and Cleve gazed with fixed eyes, and, however different their emotions, they rivaled each other in attention.
"Jesse, what's the word?" queried Kells, with a sharp return to the business of the matter.
"I've picked a site on the other side of camp. Best fer us," he replied.
"Shall we keep to the road?"
"Certain-lee," he returned, with his grin.
Kells hesitated, and felt of his beard, probably conjecturing the possibilities of recognition.
"Whiskers make another man of you. Reckon you needn't expect to be known over here."
That decided Kells. He pulled his sombrero well down, shadowing his face. Then he remembered Joan and made a slight significant gesture at her mask.
"Kells, the people in this here camp wouldn't look at an army ridin' through," responded Smith. "It's every man fer hisself. An' wimmen, say! there's all kinds. I seen a dozen with veils, an' them's the same as masks." Nevertheless, Kells had Joan remove the mask and pull her sombrero down, and instructed her to ride in the midst of the group. Then they trotted on, soon catching up with the jogging pack-train.
What a strange ride that was for Joan! The slope resembled a magnified ant-hill with a horde of frantic ants in action. As she drew closer she saw these ants were men, digging for gold. Those near at hand could be plainly seen—rough, ragged, bearded men and smooth-faced boys. Farther on and up the slope, along the waterways and ravines, were miners so close they seemed almost to interfere with one another. The creek bottom was alive with busy, silent, violent men, bending over the water, washing and shaking and paddling, all desperately intent upon something. They had not time to look up. They were ragged, unkempt, barearmed and bare-legged, every last one of them with back bent. For a mile or more Kells's party trotted through this part of the diggings, and everywhere, on rocky bench and gravel bar and gray slope, were holes with men picking and shoveling in them. Some were deep and some were shallow; some long trenches and others mere pits. If all of these prospectors were finding gold, then gold was everywhere. And presently Joan did not need to have Kells tell her that all of these diggers were finding dust. How silent they were—how tense! They were not mechanical. It was a soul that drove them. Joan had seen many men dig for gold, and find a little now and then, but she had never seen men dig when they knew they were going to strike gold. That made the strange difference.
Joan calculated she must have seen a thousand miners in less than two miles of the gulch, and then she could not see up the draws and washes that intersected the slope, and she could not see beyond the camp.
But it was not a camp which she was entering; it was a tent-walled town, a city of squat log cabins, a long, motley, checkered jumble of structures thrown up and together in mad haste. The wide road split it in the middle and seemed a stream of color and life. Joan rode between two lines of horses, burros, oxen, mules, packs and loads and canvas-domed wagons and gaudy vehicles resembling gipsy caravans. The street was as busy as a beehive and as noisy as a bedlam. The sidewalks were rough-hewn planks and they rattled under the tread of booted men. There were tents on the ground and tents on floors and tents on log walls. And farther on began the lines of cabins-stores and shops and saloons—and then a great, square, flat structure with a flaring sign in crude gold letters, "Last Nugget," from which came the creak of iddles and scrape of boots, and hoarse mirth. Joan saw strange, wild-looking creatures—women that made her shrink; and several others of her sex, hurrying along, carrying sacks or buckets, worn and bewildered-looking women, the sight of whom gave her a pang. She saw lounging Indians and groups of lazy, bearded men, just like Kells's band, and gamblers in long, black coats, and frontiersmen in fringed buckskin, and Mexicans with swarthy faces under wide, peaked sombreros; and then in great majority, dominating that stream of life, the lean and stalwart miners, of all ages, in their check shirts and high boots, all packing guns, jostling along, dark-browed, somber, and intent. These last were the workers of this vast beehive; the others were the drones, the parasites.
Kell's party rode on through the town, and Smith halted them beyond the outskirts, near a grove of spruce-trees, where camp was to be made.
Joan pondered over her impression of Alder Creek. It was confused; she had seen too much. But out of what she had seen and heard loomed two contrasting features: a throng of toiling miners, slaves to their lust for gold and actuated by ambitions, hopes, and aims, honest, rugged, tireless workers, but frenzied in that strange pursuit; and a lesser crowd, like leeches, living for and off the gold they did not dig with blood of hand and sweat of brow.
Manifestly Jesse Smith had selected the spot for Kells's permanent location at Alder Creek with an eye for the bandit's peculiar needs. It was out of sight of town, yet within a hundred rods of the nearest huts, and closer than that to a sawmill. It could be approached by a shallow ravine that wound away toward the creek. It was backed up against a rugged bluff in which there was a narrow gorge, choked with pieces of weathered cliff; and no doubt the bandits could go and come in that direction. There was a spring near at hand and a grove of spruce-trees. The ground was rocky, and apparently unfit for the digging of gold.
While Bate Wood began preparations for supper, and Cleve built the fire, and Smith looked after the horses, Kells and Pearce stepped off the ground where the cabin was to be erected. They selected a level bench down upon which a huge cracked rock, as large as a house, had rolled. The cabin was to be backed up against this stone, and in the rear, under cover of it, a secret exit could be made and hidden. The bandit wanted two holes to his burrow.
When the group sat down to the meal the gulch was full of sunset colors. And, strangely, they were all some shade of gold. Beautiful golden veils, misty, ethereal, shone in rays across the gulch from the broken ramparts; and they seemed so brilliant, so rich, prophetic of the treasures of the hills. But that golden sunset changed. The sun went down red, leaving a sinister shadow over the gulch, growing darker and darker. Joan saw Cleve thoughtfully watching this transformation, and she wondered if he had caught the subtle mood of nature. For whatever had been the hope and brightness, the golden glory of this new Eldorado, this sudden uprising Alder Creek with its horde of brave and toiling miners, the truth was that Jack Kells and Gulden had ridden into the camp and the sun had gone down red. Joan knew that great mining-camps were always happy, rich, free, lucky, honest places till the fame of gold brought evil men. And she had not the slightest doubt that the sun of Alder Creek's brief and glad day had set forever.
Twilight was stealing down from the hills when Kells announced to his party: "Bate, you and Jesse keep camp. Pearce, you look out for any of the gang. But meet in the dark!... Cleve, you can go with me." Then he turned to Joan. "Do you want to go with us to see the sights or would you rather stay here?"
"I'd like to go, if only I didn't look so—so dreadful in this suit," she replied.
Kells laughed, and the camp-fire glare lighted the smiling faces of Pearce and Smith.
"Why, you'll not be seen. And you look far from dreadful."
"Can't you give me a—a longer coat?" faltered Joan.
Cleve heard, and without speaking he went to his saddle and unrolled his pack. Inside a slicker he had a gray coat. Joan had seen it many a time, and it brought a pang with memories of Hoadley. Had that been years ago? Cleve handed this coat to Joan.
"Thank you," she said.
Kells held the coat for her and she slipped into it. She seemed lost. It was long, coming way below her hips, and for the first time in days she felt she was Joan Randle again.
"Modesty is all very well in a woman, but it's not always becoming," remarked Kells. "Turn up your collar.... Pull down your hat—farther—There! If you won't go as a youngster now I'll eat Dandy Dale's outfit and get you silk dresses. Ha-ha!"
Joan was not deceived by his humor. He might like to look at her in that outrageous bandit costume; it might have pleased certain vain and notoriety-seeking proclivities of his, habits of his California road-agent days; but she felt that notwithstanding this, once she had donned the long coat he was relieved and glad in spite of himself. Joan had a little rush of feeling. Sometimes she almost liked this bandit. Once he must have been something very different.
They set out, Joan between Kells and Cleve. How strange for her! She had daring enough to feel for Jim's hand in the dark and to give it a squeeze. Then he nearly broke her fingers. She felt the fire in him. It was indeed a hard situation for him. The walking was rough, owing to the uneven road and the stones. Several times Joan stumbled and her spurs jangled. They passed ruddy camp-fires, where steam and smoke arose with savory odors, where red-faced men were eating; and they passed other camp-fires, burned out and smoldering. Some tents had dim lights, throwing shadows on the canvas, and others were dark. There were men on the road, all headed for town, gay, noisy and profane.
Then Joan saw uneven rows of lights, some dim and some bright, and crossing before them were moving dark figures. Again Kells bethought himself of his own disguise, and buried his chin in his scarf and pulled his wide-brimmed hat down so that hardly a glimpse of his face could be seen. Joan could not have recognized him at the distance of a yard.
They walked down the middle of the road, past the noisy saloons, past the big, flat structure with its sign "Last Nugget" and its open windows, where shafts of light shone forth, and all the way down to the end of town. Then Kells turned back. He scrutinized each group of men he met. He was looking for members of his Border Legion. Several times he left Cleve and Joan standing in the road while he peered into saloons. At these brief intervals Joan looked at Cleve with all her heart in her eyes. He never spoke. He seemed under a strain. Upon the return, when they reached the Last Nugget, Kells said:
"Jim, hang on to her like grim death! She's worth more than all the gold in Alder Creek!"
Then they started for the door.
Joan clung to Cleve on one side, and on the other, instinctively with a frightened girl's action, she let go Kells's arm and slipped her hand in his. He seemed startled. He bent to her ear, for the din made ordinary talk indistinguishable. That involuntary hand in his evidently had pleased and touched him, even hurt him, for his whisper was husky.
"It's all right—you're perfectly safe."
First Joan made out a glare of smoky lamps, a huge place full of smoke and men and sounds. Kells led the way slowly. He had his own reason for observance. There was a stench that sickened Joan—a blended odor of tobacco and rum and wet sawdust and smoking oil. There was a noise that appeared almost deafening—the loud talk and vacant laughter of drinking men, and a din of creaky fiddles and scraping boots and boisterous mirth. This last and dominating sound came from an adjoining room, which Joan could see through a wide opening. There was dancing, but Joan could not see the dancers because of the intervening crowd. Then her gaze came back to the features nearer at hand. Men and youths were lined up to a long bar nearly as high as her head. Then there were excited shouting groups round gambling games. There were men in clusters, sitting on upturned kegs, round a box for a table, and dirty bags of gold-dust were in evidence. The gamblers at the cards were silent, in strange contrast with the others; and in each group was at least one dark-garbed, hard-eyed gambler who was not a miner. Joan saw boys not yet of age, flushed and haggard, wild with the frenzy of winning and cast down in defeat. There were jovial, grizzled, old prospectors to whom this scene and company were pleasant reminders of bygone days. There were desperados whose glittering eyes showed they had no gold with which to gamble.
Joan suddenly felt Kells start and she believed she heard a low, hissing exclamation. And she looked for the cause. Then she saw familiar dark faces; they belonged to men of Kells's Legion. And with his broad back to her there sat the giant Gulden. Already he and his allies had gotten together in defiance of or indifference to Kells's orders. Some of them were already under the influence of drink, but, though they saw Kells, they gave no sign of recognition. Gulden did not see Joan, and for that she was thankful. And whether or not his presence caused it, the fact was that she suddenly felt as much of a captive as she had in Cabin Gulch, and feared that here escape would be harder because in a community like this Kells would watch her closely.
Kells led Joan and Cleve from one part of the smoky hall to another, and they looked on at the games and the strange raw life manifested there. The place was getting packed with men. Kells's party encountered Blicky and Beady Jones together. They passed by as strangers. Then Joan saw Beard and Chick Williams arm in arm, strolling about, like roystering miners. Williams telegraphed a keen, fleeting glance at Kells, then went on, to be lost in the crowd. Handy Oliver brushed by Kells, jostled him, apparently by accident, and he said, "Excuse me, mister!" There were other familiar faces. Kells's gang were all in Alder Creek and the dark machinations of the bandit leader had been put into operation. What struck Joan forcibly was that, though there were hilarity and comradeship, they were not manifested in any general way. These miners were strangers to one another; the groups were strangers; the gamblers were strangers; the newcomers were strangers; and over all hung an atmosphere of distrust. Good fellowship abided only in the many small companies of men who stuck together. The mining-camps that Joan had visited had been composed of an assortment of prospectors and hunters who made one big, jolly family. This was a gold strike, and the difference was obvious. The hunting for gold was one thing, in its relation to the searchers; after it had been found, in a rich field, the conditions of life and character changed. Gold had always seemed wonderful and beautiful to Joan; she absorbed here something that was the nucleus of hate. Why could not these miners, young and old, stay in their camps and keep their gold? That was the fatality. The pursuit was a dream—a glittering allurement; the possession incited a lust for more, and that was madness. Joan felt that in these reckless, honest miners there was a liberation of the same wild element which was the driving passion of Kells's Border Legion. Gold, then, was a terrible thing.
"Take me in there," said Joan, conscious of her own excitement, and she indicated the dance-hall.
Kells laughed as if at her audacity. But he appeared reluctant.
"Please take me—unless—" Joan did not know what to add, but she meant unless it was not right for her to see any more. A strange curiosity had stirred in her. After all, this place where she now stood was not greatly different from the picture imagination had conjured up. That dance-hall, however, was beyond any creation of Joan's mind.
"Let me have a look first," said Kells, and he left Joan with Cleve.
When he had gone Joan spoke without looking at Cleve, though she held fast to his arm.
"Jim, it could be dreadful here—all in a minute!" she whispered.
"You've struck it exactly," he replied. "All Alder Creek needed to make it hell was Kells and his gang."
"Thank Heaven I turned you back in time!... Jim, you'd have—have gone the pace here."
He nodded grimly. Then Kells returned and led them back through the room to another door where spectators were fewer. Joan saw perhaps a dozen couples of rough, whirling, jigging dancers in a half-circle of watching men. The hall was a wide platform of boards with posts holding a canvas roof. The sides, were open; the lights were situated at each end-huge, round, circus tent lamps. There were rude benches and tables where reeling men surrounded a woman. Joan saw a young miner in dusty boots and corduroys lying drunk or dead in the sawdust. Her eyes were drawn back to the dancers, and to the dance that bore some semblance to a waltz. In the din the music could scarcely be heard. As far as the men were concerned this dance was a bold and violent expression of excitement on the part of some, and for the rest a drunken, mad fling. Sight of the women gave Joan's curiosity a blunt check. She felt queer. She had not seen women like these, and their dancing, their actions, their looks, were beyond her understanding. Nevertheless, they shocked her, disgusted her, sickened her. And suddenly when it dawned upon her in unbelievable vivid suggestion that they were the wildest and most terrible element of this dark stream of humanity lured by gold, then she was appalled.
"Take me out of here!" she besought Kells, and he led her out instantly. They went through the gambling-hall and into the crowded street, back toward camp.
"You saw enough," said Kells, "but nothing to what will break out by and by. This camp is new. It's rich. Gold is the cheapest thing. It passes from hand to hand. Ten dollars an ounce. Buyers don't look at the scales. Only the gamblers are crooked. But all this will change."
Kells did not say what that change might be, but the click of his teeth was expressive. Joan did not, however, gather from it, and the dark meaning of his tone, that the Border Legion would cause this change. That was in the nature of events. A great strike of gold might enrich the world, but it was a catastrophe.
Long into the night Joan lay awake, and at times, stirring the silence, there was wafted to her on a breeze the low, strange murmur of the gold-camp's strife.
Joan slept late next morning, and was awakened by the unloading of lumber. Teams were drawing planks from the sawmill. Already a skeleton framework for Kells's cabin had been erected. Jim Cleve was working with the others, and they were sacrificing thoroughness to haste. Joan had to cook her own breakfast, which task was welcome, and after it had been finished she wished for something more to occupy her mind. But nothing offered. Finding a comfortable seat among some rocks where she would be inconspicuous, she looked on at the building of Kells's cabin. It seemed strange, and somehow comforting, to watch Jim Cleve work. He had never been a great worker. Would this experience on the border make a man of him? She felt assured of that.
If ever a cabin sprang up like a mushroom, that bandit rendezvous was the one. Kells worked himself, and appeared no mean hand. By noon the roof of clapboards was on, and the siding of the same material had been started. Evidently there was not to a be a fireplace inside.
Then a teamster drove up with a wagon-load of purchases Kells had ordered. Kells helped unload this and evidently was in search of articles. Presently he found them, and then approached Joan, to deposit before her an assortment of bundles little and big.
"There Miss Modestly," he said. "Make yourself some clothes. You can shake Dandy Dale's outfit, except when we're on the trail.... And, say, if you knew what I had to pay for this stuff you'd think there was a bigger robber in Alder Creek than Jack Kells.... And, come to think of it, my name's now Blight. You're my daughter, if any one asks." Joan was so grateful to him for the goods and the permission to get out of Dandy Dale's suit as soon as possible, that she could only smile her thanks. Kells stared at her, then turned abruptly away. Those little unconscious acts of hers seemed to affect him strangely. Joan remembered that he had intended to parade her in Dandy Dale's costume to gratify some vain abnormal side of his bandit's proclivities. He had weakened. Here was another subtle indication of the deterioration of the evil of him. How far would it go? Joan thought dreamily, and with a swelling heart, of her influence upon this hardened bandit, upon that wild boy, Jim Cleve.
All that afternoon, and part of the evening in the campfire light, and all of the next day Joan sewed, so busy that she scarcely lifted her eyes from her work. The following day she finished her dress, and with no little pride, for she had both taste and skill. Of the men, Bate Wood had been most interested in her task; and he would let things burn on the fire to watch her.
That day the rude cabin was completed. It contained one long room; and at the back a small compartment partitioned off from the rest, and built against and around a shallow cavern in the huge rock. This compartment was for Joan. There were a rude board door with padlock and key, a bench upon which blankets had been flung, a small square hole cut in the wall to serve as a window. What with her own few belongings and the articles of furniture that Kells bought for her, Joan soon had a comfortable room, even a luxury compared to what she had been used to for weeks. Certain it was that Kells meant to keep her a prisoner, or virtually so. Joan had no sooner spied the little window than she thought that it would be possible for Jim Cleve to talk to her there from the outside.
Kells verified Joan's suspicion by telling her that she was not to leave the cabin of her own accord, as she had been permitted to do back in Cabin Gulch; and Joan retorted that there she had made him a promise not to run away, which promise she now took back. That promise had worried her. She was glad to be honest with Kells. He gazed at her somberly.
"You'll be worse off it you do—and I'll be better off," he said. And then as an afterthought he added: "Gulden might not think you—a white elephant on his hands!... Remember his way, the cave and the rope!"
So, instinctively or cruelly he chose the right name to bring shuddering terror into Joan's soul.
Joan's opportunity for watching Kells and his men and overhearing their colloquies was as good as it had been back in Cabin Gulch. But it developed that where Kells had been open and frank he now became secret and cautious. She was aware that men, singly and in couples, visited him during the early hours of the night, and they had conferences in low, earnest tones. She could peer out of her little window and see dark, silent forms come up from the ravine at the back of the cabin, and leave the same way. None of them went round to the front door, where Bate Wood smoked and kept guard. Joan was able to hear only scraps of these earnest talks; and from part of one she gathered that for some reason or other Kells desired to bring himself into notice. Alder Creek must be made to know that a man of importance had arrived. It seemed to Joan that this was the very last thing which Kells ought to do. What magnificent daring the bandit had! Famous years before in California—with a price set upon his life in Nevada—and now the noted, if unknown, leader of border robbers in Idaho, he sought to make himself prominent, respected, and powerful. Joan found that in spite of her horror at the sinister and deadly nature of the bandit's enterprise she could not avoid an absorbing interest in his fortunes.
Next day Joan watched for an opportunity to tell Jim Cleve that he might come to her little window any time after dark to talk and plan with her. No chance presented itself. Joan wore the dress she had made, to the evident pleasure of Bate Wood and Pearce. They had conceived as strong an interest in her fortunes as she had in Kells's. Wood nodded his approval and Pearce said she was a lady once more. Strange it was to Joan that this villain Pearce, whom she could not have dared trust, grew open in his insinuating hints of Kells's blackguardism. Strange because Pearce was absolutely sincere!
When Jim Cleve did see Joan in her dress the first time he appeared so glad and relieved and grateful that she feared he might betray himself, so she got out of his sight.
Not long after that Kells called her from her room. He wore his somber and thoughtful cast of countenance. Red Pearce and Jesse Smith were standing at attention. Cleve was sitting on the threshold of the door and Wood leaned against the wall.
"Is there anything in the pack of stuff I bought you that you could use for a veil?" asked Kells of Joan.
"Yes," she replied.
"Get it," he ordered. "And your hat, too."
Joan went to her room and returned with the designated articles, the hat being that which she had worn when she left Hoadley.
"That'll do. Put it on—over your face—and let's see how you look."
Joan complied with this request, all the time wondering what Kells meant.
"I want it to disguise you, but not to hide your youth—your good looks," he said, and he arranged it differently about her face. "There!... You'd sure make any man curious to see you now.... Put on the hat."
Joan did so. Then Kells appeared to become more forcible.
"You're to go down into the town. Walk slow as far as the Last Nugget. Cross the road and come back. Look at every man you meet or see standing by. Don't be in the least frightened. Pearce and Smith will be right behind you. They'd get to you before anything could happen.... Do you understand?"
"Yes," replied Joan.
Red Pearce stirred uneasily. "Jack, I'm thinkin' some rough talk'll come her way," he said, darkly.
"Will you shut up!" replied Kells in quick passion. He resented some implication. "I've thought of that. She won't hear what's said to her.... Here," and he turned again to Joan, "take some cotton—or anything—and stuff up your ears. Make a good job of it."
Joan went back to her room and, looking about for something with which to execute Kells's last order, she stripped some soft, woolly bits from a fleece-lined piece of cloth. With these she essayed to deaden her hearing. Then she returned. Kells spoke to her, but, though she seemed dully to hear his voice, she could not distinguish what he said. She shook her head. With that Kells waved her out upon her strange errand.
Joan brushed against Cleve as she crossed the threshold. What would he think of this? She would not see his face. When she reached the first tents she could not resist the desire to look back. Pearce was within twenty yards of her and Smith about the same distance farther back. Joan was more curious than anything else. She divined that Kells wanted her to attract attention, but for what reason she was at a loss to say. It was significant that he did not intend to let her suffer any indignity while fulfilling this mysterious mission.
Not until Joan got well down the road toward the Last Nugget did any one pay any attention to her. A Mexican jabbered at her, showing his white teeth, flashing his sloe-black eyes. Young miners eyed her curiously, and some of them spoke. She met all kinds of men along the plank walk, most of whom passed by, apparently unobserving. She obeyed Kells to the letter. But for some reason she was unable to explain, when she got to the row of saloons, where lounging, evil-eyed rowdies accosted her, she found she had to disobey him, at least in one particular. She walked faster. Still that did not make her task much easier. It began to be an ordeal. The farther she got the bolder men grew. Could it have been that Kells wanted this sort of thing to happen to her? Joan had no idea what these men meant, but she believed that was because for the time being she was deaf. Assuredly their looks were not a compliment to any girl. Joan wanted to hurry now, and she had to force herself to walk at a reasonable gait. One persistent fellow walked beside her for several steps. Joan was not fool enough not to realize now that these wayfarers wanted to make her acquaintance. And she decided she would have something to say to Kells when she got back.
Below the Last Nugget she crossed the road and started upon the return trip. In front of this gambling-hell there were scattered groups of men, standing, and going in. A tall man in black detached himself and started out, as if to intercept her. He wore a long black coat, a black bow tie, and a black sombrero. He had little, hard, piercing eyes, as black as his dress. He wore gloves and looked immaculate, compared with the other men. He, too, spoke to Joan, turned to walk with her. She looked straight ahead now, frightened, and she wanted to run. He kept beside her, apparently talking. Joan heard only the low sound of his voice. Then he took her arm, gently, but with familiarity. Joan broke from him and quickened her pace.
"Say, there! Leave thet girl alone!"
This must have been yelled, for Joan certainly heard it. She recognized Red Pearce's voice. And she wheeled to look. Pearce had overhauled the gambler, and already men were approaching. Involuntarily Joan halted. What would happen? The gambler spoke to Pearce, made what appeared deprecating gestures, as if to explain. But Pearce looked angry.
"I'll tell her daddy!" he shouted.
Joan waited for no more. She almost ran. There would surely be a fight. Could that have been Kells's intention? Whatever it was, she had been subjected to a mortifying and embarrassing affront. She was angry, and she thought it might be just as well to pretend to be furious. Kells must not use her for his nefarious schemes. She hurried on, and, to her surprise, when she got within sight of the cabin both Pearce and Smith had almost caught up with her. Jim Cleve sat where she had last seen him. Also Kells was outside. The way he strode to and fro showed Joan his anxiety. There was more to this incident than she could fathom. She took the padding from her ears, to her intense relief, and, soon reaching the cabin, she tore off the veil and confronted Kells.
"Wasn't that a—a fine thing for you to do?" she demanded, furiously. And with the outburst she felt her face blazing. "If I'd any idea what you meant—you couldn't—have driven me!... I trusted you. And you sent me down there on some—shameful errand of yours. You're no gentleman!"
Joan realized that her speech, especially the latter part, was absurd. But it had a remarkable effect upon Kells. His face actually turned red. He stammered something and halted, seemingly at a loss for words. How singularly the slightest hint of any act or word of hers that approached a possible respect or tolerance worked upon this bandit! He started toward Joan appealingly, but she passed him in contempt and went to her room. She heard him cursing Pearce in a rage, evidently blaming his lieutenant for whatever had angered her.
"But you wanted her insulted!" protested Pearce, hotly.
"You mullet-head!" roared Kells. "I wanted some man—any man—to get just near enough to her so I could swear she'd been insulted. You let her go through that camp to meet real insult!... Why—! Pearce, I've a mind to shoot you!"
"Shoot!" retorted Pearce. "I obeyed orders as I saw them.... An' I want to say right here thet when it comes to anythin' concernin' this girl you're plumb off your nut. That's what. An' you can like it or lump it! I said before you'd split over this girl. An' I say it now!"
Through the door Joan had a glimpse of Cleve stepping between the angry men. This seemed unnecessary, however, for Pearce's stinging assertion had brought Kells to himself. There were a few more words, too low for Joan's ears, and then, accompanied by Smith, the three started off, evidently for the camp. Joan left her room and watched them from the cabin door. Bate Wood sat outside smoking.
"I'm declarin' my hand," he said to Joan, feelingly. "I'd never hev stood for thet scurvy trick. Now, miss, this's the toughest camp I ever seen. I mean tough as to wimmen! For it ain't begun to fan guns an' steal gold yet."
"Why did Kells want me insulted?" asked Joan.
"Wal, he's got to hev a reason for raisin' an orful fuss," replied Wood.
"Shore," replied Wood, dryly.
"Jest so he can walk out on the stage," rejoined Wood, evasively.
"It's mighty strange," said Joan.
"I reckon all about Mr. Kells is some strange these days. Red Pearce had it correct. Kells is a-goin' to split on you!"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Wal, he'll go one way an' the gang another."
"Why?" asked Joan, earnestly.
"Miss, there's some lot of reasons," said Wood, deliberately. "Fust, he did for Halloway an' Bailey, not because they wanted to treat you as he meant to, but just because he wanted to be alone. We're all wise thet you shot him—an' thet you wasn't his wife. An' since then we've seen him gradually lose his nerve. He organized his Legion an' makes his plan to run this Alder Creek red. He still hangs on to you. He'd kill any man thet batted an eye at you.... An' through all this, because he's not Jack Kells of old, he's lost his pull with the gang. Sooner or later he'll split."
"Have I any real friends among you?" asked Joan.
"Wal, I reckon."
"Are you my friend, Bate Wood?" she went on in sweet wistfulness.
The grizzled old bandit removed his pipe and looked at her with a glint in his bloodshot eyes,
"I shore am. I'll sneak you off now if you'll go. I'll stick a knife in Kells if you say so."
"Oh, no, I'm afraid to run off—and you needn't harm Kells. After all, he's good to me."
"Good to you!... When he keeps you captive like an Indian would? When he's given me orders to watch you—keep you locked up?"
Wood's snort of disgust and wrath was thoroughly genuine. Still Joan knew that she dared not trust him, any more than Pearce or the others. Their raw emotions would undergo a change if Kells's possession of her were transferred to them. It occurred to Joan, however, that she might use Wood's friendliness to some advantage.
"So I'm to be locked up?" she asked.
"You're supposed to be."
"Without any one to talk to?"
"Wal, you'll hev me, when you want. I reckon thet ain't much to look forward to. But I can tell you a heap of stories. An' when Kells ain't around, if you're careful not to get me ketched, you can do as you want."
"Thank you, Bate. I'm going to like you," replied Joan, sincerely, and then she went back to her room. There was sewing to do, and while she worked she thought, so that the hours sped. When the light got so poor that she could sew no longer she put the work aside and stood at her little window, watching the sunset. From the front of the cabin came the sound of subdued voices. Probably Kells and his men had returned, and she was sure of this when she heard the ring of Bate Wood's ax.
All at once an object darker than the stones arrested Joan's gaze. There was a man sitting on the far side of the little ravine. Instantly she recognized Jim Cleve. He was looking at the little window—at her. Joan believed he was there for just that purpose. Making sure that no one else was near to see, she put out her hand and waved it. Jim gave a guarded perceptible sign that he had observed her action, and almost directly got up and left. Joan needed no more than that to tell her how Jim's idea of communicating with her corresponded with her own. That night she would talk with him and she was thrilled through. The secrecy, the peril, somehow lent this prospect a sweetness, a zest, a delicious fear. Indeed, she was not only responding to love, but to daring, to defiance, to a wilder nameless element born of her environment and the needs of the hour.
Presently, Bate Wood called her in to supper. Pearce, Smith, and Cleve were finding seats at the table, but Kells looked rather sick. Joan observed him then more closely. His face was pale and damp, strangely shaded as if there were something dark under the pale skin. Joan had never seen him appear like this, and she shrank as from another and forbidding side of the man. Pearce and Smith acted naturally, ate with relish, and talked about the gold-diggings. Cleve, however, was not as usual; and Joan could not quite make out what constituted the dissimilarity. She hurried through her own supper and back to her room.
Already it was dark outside. Joan lay down to listen and wait. It seemed long, but probably was not long before she heard the men go outside, and the low thump of their footsteps as they went away. Then came the rattle and bang of Bate Wood's attack on the pans and pots. Bate liked to cook, but he hated to clean up afterward. By and by he settled down outside for his evening smoke and there was absolute quiet. Then Joan rose to stand at the window. She could see the dark mass of rock overhanging the cabin, the bluff beyond, and the stars. For the rest all was gloom.
She did not have to wait long. A soft step, almost indistinguishable, made her pulse beat quicker. She put her face out of the window, and on the instant a dark form seemed to loom up to meet her out of the shadow. She could not recognize that shape, yet she knew it belonged to Cleve.
"Joan," he whispered.
"Jim," she replied, just as low and gladly.
He moved closer, so that the hand she had gropingly put out touched him, then seemed naturally to slip along his shoulder, round his neck. And his face grew clearer in the shadow. His lips met hers, and Joan closed her eyes to that kiss. What hope, what strength for him and for her now in that meeting of lips!
"Oh, Jim! I'm so glad—to have you near—to touch you," she whispered.
"Do you love me still?" he whispered back, tensely.
"Say it, then."
"Jim, I love you!"
And their lips met again and clung, and it was he who drew back first.
"Dearest, why didn't you let me make a break to get away with you—before we came to this camp?"
"Oh, Jim, I told you. I was afraid. We'd have been caught. And Gulden—"
"We'll never have half the chance here. Kells means to keep you closely guarded. I heard the order. He's different now. He's grown crafty and hard. And the miners of this Alder Creek! Why, I'm more afraid to trust them than men like Wood or Pearce. They've gone clean crazy. Gold-mad! If you shouted for your life they wouldn't hear you. And if you could make them hear they wouldn't believe. This camp has sprung up in a night. It's not like any place I ever heard of. It's not human. It's so strange—so—Oh, I don't know what to say. I think I mean that men in a great gold strike become like coyotes at a carcass. You've seen that. No relation at all!"
"I'm frightened, too, Jim. I wish I'd had the courage to run when we were back in Cabin Gulch, But don't ever give up, not for a second! We can get away. We must plan and wait. Find out where we are—how far from Hoadley—what we must expect—whether it's safe to approach any one in this camp."
"Safe! I guess not, after to-day," he whispered, grimly.
"Why? What's happened?" she asked quickly.
"Joan, have you guessed yet why Kells sent you down into camp alone?"
"Listen.... I went with Kells and Smith and Pearce. They hurried straight to the Last Nugget. There was a crowd of men in front of the place. Pearce walked straight up to one—a gambler by his clothes. And he said in a loud voice. 'Here's the man!'... The gambler looked startled, turned pale, and went for his gun. But Kells shot him!... He fell dead, without a word. There was a big shout, then silence. Kells stood there with his smoking gun. I never saw the man so cool—so masterful. Then he addressed the crowd: 'This gambler insulted my daughter! My men here saw him. My name's Blight. I came here to buy up gold claims. And I want to say this: Your Alder Creek has got the gold. But it needs some of your best citizens to run it right, so a girl can be safe on the street.'"
"Joan, I tell you it was a magnificent bluff," went on Jim, excitedly. "And it worked. Kells walked away amid cheers. He meant to give an impression of character and importance. He succeeded. So far as I could tell, there wasn't a man present who did not show admiration for him. I saw that dead gambler kicked."
"Jim!" breathed Joan. "He killed him—just for that?"
"Just for that—the bloody devil!"
"But still—what for? Oh, it was cold-blooded murder."
"No, an even break. Kells made the gambler go for his gun. I'll have to say that for Kells."
"It doesn't change the thing. I'd forgotten what a monster he is."
"Joan, his motive is plain. This new gold-camp has not reached the blood-spilling stage yet. It hadn't, I should say. The news of this killing will fly. It'll focus minds on this claim-buyer, Blight. His deed rings true—like that of an honest man with a daughter to protect. He'll win sympathy. Then he talks as if he were prosperous. Soon he'll be represented in this changing, growing population as a man of importance. He'll play the card for all he's worth. Meanwhile, secretly he'll begin to rob the miners. It'll be hard to suspect him. His plot is just like the man—great!"
"Jim, oughtn't we tell?" whispered Joan, trembling.
"I've thought of that. Somehow I seem to feel guilty. But whom on earth could we tell? We wouldn't dare speak here.... Remember—you're a prisoner. I'm supposed to be a bandit—one of the Border Legion. How to get away from here and save our lives—that's what tortures me."
"Something tells me we'll escape, if only we can plan the right way. Jim, I'll have to be penned here, with nothing to do but wait. You must come every night!... Won't you?"
For an answer he kissed her again.
"Jim, what'll you do meanwhile?" she asked, anxiously.
"I'm going to work a claim. Dig for gold. I told Kells so to-day, and he was delighted. He said he was afraid his men wouldn't like the working part of his plan. It's hard to dig gold. Easy to steal it. But I'll dig a hole as big as a hill!... Wouldn't it be funny if I struck it rich?"
"Jim, you're getting the fever."
"Joan, if I did happen to run into a gold-pocket—there're lots of them found—would—you—marry me?"
The tenderness, the timidity, and the yearning in Cleve's voice told Joan as never before how he had hoped and feared and despaired. She patted his cheek with her hand, and in the darkness, with her heart swelling to make up for what she had done to him, she felt a boldness and a recklessness, sweet, tumultuous, irresistible.
"Jim, I'll marry you—whether you strike gold or not," she whispered.
And there was another blind, sweet moment. Then Cleve tore himself away, and Joan leaned at the window, watching the shadow, with tears in her eyes and an ache in her breast.
From that day Joan lived a life of seclusion in the small room. Kells wanted it so, and Joan thought best for the time being not to take advantage of Bate Wood's duplicity. Her meals were brought to her by Wood, who was supposed to unlock and lock her door. But Wood never turned the key in that padlock.
Prisoner though Joan was, the days and nights sped swiftly.
Kells was always up till late in the night and slept half of the next morning. It was his wont to see Joan every day about noon. He had a care for his appearance. When he came in he was dark, forbidding, weary, and cold. Manifestly he came to her to get rid of the imponderable burden of the present. He left it behind him. He never spoke a word of Alder Creek, of gold, of the Border Legion. Always he began by inquiring for her welfare, by asking what he could do for her, what he could bring her. Joan had an abhorrence of Keils in his absence that she never felt when he was with her; and the reason must have been that she thought of him, remembered him as the bandit, and saw him as another and growing character. Always mindful of her influence, she was as companionable, as sympathetic, as cheerful, and sweet as it was possible for her to be. Slowly he would warm and change under her charm, and the grim gloom, the dark strain, would pass from him. When that left he was indeed another person. Frankly he told Joan that the glimpse of real love she had simulated back there in Cabin Gulch was seldom out of his mind. No woman had ever kissed him like she had. That kiss had transfigured him. It haunted him. If he could not win kisses like that from Joan's lips, of her own free will, then he wanted none. No other woman's lips would ever touch his. And he begged Joan in the terrible earnestness of a stern and hungering outcast for her love. And Joan could only sadly shake her head and tell him she was sorry for him, that the more she really believed he loved her the surer she was that he would give her up. Then always he passionately refused. He must have her to keep, to look at as his treasure, to dream over, and hope against hope that she would love him some day. Women sometimes learned to love their captors, he said; and if she only learned, then he would take her away to Australia, to distant lands. But most of all he begged her to show him again what it meant to be loved by a good woman. And Joan, who knew that her power now lay in her unattainableness, feigned a wavering reluctance, when in truth any surrender was impossible. He left her with a spirit that her presence gave him, in a kind of trance, radiant, yet with mocking smile, as if he foresaw the overthrow of his soul through her, and in the light of that his waning power over his Legion was as nothing.
In the afternoon he went down into camp to strengthen the associations he had made, to buy claims, and to gamble. Upon his return Joan, peeping through a crack between the boards, could always tell whether he had been gambling, whether he had won or lost.
Most of the evenings he remained in his cabin, which after dark became a place of mysterious and stealthy action. The members of his Legion visited him, sometimes alone, never more than two together. Joan could hear them slipping in at the hidden aperture in the back of the cabin; she could hear the low voices, but seldom what was said; she could hear these night prowlers as they departed. Afterward Kells would have the lights lit, and then Joan could see into the cabin. Was that dark, haggard man Kells? She saw him take little buckskin sacks full of gold-dust and hide them under the floor. Then he would pace the room in his old familiar manner, like a caged tiger. Later his mood usually changed with the advent of Wood and Pearce and Smith and Cleve, who took turns at guard and going down into camp. Then Kells would join them in a friendly game for small stakes. Gambler though he was, he refused to allow any game there that might lead to heavy wagering. From the talk sometimes Joan learned that he played for exceedingly large stakes with gamblers and prosperous miners, usually with the same result—a loss. Sometimes he won, however, and then he would crow over Pearce and Smith, and delight in telling them how cunningly he had played.
Jim Cleve had his bed up under the bulge of bluff, in a sheltered nook. Kells had appeared to like this idea, for some reason relative to his scout system, which he did not explain. And Cleve was happy about it because this arrangement left him absolutely free to have his nightly rendezvous with Joan at her window, sometime between dark and midnight. Her bed was right under the window: if awake she could rest on her knees and look out; and if she was asleep he could thrust a slender stick between the boards to awaken her. But the fact was that Joan lived for these stolen meetings, and unless he could not come until very late she waited wide-eyed and listening for him. Then, besides, as long as Kells was stirring in the cabin she spent her time spying upon him.
Jim Cleve had gone to an unfrequented part of the gulch, for no particular reason, and here he had located his claim. The very first day he struck gold. And Kells, more for advertisement than for any other motive, had his men stake out a number of claims near Cleve's, and bought them. Then they had a little field of their own. All found the rich pay-dirt, but it was Cleve to whom the goddess of fortune turned her bright face. As he had been lucky at cards, so he was lucky at digging. His claim paid big returns. Kells spread the news, and that part of the gulch saw a rush of miners.
Every night Joan had her whispered hour with Cleve, and each succeeding one was the sweeter. Jim had become a victim of the gold fever. But, having Joan to steady him, he did not lose his head. If he gambled it was to help out with his part. He was generous to his comrades. He pretended to drink, but did not drink at all. Jim seemed to regard his good fortune as Joan's also. He believed if he struck it rich he could buy his sweetheart's freedom. He claimed that Kells was drunk for gold to gamble away. Joan let Jim talk, but she coaxed him and persuaded him to follow a certain line of behavior, she planned for him, she thought for him, she influenced him to hide the greater part of his gold-dust, and let it be known that he wore no gold-belt. She had a growing fear that Jim's success was likely to develop a temper in him inimical to the cool, waiting, tolerant policy needed to outwit Kells in the end. It seemed the more gold Jim acquired the more passionate he became, the more he importuned Joan, the more he hated Kells. Gold had gotten into his blood, and it was Joan's task to keep him sane. Naturally she gained more by yielding herself to Jim's caresses than by any direct advice or admonishment. It was her love that held Jim in check.
One night, the instant their hands met Joan knew that Jim was greatly excited or perturbed.
"Joan," he whispered, thrillingly, with his lips at her ear, "I've made myself solid with Kells! Oh, the luck of it!"
"Tell me!" whispered Joan, and she leaned against those lips.
"It was early to-night at the Nugget. I dropped in as usual. Kells was playing faro again with that gambler they call Flash. He's won a lot of Kells's gold—a crooked gambler. I looked on. And some of the gang were there—Pearce, Blicky, Handy Oliver, and of course Gulden, but all separated. Kells was losing and sore. But he was game. All at once he caught Flash in a crooked trick, and he yelled in a rage. He sure had the gang and everybody else looking. I expected—and so did all the gang—to see Kells pull his gun. But strange how gambling affects him! He only cursed Flash—called him right. You know that's about as bad as death to a professional gambler in a place like Alder Creek. Flash threw a derringer on Kells. He had it up his sleeve. He meant to kill Kells, and Kells had no chance. But Flash, having the drop, took time to talk, to make his bluff go strong with the crowd. And that's where he made a mistake. I jumped and knocked the gun out of his hand. It went off—burned my wrist. Then I slugged Mr. Flash good—he didn't get up.... Kells called the crowd around and, showing the cards as they lay, coolly proved that Flash was what everybody suspected. Then Kells said to me—I'll never forget how he looked: 'Youngster, he meant to do for me. I never thought of my gun. You see!... I'll kill him the next time we meet.... I've owed my life to men more than once. I never forget. You stood pat with me before. And now you're ace high!'"
"Was it fair of you?" asked Joan.
"Yes. Flash is a crooked gambler. I'd rather be a bandit.... Besides, all's fair in love! And I was thinking of you when I saved Kells!"
"Flash will be looking for you," said Joan, fearfully.
"Likely. And if he finds me he wants to be quick. But Kells will drive him out of camp or kill him. I tell you, Kells is the biggest man in Alder Creek. There's talk of office—a mayor and all that—and if the miners can forget gold long enough they'll elect Kells. But the riffraff, these bloodsuckers who live off the miners, they'd rather not have any office in Alder Creek."
And upon another night Cleve in serious and somber mood talked about the Border Legion and its mysterious workings. The name had found prominence, no one knew how, and Alder Creek knew no more peaceful sleep. This Legion was supposed to consist of a strange, secret band of unknown bandits and road-agents, drawing its members from all that wild and trackless region called the border. Rumor gave it a leader of cunning and ruthless nature. It operated all over the country at the same time, and must have been composed of numerous smaller bands, impossible to detect. Because its victims never lived to tell how or by whom they had been robbed! This Legion worked slowly and in the dark. It did not bother to rob for little gain. It had strange and unerring information of large quantities of gold-dust. Two prospectors going out on the Bannack road, packing fifty pounds of gold, were found shot to pieces. A miner named Black, who would not trust his gold to the stage-express, and who left Adler Creek against advice, was never seen or heard of again. Four other miners of the camp, known to carry considerable gold, were robbed and killed at night on their way to their cabins. And another was found dead in his bed. Robbers had crept to his tent, slashed the canvas, murdered him while he slept, and made off with his belt of gold.
An evil day of blood had fallen upon Alder Creek. There were terrible and implacable men in the midst of the miners, by day at honest toil, learning who had gold, and murdering by night. The camp had never been united, but this dread fact disrupted any possible unity. Every man, or every little group of men, distrusted the other, watched and spied and lay awake at night. But the robberies continued, one every few days, and each one left no trace. For dead men could not talk.
Thus was ushered in at Alder Creek a regime of wildness that had no parallel in the earlier days of '49 and '51. Men frenzied by the possession of gold or greed for it responded to the wildness of that time and took their cue from this deadly and mysterious Border Legion. The gold-lust created its own blood-lust. Daily the population of Alder Creek grew in the new gold-seekers and its dark records kept pace. With distrust came suspicion and with suspicion came fear, and with fear came hate—and these, in already distorted minds, inflamed a hell. So that the most primitive passions of mankind found outlet and held sway. The operations of the Border Legion were lost in deeds done in the gambling dens, in the saloons, and on the street, in broad day. Men fought for no other reason than that the incentive was in the charged air. Men were shot at gaming-tables—and the game went on. Men were killed in the dance-halls, dragged out, marking a line of blood on the rude floor—and the dance went on. Still the pursuit of gold went on, more frenzied than ever, and still the greater and richer claims were struck. The price of gold soared and the commodities of life were almost beyond the dreams of avarice. It was a tune in which the worst of men's natures stalked forth, hydra-headed and deaf, roaring for gold, spitting fire, and shedding blood. It was a time when gold and fire and blood were one. It was a tune when a horde of men from every class and nation, of all ages and characters, met on a field were motives and ambitions and faiths and traits merged into one mad instinct of gain. It was worse than the time of the medieval crimes of religion; it made war seem a brave and honorable thing; it robbed manhood of that splendid and noble trait, always seen in shipwrecked men or those hopelessly lost in the barren north, the divine will not to retrograde to the savage. It was a time, for all it enriched the world with yellow treasure, when might was right, when men were hopeless, when death stalked rampant. The sun rose gold and it set red. It was the hour of Gold!
One afternoon late, while Joan was half dreaming, half dozing the hours away, she was thoroughly aroused by the tramp of boots and loud voices of excited men. Joan slipped to the peephole in the partition. Bate Wood had raised a warning hand to Kells, who stood up, facing the door. Red Pearce came bursting in, wild-eyed and violent. Joan imagined he was about to cry out that Kells had been betrayed.
"Kells, have you—heard?" he panted.
"Not so loud, you—!" replied Kells, coolly. "My name's Blight.... Who's with you?"
"Only Jesse an' some of the gang. I couldn't steer them away. But there's nothin' to fear."
"What's happened? What haven't I heard?"
"The camp's gone plumb ravin' crazy.... Jim Cleve found the biggest nugget ever dug in Idaho!... THIRTY POUNDS!"
Kells seemed suddenly to inflame, to blaze with white passion. "Good for Jim!" he yelled, ringingly. He could scarcely have been more elated if he had made the strike himself.
Jesse Smith came stamping in, with a crowd elbowing their way behind him. Joan had a start of the old panic at sight of Gulden. For once the giant was not slow nor indifferent. His big eyes glared. He brought back to Joan the sickening sense of the brute strength of his massive presence. Some of his cronies were with him. For the rest, there were Blicky and Handy Oliver and Chick Williams. The whole group bore resemblance to a pack of wolves about to leap upon its prey. Yet, in each man, excepting Gulden, there was that striking aspect of exultation.
"Where's Jim?" demanded Kells.
"He's comin' along," replied Pearce. "He's sure been runnin' a gantlet. His strike stopped work in the diggin's. What do you think of that, Kells? The news spread like smoke before wind. Every last miner in camp has jest got to see thet lump of gold."
"Maybe I don't want to see it!" exclaimed Kells. "A thirty-pounder! I heard of one once, sixty pounds, but I never saw it. You can't believe till you see."
"Jim's comin' up the road now," said one of the men near the door. "Thet crowd hangs on.... But I reckon he's shakin' them."
"What'll Cleve do with this nugget?"
Gulden's big voice, so powerful, yet feelingless, caused a momentary silence. The expression of many faces changed. Kells looked startled, then annoyed.
"Why, Gulden, that's not my affair—nor yours," replied Kells. "Cleve dug it and it belongs to him."
"Dug or stole—it's all the same," responded Gulden.
Kell's threw up his hands as if it were useless and impossible to reason with this man.
Then the crowd surged round the door with shuffling boots and hoarse, mingled greetings to Cleve, who presently came plunging in out of the melee.
His face wore a flush of radiance; his eyes were like diamonds. Joan thrilled and thrilled at sight of him. He was beautiful. Yet there was about him a more striking wildness. He carried a gun in one hand and in the other an object wrapped in his scarf. He flung this upon the table in front of Kells. It made a heavy, solid thump. The ends of the scarf flew aside, and there lay a magnificent nugget of gold, black and rusty in parts, but with a dull, yellow glitter in others.
"Boss, what'll you bet against that?" cried Cleve, with exulting laugh. He was like a boy.
Kells reached for the nugget as if it were not an actual object, and when his hands closed on it he fondled it and weighed it and dug his nails into it and tasted it.
"My God!" he ejaculated, in wondering ecstasy. Then this, and the excitement, and the obsession all changed into sincere gladness. "Jim, you're born lucky. You, the youngster born unlucky in love! Why, you could buy any woman with this!"
"Could I? Find me one," responded Cleve, with swift boldness.
Kells laughed. "I don't know any worth so much."
"What'll I do with it?" queried Cleve.
"Why, you fool youngster! Has it turned your head, too? What'd you do with the rest of your dust? You've certainly been striking it rich."
"I spent it—lost it—lent it—gave some away and—saved a little."
"Probably you'll do the same with this. You're a good fellow, Jim."
"But this nugget means a lot of money. Between six and seven thousand dollars."
"You won't need advice how to spend it, even if it was a million.... Tell me, Jim, how'd you strike it?"
"Funny about that," replied Cleve. "Things were poor for several days. Dug off branches into my claim. One grew to be a deep hole in gravel, hard to dig. My claim was once the bed of a stream, full of rocks that the water had rolled down once. This hole sort of haunted me. I'd leave it when my back got so sore I couldn't bend, but always I'd return. I'd say there wasn't a darned grain of gold in that gravel; then like a fool I'd go back and dig for all I was worth. No chance of finding blue dirt down there! But I kept on. And to-day when my pick hit what felt like a soft rock—I looked and saw the gleam of gold!... You ought to have seen me claw out that nugget! I whooped and brought everybody around. The rest was a parade.... Now I'm embarrassed by riches. What to do with it?"
"Wal, go back to Montana an' make thet fool girl sick," suggested one of the men who had heard Jim's fictitious story of himself.
"Dug or stole is all the same!" boomed the imperturbable Gulden.
Kells turned white with rage, and Cleve swept a swift and shrewd glance at the giant.
"Sure, that's my idea," declared Cleve. "I'll divide as—as we planned."
"You'll do nothing of the kind," retorted Kells. "You dug for that gold and it's yours."
"Well, boss, then say a quarter share to you and the same to me—and divide the rest among the gang."
"No!" exclaimed Kells, violently.
Joan imagined he was actuated as much by justice to Cleve as opposition to Gulden.
"Jim Cleve, you're a square pard if I ever seen one," declared Pearce, admiringly. "An' I'm here to say thet I wouldn't hev a share of your nugget."
"Nor me," spoke up Jesse Smith.
"I pass, too," said Chick Williams.
"Jim, if I was dyin' fer a drink I wouldn't stand fer thet deal," added Blicky, with a fine scorn.
These men, and others who spoke or signified their refusal, attested to the living truth that there was honor even among robbers. But there was not the slightest suggestion of change in Gulden's attitude or of those back of him.
"Share and share alike for me!" he muttered, grimly, with those great eyes upon the nugget.
Kells, with an agile bound, reached the table and pounded it with his fist, confronting the giant.
"So you say!" he hissed in dark passion. "You've gone too far, Gulden. Here's where I call you!... You don't get a gram of that gold nugget. Jim's worked like a dog. If he digs up a million I'll see he gets it all. Maybe you loafers haven't a hunch what Jim's done for you. He's helped our big deal more than you or I. His honest work has made it easy for me to look honest. He's supposed to be engaged to marry my daughter. That more than anything was a blind. It made my stand, and I tell you that stand is high in this camp. Go down there and swear Blight is Jack Kells! See what you get!... That's all.... I'm dealing the cards in this game!"
Kells did not cow Gulden—for it was likely the giant lacked the feeling of fear—but he overruled him by sheer strength of spirit.
Gulden backed away stolidly, apparently dazed by his own movements; then he plunged out the door, and the ruffians who had given silent but sure expression of their loyalty tramped after him.
"Reckon thet starts the split!" declared Red Pearce.
"Suppose you'd been in Jim's place!" flashed Kells.
"Jack, I ain't sayin' a word. You was square. I'd want you to do the same by me.... But fetchin' the girl into the deal—"
Kells's passionate and menacing gesture shut Pearce's lips. He lifted a hand, resignedly, and went out.
"Jim," said Kells, earnestly, "take my hunch. Hide your nugget. Don't send it out with the stage to Bannack. It'd never get there.... And change the place where you sleep!"
"Thanks," replied Cleve, brightly. "I'll hide my nugget all right. And I'll take care of myself."
Later that night Joan waited at her window for Jim. It was so quiet that she could hear the faint murmur of the shallow creek. The sky was dusky blue; the stars were white, the night breeze sweet and cool. Her first flush of elation for Jim having passed, she experienced a sinking of courage. Were they not in peril enough without Jim's finding a fortune? How dark and significant had been Kells's hint! There was something splendid in the bandit. Never had Joan felt so grateful to him. He was a villain, yet he was a man. What hatred he showed for Gulden! These rivals would surely meet in a terrible conflict—for power—for gold. And for her!—she added, involuntarily, with a deep, inward shudder. Once the thought had flashed through her mind, it seemed like a word of revelation.
Then she started as a dark form rose out of the shadow under her and a hand clasped hers. Jim! and she lifted her face.
"Joan! Joan! I'm rich! rich!" he babbled, wildly.
"Ssssh!" whispered Joan, softly, in his ear. "Be careful. You're wild to-night.... I saw you come in with the nugget. I heard you.... Oh, you lucky Jim! I'll tell you what to do with it!"
"Darling! It's all yours. You'll marry me now?"
"Sir! Do you take me for a fortune-hunter? I marry you for your gold? Never!"
"I've promised," she said.
"I won't go away now. I'll work my claim," he began, excitedly. And he went on so rapidly that Joan could not keep track of his words. He was not so cautious as formerly. She remonstrated with him, all to no purpose. Not only was he carried away by possession of gold and assurance of more, but he had become masterful, obstinate, and illogical. He was indeed hopeless to-night—the gold had gotten into his blood. Joan grew afraid he would betray their secret and realized there had come still greater need for a woman's wit. So she resorted to a never-failing means of silencing him, of controlling him—her lips on his.
For several nights these stolen interviews were apparently the safer because of Joan's tender blinding of her lover. But it seemed that in Jim's condition of mind this yielding of her lips and her whispers of love had really been a mistake. Not only had she made the situation perilously sweet for herself, but in Jim's case she had added the spark to the powder. She realized her blunder when it was too late. And the fact that she did not regret it very much, and seemed to have lost herself in a defiant, reckless spell, warned her again that she, too, was answering to the wildness of the time and place. Joan's intelligence had broadened wonderfully in this period of her life, just as all her feelings had quickened. If gold had developed and intensified and liberated the worst passions of men, so the spirit of that atmosphere had its baneful effect upon her. Joan deplored this, yet she had the keenness to understand that it was nature fitting her to survive.