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The Border Legion
by Zane Grey
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Back upon her fell that weight of suspense—what would happen next? Here in Alder Creek there did not at present appear to be the same peril which had menaced her before, but she would suffer through fatality to Cleve or Kells. And these two slept at night under a shadow that held death, and by day they walked on a thin crust over a volcano. Joan grew more and more fearful of the disclosures made when Kells met his men nightly in the cabin. She feared to hear, but she must hear, and even if she had not felt it necessary to keep informed of events, the fascination of the game would have impelled her to listen. And gradually the suspense she suffered augmented into a magnified, though vague, assurance of catastrophe, of impending doom. She could not shake off the gloomy presentiment. Something terrible was going to happen. An experience begun as tragically as hers could only end in a final and annihilating stroke. Yet hope was unquenchable, and with her fear kept pace a driving and relentless spirit.

One night at the end of a week of these interviews, when Joan attempted to resist Jim, to plead with him, lest in his growing boldness he betray them, she found him a madman.

"I'll pull you right out of this window," he said, roughly, and then with his hot face pressed against hers tried to accomplish the thing he threatened.

"Go on—pull me to pieces!" replied Joan, in despair and pain. "I'd be better off dead! And—you—hurt me—so!"

"Hurt you!" he whispered, hoarsely, as if he had never dreamed of such possibility. And then suddenly he was remorseful. He begged her to forgive him. His voice was broken, husky, pleading. His remorse, like every feeling of his these days, was exaggerated, wild, with that raw tinge of gold-blood in it. He made so much noise that Joan, more fearful than ever of discovery, quieted him with difficulty.

"Does Kells see you often—these days?" asked Jim, suddenly.

Joan had dreaded this question, which she had known would inevitably come. She wanted to lie; she knew she ought to lie; but it was impossible.

"Every day," she whispered. "Please—Jim—never mind that. Kells is good—he's all right to me.... And you and I have so little time together."

"Good!" exclaimed Cleve. Joan felt the leap of his body under her touch. "Why, if I'd tell you what he sends that gang to do—you'd—you'd kill him in his sleep."

"Tell me," replied Joan. She had a morbid, irresistible desire to learn.

"No.... And WHAT does Kells do—when he sees you every day?"

"He talks."

"What about?"

"Oh, everything except about what holds him here. He talks to me to forget himself."

"Does he make love to you?"

Joan maintained silence. What would she do with this changed and hopeless Jim Cleve?

"Tell me!" Jim's hands gripped her with a force that made her wince. And now she grew as afraid of him as she had been for him. But she had spirit enough to grow angry, also.

"Certainly he does."

Jim Cleve echoed her first word, and then through grinding teeth he cursed. "I'm going to—stop it!" he panted, and his eyes looked big and dark and wild in the starlight.

"You can't. I belong to Kells. You at least ought to have sense enough to see that."

"Belong to him!... For God's sake! By what right?"

"By the right of possession. Might is right here on the border. Haven't you told me that a hundred times? Don't you hold your claim—your gold—by the right of your strength? It's the law of this border. To be sure Kells stole me. But just now I belong to him. And lately I see his consideration—his kindness in the light of what he could do if he held to that border law.... And of all the men I've met out here Kells is the least wild with this gold fever. He sends his men out to do murder for gold; he'd sell his soul to gamble for gold; but just the same, he's more of a man than—-"

"Joan!" he interrupted, piercingly. "You love this bandit!"

"You're a fool!" burst out Joan.

"I guess—I—am," he replied in terrible, slow earnestness. He raised himself and appeared to loom over her and released his hold.

But Joan fearfully retained her clasp on his arm, and when he surged to get away she was hard put to it to hold him.

"Jim! Where are you going?"

He stood there a moment, a dark form against the night shadow, like an outline of a man cut from black stone.

"I'll just step around—there."

"Oh, what for?" whispered Joan.

"I'm going to kill Kells."

Joan got both arms round his neck and with her head against him she held him tightly, trying, praying to think how to meet this long-dreaded moment. After all, what was the use to try? This was the hour of Gold! Sacrifice, hope, courage, nobility, fidelity—these had no place here now. Men were the embodiment of passion—ferocity. They breathed only possession, and the thing in the balance was death. Women were creatures to hunger and fight for, but womanhood was nothing. Joan knew all this with a desperate hardening certainty, and almost she gave in. Strangely, thought of Gulden flashed up to make her again strong! Then she raised her face and began the old pleading with Jim, but different this time, when it seemed that absolutely all was at stake. She begged him, she importuned him, to listen to reason, to be guided by her, to fight the wildness that had obsessed him, to make sure that she would not be left alone. All in vain! He swore he would kill Kells and any other bandit who stood in the way of his leading her free out of that cabin. He was wild to fight. He might never have felt fear of these robbers. He would not listen to any possibility of defeat for himself, or the possibility that in the event of Kells's death she would be worse off. He laughed at her strange, morbid fears of Gulden. He was immovable.

"Jim!... Jim! You'll break my heart!" she whispered, wailingly. "Oh! WHAT can I do?"

Then Joan released her clasp and gave up to utter defeat. Cleve was silent. He did not seem to hear the shuddering little sobs that shook her. Suddenly he bent close to her.

"There's one thing you can do. If you'll do it I won't kill Kells. I'll obey your every word."

"What is it? Tell me!"

"Marry me!" he whispered, and his voice trembled.

"MARRY YOU!" exclaimed Joan. She was confounded. She began to fear Jim was out of his head.

"I mean it. Marry me. Oh, Joan, will you—will you? It'll make the difference. That'll steady me. Don't you want to?"

"Jim, I'd be the happiest girl in the world if—if I only COULD marry you!" she breathed, passionately.

"But will you—will you? Say yes! Say yes!"

"YES!" replied Joan in her desperation. "I hope that pleases you. But what on earth is the use to talk about it now?"

Cleve seemed to expand, to grow taller, to thrill under her nervous hands. And then he kissed her differently. She sensed a shyness, a happiness, a something hitherto foreign to his attitude. It was spiritual, and somehow she received an uplift of hope.

"Listen," he whispered. "There's a preacher down in camp. I've seen him—talked with him. He's trying to do good in that hell down there. I know I can trust him. I'll confide in him—enough. I'll fetch him up here tomorrow night—about this time. Oh, I'll be careful—very careful. And he can marry us right here by the window. Joan, will you do it?... Somehow, whatever threatens you or me—that'll be my salvation!... I've suffered so. It's been burned in my heart that YOU would never marry me. Yet you say you love me!... Prove it!... MY WIFE!... Now, girl, a word will make a man of me!"

"Yes!" And with the word she put her lips to his with all her heart in them. She felt him tremble. Yet almost instantly he put her from him.

"Look for me to-morrow about this time," he whispered. "Keep your nerve.... Good night."

That night Joan dreamed strange, weird, unremembered dreams. The next day passed like a slow, unreal age. She ate little of what was brought to her. For the first time she denied Kells admittance and she only vaguely sensed his solicitations. She had no ear for the murmur of voices in Kells's room. Even the loud and angry notes of a quarrel between Kells and his men did not distract her.

At sunset she leaned out of the little window, and only then, with the gold fading on the peaks and the shadow gathering under the bluff, did she awaken to reality. A broken mass of white cloud caught the glory of the sinking sun. She had never seen a golden radiance like that. It faded and dulled. But a warm glow remained. At twilight and then at dusk this glow lingered.

Then night fell. Joan was exceedingly sensitive to the sensations of light and shadow, of sound and silence, of dread and hope, of sadness and joy.

That pale, ruddy glow lingered over the bold heave of the range in the west. It was like a fire that would not go out, that would live to-morrow, and burn golden. The sky shone with deep, rich blue color fired with a thousand stars, radiant, speaking, hopeful. And there was a white track across the heavens. The mountains flung down their shadows, impenetrable, like the gloomy minds of men; and everywhere under the bluffs and slopes, in the hollows and ravines, lay an enveloping blackness, hiding its depth and secret and mystery.

Joan listened. Was there sound or silence? A faint and indescribably low roar, so low that it might have been real or false, came on the soft night breeze. It was the roar of the camp down there—the strife, the agony, the wild life in ceaseless action—the strange voice of gold, roaring greed and battle and death over the souls of men. But above that, presently, rose the murmur of the creek, a hushed and dreamy flow of water over stones. It was hurrying to get by this horde of wild men, for it must bear the taint of gold and blood. Would it purge itself and clarify in the valleys below, on its way to the sea? There was in its murmur an imperishable and deathless note of nature, of time; and this was only a fleeting day of men and gold.

Only by straining her ears could Joan hear these sounds, and when she ceased that, then she seemed to be weighed upon and claimed by silence. It was not a silence like that of Lost Canon, but a silence of solitude where her soul stood alone. She was there on earth, yet no one could hear her mortal cry. The thunder of avalanches or the boom of the sea might have lessened her sense of utter loneliness.

And that silence fitted the darkness, and both were apostles of dread. They spoke to her. She breathed dread on that silent air and it filled her breast. There was nothing stable in the night shadows. The ravine seemed to send forth stealthy, noiseless shapes, specter and human, man and phantom, each on the other's trail.

If Jim would only come and let her see that he was safe for the hour! A hundred times she imagined she saw him looming darker than the shadows. She had only to see him now, to feel his hand, and dread might be lost. Love was something beyond the grasp of mind. Love had confounded Jim Cleve; it had brought up kindness and honor from the black depths of a bandit's heart; it had transformed her from a girl into a woman. Surely with all its greatness it could not be lost; surely in the end it must triumph over evil.

Joan found that hope was fluctuating, but eternal. It took no stock of intelligence. It was a matter of feeling. And when she gave rein to it for a moment, suddenly it plunged her into sadness. To hope was to think! Poor Jim! It was his fool's paradise. Just to let her be his wife! That was the apex of his dream. Joan divined that he might yield to her wisdom, he might become a man, but his agony would be greater. Still, he had been so intense, so strange, so different that she could not but feel joy in his joy.

Then at a soft footfall, a rustle, and a moving shadow Joan's mingled emotions merged into a poignant sense of the pain and suspense and tenderness of the actual moment.

"Joan—Joan," came the soft whisper.

She answered, and there was a catch in her breath.

The moving shadow split into two shadows that stole closer, loomed before her. She could not tell which belonged to Jim till he touched her. His touch was potent. It seemed to electrify her.

"Dearest, we're here—this is the parson," said Jim, like a happy boy. "I—"

"Ssssh!" whispered Joan. "Not so loud.... Listen!"

Kells was holding a rendezvous with members of his Legion. Joan even recognized his hard and somber tone, and the sharp voice of Red Pearce, and the drawl of Handy Oliver.

"All right. I'll be quiet," responded Cleve, cautiously. "Joan, you're to answer a few questions."

Then a soft hand touched Joan, and a voice differently keyed from any she had heard on the border addressed her.

"What is your name?" asked the preacher.

Joan told him.

"Can you tell anything about yourself? This young man is—is almost violent. I'm not sure. Still I want to—"

"I can't tell much," replied Joan, hurriedly. "I'm an honest girl. I'm free to—to marry him. I—I love him!... Oh, I want to help him. We—we are in trouble here. I daren't say how."

"Are you over eighteen?" "Yes, sir."

"Do your parents object to this young man?"

"I have no parents. And my uncle, with whom I lived before I was brought to this awful place, he loves Jim. He always wanted me to marry him."

"Take his hand, then."

Joan felt the strong clasp of Jim's fingers, and that was all which seemed real at the moment. It seemed so dark and shadowy round these two black forms in front of her window. She heard a mournful wail of a lone wolf and it intensified the weird dream that bound her. She heard her shaking, whispered voice repeating the preacher's words. She caught a phrase of a low-murmured prayer. Then one dark form moved silently away. She was alone with Jim.

"Dearest Joan!" he whispered. "It's over! It's done!... Kiss me!"

She lifted her lips and Jim seemed to kiss her more sweetly, with less violence.

"Oh, Joan, that you'd really have me! I can't believe it.... Your HUSBAND."

That word dispelled the dream and the pain which had held Joan, leaving only the tenderness, magnified now a hundredfold.

And that instant when she was locked in Cleve's arms, when the silence was so beautiful and full, she heard the heavy pound of a gun-butt upon the table in Kells's room.

"Where is Cleve?" That was the voice of Kells, stern, demanding.

Joan felt a start, a tremor run over Jim. Then he stiffened.

"I can't locate him," replied Red Pearce. "It was the same last night an' the one before. Cleve jest disappears these nights—about this time.... Some woman's got him!"

"He goes to bed. Can't you find where he sleeps?"

"No."

"This job's got to go through and he's got to do it."

"Bah!" taunted Pearce. "Gulden swears you can't make Cleve do a job. And so do I!"

"Go out and yell for Cleve!... Damn you all! I'll show you!"

Then Joan heard the tramp of heavy boots, then a softer tramp on the ground outside the cabin. Joan waited, holding her breath. She felt Jim's heart beating. He stood like a post. He, like Joan, was listening, as if for a trumpet of doom.

"HALLO, JIM!" rang out Pearce's stentorian call. It murdered the silence. It boomed under the bluff, and clapped in echo, and wound away, mockingly. It seemed to have shrieked to the whole wild borderland the breaking-point of the bandit's power.

So momentous was the call that Jim Cleve seemed to forget Joan, and she let him go without a word. Indeed, he was gone before she realized it, and his dark form dissolved in the shadows. Joan waited, listening with abated breathing. On this side of the cabin there was absolute silence. She believed that Jim would slip around under cover of night and return by the road from camp. Then what would he do? The question seemed to puzzle her.

Joan leaned there at her window for moments greatly differing from those vaguely happy ones just passed. She had sustained a shock that had left her benumbed with a dull pain. What a rude, raw break the voice of Kells had made in her brief forgetfulness! She was returning now to reality. Presently she would peer through the crevice between the boards into the other room, and she shrank from the ordeal. Kells, and whoever was with him, maintained silence. Occasionally she heard the shuffle of a boot and a creak of the loose floor boards. She waited till anxiety and fear compelled her to look.

The lamps were burning; the door was wide open. Apparently Kells's rule of secrecy had been abandoned. One glance at Kells was enough to show Joan that he was sick and desperate. Handy Oliver did not wear his usual lazy good humor. Red Pearce sat silent and sullen, a smoking, unheeded pipe in his hand. Jesse Smith was gloomy. The only other present was Bate Wood, and whatever had happened had in no wise affected him. These bandits were all waiting. Presently quick footsteps on the path outside caused them all to look toward the door. That tread was familiar to Joan, and suddenly her mouth was dry, her tongue stiff. What was Jim Cleve coming to meet? How sharp and decided his walk! Then his dark form crossed the bar of light outside the door, and he entered, bold and cool, and with a weariness that must have been simulated.

"Howdy boys!" he said.

Only Kells greeted him in response. The bandit eyed him curiously. The others added suspicion to their glances.

"Did you hear Red's yell?" queried Kells, presently.

"I'd have heard that roar if I'd been dead," replied Cleve, bluntly. "And I didn't like it!... I was coming up the road and I heard Pearce yell. I'll bet every man in camp heard it."

"How'd you know Pearce yelled for you?"

"I recognized his voice."

Cleve's manner recalled to Joan her first sight of him over in Cabin Gulch. He was not so white or haggard, but his eyes were piercing, and what had once been recklessness now seemed to be boldness. He deliberately studied Pearce. Joan trembled, for she divined what none of these robbers knew, and it was that Pearce was perilously near death. It was there for Joan to read in Jim's dark glance.

"Where've you been all these nights?" queried the bandit leader.

"Is that any of your business—when you haven't had need of me?" returned Cleve.

"Yes, it's my business. And I've sent for you. You couldn't be found."

"I've been here for supper every night."

"I don't talk to any men in daylight. You know my hours for meeting. And you've not come."

"You should have told me. How was I to know?"

"I guess you're right. But where've you been?"

"Down in camp. Faro, most of the time. Bad luck, too."

Red Pearce's coarse face twisted into a scornful sneer. It must have been a lash to Kells.

"Pearce says you're chasing a woman," retorted the bandit leader.

"Pearce lies!" flashed Cleve. His action was as swift. And there he stood with a gun thrust hard against Pearce's side.

"JIM! Don't kill him!" yelled Kells, rising.

Pearce's red face turned white. He stood still as a stone, with his gaze fixed in fascinated fear upon Cleve's gun.

A paralyzing surprise appeared to hold the group.

"Can you prove what you said?" asked Cleve, low and hard.

Joan knew that if Pearce did have the proof which would implicate her he would never live to tell it.

"Cleve—I don't—know nothin'," choked out Pearce. "I jest figgered—it was a woman!"

Cleve slowly lowered the gun and stepped back. Evidently that satisfied him. But Joan had an intuitive feeling that Pearce lied.

"You want to be careful how you talk about me," said Cleve.

Kells purled out a suspended breath and he flung the sweat from his brow. There was about him, perhaps more than the others, a dark realization of how close the call had been for Pearce.

"Jim, you're not drunk?"

"No."

"But you're sore?"

"Sure I'm sore. Pearce put me in bad with you, didn't he?"

"No. You misunderstood me. Red hasn't a thing against you. And neither he nor anybody else could put you in bad with me."

"All right. Maybe I was hasty. But I'm not wasting time these days," replied Cleve. "I've no hard feelings.... Pearce, do you want to shake hands—or hold that against me?"

"He'll shake, of course," said Kells.

Pearce extended his hand, but with a bad grace. He was dominated. This affront of Cleve's would rankle in him.

"Kells, what do you want with me?" demanded Cleve.

A change passed over Kells, and Joan could not tell just what it was, but somehow it seemed to suggest a weaker man.

"Jim, you've been a great card for me," began Kells, impressively. "You've helped my game—and twice you saved my life. I think a lot of you.... If you stand by me now I swear I'll return the trick some day.... Will you stand by me?"

"Yes," replied Cleve, steadily, but he grew pale. "What's the trouble?"

"By—, it's bad enough!" exclaimed Kells, and as he spoke the shade deepened in his haggard face. "Gulden has split my Legion. He has drawn away more than half my men. They have been drunk and crazy ever since. They've taken things into their own hands. You see the result as well as I. That camp down there is fire and brimstone. Some one of that drunken gang has talked. We're none of us safe any more. I see suspicion everywhere. I've urged getting a big stake and then hitting the trail for the border. But not a man sticks to me in that. They all want the free, easy, wild life of this gold-camp. So we're anchored till—till... But maybe it's not too late. Pearce, Oliver, Smith—all the best of my Legion—profess loyalty to me. If we all pull together maybe we can win yet. But they've threatened to split, too. And it's all on your account!"

"Mine?" ejaculated Cleve.

"Yes. Now it's nothing to make you flash your gun. Remember you said you'd stand by me.... Jim, the fact is—all the gang to a man believe you're double-crossing me!"

"In what way?" queried Cleve, blanching.

"They think you're the one who has talked. They blame you for the suspicion that's growing."

"Well, they're absolutely wrong," declared Cleve, in a ringing voice.

"I know they are. Mind you I'm not hinting I distrust you. I don't. I swear by you. But Pearce—"

"So it's Pearce," interrupted Cleve, darkly. "I thought you said he hadn't tried to put me in bad with you."

"He hasn't. He simply spoke his convictions. He has a right to them. So have all the men. And, to come to the point, they all think you're crooked because you're honest!"

"I don't understand," replied Cleve, slowly.

"Jim, you rode into Cabin Gulch, and you raised some trouble. But you were no bandit. You joined my Legion, but you've never become a bandit. Here you've been an honest miner. That suited my plan and it helped. But it's got so it doesn't suit my men. You work every day hard. You've struck it rich. You're well thought of in Alder Creek. You've never done a dishonest thing. Why, you wouldn't turn a crooked trick in a card game for a sack full of gold. This has hurt you with my men. They can't see as I see, that you're as square as you are game. They see you're an honest miner. They believe you've got into a clique—that you've given us away. I don't blame Pearce or any of my men. This is a time when men's intelligence, if they have any, doesn't operate. Their brains are on fire. They see gold and whisky and blood, and they feel gold and whisky and blood. That's all. I'm glad that the gang gives you the benefit of a doubt and a chance to stand by me."

"A chance!"

"Yes. They've worked out a job for you alone. Will you undertake it?"

"I'll have to," replied Cleve.

"You certainly will if you want the gang to justify my faith in you. Once you pull off a crooked deal, they'll switch and swear by you. Then we'll get together, all of us, and plan what to do about Gulden and his outfit. They'll run our heads, along with their own, right into the noose."

"What is this—this job?" labored Cleve. He was sweating now and his hair hung damp over his brow. He lost that look which had made him a bold man and seemed a boy again, weak, driven, bewildered.

Kells averted his gaze before speaking again. He hated to force this task upon Cleve. Joan felt, in the throbbing pain of the moment, that if she never had another reason to like this bandit, she would like him for the pity he showed.

"Do you know a miner named Creede?" asked Kells, rapidly.

"A husky chap, short, broad, something like Gulden for shape, only not so big—fellow with a fierce red beard?" asked Cleve.

"I never saw him," replied Kells. "But Pearce has. How does Cleve's description fit Creede?"

"He's got his man spotted," answered Pearce.

"All right, that's settled," went on Kells, warming to his subject. "This fellow Creede wears a heavy belt of gold. Blicky never makes a mistake. Creede's partner left on yesterday's stage for Bannack. He'll be gone a few days. Creede is a hard worker-one of the hardest. Sometimes he goes to sleep at his supper. He's not the drinking kind. He's slow, thick-headed. The best time for this job will be early in the evening—just as soon as his lights are out. Locate the tent. It stands at the head of a little wash and there's a bleached pine-tree right by the tent. To-morrow night as soon as it gets dark crawl up this wash—be careful—wait till the right time—then finish the job quick!"

"How—finish—it?" asked Cleve, hoarsely.

Kells was scintillating now, steely, cold, radiant. He had forgotten the man before him in the prospect of the gold.

"Creede's cot is on the side of the tent opposite the tree. You won't have to go inside. Slit the canvas. It's a rotten old tent. Kill Creede with your knife.... Get his belt.... Be bold, cautious, swift! That's your job. Now what do you say?"

"All right," responded Cleve, somberly, and with a heavy tread he left the room.

After Jim had gone Joan still watched and listened. She was in distress over his unfortunate situation, but she had no fear that he meant to carry out Kells's plan. This was a critical time for Jim, and therefore for her. She had no idea what Jim could do; all she thought was what he would not do.

Kells gazed triumphantly at Pearce. "I told you the youngster would stand by me. I never put him on a job before."

"Reckon I figgered wrong, boss," replied Pearce.

"He looked sick to me, but game," said Handy Oliver. "Kells is right, Red, an' you've been sore-headed over nothin'!"

"Mebbe. But ain't it good figgerin' to make Cleve do some kind of a job, even if he is on the square?"

They all acquiesced to this, even Kells slowly nodding his head.

"Jack, I've thought of another an' better job for young Cleve," spoke up Jesse Smith, with his characteristic grin.

"You'll all be setting him jobs now," replied Kells. "What's yours?"

"You spoke of plannin' to get together once more—what's left of us. An' there's thet bull-head Gulden."

"You're sure right," returned the leader, grimly, and he looked at Smith as if he would welcome any suggestion.

"I never was afraid to speak my mind," went on Smith. Here he lost his grin and his coarse mouth grew hard. "Gulden will have to be killed if we're goin' to last!"

"Wood, what do you say?" queried Kells, with narrowing eyes.

Bate Wood nodded as approvingly as if he had been asked about his bread.

"Oliver, what do you say?"

"Wal, I'd love to wait an' see Gul hang, but if you press me, I'll agree to stand pat with the cards Jesse's dealt," replied Handy Oliver.

Then Kells turned with a bright gleam upon his face. "And you—Pearce?"

"I'd say yes in a minute if I'd not have to take a hand in thet job," replied Pearce, with a hard laugh. "Gulden won't be so easy to kill. He'll pack a gunful of lead. I'll gamble if the gang of us cornered him in this cabin he'd do for most of us before we killed him."

"Gul sleep alone, no one knows where," said Handy Oliver. "An' he can't be surprised. Red's correct. How're we goin' to kill him?"

"If you gents will listen you'll find out," rejoined Jesse Smith. "Thet's the job for young Cleve. He can do it. Sure Gulden never was afraid of any man. But somethin' about Cleve bluffed him. I don't know what. Send Cleve out after Gulden. He'll call him face to face, anywhere, an' beat him to a gun!... Take my word for it."

"Jesse, that's the grandest idea you ever had," said Kells, softly. His eyes shone. The old power came back to his face. "I split on Gulden. With him once out of the way—!"

"Boss, are you goin' to make thet Jim Cleve's second job?" inquired Pearce, curiously.

"I am," replied Kells, with his jaw corded and stiff. "If he pulls thet off you'll never hear a yap from me so long as I live. An' I'll eat out of Cleve's hand."

Joan could bear to hear no more. She staggered to her bed and fell there, all cramped as if in a cold vise. However Jim might meet the situation planned for murdering Creede, she knew he would not shirk facing Gulden with deadly intent. He hated Gulden because she had a horror of him. Would these hours of suspense never end? Must she pass from one torture to another until—?

Sleep did not come for a long time. And when it did she suffered with nightmares from which it seemed she could never awaken.

The day, when at last it arrived, was no better than the night. It wore on endlessly, and she who listened so intently found it one of the silent days. Only Bate Wood remained at the cabin. He appeared kinder than usual, but Joan did not want to talk. She ate her meals, and passed the hours watching from the window and lying on the bed. Dusk brought Kells and Pearce and Smith, but not Jim Cleve. Handy Oliver and Blicky arrived at supper-time.

"Reckon Jim's appetite is pore," remarked Bate Wood, reflectively. "He ain't been in to-day."

Some of the bandits laughed, but Kells had a twinge, if Joan ever saw a man have one. The dark, formidable, stern look was on his face. He alone of the men ate sparingly, and after the meal he took to his bent posture and thoughtful pacing. Joan saw the added burden of another crime upon his shoulders. Conversation, which had been desultory, and such as any miners or campers might have indulged in, gradually diminished to a word here and there, and finally ceased. Kells always at this hour had a dampening effect upon his followers. More and more he drew aloof from them, yet he never realized that. He might have been alone. But often he glanced out of the door, and appeared to listen. Of course he expected Jim Cleve to return, but what did he expect of him? Joan had a blind faith that Jim would be cunning enough to fool Kells and Pearce. So much depended upon it!

Some of the bandits uttered an exclamation. Then silently, like a shadow, Jim Cleve entered.

Joan's heart leaped and seemed to stand still. Jim could not have locked more terrible if he were really a murderer. He opened his coat. Then he flung a black object upon the table and it fell with a soft, heavy, sodden thud. It was a leather belt packed with gold.

When Kells saw that he looked no more at the pale Cleve. His clawlike hand swept out for the belt, lifted and weighed it. Likewise the other bandits, with gold in sight, surged round Kells, forgetting Cleve.

"Twenty pounds!" exclaimed Kells, with a strange rapture in his voice.

"Let me heft it?" asked Pearce, thrillingly.

Joan saw and heard so much, then through a kind of dimness, that she could not wipe away, her eyes beheld Jim. What was the awful thing that she interpreted from his face, his mien? Was this a part he was playing to deceive Kells? The slow-gathering might of her horror came with the meaning of that gold-belt. Jim had brought back the gold-belt of the miner Creede. He had, in his passion to remain near her, to save her in the end, kept his word to Kells and done the ghastly deed.

Joan reeled and sank back upon the bed, blindly, with darkening sight and mind.



16

Joan returned to consciousness with a sense of vague and unlocalized pain which she thought was that old, familiar pang of grief. But once fully awakened, as if by a sharp twinge, she became aware that the pain was some kind of muscular throb in her shoulder. The instant she was fully sure of this the strange feeling ceased. Then she lay wide-eyed in the darkness, waiting and wondering.

Suddenly the slight sharp twing was repeated. It seemed to come from outside her flesh. She shivered a little, thinking it might be a centipede. When she reached for her shoulder her hand came in contact with a slender stick that had been thrust through a crack between the boards. Jim was trying to rouse her. This had been his method on several occasions when she had fallen asleep after waiting long for him.

Joan got up to the window, dizzy and sick with the resurging memory of Jim's return to Kells with that gold-belt.

Jim rose out of the shadow and felt for her, clasped her close. Joan had none of the old thrill; her hands slid loosely round his; and every second the weight inwardly grew heavier.

"Joan! I had a time waking you," whispered Jim, and then he kissed her. "Why, you're as cold as ice."

"Jim—I—I must have fainted," she replied.

"What for?" "I was peeping into Kells's cabin, when you—you—"

"Poor kid!" he interrupted, tenderly. "You've had so much to bear!... Joan, I fooled Kells. Oh, I was slick!... He ordered me out on a job—to kill a miner! Fancy that! And what do you think? I know Creede well. He's a good fellow. I traded my big nugget for his gold-belt!"

"You TRADED—you—didn't—kill him!" faltered Joan.

"Hear the child talk!" exclaimed Cleve, with a low laugh.

Joan suddenly clung to him with all her might, quivering in a silent joy. It had not occurred to Jim what she might have thought.

"Listen," he went on. "I traded my nugget. It was worth a great deal more than Creede's gold-belt. He knew this. He didn't want to trade. But I coaxed him. I persuaded him to leave camp—to walk out on the road to Bannack. To meet the stage somewhere and go on to Bannack, and stay a few days. He sure was curious. But I kept my secret.... Then I came back here, gave the belt to Kells, told him I had followed Creede in the dark, had killed him and slid him into a deep hole in the creek.... Kells and Pearce—none of them paid any attention to my story. I had the gold-belt. That was enough. Gold talks—fills the ears of these bandits.... I have my share of Creede's gold-dust in my pocket. Isn't that funny? Alas for my—YOUR big nugget! But we've got to play the game. Besides, I've sacks and cans of gold hidden away. Joan, what'll we do with it all? You're my wife now. And, oh! If we can only get away with it you'll be rich!"

Joan could not share his happiness any more than she could understand his spirit. She remembered.

"Jim—dear—did Kells tell you what your—next job was to be?" she whispered, haltingly.

Cleve swore under his breath, but loud enough to make Joan swiftly put her hand over his lips and caution him.

"Joan, did you hear that about Gulden?" he asked.

"Oh yes."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to tell you. Yes, I've got my second job. And this one I can't shirk or twist around."

Joan held to him convulsively. She could scarcely speak.

"Girl, don't lose your nerve!" he said, sternly. "When you married me you made me a man. I'll play my end of the game. Don't fear for me. You plan when we can risk escape. I'll obey you to the word."

"But Jim—oh, Jim!" she moaned. "You're as wild as these bandits. You can't see your danger.... That terrible Gulden!... You don't mean to meet him—fight him?... Say you won't!"

"Joan, I'll meet him—and I'll KILL him," whispered Jim, with a piercing intensity. "You never knew I was swift with a gun. Well, I didn't, either, till I struck the border. I know now. Kells is the only man I've seen who can throw a gun quicker than I. Gulden is a big bull. He's slow. I'll get into a card-game with him—I'll quarrel over gold—I'll smash him as I did once before—and this time I won't shoot off his ear. I've my nerve now. Kells swore he'd do anything for me if I stand by him now. I will. You never can tell. Kells is losing his grip. And my standing by him may save you."

Joan drew a deep breath. Jim Cleve had indeed come into manhood. She crushed down her womanish fears and rose dauntless to the occasion. She would never weaken him by a lack of confidence.

"Jim, Kells's plot draws on to a fatal close," she said, earnestly. "I feel it. He's doomed. He doesn't realize that yet. He hopes and plots on. When he falls, then he'll be great—terrible. We must get away before that comes. What you said about Creede has given me an idea. Suppose we plan to slip out some night soon, and stop the stage next day on its way to Bannack?"

"I've thought of that. But we must have horses."

"Let's go afoot. We'd be safer. There'd not be so much to plan."

"But if we go on foot we must pack guns and grub—and there's my gold-dust. Fifty pounds or more! It's yours, Joan.... You'll need it all. You love pretty clothes and things. And now I'll get them for you or—or die."

"Hush! That's foolish talk, with our very lives at stake. Let me plan some more. Oh, I think so hard!... And, Jim, there's another thing. Red Pearce was more than suspicious about your absence from the cabin at certain hours. What he hinted to Kells about a woman in the case! I'm afraid he suspects or knows."

"He had me cold, too," replied Cleve, thoughtfully. "But he swore he knew nothing."

"Jim, trust a woman's instinct. Pearce lied. That gun at his side made him a liar. He knew you'd kill him if he betrayed himself by a word. Oh, look out for him!"

Cleve did not reply. It struck Joan that he was not listening, at least to her. His head was turned, rigid and alert. He had his ear to the soft wind. Suddenly Joan heard a faint rustle-then another. They appeared to come from the corner of the cabin. Silently Cleve sank down into the shadow and vanished. Low, stealthy footsteps followed, but Joan was not sure whether or not Cleve made them. They did not seem to come from the direction he usually took. Besides, when he was careful he never made the slightest noise. Joan strained her ears, only to catch the faint sounds of the night. She lay back upon her bed, worried and anxious again, and soon the dread returned. There were to be no waking or sleeping hours free from this portent of calamity.

Next morning Joan awaited Kells, as was her custom, but he did not appear. This was the third time in a week that he had forgotten or avoided her or had been prevented from seeing her. Joan was glad, yet the fact was not reassuring. The issue for Kells was growing from trouble to disaster.

Early in the afternoon she heard Kells returning from camp. He had men with him. They conversed in low, earnest tones. Joan was about to spy up on them when Kells's step approached her door. He rapped and spoke:

"Put on Dandy Dale's suit and mask, and come out here," he said.

The tone of his voice as much as the content of his words startled Joan so that she did not at once reply.

"Do you hear?" he called, sharply.

"Yes," replied Joan.

Then he went back to his men, and the low, earnest conversation was renewed.

Reluctantly Joan took down Dandy Dale's things from the pegs, and with a recurring shame she divested herself of part of her clothes and donned the suit and boots and mask and gun. Her spirit rose, however, at the thought that this would be a disguise calculated to aid her in the escape with Cleve. But why had Kells ordered the change? Was he in danger and did he mean to flee from Alder Creek? Joan found the speculation a relief from that haunting, persistent thought of Jim Cleve and Gulden. She was eager to learn, still she hesitated at the door. It was just as hard as ever to face those men.

But it must be, so with a wrench she stepped out boldly.

Kells looked worn and gray. He had not slept. But his face did not wear the shade she had come to associate with his gambling and drinking. Six other men were present, and Joan noted coats and gloves and weapons and spurs. Kells turned to address her. His face lighted fleetingly.

"I want you to be ready to ride any minute," he said.

"Why?" asked Joan.

"We may HAVE to, that's all," he replied.

His men, usually so keen when they had a chance to ogle Joan, now scarcely gave her a glance. They were a dark, grim group, with hard eyes and tight lips. Handy Oliver was speaking.

"I tell you, Gulden swore he seen Creede—on the road—in the lamplight—last night AFTER Jim Cleve got here."

"Gulden must have been mistaken," declared Kells, impatiently.

"He ain't the kind to make mistakes," replied Oliver.

"Gul's seen Creede's ghost, thet's what," suggested Blicky, uneasily. "I've seen a few in my time."

Some of the bandits nodded gloomily.

"Aw!" burst out Red Pearce. "Gulden never seen a ghost in his life. If he seen Creede he's seen him ALIVE!"

"Shore you're right, Red," agreed Jesse Smith.

"But, men—Cleve brought in Creede's belt—and we've divided the gold," said Kells. "You all know Creede would have to be dead before that belt could be unbuckled from him. There's a mistake."

"Boss, it's my idee thet Gul is only makin' more trouble," put in Bate Wood. "I seen him less than an hour ago. I was the first one Gul talked to. An' he knew Jim Cleve did for Creede. How'd he know? Thet was supposed to be a secret. What's more, Gul told me Cleve was on the job to kill him. How'd he ever find thet out?... Sure as God made little apples Cleve never told him!"

Kells's face grew livid and his whole body vibrated. "Maybe one of Gulden's gang was outside, listening when we planned Cleve's job," he suggested. But his look belied his hope.

"Naw! There's a nigger in the wood-pile, you can gamble on thet," blurted out the sixth bandit, a lean faced, bold-eye, blond-mustached fellow whose name Joan had never heard.

"I won't believe it," replied Kells, doggedly. "And you, Budd, you're accusing somebody present of treachery—or else Cleve. He's the only one not here who knew."

"Wal, I always said thet youngster was slick," replied Budd.

"Will you accuse him to his face?"

"I shore will. Glad of the chance."

"Then you're drunk or just a fool."

"Thet so?"

"Yes, that's so," flashed Kells. "You don't know Cleve. He'll kill you. He's lightning with a gun. Do you suppose I'd set him on Gulden's trail if I wasn't sure? Why I wouldn't care to—"

"Here comes Cleve," interrupted Pearce, sharply.

Rapid footsteps sounded without. Then Joan saw Jim Cleve darken the doorway. He looked keen and bold. Upon sight of Joan in her changed attire he gave a slight start.

"Budd, here's Cleve," called out Red Pearce, mockingly. "Now, say it to his face!"

In the silence that ensued Pearce's spirit dominated the moment with its cunning, hate, and violence. But Kells savagely leaped in front of the men, still master of the situation.

"Red, what's got into you?" he hissed. "You're cross-grained lately. You're sore. Any more of this and I'll swear you're a disorganizer.... Now, Budd, you keep your mouth shut. And you, Cleve, you pay no heed to Budd if he does gab.... We're in bad and all the men have chips on their shoulders. We've got to stop fighting among ourselves."

"Wal, boss, there's a power of sense in a good example," dryly remarked Bate Wood. His remark calmed Kells and eased the situation.

"Jim, did you meet Gulden?" queried Kells, eagerly.

"Can't find him anywhere," replied Cleve. "I've loafed in the saloons and gambling-hells where he hangs out. But he didn't show up. He's in camp. I know that for a fact. He's laying low for some reason."

"Gulden's been tipped off, Jim," said Kells, earnestly. "He told Bate Wood you were out to kill him."

"I'm glad. It wasn't a fair hand you were going to deal him," responded Cleve. "But who gave my job away? Someone in this gang wants me done for—more than Gulden."

Cleve's flashing gaze swept over the motionless men and fixed hardest upon Red Pearce. Pearce gave back hard look for hard look.

"Gulden told Oliver more," continued Kells, and he pulled Cleve around to face him. "Gulden swore he saw Creede alive last night.... LATE LAST NIGHT!"

"That's funny," replied Cleve, without the flicker of an eyelash.

"It's not funny. But it's queer. Gulden hasn't the moral sense to lie. Bate says he wants to make trouble between you and me. I doubt that. I don't believe Gulden could see a ghost, either. He's simply mistaken some miner for Creede."

"He sure has, unless Creede came back to life. I'm not sitting on his chest now, holding him down."

Kells drew back, manifestly convinced and relieved. This action seemed to be a magnet for Pearce. He detached himself from the group, and, approaching Kells, tapped him significantly on the shoulder; and whether by design or accident the fact was that he took a position where Kells was between him and Cleve.

"Jack, you're being double-crossed here—an' by more 'n one," he said, deliberately. "But if you want me to talk you've got to guarantee no gun-play."

"Speak up, Red," replied Kells, with a glinting eye. "I swear there won't be a gun pulled."

The other men shifted from one foot to another and there were deep-drawn breaths. Jim Cleve alone seemed quiet and cool. But his eyes were ablaze.

"Fust off an' for instance here's one who's double-crossin' you," said Pearce, in slow, tantalizing speech, as if he wore out this suspense to torture Kells. And without ever glancing at Joan he jerked a thumb, in significant gesture, at her.

Joan leaned back against the wall, trembling and cold all over. She read Pearce's mind. He knew her secret and meant to betray her and Jim. He hated Kells and wanted to torture him. If only she could think quickly and speak! But she seemed dumb and powerless.

"Pearce, what do you mean?" demanded Kells.

"The girl's double-crossin' you," replied Pearce. With the uttered words he grew pale and agitated.

Suddenly Kells appeared to become aware of Joan's presence and that the implication was directed toward her. Then, many and remarkable as had been the changes Joan had seen come over him, now occurred one wholly greater. It had all his old amiability, his cool, easy manner, veiling a deep and hidden ruthlessness, terrible in contrast.

"Red, I thought our talk concerned men and gold and—things," he said, with a cool, slow softness that had a sting, "but since you've nerve enough or are crazy enough to speak of—her—why, explain your meaning."

Pearce's jaw worked so that he could scarcely talk. He had gone too far—realized it too late.

"She meets a man—back there—at her window," he panted. "They whisper in the dark for hours. I've watched an' heard them. An' I'd told you before, but I wanted to make sure who he was.... I know him now!... An' remember I seen him climb in an' out—"

Kells's whole frame leaped. His gun was a flash of blue and red and white all together. Pearce swayed upright, like a tree chopped at the roots, and then fell, face up, eyes set—dead. The bandit leader stood over him with the smoking gun.

"My Gawd, Jack!" gasped Handy Oliver. "You swore no one would pull a gun—an' here you've killed him yourself!... YOU'VE DOUBLE-CROSSED YOURSELF! An' if I die for it I've got to tell you Red wasn't lyin' then!"

Kells's radiance fled, leaving him ghastly. He stared at Oliver.

"You've double-crossed yourself an' your pards," went on Oliver, pathetically. "What's your word amount to? Do you expect the gang to stand for this?... There lays Red Pearce dead. An' for what? Jest once—relyin' on your oath—he speaks out what might have showed you. An' you kill him!... If I knowed what he knowed I'd tell you now with thet gun in your hand! But I don't know. Only I know he wasn't lyin'.... Ask the girl!... An' as for me, I reckon I'm through with you an' your Legion. You're done, Kells—your head's gone—you've broke over thet slip of a woman!"

Oliver spoke with a rude and impressive dignity. When he ended he strode out into the sunlight.

Kells was shaken by this forceful speech, yet he was not in any sense a broken man. "Joan—you heard Pearce," said he, passionately. "He lied about you. I had to kill him. He hinted—Oh, the low-lived dog! He could not know a good woman. He lied—and there he is—dead! I wouldn't fetch him back for a hundred Legions!"

"But it—it wasn't—all—a lie," said Joan, and her words came haltingly because a force stronger than her cunning made her speak. She had reached a point where she could not deceive Kells to save her life.

"WHAT!" he thundered.

"Pearce told the truth—except that no one ever climbed in my window. That's false. No one could climb in. It's too small.... But I did whisper—to someone."

Kells had to moisten his lips to speak. "Who?"

"I'll never tell you."

"Who?... I'll kill him!"

"No—no. I won't tell. I won't let you kill another man on my account."

"I'll choke it out of you."

"You can't. There's no use to threaten me, or hurt me, either."

Kells seemed dazed. "Whisper! For hours! In the dark!... But, Joan, what for? Why such a risk?"

Joan shook her head.

"Were you just unhappy—lonesome? Did some young miner happen to see you there in daylight—then come at night? Wasn't it only accident? Tell me."

"I won't—and I won't because I don't want you to spill more blood."

"For my sake," he queried, with the old, mocking tone. Then he grew dark with blood in his face, fierce with action of hands and body as he bent nearer her. "Maybe you like him too well to see him shot?... Did you—whisper often to this stranger?"

Joan felt herself weakening. Kells was so powerful in spirit and passion that she seemed unable to fight him. She strove to withhold her reply, but it burst forth, involuntarily.

"Yes—often."

That roused more than anger and passion. Jealousy flamed from him and it transformed him into a devil.

"You held hands out of that window—and kissed—in the dark?" he cried, with working lips.

Joan had thought of this so fearfully and intensely—she had battled so to fortify herself to keep it secret—that he had divined it, had read her mind. She could not control herself. The murder of Pearce had almost overwhelmed her. She had not the strength to bite her tongue. Suggestion alone would have drawn her then—and Kells's passionate force was hypnotic.

"Yes," she whispered.

He appeared to control a developing paroxysm of rage.

"That settles you," he declared darkly. "But I'll do one more decent thing by you. I'll marry you." Then he wheeled to his men. "Blicky, there's a parson down in camp. Go on the run. Fetch him back if you have to push him with a gun."

Blicky darted through the door and his footsteps thudded out of hearing.

"You can't force me to marry you," said Joan. "I—I won't open my lips."

"That's your affair. I've no mind to coax you," he replied, bitterly. "But if you don't I'll try Gulden's way with a woman.... You remember. Gulden's way! A cave and a rope!"

Joan's legs gave out under her and she sank upon a pile of blankets. Then beyond Kells she saw Jim Cleve. With all that was left of her spirit she flashed him a warning—a meaning—a prayer not to do the deed she divined was his deadly intent. He caught it and obeyed. And he flashed back a glance which meant that, desperate as her case was, it could never be what Kells threatened.

"Men, see me through this," said Kells to the silent group. "Then any deal you want—I'm on. Stay here or—sack the camp! Hold up the stage express with gold for Bannack! Anything for a big stake! Then the trail and the border."

He began pacing the floor. Budd and Smith strolled outside. Bate Wood fumbled in his pockets for pipe and tobacco. Cleve sat down at the table and leaned on his hands. No one took notice of the dead Pearce. Here was somber and terrible sign of the wildness of the border clan—that Kells could send out for a parson to marry him to a woman he hopelessly loved, there in the presence of murder and death, with Pearce's distorted face upturned in stark and ghastly significance.

It might have been a quarter of an hour, though to Joan it seemed an endless time, until footsteps and voices outside announced the return of Blicky.

He held by the arm a slight man whom he was urging along with no gentle force. This stranger's face presented as great a contrast to Blicky's as could have been imagined. His apparel proclaimed his calling. There were consternation and bewilderment in his expression, but very little fear.

"He was preachin' down there in a tent," said Blicky, "an I jest waltzed him up without explainin'."

"Sir, I want to be married at once," declared Kells, peremptorily.

"Certainly. I'm at your service," replied the preacher. "But I deplore the—the manner in which I've been approached."

"You'll excuse haste," rejoined the bandit. "I'll pay you well." Kells threw a small buckskin sack of gold-dust upon the table, and then he turned to Joan. "Come, Joan," he said, in the tone that brooked neither resistance nor delay.

It was at that moment that the preacher first noticed Joan. Was her costume accountable for his start? Joan had remembered his voice and she wondered if he would remember hers. Certainly Jim had called her Joan more than once on the night of the marriage. The preacher's eyes grew keener. He glanced from Joan to Kells, and then at the other men, who had come in. Jim Cleve stood behind Jesse Smith's broad person, and evidently the preacher did not see him. That curious gaze, however, next discovered the dead man on the floor. Then to the curiosity and anxiety upon the preacher's face was added horror.

"A minister of God is needed here, but not in the capacity you name," he said. "I'll perform no marriage ceremony in the presence of—murder."

"Mr. Preacher, you'll marry me quick or you'll go along with him," replied Kells, deliberately.

"I cannot be forced." The preacher still maintained some dignity, but he had grown pale.

"I can force you. Get ready now!... Joan, come here!"

Kells spoke sternly, yet something of the old, self-mocking spirit was in his tone. His intelligence was deriding the flesh and blood of him, the beast, the fool. It spoke that he would have his way and that the choice was fatal for him.

Joan shook her head. In one stride Kells reached her and swung her spinning before him. The physical violence acted strangely upon Joan—roused her rage.

"I wouldn't marry you to save my life—even if I could!" she burst out.

At her declaration the preacher gave a start that must have been suspicion or confirmation, or both. He bent low to peer into the face of the dead Pearce. When he arose he was shaking his head. Evidently he had decided that Pearce was not the man to whom he had married Joan.

"Please remove your mask," he said to Joan.

She did so, swiftly, without a tremor. The preacher peered into her face again, as he had upon the night he had married her to Jim. He faced Kells again.

"I am beyond your threats," he said, now with calmness. "I can't marry you to a woman who already has a husband.... But I don't see that husband here."

"You don't see that husband here!" echoed the bewildered Kells. He stared with open mouth. "Say, have you got a screw loose?"

The preacher, in his swift glance, had apparently not observed the half-hidden Cleve. Certainly it appeared now that he would have no attention for any other than Kells. The bandit was a study. His astonishment was terrific and held him like a chain. Suddenly he lurched.

"What did you say?" he roared, his face flaming.

"I can't marry you to a woman who already has a husband."

Swift as light the red flashed out of Kells's face. "Did you ever see her before?" he asked.

"Yes," replied the preacher.

"Where and when?"

"Here—at the back of this cabin—a few nights ago."

It hurt Joan to look at Kells now, yet he seemed wonderful to behold. She felt as guilty as if she had really been false to him. Her heart labored high in her breast. This was the climax—the moment of catastrophe. Another word and Jim Cleve would be facing Kells. The blood pressure in Joan's throat almost strangled her.

"At the back of this cabin!... At her window?"

"Yes."

"What were you there for?"

"In my capacity as minister. I was summoned to marry her."

"To marry her?" gasped Kells.

"Yes. She is Joan Randle, from Hoadley, Idaho. She is over eighteen. I understood she was detained here against her will. She loved an honest young miner of the camp. He brought me up here one night. And I married them."

"YOU—MARRIED—THEM!"

"Yes."

Kells was slow in assimilating the truth and his action corresponded with his mind. Slowly his hand moved toward his gun. He drew it, threw it aloft. And then all the terrible evil in the man flamed forth. But as he deliberately drew down on the preacher Blicky leaped forward and knocked up the gun. Flash and report followed; the discharge went into the roof. Blicky grasped Kells's arm and threw his weight upon it to keep it down.

"I fetched thet parson here," he yelled, "an you ain't a-goin' to kill him!... Help, Jesse!... He's crazy! He'll do it!"

Jesse Smith ran to Blicky's aid and tore the gun out of Kells's hand. Jim Cleve grasped the preacher by the shoulders and, whirling him around, sent him flying out of the door.

"Run for your life!" he shouted.

Blicky and Jesse Smith were trying to hold the lunging Kells.

"Jim, you block the door," called Jesse. "Bate, you grab any loose guns an' knives.... Now, boss, rant an' be damned!"

They released Kells and backed away, leaving him the room. Joan's limbs seemed unable to execute her will.

"Joan! It's true," he exclaimed, with whistling breath.

"Yes."

"WHO?" he bellowed.

"I'll never tell."

He reached for her with hands like claws, as if he meant to tear her, rend her. Joan was helpless, weak, terrified. Those shaking, clutching hands reached for her throat and yet never closed round it. Kells wanted to kill her, but he could not. He loomed over her, dark, speechless, locked in his paroxysm of rage. Perhaps then came a realization of ruin through her. He hated her because he loved her. He wanted to kill her because of that hate, yet he could not harm her, even hurt her. And his soul seemed in conflict with two giants—the evil in him that was hate, and the love that was good. Suddenly he flung her aside. She stumbled over Pearce's body, almost falling, and staggered back to the wall. Kells had the center of the room to himself. Like a mad steer in a corral he gazed about, stupidly seeking some way to escape. But the escape Kells longed for was from himself. Then either he let himself go or was unable longer to control his rage. He began to plunge around. His actions were violent, random, half insane. He seemed to want to destroy himself and everything. But the weapons were guarded by his men and the room contained little he could smash. There was something magnificent in his fury, yet childish and absurd. Even under its influence and his abandonment he showed a consciousness of its futility. In a few moments the inside of the cabin was in disorder and Kells seemed a disheveled, sweating, panting wretch. The rapidity and violence of his action, coupled with his fury, soon exhausted him. He fell from plunging here and there to pacing the floor. And even the dignity of passion passed from him. He looked a hopeless, beaten, stricken man, conscious of defeat.

Jesse Smith approached the bandit leader. "Jack, here's your gun," he said. "I only took it because you was out of your head.... An' listen, boss. There's a few of us left."

That was Smith's expression of fidelity, and Kells received it with a pallid, grateful smile.

"Bate, you an' Jim clean up this mess," went on Smith. "An', Blicky, come here an' help me with Pearce. We'll have to plant him."

The stir begun by the men was broken by a sharp exclamation from Cleve.

"Kells, here comes Gulden—Beady Jones, Williams, Beard!"

The bandit raised his head and paced back to where he could look out.

Bate Wood made a violent and significant gesture. "Somethin' wrong," he said, hurriedly. "An' it's more'n to do with Gul!... Look down the road. See thet gang. All excited an' wavin' hands an' runnin'. But they're goin' down into camp."

Jesse Smith turned a gray face toward Kells. "Boss, there's hell to pay! I've seen THET kind of excitement before."

Kells thrust the men aside and looked out. He seemed to draw upon a reserve strength, for he grew composed even while he gazed. "Jim, get in the other room," he ordered, sharply. "Joan—you go, too. Keep still."

Joan hurried to comply. Jim entered after her and closed the door. Instinctively they clasped hands, drew close together.

"Jim, what does it mean?" she whispered, fearfully. "Gulden!"

"He must be looking for me," replied Jim. "But there's more doing. Did you see that crowd down the road?"

"No. I couldn't see out."

"Listen."

Heavy tramp boots sounded without. Silently Joan led Jim to the crack between the boards through which she had spied upon the bandits. Jim peeped through, and Joan saw his hand go to his gun. Then she looked.

Gulden was being crowded into the cabin by fierce, bulging-jawed men who meant some kind of dark business. The strangest thing about that entrance was its silence. In a moment they were inside, confronting Kells with his little group. Beard, Jones, Williams, former faithful allies of Kells, showed a malignant opposition. And the huge Gulden resembled an enraged gorilla. For an instant his great, pale, cavernous eyes glared. He had one hand under his coat and his position had a sinister suggestion. But Kells stood cool and sure. When Gulden moved Kells's gun was leaping forth. But he withheld his fire, for Gulden had only a heavy round object wrapped in a handkerchief.

"Look there!" he boomed, and he threw the object on the table.

The dull, heavy, sodden thump had a familiar ring. Joan heard Jim gasp and his hand tightened spasmodically upon hers.

Slowly the ends of the red scarf slid down to reveal an irregularly round, glinting lump. When Joan recognized it her heart seemed to burst.

"Jim Cleve's nugget!" ejaculated Kells. "Where'd you get that?"

Gulden leaned across the table, his massive jaw working. "I found it on the miner Creede," replied the giant, stridently.

Then came a nervous shuffling of boots on the creaky boards. In the silence a low, dull murmur of distant voices could be heard, strangely menacing. Kells stood transfixed, white as a sheet.

"On Creede!"

"Yes."

"Where was his—his body?"

"I left it out on the Bannack trail."

The bandit leader appeared mute.

"Kells, I followed Creede out of camp last night," fiercely declared Gulden.... "I killed him!... I found this nugget on him!"



17

Apparently to Kells that nugget did not accuse Jim Cleve of treachery. Not only did this possibility seem lost upon the bandit leader, but also the sinister intent of Gulden and his associates.

"Then Jim didn't kill Creede!" cried Kells.

A strange light flashed across his face. It fitted the note of gladness in his exclamation. How strange that in his amaze there should be relief instead of suspicion! Joan thought she understood Kells. He was glad that he had not yet made a murderer out of Cleve.

Gulden appeared slow in rejoining. "I told you I got Creede," he said. "And we want to know if this says to you what it says to us."

His huge, hairy hand tapped the nugget. Then Kells caught the implication.

"What does it say to you?" he queried, coolly, and he eyed Gulden and then the grim men behind him.

"Somebody in the gang is crooked. Somebody's giving you the double-cross. We've known that for long. Jim Cleve goes out to kill Creede. He comes in with Creede's gold-belt—and a lie!... We think Cleve is the crooked one."

"No! You're way off, Gulden," replied Kells, earnestly. "That boy is absolutely square. He's lied to me about Creede. But I can excuse that. He lost his nerve. He's only a youngster. To knife a man in his sleep—that was too much for Jim!... And I'm glad! I see it all now. Jim's swapped his big nugget for Creede's belt. And in the bargain he exacted that Creede hit the trail out of camp. You happened to see Creede and went after him yourself.... Well, I don't see where you've any kick coming. For you've ten times the money in Cleve's nugget that there was in a share of Creede's gold."

"That's not my kick," declared Gulden. "What you say about Cleve may be true. But I don't believe it. And the gang is sore. Things have leaked out. We're watched. We're not welcome in the gambling-places any more. Last night I was not allowed to sit in the game at Belcher's."

"You think Cleve has squealed?" queried Kells.

"Yes."

"I'll bet you every ounce of dust I've got that you're wrong," declared Kells. "A straight, square bet against anything you want to put up!"

Kells's ringing voice was nothing if not convincing.

"Appearances are against Cleve," growled Gulden, dubiously. Always he had been swayed by the stronger mind of the leader.

"Sure they are," agreed Kells.

"Then what do you base your confidence on?"

"Just my knowledge of men. Jim Cleve wouldn't squeal.... Gulden, did anybody tell you that?"

"Yes," replied Gulden, slowly. "Red Pearce."

"Pearce was a liar," said Kells, bitterly. "I shot him for lying to me."

Gulden stared. His men muttered and gazed at one another and around the cabin.

"Pearce told me you set Cleve to kill me," suddenly spoke up the giant.

If he expected to surprise Kells he utterly failed.

"That's another and bigger lie," replied the bandit leader, disgustedly. "Gulden, do you think my mind's gone?"

"Not quite," replied Gulden, and he seemed as near a laugh as was possible for him.

"Well, I've enough mind left not to set a boy to kill such a man as you."

Gulden might have been susceptible to flattery. He turned to his men. They, too, had felt Kells's subtle influence. They were ready to veer round like weather-vanes.

"Red Pearce has cashed, an' he can't talk for himself," said Beady Jones, as if answering to the unspoken thought of all.

"Men, between you and me, I had more queer notions about Pearce than Cleve," announced Gulden, gruffly. "But I never said so because I had no proof."

"Red shore was sore an' strange lately," added Chick Williams. "Me an' him were pretty thick once—but not lately."

The giant Gulden scratched his head and swore. Probably he had no sense of justice and was merely puzzled.

"We're wastin' a lot of time," put in Beard, anxiously. "Don't fergit there's somethin' comin' off down in camp, an' we ain't sure what."

"Bah! Haven't we heard whispers of vigilantes for a week?" queried Gulden.

Then some one of the men looked out of the door and suddenly whistled.

"Who's thet on a hoss?"

Gulden's gang crowded to the door.

"Thet's Handy Oliver."

"No!"

"Shore is. I know him. But it ain't his hoss.... Say, he's hurryin'."

Low exclamations of surprise and curiosity followed. Kells and his men looked attentively, but no one spoke. The clatter of hoofs on the stony road told of a horse swiftly approaching—pounding to a halt before the cabin.

"Handy!... Air you chased?... What's wrong?... You shore look pale round the gills." These and other remarks were flung out the door.

"Where's Kells? Let me in," replied Oliver, hoarsely.

The crowd jostled and split to admit the long, lean Oliver. He stalked straight toward Kells, till the table alone stood between them. He was gray of face, breathing hard, resolute and stern.

"Kells, I throwed—you—down!" he said, with outstretched hand. It was a gesture of self-condemnation and remorse.

"What of that?" demanded Kells, with his head leaping like the strike of an eagle.

"I'm takin' it back!"

Kells met the outstretched hand with his own and wrung it. "Handy, I never knew you to right—about—face. But I'm glad.... What's changed you so quickly?"

"VIGILANTES!"

Kells's animation and eagerness suddenly froze. "VIGILANTES!" he ground out.

"No rumor, Kells, this time. I've sure some news.... Come close, all you fellows. You, Gulden, come an' listen. Here's where we git together closer'n ever."

Gulden surged forward with his group. Handy Oliver was surrounded by pale, tight faces, dark-browed and hardeyed.

He gazed at them, preparing them for a startling revelation. "Men, of all the white-livered traitors as ever was Red Pearce was the worst!" he declared, hoarsely.

No one moved or spoke.

"AN' HE WAS A VIGILANTE!"

A low, strange sound, almost a roar, breathed through the group.

"Listen now an' don't interrupt. We ain't got a lot of time.... So never mind how I happened to find out about Pearce. It was all accident, an' jest because I put two an' two together.... Pearce was approached by one of this secret vigilante band, an' he planned to sell the Border Legion outright. There was to be a big stake in it for him. He held off day after day, only tippin' off some of the gang. There's Dartt an' Singleton an' Frenchy an' Texas all caught red-handed at jobs. Pearce put the vigilantes to watchin' them jest to prove his claim.... Aw! I've got the proofs! Jest wait. Listen to me!... You all never in your lives seen a snake like Red Pearce. An' the job he had put up on us was grand. To-day he was to squeal on the whole gang. You know how he began on Kells—an' how with his oily tongue he asked a guarantee of no gun-play. But he figgered Kells wrong for once. He accused Kells's girl an' got killed for his pains. Mebbe it was part of his plan to git the girl himself. Anyway, he had agreed to betray the Border Legion to-day. An' if he hadn't been killed by this time we'd all be tied up, ready for the noose!... Mebbe thet wasn't a lucky shot of the boss's. Men, I was the first to declare myself against Kells, an' I'm here now to say thet I was a fool. So you've all been fools who've bucked against him. If this ain't provin' it, what can!

"But I must hustle with my story.... They was havin' a trial down at the big hall, an' thet place was sure packed. No diggin' gold to-day!... Think of what thet means for Alder Creek. I got inside where I could stand on a barrel an' see. Dartt an' Singleton an' Frenchy an' Texas was bein' tried by a masked court. A man near me said two of them had been proved guilty. It didn't take long to make out a case against Texas an' Frenchy. Miners there recognized them an' identified them. They was convicted an' sentenced to be hung!.. Then the offer was made to let them go free out of the border if they'd turn state's evidence an' give away the leader an' men of the Border Legion. Thet was put up to each prisoner. Dartt he never answered at all. An' Singleton told them to go to hell. An' Texas he swore he was only a common an' honest road-agent, an' never heard of the Legion. But the Frenchman showed a yellow streak. He might have taken the offer. But Texas cussed him tumble, an' made him ashamed to talk. But if they git Frenchy away from Texas they'll make him blab. He's like a greaser. Then there was a delay. The big crowd of miners yelled for ropes. But the vigilantes are waitin', an' it's my hunch they're waitin' for Pearce."

"So! And where do we stand?" cried Kells, clear and cold.

"We're not spotted yet, thet's certain," replied Oliver, "else them masked vigilantes would have been on the job before now. But it's not sense to figger we can risk another day.... I reckon it's hit the trail back to Cabin Gulch."

"Gulden, what do you say?" queried Kells, sharply.

"I'll go or stay—whatever you want," replied the giant. In this crisis he seemed to be glad to have Kells decide the issue. And his followers resembled sheep ready to plunge after the leader.

But though Kells, by a strange stroke, had been made wholly master of the Legion, he did not show the old elation or radiance. Perhaps he saw more clearly than ever before. Still he was quick, decisive, strong, equal to the occasion.

"Listen—all of you," he said. "Our horses and outfits are hidden in a gulch several miles below camp. We've got to go that way. We can't pack any grub or stuff from here. We'll risk going through camp. Now leave here two or three at a time, and wait down there on the edge of the crowd for me. When I come we'll stick together. Then all do as I do."

Gulden put the nugget under his coat and strode out, accompanied by Budd and Jones. They hurried away. The others went in couples. Soon only Bate Wood and Handy Oliver were left with Kells.

"Now you fellows go," said Kells. "Be sure to round up the gang down there and wait for me."

When they had gone he called for Jim and Joan to come out.

All this time Joan's hand had been gripped in Jim's, and Joan had been so absorbed that she had forgotten the fact. He released her and faced her, silent, pale. Then he went out. Joan swiftly followed.

Kells was buckling on his spurs. "You heard?" he said, the moment he saw Jim's face.

"Yes," replied Jim.

"So much the better. We've got to rustle.... Joan, put on that long coat of Cleve's. Take off your mask.... Jim, get what gold you have, and hurry. If we're gone when you come back hurry down the road. I want you with me."

Cleve stalked out, and Joan ran into her room and put on the long coat. She had little time to choose what possessions she could take; and that choice fell upon the little saddle-bag, into which she hurriedly stuffed comb and brush and soap—all it would hold. Then she returned to the larger room.

Kells had lifted a plank of the floor, and was now in the act of putting small buckskin sacks of gold into his pockets. They made his coat bulge at the sides.

"Joan, stick some meat and biscuits in your pockets," he said. "I'd never get hungry with my pockets full of gold. But you might."

Joan rummaged around in Bate Wood's rude cupboard.

"These biscuits are as heavy as gold—and harder," she said.

Kells flashed a glance at her that held pride, admiration, and sadness. "You are the gamest girl I ever knew! I wish I'd—But that's too late!... Joan, if anything happens to me stick close to Cleve. I believe you can trust him. Come on now."

Then he strode out of the cabin. Joan had almost to run to keep up with him. There were no other men now in sight. She knew that Jim would follow soon, because his gold-dust was hidden in the cavern back of her room, and he would not need much time to get it. Nevertheless, she anxiously looked back. She and Kells had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards before Jim appeared, and then he came on the run. At a point about opposite the first tents he joined Kells.

"Jim, how about guns?" asked the bandit.

"I've got two," replied Cleve.

"Good! There's no telling—Jim, I'm afraid of the gang. They're crazy. What do you think?"

"I don't know. It's a hard proposition."

"We'll get away, all right. Don't worry about that. But the gang will never come together again." This singular man spoke with melancholy. "Slow up a little now," he added. "We don't want to attract attention.... But where is there any one to see us?... Jim, did I have you figured right about the Creede job?"

"You sure did. I just lost my nerve."

"Well, no matter."

Then Kells appeared to forget that. He stalked on with keen glances searching everywhere, until suddenly, when he saw round a bend of the road, he halted with grating teeth. That road was empty all the way to the other end of camp, but there surged a dark mob of men. Kells stalked forward again. The Last Nugget appeared like an empty barn. How vacant and significant the whole center of camp! Kells did not speak another word.

Joan hurried on between Kells and Cleve. She was trying to fortify herself to meet what lay at the end of the road. A strange, hoarse roar of men and an upflinging of arms made her shudder. She kept her eyes lowered and clung to the arms of her companions.

Finally they halted. She felt the crowd before she saw it. A motley assemblage with what seemed craned necks and intent backs! They were all looking forward and upward. But she forced her glance down.

Kells stood still. Jim's grip was hard upon her arm. Presently men grouped round Kells. She heard whispers. They began to walk slowly, and she was pushed and led along. More men joined the group. Soon she and Kells and Jim were hemmed in a circle. Then she saw the huge form of Gulden, the towering Oliver, and Smith and Blicky, Beard, Jones, Williams, Budd, and others. The circle they formed appeared to be only one of many groups, all moving, whispering, facing from her. Suddenly a sound like the roar of a wave agitated that mass of men. It was harsh, piercing, unnatural, yet it had a note of wild exultation. Then came the stamp and surge, and then the upflinging of arms, and then the abrupt strange silence, broken only by a hiss or an escaping breath, like a sob. Beyond all Joan's power to resist was a deep, primitive desire to look.

There over the heads of the mob—from the bench of the slope—rose grotesque structures of new-hewn lumber. On a platform stood black, motionless men in awful contrast with a dangling object that doubled up and curled upon itself in terrible convulsions. It lengthened while it swayed; it slowed its action while it stretched. It took on the form of a man. He swung by a rope round his neck. His head hung back. His hands beat. A long tremor shook the body; then it was still, and swayed to and fro, a dark, limp thing.

Joan's gaze was riveted in horror. A dim, red haze made her vision imperfect. There was a sickening riot within her.

There were masked men all around the platform—a solid phalanx of them on the slope above. They were heavily armed. Other masked men stood on the platform. They seemed rigid figures—stiff, jerky when they moved. How different from the two forms swaying below!

The structure was a rude scaffold and the vigilantes had already hanged two bandits.

Two others with hands bound behind their backs stood farther along the platform under guard. Before each dangled a noose.

Joan recognized Texas and Frenchy. And on the instant the great crowd let out a hard breath that ended in silence.

The masked leader of the vigilantes was addressing Texas: "We'll spare your life if you confess. Who's the head of this Border Legion?"

"Shore it's Red Pearce!... Haw! Haw! Haw!"

"We'll give you one more chance," came the curt reply.

Texas appeared to become serious and somber. "I swear to God it's Pearce!" he declared.

"A lie won't save you. Come, the truth! We think we know, but we want proof! Hurry!"

"You can go where it's hot!" responded Texas.

The leader moved his hand and two other masked men stepped forward.

"Have you any message to send any one—anything to say?" he asked.

"Nope."

"Have you any request to make?"

"Hang that Frenchman before me! I want to see him kick."

Nothing more was said. The two men adjusted the noose round the doomed man's neck. Texas refused the black cap. And he did not wait for the drop to be sprung. He walked off the platform into space as Joan closed her eyes.

Again that strange, full, angry, and unnatural roar waved through the throng of watchers. It was terrible to hear. Joan felt the violent action of that crowd, although the men close round her were immovable as stones. She imagined she could never open her eyes to see Texas hanging there. Yet she did—and something about his form told her that he had died instantly. He had been brave and loyal even in dishonor. He had more than once spoken a kind word to her. Who could tell what had made him an outcast? She breathed a prayer for his soul.

The vigilantes were bolstering up the craven Frenchy. He could not stand alone. They put the rope round his neck and lifted him off the platform—then let him down. He screamed in his terror. They cut short his cries by lifting him again. This time they held him up several seconds. His face turned black. His eyes bulged. His breast heaved. His legs worked with the regularity of a jumping-jack. They let him down and loosened the noose. They were merely torturing him to wring a confession from him. He had been choked severely and needed a moment to recover. When he did it was to shrink back in abject terror from that loop of rope dangling before his eyes.

The vigilante leader shook the noose in his face and pointed to the swaying forms of the dead bandits.

Frenchy frothed at the mouth as he shrieked out words in his native tongue, but any miner there could have translated their meaning.

The crowd heaved forward, as if with one step, then stood in a strained silence.

"Talk English!" ordered the vigilante.

"I'll tell! I'll tell!"

Joan became aware of a singular tremor in Kells's arm, which she still clasped. Suddenly it jerked. She caught a gleam of blue. Then the bellow of a gun almost split her ears. Powder burned her cheek. She saw Frenchy double up and collapse on the platform.

For an instant there was a silence in which every man seemed petrified. Then burst forth a hoarse uproar and the stamp of many boots. All in another instant pandemonium broke out. The huge crowd split in every direction. Joan felt Cleve's strong arm around her—felt herself borne on a resistless tide of yelling, stamping, wrestling men. She had a glimpse of Kells's dark face drawing away from her; another of Gulden's giant form in Herculean action, tossing men aside like ninepins; another of weapons aloft. Savage, wild-eyed men fought to get into the circle whence that shot had come. They broke into it, but did not know then whom to attack or what to do. And the rushing of the frenzied miners all around soon disintegrated Kells's band and bore its several groups in every direction. There was not another shot fired.

Joan was dragged and crushed in the melee. Not for rods did her feet touch the ground. But in the clouds of dust and confusion of struggling forms she knew Jim still held her, and she clasped him with all her strength. Presently her feet touched the earth; she was not jostled and pressed; then she felt free to walk; and with Jim urging her they climbed a rock-strewn slope till a cabin impeded further progress. But they had escaped the stream.

Below was a strange sight. A scaffold shrouded in dust-clouds; a band of bewildered vigilantes with weapons drawn, waiting for they knew not what; three swinging, ghastly forms and a dead man on the platform; and all below, a horde of men trying to escape from one another. That shot of Kells's had precipitated a rush. No miner knew who the vigilantes were nor the members of the Border Legion. Every man there expected a bloody battle—distrusted the man next to him—and had given way to panic. The vigilantes had tried to crowd together for defense and all the others had tried to escape. It was a wild scene, born of wild justice and blood at fever-heat, the climax of a disordered time where gold and violence reigned supreme. It could only happen once, but it was terrible while it lasted. It showed the craven in men; it proved the baneful influence of gold; it brought, in its fruition, the destiny of Alder Creek Camp. For it must have been that the really brave and honest men in vast majority retraced their steps while the vicious kept running. So it seemed to Joan.

She huddled against Jim there in the shadow of the cabin wall, and not for long did either speak. They watched and listened. The streams of miners turned back toward the space around the scaffold where the vigilantes stood grouped, and there rose a subdued roar of excited voices. Many small groups of men conversed together, until the vigilante leader brought all to attention by addressing the populace in general. Joan could not hear what he said and had no wish to hear.

"Joan, it all happened so quickly, didn't it?" whispered Jim, shaking his head as if he was not convinced of reality.

"Wasn't he—terrible!" whispered Joan in reply.

"He! Who?"

"Kells." In her mind the bandit leader dominated all that wild scene.

"Terrible, if you like. But I'd say great!... The nerve of him! In the face of a hundred vigilantes and thousands of miners! But he knew what that shot would do!"

"Never! He never thought of that," declared Joan, earnestly. "I felt him tremble. I had a glimpse of his face.... Oh!... First in his mind was his downfall, and, second, the treachery of Frenchy. I think that shot showed Kells as utterly desperate, but weak. He couldn't have helped it—if that had been the last bullet in his gun."

Jim Cleve looked strangely at Joan, as if her eloquence was both persuasive and incomprehensible.

"Well, that was a lucky shot for us—and him, too."

"Do you think he got away?" she asked, eagerly.

"Sure. They all got away. Wasn't that about the maddest crowd you ever saw?"

"No wonder. In a second every man there feared the man next to him would shoot. That showed the power of Kells's Border Legion. If his men had been faithful and obedient he never would have fallen."

"Joan! You speak as if you regret it!"

"Oh, I am ashamed," replied Joan. "I don't mean that. I don't know what I do mean. But still I'm sorry for Kells. I suffered so much.... Those long, long hours of suspense.... And his fortunes seemed my fortunes—my very life—and yours, too, Jim."

"I think I understand, dear," said Jim, soberly.

"Jim, what'll we do now? Isn't it strange to feel free?"

"I feel as queer as you. Let me think," replied Jim.

They huddled there in comparative seclusion for a long time after that. Joan tried to think of plans, but her mind seemed, unproductive. She felt half dazed. Jim, too, appeared to be laboring under the same kind of burden. Moreover, responsibility had been added to his.

The afternoon waned till the sun tipped the high range in the west. The excitement of the mining populace gradually wore away, and toward sunset strings of men filed up the road and across the open. The masked vigilantes disappeared, and presently only a quiet and curious crowd was left round the grim scaffold and its dark swinging forms. Joan's one glance showed that the vigilantes had swung Frenchy's dead body in the noose he would have escaped by treachery. They had hanged him dead. What a horrible proof of the temper of these newborn vigilantes! They had left the bandits swinging. What sight was so appalling as these limp, dark, swaying forms? Dead men on the ground had a dignity—at least the dignity of death. And death sometimes had a majesty. But here both life and death had been robbed and there was only horror. Joan felt that all her life she would be haunted.

"Joan, we've got to leave Alder Creek," declared Cleve, finally. He rose to his feet. The words seemed to have given him decision. "At first I thought every bandit in the gang would run as far as he could from here. But—you can't tell what these wild men will do. Gulden, for instance! Common sense ought to make them hide for a spell. Still, no matter what's what, we must leave.... Now, how to go?"

"Let's walk. If we buy horses or wait for the stage we'll have to see men here—and I'm afraid—"

"But, Joan, there'll be bandits along the road sure. And the trails, wherever they are, would be less safe."

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