"Let's travel by night and rest by day."
"That won't do, with so far to go and no pack."
"Then part of the way."
"No. We'd better take the stage for Bannack. If it starts at all it'll be under armed guard. The only thing is—will it leave soon?... Come, Joan, we'll go down into camp."
Dusk had fallen and lights had begun to accentuate the shadows. Joan kept close beside Jim, down the slope, and into the road. She felt like a guilty thing and every passing man or low-conversing group frightened her. Still she could not help but see that no one noticed her or Jim, and she began to gather courage. Jim also acquired confidence. The growing darkness seemed a protection. The farther up the street they passed, the more men they met. Again the saloons were in full blast. Alder Creek had returned to the free, careless tenor of its way. A few doors this side of the Last Nugget was the office of the stage and express company. It was a wide tent with the front canvas cut out and a shelf-counter across the opening. There was a dim, yellow lamplight. Half a dozen men lounged in front, and inside were several more, two of whom appeared to be armed guards. Jim addressed no one in particular.
"When does the next stage leave for Bannack?"
A man looked up sharply from the papers that littered a table before him. "It leaves when we start it," he replied, curtly.
"Well, when will that be?"
"What's that to you?" he replied, with a question still more curt.
"I want to buy seats for two."
"That's different. Come in and let's look you over.... Hello! it's young Cleve. I didn't recognize you. Excuse me. We're a little particular these days."
The man's face lighted. Evidently he knew Jim and thought well of him. This reassured Joan and stilled the furious beating of her heart. She saw Jim hand over a sack of gold, from which the agent took the amount due for the passage. Then he returned the sack and whispered something in Jim's ear. Jim rejoined her and led her away, pressing her arm close to his side.
"It's all right," he whispered, excitedly. "Stage leaves just before daylight. It used to leave in the middle of the fore-noon. But they want a good start to-morrow."
"They think it might be held up?"
"He didn't say so. But there's every reason to suspect that.... Joan, I sure hope it won't. Me with all this gold. Why, I feel as if I weighed a thousand pounds."
"What'll we do now?" she inquired.
Jim halted in the middle of the road. It was quite dark now. The lights of the camp were flaring; men were passing to and fro; the loose boards on the walks rattled to their tread; the saloons had begun to hum; and there was a discordant blast from the Last Nugget.
"That's it—what'll we do?" he asked in perplexity.
Joan had no idea to advance, but with the lessening of her fear and the gradual clearing of her mind she felt that she would not much longer be witless.
"We've got to eat and get some rest," said Jim, sensibly.
"I'll try to eat—but I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight," replied Joan.
Jim took her to a place kept by a Mexican. It appeared to consist of two tents, with opening in front and door between. The table was a plank resting upon two barrels, and another plank, resting upon kegs, served as a seat. There was a smoking lamp that flickered. The Mexican's tableware was of a crudeness befitting his house, but it was clean and he could cook—two facts that Joan appreciated after her long experience of Bate Wood. She and Jim were the only customers of the Mexican, who spoke English rather well and was friendly. Evidently it pleased him to see the meal enjoyed. Both the food and the friendliness had good effect upon Jim Cleve. He ceased to listen all the time and to glance furtively out at every footstep.
"Joan, I guess it'll turn out all right," he said, clasping her hand as it rested upon the table. Suddenly he looked bright-eyed and shy. He leaned toward her. "Do you remember—we are married?" he whispered.
Joan was startled. "Of course," she replied hastily. But had she forgotten?
"You're my wife."
Joan looked at him and felt her nerves begin to tingle. A soft, warm wave stole over her.
Like a boy he laughed. "This was our first meal together—on our honeymoon!"
"Jim!" The blood burned in Joan's face.
"There you sit—you beautiful... But you're not a girl now. You're Dandy Dale."
"Don't call me that!" exclaimed Joan.
"But I shall—always. We'll keep that bandit suit always. You can dress up sometimes to show off—to make me remember—to scare the—the kids—"
"Oh, Joan, I'm afraid to be happy. But I can't help it. We're going to get away. You belong to me. And I've sacks and sacks of gold-dust. Lord! I've no idea how much! But you can never spend all the money. Isn't it just like a dream?"
Joan smiled through tears, and failed trying to look severe.
"Get me and the gold away—safe—before you crow," she said.
That sobered him. He led her out again into the dark street with its dark forms crossing to and fro before the lights.
"It's a long time before morning. Where can I take you—so you can sleep a little?" he muttered.
"Find a place where we can sit down and wait," she suggested.
"No." He pondered a moment. "I guess there's no risk."
Then he led her up the street and through that end of camp out upon the rough, open slope. They began to climb. The stars were bright, but even so Joan stumbled often over the stones. She wondered how Jim could get along so well in the dark and she clung to his arm. They did not speak often, and then only in whispers. Jim halted occasionally to listen or to look up at the bold, black bluff for his bearings. Presently he led her among broken fragments of cliff, and half carried her over rougher ground, into a kind of shadowy pocket or niche.
"Here's where I slept," he whispered.
He wrapped a blanket round her, and then they sat down against the rock, and she leaned upon his shoulder.
"I have your coat and the blanket, too," she said. "Won't you be cold?"
He laughed. "Now don't talk any more. You're white and fagged-out. You need to rest—to sleep."
"Sleep? How impossible!" she murmured.
"Why, your eyes are half shut now.... Anyway, I'll not talk to you. I want to think."
"Jim!... kiss me—good night," she whispered.
He bent over rather violently, she imagined. His head blotted out the light of the stars. He held her tightly for a moment. She felt him shake. Then he kissed her on the cheek and abruptly drew away. How strange he seemed!
For that matter, everything was strange. She had never seen the stars so bright, so full of power, so close. All about her the shadows gathered protectingly, to hide her and Jim. The silence spoke. She saw Jim's face in the starlight and it seemed so keen, so listening, so thoughtful, so beautiful. He would sit there all night, wide-eyed and alert, guarding her, waiting for the gray of dawn. How he had changed! And she was his wife! But that seemed only a dream. It needed daylight and sight of her ring to make that real.
A warmth and languor stole over her; she relaxed comfortably; after all, she would sleep. But why did that intangible dread hang on to her soul? The night was so still and clear and perfect—a radiant white night of stars—and Jim was there, holding her—and to-morrow they would ride away. That might be, but dark, dangling shapes haunted her, back in her mind, and there, too, loomed Kells. Where was he now? Gone—gone on his bloody trail with his broken fortunes and his desperate bitterness! He had lost her. The lunge of that wild mob had parted them. A throb of pain and shame went through her, for she was sorry. She could not understand why, unless it was because she had possessed some strange power to instil or bring up good in him. No woman could have been proof against that. It was monstrous to know that she had power to turn him from an evil life, yet she could not do it. It was more than monstrous to realize that he had gone on spilling blood and would continue to go on when she could have prevented it—could have saved many poor miners who perhaps had wives or sweethearts somewhere. Yet there was no help for it. She loved Jim Cleve. She might have sacrificed herself, but she would not sacrifice him for all the bandits and miners on the border.
Joan felt that she would always be haunted and would always suffer that pang for Kells. She would never lie down in the peace and quiet of her home, wherever that might be, without picturing Kells, dark and forbidding and burdened, pacing some lonely cabin or riding a lonely trail or lying with his brooding face upturned to the lonely stars. Sooner or later he would meet his doom. It was inevitable. She pictured over that sinister scene of the dangling forms; but no—Kells would never end that way. Terrible as he was, he had not been born to be hanged. He might be murdered in his sleep, by one of that band of traitors who were traitors because in the nature of evil they had to be. But more likely some gambling-hell, with gold and life at stake, would see his last fight. These bandits stole gold and gambled among themselves and fought. And that fight which finished Kells must necessarily be a terrible one. She seemed to see into a lonely cabin where a log fire burned low and lamps flickered and blue smoke floated in veils and men lay prone on the floor—Kells, stark and bloody, and the giant Gulden, dead at last and more terrible in death, and on the rude table bags of gold and dull, shining heaps of gold, and scattered on the floor, like streams of sand and useless as sand, dust of gold—the Destroyer.
All Joan's fancies and dreams faded into obscurity, and when she was aroused it seemed she had scarcely closed her eyes. But there was the gray gloom of dawn. Jim was shaking her gently.
"No, you weren't sleepy—it's just a mistake," he said, helping her to arise. "Now we'll get out of here."
They threaded a careful way out of the rocks, then hurried down the slope. In the grayness Joan saw the dark shape of a cabin and it resembled the one Kells had built. It disappeared. Presently when Jim led her into a road she felt sure that this cabin had been the one where she had been a prisoner for so long. They hurried down the road and entered the camp. There were no lights. The tents and cabins looked strange and gloomy. The road was empty. Not a sound broke the stillness. At the bend Joan saw a stage-coach and horses looming up in what seemed gray distance. Jim hurried her on.
They reached the stage. The horses were restive. The driver was on the seat, whip and reins in hand. Two men sat beside him with rifles across their knees. The door of the coach hung open. There were men inside, one of whom had his head out of the window. The barrel of a rifle protruded near him. He was talking in a low voice to a man apparently busy at the traces.
"Hello, Cleve! You're late," said another man, evidently the agent. "Climb aboard. When'll you be back?"
"I hardly know," replied Cleve, with hesitation.
"All right. Good luck to you." He closed the coach door after Joan and Jim. "Let 'em go, Bill."
The stage started with a jerk. To Joan what an unearthly creak and rumble it made, disturbing the silent dawn! Jim squeezed her hand with joy. They were on the way!
Joan and Jim had a seat to themselves. Opposite sat three men—the guard with his head half out of the window, a bearded miner who appeared stolid or drowsy, and a young man who did not look rough and robust enough for a prospector. None of the three paid any particular attention to Joan and Jim.
The road had a decided slope down-hill, and Bill, the driver, had the four horses on a trot. The rickety old stage appeared to be rattling to pieces. It lurched and swayed, and sometimes jolted over rocks and roots. Joan was hard put to it to keep from being bumped off the seat. She held to a brace on one side and to Jim on the other. And when the stage rolled down into the creek and thumped over boulders Joan made sure that every bone in her body would be broken. This crossing marked the mouth of the gulch, and on the other side the road was smooth.
"We're going the way we came," whispered Jim in her ear.
This was surprising, for Joan had been sure that Bannack lay in the opposite direction. Certainly this fact was not reassuring to her. Perhaps the road turned soon.
Meanwhile the light brightened, the day broke, and the sun reddened the valley. Then it was as light inside the coach as outside. Joan might have spared herself concern as to her fellow-passengers. The only one who noticed her was the young man, and he, after a stare and a half-smile, lapsed into abstraction. He looked troubled, and there was about him no evidence of prosperity. Jim held her hand under a fold of the long coat, and occasionally he spoke of something or other outside that caught his eye. And the stage rolled on rapidly, seemingly in pursuit of the steady roar of hoofs.
Joan imagined she recognized the brushy ravine out of which Jesse Smith had led that day when Kells's party came upon the new road. She believed Jim thought so, too, for he gripped her hand unusually hard. Beyond that point Joan began to breathe more easily. There seemed no valid reason now why every mile should not separate them farther from the bandits, and she experienced relief.
Then the time did not drag so. She wanted to talk to Jim, yet did not, because of the other passengers. Jim himself appeared influenced by their absorption in themselves. Besides, the keen, ceaseless vigilance of the guard was not without its quieting effect. Danger lurked ahead in the bends of that road. Joan remembered hearing Kells say that the Bannack stage had never been properly held up by road-agents, but that when he got ready for the job it would be done right. Riding grew to be monotonous and tiresome. With the warmth of the sun came the dust and flies, and all these bothered Joan. She did not have her usual calmness, and as the miles steadily passed her nervousness increased.
The road left the valley and climbed between foot-hills and wound into rockier country. Every dark gulch brought to Joan a trembling, breathless spell. What places for ambush! But the stage bowled on.
At last her apprehensions wore out and she permitted herself the luxury of relaxing, of leaning back and closing her eyes. She was tired, drowsy, hot. There did not seem to be a breath of air.
Suddenly Joan's ears burst to an infernal crash of guns. She felt the whip and sting of splinters sent flying by bullets. Harsh yells followed, then the scream of a horse in agony, the stage lurching and slipping to a halt, and thunder of heavy guns overhead.
Jim yelled at her—threw her down on the seat. She felt the body of the guard sink against her knees. Then she seemed to feel, to hear through an icy, sickening terror.
A scattering volley silenced the guns above. Then came the pound of hoofs, the snort of frightened horses.
"Jesse Smith! Stop!" called Jim, piercingly.
"Hold on thar, Beady!" replied a hoarse voice. "Damn if it ain't Jim Cleve!"
"Ho, Gul!" yelled another voice, and Joan recognized it as Blicky's.
Then Jim lifted her head, drew her up. He was white with fear.
"No. I'm only—scared," she replied.
Joan looked out to see bandits on foot, guns in hand, and others mounted, all gathering near the coach. Jim opened the door, and, stepping out, bade her follow. Joan had to climb over the dead guard. The miner and the young man huddled down on their seat.
"If it ain't Jim an' Kells's girl—Dandy Dale!" ejaculated Smith. "Fellers, this means somethin'.... Say, youngster, hope you ain't hurt—or the girl?"
"No. But that's not your fault," replied Cleve. "Why did you want to plug the coach full of lead?"
"This beats me," said Smith. "Kells sent you out in the stage! But when he gave us the job of holdin' it up he didn't tell us you'd be in there.... When an' where'd you leave him?"
"Sometime last night—in camp—near our cabin," replied Jim, quick as a flash. Manifestly he saw his opportunity "He left Dandy Dale with me. Told us to take the stage this morning. I expected him to be in it or to meet us."
"Didn't you have no orders?"
"None, except to take care of the girl till he came. But he did tell me he'd have more to say."
Smith gazed blankly from Cleve to Blicky, and then at Gulden, who came slowly forward, his hair ruffed, his gun held low. Joan followed the glance of his great gray eyes, and she saw the stage-driver hanging dead over his seat, and the guards lying back of him. The off-side horse of the leaders lay dead in his traces, with his mate nosing at him.
"Who's in there?" boomed Gulden, and he thrust hand and gun in at the stage door. "Come out!"
The young man stumbled out, hands above his head, pallid and shaking, so weak he could scarcely stand.
Gulden prodded the bearded miner. "Come out here, you!"
The man appeared to be hunched forward in a heap.
"Guess he's plugged," said Smith. "But he ain't cashed. Hear him breathe?... Heaves like a sick hoss."
Gulden reached with brawny arm and with one pull he dragged the miner off the seat and out into the road, where he flopped with a groan. There was blood on his neck and hands. Gulden bent over him, tore at his clothes, tore harder at something, and then, with a swing, he held aloft a broad, black belt, sagging heavy with gold.
"Hah!" he boomed. It was just an exclamation, horrible to hear, but it did not express satisfaction or exultation. He handed the gold-belt to the grinning Budd, and turned to the young man.
"Got any gold?"
"No. I—I wasn't a miner," replied the youth huskily.
Gulden felt for a gold-belt, then slapped at his pockets. "Turn round!" ordered the giant.
"Aw, Gul let him go!" remonstrated Jesse Smith.
Blicky laid a restraining hand upon Gulden's broad shoulder.
"Turn round!" repeated Gulden, without the slightest sign of noticing his colleagues.
But the youth understood and he turned a ghastly livid hue.
"For God's sake—don't murder me!" he gasped. "I had—nothing—no gold—no gun!"
Gulden spun him round like a top and pushed him forward. They went half a dozen paces, then the youth staggered, and turning, he fell on his knees.
"Don't—kill—me!" he entreated.
Joan, seeing Jim Cleve stiffen and crouch, thought of him even in that horrible moment; and she gripped his arm with all her might. They must endure.
The other bandits muttered, but none moved a hand.
Gulden thrust out the big gun. His hair bristled on his head, and his huge frame seemed instinct with strange vibration, like some object of tremendous weight about to plunge into resistless momentum.
Even the stricken youth saw his doom. "Let—me—pray!" he begged.
Joan did not fault, but a merciful unclamping of muscle-bound rigidity closed her eyes.
"Gul!" yelled Blicky, with passion. "I ain't a-goin' to let you kill this kid! There's no sense in it. We're spotted back in Alder Creek.... Run, kid! Run!"
Then Joan opened her eyes to see the surly Gulden's arm held by Blicky, and the youth running blindly down the road. Joan's relief and joy were tremendous. But still she answered to the realizing shock of what Gulden had meant to do. She leaned against Cleve, all within and without a whirling darkness of fire. The border wildness claimed her then. She had the spirit, though not the strength, to fight. She needed the sight and sound of other things to restore her equilibrium. She would have welcomed another shock, an injury. And then she was looking down upon the gasping miner. He was dying. Hurriedly Joan knelt beside him to lift his head. At her call Cleve brought a canteen. But the miner could not drink and he died with some word unspoken.
Dizzily Joan arose, and with Cleve half supporting her she backed off the road to a seat on the bank. She saw the bandits now at business-like action. Blicky and Smith were cutting the horses out of their harness: Beady Jones, like a ghoul, searched the dead men; the three bandits whom Joan knew only by sight were making up a pack; Budd was standing beside the stage with his, expectant grin; and Gulden, with the agility of the gorilla he resembled, was clambering over the top of the stage. Suddenly from under the driver's seat he hauled a buckskin sack. It was small, but heavy. He threw it down to Budd, almost knocking over that bandit. Budd hugged the sack and yelled like an Indian. The other men whooped and ran toward him. Gulden hauled out another sack. Hands to the number of a dozen stretched clutchingly. When he threw the sack there was a mad scramble. They fought, but it was only play. They were gleeful. Blicky secured the prize and he held it aloft in triumph. Assuredly he would have waved it had it not been so heavy. Gulden drew out several small sacks, which he provokingly placed on the seat in front of him. The bandits below howled in protest. Then the giant, with his arm under the seat, his huge frame bowed, heaved powerfully upon something, and his face turned red. He halted in his tugging to glare at his bandit comrades below. If his great cavernous eyes expressed any feeling it was analogous to the reluctance manifest in his posture—he regretted the presence of his gang. He would rather have been alone. Then with deep-muttered curse and mighty heave he lifted out a huge buckskin sack, tied and placarded and marked.
"ONE HUNDRED POUNDS!" he boomed.
It seemed to Joan then that a band of devils surrounded the stage, all roaring at the huge, bristling demon above, who glared and bellowed down at them.
Finally Gulden stilled the tumult, which, after all, was one of frenzied joy.
"Share and share alike!" he thundered, now black in the face. "Do you fools want to waste time here on the road, dividing up this gold?"
"What you say goes," shouted Budd.
There was no dissenting voice.
"What a stake!" ejaculated Blicky. "Gul, the boss had it figgered. Strange, though, he hasn't showed up!"
"Where'll we go?" queried Gulden. "Speak up, you men."
The unanimous selection was Cabin Gulch. Plainly Gulden did not like this, but he was just.
"All right. Cabin Gulch it is. But nobody outside of Kells and us gets a share in this stake."
Many willing hands made short work of preparation. Gulden insisted on packing all the gold upon his saddle, and had his will. He seemed obsessed; he never glanced at Joan. It was Jesse Smith who gave the directions and orders. One of the stage-horses was packed. Another, with a blanket for a saddle, was given Cleve to ride. Blicky gallantly gave his horse to Joan, shortened his stirrups to fit her, and then whistled at the ridgy back of the stage-horse he elected to ride. Gulden was in a hurry, and twice he edged off, to be halted by impatient calls. Finally the cavalcade was ready; Jesse Smith gazed around upon the scene with the air of a general overlooking a vanquished enemy.
"Whoever fust runs acrost this job will have blind staggers, don't you forgit thet!"
"What's Kells goin' to figger?" asked Blicky, sharply.
"Nothin' fer Kells! He wasn't in at the finish!" declared Budd.
Blicky gazed darkly at him, but made no comment.
"I tell you Blick, I can't git this all right in my head," said Smith.
"Say, ask Jim again. Mebbe, now the job's done, he can talk," suggested Blicky.
Jim Cleve heard and appeared ready for that question.
"I don't know much more than I told you. But I can guess. Kells had this big shipment of gold spotted. He must have sent us in the stage for some reason. He said he'd tell me what to expect and do. But he didn't come back. Sure he knew you'd do the job. And just as sure he expected to be on hand. He'll turn up soon."
This ruse of Jim's did not sound in the least logical or plausible to Joan, but it was readily accepted by the bandits. Apparently what they knew of Kells's movements and plans since the break-up at Alder Creek fitted well with Cleve's suggestions.
"Come on!" boomed Gulden, from the fore. "Do you want to rot here?"
Then without so much as a backward glance at the ruin they left behind the bandits fell into line. Jesse Smith led straight off the road into a shallow brook and evidently meant to keep in it. Gulden followed; next came Beady Jones; then the three bandits with the pack-horse and the other horses; Cleve and Joan, close together, filed in here; and last came Budd and Blicky. It was rough, slippery traveling and the riders spread out. Cleve, however, rode beside Joan. Once, at an opportune moment, he leaned toward her.
"We'd better run for it at the first chance," he said, somberly.
"No!... GULDEN!" Joan had to moisten her lips to speak the monster's name.
"He'll never think of you while he has all that gold."
Joan's intelligence grasped this, but her morbid dread, terribly augmented now, amounted almost to a spell. Still, despite the darkness of her mind, she had a flash of inspiration and of spirit.
"Kells is my only hope!... If he doesn't join us soon—then we'll run!... And if we can't escape that"—Joan made a sickening gesture toward the fore—"you must kill me before—before—"
Her voice trailed off, failing.
"I will!" he promised through locked teeth.
And then they rode on, with dark, faces bent over the muddy water and treacherous stones.
When Jesse Smith led out of that brook it was to ride upon bare rock. He was not leaving any trail. Horses and riders were of no consideration. And he was a genius for picking hard ground and covering it. He never slackened his gait, and it seemed next to impossible to keep him in sight.
For Joan the ride became toil and the toil became pain. But there was no rest. Smith kept mercilessly onward. Sunset and twilight and night found the cavalcade still moving. Then it halted just as Joan was about to succumb. Jim lifted her off her horse and laid her upon the grass. She begged for water, and she drank and drank. But she wanted no food. There was a heavy, dull beating in her ears, a band tight round her forehead. She was aware of the gloom, of the crackling of fires, of leaping shadows, of the passing of men to and fro near her, and, most of all, rendering her capable of a saving shred of self-control, she was aware of Jim's constant companionship and watchfulness. Then sounds grew far off and night became a blur.
Morning when it came seemed an age removed from that hideous night. Her head had cleared, and but for the soreness of body and limb she would have begun the day strong. There appeared little to eat and no time to prepare it. Gulden was rampant for action. Like a miser he guarded the saddle packed with gold. This tune his comrades were as eager as he to be on the move. All were obsessed by the presence of gold. Only one hour loomed in their consciousness—that of the hour of division. How fatal and pitiful and terrible! Of what possible use or good was gold to them?
The ride began before sunrise. It started and kept on at a steady trot. Smith led down out of the rocky slopes and fastnesses into green valleys. Jim Cleve, riding bareback on a lame horse, had his difficulties. Still he kept close beside or behind Joan all the way. They seldom spoke, and then only a word relative to this stern business of traveling in the trail of a hard-riding bandit. Joan bore up better this day, as far as her mind was concerned. Physically she had all she could do to stay in the saddle. She learned of what steel she was actually made—what her slender frame could endure. That day's ride seemed a thousand miles long, and never to end. Yet the implacable Smith did finally halt, and that before dark.
Camp was made near water. The bandits were a jovial lot, despite a lack of food. They talked of the morrow. All—the world—lay beyond the next sunrise. Some renounced their pipes and sought their rest just to hurry on the day. But Gulden, tireless, sleepless, eternally vigilant, guarded the saddle of gold and brooded over it, and seemed a somber giant carved out of the night. And Blicky, nursing some deep and late-developed scheme, perhaps in Kells's interest or his own, kept watch over Gulden and all.
Jim cautioned Joan to rest, and importuned her and promised to watch while she slept.
Joan saw the stars through her shut eyelids. All the night seemed to press down and softly darken.
The sun was shining red when the cavalcade rode up Cabin Gulch. The grazing cattle stopped to watch and the horses pranced and whistled. There were flowers and flitting birds, and glistening dew on leaves, and a shining swift flow of water—the brightness of morning and nature smiled in Cabin Gulch.
Well indeed Joan remembered the trail she had ridden so often. How that clump of willow where first she had confronted Jim thrilled her now! The pines seemed welcoming her. The gulch had a sense of home in it for her, yet it was fearful. How much had happened there! What might yet happen!
Then a clear, ringing call stirred her pulse. She glanced up the slope. Tall and straight and dark, there on the bench, with hand aloft, stood the bandit Kells.
The weary, dusty cavalcade halted on the level bench before the bandit's cabin. Gulden boomed a salute to Kells. The other men shouted greeting. In the wild exultation of triumph they still held him as chief. But Kells was not deceived. He even passed by that heavily laden, gold-weighted saddle. He had eyes only for Joan.
"Girl, I never was so glad to see any one!" he exclaimed in husky amaze. "How did it happen? I never—"
Jim Cleve leaned over to interrupt Kells. "It was great, Kells—that idea of yours putting us in the stagecoach you meant to hold up," said Cleve, with a swift, meaning glance. "But it nearly was the end of us. You didn't catch up. The gang didn't know we were inside, and they shot the old stage full of holes."
"Aha! So that's it," replied Kells, slowly. "But the main point is—you brought her through. Jim, I can't ever square that."
"Oh, maybe you can," laughed Cleve, as he dismounted.
Suddenly Kells became aware of Joan's exhaustion and distress. "Joan, you're not hurt?" he asked in swift anxiety.
"No, only played out."
"You look it. Come." He lifted her out of the saddle and, half carrying, half leading her, took her into the cabin, and through the big room to her old apartment. How familiar it seemed to Joan! A ground-squirrel frisked along a chink between the logs, chattering welcome. The place was exactly as Joan had left it.
Kells held Joan a second, as if he meant to embrace her, but he did not. "Lord, it's good to see you! I never expected to again.... But you can tell me all about yourself after you rest.... I was just having breakfast. I'll fetch you some."
"Were you alone here?" asked Joan.
"Yes. I was with Bate and Handy—"
"Hey, Kells!" roared the gang, from the outer room.
Kells held aside the blanket curtain so that Joan was able to see through the door. The men were drawn up in a half-circle round the table, upon which were the bags of gold.
Kells whistled low. "Joan, there'll be trouble now," he said, "but don't you fear. I'll not forget you."
Despite his undoubted sincerity Joan felt a subtle change in him, and that, coupled with the significance of his words, brought a return of the strange dread. Kells went out and dropped the curtain behind him. Joan listened.
"Share and share alike!" boomed the giant Gulden.
"Say!" called Kells, gaily, "aren't you fellows going to eat first?"
Shouts of derision greeted his sally.
"I'll eat gold-dust," added Budd.
"Have it your own way, men," responded Kells. "Blicky, get the scales down off of that shelf.... Say, I'll bet anybody I'll have the most dust by sundown."
More shouts of derision were flung at him.
"Who wants to gamble now?"
"Boss, I'll take thet bet."
"Haw! Haw! You won't look so bright by sundown."
Then followed a moment's silence, presently broken by a clink of metal on the table.
"Boss, how'd you ever git wind of this big shipment of gold?" asked Jesse Smith.
"I've had it spotted. But Handy Oliver was the scout."
"We'll shore drink to Handy!" exclaimed one of the bandits.
"An' who was sendin' out this shipment?" queried the curious Smith. "Them bags are marked all the same."
"It was a one-man shipment," replied Kells. "Sent out by the boss miner of Alder Creek. They call him Overland something."
That name brought Joan to her feet with a thrilling fire. Her uncle, old Bill Hoadley, was called "Overland." Was it possible that the bandits meant him? It could hardly be; that name was a common one in the mountains.
"Shore, I seen Overland lots of times," said Budd. "An' he got wise to my watchin' him."
"Somebody tipped it off that the Legion was after his gold," went on Kells. "I suppose we have Pearce to thank for that. But it worked out well for us. The hell we raised there at the lynching must have thrown a scare into Overland. He had nerve enough to try to send his dust to Bannack on the very next stage. He nearly got away with it, too. For it was only lucky accident that Handy heard the news."
The name Overland drew Joan like a magnet and she arose to take her old position, where she could peep in upon the bandits. One glance at Jim Cleve told her that he, too, had been excited by the name. Then it occurred to Joan that her uncle could hardly have been at Alder Creek without Jim knowing it. Still, among thousands of men, all wild and toiling and self-sufficient, hiding their identities, anything might be possible. After a few moments, however, Joan leaned to the improbability of the man being her uncle.
Kells sat down before the table and Blicky stood beside him with the gold-scales. The other bandits lined up opposite. Jim Cleve stood to one side, watching, brooding.
"You can't weigh it all on these scales," said Blicky.
"That's sure," replied Kells. "We'll divide the small bags first.... Ten shares—ten equal parts!... Spill out the bags. Blick. And hurry. Look how hungry Gulden looks!... Somebody cook your breakfast while we divide the gold."
"Who wants to eat?"
The bandits were gay, derisive, scornful, eager, like a group of boys, half surly, half playful, at a game.
"Wal, I shore want to see my share weighted," drawled Budd.
Kells moved—his gun flashed—he slammed it hard upon the table.
"Budd, do you question my honesty?" he asked, quick and hard.
"No offense, boss. I was just talkin'."
That quick change of Kells's marked a subtle difference in the spirit of the bandits and the occasion. Gaiety and good humor and badinage ended. There were no more broad grins or friendly leers or coarse laughs. Gulden and his groups clustered closer to the table, quiet, intense, watchful, suspicious.
It did not take Kells and his assistant long to divide the smaller quantity of the gold.
"Here, Gulden," he said, and handed the giant a bag. Jesse.... Bossert.... Pike.... Beady.... Braverman... "Blicky."
"Here, Jim Cleve, get in the game," he added, throwing a bag at Jim. It was heavy. It hit Jim with a thud and dropped to the ground. He stooped to reach it.
"That leaves one for Handy and one for me," went on Kells. "Blicky, spill out the big bag."
Presently Joan saw a huge mound of dull, gleaming yellow. The color of it leaped to the glinting eyes of the bandits. And it seemed to her that a shadow hovered over them. The movements of Kells grew tense and hurried. Beads of sweat stood out upon his brow. His hands were not steady.
Soon larger bags were distributed to the bandits. That broke the waiting, the watchfulness, but not the tense eagerness. The bandits were now like leashed hounds. Blicky leaned before Kells and hit the table with his fist.
"Boss, I've a kick comin'," he said.
"Come on with it," replied the leader.
"Ain't Gulden a-goin' to divide up thet big nugget?"
"He is if he's square."
A chorus of affirmatives from the bandits strengthened Kells's statement. Gulden moved heavily and ponderously, and he pushed some of his comrades aside to get nearer to Kells.
"Wasn't it my right to do a job by myself—when I wanted?" he demanded.
"No. I agreed to let you fight when you wanted. To kill a man when you liked!... That was the agreement."
"What'd I kill a man for?"
No one answered that in words, but the answer was there, in dark faces.
"I know what I meant," continued Gulden. "And I'm going to keep this nugget."
There was a moment's silence. It boded ill to the giant.
"So—he declares himself," said Blicky, hotly. "Boss, what you say goes."
"Let him keep it," declared Kells, scornfully. "I'll win it from him and divide it with the gang."
That was received with hoarse acclaims by all except Gulden. He glared sullenly. Kells stood up and shook a long finger in the giant's face.
"I'll win your nugget," he shouted. "I'll beat you at any game.... I call your hand.... Now if you've got any nerve!"
"Come on!" boomed the giant, and he threw his gold down upon the table with a crash.
The bandits closed in around the table with sudden, hard violence, all crowding for seats.
"I'm a-goin' to set in the game!" yelled Blicky.
"We'll all set in," declared Jesse Smith.
"Come on!" was Gulden's acquiescence.
"But we all can't play at once," protested Kells. "Let's make up two games."
"Some of you eat, then, while the others get cleaned out."
"Thet's it—cleaned out!" ejaculated Budd, meanly. "You seem to be sure, Kells. An' I guess I'll keep shady of thet game."
"That's twice for you, Budd," flashed the bandit leader. "Beware of the third time!"
"Hyar, fellers, cut the cards fer who sets in an' who sets out," called Blicky, and he slapped a deck of cards upon the table.
With grim eagerness, as if drawing lots against fate, the bandits bent over and drew cards. Budd, Braverman, and Beady Jones were the ones excluded from the game.
"Beady, you fellows unpack those horses and turn them loose. And bring the stuff inside," said Kells.
Budd showed a surly disregard, but the other two bandits got up willingly and went out.
Then the game began, with only Cleve standing, looking on. The bandits were mostly silent; they moved their hands, and occasionally bent forward. It was every man against his neighbor. Gulden seemed implacably indifferent and played like a machine. Blicky sat eager and excited, under a spell. Jesse Smith was a slow, cool, shrewed gambler. Bossert and Pike, two ruffians almost unknown to Joan, appeared carried away by their opportunity. And Kells began to wear that strange, rapt, weak expression that gambling gave him.
Presently Beady Jones and Braverman bustled in, carrying the packs. Then Budd jumped up and ran to them. He returned to the table, carrying a demijohn, which he banged upon the table.
"Whisky!" exclaimed Kells. "Take that away. We can't drink and gamble."
"Watch me!" replied Blicky.
"Let them drink, Kells," declared Gulden. "We'll get their dust quicker. Then we can have our game."
Kells made no more comment. The game went on and the aspect of it changed. When Kells himself began to drink, seemingly unconscious of the fact, Joan's dread increased greatly, and, leaving the peep-hole, she lay back upon the bed. Always a sword had hung over her head. Time after time by some fortunate circumstance or by courage or wit or by an act of Providence she had escaped what strangely menaced. Would she escape it again? For she felt the catastrophe coming. Did Jim recognize that fact? Remembering the look on his face, she was assured that he did. Then he would be quick to seize upon any possible chance to get her away; and always he would be between her and those bandits. At most, then, she had only death to fear—death that he would mercifully deal to her if the worst came. And as she lay there listening to the slow-rising murmur of the gamblers, with her thought growing clearer, she realized it was love of Jim and fear for him—fear that he would lose her—that caused her cold dread and the laboring breath and the weighted heart. She had cost Jim this terrible experience and she wanted to make up to him for it, to give him herself and all her life.
Joan lay there a long time, thinking and suffering, while the strange, morbid desire to watch Kells and Gulden grew stronger and stronger, until it was irresistible. Her fate, her life, lay in the balance between these two men. She divined that.
She returned to her vantage-point, and as she glanced through she vibrated to a shock. The change that had begun subtly, intangibly, was now a terrible and glaring difference. That great quantity of gold, the equal chance of every gambler, the marvelous possibilities presented to evil minds, and the hell that hid in that black bottle—these had made playthings of every bandit except Gulden. He was exactly the same as ever. But to see the others sent a chill of ice along Joan's veins. Kells was white and rapt. Plain to see—he had won! Blicky was wild with rage. Jesse Smith sat darker, grimmer, but no longer cool. There was hate in the glance he fastened upon Kells as he bet. Beady Jones and Braverman showed an inflamed and impotent eagerness to take their turn. Budd sat in the game now, and his face wore a terrible look. Joan could not tell what passion drove him, but she knew he was a loser. Pike and Bossert likewise were losers, and stood apart, sullen, watching with sick, jealous rage. Jim Cleve had reacted to the strain, and he was white, with nervous, clutching hands and piercing glances. And the game went on with violent slap of card or pound of fist upon the table, with the slide of a bag of gold or the little, sodden thump of its weight, with savage curses at loss and strange, raw exultation at gain, with hurry and violence—more than all, with the wildness of the hour and the wildness of these men, drawing closer and closer to the dread climax that from the beginning had been foreshadowed.
Suddenly Budd rose and bent over the table, his cards clutched in a shaking hand, his face distorted and malignant, his eyes burning at Kells. Passionately he threw the cards down.
"There!" he yelled, hoarsely, and he stilled the noise.
"No good!" replied Kells, tauntingly. "Is there any other game you play?"
Budd bent low to see the cards in Kells's hand, and then, straightening his form, he gazed with haggard fury at the winner. "You've done me!... I'm cleaned—I'm busted!" he raved.
"You were easy. Get out of the game," replied Kells, with an exultant contempt. It was not the passion of play that now obsessed him, but the passion of success.
"I said you done me," burst out Budd, insanely. "You're slick with the cards!"
The accusation acted like magic to silence the bandits, to check movement, to clamp the situation. Kells was white and radiant; he seemed careless and nonchalant.
"All right, Budd," he replied, but his tone did not suit his strange look. "That's three times for you!"
Swift as a flash he shot. Budd fell over Gulden, and the giant with one sweep of his arm threw the stricken bandit off. Budd fell heavily, and neither moved nor spoke.
"Pass me the bottle," went on Kells, a little hoarse shakiness in his voice. "And go on with the game!"
"Can I set in now?" asked Beady Jones, eagerly.
"You and Jack wait. This's getting to be all between Kells an' me," said Gulden.
"We've sure got Blicky done!" exclaimed Kells. There was something taunting about the leader's words. He did not care for the gold. It was the fight to win. It was his egotism.
"Make this game faster an' bigger, will you?" retorted Blicky, who seemed inflamed.
"Boss, a little luck makes you lofty," interposed Jesse Smith in dark disdain. "Pretty soon you'll show yellow clear to your gizzard!"
The gold lay there on the table. It was only a means to an end. It signified nothing. The evil, the terrible greed, the brutal lust, were in the hearts of the men. And hate, liberated, rampant, stalked out unconcealed, ready for blood.
"Gulden, change the game to suit these gents," taunted Kells.
"Double stakes. Cut the cards!" boomed the giant, instantly.
Blicky lasted only a few more deals of the cards, then he rose, loser of all his share, a passionate and venomous bandit, ready for murder. But he kept his mouth shut and looked wary.
"Boss, can't we set in now?" demanded Beady Jones.
"Say, Beady, you're in a hurry to lose your gold," replied Kells. "Wait till I beat Gulden and Smith."
Luck turned against Jesse Smith. He lost first to Gulden, then to Kells, and presently he rose, a beaten, but game man. He reached for the whisky.
"Fellers, I reckon I can enjoy Kells's yellow streak more when I ain't playin'," he said.
The bandit leader eyed Smith with awakening rancor, as if a persistent hint of inevitable weakness had its effect. He frowned, and the radiance left his face for the forbidding cast.
"Stand around, you men, and see some real gambling," he said.
At this moment in the contest Kells had twice as much gold as Gulden, there being a huge mound of little buckskin sacks in front of him.
They began staking a bag at a time and cutting the cards, the higher card winning. Kells won the first four cuts. How strangely that radiance returned to his face! Then he lost and won, and won and lost. The other bandits grouped around, only Jones and Braverman now manifesting any eagerness. All were silent. There were suspense, strain, mystery in the air. Gulden began to win consistently and Kells began to change. It was a sad and strange sight to see this strong man's nerve and force gradually deteriorate under a fickle fortune. The time came when half the amount he had collected was in front of Gulden. The giant was imperturbable. He might have been a huge animal, or destiny, or something inhuman that knew the run of luck would be his. As he had taken losses so he greeted gains—with absolute indifference. While Kells's hands shook the giant's were steady and slow and sure. It must have been hateful to Kells—this faculty of Gulden's to meet victory identically as he met defeat. The test of a great gambler's nerve was not in sustaining loss, but in remaining cool with victory. The fact grew manifest that Gulden was a great gambler and Kells was not. The giant had no emotion, no imagination. And Kells seemed all fire and whirling hope and despair and rage. His vanity began to bleed to death. This game was the deciding contest. The scornful and exultant looks of his men proved how that game was going. Again and again Kells's unsteady hand reached for one of the whisky bottles. Once with a low curse he threw an empty bottle through the door.
"Hey, boss, ain't it about time—" began Jesse Smith. But whatever he had intended to say, he thought better of, withholding it. Kells's sudden look and movement were unmistakable.
The goddess of chance, as false as the bandit's vanity, played with him. He brightened under a streak of winning. But just as his face began to lose its haggard shade, to glow, the tide again turned against him. He lost and lost, and with each bag of gold-dust went something of his spirit. And when he was reduced to his original share he indeed showed that yellow streak which Jesse Smith had attributed to him. The bandit's effort to pull himself together, to be a man before that scornful gang, was pitiful and futile. He might have been magnificent, confronted by other issues, of peril or circumstance, but there he was craven. He was a man who should never have gambled.
One after the other, in quick succession, he lost the two bags of gold, his original share. He had lost utterly. Gulden had the great heap of dirty little buckskin sacks, so significant of the hidden power within.
Joan was amazed and sick at sight of Kells then, and if it had been possible she would have withdrawn her gaze. But she was chained there. The catastrophe was imminent.
Kells stared down at the gold. His jaw worked convulsively. He had the eyes of a trapped wolf. Yet he seemed not wholly to comprehend what had happened to him.
Gulden rose, slow, heavy, ponderous, to tower over his heap of gold. Then this giant, who had never shown an emotion, suddenly, terribly blazed.
"One more bet—a cut of the cards—my whole stake of gold!" he boomed.
The bandits took a stride forward as one man, then stood breathless.
"One bet!" echoed Kells, aghast. "Against what?"
"AGAINST THE GIRL!"
Joan sank against the wall, a piercing torture in her breast. She clutched the logs to keep from falling. So that was the impending horror. She could not unrivet her eyes from the paralyzed Kells, yet she seemed to see Jim Cleve leap straight up, and then stand, equally motionless, with Kells.
"One cut of the cards—my gold against the girl!" boomed the giant.
Kells made a movement as if to go for his gun. But it failed. His hand was a shaking leaf.
"You always bragged on your nerve!" went on Gulden, mercilessly. "You're the gambler of the border!... Come on."
Kells stood there, his doom upon him. Plain to all was his torture, his weakness, his defeat. It seemed that with all his soul he combated something, only to fail.
"ONE CUT—MY GOLD AGAINST YOUR GIRL!"
The gang burst into one concerted taunt. Like snarling, bristling wolves they craned their necks at Kells.
"No, damn—you! No!" cried Kells, in hoarse, broken fury. With both hands before him he seemed to push back the sight of that gold, of Gulden, of the malignant men, of a horrible temptation.
"Reckon, boss, thet yellow streak is operatin'!" sang out Jesse Smith.
But neither gold, nor Gulden, nor men, nor taunts ruined Kells at this perhaps most critical crisis of his life. It was the mad, clutching, terrible opportunity presented. It was the strange and terrible nature of the wager. What vision might have flitted through the gambler's mind! But neither vision of loss nor gain moved him. There, licking like a flame at his soul, consuming the good in him at a blast, overpowering his love, was the strange and magnificent gamble. He could not resist it.
Speechless, with a motion of his hand, he signified his willingness.
"Blicky, shuffle the cards," boomed Gulden.
Blicky did so and dropped the deck with a slap in the middle of the table.
"Cut!" called Gulden.
Kells's shaking hand crept toward the deck.
Jim Cleve suddenly appeared to regain power of speech and motion. "Don't, Kells, don't!" he cried, piercingly, as he leaped forward.
But neither Kells nor the others heard him, or even saw his movement.
Kells cut the deck. He held up his card. It was the king of hearts. What a transformation! His face might have been that of a corpse suddenly revivified with glorious, leaping life.
"Only an ace can beat thet!" muttered Jesse Smith into the silence.
Gulden reached for the deck as if he knew every card left was an ace. His cavernous eyes gloated over Kells. He cut, and before he looked himself he let Kells see the card.
"You can't beat my streak!" he boomed.
Then he threw the card upon the table. It was the ace of spades.
Kells seemed to shrivel, to totter, to sink. Jim Cleve went quickly to him, held to him.
"Kells, go say good—by to your girl!" boomed Gulden. "I'll want her pretty soon.... Come on, you Beady and Braverman. Here's your chance to get even."
Gulden resumed his seat, and the two bandits invited to play were eager to comply, while the others pressed close once more.
Jim Cleve led the dazed Kells toward the door into Joan's cabin. For Joan just then all seemed to be dark.
When she recovered she was lying on the bed and Jim was bending over her. He looked frantic with grief and desperation and fear.
"Jim! Jim!" she moaned, grasping his hands. He helped her to sit up. Then she saw Kells standing there. He looked abject, stupid, drunk. Yet evidently he had begun to comprehend the meaning of his deed.
"Kells," began Cleve, in low, hoarse tones, as he stepped forward with a gun. "I'm going to kill you—and Joan—and myself!"
Kells stared at Cleve. "Go ahead. Kill me. And kill the girl, too. That'll be better for her now. But why kill yourself?"
"I love her. She's my wife!"
The deadness about Kells suddenly changed. Joan flung herself before him.
"Kells—listen," she whispered in swift, broken passion. "Jim Cleve was—my sweetheart—back in Hoadley. We quarreled. I taunted him. I said he hadn't nerve enough—even to be bad. He left me—bitterly enraged. Next day I trailed him. I wanted to fetch him back.... You remember—how you met me with Robert—how you killed Roberts? And all the rest?... When Jim and I met out here—I was afraid to tell you. I tried to influence him. I succeeded—till we got to Alder Creek. There he went wild. I married him—hoping to steady him.... Then the day of the lynching—we were separated from you in the crowd. That night we hid—and next morning took the stage. Gulden and his gang held up the stage. They thought you had put us there. We fooled them, but we had to come on—here to Cabin Gulch—hoping to tell—that you'd let us go.... And now—now—"
Joan had not strength to go on. The thought of Gulden made her faint.
"It's true, Kells," added Cleve, passionately, as he faced the incredulous bandit. "I swear it. Why, you ought to see now!"
"My God, boy, I DO see!" gasped Kells. That dark, sodden thickness of comprehension and feeling, indicative of the hold of drink, passed away swiftly. The shock had sobered him.
Instantly Joan saw it—saw in him the return of the other and better Kells, how stricken with remorse. She slipped to her knees and clasped her arms around him. He tried to break her hold, but she held on.
"Get up!" he ordered, violently. "Jim, pull her away!... Girl, don't do that in front of me... I've just gambled away—"
"Her life, Kells, only that, I swear," cried Cleve.
"Kells, listen," began Joan, pleadingly. "You will not let that—that CANNIBAL have me?"
"No, by God!" replied Kells, thickly. "I was drunk—crazy.... Forgive me, girl! You see—how did I know—what was coming?... Oh, the whole thing is hellish!"
"You loved me once," whispered Joan, softly. "Do you love me still?... Kells, can't you see? It's not too late to save my life—and YOUR soul!... Can't you see? You have been bad. But if you save me now—from Gulden—save me for this boy I've almost ruined—you—you.... God will forgive you!... Take us away—go with us—and never come back to the border."
"Maybe I can save you," he muttered, as if to himself. He appeared to want to think, but to be bothered by the clinging arms around him. Joan felt a ripple go over his body and he seemed to heighten, and the touch of his hands thrilled.
Then, white and appealing, Cleve added his importunity.
"Kells, I saved your life once. You said you'd remember it some day. Now—now!... For God's sake don't make me shoot her!"
Joan rose from her knees, but she still clasped Kells. She seemed to feel the mounting of his spirit, to understand how in this moment he was rising out of the depths. How strangely glad she was for him!
"Joan, once you showed me what the love of a good woman really was. I've never seen the same since then. I've grown better in one way—worse in all others.... I let down. I was no man for the border. Always that haunted me. Believe me, won't you—despite all?"
Joan felt the yearning in him for what he dared not ask. She read his mind. She knew he meant, somehow, to atone for his wrong.
"I'll show you again," she whispered. "I'll tell you more. If I'd never loved Jim Cleve—if I'd met you, I'd have loved you.... And, bandit or not, I'd have gone with you to the end of the world!"
"Joan!" The name was almost a sob of joy and pain. Sight of his face then blinded Joan with her tears. But when he caught her to him, in a violence that was a terrible renunciation, she gave her embrace, her arms, her lips without the vestige of a lie, with all of womanliness and sweetness and love and passion. He let her go and turned away, and in that instant Joan had a final divination that this strange man could rise once to heights as supreme as the depths of his soul were dark. She dashed away her tears and wiped the dimness from her eyes. Hope resurged. Something strong and sweet gave her strength.
When Kells wheeled he was the Kells of her earlier experience—cool, easy, deadly, with the smile almost amiable, and the strange, pale eyes. Only the white radiance of him was different. He did not look at her.
"Jim, will you do exactly what I tell you?"
"Yes, I promise," replied Jim.
"How many guns have you?"
"Give me one of them."
Cleve held out the gun that all the while he had kept in his hand. Kells took it and put it in his pocket.
"Pull your other gun—be ready," said he, swiftly. "But don't you shoot once till I go down!... Then do your best.... Save the last bullet for Joan—in case—"
"I promise," replied Cleve, steadily.
Then Kells drew a knife from a sheath at his belt. It had a long, bright blade. Joan had seen him use it many a time round the camp-fire. He slipped the blade up his sleeve, retaining the haft of the knife in his hand. He did not speak another word. Nor did he glance at Joan again. She had felt his gaze while she had embraced him, as she raised her lips. That look had been his last. Then he went out. Jim knelt beside the door, peering between post and curtain.
Joan staggered to the chink between the logs. She would see that fight if it froze her blood—the very marrow of her bones.
The gamblers were intent upon their game. Not a dark face looked up as Kells sauntered toward the table. Gulden sat with his back to the door. There was a shaft of sunlight streaming in, and Kells blocked it, sending a shadow over the bent heads of the gamesters. How significant that shadow—a blackness barring gold! Still no one paid any attention to Kells.
He stepped closer. Suddenly he leaped into swift and terrible violence. Then with a lunge he drove the knife into Gulden's burly neck.
Up heaved the giant, his mighty force overturning table and benches and men. An awful boom, strangely distorted and split, burst from him.
Then Kells blocked the door with a gun in each hand, but only the one in his right hand spurted white and red. Instantly there followed a mad scramble—hoarse yells, over which that awful roar of Gulden's predominated—and the bang of guns. Clouds of white smoke veiled the scene, and with every shot the veil grew denser. Red flashes burst from the ground where men were down, and from each side of Kells. His form seemed less instinct with force; it had shortened; he was sagging. But at intervals the red spurt and report of his gun showed he was fighting. Then a volley from one side made him stagger against the door. The clear spang of a Winchester spoke above the heavy boom of the guns.
Joan's eyesight recovered from its blur or else the haze of smoke drifted, for she saw better. Gulden's actions fascinated her, horrified her. He had evidently gone crazy. He groped about the room, through the smoke, to and fro before the fighting, yelling bandits, grasping with huge hands for something. His sense of direction, his equilibrium, had become affected. His awful roar still sounded above the din, but it was weakening. His giant's strength was weakening. His legs bent and buckled under him. All at once he whipped out his two big guns and began to fire as he staggered—at random. He killed the wounded Blicky. In the melee he ran against Jesse Smith and thrust both guns at him. Jesse saw the peril and with a shriek he fired point-blank at Gulden. Then as Gulden pulled triggers both men fell. But Gulden rose, bloody-browed, bawling, still a terrible engine of destruction. He seemed to glare in one direction and shoot in another. He pointed the guns and apparently pulled the triggers long after the shots had all been fired.
Kells was on his knees now with only one gun. This wavered and fell, wavered and fell. His left arm hung broken. But his face flashed white through the thin, drifting clouds of smoke.
Besides Gulden the bandit Pike was the only one not down, and he was hard hit. When he shot his last he threw the gun away, and, drawing a knife, he made at Kells. Kells shot once more, and hit Pike, but did not stop him. Silence, after the shots and yells, seemed weird, and the groping giant, trying to follow Pike, resembled a huge phantom. With one wrench he tore off a leg of the overturned table and brandished that. He swayed now, and there was a whistle where before there had been a roar.
Pike fell over the body of Blicky and got up again. The bandit leader staggered to his feet, flung the useless gun in Pike's face, and closed with him in weak but final combat. They lurched and careened to and fro, with the giant Gulden swaying after them. Thus they struggled until Pike moved under Gulden's swinging club. The impetus of the blow carried Gulden off his balance. Kells seized the haft of the knife still protruding from the giant's neck, and he pulled upon it with all his might. Gulden heaved up again, and the movement enabled Kells to pull out the knife. A bursting gush of blood, thick and heavy, went flooding before the giant as he fell.
Kells dropped the knife, and, tottering, surveyed the scene before him—the gasping Gulden, and all the quiet forms. Then he made a few halting steps, and dropped near the door.
Joan tried to rush out, but what with the unsteadiness of her limbs and Jim holding her as he went out, too, she seemed long in getting to Kells.
She knelt beside him, lifted his head. His face was white—his eyes were open. But they were only the windows of a retreating soul. He did not know her. Consciousness was gone. Then swiftly life fled.
Cleve steadied Joan in her saddle, and stood a moment beside her, holding her hands. The darkness seemed clearing before her eyes and the sick pain within her seemed numbing out.
"Brace up! Hang—to your saddle!" Jim was saying, earnestly. "Any moment some of the other bandits might come.... You lead the way. I'll follow and drive the pack-horse."
"But, Jim, I'll never be able to find the back-trail," said Joan.
"I think you will. You'll remember every yard of the trail on which you were brought in here. You won't realize that till you see."
Joan started and did not look back. Cabin Gulch was like a place in a dream. It was a relief when she rode out into the broad valley. The grazing horses lifted their heads to whistle. Joan saw the clumps of bushes and the flowers, the waving grass, but never as she had seen them before. How strange that she knew exactly which way to turn, to head, to cross! She trotted her horse so fast that Jim called to say he could not drive a pack-animal and keep to her gait. Every rod of the trail lessened a burden. Behind was something hideous and incomprehensible and terrible; before beckoned something beginning to seem bright. And it was not the ruddy, calm sunset, flooding the hills with color. That something called from beyond the hills.
She led straight to a camp-site she remembered long before she came to it; and the charred logs of the fire, the rocks, the tree under which she had lain—all brought back the emotions she had felt there. She grew afraid of the twilight, and when night settled down there were phantoms stalking in the shadows. When Cleve, in his hurried camp duties, went out of her sight, she wanted to cry out to him, but had not the voice; and when he was close still she trembled and was cold. He wrapped blankets round her and held her in his arms, yet the numb chill and the dark clamp of mind remained with her. Long she lay awake. The stars were pitiless. When she shut her eyes the blackness seemed unendurable. She slept, to wake out of nightmare, and she dared sleep no more. At last the day came.
For Joan that faint trail seemed a broad road, blazoned through the wild canons and up the rocky fastness and through the thick brakes. She led on and on and up and down, never at fault, with familiar landmarks near and far. Cleve hung close to her, and now his call to her or to the pack-horse took on a keener note. Every rough and wild mile behind them meant so much. They did not halt at the noon hour. They did not halt at the next camp-site, still more darkly memorable to Joan. And sunset found them miles farther on, down on the divide, at the head of Lost Canon.
Here Joan ate and drank, and slept the deep sleep of exhaustion. Sunrise found them moving, and through the winding, wild canon they made fast travel. Both time and miles passed swiftly. At noon they reached the little open cabin, and they dismounted for a rest and a drink at the spring. Joan did not speak a word here. That she could look into the cabin where she had almost killed a bandit, and then, through silent, lonely weeks, had nursed him back to life, was a proof that the long ride and distance were helping her, sloughing away the dark deadlock to hope and brightness. They left the place exactly as they had found it, except that Cleve plucked the card from the bark of the balsam-tree—Gulden's ace—of—hearts target with its bullet—holes.
Then they rode on, out of that canon, over the rocky ridge, down into another canon, on and on, past an old camp-site, along a babbling brook for miles, and so at last out into the foot—hills.
Toward noon of the next day, when approaching a clump of low trees in a flat valley, Joan pointed ahead.
"Jim—it was in there—where Roberts and I camped—and—"
"You ride around. I'll catch up with you," replied Cleve.
She made a wide detour, to come back again to her own trail, so different here. Presently Cleve joined her. His face was pale and sweaty, and he looked sick. They rode on silently, and that night they camped without water on her own trail, made months before. The single tracks were there, sharp and clear in the earth, as if imprinted but a day.
Next morning Joan found that as the wild border lay behind her so did the dark and hateful shadow of gloom. Only the pain remained, and it had softened. She could think now.
Jim Cleve cheered up. Perhaps it was her brightening to which he responded. They began to talk and speech liberated feeling. Miles of that back-trail they rode side by side, holding hands, driving the pack-horse ahead, and beginning to talk of old associations. Again it was sunset when they rode down the hill toward the little village of Hoadley. Joan's heart was full, but Jim was gay.
"Won't I have it on your old fellows!" he teased. But he was grim, too.
"Jim! You—won't tell—just yet!" she faltered.
"I'll introduce you as my wife! They'll all think we eloped."
"No. They'll say I ran after you!... Please, Jim! Keep it secret a little. It'll be hard for me. Aunt Jane will never understand."
"Well, I'll keep it secret till you want to tell—for two things," he said.
"Meet me to—night, under the spruces where we had that quarrel. Meet just like we did then, but differently. Will you?"
"I'll be—so glad."
"And put on your mask now!... You know, Joan, sooner or later your story will be on everybody's tongue. You'll be Dandy Dale as long as you live near this border. Wear the mask, just for fun. Imagine your Aunt Jane—and everybody!"
"Jim! I'd forgotten how I look!" exclaimed Joan in dismay. "I didn't bring your long coat. Oh, I can't face them in this suit!"
"You'll have to. Besides, you look great. It's going to tickle me—the sensation you make. Don't you see, they'll never recognize you till you take the mask off.... Please, Joan."
She yielded, and donned the black mask, not without a twinge. And thus they rode across the log bridge over the creek into the village. The few men and women they met stared in wonder, and, recognizing Cleve, they grew excited. They followed, and others joined them.
"Joan, won't it be strange if Uncle Bill really is the Overland of Alder Creek? We've packed out every pound of Overland's gold. Oh! I hope—I believe he's your uncle.... Wouldn't it be great, Joan?"
But Joan could not answer. The word gold was a stab. Besides, she saw Aunt Jane and two neighbors standing before a log cabin, beginning to show signs of interest in the approaching procession.
Joan fell back a little, trying to screen herself behind Jim. Then Jim halted with a cheery salute.
"For the land's sake!" ejaculated a sweet-faced, gray-haired woman.
"If it isn't Jim Cleve!" cried another.
Jim jumped off and hugged the first speaker. She seemed overjoyed to see him and then overcome. Her face began to work.
"Jim! We always hoped you'd—you'd fetch Joan back!"
"Sure!" shouted Jim, who had no heart now for even an instant's deception. "There she is!"
Joan slipped out of her saddle and, tearing off the mask, she leaped forward with a little sob.
"Auntie! Auntie!... It's Joan—alive—well!... Oh, so glad to be home!... Don't look at my clothes—look at me!"
Aunt Jane evidently sustained a shock of recognition, joy, amaze, consternation, and shame, of which all were subservient to the joy. She cried over Joan and murmured over her. Then, suddenly alive to the curious crowd, she put Joan from her.
"You—you wild thing! You desperado! I always told Bill you'd run wild some day!... March in the house and get out of that indecent rig!"
That night under the spruces, with the starlight piercing the lacy shadows, Joan waited for Jim Cleve. It was one of the white, silent, mountain nights. The brook murmured over the stones and the wind rustled the branches.
The wonder of Joan's home-coming was in learning that Uncle Bill Hoadley was indeed Overland, the discoverer of Alder Creek. Years and years of profitless toil had at last been rewarded in this rich gold strike.
Joan hated to think of gold. She had wanted to leave the gold back in Cabin Gulch, and she would have done so had Jim permitted it. And to think that all that gold which was not Jim Cleve's belonged to her uncle! She could not believe it.
Fatal and terrible forever to Joan would be the significance of gold. Did any woman in the world or any man know the meaning of gold as well as she knew it? How strange and enlightening and terrible had been her experience! She had grown now not to blame any man, honest miner or bloody bandit. She blamed only gold. She doubted its value. She could not see it a blessing. She absolutely knew its driving power to change the souls of men. Could she ever forget that vast ant-hill of toiling diggers and washers, blind and deaf and dumb to all save gold?
Always limned in figures of fire against the black memory would be the forms of those wild and violent bandits! Gulden, the monster, the gorilla, the cannibal! Horrible as was the memory of him, there was no horror in thought of his terrible death. That seemed to be the one memory that did not hurt.
But Kells was indestructible—he lived in her mind. Safe out of the border now and at home, she could look back clearly. Still all was not clear and never would be. She saw Kells the ruthless bandit, the organizer, the planner, and the blood-spiller. He ought have no place in a good woman's memory. Yet he had. She never condoned one of his deeds or even his intentions. She knew her intelligence was not broad enough to grasp the vastness of his guilt. She believed he must have been the worst and most terrible character on that wild border. That border had developed him. It had produced the time and the place and the man. And therein lay the mystery. For over against this bandit's weakness and evil she could contrast strength and nobility. She alone had known the real man in all the strange phases of his nature, and the darkness of his crime faded out of her mind. She suffered remorse—almost regret. Yet what could she have done? There had been no help for that impossible situation as, there was now no help for her in a right and just placing of Kells among men. He had stolen her—wantonly murdering for the sake of lonely, fruitless hours with her; he had loved her—and he had changed; he had gambled away her soul and life—a last and terrible proof of the evil power of gold; and in the end he had saved her—he had gone from her white, radiant, cool, with strange, pale eyes and his amiable, mocking smile, and all the ruthless force of his life had expended itself in one last magnificent stand. If only he had known her at the end—when she lifted his head! But no—there had been only the fading light—the strange, weird look of a retreating soul, already alone forever.
A rustling of leaves, a step thrilled Joan out of her meditation.
Suddenly she was seized from behind, and Jim Cleve showed that though he might be a joyous and grateful lover, he certainly would never be an actor. For if he desired to live over again that fatal meeting and quarrel which had sent them out to the border, he failed utterly in his part. There was possession in the gentle grasp of his arms and bliss in the trembling of his lips.
"Jim, you never did it that way!" laughed Joan. "If you had—do you think I could ever have been furious?"
Jim in turn laughed happily. "Joan, that's exactly the way I stole upon you and mauled you!".
"You think so! Well, I happen to remember. Now you sit here and make believe you are Joan. And let me be Jim Cleve!... I'll show you!"
Joan stole away in the darkness, and noiselessly as a shadow she stole back—to enact that violent scene as it lived in her memory.
Jim was breathless, speechless, choked.
"That's how you treated me," she said.
"I—I don't believe I could have—been such a—a bear!" panted Jim.
"But you were. And consider—I've not half your strength."
"Then all I say is—you did right to drive me off.... Only you should never have trailed me out to the border."
"Ah!... But, Jim, in my fury I discovered my love!"