Joan Randle reined in her horse on the crest of the cedar ridge, and with remorse and dread beginning to knock at her heart she gazed before her at the wild and looming mountain range.
"Jim wasn't fooling me," she said. "He meant it. He's going straight for the border … Oh, why did I taunt him!"
It was indeed a wild place, that southern border of Idaho, and that year was to see the ushering in of the wildest time probably ever known in the West. The rush for gold had peopled California with a horde of lawless men of every kind and class. And the vigilantes and then the rich strikes in Idaho had caused a reflux of that dark tide of humanity. Strange tales of blood and gold drifted into the camps, and prospectors and hunters met with many unknown men.
Joan had quarreled with Jim Cleve, and she was bitterly regretting it. Joan was twenty years old, tall, strong, dark. She had been born in Missouri, where her father had been well-to-do and prominent, until, like many another man of his day, he had impeded the passage of a bullet. Then Joan had become the protegee of an uncle who had responded to the call of gold; and the latter part of her life had been spent in the wilds.
She had followed Jim's trail for miles out toward the range. And now she dismounted to see if his tracks were as fresh as she had believed. He had left the little village camp about sunrise. Someone had seen him riding away and had told Joan. Then he had tarried on the way, for it was now midday. Joan pondered. She had become used to his idle threats and disgusted with his vacillations. That had been the trouble—Jim was amiable, lovable, but since meeting Joan he had not exhibited any strength of character. Joan stood beside her horse and looked away toward the dark mountains. She was daring, resourceful, used to horses and trails and taking care of herself; and she did not need anyone to tell her that she had gone far enough. It had been her hope to come up with Jim. Always he had been repentant. But this time was different. She recalled his lean, pale face—so pale that freckles she did not know he had showed through— and his eyes, usually so soft and mild, had glinted like steel. Yes, it had been a bitter, reckless face. What had she said to him? She tried to recall it.
The night before at twilight Joan had waited for him. She had given him precedence over the few other young men of the village, a fact she resentfully believed he did not appreciate. Jim was unsatisfactory in every way except in the way he cared for her. And that also—for he cared too much.
When Joan thought how Jim loved her, all the details of that night became vivid. She sat alone under the spruce-trees near the cabin. The shadows thickened, and then lightened under a rising moon. She heard the low hum of insects, a distant laugh of some woman of the village, and the murmur of the brook. Jim was later than usual. Very likely, as her uncle had hinted, Jim had tarried at the saloon that had lately disrupted the peace of the village. The village was growing, and Joan did not like the change. There were too many strangers, rough, loud-voiced, drinking men. Once it had been a pleasure to go to the village store; now it was an ordeal. Somehow Jim had seemed to be unfavorably influenced by these new conditions. Still, he had never amounted to much. Her resentment, or some feeling she had, was reaching a climax. She got up from her seat. She would not wait any longer for him, and when she did see him it would be to tell him a few blunt facts.
Just then there was a slight rustle behind her. Before she could turn someone seized her in powerful arms. She was bent backward in a bearish embrace, so that she could neither struggle nor cry out. A dark face loomed over hers—came closer. Swift kisses closed her eyes, burned her cheeks, and ended passionately on her lips. They had some strange power over her. Then she was released.
Joan staggered back, frightened, outraged. She was so dazed she did not recognize the man, if indeed she knew him. But a laugh betrayed him. It was Jim.
"You thought I had no nerve," he said. "What do you think of that?"
Suddenly Joan was blindly furious. She could have killed him. She had never given him any right, never made him any promise, never let him believe she cared. And he had dared—! The hot blood boiled in her cheeks. She was furious with him, but intolerably so with herself, because somehow those kisses she had resented gave her unknown pain and shame. They had sent a shock through all her being. She thought she hated him.
"You—you—" she broke out. "Jim Cleve, that ends you with me!"
"Reckon I never had a beginning with you," he replied, bitterly. "It was worth a good deal … I'm not sorry … By Heaven—I've—kissed you!"
He breathed heavily. She could see how pale he had grown in the shadowy moonlight. She sensed a difference in him—a cool, reckless defiance.
"You'll be sorry," she said. "I'll have nothing to do with you any more."
"All right. But I'm not, and I won't be sorry."
She wondered whether he had fallen under the influence of drink. Jim had never cared for liquor, which virtue was about the only one he possessed. Remembering his kisses, she knew he had not been drinking. There was a strangeness about him, though, that she could not fathom. Had he guessed his kisses would have that power? If he dared again—! She trembled, and it was not only rage. But she would teach him a lesson.
"Joan, I kissed you because I can't be a hangdog any longer," he said. "I love you and I'm no good without you. You must care a little for me. Let's marry … I'll—"
"Never!" she replied, like flint. "You're no good at all."
"But I am," he protested, with passion. "I used to do things. But since—since I've met you I've lost my nerve. I'm crazy for you. You let the other men run after you. Some of them aren't fit to—to—Oh, I'm sick all the time! Now it's longing and then it's jealousy. Give me a chance, Joan."
"Why?" she queried, coldly. "Why should I? You're shiftless. You won't work. When you do find a little gold you squander it. You have nothing but a gun. You can't do anything but shoot."
"Maybe that'll come in handy," he said, lightly.
"Jim Cleve, you haven't it in you even to be BAD," she went on, stingingly.
At that he made a violent gesture. Then he loomed over her. "Joan Handle, do you mean that?" he asked.
"I surely do," she responded. At last she had struck fire from him. The fact was interesting. It lessened her anger.
"Then I'm so low, so worthless, so spineless that I can't even be bad?"
"Yes, you are."
"That's what you think of me—after I've ruined myself for love of you?"
She laughed tauntingly. How strange and hot a glee she felt in hurting him!
"By God, I'll show you!" he cried, hoarsely.
"What will you do, Jim?" she asked, mockingly.
"I'll shake this camp. I'll rustle for the border. I'll get in with Kells and Gulden … You'll hear of me, Joan Randle!"
These were names of strange, unknown, and wild men of a growing and terrible legion on the border. Out there, somewhere, lived desperados, robbers, road-agents, murderers. More and more rumor had brought tidings of them into the once quiet village. Joan felt a slight cold sinking sensation at her heart. But this was only a magnificent threat of Jim's. He could not do such a thing. She would never let him, even if he could. But after the incomprehensible manner of woman, she did not tell him that.
"Bah! You haven't the nerve!" she retorted, with another mocking laugh.
Haggard and fierce, he glared down at her a moment, and then without another word he strode away. Joan was amazed, and a little sick, a little uncertain: still she did not call him back.
And now at noon of the next day she had tracked him miles toward the mountains. It was a broad trail he had taken, one used by prospectors and hunters. There was no danger of her getting lost. What risk she ran was of meeting some of these border ruffians that had of late been frequent visitors in the village. Presently she mounted again and rode down the ridge. She would go a mile or so farther.
Behind every rock and cedar she expected to find Jim. Surely he had only threatened her. But she had taunted him in a way no man could stand, and if there were any strength of character in him he would show it now. Her remorse and dread increased. After all, he was only a boy—only a couple of years older than she was. Under stress of feeling he might go to any extreme. Had she misjudged him? If she had not, she had at least been brutal. But he had dared to kiss her! Every time she thought of that a tingling, a confusion, a hot shame went over her. And at length Joan marveled to find that out of the affront to her pride, and the quarrel, and the fact of his going and of her following, and especially out of this increasing remorseful dread, there had flourished up a strange and reluctant respect for Jim Cleve.
She climbed another ridge and halted again. This time she saw a horse and rider down in the green. Her heart leaped. It must be Jim returning. After all, then, he had only threatened. She felt relieved and glad, yet vaguely sorry. She had been right in her conviction.
She had not watched long, however, before she saw that this was not the horse Jim usually rode. She took the precaution then to hide behind some bushes, and watched from there. When the horseman approached closer she discerned that instead of Jim it was Harvey Roberts, a man of the village and a good friend of her uncle's. Therefore she rode out of her covert and hailed him. It was a significant thing that at the sound of her voice Roberts started suddenly and reached for his gun. Then he recognized her.
"Hello, Joan!" he exclaimed, turning her way. "Reckon you give me a scare. You ain't alone way out here?"
"Yes. I was trailing Jim when I saw you," she replied. "Thought you were Jim."
"Trailin' Jim! What's up?"
"We quarreled. He swore he was going to the devil. Over on the border! I was mad and told him to go… . But I'm sorry now—and have been trying to catch up with him."
"Ahuh! … So that's Jim's trail. I sure was wonderin'. Joan, it turns off a few miles back an' takes the trail for the border. I know. I've been in there."
Joan glanced up sharply at Roberts. His scarred and grizzled face seemed grave and he avoided her gaze.
"You don't believe—Jim'll really go?" she asked, hurriedly.
"Reckon I do, Joan," he replied, after a pause. "Jim is just fool enough. He had been gettrn' recklessler lately. An', Joan, the times ain't provocatin' a young feller to be good. Jim had a bad fight the other night. He about half killed young Bradley. But I reckon you know."
"I've heard nothing," she replied. "Tell me. Why did they fight?"
"Report was that Bradley talked oncomplementary about you."
Joan experienced a sweet, warm rush of blood—another new and strange emotion. She did not like Bradley. He had been persistent and offensive.
"Why didn't Jim tell me?" she queried, half to herself.
"Reckon he wasn't proud of the shape he left Bradley in," replied Roberts, with a laugh. "Come on, Joan, an' make back tracks for home."
Joan was silent a moment while she looked over the undulating green ridges toward the great gray and black walls. Something stirred deep within her. Her father in his youth had been an adventurer. She felt the thrill and the call of her blood. And she had been unjust to a man who loved her.
"I'm going after him," she said.
Roberts did not show any surprise. He looked at the position of the sun. "Reckon we might overtake him an' get home before sundown," he said, laconically, as he turned his horse. "We'll make a short cut across here a few miles, an' strike his trail. Can't miss it."
Then he set off at a brisk trot and Joan fell in behind. She had a busy mind, and it was a sign of her preoccupation that she forgot to thank Roberts. Presently they struck into a valley, a narrow depression between the foothills and the ridges, and here they made faster time. The valley appeared miles long. Toward the middle of it Roberts called out to Joan, and, looking down, she saw they had come up with Jim's trail. Here Roberts put his mount to a canter, and at that gait they trailed Jim out of the valley and up a slope which appeared to be a pass into the mountains. Time flew by for Joan, because she was always peering ahead in the hope and expectation of seeing Jim off in the distance. But she had no glimpse of him. Now and then Roberts would glance around at the westering sun. The afternoon had far advanced. Joan began to worry about home. She had been so sure of coming up with Jim and returning early in the day that she had left no word as to her intentions. Probably by this time somebody was out looking for her.
The country grew rougher, rock-strewn, covered with cedars and patches of pine. Deer crashed out of the thickets and grouse whirred up from under the horses. The warmth of the summer afternoon chilled.
"Reckon we'd better give it up," called Roberts back to her.
"No—no. Go on," replied Joan.
And they urged their horses faster. Finally they reached the summit of the slope. From that height they saw down into a round, shallow valley, which led on, like all the deceptive reaches, to the ranges. There was water down there. It glinted like red ribbon in the sunlight. Not a living thing was in sight. Joan grew more discouraged. It seemed there was scarcely any hope of overtaking Jim that day. His trail led off round to the left and grew difficult to follow. Finally, to make matters worse, Roberts's horse slipped in a rocky wash and lamed himself. He did not want to go on, and, when urged, could hardly walk.
Roberts got off to examine the injury. "Wal, he didn't break his leg," he said, which was his manner of telling how bad the injury was. "Joan, I reckon there'll be some worryin' back home tonight. For your horse can't carry double an' I can't walk."
Joan dismounted. There was water in the wash, and she helped Roberts bathe the sprained and swelling joint. In the interest and sympathy of the moment she forgot her own trouble.
"Reckon we'll have to make camp right here," said Roberts, looking around. "Lucky I've a pack on that saddle. I can make you comfortable. But we'd better be careful about a fire an' not have one after dark."
"There's no help for it," replied Joan. "Tomorrow we'll go on after Jim. He can't be far ahead now." She was glad that it was impossible to return home until the next day.
Roberts took the pack off his horse, and then the saddle. And he was bending over in the act of loosening the cinches of Joan's saddle when suddenly he straightened up with a jerk.
Joan heard soft, dull thumps on the turf and then the sharp crack of an unshod hoof upon stone. Wheeling, she saw three horsemen. They were just across the wash and coming toward her. One rider pointed in her direction. Silhouetted against the red of the sunset they made dark and sinister figures. Joan glanced apprehensively at Roberts. He was staring with a look of recognition in his eyes. Under his breath he muttered a curse. And although Joan was not certain, she believed that his face had shaded gray.
The three horsemen halted on the rim of the wash. One of them was leading a mule that carried a pack and a deer carcass. Joan had seen many riders apparently just like these, but none had ever so subtly and powerfully affected her.
"Howdy," greeted one of the men.
And then Joan was positive that the face of Roberts had turned ashen gray.