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The Border Legion
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.
"It ain't you--KELLS?"
Roberts's query was a confirmation of his own recognition. And the other's laugh was an answer, if one were needed.
The three horsemen crossed the wash and again halted, leisurely, as if time was no object. They were all young, under thirty. The two who had not spoken were rough-garbed, coarse-featured, and resembled in general a dozen men Joan saw every day. Kells was of a different stamp. Until he looked at her he reminded her of someone she had known back in Missouri; after he looked at her she was aware, in a curious, sickening way, that no such person as he had ever before seen her. He was pale, gray-eyed, intelligent, amiable. He appeared to be a man who had been a gentleman. But there was something strange, intangible, immense about him. Was that the effect of his presence or of his name? Kells! It was only a word to Joan. But it carried a nameless and terrible suggestion. During the last year many dark tales had gone from camp to camp in Idaho--some too strange, too horrible for credence--and with every rumor the fame of Kells had grown, and also a fearful certainty of the rapid growth of a legion of evil men out on the border. But no one in the village or from any of the camps ever admitted having seen this Kells. Had fear kept them silent? Joan was amazed that Roberts evidently knew this man.
Kells dismounted and offered his hand. Roberts took it and shook it constrainedly.
"Where did we meet last?" asked Kells.
"Reckon it was out of Fresno," replied Roberts, and it was evident that he tried to hide the effect of a memory.
Then Kells touched his hat to Joan, giving her the fleetest kind of a glance. "Rather off the track aren't you?" he asked Roberts.
"Reckon we are," replied Roberts, and he began to lose some of his restraint. His voice sounded clearer and did not halt. "Been trailin' Miss Randle's favorite hoss. He's lost. An' we got farther 'n we had any idee. Then my hoss went lame. 'Fraid we can't start home to-night."
"Where are you from?"
"Hoadley. Bill Hoadley's town, back thirty miles or so."
"Well, Roberts, if you've no objection we'll camp here with you," continued Kells. "We've got some fresh meat."
With that he addressed a word to his comrades, and they repaired to a cedar-tree near-by, where they began to unsaddle and unpack.
Then Roberts, bending nearer Joan, as if intent on his own pack, began to whisper, hoarsely: "That's Jack Kells, the California road-agent. He's a gun fighter--a hell-bent rattlesnake. When I saw him last he had a rope round his neck an' was bein' led away to be hanged. I heerd afterward he was rescued by pals. Joan, if the idee comes into his head he'll kill me. I don't know what to do. For God's sake think of somethin'!... Use your woman's wits!... We couldn't be in a wuss fix!"
Joan felt rather unsteady on her feet, so that it was a relief to sit down. She was cold and sick inwardly, almost stunned. Some great peril menaced her. Men like Roberts did not talk that way without cause. She was brave; she was not unused to danger. But this must be a different kind, compared with which all she had experienced was but insignificant. She could not grasp Roberts's intimation. Why should he be killed? They had no gold, no valuables. Even their horses were nothing to inspire robbery. It must be that there was peril to Roberts and to her because she was a girl, caught out in the wilds, easy prey for beasts of evil men. She had heard of such things happening. Still, she could not believe it possible for her. Roberts could protect her. Then this amiable, well-spoken Kells, he was no Western rough--he spoke like an educated man; surely he would not harm her. So her mind revolved round fears, conjectures, possibilities; she could not find her wits. She could not think how to meet the situation, even had she divined what the situation was to be.
While she sat there in the shade of a cedar the men busied themselves with camp duties. None of them appeared to pay any attention to Joan. They talked while they worked, as any other group of campers might have talked, and jested and laughed. Kells made a fire, and carried water, then broke cedar boughs for later camp-fire use; one of the strangers whom they called Bill hobbled the horses; the other unrolled the pack, spread a tarpaulin, and emptied the greasy sacks; Roberts made biscuit dough for the oven.
The sun sank red and a ruddy twilight fell. It soon passed. Darkness had about set in when Roberts came over to Joan, carrying bread, coffee, and venison.
"Here's your supper, Joan," he called, quite loud and cheerily, and then he whispered: "Mebbe it ain't so bad. They-all seem friendly. But I'm scared, Joan. If you jest wasn't so dam' handsome, or if only he hadn't seen you!"
"Can't we slip off in the dark?" she whispered in return.
"We might try. But it'd be no use if they mean bad. I can't make up my mind yet what's comin' off. It's all right for you to pretend you're bashful. But don't lose your nerve."
Then he returned to the camp-fire. Joan was hungry. She ate and drank what had been given her, and that helped her to realize reality. And although dread abided with her, she grew curious. Almost she imagined she was fascinated by her predicament. She had always been an emotional girl of strong will and self-restraint. She had always longed for she knew not what--perhaps freedom. Certain places had haunted her. She had felt that something should have happened to her there. Yet nothing ever had happened. Certain books had obsessed her, even when a child, and often to her mother's dismay; for these books had been of wild places and life on the sea, adventure, and bloodshed. It had always been said of her that she should have been a boy.
Night settled down black. A pale, narrow cloud, marked by a train of stars, extended across the dense blue sky. The wind moaned in the cedars and roared in the replenished camp-fire. Sparks flew away into the shadows. And on the puffs of smoke that blew toward her came the sweet, pungent odor of burning cedar. Coyotes barked off under the brush, and from away on the ridge drifted the dismal defiance of a wolf.
Camp-life was no new thing to Joan. She had crossed the plains in a wagon-train, that more than once had known the long-drawn yell of hostile Indians. She had prospected and hunted in the mountains with her uncle, weeks at a time. But never before this night had the wildness, the loneliness, been so vivid to her.
Roberts was on his knees, scouring his oven with wet sand. His big, shaggy head nodded in the firelight. He seemed pondering and thick and slow. There was a burden upon him. The man Bill and his companion lay back against stones and conversed low. Kells stood up in the light of the blaze. He had a pipe at which he took long pulls and then sent up clouds of smoke. There was nothing imposing in his build or striking in his face, at that distance; but it took no second look to see here was a man remarkably out of the ordinary. Some kind of power and intensity emanated from him. From time to time he appeared to glance in Joan's direction; still, she could not be sure, for his eyes were but shadows. He had cast aside his coat. He wore a vest open all the way, and a checked soft shirt, with a black tie hanging untidily. A broad belt swung below his hip and in the holster was a heavy gun. That was a strange place to carry a gun, Joan thought. It looked awkward to her. When he walked it might swing round and bump against his leg. And he certainly would have to put it some other place when he rode.
"Say, have you got a blanket for that girl?" asked Kells, removing his pipe from his lips to address Roberts.
"I got saddle-blankets," responded Roberts. "You see, we didn't expect to be caught out."
"I'll let you have one," said Kells, walking away from the fire. "It will be cold." He returned with a blanket, which he threw to Roberts.
"Much obliged," muttered Roberts.
"I'll bunk by the fire," went on the other, and with that he sat down and appeared to become absorbed in thought.
Roberts brought the borrowed blanket and several saddle-blankets over to where Joan was, and laying them down he began to kick and scrape stones and brush aside.
"Pretty rocky place, this here is," he said. "Reckon you'll sleep some, though."
Then he began arranging the blankets into a bed. Presently Joan felt a tug at her riding-skirt. She looked down.
"I'll be right by you," he whispered, with his big hand to his mouth, "an' I ain't a-goin' to sleep none."
Whereupon he returned to the camp-fire. Presently Joan, not because she was tired or sleepy, but because she wanted to act naturally, lay down on the bed and pulled a blanket up over her. There was no more talking among the men. Once she heard the jingle of spurs and the rustle of cedar brush. By and by Roberts came back to her, dragging his saddle, and lay down near her. Joan raised up a little to see Kells motionless and absorbed by the fire. He had a strained and tense position. She sank back softly and looked up at the cold bright stars. What was going to happen to her? Something terrible! The very night shadows, the silence, the presence of strange men, all told her. And a shudder that was a thrill ran over and over her.
She would lie awake. It would be impossible to sleep. And suddenly into her full mind flashed an idea to slip away in the darkness, find her horse, and so escape from any possible menace. This plan occupied her thoughts for a long while. If she had not been used to Western ways she would have tried just that thing. But she rejected it. She was not sure that she could slip away, or find her horse, or elude pursuit, and certainly not sure of her way home. It would be best to stay with Roberts.
When that was settled her mind ceased to race. She grew languid and sleepy. The warmth of the blankets stole over her. She had no idea of sleeping, yet she found sleep more and more difficult to resist. Time that must have been hours passed. The fire died down and then brightened; the shadows darkened and then lightened. Someone now and then got up to throw on wood. The thump of hobbled hoofs sounded out in the darkness. The wind was still and the coyotes were gone. She could no longer open her eyes. They seemed glued shut. And then gradually all sense of the night and the wild, of the drowsy warmth, faded.
When she awoke the air was nipping cold. Her eyes snapped open clear and bright. The tips of the cedars were ruddy in the sunrise. A camp-fire crackled. Blue smoke curled upward. Joan sat up with a rush of memory. Roberts and Kells were bustling round the fire. The man Bill was carrying water. The other fellow had brought in the horses and was taking off the hobbles. No one, apparently, paid any attention to Joan. She got up and smoothed out her tangled hair, which she always wore in a braid down her back when she rode. She had slept, then, and in her boots! That was the first time she had ever done that. When she went down to the brook to bathe her face and wash her hands, the men still, apparently, took no notice of her. She began to hope that Roberts had exaggerated their danger. Her horse was rather skittish and did not care for strange hands. He broke away from the bunch. Joan went after him, even lost sight of camp. Presently, after she caught him, she led him back to camp and tied him up. And then she was so far emboldened as to approach the fire and to greet the men.
"Good morning," she said, brightly.
Kells had his back turned at the moment. He did not move or speak or give any sign he had heard. The man Bill stared boldly at her, but without a word. Roberts returned her greeting, and as she glanced quickly at him, drawn by his voice, he turned away. But she had seen that his face was dark, haggard, worn.
Joan's cheer and hope sustained a sudden and violent check. There was something wrong in this group, and she could not guess what it was. She seemed to have a queer, dragging weight at her limbs. She was glad to move over to a stone and sink down upon it. Roberts brought her breakfast, but he did not speak or look at her. His hands shook. And this frightened Joan. What was going to happen? Roberts went back to the camp-fire. Joan had to force herself to eat. There was one thing of which she was sure--that she would need all the strength and fortitude she could summon.
Joan became aware, presently, that Kells was conversing with Roberts, but too low for her to hear what was said. She saw Roberts make a gesture of fierce protest. About the other man there was an air cool, persuading, dominant. He ceased speaking, as if the incident were closed. Roberts hurried and blundered through his task with his pack and went for his horse. The animal limped slightly, but evidently was not in bad shape. Roberts saddled him, tied on the pack. Then he saddled Joan's horse. That done, he squared around with the front of a man who had to face something he dreaded.
"Come on, Joan. We're ready," he called. His voice was loud, but not natural.
Joan started to cross to him when Kells strode between them. She might not have been there, for all the sign this ominous man gave of her presence. He confronted Roberts in the middle of the camp-circle, and halted, perhaps a rod distant.
"Roberts, get on your horse and clear out," he said.
Roberts dropped his halter and straightened up. It was a bolder action than any he had heretofore given. Perhaps the mask was off now; he was wholly sure of what he had only feared; subterfuge and blindness were in vain; and now he could be a man. Some change worked in his face--a blanching, a setting.
"No, I won't go without the girl," he said.
"But you can't take her!"
Joan vibrated to a sudden start. So this was what was going to happen. Her heart almost stood still. Breathless and quivering, she watched these two men, about whom now all was strangely magnified.
"Reckon I'll go along with you, then," replied Roberts.
"Your company's not wanted."
"Wal, I'll go anyway."
This was only play at words, Joan thought. She divined in Roberts a cold and grim acceptance of something he had expected. And the voice of Kells--what did that convey? Still the man seemed slow, easy, kind, amiable.
"Haven't you got any sense, Roberts?" he asked.
Roberts made no reply to that.
"Go on home. Say nothing or anything--whatever you like," continued Kells. "You did me a favor once over in California. I like to remember favors. Use your head now. Hit the trail."
"Not without her. I'll fight first," declared Roberts, and his hands began to twitch and jerk.
Joan did not miss the wonderful intentness of the pale-gray eyes that watched Roberts--his face, his glance, his hands.
"What good will it do to fight?" asked Kells. He laughed coolly. "That won't help her... You ought to know what you'll get."
"Kells--I'll die before I leave that girl in your clutches," flashed Roberts. "An' I ain't a-goin' to stand here an' argue with you. Let her come--or--"
"You don't strike me as a fool," interrupted Kells. His voice was suave, smooth, persuasive, cool. What strength--what certainty appeared behind it! "It's not my habit to argue with fools. Take the chance I offer you. Hit the trail. Life is precious, man!... You've no chance here. And what's one girl more or less to you?"
"Kells, I may be a fool, but I'm a man," passionately rejoined Roberts. "Why, you're somethin' inhuman! I knew that out in the gold-fields. But to think you can stand there--an' talk sweet an' pleasant--with no idee of manhood!... Let her come now--or--or I'm a-goin' for my gun!"
"Roberts, haven't you a wife--children?"
"Yes, I have," shouted Roberts, huskily. "An' that wife would disown me if I left Joan Randle to you. An' I've got a grown girl. Mebbe some day she might need a man to stand between her an' such as you, Jack Kells!"
All Roberts' pathos and passion had no effect, unless to bring out by contrast the singular and ruthless nature of Jack Kells.
"Will you hit the trail?"
"No!" thundered Roberts.
Until then Joan Randle had been fascinated, held by the swift interchange between her friend and enemy. But now she had a convulsion of fear. She had seen men fight, but never to the death. Roberts crouched like a wolf at bay. There was a madness upon him. He shook like a rippling leaf. Suddenly his shoulder lurched--his arm swung.
Joan wheeled away in horror, shutting her eyes, covering her ears, running blindly. Then upon her muffled hearing burst the boom of a gun.
Joan ran on, stumbling over rocks and brush, with a darkness before her eyes, the terror in her soul. She was out in the cedars when someone grasped her from behind. She felt the hands as the coils of a snake. Then she was ready to faint, but she must not faint. She struggled away, stood free. It was the man Bill who had caught her. He said something that was unintelligible. She reached for the snag of a dead cedar and, leaning there, fought her weakness, that cold black horror which seemed a physical thing in her mind, her blood, her muscles.
When she recovered enough for the thickness to leave her sight she saw Kells coming, leading her horse and his own. At sight of him a strange, swift heat shot through her. Then she was confounded with the thought of Roberts.
"Ro--Roberts?" she faltered.
Kells gave her a piercing glance. "Miss Randle, I had to take the fight out of your friend," he said.
"I just crippled his gun arm. If I hadn't he would have hurt somebody. He'll ride back to Hoadley and tell your folks about it. So they'll know you're safe."
"Safe!" she whispered.
"That's what I said, Miss Randle. If you're going to ride out into the border--if it's possible to be safe out there you'll be so with me."
"But I want to go home. Oh, please let me go!"
"I couldn't think of it."
"Then--what will you--do with me?"
Again that gray glance pierced her. His eyes were clear, flawless, like crystal, without coldness, warmth, expression. "I'll get a barrel of gold out of you."
"How?" she asked, wonderingly.
"I'll hold you for ransom. Sooner or later those prospectors over there are going to strike gold. Strike it rich! I know that. I've got to make a living some way."
Kells was tightening the cinch on her saddle while he spoke. His voice, his manner, the amiable smile on his intelligent face, they all appeared to come from sincerity. But for those strange eyes Joan would have wholly believed him. As it was, a half doubt troubled her. She remembered the character Roberts had given this man. Still, she was recovering her nerve. It had been the certainty of disaster to Roberts that had made her weaken. As he was only slightly wounded and free to ride home safely, she had not the horror of his death upon her. Indeed, she was now so immensely uplifted that she faced the situation unflinchingly.
"Bill," called Kells to the man standing there with a grin on his coarse red face, "you go back and help Halloway pack. Then take my trail."
Bill nodded, and was walking away when Kells called after him: "And say, Bill, don't say anything to Roberts. He's easily riled."
"Haw! Haw! Haw!" laughed Bill.
His harsh laughter somehow rang jarringly in Joan's ears. But she was used to violent men who expressed mirth over mirthless jokes.
"Get up, Miss Randle," said Kells as he mounted. "We've a long ride. You'll need all your strength. So I advise you to come quietly with me and not try to get away. It won't be any use trying."
Joan climbed into her saddle and rode after him. Once she looked back in hope of seeing Roberts, of waving a hand to him. She saw his horse standing saddled, and she saw Bill struggling under a pack, but there was no sign of Roberts. Then more cedars intervened and the camp site was lost to view. When she glanced ahead her first thought was to take in the points of Kells's horse. She had been used to horses all her life. Kells rode a big rangy bay--a horse that appeared to snort speed and endurance. Her pony could never run away from that big brute. Still Joan had the temper to make an attempt to escape, if a favorable way presented.
The morning was rosy, clear, cool; there was a sweet, dry tang in the air; white-tailed deer bounded out of the open spaces; and the gray-domed, glistening mountains, with their bold, black-fringed slopes, overshadowed the close foot-hills.
Joan was a victim to swift vagaries of thought and conflicting emotions. She was riding away with a freebooter, a road-agent, to be held for ransom. The fact was scarcely credible. She could not shake the dread of nameless peril. She tried not to recall Roberts's words, yet they haunted her. If she had not been so handsome, he had said! Joan knew she possessed good looks, but they had never caused her any particular concern. That Kells had let that influence him--as Roberts had imagined--was more than absurd. Kells had scarcely looked at her. It was gold such men wanted. She wondered what her ransom would be, where her uncle would get it, and if there really was a likelihood of that rich strike. Then she remembered her mother, who had died when she was a little girl, and a strange, sweet sadness abided with her. It passed. She saw her uncle--that great, robust, hearty, splendid old man, with his laugh and his kindness, and his love for her, and his everlasting unquenchable belief that soon he would make a rich gold-strike. What a roar and a stampede he would raise at her loss! The village camp might be divided on that score, she thought, because the few young women in that little settlement hated her, and the young men would have more peace without her. Suddenly her thought shifted to Jim Cleve, the cause of her present misfortune. She had forgotten Jim. In the interval somehow he had grown. Sweet to remember how he had fought for her and kept it secret! After all, she had misjudged him. She had hated him because she liked him. Maybe she did more! That gave her a shock. She recalled his kisses and then flamed all over. If she did not hate him she ought to. He had been so useless; he ran after her so; he was the laughing-stock of the village; his actions made her other admirers and friends believe she cared for him, was playing fast-and-loose with him. Still, there was a difference now. He had terribly transgressed. He had frightened her with threats of dire ruin to himself. And because of that she had trailed him, to fall herself upon a hazardous experience. Where was Jim Cleve now? Like a flash then occurred to her the singular possibility. Jim had ridden for the border with the avowed and desperate intention of finding Kells and Gulden and the bad men of that trackless region. He would do what he had sworn he would. And here she was, the cause of it all, a captive of this notorious Kells! She was being led into that wild border country. Somewhere out there Kells and Jim Cleve would meet. Jim would find her in Kells's hands. Then there would be hell, Joan thought. The possibility, the certainty, seemed to strike deep into her, reviving that dread and terror. Yet she thrilled again; a ripple that was not all cold coursed through her. Something had a birth in her then, and the part of it she understood was that she welcomed the adventure with a throbbing heart, yet looked with awe and shame and distrust at this new, strange side of her nature.
And while her mind was thus thronged the morning hours passed swiftly, the miles of foot-hills were climbed and descended. A green gap of canon, wild and yellow-walled, yawned before her, opening into the mountain.
Kells halted on the grassy bank of a shallow brook. "Get down. We'll noon here and rest the horses," he said to Joan. "I can't say that you're anything but game. We've done perhaps twenty-five miles this morning."
The mouth of this canon was a wild, green-flowered, beautiful place. There were willows and alders and aspens along the brook. The green bench was like a grassy meadow. Joan caught a glimpse of a brown object, a deer or bear, stealing away through spruce-trees on the slope. She dismounted, aware now that her legs ached and it was comfortable to stretch them. Looking backward across the valley toward the last foot-hill, she saw the other men, with horses and packs, coming. She had a habit of close observation, and she thought that either the men with the packs had now one more horse than she remembered, or else she had not seen the extra one. Her attention shifted then. She watched Kells unsaddle the horses. He was wiry, muscular, quick with his hands. The big, blue-cylindered gun swung in front of him. That gun had a queer kind of attraction for her. The curved black butt made her think of a sharp grip of hand upon it. Kells did not hobble the horses. He slapped his bay on the haunch and drove him down toward the brook. Joan's pony followed. They drank, cracked the stones, climbed the other bank, and began to roll in the grass. Then the other men with the packs trotted up. Joan was glad. She had not thought of it before, but now she felt she would rather not be alone with Kells. She remarked then that there was no extra horse in the bunch. It seemed strange, her thinking that, and she imagined she was not clear-headed.
"Throw the packs, Bill," said Kells.
Another fire was kindled and preparations made toward a noonday meal. Bill and Halloway appeared loquacious, and inclined to steal glances at Joan when Kells could not notice. Halloway whistled a Dixie tune. Then Bill took advantage of the absence of Kells, who went down to the brook, and he began to leer at Joan and make bold eyes at her. Joan appeared not to notice him, and thereafter averted; her gaze. The men chuckled.
"She's the proud hussy! But she ain't foolin' me. I've knowed a heap of wimmen." Whereupon Halloway guffawed, and between them, in lower tones, they exchanged mysterious remarks. Kells returned with a bucket of water.
"What's got into you men?" he queried.
Both of them looked around, blusteringily innocent.
"Reckon it's the same that's ailin' you," replied Bill. He showed that among wild, unhampered men how little could inflame and change.
"Boss, it's the onaccustomed company," added Halloway, with a conciliatory smile. "Bill sort of warms up. He jest can't help it. An' seein' what a thunderin' crab he always is, why I'm glad an' welcome."
Kells vouchsafed no reply to this and, turning away, continued his tasks. Joan had a close look at his eyes and again she was startled. They were not like eyes, but just gray spaces, opaque openings, with nothing visible behind, yet with something terrible there.
The preparations for the meal went on, somewhat constrainedly on the part of Bill and Halloway, and presently were ended. Then the men attended to it with appetites born of the open and of action. Joan sat apart from them on the bank of the brook, and after she had appeased her own hunger she rested, leaning back in the shade of an alderbush. A sailing shadow crossed near her, and, looking up, she saw an eagle flying above the ramparts of the canon. Then she had a drowsy spell, but she succumbed to it only to the extent of closing her eyes. Time dragged on. She would rather have been in the saddle. These men were leisurely, and Kells was provokingly slow. They had nothing to do with time but waste it. She tried to combat the desire for hurry, for action; she could not gain anything by worry. Nevertheless, resignation would not come to her and her hope began to flag. Something portended evil--something hung in the balance.
The snort and tramp of horses roused her, and upon sitting up she saw the men about to pack and saddle again. Kells had spoken to her only twice so far that day. She was grateful for his silence, but could not understand it. He seemed to have a preoccupied air that somehow did not fit the amiableness of his face. He looked gentle, good-natured; he was soft-spoken; he gave an impression of kindness. But Joan began to realize that he was not what he seemed. He had something on his mind. It was not conscience, nor a burden: it might be a projection, a plan, an absorbing scheme, a something that gained food with thought. Joan wondered doubtfully if it were the ransom of gold he expected to get.
Presently, when all was about in readiness for a fresh start, she rose to her feet. Kells's bay was not tractable at the moment. Bill held out Joan's bridle to her and their hands touched. The contact was an accident, but it resulted in Bill's grasping back at her hand. She jerked it away, scarcely comprehending. Then all under the brown of his face she saw creep a dark, ruddy tide. He reached for her then--put his hand on her breast. It was an instinctive animal action. He meant nothing. She divined that he could not help it. She had lived with rough men long enough to know he had no motive--no thought at all. But at the profanation of such a touch she shrank back, uttering a cry.
At her elbow she heard a quick step and a sharp-drawn breath or hiss.
"AW, JACK!" cried Bill.
Then Kells, in lithe and savage swiftness, came between them. He swung his gun, hitting Bill full in the face. The man fell, limp and heavy, and he lay there, with a bloody gash across his brow. Kells stood over him a moment, slowly lowering the gun. Joan feared he meant to shoot.
"Oh, don't--don't!" she cried. "He--he didn't hurt me."
Kells pushed her back. When he touched her she seemed to feel the shock of an electric current. His face had not changed, but his eyes were terrible. On the background of gray were strange, leaping red flecks.
"Take your horse," he ordered. "No. Walk across the brook. There's a trail. Go up the canon. I'll come presently. Don't run and don't hide. It'll be the worse for you if you do. Hurry!"
Joan obeyed. She flashed past the open-jawed Halloway, and, running down to the brook, stepped across from stone to stone. She found the trail and hurriedly followed it. She did not look back. It never occurred to her to hide, to try to get away. She only obeyed, conscious of some force that dominated her. Once she heard loud voices, then the shrill neigh of a horse. The trail swung under the left wall of the canon and ran along the noisy brook. She thought she heard shots and was startled, but she could not be sure. She stopped to listen. Only the babble of swift water and the sough of wind in the spruces greeted her ears. She went on, beginning to collect her thoughts, to conjecture on the significance of Kells's behavior.
But had that been the spring of his motive? She doubted it--she doubted all about him, save that subtle essence of violence, of ruthless force and intensity, of terrible capacity, which hung round him.
A halloo caused her to stop and turn. Two pack-horses were jogging up the trail. Kells was driving them and leading her pony. Nothing could be seen of the other men. Kells rapidly overhauled her, and she had to get out of the trail to let the pack-animals pass. He threw her bridle to her.
"Get up," he said.
She complied. And then she bravely faced him. "Where are--the other men?"
"We parted company," he replied, curtly.
"Why?" she persisted.
"Well, if you're anxious to know, it was because you were winning their--regard--too much to suit me."
"Winning their regard!" Joan exclaimed, blankly.
Here those gray, piercing eyes went through her, then swiftly shifted. She was quick to divine from that the inference in his words--he suspected her of flirting with those ruffians, perhaps to escape him through them. That had only been his suspicion--groundless after his swift glance at her. Perhaps unconsciousness of his meaning, a simulated innocence, and ignorance might serve her with this strange man. She resolved to try it, to use all her woman's intuition and wit and cunning. Here was an educated man who was a criminal--an outcast. Deep within him might be memories of a different life. They might be stirred. Joan decided in that swift instant that, if she could understand him, learn his real intentions toward her, she could cope with him.
"Bill and his pard were thinking too much of--of the ransom I'm after," went on Kells, with a short laugh. "Come on now. Ride close to me."
Joan turned into the trail with his laugh ringing in her ears. Did she only imagine a mockery in it? Was there any reason to believe a word this man said? She appeared as helpless to see through him as she was in her predicament.
They had entered a canon, such as was typical of that mountain range, and the winding trail which ran beneath the yellow walls was one unused to travel. Joan could not make out any old tracks, except those of deer and cougar. The crashing of wild animals into the chaparral, and the scarcely frightened flight of rabbits and grouse attested to the wildness of the place. They passed an old tumbledown log cabin, once used, no doubt, by prospectors and hunters. Here the trail ended. Yet Kells kept on up the canon. And for all Joan could tell the walls grew only the higher and the timber heavier and the space wilder.
At a turn, when the second pack-horse, that appeared unused to his task, came fully into Joan's sight, she was struck with his resemblance to some horse with which she was familiar. It was scarcely an impression which she might have received from seeing Kells's horse or Bill's or any one's a few times. Therefore she watched this animal, studying his gait and behavior. It did not take long for her to discover that he was not a pack-horse. He resented that burden. He did not know how to swing it. This made her deeply thoughtful and she watched closer than ever. All at once there dawned on her the fact that the resemblance here was to Roberts's horse. She caught her breath and felt again that cold gnawing of fear within her. Then she closed her eyes the better to remember significant points about Roberts's sorrel--a white left front foot, an old diamond brand, a ragged forelock, and an unusual marking, a light bar across his face. When Joan had recalled these, she felt so certain that she would find them on this pack-horse that she was afraid to open her eyes. She forced herself to look, and it seemed that in one glance she saw three of them. Still she clung to hope. Then the horse, picking his way, partially turning toward her, disclosed the bar across his face.
Joan recognized it. Roberts was not on his way home. Kells had lied. Kells had killed him. How plain and fearful the proof! It verified Roberts's gloomy prophecy. Joan suddenly grew sick and dizzy. She reeled in her saddle. It was only by dint of the last effort of strength and self-control that she kept her seat. She fought the horror as if it were a beast. Hanging over the pommel, with shut eyes, letting her pony find the way, she sustained this shock of discovery and did not let it utterly overwhelm her. And as she conquered the sickening weakness her mind quickened to the changed aspect of her situation. She understood Kells and the appalling nature of her peril. She did not know how she understood him now, but doubt had utterly fled. All was clear, real, grim, present. Like a child she had been deceived, for no reason she could see. That talk of ransom was false. Likewise Kells's assertion that he had parted company with Halloway and Bill because he would not share the ransom--that, too, was false. The idea of a ransom, in this light, was now ridiculous. From that first moment Kells had wanted her; he had tried to persuade Roberts to leave her, and, failing, had killed him; he had rid himself of the other two men--and now Joan knew she had heard shots back there. Kells's intention loomed out of all his dark brooding, and it stood clear now to her, dastardly, worse than captivity, or torture, or death--the worst fate that could befall a woman.
The reality of it now was so astounding. True--as true as those stories she had deemed impossible! Because she and her people and friends had appeared secure in their mountain camp and happy in their work and trustful of good, they had scarcely credited the rumors of just such things as had happened to her. The stage held up by roadagents, a lonely prospector murdered and robbed, fights in the saloons and on the trails, and useless pursuit of hardriding men out there on the border, elusive as Arabs, swift as Apaches--these facts had been terrible enough, without the dread of worse. The truth of her capture, the meaning of it, were raw, shocking spurs to Joan Randle's intelligence and courage. Since she still lived, which was strange indeed in the illuminating light of her later insight into Kells and his kind, she had to meet him with all that was catlike and subtle and devilish at the command of a woman. She had to win him, foil him, kill him--or go to her death. She was no girl to be dragged into the mountain fastness by a desperado and made a plaything. Her horror and terror had worked its way deep into the depths of her and uncovered powers never suspected, never before required in her scheme of life. She had no longer any fear. She matched herself against this man. She anticipated him. And she felt like a woman who had lately been a thoughtless girl, who, in turn, had dreamed of vague old happenings of a past before she was born, of impossible adventures in her own future. Hate and wrath and outraged womanhood were not wholly the secret of Joan Randle's flaming spirit.
Joan Randle rode on and on, through the canon, out at its head and over a pass into another canon, and never did she let it be possible for Kells to see her eyes until she knew beyond peradventure of a doubt that they hid the strength and spirit and secret of her soul.