THE BORDER LEGION
By Zane Grey
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.
The time came when traveling was so steep and rough that she must think first of her horse and her own safety. Kells led up over a rock-jumbled spur of range, where she had sometimes to follow on foot. It seemed miles across that wilderness of stone. Foxes and wolves trotted over open places, watching stealthily. All around dark mountain peaks stood up. The afternoon was far advanced when Kells started to descend again, and he rode a zigzag course on weathered slopes and over brushy benches, down and down into the canons again.
A lonely peak was visible, sunset-flushed against the blue, from the point where Kells finally halted. That ended the longest ride Joan had ever made in one day. For miles and miles they had climbed and descended and wound into the mountains. Joan had scarcely any idea of direction. She was completely turned around and lost. This spot was the wildest and most beautiful she had ever seen. A canon headed here. It was narrow, low-walled, and luxuriant with grass and wild roses and willow and spruce and balsam. There were deer standing with long ears erect, motionless, curious, tame as cattle. There were moving streaks through the long grass, showing the course of smaller animals slipping away.
Then under a giant balsam, that reached aloft to the rim-wall, Joan saw a little log cabin, open in front. It had not been built very long; some of the log ends still showed yellow. It did not resemble the hunters' and prospectors' cabins she had seen on her trips with her uncle.
In a sweeping glance Joan had taken in these features. Kells had dismounted and approached her. She looked frankly, but not directly, at him.
"I'm tired—almost too tired to get off," she said.
"Fifty miles of rock and brush, up and down! Without a kick!" he exclaimed, admiringly. "You've got sand, girl!"
"Where are we?"
"This is Lost Canon. Only a few men know of it. And they are—attached to me. I intend to keep you here."
"How long?" She felt the intensity of his gaze.
"Why—as long as—" he replied, slowly, "till I get my ransom."
"What amount will you ask?"
"You're worth a hundred thousand in gold right now... Maybe later I might let you go for less."
Joan's keen-wrought perception registered his covert, scarcely veiled implication. He was studying her.
"Oh, poor uncle. He'll never, never get so much."
"Sure he will," replied Kells, bluntly.
Then he helped her out of the saddle. She was stiff and awkward, and she let herself slide. Kells handled her gently and like a gentleman, and for Joan the first agonizing moment of her ordeal was past. Her intuition had guided her correctly. Kells might have been and probably was the most depraved of outcast men; but the presence of a girl like her, however it affected him, must also have brought up associations of a time when by family and breeding and habit he had been infinitely different. His action here, just like the ruffian Bill's, was instinctive, beyond his control. Just this slight thing, this frail link that joined Kells to his past and better life, immeasurably inspirited Joan and outlined the difficult game she had to play.
"You're a very gallant robber," she said.
He appeared not to hear that or to note it; he was eying her up and down; and he moved closer, perhaps to estimate her height compared to his own.
"I didn't know you were so tall. You're above my shoulder."
"Yes, I'm very lanky."
"Lanky! Why you're not that. You've a splendid figure—tall, supple, strong; you're like a Nez Perce girl I knew once.... You're a beautiful thing. Didn't you know that?"
"Not particularly. My friends don't dare flatter me. I suppose I'll have to stand it from you. But I didn't expect compliments from Jack Kells of the Border Legion."
"Border Legion? Where'd you hear that name?"
"I didn't hear it. I made it up—thought of it myself."
"Well, you've invented something I'll use.... And what's your name—your first name? I heard Roberts use it."
Joan felt a cold contraction of all her internal being, but outwardly she never so much as nicked an eyelash. "My name's Joan."
"Joan!" He placed heavy, compelling hands on her shoulders and turned her squarely toward him.
Again she felt his gaze, strangely, like the reflection of sunlight from ice. She had to look at him. This was her supreme test. For hours she had prepared for it, steeled herself, wrought upon all that was sensitive in her; and now she prayed, and swiftly looked up into his eyes. They were windows of a gray hell. And she gazed into that naked abyss, at that dark, uncovered soul, with only the timid anxiety and fear and the unconsciousness of an innocent, ignorant girl.
"Joan! You know why I brought you here?"
"Yes, of course; you told me," she replied, steadily. "You want to ransom me for gold.... And I'm afraid you'll have to take me home without getting any."
"You know what I mean to do to you," he went on, thickly.
"Do to me?" she echoed, and she never quivered a muscle. "You—you didn't say.... I haven't thought.... But you won't hurt me, will you? It's not my fault if there's no gold to ransom me."
He shook her. His face changed, grew darker. "You KNOW what I mean."
"I don't." With some show of spirit she essayed to slip out of his grasp. He held her the tighter.
"How old are you?"
It was only in her height and development that Joan looked anywhere near her age. Often she had been taken for a very young girl.
"I'm seventeen," she replied. This was not the truth. It was a lie that did not falter on lips which had scorned falsehood.
"Seventeen!" he ejaculated in amaze. "Honestly, now?"
She lifted her chin scornfully and remained silent.
"Well, I thought you were a woman. I took you to be twenty-five—at least twenty-two. Seventeen, with that shape! You're only a girl—a kid. You don't know anything."
Then he released her, almost with violence, as if angered at her or himself, and he turned away to the horses. Joan walked toward the little cabin. The strain of that encounter left her weak, but once from under his eyes, certain that she had carried her point, she quickly regained her poise. There might be, probably would be, infinitely more trying ordeals for her to meet than this one had been; she realized, however, that never again would she be so near betrayal of terror and knowledge and self.
The scene of her isolation had a curious fascination for her. Something—and she shuddered—was to happen to her here in this lonely, silent gorge. There were some flat stones made into a rude seat under the balsam-tree, and a swift, yard-wide stream of clear water ran by. Observing something white against the tree, Joan went closer. A card, the ace of hearts, had been pinned to the bark by a small cluster of bullet-holes, every one of which touched the red heart, and one of them had obliterated it. Below the circle of bulletholes, scrawled in rude letters with a lead-pencil, was the name "Gulden." How little, a few nights back, when Jim Cleve had menaced Joan with the names of Kells and Gulden, had she imagined they were actual men she was to meet and fear! And here she was the prisoner of one of them. She would ask Kells who and what this Gulden was. The log cabin was merely a shed, without fireplace or window, and the floor was a covering of balsam boughs, long dried out and withered. A dim trail led away from it down the canon. If Joan was any judge of trails, this one had not seen the imprint of a horse track for many months. Kells had indeed brought her to a hiding place, one of those, perhaps, that camp gossip said was inaccessible to any save a border hawk. Joan knew that only an Indian could follow the tortuous and rocky trail by which Kells had brought her in. She would never be tracked there by her own people.
The long ride had left her hot, dusty, scratched, with tangled hair and torn habit. She went over to her saddle, which Kells had removed from her pony, and, opening the saddlebag, she took inventory of her possessions. They were few enough, but now, in view of an unexpected and enforced sojourn in the wilds, beyond all calculation of value. And they included towel, soap, toothbrush, mirror and comb and brush, a red scarf, and gloves. It occurred to her how seldom she carried that bag on her saddle, and, thinking back, referred the fact to accident, and then with honest amusement owned that the motive might have been also a little vanity. Taking the bag, she went to a flat stone by the brook and, rolling up her sleeves, proceeded to improve her appearance. With deft fingers she rebraided her hair and arranged it as she had worn it when only sixteen. Then, resolutely, she got up and crossed over to where Kells was unpacking.
"I'll help you get supper," she said.
He was on his knees in the midst of a jumble of camp duffle that had been hastily thrown together. He looked up at her—from her shapely, strong, brown arms to the face she had rubbed rosy.
"Say, but you're a pretty girl!"
He said it enthusiastically, in unstinted admiration, without the slightest subtlety or suggestion; and if he had been the devil himself it would have been no less a compliment, given spontaneously to youth and beauty.
"I'm glad if it's so, but please don't tell me," she rejoined, simply.
Then with swift and business-like movements she set to helping him with the mess the inexperienced pack-horse had made of that particular pack. And when that was straightened out she began with the biscuit dough while he lighted a fire. It appeared to be her skill, rather than her willingness, that he yielded to. He said very little, but he looked at her often. And he had little periods of abstraction. The situation was novel, strange to him. Sometimes Joan read his mind and sometimes he was an enigma. But she divined when he was thinking what a picture she looked there, on her knees before the bread-pan, with flour on her arms; of the difference a girl brought into any place; of how strange it seemed that this girl, instead of lying a limp and disheveled rag under a tree, weeping and praying for home, made the best of a bad situation and unproved it wonderfully by being a thoroughbred.
Presently they sat down, cross-legged, one on each side of the tarpaulin, and began the meal. That was the strangest supper Joan ever sat down to; it was like a dream where there was danger that tortured her; but she knew she was dreaming and would soon wake up. Kells was almost imperceptibly changing. The amiability of his face seemed to have stiffened. The only time he addressed her was when he offered to help her to more meat or bread or coffee. After the meal was finished he would not let her wash the pans and pots, and attended to that himself.
Joan went to the seat by the tree, near the camp-fire. A purple twilight was shadowing the canon. Far above, on the bold peak the last warmth of the afterglow was fading. There was no wind, no sound, no movement. Joan wondered where Jim Cleve was then. They had often sat in the twilight. She felt an unreasonable resentment toward him, knowing she was to blame, but blaming him for her plight. Then suddenly she thought of her uncle, of home, of her kindly old aunt who always worried so about her. Indeed, there was cause to worry. She felt sorrier for them than for herself. And that broke her spirit momentarily. Forlorn, and with a wave of sudden sorrow and dread and hopelessness, she dropped her head upon her knees and covered her face. Tears were a relief. She forgot Kells and the part she must play. But she remembered swiftly—at the rude touch of his hand.
"Here! Are you crying?" he asked, roughly.
"Do you think I'm laughing?" Joan retorted. Her wet eyes, as she raised them, were proof enough.
"I can't help—but cry—a little. I was th—thinking of home—of those who've been father and mother to me—since I was a baby. I wasn't crying—for myself. But they—they'll be so miserable. They loved me so."
"It won't help matters to cry."
Joan stood up then, no longer sincere and forgetful, but the girl with her deep and cunning game. She leaned close to him in the twilight.
"Did you ever love any one? Did you ever have a sister—a girl like me?"
Kells stalked away into the gloom.
Joan was left alone. She did not know whether to interpret his abstraction, his temper, and his action as favorable or not. Still she hoped and prayed they meant that he had some good in him. If she could only hide her terror, her abhorrence, her knowledge of him and his motive! She built up a bright camp-fire. There was an abundance of wood. She dreaded the darkness and the night. Besides, the air was growing chilly. So, arranging her saddle and blankets near the fire, she composed herself in a comfortable seat to await Kells's return and developments. It struck her forcibly that she had lost some of her fear of Kells and she did not know why. She ought to fear him more every hour—every minute. Presently she heard his step brushing the grass and then he emerged out of the gloom. He had a load of fire-wood on his shoulder.
"Did you get over your grief?" he asked, glancing down upon her.
"Yes," she replied.
Kells stooped for a red ember, with which he lighted his pipe, and then he seated himself a little back from the fire. The blaze threw a bright glare over him, and in it he looked neither formidable nor vicious nor ruthless. He asked her where she was born, and upon receiving an answer he followed that up with another question. And he kept this up until Joan divined that he was not so much interested in what he apparently wished to learn as he was in her presence, her voice, her personality. She sensed in him loneliness, hunger for the sound of a voice. She had heard her uncle speak of the loneliness of lonely camp-fires and how all men working or hiding or lost in the wilderness would see sweet faces in the embers and be haunted by soft voices. After all, Kells was human. And she talked as never before in her life, brightly, willingly, eloquently, telling the facts of her eventful youth and girlhood—the sorrow and the joy and some of the dreams—up to the time she had come to Camp Hoadley.
"Did you leave any sweethearts over there at Hoadley?" he asked, after a silence.
"A whole campful," she replied, with a laugh, "but admirers is a better name for them."
"Then there's no one fellow?"
"How would you like being kept here in this lonesome place for—well, say for ever?"
"I wouldn't like that," replied Joan. "I'd like this—camping out like this now—if my folks only knew I am alive and well and safe. I love lonely, dreamy places. I've dreamed of being in just such a one as this. It seems so far away here—so shut in by the walls and the blackness. So silent and sweet! I love the stars. They speak to me. And the wind in the spruces. Hear it.... Very low, mournful! That whispers to me—to-morrow I'd like it here if I had no worry. I've never grown up yet. I explore and climb trees and hunt for little birds and rabbits—young things just born, all fuzzy and sweet, frightened, piping or squealing for their mothers. But I won't touch one for worlds. I simply can't hurt anything. I can't spur my horse or beat him. Oh, I HATE pain!"
"You're a strange girl to live out here on this border," he said.
"I'm no different from other girls. You don't know girls."
"I knew one pretty well. She put a rope round my neck," he replied, grimly.
"Yes, I mean a halter, a hangman's noose. But I balked her!"
"Oh!... A good girl?"
"Bad! Bad to the core of her black heart—bad as I am!" he exclaimed, with fierce, low passion.
Joan trembled. The man, in an instant, seemed transformed, somber as death. She could not look at him, but she must keep on talking.
"Bad? You don't seem bad to me—only violent, perhaps, or wild.... Tell me about yourself."
She had stirred him. His neglected pipe fell from his hand. In the gloom of the camp-fire he must have seen faces or ghosts of his past.
"Why not?" he queried, strangely. "Why not do what's been impossible for years—open my lips? It'll not matter—to a girl who can never tell!... Have I forgotten? God!—I have not! Listen, so that you'll KNOW I'm bad. My name's not Kells. I was born in the East, and went to school there till I ran away. I was young, ambitious, wild. I stole. I ran away—came West in 'fifty-one to the gold-fields in California. There I became a prospector, miner, gambler, robber—and road-agent. I had evil in me, as all men have, and those wild years brought it out. I had no chance. Evil and gold and blood—they are one and the same thing. I committed every crime till no place, bad as it might be, was safe for me. Driven and hunted and shot and starved—almost hanged!... And now I'm—Kells! of that outcast crew you named 'the Border Legion!' Every black crime but one—the blackest—and that haunting me, itching my hands to-night."
"Oh, you speak so—so dreadfully!" cried Joan. "What can I say? I'm sorry for you. I don't believe it all. What—what black crime haunts you? Oh! what could be possible tonight—here in this lonely canon—with only me?"
Dark and terrible the man arose.
"Girl," he said, hoarsely. "To-night—to-night—I'll.... What have you done to me? One more day—and I'll be mad to do right by you—instead of WRONG.... Do you understand that?"
Joan leaned forward in the camp-fire light with outstretched hands and quivering lips, as overcome by his halting confession of one last remnant of honor as she was by the dark hint of his passion.
"No—no—I don't understand—nor believe!" she cried. "But you frighten me—so! I am all—all alone with you here. You said I'd be safe. Don't—don't—"
Her voice broke then and she sank back exhausted in her seat. Probably Kells had heard only the first words of her appeal, for he took to striding back and forth in the circle of the camp-fire light. The scabbard with the big gun swung against his leg. It grew to be a dark and monstrous thing in Joan's sight. A marvelous intuition born of that hour warned her of Kells's subjection to the beast in him, even while, with all the manhood left to him, he still battled against it. Her girlish sweetness and innocence had availed nothing, except mock him with the ghost of dead memories. He could not be won or foiled. She must get her hands on that gun—kill him—or—! The alternative was death for herself. And she leaned there, slowly gathering all the unconquerable and unquenchable forces of a woman's nature, waiting, to make one desperate, supreme, and final effort.
Kells strode there, a black, silent shadow, plodding with bent head, as if all about and above him were demons and furies.
Joan's perceptions of him, of the night, of the inanimate and imponderable black walls, and of herself, were exquisitely and abnormally keen. She saw him there, bowed under his burden, gloomy and wroth and sick with himself because the man in him despised the coward. Men of his stamp were seldom or never cowards. Their lives did not breed cowardice or baseness. Joan knew the burning in her breast—that thing which inflamed and swept through her like a wind of fire—was hate. Yet her heart held a grain of pity for him. She measured his forbearance, his struggle, against the monstrous cruelty and passion engendered by a wild life among wild men at a wild time. And, considering his opportunities of the long hours and lonely miles, she was grateful, and did not in the least underestimate what it cost him, how different from Bill or Halloway he had been. But all this was nothing, and her thinking of it useless, unless he conquered himself. She only waited, holding on to that steel-like control of her nerves, motionless and silent.
She leaned back against her saddle, a blanket covering her, with wide-open eyes, and despite the presence of that stalking figure and the fact of her mind being locked round one terrible and inevitable thought, she saw the changing beautiful glow of the fire-logs and the cold, pitiless stars and the mustering shadows under the walls. She heard, too, the low rising sigh of the wind in the balsam and the silvery tinkle of the brook, and sounds only imagined or nameless. Yet a stern and insupportable silence weighed her down. This dark canon seemed at the ends of the earth. She felt encompassed by illimitable and stupendous upflung mountains, insulated in a vast, dark, silent tomb.
Kells suddenly came to her, treading noiselessly, and he leaned over her. His visage was a dark blur, but the posture of him was that of a wolf about to spring. Lower he leaned—slowly—and yet lower. Joan saw the heavy gun swing away from his leg; she saw it black and clear against the blaze; a cold, blue light glinted from its handle. And then Kells was near enough for her to see his face and his eyes that were but shadows of flames. She gazed up at him steadily, open-eyed, with no fear or shrinking. His breathing was quick and loud. He looked down at her for an endless moment, then, straightening his bent form, he resumed his walk to and fro.
After that for Joan time might have consisted of moments or hours, each of which was marked by Kells looming over her. He appeared to approach her from all sides; he round her wide-eyed, sleepless; his shadowy glance gloated over her lithe, slender shape; and then he strode away into the gloom. Sometimes she could no longer hear his steps and then she was quiveringly alert, listening, fearful that he might creep upon her like a panther. At times he kept the camp-fire blazing brightly; at others he let it die down. And these dark intervals were frightful for her. The night seemed treacherous, in league with her foe. It was endless. She prayed for dawn—yet with a blank hopelessness for what the day might bring. Could she hold out through more interminable hours? Would she not break from sheer strain? There were moments when she wavered and shook like a leaf in the wind, when the beating of her heart was audible, when a child could have seen her distress. There were other moments when all was ugly, unreal, impossible like things in a nightmare. But when Kells was near or approached to look at her, like a cat returned to watch a captive mouse, she was again strong, waiting, with ever a strange and cold sense of the nearness of that swinging gun. Late in the night she missed him, for how long she had no idea. She had less trust in his absence than his presence. The nearer he came to her the stronger she grew and the clearer of purpose. At last the black void of canon lost its blackness and turned to gray. Dawn was at hand. The horrible endless night, in which she had aged from girl to woman, had passed. Joan had never closed her eyes a single instant.
When day broke she got up. The long hours in which she had rested motionlessly had left her muscles cramped and dead. She began to walk off the feeling. Kells had just stirred from his blanket under the balsam-tree. His face was dark, haggard, lined. She saw him go down to the brook and plunge his hands into the water and bathe his face with a kind of fury. Then he went up to the smoldering fire. There was a gloom, a somberness, a hardness about him that had not been noticeable the day before.
Joan found the water cold as ice, soothing to the burn beneath her skin. She walked away then, aware that Kells did not appear to care, and went up to where the brook brawled from under the cliff. This was a hundred paces from camp, though in plain sight. Joan looked round for her horse, but he was not to be seen. She decided to slip away the first opportunity that offered, and on foot or horseback, any way, to get out of Kells's clutches if she had to wander, lost in the mountains, till she starved. Possibly the day might be endurable, but another night would drive her crazy. She sat on a ledge, planning and brooding, till she was startled by a call from Kells. Then slowly she retraced her steps.
"Don't you want to eat?" he asked.
"I'm not hungry," she replied.
"Well, eat anyhow—if it chokes you," he ordered.
Joan seated herself while he placed food and drink before her. She did not look at him and did not feel his gaze upon her. Far asunder as they had been yesterday the distance between them to-day was incalculably greater. She ate as much as she could swallow and pushed the rest away. Leaving the camp-fire, she began walking again, here and there, aimlessly, scarcely seeing what she looked at. There was a shadow over her, an impending portent of catastrophe, a moment standing dark and sharp out of the age-long hour. She leaned against the balsam and then she rested in the stone seat, and then she had to walk again. It might have been long, that time; she never knew how long or short. There came a strange flagging, sinking of her spirit, accompanied by vibrating, restless, uncontrollable muscular activity. Her nerves were on the verge of collapse.
It was then that a call from Kells, clear and ringing, thrilled all the weakness from her in a flash, and left her limp and cold. She saw him coming. His face looked amiable again, bright against what seemed a vague and veiled background. Like a mountaineer he strode. And she looked into his strange, gray glance to see unmasked the ruthless power, the leaping devil, the ungovernable passion she had sensed in him.
He grasped her arm and with a single pull swung her to him. "YOU'VE got to pay that ransom!"
He handled her as if he thought she resisted, but she was unresisting. She hung her head to hide her eyes. Then he placed an arm round her shoulders and half led, half dragged her toward the cabin.
Joan saw with startling distinctness the bits of balsam and pine at her feet and pale pink daisies in the grass, and then the dry withered boughs. She was in the cabin.
"Girl!... I'm hungry—for you!" he breathed, hoarsely. And turning her toward him, he embraced her, as if his nature was savage and he had to use a savage force.
If Joan struggled at all, it was only slightly, when she writhed and slipped, like a snake, to get her arm under his as it clasped her neck. Then she let herself go. He crushed her to him. He bent her backward—tilted her face with hard and eager hand. Like a madman, with hot working lips, he kissed her. She felt blinded—scorched. But her purpose was as swift and sure and wonderful as his passion was wild. The first reach of her groping hand found his gun-belt. Swift as light her hand slipped down. Her fingers touched the cold gun—grasped with thrill on thrill—slipped farther down, strong and sure to raise the hammer. Then with a leaping, strung intensity that matched his own she drew the gun. She raised it while her eyes were shut. She lay passive under his kisses—the devouring kisses of one whose manhood had been denied the sweetness, the glory, the fire, the life of woman's lips. It was a moment in which she met his primitive fury of possession with a woman's primitive fury of profanation. She pressed the gun against his side and pulled the trigger.
A thundering, muffled, hollow boom! The odor of burned powder stung her nostrils. Kells's hold on her tightened convulsively, loosened with strange, lessening power. She swayed back free of him, still with tight-shut eyes. A horrible cry escaped him—a cry of mortal agony. It wrenched her. And she looked to see him staggering amazed, stricken, at bay, like a wolf caught in cruel steel jaws. His hands came away from both sides, dripping with blood. They shook till the crimson drops spattered on the wall, on the boughs. Then he seemed to realize and he clutched at her with these bloody hands.
"God Almighty!" he panted. "You shot me!... You—you girl!... You she-cat... You knew—all the time... You she-cat!... Give me—that gun!"
"Kells, get back! I'll kill you!" she cried. The big gun, outstretched between them, began to waver.
Kells did not see the gun. In his madness he tried to move, to reach her, but he could not; he was sinking. His legs sagged under him, let him down to his knees, and but for the wall he would have fallen. Then a change transformed him. The black, turgid, convulsed face grew white and ghastly, with beads of clammy sweat and lines of torture. His strange eyes showed swiftly passing thought—wonder, fear, scorn—even admiration.
"Joan, you've done—for me!" he gasped. "You've broken my back!... It'll kill me! Oh the pain—the pain! And I can't stand pain! You—you girl! You innocent seventeen-year-old girl! You that couldn't hurt any creature! You so tender—so gentle!... Bah! you fooled me. The cunning of a woman! I ought—to know. A good woman's—more terrible than a—bad woman.... But I deserved this. Once I used—to be.... Only, the torture!... Why didn't you—kill me outright?... Joan—Randle—watch me—die! Since I had—to die—by rope or bullet—I'm glad you—you—did for me.... Man or beast—I believe—I loved you!"
Joan dropped the gun and sank beside him, helpless, horror-stricken, wringing her hands. She wanted to tell him she was sorry, that he drove her to it, that he must let her pray for him. But she could not speak. Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth and she seemed strangling.
Another change, slower and more subtle, passed over Kells. He did not see Joan. He forgot her. The white shaded out of his face, leaving a gray like that of his somber eyes. Spirit, sense, life, were fading from him. The quivering of a racked body ceased. And all that seemed left was a lonely soul groping on the verge of the dim borderland between life and death. Presently his shoulders slipped along the wall and he fell, to lie limp and motionless before Joan. Then she fainted.
When Joan returned to consciousness she was lying half outside the opening of the cabin and above her was a drift of blue gun-smoke, slowly floating upward. Almost as swiftly as perception of that smoke came a shuddering memory. She lay still, listening. She did not hear a sound except the tinkle and babble and gentle rush of the brook. Kells was dead, then. And overmastering the horror of her act was a relief, a freedom, a lifting of her soul out of the dark dread, a something that whispered justification of the fatal deed.
She got up and, avoiding to look within the cabin, walked away. The sun was almost at the zenith. Where had the morning hours gone?
"I must get away," she said, suddenly. The thought quickened her. Down the canon the horses were grazing. She hurried along the trail, trying to decide whether to follow this dim old trail or endeavor to get out the way she had been brought in. She decided upon the latter. If she traveled slowly, and watched for familiar landmarks, things she had seen once, and hunted carefully for the tracks, she believed she might be successful. She had the courage to try. Then she caught her pony and led him back to camp.
"What shall I take?" she pondered. She decided upon very little—a blanket, a sack of bread and meat, and a canteen of water. She might need a weapon, also. There was only one, the gun with which she had killed Kells. It seemed utterly impossible to touch that hateful thing. But now that she had liberated herself, and at such cost, she must not yield to sentiment. Resolutely she started for the cabin, but when she reached it her steps were dragging. The long, dull-blue gun lay where she had dropped it. And out of the tail of averted eyes she saw a huddled shape along the wall. It was a sickening moment when she reached a shaking hand for the gun. And at that instant a low moan transfixed her.
She seemed frozen rigid. Was the place already haunted? Her heart swelled in her throat and a dimness came before her eyes. But another moan brought a swift realization—Kells was alive. And the cold, clamping sickness, the strangle in her throat, all the feelings of terror, changed and were lost in a flood of instinctive joy. He was not dead. She had not killed him. She did not have blood on her hands. She was not a murderer.
She whirled to look at him. There he lay, ghastly as a corpse. And all her woman's gladness fled. But there was compassion left to her, and, forgetting all else, she knelt beside him. He was as cold as stone. She felt no stir, no beat of pulse in temple or wrist. Then she placed her ear against his breast. His heart beat weakly.
"He's alive," she whispered. "But—he's dying.... What shall I do?"
Many thoughts flashed across her mind. She could not help him now; he would be dead soon; she did not need to wait there beside him; there was a risk of some of his comrades riding into that rendezvous. Suppose his back was not broken after all! Suppose she stopped the flow of blood, tended him, nursed him, saved his life? For if there were one chance of his living, which she doubted, it must be through her. Would he not be the same savage the hour he was well and strong again? What difference could she make in such a nature? The man was evil. He could not conquer evil. She had been witness to that. He had driven Roberts to draw and had killed him. No doubt he had deliberately and coldly murdered the two ruffians, Bill and Halloway, just so he could be free of their glances at her and be alone with her. He deserved to die there like a dog.
What Joan Randle did was surely a woman's choice. Carefully she rolled Kells over. The back of his vest and shirt was wet with blood. She got up to find a knife, towel, and water. As she returned to the cabin he moaned again.
Joan had dressed many a wound. She was not afraid of blood. The difference was that she had shed it. She felt sick, but her hands were firm as she cut open the vest and shirt, rolled them aside, and bathed his back. The big bullet had made a gaping wound, having apparently gone through the small of his back. The blood still flowed. She could not tell whether or not Kell's spine was broken, but she believed that the bullet had gone between bone and muscle, or had glanced. There was a blue welt just over his spine, in line with the course of the wound. She tore her scarf into strips and used it for compresses and bandages. Then she laid him back upon a saddle-blanket. She had done all that was possible for the present, and it gave her a strange sense of comfort. She even prayed for his life, and, if that must go, for his soul. Then she got up. He was unconscious, white, death-like. It seemed that his torture, his near approach to death, had robbed his face of ferocity, of ruthlessness, and of that strange amiable expression. But then, his eyes, those furnace-windows, were closed.
Joan waited for the end to come. The afternoon passed and she did not leave the cabin. It was possible that he might come to and want water. She had once administered to a miner who had been fatally crushed in an avalanche; and never could forget his husky call for water and the gratitude in his eyes.
Sunset, twilight, and night fell upon the canon. And she began to feel solitude as something tangible. Bringing saddle and blankets into the cabin, she made a bed just inside, and, facing the opening and the stars, she lay down to rest, if not to sleep. The darkness did not keep her from seeing the prostrate figure of Kells. He lay there as silent as if he were already dead. She was exhausted, weary for sleep, and unstrung. In the night her courage fled and she was frightened at shadows. The murmuring of insects seemed augmented into a roar; the mourn of wolf and scream of cougar made her start; the rising wind moaned like a lost spirit. Dark fancies beset her. Troop on troop of specters moved out of the black night, assembling there, waiting for Kells to join them. She thought she was riding homeward over the back trail, sure of her way, remembering every rod of that rough travel, until she got out of the mountains, only to be turned back by dead men. Then fancy and dream, and all the haunted gloom of canon and cabin, seemed slowly to merge into one immense blackness.
The sun, rimming the east wall, shining into Joan's face, awakened her. She had slept hours. She felt rested, stronger. Like the night, something dark had passed away from her. It did not seem strange to her that she should feel that Kells still lived. She knew it. And examination proved her right. In him there had been no change except that he had ceased to bleed. There was just a flickering of life in him, manifest only in his slow, faint heart-beats.
Joan spent most of that day in sitting beside Kells. The whole day seemed only an hour. Sometimes she would look down the canon trail, half expecting to see horsemen riding up. If any of Kells's comrades happened to come, what could she tell them? They would be as bad as he, without that one trait which had kept him human for a day. Joan pondered upon this. It would never do to let them suspect she had shot Kells. So, carefully cleaning the gun, she reloaded it. If any men came, she would tell them that Bill had done the shooting.
Kells lingered. Joan began to feel that he would live, though everything indicated the contrary. Her intelligence told her he would die, and her feeling said he would not. At times she lifted his head and got water into his mouth with a spoon. When she did this he would moan. That night, during the hours she lay awake, she gathered courage out of the very solitude and loneliness. She had nothing to fear, unless someone came to the canon. The next day in no wise differed from the preceding. And then there came the third day, with no change in Kells till near evening, when she thought he was returning to consciousness. But she must have been mistaken. For hours she watched patiently. He might return to consciousness just before the end, and want to speak, to send a message, to ask a prayer, to feel a human hand at the last.
That night the crescent moon hung over the canon. In the faint light Joan could see the blanched face of Kells, strange and sad, no longer seeming evil. The time came when his lips stirred. He tried to talk. She moistened his lips and gave him a drink. He murmured incoherently, sank again into a stupor, to rouse once more and babble tike a madman. Then he lay quietly for long—so long that sleep was claiming Joan. Suddenly he startled her by calling very faintly but distinctly: "Water! Water!"
Joan bent over him, lifting his head, helping him to drink. She could see his eyes, like dark holes in something white.
"Is—that—you—mother?" he whispered.
"Yes," replied Joan.
He sank immediately into another stupor or sleep, from which he did not rouse. That whisper of his—mother—touched Joan. Bad men had mothers just the same as any other kind of men. Even this Kells had a mother. He was still a young man. He had been youth, boy, child, baby. Some mother had loved him, cradled him, kissed his rosy baby hands, watched him grow with pride and glory, built castles in her dreams of his manhood, and perhaps prayed for him still, trusting he was strong and honored among men. And here he lay, a shattered wreck, dying for a wicked act, the last of many crimes. It was a tragedy. It made Joan think of the hard lot of mothers, and then of this unsettled Western wild, where men flocked in packs like wolves, and spilled blood like water, and held life nothing.
Joan sought her rest and soon slept. In the morning she did not at once go to Kells. Somehow she dreaded finding him conscious, almost as much as she dreaded the thought of finding him dead. When she did bend over him he was awake, and at sight of her he showed a faint amaze.
"Joan!" he whispered.
"Yes," she replied.
"Are you—with me still?"
"Of course, I couldn't leave you."
The pale eyes shadowed strangely, darkly. "I'm alive yet. And you stayed!... Was it yesterday—you threw my gun—on me?"