Authors: Zane Grey
“Well, I guess. I'll introduce you. Joan, here are two of my friends . . . Sam Gulden and Red Pearce.”
Gulden grunted something.
“Missus Kells, I'm glad to meet you,” said Pearce.
Just then the other three men entered the cabin and Joan took advantage of the commotion they made to get out into the air. She felt sick, frightened, and yet terribly enraged. She staggered a little as she went out and she knew she was as pale as death. These visitors thrust reality upon her with a cruel suddenness. There was something terrible in the mere presence of this Gulden. She had not yet dared to take a good look at him. But what she felt was overwhelming. She
wanted to run. Yet escape now was infinitely more of a menace than before. If she slipped away, it would be these new enemies who would pursue her, track her like hounds. She understood why Kells had introduced her as his wife. She hated the idea with a shameful and burning hate, but a moment's reflection taught her that Kells had answered once more to a good instinct. At the moment he had meant that to protect her. Further reflection persuaded Joan that she would be wise to act naturally and to carry out the deception as far as it was possible for her. It was her only hope. Her position had again grown perilous. She thought of the gun she had secreted and it gave her strength to control her agitation, and to return to the cabin outwardly calm.
The men had Kells half turned over with the flesh of his back exposed.
“Aw, Gul, it's whiskey he needs,” said one.
“If you let out any more blood, he'll croak sure,” protested another.
“Look how weak he is,” said Red Pearce.
“Ain't it a hell of a lot you fellers know?” roared Gulden. “It ain't . . . yes! I served my time . . . but that ain't none of your business. Look here. See that blue spot.”
Gulden pressed a huge finger down upon the blue welt on Kells's back. The bandit moaned.
“Thet's lead . . . thet's the bullet,” declared Gulden.
“Damn me, Gul, if you ain't correct!” exclaimed Pearce.
Kells turned his head. “When you punched that place . . . it made me numb all over. . . . Gul, if you've located the bullet, cut it out.”
Joan did not watch the operation. As she went away to the seat under the balsam, she heard a sharp cry,
and then cheers. Evidently the grim Gulden had been both swift and successful.
Presently the men came out of the cabin and began to attend to their horses and the pack train. Pearce looked for Joan and, upon seeing her, called out: “Kells wants you.”
Joan found the bandit half propped up against a saddle with a damp and pallid face, but an altogether different look.
“Joan, that bullet was pressing on my spine,” he said. “Now it's out. All that deadness is gone. I feel alive. I'll get well, soon. . . . Gulden was curious over the bullet. It's a forty-five caliber, and neither Bailey nor Halloway use that caliber of gun, Gulden remembered. He's cunning. Bailey was as near being a friend to Gulden as any man I know of. I can't trust any of those men, particularly Gulden. You stay pretty close by me.”
“Kells, you'll let me go soon . . . help me to get home?” implored Joan in a low voice.
“Girl, it'd never be safe now,” he replied.
“Then later . . . soon . . . when it is safe?”
“We'll see. . . . But you're . . . my wife now.”
With the latter words the man subtly changed. Something of the power she had felt in him before his illness began again to be manifested. Joan divined that these comrades had caused the difference in him.
“You wouldn't dare. . . .” Joan was unable to conclude her meaning. A tight band compressed her breast and throat, and she trembled.
“Will you dare go out there and tell them you're
my wife?” he queried. His voice had grown stronger and his eyes were blending shadows of thought.
Joan knew that she dared not. She must choose the lesser of two evils.
“No man . . . could be such a beast to a woman . . . after she'd saved his life,” she whispered.
“I could be anything. You had your chance. I told you to go. I said, if I ever got well, I'd be as I was . . . before.”
“But you'd have died.”
“That would have been better for you. Joan, I'll do this. Marry you honestly and leave the country. I've gold. I'm young. I love you. I intend to have you. And I'll begin life over again. What do you say?”
“Say? I'd die before . . . I'd marry you,” she panted.
“All right, Joan Randle,” he replied bitterly. “For a moment I saw a ghost. My old dead better self. It's gone. And you stay with me.”
After dark, Kells had his men build a fire before the open side of the cabin. He lay propped up on blankets and his saddle, while the others lounged or sat in a half circle in the light, facing him.
Joan drew her blankets into a corner where the shadows were thick and she could see without being seen. She wondered how she would ever sleep near all these wild menâif she could ever sleep again. Yet she seemed more curious and wakeful than frightened. She had no way to explain it but she felt that her presence in camp had a subtle influence, at once restraining and exciting. So she looked out upon the scene with wide-open eyes. She received more strongly than ever an impression of wildness. Even the campfire seemed to burn wildly; it did not glow and sputter and pale and brighten and sing like an honest campfire. It blazed in red fierce hurried flames, wild to consume the logs. It cast a baleful and sinister color upon the hard faces there. Then the blackness of the enveloping night was pitchy, without
any bold outline of caÃ±on wall or companionship of stars. The coyotes were out in force and from all around came their wild sharp barks. The wind rose and mourned weirdly through the balsams.
But it was in the men that Joan felt mostly that element of wildness. Kells lay with his ghastly face clear in the play of the moving flares of light. It was an intelligent, keen, strong face, but evil. Evil power stood out in the lines, the strange eyes, stranger than ever, now in shadow, and it seemed once more the face of an alert, listening, implacable man with wild projects in mind, driving him to the doom he meant for others. Pearce's red face shone redder in that ruddy light. It was hard, lean, almost fleshless, a red mask stretched over a grinning skull. The one they called Frenchy was little, dark, small-featured, with piercing gimlet-like eyes and a mouth ready to gush forth hate and violence. The next three were not particularly individualized by any striking aspect, merely looking to be border ruffians after the type of Bailey and Halloway. But Gulden, who sat at the end of the half circle, was an object that Joan could scarcely bring her gaze to study. Somehow her first glance at him put into her mind a strange ideaâthat she was a woman and, therefore, of all creatures or things in the world the farthest removed from him. She looked awayâand found her gaze returning, fascinated, as if she were a bird and he a snake. The man was of huge frame, a giant whose every move suggested the acme of physical power. He was an animalâa gorilla with a shock of light, instead of black hair, of pale, instead of black skin. His features might have been hewn and hammered out with coarse dull broken chisels. Upon his face, in the lines and cords, in the huge caverns where his eyes hid, and in the huge gash that was fanged with strong white teeth, had been stamped by
nature and by life a terrible brute ferocity. Here was a man or a monster in whose presence Joan felt that she would rather be dead. He did not smoke; he did not indulge in the coarse good-natured raillery; he sat there like a huge engine of destruction that needed no rest but was forced to rest because of weaker attachments. On the other hand he was not sullen or brooding. It was that he did not seem to think.
Kells had been rapidly gaining strength since the extraction of the bullet and it was evident that his interest was growing proportionately. He asked questions and received most of his replies from Red Pearce. Joan did not listen attentively at first, but presently she regretted that she had not. She gathered that Kells's fame as the master bandit of the whole gold region of Idaho, Nevada, and northeastern California was a fame that he loved as much as the gold he stole. Joan sensed, through the replies of these men and their attitude toward Kells, that his power was supreme. He ruled the robbers and ruffians in his bands and evidently they were scattered from Bannack to Lewiston and all along the border. He had power, likewise, over the border hawks not directly under his leadership. During the weeks of his enforced stay in the caÃ±on there had been a cessation of operationsâthe nature of which Joan merely guessedâand a gradual accumulation of idle waiting men in the main camp. Also she gathered, but vaguely, that, although Kells had supreme power, the organization he desired was yet far from being consummated. He showed thoughtfulness and irritation by turns, and it was the subject of gold that drew his most intense interest.
“Reckon you figgered right, Jack,” said Red Pearce, and paused as if before a long talk, while he refilled his pipe. “Sooner or later there'll be the biggest gold strike ever made in the West. Wagon trains are met
every day, comin' across from Salt Lake. Prospectors are workin' in hordes down from Bannack. All the gulches an' valleys in the Bear Mountains have their camps. Surface gold everywhere an' easy to get where there's water. But there's diggin's all over. No big strike yet. It's bound to come sooner or later. An' then, when the news hits the main-traveled roads, an' reaches back into the mountains, there's goin' to be a rush that'll make 'forty-nine an' 'fifty-one look sick. What do you say, Bate?”
“Shore will,” replied a grizzled individual who Kells had called Bate Wood. He was not so young as his companionsâmore sober, less wild, and slower of speech. “I saw both âforty-nine an' âfifty-one. Them was days! But I'm agreein' with Red. There shore will be hell in this Idaho border sooner or later. I've been a prospector, though I never hankered after the hard work of diggin' gold. Gold is hard to dig . . . easy to lose . . . an' damn' easy to get from some other feller. I see the signs of a comin' strike somewheres in this region. Mebbe it's on now. There's thousands of prospectors in twos and threes an' groups out in the hills, all over. They ain't a-goin' to tell when they do make a strike. But the gold must be brought out. An' gold is heavy. It ain't easy hid. Thet's how strikes are discovered. I shore reckon that this year will beat âforty-nine an' âfifty-one. An' fer two reasons. There's a steady stream of broken an' disappointed gold-seekers back trailin' from California. There's a bigger stream of hopeful an' crazy fortune-hunters travelin' in from the East. Then there's the wimmen an' gamblers an' such that hang on. An' last the men that the war is drivin' out here. Whenever an' wherever these streams meet, if there's a big gold strike, there'll be the hellishest time the world ever saw.”
“Boys,” said Kells with a ring in his weak voice, “it'll be a harvest for my Border Legion.”
“Fer what?” queried Bate Wood curiously.
All the others except Gulden turned inquiring and interested faces toward the bandit.
“The Border Legion,” replied Kells.
“An' what in the hell's that?” asked Red Pearce bluntly.
“Well, if the time's ripe for the great gold fever you say is coming, then it's ripe for the greatest band ever organized. I'll call it the Border Legion.”
“Count me in as right-hand pard,” replied Red with enthusiasm.
“An' shore me . . . boss,” added Bate Wood.
The idea was received vociferously, at which demonstration the giant Gulden raised his massive head and asked, or rather growled in a heavy voice what the fuss was about. His query, his roused presence seemed to act upon the others, even Kells, with a strange disquieting or halting force, as if here was a character or an obstacle to be considered. After a moment of silence Red Pearce explained the project.
“Huh! Nothing new in that,” replied Gulden. “I belonged to one once. It was in Algiers. They called it the Royal Legion.”
“Algiers. Where's that?” asked Bate Wood.
“Africa,” replied Gulden.
“Say, Gul, you've been around some,” said Red Pearce admiringly. “What was the Royal Legion?”
“Nothing but a lot of devils from all over. The border there was the last place every criminal was safe from pursuit.”
“What'd you do?”
“Fought among ourselves. Wasn't many in the legion when I left.”
“Shore thet ain't strange!” exclaimed Wood significantly. But his inference was lost upon Gulden.
“I won't allow fighting in my legion,” said Kells coolly. “I'll pick this band myself.”
“Thet's the secret,” rejoined Wood. “The right fellers. I've been in all kinds of bands. Why, I even was a vigilante in 'fifty-one.”
This elicited a laugh from his fellows, except for the wooden-faced Gulden.
“How many do we want?” asked Red Pearce.
“The number doesn't matter. But they must be men I can trust and control. Then, as lieutenants, I'll need a few young fellows like you, Red. Nervy, daring, cool, quick of wits.”
Red Pearce enjoyed the praise bestowed upon him and gave his shoulders a swagger. “Speakin' of that, boss,” he said, “reminds me of a chap who rode into Cabin Gulch a few weeks ago. Braced right into Beard's place, where we was all playin' faro, an' he asks for Jack Kells. Right off, we all thought he was a guy who had a grievance, an' some of us was for pluggin' him. But I kinda liked him, an' I cooled the gang down. Glad I did that. He wasn't wantin' to throw a gun. His intentions were friendly. Of course, I didn't show curious about who or what he was. Reckon he was a young fellow who'd gone bad sudden-like an' was huntin' friends. An' I'm here to say, boss, that he was a hell of a feller.”