By Max Brand
The Untamed Trailin' The Night Horseman
THE NIGHT HORSEMAN
II.—WORDS AND BULLETS
III.—THE DOCTOR RIDES
VI.—THE MISSION STARTS
XIV.—MUSIC FOR OLD NICK
XV.—OLD GARY PETERS
XVI.—THE COMING OF NIGHT
XVII.—BUCK MAKES HIS GET-AWAY
XVIII.—DOCTOR BYRNE ANALYSES
XXI.—MAC STRANN DECIDES TO KEEP THE LAW
XXIII.—HOW MAC STRANN KEPT THE LAW
XXIV.—DOCTOR BYRNE LOOKS INTO THE PAST
XXX.—THE VOICE OF BLACK BART
XXXIII.—DOCTOR BYRNE SHOWS THE TRUTH
XXXIV.—THE ACID TEST
XXXVI.—THE DISCOVERY OF LIFE
XLI.—THE FALLING OF NIGHT
XLII.—THE JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
THE NIGHT HORSEMAN
At the age of six Randall Byrne could name and bound every state in the Union and give the date of its admission; at nine he was conversant with Homeric Greek and Caesar; at twelve he read Aristophanes with perfect understanding of the allusions of the day and divided his leisure between Ovid and Horace; at fifteen, wearied by the simplicity of Old English and Thirteenth Century Italian, he dipped into the history of Philosophy and passed from that, naturally, into calculus and the higher mathematics; at eighteen he took an A.B. from Harvard and while idling away a pleasant summer with Hebrew and Sanscrit he delved lightly into biology and its kindred sciences, having reached the conclusion that Truth is greater than Goodness or Beauty, because it comprises both, and the whole is greater than any of its parts; at twenty-one he pocketed his Ph.D. and was touched with the fever of his first practical enthusiasm—surgery. At twenty-four he was an M.D. and a distinguished diagnostician, though he preferred work in his laboratory in his endeavor to resolve the elements into simpler forms; also he published at this time a work on anthropology whose circulation was limited to two hundred copies, and he received in return two hundred letters of congratulation from great men who had tried to read his book; at twenty-seven he collapsed one fine spring day on the floor of his laboratory. That afternoon he was carried into the presence of a great physician who was also a very vulgar man. The great physician felt his pulse and looked into his dim eyes.
"You have a hundred and twenty horsepower brain and a runabout body," said the great physician.
"I have come," answered Randall Byrne faintly, "for the solution of a problem, not for the statement thereof."
"I'm not through," said the great physician. "Among other things you are a damned fool."
Randall Byrne here rubbed his eyes.
"What steps do you suggest that I consider?" he queried.
The great physician spat noisily.
"Marry a farmer's daughter," he said brutally.
"But," said Randall Byrne vaguely.
"I am a busy man and you've wasted ten minutes of my time," said the great physician, turning back to his plate glass window. "My secretary will send you a bill for one thousand dollars. Good-day."
And therefore, ten days later, Randall Byrne sat in his room in the hotel at Elkhead.
He had just written (to his friend Swinnerton Loughburne, M.A., Ph.D., L.L.D.): "Incontrovertibly the introduction of the personal equation leads to lamentable inversions, and the perceptive faculties when contemplating phenomena through the lens of ego too often conceive an accidental connotation or manifest distortion to be actuality, for the physical (or personal) too often beclouds that power of inner vision which so unerringly penetrates to the inherent truths of incorporeity and the extramundane. Yet this problem, to your eyes, I fear, not essentially novel or peculiarly involute, holds for my contemplative faculties an extraordinary fascination, to wit: wherein does the mind, in itself a muscle, escape from the laws of the physical, and wherein and wherefore do the laws of the physical exercise so inexorable a jurisdiction over the processes of the mind, so that a disorder of the visual nerve actually distorts the asomatous and veils the pneumatoscopic?
"Your pardon, dear Loughburne, for these lapses from the general to the particular, but in a lighter moment of idleness, I pray you give some careless thought to a problem now painfully my own, though rooted inevitably so deeply in the dirt of the commonplace.
"But you have asked me in letter of recent date for the particular physical aspects of my present environment, and though (as you so well know) it is my conviction that the physical fact is not and only the immaterial is, yet I shall gladly look about me—a thing I have not yet seen occasion to do—and describe to you the details of my present condition."
Accordingly, at this point Randall Byrne removed from his nose his thick glasses and holding them poised he stared through the window at the view without. He had quite changed his appearance by removing the spectacles, for the owlish touch was gone and he seemed at a stroke ten years younger. It was such a face as one is glad to examine in detail, lean, pale, the transparent skin stretched tightly over cheekbones, nose, and chin. That chin was built on good fighting lines, though somewhat over-delicate in substance and the mouth quite colourless, but oddly enough the upper lip had that habitual appearance of stiff compression which is characteristic of highly strung temperaments; it is a noticeable feature of nearly every great actor, for instance. The nose was straight and very thin and in a strong sidelight a tracery of the red blood showed through at the nostrils. The eyes were deeply buried and the lower lids bruised with purple—weak eyes that blinked at a change of light or a sudden thought—distant eyes which missed the design of wall paper and saw the trees growing on the mountains. The forehead was Byrne's most noticeable feature, pyramidal, swelling largely towards the top and divided in the centre into two distinct lobes by a single marked furrow which gave his expression a hint of the wistful. Looking at that forehead one was strangely conscious of the brain beneath. There seemed no bony structure; the mind, undefended, was growing and pushing the confining walls further out.
And the fragility which the head suggested the body confirmed, for he was not framed to labor. The burden of the noble head had bowed the slender throat and crooked the shoulders, and when he moved his arm it seemed the arm of a skeleton too loosely clad. There was a differing connotation in the hands, to be sure. They were thin—bones and sinews chiefly, with the violet of the veins showing along the backs; but they were active hands without tremor—hands ideal for the accurate scalpel, where a fractional error means death to the helpless.
After a moment of staring through the window the scholar wrote again: "The major portion of Elkhead lies within plain sight of my window. I see a general merchandise store, twenty-seven buildings of a comparatively major and eleven of a minor significance, and five saloons. The streets—"
The streets, however, were not described at that sitting, for at this juncture a heavy hand knocked and the door of Randall Byrne's room was flung open by Hank Dwight, proprietor of Elkhead's saloon—a versatile man, expert behind the bar or in a blacksmith shop.
"Doc," said Hank Dwight, "you're wanted." Randall Byrne placed his spectacles more firmly on his nose to consider his host.
"What—" he began, but Hank Dwight had already turned on his heel.
"Her name is Kate Cumberland. A little speed, doc. She's in a hurry."
"If no other physician is available," protested Byrne, following slowly down the stairs, "I suppose I must see her."
"If they was another within ten miles, d'you s'pose I'd call on you?" asked Hank Dwight.
So saying, he led the way out onto the veranda, where the doctor was aware of a girl in a short riding skirt who stood with one gloved hand on her hip while the other slapped a quirt idly against her riding boots.
WORDS AND BULLETS
"Here's a gent that calls himself a doc," said Hank Dwight by way of an introduction. "If you can use him, Miss Cumberland, fly to it!"
And he left them alone.
Now the sun lay directly behind Kate Cumberland and in order to look at her closely the doctor had to shade his weak eyes and pucker his brows; for from beneath her wide sombrero there rolled a cloud of golden hair as bright as the sunshine itself—a sad strain upon the visual nerve of Doctor Randall Byrne. He repeated her name, bowed, and when he straightened, blinked again. As if she appreciated that strain upon his eyes she stepped closer, and entered the shadow.
"Doctor Hardin is not in town," she said, "and I have to bring a physician out to the ranch at once; my father is critically ill."
Randall Byrne rubbed his lean chin.
"I am not practicing at present," he said reluctantly. Then he saw that she was watching him closely, weighing him with her eyes, and it came to the mind of Randall Byrne that he was not a large man and might not incline the scale far from the horizontal.
"I am hardly equipped—" began Byrne.
"You will not need equipment," she interrupted. "His trouble lies in his nerves and the state of his mind."
A slight gleam lighted the eyes of the doctor.
"Ah," he murmured. "The mind?"
He rubbed his bloodless hands slowly together, and when he spoke his voice was sharp and quick and wholly impersonal. "Tell me the symptoms!"
"Can't we talk those over on the way to the ranch? Even if we start now it will be dark before we arrive."
"But," protested the doctor, "I have not yet decided—this precipitancy—"
"Oh," she said, and flushed. He perceived that she was on the verge of turning away, but something withheld her. "There is no other physician within reach; my father is very ill. I only ask that you come as a diagnostician, doctor!"
"But a ride to your ranch," he said miserably. "I presume you refer to riding a horse?"
"I am unfamiliar with that means of locomotion," said the doctor with serious eyes, "and in fact have not carried my acquaintance with the equine species beyond a purely experimental stage. Anatomically I have a superficial knowledge, but on the one occasion on which I sat in a saddle I observed that the docility of the horse is probably a poetic fallacy."
He rubbed his left shoulder thoughtfully and saw a slight tremor at the corners of the girl's mouth. It caused his vision to clear and concentrate; he found that the lips were, in fact, in the very act of smiling. The face of the doctor brightened.
"You shall ride my own horse," said the girl. "She is perfectly gentle and has a very easy gait. I'm sure you'll have not the slightest trouble with her."
"I'll find something about town; it doesn't matter what."
"This," said the doctor, "is most remarkable. You choose your mounts at random?"
"But you will go?" she insisted.
"Ah, yes, the trip to the ranch!" groaned the doctor. "Let me see: the physical obstacles to such a trip while many are not altogether insuperable, I may say; in the meantime the moral urge which compels me towards the ranch seems to be of the first order." He sighed. "Is it not strange, Miss Cumberland, that man, though distinguished from the lower orders by mind, so often is controlled in his actions by ethical impulses which override the considerations of reason? An observation which leads us towards the conclusion that the passion for goodness is a principle hardly secondary to the passion for truth. Understand that I build the hypothesis only tentatively, with many reservations, among which—"
He broke off short. The smile was growing upon her lips.
"I will put together a few of my things," said the doctor, "and come down to you at once."
"Good!" said the girl, "I'll be waiting for you with two horses before you are ready."
He turned away, but had taken hardly a step before he turned, saying: "But why are you so sure that you will be ready before I—" but she was already down the steps from the veranda and stepping briskly down the street.
"There is an element of the unexplainable in woman," said the doctor, and resumed his way to his room. Once there, something prompted him to act with the greatest possible speed. He tossed his toilet articles and a few changes of linen into a small, flexible valise and ran down the stairs. He reached the veranda again, panting, and the girl was not in sight; a smile of triumph appeared on the grave, colourless lips of the doctor. "Feminine instinct, however, is not infallible," he observed to himself, and to one of the cowboys, lounging loosely in a chair nearby, he continued his train of thoughts aloud: "Though the verity of the feminine intuition has already been thrown in a shade of doubt by many thinkers, as you will undoubtedly agree."
The man thus addressed allowed his lower jaw to drop but after a moment he ejaculated: "Now what in hell d'you mean by that?"
The doctor already turned away, intent upon his thoughts, but he now paused and again faced the cowboy. He said, frowning: "There is unnecessary violence in your remark, sir."
"Duck your glasses," said the worthy in question. "You ain't talkin' to a book, you're talking to a man."
"And in your attitude," went on the doctor, "there is an element of offense which if carried farther might be corrected by physical violence."
"I don't foller your words," said the cattleman, "but from the drift of your tune I gather you're a bit peeved; and if you are—"
His voice had risen to a ringing note as he proceeded and he now slipped from his chair and faced Randall Byrne, a big man, brown, hard-handed. The doctor crimsoned.
"Well?" he echoed, but in place of a deep ring his words were pitched in a high squeak of defiance.
He saw a large hand contract to a fist, but almost instantly the big man grinned, and his eyes went past Byrne.
"Oh, hell!" he grunted, and turned his back with a chuckle.
For an instant there was a mad impulse in the doctor to spring at this fellow but a wave of impotence overwhelmed him. He knew that he was white around the mouth, and there was a dryness in his throat.
"The excitement of imminent physical contest and personal danger," he diagnosed swiftly, "causing acceleration of the pulse and attendant weakness of the body—a state unworthy of the balanced intellect."
Having brought back his poise by this quick interposition of reason, he went his way down the long veranda. Against a pillar leaned another tall cattleman, also brown and lean and hard.
"May I inquire," he said, "if you have any information direct or casual concerning a family named Cumberland which possesses ranch property in this vicinity?"
"You may," said the cowpuncher, and continued to roll his cigarette.
"Well," said the doctor, "do you know anything about them?"
"Sure," said the other, and having finished his cigarette he introduced it between his lips. It seemed to occur to him instantly, however, that he was committing an inhospitable breach, for he produced his Durham and brown papers with a start and extended them towards the doctor.
"Smoke?" he asked.
"I use tobacco in no form," said the doctor.
The cowboy stared with such fixity that the match burned down to his fingertips and singed them before he had lighted his cigarette.
"'S that a fact?" he queried when his astonishment found utterance. "What d'you do to kill time? Well, I been thinking about knocking off the stuff for a while. Mame gets sore at me for having my fingers all stained up with nicotine like this."
He extended his hand, the first and second fingers of which were painted a bright yellow.
"Soap won't take it off," he remarked.
"A popular but inexcusable error," said the doctor. "It is the tarry by-products of tobacco which cause that stain. Nicotine itself, of course, is a volatile alkaloid base of which there is only the merest trace in tobacco. It is one of the deadliest of nerve poisons and is quite colourless. There is enough of that stain upon your fingers—if it were nicotine—to kill a dozen men."
"The hell you say!"
"Nevertheless, it is an indubitable fact. A lump of nicotine the size of the head of a pin placed on the tongue of a horse will kill the beast instantly."
The cowpuncher pushed back his hat and scratched his head.
"This is worth knowin'," he said, "but I'm some glad that Mame ain't heard it."
"Concerning the Cumberlands," said the doctor, "I—"
"Concerning the Cumberlands," repeated the cattleman, "it's best to leave 'em to their own concerns." And he started to turn away, but the thirst for knowledge was dry in the throat of the doctor.
"Do I understand," he insisted, "that there is some mystery connected with them?"
"From me," replied the other, "you understand nothin'." And he lumbered down the steps and away.
Be it understood that there was nothing of the gossip in Randall Byrne, but now he was pardonably excited and perceiving the tall form of Hank Dwight in the doorway he approached his host.
"Mr. Dwight," he said, "I am about to go to the Cumberland ranch. I gather that there is something of an unusual nature concerning them."
"There is," admitted Hank Dwight.
"Can you tell me what it is?"
"Good!" said the doctor, and he almost smiled. "It is always well to know the background of a case which has to do with mental states. Now, just what do you know?"
"I know—" began the proprietor, and then paused and eyed his guest dubiously. "I know," he continued, "a story."
"Yes, about a man and a hoss and a dog."
"The approach seems not quite obvious, but I shall be glad to hear it."
There was a pause.
"Words," said the host, at length, "is worse'n bullets. You never know what they'll hit."
"But the story?" persisted Randall Byrne.
"That story," said Hank Dwight, "I may tell to my son before I die."
"This sounds quite promising."
"But I'll tell nobody else."
"It's about a man and a hoss and a dog. The man ain't possible, the hoss ain't possible, the dog is a wolf."
He paused again and glowered on the doctor. He seemed to be drawn two ways, by his eagerness to tell a yarn and his dread of consequences.
"I know," he muttered, "because I've seen 'em all. I've seen"—he looked far, as though striking a silent bargain with himself concerning the sum of the story which might safely be told—"I've seen a hoss that understood a man's talk like you and me does—or better. I've heard a man whistle like a singing bird. Yep, that ain't no lie. You jest imagine a bald eagle that could lick anything between the earth and the sky and was able to sing—that's what that whistlin' was like. It made you glad to hear it, and it made you look to see if your gun was in good workin' shape. It wasn't very loud, but it travelled pretty far, like it was comin' from up above you."
"That's the way this strange man of the story whistles?" asked Byrne, leaning closer.
"Man of the story?" echoed the proprietor, with some warmth. "Friend, if he ain't real, then I'm a ghost. And they's them in Elkhead that's got the scars of his comin' and goin'."
"Ah, an outlaw? A gunfighter?" queried the doctor.
"Listen to me, son," observed the host, and to make his point he tapped the hollow chest of Byrne with a rigid forefinger, "around these parts you know jest as much as you see, and lots of times you don't even know that much. What you see is sometimes your business, but mostly it ain't." He concluded impressively: "Words is worse'n bullets!"
"Well," mused Byrne, "I can ask the girl these questions. It will be medically necessary."
"Ask the girl? Ask her?" echoed the host with a sort of horror. But he ended with a forced restraint: "That's your business."
THE DOCTOR RIDES
Hank Dwight disappeared from the doorway and the doctor was called from his pondering by the voice of the girl. There was something about that voice which worried Byrne, for it was low and controlled and musical and it did not fit with the nasal harshness of the cattlemen. When she began to speak it was like the beginning of a song. He turned now and found her sitting a tall bay horse, and she led a red-roan mare beside her. When he went out she tossed her reins over the head of her horse and strapped his valise behind her saddle.
"You won't have any trouble with that mare," she assured him, when the time came for mounting. Yet when he approached gingerly he was received with flattened ears and a snort of anger. "Wait," she cried, "the left side, not the right!"
He felt the laughter in her voice, but when he looked he could see no trace of it in her face. He approached from the left side, setting his teeth.
"You observe," he said, "that I take your word at its full value," and placing his foot in the stirrup, he dragged himself gingerly up to the saddle. The mare stood like a rock. Adjusting himself, he wiped a sudden perspiration from his forehead.
"I quite believe," he remarked, "that the animal is of unusual intelligence. All may yet be well!"
"I'm sure of it." said the girl gravely. "Now we're off."
And the horses broke into a dog trot. Now the gait of the red roan mare was a dream of softness, and her flexible ankles gave a play of whole inches to break the jar of every step, the sure sign of the good saddle-horse; but the horse has never been saddled whose trot is really a smooth pace. The hat of Doctor Byrne began to incline towards his right eye and his spectacles towards his left ear. He felt a peculiar lightness in the stomach and heaviness in the heart.
"The t-t-t-trot," he ventured to his companion, "is a d-d-d-dam—"
"Dr. Byrne!" she cried.
"Whoa!" called Doctor Byrne, and drew mightily in upon the reins. The red mare stopped as a ball stops when it meets a stout wall; the doctor sprawled along her neck, clinging with arms and legs. He managed to clamber back into the saddle.
"There are vicious elements in the nature of this brute," he observed to the girl.
"I'm very sorry," she murmured. He cast a sidelong glance but found not the trace of a smile.
"The word upon which I—"
"Stopped?" she suggested.
"Stopped," he agreed, "was not, as you evidently assumed, an oath. On the contrary, I was merely remarking that the trot is a damaging gait, but through an interrupted—er—articulation—"
His eye dared her, but she was utterly grave. He perceived that there was, after all, a certain kinship between this woman of the mountain-desert and the man thereof. Their silences were filled with eloquence.
"We'll try a canter," she suggested, "and I think you'll find that easier."
So she gave the word, and her bay sprang into a lope from a standing start. The red mare did likewise, nearly flinging the doctor over the back of the saddle, but by the grace of God he clutched the pommel in time and was saved. The air caught at his face, they swept out of the town and onto a limitless level stretch.
"Sp-p-p-peed," gasped the doctor, "has never been a p-p-passion with me!"
He noted that she was not moving in the saddle. The horse was like the bottom of a wave swinging violently back and forth. She was the calm crest, swaying slightly and graciously with a motion as smooth as the flowing of water. And she spoke as evenly as if she were sitting in a rocking chair.
"You'll be used to it in a moment," she assured him.
He learned, indeed, that if one pressed the stirrups as the shoulders of the horse swung down and leaned a trifle forward when the shoulders rose again, the motion ceased to be jarring; for she was truly a matchless creature and gaited like one of those fabulous horses of old, sired by the swift western wind. In a little time a certain pride went beating through the veins of the doctor, the air blew more deeply into his lungs, there was a different tang to the wind and a different feel to the sun—a peculiar richness of yellow warmth. And the small head of the horse and the short, sharp, pricking ears tossed continually; and now and then the mare threw her head a bit to one side and glanced back at him with what he felt to be a reassuring air. Life and strength and speed were gripped between his knees—he flashed a glance at the girl.
But she rode with face straightforward and there was that about her which made him turn his eyes suddenly away and look far off. It was a jagged country, for in the brief rainy season there came sudden and terrific downpours which lashed away the soil and scoured the face of the underlying rock, and in a single day might cut a deep arroyo where before had been smooth plain. This was the season of grass, but not the dark, rank green of rich soil and mild air—it was a yellowish green, a colour at once tender and glowing. It spread everywhere across the plains about Elkhead, broken here and there by the projecting boulders which flashed in the sun. So a great battlefield might appear, pockmarked with shell-holes, and all the scars of war freshly cut upon its face. And in truth the mountain desert was like an arena ready to stage a conflict—a titanic arena with space for earth-giants to struggle—and there in the distance were the spectator mountains. High, lean-flanked mountains they were, not clad in forests, but rather bristling with a stubby growth of the few trees which might endure in precarious soil and bitter weather, but now they gathered the dignity of distance about them. The grass of the foothills was a faint green mist about their feet, cloaks of exquisite blue hung around the upper masses, but their heads were naked to the pale skies. And all day long, with deliberate alteration, the garb of the mountains changed. When the sudden morning came they leaped naked upon the eye, and then withdrew, muffling themselves in browns and blues until at nightfall they covered themselves to the eyes in thickly sheeted purple—Tyrian purple—and prepared for sleep with their heads among the stars.
Something of all this came to Doctor Randall Byrne as he rode, for it seemed to him that there was a similarity between these mountains and the girl beside him. She held that keen purity of the upper slopes under the sun, and though she had no artifice or careful wiles to make her strange, there was about her a natural dignity like the mystery of distance. There was a rhythm, too, about that line of peaks against the sky, and the girl had caught it; he watched her sway with the gallop of her horse and felt that though she was so close at hand she was a thousand miles from him. She concealed nothing, and yet he could no more see her naked soul than he could tear the veils of shadow from the mountains. Not that the doctor phrased his emotions in words. He was only conscious of a sense of awe and the necessity of silence.
A strange feeling for the doctor! He came from the region of the mind where that which is not spoken does not exist, and now this girl was carrying him swiftly away from hypotheses, doubts, and polysyllabic speech into the world—of what? The spirit? The doctor did not know. He only felt that he was about to step into the unknown, and it held for him the fascination of the suspended action of a statue. Let it not be thought that he calmly accepted the sheer necessity for silence. He fought against it, but no words came.
It was evening: the rolling hills about them were already dark; only the heads of the mountains took the day; and now they paused at the top of a rise and the girl pointed across the hollow. "There we are," she said. It was a tall clump of trees through which broke the outlines of a two-storied house larger than any the doctor had seen in the mountain-desert; and outside the trees lay long sheds, a great barn, and a wide-spread wilderness of corrals. It struck the doctor with its apparently limitless capacity for housing man and beast. Coming in contrast with the rock-strewn desolation of the plains, this was a great establishment; the doctor had ridden out with a waif of the desert and she had turned into a princess at a stroke. Then, for the first time since they left Elkhead, he remembered with a start that he was to care for a sick man in that house.
"You were to tell me," he said, "something about the sickness of your father—the background behind his condition. But we've both forgotten about it."
"I have been thinking how I could describe it, every moment of the ride," she answered. Then, as the gloom fell more thickly around them every moment, she swerved her horse over to the mare, as if it were necessary that she read the face of the doctor while she spoke.
"Six months ago," she said, "my father was robust and active in spite of his age. He was cheerful, busy, and optimistic. But he fell into a decline. It has not been a sudden sapping of his strength. If it were that I should not worry so much; I'd attribute it to disease. But every day something of vitality goes from him. He is fading almost from hour to hour, as slowly as the hour hand of a clock. You can't notice the change, but every twelve hours the hand makes a complete revolution. It's as if his blood were evaporating and nothing we can do will supply him with fresh strength."
"Is this attended by irritability?"
"He is perfectly calm and seems to have no care for what becomes of him."
"Has he lost interest in the things which formerly attracted and occupied him?"
"Yes, he minds nothing now. He has no care for the condition of the cattle, or for profit or loss in the sales. He has simply stepped out of every employment."
"Ah, a gradual diminution of the faculties of attention."
"In a way, yes. But also he is more alive than he has ever been. He seems to hear with uncanny distinctness, for instance."
The doctor frowned.
"I was inclined to attribute his decline to the operation of old age," he remarked, "but this is unusual. This—er—inner acuteness is accompanied by no particular interest in any one thing?".
As she did not reply for the moment he was about to accept the silence for acquiescence, but then through the dimness he was arrested by the lustre of her eyes, fixed, apparently, far beyond him.
"One thing," she said at length. "Yes, there is one thing in which he retains an interest."
The doctor nodded brightly.
"Good!" he said. "And that—?"
The silence fell again, but this time he was more roused and he fixed his eyes keenly upon her through the gloom. She was deeply troubled; one hand gripped the horn of her saddle strongly; her lips had parted; she was like one who endures inescapable pain. He could not tell whether it was the slight breeze which disturbed her blouse or the rapid panting of her breath.
"Of that," she said, "it is hard to speak—it is useless to speak!"
"Surely not!" protested the doctor. "The cause, my dear madame, though perhaps apparently remote from the immediate issue, is of the utmost significance in diagnosis."
She broke in rapidly: "This is all I can tell you: he is waiting for something which will never come. He has missed something from his life which will never come back into it. Then why should we discuss what it is that he has missed."
"To the critical mind," replied the doctor calmly, and he automatically adjusted his glasses closer to his eyes, "nothing is without significance."
"It is nearly dark!" she exclaimed hurriedly. "Let us ride on."
"First," he suggested, "I must tell you that before I left Elkhead I heard a hint of some remarkable story concerning a man and a horse and a dog. Is there anything—"
But it seemed that she did not hear. He heard a sharp, low exclamation which might have been addressed to her horse, and the next instant she was galloping swiftly down the slope. The doctor followed as fast as he could, jouncing in the saddle until he was quite out of breath.
They had hardly passed the front door of the house when they were met by a tall man with dark hair and dark, deep-set eyes. He was tanned to the bronze of an Indian, and he might have been termed handsome had not his features been so deeply cut and roughly finished. His black hair was quite long, and as the wind from the opened door stirred it, there was a touch of wildness about the fellow that made the heart of Randall Byrne jump. When this man saw the girl his face lighted, briefly; when his glance fell on Byrne the light went out.
"Couldn't get the doc, Kate?" he asked.
"Not Doctor Hardin," she answered, "and I've brought Doctor Byrne instead."
The tall man allowed his gaze to drift leisurely from head to foot of Randall Byrne.
Then: "H'ware you, doc?" he said, and extended a big hand. It occurred to Byrne that all these men of the mountain-desert were big; there was something intensely irritating about their mere physical size; they threw him continually on the defensive and he found himself making apologies to himself and summing up personal merits. In this case there was more direct reason for his anger. It was patent that the man did not weight the strange doctor against any serious thoughts.
"And this," she was saying, "is Mr. Daniels. Buck, is there any change?"
"Nothin' much," answered Buck Daniels. "Come along towards evening and he said he was feeling kind of cold. So I wrapped him up in a rug. Then he sat some as usual, one hand inside of the other, looking steady at nothing. But a while ago he began getting sort of nervous."
"What did he do?"
"Nothing. I just felt he was getting excited. The way you know when your hoss is going to shy."
"Do you want to go to your room first, doctor, or will you go in to see him now?"
"Now," decided the doctor, and followed her down the hall and through a door.
The room reminded the doctor more of a New England interior than of the mountain-desert. There was a round rag rug on the floor with every imaginable colour woven into its texture, but blended with a rude design, reds towards the centre and blue-greys towards the edges. There were chairs upholstered in green which looked mouse-coloured where the high lights struck along the backs and the arms—shallow-seated chairs that made one's knees project foolishly high and far. Byrne saw a cabinet at one end of the room, filled with sea-shells and knicknacks, and above it was a memorial cross surrounded by a wreath inside a glass case. Most of the wall space thronged with engravings whose subjects ranged from Niagara Falls to Lady Hamilton. One entire end of the room was occupied by a painting of a neck and neck finish in a race, and the artist had conceived the blooded racers as creatures with tremendous round hips and mighty-muscled shoulders, while the legs tapered to a faun-like delicacy. These animals were spread-eagled in the most amazing fashion, their fore-hoofs reaching beyond their noses and their rear hoofs striking out beyond the tips of the tails. The jockey in the lead sat quite still, but he who was losing had his whip drawn and looked like an automatic doll—so pink were his cheeks. Beside the course, in attitudes of graceful ease, stood men in very tight trousers and very high stocks and ladies in dresses which pinched in at the waist and flowed out at the shoulders. They leaned upon canes or twirled parasols and they had their backs turned upon the racetrack as if they found their own negligent conversation far more exciting than the breathless, driving finish.
Under the terrific action and still more terrific quiescence of this picture lay the sick man, propped high on a couch and wrapped to the chest in a Navajo blanket.
"Dad," said Kate Cumberland, "Doctor Hardin was not in town. I've brought out Doctor Byrne, a newcomer."
The invalid turned his white head slowly towards them, and his shaggy brows lifted and fell slightly—a passing shadow of annoyance. It was a very stern face, and framed in the long, white hair it seemed surrounded by an atmosphere of Arctic chill. He was thin, terribly thin—not the leanness of Byrne, but a grim emaciation which exaggerated the size of a tall forehead and made his eyes supernally bright. It was in the first glance of those eyes that Byrne recognized the restlessness of which Kate had spoken; and he felt almost as if it were an inner fire which had burned and still was wasting the body of Joseph Cumberland. To the attentions of the doctor the old man submitted with patient self-control, and Byrne found a pulse feeble, rapid, but steady. There was no temperature. In fact, the heat of the body was a trifle sub-normal, considering that the heart was beating so rapidly.
Doctor Byrne started. Most of his work had been in laboratories, and the horror of death was not yet familiar, but old Joseph Cumberland was dying. It was not a matter of moment. Death might be a week or a month away, but die soon he inevitably must; for the doctor saw that the fire was still raging in the hollow breast of the cattleman, but there was no longer fuel to feed it.
He stared again, and more closely. Fire without fuel to feed it!
Doctor Byrne gave what seemed to be an infinitely muffled cry of exultation, so faint that it was hardly a whisper; then he leaned closer and pored over Joe Cumberland with a lighted eye. One might have thought that the doctor was gloating over the sick man.
Suddenly he straightened and began to pace up and down the room, muttering to himself. Kate Cumberland listened intently and she thought that what the man muttered so rapidly, over and over to himself, was: "Eureka! Eureka! I have found it!"
Found what? The triumph of mind over matter!
On that couch was a dead body. The flutter of that heart was not the strong beating of the normal organ; the hands were cold; even the body was chilled; yet the man lived.
Or, rather, his brain lived, and compelled the shattered and outworn body to comply with its will. Doctor Byrne turned and stared again at the face of Cumberland. He felt as if he understood, now, the look which was concentrated so brightly on the vacant air. It was illumined by a steady and desperate defiance, for the old man was denying his body to the grave.
The scene changed for Randall Byrne. The girl disappeared. The walls of the room were broken away. The eyes of the world looked in upon him and the wise men of the world kept pace with him up and down the room, shaking their heads and saying: "It is not possible!"
But the fact lay there to contradict them.
Prometheus stole fire from heaven and paid it back to an eternal death. The old cattleman was refusing his payment. It was no state of coma in which he lay; it was no prolonged trance. He was vitally, vividly alive; he was concentrating with a bitter and exhausting vigour day and night, and fighting a battle the more terrible because it was fought in silence, a battle in which he could receive no aid, no reinforcement, a battle in which he could not win, but in which he might delay defeat.
Ay, the wise men would smile and shake their heads when he presented this case to their consideration, but he would make his account so accurate and particular and so well witnessed that they would have to admit the truth of all he said. And science, which proclaimed that matter was indestructible and that the mind was matter and that the brain needed nourishment like any other muscle—science would have to hang the head and wonder!
The eyes of the girl brought him to halt in his pacing, and he stopped, confronting her. His excitement had transformed him. His nostrils were quivering, his eyes were pointed with light, his head was high, and he breathed fast. He was flushed as the Roman Conqueror. And his excitement tinged the girl, also, with colour.
She offered to take him to his room as soon as he wished to go. He was quite willing. He wanted to be alone, to think. But when he followed her she stopped him in the hall. Buck Daniels lumbered slowly after them in a clumsy attempt at sauntering.
"Well?" asked Kate Cumberland.
She had thrown a blue mantle over her shoulders when she entered the house, and the touch of boyish self-confidence which had been hers on the ride was gone. In its place there was something even more difficult for Randall Byrne to face. If there had been a garish brightness about her when he had first seen her, the brilliancy of a mirror playing in the sun against his feeble eyes, there was now a blending of pastel shades, for the hall was dimly illumined and the shadow tarnished her hair and her pallor was like cold stone; even her eyes were misted by fear. Yet a vital sense of her nearness swept upon Byrne, and he felt as if he were surrounded—by a danger.
"Opinions," said the doctor, "based on so summary an examination are necessarily inexact, yet the value of a first impression is not negligible. The best I can say is that there is probably no immediate danger, but Mr. Cumberland is seriously ill. Furthermore, it is not old age."
He would not say all he thought; it was not yet time.
She winced and clasped her hands tightly together. She was like a child about to be punished for a crime it has not committed, and it came vaguely to the doctor that he might have broached his ill tidings more gently.
He added: "I must have further opportunities for observance before I give a detailed opinion and suggest a treatment."
Her glance wandered past him and at once the heavy step of Buck Daniels approached.
"At least," she murmured, "I am glad that you are frank. I don't want to have anything kept from me, please. Buck, will you take the doctor up to his room?" She managed a faint smile. "This is an old-fashioned house, Doctor Byrne, but I hope we can make you fairly comfortable. You'll ask for whatever you need?"
The doctor bowed, and was told that they would dine in half an hour, then the girl went back towards the room in which Joe Cumberland lay. She walked slowly, with her head bent, and her posture seemed to Byrne the very picture of a burden-bearer. Then he followed Daniels up the stairs, led by the jingling of the spurs, great-rowelled spurs that might grip the side of a refractory horse like teeth.
A hall-light guided them, and from the hall Buck Daniels entered a room and fumbled above him until he had lighted a lamp which was suspended by two chains from the ceiling, a circular burner which cast a glow as keen as an electric globe. It brought out every detail of the old-fashioned room—the bare, painted floor; the bed, in itself a separate and important piece of architecture with its four tall posts, a relic of the times when beds were built, not simply made; and there was a chest of drawers with swelling, hospitable front, and a rectangular mirror above with its date in gilt paint on the upper edge. A rising wind shook the window and through some crack stirred the lace curtains; it was a very comfortable retreat, and the doctor became aware of aching muscles and a heavy brain when he glanced at the bed.
The same gust of wind which rattled the window-pane now pushed, as with invisible and ghostly hand, a door which opened on the side of the bedroom, and as it swung mysteriously and gradually wide the doctor found himself looking into an adjoining chamber. All he could see clearly was a corner on which struck the shaft of light from the lamp, and lying on the floor in that corner was something limp and brown. A snake, he surmised at first, but then he saw clearly that it was a chain of formidable proportions bolted against the wall at one end and terminating at the other in a huge steel collar. A chill started in the boots of the doctor and wriggled its uncomfortable way up to his head.
"Hell!" burst out Buck Daniels. "How'd that door get open?" He slammed it with violence. "She's been in there again, I guess," muttered the cowpuncher, as he stepped back, scowling.
"Who?" ventured the doctor.
Buck Daniels whirled on him.
"None of your—" he began hotly, but checked himself with choking suddenness and strode heavily from the room.
The doctor removed his coat with absent-minded slowness, and all the time that he was removing the dust and the stains of travel, he kept narrowing the eye of his mind to visualise more clearly that cumbersome chain which lay on the floor of the adjoining room. Now, the doctor was not of a curious or gossipy nature, but if someone had offered to tell him the story of that chain for a thousand dollars, the doctor at that moment would have thought the price ridiculously small.
Then the doctor went down to the dinner table prepared to keep one eye upon Buck Daniels and the other upon Kate Cumberland. But if he expected to learn through conversation at the table he was grievously disappointed, for Buck Daniels ate with an eye to strict business that allowed no chatter, and the girl sat with a forced smile and an absent eye. Now and again Buck would glance up at her, watch her for an instant, and then turn his attention back to his plate with a sort of gloomy resolution; there were not half a dozen words exchanged from the beginning to the end of the meal.
After that they went in to the invalid. He lay in the same position, his skinny hands crossed upon his breast, and his shaggy brows were drawn so low that the eyes were buried in profound shadow. They took positions in a loose semi-circle, all pointing towards the sick man, and it reminded Byrne with grim force of a picture he had seen of three wolves waiting for the bull moose to sink in the snows: they, also, were waiting for a death. It seemed, indeed, as if death must have already come; at least it could not make him more moveless than he was. Against the dark wall his profile was etched by a sharp highlight which was brightest of all on his forehead and his nose; while the lower portion of the face was lost in comparative shadow.
So perfect and so detailed was the resemblance to death, indeed, that the lips in the shadow smiled—fixedly. It was not until Kate Cumberland shifted a lamp, throwing more light on her father, that Byrne saw that the smile was in reality a forcible compression of the lips. He understood, suddenly, that the silent man on the couch was struggling terribly against an hysteria of emotion. It brought beads of sweat out upon the doctor's tall forehead; for this perfect repose suggested an agony more awful than yells and groans and struggles. The silence was like acid; it burned without a flame. And Byrne knew, that moment, the quality of the thing which had wasted the rancher. It was this acid of grief or yearning which had eaten deep into him and was now close to his heart. The girl had said that for six months he had been failing. Six months! Six eternities of burning at the stake!
He lay silent, waiting; and his resignation meant that he knew death would come before that for which he waited. Silence, that was the key-note of the room. The girl was silent, her eyes dark with grief; yet they were not fixed upon her father. It came thrilling home to Byrne that her sorrow was not entirely for her dying parent, for she looked beyond him rather than at him. Was she, too, waiting? Was that what gave her the touch of sad gravity, the mystery like the mystery of distance?
And Buck Daniels. He, also, said nothing. He rolled cigarettes one after another with amazing dexterity and smoked them with half a dozen Titanic breaths. His was a single-track mind. He loved the girl, and he bore the sign of his love on his face. He wanted her desperately; it was a hunger like that of Tantalus, too keen to be ever satisfied. Yet, still more than he looked at the girl, he, also, stared into the distance. He, also, was waiting!
It was the deep suspense of Cumberland which made him so silently alert. He was as intensely alive as the receiver of a wireless apparatus; he gathered information from the empty air.
So that Byrne was hardly surprised, when, in the midst of that grim silence, the old man raised a rigid forefinger of warning. Kate and Daniels stiffened in their chairs and Byrne felt his flesh creep. Of course it was nothing. The wind, which had shaken the house with several strong gusts before dinner, had now grown stronger and blew with steadily increasing violence; perhaps the sad old man had been attracted by the mournful chorus and imagined some sound he knew within it.
But now once more the finger was raised, the arm extended, shaking violently, and Joe Cumberland turned upon them a glance which flashed with a delirious and unhealthy joy.
"Listen!" he cried. "Again!"
"What?" asked Kate.
"I hear them, I tell you."
Her lips blanched, and parted to speak, but she checked the impulse and looked swiftly about the room with what seemed to Byrne an appeal for help. As for Buck Daniels, he changed from a dark bronze to an unhealthy yellow; fear, plain and grimly unmistakable, was in his face. Then he strode to the window and threw it open with a crash. The wind leaped in and tossed the flame in the throat of the chimney, so that great shadows waved suddenly through the room, and made the chairs seem afloat. Even the people were suddenly unreal. And the rush of the storm gave Byrne an eerie sensation of being blown through infinite space. For a moment there was only the sound of the gale and the flapping of a loose picture against the wall, and the rattling of a newspaper. Then he heard it.
First it was a single note which he could not place. It was music, and yet it was discordant, and it had the effect of a blast of icy wind.
Once he had been in Egypt and had stood in a corridor of Cheops' pyramid. The torch had been blown out in the hand of his guide. From somewhere in the black depths before them came a laugh, made unhuman by echoes. And Byrne had visioned the mummied dead pushing back the granite lids of their sarcophagi and sitting upright.
But that was nothing compared with this. Not half so wild or strange.
He listened again, breathless, with the sharp prickling running up and down his spine. It was the honking of the wild geese, flying north. And out of the sound he builded a picture of the grey triangle cleaving through the cold upper sky, sent on a mission no man could understand.
"Was I right? Was I right?" shrilled the invalid, and when Byrne turned towards him, he saw the old man sitting erect, with an expression of wild triumph. There came an indescribable cry from the girl, and a deep throated curse from Buck Daniels as he slammed down the window.
With the chill blast shut off and the flame burning steadily once more in the lamp, a great silence besieged the room, with a note of expectancy in it. Byrne was conscious of being warm, too warm. It was close in the room, and he was weighted down. It was as if another presence had stepped into the room and stood invisible. He felt it with unspeakable keenness, as when one knows certainly the thoughts which pass in the mind of another. And, more than that, he knew that the others in the room felt what he felt. In the waiting silence he saw that the old man lay on his couch with eyes of fire and gaping lips, as if he drank the wine of his joyous expectancy. And big Buck Daniels stood with his hand on the sash of the window, frozen there, his eyes bulging, his heart thundering in his throat. And Kate Cumberland sat with her eyes closed, as she had closed them when the wind first rushed upon her, and she still smiled as she had smiled then. And to Byrne, more terrible than the joy of Joseph Cumberland or the dread of Buck Daniels was the smile and the closed eyes of the girl.
But the silence held and the fifth presence was in the room, and not one of them dared speak.
THE MISSION STARTS
Then, with a shifting of the wind, a song was blown to them from the bunk-house, a cheerful, ringing chorus; the sound was like daylight—it drove the terror from the room. Joe Cumberland asked them to leave him. That night, he said, he would sleep. He felt it, like a promise. The other three went out from the room.
In the hall Kate and Daniels stood close together under a faint light from the wall-lamp, and they talked as if they had forgotten the presence of Byrne.
"It had to come," she said. "I knew it would come to him sooner or later, but I didn't dream it would be as terrible as this. Buck, what are we going to do?"
"God knows," said the big cowpuncher. "Just wait, I s'pose, same as we've been doing."
He had aged wonderfully in that moment of darkness.
"He'll be happy now for a few days," went on the girl, "but afterwards—when he realises that it means nothing—what then, Buck?"
The man took her hands and began to pat them softly as a father might soothe a child.
"I seen you when the wind come in," he said gently. "Are you going to stand it, Kate? Is it going to be hell for you, too, every time you hear 'em?"
She answered: "If it were only I! Yes, I could stand it. Lately I've begun to think that I can stand anything. But when I see Dad it breaks my heart—and you—oh, Buck, it hurts, it hurts!" She drew his hands impulsively against her breast. "If it were only something we could fight outright!"
Buck Daniels sighed.
"Fight?" he echoed hopelessly. "Fight? Against him? Kate, you're all tired out. Go to bed, honey, and try to stop thinkin'—and—God help us all!"
She turned away from him and passed the doctor—blindly.
Buck Daniels had set his foot on the stairs when Byrne hurried after him and touched his arm; they went up together.
"Mr. Daniels," said the doctor, "it is necessary that I speak with you, alone. Will you come into my room for a few moments?"
"Doc," said the cattleman, "I'm short on my feed and I don't feel a pile like talkin'. Can't you wait till the morning?"
"There has been a great deal too much waiting, Mr. Daniels," said the doctor. "What I have to say to you must be said now. Will you come in?"
"I will," nodded Buck Daniels. "But cut it short."
Once in his room the doctor lighted the lamp and then locked the door.
"What's all the mystery and hush stuff?" growled Daniels, and with a gesture he refused the proffered chair. "Cut loose, doc, and make it short."
The little man sat down, removed his glasses, held them up to the light, found a speck upon them, polished it carefully away, replaced the spectacles upon his nose, and peered thoughtfully at Buck Daniels.
Buck Daniels rolled his eyes towards the door and then even towards the window, and then, as one who accepts the inevitable, he sank into a chair and plunged his hands into his pockets, prepared to endure.
"I am called," went on the doctor dryly, "to examine a case in which the patient is dangerously ill—in fact, hopelessly ill, and I have found that the cause of his illness is a state of nervous expectancy on the part of the sufferer. It being obviously necessary to know the nature of the disease and its cause before that cause may be removed, I have asked you to sit here this evening to give me whatever explanation you may have for it."
Buck Daniels stirred uneasily. At length he broke out: "Doc, I size you up as a gent with brains. I got one piece of advice for you: get the hell away from the Cumberland Ranch and never come back again!"
The doctor flushed and his lean jaw thrust out.
"Although," he said, "I cannot pretend to be classed among those to whom physical fear is an unknown, yet I wish to assure you, sir, that with me physical trepidation is not an overruling motive."
"Oh, hell!" groaned Buck Daniels. Then he explained more gently: "I don't say you're yellow. All I say is: this mess ain't one that you can straighten out—nor no other man can. Give it up, wash your hands, and git back to Elkhead. I dunno what Kate was thinkin' of to bring you out here!"
"The excellence of your intention," said the doctor, "I shall freely admit, though the assumption that difficulty in the essential problem would deter me from the analysis is an hypothesis which I cannot leave uncontested. In the vulgar, I may give you to understand that I am in this to stay!"
Buck Daniels started to speak, but thinking better of it he shrugged his shoulders and sat back, resigned.
"Well," he said, "Kate brought you out here. Maybe she has a reason for it. What d'you want to know?"
"What connection," said the doctor, "have wild geese with a man, a horse, and a dog?"
"What in hell d'you know about a horse and a man and a dog—and wild geese?" inquired Buck in a strained voice.
"Rumour," said the doctor, "has been in this instance, unfortunately, my only teacher. But, sir, I have ascertained that Mr. Cumberland, his daughter, and you, sir, are all waiting for a certain thing to come to this ranch, and that thing I naturally assume to be a man."
"Doc," said the cowpuncher sarcastically, "there ain't no doubt you got a wonderful brain!"
"Mockery," pronounced the man of learning, "is a use of the mental powers which is both unworthy and barren and does not in this case advance the argument, which is: Who and what is this man for whom you wait?"
"He came," said Buck Daniels, "out of nowhere. That's all we know about who he is. What is he? I'll tell you easy: He's a gent that looks like a man, and walks like a man, and talks like a man—but he ain't a man."
"Ah," nodded the philosopher, "a crime of extraordinary magnitude has, perhaps, cut off this unfortunate fellow from communication with others of his kind. Is this the case?"
"It ain't," replied Buck. "Doc, tell me this: Can a wolf commit a crime?"
"Admitting this definition: that crime is the breaking of law, and that law is a force created by reason to control the rational, it may be granted that the acts of the lower animals lie outside of categories framed according to ethical precepts. To directly answer your not incurious question: I believe that a wolf cannot commit a crime."
Buck Daniels sighed.
"D'you know, doc," he said gravely, "that you remind me of a side-hill goat?"
"Ah," murmured the man of learning, "is it possible? And what, Mr. Daniels, is the nature of a side-hill goat?"
"It's a goat that's got the legs of one side shorter than the legs on the other side, and the only way he can get to the top of a hill is to keep trottin' around and around the hill like a five per cent. grade. He goes a mile to get ten feet higher."
"This fact," said Byrne, and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "is not without interest, though I fail to perceive the relation between me and such a creature, unless, perhaps, there are biologic similarities of which I have at present no cognition."
"I didn't think you'd follow me," replied Buck with an equal gravity. "But you can lay to this, Doc; this gent we're waitin' for ain't committed any more crimes than a wolf has."
"Ah, I see," murmured the doctor, "a man so near the brute that his enormities pass beyond—"
"Get this straight," said Buck, interrupting with a sternly pointed finger: "There ain't a kinder or a gentler man in the mountain-desert than him. He's got a voice softer than Kate Cumberland's, which is some soft voice, and as for his heart—Doc, I've seen him get off his horse to put a wounded rabbit out of its pain!"
A ring of awe came in the throat of Daniels as he repeated the incredible fact.
He went on: "If I was in trouble, I'd rather have him beside me than ten other men; if I was sick I'd rather have him than the ten best doctors in the world; if I wanted a pal that would die for them that done him good and go to hell to get them that done him bad, I'd choose him first, and there ain't none that come second."
The panegyric was not a burst of imagination. Buck Daniels was speaking seriously, hunting for words, and if he used superlatives it was because he needed them.
"Extraordinary!" murmured the doctor, and he repeated the word in a louder tone. It was a rare word for him; in all his scholastic career and in all of his scientific investigations he had found occasion to use so strong a term not more than half a dozen times at the most. He went on, cautiously, and his weak eyes blinked at Daniels: "And there is a relation between this man and a horse and dog?"
Buck Daniels shuddered and his colour changed.
"Listen!" he said, "I've talked enough. You ain't going to get another word out of me except this: Doc, have a good sleep, get on your hoss to-morrow mornin', and beat it. Don't even wait for breakfast. Because, if you do wait, you may get a hand in this little hell of ours. You may be waiting, too!" A sudden thought brought him to his feet. He stood over the doctor. "How many times," he thundered, "have you seen Kate Cumberland?"
"To-day, for the first time."
"Well," said Daniels, growling with relief, "you've seen her enough. I know." And he turned towards the door. "Unlock," he commanded. "I'm tired out—and sick—of talking about him."
But the doctor did not move.
"Nevertheless," he stated, "you will remain. There is something further which you know and which you will communicate to me."
Buck Daniels turned at the door; his face was not pleasant.
"While observing you as you talked with the girl," Byrne said, "it occurred to me that you were holding information from her. The exact nature of that information I cannot state, but it is reasonable to deduce that you could, at the present moment, name the place where the man for whom Mr. Cumberland and his daughter wait is now located."
Buck Daniels made no reply, but he returned to his chair and slumped heavily into it, staring at the little doctor. And Byrne realised with a thrill of pleasure that he was not afraid of death.
"I may further deduct," said the doctor, "that you will go in person to the place where you know this man may be found and induce him to come to this ranch."
The silent anger of Daniels died away. He smiled, and at length he laughed without mirth.
"Doc," he said, "if you knew where there was a gun, would that make you want to put it up agin your head and pull the trigger?"
But the doctor proceeded inexorably with his deductions: "Because you are aware, Mr. Daniels, that the presence of this man may save the life of Mr. Cumberland, a thought, to be sure, which might not be accepted by the medical fraternity, but which may without undue exaggeration devolve from the psychological situation in this house."
"Doc," said Daniels huskily, "you talk straight, and you act straight, and I think you are straight, so I'll take off the bridle and talk free. I know where Whistling Dan is—just about. But if I was to go to him and bring him here I'd bust the heart of Kate Cumberland. D'you understand?" His voice lowered with an intense emotion. "I've thought it out sideways and backwards. It's Kate or old Joe. Which is the most important?"
The doctor straightened in the chair, polished his glasses, and peered once more at the cowpuncher.
"You are quite sure, also, that the return of this man, this strange wanderer, might help Mr. Cumberland back to health?"
"I am, all right. He's sure wrapped up in Whistlin' Dan."
"What is the nature of their relations; what makes him so oddly dependent upon the other?"
"I dunno, doc. It's got us all fooled. When Dan is here it seems like old Cumberland jest nacherally lives on the things Dan does and hears and sees. We've seen Cumberland prick up his ears the minute Dan comes into the room, and show life. Sometimes Dan sits with him and tells him what he's been doin'—maybe it ain't any more than how the sky looks that day, or about the feel of the wind—but Joe sits with his eyes dreamin', like a little kid hearin' fairy stories. Kate says it's been that way since her dad first brought Dan in off'n the range. He's been sort of necessary to old Joe—almost like air to breathe. I tell you, it's jest a picture to see them two together."
"Very odd, very odd," brooded the doctor, frowning, "but this seems to be an odd place and an odd set of people. You've no real idea why Dan left the ranch?"
"Ask the wild geese," said Buck bitterly. He added: "Maybe you'd better ask Dan's black hoss or his dog, Bart. They'd know better'n anything else."
"But what has the man been doing since he left? Have you any idea?"
"Get a little chatter, now and then, of a gent that's rid into a town on a black hoss, prettier'n anything that was ever seen before.
"It's all pretty much the same, what news we get. Mostly I guess he jest wanders around doin' no harm to nobody. But once in a while somebody sicks a dog on Bart, and Bart jest nacherally chaws that dog in two. Then the owner of the dog may start a fight, and Dan drops him and rides on."
"With a trail of dead men behind him?" cried the doctor, hunching his shoulders as if to shake off a chill.
"Dead? Nope. You don't have to shoot to kill when you can handle a gun the way Dan does. Nope, he jest wings 'em. Plants a chunk of lead in a shoulder, or an arm, or a leg. That's all. They ain't no love of blood in Dan—except——-"
"Doc," said Buck with a shudder, "I ain't goin' to talk about the exceptions. Mostly the news we gets of Dan is about troubles he's had. But sometimes we hear of gents he's helped out when they was sick, and things like that. They ain't nobody like Dan when a gent is down sick, I'll tell a man!"
The doctor sighed.
He said: "And do I understand you to say that the girl and this man—Whistling Dan, as you call him—are intimately and sentimentally related?"
"She loves him," said Daniels slowly. "She loves the ground he walks on and the places where he's been."
"But, sir, it would seem probable from your own reasoning that the return of the man, in this case, will not be unwelcome to her."
"Reason?" broke out Daniels bitterly. "What the hell has reason got to do with Whistling Dan? Man, man! if Barry was to come back d'you suppose he'd remember that he'd once told Kate he loved her? Doc, I know him as near as any man can know him. I tell you, he thinks no more of her than—than the wild geese think of her. If old Joe dies because Dan is away—well, Cumberland is an old man anyway. But how could I stand to see Barry pass Kate by with an empty eye, the way he'd do if he come back? I'd want to kill him, and I'd get bumped off tryin' it, like as not. And what would it do to Kate? It'd kill her, Doc, as sure as you're born."
"Your assumption being," murmured the doctor, "that if she never sees the man again she will eventually forget him."
"D'you forget a knife that's sticking into you? No, she won't forget him. But maybe after a while she'll be able to stand thinkin' about him. She'll get used to the hurt. She'll be able to talk and laugh the way she used to. Oh, doc, if you could of seen her as I've seen her in the old days——"
"When the man was with her?" cut in the doctor.
Buck Daniels caught his breath.
"Damn your eternal soul, doc!" he said softly.
And for a time neither of them spoke. Whatever went on in the mind of Daniels, it was something that contorted his face. As for Byrne, he was trying to match fact and possibility and he was finding a large gap between the two; for he tried to visualise the man whose presence had been food to old Joe Cumberland, and whose absence had taken the oil from the lamp so that the flame now flickered dimly, nearly out. But he could build no such picture. He could merely draw together a vague abstraction of a man to whom the storm and the wild geese who ride the storm had meaning and relationship. The logic which he loved was breaking to pieces in the hands of Randall Byrne.
Silence, after all, is only a name, never a fact. There are noises in the most absolute quiet. If there is not even the sound of the cricket or the wind, if there are not even ghost whispers in the house, there is the sigh of one's own breathing, and in those moments of deadly waiting the beat of the heart may be as loud and as awful as the rattle of the death-march. Now, between the doctor and the cowpuncher, such a silence began. Buck Daniels wanted nothing more in the world than to be out of that room, but the eye of the doctor held him, unwilling. And there began once more that eternal waiting, waiting, waiting, which was the horror of the place, until the faint creakings through the windshaken house took on the meaning of footsteps stalking down the hall and pausing at the door, and there was the hushing breath of one who listened and smiled to himself! Now the doctor became aware that the eye of Buck Daniels was widening, brightening; it was as if the mind of the big man were giving way in the strain. His face blanched. Even the lips had no colour, and they moved, gibberingly.
"Listen!" he said.
"It is the wind," answered the doctor, but his voice was hardly audible.
"Listen!" commanded Daniels again.
The doctor could hear it then. It was a pulse of sound obscure as the thudding of his heart. But it was a human sound and it made his throat close up tightly, as if a hand were settling around his wind-pipe. Buck Daniels rose from his chair; that half-mad, half-listening look was still in his eyes—behind his eyes. Staring at him the doctor understood, intimately, how men can throw their lives away gloriously in battle, fighting for an idea; or how they can commit secret and foul murder. Yet he was more afraid of that pulse of sound than of the face of Buck Daniels. He, also, was rising from his chair, and when Daniels stalked to the side door of the room and leaned there, the doctor followed.
Then they could hear it clearly. There was a note of music in the voice; it was a woman weeping in that room where the chain lay on the floor, coiled loosely like a snake. Buck Daniels straightened and moved away from the door. He began to laugh, guarding it so that not a whisper could break outside the room, and his silent laughter was the most horrible thing the doctor had ever seen. It was only for a moment. The hysteria passed and left the big man shaking like a dead leaf.
"Doc," he said, "I can't stand it no longer. I'm going out and try to get him back here. And God forgive me for it."
He left the room, slamming the door behind him, and then he stamped down the hall as if he were trying to make a companion out of his noise. Doctor Randall Byrne sat down to put his thoughts in order. He began at the following point: "The physical fact is not; only the immaterial is." But before he had carried very far his deductions from this premise, he caught the neighing of a horse near the house; so he went to the window and threw it open. At the same time he heard the rattle of galloping hoofs, and then he saw a horseman riding furiously into the heart of the wind. Almost at once the rider was lost from sight.
The wrath of the Lord seems less terrible when it is localised, and the world at large gave thanks daily that the range of Jerry Strann was limited to the Three B's. As everyone in the mountain-desert knows, the Three B's are Bender, Buckskin, and Brownsville; they make the points of a loose triangle that is cut with canyons and tumbled with mountains, and that triangle was the chosen stamping ground of Jerry Strann. Jerry was not born in the region of the Three B's and why it should have been chosen specially by him was matter which the inhabitants could not puzzle out; but they felt that for their sins the Lord had probably put his wrath among them in the form of Jerry Strann.
He was only twenty-four, this Jerry, but he was already grown into a proverb. Men of the Three B's reckoned their conversational dates by the visits of the youth; if a storm hung over the mountains someone might remark: "It looks like Jerry Strann is coming," and such a remark was always received in gloomy silence; mothers had been known to hush their children by chanting: "Jerry Strann will get you if you don't watch out." Yet he was not an ogre with a red knife between his teeth. He stood at exactly the perfect romantic height; he was just six feet tall; he was as graceful as a young cotton-wood in a windstorm and he was as strong and tough as the roots of the mesquite. He was one of those rare men who are beautiful without being unmanly. His face was modelled with the care a Praxiteles would lavish on a Phoebus. His brown hair was thick and dark and every touch of wind stirred it, and his hazel eyes were brilliant with an enduring light—the inextinguishable joy of life.
Consider that there was no malice in Jerry Strann. But he loved strife as the young Apollo loved strife—or a pure-blooded bull terrier. He fought with distinction and grace and abandon and was perfectly willing to use fists or knives or guns at the pleasure of the other contracting party. In another age, with armour and a golden chain and spurs, Jerry Strann would have been—but why think of that? Swords are not forty-fives, and the Twentieth Century is not the Thirteenth. He was, in fact, born just six hundred years too late. From his childhood he had thirsted for battle as other children thirst for milk: and now he rode anything on hoofs and threw a knife like a Mexican—with either hand—and at short range he did snap shooting with two revolvers that made rifle experts sick at heart.
However, the men of the Three B's, as everyone understands, are not gentle or long-enduring, and you will wonder why this young destroyer was allowed to range at large so long. There was a vital reason. Up in the mountains lived Mac Strann, the hermit-trapper, who hated everything in the wide world except his young brother, the beautiful, wild, and sunny Jerry Strann. And Mac Strann loved his brother as much as he hated everything else; it is impossible to state it more strongly. It was not long before the men of the Three B's discovered how Mac Strann felt about his brother. After Jerry's famous Hallowe'en party in Buckskin, for instance, Williamson, McKenna, and Rath started out to rid the country of the disturber. They went out to hunt him as men go out to hunt a wild mustang. And they caught him and bent him down—those three stark men—and he lay in bed for a month; but before the month was over Mac Strann came down from his mountain and went to Buckskin and gathered Williamson and McKenna and Rath in one public place. And when the morning came Williamson and McKenna and Rath had left this vale of tears and Mac Strann was back on his mountain. He was not even arrested. For there was a devilish cunning about the fellow and he made his victims, without exception, attack him first; then he destroyed them, suddenly and surely, and retreated to his lair. Things like this happened once or twice and then the men of the Three B's understood that it was not wise to lay plots for Jerry Strann. They accepted him, as I have said before, as men accept the wrath of God.
Let it not be thought that Jerry Strann was a solitary like his brother. When he went out for a frolic the young men of the community gathered around him, for Jerry paid all scores and the red-eye flowed in his path like wine before the coming of Bacchus; where Jerry went there was never a dull moment, and young men love action. So it happened that when he rode into Brownsville this day he was the leader of a cavalcade. Rumour rode before them, and doors were locked and windows were darkened, and men sat in the darkness within with their guns across their knees. For Brownsville lay at the extreme northern tip of the triangle and it was rarely visited by Jerry; and it is well established that men fear the unfamiliar more than the known.
As has been said, Jerry headed the train of revellers, partially because it was most unwise to cut in ahead of Jerry and partially because there was not a piece of horseflesh in the Three B's which could outfoot his chestnut. It was a gelding out of the loins of the north wind and sired by the devil himself, and its spirit was one with the spirit of Jerry Strann; perhaps because they both served one master. The cavalcade came with a crash of racing hoofs in a cloud of dust. But in the middle of the street Jerry raised his right arm stiffly overhead with a whoop and brought his chestnut to a sliding stop; the cloud of dust rolled lazily on ahead. The young men gathered quickly around the leader, and there was silence as they waited for him to speak—a silence broken only by the wheezing of the horses, and the stench of sweating horseflesh was in every man's nostrils.
"Who owns that hoss?" asked Jerry Strann, and pointed.
He had stopped just opposite O'Brien's hotel, store, blacksmith shop, and saloon, and by the hitching rack was a black stallion. Now, there are some men who carry tidings of their inward strength stamped on their foreheads and written in their eyes. In times of crises crowds will turn to such men and follow them as soldiers follow a captain; for it is patent at a glance that this is a man of men. It is likewise true that there are horses which stand out among their fellows, and this was such a horse. He was such a creature that, if he had been led to a barrier, the entire crowd at the race track would rise as one man and say: "What is that horse?" There were points in which some critics would find fault; most of the men of the mountain-desert, for instance, would have said that the animal was too lightly and delicately limbed for long endurance; but as the man of men bears the stamp of his greatness in his forehead and his eyes, so it was with the black stallion. When the thunder of the cavalcade had rushed upon him down the street he had turned with catlike grace and raised his head to see; and his forehead and his eyes arrested Jerry Strann like a levelled rifle. Looking at that proud head one forgot the body of the horse, the symmetry of curves exquisite beyond the sculptor's dream, the arching neck and the steel muscles; one was only conscious of the great spirit. In Human beings we refer to it as "personality."
After a little pause, seeing that no one offered a suggestion as to the identity of the owner, Strann said, softly: "That hoss is mine."
It caused a stir in the crowd of his followers. In the mountain-desert one may deal lightly with a man's wife and lift a random cow or two and settle the score, at need, with a snug "forty-five" chunk of lead. But with horses it is different. A horse in the mountain-desert lies outside of all laws—and above all laws. It is greater than honour and dearer than love, and when a man's horse is taken from him the men of the desert gather together and hunt the thief whether it be a day or whether it be a month, and when they have reached him they shoot him like a dog and leave his flesh to the buzzards and his bones to the merciless stars. For all of this there is a reason. But Jerry Strann swung from his mount, tossed the reins over the head of the chestnut, and walked towards the black with hungry eyes. He was careless, also, and venturing too close—the black whirled with his sudden, catlike agility, and two black hoofs lashed within a hair's breadth of the man's shoulder. There was a shout from the crowd, but Jerry Strann stepped back and smiled so that his teeth showed.
"Boys," he said, but he was really speaking to himself, "there's nothing in the world I want as bad as I want that hoss. Nothing! I'm going to buy him; where's the owner?"
"Don't look like a hoss a man would want to sell, Jerry," came a suggestion from the cavalcade, who had dismounted and now pressed behind their leader.
Jerry favoured the speaker with another of his enigmatic smiles: "Oh," he chuckled, "he'll sell, all right! Maybe he's inside. You gents stick out here and watch for him; I'll step inside."
And he strode through the swinging doors of the saloon.
It was a dull time of day for O'Brien, so he sat with his feet on the edge of the bar and sipped a tall glass of beer; he looked up at the welcome click of the doors, however, and then was instantly on his feet. The good red went out of his face and the freckles over his nose stood out like ink marks.
"There's a black hoss outside," said Jerry, "that I'm going to buy. Where's the owner?"
"Have a drink," said the bartender, and he forced an amiable smile.
"I got business on my hands, not drinking," said Jerry Strann.
"Lost your chestnut?" queried O'Brien in concern.
"The chestnut was all right until I seen the black. And now he ain't a hoss at all. Where's the gent I want?"
The bartender had fenced for time as long as possible.
"Over there," he said, and pointed.
It was a slender fellow sitting at a table in a corner of the long room, his sombrero pushed back on his head. He was playing solitaire and his back was towards Jerry Strann, who now made a brief survey, hitched his cartridge belt, and approached the stranger with a grin. The man did not turn; he continued to lay down his cards with monotonous regularity, and while he was doing it he said in the gentlest voice that had ever reached the ear of Jerry Strann: "Better stay where you are, stranger. My dog don't like you."
And Jerry Strann perceived, under the shadow of the table, a blacker shadow, huge and formless in the gloom, and two spots of incandescent green twinkling towards him. He stopped; he even made a step back; and then he heard a stifled chuckle from the bartender.
If it had not been for that untimely mirth of O'Brien's probably nothing of what followed would have passed into the history of the Three B's.
"Your dog is your own dog," remarked Jerry Strann, still to the back of the card-laying stranger, "but this ain't your back-yard. Keep your eye on him, or I'll fix him so he won't need watching!"
So saying he made another step forward, and it brought a snarl from the dog; not one of those high-whining noises, but a deep guttural that sounded like indrawn breath. The gun of Jerry Strann leaped into his hand.
"Bart," said the gentle-voiced stranger, "lie down and don't talk." And he turned in his chair, pulled his hat straight, and looked mildly upon the gunman. An artist would have made much of that picture, for there was in this man, as in Strann, a singular portion of beauty. It was not, however, free from objection, for he had not the open manliness of the larger of the two. Indeed, a feminine grace and softness marked him; his wrists were as round as a girl's, and his hands as slender and as delicately finished. Whether it be the white-hot sun of summer or the hurricane snows of winter, the climate of the mountain-desert roughens the skin, and it cuts away spare flesh, hewing out the face in angles; but with this man there were no rough edges, but all was smoothed over and rounded with painful care; as if nature had concentrated in that birth to show what she could do. Such fine workmanship, perhaps, would be appreciated more by women than by men; for men like a certain weight and bulk of bone and muscle—whereas this fellow seemed as light of body as he was of hand. He sat now watching Strann with the utmost gravity. He had very large brown eyes of a puzzling quality; perhaps that was because there seemed to be no thought behind them and one caught the mystery and the wistfulness of some animals from a glance at him.
The effect of that glance on Strann was to make him grin again, and he at once banished the frown from his forehead and put away his gun; the big dog had slunk deeper into the shadow and closer to his master.
"I'm Strann. Maybe you've heard of me."
"My name is Barry," said the other. "I'm sorry that I haven't heard of you before."
And the sound of his voice made Jerry Strann grin again; it was such a low, soft voice with the velvet of a young girl's tone in it; moreover, the brown eyes seemed to apologise for the ignorance concerning Strann's name.
"You got a hoss out in front."
A nod of agreement.
"What's your price?"
"No price? Look here," argued Strann, "everything's got a price, and I got to have that hoss, understand? Got to! I ain't bargaining. I won't try to beat you down. You just set a figger and I'll cover it. I guess that's square!"
"He ain't a gentle hoss," said Barry. "Maybe you wouldn't like him."
"Oh, that's all right about being gentle," chuckled Strann. Then he checked his mirth and stared piercingly at the other to make out if there were a secret mockery. It could not, however, be possible. The eyes were as gravely apologetic as ever. He continued: "I seen the hell-fire in him. That's what stopped me like a bullet. I like 'em that way. Much rather have 'em with a fight. Well, let's have your price. Hey, O'Brien, trot out your red-eye; I'm going to do some business here!"
O'Brien came hastily, with drinks, and while they waited Strann queried politely: "Belong around these parts?"
"No," answered the other softly.
"No? Where you come from?"
"Over there," said Barry, and waved a graceful hand towards half the points of the compass.
"H-m-m!" muttered Strann, and once more he bent a keen gaze upon his companion. The drinks were now placed before them. "Here," he concluded, "is to the black devil outside!" And he swallowed the liquor at a gulp, but as he replaced the empty glass on the table he observed, with breathless amazement, that the whiskey glass of the stranger was still full; he had drunk his chaser!
"Now, by God!" said Strann in a ringing voice, and struck a heavy hand upon the top of the table. He regained his control, however, instantly. "Now about that price!"
"I don't know what horses are worth," replied Barry.
"To start, then—five hundred bucks in cold cash—gold!—for your—what's his name?"
"H-m-m!" murmured Strann again. "Five hundred for Satan, then. How about it?"
"If you can ride him," began the stranger.
"Oh, hell," smiled Strann with a large and careless gesture, "I'll ride him, all right."
"Then I would let you take him for nothing," concluded Barry.
"You'd—what?" said Strann. Then he rose slowly from his chair and shouted; instantly the swinging doors broke open and a throng of faces appeared at the gap. "Boys, this gent here is going to give me the black—ha, ha, ha!—if I can ride him!" He turned back on Barry. "They've heard it," he concluded, "and this bargain is going to stick just this way. If your hoss can throw me the deal's off. Eh?"
"Oh, yes," nodded the brown-eyed man.
"What's the idea?" asked one of Jerry's followers as the latter stepped through the doors of the saloon onto the street.
"I dunno," said Jerry. "That gent looks kind of simple; but it ain't my fault if he made a rotten bargain. Here, you!"
And he seized the bridle-reins of the black stallion. Speed, lightning speed, was what saved him, for the instant his fingers touched the leather Satan twisted his head and snapped like an angry dog. The teeth clicked beside Strann's shoulder as he leaped back. He laughed savagely.
"That'll be took out of him," he announced, "and damned quick!"
Here the voice of Barry was heard, saying: "I'll help you mount, Mr. Strann." And he edged his way through the little crowd until he stood at the head of the stallion.
"Look out!" warned Strann in real alarm, "or he'll take your head off!"
But Barry was already beside his horse, and, with his back towards those vicious teeth, he drew the reins over its head. As for the stallion, it pricked one ear forward and then the other, and muzzled the man's shoulder confidingly. There was a liberal chorus of astonished oaths from the gathering.
"I'll hold his head while you get on," suggested Barry, turning his mild eyes upon Strann again.
"Well," muttered the big man, "may I be eternally damned!" He added: "All right. Hold his head, and I'll ride him without pulling leather. Is that square?"
Barry nodded absently. His slender fingers were patting the velvet nose of the stallion and he was talking to it in an affectionate undertone—meaningless words, perhaps, such as a mother uses to soothe a child. When Strann set his foot in the stirrup and gathered up the reins the black horse cringed and shuddered; it was not a pleasant thing to see; it was like a dog crouching under the suspended whip. It was worse than that; it was almost the horror of a man who shivers at the touch of an unclean animal. There was not a sound from the crowd; and every grin was wiped out. Jerry Strann swung into the saddle lightly.
There he sat, testing the stirrups. They were too short by inches but he refused to have them lengthened. He poised his quirt and tugged his hat lower over his eyes.
"Turn him loose!" he shouted. "Hei!"
And his shrill yell went down the street and the echoes sent it barking back from wall to wall; Barry stepped back from the head of the black. But for an instant the horse did not stir. He was trembling violently, but his blazing eyes were fixed upon the face of his owner. Barry raised his hand.
And then it happened. It was like the release of a coiled watch-spring; the black whirled as a top spins and Strann sagged far to the left; before he could recover the stallion was away in a flash, like a racer leaving the barrier and reaching full speed in almost a stride. Not far—hardly the breadth of the street—before he pitched up in a long leap as if to clear a barrier, landed stiff-legged with a sickening jar, whirled again like a spinning top, and darted straight back. And Jerry Strann pulled leather—with might and main—but the short stirrups were against him, and above all the suddenness of the start had taken him off guard for all his readiness. When the stallion dropped stiff-legged Jerry was thrown forward and an unlucky left foot jarred loose from the stirrup; and when the horse whirled Strann was flung from the saddle. It was a clean fall. He twisted over in the air as he fell and landed in deep dust. The black stallion had reached his master and now he turned, in that same catlike manner, and watched with pricking ears as Strann dragged himself up from the dust.
There was no shout of laughter—no cheer for that fall, and without a smile they watched Strann returning. Big O'Brien had seen from his open door and now he laid a hand on the shoulder of one of the men and whispered at his ear: "There's going to be trouble; bad trouble, Billy. Go for Fatty Matthews—he's a deputy marshal now—and get him here as quick as you can. Run!"
The other spared time for a last glance at Strann and then hurried down the street.
Now, a man who can lose and smile is generally considered the most graceful of failures, but the smile of Jerry Strann as he walked slowly back worried his followers.
"We all hit dust sometime," he philosophized. "But one try don't prove nothin'. I ain't near through with that hoss!"
Barry turned to Strann. If there had been mockery in his eyes or a smile on his lips as he faced Jerry there would have been a gun play on the spot; but, instead, the brown eyes were as dumbly apologetic as ever.
"We didn't talk about two tries," he observed.
"We talk about it now," said Strann.
There was one man in the crowd a little too old to be dangerous and therefore there was one man who was in a position to speak openly to Strann. It was big O'Brien.
"Jerry, you named your game and made your play and lost. I guess you ain't going to turn up a hard loser. Nobody plays twice for the same pot."
The hazel eye of Strann was grey with anguish of the spirit as he looked from O'Brien to the crowd and from the crowd to Satan, and from Satan to his meek-eyed owner. Nowhere was there a defiant eye or a glint of scorn on which he could wreak his wrath. He stood poised in his anger for the space of a breath; then, in the sharp struggle, his better nature conquered.
"Come on in, all of you," he called. "We'll liquor, and forget this."
O'Brien pressed close to Barry.
"Partner," he said rapidly, "you're clear now—you're clear of more hell that you ever dream. Now climb that hoss of yours and feed him leather till you get clear of Brownsville—and if I was you I'd never come within a day's ride of the Three B's again."
The mild, brown eyes widened.
"I don't like crowds," murmured Barry.
"You're wise, kid," grinned the bartender—"a hell of a lot wiser than you know right now. On your way!"
And he turned to follow the crowd into the saloon. But Jerry Strann stood at the swinging doors, watching, and he saw Barry linger behind.
"Are you coming?" he called.
"I got an engagement," answered the meek voice.
"You got another engagement here," mocked Strann. "Understand?"
The other hesitated for an instant, and then sighed deeply. "I suppose I'll stay," he murmured, and walked into the bar. Jerry Strann was smiling in the way that showed his teeth. As Barry passed he said softly: "I see we ain't going to have no trouble, you and me!" and he moved to clap his strong hand on the shoulder of the smaller man. Oddly enough, the hand missed, for Barry swerved from beneath it as a wolf swerves from the shadow of a falling branch. No perceptible effort—no sudden start of tensed muscles, but a movement so smooth that it was almost unnoticeable. But the hand of Strann fell through thin air.
"You're quick," he said. "If you was as quick with your hands as you are with your feet——"
Barry paused and the melancholy brown eyes dwelt on the face of Strann.
"Oh, hell!" snorted the other, and turned on his heel to the bar. "Drink up!" he commanded.
A shout and a snarl from the further end of the room.
"A wolf, by God!" yelled one of the men.
The owner of the animal made his way with unobtrusive swiftness the length of the room and stood between the dog and a man who fingered the butt of his gun nervously.
"He won't hurt you none," murmured that softly assuring voice.
"The hell he won't!" responded the other. "He took a pass at my leg just now and dam' near took it off. Got teeth like the blades of a pocket-knife!"
"You're on a cold trail, Sam," broke in one of the others. "That ain't any wolf. Look at him now!"
The big, shaggy animal had slunk to the feet of his master and with head abased stared furtively up into Barry's face. A gesture served as sufficient command, and he slipped shadow-like into the corner and crouched with his head on his paws and the incandescent green of his eyes glimmering; Barry sat down in a chair nearby.
O'Brien was happily spinning bottles and glasses the length of the bar; there was the chiming of glass and the rumble of contented voices.
"Red-eye all 'round," said the loud voice of Jerry Strann, "but there's one out. Who's out? Oh, it's him. Hey O'Brien, lemonade for the lady."
It brought a laugh, a deep, good-natured laugh, and then a chorus of mockery; but Barry stepped unconfused to the bar, accepted the glass of lemonade, and when the others downed their fire-water, he sipped his drink thoughtfully. Outside, the wind had risen, and it shook the hotel and carried a score of faint voices as it whirred around corners and through cracks. Perhaps it was one of those voices which made the big dog lift its head from its paws and whine softly! surely it was something he heard which caused Barry to straighten at the bar and cant his head slightly to one side—but, as certainly, no one else in the barroom heard it. Barry set down his glass.
"Mr. Strann?" he called.
And the gentle voice carried faintly down through the uproar of the bar.
"Sister wants to speak to you," suggested O'Brien to Strann.
"Well?" roared the latter, "what d'you want?"
The others were silent to listen; and they smiled in anticipation.
"If you don't mind, much," said the musical voice, "I think I'll be moving along."
There is an obscure little devil living in all of us. It makes the child break his own toys; it makes the husband strike the helpless wife; it makes the man beat the cringing, whining dog. The greatest of American writers has called it the Imp of the Perverse. And that devil came in Jerry Strann and made his heart small and cold. If he had been by nature the bully and the ruffian there would have been no point in all that followed, but the heart of Jerry Strann was ordinarily as warm as the yellow sunshine itself; and it was a common saying in the Three B's that Jerry Strann would take from a child what he would not endure from a mountain-lion. Women loved Jerry Strann, and children would crowd about his knees, but this day the small demon was in him.
"You want to be moving along" mimicked the devil in Jerry Strann. "Well, you wait a while. I ain't through with you yet. Maybe—" he paused and searched his mind. "You've given me a fall, and maybe you can give the rest of us—a laugh!"
The chuckle of appreciation went up the bar and down it again.
"I want to ask you," went on the devil in Jerry Strann, "where you got your hoss?"
"He was running wild," came the gentle answer. "So I took a walk, one day, and brought him in."
"Maybe," grinned the big man, "you creased him?"
For it is one of the most difficult things in the world to capture a wild horse, and some hunters, in their desperation at seeing the wonderful animals escape, have tried to "crease" them. That is, they strive to shoot so that the bullet will barely graze the top of the animal's vertebrae, just behind the ears, stunning the horse and making it helpless for the capture. But necessarily such shots are made from a distance, and little short of a miracle is needed to make the bullet strike true—for a fraction of an inch too low means death. So another laugh of appreciation ran around the barroom at the mention of creasing.