BY MAX BRAND
I. Pan of the Desert
II. The Panther
III. Silent Shoots
IV. Something Yellow
V. Four in the Air
VII. The Mute Messenger
VIII. Red Writing
IX. The Phantom Rider
X. The Strength of Women
XI. Silent Bluffs
XIII. The Lone Riders Entertain
XV. The Cross Roads
XVI. The Three of us
XVII. The Panther's Paw
XIX. Real Men
XX. One Trail Ends
XXI. One Way Out
XXII. The Woman's Way
XXIII. Hell Starts
XXIV. The Rescue
XXV. The Long Ride
XXVI. Black Bart Turns Nurse
XXVII. Nobody Laughs
XXVIII. Whistling Dan, Desperado
XXX. "The Manhandling"
XXXI. "Laugh, Damn it!"
XXXII. Those who See in the Dark
XXXIII. The Song of the Untamed
XXXIV. The Coward
XXXV. Close in!
XXXVIII. The Wild Geese
PAN OF THE DESERT
Even to a high-flying bird this was a country to be passed over quickly. It was burned and brown, littered with fragments of rock, whether vast or small, as if the refuse were tossed here after the making of the world. A passing shower drenched the bald knobs of a range of granite hills and the slant morning sun set the wet rocks aflame with light. In a short time the hills lost their halo and resumed their brown. The moisture evaporated. The sun rose higher and looked sternly across the desert as if he searched for any remaining life which still struggled for existence under his burning course.
And he found life. Hardy cattle moved singly or in small groups and browsed on the withered bunch grass. Summer scorched them, winter humped their backs with cold and arched up their bellies with famine, but they were a breed schooled through generations for this fight against nature. In this junk-shop of the world, rattlesnakes were rulers of the soil. Overhead the buzzards, ominous black specks pendant against the white-hot sky, ruled the air.
It seemed impossible that human beings could live in this rock-wilderness. If so, they must be to other men what the lean, hardy cattle of the hills are to the corn-fed stabled beeves of the States.
Over the shoulder of a hill came a whistling which might have been attributed to the wind, had not this day been deathly calm. It was fit music for such a scene, for it seemed neither of heaven nor earth, but the soul of the great god Pan come back to earth to charm those nameless rocks with his wild, sweet piping. It changed to harmonious phrases loosely connected. Such might be the exultant improvisations of a master violinist.
A great wolf, or a dog as tall and rough coated as a wolf, trotted around the hillside. He paused with one foot lifted and lolling, crimson tongue, as he scanned the distance and then turned to look back in the direction from which he had come. The weird music changed to whistled notes as liquid as a flute. The sound drew closer. A horseman rode out on the shoulder and checked his mount. One could not choose him at first glance as a type of those who fight nature in a region where the thermometer moves through a scale of a hundred and sixty degrees in the year to an accompaniment of cold-stabbing winds and sweltering suns. A thin, handsome face with large brown eyes and black hair, a body tall but rather slenderly made—he might have been a descendant of some ancient family of Norman nobility; but could such proud gentry be found riding the desert in a tall-crowned sombrero with chaps on his legs and a red bandana handkerchief knotted around his throat? That first glance made the rider seem strangely out of place in such surroundings. One might even smile at the contrast, but at the second glance the smile would fade, and at the third, it would be replaced with a stare of interest. It was impossible to tell why one respected this man, but after a time there grew a suspicion of unknown strength in this lone rider, strength like that of a machine which is stopped but only needs a spark of fire to plunge it into irresistible action. Strangely enough, the youthful figure seemed in tune with that region of mighty distances, with that white, cruel sun, with that bird of prey hovering high, high in the air.
It required some study to guess at these qualities of the rider, for they were such things as a child feels more readily than a grown man; but it needed no expert to admire the horse he bestrode. It was a statue in black marble, a steed fit for a Shah of Persia! The stallion stood barely fifteen hands, but to see him was to forget his size. His flanks shimmered like satin in the sun. What promise of power in the smooth, broad hips! Only an Arab poet could run his hand over that shoulder and then speak properly of the matchless curve. Only an Arab could appreciate legs like thin and carefully drawn steel below the knees; or that flow of tail and windy mane; that generous breast with promise of the mighty heart within; that arched neck; that proud head with the pricking ears, wide forehead, and muzzle, as the Sheik said, which might drink from a pint-pot.
A rustling like dried leaves came from among the rocks and the hair rose bristling around the neck of the wolflike dog. With outstretched head he approached the rocks, sniffing, then stopped and turned shining eyes upon his master, who nodded and swung from the saddle. It was a little uncanny, this silent interchange of glances between the beast and the man. The cause of the dog's anxiety was a long rattler which now slid out from beneath a boulder, and giving its harsh warning, coiled, ready to strike. The dog backed away, but instead of growling he looked to the man.
Cowboys frequently practise with their revolvers at snakes, but one of the peculiarities of this rider was that he carried no gun, neither six-shooter nor rifle. He drew out a short knife which might be used to skin a beef or carve meat, though certainly no human being had ever used such a weapon against a five-foot rattler. He stooped and rested both hands on his thighs. His feet were not two paces from the poised head of the snake. As if marvelling at this temerity, the big rattler tucked back his head and sounded the alarm again. In response the cowboy flashed his knife in the sun. Instantly the snake struck but the deadly fangs fell a few inches short of the riding boots. At the same second the man moved. No eye could follow the leap of his hand as it darted down and fastened around the snake just behind the head. The long brown body writhed about his wrist, with rattles clashing. He severed the head deftly and tossed the twisting mass back on the rocks.
Then, as if he had performed the most ordinary act, he rubbed his gloves in the sand, cleansed his knife in a similar manner, and stepped back to his horse. Contrary to the rules of horse-nature, the stallion had not flinched at sight of the snake, but actually advanced a high-headed pace or two with his short ears laid flat on his neck, and a sudden red fury in his eyes. He seemed to watch for an opportunity to help his master. As the man approached after killing the snake the stallion let his ears go forward again and touched his nose against his master's shoulder. When the latter swung into the saddle, the wolf-dog came to his side, reared, and resting his forefeet on the stirrup stared up into the rider's face. The man nodded to him, whereat, as if he understood a spoken word, the dog dropped back and trotted ahead. The rider touched the reins and galloped down the easy slope. The little episode had given the effect of a three-cornered conversation. Yet the man had been as silent as the animals.
In a moment he was lost among the hills, but still his whistling came back, fainter and fainter, until it was merely a thrilling whisper that dwelt in the air but came from no certain direction.
His course lay towards a road which looped whitely across the hills. The road twisted over a low ridge where a house stood among a grove of cottonwoods dense enough and tall enough to break the main force of any wind. On the same road, a thousand yards closer to the rider of the black stallion, was Morgan's place.
In the ranch house old Joseph Cumberland frowned on the floor as he heard his daughter say: "It isn't right, Dad. I never noticed it before I went away to school, but since I've come back I begin to feel that it's shameful to treat Dan in this way."
Her eyes brightened and she shook her golden head for emphasis. Her father watched her with a faintly quizzical smile and made no reply. The dignity of ownership of many thousand cattle kept the old rancher's shoulders square, and there was an antique gentility about his thin face with its white goatee. He was more like a quaint figure of the seventeenth century than a successful cattleman of the twentieth.
"It is shameful, Dad," she went on, encouraged by his silence, "or you could tell me some reason."
"Some reason for not letting him have a gun?" asked the rancher, still with the quizzical smile.
"Yes, yes!" she said eagerly, "and some reason for treating him in a thousand ways as if he were an irresponsible boy."
"Why, Kate, gal, you have tears in your eyes!"
He drew her onto a stool beside him, holding both her hands, and searched her face with eyes as blue and almost as bright as her own. "How does it come that you're so interested in Dan?"
"Why, Dad, dear," and she avoided his gaze, "I've always been interested in him. Haven't we grown up together?"
"Part ways you have."
"And haven't we been always just like brother and sister?"
"You're talkin' a little more'n sisterly, Kate."
"What do you mean?"
"Ay, ay! What do I mean! And now you're all red. Kate, I got an idea it's nigh onto time to let Dan start on his way."
He could not have found a surer way to drive the crimson from her face and turn it white to the lips.
"You wouldn't send Dan away!"
Before he could answer she dropped her head against his shoulder and broke into great sobs. He stroked her head with his calloused, sunburned hand and his eyes filmed with a distant gaze.
"I might have knowed it!" he said over and over again; "I might have knowed it! Hush, my silly gal."
Her sobbing ceased with magic suddenness.
"Then you won't send him away?"
"Listen to me while I talk to you straight," said Joe Cumberland, "and accordin' to the way you take it will depend whether Dan goes or stays. Will you listen?"
"Dear Dad, with all my heart!"
"Humph!" he grunted, "that's just what I don't want. This what I'm goin' to tell you is a queer thing—a mighty lot like a fairy tale, maybe. I've kept it back from you years an' years thinkin' you'd find out the truth about Dan for yourself. But bein' so close to him has made you sort of blind, maybe! No man will criticize his own hoss."
"Go on, tell me what you mean. I won't interrupt."
He was silent for a moment, frowning to gather his thoughts.
"Have you ever seen a mule, Kate?"
"Maybe you've noticed that a mule is just as strong as a horse—"
"—but their muscles ain't a third as big?"
"Yes, but what on earth—"
"Well, Kate, Dan is built light an' yet he's stronger than the biggest men around here."
"Are you going to send him away simply because he's strong?"
"It doesn't show nothin'," said the old man gently, "savin' that he's different from the regular run of men—an' I've seen a considerable pile of men, honey. There's other funny things about Dan maybe you ain't noticed. Take the way he has with hosses an' other animals. The wildest man-killin', spur-hatin' bronchos don't put up no fight when them long legs of Dan settle round 'em."
"Because they know fighting won't help them!"
"Maybe so, maybe so," he said quietly, "but it's kind of queer, Kate, that after most a hundred men on the best hosses in these parts had ridden in relays after Satan an' couldn't lay a rope on him, Dan could jest go out on foot with a halter an' come back in ten days leadin' the wildest devil of a mustang that ever hated men."
"It was a glorious thing to do!" she said.
Old Cumberland sighed and then shook his head.
"It shows more'n that, honey. There ain't any man but Dan that can sit the saddle on Satan. If Dan should die, Satan wouldn't be no more use to other men than a piece of haltered lightnin'. An' then tell me how Dan got hold of that wolf, Black Bart, as he calls him."
"It isn't a wolf, Dad," said Kate, "it's a dog. Dan says so himself."
"Sure he says so," answered her father, "but there was a lone wolf prowlin' round these parts for a considerable time an' raisin' Cain with the calves an' the colts. An' Black Bart comes pretty close to a description of the lone wolf. Maybe you remember Dan found his 'dog' lyin' in a gully with a bullet through his shoulder. If he was a dog how'd he come to be shot—"
"Some brute of a sheep herder may have done it. What could it prove?"
"It only proves that Dan is queer—powerful queer! Satan an' Black Bart are still as wild as they ever was, except that they got one master. An' they ain't got a thing to do with other people. Black Bart'd tear the heart out of a man that so much as patted his head."
"Why," she cried, "he'll let me do anything with him!"
"Humph!" said Cumberland, a little baffled; "maybe that's because Dan is kind of fond of you, gal, an' he has sort of introduced you to his pets, damn 'em! That's just the pint! How is he able to make his man-killers act sweet with you an' play the devil with everybody else."
"It wasn't Dan at all!" she said stoutly, "and he isn't queer. Satan and Black Bart let me do what I want with them because they know I love them for their beauty and their strength."
"Let it go at that," growled her father. "Kate, you're jest like your mother when it comes to arguin'. If you wasn't my little gal I'd say you was plain pig-headed. But look here, ain't you ever felt that Dan is what I call him—different? Ain't you ever seen him get mad—jest for a minute—an' watched them big brown eyes of his get all packed full of yellow light that chases a chill up and down your back like a wrigglin' snake?"
She considered this statement in a little silence.
"I saw him kill a rattler once," she said in a low voice. "Dan caught him behind the head after he had struck. He did it with his bare hand! I almost fainted. When I looked again he had cut off the head of the snake. It was—it was terrible!"
She turned to her father and caught him firmly by the shoulders.
"Look me straight in the eye, Dad, and tell me just what you mean."
"Why, Kate," said the wise old man, "you're beginnin' to see for yourself what I'm drivin' at! Haven't you got somethin' else right on the tip of your tongue?"
"There was one day that I've never told you about," she said in a low voice, looking away, "because I was afraid that if I told you, you'd shoot Black Bart. He was gnawing a big beef bone and just for fun I tried to take it away from him. He'd been out on a long trail with Dan and he was very hungry. When I put my hand on the bone he snapped. Luckily I had a thick glove on and he merely pinched my wrist. Also I think he realized what he was doing for otherwise he'd have cut through the glove as if it had been paper. He snarled fearfully and I sprang back with a cry. Dan hadn't seen what happened, but he heard the snarl and saw Black Bart's bared teeth. Then—oh, it was terrible!"
She covered her face.
"Take your time, Kate," said Cumberland softly.
"'Bart,' called Dan," she went on, "and there was such anger in his face that I think I was more afraid of him than of the big dog.
"Bart turned to him with a snarl and bared his teeth. When Dan saw that his face turned—I don't know how to say it!"
She stopped a moment and her hands tightened.
"Back in his throat there came a sound that was almost like the snarl of Black Bart. The wolf-dog watched him with a terror that was uncanny to see, the hair around his neck fairly on end, his teeth still bared, and his growl horrible.
"'Dan!' I called, 'don't go near him!'
"I might as well have called out to a whirlwind. He leaped. Black Bart sprang to meet him with eyes green with fear. I heard the loud click of his teeth as he snapped—and missed. Dan swerved to one side and caught Black Bart by the throat and drove him into the dust, falling with him.
"I couldn't move. I was weak with horror. It wasn't a struggle between a man and a beast. It was like a fight between a panther and a wolf. Black Bart was fighting hard but fighting hopelessly. Those hands were settling tighter on his throat. His big red tongue lolled out; his struggles almost ceased. Then Dan happened to glance at me. What he saw in my face sobered him. He got up, lifting the dog with him, and flung away the lifeless weight of Bart. He began to brush the dust from his clothes, looking down as if he were ashamed. He asked me if the dog had hurt me when he snapped. I could not speak for a moment. Then came the most horrible part. Black Bart, who must have been nearly killed, dragged himself to Dan on his belly, choking and whining, and licked the boots of his master!"
"Then you do know what I mean when I say Dan is—different?"
She hesitated and blinked, as if she were shutting her eyes on a fact. "I don't know. I know that he's gentle and kind and loves you more than you love him." Her voice broke a little. "Oh, Dad, you forget the time he sat up with you for five days and nights when you got sick out in the hills, and how he barely managed to get you back to the house alive!"
The old man frowned to conceal how greatly he was moved.
"I haven't forgot nothin', Kate," he said, "an' everything is for his own good. Do you know what I've been tryin' to do all these years?"
"I've been tryin' to hide him from himself! Kate, do you remember how I found him?"
"I was too little to know. I've heard you tell a little about it. He was lost on the range. You found him twenty miles south of the house."
"Lost on the range?" repeated her father softly. "I don't think he could ever have been lost. To a hoss the corral is a home. To us our ranch is a home. To Dan Barry the whole mountain-desert is a home! This is how I found him. It was in the spring of the year when the wild geese was honkin' as they flew north. I was ridin' down a gulley about sunset and wishin' that I was closer to the ranch when I heard a funny, wild sort of whistlin' that didn't have any tune to it that I recognized. It gave me a queer feelin'. It made me think of fairy stories—an' things like that! Pretty soon I seen a figure on the crest of the hill. There was a triangle of geese away up overhead an' the boy was walkin' along lookin' up as if he was followin' the trail of the wild geese.
"He was up there walkin' between the sunset an' the stars with his head bent back, and his hands stuffed into his pockets, whistlin' as if he was goin' home from school. An' such whistlin'."
"Nobody could ever whistle like Dan," she said, and smiled.
"I rode up to him, wonderin'," went on Cumberland.
"'What're you doin' round here?' I says.
"Says he, lookin' at me casual like over his shoulder: 'I'm jest takin' a stroll an' whistlin'. Does it bother you, mister?'
"'It doesn't bother me none,' says I. 'Where do you belong, sonny?'
"'Me?' says he, lookin' sort of surprised, 'why, I belong around over there!' An' he waved his hand careless over to the settin' sun.
"There was somethin' about him that made my heart swell up inside of me. I looked down into them big brown eyes and wondered—well, I don't know what I wondered; but I remembered all at once that I didn't have no son.
"'Who's your folks?' says I, gettin' more an' more curious.
"He jest looked at me sort of bored.
"'Where does your folks live at?' says I.
"'Oh, they live around here,' says he, an' he waved his hand again, an' this time over towards the east.
"Says I: 'When do you figure on reachin' home?'
"'Oh, most any day,' says he.
"An' I looked around at them brown, naked hills with the night comin' down over them. Then I stared back at the boy an' there was something that come up in me like hunger. You see, he was lost; he was alone; the queer ring of his whistlin' was still in my ears; an' I couldn't help rememberin' that I didn't have no son.
"'Then supposin' you come along with me,' says I, 'an' I'll send you home in a buckboard tomorrow?'
"So the end of it was me ridin' home with the little kid sittin' up before me, whistlin' his heart out! When I got him home I tried to talk to him again. He couldn't tell me, or he wouldn't tell me where his folks lived, but jest kept wavin' his hand liberal to half the points of the compass. An' that's all I know of where he come from. I done all I could to find his parents. I inquired and sent letters to every rancher within a hundred miles. I advertised it through the railroads, but they said nobody'd yet been reported lost. He was still mine, at least for a while, an' I was terrible glad.
"I give the kid a spare room. I sat up late that first night listenin' to the wild geese honkin' away up in the sky an' wonderin' why I was so happy. Kate, that night there was tears in my eyes when I thought of how that kid had been out there on the hills walkin' along so happy an' independent.
"But the next mornin' he was gone. I sent my cowpunchers out to look for him.
"'Which way shall we ride?' they asked.
"I don't know why, but I thought of the wild geese that Dan had seemed to be followin'.
"'Ride north,' I said.
"An' sure enough, they rode north an' found him. After that I didn't have no trouble with him about runnin' away—at least not durin' the summer. An' all those months I kept plannin' how I would take care of this boy who had come wanderin' to me. It seemed like he was sort of a gift of God to make up for me havin' no son. And everythin' went well until the next fall, when the geese began to fly south.
"Sure enough, that was when Dan ran away again, and when I sent my cowpunchers south after him, they found him and brought him back. It seemed as if they'd brought back half the world to me, when I seen him. But I saw that I'd have to put a stop to this runnin' away. I tried to talk to him, but all he'd say was that he'd better be movin' on. I took the law in my hands an' told him he had to be disciplined. So I started thrashin' him with a quirt, very light. He took it as if he didn't feel the whip on his shoulders, an' he smiled. But there came up a yellow light in his eyes that made me feel as if a man was standin' right behind me with a bare knife in his hand an' smilin' jest like the kid was doin'. Finally I simply backed out of the room, an' since that day there ain't been man or beast ever has put a hand on Whistlin' Dan. To this day I reckon he ain't quite forgiven me."
"Why!" she cried, "I have never heard him mention it!"
"That's why I know he's not forgotten it. Anyway, Kate, I locked him in his room, but he wouldn't promise not to run away. Then I got an inspiration. You was jest a little toddlin' thing then. That day you was cryin' an awful lot an' I suddenly thought of puttin' you in Dan's room. I did it. I jest unlocked the door quick and then shoved you in an' locked it again. First of all you screamed terrible hard. I was afraid maybe you'd hurt yourself yellin' that way. I was about to take you out again when all at once I heard Dan start whistlin' and pretty quick your cryin' stopped. I listened an' wondered. After that I never had to lock Dan in his room. I was sure he'd stay on account of you. But now, honey, I'm gettin' to the end of the story, an' I'm goin' to give you the straight idea the way I see it.
"I've watched Dan like—like a father, almost. I think he loves me, sort of—but I've never got over being afraid of him. You see I can't forget how he smiled when I licked him! But listen to me, Kate, that fear has been with me all the time—an' it's the only time I've ever been afraid of any man. It isn't like being scared of a man, but of a panther.
"Now we'll jest nacherally add up all the points we've made about Dan—the queer way I found him without a home an' without wantin' one—that strength he has that's like the power of a mule compared with a horse—that funny control he has over wild animals so that they almost seem to know what he means when he simply looks at them (have you noticed him with Black Bart and Satan?)—then there's the yellow light that comes in his eyes when he begins to get real mad—you an' I have both seen it only once, but we don't want to see it again! More than this there's the way he handles either a knife or a gun. He hasn't practiced much with shootin' irons, but I never seen him miss a reasonable mark—or an unreasonable one either, for that matter. I've spoke to him about it. He said: 'I dunno how it is. I don't see how a feller can shoot crooked. It jest seems that when I get out a gun there's a line drawn from the barrel to the thing I'm shootin' at. All I have to do is to pull the trigger—almost with my eyes closed!' Now, Kate, do you begin to see what these here things point to?"
"Tell me what you see," she said, "and then I'll tell you what I think of it all."
"All right," he said. "I see in Dan a man who's different from the common run of us. I read in a book once that in the ages when men lived like animals an' had no weapons except sticks and stones, their muscles must have been two or three times as strong as they are now—more like the muscles of brutes. An' their hearin' an' their sight an' their quickness an' their endurance was about three times more than that of ordinary men. Kate, I think that Dan is one of those men the book described! He knows animals because he has all the powers that they have. An' I know from the way his eyes go yellow that he has the fightin' instinct of the ancestors of man. So far I've kept him away from other men. Which I may say is the main reason I bought Dan Morgan's place so's to keep fightin' men away from our Whistlin' Dan. So I've been hidin' him from himself. You see, he's my boy if he belongs to anybody. Maybe when time goes on he'll get tame. But I reckon not. It's like takin' a panther cub—or a wolf pup—an tryin' to raise it for a pet. Some day it gets the taste of blood, maybe its own blood, an' then it goes mad and becomes a killer. An' that's what I fear, Kate. So far I've kept Dan from ever havin' a single fight, but I reckon the day'll come when someone'll cross him, and then there'll be a tornado turned loose that'll jest about wreck these parts."
Her anger had grown during this speech. Now she rose.
"I won't believe you, Dad," she said. "I'd sooner trust our Dan than any man alive. I don't think you're right in a single word!"
"I was sure loco," sighed Cumberland, "to ever dream of convincin' a woman. Let it drop, Kate. We're about to get rid of Morgan's place, an' now I reckon there won't be any temptation near Dan. We'll see what time'll do for him. Let the thing drop there. Now I'm goin' over to the Bar XO outfit an' I won't be back till late tonight. There's only one thing more. I told Morgan there wasn't to be any gun-play in his place today. If you hear any shootin' go down there an' remind Morgan to take the guns off'n the men."
Kate nodded, but her stare travelled far away, and the thing she saw was the yellow light burning in the eyes of Whistling Dan.
It was a great day and also a sad one for Morgan. His general store and saloon had been bought out by old Joe Cumberland, who declared a determination to clear up the landscape, and thereby plunged the cowpunchers in gloom. They partially forgave Cumberland, but only because he was an old man. A younger reformer would have met armed resistance. Morgan's place was miles away from the next oasis in the desert and the closing meant dusty, thirsty leagues of added journey to every man in the neighbourhood. The word "neighbourhood," of course, covered a territory fifty miles square.
If the day was very sad for this important reason, it was also very glad, for rustling Morgan advertised the day of closing far and wide, and his most casual patrons dropped all business to attend the big doings. A long line of buckboards and cattle ponies surrounded the place. Newcomers gallopped in every few moments. Most of them did not stop to tether their mounts, but simply dropped the reins over the heads of the horses and then went with rattling spurs and slouching steps into the saloon. Every man was greeted by a shout, for one or two of those within usually knew him, and when they raised a cry the others joined in for the sake of good fellowship. As a rule he responded by ordering everyone up to the bar.
One man, however, received no more greeting than the slamming of the door behind him. He was a tall, handsome fellow with tawny hair and a little smile of habit rather than mirth upon his lips. He had ridden up on a strong bay horse, a full two hands taller than the average cattle pony, and with legs and shoulders and straight back that unmistakably told of a blooded pedigree. When he entered the saloon he seemed nowise abashed by the silence, but greeted the turned heads with a wave of the hand and a good-natured "Howdy, boys!" A volley of greetings replied to him, for in the mountain-desert men cannot be strangers after the first word.
"Line up and hit the red-eye," he went on, and leaning against the bar as he spoke, his habitual smile broadened into one of actual invitation. Except for a few groups who watched the gambling in the corners of the big room, there was a general movement towards the bar.
"And make it a tall one, boys," went on the genial stranger. "This is the first time I ever irrigated Morgan's place, and from what I have heard today about the closing I suppose it will be the last time. So here's to you, Morgan!"
And he waved his glass towards the bartender. His voice was well modulated and his enunciation bespoke education. This, in connection with his careful clothes and rather modish riding-boots, might have given him the reputation of a dude, had it not been for several other essential details of his appearance. His six-gun hung so low that he would scarcely have to raise his hand to grasp the butt. He held his whisky glass in his left hand, and the right, which rested carelessly on his hip, was deeply sunburned, as if he rarely wore a glove. Moreover, his eyes were marvellously direct, and they lingered a negligible space as they touched on each man in the room. All of this the cattlemen noted instantly. What they did not see on account of his veiling fingers was that he poured only a few drops of the liquor into his glass.
In the meantime another man who had never before "irrigated" at Morgan's place, rode up. His mount, like that of the tawny-haired rider, was considerably larger and more finely built than the common range horse. In three days of hard work a cattle pony might wear down these blooded animals, but would find it impossible to either overtake or escape them in a straight run. The second stranger, short-legged, barrel-chested, and with a scrub of black beard, entered the barroom while the crowd was still drinking the health of Morgan. He took a corner chair, pushed back his hat until a mop of hair fell down his forehead, and began to roll a cigarette. The man of the tawny hair took the next seat.
"Seems to be quite a party, stranger," said the tall fellow nonchalantly.
"Sure," growled he of the black beard, and after a moment he added: "Been out on the trail long, pardner?"
"As a matter of fact, I've got a lot of hard riding before me."
"And some long riding, too."
Perhaps it was because he turned his head suddenly towards the light, but a glint seemed to come in the eyes of the bearded man.
"Long rides," he said more amiably, "are sure hell on hosses."
"And on men, too," nodded the other, and tilted back in his chair.
The bearded man spoke again, but though a dozen cowpunchers were close by no one heard his voice except the man at his side. One side of his face remained perfectly immobile and his eyes stared straight before him drearily while he whispered from a corner of his mouth: "How long do you stay, Lee?"
"Noon," said Lee.
Once more the shorter man spoke in the manner which is learned in a penitentiary: "Me too. We must be slated for the same ride, Lee. Do you know what it is? It's nearly noon, and the chief ought to be here."
There was a loud greeting for a newcomer, and Lee took advantage of the noise to say quite openly: "If Silent said he'll come, he'll be here. But I say he's crazy to come to a place full of range riders, Bill."
"Take it easy," responded Bill. "This hangout is away off our regular beat. Nobody'll know him."
"His hide is his own and he can do what he wants with it," said Lee. "I warned him before."
"Shut up," murmured Bill, "Here's Jim now, and Hal Purvis with him!"
Through the door strode a great figure before whom the throng at the bar gave way as water rolls back from the tall prow of a ship. In his wake went a little man with a face dried and withered by the sun and small bright eyes which moved continually from side to side. Lee and Bill discovered their thirst at the same time and made towards the newcomers.
They had no difficulty in reaching them. The large man stood with his back to the bar, his elbows spread out on it, so that there was a little space left on either side of him. No one cared to press too close to this sombre-faced giant. Purvis stood before him and Bill and Lee were instantly at his side. The two leaned on the bar, facing him, yet the four did not seem to make a group set apart from the rest.
"Well?" asked Lee.
"I'll tell you what it is when we're on the road," said Jim Silent. "Plenty of time, Haines."
"Who'll start first?" asked Bill.
"You can, Kilduff," said the other. "Go straight north, and go slow. Then Haines will follow you. Purvis next. I come last because I got here last. There ain't any hurry—What's this here?"
"I tell you I seen it!" called an angry voice from a corner.
"You must of been drunk an' seein' double, partner," drawled the answer.
"Look here!" said the first man, "I'm willin' to take that any way you mean it!"
"An' I'm willin'," said the other, "that you should take it any way you damn please."
Everyone in the room was grave except Jim Silent and his three companions, who were smiling grimly.
"By God, Jack," said the first man with ominous softness, "I'll take a lot from you but when it comes to doubtin' my word——"
Morgan, with popping eyes and a very red face, slapped his hand on the bar and vaulted over it with more agility than his plumpness warranted. He shouldered his way hurriedly through the crowd to the rapidly widening circle around the two disputants. They stood with their right hands resting with rigid fingers low down on their hips, and their eyes, fixed on each other, forgot the rest of the world. Morgan burst in between them.
"Look here," he thundered, "it's only by way of a favour that I'm lettin' you boys wear shootin' irons today because I promised old Cumberland there wouldn't be no fuss. If you got troubles there's enough room for you to settle them out in the hills, but there ain't none at all in here!"
The gleam went out of their eyes like four candles snuffed by the wind. Obviously they were both glad to have the tension broken. Mike wiped his forehead with a rather unsteady hand.
"I ain't huntin' for no special brand of trouble," he said, "but Jack has been ridin' the red-eye pretty hard and it's gotten into that dried up bean he calls his brain."
"Say, partner," drawled Jack, "I ain't drunk enough of the hot stuff to make me fall for the line you've been handing out."
He turned to Morgan.
"Mike, here, has been tryin' to make me believe that he knew a feller who could drill a dollar at twenty yards every time it was tossed up."
The crowd laughed, Morgan loudest of all.
"Did you anyways have Whistlin' Dan in mind?" he asked.
"No, I didn't," said Mike, "an' I didn't say this here man I was talkin' about could drill them every time. But he could do it two times out of four."
"Mike," said Morgan, and he softened his disbelief with his smile and the good-natured clap on the shoulder, "you sure must of been drinkin' when you seen him do it. I allow Whistlin' Dan could do that an' more, but he ain't human with a gun."
"How d'you know?" asked Jack, "I ain't ever seen him packin' a six-gun."
"Sure you ain't," answered Morgan, "but I have, an' I seen him use it, too. It was jest sort of by chance I saw it."
"Well," argued Mike anxiously, "then you allow it's possible if Whistlin' Dan can do it. An' I say I seen a chap who could turn the trick."
"An' who in hell is this Whistlin' Dan?" asked Jim Silent.
"He's the man that caught Satan, an' rode him," answered a bystander.
"Some man if he can ride the devil," laughed Lee Haines.
"I mean the black mustang that ran wild around here for a couple of years. Some people tell tales about him being a wonder with a gun. But Morgan's the only one who claims to have seen him work."
"Maybe you did see it, and maybe you didn't," Morgan was saying to Mike noncommittally, "but there's some pretty fair shots in this room, which I'd lay fifty bucks no man here could hit a dollar with a six-gun at twenty paces."
"While they're arguin'," said Bill Kilduff, "I reckon I'll hit the trail."
"Wait a minute," grinned Jim Silent, "an' watch me have some fun with these short-horns."
He spoke more loudly: "Are you makin' that bet for the sake of arguin', partner, or do you calculate to back it up with cold cash?"
Morgan whirled upon him with a scowl, "I ain't pulled a bluff in my life that I can't back up!" he said sharply.
"Well," said Silent, "I ain't so flush that I'd turn down fifty bucks when a kind Christian soul, as the preachers say, slides it into my glove. Not me. Lead out the dollar, pal, an' kiss it farewell!"
"Who'll hold the stakes?" asked Morgan.
"Let your friend Mike," said Jim Silent carelessly, and he placed fifty dollars in gold in the hands of the Irishman. Morgan followed suit. The crowd hurried outdoors.
A dozen bets were laid in as many seconds. Most of the men wished to place their money on the side of Morgan, but there were not a few who stood willing to risk coin on Jim Silent, stranger though he was. Something in his unflinching eye, his stern face, and the nerveless surety of his movements commanded their trust.
"How do you stand, Jim?" asked Lee Haines anxiously. "Is it a safe bet? I've never seen you try a mark like this one!"
"It ain't safe," said Silent, "because I ain't mad enough to shoot my best, but it's about an even draw. Take your pick."
"Not me," said Haines, "if you had ten chances instead of one I might stack some coin on you. If the dollar were stationary I know you could do it, but a moving coin looks pretty small."
"Here you are," called Morgan, who stood at a distance of twenty paces, "are you ready?"
Silent whipped out his revolver and poised it. "Let 'er go!"
The coin whirled in the air. Silent fired as it commenced to fall—it landed untouched.
"As a kind, Christian soul," said Morgan sarcastically, "I ain't in your class, stranger. Charity always sort of interests me when I'm on the receivin' end!"
The crowd chuckled, and the sound infuriated Silent.
"Don't go back jest yet, partners," he drawled. "Mister Morgan, I got one hundred bones which holler that I can plug that dollar the second try."
"Boys," grinned Morgan, "I'm leavin' you to witness that I hate to do it, but business is business. Here you are!"
The coin whirled again. Silent, with his lips pressed into a straight line and his brows drawn dark over his eyes, waited until the coin reached the height of its rise, and then fired—missed—fired again, and sent the coin spinning through the air in a flashing semicircle. It was a beautiful piece of gun-play. In the midst of the clamour of applause Silent strode towards Morgan with his hand outstretched.
"After all," he said. "I knowed you wasn't really hard of heart. It only needed a little time and persuasion to make you dig for coin when I pass the box."
Morgan, red of face and scowling, handed over his late winnings and his own stakes.
"It took you two shots to do it," he said, "an' if I wanted to argue the pint maybe you wouldn't walk off with the coin."
"Partner," said Jim Silent gently, "I got a wanderin' hunch that you're showin' a pile of brains by not arguin' this here pint!"
There followed that little hush of expectancy which precedes trouble, but Morgan, after a glance at the set lips of his opponent, swallowed his wrath.
"I s'pose you'll tell how you did this to your kids when you're eighty," he said scornfully, "but around here, stranger, they don't think much of it. Whistlin' Dan"—he paused, as if to calculate how far he could safely exaggerate—"Whistlin' Dan can stand with his back to the coins an' when they're thrown he drills four dollars easier than you did one—an' he wouldn't waste three shots on one dollar. He ain't so extravagant!"
The crowd laughed again at the excitement of Morgan, and Silent's mirth particularly was loud and long.
"An' if you're still bent on charity," he said at last, "maybe we could find somethin' else to lay a bet on!"
"Anything you name!" said Morgan hotly.
"I suppose," said Silent, "that you're some rider, eh?"
"I c'n get by with most of 'em."
"Yeh—I suppose you never pulled leather in your life?"
"Not any hoss that another man could ride straight up."
"Is that so? Well, partner, you see that roan over there?"
"That tall horse?"
"You got him. You c'n win back that hundred if you stick on his back two minutes. D'you take it?"
Morgan hesitated a moment. The big roan was footing it nervously here and there, sometimes throwing up his head suddenly after the manner of a horse of bad temper. However, the loss of that hundred dollars and the humiliation which accompanied it, weighed heavily on the saloon owner's mind.
"I'll take you," he said.
A high, thrilling whistle came faintly from the distance.
"That fellow on the black horse down the road," said Lee Haines, "I guess he's the one that can hit the four dollars? Ha! ha! ha!"
"Sure," grinned Silent, "listen to his whistle! We'll see if we can drag another bet out of the bar-keep if the roan doesn't hurt him too bad. Look at him now!"
Morgan was having a bad time getting his foot in the stirrup, for the roan reared and plunged. Finally two men held his head and the saloon-keeper swung into the saddle. There was a little silence. The roan, as if doubtful that he could really have this new burden on his back, and still fearful of the rope which had been lately tethering him, went a few short, prancing steps, and then, feeling something akin to freedom, reared straight up, snorting. The crowd yelled with delight, and the sound sent the roan back to all fours and racing down the road. He stopped with braced feet, and Morgan lurched forwards on the neck, yet he struck to his seat gamely. Whistling Dan was not a hundred yards away.
Morgan yelled and swung the quirt. The response of the roan was another race down the road at terrific speed, despite the pull of Morgan on the reins. Just as the running horse reached Whistling Dan, he stopped as short as he had done before, but this time with an added buck and a sidewise lurch all combined, which gave the effect of snapping a whip—and poor Morgan was hurled from the saddle like a stone from a sling. The crowd waved their hats and yelled with delight.
"Look out!" yelled Jim Silent. "Grab the reins!"
But though Morgan made a valiant effort the roan easily swerved past him and went racing down the road.
"My God," groaned Silent, "he's gone!"
"Saddles!" called someone. "We'll catch him!"
"Catch hell!" answered Silent bitterly. "There ain't a hoss on earth that can catch him—an' now that he ain't got the weight of a rider, he'll run away from the wind!"
"Anyway there goes Dan on Satan after him!"
"No use! The roan ain't carryin' a thing but the saddle."
"Satan never seen the day he could make the roan eat dust, anyway!"
"Look at 'em go, boys!"
"There ain't no use," said Jim Silent sadly, "he'll wind his black for nothin'—an' I've lost the best hoss on the ranges."
"I believe him," whispered one man to a neighbour, "because I've got an idea that hoss is Red Peter himself!"
His companion stared at him agape.
"Red Pete!" he said. "Why, pal, that's the hoss that Silent—"
"Maybe it is an' maybe it ain't. But why should we ask too many questions?"
"Let the marshals tend to him. He ain't ever troubled this part of the range."
"Anyway, I'm goin' to remember his face. If it's really Jim Silent, I got something that's worth tellin' to my kids when they grow up."
They both turned and looked at the tall man with an uncomfortable awe. The rest of the crowd swarmed into the road to watch the race.
The black stallion was handicapped many yards at the start before Dan could swing him around after the roan darted past with poor Morgan in ludicrous pursuit. Moreover, the roan had the inestimable advantage of an empty saddle. Yet Satan leaned to his work with a stout heart. There was no rock and pitch to his gait, no jerk and labour to his strides. Those smooth shoulders were corded now with a thousand lines where the steel muscles whipped to and fro. His neck stretched out a little—his ears laid back along the neck—his whole body settled gradually and continually down as his stride lengthened. Whistling Dan was leaning forward so that his body would break less wind. He laughed low and soft as the air whirred into his face, and now and then he spoke to his horse, no yell of encouragement, but a sound hardly louder than a whisper. There was no longer a horse and rider—the two had become one creature—a centaur—the body of a horse and the mind of a man.
For a time the roan increased his advantage, but quickly Satan began to hold him even, and then gain. First inch by inch; then at every stride the distance between them diminished. No easy task. The great roan had muscle, heart, and that empty saddle; as well, perhaps, as a thought of the free ranges which lay before him and liberty from the accursed thraldom of the bit and reins and galling spurs. What he lacked was that small whispering voice—that hand touching lightly now and then on his neck—that thrill of generous sympathy which passes between horse and rider. He lost ground steadily and more and more rapidly. Now the outstretched black head was at his tail, now at his flank, now at his girth, now at his shoulder, now they raced nose and nose. Whistling Dan shifted in the saddle. His left foot took the opposite stirrup. His right leg swung free.
The big roan swerved—the black in response to a word from his rider followed the motion—and then the miracle happened. A shadow plunged through the air; a weight thudded on the saddle of the roan; an iron hand jerked back the reins.
Red Pete hated men and feared them, but this new weight on his back was different. It was not the pressure on the reins which urged him to slow up; he had the bit in his teeth and no human hand could pull down his head; but into the blind love, blind terror, blind rage which makes up the consciousness of a horse entered a force which he had never known before. He realized suddenly that it was folly to attempt to throw off this clinging burden. He might as well try to jump out of his skin. His racing stride shortened to a halting gallop, this to a sharp trot, and in a moment more he was turned and headed back for Morgan's place. The black, who had followed, turned at the same time like a dog and followed with jouncing bridle reins. Black Bart, with lolling red tongue, ran under his head, looking up to the stallion now and again with a comical air of proprietorship, as if he were showing the way.
It was very strange to Red Pete. He pranced sideways a little and shook his head up and down in an effort to regain his former temper, but that iron hand kept his nose down, now, and that quiet voice sounded above him—no cursing, no raking of sharp spurs to torture his tender flanks, no whir of the quirt, but a calm voice of authority and understanding. Red Pete broke into an easy canter and in this fashion they came up to Morgan in the road. Red Pete snorted and started to shy, for he recognized the clumsy, bouncing weight which had insulted his back not long before; but this quiet voiced master reassured him, and he came to a halt.
"That red devil has cost me a hundred bones and all the skin on my knees," groaned Morgan, "and I can hardly walk. Damn his eyes. But say, Dan"—and his eyes glowed with an admiration which made him momentarily forget his pains—"that was some circus stunt you done down the road there—that changin' of saddles on the run, I never seen the equal of it!"
"If you got hurt in the fall," said Dan quietly, overlooking the latter part of the speech, "why don't you climb onto Satan. He'll take you back."
"Say, kid, I'd take a chance with Satan, but there ain't any hospital for fools handy."
"Go ahead. He won't stir a foot. Steady, Satan!"
"All right," said Morgan, "every step is sure like pullin' teeth!"
He ventured closer to the black stallion, but was stopped short. Black Bart was suddenly changed to a green-eyed devil, his hair bristling around his shoulders, his teeth bared, and a snarl that came from the heart of a killer. Satan also greeted his proposed rider with ears laid flat back on his neck and a quivering anger.
"If I'm goin' to ride Satan," declared Morgan, "I got to shoot the dog first and then blindfold the hoss."
"No you don't," said Dan. "No one else has ever had a seat on Satan, but I got an idea he'll make an exception for a sort of temporary cripple. Steady, boy. Here you, Bart, come over here an' keep your face shut!"
The dog, after a glance at his master, moved reluctantly away, keeping his eyes upon Morgan. Satan backed away with a snort. He stopped at the command of Dan, but when Morgan laid a hand on the bridle and spoke to him he trembled with fear and anger. The saloon-keeper turned away.
"Thankin' you jest the same, Dan," he said, "I think I c'n walk back. I'd as soon ride a tame tornado as that hoss."
He limped on down the road with Dan riding beside him. Black Bart slunk at his heels, sniffing.
"Dan, I'm goin' to ask you a favour—an' a big one; will you do it for me?"
"Sure," said Whistling Dan. "Anything I can."
"There's a skunk down there with a bad eye an' a gun that jumps out of its leather like it had a mind of its own. He picked me for fifty bucks by nailing a dollar I tossed up at twenty yards. Then he gets a hundred because I couldn't ride this hoss of his. Which he's made a plumb fool of me, Dan. Now I was tellin' him about you—maybe I was sort of exaggeratin'—an' I said you could have your back turned when the coins was tossed an' then pick off four dollars before they hit the ground. I made it a bit high, Dan?"
His eyes were wistful.
"Nick four round boys before they hit the dust?" said Dan. "Maybe I could, I don't know. I can't try it, anyway, Morgan, because I told Dad Cumberland I'd never pull a gun while there was a crowd aroun'."
Morgan sighed; he hesitated, and then: "But you promised you'd do me a favour, Dan?"
The rider started.
"I forgot about that—I didn't think——"
"It's only to do a shootin' trick," said Morgan eagerly. "It ain't pullin' a gun on any one. Why, lad, if you'll tell me you got a ghost of a chance, I'll bet every cent in my cash drawer on you agin that skunk! You've give me your word, Dan."
Whistling Dan shrugged his shoulders.
"I've given you my word," he said, "an' I'll do it. But I guess Dad Cumberland'll be mighty sore on me."
A laugh rose from the crowd at Morgan's place, which they were nearing rapidly. It was like a mocking comment on Dan's speech. As they came closer they could see money changing hands in all directions.
"What'd you do to my hoss?" asked Jim Silent, walking out to meet them.
"He hypnotized him," said Hal Purvis, and his lips twisted over yellow teeth into a grin of satisfaction.
"Git out of the saddle damn quick," growled Silent. "It ain't nacheral he'd let you ride him like he was a plough-hoss. An' if you've tried any fancy stunts, I'll——"
"Take it easy," said Purvis as Dan slipped from the saddle without showing the slightest anger. "Take it easy. You're a bum loser. When I seen the black settle down to his work," he explained to Dan with another grin, "I knowed he'd nail him in the end an' I staked twenty on you agin my friend here! That was sure a slick change of hosses you made."
There were other losers. Money chinked on all sides to an accompaniment of laughter and curses. Jim Silent was examining the roan with a scowl, while Bill Kilduff and Hal Purvis approached Satan to look over his points. Purvis reached out towards the bridle when a murderous snarl at his feet made him jump back with a shout. He stood with his gun poised, facing Black Bart.
"Who's got any money to bet this damn wolf lives more'n five seconds?" he said savagely.
"I have," said Dan.
"Who in hell are you? What d'you mean by trailing this man-killer around?"
He turned to Dan with his gun still poised.
"Bart ain't a killer," said Dan, and the gentleness of his voice was oil on troubled waters, "but he gets peeved when a stranger comes nigh to the hoss."
"All right this time," said Purvis, slowly restoring his gun to its holster, "but if this wolf of yours looks cross-eyed at me agin he'll hit the long trail that ain't got any end, savvy?"
"Sure," said Dan, and his soft brown eyes smiled placatingly.
Purvis kept his right hand close to the butt of his gun and his eyes glinted as if he expected an answer somewhat stronger than words. At this mild acquiesence he turned away, sneering. Silent, having discovered that he could find no fault with Dan's treatment of his horse, now approached with an ominously thin-lipped smile. Lee Haines read his face and came to his side with a whisper: "Better cut out the rough stuff, Jim. This chap hasn't hurt anything but your cash, and he's already taken water from Purvis. I guess there's no call for you to make any play."
"Shut your face, Haines," responded Silent, in the same tone. "He's made a fool of me by showin' up my hoss, an' by God I'm goin' to give him a man-handlin' he'll never forgit."
He whirled on Morgan.
"How about it, bar-keep, is this the dead shot you was spillin' so many words about?"
Dan, as if he could not understand the broad insult, merely smiled at him with marvellous good nature.
"Keep away from him, stranger," warned Morgan. "Jest because he rode your hoss you ain't got a cause to hunt trouble with him. He's been taught not to fight."
Silent, still looking Dan over with insolent eyes, replied: "He sure sticks to his daddy's lessons. Nice an' quiet an' house broke, ain't he? In my part of the country they dress this kind of a man in gal's clothes so's nobody'll ever get sore at him an' spoil his pretty face. Better go home to your ma. This ain't any place for you. They's men aroun' here."
There was another one of those grimly expectant hushes and then a general guffaw; Dan showed no inclination to take offence. He merely stared at brawny Jim Silent with a sort of childlike wonder.
"All right," he said meekly, "if I ain't wanted around here I figger there ain't any cause why I should stay. You don't figger to be peeved at me, do you?"
The laughter changed to a veritable yell of delight. Even Silent smiled with careless contempt.
"No, kid," he answered, "if I was peeved at you, you'd learn it without askin' questions."
He turned slowly away.
"Maybe I got jaundice, boys," he said to the crowd, "but it seems to me I see something kind of yellow around here!"
The delightful subtlety of this remark roused another side-shaking burst of merriment. Dan shook his head as if the mystery were beyond his comprehension, and looked to Morgan for an explanation. The saloon-keeper approached him, struggling with a grin.
"It's all right, Dan," he said. "Don't let 'em rile you."
"You ain't got any cause to fear that," said Silent, "because it can't be done."
FOUR IN THE AIR
Dan looked from Morgan to Silent and back again for understanding. He felt that something was wrong, but what it was he had not the slightest idea. For many years old Joe Cumberland had patiently taught him that the last offence against God and man was to fight. The old cattleman had instilled in him the belief that if he did not cross the path of another, no one would cross his way. The code was perfect and satisfying. He would let the world alone and the world would not trouble him. The placid current of his life had never come to "white waters" of wrath.
Wherefore he gazed bewildered about him. They were laughing—they were laughing unpleasantly at him as he had seen men laugh at a fiery young colt which struggled against the rope. It was very strange. They could not mean harm. Therefore he smiled back at them rather uncertainly. Morgan slapped at his shoulder by way of good-fellowship and to hearten him, but Dan slipped away under the extended hand with a motion as subtle and swift as the twist of a snake when it flees for its hole. He had a deep aversion for contact with another man's body. He hated it as the wild horse hates the shadow of the flying rope.
"Steady up, pal," said Morgan, "the lads mean no harm. That tall man is considerable riled; which he'll now bet his sombrero agin you when it comes to shootin'."
He turned back to Silent.
"Look here, partner," he said, "this is the man I said could nail the four dollars before they hit the dust. I figger you don't think how it can be done, eh?"
"Him?" said Silent in deep disgust. "Send him back to his ma before somebody musses him all up! Why, he don't even pack a gun!"
Morgan waited a long moment so that the little silence would make his next speech impressive.
"Stranger," he said, "I've still got somewhere in the neighbourhood of five hundred dollars in that cash drawer. An' every cent of it hollers that Dan can do what I said."
Silent hesitated. His code was loose, but he did not like to take advantage of a drunk or a crazy man. However, five hundred dollars was five hundred dollars. Moreover that handsome fellow who had just taken water from Hal Purvis and was now smiling foolishly at his own shame, had actually ridden Red Peter. The remembrance infuriated Silent.
"Hurry up," said Morgan confidently. "I dunno what you're thinkin', stranger. Which I'm kind of deaf an' I don't understand the way anything talks except money."
"Corral that talk, Morgan!" called a voice from the crowd, "you're plumb locoed if you think any man in the world can get away with a stunt like that! Pick four in the air!"
"You keep your jaw for yourself," said Silent angrily, "if he wants to donate a little more money to charity, let him do it. Morgan, I've got five hundred here to cover your stake."
"Make him give you odds, Morgan," said another voice, "because——"
A glance from Silent cut the suggestion short. After that there was little loud conversation. The stakes were large. The excitement made the men hush the very tones in which they spoke. Morgan moistened his white lips.
"You c'n see I'm not packin' any shootin' irons," said Dan. "Has anybody got any suggestions?"
Every gun in the crowd was instantly at his service. They were heartily tempted to despise Dan, but as one with the courage to attempt the impossible, they would help him as far as they could. He took their guns one after the other, weighed them, tried the action, and handed them back. It was almost as if there were a separate intelligence in the ends of his fingers which informed him of the qualities of each weapon.
"Nice gun," he said to the first man whose revolver he handled, "but I don't like a barrel that's quite so heavy. There's a whole ounce too much in the barrel."
"What d'you mean?" asked the cowpuncher. "I've packed that gun for pretty nigh eight years!"
"Sorry," said Dan passing on, "but I can't work right with a top-heavy gun."
The next weapon he handed back almost at once.
"What's the matter with that?" asked the owner aggressively.
"Cylinder too tight," said Dan decisively, and a moment later to another man, "Bad handle. I don't like the feel of it."
Over Jim Silent's guns he paused longer than over most of the rest, but finally he handed them back. The big man scowled.
Dan looked back to him in gentle surprise.
"You see," he explained quietly, "you got to handle a gun like a horse. If you don't treat it right it won't treat you right. That's all I know about it. Your gun ain't very clean, stranger, an' a gun that ain't kept clean gets off feet."
Silent glanced at his weapons, cursed softly, and restored them to the holsters.
"Lee," he muttered to Haines, who stood next to him, "what do you think he meant by that? D' you figger he's got somethin' up his sleeve, an' that's why he acts so like a damned woman?"
"I don't know," said Haines gravely, "he looks to me sort of queer—sort of different—damned different, chief!"
By this time Dan had secured a second gun which suited him. He whirled both guns, tried their actions alternately, and then announced that he was ready. In the dead silence, one of the men paced off the twenty yards.
Dan, with his back turned, stood at the mark, shifting his revolvers easily in his hands, and smiling down at them as if they could understand his caress.
"How you feelin', Dan?" asked Morgan anxiously.
"Everything fine," he answered.
"Are you gettin' weak?"
"No, I'm all right."
"Steady up, partner."
"Steady up? Look at my hand!"
Dan extended his arm. There was not a quiver in it.
"All right, Dan. When you're shootin', remember that I got pretty close to everything I own staked on you. There's the stranger gettin' his four dollars ready."
Silent took his place with the four dollars in his hand.
"Are you ready?" he called.
"Let her go!" said Dan, apparently without the least excitement.
Jim Silent threw the coins, and he threw them so as to increase his chances as much as possible. A little snap of his hand gave them a rapid rotary motion so that each one was merely a speck of winking light. He flung them high, for it was probable that Whistling Dan would wait to shoot until they were on the way down. The higher he threw them the more rapidly they would be travelling when they crossed the level of the markman's eye.
As a shout proclaimed the throwing of the coins, Dan whirled, and it seemed to the bystanders that a revolver exploded before he was fully turned; but one of the coins never rose to the height of the throw. There was a light "cling!" and it spun a dozen yards away. Two more shots blended almost together; two more dollars darted away in twinkling streaks of light. One coin still fell, but when it was a few inches from the earth a six-shooter barked again and the fourth dollar glanced sidewise into the dust. It takes long to describe the feat. Actually, the four shots consumed less than a second of time.
"That last dollar," said Dan, and his soft voice was the first sound out of the silence, "wasn't good. It didn't ring true. Counterfeit?"
It seemed that no one heard his words. The men were making a wild scramble for the dollars. They dived into the dust for them, rising white of face and clothes to fight and struggle over their prizes. Those dollars with the chips and neat round holes in them would confirm the truth of a story that the most credulous might be tempted to laugh or scorn. A cowpuncher offered ten dollars for one of the relics—but none would part with a prize.
The moment the shooting was over Dan stepped quietly back and restored the guns to the owners. The first man seized his weapon carelessly. He was in the midst of his rush after one of the chipped coins. The other cowpuncher received his weapon almost with reverence.
"I'm thankin' you for the loan," said Dan, "an here's hopin' you always have luck with the gun."
"Luck?" said the other. "I sure will have luck with it. I'm goin' to oil her up and put her in a glass case back home, an' when I get grandchildren I'm goin' to point out that gun to 'em and tell 'em what men used to do in the old days. Let's go in an' surround some red-eye at my expense."
"No thanks," answered Dan, "I ain't drinkin'."
He stepped back to the edge of the circle and folded his arms. It was as if he had walked out of the picture. He suddenly seemed to be aloof from them all.
Out of the quiet burst a torrent of curses, exclamations, and shouts. Chance drew Jim Silent and his three followers together.
"My God!" whispered Lee Haines, with a sort of horror in his voice, "it wasn't human! Did you see? Did you see?"
"Am I blind?" asked Hal Purvis, "an' think of me walkin' up an' bracin' that killer like he was a two-year-old kid! I figger that's the nearest I ever come to a undeserved grave, an' I've had some close calls! 'That last dollar wasn't good! It didn't ring true,' says he when he finished. I never seen such nerve!"
"You're wrong as hell," said Silent, "a woman can shoot at a target, but it takes a cold nerve to shoot at a man—an' this feller is yellow all through!"
"Is he?" growled Bill Kilduff, "well, I'd hate to take him by surprise, so's he'd forget himself. He gets as much action out of a common six-gun as if it was a gatling. He was right about that last dollar, too. It was pure—lead!"
"All right, Haines," said Silent. "You c'n start now any time, an' the rest of us'll follow on the way I said. I'm leavin' last. I got a little job to finish up with the kid."
But Haines was staring fixedly down the road.
"I'm not leaving yet," said Haines. "Look!"
He turned to one of the cowpunchers.
"Who's the girl riding up the road, pardner?"
"That calico? She's Kate Cumberland—old Joe's gal."
"I like the name," said Haines. "She sits the saddle like a man!"
Her pony darted off from some imaginary object in the middle of the road, and she swayed gracefully, following the sudden motion. Her mount came to the sudden halt of the cattle pony and she slipped to the ground before Morgan could run out to help. Even Lee Haines, who was far quicker, could not reach her in time.
"Sorry I'm late," said Haines. "Shall I tie your horse?"
The fast ride had blown colour to her face and good spirits into her eyes. She smiled up to him, and as she shook her head in refusal her eyes lingered a pardonable moment on his handsome face, with the stray lock of tawny hair fallen low across his forehead. She was used to frank admiration, but this unembarrassed courtesy was a new world to her. She was still smiling when she turned to Morgan.
"You told my father the boys wouldn't wear guns today."
He was somewhat confused.
"They seem to be wearin' them," he said weakly, and his eyes wandered about the armed circle, pausing on the ominous forms of Hal Purvis, Bill Kilduff, and especially Jim Silent, a head taller than the rest. He stood somewhat in the background, but the slight sneer with which he watched Whistling Dan dominated the entire picture.
"As a matter of fact," went on Morgan, "it would be a ten man job to take the guns away from this crew. You can see for yourself."
She glanced about the throng and started. She had seen Dan.
"How did he come here?"
"Oh, Dan?" said Morgan, "he's all right. He just pulled one of the prettiest shootin' stunts I ever seen."
"But he promised my father—" began Kate, and then stopped, flushing.
If her father was right in diagnosing Dan's character, this was the most critical day in his life, for there he stood surrounded by armed men. If there were anything wild in his nature it would be brought out that day. She was almost glad the time of trial had come.
She said: "How about the guns, Mr. Morgan?"
"If you want them collected and put away for a while," offered Lee Haines, "I'll do what I can to help you!"
Her smile of thanks set his blood tingling. His glance lingered a little too long, a little too gladly, and she coloured slightly.
"Miss Cumberland," said Haines, "may I introduce myself? My name is Lee."
She hesitated. The manners she had learned in the Eastern school forbade it, but her Western instinct was truer and stronger. Her hand went out to him.
"I'm very glad to know you, Mr. Lee."
"All right, stranger," said Morgan, who in the meantime had been shifting from one foot to the other and estimating the large chances of failure in this attempt to collect the guns, "if you're going to help me corral the shootin' irons, let's start the roundup."
The girl went with them. They had no trouble in getting the weapons. The cold blue eye of Lee Haines was a quick and effective persuasion.
When they reached Jim Silent he stared fixedly upon Haines. Then he drew his guns slowly and presented them to his comrade, while his eyes shifted to Kate and he said coldly: "Lady, I hope I ain't the last one to congratulate you!"
She did not understand, but Haines scowled and coloured. Dan, in the meantime, was swept into the saloon by an influx of the cowpunchers that left only Lee Haines outside with Kate. She had detained him with a gesture.
"Mr. Lee," she said, "I am going to ask you to do me a favour. Will you?"
His smile was a sufficient answer, and it was in her character that she made no pretext of misunderstanding it.
"You have noticed Dan among the crowd?" she asked, "Whistling Dan?"
"Yes," he said, "I saw him do some very nice shooting."
"It's about him that I want to speak to you. Mr. Lee, he knows very little about men and their ways. He is almost a child among them. You seem—stronger—than most of the crowd here. Will you see that if trouble comes he is not imposed upon?"
She flushed a little, there was such a curious yearning in the eyes of the big man.
"If you wish it," he said simply, "I will do what I can."
As he walked beside her towards her horse, she turned to him abruptly.
"You are very different from the men I have met around here," she said.
"I am glad," he answered.
"If you find me different, you will remember me, whether for better or worse."
He spoke so earnestly that she grew grave. He helped her to the saddle and she leaned a little to study him with the same gentle gravity.
"I should like to see you again, Mr. Lee," she said, and then in a little outburst, "I should like to see you a lot! Will you come to my house sometime?"
The directness, the sudden smile, made him flinch. His voice was a trifle unsteady when he replied.
"I shall!" He paused and his hand met hers. "If it is possible."
Her eyebrows raised a trifle.
"Is it so hard to do?"
"Do not ask me to explain," he said, "I am riding a long way."
"Oh, a 'long-rider'!" she laughed, "then of course—" She stopped abruptly. It may have been imagination, but he seemed to start when she spoke the phrase by which outlaws were known to each other. He was forcing his eyes to meet hers.
He said slowly: "I am going on a long journey. Perhaps I will come back. If I am able to, I shall."
He dropped his hand from hers and she remained silent, guessing at many things, and deeply moved, for every woman knows when a man speaks from his soul.
"You will not forget me?"
"I shall never forget you," she answered quietly. "Good-bye, Mr. Lee!"
Her hand touched his again, she wheeled, and rode away. He remained standing with the hand she had grasped still raised. And after a moment, as he had hoped, she turned in the saddle and waved to him. His eyes were downward and he was smiling faintly when he re-entered the saloon.
Silent sat at a table with his chin propped in his hand—his left hand, of course, for that restless right hand must always be free. He stared across the room towards Whistling Dan. The train of thoughts which kept those ominous eyes so unmoving must be broken. He sat down at the side of his chief.
"What the hell?" said the big man, "ain't you started yet?"
"Look here, Jim," said Haines cautiously, "I want you to lay off on this kid, Whistling Dan. It won't meant anything to you to raise the devil with him."
"I tell you," answered Silent, "it'll please me more'n anything in the world to push that damned girl face of his into the floor."
"Silent, I'm asking a personal favour of you!"
The leader turned upon him that untamed stare. Haines set his teeth.
"Haines," came the answer, "I'll stand more from you than from any man alive. I know you've got guts an' I know you're straight with me. But there ain't anything can keep me from manhandlin' that kid over there." He opened and shut his fingers slowly. "I sort of yearn to get at him!"
Haines recognized defeat.
"But you haven't another gun hidden on you, Jim? You won't try to shoot him up?"
"No," said Silent. "If I had a gun I don't know—but I haven't a gun. My hands'll be enough!"
All that could be done now was to get Whistling Dan out of the saloon. That would be simple. A single word would suffice to send the timid man helter-skelter homewards.
The large, lazy brown eyes turned up to Haines as the latter approached.
"Dan," he said, "hit for the timbers—get on your way—there's danger here for you!"
To his astonishment the brown eyes did not vary a shade.
"Danger?" he repeated wonderingly.
"Danger! Get up and get out if you want to save your hide!"
"What's the trouble?" said Dan, and his eyes were surprised, but not afraid.
"The biggest man in this room is after your blood."
"Is he?" said Dan wonderingly. "I'm sorry I don't feel like leavin', but I'm not tired of this place yet."
"Friend," said Haines, "if that tall man puts his hands on you, he'll break you across his knee like a rotten stick of wood!"
It was too late. Silent evidently guessed that Haines was urging his quarry to flee.
"Hey!" he roared, so that all heads turned towards him, "you over there."
Haines stepped back, sick at heart. He knew that it would be folly to meet his chief hand to hand, but he thought of his pledge to Kate, and groaned.
"What do you want of me?" asked Dan, for the pointed arm left no doubt as to whom Silent intended.
"Get up when you're spoke to" cried Silent. "Ain't you learned no manners? An' git up quick!"
Dan rose, smiling his surprise.
"Your friend has a sort of queer way of talkin'," he said to Haines.
"Don't stan' there like a fool. Trot over to the bar an' git me a jolt of red-eye. I'm dry!" thundered Silent.
"Sure!" nodded Whistling Dan amiably, "glad to!" and he went accordingly towards the bar.
The men about the room looked to each other with sick smiles. There was an excuse for acquiescence, for the figure of Jim Silent contrasted with Whistling Dan was like an oak compared with a sapling. Nevertheless such bland cowardice as Dan was showing made their flesh creep. He asked at the bar for the whisky, and Morgan spoke as Dan filled a glass nearly to the brim.
"Dan," he whispered rapidly, "I got a gun behind the bar. Say the word an' I'll take the chance of pullin' it on that big skunk. Then you make a dive for the door. Maybe I can keep him back till you get on Satan."
"Why should I beat it?" queried Dan, astonished. "I'm jest beginnin' to get interested in your place. That tall feller is sure a queer one, ain't he?"
With the same calm and wide-eyed smile of inquiry he turned away, taking the glass of liquor, and left Morgan to stare after him with a face pale with amazement, while he whispered over and over to himself: "Well, I'll be damned! Well, I'll be damned!"
Dan placed the liquor before Silent. The latter sat gnawing his lips.
"What in hell do you mean?" he said. "Did you only bring one glass? Are you too damn good to drink with me? Then drink by yourself, you white-livered coyote!"
He dashed the glass of whisky into Dan's face. Half blinded by the stinging liquor, the latter fell back a pace, sputtering, and wiping his eyes. Not a man in the room stirred. The same sick look was on each face. But the red devil broke loose in Silent's heart when he saw Dan cringe. He followed the thrown glass with his clenched fist. Dan stood perfectly still and watched the blow coming. His eyes were wide and wondering, like those of a child. The iron-hard hand struck him full on the mouth, fairly lifted him from his feet, and flung him against the wall with such violence that he recoiled again and fell forward onto his knees. Silent was making beast noises in his throat and preparing to rush on the half-prostrate figure. He stopped short.
Dan was laughing. At least that chuckling murmur was near to a laugh. Yet there was no mirth in it. It had that touch of the maniacal in it which freezes the blood. Silent halted in the midst of his rush, with his hands poised for the next blow. His mouth fell agape with an odd expression of horror as Dan stared up at him. That hideous chuckling continued. The sound defied definition. And from the shadow in which Dan was crouched his brown eyes blazed, changed, and filled with yellow fires.
"God!" whispered Silent, and at that instant the ominous crouched animal with the yellow eyes, the nameless thing which had been Whistling Dan a moment before, sprang up and forward with a leap like that of a panther.
Morgan stood behind the bar with a livid face and a fixed smile. His fingers still stiffly clutched the whisky bottle from which the last glass had been filled. Not another man in the room stirred from his place. Some sat with their cards raised in the very act of playing. Some had stopped midway a laugh. One man had been tying a bootlace. His body did not rise. Only his eyes rolled up to watch.
Dan darted under the outstretched arms of Silent, fairly heaved him up from the floor and drove him backwards. The big man half stumbled and half fell, knocking aside two chairs. He rushed back with a shout, but at sight of the white face with the thin trickle of blood falling from the lips, and at the sound of that inhuman laughter, he paused again.
Once more Dan was upon him, his hands darting out with motions too fast for the eye to follow. Jim Silent stepped back a half pace, shifted his weight, and drove his fist straight at that white face. How it happened not a man in the room could tell, but the hand did not strike home. Dan had swerved aside as lightly as a wind-blown feather and his fist rapped against Silent's ribs with a force that made the giant grunt.
Some of the horror was gone from his face and in its stead was baffled rage. He knew the scientific points of boxing, and he applied them. His eye was quick and sure. His reach was whole inches longer than his opponent's. His strength was that of two ordinary men. What did it avail him? He was like an agile athlete in the circus playing tag with a black panther. He was like a child striking futilely at a wavering butterfly. Sometimes this white-faced, laughing devil ducked under his arms. Sometimes a sidestep made his blows miss by the slightest fraction of an inch.
And for every blow he struck four rained home against him. It was impossible! It could not be! Silent telling himself that he dreamed, and those dancing fists crashed into his face and body like sledgehammers. There was no science in the thing which faced him. Had there been trained skill the second blow would have knocked Silent unconscious, and he knew it, but Dan made no effort to strike a vulnerable spot. He hit at anything which offered.
Still he laughed as he leaped back and forth. Perhaps mere weight of rushing would beat the dancing will-o'-the-wisp to the floor. Silent bored in with lowered head and clutched at his enemy. Then he roared with triumph. His outstretched hand caught Dan's shirt as the latter flicked to one side. Instantly they were locked in each other's arms! The most meaning part of the fight followed.
The moment after they grappled, Silent shifted his right arm from its crushing grip on Dan's body and clutched at the throat. The move was as swift as lightning, but the parry of the smaller man was still quicker. His left hand clutched Silent by the wrist, and that mighty sweep of arm was stopped in mid-air! They were in the middle of the room. They stood perfectly erect and close together, embraced. Their position had a ludicrous resemblance to the posture of dancers, but their bodies were trembling with effort. With every ounce of power in his huge frame Silent strove to complete his grip at the throat. He felt the right arm of Dan tightening around him closer, closer, closer! It was not a bulky arm, but it seemed to be made of linked steel which was shrinking into him, and promised to crush his very bones. The strength of this man seemed to increase. It was limitless. His breath came struggling under that pressure and the blood thundered and raged in his temples. If he could only get at that soft throat!
But his struggling right hand was held in a vice of iron. Now his numb arm gave way, slowly, inevitably. He ground his teeth and cursed. His curse was half a prayer. For answer there was the unearthly chuckle just below his ear. His hand was moved back, down, around! He was helpless as a child in the arms of its father—no, helpless as a sheep in the constricting coils of a python.
An impulse of frantic horror and shame and fear gave him redoubled strength for an instant. He tore himself clear and reeled back. Dan planted two smashes on Silent's snarling mouth. A glance showed the large man the mute, strained faces around the room. The laughing devil leaped again. Then all pride slipped like water from the heart of Jim Silent, and in its place there was only icy fear, fear not of a man, but of animal power. He caught up a heavy chair and drove it with all his desperate strength at Dan.
It cracked distinctly against his head and the weight of it fairly drove him into the floor. He fell with a limp thud on the boards. Silent, reeling and blind, staggered to and fro in the centre of the room. Morgan and Lee Haines reached Dan at the same moment and kneeled beside him.
THE MUTE MESSENGER
Almost at once Haines raised a hand and spoke to the crowd: "He's all right, boys. Badly cut across the head and stunned, but he'll live."