BUCK MAKES HIS GET-AWAY
Straight from the room of the dead man, Fatty Matthews had hurried down to the bar, and there he stepped into the silence and found the battery of eyes all turned upon that calm figure at the end of the room. Upon this man he trotted, breathing hard, and his fat sides jostled up and down as he ran. According to Brownsville, there were only two things that could make Fatty run: a gun or the sight of a drink. But all maxims err. When he reached Barry he struck him on the shoulder with a heavy hand. That is, he struck at the shoulder, but as if the shadow of the falling hand carried a warning before it, at the same time that it dropped Barry swerved around in his chair. Not a hurried movement, but in some mysterious manner his shoulder was not in the way of the plump fist. It struck, instead, upon the back of the chair, and the marshal cursed bitterly.
"Stranger," he said hotly, "I got one thing to say: Jerry Strann has just died upstairs. In ten seconds Mac Strann will be down here lookin' for you!"
He stepped back, humming desperately to cover his wheezing, but Barry continued to braid the horsehair with deft fingers.
"I got a double knot that's kind of new," he said. "Want to watch me tie it?"
The deputy sheriff turned on the crowd.
"Boys," he exclaimed, waving his arms, "he's crazy. You heard what he said. You know I've give him fair warning. If we got to dig his grave in Brownsville, is it my fault? It ain't!" He stepped to the bar and pounded upon it. "O'Brien, for God's sake, a drink!"
It was a welcome suggestion to the entire nervous crowd, but while the glasses spun across the bar Buck Daniels walked slowly down the length of the barroom towards Barry. His face was a study which few men could have solved; unless there had been someone present who had seen a man walk to his execution. Beside Dan Barry he stopped and watched the agile hands at work. There was a change in the position of Barry now, for he had taken the chair facing the door and the entire crowd; Buck Daniels stood opposite. The horsehair plied back and forth. And Daniels noted the hands, lean, tapering like the fingers of a girl of sixteen. They were perfectly steady; they were the hands of one who had struggled, in life, with no greater foe than ennui.
"Dan," said Buck, and there was a quiver of excitement in his voice, like the tremor of a piano string long after it has been struck. "Dan, I been thinking about something and now I'm ready to tell you what it is."
Barry looked up in slow surprise.
Now the face of Buck Daniels held what men have called a "deadly pallor," that pallor which comes over one who is cornered and about to fight for his life. He leaned closer, resting one hand upon the edge of the table, so that his face was close to Dan Barry.
"Barry," he said, "I'm askin' you for the last time: Will you get your hoss and ride back to Kate Cumberland with me?"
Dan Barry smiled his gentle, apologetic smile.
"I don't no ways see how I can, Buck."
"Then," said Buck through his teeth, "of all the lyin' hounds in the world you're the lyin'est and meanest and lowest. Which they ain't words to tell you what I think of you. Take this instead!"
And the hand which rested on the table darted up and smote Dan Barry on the cheek, a tingling blow. With the same motion which started his hand for the blow, Buck Daniels turned on his heel and stepped a pace or two towards the centre of the room.
There was not a man in the room who had not heard the last words of Buck Daniels, and not a man who had not seen the blow. Everyone of them had seen, or heard accurately described, how the slender stranger beat Jerry Strann to the draw and shot him down in that same place. Such a moan came from them as when many men catch their breath with pain, and with a simultaneous movement those who were in line with Buck Daniels and Barry leaped back against the bar on one side and against the wall on the other. Their eyes, fascinated, held on the face of Barry, and they saw the pale outline which the fingers of Daniels had left on the cheek of the other. But if horror was the first thing they felt, amazement was the next. For Dan Barry sat bolt erect in his chair, staring in an astonishment too great for words. His right hand hung poised and moveless just above the butt of his gun; his whole posture was that of one in the midst of an action, suspended there, frozen to stone. They waited for that poised hand to drop, for the slender fingers to clutch the butt of the gun, for the convulsive jerk that would bring out the gleaming barrel, the explosion, the spurt of smoke, and Buck Daniels lurching forward to his face on the floor.
But that hand did not move; and Buck Daniels? Standing there with his back to the suspended death behind him, he drew out Durham and brown papers, without haste, rolled a cigarette, and reached to a hip pocket.
At that move Dan Barry started. His hand darted down and fastened on his gun, and he leaned forward in his chair with the yellow glimmering light flaring up in his eyes. But the hand of Buck Daniels came out from his hip bearing a match. He raised his leg, scratched the match, there was a blue spurt of flame, and Buck calmly lighted his cigarette and started towards the door, sauntering.
The instant the swinging doors closed Barry started from his chair with a strange cry—none of them had ever heard the like from human lips—for there was grief in it, and above all there was a deadly eagerness. So a hungry man might cry out at the sight of food. Down the length of the barroom he darted and was drawing his gun as he whipped through the doors. A common rush followed him, and those who reached the open first saw Buck Daniels leaning far forward in his saddle and spurring desperately into the gloom of the night. Instantly he was only a twinkling figure in the shadows, and the beat of the hoofs rattled back at them. Dan Barry stood with his gun poised high for a second or more. Then he turned, dropped the gun into the holster, and with the same strange, unearthly cry of eagerness, he raced off in the direction of the barns.
There were some who followed him even then, and this is what they reported to incredulous ears when they returned. Barry ran straight for the left hand corral and wrenched at the gate, which appeared to be secured by a lock and chain. Seeing that it would not give way he ran around to the barn, and came out again carrying a saddle and bridle. These he tossed over the high fence into the corral. Then he picked up a loose scantling and with it pried and wrenched off the top bar of the fence in one section and vaulted into the enclosure.
The black stallion had whinnied once or twice during this time and the great black, shaggy dog had come snarling and whining about the feet of his master. Now the stranger tossed on the saddle and cinched it with amazing speed, sprang onto his mount, and urged it across to the other side of the corral. Up to that moment no one in the little crowd of watchers had suspected the intention of the rider. For the fence, even after the removal of the top bar, was nearly six feet in height. But when Barry took his horse to the far side of the corral and then swung him about facing the derailed section, it was plain that he meant to attempt to jump at that place. Even then, as O'Brien explained later, and many a time, the thing was so impossible that he could not believe his eyes. There was a dreamlike element to the whole event. And like a phantom in a vision he saw the black horse start into a sharp gallop; saw the great dog sail across the fence first; saw the horse and rider shoot into the air against the stars; heard the click of hoofs against the top rail; heard the thud of hoofs on the near side of the fence, and then the horseman flashed about the corner of the barn and in an instant his hoofs were beating a far distant tattoo.
As for the watchers, they returned in a dead silence to the barroom and they had hardly entered when Mac Strann stalked through the doors behind them; he went straight to O'Brien.
"Somewhere about," he said in his thick, deep voice, "they's a man named Dan Barry. Where is he?"
And O'Brien answered: "Mac, he was sittin' down there at that table until two minutes ago, but where he is now I ain't any idea."
The tall, skeleton form of Haw-Haw Langley materialised behind Mac Strann, and his face was contorted with anger.
"If he was here two minutes ago," he said, "he ain't more than two minutes away."
"Which way?" asked Mac Strann.
"North," answered a score of voices.
O'Brien stepped up to Mac Strann. He said: "Mac, we know what you got in your mind. We know what you've lost, and there ain't any of us that ain't sorry for Jerry—and for you. But, Mac, I can give you the best advice you ever heard in your life: Keep off'n the trail of Barry!"
Haw-Haw Langley added at the ear of Mac Strann: "That was Jerry's advice when he lay dyin'. An' it's my advice, too. Mac, Barry ain't a safe man to foller!"
"Haw-Haw," answered Mac Strann, "Will you gimme a hand saddlin' my hoss? I got an appointment, an' I'm two minutes late already."
DOCTOR BYRNE ANALYSES
In the room which had been assigned to his use Doctor Randall Byrne sat down to an unfinished letter and began to write.
"Dinner has interrupted me, my dear Loughburne. I have dined opposite Miss Cumberland—only the two of us at a great table—with a wide silence around us—and the Chinese cook padding to and fro from the kitchen. Have I told you of that room? No, I believe that I have made no more than casual mention of my environment here, for reasons which are patent. But to-night I wished that you might look in upon the scene. Along the walls hang a rope with which Mr. Cumberland won a roping and tieing contest in his youth—a feat upon which he prides himself highly; at another place hang the six-shooters of a notorious desperado, taken from his dead body; there is the sombrero of a Mexican guerilla chief beside the picture of a prize bull, and an oil painting of Mr. Cumberland at middle age adjoins an immense calendar on which is portrayed the head of a girl in bright colours—a creature with amazing quantities of straw-coloured hair. The table itself is of such size that it is said all the guests at a round-up—a festival of note in these barbaric regions—can be easily seated around it. On one side of this table I sat—and on the other side sat the girl, as far away as if an entire room had separated us.
"Before going down to the meal I had laid aside my glasses, for I have observed that spectacles, though often beneficial to the sight, are not always equally commendable in the opinion of women; and it should assuredly be one's endeavour to become agreeable to those about us.
"Be it noted at this point, my dear Loughburne, that I have observed peculiar properties in the eyes of Miss Cumberland. Those of all other humans and animals that have fallen under my observance were remarkable only for their use in seeing, whereas the eyes of Miss Cumberland seem peculiarly designed to be seen. This quality I attribute to the following properties of the said eyes. First, they are in size well beyond the ordinary. Secondly, they are of a colour restful to behold. It is, indeed, the colour of the deep, blue evening sky into which one may stare for an incalculable distance.
"As I have said, then, I noted a glow in these eyes, though they were so immediately lowered that I could not be sure. I felt, however, an extraordinary warmth beneath my collar, the suffusion of blood passing swiftly towards my forehead. I inquired if she had smiled and for what reason; whereat she immediately assured me that she had not, and smiled while making the assurance.
"I was now possessed of an unusual agitation, augmented by the manner in which Miss Cumberland looked at me out of twinkling but not unkindly eyes. What could have caused this perturbation I leave to your scientific keenness in analysis.
"I discovered an amazing desire to sing, which indecorous impulse I, of course, immediately inhibited and transferred the energy into conversation.
"'The weather,' said I. 'has been uncommonly delightful to-day.'
"I observed that Miss Cumberland greeted this sentence with another smile.
"Presently she remarked: 'It has seemed a bit windy to me.'
"I recalled that it is polite to agree with ladies and instantly subjoined with the greatest presence of mind: 'Quite right! A most abominably stormy day!'
"At this I was astonished to be greeted by another burst of laughter, even more pronounced than the others.
"'Doctor Byrne,' she said, 'you are absolutely unique.'
"'It is a point,' I said earnestly, 'which I shall immediately set about to change.'
"At this she raised both hands in a gesture of protest, so that I could observe her eyes shining behind the slender, brown fingers—observe, Loughburne, that white skin is falsely considered a thing of beauty in women—and she remarked, still laughing: 'Indeed, you must not change!'
"I replied with an adroit change of front: 'Certainly not.'
"For some mysterious reason the girl was again convulsed and broke off her laughter to cry in a voice of music which still tingles through me: 'Doctor Byrne, you are delightful!'
"I should gladly have heard her say more upon this point, but it being one which I could not gracefully dispute with her, and being unwilling that she should lapse into one of her usual silences, I ventured to change the subject from myself to her.
"'Miss Cumberland,' I said, 'I remark with much pleasure that the anxiety which has recently depressed you seems now in some measure lessened. I presume Mr. Daniels will be successful in his journey, though what the return of Mr. Daniels accompanied by Mr. Barry can accomplish, is, I confess, beyond my computation. Yet you are happier in the prospect of Mr. Barry's return?'
"I asked this question with a falling heart, though I remain ignorant of the cause to which I can attribute my sudden depression. Still more mysterious was the delight which I felt when the girl shook her head slowly and answered: 'Even if he comes, it will mean nothing.'
"I said: 'Then let us intercept him and send him back!'
"She cried out, as if I had hurt her: 'No, no, no!' and twisted her fingers together in pain. She added at once: 'What of poor Dad?'
"'Your father,' I confessed, 'had for the moment slipped my mind.'
"It seemed to me, however, that it was not wholly on her father's account that she was grieved. She wished Mr. Barry to return, and yet she dreaded his coming. It was most mysterious. However, I had started Miss Cumberland thinking. She stopped eating and began to stare before her. Presently she said: 'It is strange that we don't hear from Buck. What can have held him so long?'
"I regretted extremely that I had introduced the topic and cast about in my mind for another, but could not find one. I then expressed regret that I had revived her worries, but received in reply a smile in which there was no life: the very colour had died out from her cheeks. And she sat during the rest of the meal without speaking a word.
"Afterwards I went in with her to see Mr. Cumberland. His condition was not materially changed. The marvel of it grows upon me more and more. It is a freak which defies medical science. There lies a man at the point of dissolution. His body has died of old age, and yet the life principle remains. He does not eat—at least, the nourishment he takes is wholely negligible. But he still has energy. To be sure, he rarely moves about and his body remains practically inert. But we must never forget that the mind is a muscle and calls for continual rebuilding. And the mind of Mr. Cumberland is never inactive. It works ceaselessly. It will not permit him to sleep. For three days, now, as far as I can tell, he has not closed his eyes. It might be assumed that he is in a state of trance, but by a series of careful experiments, I have ascertained that he is constantly thinking in the most vigourous fashion.
"What does it mean? There is in the man a flame-like quality; something is burning in him every instant. But on what does the flame feed? I know that material cannot be created and that energy means dissolution of matter: but why does not the life of Joseph Cumberland dissolve?
"The subject possesses me. I dare not ponder it too steadily or my brain begins to whirl. I make no progress towards any reasonable solution. I only feel that I am living in the presence of an astounding mystery.
"Strange thoughts possess me. What is the fire that burns but does not consume Joe Cumberland? What is the thing in the wandering Dan Barry which Kate Cumberland fears and yet waits for? Why was it that Daniels trembled with dread when he started out to find a man who, by his own profession, he holds to be his best friend?
"You see how the mystery assumes shape? It is before me. It is in my hand. And yet I cannot grasp its elements.
"The story of a man, a horse, and a dog. What is the story?
"To-day I wandered about the great corrals and came to one which was bounded by a fence of extraordinary height. It was a small corral, but all the posts were of great size, and the rails were as large as ordinary posts. I inquired what strange beasts could be kept in such a pen, and the man-of-all-work of whom I asked replied: 'That's Satan's corral.'
"I guessed at some odd story. 'The devil?' I cried, 'Do they fence the devil in a corral?'
"'Oh, ay,' said the fellow, 'he's a devil, right enough. If we'd let him run with the other hosses he'd have cut 'em to ribbons. That's what kind of a devil he is!'
"A story of a man, a horse, and a dog. I think I have seen the great chain which bound the dog. Was that the place where they kept the horse?
"And, if so, what bonds are used for the man? And what sort of man can he be? One of gigantic size, no doubt, to mate his horse and his dog. A fierce and intractable nature, for otherwise Kate Cumberland could not dread him. And yet a man of singular values, for all this place seems to wait for his return. I catch the fire of expectancy. It eats into my flesh. Dreams haunt me night and day. What will be the end?
"Now I am going down to see Mr. Cumberland again. I know what I shall see—the flickering of the fire behind his eyes. The lightning glances, the gentle, rare voice, the wasted face; and by him will be Kate Cumberland; and they both will seem to be listening, listening—for what?
"No more to-night. But, Loughburne, you should be here; I feel that the like of this has never been upon the earth.
He found them as he had expected, the girl beside the couch, and the old man prone upon it, wrapped to the chin in a gaudy Navajo blanket. But to-night his eyes were closed, a most unusual thing, and Byrne could look more closely at the aged face. For on occasions when the eyes were wide, it was like looking into the throat of a searchlight to stare at the features—all was blurred. He discovered now wrinkled and purple-stained lids under the deep shadow of the brows—and eyes were so sunken that there seemed to be no pupils there. Over the cheek bones the skin was drawn so tightly that it shone, and the cheeks fell away into cadaverous hollows. But the lips, beneath the shag of grey beard, were tightly compressed. No, this was not sleep. It carried, as Byrne gazed, a connotation of swifter, fiercer thinking, than if the gaunt old man had stalked the floor and poured forth a tirade of words.
The girl came to meet the doctor. She said: "Will you use a narcotic?"
"Why?" asked Byrne. "He seems more quiet than usual."
"Look more closely," she whispered.
And when he obeyed, he saw that the whole body of Joe Cumberland quivered like an aspen, continually. So the finger of the duellist trembles on the trigger of his gun before he receives the signal to fire—a suspense more terrible than the actual face of death.
"A narcotic?" she pleaded. "Something to give him just one moment of full relaxation?"
"I can't do it," said Byrne. "If his heart were a shade stronger, I should. But as it is, the only thing that sustains him is the force of his will-power. Do you want me to unnerve the very strength which keeps him alive?"
"Do you mean that if he sleeps it will be—death?"
"I have told you before," said the doctor, "that there are phases of this case which I do not understand. I predict nothing with certainty. But I very much fear that if your father falls into a complete slumber he will never waken from it. Once let his brain cease functioning and I fear that the heart will follow suit."
They stood on the farther side of the room and spoke in the softest of whispers, but now the deep, calm voice of the old man broke in: "Doc, they ain't no use of worryin'. They ain't no use of medicine. All I need is quiet."
"Do you want to be alone?" asked the girl.
"No, not so long as you don't make no noise. I can 'most hear something, but your whisperin' shuts it off."
They obeyed him, with a glance at each other. And soon they caught the far off beat of a horse in a rapid gallop.
"Is it that?" cried Kate, leaning forward and touching her father's hand. "Is that horse what you hear?"
"No, no!" he answered impatiently. "That ain't what I hear. It ain't no hoss that I hear!"
The hoof-beats grew louder—stopped before the house—steps sounded loud and rattling on the veranda—a door squeaked and slammed—and Buck Daniels stood before them. His hat was jammed down so far that his eyes were almost buried in the shadow of the brim; the bandana at his throat was twisted so that the knot lay over his right shoulder; he carried a heavy quirt in a hand that trembled so that the long lash seemed alive; a thousand bits of foam had dried upon his vest and stained it; the rowels of his spurs were caked and enmeshed with horsehair; dust covered his face and sweat furrowed it, and a keen scent of horse-sweat passed from him through the room. For a moment he stood at the door, bracing himself with legs spread wide apart, and stared wildly about—then he reeled drunkenly across the room and fell into a chair, sprawling at full length.
No one else moved. Joe Cumberland had turned his head; Kate stood with her hand at her throat; the doctor had placed his hand behind his head, and there it stayed.
"Gimme smoke—quick!" said Buck Daniels. "Run out of Durham a thousan' years ago!"
Kate ran into the next room and returned instantly with papers and a fresh sack of tobacco. On these materials Buck seized frantically, but his big fingers were shaking in a palsy, and the papers tore, one after another, as soon as he started to roll his smoke. "God!" he cried, in a burst of childish desperation, and collapsed again in the chair.
But Kate Cumberland picked up the papers and tobacco which he had dashed to the floor and rolled a cigarette with deft fingers. She placed it between his lips and held the match by which he lighted it. Once, twice, and again, he drew great breaths of smoke into his lungs, and then he could open his eyes and look at them. They were not easy eyes to meet.
"You're hungry, Buck," she said. "I can see it at a glance. I'll have something for you in an instant."
He stopped her with a gesture.
"I done it!" said Buck Daniels. "He's comin'!"
The doctor flashed his glance upon Kate Cumberland, for when she heard the words she turned pale and her eyes and her lips framed a mute question; but Joe Cumberland drew in a long breath and smiled.
"I knowed it!" he said softly.
The wind whistled somewhere in the house and it brought Buck Daniels leaping to his feet and into the centre of the room.
"He's here!" he yelled. "God help me, where'll I go now! He's here!"
He had drawn his revolver and stood staring desperately about him as if he sought for a refuge in the solid wall. Almost instantly he recovered himself, however, and dropped the gun back into the holster.
"No, not yet," he said, more to himself than the others. "It ain't possible, even for Dan."
Kate Cumberland rallied herself, though her face was still white. She stepped to Buck and took both his hands.
"You've been working yourself to death," she said gently. "Buck, you're hysterical. What have you to fear from Dan? Isn't he your friend? Hasn't he proved it a thousand times?"
Her words threw him into a fresh frenzy.
"If he gets me, it's blood on your head, Kate. It was for you I done it."
"No, no, Buck. For Dan's sake alone. Isn't that enough?"
"For his sake?" Buck threw back his head and laughed—a crazy laughter. "He could rot in hell for all of me. He could foller his wild geese around the world. Kate, it was for you!"
"Hush!" she pleaded. "Buck, dear!"
"Do I care who knows it? Not I! I got an hour—half an hour to live; and while I live the whole damned world can know I love you, Kate, from your spurs to the blue of your eyes. For your sake I brung him, and for your sake I'll fight him, damn him, in spite——"
The wind wailed again, far off, and Buck Daniels cowered back against the wall. He had drawn Kate with him, and he now kept her before him, towards the door.
He began to whisper, swiftly, with a horrible tremble in his voice: "Stand between me, Kate. Stand between me and him. Talk for me, Kate. Will you talk for me?" He drew himself up and caught a long, shuddering breath. "What have I been doin'? What have I been ravin' about?"
He looked about as if he saw the others for the first time.
"Sit here, Buck," said Kate, with perfect quiet. "Give me your hat. There's nothing to fear. Now tell us."
"A whole day and a whole night," he said, "I been riding with the fear of him behind me. Kate, I ain't myself, and if I been sayin' things——"
"No matter. Only tell me how you made him follow you."
Buck Daniels swept his knuckles across his forehead, as though to rub out a horrible memory.
"Kate," he said in a voice which was hardly more than a whisper, "why did he follow Jim Silent?"
The doctor slipped into a chair opposite Buck Daniels and watched him with unbelieving eyes. When he had last seen Buck the man had seemed an army in himself; but now a shivering, unmanned coward sat before him. Byrne glanced at Kate Cumberland for explanation of the mysterious change. She, also, was transformed with horror, and she stared at Buck Daniels as at one already among the dead.
"Buck, you didn't—strike him?"
Buck Daniels nodded jerkily.
"I'll try to tell you straight from the beginning. I found Dan in Brownsville. I begged him to come back with me, but he wouldn't stir. This was why: A gunman had come to the town lookin' for trouble, and when he run acrost Dan he found plenty of it. No, don't look like that, Kate; it was self-defense, pure and simple—they didn't even arrest Dan for it. But this dyin' man's brother, Mac Strann, come down from the hills and sat beside Jerry Strann waitin' for him to go west before he started out to clean up on Dan. Yesterday evenin' Jerry was near dead and everybody in Brownsville was waitin' to see what would happen, because Dan wouldn't budge till Mac Strann had had his chance to get back at him. So I sent a feller ahead to fix a relay of hosses to Elkhead, because I made up my mind I was going to make Dan Barry chase me out of that town. I walked into the saloon where Dan was sittin'—braidin' a little horsehair strand—my God, Kate, think of him sittin' there doin' that with a hundred fellers standin' about waitin' for him to kill or be killed! I went up to him. I picked a fight, and then I slapped him—in the face."
The sweat started on Daniels' forehead at the thought.
"But you're still alive!" cried Kate Cumberland. "Had you handled his gun first?"
"No. As soon as I hit him I turned my back to him and took a couple of steps away from him."
"Oh, Buck, Buck!" she cried, her face lighting. "You knew he wouldn't shoot you in the back!"
"I didn't know nothin'. I couldn't even think—and my body was numb as a dead man's all below the hips. There I stood like I was chained to the floor—you know how it is in a nightmare when something chases you and you can't run? That was the way with me."
"Buck! And he was sitting behind you—while you stood there?"
"Ay, sitting there with my death sittin' on his trigger finger. But I knowed that if I showed the white feather, if I let him see me shake, he'd be out of his chair and on top of me. No gun—he don't need nothin' but his hands—and what was in front of my eyes was a death like—like Jim Silent's!"
He squinted his eyes close and groaned. Once more he roused himself.
"But I couldn't move a foot without my knees bucklin', so I takes out my makin's and rolls a cigarette. And while I was doin' it I was prayin' that my strength would come back to me before he come back to himself—and started!"
"It was surprise that held him, Buck. To think of you striking him—you who have saved his life and fought for him like a blood-brother. Oh, Buck, of all the men in the world you're the bravest and the noblest!"
"They ain't nothin' in that brand of talk," growled Buck, reddening. "Anyway, at last I started for the door. It wasn't farther away than from here to the wall. Outside was my hoss, and a chance for livin'. But that door was a thousand years away, and a thousand times while I walked towards it I felt Dan's gun click and bang behind me and felt the lead go tearin' through me. And I didn't dare to hurry, because I knew that might wake Dan up. So finally I got to the doors and just as they was swingin' to behind me, I heard a sort of a moan behind me——"
"From Dan!" whispered the white-faced girl. "I know—a sort of a stifled cry when he's angered! Oh, Buck."
"My first step took me ten yards from that door," reminisced Buck Daniels, "and my next step landed me in the saddle, and I dug them spurs clean into the insides of Long Bess. She started like a watch-spring uncoilin', and as she spurts down the streets I leans clean over to her mane and looks back and there I seen Dan standin' in the door with his gun in his hand and the wind blowin' his hair. But he didn't shoot, because the next second I was swallowed up in the dark and couldn't see him no more."
"But it was no use!" cried the girl. "With Black Bart to trail you and with Satan to carry him, he overtook you—and then——"
"He didn't," said Buck Daniels. "I'd fixed things so's he couldn't get started with Satan for some time. And before he could have Satan on my trail I'd put a long stretch behind me because Long Bess was racin' every step. The lay of the land was with me. It was pretty level, and on level goin' Long Bess is almost as fast as Satan; but on rocky goin' Satan is like a goat—nothin' stops him! And I was ridin' Long Bess like to bust her heart, straight towards McCauley's. We wasn't more'n a mile away when I thought—the wind was behind me, you see—that I heard a sort of far off whistling down the wind! My God!"
He could not go on for a moment, and Kate Cumberland sat with parted lips, twisting her fingers together and then tearing them apart once more.
"Well, that mile was the worst in my life. I thought maybe the man I'd sent on ahead hadn't been able to leave me a relay at McCauley's, and if he hadn't I knew I'd die somewhere in the hills beyond. And they looked as black as dead men, and all sort of grinnin' down at me.
"But when I got to McCauley's, there stood a hoss right in front of the house. It didn't take me two second to make the saddle-change. And then I was off agin!"
A sigh of relief came from Byrne and Kate.
"That hoss was a beauty. Not long-legged like Bess, nor half so fast, but he was jest right for the hills. Climbed like a goat and didn't let up. Up and up we goes. The wind blows the clouds away when we gets to the top of the climb and I looks down into the valley all white in the moonlight. And across the valley I seen two little shadows slidin', smooth and steady. It was Dan and Satan and Black Bart!"
"My heart, it stood plumb still! I gives my hoss the spurs and we went down the next slope. And I don't remember nothin' except that we got to the Circle K Bar after a million years, 'most, and when we got there the piebald flops on the ground—near dead. But I made the change and started off agin, and that next hoss was even better than the piebald—a sure goer! When he started I could tell by his gait what he was, and I looked up at the sky——"
He stopped, embarrassed.
"And thanked God, Buck?"
"Kate, I ain't ashamed if maybe I did. But since then I ain't seen or heard Dan, but all the time I rode I was expecting to hear his whistle behind me, close up."
All the life died from her face.
"No, Buck, if he'd a followed all the way he would have caught you in spite of your relay. No, I understand what happened. After a while he remembered that Mac Strann was waiting for him back in Brownsville. And he left your trail to be taken up later and went back to Brownsville. You didn't see him follow you after you left the Circle X Bar?"
"No. I didn't dare look back. But somehow I knew he was comin'."
She shook her head.
"He won't come, Buck. He'll go back to meet Mac Strann—and then——" She ran to the chair of Buck swiftly and caught his hands: "What sort of a man is Mac Strann?"
But Buck smiled strangely up into her face.
"Does it make any difference," he said, "to Dan?"
She went slowly back to her place.
"No," she admitted, "no difference."
"If you came by relays for twenty-four hours," said the doctor, numbering his points upon accurate fingertips, "it is humanly impossible that this man could have followed you very closely. It will probably take him another day to arrive."
But here his glance fell upon old Joe Cumberland, and found the cattleman smiling faintly to himself.
Buck Daniels was considering the last remark seriously.
"No," he said, "it ain't possible. Besides, what Kate says may be true. She ought to know—she says he'll wait for Mac Strann. I didn't think of that; I thought I was savin' Dan from another—well, what a damn fool I been!"
He unknotted his bandana and with it mopped his face to a semblance of cleanliness.
"It was the ridin' that done it," he explained, shame-faced. "You put a man on a hoss for a certain time, and after a while he gets so he can't think. He's sort of nutty. That was the way with me when I come in."
"Open the window on the veranda," said Joe Cumberland. "I want to feel the wind."
The doctor obeyed the instruction, and again he noted that same quiet, contented smile on the lips of the old man. For some reason it made him ill at ease to see it.
"He won't get here for eight or ten hours," went on Buck Daniels, easing himself into a more comfortable position, and raising his head a little higher. "Ten hours more, even if he does come. That'll give me a chance to rest up; right now I'm kind of shaky."
"A condition, you will observe, in which Mr. Barry will also be when he arrives," remarked the doctor.
"Shaky?" grinned Buck Daniels. "M'frien', you don't know that bird!" He sat up, clenching his fist. "And if Dan does come, he can't affo'd to press me too far! I'll take so much, and then——"
He struck his fist on the arm of the chair.
"Buck!" cried Kate Cumberland. "Are you mad? Have you lost your reason? Would you face him?"
Buck Daniels winced, but he then shook his head doggedly.
"He had his chance down in Brownsville," he said. "And he didn't take it. Why? Because my back was turned? Well, he could of got in front of me if he'd been terrible anxious. I've seen Dan in action; he's seen me in action! Maybe he's seen too much. They've been stranger things than that, in this world!" He hitched his belt so that the butt of his revolver came farther forward. But now Kate Cumberland advised: "Buck, you're tired out; you don't know what you're saying. Better go up to bed."
He flushed a ruddy bronze.
"D'you think I'm jest talkin' words, Kate, to hear myself talk?"
"Listen!" broke in Joe Cumberland, and raised a bony forefinger for silence.
* * * * *
And the doctor noted a great change in the old man. There was no longer a tremor in his body. There was only a calm and smiling expectation—a certainty. A tinge of colour was in his withered face for the first time since Byrne had come to the ranch, and now the cattleman raised his finger with such an air of calm authority that at once every voice in the room was stilled.
They did not. They heard only the faint rushing of the air through the window. The flame danced in the chimney of the lamp and changed the faces in phantastic alteration. One and all, they turned and faced the window. Still there was not a sound audible, but the doctor felt as if the noise were approaching. He knew it as surely as if he could see some far-off object moving near and nearer. And he knew, as clearly, that the others in the room felt the same thing. He turned his glance from the window towards Kate Cumberland. Her face was upturned. There was about it a transparent pallor; the eyes were large and darkly ringed; the lips parted into the saddest and the most patient of smiles; and the slender fingers were interwoven and pressed against the base of her throat.
For the first time he saw how the fire that was so manifest in the old man had been consuming her, also. It left no mark of the coming of death upon her. But it had burned her pure and left her transparent as crystal. Pity swelled in the throat of Byrne as he realised the anguish of her long waiting. Fear mingled with his pity. He felt that something was coming which would seize on her as the wind seizes on the dead leaf, whirling her off into an infinity of storm and darkness into which he could not follow a single pace.
He turned back towards the window. The rush of air played steadily, and then in pulses, upon his face. Then even the wind ceased; as if it, too, were waiting. Not a sound. But silence has a greater voice than discord or music. It seemed to Byrne that he could tell how fast each heart was beating.
The old man had closed his eyes again. And yet the rigid forefinger remained raised, and the faint smile touched at the corners of his mouth. Buck Daniels sat lunging forward in his chair, his knees supporting his elbows, and scowled up at the window with a sort of sullen terror.
Then Byrne heard it—so small a voice that at first he thought it was only a part of the silence. It grew and grew—in a sudden burst it was clear to every ear—the honking of the wild geese!
And Byrne knew the picture they made. He could see them far up in the sky—a dim triangle of winter grey—moving with the beat of lightning wings each in an arrowy flight north, and north, and north. Creatures for sport all the world over; here alone, in all the earth, in the heart of this mountain-desert, they were in some mysterious wise messengers. Once more the far discord showered down upon them, died as they rose, perhaps, to a higher level, and was heard no more.
Then a padding step, light, lighter than the sound of the softest thought. It was passing near; the faint breeze blew the sound to them, around them, behind them. Each man felt as if some creature were stalking him, unseen. Next—it appeared by magic against the blue black of the night—the head of a great wolf, quite black, shaggy, with sharply pointed ears. And the eyes stared at them, green eyes with lights that swirled as the flame jumped in the throat of the lamp. For a long moment the horror lasted. Then the head, as it had come, disappeared, and the light, light foot fall, faded away.
Buck Daniels had risen, now. The sound of his whisper made them start.
"I'm going up—to my room—and lock the door—for God's sake—keep—him away!"
And so he stole soundlessly away, and then they heard the creaks which announced his progress up the stairs.
Not Buck Daniels alone. In the deadly silence Kate rose to her feet; and the old man, the invalid—he with the dead body and the living brain, rose from his couch and stood as erect as a soldier on parade. The doctor was conscious of repeating to himself, hurriedly, a formula something like this: "The thing which is coming is human; it cannot be more than human; as long as it is human it is nothing to fear; the laws of truth are irrevocably fixed; the laws of science will not change." Yet in spite of this formula he was deadly cold, as if a wind were blowing through his naked soul. It was not fear. It was something beyond fear, and he would not have been otherwhere for any reward. All his mind remained poised, expectant, as the astronomer waits for the new star which his calculations have predicted to enter the field of his telescope.
He caught the sound of another horse coming, far different even to his unpracticed ear from the beat of hoofs which announced the coming of Buck Daniels. The rhythm of their fall was slower, as if the stride of the animal were much longer. He pictured a mighty creature with a vast mane blown back against the chest of a giant rider. There was a murmur from Kate: "Dan, my dear, my dear!"
Then he heard a padding footfall, hardly louder than the light, light step of the wolf. The knob of the door turned slowly, without a sound; it opened, and a man stepped in. He was not larger than the doctor; a slender fellow, almost dapper in his dress, with hardly a sign of travel about him, except that the brim of his sombrero was folded back from his face as if from continual pressure of wind. These things Randall Byrne noted vaguely; what he was sharply aware of were the eyes of the man. He had the feeling that he had seen them before; he remembered the yellow light that had swirled in the eyes of the wolf at the window.
The newcomer flashed a glance about the room, yet for all its speed it seemed to linger an instant on each face, and when it crossed the stare of Byrne the doctor shrank.
"Where is Buck?" asked the man. "I've come for him!"
As if in answer, the great, shaggy dog slipped through the entrance past his master and glided across the room. As he passed, Kate held out a hand to him. She called softly: "Bart!" but she was greeted with a silent baring of fangs; and she caught her hand back against her breast, with the tears springing in her eyes. On the other side of the room the black dog paused and looked back to his master, while Byrne realised with a shudder that the door before which it stood was the door through which Buck Daniels had disappeared. Straight to that door Barry stepped, and Byrne realised, with an eerie emotion, that the footfalls made no sound.
Before he reached the door, however, the girl started forward and sprang before him. With her outstretched arms she barred the way. Her skirt brushed almost in the face of the dog, and the beast shrank away not in fear, but crouching in readiness to leap. The sharp ears twitched back; a murderous snarl rolled up from between the wicked teeth. Yet she did not cast a single glance at him; she faced the greater danger.
She was saying: "Whatever Buck did, it wasn't done to hurt you, Dan; it was done for your own sake. And for Dad's sake. You shan't pass here!"
From his position, the doctor could not see the face of Dan Barry, but he guessed at it through the expression of Kate. Such terror and horror were in her eyes as though she were facing a death's head inches away. Then he saw the slender hand of Barry rise and move towards the girl, slowly, tremblingly, as though one fierce impulse urged him to thrust her to one side and as though another held back his arm. The doctor could not watch the girl longer; fear and pity were wringing him as he lowered his glance to the floor.
Then he heard her cry: "Have you forgotten me, like Bart? Like Bart, have you forgotten me, Dan?"
His hand fell to his side and he glided back from her; but now Byrne could see that the eyes of Barry were looking past the girl, as though he stared through the solid wood of the door and found his prey beyond it. The stranger slipped towards the door by which he had entered, with the great dog slinking at his heels. Kate Cumberland leaned heavily against the wall, her arm thrown across her face, but there was no consciousness of her in the face of Barry. Yet at the very door he paused and straightened; Byrne saw that he was staring towards Joe Cumberland; and the old man reached a bony hand out.
"Oh, lad," he said softly, "I been waitin' for you years an' years, seems like!"
Barry crossed the room as noiselessly, as swiftly, as a flying shadow.
"Sit down!" he commanded, and Byrne caught a faint ring in the voice, like the shiver of metal striking steel.
Joe Cumberland obeyed without a word, and then lay back at full length upon the couch—a palsy had seized on him, and the hand which rested on the shoulder of Dan Barry was shaking. By the couch came the tall dog, and crouched, staring up in the master's face; then the younger man turned his face towards Byrne and the girl. Those thin-cut nostrils expanded, the lips compressed, and Byrne dared not look into the flare of the eyes.
"Who done this?" asked Barry, and still the shiver of cold metal rang in his voice. "Who's done this?"
"Steady, lad," said Joe Cumberland faintly. "They ain't no call for fightin'. Steady, Dan, boy. An' don't leave me!"
Byrne caught a signal from Kate and followed her obediently from the room.
"Let them be alone," she said.
"Impossible!" protested the doctor. "Your father is lapsed into a most dangerous condition. The physical inertia which has held him for so long is now broken and I look for a dangerous mental and nervous collapse to accompany it. A sedative is now imperative!"
He laid his hand on the knob of the door to return, but the girl blocked his way.
"Don't go in," she commanded feebly. "I can't explain to you. All I can say is that Dad was the one who found Dan Barry and there's something between them that none of us understand. But I know that he can help Dad. I know Dad is in no danger while Dan is with him."
"A pleasant superstition," nodded the doctor, "but medicine, my dear Miss Cumberland, does not take account of such things."
"Doctor Byrne," she said, rallying a failing strength for the argument, "I insist. Don't ask me to explain."
"In that case," he answered coldly, "I cannot assume responsibility for what may happen."
She made a gesture of surrender, weakly.
"Look back in on them now," she said. "If you don't find father quiet, you may go in to him."
Doctor Byrne obeyed, opening the door softly. He saw Joe Cumberland prone, of course, upon the couch. One hand lay as usual across his breast, but the other was at his side, clasped in the hands of Dan Barry. The old cattleman slept. Yes, there was no doubt that for the first time in many days he slumbered soundly. The lean, narrow chest rose and fell with deep, slow breaths; the eyes were closed, and there was no twitching of muscles to betray ragged nerves or a mind that dreamed fiercely while the body slept. Far over the sleeping man leaned the stranger, as if he were peering closely into the closed eyes of Joe Cumberland. There was a tenseness of watching and waiting in his attitude, like the runner on the mark, or like the burden-bearer lifting a great weight, and Byrne gathered, in some mysterious manner, the impression that Barry sent through his hands and into the body of Cumberland a continual stream of nervous strength—an electric thing. Nonsense, of course. And it was nonsense, also, to think that the huge dog which lay staring up into the face of the master understood all this affair much better than the practiced mind of the physician. Yet the illusion held with Randall Byrne in spite of all his scepticism.
He was certain that he had made not the slightest sound in opening the door, but presently the head of the watcher turned slowly, and Byrne was looking into those same yellow, terrible eyes. At the same instant the sick man moaned faintly. The doctor closed the door as softly as he had opened it and turned a drawn face upon Kate Cumberland.
"I don't understand; it isn't possible!" he whispered.
"No one understands," said the girl, and smiled mirthlessly. "Don't try to, Doctor Byrne. Go to bed, and sleep. If you can. Good night."
"But you," said Byrne, following her, "are almost as ill as your father. Is there nothing I can do for you?"
"You?" she asked, surprised. "No, nothing."
"But there's not the slightest colour in your face. And you are trembling, Miss Cumberland!"
She did not seem to hear him.
"Will he stay?" she asked of herself. "Will he leave before the morning?"
"I shall see that he stays," said the doctor. "I will stay here outside the door and see that he does not leave, if you wish."
Once more she smiled in that baffling manner.
"Could you keep the wind from blowing, Doctor Byrne? If I thought that he could be kept——" she stopped. "He has forgotten us. He has forgotten all of us except Dad. And if Dad cannot keep him, nothing will keep him. It's useless for you to wait here. Good night again, Doctor Byrne."
He watched her up the stairs. By the dim light he saw her hand catching at the balustrade as if she were drawing herself up, step by step. When she reached the landing and turned half towards him, he saw that her head was fallen.
"Not a glance, not a thought for me," murmured the doctor. "But if the stranger does leave——" Instead of finishing the muttered sentences, he drew a chair back against the wall and sat down with folded hands to wait.
MAC STRANN DECIDES TO KEEP THE LAW
It was hours later that night when Haw-Haw Langley and Mac Strann sat their horses on the hill to the south. Before them, on the nearest rise of ground, a clump of tall trees and the sharp triangle of a roof split the sky, while down towards the right spread a wide huddle of sheds and barns.
"That's where the trail ends," said Mac Strann, and started his horse down the slope. Haw-Haw Langley urged his little mount hurriedly alongside the squat bulk of his companion. He looked like the skeleton reality, and Mac Strann the blunt, deformed shadow.
"You ain't going into the house lookin' for him, Mac?" he asked, and he lowered his voice to a sharp whisper in spite of the distance. "Maybe there's a pile of men in that house. It's got room for a whole army. You ain't going in there by yourself, Mac?"
"Haw-Haw," explained the big man quietly, "I ain't going after Barry. I'm going to make him come after me."
Haw-Haw considered this explanation for a dazed moment. It was far too mysterious for his comprehension.
"What you goin' to do?" he asked again.
"Would you know that black hoss agin if you seen him?" asked Mac Strann.
"In a thousand."
"That hoss has had a long ride; and Barry has put him in one of them barns, they ain't no doubt. Most like, the dog is with the hoss."
"It looks a considerable lot like a wolf," muttered Langley. "I wouldn't choose meetin' up with that dog in the dark. Besides, what good is it goin' to do you to find the dog?"
"If you hurt a man's dog," explained Mac Strann calmly, "you're hurting the man, ain't you? I'm going to hurt this man's dog; afterwards the dog'll bring the man to me. They ain't no doubt of that. I ain't goin' to kill the dog. I'm goin' to jest nick him so's he'll get well and then hit my trail."
"What sense is they in that?"
"If Barry comes to me, ain't he the one that's breakin' the law? If I kill him then, won't it be in self-defense? I ain't no law-breaker, Haw-Haw. It ain't any good bein' a law-breaker. Them lawyers can talk a man right into a grave. They's worse nor poison. I'd rather be caught in a bear trap a hundred miles from my shack than have a lawyer fasten onto my leg right in the middle of Brownsville. No, Haw-Haw, I ain't going to break any law. But I'm going to fix the wolf so's he'll know me; and when he gets well he'll hit my trail, and when he hits my trail he'll have Barry with him. And when Barry sees me, then——" he raised his arms above him in the dark. "Then!" breathed Mac Strann, "Jerry can start sleepin' sound for the first time!"
Haw-Haw Langley wrapped his long arms about himself.
"An' I'll be there to watch. I'll be there to see fair play, don't you never doubt it, Mac. Why didn't I never go with you before? Why, Jerry never done anything to touch this! But be careful, Mac. Don't make no slip up to-night. If they's trouble—I ain't a fighting man, Mac. I ain't no ways built for it."
"Shut your mouth," said Mac Strann bluntly. "I need quiet now."
For they were now close to the house. Mac Strann brought his horse to a jog trot and cast a semi-circle skirting the house and bringing him behind the barns. Here he retreated to a little jutting point of land from behind which the house was invisible, and there dismounted.
Haw-Haw Langley followed example reluctantly. He complained: "I ain't never heard before of a man leavin' his hoss behind him! It ain't right and it ain't policy."
His leader, however, paid no attention to this grumbling. He skirted back behind the barns, walking with a speed which extended even the long legs of Haw-Haw Langley. Most of the stock was turned out in the corrals. Now and then a horse stamped, or a bull snorted from the fenced enclosures, but from the barns they heard not a sound. Now Mac Strann paused. They had reached the largest of the barns, a long, low structure.
"This here," said Mac Strann, "is where that hoss must be. They wouldn't run a hoss like that with others. They'd keep him in a big stall by himself. We'll try this one, Haw-Haw."
But Haw-Haw drew back at the door. The interior was black as the hollow of a throat as soon as Mac Strann rolled back the sliding door, and Haw-Haw imagined evil eyes glaring and twinkling at him along the edges of the darkness.
"The wolf!" he cautioned, grasping the shoulder of his companion. "You ain't goin' to walk onto that wolf, Mac?"
The latter struck down Haw-Haw's hand.
"A wolf makes a noise before it jumps," he whispered, "and that warnin' is all the light I need."
Now their eyes grew somewhat accustomed to the dark and Haw-Haw could make out, vaguely, the posts of the stalls to his right. He could not tell whether or not some animal might be lying down between the posts, but Mac Strann, pausing at every stall, seemed to satisfy himself at a glance. Right down the length of the barn they passed until they reached a wall at the farther end.
"He ain't here," sighed Haw-Haw, with relief. "Mac, if I was you, I'd wait till they was light before I went huntin' that wolf."
"He ought to be here," growled Mac Strann, and lighted a match. The flame spurted in a blinding flash from the head of the match and then settled down into a steady yellow glow. By that brief glow Mac Strann looked up and down the wall. The match burned out against the calloused tips of his fingers.
"That wall," mused Strann, "ain't made out of the same timber as the side of the barn. That wall is whole years newer. Haw-Haw, that ain't the end of the barn. They's a holler space beyond it." He lighted another match, and then cursed softly in delight. "Look!" he commanded.
At the farther side of the wall was the glitter of metal—the latch of a door opening in the wooden wall. Mac Strann set it ajar and Haw-Haw peered in over the big man's shoulder. He saw first a vague and formless glimmer. Then he made out a black horse lying down in the centre of a box stall. The animal plunged at once to its feet, and crowding as far as possible away against the wall, turned its head and stared at them with flashing eyes.
"It's him!" whispered Haw-Haw. "It's Barry's black. They ain't another hoss like him on the range. An' the wolf—thank God!—ain't with him."
But Mac Strann closed the door of the stall, frowning thoughtfully, and thought on the face of Strann was a convulsion of pain. He dropped the second match to his feet, where it ignited a wisp of straw that sent up a puff of light.
"Ah-h!" drawled Mac Strann. "The wolf ain't here, but we'll soon have him here. And the thing that brings him here will get rid of the black hoss."
"Are you goin' to steal the hoss?"
"Steal him? He couldn't carry me two mile, a skinny hoss like that. But if Barry ever gets away agin on that hoss I ain't never goin' to catch him. That hoss has got to die."
Haw-Haw Langley caught his breath with a harsh gurgle. For men of the mountain-desert sometimes fall very low indeed, but in their lowest moments it is easier for him to kill a man than a horse. There is the story, for instance, of the cattleman who saw the bull-fight in Juarez, and when the bull gored the first horse the cowpuncher rose in the crowd and sent a bullet through the picador to square the deal. So Haw-Haw sighed.
"Mac," he whispered, "has it got to be done? Ain't there any other way? I've seen that hoss. When the sun hits him it sets him on fire, he's that sleek. And his legs is like drawn-iron, they're that fine. And he's got a head that's finer than a man's head, Mac."
"I've seen him close enough," answered Mac Strann grimly. "An' I've follered him for a day and a half, damn near. S'pose Barry finds out I'm on his trail; s'pose he won't foller the wolf when the wolf tries to lead him to me. S'pose he gets on this hoss and cuts away? Can I foller the wind, Haw-Haw? This hoss has got to die!"
From the manger he threw out several armfuls of hay, wrenched down from behind the manger several light boards, and tossed them on the hay. He lighted a match and was approaching the small flame to the pile of inflammables when Haw-Haw Langley cried softly: "Hark, Mac!"
The big man instantly extinguished the match. For a moment they could distinguish nothing, but then they heard the sharp, high chorus of the wild geese flying north. Haw-Haw Langley snickered apologetically.
"That was what I heard a minute ago!" he said. "And it sounded like voices comin'."
A snarl of contempt from Mac Strann; then he scratched another match and at once the flame licked up the side of the hay and cast a long arm up the wooden wall.
"Out of this quick!" commanded Mac Strann, and they started hastily down the barn towards the door. The fire behind them, after the puff of flame from the hay, had died away to a ghastly and irregular glow with the crackle of the slowly catching wood. It gave small light to guide them; only enough, indeed, to deceive the eye. The posts of the stalls grew into vast, shadowy images; the irregularities of the floor became high places and pits alternately. But when they were half way to the door Haw-Haw Langley saw a form too grim to be a shadow, blocking their path. It was merely a blacker shape among the shades, but Haw-Haw was aware of the two shining eyes, and stopped short in his tracks.
"The wolf!" he whispered to Mac Strann. "Mac, what're we goin' to do?"
The other had not time to answer, for the shadow at the door of the barn now leaped towards them, silently, without growl or yelp or snarl. As if to guide the battle, the kindling wood behind them now ignited and sent up a yellow burst of light. By it Haw-Haw Langley saw the great beast clearly, and he leaped back behind the sheltering form of Mac Strann. As for Mac, he did not move or flinch from the attack. His revolver was in his hand, levelled, and following the swift course of Black Bart.
There is one patience greater than the endurance of the cat at the hole of the mouse or the wolf which waits for the moose to drop, and that is the patience of the thinking man; the measure of the Hindoo's moveless contemplation of Nirvana is not in hours but in weeks or even in months. Randall Byrne sat at his sentinel post with his hands folded and his grave eyes steadily fixed before him, and for hour after hour he did not move. Though the wind rose, now and again, and whistled through the upper chambers or mourned down the empty halls, Randall Byrne did not stir so much as an eyelash in observance. Two things held him fascinated. One was the girl who had passed up yonder stairs so wearily without a single backward glance at him; the other was the silent battle which went on in the adjoining room. Now and then his imagination wandered away to secondary pictures. He would see Barry meeting Buck Daniels, at last, and striking him down as remorselessly as the hound strikes the hare; or he would see him riding back towards Elkhead and catch a bright, sad vision of Kate Cumberland waving a careless adieu to him, and then hear her singing carelessly as she turned away. Such pictures as these, however, came up but rarely in the mind of Byrne. Mostly he thought of the stranger leaning over the body of old Joe Cumberland, reviving him, storing him with electric energy, paying back, as it were, some ancient debt. And he thought of the girl as she had turned at the landing place of the stairs, her head fallen; and he thought of her lying in her bed, with her arm under the mass of bright hair, trying to sleep, very tired, but remorsely held awake by that same power which was bringing Joe Cumberland back from the verge of death.
It was all impossible. This thing could not be. It was really as bad as the yarn of the Frankenstein monster. He considered how it would seem in print, backed by his most solemn asseverations, and then he saw the faces of the men who associated with him, pale thoughtful faces striving to conceal their smiles and their contempt. But always he came back, like the desperate hare doubling on his course, upon the picture of Kate Cumberland there at the turning of the stairs, and that bent, bright head which confessed defeat. The man had forgotten her. It made Byrne open his eyes in incredulity even to imagine such a thing. The man had forgotten her! She was no more to him than some withered hag he might ride past on the road.
His ear, subconsciously attentive to everything around him, caught a faint sound from the next room. It was a regular noise. It had the rhythm of a quick footfall, but in its nature it was more like the sound of a heavily beating pulse. Randall Byrne sat up in his chair. A faint creaking attested that it was, indeed, a footfall traversing the room to and fro, steadily.
The stranger, then, no longer leaned over the couch of the old cattleman. He was walking up and down the floor with that characteristic, softly padding step. Of what did he think as he walked? It carried Byrne automatically out into the darkest night, with a wind in his face, and the rhythm of a long striding horse carrying him on to a destination unknown.
Here he heard a soft scratching, repeated, at the door. When it came again he rose and opened the door—at once the tall, shaggy dog slipped through the opening and glided past him. It startled Byrne oddly to see the animal stealing away, as if Barry himself had been leaving. He called to the beast, but he was met by a silent baring of white fangs that stopped him in his tracks. The great dog was gone without a sound, and Byrne closed the door again without casting a look inside. He was stupidly, foolishly afraid to look within.
After that the silence had a more vital meaning. No pictures crowded his brain. He was simply keyed to a high point of expectancy, and therefore, when the door was opened silently, he sprang up as if in acknowledgment of an alarm and faced Barry. The latter closed the door behind him and glided after the big dog. He had almost crossed the big room when Byrne was able to speak.
"Mr. Barry!" he called.
The man hesitated.
"Mr. Barry," he repeated.
And Dan Barry turned. It was something like the act of the wolf the moment before; a swift movement—a flash of the eyes in something like defiance.
"Mr. Barry, are you leaving us?"
"I'm going outside."
"Are you coming back?"
A great joy swelled in the throat of Doctor Byrne. He felt like shouting in triumph; yet he remembered once more how the girl had gone up the stairs, wearily, with fallen head. He decided that he would do what he could to keep the stranger with them, and though Randall Byrne lived to be a hundred he would never do a finer thing than what he attempted then. He stepped across the room and stood before Barry, blocking the way.
"Sir," he said gravely, "if you go now, you will work a great sorrow in this house."
A glint of anger rose in the eyes of Barry.
"Joe Cumberland is sleepin' soun'," he answered. "He'll be a pile rested when he wakes up. He don't need me no more."
"He's not the only one who needs you," said Byrne. "His daughter has been waiting impatiently for your coming, sir."
The sharp glance of Barry wavered away.
"I'd kind of like to stay," he murmured, "but I got to go."
A dull voice called from the next room.
"It's Joe Cumberland," said Byrne. "You see, he is not sleeping!"
The brow of Barry clouded, and he turned gloomily back.
"Maybe I better stay," he agreed.
Yet before he made a step Byrne heard a far-away honking of the wild geese, that musical discord carrying for uncounted miles through the windy air. The sound worked like magic on Barry. He whirled back.
"I got to go," he repeated.
And yet Byrne blocked the way. It required more courage to do that than to do anything he had ever attempted in his life. The sweat poured out from under his armpits as the stranger stepped near; the blood rushed from his face as he stared into the eyes of Barry—eyes which now held an uncanny glimmer of yellow light.
"Sir," said Byrne huskily, "you must not go! Listen! Old Cumberland is calling to you again! Does that mean nothing? If you have some errand out in the night, let me go for you."
"Partner," said the soft voice of Barry, "stand aside. I got no time, I'm wanted!"
Every muscle of Randall Byrne's body was set to repulse the stranger in any effort to pass through that door, and yet, mysteriously, against his will, he found himself standing to one side, and saw the other slip through the open door.
"Dan! Are ye there?" called a louder voice from the room beyond.
There was no help for it. He, himself, must go back and face Joe Cumberland. With a lie, no doubt. He would say that Dan had stepped out for a moment and would be back again. That might put Cumberland safely to sleep. In the morning, to be sure, he would find out the deception—but let every day bury its dead. Here was enough trouble for one night. He went slowly, but steadily enough, towards the door of what had now become a fatal room to the doctor. In that room he had seen his dearest doctrines cremated. Out of that room he had come bearing the ashes of his hopes in his hands. Now he must go back once more to try to fill, with science, a gap of which science could never take cognizance.
He lingered another instant with his hand on the door; then he cast it wide bravely enough and stepped in. Joe Cumberland was sitting up on the edge of his couch. There was colour in the old man's face. It almost seemed, to the incredulous eyes of Byrne, that the face was filled out a trifle. Certainly the fire of the old cattleman's glance was less unearthly.
"Where's Dan?" he called. "Where'd he go?"
It was no longer the deep, controlled voice of the stoic; it was the almost whining complaint of vital weakness.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" parried Byrne. "Anything you need or wish?"
"Him!" answered the old man explosively. "Damn it, I need Dan! Where is he? He was here. I felt him here while I was sleepin'. where is he?"
"He has stepped out for an instant," answered Byrne smoothly. "He will be back shortly."
"He—has—stepped—out?" echoed the old man slowly. Then he rose to the full of his gaunt height. His white hair, his triangle of beard and pointed moustache gave him a detached, a mediaeval significance; a portrait by Van Dyck had stepped from its frame.
"Doc, you're lyin' to me! Where has he gone?"
A sudden, almost hysterical burst of emotion swept Doctor Byrne.
"Gone to heaven or hell!" he cried with startling violence. "Gone to follow the wind and the wild geese—God knows where!"
Like a period to his sentence, a gun barked outside, there was a howl of demoniac pain and rage, and then a scream that would tingle in the ear of Doctor Randall Byrne till his dying day.
HOW MAC STRANN KEPT THE LAW
For when the dog sprang, Mac Strann fired, and the wolf was jerked up in the midst of his leap by the tearing impact of the bullet. It was easy for Strann to dodge the beast, and the great black body hurtled past him and struck heavily on the floor of the barn. It missed Mac Strann, indeed, but it fell at the very feet of Haw-Haw Langley, and a splash of blood flirted across his face. He was too terrified to shriek, but fell back against the wall of the barn, gasping. There he saw Black Bart struggle to regain his feet, vainly, for both of the animal's forelegs seemed paralyzed. Now the yellow light of the fire rose brightly, and by it Haw-Haw marked the terrible eyes and the lolling, slavering tongue of the great beast, and the fangs like ivory daggers. It could not regain its feet, but it thrust itself forward by convulsive efforts of the hind legs towards Mac Strann.
Haw-Haw Langley stared for a single instant in white faced fear, but when he realised that Black Bart was helpless as a toothless old dog, the tall cowpuncher, twisted his lean fingers with a silent joy. Once more Bart pushed himself towards Mac Strann, and then Haw-Haw Langley stepped forward, and with all the force of his long leg smashed his heavy riding boot into the face of the dog. Black Bart toppled back against the base of the manger, struggled vainly to regain his poise, and it was then that he pointed his nose up, and wailed like a lost soul, wailed with the fury of impotent hate. Mac Strann caught Haw-Haw by the arm and dragged him back towards the door.
"I don't want to kill the dog," he repeated. "Get out of here, Haw-Haw. Barry'll be comin' any minute."
He could have used no sharper spur to urge on the laggard. Haw-Haw Langley raced out of the barn a full stride before Mac Strann. They hurried together to the little rise of ground behind which they had left their horses, and as they ran the scream which had curdled the blood of Randall Byrne rang through the night. In a thousand years he could never have guessed from what that yell issued; his nearest surmise would have been a score of men screaming in unison under the torture. But Mac Strann and Haw-Haw Langley knew the sound well enough.
When they mounted their saddles they could look over the top of the little hill and observe everything easily without being seen; for the hill-top commanded a range of the corrals and a view of the fronts of the barns and sheds which opened upon the fenced enclosures. The largest and longest of these buildings was now plainly visible, for a long arm of fire reached above the roof on one side of the low shed and by this growing light the other barns, the glimmering-eyed horses and cattle of the corrals, the trees about the house, the house itself, were in turn visible, though vaguely, and at times, as the flame lapsed, all were lost in a flood of swift darkness. Once more that unhuman shriek echoed from hill to hill and from building to building. It was Satan in his box stall. The flames were eating through the partition, and the stallion was mad with fear.
Lights flashed, here and there, in the big ranch house; and from the bunk-house on the farther side of the corrals rose a volley of curses and yells of dismay. The cattle began milling blindly, bellowing and stamping, and the horses ranged at a mad gallop back and forth across their corrals, wild-eyed with terror. It was like the tumult of a battle, and sharper than a trumpet a new sound cut through the din—it was a short, high whistle, twice repeated. An answer came from the burning barn—the long, strong neighing of the stallion.
"D'ye hear?" muttered Mac Strann. "It's the hoss talkin' to his master!"
"And there he comes!" said Haw-Haw Langley. "Runnin' like the wind!"
The flame, picked up by the gale, tore for itself a wider breathing space through the roof and sent up an audibly roaring column of blinding red. By that light, Mac Strann, following Haw-Haw's directing arm, saw a lithe figure vault over the fence on the farther side of the corral and dart forward among the milling cattle.
Now, when cattle begin to mill it takes a brave man on a brave, well-trained horse to trust his chances in the midst of that ocean of tossing horns. But this man ventured it on foot. Mac Strann could follow him easily, for the man's hat was off, and the firelight glittered on his black hair. That glimmering head darted here and there among the circling cattle. Now it was lost, swamped, to all appearances, under a score of trampling hooves. Again it reappeared on the further side. Mac Strann could see the runner in a comparatively open space, racing like a trained sprinter, and he headed straight towards a wall of tossing horns. They were long-horns, and one sway of those lowered heads could drive the hard, sharp point through and through the body of a man. Yet straight at this impassable wall the stranger rushed, like a warrior in his Berserker madness leaping naked upon a hedge of spears. At the verge of the danger the man sprang high into the air. Two leaps, from back to back among the herd, and he was across the thickest of danger, down once more on the ground, and dodging past the outskirts of the bellowing cows. Over the nearer fence he vaulted and disappeared into the smoke which vomitted from the mouth of the burning barn.
"God A'mighty," groaned Haw-Haw Langley, "can he get the hoss out?"
"It ain't possible," answered Mac Strann. "All hosses goes mad when they gets in a fire—even when they sees a fire. Look at them fools over yonder in the corral."
Indeed, in the horse-corral a score of frantic animals were attempting to leap the high rails in the direction of the burning barn. Their stamping and snorting came volleying up the hill to the watchers.
"All hosses goes mad," concluded Mac Strann, "an' Barry'll get tramped under the feet of his own hoss even if he gets to the stall—which he won't. Look there!"
Out of the rush of fire and smoke at the door of the barn Dan Barry stumbled, blindly, and fell back upon the ground. Haw-Haw Langley began to twist his cold hands together in an ecstasy.
"The hoss is gone and the wolf is gone, and Barry is beat!" he chuckled to himself. "Mac, I wouldn't of missed this for a ten days' ride. It's worth it. But see the gal and that new gent, Mac!"
* * * * *
For when the clamour arose outside the house, Buck Daniels had run to the window. For many reasons he had not taken off his clothes this night, but had lain down on the bed and folded his hands behind his head to wait. With the first outcry he was at the window and there he saw the flames curling above the roof of the barn, and next, by that wild light, how Dan Barry raced through the dangerous corral, and then he heard the shrill neighing of Satan, and saw Dan disappear in the smoking door of the barn.
Fear drew Buck Daniels one way but a fine impulse drew him another. He turned away from the window with a curse; he turned back to it with a curse, and then, muttering: "He went through hell for me; and him and me together, we'll go through hell again!" he ran from the room and thundered down the crazy stairs.
As he left the house he found Kate Cumberland, and they went on together, running without a word to each other. Only, when he came beside her, she stopped short and flashed one glance at him. By that glance he knew that she understood why he was there, and that she accepted his sacrifice.
They hurried around the outer edge of the corrals, and as they approached the flaming barn from one side the men from the bunk-house rushed up from the other. It was Buck Daniels who reached Dan as the latter stumbled back from the door of the barn, surrounded by a following cloud of smoke, and fell stumbling to the ground. And Buck raised him.
The girl was instantly beside them.
She had thrown on a white dressing gown when she rose from bed. It was girded high across her breast, and over it showered her bright hair, flashing like liquid gold in growing light. She, now, received the semi-conscious burden of Dan Barry, and Buck Daniels stepped forward, close to the smoke. He began to shout directions which the two watchers behind the hill could not hear, though they saw his long arms point and gesticulate and they could see his speaking lips. But wild confusion was on the crowd of cowpunchers. They ran here and there. One or two brought buckets of water and tossed the contents uselessly into the swirling, red-stained hell of smoke. But most of them ran here and there, accomplishing nothing.
"An' all this come from one little match, Mac," cried Haw-Haw ecstatically at the ear of Mac Strann. "All what we're seein'! Look at the gal, Mac! She's out of her wits! She's foolin' about Barry, doin' no good."
A gust of smoke and fire must have met Barry face to face when he entered the barn, for he seemed now as helpless as if he were under a strong narcotic influence. He leaned heavily back into the arms of the girl, his head rolling wildly from side to side. Then, clearer than before, dominating all the confusion of noise, and with a ringing, trumpet note of courage in it, the black stallion neighed again from his burning stall. It had a magic effect upon Barry. He stood up and tore himself from the arms of the girl. They saw her gesture and cry to the surrounding men for help, and a dozen hands were stretched out to keep the madman from running again into the fire. They might better have attempted to hold a wild horse with their naked hands. He slipped and broke through their grips, and a second later had leaped into the inferno of smoke, running bent close to the ground where the pure air, if there were any, was sure to be.
"The gal's sick!" said Haw-Haw Langley. "Look, Mac!"
And he began to laugh in that braying voice which had given him his nickname. Yet even in his laughter his eyes were brightly observant; not a single detail of misery or grief was lost upon him; he drank it in; he fed his famine-stricken soul upon it. Kate Cumberland had buried her face in her arms; Buck Daniels, attempting to rush in after Dan Barry, had been caught beneath the arms by Doctor Byrne and another and was now borne struggling back.
From the very heart of the burning barn the sharp single whistle burst and over the rolling smoke and spring fire rose the answering neigh. A human voice could not have spoken more intelligibly: "I wait in trust!"
After that neigh and whistle, a quiet fell over the group at the barn door. There was nothing to do. There was not enough wind to blow the flames from this barn to one of the neighbouring sheds; all they could do was to stand still and watch the progress of the conflagration.
The deep, thick voice of Mac Strann broke in: "Start prayin', Haw-Haw, that the hoss don't kill Barry when he gets to him. Start prayin' that Barry is left for me to finish."
He must have meant his singular request more as a figure of speech than a real demand, but an hysteria was upon Haw-Haw Langley. He stretched up his vast, gaunt arms to the dim spot of red in the central heavens above the fire, and Haw-Haw prayed for the first and last time in his life.
"O Lord, gimme this one favour. Bring Barry safe out of the barn. Bring him out even if you got to bring the damned hoss with him. Bring him out and save him for Mac Strann to meet. And, God A'mighty, let me be around somewhere's when they meet!"
This strange exhibition Mac Strann watched with a glowering eye.
"But it ain't possible," he said positively. "I been in fires. Barry can't live through the fire; an' if he does, the hoss will finish him. It ain't possible for him to come out!"
From half the roof of the shed flames now poured, but presently a great shower of sparks rose at the farther end of the barn, and then Haw-Haw heard the sound of a beating and crashing.
"Hei!" he screamed, "Barry's reached the black hoss and the black hoss is beating him into the floor!"
"You fool!" answered Mac Strann calmly, "Barry has got a beam or something and he's smashing down the burning partition of the box stall. That's what he's doing; listen!"
High over the fire, once again rose the neighing of the black horse, a sound of unspeakable triumph.
"You're right," groaned Haw-Haw, downcast. "He's reached the hoss!"
He had hardly finished speaking when Mac Strann said: "Anyway, he'll never get out. This end wall of the barn is fallin' in."
Indeed, the outer wall of the barn, nearest the door, was wavering in a great section and slowly tottering in. Another moment or two it would crash to the floor and block the way of Dan Barry, coming out, with a flaming ruin. Next the watchers saw a struggle among the group which watched. Three men were struggling with Buck Daniels, but presently he wrenched his arms free, struck down two men before him with swinging blows of his fists, and leaped into the smoke.
"He's gone nutty, like a crazy hoss with the sight of the fire," said Mac Strann quietly.
"He ain't! He ain't!" cried Haw-Haw Langley, wild with excitement. "He's holdin' back the burnin' wall to keep the way clear, damn him!"
Indeed, the tottering wall, not having leaned to a great angle, was now pushed back by some power from the inside of the barn and kept erect. Though now and again it swayed in, as though the strength which held it was faltering under the strain.
Now the eyes of the watchers were called to the other end of the barn by a tremendous crashing. The entire section of that part of the roof fell in, and a shower of sparks leaped up into the heart of the sky, lighting the distant hills and drawing them near like watchers of the horror of the night.
"That's the end," said Mac Strann. "Haw-Haw, they wasn't any good in your prayer."
"I ain't a professional prayin' man," answered Haw-Haw defensively, "but I done my best. If——" He was cut short by a chorused cry from the watchers near the door of the barn, and then, through the vomitted smoke and the fire, leaped the unsaddled body of Satan bearing on his back the crouched figure of Dan Barry, and in the arms of Barry, limp, his head hanging down loosely, was the body of the great black dog, Bart.
A fearful picture. The smoke swept following around the black stallion, and a great tongue of flame licked hungrily after the trio. But the stallion stood with head erect, and ears flattened, pawing the ground. With that cloud of destruction blowing him he stood like the charger which the last survivor might ride through the ruin of the universe in the Twilight of the Gods.
At the same instant, another smoke-clad figure lunged from the door of the barn, his hands outstretched as though he felt and fumbled his way through utter darkness. It was Buck Daniels, and as he cleared the door the section of tottering wall which he had upheld to keep the way clear for the Three, wavered, sagged, and then sank in thunder to the floor, and the whole barn lay a flame-tossed mass of ruin.
The watchers had scattered before the plunge of Satan, but he came to a sliding halt, as if his rider had borne heavily back upon the reins. Barry slipped from the stallion's back with the wounded dog, and kneeled above the limp figure.
"It ain't the end," growled Mac Strann, "that hoss will go runnin' back into the fire. It ain't hoss nature to keep from goin' mad at the sight of a fire!"
In answer to him, the black stallion whirled, raised his head high, and, with flaunting mane and tail, neighed a ringing defiance at the rising flames. Then he turned back and nuzzled the shoulder of his master, who was working with swift hands over the body of Black Bart.
"Anyway," snarled Haw-Haw Langley, "the damned wolf is dead."
"I dunno," said Mac Strann. "Maybe—maybe not. They's quite a pile that we dunno."
"If you want to get rid of the hoss," urged Haw-Haw, writhing in the glee of a new inspiration, "now's the time for it, Mac. Get out your gun and pot the black. Before the crowd can get after us, we'll be miles away. They ain't a saddled hoss in sight. Well, if you don't want to do it, I will!" And he whipped out his gun.
But Mac Strann reached across and dragged the muzzle down.
"We done all we're goin' to do to-night. Seems like God's been listenin' pretty close, around here!"
He turned his horse, and Haw-Haw, reluctantly, followed suit. Still, as they trotted slowly away from the burning barn, Haw-Haw kept his glance fixed behind him until a final roaring crash and a bellying cloud of fire that smote the zenith announced the end of the barn. Then Haw-Haw turned his face to his companion.
"Now what?" he demanded.
"We go to Elkhead and sit down and wait," answered Mac Strann. "If the dog gets well he'll bring Barry to us. Then all I've got to do is defend myself."
Haw-Haw Langley twisted up his face and laughed, silently, to the red-stained sky.
DOCTOR BYRNE LOOKS INTO THE PAST
The black head of Barry, the brown head of Randall Byrne, the golden head of Kate Cumberland, were all bowed around the limp body of Black Bart. Buck Daniels, still gasping for breath, stood reeling nearby.
"Let me attempt to resuscitate the animal," offered the doctor.
He was met by a blank look from Barry. The hair of the man was scorched, his skin was blistered and burned. Only his hands remained uninjured, and these continued to move over the body of the great dog. Kate Cumberland was on her knees over the brute.
"Is it fatal, Dan?" she asked. "Is there no hope for Bart?"
There was no answer from Barry, and she attempted to raise the fallen, lifeless head of the animal; but instantly a strong arm darted out and brushed her hands away. Those hands fell idly at her sides and her head went back as though she had been struck across the face. She found herself looking up into the angry eyes of Randall Byrne. He reached down and raised her to her feet; there was no colour in her face, no life in her limbs.
"There's nothing more to be done here, apparently," said the doctor coldly. "Suppose we take your father and go back to the house."
She made neither assent nor dissent. Dan Barry had finished a swift, deft bandage and stopped the bleeding of the dog's wounds. Now he raised his head and his glance slipped rapidly over the faces of the doctor and the girl and rested on Buck Daniels. There was no flash of kindly thanks, no word of recognition. His right hand raised to his cheek, and rested there, and in his eyes came that flare of yellow hate. Buck Daniels shrank back until he was lost in the crowd. Then he turned and stumbled back towards the house.
Instantly, Barry began to work at expanding and depressing the lungs of the huge animal as he might have worked to bring a man back to life.
"Watch him!" whispered the doctor to Kate Cumberland. "He is closer to that dog—that wolf, it looks like—than he has ever been to any human being!"
She would not answer, but she turned her head quickly away from the man and his beast.
"Are you afraid to watch?" challenged Byrne, for his anger at Barry's blunt refusals still made his blood hot. "When your father lay at death's door was he half so anxious as he is now? Did he work so hard, by half? See how his eyes are fixed on the muzzle of the beast as if he were studying a human face!"
"No, no!" breathed the girl.
"I fell you, look!" commanded the doctor. "For there's the solution of the mystery. No mystery at all. Barry is simply a man who is closer akin to the brute forces in nature. See! By the eternal heavens, he's dragging that beast—that dumb beast—back from the door of death!"
Barry had ceased his rapid manipulations, and turned the big dog back upon its side. Now the eyes of Black Bart opened, and winked shut again. Now the master kneeled at the head of the beast and took the scarred, shaggy head between his hands.
"Bart!" he commanded.
Not a stir in the long, black body. The stallion edged a pace closer, dropped his velvet muzzle, and whinnied softly at the very ear of the dog. Still, there was not an answering quiver.
"Bart!" called the man again, and there was a ring of wild grief—of fear—in his cry.
"Do you hear?" said Byrne savagely, at the ear of the girl. "Did you ever use such a tone with a human being? Ever?"
"Take me away!" she murmured. "I'm sick—sick at heart. Take me away!"
Indeed, she was scarcely sure of her poise, and tottered where she stood. Doctor Byrne slipped his arm about her and led her away, supporting half her weight. They went slowly, by small, soft steps, towards the house, and before they reached it, he knew that she was weeping. But if there was sadness in Byrne, there was also a great joy. He was afire, for there is a flamelike quality in hope. Loss of blood and the stifling smoke, rather than a mortal injury or the touch of fire, had brought Black Bart close to death, but now that his breathing was restored, and almost normal, he gained rapidly. One instant he lingered on the border between life and death; the next, the brute's eyes opened and glittered with dim recognition up towards Dan, and he licked the hand which supported his head. At Dan's direction, a blanket was brought, and after Dan had lifted Black Bart upon it, four men raised the corners of the blanket and carried the burden towards the house. One of the cowpunchers went ahead bearing the light. This was the sight which Doctor Byrne and Kate Cumberland saw from the veranda of the ranch-house as they turned and looked back before going in.
"A funeral procession," suggested the doctor.
"No," she answered positively. "If Black Bart were dead, Dan wouldn't allow any hands save his own to touch the body. No, Black Bart is alive! Yet, it's impossible."
The word "impossible," however, was gradually dropping from the vocabulary of Randall Byrne. True, the wolf-dog had seemed dead past recovery and across the eyes of Byrne came a vision of the dead rising from their graves. Yet he merely shook his head and said nothing.
"Ah!" she broke in. "Look!"
The procession drew nearer, heading towards the back of the big house, and now they saw that Dan Barry walked beside the body of Black Bart, a smile on his lifted face. They disappeared behind the back of the house.
Byrne heard the girl murmuring, more to herself than to him: "Once he was like that all the time."
"Like what?" he asked bluntly.
She paused, and then her hand dropped lightly on his arm. He could not see more than a vague outline of her in the night, only the dull glimmer of her face as she turned her head, and the faint whiteness of her hand.
"Let's say good-night," she answered, at length. "Our little worlds have toppled about our heads to-night—all your theories, it seems, and, God knows, all that I have hoped. Why should we stay here and make ourselves miserable by talk?"