The night horseman, p.12
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       The Night Horseman, p.12

          

  CHAPTER XII

  FINESSE

  "A man talks because he's drunk or lonesome; a girl talks because that'sher way of takin' exercise."

  This was a maxim of Buck Daniels, and Buck Daniels knew a great dealabout women, as many a school marm and many a rancher's daughter of themountain-desert could testify.

  Also Buck Daniels said of women: "It ain't what you say to 'em so muchas the tune you put it to."

  Now he sat this day in O'Brien's hotel dining-room. It was the lazy andidle hour between three and four in the afternoon, and since the men ofthe mountain-desert eat promptly at six, twelve, and six, there was nota soul in the room when he entered. Nor was there a hint of eatingutensils on the tables. Nevertheless Buck Daniels was not dismayed. Heselected a corner-table by instinct and smote upon the surface with theflat of his hand. It made a report like the spat of a forty-five; heavyfootsteps approached, a door flung open, and a cross-eyed slattern stoodin the opening. At the sight of Buck Daniels sitting with his hands onhis hips and his sombrero pushed back to a good-natured distance on hishead the lady puffed with rage.

  "What in hell d'you think this is?" bellowed this gentle creature, andthe tone echoed heavily back from all four walls. "You're three hourslate and you get no chuck here. On your way, stranger!"

  Buck Daniels elevated himself slowly from the chair and stood at hisfull height. With a motion fully as deliberate he removed his sombreroand bowed to such a depth that the brim of the hat brushed the floor.

  "Lady," he said humbly, "I was thinkin' that some gent run this hereeatin' place. Which if you'll excuse me half a minute I'll rambleoutside and sluice off some of the dust. If I'd known you was here Iwouldn't of thought of comin' in here like this."

  The lady with the defective eyes glared fiercely at him. Her judgmentwavered two ways. Her first inclination was to hold that the fellow wasjibing at her covertly, and she followed her original impulse far enoughto clasp a neighboring sugar-bowl in a large, capable hand. A second andmore merciful thought entered her brain and stole slowly through it,like a faint echo in a great cave.

  "You don't have to make yourself pretty to talk to me," she saidthoughtfully. "But if you're here for chow you're too late."

  "Ma'am," said Buck Daniels instantly, "when I come in here I was hungryenough to eat nails; but I'll forget about chuck if you'll sit down an'chin with me a while."

  The large hand of the cross-eyed lady stole out once more and restedupon the sugar-bowl.

  "D'you mind sayin' that over agin?" she queried.

  "Lonesomeness is worse'n hunger," said Buck Daniels, and he met her gazesteadily with his black eyes.

  The hand released the sugar-bowl once more; something resembling colourstole into the brown cheeks of the maiden.

  She said, relentingly: "Maybe you been off by yourse'f mining,stranger?"

  Buck Daniels drew a long breath.

  "Mines?" he said, and then laughed bitterly. "If that was all I beendoin'--" he began darkly--and then stopped.

  The waitress started.

  "Maybe this here is my last chance to get chuck for days an' days. Well,let it go. If I stayed here with you I'd be talkin' too much!"

  He turned slowly towards the door. His step was very slow indeed.

  "Wait a minute," called the maiden. "There ain't any call for that play.If you're in wrong somewhere--well, stranger, just take that chair andI'll have some ham-and in front of you inside of a minute."

  She had slammed through the door before Buck turned, and he sat down,smiling pleasantly to himself. Half of a mirror decorated the wallbeside his table, and into this Buck peered. His black locks were sadlydisarrayed, and he combed them into some semblance of order with hisfingers. He had hardly finished this task when the door was kicked openwith such force that it whacked against the wall, and the waitressappeared with an armful of steaming food. Before Buck's widening eyesshe swiftly set forth an array of bread, butter in chunks, crispFrench-fried potatoes, a large slab of ham on one plate and severalfried eggs on another, and above all there was a mighty pewter cup ofcoffee blacker than the heart of night. Yearning seized upon BuckDaniels, but policy was stronger than hunger in his subtle mind. He roseagain; he drew forth the chair opposite his own.

  "Ma'am," said Buck Daniels, "ain't you going to favor me by sittin'down?"

  The lady blinked her unfocused eyes.

  "Ain't I what?" she was finally able to ask.

  "I know," said Buck Daniels swiftly, "that you're terrible busy; whichyou ain't got time to waste on a stranger like me."

  She turned upon Buck those uncertain and wistful eyes. It was a generousface. Mouth, cheekbones, and jaw were of vast proportions, while theforehead, eyes, and nose were as remarkably diminutive. Her glancelowered to the floor; she shrugged her wide shoulders and began to wipethe vestiges of dishwater from her freckled hands.

  "You men are terrible foolish," she said. "There ain't no tellin' whatyou mean by what you say."

  And she sank slowly into the chair. It gave voice in sharp protest ather weight. Buck Daniels retreated to the opposite side of the tableand took his place.

  "Ma'am," he began, "don't I look honest?" So saying, he slid half adozen eggs and a section of bacon from the platter to his plate.

  "I dunno," said the maiden, with one eye upon him and the other plunginginto the future. "There ain't no trusting men. Take 'em by the lot andthey're awful forgetful."

  "If you knowed me better," said Buck sadly, disposing of a slab of breadspread thick with the pale butter and following this with a pile offried potatoes astutely balanced on his knife. "If you knowed me better,ma'am, you wouldn't have no suspicions."

  "What might it be that you been doin'?" asked the girl.

  Buck Daniels paused in his attack on the food and stared at her.

  He quoted deftly from a magazine which had once fallen in his way: "Someday maybe I can tell you. There's something about your eyes that tellsme you'd understand."

  At the mention of her eyes the waitress blinked and stiffened in herchair, while a huge, red fist balled itself in readiness for action. Butthe expression of Buck Daniels was as blandly open as the smile ofinfancy. The lady relaxed and an unmistakable blush tinged even her nosewith colour.

  "It ain't after my nature to be askin' questions," she announced. "Youdon't have to tell me no more'n you want to."

  "Thanks," said Buck instantly. "I knew you was that kind. It ain'thard," he went on smoothly, "to tell a lady when you see one. I can tellyou this much to start with. I'm lookin' for a quiet town where I cansettle down permanent. And as far as I can see, Brownsville looks sortof quiet to me."

  So saying, he disposed of the rest of his food by an act akin tolegerdemain, and then fastened a keen eye upon the lady. She was in themidst of a struggle of some sort. But she could not keep the truth fromher tongue.

  "Take it by and large," she said at length, "Brownsville is as peaceableas most; but just now, stranger, it's all set for a big bust." Sheturned heavily in her chair and glanced about the room. Then she facedDaniels once more and cupped her hands about her mouth. "Stranger," shesaid in a stage whisper, "Mac Strann is in town!"

  The eyes of Buck Daniels wandered.

  "Don't you know him?" she asked.

  "Nope."

  "Never heard of him?"

  "Nope."

  "Well," sighed the waitress, "you've had some luck in your life. Take across between a bulldog and a mustang and a mountain-lion--that's MacStrann. He's in town, and he's here for killin'."

  "You don't say, ma'am. And why don't they lock him up?"

  "Because he ain't done nothin' yet to be locked up about. That's the waywith him. And when he does a thing he always makes the man he's afterpull his gun first. Smart? I'll say he's just like an Indian, that MacStrann!"

  "But who's he after?"

  "The feller that plugged his brother, Jerry."

  "Kind of looks like he had reason for a killing, then."

  "Nope. Jerry had it comin' to him. He was always raising trouble, Jerrywas. And this time, he pulled his gun first. Everybody seen him."

  "He run into a gunman?"

  "Gunman?" she laughed heartily. "Partner, if it wasn't for somethingfunny about his eyes, I wouldn't be no more afraid of that gunman than Iam of a tabby-cat. And me a weak woman. The quietest lookin' sort thatever come to Brownsville. But there's something queer about him. Heknows that Mac Strann is here in town. He knows that Mac Strann iswaiting for Jerry to die. He knows that when Jerry dies Mac will be outfor a killin'. And this here stranger is just sittin' around and waitin'to be killed! Can you beat that?"

  But Buck Daniels had grown strangely excited.

  "What did you say there was about his eyes?" he asked sharply.

  She grew suddenly suspicious.

  "D' you know him?"

  "No. But you was talkin' about his eyes?"

  "I dunno what it is. I ain't the only one that's seen it. There ain't noword you can put to it. It's just there. That's all."

  The voice of Buck Daniels fell to a whisper.

  "It's sort of fire," he suggested. "Ain't it a kind of light _behind_his eyes?"

  But the waitress stared at him in amazement.

  "Fire?" she gasped. "A light _behind_ his eyes? M'frien', are you tryin'to string me?"

  "What's his name?"

  "I dunno."

  "Ma'am," said Daniels, rising hastily. "Here's a dollar if you'll takeme to him."

  "You don't need no guide," she replied. "Listen to that, will you?"

  And as he hearkened obediently Buck Daniels heard a strain of whistling,needle-sharp with distance.

  "That's him," nodded the woman. "He's always goin' about whistling tohimself. Kind of a nut, he is."

  "It's him!" cried Buck Daniels. "It's him!"

  And with this ungrammatical burst of joy he bolted from the room.

 
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