The night horseman, p.14
The Night Horseman, p.14
MUSIC FOR OLD NICK
A thought is like a spur. It lifts the head of a man as the spur makesthe horse toss his; and it quickens the pace with a subtle addition ofstrength. Such a thought came to Buck Daniels as he stepped again on theveranda of the hotel. It could not have been an altogether pleasantinspiration, for it drained the colour from his face and made him clenchhis broad hands; and next he loosened his revolver in its holster. Athought of fighting--of some desperate chance he had once taken,perhaps.
But also it was a thought which needed considerable thought. He slumpedinto a wicker chair at one end of the porch and sat with his chinresting on his chest while he smoked cigarette after cigarette andtossed the butts idly over the rail. More than once he pressed his handagainst his lips as though there were sudden pains there. The colour didnot come back to his face; it continued as bloodless as ever, but therewas a ponderable light in his eyes, and his jaws became more and morefirmly set. It was not a pleasant face to watch at that moment, for heseemed to sit with a growing resolve.
Long moments passed before he moved a muscle, but then he heard, faraway, thin, and clear, whistling from behind the hotel. It was norecognisable tune. It was rather a strange improvisation, with singablefragments here and there, and then wild, free runs and trills. It was asif some bird of exquisite singing powers should be taken in a rapture ofsong, so that it whistled snatches here and there of its usual melody,but all between were great, whole-throated rhapsodies. As the sound ofthis whistling came to him, Buck raised his head suddenly. And finally,still listening, he rose to his feet and turned into the dining-room.
There he found the waitress he had met before, and he asked her for thename of the doctor who took care of the wounded Jerry Strann.
"There ain't no doc," said the waitress. "It's Fatty Matthews, thedeputy marshal, who takes care of that Strann--bad luck to him! Fatty'sin the barroom now. But what's the matter? You seem like you was hearin'something?"
"I am," replied Daniels enigmatically. "I'm hearin' something that wouldbe music for the ears of Old Nick."
And he turned on his heel and strode for the barroom. There he foundFatty in the very act of disposing of a stiff three-fingers of red-eye.Daniels stepped to the bar, poured his own drink, and then stood toyingwith the glass. For though the effect of red-eye may be pleasant enough,it has an essence which appalls the stoutest heart and singes the mostleathery throat; it is to full-grown men what castor oil is to a child.Why men drink it is a mystery whose secret is known only to theprofound soul of the mountain-desert. But while Daniels fingered hisglass he kept an eye upon the other man at the bar.
It was unquestionably the one he sought. The excess flesh of the deputymarshal would have brought his nickname to the mind of an imbecile.However, Fatty was humming softly to himself, and it is not the habit ofmen who treat very sick patients to sing.
"I'll hit it agin," said Fatty. "I need it."
"Have a bad time of it to-day?" asked O'Brien sympathetically.
"Bad time to-day? Yep, an' every day is the same. I tell you, O'Brien,it takes a pile of nerve to stand around that room expectin' Jerry topass out any minute, and the eyes of that devil Mac Strann followin' youevery step you make. D'you know, if Jerry dies I figure Mac to go at mythroat like a bulldog."
"You're wrong, Fatty," replied O'Brien. "That ain't his way about it. Hetakes his time killin' a man. Waits till he can get him in a publicplace and make him start the picture. That's Mac Strann! RememberFitzpatrick? Mac Strann followed Fitz nigh onto two months, but Fitzknew what was up and he never would make a move. He knowed that if hemade a wrong pass it would be his last. So he took everything and let itpass by. But finally it got on his nerves. One time--it was right herein my barroom, Fatty----"
"The hell you say!"
"Yep, that was before your time around these parts. But Fitz had acouple of jolts of red-eye under his vest and felt pretty strong. MacStrann happened in and first thing you know they was at it. Well, Fitzwas a big man. I ain't small, but I had to look up when I talked toFitz. Scotch-Irish, and they got fightin' bred into their bone. MacStrann passed him a look and Fitz come back with a word. Soon as he gotstarted he couldn't stop. Wasn't a pretty thing to watch, either. Youcould see in Fitz's face that he knew he was done for before he started,but he wouldn't, let up. The booze had him going and he was too proud toback down. Pretty soon he started cussing Mac Strann.
"Well, by that time everybody had cleared out of the saloon, becausethey knowed that them sort of words meant bullets comin'. But Mac Strannjest stood there watchin', and grinnin' in his ugly way--damn his soulblack!--and never sayin' a word back. By God, Fatty, he looked sort ofhungry. When he grinned, his upper lip went up kind of slow and youcould see his big teeth. I expected to see him make a move to sink 'emin the throat of Fitz. But he didn't. Nope, he didn't make a move, andall the time Fitz ravin' and gettin' worse and worse. Finally Fitz madethe move. Yep, he pulled his gun and had it damned near clean on MacStrann before that devil would stir. But when he _did_, it was jest aflash of light. Both them guns went off, but Mac's bullet hit Fitz'shand and knocked the gun out of it--so of course his shot went wild.But Fitz could see his own blood, and you know what that does to theScotch-Irish? Makes _some_ people quit cold to see their own blood. Iremember a kid at school that was a whale at fightin' till his nose gotto bleedin', or something, and then he'd quit cold. But you take aScotch-Irishman and it works just the other way. Show him his own colourand he goes plumb crazy.
"That's what happened to Fitz. When he saw the blood on his hand he madea dive at Mac Strann. After that it wasn't the sort of thing that makesa good story. Mac Strann got him around the ribs and I heard the bonescrack. God! And him still squeezin', and Fitz beatin' away at Mac's facewith his bleedin' hand.
"Will you b'lieve that I stood here and was sort of froze? Yes, Fatty, Icouldn't make a move. And I was sort of sick and hollow inside the sameway I went one time when I was a kid and seen a big bull horn ayearlin'.
"Then I heard the breath of Fitz comin' hoarse, with a rattle in it--andI heard Mac Strann whining like a dog that's tasted blood and isstarvin' for more. A thing to make your hair go up on end, like they sayin the story-books.
"Then Fitz--he was plumb mad--tried to bite Mac Strann. And then Mac letgo of him and set his hands on the throat of Fitz. It happened like aflash--I'm here to swear that I could hear the bones crunch. And thenFitz's mouth sagged open and his eyes rolled up to the ceiling, and MacStrann threw him down on the floor. Just like that! Damn him! And thenhe stood over poor dead Fitz and kicked him in those busted ribs andturned over to the bar and says to me: 'Gimme!'
"Like a damned beast! He wanted to drink right there with his dead manbeside him. And what was worse, I had to give him the bottle. There wasa sort of haze in front of my eyes. I wanted to pump that devil full oflead, but I knowed it was plain suicide to try it.
"So there he stood and ups with a glass that was brimmin' full, anddowns it at a swallow--gurglin'--like a hog! Fatty, how long will it bebefore there's an end to Mac Strann?"
But Fatty Matthews shrugged his thick shoulders and poured himselfanother drink.
"There ain't a hope for Jerry Strann?" cut in Buck Daniels.
"Not one in a million," coughed Fatty, disposing of another formidablepotion.
"And when Jerry dies, Mac starts for this Barry?"
"Who's been tellin' you?" queried O'Brien dryly. "Maybe you been readin'minds, stranger?"
Buck Daniels regarded the bartender with a mild and steadfast interest.He was smiling with the utmost good-humour, but there was that about himwhich made big O'Brien flush and look down to his array of glassesbehind the bar.
"I been wondering," went on Daniels, "if Mac Strann mightn't come outwith Barry about the way Jerry did. Ain't it possible?"
"No," replied Fatty Matthews with calm decision. "It ain't possible.Well, I'm due back in my bear cage. Y'ought to look in on me, O'Brien,and see the mountain-lion dyin' and the grizzly lookin' on."
"Will it last long?" queried O'Brien.
"Somewhere's about this evening."
Here Daniels started violently and closed his hand hard around hiswhiskey glass which he had not yet raised towards his lips.
"Are you sure of that, marshal?" he asked. "If Jerry's held on this longain't there a chance that he'll hold on longer? Can you date him up forto-night as sure as that?"
"I can," said the deputy marshal. "It ain't hard when you seen as manygo west as I've seen. It ain't harder than it is to tell when the sandwill be out of an hour glass. When they begin going down the last hillit ain't hard to tell when they'll reach the bottom."
"Ain't you had anybody to spell you, Fatty?" broke in O'Brien.
"Yep. I got Haw-Haw Langley up there. But he ain't much help. Just sitsaround with his hands folded. Kind of looks like Haw-Haw _wanted_ Jerryto pass out."
And Matthews went humming through the swinging door.
The Night Horseman by Max Brand / Western have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes