The night horseman, p.26
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       The Night Horseman, p.26

          

  CHAPTER XXVI

  THE BATTLE

  The chain which fastened Black Bart had been passed around the trunk ofa tree that stood behind the ranch house, and there the great dog laytethered. Doctor Byrne had told Whistling Dan, with some degree ofhorror, that the open air was in the highest degree dangerous to wounds,but Whistling Dan had returned no answer. So Black Bart lay all day inthe soft sand, easing himself from time to time into a new position, andhis thoughtful eyes seemed to be concentrated on the desire to growwell. Beside him was the chair in which Dan Barry sat for many an hourof the day and even the night.

  Kate Cumberland watched the animal from the shadow of the house; hiseyes were closed, and the long, powerful head lay inert on the sand, yetshe knew that the wolf-dog was perfectly aware of her presence. Dayafter day since he lay there, she had attempted to approach Black Bart,and day after day he had allowed her to come within reaching distance ofhim, only to drive her back at the last moment by a sudden display ofthe murderous, long fangs; or by one of those snarls which came out ofthe black depths of his heart. Now, a dog snarls from not far down inits throat, but the noise of an angered wild beast rolls up out of itsvery entrails--a passion of hate and defiance. And when she heard thatsound, or when she saw the still more terrible silent rage of the beast,Kate Cumberland's spirit failed, and she would shrink back again to asafe distance.

  She was not easily discouraged. She had that grim resolution which comesto the gambler after he has played at the same table night after night,night after night, and lost, lost, lost, until, playing with the last ofhis money, he begins to mutter through his set teeth: "The luck _must_change!" So it was with Kate Cumberland. For in Black Bart she saw theonly possible clue to Whistling Dan. There was the stallion, to be sure,but she knew Satan too well. Nothing in the wide world could induce thatwild heart to accept more than one master--more than one friend. ForSatan there was in the animal world Black Bart, and in the world of men,Dan Barry. These were enough. For all the rest he kept the disdainfulspeed of his slender legs or the terror of his teeth and tramplinghoofs. Even if she could have induced the stallion to eat from her handshe could never have made him willing to trust himself to her guidance.Some such thing she felt that she must accomplish with Black Bart. Tothe wild beast with the scarred and shaggy head she must become anecessary, an accepted thing.

  One repulse did not dishearten her. Again and again she made the trial.She remembered having read that no animal can resist the thoughtfulpatience of thinking man, and hour after hour she was there, until a newlight in the eye of the wolf-dog warned her that the true master wascoming.

  Then she fled, and from a post of vantage in the house she would watchthe two. An intimacy surpassing the friendships and devotions of humanbeings existed between them. She had seen the wolf lie with his greathead on the foot of his master and the unchanging eyes fixed on Barry'sface--and so for an hour at a stretch in mute worship. Or she hadwatched the master go to the great beast to change the dressing--a thingwhich could not be done too often during the day. She had seen the swifthands remove the bandages and she had seen the cleansing solutionapplied. She knew what it was; it stung even the unscratched skin, andto a wound it must be torture, but the wolf lay and endured--not evenshuddering at the pain.

  It had seemed to her that this was the great test. If she could make thewolf lie like this for her, then, truly, she might feel herself in somemeasure admitted to that mystic fellowship of the three--the man, thestallion, and the wolf. If she could, with her own unaided hands, removethe bandages and apply that solution, then she could know many things,and she could feel that she was nearer to Whistling Dan than everbefore.

  So she had come, time and again, with the basin and the roll of clothin her arm, and she had approached with infinite patience, step by step,and then inch by inch. Once it had taken a whole hour for her to comewithin a yard of the beast. And all that time Black Bart had lain withclosed eyes. But at the critical instant always there was the silentwrithing up of the lips and the gleam of hate--or the terrible snarlwhile the eyes fastened on her throat. Her heart had stopped inmid-beat; and that day she ran back into the house and threw herself onher bed, and would not come from her room till the following morning.

  Now, as she watched from the shadow of the house, with the basin ofantiseptic under her arm, the gambler's desperation rose stronger andstronger. She came out, at length, and walked steadily towards BlackBart. She had grown almost heedless of fear at this moment, but when shewas within a pace, once more the head reared back; the teeth flashed.And the heart of Kate Cumberland, as always, stopped. Yet she did notretreat this time. All the colour left her face, so that her eyes seemedamazingly blue and wide. One foot drew back, tremblingly ready to springto safety; yet she held her place. She moved--and it was towards BlackBart.

  At that came a snarl that would have made the heart of a lone grizzlyquake and leave his new-found nuts. One further pace she made--and thebeast plunged up, and braced itself with its one strong fore leg. Adevil of yellow-green gleamed in either eye, and past the grinningfangs she saw the hot, red throat, and she saw the flattened ears, thescars on the bony forehead, the muscles that bulged on the base of thejaw. Ay, strength to drive those knife-like teeth through flesh and boneat a single snap. More--she had seen their effect, and the throat of abull cut at a single slash. And yet--she sank on her knees beside themonster.

  His head was well nigh as high as hers, then; if he attacked there couldbe no dream of escape for her. Or she might drag herself away from thetearing teeth--a disfigured horror forever. Think not that an iota ofall these terrors missed her mind. No, she felt the fangs buried in herthroat and heard the snarl of the beast stifled with blood. Yet--shelaid her hand on the bandage across the shoulder of Black Bart.

  His head whirled. With those ears flattened, with that long, lean neck,it was like the head of a striking snake. Her sleeve was rolled up tothe elbow, and over the bare skin the teeth of the wolf-dog were set.The snarl had grown so deep and hideous that the tremor of it fairlyshook her, and she saw that the jaws of the beast slavered with hunger.She knew--a thousand things about Black Bart, and among the rest that hehad tasted human blood. And there is a legend which says that once awild beast has tasted the blood of man he will taste it a second timebefore he dies. She thought of that--she dared not turn her head lestshe should encounter the hellfire of Bart's eyes. Yet she had passedall ordinary fear. She had reached that exquisite frenzy of terror whenit becomes one with courage. The very arm over which the wolf's teethwere set moved--raised--and with both hands she untied the knot of thebandage.

  The snarling rose to a pitch of maniacal rage; the teeth compressed--ifthey broke the skin it was the end; the first taste of blood would beenough!--and drew away her arm. If she had started then, all the devilin the creature would be loosed, for her terror taught her that. And bysome mysterious power that entered her at that moment she was able toturn her head, slowly, and look deep into those terrible eyes.

  Her arm was released.

  But Black Bart crouched and the snakelike head lowered; he was quiveringthroughout that steel-muscled body to throw himself at her throat. Thefinger was on the hair-trigger; it needed a pressure not greater than abodiless thought. And still she looked into the eyes of the wolf-dog;and her terror had made her strangely light of body and dizzy of mind.Then the change came, suddenly. The yellow-green changed, swirled in theeyes of Black Bart; the eyes themselves wavered, and at last lookedaway; the snarl dropped to a sullen growl. And Black Bart lay down as hehad been before.

  His head was still turned towards her, to be sure. And the teeth werestill bared, as with rapid, deft fingers she undid the bandage; and frominstant to instant, as the bandage in spite of her care pressed againstthe wound, the beast shivered and wicked glances flashed up at her face.The safe-blower who finds his "soup" cooling and dares not set it downfelt as Kate Cumberland felt then.

  She never knew what kept her hands steady, but steady they were. Thecloth was removed, and now she could see the red, angry wound, with thehair shaven away to a little distance on every side. She dipped hercloth into the antiseptic; it stung her fingers! She touched the clothlightly against the wound; and to her astonishment the wolf-dog relaxedevery muscle and let his head fall to the ground; also the growl diedinto a soft whine, and this in turn ended.

  She had conquered! Ay, when the wound was thoroughly cleansed and whenshe started to wind the bandage again, she had even the courage to touchBlack Bart's body and make him rise up so that she could pass the clothfreely. At her touch he shuddered, to be sure, as a man might shudder atthe touch of an unclean thing, but there was no snarl, and the teethwere not bared.

  As she tied the knot which secured the bandage in its place she wasaware that the eyes of Bart, no longer yellow-green, watched her; andshe felt some vague movement of the wonder that was passing through thebrute mind. Then the head of the wolf-dog jerked up; he was staring atsomething in the distance, and there was nothing under heaven that Bartwould raise his head to look at in this manner except one thing. Thefingers of Kate grew stiff, and trembled. Slowly, in a panic, shefinished the knot, and then she was aware of someone who had approachedwithout sound and now stood behind her.

  She looked up, at length, before she rose to her feet.

  Thankfulness welled up warm in her heart to find her voice steady andcommonplace when she said: "The wound is much better. Bart will be wellin a very few days now."

  Whistling Dan did not answer, and his wondering eyes glanced past herown. She saw that he was staring at a double row of white indentationson her forearm, where the teeth of Black Bart had set. He knew thosemarks, and she knew he knew. Strength was leaving her, and weakness wentthrough her--water where blood should have been. She dared not stay. Inanother moment she would be hopelessly in the grip of hysteria.

  So she rose, and passed Dan without a word, and went slowly towards thehouse. She tried to hurry, indeed, but her legs would not quicken theirpace. Yet at length she had reached shelter and no sooner was she pastthe door of the house than her knees buckled; she had to steady herselfwith both hands as she dragged herself up the stairs to her room. There,from the window, she looked down and saw Whistling Dan standing as shehad left him, staring blankly at the wolf-dog.

 
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