The night horseman, p.27
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       The Night Horseman, p.27

          

  CHAPTER XXVII

  THE CONQUEST

  There was no star-storming confidence in Kate Cumberland after thatfirst victory. Rather she felt as the general who deploys hisskirmishers and drives in the outposts of an enemy. The advantage ishis, but it has really only served to give him some intimation of thestrength of the enemy. At the supper table this night she foundWhistling Dan watching her--not openly, for she could never catch hiseye--but subtly, secretly, she knew that he was measuring her, studyingher; whether in hostility, amity, or mere wonder, she could not tell.Finally a vast uneasiness overtook her and she turned to the doctor forrelief. Doctor Randall Byrne held a singular position in the attentionof Kate. Since the night of the fire and her open talk with him, thedoctor knew "everything," and women are troubled in the presence of aman who knows the details of the past.

  The shield behind which they hide in social intercourse is a touch ofmystery--or at least a hope of mystery. The doctor, however, was notlike other men; he was more similar to a precocious child and shecomforted herself in his obvious talent for silence. If he had beenalert, strong, self-confident, she might have hated him because he knewso much about her; but when she noted the pale, thoughtful face, thevast forehead outbalancing the other features, and the wistful,uncertain eyes, she felt nothing towards him stronger than pity.

  It is good for a woman to have something which she may pity, a child, anaged parent, or a house-dog. It provides, in a way, the backgroundagainst which she acts; so Kate, when in doubt, turned to the doctor, ason this night. There was a certain cruelty in it, for when she smiled athim the poor doctor became crimson, and when she talked to him hisanswers stumbled on his tongue; and when she was silent and merelylooked at him that was worst of all, for he became unable to manageknife and fork and would sit crumbling bread and looking frightened.Then he was apt to draw out his glasses and make a move to place them onhis nose, but he always caught and checked himself in time--which addedto his embarrassment.

  These small maneuvres had not lasted long before the girl became awarethat the silent attention of Whistling Dan had passed from her to thedoctor--and held steadily upon him. She did not go so far as to call itjealousy, but certainly it was a grave and serious consideration thatmeasured the doctor up and down and back again; and it left her free toexamine the two men in contrast. For the first time it struck her thatthey were much alike in many ways. Physically, for instance, there wasthe same slenderness, the same delicacy with which the details werefinished; the same fragile hands, for instance. The distinction lay in asuggestion of strength and inexhaustible reserve of energy which DanBarry possessed. The distinction lay still more in their faces. That ofByrne was worn and pallied from the long quest and struggle for truth;the body was feeble; the eyes were uncertain; but within there was apowerful machine which could work infallibly from the small to the largeand the large to the small. With Whistling Dan there was no suggestionat all of mental care. She could not imagine him worrying over aproblem. His knowledge was not even communicable by words; it was moreimpalpable than the instinct of a woman; and there was about him thewisdom and the coldness of Black Bart himself.

  The supper ended too soon for Kate. She had been rallying Randall Byrne,and as soon as he could graciously leave, the poor fellow rose with acrimson face and left the room; and behind him, sauntering apparently inthe most casual manner, went Whistling Dan. As for Kate Cumberland, shecould not put all the inferences together--she dared not; but when shelay in her bed that night it was a long time before she could sleep, forthere was a voice inside her, singing.

  She chose her time the next day. Dan alternated between Black Bart andold Joe Cumberland during most of the day, and no sooner had he leftthe wolf-dog in the morning than she went out to Bart.

  As always, Black Bart lay with his head flattened against the sand,dreaming in the sun, and not an eyelid quivered when she approached, yetshe understood perfectly that the animal knew every move she made. Shewould have attempted to dress the wound again, but the memory of theordeal of yesterday was too terrible. She might break down in the midstof her effort, and the first sign of weakness, she knew, was the onlyspur which Black Bart needed. So she went, instead, to the chair whereDan often sat for hours near the dog, and there she took her place,folded her hands on her lap, and waited. She had no particular plan inmind, more than that she hoped to familiarize the great brute with thesight of her. Once he had known her well enough, but now he hadforgotten all that passed before as completely, no doubt, as WhistlingDan himself had forgotten.

  While she sat there, musing, she remembered a scene that had occurrednot many a month before. She had been out walking one fall day, and hadgone from the house down past the corrals where a number of cattle newlydriven in from the range were penned. They were to be driven off forshipment the next day. A bellowing caught her ear from one of theenclosures and she saw two bulls standing horn to horn, their headslowered, and their puffing and snorting breaths knocking up the dustwhile they pawed the sand back in clouds against their flanks. Whileshe watched, they rushed together, bellowing, and for a moment theyswayed back and forth. It was an unequal battle, however, for one of theanimals was a hardened veteran, scarred from many a battle on the range,while the other was a young three-year old with a body not half sostrong as his heart. For a short time he sustained the weight of thelarger bull, but eventually his knees buckled, and then dropped heavilyagainst the earth. At that the older bull drew back a little and chargedagain. This time he avoided the long horns of his rival and made theunprotected flank of the animal his target. If he had charged squarelythe horns would have been buried to the head; but striking at an angleonly one of them touched the target and delivered a long, ripping blow.With the blood streaming down his side, the wounded bull made off into agroup of cows, and when the victor pursued him closely, he at lengthturned tail and leaped the low fence--for the corral was a new one,hastily built for the occasion. The conqueror raised his head inside thefence and bellowed his triumph, and outside the fence the othercommenced pawing up the sand again, switching his tail across hisbleeding side, and turning his little red eyes here and there. Theyfixed, at length, upon Kate Cumberland, and she remembered with a startof horror that she was wearing a bright red blouse. The next instant thebull was charging. She turned in a hopeless flight. Safety was hundredsof yards away in the house; the skirts tangled about her legs; andbehind her the dull impacts of the bull's hoofs swept close and closer.Then she heard a snarl in front, a deep-throated, murderous snarl, andshe saw Black Bart racing towards her. He whizzed by her like a blackthunderbolt; there was a roar and bellow behind her, and at the sametime she stumbled over a fence-board and fell upon her knees. But whenshe cast a glance of terror behind her she saw the bull lying on itsside with lolling tongue and glazing eyes and the fangs of Black Dartwere buried in its throat.

  When she reached this point in her musings her glance naturally turnedtowards the wolf-dog, and she started violently when she saw that Bartwas slinking towards her, trailing the helpless leg. The moment he felther eyes upon him, Bart dropped down, motionless, with a wicked baringof his teeth; his eyes closed, and he seemed, as usual, dreaming in thesun.

  Was the brute stalking her? It was worse, in a way, than the ordeal ofthe day before, this stealthy, noiseless approach. And in her panic shefirst thought of springing from her chair and reaching a distance whichthe chain would keep him from following. Yet it was very strange. BlackBart in his wildest days after Dan brought him to the ranch had neverbeen prone to wantonly attack human beings. Infringe upon his right,come suddenly upon him, and then, indeed, there was a danger to allsaving his master. But this daylight stalking was stranger than wordscould tell.

  She forced her eyes to look straight ahead and sat with a beatingheart, waiting. Then, by slow degrees, she let her glance travelcautiously back towards Bart without turning her head. There was nodoubt about it! The great wolf-dog was slinking towards her on hisbelly, still trailing the wounded foreleg. There was something snakelikein that slow approach, so silent and so gradual.

  And yet she waited, moving neither hand nor foot.

  A sort of nightmare paralysis held her, as when we flee from some horrorin our dreams and find that our limbs have grown numb. Behind us racesthe deadly thing, closer and closer; before us is the door ofsafety--only a step to reach it--and yet we cannot move a foot!

  It was not all pure terror. There was an incredible excitement aswell--her will against the will of the dumb brute--which would conquer?

  She heard a faint rustling of the sand beside her and could hardly keepfrom turning her head again. But she succeeded. Waves of coldness brokeon her mind; her whole body would have shuddered had not fear chilledher into motionlessness. All reason told her that it was madness to sitthere with the stealthy horror sliding closer; even now it might be toolate. If she rose the shaggy form might spring from the ground at her.Perhaps the wolf had treasured up the pain from the day before and now--

  A black form did, indeed, rise from the ground, but slowly. And standingon three legs, Bart stood a moment and stared in the face of the girl.The fear rushed out of her heart; and her face flushed hotly withrelief. There was no enmity in the steady stare of the wolf-dog. Shecould feel that even though she did not look. Something that WhistlingDan had said long before came to her: "Even a hoss and a dog, Kate, canget terrible lonesome."

  Black Bart moved until he faced her directly. His ears were pricking ineagerness; she heard a snarl, but so low and muffled that there washardly a threat in it; could it be a plea for attention? She would notlook down to the sharp eyes, until a weight fell on her knees--it wasthe long, scarred head of the wolf! The joy that swelled in her was sogreat that it pained her like a grief.

  She stretched out her hand, slowly, slowly towards that head. And BlackBart shrank and quivered, and his lips writhed back from the long,deadly teeth, and his snarl grew to a harsher, hoarser threat; still hedid not remove his head, and he allowed the hand to touch him betweenthe eyes and stroke the fur back to between the ears. Only one otherhand had ever touched that formidable head in such a manner! The teethno longer showed; the keen, suspicious eyes grew dim with pleasure; thesnarl sank to murmur and then died out.

  "Bart!" commanded the girl, sharply.

  The head jerked up, but the questing eyes did not look at her. Heglanced over his shoulder to find the danger that had made her voice sohard. And she yearned to take the fierce head in her arms; there weretears she could have wept over it. He was snarling again, preparedalready to battle, and for her sake.

  "Bart!" she repeated, more gently. "Lie down!"

  He turned his head slowly back to her and looked with the unspeakablewistfulness of the dumb brutes into her eyes. But there was only onevoice in which Bart could speak, and that was the harsh, rattling snarlwhich would have made a mountain-lion check itself mid-leap and slinkback to its lair. In such a voice he answered Kate, and then sank down,gradually. And he lay still.

  So simply, and yet so mysteriously, she was admitted to the partnership.But though one member of that swift, grim trio had accepted her, did itmean that the other two would take her in?

  A weight sank on her feet and when she looked down she saw that BlackBart had lowered his head upon them, and so he lay there with his eyesclosed, dreaming in the sun.

 
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