The night horseman, p.29
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       The Night Horseman, p.29

          

  CHAPTER XXIX

  TALK

  He was long in getting his answer. The hours dragged on slowly for Kateand the doctor, for if Joe Cumberland could hold Dan it was everythingto the girl, and if Barry left at once there might be some root for thehope which was growing stronger and stronger every day in the heart ofRandall Byrne. Before evening a not unwelcome diversion broke thesuspense somewhat.

  It was the arrival of no less a person than Marshal Jeff Calkins. Hisshoulders were humped and his short legs bowed from continual riding,and his head was slung far forward on a gaunt neck; so that when heturned his head from one to another in speaking it was with a peculiarpendulum motion. The marshal had a reputation which was strong overthree hundred miles and more of a mountain-desert. This was strange, forthe marshal was a very talkative man, and talkative men are not popularon the desert; but it has been discovered that on occasion his six-guncould speak as rapidly and much more accurately than his tongue. SoMarshal Calkins waxed in favour.

  He set the household at ease upon his arrival by announcing that "theyhadn't nothin' for him there." All he wanted was a place to bunk in,some chow, and a feed for the horse. His trail led past the CumberlandRanch many and many a dreary mile.

  The marshal was a politic man, and he had early in life discovered thatthe best way to get along with any man was to meet him on his ownground. His opening blast of words at Doctor Byrne was a sample of hisart.

  "So you're a doc, hey? Well, sir, when I was a kid I had a colt thatstuck its foreleg in a hole and busted it short and when that colt hadto be shot they wasn't no holdin' me. No, sir, I could of cleaned up onthe whole family. And ever since then I've had a hankerin' to be a doc.Something about the idea of cuttin' into a man that always sort oftickled me. They's only one main thing that holds me back--I don't likethe idea of knifin' a feller when he ain't got a chance to fight back!That's me!"

  To this Doctor Randall Byrne bowed, rather dazed, but returned noanswer.

  "And how's your patient, doc?" pursued the irresistible marshal. "How'sold Joe Cumberland? I remember when me and Joe used to trot about therange together. I was sort of a kid then; but think of old Joe bein'down in bed--sick! Why, I ain't never been sick a day in my life. Sick?I'd laugh myse'f plumb to death if anybody ever wanted me to go to bed.What's the matter with him, anyway?"

  "His nerves are a bit shaken about," responded the doctor. "To which Imight add that there is superimposed an arterial condition----"

  "Cut it short, Doc," cried the marshal goodnaturedly. "I ain't got adictionary handy. Nerves bad, eh? Well, I don't wonder about that. Theold man's had enough trouble lately to make anybody nervous. I wouldn'tlike to go through it myself. No, sir! What with that Dan Barry--I ain'tsteppin' on any corns, Kate, am I?"

  She smiled vaguely, but the marshal accepted the smile as a strongdissent.

  "They was a time not so long ago when folks said that you was kind ofsweet on Dan. Glad to hear they ain't nothin' in it. 'S a matter offact----"

  But here Kate interrupted with a raised hand. She said: "I think thatwas the supper gong. Yes, there it is. We'll go in now, if you wish."

  "They's only one sound in the world that's better to me than a dinnergong," said the profuse marshal, as they seated themselves around thebig dining table, "and that was the sound of my wife's voice when shesaid 'I will.' Queer thing, too. Maria ain't got a very soft voice, mostgenerally speakin', but when she busted up in front of that preacher andsays 'I will,' why, God A'mighty--askin' your pardon, Kate--they was achange come in her voice that was like a bell chimin' down in herthroat--a bell ringin' away off far, you know, so's you only kind ofguess at it! But comin' back to you and Dan, Kate----"

  It was in vain she plied the marshal with edibles. His tongue waggedupon roller-bearings and knew no stopping. Moreover, the marshal hadspent some portion of his life in a boarding house and had mastered theboarding-house art of talking while he ate.

  "Comin' back to you and Dan, we was all of us sayin' that you and Dankind of had an eye for each other. I s'pose we was all wrong. You see,that was back in the days before Dan busted loose. When he was about therange most usually he was the quietest man I ever sat opposite tobarrin' one--and that was a feller that went west with a bum heart atthe chuck table! Ha, ha, ha!" The marshal's laughter boomed through thebig room as he recalled this delightful anecdote. He went on: "But afterthat Jim Silent play we all changed our minds, some. D'you know, doc, Iwas in Elkhead the night that Dan got our Lee Haines?"

  "I've never heard of the episode," murmured the doctor.

  "You ain't? Well, I be damned!--askin' your pardon, Kate----But yousure ain't lived in these parts long! Which you wouldn't think one mancould ride into a whole town, go to the jail, knock out two guards thatwas proved men, take the keys, unlock the irons off'n the man he wanted,saddle a hoss, and ride through a whole town--full of folks that wasshootin' at him. Now, would you think that was possible?"

  "Certainly not."

  "And it _ain't_ possible, I'm here to state. But they was somethingdifferent about Dan Barry. D'you ever notice it, Kate?"

  She was far past speech.

  "No, I guess you never would have noticed it. You was livin' too closeto him all the time to see how different he was from other fellers.Anyway, he done it. They say he got plugged while he was ridin' throughthe lines and he bled all the way home, and he got there unconscious. Isthat right, Kate?"

  He waited an instant and then accepted the silence as an affirmative.

  "Funny thing about that, too. The place where he come to was BuckDaniels' house. Well, Buck was one of Jim Silent's men, and they sayBuck had tried to plug Dan before that. But Dan let him go that time,and when Buck seen Dan ride in all covered with blood he remembered thatfavour and he kept Dan safe from Jim Silent and safe from the law untilDan was well. I seen Buck this morning over to Rafferty's place,and----"

  Here the marshal noted a singular look in the eyes of Kate Cumberland, alook so singular that he turned in his chair to follow it. He saw DanBarry in the act of closing the door behind him, and Marshal Calkinsturned a deep and violent red, varied instantly by a blotchy yellowwhich in turn faded to something as near white as his tan permitted.

  "Dan Barry!" gasped the marshal, rising, and he reached automaticallytowards his hip before he remembered that he had laid his belt and gunsaside before he entered the dining-room, as etiquette is in themountain-desert. For it is held that shooting at the table disturbs theappetite.

  "Good evenin'," said Dan quietly. "Was it Buck Daniels that you seen atRafferty's place, Marshal Calkins?"

  "Him," nodded the marshal, hoarsely. "Yep, Buck Daniels."

  And then he sank into his chair, silent for the first time. His eyesfollowed Barry as though hypnotized.

  "I'm kind of glad to know where I can find him," said Barry, and tookhis place at the table.

  The silence continued for a while, with all eyes focused on thenew-comer. It was the doctor who had to speak first.

  "You've talked things over with Mr. Cumberland?" he asked.

  "We had a long talk," nodded Dan. "You was wrong about him, doc. Hethinks he can do without me."

  "What?" cried Kate.

  "He thinks he can do without me," said Dan Barry. "We talked it allover."

  The silence fell again. Kate Cumberland was staring blankly down at herplate, seeing nothing; and Doctor Byrne looked straight before him andfelt the pulse drumming in his throat. His chance, then, was to come. Bythis time the marshal had recovered his breath.

  He said to Dan: "Seems like you been away some time, Dan. Where you beenhangin' out?"

  "I been ridin' about," answered Dan vaguely.

  "Well," chuckled the marshal, "I'm glad they ain't no more Jim Silentsabout these parts--not while you're here and while I'm here. You keptthings kind of busy for Glasgow, Dan."

  He turned to Kate, who had pushed back her chair.

  "What's the matter, Kate?" he boomed. "You ain't lookin' any tootip-top. Sick?"

  "I may be back in a moment," said the girl, "but don't delay supper forme."

  She went out of the room with a step poised well enough, but the momentthe door closed behind her she fairly staggered to the nearest chair andsank into it, her head fallen back, her eyes dim, and all the strengthgone from her body and her will. Several minutes passed before sheroused herself, and then it was to drag herself slowly up the stairs tothe door of her father's room. She opened it without knocking, and thenclosed it and stood with her back against it, in the shadow.

 
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