The night horseman, p.31
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       The Night Horseman, p.31

          

  CHAPTER XXXI

  THE MESSAGE

  Buck Daniels opened his eyes and sat bolt-upright in bed. He had dreamedthe dream again, and this time, as always, he awakened before the end.He needed no rubbing of eyes to rouse his senses. If a shower of coldwater had been dashed upon him he could not have rallied from soundslumber so suddenly. His first movement was to snatch his gun from underhis mattress, not that he dreamed of needing it, but for some reason thepressure of the butt against his palm was reassuring. It was better thanthe grip of his friend--a strong man.

  It was the first grey of dawn, a light so feeble that it served merelyto illuminate the darkness, so to speak. It fell with any power upon onething alone, the bit of an old, dusty bridle that hung against the wall,and it made the steel glitter like a watchful eye. There was a greatdryness in the throat of Buck Daniels; and his whole big body shook withthe pounding of his heart.

  He was not the only thing that was awake in the grey hour. For now hecaught a faint and regular creaking of the stairs. Someone was mountingwith an excessively cautious and patient step, for usually the crazystairs that led up to this garret room of the Rafferty house creaked andgroaned a protest at every footfall. Now the footfall paused at the headof the stairs, as when one stops to listen.

  Buck Daniels raised his revolver and levelled it on the door; but hishand was shaking so terribly that he could not keep his aim--the muzzlekept veering back and forth across the door. He seized his right handwith his left, and crushed it with a desperate pressure. Then it wasbetter. The quivering of the two hands counteracted each other and hemanaged to keep some sort of a bead.

  Now the step continued again, down the short hall. A hand fell on theknob of the door and pressed it slowly open. Against the deeperblackness of the hall beyond, Buck saw a tall figure, hatless. Hisfinger curved about the trigger, and still he did not fire. Even to hishysterical brain it occurred that Dan Barry would be wearing a hat--andmoreover the form was tall.

  "Buck!" called a guarded voice.

  The muzzle of Daniels' revolver dropped; he threw the gun on his bed andstood up.

  "Jim Rafferty!" he cried, with something like a groan in his voice."What in the name of God are you doin' here at this hour?"

  "Someone come here and banged on the door a while ago. Had a letter foryou. Must have rid a long ways and come fast; while he was givin' methe letter at the door I heard his hoss pantin' outside. He wouldn'tstay, but went right back. Here's the letter, Buck. Hope it ain't no badnews. Got a light here, ain't you?"

  "All right, Jim," answered Buck Daniels, taking the letter. "I got alantern. You get back to bed."

  The other replied with a noisy yawn and left the room while Buck kindledthe lantern. By that light he read his name upon the envelope and toreit open. It was very brief.

  "Dear Buck,

  Last night at supper Dan found out where you are. In the morning he's leaving the ranch and we know that he intends to ride for Rafferty's place; he'll probably be there before noon. The moment you get this, saddle your horse and ride. Oh, Buck, why did you stay so close to us?

  Relay your horses. Don't stop until you're over the mountains. Black Bart is well enough to take the trail and Dan will use him to follow you. You know what that means.

  Ride, ride, ride!

  Kate."

  He crumpled up the paper and sank back upon the bed.

  "Why did you stay so close?"

  He had wondered at that, himself, many times in the past few days. Likethe hunted rabbit, he expected to find safety under the very nose ofdanger. Now that he was discovered it seemed incredible that he couldhave followed so patently foolish a course. In a sort of daze heuncrumpled the note again and read the wrinkled writing word by word. Hehad leaned close to read by the uncertain light, and now he caught thefaintest breath of perfume from the paper. It was a small thing, smalleramong scents than a whisper is among voices, but it made Buck Danielsdrop his head and crush the paper against his face. It was a momentbefore he could uncrumple the paper sufficiently to study the contentsof the note thoroughly. At first his dazed brain caught only part of thesignificance. Then it dawned on him that the girl thought he had fledfrom the Cumberland Ranch through fear of Dan Barry.

  Ay, there had been fear in it. Every day at the ranch he had shudderedat the thought that the destroyer might ride up on that devil of blacksilken grace, Satan. But every day he had convinced himself that eventhen Dan Barry remembered the past and was cursing himself for theingratitude he had shown his old friend. Now the truth swept coldly hometo Buck Daniels. Barry was as fierce as ever upon the trail; and KateCumberland thought that he--Buck Daniels,--had fled like a cur fromdanger.

  He seized his head between his hands and beat his knuckles against thecorrugated flesh of his forehead. She had thought that!

  Desire for action, action, action, beset him like thirst. To close withthis devil, this wolf-man, to set his big fingers in the smooth, almostgirlish throat, to choke the yellow light out of those eyes--or else todie, but like a man proving his manhood before the girl.

  He read the letter again and then in an agony he crumpled it to a balland hurled it across the room. Catching up his hat and his belt herushed wildly from the room, thundered down the crazy stairs, and out tothe stable.

  Long Bess, the tall, bay mare which had carried him through three yearsof adventure and danger and never failed him yet, raised heraristocratic head above the side of the stall and whinnied. For answerhe shook his fist at her and cursed insanely.

  The saddle he jerked by one stirrup leather from the wall and flung iton her back, and when she cringed to the far side of the stall, hecursed her again, bitterly, and drew up the cinch with a lunge that madeher groan. He did not wait to lead her to the door before mounting, butsprang into the saddle.

  Here he whirled her about and drove home the spurs. Cruel usage, forLong Bess had never denied him the utmost of her speed and strength atthe mere sound of his voice. Now, half-mad with fear and surprise, shesprang forward at full gallop, slipped and almost sprawled on the floor,and then thundered out of the door.

  At once the soft sandy-soil received and deadened the impact of herhoofs. Off she flew through the grey of the morning, soundless as aracing ghost.

  Long Bess--there was good blood in her. She was as delicately limbed asan antelope, and her heart was as strong as the smooth muscles of hershoulders and hips. Yet to Buck Daniels her fastest gait seemed slowerthan a walk. Already his thoughts were flying far before. Already hestood before the ranch house calling to Dan Barry. Ay, at the very doorof the place they should meet and one of them must die. And better byfar that the blood of him who died should stain the hands of KateCumberland.

 
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