The night horseman, p.4
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       The Night Horseman, p.4

          

  CHAPTER IV

  THE CHAIN

  They had hardly passed the front door of the house when they were met bya tall man with dark hair and dark, deep-set eyes. He was tanned to thebronze of an Indian, and he might have been termed handsome had not hisfeatures been so deeply cut and roughly finished. His black hair wasquite long, and as the wind from the opened door stirred it, there was atouch of wildness about the fellow that made the heart of Randall Byrnejump. When this man saw the girl his face lighted, briefly; when hisglance fell on Byrne the light went out.

  "Couldn't get the doc, Kate?" he asked.

  "Not Doctor Hardin," she answered, "and I've brought Doctor Byrneinstead."

  The tall man allowed his gaze to drift leisurely from head to foot ofRandall Byrne.

  Then: "H'ware you, doc?" he said, and extended a big hand. It occurredto Byrne that all these men of the mountain-desert were big; there wassomething intensely irritating about their mere physical size; theythrew him continually on the defensive and he found himself makingapologies to himself and summing up personal merits. In this case therewas more direct reason for his anger. It was patent that the man didnot weight the strange doctor against any serious thoughts.

  "And this," she was saying, "is Mr. Daniels. Buck, is there any change?"

  "Nothin' much," answered Buck Daniels. "Come along towards evening andhe said he was feeling kind of cold. So I wrapped him up in a rug. Thenhe sat some as usual, one hand inside of the other, looking steady atnothing. But a while ago he began getting sort of nervous."

  "What did he do?"

  "Nothing. I just _felt_ he was getting excited. The way you know whenyour hoss is going to shy."

  "Do you want to go to your room first, doctor, or will you go in to seehim now?"

  "Now," decided the doctor, and followed her down the hall and through adoor.

  The room reminded the doctor more of a New England interior than of themountain-desert. There was a round rag rug on the floor with everyimaginable colour woven into its texture, but blended with a rudedesign, reds towards the centre and blue-greys towards the edges. Therewere chairs upholstered in green which looked mouse-coloured where thehigh lights struck along the backs and the arms--shallow-seated chairsthat made one's knees project foolishly high and far. Byrne saw acabinet at one end of the room, filled with sea-shells and knicknacks,and above it was a memorial cross surrounded by a wreath inside a glasscase. Most of the wall space thronged with engravings whose subjectsranged from Niagara Falls to Lady Hamilton. One entire end of the roomwas occupied by a painting of a neck and neck finish in a race, and theartist had conceived the blooded racers as creatures with tremendousround hips and mighty-muscled shoulders, while the legs tapered to afaun-like delicacy. These animals were spread-eagled in the most amazingfashion, their fore-hoofs reaching beyond their noses and their rearhoofs striking out beyond the tips of the tails. The jockey in the leadsat quite still, but he who was losing had his whip drawn and lookedlike an automatic doll--so pink were his cheeks. Beside the course, inattitudes of graceful ease, stood men in very tight trousers and veryhigh stocks and ladies in dresses which pinched in at the waist andflowed out at the shoulders. They leaned upon canes or twirled parasolsand they had their backs turned upon the racetrack as if they foundtheir own negligent conversation far more exciting than the breathless,driving finish.

  Under the terrific action and still more terrific quiescence of thispicture lay the sick man, propped high on a couch and wrapped to thechest in a Navajo blanket.

  "Dad," said Kate Cumberland, "Doctor Hardin was not in town. I'vebrought out Doctor Byrne, a newcomer."

  The invalid turned his white head slowly towards them, and his shaggybrows lifted and fell slightly--a passing shadow of annoyance. It was avery stern face, and framed in the long, white hair it seemedsurrounded by an atmosphere of Arctic chill. He was thin, terriblythin--not the leanness of Byrne, but a grim emaciation which exaggeratedthe size of a tall forehead and made his eyes supernally bright. It wasin the first glance of those eyes that Byrne recognized the restlessnessof which Kate had spoken; and he felt almost as if it were an inner firewhich had burned and still was wasting the body of Joseph Cumberland. Tothe attentions of the doctor the old man submitted with patientself-control, and Byrne found a pulse feeble, rapid, but steady. Therewas no temperature. In fact, the heat of the body was a triflesub-normal, considering that the heart was beating so rapidly.

  Doctor Byrne started. Most of his work had been in laboratories, and thehorror of death was not yet familiar, but old Joseph Cumberland wasdying. It was not a matter of moment. Death might be a week or a monthaway, but die soon he inevitably must; for the doctor saw that the firewas still raging in the hollow breast of the cattleman, but there was nolonger fuel to feed it.

  He stared again, and more closely. Fire without fuel to feed it!

  Doctor Byrne gave what seemed to be an infinitely muffled cry ofexultation, so faint that it was hardly a whisper; then he leaned closerand pored over Joe Cumberland with a lighted eye. One might have thoughtthat the doctor was gloating over the sick man.

  Suddenly he straightened and began to pace up and down the room,muttering to himself. Kate Cumberland listened intently and she thoughtthat what the man muttered so rapidly, over and over to himself, was:"Eureka! Eureka! I have found it!"

  Found what? The triumph of mind over matter!

  On that couch was a dead body. The flutter of that heart was not thestrong beating of the normal organ; the hands were cold; even the bodywas chilled; yet the man lived.

  Or, rather, his brain lived, and compelled the shattered and outwornbody to comply with its will. Doctor Byrne turned and stared again atthe face of Cumberland. He felt as if he understood, now, the look whichwas concentrated so brightly on the vacant air. It was illumined by asteady and desperate defiance, for the old man was denying his body tothe grave.

  The scene changed for Randall Byrne. The girl disappeared. The walls ofthe room were broken away. The eyes of the world looked in upon him andthe wise men of the world kept pace with him up and down the room,shaking their heads and saying: "It is not possible!"

  But the fact lay there to contradict them.

  Prometheus stole fire from heaven and paid it back to an eternal death.The old cattleman was refusing his payment. It was no state of coma inwhich he lay; it was no prolonged trance. He was vitally, vividly alive;he was concentrating with a bitter and exhausting vigour day and night,and fighting a battle the more terrible because it was fought insilence, a battle in which he could receive no aid, no reinforcement, abattle in which he could not win, but in which he might delay defeat.

  Ay, the wise men would smile and shake their heads when he presentedthis case to their consideration, but he would make his account soaccurate and particular and so well witnessed that they would have toadmit the truth of all he said. And science, which proclaimed thatmatter was indestructible and that the mind was matter and that thebrain needed nourishment like any other muscle--science would have tohang the head and wonder!

  The eyes of the girl brought him to halt in his pacing, and he stopped,confronting her. His excitement had transformed him. His nostrils werequivering, his eyes were pointed with light, his head was high, and hebreathed fast. He was flushed as the Roman Conqueror. And his excitementtinged the girl, also, with colour.

  She offered to take him to his room as soon as he wished to go. He wasquite willing. He wanted to be alone, to think. But when he followed hershe stopped him in the hall. Buck Daniels lumbered slowly after them ina clumsy attempt at sauntering.

  "Well?" asked Kate Cumberland.

  She had thrown a blue mantle over her shoulders when she entered thehouse, and the touch of boyish self-confidence which had been hers onthe ride was gone. In its place there was something even more difficultfor Randall Byrne to face. If there had been a garish brightness abouther when he had first seen her, the brilliancy of a mirror playing inthe sun against his feeble eyes, there was now a blending of pastelshades, for the hall was dimly illumined and the shadow tarnished herhair and her pallor was like cold stone; even her eyes were misted byfear. Yet a vital sense of her nearness swept upon Byrne, and he felt asif he were surrounded--by a danger.

  "Opinions," said the doctor, "based on so summary an examination arenecessarily inexact, yet the value of a first impression is notnegligible. The best I can say is that there is probably no immediatedanger, but Mr. Cumberland is seriously ill. Furthermore, it is _not_old age."

  He would not say all he thought; it was not yet time.

  She winced and clasped her hands tightly together. She was like a childabout to be punished for a crime it has not committed, and it camevaguely to the doctor that he might have broached his ill tidings moregently.

  He added: "I must have further opportunities for observance before Igive a detailed opinion and suggest a treatment."

  Her glance wandered past him and at once the heavy step of Buck Danielsapproached.

  "At least," she murmured, "I am glad that you are frank. I don't want tohave anything kept from me, please. Buck, will you take the doctor up tohis room?" She managed a faint smile. "This is an old-fashioned house,Doctor Byrne, but I hope we can make you fairly comfortable. You'll askfor whatever you need?"

  The doctor bowed, and was told that they would dine in half an hour,then the girl went back towards the room in which Joe Cumberland lay.She walked slowly, with her head bent, and her posture seemed to Byrnethe very picture of a burden-bearer. Then he followed Daniels up thestairs, led by the jingling of the spurs, great-rowelled spurs thatmight grip the side of a refractory horse like teeth.

  A hall-light guided them, and from the hall Buck Daniels entered a roomand fumbled above him until he had lighted a lamp which was suspended bytwo chains from the ceiling, a circular burner which cast a glow as keenas an electric globe. It brought out every detail of the old-fashionedroom--the bare, painted floor; the bed, in itself a separate andimportant piece of architecture with its four tall posts, a relic of thetimes when beds were built, not simply made; and there was a chest ofdrawers with swelling, hospitable front, and a rectangular mirror abovewith its date in gilt paint on the upper edge. A rising wind shook thewindow and through some crack stirred the lace curtains; it was a verycomfortable retreat, and the doctor became aware of aching muscles and aheavy brain when he glanced at the bed.

  The same gust of wind which rattled the window-pane now pushed, as withinvisible and ghostly hand, a door which opened on the side of thebedroom, and as it swung mysteriously and gradually wide the doctorfound himself looking into an adjoining chamber. All he could seeclearly was a corner on which struck the shaft of light from the lamp,and lying on the floor in that corner was something limp and brown. Asnake, he surmised at first, but then he saw clearly that it was a chainof formidable proportions bolted against the wall at one end andterminating at the other in a huge steel collar. A chill started in theboots of the doctor and wriggled its uncomfortable way up to his head.

  "Hell!" burst out Buck Daniels. "How'd _that_ door get open?" He slammedit with violence. "She's been in there again, I guess," muttered thecowpuncher, as he stepped back, scowling.

  "Who?" ventured the doctor.

  Buck Daniels whirled on him.

  "None of your--" he began hotly, but checked himself with chokingsuddenness and strode heavily from the room.

 
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