The night horseman, p.6
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       The Night Horseman, p.6

          

  CHAPTER VI

  THE MISSION STARTS

  Then, with a shifting of the wind, a song was blown to them from thebunk-house, a cheerful, ringing chorus; the sound was like daylight--itdrove the terror from the room. Joe Cumberland asked them to leave him.That night, he said, he would sleep. He felt it, like a promise. Theother three went out from the room.

  In the hall Kate and Daniels stood close together under a faint lightfrom the wall-lamp, and they talked as if they had forgotten thepresence of Byrne.

  "It had to come," she said. "I knew it would come to him sooner orlater, but I didn't dream it would be as terrible as this. Buck, whatare we going to do?"

  "God knows," said the big cowpuncher. "Just wait, I s'pose, same aswe've been doing."

  He had aged wonderfully in that moment of darkness.

  "He'll be happy now for a few days," went on the girl, "butafterwards--when he realises that it means nothing--what then, Buck?"

  The man took her hands and began to pat them softly as a father mightsoothe a child.

  "I seen you when the wind come in," he said gently. "Are you going tostand it, Kate? Is it going to be hell for you, too, every time you hear'em?"

  She answered: "If it were only I! Yes, I could stand it. Lately I'vebegun to think that I can stand anything. But when I see Dad it breaksmy heart--and you--oh, Buck, it hurts, it hurts!" She drew his handsimpulsively against her breast. "If it were only something we couldfight outright!"

  Buck Daniels sighed.

  "Fight?" he echoed hopelessly. "Fight? Against him? Kate, you're alltired out. Go to bed, honey, and try to stop thinkin'--and--God help usall!"

  She turned away from him and passed the doctor--blindly.

  Buck Daniels had set his foot on the stairs when Byrne hurried after himand touched his arm; they went up together.

  "Mr. Daniels," said the doctor, "it is necessary that I speak with you,alone. Will you come into my room for a few moments?"

  "Doc," said the cattleman, "I'm short on my feed and I don't feel a pilelike talkin'. Can't you wait till the morning?"

  "There has been a great deal too much waiting, Mr. Daniels," said thedoctor. "What I have to say to you must be said now. Will you come in?"

  "I will," nodded Buck Daniels. "But cut it short."

  Once in his room the doctor lighted the lamp and then locked the door.

  "What's all the mystery and hush stuff?" growled Daniels, and with agesture he refused the proffered chair. "Cut loose, doc, and make itshort."

  The little man sat down, removed his glasses, held them up to the light,found a speck upon them, polished it carefully away, replaced thespectacles upon his nose, and peered thoughtfully at Buck Daniels.

  Buck Daniels rolled his eyes towards the door and then even towards thewindow, and then, as one who accepts the inevitable, he sank into achair and plunged his hands into his pockets, prepared to endure.

  "I am called," went on the doctor dryly, "to examine a case in which thepatient is dangerously ill--in fact, hopelessly ill, and I have foundthat the cause of his illness is a state of nervous expectancy on thepart of the sufferer. It being obviously necessary to know the nature ofthe disease and its cause before that cause may be removed, I have askedyou to sit here this evening to give me whatever explanation you mayhave for it."

  Buck Daniels stirred uneasily. At length he broke out: "Doc, I size youup as a gent with brains. I got one piece of advice for you: get thehell away from the Cumberland Ranch and never come back again!"

  The doctor flushed and his lean jaw thrust out.

  "Although," he said, "I cannot pretend to be classed among those to whomphysical fear is an unknown, yet I wish to assure you, sir, that with mephysical trepidation is not an overruling motive."

  "Oh, hell!" groaned Buck Daniels. Then he explained more gently: "Idon't say you're yellow. All I say is: this mess ain't one that you canstraighten out--nor no other man can. Give it up, wash your hands, andgit back to Elkhead. I dunno what Kate was thinkin' of to bring you outhere!"

  "The excellence of your intention," said the doctor, "I shall freelyadmit, though the assumption that difficulty in the essential problemwould deter me from the analysis is an hypothesis which I cannot leaveuncontested. In the vulgar, I may give you to understand that I am inthis to stay!"

  Buck Daniels started to speak, but thinking better of it he shrugged hisshoulders and sat back, resigned.

  "Well," he said, "Kate brought you out here. Maybe she has a reason forit. What d'you want to know?"

  "What connection," said the doctor, "have wild geese with a man, ahorse, and a dog?"

  "What in hell d'you know about a horse and a man and a dog--and wildgeese?" inquired Buck in a strained voice.

  "Rumour," said the doctor, "has been in this instance, unfortunately, myonly teacher. But, sir, I have ascertained that Mr. Cumberland, hisdaughter, and you, sir, are all waiting for a certain thing to come tothis ranch, and that thing I naturally assume to be a man."

  "Doc," said the cowpuncher sarcastically, "there ain't no doubt you gota wonderful brain!"

  "Mockery," pronounced the man of learning, "is a use of the mentalpowers which is both unworthy and barren and does not in this caseadvance the argument, which is: Who and what is this man for whom youwait?"

  "He came," said Buck Daniels, "out of nowhere. That's all we know aboutwho he is. What is he? I'll tell you easy: He's a gent that looks like aman, and walks like a man, and talks like a man--but he _ain't_ a man."

  "Ah," nodded the philosopher, "a crime of extraordinary magnitude has,perhaps, cut off this unfortunate fellow from communication with othersof his kind. Is this the case?"

  "It ain't," replied Buck. "Doc, tell me this: Can a wolf commit acrime?"

  "Admitting this definition: that crime is the breaking of law, and thatlaw is a force created by reason to control the rational, it may begranted that the acts of the lower animals lie outside of categoriesframed according to ethical precepts. To directly answer your notincurious question: I believe that a wolf cannot commit a crime."

  Buck Daniels sighed.

  "D'you know, doc," he said gravely, "that you remind me of a side-hillgoat?"

  "Ah," murmured the man of learning, "is it possible? And what, Mr.Daniels, is the nature of a side-hill goat?"

  "It's a goat that's got the legs of one side shorter than the legs onthe other side, and the only way he can get to the top of a hill is tokeep trottin' around and around the hill like a five per cent. grade. Hegoes a mile to get ten feet higher."

  "This fact," said Byrne, and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "is notwithout interest, though I fail to perceive the relation between me andsuch a creature, unless, perhaps, there are biologic similarities ofwhich I have at present no cognition."

  "I didn't think you'd follow me," replied Buck with an equal gravity."But you can lay to this, Doc; this gent we're waitin' for ain'tcommitted any more crimes than a wolf has."

  "Ah, I see," murmured the doctor, "a man so near the brute that hisenormities pass beyond--"

  "Get this straight," said Buck, interrupting with a sternly pointedfinger: "There ain't a kinder or a gentler man in the mountain-desertthan him. He's got a voice softer than Kate Cumberland's, which is somesoft voice, and as for his heart--Doc, I've seen him get off his horseto put a wounded rabbit out of its pain!"

  A ring of awe came in the throat of Daniels as he repeated theincredible fact.

  He went on: "If I was in trouble, I'd rather have him beside me than tenother men; if I was sick I'd rather have him than the ten best doctorsin the world; if I wanted a pal that would die for them that done himgood and go to hell to get them that done him bad, I'd choose him first,and there ain't none that come second."

  The panegyric was not a burst of imagination. Buck Daniels was speakingseriously, hunting for words, and if he used superlatives it was becausehe needed them.

  "Extraordinary!" murmured the doctor, and he repeated the word in alouder tone. It was a rare word for him; in all his scholastic careerand in all of his scientific investigations he had found occasion to useso strong a term not more than half a dozen times at the most. He wenton, cautiously, and his weak eyes blinked at Daniels: "And there is arelation between this man and a horse and dog?"

  Buck Daniels shuddered and his colour changed.

  "Listen!" he said, "I've talked enough. You ain't going to get anotherword out of me except this: Doc, have a good sleep, get on your hossto-morrow mornin', and beat it. Don't even wait for breakfast. Because,if you _do_ wait, you may get a hand in this little hell of ours. Youmay be waiting, too!" A sudden thought brought him to his feet. He stoodover the doctor. "How many times," he thundered, "have you seen KateCumberland?"

  "To-day, for the first time."

  "Well," said Daniels, growling with relief, "you've seen her enough. I_know_." And he turned towards the door. "Unlock," he commanded. "I'mtired out--and sick--of talking about _him_."

  But the doctor did not move.

  "Nevertheless," he stated, "you will remain. There is something furtherwhich you know and which you will communicate to me."

  Buck Daniels turned at the door; his face was not pleasant.

  "While observing you as you talked with the girl," Byrne said, "itoccurred to me that you were holding information from her. The exactnature of that information I cannot state, but it is reasonable todeduce that you could, at the present moment, name the place where theman for whom Mr. Cumberland and his daughter wait is now located."

  Buck Daniels made no reply, but he returned to his chair and slumpedheavily into it, staring at the little doctor. And Byrne realised with athrill of pleasure that he was not afraid of death.

  "I may further deduct," said the doctor, "that you will go in person tothe place where you know this man may be found and induce him to come tothis ranch."

  The silent anger of Daniels died away. He smiled, and at length helaughed without mirth.

  "Doc," he said, "if you knew where there was a gun, would that make youwant to put it up agin your head and pull the trigger?"

  But the doctor proceeded inexorably with his deductions: "Because youare aware, Mr. Daniels, that the presence of this man may save the lifeof Mr. Cumberland, a thought, to be sure, which might not be accepted bythe medical fraternity, but which may without undue exaggerationdevolve from the psychological situation in this house."

  "Doc," said Daniels huskily, "you talk straight, and you act straight,and I think you are straight, so I'll take off the bridle and talk free.I know where Whistling Dan is--just about. But if I was to go to him andbring him here I'd bust the heart of Kate Cumberland. D'you understand?"His voice lowered with an intense emotion. "I've thought it out sidewaysand backwards. It's Kate or old Joe. Which is the most important?"

  The doctor straightened in the chair, polished his glasses, and peeredonce more at the cowpuncher.

  "You are quite sure, also, that the return of this man, this strangewanderer, might help Mr. Cumberland back to health?"

  "I am, all right. He's sure wrapped up in Whistlin' Dan."

  "What is the nature of their relations; what makes him so oddlydependent upon the other?"

  "I dunno, doc. It's got us all fooled. When Dan is here it seems likeold Cumberland jest nacherally lives on the things Dan does and hearsand sees. We've seen Cumberland prick up his ears the minute Dan comesinto the room, and show life. Sometimes Dan sits with him and tells himwhat he's been doin'--maybe it ain't any more than how the sky looksthat day, or about the feel of the wind--but Joe sits with his eyesdreamin', like a little kid hearin' fairy stories. Kate says it's beenthat way since her dad first brought Dan in off'n the range. He's beensort of necessary to old Joe--almost like air to breathe. I tell you,it's jest a picture to see them two together."

  "Very odd, very odd," brooded the doctor, frowning, "but this seems tobe an odd place and an odd set of people. You've no real idea why Danleft the ranch?"

  "Ask the wild geese," said Buck bitterly. He added: "Maybe you'd betterask Dan's black hoss or his dog, Bart. They'd know better'n anythingelse."

  "But what has the man been doing since he left? Have you any idea?"

  "Get a little chatter, now and then, of a gent that's rid into a town ona black hoss, prettier'n anything that was ever seen before.

  "It's all pretty much the same, what news we get. Mostly I guess he jestwanders around doin' no harm to nobody. But once in a while somebodysicks a dog on Bart, and Bart jest nacherally chaws that dog in two.Then the owner of the dog may start a fight, and Dan drops him and rideson."

  "With a trail of dead men behind him?" cried the doctor, hunching hisshoulders as if to shake off a chill.

  "Dead? Nope. You don't have to shoot to kill when you can handle a gunthe way Dan does. Nope, he jest wings 'em. Plants a chunk of lead in ashoulder, or an arm, or a leg. That's all. They ain't no love of bloodin Dan--except-----"

  "Well?"

  "Doc," said Buck with a shudder, "I ain't goin' to talk about theexceptions. Mostly the news we gets of Dan is about troubles he's had.But sometimes we hear of gents he's helped out when they was sick, andthings like that. They ain't nobody like Dan when a gent is down sick,I'll tell a man!"

  The doctor sighed.

  He said: "And do I understand you to say that the girl and thisman--Whistling Dan, as you call him--are intimately and sentimentallyrelated?"

  "She loves him," said Daniels slowly. "She loves the ground he walks onand the places where he's been."

  "But, sir, it would seem probable from your own reasoning that thereturn of the man, in this case, will not be unwelcome to her."

  "Reason?" broke out Daniels bitterly. "What the hell has reason got todo with Whistling Dan? Man, man! if Barry was to come back d'you supposehe'd remember that he'd once told Kate he loved her? Doc, I know him asnear as any man can know him. I tell you, he thinks no more of herthan--than the wild geese think of her. If old Joe dies because Dan isaway--well, Cumberland is an old man anyway. But how could I stand tosee Barry pass Kate by with an empty eye, the way he'd do if he comeback? I'd want to kill him, and I'd get bumped off tryin' it, like asnot. And what would it do to Kate? It'd kill her, Doc, as sure as you'reborn."

  "Your assumption being," murmured the doctor, "that if she never seesthe man again she will eventually forget him."

  "D'you forget a knife that's sticking into you? No, she won't forgethim. But maybe after a while she'll be able to stand thinkin' about him.She'll get used to the hurt. She'll be able to talk and laugh the wayshe used to. Oh, doc, if you could of seen her as I've seen her in theold days----"

  "When the man was with her?" cut in the doctor.

  Buck Daniels caught his breath.

  "Damn your eternal soul, doc!" he said softly.

  And for a time neither of them spoke. Whatever went on in the mind ofDaniels, it was something that contorted his face. As for Byrne, he wastrying to match fact and possibility and he was finding a large gapbetween the two; for he tried to visualise the man whose presence hadbeen food to old Joe Cumberland, and whose absence had taken the oilfrom the lamp so that the flame now flickered dimly, nearly out. But hecould build no such picture. He could merely draw together a vagueabstraction of a man to whom the storm and the wild geese who ride thestorm had meaning and relationship. The logic which he loved wasbreaking to pieces in the hands of Randall Byrne.

  Silence, after all, is only a name, never a fact. There are noises inthe most absolute quiet. If there is not even the sound of the cricketor the wind, if there are not even ghost whispers in the house, there isthe sigh of one's own breathing, and in those moments of deadly waitingthe beat of the heart may be as loud and as awful as the rattle of thedeath-march. Now, between the doctor and the cowpuncher, such a silencebegan. Buck Daniels wanted nothing more in the world than to be out ofthat room, but the eye of the doctor held him, unwilling. And therebegan once more that eternal waiting, waiting, waiting, which was thehorror of the place, until the faint creakings through the windshakenhouse took on the meaning of footsteps stalking down the hall andpausing at the door, and there was the hushing breath of one wholistened and smiled to himself! Now the doctor became aware that the eyeof Buck Daniels was widening, brightening; it was as if the mind of thebig man were giving way in the strain. His face blanched. Even the lipshad no colour, and they moved, gibberingly.

  "Listen!" he said.

  "It is the wind," answered the doctor, but his voice was hardly audible.

  "Listen!" commanded Daniels again.

  The doctor could hear it then. It was a pulse of sound obscure as thethudding of his heart. But it was a human sound and it made his throatclose up tightly, as if a hand were settling around his wind-pipe. BuckDaniels rose from his chair; that half-mad, half-listening look wasstill in his eyes--behind his eyes. Staring at him the doctorunderstood, intimately, how men can throw their lives away gloriously inbattle, fighting for an idea; or how they can commit secret and foulmurder. Yet he was more afraid of that pulse of sound than of the faceof Buck Daniels. He, also, was rising from his chair, and when Danielsstalked to the side door of the room and leaned there, the doctorfollowed.

  Then they could hear it clearly. There was a note of music in the voice;it was a woman weeping in that room where the chain lay on the floor,coiled loosely like a snake. Buck Daniels straightened and moved awayfrom the door. He began to laugh, guarding it so that not a whispercould break outside the room, and his silent laughter was the mosthorrible thing the doctor had ever seen. It was only for a moment. Thehysteria passed and left the big man shaking like a dead leaf.

  "Doc," he said, "I can't stand it no longer. I'm going out and try toget him back here. And God forgive me for it."

  He left the room, slamming the door behind him, and then he stamped downthe hall as if he were trying to make a companion out of his noise.Doctor Randall Byrne sat down to put his thoughts in order. He began atthe following point: "The physical fact is not; only the immaterial is."But before he had carried very far his deductions from this premise, hecaught the neighing of a horse near the house; so he went to the windowand threw it open. At the same time he heard the rattle of gallopinghoofs, and then he saw a horseman riding furiously into the heart of thewind. Almost at once the rider was lost from sight.

 
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