THE LONE RIDERS ENTERTAIN
When Lee Haines rode into Silent's camp that evening no questions were asked. Questions were not popular among the lone riders. He did not know more than the names of half the men who sat around the smoky fire. They were eager to forget the past, and the only allusions to former times came in chance phrases which they let fall at rare intervals. When they told an anecdote they erased all names by instinct. They would begin: "I heard about a feller over to the Circle Y outfit that was once ridin'—" etc. As a rule they themselves were "that feller over to the Circle Y outfit." Accordingly only a few grunts greeted Haines and yet he was far and away the most popular man in the group. Even solemn-eyed Jim Silent was partial to the handsome fellow.
"Heard the whistling today?" he asked.
Purvis shook his head and Terry Jordan allowed "as how it was most uncommon fortunate that this Barry feller didn't start his noise." After this Haines ate his supper in silence, his ear ready to catch the first sound of Kate's horse as it crashed through the willows and shrubs. Nevertheless it was Shorty Rhinehart who sprang to his feet first.
"They's a hoss there comin' among the willows!" he announced.
"Maybe it's Silent," remarked Haines casually.
"The chief don't make no such a noise. He picks his goin'," answered Hal Purvis.
The sound was quite audible now.
"They's been some crooked work," said Rhinehart excitedly. "Somebody's tipped off the marshals about where we're lyin'."
"All right," said Haines quietly, "you and I will investigate."
They started through the willows. Rhinehart was cursing beneath his breath.
"Don't be too fast with your six-gun," warned Haines.
"I'd rather be too early than too late."
"Maybe it isn't a marshal. If a man were looking for us he'd be a fool to come smashing along like that."
He had scarcely spoken when Kate came into view.
"A girl, by God!" said Rhinehart, with mingled relief and disgust.
"Sure thing," agreed Haines.
"Let's beat it back to the camp."
"Not a hope. She's headed straight for the camp. We'll take her in and tell her we're a bunch from the Y Circle X outfit headed north. She'll never know the difference."
"Good idea," said Rhinehart, and he added with a chuckle, "it's been nigh three months since I've talked to a piece of calico."
"Hey, there!" called Haines, and he stepped out with Rhinehart before her horse.
"Oh!" cried Kate, reining up her horse sharply. "Who are you?"
"A beaut!" muttered Rhinehart in devout admiration.
"We're from the Y Circle X outfit," said Haines glibly, "camping over here for the night. Are you lost, lady?"
"I guess I am. I thought I could get across the willows before the night fell. I'm trying to find a man who rode in this direction."
"Come on into the camp," said Haines easily. "Maybe some of the boys can put you on his track. What sort of a looking fellow is he?"
"Rides a black horse and whistles a good deal. His name is Barry. They call him Whistling Dan."
"By God!" whispered Rhinehart in the ear of Haines.
"Shut up!" answered Haines in the same tone. "Are you afraid of a girl?"
"I've trailed him south this far," went on Kate, "and a few miles away from here I lost track of him. I think he may have gone on across the willows."
"Haven't seen him," said Rhinehart amiably. "But come on to the camp, lady. Maybe one of the boys has spotted him on the way. What's your name?"
"Kate Cumberland," she answered.
He removed his hat with a broad grin and reached up a hand to her.
"I'm most certainly glad to meet you, an' my name's Shorty. This here is Lee. Want to come along with us?"
"Thank you. I'm a little worried."
"'S all right. Don't get worried. We'll show you the way out. Just follow us."
They started back through the willows, Kate following half a dozen yards behind.
"Listen here, Shorty," said Haines in a cautious voice. "You heard her name?"
"Well, that's the daughter of the man that raised Whistling Dan. I saw her at Morgan's place. She's probably been tipped off that he's following Silent, but she has no idea who we are."
"Sure she hasn't. She's a great looker, eh, Lee?"
"She'll do, I guess. Now get this: The girl is after Whistling Dan, and if she meets him she'll persuade him to come back to her father's place. She'll take him off our trail, and I guess none of us'll be sorry to know that he's gone, eh?"
"I begin to follow you, Lee. You've always had the head!"
"All right. Now we'll get Purvis to tell the girl that he's heard a peculiar whistling around here this evening. We'll advise her to stick around and go out when she hears the whistling again. That way she'll meet him and head him off, savvy?"
"Right," said Rhinehart.
"Then beat it ahead as fast as you can and wise up the boys."
"That's me—specially about their bein' Y Circle X fellers, eh?"
He chuckled and made ahead as fast as his long legs could carry him. Haines dropped back beside Kate.
"Everything goes finely," he assured her. "I told Rhinehart what to do. He's gone ahead to the camp. Now all you have to do is to keep your head. One of the boys will tell you that we've heard some whistling near the camp this evening. Then I'll ask you to stay around for a while in case the whistling should sound again, do you see? Remember, never ask a question!"
It was even more simple than Haines had hoped. Silent's men suspected nothing. After all, Kate's deception was a small affair, and her frankness, her laughter, and her beauty carried all before her.
The long riders became quickly familiar with her, but through their rough talk, the Westerners' reverence for a woman ran like a thread of gold over a dark cloth. Her fear lessened and almost passed away while she listened to their talk and watched their faces. The kindly human nature which had lain unexpressed in most of them for months together burst out torrent-like and flooded about her with a sense of security and power. These were conquerors of men, fighters by instinct and habit, but here they sat laughing and chattering with a helpless girl, and not a one of them but would have cut the others' throats rather than see her come to harm. The roughness of their past and the dread of their future they laid aside like an ugly cloak while they showed her what lies in the worst man's heart—a certain awe of woman. Their manners underwent a sudden change. Polite words, rusted by long disuse, were resurrected in her honour. Tremendous phrases came labouring forth. There was a general though covert rearranging of bandanas, and an interchange of self-conscious glances. Haines alone seemed impervious to her charm.
The red died slowly along the west. There was no light save the flicker of the fire, which played on Kate's smile and the rich gold of her hair, or caught out of the dark one of the lean, hard faces which circled her. Now and then it fell on the ghastly grin of Terry Jordan and Kate had to clench her hand to keep up her nerve.
It was deep night when Jim Silent rode into the clearing. Shorty Rhinehart and Hal Purvis went to him quickly to explain the presence of the girl and the fact that they were all members of the Y Circle X outfit. He responded with nods while his gloomy eyes held fast on Kate. When they presented him as the boss, Jim, he replied to her good-natured greeting in a voice that was half grunt and half growl.