Haines muttered at Kate's ear: "This is the man. Now keep up your courage."
"He doesn't like this," went on Haines in the same muffled voice, "but when he understands just why you're here I think he'll be as glad as any of us."
Silent beckoned to him and he went to the chief.
"What about the girl?" asked the big fellow curtly.
"Didn't Rhinehart tell you?"
"Rhinehart's a fool and so are the rest of them. Have you gone loco too, Haines, to let a girl come here?"
"Where's the harm?"
"Why, damn it, she's marked every man here."
"I let her in because she is trying to get hold of Whistling Dan."
"Which no fool girl c'n take that feller off the trail. Nothin' but lead can do that."
"I tell you," said Haines, "the boy's in love with her. I watched them at Morgan's place. She can twist him around her finger."
A faint light broke the gloom of Silent's face.
"Yaller hair an' blue eyes. They c'n do a lot. Maybe you're right. What's that?" His voice had gone suddenly husky.
A russet moon pushed slowly up through the trees. Its uncertain light fell across the clearing. For the first time the thick pale smoke of the fire was visible, rising straight up until it cleared the tops of the willows, and then caught into swift, jagging lines as the soft wind struck it. A coyote wailed from the distant hills, and before his complaint was done another sound came through the hushing of the willows, a melancholy whistling, thin with distance.
"We'll see if that's the man you want," suggested Haines.
"I'll go along," said Shorty Rhinehart.
"And me too," said a third. The whole group would have accompanied them, but the heavy voice of Jim Silent cut in: "You'll stay here, all of you except the girl and Lee."
They turned back, muttering, and Kate followed Haines into the willows.
"Well?" growled Bill Kilduff.
"What I want to know—" broke in Terry Jordan.
"Go to hell with your questions," said Silent, "but until you go there you'll do what I say, understand?"
"Look here, Jim," said Hal Purvis, "are you a king an' we jest your slaves, maybe?"
"You're goin' it a pile too hard," said Shorty Rhinehart.
Every one of these speeches came sharply out while they glared at Jim Silent. Hands were beginning to fall to the hip and fingers were curving stiffly as if for the draw. Silent leaned his broad shoulders against the side of his roan and folded his arms. His eyes went round the circle slowly, lingering an instant on each face. Under that cold stare they grew uneasy. To Shorty Rhinehart it became necessary to push back his hat and scratch his forehead. Terry Jordan found a mysterious business with his bandana. Every one of them had occasion to raise his hand from the neighbourhood of his six-shooter. Silent smiled.
"A fine, hard crew you are," he said sarcastically at last. "A great bunch of lone riders, lettin' a slip of a yaller-haired girl make fools of you. You over there—you, Shorty Rhinehart, you'd cut the throat of a man that looked crosswise at the Cumberland girl, wouldn't you? An' you, Purvis, you're aching to get at me, ain't you? An' you're still thinkin' of them blue eyes, Jordan?"
Before any one could speak he poured in another volley between wind and water: "One slip of a girl can make fools out of five lone riders? No, you ain't lone riders. All you c'n handle is hobby hosses!"
"What do you want us to do?" growled swarthy Bill Kilduff.
"Keep your face shut while I'm talkin', that's what I want you to do!"
There was a devil of rage in his eyes. His folded arms tugged at each other, and if they got free there would be gun play. The four men shrank, and he was satisfied.
"Now I'll tell you what we're goin' to do," he went on. "We're goin' out after Haines an' the girl. If they come up with this Whistlin' Dan we're goin' to surround him an' fill him full of lead, while they're talkin'."
"Not for a million dollars!" burst in Hal Purvis.
"Not in a thousan' years!" echoed Terry Jordan.
Silent turned his watchful eyes from one to the other. They were ready to fight now, and he sensed it at once.
"Why?" he asked calmly.
"It ain't playin' square with the girl," announced Rhinehart.
"Purvis," said Silent, for he knew that the opposition centred in the figure of the venomous little gun fighter; "if you seen a mad dog that was runnin' straight at you, would you be kep' from shootin' it because a pretty girl hollered out an' asked you not to?"
Their eyes shifted rapidly from one to another, seeking a way out, and finding none.
"An' is there any difference between this hero Whistlin' Dan an' a mad dog?"
Still they were mute.
"I tell you, boys, we got a better chance of dodgin' lightnin' an' puttin' a bloodhound off our trail than we have of gettin' rid of this Whistlin' Dan. An' when he catches up with us—well, all I'm askin' is that you remember what he done to them four dollars before they hit the dust?"
"The chief's right," growled Kilduff, staring down at the ground. "It's Whistlin' Dan or us. The mountains ain't big enough to hold him an' us!"
Before Whistling Dan the great wolf glided among the trees. For a full hour they had wandered through the willows in this manner, and Dan had made up his mind to surrender the search when Bart, returning from one of his noiseless detours, sprang out before his master and whined softly. Dan turned, loosening his revolver in the holster, and followed Bart through the soft gloom of the tree shadows and the moonlight. His step was almost as silent as that of the slinking animal which went before. At last the wolf stopped and raised his head. Almost instantly Dan saw a man and a woman approaching through the willows. The moonlight dropped across her face. He recognized Kate, with Lee Haines walking a pace before her.
"Stand where you are," he said.
Haines leaped to one side, his revolver flashing in his hand. Dan stepped out before them while Black Bart slunk close beside him, snarling softly.
He seemed totally regardless of the gun in Haines's hand. His manner was that of a conqueror who had the outlaw at his mercy.
"You," he said, "walk over there to the side of the clearing."
"Dan!" cried Kate, as she went to him with extended arms.
He stopped her with a gesture, his eyes upon Haines, who had moved away.
"Watch him, Bart," said Dan.
The black wolf ran to Haines and crouched snarling at his feet. The outlaw restored his revolver to his holster and stood with his arms folded, his back turned. Dan looked to Kate. At the meeting of their eyes she shrank a little. She had expected a difficult task in persuading him, but not this hard aloofness. She felt suddenly as if she were a stranger to him.
"How do you come here—with him?"
"He is my friend!"
"You sure pick a queer place to go walkin' with him."
"Hush, Dan! He brought me here to find you!"
"He brought you here?"
"Don't you understand?"
"When I want a friend like him, I'll go huntin' for him myself; an' I'll pack a gun with me!"
That flickering yellow light played behind Dan's eyes.
"I looked into his face—an' he stared the other way."
She made a little imploring gesture, but his hand remained on his hips, and there was no softening of his voice.
"What fetched you here?"
Every word was like a hand that pushed her farther away.
"Are you dumb, Kate? What fetched you here?"
"I have come to bring you home, Dan."
"I'm home now."
"What do you mean?"
"There's the roof of my house," he jerked his hand towards the sky, "the mountain passes are my doors—an' the earth is my floor."
"No! no! We are waiting for you at the ranch."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Dan, this wild trail has no end."
"Maybe, but I know that feller can show me the way to Jim Silent, an' now——"
He turned towards Haines as he spoke, but here a low, venomous snarl from Black Bart checked his words. Kate saw him stiffen—his lips parted to a faint smile—his head tilted back a little as if he listened intently, though she could hear nothing. She was not a yard from him, and yet she felt a thousand miles away. His head turned full upon her, and she would never forget the yellow light of his eyes.
"Dan!" she cried, but her voice was no louder than a whisper.
"Delilah!" he said, and leaped back into the shade of the willows.
Even as he sprang she saw the flash of the moonlight on his drawn revolver, and fire spat from it twice, answered by a yell of pain, the clang of a bullet on metal, and half a dozen shots from the woods behind her.
That word "Delilah!" rang in her brain to the exclusion of all the world. Vaguely she heard voices shouting—she turned a little and saw Haines facing her with his revolver in his hand, but prevented from moving by the wolf who crouched snarling at his feet. The order of his master kept him there even after that master was gone. Now men ran out into the clearing. A keen whistle sounded far off among the willows, and the wolf leaped away from his prisoner and into the shadows on the trail of Dan.
Tex Calder prided himself on being a light sleeper. Years spent in constant danger enabled him to keep his sense of hearing alert even when he slept. He had never been surprised. It was his boast that he never would be. Therefore when a hand dropped lightly on his shoulder he started erect from his blankets with a curse and grasped his revolver. A strong grip on his wrist paralysed his fingers. Whistling Dan leaned above him.
"Wake up," said the latter.
"What the devil—" breathed the marshal. "You travel like a cloud shadow, Dan. You make no sound."
"Wake up and talk to me."
"I'm awake all right. What's happened?"
There was a moment of silence while Dan seemed to be trying for speech.
Black Bart, at the other side of the clearing, pointed his nose at the yellow moon and wailed. He was very close, but the sound was so controlled that it seemed to come at a great distance from some wild spirit wandering between earth and heaven.
Instead of speaking Dan jumped to his feet and commenced pacing up and down, up and down, a rapid, tireless stride; at his heels the wolf slunk, with lowered head and tail. The strange fellow was in some great trouble, Calder could see, and it stirred him mightily to know that the wild man had turned to him for help. Yet he would ask no questions.
When in doubt the cattleman rolls a cigarette, and that was what Calder did. He smoked and waited. At last the inevitable came.
"How old are you, Tex?"
"That's a good deal. You ought to know something."
"Ah!" said Calder.
"Bronchos is cut out chiefly after one pattern," went on Dan. "They's chiefly jest meanness. Are women the same—jest cut after one pattern?"
"What pattern, Dan?"
"The pattern of Delilah! They ain't no trust to be put in 'em?"
"A good many of us have found that out."
"I thought one woman was different from the rest."
"We all think that. Woman in particular is divine; woman in general is—hell!"
"Ay, but this one—" He stopped and set his teeth.
"What has she done?"
"She—" he hesitated, and when he spoke again his voice did not tremble; there was a deep hurt and wonder in it: "She double-crossed me!"
"When? Do you mean to say you've met a woman tonight out here among the willows?— Where—how——"
"It is now. But you'll forget her! The mountains, the desert, and above all, time—they'll cure you, my boy."
"Not in a whole century, Tex."
Calder waited curiously for the explanation. It came.
"Jest to think of her is like hearing music. Oh, God, Tex, what c'n I do to fight agin this here cold feelin' at my heart?"
Dan slipped down beside the marshal and the latter dropped a sympathetic hand over the lean, brown fingers. They returned the pressure with a bone-crushing grip.
"Fight, Dan! It will make you forget her."
"Her skin is softer'n satin, Tex."
"Ay, but you'll never touch it again, Dan."
"Her eyes are deeper'n a pool at night an' her hair is all gold like ripe corn."
"You'll never look into her eyes again, Dan, and you'll never touch the gold of that hair."
The word was hardly more than a whisper, but it brought Black Bart leaping to his feet.
Dan spoke again: "Tex, I'm thankin' you for listenin' to me; I wanted to talk. Bein' silent was burnin' me up. There's one thing more."
"Fire it out, lad."
"This evenin' I told you I hated no man but Jim Silent."
"An' now they's another of his gang. Sometime—when she's standin' by—I'm goin' to take him by the throat till he don't breathe no more. Then I'll throw him down in front of her an' ask her if she c'n kiss the life back into his lips!"
Calder was actually shaking with excitement, but he was wise enough not to speak.
"But when I've choked his damned life away——"
"There'll be five more that seen her shamin' me. Tex—all hell is bustin' loose inside me!"
For a moment Calder watched, but that stare of cold hate mastered him. He turned his head.