THE CROSS ROADS
As Black Bart raced away in answer to Dan's whistle, Kate recovered herself from the daze in which she stood and with a sob ran towards the willows, calling the name of Dan, but Silent sprang after her, and caught her by the arm. She cried out and struggled vainly in his grip.
"Don't follow him, boys!" called Silent. "He's a dog that can bite while he runs. Stand quiet, girl!"
Lee Haines caught him by the shoulder and jerked Silent around. His hand held the butt of his revolver, and his whole arm trembled with eagerness for the draw.
"Take your hand from her, Jim!" he said.
Silent met his eye with the same glare and while his left hand still held Kate by both her wrists his right dropped to his gun.
"Not when you tell me, Lee!"
"Damn you, I say let her go!"
"By God, Haines, I stand for too much from you!"
And still they did not draw, because each of them knew that if the crisis came it would mean death to them both. Bill Kilduff jumped between them and thrust them back.
He cried, "Ain't we got enough trouble without roundin' up work at home? Terry Jordan is shot through the arm."
Kate tugged at the restraining hand of Silent, not in an attempt to escape, but in order to get closer to Haines.
"Was this your friendship?" she said, her voice shaking with hate and sorrow, "to bring me here as a lure for Whistling Dan? Listen to me, all of you! He's escaped you now, and he'll come again. Remember him, for he shan't forget you!"
"You hear her?" said Silent to Haines.
"Is this what you want me to turn loose?"
"Silent," said Haines, "it isn't the girl alone you've double crossed. You've crooked me, and you'll pay me for it sooner or later!"
"Day or night, winter or summer, I'm willing to meet you an' fight it out. Rhinehart and Purvis, take this girl back to the clearing!"
They approached, Purvis still staring at the hand from which only a moment before his gun had been knocked by the shot of Whistling Dan. It was a thing which he could not understand—he had not yet lost a most uncomfortable sense of awe. Haines made no objection when they went off, with Kate walking between them. He knew, now that his blind anger had left him, that it was folly to draw on a fight while the rest of Silent's men stood around them.
"An' the rest of you go back to the clearin'. I got somethin' to talk over with Lee," said Silent.
The others obeyed without question, and the leader turned back to his lieutenant. For a moment longer they remained staring at each other. Then Silent moved slowly forward with outstretched hand.
"Lee," he said quietly, "I'm owin' you an apology an' I'm man enough to make it."
"I can't take your hand, Jim."
"I guess you got cause to be mad, Lee," he said. "Maybe I played too quick a hand. I didn't think about double crossin' you. I only seen a way to get Whistlin' Dan out of our path, an' I took it without rememberin' that you was the safeguard to the girl."
Haines eyed his chief narrowly.
"I wish to God I could read your mind," he said at last, "but I'll take your word that you did it without thinking."
His hand slowly met Silent's.
"An' what about the girl now, Lee?"
"I'll send her back to her father's ranch. It will be easy to put her on the right way."
"Don't you see no reason why you can't do that?"
"Are you playing with me?"
"I'm talkin' to you as I'd talk to myself. If she's loose she'll describe us all an' set the whole range on our trail."
Silent went on: "If we can't turn her loose, they's only one thing left—an' that's to take her with us wherever we go."
"On your honour, do you see no other way out?"
"She may promise not to speak of it."
"There ain't no way of changin' the spots of a leopard, Lee, an' there ain't no way of keepin' a woman's tongue still."
"How can we take a girl with us."
"It ain't goin' to be for long. After we pull the job that comes on the eighteenth, we'll blow farther south an' then we'll let her go."
"And no harm will come to her while she's with us?"
"Here's my hand on it, Lee."
"How can she ride with us?"
"She won't go as a woman. I've thought of that. I brought out a new outfit for Purvis from Elkhead—trousers, chaps, shirts, an' all. He's small. They'll near fit the girl."
"There isn't any other way, Jim?"
"I leave it to you. God knows I don't want to drag any damn calico aroun' with us."
As they went back towards their clearing they arranged the details. Silent would take the men aside and explain his purpose to them. Haines could inform the girl of what she must do. Just before they reached the camp Silent stopped short and took Haines by the shoulder.
"They's one thing I can't make out, Lee, an' that's how Whistlin' Dan made his getaway. I'd of bet a thousand bones that he would be dropped before he could touch his shootin' irons. An' then what happened? Hal Purvis jest flashed a gun—and that feller shot it out'n his hand. I never seen a draw like that. His hand jest seemed to twitch—I couldn't follow the move he made—an' the next second his gun went off."
He stared at Lee with a sort of fascinated horror.
"Silent," said Haines, "can you explain how the lightning comes down out of the sky?"
"Of course not."
"Then don't ask me to explain how Whistling Dan made his getaway. One minute I heard him talkin' with the girl. The next second there was two shots and when I whirled he was gone. But he'll come back, Jim. We're not through with him. He slipped away from you and your men like water out of a sieve, but we won't slip away from him the same way."
Silent stared on again with bowed head.
"He liked the girl, Lee?"
"Any one could see that."
"Then while she's with us he'll go pretty slow. Lee, that's another reason why she's got to stay with us. My frien', it's time we was moving out from the willows. The next time he comes up with us he won't be numb in the head. He'll be thinkin' fast an' he'll be shootin' a damn sight faster. We got two jobs ahead of us—first to get that Wells Fargo shipment, and then to get Whistling Dan. There ain't room enough in the whole world for him and me."