THE THREE OF US
In the clearing of Whistling Dan and Tex Calder the marshal had turned into his blankets once more. There was no thought of sleep in Dan's mind. When the heavy breathing of the sleeper began he rose and commenced to pace up and down on the farther side of the open space. Two pairs of glowing eyes followed him in every move. Black Bart, who trailed him up and down during the first few turns he made, now sat down and watched his master with a wistful gaze. The black stallion, who lay more like a dog than a horse on the ground, kept his ears pricked forwards, as if expecting some order. Once or twice he whinnied very softly, and finally Dan sat down beside Satan, his shoulders leaned against the satiny side and his arms flung out along the stallion's back. Several times he felt hot breath against his cheek as the horse turned a curious head towards him, but he paid no attention, even when the stallion whinnied a question in his ear. In his heart was a numb, strange feeling which made him weak. He was even blind to the fact that Black Bart at last slipped into the shadows of the willows.
Presently something cold touched his chin. He found himself staring into the yellow-green eyes of Black Bart, who panted from his run, and now dropped from his mouth something which fell into Dan's lap. It was the glove of Kate Cumberland. In the grasp of his long nervous fingers, how small it was!; and yet the hand which had wrinkled the leather was strong enough to hold the heart of a man. He slipped and caught the shaggy black head of Bart between his hands. The wolf knew—in some mysterious way he knew!
The touch of sympathy unnerved him. All his sorrow and his weakness burst on his soul in a single wave. A big tear struck the shining nose of the wolf.
"Bart!" he whispered. "Did you figger on plumb bustin' my heart, pal?"
To avoid those large melancholy eyes, Bart pressed his head inside of his master's arms.
"Delilah!" whispered Dan.
After that not a sound came from the three, the horse, the dog, or the man. Black Bart curled up at the feet of his master and seemed to sleep, but every now and then an ear raised or an eye twitched open. He was on guard against a danger which he did not understand. The horse, also, with a high head scanned the circling willows, alert; but the man for whom the stallion and the wolf watched gave no heed to either. There was a vacant and dreamy expression in his eye as if he was searching his own inner heart and found there the greatest enemy of all. All night they sat in this manner, silent, moveless; the animals watching against the world, the man watching against himself. Before dawn he roused himself suddenly, crossed to the sleeping marshal, and touched him on the arm.
"It's time we hit the trail," he said, as Calder sat up in the blanket.
"What's happened? Isn't it our job to comb the willows?"
"Silent ain't in the willows."
Calder started to his feet.
"How do you know?"
"They ain't close to us, that's all I know."
Tex smiled incredulously.
"I suppose," he said good humouredly, "that your instinct brought you this message?"
"Instinct?" repeated Dan blankly, "I dunno."
Calder grew serious.
"We'll take a chance that you may be right. At least we can ride down the river bank and see if there are any fresh tracks in the sand. If Silent started this morning I have an idea he'll head across the river and line out for the railroad."
In twenty minutes their breakfast was eaten and they were in the saddle. The sun had not yet risen when they came out of the willows to the broad shallow basin of the river. In spring, when the snow of the mountains melted, that river filled from bank to bank with a yellow torrent; at the dry season of the year it was a dirty little creek meandering through the sands. Down the bank they rode at a sharp trot for a mile and a half until Black Bart, who scouted ahead of them at his gliding wolf-trot, came to an abrupt stop. Dan spoke to Satan and the stallion broke into a swift gallop which left the pony of Tex Calder labouring in the rear. When they drew rein beside the wolf, they found seven distinct tracks of horses which went down the bank of the river and crossed the basin. Calder turned with a wide-eyed amazement to Dan.
"You're right again," he said, not without a touch of vexation in his voice; "but the dog stopped at these tracks. How does he know we are hunting for Silent's crew?"
"I dunno," said Dan, "maybe he jest suspects."
"They can't have a long start of us," said Calder. "Let's hit the trail. We'll get them before night."
"No," said Dan, "we won't."
"Why won't we?"
"I've seen Silent's hoss, and I've ridden him. If the rest of his gang have the same kind of hoss flesh, you c'n never catch him with that cayuse of yours."
"Maybe not today," said Calder, "but in two days we'll run him down. Seven horses can't travel as two in a long chase."
They started out across the basin, keeping to the tracks of Silent's horses. It was the marshal's idea that the outlaws would head on a fairly straight line for the railroad and accordingly when they lost the track of the seven horses they kept to this direction. Twice during the day they verified their course by information received once from a range rider and once from a man in a dusty buck-board. Both of these had sighted the fast travelling band, but each had seen it pass an hour or two before Calder and Dan arrived. Such tidings encouraged the marshal to keep his horse at an increasing speed; but in the middle of the afternoon, though black Satan showed little or no signs of fatigue, the cattle-pony was nearly blown and they were forced to reduce their pace to the ordinary dog-trot.