THE PANTHER'S PAW
Evening came and still they had not sighted the outlaws. As dark fell they drew near a house snuggled away among a group of cottonwoods. Here they determined to spend the night, for Calder's pony was now almost exhausted. A man of fifty came from the house in answer to their call and showed them the way to the horse-shed. While they unsaddled their horses he told them his name was Sam Daniels, yet he evinced no curiosity as to the identity of his guests, and they volunteered no information. His eyes lingered long and fondly over the exquisite lines of Satan. From behind, from the side, and in front, he viewed the stallion while Dan rubbed down the legs of his mount with a care which was most foreign to the ranges. Finally the cattleman reached out a hand toward the smoothly muscled shoulders.
It was Calder who stood nearest and he managed to strike up Daniels's extended arm and jerk him back from the region of danger.
"What'n hell is that for?" exclaimed Daniels.
"That horse is called Satan," said Calder, "and when any one save his owner touches him he lives up to his name and raises hell."
Before Daniels could answer, the light of his lantern fell upon Black Bart, hitherto half hidden by the deepening shadows of the night, but standing now at the entrance of the shed. The cattleman's teeth clicked together and he slapped his hand against his thigh in a reach for the gun which was not there.
"Look behind you," he said to Calder. "A wolf!"
He made a grab for the marshal's gun, but the latter forestalled him.
"Go easy, partner," he said, grinning, "that's only the running mate of the horse. He's not a wolf, at least not according to his owner—and as for being wild—look at that!"
Bart had stalked calmly into the shed and now lay curled up exactly beneath the feet of the stallion.
The two guests received a warmer welcome from Sam Daniels' wife when they reached the house. Their son, Buck, had been expected home for supper, but it was too late for them to delay the meal longer. Accordingly they sat down at once and the dinner was nearly over when Buck, having announced himself with a whoop as he rode up, entered, banging the door loudly behind him. He greeted the strangers with a careless wave of the hand and sat down at the table. His mother placed food silently before him. No explanations of his tardiness were asked and none were offered. The attitude of his father indicated clearly that the boy represented the earning power of the family. He was a big fellow with broad, thick wrists, and a straight black eye. When he had eaten, he broke into breezy conversation, and especially of a vicious mustang he had ridden on a bet the day before.
"Speakin' of hosses, Buck," said his father, "they's a black out in the shed right now that'd make your eyes jest nacherally pop out'n their sockets. No more'n fifteen hands, but a reg'lar picture. Must be greased lightnin'."
"I've heard talk of these streaks of greased lightnin'," said Buck, with a touch of scorn, "but I'll stack old Mike agin the best of them."
"An' there's a dog along with the hoss—a dog that's the nearest to a wolf of any I ever seen."
There was a sudden change in Buck—a change to be sensed rather than definitely noted with the eye. It was a stiffening of his body—an alertness of which he was at pains to make no show. For almost immediately he began to whistle softly, idly, his eyes roving carelessly across the wall while he tilted back in his chair. Dan dropped his hand close to the butt of his gun. Instantly, the eyes of Buck flashed down and centered on Dan for an instant of keen scrutiny. Certainly Buck had connected that mention of the black horse and the wolf-dog with a disturbing idea.
When they went to their room—a room in which there was no bed and they had to roll down their blankets on the floor—Dan opened the window and commenced to whistle one of his own wild tunes. It seemed to Calder that there was a break in that music here and there, and a few notes grouped together like a call. In a moment a shadowy figure leaped through the window, and Black Bart landed on the floor with soft padding feet.
Recovering from his start Calder cursed softly.
"What's the main idea?" he asked.
Dan made a signal for a lower tone.
"There ain't no idea," he answered, "but these Daniels people—do you know anything about them?"
"They interest me, that's all."
"I guess not."
"Why did you whistle for this infernal wolf? It makes me nervous to have him around. Get out, Bart."
The wolf turned a languid eye upon the marshal.
"Let him be," said Dan. "I don't feel no ways nacheral without havin' Bart around."
The marshal made no farther objections, and having rolled himself in his blankets was almost immediately asleep and breathing heavily. The moment Dan heard his companion draw breath with a telltale regularity, he sat up again in his blankets. Bart was instantly at his side. He patted the shaggy head lightly, and pointed towards the door.
"Guard!" he whispered.
Then he lay down and was immediately asleep. Bart crouched at his feet with his head pointed directly at the door.
In other rooms there was the sound of the Daniels family going to bed—noises distinctly heard throughout the flimsy frame of the house. After that a deep silence fell which lasted many hours, but in that darkest moment which just precedes the dawn, a light creaking came up the hall. It was very faint and it occurred only at long intervals, but at the first sound Black Bart raised his head from his paws and stared at the door with those glowing eyes which see in the dark.
Now another sound came, still soft, regular. There was a movement of the door. In the pitch dark a man could never have noticed it, but it was plainly visible to the wolf. Still more visible, when the door finally stood wide, was the form of the man who stood in the opening. In one hand he carried a lantern thoroughly hooded, but not so well wrapped that it kept back a single ray which flashed on a revolver. The intruder made a step forward, a step as light as the fall of feathers, but it was not half so stealthy as the movement of Black Bart as he slunk towards the door. He had been warned to watch that door, but it did not need a warning to tell him that a danger was approaching the sleeping master. In the crouched form of the man, in the cautious step, he recognized the unmistakable stalking of one who hunts. Another soft step the man made forward.
Then, with appalling suddenness, a blacker shadow shot up from the deep night of the floor, and white teeth gleamed before the stranger's face. He threw up his hand to save his throat. The teeth sank into his arm—a driving weight hurled him against the wall and then to the floor—the revolver and the lantern dropped clattering, and the latter, rolling from its wrapping, flooded the room with light. But neither man nor wolf uttered a sound.
Calder was standing, gun in hand, but too bewildered to act, while Dan, as if he were playing a part long rehearsed, stood covering the fallen form of Buck Daniels.
"Stand back from him, Bart!" he commanded.
The wolf slipped off a pace, whining with horrible eagerness, for he had tasted blood. Far away a shout came from Sam Daniels. Dan lowered his gun.
"Stand up," he ordered.
The big fellow picked himself up and stood against the wall with the blood streaming down his right arm. Still he said nothing and his keen eyes darted from Calder to Whistling Dan.
"Give me a strip of that old shirt over there, will you, Tex?" said Dan, "an' keep him covered while I tie up his arm."
Before Calder could move, old Daniels appeared at the door, a heavy Colt in his hand. For a moment he stood dumbfounded, but then, with a cry, jerked up his gun—a quick movement, but a fraction of a second too slow, for the hand of Dan darted out and his knuckles struck the wrist of the old cattleman. The Colt rattled on the floor. He lunged after his weapon, but the voice of Buck stopped him short.
"The game's up, Dad," he growled, "that older feller is Tex Calder."
The name, like a blow in the face, straightened old Daniels and left him white and blinking. Whistling Dan turned his back on the father and deftly bound up the lacerated arm of Buck.
"In the name o' God, Buck," moaned Sam, "what you been tryin' to do in here?"
"What you'd do if you had the guts for it. That's Tex Calder an' this is Dan Barry. They're on the trail of big Jim. I wanted to put 'em off that trail."
"Look here," said Calder, "how'd you know us?"
"I've said my little say," said Buck sullenly, "an' you'll get no more out of me between here an' any hell you can take me to."
"He knew us when his father talked about Satan an' Black Bart," said Dan to Tex. "Maybe he's one of Silent's."
"Buck, for God's sake tell 'em you know nothin' of Silent," cried old Daniels. "Boy, boy, it's hangin' for you if they get you to Elkhead an' charge you with that!"
"Dad, you're a fool," said Buck. "I ain't goin' down on my knees to 'em. Not me."
Calder, still keeping Buck covered with his gun, drew Dan a little to one side.
"What can we do with this fellow, Dan?" he said. "Shall we give up the trail and take him over to Elkhead?"
"An' break the heart of the ol' man?"
"Buck is one of the gang, that's certain."
"Get Silent an' there won't be no gang left."
"But we caught this chap in red blood——"
"He ain't very old, Tex. Maybe he could change. I think he ain't been playin' Silent's game any too long."
"We can't let him go. It isn't in reason to do that."
"I ain't thinkin' of reason. I'm thinkin' of old Sam an' his wife."
"And if we turn him loose?"
"He'll be your man till he dies."
"The whole range is filled with these silent partners of the outlaws—but maybe you're right, Dan. Look at them now!"
The father was standing close to his son and pouring out a torrent of appeal—evidently begging him in a low voice to disavow any knowledge of Silent and his crew, but Buck shook his head sullenly. He had given up hope. Calder approached them.
"Buck," he said, "I suppose you know that you could be hung for what you've tried to do tonight. If the law wouldn't hang you a lynching party would. No jail would be strong enough to keep them away from you."
Buck was silent, dogged.
"But suppose we were to let you go scot free?"
Buck started. A great flush covered his face.
"I'm taking the advice of Dan Barry in doing this," said Calder. "Barry thinks you could go straight. Tell me man to man, if I give you the chance will you break loose from Silent and his gang?"
A moment before, Buck had been steeled for the worst, but this sudden change loosened all the bonds of his pride. He stammered and choked. Calder turned abruptly away.
"Dan," he said, "here's the dawn, and it's time for us to hit the trail."
They rolled their blankets hastily and broke away from the gratitude which poured like water from the heart of old Sam. They were in their saddles when Buck came beside Dan. His pride, his shame, and his gratitude broke his voice.
"I ain't much on words," he said, "but it's you I'm thankin'!"
His hand reached up hesitatingly, and Dan caught it in a firm grip.
"Why," he said gently, "even Satan here stumbles now an' then, but that ain't no reason I should get rid of him. Good luck—partner!"
He shook the reins and the stallion leaped off after Calder's trotting pony. Buck Daniels stood motionless looking after them, and his eyes were very dim.
For an hour Dan and Tex were on the road before the sun looked over the hills. Calder halted his horse to watch.
"Dan," he said at last, "I used to think there were only two ways of handling men—one with the velvet touch and one with the touch of steel. Mine has been the way of steel, but I begin to see there's a third possibility—the touch of the panther's paw—the velvet with the steel claws hid beneath. That's your way, and I wonder if it isn't the best. I think Buck Daniels would be glad to die for you!"
He turned directly to Dan.
"But all this is aside from the point, which is that the whole country is full of these silent partners of the outlaws. The law plays a lone hand in the mountain-desert."
"You've played the lone hand and won twenty times," said Dan.
"Ay, but the twenty-first time I may fail. The difference between success and failure in this country is just the length of time it takes to pull a trigger—and Silent is fast with a gun. He's the root of the outlaw power. We may kill a hundred men, but till he's gone we've only mowed the weeds, not pulled them. But what's the use of talking? One second will tell the tale when I stand face to face with Jim Silent and we go for our six-guns. And somewhere between that rising sun and those mountains I'll find Jim Silent and the end of things for one of us."
He started his cattle-pony into a sudden gallop, and they drove on into the bright morning.