Some people pointed out that Sheriff Gus Morris had never made a single important arrest in the ten years during which he had held office, and there were a few slanderers who spoke insinuatingly of the manner in which the lone riders flourished in Morris's domain. These "knockers," however, were voted down by the vast majority, who swore that the sheriff was the finest fellow who ever threw leg over saddle. They liked him for his inexhaustible good-nature, the mellow baritone in which he sang the range songs at any one's request, and perhaps more than all, for the very laxness with which he conducted his work. They had had enough of the old school of sheriffs who lived a few months gun in hand and died fighting from the saddle. The office had never seemed desirable until Gus Morris ran for it and smiled his way to a triumphant election.
Before his career as an office-holder began, he ran a combined general merchandise store, saloon, and hotel. That is to say, he ran the hostelry in name. The real executive head, general manager, clerk, bookkeeper, and cook, and sometimes even bartender was his daughter, Jacqueline. She found the place only a saloon, and a poorly patronized one at that. Her unaided energy gradually made it into a hotel, restaurant, and store. Even while her father was in office he spent most of his time around the hotel; but no matter how important he might be elsewhere, in his own house he had no voice. There the only law was the will of Jacqueline.
Out of the stable behind this hostelry Dan and Tex Calder walked on the evening of the train robbery. They had reached the place of the hold-up a full two hours after Silent's crew departed; and the fireman and engineer had been working frantically during the interim to clean out the soaked fire box and get up steam again. Tex looked at the two dead bodies, spoke to the conductor, and then cut short the voluble explanations of a score of passengers by turning his horse and riding away, followed by Dan. All that day he was gloomily silent. It was a shrewd blow at his reputation, for the outlaws had actually carried out the robbery while he was on their trail. Not till they came out of the horse-shed after stabling their horses did he speak freely.
"Dan," he said, "do you know anything about Sheriff Gus Morris?"
"Then listen to this and salt every word away. I'm an officer of the law, but I won't tell that to Morris. I hope he doesn't know me. If he does it will spoil our game. I am almost certain he is playing a close hand with the lone riders. I'll wager he'd rather see a stick of dynamite than a marshal. Remember when we get in that place that we're not after Jim Silent or any one else. We're simply travelling cowboys. No questions. I expect to learn something about the location of Silent's gang while we're here, but we'll never find out except by hints and chance remarks. We have to watch Morris like hawks. If he suspects us he'll find a way to let Silent know we're here and then the hunters will be hunted."
In the house they found a dozen cattlemen sitting down at the table in the dining-room. As they entered the room the sheriff, who sat at the head of the table, waved his hand to them.
"H'ware ye, boys?" he called. "You'll find a couple of chairs right in the next room. Got two extra plates, Jac?"
As Dan followed Tex after the chairs he noticed the sheriff beckon to one of the men who sat near him. As they returned with the chairs someone was leaving the room by another door.
"Tex," he said, as they sat down side by side, "when we left the dining-room for the chairs, the sheriff spoke to one of the boys and as we came back one of them was leavin' through another door. D'you think Morris knew you when you came in?"
Calder frowned thoughtfully and then shook his head.
"No," he said in a low voice. "I watched him like a hawk when we entered. He didn't bat an eye when he saw me. If he recognized me he's the greatest actor in the world, bar none! No, Dan, he doesn't know us from Adam and Abel."
"All right," said Dan, "but I don't like somethin' about this place—maybe it's the smell of the air. Tex, take my advice an' keep your gun ready for the fastest draw you ever made."
"Don't worry about me," smiled Calder. "How about yourself?"
"Hello," broke in Jacqueline from the end of the table. "Look who we've picked in the draw!"
Her voice was musical, but her accent and manner were those of a girl who has lived all her life among men and has caught their ways—with an exaggeration of that self-confidence which a woman always feels among Western men. Her blue eyes were upon Dan.
"Ain't you a long ways from home?" she went on.
The rest of the table, perceiving the drift of her badgering, broke into a rumbling bass chuckle.
"Quite a ways," said Dan, and his wide brown eyes looked seriously back at her.
A yell of delight came from the men at this naïve rejoinder. Dan looked about him with a sort of childish wonder. Calder's anxious whisper came at his side: "Don't let them get you mad, Dan!" Jacqueline, having scored so heavily with her first shot, was by no means willing to give up her sport.
"With them big eyes, for a starter," she said, "all you need is long hair to be perfect. Do your folks generally let you run around like this?"
Every man canted his ear to get the answer and already they were grinning expectantly.
"I don't go out much," returned the soft voice of Dan, "an' when I do, I go with my friend, here. He takes care of me."
Another thunder of laughter broke out. Jacqueline had apparently uncovered a tenderfoot, and a rare one even for that absurd species. A sandy-haired cattle puncher who sat close to Jacqueline now took the cue from the mistress of the house.
"Ain't you a bit scared when you get around among real men?" he asked, leering up the table towards Dan.
The latter smiled gently upon him.
"I reckon maybe I am," he said amiably.
"Then you must be shakin' in your boots right now," said the other over the sound of the laughter.
"No, said Dan, "I feel sort of comfortable."
The other replied with a frown that would have intimidated a balky horse.
"What d'you mean? Ain't you jest said men made you sort of—nervous?"
He imitated the soft drawl of Dan with his last words and raised another yell of delight from the crowd. Whistling Dan turned his gentle eyes upon Jacqueline.
"Pardon me, ma'am," he began.
An instant hush fell on the men. They would not miss one syllable of the delightful remarks of this rarest of all tenderfoots, and the prelude of this coming utterance promised something that would eclipse all that had gone before.
"Talk right out, Brown-eyes," said Jacqueline, wiping the tears of delight from her eyes. "Talk right out as if you was a man. I won't hurt you."
"I jest wanted to ask," said Dan, "if these are real men?"
The ready laughter started, checked, and died suddenly away. The cattlemen looked at each other in puzzled surprise.
"Don't they look like it to you, honey?" asked Jacqueline curiously.
Dan allowed his eyes to pass lingeringly around the table from face to face.
"I dunno," he said at last, "they look sort of queer to me."
"For God's sake cut this short, Dan," pleaded Tex Calder in an undertone. "Let them have all the rope they want. Don't trip up our party before we get started."
"Queer?" echoed Jacqueline, and there was a deep murmur from the men.
"Sure," said Dan, smiling upon her again, "they all wear their guns so awful high."
Out of the dead silence broke the roar of the sandy-haired man: "What'n hell d'you mean by that?"
Dan leaned forward on one elbow, his right hand free and resting on the edge of the table, but still his smile was almost a caress.
"Why," he said, "maybe you c'n explain it to me. Seems to me that all these guns is wore so high they's more for ornament than use."
"You damned pup—" began Sandy.
He stopped short and stared with a peculiar fascination at Dan, who started to speak again. His voice had changed—not greatly, for its pitch was the same and the drawl was the same—but there was a purr in it that made every man stiffen in his chair and make sure that his right hand was free. The ghost of his former smile was still on his lips, but it was his eyes that seemed to fascinate Sandy.
"Maybe I'm wrong, partner," he was saying, "an' maybe you c'n prove that your gun ain't jest ornamental hardware?"
What followed was very strange. Sandy was a brave man and everyone at that table knew it. They waited for the inevitable to happen. They waited for Sandy's lightning move for his gun. They waited for the flash and the crack of the revolver. It did not come. There followed a still more stunning wonder.
"You c'n see," went on that caressing voice of Dan, "that everyone is waitin' for you to demonstrate—which the lady is most special interested."
And still Sandy did not move that significant right hand. It remained fixed in air a few inches above the table, the fingers stiffly spread. He moistened his white lips. Then—most strange of all!—his eyes shifted and wandered away from the face of Whistling Dan. The others exchanged incredulous glances. The impossible had happened—Sandy had taken water! The sheriff was the first to recover, though his forehead was shining with perspiration.
"What's all this stuff about?" he called. "Hey, Sandy, quit pickin' trouble with the stranger!"
Sandy seized the loophole through which to escape with his honour. He settled back in his chair.
"All right, gov'nor," he said, "I won't go spoilin' your furniture. I won't hurt him."