ONE TRAIL ENDS
But this deceived no one. They had seen him palpably take water. A moment of silence followed, while Sandy stared whitefaced down at the table, avoiding all eyes; but all the elements of good breeding exist under all the roughness of the West. It was Jacqueline who began with a joke which was rather old, but everyone appreciated it—at that moment—and the laughter lasted long enough to restore some of the colour to Sandy's face. A general rapid fire of talk followed.
"How did you do it?" queried Calder. "I was all prepared for a gun-play."
"Why, you seen I didn't do nothin'."
"Then what in the world made Sandy freeze while his hand was on the way to his gun?"
"I dunno," sighed Dan, "but when I see his hand start movin' I sort of wanted his blood—I wanted him to keep right on till he got hold of his gun—and maybe he seen it in my eyes an' that sort of changed his mind."
"I haven't the least doubt that it did," said Calder grimly.
At the foot of the table Jacqueline's right-hand neighbour was saying: "What happened, Jac?"
"Don't ask me," she replied. "All I know is that I don't think any less of Sandy because he backed down. I saw that stranger's face myself an' I'm still sort of weak inside."
"How did he look?"
"I dunno. Jest—jest hungry. Understand?"
She was silent for a time, but she was evidently thinking hard. At last she turned to the same man.
"Did you hear Brown-eyes say that the broad-shouldered feller next to him was his friend?"
"Sure. I seen them ride in together. That other one looks like a hard nut, eh?"
She returned no answer, but after a time her eyes raised slowly and rested for a long moment on Dan's face. It was towards the end of the meal when she rose and went towards the kitchen. At the door she turned, and Dan, though he was looking down at his plate, was conscious that someone was observing him. He glanced up and the moment his eyes met hers she made a significant backward gesture with her hand. He hesitated a moment and then shoved back his chair. Calder was busy talking to a table mate, so he walked out of the house without speaking to his companion. He went to the rear of the house and as he had expected she was waiting for him.
"Brown-eyes," she said swiftly, "that feller who sat beside you—is he your partner?"
"I dunno," said Dan evasively, "why are you askin'?"
Her breath was coming audibly as if from excitement.
"Have you got a fast hoss?"
"There ain't no faster."
"Believe me, he can't go none too fast with you tonight. Maybe they're after you, too."
"I can't tell you. Listen to me, Brown-eyes. Go get your hoss an' feed him the spur till you're a hundred miles away, an' even then don't stop runnin'."
He merely stared at her curiously.
"Don't stop to talk. If they're after him and you're his partner, they probably want you, too."
"I'll stay aroun'. If they're curious about me, I'll tell 'em my name—I'll even spell it for 'em. Who are they?"
"They are—hell—that's all."
"I'd like to see 'em. Maybe they're real men."
"They're devils. If I told you their names you'd turn stiff."
"I'll take one chance. Tell me who they are."
"I don't dare tell you."
"I will tell you! You've made a fool out of me with them big baby eyes. Jim Silent is in that house!"
He turned and ran, but not for the horse-shed; he headed straight for the open door of the house.
In the dining-room two more had left the table, but the rest, lingering over their fresh filled coffee cups, sat around telling tales, and Tex Calder was among them. He was about to push back his chair when the hum of talk ceased as if at a command. The men on the opposite side of the table were staring with fascinated eyes at the door, and then a big voice boomed behind him: "Tex Calder, stan' up. You've come to the end of the trail!"
He whirled as he rose, kicking down the chair behind him, and stood face to face with Jim Silent. The great outlaw was scowling; but his gun was in its holster and his hands rested lightly on his hips. It was plain for all eyes to see that he had come not to murder but to fight a fair duel. Behind him loomed the figure of Lee Haines scarcely less imposing.
All eternity seemed poised and waiting for the second when one of the men would make the move for his gun. Not a breath was drawn in the room. Hands remained frozen in air in the midst of a gesture. Lips which had parted to speak did not close. The steady voice of the clock broke into the silence—a dying space between every tick. For the second time in his life Tex Calder knew fear.
He saw no mere man before him, but his own destiny. And he knew that if he stood before those glaring eyes another minute he would become like poor Sandy a few minutes before—a white-faced, palsied coward. The shame of the thought gave him power.
"Silent," he said, "there's a quick end to the longest trail, because——"
His hand darted down. No eye could follow the lightning speed with which he whipped out his revolver and fanned it, but by a mortal fraction of a second the convulsive jerk of Silent's hand was faster still. Two shots followed—they were rather like one drawn-out report. The woodwork splintered above the outlaw's head; Tex Calder seemed to laugh, but his lips made no sound. He pitched forward on his face.
"He fired that bullet," said Silent, "after mine hit him."
Then he leaped back through the door.
"Keep 'em back one minute, Lee, an' then after me!" he said as he ran. Haines stood in the door with folded arms. He knew that no one would dare to move a hand.
Two doors slammed at the same moment—the front door as Silent leaped into the safety of the night, and the rear door as Whistling Dan rushed into the house. He stood at the entrance from the kitchen to the dining-room half crouched, and swaying from the suddenness with which he had checked his run. He saw the sprawled form of Tex Calder on the floor and the erect figure of Lee Haines just opposite him.
"For God's sake!" screamed Gus Morris, "don't shoot, Haines! He's done nothin'. Let him go!"
"My life—or his!" said Haines savagely. "He's not a man—he's a devil!"
Dan was laughing low—a sound like a croon.
"Tex," he said, "I'm goin' to take him alive for you!"
As if in answer the dying man stirred on the floor. Haines went for his gun, a move almost as lightning swift as that of Jim Silent, but now far, far too late. The revolver was hardly clear of its holster when Whistling Dan's weapon spoke. Haines, with a curse, clapped his left hand over his wounded right forearm, and then reached after his weapon as it clattered to the floor. Once more he was too late. Dan tossed his gun away with a snarl like the growl of a wolf; cleared the table at a leap, and was at Haines's throat. The bandit fought back desperately, vainly. One instant they struggled erect, swaying, the next Haines was lifted bodily, and hurled to the floor. He writhed, but under those prisoning hands he was helpless.
The sheriff headed the rush for the scene of the struggle, but Dan stopped them.
"All you c'n do," he said, "is to bring me a piece of rope."
Jacqueline came running with a stout piece of twine which he twisted around the wrists of Haines. Then he jerked the outlaw to his feet, and stood close, his face inhumanly pale.
"If he dies," he said, pointing with a stiff arm back at the prostrate figure of Tex Calder, "you—you'll burn alive for it!"
The sheriff and two of the other men turned the body of Calder on his back. They tore open his shirt, and Jacqueline leaned over him with a basin of water trying to wipe away the ever recurrent blood which trickled down his breast. Dan brushed them away and caught the head of his companion in his arms.
"Tex!" he moaned, "Tex! Open your eyes, partner, I got him for you. I got him alive for you to look at him! Wake up!"
As if in obedience to the summons the eyes of Calder opened wide. The lids fluttered as if to clear his vision, but even then his gaze was filmed with a telltale shadow.
"Dan—Whistling Dan," he said, "I'm seeing you a long, long ways off. Partner, I'm done for."
The whole body of Dan stiffened.
"Done? Tex, you can't be! Five minutes ago you sat at that there table, smilin' an' talkin'!"
"It doesn't take five minutes. Half a second can take a man all the way to hell!"
"If you're goin', pal, if you goin', Tex, take one comfort along with you! I got the man who killed you! Come here!"
He pulled the outlaw to his knees beside the dying marshal whose face had lighted wonderfully. He strained his eyes painfully to make out the face of his slayer. Then he turned his head.
He said: "The man who killed me was Jim Silent."
Dan groaned and leaned close to Calder.
"Then I'll follow him to the end—" he began.
The feeble accent of Calder interrupted him.
"Not that way. Come close to me. I can't hear my own voice, hardly."
Dan bowed his head. A whisper murmured on for a moment, broken here and there as Dan nodded his head and said, "Yes!"
"Then hold up your hand, your right hand," said Calder at last, audibly.
"You swear it?"
"So help me God!"
"Then here's the pledge of it!"
Calder fumbled inside his shirt for a moment, and then withdrawing his hand placed it palm down in that of Dan. The breath of the marshal was coming in a rattling gasp.
He said very faintly: "I've stopped the trails of twenty men. It took the greatest of them all to get me. He got me fair. He beat me to the draw!"
He stopped as if in awe.
"He played square—he's a better man than I. Dan, when you get him, do it the same way—face to face—with time for him to think of hell before he gets there. Partner, I'm going. Wish me luck."
It seemed as if that parting wish was granted, for Calder died with a smile.
When Dan rose slowly Gus Morris stepped up and laid a hand on his arm: "Look here, there ain't no use of bein' sad for Tex Calder. His business was killin' men, an' his own time was overdue."
Dan turned a face that made Morris wince.
"What's the matter?" he asked, with an attempt at bluff good nature. "Do you hate everyone because one man is dead? I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll loan you a buckboard an' a pair of hosses to take Tex back to Elkhead. As for this feller Haines, I'll take care of him."
"I sure need a buckboard," said Dan slowly, "but I'll get the loan from a—white man!"
He turned his back sharply on the sheriff and asked if any one else had a wagon they could lend him. One of the men had stopped at Morris's place on his way to Elkhead. He immediately proposed that they make the trip together.
"All right," said Morris carelessly. "I won't pick trouble with a crazy man. Come with me, Haines."
He turned to leave the room.
"Wait!" said Dan.
Haines stopped as though someone had seized him by the shoulder.
"What the devil is this now?" asked Morris furiously. "Stranger, d'you think you c'n run the world? Come on with me, Haines!"
"He stays with me," said Dan.
"By God," began Morris, "if I thought——"
"This ain't no place for you to begin thinkin'," said the man who had offered his buckboard to Dan. "This feller made the capture an' he's got the right to take him into Elkhead if he wants. They's a reward on the head of Lee Haines."
"The arrest is made in my county," said Morris stoutly, "an' I've got the say as to what's to be done with a prisoner."
"Morris," said Haines earnestly, "if I'm taken to Elkhead it'll be simply a matter of lynching. You know the crowd in that town."
"Right—right," said Morris, eagerly picking up the word. "It'd be plain lynchin'—murder—"
Dan broke in: "Haines, step over here behind me!"
For one instant Haines hesitated, and then obeyed silently.
"This is contempt of the law and an officer of the law," said Morris. "An" I'll see that you get fined so that——"
"Better cut it short there, sheriff," said one of the men. "I wouldn't go callin' the attention of folks to the way Jim Silent walked into your own house an' made his getaway without you tryin' to raise a hand. Law or no law, I'm with this stranger."
"Me too," said another; "any man who can fan a gun like him don't need no law."
The sheriff saw that the tide of opinion had set strongly against him and abandoned his position with speed if not with grace. Dan ordered Haines to walk before him outside the house. They faced each other in the dim moonlight.
"I've got one question to ask you," he said.
"Make it short," said Haines calmly. "I've got to do my talking before the lynching crowd."
"You can answer it in one word. Does Kate Cumberland—what is she to you?"
Lee Haines set his teeth.
"All the world," he said.
Even in the dim light he saw the yellow glow of Dan's eyes and he felt as if a wolf stood there trembling with eagerness to leap at his throat.
"An' what are you to her?"
"No more than the dirt under her feet!"
"Haines, you lie!"
"I tell you that if she cared for me as much as she does for the horse she rides on, I'd let the whole world know if I had to die for it the next moment."
Truth has a ring of its own.
"Haines, if I could hear that from her own lips, I'd let you go free. If you'll show me the way to Kate, I'll set you loose the minute I see her."
"I can't do it. I've given my faith to Silent and his men. Where she is, they are."
"Haines, that means death for you."
"I know it."
Another plan had come to Dan as they talked. He took Haines inside again and coming out once more, whistled for Bart. The wolf appeared as if by magic through the dark. He took out Kate's glove, which the wolf had brought to him in the willows, and allowed him to smell it. Bart whined eagerly. If he had that glove he would range the hills until he found its owner, directed to her by that strange instinct of the wild things. If Kate still loved him the glove would be more eloquent than a thousand messages. And if she managed to escape, the wolf would guide her back to his master.
He sat on his heels, caught the wolf on either side of the shaggy head, and stared into the glow of the yellow green eyes. It was as if the man were speaking to the wolf.
At last, as if satisfied, he drew a deep breath, rose, and dropped the glove. It was caught in the flashing teeth. For another moment Bart stood whining and staring up to the face of his master. Then he whirled and fled out into the night.