THE WOMAN'S WAY
It was a day later, in the morning, that a hand knocked at Kate's door and she opened it to Jim Silent. He entered, brushing off the dust of a long journey.
"Good-mornin', Miss Cumberland."
He extended a hand which she overlooked.
"You still busy hatin' me?"
"I'm simply—surprised that you have come in here to talk to me."
"You look as if you seen somethin' in my face?" he said suspiciously. "What is it? Dirt?"
He brushed a hand across his forehead.
"Whatever it is," she answered, "you can't rub it away."
"I'm thinkin' of givin' you a leave of absence—if you'll promise to come back."
"Would you trust my honour?"
"In a pinch like this," he said amiably, "I would. But here's my business. Lee Haines is jailed in Elkhead. The man that put him behind the bars an' the only one that can take him out agin is Whistlin' Dan. An' the one person who can make Dan set Lee loose is you. Savvy? Will you go an' talk with Dan? This wolf of his would find him for you."
She shook her head.
"Why not?" cried Silent in a rising voice.
"The last time he saw me," she said, "he had reason to think that I tried to betray him because of Lee Haines. If I went to him now to plead for Haines he'd be sure that I was what he called me—Delilah!"
"Is that final?"
"Now get me straight. They's a crowd of cowpunchers gatherin' in Elkhead, an' today or tomorrow they'll be strong enough to take the law into their own hands and organize a little lynchin' bee, savvy?"
"It ain't pleasant, is it, the picture of big, good-lookin' Lee danglin' from the end of a rope with the crowd aroun' takin' pot-shots at him? No, it ain't, an' you're goin' to stop it. You're goin' to start from here in fifteen minutes with your hoss an' this wolf, after givin' me your promise to come back when you've seen Whistlin' Dan. You're goin' to make Dan go an' set Lee loose."
She smiled in derision.
"If Dan did that he'd be outlawed."
"You won't stir?"
"Not a step!"
"Well, kid, for everything that happens to Lee somethin' worse will happen to someone in the next room. Maybe you'd like to see him?"
He opened the door and she stepped into the entrance. Almost opposite her sat old Joe Cumberland with his hands tied securely behind his back. At sight of her he rose with a low cry. She turned on big Silent and whipped the six-gun from his hip. He barely managed to grasp her wrist and swing the heavy revolver out of line with his body.
"You little fiend," he snarled, "drop the gun, or I'll wring your neck."
"I don't fear you," she said, never wincing under the crushing grip on her wrists, "you murderer!"
He said, calmly repossessing himself of his gun, "Now take a long look at your father an' repeat all the things you was just saying' to me."
She stared miserably at her father. When Silent caught Kate's hand Cumberland had started forward, but Kilduff and Rhinehart held him.
"What is it, Kate," he cried. "What does it mean?"
She explained it briefly: "This is Jim Silent!"
He remained staring at her with open mouth as if his brain refused to admit what his ear heard.
"There ain't no use askin' questions how an' why she's here," said Silent. "This is the pint. Lee Haines is behind the bars in Elkhead. Whistlin' Dan put him there an' maybe the girl c'n persuade Dan to bring him out again. If she don't—then everything the lynchin' gang does to Haines we're goin' to do to you. Git down on your ol' knees, Cumberland, an' beg your daughter to save your hide!"
The head of Kate dropped down.
"Untie his hands," she said. "I'll talk with Dan."
"I knew you'd see reason," grinned Silent.
"Jest one minute," said Cumberland. "Kate, is Lee Haines one of Silent's gang?"
"An' Dan put him behind the bars?"
"If Dan takes him out again the boy'll be outlawed, Kate."
"Cumberland," broke in Kilduff savagely, "here's your call to stop thinkin' about Whistlin' Dan an' begin figgerin' for yourself."
"Don't you see?" said Kate, "it's your death these cowards mean."
Cumberland seemed to grow taller, he stood so stiffly erect with his chin high like a soldier.
"You shan't make no single step to talk with Dan!"
"Can't you understand that it's you they threaten?" she cried.
"I understan' it all," he said evenly. "I'm too old to have a young man damned for my sake."
"Shut him up!" ordered Silent. "The old fool!"
The heavy hand of Terry Jordan clapped over Joe's mouth effectually silenced him. He struggled vainly to speak again and Kate turned to Silent to shut out the sight.
"Tell your man to let him go," she said, "I will do what you wish."
"That's talkin' sense," said Silent. "Come out with me an' I'll saddle your hoss. Call the wolf."
He opened the door and in response to her whistle Black Bart trotted out and followed them out to the horse shed. There the outlaw quickly saddled Kate's pony.
He said: "Whistlin' Dan is sure headin' back in this direction because he's got an idea I'm somewhere near. Bart will find him on the way."
Silent was right. That morning Dan had started back towards Gus Morris's place, for he was sure that the outlaws were camped in that neighbourhood. A little before noon he veered half a mile to the right towards a spring which welled out from a hillside, surrounded by a small grove of willows. Having found it, he drank, and watered Satan, then took off the saddle to ease the stallion, and lay down at a little distance for a ten-minute siesta, one of those half wakeful sleeps the habit of which he had learned from his wolf.
He was roused from the doze by a tremendous snorting and snarling and found Black Bart playing with Satan. It was their greeting after an absence, and they dashed about among the willows like creatures possessed. Dan brought horse and dog to a motionless stand with a single whistle, and then ran out to the edge of the willows. Down the side of the hill rode Kate at a brisk gallop. In a moment she saw him and called his name, with a welcoming wave of her arm. Now she was off her horse and running to him. He caught her hands and held her for an instant far from him like one striving to draw out the note of happiness into a song. They could not speak.
At last: "I knew you'd find a way to come."
"They let me go, Dan."
He frowned, and her eyes faltered from his.
"They sent me to you to ask you—to free Lee Haines!"
He dropped her hands, and she stood trying to find words to explain, and finding none.
"To free Haines?" he repeated heavily.
"It is Dad," she cried. "They have captured him, and they are holding him. They keep him in exchange for Haines."
"If I free Haines they'll outlaw me. You know that, Kate?"
She made a pace towards him, but he retreated.
"What can I do?" she pleaded desperately. "It is for my father——"
His face brightened as he caught at a new hope.
"Show me the way to Silent's hiding place and I'll free your father an' reach the end of this trail at the same time, Kate!"
She blenched pitifully. It was hopeless to explain.
She watched him miserably.
"I've given them my word to come back alone."
His head bowed. Out of the willows came Satan and Black Bart and stood beside him, the stallion nosing his shoulder affectionately.
"Dan, dear, won't you speak to me? Won't you tell me that you try to understand?"
He said at last: "Yes. I'll free Lee Haines."
The fingers of his right hand trailed slowly across the head of Black Bart. His eyes raised and looked past her far across the running curves of the hills, far away to the misty horizon.
"Dan, you do understand?"
"I didn't know a woman could love a man the way you do Lee Haines. When I send him back to you tell him to watch himself. I'm playin' your game now, but if I meet him afterwards, I'll play my own."
All she could say was: "Will you listen to me no more, Dan?"
"Here's where we say good-bye."
He took her hand and his eyes were as unfathomable as a midnight sky. She turned to her horse and he helped her to the saddle with a steady hand.
That was all. He went back to the willows, his right arm resting on the withers of Black Satan as if upon the shoulder of a friend. As she reached the top of the hill she heard a whistling from the willows, a haunting complaint which brought the tears to her eyes. She spurred her tired horse to escape the sound.