Between twilight and dark Whistling Dan entered Elkhead. He rose in the stirrups, on his toes, stretching the muscles of his legs. He was sensing his strength. So the pianist before he plays runs his fingers up and down the keys and sees that all is in tune and the touch perfect.
Two rival saloons faced each other at the end of the single street. At the other extremity of the lane stood the house of deputy sheriff Rogers, and a little farther was the jail. A crowd of horses stood in front of each saloon, but from the throngs within there came hardly a sound. The hush was prophetic of action; it was the lull before the storm. Dan slowed his horse as he went farther down the street.
The shadowy figure of a rider showed near the jail. He narrowed his eyes and looked more closely. Another, another, another horseman showed—four in sight on his side of the jail and probably as many more out of his vision. Eight cattlemen guarded the place from which he must take Lee Haines, and every one of the eight, he had no doubt, was a picked man. Dan pulled up Satan to a walk and commenced to whistle softly. It was like one of those sounds of the wind, a thing to guess at rather than to know, but the effect upon Satan and Black Bart was startling.
The ears of the stallion dropped flat on his neck. He began to slink along with a gliding step which was very like the stealthy pace of Black Bart, stealing ahead. His footfall was as silent as if he had been shod with felt. Meantime Dan ran over a plan of action. He saw very clearly that he had little time for action. Those motionless guards around the jail made his task difficult enough, but there was a still greater danger. The crowds in the two saloons would be starting up the street for Haines before long. Their silence told him that.
A clatter of hoofs came behind him. He did not turn his head, but his hand dropped down to his revolver butt. The fast riding horseman swept and shot on down the street, leaving a pungent though invisible cloud of dust behind him. He stopped in front of Rogers's house and darted up the steps and through the door. Acting upon a premonition, Dan dismounted a short distance from Rogers's house and ran to the door. He opened it softly and found himself in a narrow hall dimly lighted by a smoking lamp. Voices came from the room to his right.
"What d'you mean, Hardy?" the deputy sheriff was saying.
"There's a good many kinds of hell. Come out with it, Lee. I ain't no mind reader."
"They're gettin' ready for the big bust!"
"What big bust?"
"It ain't no use bluffin'. Ain't Silent told you that I'm on the inside of the game?"
"You fool!" cried Rogers. "Don't use that name!"
Dan slipped a couple of paces down the hall and flattened himself against the wall just as the door opened. Rogers looked out, drew a great breath of relief, and went back into the room. Dan resumed his former position.
"Now talk fast!" said Rogers.
"About time for you to drop that rotten bluff. Why, man, I could even tell you jest how much you've cost Jim Silent."
Rogers growled: "Tell me what's up."
"The boys are goin' for the jail tonight. They'll get out Haines an' string him up."
"It's comin' to him. He's played a hard game for a long time."
"An' so have you, Rogers, for a damn long time!"
Rogers swallowed the insult, apparently.
"What can I do?" he asked plaintively. "I'm willin' to give Silent and his gang a square deal."
"You should of done something while they was only a half-dozen cowpunchers in town. Now the town's full of riders an' they're all after blood."
"An' my blood if they don't get Haines!" broke in the deputy sheriff.
"They sure are," he said. "I've heard 'em talk, an' they mean business. All of 'em. But how'd you answer to Jim Silent, Rogers? If you let 'em get Haines—well, Haines is Silent's partner an' Jim'll bust everything wide to get even with you."
"I c'n explain," said Rogers huskily. "I c'n show Silent how I'm helpless."
Footsteps went up and down the room.
"If they start anything," said Rogers, "I'll mark down the names of the ringleaders and I'll give 'em hell afterwards. That'll soothe Jim some."
"You won't know 'em. They'll wear masks."
Dan opened the door and stepped into the room. Rogers started up with a curse and gripped his revolver.
"I never knew you was so fond of gun play," said Dan. "Maybe that gun of yours would be catchin' cold if you was to leave it out of the leather long?"
The sheriff restored his revolver slowly to the holster, glowering.
"An' Rogers won't be needin' you for a minute or two," went on Dan to Hardy.
They seemed to fear even his voice. The Wells Fargo agent vanished through the door and clattered down the steps.
"How long you been standin' at that door?" said Rogers, gnawing his lips.
"Jest for a breathin' space," said Dan.
Rogers squinted his eyes to make up for the dimness of the lamplight.
"By God!" he cried suddenly. "You're Whistlin' Dan Barry!"
He dropped into his chair and passed a trembling hand across his forehead.
He stammered: "Maybe you've changed your mind an' come back for that five thousand?"
"No, I've come for a man, not for money."
"I want Lee Haines before the crowd gets him."
"Would you really try to take Haines out?" asked Rogers with a touch of awe.
"Are there any guards in the jail?"
"Two. Lewis an' Patterson."
"Give me a written order for Haines."
The deputy wavered.
"If I do that I'm done for in this town!"
"Maybe. I want the key for Haines's handcuffs."
"Go over an' put your hoss up in the shed behind the jail," said Rogers, fighting for time, "an' when you come back I'll have the order written out an' give it to you with the key."
"Why not come over with me now?"
"I got some other business."
"In five minutes I'll be back," said Dan, and left the house.
Outside he whistled to Satan, and the stallion trotted up to him. He swung into the saddle and rode to the jail. There was not a guard in sight. He rode around to the other side of the building to reach the stable. Still he could not sight one of those shadowy horsemen who had surrounded the place a few minutes before. Perhaps the crowd had called in the guards to join the attack.
He put Satan away in the stable and as he led him into a stall he heard a roar of many voices far away. Then came the crack of half a dozen revolvers. Dan set his teeth and glanced quickly over the half-dozen horses in the little shed. He recognized the tall bay of Lee Haines at once and threw on its back the saddle which hung on a peg directly behind it. As he drew up the cinch another shout came from the street, but this time very close.
When he raced around the jail he saw the crowd pouring into the house of the deputy sheriff. He ran on till he came to the outskirts of the mob. Every man was masked, but in the excitement no one noticed that Dan's face was bare. Squirming his way through the press, Dan reached the deputy's office. It was almost filled. Rogers stood on a chair trying to argue with the cattlemen.
"No more talk, sheriff," thundered one among the cowpunchers, "we've had enough of your line of talk. Now we want some action of our own brand. For the last time: Are you goin' to order Lewis an' Patterson to give up Haines, or are you goin' to let two good men die fightin' for a damn lone rider?"
"What about the feller who's goin' to take Lee Haines out of Elkhead?" cried another.
The crowd yelled with delight.
"Yes, where is he? What about him?"
Rogers, glancing down from his position on the chair, stared into the brown eyes of Whistling Dan. He stretched out an arm that shook with excitement.
"That feller there!" he cried, "that one without a mask! Whistlin' Dan Barry is the man!"