WHISTLING DAN, DESPERADO
It was an urgent business which sent Silent galloping over the hills before dawn. When the first light came he was close to the place of Gus Morris. He slowed his horse to a trot, but after a careful reconnoitring, seeing no one stirring around the sheriff's house, he drew closer and commenced to whistle a range song, broken here and there with a significant phrase which sounded like a signal. Finally a cloth was waved from a window, and Silent, content, turned his back on the house, and rode away at a walk.
Within half an hour the pounding of a horse approached from behind. The plump sheriff came to a halt beside him, jouncing in the saddle with the suddenness of the stop.
"What's up?" he called eagerly.
"What's new about him? I know they're talkin' about that play he made agin Haines. They's some says he's a faster man than you, Jim!"
"They say too damned much!" snarled Silent. "This is what's new. Whistlin' Dan Barry—no less—has busted open the jail at Elkhead an' set Lee Haines free."
The sheriff could not speak.
"I fixed it, Gus. I staged the whole little game."
"You fixed it with Whistlin' Dan?"
"Don't ask me how I worked it. The pint is that he did the job. He got into the jail while the lynchers was guardin' it, gettin' ready for a rush. They opened fire. It was after dark last night. Haines an' Dan made a rush for it from the stable on their hosses. They was lynchers everywhere. Haines didn't have no gun. Dan wouldn't trust him with one. He did the shootin' himself. He dropped two of them with two shots. His devil of a wolf-dog brung down another."
"Shootin' at night?"
"Shootin' at night," nodded Silent. "An" now, Gus, they's only one thing left to complete my little game—an' that's to get Whistlin' Dan Barry proclaimed an outlaw an' put a price on his head, savvy?"
"Why d'you hate him so?" asked Morris curiously.
"Morris, why d'you hate smallpox?"
"Because a man's got no chance fightin' agin it."
"Gus, that's why I hate Whistlin' Dan, but I ain't here to argue. I want you to get Dan proclaimed an outlaw."
The sheriff scowled and bit his lip.
"I can't do it, Jim."
"Why the hell can't you?"
"Don't go jumpin' down my throat. It ain't human to double cross nobody the way you're double crossin' that kid. He's clean. He fights square. He's jest done you a good turn. I can't do it, Jim."
There was an ominous silence.
"Gus," said the outlaw, "how many thousand have I given you?"
The sheriff winced.
"I dunno," he said, "a good many, Jim."
"An' now you're goin' to lay down on me?"
"People are gettin' pretty excited nowadays," went on Silent carelessly. "Maybe they'd get a lot more excited if they was to know jest how much I've paid you, Gus."
The sheriff struck his forehead with a pudgy hand.
"When a man's sold his soul to the devil they ain't no way of buyin' it back."
"When you're all waked up," said Silent soothingly, "they ain't no more reasonable man than you, Gus. But sometimes you get to seein' things cross-eyed. Here's my game. What do you think they'd do in Elkhead if a letter came for Dan Barry along about now?"
"The boys must be pretty hot," said the sheriff. "I suppose the letter'd be opened."
"It would," said the outlaw. "You're sure a clever feller, Gus. You c'n see a white hoss in the sunlight. Now what d'you suppose they'd think if they opened a letter addressed to Dan Barry and read something like this:
"'Dear Dan: You made great play for L. H. None of us is going to forget it. Maybe the thing for you to do is to lay low for a while. Then join us any time you want to. We all think nobody could of worked that stunt any smoother than you done. The rest of the boys say that two thousand ain't enough for the work you've done. They vote that you get an extra thousand for it. I'm agreeable about that, and when you get short of cash just drop up and see us—you know where."'That's a great bluff you've made about being on my trail. Keep it up. It'll fool everybody for a while. They'll think, maybe, that what you did for L. H. was because he was your personal friend. They won't suspect that you're now one of us.
Silent waited for the effect of this missive to show in Morris's face.
"Supposin' they was to read a letter like that, Gus. D'you think maybe it'd sort of peeve them?"
"He'd be outlawed inside of two days!"
"Right. Here's the letter. An' you're goin' to see that it's delivered in Elkhead, Morris."
The sheriff looked sombrely on the little square of white.
"I sort of think," he said at last, "that this here's the death warrant for Whistlin' Dan Barry."
"So do I," grinned Silent, considerably thirsty for action. "That's your chance to make one of your rarin', tarin' speeches. Then you hop into the telegraph office an' send a wire to the Governor askin' that a price be put on the head of the bloodthirsty desperado, Dan Barry, commonly known as Whistlin' Dan."
"It's like something out of a book," said the sheriff slowly. "It's like some damned horror story."
"The minute you get the reply to that telegram swear in forty deputies and announce that they's a price on Barry's head. So long, Gus. This little play'll make the boys figger you're the most efficient sheriff that never pulled a gun."
He turned his horse, laughing loudly, and the sheriff, with that laughter in his ears, rode back towards his hotel with a downward head.
All day at the Daniels's house the fever grew perceptibly, and that night the family held a long consultation.
"They's got to be somethin' done," said Buck. "I'm goin' to ride into town tomorrow an' get ahold of Doc Geary."
"There ain't no use of gettin' that fraud Geary," said Mrs. Daniels scornfully. "I think that if the boy c'n be saved I c'n do it as well as that doctor. But there ain't no doctor c'n help him. The trouble with Dan ain't his wound—it's his mind that's keepin' him low."
"His mind?" queried old Sam.
"Listen to him now. What's all that talkin' about Delilah?"
"If it ain't Delilah it's Kate," said Buck. "Always one of the two he's talkin' about. An' when he talks of them his fever gets worse. Who's Delilah, an' who's Kate?"
"They's one an' the same person," said Mrs. Daniels. "It do beat all how blind men are!"
"Are we now?" said her husband with some heat. "An' what good would it do even if we knowed that they was the same?"
"Because if we could locate the girl they's a big chance she'd bring him back to reason. She'd make his brain quiet, an' then his body'll take care of itself, savvy?"
"But they's a hundred Kates in the range," said Sam. "Has he said her last name, Buck, or has he given you any way of findin' out where she lives?"
"There ain't no way," brooded Buck, "except that when he talks about her sometimes he speaks of Lee Haines like he wanted to kill him. Sometimes he's dreamin' of havin' Lee by the throat. D'you honest think that havin' the girl here would do any good, ma?"
"Of course it would," she answered. "He's in love, that poor boy is, an' love is worse than bullets for some men. I don't mean you or Sam. Lord knows you wouldn't bother yourselves none about a woman."
Her eyes challenged them.
"He talks about Lee havin' the girl?" asked Sam.
"He sure does," said Buck, "which shows that he's jest ravin'. How could Lee have the girl, him bein' in jail at Elkhead?"
"But maybe Lee had her before Whistlin' Dan got him at Morris's place. Maybe she's up to Silent's camp now."
"A girl in Jim Silent's camp?" repeated Buck scornfully. "Jim'd as soon have a ton of lead hangin' on his shoulders."
"Would he though?" broke in Mrs. Daniels. "You're considerable young, Buck, to be sayin' what men'll do where they's women concerned. Where is this camp?"
"I dunno," said Buck evasively. "Maybe up in the hills. Maybe at the old Salton place. If I thought she was there, I'd risk goin' up and gettin' her—with her leave or without it!"
"Don't be talkin' fool stuff like that," said his mother anxiously. "You ain't goin' near Jim Silent agin, Buck!"
He shrugged his shoulders, with a scowl, and turned away to go back to the bedside of Whistling Dan.
In the morning Buck was hardly less haggard than Dan. His mother, with clasped hands and an anxious face, stood at the foot of the bed, but her trouble was more for her son than for Dan. Old Sam was out saddling Buck's horse, for they had decided that the doctor must be brought from Elkhead at once.
"I don't like to leave him," growled Buck. "I misdoubt what may be happenin' while I'm gone."
"Don't look at me like that," said his mother. "Why, Buck, a body would think that if he dies while you're gone you'll accuse your father an' mother of murder."
"Don't be no minute away from him," urged Buck, "that's all I ask."
"Cure his brain," said his mother monotonously, "an' his body'll take care of itself. Who's that talkin' with your dad outside?"
Very faintly they caught the sound of voices, and after a moment the departing clatter of a galloping horse. Old Sam ran into the house breathless.
"Who was it? What's the matter, pa?" asked his wife, for the old cowpuncher's face was pale even through his tan.
"Young Seaton was jest here. He an' a hundred other fellers is combin' the range an' warnin' everyone agin that Dan Barry. The bullet in his shoulder—he got it while he was breaking jail with Lee Haines. An' he shot down the hosses of two men an' his dog pulled down a third one."
"Busted jail with Lee Haines!" breathed Buck. "It ain't no ways nacheral. Which Dan hates Lee Haines!"
"He was bought off by Jim Silent," said old Sam. "They opened a letter in Elkhead, an' the letter told everything. It was signed "J. S." an' it thanked Dan for gettin' "L. H." free."
"It's a lie!" said Buck doggedly.
"Buck! Sam!" cried Mrs. Daniels, seeing the two men of her family glaring at each other with something like hate in their eyes. "Sam, have you forgot that this lad has eat your food in your house?"
Sam turned as crimson as he had been pale before.
"I forgot," he muttered. "I was scared an' forgot!"
"An' maybe you've forgot that I'd be swingin' on the end of a rope in Elkhead if it wasn't for Dan Barry?" suggested Buck.
"Buck," said his father huskily, "I'm askin' your pardon. I got sort of panicky for a minute, that's all. But what are we goin' to do with him? If he don't get help he'll be a dead man quick. An' you can't go to Elkhead for the doctor. They'd doctor Dan with six-guns, that's what they'd do."
"What could of made him do it?" said Mrs. Daniels, wiping a sudden burst of tears from her eyes.
"Oh, God," said Buck. "How'd I know why he done it? How'd I know why he turned me loose when he should of took me to Elkhead to be lynched by the mob there? The girl's the only thing to help him outside of a doctor. I'm goin' to get the girl."
"I dunno. Maybe I'll try the old Salton place."
"And take her away from Jim Silent?" broke in his father. "You might jest as well go an' shoot yourse'f before startin'. That'll save your hoss the long ride, an' it'll bring you to jest the same end."
"Listen!" said Buck, "they's the wolf mournin'!"
"Buck, you're loco!"
"Hush, pa!" whispered Mrs. Daniels.
She caught the hand of her brawny son.
"Buck, I'm no end proud of you, lad. If you die, it's a good death! Tell me, Buck dear, have you got a plan?"
He ground his big hand across his forehead, scowling.
"I dunno," he said, drawing a long breath. "I jest know that I got to get the girl. Words don't say what I mean. All I know is that I've got to go up there an' get that girl, and bring her back so's she can save Dan, not from the people that's huntin' him, but from himself."
"There ain't no way of changin' you?" said his father.
"Pa," said Mrs. Daniels, "sometimes you're a plumb fool!"
Buck was already in the saddle. He waved farewell, but after he set his face towards the far-away hills he never turned his head. Behind him lay the untamed three. Before him, somewhere among those naked, sunburned hills, was the woman whose love could reclaim the wild.
A dimness came before his eyes. He attempted to curse at this weakness, but in place of the blasphemy something swelled in his throat, and a still, small music filled his heart. And when at last he was able to speak his lips framed a vow like that of the old crusaders.