It was a great day and also a sad one for Morgan. His general store and saloon had been bought out by old Joe Cumberland, who declared a determination to clear up the landscape, and thereby plunged the cowpunchers in gloom. They partially forgave Cumberland, but only because he was an old man. A younger reformer would have met armed resistance. Morgan's place was miles away from the next oasis in the desert and the closing meant dusty, thirsty leagues of added journey to every man in the neighbourhood. The word "neighbourhood," of course, covered a territory fifty miles square.
If the day was very sad for this important reason, it was also very glad, for rustling Morgan advertised the day of closing far and wide, and his most casual patrons dropped all business to attend the big doings. A long line of buckboards and cattle ponies surrounded the place. Newcomers galloped in every few moments. Most of them did not stop to tether their mounts, but simply dropped the reins over the heads of the horses and then went with rattling spurs and slouching steps into the saloon. Every man was greeted by a shout, for one or two of those within usually knew him, and when they raised a cry the others joined in for the sake of good fellowship. As a rule he responded by ordering everyone up to the bar.
One man, however, received no more greeting than the slamming of the door behind him. He was a tall, handsome fellow with tawny hair and a little smile of habit rather than mirth upon his lips. He had ridden up on a strong bay horse, a full two hands taller than the average cattle pony, and with legs and shoulders and straight back that unmistakably told of a blooded pedigree. When he entered the saloon he seemed nowise abashed by the silence, but greeted the turned heads with a wave of the hand and a good-natured "Howdy, boys!" A volley of greetings replied to him, for in the mountain-desert men cannot be strangers after the first word.
"Line up and hit the red-eye," he went on, and leaning against the bar as he spoke, his habitual smile broadened into one of actual invitation. Except for a few groups who watched the gambling in the corners of the big room, there was a general movement towards the bar.
"And make it a tall one, boys," went on the genial stranger. "This is the first time I ever irrigated Morgan's place, and from what I have heard today about the closing I suppose it will be the last time. So here's to you, Morgan!"
And he waved his glass towards the bartender. His voice was well modulated and his enunciation bespoke education. This, in connection with his careful clothes and rather modish riding-boots, might have given him the reputation of a dude, had it not been for several other essential details of his appearance. His six-gun hung so low that he would scarcely have to raise his hand to grasp the butt. He held his whisky glass in his left hand, and the right, which rested carelessly on his hip, was deeply sunburned, as if he rarely wore a glove. Moreover, his eyes were marvellously direct, and they lingered a negligible space as they touched on each man in the room. All of this the cattlemen noted instantly. What they did not see on account of his veiling fingers was that he poured only a few drops of the liquor into his glass.
In the meantime another man who had never before "irrigated" at Morgan's place, rode up. His mount, like that of the tawny-haired rider, was considerably larger and more finely built than the common range horse. In three days of hard work a cattle pony might wear down these blooded animals, but would find it impossible to either overtake or escape them in a straight run. The second stranger, short-legged, barrel-chested, and with a scrub of black beard, entered the barroom while the crowd was still drinking the health of Morgan. He took a corner chair, pushed back his hat until a mop of hair fell down his forehead, and began to roll a cigarette. The man of the tawny hair took the next seat.
"Seems to be quite a party, stranger," said the tall fellow nonchalantly.
"Sure," growled he of the black beard, and after a moment he added: "Been out on the trail long, pardner?"
"As a matter of fact, I've got a lot of hard riding before me."
"And some long riding, too."
Perhaps it was because he turned his head suddenly towards the light, but a glint seemed to come in the eyes of the bearded man.
"Long rides," he said more amiably, "are sure hell on hosses."
"And on men, too," nodded the other, and tilted back in his chair.
The bearded man spoke again, but though a dozen cowpunchers were close by no one heard his voice except the man at his side. One side of his face remained perfectly immobile and his eyes stared straight before him drearily while he whispered from a corner of his mouth: "How long do you stay, Lee?"
"Noon," said Lee.
Once more the shorter man spoke in the manner which is learned in a penitentiary: "Me too. We must be slated for the same ride, Lee. Do you know what it is? It's nearly noon, and the chief ought to be here."
There was a loud greeting for a newcomer, and Lee took advantage of the noise to say quite openly: "If Silent said he'll come, he'll be here. But I say he's crazy to come to a place full of range riders, Bill."
"Take it easy," responded Bill. "This hangout is away off our regular beat. Nobody'll know him."
"His hide is his own and he can do what he wants with it," said Lee. "I warned him before."
"Shut up," murmured Bill, "Here's Jim now, and Hal Purvis with him!"
Through the door strode a great figure before whom the throng at the bar gave way as water rolls back from the tall prow of a ship. In his wake went a little man with a face dried and withered by the sun and small bright eyes which moved continually from side to side. Lee and Bill discovered their thirst at the same time and made towards the newcomers.
They had no difficulty in reaching them. The large man stood with his back to the bar, his elbows spread out on it, so that there was a little space left on either side of him. No one cared to press too close to this sombre-faced giant. Purvis stood before him and Bill and Lee were instantly at his side. The two leaned on the bar, facing him, yet the four did not seem to make a group set apart from the rest.
"Well?" asked Lee.
"I'll tell you what it is when we're on the road," said Jim Silent. "Plenty of time, Haines."
"Who'll start first?" asked Bill.
"You can, Kilduff," said the other. "Go straight north, and go slow. Then Haines will follow you. Purvis next. I come last because I got here last. There ain't any hurry—What's this here?"
"I tell you I seen it!" called an angry voice from a corner.
"You must of been drunk an' seein' double, partner," drawled the answer.
"Look here!" said the first man, "I'm willin' to take that any way you mean it!"
"An' I'm willin'," said the other, "that you should take it any way you damn please."
Everyone in the room was grave except Jim Silent and his three companions, who were smiling grimly.
"By God, Jack," said the first man with ominous softness, "I'll take a lot from you but when it comes to doubtin' my word——"
Morgan, with popping eyes and a very red face, slapped his hand on the bar and vaulted over it with more agility than his plumpness warranted. He shouldered his way hurriedly through the crowd to the rapidly widening circle around the two disputants. They stood with their right hands resting with rigid fingers low down on their hips, and their eyes, fixed on each other, forgot the rest of the world. Morgan burst in between them.
"Look here," he thundered, "it's only by way of a favour that I'm lettin' you boys wear shootin' irons today because I promised old Cumberland there wouldn't be no fuss. If you got troubles there's enough room for you to settle them out in the hills, but there ain't none at all in here!"
The gleam went out of their eyes like four candles snuffed by the wind. Obviously they were both glad to have the tension broken. Mike wiped his forehead with a rather unsteady hand.
"I ain't huntin' for no special brand of trouble," he said, "but Jack has been ridin' the red-eye pretty hard and it's gotten into that dried up bean he calls his brain."
"Say, partner," drawled Jack, "I ain't drunk enough of the hot stuff to make me fall for the line you've been handing out."
He turned to Morgan.
"Mike, here, has been tryin' to make me believe that he knew a feller who could drill a dollar at twenty yards every time it was tossed up."
The crowd laughed, Morgan loudest of all.
"Did you anyways have Whistlin' Dan in mind?" he asked.
"No, I didn't," said Mike, "an' I didn't say this here man I was talkin' about could drill them every time. But he could do it two times out of four."
"Mike," said Morgan, and he softened his disbelief with his smile and the good-natured clap on the shoulder, "you sure must of been drinkin' when you seen him do it. I allow Whistlin' Dan could do that an' more, but he ain't human with a gun."
"How d'you know?" asked Jack, "I ain't ever seen him packin' a six-gun."
"Sure you ain't," answered Morgan, "but I have, an' I seen him use it, too. It was jest sort of by chance I saw it."
"Well," argued Mike anxiously, "then you allow it's possible if Whistlin' Dan can do it. An' I say I seen a chap who could turn the trick."
"An' who in hell is this Whistlin' Dan?" asked Jim Silent.
"He's the man that caught Satan, an' rode him," answered a bystander.
"Some man if he can ride the devil," laughed Lee Haines.
"I mean the black mustang that ran wild around here for a couple of years. Some people tell tales about him being a wonder with a gun. But Morgan's the only one who claims to have seen him work."
"Maybe you did see it, and maybe you didn't," Morgan was saying to Mike noncommittally, "but there's some pretty fair shots in this room, which I'd lay fifty bucks no man here could hit a dollar with a six-gun at twenty paces."
"While they're arguin'," said Bill Kilduff, "I reckon I'll hit the trail."
"Wait a minute," grinned Jim Silent, "an' watch me have some fun with these short-horns."
He spoke more loudly: "Are you makin' that bet for the sake of arguin', partner, or do you calculate to back it up with cold cash?"
Morgan whirled upon him with a scowl, "I ain't pulled a bluff in my life that I can't back up!" he said sharply.
"Well," said Silent, "I ain't so flush that I'd turn down fifty bucks when a kind Christian soul, as the preachers say, slides it into my glove. Not me. Lead out the dollar, pal, an' kiss it farewell!"
"Who'll hold the stakes?" asked Morgan.
"Let your friend Mike," said Jim Silent carelessly, and he placed fifty dollars in gold in the hands of the Irishman. Morgan followed suit. The crowd hurried outdoors.
A dozen bets were laid in as many seconds. Most of the men wished to place their money on the side of Morgan, but there were not a few who stood willing to risk coin on Jim Silent, stranger though he was. Something in his unflinching eye, his stern face, and the nerveless surety of his movements commanded their trust.
"How do you stand, Jim?" asked Lee Haines anxiously. "Is it a safe bet? I've never seen you try a mark like this one!"
"It ain't safe," said Silent, "because I ain't mad enough to shoot my best, but it's about an even draw. Take your pick."
"Not me," said Haines, "if you had ten chances instead of one I might stack some coin on you. If the dollar were stationary I know you could do it, but a moving coin looks pretty small."
"Here you are," called Morgan, who stood at a distance of twenty paces, "are you ready?"
Silent whipped out his revolver and poised it. "Let 'er go!"
The coin whirled in the air. Silent fired as it commenced to fall—it landed untouched.
"As a kind, Christian soul," said Morgan sarcastically, "I ain't in your class, stranger. Charity always sort of interests me when I'm on the receivin' end!"
The crowd chuckled, and the sound infuriated Silent.
"Don't go back jest yet, partners," he drawled. "Mister Morgan, I got one hundred bones which holler that I can plug that dollar the second try."
"Boys," grinned Morgan, "I'm leavin' you to witness that I hate to do it, but business is business. Here you are!"
The coin whirled again. Silent, with his lips pressed into a straight line and his brows drawn dark over his eyes, waited until the coin reached the height of its rise, and then fired—missed—fired again, and sent the coin spinning through the air in a flashing semicircle. It was a beautiful piece of gun-play. In the midst of the clamour of applause Silent strode towards Morgan with his hand outstretched.
"After all," he said. "I knowed you wasn't really hard of heart. It only needed a little time and persuasion to make you dig for coin when I pass the box."
Morgan, red of face and scowling, handed over his late winnings and his own stakes.
"It took you two shots to do it," he said, "an' if I wanted to argue the pint maybe you wouldn't walk off with the coin."
"Partner," said Jim Silent gently, "I got a wanderin' hunch that you're showin' a pile of brains by not arguin' this here pint!"
There followed that little hush of expectancy which precedes trouble, but Morgan, after a glance at the set lips of his opponent, swallowed his wrath.
"I s'pose you'll tell how you did this to your kids when you're eighty," he said scornfully, "but around here, stranger, they don't think much of it. Whistlin' Dan"—he paused, as if to calculate how far he could safely exaggerate—"Whistlin' Dan can stand with his back to the coins an' when they're thrown he drills four dollars easier than you did one—an' he wouldn't waste three shots on one dollar. He ain't so extravagant!"