Before the coyote cried again, three shadows glided into the night. The lighted window in the house was like a staring eye that searched after them, but Satan, with the wolf running before, vanished quickly among the shadows of the hills. They were glad. They were loosed in the void of the mountain-desert with no destiny save the will of the master. They seemed like one being rather than three. The wolf was the eyes, the horse the strong body to flee or pursue, and the man was the brain which directed, and the power which struck.
He had formulated no plan of action to free Buck and kill Silent. All he knew was that he must reach the lone riders at once, and he would learn their whereabouts from Morris. He rode more slowly as he approached the hotel of the sheriff. Lights burned at the dining-room windows. Probably the host still sat at table with his guests, but it was strange that they should linger over their meal so late. He had hoped that he would be able to come upon Morris by surprise. Now he must take him in the midst of many men. With Black Bart slinking at his heels he walked softly across the porch and tiptoed through the front room.
The door to the dining-room was wide. Around the table sat a dozen men, with the sheriff at their head. The latter, somewhat red of face, as if from the effort of a long speech, was talking low and earnestly, sometimes brandishing his clenched fist with such violence that it made his flabby cheeks quiver.
"We'll get to the house right after dawn," he was saying, "because that's the time when most men are so thick-headed with sleep that——"
"Not Whistling Dan Barry," said one of the men, shaking his head. "He won't be thick-headed. Remember, I seen him work in Elkhead, when he slipped through the hands of a roomful of us."
A growl of agreement went around the table, and Black Bart in sympathy, echoed the noise softly.
"What's that?" called the sheriff, raising his head sharply.
Dan, with a quick gesture, made Black Bart slink a pace back.
"Nothin'," replied one of the men. "This business is gettin' on your nerves, sheriff. I don't blame you. It's gettin' on mine."
"I'm trustin' to you boys to stand back of me all through," said the sheriff with a sort of whine, "but I'm thinkin' that we won't have no trouble. When we see him we won't stop for no questions to be asked, but turn loose with our six-guns an' shoot him down like a dog. He's not human an' he don't deserve—Oh, God!"
He started up from his chair, white faced, his hands high above his head, staring at the apparition of Whistling Dan, who stood with two revolvers covering the posse. Every man was on his feet instantly, with arms straining stiffly up. The muzzles of revolvers are like the eyes of some portraits. No matter from what angle you look at them, they seem directed straight at you. And every cowpuncher in the room was sure that he was the main object of Dan's aim.
"Morris!" said Dan.
"For God's sake, don't shoot!" screamed the sheriff. "I——"
"Git down on your knees! Watch him, Bart!"
As the sheriff sank obediently to his knees, the wolf slipped up to him with a stealthy stride and stood half crouched, his teeth bared, silent. No growl could have made Bart more terribly threatening. Dan turned completely away from Morris so that he could keep a more careful watch on the others.
"Call off your wolf!" moaned Morris, a sob of terror in his voice.
"I ought to let him set his teeth in you," said Dan, "but I'm goin' to let you off if you'll tell me what I want to know."
"Where's Jim Silent?"
All eyes flashed towards Morris. The latter, as the significance of the question came home to him, went even a sicklier white, like the belly of a dead fish. His eyes moved swiftly about the circle of his posse. Their answering glares were sternly forbidding.
"Out with it!" commanded Dan.
The sheriff strove mightily to speak, but only a ghastly whisper came: "You got the wrong tip, Dan. I don't know nothin' about Silent. I'd have him in jail if I did!"
"Bart!" said Dan.
The wolf slunk closer to the kneeling man. His hot breath fanned the face of the sheriff and his lips grinned still farther back from the keen, white teeth.
"Help!" yelled Morris. "He's at the shanty up on Bald-eagle Creek."
A rumble, half cursing and half an inarticulate snarl of brute rage, rose from the cowpunchers.
"Bart," called Dan again, and leaped back from the door, raced out to Satan, and drove into the night at a dead gallop.
Half the posse rushed after him. A dozen shots were pumped after the disappearing shadowy figure. Two or three jumped into their saddles. The others called them back.
"Don't be an ass, Monte," said one. "You got a good hoss, but you ain't fool enough to think he c'n catch Satan?"
They trooped back to the dining-room, and gathered in a silent circle around the sheriff, whose little fear-bright eyes went from face to face.
"Ah, this is the swine," said one, "that was guardin' our lives!"
"Fellers," pleaded the sheriff desperately, "I swear to you that I jest heard of where Silent was today. I was keepin' it dark until after we got Whistling Dan. Then I was goin' to lead you——"
The flat of a heavy hand struck with a resounding thwack across his lips. He reeled back against the wall, sputtering the blood from his split mouth.
"Pat," said Monte, "your hoss is done for. Will you stay here an' see that he don't get away? We'll do somethin' with him when we get back."
Pat caught the sheriff by his shirt collar and jerked him to a chair. The body of the fat man was trembling like shaken jelly. The posse turned away.
They could not overtake Whistling Dan on his black stallion, but they might arrive before Silent and his gang got under way. Their numbers were over small to attack the formidable lone riders, but they wanted blood. Before Whistling Dan reached the valley of Bald-eagle Creek they were in the saddle and riding hotly in pursuit.