The Untamed/35

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In that time-ruined shack towards which the posse and Dan Barry rode, the outlaws sat about on the floor eating their supper when Hal Purvis entered. He had missed the trail from the Salton place to the Bald-eagle half a dozen times that day, and that had not improved his bitter mood.

"You been gone long enough," growled Silent. "Sit down an' chow an' tell us what you know."

"I don't eat with no damned traitors," said Purvis savagely. "Stan' up an' tell us that you're a double crossin' houn', Buck Daniels!"

"You better turn in an' sleep," said Buck calmly. "I've knowed men before that loses their reason for want of sleep!"

"Jim," said Purvis, turning sharply on the chief, "Barry is at Buck's house!"

"You lie!" said Buck.

"Do I lie?" said Purvis, grinding his teeth. "I seen Black Bart hangin' around your house."

Jim Silent reached out a heavy paw and dropped it on the shoulder of Buck. Their eyes met through a long moment, and then the glance of Buck wavered and fell.

"Buck," said Silent, "I like you. I don't want to believe what Purvis says. Give me your word of honour that Whistlin' Dan——"

"He's right, Jim," said Buck.

"An' he dies like a yaller cur!" broke in Purvis, snarling.

"No," said Silent, "when one of the boys goes back on the gang, they pay me, not the rest of you! Daniels, take your gun and git down to the other end of the room an' stand with your face to the wall. I'll stay at this end. Keep your arms folded. Haines, you stand over there an' count up to three. Then holler: 'Fire!' an' we'll turn an' start shootin'. The rest of you c'n be judge if that's fair."

"Too damned fair," said Kilduff. "I say: String him up an' drill the skunk full of holes."

Without a word Buck turned on his heel.

"One moment," said Haines.

"He ain't your meat, Lee," said Silent. "Jest keep your hand out of this."

"I only wish to ask him a question," said Haines. He turned to Buck: "Do you mean to say that after Barry's wolf cut up your arm, you've been giving Whistling Dan a shelter from the law—and from us?"

"I give him a place to stay because he was damned near death," said Buck. "An' there's one thing you'll answer for in hell, Haines, an' that's ridin' off an' leavin' the man that got you out of Elkhead. He was bleedin' to death."

"Shot?" said Haines, changing colour.

Silent broke in: "Buck, go take your place and say your prayers."

"Stay where you are!" commanded Haines. "And the girl?"

"He was lyin' sick in bed, ravin' about 'Delilah' an' 'Kate.' So I come an' got the girl."

Haines dropped his head.

"An' when he was lyin' there," said Silent fiercely, "you could of made an' end of him without half liftin' your hand, an' you didn't."

"Silent," said Haines, "if you want to talk, speak to me."

"What in hell do you mean, Lee?"

"You can't get at Buck except through me."

"Because that devil Barry got a bullet for your sake are you goin' to——"

"I've lived a rotten life," said Haines.

"An' I suppose you think this is a pretty good way of dyin'?" sneered Silent.

"I have more cause to fight for Barry than Buck has," said Haines.

"Lee, we've been pals too long."

"Silent, I've hated you like a snake ever since I met you. But outlaws can't choose their company."

His tawny head rose. He stared haughtily around the circle of lowering faces.

"By God," said Silent, white with passion, "I'm beginnin' to think you do hate me! Git down there an' take your place. You're first an' Daniels comes next. Kilduff, you c'n count!"

He stalked to the end of the room. Haines lingered one moment.

"Buck," he said, "there's one chance in ten thousand that I'll make this draw the quickest of the two. If I don't, you may live through it. Tell Kate——"

"Haines, git to your mark, or I'll start shootin'!"

Haines turned and took his place. The others drew back along the walls of the room. Kilduff took the lamp from the table and held it high above his head. Even then the light was dim and uncertain and the draughts set the flame wavering so that the place was shaken with shadows. The moon sent a feeble shaft of light through the window.

"One!" said Kilduff.

The shoulders of Haines and Silent hunched slightly.

"Two!" said Kilduff.

"God," whispered someone.

"Three. Fire!"

They whirled, their guns exploding at almost the same instant, and Silent lunged for the floor, firing twice as he fell. Haines's second shot split the wall behind Silent. If the outlaw chief had remained standing the bullet would have passed through his head. But as Silent fired the third time the revolver dropped clattering from the hand of Haines. Buck caught him as he toppled inertly forward, coughing blood.

Silent was on his feet instantly.

"Stand back!" he roared to his men, who crowded about the fallen long rider. "Stand back in your places. I ain't finished. I'm jest started. Buck, take your place!"

"Boys!" pleaded Buck, "he's not dead, but he'll bleed to death unless——"

"Damn him, let him bleed. Stand up, Buck, or by God I'll shoot you while you kneel there!"

"Shoot and be damned!"

He tore off his shirt and ripped away a long strip for a bandage.

The revolver poised in Silent's hand.

"Buck, I'm warnin' you for the last time!"

"Fellers, it's murder an' damnation for all if you let Haines die this way!" cried Buck.

The shining barrel of the revolver dropped to a level.

"I've given you a man's chance," said Silent, "an' now you'll have the chance of——"

The door at the side of the room jerked open and a revolver cracked. The lamp shivered to a thousand pieces in the hands of Bill Kilduff. All the room was reduced to a place of formless shadow, dimly lighted by the shaft of moonlight. The voice of Jim Silent, strangely changed and sharpened from his usual bass roar, shrilled over the sudden tumult: "Each man for himself! It's Whistling Dan!"

Terry Jordan and Bill Kilduff rushed at the dim figure, crouched to the floor. Their guns spat fire, but they merely lighted the way to their own destruction. Twice Dan's revolver spoke, and they dropped, yelling. Pandemonium fell on the room.

The lone riders raced here and there, the revolvers coughing fire. For an instant Hal Purvis stood framed against the pallid moonshine at the window. He stiffened and pointed an arm toward the door.

"The werewolf," he screamed.

As if in answer to the call, Black Bart raced across the room. Twice the revolver sounded from the hand of Purvis. Then a shadow leaped from the floor. There was a flash of white teeth, and Purvis lurched to one side and dropped, screaming terribly. The door banged. Suddenly there was silence. The clatter of a galloping horse outside drew swiftly away.

"Dan!"

"Here!"

"Thank God!"

"Buck, one got away! If it was Silent—Here! Bring some matches."

Someone was dragging himself towards the door in a hopeless effort to escape. Several others groaned.

"You, there!" called Buck. "Stay where you are!"

The man who struggled towards the door flattened himself against the floor, moaning pitifully.

"Quick," said Dan, "light a match. Morris's posse is at my heels. No time. If Silent escaped——"

A match flared in the hands of Buck.

"Who's that? Haines!"

"Let him alone, Dan! I'll tell you why later. There's Jordan and Kilduff. That one by the door is Rhinehart."

They ran from one to the other, greeted by groans and deep curses.

"Who's that beneath the window?"

"Too small for Silent. It's Purvis, and he's dead!"

"Bart got him!"

"No! It was fear that killed him. Look at his face!"

"Bart, go out to Satan!"

The wolf trotted from the room.

"My God, Buck, I've done all this for nothin'! It was Silent that got away!"

"What's that?"

Over the groans of the wounded came the sound of running horses, not one, but many, then a call: "Close in! Close in!"

"The posse!" said Dan.

As he jerked open the door a bullet smashed the wood above his head. Three horsemen were closing around Satan and Black Bart. He leaped back into the room.

"They've got Satan, Buck. We've got to try it on foot. Go through the window."

"They've got nothing on me. I'll stick with Haines."

Dan jumped through the window, and raced to the shelter of a big rock. He had hardly dropped behind it when four horsemen galloped around the corner of the house.

"Johnson and Sullivan," ordered the voice of Monte sharply, "watch the window. They're lying low inside, but we've got Barry's horse and wolf. Now we'll get him."

"Come out or we'll burn the house down!" thundered a voice from the other side.

"We surrender!" called Buck within.

A cheer came from the posse. Sullivan and Johnson ran for the window they had been told to guard. The door on the other side of the house slammed open.

"It's a slaughter house!" cried one of the posse.

Dan left the sheltering rock and raced around the house, keeping a safe distance, and dodging from rock to rock. He saw Satan and Black Bart guarded by two men with revolvers in their hands. He might have shot them down, but the distance was too great for accurate gun-play. He whistled shrilly. The two guards wheeled towards him, and as they did so, Black Bart, leaping, caught one by the shoulder, whirling him around and around with the force of the spring. The other fired at Satan, who raced off towards the sound of the whistle. It was an easy shot, but in the utter surprise of the instant the bullet went wide. Before he could fire again Satan was coming to a halt beside Dan.

"Help!" yelled the cattleman. "Whistling Dan!"

The other guard opened fire wildly. Three men ran from the house. All they saw was a black shadow which melted instantly into the night.