The crowd laughed again at the excitement of Morgan, and Silent's mirth particularly was loud and long.
"An' if you're still bent on charity," he said at last, "maybe we could find somethin' else to lay a bet on!"
"Anything you name!" said Morgan hotly.
"I suppose," said Silent, "that you're some rider, eh?"
"I c'n get by with most of 'em."
"Yeh—I suppose you never pulled leather in your life?"
"Not any hoss that another man could ride straight up."
"Is that so? Well, partner, you see that roan over there?"
"That tall horse?"
"You got him. You c'n win back that hundred if you stick on his back two minutes. D'you take it?"
Morgan hesitated a moment. The big roan was footing it nervously here and there, sometimes throwing up his head suddenly after the manner of a horse of bad temper. However, the loss of that hundred dollars and the humiliation which accompanied it, weighed heavily on the saloon owner's mind.
"I'll take you," he said.
A high, thrilling whistle came faintly from the distance.
"That fellow on the black horse down the road," said Lee Haines, "I guess he's the one that can hit the four dollars? Ha! ha! ha!"
"Sure," grinned Silent, "listen to his whistle! We'll see if we can drag another bet out of the bar-keep if the roan doesn't hurt him too bad. Look at him now!"
Morgan was having a bad time getting his foot in the stirrup, for the roan reared and plunged. Finally two men held his head and the saloon-keeper swung into the saddle. There was a little silence. The roan, as if doubtful that he could really have this new burden on his back, and still fearful of the rope which had been lately tethering him, went a few short, prancing steps, and then, feeling something akin to freedom, reared straight up, snorting. The crowd yelled with delight, and the sound sent the roan back to all fours and racing down the road. He stopped with braced feet, and Morgan lurched forwards on the neck, yet he struck to his seat gamely. Whistling Dan was not a hundred yards away.
Morgan yelled and swung the quirt. The response of the roan was another race down the road at terrific speed, despite the pull of Morgan on the reins. Just as the running horse reached Whistling Dan, he stopped as short as he had done before, but this time with an added buck and a sidewise lurch all combined, which gave the effect of snapping a whip—and poor Morgan was hurled from the saddle like a stone from a sling. The crowd waved their hats and yelled with delight.
"Look out!" yelled Jim Silent. "Grab the reins!"
But though Morgan made a valiant effort the roan easily swerved past him and went racing down the road.
"My God," groaned Silent, "he's gone!"
"Saddles!" called someone. "We'll catch him!"
"Catch hell!" answered Silent bitterly. "There ain't a hoss on earth that can catch him—an' now that he ain't got the weight of a rider, he'll run away from the wind!"
"Anyway there goes Dan on Satan after him!"
"No use! The roan ain't carryin' a thing but the saddle."
"Satan never seen the day he could make the roan eat dust, anyway!"
"Look at 'em go, boys!"
"There ain't no use," said Jim Silent sadly, "he'll wind his black for nothin'—an' I've lost the best hoss on the ranges."
"I believe him," whispered one man to a neighbour, "because I've got an idea that hoss is Red Peter himself!"
His companion stared at him agape.
"Red Pete!" he said. "Why, pal, that's the hoss that Silent——"
"Maybe it is an' maybe it ain't. But why should we ask too many questions?"
"Let the marshals tend to him. He ain't ever troubled this part of the range."
"Anyway, I'm goin' to remember his face. If it's really Jim Silent, I got something that's worth tellin' to my kids when they grow up."
They both turned and looked at the tall man with an uncomfortable awe.
The rest of the crowd swarmed into the road to watch the race. The black stallion was handicapped many yards at the start before Dan could swing him around after the roan darted past with poor Morgan in ludicrous pursuit. Moreover, the roan had the inestimable advantage of an empty saddle. Yet Satan leaned to his work with a stout heart. There was no rock and pitch to his gait, no jerk and labour to his strides. Those smooth shoulders were corded now with a thousand lines where the steel muscles whipped to and fro. His neck stretched out a little—his ears laid back along the neck—his whole body settled gradually and continually down as his stride lengthened. Whistling Dan was leaning forward so that his body would break less wind. He laughed low and soft as the air whirred into his face, and now and then he spoke to his horse, no yell of encouragement, but a sound hardly louder than a whisper. There was no longer a horse and rider—the two had become one creature—a centaur—the body of a horse and the mind of a man.
For a time the roan increased his advantage, but quickly Satan began to hold him even, and then gain. First inch by inch; then at every stride the distance between them diminished. No easy task. The great roan had muscle, heart, and that empty saddle; as well, perhaps, as a thought of the free ranges which lay before him and liberty from the accursed thraldom of the bit and reins and galling spurs. What he lacked was that small whispering voice—that hand touching lightly now and then on his neck—that thrill of generous sympathy which passes between horse and rider. He lost ground steadily and more and more rapidly. Now the outstretched black head was at his tail, now at his flank, now at his girth, now at his shoulder, now they raced nose and nose. Whistling Dan shifted in the saddle. His left foot took the opposite stirrup. His right leg swung free.
The big roan swerved—the black in response to a word from his rider followed the motion—and then the miracle happened. A shadow plunged through the air; a weight thudded on the saddle of the roan; an iron hand jerked back the reins.
Red Pete hated men and feared them, but this new weight on his back was different. It was not the pressure on the reins which urged him to slow up; he had the bit in his teeth and no human hand could pull down his head; but into the blind love, blind terror, blind rage which makes up the consciousness of a horse entered a force which he had never known before. He realized suddenly that it was folly to attempt to throw off this clinging burden. He might as well try to jump out of his skin. His racing stride shortened to a halting gallop, this to a sharp trot, and in a moment more he was turned and headed back for Morgan's place. The black, who had followed, turned at the same time like a dog and followed with jouncing bridle reins. Black Bart, with lolling red tongue, ran under his head, looking up to the stallion now and again with a comical air of proprietorship, as if he were showing the way.
It was very strange to Red Pete. He pranced sideways a little and shook his head up and down in an effort to regain his former temper, but that iron hand kept his nose down, now, and that quiet voice sounded above him—no cursing, no raking of sharp spurs to torture his tender flanks, no whir of the quirt, but a calm voice of authority and understanding. Red Pete broke into an easy canter and in this fashion they came up to Morgan in the road. Red Pete snorted and started to shy, for he recognized the clumsy, bouncing weight which had insulted his back not long before; but this quiet voiced master reassured him, and he came to a halt.
"That red devil has cost me a hundred bones and all the skin on my knees," groaned Morgan, "and I can hardly walk. Damn his eyes. But say, Dan"—and his eyes glowed with an admiration which made him momentarily forget his pains—"that was some circus stunt you done down the road there—that changin' of saddles on the run, I never seen the equal of it!"
"If you got hurt in the fall," said Dan quietly, overlooking the latter part of the speech, "why don't you climb onto Satan. He'll take you back."
"Say, kid, I'd take a chance with Satan, but there ain't any hospital for fools handy."
"Go ahead. He won't stir a foot. Steady, Satan!"
"All right," said Morgan, "every step is sure like pullin' teeth!"
He ventured closer to the black stallion, but was stopped short. Black Bart was suddenly changed to a green-eyed devil, his hair bristling around his shoulders, his teeth bared, and a snarl that came from the heart of a killer. Satan also greeted his proposed rider with ears laid flat back on his neck and a quivering anger.
"If I'm goin' to ride Satan," declared Morgan, "I got to shoot the dog first and then blindfold the hoss."
"No you don't," said Dan. "No one else has ever had a seat on Satan, but I got an idea he'll make an exception for a sort of temporary cripple. Steady, boy. Here you, Bart, come over here an' keep your face shut!"
The dog, after a glance at his master, moved reluctantly away, keeping his eyes upon Morgan. Satan backed away with a snort. He stopped at the command of Dan, but when Morgan laid a hand on the bridle and spoke to him he trembled with fear and anger. The saloon-keeper turned away.
"Thankin' you jest the same, Dan," he said, "I think I c'n walk back.I'd as soon ride a tame tornado as that hoss."
He limped on down the road with Dan riding beside him. Black Bart slunk at his heels, sniffing.
"Dan, I'm goin' to ask you a favour—an' a big one; will you do it for me?"
"Sure," said Whistling Dan. "Anything I can."
"There's a skunk down there with a bad eye an' a gun that jumps out of its leather like it had a mind of its own. He picked me for fifty bucks by nailing a dollar I tossed up at twenty yards. Then he gets a hundred because I couldn't ride this hoss of his. Which he's made a plumb fool of me, Dan. Now I was tellin' him about you—maybe I was sort of exaggeratin'—an' I said you could have your back turned when the coins was tossed an' then pick off four dollars before they hit the ground. I made it a bit high, Dan?"
His eyes were wistful.
"Nick four round boys before they hit the dust?" said Dan. "Maybe I could, I don't know. I can't try it, anyway, Morgan, because I told Dad Cumberland I'd never pull a gun while there was a crowd aroun'."
Morgan sighed; he hesitated, and then: "But you promised you'd do me a favour, Dan?"
The rider started.
"I forgot about that—I didn't think——"
"It's only to do a shootin' trick," said Morgan eagerly. "It ain't pullin' a gun on any one. Why, lad, if you'll tell me you got a ghost of a chance, I'll bet every cent in my cash drawer on you agin that skunk! You've give me your word, Dan."
Whistling Dan shrugged his shoulders.
"I've given you my word," he said, "an' I'll do it. But I guess Dad Cumberland'll be mighty sore on me."
A laugh rose from the crowd at Morgan's place, which they were nearing rapidly. It was like a mocking comment on Dan's speech. As they came closer they could see money changing hands in all directions.
"What'd you do to my hoss?" asked Jim Silent, walking out to meet them.
"He hypnotized him," said Hal Purvis, and his lips twisted over yellow teeth into a grin of satisfaction.
"Git out of the saddle damn quick," growled Silent. "It ain't nacheral he'd let you ride him like he was a plough-hoss. An' if you've tried any fancy stunts, I'll——"
"Take it easy," said Purvis as Dan slipped from the saddle without showing the slightest anger. "Take it easy. You're a bum loser. When I seen the black settle down to his work," he explained to Dan with another grin, "I knowed he'd nail him in the end an' I staked twenty on you agin my friend here! That was sure a slick change of hosses you made."
There were other losers. Money chinked on all sides to an accompaniment of laughter and curses. Jim Silent was examining the roan with a scowl, while Bill Kilduff and Hal Purvis approached Satan to look over his points. Purvis reached out towards the bridle when a murderous snarl at his feet made him jump back with a shout. He stood with his gun poised, facing Black Bart.
"Who's got any money to bet this damn wolf lives more'n five seconds?" he said savagely.
"I have," said Dan.
"Who in hell are you? What d'you mean by trailing this man-killer around?"
He turned to Dan with his gun still poised.
"Bart ain't a killer," said Dan, and the gentleness of his voice was oil on troubled waters, "but he gets peeved when a stranger comes nigh to the hoss."
"All right this time," said Purvis, slowly restoring his gun to its holster, "but if this wolf of yours looks cross-eyed at me agin he'll hit the long trail that ain't got any end, savvy?"
"Sure," said Dan, and his soft brown eyes smiled placatingly.
Purvis kept his right hand close to the butt of his gun and his eyes glinted as if he expected an answer somewhat stronger than words. At this mild acquiescence he turned away, sneering. Silent, having discovered that he could find no fault with Dan's treatment of his horse, now approached with an ominously thin-lipped smile. Lee Haines read his face and came to his side with a whisper: "Better cut out the rough stuff, Jim. This chap hasn't hurt anything but your cash, and he's already taken water from Purvis. I guess there's no call for you to make any play."
"Shut your face, Haines," responded Silent, in the same tone. "He's made a fool of me by showin' up my hoss, an' by God I'm goin' to give him a man-handlin' he'll never forgit."
He whirled on Morgan.
"How about it, bar-keep, is this the dead shot you was spillin' so many words about?"
Dan, as if he could not understand the broad insult, merely smiled at him with marvellous good nature.
"Keep away from him, stranger," warned Morgan. "Jest because he rode your hoss you ain't got a cause to hunt trouble with him. He's been taught not to fight."
Silent, still looking Dan over with insolent eyes, replied: "He sure sticks to his daddy's lessons. Nice an' quiet an' house broke, ain't he? In my part of the country they dress this kind of a man in gal's clothes so's nobody'll ever get sore at him an' spoil his pretty face. Better go home to your ma. This ain't any place for you. They's men aroun' here."
There was another one of those grimly expectant hushes and then a general guffaw; Dan showed no inclination to take offence. He merely stared at brawny Jim Silent with a sort of childlike wonder.
"All right," he said meekly, "if I ain't wanted around here I figger there ain't any cause why I should stay. You don't figger to be peeved at me, do you?"
The laughter changed to a veritable yell of delight. Even Silent smiled with careless contempt.
"No, kid," he answered, "if I was peeved at you, you'd learn it without askin' questions."
He turned slowly away.
"Maybe I got jaundice, boys," he said to the crowd, "but it seems to me I see something kind of yellow around here!"
The delightful subtlety of this remark roused another side-shaking burst of merriment. Dan shook his head as if the mystery were beyond his comprehension, and looked to Morgan for an explanation. The saloon-keeper approached him, struggling with a grin.
"It's all right, Dan," he said. "Don't let 'em rile you."
"You ain't got any cause to fear that," said Silent, "because it can't be done."