FOUR IN THE AIR
Dan looked from Morgan to Silent and back again for understanding. He felt that something was wrong, but what it was he had not the slightest idea. For many years old Joe Cumberland had patiently taught him that the last offence against God and man was to fight. The old cattleman had instilled in him the belief that if he did not cross the path of another, no one would cross his way. The code was perfect and satisfying. He would let the world alone and the world would not trouble him. The placid current of his life had never come to "white waters" of wrath.
Wherefore he gazed bewildered about him. They were laughing—they were laughing unpleasantly at him as he had seen men laugh at a fiery young colt which struggled against the rope. It was very strange. They could not mean harm. Therefore he smiled back at them rather uncertainly. Morgan slapped at his shoulder by way of good-fellowship and to hearten him, but Dan slipped away under the extended hand with a motion as subtle and swift as the twist of a snake when it flees for its hole. He had a deep aversion for contact with another man's body. He hated it as the wild horse hates the shadow of the flying rope.
"Steady up, pal," said Morgan, "the lads mean no harm. That tall man is considerable riled; which he'll now bet his sombrero agin you when it comes to shootin'."
He turned back to Silent.
"Look here, partner," he said, "this is the man I said could nail the four dollars before they hit the dust. I figger you don't think how it can be done, eh?"
"Him?" said Silent in deep disgust. "Send him back to his ma before somebody musses him all up! Why, he don't even pack a gun!"
Morgan waited a long moment so that the little silence would make his next speech impressive.
"Stranger," he said, "I've still got somewhere in the neighbourhood of five hundred dollars in that cash drawer. An' every cent of it hollers that Dan can do what I said."
Silent hesitated. His code was loose, but he did not like to take advantage of a drunk or a crazy man. However, five hundred dollars was five hundred dollars. Moreover that handsome fellow who had just taken water from Hal Purvis and was now smiling foolishly at his own shame, had actually ridden Red Peter. The remembrance infuriated Silent.
"Hurry up," said Morgan confidently. "I dunno what you're thinkin', stranger. Which I'm kind of deaf an' I don't understand the way anything talks except money."
"Corral that talk, Morgan!" called a voice from the crowd, "you're plumb locoed if you think any man in the world can get away with a stunt like that! Pick four in the air!"
"You keep your jaw for yourself," said Silent angrily, "if he wants to donate a little more money to charity, let him do it. Morgan, I've got five hundred here to cover your stake."
"Make him give you odds, Morgan," said another voice, "because——"
A glance from Silent cut the suggestion short. After that there was little loud conversation. The stakes were large. The excitement made the men hush the very tones in which they spoke. Morgan moistened his white lips.
"You c'n see I'm not packin' any shootin' irons," said Dan. "Has anybody got any suggestions?"
Every gun in the crowd was instantly at his service. They were heartily tempted to despise Dan, but as one with the courage to attempt the impossible, they would help him as far as they could. He took their guns one after the other, weighed them, tried the action, and handed them back. It was almost as if there were a separate intelligence in the ends of his fingers which informed him of the qualities of each weapon.
"Nice gun," he said to the first man whose revolver he handled, "but I don't like a barrel that's quite so heavy. There's a whole ounce too much in the barrel."
"What d'you mean?" asked the cowpuncher. "I've packed that gun for pretty nigh eight years!"
"Sorry," said Dan passing on, "but I can't work right with a top-heavy gun."
The next weapon he handed back almost at once.
"What's the matter with that?" asked the owner aggressively.
"Cylinder too tight," said Dan decisively, and a moment later to another man, "Bad handle. I don't like the feel of it."
Over Jim Silent's guns he paused longer than over most of the rest, but finally he handed them back. The big man scowled.
Dan looked back to him in gentle surprise.
"You see," he explained quietly, "you got to handle a gun like a horse. If you don't treat it right it won't treat you right. That's all I know about it. Your gun ain't very clean, stranger, an' a gun that ain't kept clean gets off feet."
Silent glanced at his weapons, cursed softly, and restored them to the holsters.
"Lee," he muttered to Haines, who stood next to him, "what do you think he meant by that? D' you figger he's got somethin' up his sleeve, an' that's why he acts so like a damned woman?"
"I don't know," said Haines gravely, "he looks to me sort of queer—sort of different—damned different, chief!"
By this time Dan had secured a second gun which suited him. He whirled both guns, tried their actions alternately, and then announced that he was ready. In the dead silence, one of the men paced off the twenty yards.
Dan, with his back turned, stood at the mark, shifting his revolvers easily in his hands, and smiling down at them as if they could understand his caress.
"How you feelin', Dan?" asked Morgan anxiously.
"Everything fine," he answered.
"Are you gettin' weak?"
"No, I'm all right."
"Steady up, partner."
"Steady up? Look at my hand!"
Dan extended his arm. There was not a quiver in it.
"All right, Dan. When you're shootin', remember that I got pretty close to everything I own staked on you. There's the stranger gettin' his four dollars ready."
Silent took his place with the four dollars in his hand.
"Are you ready?" he called.
"Let her go!" said Dan, apparently without the least excitement.
Jim Silent threw the coins, and he threw them so as to increase his chances as much as possible. A little snap of his hand gave them a rapid rotary motion so that each one was merely a speck of winking light. He flung them high, for it was probable that Whistling Dan would wait to shoot until they were on the way down. The higher he threw them the more rapidly they would be travelling when they crossed the level of the markman's eye.
As a shout proclaimed the throwing of the coins, Dan whirled, and it seemed to the bystanders that a revolver exploded before he was fully turned; but one of the coins never rose to the height of the throw. There was a light "cling!" and it spun a dozen yards away. Two more shots blended almost together; two more dollars darted away in twinkling streaks of light. One coin still fell, but when it was a few inches from the earth a six-shooter barked again and the fourth dollar glanced sidewise into the dust. It takes long to describe the feat. Actually, the four shots consumed less than a second of time.
"That last dollar," said Dan, and his soft voice was the first sound out of the silence, "wasn't good. It didn't ring true. Counterfeit?"
It seemed that no one heard his words. The men were making a wild scramble for the dollars. They dived into the dust for them, rising white of face and clothes to fight and struggle over their prizes. Those dollars with the chips and neat round holes in them would confirm the truth of a story that the most credulous might be tempted to laugh or scorn. A cowpuncher offered ten dollars for one of the relics—but none would part with a prize.
The moment the shooting was over Dan stepped quietly back and restored the guns to the owners. The first man seized his weapon carelessly. He was in the midst of his rush after one of the chipped coins. The other cowpuncher received his weapon almost with reverence.
"I'm thankin' you for the loan," said Dan, "an here's hopin' you always have luck with the gun."
"Luck?" said the other. "I sure will have luck with it. I'm goin' to oil her up and put her in a glass case back home, an' when I get grandchildren I'm goin' to point out that gun to 'em and tell 'em what men used to do in the old days. Let's go in an' surround some red-eye at my expense."
"No thanks," answered Dan, "I ain't drinkin'."
He stepped back to the edge of the circle and folded his arms. It was as if he had walked out of the picture. He suddenly seemed to be aloof from them all.
Out of the quiet burst a torrent of curses, exclamations, and shouts. Chance drew Jim Silent and his three followers together.
"My God!" whispered Lee Haines, with a sort of horror in his voice, "it wasn't human! Did you see? Did you see?"
"Am I blind?" asked Hal Purvis, "an' think of me walkin' up an' bracin' that killer like he was a two-year-old kid! I figger that's the nearest I ever come to a undeserved grave, an' I've had some close calls! 'That last dollar wasn't good! It didn't ring true,' says he when he finished. I never seen such nerve!"
"You're wrong as hell," said Silent, "a woman can shoot at a target, but it takes a cold nerve to shoot at a man—an' this feller is yellow all through!"
"Is he?" growled Bill Kilduff, "well, I'd hate to take him by surprise, so's he'd forget himself. He gets as much action out of a common six-gun as if it was a gatling. He was right about that last dollar, too. It was pure—lead!"
"All right, Haines," said Silent. "You c'n start now any time, an' the rest of us'll follow on the way I said. I'm leavin' last. I got a little job to finish up with the kid."
But Haines was staring fixedly down the road.
"I'm not leaving yet," said Haines. "Look!"
He turned to one of the cowpunchers.
"Who's the girl riding up the road, pardner?"
"That calico? She's Kate Cumberland—old Joe's gal."
"I like the name," said Haines. "She sits the saddle like a man!"
Her pony darted off from some imaginary object in the middle of the road, and she swayed gracefully, following the sudden motion. Her mount came to the sudden halt of the cattle pony and she slipped to the ground before Morgan could run out to help. Even Lee Haines, who was far quicker, could not reach her in time.
"Sorry I'm late," said Haines. "Shall I tie your horse?"
The fast ride had blown colour to her face and good spirits into her eyes. She smiled up to him, and as she shook her head in refusal her eyes lingered a pardonable moment on his handsome face, with the stray lock of tawny hair fallen low across his forehead. She was used to frank admiration, but this unembarrassed courtesy was a new world to her. She was still smiling when she turned to Morgan.
"You told my father the boys wouldn't wear guns today."
He was somewhat confused.
"They seem to be wearin' them," he said weakly, and his eyes wandered about the armed circle, pausing on the ominous forms of Hal Purvis, Bill Kilduff, and especially Jim Silent, a head taller than the rest. He stood somewhat in the background, but the slight sneer with which he watched Whistling Dan dominated the entire picture.
"As a matter of fact," went on Morgan, "it would be a ten man job to take the guns away from this crew. You can see for yourself."
She glanced about the throng and started. She had seen Dan.
"How did he come here?"
"Oh, Dan?" said Morgan, "he's all right. He just pulled one of the prettiest shootin' stunts I ever seen."
"But he promised my father——" began Kate, and then stopped, flushing.
If her father was right in diagnosing Dan's character, this was the most critical day in his life, for there he stood surrounded by armed men. If there were anything wild in his nature it would be brought out that day. She was almost glad the time of trial had come.
She said: "How about the guns, Mr. Morgan?"
"If you want them collected and put away for a while," offered Lee Haines, "I'll do what I can to help you!"
Her smile of thanks set his blood tingling. His glance lingered a little too long, a little too gladly, and she coloured slightly.
"Miss Cumberland," said Haines, "may I introduce myself? My name is Lee."
She hesitated. The manners she had learned in the Eastern school forbade it, but her Western instinct was truer and stronger. Her hand went out to him.
"I'm very glad to know you, Mr. Lee."
"All right, stranger," said Morgan, who in the meantime had been shifting from one foot to the other and estimating the large chances of failure in this attempt to collect the guns, "if you're going to help me corral the shootin' irons, let's start the roundup."
The girl went with them. They had no trouble in getting the weapons. The cold blue eye of Lee Haines was a quick and effective persuasion.
When they reached Jim Silent he stared fixedly upon Haines. Then he drew his guns slowly and presented them to his comrade, while his eyes shifted to Kate and he said coldly: "Lady, I hope I ain't the last one to congratulate you!"
She did not understand, but Haines scowled and coloured. Dan, in the meantime, was swept into the saloon by an influx of the cowpunchers that left only Lee Haines outside with Kate. She had detained him with a gesture.