The Untamed/6

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LAUGHTER


"Mr. Lee," she said, "I am going to ask you to do me a favour. Will you?"

His smile was a sufficient answer, and it was in her character that she made no pretext of misunderstanding it.

"You have noticed Dan among the crowd?" she asked, "Whistling Dan?"

"Yes," he said, "I saw him do some very nice shooting."

"It's about him that I want to speak to you. Mr. Lee, he knows very little about men and their ways. He is almost a child among them. You seem—stronger—than most of the crowd here. Will you see that if trouble comes he is not imposed upon?"

She flushed a little, there was such a curious yearning in the eyes of the big man.

"If you wish it," he said simply, "I will do what I can."

As he walked beside her towards her horse, she turned to him abruptly.

"You are very different from the men I have met around here," she said.

"I am glad," he answered.

"Glad?"

"If you find me different, you will remember me, whether for better or worse."

He spoke so earnestly that she grew grave. He helped her to the saddle and she leaned a little to study him with the same gentle gravity.

"I should like to see you again, Mr. Lee," she said, and then in a little outburst, "I should like to see you a lot! Will you come to my house sometime?"

The directness, the sudden smile, made him flinch. His voice was a trifle unsteady when he replied.

"I shall!" He paused and his hand met hers. "If it is possible."

Her eyebrows raised a trifle.

"Is it so hard to do?"

"Do not ask me to explain," he said, "I am riding a long way."

"Oh, a 'long-rider'!" she laughed, "then of course—" She stopped abruptly. It may have been imagination, but he seemed to start when she spoke the phrase by which outlaws were known to each other. He was forcing his eyes to meet hers.

He said slowly: "I am going on a long journey. Perhaps I will come back. If I am able to, I shall."

He dropped his hand from hers and she remained silent, guessing at many things, and deeply moved, for every woman knows when a man speaks from his soul.

"You will not forget me?"

"I shall never forget you," she answered quietly. "Good-bye, Mr. Lee!"

Her hand touched his again, she wheeled, and rode away. He remained standing with the hand she had grasped still raised. And after a moment, as he had hoped, she turned in the saddle and waved to him. His eyes were downward and he was smiling faintly when he re-entered the saloon.

Silent sat at a table with his chin propped in his hand—his left hand, of course, for that restless right hand must always be free. He stared across the room towards Whistling Dan. The train of thoughts which kept those ominous eyes so unmoving must be broken. He sat down at the side of his chief.

"What the hell?" said the big man, "ain't you started yet?"

"Look here, Jim," said Haines cautiously, "I want you to lay off on this kid, Whistling Dan. It won't meant anything to you to raise the devil with him."

"I tell you," answered Silent, "it'll please me more'n anything in the world to push that damned girl face of his into the floor."

"Silent, I'm asking a personal favour of you!"

The leader turned upon him that untamed stare. Haines set his teeth.

"Haines," came the answer, "I'll stand more from you than from any man alive. I know you've got guts an' I know you're straight with me. But there ain't anything can keep me from manhandlin' that kid over there." He opened and shut his fingers slowly. "I sort of yearn to get at him!"

Haines recognized defeat.

"But you haven't another gun hidden on you, Jim? You won't try to shoot him up?"

"No," said Silent. "If I had a gun I don't know—but I haven't a gun. My hands'll be enough!"

All that could be done now was to get Whistling Dan out of the saloon. That would be simple. A single word would suffice to send the timid man helter-skelter homewards.

The large, lazy brown eyes turned up to Haines as the latter approached.

"Dan," he said, "hit for the timbers—get on your way—there's danger here for you!"

To his astonishment the brown eyes did not vary a shade.

"Danger?" he repeated wonderingly.

"Danger! Get up and get out if you want to save your hide!"

"What's the trouble?" said Dan, and his eyes were surprised, but not afraid.

"The biggest man in this room is after your blood."

"Is he?" said Dan wonderingly. "I'm sorry I don't feel like leavin', but I'm not tired of this place yet."

"Friend," said Haines, "if that tall man puts his hands on you, he'll break you across his knee like a rotten stick of wood!"

It was too late. Silent evidently guessed that Haines was urging his quarry to flee.

"Hey!" he roared, so that all heads turned towards him, "you over there."

Haines stepped back, sick at heart. He knew that it would be folly to meet his chief hand to hand, but he thought of his pledge to Kate, and groaned.

"What do you want of me?" asked Dan, for the pointed arm left no doubt as to whom Silent intended.

"Get up when you're spoke to" cried Silent. "Ain't you learned no manners? An' git up quick!"

Dan rose, smiling his surprise.

"Your friend has a sort of queer way of talkin'," he said to Haines.

"Don't stan' there like a fool. Trot over to the bar an' git me a jolt of red-eye. I'm dry!" thundered Silent.

"Sure!" nodded Whistling Dan amiably, "glad to!" and he went accordingly towards the bar.

The men about the room looked to each other with sick smiles. There was an excuse for acquiescence, for the figure of Jim Silent contrasted with Whistling Dan was like an oak compared with a sapling. Nevertheless such bland cowardice as Dan was showing made their flesh creep. He asked at the bar for the whisky, and Morgan spoke as Dan filled a glass nearly to the brim.

"Dan," he whispered rapidly, "I got a gun behind the bar. Say the word an' I'll take the chance of pullin' it on that big skunk. Then you make a dive for the door. Maybe I can keep him back till you get on Satan."

"Why should I beat it?" queried Dan, astonished. "I'm jest beginnin' to get interested in your place. That tall feller is sure a queer one, ain't he?"

With the same calm and wide-eyed smile of inquiry he turned away, taking the glass of liquor, and left Morgan to stare after him with a face pale with amazement, while he whispered over and over to himself: "Well, I'll be damned! Well, I'll be damned!"

Dan placed the liquor before Silent. The latter sat gnawing his lips.

"What in hell do you mean?" he said. "Did you only bring one glass? Are you too damn good to drink with me? Then drink by yourself, you white-livered coyote!"

He dashed the glass of whisky into Dan's face. Half blinded by the stinging liquor, the latter fell back a pace, sputtering, and wiping his eyes. Not a man in the room stirred. The same sick look was on each face. But the red devil broke loose in Silent's heart when he saw Dan cringe. He followed the thrown glass with his clenched fist. Dan stood perfectly still and watched the blow coming. His eyes were wide and wondering, like those of a child. The iron-hard hand struck him full on the mouth, fairly lifted him from his feet, and flung him against the wall with such violence that he recoiled again and fell forward onto his knees. Silent was making beast noises in his throat and preparing to rush on the half-prostrate figure. He stopped short.

Dan was laughing. At least that chuckling murmur was near to a laugh. Yet there was no mirth in it. It had that touch of the maniacal in it which freezes the blood. Silent halted in the midst of his rush, with his hands poised for the next blow. His mouth fell agape with an odd expression of horror as Dan stared up at him. That hideous chuckling continued. The sound defied definition. And from the shadow in which Dan was crouched his brown eyes blazed, changed, and filled with yellow fires.

"God!" whispered Silent, and at that instant the ominous crouched animal with the yellow eyes, the nameless thing which had been Whistling Dan a moment before, sprang up and forward with a leap like that of a panther.

Morgan stood behind the bar with a livid face and a fixed smile. His fingers still stiffly clutched the whisky bottle from which the last glass had been filled. Not another man in the room stirred from his place. Some sat with their cards raised in the very act of playing. Some had stopped midway a laugh. One man had been tying a bootlace. His body did not rise. Only his eyes rolled up to watch.

Dan darted under the outstretched arms of Silent, fairly heaved him up from the floor and drove him backwards. The big man half stumbled and half fell, knocking aside two chairs. He rushed back with a shout, but at sight of the white face with the thin trickle of blood falling from the lips, and at the sound of that inhuman laughter, he paused again.

Once more Dan was upon him, his hands darting out with motions too fast for the eye to follow. Jim Silent stepped back a half pace, shifted his weight, and drove his fist straight at that white face. How it happened not a man in the room could tell, but the hand did not strike home. Dan had swerved aside as lightly as a wind-blown feather and his fist rapped against Silent's ribs with a force that made the giant grunt.

Some of the horror was gone from his face and in its stead was baffled rage. He knew the scientific points of boxing, and he applied them. His eye was quick and sure. His reach was whole inches longer than his opponent's. His strength was that of two ordinary men. What did it avail him? He was like an agile athlete in the circus playing tag with a black panther. He was like a child striking futilely at a wavering butterfly. Sometimes this white-faced, laughing devil ducked under his arms. Sometimes a sidestep made his blows miss by the slightest fraction of an inch.

And for every blow he struck four rained home against him. It was impossible! It could not be! Silent telling himself that he dreamed, and those dancing fists crashed into his face and body like sledgehammers. There was no science in the thing which faced him. Had there been trained skill the second blow would have knocked Silent unconscious, and he knew it, but Dan made no effort to strike a vulnerable spot. He hit at anything which offered.

Still he laughed as he leaped back and forth. Perhaps mere weight of rushing would beat the dancing will-o'-the-wisp to the floor. Silent bored in with lowered head and clutched at his enemy. Then he roared with triumph. His outstretched hand caught Dan's shirt as the latter flicked to one side. Instantly they were locked in each other's arms! The most meaning part of the fight followed.

The moment after they grappled, Silent shifted his right arm from its crushing grip on Dan's body and clutched at the throat. The move was as swift as lightning, but the parry of the smaller man was still quicker. His left hand clutched Silent by the wrist, and that mighty sweep of arm was stopped in mid-air! They were in the middle of the room. They stood perfectly erect and close together, embraced. Their position had a ludicrous resemblance to the posture of dancers, but their bodies were trembling with effort. With every ounce of power in his huge frame Silent strove to complete his grip at the throat. He felt the right arm of Dan tightening around him closer, closer, closer! It was not a bulky arm, but it seemed to be made of linked steel which was shrinking into him, and promised to crush his very bones. The strength of this man seemed to increase. It was limitless. His breath came struggling under that pressure and the blood thundered and raged in his temples. If he could only get at that soft throat!

But his struggling right hand was held in a vice of iron. Now his numb arm gave way, slowly, inevitably. He ground his teeth and cursed. His curse was half a prayer. For answer there was the unearthly chuckle just below his ear. His hand was moved back, down, around! He was helpless as a child in the arms of its father—no, helpless as a sheep in the constricting coils of a python.

An impulse of frantic horror and shame and fear gave him redoubled strength for an instant. He tore himself clear and reeled back. Dan planted two smashes on Silent's snarling mouth. A glance showed the large man the mute, strained faces around the room. The laughing devil leaped again. Then all pride slipped like water from the heart of Jim Silent, and in its place there was only icy fear, fear not of a man, but of animal power. He caught up a heavy chair and drove it with all his desperate strength at Dan.

It cracked distinctly against his head and the weight of it fairly drove him into the floor. He fell with a limp thud on the boards. Silent, reeling and blind, staggered to and fro in the centre of the room. Morgan and Lee Haines reached Dan at the same moment and kneeled beside him.