THE PHANTOM RIDER
In the daytime the willows along the wide, level river bottom seemed an unnatural growth, for they made a streak of yellow-green across the mountain-desert when all other verdure withered and died. After nightfall they became still more dreary. Even when the air was calm there was apt to be a sound as of wind, for the tenuous, trailing branches brushed lightly together, making a guarded whispering like ghosts.
In a small clearing among these willows sat Silent and his companions. A fifth member had just arrived at this rendezvous, answered the quiet greeting with a wave of his hand, and was now busy caring for his horse. Bill Kilduff, who had a natural inclination and talent for cookery, raked up the deft dying coals of the fire over which he had cooked the supper, and set about preparing bacon and coffee for the newcomer. The latter came forward, and squatted close to the cook, watching the process with a careful eye. He made a sharp contrast with the rest of the group. From one side his profile showed the face of a good-natured boy, but when he turned his head the flicker of the firelight ran down a scar which gleamed in a jagged semi-circle from his right eyebrow to the corner of his mouth. This whole side of his countenance was drawn by the cut, the mouth stretching to a perpetual grimace. When he spoke it was as if he were attempting secrecy. The rest of the men waited in patience until he finished eating. Then Silent asked: "What news, Jordan?"
Jordan kept his regretful eyes a moment longer on his empty coffee cup.
"There ain't a pile to tell," he answered at last. "I suppose you heard about what happened to the chap you beat up at Morgan's place the other day?"
"Who knows that I beat him up?" asked Silent sharply.
"Nobody," said Jordan, "but when I heard the description of the man that hit Whistling Dan with the chair, I knew it was Jim Silent."
"What about Barry?" asked Haines, but Jordan still kept his eyes upon the chief.
"They was sayin' pretty general," he went on, "that you needed that chair, Jim. Is that right?"
The other three glanced covertly to each other. Silent's hand bunched into a great fist.
"He went loco. I had to slam him. Was he hurt bad?"
"The cut on his head wasn't much, but he was left lyin' in the saloon that night, an' the next mornin' old Joe Cumberland, not knowin' that Whistlin' Dan was in there, come down an' touched a match to the old joint. She went up in smoke an' took Dan along."
No one spoke for a moment. Then Silent cried out: "Then what was that whistlin' I've heard down the road behind us?"
Bill Kilduff broke into rolling bass laughter, and Hal Purvis chimed in with a squeaking tenor.
"We told you all along, Jim," said Purvis, as soon as he could control his voice, "that there wasn't any whistlin' behind us. We know you got powerful good hearin', Jim, but we all figger you been makin' somethin' out of nothin'. Am I right, boys?"
"You sure are," said Kilduff, "I ain't heard a thing."
Silent rolled his eyes angrily from face to face.
"I'm kind of sorry the lad got his in the fire. I was hopin' maybe we'd meet agin. There's nothin' I'd rather do than be alone five minutes with Whistlin' Dan."
His eyes dared any one to smile. The men merely exchanged glances. When he turned away they grinned broadly. Hal Purvis turned and caught Bill Kilduff by the shoulder.
"Bill," he said excitedly, "if Whistlin' Dan is dead there ain't any master for that dog!"
"What about him?" growled Kilduff.
"I'd like to try my hand with him," said Purvis, and he moistened his tight lips. "Did you see the black devil when he snarled at me in front of Morgan's place?"
"He sure didn't look too pleasant."
"Right. Maybe if I had him on a chain I could change his manners some, eh?"
"A whip every day, damn him—a whip every time he showed his teeth at me. No eats till he whined and licked my hand."
"He'd die first. I know that kind of a dog—or a wolf."
"Maybe he'd die. Anyway I'd like to try my hand with him. Bill, I'm goin' to get hold of him some of these days if I have to ride a hundred miles an' swim a river!"
"Let the damn wolf be. You c'n have him, I say. What I'm thinkin' about is the hoss. Hal, do you remember the way he settled to his stride when he lighted out after Red Pete?"
Purvis shrugged his shoulders.
"You're a fool, Bill. Which no man but Barry could ever ride that hoss. I seen it in his eye. He'd cash in buckin'. He'd fight you like a man."
Kilduff sighed. A great yearning was in his eyes.
"Hal," he said softly, "they's some men go around for years an' huntin' for a girl whose picture is in their bean, cached away somewhere. When they see her they jest nacherally goes nutty. Hal, I don't give a damn for women folk, but I've travelled around a long time with a picture of a hoss in my brain, an' Satan is the hoss."
He closed his eyes.
"I c'n see him now. I c'n see them shoulders—an' that head—an', my God! them eyes—them fire eatin' eyes! Hal, if a man was to win the heart of that hoss he'd lay down his life for you—he'd run himself plumb to death! I won't never sleep tight till I get the feel of them satin sides of his between my knees."
Lee Haines heard them speak, but he said nothing. His heart also leaped when he heard of Whistling Dan's death, but he thought neither of the horse nor the dog. He was seeing the yellow hair and the blue eyes of Kate Cumberland. He approached Jordan and took a place beside him.
"Tell me some more about it, Terry," he asked.
"Some more about what?"
"About Whistling Dan's death—about the burning of the saloon," said Haines.
"What the hell! Are you still thinkin' about that?"
"I certainly am."
"Then I'll trade you news," said Terry Jordan, lowering his voice so that it would not reach the suspicious ear of Jim Silent. "I'll tell you about the burnin' if you'll tell me something about Barry's fight with Silent!"
"It's a trade," answered Haines.
"All right. Seems old Joe Cumberland had a hunch to clean up the landscape—old fool! so he jest up in the mornin' an' without sayin' a word to any one he downs to the saloon and touches a match to it. When he come back to his house he tells his girl, Kate, what he done. With that she lets out a holler an' drops in a faint."
"What's the matter?" asked Terry, a little anxiously.
"Nothin," said Haines. "She fainted, eh? Well, go on!"
"Yep. She fainted an' when she come to, she told Cumberland that Dan was in the saloon, an' probably too weak to get out of the fire. They started for the place on the run. When they got there all they found was a pile of red hot coals. So everyone figures that he went up in the flames. That's all I know. Now what about the fight?"
Lee Haines sat with fixed eyes.
"There isn't much to say about the fight," he said at last.
"The hell there isn't," scoffed Terry Jordan. "From what I heard, this Whistling Dan simply cut loose and raised the devil more general than a dozen mavericks corralled with a bunch of yearlings."
"Cutting loose is right," said Haines. "It wasn't a pleasant thing to watch. One moment he was about as dangerous as an eighteen-year-old girl. The next second he was like a panther that's tasted blood. That's all there was to it, Terry. After the first blow, he was all over the chief. You know Silent's a bad man with his hands?"
"I guess we all know that," said Jordan, with a significant smile.
"Well," said Haines, "he was like a baby in the hands of Barry. I don't like to talk about it—none of us do. It makes the flesh creep."
There was a loud crackling among the underbrush several hundred yards away. It drew closer and louder.
"Start up your works agin, will you, Bill?" called Silent. "Here comes Shorty Rhinehart, an' he's overdue."
In a moment Shorty swung from his horse and joined the group. He gained his nickname from his excessive length, being taller by an inch or two than Jim Silent himself, but what he gained in height he lost in width. Even his face was monstrously long, and marked with such sad lines that the favourite name of "Shorty" was affectionately varied to "Sour-face" or "Calamity." Silent went to him at once.
"You seen Hardy?" he asked.
"I sure did," said Rhinehart, "an' it's the last time I'll make that trip to him, you can lay to that."
"Did he give you the dope?"
"What do you mean?"
"I jest want you to know that this here's my last trip to Elkhead—on any business."
"I passed three marshals on the street, an' I knew them all. They was my friends, formerly. One of them was——"
"What did they do?"
"I waved my hand to them, glad an' familiar. They jest grunted. One of them, he looked up an' down the street, an' seein' that no one was in sight, he come up to me an' without shakin' hands he says: 'I'm some surprised to see you in Elkhead, Shorty.' 'Why,' says I, 'the town's all right, ain't it?' 'It's all right,' he says, 'but you'd find it a pile more healthier out on the range.'"
"What in hell did he mean by that?" growled Silent.
"He simply meant that they're beginnin' to think a lot more about us than they used to. We've been pullin' too many jobs the last six months."
"You've said all that before, Shorty. I'm runnin' this gang. Tell me about Hardy."
"I'm comin' to that. I went into the Wells Fargo office down by the railroad, an' the clerk sent me back to find Hardy in the back room, where he generally is. When he seen me he changed colour. I'd jest popped my head through the door an' sung out: 'Hello, Hardy, how's the boy?' He jumped up from the desk an' sung out so's his clerk in the outside room could hear: 'How are you, lad?' an' he pulled me quick into the room an' locked the door behind me.
"'Now what in hell have you come to Elkhead for?' says he.
"'For a drink' says I, never battin' an eye.
"'You've come a damn long ways,' says he.
"'Sure,' says I, 'that's one reason I'm so dry. Will you liquor, pal?'
"He looked like he needed a drink, all right. He begun loosening his shirt collar.
"'Thanks, but I ain't drinkin', says he. 'Look here, Shorty, are you loco to come ridin' into Elkhead this way?'
"'I'm jest beginnin' to think maybe I am,' says I.
"'Shorty,' he says in a whisper, 'they're beginnin' to get wise to the whole gang—includin' me.'
"'Take a brace,' says I. 'They ain't got a thing on you, Hardy.'
"'That don't keep 'em from thinkin' a hell of a pile,' says he, 'an' I tell you, Shorty, I'm jest about through with the whole works. It ain't worth it—not if there was a million in it. Everybody is gettin' wise to Silent, an' the rest of you. Pretty soon hell's goin' to bust loose.'
"'You've been sayin' that for two years,' says I.
"He stopped an' looked at me sort of thoughtful an' pityin'. Then he steps up close to me an' whispers in that voice: 'D'you know who's on Silent's trail now? Eh?'
"'No, an' I don't give a damn,' says I, free an' careless.
"'Tex Calder!' says he."
Silent started violently, and his hand moved instinctively to his six-gun.
"Did he say Tex Calder?"
"He said no less," answered Shorty Rhinehart, and waited to see his news take effect. Silent stood with head bowed, scowling.
"Tex Calder's a fool," he said at last. "He ought to know better'n to take to my trail."
"He's fast with his gun," suggested Shorty.
"Don't I know that?" said Silent. "If Alvarez, an' Bradley, an' Hunter, an' God knows how many more could come up out of their graves, they'd tell jest how quick he is with a six-gun. But I'm the one man on the range that's faster."
Shorty was eloquently mute.
"I ain't askin' you to take my word for it," said Jim Silent. "Now that he's after me, I'm glad of it. It had to come some day. The mountains ain't big enough for both of us to go rangin' forever. We had to lock horns some day. An' I say, God help Tex Calder!"
He turned abruptly to the rest of the men.
"Boys, I got somethin' to tell you that Shorty jest heard. Tex Calder is after us."
There came a fluent outburst of cursing.
Silent went on: "I know jest how slick Calder is. I'm bettin' on my draw to be jest the necessary half a hair quicker. He may die shootin'. I don't lay no bets that I c'n nail him before he gets his iron out of its leather, but I say he'll be shootin' blind when he dies. Is there any one takin' that bet?"
His eyes challenged them one after another. Their glances travelled past Silent as if they were telling over and over to themselves the stories of those many men to whom Tex Calder had played the part of Fate. The leader turned back to Shorty Rhinehart.
"Now tell me what he had to say about the coin."
"Hardy says the shipment's delayed. He don't know how long."
"How'd it come to be delayed?"
"He figures that Wells Fargo got a hunch that Silent was layin' for the train that was to carry it."
"Will he let us know when it does come through?"
"I asked him, an' he jest hedged. He's quitting on us cold."
"I was a fool to send you, Shorty. I'm goin' myself, an' if Hardy don't come through to me——"
He broke off and announced to the rest of his gang that he intended to make the journey to Elkhead. He told Haines, who in such cases usually acted as lieutenant, to take charge of the camp. Then he saddled his roan.
In the very act of pulling up the cinch of his saddle, Silent stopped short, turned, and raised a hand for quiet. The rest were instantly still. Hal Purvis leaned his weazened face towards the ground. In this manner it was sometimes possible to detect far-off sounds which to one erect would be inaudible. In a moment, however, he straightened up, shaking his head.
"What is it?" whispered Haines.
"Shut up," muttered Silent, and the words were formed by the motion of his lips rather than through any sound. "That damned whistling again."
Every face changed. At a rustling in a near-by willow, Terry Jordan started and then cursed softly to himself. That broke the spell.
"It's the whisperin' of the willows," said Purvis.
"You lie," said Silent hoarsely. "I hear the sound growing closer."
"Barry is dead," said Haines.
Silent whipped out his revolver—and then shoved it back into the holster.
"Stand by me, boys," he pleaded. "It's his ghost come to haunt me! You can't hear it, because he ain't come for you."
They stared at him with a fascinated horror.
"How do you know it's him?" asked Shorty Rhinehart.
"There ain't no sound in the whole world like it. It's a sort of cross between the singing of a bird an' the wailin' of the wind. It's the ghost of Whistlin' Dan."
The tall roan raised his head and whinnied softly. It was an unearthly effect—as if the animal heard the sound which was inaudible to all but his master. It changed big Jim Silent into a quavering coward. Here were five practised fighters who feared nothing between heaven and hell, but what could they avail him against a bodiless spirit? The whistling stopped. He breathed again, but only for a moment.
It began again, and this time much louder and nearer. Surely the others must hear it now, or else it was certainly a ghost. The men sat with dilated eyes for an instant, and then Hal Purvis cried, "I heard it, chief! If it's a ghost, it's hauntin' me too!"
Silent cursed loudly in his relief.
"It ain't a ghost. It's Whistlin' Dan himself. An' Terry Jordan has been carryin' us lies! What in hell do you mean by it?"
"I ain't been carryin' you lies," said Jordan, hotly. "I told you what I heard. I didn't never say that there was any one seen his dead body!"
The whistling began to die out. A babble of conjecture and exclamation broke out, but Jim Silent, still sickly white around the mouth, swung up into the saddle.
"That Whistlin' Dan I'm leavin' to you, Haines," he called. "I've had his blood onct, an' if I meet him agin there's goin' to be another notch filed into my shootin' iron."