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   Chapter 2 WORDS AND BULLETS

The Night Horseman By Max Brand Characters: 11904

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Here's a gent that calls himself a doc," said Hank Dwight by way of an introduction. "If you can use him, Miss Cumberland, fly to it!"

And he left them alone.

Now the sun lay directly behind Kate Cumberland and in order to look at her closely the doctor had to shade his weak eyes and pucker his brows; for from beneath her wide sombrero there rolled a cloud of golden hair as bright as the sunshine itself-a sad strain upon the visual nerve of Doctor Randall Byrne. He repeated her name, bowed, and when he straightened, blinked again. As if she appreciated that strain upon his eyes she stepped closer, and entered the shadow.

"Doctor Hardin is not in town," she said, "and I have to bring a physician out to the ranch at once; my father is critically ill."

Randall Byrne rubbed his lean chin.

"I am not practicing at present," he said reluctantly. Then he saw that she was watching him closely, weighing him with her eyes, and it came to the mind of Randall Byrne that he was not a large man and might not incline the scale far from the horizontal.

"I am hardly equipped-" began Byrne.

"You will not need equipment," she interrupted. "His trouble lies in his nerves and the state of his mind."

A slight gleam lighted the eyes of the doctor.

"Ah," he murmured. "The mind?"

"Yes."

He rubbed his bloodless hands slowly together, and when he spoke his voice was sharp and quick and wholly impersonal. "Tell me the symptoms!"

"Can't we talk those over on the way to the ranch? Even if we start now it will be dark before we arrive."

"But," protested the doctor, "I have not yet decided-this precipitancy-"

"Oh," she said, and flushed. He perceived that she was on the verge of turning away, but something withheld her. "There is no other physician within reach; my father is very ill. I only ask that you come as a diagnostician, doctor!"

"But a ride to your ranch," he said miserably. "I presume you refer to riding a horse?"

"Naturally."

"I am unfamiliar with that means of locomotion," said the doctor with serious eyes, "and in fact have not carried my acquaintance with the equine species beyond a purely experimental stage. Anatomically I have a superficial knowledge, but on the one occasion on which I sat in a saddle I observed that the docility of the horse is probably a poetic fallacy."

He rubbed his left shoulder thoughtfully and saw a slight tremor at the corners of the girl's mouth. It caused his vision to clear and concentrate; he found that the lips were, in fact, in the very act of smiling. The face of the doctor brightened.

"You shall ride my own horse," said the girl. "She is perfectly gentle and has a very easy gait. I'm sure you'll have not the slightest trouble with her."

"And you?"

"I'll find something about town; it doesn't matter what."

"This," said the doctor, "is most remarkable. You choose your mounts at random?"

"But you will go?" she insisted.

"Ah, yes, the trip to the ranch!" groaned the doctor. "Let me see: the physical obstacles to such a trip while many are not altogether insuperable, I may say; in the meantime the moral urge which compels me towards the ranch seems to be of the first order." He sighed. "Is it not strange, Miss Cumberland, that man, though distinguished from the lower orders by mind, so often is controlled in his actions by ethical impulses which override the considerations of reason? An observation which leads us towards the conclusion that the passion for goodness is a principle hardly secondary to the passion for truth. Understand that I build the hypothesis only tentatively, with many reservations, among which-"

He broke off short. The smile was growing upon her lips.

"I will put together a few of my things," said the doctor, "and come down to you at once."

"Good!" said the girl, "I'll be waiting for you with two horses before you are ready."

He turned away, but had taken hardly a step before he turned, saying: "But why are you so sure that you will be ready before I-" but she was already down the steps from the veranda and stepping briskly down the street.

"There is an element of the unexplainable in woman," said the doctor, and resumed his way to his room. Once there, something prompted him to act with the greatest possible speed. He tossed his toilet articles and a few changes of linen into a small, flexible valise and ran down the stairs. He reached the veranda again, panting, and the girl was not in sight; a smile of triumph appeared on the grave, colourless lips of the doctor. "Feminine instinct, however, is not infallible," he observed to himself, and to one of the cowboys, lounging loosely in a chair nearby, he continued his train of thoughts aloud: "Though the verity of the feminine intuition has already been thrown in a shade of doubt by many thinkers, as you will undoubtedly agree."

The man thus addressed allowed his lower jaw to drop but after a moment he ejaculated: "Now what in hell d'you mean by that?"

The doctor already turned away, intent upon his thoughts, but he now paused and again faced the cowboy. He said, frowning: "There is unnecessary violence in your remark, sir."

"Duck your glasses," said the worthy in question. "You ain't talkin' to a book, you're talking to a man."

"And in your attitude," went on the doctor, "there is an element of offense which if carried farther might be corrected by physical violence."

"I don't foller your words," said the cattleman, "but from the drift of your tune I gather you're a bit peeved; and if you are-"

His voice had risen to a ringing note as he proceeded and he now slipped from his chair and faced Randall Byrne, a big man, brown, hard-handed. The doctor crimsoned.

"Well?" he echoed, but in place of a deep ring his words were pitched in a high squeak of defiance.

He saw a large hand contract to a fist, but almost instantly the big man grinned, and his eyes wen

t past Byrne.

"Oh, hell!" he grunted, and turned his back with a chuckle.

For an instant there was a mad impulse in the doctor to spring at this fellow but a wave of impotence overwhelmed him. He knew that he was white around the mouth, and there was a dryness in his throat.

"The excitement of imminent physical contest and personal danger," he diagnosed swiftly, "causing acceleration of the pulse and attendant weakness of the body-a state unworthy of the balanced intellect."

Having brought back his poise by this quick interposition of reason, he went his way down the long veranda. Against a pillar leaned another tall cattleman, also brown and lean and hard.

"May I inquire," he said, "if you have any information direct or casual concerning a family named Cumberland which possesses ranch property in this vicinity?"

"You may," said the cowpuncher, and continued to roll his cigarette.

"Well," said the doctor, "do you know anything about them?"

"Sure," said the other, and having finished his cigarette he introduced it between his lips. It seemed to occur to him instantly, however, that he was committing an inhospitable breach, for he produced his Durham and brown papers with a start and extended them towards the doctor.

"Smoke?" he asked.

"I use tobacco in no form," said the doctor.

The cowboy stared with such fixity that the match burned down to his fingertips and singed them before he had lighted his cigarette.

"'S that a fact?" he queried when his astonishment found utterance. "What d'you do to kill time? Well, I been thinking about knocking off the stuff for a while. Mame gets sore at me for having my fingers all stained up with nicotine like this."

He extended his hand, the first and second fingers of which were painted a bright yellow.

"Soap won't take it off," he remarked.

"A popular but inexcusable error," said the doctor. "It is the tarry by-products of tobacco which cause that stain. Nicotine itself, of course, is a volatile alkaloid base of which there is only the merest trace in tobacco. It is one of the deadliest of nerve poisons and is quite colourless. There is enough of that stain upon your fingers-if it were nicotine-to kill a dozen men."

"The hell you say!"

"Nevertheless, it is an indubitable fact. A lump of nicotine the size of the head of a pin placed on the tongue of a horse will kill the beast instantly."

The cowpuncher pushed back his hat and scratched his head.

"This is worth knowin'," he said, "but I'm some glad that Mame ain't heard it."

"Concerning the Cumberlands," said the doctor, "I-"

"Concerning the Cumberlands," repeated the cattleman, "it's best to leave 'em to their own concerns." And he started to turn away, but the thirst for knowledge was dry in the throat of the doctor.

"Do I understand," he insisted, "that there is some mystery connected with them?"

"From me," replied the other, "you understand nothin'." And he lumbered down the steps and away.

Be it understood that there was nothing of the gossip in Randall Byrne, but now he was pardonably excited and perceiving the tall form of Hank Dwight in the doorway he approached his host.

"Mr. Dwight," he said, "I am about to go to the Cumberland ranch. I gather that there is something of an unusual nature concerning them."

"There is," admitted Hank Dwight.

"Can you tell me what it is?"

"I can."

"Good!" said the doctor, and he almost smiled. "It is always well to know the background of a case which has to do with mental states. Now, just what do you know?"

"I know-" began the proprietor, and then paused and eyed his guest dubiously. "I know," he continued, "a story."

"Yes?"

"Yes, about a man and a hoss and a dog."

"The approach seems not quite obvious, but I shall be glad to hear it."

There was a pause.

"Words," said the host, at length, "is worse'n bullets. You never know what they'll hit."

"But the story?" persisted Randall Byrne.

"That story," said Hank Dwight, "I may tell to my son before I die."

"This sounds quite promising."

"But I'll tell nobody else."

"Really!"

"It's about a man and a hoss and a dog. The man ain't possible, the hoss ain't possible, the dog is a wolf."

He paused again and glowered on the doctor. He seemed to be drawn two ways, by his eagerness to tell a yarn and his dread of consequences.

"I know," he muttered, "because I've seen 'em all. I've seen"-he looked far, as though striking a silent bargain with himself concerning the sum of the story which might safely be told-"I've seen a hoss that understood a man's talk like you and me does-or better. I've heard a man whistle like a singing bird. Yep, that ain't no lie. You jest imagine a bald eagle that could lick anything between the earth and the sky and was able to sing-that's what that whistlin' was like. It made you glad to hear it, and it made you look to see if your gun was in good workin' shape. It wasn't very loud, but it travelled pretty far, like it was comin' from up above you."

"That's the way this strange man of the story whistles?" asked Byrne, leaning closer.

"Man of the story?" echoed the proprietor, with some warmth. "Friend, if he ain't real, then I'm a ghost. And they's them in Elkhead that's got the scars of his comin' and goin'."

"Ah, an outlaw? A gunfighter?" queried the doctor.

"Listen to me, son," observed the host, and to make his point he tapped the hollow chest of Byrne with a rigid forefinger, "around these parts you know jest as much as you see, and lots of times you don't even know that much. What you see is sometimes your business, but mostly it ain't." He concluded impressively: "Words is worse'n bullets!"

"Well," mused Byrne, "I can ask the girl these questions. It will be medically necessary."

"Ask the girl? Ask her?" echoed the host with a sort of horror. But he ended with a forced restraint: "That's your business."

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