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   Chapter 4 THE CHAIN

The Night Horseman By Max Brand Characters: 12202

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


They had hardly passed the front door of the house when they were met by a tall man with dark hair and dark, deep-set eyes. He was tanned to the bronze of an Indian, and he might have been termed handsome had not his features been so deeply cut and roughly finished. His black hair was quite long, and as the wind from the opened door stirred it, there was a touch of wildness about the fellow that made the heart of Randall Byrne jump. When this man saw the girl his face lighted, briefly; when his glance fell on Byrne the light went out.

"Couldn't get the doc, Kate?" he asked.

"Not Doctor Hardin," she answered, "and I've brought Doctor Byrne instead."

The tall man allowed his gaze to drift leisurely from head to foot of

Randall Byrne.

Then: "H'ware you, doc?" he said, and extended a big hand. It occurred to Byrne that all these men of the mountain-desert were big; there was something intensely irritating about their mere physical size; they threw him continually on the defensive and he found himself making apologies to himself and summing up personal merits. In this case there was more direct reason for his anger. It was patent that the man did not weight the strange doctor against any serious thoughts.

"And this," she was saying, "is Mr. Daniels. Buck, is there any change?"

"Nothin' much," answered Buck Daniels. "Come along towards evening and he said he was feeling kind of cold. So I wrapped him up in a rug. Then he sat some as usual, one hand inside of the other, looking steady at nothing. But a while ago he began getting sort of nervous."

"What did he do?"

"Nothing. I just felt he was getting excited. The way you know when your hoss is going to shy."

"Do you want to go to your room first, doctor, or will you go in to see him now?"

"Now," decided the doctor, and followed her down the hall and through a door.

The room reminded the doctor more of a New England interior than of the mountain-desert. There was a round rag rug on the floor with every imaginable colour woven into its texture, but blended with a rude design, reds towards the centre and blue-greys towards the edges. There were chairs upholstered in green which looked mouse-coloured where the high lights struck along the backs and the arms-shallow-seated chairs that made one's knees project foolishly high and far. Byrne saw a cabinet at one end of the room, filled with sea-shells and knicknacks, and above it was a memorial cross surrounded by a wreath inside a glass case. Most of the wall space thronged with engravings whose subjects ranged from Niagara Falls to Lady Hamilton. One entire end of the room was occupied by a painting of a neck and neck finish in a race, and the artist had conceived the blooded racers as creatures with tremendous round hips and mighty-muscled shoulders, while the legs tapered to a faun-like delicacy. These animals were spread-eagled in the most amazing fashion, their fore-hoofs reaching beyond their noses and their rear hoofs striking out beyond the tips of the tails. The jockey in the lead sat quite still, but he who was losing had his whip drawn and looked like an automatic doll-so pink were his cheeks. Beside the course, in attitudes of graceful ease, stood men in very tight trousers and very high stocks and ladies in dresses which pinched in at the waist and flowed out at the shoulders. They leaned upon canes or twirled parasols and they had their backs turned upon the racetrack as if they found their own negligent conversation far more exciting than the breathless, driving finish.

Under the terrific action and still more terrific quiescence of this picture lay the sick man, propped high on a couch and wrapped to the chest in a Navajo blanket.

"Dad," said Kate Cumberland, "Doctor Hardin was not in town. I've brought out Doctor Byrne, a newcomer."

The invalid turned his white head slowly towards them, and his shaggy brows lifted and fell slightly-a passing shadow of annoyance. It was a very stern face, and framed in the long, white hair it seemed surrounded by an atmosphere of Arctic chill. He was thin, terribly thin-not the leanness of Byrne, but a grim emaciation which exaggerated the size of a tall forehead and made his eyes supernally bright. It was in the first glance of those eyes that Byrne recognized the restlessness of which Kate had spoken; and he felt almost as if it were an inner fire which had burned and still was wasting the body of Joseph Cumberland. To the attentions of the doctor the old man submitted with patient self-control, and Byrne found a pulse feeble, rapid, but steady. There was no temperature. In fact, the heat of the body was a trifle sub-normal, considering that the heart was beating so rapidly.

Doctor Byrne started. Most of his work had been in laboratories, and the horror of death was not yet familiar, but old Joseph Cumberland was dying. It was not a matter of moment. Death might be a week or a month away, but die soon he inevitably must; for the doctor saw that the fire was still raging in the hollow breast of the cattleman, but there was no longer fuel to feed it.

He stared again, and more closely. Fire without fuel to feed it!

Doctor Byrne gave what seemed to be an infinitely muffled cry of exultation, so faint that it was hardly a whisper; then he leaned closer and pored over Joe Cumberland with a lighted eye. One might have thought that the doctor was gloating over the sick man.

Suddenly he straightened and began to pace up and down the room, muttering to himself. Kate Cumberland listened intently and she thought that what the man muttered so rapidly, over and over to himself, was: "Eureka! Eureka! I have found it!"

Found what? The triumph of mind over matter!

On that couch was a dead body. The flutter of that heart was not the strong beating of the normal organ; the hands were cold; even the body was chilled; yet the man lived.

Or, rather, his brain lived, and compelled the shattered and outworn body to comply with its will. Doctor Byrne turned and stared again at the face of Cumberland. He felt

as if he understood, now, the look which was concentrated so brightly on the vacant air. It was illumined by a steady and desperate defiance, for the old man was denying his body to the grave.

The scene changed for Randall Byrne. The girl disappeared. The walls of the room were broken away. The eyes of the world looked in upon him and the wise men of the world kept pace with him up and down the room, shaking their heads and saying: "It is not possible!"

But the fact lay there to contradict them.

Prometheus stole fire from heaven and paid it back to an eternal death. The old cattleman was refusing his payment. It was no state of coma in which he lay; it was no prolonged trance. He was vitally, vividly alive; he was concentrating with a bitter and exhausting vigour day and night, and fighting a battle the more terrible because it was fought in silence, a battle in which he could receive no aid, no reinforcement, a battle in which he could not win, but in which he might delay defeat.

Ay, the wise men would smile and shake their heads when he presented this case to their consideration, but he would make his account so accurate and particular and so well witnessed that they would have to admit the truth of all he said. And science, which proclaimed that matter was indestructible and that the mind was matter and that the brain needed nourishment like any other muscle-science would have to hang the head and wonder!

The eyes of the girl brought him to halt in his pacing, and he stopped, confronting her. His excitement had transformed him. His nostrils were quivering, his eyes were pointed with light, his head was high, and he breathed fast. He was flushed as the Roman Conqueror. And his excitement tinged the girl, also, with colour.

She offered to take him to his room as soon as he wished to go. He was quite willing. He wanted to be alone, to think. But when he followed her she stopped him in the hall. Buck Daniels lumbered slowly after them in a clumsy attempt at sauntering.

"Well?" asked Kate Cumberland.

She had thrown a blue mantle over her shoulders when she entered the house, and the touch of boyish self-confidence which had been hers on the ride was gone. In its place there was something even more difficult for Randall Byrne to face. If there had been a garish brightness about her when he had first seen her, the brilliancy of a mirror playing in the sun against his feeble eyes, there was now a blending of pastel shades, for the hall was dimly illumined and the shadow tarnished her hair and her pallor was like cold stone; even her eyes were misted by fear. Yet a vital sense of her nearness swept upon Byrne, and he felt as if he were surrounded-by a danger.

"Opinions," said the doctor, "based on so summary an examination are necessarily inexact, yet the value of a first impression is not negligible. The best I can say is that there is probably no immediate danger, but Mr. Cumberland is seriously ill. Furthermore, it is not old age."

He would not say all he thought; it was not yet time.

She winced and clasped her hands tightly together. She was like a child about to be punished for a crime it has not committed, and it came vaguely to the doctor that he might have broached his ill tidings more gently.

He added: "I must have further opportunities for observance before I give a detailed opinion and suggest a treatment."

Her glance wandered past him and at once the heavy step of Buck Daniels approached.

"At least," she murmured, "I am glad that you are frank. I don't want to have anything kept from me, please. Buck, will you take the doctor up to his room?" She managed a faint smile. "This is an old-fashioned house, Doctor Byrne, but I hope we can make you fairly comfortable. You'll ask for whatever you need?"

The doctor bowed, and was told that they would dine in half an hour, then the girl went back towards the room in which Joe Cumberland lay. She walked slowly, with her head bent, and her posture seemed to Byrne the very picture of a burden-bearer. Then he followed Daniels up the stairs, led by the jingling of the spurs, great-rowelled spurs that might grip the side of a refractory horse like teeth.

A hall-light guided them, and from the hall Buck Daniels entered a room and fumbled above him until he had lighted a lamp which was suspended by two chains from the ceiling, a circular burner which cast a glow as keen as an electric globe. It brought out every detail of the old-fashioned room-the bare, painted floor; the bed, in itself a separate and important piece of architecture with its four tall posts, a relic of the times when beds were built, not simply made; and there was a chest of drawers with swelling, hospitable front, and a rectangular mirror above with its date in gilt paint on the upper edge. A rising wind shook the window and through some crack stirred the lace curtains; it was a very comfortable retreat, and the doctor became aware of aching muscles and a heavy brain when he glanced at the bed.

The same gust of wind which rattled the window-pane now pushed, as with invisible and ghostly hand, a door which opened on the side of the bedroom, and as it swung mysteriously and gradually wide the doctor found himself looking into an adjoining chamber. All he could see clearly was a corner on which struck the shaft of light from the lamp, and lying on the floor in that corner was something limp and brown. A snake, he surmised at first, but then he saw clearly that it was a chain of formidable proportions bolted against the wall at one end and terminating at the other in a huge steel collar. A chill started in the boots of the doctor and wriggled its uncomfortable way up to his head.

"Hell!" burst out Buck Daniels. "How'd that door get open?" He slammed it with violence. "She's been in there again, I guess," muttered the cowpuncher, as he stepped back, scowling.

"Who?" ventured the doctor.

Buck Daniels whirled on him.

"None of your-" he began hotly, but checked himself with choking suddenness and strode heavily from the room.

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