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   Chapter 6 THE MISSION STARTS

The Night Horseman By Max Brand Characters: 19131

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Then, with a shifting of the wind, a song was blown to them from the bunk-house, a cheerful, ringing chorus; the sound was like daylight-it drove the terror from the room. Joe Cumberland asked them to leave him. That night, he said, he would sleep. He felt it, like a promise. The other three went out from the room.

In the hall Kate and Daniels stood close together under a faint light from the wall-lamp, and they talked as if they had forgotten the presence of Byrne.

"It had to come," she said. "I knew it would come to him sooner or later, but I didn't dream it would be as terrible as this. Buck, what are we going to do?"

"God knows," said the big cowpuncher. "Just wait, I s'pose, same as we've been doing."

He had aged wonderfully in that moment of darkness.

"He'll be happy now for a few days," went on the girl, "but afterwards-when he realises that it means nothing-what then, Buck?"

The man took her hands and began to pat them softly as a father might soothe a child.

"I seen you when the wind come in," he said gently. "Are you going to stand it, Kate? Is it going to be hell for you, too, every time you hear 'em?"

She answered: "If it were only I! Yes, I could stand it. Lately I've begun to think that I can stand anything. But when I see Dad it breaks my heart-and you-oh, Buck, it hurts, it hurts!" She drew his hands impulsively against her breast. "If it were only something we could fight outright!"

Buck Daniels sighed.

"Fight?" he echoed hopelessly. "Fight? Against him? Kate, you're all tired out. Go to bed, honey, and try to stop thinkin'-and-God help us all!"

She turned away from him and passed the doctor-blindly.

Buck Daniels had set his foot on the stairs when Byrne hurried after him and touched his arm; they went up together.

"Mr. Daniels," said the doctor, "it is necessary that I speak with you, alone. Will you come into my room for a few moments?"

"Doc," said the cattleman, "I'm short on my feed and I don't feel a pile like talkin'. Can't you wait till the morning?"

"There has been a great deal too much waiting, Mr. Daniels," said the doctor. "What I have to say to you must be said now. Will you come in?"

"I will," nodded Buck Daniels. "But cut it short."

Once in his room the doctor lighted the lamp and then locked the door.

"What's all the mystery and hush stuff?" growled Daniels, and with a gesture he refused the proffered chair. "Cut loose, doc, and make it short."

The little man sat down, removed his glasses, held them up to the light, found a speck upon them, polished it carefully away, replaced the spectacles upon his nose, and peered thoughtfully at Buck Daniels.

Buck Daniels rolled his eyes towards the door and then even towards the window, and then, as one who accepts the inevitable, he sank into a chair and plunged his hands into his pockets, prepared to endure.

"I am called," went on the doctor dryly, "to examine a case in which the patient is dangerously ill-in fact, hopelessly ill, and I have found that the cause of his illness is a state of nervous expectancy on the part of the sufferer. It being obviously necessary to know the nature of the disease and its cause before that cause may be removed, I have asked you to sit here this evening to give me whatever explanation you may have for it."

Buck Daniels stirred uneasily. At length he broke out: "Doc, I size you up as a gent with brains. I got one piece of advice for you: get the hell away from the Cumberland Ranch and never come back again!"

The doctor flushed and his lean jaw thrust out.

"Although," he said, "I cannot pretend to be classed among those to whom physical fear is an unknown, yet I wish to assure you, sir, that with me physical trepidation is not an overruling motive."

"Oh, hell!" groaned Buck Daniels. Then he explained more gently: "I don't say you're yellow. All I say is: this mess ain't one that you can straighten out-nor no other man can. Give it up, wash your hands, and git back to Elkhead. I dunno what Kate was thinkin' of to bring you out here!"

"The excellence of your intention," said the doctor, "I shall freely admit, though the assumption that difficulty in the essential problem would deter me from the analysis is an hypothesis which I cannot leave uncontested. In the vulgar, I may give you to understand that I am in this to stay!"

Buck Daniels started to speak, but thinking better of it he shrugged his shoulders and sat back, resigned.

"Well," he said, "Kate brought you out here. Maybe she has a reason for it. What d'you want to know?"

"What connection," said the doctor, "have wild geese with a man, a horse, and a dog?"

"What in hell d'you know about a horse and a man and a dog-and wild geese?" inquired Buck in a strained voice.

"Rumour," said the doctor, "has been in this instance, unfortunately, my only teacher. But, sir, I have ascertained that Mr. Cumberland, his daughter, and you, sir, are all waiting for a certain thing to come to this ranch, and that thing I naturally assume to be a man."

"Doc," said the cowpuncher sarcastically, "there ain't no doubt you got a wonderful brain!"

"Mockery," pronounced the man of learning, "is a use of the mental powers which is both unworthy and barren and does not in this case advance the argument, which is: Who and what is this man for whom you wait?"

"He came," said Buck Daniels, "out of nowhere. That's all we know about who he is. What is he? I'll tell you easy: He's a gent that looks like a man, and walks like a man, and talks like a man-but he ain't a man."

"Ah," nodded the philosopher, "a crime of extraordinary magnitude has, perhaps, cut off this unfortunate fellow from communication with others of his kind. Is this the case?"

"It ain't," replied Buck. "Doc, tell me this: Can a wolf commit a crime?"

"Admitting this definition: that crime is the breaking of law, and that law is a force created by reason to control the rational, it may be granted that the acts of the lower animals lie outside of categories framed according to ethical precepts. To directly answer your not incurious question: I believe that a wolf cannot commit a crime."

Buck Daniels sighed.

"D'you know, doc," he said gravely, "that you remind me of a side-hill goat?"

"Ah," murmured the man of learning, "is it possible? And what, Mr.

Daniels, is the nature of a side-hill goat?"

"It's a goat that's got the legs of one side shorter than the legs on the other side, and the only way he can get to the top of a hill is to keep trottin' around and around the hill like a five per cent. grade. He goes a mile to get ten feet higher."

"This fact," said Byrne, and he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "is not without interest, though I fail to perceive the relation between me and such a creature, unless, perhaps, there are biologic similarities of which I have at present no cognition."

"I didn't think you'd follow me," replied Buck with an equal gravity. "But you can lay to this, Doc; this gent we're waitin' for ain't committed any more crimes than a wolf has."

"Ah, I see," murmured the doctor, "a man so near the brute that his enormities pass beyond-"

"Get this straight," said Buck, interrupting with a sternly pointed finger: "There ain't a kinder or a gentler man in the mountain-desert than him. He's got a voice softer than Kate Cumberland's, which is some soft voice, and as for his heart-Doc, I've seen him get off his horse to put a wounded rabbit out of its pain!"

A ring of awe came in the throat of Daniels as he repeated the incredible fact.

He went on: "If I was in trouble, I'd rather have him beside me than ten other men; if I was sick I'd rather have him than the ten best doctors in the world; if I wanted a pal that would die for them that done him good and go to hell to get them that done him bad, I'd choose him first, and there ain't none that come second."

The panegyric was not a burst of imagination. Buck Daniels was speaking seriously, hunting for words, and if he used superlatives it was because he needed them.

"Extraordinary!" murmured the doctor, and he repeated the word in a louder tone. It was a rare word for him; in all his scholastic career and in all of his scientific investigations he had found occasion to use so strong a term not more than half a dozen times at the most. He went on, cautiously, and his weak eyes blinked at Daniels: "And there is a relation between this man and a horse and dog?"

Buck Daniels shuddered and his colour changed.

"Listen!" he said, "I've talked enough. You ain't going to get another word out of me except this: Doc, have a good sleep, get on your hoss to-morrow mornin', and beat it. Don't even wait for breakfast. Because, if you do wait, you may get a hand in this little hell of ours. You may be waiting, too!" A sudden thought brought him to his feet. He stood over the doctor. "How many times," he thundered, "have you seen Kate Cumberland?"

"To-day, for the first time."

"Well," said Daniels, growling with relief, "you've seen her enough. I know." And he turned towards the door. "Unlock," he commanded. "I'm tired out-and sick-of talking about him."

But the doctor did not move.

"Nevertheless," he stated, "you will remain. There is something further which you know and which you will communicate to me."

Buck Daniels turned at the door; his face was not pleasant.

"While observing you as you talked with the girl," Byrne said, "it occurred to me that you were holding information fro

m her. The exact nature of that information I cannot state, but it is reasonable to deduce that you could, at the present moment, name the place where the man for whom Mr. Cumberland and his daughter wait is now located."

Buck Daniels made no reply, but he returned to his chair and slumped heavily into it, staring at the little doctor. And Byrne realised with a thrill of pleasure that he was not afraid of death.

"I may further deduct," said the doctor, "that you will go in person to the place where you know this man may be found and induce him to come to this ranch."

The silent anger of Daniels died away. He smiled, and at length he laughed without mirth.

"Doc," he said, "if you knew where there was a gun, would that make you want to put it up agin your head and pull the trigger?"

But the doctor proceeded inexorably with his deductions: "Because you are aware, Mr. Daniels, that the presence of this man may save the life of Mr. Cumberland, a thought, to be sure, which might not be accepted by the medical fraternity, but which may without undue exaggeration devolve from the psychological situation in this house."

"Doc," said Daniels huskily, "you talk straight, and you act straight, and I think you are straight, so I'll take off the bridle and talk free. I know where Whistling Dan is-just about. But if I was to go to him and bring him here I'd bust the heart of Kate Cumberland. D'you understand?" His voice lowered with an intense emotion. "I've thought it out sideways and backwards. It's Kate or old Joe. Which is the most important?"

The doctor straightened in the chair, polished his glasses, and peered once more at the cowpuncher.

"You are quite sure, also, that the return of this man, this strange wanderer, might help Mr. Cumberland back to health?"

"I am, all right. He's sure wrapped up in Whistlin' Dan."

"What is the nature of their relations; what makes him so oddly dependent upon the other?"

"I dunno, doc. It's got us all fooled. When Dan is here it seems like old Cumberland jest nacherally lives on the things Dan does and hears and sees. We've seen Cumberland prick up his ears the minute Dan comes into the room, and show life. Sometimes Dan sits with him and tells him what he's been doin'-maybe it ain't any more than how the sky looks that day, or about the feel of the wind-but Joe sits with his eyes dreamin', like a little kid hearin' fairy stories. Kate says it's been that way since her dad first brought Dan in off'n the range. He's been sort of necessary to old Joe-almost like air to breathe. I tell you, it's jest a picture to see them two together."

"Very odd, very odd," brooded the doctor, frowning, "but this seems to be an odd place and an odd set of people. You've no real idea why Dan left the ranch?"

"Ask the wild geese," said Buck bitterly. He added: "Maybe you'd better ask Dan's black hoss or his dog, Bart. They'd know better'n anything else."

"But what has the man been doing since he left? Have you any idea?"

"Get a little chatter, now and then, of a gent that's rid into a town on a black hoss, prettier'n anything that was ever seen before.

"It's all pretty much the same, what news we get. Mostly I guess he jest wanders around doin' no harm to nobody. But once in a while somebody sicks a dog on Bart, and Bart jest nacherally chaws that dog in two. Then the owner of the dog may start a fight, and Dan drops him and rides on."

"With a trail of dead men behind him?" cried the doctor, hunching his shoulders as if to shake off a chill.

"Dead? Nope. You don't have to shoot to kill when you can handle a gun the way Dan does. Nope, he jest wings 'em. Plants a chunk of lead in a shoulder, or an arm, or a leg. That's all. They ain't no love of blood in Dan-except---"

"Well?"

"Doc," said Buck with a shudder, "I ain't goin' to talk about the exceptions. Mostly the news we gets of Dan is about troubles he's had. But sometimes we hear of gents he's helped out when they was sick, and things like that. They ain't nobody like Dan when a gent is down sick, I'll tell a man!"

The doctor sighed.

He said: "And do I understand you to say that the girl and this man-Whistling Dan, as you call him-are intimately and sentimentally related?"

"She loves him," said Daniels slowly. "She loves the ground he walks on and the places where he's been."

"But, sir, it would seem probable from your own reasoning that the return of the man, in this case, will not be unwelcome to her."

"Reason?" broke out Daniels bitterly. "What the hell has reason got to do with Whistling Dan? Man, man! if Barry was to come back d'you suppose he'd remember that he'd once told Kate he loved her? Doc, I know him as near as any man can know him. I tell you, he thinks no more of her than-than the wild geese think of her. If old Joe dies because Dan is away-well, Cumberland is an old man anyway. But how could I stand to see Barry pass Kate by with an empty eye, the way he'd do if he come back? I'd want to kill him, and I'd get bumped off tryin' it, like as not. And what would it do to Kate? It'd kill her, Doc, as sure as you're born."

"Your assumption being," murmured the doctor, "that if she never sees the man again she will eventually forget him."

"D'you forget a knife that's sticking into you? No, she won't forget him. But maybe after a while she'll be able to stand thinkin' about him. She'll get used to the hurt. She'll be able to talk and laugh the way she used to. Oh, doc, if you could of seen her as I've seen her in the old days--"

"When the man was with her?" cut in the doctor.

Buck Daniels caught his breath.

"Damn your eternal soul, doc!" he said softly.

And for a time neither of them spoke. Whatever went on in the mind of Daniels, it was something that contorted his face. As for Byrne, he was trying to match fact and possibility and he was finding a large gap between the two; for he tried to visualise the man whose presence had been food to old Joe Cumberland, and whose absence had taken the oil from the lamp so that the flame now flickered dimly, nearly out. But he could build no such picture. He could merely draw together a vague abstraction of a man to whom the storm and the wild geese who ride the storm had meaning and relationship. The logic which he loved was breaking to pieces in the hands of Randall Byrne.

Silence, after all, is only a name, never a fact. There are noises in the most absolute quiet. If there is not even the sound of the cricket or the wind, if there are not even ghost whispers in the house, there is the sigh of one's own breathing, and in those moments of deadly waiting the beat of the heart may be as loud and as awful as the rattle of the death-march. Now, between the doctor and the cowpuncher, such a silence began. Buck Daniels wanted nothing more in the world than to be out of that room, but the eye of the doctor held him, unwilling. And there began once more that eternal waiting, waiting, waiting, which was the horror of the place, until the faint creakings through the windshaken house took on the meaning of footsteps stalking down the hall and pausing at the door, and there was the hushing breath of one who listened and smiled to himself! Now the doctor became aware that the eye of Buck Daniels was widening, brightening; it was as if the mind of the big man were giving way in the strain. His face blanched. Even the lips had no colour, and they moved, gibberingly.

"Listen!" he said.

"It is the wind," answered the doctor, but his voice was hardly audible.

"Listen!" commanded Daniels again.

The doctor could hear it then. It was a pulse of sound obscure as the thudding of his heart. But it was a human sound and it made his throat close up tightly, as if a hand were settling around his wind-pipe. Buck Daniels rose from his chair; that half-mad, half-listening look was still in his eyes-behind his eyes. Staring at him the doctor understood, intimately, how men can throw their lives away gloriously in battle, fighting for an idea; or how they can commit secret and foul murder. Yet he was more afraid of that pulse of sound than of the face of Buck Daniels. He, also, was rising from his chair, and when Daniels stalked to the side door of the room and leaned there, the doctor followed.

Then they could hear it clearly. There was a note of music in the voice; it was a woman weeping in that room where the chain lay on the floor, coiled loosely like a snake. Buck Daniels straightened and moved away from the door. He began to laugh, guarding it so that not a whisper could break outside the room, and his silent laughter was the most horrible thing the doctor had ever seen. It was only for a moment. The hysteria passed and left the big man shaking like a dead leaf.

"Doc," he said, "I can't stand it no longer. I'm going out and try to get him back here. And God forgive me for it."

He left the room, slamming the door behind him, and then he stamped down the hall as if he were trying to make a companion out of his noise. Doctor Randall Byrne sat down to put his thoughts in order. He began at the following point: "The physical fact is not; only the immaterial is." But before he had carried very far his deductions from this premise, he caught the neighing of a horse near the house; so he went to the window and threw it open. At the same time he heard the rattle of galloping hoofs, and then he saw a horseman riding furiously into the heart of the wind. Almost at once the rider was lost from sight.

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