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The Night Horseman By Max Brand Characters: 9793

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

There was no doubting the meaning of Joe Cumberland. It grew upon them with amazing swiftness, as if the black stallion were racing upon the house at a swift gallop, and the whistling rose and rang and soared in a wild outburst. Give the eagle the throat of the lark, and after he has struck down his prey in the centre of the sky and sent the ragged feathers and the slain body falling down to earth, what would be the song of the eagle rising again and dwindling out of sight in the heart of the sky? What terrible pean would he send whistling down to the dull earth far below? And such was the music that came before the coming of Dan Barry. It did not cease, as usual, at a distance, but it came closer and closer, and it swelled around them. Buck Daniels had risen from his chair and stolen to a corner of the room where not a solitary shaft of light could possibly reach him; and Kate Cumberland slipped farther into the depths of the big chair.

So that, in their utter silence, in spite of the whistling that blew in upon them, they could hear the dull ticking of the tall clock, and by a wretched freak of fate the ticking fell exactly in with the soaring rhythm of the whistle and each had a part in the deadliness of the other.

Very near upon them the music ceased abruptly. A footfall swept down the hall, a weight struck the door and cast it wide, and Black Bart glided into the room. He cast not a glance on either side. He turned his head neither to right nor to left. But he held straight on until he came to Kate Cumberland and there he stood before her.

She leaned forward.

"Bart!" she said softly and stretched out her hands to him.

A deep snarl stopped the gesture, and at the flash of the long fangs she sank into the chair. Old Joe Cumberland, with fearful labour, dragged himself to a sitting position upon the couch, and sitting up in this fashion the light fell fully upon his white face and his white hair and his white beard, so that he made a ghostly picture.

Then an outer door slammed and a light step, at an almost running pace speeded down the hall, the door was swung wide again, and Dan was before them. He seemed to bring with him the keen, fresh air of the light, and at the opening of the door the flame in the lamp jumped in its chimney, shook, and fell slowly back to its original dimness; but by that glow of light they saw that the sombrero upon Dan Barry's head was a shapeless mass-his bandana had been torn away, leaving his throat bare-his slicker was a mass of rents and at the neck had been crumpled and torn in a thousand places as though strong teeth had worried it to a rag. Spots of mud were everywhere on his boots, even on his sombrero with its sagging brim, and on one side of his face there was a darker stain. He had ceased his whistling, indeed, but now he stood at the door and hummed as he gazed about the room. Straight to Kate Cumberland he walked, took her hands, and raised her from the chair.

He said, and there was a fibre and ring in his voice that made them catch their breaths: "There's something outside that I'm following to-night. I don't know what it is. It is the taste of the wind and the feel of the air and the smell of the ground. And I've got to be ridin'. I'm saying good-bye for a bit, Kate."

"Dan," she cried, "what's happened? What's on your face?"

"The mark of the night," he answered. "I don't know what else. Will you come with me, Kate?"

"For how long? Where are you going, Dan!"

"I don't know where or how long. All I know is I've got to be going.

Come to the window. Take the air on your face. You'll understand!"

He drew her after him and cast up the window.

"Do you feel it in the wind" he called to her, turning with a transfigured face. "Do you hear it?"

She could not speak but stood with her face lifted, trembling.

"Look at me!" he commanded, and turned her roughly towards him. There he stood leaning close to her, and the yellow light flickered and waned and burned again in his eyes.

He had held her hands while he stared. Now he dropped them with an exclamation.

"You're blank," he said angrily. "You've seen nothing and heard nothing."

He turned on his heel.

"Bart!" he called, and walked from the room, and they heard the padding of his soft step down the hall and on the porch and then-silence.

Black Bart slunk to the door and into the hall, but instantly he was back and peering into the gloom of the silent place like an evil-eyed spectre.

A sharp whistle rang from outside, and Black Bart started. Still he glided on until he stood before Kate; then turned and stalked slowly towards the door, looking back after her. She did not move, and with a snarl the wolf-dog whirled again and trotted back to her. This time he caught a fold of her skirt in his teeth and pulled on it. And under the pressure she made a step.


" called Joe Cumberland. "Are you mad, girl, to dream of goin' out in a night like this?"

"I'm not going!" she answered hurriedly. "I'm afraid-and I won't leave you, Dad!"

She had stopped as she spoke, but Black Bart, snarling terribly, threw his weight back, and dragged her a step forward.

"Buck," cried old Joe Cumberland and he dragged himself up and stood tottering. "Shoot the damned wolf-for God's sake-for my sake!"

Still the wolf-dog drew the girl in that snarling progress towards the door.

"Kate!" cried her father, and the agony in his voice made it young and sent it ringing through the room. "Will you go out to wander between heaven and hell-on a night like this?"

"I'm not going!" she answered, "I won't leave you-but oh-Dad!--"

He opened his lips for a fresh appeal, but the chorus of the wild geese swept in upon the wind, blown loud and clear and jangling as distant bells out of tune. And Kate Cumberland buried her face in her hands and stumbled blindly out of the room and down the hall-and then they heard the wild neighing of a horse outside.

"Buck!" commanded Joe Cumberland. "He's stealin' my girl-my Kate-go out! call up the boys-tell'em to stop Dan from saddlin' a horse for Kate--"

"Wait and listen!" cut in Buck Daniels. "D'you hear that?"

On the wet ground outside they heard a patter of galloping hoofs, and then a wild whistling, sweet and keen and high, came ringing back to them. It diminished rapidly with the distance.

"He's carryin' her off on Satan!" groaned Joe Cumberland, staggering as he tried to step forward. "Buck, call out the boys. Even Satan can't beat my hosses when he's carryin' double-call'em out-if you bring her back--"

His voice choked and he stumbled and would have fallen to his knees had not Buck Daniels sprang forward and caught him and carried him back to the couch.

"What's happened there ain't no man can stop," said Buck hoarsely. "God's work or devil's work-I dunno-but I know there ain't no place for a man between Dan and Kate."

"Turn up the lights," commanded Joe Cumberland sharply. "Got to see; I got to think. D'you hear?"

Buck Daniels ran to the big lamp and turned up the wick. At once a clear light flooded every nook of the big room and showed all its emptiness.

"Can't you make the lamp work?" asked the old ranchman angrily. "Ain't they any oil in it? Why, Buck, they ain't enough light for me to see your face, hardly. But I'll do without the light. Buck, how far will they go? Kate's a good girl! She won't leave me, lad!"

"She won't," agreed Buck Daniels. "Jest gone with Dan for a bit of a canter."

"The devil was come back in his eyes," muttered the old man. "God knows where he's headin' for! Buck, I brought him in off'n the range and made him a part of my house. I took him into my heart; and now he's gone out again and taken everything that I love along with him. Buck, why did he go?"

"He'll come back," said the big cowpuncher softly.

"It's gettin' darker and darker," said Joe Cumberland, "and they's a kind of ringing in my ears. Talk louder. I don't hear you none too well."

"I said they was comin' back," said Buck Daniels.

Something like a light showed on the face of Joe Cumberland.

"Ay, lad," he said eagerly, "I can hear Dan's whistlin' comin' back-nearer and nearer. Most like he was jest playin' a joke on me, eh, Buck?"

"Most like," said Buck, brokenly.

"Ay, there it's ringin' at the door of the house! Was that a footstep on the hall?"

"It was," said Buck. "They's comin' down the hall!"

But far, far away he heard the whistling of Dan Barry dying among the hills.

"You let the lamp go out," said Joe Cumberland, "and now I can't see nothing. Are they in the room?"

"They're here," said Buck Daniels, "comin' towards you now."

"Dan!" cried the old man, shading his eyes and peering anxiously-"no, I can't see a thing. Can you find me, lad?"

And Buck Daniels, softening his voice as much as he could, answered. "I can find you."

"Then gimme your hand."

Buck Daniels slipped his own large hand into the cold fingers of the dying cattleman. An expression of surpassing joy lay on the face of Joe Cumberland.

"Whistlin' Dan, my Dan," he murmured faintly, "I'm kind of sleepy, but before I go to sleep, to-night, I got to tell you that I forgive you for your joke-pretendin' to take Kate away."

"They's nothin' but sleep worth while-and goin' to sleep, holdin' your hand, lad-"

Buck Daniels dropped upon his knees and stared into the wide, dead eyes. Through the open window a sound of whistling blew to him. It was a sweet, faint music, and being so light it seemed like a chorus of singing voices among the mountains, for it was as pure and as sharp as the starlight.

Buck Daniels lifted his head to listen, but the sound faded, and the murmur of the night-wind came between.


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