They knew what it meant; even Joan had heard the cry of the lone wolf hunting in the lean time of winter, and of all things sad, all things lonely, all things demoniacal, the howl of a wolf stands alone. Lee Haines reached for his gun, little Joan stood up silent on the hearth, but Kate and Buck Daniels sat listening with a sort of hungry terror, as the cry sobbed away to quiet. Then out of the mountains and the night came an answer so thin, so eerie, one might have said it was the voice of the mountains and white stars grown audible; it stole on the ear as the pulse of a heart comes to the consciousness.
Truly it was an answer to the cry of the wolf-dog, for in the slender compass it carried the same wail, the same unearthly quality with this great difference, that a thrilling happiness went through it, as if some one walked through the mountains and rejoiced in the unknown terrors. A sob formed in the throat of Kate and the wolf turned its head and looked at her, and the yellow of things that see in the night swam in its eyes. Lee Haines struck the arm of Buck Daniels.
"Buck, let's get clear of this. Let's start. He's coming."
At the whisper Buck turned a livid face; one could see him gather his strength.
"I stick," he said with difficulty, as though his lips were numb. "She'll need me now."
Lee Haines stood in a moment's indecision but then settled back in his chair and gripped his hands together. They both sat watching the door as if the darkness were a magnet of inescapable horror. Only Joan, of all in that room, showed no fear after the first moment. Her face was blanched indeed, but she tilted it up now, smiling; she stole towards the door, but Kate caught the child and gathered her close with strangling force. Joan made no attempt to escape. "S-sh!" she cautioned, and raised a plump little forefinger. "Munner, don't you hear? Don't you like it?"
As if the sound had turned a corner, it broke all at once clearly over them in a rain of music; a man's whistling. It went out; it flooded about them again like beautiful, cold light. Once again it stopped, and now they sensed, rather than heard, a light, rapid, padding step that approached the cabin. Dan Barry stood in the door and in that shadowy place his eyes seemed luminous. He no longer whistled, but a spirit went from him which carried the same sense of the untamed, the wild happiness which died out with his smile as he looked around the room. The brim of his hat curved up, his neckerchief seemed to flutter a little. The wolf-dog reached the threshold in the same instant and stood looking steadily up into the face of the master.
"Daddy Dan!" cried Joan.
She had slipped from the nerveless arms of Kate and now ran towards her father, but here she faltered, there she stopped with her arms slowly falling back to her sides. He did not seem to see her, but looked past her, far beyond every one in the room as he walked to the wall and took down a bridle that hung on a peg. Kate laid her hands on the arms of the chair, but after the first effort to rise, her strength failed.
"Dan!" she said. It was only a whisper, a heart-stopping sound. "Dan!" Her voice rang, then her arms gathered to her, blindly, Joan, who had shrunk back. "What's happened?"
"They broke her leg."
"With a long shot."
"What are you going to do!"
"Get Satan. Go for a ride."
He looked about him, troubled, and then frowned. "I dunno. Out yonder."
He waved his arm. Black Bart followed the turn of the master's body, and switching around in front continued to stare up into Dan's face.
"You're going back after the posse?"
"No, I'm done with them."
"What do you mean?"
"They paid for Grey Molly."
"You shot one of their—horses?"
"God help us!" Then life came to her; she sprang up and ran between him and the door. "You shan't go. If you love me!" She was only inches from Black Bart, and the big animal showed his teeth in silent hate.
"Kate, I'm goin'. Don't stand in the door."
Joan, slipping around Bart, stood clinging to the skirts of her mother and watched the face of Dan, fascinated, silent.
"Tell me where you're going. Tell me when you're coming back. Dan, for pity!"
Loud as a trumpet, a horse neighed from the corral. Dan had stood with an uncertain face, but now he smiled.
"D'you hear? I got to go!"
"I heard Satan whinney. But what does that mean? How does that make you go?"
"Somewhere," he murmured, "something's happening. I felt it on the wind when I was comin' up the pass."
"If you—oh, Dan, you're breaking my heart!"
"Stand out of the door."
"Wait till the morning."
"Don't you see I can't wait?"
"One hour, ten minutes. Buck—Lee Haines—"
She could not finish, but Buck Daniels stepped closer, trying to make a smile grow on his ashen face.
"Another minute, Dan, and I'll tell a man you've forgotten me."
Barry pivoted suddenly as though uneasy at finding something behind him, and Daniels winced.
"Hello, Buck. Didn't see you was here. Lee Haines? Lee, this is fine."
He passed from one to the other and his handshake was only the elusive passage of his fingers through their palms. Haines shrugged his shoulders to get rid of a weight that clung to him; a touch of color came back to his face.
"Look here, Dan. If you're afraid that gang may trail you here and start raising the devil—how many are there?"
"I'm as good with a gun as I ever was in the old days. So is Buck. Partner, let's make the show down together. Stick here with Kate and Joan and Buck and I will help you hold the fort. Don't look at me like that. I mean it. Do you think I've forgotten what you did for me that night in Elkhead? Not in a thousand years. Dan, I'd rather make my last play here than any other place in the world. Let 'em come! We'll salt them down and plant them where they won't grow."
As he talked the pallor quite left him, and the fighting fire blazed in his eyes, he stood lion-like, his feet spread apart as if to meet a shock, his tawny head thrown back, and there was about him a hair-trigger sensitiveness, in spite of his bulk, a nervousness of hand and coldness of glance which characterizes the gun-fighter. Buck Daniels stepped closer, without a word, but one felt that he also had walked into the alliance. As Barry watched them the yellow which swirled in his eyes flickered away for a moment.
"Why, gents," he murmured, "they ain't any call for trouble. The posse? What's that got to do with me? Our accounts are all squared up."
The two stared dumbly.
"They killed Grey Molly; I killed one of them."
"A horse—for a man?" repeated Lee Haines, breathing hard.
"A life for a life," said Dan simply. "They got no call for complainin'."
Glances of wonder, glances of meaning, flashed back and forth from Haines to Buck.
"Well, then," said the latter, and he took in Kate with a caution from the corner of his eye, "if that's the case, let's sit down and chin for a minute."
Dan stood with his head bowed a little, frowning; two forces pulled him, and Kate leaned against the wall off in the shadow with her eyes closed, waiting, waiting, waiting through the crisis.
"I'd like to stay and chin with you, Buck—but, I got to be off. Out there—in the night—something may happen before mornin'." Black Bart licked the hand of the master and whined. "Easy, boy. We're startin'."
"But the night's just beginnin'," said Buck Daniels genially. "You got a world of time before you, and with Satan to fall back on you don't have to count your minutes. Pull up a chair beside me, Dan, and—"
The latter shook his head, decided. "Buck, I can't do it. Just to sit here"—he looked about him—"makes me feel sort of choked. Them walls are as close—as a coffin."
He was already turning; Kate straightened in the shadow, desperate.
"As a matter of fact, Dan," said Lee Haines, suddenly, "we need your help badly."
The heart of Kate stood in her eyes as she looked at Lee Haines.
"Sit down a minute, Dan, and I'll tell you about it."
Barry slipped into a chair which he had pulled to one side—so that the back of it was towards the wall, and every one in the room was before him.