The help which Lee Haines wanted, it turned out, was guidance across a difficult stretch of country which he and Buck Daniels wanted to prospect, and while he talked Barry listened uneasily. It was constitutionally impossible for him to say no when a favor was asked of him, and Haines counted heavily on that characteristic; in the meantime Black Bart lay on the hearth with his wistful eyes turned steadily up to the master; and Buck Daniels went to Kate on the farther side of the room. She sat quivering, alternately crushing and soothing Joan with the strength of her caresses. Buck drew a chair close, with his back half towards the fire.
"Turn around a little, Kate," he cautioned. "Don't let Dan see your face."
She obeyed him automatically.
"Is there a hope, Buck? What have I done to deserve this? I don't want to live; I want to die! I want to die!"
"Steady, steady!" he cut in, and his face was working. "If you keep on like this you'll bust down in a minute or two. And you know what tears do to Dan; he'll be out of this house like a scairt coyote. Brace up!"
She struggled and won a partial control.
"I'm fighting hard, Buck."
"Fight harder still. You ought to know him better than I do. When he's like this it drives him wild to have other folks thinkin' about him."
He looked over to Dan. In spite of the bowed head of the latter as he listened to Haines yarning he gave an impression of electric awareness to all that was around him.
"Talk soft," whispered Buck. "Maybe he knows we're talkin' about him."
He raised his voice out of the whisper, breaking in on a sentence about Joan, as if this were the tenor of their talk. Then he lowered his tone again.
"Think quick. Talk soft. Do you want Dan kept here?"
"For God's sake, yes."
"Suppose the posse gets him here?"
"We musn't dodge the law."
They were gauging their voices with the closest precision. Talking like this so close to Barry was like dancing among flasks of nitroglycerine. Once, and once only, Lee Haines cast a desperate eye across to them, begging them to come to his rescue, then he went back to his talk with Dan, raising his voice to shelter the conference of the other two.
"If they come, he'll fight."
"No, he isn't at the fighting pitch yet, I know!"
"If you're wrong they'll be dead men here."
"He sees no difference between the death of a horse and the death of a man. He feels that the law has no score against him. He'll go quietly."
"And we'll find ways of fightin' the law?"
"Yes, but it needs money."
"I've got a stake."
"God bless you, Buck."
"Take my advice."
"Let him go now."
She glanced at him wildly.
"Kate, he's gone already."
"No, no, no!"
"I say he's gone. Look at his eyes."
"I don't dare."
"The yaller is comin' up in 'em. He's wild again." She shook her head in mute agony. Buck Daniels groaned, softly.
"Then they's goin' to be a small-sized hell started around this cabin before mornin'."
He got up and went slowly back towards the fire. Lee Haines was talking steadily, leisurely, going round and round his subject again and again, and Barry listened with bowed head, but his eyes were fixed upon those of the wolf-dog at his feet. When he grew restless, Haines chained him to the chair with some direct question, yet it was a hard game to play. All this time the posse might be gathering around the cabin; and the forehead of Haines whitened and glistened with sweat. His voice was the only living thing in the cabin, after a time, sketching his imaginary plans for the benefit of Barry—his voice and the wistful eyes of Joan which kept steadily on Daddy Dan. Something has come between them and lifted a barrier which she could not understand, and with all her aching child's heart she wondered at it.
For the second time that evening the wolf stood up on the hearth, but he was not yet on his feet before Dan was out of his chair and standing close to the wall, where the shadows swallowed him. Lee Haines sat with his lips frozen on the next unspoken word. Two shadows, whose feet made no sound, Black Bart and Dan glided to the door and peered into the night—then Barry went back, step by step, until his back was once more to the wall. Not until that instant did the others hear. It was a step which approached behind the house; a loud rap at the back door.
It was the very loudness of the knock which made Kate draw a breath of relief; if it had been a stealthy tap she would have screamed. He who rapped did not wait for an answer; they heard the door creak open, the sound of a heavy man's step.
"It's Vic," said Dan quietly, and then the door opened which led into the kitchen and the tall form of Gregg entered. He paused there.
"Here I am again, ma'am."
"Good evening," she answered faintly.
He cleared his throat, embarrassed.
"Darned if I didn't play a fool game today—hello, Dan."
The other nodded.
"Rode in a plumb circle and come back where I started." He laughed, and the laughter broke off a little shortly. He stepped to the wall and hung up his bridle on its peg, which is the immemorial manner of asking hospitality in the mountain-desert. "Hope I ain't puttin' you out, Kate. I see you got company."
She started, recalled from her thoughts.
"Excuse me, Vic. Vic Gregg, Buck Daniels, Lee Haines."
They shook hands, and Vic detained Haines a moment.
"Seems to me I've heard of you, Haines."
Gregg looked at the big man narrowly, and then swung back towards Dan. He knew many things, now. Lee Haines—yes, that was the name. One of the crew who followed Jim Silent; and Dan Barry? What a fool he had been not to remember! It was Dan Barry who had gone on the trail of Silent's gang and hounded it to death; Lee Haines alone had been spared. Yes, half a dozen years before the mountain-folk had heard that story, a wild and improbable one. It fitted in with what Pete Glass had told him of the shooting of Harry Fisher; it explained a great deal which had mystified him since he first met Barry; it made the thing he had come to do at once easier and harder.
"I s'pose Molly showed a clean pair of heels to the whole lot of 'em?" he said to Dan.
"Dead?" His astonishment was well enough affected. "God amighty, Dan, not Grey Molly—my hoss?"
"Dead. I shot her."
Vic gasped. "You?"
"They'd busted her leg. I put her out of pain."
Gregg dropped into a chair. It was not altogether an affectation, not altogether a piece of skilful acting now, for though the sheriff had told him all that happened he had not had a chance to feel the truth; but now it swept over him, all her tricks, all her deviltry, all that long companionship. His head bowed.
No smile touched the faces of the others in the room, but a reverent silence fell on the room. Then that figure among the shadows moved out, stepped to the side of Vic, and a light hand rested on his shoulder. The other looked up, haggard.
"She's gone, partner," Dan said gently, "but she's paid for."
"Paid for? Dan, they ain't any money could pay me back for Grey Molly."
"I know; I know! Not that way, but there was a life given for a life."
"One man died for Molly."
As the meaning came home to Gregg he blinked, and then, looking up, he found a change in the eyes of Barry, for they seemed to be lighted from within coldly, and his glance went down to the very bottom of Vic's soul, probing. It was only an instant, a thing of which Gregg could not make sure, and then Dan slipped back into his place among the shadows by the wall. But a chill sense of guilt, a premonition of danger, stayed in Gregg. The palms of his hands grew moist.