News of the Killing at Alder, as they call that night's slaughter to this day in the mountain-desert, traveled swiftly, and lost nothing of bulk and burden on the way; so that two days later, when Lee Haines went down for mail to the wretched little village in the valley, he heard the store-keeper retailing the story to an awe-stricken group. How the tale had crossed all the wild mountains which lay between in so brief a space no man could say, but first there ran a whisper and then a stir, and then half a dozen men came in at once, each with an elaboration of the theme more horrible than the last. The store-keeper culled the choicest fragments from every version, strung them together with a narrative of his own fertile invention, polished off the tale by a few rehearsals in his home, and then placed his product on the open market. The very first day he kept the store-room well filled from dawn until dark.
And this was the creation to which Lee Haines had to listen, impatient, sifting the chaff from the grains of truth. Down upon Alder, exactly at midnight, had ridden a cavalcade headed by that notorious, half-legendary man-slayer, Dan Barry—Whistling Dan. While his crew of two-score hardened ruffians held the doors and the windows with leveled rifles, Barry had entered with a gun and a wolf—a wild wolf, and had butchered ten men, wantonly. To add to the mystery, there was no motive of robbery for the crime. One sweeping visitation of death, and then the night-riders had rushed away. Nor was this all, for Sheriff Pete Glass, hearing of the tragedy, had ridden to Rickett, the county seat, and from this strategic point of vantage he was sending out a call for the most practised fighters on the mountain-desert. He wanted twenty men proved beyond the shadow of question for courage, endurance, speed, and surety in action.
"And," concluded the store-keeper, fixing his eye upon Lee Haines, "if you want a long ride free of charge, and ten bucks a day with chow thrown in—some of you gents ought to go to Rickett and chin with Pete."
Haines waited to hear no more. He even forgot to ask for the Barry mail, swung into his saddle, and rode with red spurs back to the cabin in the mountains. There he drew Buck Daniels aside, and they walked among the rocks while Haines told his story. When it was ended they sat on adjoining boulders and chucked pebbles aimlessly into the emptiness beyond the cliff.
"Maybe," said Buck suddenly, "it wasn't Dan at all. He sure wouldn't be ridin' with no crowd of gents like that."
"A fool like that store-keeper could make a crowd of Indians out of one papoose," answered Haines. "It was Dan. Who else would be traipsing around with a dog that looks like a wolf—and hunts men?"
"I remember when Dan cornered Jim Silent in that cabin, and all Jim's gang was with him. Black Bart—"
"Buck," cut in Haines, "you've remembered plenty."
After a moment: "When are you going in to break the news to Kate?"
Buck Daniels regarded him with angry astonishment.
"Me?" he cried. "I'd sooner cut my tongue out!" He drew a great breath. "I feel like—like Dan was dead!"
"The best thing for Kate if he were."
"That's a queer thing to say, Lee. The meat would be rotted off your bones six years ago in Elkhead if it hadn't been for Whistlin' Dan."
"I know it, Buck. But I'll tell you straight that I could never feel towards Dan as if he were a human being, but a wolf in the hide of a man. He turned my blood cold; he always has."
Buck Daniels groaned aloud as thoughts poured back on him.
"Of all the pals that ever a man had," he said sadly, "there never was a partner like Whistlin' Dan. There was never another gent that would go through hell for you jest because you'd eaten meat with him. The first time I met him I tried to double-cross him, because I had my orders from Silent. And Dan played clean with me—by God, he shook hands with me when he left."
He straightened a little.
"So help me God, Lee, I've never done a crooked thing more since I shook hands with Dan that day." He sat silent, but breathing hard. "Well, this is the end of Whistlin' Dan. The law will never let up on him now; but I tell you, Haines, I'm sick inside and I'd give my right hand plumb to the wrist to set him straight and bring him back to Kate. Go in and tell her, Lee. I—I'll wait for you here."
"You'll be damned," cried Haines. "I've done my share by bringing the word this far. You can relay it."
Buck Daniels produced a silver dollar.
"Heads or tails?"
"Heads!" said Haines.
The dollar spun upwards, winking, and clanked on the rocks, tails up. Haines stared at it with a grisly face.
"Good God," he muttered, "what'll I do, Buck, if she faints?"
"Faints?" echoed Daniels, "there's no fear of that! The first thing you'll have to do is to saddle her horse."
"Now, what in hell are you driving at?"
"She'll be thinkin' of Joan. God knows she worried enough because Dan hasn't brought the kid back before this, but when she hears what he's done now, she'll know that he's wild for keeps and she'll be on the trail to bring the young'un home."
He turned his back cleanly on the house and set his shoulders tense.
"Go on, Lee. Be a man."
He heard the steps of Haines start briskly enough for the house, but they trailed away, slowly and more slowly, and finally there was a long pause.
"He's standing at the door," muttered Buck. "Thank God I ain't in his boots."
He jerked out his papers and tobacco, but in the very act of twisting the cigarette tight the door slammed and he ripped the flimsy thing in two. He started to take another paper, but his fingers were so unsteady that he could not pull away the single sheet of tissue which he wanted. Then his hands froze in place.
A faint tapping came out to him.
"He—he's rapping on her door," whispered Buck, and remained fixed in place, his eyes staring straight before him.
The seconds slipped away.
"He's turned yaller," murmured Buck. "He couldn't do it. It'll be up to me!"
But he had hardly spoken the words when a low cry came out to him from the house. Then the silence again, but Buck Daniels began to mop his forehead.
After that, once, twice, and again he made the effort to turn towards the house, but when he finally succeeded it was whole minutes later, and Lee Haines was leading a saddled horse from the coral. Kate stood beside the cabin, waiting.
When he reached her, she was already mounted. He halted beside her, panting, his hand on her bridle.
"Don't do it, Kate!" he pleaded. "Lemme go with you. Lemme go and try to help."
The brisk wind up the gulch set her clothes fluttering, stirred the hair about the rim of her hat, and she seemed to Buck more gracefully, more beautifully young than he had ever seen her; but her face was like stone.
"You'd be no help," she answered. "When I get to the place I may have to meet him! Would you face him, Buck?"
His hand fell away from the bridle. It was not so much what she said as the cold, steady voice with which she spoke that unnerved him. Then, without a farewell, she turned the brown horse around and struck across the meadow at a swift gallop. Buck turned to meet the sick face of Haines.
"Well?" he said.
"Let me have that flask."
Buck produced a metal "life-saver," and Haines with nervous hands unscrewed the top and lifted it to his lips. He lowered it after a long moment and stood bracing himself against the wall.
"It was hell, Buck. God help me if I ever have to go through a thing like that again."
"I see what you done," said Buck angrily. "You walked right in and took your story in both hands and knocked her down with it. Haines, of all the ornery, thick-headed cayuses I ever see, you're the most out-beatin'est!"
"I couldn't help it."
"When I went in she took one look at me and then jumped up and stood as straight as a pine tree.
"'Lee,' she said, 'what have you heard?'"
"'About what?' I asked her, and I looked sort of indifferent."
"Dan!" snorted Buck. "She could see death an' hell written all over your face, most like."
"I suppose," muttered Haines, "I—I was sick!
"'Tell me!' she said, coming close up.
"'He's gone wild again,' was all I could put my tongue to.
"Then I blurted it out. I had to get rid of the damned story some way, and the quickest way seemed the best—how Dan rode into Alder and did the killing.
"When I got to that she gave one cry."
"I know," said Buck, shuddering. "Like something dying."
"Then she asked me to saddle her horse. I begged her to let me go with her, and she said to me what she just now said to you. And so I stayed. What good could we do against that devil?"