Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Night Horseman by Max Brand

Part 6 out of 6

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.6 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

Mac Strann was one who had never feared before either man or beast or
the powers of the storm. Even now he dreaded no reality, but there dwelt
in his mind the memory of how Dan Barry had glared at him in the Gilead
Saloon, and how a flicker of yellow light had glowed in the man's
eyes--a strange and phosphorescent glimmer that might be seen in the
darkness of night. When he turned the head of his horse away from the
arroyo, he waited as one waits for the coming of a ghost. There was the
same chill tingling in his blood.

Now the blanket of rain lifted and shook away to comparative
clearness--lifted, and for the first time he could look far away across
the plains. Nothing but grey, rain-washed desert met his eyes, and then
the whistling broke once more upon him at the crest of a thrilling run.
Mac Strann strained his eyes through the mist of the storm and then he
saw, vaguely as a phantom, the form of a horseman rushing swiftly into
the very teeth of the wind. The whistle wavered, ended, and in its
place the long yell of a wolf cut the air. Mac Strann brandished a
ponderous fist in defiance that was half hysterical. Man or beast alone
he would meet--but a wolf-man!--he whirled the horse again and urged him
heedlessly into the water.

The whirlpool no longer opened before him--it had passed on down the
arroyo and left in its wake a comparative calm. So that when the horse
took the water he made good progress for some distance, until Mac Strann
could see, clearly, the farther bank of the stream. In his joy he
shouted to his horse, and swung himself clear from his saddle to lighten
the burden. At the same time they struck a heavier current and it struck
them down like a blow from above until the water closed over their

It was only for a moment, however; then they emerged, the horse with
courageously pricking ears and snorting nostrils just above the flood.
Mac Strann swung clear, gripping the horn of the saddle with one hand
while with the other he hastily divested himself of all superfluous
weight. His slicker went first, ripped away from throat and shoulders
and whipped off his body by one tug of the current. Next he fumbled at
his belt and tossed this also, guns and all, away; striking out with his
legs and his free arm to aid the progress that now forged ahead with
noticeable speed.

The current, to be sure, was carrying them farther down the stream, but
they were now almost to the centre of the arroyo and, though the water
boiled furiously over the back of the horse, they forged steadily close
and closer to the safe shore.

It was chance that defeated Mac Strann. It came shooting down the river
and he saw it only an instant too late--a log whipping through the
surface of the stream as though impelled by a living force. And with
arrowy straightness it lunged at them. Mac Strann heaved himself
high--he screamed at the horse as though the poor brute could understand
his warning, and then the tree-trunk was upon them. Fair and square it
struck the head of the horse with a thud audible even through the
rushing of the stream. The horse went down like lead, and Mac Strann was
dragged down beneath the surface.

He came up fighting grimly and hopelessly for life. For he was in the
very centre of the stream, now, and the current swept him relentlessly
down. There seemed to be hands in the middle of the arroyo, and when he
strove to battle his way to the edge of the water the current tangled at
his legs and pulled him back. Yet even then he did not fear. It was
death, he knew, but at least it was death fighting against a force of
nature rather than destruction at the hands of some weird and unhuman
agency. His arms began to grow numb. He raised his head to pick out the
nearest point on the shore and make his last struggle for life.

What he saw was a black head cutting the water just above him, and
beside the horse, one hand upon the beast's mane, swam a man. At the
same instant a hand fastened on his collar and he was drawn slowly
against the force of the river.

In the stunning surprise of the first moment he could make no effort to
save himself, and as a result, all three were washed hopelessly down the
current, but a shrill warning from his rescuer set him fighting again
with all the power of his great limbs. After that they forged steadily
towards the shore. The black horse swam with amazing strength, and
breaking the force of the current for the men, they soon passed from the
full grip of the torrent and forged into the smoother shallows at the
side of the stream. In a moment firm land was beneath the feet of Mac
Strann, and he turned his dull eyes of amazement upon Dan Barry. The
latter stood beside the panting black horse. He had not even thrown off
his slicker in the fording of the stream--there had been no time for
even that small delay if he wished to save Strann. And now he was
throwing back the folds of the garment to leave free play for his arms.
He panted from the fierce effort of the fording, but his head was high,
a singular smile lingered about the corners of his mouth, and in his
eyes Mac Strann saw the gleam of yellow, a signal of unfathomable

From his holsters Barry drew two revolvers. One he retained; the other
he tossed towards Mac Strann, and the latter caught it automatically.

"Now," said the soft voice of Barry, "we're equally armed.--Down,
Bart!----" (for the wolf-dog was slinking with ominous intent towards
the giant) and there's the dog you shot. "If you drop me, you can send
your next shot into Bart. If I drop you, the teeth of Bart will be in
your throat. Make your own terms; fight in the way you want; knives, if
you like 'em better than guns, or----" and here the yellow flamed
terribly in Barry's eyes--"bare hand to hand!"

The grim truth sank slowly home in the dull mind of Mac Strann. The man
had saved him from the water to kill him on dry land.

"Barry," he said slowly, "it was your bullet that brung down Jerry; but
you've paid me back here. They's nothin' left on earth worth fightin'
for. There's your gun."

And he threw the revolver into the mud at Barry's feet, turned on his
heel, and lumbered off into the rain. There was no voice of answer
behind him, except a shrill whine of rage from Black Bart and then a
sharp command: "Down!" from the master. As the blanket of rain shut over
him, Mac Strann looked back. There stood the strange man with the wolf
crouched at his feet, and the teeth of Bart were bared, and the hum of
his horrible snarling carried to Strann through the beat of the rain.
Mac Strann turned again, and plodded slowly through the storm.

And Dan Barry? Twice men had stood before him, armed, and twice he had
failed to kill. Wonder rose in him; wonder and a great fear. Was he
losing the desert, and was the desert losing him? Were the chains of
humanity falling about him to drag him down to a tamed and sordid life?
A sudden hatred for all men, Mac Strann, Daniels, Kate, and even poor
Joe Cumberland, welled hot in the breast of Whistling Dan. The strength
of men could not conquer him; but how could their very weakness disarm
him? He leaped again on the back of Satan, and rode furiously back into
the storm.



It had been hard to gauge the falling of night on this day, and even the
careful eyes of the watchers on the Cumberland Ranch could not tell when
the greyness of the sky was being darkened by the coming of the evening.
All day there had been swift alterations of light and shadow,
comparatively speaking, as the clouds grew thin or thick before the
wind. But at length, indubitably, the night was there. Little by little
the sky was overcast, and even the lines of the falling rain were no
longer visible. Before the gloom of the darkness had fully settled over
the earth, moreover, there came a change in the wind, and the watchers
at the rain-beaten windows of the ranch-house saw the clouds roll apart
and split into fragments that were driven from the face of the sky; and
from the clean washed face of heaven the stars shone down bright and
serene. And still Dan Barry had not come.

After the tumult of that long day the sudden silence of that windless
night had more ill omen in it than thunder and lightning. For there is
something watching and waiting in silence. In the living room the three
did not speak.

Now that the storm was gone they had allowed the fire to fall away
until the hearth showed merely fragmentary dances of flame and a wide
bed of dull red coals growing dimmer from moment to moment. Wung Lu had
brought in a lamp--a large lamp with a circular wick that cast a bright,
white light--but Kate had turned down the wick, and now it made only a
brief circle of yellow in one corner of the room. The main illumination
came from the fireplace and struck on the faces of Kate and Buck
Daniels, while Joe Cumberland, on the couch at the end of the room, was
only plainly visible when there was an extraordinarily high leap of the
dying flames; but usually his face was merely a glimmering hint in the
darkness--his face and the long hands which were folded upon his breast.
Often when the flames leapt there was a crackling of the embers and the
last of the log, and then the two nearer the fire would start and flash
a glance, of one accord, towards the prostrate figure on the couch.

That silence had lasted so long that when at length the dull voice of
Joe Cumberland broke in, there was a ring of a most prophetic solemnity
about it.

"He ain't come," said the old man. "Dan ain't here."

The others exchanged glances, but the eyes of Kate dropped sadly and
fastened again upon the hearth.

Buck Daniels cleared his throat like an orator.

"Nobody but a fool," he said, "would have started out of Elkhead in a
storm like this."

"Weather makes no difference to Dan," said Joe Cumberland.

"But he'd think of his hoss----"

"Weather makes no difference to Satan," answered the faint, oracular
voice of Joe Cumberland. "Kate!"


"Is he comin'?"

She did not answer. Instead, she got up slowly from her place by the
fire and took another chair, far away in the gloom, where hardly a
glimmer of light reached to her and there she let her head rest, as if
exhausted, against the back of the seat.

"He promised," said Buck Daniels, striving desperately to keep his voice
cheerful, "and he never busts his promises."

"Ay," said the old man, "he promised to be back--but he ain't here."

"If he started after the storm," said Buck Daniels.

"He didn't start after the storm," announced the oracle. "He was out in

"What was that," cried Buck Daniels sharply.

"The wind," said Kate, "for it's rising. It will be a cold night,

"And he ain't here," said the old man monotonously.

"Ain't there things that might hold him up?" asked Buck, with a touch of

"Ay," said the old rancher, "they's things that'll hold him up. They's
things that'll turn a dog wild, too, and the taste of blood is one of

The silence fell again.

There was an old clock standing against the wall. It was one of those
tall, wooden frames in which, behind the glass, the heavy, polished disk
of the pendulum, alternated slowly back and forth with wearisome
precision. And with every stroke of the seconds there was a faint,
metallic clangor in the clock--a falter like that which comes in the
voice of a very old man. And the sound of this clock took possession of
every silence until it seemed like the voice of a doomsman counting off
the seconds. Ay, everyone in the room, again and again, took up the tale
of those seconds and would count them slowly--fifty, fifty-one,
fifty-two, fifty-three--and on and on, waiting for the next speech, or
for the next popping of the wood upon the hearth, or for the next wail
of the wind that would break upon the deadly expectancy of that count.
And while they counted each looked straight before him with wide and
widening eyes.

Into one of these pauses the voice of Buck Daniels broke at length; and
it was a cheerless and lonely voice in that large room, in the dull
darkness, and the duller lights.

"D'you remember Shorty Martin, Kate?"

"I remember him."

He turned in his chair and hitched it a little closer to her until he
could make put her face, dimly, among the shadows. The flames jumped on
the hearth, and he saw a picture that knocked at his heart.

"The little bow-legged feller, I mean."

"Yes, I remember him very well."

Once more the flames sputtered and he saw how she looked wistfully
before her and above. She had never seemed so lovely to Buck Daniels.
She was pale, indeed, but there was no ugly pinching of her face, and if
there were shadows beneath her eyes, they only served to make her eyes
seem marvelously large and bright. She was pallid, and the firelight
stained her skin with touches of tropic gold, and cast a halo of the
golden hair about her face. She seemed like one of those statues wrought
in the glory and the rich days of Athens in ivory and in gold--some
goddess who has heard the tidings of the coming fall, the change of the
old order, and sits passive in her throne waiting the doom from which
there is no escape. Something of this filtered through to the sad heart
of Buck Daniels. He, too, had no hope--nay, he had not even her small
hope, but somehow he was able to pity her and cherish the picture of her
in that gloomy place. It seemed to Buck Daniels that he would give ten
years from the best of his life to see her smile as he had once seen her
in those old, bright days. He went on with his tale.

"You would have busted laughin' if you'd seen him at the Circle Y Bar
roundup the way I seen him. Shorty ain't so bad with a rope. He's always
talkin' about what he can do and how he can daub a rope on anything
that's got horns. He ain't so bad, but then he ain't so good, either.
Specially, he ain't so good at ridin'--you know what bowed legs he's
got, Kate?"

"I remember, Buck."

She was looking at him, at last, and he talked eagerly to turn that look
into a smile.

"Well, they was the three of us got after one two year old--a bull and a
bad 'un. Shorty was on one side and me and Cuttle was on the other side.
Shorty daubed his rope and made a fair catch, but when his hoss set back
the rope busted plumb in two. Now, Shorty, he had an idea that he could
ease the work of his hoss a whole pile if he laid holts on the rope
whenever his hoss set down to flop a cow. So Shorty, he had holt on this
rope and was pulling back hard when the rope busted, and Shorty, he
spilled backwards out'n that saddle like he'd been kicked out.

"Whilst he was lyin' there, the bull, that had took a header when the
rope busted, come up on his feet agin, and I'll tell a man he was rarin'
mad! He seen Shorty lyin' on the ground, and he took a run for Shorty.
Me and Cuttle was laughin' so hard we couldn't barely swing our ropes,
but I made a throw and managed to get that bull around both horns. So my
Betty sits down and braces herself for the tug.

"In the meantime little Shorty, he sits up and lays a hand to his head,
and same time he sees that bull come tarin' for him. Up he jumps. And
jest then the bull come to the end of the line and wonk!--down he goes,
head over heels, and hits the sand with a bang that must of jostled his
liver some, I'll be sayin'!

"Well, Shorty, he seen that bull fly up into the air and he lets out a
yell like the world was comin' to an end, and starts runnin'. If he'd
run straight back the other way the bull couldn't of run a step, because
I had him fast with my rope, but Shorty seen me, and he come tarin' for
my hoss to get behind him.

"That bull was like a cat gettin' to his feet, and he sights Shorty
tarin' and lights out after him. There they went lickety-split. That
bull was puffin' on the seat of Shorty's trowsers and tossin' his horns
and jest missin' Shorty by inches; and Shorty had his mouth so wide open
hollerin' that you could have throwed a side of beef down his throat;
and his eyes was buggin' out. Them bow-legs of his was stretchin' ten
yards at a clip, most like, and the boys says they could hear him
hollerin' a mile away. But that bull, stretch himself all he could,
couldn't gain an inch on Shorty, and Shorty couldn't gain an inch on the
bull, till the bull come to the other end of the forty-foot rope, and
then, whang! up goes the heels of the bull and down goes his head, and
his heels comes over--wonk! and hits Shorty right square on the head.

"Been an ordinary feller, and he wouldn't of lived to talk about it
afterwards, but seein' it was Shorty, he jest goes up in the air and
lands about ten yards away, and rolls over and hits his feet without
once gettin' off his stride--and then he _did_ start runnin', and he
didn't stop runnin' nor hollerin' till he got plumb back to the house!"

Buck Daniels sat back in his chair and guffawed at the memory. In the
excitement of the tale he had quite forgotten Kate, but when he
remembered her, she sat with her head craned a little to one side, her
hand raised for silence, and a smile, indeed, upon her lips, but never a
glance for Buck Daniels. He knew at once.

"Is it him?" he whispered. "D'you hear him?"

"Hush!" commanded two voices, and then he saw that old Joe Cumberland
also was listening.

"No," said the girl suddenly, "it was only the wind."

As if in answer, a far, faint whistling broke upon them. She drew her
hands slowly towards her breast, as if, indeed, she drew the sound in
with them.

"He's coming!" she cried. "Oh, Dad, listen! Don't you hear?"

"I do," answered the rancher, "but what I'm hearin' don't warm my blood
none. Kate, if you're wise you'll get up and go to your room and don't
pay no heed to anything you might be hearin' to-night."



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

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

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

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

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.

"Kate!" 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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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,

"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

"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

"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.


Book of the day:
Facebook Google Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter Pinterest