Calder threw up his hands in despair. Black Bart snarled at the gesture.
“I can’t listen no more,” said Dan. “I got to start explorin’ the willows pretty soon.”
“In the dark?” exclaimed Calder.
“Sure. Black Bart’ll go with me. The dark don’t bother him.”
“I’ll go along.”
“I’d rather be alone. I might meet him.”
“Any way you want,” said Calder, “but first hear my plan—it doesn’t take long to tell it.”
The darkness thickened around them while he talked. The fire died out—the night swallowed up their figures.
THE LONE RIDERS ENTERTAIN
When Lee Haines rode into Silent’s camp that evening no questions were asked. Questions were not popular among the long riders. He did not know more than the names of half the men who sat around the smoky fire. They were eager to forget the past, and the only allusions to former times came in chance phrases which they let fall at rare intervals. When they told an anecdote they erased all names by instinct. They would begin: “I heard about a feller over to the Circle Y outfit that was once ridin’—” etc. As a rule they themselves were “that feller over to the Circle Y outfit.” Accordingly only a few grunts greeted Haines and yet he was far and away the most popular man in the group. Even solemn-eyed Jim Silent was partial to the handsome fellow.
“Heard the whistling today?” he asked.
Purvis shook his head and Terry Jordan allowed “as how it was most uncommon fortunate that this Barry feller didn’t start his noise.” After this Haines ate his supper in silence, his ear ready to catch the first sound of Kate’s horse as it crashed through the willows and shrubs. Nevertheless it was Shorty Rhinehart who sprang to his feet first.
“They’s a hoss there comin’ among the willows!” he announced.
“Maybe it’s Silent,” remarked Haines casually.
“The chief don’t make no such a noise. He picks his goin’,” answered Hal Purvis.
The sound was quite audible now.
“They’s been some crooked work,” said Rhinehart excitedly. “Somebody’s tipped off the marshals about where we’re lyin’.”
“All right,” said Haines quietly, “you and I will investigate.”
They started through the willows. Rhinehart was cursing beneath his breath.
“Don’t be too fast with your six-gun,” warned Haines.
“I’d rather be too early than too late.”
“Maybe it isn’t a marshal. If a man were looking for us he’d be a fool to come smashing along like that.”
He had scarcely spoken when Kate came into view.
“A girl, by God!” said Rhinehart, with mingled relief and disgust.
“Sure thing,” agreed Haines.
“Let’s beat it back to the camp.”
“Not a hope. She’s headed straight for the camp. We’ll take her in and tell her we’re a bunch from the Y Circle X outfit headed north. She’ll never know the difference.”