THE VOICE OF BLACK BART
Her father lay propped high with pillows among which his head lolled back. The only light in the room was near the bed and it cast a glow upon the face of Joe Cumberland and on the white linen, the white hair, the white, pointed beard. All the rest of the room swam in darkness. The chairs were blotches, indistinct, uncertain; even the foot of the bed trailed off to nothingness. It was like one of those impressionistic, very modern paintings, where the artist centres upon one point and throws the rest of his canvas into dull oblivion. The focus here was the face of the old cattleman. The bedclothes, never stirred, lay in folds sharply cut out with black shadows, and they had a solid seeming, as the mort-cloth rendered in marble over the effigy. That suggested weight exaggerated the frailty of the body beneath the clothes. Exhausted by that burden, the old man lay in the arms of a deadly languor, so that there was a kinship of more than blood between him and Kate at this moment. She stepped to the side of the bed and stood staring down at him, and there was little gentleness in her expression. So cold was that settled gaze that her father stirred, at length, shivered, and without opening his eyes, fumbled at the bed-spread and drew it a little more closely about his shoulders. Even that did not give him rest; and presently the wrinkled eyelids opened and he looked up at his daughter. A film of weariness heavier than sleep at first obscured his sight, but this in turn cleared away; he frowned a little to clear his vision, and then wagged his head slowly from side to side.
“Kate,” he said feebly, “I done my best. It simply wasn’t good enough.”
She answered in a voice as low as his, but steadier: “What could have happened? Dad, what happened to make you give up every hold on Dan? What was it? You were the last power that could keep him here. You knew it. Why did you tell him he could go?”
The monotone was more deadly than any emphasis of a raised word.
“If you’d been here,” pleaded Joe Cumberland, “you’d have done what I done. I couldn’t help it. There he sat on the foot of the bed—see where them covers still kind of sag down—after he told me that he had something to do away from the ranch and that he wanted to go now that Black Bart was well enough to travel in short spells. He asked me if I still needed him.”
“And you told him no?” she cried. “Oh Dad, you know it means everything to me—but you told him no?” He raised a shaking hand to ward off the outburst and stop it.
“Not at first, honey. Gimme a chance to talk, Kate. At first I told him that I needed him—and God knows that I do need him. I dunno why—not even Doc Byrne knows what there is about Dan that helps me. I told Dan all them things. And he didn’t say nothin’, but jest sat still on the foot of the bed and looked at me.