With the chill blast shut off and the flame burning steadily once more in the lamp, a great silence besieged the room, with a note of expectancy in it. Byrne was conscious of being warm, too warm. It was close in the room, and he was weighted down. It was as if another presence had stepped into the room and stood invisible. He felt it with unspeakable keenness, as when one knows certainly the thoughts which pass in the mind of another. And, more than that, he knew that the others in the room felt what he felt. In the waiting silence he saw that the old man lay on his couch with eyes of fire and gaping lips, as if he drank the wine of his joyous expectancy. And big Buck Daniels stood with his hand on the sash of the window, frozen there, his eyes bulging, his heart thundering in his throat. And Kate Cumberland sat with her eyes closed, as she had closed them when the wind first rushed upon her, and she still smiled as she had smiled then. And to Byrne, more terrible than the joy of Joseph Cumberland or the dread of Buck Daniels was the smile and the closed eyes of the girl.
But the silence held and the fifth presence was in the room, and not one of them dared speak.
THE MISSION STARTS
Then, with a shifting of the wind, a song was blown to them from the bunk-house, a cheerful, ringing chorus; the sound was like daylight—it drove the terror from the room. Joe Cumberland asked them to leave him. That night, he said, he would sleep. He felt it, like a promise. The other three went out from the room.
In the hall Kate and Daniels stood close together under a faint light from the wall-lamp, and they talked as if they had forgotten the presence of Byrne.
“It had to come,” she said. “I knew it would come to him sooner or later, but I didn’t dream it would be as terrible as this. Buck, what are we going to do?”
“God knows,” said the big cowpuncher. “Just wait, I s’pose, same as we’ve been doing.”
He had aged wonderfully in that moment of darkness.
“He’ll be happy now for a few days,” went on the girl, “but afterwards—when he realises that it means nothing—what then, Buck?”
The man took her hands and began to pat them softly as a father might soothe a child.
“I seen you when the wind come in,” he said gently. “Are you going to stand it, Kate? Is it going to be hell for you, too, every time you hear ’em?”
She answered: “If it were only I! Yes, I could stand it. Lately I’ve begun to think that I can stand anything. But when I see Dad it breaks my heart—and you—oh, Buck, it hurts, it hurts!” She drew his hands impulsively against her breast. “If it were only something we could fight outright!”
Buck Daniels sighed.
“Fight?” he echoed hopelessly. “Fight? Against him? Kate, you’re all tired out. Go to bed, honey, and try to stop thinkin’—and—God help us all!”