“This sounds quite promising.”
“But I’ll tell nobody else.”
“It’s about a man and a hoss and a dog. The man ain’t possible, the hoss ain’t possible, the dog is a wolf.”
He paused again and glowered on the doctor. He seemed to be drawn two ways, by his eagerness to tell a yarn and his dread of consequences.
“I know,” he muttered, “because I’ve seen ’em all. I’ve seen”—he looked far, as though striking a silent bargain with himself concerning the sum of the story which might safely be told—“I’ve seen a hoss that understood a man’s talk like you and me does—or better. I’ve heard a man whistle like a singing bird. Yep, that ain’t no lie. You jest imagine a bald eagle that could lick anything between the earth and the sky and was able to sing—that’s what that whistlin’ was like. It made you glad to hear it, and it made you look to see if your gun was in good workin’ shape. It wasn’t very loud, but it travelled pretty far, like it was comin’ from up above you.”
“That’s the way this strange man of the story whistles?” asked Byrne, leaning closer.
“Man of the story?” echoed the proprietor, with some warmth. “Friend, if he ain’t real, then I’m a ghost. And they’s them in Elkhead that’s got the scars of his comin’ and goin’.”
“Ah, an outlaw? A gunfighter?” queried the doctor.
“Listen to me, son,” observed the host, and to make his point he tapped the hollow chest of Byrne with a rigid forefinger, “around these parts you know jest as much as you see, and lots of times you don’t even know that much. What you see is sometimes your business, but mostly it ain’t.” He concluded impressively: “Words is worse’n bullets!”
“Well,” mused Byrne, “I can ask the girl these questions. It will be medically necessary.”
“Ask the girl? Ask her?” echoed the host with a sort of horror. But he ended with a forced restraint: “That’s your business.”
THE DOCTOR RIDES
Hank Dwight disappeared from the doorway and the doctor was called from his pondering by the voice of the girl. There was something about that voice which worried Byrne, for it was low and controlled and musical and it did not fit with the nasal harshness of the cattlemen. When she began to speak it was like the beginning of a song. He turned now and found her sitting a tall bay horse, and she led a red-roan mare beside her. When he went out she tossed her reins over the head of her horse and strapped his valise behind her saddle.
“You won’t have any trouble with that mare,” she assured him, when the time came for mounting. Yet when he approached gingerly he was received with flattened ears and a snort of anger. “Wait,” she cried, “the left side, not the right!”
He felt the laughter in her voice, but when he looked he could see no trace of it in her face. He approached from the left side, setting his teeth.