Produced by Suzanne Shell, Gene Smethers and PG Distributed Proofreaders
BY MAX BRAND
I. Pan of the Desert
II. The Panther
III. Silent Shoots
IV. Something Yellow
V. Four in the Air
VII. The Mute Messenger
VIII. Red Writing
IX. The Phantom Rider
X. The Strength of Women
XI. Silent Bluffs
XIII. The Lone Riders Entertain
XV. The Cross Roads
XVI. The Three of us
XVII. The Panther's Paw
XIX. Real Men
XX. One Trail Ends
XXI. One Way Out
XXII. The Woman's Way
XXIII. Hell Starts
XXIV. The Rescue
XXV. The Long Ride
XXVI. Black Bart Turns Nurse
XXVII. Nobody Laughs
XXVIII. Whistling Dan, Desperado
XXX. "The Manhandling"
XXXI. "Laugh, Damn it!"
XXXII. Those who See in the Dark
XXXIII. The Song of the Untamed
XXXIV. The Coward
XXXV. Close in!
XXXVIII. The Wild Geese
PAN OF THE DESERT
Even to a high-flying bird this was a country to be passed overquickly. It was burned and brown, littered with fragments of rock,whether vast or small, as if the refuse were tossed here after themaking of the world. A passing shower drenched the bald knobs of arange of granite hills and the slant morning sun set the wet rocksaflame with light. In a short time the hills lost their halo andresumed their brown. The moisture evaporated. The sun rose higher andlooked sternly across the desert as if he searched for any remaininglife which still struggled for existence under his burning course.
And he found life. Hardy cattle moved singly or in small groups andbrowsed on the withered bunch grass. Summer scorched them, winterhumped their backs with cold and arched up their bellies with famine,but they were a breed schooled through generations for this fightagainst nature. In this junk-shop of the world, rattlesnakes wererulers of the soil. Overhead the buzzards, ominous black speckspendant against the white-hot sky, ruled the air.
It seemed impossible that human beings could live in thisrock-wilderness. If so, they must be to other men what the lean, hardycattle of the hills are to the corn-fed stabled beeves of the States.
Over the shoulder of a hill came a whistling which might have beenattributed to the wind, had not this day been deathly calm. It was fitmusic for such a scene, for it seemed neither of heaven nor earth,but the soul of the great god Pan come back to earth to charm thosenameless rocks with his wild, sweet piping. It changed to harmoniousphrases loosely connected. Such might be the exultant improvisationsof a master violinist.
A great wolf, or a dog as tall and rough coated as a wolf, trottedaround the hillside. He paused with one foot lifted and lolling,crimson tongue, as he scanned the distance and then turned to lookback in the direction from which he had come. The weird music changedto whistled notes as liquid as a flute. The sound drew closer. Ahorseman rode out on the shoulder and checked his mount. One could notchoose him at first glance as a type of those who fight nature in aregion where the thermometer moves through a scale of a hundred andsixty degrees in the year to an accompaniment of cold-stabbing windsand sweltering suns. A thin, handsome face with large brown eyes andblack hair, a body tall but rather slenderly made--he might have beena descendant of some ancient family of Norman nobility; but could suchproud gentry be found riding the desert in a tall-crowned sombrerowith chaps on his legs and a red bandana handkerchief knotted aroundhis throat? That first glance made the rider seem strangely out ofplace in such surroundings. One might even smile at the contrast, butat the second glance the smile would fade, and at the third, it wouldbe replaced with a stare of interest. It was impossible to tell whyone respected this man, but after a time there grew a suspicion ofunknown strength in this lone rider, strength like that of a machinewhich is stopped but only needs a spark of fire to plunge it intoirresistible action. Strangely enough, the youthful figure seemed intune with that region of mighty distances, with that white, cruel sun,with that bird of prey hovering high, high in the air.
It required some study to guess at these qualities of the rider, forthey were such things as a child feels more readily than a grown man;but it needed no expert to admire the horse he bestrode. It was astatue in black marble, a steed fit for a Shah of Persia! The stallionstood barely fifteen hands, but to see him was to forget his size. Hisflanks shimmered like satin in the sun. What promise of power in thesmooth, broad hips! Only an Arab poet could run his hand over thatshoulder and then speak properly of the matchless curve. Only an Arabcould appreciate legs like thin and carefully drawn steel below theknees; or that flow of tail and windy mane; that generous breast withpromise of the mighty heart within; that arched neck; that proud headwith the pricking ears, wide forehead, and muzzle, as the Sheik said,which might drink from a pint-pot.
A rustling like dried leaves came from among the rocks and the hairrose bristling around the neck of the wolflike dog. With outstretchedhead he approached the rocks, sniffing, then stopped and turnedshining eyes upon his master, who nodded and swung from the saddle. Itwas a little uncanny, this silent interchange of glances between thebeast and the man. The cause of the dog's anxiety was a long rattlerwhich now slid out from beneath a boulder, and giving its harshwarning, coiled, ready to strike. The dog backed away, but instead ofgrowling he looked to the man.
Cowboys frequently practise with their revolvers at snakes, but one ofthe peculiarities of this rider was that he carried no gun, neithersix-shooter nor rifle. He drew out a short knife which might be usedto skin a beef or carve meat, though certainly no human being had everused such a weapon against a five-foot rattler. He stooped and restedboth hands on his thighs. His feet were not two paces from the poisedhead of the snake. As if marvelling at this temerity, the big rattlertucked back his head and sounded the alarm again. In response thecowboy flashed his knife in the sun. Instantly the snake struck butthe deadly fangs fell a few inches short of the riding boots. At thesame second the man moved. No eye could follow the leap of his hand asit darted down and fastened around the snake just behind the head. Thelong brown body writhed about his wrist, with rattles clashing. Hesevered the head deftly and tossed the twisting mass back on therocks.
Then, as if he had performed the most ordinary act, he rubbed hisgloves in the sand, cleansed his knife in a similar manner, andstepped back to his horse. Contrary to the rules of horse-nature, thestallion had not flinched at sight of the snake, but actually advanceda high-headed pace or two with his short ears laid flat on hisneck, and a sudden red fury in his eyes. He seemed to watch for anopportunity to help his master. As the man approached after killingthe snake the stallion let his ears go forward again and touched hisnose against his master's shoulder. When the latter swung into thesaddle, the wolf-dog came to his side, reared, and resting hisforefeet on the stirrup stared up into the rider's face. The mannodded to him, whereat, as if he understood a spoken word, the dogdropped back and trotted ahead. The rider touched the reins andgalloped down the easy slope. The little episode had given the effectof a three-cornered conversation. Yet the man had been
as silent asthe animals.
In a moment he was lost among the hills, but still his whistling cameback, fainter and fainter, until it was merely a thrilling whisperthat dwelt in the air but came from no certain direction.
His course lay towards a road which looped whitely across the hills.The road twisted over a low ridge where a house stood among a grove ofcottonwoods dense enough and tall enough to break the main force ofany wind. On the same road, a thousand yards closer to the rider ofthe black stallion, was Morgan's place.