WORDS AND BULLETS
"Here's a gent that calls himself a doc," said Hank Dwight by way of anintroduction. "If you can use him, Miss Cumberland, fly to it!"
And he left them alone.
Now the sun lay directly behind Kate Cumberland and in order to look ather closely the doctor had to shade his weak eyes and pucker his brows;for from beneath her wide sombrero there rolled a cloud of golden hairas bright as the sunshine itself--a sad strain upon the visual nerve ofDoctor Randall Byrne. He repeated her name, bowed, and when hestraightened, blinked again. As if she appreciated that strain upon hiseyes she stepped closer, and entered the shadow.
"Doctor Hardin is not in town," she said, "and I have to bring aphysician out to the ranch at once; my father is critically ill."
Randall Byrne rubbed his lean chin.
"I am not practicing at present," he said reluctantly. Then he saw thatshe was watching him closely, weighing him with her eyes, and it came tothe mind of Randall Byrne that he was not a large man and might notincline the scale far from the horizontal.
"I am hardly equipped--" began Byrne.
"You will not need equipment," she interrupted. "His trouble lies in hisnerves and the state of his mind."
A slight gleam lighted the eyes of the doctor.
"Ah," he murmured. "The mind?"
He rubbed his bloodless hands slowly together, and when he spoke hisvoice was sharp and quick and wholly impersonal. "Tell me the symptoms!"
"Can't we talk those over on the way to the ranch? Even if we start nowit will be dark before we arrive."
"But," protested the doctor, "I have not yet decided--thisprecipitancy--"
"Oh," she said, and flushed. He perceived that she was on the verge ofturning away, but something withheld her. "There is no other physicianwithin reach; my father is very ill. I only ask that you come as adiagnostician, doctor!"
"But a ride to your ranch," he said miserably. "I presume you refer toriding a horse?"
"I am unfamiliar with that means of locomotion," said the doctor withserious eyes, "and in fact have not carried my acquaintance with theequine species beyond a purely experimental stage. Anatomically I have asuperficial knowledge, but on the one occasion on which I sat in asaddle I observed that the docility of the horse is probably a poeticfallacy."
He rubbed his left shoulder thoughtfully and saw a slight tremor at thecorners of the girl's mouth. It caused his vision to clear andconcentrate; he found that the lips were, in fact, in the very act ofsmiling. The face of the doctor brightened.
"You shall ride my own horse," said the girl. "She is perfectly gentleand has a very easy gait. I'm sure you'll have not the slightest troublewith her."
"This," said the doctor, "is most remarkable. You choose your mounts atrandom?"
"But you will go?" she insisted.
"Ah, yes, the trip to the ranch!" groaned the doctor. "Let me see: thephysical obstacles to such a trip while many are not altogetherinsuperable, I may say; in the meantime the moral urge which compels metowards the ranch seems to be of the first order." He sighed. "Is it notstrange, Miss Cumberland, that man, though distinguished from the lowerorders by mind, so often is controlled in his actions by ethicalimpulses which override the considerations of reason? An observationwhich leads us towards the conclusion that the passion for goodness is aprinciple hardly secondary to the passion for truth. Understand that Ibuild the hypothesis only tentatively, with many reservations, amongwhich--"
He broke off short. The smile was growing upon her lips.
"I will put together a few of my things," said the doctor, "and comedown to you at once."
"Good!" said the girl, "I'll be waiting for you with two horses beforeyou are ready."
He turned away, but had taken hardly a step before he turned, saying:"But why are you so sure that you will be ready before I--" but she wasalready down the steps from the veranda and stepping briskly down thestreet.
"There is an element of the unexplainable in woman," said the doctor,and resumed his way to his room. Once there, something prompted him toact with the greatest possible speed. He tossed his toilet articles anda few changes of linen into a small, flexible valise and ran down thestairs. He reached the veranda again, panting, and the girl was not insight; a smile of triumph appeared on the grave, colourless lips of thedoctor. "Feminine instinct, however, is not infallible," he observed tohimself, and to one of the cowboys, lounging loosely in a chair nearby,he continued his train of thoughts aloud: "Though the verity of thefeminine intuition has already been thrown in a shade of doubt by manythinkers, as you will undoubtedly agree."
The man thus addressed allowed his lower jaw to drop but after a momenthe ejaculated: "Now what in hell d'you mean by that?"
The doctor already turned away, intent upon his thoughts, but he nowpaused and again faced the cowboy. He said, frowning: "There isunnecessary violence in your remark, sir."
"Duck your glasses," said the worthy in question. "You ain't talkin' toa book, you're talking to a man."
"And in your attitude," went on the doctor, "there is an element ofoffense which if carried farther might be corrected by physicalviolence."
"I don't foller your words," said the cattleman, "but from the drift ofyour tune I gather you're a bit peeved; and if you are--"
His voice had risen to a ringing note as he proceeded and he now slippedfrom his chair and faced Randall Byrne, a big man, brown, hard-handed.The doctor crimsoned.
"Well?" he echoed, but in place of a deep ring his words were pitched ina high squeak of defiance.
He saw a large hand contract to a fist, but almost instantly the big mangrinned, and his eyes went past Byrne.
"Oh, hell!" he grunted, and turned his back with a chuckle.
For an instant there was a mad impulse in the doctor to spring at thisfellow but a wave of impotence overwhelmed him. He knew that he waswhite around the mouth, and there was a dryness in his throat.
"The excitement of imminent physical contest and personal danger," hediagnosed swiftly, "causing acceleration of the pulse and attendantweakness of the body--a state unworthy of the balanced intellect."
Having brought back his poise by this quick interposition of reason, hewent his way down the long veranda. Against a pillar leaned another tallcattleman, also brown and lean and hard.
"May I inquire," he said, "if you have any information direct or casualconcerning a family named Cumberland which possesses ranch property inthis vicinity?"
"You may," said the cowpuncher, and continued to roll his cigarette.
"Sure," said the other, and having finished his cigarette he introducedit between his lips. It seemed to occur to him instantly, however, thathe was committing an inhospitable breach, for he produced his Durham andbrown papers with a start and extended them towards the doctor.
"Smoke?" he asked.
"I use tobacco in no form," said the doctor.
The cowboy stared with such fixity that the match burned down to hisfingertips and singed them before he had lighted his cigarette.
"'S that a fact?" he queried when his astonishment found utterance."What d'you do to kill time? Well, I been thinking about knocking offthe stuff for a while. Mame gets sore at me for having my fingers allstained up with nicotine like this."
He extended his hand, the first and second fingers of which werepainted a bright yellow.
"Soap won't take it off," he remarked.
"A popular but inexcusable error," said the doctor. "It is the tarryby-products of tobacco which cause that stain. Nicotine itself, ofcourse, is a volatile alkaloid base of which there is only the meresttrace in tobacco. It is one of the deadliest of nerve poisons and isquite colourless. There is enough of that stain upon your fingers--if itwere nico
tine--to kill a dozen men."
"The hell you say!"
"Nevertheless, it is an indubitable fact. A lump of nicotine the size ofthe head of a pin placed on the tongue of a horse will kill the beastinstantly."
The cowpuncher pushed back his hat and scratched his head.
"This is worth knowin'," he said, "but I'm some glad that Mame ain'theard it."
"Concerning the Cumberlands," said the doctor, "I--"
"Concerning the Cumberlands," repeated the cattleman, "it's best toleave 'em to their own concerns." And he started to turn away, but thethirst for knowledge was dry in the throat of the doctor.
"Do I understand," he insisted, "that there is some mystery connectedwith them?"
"From me," replied the other, "you understand nothin'." And he lumbereddown the steps and away.
Be it understood that there was nothing of the gossip in Randall Byrne,but now he was pardonably excited and perceiving the tall form of HankDwight in the doorway he approached his host.
"Mr. Dwight," he said, "I am about to go to the Cumberland ranch. Igather that there is something of an unusual nature concerning them."
"There is," admitted Hank Dwight.
"Can you tell me what it is?"
"Good!" said the doctor, and he almost smiled. "It is always well toknow the background of a case which has to do with mental states. Now,just what do you know?"
"I know--" began the proprietor, and then paused and eyed his guestdubiously. "I know," he continued, "a story."
"Yes, about a man and a hoss and a dog."
"The approach seems not quite obvious, but I shall be glad to hear it."
There was a pause.
"Words," said the host, at length, "is worse'n bullets. You never knowwhat they'll hit."
"But the story?" persisted Randall Byrne.
"That story," said Hank Dwight, "I may tell to my son before I die."
"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, thehoss ain't possible, the dog is a wolf."
He paused again and glowered on the doctor. He seemed to be drawn twoways, 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 lookedfar, as though striking a silent bargain with himself concerning the sumof the story which might safely be told--"I've seen a hoss thatunderstood a man's talk like you and me does--or better. I've heard aman whistle like a singing bird. Yep, that ain't no lie. You jestimagine a bald eagle that could lick anything between the earth and thesky and was able to sing--that's what that whistlin' was like. It madeyou glad to hear it, and it made you look to see if your gun was in goodworkin' shape. It wasn't very loud, but it travelled pretty far, like itwas 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, ifhe ain't real, then I'm a ghost. And they's them in Elkhead that's gotthe 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 tappedthe hollow chest of Byrne with a rigid forefinger, "around these partsyou know jest as much as you see, and lots of times you don't even knowthat much. What you see is sometimes your business, but mostly itain't." He concluded impressively: "Words is worse'n bullets!"
"Well," mused Byrne, "I can ask the girl these questions. It will bemedically necessary."
"Ask the girl? Ask her?" echoed the host with a sort of horror. But heended with a forced restraint: "That's _your_ business."