Those mountains above the Barry cabin were, as he told Vic Gregg, inaccessible to men on horseback except by one path, yet there was a single class of travelers who roamed at will through far more difficult ground than this. Speaking in general, where a man can go a burro can go, and where a burro can go he usually manages to carry his pack. He crawls up a raged down-pitch of rocks that comes dangerously close to the perpendicular; he walks securely along a crumbling ledge with half his body over a thousand yards of emptiness. Therefore the prospectors with their burros have combed the worst mountains of the West and it was hardly a surprise to Kate Barry when she saw two men come down the steepest slope above the cabin with two little pack animals scrambling and sliding before them. It was still some time before nightfall, but the sun had dropped out of sight fully an hour ago and now the western mountains were blackening against a sky whose thin, clear blue grew yellow towards evening.
Against that dark mass of the mountainside, she could not make out the two travelers clearly, so she shaded her eyes and peered up, high up. The slope was so sheer that if one of the four figures lost footing it would come crashing to her very feet. When they saw her and shouted down the sound fell as clearly as if they had called from the cabin, yet they had a good half hour's labor between that greeting and the moment they came out on the level before Kate. From the instant they called she remained in motionless, deep thought, and when they came now into full view, she cried out joyously: "Buck, oh Buck!" and ran towards them. Even the burros stopped and the men stood statue-like; it is rarely enough that one finds a human being in those mountains, almost an act of Providence that lead to a house, and a miracle when the trail crosses the path of a friend. The prospectors came out of their daze with a shout and rushed to meet her. Each of them had her by a hand, wringing it; they talked all together in a storm of words.
"Kate, I'm dreamin'!—Dear old Buck!—Have you forgotten me?—Lee Haines! I should say not.—Don't pay any attention to him. Five years. And I've been hungerin' to see you all that—.—Where have you been?—Everywhere! but this is the best thing I've seen.—Come in.—Wait till we get these packs off the poor little devils.—Oh, I'm so glad to see you; so glad!—Hurry up, Lee. Your fingers asleep?—How long have you been out?—Five months.—Then you're hungry.—We've just ate.—But a piece of pie?—pie? I've been dreamin' of pie!"
A fire already burned in the big living-room of the cabin, for at this season, at such an altitude, the shadows were always cold, and around the fire they gathered, each of the men with half a huge pie before him. They were such as one might expect that mountain region to produce, big, gaunt, hard-muscled. They had gone unshaven for so long that their faces were clothed not with an unsightly stubble but with strong, short beard that gave them a certain grim dignity and made their eyes seem sunken. They were opposite types, which is usually the case when two men strike out together. Buck Daniels was black-haired, with an ugly, shrewd face and a suggestion of rather dangerous possibilities of swift action; but Lee Haines was a great bulk of a man, with tawny beard, handsome, in a leonine fashion, more poised than Daniels, fitted to crush. The sharp glance of Buck flitted here and there, in ten seconds he knew everything in the room; the steady blue eye of Lee Haines went leisurely from place to place and lingered; but both of them stared at Kate as if they could not have enough of her. They talked without pause while they ate. A stranger in the room would have sealed their lips in utter taciturnity, but here they sat with a friend, five months of loneliness and labor behind them, and they gossiped like girls.
Into the jangle of talk cut a thin, small voice from outside, a burst of laughter. Then: "Bart, you silly dog!" and Joan stood at the open door with her hand buried in the mane of the wolf-dog. The fork of Buck Daniels stopped halfway to his lips and Lee Haines straightened until the chair groaned.
They spoke together, hushed voices: "Kate!"
"Come here, Joan!" Her face glistened with pride, and Joan came forward with wide eyes, tugging Black Bart along in a reluctant progress.
"It ain't possible!" whispered Buck Daniels. "Honey, come here and shake hands with your Uncle Buck." The gesture called forth deep throated warning from Bart, and he caught back his hand with a start.
"It's always that way," said Kate, half amused, half vexed; "Bart won't let a soul touch her when Dan isn't home. Good old Bart, go away, you foolish dog! Don't you see these are friends?"
He cringed a little under the shadow of the hand which waved him off but his only answer was a silent baring of the teeth.
"You see how it is. I'm almost afraid to touch her myself when Dan's away; she and Bart bully me all day long."
In the meantime the glance of Joan had cloyed itself with sufficient examination of the strangers, and now she turned back towards the door and the meadow beyond.
"Bart!" she called softly. The sharp ears of the dog quivered; he came to attention with a start. "Look! Get it for me!"
One loud scraping of his claws on the floor as he started, and Black Bart went like a bolt through the door with Joan scrambling after him, screaming with excitement; from the outside, they heard the cry of a frightened squirrel, and then its angry chattering from a place of safety up a tree.
"Shall I call her back again?" asked Kate.
"Not if Bart comes with her," answered Lee Haines. "I've seen enough of him to last me a while."
"Well, we'll have her to ourselves when Dan comes; of course Bart leaves her to tag around after Dan."
"When is he comin' back?" asked Buck, with polite interest.
"Anytime. I don't know. But he's always here before it's completely dark."
The glance of Buck Daniels kicked over to Lee Haines, exchanged meanings with him, and came back to Kate.
"Terrible sorry," he said, "but I s'pose we'll have to be on our way before it's plumb dark."
"Go so soon as that? Why, I won't let you."
"I—" began Haines, fumbling for words.
"We got to get down in the valley before it's dark," filled in Buck.
Suddenly she laughed, frankly, happily.
"I know what you mean, but Dan is changed; he isn't the same man he used to be."
"Yes?" queried Buck, without conviction.
"You'll have to see him to believe; Buck, he doesn't even whistle any more."
"Only goes about singing, now."
The two men exchanged glances of such astonishment that Kate could not help but notice and flush a little.
"Well," murmured Buck, "Bart doesn't seem to have changed much from the old days."
She laughed slowly, letting her mind run back through such happiness as they could not understand and when she looked up she seemed to debate whether or not it would be worth while to let them in on the delightful secret. The moment she dwelt on the burning logs they gazed at her and then to each other with utter amazement as if they sat in the same room with the dead come to life. No care of motherhood had marked her face, but on the white, even forehead was a sign of peace; and drifting over her hands and on the white apron across her lap the firelight pooled dim gold, the wealth of contentment.
"If you'd been here today you would have seen how changed he is. We had a man with us whom Dan had taken while he was running from a posse, wounded, and kept him here until he was well, and—"
"That's Dan," murmured Lee Haines. "He's gold all through when a man's in trouble."
"Shut up, Lee," cut in Buck. He sat forward in his chair, drinking up her story.
"This morning we saw the same posse skirting through the valley and knew that they were on the old trail. Dan sent Gregg over the hills and rode Vic's horse down so that the posse would mistake him, and he could lead them out of the way. I was afraid, terribly, I was afraid that if the posse got close and began shooting Dan would—"
She stopped; her eyes begged them to understand.
"Go on," said Lee Haines, shuddering slightly. "I know what you mean."
"But I watched him ride down the slope," she cried joyously, "and I saw the posse close on him—almost on top of him when he reached the valley. I saw the flash of their guns. I saw them shoot. I wasn't afraid that Dan would be hurt, for he seems to wear a charm against bullets—I wasn't much afraid of that, but I dreaded to see him turn and go back through that posse like a storm. But—" she caught both hands to her breast and her bright face tilted up—"even when the bullets must have been whistling around him he didn't look back. He rode straight on and on, out of view, and I knew"—her voice broke with emotion—"oh, Buck, I knew that he had won, and I had won; that he was safe forever; that there was no danger of him ever slipping back into that terrible other self; I knew that I'd never again have to dream of that whistling in the wind; I knew that he was ours—Joan's and mine."
"By God," broke out Buck, "I'm happier than if you'd found a gold mine, Kate. It don't seem no ways—but if you seen that with your own eyes, it's possible true. He's changed."
"I've been almost afraid to be happy all these years," she said, "but now I want to sing and cry at the same time. My heart is so full that it's overflowing, Buck."
She brushed the tears away and smiled at them.
"Tell me all about yourselves. Everything. You first, Lee. You've been longer away."
He did not answer for a moment, but sat with his head fallen, watching her thoughtfully. Women had been the special curse in Lee Haines' life; they had driven him to the crime that sent him West into outlawry long years before; through women, as he himself foreboded, he would come at last to some sordid, petty end; but here sat the only one he had loved without question, without regret, purely and deeply, and as he watched her, more beautiful than she had been in her girlhood, it seemed, as he heard the fitful laughter of Joan outside, the old sorrow came storming up in him, and the sense of loss.
"What have I been doing?" he murmured at length. He shrugged away his last thoughts. "I drifted about for a while after the pardon came down from the governor. People knew me, you see, and what they knew about me didn't please them. Even today Jim Silent and Jim Silent's crew isn't forgotten. Then don't look at me like that, Kate; no, I played straight all the time—-then I ran into Buck and he and I had tried each other out, we had at least one thing in common"—here he looked at Buck and they both flushed—"and we made a partnership of it. We've been together five years now."
"I knew you could break away, Lee. I used to tell you that."
"You helped me more than you knew," he said quietly.
She smiled and then turned to escape him. "And now you, Buck?"
"Since then we've made a bit of coin punching cows and we've blown it in again prospecting. Blown it in? Kate, we've shot enough powder to lift that mountain yonder but all we've got is color. You could gild the sky with what we've seen but we haven't washed enough dust to wear a hole in a tissue-paper pocket. I'll tell you the whole story. Lee packs a jinx with him. But—Haines, did you ever see a lion as big as that?"
The dimness of evening had grown rapidly through the room while they talked and now the light from the door was far less than the glow of the fire. The yellow flicker picked out a dozen pelts stretching as rugs on the floor or hanging along the wall; that to which Buck pointed was an enormous skin of a mountain lion stretched sidewise, for if it had been hung straight up a considerable portion of the tail must have dragged on the floor. Buck went to examine it. Presently he exclaimed in surprise and he passed his fingers over it as though searching for something.
"Where was it shot, Kate? I don't find nothin' but this cut that looks like his knife slipped when he was skinnin'."
"It was a knife that killed it."
"Don't ask me about it; I see the picture of it in my dreams still. The lion had dragged the trap into a cave and Bart followed it. Dan went in pushing his rifle before him, but—when he tried to fire it jammed."
"Yes?" they cried together.
"Don't ask me the rest!"
They would hardly have let her off so easily if it had not been for the entrance of Joan who had come back on account of the darkness. Black Bart went promptly to a corner of the hearth and lay down with his head on his paws and the little girl sat beside him watching the fire, her head leaning wearily on his shoulder. Kate went to the door.
"It's almost night," she said. "Why isn't he here?"
"Buck, they couldn't have overtaken—"
She started. "Dan?"
Buck Daniels grinned reassuringly.
"Not unless his hoss is a pile of bones; if it has any heart in it, Dan'll run away from anything on four legs. No call for worryin', Kate. He's simply led 'em a long ways off and waited for evenin' before he doubled back. He'll come back right enough. If they didn't catch him that first run they'll never get the wind of him."
It quieted her for a time, but as the minutes slipped away, as the darkness grew more and more heavy until a curtain of black fell across the open door, they could see that she was struggling to control her trouble, they could see her straining to catch some distant sound. Lee Haines began to talk valiantly, to beguile the waiting time, and Buck Daniels did his share with stories of their prospecting, but eventually more and more often silences came on the group. They began to watch the fire and they winced when a log crackled, or when the sap in a green place hissed. By degrees they pushed farther and farther back so that the light would not strike so fully upon them, for in some way it became difficult to meet each other's eyes.
Only Joan was perfectly at ease. She played for a time with the ears of Black Bart, or pried open his mouth and made him show the great white fangs, or scratched odd designs on the hearth with pieces of charcoal; but finally she lost interest in all these things and let her head lie on the rough pelt of the wolf-dog, sound asleep. The firelight made her hair a patch of gold.
Black Bart slept soundly, too, that is, as soundly as one of his nature could sleep, for every now and then one of his ears twitched, or he stirred a paw, or an eyelid quivered up. Yet they all started when he jumped from his sleep into full wakefulness; the motion made Joan sit up, rubbing her eyes, and Black Bart reached the center of the room noiselessly. He stood facing the door, motionless.
"It's Dan," cried Kate. "Bart hears him! Good old Bart!"
The dog pointed up his nose, the hair about his neck bristled into a ruff, and out of his quaking body came a sound that seemed to moan and whimper from the distance at first, but drew nearer, louder, packed the room with terror, the long drawn howl of a wolf.