The most that could be said of Rickett was that it had a courthouse and plenty of quiet so perfect that the minds of the office holders could turn and turn and hear no sound saving their own turning. There were, of course, more buildings than the courthouse, but not so many that they could not be grouped conveniently along one street. The hush which rested over Rickett was never broken except in the periods immediately after the spring and fall round-ups when the saloons and gaming tables were suddenly flooded with business. Otherwise it was a rare event indeed which injected excitement into the village.
Such an event was the gathering of Sheriff Pete Glass' posse.
There had been other occasions when Pete and officers before his time had combed the county to get the cream of the fighting men, but the gathering of the new posse became different in many ways. In the first place the call for members was not confined to the county, for though it stretched as large as many a minor European kingdom, it had not the population of a respectable manufacturing town, and Pete Glass went far beyond its bounds to get his trailers. Everywhere he had the posters set up and on the posters appeared the bait. The state began the game with a reward of three thousand dollars; the county plastered two thousand dollars on top of that to make it an even five: then the town of Alder dug into its deep pockets and produced twenty-five hundred, while disinterested parties added contributions which swelled the total to a round ten thousand. Ten thousand dollars reward for the man described below, dead or alive. Ten thousand dollars which might be earned by the investment of a single bullet and the pressure on trigger; and above this the fame which such a deed would bring—no wonder that the mountain-desert hummed through all its peaks and plains, and stirred to life. Moreover, the news had gone abroad, the tale of the Killing of Alder and everything that went before. It went West; it appeared in newspapers; it cropped up at firesides; it gave a spark of terror to a myriad conversations; and every one in Rickett felt that the eye of the nation was upon it; every one in Rickett dreamed nightly of the man described: "Daniel Barry, called Whistling Dan, about five feet nine or ten, slender, black hair, brown eyes, age about thirty years."
Secretly, Rickett felt perfectly convinced that Sheriff Pete Glass alone could handle this fellow and trim his claws for they knew how many a "bad man" had built a reputation high as Babel and baffled posses and murdered right and left, until the little dusty man on the little dusty roan went out alone and came back alone, and another fierce name went from history into legend. However, there were doubters, since this affair had new earmarks. It had been buzzed abroad that Whistling Dan was not only the hunted, but also the hunter, and that he had pledged himself to strike down all the seven who first took his trail. Five of these were already gone; two remained, and of these two one was Vic Gregg, no despicable fighter himself, and the other was no less than the invincible little sheriff himself. To imagine the sheriff beaten in the speed of his draw or the accuracy of his shot was to imagine the First Cause, Infinity, or whatever else is inconceivable; nevertheless, there were such possibilities as bullets fired at night through the window, and attacks from the rear. So Rickett waited, and held its breath and kept his eyes rather more behind than in front.
In the meantime, there was no lack of amusement, for from the four corners, blown by the four winds, men rode out of the mountain-desert and drifted into Rickett to seek for a place on that posse. Twenty men, that was the goal the sheriff had set. Twenty men trained to a hair. Beside the courthouse was a shooting gallery not overmuch used except during the two annual seasons of prosperity and reckless spending, and Pete Glass secured this place to test out applicants. After, they passed this trial they were mustered into his presence, and he gave them an examination for himself. Just what he asked them or what he could never be known, but some men came from his presence very red, and others extremely pale, and some men blustered, and some men swore, and some men rode hastily out of town and spoke not a word, but few, very few, were those who came out wearing a little badge on their vest with the pride of a Knight of the Garter. At first the hordes rode in, young and old, youths keen for a taste of adventure, rusty fellows who had once been noted warriors; but these early levies soon discovered that courage and willingness was not so much valued as accuracy, and the old-timers learned, also, that accuracy must be accompanied by speed; and even when a man possessed both these qualities of hand and eye the gentle, inscrutable little man in his office might still reject them for reasons they could not guess.
This one thing was certain: the next time Pete Glass ran for office he would be beaten even by a greaser. He made enemies at the rate of a hundred a day during that period of selection.
Still the twenty was not recruited to the full. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen were gathered into the fold, but still five men were lacking to complete the toll. Most men would have started their man-hunt with that formidable force, but Pete Glass was methodical. In his own heart of hearts he would have given his hope of heaven to meet Barry face to face and hand to hand, and see which was the better man, but Pete Glass owed a duty to his state before he owed a duty to himself. He stuck by his first plan. And every day the inhabitants of Rickett gathered at the shooting gallery to watch the tests and wonder at the successes and smile at the failures.
It was a very hard test which the sheriff had imposed. A man stood to one side of the iron-plate back wall which served as the target. He stood entirely out of sight and through an aperture in the side wall, at a signal, he tossed a round ball of clay, painted white. The marksman stood a good ten paces off, and he must strike that clay ball as it passed across the target. The balls were so small that even to strike them when they were stationary was a difficult task, and to hit them in motion was enough to task the quickest eye and the cunningest hand.
It was old Pop Giersberg who stood with his ancient forty-five behind the counter, with his feet braced, on this bright morning, and behind him half of Rickett was gathered.
"D'you give me warnin', son?" he inquired of the man at the counter.
"Nary a warnin'," grinned the other, who was one of the chosen fifteen.
He wished Pop well. So did they all, but they had seen every man fail for two days at that target and one and all they had their doubts. Pop had been a formidable man in his day, but now his hand was stiff and his hair gray. He was at least twenty years older than he felt.
He had hardly finished asking his question when a white ball was tossed across the target. Up came the gun of Pop Giersberg, exploded, and the bullet clanged on the iron; the white ball floated idly on across the wall and disappeared on the other side.
"Gimme another chance!" pleaded Pop, with a quaver in his voice. "That was just a try to get my eye in shape."
"Sure," chuckled the deputy. "Everybody gets three tries. It ain't hardly nacheral to hit that ball the first crack. Leastways, nobody ain't done it yet. You jest keep your eye peeled, Pop, and that ball will come out ag'in."
And Pop literally kept his eye peeled.
He had double reason to pray for success, for his "old woman" had smiled and shook her head when he allowed that he would try out for a place on that posse. All his nerves grew taut and keen. He waited.
Once more the white streak appeared and surely he who threw the ball had every wish to see Pop succeed, for he tossed it high and easily. Again the gun barked from Giersberg's hand, and again the ball dropped almost slowly out of sight.
"It's a trick!" gasped Pop. "It's something damned queer."
"They's a considerable pile of gents, that think the same way you do," admitted the deputy sheriff, dryly.
Pop glared at him and gritted his teeth.
"Lead the damn thing on ag'in," he said, and muttered the rest of his sentence to himself. He jerked his hat lower over his eyes, spread his feet a little more, and got ready for the last desperate chance.
But fate was against Pop. Twenty years before he might have struck that mark if he had been in top condition, but today, though he put his very soul into the effort, and though the ball for the third time was lobbed with the utmost gentleness through the air, his bullet banged vainly against the sheet of iron and the white, inoffensive ball continued on its way.
Words came in the throat of Pop, reached his opened mouth, and died there. He thrust the gun back into its holster, and turned slowly toward the crowd. There was no smile to meet his challenging eye, for Pop was a known man, and though he might have failed to strike this elusive mark that was no sign that he would fail to hit something six feet in height by a couple in breadth. When he found that no mockery awaited him, a sheepish smile began at his eyes and wandered dimly to his lips.
"Well, gents," he muttered, "I guess I ain't as young as I was once. S'long!"
He shouldered his way to the door and was gone.
"That's about all, friends," said the deputy crisply. "I guess there ain't any more clamorin's for a place today?"
He swept the crowd with a complacent eye.
"If you got no objection," murmured a newcomer, who had just slipped into the room, "I'd sort of like to take a shot at that."