Since the night when old Joe Cumberland died and Kate Cumberland rode off after her wild man, Ben Swann, the foreman of the Cumberland ranch, had lived in the big house. He would have been vastly more comfortable in the bunkhouse playing cards with the other hands, but Ben Swann felt vaguely that it was a shame for so much space in the ranch house to go to waste, and besides, Ben's natural dignity was at home in the place even if his mind grew lonely. It was Ben Swann, therefore, who ran down and flung open the door, on which a heavy hand was beating. Outside stood two men, very tall, taller than himself, and one of them a giant. They had about them a strong scent of horses.
"Get a light" said one of these. "Run for it. Get a light. Start a fire, and be damned quick about it!"
"And who the hell might you gents be?" queried Ben Swann, leaning against the side of the doorway to dicker.
"Throw that fool on his head," said one of the strangers, "and go on in, Lee!"
"Stand aside," said the other, and swept the doorknob out of Ben's grip, flattening Ben himself against the wall. While he struggled there, gasping, a man and a woman slipped past him.
"Tell him who we are," said the woman's voice. "We'll go to the living-room, Buck, and start a fire."
The strangers apparently knew their way even in the dark, for presently he heard the scraping of wood on the hearth in the living-room. It bewildered Ben Swann. It was dream-like, this sudden invasion.
"Now, who the devil are you?"
A match was scratched and held under his very nose, until Ben shrank back for fear that his splendid mustaches might ignite. He found himself confronted by one of the largest men he had ever seen, a leonine face, vaguely familiar.
"You Lee Haines!" he gasped. "What are you doin' here?"
"You're Swann, the foreman, aren't you?" said Haines. "Well, come out of your dream, man. The owner of the ranch is in the living-room."
"Joe Cumberland's dead," stammered Ben Swann.
"Her! And—Barry—the Killing at Alder—"
"Shut up!" ordered Haines, and his face grew ugly. "Don't let that chatter get to Kate's ears. Barry ain't with her. Only his kid. Now stir about."
After the first surprise was over, Ben Swann did very well. He found the fire already started in the living-room and on the rug before the hearth a yellow-haired little girl wrapped in a tawny hide. She was sound asleep, worn out by the long ride, and she seemed to Ben Swann a very pretty picture. Surely there could be in her little of the father of whom he had heard so much—of whom that story of the Killing at Alder was lately told, He took in that picture at a glance and then went to rustle food; afterward he went down to sleep in the bunkhouse and at breakfast he recounted the events of the night with a relish. Not one of the men had been more than three years on the place, and therefore their minds were clean slates on which Swann could write his own impressions.
"Appearances is deceivin'" concluded the foreman. "Look at Mrs. Dan Barry. They tell you around these parts that she's pretty, but they don't tell you how damned fine lookin' she is. She's got a soft look and you'd never pick her for the sort that would run clean off with a gent like Barry. Barry himself wasn't so bad for looks, but they'll tell you in Elkhead how bad he is in action, and maybe they's some widders in Alder that could put in a word. Take even the kid. She looks no more'n a baby, but what d'you know is inside of her?
"Speakin' personal, gents, I don't put no kind of trust in that houseful yonder. Here they come in the middle of the night like there was a posse after 'em. They climb that house and sit down and eat like they'd ridden all day. Maybe they had. Even while they was eatin' they didn't seem none too happy.
"That loose shutter upstairs come around in the wind with a bang and Buck Daniels comes out of his chair as fast as powder could blow him. He didn't say nothin'. Just sat down lookin' kind of sick, and the other two was the same way. When they talked, they'd bust off in the middle of a word and let their eyes go trailin' into some corner of the room that was plumb full of shadow. Then Lee Haines gets up and walks up and down.
"'Swann,' says he, 'how many good men have you got on the place?'
"'Why,' says I, 'they're all good!'
"'Huh,' says Haines, and he puts a hand on my shoulder, 'Just how good are they, Swann?'"
"I seen what he wanted. He wanted to know how many scrappy gents was punchin' cows here; maybe them three up there figures that they might need help. From what? What was they runnin' away from?"
"Hey!" broke in one of the cowpunchers, pointing with a dramatic fork through the window.
It was a bright spot of gold that disappeared over the top of the nearest hill; then it came into view again, the whole body of a yellow-haired child, clothed in a wisp of white, and running steadily toward the north.
"The kid!" gasped the foreman. "Boys, grab her. No, you'd bust her; I know how to handle her!"
He was gone through the door with gigantic leaps and shot over the crest of the low hill. Then those in the cookhouse heard a small, tingling scream; after it, came silence, and the tall foreman striding across the hill with the child high in his arms. He came panting through the door and stood her up on the end of the table, a small and fearless creature. She wore on her feet the little moccasins which Dan himself had fashioned for her, but the tawny hide was not on her—perhaps her mother had thrown the garment away. The moccasins and the white nightgown were the sum and substance of her apparel, and the cowpunchers stood up around the table to admire her spunk.
"Damed near spat pizen," observed Ben Swann, "when I hung into her—tried to bite me, but the minute I got her in my hands she quit strugglin', as reasonable as a grown-up, by God!"
"Shut up, Ben. Don't you know no better'n to cuss in front of a kid?"
The great, dark eyes of Joan went somberly from face to face. If she was afraid, she disguised it well, but now and then, like a wild thing which sees that escape is impossible, she looked through the window and out over the open country beyond.
"Where was you headed for, honey?" queried Ben Swann.
The child considered him bravely for a time before she replied.
"Over there? Now what might she mean by that? Headed for Elkhead—in a nightgown? Any place I could take you, kid?"
If she did not altogether trust Ben Swann, at least she preferred him to the other unshaven, work-thinned faces which leered at her around the table.
"Daddy Dan," she said softly. "Joan wants to go to Daddy Dan."
"Daddy Dan—Dan Barry," translated Ben Swann, and he drew a bit away from her. "Boys, that mankillin' devil must be around here; and that's what them up to the house was runnin' from—Barry!"
It scattered the others to the windows, to the door.
"What d'you see?"
"Swann, if Barry is comin' to these parts, I'm goin' to pack my war-bag."
"Me too, Ben. Them that get ten thousand'll earn it. I heard about the Killin' at Alder."
"Listen to me, gents," observed Ben Swann. "If Barry is comin' here we ain't none of us goin' to stay; but don't start jumpin' out from under till I get the straight of it. I'm goin' to take the kid up to the house right now and find out."
So he wrapped up Joan in an old blanket, for she was shivering in the cold of the early morning, and carried her up to the ranchhouse. The alarm had already been given. He saw Buck Daniels gallop toward the front of the place leading two saddled horses; he saw Haines and Kate run down the steps to meet them, and then they caught sight of the foreman coming with Joan on his shoulder.
The joy of that meeting, it seemed to Ben Swann, was decidedly one-sided. Kate ran to Joan with a little wailing cry of happiness and gathered her close, but neither big Lee Haines nor ugly Buck Daniels seemed overcome with happiness at the regaining of Joan, and the child herself merely endured the caresses of her mother. Ben Swann made them a speech.
He told them that anybody with half an eye could tell they were bothered by something, that they acted as if they were running away. Now, running in itself was perfectly all right and quite in order when it was impossible to outface or outbluff a danger. He himself, Ben Swann, believed in such tactics. He wasn't a soldier; he was a cowpuncher. So were the rest of the boys out yonder, and though they'd stay by their work in ordinary times, and they'd face ordinary trouble, they were not minded to abide the coming of Dan Barry.
"So," concluded Swann, "I want to ask you straight. Is him they call Whistlin' Dan comin' this way? Are you runnin' from him? And did you steal the kid from him?"
Lee Haines took upon his competent shoulders the duty of answering.
"You look like a sensible man, Swann," he said severely. "I'm surprised at you. In the first place, two men don't run away from one."
A fleeting smile appeared and disappeared on the lips of Ben Swann. Haines hastily went on: "As for stealing the baby from Dan Barry, good heavens, man, don't you think a mother has a right to her own child? Now go back to that scared bunch and tell them that Dan Barry is back in the Grizzly Peaks."
For several reasons this did not completely satisfy the foreman, but he postponed his decision. Lee Haines spoke like one in the habit of giving orders, and Swann walked slowly back to the cookhouse.