Bull Hunter obediently stopped his talk.
A sickening quiet drew through the room. Men bowed their heads or turned them away, for such cowardice was not pleasant to see. The little man in the shadow raised one hand and brushed it across his face.
"I'll let you off one way," said Jack Hood. "Stand up here, and face the crowd and tell 'em you're a liar, that you're sorry for what you done!"
Bull faced the crowd. A shudder of expectancy went through them, and then they saw that his face was working, not with shame or fear but with a mental struggle, and then he spoke.
"Gents, it seems like I may be wrong. I may have tripped him which I didn't mean to. But not knowing that I tripped him, I got to say that I can't call myself a liar. I can't apologize."
They were shocked into a new attention; they saw him turn and face the frown of Jack Hood.
"You're forcing this fight, stranger. And, if you keep on, you'll drop, sir. I promise you that!"
The sudden change in affairs had astonished Jack Hood; now his astonishment gave way to a sort of hungry joy.
"I never was strong on words. I got two ways of talking and here's the one I like best!" As he uttered the last word he reached for his gun.
The little man glided out of the shadow, crouched, intense. It seemed to him that the hand of Bull Hunter hung motionless at his side while the gun flashed out from Hood's holster. He groaned at the thought, but in the last second, there was a move of Hunter's hand that no eye could follow, that singular convulsive twitch which Pete Reeve had taught him so long before. Only one gun spoke. Jack Hood spun sidewise and crashed to the floor, and his gun rattled far away.
By the time the first man had rushed to the fallen figure, the gun was back in Bull's holster.
The little man in the shadow heard him saying, "Pardners, he's not dead. He's shot through the right shoulder, low, beneath the joint.
That bullet won't kill him, but get him bandaged quick!"
A calm, clear voice, it rang through the room. The little man slipped back into his shadow, and straightened against the wall.
"He's right," said Hal Dunbar, stepping back from the cl.u.s.ter. "Riley and Jerry, get him up to his room and bandage him, quick! The rest of you stay here. We got a job. Hood's gun hung in the holster, and this fellow shot him down. A murdering, cowardly thing to do. You hear? A murdering, cowardly thing to do!"
Obviously he was wrong, and obviously not one of his henchmen would tell him so. For some reason the boss intended to take up the lost battle of Jack Hood. Why, was not theirs to reason, though plainly the fight had been fair, and Hood had been in the wrong from the first.
They shifted swiftly, a man to each door, the others along the wall with their hands on their weapons. There was a change in Bull Hunter.
One long leap backward carried him into a corner of the room. He stood erect, and they could see his eyes gleaming in the shadow.
"I think you got me here to trap me, Dunbar," he called in such a voice that the little man in the shadow thrilled at the sound of it, "but you'll find that you're trapped first, my friend. Touch that gun of yours, and you're a dead man, Dunbar. Curse you, I dare you to go for it!"
Could this be Bull Hunter speaking? The little man in the shadow thrilled with joyous amazement.
Hal Dunbar evidently was going to fight the thing through. He stood swaying a little from side to side. "No guns out, boys, as yet. Wait till I take my crack at him, and then--"
The little man in the shadow stepped out into the light and walked calmly toward the center of the room.
"Just a little wee minute, Dunbar," he was saying. "Just a little wee minute, Mr. Man-trapper Dunbar! I got a word to say."
"Who the devil are you?" cried Hal Dunbar, turning on this puny stranger.
A joyous shout from Bull Hunter drowned the answer of the other.
"Pete! Pete Reeve!"
The little man waved his hand carelessly to the giant in the corner.
"You give me a hard trail, Bull, old boy. But you didn't think you could slip me, did you? Not much. And here I am, pretty p.r.o.nto on the dot, I figure." He took in with a glance the men along the walls. "You know me, boys, and I'm here to see fair play. They ain't going to be fair play in this room with you boys lined up waiting to drop Bull in case he plugs Dunbar. Dunbar, I know you. And between you and me, I don't know no good of you. You're young, but you're going to show later on. If you want to talk business to Bull Hunter some other time, you're welcome to come finding him, and he won't be hard to find.
Bull, come along with me. Just back up, if you don't mind, Bull.
Because they's murder in our friend Dunbar's face. And here we are!"
Side by side they drew back to the outer door with big Hal Dunbar watching them from under a scowl, with never a word, and so through the door and into the night.
Two minutes later Diablo was rocking across the hills with his mighty stride, and the cow pony of Pete Reeve was pattering beside him.
As they drove through the great spruces the moon rose. Bull Hunter greeted it with a thundering song and threw up his hands to it.
Pete Reeve swore softly in amazement and drew his horse to a walk.
"By the Lord," cried Bull, "and I haven't thanked you yet for pulling me out of that mess. I'd be crow's food by this time if it hadn't been for you, Pete!"
"That only wipes out one score. Let's talk about you, Bull. Since I last seen you, you've got to be a man. Was it dropping Hood that made you buck up like this?"
"That old man?"
"That old man," snorted Pete, "is Jack Hood, one of the best of 'em with a gun. But if it wasn't the fight that made you feel your oats, was it breaking Diablo?"
"No breaking to it. We just got acquainted."
"But what's happened? What's wakened you, Bull?"
"I dunno," said Bull and became thoughtful.
"Pete," he said, after a long time, "have you ever noticed a sort of chill that gets inside you when the right sort of a girl smiles and--"
"The devil," murmured Pete Reeve, "it's the girl that's happened to you, eh? You forget her, Bull. I'm going to take you on the trail with me and keep you from thinking. It's a new trail for me, Bull. It's a trail where I'm going straight, I can't take you with me while I'm playing against the law. So I'm going to stay inside the law--with you."
"Maybe," and Bull Hunter sighed. "But no matter how far the trail leads, I'm thinking that some day I'll ride in a circle and come back to this place where we started out together."
He turned in the saddle.
The outline of the Dunbar house was fading into the night.
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»