THE UNTAMED (12)
November 11, 2022
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Max Brand’s 1919 western novel The Untamed for HILOBROW’s readers. The original spaghetti western (complete with a Morricone-style whistling score), this yarn features a protagonist with uncanny violent abilities… leading one to wonder whether it’s a Sarah Canary-esque work of Radium Age proto-sf about a mutant or possibly an alien? (Note that in 1919, Brand also serialized the superman novel Children of Night.) We’ll let you decide.
Dust powdered his hat and clothes as Tex Calder trotted his horse north across the hills. His face was a sickly grey, and his black hair might have been an eighteenth century wig, so thoroughly was it disguised. It had been a long ride. Many a long mile wound back behind him, and still the cattle pony, with hanging head, stuck to its task. Now he was drawing out on a highland, and below him stretched the light yellow-green of the willows of the bottom land. He halted his pony and swung a leg over the horn of his saddle. Then he rolled a cigarette, and while he inhaled it in long puffs he scanned the trees narrowly. Miles across, and stretching east and west farther than his eye could reach, extended the willows. Somewhere in that wilderness was the gang of Jim Silent. An army corps might have been easily concealed there.
If he was not utterly discouraged in the beginning of his search, it was merely because the rangers of the hills and plains are taught patience almost as soon as they learn to ride a horse. He surveyed the yellow-green forest calmly. In the west the low hanging sun turned crimson and bulged at the sides into a clumsy ellipse. He started down the slope at the same dog-trot which the pony had kept up all day. Just before he reached the skirts of the trees he brought his horse to a sudden halt and threw back his head. It seemed to him that he heard a faint whistling.
He could not be sure. It was so far off and unlike any whistling he had ever heard before, that he half guessed it to be the movement of a breeze through the willows, but the wind was hardly strong enough to make this sound. For a full five minutes he listened without moving his horse. Then came the thing for which he waited, a phrase of melody undoubtedly from human lips.
What puzzled him most was the nature of the music. As he rode closer to the trees it grew clearer. It was unlike any song he had ever heard. It was a strange improvisation with a touch of both melancholy and savage exultation running through it. Calder found himself nodding in sympathy with the irregular rhythm.
It grew so clear at last that he marked with some accuracy the direction from which it came. If this was Silent’s camp, it must be strongly guarded, and he should approach the place more cautiously than he could possibly do on a horse. Accordingly he dismounted, threw the reins over the pony’s head, and started on through the willows. The whistling became louder and louder. He moved stealthily from tree to tree, for he had not the least idea when he would run across a guard. The whistling ceased, but the marshal was now so near that he could follow the original direction without much trouble. In a few moments he might distinguish the sound of voices. If there were two or three men in the camp he might be able to surprise them and make his arrest. If the outlaws were many, at least he could lie low near the camp and perhaps learn the plans of the gang. He worked his way forward more and more carefully. At one place he thought a shadowy figure slipped through the brush a short distance away. He poised his gun, but lowered it again after a moment’s thought. It must have been a stir of shadows. No human being could move so swiftly or so noiselessly.
Nevertheless the sight gave him such a start that he proceeded with even greater caution. He was crouched close to the ground. Every inch of it he scanned carefully before he set down a foot, fearful of the cracking of a fallen twig. Like most men when they hunt, he began to feel that something followed him. He tried to argue the thought out of his brain, but it persisted, and grew stronger. Half a dozen times he whirled suddenly with his revolver poised. At last he heard a stamp which could come from nothing but the hoof of a horse. The sound dispelled his fears. In another moment he would be in sight of the camp.
“Do you figger you’ll find it?” asked a quiet voice behind him.
He turned and looked into the steady muzzle of a Colt. Behind that revolver was a thin, handsome face with a lock of jet black hair falling over the forehead. Calder knew men, and now he felt a strange absence of any desire to attempt a gun-play.
“I was just taking a stroll through the willows,” he said, with a mighty attempt at carelessness.
“Oh,” said the other. “It appeared to me you was sort of huntin’ for something. You was headed straight for my hoss.”
Calder strove to find some way out. He could not. There was no waver in the hand that held that black gun. The brown eyes were decidedly discouraging to any attempt at a surprise. He felt helpless for the first time in his career.
“Go over to him, Bart,” said the gentle voice of the stranger. “Stand fast!”
The last two words, directed to Calder came, with a metallic hardness, for the marshal started as a great black dog slipped from behind a tree and slunk towards him. This was the shadow which moved more swiftly and noiselessly than a human being.
“Keep back that damned wolf,” he said desperately.
“He ain’t goin’ to hurt you,” said the calm voice. “Jest toss your gun to the ground.”
There was nothing else for it. Calder dropped his weapon with the butt towards Whistling Dan.
“Bring it here, Bart,” said the latter.
The big animal lowered his head, still keeping his green eyes upon Calder, took up the revolver in his white fangs, and glided back to his master.
“Jest turn your back to me, an’ keep your hands clear of your body,” said Dan.
Calder obeyed, sweating with shame. He felt a hand pat his pockets lightly in search for a hidden weapon, and then, with his head slightly turned, he sensed the fact that Dan was dropping his revolver into its holster. He whirled and drove his clenched fist straight at Dan’s face.
What happened then he would never forget to the end of his life. Calder’s weapon still hung in Dan’s right hand, but the latter made no effort to use it. He dropped the gun, and as Calder’s right arm shot out, it was caught at the wrist, and jerked down with a force that jarred his whole body.
“Down, Bart!” shouted Dan. The great wolf checked in the midst of his leap and dropped, whining with eagerness, at Calder’s feet. At the same time the marshal’s left hand was seized and whipped across his body. He wrenched away with all his force. He might as well have struggled with steel manacles. He was helpless, staring into eyes which now glinted with a yellow light that sent a cold wave tingling through his blood.
The yellow gleam died; his hands were loosed; but he made no move to spring at Dan’s throat. Chill horror had taken the place of his shame, and the wolf-dog still whined at his feet with lips grinned back from the long white teeth.
“Who in the name of God are you?” he gasped, and even as he spoke the truth came to him — the whistling — the panther-like speed of hand — “Whistling Dan Barry.”
The other frowned.
“If you didn’t know my name why were you trailin’ me?”
“I wasn’t after you,” said Calder.
“You was crawlin’ along like that jest for fun? Friend, I figger to know you. You been sent out by the tall man to lay for me.”
“What tall man?” asked Calder, his wits groping.
“The one that swung the chair in Morgan’s place,” said Dan. “Now you’re goin’ to take me to your camp. I got something to say to him.”
“By the Lord!” cried the marshal, “you’re trailing Silent.”
Dan watched him narrowly. It was hard to accuse those keen black eyes of deceit.
“I’m trailin’ the man who sent you out after me,” he asserted with a little less assurance.
Calder tore open the front of his shirt and pushed back one side of it. Pinned there next to his skin was his marshal’s badge.
He said: “My name’s Tex Calder.”
It was a word to conjure with up and down the vast expanse of the mountain-desert. Dan smiled, and the change of expression made him seem ten years younger.
“Git down, Bart. Stand behind me!” The dog obeyed sullenly. “I’ve heard a pile of men talk about you, Tex Calder.” Their hands and their eyes met. There was a mutual respect in the glances. “An’ I’m a pile sorry for this.”
He picked up the gun from the ground and extended it butt first to the marshal, who restored it slowly to the holster. It was the first time it had ever been forced from his grasp.
“Who was it you talked about a while ago?” asked Dan.
Dan instinctively dropped his hand back to his revolver.
“The tall man?”
“The one you fought with in Morgan’s place.”
The unpleasant gleam returned to Dan’s eyes.
“I thought there was only one reason why he should die, but now I see there’s a heap of ’em.”
Calder was all business.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“About a day.”
“Have you seen anything of Silent here among the willows?”
“Do you think he’s still here?”
“I dunno. I’ll stay here till I find him among the trees or he breaks away into the open.”
“How’ll you know when he leaves the willows?”
Whistling Dan was puzzled.
“I dunno,” he answered. “Somethin’ will tell me when he gets far away from me — he an’ his men.”
“It’s an inner sense, eh? Like the smell of the bloodhound?” said Calder, but his eyes were strangely serious.
“This day’s about done,” he went on. “Have you any objections to me camping with you here?”
Not a cowpuncher within five hundred miles but would be glad of such redoubted company. They went back to Calder’s horse.
“We can start for my clearing,” said Dan. “Bart’ll bring the hoss. Fetch him in.”
The wolf took the dangling bridle reins and led on the cowpony. Calder observed his performance with starting eyes, but he was averse to asking questions. In a few moments they came out on a small open space. The ground was covered with a quantity of dried bunch grass which a glorious black stallion was cropping. Now he tossed up his head so that some of his long mane fell forward between his ears and at sight of Calder his ears dropped back and his eyes blazed, but when Dan stepped from the willows the ears came forward again with a whinny of greeting. Calder watched the beautiful animal with all the enthusiasm of an expert horseman. Satan was untethered; the saddle and bridle lay in a corner of the clearing; evidently the horse was a pet and would not leave its master. He spoke gently and stepped forward to caress the velvet shining neck, but Satan snorted and started away, trembling with excitement.
“How can you keep such a wild fellow as this without hobbling him?” asked Calder.
“He ain’t wild,” said Dan.
“Why, he won’t let me put a hand on him.”
“Yes, he will. Steady, Satan!”
The stallion stood motionless with the veritable fires of hell in his eyes as Calder approached. The latter stopped.
“Not for me,” he said. “I’d rather rub the moustache of the lion in the zoo than touch that black devil!”
Bart at that moment led in the cowpony and Calder started to remove the saddle. He had scarcely done so and hobbled his horse when he was startled by a tremendous snarling and snorting. He turned to see the stallion plunging hither and thither, striking with his fore-hooves, while around him, darting in and out under the driving feet, sprang the great black wolf, his teeth clashing like steel on steel. In another moment they might sink in the throat of the horse! Calder, with an exclamation of horror, whipped out his revolver, but checked himself at the very instant of firing. The master of the two animals stood with arms folded, actually smiling upon the fight!
“For God’s sake!” cried the marshal. “Shoot the damned wolf, man, or he’ll have your horse by the throat!”
“Leave ’em be,” said Dan, without turning his head. “Satan an’ Black Bart ain’t got any other dogs an’ hosses to run around with. They’s jest playing a little by way of exercise.”
Calder stood agape before what seemed the incarnate fury of the pair. Then he noticed that those snapping fangs, however close they came, always missed the flesh of the stallion, and the driving hoofs never actually endangered the leaping wolf.
“Stop ’em!” he cried at last. “It makes me nervous to watch that sort of play. It isn’t natural!”
“All right,” said Dan. “Stop it, boys.”
He had not raised his voice, but they ceased their wild gambols instantly, the stallion, with head thrown high and arched tail and heaving sides, while the wolf, with lolling red tongue, strolled calmly towards his master.
The latter paid no further attention to them, but set about kindling a small fire over which to cook supper. Calder joined him. The marshal’s mind was too full for speech, but now and again he turned a long glance of wonder upon the stallion or Black Bart. In the same silence they sat under the last light of the sunset and ate their supper. Calder, with head bent, pondered over the man of mystery and his two tamed animals. Tamed? Not one of the three was tamed, the man least of all.
He saw Dan pause from his eating to stare with wide, vacant eyes among the trees. The wolf-dog approached, looked up in his master’s face, whined softly, and getting no response went back to his place and lay down, his eyes never moving from Dan. Still he stared among the trees. The gloom deepened, and he smiled faintly. He began to whistle, a low, melancholy strain so soft that it blended with the growing hush of the night. Calder listened, wholly overawed. That weird music seemed an interpretation of the vast spaces of the mountains, of the pitiless desert, of the limitless silences, and the whistler was an understanding part of the whole.
He became aware of a black shadow behind the musician. It was Satan, who rested his nose on the shoulder of the master. Without ceasing his whistling Dan raised a hand, touched the small muzzle, and Satan went at once to a side of the clearing and lay down. It was almost as if the two had said good-night! Calder could stand it no longer.
“Dan, I’ve got to talk to you,” he began.
The whistling ceased; the wide brown eyes turned to him.
“Fire away — partner.”
Ay, they had eaten together by the same fire — they had watched the coming of the night — they had shaken hands in friendship — they were partners. He knew deep in his heart that no human being could ever be the actual comrade of this man. This lord of the voiceless desert needed no human companionship; yet as the marshal glanced from the black shadow of Satan to the gleaming eyes of Bart, and then to the visionary face of Barry, he felt that he had been admitted by Whistling Dan into the mysterious company. The thought stirred him deeply. It was as if he had made an alliance with the wandering wind. Why he had been accepted he could not dream, but he had heard the word “partner” and he knew it was meant. After all, stranger things than this happen in the mountain-desert, where man is greater and convention less. A single word has been known to estrange lifelong comrades; a single evening beside a camp-fire has changed foes to partners. Calder drew his mind back to business with a great effort.
“There’s one thing you don’t know about Jim Silent. A reward of ten thousand dollars lies on his head. The notices aren’t posted yet.”
Whistling Dan shrugged his shoulders.
“I ain’t after money,” he answered.
Calder frowned. He did not appreciate a bluff.
“Look here,” he said, “if we kill him, because no power on earth will take him alive — we’ll split the money.”
“If you lay a hand on him,” said Dan, without emotion, “we won’t be friends no longer, I figger.”
“If you don’t want to get him,” he said, “why in God’s name are you trailing him this way?”
Dan touched his lips. “He hit me with his fist.”
He paused, and spoke again with a drawling voice that gave his words an uncanny effect.
“My blood went down from my mouth to my chin. I tasted it. Till I get him there ain’t no way of me forgettin’ him.”
His eyes lighted with that ominous gleam.
“That’s why no other man c’n put a hand on him. He’s laid out all for me. Understand?”
The ring of the question echoed for a moment through Calder’s mind.
“I certainly do,” he said with profound conviction, “and I’ll never forget it.” He decided on a change of tactics. “But there are other men with Jim Silent and those men will fight to keep you from getting to him.”
“I’m sorry for ’em,” said Dan gently. “I ain’t got nothin’ agin any one except the big man.”
Calder took a long breath.
“Don’t you see,” he explained carefully, “if you shoot one of these men you are simply a murderer who must be apprehended by the law and punished.”
“It makes it bad for me, doesn’t it?” said Dan. “An’ I hope I won’t have to hurt more’n one or two of ’em. You see,” — he leaned forward seriously towards Calder—”I’d only shoot for their arms or their legs. I wouldn’t spoil them altogether.”
Calder threw up his hands in despair. Black Bart snarled at the gesture.
“I can’t listen no more,” said Dan. “I got to start explorin’ the willows pretty soon.”
“In the dark?” exclaimed Calder.
“Sure. Black Bart’ll go with me. The dark don’t bother him.”
“I’ll go along.”
“I’d rather be alone. I might meet him.”
“Any way you want,” said Calder, “but first hear my plan — it doesn’t take long to tell it.”
The darkness thickened around them while he talked. The fire died out — the night swallowed up their figures.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master” | Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” | Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fifth Dimension” | Francis Stevens’s “Behind the Curtain” | more to come.