THE UNTAMED (37)
May 3, 2023
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.
Before noon of the next day Buck joined the crowd which had been growing for hours around Tully’s saloon. Men gave way before him, whispering. He was a marked man — the friend of Whistling Dan Barry. Cowpunchers who had known him all his life now avoided his eyes, but caught him with side glances. He smiled grimly to himself, reading their minds. He was more determined than ever to stand or fall with Whistling Dan that day.
There was not an officer of the law in sight. If one were present it would be his manifest duty to apprehend the outlaws as soon as they appeared, and the plan was to allow them to fight out their quarrel and perhaps kill each other.
Arguments began to rise among separate groups, where the crimes attributed to Whistling Dan Barry were numbered and talked over. It surprised Buck to discover the number who believed the stories which he and Haines had told. They made a strong faction, though manifestly in the minority.
Hardly a man who did not, from time to time, nervously fumble the butt of his six-gun. As three o’clock drew on the talk grew less and less. It broke out now and again in little uneasy bursts. Someone would tell a joke. Half hysterical laughter would greet it, and die suddenly, as it began. These were all hard-faced men of the mountain-desert, warriors of the frontier. What unnerved them was the strangeness of the thing which was about to happen. The big wooden clock on the side of the long barroom struck once for half-past two. All talk ceased.
Men seemed unwilling to meet each other’s eyes. Some of them drummed lightly on the top of the bar and strove to whistle, but the only sound that came through their dried lips was a whispering rush of breath. A grey-haired cattle ranger commenced to hum a tune, very low, but distinct. Finally a man rose, strode across the room, shook the old fellow by the shoulder with brutal violence, and with a curse ordered him to stop his “damned death song!”
Everyone drew a long breath of relief. The minute hand crept on towards three o’clock. Now it was twenty minutes, now fifteen, now ten, now five; then a clatter of hoofs, a heavy step on the porch, and the giant form of Jim Silent blocked the door. His hands rested on the butts of his two guns. Buck guessed at the tremendous strength of that grip. The eyes of the outlaw darted about the room, and every glance dropped before his, with the exception of Buck’s fascinated stare.
For he saw a brand on the face of the great long rider. It lay in no one thing. It was not the unusual hollowness of eyes and cheeks. It was not the feverish brightness of his glance. It was something which included all of these. It was the fear of death by night! His hands fell away from the guns. He crossed the room to the bar and nodded his head at the bartender.
“Drink!” he said, and his voice was only a whisper without body of sound.
The bartender, with pasty face, round and blank, did not move either his hand or his fascinated eyes. There was a twitch of the outlaw’s hand and naked steel gleamed. Instantly revolvers showed in every hand. A youngster moaned. The sound seemed to break the charm.
Silent put back his great head and burst into a deep-throated laughter. The gun whirled in his hand and the butt crashed heavily on the bar.
“Drink, damn you!” he thundered. “Step up an’ drink to the health of Jim Silent!”
The wavering line slowly approached the bar. Silent pulled out his other gun and shoved them both across the bar.
“Take ’em,” he said. “I don’t want ’em to get restless an’ muss up this joint.”
The bartender took them as if they were covered with some deadly poison, and the outlaw stood unarmed! It came suddenly to Buck what the whole manoeuvre meant. He gave away his guns in order to tempt someone to arrest him. Better the hand of the law than the yellow glare of those following eyes. Yet not a man moved to apprehend him. Unarmed he still seemed more dangerous than six common men.
The long rider jerked a whisky bottle upside down over a glass. Half the contents splashed across the bar. He turned and faced the crowd, his hand dripping with the spilled liquor.
“Whose liquorin’?” he bellowed.
Not a sound answered him.
“Damn your yaller souls! Then all by myself I’ll drink to—”
He stopped short, his eyes wild, his head tilted back. One by one the cowpunchers gave back, foot by foot, softly, until they stood close to the opposite wall of the saloon. All the bar was left to Silent. The whisky glass slipped from his hand and crashed on the floor. In his face was the meaning of the sound he heard, and now it came to their own ears — a whistle thin with distance, but clear.
Only phrases at first, but now it rose more distinct, the song of the untamed; the terror and beauty of the mountain-desert; a plea and a threat.
The clock struck, sharp, hurried, brazen — one, two, three! Before the last quick, unmusical chime died out Black Bart stood in the entrance to the saloon. His eyes were upon Jim Silent, who stretched out his arms on either side and gripped the edge of the bar. Yet even when the wolf glided silently across the room and crouched before the bandit, at watch, his lips grinned back from the white teeth, the man had no eyes for him. Instead, his stare held steadily upon that open door and on his raised face there was still the terror of that whistling which swept closer and closer.
It ceased. A footfall crossed the porch. How different from the ponderous stride of Jim Silent! This was like the padding step of the panther. And Whistling Dan stood in the door. He did not fill it as the burly shoulders of Silent had done. He seemed almost as slender as a girl, and infinitely boyish in his grace — a strange figure, surely, to make all these hardened fighters of the mountain-desert crouch, and stiffen their fingers around the butts of their revolvers! His eyes were upon Silent, and how they lighted! His face changed as the face of the great god Pan must have altered when he blew into the instrument of reeds and made perfect music, the first in the world.
“Bart,” said the gentle voice, “go out to Satan.”
The wolf turned and slipped from the room. It was a little thing, but, to the men who saw it, it was terrible to watch an untamed beast obey the voice of a man.
Still with that light, panther-step he crossed the barroom, and now he was looking up into the face of the giant. The huge long rider loomed above Dan. That was not terror which set his face in written lines — it was horror, such as a man feels when he stands face to face with the unearthly in the middle of night. This was open daylight in a room thronged with men, yet in it nothing seemed to live save the smile of Whistling Dan. He drew out the two revolvers and slipped them onto the bar. They stood unarmed, yet they seemed no less dangerous.
Silent’s arms crept closer to his sides. He seemed gathering himself by degrees. The confidence in his own great size showed in his face, and the blood-lust of battle in his eyes answered the yellow light in Dan’s.
“Silent, once you put a stain of blood on me. I’ve never forgot the taste. It’s goin’ to be washed out today or else made redder. It was here that you put the stain.”
He struck the long rider lightly across the mouth with the back of his hand, and Silent lunged with the snarl of a beast. His blow spent itself on thin air. He whirled and struck again. Only a low laughter answered him. He might as well have battered away at a shadow.
“Damnation!” he yelled, and leaped in with both arms outspread.
The impetus of his rush drove them both to the floor, where they rolled over and over, and before they stopped thin fingers were locked about the bull neck of the bandit, and two thumbs driven into the hollow of his throat. With a tremendous effort he heaved himself from the floor, his face convulsed.
He beat with both fists against the lowered head of Dan. He tore at those hands. They were locked as if with iron. Only the laughter, the low, continual laughter rewarded him.
He screamed, a thick, horrible sound. He flung himself to the floor again and rolled over and over, striving to crush the slender, remorseless body. Once more he was on his feet, running hither and thither, dragging Dan with him. His eyes swelled out; his face blackened. He beat against the walls. He snapped at the wrists of Dan like a beast, his lips flecked with a bloody froth.
That bull-dog grip would not unlock. That animal, exultant laughter ran on in demoniac music. In his great agony the outlaw rolled his eyes in appeal to the crowd which surrounded the struggling two. Every man seemed about to spring forward, yet they could not move. Some had their fingers stiffly extended, as if in the act of gripping with hands too stiff to close.
Silent slipped to his knees. His head fell back, his discoloured tongue protruding. Dan wrenched him back to his feet. One more convulsive effort from the giant, and then his eyes glazed, his body went limp. The remorseless hands unlocked. Silent fell in a shapeless heap to the floor.
Still no one moved. There was no sound except the deadly ticking of the clock. The men stared fascinated at that massive, lifeless figure on the floor. Even in death he was terrible. Then Dan’s hand slid inside his shirt, fumbled a moment, and came forth again bearing a little gleaming circle of metal. He dropped it upon the body of Jim Silent, and turning, walked slowly from the room. Still no one moved to intercept him. Passing through the door he pushed within a few inches of two men. They made no effort to seize him, for their eyes were upon the body of the great lone rider.
The moment Dan was gone the hypnotic silence which held the crowd, broke suddenly. Someone stirred. Another cursed beneath his breath. Instantly all was clamour and a running hither and thither. Buck Daniels caught from the body of Jim Silent the small metal circle which Dan had dropped. He stood dumbfounded at the sight of it, and then raised his hand, and shouted in a voice which gathered the others swiftly around him. They cursed deeply with astonishment, for what they saw was the marshal’s badge of Tex Calder. The number on it was known throughout the mountain-desert, and seeing it, the worst of Dan’s enemies stammered, gaped, and could not speak. There were more impartial men who could. In five minutes the trial of Whistling Dan was under way. The jury was every cowpuncher present. The judge was public opinion. It was a grey-haired man who finally leaped upon the bar and summed up all opinion in a brief statement.
“Whatever Whistlin’ Dan has done before,” he said, “this day he’s done a man-sized job in a man’s way. Morris, before he died, said enough to clear up most of this lad’s past, particular about the letter from Jim Silent that talked of a money bribe. Morris didn’t have a chance to swear to what he said, but a dying man speaks truth. Lee Haines had cleared up most of the rest. We can’t hold agin Dan what he done in breakin’ jail with Haines. Dan Barry was a marshal. He captured Haines and then let the outlaw go. He had a right to do what he wanted as long as he finally got Haines back. And Haines has told us that when he was set free Barry said he would get him again. And Barry did get him again. Remember that, and he got all the rest of Silent’s gang, and now there lies Jim Silent dead. They’s two things to remember. The first is that Whistlin’ Dan has rid away without any shootin’ irons on his hip. That looks as if he’s come to the end of his long trail. The second is that he was a bunkie of Tex Calder, an’ a man Tex could trust for the avengin’ of his death is good enough for me.”
There was a pause after this speech, and during the quiet the cowpunchers were passing from hand to hand the marshal’s badge which Calder, as he died, had given to Dan. The bright small shield was a more convincing proof than a hundred arguments. The bitterest of Dan’s enemies realized that the crimes of which he was accused were supported by nothing stronger than blind rumour. The marshal’s badge and the dead body of Jim Silent kept them mute. So an illegal judge and one hundred illegal jurymen found Whistling Dan “not guilty.”
Buck Daniels took horse and galloped for the Cumberland house with the news of the verdict. He knew that Whistling Dan was there.
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.