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The Seventh Man by Max Brand

Part 5 out of 5

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"Wait!" commanded Kate. Joan awoke with a start at the sharpness of this
voice. "Don't shoot, Buck. See that bit of paper under his throat. He's
bringing a message."

"Bart!" cried Joan, slipping to the floor from her mother's lap, but when
she ran toward the wolf-dog, that tremendous snarl of warning stopped her
short. Bart slunk toward Kate.

"Look out, Kate!" cried Haines. "The black devil means murder."

"Don't move, or he'll go at your throat," she answered. "There's no danger
to me. He's been ordered to go to me and he won't let even Joan touch him.

He had glided past the amazed, outstretched arms of Joan and went straight
to Kate and stopped beside her, obviously expectant. She reached for the
slip of folded paper, and as her hand approached he crouched a little,
growling; but it was only to caution her, apparently, and though he
distrusted the hand, he allowed it to unfasten the missive.

She untwisted the note, she read aloud: "Kate, send Joan back to me or I
come for her. Send her with Bart."

It seemed as though the wolf-dog understood the written words, for now he
moved toward Joan and she, with a cry, dropped the squealing puppy and
caught the great head of Bart in her arms. The puppy wailed, sitting down
on his haunches, and quivering with grief.

"Daddy Dan wants me," explained Joan with bright eyes. "He's sent for me. Go
quick, Bart!"

The big animal lay down to facilitate her mounting.

"Joan!" called Kate. The child hesitated and turned toward her. Her mother
had taken up that light revolver which Dan had taught her to use so well,
and now, as she leveled it at the wolf-dog, Bart laid his fangs bare in
silent hate. The weapons of Buck and Lee Haines were ready, and now Bart
raised himself a little and commenced to drag gradually forward to leaping

"Drop your gun, Kate," cautioned Buck. "For God's sake drop your gun. Even
if you hit him with a bullet, he'll be at your throat. Unless you kill him
with the first shot he'll have you. Drop your gun, and then he'll go at

But Joan knew perfectly well what those gleaming bits of steel meant. She
had seen Daddy Dan shoot and kill, and now she ran screaming between Bart
and danger.

"Munner!" she cried. "You bad, bad men. I won't let you hurt Bart."

"They won't hurt you, Bart," explained Joan, taming much mollified to the
great wolf-dog. "They're just playin'. Now we'll go."

And she started toward the door, with Bart slinking in front and keeping a
watchful lookout from a corner of his eye.

"Are you going to leave the poor little puppy, Joan?" said the mother,
keeping her voice steady, for all the force of the two men could not help
her now. It rested with her wit.

"I'll take him with me," answered Joan, and caught up the howling puppy
from the floor. His wails died out against her breast.

"But you mustn't do that, honey. He'd die in this cold night wind long
before you got there."

"Oh!" sighed Joan, and considered her mother with great eyes. Black Bart
turned and uneasily tugged at her dress.

"Will you take good care of him, munner? Till I come back?"

"But I don't know how to take care of him, dear. If you go he'll cry and
cry and cry until he dies."

Joan sighed.

"See how quiet he is when you hold him, Joan!"

"Oh," muttered Joan again. The distress of the problem made her wrinkle her
forehead. She turned to Kate for help.

"Munner, what'll I do?"

"You'd best stay here until the puppy is strong enough to go with you."

She kept her voice well under control; it would not do to show the
slightest emotion, and now she sat down and half turned away from the
child. With her eyes she flashed a signal at the two troubled men and they
followed her lead. Their center of vision was now upon the fire. It left
Joan, to all appearances, quite out of notice.

"Oh, that'll be a long, long time, munner."

"Only a little while, Joan."

"But Daddy Dan'll be lonesome up there."

"He has Satan and Bart to keep him company."

"Don't you think he wants Joan, munner?"

"Not as much as the poor little puppy wants you, Joan."

She added, with just the slightest tremor: "You decide for yourself, Joan.
Go if you think it is best."

"Bart, what'll Joan do?" queried the child, turning in dismay toward the
wolf-dog, but as soon as he saw the puppy in her arms, he greeted her with
a murderous snarl.

"You see," suggested her mother, "that Black Bart would eat up the poor
little puppy if you went now with him."

At this alarming thought, Joan shrank away from Bart and when he followed
her, anxiously, she cried: "Go away! Bad dog! Bad Bart!"

He caught the edge of her dress and drew back toward the door, and this
threw Joan into a sudden panic. She struck Bart across his wrinkled

"Go away!" he slunk back, snarling at the puppy.

"Go back to Daddy Dan." Then, as he pricked his ears, still growling like
distant thunder: "Go tell Daddy Dan that Joan has to stay here a while.
Munner, how long?"

"Maybe a week, dear."

"A whole week?" she cried, dismayed.

"Perhaps only one or two or three days," said Kate.

Some of her tenseness was leaving as she saw victory once more inclining to
her standards.

"One, two, five days," counted Joan, "and then come for me again. Tell
Daddy Dan that, Bart."

His eyes left her and wandered around the room, lingering for a vicious
instant on the face of each, then he backed toward the door.

"He's clear of Joan now, Kate," whispered Buck. "Let me shoot!"

"No, no! Don't even look at him."

Then, with a scratching of sudden claws, Bart whirled at the door and was
gone like a bolt down the hall. Afterwards for a time there was no sound in
the room except the murmurings of Joan to her puppy, and then they heard
that most mournful of sounds on the mountain-desert, the long howl of a
wolf which has missed its kill, and hunts hungry on a new trail.

Chapter XL. The Failure

When Black Bart returned without Joan, without even a note of answer about
his neck, the master made ready to take by force. First he went over his
new outfit of saddle and guns, looking to every strap of the former, and
the latter, revolvers and rifle, he weighed and balanced with a meditative
look, as if he were memorizing their qualities against a time of need. With
Satan saddled and Bart on guard at the mouth of the cave, he gathered up
all the accumulation of odds and ends, provisions, skins, and made a
stirring bonfire in the middle of the gravel floor. It was like burning his
bridges before starting out to the battle; he turned his back to the cave
and started on his journey.

He had to travel in a loose semicircle, for there were two points which he
must reach on the ride, the town of Alder, where lived the seventh man who
must die for Grey Molly, and the Cumberland ranch, last of all, where he
would take Joan. Very early after his start he reached the plateau where he
had lived all those years with Kate, and he found it already sinking back
to ruin, with nothing in the corrals, and the front door swinging to and
fro idly in the wind, just as Joan had often played with it. Inside, he
knew, the rooms were empty; a current of air down the chimney had scattered
the ashes from the hearth all about the living room. Here must be a chair
overturned, and there the sand had drifted through the open door. All this
he saw clearly enough with his mind's eye, and urged Satan forward. For a
chill like the falling of sudden night had swept over him, and he shrugged
his shoulders with relief when he swept past the house. Yet when he came to
the long down-slope which pitched into the valley so far below him, he
called Satan to a halt again, and swung to look at the house. He could hear
the clatter of the front door as it swung; it seemed to be waving a
farewell to him.

It was all the work of a moment, to ride back, gather a quantity of paper
and readily inflammable materials, soak them in oil, and scratch a match.
The flames swept up the sides of the logs and caught on the ceiling first
of all, and Dan Barry stood in the center of the room until the terrified
whining of Black Bart and the teeth of the wolf-dog at his trousers made
him turn and leave the house. Outside, he found Satan trembling between two
temptations, the first to run as far and as fast as he could from that most
terrible thing--fire; and the second to gallop straight into the blaze. The
voice of the master, a touch quieted him, and Black Bart lay down at the
feet of the master and looked up into his face.

By this time the fire had licked away a passage through the roof and
through this it sent up a yellow hand that flicked up and down like a
signal, or a beckoning, and then shot up a tall, steady, growing, roaring
column of red. No man could say what went through the mind of Dan Barry as
he stood there watching the house of his building burn, but now he turned
and threw his arms over the neck and back of Satan, and dropped his
forehead against the withers of the black. It troubled the stallion. He
turned his head, and nosed the shoulder of the master gently, and Black
Bart, in an agony of anxiety, reared up beside Dan and brought his head
almost up to the head of the man; there he whined pleadingly for never
before had he seen the master hide his face.

A deep, short report made the master stand away from Satan. The fire had
reached a small stock of powder, and the shock of the explosion was
followed by a great crashing and rending as an inner wall went down. That
fall washed a solid mass of yellow flame across the front door, but the
fire fell back, and then Dan saw the doll which he himself had made for
Joan; it had been thrown by the smashing of the wall squarely in front of
the door, and now the fire reached after it--long arms across the floor. It
was an odd contrivance, singularly made of carved wood and with arms and
legs fastened on by means of bits of strong sinew, and Joan prized it above
all the rosy faced dolls which Kate had bought for her. For an instant Dan
stood watching the progress of the fire, then he leaped through the door,
swerved back as an arm of fire shot out at him, ran forward again, caught
up the doll and was outside rubbing away the singed portions of brows and

He did not wait until the house was consumed, but when the flames stood
towering above the roof, shaking out to one side with a roar when the wind
struck them, he mounted Satan once more, and made for the valley.

He wanted to reach Alder at dark, and he gauged the time of his ride so
accurately that when he pulled out of the mouth of Murphy's Pass, the last
light of the day was still on the mountains and in the pass, but it was
already dark in the village, and a score of lights twinkled up at him like

He left Satan and Bart well outside the town, for even in the dark they
might easily be recognized, and then walked straight down the street of
Alder. It was a bold thing to do, but he knew that the first thing which is
seen and suspected is the skulker who approaches from covert to covert.
They knew he had ridden into Alder before in the middle of the night and
they might suspect the danger of such another attack, but they surely would
not have fear of a solitary pedestrian unless a telltale light were thrown
upon his face.

He passed Captain Lorrimer's saloon. Even in this short interval it had
fallen into ill-repute after the killing at Alder. And a shanty farther
down the street now did the liquor business of the town; Captain Lorrimer's
was closed, and the window nailed across with slats. He went on. Partly by
instinct, and partly because it was aflame with lights, he moved straight
to the house at which he had learned tidings of three men he sought on his
last visit to Alder. Now there were more lights showing from the windows of
that place than there were in all the rest of Alder; at the hitching racks
in front, horses stood tethered in long double rows, and a noise of voices
rolled out and up and down the street. Undoubtedly, there was a festival
there, and all Alder would turn out to such an affair. All Alder, including
Vic Gregg, the seventh man. A group came down the street for the widow's
house; they were laughing and shouting, and they carried lanterns; away
from them Barry slipped like a ghost and stood in the shadow of the house.

There might be other such crowds, and they were dangerous to Barry, so now
he hunted for a means of breaking into the house of the widow unseen. The
windows, as he went down the side of the building, he noted to be high, but
not too high to be reached by a skillful, noiseless climber. In the back of
the house he saw the kitchen door, illumined indeed, but the room, as far
as he could see, empty.

Then very suddenly a wave of silence began somewhere in a side of the house
and swept across it, dying to a murmur at the edges. Barry waited for no
more maneuvers, but walked boldly up the back stairs and entered the house,
hat in hand.

The moment he passed the door he was alert, balanced. He could have swung
to either side, or whirled and shot behind him with the precision of a
leisurely marksman, and as he walked he smiled, happily with his head held
high. He seemed so young, then, that one would have said he had just come
in gaily from some game with the other youths of Alder.

Out of the kitchen he passed into the hall, and there he understood the
meaning of the silence, for both the doors to the front room were open, and
through the doors he heard a single voice, deep and solemn, and through the
doors he saw the crowd standing motionless. Their heads did not stir,--
heads on which the hair was plastered smoothly down--and when some one
raised a hand to touch an itching ear, or nose, he moved his arm with such
caution that it seemed he feared to set a magazine of powder on fire. All
their backs were towards Barry, where he stood in the hall, and as he
glided toward them, he heard the deep voice stop, and then the trembling
voice of a girl speak in reply.

At the first entrance he paused, for the whole scene unrolled before him.
It was a wedding. Just in front of him, on chairs and even on benches, sat
the majority of adult Alder,--facing these stood the wedding pair with the
minister just in front of them. He could see the girl to one side of the
minister's back, and she was very pretty, very femininely appealing, now,
in a dress which was a cloudy effect of white; but Barry gave her only one
sharp glance. His attention was for the men of the crowd. And although
there were only backs of heads, and side glimpses of faces he hunted
swiftly for Vic Gregg.

But Gregg was not there. He surveyed the assembly twice, incredulous, for
surely the tall man should be here, but when he was on the very point of
turning on his heel and slinking down the hall to pursue his hunt in other
quarters, the voice of the minister stopped, and the deep tone of Vic
himself rolled through the room.

It startled Barry like a voice out of the sky; he stared about, bewildered,
and then as the minister shifted his position a little he saw that it was
Gregg who stood there beside the girl in white,--it was Gregg being
married. And at the same moment, the eyes of Vic lifted, wandered, fell
upon the face which stood there framed in the dark of the doorway. Dan saw
the flush die out, saw the narrow, single-purposed face of Gregg turn
white, saw his eyes widen, and his own hand closed on his gun. Another
instant; the minister turned his head, seemed to be waiting, and then Gregg
spoke in answer: "I will!"

A thousand pictures rushed through the mind of Barry, and he remembered
first and last the wounded man on the gray horse who he had saved, and the
long, hard ride carrying that limp body to the cabin in the mountains. The
man would fight. By the motion of Gregg's hand, Dan knew that he had gone
even to his wedding armed. He had only to show his own gun to bring on the
crisis, and in the meantime the eyes of Vic held steadily upon him past the
shoulder of the minister, without fear, desperately. In spite of himself
Dan's hand could not move his gun. In spite of himself he looked to the
confused happy face of the girl. And he felt as he had felt when he set
fire to his house up there in the hills. The wavering lasted only a moment
longer; then he turned and slipped noiselessly down the hall, and the
seventh man who should have died for Grey Molly was still alive.

Chapter XLI. The Wild Geese

Twenty-four hours from Alder to Elkhead, and beyond Elkhead to the
Cumberland ranch, is long riding and hard riding, but not far after dark on
the following night, Joan lifted her head, where she played with the puppy
on the hearth, and listened. There was no sound audible to the others in
the living room; they did not even mark the manner in which she sat up, and
then rose to her feet. But when she whispered "Daddy Dan!" it brought each
of the three out of his chair. Still they heard nothing, and Buck and Lee
Haines would have retaken their chairs had not Kate gone to the window and
thrown it wide. Then they caught it, very far off, very thin and small, a
delicate thread of music, an eerie whistling. Without a word, she closed
the window, crossed the room and from the table she took up a cartridge
belt from which hung the holster with the revolver which Whistling Dan
taught her to use so well. She buckled it about her. Lee Haines and
Daniels, without a word, imitated her actions. Their guns were already on--
every moment since they reached the ranch they had gone armed but now they
looked to them, and tried the actions a few times before they thrust them
back into the holsters.

It was odd to watch them. They were like the last remnant of a garrison,
outworn with fighting, which prepares in grim quiet for the final stand.

The whistling rose a little in volume now. It was a happy sound, without a
recognizable tune, but a gay, wild improvisation as if a violinist, drunk,
was remembering snatches of masterpieces, throwing out lovely fragments
here and there and filling the intervals out of his own excited fancy. Joan
ran to the window, forgetful of the puppy, and kneeled there in the chair,
looking out. The whistling stopped as Kate drew down the curtain to cut out
Joan's view. It was far too dark for the child to see out, but she often
would sit like this, looking into the dark.

The whistling began again as Joan turned silently on her mother,
uncomplaining, but with a singular glint in her eyes, a sort of flickering,
inward light that came out by glances and starts. Now the sound of the
rider blew closer and closer. Kate gestured the men to their positions, one
for each of the two inner doors while she herself took the outer one. There
was not a trace of color in her face, but otherwise she was as calm as a
stone, and from her an atmosphere pervaded the room, so that men also stood
quietly at their posts, without a word, without a sign to each other. They
had their unspoken order from Kate. She would resist to the death and she
expected the same from them. They were prepared.

Still that crescendo of the whistling continued; it seemed as if it would
never reach them; it grew loud as a bird singing in that very room, and
still it continued to swell, increase--then suddenly went out. As if it
were the signal for which she had been waiting all these heartbreaking
moments, Kate opened the front door, ran quickly down the hall, and stood
an instant later on the path in front of the house. She had locked the
doors as she went through, and now she heard one of the men rattling the
lock to follow her. The rattling ceased. Evidently they decided that they
would hold the fort as they were.

Her heel hardly sank in the sand when she saw him. He came out of the night
like a black shadow among shadows, with the speed of the wind to carry him.
A light creak of leather as he halted, a glimmer of star light on Satan as
he wheeled, a clink of steel, and then Dan was coming up the path.

She knew him perfectly even before she could make out the details of the
form; she knew him by the light, swift, almost noiseless step, like the
padding footfall of a great cat--a sense of weight without sound. Another
form skulked behind him--Black Bart.

He was close, very close, before he stopped, or seemed to see her, though
she felt that he must have been aware of her since he first rode up. He was
so close, indeed, that the starlight--the brim of his hat standing up
somewhat from the swift riding--showed his face quite clearly to her. It
was boyish, almost, in its extreme youth, and so thinly molded, and his
frame so lightly made, that he seemed one risen from a wasting bed of
sickness. The wind fluttered his shirt and she wondered, as she had
wondered so often before, where he gained that incredible strength in so
meager a body. In all her life she had never loved him as she loved him
now. But her mind was as fixed as a star.

"You can't have her, Dan. You can't have her! Don't you see how terrible a
thing you'd make her? She's my blood, my pain, my love, and you want to
take her up yonder to the mountains and the loneliness--I'll die to keep

Now the moon, which had been buried in a drift of clouds, broke through
them, and seemed in an instant to slide a vast distance towards the earth,
a crooked half moon with its edges eaten by the mist. Under this light she
could see him more clearly, and she became aware of the thing she dreaded,
the faint smile which barely touched at the corners of his mouth; and in
his eyes a swirl of yellow light, half guessed at, half real. All her
strength poured out of her. She felt her knees buckle, felt the fingers
about the light revolver butt relax, felt every nerve grow slack. She was
helpless, and it was not fear of the man, but of something which stalked
behind him, inhuman, irresistible; not the wolf-dog, but something more
than Satan, and Bart, and Whistling Dan, something of which they were only
a part.

He began to whistle, thoughtfully, like one who considers a plan of action
and yet hesitates to begin. She felt his eyes run over her, as if judging
how he should put her most gently to one side; then from the house, very
lightly, hardly more than an echo of Dan's whistling, came an answer--the
very same refrain. Joan was calling to him.

At that he stepped forward, but the thing which stirred him, had hardened
the mind of Kate. The weakness passed in a flash. It was Joan, and for

"Not a step!" she whispered, and jerked out her gun. "Not a step!"

He stood with one hand trailing carelessly from his hip, and at the gleam
of her steel his other hand dropped to a holster, fumbled there, and came
away empty; he could not touch her, not with the weight of a finger. That
thoughtful whistle came again: once more the answering whistle drifted out
from the house; and he moved forward another pace.

She had chosen her mark carefully, the upper corner of the seam of the
pocket upon his shirt, and before his foot struck the ground she fired. For
an instant she felt that she missed the mark, for he stood perfectly
upright, but when she saw that the yellow was gone from his eyes. They were
empty of everything except a great wonder. He wavered to his knees, and
then sank down with his arms around Black Bart. He seemed, indeed, to
crumple away into the night. Then she heard a shouting and trampling in
the house, and a breaking open of doors, and she knew that she had killed
Whistling Dan. She would have gone to him, but the snarl of Bart drove her
back. Then she saw Satan galloping up the path and come to a sliding halt
where he stood with his delicate nose close to the face of the master.
There was no struggle with death, only a sigh like a motion of wind in far
off trees, and then, softly, easily Black Bart extricated himself from the
master, and moved away down the path, all wolf, all wild. Behind him, Satan
whirled with a snort, and they rushed away into the night each in an
opposite direction. The long companionship of the three was ended, and the
seventh man was dead for Grey Molly.

Lee Haines and Buck Daniels were around her now. She heard nothing
distinctly, only a great, vague clamor of voices while she kneeled and
turned the body of Barry on its back. It was marvelously light; she could
almost have picked it up in her arms, she felt. She folded the hands across
his breast, and the limp fingers were delicate as the fingers of a sick
child. Buck Daniels lay prone by the dead man weeping aloud; and Lee Haines
stood with his face buried in his hands; but there was no tear on the face
of Kate.

As she closed the eyes, the empty, hollow eyes, she heard a distant
calling, a hoarse and dissonant chiming. She looked up and saw a wedge of
wild geese flying low across the moon.

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