This Etext has been prepared by Bill Brewer, email@example.com
THE SEVENTH MAN
By Max Brand
Chapter I. Spring
A man under thirty needs neighbors and to stop up the current of his life with a long silence is like obstructing a river–eventually the water either sweeps away the dam or rises over it, and the stronger the dam the more destructive is that final rush to freedom. Vic Gregg was on the danger side of thirty and he lived alone in the mountains all that winter. He wanted to marry Betty Neal, but marriage means money, therefore Vic contracted fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of mining for the Duncans, and instead of taking a partner he went after that stake single handed. He is a very rare man who can turn out that amount of labor in a single season, but Gregg furnished that exception which establishes the rule: he did the assessment work on fourteen claims and almost finished the fifteenth, yet he paid the price. Week after week his set of drills was wife and child to him, and for conversation he had only the clangor of the four-pound single-jack on the drill heads, with the crashing of the “shots” now and then as periods to the chatter of iron on iron. He kept at it, and in the end he almost finished the allotted work, but for all of it he paid in full.
The acid loneliness ate into him. To be sure, from boyhood he knew the mountain quiet, the still heights and the solemn echoes, but towards the close of the long isolation the end of each day found him oppressed by a weightier sense of burden; in a few days he would begin to talk to himself.
From the first the evening pause after supper hurt him most, for a man needs a talk as well as tobacco, and after a time he dreaded these evenings so bitterly that he purposely spent himself every day, so as to pass from supper into sleep at a stride. It needed a long day to burn out his strength thoroughly, so he set his rusted alarm-clock, and before dawn it brought him groaning out of the blankets to cook a hasty breakfast and go slowly up to the tunnel. In short, he wedded himself to his work; he stepped into a routine which took the place of thought, and the change in him was so gradual that he did not see the danger.
A mirror might have shown it to him as he stood this morning at the door of his lean-to, for the wind fluttered the shirt around his labor-dried body, and his forehead puckered in a frown, grown habitual. It was a narrow face, with rather close-set eyes and a slanted forehead which gave token of a single-track mind, a single-purposed nature with one hundred and eighty pounds of strong sinews and iron-hard muscle to give it significance. Such was Vic Gregg as he stood at the door waiting for the coffee he had drunk to brush away the cobwebs of sleep, and then he heard the eagle scream.
A great many people have never heard the scream of an eagle. The only voice they connect with the kind of the air is a ludicrously feeble squawk, dim with distance, but in his great moments the eagle has a war-cry like that of the hawk, but harsher, hoarser, tenfold in volume. This sound cut into the night in the gulch, and Vic Gregg started and glanced about for echoes made the sound stand at his side; then he looked up, and saw two eagles fighting in the light of the morning. He knew what it meant–the beginning of the mating season, and these two battling for a prize. They darted away. They flashed together with reaching talons and gaping beaks, and dropped in a tumult of wings, then soared and clashed once more until one of them folded his wings and dropped bulletlike out of the morning into the night. Close over Gregg’s head, the wings flirted out–ten feet from tip to tip–beat down with a great washing sound, and the bird shot across the valley in a level flight. The conqueror screamed a long insult down the hollow. For a while he balanced, craning his bald head as if he sought applause, then, without visible movement of his wings, sailed away over the peaks. A feather fluttered slowly down past Vic Gregg.
He looked down to it, and rubbed the ache out of the back of his neck. All about him the fresh morning was falling; yonder shone a green-mottled face of granite, and there a red iron blow-out streaked with veins of glittering silicate, and in this corner, still misted with the last delicate shades of night, glimmered rhyolite, lavender-pink. The single-jack dropped from the hand of Gregg, and his frown relaxed.
When he stretched his arms, the cramps of labor unkinked and let the warm blood flow, swiftly, and in the pleasure of it he closed his eyes and drew a luxurious breath. He stepped from the door with his, head high and his heart lighter, and when his hobnailed shoe clinked on the fallen hammer he kicked it spinning from his path. That act brought a smile into his eyes, and he sauntered to the edge of the little plateau and looked down into the wide chasm of the Asper Valley.
Blue shadows washed across it, though morning shone around Gregg on the height, and his glance dropped in a two-thousand-foot plunge to a single yellow eye that winked through the darkness, a light in the trapper’s cabin. But the dawn was falling swiftly now, and while Gregg lingered the blue grew thin, purple-tinted, and then dark, slender points pricked up, which he knew to be the pines. Last of all, he caught the sheen of grass.
Around him pressed a perfect silence, the quiet of night holding over into the day, yet he cast a glance behind him as he heard a voice. Indeed, he felt that some one approached him, some one for whom he had been waiting, yet it was a sad expectancy, and more like homesickness than anything he knew.
“Aw, hell,” said Vic Gregg, “it’s spring.”
A deep-throated echo boomed back at him, and the sound went down the gulch, three times repeated.
“Spring,” repeated Gregg more softly, as if he feared to rouse that echo, “damned if it ain’t!”
He shrugged his shoulders and turned resolutely towards the lean-to, picking up the discarded hammer on the way. By instinct he caught it at exactly the right balance for his strength and arm, and the handle, polished by his grip, played with an oiled, frictionless movement against the callouses of his palm. From the many hours of drilling, fingers crooked, he could only straighten them by a painful effort. A bad hand for cards, he decided gloomily, and still frowning over this he reached the door. There he paused in instant repugnance, for the place was strange to him.
In thought and wish he was even now galloping Grey Molly over the grass along the Asper, and he had to wrench himself into the mood of the patient miner. There lay his blankets, rumpled, brown with dirt, and he shivered at sight of them; the night had been cold. Before he fell asleep, he had flung the magazine into the corner and now the wind rustled its torn, yellowed pages in a whisper that spoke to Gregg of the ten-times repeated stories, tales of adventure, drifts of tobacco smoke in gaming halls, the chant of the croupier behind the wheel, deep voices of men, laughter of pretty girls, tatoo of running horses, shouts which only redeye can inspire. He sniffed the air; odor of burned bacon and coffee permeated the cabin. He turned to the right and saw his discarded overalls with ragged holes at the knees; he turned to the left and looked into the face of the rusted alarm clock. Its quick, soft ticking sent an ache of weariness through him.
“What’s wrong with me,” muttered Gregg. Even that voice seemed ghostly loud in the cabin, and he shivered again. “I must be going nutty.”
As if to escape from his own thoughts, he stepped out into the sun again, and it was so grateful to him after the chill shadow in the lean-to, that he looked up, smiling, into the sky. A west wind urged a scattered herd of clouds over the peaks, tumbled masses of white which puffed into transparent silver at the edges, and behind, long wraiths of vapor marked the path down which they had traveled. Such an old cowhand as Vic Gregg could not fail to see the forms of cows and heavy-necked bulls and running calves in that drift of clouds. About this season the boys would be watching the range for signs of screw worms in the cattle, and the bog-riders must have their hands full dragging out cows which had fled into the mud to escape the heel flies. With a new lonesomeness he drew his eyes down to the mountains.
Ordinarily, strange fancies never entered the hard head of Gregg, but today it seemed to him that the mountains found a solemn companionship in each other.
Out of the horizon, where the snowy forms glimmered in the blue, they marched in loose order down to the valley of the Asper, where some of them halted in place, huge cliffs, and others stumbled out into foothills, but the main range swerved to the east beside the valley, eastward out of his vision, though he knew that they went on to the town of Alder.
Alder was Vic Gregg’s Athens and Rome in one, its schoolhouse his Acropolis, and Captain Lorrimer’s saloon his Forum. Other people talked of larger cities, but Alder satisfied the imagination of Vic; besides, Grey Molly was even now in the blacksmith’s pasture, and Betty Neal was teaching in the school. Following the march of the mountains and the drift of the clouds, he turned towards Alder. The piled water shook the dam, topped it, burst it into fragments, and rushed into freedom; he must go to Alder, have a drink, shake hands with a friend, kiss Betty Neal, and come back again. Two days going, two days coming, three days for the frolic; a week would cover it all. And two hours later Vic Gregg had cached his heavier equipment, packed his necessaries on the burro, and was on the way.
By noon he had dropped below the snowline and into the foothills, and with every step his heart grew lighter. Behind him the mountains slid up into the heart of the sky with cold, white winter upon them, but here below it was spring indubitably. There was hardly enough fresh grass to temper the winter brown into shining bronze, but a busy, awakening insect life thronged through the roots. Surer sign than this, the flowers were coming. A slope of buttercups flashed suddenly when the wind struck it and wild morning glory spotted a stretch of daisies with purple and dainty lavender. To be sure, the blossoms never grew thickly enough to make strong dashes of color, but they tinted and stained the hillsides. He began to cross noisy little watercourses, empty most of the year, but now the melting snow fed them. From eddies and quiet pools the bright watercress streamed out into the currents, and now and then in moist ground under a sheltering bank he found rich patches of violets.
His eyes went happily among these tokens of the glad time of the year, but while he noted them and the bursting buds of the aspen, reddish-brown, his mind was open to all that middle register of calls which the human ear may notice in wild places. Far above his scale were shrilling murmurs of birds and insects, and beneath it ran those ground noises that the rabbit, for instance, understands so well; but between these overtones and undertones he heard the scream of the hawk, spiraling down in huge circles, and the rapid call of a grouse, far off, and the drone of insects about his feet, or darting suddenly upon his brain and away again. He heard these things by the grace of the wind, which sometimes blew them about him in a chorus, and again shut off all except that lonely calling of the grouse, and often whisked away every murmur and left Gregg, in the center of a wide hush with only the creak of the pack-saddle and the click of the burro’s accurate feet among the rocks.
At such times he gave his full attention to the trail, and he read it as one might turn the pages of a book. He saw how a rabbit had scurried, running hard, for the prints of the hind feet planted far ahead of those on the forepaws. There was reason in her haste, for here the pads of a racing coyote had dug deeply into a bit of soft ground. The sign of both rabbit and coyote veered suddenly, and again the trail told the reason clearly– the big print of a lobo’s paw, that gray ghost which haunts the ranges with the wisest brain and the swiftest feet in the West. Vic Gregg grinned with excitement; fifty dollars’ bounty if that scalp were his! But the story of the trail called him back with the sign of some small animal which must have traveled very slowly, for in spite of the tiny size of the prints, each was distinct. The man sniffed with instinctive aversion and distrust for this was the trail of the skunk, and if the last of the seven sleepers was out, it was spring indeed. He raised his cudgel and thwacked the burro joyously.
“Get on, Marne,” he cried. “We’re overdue in Alder.”
Marne switched her tail impatiently and canted back a long ear to listen, but she did not increase her pace; for Marne had only one gait, and if Vic occasionally thumped her, it was rather by way of conversation than in any hope of hurrying their journey.
Chapter II. Grey Molly
If her soul had been capable of enthusiasm, Marne could have made the trip on schedule time, but she was a burro good for nothing except to carry a pack well nigh half her own weight, live on forage that might have starved a goat, and smell water fifteen miles in time of drought. Speed was not in her vocabulary, and accordingly it was late afternoon rather than morning when Gregg, pointing his course between the ears of Marne, steered her through Murphy’s Pass and came out over Alder. There they paused by mutual consent, and the burro flicked one long ear forward to listen to the rushing of the Doane River. It filled the valley with continual murmur, and just below them, where the brown, white-flecked current twisted around an elbow bend, lay Alder tossed down without plan, here a boulder and there a house. They seemed marvelously flimsy structures, and one felt surprise that the weight the winter snow had not crushed them, or that the Doane River had not sent a strong current licking over bank and tossed the whole village crashing down the ravine. One building was very much like other, but Gregg’s familiar eye pierced through the roofs and into Widow Sullivan’s staggering shack, into Hezekiah Whittleby’s hushed sitting-room, down to the moist, dark floor of the Captain’s saloon into that amazing junkshop, the General Merchandise store; but first and last he looked to the little flag which gleamed and snapped above the schoolhouse, and it spelled “my country” to Vic.
Marne consented to break into a neat-footed jog-trot going down the last slope, and so she went up the single winding street of Alder, grunting at every step, with Gregg’s whistle behind her. In town, he lived with his friend, Dug Pym, who kept their attic room reserved for his occupancy, so he headed straight for that place. What human face would he see first?
It was Mrs. Sweeney’s little boy, Jack, who raced into the street whooping, and Vic caught him under the armpits and swung him dizzily into the air.
“By God,” muttered Vic, as he strode on, “that’s a good kid, that Jack.” And he straightway forgot all about that knife which Jackie had purloined from him the summer before. “Me and Betty,” he thought, “we’ll have kids, like Jack; tougher’n leather.”
Old Garrigan saw him next and cackled from his truck garden in the backyard, but Vic went on with a wave of his arm, and on past Gertie Vincent’s inviting shout (Gertie had been his particular girl before Betty Neal came to town), and on with the determination of a soldier even past the veranda of Captain Lorrimier’s saloon, though Lorrimer himself bellowed a greeting and “Chick” Stewart crooked a significant thumb over his shoulder towards the open door. He only paused at the blacksmith shop and looked in at Dug, who was struggling to make the print of a hot shoe on a hind foot of Simpson’s sorrel Glencoe.
Pym raised a grimy, sweating forehead.
“You, boy; easy, damn you! Hello, Vic!” and he propped that restless hind foot on his inner thigh and extended a hand.
“Go an workin’, Dug, because I can’t stop; I just want a rope to catch Grey Molly.”
“You red devil–take that rope over there, Vic. You won’t have no work catchin’ Molly. Which she’s plumb tame. Stand still, damn you. I never seen a Glencoe with any sense!–Where you goin’, Vic? Up to the school?”
And his sweaty grin followed Vic as the latter went out with the coil of rope over his shoulder. When Gregg reached the house, Nelly Pym hugged him, which is the privilege of fat and forty, and then she sat at the foot of the stairs and shouted up gossip while he shaved with frantic haste and jumped into his best clothes. He answered her with monosyllables and only half his mind.
“Finish up your work, Vic?”
“You sure worked yourself all thin. I hope somebody appreciates it.” She chuckled. “Ain’t been sick, have you?”
“Say, who d’you think’s in town? Sheriff Glass!”
This information sank in on him while he tugged at a boot at least a size and half too small.
“Pete Glass!” he echoed. Then: “Who’s he after?”
“I dunno. Vic, he don’t look like such a bad one.”
“He’s plenty bad enough,” Gregg assured her. “Ah-h-h!”
His foot ground into place, torturing his toes.
‘”Well,” considered Mrs. Pym, in a philosophic rumble, “I s’pose them quiet gents is the dangerous ones, mostly; but looking at Glass you wouldn’t think he’d ever killed all those men. Know about the dance?”
“Down to Singer’s place. Betty goin’ with you?”
He jerked open the door and barked down at her: “Who else would she be goin’ with?”
“Don’t start pullin’ leather before the horse bucks,” said Mrs. Pym. “I don’t know who else she’d be goin’ with. You sure look fine in that red shirt, Vic!”
He grinned, half mollified, half shame-faced, and ducked back into the room, but a moment later he clumped stiffly down the stairs, frowning. He wondered if he could dance in those boots.
“Feel kind of strange in these clothes. How do I look, Nelly?” And he turned in review at the foot of the stairs.
“Slick as a whistle, I’ll tell a man.” She raised her voice to a shout as he disappeared through the outer door. “Kiss her once for me, Vic.”
In the center of the little pasture he stood shaking out the noose, and the three horses raced in a sweeping gallop around the fence, looking for a place of escape, with Grey Molly in the lead. Nothing up the Doane River, or even down the Asper, for that matter, could head Molly when she was full of running, and the eyes of Gregg gleamed as he watched her. She was not a picture horse, for her color was rather a dirty white than a dapple, and besides, there were some who accused her of “tucked up belly.” But she had the legs for speed in spite of the sloping croup, and plenty of chest at the girth, and a small, bony head that rejoiced the heart of a horseman. He swung the noose, and while the others darted ahead, stupidly straight into the range of danger, Grey Molly whirled like a doubling coyote and leaped away.
“Good girl!” cried Vic, in involuntary approbation. He ran a few steps. The noose slid up and out, opened in a shaky loop, and swooped down. Too late the gray saw the flying danger, for even as she swerved the riata fell over her head, and she came to a snorting halt with all fours planted, skidding through the grass. The first thing a range horse learns is never to pull against a rope.
A few minutes later she was getting the “pitch” out of her system, as any self-respecting cattle horse must do after a session of pasture and no work. She bucked with enthusiasm and intelligence, as she did all things. Sun-fishing, sun-fishing is the most deadly form of bucking, for it consists of a series of leaps apparently aimed at the sun, and the horse comes down with a sickening jar on stiff front legs. Educated “pitchers” land on only one foot, so that the shock is accompanied by a terrible sidewise, downward wrench that breaks the hearts of the best riders in the world. Grey Molly was educated, and Mrs. Pym stood in the doorway with a broad grin of appreciation on her red face, she knew riding when she saw it. Then, out of the full frenzy, the mare lapsed into high-headed, quivering attention, and Gregg cursed her softly, with deep affection. He understood her from her fetlocks to her teeth. She bucked like a fiend of revolt one instant and cantered like an angel of grace the next; in fact she was more or less of an equine counterpart of her rider.
But now he heard shrill voices passing down the street and he knew that school was out and that he must hurry if he wanted to ride home with Betty, so he waved to Mrs. Pym and cantered away. For over two days he had been rushing towards this meeting; all winter he had hungered for it, but now that the moment loomed before him he weakened; he usually did when he came close to the girl. Not that her beauty overwhelmed him, for though she had a portion of energetic good-health and freckled prettiness, he had chosen her as an Indian chooses flint for his steel; one could strike fire from Betty Neal. When he was far away he loved her without doubt or question and his trust ran towards her like a river setting towards the ocean because he knew that her heart was as big and as true as the heart of Grey Molly herself. Only her ways were fickle, and when she came near, she filled him with uneasiness, suspicion.
Chapter III. Battle
On the road he passed Miss Brewster–for the Alder school boasted two teachers!–and under her kindly, rather faded smile he felt a great desire to stop and take her into his confidence; ask her what Betty Neal had been doing all these months. Instead, he touched Grey Molly with the spurs, and she answered like a watch-spring uncurling beneath him. The rush of wind against his face raised his spirits to a singing pitch, and when he flung from the saddle before the school he shouted: “Oh, Betty!”
Up the sharply angling steps in a bound, and at the door: “Oh, Betty!”
His voice filled the room with a thick, dull echo, and there was Betty behind her desk looking up at him agape; and beside her stood Blondy Hansen, big, good looking, and equally startled. Fear made the glance of Vic Gregg swerve–to where little Tommy Aiken scribbled an arithmetic problem on the blackboard–afterschool work for whispering in class, or some equally heinous crime. The tingling voices of the other children on their way home, floated in to Tommy, and the corners of his mouth drooped.
To regain his poise, Vic tugged at his belt and felt the weight of the holster slipping into a more convenient place, then he sauntered up the aisle, sweeping off his sombrero. Every feeling in his body, every nerve, disappeared in a crystalline hardness, for it seemed to him that the air was surcharged by a secret something between Betty and young Hansen. Betty was out from behind her desk and she ran to meet him and took his hand in both of hers. The rush of her coming took his breath, and at her touch something melted in her.
“Oh, Vic, are you all through?”
Gregg stiffened for the benefit of Hansen and Tommy Aiken.
“Pretty near through,” he said carelessly. “Thought I’d drop down to Alder for a day or two and get the kinks out. Hello, Blondy. Hey, Tommy!”
Tommy Aiken flashed a grin at him, but Tommy was not quite sure that the rules permitted speaking, even under such provocation as the return of Vic Gregg, so he maintained a desperate silence. Blondy had picked up his hat as he returned the greeting.
“I guess I’ll be going,” he said, and coughed to show that he was perfectly at ease, but it seemed to Vic that it was hard for Blondy to meet his eye when they shook hands. “See you later, Betty.”
“All right.” She smiled at Vic–a flash–and then gathered dignity of both voice and manner. “You may go now, Tommy.”
She lapsed into complete unconsciousness of manner as Tommy swooped on his desk, included hat and book in one grab, and darted towards the door through which Hansen had just disappeared. Here he paused, tilting, and his smile twinkled at them with understanding. “Good-night, Miss Neal. Hope you have a good time, Vic.” His heel clicked twice on the steps outside, and then the patter of his racing feet across the field.
“The little mischief!” said Betty, delightfully flushed. “It beats everything, Vic, how Alder takes things for granted.”
He should have taken her in his arms and kissed her, now that she had cleared the room, he very well knew, but the obvious thing was always last to come in Gregg’s repertoire.
“Why not take it for granted? It ain’t going to be many days, now.”
He watched her eyes sparkle, but the pleasure of seeing him drowned the gleam almost at once.
“Are you really almost through? Oh, Vic, you’ve been away so long, and I–” She checked herself. There was no overflow of sentiment in Betty.
“Maybe I was a fool for laying off work this way,” he admitted, “but I sure got terrible lonesome up there.”
Her glance went over him contentedly, from the hard brown hands to the wrinkle which labor had sunk in the exact center of his forehead. He was all man, to Betty.
“Come on along,” he said. He would kiss her by surprise as they reached the door. “Come on along. It’s sure enough spring outside. I been eating it up, and–we can do our talking over things at the dance. Let’s ride now.”
“Sure, down to Singer’s place.”
“It’s going to be kind of hard to get out of going with Blondy. He asked me.”
“And you said you’d go?”
“What are you flarin’ up about?”
“Look here, how long have you been traipsin’ around with Blondy Hansen?”
She clenched one hand beside her in a way he knew, but it pleased him more than it warned him, just as it pleased him to see the ears of Grey Molly go back.
“What’s wrong about Blondy Hansen?”
“What’s right about him?” he countered senselessly.
Her voice went a bit shrill. “Blondy is a gentleman, I’ll have you know.”
“Don’t you sneer at me, Victor Gregg. I won’t have it!”
“You won’t, eh?”
He felt that he was pushing her to the danger point, but she was perfectly, satisfyingly beautiful in her anger; he taunted her with the pleasure of an artist painting a picture.
“I won’t!” she repeated. Something else came to her lips, but she repressed it, and he could see the pressure from within telling.
“Don’t get in a huff over nothing,” he urged, in real alarm. “Only, it made me kind of mad to see Blondy standing there with that calf-look.”
“What calf-look? He’s a lot better to look at than you’ll ever be.”
A smear of red danced before the vision of Gregg.
“I don’t set up for no beauty prize. Tie a pink ribbon in Blondy’s hair and take him to a baby show if you want. He’s about young enough to enter.”
If she could have found a ready retort her anger might have passed away in words, but no words came, and she turned pale. It was here that Gregg made his crucial mistake, for he thought the pallor came from fear, fear which his sham jealousy had roused in her, perhaps. He should have maintained a discreet silence, but instead, he poured in the gall of complacency upon a raw wound.
“Blondy’s all right,” he stated beneficently, “but you just forget about him tonight. You’re going to that dance, and you’re going with me. If there’s any explanations to be made, you leave ’em to me. I’ll handle Blondy.”
“You handle Blondy!” she whispered. Her voice came back; it rang: “You couldn’t if he had one hand tied behind him.” She measured him for another blow. “I’m going to that dance and I’m going with Mr. Hansen.”
She knew that he would have died for her, and he knew that she would have died for him; accordingly they abandoned themselves to sullen fury.
“You’re out of date, Vic,” she ran on. “Men can’t drag women around nowadays, and you can’t drag me. Not–one–inch.” She put a vicious little interval between each of the last three words.
“I’ll be calling for you at seven o’clock.”
“I won’t be there.”
“Then I’ll call on Blondy.”
“You don’t dare to. Don’t you try to bluff me. I’m not that kind.”
“Betty, d’you mean that? D’you think that I’m yaller?”
“I don’t care what you are.”
“I ask you calm and impersonal, just think that over before you say it.”
“I’ve already thought it over.”
“Then, by God,” said Gregg, trembling, “I’ll never take one step out of my way to see you again.”
He turned, so blind with fury that he shouldered the door on his way out and so, into the saddle, with Grey Molly standing like a figure of rock, as if she sensed his mood. He swung her about on her hind legs with a wrench on the curb and a lift of his spurs, but when she leaped into a gallop he brought her back to the walk with a cruel jerk; she began to sidle across the field with her chin drawn almost back to her breast, prancing. That movement of the horse brought him half way around towards the door and he was tempted mightily to look, for he knew that Betty Neal was standing there, begging him with her eyes. But the great, sullen pain conquered; he straightened out the mare for the gate.
Betty was indeed at the door, leaning against it in a sudden weakness, and even in her pain she felt pride in the grace and skill of Vic’s horsemanship. The hearts of both of them were breaking, with this rather typical difference: that Gregg felt her to be entirely at fault, and that she as fully accepted every scruple of the blame. He had come down tired out and nervous from work he had done for her sake, she remembered, and if he would only glance back once–he must know that she was praying for it– she would cry out and run down to him; but he went on, on, through the gate.
A flash of her passion returned to her. “I shall go with Blondy–if it kills me.” And she flung herself into the nearest seat and wept.
So when he reached the road and looked back at last, the doorway yawned black, empty, and he set his teeth with a groan and spurred down the road for Alder. He drew rein at Captain Lorrimer’s and entered with curt nods in exchange for the greetings.
“Red-eye,” he ordered, and seized bottle and glass as Lorrimer spun them deftly towards him.
Captain Lorrimer picked up the bottle and gazed at it mournfully when Vic had poured his drink.
“Son,” he murmured, “you’ve sure raised an awful thirst.”
Chapter IV. King Hol
There is a very general and very erroneous impression that alcohol builds the mood of a man; as a matter of fact it merely makes his temper of the moment fast–the man who takes his first drink with a smile ends in uproarious laughter, and he who frowns will often end in fighting. Vic Gregg did not frown as he drank, but the corners of his lips turned up a trifle in a smile of fixed and acid pleasantry and his glance went from face to face in the barroom, steadily, with a trifling pause at each pair of eyes. Beginning with himself, he hated mankind in general; the burn of the cheap whisky within served to set the color of that hatred in a fixed dye. He did not lift his chaser, but his hand closed around it hard. If some one had given him an excuse for a fist-fight or an outburst of cursing it would have washed his mind as clean as a new slate, and five minutes later he might have been with Betty Neal, riotously happy. Instead, everyone overflowed with good nature, gossip, questions about his work, and the danger in him crystallized. He registered cold reasons for his disgust.
Beginning in the first person, he loathed himself as a thick-headed ass for talking to Betty as he had done; as well put a burr under one’s saddle and then feel surprise because the horse bucks. He passed on to the others with equal precision. Captain Lorrimer was as dirty as a greaser; and like a greaser, loose-lipped, unshaven. Chick Stewart was a born fool, and a fool by self-culture, as his never changing grin amply proved. Lew Perkins sat in the corner on a shaky old apple barrel and brushed back his long mustaches to spit at the cuspidor–and miss it. If this were Vic Gregg’s saloon he would teach the old loafer more accuracy or break his neck.
“How are you, Gregg?” murmured some one behind him.
He turned and found Sheriff Pete Glass with his right hand already spread on the bar while he ordered a drink for two. That was one of the sheriff’s idiosyncrasies; he never shook hands if he could avoid it, and Gregg hated him senselessly, bitterly, for it. No doubt every one in the room noticed, and they would tell afterwards how the sheriff had avoided shaking hands with Vic Gregg. Cheap play for notoriety, thought Gregg; Glass was pushing the bottle towards him.
“Help yourself,” said Gregg.
“This is on me, Vic.”
“I most generally like to buy the first drink.”
Pete Glass turned his head slowly, for indeed all his motions were leisurely and one could not help wondering at the stories of his exploits, the tales of his hair-trigger alertness. Perhaps these half legendary deeds sent the thrill of uneasiness through Vic Gregg; perhaps it was owing to the singular hazel eyes, with little splotches of red in them; very mild eyes, but one could imagine anything about them. Otherwise there was nothing exceptional in Glass, for he stood well under middle height, a starved figure, with a sinewy crooked neck, as if bent on looking up to taller men. His hair was sandy, his face tawny brown, his shirt a gray blue, and every one knew his dusty roan horse; by nature, by temperament and by personal selection he was suited to blend into a landscape of sage-dotted plains or sand. Tireless as a lobo on the trail, swift as a bobcat in fight, hunted men had been known to ride in and give themselves up when they heard that Pete Glass was after them.
“Anyway you want, partner,” he was saying, in his soft, rather husky voice.
He poured his drink, barely enough to cover the bottom of his glass, for that was another of Pete’s ways; he could never afford to weaken his hand or deaden his eye with alcohol, and even now he stood sideways at the bar, facing Gregg and also facing the others in the room. But the larger man, with sudden scorn for this caution, brimmed his own glass, and poised it swiftly. “Here’s how!” and down it went.
Ordinarily red-eye heated his blood and made his brain dizzy, it loosened his tongue and numbed his lips, but today it left him cool, confident, and sharpened his vision until he felt that he could see through the minds of every one in the room. Captain Lorrimer, for instance, was telling a jocular story to Chick Stewart in the hope that Chick would set them up for every one; and old Lew Perkins was waiting for the treat; and perhaps the sheriff was wondering how he could handle Vic in case of need, or how long it would take to run him down. Not long, decided Gregg, breathing hard; no man in the world could put him on the run. Glass was treating in turn, and again the brimming drink went down Vic’s throat and left his brain clear, wonderfully clear. He saw through Betty Neal now; she had purposely played off Blondy against him, to make them both jealous.
“Won’t you join us, Dad?” the sheriff was saying to Lew Perkins, and Vic Gregg smiled. He understood. The sheriff wanted an excuse to order another round of drinks because he had it in mind to intoxicate Gregg; perhaps Glass had something on him; perhaps the manhunter thought that Vic had had a part in that Wilsonville affair two years back. That was it, and he wanted to make Vic talk when he was drunk.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Lew said, slapping both hands on the bar as if he owned it; and while he waited for his drink: “What are they going to do with Swain?”
The doddering idiot! Swain was the last man Glass had taken, and Lew Perkins should have known that the sheriff never talked about his work; the old ass was in his green age, his second childhood.
“Swain turned state’s evidence,” said Pete, curtly. “He’ll go free, I suppose. Fill up your glass, partner. Can see you’re thirsty yet.”
This was to Gregg, who had purposely poured out a drink of the sheriff’s own chosen dimension to see if the latter would notice; this remark fixed his suspicions. It was certain that the manhunter was after him, but again, in scorn, he accepted the challenge and poured a stiff dram.
“That’s right,” nodded the sheriff. “You got nothing on your shoulders. You can let yourself go, Vic. Sometimes I wish”–he sighed–“I wish I could do the same!”
“The sneaky coyote,” thought Gregg, “he’s lurin’ me on!”
“Turned state’s evidence!” maundered Lew Perkins. “Well, they’s a lot of ’em that lose their guts when they’re caught. I remember way back in the time when Bannack was runnin’ full blast–“
Why did not some one shut off the old idiot before he was thoroughly started? He might keep on talking like the clank of a windmill in a steady breeze, endlessly. For Lew was old-seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five–he himself probably did not know just how old–and he had lived through at least two generations of pioneers with a myriad stories about them. He could string out tales of the Long Trail: Abilene, Wichita, Ellsworth, Great Bend, Newton, where eleven men were murdered in one night; he knew the vigilante days in San Francisco, and early times in Alder Gulch.
“Nobody would of thought Plummer was yaller, but he turned out that way,” droned on the narrator. “Grit? He had enough to fit out twenty men. When Crawford shot him and busted his right arm, he went right on and learned to shoot with his left and started huntin’ Jack again. Packed that lead with him till he died, and then they found Jack’s bullet in his wrist, all worked smooth by the play of the bones. Afterwards it turned out that Plummer ran a whole gang; but before we learned that we’d been fools enough to make him sheriff. We got to Plummer right after he’d finished hangin’ a man, and took him to his own gallows.”
“You’d of thought a cool devil like that would of made a good end, but he didn’t. He just got down on his knees and cried, and asked God to help him. Then he begged us to give him time to pray, but one of the boys up and told him he could do his prayin’ from the cross-beam. And that was Henry Plummer, that killed a hundred men, him an’ his gang.”
“H-m-m,” murmured the sheriff, and looked uneasily about. Now that his eyes were turned away, Vic could study him at leisure, and he wondered at the smallness of the man. Suppose one were able to lay hands on him it would be easy to–
“See you later, boys,” drawled Glass, and sauntered from the room.
Lew Perkins sighed as the most important part of his audience disappeared, but having started talking the impetus carried him along, he held Vic Gregg with his hazy eyes.
“But they didn’t all finish like Plummer, not all the bad ones. No sirree! There was Boone Helm.”
“I’ve heard about him,” growled Vic, but the old man had fixed his glance and his reminiscent smile upon the past and his voice was soft with distance when he spoke again.
“Helm was a sure enough bad one, son. They don’t grow like him no more. Wild Bill was a baby compared with Helm, and Slade wasn’t no man at all, even leavin’ in the lies they tell about him. Why, son, Helm was just a lobo, in the skin of a man–“
“Like Barry?” put in Lorrimer, drifting closer down the bar.
“Ain’t you heard of Whistlin’ Dan? The one that killed Jim Silent and busted up his gang. Why, they say he’s got a wolf that he can talk to like it was a man.”
Old Lew chuckled.
“They say a lot of things,” he nodded, “but I’ll tell a man that a wolf is a wolf and they ain’t nothin’ that can tame ’em. Don’t you let ’em feed you up on lies like that, Lorrimer. But Helm was sure bad. He killed for the sake of killin’, but he died game. When the boys run him down he swore on the bible that he’s never killed a man, and they made him swear it over again just to watch his nerve; but he never batted an eye.”
The picture of that wild time grew up for Vic Gregg, and the thought of free men who laughed at the law, strong men, fierce men. What would one of these have done if the girl he intended to marry had treated him like a foil?
“Then they got him ready for the rope,” went on Lew Perkins.
“‘I’ve seen a tolerable lot of death,’ says Helm. ‘I ain’t afraid of it.'”
“There was about six thousand folks had come in to see the end of Boone Helm. Somebody asked him if he wanted anything.
“‘Whisky,’ says Boone. And he got it.
“Then he shook his hand and held it up. He had a sore finger and it bothered him a lot more than the thought of hangin’.
“‘You gents get through with this or else tie up my finger,’ he kept sayin’.”
“Helm wasn’t the whole show. There was some others bein’ hung that day and when one of them dropped off his box, Boone says: ‘There’s one gone to hell.’ Pretty soon another went, and hung there wiggling, and six times he went through all the motions of pullin’ his six-shooter and firin’ it. I counted. ‘Kick away, old fellow,’ says Boone Helm, ‘I’ll be with you soon.’ Then it came his turn and he hollered: ‘Hurrah for Jeff Davis; let her rip!’ That was how Boone Helm–“
The rest of the story was blotted from the mind of Vic Gregg by the thud of a heavy heel on the veranda, and then the broad shoulders of Blondy Hansen darkened the doorway, Blondy Hansen dressed for the dance, with the knot of his black silk handkerchief turned to the front and above that the gleam of his celluloid collar. It was dim in the saloon, compared with the brightness of the outdoors, and perhaps Blondy did not see Vic. At any rate he took his place at the other end of the bar. Three pictures tangled in the mind of Gregg like three bodies in a whirlpool–Betty, Blondy, Pete Glass. That strange clearness of perception increased and the whole affair lay plainly before him. Betty had sent Hansen, dressed manifestly for the festival, to gloat over Vic in Lorrimer’s place. He was at it already.
“All turned out for the dance, Blondy, eh? Takin’ a girl?”
“Betty Neal,” answered Blondy.
“The hell you are!” inquired Lorrimer, mildly astonished. “I thought–why, Vic’s back in town, don’t you know that?”
“He ain’t got a mortgage on what she does.”
Then, guided by the side-glance of Lorrimer, Hansen saw Gregg, and he stiffened. As for Vic, he perceived the last link in his chain of evidence. Hansen was going to a dance, and yet he wore a gun, and there could be only one meaning in that: Betty had sent him down there to wind up the affair.
“Didn’t see you, Vic,” Blondy was saying, his flushed face seeming doubly red against the paleness of his hair. “Have something?”
“I ain’t drinkin’,” answered Gregg, and slowly, to make sure that no one could miss his meaning, he poured out a glass of liquor, and drank it with his face towards Hansen. When he put his glass down his mind was clearer than ever; and with omniscient precision, with nerveless calm, he knew that he was going to kill Blondy Hansen; knew exactly where the bullet would strike. It was something put behind him; his mind had already seen Hansen fall, and he smiled.
Dead silence had fallen over the room, and in the silence Gregg heard a muffled, ticking sound, the beating of his heart; heard old Lew Perkins as the latter softly, slowly, glided back out of the straight line of danger; heard the quick breathing of Captain Lorrimer who stood pasty pale, gaping behind the bar; heard the gritted teeth of Blondy Hansen, who would not take water.
“Vic,” said Blondy, “it looks like you mean trouble. Anyway, you just now done something that needs explaining.”
He stood straight as a soldier, rigid, but the fingers of his right hand twitched, twitched, twitched; the hand itself stole higher. Very calmly, Vic hunted for his words, found them.
“A cattle rustler is bad,” he pronounced, “a hoss thief is worse, but you’re the lowest sneak of the lot, Blondy.”
Again that silence with the pulse in it, and Vic Gregg could feel the chill which numbed every one except himself.
The lower jaw of Captain Lorrimer sagged, and his whisper came out in jerking syllables: “God Almighty!” Then Blondy went for his gun, and Vic waited with his hand on the butt of his own, waited with a perfect, cold foreknowledge, heard Blondy moan as his Colt hung in the holster, saw the flash of the barrel as it whipped out, and then jerked his own weapon and fired from the hip. Blondy staggered but kept himself from falling by gripping the edge of the bar with his left hand; the right, still holding the gun, raised and rubbed across his forehead; he looked like a sleeper awakening.
Not a sound from any one else, while Vic watched the tiny wraith of smoke jerk up from the muzzle of his revolver. Then Blondy’s gun flashed down and clanked on the floor. A red spot grew on the breast of Hansen’s shirt; now he leaned as if to pick up something, but instead, slid forward on his face. Vic stepped to him and stirred the body with his toe; it wobbled, limp.
Chapter V. The Fight
There were three spots of white in the dim saloon, the faces of Stewart, Lorrimer, and old Lew Perkins, and at the feet of Vic grew a spot of red. Knowing with calm surety that no hand would lift against him even if he turned his back, he walked out the door without a word and swung into the saddle. There, for an instant, he calculated chances, for the street stretched empty before and behind with not a sound of warning stirring in the saloon. He was greatly tempted to ride to Dug Pym’s for his blanket roll and a few other traveling necessities, but he remembered that the men of Alder rose to action with astonishing speed; within five minutes a group of hard riders would be clattering up his trail with Pete Glass at their head. An unlucky Providence had sent Pete to Alder on this day of all days. There stood his redoubtable dusty roan at the hitching rack, her head low, one ear back and one flopped forward, her under lip pendulous–in a pasture full of horses one might pick her last either for stout heart or speed. Even in spite of her history Vic would have engaged Grey Molly to beat the roan at equal weights, but since he outbulked the sheriff full forty pounds, he weighed in nice balance the necessity of shooting the roan before he left Alder. It was, he decided, unpleasant but vital, and his fingers had already slid around the butt of his gun when a horse whinnied far off and the roan twitched up her head to listen. She was no longer a cloddish lump of horseflesh, but an individual, a soul; Gregg’s hand fell from his gun. Cursing his sentimental weakness, he lifted Molly into a canter down the street. Still no signs of awakening behind him or about; only little Jack Sweeney playing tag with a black-and-tan puppy, the triumphant cackle of a hen somewhere to the left; but as he neared the end of the street, where the trail swung into the rocks of the slope, a door banged far off and a voice was screaming: “Pete! Pete Glass!”
Grey Molly switched her tail nervously at the shout, but Vic was too wise to let her waste strength hurrying up so sharp a declivity; that dusty roan whose life he had spared would be spending it prodigally to overtake him before long and Molly’s power must be husbanded. So he kept her at a quick walk by pressing the calf of one leg into her flank and turned in the saddle to watch the town sink behind him. Sometime in the vague, stupid past Marne had jog-trotted down this slope, but now he was a new man with an eye which saw all things and a gun which could not fail. Figures, singularly tiny and singularly distinct, swarmed into the street from nowhere, men on horses, men swinging into saddles; here and there the slant light of the afternoon twinkled on gun barrels, and ludicrous thin voices came piping up the hill. As he reached the nether lip of Murphy’s Pass a small cavalcade detached itself from the main mass before Captain Lorrimer’s saloon and swept down the street, first a dusty figure on a dusty horse, hardly visible; then a spot of red which must be Harry Fisher on his blood-bay, with a long-striding sorrel beside him that could carry no one except grim old Sliver Waldron. Behind these rode one with the light glinting on his silver conchos–Mat Henshaw, the town Beau Brummel– then the black Guss Reeve, and last of all “Ronicky” Joe on his pinto; “Ronicky” Joe, handy man at all things, and particularly guns. It showed how fast Pete Glass could work and how well he knew Alder, for Vic himself could not have selected five cooler fighters among the villagers or five finer mounts. The posse switched around the end of the street and darted up the hill like the curling lash of a whip.
“Good,” said Vic Gregg. “The damn fools will wind their horses before they hit the pass.”
He put Grey Molly into an easy trot, for the floor of the pass dipped up and down, littered with sharp-toothed rocks or treacherous, rolling ones, as bad a place for speed as a stiff upslope. According to his nicest calculation the posse could not reach the edge of the gulch before he was at the farther side, out of range of everything except a long chance shot, so he took note of things as he went and observed a spot of pale silver skirting through the brush on the eastern ridge of the gorge. There would be moonlight that night and another chance in favor of Pete Glass. He remembered then, with quiet content, that jogging in the holster was a power which with six words might stop those six pursuers.
A long halloo came barking down the pass, now drawling out, now cut away to silence as the angling cliffs sent on the echo, and Vic loosened the rein. Grey Molly swung out with a snort of relief to a free-swinging gallop and they swept down a great, gentle slope where new grass padded the fall of her hoofs, yet even then he kept the mare checked and held her in touch with an easily playing wrist. He did not imagine that even the sheriff on the dusty roan would dream of trying to swallow up Grey Molly in a short sprint but that assurance nearly cost Vic his life. The roar of hoofs in the gulch belched out into the comparative silence of the open space beyond and just as he gave the mare her head a gun coughed and an angry humming darted past his ear.
Molly lengthened into full speed. He could not tell on account of the muffling grass whether the pursuit was gaining or losing. He trusted blindly to the mare and when he looked back they were already pulling their mounts down to a hand gallop. That would teach them to match Molly in a sprint, roan or no roan!
He slapped her below the withers, where the long, hard muscles rippled back and forth. She was full of running, her gallop as light as the toss of a bough in the wind, and now as he pulled her back to a swinging canter her head went high, with pricking ears. Suddenly his heart went out to her; she would run like that till she died, he knew.
“Good girl,” he whispered huskily.
The day was paling towards the end when he headed into the foothills of the White Mountains. He drew up Molly for a breath on a level shoulder. Already he was close to the snow line with ragged heads of white rearing above him. Far below, a pale streak of moonlight was the Asper. Then, out of that blacker night on the slopes beneath, he heard the clinking hoofs of the posse; the quiet was so perfect, the air so clear, that he even caught the chorus of straining saddle leather and then voices of men. All this time the effects of the whisky had been wearing away by imperceptible degrees and at that sound all his old self rushed back on Vic Gregg. Why, they were his friends, his partners, these voices in the night, and that clear laughter floated up from Harry Fisher who had been his bunkie at the Circle V Bar ranch three years ago. He felt an insane impulse to lean over the edge of the cliff and shout a greeting.
Chapter VI. The Rifle
Dawn found him over the first crest; at noon he was struggling up the slope of the second range, whose rise was not half so sharp as the upward plunge out of the Asper, but in spite of that easier ground Grey Molly could not gain. She went with shorter steps, now, and her head hung lower and lower, yet when a down stretch opened before her she went at it with a gallop as light, almost, as her race out of Murphy’s Pass. Not once had she offered to stop; not once had she winced from the labor of some sharp up-pitch; but still six horsemen hung behind her, and at their head rode a little dusty man on a little dusty roan. It was the lack of training as well as the rough going which held Molly back.
Beyond that second range, however, the down slope stretched smoothly, evenly, for mile on mile and mile on mile; perfect going for Grey Molly over easy hills with patches of forest here and there where he might double, or where he might stop with the hunt sweeping past. All this the sheriff must have known perfectly well, for he no longer kept back with his pack of five, but skirted on ahead, hunting alone. Again and again Vic heard the little shrill whistle with which Pete Glass encouraged the roan. Vic used the spurs twice, and then he desisted from the useless brutality for Molly was doing her best and no power on earth could make her do more. After all, her best would be good enough, for now Vic looked up and his heart leaped into his throat; there was only one more rise above him, and beyond lay the easy ground and a running chance for Molly’s slender legs. Even as he raised his head something whined evilly over him, followed by a sound like two heavy hammers swung together, face to face, and shattered by the stroke. A rifle!
He looked back, saw the roan standing broadside towards him, watched the sun waver and then flash in a straight steady line along the barrel of the sheriff’s gun. The line of light jerked up, and before the sound reached him a blow on his right shoulder sent Vic lurching forward against the pommel. Afterwards the voice of the rifle rang around him and a sharp pain twitched up and down his side, then ran tingling to his fingertips.
It was the stunning blow which saved him, for the sheriff had the range and his third bullet would have clipped Vic between the shoulders, but Glass had seen his quarry pitch forward in the saddle and he would not waste ammunition. The thrift of his New England ancestry spoke in Pete now and then and he could only grit his teeth when he saw Vic, disappearing on the other side of the crest, straighten in the saddle; the next instant the top of the hill shielded the fugitive.
Well and nobly, then, Grey Molly repaid all the praise, all the tenderness and care which Vic had lavished upon her in the past years, for with her legs shaking from the struggle of that last climb, with a rider who wobbled crazily in his seat, with reins hanging loose on her neck, with not even a voice to guide or to encourage her, she swept straight across the falling ground, gaining strength and courage at every stride. By the time Vic had regained his self-control and rallied a little from that first terrible falling of the heart, the dusty roan was over the crest and streaking after the game. Grey Molly gained steadily, yet even when he gathered the reins in his left hand Vic knew that the fight was done, in effect. How could he double or dodge when his own blood spotted the trail he kept, and how long could he keep the saddle with the agony which tore like saw teeth at his shoulder?
Grey Molly plunged straight into the shadow of pine trees, and the cool gloom fell like a blessing upon Vic in his torment; it was heaven to be sheltered even for a few moments from the eyes of the posse. At the opposite edge of the wood he drew rein with a groan. Some devil had prompted Gus Reeve and some devil had poured Reeve’s horse full of strength, for yonder down the valley, not a hundred yards away, galloped a rider on a black horse; yet Vic could have sworn that when he looked back from the crest he had seen Gus riding the very last in the posse. An instant later the illusion vanished, for the black horse of Gus was never an animal such as this, never had this marvelous, long gait. Its feet flicked the earth and shot it along with a reaching stride so easy, so flowing that only the fluttered mane and the tail stretching straight behind gave token of the speed. For the rest, it carried its head high, with pricking ears, the sure sign of a horse running well within his strength, yet Grey Molly, fresh and keen for racing, could hardly have kept pace with the black as it slid over the hills. God in heaven, if such a horse were his a thousand sheriffs on a thousand dusty roans could never take him; five minutes would sweep him out of sight and reach.
Before the horseman ran a tall dog, wolfish in head and wolfish in the gait which carried it like a cloud shadow over the ground, but it was over-large for any wolf Vic had ever seen. It turned its head now, and leaped aside at sight of the stranger, but the rider veered from his course and swept down on Vic. He came to a halt close up without either a draw at the reins or a spoken word, probably controlling his mount with pressure of the knees, and Gregg found himself facing a delicately handsome fellow. He was neither cowpuncher nor miner, Vic knew at a glance, for that face had never been haggard with labor. A tenderfoot, probably, in spite of his dress, and Vic felt that if his right arm were sound he could take that horse at the point of his gun and leave the rider thanking God that his life had been spared; but his left hand was useless on the butt of a revolver, and three minutes away came the posse, racing. There was only time for one desperate appeal.
“Stranger,” he burst out, “I’m follered. I got to have your hoss. Take this one in exchange; it’s the best I ever threw a leg over. Here’s two hundred bucks–” he flung his wallet on the ground and swung himself out of the saddle.
The wolfish dog, which had growled softly all this time and roughed up the hair of its neck, now slunk forward on its belly.
“Heel, Bart!” commanded the stranger sharply, and the dog whipped about and stood away, whining with eagerness.
The moment Gregg’s feet struck the ground his legs buckled like saplings in a wind for the long ride had sapped his strength, and the flow of blood told rapidly on him now. The hills and trees whirled around him until a lean, strong hand caught him under either armpit. The stranger stood close.
“You could have my hoss if you could ride him,” said he. His voice was singularly unhurried and gentle. “But you’d drop out of the saddle in ten minutes. Who’s after you?”
A voice shouted far off beyond the wood; another voice answered, nearer, and the whole soul of Gregg turned to the stallion. Grey Molly was blown, she stood now with hanging head and her flanks sunk in alarmingly at every breath, but even fresh from the pasture she was not a rag, not a straw compared to the black.
“For God’s sake,” groaned Vic, “loan me your hoss!”
“You couldn’t stick the saddle. Come in here out of sight; I’m going to take ’em off your trail.”
While he spoke, he led, half carried Vic, into a thicket of shrubs with a small open space at the center. The black and the wolf-dog followed and now the stranger pulled at the bridle rein. The stallion kneeled like a trained dog, and lying thus the shrubbery was high enough to hide him. Closer, sweeping through the wood, Vic heard the crash of the pursuit, yet the other was maddeningly slow of speech.
“You stay here, partner, and sit over there. I’m borrowin’ your gun”–a swift hand appropriated it from Vic’s holster and his own fingers were too paralyzed to resist–“and don’t you try to ride my hoss unless you want them teeth in your throat. Lie quiet and tie up your hurt. Bart, watch him!”
And there sat Gregg where he had slipped down in his daze of weakness with the great dog crouched at his feet and snarling ominously every time he raised his hand. The voices came closer; the crashing burst on his very ears, and now, through the interstices of the shrubbery he saw the stranger swing into the saddle on Grey Molly and urge her to a gallop. He could follow them for only an instant with his eyes, but it seemed to Vic that Molly cantered under her new rider with strange ease and lightness. It was partly the rest, no doubt, and partly the smaller burden.
A deep beat of racing hoofs, and then the dusty roan shot out of the trees close by with the sheriff leaning forward, jockeying his horse. It seemed that no living thing could escape from that relentless rider. Then right behind Vic a horse snorted and grunted–as it leaped a fallen log, perhaps–and he watched in alarm to see if the stallion would answer that sound with start or whinney. The black lay perfectly still, and instead of lifting up to answer or to look, the head lowered with ears flat back until the long, outstretched neck gave the animal a snaky appearance. The dog, too, though it showed murderous fangs whenever Vic moved, did not stir from his place, but lay flattening into the ground.
“Cut to the right! Cut to the right, Harry!” came the voice of the sheriff, already piping from the distance as the last of the posse brushed out from the trees. “Yo hoi! Gus, take the left arroyo!”
Two answering yells, and then the rush of hoofs fell away. They were cornering the stranger, no doubt, and Vic struggled to lift himself to his feet and watch until a faint sound from the dog made him look down. Bart lay with his haunches drawn up under him, his forepaws digging into the soft loam, his eyes demoniac. Instinctively Vic reached for his absent gun, and then, despairing, relaxed to his former position. The wolf-dog lowered his head to his paws and there remained with the eyes following each intake of Gregg’s breath. A rattle of gunshots flung back loosely from the hills, and among them Vic winced at the sound of the sheriff’s rifle, clear and ringing over the bark of the revolvers.
Had they nailed the stranger? The firing recommenced, more faintly and prolonged, so that it was plain the posse maintained a running fusilade after the fugitive. After that fear of his own growing weakness shut out all else from the mind of Gregg as he felt his senses, his physical strength, flowing out like an ebb tide to a sea which, he knew, was death. He began to work desperately to bind up the wound and stop the flow of blood and it was fear which gave him momentary strength to tear away his shirt and then with his teeth and left hand rip it into strips. After that, heedless of the pain, he constructed a rude bandage, very clumsily, for he had to work over his shoulder. Here his teeth, once more, were almost as useful as another hand, and as the bandage grew tight the deadly, warm trickle along his side lessened and his fingers fell away from the last knot. He fainted.
Chapter VII. Joan Disobeys
What he next knew was a fire of agony that wrapped his whole body and consciousness flashed back on him. Strong arms lifted him up, up; above him he sensed the eyes of his torturer, dim in moonlight, and he beat his clubbed left fist into that face. After that he knew he was being dragged onto a saddle, but a wave of pain rushed up his side and numbed his brain. Thereafter his senses returned by fits and starts, vaguely. Once he felt a steel cable that girdled his waist and breast and held him erect, though his head flopped back and forth; once his eyes opened and above him glittered the bright field of stars towards which he drifted through space, a mind without a body; once a stab of torment wakened him enough to hear: “Easy Satan; watch them stones. One more jolt like that will send him clear to–” And the voice glided into an eternity of distance. Yet again he swung tip from the pit of darkness and became aware of golden hair around a woman’s face, and a marvelous soft, cool hand upon his forehead. Her voice reached him, too, and made him think of all things musical, all things distant, like the sounds of birds falling from the sky and though he understood not a syllable, a sweet assurance of safety flooded through him. He slept.
When he woke again, it was from a dream of fleeing through empty air swifter than the wind with a wolf-dog looming behind him out of space, but presently he found that he was lying in a bed with a stream of sunlight washing across a white coverlet. A door at his right swung open and there in the entrance stood the wolf-dog of his vision with a five-year-old girl upon its back.
“Don’t go in there, Bart!” whispered the child. “Go on back!”
She took one of those pointed wolf-ears in her chubby fist and tugged to swing him around, but Bart, with a speed which the eye could not follow, twisted his head and the rows of great teeth closed over her hand. It was so horrible that the cry froze in the throat of Gregg, yet the child, with only a little murmur of anger, reached over with her other hand and caught the wolf by the nose.
“Bad Bart!” she whispered, and raised the hand which he instantly released. White marks showed on the pudgy tan. “Bad dog!” she repeated, and beat his neck with an impotent little fist. The wolf-dog cringed, and turned from the door.
“Come in,” invited Gregg. He was surprised to find his voice thin, apt to swing up to a high pitch beyond his control. A shower of golden curls tossed away from her face as she looked to him. “Oh!” she cried, still with a guarded voice. She leaned far over, one hand buried in the ruff of Bart’s neck to secure her balance, and with the other she laid hold of his right ear and drew him around facing the door once more. This time he showed his teeth but submitted, only twitching the ear back and forth a time or two when she relaxed her hold.
“Come in,” repeated Gregg.
She canted her head to one side and considered him with fearless blue eyes.
“I want to,” she sighed.
“Why can’t you, honey?”
“Munner says no.”
He attempted to turn further towards her, but the pain in his right shoulder prevented. He found that his arm was bandaged to the elbow and held close to his side by a complex swathing.
“Who is your mother?” asked Vic.
“Munner?” she repeated, frowning in wonder. “Why, munner is–my munner.”
“Oh,” smiled he, “and who’s your pa?”
“Who’s your father? Who’s your dad?”
“Daddy Dan. You ask a lot of things,” she added, disapprovingly.
“Come on in,” pleaded Vic Gregg, “and I won’t ask nothin’ more about you.”
“Munner says no,” she repeated.
She employed the moment of indecision by plucking at the hair of Bart’s shoulders; he growled softly, terribly, but she paid not the slightest heed.
“Your mother won’t care,” asserted Vic.
“I know,” she nodded, “but Daddy will.”
She looked blankly at him.
“What will he do, then, if you come in to see me?”
“He’ll look at me.” She grew breathless at the thought, and cast a guilty glance over her shoulder.
“Honey,” chuckled Gregg, weakly, “I’ll take all the blame. Just you come along in and he’ll do his lookin’ at me.”
He thought of the slender fellow who had rescued him and his large, gentle brown eyes, but to a child even those mild eyes might seem terrible with authority.
“Will you, true?” said the child, wistfully.
“Honest and true.”
“All right.” She made up her mind instantly, her face shining with excitement. “Giddap, Bart.” And she thumped the wolf-dog vigorously with her heels.
He carried her in with a few gliding steps, soundless, except for the light rattle of claws on the floor, but he stopped well out of reach of the bed and when Vic held his left hand as far as he could across his chest, Bart winced and gave harsh warning. Vic had seen vicious dogs in his day, seen them fighting, seen them playing, but he had never heard one of them growl like this. The upper lips of the animal twitched dangerously back and the sound came from the very depths of his body. It made the flesh crawl along Vic’s back; one rip of those great teeth could tear a man’s throat open. The child thudded her heels against the ribs of Bart again.
“Giddap!” she cried.
The wolf-dog shuddered but would not budge an inch.
“Naughty Bart!” She slipped off to the floor. “I’ll make him come,” she said.
“If it’s the same to you,” said Vic, rather hastily, “I’d just as soon he stayed where he is.”
“He’s got to do what I want,” she answered. She shook a tiny forefinger at him. “Bart, you just come here!”
The dog turned his blazing eyes on her and replied with a growl that shook his sides.
“Stop!” she ordered, and struck him sharply on the nose. He blinked and lowered his head under the blow, but though the snarling stopped his teeth flashed. She caught him by both jowls and tugged him forward.
“Let him be!” urged Vic.
“He’s got to come!”
And come he did, step by halting step, while she hauled him, and now the snarling hoarse intakes of breath filled the room. Once she moved a little to one side and Vic caught the glint of two eyes, red-stained, which were fixed undeviatingly upon her face. Mixed with Vic’s alarm at the great fighting beast was a peculiar uneasiness, for there was something uncanny in the determination, the fearlessness of this infant. When she stepped away the wolf-dog stood trembling visibly but his eyes were still not upon the man he hated or feared to approach but upon the child’s face.
“Can you pat him now?” she asked, not for an instant turning to Gregg.
“No, but it’s close enough,” he assured her. “I don’t want him any closer.”
“He’s got to come.” She stamped. “Bart, you come here!”
He flinched forward, an inch. “Bart!” Her hands were clenched and her little body quivered with resolution; the snake-like head came to the very edge of the bed.
“Now pat him!” she commanded.
By very unpleasant degrees, Vic stretched his hand towards that growling menace.
“He’ll take my arm off,” he complained. Shame kept him from utterly refusing the risk.
“He won’t bite you one bit,” declared the child. “But I’ll hold his nose if you’re afraid.” And instantly she clasped the pointed muzzle between her hands.
Even when Vic’s hand hovered above his head Bart had no eye for him, could not divert his gaze from the face of the child. Once, twice and again, delicately as one might handle bubbles, Gregg touched that scarred forehead.
“I made him come, didn’t I?” she cried in triumph, and turned a tense little face towards Vic, but the instant her eyes moved the wolf-dog leaped away half the width of the room, and stood shivering, more devilish than ever. She stamped again.
“Bad, bad, bad Bart,” she said angrily. “Shall I make him come again?”
“Leave him be,” muttered Vic, closing his eyes. “Leave him be where he is. I don’t want him.”
“Oh,” she said, “it’s hard to make him do things, sometimes. But Daddy Dan can make him do anything.”
“Humph!” grunted Vic. He was remembering how, at the master’s order, Bart had crouched at his feet in the wood, an unchained murderer hungrily waiting for an excuse to kill. There was something very odd about the people of this house; and it would be a long time before he rid himself of the impression of the cold, steady eyes which had flashed up to him a moment before out of that baby face.
“Joan!” called a voice from beyond, and the soft fiber of it made Vic certain that it belonged to the rider of the black stallion. The little girl ran a step towards the door, and then stopped and shrank back against the bed.
“If you’re afraid your Dad’ll find you here,” said Vic, “just you run along.”
She was nervously twisting her hands in her dress.
“Daddy Dan’ll know,” she whispered without turning. “And–and–he won’t let me be afraid—even of him!”
A small hand slipped up, fumbled a bit, found the thumb of Vic Gregg, and closed softly over it. With this to steady her, she waited, facing the door.
Chapter VIII. Discipline
A light step crossed the outer room, with something peculiar in its lightness, as if the heel were not touching the floor, with the effect of the padded fall of the feet of some great cat; there was both softness and the sense of weight. First the wolf-dog pricked his ears and turned towards the door, the pudgy fist closed convulsively over Vic’s thumb, and then his rescuer stood in the entrance.
“Hello, partner,” called Vic. “I got company, you see. The door blew open and I asked your little girl in.”
“I told you not to come here,” said the other. Vic felt the child tremble, but there was no burst of excuses.
“She didn’t want to come,” he urged. “But I kep’ on askin’ her.”
The emotionless eye of “Daddy Dan” held upon Joan. “I told you not to come,” he said. Joan swallowed in mute agony, and the wolf-dog slipped to the side of the master and licked his hand as though in dumb intercession. The blood ran coldly in the veins of Gregg, as if he saw a fist raised to strike the little girl.
“You go out.”
She went swiftly, at that, sidled past her father with her eyes lifted, fascinated, and so out the door where she paused an instant to flash back a wistful appeal. Nothing but silence, and then her feet pattering off into the outer room.
“Maybe you better go keep her company, Bart,” said the father, and at this sign of relenting Vic felt his tensed muscles relaxing; the wolf whined softly and glided through the door.
“You feeling better?”
“Like a hoss off green feed. I been lyin’ here drinkin’ up the sunshine.”
The other stood beside the open window and there he canted his head, his glance far off and intent.
“D’you hear?” he asked, turning sharply.
There was a fierce eagerness in his face.
“It’s spring,” he murmured, without answering more directly than this, and Vic felt that the other had changed again, grown understandable. Nevertheless, the shock of that sudden alteration at the window kept him watching his host with breathless interest. Whatever it was that the strange fellow heard, a light had gleamed in his eyes for a moment. As he sauntered back towards the bed just a trace of it lingered about him, a hint of sternness.
“Spring?” answered Gregg. “Yep, I smelled spring a few days back and I started out to find some action. You can see for yourself that I found it, partner.” He stirred, uneasily, but it was necessary that the story should be told lest it reach the ears of this man from another source. It was one thing to shelter a fugitive from justice whose crime was unknown, perhaps trifling, but it might be quite another story if this gentle, singular man learned that his guest was a new-made murderer. Better that he should learn the tale now and form his prejudices in favor of Gregg. “I’ll tell you the whole story,” he began.
But the other shrugged his shoulders.
“You leave the story be,” he said, and there was something in the quiet firmness of his manner which made it impossible for Vic to continue. “You’re here and you’re hurt and you need a pile of rest. That’s about enough story for me.”
Vic put himself swiftly in the place of the other. Suppose that he and Betty Neal should have a cabin off in the mountains like this, how would they receive a wounded fugitive from justice? As unquestioningly as this? In a surge of gratitude he looked mistily towards his host.
“Stranger,” he said, “you’re white. Damned white. That’s all. My name’s Vic Gregg and I come from–“
“Thanks,” cut in the other. “I’m glad to know your name but in case anybody might be askin’ me I wouldn’t care to know where you come from.” He smiled. “I’m Dan Barry.”
It had to be a left-handed shake on the part of Vic, a thing of which he often thought in the days that followed, but now he sent his memory hunting.
“Seems like I’ve heard your name before,” he murmured. “I dunno where. Were you ever around Alder, Barry?”
“No.” His manner suggested that the topic might as well be closed. He reached over and dropped his hand lightly on the forehead of Vic. A tingling current flowed from it into the brain of the wounded man. “Your blood’s still a bit hot,” he added. “Lie quiet and don’t even think. You’re safe here. They ain’t a thing goin’ to get at you. Not a thing. You’ll stay till you get ready to leave. S’long. I’ll see that you get something to eat.”
He went out with that unusual, padding step which Vic had noticed before and closed the door softly behind him. In spite of that barrier Gregg could hear the noises from the next room quite clearly, as some one brought in wood and dropped it on a stone hearth, rattling. He fell into a pleasant doze, just stretching his body now and then to enjoy the coolness of the sheets, the delicious sense of being cared for and the returning strength in his muscles. Through that haze he heard voices, presently, which called him back to wakefulness.
“That ought to be good for him. Take it in, Kate.”
“I shall. Dan, what has Joan done?”
“She went in there. I told her to leave him alone.”
“But she says he asked her to come in–said he would take the blame.”
“I told her not to go.”
“Poor baby! She’s outside, now, weeping her eyes out on Bart’s shoulder and he’s trying to comfort her.”
It was purer English than Vic was accustomed to hear even from his schoolmistress, but more than the words, the voice surprised him, the low, controlled voice of a woman of gentle blood. He turned his head and looked out the window, baffled. Far above, shooting out of sight, went the slope of a mountain, a cliff shining in the slant sun of the afternoon here, a tumbled slide of rocks and debris there, and over the shoulder of this mountain he saw white-headed monsters stepping back in range beyond range. Why should a girl of refinement choose the isolation of such a place as this for her home? It was not the only strange thing about this household, however, and he would dismiss conjectures until he was once more on his feet.
She was saying: “Won’t you speak to her now?”
A little pause. Then: “No, not until evenin’.”
“She’s got to learn.”
A little exclamation of unhappiness and then the door moved open; Vic found himself looking up to the face with the golden hair which he remembered out of his nightmare. She nodded to him cheerily.
“I’m so happy that you’re better,” she said. “Dan says that the fever is nearly gone.” She rested a large tray she carried on the foot of the bed and Vic discovered, to his great content, that it was not hard to meet her eyes. Usually girls embarrassed him, but he recognized so much of Joan in the features of the mother that he felt well acquainted at once. Motherhood, surely, sat as lightly on her shoulders as fatherhood did on Dan Barry, yet he felt a great pity as he looked at her, this flowerlike beauty lost in the rocks and snow with only one man near her. She was like music played without an audience except senseless things.
“Yep, I’m a lot better,” he answered, “but it sure makes me terrible sorry, ma’am, that I got your little girl in trouble. Mostly, it was my fault.”
She waved away all need of apology.
“Don’t think an instant about that, Mr. Gregg. Joan needs a great deal of disciplining.” She laughed a little. “She has so much of her father in her, you see. Now, are you strong enough to lift yourself higher in the pillows?”
They managed it between them, for he was weaker than he thought and when he was padded into position with cushions she laid the tray across his knees. His head swam at sight of it. Forty-eight hours of fasting had sharpened his appetite, and the loaded tray whetted a razor edge, for a great bowl of broth steamed forth an exquisite fragrance on one side and beside it she lifted a napkin to let him peek at a slice of venison steak. Then there was butter, yellow as the gold for which he had been digging all winter, and real cream for his coffee–a whole pitcher of it–and snowy bread. Best of all, she did not stay to embarrass him with her watching while he ate, since above all things in the world a hungry man hates observation when the board is spread.
Afterwards, consuming sleep rippled over him from his feet to his eyes to his brain. He partially roused when the tray was removed, and the pillows slipped from under his back, but with a vague understanding that expert hands were setting the bed in order his senses fled once more.
Hours and hours later he opened his eyes in utter darkness with a thin, sweet voice still ringing in his ears. He could not place himself until he turned his head and saw a meager, broken, rectangular line of light which was the door, and immediately afterwards the voice cried: “Oh, Daddy Dan! And what did the wolf do then?”
“I’m comin’ to that, Joan, but don’t you talk about wolves so loud or old Black Bart’ll think you’re talkin’ about him. See him lookin’ at you now?”
“But please go on. I won’t say one little word.”
The man’s voice began again, softly, so that not a word was audible to Gregg; he heard the crackle of burning logs upon the hearth; saw the rectangle of light flicker; caught a faint scent of wood smoke, and then he slept once more.
Chapter IX. The Long Arm Of The Law
From the first the wound healed rapidly, for Vic’s blood was perfectly pure, the mountain air a tonic which strengthened him, and his food and care of the best. The high-powered rifle bullet whipped cleanly through his shoulder, breaking no bone and tearing no ligament, and the flesh closed swiftly. Even Vic’s mind carried no burden to oppress him in care for the future or regret for the past, for if he occasionally remembered the limp body of Hansen on the floor of Captain Lorrimer’s saloon he could shrug the picture into oblivion. It had been fair fight, man to man, with all the odds in favor of Blondy, who had been allowed to pull his gun first. If Vic thought about the future at all, it was with a blind confidence that some time and in some unrevealed way he would get back to Alder and marry Betty Neal. In the meantime, as the days of the spring went mildly by, he was up and about and very soon there was only a little stiffness in his right arm to remind him of Pete Glass and the dusty roan.
He spent most of his time close to the cabin, for though he had forgotten the world there was no decisive proof that the world would forget him half so easily; that was not the way of the sheriff. He had been known to spend years in the hunt for a single misdoer and Vic had no care to wander out where he might be seen. Besides, it was very pleasant about the cabin. The house itself was built solidly, roomily, out of logs hewn on the timbered slopes above and dragged down to this little plateau. Three mountains, to the north, south and west, rolled back and up, cutting away the sunlight in the early afternoon, but at this point the quick slopes put out shoulders and made, among them, a comfortable bit of rolling ground, deep soiled and fertile. Here, so Kate Barry assured him, the wild flowers came even earlier than they did in the valley so far below them, and to be sure when Vic first walked from the house he found the meadow aflame with color except for the space covered by the truck-garden and the corral. In that enclosure he found Grey Molly fenced away from the black with several other horses of commoner blood, for the stallion, he learned, recognized no fraternity of horseflesh, but killed what he could reach. Grey Molly was quite recovered from her long run, and she greeted him in her familiar way, with ears flattened viciously.
He might have stayed on here quite happily for any space of time, but more and more Vic felt that he was an intruder; he sensed it, rather than received a hint of word or eye. In the first place the three were complete in themselves, a triangle of happiness without need of another member for variety or interest. It was plain at a glance that the girl was whole-heartedly happy, and whatever incongruity lay between her and these rough mountains he began to understand that her love for Barry and the child made ample amends. As for the other two, he always thought of them in the same instant, for if the child had her eyes and her hair from her mother, she had her nature from the man. They were together constantly, on walks up the mountain, when she rode Black Bart up the steep places: on dips into the valley, when he carried her before him on the stallion. She had the same soft voice, the same quick, furtive ways, the same soundless laughter, at times; and when Barry sat in the evening, as he often did for hours, staring at empty air, she would climb on his knee, place his unresisting arm around her, and she looking up into his face, sharing his silences. Sometimes Vic wondered if the young mother were not troubled, made a little jealous by this perfect companionship, but he never found a trace of it. It was she, finally, who made him determine to leave as soon as his shoulder muscles moved with perfect freedom, for as the days slipped past he felt that she grew more and more uneasy, and her eyes had a way of going from him to her husband as though she believed their guest a constant danger to Barry. Indeed, to some small extent he was a danger, for the law might deal hardly with a man who took a fugitive out of the very grip of its hand.
By a rather ironical chance, on the very morning when he decided that he must start his journey the next day but one, Vic learned that he must not linger even so long as that. Pete Glass and the law had not forgotten him, indeed, nearly so well as he had forgotten the law and Pete Glass, for as he sat in his room filling a pipe after breakfast the voice of Barry called him out, and he found his host among the rocks which rimmed the southern end of the plateau, in front of the house. To the north the ground fell away smoothly, rolled down to the side of the mountain, and then dipped easily to the valley–the only direction from which the cabin was accessible, though here the grade was possible for a buckboard. To the south the plateau ended in a drop that angled sharply down, almost a cliff in places, and from this point of vantage the eye carried nameless miles down the river.
“Are them friends of yours?” asked Dan Barry, as he stood among those rocks. “Take a long look.” And he handed a strong pair of field glasses to Gregg.
The latter peered over the dizzy edge. Down there, in the very act of fording the river to get to their side of it, he marked five horsemen–no, six, for he almost missed the leader of the troop, a dusty figure which melted into the background. All the terror of the first flight rushed back on Vic. He stood palsied, not in fear of that posse but at the very thought of pursuit.
“There’s only one way,” he stammered at length. “I’ll–Dan, give me a hand to get a saddle on Grey Molly and I’ll laugh at ’em yet. Damn ’em!”
“What you goin’ to do?” It was the same unhurried voice which had spoken to Vic on the day of the rescue and it irritated him in the same manner now. Kate had come running from the house with her apron fluttering.
“I’m going down that slope to the north,” said Vic, “and I’ll get by ’em hell-bent-for-election. Once I show my heels to that lot they’re done!”
He talked as much to restore his courage as from, confidence, for if the posse sighted him going down that slope on the gray it would take a super-horseman and a super-horse to escape before they closed the gap. Barry considered the situation with a new gleam in his eye.
“Wait a minute,” he said, as Vic started towards the corral. “That way you got planned is a good way–to die. You listen to me.”
But here Kate broke in on them. “Dan, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to take the gray and go down the slope. I’m going to lead ’em off Vic’s trail,” said Barry quietly, but it seemed to Vic that he avoided his wife’s eye.
The voice of Betty Neal, Vic knew, would have risen shrill at a time like this. Kate spoke even more low than usual, but there was a thing in her voice that struck a tremor through Gregg. “If it’s death for him, what is it for you?”
“Nothing at all. If they see me and head for me before the way’s clear, I’ll let ’em come up and see they have the wrong man. If I get the chance, I’ll lead ’em away. And Vic, you’ll hit between those two mountains–see ’em?–and cut across country. No hoss could carry you there, except Satan, and you couldn’t ride him. You’ll have to go on foot but they’ll never look for you on that side. When you get to the easygoin’, down in the valley, buy a hoss and hit for the railroad.”
Kate turned on Vic, trembling. “Are you going to let him do it?” she asked. “Are you going to let him do it, again?”
He had seen a certain promise of escape held before him the moment before, but pride made him throw that certainty away.
“Not in a million years,” he answered.”
“You’ll do what I say, and you’ll start now. I got a better idea than that. If you head just over the side of that north mountain you’ll find a path that a hoss can follow. It won’t take you clear away from them down below, but there ain’t a chance in ten that they’ll come that way. Take my old brown hoss with the white face. He’ll carry you safe.”
Vic hesitated. The fierce eyes of Kate were on him and with all his soul he wanted to play the man, but liberty was sweet, sweeter than ever to Vic. She seemed to give him up as he stood there with his heart, in his throat; she turned back to Barry.
“Dan!” she pleaded.
She had not touched him, but he made a vague gesture as though brushing away a restraining hand. She cried: “If you come close to them–if, they start shooting–you might want to fight back–“
“They shot before,” he answered, “and I didn’t fire once.”
“But the second time?”
To be sure, there would be danger in it, but as Barry himself had said, if the way was closed to him he could surrender to them, and they could not harm him. Vic tried in vain to understand this overmastering terror in the girl, for she seemed more afraid of what Dan might do to the posse than what the posse might do to Dan.
“This ain’t a day for fightin’,” said Dan, and he waved towards the mountains. It was one of those misty spring days when the sun raises a vapor from the earth and the clouds blow low around the upper peaks; every ravine was poured full of blue shadow, and even high up the slopes, where patches of snow had melted, grass glimmered, a tender green among the white. “This ain’t a day for fighting,” he repeated.
A shrill, quavering neigh, like the whinney of a galloping horse, rang from beyond the house, and Vic saw the black stallion racing up and down his corral. Back and forth he wove, then raced straight for the bars, flashed above them, and stood free beyond, with the sunshine trembling on him. He seemed to pause, wondering what to do with his new freedom, then he came at a loose gallop for the master. Not Satan alone, for now Black Bart slid across the plateau like a shadow, weaving among the boulders, and came straight towards Barry. Vic himself felt a change, a sort of uneasy happiness; he breathed it with the air. The very sunlight was electric. He saw Kate run close to Barry.
“If you go this time, you’ll never come back, Dan!”
The black stallion swung up beside them, and as he halted his hoofs knocked a rattling spray of pebbles ahead. On the other side of the woman and the man the wolf-dog ran uneasily here and there, trying to watch the face of the master which Kate obscured.
“I ain’t goin’ far. I just want to get a hoss runnin’ under me enough to cut a wind.”
“Even Satan and Bart feel what I feel. They came without being called. They never do that unless there’s danger ahead. What can I do to convince you? Dan, you’ll drive me mad!”
He made no answer, and if the girl wished him to stay now seemed the time for persuasion; but she gave up the argument suddenly. She turned away, and Vic saw in her face the same desperate, helpless look as that of a boy who cannot swim, beyond his depth in the river. There was no sign of tears; they might come afterwards.
What had come over them? This desperation in Kate, this touch of anxiety in the very horse and the wolf-dog? Vic forgot his own danger while he stared and it seemed to him that the spark of change had come from Barry. There was something in his eyes which Vic found hard to meet.
“The moment you came I knew you brought bad luck with you!” cried Kate. “He brought you in bleeding. He saved you and came in with blood on his hands and I guessed at the end. Oh, I wish you–“
“Kate!” broke in Barry.
She dropped upon one of the stones and buried her face in her hands and Dan paid no more attention to her.
“Hurry up,” he said. “They’re across the river.”
And Vic gave up the struggle, for the tears of Kate made him think of Betty Neal and he followed Dan towards the corral. Around them the stallion ran like a hunting dog eager to be off.
Chapter X. One Trail Ends
“You can trust Grey Molly to me, Vic,” said Dan, standing at the head of the gray mare. “I’ll keep her as safe as if she was Satan.”
Gregg watched her almost sadly. He had always taken a rather childish pride in her fierceness. She knew him as a dog knows its master and he had always been the only one who could handle her readily in the saddle. But one who knew nothing of horses and their ways could see the entente which had been instantly established between Barry and Grey Molly. When he spoke her ears pricked. When he raised his hand she stretched her nose inquisitively.
There was no pitch in her when Barry swung into the saddle and that was a thing without precedent in Molly’s history. She tried none of her usual catlike side-steps and throwing of the head. Altogether, Vic was troubled even as he would have been at the sight of Betty Neal in the arms of another man. It was desertion.
“Dan,” he said, “I know what you’ve done for me and I know what you’re doin’ now.” He took the slender hand of the other in his big paw.
“If the time comes when I can pay you back, so help me God–“
“Oaths don’t do no good,” cut in Barry without a trace of emotion. He added frankly: “It ain’t altogether for your sake. Those gents down there have played tag once with me and now I’d like to play with them. Molly’s fresh today.”
He was already looking over his shoulder while he spoke; as if his mind were even then at work upon the posse.
“S’long, partner. Good luck.”
So they parted and Vic, jogging slowly up the steep path, saw Grey Molly wheeled and sent at a sweeping gallop over the meadow. His heart leaped jealously and the next moment went out in a flood of gratitude, admiration, as Barry swung off the shoulder of the mountain, waved his hat towards Kate, and dipped at once out of sight.
The shelving ground along which Barry rode sometimes was a broad surface like a spacious, graded road; again it shelved away and opened a view of all the valley. When he reached the first of these places the rider looked back and down and saw the posse skirting rapidly on his side of the river, behind him and close to the cliff. They rode at an easy lope, and he could see that their heads were bent to watch the ground. Even at this casual gait they would reach the point at which he and the gray must swing onto the floor of the valley before him unless he urged Molly to top speed. He must get there at a sufficient distance from them to escape close rifle fire, and certainly beyond point-blank revolver range. Accordingly he threw his weight more into the stirrups and over the withers of the mare. This brought greater poundage on her forehand and made her apt to stumble or actually miss her step, but it increased her running power.
There was no need of a touch of the spurs. The gathering of the reins seemed to tell Molly everything. One ear flickered back, then she leaped out at full speed. It was as though the mind of the man had sent an electric current down the reins and told her his thought. Now she floundered at her foot, struck a loose stone, now she veered sharply and wide to escape a boulder, now she cleared a gulley with a long leap, and riding high as he was, bent forward out of balance to escape observation from below. It was only a miracle of horsemanship that kept her from breaking her neck as they lurched down the pitch. Grey Molly seemed to be carrying no weight, only a clinging intelligence.
At this speed he was sure to reach the valley safely in front unless the posse caught sight of him on the way and gave chase, and Barry counted on that instinct in hunting men which makes them keep their eyes low–the same sense which leads a searcher to look first under the bed and last of all at the wall and ceiling. Once more, as he neared his goal, he looked back and down, and there came the six horsemen, their quirts swinging, their hat-brims blown straight up they raced at full speed. They had seen the gray and they rode for blood.
The outstretched neck of Grey Molly, her flattened ears, the rapid clangor of her hoofs on the rocks, seemed to indicate that she already was doing her uttermost, but after the glimpse of the pursuit, Barry crouched a little lower, his hand gathering the reins just behind her head, his voice was near her, speaking softly, quickly. She responded with a snort of effort, as though she realized the danger and willingly accepted it. One ear, as she rushed down the slope, was pricked and one flagged back to the guiding, strengthening voice of the rider.
The path wound in leisurely curves now, but there was a straight cut down a slide of gravel, a dangerous slope even in firm ground, a terrible angle with those loose pebbles underfoot. Yet this was a time for chance-taking. Already the dusty man on the roan rode with his revolver balanced for the snap shot. The next instant his gun swung down, he actually reined up in astonishment. The fugitive had flung himself far back against the cantle and sent Grey Molly at the slide. It was not a matter of running as the mare shot over the brink. Molly sat back on her haunches, braced her forelegs, and went down like an avalanche. Over the rush and roar of the pebbles, over the yell of wonder from the pursuers, she heard the voice of her rider, a clear and steady voice, and the tautened reins telegraphed to her bewildered mind the wish of the man. She struck the level with stunning force, toppled, nearly fell, and then straightened along her course in a staggering gallop. Started from its nice balance by the rush of stones they loosened, a ten-ton rock came toppling after, leaped up from the valley floor like a live thing, and then thundered away towards the river.
Grey Molly, finding her legs once more, tried the level going. She had beaten the same horses before under the crushing impost of Gregg’s weight. With this lighter rider who clung like a part of her, who gave perfectly to the rhythm of her gallop, she fairly walked away from the posse. Once, twice and again the gun spoke from the hand of Pete Glass, but it was the taking of a long last chance rather than a sign of closing on his chase. In ten minutes Grey Molly dipped out of sight among the hills.
After the first hour Barry could have cut away across country with little fear of discovery from the sheriff, but he was in no hurry to escape. Sometimes he dismounted and looked to his cinches and talked to the horse. Grey Molly listened with pricking ears and often canted her head to one side as though she strove to understand the game.
It was a new and singular pleasure to Barry. He was accustomed to the exhaustless, elastic strength of Satan, with the cunning brain of a beast of prey and the speed of an antelope. On the black horse he could have ridden circles around that posse all day. But Grey Molly was a different problem. She was not a force to be simply directed and controlled. She was something to be helped. Her very weakness, compared with the stallion, appealed to him. And it was a thrilling pleasure to feel his power over her grow until she, also, seemed to have entered the game.
A game it was, as he had said to Vic when they parted, with the rather essential difference that in this pastime one was tagged with a forty-five caliber chunk of lead and was quite apt to remain “it” for the remainder of eternity. Barry dropped further and further back towards the posse. The danger fascinated him. Once he whistled high and shrill as a hawk’s scream from the top of a bluff while the posse labored through a ravine below. He saw the guns flash out, and waited. He heard the sing of the bullets around him, and the splashing lead on a solid-rock face just beneath him; he listened till the deep echoes spoke from the gulch, then waved his hat and disappeared.
This was almost defeating the purpose of his play for if he came that close again they would probably make out that they were following a decoy. Accordingly, since he had now drawn them well away from Vic’s line of escape, he turned his back reluctantly on the posse and struck across the hills.
He kept on for the better part of an hour before he doubled and swung in a wide circle towards his cabin. He had laid out a course which the wise sheriff could follow until dark and be none the wiser; and if Pete Glass were the finest trailer who ever studied sign and would never be able to read the tokens of the return ride. Accordingly, with all this well in mind, he brought Grey Molly to a full halt and gazed around, utterly stunned by surprise, when, half way up the valley, a rifle spoke small but sharp from one side, and a bullet clipped the rocks not the length of the horse away. He understood. When he cut straightaway across the country he had indeed left a baffling trail, a trail so dim, in fact, that Pete Glass had wisely given it up and taken the long chance by cutting back to the point at which the hunt began. So their paths crossed.
Barry spoke sharply to the mare and loosed the reins, but she started into a full gallop too late. There came a brief hum, a thudding blow, and Grey Molly pitched forward.
Chapter XI. A New Trail Begins
If he had been an ordinary rider, sitting heavily far back in the saddle, at the end of a long ride, Barry would either have been flung clear and smashed horribly against the rocks, or, more likely, he would have been entangled in the stirrups and crushed to death instantly by the weight of his horse; but he rode always lightly poised and when the mare pitched forward his feet were already clear of the stirrups. He landed, catlike, on hands and feet, unhurt.
It had been a long shot, a lucky hit even for a marksman of the sheriff’s caliber, and now the six horsemen streamed over a distant hilltop and swept into the valley to take their quarry dead, or half dead, from his fall.