Seventh Man, The

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.

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