Seventh Man, The

Chapter XIX. The Venture

From the moment Joan gave the name of Daddy Dan, the wolf-dog kept to the trail with arrowy straightness. Whatever the limitations of Bart's rather uncanny intelligence, upon one point he was usually letter-perfect, and even when a stranger mentioned Dan in the hearing of the dog it usually brought a whine or at least an anxious look. He hewed to his line now with that animal sense of direction which men can never wholly understand. Boulders and trees slipped away on either side of Joan; now on a descent of the mountain-side he broke into a lope that set the flowers fluttering on her bonnet; now he prowled up the ravine beyond, utterly tireless.

He was strictly business. When she slipped a little from her place as he veered around a rock he did not slow up, as usual, that she might regain her seat, but switched his head back with a growl that warned her into position. That surprise was hardly out of her mind when she saw a gay patch of wild-flowers a little from the line of his direction, and she tugged at his ear to swing him towards it. A sharp jerk of his head tossed her hand aside, and again she caught the glint of wild eyes as he looked back at her. Then she grew grave, puzzled. She trusted Black Bart with all her heart, as only a child can trust dumb animals, but now she sensed a change in him. She had guessed at a difference on that night when Dan came home for the last time; and the same thing seemed to be in the dog today.

Before she could make up her mind as to what it might be, Black Bart swung aside up a steep slope, and whisked her into the gloom of a cave. Into the very heart of the darkness he glided and stopped.

"Daddy Dan!" she called.

A faint echo, after a moment, came back to her from the depths of the cave, making her voice strangely deep. Otherwise, there was no answer.

"Bart!" she whispered, suddenly frightened by the last murmur of that echo, "Daddy Dan's not here. Go back!"

She tugged at his ear to turn him, but again that jerk of the head freed his ear. He caught her by the cloak, crouched close to the floor, and she found herself all at once sitting on the gravelly floor of the cave with Bart facing her.

"Bad Bart!" she said, scrambling to her feet.

"Naughty dog!"

She was still afraid to raise her voice in that awful silence, and in the dark. When she glanced around her, she made out vague forms through the dimness that might be the uneven walls of the cave, or might be strange and awful forms of night.

"Take me home!"

A growl that went shuddering down the cave stopped her, and now she saw that the eyes of Bart glowed green and yellow. Even then she could not believe that he would harm her, and stretched out a tentative hand. This time she made out the flash of his teeth as he snarled. He was no longer the Bart she had played with around the cabin, but a strange wild thing, and with a scream she darted past him toward the door. Never had those chubby legs flown so fast, but even as the light from the mouth of the cave glimmered around her, she heard a crunching on the gravel from behind, and then a hand, it seemed, caught her cloak and jerked her to a stop.

She fell sprawling, head over heels, and when she looked up, there sat Bart upon his haunches above her, growling terribly, and gripping the end of the cloak. No doubt about it now. Black Bart would have his teeth in her throat if she made another movement toward the entrance. A city child would have either gone mad with terror or else made that fatal struggle to reach the forbidden place, but Joan had learned many things among the mountains, and among others, she knew the difference between the tame and the free. The old dappled cow was tame, for instance; and the Maltese cat, which came too close to Bart the year before and received a broken back for its carelessness, had been tame; and the brown horse with the white face and the dreary eyes was tame. They could be handled, and teased, and petted and bossed about at will. Other creatures were different. For instance, the scream of the hawk always made her shrink a little closer to the ground, or else run helter-skelter for the house, and sometimes, up the gulches, she had heard the wailing of a mountain lion on the trail, hunting swiftly, and very hungry. There was even something about the dead eyes of certain lynxes and coyotes and bobcats which Daddy Dan trapped that made Joan feel these animals belonged to a world where the authority of man was only the strength of his hand or his cunning. Not that she phrased these thoughts in definite words, but Joan was very close to nature, and therefore her instincts gave her a weird little touch of wisdom in such matters.

And when she lay there tangled in her cloak and looked up into the glowing eyes of Bart and heard his snarling roll around her, and pass in creepy chills up her back, she nearly died of fear, to be sure, but she lay as still as still, frozen into a part of the rock. Black Bart was gone, and in his place was a terrible creature which belonged there among the shadows, for it could see in the night.

Presently the bright eyes disappeared, and now she saw that Bart lay stretched across the entrance to the cave, where the long shadow was now creeping down the slope. Inches by inches she ventured to sit up, and all it brought from Bart was a quick turn of the head and a warning growl. It meant as plainly as though he had spoken in so many words: "Stay where you are and I don't care in the least what you do, but don't try to cross this entrance if you fear the length of my teeth and the keenness thereof." And she did fear them, very much, for she remembered the gashes across the back and the terrible rips up the side, of the dead Maltese cat.

She even took a little heart, after a time. A grownup cannot feel terror or grief as keenly as a child, but neither does terror or grief pass away a tithe as fast. She seemed at liberty to roam about in the cave as long as she did not go near the entrance, and now the shadows and the dimness no longer frightened her. Nothing was terrible except that long, dark body which lay across the entrance to the cave, and she finally got to her feet and began to explore. She came first on a quantity of dead grass heaped in a corner that was where Satan was stalled, no doubt, and it made all the cave seem almost homelike. She found, too, a number of stones grouped together with ashes in the hollow circle-that was where the fires were built, and there to the side lay the pile of dead wood. A little down the cave and directly in the center of the top, she next saw the natural aperture where the smoke must escape and last of all she came on the bed. Boughs heaped a foot thick with the blankets on top, neatly stretched out, and the tarpaulin over all, made a couch as soft as down and fragrant with the pure scent of evergreens.

Joan tried the surface with a foot that sank to her ankle, then with her hands, and finally sat down to think. The first fear was almost gone; she understood that Bart was keeping her here until Dan came home, and fear does not go hand in hand with understanding. She only wondered, now, at the reason that kept Daddy Dan living in this cave so far from the warm comfort of the cabin, and so far away from her mother; but thinking makes small heads drowsy, and in five minutes Joan lay with her head pillowed on her arm, sound asleep.

When she awoke, the evening-gray of the cave had given place to utter blackness, alarming and thick. Joan sat up with a start; she would have cried out, bewildered, but now she heard a noise on the gravel, and turned to see Daddy Dan entering the cave with Satan behind him, quite distinctly outlined by the sunset outside. Black Bart walked first, looking back over his shoulder as though he led the way.

It was partly because the black, silhouetted figures awed her, somewhat, and partly because she wished to give Daddy Dan a gay surprise, that Joan did not run to him. And then, in the darkness, she heard Satan munching the dried grass, and the squeak and rattle as the saddle was drawn off and hung up, scraping against the rock.

"What you been doin', Bart?" queried the voice of Daddy Dan, and the last of Joan's fears fell from her as she listened. "You act kind of worried. If you been runnin' rabbits all day and got your pads full of thorns I'll everlastin'ly treat you rough."

The wolf-dog whined.

"Well, speak up. What you want? Want me over there?"

It would have been a trifle unearthly to most people, but Joan knew the ways of Daddy Dan with Satan and Black Bart. She lay quite still, shivering with pleasure as the footsteps approached her. Then a match scratched—she saw by the blue spurt of flame that he was lighting a pine torch, then whirling it until the flame ate down to the pitchy knot. He held it above his head, and now she saw him plainly: the light cascaded over his shoulders, glowed on his eyes, and then puffed out sidewise in a draught.

Joan was upon her feet, and running toward him with a cry of joy, until she remembered that he was not to be approached like her mother. There were never any bear-hugs from him, no caresses, not much laughter. She stopped barely in time, and stood with her fingers interlaced, staring up at him, half delighted, half afraid. She read his mind by microscopic changes in his eyes and lips.

"Munner sent me."

That was wrong, she saw at once.

"And Bart brought me." Much better, now. "And oh, Daddy Dan, I've been lonesome for you!"

He continued to stare at her for another moment, and even Joan could not tell whether he were angry or indifferent or pleased.

"Well," he murmured at length, "I guess you're hungry, Joan?"

She knew it was complete acceptance, and she could hardly keep from a shout of happiness. Daddy Dan had a great aversion to sudden outcries.

"I guess I am," said Joan.

1 of 2
2 of 2