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Seventh Man, The

Chapter XXIV. The Music

To the last ravine Kate's horse carried her easily enough, but that mountain pass was impenetrable through all its length to anything except the uncanny agility of Satan, and so she left the cow-pony in the bottom of the gorge and climbed the last rise on foot.

On the mountainside above her, it was not easy to locate the cave, for the slope was clawed into ravines and confused with meaningless criss-cross gulches. Whatever scrub evergreens grew there stood under the shade of boulders which threatened each instant to topple over and go thundering to the base. She had come upon the cave by chance in her ride with Dan, and now she hunted vainly through the great stones for the entrance. A fresh wind, chill with the snows of the upper peaks, pulled and tugged at her and cut her face and hands with flying bits of sand. It kept up a whistling so insistent that it was some time before she recognized in the hum of the gale a different note, not of pleasant music, but a thin, shrill sound that blended with the voice of the wind.

The instant she heard it she stopped short on the lee side of a tall rock and looked about her in terror. The mountains walked away on every side, and those resolute masses gave her courage. She listened, for the big rock cut away the breath of the wind about her ears and she could make out the whistling more clearly. It was a strain as delicate as a pin point ray of light in a dark room, but it made Kate tremble.

Until the sound ended she stayed there by the rock, hearkening, but the moment it ceased she gathered her resolution with a great effort and went straight toward the source of the whistling. It was only a moment away, although the wind had made it seem much farther, and she came on the tall, narrow opening with Joan sitting on a rock just within. Instead of the blue cloak, she was wrapped in a tawny hide, and the yellow hair blew this way and that, unsheltered from the wind. The loneliness of the little figure made Kate's heart ache, made her pause on her way, and while she hesitated, Joan's head rested back against the rock, her eyes half closed, her lips pursed, she began to whistle that same keen, eerie music.

It brought Kate to her in a rush.

"Oh Joan!" she cried. "My baby!"

And she would have swept the child into her arms, but Joan slipped out from under her very fingers and stood a little distance off with her hands pressed against the wall on either side of her, ready to dart one way or the other. It was not sudden terror, but rather a resolute determination to struggle against capture to the end, and her blue eyes were blazing with excitement. Kate was on her knees with her arms held out.

"Joan, dear, have you forgotten munner?"

The wildness flickered away from the eyes of the child little by little.

"Munner?" she repeated dubiously.

No shout of welcome, no sudden rush, no arms to fling about her mother. But if her throat was dry and closed Kate allowed no sign of it to creep into her voice.

"Where's Daddy Dan?"

"He's gone away."

"Where?"

"Oh—over there!"

The mother rose slowly to her feet, and looked out across the mountains as if in search of aid. For her mind had harked back to that story her father used to tell of the coming of Dan Barry; how he had ridden across the hills one evening and saw, walking against the sunset, a tattered boy who whistled strangely as he went, and when old Joe Cumberland asked where he was going he had only waved a vague hand toward the north and answered, "Oh—over there. It was sufficient destination for him, it was sufficient explanation now for the child. She remembered how she, herself a child then, had sat at her father's table and watched the brown face of the strange boy with fascination, and the wild, quick eyes which went everywhere and rested in no one place. They were the eyes which looked up to her now from Joan's face, and she felt suddenly divorced from her baby, as if all the blood in Joan were the blood of her father.

"He left you here alone?" she murmured.

The child looked at her with a sort of curious amazement.

"Joan isn't alone."

She whistled softly, and around the corner of the rock peered two tiny, beady-bright eyes, and the sharp nose of a coyote puppy. It disappeared at once at the sight of the stranger, and now all the strength went from Kate. She slipped helplessly down, and sat on a boulder trying to think, trying to master the panic which chilled her; for she thought of the day when Whistling Dan brought home to the Cumberland Ranch the wounded wolf-dog, Black Bart. But the call of Joan had traveled far, and now a squirrel came in at a gallop with his vast tail bobbing behind him, and ran right up the rock until he was on the shoulder of the child. From this point of vantage, however, he saw Kate, and was instantly on the floor of the cave and scurrying for the entrance, chattering with rage.

The wild things came to Joan as they came to her father, and the eyes of the child were the eyes of Dan Barry. It came home to Kate and she saw the truth for the first time in her life. She had struggled to win him away from his former life, but now she knew that it was not habit which controlled him, for he was wild by instinct, by nature. Just as the tang of his untamed blood had turned the child to this; and a few days more of life with him would leave her wild forever.

"He left you alone here!" she repeated fiercely. "Where a thousand things might happen. Thank God I've found you."

Even if her words conveyed little meaning to Joan, the intonation carried a message which was perfectly clear.

"Don't you like Daddy Dan?"

"Joan, Joan, I love him! Of course."

But Joan sat with a dubious eye which quickly darkened into fear.

"Oh, Munner, don't take us back!"

Such horror and terror and sadness mixed! The tears rushed into the eyes of Kate.

"Do you want to stay here, sweetheart?"

"Yes, munner."

"Without me?"

At first Joan shook her head decidedly, but thereafter she quickly became thoughtful.

"No, except when we eat."

"You don't want me here at dinner-time? Poor munner will get so hungry."

A great concession was about to burst from the remorseful lips of Joan, but again second thought sobered her. She remained in a quandary, unable to speak.

"Don't you want me even when you wake up at night?"

"Why?"

"Because you're so afraid of the dark."

"Joan's not afraid. Oh, no! Joan loves the dark."

If Kate maintained a smile, it was a frozen grimace. It had only been a few days—hardly yesterday—that Joan left, and already she was a little stranger. Suppose Dan should refuse to come back himself; refuse even to give up Joan! She started up, clutching the hand of the child.

"Quick, Joan, we must go!"

"Joan doesn't want to go!"

"We'll go—for a little walk. We—we'll surprise Daddy Dan."

"But Daddy Dan won't come back for long, long time. Not till the sun is away down behind that hill."

That should mean two hours, at least, thought Kate. She could wait a little.

"Joan, what taught you not to be afraid of the dark?"

This problem made Joan look about for an answer, but at length she called softly: "Jackie!"

She waited, and then whistled; at once the bright eyes of the little coyote appeared around the edge of the rock.

"Come here!" she commanded.

He slunk out with his head turned towards Kate and cowered at the feet of the child. And the mother cringed inwardly at the sight; all wild things which hated man instinctively with tooth and claw were the friends, the allies of Whistling Dan, and now Joan was stepping in her father's path. A little while longer and the last vestige of gentleness would pass from her. She would be like Dan Barry, following calls which no other human could even hear. It meant one thing: at whatever cost, Joan must be taken from Dan and kept Away.

"Jackie sleeps near me," Joan was saying. "We can see in the dark, can't we, Jackie?"

She lifted her head, and the moment her compelling eyes left him, Jackie scooted for shelter. The first strangeness had worn away from Joan and she began to chatter away about life in the cave, and how Satan played there by the firelight with Black Bart, and how, sometimes—wonderful sight!—Daddy Dan played with them. The recital was quite endless, as they pushed farther and farther into the shadows, and it was the uneasiness which the dim light raised in her that made Kate determine that the time had come to go home.

"Now," she said, "we're going for that walk."

"Not away down there!" cried Joan.

Kate winced.

"It's lots nicer here, munner. You'd ought to just see what we have to eat! And my, Daddy Dan knows how to fix things."

"Of course he does. Now put on your hat and your cloak, Joan."

"This is lots warmer, munner."

"Don't you like it?" she added in alarm, stroking the delicate fur.

"Take it off!"

Kate ripped away the fastenings and tossed the skin far away.

"Oh!" breathed Joan.

"It isn't clean! It isn't clean," cried Kate. "Oh, my poor, darling baby! Get your bonnet and your cloak, Joan, quickly."

"We're coming back?"

"Of course."

Joan trudged obediently to the side of the cave and produced both articles, sadly rumpled, and Kate buttoned her into them with trembling fingers. Something akin to cold made her shake now. It was very much like a child's fear of the dark.

But as she turned towards the entrance to the cave and caught the hand of Joan, the child wrenched herself free.

"We'll never come back," she wailed. "Munner, I won't go!"

"Joan, come to me this instant."

Grief and fear and defiance had set the child trembling, but what the mother saw was the glint of the eyes, uneasy, hunting escape with animal cunning. It turned her heart cold, and she knew, with a sad, full knowledge that Dan was lost forever and that only one power could save Joan. That power was herself.

"I won't go!"

"Joan!"

A resolute silence answered her, and when she went threateningly forward, Joan shrank into the shadows near the rock. It was the play of light striking slantwise from the entrance, no doubt, but it seemed to Kate that a flicker of yellow light danced across the eyes of the child. And it stopped Kate took her breath with a new terror. Dan Barry, in the old days, had lived a life as quiet as a summer's day until the time Jim Silent struck him down in the saloon; and she remembered how Black Bart had come for her and led her to the saloon, and how she found Dan lying on the floor, streaked with blood, very pale; and how she had kneeled by him in a panic, and how his eyes had opened and stared at her without answer and the yellow, inhuman light swirled in them until she rose and backed out the door and fled in a hysteria of fear up the road. That had been the beginning of the end for Dan Barry, that instant when his eyes changed; and now Joan—she ran at her swiftly and gathered her into her arms. One instant of wild struggling, and then the child lay still, her head straightened a little, a shrill whistle pealed through the cave.

Kate stopped that piercing call with her hand, but when she turned, she saw in the entrance the dark body of Bart and his narrow, snake-like head.


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