Seventh Man, The

Chapter XL. The Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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