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Seventh Man, The

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."

"Dance?"

"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."

"Is he?"

"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."


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