Seventh Man, The

Chapter V. The Fight

There were three spots of white in the dim saloon, the faces of Stewart, Lorrimer, and old Lew Perkins, and at the feet of Vic grew a spot of red. Knowing with calm surety that no hand would lift against him even if he turned his back, he walked out the door without a word and swung into the saddle. There, for an instant, he calculated chances, for the street stretched empty before and behind with not a sound of warning stirring in the saloon. He was greatly tempted to ride to Dug Pym's for his blanket roll and a few other traveling necessities, but he remembered that the men of Alder rose to action with astonishing speed; within five minutes a group of hard riders would be clattering up his trail with Pete Glass at their head. An unlucky Providence had sent Pete to Alder on this day of all days. There stood his redoubtable dusty roan at the hitching rack, her head low, one ear back and one flopped forward, her under lip pendulous—in a pasture full of horses one might pick her last either for stout heart or speed. Even in spite of her history Vic would have engaged Grey Molly to beat the roan at equal weights, but since he outbulked the sheriff full forty pounds, he weighed in nice balance the necessity of shooting the roan before he left Alder. It was, he decided, unpleasant but vital, and his fingers had already slid around the butt of his gun when a horse whinnied far off and the roan twitched up her head to listen. She was no longer a cloddish lump of horseflesh, but an individual, a soul; Gregg's hand fell from his gun. Cursing his sentimental weakness, he lifted Molly into a canter down the street. Still no signs of awakening behind him or about; only little Jack Sweeney playing tag with a black-and-tan puppy, the triumphant cackle of a hen somewhere to the left; but as he neared the end of the street, where the trail swung into the rocks of the slope, a door banged far off and a voice was screaming: "Pete! Pete Glass!"

Grey Molly switched her tail nervously at the shout, but Vic was too wise to let her waste strength hurrying up so sharp a declivity; that dusty roan whose life he had spared would be spending it prodigally to overtake him before long and Molly's power must be husbanded. So he kept her at a quick walk by pressing the calf of one leg into her flank and turned in the saddle to watch the town sink behind him. Sometime in the vague, stupid past Marne had jog-trotted down this slope, but now he was a new man with an eye which saw all things and a gun which could not fail. Figures, singularly tiny and singularly distinct, swarmed into the street from nowhere, men on horses, men swinging into saddles; here and there the slant light of the afternoon twinkled on gun barrels, and ludicrous thin voices came piping up the hill. As he reached the nether lip of Murphy's Pass a small cavalcade detached itself from the main mass before Captain Lorrimer's saloon and swept down the street, first a dusty figure on a dusty horse, hardly visible; then a spot of red which must be Harry Fisher on his blood-bay, with a long-striding sorrel beside him that could carry no one except grim old Sliver Waldron. Behind these rode one with the light glinting on his silver conchos—Mat Henshaw, the town Beau Brummel—then the black Guss Reeve, and last of all "Ronicky" Joe on his pinto; "Ronicky" Joe, handy man at all things, and particularly guns. It showed how fast Pete Glass could work and how well he knew Alder, for Vic himself could not have selected five cooler fighters among the villagers or five finer mounts. The posse switched around the end of the street and darted up the hill like the curling lash of a whip.

"Good," said Vic Gregg. "The damn fools will wind their horses before they hit the pass."

He put Grey Molly into an easy trot, for the floor of the pass dipped up and down, littered with sharp-toothed rocks or treacherous, rolling ones, as bad a place for speed as a stiff upslope. According to his nicest calculation the posse could not reach the edge of the gulch before he was at the farther side, out of range of everything except a long chance shot, so he took note of things as he went and observed a spot of pale silver skirting through the brush on the eastern ridge of the gorge. There would be moonlight that night and another chance in favor of Pete Glass. He remembered then, with quiet content, that jogging in the holster was a power which with six words might stop those six pursuers.

A long halloo came barking down the pass, now drawling out, now cut away to silence as the angling cliffs sent on the echo, and Vic loosened the rein. Grey Molly swung out with a snort of relief to a free-swinging gallop and they swept down a great, gentle slope where new grass padded the fall of her hoofs, yet even then he kept the mare checked and held her in touch with an easily playing wrist. He did not imagine that even the sheriff on the dusty roan would dream of trying to swallow up Grey Molly in a short sprint but that assurance nearly cost Vic his life. The roar of hoofs in the gulch belched out into the comparative silence of the open space beyond and just as he gave the mare her head a gun coughed and an angry humming darted past his ear.

Molly lengthened into full speed. He could not tell on account of the muffling grass whether the pursuit was gaining or losing. He trusted blindly to the mare and when he looked back they were already pulling their mounts down to a hand gallop. That would teach them to match Molly in a sprint, roan or no roan!

He slapped her below the withers, where the long, hard muscles rippled back and forth. She was full of running, her gallop as light as the toss of a bough in the wind, and now as he pulled her back to a swinging canter her head went high, with pricking ears. Suddenly his heart went out to her; she would run like that till she died, he knew.

"Good girl," he whispered huskily.

The day was paling towards the end when he headed into the foothills of the White Mountains. He drew up Molly for a breath on a level shoulder. Already he was close to the snow line with ragged heads of white rearing above him. Far below, a pale streak of moonlight was the Asper. Then, out of that blacker night on the slopes beneath, he heard the clinking hoofs of the posse; the quiet was so perfect, the air so clear, that he even caught the chorus of straining saddle leather and then voices of men. All this time the effects of the whisky had been wearing away by imperceptible degrees and at that sound all his old self rushed back on Vic Gregg. Why, they were his friends, his partners, these voices in the night, and that clear laughter floated up from Harry Fisher who had been his bunkie at the Circle V Bar ranch three years ago. He felt an insane impulse to lean over the edge of the cliff and shout a greeting.

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