Seventh Man, The

Chapter VI. The Rifle

Dawn found him over the first crest; at noon he was struggling up the slope of the second range, whose rise was not half so sharp as the upward plunge out of the Asper, but in spite of that easier ground Grey Molly could not gain. She went with shorter steps, now, and her head hung lower and lower, yet when a down stretch opened before her she went at it with a gallop as light, almost, as her race out of Murphy's Pass. Not once had she offered to stop; not once had she winced from the labor of some sharp up-pitch; but still six horsemen hung behind her, and at their head rode a little dusty man on a little dusty roan. It was the lack of training as well as the rough going which held Molly back.

Beyond that second range, however, the down slope stretched smoothly, evenly, for mile on mile and mile on mile; perfect going for Grey Molly over easy hills with patches of forest here and there where he might double, or where he might stop with the hunt sweeping past. All this the sheriff must have known perfectly well, for he no longer kept back with his pack of five, but skirted on ahead, hunting alone. Again and again Vic heard the little shrill whistle with which Pete Glass encouraged the roan. Vic used the spurs twice, and then he desisted from the useless brutality for Molly was doing her best and no power on earth could make her do more. After all, her best would be good enough, for now Vic looked up and his heart leaped into his throat; there was only one more rise above him, and beyond lay the easy ground and a running chance for Molly's slender legs. Even as he raised his head something whined evilly over him, followed by a sound like two heavy hammers swung together, face to face, and shattered by the stroke. A rifle!

He looked back, saw the roan standing broadside towards him, watched the sun waver and then flash in a straight steady line along the barrel of the sheriff's gun. The line of light jerked up, and before the sound reached him a blow on his right shoulder sent Vic lurching forward against the pommel. Afterwards the voice of the rifle rang around him and a sharp pain twitched up and down his side, then ran tingling to his fingertips.

It was the stunning blow which saved him, for the sheriff had the range and his third bullet would have clipped Vic between the shoulders, but Glass had seen his quarry pitch forward in the saddle and he would not waste ammunition. The thrift of his New England ancestry spoke in Pete now and then and he could only grit his teeth when he saw Vic, disappearing on the other side of the crest, straighten in the saddle; the next instant the top of the hill shielded the fugitive.

Well and nobly, then, Grey Molly repaid all the praise, all the tenderness and care which Vic had lavished upon her in the past years, for with her legs shaking from the struggle of that last climb, with a rider who wobbled crazily in his seat, with reins hanging loose on her neck, with not even a voice to guide or to encourage her, she swept straight across the falling ground, gaining strength and courage at every stride. By the time Vic had regained his self-control and rallied a little from that first terrible falling of the heart, the dusty roan was over the crest and streaking after the game. Grey Molly gained steadily, yet even when he gathered the reins in his left hand Vic knew that the fight was done, in effect. How could he double or dodge when his own blood spotted the trail he kept, and how long could he keep the saddle with the agony which tore like saw teeth at his shoulder?

Grey Molly plunged straight into the shadow of pine trees, and the cool gloom fell like a blessing upon Vic in his torment; it was heaven to be sheltered even for a few moments from the eyes of the posse. At the opposite edge of the wood he drew rein with a groan. Some devil had prompted Gus Reeve and some devil had poured Reeve's horse full of strength, for yonder down the valley, not a hundred yards away, galloped a rider on a black horse; yet Vic could have sworn that when he looked back from the crest he had seen Gus riding the very last in the posse. An instant later the illusion vanished, for the black horse of Gus was never an animal such as this, never had this marvelous, long gait. Its feet flicked the earth and shot it along with a reaching stride so easy, so flowing that only the fluttered mane and the tail stretching straight behind gave token of the speed. For the rest, it carried its head high, with pricking ears, the sure sign of a horse running well within his strength, yet Grey Molly, fresh and keen for racing, could hardly have kept pace with the black as it slid over the hills. God in heaven, if such a horse were his a thousand sheriffs on a thousand dusty roans could never take him; five minutes would sweep him out of sight and reach.

Before the horseman ran a tall dog, wolfish in head and wolfish in the gait which carried it like a cloud shadow over the ground, but it was over-large for any wolf Vic had ever seen. It turned its head now, and leaped aside at sight of the stranger, but the rider veered from his course and swept down on Vic. He came to a halt close up without either a draw at the reins or a spoken word, probably controlling his mount with pressure of the knees, and Gregg found himself facing a delicately handsome fellow. He was neither cowpuncher nor miner, Vic knew at a glance, for that face had never been haggard with labor. A tenderfoot, probably, in spite of his dress, and Vic felt that if his right arm were sound he could take that horse at the point of his gun and leave the rider thanking God that his life had been spared; but his left hand was useless on the butt of a revolver, and three minutes away came the posse, racing. There was only time for one desperate appeal.

"Stranger," he burst out, "I'm follered. I got to have your hoss. Take this one in exchange; it's the best I ever threw a leg over. Here's two hundred bucks—" he flung his wallet on the ground and swung himself out of the saddle.

The wolfish dog, which had growled softly all this time and roughed up the hair of its neck, now slunk forward on its belly.

"Heel, Bart!" commanded the stranger sharply, and the dog whipped about and stood away, whining with eagerness.

The moment Gregg's feet struck the ground his legs buckled like saplings in a wind for the long ride had sapped his strength, and the flow of blood told rapidly on him now. The hills and trees whirled around him until a lean, strong hand caught him under either armpit. The stranger stood close.

"You could have my hoss if you could ride him," said he. His voice was singularly unhurried and gentle. "But you'd drop out of the saddle in ten minutes. Who's after you?"

A voice shouted far off beyond the wood; another voice answered, nearer, and the whole soul of Gregg turned to the stallion. Grey Molly was blown, she stood now with hanging head and her flanks sunk in alarmingly at every breath, but even fresh from the pasture she was not a rag, not a straw compared to the black.

"For God's sake," groaned Vic, "loan me your hoss!"

"You couldn't stick the saddle. Come in here out of sight; I'm going to take 'em off your trail."

While he spoke, he led, half carried Vic, into a thicket of shrubs with a small open space at the center. The black and the wolf-dog followed and now the stranger pulled at the bridle rein. The stallion kneeled like a trained dog, and lying thus the shrubbery was high enough to hide him. Closer, sweeping through the wood, Vic heard the crash of the pursuit, yet the other was maddeningly slow of speech.

"You stay here, partner, and sit over there. I'm borrowin' your gun"—a swift hand appropriated it from Vic's holster and his own fingers were too paralyzed to resist—"and don't you try to ride my hoss unless you want them teeth in your throat. Lie quiet and tie up your hurt. Bart, watch him!"

And there sat Gregg where he had slipped down in his daze of weakness with the great dog crouched at his feet and snarling ominously every time he raised his hand. The voices came closer; the crashing burst on his very ears, and now, through the interstices of the shrubbery he saw the stranger swing into the saddle on Grey Molly and urge her to a gallop. He could follow them for only an instant with his eyes, but it seemed to Vic that Molly cantered under her new rider with strange ease and lightness. It was partly the rest, no doubt, and partly the smaller burden.

A deep beat of racing hoofs, and then the dusty roan shot out of the trees close by with the sheriff leaning forward, jockeying his horse. It seemed that no living thing could escape from that relentless rider. Then right behind Vic a horse snorted and grunted—as it leaped a fallen log, perhaps—and he watched in alarm to see if the stallion would answer that sound with start or whinney. The black lay perfectly still, and instead of lifting up to answer or to look, the head lowered with ears flat back until the long, outstretched neck gave the animal a snaky appearance. The dog, too, though it showed murderous fangs whenever Vic moved, did not stir from his place, but lay flattening into the ground.

"Cut to the right! Cut to the right, Harry!" came the voice of the sheriff, already piping from the distance as the last of the posse brushed out from the trees. "Yo hoi! Gus, take the left arroyo!"

Two answering yells, and then the rush of hoofs fell away. They were cornering the stranger, no doubt, and Vic struggled to lift himself to his feet and watch until a faint sound from the dog made him look down. Bart lay with his haunches drawn up under him, his forepaws digging into the soft loam, his eyes demoniac. Instinctively Vic reached for his absent gun, and then, despairing, relaxed to his former position. The wolf-dog lowered his head to his paws and there remained with the eyes following each intake of Gregg's breath. A rattle of gunshots flung back loosely from the hills, and among them Vic winced at the sound of the sheriff's rifle, clear and ringing over the bark of the revolvers.

Had they nailed the stranger? The firing recommenced, more faintly and prolonged, so that it was plain the posse maintained a running fusilade after the fugitive. After that fear of his own growing weakness shut out all else from the mind of Gregg as he felt his senses, his physical strength, flowing out like an ebb tide to a sea which, he knew, was death. He began to work desperately to bind up the wound and stop the flow of blood and it was fear which gave him momentary strength to tear away his shirt and then with his teeth and left hand rip it into strips. After that, heedless of the pain, he constructed a rude bandage, very clumsily, for he had to work over his shoulder. Here his teeth, once more, were almost as useful as another hand, and as the bandage grew tight the deadly, warm trickle along his side lessened and his fingers fell away from the last knot. He fainted.

1 of 2
2 of 2