What he next knew was a fire of agony that wrapped his whole body and consciousness flashed back on him. Strong arms lifted him up, up; above him he sensed the eyes of his torturer, dim in moonlight, and he beat his clubbed left fist into that face. After that he knew he was being dragged onto a saddle, but a wave of pain rushed up his side and numbed his brain. Thereafter his senses returned by fits and starts, vaguely. Once he felt a steel cable that girdled his waist and breast and held him erect, though his head flopped back and forth; once his eyes opened and above him glittered the bright field of stars towards which he drifted through space, a mind without a body; once a stab of torment wakened him enough to hear: "Easy Satan; watch them stones. One more jolt like that will send him clear to—" And the voice glided into an eternity of distance. Yet again he swung tip from the pit of darkness and became aware of golden hair around a woman's face, and a marvelous soft, cool hand upon his forehead. Her voice reached him, too, and made him think of all things musical, all things distant, like the sounds of birds falling from the sky and though he understood not a syllable, a sweet assurance of safety flooded through him. He slept.
When he woke again, it was from a dream of fleeing through empty air swifter than the wind with a wolf-dog looming behind him out of space, but presently he found that he was lying in a bed with a stream of sunlight washing across a white coverlet. A door at his right swung open and there in the entrance stood the wolf-dog of his vision with a five-year-old girl upon its back.
"Don't go in there, Bart!" whispered the child. "Go on back!"
She took one of those pointed wolf-ears in her chubby fist and tugged to swing him around, but Bart, with a speed which the eye could not follow, twisted his head and the rows of great teeth closed over her hand. It was so horrible that the cry froze in the throat of Gregg, yet the child, with only a little murmur of anger, reached over with her other hand and caught the wolf by the nose.
"Bad Bart!" she whispered, and raised the hand which he instantly released. White marks showed on the pudgy tan. "Bad dog!" she repeated, and beat his neck with an impotent little fist. The wolf-dog cringed, and turned from the door.
"Come in," invited Gregg. He was surprised to find his voice thin, apt to swing up to a high pitch beyond his control. A shower of golden curls tossed away from her face as she looked to him. "Oh!" she cried, still with a guarded voice. She leaned far over, one hand buried in the ruff of Bart's neck to secure her balance, and with the other she laid hold of his right ear and drew him around facing the door once more. This time he showed his teeth but submitted, only twitching the ear back and forth a time or two when she relaxed her hold.
"Come in," repeated Gregg.
She canted her head to one side and considered him with fearless blue eyes.
"I want to," she sighed.
"Why can't you, honey?"
"Munner says no."
He attempted to turn further towards her, but the pain in his right shoulder prevented. He found that his arm was bandaged to the elbow and held close to his side by a complex swathing.
"Who is your mother?" asked Vic.
"Munner?" she repeated, frowning in wonder. "Why, munner is—my munner."
"Oh," smiled he, "and who's your pa?"
"Who's your father? Who's your dad?"
"Daddy Dan. You ask a lot of things," she added, disapprovingly.
"Come on in," pleaded Vic Gregg, "and I won't ask nothin' more about you."
"Munner says no," she repeated.
She employed the moment of indecision by plucking at the hair of Bart's shoulders; he growled softly, terribly, but she paid not the slightest heed.
"Your mother won't care," asserted Vic.
"I know," she nodded, "but Daddy will."
She looked blankly at him.
"What will he do, then, if you come in to see me?"
"He'll look at me." She grew breathless at the thought, and cast a guilty glance over her shoulder.
"Honey," chuckled Gregg, weakly, "I'll take all the blame. Just you come along in and he'll do his lookin' at me."
He thought of the slender fellow who had rescued him and his large, gentle brown eyes, but to a child even those mild eyes might seem terrible with authority.
"Will you, true?" said the child, wistfully.
"Honest and true."
"All right." She made up her mind instantly, her face shining with excitement. "Giddap, Bart." And she thumped the wolf-dog vigorously with her heels.
He carried her in with a few gliding steps, soundless, except for the light rattle of claws on the floor, but he stopped well out of reach of the bed and when Vic held his left hand as far as he could across his chest, Bart winced and gave harsh warning. Vic had seen vicious dogs in his day, seen them fighting, seen them playing, but he had never heard one of them growl like this. The upper lips of the animal twitched dangerously back and the sound came from the very depths of his body. It made the flesh crawl along Vic's back; one rip of those great teeth could tear a man's throat open. The child thudded her heels against the ribs of Bart again.
"Giddap!" she cried.
The wolf-dog shuddered but would not budge an inch.
"Naughty Bart!" She slipped off to the floor. "I'll make him come," she said.
"If it's the same to you," said Vic, rather hastily, "I'd just as soon he stayed where he is."
"He's got to do what I want," she answered. She shook a tiny forefinger at him. "Bart, you just come here!"
The dog turned his blazing eyes on her and replied with a growl that shook his sides.
"Stop!" she ordered, and struck him sharply on the nose. He blinked and lowered his head under the blow, but though the snarling stopped his teeth flashed. She caught him by both jowls and tugged him forward.
"Let him be!" urged Vic.
"He's got to come!"
And come he did, step by halting step, while she hauled him, and now the snarling hoarse intakes of breath filled the room. Once she moved a little to one side and Vic caught the glint of two eyes, red-stained, which were fixed undeviatingly upon her face. Mixed with Vic's alarm at the great fighting beast was a peculiar uneasiness, for there was something uncanny in the determination, the fearlessness of this infant. When she stepped away the wolf-dog stood trembling visibly but his eyes were still not upon the man he hated or feared to approach but upon the child's face.
"Can you pat him now?" she asked, not for an instant turning to Gregg.
"No, but it's close enough," he assured her. "I don't want him any closer."
"He's got to come." She stamped. "Bart, you come here!"
He flinched forward, an inch. "Bart!" Her hands were clenched and her little body quivered with resolution; the snake-like head came to the very edge of the bed.
"Now pat him!" she commanded.
By very unpleasant degrees, Vic stretched his hand towards that growling menace.
"He'll take my arm off," he complained. Shame kept him from utterly refusing the risk.
"He won't bite you one bit," declared the child. "But I'll hold his nose if you're afraid." And instantly she clasped the pointed muzzle between her hands.
Even when Vic's hand hovered above his head Bart had no eye for him, could not divert his gaze from the face of the child. Once, twice and again, delicately as one might handle bubbles, Gregg touched that scarred forehead.
"I made him come, didn't I?" she cried in triumph, and turned a tense little face towards Vic, but the instant her eyes moved the wolf-dog leaped away half the width of the room, and stood shivering, more devilish than ever. She stamped again.
"Bad, bad, bad Bart," she said angrily. "Shall I make him come again?"
"Leave him be," muttered Vic, closing his eyes. "Leave him be where he is. I don't want him."
"Oh," she said, "it's hard to make him do things, sometimes. But Daddy Dan can make him do anything."
"Humph!" grunted Vic. He was remembering how, at the master's order, Bart had crouched at his feet in the wood, an unchained murderer hungrily waiting for an excuse to kill. There was something very odd about the people of this house; and it would be a long time before he rid himself of the impression of the cold, steady eyes which had flashed up to him a moment before out of that baby face.
"Joan!" called a voice from beyond, and the soft fiber of it made Vic certain that it belonged to the rider of the black stallion. The little girl ran a step towards the door, and then stopped and shrank back against the bed.
"If you're afraid your Dad'll find you here," said Vic, "just you run along."
She was nervously twisting her hands in her dress.
"Daddy Dan'll know," she whispered without turning. "And—and—he won't let me be afraid—-even of him!"
A small hand slipped up, fumbled a bit, found the thumb of Vic Gregg, and closed softly over it. With this to steady her, she waited, facing the door.