Seventh Man, The

Chapter VIII. Discipline

A light step crossed the outer room, with something peculiar in its lightness, as if the heel were not touching the floor, with the effect of the padded fall of the feet of some great cat; there was both softness and the sense of weight. First the wolf-dog pricked his ears and turned towards the door, the pudgy fist closed convulsively over Vic's thumb, and then his rescuer stood in the entrance.

"Hello, partner," called Vic. "I got company, you see. The door blew open and I asked your little girl in."

"I told you not to come here," said the other. Vic felt the child tremble, but there was no burst of excuses.

"She didn't want to come," he urged. "But I kep' on askin' her."

The emotionless eye of "Daddy Dan" held upon Joan. "I told you not to come," he said. Joan swallowed in mute agony, and the wolf-dog slipped to the side of the master and licked his hand as though in dumb intercession. The blood ran coldly in the veins of Gregg, as if he saw a fist raised to strike the little girl.

"You go out."

She went swiftly, at that, sidled past her father with her eyes lifted, fascinated, and so out the door where she paused an instant to flash back a wistful appeal. Nothing but silence, and then her feet pattering off into the outer room.

"Maybe you better go keep her company, Bart," said the father, and at this sign of relenting Vic felt his tensed muscles relaxing; the wolf whined softly and glided through the door.

"You feeling better?"

"Like a hoss off green feed. I been lyin' here drinkin' up the sunshine."

The other stood beside the open window and there he canted his head, his glance far off and intent.

"D'you hear?" he asked, turning sharply.

There was a fierce eagerness in his face.

"Hear what?"

"It's spring," he murmured, without answering more directly than this, and Vic felt that the other had changed again, grown understandable. Nevertheless, the shock of that sudden alteration at the window kept him watching his host with breathless interest. Whatever it was that the strange fellow heard, a light had gleamed in his eyes for a moment. As he sauntered back towards the bed just a trace of it lingered about him, a hint of sternness.

"Spring?" answered Gregg. "Yep, I smelled spring a few days back and I started out to find some action. You can see for yourself that I found it, partner." He stirred, uneasily, but it was necessary that the story should be told lest it reach the ears of this man from another source. It was one thing to shelter a fugitive from justice whose crime was unknown, perhaps trifling, but it might be quite another story if this gentle, singular man learned that his guest was a new-made murderer. Better that he should learn the tale now and form his prejudices in favor of Gregg. "I'll tell you the whole story," he began.

But the other shrugged his shoulders.

"You leave the story be," he said, and there was something in the quiet firmness of his manner which made it impossible for Vic to continue. "You're here and you're hurt and you need a pile of rest. That's about enough story for me."

Vic put himself swiftly in the place of the other. Suppose that he and Betty Neal should have a cabin off in the mountains like this, how would they receive a wounded fugitive from justice? As unquestioningly as this? In a surge of gratitude he looked mistily towards his host.

"Stranger," he said, "you're white. Damned white. That's all. My name's Vic Gregg and I come from—"

"Thanks," cut in the other. "I'm glad to know your name but in case anybody might be askin' me I wouldn't care to know where you come from." He smiled. "I'm Dan Barry."

It had to be a left-handed shake on the part of Vic, a thing of which he often thought in the days that followed, but now he sent his memory hunting.

"Seems like I've heard your name before," he murmured. "I dunno where. Were you ever around Alder, Barry?"

"No." His manner suggested that the topic might as well be closed. He reached over and dropped his hand lightly on the forehead of Vic. A tingling current flowed from it into the brain of the wounded man. "Your blood's still a bit hot," he added. "Lie quiet and don't even think. You're safe here. They ain't a thing goin' to get at you. Not a thing. You'll stay till you get ready to leave. S'long. I'll see that you get something to eat."

He went out with that unusual, padding step which Vic had noticed before and closed the door softly behind him. In spite of that barrier Gregg could hear the noises from the next room quite clearly, as some one brought in wood and dropped it on a stone hearth, rattling. He fell into a pleasant doze, just stretching his body now and then to enjoy the coolness of the sheets, the delicious sense of being cared for and the returning strength in his muscles. Through that haze he heard voices, presently, which called him back to wakefulness.

"That ought to be good for him. Take it in, Kate."

"I shall. Dan, what has Joan done?"

"She went in there. I told her to leave him alone."

"But she says he asked her to come in—said he would take the blame."

"I told her not to go."

"Poor baby! She's outside, now, weeping her eyes out on Bart's shoulder and he's trying to comfort her."

It was purer English than Vic was accustomed to hear even from his schoolmistress, but more than the words, the voice surprised him, the low, controlled voice of a woman of gentle blood. He turned his head and looked out the window, baffled. Far above, shooting out of sight, went the slope of a mountain, a cliff shining in the slant sun of the afternoon here, a tumbled slide of rocks and debris there, and over the shoulder of this mountain he saw white-headed monsters stepping back in range beyond range. Why should a girl of refinement choose the isolation of such a place as this for her home? It was not the only strange thing about this household, however, and he would dismiss conjectures until he was once more on his feet.

She was saying: "Won't you speak to her now?"

A little pause. Then: "No, not until evenin'."

"Please, Dan."

"She's got to learn."

A little exclamation of unhappiness and then the door moved open; Vic found himself looking up to the face with the golden hair which he remembered out of his nightmare. She nodded to him cheerily.

"I'm so happy that you're better," she said. "Dan says that the fever is nearly gone." She rested a large tray she carried on the foot of the bed and Vic discovered, to his great content, that it was not hard to meet her eyes. Usually girls embarrassed him, but he recognized so much of Joan in the features of the mother that he felt well acquainted at once. Motherhood, surely, sat as lightly on her shoulders as fatherhood did on Dan Barry, yet he felt a great pity as he looked at her, this flowerlike beauty lost in the rocks and snow with only one man near her. She was like music played without an audience except senseless things.

"Yep, I'm a lot better," he answered, "but it sure makes me terrible sorry, ma'am, that I got your little girl in trouble. Mostly, it was my fault."

She waved away all need of apology.

"Don't think an instant about that, Mr. Gregg. Joan needs a great deal of disciplining." She laughed a little. "She has so much of her father in her, you see. Now, are you strong enough to lift yourself higher in the pillows?"

They managed it between them, for he was weaker than he thought and when he was padded into position with cushions she laid the tray across his knees. His head swam at sight of it. Forty-eight hours of fasting had sharpened his appetite, and the loaded tray whetted a razor edge, for a great bowl of broth steamed forth an exquisite fragrance on one side and beside it she lifted a napkin to let him peek at a slice of venison steak. Then there was butter, yellow as the gold for which he had been digging all winter, and real cream for his coffee—a whole pitcher of it—and snowy bread. Best of all, she did not stay to embarrass him with her watching while he ate, since above all things in the world a hungry man hates observation when the board is spread.

Afterwards, consuming sleep rippled over him from his feet to his eyes to his brain. He partially roused when the tray was removed, and the pillows slipped from under his back, but with a vague understanding that expert hands were setting the bed in order his senses fled once more.

Hours and hours later he opened his eyes in utter darkness with a thin, sweet voice still ringing in his ears. He could not place himself until he turned his head and saw a meager, broken, rectangular line of light which was the door, and immediately afterwards the voice cried: "Oh, Daddy Dan! And what did the wolf do then?"

"I'm comin' to that, Joan, but don't you talk about wolves so loud or old Black Bart'll think you're talkin' about him. See him lookin' at you now?"

"But please go on. I won't say one little word."

The man's voice began again, softly, so that not a word was audible to Gregg; he heard the crackle of burning logs upon the hearth; saw the rectangle of light flicker; caught a faint scent of wood smoke, and then he slept once more.

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