Seventh Man, The

Chapter XI. A New Trail Begins

If he had been an ordinary rider, sitting heavily far back in the saddle, at the end of a long ride, Barry would either have been flung clear and smashed horribly against the rocks, or, more likely, he would have been entangled in the stirrups and crushed to death instantly by the weight of his horse; but he rode always lightly poised and when the mare pitched forward his feet were already clear of the stirrups. He landed, catlike, on hands and feet, unhurt.

It had been a long shot, a lucky hit even for a marksman of the sheriff's caliber, and now the six horsemen streamed over a distant hilltop and swept into the valley to take their quarry dead, or half dead, from his fall. However, that approaching danger was nothing in the eye of Barry. He ran to the fallen mare and caught her head in his arms. She ceased her struggles to rise as soon as he touched her and whinneyed softly. The left foreleg lay twisted horribly beneath her, broken. Grey Molly had run her last race, and as Barry kneeled, holding the brave head close to him, he groaned, and looked away from her eyes. It was only an instant of weakness, and when he turned to her again he was drawing his gun from its holster.

The beating hoofs of the posse as they raced towards him made a growing murmur through the clear air. Barry glanced towards them with a consummate loathing. They had killed a horse to stop a man, and to him it was more than murder. What harm had she done them except to carry her rider bravely and well? The tears of rage and sorrow which a child sheds welled into the eyes of Dan Barry. Every one of them had a hand in this horrible killing; was, to that half animal and half-childish nature, a murderer.

His chin was on his shoulder; the quiver of pain in her nostrils ended as he spoke; and while the fingers of his left hand trailed caressingly across her forehead, his right carried the muzzle to her temple.

"Brave Molly, good girl," he whispered, "they'll pay for you a death for a death and a man for a hoss." The yellow which had glinted in his eyes during the run was afire now. "It ain't far; only a step to go; and then you'll be where they ain't any saddles, nor any spurs to gall you, Molly, but just pastures that's green all year, and nothin' to do but loaf in the sun and smell the wind. Here's good luck to you, girl."

His gun spoke sharp and short and he laid the limp head reverently on the ground.

It had all happened in very few seconds, and the posse was riding through the river, still a long shot off, when Barry drew his rifle from its case on the saddle. Moreover, the failing light which had made the sheriff's hit so much a matter of luck was now still dimmer, yet Barry snapped his gun to the shoulder and fired the instant the butt lay in the grove. For another moment nothing changed in the appearance of the riders, then a man leaned out of his saddle and fell full length in the water.

Around him his companions floundered, lifted and placed him on the bank, and then threw themselves from their horses to take shelter behind the first rocks they could find; they had no wish to take chances with a man who could snap-shoot like this in such a light, at such a distance. By the time they were in position their quarry had slipped out of sight and they had only the blackening boulders for targets.

"God amighty," cried Ronicky Joe, "are you goin' to let that murderin' hound-dog get clear off, Pete? Boys, who's with me for a run at him?"

For it was Harry Fisher who had fallen and lay now on the wet bank with his arms flung wide and a red spot rimmed with purple in the center of his forehead; and Fisher was Ronicky Joe's partner.

"You lay where you are," commanded the sheriff, and indeed there had been no rousing response to Ronicky Joe's appeal.

"You yaller quitters," groaned Joe. "Give me a square chance and I'll tackle Vic Gregg alone day or night, on hoss or on foot. Are we five goin' to lay down to him?"

"If that was Vic Gregg," answered the sheriff, slipping over the insult with perfect calm, "I wouldn't of told you to scatter for cover; but that ain't Vic."

"Pete, what in hell are you drivin' at?"

"I say it ain't Vic," said the sheriff. "Vic is a good man with a hoss and a good man with a gun, but he couldn't never ride like the gent over there in the rocks, and he couldn't shoot like him."

He pointed, in confirmation, at the body of Harry Fisher.

"You can rush that hill if you want, but speakin' personal, I ain't ready to die."

A thoughtful silence held the others until Sliver Waldron broke it with his deep bass. "You ain't far off, Pete. I done some thinkin' along them lines when I seen him standin' up there over the arroyo wavin' his hat at the bullets. Vic didn't never have the guts for that."

All the lower valley was gray, dark in comparison with the bright peaks above it, before the sheriff rose from his place and led the posse towards the body of Grey Molly. There they found as much confirmation of Pete's theory as they needed, for Vic's silver-mounted saddle was known to all of them, and this was a plain affair which they found on the dead horse. Waldron pushed back his hat to scratch his head.

"Look at them eyes, boys," he suggested. "Molly has been beatin' us all day and she looks like she's fightin' us still."

The sheriff was not a man of very many words, and surely of little sentiment; perhaps it was the heat of the long chase which now made him take off his hat so that the air could reach his sweaty forehead. "Gents," he said, "she lived game and she died game. But they ain't no use of wastin' that saddle. Take it off."

And that was Grey Molly's epitaph.

They decided to head straight back for the nearest town with the body of Harry Fisher, and, fagged by the desperate riding of that day, they let their horses go with loose rein, at a walk. Darkness gathered; the last light faded from even the highest peaks; the last tinge of color dropped out of the sky as they climbed from the valley. Now and then one of the horses cleared its nostrils with a snort, but on the whole they went in perfect silence with the short grass silencing the hoofbeats, and never a word passed from man to man.

Beyond doubt, if it had not been for that same silence, if it had not been for the slowness with which they drifted through the dark, what follows could never have happened. They had crossed a hill, and descended into a very narrow ravine which came to so sharp a point that the horses had to be strung out in single file. The ravine twisted to the right and then the last man of the procession heard the sheriff call: "Halt, there! Up with your hands, or I'll drill you!" When they swung from side to side, craning their heads to look, they made out a shadowy horseman facing Pete head on. Then the sheriff's voice again: "Gregg, I'm considerable glad to meet up with you."

If that meeting had taken place in any other spot probably Gregg would have taken his chance on escaping through the night, but in this narrow pass he could swing to neither side and before he could turn the brown horse entirely around the sheriff might pump him full of lead. They gathered in a solemn quiet around him; the irons were already upon his wrists.

"All right, boys," he said, "you've got me, but you'll have to give in that you had all the luck."

A moment after that sharp command in the familiar, dreaded voice of Pete Glass, Vic had been glad that the lone flight was over. Eventually this was bound to come. He would go back and face the law, and three men lived to swear that Blondy had gone after his gun first.

"Maybe luck," said the sheriff. "How d' you come back this way?"

"Made a plumb circle," chuckled Gregg. "Rode like a fool not carin' where I hit out for, and the end of it was that it was dark before I'd had sense to watch where the sun went down."

"Kind of cheerful, ain't you?" cut in Ronicky Joe, and his voice was as dry as the crisping leaves in an autumn wind.

"They ain't any call for me to wear crepe yet," answered Gregg. "Worst fool thing I ever done was to cut and run for it. The old Captain will tell you gents that Blondy went for his gun first—had it clean out of the leather before I touched mine."

He paused, and the silence of those dark figures sank in upon him.

"I got to warn you," said Pete Glass, "that what you say now can be used again you later on before the jury."

"My God, boys," burst out Vic, "d'you think I'm a plain, low-down, murderin' snake? Harry, ain't you got a word for me? Are you like the rest of 'em?"

No voice answered.

"Harry," said Ronicky, "why don't you speak to him?"

It was a brutal thing to do, but Ronicky was never a gentle sort in his best moments; he scratched a match and held it so that under the spluttering light Gregg found himself staring into the face of Harry Fisher. And he could not turn his eyes away until the match burned down to Ronicky's finger tip and then dropped in a streak of red to the ground.

Then the sheriff spoke cold and hard.

"Partner," he said, "in the old days, maybe your line of talk would do some good, but not now. You picked that fight with Blondy. You knew you was faster on the draw and Hansen didn't have a chance. He was the worst shot in Alder and everybody in Alder knew it. You picked that fight and you killed your man, and you're goin' to hang for it."

Another hush; no murmur of assent or dissent.

"But they's one way out for you, Gregg, and I'm layin' it clear. We wanted you bad, and we got you; but they's another man we want a lot worse. A pile! Gregg, take me where I can find the gent what done for Harry Fisher and you'll never stand up in front of a jury. You got my word on that."

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