As Vic Gregg left the house, the new moon peered at him over a black mountain-top, a sickle of white with a half imaginary line rounding the rest of the circle, and to the shaken mind of Vic it seemed as if a ghostly spectator had come out to watch the tragedy among the peaks. At the line of the rocks the sheriff spoke.
"Gregg, you've busted your contract. You didn't bring him out."
Vic threw his revolver on the ground.
"I bust the rest of it here and now. I'm through. Put on your irons and take me back. Hang me and be damned to you, but I'll do no more to double-cross him."
Sliver Waldron drew from his pocket something which jangled faintly, but the sheriff stopped him with a word. He sat up behind his rock.
"I got an idea, Gregg, that you've finished up your job and double-crossed us! Does he know that I'm out here? Sit down there out of sight."
"I'll do that," said Gregg, obeying, "because you got the right to make me, but you ain't got the right to make me talk, and nothin' this side of hell can pry a word out of me!"
The sheriff drew down his brows until his eyes were merely cavities of blackness. Very tenderly he fondled the rifle-butt which lay across his knees, and never in the mountain-desert had there been a more humbly unpretentious figure of a man.
He said: "Vic, I been thinkin' that you had the man-sized makin's of a skunk, but I'm considerable glad to see I've judged you wrong. Sit quiet here. I ain't goin' to put no irons on you if you give me your parole."
"I'll see you in hell before I give you nothin'. I was a man, or a partways man, till I met up with you tonight, and now I'm a houn'-dog that's done my partner dirt! God amighty, what made me do it?"
He beat his knuckles against his forehead.
"What you've done you can't undo," answered the sheriff. "Vic, I've seen gents do considerable worse than you've done and come clean afterwards. You're goin' to get off for what you've done to Blondy, and you're goin' to live straight afterwards. You're goin' to get married and you're goin' to play white. Why, man, I had to use you as far as I could. But you think I wanted you to bring me out Barry? You couldn't look Betty square in the face if you'd done what you set out to do. Now, I ain't pressin' you, but I done some scouting while you was away, and I heard four men's voices in the house. Can you tell me who's there?"
"You've played square, Pete," answered Vic hoarsely, "and I'll do my part. Go down and get on your hosses and ride like hell; because in ten minutes you're goin' to have three bad ones around your necks."
A mutter came from the rest of the posse, for this was rather more than they had planned ahead. The sheriff, however, only sighed, and as the moonlight increased Vic could see that he was deeply, childishly contented, for in the heart of the little dusty man there was that inextinguishable spark, the love of battle. Chance had thrown him on the side of the law, but sooner or later dull times were sure to come and then Pete Glass would cut out work of his own making go bad. The love of the man-trail is a passion that works in two ways, and they who begin by hunting will in the end be the hunted; the mountain-desert is filled with such histories.
"Three to five," said the sheriff, "sounds more interestin', Vic."
A sudden passion to destroy that assured calm rose in Gregg.
"Three common men might make you a game," he said, glowering, "but them ain't common ones. One of 'em I don't know, but he has a damned nervous hand. Another is Lee Haines!"
He had succeeded in part, at least. The sheriff sat bolt erect; he seemed to be hearing distant music.
"Lee Haines!" he murmured. "That was Jim Silent's man. They say he was as fast with a gun as Jim himself." He sighed again. "They's nothing like a big man, Vic, to fill your sights."
"Daniels and Haines, suppose you count them off agin' the rest of your gang, Pete. That leaves Barry for you." He grinned maliciously. "D'you know what Barry it is?"
"It's a kind of common name, Vic."
"Pete, have you heard of Whistlin' Dan?"
No doubt about it, he had burst the confidence of the sheriff into fragments. The little man began to pant and even in the dim light Vic could see that his face was working.
"Him!" he said at length. And then: "I might of knowed! Him!" He leaned closer. "Keep it to yourself, Vic, or you'll have the rest of the boys runnin' for cover before the fun begins."
He snuggled a little closer to his rock and turned his head towards the house.
"Him!" he said again.
Columbus, when he saw the land of his dream wavering blue in the distance, might have hailed it with such a heart-filling whisper, and Vic knew that when these two met, these two slender, small men—with the uneasy hands, there would be a battle whose fame would ring from range to range.
"If they was only a bit more light," muttered the sheriff. "My God, Vic, why ain't the moon jest a mite nearer the full!"
After that, not a word for a long time until the lights in the house were suddenly extinguished.
"So they won't show up agin no background when they make their run," murmured the sheriff. He pushed up his hat brim so that it covered his eyes more perfectly. "Boys, get ready. They're comin' now!"
Mat Henshaw took up the word, and repeated it, and the whisper ran down the line of men who lay irregularly among the rocks, until at last Sliver Waldron brought it to a stop with a deep murmur. Not even a whisper could altogether disguise his booming bass. It seemed to Vic Gregg that the air about him grew more tense; his arm muscles commenced to ache from the gripping of his hands. Then a door creaked—they could tell the indubitable sound as if there were a light to see it swing cautiously wide.
"They're goin' out the back way," interpreted the sheriff, "but they'll come around in front. They ain't any other way they can get out of here. Pass that down the line, Mat."
Before the whisper had trailed out half its course, a woman screamed in the house. It sent a jag of lightning through the brain of Vic Gregg; he started up.
"Get down," commanded the sheriff 'curtly. "Or they'll plant you."
"For God's sake, Pete, he's killin' his wife—an'—he's gone mad—I seen it comin' in his eyes!"
"Shut up," muttered Glass, "an' listen."
A pulse of sound floated out to them, and stopped the breath of Gregg; it was a deep, stifled sobbing.
"She's begged him to stay with her; he's gone," said the sheriff. "Now it'll come quick."
But the sheriff was wrong. There was not a sound, not a sign of a rush.
Presently: "What sort of a lass is she, Gregg?"
"All yaller hair, Pete, and the softes' blue eyes you ever see."
The sheriff made no answer, but Vic saw the little bony hand tense about the barrel of the rifle. Still that utter quiet, with the pulse of the sobbing lying like a weight upon the air, and the horror of the waiting mounted and grew, like peak upon peak before the eyes of the climber.
"Watch for 'em sneakin' up on us through the rocks. Watch for 'em close, lads. It ain't goin' to be a rush."
Once more the sibilant murmur ran down the line, and the voice of Sliver Waldron brought it faintly to a period.
"Three of 'em," continued the sheriff, "and most likely they'll come at us three ways."
Through the shadow Vic watched the lips of Glass work and caught the end of his soft murmur to himself: ".... all three!"
He understood; the sheriff had offered up a deep prayer that all three might fall by his gun.
Up from the farther end of the line the whisper ran lightly, swiftly, with a stammer of haste in it: "To the right!"
Ay, there to the right, gliding from the corner of the house, went a dark form, and then another, and disappeared among the rocks. They had offered not enough target for even chance shooting.
"Hold for close range" ordered the sheriff, and the order was repeated. However much he might wish to win all the glory of the fray, the sheriff took no chances—threw none of his odds away. He was a methodical man.
A slight patter caught the ear of Vic, like the running of many small children over a heavy carpet, and then two shades blew around the side of the house, one small and scudding close to the ground, the other vastly larger—a man on horseback. It seemed a naked horse at first, so close to the back did the rider lean, and before Vic could see clearly the vision burst on them all. Several things kept shots from being fired earlier.
The first alarm had called attention to the opposite side of the house from that on which the rider appeared; then, the moon gave only a vague, treacherous light, and the black horse blended into it—the grass lightened the fall of his racing feet.
Like a ship driving through a fog they rushed into view, the black stallion, and Bart fleeting in front, and the surprise was complete. Vic could see it work even in the sheriff, for the latter, having his rifle trained towards his right jerked it about with a short curse and blazed at the new target, again, again, and the line of the posse joined the fire. Before the crack of their guns went from the ears of Vic, long before the echoes bellowed back from the hills, Satan leaped high up. Perhaps that change of position saved both it and its rider. Straight across the pale moon drove the body with head stretched forth, ears back, feet gathered close—a winged horse with a buoyant figure upon it. It cleared a five foot rock, and rushed instantly out of view among the boulders. The fugitive had fired only one shot, and that when the stallion was at the crest of its leap.