Seventh Man, The

Chapter XVIII. Concerning The Strength Of Women

There were three things discussed by Lee Haines and Buck Daniels in the dreary days which followed. The first was to keep on their way across the mountains and cut themselves away from the sorrow of that cabin. The second was to strike the trail of Barry and hunt until they found his refuge and attempt to lead him back to his family. The third was simply to stay on and where they found the opportunity, help Kate. They discarded the first idea without much talk; it would be yellow, they decided, and the debt they owed to the Dan Barry of the old days was too great to be shouldered off so easily: they cast away the second thought still more quickly, for the trail which baffled the shrewd sheriff, as they knew, would be too much for them. It remained to stay with Kate, making excursions through the mountains from day to day to maintain the pretence of carrying on their own business, and always at hand in time of need.

It was no easy part to play, for in the house they found Kate more and more silent, more and more thoughtful, never speaking of her trouble, but behind her eyes a ghost of waiting that haunted them. If the wind shrilled down the pass, if a horse neighed from the corral, there was always the start in her, the thrill of hope, and afterwards the pitiful deadening of her smile. She was not less beautiful they thought, as she grew paler, but the terrible silence of the place drove them away time and again. Even Joan no longer pattered about the house, and when they came down out of the mountains they never heard her shrill laughter. She sat cross-legged by the hearth in her old place during the evenings with her chin resting on one hand and her eyes fixed wistfully upon the fire; and sometimes they found her on the little hillock behind the house, from the top of which she could view every approach to the cabin. Of Dan and even of Black Bart, her playmate she soon learned not to speak, for the mention of them made her mother shrink and whiten. Indeed, the saddest thing in that house was the quiet in which the child waited, waited, waited, and never spoke.

"She ain't more'n a baby," said Buck Daniels, "and you can leave it to time to make her forget."

"But," growled Lee Haines, "Kate isn't a baby. Buck, it drives me damn near crazy to see her fade this way."

"Now you lay to this," answered Buck. "She'll pull through. She'll never forget, maybe, but she'll go on livin' for the sake of the kid."

"You know a hell of a lot about women, don't you?" said Haines.

"I know enough, son," nodded Buck.

He had, in fact, reduced women to a few distinct categories, and he only waited to place a girl in her particular class before he felt quite intimate acquaintance with her entire mind and soul.

"It'll kill her," pronounced Lee Haines. "Why, she's like a flower, Buck, and sorrow will cut her off at the root. Think of a girl like that thrown away in these damned deserts! It makes me sick—sick! She ought to have nothing but velvet to touch—nothing but a millionaire for a husband, and never a worry in her life." He grew excited. "But here's the flower thrown away and the heel crushing it without mercy."

Buck Daniels regarded him with pity.

"I feel kind of sorry for you, Lee, when I hear you talk about girls. No wonder they make a fool of you. A flower crushed under the foot, eh? You just listen to me, my boy. You and me figure to be pretty hard, don't we? Well, soft pine stacked up agin' quartzite, is what we are compared to Kate."

Lee Haines gaped at him, too astonished to be angry. He suggested softening of the brain to Buck, but the latter waved aside the implications.

"Now, supposin' Kate was one of these dark girls with eyes like black diamonds and a lot of snap and zip to her. If she was like that I s'pose you'd figure her to forget all about Dan inside of a month—and maybe marry you?"

"You be damned!"

"Maybe I am. Them hard, snappy lookin' girls are the ones that smash. They're brittle, that's why; but you take a soft lookin' girl like Kate, maybe she ain't a diamond point to cut glass, but she's tempered steel that'll bend, and bend, and bend, and then when you wait for it to break it flips up and knocks you down. That's Kate."

Lee Haines rolled a cigarette in silence. He was too disgusted to answer, until his first puff of smoke dissolved Buck in a cloud of thin blue.

"You ought to sing to a congregation instead of to cows, Buck. You have the tune, and you might get by in a church; but cows have sense."

"Kate will buckle and bend and fade for a while," went on Buck, wholly unperturbed, "but just when you go out to pick daisies for her you'll come back and find her singing to the stove. Her strength is down deep, like some of these outlaw hosses that got a filmy, sleepy lookin' eye. They save their hell till you sink the spurs in 'em. You think she loves Dan, don't you?"

"I have a faint suspicion of it," sneered Haines. "I suppose I'm wrong?"

"You are."

"Buck, I may have slipped a nickel into you, but you're playing the wrong tune. Knock off and talk sense, will you?"

"When you grow up, son, you'll understand some of the things I'm tryin' to explain in words of one syllable.

"She don't love Dan. She thinks she does, but down deep they ain't a damned thing in the world she gives a rap about exceptin' Joan. Men? What are they to her? Marriage? That's simply an accident that's needed so she can have a baby. Delicate, shrinkin' flower, is she? I tell you, my boy, if it was necessary for Joan she'd tear out your heart and mine and send Dan plumb to hell. You fasten on to them words, because they're gospel."

It was late afternoon while they talked, and they were swinging slowly down a gulch towards the home cabin. At that very time Kate, from the door of the house where she sat, saw a dark form slink from rock to rock at the rim of the little plateau, a motion so swift that it flicked through the corner of her eye, a thing to be sensed rather than seen. She set up very stiff, her lips white as chalk, but nothing more stirred. A few minutes later, when her heart was beating almost at normal she heard Joan scream from behind the house, not in terror, or pain, as her keen mother-ear knew perfectly well, but with a wild delight. She whipped about the corner of the house and there she saw Joan with her pudgy arms around the neck of Black Bart.

"Bart! Dear old Bart! Has he come? Has he come?"

And she strained her eyes against the familiar mountains around her as if she would force her vision through rock. There was no trace of Dan, no sign or sound when she would even have welcomed the eerie whistle. The wolf-dog was already at play with Joan. She was on his back and he darted off in an effortless gallop, winding to and fro among the rocks. Most children would have toppled among the stones at the first of his swerves, but Joan clung like a burr, both hands dug into his hair, shrieking with excitement. Sometimes she reeled and almost slid at one of those lightning turns, for the game was to almost unseat her, but just as she was sliding off Bart would slacken his pace and let her find a firm seat once more. They wound farther and farther away, and suddenly Kate cried, terror-stricken: "Joan! Come back!"

A tug at the ear of the wolf-dog swung them around; then as they approached, the fear left the mind of the mother and a new thought came in its place. She coaxed Joan from Bart—they could play later on, she promised, to their heart's desire—and led her into the house. Black Bart followed to the door, but not all their entreaty or scolding could make him cross the threshold. He merely snarled at Kate, and even Joan's tugging at his ears could not budge him. He stood canting his head and watching them wistfully while Kate changed Joan's clothes.

She dressed her as if for a festival, with a blue bonnet that let the yellow hair curl out from the edges, and a little blue cloak, and shiny boots incredibly small, and around the bonnet she laid a wreath of yellow wild flowers. Then she wrote her letter, closed it in an envelope, and fastened it securely in the pocket of the cloak.

She drew Joan in front of her and held her by both hands.

"Joan, darling," she said, "munner wants you to go with Bart up through the mountains. Will you be afraid?"

A very decided shake of the head answered her, for Joan's eyes were already over her shoulder looking towards the big dog. And she was a little sullen at these unnecessary words.

"It might grow dark," she said. "You wouldn't care?"

Here Joan became a little dubious, but a whine from Bart seemed to reassure her.

"Bart will keep Joan," she said.

"He will. And he'll take you up through the rocks to Daddy Dan."

The face of the child grew brilliant.

"Daddy Dan?" she whispered.

"And when you get to him, take this little paper out of your pocket and give it to him. You won't forget?"

"Give the paper to Daddy Dan," repeated Joan solemnly.

Kate dropped to her knees and gathered the little close, close, until Joan cried out, but when she was eased the child reached up an astonished hand, touched the face of Kate with awe, and then stared at her finger tips.

A moment later, Joan stood in front of Black Bart, with the head of the wolf-dog seized firmly between her hands while she frowned intently into his face.

"Take Joan to Daddy Dan," she ordered.

At the name, the sharp ears pricked; a speaking intelligence grew up in his eyes.

"Giddap," commanded Joan, when she was in position on the back of Bart. And she thumped her heels against the furry ribs.

Towards Kate, who stood trembling in the door, Bart cast the departing favor of a throat-tearing growl, and then shambled across the meadow with that smooth trot which wears down all other four-footed creatures. He was already on the far side of the meadow, and beginning the ascent of the first slope when the glint of the sun on the yellow wild flowers flashed on the eye of Kate. It had all seemed natural until that moment, the only possible thing to do, but now she felt suddenly that Joan was thrown away thought of the darkness which would soon come—remembered the yellow terror which sometimes gleamed in the eyes of Black Bart after nightfall.

She cried out, but the wolf-dog kept swiftly on his way. She began to run, still calling, but rapidly as she went, Black Bart slid steadily away from her, and when she reached the shoulder of the mountain, she saw the dark form of Bart with the blue patch above it drifting up the wall of the opposite ravine.

She knew where they were going now; it was the old cave upon which she and Dan had come one day in their rides, and Dan had prowled for a long time through the shadowy recesses.

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