The moment Vic Gregg stood in the open air, with the last appeal of Betty ringing still at his ear, he felt a profound conviction that he was about to die and he stood a moment breathing deeply, taking the faint alkali scent of the dust and looking up to the stars. It was that moment when night blends with day and there is no sign of light in the sky except that the stars burn more and more bright as the darkness thickens, and Vic Gregg watched the stars draw down more closely and believed that he was seeing this for the last time. Alder seemed inexpressibly dear to him as he stood there through a little space, and the vaguely discernible outlines of the shacks along the street were like the faces of friends. In that house behind him was Betty Neal, waiting, praying for him, and indeed, had it not been for shame, he would have weakened now and turned back. For he hardly knew which way to turn. He wanted to save Ronicky and the other two from the attack of Barry, yet he would not lay a trap for Dan. To Barry he owed a vast debt; his debt to the three was that which any human being owes to another. He had to save them from the wolf which ran through the night in the body of a man.
That thought sent him at a run for Captain Lorrimer's saloon. It was lighted brilliantly by the gasoline lamp within, but a short distance away from it he heard no sound and his imagination drew a terrible picture of the big, empty room, with three dead men lying in the center of it where the destroyer had reached them one by one. That was what took the blood from his face and made him a white mask of tragedy when he stepped into the door of the saloon. It was quiet, but half a dozen men sat at the tables in the corner, and among them were Ronicky and the other two. Sliver Waldron was in the very act of pulling back his chair, and perhaps all three had just come in. Perhaps Barry had come here to look for his quarry and found them not yet arrived; perhaps he was now hunting in other places through the town; perhaps he was even now crouched in the shadow near at hand and ready to attack.
It made the hand of Vic Gregg contract with a cruel pressure when it fell on the shoulder of Sliver Waldron.
"Now, what in hell!" grunted that hardened warrior.
He had no love for Vic Gregg since that day when the posse rode through the hills after him; neither had Ronicky or Gus Reeve, who rose from their chairs as if at a signal. "Come with me, gents," said Vic. "An' come quick!"
They asked no questions and did not stay to argue the point for he had that in his face which meant action. He led them outside, and behind the horse shed of the saloon.
"We're alone?" he asked.
"Nothin' in sight."
They peered about them through the night, and a wan moon only helped to make the darkness visible.
"Gents, we may be alone now, but we ain't goin' to be alone long. Get your bosses and ride like hell. Barry is in town!"
"Vic, you're drunk."
"I tell you, he's been seen—"
"Then by God," growled Sliver Waldron, "lead me to him. I need to have a little talk with that gent."
"Lead you to him?" echoed Vic Gregg. "Sliver, are you hungerin' to push daisies?"
"Look here, Bud," answered the older man, and he laid a hand on the shoulder of Vic. "You been with this Barry, gent, and you've lived in his house. D'you mean to say you're one of the lot that talks about him like he was a ghost bullets couldn't harm? I tell you, son, they's been so much chatter about him that folks forget he's human. I'm goin' to remind 'em of that little fact."
Vic Gregg groaned. Even while he talked he was glancing over his shoulder as if he feared the shadows under the moon. His voice was half gasp, half whisper.
"Sliver—Ronicky—don't ask me how I know—jest believe me when I say Dan Barry'll never die by the hand of any man. I tell you—he can see in the dark!"
A soft oath from Gus Reeve; a twitching of Ronicky's head told that this last had taken effect. Sliver Waldron suddenly altered his manner.
"All right, Vic. Trot back into town, or come with us. We're going to move out."
"The wisest thing you ever done, Sliver."
"I'm feelin' the same way," breathed Gus Reeve.
"S'long," whispered Vic Gregg, and faded into the night, running.
The others, without a word among themselves, gathered their horses and struck down the valley out of Alder. The padding and swish of the sand about the feet of their mounts; the very creaking of the saddle leather seemed to alarm them, and they were continually turning and looking back. That is, Gus Reeve and Ronicky Joe manifested these signs of trouble, but Sliver Waldron, riding in the center of the trio, never moved his head. They were hardly well out of the town when a swift rush of hoof beats swept up from behind, and a horseman darted into the pale mist of the valley bending low over his pommel to cut the wind of his riding.
"Who is it?"
"Vic Gregg!" muttered Gus Reeve. "Stir, along, Sliver. Vic ain't lingerin' any!"
But Sliver Waldron drew rein, and let his horse go on at a walk.
"Hearin' you talk, Ronicky," he said, "you'd think you was really scared of Dan Barry."
Ronicky Joe stiffened in his saddle and peered through the uncertain light to make out if Sliver were jesting. But the latter seemed perfectly grave.
"A gent would almost think," went on Sliver, "that we three was runnin' away from Barry, instead of goin' out to set a trap for him."
There was something nearly akin to a grunt from Gus Reeve, but Ronicky merely continued to stare at the leader.
"'S a matter of fact," said Sliver, "when Vic was talkin' I sort of felt the chills go up my back. How about you, Ronicky?"
"I'll tell a man," sighed Ronicky. "While Vic was talkin' I seen that devil comin' on his hoss like he done when he broke out of the cabin that night. I'll tell you straight, Sliver. I had my gun drilled on him. I couldn't of missed; but after I fired he kept straight on. It was like puncturin' a shadow!"
"Sure," nodded Sliver. "Shootin' by night ain't ever a sure thing."
Ronicky wiped his heated brow.
"So I sent Vic away before he had a chance to get real nervous. But when he comes back—well, boys, it'll be kind of amusin' to watch Vic's face when he saunters into town tomorrow and sees Dan Barry—maybe dead, maybe in the irons. Eh?"
Only a deep silence answered him, but in the interest which his words excited the terror seemed to have left Ronicky and Gus. They rode close, their heads toward Sliver alone.
"There goes Vic," mused Sliver. "There he goes—go on. Mac, you old fool!—scared to death, ridin' for his life. And why? Because he believes some ghost stories he's heard about Dan Barry!"
"Ghost stories?" echoed Reeve. "Some of 'em ain't fairy tales, Sliver."
"Jest name one that ain't!"
"Well, the way he trailed Jim Silent. We've all heard of Silent, and Barry—was too good for him."
"Bah," sneered Sliver. "Too good for Silent? Ye lied readily enough: booze done for Silent long before Barry come along."
"I'll tell a man it is. Mind you, I don't say Barry ain't handy with his gun; but he's done a little and the gents have furnished the trimmin's. Look here, if Barry is the man-eater they say, why did he pick a time for comin' down when the sheriff was out of town?"
"By God!" exclaimed Ronicky. "I never thought of that!"
"Sure you didn't," chuckled Sliver. "But this sucker figures that you and Gus and me will be easy pickin's. He figures we'll do what Vic did—hit for the tall pines. Then he'll blow around how he ran the four of us out of Alder. Be pleasant comin' back to talk like that, eh?"
There was a volley of rapid curses from the other two.
"We'll get this cheap skate, Sliver," suggested Ronicky. "We'll get this ghost and tie him up and take him back to Alder and make a show of him."
"We will," nodded Sliver. "Have you figured how?"
"Lie out here in the bush. He'll hunt around Alder all night and when the mornin' comes he'll leave and he'll come out this way. We'll be ready for him where the valley's narrow down there. They say his hoss and his dog is as bad as any two ordinary men. Well, that's three of them and here's three of us. It's an even break, eh?"
"Ronicky," murmured Sliver, "I always knowed you had the brains. We'll take this gent and tame him, and run him back to Alder on the end of a rope."
Gus Reeve whooped and waved his hat at the thought.
So the three reached the point where the shadowy walls of the valley narrowed, drew almost together. There they placed the horses in a hollow near the southern cliff, and they returned to take post. There was only one bridle path which wound through the gulch here, and the three concealed themselves behind a thicket of sagebrush to wait.
They laid their plan carefully. Each man was to have his peculiar duty: Gus Reeve, an adept with the rope, would wait until the black stallion was cantering past and then toss his noose and throw the horse. At the same instant, Ronicky Joe would shoot the wolf-dog, and Sliver Waldron would perforate Dan Barry while the latter rolled in the dust, unless, indeed, he was pinioned by the fall of his horse, in which case they would have the added glory of taking him alive.
By the time all these details were settled the pale moonlight was shot through with the rose of dawn. Then, rapidly, the mountains lifted into view, range beyond range, all their gullies deep blue and purple, and here and there sharp triangles of snow. There was not a cloud, not a trace of mist, and through the crisp, thin air the vision carried as if through a telescope. They could count the trees on the upper ridges; and that while the floor of the valley was still in shadow. This in turn grew brilliant, and everywhere the sage brush glittered like foliage carved in gray-green quartz.
It was then that they saw Dan Barry, while the dawn was still around them, and before the sun pushed up in the east above the mountains. He came winding down the bridle path with the dawn glittering on the side of Satan, and a dark, swift form spiriting on ahead.
"Look at him!" muttered Sliver Waldron. "The damned wolf is a scout. See him nose around that hummock? Watch him smell behind that bush. The black devil!"
Bart, in fact, wove a loose course before his master, running here and there to all points of vantage, as if he knew that danger lurked ahead, but where he came close, with only the narrow passage between the cliffs, he seemed to make up his animal brain that there could be no trouble in so constricted a place, and darted straight ahead.
"They're ours," whispered Waldron. "Steady, boys. Gus, get your rope, get ready!"
Gus tossed the noose a little wider, and gathered himself for the throw, but it seemed as if the wolf saw or heard the movement. He stopped suddenly and stood with his head high; behind him the rider checked the black horse; all three waited.
"He's tryin' to get the wind," chuckled Waldron, "but the wind is ag'in' our faces!"
It was only a slight breeze, but it came directly against the lurking three; and moreover the scent of the sage was particularly keen at this time of the day, and quite sufficient to blur the scent of man even in the keen nostrils of Black Bart. Only for a second or so he stood there sniffing the wind, a huge animal, larger than any wolf the three had ever seen; his face wise in a certain bear-like fashion from the three gray marks in the center of his forehead. Now he trotted ahead, and the stallion broke into a gallop behind.
"My God," whispered Sliver to Gus, "don't spoil that hoss when you daub the rope on him! Look at that action; like runnin' water!"
They came more rapidly. As if the rider knew that a point of danger was there to be passed, he spoke to his mount, and Satan lengthened into a racing gait that blew the brim of the rider's hat straight up. On they came. The wolf-dog darted past. Then as the horse swept by, Gus Reeve rose from behind his bush and the rope darted snakelike from his hand. The forefeet of Satan landed in the noose, and the next instant the back-flung weight of Gus tightened the rope, and Satan shot over upon his side, flinging the master clear of the saddle.
It sent him rolling over and over in the dust, and Sliver Waldron was on his feet with both guns in action, sending bullet after bullet towards the tumbling body. Gus Reeve was running towards the stallion, his rope in action to entangle one of the hindfeet and make sure of his prey; Ronicky Joe had leaped up with a yell and blazed away at Black Bart.
It was no easy mark to strike, for the moment the rope shot out from the hand of Gus, the wolf-dog whirled in his tracks and darted straight for the scene of action. It was that, perhaps, which troubled the aim of Ronicky more than anything else, for wild animals do not whirl in this fashion and run for an assailant. He had expected to find himself plugging away at a flying target in the distance; instead, the black monster was rushing straight for him, silently. Indeed, all that followed was in silence after that first wild Indian yell from Ronicky Joe. His gun barked, but Black Bart was running like a football player down a broken field, swerving here and there with uncanny speed. Again, again, Joe missed, and then flung up his arm toward the flying danger. But Black Bart shot from the ground to make his kill. He could bring down the strongest bull in the herd. What was the arm of a man to him? His snake-like head shot through that futile guard; his teeth cut off the screams of Ronicky Joe. Down they went. The gun flew from the hand of Ronicky; for an instant he struggled with hands and writhing legs, and then the murderous teeth of Bart sank deeper, found the life. The dead body was limp, but Bart, shaking his hold deeper to make sure, glared across to the fallen master.
The third man had died for Grey Molly.
All this had happened in a second, and the body of Barry was still rolling when a gun flashed in his hand, drawn while he tumbled. It spat fire, and Sliver Waldron staggered forward drunkenly, waved both his armed hands as if he were trying to talk by signal, and pitched on his face into the dust.
The fourth man had died for Grey Molly.
No gun was destined for Gus Reeve, however. Black Bart had left the lifeless body of his victim and was darting towards the third man; the master was on his knee, raising his gun for the last shot; but Gus Reeve was blind to all that had happened. He saw only the black stallion, the matchless prize of horseflesh. He tossed a loop in the taut rope to entangle a bind foot, but that slackening of the line gave Satan his instant's purchase, and a moment later he was on his feet, whirled, and two iron-hard hoofs crushed the whole framework of the man's chest like an egg-shell. The impact lifted him from his feet, but before that body struck the ground the life was fled from it. The fifth man had died for Grey Molly.