Seventh Man, The

Chapter XXVIII. The Blood Of The Father

On the night of her failure at the cave, Kate came back to the cabin and went to her room without any word to Buck or Lee Haines, but when they sat before the fire, silent, or only murmuring, they could hear her moving about. Whatever sleep they got before morning was not free from dreams, for they knew that something was impending, and after breakfast they learned what it was. She struck straight out from the shoulder. She was going up to the cave and if Dan was away she would take Joan by force; she needed help; would they give it? They sat for a long time, looking at each other and then avoiding Kate with their eyes. It was not the fear of death but of something more which both of them connected with the figure of Whistling Dan. It was not until she took her light cartridge belt from the wall and buckled on her gun that they rose to follow. Before the first freshness of the morning passed they were winding up the side of the mountain, Kate a little in the lead, for she alone knew the way.

Where they rounded the shoulder, the men reined the horses with which Kate had provided them and sat looking solemnly at each other.

"Maybe we'll have no chance to talk alone again," said Lee Haines. "This is the last trail either for Barry or for us. And I don't think that Barry is that close to the end of his rope. Buck, give me your hand and say good-bye. All that a man can do against Whistling Dan, and that isn't much, I'll do. Having you along won't make us a whit stronger."

"Thanks," growled Buck Daniels. "Jes save that kind farewell till I show yaller. Hurry up, she's gettin' too far ahead."

At the bottom of the ravine, where they dismounted for the precipitous slope above, Kate showed her first hesitation.

"You both know what it means?" she asked them.

"We sure do," replied Buck.

"Dan will find out that you've helped me, and then he'll never forgive you. Will you risk even that?"

"Kate," broke in Lee Haines, "don't stop for questions. Keep on and we'll follow. I don't want to think of what may happen."

She turned without a word and went up the steep incline.

"What d'you think of your soft girl now?" panted Buck at the ear of Haines. The latter flashed a significant look at him but said nothing. They reached the top of the canyon wall and passed on among the boulders.

Kate had drawn back to them now, and they walked as cautiously as if there were dried leaves under foot.

She had only lifted a finger of warning, and they knew that they were near to the crisis. She came to the great rock around which she had first seen the entrance to the cave on the day before. Inch by inch, with Buck and Lee following her example, they worked toward the edge of the boulder and peered carefully around it.

There opened the cave, and in front of it was Joan playing with what seemed to be a ball of gray fur. Her hair tumbled loose and bright about her shoulders; she wore the tawny hide which Kate had seen before, and on her feet, since the sharp rocks had long before worn out her boots, she had daintily fashioned moccasins. Bare knees, profusely scratched, bare arms rapidly browning to the color of the fur she wore, Haines and Buck had to rub their eyes and look again before they could recognize her.

They must have made a noise—perhaps merely an intaking of breath inaudible even to themselves but clear to the ears of Joan. She was on her feet, with bright, wild eyes glancing here and there. There was no suggestion of childishness in her, but a certain willingness to flee from a great danger or attack a weaker force. She stood alert, rather than frightened, with her head back as if she scented the wind to learn what approached. The ball of gray fur straightened into the sharp ears and the flashing teeth of a coyote puppy. Buck Daniels' foot slipped on a pebble and at the sound the coyote darted to the shadow of a little shrub and crouched there, hardly distinguishable from the shade which covered it, and the child, with infinitely cunning instinct, raced to a patch of yellow sand and tawny rocks among which she cowered and remained there moveless.

One thing at least was certain. Whistling Dan was not in the cave, for if he had been the child would have run to him for protection, or at least cried out in her alarm. This information Haines whispered to Kate and she nodded, turning a white face toward him. Then she stepped out from the rock and went straight toward Joan.

There was no stir in the little figure. Even the wind seemed to take part in the secret and did not lift the golden hair. Once the eyes of the child glittered as they turned toward Kate, but otherwise she made no motion, like a rabbit which will not budge until the very shadow of the reaching hand falls over it.

So it was with Joan, and as Kate leaned silently over her she sprang to her feet and darted between the hands of her mother and away among the rocks. Past the reaching hands of Lee Haines she swerved, but it was only to run straight into the grip of Buck Daniels. Up to that moment she had not uttered a sound, but now she screamed out, twisted in his arms, and beat furiously against his face.

"Joan!" cried Kate. "Joan!"

She reached Buck and unwound his arms from the struggling body of the child.

"Honey, why are you afraid? Oh, my baby!"

For an instant Joan stood free, wavering, and her eyes held steadily upon her mother bright with nothing but fear and strangeness. Then something melted in her little round face, she sighed.

"Munner!" and stole a pace closer. A moment later Kate sat with Joan in her arms, rocking to and fro and weeping.

"What's happened?" gasped Haines to Daniels. "What's happened to the kid?"

"Don't talk," answered Buck, his face gray as that of Kate. "It's Dan's blood."

He drew a great breath.

"Did you see her try to—to bite me while I was holdin' her?"

Kate had started to her feet, holding Joan in one arm and dashing away her tears with the free hand. All weakness was gone from her.

"Hurry!" she commanded. "We haven't any time to lose. Buck, come here! No, Lee, you're stronger. Honey, this is your Uncle Lee. He'll take care of you; he won't hurt you. Will you go to him?"

Joan shrank away while she examined him, but the instincts of a child move with thrice the speed of a mature person's judgment; she read the kindly honesty which breathed from every line of Haines' face, and held out her arms to him.

Then they started down the slope for the horses, running wildly, for the moment they turned their backs on the cave the same thought was in the mind of each, the same haunting fear of that small, shrill whistle pursuing. Half running, half sliding, they went down to the bottom of the gorge. While the pebble they started rushed after them in small avalanches, and they even had to dodge rocks of considerable size which came bounding after, Joan, alert upon the shoulder of Lee Haines, enjoyed every moment of it; her hair tossed in the sun, her arms were outstretched for balance. So they reached the horses, and climbed into the saddles. Then, without a word from one to the other, but with many a backward look, they started on the flight.

By the time they reached the shoulder of the hill on the farther side, with a long stretch of down slope before, they had placed a large handicap between them and the danger of pursuit, but still they were not at ease. On their trail, sooner or later, would come three powers working towards one end, the surety of Black Bart following a scent, the swiftness of Satan which never tired, and above all the rider who directed them both and kept them to their work. His was the arm which could strike from the distance and bring them down. They spurted down the hill.

No sooner were they in full motion than Joan, for the first time, seemed to realize what it was all about. She was still carried by Lee Haines, who cradled her easily in his powerful left arm, but now she began to struggle. Then she stiffened and screamed: "Daddy Dan! Daddy Dan!"

"For God's sake, stop her mouth or he'll hear!" groaned Buck Daniels.

"He can't!" said Haines. "We're too far away even if he were at the cave now."

"I tell you he'll hear! Don't talk to me about distance."

Kate reined her horse beside Lee.

"Joan!" she commanded.

They were sweeping across the meadow now at an easy gallop. Joan screamed again, a wild plea for help.

"Joan!" repeated Kate, and her voice was fierce. She raised her quirt and shook it. "Be quiet, Munner whip—hard!"

Another call died away on the lips of Joan. She looked at her mother with astonishment and then with a new respect.

"If you cry once more, munner whip!"

And Joan was silent, staring with wonder and defiance.

When they came close to the cabin, Lee Haines drew rein, but Kate motioned him on.

"Where to?" he called.

"Back to the old ranch," she answered. "We've got to have help."

He nodded in grim understanding, and they headed on and down the slope towards the valley.

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