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Seventh Man, The

Chapter XXIX. Billy The Clerk

If Sheriff Pete Glass had been the typical hard-riding, sure-shooting officer of the law as it is seen in the mountain-desert, his work would have died with his death, but Glass had a mind as active as his hands, and therefore, for at least a little while, his work went on after him. He had gathered fifteen practiced fighters who represented, it might be said, the brute body of the law, and when they, with most of Rickett at their heels, burst down the door of the Sheriff's office and found his body, they had only one thought, which was to swing into the saddle and ride on the trail of the killer, who was even now in a diminishing cloud of dust down the street. He was riding almost due east, and the cry went up: "He's streakin' it for the Morgan Hills. Git after him, boys!" So into the saddle they went with a rush, fifteen tried men on fifteen chosen horses, and went down the street with a roar of hoof-beats. That was the body and muscle of the sheriff's work going out to avenge him, but the mind of the law remained behind.

It was old Billy, the clerk. No one paid particular attention to Billy, and they never had. He was useless on a horse and ridiculous with a gun, and the only place where he seemed formidable was behind a typewriter. Now he sat looking, down into the dead face of Pete Glass, trying to grasp the meaning of it all. From the first he had been with Pete, from the first the invincibility of the little dusty man had been the chief article of Billy's creed, and now his dull eyes, bleared with thirty years of clerical labor, wandered around on the galaxy of dead men who looked down at him from the wall. He leaned over and took the hand of the sheriff as one would lean to help up a fallen man, but the fingers were already growing cold, and then Billy realized for the first time that this was death. Pete Glass had been; Pete Glass was not.

Next he knew that something had to be done, but what it was he could not tell, for he sat in the sheriff's office and in that room he was accustomed to stop thinking and receive orders. He went back to his own little cubby-hole, and sat down behind the typewriter; at once his mind cleared, thoughts came, and linked themselves into ideas, pictures, plans.

The murderer must be taken, dead or alive, and those fifteen men had ridden out to do the necessary thing. They had seemed irresistible, as they departed; indeed, no living thing they met could withstand them, human or otherwise, as Billy very well knew. Yet he recalled a saying of the sheriff, a thing he had insisted upon: "No man on no hoss will ever ride down Whistlin' Dan Barry. It's been tried before and it's never worked. I've looked up his history and it can't be done. If he's goin' to be ran down it's got to be done with relays, like you was runnin' down a wild hoss." Billy rubbed his bald head and thought and thought.

With that orderliness which had become his habit of mind, from work with reports and papers, sorting and filing away, Billy went back to the beginning. Dan Barry was fleeing. He started from Rickett, and nine chances out of ten he was heading, eventually, towards those practically impenetrable mountain ranges where the sheriff before had lost the trail after the escape from the cabin and the killing of Mat Henshaw. Towards this same region, again, he had retreated after the notorious Killing at Alder. There was no doubt, then, humanly speaking, that he would make for the same safe refuge.

At first glance this seemed quite improbable, to be sure, for the Morgan Hills lay due east, or very nearly east, while the place from which Barry must have sallied forth and to which he would return was somewhere well north of west, and a good forty miles away. It seemed strange that he should strike off in the opposite direction, so Billy closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and summoned up a picture of the country.

Five miles to the east the Morgan Hills rolled, sharply broken ups and downs of country—bad lands rather than real hills, and a difficult region to keep game in view. That very idea gave Billy his clue. Barry knew that he would be followed hard and fast, and he headed straight for the Morgan's to throw the posse off the final direction he intended to take in his flight. In spite of the matchless speed of that black stallion of which the sheriff had learned so much, he would probably let the posse keep within easy view of him until he was deep within the bad-lands. Then he would double, sharply around and strike out in the true direction of his flight.

Having reached this point in his deductions, Billy smote his hands together. He was trembling with excitement so that he filled his pipe with difficulty. By the time it was drawing well he was back examining his mental picture of the country.

West of Rickett about the same distance as Morgan Hills, ran the Wago Mountains, low, rolling ranges which would hardly form an impediment for a horseman. Across these Barry might cut at a good speed on his western course, but some fifteen or twenty miles from Rickett he was bound to reach a most difficult barrier. It was the Asper river, at this season of the year swollen high and swift with snow-water—a rare feat indeed if a man could swim his horse across such a stream. There were only two places in which it could be forded.

About fifty miles north and a little east of the line from Rickett the Asper spread out into a broad, shallow bed, its streams dispersed for several miles into a number of channels which united again, farther down the course, and made the same strong river. Towards this ford, therefore, it was possible that Dan Barry would head, in the region of Caswell City.

There was, however, another way of crossing the stream. Almost due west of Rickett, a distance of fifteen miles, Tucker Creek joined the Asper. Above the point of junction both the creek and the river were readily fordable, and Barry could cross them and head straight for his goal.

It was true that to make Tucker Creek he would have to double out of the Morgan Hills and brush back perilously close to Rickett, but Billy was convinced that this was the outlaw's plan; for though the Caswell City fords would be his safest route it would take him a day's ride, on an ordinary horse, out of his way. Besides, the sheriff had always said: "Barry will play the chance!"

Billy would have ventured his life that the fugitive would strike straight for the Creek as soon as he doubled out of Morgan Hills.

Doors began to bang; a hundred pairs of boots thudded and jingled towards Billy; the noise of voices rolled through the outer hall, poured through the door, burst upon his ears. He looked up in mild surprise; the first wave of Rickett's men had swept out of the courthouse to take the trail of the fugitive or to watch the pursuit; in this second wave came the remnants, the old men, the women; great-eyed children. In spite of their noise of foot and voice they appeared to be trying to walk stealthily, talk so softly. They leaned about his desk and questioned him with gesticulations, but he only stared. They were all dim as dream people to Billy the clerk, whose mind was far away struggling with his problem.

"Pore old Billy is kind of dazed," suggested a woman. "Don't bother him, Bud. Look here!"

The tide of noise and faces broke on either side of the desk and swayed off towards the inner office and vaguely Billy felt that they should not be there—the sheriff's privacy—the thought almost drew him back to complete consciousness, but he was borne off from them, again, on a wave of study, pictures. Off there to the east went the fifteen best men of the mountain-desert on the trail of the slender fellow with the black hair and the soft brown eyes. How he had seemed to shrink with aloofness, timidity, when he stood there at the door, giving his name. It was not modesty. Billy knew now; it was something akin to the beasts of prey, who shrink from the eyes of men until they are mad with hunger, and in the slender man Billy remembered the same shrinking, the same hunger. When he struck, no wonder that even the sheriff went down; no wonder if even the fifteen men were baffled on that trail; and therefore, it was sufficiently insane for him, Billy the clerk, to sit in his office and dream with his ineffectual hands of stopping that resistless flight. Yet he pulled himself back to his problem.

Considering his problem in general, the thing was perfectly simple: Barry was sure to head west, and to the west there were only two gates—fording the creek and the river above the junction in the first place, or in the second place cutting across the Asper far north at Caswell City.

If he could be turned from the direction of Tucker Creek he would head for the second possible crossing, and when he drew near Caswell City if he were turned by force of numbers again he would unquestionably skirt the Asper, hoping against hope that he might find a fordable place as he galloped south. But, going south, he might be fenced again from Tucker Creek, and then his case would be hopeless and his horse worn down.

It was a very clever plan, quite simple after it was once conceived, but in order to execute it properly it was necessary that the outlaw be pressed hard every inch of the way and never once allowed to get out of sight. He must be chased with relays. In ordinary stretches of the mountain-desert that would have been impossible, but the country around Rickett was not ordinary.

Between the Morgan Hills and Wago there were considerable stretches of excellent farm land in the center of which little towns had grown up. Running north from the country seat, they were St. Vincent, Wago, and Caswell City. Coming south again along the Asper River there were Ganton and Wilsonville, and just above the junction of the river with Tucker Creek lay the village of Bly Falls. There was no other spot in the mountain-desert, perhaps, which could show so many communities. Also it was possible to get in touch with the towns from Rickett, for in a wild spirit of enterprise telephones had been strung to connect each village of the group.

His hand went out mechanically and pushed in an open drawer of his filing cabinet as if he were closing up the affair, putting away the details of the plan. Each point was now clear, orderly assembled. It meant simply chasing Barry along a course which covered close to a hundred miles and which lay in a loosely shaped U. St. Vincent's was the tip of the eastern side of that U. The men of St. Vincent's were to be called out to turn the outlaw out of his course towards Tucker Creek, and then, as he struck northeast towards Caswell City, they were to furnish the posse with fifteen fresh horses, the best they could gather on such short notice. Swinging north along that side of the U, Wago would next be warned to get its contribution of fifteen horses ready, and this fresh relay would send Barry thundering along towards Caswell City at full speed. Then Caswell City would send out its contingent of men and horses, and turn the fugitive back from the fords. By this time, unless his horse were better winded than any that Billy had ever dreamed of, it would be staggering at every stride, and the fresh horses from Caswell City would probably ride him down before he had gone five miles. Even in case they failed in this, there was the little town of Ganton, which would be ready with its men and mounts. Perhaps they could hem in the desperado from the front and shoot him down there, as he skirted along the river. At the worst they would furnish the fresh horses and the fifteen hardy riders would spur at full speed south along the river. If again, by some miracle, the black stallion lasted out this run, Wilsonville lay due ahead, and that place would again give new horses to the chase.

Last of all, the men of Bly Falls could be warned. Bly Falls was a town of size and it could turn out enough men to block a dozen Dan Barrys, no matter how desperate. If he reached that point, he must turn back. The following posse would catch him from the rear, and between two fires he must die ingloriously. Taking the plan as a whole it meant running Barry close to a hundred miles with six sets of horses.

It all hinged, however, on the first step: Could the men of St. Vincent turn him out of his western course and send him north towards Caswell City? If they could, he was no better than a dead man. All things favored Billy. In the first place it was still morning, and eight hours of broad daylight would keep the fugitive in view every inch of the way. In the second place, much of the distance was cut up by the barb-wire fences of the farm-lands, and he must either jump these or else stop to cut them.

A crackle of laughter cut in on Billy the clerk. They were laughing in that inner office, where the sheriff lay dead. Blood swept across his eyes, set his brain whirling, and he rushed to the door.

"You yelpin' coyotes!" shouted Billy the clerk. "Get out. I got to be alone! Get out, or by God—"

It was not so much his words, or the fear of his threats, but the very fact that Billy the clerk, harmless, smiling old Billy, had burst into noisy wrath, scared them as if an earthquake had gripped the building. They went out sidling, and left the rooms in quiet. Then Billy took up the phone.

"Pete Glass is dead," he was saying a moment later to the owner of the general merchandise store at St. Vincent. "Barry came in this morning and shot him. The boys have run him east to the Morgan Hills. Johnny, listen hard and shut up. You got half an hour to turn out every man in your town. Ride south till you get in the hills on a bee-line east of where Tucker Creek runs into the old Asper. D'ye hear? Then keep your eyes peeled to the east, and watch for a man on a black hoss ridin' hard, because Barry is sure as hell goin' to double back out of the Morgan Hills and come west like a scairt coyote. The posse will be behind him, but they most like be a hell of a ways to the bad. Johnny, everything hangs on your turnin' Barry back. And have fifteen fresh hosses, the best St. Vincent has, so that the boys in the posse can climb on 'em and ride hell-bent for Wago. Johnny, if we get him started north he's dead—and if you turn him like I say I'll see that you come in on the reward. D'ye hear?"

But there was only an inarticulate whoop from the other end of the wire.

Billy hung up. A little later he was talking to Wago.


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