Seventh Man, The

Chapter XXXIX. Victory

The entrance of the puppy, to liken small things to great, was the coming of Blucher in Kate's life, for the battle turned, and all in five minutes she had gone from defeat to victory. She sat by the fire with Joan sleeping in her arms, and the puppy in turn in the arms of Joan. It was such a foolish trick of chance that had given her all this, she was almost inclined to laugh, but something of tragedy in the faces of Buck and Lee Haines made her thoroughly serious. And she readily saw the truth for after all a child's brain is a small affair; it holds so much and no more. One instant the longing for Dan was all that Joan could think of; the next she had no room for anything more than the burned nose of the puppy—if there were other phases to this matter—such as Buck Daniels had pointed out—fear that in some future crisis the blood of the father might show in the child, Kate pushed such thoughts away. She was too full of the present happiness.

Now, while she sat there in the firelight, she sang softly into the dreams of Joan, and watched the smile of sleep grow and wane faintly on the lips of the child as the rhythm of her singing lifted and fell. One half of her mind was empty, that part where Dan should have been, and a dozen times she checked an impulse to turn to him in the place where he should be sitting and invite him with a smile to share her happiness. When her eyes moved they only fell on the gaunt, intent face of Buck or the leonine head of Haines. Whistling Dan was gone and if he ever came again her fear of him, her fear for Joan, would be greater than her love. Yet Dan being gone so finally, she knew that she would never be truly happy again. Her spring of life was ended, but even now she was grateful for the full richness of those six years with Dan; and if she turned from him now it was only because a mighty instinct commanded her and a voice without words drove her—Joan must go on to a normal, womanly happiness. Dan Barry lived from day to day, glutting himself with a ride in the wind, or the whistle of a far-off bird, or the wail of a mountain-lion through the night. Each instant was to him complete, but the eye of Kate looked far away and saw the night when this daughter of hers should sit holding an infant by such a fire, and her heart was both empty and full.

It was no wonder, then, that she heard the first sound long before either Haines or Buck Daniels, for her mind was on guard against dangers which might threaten her baby. It was a faint slipping, scratching noise on the veranda; then a breathing at the front door. Kate turned, and the men followed the terror of her eyes in time to see the door fall open, and a broad paw appear in the interval. The snaky head of Black Bart thrust into the room.

Without a word, Daniels drew his gun.

"Wait!" commanded Kate. Joan awoke with a start at the sharpness of this voice. "Don't shoot, Buck. See that bit of paper under his throat. He's bringing a message."

"Bart!" cried Joan, slipping to the floor from her mother's lap, but when she ran toward the wolf-dog, that tremendous snarl of warning stopped her short. Bart slunk toward Kate.

"Look out, Kate!" cried Haines. "The black devil means murder."

"Don't move, or he'll go at your throat," she answered. "There's no danger to me. He's been ordered to go to me and he won't let even Joan touch him. See!"

He had glided past the amazed, outstretched arms of Joan and went straight to Kate and stopped beside her, obviously expectant. She reached for the slip of folded paper, and as her hand approached he crouched a little, growling; but it was only to caution her, apparently, and though he distrusted the hand, he allowed it to unfasten the missive.

She untwisted the note, she read aloud: "Kate, send Joan back to me or I come for her. Send her with Bart."

It seemed as though the wolf-dog understood the written words, for now he moved toward Joan and she, with a cry, dropped the squealing puppy and caught the great head of Bart in her arms. The puppy wailed, sitting down on his haunches, and quivering with grief.

"Daddy Dan wants me," explained Joan with bright eyes. "He's sent for me. Go quick, Bart!"

The big animal lay down to facilitate her mounting.

"Joan!" called Kate. The child hesitated and turned toward her. Her mother had taken up that light revolver which Dan had taught her to use so well, and now, as she leveled it at the wolf-dog, Bart laid his fangs bare in silent hate. The weapons of Buck and Lee Haines were ready, and now Bart raised himself a little and commenced to drag gradually forward to leaping distance.

"Drop your gun, Kate," cautioned Buck. "For God's sake drop your gun. Even if you hit him with a bullet, he'll be at your throat. Unless you kill him with the first shot he'll have you. Drop your gun, and then he'll go at us."

But Joan knew perfectly well what those gleaming bits of steel meant. She had seen Daddy Dan shoot and kill, and now she ran screaming between Bart and danger.

"Munner!" she cried. "You bad, bad men. I won't let you hurt Bart."

"They won't hurt you, Bart," explained Joan, taming much mollified to the great wolf-dog. "They're just playin'. Now we'll go."

And she started toward the door, with Bart slinking in front and keeping a watchful lookout from a corner of his eye.

"Are you going to leave the poor little puppy, Joan?" said the mother, keeping her voice steady, for all the force of the two men could not help her now. It rested with her wit.

"I'll take him with me," answered Joan, and caught up the howling puppy from the floor. His wails died out against her breast.

"But you mustn't do that, honey. He'd die in this cold night wind long before you got there."

"Oh!" sighed Joan, and considered her mother with great eyes. Black Bart turned and uneasily tugged at her dress.

"Will you take good care of him, munner? Till I come back?"

"But I don't know how to take care of him, dear. If you go he'll cry and cry and cry until he dies."

Joan sighed.

"See how quiet he is when you hold him, Joan!"

"Oh," muttered Joan again. The distress of the problem made her wrinkle her forehead. She turned to Kate for help.

"Munner, what'll I do?"

"You'd best stay here until the puppy is strong enough to go with you."

She kept her voice well under control; it would not do to show the slightest emotion, and now she sat down and half turned away from the child. With her eyes she flashed a signal at the two troubled men and they followed her lead. Their center of vision was now upon the fire. It left Joan, to all appearances, quite out of notice.

"Oh, that'll be a long, long time, munner."

"Only a little while, Joan."

"But Daddy Dan'll be lonesome up there."

"He has Satan and Bart to keep him company."

"Don't you think he wants Joan, munner?"

"Not as much as the poor little puppy wants you, Joan."

She added, with just the slightest tremor: "You decide for yourself, Joan. Go if you think it is best."

"Bart, what'll Joan do?" queried the child, turning in dismay toward the wolf-dog, but as soon as he saw the puppy in her arms, he greeted her with a murderous snarl.

"You see," suggested her mother, "that Black Bart would eat up the poor little puppy if you went now with him."

At this alarming thought, Joan shrank away from Bart and when he followed her, anxiously, she cried: "Go away! Bad dog! Bad Bart!"

He caught the edge of her dress and drew back toward the door, and this threw Joan into a sudden panic. She struck Bart across his wrinkled forehead.

"Go away!" he slunk back, snarling at the puppy.

"Go back to Daddy Dan." Then, as he pricked his ears, still growling like distant thunder: "Go tell Daddy Dan that Joan has to stay here a while. Munner, how long?"

"Maybe a week, dear."

"A whole week?" she cried, dismayed.

"Perhaps only one or two or three days," said Kate.

Some of her tenseness was leaving as she saw victory once more inclining to her standards.

"One, two, five days," counted Joan, "and then come for me again. Tell Daddy Dan that, Bart."

His eyes left her and wandered around the room, lingering for a vicious instant on the face of each, then he backed toward the door.

"He's clear of Joan now, Kate," whispered Buck. "Let me shoot!"

"No, no! Don't even look at him."

Then, with a scratching of sudden claws, Bart whirled at the door and was gone like a bolt down the hall. Afterwards for a time there was no sound in the room except the murmurings of Joan to her puppy, and then they heard that most mournful of sounds on the mountain-desert, the long howl of a wolf which has missed its kill, and hunts hungry on a new trail.

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