Seventh Man, The

Chapter XLI. The Wild Geese

Twenty-four hours from Alder to Elkhead, and beyond Elkhead to the Cumberland ranch, is long riding and hard riding, but not far after dark on the following night, Joan lifted her head, where she played with the puppy on the hearth, and listened. There was no sound audible to the others in the living room; they did not even mark the manner in which she sat up, and then rose to her feet. But when she whispered "Daddy Dan!" it brought each of the three out of his chair. Still they heard nothing, and Buck and Lee Haines would have retaken their chairs had not Kate gone to the window and thrown it wide. Then they caught it, very far off, very thin and small, a delicate thread of music, an eerie whistling. Without a word, she closed the window, crossed the room and from the table she took up a cartridge belt from which hung the holster with the revolver which Whistling Dan taught her to use so well. She buckled it about her. Lee Haines and Daniels, without a word, imitated her actions. Their guns were already on—every moment since they reached the ranch they had gone armed but now they looked to them, and tried the actions a few times before they thrust them back into the holsters.

It was odd to watch them. They were like the last remnant of a garrison, outworn with fighting, which prepares in grim quiet for the final stand.

The whistling rose a little in volume now. It was a happy sound, without a recognizable tune, but a gay, wild improvisation as if a violinist, drunk, was remembering snatches of masterpieces, throwing out lovely fragments here and there and filling the intervals out of his own excited fancy. Joan ran to the window, forgetful of the puppy, and kneeled there in the chair, looking out. The whistling stopped as Kate drew down the curtain to cut out Joan's view. It was far too dark for the child to see out, but she often would sit like this, looking into the dark.

The whistling began again as Joan turned silently on her mother, uncomplaining, but with a singular glint in her eyes, a sort of flickering, inward light that came out by glances and starts. Now the sound of the rider blew closer and closer. Kate gestured the men to their positions, one for each of the two inner doors while she herself took the outer one. There was not a trace of color in her face, but otherwise she was as calm as a stone, and from her an atmosphere pervaded the room, so that men also stood quietly at their posts, without a word, without a sign to each other. They had their unspoken order from Kate. She would resist to the death and she expected the same from them. They were prepared.

Still that crescendo of the whistling continued; it seemed as if it would never reach them; it grew loud as a bird singing in that very room, and still it continued to swell, increase—then suddenly went out. As if it were the signal for which she had been waiting all these heartbreaking moments, Kate opened the front door, ran quickly down the hall, and stood an instant later on the path in front of the house. She had locked the doors as she went through, and now she heard one of the men rattling the lock to follow her. The rattling ceased. Evidently they decided that they would hold the fort as they were.

Her heel hardly sank in the sand when she saw him. He came out of the night like a black shadow among shadows, with the speed of the wind to carry him. A light creak of leather as he halted, a glimmer of star light on Satan as he wheeled, a clink of steel, and then Dan was coming up the path.

She knew him perfectly even before she could make out the details of the form; she knew him by the light, swift, almost noiseless step, like the padding footfall of a great cat—a sense of weight without sound. Another form skulked behind him—Black Bart.

He was close, very close, before he stopped, or seemed to see her, though she felt that he must have been aware of her since he first rode up. He was so close, indeed, that the starlight—the brim of his hat standing up somewhat from the swift riding—showed his face quite clearly to her. It was boyish, almost, in its extreme youth, and so thinly molded, and his frame so lightly made, that he seemed one risen from a wasting bed of sickness. The wind fluttered his shirt and she wondered, as she had wondered so often before, where he gained that incredible strength in so meager a body. In all her life she had never loved him as she loved him now. But her mind was as fixed as a star.

"You can't have her, Dan. You can't have her! Don't you see how terrible a thing you'd make her? She's my blood, my pain, my love, and you want to take her up yonder to the mountains and the loneliness—I'll die to keep her!"

Now the moon, which had been buried in a drift of clouds, broke through them, and seemed in an instant to slide a vast distance towards the earth, a crooked half moon with its edges eaten by the mist. Under this light she could see him more clearly, and she became aware of the thing she dreaded, the faint smile which barely touched at the corners of his mouth; and in his eyes a swirl of yellow light, half guessed at, half real. All her strength poured out of her. She felt her knees buckle, felt the fingers about the light revolver butt relax, felt every nerve grow slack. She was helpless, and it was not fear of the man, but of something which stalked behind him, inhuman, irresistible; not the wolf-dog, but something more than Satan, and Bart, and Whistling Dan, something of which they were only a part.

He began to whistle, thoughtfully, like one who considers a plan of action and yet hesitates to begin. She felt his eyes run over her, as if judging how he should put her most gently to one side; then from the house, very lightly, hardly more than an echo of Dan's whistling, came an answer—the very same refrain. Joan was calling to him.

At that he stepped forward, but the thing which stirred him, had hardened the mind of Kate. The weakness passed in a flash. It was Joan, and for Joan!

"Not a step!" she whispered, and jerked out her gun. "Not a step!"

He stood with one hand trailing carelessly from his hip, and at the gleam of her steel his other hand dropped to a holster, fumbled there, and came away empty; he could not touch her, not with the weight of a finger. That thoughtful whistle came again: once more the answering whistle drifted out from the house; and he moved forward another pace.

She had chosen her mark carefully, the upper corner of the seam of the pocket upon his shirt, and before his foot struck the ground she fired. For an instant she felt that she missed the mark, for he stood perfectly upright, but when she saw that the yellow was gone from his eyes. They were empty of everything except a great wonder. He wavered to his knees, and then sank down with his arms around Black Bart. He seemed, indeed, to crumple away into the night. Then she heard a shouting and trampling in the house, and a breaking open of doors, and she knew that she had killed Whistling Dan. She would have gone to him, but the snarl of Bart drove her back. Then she saw Satan galloping up the path and come to a sliding halt where he stood with his delicate nose close to the face of the master. There was no struggle with death, only a sigh like a motion of wind in far off trees, and then, softly, easily Black Bart extricated himself from the master, and moved away down the path, all wolf, all wild. Behind him, Satan whirled with a snort, and they rushed away into the night each in an opposite direction. The long companionship of the three was ended, and the seventh man was dead for Grey Molly.

Lee Haines and Buck Daniels were around her now. She heard nothing distinctly, only a great, vague clamor of voices while she kneeled and turned the body of Barry on its back. It was marvelously light; she could almost have picked it up in her arms, she felt. She folded the hands across his breast, and the limp fingers were delicate as the fingers of a sick child. Buck Daniels lay prone by the dead man weeping aloud; and Lee Haines stood with his face buried in his hands; but there was no tear on the face of Kate.

As she closed the eyes, the empty, hollow eyes, she heard a distant calling, a hoarse and dissonant chiming. She looked up and saw a wedge of wild geese flying low across the moon.

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