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Man-hunting








From: The Seventh Man

As Vic Gregg left the house, the new moon peered at him over a black
mountain-top, a sickle of white with a half imaginary line rounding the
rest of the circle, and to the shaken mind of Vic it seemed as if a ghostly
spectator had come out to watch the tragedy among the peaks. At the line of
the rocks the sheriff spoke.

"Gregg, you've busted your contract. You didn't bring him out."

Vic threw his revolver on the ground.

"I bust the rest of it here and now. I'm through. Put on your irons and
take me back. Hang me and be damned to you, but I'll do no more to
double-cross him."

Sliver Waldron drew from his pocket something which jangled faintly, but
the sheriff stopped him with a word. He sat up behind his rock.

"I got an idea, Gregg, that you've finished up your job and double-crossed
us! Does he know that I'm out here? Sit down there out of sight."

"I'll do that," said Gregg, obeying, "because you got the right to make me,
but you ain't got the right to make me talk, and nothin' this side of hell
can pry a word out of me!"

The sheriff drew down his brows until his eyes were merely cavities of
blackness. Very tenderly he fondled the rifle-butt which lay across his
knees, and never in the mountain-desert had there been a more humbly
unpretentious figure of a man.

He said: "Vic, I been thinkin' that you had the man-sized makin's of a
skunk, but I'm considerable glad to see I've judged you wrong. Sit quiet
here. I ain't goin' to put no irons on you if you give me your parole."

"I'll see you in hell before I give you nothin'. I was a man, or a partways
man, till I met up with you tonight, and now I'm a houn'-dog that's done my
partner dirt! God amighty, what made me do it?"

He beat his knuckles against his forehead.

"What you've done you can't undo," answered the sheriff. "Vic, I've seen
gents do considerable worse than you've done and come clean afterwards.
You're goin' to get off for what you've done to Blondy, and you're goin' to
live straight afterwards. You're goin' to get married and you're goin' to
play white. Why, man, I had to use you as far as I could. But you think I
wanted you to bring me out Barry? You couldn't look Betty square in the
face if you'd done what you set out to do. Now, I ain't pressin' you, but I
done some scouting while you was away, and I heard four men's voices in
the house. Can you tell me who's there?"

"You've played square, Pete," answered Vic hoarsely, "and I'll do my part.
Go down and get on your hosses and ride like hell; because in ten minutes
you're goin' to have three bad ones around your necks."

A mutter came from the rest of the posse, for this was rather more than
they had planned ahead. The sheriff, however, only sighed, and as the
moonlight increased Vic could see that he was deeply, childishly contented,
for in the heart of the little dusty man there was that inextinguishable
spark, the love of battle. Chance had thrown him on the side of the law,
but sooner or later dull times were sure to come and then Pete Glass would
cut out work of his own making go bad. The love of the man-trail is a
passion that works in two ways, and they who begin by hunting will in the
end be the hunted; the mountain-desert is filled with such histories.

"Three to five," said the sheriff, "sounds more interestin', Vic."

A sudden passion to destroy that assured calm rose in Gregg.

"Three common men might make you a game," he said, glowering, "but them
ain't common ones. One of 'em I don't know, but he has a damned nervous
hand. Another is Lee Haines!"

He had succeeded in part, at least. The sheriff sat bolt erect; he seemed
to be hearing distant music.

"Lee Haines!" he murmured. "That was Jim Silent's man. They say he was as
fast with a gun as Jim himself." He sighed again. "They's nothing like a
big man, Vic, to fill your sights."

"Daniels and Haines, suppose you count them off agin' the rest of your
gang, Pete. That leaves Barry for you." He grinned maliciously. "D'you know
what Barry it is?"

"It's a kind of common name, Vic."

"Pete, have you heard of Whistlin' Dan?"

No doubt about it, he had burst the confidence of the sheriff into
fragments. The little man began to pant and even in the dim light Vic could
see that his face was working.

"Him!" he said at length. And then: "I might of knowed! Him!" He leaned
closer. "Keep it to yourself, Vic, or you'll have the rest of the boys
runnin' for cover before the fun begins."

He snuggled a little closer to his rock and turned his head towards the
house.

"Him!" he said again.

Columbus, when he saw the land of his dream wavering blue in the distance,
might have hailed it with such a heart-filling whisper, and Vic knew that
when these two met, these two slender, small men--with the uneasy hands,
there would be a battle whose fame would ring from range to range.

"If they was only a bit more light," muttered the sheriff. "My God, Vic,
why ain't the moon jest a mite nearer the full!"

After that, not a word for a long time until the lights in the house were
suddenly extinguished,

"So they won't show up agin no background when they make their run,"
murmured the sheriff. He pushed up his hat brim so that it covered his eyes
more perfectly. "Boys, get ready. They're comin' now!"

Mat Henshaw took up the word, and repeated it, and the whisper ran down
the line of men who lay irregularly among the rocks, until at last Sliver
Waldron brought it to a stop with a deep murmur. Not even a whisper could
altogether disguise his booming bass. It seemed to Vic Gregg that the air
about him grew more tense; his arm muscles commenced to ache from the
gripping of his hands. Then a door creaked--they could tell the indubitable
sound as if there were a light to see it swing cautiously wide.

"They're goin' out the back way," interpreted the sheriff, "but they'll
come around in front. They ain't any other way they can get out of here.
Pass that down the line, Mat."

Before the whisper had trailed out half its course, a woman screamed in the
house. It sent a jag of lightning through the brain of Vic Gregg; he
started up.

"Get down," commanded the sheriff 'curtly. "Or they'll plant you."

"For God's sake, Pete, he's killin' his wife--an'--he's gone mad--I seen it
comin' in his eyes!"

"Shut up," muttered Glass, "an' listen."

A pulse of sound floated out to them, and stopped the breath of Gregg; it
was a deep, stifled sobbing.

"She's begged him to stay with her; he's gone," said the sheriff. "Now
it'll come quick."

But the sheriff was wrong. There was not a sound, not a sign of a rush.

Presently: "What sort of a lass is she, Gregg?"

"All yaller hair, Pete, and the softes' blue eyes you ever see."

The sheriff made no answer, but Vic saw the little bony hand tense about
the barrel of the rifle. Still that utter quiet, with the pulse of the
sobbing lying like a weight upon the air, and the horror of the waiting
mounted and grew, like peak upon peak before the eyes of the climber.

"Watch for 'em sneakin' up on us through the rocks. Watch for 'em close,
lads. It ain't goin' to be a rush."

Once more the sibilant murmur ran down the line, and the voice of Sliver
Waldron brought it faintly to a period.

"Three of 'em," continued the sheriff, "and most likely they'll come at us
three ways."

Through the shadow Vic watched the lips of Glass work and caught the end of
his soft murmur to himself : ". . . . all three!"

He understood; the sheriff had offered up a deep prayer that all three
might fall by his gun.

Up from the farther end of the line the whisper ran lightly, swiftly, with
a stammer of haste in it: "To the right!"

Ay, there to the right, gliding from the corner of the house, went a dark
form, and then another, and disappeared among the rocks. They had offered
not enough target for even chance shooting.

"Hold for close range" ordered the sheriff, and the order was repeated.
However much he might wish to win all the glory of the fray, the sheriff
took no chances--threw none of his odds away. He was a methodical man.

A slight patter caught the ear of Vic, like the running of many small
children over a heavy carpet, and then two shades blew around the side of
the house, one small and scudding close to the ground, the other vastly
larger--a man on horseback. It seemed a naked horse at first, so close to the
back did the rider lean, and before Vic could see clearly the vision
burst on them all. Several things kept shots from being fired earlier.

The first alarm had called attention to the opposite side of the house from
that on which the rider appeared; then, the moon gave only a vague,
treacherous light, and the black horse blended into it--the grass lightened
the fall of his racing feet.

Like a ship driving through a fog they rushed into view, the black
stallion, and Bart fleeting in front, and the surprise was complete. Vic
could see it work even in the sheriff, for the latter, having his rifle
trained towards his right jerked it about with a short curse and blazed at
the new target, again, again, and the line of the posse joined the fire.
Before the crack of their guns went from the ears of Vic, long before the
echoes bellowed back from the hills, Satan leaped high up. Perhaps that
change of position saved both it and its rider. Straight across the pale
moon drove the body with head stretched forth, ears back, feet gathered
close--a winged horse with a buoyant figure upon it. It cleared a five foot
rock, and rushed instantly out of view among the boulders. The fugitive had
fired only one shot, and that when the stallion was at the crest of its
leap.





Next: The Second Man

Previous: Seven For One



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