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The Battle








From: The Seventh Man

"It's Dan," whispered Kate. "He's come."

"Maybe Daddy Dan sent Bart back alone, munner."

"Does he do that often? Come quickly, Joan. Run!"

She ran towards the entrance, stumbling over the uneven ground and dragging
Joan behind her, but when they came close the wolf-dog bristled and sent
down the cavern a low growl that stopped them like an invisible barrier.
The softest sounds in his register were ominous warnings to those who did
not know Black Bart, but Kate and Joan understood that this muttering,
harsh thunder was an ultimatum. If she had worn her revolver, a light,
beautifully mounted thirty-two which Dan had given her, Kate would have
shot the wolf and gone on across his body; for she had learned from
Whistling Dan to shoot quickly as one points a finger and straight by
instinct. Even as she stood there barehanded she looked about her
desperately for a weapon, seeing the daylight and the promise of escape
beyond and only this dumb beast between her and freedom.

Once before, many a year before, she had gone like this, with empty hands,
and subdued Black Bart simply through the power of quiet courage and the
human eye. She determined to try again.

"Stand there quietly, Joan. Don't move until I tell you."

She made a firm step towards Bart.

"Manner, he'll bite!"

"Hush, Joan. Don't speak!"

At her forward movement the wolf-dog flattened his belly to the rock, and
she saw his forepaws, large, almost, as the hands of a man, dig and work
for a purchase from which he could throw himself at her throat.

"Steady, Bart!"

His silence was more terrible than a snarl; yet she stretched out her hand
and made another step. It brought a sharp tensing of the body of Bart--the
fur stood up about his throat like the mane of a lion, and his eyes were a
devilish green. Another instant she kept her place, and then she remembered
the story of Haines--how Bart had gone with his master to that killing at
Alder. If he had killed once, he would kill again; wild as he had been on
that other time when she quelled him, he had never before been like this.
The courage melted out of her; she forgot the pleasant day outside; she saw
only those blazing eyes and shrank back towards the center of the cave. The
muscles of the wolf relaxed visibly, and not till that moment did she
realize how close she had been to the crisis.

"Bad Bart!" cried Joan, running in between. "Bad, bad dog!"

"Stop, Joan! Don't go near him!"

But Joan was already almost to Bart. When Kate would have run to snatch the
child away that deep, rattling growl stopped her again, and now she saw
that Joan ran not the slightest danger. She stood beside the huge beast
with her tiny fist raised.

"I'll tell Daddy Dan on you," she shrilled.

Black Bart made a furtive, cringing movement towards the child, but
instantly stiffened again and sent his warning down the cave to Kate. Then
a shadow fell across the entrance and Dan stood there with Satan walking
behind. His glance ran from the bristling body of Bart to Kate, shrinking
among the shadows, and lingered without a spark of recognition.

"Satan," he ordered, "go on in to your place."

The black stallion glided past the master and came on until he saw Kate. He
stopped, snorting, and then circled her with his head suspiciously high,
and ears back until he reached the place where his saddle was usually hung.
There he waited, and Kate felt the eyes of the horse, the wolf, the man,
and even Joan, curiously upon her. "Evenin'," nodded Dan, "might you have
come up for supper?" That was all. Not a step towards her, not a smile, not a
greeting, and between them stood Joan, her hands clasped idly before her
while she looked from face to face, trying to understand. All the pangs of
heart which come to woman between girlhood and old age went burningly
through Kate in that breathing space, and afterwards she was cold, and saw
herself and all the others clearly.

"I haven't come for supper. I've come to bring you back, Dan."

Not that she had the slightest hope that he would come, but she watched him
curiously, almost as if he were a stranger, to see how he would answer.

"Come back?" he echoed. "To the cabin?"

"Where else?"

"It ain't happy there." He started. "You come up here with us, Kate."

"And raise Joan like a young animal in a cave?"

He looked at her with wonder, and then at the child.

"Ain't you happy, Joan, up here?"

"Oh, Daddy Dan, Joan's so happy!"

"You see," he said to Kate, "she's terribly happy."

It was his utter simplicity which convinced her that arguments and pleas
would be perfectly useless. Just behind the cool command which she kept
over herself now was hysteria. She knew that if she relaxed her
purposefulness for an instant the love for him would rush over her, weaken
her. She kept her mind clear and steady with a great effort which was like
divorcing herself from herself. When she spoke, there was another being
which stood aside listening in wonder to the words.

"You've chosen this life, Dan, I won't blame you for leaving me this time
any more than I blamed you the other times. I suppose it isn't you. It's
the same impulse, after all, that took you south after--after the wild
geese." She stopped, almost broken down by the memory, and then recalled
herself sternly. "It's the same thing that led you away after MacStrann
through the storm. But whether it's a weakness in you, or the force of
something outside your control, I see this thing clearly; we can't go on.
This is the end."

He seemed troubled, vaguely, as a dog is anxious when it sees a child weep
and cannot make out the reason.

"Oh, Dan," she burst out, "I love you more than ever! If it were I alone,
I'd follow you to the end of the world, and live as you live, and do as you
do. But it's Joan. She has to be raised as a child should be raised. She
isn't going to live with--with wild horses and wolves all her life. And if
she stays on here, don't you see that the same thing which is a curse in
you will grow strong and be a curse in her? Don't you see it growing? It's
in her eyes! Her step is too light. She's lost her fear of the dark. She's
drifting back into wildness. Dan, she has to go with me back to the cabin!"

At that she saw him start again, and his hand went out with a swift, subtle
gesture towards Joan.

"Let me have her! I have to have her! She's mine!" Then more gently: "You
can come to see her whenever you will. And, finally pray God you will come
and stay with us always."

He had stepped to Joan while she spoke, and his hands made a quick movement
of cherishing about her golden head, without touching it. For the first and
the last time in her life, she saw something akin to fear in his eyes.

"Kate, I can't come back. I got things to do--out here!"

"Then let me take her."

She watched the wavering in him.

"Things would be kind of empty if she was gone, Kate."

"Why?" she asked bitterly. "You say you have your work to do--out here?"

He considered this gravely.

"I dunno. Except that I sort of need her."

She knew from of old that such questions only puzzled him, and soon he
would cast away the attempt to decide, and act. Action was his sphere.
There was only one matter in which he was unfailingly, relentlessly the
same, and that was justice. To that sense in him she would make her last
appeal.

"Dan, I can't take her. I only ask you to see that I'm right. She belongs
to me, I bought her with pain."

It was a staggering blow to Whistling Dan. He took off his sombrero and
passed his hand slowly across his forehead, then looked at her with a dumb
appeal.

"I only want you to do the thing you think is square, Dan."

Once more he winced.

Then, slowly: "I'm tryin' to be square. Tryin' hard. I know you got a claim
in her. But it seems like I have, too. She's like a part of me, mostly.
When she's happy, I feel like smilin' sort of. When she cries it hurts me
so's I can't hardly stand it."

He paused, looking wistfully from the staring child to Kate.

He said with sudden illumination: "Let her do the judgin'! You ask her to
go to you, and I'll ask her to come to me. Ain't that square?"

For a moment Kate hesitated, but as she looked at Joan it seemed to her
that when she stretched out her arms to her baby nothing in the world could
keep them apart.

"It's fair," she answered. Dan dropped to one knee.

"Joan, you got to make up your mind. If you want to stay with, with Satan--
speak up, Satan!"

The stallion whinnied softly, and Joan smiled.

"With Satan and Black Bart"--the wolf-dog had glided near, and now stood
watching--"and with Daddy Dan, you just come to me. But if you want to go
to--to Munner, you just go." On his face the struggle showed--the struggle to
be perfectly just. "If you stay here, maybe it'll be cold, sometimes when
the wind blows, and maybe it'll be hard other ways. And if you go to
munner, she always be takin' care of you, and no harm'll ever come to you
and you'll sleep soft between sheets, and if you wake up in the night
she'll be there to talk to you. And you'll have pretty little dresses
with all kinds of colors on 'em, most like. Joan, do you want to go to
munner, or stay here with me?"

Perhaps the speech was rather long for Joan to follow, but the conclusion
was plain enough; and there was Kate, she also upon one knee and her arms
stretched out.

"Joan, my baby, my darling!"

"Munner!" whispered the child and ran towards her.

A growl came up in the throat of Black Bart and then sank away into a
whine; Joan stopped short, and turned her head.

"Joan!" cried Kate.

Anguish made her voice loud, and from the loudness Joan shrank, for there
was never a harsh sound in the cave except the growl of Bart warning away
danger. She turned quite around and there stood Daddy Dan, perfectly erect,
quite indifferent, to all seeming, as to her choice. She went to him with a
rush and caught at his hands.

"Oh, Daddy Dan, I don't want to go. Don't you want Joan?"

He laid a hand upon her head, and she felt the tremor of his fingers; the
wolf-dog lay down at her feet and looked up in her face; Satan, from the
shadows beyond, whinnied again.

After that there was not a word spoken, for Kate looked at the picture of
the three, saw the pity in the eyes of Whistling Dan, saw the wonder in the
eyes of Joan, saw the truth of all she had lost. She turned towards the
entrance and went out, her head bowed, stumbling over the pebbles.





Next: The Test

Previous: The Music



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