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The Crisis








From: The Seventh Man

Those mountains above the Barry cabin were, as he told Vic Gregg,
inaccessible to men on horseback except by one path, yet there was a single
class of travelers who roamed at will through far more difficult ground
than this. Speaking in general, where a man can go a burro can go, and
where a burro can go he usually manages to carry his pack. He crawls up a
raged down-pitch of rocks that comes dangerously close to the
perpendicular; he walks securely along a crumbling ledge with half his body
over a thousand yards of emptiness. Therefore the prospectors with their
burros have combed the worst mountains of the West and it was hardly a
surprise to Kate Barry when she saw two men come down the steepest slope
above the cabin with two little pack animals scrambling and sliding before
them. It was still some time before nightfall, but the sun had dropped out
of sight fully an hour ago and now the western mountains were blackening
against a sky whose thin, clear blue grew yellow towards evening.

Against that dark mass of the mountainside, she could not make out the two
travelers clearly, so she shaded her eyes and peered up, high up. The slope
was so sheer that if one of the four figures lost footing it would come
crashing to her very feet. When they saw her and shouted down the sound
fell as clearly as if they had called from the cabin, yet they had a good
half hour's labor between that greeting and the moment they came out on the
level before Kate. From the instant they called she remained in motionless,
deep thought, and when they came now into full view, she cried out
joyously: "Buck, oh Buck!" and ran towards them. Even the burros stopped
and the men stood statue-like; it is rarely enough that one finds a human
being in those mountains, almost an act of Providence that lead to a house,
and a miracle when the trail crosses the path of a friend. The prospectors
came out of their daze with a shout and rushed to meet her. Each of them
had her by a hand, wringing it; they talked all together in a storm of
words.

"Kate, I'm dreamin'!--Dear old Buck!--Have you forgotten me?--Lee Haines! I
should say not.--Don't pay any attention to him. Five years. And I've been
hungerin' to see you all that--.--Where have you been?--Everywhere! but
this is the best thing I've seen.--Come in.--Wait till we get these packs
off the poor little devils.--Oh, I'm so glad to see you; so glad!--Hurry
up, Lee. Your fingers asleep?--How long have you been out?--Five months.--
Then you're hungry.--We've just ate.--But a piece of pie?--pie? I've been
dreamin' of pie!"

A fire already burned in the big living-room of the cabin, for at this
season, at such an altitude, the shadows were always cold, and around the
fire they gathered, each of the men with half a huge pie before him. They
were such as one might expect that mountain region to produce, big, gaunt,
hard-muscled. They had gone unshaven for so long that their faces were
clothed not with an unsightly stubble but with strong, short beard that
gave them a certain grim dignity and made their eyes seem sunken. They were
opposite types, which is usually the case when two men strike out together.
Buck Daniels was black-haired, with an ugly, shrewd face and a suggestion
of rather dangerous possibilities of swift action; but Lee Haines was a
great bulk of a man, with tawny beard, handsome, in a leonine fashion, more
poised than Daniels, fitted to crush. The sharp glance of Buck flitted here
and there, in ten seconds he knew everything in the room; the steady blue
eye of Lee Haines went leisurely from place to place and lingered; but both
of them stared at Kate as if they could not have enough of her. They talked
without pause while they ate. A stranger in the room would have sealed
their lips in utter taciturnity, but here they sat with a friend, five
months of loneliness and labor behind them, and they gossiped like girls.

Into the jangle of talk cut a thin, small voice from outside, a burst of
laughter. Then: "Bart, you silly dog!" and Joan stood at the open door with
her hand buried in the mane of the wolf-dog. The fork of Buck Daniels
stopped halfway to his lips and Lee Haines straightened until the chair
groaned.

They spoke together, hushed voices: "Kate!"

"Come here, Joan!" Her face glistened with pride, and Joan came forward
with wide eyes, tugging Black Bart along in a reluctant progress.

"It ain't possible!" whispered Buck Daniels. "Honey, come here and shake
hands with your Uncle Buck." The gesture called forth deep throated warning
from Bart, and he caught back his hand with a start.

"It's always that way," said Kate, half amused, half vexed; "Bart won't let
a soul touch her when Dan isn't home. Good old Bart, go away, you foolish
dog! Don't you see these are friends?"

He cringed a little under the shadow of the hand which waved him off but
his only answer was a silent baring of the teeth.

"You see how it is. I'm almost afraid to touch her myself when Dan's away;
she and Bart bully me all day long."

In the meantime the glance of Joan had cloyed itself with sufficient
examination of the strangers, and now she turned back towards the door and
the meadow beyond.

"Bart!" she called softly. The sharp ears of the dog quivered; he came to
attention with a start. "Look! Get it for me!"

One loud scraping of his claws on the floor as he started, and Black Bart
went like a bolt through the door with Joan scrambling after him, screaming
with excitement; from the outside, they heard the cry of a frightened
squirrel, and then its angry chattering from a place of safety up a tree.

"Shall I call her back again?" asked Kate.

"Not if Bart comes with her," answered Lee Haines. "I've seen enough of him
to last me a while."

"Well, we'll have her to ourselves when Dan comes; of course Bart leaves
her to tag around after Dan."

"When is he comin' back?" asked Buck, with polite interest.

"Anytime. I don't know. But he's always here before it's completely dark."

The glance of Buck Daniels kicked over to Lee Haines, exchanged meanings
with him, and came back to Kate.

"Terrible sorry," he said, "but I s'pose we'll have to be on our way before
it's plumb dark."

"Go so soon as that? Why, I won't let you."

"I--" began Haines, fumbling for words.

"We got to get down in the valley before it's dark," filled in Buck.

Suddenly she laughed, frankly, happily.

"I know what you mean, but Dan is changed; he isn't the same man he used to
be."

"Yes?" queried Buck, without conviction.

"You'll have to see him to believe; Buck, he doesn't even whistle any
more."

"What?"

"Only goes about singing, now."

The two men exchanged glances of such astonishment that Kate could not help
but notice and flush a little.

"Well," murmured Buck, "Bart doesn't seem to have changed much from the old
days."

She laughed slowly, letting her mind run back through such happiness as
they could not understand and when she looked up she seemed to debate
whether or not it would be worth while to let them in on the delightful
secret. The moment she dwelt on the burning logs they gazed at her and then
to each other with utter amazement as if they sat in the same room with the
dead come to life. No care of motherhood had marked her face, but on the
white, even forehead was a sign of peace; and drifting over her hands and
on the white apron across her lap the firelight pooled dim gold, the wealth
of contentment.

"If you'd been here today you would have seen how changed he is. We had a
man with us whom Dan had taken while he was running from a posse, wounded,
and kept him here until he was well, and--"

"That's Dan," murmured Lee Haines. "He's gold all through when a man's in
trouble."

"Shut up, Lee," cut in Buck. He sat forward in his chair, drinking up her
story.

"Go on."

"This morning we saw the same posse skirting through the valley and knew
that they were on the old trail. Dan sent Gregg over the hills and rode
Vic's horse down so that the posse would mistake him, and he could lead
them out of the way. I was afraid, terribly, I was afraid that if the posse
got close and began shooting Dan would--"

She stopped; her eyes begged them to understand.

"Go on," said Lee Haines, shuddering slightly. "I know what you mean."

"But I watched him ride down the slope," she cried joyously, "and I saw the
posse close on him--almost on top of him when he reached the valley. I saw
the flash of their guns. I saw them shoot. I wasn't afraid that Dan would
be hurt, for he seems to wear a charm against bullets--I wasn't much afraid
of that, but I dreaded to see him turn and go back through that posse like
a storm. But--" she caught both hands to her breast and her bright face
tilted up--"even when the bullets must have been whistling around him he
didn't look back. He rode straight on and on, out of view, and I knew"--her
voice broke with emotion--"oh, Buck, I knew that he had won, and I had won;
that he was safe forever; that there was no danger of him ever slipping
back into that terrible other self; I knew that I'd never again have to
dream of that whistling in the wind; I knew that he was ours--Joan's and
mine."

"By God," broke out Buck, "I'm happier than if you'd found a gold mine,
Kate. It don't seem no ways--but if you seen that with your own eyes, it's
possible true. He's changed."

"I've been almost afraid to be happy all these years," she said, "but now I
want to sing and cry at the same time. My heart is so full that it's
overflowing, Buck."

She brushed the tears away and smiled at them.

"Tell me all about yourselves. Everything. You first, Lee. You've been
longer away."

He did not answer for a moment, but sat with his head fallen, watching her
thoughtfully. Women had been the special curse in Lee Haines' life; they
had driven him to the crime that sent him West into outlawry long years
before; through women, as he himself foreboded, he would come at last to
some sordid, petty end; but here sat the only one he had loved without
question, without regret, purely and deeply, and as he watched her, more
beautiful than she had been in her girlhood, it seemed, as he heard the
fitful laughter of Joan outside, the old sorrow came storming up in him,
and the sense of loss.

"What have I been doing?" he murmured at length. He shrugged away his last
thoughts. "I drifted about for a while after the pardon came down from the
governor. People knew me, you see, and what they knew about me didn't
please them. Even today Jim Silent and Jim Silent's crew isn't forgotten.
Then don't look at me like that, Kate; no, I played straight all the
time---then I ran into Buck and he and I had tried each other out, we had
at least one thing in common"--here he looked at Buck and they both
flushed--"and we made a partnership of it. We've been together five years
now."

"I knew you could break away, Lee. I used to tell you that."

"You helped me more than you knew," he said quietly.

She smiled and then turned to escape him. "And now you, Buck?"

"Since then we've made a bit of coin punching cows and we've blown it in
again prospecting. Blown it in? Kate, we've shot enough powder to lift that
mountain yonder but all we've got is color. You could gild the sky with
what we've seen but we haven't washed enough dust to wear a hole in a
tissue-paper pocket. I'll tell you the whole story. Lee packs a jinx with
him. But--Haines, did you ever see a lion as big as that?"

The dimness of evening had grown rapidly through the room while they talked
and now the light from the door was far less than the glow of the fire. The
yellow flicker picked out a dozen pelts stretching as rugs on the floor or
hanging along the wall; that to which Buck pointed was an enormous skin of
a mountain lion stretched sidewise, for if it had been hung straight up a
considerable portion of the tail must have dragged on the floor. Buck went
to examine it. Presently he exclaimed in surprise and he passed his fingers
over it as though searching for something.

"Where was it shot, Kate? I don't find nothin' but this cut that looks like
his knife slipped when he was skinnin'."

"It was a knife that killed it."

"What!"

"Don't ask me about it; I see the picture of it in my dreams still. The
lion had dragged the trap into a cave and Bart followed it. Dan went in
pushing his rifle before him, but--when he tried to fire it jammed."

"Yes?" they cried together.

"Don't ask me the rest!"

They would hardly have let her off so easily if it had not been for the
entrance of Joan who had come back on account of the darkness. Black Bart
went promptly to a corner of the hearth and lay down with his head on his
paws and the little girl sat beside him watching the fire, her head leaning
wearily on his shoulder. Kate went to the door.

"It's almost night," she said. "Why isn't he here?"

"Buck, they couldn't have overtaken--"

She started. "Dan?"

Buck Daniels grinned reassuringly.

"Not unless his hoss is a pile of bones; if it has any heart in it, Dan'll
run away from anything on four legs. No call for worryin', Kate. He's
simply led 'em a long ways off and waited for evenin' before he doubled
back. He'll come back right enough. If they didn't catch him that first run
they'll never get the wind of him."

It quieted her for a time, but as the minutes slipped away, as the darkness
grew more and more heavy until a curtain of black fell across the open
door, they could see that she was struggling to control her trouble, they
could see her straining to catch some distant sound. Lee Haines began to
talk valiantly, to beguile the waiting time, and Buck Daniels did his share
with stories of their prospecting, but eventually more and more often
silences came on the group. They began to watch the fire and they winced
when a log crackled, or when the sap in a green place hissed. By degrees
they pushed farther and farther back so that the light would not strike so
fully upon them, for in some way it became difficult to meet each other's
eyes.

Only Joan was perfectly at ease. She played for a time with the ears of
Black Bart, or pried open his mouth and made him show the great white
fangs, or scratched odd designs on the hearth with pieces of charcoal; but
finally she lost interest in all these things and let her head lie on the
rough pelt of the wolf-dog, sound asleep. The firelight made her hair a
patch of gold.

Black Bart slept soundly, too, that is, as soundly as one of his nature
could sleep, for every now and then one of his ears twitched, or he stirred
a paw, or an eyelid quivered up. Yet they all started when he jumped from
his sleep into full wakefulness; the motion made Joan sit up, rubbing
her eyes, and Black Bart reached the center of the room noiselessly. He
stood facing the door, motionless.

"It's Dan," cried Kate. "Bart hears him! Good old Bart!"

The dog pointed up his nose, the hair about his neck bristled into a ruff,
and out of his quaking body came a sound that seemed to moan and whimper
from the distance at first, but drew nearer, louder, packed the room with
terror, the long drawn howl of a wolf.





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Previous: A New Trail Begins



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