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The Failure

From: The Seventh Man

When Black Bart returned without Joan, without even a note of answer about
his neck, the master made ready to take by force. First he went over his
new outfit of saddle and guns, looking to every strap of the former, and
the latter, revolvers and rifle, he weighed and balanced with a meditative
look, as if he were memorizing their qualities against a time of need. With
Satan saddled and Bart on guard at the mouth of the cave, he gathered up
all the accumulation of odds and ends, provisions, skins, and made a
stirring bonfire in the middle of the gravel floor. It was like burning his
bridges before starting out to the battle; he turned his back to the cave
and started on his journey.

He had to travel in a loose semicircle, for there were two points which he
must reach on the ride, the town of Alder, where lived the seventh man who
must die for Grey Molly, and the Cumberland ranch, last of all, where he
would take Joan. Very early after his start he reached the plateau where he
had lived all those years with Kate, and he found it already sinking back
to ruin, with nothing in the corrals, and the front door swinging to and
fro idly in the wind, just as Joan had often played with it. Inside, he
knew, the rooms were empty; a current of air down the chimney had scattered
the ashes from the hearth all about the living room. Here must be a chair
overturned, and there the sand had drifted through the open door. All this
he saw clearly enough with his mind's eye, and urged Satan forward. For a
chill like the falling of sudden night had swept over him, and he shrugged
his shoulders with relief when he swept past the house. Yet when he came to
the long down-slope which pitched into the valley so far below him, he
called Satan to a halt again, and swung to look at the house. He could hear
the clatter of the front door as it swung; it seemed to be waving a
farewell to him.

It was all the work of a moment, to ride back, gather a quantity of paper
and readily inflammable materials, soak them in oil, and scratch a match.
The flames swept up the sides of the logs and caught on the ceiling first
of all, and Dan Barry stood in the center of the room until the terrified
whining of Black Bart and the teeth of the wolf-dog at his trousers made
him turn and leave the house. Outside, he found Satan trembling between two
temptations, the first to run as far and as fast as he could from that most
terrible thing--fire; and the second to gallop straight into the blaze. The
voice of the master, a touch quieted him, and Black Bart lay down at the
feet of the master and looked up into his face.

By this time the fire had licked away a passage through the roof and
through this it sent up a yellow hand that flicked up and down like a
signal, or a beckoning, and then shot up a tall, steady, growing, roaring
column of red. No man could say what went through the mind of Dan Barry as
he stood there watching the house of his building burn, but now he turned
and threw his arms over the neck and back of Satan, and dropped his
forehead against the withers of the black. It troubled the stallion. He
turned his head, and nosed the shoulder of the master gently, and Black
Bart, in an agony of anxiety, reared up beside Dan and brought his head
almost up to the head of the man; there he whined pleadingly for never
before had he seen the master hide his face.

A deep, short report made the master stand away from Satan. The fire had
reached a small stock of powder, and the shock of the explosion was
followed by a great crashing and rending as an inner wall went down. That
fall washed a solid mass of yellow flame across the front door, but the
fire fell back, and then Dan saw the doll which he himself had made for
Joan; it had been thrown by the smashing of the wall squarely in front of
the door, and now the fire reached after it--long arms across the floor. It
was an odd contrivance, singularly made of carved wood and with arms and
legs fastened on by means of bits of strong sinew, and Joan prized it above
all the rosy faced dolls which Kate had bought for her. For an instant Dan
stood watching the progress of the fire, then he leaped through the door,
swerved back as an arm of fire shot out at him, ran forward again, caught
up the doll and was outside rubbing away the singed portions of brows and

He did not wait until the house was consumed, but when the flames stood
towering above the roof, shaking out to one side with a roar when the wind
struck them, he mounted Satan once more, and made for the valley.

He wanted to reach Alder at dark, and he gauged the time of his ride so
accurately that when he pulled out of the mouth of Murphy's Pass, the last
light of the day was still on the mountains and in the pass, but it was
already dark in the village, and a score of lights twinkled up at him like

He left Satan and Bart well outside the town, for even in the dark they
might easily be recognized, and then walked straight down the street of
Alder. It was a bold thing to do, but he knew that the first thing which is
seen and suspected is the skulker who approaches from covert to covert.
They knew he had ridden into Alder before in the middle of the night and
they might suspect the danger of such another attack, but they surely would
not have fear of a solitary pedestrian unless a telltale light were thrown
upon his face.

He passed Captain Lorrimer's saloon. Even in this short interval it had
fallen into ill-repute after the killing at Alder. And a shanty farther
down the street now did the liquor business of the town; Captain Lorrimer's
was closed, and the window nailed across with slats. He went on. Partly by
instinct, and partly because it was aflame with lights, he moved straight
to the house at which he had learned tidings of three men he sought on his
last visit to Alder. Now there were more lights showing from the windows of
that place than there were in all the rest of Alder; at the hitching racks
in front, horses stood tethered in long double rows, and a noise of voices
rolled out and up and down the street. Undoubtedly, there was a festival
there, and all Alder would turn out to such an affair. All Alder, including
Vic Gregg, the seventh man. A group came down the street for the widow's
house; they were laughing and shouting, and they carried lanterns; away
from them Barry slipped like a ghost and stood in the shadow of the house.

There might be other such crowds, and they were dangerous to Barry, so now
he hunted for a means of breaking into the house of the widow unseen. The
windows, as he went down the side of the building, he noted to be high, but
not too high to be reached by a skillful, noiseless climber. In the back of
the house he saw the kitchen door, illumined indeed, but the room, as far
as he could see, empty.

Then very suddenly a wave of silence began somewhere in a side of the house
and swept across it, dying to a murmur at the edges. Barry waited for no
more maneuvers, but walked boldly up the back stairs and entered the house,
hat in hand.

The moment he passed the door he was alert, balanced. He could have swung
to either side, or whirled and shot behind him with the precision of a
leisurely marksman, and as he walked he smiled, happily with his head held
high. He seemed so young, then, that one would have said he had just come
in gaily from some game with the other youths of Alder.

Out of the kitchen he passed into the hall, and there he understood the
meaning of the silence, for both the doors to the front room were open, and
through the doors he heard a single voice, deep and solemn, and through the
doors he saw the crowd standing motionless. Their heads did not stir,--
heads on which the hair was plastered smoothly down--and when some one
raised a hand to touch an itching ear, or nose, he moved his arm with such
caution that it seemed he feared to set a magazine of powder on fire. All
their backs were towards Barry, where he stood in the hall, and as he
glided toward them, he heard the deep voice stop, and then the trembling
voice of a girl speak in reply.

At the first entrance he paused, for the whole scene unrolled before him.
It was a wedding. Just in front of him, on chairs and even on benches, sat
the majority of adult Alder,--facing these stood the wedding pair with the
minister just in front of them. He could see the girl to one side of the
minister's back, and she was very pretty, very femininely appealing, now,
in a dress which was a cloudy effect of white; but Barry gave her only one
sharp glance. His attention was for the men of the crowd. And although
there were only backs of heads, and side glimpses of faces he hunted
swiftly for Vic Gregg.

But Gregg was not there. He surveyed the assembly twice, incredulous, for
surely the tall man should be here, but when he was on the very point of
turning on his heel and slinking down the hall to pursue his hunt in other
quarters, the voice of the minister stopped, and the deep tone of Vic
himself rolled through the room.

It startled Barry like a voice out of the sky; he stared about, bewildered,
and then as the minister shifted his position a little he saw that it was
Gregg who stood there beside the girl in white,--it was Gregg being
married. And at the same moment, the eyes of Vic lifted, wandered, fell
upon the face which stood there framed in the dark of the doorway. Dan saw
the flush die out, saw the narrow, single-purposed face of Gregg turn
white, saw his eyes widen, and his own hand closed on his gun. Another
instant; the minister turned his head, seemed to be waiting, and then Gregg
spoke in answer: "I will!"

A thousand pictures rushed through the mind of Barry, and he remembered
first and last the wounded man on the gray horse who he had saved, and the
long, hard ride carrying that limp body to the cabin in the mountains. The
man would fight. By the motion of Gregg's hand, Dan knew that he had gone
even to his wedding armed. He had only to show his own gun to bring on the
crisis, and in the meantime the eyes of Vic held steadily upon him past the
shoulder of the minister, without fear, desperately. In spite of himself
Dan's hand could not move his gun. In spite of himself he looked to the
confused happy face of the girl. And he felt as he had felt when he set
fire to his house up there in the hills. The wavering lasted only a moment
longer; then he turned and slipped noiselessly down the hall, and the
seventh man who should have died for Grey Molly was still alive.

Next: The Wild Geese

Previous: Victory

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