: The Seventh Man
There were three spots of white in the dim saloon, the faces of Stewart,
Lorrimer, and old Lew Perkins, and at the feet of Vic grew a spot of red.
Knowing with calm surety that no hand would lift against him even if he
turned his back, he walked out the door without a word and swung into the
saddle. There, for an instant, he calculated chances, for the street
stretched empty before and behind with not a sound of warning stirring in
the saloon. He was greatly tempted to ride to Dug Pym's for his blanket
roll and a few other traveling necessities, but he remembered that the men
of Alder rose to action with astonishing speed; within five minutes a group
of hard riders would be clattering up his trail with Pete Glass at their
head. An unlucky Providence had sent Pete to Alder on this day of all days.
There stood his redoubtable dusty roan at the hitching rack, her head low,
one ear back and one flopped forward, her under lip pendulous--in a pasture
full of horses one might pick her last either for stout heart or speed.
Even in spite of her history Vic would have engaged Grey Molly to beat the
roan at equal weights, but since he outbulked the sheriff full forty
pounds, he weighed in nice balance the necessity of shooting the roan
before he left Alder. It was, he decided, unpleasant but vital, and his
fingers had already slid around the butt of his gun when a horse whinnied
far off and the roan twitched up her head to listen. She was no longer a
cloddish lump of horseflesh, but an individual, a soul; Gregg's hand fell
from his gun. Cursing his sentimental weakness, he lifted Molly into a
canter down the street. Still no signs of awakening behind him or about;
only little Jack Sweeney playing tag with a black-and-tan puppy, the
triumphant cackle of a hen somewhere to the left; but as he neared the end
of the street, where the trail swung into the rocks of the slope, a door
banged far off and a voice was screaming: "Pete! Pete Glass!"
Grey Molly switched her tail nervously at the shout, but Vic was too wise
to let her waste strength hurrying up so sharp a declivity; that dusty roan
whose life he had spared would be spending it prodigally to overtake him
before long and Molly's power must be husbanded. So he kept her at a quick
walk by pressing the calf of one leg into her flank and turned in the
saddle to watch the town sink behind him. Sometime in the vague, stupid
past Marne had jog-trotted down this slope, but now he was a new man with
an eye which saw all things and a gun which could not fail. Figures,
singularly tiny and singularly distinct, swarmed into the street from
nowhere, men on horses, men swinging into saddles; here and there the slant
light of the afternoon twinkled on gun barrels, and ludicrous thin voices
came piping up the hill. As he reached the nether lip of Murphy's Pass a
small cavalcade detached itself from the main mass before Captain
Lorrimer's saloon and swept down the street, first a dusty figure on a
dusty horse, hardly visible; then a spot of red which must be Harry Fisher
on his blood-bay, with a long-striding sorrel beside him that could carry
no one except grim old Sliver Waldron. Behind these rode one with the
light glinting on his silver conchos--Mat Henshaw, the town Beau Brummel--
then the black Guss Reeve, and last of all "Ronicky" Joe on his pinto;
"Ronicky" Joe, handy man at all things, and particularly guns. It showed
how fast Pete Glass could work and how well he knew Alder, for Vic himself
could not have selected five cooler fighters among the villagers or five
finer mounts. The posse switched around the end of the street and darted
up the hill like the curling lash of a whip.
"Good," said Vic Gregg. "The damn fools will wind their horses before they
hit the pass."
He put Grey Molly into an easy trot, for the floor of the pass dipped up
and down, littered with sharp-toothed rocks or treacherous, rolling ones,
as bad a place for speed as a stiff upslope. According to his nicest
calculation the posse could not reach the edge of the gulch before he was
at the farther side, out of range of everything except a long chance shot,
so he took note of things as he went and observed a spot of pale silver
skirting through the brush on the eastern ridge of the gorge. There would
be moonlight that night and another chance in favor of Pete Glass. He
remembered then, with quiet content, that jogging in the holster was a
power which with six words might stop those six pursuers.
A long halloo came barking down the pass, now drawling out, now cut away to
silence as the angling cliffs sent on the echo, and Vic loosened the rein.
Grey Molly swung out with a snort of relief to a free-swinging gallop and
they swept down a great, gentle slope where new grass padded the fall of
her hoofs, yet even then he kept the mare checked and held her in touch
with an easily playing wrist. He did not imagine that even the sheriff on
the dusty roan would dream of trying to swallow up Grey Molly in a short
sprint but that assurance nearly cost Vic his life. The roar of hoofs in
the gulch belched out into the comparative silence of the open space beyond
and just as he gave the mare her head a gun coughed and an angry humming
darted past his ear.
Molly lengthened into full speed. He could not tell on account of the
muffling grass whether the pursuit was gaining or losing. He trusted
blindly to the mare and when he looked back they were already pulling their
mounts down to a hand gallop. That would teach them to match Molly in a
sprint, roan or no roan!
He slapped her below the withers, where the long, hard muscles rippled back
and forth. She was full of running, her gallop as light as the toss of a
bough in the wind, and now as he pulled her back to a swinging canter her
head went high, with pricking ears. Suddenly his heart went out to her; she
would run like that till she died, he knew.
"Good girl," he whispered huskily.
The day was paling towards the end when he headed into the foothills of the
White Mountains. He drew up Molly for a breath on a level shoulder. Already
he was close to the snow line with ragged heads of white rearing above him.
Far below, a pale streak of moonlight was the Asper. Then, out of that
blacker night on the slopes beneath, he heard the clinking hoofs of the
posse; the quiet was so perfect, the air so clear, that he even caught the
chorus of straining saddle leather and then voices of men. All this time
the effects of the whisky had been wearing away by imperceptible degrees
and at that sound all his old self rushed back on Vic Gregg. Why, they were
his friends, his partners, these voices in the night, and that clear laughter
floated up from Harry Fisher who had been his bunkie at the Circle V
Bar ranch three years ago. He felt an insane impulse to lean over the edge
of the cliff and shout a greeting.