The seventh man, p.1
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       The Seventh Man, p.1

           Max Brand
 
The Seventh Man


  Produced by Bill Brewer

  THE SEVENTH MAN

  By Max Brand

  Chapter I. Spring

  A man under thirty needs neighbors and to stop up the current of hislife with a long silence is like obstructing a river--eventually thewater either sweeps away the dam or rises over it, and the stronger thedam the more destructive is that final rush to freedom. Vic Gregg was onthe danger side of thirty and he lived alone in the mountains allthat winter. He wanted to marry Betty Neal, but marriage means money,therefore Vic contracted fifteen hundred dollars' worth of mining forthe Duncans, and instead of taking a partner he went after that stakesingle handed. He is a very rare man who can turn out that amount oflabor in a single season, but Gregg furnished that exception whichestablishes the rule: he did the assessment work on fourteen claims andalmost finished the fifteenth, yet he paid the price. Week after weekhis set of drills was wife and child to him, and for conversation he hadonly the clangor of the four-pound single-jack on the drill heads, withthe crashing of the "shots" now and then as periods to the chatterof iron on iron. He kept at it, and in the end he almost finished theallotted work, but for all of it he paid in full.

  The acid loneliness ate into him. To be sure, from boyhood he knew themountain quiet, the still heights and the solemn echoes, but towards theclose of the long isolation the end of each day found him oppressed bya weightier sense of burden; in a few days he would begin to talk tohimself.

  From the first the evening pause after supper hurt him most, for aman needs a talk as well as tobacco, and after a time he dreaded theseevenings so bitterly that he purposely spent himself every day, so asto pass from supper into sleep at a stride. It needed a long day toburn out his strength thoroughly, so he set his rusted alarm-clock, andbefore dawn it brought him groaning out of the blankets to cook a hastybreakfast and go slowly up to the tunnel. In short, he wedded himself tohis work; he stepped into a routine which took the place of thought, andthe change in him was so gradual that he did not see the danger.

  A mirror might have shown it to him as he stood this morning at the doorof his lean-to, for the wind fluttered the shirt around his labor-driedbody, and his forehead puckered in a frown, grown habitual. It was anarrow face, with rather close-set eyes and a slanted forehead whichgave token of a single-track mind, a single-purposed nature with onehundred and eighty pounds of strong sinews and iron-hard muscle to giveit significance. Such was Vic Gregg as he stood at the door waiting forthe coffee he had drunk to brush away the cobwebs of sleep, and then heheard the eagle scream.

  A great many people have never heard the scream of an eagle. The onlyvoice they connect with the kind of the air is a ludicrously feeblesquawk, dim with distance, but in his great moments the eagle has awar-cry like that of the hawk, but harsher, hoarser, tenfold in volume.This sound cut into the night in the gulch, and Vic Gregg started andglanced about for echoes made the sound stand at his side; then helooked up, and saw two eagles fighting in the light of the morning. Heknew what it meant--the beginning of the mating season, and these twobattling for a prize. They darted away. They flashed together withreaching talons and gaping beaks, and dropped in a tumult of wings,then soared and clashed once more until one of them folded his wings anddropped bulletlike out of the morning into the night. Close over Gregg'shead, the wings flirted out--ten feet from tip to tip--beat down witha great washing sound, and the bird shot across the valley in a levelflight. The conqueror screamed a long insult down the hollow. For awhile he balanced, craning his bald head as if he sought applause, then,without visible movement of his wings, sailed away over the peaks. Afeather fluttered slowly down past Vic Gregg.

  He looked down to it, and rubbed the ache out of the back of hisneck. All about him the fresh morning was falling; yonder shone agreen-mottled face of granite, and there a red iron blow-out streakedwith veins of glittering silicate, and in this corner, still misted withthe last delicate shades of night, glimmered rhyolite, lavender-pink.The single-jack dropped from the hand of Gregg, and his frown relaxed.

  When he stretched his arms, the cramps of labor unkinked and let thewarm blood flow, swiftly, and in the pleasure of it he closed his eyesand drew a luxurious breath. He stepped from the door with his, headhigh and his heart lighter, and when his hobnailed shoe clinked on thefallen hammer he kicked it spinning from his path. That act brought asmile into his eyes, and he sauntered to the edge of the little plateauand looked down into the wide chasm of the Asper Valley.

  Blue shadows washed across it, though morning shone around Gregg on theheight, and his glance dropped in a two-thousand-foot plunge to a singleyellow eye that winked through the darkness, a light in the trapper'scabin. But the dawn was falling swiftly now, and while Gregg lingeredthe blue grew thin, purple-tinted, and then dark, slender points prickedup, which he knew to be the pines. Last of all, he caught the sheen ofgrass.

  Around him pressed a perfect silence, the quiet of night holding overinto the day, yet he cast a glance behind him as he heard a voice.Indeed, he felt that some one approached him, some one for whom he hadbeen waiting, yet it was a sad expectancy, and more like homesicknessthan anything he knew.

  "Aw, hell," said Vic Gregg, "it's spring."

  A deep-throated echo boomed back at him, and the sound went down thegulch, three times repeated.

  "Spring," repeated Gregg more softly, as if he feared to rouse thatecho, "damned if it ain't!"

  He shrugged his shoulders and turned resolutely towards the lean-to,picking up the discarded hammer on the way. By instinct he caught itat exactly the right balance for his strength and arm, and the handle,polished by his grip, played with an oiled, frictionless movementagainst the callouses of his palm. From the many hours of drilling,fingers crooked, he could only straighten them by a painful effort. Abad hand for cards, he decided gloomily, and still frowning over this hereached the door. There he paused in instant repugnance, for the placewas strange to him.

  In thought and wish he was even now galloping Grey Molly over the grassalong the Asper, and he had to wrench himself into the mood of thepatient miner. There lay his blankets, rumpled, brown with dirt, andhe shivered at sight of them; the night had been cold. Before he fellasleep, he had flung the magazine into the corner and now the windrustled its torn, yellowed pages in a whisper that spoke to Gregg of theten-times repeated stories, tales of adventure, drifts of tobacco smokein gaming halls, the chant of the croupier behind the wheel, deep voicesof men, laughter of pretty girls, tatoo of running horses, shouts whichonly redeye can inspire. He sniffed the air; odor of burned bacon andcoffee permeated the cabin. He turned to the right and saw his discardedoveralls with ragged holes at the knees; he turned to the left andlooked into the face of the rusted alarm clock. Its quick, soft tickingsent an ache of weariness through him.

  "What's wrong with me," muttered Gregg. Even that voice seemed ghostlyloud in the cabin, and he shivered again. "I must be going nutty."

  As if to escape from his own thoughts, he stepped out into the sunagain, and it was so grateful to him after the chill shadow in thelean-to, that he looked up, smiling, into the sky. A west wind urged ascattered herd of clouds over the peaks, tumbled masses of white whichpuffed into transparent silver at the edges, and behind, long wraiths ofvapor marked the path down which they had traveled. Such an old cowhandas Vic Gregg could not fail to see the forms of cows and heavy-neckedbulls and running calves in that drift of clouds. About this season theboys would be watching the range for signs of screw worms in the cattle,and the bog-riders must have their hands full dragging out cows whichhad fled into the mud to escape the heel flies. With a new lonesomenesshe drew his eyes down to the mountains.

  Ordinarily, strange fancies never entered the hard head of Gregg, buttoday it seemed to him that the moun
tains found a solemn companionshipin each other.

  Out of the horizon, where the snowy forms glimmered in the blue, theymarched in loose order down to the valley of the Asper, where someof them halted in place, huge cliffs, and others stumbled out intofoothills, but the main range swerved to the east beside the valley,eastward out of his vision, though he knew that they went on to the townof Alder.

  Alder was Vic Gregg's Athens and Rome in one, its schoolhouse hisAcropolis, and Captain Lorrimer's saloon his Forum. Other people talkedof larger cities, but Alder satisfied the imagination of Vic; besides,Grey Molly was even now in the blacksmith's pasture, and Betty Neal wasteaching in the school. Following the march of the mountains and thedrift of the clouds, he turned towards Alder. The piled water shook thedam, topped it, burst it into fragments, and rushed into freedom; hemust go to Alder, have a drink, shake hands with a friend, kiss BettyNeal, and come back again. Two days going, two days coming, three daysfor the frolic; a week would cover it all. And two hours later Vic Gregghad cached his heavier equipment, packed his necessaries on the burro,and was on the way.

  By noon he had dropped below the snowline and into the foothills, andwith every step his heart grew lighter. Behind him the mountains slidup into the heart of the sky with cold, white winter upon them, but herebelow it was spring indubitably. There was hardly enough fresh grassto temper the winter brown into shining bronze, but a busy, awakeninginsect life thronged through the roots. Surer sign than this, theflowers were coming. A slope of buttercups flashed suddenly when thewind struck it and wild morning glory spotted a stretch of daisies withpurple and dainty lavender. To be sure, the blossoms never grew thicklyenough to make strong dashes of color, but they tinted and stained thehillsides. He began to cross noisy little watercourses, empty most ofthe year, but now the melting snow fed them. From eddies and quiet poolsthe bright watercress streamed out into the currents, and now andthen in moist ground under a sheltering bank he found rich patches ofviolets.

  His eyes went happily among these tokens of the glad time of theyear, but while he noted them and the bursting buds of the aspen,reddish-brown, his mind was open to all that middle register of callswhich the human ear may notice in wild places. Far above his scale wereshrilling murmurs of birds and insects, and beneath it ran those groundnoises that the rabbit, for instance, understands so well; but betweenthese overtones and undertones he heard the scream of the hawk,spiraling down in huge circles, and the rapid call of a grouse, far off,and the drone of insects about his feet, or darting suddenly upon hisbrain and away again. He heard these things by the grace of the wind,which sometimes blew them about him in a chorus, and again shut off allexcept that lonely calling of the grouse, and often whisked away everymurmur and left Gregg, in the center of a wide hush with only the creakof the pack-saddle and the click of the burro's accurate feet among therocks.

  At such times he gave his full attention to the trail, and he read itas one might turn the pages of a book. He saw how a rabbit had scurried,running hard, for the prints of the hind feet planted far ahead of thoseon the forepaws. There was reason in her haste, for here the pads of aracing coyote had dug deeply into a bit of soft ground. The sign of bothrabbit and coyote veered suddenly, and again the trail told the reasonclearly--the big print of a lobo's paw, that gray ghost which hauntsthe ranges with the wisest brain and the swiftest feet in the West. VicGregg grinned with excitement; fifty dollars' bounty if that scalp werehis! But the story of the trail called him back with the sign of somesmall animal which must have traveled very slowly, for in spite ofthe tiny size of the prints, each was distinct. The man sniffed withinstinctive aversion and distrust for this was the trail of the skunk,and if the last of the seven sleepers was out, it was spring indeed. Heraised his cudgel and thwacked the burro joyously.

  "Get on, Marne," he cried. "We're overdue in Alder."

  Marne switched her tail impatiently and canted back a long ear tolisten, but she did not increase her pace; for Marne had only onegait, and if Vic occasionally thumped her, it was rather by way ofconversation than in any hope of hurrying their journey.

 
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