"You can trust Grey Molly to me, Vic," said Dan, standing at the head of the gray mare. "I'll keep her as safe as if she was Satan."
Gregg watched her almost sadly. He had always taken a rather childish pride in her fierceness. She knew him as a dog knows its master and he had always been the only one who could handle her readily in the saddle. But one who knew nothing of horses and their ways could see the entente which had been instantly established between Barry and Grey Molly. When he spoke her ears pricked. When he raised his hand she stretched her nose inquisitively.
There was no pitch in her when Barry swung into the saddle and that was a thing without precedent in Molly's history. She tried none of her usual catlike side-steps and throwing of the head. Altogether, Vic was troubled even as he would have been at the sight of Betty Neal in the arms of another man. It was desertion.
"Dan," he said, "I know what you've done for me and I know what you're doin' now." He took the slender hand of the other in his big paw.
"If the time comes when I can pay you back, so help me God—"
"Oaths don't do no good," cut in Barry without a trace of emotion. He added frankly: "It ain't altogether for your sake. Those gents down there have played tag once with me and now I'd like to play with them. Molly's fresh today."
He was already looking over his shoulder while he spoke; as if his mind were even then at work upon the posse.
"S'long, partner. Good luck."
So they parted and Vic, jogging slowly up the steep path, saw Grey Molly wheeled and sent at a sweeping gallop over the meadow. His heart leaped jealously and the next moment went out in a flood of gratitude, admiration, as Barry swung off the shoulder of the mountain, waved his hat towards Kate, and dipped at once out of sight.
The shelving ground along which Barry rode sometimes was a broad surface like a spacious, graded road; again it shelved away and opened a view of all the valley. When he reached the first of these places the rider looked back and down and saw the posse skirting rapidly on his side of the river, behind him and close to the cliff. They rode at an easy lope, and he could see that their heads were bent to watch the ground. Even at this casual gait they would reach the point at which he and the gray must swing onto the floor of the valley before him unless he urged Molly to top speed. He must get there at a sufficient distance from them to escape close rifle fire, and certainly beyond point-blank revolver range. Accordingly he threw his weight more into the stirrups and over the withers of the mare. This brought greater poundage on her forehand and made her apt to stumble or actually miss her step, but it increased her running power.
There was no need of a touch of the spurs. The gathering of the reins seemed to tell Molly everything. One ear flickered back, then she leaped out at full speed. It was as though the mind of the man had sent an electric current down the reins and told her his thought. Now she floundered at her foot, struck a loose stone, now she veered sharply and wide to escape a boulder, now she cleared a gulley with a long leap, and riding high as he was, bent forward out of balance to escape observation from below. It was only a miracle of horsemanship that kept her from breaking her neck as they lurched down the pitch. Grey Molly seemed to be carrying no weight, only a clinging intelligence.
At this speed he was sure to reach the valley safely in front unless the posse caught sight of him on the way and gave chase, and Barry counted on that instinct in hunting men which makes them keep their eyes low—the same sense which leads a searcher to look first under the bed and last of all at the wall and ceiling. Once more, as he neared his goal, he looked back and down, and there came the six horsemen, their quirts swinging, their hat-brims blown straight up they raced at full speed. They had seen the gray and they rode for blood.
The outstretched neck of Grey Molly, her flattened ears, the rapid clangor of her hoofs on the rocks, seemed to indicate that she already was doing her uttermost, but after the glimpse of the pursuit, Barry crouched a little lower, his hand gathering the reins just behind her head, his voice was near her, speaking softly, quickly. She responded with a snort of effort, as though she realized the danger and willingly accepted it. One ear, as she rushed down the slope, was pricked and one flagged back to the guiding, strengthening voice of the rider.
The path wound in leisurely curves now, but there was a straight cut down a slide of gravel, a dangerous slope even in firm ground, a terrible angle with those loose pebbles underfoot. Yet this was a time for chance-taking. Already the dusty man on the roan rode with his revolver balanced for the snap shot. The next instant his gun swung down, he actually reined up in astonishment. The fugitive had flung himself far back against the cantle and sent Grey Molly at the slide. It was not a matter of running as the mare shot over the brink. Molly sat back on her haunches, braced her forelegs, and went down like an avalanche. Over the rush and roar of the pebbles, over the yell of wonder from the pursuers, she heard the voice of her rider, a clear and steady voice, and the tautened reins telegraphed to her bewildered mind the wish of the man. She struck the level with stunning force, toppled, nearly fell, and then straightened along her course in a staggering gallop. Started from its nice balance by the rush of stones they loosened, a ten-ton rock came toppling after, leaped up from the valley floor like a live thing, and then thundered away towards the river.
Grey Molly, finding her legs once more, tried the level going. She had beaten the same horses before under the crushing impost of Gregg's weight. With this lighter rider who clung like a part of her, who gave perfectly to the rhythm of her gallop, she fairly walked away from the posse. Once, twice and again the gun spoke from the hand of Pete Glass, but it was the taking of a long last chance rather than a sign of closing on his chase. In ten minutes Grey Molly dipped out of sight among the hills.
After the first hour Barry could have cut away across country with little fear of discovery from the sheriff, but he was in no hurry to escape. Sometimes he dismounted and looked to his cinches and talked to the horse. Grey Molly listened with pricking ears and often canted her head to one side as though she strove to understand the game.
It was a new and singular pleasure to Barry. He was accustomed to the exhaustless, elastic strength of Satan, with the cunning brain of a beast of prey and the speed of an antelope. On the black horse he could have ridden circles around that posse all day. But Grey Molly was a different problem. She was not a force to be simply directed and controlled. She was something to be helped. Her very weakness, compared with the stallion, appealed to him. And it was a thrilling pleasure to feel his power over her grow until she, also, seemed to have entered the game.
A game it was, as he had said to Vic when they parted, with the rather essential difference that in this pastime one was tagged with a forty-five caliber chunk of lead and was quite apt to remain "it" for the remainder of eternity. Barry dropped further and further back towards the posse. The danger fascinated him. Once he whistled high and shrill as a hawk's scream from the top of a bluff while the posse labored through a ravine below. He saw the guns flash out, and waited. He heard the sing of the bullets around him, and the splashing lead on a solid-rock face just beneath him; he listened till the deep echoes spoke from the gulch, then waved his hat and disappeared.
This was almost defeating the purpose of his play for if he came that close again they would probably make out that they were following a decoy. Accordingly, since he had now drawn them well away from Vic's line of escape, he turned his back reluctantly on the posse and struck across the hills.
He kept on for the better part of an hour before he doubled and swung in a wide circle towards his cabin. He had laid out a course which the wise sheriff could follow until dark and be none the wiser; and if Pete Glass were the finest trailer who ever studied sign and would never be able to read the tokens of the return ride. Accordingly, with all this well in mind, he brought Grey Molly to a full halt and gazed around, utterly stunned by surprise, when, half way up the valley, a rifle spoke small but sharp from one side, and a bullet clipped the rocks not the length of the horse away. He understood. When he cut straightaway across the country he had indeed left a baffling trail, a trail so dim, in fact, that Pete Glass had wisely given it up and taken the long chance by cutting back to the point at which the hunt began. So their paths crossed.
Barry spoke sharply to the mare and loosed the reins, but she started into a full gallop too late. There came a brief hum, a thudding blow, and Grey Molly pitched forward.