Once out of Rickett, Barry pulled the stallion back to an easy canter. He had camped during the latter part of the night near the town and ridden in in the morning, so that Satan was full of running. He rebelled now against this easy pace, and tossed his head with impatience. No curb restrained him, not even a bit; the light hackamore could not have held him for an instant, but the voice of the rider kept him in hand. Now, out of Rickett's one street, came the thing for which Barry had waited, and delayed his course—a scudding dust cloud. On the top of a rise of ground he brought Satan to a halt and looked back, though Black Bart ran in a circle around him, and whined anxiously. Bart knew that they should be running; there was no good in that ragged dust-cloud. Finally he sat down on his haunches and looked his master in the face, quivering with eagerness. The posse came closer, at the rate of a racing horse, and near at hand the tufts of dust which tossed up above and behind the riders dissolved, and Whistling Dan made them out clearly, and more clearly.
For one form he looked above all, a big man who rode somewhat slanting; but Vic Gregg was not among the crowd, and for the rest, Barry had no wish to come within range of their harm. The revolver at his side, the rifle in the case, were for the seventh man who must die for Grey Molly. These who followed him mattered nothing—except that he must not come within their reach. He studied them calmly as they swept nearer, fifteen chosen men as he could tell by their riding, on fifteen choice horses as he could tell by their gait. If they pushed him into a corner—well, five men were odds indeed, yet he would not have given them a thought; ten men made it a grim affair, but still he might have taken a chance; however, fifteen men made a battle suicide—he simply must not let them corner him. Particularly fifteen such men as these, for in the mountain-desert where all men are raised gun in hand, these were the quickest and the surest marksmen. Each one of them had struck that elusive white ball in motion, and each had done it with a revolver. What could they do with a rifle?
That thought might have sent him rushing Satan down the farther slope, but instead, he raised his head a little more and began to whistle softly to himself. Satan locked an ear back to listen; Black Bart rose with a muffled growl. The posse rode in clear view now, and at their head was a tall, lean man with the sun glinting now and again on his yellow moustaches. He threw out his arm and the posse scattered towards the left. Obviously he was the accepted leader, and indeed few men in the mountain-desert would not willingly have followed Mark Retherton. Another gesture from Retherton, and at once a dozen guns gleaned, and a dozen bullets whizzed perilously close to Barry, then the reports came barking up to him; he was just a little out of range.
Still he lingered for a moment before he turned Satan reluctantly, it seemed, and started him down the far slope, straightaway for the Morgan Hills as old Billy had prophesied. It would be no exercise canter even for Satan, for the horses which followed were rare of their kind, and the western horse at the worst has manifold fine points. His ancestor is the Barb or the Arab which the Spaniards brought with them to Mexico and the descendants of that finest of equine bloods made up the wild herds which soon roamed the mountain-desert to the north. Long famines of winter, hot deserts in summer, changed their appearance. Their heads grew lumpier, their necks more scraggy, their croups more slanting, their legs shorter; but their hoofs grew denser, hardier, their shorter coupling gave them greater weight-carrying possibilities, the stout bones and the clean lines of their legs meant speed, and above all they kept the stout heart of the thoroughbred and they gained more than this, an indomitable, bulldog persistence. The cheapest Western cow-pony may look like the cartoon of a horse, but he has points which a judge will note, and he will run a picture horse to death in three days.
Such were the horses which took the trail of Satan and they were chosen specimens of their kind. Up the slope they stormed and there went Satan skimming across the hollow beneath them. Their blood was his blood, their courage his courage, their endurance his endurance. The difference between them was the difference between the factory machine and the hand made work of art. From his pasterns to his withers, from his hoofs to his croup every muscle was perfectly designed and perfectly placed for speed, tireless running; every bone was the maximum of lightness and strength combined. A feather bloom on a steady wind, such was the gait of Satan.
Down the hollow the posse thundered, and up the farther slope, and still the black slipped away from them until Mark Retherton cursed deeply to himself.
"Don't race your hosses, boys," he shouted. "Keep 'em in hand. That devil is playing with us."
As a result, they checked their mounts to merely a fast gallup, and Barry, looking back, laughed softly with understanding. Far different the laborious pounding of the posse and the light stretch of Satan beneath him. He leaned a little until he could catch the sound of the breathing, big, steady draughts with comfortable intervals between. He could run like that all day, it seemed, and Whistling Dan ran his fingers luxuriously down the shining neck. Instantly the head tossed up, and a short whinney whipped back to him like a question. Just before them the Morgan Hills jutted up, like stiff mud chopped by the tread of giants. "Now, partner," murmured Barry, "show 'em what you can do! Jest lengthen out a bit."
The steady breeze from the running sharpened into a gale, whisking about his face; there was no longer the wave-like rock of that swinging gallup but a smooth, swift succession of impulses. Rocks, shrubs darted past him, and he felt a gradual settling of the horse beneath him as the strides lengthened, From behind a yell of dismay, and with a backward glance he saw every man of the posse leaning forward and swinging his quirt. An instant later half a dozen of the ragged little hills closed between them.
Once fairly into the heart of the Morgans, he called the stallion back from the racing stride to a long canter, and from the gallop to a rapid trot, for in this broken country it was wearing on an animal to maintain a lope up hill and down the quick, jerking falls. The cowpuncher hates the trot, for his ponies are not built for it, but the deep play of Satan's fetlock joints broke the hard impacts; his gait now was hardly more jarring than the flow of the single-foot in an ordinary animal.
Black Bart, who had been running directly under the nose of the stallion, now skirted away in the lead. Here and there he twisted among the gullies at a racing clip, his head high, and always he picked out the smoothest ground, the easiest rise, the gentlest descent which lay more or less straight in the line of his master's flight. It cut down the work of the stallion by half to have this swift, sure scout run before and point out the path, yet it was stiff labor at the best and Barry was glad when he came on the hard gravel of an old creek bed cutting at right angels to his course.
From the first he had intended to run towards the Morgans only to cover the true direction of his flight, and now, since the posse was hopelessly left behind him, well out of hearing, he rode Satan into the middle of the creek bed and swung him north.
It was bad going for a horse carrying a rider, and even the catlike certainty of Satan's tread could not avoid sharp edges here and there that might cut his hoofs. So Barry leaped to the ground and ran at full speed down the bed. Behind him Satan followed, his ears pricked uneasily, and Black Bart, at a signal from the master, dropped back and remained at the first bend of the old, empty stream. In a moment they wound out of sight even of Bart, but Barry kept steadily on. It would take a magnifying glass to read his trail over those rocks.
He had covered a mile, perhaps, when Bart came scurrying again and leaped joyously around the master.
"They've hit the creek, eh?" said Whistling Dan. "Well, they'll mill around a while and like as not they'll run a course south to pick me up agin."
He gestured toward the side, and as soon as Satan stood on the good going once more, Barry swung into the saddle and headed straight back west. No doubt the posse would ride up and down the creek bed until they found his trail turning back, but they would lose precious minutes picking it up, and in the meantime he would be far, far away toward the ford of Tucker Creek. Then, clearly, but no louder than the snapping of a dry twig near his ear, he heard the report of a revolver and it spoke to him of many things as the baffled posse rode up and down the creek bed hunting for the direction of his escape. Some one had fired that shot to relieve his anger.
He neither spoke to Satan nor struck him, but there was a slight leaning forward, an imperceptible flexing of the leg muscles, and in response the black sprang again into the swift trot which sent him gliding over the ground, and twisting back and forth among the sharp-sided gullies with a movement as smooth as the run of the wolf-dog, which once again raced ahead.
When they came out in view of the rolling plain Barry stopped again and glanced to the west and the north, while Black Bart ran to the top of the nearest hill and looked back, an ever vigilant outpost. To the north lay the fordable streams near Caswell City, and that way was perfect safety, it seemed. Not perfect, perhaps, for Barry knew nothing of the telephones by which the little bald headed clerk at the sheriff's office was rousing the countryside, but if he struck toward Caswell City from the Morgans, there was not a chance in ten that scouts would catch him at the river which was fordable for mile after mile.
That way, then, lay the easiest escape, but it meant a long detour out of the shortest course, which struck almost exactly west, skirting dangerously close to Rickett. But, as Billy had presupposed, it was the very danger which lured the fugitive. Behind him, entangled in the gullies of the bad-lands, were the fifteen best men of the mountain-desert. In front of him lay nothing except the mind of Billy the clerk. But how could he know that?
Once again he swayed a little forward and this time the stallion swung at once into his ranging gallop, then verged into a half-racing gait, for Barry wished to get out of sight among the rolling ground before the posse came out from the Morgan Hills on his back trail.