Seventh Man, The

Chapter XXXI. The Trap

He had already covered a good ten miles, and a large part of that through extremely rough going, but the black ran with his head as high as the moment he pulled out of Rickett that morning, and there was only enough sweat to make his slender neck and greyhound flanks flash in the sun. Back he winged toward Rickett, running as freely as the wild leader of a herd, sometimes turning his fine head to one side to look back at the master or gaze over the hills, sometimes slackening to a trot up a sharper ascent or lengthening into a fuller gallop on an easy down-slope. There seemed no purpose in the reins which were kept just taut enough to give the rider the feel of his mount, and the left hand which held them was never still for a moment, but played back and forth slightly with the motion of the head. Except in times of crisis those reins were not for the transmission of orders, it seemed, but they served as the wires through which the mind of the man and the mind of the horse kept in telegraphic touch.

In the meantime Black Bart loafed behind, lingering on the crest of each rise to look back, and then racing to catch up, but halfway back to Rickett he came up beside the master, whining, and leaping as high as Barry's knee.

"You seen something?" queried Barry. "Are they comin' on the trail again?"

He swayed a bit to one side and diverted Satan out of his course so as to climb one of the more commanding swells. From this point he glanced back and saw a dust cloud, much like that which a small whirlwind picks up, rolling down the nearest slope of the Morgan Hills. At that distance the posse looked hardly larger than one unit, and certainly they could not see the single horseman they followed; however, they could follow the trail easily across this ground. Satan had turned to look back.

"Shall we go back and play around 'em, boy?" asked Barry.

Black Bart had run on ahead, and now he turned with a short howl.

"The partner says 'no,'" continued the master. "Of all the dogs I ever see, Bart plays the most careful game, but out on the trail, Satan"—here he sent the stallion into the sweeping lope—"Bart knows more'n you an' me put together, so we'll do what he says."

For answer, Satan lengthened a little into his stride. As for the wolf-dog, he went off like a black bolt into the eye of the wind, streaking it west to hunt out the easiest course. A wolf—and surely there was more of wolf than of dog in Black Bart—has a finer sense for the lay of ground than anything on four feet. He knows how to come down the wind on his quarry keeping to the depressions and ravines so that not a taint of his presence is blown to the prey; and he will skulk across an open plain, stealing from hollow to hollow and stalking from bush to bush, so that the wariest are taken by surprise. As for Black Bart, he knew the kind of going which the stallion liked as well, almost, as he knew his own preferences, and he picked out a course which a surveyor with line and spirit-level could hardly have bettered. He wove across the country in loosely thrown semicircles, and came back in view of the master at the proper point. There was hardly much point in such industry in a country as smooth as this, not much more difference, say, than the saving of distance which the horse makes who hugs the fence on the turn and on account of that sticks his head under the finish wire a nose in front; and Bart clung to his work with scrupulous care.

Sometimes he ran back with lolling, red tongue, when the course lay clear even to the duller sense of a human, and frisked under the nose of Satan until a word from Barry sent him scurrying away like a pleased child. His duties comprehended not only the selection of the course but also an eagle vigilance before and behind, so that when he came again with a peculiar whine, Barry leaned a little from the saddle and spoke to him anxiously.

"D'you mean to say that they been gainin' ground on us old boy?"

Black Bart leaped sidewise, keeping his head toward the master, and he howled in troubled fashion.

"Whereaway are they now?" muttered Barry, and looked back again.

A great distance behind, hardly distinguishable now, the dust of the posse was blending into the landscape and losing itself against a gray background.

"If they's nothin' wrong behind, what's bitin' you, Bart. You gettin' hungry, maybe? Want to hurry home?"

Another howl, still louder, answered him.

"Go on, then, and show me where they's trouble."

Black Bart whirled and darted off almost straight ahead, but bearing up a hill slightly south of their course. Toward the top of this eminence he changed his lope for a skulking trot that brought his belly fur trailing on the ground.

"They's somethin' ahead of us, Satan!" cried the master softly. "What could that be? It's men, by the way Bart sneaks up to look at 'em. They's nothin' else that he'd do that way for. Easy, boy, and go soft!"

The stallion cut his gallop into a slinking trot, his head lowered, even his ears flat back, and glided up the hillside. Barry swung to the ground and crawled to the top of the hill. What he saw was a dozen mounted men swinging down into the low, broad scoop of ground beyond the hill. They raced with their hatbrims standing stiff up in the wind.

"They've been watchin' us with glasses!" whispered Dan to Bart, and the wolf-dog snarled savagely, his neck-fur ruffling up.

The dozen directly in front were not all, for to the right, bearing straight across his original course, came another group almost as strong, and to the left eight more riders spurred at top speed.

"We almost walked into 'em," said Barry, "but they ain't got us yet. Back, boy!"

The wolf dog slunk down the hill until it was out of sight from the farther side of the slope, and the master imitated these tactics until he was close to Satan. Once in the saddle he made up his mind quickly. Someone in Rickett had guessed his intention to double back toward Tucker Creek, and they had cut him off cleverly enough and in overwhelming force. However, no one in Rickett could guess that another way out remained for him in the fords below Caswell City, and even if they knew, their knowledge would do them no good. They could not wing a message to that place to head him off; it was not humanly possible. For Dan knew nothing of the telephone lines which brought Caswell City itself within speaking distance of far away Rickett. Caswell City, then, was his goal, but to get toward it he must circle far back toward the Morgan Hills, back almost into the teeth of the posse in order to skirt around the right wing of these new enemies. Even then, to double that flank, he must send Satan ahead at full speed. As he swung around, the eight men of that end party crashed over the hill five hundred yards away, and their yell at the view of the quarry went echoing up the shallow valley.

The slayer of Pete Glass, he who had done the notorious Killing at Alder, was almost in touch of their revolvers—and their horses were fresh. Not one of that eight but would have given odds on his chances of sharing the capture money. There were no spurs on the heels of Barry to urge Satan, and no quirt in his hand, but a single word sent the black streaking down the hill.

Going into the Morgan Hills he had gone like the wind, but now he rushed like a thoroughbred standing a challenge in the homestretch. His nose, and his flying tail were a straight line and the flash of his legs was a tangle which no eye could follow as he shot east on the back trail, straight toward the posse. For a mile or more that speed did not slacken, and at the end of that distance he began to edge to the right.

The men behind him knew well enough what the plan of the fugitive was, and they angled farther toward the north; there in the distance came the posse, the cloud of dust breaking up now into the dark figures of the fifteen, and if the men from St. Vincent could hold the pace a little longer they would drive Barry between two fires. They flattened themselves along their horses' necks at infinite risk to their necks in case of a stumble, and every spur in the crowd was dripping red; horseflesh could do no more, and still the black drew ahead inches and inches with every stride.

If they could not turn him with their speed another way remained, and by swift agreement the four best horses were sent ahead at full speed while the other riders caught their reins over the pommels and jerked out their rifles; a quartet of bullets went screaming after the black horse.

Indeed, there was little enough chance that a placed shot would go home, but their magazines were full, and a chance hit would do the work and kill both man and horse at that rate of speed. Dan Barry knew it, and when the bullets sang he whirled in the saddle and swept out his rifle from its case in the same movement. That yellow devil of anger flared in his eyes as he pitched the butt to his shoulder and straight into the circle of the sight rode Johnny Gasney of St. Vincent. Another volley whistled about him and his finger trembled on the trigger. No chance work with Barry, for he knew the gait of Satan as a practized naval gunner knows the swing of his ship in a smooth sea, and that circle of doom wavered over Johnny Gasney for a dozen strides before Dan turned with a faint moan and jammed the rifle back in its case. Once again he was balancing in his stirrups, leaning close to cut the wind with his shoulders.

"I can't do it, Satan. I got nothin' agin them. They think they're playin' square. I can't do it. Stretch out, old boy. Stretch out!" It seemed impossible that the stallion could increase his exertions, but with that low voice at his ear he did literally stretch along the ground and jerked himself away from the pursuit like a tall ship when a new sail spreads in a gale.

The men from St. Vincent saw that the game was lost. Every one of the eight had his rifle at the shoulder and the bullets hissed everywhere about him. Right into his face, but a greater distance away, rode the posse from Rickett, the fifteen tried men and true; and having caught the scheme of the trap they were killing their horses with a last effort.

It failed through no fault of theirs. Just as the jaws of the trap were about to close the black stallion whisked out from danger, lunged over a swell of ground, and was out of view. When they reached that point, yelling, Barry raced his black out of range of all except the wildest chance shot. The eight from St. Vincent drove their weapons sullenly into the holsters; for the last five minutes they had been silently dividing ten thousand dollars by eight, and the awakening left a taste of ashes.

They could only follow him now at a moderate pace in the hope of wearing him down, and since a slight pause made little difference in the result—it would even be an advantage to breathe their horses after that burst,—they drew rein and cursed in chorus.

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