Seventh Man, The

Chapter XXXII. Relays

The horses from St. Vincent already wheezed from the run, but the mounts of the posse were staggering completely blown. Ever since they left Rickett they had been going at close to top speed and the last rush finished them; at least seven of that chosen fifteen would never be worth their salt again, and they stood with hanging heads, bloody foam upon their breasts and dripping from their mouths, their sides laboring, and breathing with that rattle which the rider dreads. The posse, to a man, swung sullenly to the ground.

"Who's boss, boys?" called Johnny Gasney, puffing in his saddle as he rode up. "By God, we'll get him yet! They's a devil in that black hoss! Who's boss?"

"I ain't exactly boss," answered Mark Retherton, whom not even fear of death could hurry in his ways of speech, "but maybe I can talk for the boys. What you want, Johnny?"

"You gents'll be needin' new hosses?"

"We'll be needin' graves for the ones we got," growled Mark, and he stared gloomily at the dull eye of his pinto. "The best cuttin' out hoss I ever throwed a leg over, and now—look at him!"

"Here's your relay!" cut in Johnny Gasney. "Old Billy 'phoned down." Five men came leading three spare horses apiece. "He phoned down and asked me to get fifteen hosses ready. He must of guessed where Barry would head. And here they are—the best ponies in St. Vincent—but for God's sake use 'em better'n you did that set!"

The other members of the posse set to work silently changing their saddles to the new relay, and Mark Retherton tossed his answer over his shoulder to Johnny Gasney while he drew his cinch brutally tight.

"They's a pile of hoss-flesh in these parts, but they ain't more'n one Barry. You gents can say good-bye to your hosses unless we nail him before they're run down."

Johnny Gasney rubbed his red, fat forehead, perplexed.

"It's all right," he decided, "because it ain't possible the black hoss can outlast these. But—he sure seemed full of runnin! One thing more, Mark. You don't need to fear pressin' Barry, because he won't shoot. He had his gun out, but I guess he don't want to run up his score any higher'n it is. He put it back without firin' a shot. Go on, boys, and go like hell. Billy has lined up a new relay for you at Wago."

They made no pause to start in a group, but each sent home the spurs as soon as he was in the saddle. They had ridden for the blood of Pete Glass before, but now at least seven of them rode for the sake of the horses they had ruined, and to a cow-puncher a favorite mount is as dear as a friend.

They expected to find the black out of sight, but it was a welcome surprise to see him not half a mile away wading across St. Vincent Creek; for Barry quite accurately guessed that there would be a pause in the pursuit after that hair-breadth escape, and at the creek he stopped to let Satan get his wind. He would not trust the stallion to drink, but gave him a bare mouthful from his hat and loosened the cinches for an instant.

Not that this was absolutely necessary, for Satan was neither blown nor leg-weary. He stood dripping with sweat, indeed, but poised lightly, his head high, his ears pricked, his nostrils distended to transparency as he drew in great breaths. Even that interval Barry used, for he set to work vigorously massaging the muscles of shoulders and hips and whipping off the sweat from neck and flank. It was several moments, and already Satan's breath came easily, when Black Bart shot down from his watch-post and warned them on with a snarl, but still, before he tightened the cinches again and climbed to the saddle Barry took the fine head of the stallion between his hands.

"Between you and me, Satan," he murmured, "our day's work is jest beginnin'. Are you feelin' fit?"

Satan nuzzled the shoulder of the master and snorted his answer; Black Bart had given the warning, and the stallion was eager to be off.

They crossed the creek at a place where the stones came almost to the surface, since nothing is more detrimental to the speed of a horse than a plunge in cold water, and with the hoofbeats of the posse growing up behind they cantered off again a little cast of north, straight for Caswell City.

There was little work for Black Bart in such country as this, for there was rarely a rise of ground over which a man on horseback could not look, and the surface was race-track fast. Once Satan knew the direction there was nothing for it but to sit the saddle and let him work, and he fell into his long-distance gait. It was a smart pace for any ordinary animal to follow through half a day's journey, and Barry knew with perfect certainty that there was not the slightest chance of even the fresh horses behind him wearing down Satan before night; but to his astonishment the trailers rode as if they had limitless horseflesh at their command. Perhaps they were unaware of the running that was still in Satan, so Barry sent the stallion on at a free gallop that shunted the sagebrush past him in a dizzy whirl.

A mile of this, but when he looked back the posse were even closer. They were riding still with the spur! It was madness, but it was not his part to worry for them, and it was necessary that he maintain at least this interval, so he leaned a little forward to cut the wind more easily, and Satan leaped into a faster pace. He had several distinct advantages over the mounts of the posse. At their customary rolling lope they will travel all day with hardly a break, but they have neither the size nor the length of leg for sustained bursts of speed. Moreover, most of the cowponies who now raced on the trail of Satan carried riders who outweighed Barry by twenty pounds and in addition to this they were burdened by saddles made ponderously to stand the strain of roping cattle, whereas Barry's specially made saddle was hardly half that weight. Perhaps more than all this, the cowponies rode by compulsion, urged with sharp spurs, checked and guided by the jaw-breaking curb, whereas Satan frolicked along at his own will, or at least at the will of a master which was one with his. No heavy bit worried his mouth, no pointed steel tormented his flanks. He had only one handicap—the weight of his rider, and that weight was balanced and distributed with the care of a perfect horseman.

With all this in mind it was hardly wonderful that the stallion kept the posse easily in play. His breathing was a trifle harder, now, and perhaps there was not quite the same light spring in his gallop, but Barry, looking back, could tell by the tossing heads of the horses which followed that they were being quickly run down to the last gasp. Mile after mile there was not a pause in that murderous pace, and then, cutting the sky with a row of sharply pointed roofs, he saw a town straight ahead and groaned in understanding.

It was rather new country to Barry, but the posse must know it like a book. They were spending their horses freely because they hoped to arrange for a fresh series of mounts in Wago. However, it would take some time for them to arrange the details of the loan, and by that time he would be out of sight among the hills which stretched ahead. That would give him a sufficient start, and he would make the fords near Caswell City comfortably ahead. At Caswell City, indeed, they might get a still other relay, but just beyond the Asper River rose the Grizzly Peaks—his own country, and once among them he could laugh the posse to scorn.

He patted Satan on the shoulder and swept on at redoubled speed, skirting close to the town, while the posse plunged straight into it.

Listening closely, he could hear their shouts as they entered the village, could mark the cessation of their hoof-beats.

Ten minutes, five minutes at least for the change of horses, and that time would put him safety among the hills.

But the impossible happened. There was no pause of minutes, hardly a pause of seconds, when the rush of hoofbeats began again and poured out from the town, fifteen desperate riders on fifteen fresh mounts. By some miracle Wago had been warned and the needed horses had been kept there saddled and ready for the relay.

It turned an easy escape into a close chance, but still his faith in Satan was boundless to reach the fords in time, and the safety of the mountains beyond. Another word, and with a snort the great-hearted stallion swept up the slope, with Black Bart at his old work, skirting ahead and choosing the easiest way. That was another great handicap in favor of the fugitive, and every advantage counted with redoubled significance now, every foot of distance saved, every inch of climb avoided.

A new obstacle confronted him, for the low, rolling hills were everywhere checkered with squares and oblongs of plowed ground, freshly turned, and guarded by tall fences of barbed-wire. They could be jumped, but jumping was no easy matter for a tiring horse, and Barry saw, with a sigh of relief, a sharp gulch to the left which cut straight through that region of broken farms and headed north and east pointing like an arrow in the direction of the fords. He swung down into it without a thought and pressed on. The bottom was gravelly, here and there, from the effect of the waters which had once washed through the ravine and cut these sides so straight, but over the greater part of the bottom sand had drifted, and the going was hardly worse than the hilly stretches above.

The sides grew higher, now, with great rapidity. Already they were up to the shoulder of Satan, now up to his withers, and from behind the roar of the posse racing at full speed, filled the gulch with confusion of echoes. They must be racing their horses as if they were entering the homestretch, as if they were sure of the goal. It was strange.

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