He brought Satan back to a hand canter, and so he pulled around the next curve of the gulch and saw the trap squarely in front. He came to a full halt. For he saw a tall, strong barbed-wire fence stretching across the stream-bed, and beyond the fence were a litter of chicken-coops, iron bands from broken barrels, and a thousand other of those things which brand the typical western farm-yard; above the top of the bank to his left he caught a glimpse of the sharp roof of the house.
He looked back, but it was far too late to turn, ride down the ravine to a place where the bank could be scaled, and cut across country once more. The posse came like a whirlwind, yelling, shooting as if they hoped to attract attention, and attention they certainly won, for now Dan saw a tall middle-aged fellow, his long beard blowing over one shoulder as he ran, come down into the farm-yard with a double-barreled shotgun in his hands. He was a type of those who do not know what it is to miss their target—probably because ammunition comes so high; and with a double load of buckshot it was literally death to come within his range.
Dan knew that a great many chances may be taken against a revolver and even a rifle can be tricked, but it is suicide to flirt with a shotgun in the hands of one used to bring down doves as they sloped out of the air toward a water-hole. The farmer stood with his broad-brimmed straw hat pushed far back on his head looking up and down the ravine, a perfect target, and Barry's hand slipped automatically over his rifle.
His fingers refused to close upon it.
"I can't do it, Satan," he whispered. "We got to take our chances of gettin' by, that's all. He couldn't have no hand with Grey Molly."
Narrow chances indeed, by this time, for the brief pause had brought the posse fairly upon his heels; the farmer saw the fugitive and brought his shotgun to the ready; and Black Bart in an agony of impatience raced round and round the master. A wild cheer rose from the posse and came echoing about him; they had sighted their quarry. From Rickett to Morgan Hills, from Morgan Hills to St. Vincent, from St. Vincent to Wago and far beyond; but this was the end of an historic run.
"D'ye see?" whispered Barry, leaning close to Satan's ears. "Lad, d'ye see what you've got to do?"
The black stood with his head very high, quivering through his whole body while he eyed the fence. It was murderously high, and all things were against him, the long run, the rise of the ground going toward the fence, and the gravel from which he must take off for the jump.
"You can do it," said the master. "You got to do it! Go for it, boy. We win or lose together!"
He swayed forward, and Satan leaped ahead at full speed, gathering impetus, scattering the gravel on either side. The farmer on the inside of the fence raised his shotgun leisurely to his shoulder and took a careful aim. He knew what it all meant. He had heard of the outlaw, Barry, with his black horse and his wolf-dog—everyone in the desert had, for that matter—and even had he been ignorant the shouting of the posse which now raced down the canyon in full view would have told him all that he needed to know. How many things went through his mind while he squinted down the gleaming barrel! He thought of the long labor on the farm and the mortgage which still ate the life of his produce every year; he thought of the narrow bowed shoulders of his wife; he thought of the meager faces of his children; and he thought first and last of ten thousand dollars reward! No wonder the hand which supported the barrels was steady as an iron prop. He was shooting for his life and the happiness of five souls!
He would save his fire till he literally saw the white of the enemy's eyes: until the outlaw reached the fence, No horse on the mountain-desert could top that highest strand of wire as he very well knew; and in his youth, back in Kentucky, he had ridden hunters. That fence came exactly to the top of his head, and the top of his head was six feet and two inches from the ground. To make assurance doubly sure he dropped upon one knee and made that shotgun an unstirring part and portion of himself.
Nobly, nobly the black came on, his ears pricking as he judged the great task and his head carried a little high and back as any good jumper knows his head must be carried.
The practiced eye of the farmer watched the outlaw gather his horse under him. Well he knew the meaning of that shortening grip on the reins to give the horse the last little lift that might mean success or failure in the jump. Well he knew that rise in the stirrups, that leaning forward, and his heart rose in unison and went back to the blue grass of Kentucky glittering in the sun.
Before them went the wolf-dog, skimming low, reached the fence, and shot over it in a graceful, high-arched curve.
Then the shout of the rider: "Up! Up!"
And the stallion reared and leaped. He seemed to graze it coming up, so close was his take-off; he seemed to be pawing his way over with the forefeet; and then with both legs doubled close, hugging his body, he shot across and left the highest strand of the wire quivering and humming.
The farmer hurled his best shotgun a dozen yards away and threw up his hat.
"Go it, lad! God bless ye; and good luck!"
The hand of the rider lifted in mute acknowledgment, and as he shot past, the farmer caught a glimpse of a delicately handsome face that smiled down at him.
"The left gate! The left gate!" he shouted through his cupped hands, and as the fugitive rushed through the upper gate he turned to face the posse which was already pulling up at the fence and drawing their wirecutters.
As Barry shot out onto the higher ground on the other side of the farmhouse he could see them severing the wires and the interruption of the chase would be only a matter of seconds. But seconds counted triply now, and the halt and the time they would spend getting up impetus all told in favor of the fugitive.
Thirty-five miles, or thereabouts, since they left Rickett that morning, and still the black ran smoothly, with a lilt to his gallop. Dan Barry lifted his head and his whistling soared and pulsed and filled the air. It made Bart come back to him; it made Satan toss his head and glance at the master from the corner of his bright eye, for this was an assurance that the battle was over and the rest not far away.
On they drove, straight as a bird flies for Caswell City, and Black Bart, ranging ahead among the hills, was picking the way once more. If the stallion were tired, he gave no sign of it. The sweep of his stride brushed him past rocks and shrubs, and he literally flowed uphill and down, far different from the horses which scampered in his rear, for they pounded the earth with their efforts, grunting under the weight of fifty pound saddles and heavy riders. Another handicap checked them, for while Satan ran on alone, freely, the bunched pursuers kept a continual friction back and forth. The leaders reined in to keep back with the mass of the posse, and those in the rear by dint of hard spurring would rush up to the front in turn until some spirited nag challenged for the lead, so that there was a steady interplay among the fifteen. Their gait at the best could not be more than the pace, of their slowest member, but even that pace was diminished by the difficulties of group riding. Yet Mark Retherton refused to allow his men to scatter and stretch out. He kept them in hand steadily, a bunched unit ready to strike together, for he had seen the dead body of Pete Glass and he kept in mind a picture of what might happen if this fellow should whirl and pick off the posse man by man. Better prolong the run, for in the end no single horse could stand up against so many relays. Yet it was maddening to watch the stallion float over hill and dale with that same unbroken stride.
Once and again he sent the fresh horses from Wago after the fugitive in a sprinting burst, but each time the black drifted farther away, and mile after mile Mark Retherton pulled his field glasses to his eyes and strained his vision to make out some sign of labor in the gait of Satan. There was no change. His head was still high, the rhythm of his lope unfaltering.
But here the Wago Mountains—not more than ragged hills, to be sure—cut across the path of the outlaw and in those hills, unless the message which waited for him at Wago had been false, should be the men of Caswell City, two score or more besides the fifteen fresh horses for the posse. Two score of men, at least, Caswell could send out, and from the heights they could surely detect the coming of Barry and plant themselves in his way. An ambush, a volley, would end this famous ride.
The hills came up on them swiftly, now, and if the men of Caswell failed in their duty it meant safety for the fugitive, because two miles beyond were the willows of the marshes and the fords across the Asper River. There could only be two alternatives, since not a man showed on the hills. Either they waited in ambush, or else they had mistaken the route along which Barry would come, and the latter was hardly possible. With his glasses Mark Retherton scanned the hills anxiously and it was then that he saw the dark form of the wolf-dog skulking on before the outlaw. He had watched Black Bart before this, of course, but never with suspicion until he noted the peculiar manner in which the animal skirted here and there through the rough ground, pausing on high places, weaving back and forth across the course of his master.
"Like a scout," thought Retherton. "And by God, there he comes to report!"
For Black Bart had whirled and raced straight back for Dan. There was no need of howl or whine to give the reason of his coming; the speed of his running meant business, and Barry shortened the pace of Satan while he looked over the hills, incredulous, despairing.
It could not be that men lurked there to cut him off. No living thing could have raced from Rickett to Caswell City to warn them of his coming. Nevertheless, there came Bart with the ill tidings, and it only remained to skirt swiftly east, round the dangerous ground, and strike the marshes first. He swung Satan around on the new course with a pressure of his knees and loosed him into a freer gallop.
They must have sensed the meaning of this maneuver at once, for hardly had he stretched out east when voices shouted out of the hills, and around and over several low knolls came forty horsemen, racing. Half a dozen were already due east—no escape that way; and the long line of the others came straight at him with the slope of the ground to give them velocity.