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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
"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
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
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.