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The Morgan Hills








From: The Seventh Man

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.





Next: The Trap

Previous: Billy The Clerk



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