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The Warning








From: The Seventh Man

All in a grim instant he saw the trap. It closed upon his consciousness
with a click, and as he doubled Satan around he knew that the only escape
was in running southeast along the banks of the Asper. Even that was a
desperate, a forlorn chance, for if that omnipotent voice could reach from
Rickett to Caswell City, fifty miles away, certainly it must have warned
the river towns of Ganton and Wilsonville and Bly Falls where Tucker Creek
ran into the Asper. But this was no time for thinking. Already, looking
back, he saw the posse changing their saddles to fifteen fresh mounts, and
he headed Satan across the Wago Hills, West and South.

It was hot work. Even the steel-wire muscles of Black Bart were weakening
under the tremendous labors of that day, and as he scouted ahead his head
was low and his red tongue lolled, and surest sign of all, the bushy tail
drooped; yet it was time to make a new call upon both wolf-dog and horse,
for the posse was racing after him as before, giving even the fresh, willing
mounts the urge of spurs and quirts. He ran his hand down the dripping
neck and shoulder of Satan; he called to him; and with a snort the stallion
responded. He felt the quiver as the muscles tightened for the work; he
felt the settling as Satan lengthened to racing speed.

Through the Wago Hills, then, with Bart picking the way as before, and
never a falter in the sweep of Satan's running. If his head was a little
lower, if his ears lay flat, only the master knew the meaning, and still,
when he spoke, the glistening ears pricked up, and they bounded on to a
greater speed than before. The flight of a gull on unstirring wings when
the wind buoys it, the glide of water over the descent of smooth rock, with
never a ripple, like all things effortless, swift, and free, such was the
gait of Satan as he fled. Let them spur the fresh horses from Caswell City
till their flanks dripped red, they would never gain on him.

On through the hills, and now the heave of his great breaths told of the
strain, down like an arrow into the rolling ground, and now they galloped
beside the Asper banks. The master looked darkly upon that water.

Ten days before, when the snows had not yet reached the climax of melting,
ten days later when that climax was overpassed, the Asper would have been
fordable, but now a brown flood stormed along the gully, ate away the
banks, undermined the willows here and there, and rolled stones larger than
a man could lift. It went with an angry shouting as if it defied the
fugitive. It was narrow, maddeningly narrow, almost small enough to attempt
a leap across to the safety of the thickets on the farther side, but the
force of the water alone was enough to warn the bravest swimmer away, and
here and there, like teeth in the mouth of the shark, jagged stones cut the
surface with white foam streaking out below them; as if to prove its power,
even while Dan turned South along the bank a dead trunk shot down the
stream and split on one of the Asper's teeth.

Even then he felt the temptation. There lay the forest on the farther side,
a forest which would shelter him, and above the forest, hardly a mile back,
began the Grizzly Peaks. They lunged straight up to snowy summits, and all
along their sides blue shadows of the afternoon drifted through a network
of ravines--a promise of peace, a surety of safety if he could reach that
labyrinth.

He was almost glad when he left the mockery of the river's noise to turn
aside for Ganton. There it lay in a bend of the Asper in the low-lands, and
every town where men lived was an enemy. He could see them now gathered
just outside the village, twenty men, perhaps and fifteen spare horses, the
best they had, for the posse.

On past Ganton, and again a call upon Satan to meet the first spurt of the
posse on its new horses. There was something in the stallion to answer,
some incredible reserve of nerve strength and courage. There was a slight
labor, now, and something of the same heave and pitch which comes in the
gait of a common horse; also, when he put Satan up the first slope beyond
Ganton he noted a faltering, a deeper lowering of the head. When his hoofs
struck a loose rock he no longer had the easy recoil of the morning. He
staggered like a graceful yacht chopped by a cross-current. Now down the
slope, now back to the roar of the Asper once more, for there the going was
most level, but always the strides were shortening, shortening, and the
head of the stallion nodded at his work.

All that was seen by Mark Retherton through his glasses, though they were
almost close enough now to see details through the naked eye. He turned in
the saddle to the posse, grim faces, sweat and dust clotted in their
moustaches, their faces drawn and gray with streaks over the nose and under
the eyes where perspiration ran. They rode crookedly, now, for seventy
miles at full speed had racked them, twisted them, cramped their muscles.
Scotty kept his head tilted far back, for his spinal column seemed about to
snap. Walsh leaned to his right side which a tormenting pain drew at every
stride, and Hendricks cursed in gasps through a wry mouth. It had been an
hour since Mark Retherton last spoke, and when he attempted it now his
voice was as hoarse as a croaking frog.

"Boys, buck up! He's done! D'ye see the black laborin'. D'ye see it? Hey,
Lew, Garry, we've got the best hosses among us three. Now's the time for a
spurt, and by God, we'll run him down. I'm startin!"

He made his word good with an Indian yell and a wave of his hat that sent
his buckskin leaping straight into the air, to land with stiff legs,
"swallowing its head," but then it straightened out in earnest. That
buckskin had a name from Bly Falls to Caswell City speed and courage, and
it lived up to the record in the time of need. Close behind it came Lew and
Garry ponies scarcely slower than the buckskin, and they closed rapidly on
Satan. The plan of Retherton was plain: now that the black was running on
its nerve a spurt might bring them within striking distance and if they
could check the flight for an instant by opening advance guard fire, they
might drive the fugitive into a corner by the river and hold him there
until the main body the posse came up. The three of them running alone the
lead could do five yards for every four of the slow horses, and the effect
showed at once.

Going up a slope the trot of the stallion maintained or even increased his
lead, but when they reached the easier ground beyond they drew rapidly upon
him. They saw Barry bend low; they saw the stallion increase its pace.

"By God," shouted Retherton in involuntary admonition, "I'd rather have
that hoss than the ten thousand. But feed 'em the spurs, boys, and he'll
come back to us inside a mile."

And Retherton was right. Before that mile was over the black slipped back
inch by inch, until at length Retherton called: "Now grab your guns boys
and see if you can salt him down with lead. Give your hosses their heads
and turn loose!"

They pulled their guns to their shoulders and sent a volley at the outlaw.
One bullet clipped a spark from the rocks just behind the stallion's feet;
the other two must have gone wide. Once more Barry flinched closer over the
neck of Satan and once again the horse answered with a fresh burst of
speed, but in a few moments he came back to them. Flesh could not stand
that pace after seventy-five miles of running.

They saw the rider straighten and look back; then the sun flashed on his
rifle.

"Feed 'em the spur!" shouted Retherton. "If we can't hit him shooting
ahead, he ain't got a chance to hit us shootin' backwards." For it is
notoriously hard to turn in the saddle and accomplish anything with a
rifle. One is moving away from the target instead of toward it, and every
condition of ordinary shooting is reversed; above all, the moment a man
turns his head he is completely out of touch with his horse. Apparently the
fugitive knew this and made no attempt to place his shots. He merely jerked
his gun to the shoulder and blazed away as soon as it was in place; half a
dozen yards in front of Retherton the bullet kicked up the dust.

"I told you," he shouted. "He can't do nothin' that way. Close in, boys.
Close in for God's sake!"

He himself was flailing with his quirt, and the buckskin grunted at every
strike. Once more the rifle pitched to the outlaw's shoulder, and this time
the bullet clicked on a rock not ten feet from Retherton, and again on a
straight line for him.

"Damned if that ain't shootin'!" called Garry, and Retherton, alarmed,
swung the buckskin out to one side to throw the marksman out of line. He
had turned again in the saddle, and as though the episode were at an end,
restored his rifle to its case, but when they poured in another volley
about him, he swung sharply roundabout again, gun in hand. Once more the
rifle went to his shoulder, and this time the bullet knocked a puff of dust
into the very nostrils of the buckskin. Retherton reined in with an oath.

"He's been warn in' me, boys," he called. "That devil has the range like he
was sitting in a rockin' chair shooting at a tin-can. He's warnin' us back
to the rest of the gang. And damned if we ain't goin'!"

It was quite patent that he was right, for three bullets sent on a line for
one horse, and each of them closer, could mean only one thing. They checked

their horses, and in a moment the rest of the posse was clattering around
them.

"It don't make no difference," called Retherton, "savin' in time. Maybe
he'll last to Wilsonville, but he can't stay in three miles when we hang
onto him with fresh hosses. The black is runnin' on nothin' but guts right
now."





Next: The Asper

Previous: The Jump



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