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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