The Warning





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."





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