The Untamed/25

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THE LONG RIDE


A cheer of triumph came from the lynchers. In fifty yards the fugitives learned the reason, for they glimpsed a high set of bars blocking the lane. Dan pulled back beside Haines.

"Can the bay make it?" he called.

"No. I'm done for."

For answer Dan caught the bridle of Lee's horse close to the bit. They were almost to the bars. A dark shadow slid up and over them. It was Black Bart, with his head turned to look back even as he jumped, as if he were setting an example which he bid them follow. Appallingly high the bars rose directly in front of them.

"Now!" called Dan to the tall bay, and jerked up on the bit.

Satan rose like a swallow to the leap. The bay followed in gallant imitation. For an instant they hung poised in air. Then Satan pitched to the ground, landing safely and lightly on four cat-like feet. A click and a rattle behind them—the bay was also over, but his hind hoofs had knocked down the top bar. He staggered, reeled far to one side, but recovering, swept on after Satan and Dan. A yell of disappointment rang far behind.

Glancing back Haines saw the foremost of the pursuers try to imitate the feat of the fugitives, but even with the top bar down he failed. Man and horse pitched to the ground.

For almost a mile the lane held straight on, and beyond stretched the open country. They were in that free sweep of hills before the pursuers remounted beyond the bars. In daytime a mile would have been a small handicap, but with the night and the hills to cover their flight, and with such mounts as Satan and the tall bay, they were safe. In half an hour all sound of them died out, and Haines, following Dan's example, slowed his horse to an easy gallop.

The long rider was puzzled by his companion's horsemanship, for Dan rode leaning far to the right of his saddle, with his head bowed. Several times Haines was on the verge of speaking, but he refrained. He commenced to sing in the exultation of freedom. An hour before he had been in the "rat-trap" with a circle of lynchers around him, and only two terror-stricken guards to save him from the most horrible of deaths. Then came Fate and tore him away and gave him to the liberty of the boundless hills. Fate in the person of this slender, sombre man. He stared at Dan with awe.

At the top of a hill his companion drew rein, reeling in the saddle with the suddenness of the halt. However, in such a horseman, this could not be. It must be merely a freak feature of his riding.

"Move," said Dan, his breath coming in pants. "Line out and get to her."

"To who?" said Haines, utterly bewildered.

"Delilah!"

"What?"

"Damn you, she's waitin' for you."

"In the name of God, Barry, why do you talk like this after you've saved me from hell?"

He stretched out his hand eagerly, but Dan reined Satan back.

"Keep your hand. I hate you worse'n hell. There ain't room enough in the world for us both. If you want to thank me do it by keepin' out of my path. Because the next time we meet you're goin' to die, Haines. It's writ in a book. Now feed your hoss the spur and run for Kate Cumberland. But remember—I'm goin' to get you again if I can."

"Kate—" began Haines. "She sent you for me?"

Only the yellow blazing eyes made answer and the wail of a coyote far away on the shadowy hill.

"Kate!" cried Haines again, but now there was a world of new meaning in his voice. He swung his horse and spurred down the slope.

At the next hill-crest he turned in the saddle, saw the motionless rider still outlined against the sky, and brought the bay to a halt. He was greatly troubled. For a reason mysterious and far beyond the horizon of his knowledge, Dan was surrendering Kate Cumberland to him.

"He's doing it while he still loves her," muttered Haines, "and am I cur enough to take her from him after he has saved me from God knows what?"

He turned his horse to ride back, but at that moment he caught the weird, the unearthly note of Dan's whistling. There was both melancholy and gladness in it. The storm wind running on the hills and exulting in the blind terror of the night had such a song as this to sing.

"If he was a man," Haines argued briefly with himself, "I'd do it. But he isn't a man. He's a devil. He has no more heart than the wolf which owns him as master. Shall I give a girl like Kate Cumberland to that wild panther? She's mine—all mine!"

Once more he turned his horse and this time galloped steadily on into the night.

When Haines dropped out of sight, Dan's whistling stopped. He looked up to the pitiless glitter of the stars. He looked down to the sombre sweep of black hills. The wind was like a voice saying over and over again: "Failure." Everything was lost.

He slipped from the saddle and took off his coat. From his left shoulder the blood welled slowly, steadily. He tore a strip from his shirt and attempted to make a bandage, but he could not manage it with one hand.

The world thronged with hostile forces eager to hunt him to the death. He needed all his strength, and now that was ebbing from a wound which a child could have staunched for him, but where could he find even a friendly child? Truly all was lost! The satyr or the black panther once had less need of man's help than had Dan, but now he was hurt in body and soul. That matchless co-ordination of eye with hand and foot was gone. He saw Kate smiling into the eyes of Haines; he imagined Bill Kilduff sitting on the back of Satan, controlling all that glorious force and speed; he saw Hal Purvis fighting venomously with Bart for the mastery which eventually must belong to the man.

He turned to the wild pair. Vaguely they sensed a danger threatening their master, and their eyes mourned for his hurt. He buried his face on the strong, smooth shoulder of Satan, and groaned. There came the answering whinny and the hot breath of the horse against the side of his face. There was the whine of Black Bart behind him, then the rough tongue of the wolf touched the dripping fingers. Then he felt a hot gust of the wolf's breath against his hand.

Too late he realized what that meant. He whirled with a cry of command, but the snarl of Black Bart cut it short. The wolf stood bristling, trembling with eagerness for the kill, his great white fangs gleaming, his snarl shrill and guttural with the frenzy of his desire, for he had tasted blood. Dan understood as he stared into the yellow green fury of the wolf's eyes, yet he felt no fear, only a glory in the fierce, silent conflict. He could not move the fingers of his left hand, but those of his right curved, stiffened. He desired nothing more in the world than the contact with that great, bristling black body, to leap aside from those ominous teeth, to set his fingers in the wolf's throat. Reason might have told him the folly of such a strife, but all that remained in his mind was the love of combat—a blind passion. His eyes glowed like those of the wolf, yellow fire against the green. Black Bart crouched still lower, gathering himself for the spring, but he was held by the man's yellow gleaming eyes. They invited the battle. Fear set its icy hand on the soul of the wolf.

The man seemed to tower up thrice his normal height. His voice rang, harsh, sudden, unlike the utterance of man or beast: "Down!"

Fear conquered Black Bart. The fire died from his eyes. His body sank as if from exhaustion. He crawled on his belly to the feet of his master and whined an unutterable submission.

And then that hand, warm and wet with the thing whose taste set the wolf's heart on fire with the lust to kill, was thrust against his nose. He leaped back with bared teeth, growling horribly. The eyes commanded him back, commanded him relentlessly. He howled dismally to the senseless stars, yet he came; and once more that hand was thrust against his nose. He licked the fingers.

That blood-lust came hotter than before, but his fear was greater. He licked the strange hand again, whining. Then the master kneeled. Another hand, clean, and free from that horrible warm, wet sign of death, fell upon his shaggy back. The voice which he knew of old came to him, blew away the red mist from his soul, comforted him.

"Poor Bart!" said the voice, and the hand went slowly over his head. "It weren't your fault."

The stallion whinnied softly. A deep growl formed in the throat of the wolf, a mighty effort at speech. And now, like a gleam of light in a dark room, Dan remembered the house of Buck Daniels. There, at least, they could not refuse him aid. He drew on his coat, though the effort set him sweating with agony, got his foot in the stirrup with difficulty, and dragged himself to the saddle. Satan started at a swift gallop.

"Faster, Satan! Faster, partner!"

What a response! The strong body settled a little closer to the earth as the stride increased. The rhythm of the pace grew quicker, smoother. There was no adequate phrase to describe the matchless motion. And in front—always just a little in front with the plunging forefeet of the horse seeming to threaten him at every stride, ran Black Bart with his head turned as if he were the guard and guide of the fugitive.

Dan called and Black Bart yelped in answer. Satan tossed up his head and neighed as he raced along. The two replies were like human assurances that there was still a fighting chance.

The steady loss of blood was telling rapidly now. He clutched the pommel, set his teeth, and felt oblivion settle slowly and surely upon him. As his senses left him he noted the black outlines of the next high range of hills, a full ten miles away.

He only knew the pace of Satan never slackened. There seemed no effort in it. He was like one of those fabled horses, the offspring of the wind, and like the wind, tireless, eternal of motion.

A longer oblivion fell upon Dan. As he roused from it he found himself slipping in the saddle. He struggled desperately to grasp the saddle-horn and managed to draw himself up again; but the warning was sufficient to make him hunt about for some means of making himself more secure in the saddle. It was a difficult task to do anything with only one hand, but he managed to tie his left arm to the bucking-strap. If the end came, at least he was sure to die in the saddle. Vaguely he was aware as he looked around that the black hills were no longer in the distance. He was among them.

On went Satan. His breath was coming more and more laboured. It seemed to Dan's dim consciousness that some of the spring was gone from that glorious stride which swept on and on with the slightest undulation, like a swallow skimming before the wind; but so long as strength remained he knew that Satan would never falter in his pace. As the delirium swept once more shadow-like on his brain, he allowed himself to fall forward, and wound his fingers as closely as possible in the thick mane. His left arm jerked horribly against the bonds. Black night swallowed him once more.

Only his invincible heart kept Satan going throughout that last stretch. His ears lay flat on his neck, lifting only when the master muttered and raved in his fever. Foam flew back against his throat and breast. His breath came shorter, harder, with a rasp; but the gibbering voice of his rider urged him on, faster, and faster. They topped a small hill, and a little to the left and a mile away, rose a group of cottonwoods, and Dan, recovering consciousness, knew the house of Buck. He also knew that his last moment of consciousness was come. Surges of sleepy weakness swept over his brain. He could never guide Satan to the house.

"Bart!" he called feebly.

The wolf whining, dropped back beside him. Dan pointed his right arm straight ahead. Black Bart leaped high into the air and his shrill yelp told that he had seen the cottonwoods and the house.

Dan summoned the last of his power and threw the reins over the head of Satan.

"Take us in, Bart," he said, and twisting his fingers into Satan's mane fell across the saddle-horn.

Satan, understanding the throwing of the reins as an order to halt, came to a sharp stop, and the body of the senseless rider sagged to one side. Black Bart caught the reins. They were bitter and salt with blood of the master.

He tugged hard. Satan whinnied his doubt, and the growl of Black Bart answered, half a threat. In a moment more they were picking their way through the brush towards the house of Buck Daniels.

Satan was far gone with exhaustion. His head drooped; his legs sprawled with every step; his eyes were glazed. Yet he staggered on with the great black wolf pulling at the reins. There was the salt taste of blood in the mouth of Black Bart; so he stalked on, saliva dripping from his mouth, and his eyes glazed with the lust to kill. His furious snarling was the threat which urged on the stallion.