It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
We left Robinson and Jem talking at the entrance to the tent.
"Come in," said Robinson. "You will take care of this tent while we are gone."
Jem promised faithfully.
He then asked Robinson to explain to him the dodge of the gut-lines. Robinson showed him, and how the bells were rung at his head by the thief's foot.
Jem complimented him highly.
Robinson smiled, but the next moment sighed. "They will be too clever for us some of these dark nights--see how nearly they have nicked us again and again!"
"Don't be down on your luck, captain!"
"Jem, what frightens me is the villains getting off so; there they are to try again, and next time the luck will be theirs--it can't be always ours--why should it? Jem, there was a man in my tent last night."
"There is no denying that, captain."
"Well, Jem, I can't get it off my heart that I was to kill that man, or he me. Everything was on my side. I had my gut-lines, and I had a revolver and a cutlass--and I took up the cutlass like a fool; if I had taken up the revolver the man would be dead. I took up the wrong, and that man will be my death. The cards never forgive! I had the odd trick, and didn't take it--I shall lose the game."
"No, ye shan't," cried Jem, hastily. "What if the man got clear for the moment, we will hunt him out for you. You give me his description."
"I couldn't," said Robinson, despondingly. "It was so dark! Here is his pistol, but that is no use. If I had but a clew, ay, ever so slight, I'd follow it up; but no, there is none. Hallo, what is the matter! What is it? what on earth is the man looking at like that?"
"What was you asking for?" stammered Jem. "Wasn't it a clew?"
Robinson got up and came to Jem, who was standing with dilated eyes looking at the ground in the very corner of the tent. He followed the direction of Jem's eyes, and was instantly transfixed with curiosity and rising horror.
"Take it up, Jem," he gasped.
"No, you take it up! it was you who--"
"No--yes! there is George's voice. I wouldn't let him see such a thing for the world. Oh, God! here is another."
"Yes, in the long grass! and there is George's voice."
"Come out, Jem. Not a word to George for the world. I want to talk to you. If it hasn't turned me sick! I should make a poor hangman. But it was in self-defense, thank Heaven for that!"
"Where are you going in such a hurry, Tom?" said George.
"Oh, only a little way with Jem."
"Don't be long, it is getting late."
"Jem, this is an ugly job!"
"An ugly job, no! ---- him, I wish it was his head. Give them me, captain."
"What, will you take charge of them?"
"That I will, captain, and what is more I'll find your enemy out by them, and--when you come back he shall be in custody--waiting your orders. Give them me."
"Yes, take them. Oh, but I am glad to be rid of them. What a ghastly look they have."
"I don't care for their looks. I am right glad to see them--they are a clew and no mistake. Keep dark to-night. Don't tell this to Ede--he is a good fellow but chatters too much--let me work it out. I'll find the late owner double quick," said Jem, with a somewhat brutal laugh.
"Your orders about the prisoners, captain?" cried Ede, coming up.
Turn them all loose--but one."
"And what shall I do with him?"
"Hum! Put a post up in your own tent."
"Tie him to it in his handcuffs. Give him food enough."
"And when shall we loose him?"
"At noon, to-morrow."
"It shall be done! but you must come and show me which of the four it is."
Robinson went with Ede and his men.
"Turn this one loose," said he; it was done on the instant.
"And" (laying his finger on brutus) "keep this one prisoner in your tent, handcuffed and chained, till noon to-morrow."
At the touch, brutus trembled with hate; at the order, his countenance fell like Cain's.
Full two hours before sunrise the patrol called Robinson by his own order, and the friends made for the bush, with a day's provision and their blankets, their picks, and their revolvers. When they arrived at the edge of the bush, Robinson halted and looked round to see if they were followed. The night was pretty clear; no one was in sight. The men struck rapidly into the bush, which at this part had been cut and cleared in places, lying as it did so near a mine.
"What, are we to run, Tom?"
"Yes! I want to get to the river of quartz as soon as possible," was the dry answer.
"With all my heart."
After running about half a mile, George pulled up, and they walked.
"What do you keep looking behind for, Tom?"
"You fidget me, Tom!"
"Can't help it. I shall be like that till daylight. They have shaken my nerves among them."
"Don't give way to such nonsense. What are you afraid of?"
"I am not afraid of anything. Come, George, another run."
"Oh, as you like. This beats all."
This run brought them to the end of the broad road, and they found two smaller paths; after some hesitation, Robinson took the left-hand one, and it landed them in such a terribly thick scrub they could hardly move. They forced their way through it, getting some frightful scratches, but after struggling with it for a good half hour, began to fear it was impenetrable and interminable, when the sun rising showed them a clear space some yards ahead. They burst through the remainder of the scrub, and came out upon an old clearing full a mile long and a quarter of a mile broad. They gave a hurrah at the sight of it, but when they came to walk on it the ground was clay and so sticky with a late shower that they were like flies moving upon varnish, and at last were fain to take off their shoes and stockings and run over it on the tips of their toes. At the end of this opening they came to a place like the "Seven Dials"--no end of little paths into the wood, and none very promising. After a natural hesitation, they took the one that seemed to be most on their line of march, and followed it briskly till it brought them plump upon a brook, and there it ended. Robinson groaned.
"Confound the bush," cried he. "You were wrong not to let me bring Jacky. What is to be done?"
"I hate going back. I would rather go thirty miles ahead than one back. I've got an idea; off shoes and paddle up the stream; perhaps we shall find a path that comes to it from the other side."
They paddled up the stream a long way, and at last, sure enough, they found a path that came down to the stream from the opposite side. They now took a hasty breakfast, washing it down with water from the brook, then dived into the wood.
The sun, was high in heaven, yet still they had not got out of the bush.
"I can't make it out, George; there is nothing to steer by, and these paths twist and turn so. I don't think we shall do any good till night. When I see the Southern Cross in the sky I shall be able to steer northeast. That is our line."
"Don't give in," said George; "I think it looks clearer ahead. I believe we are at the end of it."
"No such luck, I am afraid," was the despondent reply.
For all that, in a few yards more they came upon an open place.
They could not help cheering. "At last!" cried they. But this triumph gave way to doubts.
"I am afraid we are not clear yet," said Robinson. "See, there is wood again on the other side. Why, it is that sticky clay again. Why, George, it is the clearing we crossed before breakfast."
"You are talking nonsense, Tom," cried George, angrily.
"No, I am not," said the other, sadly. "Come across. We shall soon know by our footsteps in the clay."
Sure enough, half way across they found a track of footsteps. George was staggered. "It is the place, I really think," said he. "But, Tom, when you talk of the footsteps, look here? You and I never made all these tracks. This is the track of a party."
Robinson examined the ground.
"Tracks of three men; two barefoot, one in nailed boots."
"Well, is that us?"
"Look at the clearing, George, you have got eyes. It is the same."
"So 'tis, but I can't make out the three tracks."
Robinson groaned. "I can. This third track has come since we went by."
"No doubt of that, Tom. Well?"
"Well, don't you see?"
"You and I are being hunted."
George looked blank a moment. "Can't we be followed without being hunted?"
"No; others might, but not me. We are being hunted," said Robinson, sternly. "George, I am sick of this, let us end it. Let us show these fellows they are hunting lions and not sheep. Is your revolver loaded?"
"Then come on!" And he set off to run, following the old tracks. George ran by his side, his eyes flashing with excitement. They came to the brook. Robinson showed. George that their pursuer had taken some steps down the stream. "No matter," said he, "don't lose time, George, go right up the bank to our path. He will have puzzled it out, you may take your oath."
Sure enough they found another set of footsteps added to their own. Robinson. paused before entering the wood. He put fresh caps on his revolver. "Now, George," said he, in a low voice, "we couldn't sleep in this wood without having our throats cut, but before night I'll be out of danger or in my grave, for life is not worth having in the midst of enemies. Hush! hus-s-sh! You must not speak to me but in a whisper."
"No!" whispered George.
"Nor rustle against the boughs."
"No, I won't," whispered George. "But make me sensible, Tom. Tell me what all this caution is to lead to. What are you doing?"
"I AM HUNTING THE HUNTER!" hissed. Robinson, with concentrated fury. And he glided rapidly down the trodden path, his revolver cocked, his ears pricked, his eye on fire, and his teeth clinched.
George followed, silent and cautious, his revolver ready cocked in his hand. As they glided thus, following their own footsteps, and hunting their hunter with gloomy brows, and nerves quivering, and hearts darkening with anger and bitterness, sudden a gloom fell upon the wood--it darkened and darkened. Meantime a breeze chill as ice disturbed its tepid and close air, forerunner of a great wind which was soon heard, first moaning in the distance, then howling and rushing up, and sweeping over the tall trees and rocking them like so many bulrushes. A great storm was coming.