It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
It was a gusty night. The moon had gone down. The tents gleamed indistinct in form, but white as snow. Robinson's tent stood a little apart, among a number of deserted claims, some of them dry, but most of them with three or four feet of water in them.
There was, however, one large tent about twenty yards from Robinson's.
A man crept on his stomach up to this tent and listened. He then joined another man who stood at some distance, and whose form seemed gigantic in the dim starlight. "All right," said the spy, "they are all fast as dormice, snoring like hogs; no fear from them."
"Go to work, then," whispered brutus. "Do your part."
mephistopheles laid a deep iron dish upon the ground, and removed the bung from the turpentine cask, and poured. "Confound the wind, how it wastes the stuff," cried he.
He now walked on tiptoe past Robinson's tent and scattered the turpentine with a bold sweep, so that it fell light as rain over a considerable surface. A moment of anxiety succeeded; would their keen antagonists hear even that slight noise? No! no one stirred in the tent.
mephistopheles returned to the cask, and, emboldened by success, brought it nearer the doomed tent. Six times he walked past the windward side of the tent, and scattered the turpentine over it. It was at the other side his difficulties began.
The first time he launched the liquid, the wind took it and returned it nearly all in his face, and over his clothes. Scarce a drop reached the tent.
The next time he went up closer with a beating heart, and flung it sharper. This time full two-thirds went upon the tent, and only a small quantity came back like spray.
By the time the cask was emptied, the tent was saturated. Then this wretch passed the tent yet once more, and scattered a small quantity of oil to make the flame more durable and deadly.
"Now it is my turn," whispered brutus. "I thought it would never come."
What is that figure crouching and crawling about a hundred yards to windward? It is the caitiff, Crawley, who, after peremptorily declining to have anything to do with this hellish act, has crept furtively after them, partly to play the spy on them, for he suspects they will lie to him about the gold, partly urged by curiosity. He could see nothing at that distance but the dark body of mephistopheles passing at intervals between him and the white tent.
He shivered with cold and terror at the crime about to be done, and quivered with impatience that it was so long a-doing.
The assassins now divided their force. mephistopheles took his station to leeward of the tent; brutus to windward.
Crawley saw a sudden spark upon the ground; it was brutus striking a lucifer match against his heel. With this he lighted a piece of tow, and running along the tent he left a line of fire behind him, and awaited the result, his cutlass griped in his hand and his teeth clinched.
Crawley saw that line of fire come and then creep and then rise and then roar, and shoot up into a great column of fire thirty feet high, roaring and blazing, and turning night into day all round. Simultaneously with this tremendous burst of fire and light, which startled Crawley by bringing him in a moment into broad daylight, he saw rise from the earth a black figure with a fiendish face.
At this awful sight the conscience-stricken wretch fell flat and tried to work into the soil like a worm. Nor did he recover any portion of his presence of mind till he heard a shrill whoop, savage and soul-chilling, but mortal, and, looking up, saw Kalingalunga go bounding down upon brutus with gigantic leaps, his tomahawk whirling.
Crawley cowered like a hare and watched. brutus, surprised but not dismayed, wheeled round and faced the savage, cutlass in hand. He parried a fierce blow of the tomahawk, and with his left fist struck Kalingalunga on the temple, and knocked him backward half a dozen yards. The elastic savage recovered himself and danced like a fiend round brutus in the red light of the blazing tent.
Warned by that strange blow, straight from the armpit, a blow entirely new to him, he came on with more deadly caution, eyes and teeth budelights, and brutus felt a chill for a moment, but it speedily turned to rage. Now as the combatants each prepared to strike again, screams suddenly issued from the other side the tent, so wild, despairing, and unnatural as to suspend their arms for a moment. They heard but saw nothing, only the savage heart of brutus found time to exult--his enemies were perishing. But Crawley saw as well as heard. A pillar of flame eight feet high burst out from behind the tent and ran along the ground. From that conical flame issued those appalling shrieks--it was a man on fire. The living flame ran but a few steps, then disappeared from the earth, and the screams ceased. Apparently the fire had not only killed, but annihilated its prey and so itself. Crawley sickened with horror, and for a moment with remorse.
But already brutus and Kalingalunga were fighting again by the light of the burning tent. They closed, and this time blood flowed on both sides. The savage, by a skillful feint, cut brutus on the flesh of the left shoulder, but not deep, and brutus once more surprised the savage by delivering point with his cutlass, and inflicted a severe graze on the ribs.
At the sight of his enemy's blood, brutus followed up and aimed a fierce blow at Kalingalunga's head; he could not have made a more useless attack. The savage bore on his left arm a shield, so called; it was but three inches broad and two feet long, but skill and practice had made it an impenetrable defense. He received the cutlass on this shield as a matter of course, and simultaneously delivered his tomahawk on brutus's unguarded head. brutus went down under the blow and rolled over on his face.
The crouching spectator of this terrible combat by the decaying light of the tent heard the hard blow and saw the white man roll upon the ground. Then he saw the tomahawk twice lifted and twice descend upon the man's back as he lay. The next moment the savage came running from the tent at his utmost speed.
Crawley's first thought was that assistance had come to brutus; his next was a terrible one. The savage had first risen from the earth at a spot between the tent and him. Perhaps he had been watching both him and the tent. A moment of horrible uncertainty, and then Crawley yielded to his instinct and ran. A terrible whoop behind told him he was indeed to be the next victim. He ran for the dear life; no one would have believed he could shamble along at the rate he did. His tent was half a mile off; he would be a dead man long ere he could reach it. He turned his yelling head as he ran, to see. The fleet savage had already diminished the distance between them by half. Crawley now filled the air with despairing cries for help. A large tent was before him; he knew not whose, but certain death was behind him. He made for the tent. If he could but reach it before the death-stroke was given him! Yes, it is near! No, it is white and looks closer than it is. A whoop sounded in his ears; it seemed to ring inside his head it was so near. He flung himself yelling with terror at the wall of the tent. An aperture gave way. A sharp cut as with a whip seemed to sting him, and he was on his knees in the middle of the tent howling for mercy, first to the savage, who he made sure was standing over him with his tomahawk; then to a man who got him by the throat and pressed a pistol barrel cold as an icicle to his cheek.
"Mercy! mercy! the savage! he is killing me! murder! murder! help!"
"Who are you?" roared the man, shaking him.
"Oh, stop him! he will kill me! Shoot him! Don't shoot me! I am a respectable man. It is the savage! kill him! He is at the door--please kill him! I'll give you a hundred pounds!"
"What is to do? The critter is mad!"
"There! there! you will see a savage! Shoot him! kill him! For pity's sake kill him, and I'll tell you all! I am respectable. I'll give you a hundred pounds to kill him!"
"Why, it is Smith, that gives us all a treat at times."
"Don't I! Oh, my dear, good friend, he has killed me! He came after me with his tomahawk. Have pity on a respectable man--and kill him!"
The man went to the door of the tent and sure enough there was Jacky, who had retired to some distance. The man fired at him with as little ceremony as he would at a glass bottle, and, as was to be expected, missed him; but Jacky, who had a wholesome horror of the make-thunders, ran off directly, and went to hack the last vestiges of life out of brutus.
Crawley remained on his knees, howling and whimpering so piteously that the man took pity on this abject personage.
"Have a drop, Mr. Smith; you have often given me one--there. I'll strike a light."
The man struck a light and fixed a candle in a socket. He fumbled in a corner for the bottle, and was about to offer it to Crawley, when he was arrested by a look of silent horror on his visitor's face.
"Why, what is wrong now?"
"Look! look! look!" cried Crawley, trembling from head to foot. "Here it comes! there is its tail! Soon its eyes and teeth will catch light! It knows the work we have been at. Ah! ah! ah!"
The man looked round very uneasily. Crawley's way of pointing and glaring over one's head at some object behind one was anything but encouraging.
"There! there! coming through the side of the tent. It can come through a wall!" and Crawley shook from head to foot.
"Why, that is your own shadow," said the man. "Why, what a faint-hearted one to shake at your own shadow."
"My shadow!" cried Crawley; "Heaven forbid! Have I got a tail?" screeched Crawley, reproachfully.
"That you have," said the man, "now I look at you full."
Crawley clapped his hand behind him, and to his horror he had a tail