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   Chapter 2 SUNDOWN

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 12233

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


There was no time for thought, much less for action, beyond that taken promptly by Flint, who shot his own hands above his head without a moment's hesitation, and whispered to Dick to do the same. Any other movement would have been tantamount to suicide. Yet it was with his eyes open and his head cool that Flint gave the sign of submission.

The horsemen sat dark and motionless as the trees of the sleeping forest around them. They were contemplating the completeness of their triumph, grinning behind their masks.

Flint saw his chance. Slowly, very slowly, his left arm, reared rigidly above his head, swayed backward; his body moved gently with his arm; his eyes never left the two mysterious mounted men.

He felt his middle finger crowned by a cool ring. It was the muzzle of his precious Colt. One grasp, and at least he would be armed.

He turned his wrist for the snatch, gazing steadily all the while at the two vague shadows of men. Another second-and a barrel winked in the starlight, to gleam steadily as it covered Flint's broad chest. He who had called upon them to throw up their hands spoke again; his voice seemed to come from the muzzle of the levelled rifle.

"Stretch an inch more, you on the near-side, and you're the last dead man."

Flint shrugged his shoulders. The game was lost. There was no more need to lose his head than if the game had been won. There was no need at all to lose his life.

"I give you best," said he, without the least emotion in his extraordinary voice.

"Fold your arms and come down," said the man with the rifle, his finger on the trigger.

Flint did as he was ordered.

"The same-you with the reins."

Edmonstone's only answer was a stupefied stare.

"Jump down, my friend, unless you want helping with this."

Dick obeyed apathetically; he was literally dazed. At a sign from the man with the rifle he took his stand beside Flint; three paces in front of the luckless pair shone the short barrel of the Winchester repeater. The other robber had dismounted, and was standing at the horses' heads.

In this position, a moment's silence fell upon the four men, to be broken by the coarse, grating laughter of a fifth. Edmonstone turned his head, saw another horseman issuing from the trees, and at once recognised the burly figure of the traveller who had borrowed his match-box less than an hour before. At that moment, and not until then, Dick Edmonstone realised the situation. It was desperate; all was lost! The lad's brain spun like a top: reason fled from it; his hand clutched nervously at the pocket where the money was, and he swore in his heart that if that went, his life might go with it.

In another instant the hairy ruffian had ridden his horse close up to Edmonstone, whipped his foot from the stirrup, and kicked the youngster playfully in the chest-on that very spot which his thoughtless gesture had betrayed.

At this the other bushrangers set up a laugh-a short one.

With a spring like a young leopard, Dick Edmonstone had the big horseman by the beard, and down they came to the ground together. There, in the sand, they rolled over each other, locked in mortal combat-writhing, leaping, twisting, shifting-so that the leader of the band, though he pointed his rifle at the struggling men, dared not fire, for fear of hitting the wrong one. But there came a moment when the struggling ceased, when Flint sprang forward with a hoarse cry on his lips and Sundown took careless aim with the Winchester.

Dick Edmonstone was lying on his back with white, upturned face. Two crushing weights pinned down each arm below the shoulder; his adversary was kneeling on him with grinding teeth and a frightful face, and one hand busy at his belt. His hand flew up with a gleam. It was at that moment that the man with the rifle raised it and fired.

The bearded ruffian shook his hand as though hit, and the haft of a knife slipped from it; the bullet had carried away the blade. With a curse he felt for his revolver.

"Don't be a fool, Jem Pound," said the marksman quietly, lowering his smoking piece. "Before you bring the lot of us to the gallows, I'll put a bullet through your own fat head. Get up, you big fool! Cut the mokes adrift, and turn everything out of the wagon."

The man Pound rose sulkily, with a curious last look at the young Englishman's throat, and hell-fire in his little eyes.

"Ben, watch this cove," the chief went on, pointing to Flint, "and watch him with the shooter. I'll see to the youngster myself. Come here, my friend."

The speaker was plainly no other than the rascal who called himself Sundown; the hawkers heard the sobriquet on the lips of the other masked man, and their glances met. He was wrapped in a cloak that hid him from head to heels, stooped as he walked, and was amply masked. What struck Flint-who was sufficiently cool to remain an attentive observer-was the absence of vulgar bluster about this fellow; he addressed confederates and captives alike in the same quiet, decisive tones, without either raising his voice to a shout or filling the air with oaths. It appeared that Ned Kelly had not been the last of the real bushrangers, after all.

"You come along with me," said he, quietly; and drew Dick aside, pointing at him the rifle, which he grasped across the breech, with a finger still upon the trigger.

"Now," continued Sundown, when they had withdrawn a few yards into the scrub, "turn out that pocket." He tapped Edmonstone on the chest with the muzzle of the rifle.

Dick folded his arms and took a short step backward.

"Shoot me!" he exclaimed, looking the robber full in the face. "Why did you save me a minute ago? I prefer to die. Shoot me, and have done with it."

"Open your coat," said the bushranger.

Edmonstone tore open not only his coat, but his shirt as well, thus baring his chest.

"There. Shoot!" he repeated hoarsely.

Sundown stared at the boy with a moment's curiosity, but paid no heed to his words.

"Empty that pocket."

Dick took out the pocket-book that contained all the funds of the firm.

"Open it."

Dick obeyed.

"How much is in it?"

"A hundred and thirty pounds."

"Good! Cheques!"

"More notes."

The robber laughed consumedly.

"Take them, if you are going to," said Dick, drawing a deep breath.

Sundown did take them-pocket-book and all-still covering his man with the rifle. The moon was rising. In the pale light the young fellow's face was ghastly to look upon; it had the damp pallor of death itself. The bushranger eyed it closely, and half-dropped the bushranger's manner.

"New chum, I take it!"

"What of that?" returned Dick bitterly.

"And not long set up shop?"

Dick made no answer. Sundown stepped forward and gripped his shoulder.

"Say, mate, is this hundred and odd quid so very much to you?"

Still no answer.

"On oath, now: is it so very much?"

Dick looked up wildly.

"Much? It is everything. You have robbed me of all I have! You have saved my life when I'd as soon lose it with my money. Yes, it's all I have in the world, since you want to know! Do you want to madden me, you cur? Shoot me-shoot, I tell you. If you don't I'll make you!" And the young madman clenched his fist as he spoke.

That instant he felt himself seized by the neck and pushed forward, with a ring of cold steel pressing below his ear.

"Here you-Jem Pound-have your revenge and bind this cub. Bind tight, but fair, for I'm watching you."

In five minutes the blood would scarcely circulate in a dozen different parts of Edmonstone's body; he was bound as tightly as vindictive villain could bind him, to the off hind-wheel of his own wagon. Sundown stood by with the rifle, and saw it done.

Flint had already been bound to the near hind-wheel, so that the partners were lashed back to back-both able to watch their property looted at the rear of the wagon, but unable to exchange glances.

Sundown strolled about during the operation, which his subordinates conducted with deepening disgust, till he returned and asked what they had got.

"Precious little," was the answer. "Stock sold out-boxes mostly empty."

Nevertheless some few varieties of bush merchandise strewed the ground, and hats, boots, and pipes were quickly selected by Jem Pound and the man addressed as Ben; though as for Sundown, he seemed content with a supply of smoking materials, and, indeed, to be more or less preoccupied while the plunder went forward. At length, at a word from him, the other men mounted their horses, while their leader walked round to where Flint was spread-eagled against the wheel.

"Is there anything you want before we go?" the bushranger inquired, as civilly as you please.

"Yes," said Flint; "I want you to fill my pipe, stick it in my mouth, and put a match to it, if you will be so good."

The other laughed, but complied with the full request before turning his attention to young Edmonstone.

"As for you," he said, "here's your pocket-book. I couldn't take such a treasure from you. Better keep it in memory of the fortune (the immense fortune of a hundred and thirty pounds) it once contained. Not that I have quite emptied it, though; I may be a devil, but I never clean a man out quite; so you'll find enough left to get you a night's lodging and some tucker. And-and don't forget old Sundown altogether; you may be able to put in a good word for him some day!"

These last words, though spoken after a pause, were thrown off lightly enough; yet somehow they were unlike the rest that had gone before. Before their sound had died away Sundown was in his saddle, and the sound of horses galloping through the scrub was growing faint and far away.

Flint was the first to free himself. It took him hours. His teeth ached, his fingers bled, before the last knot that bound his hands was undone. His knife quickly did the rest.

He went straight to Edmonstone, who had not spoken since the gang decamped. Flint found him pale and cold, with a very hard expression upon his face. Dick allowed himself to be set free without a word-without so much as an intelligent glance.

The horses could be heard munching bits of bushes close at hand. They were easily caught. Nor was it a difficult task to a ready-handed fellow like Flint to splice the traces, which the bushrangers had cut.

The crestfallen partners were on the point of reentering the wagon, when Flint saw the pocket-book lying where it had been dropped.

"Better take it," said Flint sorrowfully.

In utter apathy Dick picked it up.

"Wouldn't you see if they've cleaned it entirely?" suggested Flint.

With listless fingers Edmonstone withdrew the elastic and opened the pocket-book.

By this time the moon had mounted high in the clear southern sky; by her pure white rays they might have read small print. Flint's heart smote him; it was by his doing they had carried so many notes, through a fad of his about opening their banking account with hard cash; at cheques the bushrangers might easily have turned up their noses, as bushrangers had done before. But now, as it was-poor, poor young devil!

A cry broke the silence, and rang out loud and wild upon the still night air. It came from Flint's side. He turned to find his companion tottering and trembling.

Dick Edmonstone had dropped the pocket-book, and was nervously counting a roll of crisp, crackling papers.

"They are all here!-all! all!" he whispered in a strange, broken voice.

"Never!"

"Yes, all-all! Only think of it; our fortune is not lost, after all-it's made-the key to it is in my hand again! Jack, the fellow had pity on me. No, I mean on us. I don't mean to be selfish, Jack; it's share and share alike, between you and me, and always will be. But if you knew-if you knew! Jack, I'll put in that good word for him-I'll make it more than words, if ever I get the chance! For I do owe him something," said the poor fellow, carried away by reaction and excitement, so that his breaking voice trembled between sobs and laughter. "I do owe that Sundown something. God bless him-that's all I say."

But Flint said nothing at all; he was much too amazed for words.

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