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   Chapter 28 THE EFFORT

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 7802

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Galloping over the moor, fresh from his corn, the pony suddenly swerved, and with such violence that the trap was all but overturned.

"What was that?" asked Edmonstone, who was driving.

"A hat," Pinckney answered.

These two men were alone together, on an errand of life or death.

Edmonstone glanced back over his shoulder.

"I'll swear," said he, "that hat is Miles's!"

"Good heavens! has he stuck to the road?"

"Looks like it."

"Then we're on his track?"

"Very likely."

"And will get him, eh?"

At this question Edmonstone brought down the lash heavily on the pony's flank.

"Who wants to get him? Who cares what becomes of him? The Melmerbridge doctor's the man we want to get!"

Pinckney relapsed into silence. It became plain to him that his companion was painfully excited. Otherwise there was no excuse for his irritability.

At the foot of the last steep ascent on the farther side of the moor, Pinckney had jumped out to walk. He was walking a few yards ahead of the pony. Suddenly he stopped, uttered a shrill exclamation, and picked up something he found lying in the road. He was then but a few feet from the top, and the low stone parapet was already on his right hand.

"What is it?" cried Dick, from the pony-trap below.

Pinckney threw his hand high over his head. The revolver was stamped black and sharp against the cold grey sky.

A cold shudder passed through Edmonstone's strong frame. The wings of death beat in his ears and fanned his cheek with icy breath. The dread angel was hovering hard by. Dick felt his presence, and turned cold and sick to the heart.

"Let me see it," cried Dick, urging on the pony.

Pinckney ran down to meet him with a pale, scared face.

"It was his," faltered Pinckney. "I ought to know it. He threatened me with it when I tried to stop him bolting."

The slightest examination was enough to bespeak the worst.

"One cartridge has been fired," said Dick, in a hushed voice. "God knows what we shall find next!"

What they found next was a patch of clotting blood upon the stones of the parapet.

They exchanged no more words, but Dick got down and ran on ahead, and Pinckney took the reins.

Dick's searching eyes descried nothing to check the speed of his running till he had threaded the narrow, winding lane that led to Melmerbridge Bank, and had come out at the top of that broad highway; and there, at the roadside, stretched face downward on the damp ground, lay the motionless form of Sundown, the Australian outlaw.

The fine rain was falling all the time. The tweed clothes of the prostrate man were soaked and dark with it. Here and there they bore a still darker, soaking stain; and a thin, thin stripe of dusky red, already two feet in length, was flowing slowly down the bank, as though in time to summon the people of Melmerbridge to the spot. Under the saturated clothes there was no movement that Dick could see; but neither was there, as yet, the rigidity of death in the long, muscular, outstretched limbs.

Dick stole forward and knelt down, and murmured the only name that rose to his lips:

"Miles! Miles! Miles!"

No answer-no stir. Dick lowered his lips to the ear that was uppermost, and spoke louder:

"Miles!"

This time a low, faint groan came in answer. He still lived!

Dick gently lifted the damp head between his two hands, and laid Ryan's cheek upon his knee.

Ryan opened his blue eyes wide.

"Where am I? Who are you? Ah!"

Consciousness returned to the wounded man, complete in a flash this time. At once he remembered all-tearing madly down from the top, in and out this winding track-and all that had gone before. He was perfectly lucid. He looked up in Edmonstone's face, pain giving way before fierce anxiety in his own, and put a burning question in one short, faint, pregnant word:

"Well?"

Had health and strength uttered t

his vague interrogative, Dick would have replied on the instant from the depths of his own anxiety by telling the little that he knew of Alice Bristo's condition. But here was a man struck down-dying, as it seemed. How could one think that on the brink of the grave a man should ask for news from another's sick bed? Edmonstone was puzzled by the little word, and showed it.

"You know what I mean?" exclaimed Ryan, with weary impatience. "Is she-is she-dead?"

"God forbid!" said Dick. "She is ill-she is insensible still. But man, man, what about you? What have you done?"

"What have I done?" cried Ryan, hoarsely. "I have come to bring help to her-and-I have failed her! I can get no further!"

His voice rose to a wail of impotent anguish. His face was livid and quivering. He fell back exhausted. Dick attempted to staunch the blood that still trickled from the wound in the chest. But what could he do? He was powerless. In his helplessness he gazed down the bank; not a soul was to be seen. He could not leave Ryan. He could hear the sure-footed steps of the pony slowly approaching from above. What was he to do? Was this man to die in his arms without an effort to save him? He gazed sorrowfully upon the handsome face, disfigured by blood, and pain, and mire. All his relations with this man recrossed his mind in a swift sweeping wave, and, strange to say, left only pity behind them. Could nothing be done to save him?

The pony-trap was coming nearer every instant. It was Dick's one hope and comfort, for Pinckney could leave the trap and rush down into the village for help. He hallooed with all his might, and there was an answering call from above.

"Make haste, make haste!" cried Dick at the top of his voice.

The shouting aroused Ryan. He opened his eyes, and suddenly started into a sitting posture.

"Haste?" he cried, with articulation weaker yet more distinct. "Yes, make haste to the township! To the township, do you hear? There it is!"

He pointed through the rain to the red roofs of Melmerbridge, on the edge of the tableland below. It was then that Dick noticed the lock of hair twisted about the fingers of Ryan's right hand.

"There it is, quite close-don't you see it? Go! go-I can't! Fly for your life to the township, and fetch him-not to me-to her! For God's sake, fetch him quick!"

For all the use of the word "township," his mind was not wandering in Australia now.

"Why don't you go? You may be too late! Why do you watch me like that? Ah, you won't go! You don't care for her as I did; you want her to die!"

Wildly he flung himself forward, and dug his fingers into the moist ground, and began feebly creeping down the bank on his hands and knees. Dick tried in vain to restrain him. The failing heart was set upon an object from which death alone could tear it. During this the last hour of his life this criminal, this common thief, had struggled strenuously towards an end unpretending enough, but one that was for once not selfish-had struggled and fought, and received his death-wound, and struggled on again. His life had been false and base. It cannot be expected to count for much that in his last moments he was faithful, and not ignoble. Yet so it was in the end. Edmonstone tried in vain to restrain him; but with a last extraordinary effort he flung himself clear, and half crawled, half rolled several yards.

Suddenly Ned Ryan quivered throughout his whole frame. Dick caught him in his arms, and held him back by main force.

The dying man's glassy gaze was fixed on the red roofs below. For an instant one long arm was pointed towards them, and a loud clear voice rang out upon the silent air:

"The township! The township--!"

The cry ended in a choking sob. The arm fell heavily. Edmonstone supported a dead weight on his breast.

"Pinckney!"

"Yes, yes?"

"God forgive him-it's all over!"

* * *

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