The Ride for Life

When Burke had assured himself a second time that Blott was dead, he reloaded his pistol and hurriedly left the cabin. Waiting till he was gone, I crept to the corner of the building and watched him as he crossed the open space and disappeared in the shadows of the trees. Overcome, I had now but one desire, and that to leave this place of death; and turning, I fled across the moonlit space, past the graves and dangling ropes, to the woods beyond. Directing my course in the direction I had been following, I made a wide detour that I might strike the highway at the top of the hill instead of the bottom, as I had thought. Reaching the road at last, worn out with fatigue, I threw myself down, the better to regain my lost strength. As I lay outstretched, I listened to catch, if I might, the report of Burke’s pistol. In vain, however; but perhaps the distance was too great; or what if the traveler had not yet reached the valley! At the thought I sprang to my feet and ran on, hoping I might yet be in time to warn him of his danger. Stopping at intervals to listen, no sound reached my ears save the moan of the wind and the far-off cry of some night-bird in quest of its prey. At last, discouraged and worn out, I threw myself down beside the road, careless of all else if I might only rest and sleep.
As my face touched the ground, and ere I could close my eyes, there struck upon my ear the far-off rhythmical beat of a horse’s hoofs at full gallop. Angry at being disturbed, I arose, but standing upright I could hear it no more. Relieved, I lay down again; but no sooner had my head touched the cool earth than the sound came to me once more, and now nearer and deeper than before. There could be no mistake this time, and rising to my feet, the steady pulse-beat of the galloping horse rose full and clear on the still air, saying as in words, “Coming, coming, coming!” Or some obstruction intervening, it would die away, calling back, as in sad adieu, “Going, going, going!” Then the obstruction cleared, or the ground hardening, it came again, clear and welcome as before, “Coming, coming, coming!” Thus I stood trembling and impatient, counting the hoof-beats as the horse came swiftly on. Surely this must be the man I sought; and so believing, I braced myself and waited. As the horse neared the spot where I stood half-hidden by the overhanging trees, it shied at sight of me, but the rider, keeping control with one hand, drew a pistol with the other, and would have fired had I not cried out:
“Stop! stop! stop!”
Bewildered, he hesitated, but distrustfully, calling in fierce anger:
“Throw up your hands, and come into the light, or I will kill you!”
Hastening to do as he said, and the moon striking my face as I stepped into the road, he lowered his pistol, crying out:
“My God, Gilbert!”
Recognizing Uncle Job’s voice, I answered, but hardly above a whisper, so overcome was I at seeing him.
“Great heavens! what are you doing here?” he went on, springing from his horse; but I knew no more till I found myself lying in the road and he bending over me.
“There, you are coming round; but, my God! how pale and wan you look, and how torn your face! Have you been ill, or what is the matter?” he asked, his voice choked and trembling.
“No, I’m all right,” I answered; and indeed the sight of him filled me with such happiness that my weariness left me ere I had finished speaking.
“There! do not get up. Lie where you are, and when you are strong enough you can tell me how it happens that you are here and alone, and at this time of night,” he replied, his face clouded with anxiety.
“I ran away to escape Moth; but I’ve something else to tell you,” I answered, remembering the tragedy at the cabin and Burke waiting beside the road, “and it’s about you,” I went on, overcome by the recollection.
“There is no hurry to tell it,” he answered, tenderly. “We can stay here till morning for all the difference it will make; so calm yourself.”
“There is need, though, for Burke is waiting by the road to kill you,” I answered, getting to my feet and striving to overcome my weakness.
“What is that you say? Some one waiting to kill me?” he asked, peering into my face, as if he thought I had lost my senses.
“Yes; I heard them planning it in the cabin in Murderer’s Hollow,” I answered, simply.
“Good heavens! what could have taken you there, Gilbert?” he asked, as if still doubting what I said.
“I was crossing the valley, and reached the cabin as the robbers came up,” I answered, striving to make myself clear, “and seeing them first, hid in the shadow of the hut.”
“You said one before, and now you say two,” he answered, as if the discrepancy confirmed his thought that I was mad.
“There were two—Burke and Blott.”
“Burke and Blott?”
“Yes; our Blott, and Burke, who robbed Mr. Singleton; but when Blott refused to aid, Burke killed him.”
“What is all this you are telling me, my poor boy?” he replied, his voice shaking. “Surely you are dreaming.”
“No, I’m not; and afterward Burke hurried away to wait your coming.”
“Burke! What on earth can he be doing here, unless, indeed, he has been driven from his home, and so turned outlaw. Did he know it was me?”
“I think not, for I never thought of you at all.”
“How did he know I was coming this way to-night?”
“Some one in Appletop sent him word, he said.”
“He only wanted to rob me. He could not have wished to kill me, unless in revenge!” Uncle Job answered, inquiringly.
“Yes, both rob and kill you, and as it had been agreed between him and the person in Appletop, he said.”
Upon this I told Uncle Job all that I had heard and seen at the cabin. When I had finished, he stood for a long time silent, asking himself over and over again who it was that could have informed Burke of his coming, or that desired his death, and wherefore, if, indeed, it was not a ruse of Burke’s to deceive Blott.
“I can’t make it out,” he said at last. “The river is too low for boats to pass the rapids, so I had to come this way, and started late on purpose to avoid highwaymen, for I have a lot of money with me.”
“Burke knew all about it,” I answered; “even the hour you were to start.”
“Then it is lucky I was delayed; but I have still time to pay my respects to him, the villain!” he answered, throwing the rein over his horse’s neck.
“Time to do what?” I asked.
“To go on to the cabin and take or kill Burke, the cold-blooded assassin!” he answered, grimly.
“No, no! You’ll not do that, Uncle Job, surely!” I cried.
“Yes, I must have Burke, or know who it is that sent him word. My life may depend upon it hereafter.”
“He’ll kill you! He’s a devil, but soft and purring like a cat,” I answered, remembering Burke’s way.
“I will not give him a chance. Besides, Blott may not be dead.”
“I know he is, for his hand dropped like lead,” I answered.
“Very likely, and deserves it for the company he was in; but pistols don’t always kill. You stay here,” he went on, preparing to mount; “there is no danger, and I will be back in an hour.”
“No. If you’re going, I’m going, too,” I answered, determined not to be alone again in this forest, so full of horrors.
“Well, do as you like. There will be no danger if we can reach the place without being seen.”
“That’ll be easy enough, for the trees will hide us; but I wish you’d go back to Appletop,” I answered, full of forebodings.
“To be shot from a bush to-morrow? No! I must find out who it is that seeks my life, if, indeed, there is any one save Burke himself.”
“Burke’ll never tell, I know he’ll not,” I answered, still hoping to dissuade him.
“Well, I will get him, anyway, and that will make one enemy the less to guard against,” he replied, springing into the saddle.
Lifting me up behind him, he put spurs to his horse, and in a few minutes we reached the top of the bluff. Turning into the forest, we made our way to the grove back of the cabin, and here, fastening the horse, we crept forward on our hands and knees to the rear of the hut. Peering within, and everything being as I had left it, we made our way into the dark inclosure. Closing the door, Uncle Job went to Blott, bidding me keep a lookout for Burke; and this I could do through the opening in the wall without in any way betraying our presence. Trying first his pulse and then his heart, Uncle Job exclaimed at last:
“There is life in him, but whether he can be brought around or not is another thing.” Saying which, he got down on his knees and began to beat the man’s arms and chest, prying his mouth open at last, and breathing into it, as if he would force life into the body whether or no.
While thus engaged, Burke emerged from the shadows of the trees, and upon my crying out, Uncle Job got up, and taking a pistol in each hand, stationed himself in the middle of the room. Reaching the door, Burke pushed it open, and doing so, stood outlined in the bright moonlight. At this, and before he could enter or suspect our presence, Uncle Job cried out in a terrible voice:
“Throw up your hands, Burke, or you are a dead man!”
Surprised, the robber stepped back, wavering, as if uncertain whether to fly or grasp his weapons; but Uncle Job advancing, thrust his pistols forward, calling out again:
“Quick! before I kill you!” And upon this, Burke, with a dreadful oath, did as he was ordered.
“Thanks, Colonel, thanks!” Uncle Job went on, more quietly. “I had not expected to meet you so soon again; but back up a little, will you? There, that will do. Now, Gilbert, come and relieve him of his pistols. There is no danger, lad, for I will kill him if he stirs so much as a hair,” he added, pressing the weapons close against Burke’s breast. Doing as I was told, I went to the robber, and taking his pistols, hid them in the cabin. “We are getting on finely, Gilbert. Now see if he has a knife. Don’t be afraid.” Obeying, I took from Burke a murderous weapon, which I threw, with all my might into the surrounding weeds. All this while the robber stood still, his eyes darting this way and that, as a wild beast’s might when suddenly brought to bay.
“Now, Colonel, I must trouble you to remove your coat. There, thank you! Gilbert, take off his belt and strap his arms to his body,” Uncle Job went on, pleasantly, keeping his pistols all the while leveled upon Burke. “Tighter, lad, tighter! Don’t leave any slack. We are getting on, Colonel, we are getting on; so don’t be impatient. Now take my belt, Gilbert, and bind his legs together in the same way. Harder, boy! you don’t half pull! There, that is better. I am sorry to do this, Colonel, but assassins and those who murder without knowing why must be carefully looked to,” Uncle Job ran on in a chatty way, as if costuming a friend and being desirous of doing it well, even at some personal inconvenience. “Now, Colonel, I must ask you to lie down. There, so, so! That will do; and let me advise you to keep still if you value your life, for I am in a mood to kill you,” Uncle Job added, soberly enough, examining Burke’s fastenings as he spoke, tightening them and turning the belts about so that the buckles could not be reached.
To all that was said and done, Burke made no response, seeming to feel that it was useless to make remonstrance. Indeed, his discovery and the dead man lying in full view told him that to beg for mercy was a waste of breath. When at last Uncle Job had things fixed to his liking, he stopped, and looking at Burke, said:
“Now that we have some leisure, Burke, I should like to know how it happens you are here, and an outlaw, for when I saw you last you were about to return to Mississippi.”
“Yes, and I should, except for your robbing me of my winnings, curse you!” he answered, but mildly, and as if speaking to a friend.
“What difference did that make?” Uncle Job asked.
“All the difference in the world, for I could then have recouped myself, but being under a ban I dared not go back empty-handed.”
“Then it was for both gain and revenge that you were going to kill me to-night?”
“Were you the man I was waiting for?” Burke asked, in surprise.
“Yes, and you knew it.”
“No; for if I had I would have gone to Appletop to make sure of killing you,” Burke answered.
“I should have thought Blott’s murder enough for one night,” Uncle Job answered, impatiently.
“That was nothing. He brought it on himself, the fool! And I should have slept soundly for a week could I have killed you, too. That is the way such things affect me,” Burke replied, looking Uncle Job coldly in the face.
“Have you no conscience?” the latter asked, out of all patience.
“Don’t talk cant! Conscience is a matter of digestion. If that is good, I sleep soundly; if not, a cricket will make me start with fear.”
“Have you no mercy, either, Burke?” Uncle Job asked.
“No, not if it would rob me of a crumb or a drop of water I craved. It is every one for himself as I look at it.”
“You devil! You don’t deserve to live.”
“Yes, as much as you. We are both animals, only differently built. You can live on vegetables, but I must have meat and plenty of it, and not cooked too well, either.”
“Well, all this leads to nothing; but I should like to ask you a question, Burke, and if you are wise, you will answer it frankly,” Uncle Job responded.
“You can ask as many as you like, and I will do as I think best about answering them, Mr. Throckmorton,” the other replied, with a soft purr in his voice, as if speaking to a comrade.
“What I want to know is, who told you I was to pass this way to-night, if, indeed, any one told you?”
“Well, really, I should like to oblige you, but you will have to excuse me,” Burke answered, looking at Uncle Job as if it pained him beyond expression to refuse his request.
“Then you refuse to tell?” Uncle Job replied, disappointment clearly showing in his voice.
“Thank you, yes; I can’t, really. And now may I ask you a question in return?” Burke answered.
“Yes, but I will not promise to answer you,” Uncle Job replied, shortly.
“Of course not, Mr. Throckmorton, of course not. It is nothing of importance, anyway.”
“Well, what is it, Burke?”
“It is this, if you don’t mind. Who told you I was waiting by the roadside for you?”
“I don’t know that there is any harm in telling you, but I guess I had better not,” Uncle Job replied, glancing at me. “Perhaps it was the same person who told you I was coming this way. Who knows? I will make a bargain with you, though, Burke, if you have a mind. Answer my question and I will answer yours.”
To this Burke made no reply, shutting his mouth as if it concealed a secret of the greatest value to him.
“Very well; we will say no more about it,” Uncle Job continued. “Now, Gilbert, if you will look after him, I will see if I can do anything for Blott.” And going into the cabin, he got down on his knees and commenced to work over the fallen man as before. “His heart flutters and there is life in him, if I only knew how to get at it, but that is just where I fail,” he exclaimed at last, rising to his feet. “We must have a doctor, Gilbert, and quickly, if he is to be saved.”
“A doctor!” I answered.
“Yes; and to get him we must go to Appletop.”
“Blott will surely die before he could reach here,” I answered.
“Perhaps not, if you were to go without loss of time,” Uncle Job replied, looking at me inquiringly.
5“I’ll not go,” I answered, shortly, determined not to leave him alone with Burke.
“Why not? No harm can come to you, and I am as safe here as in bed. Besides, it may save Blott’s life. You are not strong enough, though, to stand the ride, I am afraid,” he added, scanning my face.
“I’m all right, but I wouldn’t know where to go,” I answered.
“Oh, that will be easy enough. The road we came leads there, and you can’t miss it. In the middle of the town as you go forward there is a park where all the roads meet, and at the end of the one you are following there is a tavern, with a wide porch and green blinds. Stop there and tell them what is wanted, and they will do the rest.”
“I can’t leave you here alone,” I answered, nowise inclined to do as he said.
“There is no danger; and how will I dispose of Burke if you don’t go for help?” he replied.
“All right, I’ll go,” I answered, seeing there was no other way.
“That is a brave lad! Tell them to send a surgeon and a man to aid. There! not another word. The dapple-gray mare is as gentle as a lamb, and will carry you like the wind”; and without saying more he went and brought her to where I stood, and lifting me into the saddle, shortened the stirrups and tightened the girth. “Don’t spare her, my lad. She is good for fifty miles, and a better horse you never had at Wild Plum, if you have the strength to stand the ride.”
“I’m as strong as an ox,” I answered; “and you know I’m used to horses.”
“Yes; but look well to the saddlebags, my boy, for the money is not mine. Now be off, and God bless you!” he cried, stepping back and waving me away. NORFLOXACIN
Glancing over my shoulder as I shot under the trees, he stood where I left him, watching and waving me a fond adieu. For a while the cool air and the novelty of my errand buoyed me up, but after a time, being greatly worn in body, I lost somewhat the security of my seat. This I thought due to the swaying of the overwrought animal, and not to any lack of steadiness on my part; but alarmed, I grasped the saddle, urging the horse with whip and rein to still greater speed. Going on, strive as I would, every trifling thing jarred my nerves and agitated my mind, and soon strange fantasies such as I had never seen before began to dance before my eyes. Riding with my back to the moon, my very shadow came to perplex me, as if it were some unnatural thing. Now it would run on ahead, as if afraid, only to halt directly for me to overtake it. Then, as if tired of the road, it would wander off into the bushes, climbing the sides of the hills and trees in the strangest possible way. Why did it not go on before me, as a shadow should? Then I would be conscious that its vagaries were caused by the windings and inequalities of the road, and nothing else; but straightway I had convinced myself that this was so, I would fall to speculating about it again, as if it somehow boded me evil. How strangely, too, the trees and road blended at times or were lost to sight in utter blackness! Surely there was some mist or storm coming on with the dawn! Then again I would seem to topple and fall from my horse, only to find myself a moment after holding hard and going faster than before. What strange forms the objects by the roadside took on, and how dim and tired my eyes with looking! Or was it the wind? Yes, that was it, for I was always affected that way at Wild Plum when riding at full speed. With all this, I was consumed with a burning desire to get on, and faster, as if the world were about to stop and the sky fall. This mare of Uncle Job’s that he thought so fine, why, my pony could beat her; and with the thought I fell to pounding her sides with my heels to make her go the faster. What mattered the smoke that steamed from her sides and the foam that flecked her head and shoulders if she could do no better than this! Then changing, I would praise her, patting her shoulder and calling her the bravest horse in the world. How dreary and long the road, though! And its many devious windings! Why were these not straightened? The hills, too! Surely they might be made easier!
Going on in this mood, the moon died out and the gray of the morning came on as I reached the open country, and looking away saw the great river, black and glimmering as if with a sickness of some kind. By this I knew I was far on my way, and urging my horse to still greater speed, rocking this way and that, I came at last, without expectation, full upon the town. Now indeed I was sure, but without halting or looking to right or left I flew onward, until in the uncertain light I came straight upon the park, as Uncle Job had said. Pulling my horse on her haunches, the little tavern, with its sign dangling in the still air, was at my very elbow. With the sight I slipped from my saddle and ran to the door, beating it with my hands and forehead, crying all the time, “Open! open! open!” No response, however, came to my summons until my voice grew hoarse with the effort. Then, as my strength was leaving me and my sight grew dim, the door flew open, and I fell forward into the arms of the man who held it. Of sense I had none left, nor of voice scarce enough to be heard, but clutching him as a drowning man might, I cried:
“I’m from Uncle Job—he’s at the cabin in Murderer’s Hollow! Go—quick, and—take a surgeon—and help—and—and—look to the saddlebags, and—” But that was all, and sinking down, I thought I was dying, and was glad, as one might be who throws off a burden too heavy to bear.