Open main menu

CHAPTER XXII

THE THRESHOLD OF MERCY

IF only the night had been dark, if the gelding had had a fair start; but the moon was bright, and in the thin mountain air it made a radiance almost as keen as day and just sufficiently treacherous to delude a horse, which had been sent unexpectedly out among rocks by a cruel pair of spurs. At the end of the first leap the gelding stumbled to his knees with a crash and snort among the stones. The shock hurled Andrew forward, but he clung with spurs and hand, and as he twisted back into the saddle the gelding rose valiantly and lurched ahead again.

Yet that double sound might have roused an army, and for the keen-eared watchers around the clearing it was more than an ample warning. There was a crash of musketry so instant and so close together that it was like a volley delivered by a line of soldiers at command. Bullets sang shrill and small around Andrew, but that first discharge had been a burst of snap-shooting, and by moonlight it takes a rare man indeed to make an accurate snapshot. The first discharge left both Andrew and the horse untouched, and for the moment the wild hope of unexpected success was raised in his heart. And he had noted one all-important fact—the flashes, widely scattered as they were, did not extend across the exact course of his flight toward the trees. Therefore, none of the posse would have a point-blank shot at him. For those in the rear and on the sides the weaving course of the gelding, running like a deer and swerving agilely among the rocks, as if to make up for his first blunder, offered the most difficult of all targets.

All this in only the space of a breath, yet the ground was already crossed and the trees were before him when Andrew saw a ray of moonlight flash on the long barrel of a rifle to his right, and he knew that one man at least was taking a deliberate aim. He had his revolver on the fellow in the instant, and yet he held his fire. God willing, he would come back to Anne Withero with no more stains on his hands!

And that noble, boyish impulse killed the chestnut, for a moment later a stream of fire spouted out, long and thin, from the muzzle of the rifle, and the gelding struck at the end of a stride, like a ship going down in the sea; his limbs seemed to turn to tallow under him, and he crumpled on the ground.

The fall flung Andrew clean out of the saddle; he landed on his knees and leaped for the woods, but now there was a steady roar of guns behind him. He was struck heavily behind the left shoulder, staggered. Something gashed his neck like the edge of a red-hot knife, his whole left side was numb.

And then the merciful dark of the trees closed around him.

For fifty yards he raced through an opening in the trees, while a yelling like wild Indians rose behind him; then he leaped into cover and waited. One thing favored him still. They had not brought horses, or at least they had left their mounts at some distance, for fear of the chance noises they might make when the cabin was stalked. And now, looking down the lane among the trees, he saw men surge into it.

All his left side was covered with a hot bath, but, balancing his revolver in his right hand, he felt a queer touch of joy and pride at finding his nerve still unshaken. He raised the weapon, covered their bodies, and then something like an invisible hand forced down the muzzle of his gun. He could not shoot to kill!

He did what was perhaps better; he fired at that mass of legs, and even a child could not have failed to strike the target. Once, twice, and again; then the crowd melted to either side of the path, and there was a shrieking and forms twisting and writhing on the ground.

Some one was shouting orders from the side; he was ordering them to the right and left to surround the fugitive; he was calling out that Lanning was hit. At least, they would go with caution down his trail after that first check. He left his sheltering tree and ran again down the ravine.

By this time the first shock of the wounds and the numbness were leaving him, but the pain was terrible. It gathered in his shoulder and shot with hot and cold fingers up and down his side. Yet he knew that he was not fatally injured if he could stop that mortal drain of his wounds.

He heard the pursuit in the distance more and more. Every now and then there was a spasmodic outburst of shooting, and Andrew grinned in spite of his pain. They were closing around the place where they thought he was making his last stand, shooting at shadows which might be the man they wanted.

Then he stopped, tore off his shirt, and ripped it with his right hand and his teeth into strips. He tied one around his neck, knotting it until he could only draw his breath with difficulty. Several more strips he tied together, and then wound the long bandage around his shoulder and pulled. The pain brought him close to a swoon, but when his senses cleared he found that the flow from his wounds had eased.

But not entirely. There was still some of that deadly trickling down his side, and, with the chill of the night biting into him, he knew that it was life or death to him if he could reach some friendly house within the next two miles. Some friendly house—in two thousand miles, even! There was only one dwelling straight before him, and that was the house of the owner of the bay mare. They would doubtless turn him over to the posse instantly. But there was one chance in a hundred that they would not break the immemorial rule of mountain hospitality. For Andrew there was no hope except that tenuous one.

The rest of that walk became a nightmare. Such was the singing in his ears that he was not sure whether he heard the yell of rage and disappointment behind him as the posse discovered that the bird had flown or whether the sound existed only in his own ringing head. But one thing was certain—they would not trail Andrew Lanning recklessly in the night, not even with the moon to help them.

So he plodded steadily on. If it had not been for that ceaseless drip he would have taken the long chance and broken for the mountains above him, trying through many a long day ahead to cure the wounds and in some manner sustain his life. But the drain continued. It was hardly more than drop by drop, but all the time a telltale weakness was growing in his legs, as if he were drunk, and making his knees buckle more and more at every step. In spite of the agony he was sleepy, and he would have liked to drop on the first mat of leaves that he found.

That crazy temptation he brushed away, and went on until surely, like a star of hope, he saw the light winking feebly through the trees, and then came out on the cabin.

He remembered afterward that even in his dazed condition he was disappointed because of the neat, crisp, appearance of the house. There must be women there, and women meant screams, horror, betrayal.

But there was no other hope for him now. Twice, as he crossed the clearing before he reached the door of the cabin, his foot struck a rock and he pitched weakly forward, with only the crumbling strength of his right arm to keep him from striking on his face. Then there was a furious clamor and a huge dog rushed at him.

It was like a picture of a dog rather than a reality to Andrew. He heeded it only with a glance from the corner of his eye. And then, his dull brain clearing, he realized that the dog no longer howled at him or showed his teeth, but was walking beside him, licking his hand and whining with sympathy.

"Oh, Lord," thought Andrew, "if I could find one human being with a heart as kind as that dog's!"

He dropped again, and this time he could never have regained his feet had not his right arm flopped helplessly across the back of the big dog, and the beast cowered and growled, but it did not attempt to slide from under his weight.

He managed to get erect again, but when he reached the low flight of steps to the front door he was reeling drunkenly from side to side. He fumbled for the knob, and it turned with a grating sound.

"Hold on! Keep out!" shrilled a voice inside. "We got guns here. Keep out, you dirty bum!"

The door fell open, and he found himself confronted by what seemed to him a dazzling torrent of light and a host of human faces. He drew himself up beside the doorway.

"Gentlemen," said Andrew, "I am not a bum. I am worth five thousand dollars to the man who turns me over, dead or alive, to the sheriff. My name is Andrew Lanning."

At that the faces became a terrible rushing and circling flare, and the lights went out with equal suddenness. He was left in total darkness, falling through space; but, at his last moment of consciousness, he felt arms going about him, arms through which his bulk kept slipping down, and below him was a black abyss.