Moondyne/A Dark Night and Day
The old chief led the way from the gold mine; and the strangely assorted group of five persons sat by the fire while meat was cooked for the travellers.
The youth who had escorted the white men from the outer valley was the grandson of the chief, and brother of the beautiful girls. Savages they were, elder and girls, in the eyes of the sergeant; but there was a thoughtfulness in Te-mana-roa, bred by the trust of treasure and the supreme confidence of his race, that elevated him to an exalted plane of manhood; and the young people had much of the same quiet and dignified bearing.
The revelations of the day had been too powerful for the small brain of the cunning trooper. The came before his memory piecemeal. He longed for an opportunity to think them over, to get them into grasp, and to plan his course of action.
The splendid secret must be his own, and he must overreach all who would to-morrow put conditions on his escape. While meditating this, the lovely form of one of the girls, observed by his evil eye as she bent over the fire, suggested a scheme, and before the meal was finished, the sergeant had worked far on the road of success.
The chief and Moondyne talked long in the native language. The sisters, wrapped in soft furs, sat and listened, their large eyes fixed on the face of the Moondyne, their keen senses enjoying a novel pleasure as they heard their familiar words strangely sounded on his lips.
To their simple minds the strongly marked white face must have appeared almost superhuman, known as it had long been to them by hearsay and the unqualified affection of their people.
Their girlhood was on the verge of something fuller; they felt a new and delicious joy in listening to the deep, musical tones of the Moondyne. They had long heard how strong and brave he was; they saw that he was gentle when he spoke to them and the old chief. When he addressed them, it seemed that the same thrill of pleasure touched the hearts and lighted the faces of both sisters.
"One outside, and two here," was the dread burden of the sergeant's thought. "Two days' ride—but, can I be sure of the way?
Again and again his furtive eyes turned on the ardent faces of the girls.
"Ay, that will do," he thought; "these can be used to help me out."
The sisters retired to a tent of skins, and, lighting a fire at the opening to drive off the evil spirit, lay down to rest. Sleep came slowly to every member of the party.
The old chief pondered on the presence of the stranger, who now held the primal secret of the native race.
The sergeant revolved his plans, going carefully over every detail of the next day's work, foreseeing and providing for every difficulty with devilish ingenuity.
The sisters lay in dreamy wakefulness, hearing again the deep musical voice, and seeing in the darkness the strange white face of the Moondyne.
Before sleeping, Moondyne walked into the valley, and lifting his face to heaven, in simple and manful directness, thanked God for his deliverance; then, stretching himself beside the fire, he fell into a profound sleep.
In the morning, Moondyne spoke to Koro and Tapairu in their own tongue, which was not guttural on their lips. They told him, with much earnest gesture and flashing of eyes, about the emu's nest in the valley beyond the lake, and other such things as made up their daily life. Their steps were light about the camp that morning.
At an early hour the old man entered the gold mine, and did not return. To look after the horses, Moondyne, with the girls, crossed the valley, and then went up the mountain towards the emu's nest.
The sergeant, with bloodshot eyes from a sleepless night, had hung around the camp all the morning, feeling that, though his presence seemed unheeded, he was in the deepest thought of all.
Whatever his purpose, it was settled now. There was dark meaning in the look that followed Moondyne and the girls till they disappeared on the wooded mountain. When at last they were out of sight and hearing, he arose suddenly and moved towards the mouth of the mine. At that moment, the young bushman from the outpost emerged from the pass, and walked rapidly to the fire, looking around inquiringly for Moondyne and the girls.
As the sergeant explained in dumb show that they had gone up the mountain yonder, there rose a gleam of hideous satisfaction in his eyes. The danger he had dreaded most had come to his hand to be destroyed. All through the night he had heard the whirr of a spear from an unseen hand, and he shuddered at the danger of riding through the pass to escape. But there was no other course open. Were he to cross the mountains, he knew that without a guide he never could reach the penal colony.
Had the sage Te-mana-roa been present, he would at once have sent the bushman back to his duty. But the youth had drawn his spear from the tuad tree at the outpost, and he proceeded to harden again its injured point in the embers of the fire.
The sergeant, who had carelessly sauntered around the fire till he stood behind the bushman, now took a stride towards him, then suddenly stopped.
Had the native looked around at the moment, he would have sent his spear through the stranger's heart as swiftly as he drove it into the tuad yesterday. There was murder in the sergeant's face as he took the silent stride, and paused, his hand on his pistol.
"Not with this," he muttered; "no noise with him. But this will do."
He stooped for a heavy club, and with a few quick and stealthy paces stood over the bushman. Another instant, and the club descended with crushing violence. Without a sound but the deadly blow, the quivering body fell backward on the assassin's feet.
Rapidly he moved in his terrible work. He crept to the entrance of the mine, and far within saw the old man moving before the flame. Pistol in hand he entered the cavern, from which, before many minutes had passed, he came forth white faced. As he stepped from the cave, he turned a backward glance of fearful import. He saw that he had left the light burning behind him.
Warily scanning the mountain side, he dragged the body of the youth inside the mouth of the cavern; then, seating himself by the fire, he examined his pistols, and awaited the return of Moondyne and the girls.
In the sweet peace of the valley, the livid and anxious wretch seemed the impersonation of crime. He had meditated the whole night on his purpose. All he feared was partial failure. But he had provided for every chance; he had more than half succeeded already. Another hour, and he would be sole master of the treasure—and, with the sisters in his power, there was no fear of failure.
It was a terrible hour to wait; but at last he saw them coming, the lithe figures of the girls winding among the trees as they crossed the valley.
But they were alone: Moondyne was not with them!
They came with bent faces, as if thinking of pleasant things; but they started with affright, and drew close together, when they saw the stranger, alone, rise from the fire and come towards them.
With signs, he asked for Moondyne, and they answered that he had gone across the mountain, and would return when the sun had gone down. This was an ominous disappointment; but the sergeant knew that his life would not be worth one day's purchase with such an enemy behind him. He must wait.
He returned to the fire, the girls keeping distrustfully distant. He feared they might enter the mine, and too soon discover the dreadful secret; so, getting between them and the rock, he lay down at the entrance.
Like startled deer, they looked around, instinctively feeling that danger was near. The evil eyes of the sergeant never left them. He had not foreseen this chance and for the moment knew not how to proceed.
The sisters stood near the fire, alarmed, alert, the left hand of one in the right of the other. At length their quick eyes fell upon blood on the sand, and followed the track till they met again the terrible face at the mouth of the mine.
And, as they looked, a sight beyond the prostrate man, coming from the dark entrance, froze their hearts with terror.
The face of the aged chief, his white hair discoloured with blood, appeared above the dreadful watcher, and looked out towards the girls. The old man, who had dragged his wounded body from the cave, rose to his feet when he saw the sisters, tottered forward with a cry of warning, and fell across the murderer.
Paralyzed with horror, the sergeant could not move for some moments. But soon feeling that he was not attacked, he pushed aside the senseless body, and sprang to his feet with a terrible malediction. In that moment of his blind terror the girls had disappeared.
He ran hither and thither searching for them, but found no trace of their hiding place or path of escape. At length he gave up the search, a shivering dread growing upon him every instant, and hastened to catch the horses. He began to realize that his well-laid plan was a failure.
There was now only one course open. He must take his chance alone, and ride for his life, neither resting nor sleeping. The girls would run straight to Moondyne; and he must act speedily to get beyond his reach.
In a few minutes the horses were ready, standing at the entrance of the mine. The sergeant entered, and, passing the flaming basin, loaded himself with bars and plates of gold. Again and again he returned, till the horses were laden with treasure. Then, mounting, he called the dogs; but they had gone with Moondyne.
Once more the chill of fear struck like an icicle through his heart at his utter loneliness. Leading the spare horse by the bridle, he rode headlong into the ravine and disappeared.