Moondyne/On the Trail
It was evening and the twilight was grey in the little valley, when Moondyne reached the camp. He was surprised to find the place deserted. He had expected a welcome—had been thinking, perhaps, of the glad faces that would greet him as he approached the fire. But the fire was black, the embers were cold. He looked and saw that there was no light in the gold mine.
A dreadful presentiment grew upon him. A glance for the saddles, and another across the valley, and he knew that the horses were gone. Following the strange action of the dogs, he strode towards the cave, and there, at the entrance, read the terrible story.
The sight struck this strange convict like a physical blow. His limbs failed him, and his body sank till he knelt on the sand at the mouth of the mine. He felt no wrath, but only crushing self-accusation.
"God forgive me!" was the intense cry of heart and brain: "God forgive me for this crime!"
The consequence of his fatal selfishness crushed him; and the outstretched arms of the old chief, whose unconsciousness—for he was not dead—was fearfully like death, seemed to call down curses on the destroyer of his people.
The years of his life went miserably down before Moondyne till he grovelled in the desolation of his dismal abasement. A ban had followed him, and blighted all he had touched.
Years were pressed into minutes as he crouched beside the maimed bodies of his friends. The living man lay as motionless as the dead. The strong mind brought up the whole scene for judgment. His inward eye saw the fleeing murderer; but he felt more of pity for the wretch than of vengeance. The entire sensibility of Moondyne was concentrated in the line of his own conscience. Himself accused himself—and should the criminal condemn another?
When at last he raised his face, with a new thought of duty, the trace of the unutterable hour was graven upon him in deep lines.
Where were the sisters? Had they been sacrificed too? By the moonlight he searched the valley; he entered the cave, and called through all its passages. It was past midnight when he gave up the search and stood alone in the desolate place. In the loose sand of the valley he scooped a grave, to which he carried the body of the young bushman, and buried it. When this was done he proceeded to perform a like office for Te-mana-roa, but looking toward the cave he was startled at the sight of the sisters, one of whom, Koro, stood as if watching him, while the other, aided by an extremely old woman, was tending on the almost dying chief, whose consciousness was slowly returning.
Benumbed and silent, Moondyne approached the cave. The girl who had watched him shrank back to the others. Tapairu, the younger sister, rose and faced the white man with a threatening aspect. She pointed her finger towards the pass.
"Go!" she said, sternly, in her own tongue.
Moondyne paused and looked at her.
"Begone!" she cried, still pointing; and once again came the words, "begone, accursed!"
Remorse had strangled grief in Moondyne's breast, or the agony of the girl, uttered in this terrible reproach, would have almost killed him. Accursed she said, and he knew that the word was true.
He turned from the place, not towards the pass, but towards the mountains, and walked from the valley with an aimless purpose, and a heart filled with ashes.
For hours he held steadily on, heedless of direction. He marked no places—had no thoughts—only the one gnawing and consuming presence of the ruin he had wrought.
The dogs followed him, tired and spiritless. The moon sank, and the sun rose, and still the lonely man held his straight and aimless road—across mountains and through ravines, until at last his consciousness was recalled as he recognized the valley in which he stood as one he had travelled two days before, on the way to the gold mine.
Stretching his exhausted body on a sheltered bank beside stream, he fell into a deep sleep that lasted many hours.
He awoke with a start, as if a voice had called him. In an instant his brow was set and his mind determined. He glanced at the sun to settle his direction, and then walked slowly across the valley, intently observing the ground. Before he'd had taken a hundred paces he stopped suddenly, turned at right angles down the valley, and strode on with a purpose, that though rapidly, almost instantaneously formed, had evidently taken full possession of his will.
Sometimes persons of keen sensibility lie down to sleep with a trouble on the mind, and an unsettled purpose, and wake in the night to find the brain clear and the problem solved. From this process of unconscious cerebration Moondyne awoke with a complete and settled resolution.
There could be no doubt of the determination in his mind. He had struck the trail of the murderer.
There was no more indirection or hesitation in his manner. He settled down to the pursuit with a grim and terrible earnestness. His purpose was clear before him—to stop the devil he had let loose—to prevent the escape of the assassin—to save the people who had trusted and saved him.
He would not turn from this intent though the track led him to the prison gate of Fremantle; and even there, in the face of the guards, he would slay the wretch before he had betrayed the secret. Death is on the trail of every man; but we have grown used to him, and heed him not. Crime and Sin are following us—will surely find us out, and some day will open the cowl and show us the death's-head. But more terrible than these Fates, because more physically real, is the knowledge, ever present, that a relentless human enemy is on our track.
Through the silent passes of the hills, his heart a storm of fears and hopes, the sergeant fled toward security. Every mile added to the light ahead. He rode wildly and without rest—rode all day and into the night, and would still have hurried on, but the horses failed and must have rest.
He fed and watered them, watching with feverish eyes the renewal of their strength; and as he watched them eat, the wretched man fell into a sleep, from which he started in terror, fearful that the pursuer was upon him.
Through the day and night, depending on his great strength, Moondyne followed. While the fugitive rested, he strode on; and he knew by instinct and observation that he was gaining in the race.
Every hour the tracks were fresher. On the morning of the second day, he had found the sand still moist where the horses had drank from a stream. On the evening of that day he passed the burning embers of a fire. The murderer was gaining confidence, and taking longer rest.
The third day came with a revelation to Moondyne. The sergeant had lost the way—had turned from the valley that led towards the settlement, and had sealed his doom by choosing one that reached towards the immeasurable deserts of the interior.
The pursuer was not stayed by the discovery. To the prison or the wilderness, should the track lead, he would follow.
At first the new direction was pleasant. Dim woods on either side of a stream, the banks fringed with verdure and pranked with bright flowers. But like the pleasant ways of life, the tempting valley led to the desolate plains; before night had closed, pursuer and pursued were far from the hills and streams, in the midst of a treeless sea of sand.
Nothing but fear of death could drive the sergeant forward. He was bushman enough to know the danger of being lost on the plains. But he dare not return to meet him whom he knew wag hunting him down.
There was but one chance before him, and this was to tire out the pursuer—if, as his heart suggested, there was only one in pursuit—to lead him farther and farther into the desert, till he fell on the barren track and died.
It was sore travelling for horse and man under the blazing sun, with no food or water save what he pressed from the pith of the palms, and even these were growing scarce. The only life on the plains was the hard and dusty scrub. Every hour brought a more hopeless and grislier desolation.
How was it with Moondyne? The strong will still upheld him. He knew he had gained till they took to the plains; but he also knew that here the mounted man had the advantage. Every day the track was less distinct, and he suffered more and more from thirst. The palms he passed had been opened by the sergeant; and he had to leave the trail to find one untouched. The sun flamed in the bare sky, and the sand was so hot that the air hung above it in a tremulous haze. In the woods the dogs had brought him food; but no living thing was to be hunted on the plains. He had lived two days on the pith of the palms.
On the third day Moondyne with difficulty found the sand trail, which had been blown over by the night breeze. He had slept on the shelterless desert and had dreamt of sweet wells of water as the light dew fell on his parched body.
This day he was quite alone. The dogs, suffering from thirst, had deserted him in the night.
He began the day with a firm heart but an unsteady step. There was not a palm in sight. It was hot noon before he found a small scrub to moisten his throat and lips.
But to-day, he thought, he must come face to face with the villain, and would kill him like a wild beast on the desert; and the thought upheld him.
His head was bare and his body nearly naked. Another man would have fallen senseless under the cruel sun; but Moondyne did not even rest—as the day passed he did not seem to need rest.
It was strange how pleasant, how like a dream, part of that day appeared. Sometimes he seemed to be awake, and to know that he was moving over the sand, and with a dread purpose; but at these times he knew that the trail had disappeared—that he was blindly going forward, lost on the wilderness. Toward evening the cool breeze creeping over the sand dispelled the dreams and made him mercilessly conscious.
The large red sun was standing on the horizon of sand, and an awful shadow seemed waiting to fall upon the desert.
When the sun had gone down, and the wanderer looked at the stars, there came to him a new Thought, like a friend, with a grave but not unkind face—a vast and solemn Thought, that held him for a long time with upraised face and hands, as if it had been whispered from the deep quiet sky. Slowly he walked with his new communion, and when he saw before him in the moonlight two palms, he did not rush to cut them open, but stood beside them smiling. Opening one, at length, he took the morsel of pith, and ate, and slept.
How sweet it was to wake up and see the wide sky studded with golden stars—to feel that there were no bonds any more, nor hopes, nor heart-burnings.
The Divine Thought that had come to him the day before was with him still—grave and kindly, and now they two were so utterly alone, it seemed almost to smile. He raised his body and knelt upon the sand, looking upward, and all things seemed closing quietly in upon him, as if coming to a great rest, and he would have lain down on the sand at peace; but a cry, a human-like cry, startled him into wakefulness—surely it was a cry!
It was clear, and near, and full of suffering. Surely he had heard—he had not dreamt of such a cry. Again—God! how near and how keen it was—from the darkness—a cry of mortal agony!
With a tottering step Moondyne ran towards the woeful sound. He saw by the moonlight a dark object on the sand. The long, weak cry hurried him on, till he stood beside the poor throat whence it came, and was smote with pity at the dismal sight.
On the sand lay two horses chained at the neck—one dead, the other dying in an agony of thirst and imprisonment. Beside the dead horse almost buried in the sand, as he had fallen from the saddle, lay a man, seemingly dead, but whose glazing eyes turned with hideous suffering as Moondyne approached. The wretched being was powerless to free himself from the fallen horse; and upon his body, and all around him, were scattered heavy bars and plates of gold.
Moondyne loosed the chain from the suffering horse, that struggled to its feet, ran forward a few yards, and fell dead on the sand.
The men's eyes met, and the blistered lips of the sergeant for it was he—moved in piteous appeal. Moondyne paused one stern moment, then turned and ran from the place—ran towards the palm near which he bad slept. With hasty hand he tore it open and cut out the pith, and sped back to the sufferer. He knelt down, and squeezed the precious moisture into the mouth of the dying man—the man whom he had followed into the desert to kill like a wild beast.
Till the last drop was gone he pressed the young wood. Then the guilty wretch raised his eyes and looked at Moondyne—the glazed eyes grew bright, and brighter, till a tear rose within them, and rolled down the stained and sinlined face. The baked lips moved, and the weak hands were raised imploringly. The sergeant back dead.
Moondyne knew that his last breath was contrition, and his last dumb cry, "Pardon."
Then, too, the strength went from the limbs and the light from the eyes of Moondyne—and as he sank to the earth, the great Thought that had come to him filled his heart with peace—and he lay unconscious beside the dead.
The sun rose on the desert, but the sleeper did not move. Before the day was an hour old, other forms rapidly crossed the plain—not wanderers, but fierce, skin-clad men, in search of vengeance.
They flung themselves from their horses when they reached the scene; and one, throwing himself upon the body of the sergeant, sprang back with a guttural cry of wrath and disappointment, which was echoed by the savage party.
Next moment, one of the natives, stooping to lay his hand on the heart of the Moondyne, uttered an excited call. The spearmen crowded around, and one poured water from a skin on the face and body of the senseless man.
They raised him to the arms of a strong rider, while another took the reins, and the wild party struck off at a fall gallop towards the mountains.
When Moondyne returned to consciousness, many days after his rescue, he was free from pursuit, he had cut for ever the bond of the Penal Colony; above him bent the deep eyes and kind faces of the old chief and the sisters, Koro and Tapairu, and around him were the hills that shut in the Valley of the Vasse Gold Mine.
He closed his eyes again and seemed to sleep for a little while. Then he looked up and met the face of Te-mana-roa kindly watching him.
"I am free!" he only said. Then turning to the sisters: "I am not accursed;" and Koro and Tapairu. answered with kind smiles.