Ezra, on his powerful grey, had been riding somewhat ahead of the troopers, but the sergeant managed to get abreast of him. “Beg pardon, sir,” he said, raising his hand to his kepi, “but don’t you think this pace is too good to last? The horses will be blown.”
“As long as we catch them,” Ezra answered, “I don’t care what becomes of the horses. I would sooner stand you a dozen horses apiece than let them get away.”
The young merchant’s words were firm and his seat steady, in spite of the throbbing at his head. The fury in his heart supplied him with strength, and he gnawed his moustache in his impatience and dug his spurs into his horse’s flanks until the blood trickled down its glossy coat. Fortune, reputation, above all, revenge, all depended upon the issue of this headlong chase through the darkness.
The sergeant and Ezra galloped along, leather to leather, and rein to rein, while the troop clattered in their rear. “There’s Combrink about two miles further on,” said the sergeant; “we will hear news of them there.”
“They can’t get off the high road, can they?”
“Not likely, sir. They couldn’t get along as fast anywhere else. Indeed, it’s hardly safe riding across the veldt. They might be down a pit before they knew of it.”
“As long as they are on the road, we must catch them,” quoth Ezra; “for if it ran straight from here to hell I would follow them there.”
“And we’d stand by you, sir,” said the sergeant, catching something of his companion’s enthusiasm. “At this pace, if the horses hold out, we might catch them before morning. There are the lights of the shanty.”
As he spoke they were galloping round a long curve in the road, at the further end of which there was a feeble yellow glimmer. As they came abreast of it they saw that the light came through an open door, in the centre of which a burly Afrikaner was standing with his hands in his breeches pockets and his pipe in his mouth.
“Good evening,” said the sergeant, as his men pulled up their reeking horses. “Has any one passed this way before us?”
“Many a tausand has passed this way before you,” said the Dutchman, taking his pipe out of his mouth to laugh.
“To-night, man, to-night!” the sergeant cried angrily.
“Oh yes; down the Port Elizabeth Road there, not one hour ago. Three men riding fit to kill their horses.”
“That’ll do,” Ezra shouted; and away they went once more down the broad white road. They passed Bluewater’s Drift at two in the morning, and were at Van Hayden’s farm at half-past. At three they left the Modder River far behind them, and at a quarter past four they swept down the main street of the little township of Jacobsdal, their horses weak and weary and all mottled with foam. There was a police patrol in the street.
“Has any one passed?” cried the sergeant.
“Three men, a quarter of an hour ago.”
“Have they gone on?”
“Straight on. Their horses were nearly dead beat, though.”
“Come on!” cried Ezra eagerly. “Come on!”
“Four of the horses are exhausted, sir,” said the sergeant.
“They can’t move another step.”
“Come on without them then.”
“The patrol could come,” the sergeant suggested.
“I should have to report myself at the office, sir,” said the trooper.
“Jump on to his horse, sergeant,” cried Ezra. “He can take yours to report himself on. Now then you and I at least are bound to come up with them. Forward! gallop!” And they started off once more on their wild career, rousing the quiet burghers of Jacobsdal by the wild turmoil of their hoofs.
Out once more upon the Port Elizabeth Road it was a clear race between the pursuers and the pursued. The former knew that the fugitives, were it daytime, would possibly be within sight of them, and the thought gave them additional ardour. The sergeant having a fresh horse rode in front, his head down and his body forward, getting every possible inch of pace out of the animal. At his heels came Ezra, on his gallant grey, the blood-stained handkerchief fluttering from his head. He was sitting very straight in his saddle with a set stern smile upon his lips. In his right hand he held a cocked revolver. A hundred yards or so behind them the two remaining troopers came toiling along upon their weary nags, working hard with whip and spur to stimulate them to further exertions. Away in the east a long rosy streak lay low upon the horizon, which showed that dawn was approaching, and a grey light stole over the landscape. Suddenly the sergeant pulled his horse up.
“There’s some one coming towards us,” he cried.