Chapter XXII: Robbers and Robbed

Ezra and the troopers halted their panting steeds. Through the uncertain light they saw a solitary horseman riding down the road. At first they had thought that it might possibly be one of the fugitives who had turned, but as he came nearer they perceived that it was a stranger. His clothes were so dusty and his horse so foam-flecked and weary that it was evident that he also had left many a long mile of road behind him.

“Have you seen three men on horseback?” cried Ezra as he approached.

“I spoke to them,” the traveller answered. “They are about half a mile ahead.”

“Come on! Come on!” Ezra shouted.

“I am bringing news from Jagersfontein—” the man said.

“Come on!” Ezra interrupted furiously; and the horses stretched their stiff limbs into a feeble lumbering gallop. Ezra and the sergeant shot to the front, and the others followed as best they might. Suddenly in the stillness they heard far away a dull rattling sound like the clatter of distant castanets. “It’s their horses’ hoofs!” cried Ezra; and the troopers behind raised a cheer to show that they too understood the significance of the sound.

It was a wild, lonely spot, where the plain was bare even of the scanty foliage which usually covered it. Here and there great granite rocks protruded from the brown soil, as though Nature’s covering had in bygone days been rent until her gaunt bones protruded through the wound. As Ezra and the sergeant swept round a sharp turn in the road they saw, some little way ahead of them, the three fugitives, enveloped in a cloud of dust. Almost at the same moment they heard a shout and crash behind them, and, looking round, saw a confused heap upon the ground. The horse of the leading trooper had fallen from pure fatigue, and had rolled over upon its rider. The other trooper had dismounted, and was endeavouring to extricate his companion.

“Let us see if he is hurt,” the sergeant cried.

“On! on!” shouted Ezra, whose passion was increased by the sight of the thieves. “Not a foot back.”

“He may have broken his neck,” grumbled the sergeant, drawing his revolver. “Have your pistol ready, sir. We shall be up with them in a few minutes, and they may show fight.”

They were up with them rather sooner than the policeman expected. Farintosh, finding that speed was of no avail, and that the numbers of his pursuers was now reduced to two, had recourse to strategy. There was a sharp turn in the road a hundred yards ahead, and on reaching it the three flung themselves off their horses and lay down behind cover. As Ezra and the sergeant, the grey horse and the bay, came thundering round the curve, there was a fierce splutter of pistol shots from amongst the bushes, and the grey sank down upon its knees with a sobbing moan, struck mortally in the head. Ezra sprang to his feet and rushed at the ambuscade, while the sergeant, who had been grazed on the cheek by the first volley, jumped from his horse and followed him. Burt and Farintosh met them foot to foot with all the Saxon gallantry which underlies the Saxon brutality. Burt stabbed at the sergeant and struck him through the muscle of the neck. Farintosh fired at the policeman, and was himself shot down by Ezra. Burt, seeing his companion fall, sprang past his two assailants with a vicious side blow at the merchant, and throwing himself upon the sergeant’s horse, regardless of a bullet from the latter’s revolver, he galloped away, and was speedily out of range. As to Williams, from the beginning of the skirmish he had lain face downwards upon the ground, twisting his thin limbs about in an agony of fear, and howling for mercy.

“He’s gone!” Ezra said ruefully, gazing after the fugitive. “We have nothing to go after him with.”

“I’m well-nigh gone myself,” said the policeman, mopping up the blood from his stab, which was more painful than dangerous. “He has given me a nasty prod.”

“Never mind, my friend, you shall not be the loser. Get up, you little viper!”—this to Williams, who was still writhing himself into the most extraordinary attitudes.

“Oh, please, Mr. Girdlestone,” he cried, clutching at Ezra’s boots with his long thin fingers, “it wasn’t me that hit you. It was Mr. Burt. I had nothing to do with robbing you either. That was Mr. Farintosh. I wouldn’t have gone with him, only I knew that he was a clergyman, so I expected no harm. I am surprised at you, Mr. Farintosh, I really am. I’m very glad that Mr. Girdlestone has shot you.”

The ex-parson was sitting with his back against a gnarled stump, which gave him some support. He had his hand to his chest, and as he breathed a ghastly whistling sound came from the wound, and spirts of blood rushed from his mouth. His glazed eyes were fixed upon the man who had shot him, and a curious smile played about his thin lips.

“Come here, Mr. Girdlestone,” he croaked; “come here.”

Ezra strode over to him with a face as inexorable as fate.

“You’ve done for me,” said Farintosh faintly. “It’s a queer end for the best man of his year at Trinity—master of arts, sir, and Jacksonian prizeman. Not much worth now, is it? Who’d have thought then that I should have died like a dog in this wilderness? What’s the odds how a man dies though. If I’d kept myself straight I should have gone off a few years later in a feather bed as the Dean of St. Patrick’s may be. What will that matter? I’ve enjoyed myself”—the dying man’s eyes glistened at the thought of past dissipations. “If I had my time to do over again,” he continued, “I’d enjoy myself the same way. I’m not penitent, sir. No death-bed snivelling about me, or short cuts into heaven. That’s not what I wanted to say though. I have a choking in the throat, but I dare say you can hear what I am driving at. You met a man riding towards Jacobsdal, did you not?”

Ezra nodded sullenly.

“You didn’t speak to him? Too busy trying to catch yours truly, eh? Will you have your stones back, for they are in the bag by my side, but they’ll not be very much good to you. The little spec won’t come off this time. You don’t know what the news was that the man was bringing?”

A vague feeling of impending misfortune stole over Ezra. He shook his head.

“His news was,” said Farintosh, leaning up upon his hand, “that fresh diamond fields have been discovered at Jagersfontein, in the Orange Free State. So Russia, or no Russia, stones will not rise. Ha! ha! will not rise. Look at his face! It’s whiter than mine. Ha! ha! ha!” With the laugh upon his lips, a great flow of blood stopped the clergyman’s utterance, and he rolled slowly over upon his side, a dead man.

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