“Oliver? Where is Oliver?”
These were Reuther’s first words, as, coming to herself, she perceived Mr. Black bending helplessly over her.
The answer was brief, almost indifferent. Alanson Black was cursing himself for allowing her to come to this house alone.
“He was here a moment ago. When he saw you begin to give signs of life, he slid out. How do you feel, my — my dear? What will your mother say?”
“But Oliver?” She was on her feet now; she had been lying on some sort of couch. “He must — Oh, I remember now. Mr. Black, we must go. I have given him his father’s letter.”
“We are not going till you have something to eat. Not a word. I’ll —” Why did his eye wander to the nearest window, and his words trail away into silence?
Reuther turned about to see. Oliver was in front, conversing earnestly with Mr. Sloan. As they looked, he dashed back into the rear of the house, and they heard his voice rise once or twice in some ineffectual commands to his deaf servant, then there came a clatter and a rush from the direction of the stable, and they saw him flash by on a gaunt but fiery horse, and take with long bounds the road up which they had just laboured. He had stopped to equip himself in some measure for this ride, but not the horse, which was without saddle or any sort of bridle but a halter strung about his neck.
This was flight; or so it appeared to Mr. Sloan, as he watched the young man disappear over the brow of the hill. What Mr. Black thought was not so apparent. He had no wish to discourage Reuther whose feeling was one of relief as her first word showed.
“Oliver is gone. We shall not have to hurry now and perhaps if I had a few minutes in which to rest ——”
She was on the verge of fainting again.
And then Alanson Black showed of what stuff he was made. In ten minutes he had bustled about the half-deserted building, and with the aid of the dazed and uncomprehending deaf-mute, managed to prepare a cup of hot tea and a plate of steaming eggs for the weary girl.
After such an effort, Reuther felt obliged to eat, and she did; seeing which, the lawyer left her for a moment and went out to interview their guide.
“Where’s the young lady?”
This from Mr. Sloan.
“Eating something. Come in and have a bite; and let the horses eat, too. She must have a rest. The young fellow went off pretty quick, eh?”
“Ya-as.” The drawl was one of doubt. “But quickness don’t count. Fast or slow, he’s on his way to capture — if that’s what you want to know.”
“What? We are followed then?”
“There are men on the road; two, as I told you before. He can’t get by them — IF that’s what he wants to do.”
“But I thought they fell back. We didn’t hear them after you joined us.”
“No; they didn’t come on. They didn’t have to. This is the only road down the mountain, and it’s one you’ve got to follow or go tumbling over the precipice. All they’ve got to do is to wait for him; and that’s what I tried to tell him, but he just shook his arm at me and rode on. He might better have waited — for company.”
Mr. Black cast a glance behind him, saw that the door of the house was almost closed and ventured to put another question.
“What did he ask you when he came out here?”
“Why we had chosen such an early hour to bring him his father’s message.”
“And what did you say?”
“Wa’al, I said that there was another fellow down my way awful eager to see him, too; and that you were mortal anxious to get to him first. That was about it, wasn’t it, sir?”
“Yes. And how did he take that?”
“He turned white, and asked me just what I meant. Then I said that some one wanted him pretty bad, for, early as it was, this stranger was up as soon as you, and had followed us into the mountains and might show up any time on the road. At which he gave me a stare, then plunged back into the house to get his hat and trot out his horse. I never saw quicker work. But it’s no use; he can’t escape those men. They know it, or they wouldn’t have stopped where they did, waiting for him.”
Mr. Black recalled the aspect of the gully, and decided that Mr. Sloan was right. There could be but one end to this adventure. Oliver would be caught in a manifest effort to escape, and the judge’s cup of sorrow and humiliation would be full. He felt the shame of it himself; also the folly of his own methods and of the part he had allowed Reuther to play. Beckoning to his host to follow him, he turned towards the house.
“Don’t mention your fears to the young lady,” said he. “At least, not till we are well past the gully.”
“I shan’t mention anything. Don’t you be afeared of that.”
And with a simultaneous effort difficult for both, they assumed a more cheerful air, and briskly entered the house.
It was not until they were well upon the road back that Reuther ventured to speak of Oliver. She was riding as far from the edge of the precipice as possible. In descent it looked very formidable to her unaccustomed eye.
“This is a dangerous road for a man to ride bareback,” she remarked. “I’m terrified when I think of it, Mr. Black. Why did he go off quite so suddenly? Is there a train he is anxious to reach? Mr. Sloan, is there a train?”
“Yes, Miss, there is a train.”
“Which he can get by riding fast?”
“I’ve known it done!”
“Then he is excusable.” Yet her anxious glance stole ever and again to the dizzy verge towards which she now unconsciously urged her own horse till Mr. Black drew her aside.
“There is nothing to fear in that direction,” said he. “Oliver’s horse is to be trusted, if not himself. Cheer up, little one, we’ll soon be on more level ground and then for a quick ride and a speedy end to this suspense.”
He was rewarded by a confiding look, after which they all fell silent.
A half-hour’s further descent, then a quick turn and Mr. Sloan, who had ridden on before them, came galloping hastily back.
“Wait a minute,” he admonished them, putting up his hand to emphasise the appeal.
“Oh, what now?” cried Reuther, but with a rising head instead of a sinking one.
“We will see,” said Mr. Black, hastening to meet their guide. “What now?” he asked. “Have they come together? Have the detectives got him?”
“No, not HIM; only his horse. The animal has just trotted up — riderless.”
“Good God! the child’s instinct was true. He has been thrown —”
“No.” Mr. Sloan’s mouth was close to the lawyer’s ear. “There is another explanation. If the fellow is game, and anxious enough to reach the train to risk his neck for it, there’s a path he could have taken which would get him there without his coming round this turn. I never thought it a possible thing till I saw his horse trotting on ahead of us without a rider.” Then as Reuther came ambling up, “Young lady, don’t let me scare you, but it looks now as if the young man had taken a short cut to the station, which, so far as I know, has never been taken but by one man before. If you will draw up closer — here! give me hold of your bridle. Now look back along the edge of the precipice for about half a mile, and you will see shooting up from the gully a solitary tree whose topmost branch reaches within a few feet of the road above.”
She looked. They were at the lower end of the gully which curved up and away from this point like an enormous horseshoe. They could see the face of the precipice for miles.
“Yes,” she suddenly replied, as her glance fell on the one red splash showing against the dull grey of the cliff.
“A leap from the road, if well-timed, would land a man among some very stalwart branches. It’s a risk and it takes nerve; but it succeeded once, and I dare say has succeeded again.”
“But — but — if he didn’t reach — didn’t catch —”
“Young lady, he’s a man in a thousand. If you want the proof, look over there.”
He was pointing again, but in a very different direction now. As her anxious eye sought the place he indicated, her face flushed crimson with evanescent joy. Just where the open ground of the gully melted again into the forest, the figure of a man could be seen moving very quickly. In another moment it had disappeared amid the foliage.
“Straight for the station,” announced Mr. Sloan; and, taking out his watch, added quickly; “the train is not due for fifteen minutes. He’ll catch it.”
“The train south?”
“Yes, and the train north. They pass here.”
Mr. Black turned a startled eye upon the guide. But Reuther’s face was still alight. She felt very happy. Their journey had not been for naught. He would have six hours’ start of his pursuers; he would be that much sooner in Shelby; he would hear the accusation against him and refute it before she saw him again.
But Mr. Black’s thoughts were less pleasing than hers. He had never had more than a passing hope of Oliver’s innocence, and now he had none at all. The young man had fled, not in response to his father’s telegram, but under the impulse of his own fears. They would not find him in Shelby when they returned. They might never find him anywhere again. A pretty story to carry back to the judge.
As he dwelt upon this thought, his reflections grew more and more gloomy, and he had little to say till he reached the turn where the two men still awaited them.
In the encounter which followed no attempt was made by either party to disguise the nature of the business which had brought them thus together. The man whom Mr. Black took to be a Shelby detective nodded as they met and remarked, with a quick glance at Reuther:
“So you’ve come without him! I’m sorry for that. I was in hopes that I might be spared the long ride up the mountain.”
Mr. Black limited his answer to one of his sour smiles.
“Whose horse is this?” came in peremptory demand from the other man, with a nod towards the animal which could now be seen idly grazing by the wayside. “And how came it on the road alone?”
“We can only give you these facts,” rejoined the lawyer. “It came from Tempest Lodge. It started out ahead of us with the gentleman we had gone to visit on its back. We did not pass the gentleman on the road, and if he has not passed you, he must have left the road somewhere on foot. He did not go back to the Lodge.”
“Mr. Black —”
“I am telling you the absolute truth. Make what you will of it. His father desires him home; and sent a message. This message this young lady undertook to deliver, and she did deliver it, with the consequences I have mentioned. If you doubt me, take your ride. It is not an easy one, and the only man remaining at the Lodge is deaf as a post.”
“Mr. Black has told the whole story,” averred the guide.
They looked at Reuther.
“I have nothing to add,” said she. “I have been terrified lest the gentleman you wish to see was thrown from the horse’s back over the precipice. But perhaps he found some way of getting down on foot. He is a very strong and daring man.”
“The tree!” ejaculated the detective’s companion. He was from a neighbouring locality and remembered this one natural ladder up the side of the gully.
“Yes, the tree,” acknowledged Mr. Sloan. “That, or a fall. Let us hope it was not a fall.”
As he ceased, a long screech from an approaching locomotive woke up the echoes of the forest. It was answered by another from the opposite direction. Both trains were on time. The relief felt by Reuther could not be concealed. The detective noticed it.
“I’m wasting time here,” said he. “Excuse me, Mr. Black, if I push on ahead of you. If we don’t meet at the station, we shall meet in Shelby.”
Mr. Black’s mouth twisted grimly. He had no doubt of the latter fact.
Next minute, they were all cantering in the one direction; the detective very much in the advance.
“Let me go with you to the station,” entreated Reuther, as Mr. Black held up his arms to lift her from her horse at the door of the hotel.
But his refusal was peremptory. “You need Miss Weeks, and Miss Weeks needs you,” said he. “I’ll be back in just five minutes.” And without waiting for a second pleading look, he lifted her gently off and carried her in.
When he returned, as he did in the time specified, he had but one word for her.
“Gone,” said he.
“Thank God!” she murmured and turned to Miss Weeks with a smile.
Not having a smile to add to hers, the lawyer withdrew.
Oliver was gone — but gone north.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55