Now it was past midday, and they had been galloping more or less since sun-up; for a stern chase is a long one and Snow's Gang knew every short cut through the timber, every wild way round the crumbling mountainside. Mab Comyn, his arm in a sling, led the scattering bunch of about fifty riders as he had led ever since a tracker scouting round the mouth of the caves in the uncertain moonlight reported that the bush-rangers had certainly gone.
More time was lost in finding the trail. But the country was awake everywhere: boys running; men galloping with informa-page 303tion like exultant fox-hunters near the kill. "Snow's Gang! "they shouted to one another. "Snow's Gang! "To small freckled boys Snow was nearly tradition. He had come in with their babyhood. To station-owners he was a memory of peculiar indignity. One by one he had caught most of them in their time. To all these riding men—Beverleys, Sorleys, Comyns, the sons of the blacksmith Fremp, men from the tanneries, little run-holders—Snow the bush-ranger meant something, but to Mab he meant most of all.
Never in all his tempestous life, Mab felt, had he burned so for revenge. The fellow would have rotted in Port Arthur if Mab hadn't helped him out. To be sure, he had put him there in the first place, but Snow deserved something. He must know he had deserved something, and with proper behaviour he would soon have been out again.
By God! he thought, easing Vanity's gallant daughter up a long stony hill behind Latterdale, it's enough to make a man never show mercy to anyone.
From the hilltop his eyes, so well used to distance, saw through the shimmer of heat a dark speck on the hill beyond. Another; a third; and all moving. Standing in the saddle, he shouted back to those behind: "There they are! There they are! On the Breakneck Ridge!"
He shook the reins and went pelting down the shingle slope. And after him, sliding, jumping, scattering the small stones like hail followed the hunt. Only picked men left in it now, after these twenty miles of roads and gullies and hills, picking up the trail and losing it, scouting into scrub and drawing it blind. But they would be fewer yet by the time this tearing gallop came to its end in a straight fight to the death. "For he'll never be taken alive," said Bob Beverley, his big yellow beard blowing over his shoulders, his stallion snorting, sliding down the steep way on its broad haunches. He looked round on this splendid avalanche of prime horse-flesh, man-flesh with a twinge of unease…. Some will probably go to Kingdom Come before we're through with this, he thought, steadying at the bottom among the golden bracken, racing away after Mab.
Under the hoofs the bracken crackled like fire. Tall red heaths bent their belled heads and were trampled out in the mud of a page 304creek. At a stout deadwood fence they raised a boomah kangaroo and for a mile or so the great frightened beast ran with them, taking fifteen-foot leaps from off his mighty tail. Full speed they were racing now; dodging under low branches in the open bush, rattling down hills under cutty-grass clumps and wombat-holes and leaping stones; flying the post-and-rails of boundary fences with a clatter; scrambling over huge long-dead logs that trapped a careless hoof in its rotten core. The thunder of the hoofs was music to these born riders; the flinty fire struck between iron and stone; the smell of the sweating horses, the white foam flung from the bits—all was good to them.
The passion of the hunt had taken the horses. Strong upstanding brutes of the hardy colonial breed, like cats they fought their way up steep faces of water-worn roots and jutting stones, and still had a gallop left down the last rough stony gully. Now the bush-rangers were close ahead, striving to reach the shelter of honeysuckle and tea-tree thickets beyond. The young constable, his broad snub-nosed face running with blood from a bramble scratch, was shouting to them to surrender. "Surrender! In the Queen's name." They answered with a volley that went wide, and then they were into the thicket, leaving their foundered horses outside.
Brevis, again with that sinking at the pit of his stomach, pulled on the reins. Nasty work it was going to be in there. He saw Mab Comyn thunder past, crouched low, his hat lost, his dark ruddy face intent, and shuddered as though some terrible force had gone by. Mab crashed in among the honeysuckles with their dried brush fingers, their squat monkeyish shapes, and the bullets snickered all round him and the air was full of red flashes. He heard the troopers firing just behind, heard little Mark Sorley cry out. And then he was hand to hand with one bearded ruffian who dragged him out of the saddle so they both rolled to the ground. As he fell he saw Snow backed up against the blue-gum bole, and sight of that fierce, desperate figure set him shouting: "Don't kill him! For God's sake don't kill him!"
Brevis, frankly afraid and sick, waited for them to come out. After the crashing of scrub, the hoarse shouting of men, the barking of the revolvers, there was a short horrible silence. Then they page 305came; the troopers hauling two handcuffed exhausted men and Mab with Bob Beverley carrying the third. Mab's face was dead-white as Brevis ran up, but the low shafts of the setting sun turned the man they carried blood-red. Or perhaps it was really blood…. Mark Sorley came whimpering and limping. "Wrenched my knee on a branch," he said. "How the deuce I'll ride home … Yes; it's Snow. He's near gone, if not quite," he said.
They laid Snow down by a little creek that lilted grey and clear over the stones. It was all shadows here, and the cool scent of water rising above the stench of blood and heated men. Mab put his folded coat under the still head and brought water in somebody's hat. His face was wild. "God! He can't go like this! "he cried. "Make him speak, somebody! "Brevis, dabbing water on Snow's forehead, thought: Not he. His big coup hasn't come off. He wasn't born to kill Mab, but he still can torment him, and he will.
Henry Sorley, pinched and grey with fatigue, hovered before Snow's opening eyes. Henry asked in his gentle, anxious way, "Is there anything we can do for you, my friend?"
"Yes," said Snow, without emphasis. "Go to hell."
Mab brought his face close. "Snow, where did you hide that gold? You can't take it with you. Be decent, man."
"I might have been decent … long ago." Snow paused between the words. He sighed feebly, then opened his eyes full on Mab and his faint crooked smile came back. "What is it you want of me, Mr. Comyn?"
"Where's that gold you stole from me?"
"Where are all those years you stole from me at Port Arthur? Answer that!"
"It was your own doing. If you'd behaved——"
"If I hadn't been human like other men, you mean," His voice was suddenly stronger, and the rest stood back a little. Quite clearly and very surprisingly this was a personal affair between the two. Brevis thought: Gentleman ranker. Oxford or Cambridge? He'll never forgive Mab.
A company of minahs chattered on a near-by tree. A magpie began his evening call. Scent of the water and of some pungent page 306shrub in the bush strengthened. The sunset stood above the bare hill like fire. Snow moved his head a little. The change was already on his face, making it gaunter and in some strange hard way beautiful. His voice was sharp:
"What did you expect me to do? Cringe and whine to you and your sort? Run with the women of the road? Be the animal your system tried to make of me? You're a damned proud man, Mab Comyn, and I'd have killed you if I could. But luck … was against me … always was."
"Give him brandy," said Bob Beverley, offering a flask. But Snow shut his teeth against it.
"No. I've had enough of you all. I'm going. If there's a God, He will understand … better than you did."
"The gold! The gold! For God's sake, man, where is it?"
Snow's eyes opened again. His crooked smile flickered. "Would you like to know, Mab Comyn?" His voice faded on the last word; sighed. His eyes closed.