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Elsie's Womanhood (Chapter15)

2006-09-07 20:25

  Chapter Fifteenth.

  “Revenge at first though sweet,Bitter erelong, back on itself recoils.”——MILTON'S PARADISE LOST.

  At the instant of discharging his revolver, Jackson felt a sharp stinging pain in his right arm, and it dropped useless at his side. He hoped he had killed both Mr. Travilla and Elsie; but, an arrant coward and thus disabled, did not dare to remain a moment to learn with certainty the effect of his shot, but rushing along the veranda, threw himself over the railing, and sliding down a pillar, by the aid of the one hand, and with no little pain and difficulty, made off with all speed across the lawn.

  But he was bleeding at so fearful a rate that he found himself compelled to pause long enough to improvise a tourniquet by knotting his handkerchief above the wound, tying it as tightly as he could with the left hand aided by his teeth. He stooped and felt on the ground in the darkness and rain, for a stick, by means of which to tighten it still more; for the bleeding, though considerably checked, was by no means stanched. But sticks, stones, and every kind of litter, had long been banished thence; his fingers came in contact with nothing but the smooth, velvety turf, and with a muttered curse, he rose and fled again; for the flashing of lights, the loud ringing of a bell, peal after peal, and sounds of running feet and many voices in high excited tones, told him there was danger of a quick and hot pursuit.

  Clearing the lawn, he presently struck into a bridle-path that led to the woods. Here he again paused to search for the much-needed stick, found one suited to his purpose, and by its aid succeeded in decreasing still more the drain upon his life current; yet could not stop the flow entirely.

  But sounds of pursuit began to be heard in the distance, and he hastened on again, panting with weakness, pain and affright. Leaving the path, he plunged deeper into the woods, ran for some distance along the edge of a swamp, and leaping in up to his knees in mud and water, doubled on his track, then turned again, and penetrating farther and farther into the depths of the morass, finally climbed a tree, groaning with the pain the effort cost him, and concealed himself among the branches.

  His pursuers came up to the spot where he had made his plunge into the water; here they paused, evidently at fault. He could hear the sound of their footsteps and voices, and judge of their movements by the gleam of the torches many of them carried.

  Some now took one direction, some another, and he perceived with joy that his stratagem had been at least partially successful. One party, however, soon followed him into the swamp. He could hear Spriggs urging them on and anathematizing him as “a scoundrel, robber, burglar, murderer, who ought to be swung up to the nearest tree.”

  Every thicket was undergoing a thorough search, heads were thrown back and torches held high that eager blacks eyes might scan the tree-tops, and Jackson began to grow sick with the almost certainty of being taken, as several stout negroes drew nearer and nearer his chosen hiding-place.

  He uttered a low, breathed imprecation upon his useless right arm, and the man whose sure aim had made it so. “But for you,” he muttered, grinding his teeth, “I'd sell my life dear.”

  But the rain, which had slackened for a time, again poured down in torrents, the torches sputtered and went out, and the pursuers turned back in haste to gain the firmer soil, where less danger was to be apprehended from alligators, panthers, and poisonous reptiles.

  The search was kept up for some time longer, with no light but an occasional flash from the skies; but finally abandoned, as we have seen.

  Jackson passed several hours most uncomfortably and painfully on his elevated perch, quaking with fear of both man and reptile, not daring to come down or to sleep in his precarious position, or able to do so for the pain of his wound, and growing hour by hour weaker from the bleeding which it was impossible to check entirely.

  Then his mind was in a state of great disturbance, His wound must be dressed, and that speedily; yet how could it be accomplished without imperiling life and liberty? Perhaps he had now two new murders on his hands; he did not know, but he had at least attempted to take life, and the story would fly on the wings of the wind; such stories always did.

  He had been lurking about the neighborhood for days, and had learned that Dr. Balis, an excellent physician and surgeon, lived on a plantation, some two or three miles eastward from Viamede. He must contrive a plausible story, and go to him; at break of day, before the news of the attack on Viamede would be likely to reach him. It would be a risk, but what better could be done? He might succeed in quieting the doctor's suspicions, and yet make good his escape from the vicinity.

  The storm had spent itself before the break of day, and descending from his perch with the first faint rays of light that penetrated the gloomy recesses of the swamp, he made his way out of it, slowly and toilsomely, with weary, aching limbs, suffering intensely from the gnawings of hunger and thirst, the pain of his injury, and the fear of being overtaken by the avengers of his innocent victims. Truly, as the Bible tells us, “the way of transgressors is hard.”

  The sun was more than an hour high when Dr. Balis, ready to start upon his morning round, and pacing thoughtfully to and fro upon the veranda of his dwelling while waiting for his horse, saw a miserable looking object coming up the avenue: a man almost covered from head to foot with blood and mud; a white handkerchief, also both bloody and muddy, knotted around the right arm, which hung apparently useless at his side. The man reeled as he walked, either from intoxication or weakness and fatigue.

  The doctor judged the latter, and called to a servant, “Nap, go and help that man into the office.” Then hurrying thither himself, got out lint, bandages, instruments, whatever might be needed for the dressing of a wound. With the assistance of Nap's strong arm, the man tottered in, then sank, half fainting, into a chair.

  “A glass of wine, Nap, quick!” cried the doctor, sprinkling some water in his patient's face, and applying ammonia to his nostrils.

  He revived sufficiently to swallow with eager avidity the wine Nap held to his lips.

  “Food, for the love of God,” he gasped. “I'm starving!”

  “Bread, meat, coffee, anything that is on the table, Nap,” said his master; “and don't let the grass grow under your feet.”

  Then to the stranger, and taking gentle hold of the wounded limb: “But you need this flow of blood stanched more than anything else. You came to me for surgical aid, of course. Pistol-shot wound, eh? and a bad one at that.”

  “Yes, I——”

  “Never mind; I'll hear your story after your arm's dressed and you've had your breakfast. You haven't strength for talk just now.”

  Dr. Balis had his own suspicions as he ripped up the coat sleeve, bared the swollen limb, and carefully dressed the wound; but kept them to himself. The stranger's clothes, though much soiled and torn in several places by contact with thorns and briers, were of good material, fashionable cut, and not old or worn; his manners were gentlemanly, and his speech was that of an educated man. But all this was no proof that he was not a villain.

  “Is that mortification?” asked the sufferer, looking ruefully at the black, swollen hand and fore-arm, and wincing under the doctor's touch as he took up the artery and tied it.

  “No, no; only the stagnation of the blood.”

  “Will the limb ever be good for anything again?”

  “Oh yes; neither the bone nor nerve has suffered injury; the ball has glanced from the bone, passed under the nerve, and cut the humeral artery. Your tourniquet has saved you from bleeding to death. 'Tis well you knew enough to apply it. The flesh is much torn where the ball passed out; but that will heal in time.”

  The doctor's task was done. Nap had set a plate of food within reach of the stranger's left hand, and he was devouring it like a hungry wolf.

  “Now, sir,” said the good doctor, when the meal was finished, “I should like to hear how you came by that ugly wound. I can't deny that things look suspicious. I know everybody, high and low, rich and poor, for miles in every direction, and so need no proof that you do not belong to the neighborhood.”

  “No; a party of us, from New Orleans last, came out to visit this beautiful region. We were roaming through a forest yesterday, looking for game, when I somehow got separated from the rest, lost my way, darkness came on, and wondering hither and thither in the vain effort to find my comrades, tumbling over logs and fallen trees, scratched and torn by brambles, almost eaten up by mosquitos, I thought I was having a dreadful time of it. But worse was to come; for I presently found myself in a swamp up to my knees in mud and water, and in the pitchy darkness tumbling over another fallen tree, struck my revolver, which I had foolishly been carrying in my coat pocket: it went off and shot me in the arm, as you see. That must have been early in the night; and what with loss of blood, pain, fatigue, and long fasting, I had but little strength when daylight came and I could see to get out of swamp and woods, and come on here.”

  The doctor listened in silence, his face telling nothing of his thoughts.

  “A bad business,” he said, rising and beginning to draw on his gloves. “You are not fit to travel, but are welcome to stay here for the present; had better lie down on the sofa there and take a nap while I am away visiting my patients. Nap, clean the mud and blood from the gentleman's clothes; take his boots out and clean them too; and see that he doesn't want for attention while I am gone. Good-morning, sir; make yourself at home.” And the doctor walked out, giving Nap a slight sign to follow him.

  “Nap,” he said, when they were out of ear-shot of the stranger, “watch that man and keep him here if possible, till I come back.”

  “Yes, sah.”

  Nap went back into the office while the doctor mounted and rode away.

  “Humph,” he said, half aloud, as he cantered briskly along, “took me for a fool, did he? thought I couldn't tell where the shot went in and where it came out, or where it would go in or out if caused in that way. No, sir, you never gave yourself that wound; but the question is who did? and what for? have you been house-breaking or some other mischief?” Dr. Balis was traveling in the direction of Viamede, intending to call there too, but having several patients to visit on the way, did not arrive until the late breakfast of its master and mistress was over.

  They were seated together on the veranda, her hand in his, the other arm thrown lightly about her waist, talking earnestly, and so engrossed with each other and the subject of their conversation, that they did not at first observe the doctor's approach.

  Uncle Joe was at work on the lawn, clearing away the leaves and twigs blown down by the storm.

  “Mornin', Massa Doctah; did you heyah de news, sah?” he said, pulling off his hat and making a profound obeisance, as he stepped forward to take the visitor's horse.

  “No, uncle, what is it?”

  “Burglah, sir, burglah broke in de house las' night, an' fire he revolvah at massa an' Miss Elsie. Miss dem, dough, an' got shot hisself.”

  “Possible!” cried the doctor in great excitement, springing from the saddle and hurrying up the steps of the veranda.

  “Ah, doctor, good-morning. Glad to see you, sir,” said Mr. Travilla, rising to give the physician a hearty shake of the hand.

  “Thank you, sir. How are you after your fright? Mrs. Travilla, you are looking a little pale; and no wonder. Uncle Joe tells me you had a visit from a burglar last night?”

  “A murderer, sir; one whose object was to take my husband's life,” Elsie answered with a shudder, and in low, tremulous tones, leaning on Edward's arm and gazing into his face with eyes swimming with tears of love and gratitude.

  “My wife's also, I fear,” Mr. Travilla said with emotion, fondly stroking her sunny hair.

  “Indeed! why this is worse and worse! But he did not succeed in wounding either of you?”

  “No; his ball passed over our heads, grazing mine so closely as to cut off a lock of my hair. But I wounded him, must have cut an artery, I think, from the bloody trail he left behind him.”

  “An artery?” cried the doctor, growing more and more excited; “where? do you know where your ball struck?”

  “A flash of lightning showed us to each other and we fired simultaneously, I aiming for his right arm. I do not often miss my aim: we heard his revolver fall to the floor and he fled instantly, leaving it and a trail of blood before him.”

  “You had him pursued promptly, of course?”

  “Yes; but they did not find him. I expected to see them return with his corpse, thinking he must bleed to death in a very short time. But I presume he had an accomplice who was able to stanch the flow of blood and carry him away.”

  “No, I don't think he had; and if I'm not greatly mistaken I dressed his wound in my office this morning, and left him there in charge of my boy Nap, bidding him keep the fellow there, if possible, till I came back. I'd better return at once, lest he should make his escape. Do you know the man? and can you describe him?”

  “I do; I can,” replied Mr. Travilla. “But, my little wife, how you are trembling! Sit down here, dearest, and lean on me,” leading her to a sofa. “And doctor, take that chair.

  “The man's name is Tom Jackson; he is a noted gambler and forger, has been convicted of manslaughter and other crimes, sent to the penitentiary and pardoned out. He hates me because I have exposed his evil deeds, and prevented the carrying out of some of his wicked designs. He has before this threatened both our lives. He is about your height and build, doctor; can assume the manners and speech of a gentleman; has dark hair, eyes, and whiskers, regular features, and but for a sinister look would be very handsome.”

  “It's he and no mistake!” cried Dr. Balis, rising in haste. “I must hurry home and prevent his escape. Why, it's really dangerous to have him at large. If he wasn't so disabled I'd tremble for the lives of my wife and children.

  “He trumped up a story to tell me——had his revolver in his coat pocket, set it off in tumbling over a log in the dark, and so shot himself. Of course I knew 'twas a lie, because in that case the ball would have entered from below, at the back of the arm, and come out above, while the reverse was the case.”

  “But how could you tell where it entered or where it passed out, doctor?” inquired Elsie.

  “How, Mrs. Travilla? Why, where it goes in it makes merely a small hole; you see nothing but a blue mark; but a much larger opening in passing out, often tearing the flesh a good deal; as in this case.

  “Ah, either he was a fool or thought I was. But good-bye. I shall gallop home as fast as possible and send back word whether I find him there or not.”

  “Don't take the trouble, doctor,” said Mr. Travilla; “we will mount and follow you at once, to identify him if he is to be found. Shall we not, wife?”

  “If you say so, Edward, and are quite sure he cannot harm you now?”

  “No danger, Mrs. Travilla,” cried the doctor, looking back as he rode off.

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