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A short story by James Runciman

A Long Chase

Title:     A Long Chase
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The "Halicore" ran into harbour one October morning and took up her berth at the quay. The brig had come from a nine months' voyage and the men were regarded as heroes when they came ashore, for most of our vessels were merely coasters. When all was made snug on board, the sailors went to their homes and received the admiring homage of the neighbours. One young man whose parents lived in a cottage away to the north was very keen to get home. He had a weary stretch of moorland to pass, and the evening was wild, with only fitful gleams of moonlight to brighten the dark, but the young sailor would not stay. He knew the old people would be sitting by the fireside till half-past ten or eleven, and it delighted him to think how they would start with joy when he rattled the latch on the door. An innkeeper warned him about the state of the roads, but the sailor was a light-hearted fellow, and paid no heed to the talk about "muggers," or gipsies. He had been very careful during the voyage, so that his leather belt under his waistcoat was well filled with sovereigns and silver. Of course he knew that the "muggers," (or travelling potters), were sometimes nasty customers to meet on a dark night, but he reckoned that he could hold his own anywhere. Jack was well-built, and very swift of foot, and he strode fast over the dark and misty moor. The furze bushes roared as the wind went through, and the heather made a mysterious whispering, but Jack did not mind the noises that affect the nerves of cultured persons. A poacher bade him a kindly good-night, and added, "Mind there'll be some queer fellows along by the Dead Man's Trail," but Jack did not turn back, although he felt the poacher's warning a little. Rabbits scampered past him, and an owl beat steadily over the heather like a well-trained setter. When the dark grew thicker the wail of the curlews as they called from overhead was strange. The howl of a fox, that weirdest of all sounds, came sharply from among the brown brackens, but Jack was not impressed: he was home again, and the piercing cry of the fox was only a pleasant reminder of good fortune.

Presently three men stopped the traveller, and asked the road to the port from which he had just come. One of them struck a match and managed to throw a gleam on Jack's face before the wind put the flame out. By the same light, the sailor saw that the three men were muggers, and that they were not pleasant-looking people. He disengaged himself and walked swiftly north for about thirty yards. A thud of feet made him turn, and from one brief glance he knew that the men were making a rush for him. He gathered his energies instantly, and struck off at his best speed. He was an excellent runner and a good jumper, so that he gradually drew away from his pursuers until he lost the sound of their feet; but he knew that they were doggedly following, and that his only chance was to reach the ferry, and get the ferryman to help him. Now this same ferry plied across a swift stream that ran into the sea about two and a half miles north of the place where he met the men. The current was so very strong that no boatman could possibly row from bank to bank: the boat would have been swept out to sea. So a strong chain had been run across the river, and the boat was fastened to a ring which ran along this chain. The ferryman simply stood in the bow of the wherry and hauled her across by main force, passing the ring along as he went. Every night the chain was lowered into the water, and the man left his little boat, and went westward to his proper home. It should be said that the chain could be wound from either bank, for a winch was placed at each side.

Jack was badly out of breath when he reached the ferry, and he felt minded to lie down, but there was no time for resting. He ran to the water's edge, and found the man and boat gone, the hut dark, and the chain lowered. The stream poured past like a millrace, and he looked hopelessly on the swift water. At first he thought of turning to take his fate. He had his clasp knife and he could die fighting if they really meant to murder him. Then he thought of his money and the good it would do at home, and he determined to try once more. He ran to the winch and bent himself at it; the chain came up and gradually tightened until he saw dimly that the long arc was quite clear of the water. Just as he had clenched the winch the foremost of the footpads came down the hill and shouted as he saw the sailor. Jack got underneath the chain, took firm hold with his hands and twisted his legs round as though he were climbing a back-stay; then he began to haul himself across. Before he had gone forty yards he felt that there was someone else clambering along that awkward support, but he knew that forty yards more would make him safe. He was nearly smothered at the place where the chain dipped lowest, for the water was coming in freshets; but he hung on, and landed panting and with grazed limbs on the north bank. By the shaking of the chain he knew that the mugger was coming along, and he decided in a flash to take strong measures. There was a good surplus to run out, so he set the winch free. He heard one loud cry, and then there was silence. He had drowned the footpad. The best swimmer on the coast could not have got to the shore in that place.

Jack's nerve was completely gone, and he could hardly raise a trot. He used to laugh much about the terrors that he suffered during the remainder of his journey. First of all he trod on a young rabbit, and the shrill squeak that came sent his heart to his mouth; then, just as he neared his home, the shepherd's donkey took the fancy to bray with vigour, and Jack thought for one moment that another enemy was upon him. Presently he saw the light in his own window, and he knew that he was in honest regions once more. The old people were much amazed when their son came in, bare-headed, wet, and covered with red rust from the friendly chain, but they were glad to see him in any plight. The moor is in much better order now-a-days, for the muggers are all driven away north to Yetholm and Wooler. A stately policeman traverses the bank once every night, and no one is ever molested. The first policeman was stabbed from behind, and flung over the cliff, but there has been no mischief since that time, and the district is very quiet indeed.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Long Chase