‘But, man, you’ve got it all wrong ‘ the doctor put in. ‘We didn’t…
‘That’s right. Back one another up, but you’re not going to fool me. I’ve been waiting for this. Thinking of it for weeks. I admit that you did fool me at first seeing that you’re old enough to be her father but not for long. And now it’s my turn.’
‘You damn’ swine. That girl ‘
Burns swung his pistol.
‘That’ll be enough from you, Dugan. Keep your mouth shut.’
Dale looked at the engineer steadily. He was wondering whether he could risk a shot. His rifle was loaded and ready in his hands, but he knew that it would be tricky work to avoid hitting Joan. Burns, with his handier weapon, would most likely fire before he himself could aim. He exchanged a helpless glance with the doctor.
Burns turned his pistol so that its muzzle was pressed into the girl’s side.
‘If I don’t have her, nobody has her,’ he said. ‘Now you put your rifles down over there’ he nodded at a spot half way between himself and them ‘one by one, or something very nasty is going to happen.’ .
They hesitated, but the look in Burns’ eyes was dangerous; he was not out to bluff.
‘Come on,’ he snapped.
Froud shrugged his shoulders, walked slowly forward, laid his rifle down at the place indicated, and stepped back. The doctor followed, then Dale, and, finally, Dugan.
Burns nodded. ‘Now get back, all of you. Right back to the water.’
They did as he ordered, and he walked to the rifles, still holding the girl.
‘Pick them up,’ he ordered her.
Joan obeyed. The pistol pressed into her side gave her no option. She did not for a moment doubt that he would use it if necessary; she appreciated no less than the rest that in his present crazed, inflamed condition he was capable of anything. The pistol which Froud had given her was in her pocket, but the pocket was hopelessly out of reach beneath the stiff overalls. Even had it been handy, she doubted her ability to seize it and get in the first shot. One by one she handed the rifles to Burns and he, transferring the pistol from one hand to the other, slung them over his shoulders.
‘And your own,’ he said cuttingly. ‘Don’t forget that.’
She slipped it off her own shoulder and handed it across. He looked at the four men thoughtfully and then dropped his eyes to his own pistol. It was an unpleasant moment..
‘No,’ he decided, ‘no sense in wasting good bullets. But if any of you are thinking of following us just think again, that’s my advice.’
His large hand closed on the girl’s arm. He grinned unattractively.
‘Say good bye to your lovers,’ he told her.
‘You ‘ Dugan began.
Burns jerked his pistol round. There was a sharp crack and a spurt of dirt at Dugan’s feet,
‘Next time it’ll be higher,: he said.
He left them without another word. Casting frequent glances over his shoulder, he led the girl back by the way they had come.
CHAPTER XV. AND IS TRUMPED.
THE four who remained watched Burns and Joan disappear into the bushes. It was some time before anyone spoke. Froud sat down on the ground, dismantling his camera and folding up its stand. The rest stood watching him. At the moment there seemed to be nothing to be said. It was Dugan who asked the question which the rest had thought not worth putting into words.
‘Well,’ he said harshly, ‘aren’t we going to do something?’
‘Not yet,’ Dale told him briefly. Dugan stared.
‘What’s wrong with you? If you’re not going to help that girl, I, am.’
He turned and ran towards the bushes.
‘Come back, you fool,’ Dale called; but Dugan took no notice. He disappeared at a trot in Burns’ track. A moment later came the sharp crack of a shot. The three men looked at one another, but Dugan reappeared. He returned looking shaken and not a little sheepish.
‘Felt the wind of it,’ he said.
‘You were lucky,’ Dale told him. ‘Now sit down and behave as though you were grown up.’
‘This,’ said Froud, digging one hand beneath his overalls, ‘is a mess.’ His fumbling ceased and he produced a yellow packet. ‘Have a cigarette.’
Each of them took one. He lit one, and pulled a wry face. ‘My God, how beastly!
That’s what three months’ abstinence does for you.’
‘What,’ Dugan asked again, but less heatedly than before, ‘are we going to do about it?’
‘Nothing,’ Dale told him.
‘Nothing? You mean ‘
The doctor laid his hand on Dugan’s arm.
‘Quietly, lad. You don’t see what the trouble is. What you’re wanting now is a good stand up fight with a man whom you consider a swine.’
‘Well, isn’t he?’
‘May be, but the point is that for the moment, at least, he isn’t sane. I’ve been watching him these last few weeks perhaps it is my fault in a way that this has happened: I ought to have warned you all that he was on the edge. But I counted on our arrival here having a normalizing effect; I was wrong. He isn’t responsible, and in his present state you couldn’t help doing more harm than good: he’d kill her rather than let any of us get near, of that I’m certain. In fact, I’m surprised he didn’t shoot us as we stood.’
‘So am I,’ Froud agreed. ‘And I had a nasty, clammy idea that he might hit on the idea of letting out our oxygen supply By the way, Dale, how long is it good for?’
‘With careful use, at the present rate, it might last twenty hours, I think.’
‘Of which two have gone already.’.
‘And you mean we’re to do nothing?’ Dugan repeated, still incredulous.
‘The only person who can do anything is that girl,’ the doctor said. ‘And, if I know Joan, she will. I’ve got faith in her, and she knows how the situation stands, all right.’
‘But suppose we were to cut quickly through the bushes parallel with him and ambush him at the other end?’
‘What! With those leaves making a noise like a whole brown paper factory? Have some sense,’ Froud said. ‘No, Doc’s is the idea. She’s got a pistol, and she’ll get a chance to use it sooner or later.’
‘And if she doesn’t?’
‘Then it’s a poor look out for us. I suppose Burns will just sit comfortably in the G.M. and watch us pass out from suffocation.’
‘But what good’s that going to do him? He can’t take the G.M. back alone.’
‘Can’t you get it into your nut that the man isn’t sane any longer? All he wants at the moment is the girl, and revenge on us because he supposes we left him out he isn’t thinking of himself beyond that.’
Dugan frowned worriedly. ‘Yes I see that now, but do you really think she does? I mean, suppose she lets it go until too late, expecting us to take a hand?’
But though Froud sounded definite, he was by no means convinced in his own mind. If Joan could shoot Burns, all would be well. But could she? A second’s hesitation at the critical moment might give him the chance to disarm her. A trembling of her hand or any slight misjudgement might only result in an infuriating flesh wound. It was not an easy thing to shoot down even a madman in cold blood. Did she, after all, fully realize what was going to happen to her and to all of them if she were to let an opportunity slip?
Conversation languished. Each of the four sat silently considering unpleasant possibilities.
‘How long are you giving him, Dale?’ the doctor asked, at last.
‘I thought an hour. It’s difficult to tell. For all we know, he may still be waiting for us round the first corner.’
The other nodded. An hour, he thought, should give them a good margin, provided they went cautiously. He doubted whether a man in Burns’ state of mind would have the patience to lie long in ambush.
Dale rose when the time was up.
‘Now, remember, go as quietly as you can. And we’re not going to hurry. Caution’s a damn’ sight more important than speed just now. Our game is to be near when something happens, but we don’t want to make it happen.’
They had covered perhaps a third of the distance to the rocket when there came the sharp, unmistakable sound of a rifle shot ahead. Dale, in the lead, stopped dead, listening. There was a second shot, followed by several more in rapid succession. Dale broke into a clumsy run, keeping his feet with difficulty against the low gravity which threw him into a series of striding leaps. The rest followed as well as they were able. If it did cross Dale’s mind that this might be a trap cunningly contrived for them, he took no notice of the idea. Undoubtedly there had been things other than themselves moving in the bushes. It looked as if Burns had discovered what those things were.