Bloodhounds

I

EARLY that February morning a prisoner serving a five-year sentence on a Georgia work gang began a race for freedom. Edging toward the guard, he jerked the rifle from his shoulder and, with it to protect himself, outran the shout that went up for help and broke into a thicket, through which he stumbled to the main road that led northward from Atlanta in the direction of the mountains. On the road he stopped a passing car, and after formidably ordering the driver to get out he steered several miles farther from the convict camp, till finally, near the base of a big, sprawling hill wooded with scrub pine and underbrush, the hurried machine slid off the slippery red clay, its wheels ploughing into the earth too deep for further traction.

Now it was the middle of the morning, and, along the byways of the red clay road on which the useless car stood mired, state and county police in mudclotted automobiles were warily patrolling the base of the silent, desolatelooking hill. At an ominously steady rate a chauffeur drove the sheriff’s touring car back and forth between the stalled machine and the nearest crossroad to the north. Enclosed by the loudly flapping side curtains, Sheriff Bronson, the prison warden, and a reporter from one of the evening newspapers occupied the rear seat and concernedly watched the running landscape. Bronson sat in the middle, holding a cigar in one hand, while with the other he grasped the neck of a bottle of corn whiskey balanced on his knee. On his left the warden turned a gray face toward the scratched, yellowish isinglass and with pale eyes stared moodily out toward the west, where the sloping fields, blanketed with tall, dead grass, rose up to the hill where the convict was believed to be hiding. At Bronson’s right the reporter, new to that territory and to his job, leaned stiffly forward and tried to look intelligent and at ease.

Bronson caught his cigar between his teeth and took out his watch, which he looked at and snapped shut again. ‘Bloodhounds’ll be up here most any minute now,’ he said. His voice was casual — not at all vindictive.

The gray-faced warden’s eyelids flickered rapidly. ‘I hope they’re not too late to pick up the trail.’

Talk of bloodhounds startled the reporter, who was sensitive and could see ahead a little, though not very far. Turning his face around, he looked obliquely through the back window up at the silent hill where the hunted man was concealed. The air was thick with a penetrating mist; it would be cold on the hill, and the convict had scarcely more than a blue denim suit to cover him. When the bloodhounds came, the reporter speculated in agitation, would the poor devil be driven up a tree to avoid their lustful jaws, or would he try to break out of the wood and across the fields about which the state and county police made a moving cordon? Fearing the sight of a man’s body being torn, the reporter was disturbed by the remembrance of stories in which tracked refugees tried to drown themselves in swamp or river rather than let the fierce, implacable hounds come upon them.

II

The sheriff’s car was slowing down. The reporter saw it was nearing the crossroad. Over the intersecting road from the west another car was approaching, completing its tour along the north base of the hill. It was running smoothly between the rolling fields, the top down, with two solid figures, one of whom was holding a rifle, in the front seat. Sheriff Bronson bent forward and told his driver, ‘Wait a minute, Joe.’

Both machines slowed down and stopped close to each other. Bronson opened the door and hailed the man at the driving seat. ‘How you makin’ out?’

The driver of the other car had a round, blond head and light blue eyes serene and empty as midsummer sky. His name was Stover. With solid, sloping shoulders and a wide mouth held tight at the corners, he sat back from the wheel and rubbed his massive chin against the comfortingly warm collar of his gray sweater worn beneath his coat. He showed a slow, confident smile. Not bothering to look at the man beside him, who held a rifle between his legs and who was, like himself, of the county police, he said, ‘We’re makin’ out fine, chief.’

Sheriff Bronson nodded. ‘Harvey’s bringing his pack of bloodhounds. Be here most any time now.’

Perfunctorily the gray-faced warden glanced beyond the police car and over the rolling fields to the darkly wooded hill where, in an animal’s burrow, or beneath a tangle of underbrush, the fugitive was probably lying. ‘They’ll sniff him out,’ he said.

In his comer of the car the reporter fidgeted. It was getting so that every time he heard the word ‘bloodhound’ his nerves crimped painfully all over his body — as if, he had an embarrassed feeling, some ancestor of his had once been gnawed by a baying pack of them and he had inherited the shock. Certainly he was not being a man among men. But he could not help it. And, thinking of the convict soon to be shivering less from the cold than from sharp-nosed, deep-lunged beasts, he said rapidly to the sheriff, ‘Why must you wait till the bloodhounds come? Are n’t there enough men here to go up the hill and capture him now?’

Amused and contemptuous, Stover’s mild blue eyes met the reporter’s for a moment. The warden was silent. But Sheriff Bronson answered: ‘There’s a thousand acres on that hill, and all woods. We ain’t got the men to tackle it. But don’t go frettin’ about your story; the dogs’ll fetch him out before your paper goes to press.’

‘ Well, we’ll move along,’ said Stover, and pressed his heavy foot down on the accelerator. The motor hummed with a low, beautiful regularity, but that was not surprising; it would have been odd if it had n’t, for as Stover sat there at the wheel, his shoulders squared and his sleek chin so set and full of purpose, he looked so strong, so competent and self-assured, it was inconceivable that even machinery should n’t obey him to a nicety.

As Stover turned around, Sheriff Bronson stopped him. ‘Wait a minute. Here! What the hell’s the matter with me?’ He held forth the bottle of corn whiskey. ’It’s a cold day, Stover. Little com’ll warm you up.’

Stover had a drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his thick hand. ‘Much obliged,’ he said. ‘We’ll go along now.’ The gears meshed smoothly. Completing his turn at the crossroad, he conscientiously went back to his alert patrol of the stretch which hemmed the convict in from freedom to the north.

‘Stover’s a good man,’ muttered the sheriff as his own machine drove steadily southward. Nobody contradicted him. The warden sat gazing bleakly over the chauffeur’s shoulder into the empty red clay road. And the reporter, feeling time rushing to the hour when his paper went to press, heard only the rattling side curtains as he leaned forward and looked out upon the expressionless hill.

III

The sheriff’s car rode on toward the mired automobile which the convict had abandoned early that morning. Arriving within a few hundred yards of it, Bronson said. ‘There’s Harvey.’

For the reporter there was an ominous sound in the name. He jerked his head and looked through the windshield. Beside the stalled machine he saw a tall, rangy man of the mountaineer type standing dangling a handful of leashes, while about his feet a pack of dogs, their noses smelling of the earth, ran with nervous eagerness. The three men from the sheriff’s car got out. Even in so brief a space one of the bloodhounds, circling among the brown, lean pack, struck the trail. With great soft ears hanging low and dolorous brown eyes staring worriedly from a wrinkled face, the bloodhound traced the scent across the road and into the upward-sloping field.

The others followed, but each apparently with a scent of its own. As they hid themselves up to their sinewy flanks in the dead, sallow grass, Harvey, the keeper of the dogs, said with a gentle drawl that was almost caressing, ‘Go git ’im, Bide! Git ’im, Dolly! Them’s good houn’s, Mist’ Sheriff.'

Both the sheriff and the warden nodded carelessly. But the reporter, his gaze on the wooded hill up which the pack were briskly moving, wandered off to the other side of the road and beyond. It was obvious whore he was going, and as he left Sheriff Bronson called, ‘You’ll get a real eyewitness story out of it if you can catch up with them dogs!’

That, the reporter realized, was not mere jocularity. ‘Sure,’ he answered half-heartedly and kept on up the sloping field, near the top of which the hounds were disappearing.

They were not to be overtaken. Before the reporter had gone halfway to the crest they had passed out of sight among the trees. He went on. A little later the bloodhounds began their curious baying — a lost, baffled noise that made him hasten. It did n’t sound much as if they had yet sniffed out the convict’s place of hiding, but perhaps they had. And if so . . . Instinctively his feelings ranged him beside the criminal against the dogs, and as he hurried forward he looked anxiously for some wieldy club with which to beat at them when they closed in on the fugitive.

Low and troubled, they bayed again. A fierce hatred for the bloodhounds ran through his veins like molten steel, and he knew that whatever it cost him he would be with the convict in the fight against their snapping jaws. So he stumbled among the trees.

Far behind him was coming Harvey, the keeper, still dangling the leashes from his hand and swinging leisurely on his gaunt legs. Police machines with armed men continued to patrol the red clay roads that went northward. And down to the right, on the crossing that severed the north base of the hill from the sweeping fields and clumps of trees beyond, the open touring car with Stover and the other county officer bulking squarely in the front seat still kept passing on its steady course.

Breaking on through the wood, the reporter followed the noise of the mournful-sounding pack, which seemed to come out clearly from the right. He went along the inner fringe of trees in that direction, vainly swallowing at a lump which excitement had lodged in his throat and looking desperately for a stick. But there was nothing like a weapon to be found. He hurried ahead, his mind agonized with pity for the shivering convict, his face and hands and wrists numb to the stinging branches that struck against them and the tearing brambles through which he ran.

Suddenly the sky grew lighter. He found himself at the edge of the field again and within sight of the bloodhounds. They were running about in a distracted manner, their black noses quivering as they smelled at the dead leaves, twigs, and grass. It was clear that for the moment they had lost the scent. The reporter took hold of himself. In their confused and awkward sniffing, their long ears flapping and their sad dark eyes peering from the folds of wrinkles about their brows, they did not look so fierce as the reporter believed they really were. It seemed strange that they should be.

As he stood there Harvey came up with the leashes trailing from his hand. The keeper nodded shortly, his eyes fixed on the dogs. Bending down, he began talking to them gently, directing them with familiar gesture to search out the trail again. ‘Here, Bide! Here, Dolly!’ he said. ‘This way, boy!’ Unexpectedly the pack dashed off into the wood, their keeper stalking after them.

IV

The reporter sat down. He began to realize that he was having a hard day. Worrying about his story, he knew he should phone the office. If the convict was on the hill, the dogs would find him, but even if the animals were as vicious as their reputations made them out to be, Harvey was there to keep them off and they were likely to obey his voice. Thinking it useless to remain, the reporter turned and started down the hill toward the crossroad, where, he could see, Stover still kept a steadfast watchfulness from the passing car.

Going through the tall dry grass, the reporter reached level ground as Stover turned back from the main road. The reporter stood waiting. Stover came nearer and he called, ‘Say, where’s there a phone around here?’

Sleek, hefty, and self-contained, Stover jerked his round head toward the back scat. ‘Get in,’ he said, ‘Maybe Sheriff Bronson’ll know.’

The reporter stepped on the running board and closed the door after him. The machine rolled steadily forward half a mile to the more distant crossroad, where it met another police car and then turned back again. Nobody spoke. Both officers watched the fields with calm, omniscient eyes. As they neared the place where the reporter had boarded the car he believed he saw a patch of dead grass move. He kept silent, but a moment later the policeman with the rifle between his legs shouted, ‘Hi!’ and pulled up the weapon with the butt against his shoulder.

‘See him?’ asked Stover quietly.

‘There he is! Come out of that, you ——!’ The machine stopped and the policeman with the rifle leaned forward and leveled the barrel upon a spot in the field some yards ahead and to the right. The dead grass stirred. A hump of faded blue appeared above it; rising higher, it grew into the figure of the escaped convict, who stood hatless, in denim overalls, his empty hands above his head and his face a white oblong of wincing terror.

‘Ah,’ said Stover, and opened the door of the car. He ran forward, almost with agility for a man so heavy. As Stover came upon the convict the reporter could not hear him growl, but could see his arm go back, his fist push forward, and the smaller form fall into a defenseless heap. Stover kicked, but the denim figure did not move. Leaning down, he picked it up as easily as if it had been a gunny sack full of shavings, and struck again and again until under his blows it went completely slack.

The other policeman slid over to the wheel and drove the car slowly forward to where Stover was holding the fugitive, whose face was a smear of red. As they drew nearer the reporter laughed, high and idiotically. A word rose up in his throat and bubbled over his lips: —

‘Bloodhounds!’