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- The Splendid Spur - 25/44 -
I set my teeth and put Molly at the low wall. As she rose like a bird in air the two pistols rang out together, and a burning pain seem'd to tear open my left shoulder. In a moment the mare alighted safe on the other side, flinging me forward on her neck. But I scrambled back, and with a shout that frighten'd my own ears, dug my heels into her flanks.
Half a minute more and I was on the hard road, galloping westward for dear life. So also were a score of rebel troopers. Twenty miles and more lay before me; and a bare hundred yards was all my start.
[Illustration: The two pistols rang out together.]
I RIDE DOWN INTO TEMPLE: AND AM WELL TREATED THERE.
And now I did indeed abandon myself to despair. Few would have given a groat for my life, with that crew at my heels; and I least of all, now that my dear comrade was lost. The wound in my shoulder was bleeding sore--I could feel the warm stream welling--yet not so sore as my heart. And I pressed my knees into the saddle flap, and wondered what the end would be.
The sorrel mare was galloping, free and strong, her delicate ears laid back, and the network of veins under her soft skin working with the heave and fall of her withers: yet--by the mud and sweat about her--I knew she must have travelled far before I mounted. I heard a shot or two fired, far up the road: tho' their bullets must have fallen short: at least, I heard none whiz past. But the rebels' shouting was clear enough, and the thud of their gallop behind.
I think that, for a mile or two, I must have ridden in a sort of swoon. 'Tis certain, not an inch of the road comes back to me: nor did I once turn my head to look back, but sat with my eyes fastened stupidly on the mare's neck. And by-and-bye, as we galloped, the smart of my wound, the heartache, hurry, pounding of hoofs--all dropp'd to an enchanting lull. I rode, and that was all.
For, swoon or no, I was lifted off earth, as it seemed, and on easy wings to an incredible height, where were no longer hedges, nor road, nor country round; but a great stillness, and only the mare and I running languidly through it.
Now, at first, I thought 'twas someone speaking this in my ear, and turn'd my head. But 'twas really the last word I had heard from Delia, now after half an hour repeated in my brain. And as I grew aware of this, the dullness fell off me, and all became very distinct. And the muscles about my wound had stiffen'd--which was vilely painful: and the country, I saw, was a brown, barren moor, dotted with peat- ricks: and I cursed it.
This did me good: for it woke the fighting-man in me, and I set my teeth. Now for the first time looking back, I saw, with a great gulp of joy, I had gained on the troopers. A long dip of the road lay between me and the foremost, now topping the crest. The sun had broke through at last, and sparkled on his cap and gorget. I whistled to Molly (I could not pat her), and spoke to her softly: the sweet thing prick'd up her ears, laid them back again, and mended her pace. Her stride was beautiful to feel.
I had yet no clear idea how to escape. In front the moors rose gradually, swelling to the horizon line, and there broken into steep, jagged heights. The road under me was sound white granite and stretch'd away till lost among these fastnesses--in all of it no sign of man's habitation. Be sure I look'd along it, and to right and left, dreading to spy more troopers. But for mile on mile, all was desolate.
Now and then I caught the cry of a pewit, or saw a snipe glance up from his bed; but mainly I was busied about the mare. "Let us but gain the ridge ahead," thought I, "and there is a chance." So I rode as light as I could, husbanding her powers.
She was going her best, but the best was near spent. The sweat was oozing, her satin coat losing the gloss, the spume flying back from her nostrils--"Soh!" I called to her: "Soh! my beauty; we ride to save an army!" The loose stones flew right and left, as she reach'd out her neck, and her breath came shorter and shorter.
A mile, and another mile, we passed in this trim, and by the end of it must have spent three-quarters of an hour at the work. Glancing back, I saw the troopers scattered; far behind, but following. The heights were still a weary way ahead: but I could mark their steep sides ribb'd with boulders. Till these were passed, there was no chance to hide. The parties in this race could see each other all the way, and must ride it out.
And all the way the ground kept rising. I had no means to ease the mare, even by pulling off my heavy jack-boots, with one arm (and that my right) dangling useless. Once she flung up her head and I caught sight of her nostril, red as fire, and her poor eyes starting. I felt her strength ebbing between my knees. Here and there she blundered in her stride. And somewhere, over the ridge yonder, lay the Army of the West, and we alone could save it.
The road, for half a mile, now fetched a sudden loop, though the country on either side was level enough. Had my head been cool, I must have guessed a reason for this: but, you must remember, I had long been giddy with pain and loss of blood--so, thinking to save time, I turned Molly off the granite, and began to cut across.
The short grass and heath being still frozen, we went fairly for the first minute or so. But away behind us, I heard a shout--and it must have been loud to reach me. I learn'd the meaning when, about two hundred yards before we came on the road again, the mare's forelegs went deep, and next minute we were plunging in a black peat-quag.
Heaven can tell how we won through. It must have been still partly frozen, and perhaps we were only on the edge of it. I only know that as we scrambled up on solid ground, plastered and breathless, I looked at the wintry sun, the waste, and the tall hill tow'ring to the right of us, and thought it a strange place to die in.
For the struggle had burst open my wound again, and the blood was running down my arm and off my fingers in a stream. And now I could count every gorsebush, every stone--and now I saw nothing at all. And I heard the tinkling of bells: and then found a tune running in my head--'twas "Tire me in tiffany," and I tried to think where last I heard it.
But sweet gallant Molly must have held on: for the next thing I woke up to was a four-hol'd cross beside the road: and soon after we were over the ridge and clattering down hill.
A rough tor had risen full in front, but the road swerved to the left and took us down among the spurs of it. Now was my last lookout. I tried to sway less heavily in the saddle, and with my eyes searched the plain at our feet.
Alas! Beneath us the waste land was spread, mile upon mile: and I groaned aloud. For just below I noted a clump of roofless cabins, and beyond, upon the moors, the dotted walls of sheep-cotes, ruined also: but in all the sad-color'd leagues no living man, nor the sign of one. It was done with us. I reined up the mare--and then, in the same motion, wheeled her sharp to the right.
High above, on the hillside, a voice was calling.
I look'd up. Below the steeper ridge of the tor a patch of land had been cleared for tillage: and here a yoke of oxen was moving leisurely before a plough ('twas their tinkling bells I had heard, just now); while behind followed the wildest shape--by the voice, a woman.
She was not calling to me, but to her team: and as I put Molly at the slope, her chant rose and fell in the mournfullest singsong.
"So-hoa! Oop Comely Vean! oop, then--o-oop!"
I rose in my stirrups and shouted.
At this and the sound of hoofs, she stay'd the plough and, hand on hip, looked down the slope. The oxen, softly rattling the chains on their yoke, turn'd their necks and gazed. With sunk head Molly heaved herself up the last few yards and came to a halt with a stagger. I slipp'd out of the saddle and stood, with a hand on it, swaying.
"What's thy need, young man--that comest down to Temple wi' sword a- danglin'?"
The girl was a half-naked savage, dress'd only in a strip of sacking that barely reach'd her knees, and a scant bodice of the same, lac'd in front with pack thread, that left her bosom and brown arms free. Yet she appear'd no whit abash'd, but lean'd on the plough-tail and regarded me, easy and frank, as a man would.
"Sell me a horse," I blurted out: "Twenty guineas will I give for one within five minutes, and more if he be good! I ride on the King's errand."
"Then get thee back to thy master, an' say, no horse shall he have o' me--nor any man that uses horseflesh so." She pointed to Molly's knees, that were bow'd and shaking, and the bloody froth dripping from her mouth.
"Girl, for God's sake sell me a horse! They are after me, and I am hurt." I pointed up the road. "Better than I are concerned in this."
"God nor King know I, young man. But what's on thy saddle cloth, there?"
'Twas the smear where my blood had soak'd: and looking and seeing the purple mess cak'd with mud and foam on the sorrel's flank, I felt suddenly very sick. The girl made a step to me.
"Sell thee a horse? Hire thee a bedman, more like. Nay, then, lad--"
But I saw her no longer: only called "oh-oh!" twice, like a little child, and slipping my hold of the saddle, dropp'd forward on her breast.
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