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- Beverly of Graustark - 5/51 -
not know the way, and the danger is great. Ah! Madam! Here they come! The Cossacks are going back."
As he spoke, the surly mutineers were riding slowly towards the coach. Every man had his pistol on the high pommel of the saddle. Their faces wore an ugly look. As they passed the officer, one of them, pointing ahead of him with his sword, shouted savagely, "Balak!"
It was conclusive and convincing. They were deserting her.
"Oh, oh, oh! The cowards!" sobbed Beverly in rage and despair. "I must go on! Is it possible that even such men would leave--"
She was interrupted by the voice of the officer, who, raising his cap to her, commanded at the same time the driver to turn his horses and follow the escort to Balak.
"What is that?" demanded Beverly in alarm.
From far off came the sound of firearms. A dozen shots were fired, and reverberated down through the gloomy pass ahead of the coach.
"They are fighting somewhere in the hills in front of us," answered the now frightened officer. Turning quickly, he saw the deserting horsemen halt, listen a minute, and then spur their horses. He cried out sharply to the driver, "Come, there! Turn round! We have no time to lose!"
With a savage grin, the hitherto motionless driver hurled some insulting remark at the officer, who was already following his men, now in full flight down the road, and settling himself firmly on the seat, taking a fresh grip of the reins, he yelled to his horses, at the same time lashing them furiously with his whip, and started the coach ahead at a fearful pace. His only thought was to get away as far as possible from the Russian officer, then deliberately desert the coach and its occupants and take to the hills.
THE RAGGED RETINUE
Thoroughly mystified by the action of the driver and at length terrified by the pace that carried them careening along the narrow road, Beverly cried out to him, her voice shrill with alarm. Aunt Fanny was crouching on the floor of the coach, between the seats, groaning and praying.
"Stop! Where are you going?" cried Beverly, putting her head recklessly through the window. If the man heard her he gave no evidence of the fact. His face was set forward and he was guiding the horses with a firm, unquivering hand. The coach rattled and bounded along the dangerous way hewn in the side of the mountain. A misstep or a false turn might easily start the clumsy vehicle rolling down the declivity on the right. The convict was taking desperate chances, and with a cool, calculating brain, prepared to leap to the ground in case of accident and save himself, without a thought for the victims inside.
"Stop! Turn around!" she cried in a frenzy. "We shall be killed! Are you crazy?"
By this time they had struck a descent in the road and were rushing along at breakneck speed into oppressive shadows that bore the first imprints of night. Realizing at last that her cries were falling upon purposely deaf ears, Beverly Calhoun sank back into the seat, weak and terror-stricken. It was plain to her that the horses were not running away, for the man had been lashing them furiously. There was but one conclusion: he was deliberately taking her farther into the mountain fastnesses, his purpose known only to himself. A hundred terrors presented themselves to her as she lay huddled against the side of the coach, her eyes closed tightly, her tender body tossed furiously about with the sway of the vehicle. There was the fundamental fear that she would be dashed to death down the side of the mountain, but apart from this her quick brain was evolving all sorts of possible endings--none short of absolute disaster.
Even as she prayed that something might intervene to check the mad rush and to deliver her from the horrors of the moment, the raucous voice of the driver was heard calling to his horses and the pace became slower. The awful rocking and the jolting grew less severe, the clatter resolved itself into a broken rumble, and then the coach stopped with a mighty lurch.
Dragging herself from the corner, poor Beverly Calhoun, no longer a disdainful heroine, gazed piteously out into the shadows, expecting the murderous blade of the driver to meet her as she did so. Pauloff had swung from the box of the coach and was peering first into the woodland below and then upon the rocks to the left. He wore the expression of a man trapped and seeking means of escape. Suddenly he darted behind the coach, almost brushing against Beverly's hat as he passed the window. She opened her lips to call to him, but even as she did so he took to his heels and raced back over the road they had traveled so precipitously.
Overcome by surprise and dismay, she only could watch the flight in silence. Less than a hundred feet from where the coach was standing he turned to the right and was lost among the rocks. Ahead, four horses, covered with sweat, were panting and heaving as if in great distress after their mad run. Aunt Fanny was still moaning and praying by turns in the bottom of the carriage. Darkness was settling down upon the pass, and objects a hundred yards away were swallowed by the gloom. There was no sound save the blowing of the tired animals and the moaning of the old negress. Beverly realized with a sinking heart that they were alone and helpless in the mountains with night upon them.
She never knew where the strength and courage came from, but she forced open the stubborn coachdoor and scrambled to the ground, looking frantically in all directions for a single sign of hope. In the most despairing terror she had ever experienced, she started toward the lead horses, hoping against hope that at least one of her men had remained faithful.
A man stepped quietly from the inner side of the road and advanced with the uncertain tread of one who is overcome by amazement. He was a stranger, and wore an odd, uncouth garb. The failing light told her that he was not one of her late protectors. She shrank back with a faint cry of alarm, ready to fly to the protecting arms of hopeless Aunt Fanny if her uncertain legs could carry her. At the same instant another ragged stranger, then two, three, four, or five, appeared as if by magic, some near her, others approaching from the shadows.
"Who--who in heaven's name are you?" she faltered. The sound of her own voice in a measure restored the courage that had been paralyzed. Unconsciously this slim sprig of southern valor threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin. If they were brigands they should not find her a cringing coward. After all, she was a Calhoun.
The man she had first observed stopped near the horses' heads and peered intently at her from beneath a broad and rakish hat. He was tall and appeared to be more respectably clad than his fellows, although there was not one who looked as though he possessed a complete outfit of wearing apparel.
"Poor wayfarers, may it please your highness," replied the tall vagabond, bowing low. To her surprise he spoke in very good English; his voice was clear, and there was a tinge of polite irony in the tones. "But all people are alike in the mountains. The king and the thief, the princess and the jade live in the common fold," and his hat swung so low that it touched the ground.
"I am powerless. I only implore you to take what valuables you may find and let us proceed unharmed--" she cried, rapidly, eager to have it over.
"Pray, how can your highness proceed? You have no guide, no driver, no escort," said the man, mockingly. Beverly looked at him appealingly, utterly without words to reply. The tears were welling to her eyes and her heart was throbbing like that of a captured bird. In after life she was able to picture in her mind's eye all the details of that tableau in the mountain pass--the hopeless coach, the steaming horses, the rakish bandit, and his picturesque men, the towering crags, and a mite of a girl facing the end of everything.
"Your highness is said to be brave, but even your wonderful courage can avail nothing in this instance," said the leader, pleasantly. "Your escort has fled as though pursued by something stronger than shadows; your driver has deserted; your horses are half-dead; you are indeed, as you have said, powerless. And you are, besides all these, in the clutches of a band of merciless cutthroats."
"Oh," moaned Beverly, suddenly leaning against the fore wheel, her eyes almost starting from her head. The leader laughed quietly--yes, good-naturedly. "Oh, you won't--you won't kill us?" She had time to observe that there were smiles on the faces of all the men within the circle of light.
"Rest assured, your highness," said the leader, leaning upon his rifle-barrel with careless grace, "we intend no harm to you. Every man you meet in Graustark is not a brigand, I trust, for your sake. We are simple hunters, and not what we may seem. It is fortunate that you have fallen into honest hands. There is someone in the coach?" he asked, quickly alert. A prolonged groan proved to Beverly that Aunt Fanny had screwed up sufficient courage to look out of the window.
"My old servant," she half whispered. Then, as several of the men started toward the door: "But she is old and wouldn't harm a fly. Please, please don't hurt her."
"Compose yourself; she is safe," said the leader. By this time it was quite dark. At a word from him two or three men lighted lanterns. The picture was more weird than ever in the fitful glow. "May I ask, your highness, how do you intend to reach Edelweiss in your present condition. You cannot manage those horses, and besides, you do not know the way."
"Aren't you going to rob us?" demanded Beverly, hope springing to the surface with a joyful bound. The stranger laughed heartily, and shook his head.
"Do we not look like honest men?" he cried, with a wave of his hand toward his companions. Beverly looked dubious. "We live the good, clean life of the wilderness. Out-door life is necessary for our health. We could not live in the city," he went on with grim humor. For the first time, Beverly noticed that he wore a huge black patch over his left eye, held in place by a cord. He appeared more formidable than ever under the light of critical inspection.
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