The hours marched sombrely towards midnight, while we stayed every man by his post. I asked Shalah if the enemy had gone, and he shook his head. He had the sense of a wild animal to detect danger in the forest when the eye and ear gave no proof. He stood like a stag, sniffing the night air, and peering with his deep eyes into the gloom. Fortunately, though the moon was all but full, the sky was so overcast that only the faintest yellow glow broke into the darkness of the hill-tops.
It must have been an hour after midnight when we got our next warning of the enemy. Suddenly a firebrand leaped from farther up the hill, and flew in a wide curve into the middle of the stockade. It fell on the partition between the horses and ourselves and hung crackling there. A shower of arrows followed it, which missed us, for we were close to the edges of the palisade. But the sputtering torch was a danger, for presently it would show our position; so Bertrand very gallantly pulled it down, stamped it out, and got back to his post unscathed.
Yet the firebrand had done its work, for it had showed the savages where the horses stood picketed. Another followed, lighting in their very midst, and setting them plunging at their ropes.
I heard Ringan curse deeply, for we had not thought of this stratagem. And the next second I became aware that there was some one among the horses. At first I thought that the palisade had been stormed, and then I heard a soft voice which was no Indian’s. Heedless of orders, I flung myself at the rough gate, and in a trice was beside the voice.
Elspeth was busy among the startled beasts. She had a passion for horses, and had, as we say, the “cool” hand with them, for she would soothe a frightened stallion by rubbing his nose and whispering in his ear. By the time I got to her she had stamped out the torch, and was stroking Grey’s mare, which was the worst scared. Her own fear had gone, and in that place of plunging hooves and tossing manes she was as calm as in a summer garden. “Let me be, Andrew,” she said. “I am better at this business than you.”
She had the courage of a lion, but ’twas a wild courage, without foresight. Another firebrand came circling through the darkness, and broke on the head of Donaldson’s pony. I caught the girl and swung her off her feet into safety. And then on the heels of the torch came a flight of arrows, fired from near at hand.
By the mercy of God she was unharmed. I had one through the sleeve of my coat, but none reached her. One took a horse in the neck, and the poor creature screamed pitifully. Presently there was a wild confusion of maddened beasts, with the torch burning on the ground and lighting the whole place for the enemy. I had Elspeth in my arms, and was carrying her to the gate, when over the palisade I saw yellow limbs and fierce faces.
They saw it too—Ringan and the rest—and it did not need his cry to keep our posts to tell us the right course. The inner palisade which shut off the horses must now be our line of defence, and the poor beasts must be left to their fate. But Elspeth and I had still to get inside it.