Her ankle had caught in a picket rope, which in another second would have wrenched it cruelly, had I not slashed it free with my knife. This sent the horse belonging to it in wild career across the corral, and I think ’twas that interruption which saved our lives. It held back the savages for an instant of time, and prevented them blocking our escape. It all took place in the flutter of an eye-lid, though it takes long in the telling. I pushed Elspeth through the door, and with all my strength tore at the bars.
But they would not move. Perhaps the rain had swollen the logs, and they had jammed too tightly to let the bar slide in the groove. So I found myself in that gate, the mad horses and the savages before me, and my friends at my back, with only my arm to hold the post.
I had my musket and my two pistols—three shots, for there would be no time to reload. A yellow shadow slipped below a horse’s belly, and there came the cry of an animal’s agony. Then another and another, and yet more. But no one came near me in the gateway. I could not see anything to shoot at—only lithe shades and mottled shadows, for the torch lay on the wet ground, and was sputtering to its end. The moaning of the horses maddened me, and I sent a bullet through the head of my own poor beast, which was writhing horribly. Elspeth’s horse got the contents of my second pistol.
And then it seemed that the raiders had gone. There was one bit of the far palisade which was outlined for me dimly against a gap in the trees. I saw a figure on it, and whipped my musket to my shoulder. Something flung up its arms and toppled back among the dying beasts.
Then a hand—Donaldson’s, I think—clutched me and pulled me back. With a great effort the bars were brought down, and I found myself beside Elspeth. All her fortitude had gone now, and she was sobbing like a child.
Gradually the moaning of the horses ceased, and the whole world seemed cold and silent as a stone. We stood our watch till a wan sunrise struggled up the hill-side.
HOW A FOOL MUST GO HIS OWN ROAD.
It was a sorry party that looked at each other in the first light of dawn.
Our eyes were hollow with suspense, and all but Shalah had the hunted look of men caught in a trap. Not till the sun had got above the tree-tops did we venture to leave our posts and think of food. It was now that Elspeth’s spirit showed supreme. The courage of that pale girl put us all to the blush. She alone carried her head high and forced an air of cheerfulness. She lit the fire with Donaldson’s help, and broiled some deer’s flesh for our breakfast, and whistled gently as she wrought, bringing into our wild business a breath of the orderly comfort of home. I had seen her in silk and lace, a queen among the gallants, but she never looked so fair as on that misty morning, her hair straying over her brow, her plain kirtle soiled and sodden, but her eyes bright with her young courage.