The girl did not look his way. She had her coaxing eyes on her halting maid. “Come, Janet, woman,” she said again. “It’s no job for a decent lass to be wandering at the tail of a crazy warlock.”
The word roused Muckle John to fury. He sprang forward, caught the sorrel’s bridle, and swung it round. The girl did not move, but looked him square in the face, the young eyes fronting his demoniac glower. Then very swiftly her arm rose, and she laid the lash of her whip roundly over his shoulders.
The man snarled like a beast, leaped back and plucked from his seaman’s belt a great horse-pistol. I heard the click of it cocking, and the next I knew it was levelled at the girl’s breast. The sight of her and the music of her voice had so enthralled me that I had made no plan as to my own conduct. But this sudden peril put fire into my heels, and in a second I was at his side. I had brought from home a stout shepherd’s staff, with which I struck the muzzle upwards. The pistol went off in a great stench of powder, but the bullet wandered to the clouds.
Muckle John let the thing fall into the moss, and plucked another weapon from his belt. This was an ugly knife, such as a cobbler uses for paring hides. I knew the seaman’s trick of throwing, having seen their brawls at the pier of Leith, and I had no notion for the steel in my throat. The man was far beyond me in size and strength, so I dared not close with him. Instead, I gave him the point of my staff with all my power straight in the midriff. The knife slithered harmlessly over my shoulder, and he fell backwards into the heather.
There was no time to be lost, for the whole clan came round me like a flock of daws. One of the men, the slim lad, had a pistol, but I saw by the way he handled it that it was unprimed. I was most afraid of the women, who with their long claws would have scratched my eyes out, and I knew they would not spare the girl. To her I turned anxiously, and, to my amazement, she was laughing. She recognized me, for she cried out, “Is this the way to Kirknewton, sir?” And all the time she shook with merriment. In that hour I thought her as daft as the Sweet-Singers, whose nails were uncommonly near my cheek.
I got her bridle, tumbled over the countryman with a kick, and forced her to the edge of the sheepfold. But she wheeled round again, crying, “I must have Janet,” and faced the crowd with her whip. That was well enough, but I saw Muckle John staggering to his feet, and I feared desperately for his next move. The girl was either mad or extraordinarily brave.
“Get back, you pitiful knaves,” she cried. “Lay a hand on me, and I will cut you to ribbons. Make haste, Janet, and quit this folly.”
It was gallant talk, but there was no sense in it. Muckle John was on his feet, half the clan had gone round to our rear, and in a second or two she would have been torn from the saddle. A headstrong girl was beyond my management, and my words of entreaty were lost in the babel of cries.