Still keeping ahead of his pursuers, he ran along the direct road, till the houses disappeared and he got into the open country. Here he was preparing to leap over the hedge into the fields on the left, when he was intercepted by two horsemen, who, hearing the shouts, rode up and struck at him with the butt-ends of their heavy riding-whips. Warding off the blows as well as he could with the bar, Jack struck both the horses on the head, and the animals plunged so violently, that they not only prevented their riders from assailing him, but also kept off the hostlers; and, in the confusion that ensued, Jack managed to spring over the fence, and shaped his course across the field in the direction of Sir John Oldcastle’s.
The stoppage had materially lessened the distance between him and his pursuers, who now amounted to more than a hundred persons, many of whom carried lanterns and links. Ascertaining that it was Sheppard of whom this concourse was in pursuit, the two horsemen leapt the hedge, and were presently close upon him. Like a hare closely pressed, Jack attempted to double, but the device only brought him nearer his foes, who were crossing the field in every direction, and rending the air with their shouts. The uproar was tremendous—men yelling—dogs barking,—but above all was heard the stentorian voice of Jonathan, urging them on. Jack was so harrassed that he felt half inclined to stand at bay.
While he was straining every sinew, his foot slipped, and he fell, head foremost, into a deep trench, which he had not observed in the dark. This fall saved him, for the horsemen passed over him. Creeping along quickly on his hands and knees, he found the entrance to a covered drain, into which he crept. He was scarcely concealed when he heard the horsemen, who perceived they had overshot their mark, ride back.
By this time, Jonathan and the vast mob attending him, had come up, and the place was rendered almost as light as day by the links.
“He must be somewhere hereabouts,” cried one of the horsemen, dismounting. “We were close upon him when he suddenly disappeared.”
Jonathan made no answer, but snatching a torch from a bystander, jumped into the trench and commenced a diligent search. Just as he had arrived at the mouth of the drain, and Jack felt certain he must be discovered, a loud shout was raised from the further end of the field that the fugitive was caught. All the assemblage, accompanied by Jonathan, set off in this direction, when it turned out that the supposed housebreaker was a harmless beggar, who had been found asleep under a hedge.
Jonathan’s vexation at the disappointment was expressed in the bitterest imprecations, and he returned as speedily as he could to the trench. But he had now lost the precise spot; and thinking he had examined the drain, turned his attention to another quarter.
Meanwhile, the excitement of the chase had in some degree subsided. The crowd dispersed in different directions, and most fortunately a heavy shower coming on, put them altogether to flight. Jonathan, however, still lingered. He seemed wholly insensible to the rain, though it presently descended in torrents, and continued his search as ardently as before.