“I’ve to thank ye for arriving in the nick o’ time to save me from being plundered,” said Mr. Meredith, speaking as if he were taking a dose of medicine. “Now can’t ye set to and save my outbuildings from taking fire?”
“Harkee, squire, replied Joe, dropping his voice to a confidential pitch, while at the same time leading his interlocutor aside out of hearing. “The sledges and what they hold is our prize, captivated from the British in a fair fight, yet we’ll get around that if you’ll say the right word.”
“And what ’s that?” queried the squire.
“You know as well as I what ’t is. The sledges are yours, and we’ll do our prettiest to prevent the stables and cribs from catching, if you’ll but say what I want said as to Miss Janice.”
“I’d see her in her grave first.”
“Some of you fellows start those sleighs and sledges up the road!” shouted Bagby. “Now then, have you got that officer ready?”
“He ain’t ready, but we is, cap,” answered one of the little group about the prisoner.
“Up with him, then!” ordered Bagby. “See-saw ’s the word: down goes Mercer, up goes a bloody-back.”
At the command, half a dozen men pulled on a rope which had been passed over the bough of a tree, and the young subaltern was swung clear of the ground. He struggled so fiercely for a moment that the cords which bound his wrists parted and he was able to clutch the rope above his head in a desperate attempt to save himself. It was useless, for instantly two rifles were levelled and two bullets sent through him; his hands relaxing, he hung limply, save for a slight muscular quiver.
“If your friends, the British, come back, you can tell them that ’s only the beginning,” Bagby told the squire. “And look out for yourself, or it ’s what will come to you. Now then, fellows, fall in,” he called. “The line of retreat is to Somerset Court-house, and you are to guard the prisoners and the provisions if you can, but scatter if attacked in force. March!”
The motley company, without pretence of order, set off on their long, weary night tramp through the snow. Behind them the flame of the barn, now towering sixty feet in the air, made the whole scene bright with colour, save where the swinging body of the lad threw a shifting shadow across a stretch of untrampled snow.
As the squire still stood gloomily staring, now at the departing Whigs, now at the blazing barn, and now at his stable and other buildings, Clarion, who had taken a great interest in the last hour’s doings, suddenly pricked up his ears and then ran forward to a snow-drift within a few yards of the burning building. Here he halted and gave vent to a series of loud yelps. Limping forward, the squire heard his name called in a faint voice, and the next instant discovered Philemon hidden in the snow.