HUNTLY HILL (_continued_)

CALLANDAR sat a little apart from his men on the fringe of the
fir-wood; on the other side of the clearing on which the party had
bivouacked Wattie formed the centre of a group. It was past sunset,
and the troop-horses, having been watered and fed, were picketed
together. Callandar’s own horse snatched at the straggling
bramble-shoots behind a tree.

The officer sat on a log, his chin in his hand, pondering on the
amazing story that the beggar had divulged. It was impossible to know
what to make of it, but, in spite of himself, he was inclined to
believe it. He had questioned and cross-questioned him, but he had
been able to form no definite opinion. Wattie had described his
meeting with Archie on the day of the taking of the ship; he had told
him how he had accompanied him on his way, how he had been forced to
ask shelter for him at the farm, how he had lain and listened in the
darkness to his feverish wanderings and his appeals to Logie. If the
beggar’s tale had been true, there seemed to be no doubt that the
intelligence officer whose services were so much valued by Cumberland,
had taken money from the rebels, though it seemed that he had
hesitated over the business. His conscience must have smitten him even
in his dreams. “I will say nothing, but I will tell you all!” he had
cried to Logie. “I shall know where you are, but they shall never
know!” In his delirium, he had taken the beggar for the man whose
fellow-conspirator he was proving himself to be, and when
consciousness was fighting to return, and he had sense enough to know
that he was not speaking to Logie, it was his companion’s promise to
deliver a message of reassurance that had given him peace and sleep.
“Tell him that he can trust me,” he had said. What puzzled Callandar
was the same thing that had puzzled Wattie: Why had these two men,
linked together by a hidden understanding, fought? Perhaps Flemington
had repented of the part he was playing, and had tried to cut himself
adrift. “Let me go!” he had exclaimed. It was all past Callandar’s
comprehension. At one moment he was inclined to look on Wattie as an
understudy for the father of lies; at another, he asked himself how he
could have had courage to invent such a calumny–how he had dared to
choose a man for his victim who had reached the position that Archie
had gained. But he realized that, had Wattie been inventing, he would
hardly have invented the idea of a fight between Flemington and
Captain Logie. That little incongruous touch seemed to Callandar’s
reasonable mind to support the truth of his companion’s tongue.

And then there was Flemington’s sudden departure. It did not look so
strange since he had heard what the beggar had to say. He began to
think of his own surprise at finding Archie in pain from a wound which
seemed to have troubled him little, so far, and to suspect that his
reliable wits had been stimulated to find a new use for his injured
arm by the sight of Huntly Hill combined with the news in his pocket.
His gorge rose at the thought that he had been riding all these days
side by side with a very prince among traitors. His face hardened. His
own duty was not plain to him, and that perturbed him so much that his
habitual outward self-repression gave way. He could not sit still
while he was driven by his perplexities. He sprang up, walking up and
down between the trees. Ought he to send a man straight off to Brechin
with a summary of the beggar’s statement? He could not vouch for the
truth of his information, and there was every chance of it being
disregarded, and himself marked as the discoverer of a mare’s nest.
There was scarcely anything more repugnant to Callandar than the
thought of himself in this character, and for that reason, if for no
other, he inclined to the risk; for he had the overwhelmingly
conscientious man’s instinct for martyrdom.

His mind was made up. He took out his pocket-book and wrote what he
had to say in the fewest and shortest words. Then he called the
corporal, and, to his extreme astonishment, ordered him to ride to
Brechin. When the man had saddled his horse, he gave him the slip of
paper. He had no means of sealing it, here in the fir-wood, but the
messenger was a trusted man, one to whom he would have committed
anything with absolute conviction. He was sorry that he had to lose
him, for he could not tell how long he might be kept on the edge of
the Muir, nor how much country he would have to search with his tiny
force; but there was no help for it, and he trusted that the corporal
would be sent back to him before the morrow. He was the only person to
whom he could give the open letter. When the soldier had mounted,
Callandar accompanied him to the confines of the wood, giving him
instructions from the map he carried.

Wattie sat on the ground beside his cart; his back was against a
little raised bank. Where his feet should have been, the yellow dog
was stretched, asleep. As Callandar and his corporal disappeared among
the trees, he began to sing ‘The Tod’ in his rich voice, throwing an
atmosphere of dramatic slyness into the words that made his hearers
shout with delight at the end of each verse.

When he had finished the song, he was barely suffered to take breath
before being compelled to begin again; even the prisoner, who lay
resting, still bound, within sight of the soldiers, listened, laughing
into his red beard. But suddenly he stopped, rising to his feet:

“A lang-leggit deevil wi’ his hand upon the gate,
An’ aye the Guidwife cries to him—-”

Wattie’s voice fell, cutting the line short, for a rush of steps was
bursting through the trees–was close on them, dulled by the
pine-needles underfoot–sweeping over the stumps and the naked roots.
The beggar stared, clutching at the bank. His three companions sprang
up.

The wood rang with shots, and one of the soldiers rolled over on his
face, gasping as he tried to rise, struggling and snatching at the
ground with convulsed fingers. The remaining two ran, one towards the
prisoner, and one towards the horses which were plunging against each
other in terror; the latter man dropped midway, with a bullet through
his head.

The swiftness of the undreamed-of misfortune struck panic into Wattie,
as he sat alone, helpless, incapable either of flight or of
resistance. One of his dogs was caught by the leaden hail and lay
fighting its life out a couple of paces from where he was left, a
defenceless thing in this sudden storm of death. Two of the remaining
three went rushing through the trees, yelping as the stampeding horses
added their share to the danger and riot. These had torn up their
heel-pegs, which, wrenched easily from a resistance made for the most
part of moss and pine-needles, swung and whipped at the ends of the
flying ropes behind the crazy animals as they dashed about. The
surviving trooper had contrived to catch his own horse, and was riding
for his life towards the road by which they had come from Edzell. The
only quiet thing besides the beggar was the yellow cur who stood at
his master’s side, stiff and stubborn and ugly, the coarse hair rising
on his back.

Wattie’s panic grew as the drumming of hoofs increased and the horses
dashed hither and thither. He was more afraid of them than of the
ragged enemy that had descended on the wood. The dead troopers lay
huddled, one on his face and the other on his side; the wounded dog’s
last struggles had ceased. Half a dozen men were pursuing the horses
with outstretched arms, and Callandar’s charger had broken loose with
its comrades, and was thundering this way and that, snorting and
leaping, with cocked ears and flying mane.

The beggar watched them with a horror which his dislike and fear of
horses made agonizing, the menace of these irresponsible creatures,
mad with excitement and terror, so heavy, so colossal when seen from
his own helpless nearness to the earth that was shaking under their
tread, paralyzed him. His impotence enwrapped him, tragic, horrible, a
nightmare woven of death’s terrors; he could not escape; there was no
shelter from the thrashing hoofs, the gleaming iron of the shoes. The
cumbrous perspective of the great animals blocked out the sky with its
bulk as their rocking bodies went by, plunging, slipping, recovering
themselves within the cramped circle of the open space. He knew
nothing of what was happening, nor did he see that the prisoner stood
freed from his bonds. He knew James Logie by sight, and he knew
Ferrier, but, though both were standing by the red-bearded man, he
recognized neither. He had just enough wits left to understand that
Callandar’s bivouac had been attacked, but he recked of nothing but
the thundering horses that were being chased to and fro as the circle
of men closed in. He felt sick as it narrowed and he could only
flatten himself, stupefied, against the bank. The last thing he saw
was the yellow coat of his dog, as the beast cowered and snapped,
keeping his post with desperate tenacity in the din.

The bank against which he crouched cut the clearing diagonally, and as
the men pressed in nearer round the horses, Callandar’s charger broke
out of the circle followed by the two others. A cry from the direction
in which they galloped, and the sound of frantic nearing hoofs, told
that they had been headed back once more. The bank was high enough to
hide Wattie from them as they returned, but he could feel the earth
shake with their approach, which rang in his ears like the roar of
some dread, implacable fate. He could see nothing now, as he lay
half-blind with fear, but he was aware that his dog had leaped upon
the bank behind him, and he heard the well-known voice, hoarse and
brutal with defiant agony, just above his head. All the qualities that
have gone to make the dog the outcast of the East seemed to show in
the cur’s attitude as he raised himself, an insignificant, common
beast, in the path of the great, noble, stampeding creatures. It was
the curse of his curship that in this moment of his life, when he
hurled all that was his in the world–his low-bred body–against the
danger that swooped on his master, he should take on no nobility of
aspect, nothing to picture forth the heart that smote against his
panting ribs. Another moment and the charger had leaped at the bank,
just above the spot where Skirling Wattie’s grizzled head lay against
the sod.

The cur sprang up against the overwhelming bulk, the smiting hoofs,
the whirl of heel-ropes, and struck in mid-air by the horse’s knee,
was sent rolling down the slope. As he fell there was a thud of
dislodged earth, and the charger, startled by the sudden apparition of
the prostrate figure below him, slipped on the bank, stumbled, sprang,
and checked by the flying rope, crashed forward, burying the beggar
under his weight.

James and Ferrier ran forward as the animal struggled to its feet,
unhurt; it tore past the men, who had broken their line as they
watched the fall. The three horses made off between the trees, and
Logie approached the beggar. He lay crushed and mangled, as quiet as
the dead troopers on the ground.

There was no mistaking Wattie’s rigid stillness, and as James and
Ferrier, with the red-bearded man, approached him, they knew that he
would never rise to blow his pipes nor to fill the air with his voice
again. The yellow dog was stretched, panting, a couple of paces from
the grotesque body, which had now, for the first time, taken on
dignity. As Logie bent to examine him, and would have lifted him, the
cur dragged himself up; one of his hind-legs was broken, but he
crawled snarling to the beggar’s side, and turned his maimed body to
face the men who should dare to lay a hand on Wattie. The drops poured
from his hanging tongue and his eye was alight with the dull flame of
pain. He would have torn Logie to bits if he could, as he trailed
himself up to shelter the dead man from his touch. He made a great
effort to get upon his legs and his jaws closed within an inch of
James’s arm.

One of the men drew the pistol from his belt.

“Ay, shoot the brute,” said another.

James held up his hand.

“The man is dead,” said he, looking over his shoulder at his comrades.

“And you would be the same if yon dog could reach you,” rejoined
Ferrier. “Let me shoot him. He will only die lying here.”

“Let him be. His leg is broken, that is all.”

The cur made another attempt to get his teeth into Logie, and almost
succeeded.

Ferrier raised his pistol again, but James thrust it back.

“The world needs a few such creatures as that in it,” said he. “Lord!
Ferrier, what a heart there is in the poor brute!”

“Stand away from him, Logie, he is half mad.”

“We must get away from this place,” said James, unheeding, “or that
man who has ridden away will bring the whole country about our ears.
It has been a narrow escape for you, Gourlay,” he said to the released
prisoner. “We must leave the old vagabond lying where he is.”

“There is no burying him with that devil left alive!” cried Ferrier.
“I promise you I will not venture to touch him.”

“My poor fellow,” said James, turning to the dog, “it is of no use;
you cannot save him. God help you for the truest friend that a man
ever had!”

He pulled off his coat and approached him. The men stood round,
looking on in amazement as he flung it over the yellow body. The dog
yelled as Logie grasped and lifted him, holding him fast in his arms;
but his jaws were muffled in the coat, and the pain of the broken limb
was weakening his struggles.

Ferrier looked on with his hands on his hips. He admired the dog, but
did not always understand James.

“You are going to hamper yourself with him now?” he exclaimed.

“Give me the piper’s bonnet,” said the other. “There! push it into the
crook of my arm between the poor brute and me. It will make him go the
easier. You will need to scatter now. Leave the piper where he is. A
few inches of earth will do him no good. Ferrier, I am going. You and
I will have to lie low for awhile after this.”

The cur had grown exhausted, and ceased to fight; he shivered and
snuffled feebly at the Kilmarnock bonnet, the knob of which made a red
spot against the shirt on James’s broad breast. Ferrier and Gourlay
glanced after him as he went off between the trees. But as they had no
time to waste on the sight of his eccentricities, they disappeared in
different directions.

Dusk was beginning to fall on the wood and on the dead beggar as he
lay with his two silent comrades, looking towards the Grampians from
the top of Huntly Hill.

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