> Cowards and laggards fall back; but alert to the saddle, > Straight, grim and abreast, vault our weather-worn galloping legion, > With a stirrup-cup each to the one gracious woman that loves him.
> —Louise Imogen Guiney.
"There's an abandoned lumber camp down here, if I'm not mistaken, and if we'v_ade the right turns we ought to be south of Lamar and near the railroad."
Armitage passed his rein to Claiborne and plunged down the steep road t_econnoiter.
"It's a strange business," Claiborne muttered half-aloud.
The cool air of the ridge sobered him, but he reviewed the events of the nigh_ithout regret. Every young officer in the service would envy him thi_dventure. At military posts scattered across the continent men whom he kne_ell were either abroad on duty, or slept the sleep of peace. He lifted hi_yes to the paling stars. Before long bugle and morning gun would announce th_ew day at points all along the seaboard. His West Point comrades wer_cattered far, and the fancy seized him that the bugle brought them togethe_very day of their lives as it sounded the morning calls that would soon begi_choing down the coast from Kennebec Arsenal and Fort Preble in Maine, throug_yer and Monroe, to McPherson, in Georgia, and back through Niagara and Wayn_o Sheridan, and on to Ringgold and Robinson and Crook, zigzagging back an_orth over mountain and plain to the Pacific, and thence ringing on to Alaska, and echoing again from Hawaii to lonely outposts in Asian seas.
He was so intent with the thought that he hummed reveille, and was about t_ebuke himself for unsoldierly behavior on duty when Armitage whistled for hi_o advance.
"It's all right; they haven't passed yet. I met a railroad track-walker dow_here and he said he had seen no one between here and Lamar. Now they'r_andicapped by the big country horse they had to take for that Servian devil, and we can push them as hard as we like. We must get them beyond Lamar befor_e crowd them; and don't forget that we want to drive them into my land fo_he round-up. I'm afraid we're going to have a wet morning."
They rode abreast beside the railroad through the narrow gap. A long freight- train rumbled and rattled by, and a little later they passed a coal shaft, where a begrimed night shift loaded cars under flaring torches.
"Their message to Winkelried is still on this side of the Atlantic," sai_rmitage; "but Winkelried is in a strong room by this time, if the existin_owers at Vienna are what they ought to be. I've done my best to get hi_here. The message would only help the case against him if they sent it."
Claiborne groaned mockingly.
"I suppose I'll know what it's all about when I read it in the morning papers.
I like the game well enough, but it might be more amusing to know what th_evil I'm fighting for."
"You enlisted without reading the articles of war, and you've got to take th_onsequences. You've done what you set out to do—you've found me; and you'r_raveling with me over the Virginia mountains to report my capture to Baro_on Marhof. On the way you are going to assist in another affair that will b_qually to your credit; and then if all goes well with us I'm going to giv_yself the pleasure of allowing Monsieur Chauvenet to tell you exactly who _m. The incident appeals to my sense of humor—I assure you I have one! O_ourse, if I were not a person of very great distinction Chauvenet and hi_riend Durand would not have crossed the ocean and brought with them _rofessional assassin, skilled in the use of smothering and knifing, to d_way with me. You are in luck to be alive. We are dangerously near the sam_ize and build—and in the dark—on horseback—"
"That was funny. I knew that if I ran for it they'd plug me for sure, and tha_f I waited until they saw their mistake they would he afraid to kill me. Ugh!
I still taste the red soil of the Old Dominion."
"Come, Captain! Let us give the horses a chance to prove their blood. Thes_oads will be paste in a few hours."
The dawn was breaking sullenly, and out of a gray, low-hanging mist a ligh_ain fell in the soft, monotonous fashion of mountain rain. Much of the tim_t was necessary to maintain single file; and Armitage rode ahead. The fo_rew thicker as they advanced; but they did not lessen their pace, which ha_ow dropped to a steady trot.
Suddenly, as they swept on beyond Lamar, they heard the beat of hoofs an_alted.
"Bully for us! We've cut in ahead of them. Can you count them, Claiborne?"
"There are three horses all right enough, and they're forcing the beasts.
What's the word?"
"Drive them back! Ready—here we go!" roared Armitage in a voice intended to b_eard.
They yelled at the top of their voices as they charged, plunging into th_dvancing trio after a forty-yard gallop.
"'Not later than Friday'—back you go!" shouted Armitage, and laughed aloud a_he enemy's rout. One of the horses—it seemed from its rider's yells to b_hauvenet's—turned and bolted, and the others followed back the way they ha_ome.
Soon they dropped their pace to a trot, but the trio continued to fly befor_hem.
"They're rattled," said Claiborne, "and the fog isn't helping them any."
"We're getting close to my place," said Armitage; and as he spoke two shot_ired in rapid succession cracked faintly through the fog and they jerked u_heir horses.
"It's Oscar! He's a good way ahead, if I judge the shots right."
"If he turns them back we ought to hear their horses in a moment," observe_laiborne. "The fog muffles sounds. The road's pretty level in here."
"We must get them out of it and into my territory for safety. We're within _ile of the gate and we ought to be able to crowd them into that long ope_trip where the fences are down. Damn the fog!"
The agreed signal of two shots reached them again, but clearer, like drum- taps, and was immediately answered by scattering shots. A moment later, as th_wo riders moved forward at a walk, a sharp volley rang out quite clearly an_hey heard shouts and the crack of revolvers again.
"By George! They're coming—here we go!"
They put their horses to the gallop and rode swiftly through the fog. The bea_f hoofs was now perfectly audible ahead of them, and they heard, quit_istinctly, a single revolver snap twice.
"Oscar has them on the run—bully for Oscar! They're getting close—thank th_ord for this level stretch—now howl and let 'er go!"
They went forward with a yell that broke weirdly and chokingly on the gra_loak of fog, their horses' hoofs pounding dully on the earthen road. The rai_ad almost ceased, but enough had fallen to soften the ground.
"They're terribly brave or horribly seared, from their speed," shoute_laiborne. "Now for it!"
They rose in their stirrups and charged, yelling lustily, riding neck and nec_oward the unseen foe, and with their horses at their highest pace they brok_pon the mounted trio that now rode upon them grayly out of the mist.
There was a mad snorting and shrinking of horses. One of the animals turne_nd tried to bolt, and his rider, struggling to control him, added to th_onfusion. The fog shut them in with each other; and Armitage and Claiborne, having flung back their own horses at the onset, had an instant's glimpse o_hauvenet trying to swing his horse into the road; of Zmai half-turning, a_is horse reared, to listen for the foe behind; and of Durand's impassiv_hite face as he steadied his horse with his left hand and leveled a revolve_t Armitage with his right.
With a cry Claiborne put spurs to his horse and drove him forward upon Durand.
His hand knocked the leveled revolver flying into the fog. Then Zmai fire_wice, and Chauvenet's frightened horse, panic-stricken at the shots, reared, swung round and dashed back the way he had come, and Durand and Zmai followed.
The three disappeared into the mist, and Armitage and Claiborne shoo_hemselves together and quieted their horses.
"That was too close for fun—are you all there?" asked Armitage.
"Still in it; but Chauvenet's friend won't miss every time. There's murder i_is eye. The big fellow seemed to be trying to shoot his own horse."
"Oh, he's a knife and sack man and clumsy with the gun."
They moved slowly forward now and Armitage sent his horse across the roug_itch at the roadside to get his bearings. The fog seemed at the point o_reaking, and the mass about them shifted and drifted in the growing light.
"This is my land, sure enough. Lord, man, I wish you'd get out of this and g_ome. You see they're an ugly lot and don't use toy pistols."
"Remember the potato sack! That's my watchword," laughed Claiborne.
They rode with their eyes straight ahead, peering through the breaking, floating mist. It was now so clear and light that they could see the wood a_ither hand, though fifty yards ahead in every direction the fog still la_ike a barricade.
"I should value a change of raiment," observed Armitage. "There was a_dvantage in armor—your duds might get rusty on a damp excursion, but you_hirt wouldn't stick to your hide."
"Who cares? Those devils are pretty quiet, and the little sergeant is abou_ue to bump into them again."
They had come to a gradual turn in the road at a point where a steep, woode_ncline swept up on the left. On the right lay the old hunting preserve an_rmitage's bungalow. As they drew into the curve they heard a revolver crac_wice, as before, followed by answering shots and cries and the thump o_oofs.
"Ohee! Oscar has struck them again. Steady now! Watch your horse!" An_rmitage raised his arm high above his head and fired twice as a warning t_scar.
The distance between the contending parties was shorter now than at the firs_eeting, and Armitage and Claiborne bent forward in their saddles, talkin_oftly to their horses, that had danced wildly at Armitage's shots.
"Lord! if we can crowd them in here now and back to the Port!"
Exclamations died on their lips at the instant. Ahead of them lay the fog, rising and breaking in soft folds, and behind it men yelled and several shot_napped spitefully on the heavy air. Then a curious picture disclosed itsel_ust at the edge of the vapor, as though it were a curtain through whic_ctors in a drama emerged upon a stage. Zmai and Chauvenet flashed into vie_uddenly, and close behind them, Oscar, yelling like mad. He drove his hors_etween the two men, threw himself flat as Zmai fired at him, and turned an_aved his hat and laughed at them; then, just before his horse reache_laiborne and Armitage, he checked its speed abruptly, flung it about and the_harged back, still yelling, upon the amazed foe.
"He's crazy—he's gone clean out of his head!" muttered Claiborne, restrainin_is horse with difficulty. "What do you make of it?"
"He's having fun with them. He's just rattling them to warm himself up—th_ittle beggar. I didn't know it was in him."
Back went Oscar toward the two horsemen he had passed less than a minut_efore, still yelling, and this time he discharged his revolver with seemin_nconcern, for the value of ammunition, and as he again dashed between them, and back through the gray curtain, Armitage gave the word, and he an_laiborne swept on at a gallop.
Durand was out of sight, and Chauvenet turned and looked behind him uneasily; then he spoke sharply to Zmai. Oscar's wild ride back and forth ha_emoralized the horses, which were snorting and plunging wildly. As Armitag_nd Claiborne advanced Chauvenet spoke again to Zmai and drew his ow_evolver.
"Oh, for a saber now!" growled Claiborne.
But it was not a moment for speculation or regret. Both sides were perfectl_ilent as Claiborne, leading slightly, with Armitage pressing close at hi_eft, galloped toward the two men who faced them at the gray wall of mist.
They bore to the left with a view of crowding the two horsemen off the roa_nd into the preserve, and as they neared them they heard cries through th_ist and rapid hoof-beats, and Durand's horse leaped the ditch at the roadsid_ust before it reached Chauvenet and Zmai and ran away through the roug_nderbrush into the wood, Oscar close behind and silent now, grimly intent o_is business.
The revolvers of Zmai and Chauvenet cracked together, and they, too, turne_heir horses into the wood, and away they all went, leaving the road clear.
"My horse got it that time!" shouted Claiborne.
"So did I," replied Armitage; "but never you mind, old man, we've got the_ornered now."
Claiborne glanced at Armitage and saw his right hand, still holding hi_evolver, go to his shoulder.
"It struck a hard place, but I am still fit."
The blood streamed from the neck of Claiborne's horse, which threw up its hea_nd snorted in pain, but kept bravely on at the trot in which Armitage had se_he pace.
"Poor devil! We'll have a reckoning pretty soon," cried Armitage cheerily. "N_ingdom is worth a good horse!"
They advanced at a trot toward the Port.
"You'll be afoot any minute now, but we're in good shape and on our own soil, with those carrion between us and a gap they won't care to drop into! I'm of_or the gate—you wait here, and if Oscar fires the signal, give the answer."
Armitage galloped off to the right and Claiborne jumped from his horse just a_he wounded animal trembled for a moment, sank to its knees and rolled ove_ead.