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Margaret spoke caressingly to her horse, when she opened the stable door, and Gypsy replied with that affectionate, low guttural whinny which the Scotch graphically term "nickering." She patted the little animal; and if Gypsy was surprised at being saddled and bridled at that hour of the night, no protest was made, the horse merely rubbing its nose lovingly up and down Margaret's sleeve as she buckled the different straps. There was evidently a good understanding between the two.
"No, Gyp," she whispered, "I have nothing for you to-night--nothing but hard work and quick work. Now, you mustn't make a noise till we get past the house."
On her wrist she slipped the loop of a riding whip, which she always carried, but never used. Gyp had never felt the indignity of the lash, and was always willing to do what was required merely for a word.
Margaret opened the big gate before she saddled her horse, and there was therefore no delay in getting out upon the main road, although the passing of the house was an anxious moment. She feared that if her father heard the steps or the neighing of the horse he might come out to investigate. Halfway between her own home and Bartlett's house she sprang lightly into the saddle.
"Now, then, Gyp!"
No second word was required. Away they sped down the road toward the east, the mild June air coming sweet and cool and fresh from the distant lake, laden with the odors of the woods and the fields. The stillness was intense, broken only by the plaintive cry of the whippoorwill, America's one-phrased nightingale, or the still more weird and eerie note of a distant loon.
The houses along the road seemed deserted; no lights were shown anywhere. The wildest rumors were abroad concerning the slaughter of the day; and the population, scattered as it was, appeared to have retired into its shell. A spell of silence and darkness was over the land, and the rapid hoof beats of the horse sounded with startling distinctness on the harder portions of the road, emphasized by intervals of complete stillness, when the fetlocks sank in the sand and progress was more difficult for the plucky little animal. The only thrill of fear that Margaret felt on her night journey was when she entered the dark arch of an avenue of old forest trees that bordered the road, like a great, gloomy cathedral aisle, in the shadow of which anything might be hidden. Once the horse, with a jump of fear, started sideways and plunged ahead: Margaret caught her breath as she saw, or fancied she saw, several men stretched on the roadside, asleep or dead. Once in the open again she breathed more freely, and if it had not been for the jump of the horse, she would have accused her imagination of playing her a trick. Just as she had completely reassured herself a shadow moved from the fence to the middle of the road, and a sharp voice cried:
The little horse, as if it knew the meaning of the word, planted its two front hoofs together, and slid along the ground for a moment, coming so quickly to a standstill that it was with some difficulty Margaret kept her seat. She saw in front of her a man holding a gun, evidently ready to fire if she attempted to disobey his command.
"Who are you, and where are you going?" he demanded.
"Oh, please let me pass!" pleaded Margaret with a tremor of fear in her voice. "I am going for a doctor--for my brother; he is badly wounded, and will perhaps die if I am delayed."
The man laughed.
"Oho!" he cried, coming closer; "a woman, is it? and a young one, too, or I'm a heathen. Now, miss or missus, you get down. I'll have to investigate this. The brother business won't work with an old soldier. It's your lover you're riding for at this time of the night, or I'm no judge of the sex. Just slip down, my lady, and see if you don't like me better than him; remember that all cats are black in the dark. Get down, I tell you."
"If you are a soldier, you will let me go. My brother is badly wounded. I must get to the doctor."
"There's no 'must' with a bayonet in front of you. If he has been wounded, there's plenty of better men killed to-day. Come down, my dear."
Margaret gathered up the bridle rein, but, even in the darkness, the man saw her intention.
"You can't escape, my pretty. If you try it, you'll not be hurt, but I'll kill your horse. If you move, I'll put a bullet through him."
"Kill my horse?" breathed Margaret in horror, a fear coming over her that she had not felt at the thought of danger to herself.
"Yes, missy," said the man, approaching nearer, and laying his hand on Gypsy's bridle. "But there will be no need of that. Besides, it would make too much noise, and might bring us company, which would be inconvenient. So come down quietly, like the nice little girl you are."
"If you will let me go and tell the doctor, I will come back here and be your prisoner."
The man laughed again in low, tantalizing tones. This was a good joke.
"Oh, no, sweetheart. I wasn't born so recently as all that. A girl in the hand is worth a dozen a mile up the road. Now, come off that horse, or I'll take you off. This is war time, and I'm not going to waste any more pretty talk on you."
The man, who, she now saw, was hatless, leered up at her, and something in his sinister eyes made the girl quail. She had been so quiet that he apparently was not prepared for any sudden movement. Her right hand, hanging down at her side, had grasped the short riding whip, and, with a swiftness that gave him no chance to ward off the blow, she struck him one stinging, blinding cut across the eyes, and then brought down the lash on the flank of her horse, drawing the animal round with her left over her enemy. With a wild snort of astonishment, the horse sprang forward, bringing man and gun down to the ground with a clatter that woke the echoes; then, with an indignant toss of the head, Gyp sped along the road like the wind. It was the first time he had ever felt the cut of a whip, and the blow was not forgiven. Margaret, fearing further obstruction on the road, turned her horse's head toward the rail fence, and went over it like a bird. In the field, where fast going in the dark had dangers, Margaret tried to slacken the pace, but the little horse would not have it so. He shook his head angrily whenever he thought of the indignity of that blow, while Margaret leaned over and tried to explain and beg pardon for her offense. The second fence was crossed with a clean-cut leap, and only once in the next field did the horse stumble, but quickly recovered and went on at the same breakneck gait. The next fence, gallantly vaulted over, brought them to the side road, half a mile up which stood the doctor's house. Margaret saw the futility of attempting a reconciliation until the goal was won. There, with difficulty, the horse was stopped, and the girl struck the panes of the upper window, through which a light shone, with her riding whip. The window was raised, and the situation speedily explained to the physician.
"I will be with you in a moment," he said.
Then Margaret slid from the saddle, and put her arms around the neck of the trembling horse. Gypsy would have nothing to do with her, and sniffed the air with offended dignity.
"It was a shame, Gyp," she cried, almost tearfully, stroking the glossy neck of her resentful friend; "it was, it was, and I know it; but what was I to do, Gyp? You were the only protector I had, and you did bowl him over beautifully; no other horse could have done it so well. It's wicked, but I do hope you hurt him, just because I had to strike you."
Gypsy was still wrathful, and indicated by a toss of the head that the wheedling of a woman did not make up for a blow. It was the insult more than the pain; and from her--there was the sting of it.
"I know--I know just how you feel, Gypsy dear; and I don't blame you for being angry. I might have spoken to you, of course, but there was no time to think, and it was really him I was striking. That's why it came down so hard. If I had said a word, he would have got out of the way, coward that he was, and then would have shot you--you, Gypsy! Think of it!"
If a man can be molded in any shape that pleases a clever woman, how can a horse expect to be exempt from her influence. Gypsy showed signs of melting, whinnying softly and forgivingly.
"And it will never happen again, Gypsy--never, never. As soon as we are safe home again I will burn that whip. You little pet, I knew you wouldn't----"
Gypsy's head rested on Margaret's shoulder, and we must draw a veil over the reconciliation. Some things are too sacred for a mere man to meddle with. The friends were friends once more, and on the altar of friendship the unoffending whip was doubtless offered as a burning sacrifice.
When the doctor came out, Margaret explained the danger of the road, and proposed that they should return by the longer and northern way-- the Concession, as it was called.
They met no one on the silent road, and soon they saw the light in the window.
The doctor and the girl left their horses tied some distance from the house, and walked together to the window with the stealthy steps of a pair of housebreakers. Margaret listened breathlessly at the closed window, and thought she heard the low murmur of conversation. She tapped lightly on the pane, and the professor threw back the door- window.
"We were getting very anxious about you," he whispered.
"Hello, Peggy!" said the boy, with a wan smile, raising his head slightly from the pillow and dropping it back again.
Margaret stooped over and kissed him.
"My poor boy! what a fright you have given me!"
"Ah, Margery, think what a fright I got myself. I thought I was going to die within sight of the house."
The doctor gently pushed Margaret from the room. Renmark waited until the examination was over, and then went out to find her.
She sprang forward to meet him.
"It is all right," he said. "There is nothing to fear. He has been exhausted by loss of blood, but a few days' quiet will set that right. Then all you will have to contend against will be his impatience at being kept to his room, which may be necessary for some weeks."
"Oh, I am so glad! and--and I am so much obliged to you, Mr. Renmark!"
"I have done nothing--except make blunders," replied the professor with a bitterness that surprised and hurt her.
"How can you say that? You have done everything. We owe his life to you."
Renmark said nothing for a moment. Her unjust accusation in the earlier part of the night had deeply pained him, and he hoped for some hint of disclaimer from her. Belonging to the stupider sex, he did not realize that the words were spoken in a state of intense excitement and fear, that another woman would probably have expressed her condition of mind by fainting instead of talking, and that the whole episode had left absolutely no trace on the recollection of Margaret. At last Renmark spoke:
"I must be getting back to the tent, if it still exists. I think I had an appointment there with Yates some twelve hours ago, but up to this moment I had forgotten it. Good-night."
Margaret stood for a few moments alone, and wondered what she had done to offend him. He stumbled along the dark road, not heeding much the direction he took, but automatically going the nearest way to the tent. Fatigue and the want of sleep were heavy upon him, and his feet were as lead. Although dazed, he was conscious of a dull ache where his heart was supposed to be, and he vaguely hoped he had not made a fool of himself. He entered the tent, and was startled by the voice of Yates:
"Hello! hello! Is that you, Stoliker?"
"No; it is Renmark. Are you asleep?"
"I guess I have been. Hunger is the one sensation of the moment. Have you provided anything to eat within the last twenty-four hours?"
"There's a bag full of potatoes here, I believe. I haven't been near the tent since early morning."
"All right; only don't expect a recommendation from me as cook. I'm not yet hungry enough for raw potatoes. What time has it got to be?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
"Seems as if I had been asleep for weeks. I'm the latest edition of Rip Van Winkle, and expect to find my mustache gray in the morning. I was dreaming sweetly of Stoliker when you fell over the bunk."
"What have you done with him?"
"I'm not wide enough awake to remember. I think I killed him, but wouldn't be sure. So many of my good resolutions go wrong that very likely he is alive at this moment. Ask me in the morning. What have you been prowling after all night?"
There was no answer. Renmark was evidently asleep.
"I'll ask you in the morning," muttered Yates drowsily--after which there was silence in the tent.
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