by Robert Louis Stevenson
Saranac Lake, April 8, 1888.
Note: Look up difficult words at The Free Dictionary.
The lads lay quiet till the last footstep had melted on the wind. Then they arose, and with many an ache, for they were weary with constraint, clambered through the ruins, and recrossed the ditch upon the rafter. Matcham had picked up the windac and went first, Dick following stiffly, with his cross-bow on his arm.
“And now,” said Matcham, “on to Holywood.”
“To Holywood!” cried Dick, “when good fellows stand shot? Not I! I would see you hanged first, Jack!”
“You would leave me, would you?” Matcham asked.
“Yes, by my word!” returned Dick. “If I am not in time to warn these lads, I will go die with them. What! would you have me leave my own men that I have lived among. I think not! Give me my windac.”
But there was nothing further from Matcham’s mind.
“Dick,” he said, “you swore before the saints that you would see me safe to Holywood. Would you be falsely swear? Would you desert me—a perjurer?”
“No, I swore for the best,” returned Dick. “I meant it too; but now! But look, Jack, turn again with me. Let me but warn these men, and, if needs must, stand shot with them; then shall all be clear, and I will go on again to Holywood and fulfill my oath.”
“You betray me,” answered Matcham. “These men you go to succour are the same that hunt me to my ruin.”
Dick scratched his head.
“I cannot help it, Jack,” he said. “There is no solution. What do you want me to do? You run no great peril, man; and these are in the way of death. Death!” he added. “Think of it! Why do you delay me? Give me the windac. Saint George! shall they all die?”
“Richard Shelton,” said Matcham, looking him squarely in the face, “would you, then, join party with Sir Daniel? Have you not ears? Did you not hear this Ellis, what he said? or have you no heart for your own kindly blood and the father that men slew? ‘Harry Shelton,’ he said; and Sir Harry Shelton was your father, as the sun shines in heaven.”
“What do you want me to do?” Dick cried again. “Do you want me to believe thieves?”
“No, I have heard it before now,” returned Matcham. “The rumor spreads, it was Sir Daniel who killed him. He slew him under oath; in his own house he shed the innocent blood. Heaven wearies for the avenging of it; and you—the man’s son—you go about to comfort and defend the murderer!”
“Jack,” cried the lad “I know not. It may be; what do I know? But, see here: This man has raised me and fostered me, and his men I have hunted with and played among; and to leave them in the hour of peril—O, man, if I did that, I were stark dead to honour! No, Jack, you would not ask it; you would not wish me to be evil.”
“But your father, Dick?” said Matcham, somewhat wavering. “Your father? and your oath to me? You took the saints to witness.”
“My father?” cried Shelton. “No, he would have me go! If Sir Daniel slew him, when the hour comes this hand shall slay Sir Daniel; but neither him nor his will I desert in peril. And for my oath, good Jack, you shall absolve me of it here. For the lives’ sake of many men that hurt you not, and for my honour, you shall set me free.”
“I, Dick? Never!” returned Matcham. “If you leave me, you have falsely sworn, and so I shall declare it.”
“My blood heats,” said Dick. “Give me the windac! Give it to me!”
“I’ll not,” said Matcham. “I’ll save you against your will.”
“Not?” cried Dick. “I’ll make you!”
“Try it,” said the other.
They stood, looking in each other’s eyes, each ready for a spring. Then Dick leaped; and though Matcham turned instantly and fled, in two bounds he was over-taken, the windac was twisted from his grasp, he was thrown roughly to the ground, and Dick stood across him, flushed and menacing, with doubled fist. Matcham lay where he had fallen, with his face in the grass, not thinking of resistance.
Dick bent his bow.
“I’ll teach you!” he cried, fiercely. “Oath or no oath, you may go hang for me!”
And he turned and began to run. Matcham was on his feet at once, and began running after him.
“What do you want?” cried Dick, stopping. “Why are you following me? Stand off!”
“I will follow if I please,” said Matcham. “This wood is free to me.”
“Stand back, by the Lady!” returned Dick, raising his bow.
“Ah, you are a brave boy!” retorted Matcham. “Shoot!”
Dick lowered his weapon in some confusion.
“See here,” he said. “You have done me ill enough. Go, then. Go your way in fair wise; or, whether I will or not, I must even drive you to it.”
“Well,” said Matcham, doggedly, “you are the stronger. Do your worst. I shall not stop following you, Dick, unless you make me,” he added.
Dick was almost beside himself. It went against his heart to beat a creature so defenseless; and, for the life of him, he knew no other way to rid himself of this unwelcome and, as he began to think, perhaps untrue companion.
“You are mad, I think,” he cried. “Fool-fellow, I am hurrying to your foes; as fast as foot can carry me, that is where I am going.”
“I care not, Dick,” replied the lad. “If you are bound to die, Dick, I’ll die too. I would rather go with you to prison than to go free without you.”
“Well,” returned the other, “I may stand no longer prating. Follow me, if you must; but if you play me false, it will do you no good, remember that. I will give you a quarrel in your inwards, boy.”
So saying, Dick took once more to his heels, keeping in the margin of the thicket and looking briskly about him as he went. At a good pace he rattled out of the dell, and came again into the more open quarters of the wood. To the left a little eminence appeared, spotted with golden gorse, and crowned with a black tuft of firs.
“I shall see from there,” he thought, and struck for it across a heathy clearing.
He had gone but a few yards, when Matcham touched him on the arm, and pointed. To the eastward of the summit there was a dip, and, as it were, a valley passing to the other side; the heath was not yet out; all the ground was rusty, like an unscoured buckler, and dotted sparingly with yews; and there, one following another, Dick saw half a score green jerkins mounting the ascent, and marching at their head, conspicuous by his boar-spear, Ellis Duckworth in person. One after another gained the top, showed for a moment against the sky, and then dipped upon the further side, until the last was gone.
Dick looked at Matcham with a kindlier eye.
“So you are to be true to me, Jack?” he asked. “I thought you were of the other party.”
Matcham began to sob.
“What cheer!” cried Dick. “Now the saints behold us! would you snivel for a word?”
“You hurt me,” sobbed Matcham. “You hurt me when you threw me down. You are a coward to abuse your strength.”
“No, that is fool’s talk,” said Dick, roughly. “You had no title to my windac, Master John. I would have done right to have well basted you. If you go with me, you must obey me; and so, come.”
Matcham had half a thought to stay behind; but, seeing that Dick continued to scour full-tilt towards the eminence and not so much as looked across his shoulder, he soon thought better of that, and began to run in turn. But the ground was very difficult and steep; Dick had already a long start, and had, at any rate, the lighter heels, and he had long since come to the summit, crawled forward through the firs, and ensconced himself in a thick tuft of gorse, before Matcham, panting like a deer, rejoined him, and lay down in silence by his side.
Below, in the bottom of a considerable valley, the short cut from Tunstall hamlet wound downwards to the ferry. It was well beaten, and the eye followed it easily from point to point. Here it was bordered by open glades; there the forest closed upon it; every hundred yards it ran beside an ambush. Far down the path, the sun shone on seven steel helmets, and from time to time, as the trees opened, Selden and his men could be seen riding briskly, still bent upon Sir Daniel’s mission. The wind had somewhat fallen, but still tussled merrily with the trees, and, perhaps, had Appleyard been there, he would have drawn a warning from the troubled conduct of the birds.
“Now, mark,” Dick whispered. “They be already well advanced into the wood; their safety lies rather in continuing forward. But do you see where this wide glade runs down before us, and in the midst of it, these two score trees make like an island? There is their safety. If they but come sound as far as that, I will make shift to warn them. But my heart troubles me; they are but seven against so many, and they only carry cross-bows. The long-bow, Jack, will always beat the cross-bow.”
Meanwhile, Selden and his men still wound up the path, ignorant of their danger, and momentarily drew nearer hand. Once, indeed, they paused, drew into a group, and seemed to point and listen. But it was something from far away across the plain that had arrested their attention—a hollow growl of cannon that came, from time to time, upon the wind, and told of the great battle. It was worth a thought, to be sure; for if the voice of the big guns were thus become audible in Tunstall Forest, the fight must have rolled ever eastward, and the day, by consequence, gone sore against Sir Daniel and the lords of the dark rose.
But presently the little troop began again to move forward, and came next to a very open, heathy portion of the way, where but a single tongue of forest ran down to join the road. They were but just abreast of this, when an arrow shone flying. One of the men threw up his arms, his horse reared, and both fell and struggled together in a mass. Even from where the boys lay they could hear the sound of the men’s voices crying out; they could see the startled horses prancing, and, presently, as the troop began to recover from their first surprise, one fellow beginning to dismount. A second arrow from somewhat farther off glanced in a wide arch; a second rider bit the dust. The man who was dismounting lost hold upon the rein, and his horse fled galloping, and dragged him by the foot along the road, bumping from stone to stone, and battered by the fleeing hoofs. The four who still kept the saddle instantly broke and scattered; one wheeled and rode, shrieking, towards the ferry; the other three, with loose rein and flying raiment, came galloping up the road from Tunstall. From every clump they passed an arrow sped. Soon a horse fell, but the rider found his feet and continued to pursue his comrades till a second shot despatched him. Another man fell; then another horse; out of the whole troop there was but one fellow left, and he on foot; only, in different directions, the noise of the galloping of three riderless horses was dying fast into the distance.
All this time not one of the assailants had for a moment shown himself. Here and there along the path, horse or man rolled, undespatched, in his agony; but no merciful enemy broke cover to put them from their pain.
The solitary survivor stood bewildered in the road beside his fallen charger. He had come the length of that broad glade, with the island of timber, pointed out by Dick. He was not, perhaps, five hundred yards from where the boys lay hidden; and they could see him plainly, looking to and fro in deadly expectation. But nothing came; and the man began to pluck up his courage, and suddenly unslung and bent his bow. At the same time, by something in his action, Dick recognized Selden.
At this offer of resistance, from all about him in the covert of the woods there went up the sound of laughter. A score of men, at least, for this was the very thickest of the ambush, joined in this cruel and untimely mirth. Then an arrow glanced over Selden’s shoulder; and he leaped and ran a little back. Another dart struck quivering at his heel. He made for the cover. A third shaft leaped out right in his face, and fell short in front of him. And then the laughter was repeated loudly, rising and reechoing from different thickets.
It was plain that his assailants were but baiting him, as men, in those days, baited the poor bull, or as the cat still trifles with the mouse. The skirmish was well over; farther down the road, a fellow in green was already calmly gathering the arrows; and now, in the evil pleasure of their hearts, they gave themselves the spectacle of their poor fellow-sinner in his torture.
Selden began to understand; he uttered a roar of anger, shouldered his cross-bow, and sent a quarrel at a venture into the wood. Chance favoured him, for a slight cry responded. Then, throwing down his weapon, Selden began to run before him up the glade, and almost in a straight line for Dick and Matcham.
The companions of the Black Arrow now began to shoot in earnest. But they were properly served; their chance had past; most of them had now to shoot against the sun; and Selden, as he ran, bounded from side to side to baffle and deceive their aim. Best of all, by turning up the glade he had defeated their preparations; there were no marksmen posted higher up than the one whom he had just killed or wounded; and the confusion of the foresters’ counsels soon became apparent. A whistle sounded thrice, and then again twice. It was repeated from another quarter. The woods on either side became full of the sound of people bursting through the underwood; and a bewildered deer ran out into the open, stood for a second on three feet, with nose in air, and then plunged again into the thicket.
Selden still ran, bounding; ever and again an arrow followed him, but still would miss. It began to appear as if he might escape. Dick had his bow armed, ready to support him; even Matcham, forgetful of his interest, took sides at heart for the poor fugitive; and both lads glowed and trembled in the ardour of their hearts.
He was within fifty yards of them, when an arrow struck him and he fell. He was up again, indeed, upon the instant; but now he ran staggering, and, like a blind man, turned aside from his direction.
Dick leaped to his feet and waved to him.
“Here!” he cried. “This way! here is help! Now, run, fellow—run!”
But just then a second arrow struck Selden in the shoulder, between the plates of his body armour, and, piercing through his jack, brought him, like a stone, to earth.
“O, the poor heart!” cried Matcham, with clasped hands.
And Dick stood petrified upon the hill, a mark for archery.
Ten to one he had speedily been shot—for the foresters were furious with themselves, and taken unawares by Dick’s appearance in the rear of their position—but instantly, out of a quarter of the wood surprisingly near to the two lads, a stentorian voice arose, the voice of Ellis Duckworth.
“Hold!” it roared. “Shoot not! Take him alive! It is young Shelton—Harry’s son.”
And immediately after a shrill whistle sounded several times, and was again taken up and repeated farther off. The whistle, it appeared, was John Amend-All’s battle trumpet, by which he published his directions.
“Ah, foul fortune!” cried Dick. “We are undone. Swiftly, Jack, come swiftly!”
And the pair turned and ran back through the open pine clump that covered the summit of the hill.