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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Cavalier » XXI THE FIGHT ON THE BRIDGE
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"Good-morning," I murmured.

"Good-morning," he responded, tardily and grimly. "Well, you air in a hurry."

"Not at all, sir. I'm sorry to seem so; it's not the tip-top of courtesy,--"

"No, it ain't too stinkin' polite."

"True; but neither are the enemy, and they're early risers, you know."

"Well, good Lord! don't hang back for my sake!"

I put on an offended esteem. "My dear sir, you've no call to take offence at me. I'm waiting because my business is too--well, if I must explain, it's--it's too important to be risked except by good safe daylight; that's all."
Well, you air in a hurry!

Oh, he wasn't taking offence. His reptile temper crawled into hiding, and when I said day was breaking, he said he would show me my way.

"Why, I keep the plain road, don't I?"

No, he would not; only wagons went that way, to cross the creek by a small bridge. I could cut off nearly two miles by taking the bridle-path that turned sharply down into the thick woods of the creek-bottom about a quarter of a mile from the house and crossed the stream at a sandy ford. "Ride round," he said, "and I'll show you from the front of the house."

Thence he pointed out a distant sycamore looming high against the soft dawn. There was the fence-corner at which the bridle-path left the road. He icily declined pay for my lodging. "We never charge a Confederate soldier for anything; that's not our way."

Day came swiftly. By the time I could trot down to the sycamore it was perfectly light even in the shade of an old cotton-gin house close inside the corner of the small field around which I was to turn. The vast arms of its horse-power press, spreading rigidly downward, offered the only weird aspect that lingered in the lovely morning. I have a later and shuddering memory of it, but now the dewy air was full of sweet odors, the squirrel barked from the woods, the woodpecker tapped, and the lark, the cardinal and the mocking-bird were singing all around. The lint-box of the old cotton-press was covered with wet morning-glories. I took the bridle-path between the woods and the field and very soon was down in the dense forest beyond them. But the moment I was hid from house and clearing I turned my horse square to the left, stooped to his neck, and made straight through the pathless tangle.

Silence was silver this time, speed was golden. But every step met its obstacle; there were low boughs, festoons of long-moss, bushes, briers, brake-cane, mossy logs, snaky pools, and things half fallen and held dead. If at any point on the bridle-path, near the stream, some cowpath, footpath, any trail whatever, led across to the road, my liers-in-wait were certainly guarding it and would rush to the road by that way as soon as they found I was flanking them. And so I strove on at the best speed I could make, and burst into the road with a crackle and crash that might have been heard a hundred yards away. One glance up the embowered alley, one glance down it, and I whirled to the right, drove in the spur, and flew for the bridge. A wild minute so--a turn in the road--no one in sight! Two minutes--another turn--no one yet! Three--three--another turn--no one in front, no one behind--

The thunder of our own hoofs   Was all the sound we heard.

A fourth turn and no one yet! A fifth--more abrupt than the others--and there--here--yonder now behind--was the path I had feared, but no one was in it, and the next instant the bridge flashed into view. With a great clatter I burst upon it, reached the middle, glanced back, and dropped complacently into a trot. Tame ending if--but as I looked forward again, what did I see? A mounted man. At the other end of the bridge, in the shade of overhanging trees, he moved into view, and well I knew the neat fit of that butternut homespun. He flourished a revolver above his head and in a drunken voice bade me halt.

I halted; not making a point of valor or discretion, but because he was Charlotte Oliver's husband. I read his purpose and listened behind me as we parleyed. "Don't halt me, sir, I'm a courier and in a hurry."

He hiccoughed. "Let's--s'--see y' orders."

I took my weapon into my bridle-hand by the barrel and began to draw from my bosom the empty envelope addressed Coralie Rothvelt. At the same time I let my horse move forward again, while I still listened backward with my brain as busy as a mill. Was there here no hidden succor? Was that no part of Ned Ferry's plan--if the plan was his? Were those villains waiting yet, up at the ford? I could hear nothing at my back but the singing of innumerable birds.

"Halt!" the drunkard growled again, and again I halted, wearing a look of timid awe, but as full of guile as a weasel. I reined in abruptly so as to make the reach between us the fullest length of my outstretched arm with the paper in two fingers as I leaned over the saddle-bow. He bent and reached unsteadily, and took the envelope; but hardly could his eye light upon the superscription before it met the muzzle of my weapon.

"Don't move." My tone was affectionate. "Don't holla, or I'll give you to the crows. Back. Back off this bridge--quick! or I'll--" I pushed the pistol nearer; the danger was no less to him because I was thoroughly frightened. He backed; but he glared a devilish elation, for behind me beat the hoofs of both his horsemen. I had to change my tactics.

"Halt! Turn as I turn, and keep your eye on this."

Glad was I then to be on a true cavalryman's horse that answered the closing of my left leg and moved steadily around till I could see down the bridge. Oliver, after a step or two, stopped. "Turn!" I yelled, and swelled. "One, two,--"

He turned. There was not a second to spare. The two long-haired fellows came nip and tuck. I see yet their long deer-hunters' rifles. But I remembered my pledge to this man's wife, and proudly found I had the nerve to hold the trigger still unpressed when at the apron of the bridge the rascals caught their first full sight of us as we sat humpshouldered, eye to eye, like one gray tomcat and one yellow one. They dragged their horses back upon their haunches. One leaped to the ground, the other aimed from the saddle; but the first shot that woke the echoes was neither theirs nor mine, but Sergeant Jim Langley's, though that, of course, I did not know. It came from a tree on our side of the water, some forty yards downstream. The man in the saddle fired wild, and as his horse wheeled and ran, the rider slowly toppled over backward out of saddle and stirrups and went slamming to the ground.

His companion had no time to fire. Instantly after these two shots came a third, and some willows upstream filled with its white smoke. The second long rifle fell upon the bridge and its owner sank to his knees heaving out long cries of agony that swelled in a tremor of echoes up and down the stream. Another voice, stalwart, elated, cut through it like a sword. "Don't shoot, Smith, we're coming; save that hound for the halter!"

The groans of the wounded man closed in behind it, a flood of agony, and my own outcry increased the din as I called "Come quick, come quick! the wounded fellow's remounting!"

The wretch had lifted himself to his feet by a stirrup. Then, giving out, he had sunk prone, and now, still torturing the air with his horrid cries, was crawling for his rifle. Oliver saw I had a new inspiration. All the drunkenness left his eyes and they became the eyes of a snake, but too quickly for him to guess my purpose I turned my weapon from his face and fired. His revolver flew from his bleeding hand, a stream of curses started from his lips, and as I thrust my pistol into his face again and snatched his bridle he screamed to the crawling woodman "Shoot! shoot! Kill one or the other of us! Oh! shoot! shoot!"

The rifle cracked, but its ball sang over us; a shot answered it behind me; the howling man's voice died in a gurgle, and Sergeant Jim ran by me, leaped upon the horse that had stayed beside his fallen rider, and was off hot-footed after the other. "Turn your prisoner over to Kendall, Smith," he cried, "and put out like hell for Clifton!"

I gave no assent, and I believe Oliver guessed my purpose to save him, though his eyes were as venomous as ever. I flirted the rein off his horse's neck and said, savagely "Come! quick! trot! gallop!" The sergeant's young companion of the morning before dashed out of the bushes on his horse with Jim's horse in lead. "I've got him safe, Kendall," I cried, and my captive and I sped by him at a gallop on our way to Ned Ferry's command.


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