Towards mid-day the three pursuers came abruptly round a bend in
the torrent bed upon the sight of a very broad and spacious valley.
The difficult and winding trench of pebbles along which they had
tracked the fugitives for so long, expanded to a broad slope,
and with a common impulse the three men left the trail, and rode
to a little eminence set with olive-dun trees, and there halted,
the two others, as became them, a little behind the man with
the silver-studded bridle.
For a space they scanned the great expanse below them with eager eyes.
It spread remoter and remoter, with only a few clusters of sere
thorn bushes here and there, and the dim suggestions of some now
waterless ravine, to break its desolation of yellow grass. Its purple
distances melted at last into the bluish slopes of the further hills--
hills it might be of a greener kind--and above them invisibly
supported, and seeming indeed to hang in the blue, were the snowclad
summits of mountains that grew larger and bolder to the north-westward
as the sides of the valley drew together. And westward the valley
opened until a distant darkness under the sky told where the forests
began. But the three men looked neither east nor west, but only
steadfastly across the valley.
The gaunt man with the scarred lip was the first to speak. "Nowhere,"
he said, with a sigh of disappointment in his voice. "But after all,
they had a full day's start."
"They don't know we are after them," said the little man on the white
"SHE would know," said the leader bitterly, as if speaking to himself.
"Even then they can't go fast. They've got no beast but the mule,
and all to-day the girl's foot has been bleeding---"
The man with the silver bridle flashed a quick intensity of rage
on him. "Do you think I haven't seen that?" he snarled.
"It helps, anyhow," whispered the little man to himself.
The gaunt man with the scarred lip stared impassively. "They can't
be over the valley," he said. "If we ride hard--"
He glanced at the white horse and paused.
"Curse all white horses!" said the man with the silver bridle,
and turned to scan the beast his curse included.
The little man looked down between the melancholy ears of his steed.
"I did my best," he said.
The two others stared again across the valley for a space. The gaunt
man passed the back of his hand across the scarred lip.
"Come up!" said the man who owned the silver bridle, suddenly.
The little man started and jerked his rein, and the horse hoofs
of the three made a multitudinous faint pattering upon the withered
grass as they turned back towards the trail. . . .
They rode cautiously down the long slope before them, and so came
through a waste of prickly, twisted bushes and strange dry shapes
of horny branches that grew amongst the rocks, into the levels below.
And there the trail grew faint, for the soil was scanty, and the only
herbage was this scorched dead straw that lay upon the ground.
Still, by hard scanning, by leaning beside the horses' necks and
pausing ever and again, even these white men could contrive to follow
after their prey.
There were trodden places, bent and broken blades of the coarse
grass, and ever and again the sufficient intimation of a footmark.
And once the leader saw a brown smear of blood where the half-caste
girl may have trod. And at that under his breath he cursed her for
The gaunt man checked his leader's tracking, and the little man
on the white horse rode behind, a man lost in a dream. They rode
one after another, the man with the silver bridle led the way,
and they spoke never a word. After a time it came to the little man
on the white horse that the world was very still. He started out
of his dream. Besides the little noises of their horses and equipment,
the whole great valley kept the brooding quiet of a painted scene.
Before him went his master and his fellow, each intently leaning
forward to the left, each impassively moving with the paces of his
horse; their shadows went before them--still, noiseless, tapering
attendants; and nearer a crouched cool shape was his own. He looked
about him. What was it had gone? Then he remembered the reverberation
from the banks of the gorge and the perpetual accompaniment of
shifting, jostling pebbles. And, moreover--? There was no breeze.
That was it! What a vast, still place it was, a monotonous afternoon
slumber. And the sky open and blank, except for a sombre veil of haze
that had gathered in the upper valley.
He straightened his back, fretted with his bridle, puckered his lips
to whistle, and simply sighed. He turned in his saddle for a time,
and stared at the throat of the mountain gorge out of which they
had come. Blank! Blank slopes on either side, with never a sign
of a decent beast or tree--much less a man. What a land it was!
What a wilderness! He dropped again into his former pose.
It filled him with a momentary pleasure to see a wry stick of purple
black flash out into the form of a snake, and vanish amidst the brown.
After all, the infernal valley WAS alive. And then, to rejoice him
still more, came a little breath across his face, a whisper that
came and went, the faintest inclination of a stiff black-antlered
bush upon a little crest, the first intimations of a possible breeze.
Idly he wetted his finger, and held it up.
He pulled up sharply to avoid a collision with the gaunt man, who
had stopped at fault upon the trail. Just at that guilty moment
he caught his master's eye looking towards him.
For a time he forced an interest in the tracking. Then, as they rode
on again, he studied his master's shadow and hat and shoulder,
appearing and disappearing behind the gaunt man's nearer contours.
They had ridden four days out of the very limits of the world into
this desolate place, short of water, with nothing but a strip
of dried meat under their saddles, over rocks and mountains,
where surely none but these fugitives had ever been before--for THAT!
And all this was for a girl, a mere willful child! And the man
had whole cityfulls of people to do his basest bidding--girls, women!
Why in the name of passionate folly THIS one in particular? asked
the little man, and scowled at the world, and licked his parched lips
with a blackened tongue. It was the way of the master, and that
was all he knew. Just because she sought to evade him. . . .
His eye caught a whole row of high plumed canes bending in unison,
and then the tails of silk that hung before his neck flapped and fell.
The breeze was growing stronger. Somehow it took the stiff stillness
out of things--and that was well.
"Hullo!" said the gaunt man.
All three stopped abruptly.
"What?" asked the master. "What?"
"Over there," said the gaunt man, pointing up the valley.
"Something coming towards us."
And as he spoke a yellow animal crested a rise and came bearing
down upon them. It was a big wild dog, coming before the wind,
tongue out, at a steady pace, and running with such an intensity
of purpose that he did not seem to see the horsemen he approached.
He ran with his nose up, following, it was plain, neither scent
nor quarry. As he drew nearer the little man felt for his sword.
"He's mad," said the gaunt rider.
"Shout!" said the little man, and shouted.
The dog came on. Then when the little man's blade was already out,
it swerved aside and went panting by them and past. The eyes of
the little man followed its flight. "There was no foam," he said.
For a space the man with the silver-studded bridle stared up
the valley. "Oh, come on!" he cried at last. "What does it matter?"
and jerked his horse into movement again.
The little man left the insoluble mystery of a dog that fled from
nothing but the wind, and lapsed into profound musings on human
character. "Come on!" he whispered to himself. "Why should it be
given to one man to say 'Come on!' with that stupendous violence
of effect. Always, all his life, the man with the silver bridle
has been saying that. If _I_ said it--!" thought the little man.
But people marvelled when the master was disobeyed even in the wildest
things. This half-caste girl seemed to him, seemed to every one,
mad--blasphemous almost. The little man, by way of comparison,
reflected on the gaunt rider with the scarred lip, as stalwart as
his master, as brave and, indeed, perhaps braver, and yet for him
there was obedience, nothing but to give obedience duly and stoutly. . .
Certain sensations of the hands and knees called the little man back
to more immediate things. He became aware of something. He rode up
beside his gaunt fellow. "Do you notice the horses?" he said in an
The gaunt face looked interrogation.
"They don't like this wind," said the little man, and dropped behind
as the man with the silver bridle turned upon him.
"It's all right," said the gaunt-faced man.
They rode on again for a space in silence. The foremost two rode
downcast upon the trail, the hindmost man watched the haze that
crept down the vastness of the valley, nearer and nearer, and noted
how the wind grew in strength moment by moment. Far away on the left
he saw a line of dark bulks--wild hog perhaps, galloping down
the valley, but of that he said nothing, nor did he remark again upon
the uneasiness of the horses.
And then he saw first one and then a second great white ball,
a great shining white ball like a gigantic head of thistle-down,
that drove before the wind athwart the path. These balls soared
high in the air, and dropped and rose again and caught for a moment,
and hurried on and passed, but at the sight of them the restlessness
of the horses increased.
Then presently he saw that more of these drifting globes--and then
soon very many more--were hurrying towards him down the valley.
They became aware of a squealing. Athwart the path a huge boar rushed,
turning his head but for one instant to glance at them, and then
hurling on down the valley again. And at that, all three stopped
and sat in their saddles, staring into the thickening haze that
was coming upon them.
"If it were not for this thistle-down--" began the leader.
But now a big globe came drifting past within a score of yards
of them. It was really not an even sphere at all, but a vast, soft,
ragged, filmy thing, a sheet gathered by the corners, an aerial
jelly-fish, as it were, but rolling over and over as it advanced,
and trailing long, cobwebby threads and streamers that floated
in its wake.
"It isn't thistle-down," said the little man.
"I don't like the stuff," said the gaunt man.
And they looked at one another.
"Curse it!" cried the leader. "The air's full of it up there.
If it keeps on at this pace long, it will stop us altogether."
An instinctive feeling, such as lines out a herd of deer at the
approach of some ambiguous thing, prompted them to turn their horses
to the wind, ride forward for a few paces, and stare at that advancing
multitude of floating masses. They came on before the wind with a sort
of smooth swiftness, rising and falling noiselessly, sinking to earth,
rebounding high, soaring--all with a perfect unanimity, with a still,
Right and left of the horsemen the pioneers of this strange army
passed. At one that rolled along the ground, breaking shapelessly
and trailing out reluctantly into long grappling ribbons and bands,
all three horses began to shy and dance. The master was seized
with a sudden unreasonable impatience. He cursed the drifting globes
roundly. "Get on!" he cried; "get on! What do these things matter?
How CAN they matter? Back to the trail!" He fell swearing at his horse
and sawed the bit across its mouth.
He shouted aloud with rage. "I will follow that trail, I tell you!"
he cried. "Where is the trail?"
He gripped the bridle of his prancing horse and searched amidst
the grass. A long and clinging thread fell across his face, a grey
streamer dropped about his bridle-arm, some big, active thing
with many legs ran down the back of his head. He looked up to discover
one of those grey masses anchored as it were above him by these things
and flapping out ends as a sail flaps when a boat comes, about--
He had an impression of many eyes, of a dense crew of squat bodies,
of long, many-jointed limbs hauling at their mooring ropes to bring
the thing down upon him. For a space he stared up, reining in his
prancing horse with the instinct born of years of horsemanship.
Then the flat of a sword smote his back, and a blade flashed overhead
and cut the drifting balloon of spider-web free, and the whole mass
lifted softly and drove clear and away.
"Spiders!" cried the voice of the gaunt man. "The things are full
of big spiders! Look, my lord!"
The man with the silver bridle still followed the mass that drove away.
"Look, my lord!"
The master found himself staring down at a red, smashed thing
on the ground that, in spite of partial obliteration, could still
wriggle unavailing legs. Then when the gaunt man pointed to another
mass that bore down upon them, he drew his sword hastily. Up the
valley now it was like a fog bank torn to rags. He tried to grasp the
"Ride for it!" the little man was shouting. "Ride for it down the
What happened then was like the confusion of a battle. The man
with the silver bridle saw the little man go past him slashing
furiously at imaginary cobwebs, saw him cannon into the horse
of the gaunt man and hurl it and its rider to earth. His own horse
went a dozen paces before he could rein it in. Then he looked up
to avoid imaginary dangers, and then back again to see a horse
rolling on the ground, the gaunt man standing and slashing over it
at a rent and fluttering mass of grey that streamed and wrapped
about them both. And thick and fast as thistle-down on waste land
on a windy day in July, the cobweb masses were coming on.Nov. 16, 2014, 2:01 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
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