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Part I

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

horse.

"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

a fool.

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.

"What?"

"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

undertone.

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,

deliberate assurance.

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--

but noiselessly.

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

situation.

"Ride for it!" the little man was shouting. "Ride for it down the

valley."

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.

16 de Novembro de 2014 às 14:01 0 Denunciar Insira 0
Leia o próximo capítulo Part II

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