Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
A Race against Time
By Albion Winegar Tourgée (18381905)
[Born in Williamsfield, Ohio, 1838. Died in Bordeaux, France, 1905. A Fools Errand. By One of the Fools. 1879.]
THE BRAWNY groom with difficulty held the restless horse by the bit; but the slight girl, who stood upon the block with pale face and set teeth, gathered the reins in her hand, leaped fearlessly into the saddle, found the stirrup, and said, Let him go! without a quaver in her voice. The man loosed his hold. The horse stood upright, and pawed the air for a moment with his feet, gave a few mighty leaps to make sure of his liberty, and then, stretching out his neck, bounded forward in a race which would require all the mettle of his endless line of noble sires. Almost without words, her errand had become known to the household of servants; and as she flew down the road, her bright hair gleaming in the moonlight, old Maggie, sobbing and tearful, was yet so impressed with admiration, that she could only say:
As she was borne like an arrow down the avenue, and turned into the Glenville road, Lily heard the whistle of the train as it left the depot at Verdenton, and knew that upon her coolness and resolution alone depended the life of her father .
It was, perhaps, well for the accomplishment of her purpose, that, for some time after setting out on her perilous journey, Lily Servosse had enough to do to maintain her seat, and guide and control her horse. Young Lollard, whom the servant had so earnestly remonstrated against her taking, added to the noted pedigree of his sire the special excellences of the Glencoe strain of his dam, from whom he inherited also a darker coat, and that touch of native savageness which characterizes the stock of Emancipator. Upon both sides his blood was as pure as that of the great kings of the turf, and what we have termed his savagery was more excess of spirit than any inclination to do mischief. It was that uncontrollable desire of the thoroughbred horse to be always doing his best, which made him restless of the bit and curb, while the native sagacity of his race had led him to practise somewhat on the fears of his groom .
With head outstretched, and sinewy neck strained to its uttermost, he flew over the ground in a wild, mad race with the evening wind, as it seemed. Without jerk or strain, but easily and steadily as the falcon flies, the highbred horse skimmed along the ground. A mile, two, three miles were made, in time that would have done honor to the staying quality of his sires, and still his pace had not slackened. He was now nearing the river into which fell the creek that ran by Warrington. As he went down the long slope that led to the ford, his rider tried in vain to check his speed. Pressure upon the bit but resulted in an impatient shaking of the head and laying back of the ears. He kept up his magnificent stride until he had reached the very verge of the river. There he stopped, threw up his head in inquiry, as he gazed upon the fretted waters lighted up by the full moon, glanced back at his rider, and, with a word of encouragement from her, marched proudly into the waters, casting up a silvery spray at every step. Lily did not miss this opportunity to establish more intimate relations with her steed. She patted his neck, praised him lavishly, and took occasion to assume control of him while he was in the deepest part of the channel, turning him this way and that much more than was needful, simply to accustom him to obey her will.
When he came out on the other bank, he would have resumed his gallop almost at once; but she required him to walk to the top of the hill. The night was growing chilly by this time. As the wind struck her at the hill-top, she remembered that she had thrown a hooded waterproof about her before starting. She stopped her horse, and, taking off her hat, gathered her long hair into a mass, and thrust it into the hood, which she drew over her head, and pressed her hat down on it; then she gathered the reins, and they went on in that long, steady stride which marks the highbred horse when he gets thoroughly down to his work. Once or twice she drew rein to examine the landmarks, and determine which road to take. Sometimes her way lay through the forest, and she was startled by the cry of the owl; anon it was through the reedy bottom-land, and the half-wild hogs, starting from their lairs, gave her an instants fright. The moon cast strange shadows around her; but still she pushed on, with this one only thought in her mind, that her fathers life was at stake, and she alone could save him .
She glanced at her watch as she passed from under the shade of the oaks, and, as she held the dial up to the moonlight, gave a scream of joy. It was just past the stroke of nine. She had still an hour, and half the distance had been accomplished in half that time. She had no fear of her horse. Pressing on now in the swinging fox-walk which he took whenever the character of the road or the mood of his rider demanded, there was no sign of weariness. As he threw his head upon one side and the other, as if asking to be allowed to press on, she saw his dark eye gleam with the fire of the inveterate racer. His thin nostrils were distended; but his breath came regularly and full. She had not forgotten, even in her haste and fright, the lessons her father had taught; but, as soon as she could control her horse, she had spared him, and compelled him to husband his strength. Her spirits rose at the prospect. She even carolled a bit of exultant song as Young Lollard swept on through a forest of towering pines, with a white sand-cushion stretched beneath his feet. The fragrance of the pines came to her nostrils, and with it the thought of frankincense, and that brought up the hymns of her childhood. The Star in the East, the Babe of Bethlehem, the Great Deliverer,all swept across her rapt vision; and then came the priceless promise, I will not leave thee, nor forsake.
Still on and on the brave horse bore her with untiring limb. Half the remaining distance is now consumed, and she comes to a place where the road forks, not once, but into four branches. It is in the midst of a level old field covered with a thick growth of scrubby pines. Through the masses of thick green are white lanes which stretch away in every direction, with no visible difference save in the density or frequency of the shadows which fall across them. She tries to think which of the many intersecting paths leads to her destination. She tries this and then that for a few steps, consults the stars to determine in what direction Glenville lies, and has almost decided upon the first to the right, when she hears a sound which turns her blood to ice in her veins.
A shrill whistle sounds to the left,once, twice, thrice,and then it is answered from the road in front. There are two others. O God! if she but knew which road to take! She knows well enough the meaning of those signals. She has heard them before. The masked cavaliers are closing in upon her; and, as if frozen to stone, she sits her horse in the clear moonlight, and cannot choose.
She is not thinking of herself. It is not for herself that she fears; but there has come over her a horrible numbing sensation that she is lost, that she does not know which road leads to those she seeks to save; and at the same time there comes the certain conviction that to err would be fatal. There are but two roads now to choose from, since she has heard the fateful signals from the left and front: but how much depends upon that choice! It must be this, she says to herself; and, as she says it, the sickening conviction comes, No, no: it is the other! She hears hoof-strokes upon the road in front, on that to her left, and now, too, on that which turns sheer to the right. From one to the other the whistle sounds,sharp, short signals. Her heart sinks within her. She has halted at the very rendezvous of the enemy. They are all about her. To attempt to ride down either road now is to invite destruction.
She woke from her stupor when the first horseman came in sight, and thanked God for her dark horse and colorless habit. She urged Young Lollard among the dense scrub-pines which grew between the two roads from which she knew that she must choose, turned his head back toward the point of intersection, drew her revolver, leaned over upon his neck, and peered through the overhanging branches. She patted her horses head, and whispered to him softly to keep him still.
Hardly had she placed herself in hiding, before the open space around the intersecting roads was alive with disguised horsemen. She could catch glimpses of their figures as she gazed through the clustering pines. Three men came into the road which ran along to the right of where she stood. They were hardly five steps from where she lay, panting, but determined, on the faithful horse, which moved not a muscle. Once he had neighed before they came so near; but there were so many horses neighing and snuffing, that no one had heeded it. She remembered a little flask which Maggie had put into her pocket. It was whiskey. She put up her revolver, drew out the flask, opened it, poured some in her hand, and, leaning forward, rubbed it on the horses nose. He did not offer to neigh again.
You remember our rules, said the third,when a party is made up by details from different camps, it shall constitute a camp so far as to regulate its own action; and all matters pertaining to such action which the officer in command may see fit to submit to it shall be decided by a majority vote. I think this had better be left to the camp.
Gentlemen, we have met here, under a solemn and duly authenticated decree of a properly organized camp of the county of Rockford, to execute for them the extreme penalty of our order upon Thomas Denton, in the way and manner therein prescribed. This unpleasant duty of course will be done as becomes earnest men. We are, however, informed that there will be with the said Denton at the time we are directed to take him another notorious Radical well known to you all, Colonel Comfort Servosse. He is not included in the decree; and I now submit for your determination the question, What shall be done with him?
One careless-toned fellow said that he thought it would be well enough to wait till they caught their hare before cooking it. It was not the first time a squad had thought they had Servosse in their power; but they had never ruffled a hair of his head yet.
The leader commanded, Order! and one of the associate commanders moved that the same decree be made against him as against the said Denton. Then the vote was taken. All were in the affirmative, except the loud-voiced young man who had spoken before, who said with emphasis:
No, by Granny! Im not in favor of killing anybody! Ill have you know, gentlemen, its neither a pleasant nor a safe business. First we know, well all be running our necks into hemp. Its what we call murder, gentlemen, in civilized and Christian countries!
Oh, you neednt yell at me! said the young man fearlessly. Im not afraid of anybody here, nor all of you. Mel. Gurney and I came just to take some friends places who couldnt obey the summons,were not bound to stay, but I suppose I shall go along. I dont like it, though, and, if I get much sicker, I shall leave. You can count on that!
Oh, you go to hell! retorted the other. You dont expect to frighten one of the old Louisiana Tigers in that way, do you? Now look here, Jake Carver, he continued, drawing a huge navy revolver, and cocking it coolly, dont try any such little game on me, cause, if ye do, there may be moren one of us fit for a spy-glass when its over.
At this, considerable confusion arose; and Lily, with her revolver ready cocked in her hand, turned, and cautiously made her way to the road which had been indicated as the one which led to Glenville. Just as her horse stepped into the path, an overhanging limb caught her hat, and pulled it off, together with the hood of her waterproof, so that her hair fell down again upon her shoulders. She hardly noticed the fact in her excitement, and, if she had, could not have stopped to repair the accident. She kept her horse upon the shady side, walking upon the grass as much as possible to prevent attracting attention, watching on all sides for any scattered members of the Klan. She had proceeded thus about a hundred and fifty yards, when she came to a turn in the road, and saw, sitting before her in the moonlight, one of the disguised horsemen, evidently a sentry who had been stationed there to see that no one came upon the camp unexpectedly. He was facing the other way, but just at that instant turned, and, seeing her indistinctly in the shadow, cried out at once:
They were not twenty yards apart. Young Lollard was trembling with excitement under the tightly-drawn rein. Lily thought of her father half-prayerfully, half-fiercely, bowed close over her horses neck, and braced herself in the saddle, with every muscle as tense as those of the tiger waiting for his leap. Almost before the words were out of the sentrys mouth, she had given Young Lollard the spur, and shot like an arrow into the bright moonlight, straight toward the black muffled horseman.
She was close upon him in an instant. There was a shot; his startled horse sprang aside, and Lily, urging Young Lollard to his utmost speed, was flying down the road toward Glenville. She heard an uproar behindshouts, and one or two shots. On, on, she sped. She knew now every foot of the road beyond. She looked back, and saw her pursuers swarming out of the wood into the moonlight. Just then she was in shadow. A mile, two miles, were passed. She drew in her horse to listen. There was the noise of a horses hoofs coming down a hill she had just descended, as her gallant steed bore her, almost with undiminished stride, up the opposite slope. She laughed, even in her terrible excitement, at the very thought that any one should attempt to overtake her.
Theyll have fleet steeds that follow, quoth young Lochinvar,
she hummed as she patted Young Lollards outstretched neck. She turned when they reached the summit, her long hair streaming backward in the moonlight like a golden banner, and saw the solitary horseman on the opposite slope; then turned back and passed over the hill. He halted as she dashed out of sight, and after a moment turned round, and soon met the entire camp, now in perfect order, galloping forward dark and silent as fate. The commander halted as they met the returning sentinel.
Nothing, replied the sentinel carelessly. I was sitting there at the turn examining my revolver, when a rabbit ran across the road, and frightened my mare. She jumped, and the pistol went off. It happened to graze my left arm, so I could not hold the reins; and she like to have taken me into Glenville before I could pull her up.
A hasty examination showed this to be true, and the reckless-talking young man was detailed to accompany him to some place for treatment and safety, while the others passed on to perform their horrible task.
The train from Verdenton had reached and left Glenville. The incomers had been divided between the rival hotels, the porters had removed the luggage, and the agent was just entering his office, when a foam-flecked horse with bloody nostrils and fiery eyes, ridden by a young girl with a white, set face, and fair, flowing hair, dashed up to the station.
The agent had but time to motion with his hand, and she had swept on toward a carriage which was being swiftly driven away from the station, and which was just visible at the turn of the village street.
The amazed horse veered quickly to one side, and stopped as if stricken to stone, while Lily fell insensible into her fathers arms. When she recovered, he was bending over her with a look in his eyes which she will never forget.