Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/Back o' the Moon/Chapter 14

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pp. 193–201.

CHAPTER XIV.

ONE WAY IN, NONE OUT.

The Causeway, creeping round the foot of the High Moor three miles into Back o' th' Mooin, takes a long and gradual rise over the lift of the plateau that is called Holdsworth Head. The leagues of purple heather, that the weeks of continued heat had parched to a pale lilac hue, give place at this point to scarred and broken ground. Gorse and yellow bents spread north up the High Moor, and to the south, close to the road, lie the old coal workings. The bellpits, conical cavities ten or twelve feet deep, choked with ling and bracken, are scattered among innumerable hillocks of grey shale. That afternoon, over the hillocks farthest from the Causeway, where the heather began again, signs of recent disturbance were visible. The ground was newly turned, and a triangular peak of shaft-timbers showed. The older shale-heaps reflected the hot sunlight in a pale and greasy grey.

The scarlet chain wound slowly over the distant edge, approached the foot of the long rise, and halted. Its turbulent black following pushed out a wing on either hand. Two small figures, the one on a brown horse and the other on one so white that it showed as definitely as if it had been cut out of paper, seemed to be engaged in an altercation. The former dismounted; the dispute appeared to be about changing horses. The other made a furious gesture, and the first mounted his own horse again. A strong party detached itself and advanced up the road, its bayonets fixed and glittering in the sun like tiny sparks.

A black-topped stone post marked the beginning of the workings, and at this post the advance party halted again. The officer in charge held a drawn sword; the sword flashed and pointed, and the party broke up into disorder. The scarlet coats scattered and began to appear and disappear and reappear among the shale-heaps of the bellpits; the place was perfect for an ambuscade. The black wings of the following away down the road extended farther out, but did not advance.

It took twenty minutes to beat the workings as far as the distant shaft-timbers. At the end of that time the party reassembled in the road. The scrubby gorse at the foot of the High Moor was three hundred yards away; it was not searched. One or two stragglers had now detached themselves from the black wings, and their heads and shoulders bobbed and disappeared in the heather.

Cope sat insecurely on the white horse. He had brought the stirrup-irons over the saddle, where he held them one on either side with his hands. His legs barely reached the saddle-flaps. He neither spoke to nor looked at the officer on the brown horse, and his head was thrust forward between his narrow shoulders and his lids fluttered with a little regular movement. The officer in charge of the advance party returned and saluted his superior.

“All clear, sir,” he said.

“Station your men to keep it so,” Captain Ritchie replied.

He, too, seemed to be in an ill humour. He gave the word to advance. Cope managed his stirrups in a manner that suggested he had made use of the contrivance before, and he had thrust a pistol between the buttons of his waistcoat. The soldiers set forward deeper into Back o' th' Mooin.

Down in the bottom of a bellpit the bracken stirred. A hand emerged from it, and a grey cap; and Mish Murgatroyd's right arm was thrust over the baulk that crossed the old shaft. He clambered to the baulk, and looked to see that the bracken closed of itself behind him. Then he flung down the end of the rope that he had retained. He crawled on his hands and knees half way up the sloping mouth, and from under the thick bracken he drew two guns. He set the flints at half-cock, and drew back the pins of the priming pans. Then, a gun in either hand, he issued stooping from the bellpit, and began to move with little crouching runs among the slack-heaps. Round one heap he peered cautiously; he could see the road not forty yards away. Then swiftly he crossed the narrow gully and disposed himself along the shale of a mound a little farther on. Cautiously he hoisted his cap on a gun-muzzle above the hillock, as if for a signal to somebody up the High Moor. The calf-licks on either side of his bull's-front of hair started constantly into little glistening points of sweat. He set the guns at full cock. The head of the advancing company reached the black-topped guide-stone.

At the guide-stone the captain again questioned his subordinate. As he spoke, from a gorse bush away up the High Moor there came a puff of smoke, and with the report a score of grouse rose with cries and a commotion of wings. “Half-company fire and advance,” the captain commanded, and the volley rattled and the men ran forward at the double. Nothing stirred over among the gorse.

Perhaps half a minute had elapsed, when there came another flash and crack, this time from the heather ahead of the coal workings. A figure was seen to fling away a gun and to plunge and stumble away towards a fold of the moor. Another volley rang out, and the soldiers who sprang forward reloaded and fired again as they ran.

Cope's horse was stamping, and Cope kept his seat with difficulty. “On!” he cried; “do I make a worse target sitting still here? On! There's plenty of that sort to come yet, and by the good God in Heaven....”

He uttered a frightful blasphemy. “On!” he screamed, and his horse leaped forward beneath him.

From close at hand there came a third shot, the bullet of which tore the neck-cloth under his chin. He drew sharply back, and his head turned swiftly. His right hand dropped the stirrup and snatched at his pistol, and “Ah, Mish!” he cried, as a head showed thirty yards away. He fired at the head, but the reports of the pistol and Mish's second gun sounded one, and with a sob and cough Cope tumbled like a half-filled sack from the white horse, and lay on the Causeway, the pistol still smoking in his hand.

“You can't miss that man! After him, all!” shouted the captain; and then he descended from his horse. He bent over the supervisor.

Cope had got it through both lungs, and his lips were a streaming of red that frothed and bubbled. The men of Horwick and Wadsworth and Back o' th' Mooin pressed about him and looked down on him without lifting a hand to help. “I'sd ha' looked to see it black, but it's red right eniff,” one of them remarked. Again the captain bent over the man who was suffocating in his own blood; then he began to give orders.

A man stripped his scarlet coat off, and it was buttoned about two muskets to make a litter. The litter was of no great dimensions, but big enough for its purpose, and they placed Cope carefully on it. The captain told off bearers and an escort. “He refused before, but he's little choice but to go back now,” he said.

They lifted him. “Take him to the inn; out of step, so as not to shake him. I'll follow later.... 'Mish,' did he say?”

A dozen men set off with Cope to Wadsworth, and the Wadsworth men followed, whispering among themselves.

On a shale heap they found the two guns; all their searching did not produce the man who had fired them. A strong guard was left on the spot, and that afternoon the main body advanced as far as Noon Nick without further molestation. Thence they retired half a mile, placing sentries at intervals along the ledge over the rocky bottom and men at various points along the Causeway; and a camp was pitched almost within a stone's throw of the place that the coining plant had occupied previously to its removal to Brotherton Slack.

*****

The Wadsworth men who had preceded Cope reached the top of the Scout; there they assembled and held a discussion.

“Whose house is he to be ta'en to?” some asked.

“Not mine,” others replied.—“No, nor mine.”—“Nor mine.”

“What about th' parson's?”

“Ay, that'll be it. We'll send 'em to th' parson's.”

The litter came up. They would not have this abhorred flesh cross their own thresholds, but the parson did not matter so much. They looked remorselessly on him in his agony, and then told the bearers where he must be taken.

“Well, a parson'll be what he needs the most,” one of the soldiers replied.

The empty sleeves of the red coat on which Cope lay (it was buttoned about the muskets exactly as Cole the clogger had been wont to button his own jacket over his arms) were tied about his legs to steady him as much as possible for the precipitous descent; then they dropped down an abrupt sheep-track.

From the window of his dining-room, which, of his four ground-floor rooms, was diagonally opposite the little back study, the parson saw the approach of the party. It did not need the glimpse he had between two of the red coats to inform him of what had happened. He fell on his knees to intercede for the unhappy shedders of blood, and he was in that posture when a rat-tat sounded at his own door. He sprang to his feet and passed out to answer the knock.

A trooper informed him briefly that there was nowhere else to take the moribund man. “He's got it,” he said.

The parson gave a glance at the stretcher. “Bring him into my dining-room,” he said.

He preceded them, got a rug and a blanket, and, litter and all, they laid Cope on a couch.

His breathing was horrible. The parson knew a little of medicine; he unbuttoned Cope's coat and waistcoat.

“You'll find a pair of scissors in the top drawer of that cabinet,” he said to one of the soldiers; and with the scissors he cut Cope's shirt across the breast. Even the soldiers turned away, and the parson closed the shirt again.

“I presume none here are relations or near friends?” he said quietly. “Then be so good as to leave him with me.”

He stepped to the door and held it open. They filed out. He crossed the room again; there was a clash of rings on the cornice-pole as he flung the heavy curtains together; and the room became suddenly dark.

Cope was conscious, but past speech, and the bubbling of his breathing filled the apartment. He made no sign when the parson asked him whether he should pray for him, and the parson would have set the dying man's hands together; but one of them still held the discharged pistol, and the fingers tightened on it mechanically when he tried to remove it. The parson knelt to perform the office for those who, in their extremity, are unable to receive the Sacrament, and his broken murmuring and the other's choking mingled in the darkened room. They continued thus for some minutes.

Suddenly, as he prayed, the parson felt the dying man move on the couch, and the anguished battle for breath rose more violently. Opening his eyes, he saw Cope's gaze fixed on something at the farther end of the room. He turned. He had not heard the door open, but just within it stood Arthur Monjoy, his head bowed to the parson's praying.

Monjoy did not look up at the cessation of the praying, but the man on the couch made an agonising movement. He tortured himself to set himself on his left elbow, raised the pistol in his right hand, and thrice pulled vainly at the trigger, the hammer of which had already descended. For a hideous moment the pistol remained levelled, and the man's strangling and hæmorrhage mounted high; then there was a ghastly convulsion, and arm and pistol fell. Even Cope's last look seemed an impious bargain, as if he offered to pawn his soul so his ghost might but be permitted to return and finish that which his body left unaccomplished; and then he fell back. A sudden quiet invaded the darkened room. The parson crossed to the door and gently pushed Monjoy out; then he opened his front door and informed the waiting soldiers.

Nor had he, even then, finished with death for that day. Before the sun had set a message came for him from Horwick. He left in haste to visit Sally Northrop.