Down the Coast of Barbary/Chapter 7
“An honest fellow enough, and one that loves quails.”
THE The shots set the blooded, sensitive horses to plunging madly. One of the Spahis caught the bridle of Mistress Betty and spurred away with her, the other, his horse slain, leaped into the empty saddle of Barbarroja and galloped after his comrade.
Shaw was mounted, but two men were stabbing at him, a third had gripped his bridle rein. Yimnah was caught afoot. Spence missed his horse, which shied away; the two beasts were careering madly around, headed from the road and finding no outlet from the ruins.
Spence cut down the first man who sprang at him, and shouted again at the divine:
“Spur for it, Shaw! After her! Spur!”
“He who takes the sword,” quoth the doctor, neatly putting his rapier through one of his assailants, “shall even perish by the same.” And the thin blade split the throat of the man at his rein. “Farewell, Patrick! Woe is me that I must leave you.”
His voice was lost as he thundered away. Spence conjectured that a score of men must have fallen upon them. He himself was ringed in against a block of marble, which secured his back. He pistoled two of the men before him, seized his sword again, and they recoiled momentarily from his attack.
A wide blade flamed in the moonlight. The hoarse, inarticulate rage scream of Yimnah rent the night like a pæan of horror. The monstrous figure of the eunuch, streaming blood from a dozen wounds, rushed through the assailants, striking to right and left in blind fury. They opened before him, fell back from Spence, shrieked that this was no man, but some jinni of the mountains Yimnah leaped on them, struck and struck again, screaming.
“Fools!” cracked out a voice in Spanish.
A musket flashed near the voice. There died Yimnah, the wide blade sweeping out from his hand and clashing on the stones.
At this instant Spence leaped out suddenly as one of the horses plunged past; he caught the beast in mid-career, dragged himself into the high saddle. That harsh, crackling voice electrified him; it was the voice of Gholam Mahmoud. Now he perceived the man’s figure, off to one side, and directed the plunging horse toward it.
“Assassin!” he shouted. “This time you shall not escape.”
Another musket shot rang out. Spence felt a shock—and darkness came upon him. He bowed forward, his body supported by the huge Moorish saddle, his fingers twined into the mane of the horse. The frantic beast dashed away into the night with whirlwind hoofs.
Gholam Mahmoud leaped forward, raving like a maniac. To insure against discovery of the ambush, his horses had been left a quarter mile distant; pursuit was impossible. While Gholam Mahmoud cursed, Barbarroja came groaning to the scene, holding his hurt stomach.
“Ha, thou bitch wolf’s fool!” cried the furious red-beard. “Why did you not await the signal?”
“You were too cursed long in giving it,” snarled Gholam Mahmoud. “Now the woman is gone.”
“A murrain on you and your woman!” shouted Barbarroja. “Now Spence is escaped, and Mulai Ali not come. Pot-head that you are—only one eunuch bagged, and half our men down!”
“Devil take you, get the horses and after them!”
“After them yourself,” growled Barbarroja. “I stay here to kill Mulai Ali when he comes.”
Ten minutes later Gholam Mahmoud rode away toward Udjde—alone.
When Patrick Spence came to his senses his horse was following a cattle track in a long and narrow valley. Where he was, Spence had not the least idea; he was completely lost. He had caught his own horse, and behind the saddle were provisions, water-skin, and the covered box belonging to Mulai Ali.
For a space he rode confusedly, until a twinge of pain recalled him to memory. He drew rein, found himself bareheaded, and discovered a slight wound along the scalp above his left ear. He made shift to wash the wound with water from his bottle.
“The devil!” he exclaimed suddenly. Realization smote him full force, left him appalled and bewildered. Why, Barbarroja must have been in league with Gholam Mahmoud all the time. He must have expected to lead Mulai Ali into that ambush; and, too, must have had some share in Gholam Mahmoud’s work in Tlemcen.
“And I never suspected, when he found me trussed up and appeared so amazed,” thought Spence, dumfounded. “Well, Master Red-beard, just wait a bit. I’ll have a word with you in time.”
Presumably, Shaw and the girl had escaped with the Spahis. They would reach Udjde and send help to Mulai Ali. Thus the assassins had gained nothing, and Spence considered his own case as he rode onward again.
He was lost, sure enough. So far as he could tell, he was among a series of long, barren hills; the valley stretched interminably, and seemed uninhabited, yet he knew that this cattle track must lead somewhere. He let the horse take its head.
The hours dragged until the moonlight was gone. Still Spence perceived no sign of life among the bare hills. With darkness, he halted, hobbled the horse, and lay down to sleep until dawn, hopeless of wandering on through the obscurity.
With dawn he found the horse muzzling him for food. Stiffly he gained his saddle and sent the Arab onward. As the sun rose to warm them, Spence noticed that the beast quickened its pace; ten minutes later he made out a low group of trees, and the dull walls of a mud-thatched building in an elbow of the valley.
Renewing the priming of his musket, he rode forward. Not until he drew near the trees and shouted did he discern any sign of life. Then a misshapen old man came forth from the hut and peered at him, chattering Arabic volubly.
“Do you speak Spanish?” demanded Spence. “Or English?”
The hunchback started, and drew back.
“Be you an Englishman, sir?” he quavered.
“Eh?” Spence started. “You’re not?”
“God love ye, sir; God love ye!” broke out the ancient. “Out o’ the stirrup and welcome to ye! It’s two year and more since I’ve had a bit of English speech. A bonny bit o’ flesh under ye, sir! God love ye, what a bonny creature it is.”
“You’re English?” said the astonished Spence, as he dismounted. “I need feed for the horse more than for myself.”
“God love ye, an honest man thinks for his beastie first. Come in, and lead the horse after ye, sir. ’Tis like entertaining a prince to have a horse o’ that blood under my roof! True Njed quarter strain, I’ll warrant. Come in, sir, and welcome!”
Feeling as though in a dream, Spence entered the hut, a clean place, where the old man dwelt alone. A queer chap, this hunchback, with his wisps of gray hair, his tattered garb, his bleary old eyes and palsied hands.
His name, the man would not tell; but he chattered out his story. Indeed, his thought was all for the horse rather than for Spence. A cutpurse in Bristol, he had been jailed, taken into the navy with other criminals, and was aboard a sloop captured by Algerines. For thirty years he had been a slave. A natural liking for horses had made him the manager of an outlying herd of the animals which were bred hereabouts.
“Fifteen hands, and full o’ the haunches,” he mumbled, lovingly stroking the Arab’s coat. “God love ye, didst ever see a finer slope o’ the shoulder than this? And saddle-backed! Just the touch o’ wiry springs, no weakness. What a head it is now, what a taper down from the brows! God love ye, sir, this beastie could drink from a pint pot and to spare! And the legs, twisted wi’ sinew, but clean as a whistle, and the ear like a thorn—God love ye, this beastie must be out o’ the bey’s stables at Arzew! Not the dey himself has a horse o’ Njed strain, but Hassan had two o’ them. Ye bain’t a slave on the escape, sir?”
“No. You’re right about the horse, gran’ther; it’s from the bey’s stable.”
He told briefly that he had been attacked by robbers at the Cisterns, and was lost. The ancient mumbled in amazement, but answered Spencer’s queries as to his road to Udjde.
“The Cisterns? God love ye, it’s far away from here! Follow the vale and ’twill bring ye out on the river a few mile ahead. There ye’ll find the river road from Udjde to the sea coast. Turn south to Udjde, or north to Adjerud, a tiny bit of a port that the Moors use.
“For a fine gentleman like you ’tis no journey at all! Sunset will see ye safe with lackeys and servants, and sojers, too, belike! God love ye, sir, ’tis no ride at all. Now wait ye here till I get some fresh tomatoes from the garden—”
The ancient shuffled away.
Within an hour Spence had breakfasted and mounted again. Spence forced money on the old man, and with a final “God love ye!” ringing in his ears, he rode away down the valley.
“A grotesque blessing, yet why not?” he reflected. “I’ve met worse hospitality in Christian lands. God rest you, old man, renegade or not!”
He saw no living creature on his way, though mile after mile slipped past. Udjde, he knew, was fifty miles from the coast. The “river road” was doubtless one that ran north to the port of Adjerud, for the maritime Moors were not fond of being cut off from the sea.
Shortly after noon Spence found that the valley was insensibly disappearing, and presently saw a river line of trees in the distance. In no long while he came to a wide but shallow stream, crossed it easily, and on the farther side found himself actually upon the road of which the old hunchback had told him.
He noted, too, a cloud of dust coming toward him from the north, betokening other riders on the road to Udjde. Since he had a straight story to tell and naught to fear, he waited, meaning to join them and ask protection as far as Udjde. He perceived that no caravan was approaching, but a group of horsemen, perhaps a detachment going to join the army.
Then, as he watched, the curiosity of Spence changed to incredulous amazement. Here were a score of horsemen, brilliantly garbed, and amid the foremost rode one clad in a plain white burnoose. Against this white burnoose, at the throat, was a glitter—there could be only one man in all the world with the effrontery to display the collar of the Golden Fleece against the garb of a renegade.
It was Ripperda beyond question. Ripperda, and with him his bodyguard of renegades—and riding to Udjde!