The Man on Horseback/Chapter 45
OVER THE BORDER
The Jaganath of war was moving its wheels, sharply, pitilessly. On it rolled towards the frontier (there was now none except a line of blood where men had died) and crossing it near Gravelotte, pausing perhaps for the breathless fraction of a second to ponder on that other battle that, there, forty-four years earlier, had seen the flower of the French cavalry slaughtered by the overwhelming cannons of the Teuton invader.
Tom rode in the wake of the scouting parties, guided by the stars—"just like back home," he thought, "when I used to go after rimmed cattle."
The ground was uneven, broken by clumps of trees, then, beyond Gravelotte, rising in layer upon layer of ragged rock, again dipping into valleys and bottom farms that had been deserted by the peasants.
"Sorry, old girl," he said to the mare, as he spurred her down a sharp hillside, "don't mean to hurt your feelings, but you got to do it! Wow there!"—and, forcing the horse to squat on its hind quarters like a dog, he made it slide through the loose sand and gravel in a sitting posture, pulling the mare sharply to her feet and jerking her to a gallop, without waiting for breath, as soon as level ground was reached again.
He grinned to himself. "Well," he said in the general direction of the evening star, "I've seen a lot of those motion picture weekly reviews. But, believe me, that Dago cavalry has nothing on me!"
On he galloped, finding water for himself and his mount at many little streams. Every half hour or so he stopped for a short rest. For—to quote his range philosophy—he didn't believe in waiting till the horse was worn. He said that horses were cussed animals at best, and the only way to ride them was to give them a few minutes rest before they had a chance to know that they were tired.
Once a narrow wedge of light shot from behind a heap of stones, and his mare plunged violently, switching her flat, docked tail, and looking nervously sideways to escape the glare of the light.
The cause of it, even as Tom was drawing a bead to shoot at the flash, was revealed a second later when a Bavarian infantryman, electric pocket lamp in his hand, stepped out and saluted. He had recognized the Uhlan uniform, and it did not even need Tom's snarling "Despatch rider!" to cause him to lower his rifle to the carry and step back again into the shade of the stones, switching off his lamp.
Occasionally, riding as hard as horse and leather would let him, he met long, ghostly lines of foot soldiers plodding stolidly through the star-flecked night, field kitchens on wheels, and motor caravans of the Imperial Service Corps.
But he was hardly noticed: just an officer of Uhlans, dashing into the night, like so many hundreds of others.
There were no trenches, no miles upon miles of barbed wires in those early war days to stop his progress, and he rode, rode!
Down a hill, sliding! Up a hill, bent over the mare's neck, pulling her up almost bodily, forcing her to climb like a cat! Taking a fallen tree at a long, lean jump! Swerving to escape the shock of a battery that came suddenly looking out of the dark! Slipping down the gravel bank of a broad stream, spurring the animal to breast the swirling water, till his hands were raw with the pulling of the reins, his knees numbed with the gripping of the saddle.
Suddenly he laughed.
A saddle! A silly, light, postage stamp saddle!
And he dismounted, he loosened the girth, he chucked the saddle into a clump of bushes.
He patted the horse's glistening, sweat-studded neck.
"Now we'll do some real riding!" he said, and he vaulted up, his legs dangling like an Indian's, his flesh thrilling to the touch of the horse's flesh.
And he rode! On!
Faint from the distance, the direction of Verdun, boomed a steady, dramatic roar, the big guns slashing into the war game. A splotch of whirling white shell stabbed the opaque black of the heavens. And on he rode, at a short gallop, as, the hills coiling higher, the ground became broken with splintering, treacherous stones. He could not see them. He felt them. Sensed them. He was bred to the free range, the open.
As he drew nearer the supposed lines of the French, the thought came to him that the French outposts might not like his uniform, that they might shoot on sight.
"Holy Moses!" he soliloquized. "Cheerful little prospect. But," he laughed grimly, "better to die by a French bullet than be strangled to death by the German Web! Git up there, old girl," as the mare shied at a puddle glistening in the moonlight.
Another short rest. And again he sent the horse to a long, stretching gallop, on and on and on!
The lines of an old poem came back to him. He had been made by his father to learn it by heart. Had hated it, as boys will. Yet had never forgotten it.
Now here, in a foreign land, riding through the night, away from the Germans, on to the French, the truth of the poet's words struck him with an almost physical blow:
"Up from the South at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste, to the chieftain's door,
The terrible grumble and rumble and roar
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away."
"Twenty miles away," murmured Tom. "But, by Ginger, we'll make it. Git up there!"
As he rode on he met with no more German outposts or marching columns, since the skeleton divisions that were making the feint attack from Thionville had deployed to the north while the Metz divisions that were expected to smite the French lines in front of Verdun with a sudden, massed, unexpected blow, were still far in the rear.
Yet, occasionally, there was the sharp, thin flash and staccato report of a rifle, hurriedly fired and immediately echoed by other flashes and reports, showing that scouting parties of the opposing armies must have come into contact with each other.
Once the terrible hysteria of overstrained nerves, of overtaxed waiting and expectancy must have struck one of the Metz brigades, for quite suddenly, from the east one of their field batteries belched into action, shooting at nothing in particular. A great gun gave answer in the distance. There was a melancholy wailing of falling shells. Tom's horse plunged, swerved, nearly fell, but his hands reached out, soothing, strong.
"Nothing to be afraid of," he said. "It's all right, old girl. Now, then—look out for that tree," as, the moon hidden by an inky cloud bank, a huge, gnarled oak sprang from the darkness, then was swallowed again in the darkness as, obeying Tom's hand, the mare sidewheeled.
"Bully for you," commended Tom. "A little less nervousness, and I'd turn you into a range pony."
And he rode on, getting the utmost speed from his horse, for another thought had come to him. Suppose something happened to Vyvyan and the girl? Even so, there still was France, and, though he was unfamiliar with the Thionville approach, he might get direct to the Verdun lines and give warning—in case Vyvyan failed.
Suddenly, though he rode for his life, all personal considerations of safety whirled away and disappeared like rubbish in the meeting of winds.
Only one thing mattered:
The French! Verdun!
There was something maniacal, something grimly fanatic about the thought, the steely resolution, and, in that hour, as he rode through the night, the soul of the simple, straight, square Westerner rose to the height of greatness.
The horse panted, breathed heavily, staccato. But something of the man's unconquerable spirit seemed to flow into the animal consciousness. It was tired. Tired to dropping. Its muscles pained. Its lungs, tortured, extended, then suddenly contracted, quivered as the motion of the legs pumped the air through.
But the mare stretched her magnificent, long body. She was a thoroughbred—like the man who rode her.
Again a burst of sound, to the north this time, thundering to a portentous, smashing, roaring climax, and just for a moment Tom felt something clutch at his heart with clay-cold fingers.
He owned up to it like the brave man he was, and, just because he owned up to it, an immediate reaction came to him as the shots plopped far out into the night, finding their target far away; and he said to himself that there was no danger.
Yet, a few minutes later, the whistle, the shrieking, the crack and clank, enveloped him with an intolerable sense of loneliness, of insecurity, of stark powerlessness. For a second, that was like an eternity, nothing seemed to matter except the plomp of the shells.
It seemed the end of the world! A world dying in a sea of hatred and lust and blood!
But, whatever the fantastic thoughts in his subconscious self, his conscious self was cool, collected. It communicated the warning of treacherous ground, of slippery timber fall, of turbulent little wayside stream, of crumbling rock slides, to his brain, the nerve center, and the nerve center sent the messages on to eye and hand and leg … And he rode, like a Centaur—on, on, away from the Web!
Then silence, but for the thud of the horse's feet—silence again torn by the rumble of distant guns.
Another mile, and the sun rose slowly, with haggard, indifferent, chilly rays, immediately shrouded by a thick slab of mist.
Here and there a tree stood out, spectral, lanky, like a sentinel of ill omen. The rumble and grumble of the guns drew steadily nearer. Too, the short, throaty, vicious bark of mortars with a wailing, high-pitched screech at the end, and the deep, fully rounded note of howitzers. Above the mist sobbed the engine of an airplane, doubtless painted with the black and white cross of Prussia. It was absolutely invisible. Yet, somehow, Tom could visualize it—like some evil spirit, infinitely brutal, infinitely subtle.
The mare gave a little, pitiful whinny. It was as if she meant to say to the rider:
"I can't. I can't. You have ridden the heart out of me, and the strength, the life!"
Her knees gave way, but Tom pulled her up with his soft, strong hands. The animal's labored, sibilant breathing sounded terribly distinct, terribly portentous.
"Steady!" he murmured, "steady, you beauty," as, nearly throwing him, the mare danced sideways, frightened at an enormous sheet of dazzling, whitish blue light that jumped up to the zenith, then dropped to the tortured earth with a million yellow, racing flames.
From a low, hog-back hill rose a curled plume of thick, inky smoke with a heart of sulphurous gold. The next second, an artillery salvo belched up, stopped abruptly, was followed by an immense burst of sound waves like a giant beating a huge drum. The western sky swallowed the mist in an intolerable, peacock blue, nicked with vivid purple.
Tom shaded his eyes with his hands. With his sharp eyes, far away, he could see a flag—very small it seemed, very foolish. But …
Yes! He could not make out the colors. But the stripes ran vertically, not horizontally. It was the flag of France!
"Yip—yip—yip!" his voice peaked to a quivering, long-drawn Indian yell.
Then, to his horse:
"Come on! Come on, you beauty! We're there! We've made it!"
The mare plunged forward. In front of him, across the rim of a cup-shaped valley, Tom saw a number of small figures.
The French! Doubtless an outpost, or a scouting party. They came up on level ground. They stood erect, bent forward purposefully. One, most likely the leader, waved his arms.
Again Tom yelled. A great joy surged in his heart—and then, quite suddenly, it seemed as if a giant hand was plucking him from the saddle and hurling him through the air. Then it seemed to him as if he sank into a cushion of air.
For a fleeting moment, though he could not utter a sound, he saw quite clearly. He saw his horse, a few feet away, rolling on its back, waving its legs as in a pitiful appeal for mercy …
The whole world seemed to totter crazily. The morning sun, blazing through the mist, heaved like the bow of a ship, then swung to and fro in a mad, golden pendulum.
He felt a dull jar.
Consciousness faded out.
When Tom came to, he found himself in a large tent. There was something moist and cool on his forehead. For a moment he lay still. Then he opened his eyes, and he saw that he was stretched out on a hospital cot and that, sitting by his side, was Bertha.
She leaned over without a word and kissed his lips,
"I'll tell you," came the voice of Vyvyan. He was standing near the other side of the cot. "You fell in with a French outpost. So did Miss Wedekind and I. But we had enough sense to tie our handkerchiefs—fortunately I had three—together and wave it like a white flag. You forgot that jolly little particular. They saw you coming on, the French outpost, just as if you were the whole bloomin' Teuton army lusting for blood and boodle. They saw your Prussian uniform, very naturally thought you one of the Gott Mit Uns, and one of them fired … No!" as Tom began gingerly feeling his arms and legs. "He didn't hit you. Hit your mare, though, square in the chest, and you did a remarkable and not altogether graceful somersault. Fell on your jolly old head."
"I guess so. It throbs terribly."
Then, suddenly remembering, he went on in a tense, anxious voice:
"About the German plans—the attack from Metz …"
"Everything's as right as rain, old chap. Bertha and I got here in plenty of time. I had a talk with the French commander after I convinced him that we were not particularly bold Prussian spies—by the way, you and I are both due for the War Cross—and the General did a lot of rapid figuring and switching and ordering. My word, the Prussians will get the merry dooce when they get within reach of the guns. All right," as Tom was about to speak again, "I am off. I's pose there are a few things you'll have to talk over with your—oh—nurse;" and he left.
There came a long silence, broken by Bertha's:
"We're safe, Tom. Thanks to you. As soon as we're home, you and I …"
She blushed, and as he did not speak, she went on with a little laugh: "Why, Tom, aren't you going to propose to me?"
He sat up and took her in his arms.
"Sure I will. But—"
"There's no but. Not this time, Tom!"
"There may be."
"Well, sweetheart, formerly, when I proposed to you I used to say: I love you. Let's get married.'"
"That'll be plenty this time, too."
"Oh, no, it won't, for this time I am going to say: Dearest, I first saw you, I first loved you, back home in America, out on the Killicott, when I was a plain American horse wrangler and rode the range. I—well—got sort of engaged to you when I was a German for the time-being, dressed in the blue and crimson of the Uhlans of the Guard. And now, honey, will you marry—a soldier of France? That's, if they'll have me?"
And her reply was sturdily, uncompromisingly Western American:
"You just bet I'll marry you, Tom. You just bet I'll be the wife of a soldier of France. And you just bet those Frenchmen will be tickled to death to get you. If they aren't—I shall talk to them!"
Then she kissed him.