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   Chapter 15 THE RACE FOR LIFE

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 18186

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


The action a man will take in a crisis is exceedingly difficult to gauge beforehand. As a rule, such moments happen from a chain of circumstances which the man has not foreseen, and therefore has made no preparation to meet, and his conduct is likely to be guided entirely by the attitude of those about him, without any question of right or wrong, without a thought of what has occurred in the past or what may happen in the future. This was Ellerey's position. He had expected to see the bracelet of medallions; instead he saw a golden cross. He knew that in some manner he had been deceived, and who but the Queen could have placed this unexpected token in his keeping? By his manner he knew that the golden cross held some meaning for the brigand, a meaning of which Ellerey was absolutely ignorant; and under other conditions he might have admitted his ignorance and entered into explanations. As it was, the whole bearing of Vasilici, his bluster and his swagger, had roused Ellerey's anger. He had felt that the man was a crafty enemy even at the moment of delivering what he supposed to be a friendly message, and the keen desire to show his contempt for him had made his tongue smart with unspoken words, and his hands tingle to be clenched and to strike. He had forced himself to decent speech and attitude, but now his anger asserted itself. No question of duty or expediency seemed to bind him; only a boastful enemy was before him to be answered in the same fashion as he questioned, and if that did not suffice, to be punished as he merited.

"That is the token as I received it," said Ellerey.

As the brigand had held up the token Grigosie had leant forward to see it, the color mounting into his cheeks. Now his enthusiasm appeared to get the better of his prudence, and he cried out:

"Long live our country! Down with all who dishonor her! The golden cross gleams in the light of God's good sun; it is a benediction on this day, a promise of brighter days to follow. Summon your legions, Vasilici, and on to Sturatzberg where the hornets are nesting ready for destruction."

The brigand glanced at the boy contemptuously.

"What bantam is this you have brought to crow for you?"

"The boy speaks well enough," said Ellerey. "There is the token, where is your answer?"

"Here, and here," was the quick answer, as he hurled the cross high into the air behind him, and at the same time blew a shrill whistle. "That is Vasilici's answer to liars, and this his swift punishment."

The man's movements were so lithe and quick, so utterly unexpected, that he had sprung upon Ellerey before the words had fully left his lips. The long blade of his knife caught the sunlight, even as the golden cross had caught it a moment ago, and Ellerey's upraised arm alone protected his breast from the downward thrust. But the swift stroke did not come. A revolver shot awoke the echoes of the hills, and with a howl the great brigand leapt backward, his knife falling harmlessly to the ground, and his arm useless to his side.

"The bantam's answer," cried Grigosie. "To me, Captain!" It was at once evident that Vasilici had not ventured to the interview without support. The hills in front of them were immediately alive with men scrambling downward to the very ground the little band occupied. Men were in the ravine behind them rushing up to cut off retreat that way. Cries and shouting were on every side, some calling for surrender, others shouting that the soldiers had been deceived by their Captain. In the sudden confusion Ellerey gave quick commands, as, with sword in hand, he sprang to the rising ground where Grigosie stood; but his orders were either not heard or came too late for obedience. Before the soldiers could come to him, the brigands were between them.

"It is madness to stay," whispered Grigosie. "The hill behind us is clear." The boy fired twice in quick succession at men who had raised their rifles ready to fire at them, and although in answer a dozen bullets sang past them, the aim was faulty in the excitement.

"Shoot them both!" was the shout.

"Shoot them!" thundered Vasilici.

"Come," whispered Grigosie.

They scrambled upward together, the unevenness of the hillside protecting them for a moment from the flying bullets.

"I marked our direction," said Grigosie. "We can keep to this kind path for a little way, and with luck cross the open presently toward the horses."

They ran on, crouching lest their heads should be seen and mark the direction they had taken. Grigosie refilled the empty chambers of his revolver as he went, and Ellerey put up his sword and took his revolver instead. Behind them the firing had ceased, but they could not doubt that they were being swiftly followed; and spread over the open which they must needs cross, a hundred men probably barred their way.

"Unless they were already there when we passed, they will hardly have time to intercept us," was Grigosie's answer to this fear.

"Probably they were there, lad," said Ellerey. "We've about an equal chance with the hare that is being coursed."

"He gets away sometimes," was the answer.

They ran swiftly, mounting higher and higher as they went. Once they caught sight of men running in the path below them, and presently of others climbing the hillside to reach the summit before them, but no shout told them that they themselves had been seen.

"Don't fire, Grigosie, unless it is absolutely necessary," said Ellerey. "It would betray our whereabouts, and we shall want all our cartridges to stop them across the open."

The boy nodded and ran on.

"The top at last!" he exclaimed. "That height yonder is our mark. If we can reach it we shall be in sight of the horses. How far behind have we left them?"

He stood for a moment to look back along the ridge under which they had come. Some distance away men were coming into view.

"Quick, Grigosie; it's speed now," said Ellerey.

The way before them was clear, and they ran side by side, careful of their steps lest a hole might mean a fall and a sprained ankle. Presently a bullet passed between them, and they began to run in zig-zag fashion to puzzle the marksmanship. Ellerey constantly turned to look back. There were many pursuers, some widely straggling, but a few of them were gaining rapidly. These did not pause to fire; they ran, judging their pace and distance to a nicety. Long before the point for which the fugitives were making could be reached these men would be upon them.

"We must stop them, Grigosie."

The lad looked back. He was beginning to pant heavily.

"Not yet," he said; "they are not close enough."

So they ran on. It was evident to Ellerey that the boy's pace was palpably slackening, and there was yet some distance to cover to the height, to say nothing of the final dash for the horses. The men behind were rapidly overtaking them. Ellerey could hear the dull, rhythmic pad of the running feet.

"Twelve paces, Grigosie," he murmured, "then turn sharply. Do not kill, lame them; their companions may stop to help them."

Ellerey counted the twelve paces aloud, and then they both turned. Four shots rang out sharply, and three of the foremost runners stumbled and fell. An answering bullet cut through Ellerey's coat sleeve, and there was the pain as of a hot skewer laid for a moment on his flesh as he and Grigosie ran on again.

"Every step lessens the distance, lad," he said encouragingly. "That will teach them to keep a little farther in the rear."

Still Ellerey turned constantly to watch their pursuers. One or two had stopped by their wounded companions, but the rest held on their way, undeterred by the fate of their comrades. Twice again did Ellerey count twelve paces, and he and Grigosie turned together and fired. The foremost runner on the last occasion was Grigosie's mark, and he missed him. The man had bounded forward to make his capture when Ellerey's revolver sounded again. It was not the moment to hazard a shot, to aim at the swiftly moving limbs. The man leapt into the air and fell sprawling on his face, and with one spasmodic kick lay still. Grigosie turned and ran on again without a word. They were close to the height now. It was to their left, and the boy pointed to a depression which lay between it and another elevation. The way was narrow, which was in their favor, and if only the brigands were not in force on the other side, and Grigosie had made no mistake in the direction, there was a chance of escape.

Ellerey let Grigosie enter the narrow way first, and then paused in the entrance. Only two men followed them, and seeing Ellerey stop, they fired. Ellerey fired twice in answer, and without waiting to see if the shots had taken effect dashed after Grigosie.

The boy had made no mistake. They had come out half-way down the rising ground which they had climbed directly after dismounting. Below them stood Stefan and Anton with the horses, and higher up the slope above them more of the brigands were hastily descending. Some of the men had gone this wa

y to cut off their retreat, and the fugitives had not a moment to waste in their final dash for freedom.

Ellerey fired into the air to put Stefan on the alert, and seizing Grigosie's arm-for the boy was nearly beaten-he dashed down the steep incline. Stefan saw them and spoke quickly to Anton, who for a moment seemed inclined to lose his head. The soldier's sharp command steadied him, and the moment Grigosie was beside him he lifted him bodily into the saddle and then sprang to his own.

"No others?" Stefan shouted, wheeling Ellerey's horse round toward him.

"No."

Without a word Stefan cast loose the reins of the other horses, and the next instant the four riders were galloping for dear life up the pass, Ellerey and Grigosie in the centre, Anton and Stefan on either side. Knee to knee they galloped, their bodies low upon their horses' necks. Several shots followed them, but went wide of the mark, and a bend in the pass soon covered them. Still they held on their way, speaking no word. There was only the sound of the rapidly beating hoofs and the rough purring of the leather as the legs rubbed the saddles.

Ellerey thought that along the pass any surprise or ambush was impossible. He had taken careful notice of the mountain walls which shut them in, but he was not so satisfied that they would find the castle open to them. Those who occupied it, if any were there, could hardly have heard of the failure of the meeting yet, and he therefore hoped that he might gain possession of it by stratagem. To ride out of the pass would be madness, with the armies from Sturatzberg guarding the plain. The castle was their only hope-their place of refuge, as Grigosie had prophetically called it.

Ellerey drew rein presently.

"We have distanced them," he said. "What do you think, Stefan-will the castle be empty?"

The soldier shrugged his shoulders.

"If any brigands still occupy the hills about it, they cannot know that our mission has failed."

"These fellows manage to signal very quickly to one another," Stefan answered.

"Then we must fight for its possession. It is our only chance."

"Our chance is a poor one if it comes to fighting," said Stefan.

"We will try strategy first," Ellerey said. "Let us ride easily."

"What happened?" queried Stefan.

"The box did not contain the right token, and they attacked us without a word of warning."

"What of the others?"

"Heaven knows. They hardly seemed to strike a blow after we were surrounded. It was Grigosie who thought of the way across the hills, and we've had to run for it like hunted rabbits, eh, lad?"

Grigosie smiled faintly, but did not speak. He was still panting after his tremendous exertion. Anton had stretched out a hand to support him in his saddle as they galloped.

"They are dead then, those others?" said Stefan.

"I fear so."

"And we've been deceived, sent into a trap like a lot of rats. There's a reckoning to be paid."

"Time enough to think of that, Stefan. Let us secure the castle first," said Ellerey.

"I'm fearing the reckoning must be left for others to pay," growled the soldier. "It's putting our trust in a woman that's been the curse of us."

No one contradicted him, and they rode on in silence until the castle came in view. It looked gaunt enough, as silent and deserted as when they had first seen it. There was no movement on the plateau, no sign that any living creature except themselves was near it.

"Look!" exclaimed Stefan suddenly.

He pointed to the hillside on which the lights had shone mysteriously last night. Here and there were moving figures descending the slopes. Whether they had caught sight of the riders and jumped to the conclusion that something was wrong, or whether they had learnt of the escape from signals across the hills, it was impossible to say. At any rate they were descending rapidly, and there was no time to lose.

"Once in the zig-zag path the odds will be more evenly balanced," said

Ellerey. "Forward! Gallop!"

"It seems to me they are making for a point beyond the castle," said

Stefan. "They are expecting us to ride out of the pass."

"So fortune favors us," said Ellerey. "Rein up altogether at the entrance to the path, dismount, and up to the plateau quickly."

Even as they stopped with exact precision, a loud challenge came from the opposite hill, and, no answer being given, several shots whistled across the pass and struck close to the entrance of the zig-zag way.

"Up with you quickly!" shouted Ellerey, who brought up the rear. "There is little harm in such firing, and they will think twice before they follow us."

"Careful in front, lad," Stefan called out to Grigosie, who led the way. "Keep sharp eyes, the plateau may be occupied."

The boy nodded, but he had been looking out keenly before the soldier's warning, leading his horse in such a manner as to cover himself as much as possible. The precaution proved unnecessary; the castle was empty. Stefan was right. The brigands had not expected the fugitives to make for their old resting place, and when they saw them go up the path they shouted as though victory were already won, nor did they attempt to follow them. Why should they? Their foes were caught surely as birds netted by the fowler.

"See to the horses, Grigosie," said Ellerey. "Put them as far back in the ruins as possible. Now, Stefan, Anton, we'll heap stones across this broken gateway at the head of the path. It shall be our first line of defence, and if it is taken we will see to it that it is dearly bought."

"It is not the fighting that frightens me, it's the empty condition of the larder," said Stefan.

"Truly we are pariahs on God's earth," Ellerey answered. "Every man's hand against us, but we'll snarl and bite awhile in our stronghold, and then make a dash out and die in the open."

They toiled with a will all through the afternoon, heaping fragments which had fallen from the ruins across the gateway, and driving in stakes, rudely fashioned from any planks they could find, behind the stonework to strengthen it. Grigosie, by Ellerey's orders, did not assist in this work, but stood sentinel upon the plateau. The boy had had as much as he could stand for one day.

It was growing dusk in the pass below when they had finished. Daylight was still upon the summit of the mountains, but twilight had gathered in the deep valleys and ravines. The brigands still hung about the pass, watching the castle, but keeping out of range. It did not appear that they had any intention of attacking it. As they stood together looking down upon their enemies, Ellerey told Stefan what had happened and the details of their escape.

"Surely those are our fellows, Captain." But there was no tone of pleasure at the escape of his comrades; no note of welcome in the soldier's voice.

"This looks like desertion," said Ellerey.

One of the soldiers below called out in a stentorian voice which carried clearly in the quiet air.

"Ho there, Stefan!"

"Well, comrade?"

"We're betrayed by that devilish Englishman. Is he there with you?"

"The Captain is here. What of him?"

"Throw him down to us along with the boy," was the answer shouted back. "He's tricked us all, and that imp of Satan has helped him. The token he carried was not from her Majesty. He's a conspirator against the King, and carried the golden cross. You know what that means. Throw him down."

"It were easier for you to show your courage and come and fetch him."

"Our good friends here will do that. We have other work in hand. We ride back to Sturatzberg to tell our story, and heaven help you if you are alive when we return. There'll be little mercy for the companions of that devilish Englishman. Will you come with us?"

"I'm too old to run away," shouted Stefan, "and the company of cowards is not to my liking. May they cut your throats on the plain yonder and ask for your story afterward."

The brigands yelled with rage, and the soldiers shouted back coarse oaths.

"It would do my soul good to have a shot at them," said Stefan.

"Let them go," said Ellerey. "We shall want every shot we have. We are not without friends in the capital who may hear of our need. Against their will these fellows may help us."

The soldiers below moved on. It was evident that here they were to part with the brigands.

"Hold them fast for punishment," cried the same stentorian voice. "We shall return with the true message. Down with all lovers of the golden cross! Death to them who serve Maritza! Down with Maritza!"

"What is that they shout?" said Ellerey.

The answer came loudly, borne upward on the air, as the soldiers put their horses into a canter and rode down the pass.

"Death to the Princess Maritza!"

"You hear, Captain. Some one has fooled us all."

"Princess Maritza!" Ellerey exclaimed. "What has she to do with us?"

"Sufficient to give us a violent ending," Stefan answered.

"The golden cross is the sign of her house, her token; and you, Captain, have been her messenger."

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