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VII A PLAGUE ON NAMES!"Does Ned say when he will start?" asked the Colonel, and Charlotte, reading again, said the sergeant, at the time of the writing, was not expected to live an hour. Whereupon the word went through town that Ferry was on his way to us.
But the Countess thrust her fiercely aside.
Cries of masculine anger and feminine affright filled the hall, but one ringing order for silence hushed all, and the dance stood still with Ned Ferry in its centre. In his right hand, shoulder high, he held not his sword, but Charlotte's fingers lightly poised for the turn in the arrested dance. "Stand, gentlemen, every man is covered by two; look at the doors; look at the windows." The staff captain daringly sprang for the front door, but Ferry's quick boot caught his instep and he struck the floor full length. Like lightning Ferry's sword was out, but he only gave it a deferential sweep. "Sir! better luck next time!--Lieutenant Quinn, put the Captain in your front rank.""Not an escaped lunatic," he protested, and tried to shake his head. But the attempt to do so merely started his ears flapping again.
"'Ere, stow that gammon," broke in the constable, impatiently, "s'nuff of that sort of talk. You come along with me." He spat determinedly and prepared to take action.
There was no time for speech. The shot was not a signal, yet on the instant and in our very teeth, on our right and our left, the cross-fire of the hidden and waiting foe flashed and pealed, and left and right, a life for a life, our carbines answered from the saddle. For a moment the odds against us were awful. In an instant the road was so full of fallen horses and dismounted men that the jaded column faltered in confusion. Our cunning enemy, seeing us charge in column, had swung the two extremes of their line forward and inward. So, crouching and firing upon us mounted, each half could fire toward the other with impunity, and what bullets missed their mark buzzed and whined about our ears and pecked the top rails of either fence like hail on a window. A wounded horse drove mine back upon his haunches and caused him to plant a hoof full on the breast of one of our Louisianians stretched dead on his back as though he had lain there for an hour. Another man, pale, dazed, unhurt, stood on the ground, unaware that he was under point-blank fire, holding by the bits his beautiful horse, that pawed the earth majestically and at every second or third breath blew from his flapping nostrils a cloud of scarlet spray. They blocked up half the road. As we swerved round them the horse of the company's first lieutenant slid forward and downward with knees and nose in the dust, hurling his rider into a lock of the fence, and the rider rose and rushed to the road again barely in time to catch a glittering form that dropped rein and sword and reeled backward from the saddle. It was his captain, shot through the breast. An instant later our tangled column parted to right and left, dashed into the locks of the two fences, sprang to the ground, and began to repay the enemy in the coin of their own issue. Only a dozen or so did otherwise, and it was my luck to be one of these. Espying Ned Ferry at the very front, in the road, standing in his stirrups and shouting back for followers to carry the charge on through, we spurred toward him and he turned and led. Then what was my next fortune but to see, astride of my stolen horse, the towering leader of the foe, Captain Jewett.