Dwellers in the Hills (Chapter 6, page 1 of 5)

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Chapter 6

There are mornings that cling in the memory like a face caught for a moment in some crowded street and lost; mornings when no cloud curtains the doorway of the sun; when the snaffle-chains rattle sharp in the crisp air and the timber cracks in the frost. They are good to remember when the wrist has lost its power and the bridle-fingers stiffen, and they are clear with a mystic clearness, the elders say, when one is passing to the ghosts.

It was such a morning when I stood in the doorway of the old waggon-maker's house. The light was driving the white fogs into the north. A cool, sweet air came down from the wooded hill, laden with the smell of the beech leaves, and the little people of the bushes were beginning to tumble out of their beds.

We asked old Simon if he had heard a horse in the night, and he replied that he had heard one stop for a few moments a little before dawn and presently pass on up the road in a trot. Doubtless, he insisted, the rider had dismounted for a drink of his celebrated spring water. We kept our own counsels. If the henchmen of Woodford hunted water in the early morning, it would be, in the opinion of Ump, "when the cows come home."

We went over every inch of the horses from their hocks to their silk noses, and every stitch of our riding gear, to be sure that no deviltry had been done. But we found nothing. Evidently Marks was merely spying out the land. Then we led the horses out for the journey. El Mahdi had to duck his head to get under the low doorway. It was good to see him sniff the cool air, his coat shining like a maid's ribbons, and then rise on his hind legs and strike out at nothing for the sheer pleasure of being alive on this October day. And it was good to see him plunge his head up to the eyepits into the sparkling water and gulp it down, and then blow the clinging drops out of his nostrils.

El Mahdi, if beyond the stars somewhere in those other Hills of the Undying I am not to find you, I shall not care so very greatly if the last sleep be as dreamless as the wise have sometimes said it is.

I spread the thick saddle-blanket and pulled it out until it touched his grey withers, and taking the saddle by the horn swung it up on his back, straightened the skirts and drew the two girths tight, one of leather and one of hemp web. Then I climbed into the saddle, and we rode out under the apple trees.

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