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Title: Skewbald, The New Forest Pony
Author: Seaby, Allen W.
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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    ─────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────


                          _BY THE SAME AUTHOR_

    =EXMOOR LASS=, and other Pony Stories
    With frontispiece in colour and about 76 illustrations from
    drawings by the Author in the text, and with coloured jacket.
    Large crown 8vo, cloth. Price 3s. 6d. net. (By post, 4s.)

       “These are jolly stories of the ponies not only on Exmoor, but
    in the heaths of the New Forest, on the Moorlands of Wales, and
    the stony spaces of Shetland. . . . The author’s sketches are
    delightful.”—_The Times Literary Supplement._

    =THE BIRDS OF THE AIR=; or, British Birds in their Haunts
    Second Edition. With 100 illustrations, including 8 plates in
    colour. 5s. net. (By post, 5s. 6d.)

       “He writes with sympathetic simplicity of the birds he has
    watched and sketched. His drawings are wonderfully
    characteristic; in a few lines he catches expression, attitude,
    ‘jizz’ as the Irishman said, of the living, alert
    bird.”—_Manchester Guardian._

                            _BY ANNA SEWELL_

    =BLACK BEAUTY=: The Autobiography of a Horse
    With frontispiece and jacket in colour. Crown 8vo, cloth. Price
    2s. 6d. net. (By post, 2s. 10d.)

       This is a new edition of the classic of the horse. Today as
    many readers as ever are enjoying the tale of Black Beauty’s
    early life and pleasant friends, his fall to the hard lot of a
    London cab-horse, and the happy ending of his story.

    ─────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────

                              PUBLISHED BY
        A. & C. BLACK, LTD., 4, 5 & 6 SOHO SQUARE, LONDON, W. 1

                               A G E N T S
                           _The United States_
                     THE MACMILLAN COMPANY, NEW YORK
                       _Australia and New Zealand_
                  THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, MELBOURNE
                                 _Canada_
                 THE MACMILLAN COMPANY OF CANADA, TORONTO
                              _South Africa_
                  THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, CAPE TOWN
                     _India, Burma, China and F.M.S._
                      MACMILLAN AND COMPANY, LIMITED
                      BOMBAY     CALCUTTA     MADRAS



[Illustration]



[Illustration: SKEWBALD AND HIS MOTHER]



                            S K E W B A L D

                 T H E   N E W   F O R E S T   P O N Y


                           By ALLEN W. SEABY

                               AUTHOR OF
                 “EXMOOR LASS, AND OTHER PONY STORIES”
     AND “THE BIRDS OF THE AIR; OR, BRITISH BIRDS IN THEIR HAUNTS”


                             [Illustration]


                        A.  &  C.  BLACK,  LTD.
               4,  5  &  6  SOHO  SQUARE,  LONDON,  W.  1



                         MADE IN GREAT BRITAIN

                       _First Published in 1923_
                _Reprinted in 1927, 1929, 1931 and 1934_



                             AUTHOR’S NOTE

                 ALL the characters, human and
                 equine, in this story are fictitious.

[Illustration]



                                CONTENTS

          CHAPTER                                           PAGE
               I. THE HERD                                     3
              II. THE FOAL                                    14
             III. THE CHASE                                   22
              IV. DEATH ON THE ROAD                           29
               V. SKEWBALD’S NEIGHBOURS                       35
              VI. WINTER                                      48
             VII. THE RIVAL LEADERS                           52
            VIII. SKEWBALD IN TROUBLE                         58
              IX. THE NEW-COMERS                              65
               X. THE BRANDING OF SKEWBALD                    69
              XI. SKEWBALD’S JUMPING                          78
             XII. CHANGING THE BRAND                          86
            XIII. THE BROKEN LEG                              94
             XIV. HOW SKEWBALD RANG THE FIREBELL             107
              XV. THE WANDERERS                              113
             XVI. SKEWBALD THE SWIFT                         129
            XVII. HOW SKEWBALD ESCAPED THE MINES             141



[Illustration: Map of The New Forest]



                            S K E W B A L D
                 T H E   N E W   F O R E S T   P O N Y


                             [Illustration]



[Illustration]


                              I.—THE HERD

ONE hot June afternoon, a group of ponies with their foals and yearlings
stood on the edge of a tableland or “plain” in the New Forest. The
ground about them was covered with stunted heather and fern, with here
and there patches of moss and bare white gravel showing the poverty of
the soil.

Beyond the company was a great expanse of blue sky flecked with pinkish
cloudlets, and, on the horizon, blue and violet wooded heights, a
crinkly contour denoting oak and beech and an evenly serrated line,
plantations of firs. As everyone who has journeyed from Southampton to
Bournemouth by road or rail knows, a great part of the forest is open
heath or moorland; but, unlike the barren wilds of the Highlands, the
New Forest has also extensive woods full of gigantic oaks and beeches,
while the open ground in many places is becoming choked with self-sown
firs.

Therefore, looking into the distance, the masses of woodland largely
concealed the open spaces. Emery Down showed on the horizon, the sun
fell on the spire of Lyndhurst Church, and in the middle distance a
white curving ribbon showed itself as a forest road, before it was lost
among the trees.

Below the ponies was a wide valley, covered with coarse grass, and
dotted with hollies, gorse and stunted firs. The mares had chosen the
hill for their afternoon siesta because up there were fewer flies and
biting torments than down below in the swampy bottoms, where, earlier in
the day, the ponies had been feeding. They stood mostly in pairs, head
to tail, so that the swish of the latter drove the flies from their
noses and flanks. Once in a while, a yearling—that is, one born the
previous year—finding the sun too hot, butted in between the mares.

The foals or “suckers” lay half-hidden in the heather, wandered here and
there nibbling at the herbage, or drew nourishment from their mothers.
These varied greatly in colour and size. The tallest was a black mare
with the graceful lines of the racehorse, as well there might be, seeing
she had some of the blood of that breed in her veins. Next her stood an
old white mare, bleached with age, for, while the forest ponies exhibit
the usual equine diversity of hues, there are none all white. In her
prime she had been a grey, perhaps a beautiful pearl grey with a few
darker dapplings, like her neighbour, a young mare with her first foal,
black of coat except for a white forehead blaze and fore-foot. Close by
stood, and dozed, a chestnut mare with a mane and tail of pure gold, or
so it seemed in the sunshine. There were also bays, with black manes and
tails, but the commonest colour in the group was a dark brown. It was
noticeable that most of the foals were darker in colour than their
mothers.

Standing by themselves were two dingy brown ponies, a mare and a
two-year-old, shorter of leg than the other adults. Their necks showed
little of the arch of a well-shaped animal—indeed, both ponies were
almost donkey-like in shape, with hollow backs, drooping bellies, and
“cow-hocked” hind-legs. The mare had a beard hanging below her chin.

Almost their exact counterpart, even to the beard, had been set down,
ages before, in the wall-paintings and drawings scratched on bone of the
old Stone Age. These two, one might suppose, were throw-backs to the old
forest pony, which was hunted, or possibly domesticated, by the men
whose remains were interred in the mounds dotted over the forest.
Indeed, close by stood a great tumulus, and some way off was a group of
nine mounds, big and little, like parents and children.

Of the other ponies, several showed the attempts at improving the breed
practised of late years. One had the short leg of the Exmoor pony,
another the tiny ear of the Shetland, others the shapely line of the
polo and even of the Arab, for at one time or another all these, and
others, have been used as sires. In some cases the importation
threatened to improve the race off the forest altogether. It is no land
of milk and honey, for the green pastures and lush spots are not in
themselves extensive enough to support the stock of ponies, and only
those which can exist on the coarse tussock grass, the sweet but prickly
shoots of gorse, and the astringent heather tufts, are sure of
surviving. Also a good proportion of the ponies stay out in the forest
all the winter; and though snow does not fall frequently or lie long in
this locality, yet the weather is often colder than in the Shetlands,
where the little pony of the far North, his ears buried in his shaggy
mane, and a doormat-like thatch on his back, winters without difficulty.

But here, at the other extreme of Britain, if there come a long spell of
bleak wet weather, and especially if sharp frosts intervene, the younger
ponies are likely to suffer, and a man, seeing his neighbour’s yearling
looking “seedy,” will think it his duty to inform the owner, who, unless
careless and improvident, will have the creature “caught in,” and give
it shelter and food.

Perhaps the most striking in colour of the group on the hill was a
chestnut mare, of that rich hue known as “liver” chestnut. In the sun
her coat flashed bright orange-red, while by contrast it appeared deep
purple in the shade. Her foal at the moment was lying in the heather,
out of sight. When at length he arose, one saw why he could lie hidden
so completely, for he was so small and evidently had not long been born.
Compared with the other foals, which were now well grown, though still
leggy, the colt seemed absurdly disproportioned, and with his big head,
long ears, and bent hind-legs looked, apart from his colour, more like a
fawn than a pony in the making. His body was so meagre that it seemed
merely a connecting-link between his fore and hind quarters. As he stood
up he swayed to and fro. His little napping tail looked exactly like the
strip of goatskin nailed on to form the tail of those wooden steeds
which were being made, not so far away from where the ponies stood, in
the toy factory at Brockenhurst.

But the interesting thing about him was his colour, for he was a
“skewbald,” patterned boldly in chestnut and white. Nearly all the other
foals were dark, and it was as yet almost impossible to foretell their
exact adult colour. Alone among the youngsters, the skewbald foal showed
what his coat would be like when he was full grown. Although so young,
he possessed the agility of young creatures which have no period of
sheltered repose, unlike fledglings in the nest, or the young fawn
hardly able to stand, and hidden by its mother while it gathers
strength. In his way the foal was as nimble and alive as young partridge
or lapwing chicks. He trotted to his mother, took nourishment with the
curious twisted neck characteristic of the attitude of a foal when
feeding, and relapsed from sight among the heather.

Nearly all the mares had shaggy manes and tails, and the hair hung down
over their foreheads so as almost to conceal their eyes. The foals had
manes standing up along their necks as if they had been “hogged,” and
their fore hair rose in a curious tuft between their ears.

The ponies, to all appearance, were as tame as any stable animal, and
they would not have retreated if a man had quietly approached them or
gone past at a distance of a few yards; unless, of course, he had used a
binocular or camera, when the flash of light from glass or metal would
have caused them to start and make off. A horseman, however, would be a
different matter, and they would have been on the move long before he
reached them.

At a nearer view the branding marks on the mares and yearlings could be
seen, mostly on the back where a saddle would cover it, but sometimes on
the shoulder. These marks indicated the initials or devices of their
owners, commoners of the forest, or Crown tenants, who have the right of
pasturing their ponies, the Crown demanding a small annual sum for each
animal put out in the forest.

These marked ponies had the hair of their tails cut curiously. This had
been done by the agisters, forest officers with numerous and complicated
duties. The forest is divided into three districts, each served by an
agister, and each district has its own way of marking the tails of the
ponies registered by him. In one district the lower third of the hair is
cut away, leaving a centre tassel; in the other two half the lower third
is cut off on the right and left respectively. Thus an agister can tell
at a glance whether a pony belongs to his district or not. The cut tail
is, in effect, a receipt, testifying that the pony’s owner has
registered it and paid the dues.

                           *    *    *    *    *

The lord and master of the herd on the hill, the stallion, was not, for
the moment, in sight. He might have been cooling his heels in a stream,
dozing among the gnarled, ingrown hollies, which, with their twisted
branches, look fully as grotesque as any of Mr. Rackham’s picturing, or
have gone off to turn back a mare wandering away down the valley.

Presently a shrill whistling call was heard, and the mares showed signs
of animation; ears were pricked up and heads flung round. Up the hill
came the stallion with a pounding step. He was a bright bay with a big
white blotch on his back. His forelock covered his white forehead blaze,
and his eyes also, for all one could see. The black hair of his mane and
tail was crimped or waved, unlike the lank locks of the mares. He moved
with a vigorous action, lifting his feet high, and with a long stride.
He carried his tail with a finer sweep than the mares, while his mane
rose and fell with the energetic movement of his neck. His coat was
glossy, and the high lights rippling to and fro on the bright sienna
surface were golden in the sun and blue in the shade. When he reached
the summit he stopped, looking back with twitching ears. He snorted and
hurried to the group of ponies, and past them, then stopped, and the
herd, understanding, prepared to follow their leader, the mares calling
to their recumbent foals, which rose to their feet and stretched before
cantering to their mothers. The cavalcade moved off, only the dappled
grey remaining motionless. She was wilful or lazy. The stallion took a
few quick paces back and touched her with his nose as a hint to move on.
She whinnied crossly and tried to strike him with a fore-foot. He
lowered his head, bared his teeth and snorted, whereupon she thought
better of it, and moved off. The stallion trotted to the head of the
column, and looked round to see that all were following.

As they went down the hill, two riders showed on the ridge to the right,
a man on a tall white horse and a boy on a forest pony.

“Look, sonny,” said the horseman, “that was the stallion walking before
us up the hill. He has warned his mares and set them all going. How fine
they look in a bunch with their varying colours! Seems a pity,” he
continued, “that these fine creatures should have to go down into the
coal-mines.”

“Let’s ride down and stir them up, dad,” suggested the lad.

“Not a bit of it,” his father answered. “We should want a good reason to
disturb mares with young foals. The forest people would think us very
inconsiderate. Remember,” with a smile, “you may be a verderer yourself
some day, and sit in the court hall at Lyndhurst, where the big stirrup
hangs on the wall. We’ll make off to the right and watch them as we go.”

As the ponies saw their supposed pursuers getting further from them,
they relaxed their pace, stopped, and fell to grazing.

Only the stallion, still suspicious, kept his head up, and trotted a
little way towards the receding figures, watching the intruders until
they disappeared behind a rise.

Then he turned and walked to the little stream in which some of the
ponies were standing, fetlock-deep, or drinking.

[Illustration: _Blackdown._]



[Illustration]


                              II.—THE FOAL

DURING July the herd wandered over moor and “plain” or in the woods,
keeping to their unmarked, though to them fairly well-defined, territory
of several square miles. Outside those limits were other herds, with
their leaders ready to take offence at the presence of strange males.

The little skewbald foal kept away from the other youngsters, for they
were too big and strong for him to play with; but by good fortune a
brown mare with a colt of the same colour, and about the same age as
Skewbald, joined the party. What with milk and nibblings of heather and
the lush grass of the bottoms, the little foals grew apace and became
playmates.

In the late afternoons before the long evening feed, the pair would
gambol with all the abandon of youth, while their mothers stood head to
tail, jerking manes, waving tails, shaking fore-legs, and ever and anon
changing the weight from one hind-leg to another. The colts would race
across the meadow where the herd was pasturing, then stop dead, and
stand nose to nose, watching for the other’s next move; one would rear
up suddenly, startling his playfellow, and race away in glee. Then
followed a biting of manes and nibbling of shoulders like any old
couple. At times they grew rougher in their play. They ran shoulder to
shoulder, trying to bite, or, rearing up on hind-legs like veterans,
indulged in an orgy of make-believe biting and kicking.

But, for the greater part of the day, life went quietly with the little
foal. His mane, half white and chestnut with a streak of black, was
growing fast. His barrel was filling out, and his legs growing straight
and strong. His slender muzzle poked about everywhere, and his tail
flapped continually.

In the hot July days, the colt and his mother wandered over the hills,
and by the little streams meandering along the bottoms except where the
gurgling water was checked, and collected to form a bog. Sometimes the
stream was bordered with birch and alder, growing in a soggy bed,
littered with dead wood, and choked with undergrowth. Tracks ran in and
out among the trees, worn by the hoofs of generations of ponies. Here,
the deeper water flowed more slowly. One afternoon, as Skewbald paused
at the edge to nibble at a bed of watercress, his mother snorted at two
curious objects moving on the surface of the water, two bristling
cat-like heads with small ears and a swirling of water behind. They were
otters, steering themselves with their thick tails.

Once he nearly stepped on a snipe, her head so far immersed in a muddy
pool that she was not aware of an intruder until the hoof was almost
upon her, and then what a fluttering and zig-zagging and crying of
“scape-scape!” Another time, but this was next year, in spring, as he
dawdled around the edge of the wood among the dead bracken, he nosed
against a brown stem. It moved, and suddenly became part of the barred
head and widely opened eyes of a sitting woodcock, her buff, grey and
white back matching the dead leaves and bracken, and her long beak
indistinguishable from the stalks of the fern.

At one point the stream opened out into a wide shallow with a pebbly
bottom where the little trout played. Tracks led into the stream and out
on the other side, for this was a forest ford.

How pleasant the colts found the water, enjoying the splashing of their
hoofs as they walked in the stream, the while their elders stood
fetlock-deep! How refreshing to take a deep drink, head and neck
inclined at just the right angle so that the nostrils were clear of the
water, followed by a snort of content!

After whiling away the hotter hours thus, the ponies would take the
tracks towards the hill. As they got higher, the white stones showed in
the thin crust of soil, and the heather grew more sparsely. One August
afternoon, while rounding a gorsebush which shaded a patch of bare
blackish soil, strewn with dead sticks and gravel, the colt almost
touched with his nose what looked like a piece of dead wood covered with
grey lichen and spots of orange fungus, when, on the moment, the thing
came to life. The lichen and fungus became grey-tipped and barred
feathers, the stalk-like projection opened in half, disclosing a great,
rose-pink, frog-like mouth—a mouth so enormous and menacing, that
Skewbald shrunk back. Then the mother nightjar appeared from nowhere,
and croaking and spluttering she fluttered right before the foal’s nose,
so that his attention was distracted from her young one. If he had
looked again he would have found the gaping mouth and widely spread
wings gone, and the young chick again reduced to the semblance of an
unattractive lump.

Sometimes the ponies would take the open moor with its coarse grass,
scanty tufts of heather, and sweet-scented bog myrtle. Much of it was
swamp, and the mare watched her offspring to see that he did not venture
into one of the deep bogs known only to the forest men, and to the
ponies and deer. If he were rash, she called him on to safety, while if
he were obstinate, she butted him with her forehead on to drier ground.

In places the moor was curiously patterned, like a chessboard, a tuft of
heather next a patch of bare soil. This was owing to the peat-cutting, a
right possessed by the commoners, who, however, are required “to cut one
and leave two,” so that the soil should not be deprived altogether of
vegetable growth.

In early September the colt may have seen the forest gentian, a single
blossom of a beautiful violet-blue on an erect stalk, while the
seed-pods of the bog asphodel close by, of a vivid orange-yellow, formed
a perfect colour complementary. But do ponies see colours? They
apparently see well by night, which would seem to show that a large part
of their retina consists of structures adapted for nocturnal vision,
just as the outer part of the human retina only is used at dusk, the
inner being practically blind at this time, and therefore green foliage
and grass turn grey, and red flowers appear black, red and green being
seen only with that part of the retina concerned with diurnal vision.

About this time, too, as he crossed a sandy forest path, he may have
seen the brilliantly green caterpillar of the emperor moth, its sides
spotted with pink, full fed, and wandering about seeking a site for its
cocoon. Was he able to detect the same creature on its natural
resting-place, the heather, practically invisible to human eyes, when
motionless; its green merged into the leafage, and the pink spots
simulating heather buds?

Certainly the heather the year of Skewbald’s birth was of a brilliance
such that the oldest forest man declared he had never seen equalled.
Especially was this the case on the most barren gravelly spots, where
instead of the usual magenta, clumps of the brightest crimson blazed in
the sun.

In the warm September days life passed pleasantly. Through the cold,
clear nights, while Vega blazed above, he paced on with his mother, ever
nibbling, for, like his kind, he did not spend the long nights in sleep,
but towards dawn lay down for an hour or so. His coat, fast thickening,
kept him warm, even when just after sunrise a white frost covered every
blade of grass, heather tuft, and fern frond. As the sun rose higher,
the frost turned to a heavy dew in which the colt wandered, the wet bog
myrtle washing him to the shoulder, while the rays, shining through the
mist, enveloped him with a golden aura.

Later in the day he plodded up the hill on to the “plain,” and while his
mother dozed in the shade of a clump of holly, he would roll in a patch
of brilliantly white or golden sand. Once as he bent his knees to lie
down, a grey-brown thing like a dead furze branch suddenly galvanized
into life with a hiss. As the viper moved, the colt, with a snort of
astonishment, jumped all four feet in the air at once, and the mother
rushed towards him. She saw the reptile gliding along the path, and
turned sharply away, calling the colt to her.

So Skewbald learned to avoid a snake, and incidentally that he could
jump. He practised this on occasion, leaping over fallen stumps, across
streamlets and shallow pits, not knowing how useful an accomplishment it
might prove to him in after-life.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]


                             III.—THE CHASE

THE waning of September, with its sunny days, cold nights, and morning
mists, made little difference to the ponies’ daily routine. Apparently
they were as free to go where they listed as any wild Western herd. But
their owners kept an eye on them, and left them there or had them
“caught in,” as they pleased.

Later in the year strings of ponies would wend their way to the
Brockenhurst sales, but it chanced that the owner of the bay leader of
the herd in which Skewbald ran, decided to have him in before he got
busy catching other people’s ponies, which was always the case towards
the end of the year, as he was an adept at the game.

The shadows of a golden afternoon were lengthening, and the herd,
scattered over a mile of valley bottom, was getting to work after the
midday siesta, when a horseman appeared on the skyline at the head of
the valley. It was the colt-hunter seeking his property. A moment later
another rider came down one of the slopes, and a third emerged from the
woods bordering the ridge on the other side of the valley. This last was
Mollie, a girl of fifteen, and the other a lad of thirteen, her brother
Tom. They had come to help their father to capture the pony. This was
not the first time they had taken part in the chase.

The mares heard the thud of hoofs, threw up their heads, and whinnied to
their foals and yearlings. Then a call came from their leader a good way
down the valley, and at once the ponies made off towards the summons,
increasing their pace as the boy and girl riders came down upon them,
shouting and waving, in the hope of driving them back, so that the
stallion could be dealt with alone. But the girl had to check, as she
came to a boggy patch, and they swept on to join their leader. “Get
along, Tom,” called the father, following behind. “Up the hill, Mollie,
and head them off.” Tom, on a rough pony, and riding like a centaur,
raced after the fugitives, which with one accord stretched into a
gallop, stringing out along the valley, according to their ability; the
stallion at the head, and putting his best foot forward, as if he knew
that out of all the lot he was the one wanted. The ground resounded with
the thud of hoofs, manes and tails waved in the air, and mares called to
their foals, the youngsters responding gallantly.

The stallion was making for a wood, and to reach this the ponies had to
skirt a swamp. As the leader rounded the wet land, and made for the
upland shelter, Mollie came directly towards him, screeching and waving.
It was too much for the pony’s nerves; he turned and fled up the valley,
making for the higher ground, and followed by the herd, somewhat
confused and bunched together by the check. Some of the foals began to
tire, and, with their mothers, slackened and fell out. Among them was
the chestnut mare, who retired with her foal to the shelter of a clump
of hollies, whence, with twitching ears and distended nostrils, they
watched the pursuit. The stallion, with some faithful companions, now
encountered Tom, who turned him again, and then the man took up the
running. Their aim was to tire out the stallion, “to run him off his
legs,” for in this waste was no friendly farmyard or paddock into which
he could be driven. Grass and heather fed, as he was, he was not likely
to have the staying power of stable-fed ponies. On the other hand, he
had no weight to carry, and, if allowed to get into the woods, might
elude his pursuers until nightfall made it impossible to continue the
chase.

The mares, yearlings, and two-year-olds dropped out one by one. In
little groups they watched the chase, pursued and pursuers rapidly
dwindling in size as they raced down the valley, then thundering back
along the ridge, black against the evening sky. The bay had no rest, and
was turned time after time. Now and then one rider slowed down, but the
others kept inexorably on the heels of their prey.

The chase was not without its dangers, for the hillsides were dry and
slippery. Once the stallion fell, and rolled clean over, but was up and
away in a moment. The girl’s pony slipped twice, but she stuck to him
like a burr. The ridden ponies had been on the business before, and were
as keen as their riders. They were quick to see the signs of deflection
on the part of their quarry, and would of their own accord cut off
corners to where the stallion was heading. More than once the boy’s
pony, going straight for his objective, went under a gnarled holly, and
the rider had to flatten himself, with his head buried in the pony’s
mane, or he would have been swept off by the lower branches, and hung
aloft. But it was all in the day’s work. Perhaps the man took it the
most quietly. He was there to secure his pony—his children were out for
a good run.

The end came when the bay visibly tired, and could no longer keep ahead.
He was alone, for all his companions had deserted him. The man forged
alongside, and the two ran almost touching, when suddenly the rider, a
halter in his hand, jumped from his mount, and flung himself on the
stallion’s neck, bearing him to the ground. In a trice the halter was
slipped on, and the man was up and on his pony, before the shaken bay
knew what had happened. It was a feat of strength and agility of which
few of the forest men were capable.

The others rode up exulting in their father’s prowess. “Keep clear of
his heels, Tom,” was the caution. As the stallion turned to make off,
the man’s mount leaned against the rope, bracing herself against the
coming jerk, which brought the would-be fugitive up short, pulling him
off his feet. He was up in a twinkling, and lashed out with his heels,
but all were prepared, and stinging whips warned him against these
tactics. When he hung back the two behind chivied him on. Once he lay
down and was dragged along the turf a few paces, but the whips again
drove him up. Then, with ears depressed, the red of his eyes showing,
and bared teeth, he tried biting, but a slash across the face intimated
that such an assault would not pay.

Finally, the stallion, dead tired as he was, lost heart, dropped his
ears dejectedly, and trudged along, while his captors, almost as weary,
went homewards across the moors, now and then breaking into speech, as
they recalled the more exciting moments of the hunt.

Of the stallion’s life in the coal-pits there is not much to tell. This
was a good mine, and the ponies were well looked after. Their stalls
were lit with electricity, and they were properly fed and groomed. When
at work they wore leather hats, so that in the low places a bump would
not injure them.

Once at least the stallion, who gained the good-will of the drivers by
his willingness and activity, had a good rest, beside his weekly one,
for when the great strike was decreed and the pony-men were called out,
the ponies had to be brought to the surface. The bay was among the first
batch, no longer bright of coat, and his eyes dazzled by the light of
day. But when he reached the field of dingy grass, so unlike the clean
heather of his native soil, he lay down, and rolled to his heart’s
content, then got up and whinnied long and loud, as if calling across
the great open spaces of the forest.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]


                         IV.—DEATH ON THE ROAD

THE ponies were changing pasture one bright September day. They had
eaten the grass from a bottom sward, and the old white mare was leading
the party to another, a mile to the south. Up the hill they went, in
single file, the mares with drooping heads, looking neither to left nor
right, the yearlings nearly as soberly, and the colts wandering on
either side to examine things, like scouts on the flanks of a column.
The ridge attained, they followed the turf by the road. The Isle of
Wight, mostly cerulean blue with touches of pink and gold where the sun
caught it, lay along the southern horizon; its hilltops alone showed,
the sea being out of sight, so that the island seemed merely the last
folds of mainland hill country.

The old mare took the road, and the long string of ponies, as they came
on the hard, gritty surface, suddenly became audible, the pounding of
their hoofs contrasting with their noiseless progress on the turf. The
road was straight, and behind them a green-covered lorry approached
rapidly. It lurched somewhat, as if the driver’s hand was none too
steady. He had met an old acquaintance in Hythe, and they had celebrated
the occasion. He held to his speed, being in a foolhardy mood. Why
should he make way for ponies when they had all the forest on both sides
of the road? They must get out of his way, or all the worse for them.
But the ways of ponies were fixed long before motor-lorries or any other
of man’s contrivances were in being, and the pace of a car was beyond
their calculation. Skewbald was ambling behind his little brown friend
on the left hand of the road. The man kept to his side, grinning in
anticipation of the ponies’ sudden dart to safety.

Some quickness of perception beyond the ordinary, some electric rapidity
of movement, alone saved Skewbald. The increasing noise and vibration
warned him, and without stopping to bend his hind-legs for a leap, he
jumped with all four feet sideways. The lorry, rushing on and missing
him by inches, caught the poor little brown foal and hurled it into the
ditch, its mother in front escaping with a severe bruise on her flank.
The man involuntarily put on his brakes, and the other ponies had time
to get off the road. He leaned out, and looked back. There was no car,
nor anyone in sight. “Better get out of this,” he muttered, and set off,
cursing, accelerating to top speed.

But he had looked only along the road. Tom, on pony-back, was going
shopping for his mother, and, with his empty bags hanging from his
saddle, had taken a short cut across the moor, and by a path through the
trees on the hill. As he came to the top the swaying lorry caught his
eye. He saw its check and the scattering of the ponies, then its hurried
departure. He cantered along until he reached the spot where the brown
mare stood, and shrank in horror from the foal’s injuries, far beyond
his help, then with a hot urge within him to bring the culprit to
justice, he set off along the road as fast as his pony could go.

A little later, a car with two officers and a chauffeur came tearing
along in the same direction. As they neared the spot where the foal was
struck, the brown mare was seen standing in the road. “Slow down,”
ordered the senior officer peremptorily, remarking to his companion that
there had been too many accidents to ponies that summer. “Pony hurt,
sir,” said the chauffeur, stopping the car of his own accord. One glance
at the foal showed that nothing could be done for it, save freeing it
from pain. The younger officer got a revolver from the car, while the
elder and his man examined the tracks of the lorry before its stoppage,
and the pattern of the tyre impressions. Then a shot rang out, and the
mare moved away in fright, but returned to the body as the car started.

When Tom reached the town he saw the lorry outside a public-house. He
looked up the street; the policeman strolling along was an old
acquaintance of his father’s, and the lad went up to him. “Please, Mr.
Jones, that lorry ran over a foal back on the road.” “Oh!” exclaimed the
constable; “sure? Where’s the driver? In there, I suppose. What
happened?” At that moment the man emerged, wiping his mouth on his
sleeve, and went to the lorry. “What’s this about a foal?” asked the
policeman. “You ran into it.” The boy burst in with, “You ran it down!
You know you did!” “You’re a lying little rascal,” retorted the man
surlily; “I never went within a mile of a pony.” “I know this boy well,”
said the constable, “and he wouldn’t make trouble for nothing. I want
your name and address.” A few idlers strolled up, and the man began to
bluff; he was in Government employ, and if his lorry with its load
wasn’t in Ringwood by midday, someone would have to answer for it. Just
then the car with the two officers came up. They jumped out and looked
at the lorry tyres. “This is the car,” said the senior officer. “Where’s
the chauffeur?” Tom, the policeman, and the bystanders all nodded
accusingly at the driver. The officer turned on him. “You’re an inhuman
brute, running down harmless creatures. No, sir; don’t bluster,” as the
driver opened his mouth. “We came up after you, marked your tyre tracks,
put the foal out of its misery, and we shall certainly attend to give
evidence against you. Take my name, constable—General ——,” mentioning
a famous name, which made the crowd gape and the miserable driver shiver
in his shoes.

And later when he appeared in court, the General, his subordinate
officer, and the chauffeur attended, as well as Tom, who was
complimented on the way in which he gave his evidence; and the driver
was severely punished, as a warning to other brutal or careless people.

[Illustration: Denny Bog.]



[Illustration]


                        V.—SKEWBALD’S NEIGHBOURS

WANDERING over moor and heath, and through the deep woods, Skewbald
while yet a foal got to know the wild life of the forest, for, as with
all young things, life to him was more than mere eating, and he was full
of curiosity about everything that went on around him.

In the evenings he would see the rabbits, first little and then big,
come out of their holes, their white scuts flashing as they gambolled.
If they “froze,” their quiet umber tint assimilated with the surrounding
hues, so that their outline was lost, and sometimes the colt, going
towards a patch of herbage, saw nothing but a great black eye gazing at
him, until, on a nearer approach, a young rabbit materialized, and loped
away. On summer mornings when the dew was heavy, the bunnies looked
almost black because of their drenched fur. They would have all day to
comb and smooth it out underground. Early one morning he saw a doe
rabbit with a mouthful of grass, sticking out on both sides of her
muzzle, like a great green moustache; she went below with it, her two
little ones following.

Hares he did not see so often, and they sat so quietly in their “forms,”
that he was not aware of their presence until he nosed up against them.
But he once saw a hare anything but quiet. On a bare patch of gravel
near the railway, where hares were in the habit of crossing, a big jack
hare was writhing and squirming without moving from the spot, and
Skewbald went up to see this strange sight. The creature, of course, was
in a gin, though the foal was not to know that. Not being afraid of
hares, he got quite close, and, as the entrapped one did not move off,
but still strained and struggled, he gave a mischievous little stamp to
drive him away. Now, the poor hare was caught by a fore toenail only,
and Skewbald happening to press with his hoof on the spring the jaw
opened, and the prisoner was set free; but his fore-leg was so strained
by the tension, that when he put weight on it, he fell over, and
squirmed as before.

Skewbald, very interested, touched him, and the hare made off on to the
track, where again he fell and writhed, Skewbald watching through the
railings, until the noise of an oncoming train reminded the stricken one
that he still had three legs to run on. The following spring Skewbald
again witnessed the hare in motion, and this time there were two. The
pair were on a level stretch, and indulging in an orgy of violent
movement. They chased one another, turning and doubling, taking turns to
be pursued and pursuer, till one stopped and crouched, the other jumping
over its back. Then they ran apart in tangential circles which brought
them face to face, whereupon they stood up on their hind-legs, and
thumped one another with their forepaws like boxers. They acted as madly
as any other pair of March hares.

Instinct and his mother taught Skewbald to notice all that was going on,
to keep his eyes “skinned.” When they were in the woods, the harsh notes
of the jays made him start, and from his mother’s movements, he learned
that someone was about. Once in spring, browsing on the young shoots of
a hawthorn-bush, he almost nosed against two dormice fresh from their
long rest, sleek and tawny bright, among the green tufts.

The squirrels he could not help seeing, and when he stopped, and looked
at them sitting on the low boughs of a fir, making short work of the
cones, they stamped peevishly with their hind-feet, making quite a
noise, as the rabbits did on the ground. Once he witnessed a curious and
beautiful sight which lasted but a moment. A squirrel pursued another,
going round and round a tree-trunk as they descended, so quickly that
they left on the eye the impression of a reddish streak, drawn spirally
round the trunk. This again was in spring, and, like the mad antics of
the hares, a love chase.

Sometimes a fox trotted by, or sat up and looked at him impudently, and,
as it happened, he got tolerably familiar with a family of foxes. The
lair was in a bank between the roots of an old oak. Skewbald’s mother,
as she went by, snuffed the air, and indeed, the smell, whether of fox
or high viands, was perceptible even to human nostrils. So Skewbald
snuffed too, and whenever he passed the hole, the odour reminded him of
what dwelt there. One fine evening, as he idled at a little distance, he
perceived movement outside the hole. It was not rabbits, so he went
closer, and saw the little fox cubs, lithe and furry. One lay on its
back gnawing at a moorhen’s wing, two were engaged in a tussle, and one
curled into a ball with his tail over his nose, pretending to be asleep;
but when the vixen came up, and, after looking round, sat down calmly
amidst her family, the mischievous cub got up, came behind her and
worried her tail, until she turned, and seized him in her jaws, so that
he yelped.

After this, Skewbald, when his company came that way, looked out for the
cubs, but he saw little more of them, for the older they grew, the later
they came out, until it was night before they emerged, and then it was
not for play but work, learning to hunt for their living.

Skewbald and his mother sometimes sunned themselves by a bank crowned
with lichened thorns. It was quite a badger fortress, being honeycombed
with passages. A certain family which camped by it one August must have
occasioned the badger some inconvenience, for they used the great holes
as dustbins, stuffing down newspapers, tins, tea-leaves and coffee
grounds, and other rubbish. But they never set eyes on him, not even on
moonlight nights. Probably he used an exit on the other side of the bank
while the campers were about. But Skewbald sometimes saw him after dusk,
coming or going with his rolling gait, or appearing at the mouth of his
den with sniffing snout and uplifted paw. Once the foal came upon him in
broad day, and sunny at that. He was fast asleep, nearly hidden in a
great nest of dried grass and bracken in a sheltered corner.

Sometimes, though probably he was unaware of it, the colt walked over
little sharply pitted tracks which were the slots of the deer. Only once
did he see that rare and shy British mammal, the roedeer. Skewbald was
strolling in a forest ride, when, all at once, a delicate fawn-coloured
shape with two uplifted sharp horn spikes emerged from a fern brake, and
paused with raised fore-foot and twitching ears before venturing across
the grassy space, and like a shadow his mate followed him.

In the thick woods, he sometimes saw the other deer, mostly fallow, the
buck with widely branching palmate antlers, but occasionally a great red
deer.

One September midday, mother and foal were wandering down a wide drive
in the woods, when strange noises came to the foal’s ears, people
shouting, baying of hounds and blowing of horns. He ran close to his
mother, who, though not alarmed, raised her head and snuffed the air
with interest. People with horns no longer hunted ponies, and she had no
apprehensions of capture.

Presently a buck topped the bank, and shot across the drive, a mere
rusty brown streak, gone as soon as seen. The noise of the hounds
wavered, and grew fainter. The buck had eluded them. Then in the
distance a huntsman appeared coming up the drive on a tall white horse.
He was a fine sight in his black velvet cap, dark green coat with brass
buttons, and his horn ready to hand. He stopped by a gate watching the
drive, not knowing he was too late. On the hill out of sight were the
three men in brown velveteen, each holding a team of the leashed hounds;
young and swift these, waiting to be put on the track of the quarry when
the slow old hounds, or “tufters,” had got the scent, and mounted
hunting folk waiting or patrolling the forest glades. But the noise and
the sight of the buck was all that Skewbald experienced, that day, of a
forest buck-hunt.

After being warned by his mother, Skewbald kept as respectful a distance
from harmless grass-snakes and slow-worms as from vipers. He even jumped
when the little brown lizard ran across the path in front of him. And
doubtless he sometimes found the open door of the home of the
underground wasp, and quickly removed his nose and himself from its
proximity. More rarely he saw the brown paperish globe of the wood-wasp
hung from a low branch, with a hovering swarm of wasps like a yellow
halo round it.

As for “stoats,” heathflies, and the tickling, crawling New Forest fly,
they are, in hot weather, the torment of a forest pony’s life, and the
less said about them the better.

Of birds, he knew most familiarly the stonechat, always on the topmost
spray of a gorsebush, both in summer and in winter, with his little
jerking tail and monotonous “tick-tack” note. Sometimes he would see the
stonechat’s relative, the wheatear, standing on a stone or clod of
earth, with the same flirting of the tail; the attitude alert and
vigilant, his black eye-streak emphasizing his suspicious glance.

In the evening he heard the “hoo-hoo” of the tawny owl, and might have
seen him sitting upright on the low branch of a willow, close to the
trunk; and once in broad daylight, as he was nibbling at the bark of the
branches of a stubby hollow holly, a blotched form appeared at the
opening as if in response to the noise he made before her door; then
with a couple of wing-beats, the little owl flew up into the higher
branches and looked at him with fierce gold-rimmed eyes, and irritable
movements of her head.

Now and then he came across a small covey of partridges dusting
themselves in a sandy patch, or sunning on a bank. Once in May, as he
put his nose to a tussock, a sitting partridge gave it a sharp peck. All
that season he looked into tussocks warily, and one day he came upon
what looked like two partridges sitting together; but the one outside
the nest was a cock-bird, as could be seen by his red ear-lobes and
absence of cross-bars on his wings. As Skewbald looked, a little head
peeped out from under his father’s wing and piped. Then there was more
chirping, and from under the mother emerged a tiny chick, and in a
moment was lost in his male parent’s feathery recesses. That faithful
husband and father was on duty, receiving each little chick as it
hatched, and “drying them off.”

One of Skewbald’s most interesting glimpses of his bird neighbours
concerned another family party. He was standing one evening in June by a
great brake of gorse on a bank, near a little stream, when he heard a
flutter of wings, and a great bird alighted, a shelduck, glorious in her
black, white, and chestnut plumage, crimson neb, and coral legs—a bird
which one associates with the sandy shores of North Wales or the dunes
of Norfolk. Yet here she was, and after looking round, she walked
towards a rabbit-hole at the foot of a gorsebush, put her head in, and
vanished.

A little later the foal and his mother were drinking at the stream very
early in the morning, when a subdued but anxious croaking was heard,
accompanied by a “cheeping” from tiny throats, and the shelduck came
into view marshalling a long line of the prettiest, fluffy, pied little
ducklings, negotiating all sorts of obstacles. And not one parent only,
for the father, larger and still more resplendent than his mate, and
quite as concerned and anxious, brought up the rear of the procession.
Once or twice he whistled shrilly, as he intercepted an errant ball of
down, and sent it into the right path. When they tumbled into the tiny
stream, at once the youngsters were at home and self-confident. The
drake saw them all afloat, and again the procession re-formed to paddle
down-stream to the sea. What adventures were they to meet with, and how
many would the parents bring safely to the seashore, to run along the
margin of the tide, in their pied down indistinguishable from the foamy
froth washing over the seaweed? It was perhaps ten miles to their
destination, with many enemies in wait—hawks, foxes, badgers, pike, and
man.

Later in the season a naturalist, not a sportsman or collector, armed
only with his monocular prismatic, passed the shelduck’s burrow, and a
feather caught his eye. He stooped, and picking it up, scrutinized it
closely. By its white, black and chestnut, he knew at once from what
bird it had fallen and that doubtless this was her nesting site.

But perhaps one of the most thrilling sights to be seen in the forest by
a lover of birds was what Skewbald first beheld one cold April morning.
A rough untidy yearling after his winter outdoors, he wandered down to
the brook, where on a muddy patch broad three-toed footprints had been
freshly impressed. Loose feathers, white, black, and brown, caught his
eye, and as he sniffed at them he heard a strange musical phrase, with a
humming vibratory timbre—

[Illustration]

—which seemed to fill the air, and was repeated again and again.

Skewbald looked around, and on a little rise crowned by a grove of
birches were several birds about the size of pheasants. Two were a deep
blue-black, and there were several smaller, mottled grey and brown. The
black grouse still lives in the New Forest, though sadly depleted in
numbers, and what the yearling saw was the spring assembly, or
“lekking.” The two cock-birds were going through some strange manœuvres.
One which had been sitting in the fork of a tree, with his beautiful
lyre-shaped tail showing to advantage, flew to the ground. He drooped
his wings, lowered his outstretched neck, which, with every feather on
end, looked twice its usual size, then brought up his middle tail
vertically with the curved extremities hanging down, so that from the
front it looked somewhat like an admiral’s cocked hat. His silvery-white
undertail coverts were raised, and expanded like a fan. It was this view
he displayed to the presumably admiring hens, though as far as one could
see, they took not the least notice of their admirers. Meanwhile he
hummed the song already indicated. Then the other bird came forward, got
up like the first, and the real business commenced. With outstretched
necks and distended crimson eyebrows, they fenced with each other, until
one, taking courage, flew at his rival, and there was a rough-and-tumble
struggle, only ended when one had had enough. Then the victor strutted
about, and renewed his song.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]


                               VI.—WINTER

IT WAS midwinter and “bad pony weather”—that is, the atmospheric
conditions were likely to upset the less hardy and the younger members
of the herds. For a month there had been a succession of torrential
gales from the south-west blotting out the “Wight,” so that the thickest
pony thatch was drenched, and when, as had happened several times, a
hard frost followed a heavy downpour, the ponies suffered severely from
cold, and the youngsters’ constitutions were sorely tried.

Skewbald’s mother sheltered herself and him all ways that an old forest
pony knew. In the heaviest storms she took him to the shelter of thick
hollies or dense spruce groves, but even a forest pony must eat, and in
spite of wet, they had to leave the protection of the woods for the open
ground, where most of their provender was to be obtained. Skewbald, from
some inherited strength of fibre, suffered less than other youngsters,
many of whom were “caught in” with their mothers by the more careful
owners, and given food and shelter.

The chestnut and her foal were among those left out all the winter.
Continued frost meant little to them, protected as they were by their
thick coats. Skewbald, especially, had done his best to keep himself
warm. A great shock of hair came over his eyes, his mane hung in a thick
mass on his neck, his tail nearly reached the ground and kept his thighs
warm, while his body and legs looked half as thick again, from the
growth of long hair which covered him right down to the hoofs. Only his
nose was soft and velvety much as in summer.

After a heavy fall of snow, the mare showed her son how to kick and
scrape away until the herbage was reached. She taught him to nibble at
the gorse, hard and prickly though nutritious; with retracted lips
nipping off the spikes full of aromatic buds, and grinding the prickles
to shreds before swallowing. When the foresters cut down hollies, she
was soon on the spot, showing the youngster how to tear off the sweet
bark of the branches hacked from the poles.

On sunny mornings after sharp frost, he would lie down in the bracken,
tuck his legs under him, and doze, warm and comfortable, for hours. If
it rained, he followed his mother, and learned the trick of keeping his
back to the wind, thus lessening the surface exposed.

                           *    *    *    *    *

The agister riding across the moorland heard a mare neighing, and when
she repeated her call several times, trotted his mount towards her. She
was a bay roan, and after another plaint ran a little way, and stopped.
As the rider came to a clump of high gorse, he saw a foal lying in a
sheltered nook. One glance showed him it was dead, a poor thin “sucker”
with legs outstretched stiffly. “Should have been taken in before,” he
muttered to himself; “that’s the youngster I told Sam Evett about a week
ago. Some people aren’t to be trusted with animals.” On his way back he
came across first one and then another young pony looking “seedy,” and
these with their mothers were gently guided to the nearest farmyard,
where they would be taken care of until their owners fetched them away.

That night the weather became worse than ever. The storm raged through
the woods, roaring in the pines and swaying the birches and beeches,
while dead branches snapped off with cracks like rifle-fire. Skewbald
and his mother were sheltering on the lee side of a giant beech. If it
had been day, the trail of dead oyster fungus up its trunk would have
told its tale of inner decay. The mare became uneasy, and moved away
from the shelter of the vast column. She called to Skewbald, who
followed, but feeling the bite of the freezing wind, backed behind the
trunk again. There was a tremendous crack, a tearing and rending, and
the great bole snapped off above the colt’s head, and crashed to the
ground, the trunk still poised at its line of fracture, held by bark and
sound wood, so that Skewbald was untouched and unhurt.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]


                         VII.—THE RIVAL LEADERS

A COLD north-easter blew across the moor. The old thorns were budding,
the daffodils were peeping from the turf, and the yellow of the gorse
was beginning to show, so spring was at hand, but there were few other
signs of it, for the season was late. If the chiffchaff had come, he had
no time to make his presence known by song, his food was all too rare.

The chestnut mare and her son wandered on the sheltered side of holly
and tall gorse, picking up what they could. Skewbald, now termed a
yearling though not yet a year old, showed conspicuously in the
landscape in his chestnut and white. But he was ragged and untidy to the
last degree. His doormat-like coat was torn and tangled by conflict with
the thorns. His face and neck had the same patchy appearance. But for
the coarseness of his covering, his ribs would have shown, for, apart
from his not yet having filled out, the severe weather had kept him
“light.” His legs were still bony and ungainly, and he was plainly in
the hobbledehoy stage. But he had a good gait, the bones of his
shoulders and hind-quarters were of great strength, with plenty of room
for muscular attachments, and when he walked, he covered plenty of
ground.

The ponies wandered—wandered because they had not time to stand back to
the wind as do stall-fed cattle, for both day and night was wanted for
finding sustenance.

The mare had joined a herd led by a small but energetic stallion, whose
shade of blackish-brown, and “mealy” or light-coloured nose, proclaimed
his streak of Exmoor blood. Unlike Skewbald and other ponies, he had
been looked after during the winter, and having only lately been turned
out into the forest, was in splendid condition. He was full of spirit,
alert, and mistrustful of the unusual, while as master of the herd he
brooked no disobedience. One day after the herd had drunk at a favourite
shallow, they were moving to another feeding-ground, and the stallion,
looking over his company, noted the chestnut mare still standing
motionless. Either she had not fully slaked her thirst or some old
association made her reluctant to leave. The leader walked to her and
snorted. She turned her head, but made no other sign of acquiescence,
whereupon he lost patience, bared his teeth, depressed his ears, and
made a little run at her as if to bite, when she at once made haste to
comply with his command.

On the way, the party was joined by a young stallion of a blue roan hue,
with white forehead blaze and pink nose, accompanied by an old bay mare
with her yearling. For a time, the three having fallen in at the rear,
all went well, but presently the grey left his place, and went forward
as if for the express purpose of creating trouble for himself, for the
leader, by his depressed ears and backward glance, showed that he
considered he had a rival in the field, and was ready to take up the
implied challenge. The grey was taller, but not in such good condition,
having been left out during the winter.

The mealy-nosed stallion took to making little rushes at the interloper
with extended neck and bared teeth. The younger at first contented
himself by retreating or swerving, but at last the touch of teeth on his
neck aroused his resentment and combativeness. He turned sharply, and
flinging out his heels, kicked the leader on the shoulder. It was the
first real blow, and as if by signal, the two reared up, and with
fore-feet striking vigorously, tried to bite one another on the face and
neck, until they had to come down to rest. Then the little stallion in
his turn reversed, and let out a kick which took effect on his
opponent’s hind-quarter. The grey screamed with pain and fury. Rearing,
he threw himself at his enemy, knocked him down, and, unable to keep his
balance, rolled right over him. The leader was up first, and standing on
his prostrate opponent, belaboured him with his hoofs. The grey cried
out under this treatment, and when he succeeded in getting to his feet,
his adversary rushed at him with jaws agape and bristling mane, so that
he fairly turned tail. Then the mealy-nosed one trumpeted shrilly, shook
himself, pushed past the waiting herd to the head, and resumed the
journey.

They crossed a road, and went down a rutted path, and this for a few
yards became a causeway across an obviously boggy patch. The road had
been made by dumping gravel into the swamp, its sides being strengthened
by balks of timber. Near the edges of the bog, patches of lush grass,
emerald of hue, were beginning to sprout. Skewbald strolled down to
sample this luxury, but was recalled to her side by his mother’s sharp
whinny. She knew the temptation this verdant growth had for youngsters,
and its danger. A moment later, a tragedy occurred. A poor-looking,
black yearling, motherless for some reason, strayed from the path, to
nibble at a tempting patch, a yard or so from the edge. He walked
confidently to it, but after a mouthful, sank below his knees, and a cry
of fright broke from him. The herd showed signs of distress, and shrill
whinnyings came from the mares as they plunged to and fro along the
margin; but the colt’s efforts to reach his companions only involved him
the more surely in the morass.

                           *    *    *    *    *

A few bubbles rising to the surface of what was now a muddy pool told of
the disaster which had occurred. The bog keeps its secrets, and no one
knows how many ponies have been engulfed in it.

[Illustration: _The Hill Road to Burley._]



[Illustration]


                       VIII.—SKEWBALD IN TROUBLE

SPRING had come at last. The cold east winds had been followed by warm
south-westerly gales with soft rain, making the grass grow and filling
the bogs also. The golden-yellow of the marsh-marigold at the stream’s
edge was repeated in a lighter key by the stunted wild daffodils in the
forest meadows, and again in higher but more diluted tone by the
primroses on the banks outside the woods. The blackthorn was past its
prime, but the bushes were still covered with blossom now looking like
soiled snow. The oaks and beeches were still in bud only. The thorns had
put out tufts of vivid green, drowning the grey-green of their lichened
branches. In the swampy spots the catkins of the bog myrtle shone in the
sun with extraordinary brilliance, presenting great patches of that rare
colour in wild floral nature—deep orange and orange-scarlet.

Of course, the birds were here. Not only the residents, the stonechat
and the little hedge and field birds, and the rook, crow, kestrel, and
heron, but the migrants also. The chiffchaff uttered his name
continually as he hunted in the scraggy budding oaks, the willow-warbler
repeated his wavering refrain, crescendo and diminuendo, very like the
bends in the “tail” in “Alice in Wonderland;” and the whitethroat was
beginning to throw himself in ecstasy above the bushes. The blackcap
flew from bough to bough, as he shrilled his wild, inconsequent, yet
melodious and captivating song, while the garden-warbler skulked in the
bushes, chuckling and fluting throatily at great length; the nightingale
began to “jug,” while his shorter but more richly coloured mate
industriously collected oak-leaves for her nest. In the beechwoods the
woodwren flitted from bough to bough, repeating his clear call, followed
by a twittering cadence like ice tinkling in a glass, while his wings
quivered in time with his tune.

Above the moor the cock lapwing made occasional flights to amuse his
sitting partner, flapping his rounded wings vigorously as he flew all
ways, curving downwards to the ground without alighting and up again in
another sweep, then “reversing” in his characteristic way. Meanwhile the
redshank stood on the bog bobbing his head nervously, or whistled
shrilly to his mate, if a crow or a man appeared on the horizon. The
redshank likes to nest near the lapwing, which is as brave as the other
is timid, dashing threateningly down on an intruder, especially its
ancient enemies—crow, jackdaw, and harrier.

Out on the moor lawns of green grass showed amongst the heather, and in
the bogs, amidst the bleached tussock grass, were patches of new grass
of the most vivid emerald, looking, and most deceptively so, like firm
sward.

There are many bogs in the forest, varying from patches a few yards
square to huge ones covering many acres. In Denny Bog still lie the
remains of an aeroplane which landed on the smooth and, to an eye
looking from above, apparently firm surface. The pilot, on getting out
of the fuselage, was soon up to his waist; and in spite of repeated
efforts, it was found impossible to extricate the plane, and the salvers
had to content themselves with removing the engine.

To the human visitor the bog has no terrors, for its dead yellowish
grass with green patches and occasional pools proclaim its nature.
Moreover, causeways of gravel have been made across narrower parts where
necessary.

Skewbald and his mother were wandering as usual on the moor, the rest of
the herd strung out over a square mile of forest, hillside, and grass
bottom, too intent on making up for their scanty winter fare to desire
the close companionship of their fellows.

Skewbald was much the same as a month before, perhaps a little more
ragged, as his loosening winter dress got carded out by the thorns.

The two were on the outskirts of a great bog, to the south of which
extensive woods filled the horizon. They were not alone. A little
distance away two gipsies, a man and a boy, were following the edge of
the bog, striding from tussock to tussock and probing with their sticks
for bad places which might let them in.

There was no difficulty in divining what _they_ wanted. The lapwings
screaming overhead, the redshanks wailing as they flew right away, knew
also that their eggs were in danger. Plovers’ eggs are part of the
gipsy’s livelihood—to sell, because they are too precious for him to
eat. He would say that he found far more in a hen’s egg.

As the egg-hunters quartered the ground, they approached the ponies,
which, judging from their movements that they themselves were not likely
to be molested, ignored their proximity. The boy, when abreast of
Skewbald, suddenly raised his stick, and from pure mischief or rather
fun, ran at the yearling, which, startled, bounded off, but in the
direction of the bog. He plunged about and sank deeply, while his
strenuous efforts to extricate himself only caused him to become more
firmly embedded. Soon he could no longer move his legs, the mud reached
his flanks, and he was still sinking, though now more slowly.

The man stormed at the boy standing open-mouthed in dismay, then looking
round began to run, calling to the other to follow. He was making for a
promontory of firm ground stretching into the bog. Here stood a few
stunted pines which a fire had caught, for they were black and dead,
some already lying on the ground. Both loaded themselves with the fallen
logs, staggered back to the yearling, and began to throw the wood on the
bog towards him. Skewbald, incapable of motion save for frenzied
movements of his head and neck, was aghast at his plight, and called
piteously to his mother, who plunged backwards and forwards along the
edge of the bog, whinnying distractedly.

The man waded out and pushed log after log under the yearling’s belly.
Then he got a pole under him behind the fore-legs. His next action was
to bend down and feel in the mud to ascertain if the pony’s legs were
straight. A forcible pull on a bent leg might cause a fracture. His
preparations made, he put all his strength into levering up the pole,
calling: “Now, Jarge, let ’un have what for;” and the boy, with a stick,
belaboured the yearling’s hind-quarters. Skewbald felt himself moved by
the man’s force, and, under the added stimulus of pain, made tremendous
exertions. The man made another effort, and a fore-leg came up. “At ’un
again, lad;” and the harassed yearling, with a great heave and an
explosive “suck,” came out of the mud and began to flounder towards the
firm ground, leaving the two half-bogged themselves. The man reached out
and pulled the boy towards him, and they worked their way out.

They were covered with mud from head to foot, and regarded each other
doubtfully, until the man laughed (a smile would not have been
perceived), whereupon the boy exploded in peals of merriment. Their
hearts were warm within them, with the pleasure of success, for
horseflesh or ponyflesh is dear to the gipsy. Then, picking up the eggs
they had collected, which, being gipsies, they had carefully deposited
in a tussock, they departed.

But Skewbald carried a long scar on his belly, caused by a sharp pine
knot, to the day of his death.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]


                           IX.—THE NEW-COMERS

IT WAS full spring. For nearly a month May had flooded the forest with
sunlight. The gold of the gorse was blinding to the eye, and almost
intoxicating with its strong scent of burnt almonds. The powdery snow of
the blackthorn had been followed by the ropy, pinkish bloom of the
hawthorn. The foliage of the scraggy oaks was Italian pink (which is a
greenish yellow), while the silver birches and the beeches had burst
into leaf and emerald tassels had succeeded the crimson buds of the
larches. The brambles had two distinct sets of leafage, those of last
year, old and tattered, but magnificently blotched with crimson and
orange, and edged with sienna, while from their axils sprays of tender
green unfolded themselves.

This is the month of song, and everywhere the larks and meadow-pipits
rose in the air, the former to go up out of sight still trilling, while
the latter ceased singing, and came floating down silently like
parachutes of brown paper.

The lapwing chicks peeped from their mother’s wings, or crawled over her
back like the young of the domestic hen. If an enemy flew over, the male
bird rose in the air in a frenzy of militant defence, while at the
parents’ warning call, the chicks crouched and became, to the casual
glance, invisible.

As for the pony population of the forest, it seemed to have doubled in
numbers all at once, for everywhere the young foals followed the mares,
or lay basking among the heather. The early foals were now tall and
long-legged, though here and there a late arrival stood unsteadily with
bent hind-legs, or trotted a few paces with a stiff-legged gait. It
might even essay a gallop, a curiously mechanical action, reminding one
of a rocking-horse.

One mare, at least, had _two_ little suckers, and here and there quite a
family procession passed, of mare, two-year-old, yearling, and foal, the
property of someone who had not troubled to sell the youngsters,
preferring to leave them in the forest to breed. Parties of three—mare,
yearling, and sucker—were quite common, the two youngsters on the best
of terms.

The hues of the new-comers were sometimes exactly those of their
mothers, but often quite different. An old mare, once a grey but now
dirty white, was followed by a black foal; if the latter were closely
scrutinized its eyebrows might be seen to be grey, and that would mean
the foal would turn grey like its mother, and again white in old
age—from black to white. But if the eyebrows were black like the rest
of the body, then probably the hue would remain black or very dark, for
black is rare in the forest, and as some think due to importation of
alien blood. In the case of one chestnut foal, its darker eyebrows
showed that when adult its coat would be of a rich liver colour.

The majority of the foals bid fair to be like their parents, a dark
brown with blackish mane and tail, and the same similarity existed with
bays and chestnuts, though generally the foals were darker in hue than
their mothers.

But there were exceptions to this. A dappled grey mare, for instance,
instead of the more usual black-coated offspring, might be accompanied
by a foal, light fawn as to ground tint, with black markings round its
eyes and muzzle; or a dark mare be seen with a light-coloured youngster.

The yearlings, among whom Skewbald was one, had shed their winter coat
by dint of rubbing against bushes below and overhanging branches above.
The bay and chestnut showed clearly, and the lights began to appear on
their coats, golden in the sun, blue in the shade, though they could
scarcely be said to “ripple,” for the youngsters were still bony, with
unfilled barrels.

Young Skewbald was not amongst the dullest hued of his fellows. There
were few whose chestnut was brighter than his, while his white could not
be matched anywhere among the ponies except for an occasional “sock” or
forehead blaze too small in area to tell at a distance.

Like the others of his year, he walked sedately, for his hours of
coltish play were over. Never again would he gambol on the lawns with a
playmate in the golden evenings, though occasionally he would lie down
and roll, a pleasure every horse and pony indulges in till the end of
its days. Sufficient for the day was the labour of filling his belly,
although the forest fare increased daily in bulk and sweetness.



[Illustration]


                      X.—THE BRANDING OF SKEWBALD

THREE ponies were grazing on a long level stretch of moorland one
perfect evening in early September. To the north were low hills, their
sides covered with purple heather and fern, the latter already showing
orange amongst the green. Here and there an old thorn or holly dotted
the hillside, the ridge itself serrated by groups of firs. Along the
southern border of the moor flowed a tiny stream, a few feet across,
which, a few miles farther down, would expand into a wide estuary dotted
with yachts.

As the sun declined, the moor fell into shade, but on the hill the red
trunks of the firs and the orange of the fern glowed with richer hues,
while the heather added a ruddy tone to its purple. The foliage took on
that rich golden-green which landscape painters love, while the shadows,
deriving their colour from the blue of the eastern sky, were glaucous
green.

Skewbald, still a yearling although some sixteen months old, was with
his mother, who had also by her side her last foal, a brown filly. She
was well grown, for she had been born early in April.

As they grazed, Tom and Molly, followed by their father, rode through
the gate which led to the little farm beyond the river. “There they
are,” said the boy—“mare, yearling, and colt.” (New Forest folk have a
way of referring to a foal as a colt, even speaking of “horse colts” and
“filly colts.”) “Yes, close at hand,” said his father; “push the gate
wide open. I hope,” he continued, “as we haven’t all day to catch the
yearling in, that you’ll just get quickly to work, and remember catching
ponies is one thing, and running races with them quite another.” Tom
grinned, but in his heart hoped the ponies would not let themselves be
driven in without a run.

The father sent his boy along by the river, while he himself made a
detour to get behind the ponies. Molly was to go up the moor to be in
readiness in case of a break-away. The ponies were to be driven through
the gate over the wooden bridge into the paddock, and, if it could be
managed that evening, right into the stable yard. The boy and girl were
to watch them, while the father drove them towards the gate. All went
well at first. As the man emerged from the trees in view of the ponies,
the mare stopped feeding, looked at the intruder, snorted, and trotted
away with her offspring. The rider followed, gently shepherding them
towards the gate, his assistants closing in on either side.
Unfortunately, the youngest boy of the family, who, with a small sister,
was fishing in the stream, had succeeded in bringing a minnow to land,
and signalized his triumph with a yell of delight, just as the ponies
came towards the opening. The mare pricked up her ears, swerved sharply,
and, followed by her youngsters, made off at full speed across the moor
in spite of all that the hunters could do. The man laughed ruefully,
calling, “You’ll get your run, Tom; we must try and get them in before
night.” Tom went like the wind, in shirt and trousers, and barebacked,
on a little rough pony, which knew every foot of the ground. The
fugitives got to a boggy place, and had to pick their way, so Tom,
running wide, got behind a patch of firs, and came upon the ponies
suddenly—too suddenly, for they went away up the moor, the mare shaking
her mane and tail, Skewbald keeping pace easily, and the foal doing
wonderfully well. They went right past the girl, though she tore off her
hat, whirled it above her head, and let off blood-curdling shrieks.
“After them, Molly,” called her father, and the thunder of hoofs
resounded, while the setting sun gilded the heather, firs, and fern with
a deeper glory than before, and enhanced Skewbald, as he emerged with
the mare and foal on the hilltop, then disappeared behind clumps of
hollies, or, a moment in shade, told dark on the skyline. The wide, open
situation, the sense of space, as the retreating ponies diminished
rapidly to mere dots, the sweet scent of bruised bog myrtle, and the
clear light, made a scene less like rural England than the setting of
some cowboy story of vast upland country in, say, Idaho or Arizona. Only
the great sierra background was lacking.

Molly managed to drive the ponies off the moor, up the hill, along the
ridge, and then turning them, drove them down the steep forest road
across the moor towards the farm, Tom and her father on either side,
waving and shouting to prevent a break-away. There was no trouble this
time at the gate, for with man and boy to right and left, and the girl
thundering behind, the ponies were glad to dash through. “Got ’em,”
chuckled Tom as he closed the gate. The others followed at the ponies’
heels over the bridge. The gates leading to the yard were open, and all
was quiet, for Mother had looked out to see how things were going, and
had taken charge of her two small children. As it happened, the
fugitives, instead of turning off into the meadow, as they might have
done, went up the road, dashed through the opening, and found themselves
in the stable yard. Molly closed the great sliding-door, while Tom and
his father, jumping from their mounts, attended to Skewbald. As he was a
lusty youngster, and with his shaking mane and depressed ears looked
mischievous, they paid him the compliment of treating him like a
full-grown stallion, and Tom was given the job of haltering him, for
practice. The halter was hung on the end of a six-foot rod, and while
his father drove the yearling into a corner, distracting his attention,
Tom quietly slipped the loop over his head and fastened the rope to a
ring in the wall, before Skewbald had time to show resentment at being
tied up.

“Fetch the branding-iron, Tom,” said his father. Mother had it on the
kitchen fire in readiness. Meanwhile the man got a sack from the shed,
and watching his opportunity, dropped it over Skewbald’s head, who,
while objecting to it very much, was so puzzled by the darkness, that he
ceased his straining and backing, and was reduced to quietude. This
bandaging the eyes is not often done, only when it is feared a pony may
become obstreperous. Sometimes the yearlings are driven into a stable
with no space to kick in, when the brander will reach over one pony to
brand the next.

Tom brought out the iron, which was like a poker with a ring handle for
hanging up, and the branding device or letters welded to the other end,
and of course in reverse. Several such irons were hanging in the stable.

There need be no shuddering at visions of red-hot iron and sizzling
flesh, for the iron when it reached the yard was black, and to all
appearance cold. Yet it _was_ hot—hot enough to destroy hair growth
where it was pressed, and leave a permanent mark.

The man took the iron and held it for a moment an inch from his cheek to
test its heat. “Just right,” he said; “hold him, Tom;” then firmly
pressed the iron against the shoulder—the shoulder, not the saddle, for
Skewbald was one day to go to the mines, where appearances do not count
for much, hard pulling and quick turning being more highly rated.
Skewbald did nothing out of the way when the iron bit into his skin, did
not kick or try to rear; he just winced, and that was all.

Then the yearling was released and turned out into the paddock, where
his mother and her foal were awaiting him. The agister would be along
shortly, and Skewbald would be on hand for the tail-cutting. This is
also a delicate operation, as a pony may launch an unexpected kick.
Generally, a large pair of scissors in hand, the cutter quietly draws
the lower tail hair towards him with the crook of a stick. In a stable
into which a dozen ponies may have been driven, perhaps for the first
time in their lives, the agister will venture fearlessly, and cut tail
after tail without mishap, trusting to the good sense of the ponies,
which will not kick in the confined space, for fear of hurting their
fellow-prisoners.

Occasionally, half a dozen commoners will agree to meet on a Saturday
afternoon, for the purpose of collecting their ponies. The harness of
the ridden ponies varies in style, and is often more homely than
elegant. A man may be riding a horse or pony whose accoutrements consist
of mere scraps of leather held together by string and rope. The boys of
the party ride barebacked, or make an old rug serve as saddle.

Some time may be spent in rounding up the ponies, which, after much hard
riding and shouting, are driven into a convenient farmyard, in a bunch
of twenty or thirty.

The quiet enclosure, tenanted only by a few pigs and poultry, becomes a
place of tumult as the hunted ponies surge in, snorting, neighing, and
tossing manes, the pursuers close on their heels to prevent a
break-away. In a moment all is life and movement. The poultry and pigs
dash hither and thither from beneath the trampling hoofs. The riders
jump from their mounts, which with drooping heads stand passive as if
glad to rest, strangely contrasting with the restless movements of the
wild ponies, which, cowed and bewildered, crowd into a corner, penned up
so closely that they have no room to kick, even if they have the
inclination; foals wander about, seeking their dams; men and boys,
leaning against their steeds, chat with the daughters of the farm, while
dogs and children appear as if by magic, the tiniest tot seeming to bear
a charmed life. The unwanted ponies are now sorted out, an operation
somewhat troublesome and delicate, and given their liberty; the
unbranded ones are tied up and marked with their respective owners’
branding-irons.

Then the company takes the farm road, leading the freshly caught ponies.
Most of the captives, after a few skirmishes, submit to their fate, and
go quietly, but some, more resentful of their treatment and unwelcome
bondage, give much trouble, both to their captors and to themselves.
They put down their fore-feet stubbornly, refusing to budge, and when
prodded by those behind, may fling themselves down, to be dragged along
the stony road. An obstinate pony will try sorely the patience of those
in charge of it, and instances have occurred of an animal causing its
own death by its violent resistance; but, generally, after half a mile
of rough treatment, the pony realizes that further opposition is
useless, and follows more or less submissively.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]


                         XI.—SKEWBALD’S JUMPING

OCTOBER had been wet. Rain in the forest is, at all times of the year,
depressing. When the sun shines on purple heather, emerald fern, and the
ruddy stems of fir-trees, moorland and hillside are gay enough, but in
wet and stormy weather the landscape is the more gloomy by contrast; the
lowering clouds, the black sobbing pines, the pools of water, the soggy
tussocks squelching underfoot, make up a dull and cheerless scene,
although in the eyes of the forest lover it is perhaps then at its best.
The damp atmosphere intensifies the local colour, and gives a sense of
vastness and distance to the perspectives.

The forest ponies dislike rain. They have to seek food most of their
day, and cannot afford to stand idly in shelter like their more favoured
relations. Also the boggy ground gets still more shaky and uncertain,
and the wary creature is cut off from the areas which might supply him
with food. In long continued rain the ponies leave the open moor or
hillside, and betake themselves to the woods, where, under the umbrellas
formed by the great oaks, beeches, and firs, they find shelter,
especially from what most living creatures detest—a cold driving rain.

Skewbald, therefore, was with his companions in the woods, nosing round
for clumps of sweet grass, or, in the wettest spells, taking shelter
under overhanging trunks. His coat had grown thick during the autumn,
and with his dense mane and tail he was as well protected as a pony
could be.

The colt-hunter also disliked rain, for apart from the discomforts of
the chase in wet weather, rounding up the ponies is vastly more
difficult in the woods. On the open moor the chase is not always
successful. Not seldom one may drive ponies from miles away to within
sight of the open gate, and then something may arouse their mistrust,
may cause them to break away, and the work has to be done over again.
But, all things considered, the chase on the moor is a picnic compared
with driving ponies out of the woods. In the open one has the great
advantage of being able to view one’s quarry from a distance, and
formulate beforehand a plan of campaign. But in the woods one must
search and search until the ponies are chanced upon, and then stick
tenaciously to their heels until a capture is effected. In the denser
parts, one may beat about all day, and although the ponies may be near,
and even heard and seen, yet they may change their ground so evasively
that night may fall and still find them uncaptured.

It was not raining much when the colt-hunter and his boy rode out one
morning, but the sky gave every promise of a downpour later on. “Wet
skins for us to-day, Tom,” said his father, as he donned an old
mackintosh, and a wide-brimmed hat, which would divert the rain from his
neck. Like other people who are out in all weathers, he had no use for
caps, which in heavy rain let the water trickle down one’s back. Both
riders had bread and cheese in their pockets, for they might be out all
day, if they were not fortunate in the chase. It had been arranged that
they should meet the agister, who wished their help in locating and
catching some yearlings and older ponies. At this time of the year
ponies are caught in some numbers, and sent to the autumn and winter
sales.

The colt-hunter, by long experience and a good memory for the forms and
hues of ponies, knew most of the many hundreds in the forest, and their
pedigrees. He was acquainted also with the likely places where a wanted
pony might be found at any time of the year.

The hunters, with a cheery good-bye to Mother and Molly, rode some
distance across the moorland and through the rides in the woods, skirted
bogs, and then made their way up a stone-strewn hillpath to the south,
past the spot where the young airman, flying from the training-ground on
Beaulieu Heath, had stooped at a great white cross of gravel, marked out
on the hillside, and had nose-dived to the ground, crumpling up his
machine and breathing his last in the arms of a visitor camping near by.
Father and son rode across the barren plateau of Blackdown; to the east
the great tumulus stood dark and plain on the skyline, but in front of
them Wood Fidley was almost obscured by driving clouds of rain-mist
coming from the south-west.

When they reached the main road, they found the agister waiting for
them. He had on his buckled hat, but his official coat was hidden under
his horseman’s cloak. He also foreboded bad weather and a long drive
through the woods. They crossed the road—now firm and smooth, very
unlike its stone-strewn surface during a dry summer—took a winding path
over the moors, and so into the woods.

The colt-hunter led the way into the deepest recesses, where great oaks
and beeches leaned one against the other, while the ground was
encumbered with undergrowth. As they slowed down to a walk, they saw
ponies, half-hidden by the bushes, stealing away. “There’s one of those
we’re after,” said the agister, “and there’s another.”

Skewbald was not one of the wanted animals, but of course he was not to
know that, and made off with the rest. It was now raining hard, the wood
full of driving mist, and the going very heavy. The fugitives had the
best of it, for the ridden ponies sank below their fetlocks in the
wetter parts, while fallen branches, tangles of briers and brambles, and
drooping holly boughs impeded their progress.

Tom’s pony, as keen as her rider, and not so heavily weighted, made but
little of the heavy ground. She made straight for the fugitives directly
she heard or saw them, without waiting for Tom’s directing hand on the
reins, and several times he was literally pulled from the saddle by
projecting boughs of holly, thorn, or oak. But he held on to his mount,
though torn, scratched, and wet through. Then, when separated from the
other riders, he saw his opportunity, for he came upon Skewbald and a
wanted yearling which had got away from them earlier in the day,
sheltering behind some dense holly bushes. Off they went, with Tom close
on their heels, and after some amount of twisting and turning, the
fugitives came out on a grassy drive, with a gate at the far end.

Skewbald made the pace for his companion, and Tom put on a last spurt,
trying to get even with his quarry. Skewbald, as he approached the
barrier, glanced back at his pursuer, then, acting under an
overmastering impulse to escape, went at the gate, cleared it, and was
at once lost to sight in a forest enclosure. Tom went right on, charging
full tilt into the other pony, which he pinned against the gate, nearly
knocking the wind out of both animals. Before the yearling had recovered
himself Tom had him haltered, and a safe prisoner.

In the New Year Skewbald again used his jumping powers, and this time
saved his life thereby. He was feeding with two other young ponies in a
rough part of the forest, when a stray hound, a deserter from the
kennels, alarmed them. The intruder, perhaps wishing for company, ran
towards them, but the ponies, not relishing his advances, set off at a
trot. The hound followed, and the trot became a gallop. It chanced that
an artillery company, training in the forest, had dug some pits which
had not yet been filled in. The ponies are, as a rule, quite able to
take care of themselves. They have a good sense of geography and know
the dangerous spots, as bogs and pits, but, being driven away from the
training-ground, they were unaware of the existence of the excavations.

As Skewbald fled, through gorse, tall heather, and bog myrtle, the pony
in front of him disappeared with a cry, and, the next moment, he found
himself at the edge of a deep and wide pit, with no time to turn. But
the accident to his companion had given him that fraction of a second of
preparation which was enough for his nerve and muscle. He made a
spasmodic leap, and just managed to land his heels on the far side. The
third also leapt, but fell short.

When the hound, hearing the ponies’ moans, looked down, he fled with a
yelp of dismay. Later, the huntsmen, searching for the truant, found the
two ponies, one dead and the other grievously hurt.

[Illustration: _Longdown Moor._]



[Illustration]


                        XII.—CHANGING THE BRAND

IN THE rougher corners of the forest are the tents of the gipsies, kept
by authority as far as possible from the more frequented beauty spots.
One comes across these encampments in little groups of two or three
wigwams, each being built on the same principle—a framework of rods
bent semi-circularly, over which are thrown blankets and any odd lengths
of stuff that can be so used. At one end is the “baulk”—a square
tapering tower of blanket or canvas open to the sky. This is the
chimney, the fire being built on the ground inside, so that the inmates
can prepare their food in the dry, and enjoy the heat radiating into the
tent proper. Generally there is another tent beyond the fire, so that
the baulk is in the middle of the erection.

On a fine Sunday, one sees the weekly wash drying and bleaching on the
bushes, children playing with the dogs, the women cooking and the men in
their best clothes. Many before and after Borrow, looking at the gipsy,
have been impressed by his fixity of type, his adherence to his mode of
life in a country gradually losing its open spaces, and maintaining
himself in face of restrictive and sometimes oppressive regulations. To
many the standing marvel is that he can live at all outdoors, not only
in summer heat, but when frost is in the earth, or when the ground
shakes like a quagmire and the ditches run like rivers. But nowadays
millions of men who came through the war remember how in the course of
their training, or under the actual conditions of warfare, they slept
outdoors without even a gipsy tent, by fair and foul, in wet and cold,
and remember, too, their astonishment that they suffered no harm, and,
bullets apart, thrived on the régime.

But the gipsy has this in common with the town dweller, that he, too,
gets his living there; to the town he must go to sell his produce or
manufacture, his flower or fern roots, his brooms, mats, baskets, etc.,
and therefore a cart of some sort is almost a necessity, and to draw the
cart, a pony. The forest pony is thus of great importance to the forest
gipsy; she is hardy, gets her own living, is cheap to buy when young,
and is a source of wealth. Every forest gipsy is a potential breeder and
dealer; the pony is at once his passion and his temptation. If he has no
ponies to sell at the autumn sales, there is less money to tide over the
winter.

Therefore the ponies wandering at will, unnoted by their owners, as free
to wander as the wild creatures, have a great interest for the gipsy,
who regards the products of the forest as his lawful tribute. The
plover’s eggs, the rabbit, hedgehog and squirrel, the flowers and ferns,
either supply him with food or put money in his pocket. But the pony is
marked and tail-cut, plain signs that it is the acknowledged and
registered property of its owner, and not to be appropriated with
impunity. Of course, by far the greater number of gipsies are strictly
honest in regard to ponies, having learned like the rest of us, from
experience, that honesty is the best policy; but to some an unmarked
yearling pony must be a temptation, when a branding-iron is always
present in the shape of any iron bar handy, to be thrust in the fire
kept constantly burning.

One autumn, on the edge of the forest just outside a sheltering wood a
small encampment consisting of three gipsy tents and a caravan nestled.
As night fell the noise of people talking and children playing ceased,
for the gipsies go early to bed, and rise betimes. The evening meal had
been eaten, the youngsters snuggled to sleep in corners, and only a few
men and women sat around their fires smoking, for most had had a long
day going to town to sell their wares, and were glad to seek repose.

Behind the tents, in a little blind lane with high hedges ending at a
gate, a mare was tethered. She had been deprived of her foal and grieved
noisily, whinnying loudly ever and again. Away on the moor ponies were
grazing, and hearing the repeated call of the bereaved mother, they put
up their heads for a moment. At last Skewbald, now a two-year-old, and
another pony of the same age, a dull bay, could stand it no longer, and
sidled away from the herd in the direction of the call. As they
approached the silent tents, the bay whinnied, and the mare responded so
appealingly that the two quickened their pace to a trot. A big lad,
lounging by the fire in the nearest tent, looked out as they passed, and
then crawled away silently.

Skewbald and his companion went right up to the mare, which tried hard
to get away from her tether, whinnying repeatedly, so that the
two-year-olds did not notice several dark figures creeping towards them
in the obscurity of the ditch. But when a man stumbled, the two ponies
made off up the lane, only to be brought up short by the gate. Their
pursuers, close at their heels, threw themselves at their necks, and
soon the two were haltered and secured.

An older man came out and examined the captives. Then in no measured
terms he abused the captors for troubling to tie up a pony marked like
the skewbald, an animal of such striking colour and pattern, and
probably well known to commoner, keeper, and agister. It was as good as
giving themselves up to the police to have it in their possession for a
moment, and he ordered the crestfallen young fellows to release it at
once. This was done, and, with a stripe on his flank to help him along,
Skewbald was turned loose, and made off towards the herd. Then the man
gave his attention to the bay, and pronounced him ordinary enough to
keep. But what were the marks, if any? A lantern was brought, and the
capitals C. F. were found on the shoulder. A bar was heated and it was
not difficult to convert the marks into O. E., though much to the
discomfort of the young bay. His tail marks were cut right away as well.
Then it was mooted whether the pony should not be taken off at once, but
this was pronounced against, as likely to arouse the suspicion of the
police, if met with on the way. In a day or two a huckster would come
along with a string of ponies, and among them the bay would not attract
notice.

But unfortunately for the gipsies, the agister of the district, in tall
hat with buckle in front, and green coat with brass buttons, happened to
ride by next morning, on his way to clip the tails of some ponies lately
caught in.

As he passed, he noticed a young bay tied up behind a tent. Now, the
agister knew all the ponies of his district, and many others in the
other districts as well. Ponies were a passion with him. He knew them
not only by their brands and their colours, but by their shapes, gait,
and size. A pony once seen by him was never forgotten, and he could
recognize a wanted animal more than half a mile away. He paused and
scrutinized the bay. Yes, that was Charles Finch’s two-year-old. He had
known it since its birth, and could not be mistaken. Its tail was short,
but not cut after the fashion of any of the three forest districts—in
itself a suspicious circumstance. He went closer and read the letters O.
E. No one he knew of in the forest used such a brand. He got off his
pony and pressed his thumb in the lowest arm of the E, and the pony
winced.

That was enough for the agister, who turned to several lowering but
silent lads and men collected in a group. “Who claims this pony?” he
asked. There was no answer. “I am positive it’s Charles Finch’s pony. I
shall take it with me if no one objects;” and he tied the pony to his
own, and trotted away.

After he had done his business, he took the pony to its owner, who, of
course, recognized it at once. “Now,” said the agister, “this must be
stopped, or some rogues will give the gipsies a bad name. It’s your duty
to prosecute the men where I found the pony.” More he urged of similar
argument on old Finch, who heard him in silence, and then flatly
declined to take any proceedings whatever, “I got the pony back, thanks
to ye; and much obleeged, I’m sure. But I does business with the
gipsies, and most of ’em are a pretty good sort, and stick to their
bargain. If I prosecuted e’er a one of them, we should never get on
again. I’m out for peace and quietness with my neighbours, and I shan’t
let a pony come between us.” And though the agister, having to take an
official view of the matter, protested, at heart he felt there was much
to be said for the old man’s decision.

[Illustration:  _The Path to the Rufus Stone._]



[Illustration]


                          XIII.—THE BROKEN LEG

ONE WET afternoon towards the end of September, the colt-hunter was in
his stable mending some harness. A yell from his youngest boy made him
jump, and he half-rose to see what was the matter, but turned to his
work again, as the boy’s little sister let forth a shriek of delight.
“Up to some lark,” he muttered, then started, as both children shouted
at the top of their voices, “Peter! Peter!” At the same instant the gate
slammed, the sound of a heavy boot was heard, and the man tumbled
outside, with the harness in his hand, to find himself face to face with
his eldest son in full kit, tin hat, rifle and bandolier, and slung
around with billycans, etc., his boots still coated with the white slime
of the French hills.

“Peter!” “Father!” came out at one breath, and as they grasped hands,
their faces came together, and they kissed—an odd thing, perhaps, for
forest men to do, but a son coming home from the war unexpectedly was a
thrilling moment, and apt to break down even the reserve of a lifetime.
Peter, never forgotten for a single day, though not always mentioned by
his parents, suddenly appearing, as if from the skies, was enough to
make his father gasp, unable to utter more than, “Well, lad!” Then
Mother, apprised, came rushing forth, full of joy, and yet of wrath at
not being the first to salute her firstborn. She hugged and kissed him
until he begged for mercy. “The lad’s tired, Mother,” said the father;
“let’s in, so’s he can get his things off, and have a wash;” and Peter
wanted this last badly. How the youngsters revelled in the tin hat and
its dents, while the father spent some time cleaning his son’s boots.
“Quite a bit of France,” he said, as he carefully swept the chalk off
the bench into an empty matchbox.

You should have seen Peter eat, when he got among his mother’s tarts and
cakes. It appeared that he had the usual fourteen days’ leave, of which
some time had already expired since he left Havre. “What a shame!”
exclaimed his mother. “However, we won’t think of going away yet;” and
everyone was happy, though later on, as Peter inquired for first one and
then another of his old schoolfellows, faces fell, and answer was made
sadly. After tea Peter felt a bit sleepy, so the youngsters were sent
off to play elsewhere, while he stretched himself on a couch before the
fire. He had to be wakened for supper, but he didn’t mind, and said he
would rather be called anything than late for meals.

The next morning, of course, Peter wanted a mount, and inquired what
ponies were about. “You know the three in the stable,” said his father;
“and there’s a blue roan mare in the paddock, but she’s not properly
broken in yet, and you’ll find her rather skittish.” Whereupon Peter,
like a true forest lad, declared she would be just the thing for him,
and with the aid of his two brothers, drove her into the yard and
secured her.

When he mounted in the paddock, the mare treated him to a few plunges,
which he did not repress too sternly; and once out in the open, went off
at a great pace, her rider leaving her to go where she listed, sure that
she would keep away from unsafe ground. But after letting off her steam
with a good run over the heavy ground, the mare slackened her speed, and
Peter could take stock of the old familiar sights and sounds. Perhaps
the forest never looks so lovely as in autumn, and especially when well
soaked. The heather still purpled the moor—a rich purplish-brown
flecked here and there with jewel-like pools. Towards the uplands, and
in the woods, the wet bracken had changed its usual autumnal orange for
a rich sienna. Once Peter glimpsed a pony, all deep chestnut, with mane
and tail of the same, a “self-coloured” animal, hardly visible against a
bank of bracken. Only its movements betrayed it, and then its foal, dark
of hue, was discovered where before it had been “lost” in the obscurity
of a holly-brake.

Out in the open, the lad took all to his heart, its beauty and its
appeal. A green woodpecker loped away from an ant heap where it had been
probing, and a covey of partridges scattered from the pony’s hoofs. The
forest ponies, singly or in groups, gave life and focus to the
landscape, and Peter saw that it was good.

Then as the mare started to run again, his hat was twitched from his
head by a holly-branch. He reined the pony in, and essayed to pick up
the hat with his whip, but having no crook to the butt, could not manage
it. “Hold on, old girl,” he said, dismounting. But it was precisely at
this moment that Skewbald, now a three-year-old, grazing at a little
distance by himself, and feeling lonely, gave vent to a loud call. The
grey whinnied, and began to move off, just as Peter retrieved his hat,
then, as he pulled on the reins, she kicked sharply, getting the lad on
the right shin. There was a sharp crack, and Peter let go the reins with
a grunt, stood motionless a moment, and then slithered gently to the
ground. As he did so and disturbed the broken leg, he shouted with pain,
and the mare, already making off, increased her pace, the reins dangling
from her neck.

                           *    *    *    *    *

A girl was bowling along a forest road on a bicycle. Joan Barton, V.A.D.
nurse in the forest hospital, had changed out of her uniform, and was
taking advantage of her spell off to get some open-air exercise. She
admitted to herself, as she spun along, that her own Surrey commons,
beautiful as they are, could not compare in extent and wildness with the
forest. She noted how the road wound, and led the eye over the moors and
hills, and what a fine surface mere sand and gravel made, resilient and
mudless in spite of recent heavy rain. As the forest people say, the
more it rains, the better the going. Much better than in dry weather,
when the surface gets loose and covered with stones.

Presently a grey pony, saddled yet riderless, and standing by a dead
tree a little from the road, caught her eye.

She looked right and left for a rider, but saw no one. Then, acting on
an impulse, she got off her bicycle, and went up to the pony. It moved
as she came close, and she saw that the reins were held on a snag.
“Funny way to tie up a pony,” she said half-aloud; she knew something
about horses, and had acted as groom in a remount stable while waiting
for a vacancy in a hospital.

Some distance away was a herd of ponies scattered over the moor. Among
them she noticed one patterned in bright chestnut and white, with the
passing thought, that she had not before seen this striking coloration
among all the forest pony hues. She went to her bicycle and stood
scrutinizing the landscape, but she saw no one. Then her attention was
drawn to a patch of white like a piece of paper dangling on a bush. But
as she looked she saw the white patch wave to and fro like a flag, and
with a sudden jump of the heart she realized that it _was_ a flag, and
spelling out letters. She knew the code, being an enthusiastic leader of
Girl Guides, and watched the flag spell out the letters _h-e-l-p_. That
was enough for Joan. Close to where she stood, a pony track meandered in
the direction of the signal, and mounting her bicycle she bumped along
it, almost falling off in her anxiety to watch the flag. It disappeared,
but again showed itself wagging to and fro, then wavered and fell. She
had to get off her bicycle, and pushed it hurriedly along. There behind
a bush lay Peter, his face wrinkled with pain, yet full of relief at the
welcome sound of the girl’s approach. He was the first to speak.
“Morning, miss;” and he made shift to smile. “My pony got me on the
right tibia. But a clean fracture, I think.” Peter got this out all in a
breath. He had had enough warning of the girl’s approach to concoct his
speech, and was rather proud of his knowledge of anatomy picked up in
the first-aid class. Joan smiled too, pleased to find her new patient
collected and cheerful. “Been here long?” she asked. “Not more than an
hour, miss. I live over there,” he went on, “but it’s a matter of three
or four miles away.” “All right,” said Joan, “but your leg had better go
in some sort of splints before we can think of your being moved.”

Then in response to a certain shade of anxiety on Peter’s face, she
added, “It’s all right, I won’t hurt you more than I can help. I’m a
nurse at a V.A.D. hospital.” “A nurse,” chortled Peter; “it seems I’m
having all the luck.”

“Well,” she laughed, “it doesn’t seem like it. I don’t think I’ll take
the puttee off. I’ll look for some stuff for splints.” She hunted round
for some straight sticks, and Peter lent her his great knife, which he
had to open for her, so that she could remove the knots. Then she put on
the splints, using Peter’s other puttee. “Don’t be afraid to make a
noise if I hurt you,” she said, but Peter made no sign of pain except
for a grunt or two. As she worked she talked. “It was clever of you to
signal,” she remarked. “Cleverer of you, miss, to see and understand,”
responded Peter; “’twas a good job Mother put out white hankies for me
this morning. My khaki ones went into the washtub.”

Joan told him of the grey pony on the hill, and Peter recounted the
cause of his accident. “How long, nurse, before I’m able to go back?” he
asked.

“You’ll not be much use under two months. Your stay in Blighty will be
longer than you expected.”

“What’ll my sergeant say?” chuckled Peter. Joan made a cushion of
bracken for the injured leg and put another armful under his head.
“Now,” she said, “I’ll go back to the road for help.”

“But what’s that, nurse?” exclaimed Peter, and Joan also heard a man’s
call. A moment later a waggon laden with logs emerged from a wood, some
distance away, a man and a boy in attendance. Joan ran across to them,
and explained the situation. “Why, that must be young Peter,” said the
man; “I met him yesterday, all loaded up, on his way home. We’ll do what
we can, miss, but our wood-waggon ain’t no use, you see, for it’s got no
bottom. What’ll we do about shifting him on to the road?”

But the boy was not a Scout for nothing. This was his moment, and he
made the most of it. “Why, dad,” he said, “that’s easy. You cuts down
two poles, and I gets them two sacks we’ve got on the seat, and makes
holes in the corners. Then we puts the poles through the holes to make a
stretcher, and carries him up to the road.” The elders agreed that this
was feasible, but without enthusiasm, for fear of engendering pride in
the young.

The man got his axe and cut down two young birches, remarking that he
s’posed “they” wouldn’t mind his cutting green wood for once, while Joan
and the boy prepared the sacks. When the stretcher was ready, they laid
it on the ground beside Peter, and carefully placed him in it, packing
his legs and feet with bracken, so that the injured limb should not be
jolted.

Then the man taking the poles at the head, and Joan and the boy a pole
each at the other end, they marched slowly up the hill, Peter insisting
on their keeping step, and giving an imitation of his sergeant’s
pronunciation. Once, as they crossed a little forest bridge, he gave the
order, “Break step,” but they refused, for fear of jarring his leg,
whereupon he promised them all C.B.

When nearly at the road, they heard the noise of an approaching car, and
all shouted together, the boy nearly letting go in the excitement of the
moment. The driver both heard and saw. He stopped, and matters were soon
arranged. The patient was carefully deposited in the car with Joan as
attendant. The boy was to go back to fetch Joan’s bicycle and ride it to
the hospital, then, returning, would ride the grey mare back to Peter’s
home. Joan was much averse to this arrangement, protesting that the pony
had done enough mischief already that day. But the boy grinned, for he
could ride anything in the forest barebacked, and his family mantelpiece
was adorned with cups and trophies won in the forest junior
competitions. Remarking that he wouldn’t “come to no harm,” he dashed
down the hill for the bicycle, while the man, after seeing that the grey
pony was properly tied, returned to his waiting team.

Then came Armistice Day, or rather, in this quiet corner of Britain,
Armistice Night, for in the forest was not to be seen such ebullition of
spirits as in Regent Street, where, for instance, two middle-aged
clergymen, with ribbons in their clerical hats, danced along the
pavement playing tin whistle-pipes. But a great fire was to be lit on
the hill above Peter’s home, and all that afternoon men and boys had
been carting up logs and branches gleaned from the woods.

Most of the local forest people were there, including Tom, Molly, and
the two small children. Peter, now getting about with a stick, having
discarded his crutches, was sent up in the pony-trap, the hill being
deemed too steep for him.

When the fire died down and people were beginning to disperse, a girl
wheeling a bicycle passed Peter and his family. Tom let out a shout:
“Miss Barton!” and she stopped. She had seen Peter several times since
he had left hospital; indeed, he said his leg wouldn’t get well unless
she continued to take a friendly interest in his case. So she had paid
visits, when not on duty, Peter and she sitting in the porch, looking on
to the forest, talking and reading.

Peter was saying that the hill was too steep and rough to cycle down at
night, and his leg felt well enough for him to walk down if Miss Barton
would lend him an arm in case he stumbled. Tom would walk the bicycle
down, which he was glad to do, though directly he was out of sight he
got on, and nearly came a cropper avoiding some people going home.

So Joan and Peter went down together, taking a little path he knew of,
and on the way they saw the dim forms of ponies on either side, all with
heads down, browsing. Only one, the nearest, looked up, and snorted as
they passed. It was Skewbald, and Peter suddenly found his tongue, for
neither he nor Joan had had much to say to one another.

“Why, that’s the beggar that upset my applecart,” he said, and proceeded
to narrate for the twentieth time how the call of the three-year-old had
caused his accident. Then with a flash of inspiration he continued:
“Lucky for me that he called when he did.”

“Yes,” said Joan, though she felt in her bones what was coming; “you
mean he got you a long leave.”

“I mean,” declared Peter, though his heart thumped, and he had a strange
difficulty in articulating, “that if it hadn’t happened, we might never
have met.” And so on, but as this is a tale about ponies and not people,
it will suffice to say that before they reached the bottom of the hill,
they were Joan and Peter to one another, and that soon after Peter was
demobilized the wedding took place.



[Illustration]


                  XIV.—HOW SKEWBALD RANG THE FIREBELL

THE summer had been hot and rainless, and the beginning of August found
the moorland of the forest drier than the oldest commoner had known it.
Boggy places which had formerly to be skirted with care were now firm
under foot. The tussock grass was white and sear, the fern orange and
brown, while the leaves of the oaks were eaten by myriads of
caterpillars into delicate lace-like filigree.

The blackberries withered without ripening, except where they grew in
the meadow bottoms, still green, though the streams dwindled, until in
the gravelly, quick-running parts, there was hardly enough water for the
troutlets to scuttle past into the deeper pools.

One midday, on the road between Southampton and Lymington, a tramping
sailor was resting by the roadside. He lit his pipe, and being a careful
man, blew at the match before he threw it down. Then he rose, and
continued his journey. But the end of the match still glowed, and the
dry grass in contact with it, fanned by the wind, began to smoke, and
then to ignite with a tiny flame, which crawled along the ground, until
it came to the dry stump of a fir, its base littered with bits of bark
and dead branches. These sputtered, and the fire began to spread. The
wayfarer had passed on unheeding, for he was facing the wind, and
therefore received no warning of what was happening behind him.

Down under the big trees the colt-hunter and his two boys were cutting
the fern for stable bedding. He had the right to get all he wanted,
though authority decreed that he was not to pick and choose, not to cut
only where the fern grew thick and tall. He must clear his way steadily,
even where it was sparse and stunted. This year it was pretty short
everywhere. The man used a scythe, the boys were armed with sickles. At
intervals they drew the fodder into small heaps for carting.

The father straightened himself and sniffed. “Seems like burning.
Another heath fire, I expect. Glad if it burnt up the gorse, but
sometimes it burns up other things.” “What things, dad?” asked the
younger boy. “Trees which we want for firewood, and barns, ricks, and
sometimes homes. Run up the hill, sonny, and see if you can make out
whereabouts the fire is.” The boy did not run; it was too hot. As he
walked away, a shrill whinny was heard, then repeated again and again.
“My word!” exclaimed the man; “that pony is some excited. Seems as if it
came from the farm. What’s a forest stallion doing there?” Just then in
the quiet air a prolonged whistle was heard. The father laid his scythe
at the foot of a tree. “Come on, Tom. Something’s the matter, or mother
wouldn’t have blown the whistle.” It was an agreed-on signal. Back the
two went, and the younger boy caught them up, saying he had seen a great
cloud of smoke, and it seemed right over the house.

“Nonsense,” said his father; “more like five miles away.” They walked
quickly along the forest avenue of gnarled oaks, tall beeches, and odds
and ends of hollies of no especial shape. “Look at all those ponies
outside the gate!” exclaimed Tom. There was a restless, pawing,
snorting, whinnying troop of mares and youngsters, but all with head
over or turned towards the closed gate. When the three reached the farm,
they saw Skewbald standing on the straw heap, surrounded by pigs,
poultry, and ducks. Mother was standing at the garden gate with the baby
in her arms. The skewbald whinnied when he saw the arrivals and stamped
impatiently. The man sniffed again and muttered: “That fire seems closer
than I thought. How’d he get in?” he called. “He jumped it,” his wife
replied. “I saw him.”

They opened the gate, and the ponies surged in after them. Tom ran to
slide back the big door, and had just time to flatten himself against
the wall, when Skewbald thundered past, followed by the herd, right
across the meadow to the ford, which they crossed. Then they turned,
faced the wind, and snuffed the air.

“Boys,” the father was saying, “this fire must be nearer than we want.
The smoke’s getting thicker every minute. Both of you get a broom, and
let’s get beyond the wood.”

The homestead was enclosed to the south-west by groves of hollies and a
plantation of firs. If these began to burn, sparks might set the
thatched roof and hayricks on fire. Beyond the wood was a level tract of
heather and gorse. The fire might not have caught this, and there might
yet be time to stop it spreading to the wood. When they got beyond the
trees, the gorse bushes at the far end of the open space were burning
with a loud crackling, and on the ground a line of smoke, with here and
there a sputter of flame, showed that the fire was crawling towards
them.

“Spread out, boys, and smack away at it,” was the order.

Then commenced a fight with the advancing enemy, in the face of sparks
and thick, pungent smoke. The boys worked bravely, but the wind fanned
the embers, and, often, after they had beaten down the flames they had
to run back, and put out a fresh outburst. Then, where the grass and
heather was longer, the fire began to burn more vigorously.

“Get back, boys; we’ll wait and fight it where it’s shorter,” said the
father. “Hooray!” Tom exclaimed; “here they come!” First a man on a
pony, then a boy on a bicycle, two more friendly helpers in a trap, all
coming to help as fast as they could; and later, a motor-car from the
big house on a hill miles away, and crammed with helpers, hooted its
arrival.

Some had brooms or beaters, and some took branches, but all fell to with
a will, yet as they worked, the cloud of smoke seemed to get blacker and
heavier. Instead of mounting into the sky like a pillar of cloud, it
hung about their heads until they could hardly breathe. The sky became
black, and still the fire defied their efforts.

A boy looked up and yelled, “Rain!” He had felt a drop on his face.
Someone felt another, but they were not leaving anything to chance, and
smacked steadily away at the smouldering herbage.

Then the rain began to come down steadily until everyone had a wet
shirt. When the danger was over the volunteers began to move off, saying
they must be going, in spite of entreaties to come back to the
farmstead. They knew that the wife with her baby would be sore put to it
to entertain so many. But one or two who lived farther off were
persuaded to come along, and to these the colt-hunter expatiated a dozen
times on the fortunate circumstance of the ponies running from the fire,
and taking the road through the wood to the farm. As Tom said, the
skewbald rang the firebell for them.



[Illustration]


                           XV.—THE WANDERERS

SKEWBALD, now a four-year-old, had in late August succeeded to the
leadership of the company with which he had been running. The stallion
which had lorded it over the herd had been “caught in,” and Skewbald had
stepped into his place as the acknowledged superior of the young males.
It was destined to be a temporary supremacy, for, as a skewbald, he
could not be welcomed as a breeding stallion; his coloration was too
pronounced. Self-coloured browns and bays were considered to be truer to
the forest type. Skewbald’s lot was to be that of a pit pony.

No young stallion challenged him to battle twice, for Skewbald
possessed, besides strength, a spirit, a quickness of movement together
with a power of deciding rapidly, and when roused, a fighting temper
which boded ill for an enemy.

As a future pit pony he had the merit of not being too tall, but he was
perfectly proportioned, and his carriage and ease of movement proclaimed
his fitness as an instrument of strength and speed.

Patterned as he was in bold chestnut and cream-white, his coat did not
show the high lights rippling over the muscles of a bay or black, but
the slinging of his barrel between his shoulders and flanks, the arch of
his neck and withers, the action of his fore-legs, and the tension of
his hocks, marked him as beyond the ordinary.

His mane, very bushy, and like his tail waved as with a lady’s
curling-irons, was white nearly to the regions of his ears, where it
turned to chestnut with an intervening streak of purplish-black. His
long, ample tail, carried in a drooping curve, was white above and dark
below. His on-side had one great chestnut patch covering most of his
barrel and flank, and extending below the hock. From a distance, this
side was deceptive, because the great brown blotch looked like a pony
standing end on. The offside had the neck and face chestnut, and a spot
of the same on his barrel smaller in area than on the other side, and
leaving his hind-leg white.

But although he looked and acted like a born leader, kept the yearlings
and two-year-olds in their places, rounded up the mares and saw that all
were on the move when the herd was changing quarters, and, last but not
least, glanced continually round the horizon for enemies in the shape of
agisters or other colt-hunters, it must not be supposed that he decided
all the movements of his company.

Some of the mares were years older than he, and knew the forest
infinitely better—the grassy lawns and bottoms, the bare “plains,”
wind-swept in hot weather, and the great woods with sheltered recesses
in drenching rain. So they, as a rule, took the initiative and decided
when to move and where to go. But the direction once indicated, Skewbald
took charge and acted as convoy.

In the herd was an old rusty-black mare with white forehead blaze and
off hind-sock. She had been broken in for riding and was shod, as might
be seen by her footprints, the imprint of the double line of the shoe
showing out among the single, nearly circular curves of the unshod
ponies.

In her time she had assisted in the “catching in” of many a pony, and
now that she was again in the forest, although she had lost the timidity
of the uncaught beasts, she made up for this by the wiliness of one who
knew the ways of man. Time and time again the colt-hunters wished her
far away, when they found her in company with ponies they wanted. They
might manœuvre the group at a gentle trot across the moor, but just as
they approached a tempting open gateway, the mare would check, toss her
head, snort, and break away at a gallop, followed by the rest, in spite
of shouts and cracking of whips.

She was also a persistent wanderer, a “lane haunter,” “lane creeper” or
“romeo” (an atrocious Forest pun)—that is, a pony which escapes from
the forest into the lanes to munch the sweet grass of the hedgerows.
This is considered one of the worst vices in a forest pony, because she
leads others with her. Then the agister may impound the culprits, and
the owners have to pay for any depredations, as fence-breaking and
crop-spoiling, that may have been committed. Prizes are offered for
well-bred ponies in good condition, but are likely to be withheld unless
the agister certifies that the selected beasts are no “lane haunters.”
Some think that the introduction of alien blood has brought into
existence a type of animal unsuited to the rigours of the forest, too
delicate to flourish on the meagre fare, and therefore inclined to
wander away in search of richer food.

By a mischance, the mare’s last foal had died soon after birth, and
because of this, perhaps, she was this season unsettled, restless, and
still more inclined to wander. The summer, too, had been hot and dry, so
the forest pasturage was meagre and scanty, the ponies having to search
continually for their fare.

Whereas a herd keeps usually within an area of four or five square
miles, this mare, whether owing to the above reasons or her innate
tendency to wander, during this season kept the company on the move by
her restlessness and persistence, so that without hurry, or causing
fatigue to the youngest, and feeding as they went, the forest was
explored from end to end. She was Skewbald’s favourite mare; when she
went ahead, he followed, and the herd fell in behind, in the usual
column of route.

She knew the forest roads and lanes both as a riding pony and a “lane
creeper,” the short-cuts, the hunting bridges, the deep recesses of the
woods, and the narrow winding pony paths across the upland “plains,” as
if she had the ordnance map in her head.

After whiling away a hot afternoon cooling their fetlocks at Potterne
Ford, the herd spent the evening on Blackdown near the great round
barrow, and in the early morning, before dawn, the mare led the way
southward over bare ridge and through thick woods, until coming out on
the Beaulieu road they found the manor gate left open by a sleepy
carter, and trooped down in the early morning, past Beaulieu Abbey
gateway, pausing at the margin of the beautiful estuary with its wooded
banks, and yachts anchored at the bend. All was quiet except for the
yelping of a few black-headed gulls questing for food among the pools,
fringed with tawny seaweed left by the tide.

Skewbald advanced to sample the water, then snorted with disgust, and
retreated, driving his company on to the road again. The old mare had a
good drinking-place in mind, and led them up the street until they were
stopped by Hatchet Gate. The gatekeeper, just getting up, heard the
clatter of hoofs. “More lane haunters,” she said; “I must let them into
the forest again, or they will get into trouble.” She hastened down, the
herd passed through, trotted on to Hatchet Pond and slaked their thirst.

They spent some days on the great aerodrome of Beaulieu Heath, whence,
in the days of war, the aeroplanes buzzed on their way across Blackdown
to attack an imaginary enemy plane marked as a cross of white gravel on
the ground. Now all was quiet, rows of huts and buildings stood silent
and deserted. The lane creeper took the road again and led the troop
towards Lymington. Down the hill they went, past the monument to the
gallant admiral of the many virtues duly set forth, and hesitated at the
toll-bridge, where the collector, waiting awhile to see if any human was
following with the toll dues, drove them back. They turned up the road
bordering the left bank of the Lymington River, and soon found
themselves in the forest again, but on the other side, for they forded
the river, went over Sandy Down and crossed the Brockenhurst road, where
a sorrel mare nearly lost her foal, which insisted on nosing a chunk of
bread oblivious of a charabanc of excursionists. They scattered over
Setley Plain, where are the two tumuli with intersecting rings, and
crossing under the railway, wandered about the uplands above Sway, with
its tall tower, a landmark visible far out to sea. Here, sunning
themselves by a narrow forest railway bridge, they encountered another
herd, a mere group, with that rarest of forest ponies—a white
stallion—in charge. He was white, of course, because of his age; his
backbone stood up and his ribs showed; but though he snuffed the air,
there was no trouble, for the old fellow had no thought of showing
fight, nor was this the season for dissension. All Skewbald wanted, for
his part, was to get his company over the bridge, and when the others
understood this, they made way willingly enough.

[Illustration]

The wanderers straggled with many stoppages over the great open moors
and uplands of the Rhinefield Walk. In the forest a “walk” is not a
pathway, but a district of several square miles, formerly presided over
by a ranger, an office now abolished.

They crossed Black Knowl, forded the pretty stream gurgling over its
gravelled bed, and were soon cropping the fine greensward of beautiful
Balmer Lawn. Here Skewbald had a tussle with a young iron grey who
thought the lawn belonged to him. After a short passage of arms,
Skewbald disabused him of this notion, and the youngster retired
hurriedly.

The herd wandered through the picturesque drives leading from the lawn,
and drank at the little pond on the golf-links, set like a jewel on the
breast of the moor.

The young grey stallion had some cause for jealousy, for Skewbald
noticed a white mare with a great blotch of jet black on her neck and
fore-quarters, and she took his eye, being spotted himself; but she
refused to leave her beloved pastures; she was no wanderer, and never
had been known to stray more than half a mile from her birthplace, a
field by the lawn.

[Illustration: _The Naked Man._]

Then rain came at last, and the mare crossed the river again and led her
party into the woods. They wandered through the glade of the Queen
Bower, with its great beeches, crossed the Blackwater, and so into the
thick woods of Vinney Ridge. Here they had a fright one midday, for the
baying of hounds, tootling of horns, and tramping of hoofs dismayed all
but the old mare, who had often ridden with the buck-hounds. She led her
party, which were inclined to scatter, down a drive away from the noise.
Later in the week the rain ceased, and leaving the woods, they crossed
the Ober and slowly climbed the hill to Wilverley Post, the young foals
even daring to rub themselves against the “Naked Man”—a dead tree
reduced to a bare trunk and a couple of armlike branches stretched out
imploringly. Here they crossed the black tarred road between Southampton
and Bournemouth. It was Sunday afternoon and the cars were almost in
procession, so numerous were they, the noisy little sidecar
predominating; but the ponies took small account of wheels. Horns might
blow and chauffeurs curse, but the mares, and especially the foals, were
not to be hurried. As the herd crossed head to tail, so that there was
not room for even a motor-cycle to pass, the road looked like Piccadilly
at its narrowest part, when the policemen stop the traffic. All sorts of
cars were there, from Fords to a Rolls-Royce; great charabancs full of
trippers, who threw crumpled paper balls at the ponies to hurry them up,
but without avail, and the drivers, remembering the warning signs put up
by the R.S.P.C.A., had to curb their impatience until the last foal had
crossed.

The ponies spread themselves over Clay Hill, went down into the bottoms
and up by the steep road from Holmsley Station into Burley, and drank at
the pond fringed with hollies, on the golf-links, where one Christmas
the scarlet berries hid the leaves, as the golfers, if they notice such
things, can testify.

They cropped the lawn outside the school, until the noise of the
children coming out sent them into the woods. They missed Burley,
fortunately, for one of the old forest pounds stands close by, crossed
the road at Vereley, passed the gipsy encampment, and then reaching
another black road leading to Ringwood, spread out over the open ground
of Picket Post, one of the finest spots in the forest, because of its
altitude and its views towards the sea. Here one can see clearly the
flanks of the forest hills rising from the level bottom like hills out
of a lake. The ponies munched the sweet grass on the lawn with its
beautiful little tumulus crowned with hollies, but unfortunately dwarfed
by the great modern house close by.

Then the unsatisfied maternal instincts of the old mare surged up within
her, an irresistible impulse to action, and she did what horses, dogs,
and other animals will do—set her face towards her birthplace. She had
been born at Brook, and old memories of her present surroundings may
have suggested to her the route to the village. At any rate, the herd
were soon travelling slowly to the north-east. Over Handy Cross Plain
they went, through King’s Garden and so to Stoney Cross, where, from the
hill leading down to the dell of the Rufus Stone, one gets the fine view
across to Brook and beyond.

The mare wandered about several days visiting the haunts of her youth;
then again her loss came upon her, and she started off across country,
for the spot where last she had seen her foal.

All this time the wanderings of the ponies had not been unnoted. People
owning ponies had seen them here and there, and in passing a friend’s
house would call and remark, “I saw your chestnut mare over by Castle
Malwood the other day,” or the owner of Skewbald might be greeted with,
“Your four-year-old seems a bit of a wanderer.” If the herd strayed on
to a public road where the agisters might catch them, and involve their
owners in expense, a forest man would spend a little time chivying them
back into the forest. So they had committed no damage in their fleeting
disappearances from the forest proper. They had not been impounded, and
apparently they were free as air, yet the owner of any pony there, with
a little trouble and inquiry, could ascertain its whereabouts and could
get it either personally or by deputy.

The herd came back over Emery Down, the great gaps in its wooded sides
showing where the Canadian gangs had cleared the timber during the war.
Cleared it in a lazy way, the forest men remarked, for instead of
bending to cut the tree at its base, they had left many stumps
waist-high. But then, timber is cheap in the West.

Missing Lyndhurst, by devious ways the ponies came out on the
golf-links, where a yearling got a smack on the flank from the ball of
an impatient golfer. They crossed the road, and tried the sweet grass of
Pondhead. It was a bright Saturday afternoon, and a boy with a camera,
catching sight of Skewbald, tried for a snapshot. He stalked him
backwards and forwards, manœuvring for a good pose and lighting, until
the stallion got suspicious and annoyed. Disdaining the bridge, he
jumped the streamlet, mounted the hill a few paces, and called loudly.
The mares, not unmindful of the intruder with his flashing camera,
understood. Without undue haste they gathered their foals, crossed the
little bridge and took the path up the hill, Skewbald standing sentinel
until he saw they were all on the move, then, pressing forward, he
overtook the head of the column, and led the way.

Soon there was a quarter of a mile of ponies of all colours, following
the meanderings of the path, the mares with lowered heads, foals
trotting to left and right. Last of all went an old white mare with a
black sucker silhouetted against her side. It was a pretty picture. Even
in the distance the energetic action of Skewbald could be noted; his
tossing mane proclaimed him the leader. It _was_ a picture, and the boy
could not help snapping it, although he knew the distance was too great.

The old mare no longer led the way, for the herd had reached its home
pasturage. Indeed, Skewbald’s owner had already noted his return. The
ponies crossed the road looking down on Longwater, and passed a night
among the lush bottoms. The next day they wandered eastwards over Matley
Heath. As they approached the railway embankment to cross under the
forest viaduct, they passed an area of a few acres, which would have
looked strangely familiar to millions of men of military age. During the
war the trench mortar force had used the place as a training-ground, and
at every few yards a hole gaped, several feet across and a yard deep.

That afternoon the herd was again at the ford, having completed their
circular tour.

[Illustration: _The Black and White Mare._]



[Illustration]


                        XVI.—SKEWBALD THE SWIFT

IT WAS early in September, and Skewbald’s owner, who had seen him only
once during the summer, but had had reports of his having been found in
various parts of the forest from agisters and keepers, decided that he
would “catch in” the four-year-old, and get a good price for him as a
pit pony. He settled to do the job himself, and, with two neighbours who
volunteered to give up a Saturday afternoon, started off in the
direction where the herd had been seen last. It was fine and clear
(“visibility very good”), and Skewbald was plainly in view more than a
mile away. The ponies were scattered along a ridge above a narrow
valley, the floor of which was largely occupied by a deep bog.

It was decided to keep out of sight as long as possible, and come at the
stallion from over the hill, in the hope that he could be driven down to
the bog and surrounded.

But if the horsemen could see Skewbald at a distance, because of his
bold colouring, he could detect them by reason of his good sight, and
though they had apparently gone right away, he remained uneasy, marching
from one mare to another. Presently he heard the muffled beat of hoofs
on turf, and called loudly to his companions. When the three hunters
reached the crest of the hill and looked down, Skewbald and several
mares, with their offspring, were trotting away towards the head of the
valley.

There was nothing for the hunters to do but to go for it at their best
speed. Skewbald, they knew, like any stallion true to his herd, would
not leave the mares, if he could help it. When they tired was the chance
to get him. But as the horsemen galloped, the trot of the fugitives
changed to the quicker step also, and though the riders gained on the
herd, Skewbald was always on the far side, protected, as it were, by the
column of mares, foals, and younger ponies.

Some of the foals soon stopped, and, with their mothers, fell out of the
chase. The other mares and youngsters carried on, and the pursuit went
on along the ridge, until the bog was turned, and Skewbald led the way
back on the other side. Then the ponies with him began to slacken, and
the pursuers’ hopes ran high, but Skewbald increased his speed, and
leaving his fatigued company, galloped on alone. Some little distance
ahead, the bog narrowed considerably, and here a causeway of gravel had
been constructed. Along this the stallion dashed, and ascended the hill
to where the rest of his leaderless herd had collected. They began to
move as he approached, and stretching into a gallop, they went with him,
this time down the valley, and being untired, began to increase the
distance from their pursuers. “Hang it!” cried the owner; “when these
are tired, and he gets to the other lot after they’ve breathed, he may
keep this up all the evening.”

Then things happened. One of the riders essayed to cut off a corner by
crossing a marshy bit. His pony hesitated, and when struck, put her feet
together and shot her rider into the bog. The others halted, and with
shouts of laughter, watched the muddy figure thrashing about, then, as
he sank deeper, hastily took measures to help him out. They tossed him a
rope and fastened their end to one of the ponies. Then chaffing him
about keeping his legs straight, they shouted, “Hold tight, Jim!” and
setting the pony going, out came the man with a great squelch. “Well,”
said Jim, as he looked at himself ruefully, “my own fault entirely. I
ought to have known better than beat a forest pony baulking at boggy
ground.”

It was getting late, and Skewbald was out of sight. They decided to
abandon the chase and try again another day.

Then the rain came, filling the bogs and flooding the streams, and the
ponies, according to their habit, left the open moorlands for the woods,
where they were invisible, save to the forest keepers, clad in khaki
with brass buttons bearing the crown and stirrup, the latter device
derived from the gigantic stirrup hanging in the court hall at
Lyndhurst.

Skewbald’s owner made inquiries. A keeper had seen the stallion in a
great wood of oaks and beeches. The next Saturday afternoon the three
riders again set off. The rain had ceased, and the sun shone, although
the going was heavy. In the woods the forest paths were churned into
quagmires, but on pony-back it does not matter if the forest be a bit
damp. The pony’s legs get the mud.

Skewbald’s company were grazing in the open, but in the shelter of the
wood, bordered with groves of silver birches. From afar the hunters
thought out a plan of action. “Best go back,” said one, “and come at
them from behind. P’raps we can drive them down the moor and away from
the woods.” As the riders, after a long detour, were approaching their
quarry, having got almost to the confines of the wood, a party of jays
set up a clamour. “No use going quietly now,” grumbled the leader;
“better push on as fast as we can.” The ponies had heard the raucous
noise of the jays, and then the trample of hoofs. When the hunters
emerged from the wood, they were in time to see the last of the herd
dashing in among the trees, hundreds of yards ahead.

“Come on, lads,” was the cry, and the pursuers did their best to
overtake the fugitives, who had chosen their country with skill, for
they had fled into a great wood with plenty of undergrowth, and trees so
thick that no background of sky gave the ponies away. Hollies grew in
dense masses, and clinging honeysuckle and brier impeded progress. Quick
going was impossible, and every dense brake had to be examined for a
lurking beast. Mares and colts they overtook, and once they thought they
had found Skewbald, but it was an old white mare running among the
trees. As they got nearer the river, the wood grew wilder and more
difficult, while their ponies sunk below the fetlocks in the soft stuff.
“Let’s go into the drive and see if we can head them off,” suggested a
faint-hearted one. In the sticky drive were more ponies, but no
Skewbald. With the old black mare he was sheltering behind a thick clump
of hollies, ready, if he heard the riders approaching, to move quietly
off.

Night came on and the riders gave up the chase in disgust, vowing that
they had had the worst of luck.

After this, the services of the colt-hunter were sought. He listened to
the tale of Skewbald’s evasions. “Seems a speedy one, and artful. I’ll
get him, never fear.”

The next morning, the colt-hunter, going out to shoot a rabbit for
dinner, was delighted to see Skewbald with his mares, placidly wandering
on the moor outside his holding. The rabbit must wait, and he returned
to collect his two helpers and get the ponies ready. When the three were
mounted, he sent the boy and girl by a circuitous route to get behind
the herd. He himself rode through the gate which opened on the moor, and
went towards the woods, as being the most difficult part of the country.

Presently, as he watched the herd, he saw the stallion raise his head,
and a moment later Tom appeared on the ridge beyond the moor, and came
down the hill at a trot. Skewbald called to his mares, and set off at a
gallop towards the far end of the moor, where it was crossed by the
stream. The man saw the herd rapidly dwindling in the distance, and
noted with satisfaction that the boy made no attempt to rush the
fugitives, but contented himself with trotting along the edge of the
moor in the direction they had taken. “Saving his mount,” the father
muttered, and then heard faint sounds in the distance, which he knew
came from Molly, who had crossed the stream, and with shouts and
gestures was stopping the fugitives. The ponies halted; then, as their
new pursuer rode at them, they turned, and fled in the opposite
direction. Skewbald had an eye to the hill, its summit covered with
trees, but Tom on guard saw a suggestion of breaking away, and stopped
it with waving arms and fiendish yells. As the ponies, apparently free
from strenuous pursuit, slackened to a trot, the colt-hunter met them,
and turning them, quietly followed. Tom and his sister closed in, and
the ponies, in an invisible net, were shepherded towards the gate, left
wide open. Skewbald, restless and suspicious, turned and faced the
riders gently trotting towards him at some distance. This left the old
“lane haunter” in front, and as she approached the opening, she shied,
and broke away, keeping near the hedge, where there was no rider to
forestall her. The herd turned also, and prepared to follow, but an
unexpected intervention checked them. The two smallest children had been
awakened by the bustle of getting the ponies ready, and guessed what was
afoot. They had not been asked to help, but thinking there might be some
fun, they dressed, slipped out, and hid in the hollies a hundred feet
from the gate. As the mare came towards them they darted out, and,
brandishing sticks, rushed at the herd, meanwhile letting off
blood-curdling shrieks. The old mare, indeed, used to children, brushed
past, but the ponies following were brought to a standstill, and as the
youngsters jumped into the air, their arms and legs going all ways at
once, making of themselves frantic instruments of movement and sound,
the nerves of the ponies failed them, Skewbald turning tail with the
rest, and the three riders, closing in, had no difficulty in passing
their quarry through the gate and into the paddock. “Well done, kids!”
called the father. “Close the gate! Let’s ride ’em into the yard before
they know where they are.” But Skewbald had turned after passing through
the gate, and the herd was now at the far end of the field. The hunters
tried all ways to get the ponies into the stable yard, but in vain; they
tore past the inviting opening, but enter they would not. Then the mare
left outside, hearing the trampling of hoofs, and feeling lonely, gave a
loud whinny. Skewbald caught it amid the noise of tumult. He broke from
the herd, dashed across the field, through the gravelly ford, then, as
he neared the gate, collected himself, cleared it at a bound, and joined
his partner.

“My word!” exclaimed the colt-hunter, with a rueful laugh. “Can’t that
skewbald jump! One of you open the gate so that the other ponies can get
back into the forest again. All our trouble for nothing. Well, we’d
better go and have breakfast.”

The colt-hunter began to fear that his old skill was deserting him, for
in spite of his efforts, the four-year-old was not yet in the stable
yard. At the first opportunity, the man went out again, this time alone.
The old mare gave the alarm, on seeing him, and the whole herd was soon
trotting away from their pursuer, who, as they were going directly from
his open gate, refrained from pressing them too closely, hoping that he
might be able to turn them before long. But the mare led the way right
across the open ground towards the river where it flowed between densely
wooded banks. They entered the wood, and the pursuer increased his pace,
for in such country unridden ponies can move much more quickly than a
rider. Directly he got into the deep wood, he had to twist, and break
back for feasible routes, and go slowly for fear of being wiped off his
seat by a branch. He passed several of the ponies, but they were not
what he sought, and as he got deeper in the recesses of the wood, he
became puzzled. After some tedious wandering, scratched and torn by
holly, brier, and bramble, he confessed himself at a loss. “They may
have crossed the stream again,” he considered. “This thick stuff is the
worst of all to find him in. I wish I had my old dog.” Nell had had to
be destroyed, after an accident, but when in her prime had shown a
capacity for following the fugitives as they threaded through the woods,
and on reaching them, by barking loudly, indicated their position to the
pursuers. The man gave up the chase reluctantly, promising himself to
try again.

He did so the next evening with his boy and girl. The herd was in sight
a mile down the moor. “When we get near them,” said the father, “we must
hustle, and head them off from the woods.” But the ponies took the alarm
at sight of the riders, and the old mare, without waiting for the chase
to become hot, set off at full speed for the woods, followed by Skewbald
and a few other ponies. “We shall lose them,” said the colt-hunter, and
sure enough, after much wandering and thrashing the woods, darkness set
in, and the hunters returned, weary and empty-handed.

Again and again they tried to head off Skewbald from his protector. The
mare, from being disturbed, got so nervous that, at the first sight of
the hunters, she would dart for the coverts, followed by Skewbald. The
colt-hunter cudgelled his brains in vain for a plan to secure the
stallion, and began to sigh for the good old days when the forest men,
mounted and blowing horns, encircled a wide area, then with outcry and
galloping, drove all the ponies grazing therein into a great pound. But,
as he said, that would have made an end of his bread and cheese.

September was three parts through, and still Skewbald pastured on his
native heath.

[Illustration]



[Illustration]


                  XVII.—HOW SKEWBALD ESCAPED THE MINES

THE sun, breaking through the mist of a September morning, shone on a
grassy knoll by a great wood, where a man was cooking his breakfast. He
was tall, ruddy, with a clear-cut profile and black hair cut close at
the back. He wore a soft shirt, breeches, and stout boots. His
wide-brimmed hat, jacket, and a towel hung on a bush close by. As he
made his preparations he whistled “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Breakfast in the woods presupposes camping; no tent, however, showed
itself, but a few paces off was an erection in the form of a lean-to, of
dead branches interlaced with brushwood, and the whole well thatched
with heather and bracken. Looking up from within, no peep of sky could
be seen; the shack was, in fact, watertight.

The breakfast utensils were placed on a newspaper spread on the turf. A
fire of sticks crackled in a hollow. Three aluminium saucepans were on
the fire, and the man was stirring porridge in one. “Nearly ready,” he
muttered; “now for the bacon.” He opened a package, took out two
rashers, placed them in a small frying-pan, took the porridge-pan off
the fire, removed the detachable handle and fitted the latter to the
frying-pan, which he placed on the fire, now a mass of glowing embers.

Then he found sugar, poured in milk from an aluminium milk-can, and ate
his porridge out of the pan while watching the rashers. When these were
turned, he took an egg from each of two egg-shaped aluminium cases,
broke the shells, and poured the contents on the rashers. When cooked to
a turn, he took the frying-pan off the fire, and ate the bacon and eggs
out of it. Then one of the remaining saucepans boiled, and he made
coffee. The bread and coffee he took out of waterproof bags, butter from
a small aluminium box. His first course had been of blackberries picked
from a bush near by. Blackberries are not plentiful in the New Forest,
but occasionally they are found of a size and lusciousness rarely
equalled elsewhere.

After finishing his breakfast, he took out a cigar, and began to smoke.
As he mused he talked to himself for company. “Guess this is some quiet
spot: not many birds except woodpeckers, jays, stonechats, and
meadow-pipits, though I saw a whinchat, a redstart, and two wheatears
yesterday. But I expect they were on migration. Nothing much to be heard
in English woods after the first week in June. And except for the
kingfisher, they can’t hold a candle for colour against our cardinals
and bluebirds.

“And no beasts worth mentioning. No bears, wolves, moose, or porcupines,
and only rarely one sees a fox or a hedgehog. Of course, the deer show
themselves now and then, and there are always the ponies. A viper here
and there, perhaps, but no rattlers.

“Well, thank goodness, there are no mosquitoes, and however warm it is,
the heat doesn’t amount to much. And the views! Superb! That walk over
Emery Down was delightful. I wish Sadie was here. Plenty of room in that
shack, and how she would enjoy it. Hard lines, marrying, and having to
leave one’s wife almost on the church step.” Here he broke off, and took
out a letter, which he read as one does when there is no need to hurry,
turning back occasionally to earlier passages, though the letter already
seemed well thumbed. Then he replaced the missive—which was a long one,
and called forth a smile now and then—in its envelope, and set himself
to wash up, grumbling at the tenacity of the remnant of porridge; for
once he had forgotten to fill the pan with water. The bacon rinds and
crumbs he left for any furred or feathered epicures which might be
about; the egg-shells, tea-leaves, and other rubbish he put down a hole.

Then he began to pack. He had no blankets, heavy and not too efficient
conservators of heat. His only bed covering was an eiderdown quilt,
which went into marvellously small compass. He had no less than three
air-pillows—a tiny one for his head, one in the form of a ring for his
hip, and a pleated one for his shoulder. These and a pair of plimsolls,
with his sleeping suit, went into his ground-sheet, which he rolled into
a long bundle round a light fishing-rod, with a strap attached to either
end so that he could sling it like a rifle.

The other details of his equipment—bath and bucket, of the thinnest and
lightest material, which had been emptied of water and hung up to dry;
milk-can, collapsible cup, plates, saucepans, each of which he wrapped
in paper before putting one within the other, not forgetting to place
the handle inside—went into his waterproof knapsack with food-bag,
tins, etc. In a little bag he put comb, brush, and mirror, all of
diminutive proportions, from which the greater part of the handles had
been removed, in order to reduce weight, for this was a walking tour,
where every ounce makes a difference. Even a pocket Primus would have
added too much to the burden of the day. And in the forest, firewood is
plentiful.

Once he ceased packing and raised a tiny prism glass of the most recent
pattern, which was slung round his neck, quickly to his eye, in order to
identify a passing bird. “Have learned quite a lot about English birds,”
he said to himself. “When I go back I shall be able to tell the Western
Reserve Ornithological something about the English warblers. The
nightingale’s song is very fine, I’ll admit, especially at night, but
give me the blackcap in clear daylight. He beats the band.”

When everything was packed, he turned towards the shack. “Better leave
it as it is,” he muttered; “I might come back this way and put in
another night.”

As he turned into the woodland path, the bushes parted and a man dressed
in tattered khaki emerged. He carried a coil of rope over his shoulder
and in his hand a stout cudgel. “Got the time on ye, sir?” he asked. The
camper took out a gold watch. “I make it nine o’clock. But I should have
thought that you forest men were in no need of watches with the sun
shining.” “Oh, ay!” muttered the man in khaki evasively. “Ah, what’s
this?” he exclaimed, pointing to the shack. “Sleeping rough? Why, that’s
punishable at the magistrates’ court,” he added with a grin. “Not at
all,” said the other. “I have my permission, duly signed from Lyndhurst,
to camp in the forest, also a licence to fish in the streams, although
up to the present I’ve caught nothing but minnows. This is how we camp
out West. Saves lugging a tent about.” “Oh,” said the man in khaki, “you
be an Amurrican; I thought so, by your twang. What puzzles me,” he
continued, “is why you should be tramping about here. Most of the
Yankees at Winchester never set foot in the forest. They see it all from
the car. But,” with a sneer, “p’raps you can’t afford it?” The American
noticed, but answered with a smile: “Why, friend, I could afford it very
well, but all my life I have loved open spaces and fresh air, and I like
to do things for myself. I am what you might call a cattle-farmer, and
have a ranch in the West.”

“Indeed,” said the other, “and how many cattle might ye own?” “Well, I
am not sure, anyway,” answered the American, “but I suppose, if things
are going all right, that my men have charge of 10,000 head of stock.”
“Well, I’m ——,” exclaimed his questioner. “And to think, if you’re
worth all that money, you care to sleep on damp ground with a bit of
brushwood overhead.”

“I said just now,” laughed the other, “that I’m used to outdoor life.
When I came over with my regiment, we were sent to the camp at
Winchester. You know that city?” and the other nodded. He did not deem
it necessary to say that the last stay he put in there was in the city
gaol. “Well, I got interested in this locality, because there seemed
room to move in it, as there is at home; and in my spare time I used to
come down here and look about me. Then one afternoon when I was sitting
in the cathedral, while hundreds of our men, from all over the States,
were being taken round in parties to see the sights, I had some talk
with a man and a boy who looked in. They were cycling with camping
luggage, and were to spend a holiday in the forest. I guess they were
some novices, for I went outside to see them off. Never saw such poor,
ill-used, overladen bicycles before or since. Afterwards I got my knock
in the big push, and they sent me to the hospital at Brockenhurst, where
I saw more of the forest. Just now family business is keeping me in
London, so I thought I would spend a few days down here, in my own way.”

The man in khaki became effusive. He thrust out a dirty tattered sleeve.
“We ought to be pals, mister. See my wound stripes? Wipers, Loos. Been
through the lot and glad to be back for good. I suppose you can’t raise
a drink for a pore comrade? You gentlemen generally have a whisky-flask
on you.”

“No, my friend,” replied the American. “You’ll find no intoxicating
liquor in this outfit. I’m a prohibitionist, what you call a
teetotaller.” Then, as waves of incredulity, derision, and horror
crossed the other’s face, he added: “You’ll find a lot more of us across
the Pond. And now, friend,” he continued, “I’ve told you as much about
myself as if you were an agister, as I think you call him. Why do you
appear, like a jack-in-the-box, and so anxious to know the time?”

“Not much of an agister,” grumbled the man. “Miserable cusses, I calls
’em, interfering with a pore man’s living. I comes from Romsey way, but
settled down here since the war. A suspicious lot,” he added surlily. “I
drives cattle, carts wood, breaks in horses, and that’s what I’m going
to do this morning,” and he held out the rope. “Ah,” said the American,
“that reminds me of home. None of my cowboys ride anywhere without a
coil hanging to their saddles. They never know when they may want to
rope a steer or a mustang.” “Well,” said the man in khaki, “I’ve heer’d
tell that the forest people used ropes in the old days, but they never
do now.”

While talking, they had reached the edge of the wood, and the road,
thick with dust, lay before them. “Well, friend,” said the American,
“you’ll be taking the road; I wish you good-day. I am keeping to the
forest paths.”

“Why, mister,” said the man with the rope, “you’ll lose yourself.” “Not
with a good English ordnance map,” answered the other, taking from his
breast pocket a folded map. As he did so, a bulky pocket-book fell to
the ground. “Thanks, don’t trouble,” as the man in khaki made a
movement, and bending down himself, picked up and restored his property
to his pocket.

But the man with the cudgel was not to be shaken off. In spite of the
American’s obvious reluctance to have his company, he declared that he
had plenty of time and that he would see him a piece of the way. Once
started, the intruder on the visitor’s privacy became boastful of his
prowess and that of his companions in arms, and began to decry the
American forces, but his hearer good-humouredly parried his clumsy
onslaughts.

As they passed over the moor they came upon a group of ponies. It was
Skewbald’s herd. He was grazing, and as the two men passed within a
short distance, he raised his head and looked at them. But, as they were
on foot, and seemed to have no ill designs on ponies, he turned again to
his own business.

“Now, mister,” said the man with the rope, “you Amurricans talk very big
about lassooing wild steers and hosses. What about giving us a show of
your skill? Let’s see you catch one of these ponies.”

“No, friend,” replied the American, putting aside the proffered coil; “I
don’t rope other people’s beasts without their permission, nor do I wish
to show off.” “All right, mister, don’t be huffy about it,” said the
man; “but that there stallion”—indicating Skewbald—“is worth five bob
to me, if you can rope him. Joe Smith has been wild to get him for weeks
past, but the skewbald has gone away every time. Only a rope will get
him. You might help a pore man,” he urged with garrulous earnestness.

“Well,” hesitated the other, “the ground is soft, and I am not likely to
hurt him, but this rope is all wrong and may put me off. However, I can
try.” They walked on a little and the American stopped and deposited his
luggage at the foot of a holly. He tied the noose and re-coiled the rope
to his liking. Then they walked back so as to pass within a few yards of
the stallion. The man in khaki walked a pace or so behind the other,
gripping his cudgel. He breathed heavily, looked around him and seemed
excited. The stallion raised his head suspiciously, turned, and at the
same moment the rope shot out and encircled his neck. Before the pony
knew what was happening to him, the American, bending down, was taking
several turns of the rope round a stump.

Then two things happened. The stallion, making off, was brought up short
and fell on his side, half-choked by the tightening of the rope, and at
the same moment, the cudgel fell with a thud on the head of the man
bending at the rope. He fell forward on his face without a cry. His
assailant looked around hurriedly, then took the gold watch, pocket-book
and loose cash, and having picked up his stick, was making off without a
second glance at his victim.

But Skewbald struggling on the ground caught his eye. “Why,” he
muttered, “I nearly forgot the rope. Good job I didn’t quite. Might have
give me away.” He dropped the cudgel, unwound the rope from the stump,
and approached the stallion.

Directly the pressure of the noose was removed from the pony’s windpipe,
he revived, and rose to his feet breathing hard. Then as the man reached
him and took hold of the noose, he reared, pulling his liberator off his
feet, to fall beneath the plunging hoofs. The stallion, seeing a
persecutor lying prostrate, and being full of anger at his treatment,
with a scream of fury, flew at him, kicking and biting. Then he seized
an arm in his teeth and savaged it. Launching a final kick, he galloped
to his herd, the rope trailing on the ground.

                           *    *    *    *    *

The American groaned. He thought himself again in the trenches, with the
enemy “putting some hot stuff over.” He was sure he had received a wound
at the back of his head, and was lying face down in mud and blood,
dying, yet no one came to his aid. Then his nose tickled, he sneezed,
and sat up. He felt the back of his head and looked at the blood on his
fingers. He remembered roping the pony, but rope and stallion were both
gone. What was that lying in a trampled bush of bog myrtle? He got up
and walked unsteadily to the prostrate form. The face was marked with
cuts and bruises, while one sleeve was torn, the arm bleeding and
hanging oddly. The American turned him over carefully, and as he did so,
his gold watch fell out of a pocket, its glass smashed, and here was his
pocket-book lying on the ground. Then he began to understand somewhat of
what had happened to himself and to the man, for the hoof-marks around
told their own tale. His face set hard, but this ruffian was in a bad
way, perhaps dying. He would do what he could for him. He went to his
knapsack and took out a first-aid outfit. He bandaged the torn and
broken arm, using sticks for splints. The pain roused the patient and he
began to groan and curse disjointedly, the phrase “—— skewbald”
recurring like a refrain.

The American carried the man to the shade of a tree. He heard the chink
of coin, which he divined to be his own property, especially when he
found his pockets empty. Then he waited. The man opened his eyes, and
looked at his preserver. “What?” he spluttered, having lost some front
teeth. “Yes, my friend,” said the other, “I am still here, and a good
job for you. I might have left you to bleed to death, and serve you
right. I think you took rather more risk than you knew,” producing a
revolver from a hip pocket and replacing it. “Well, your legs and back
seem all right, and after a rest you should be able to make the road and
get help. You don’t deserve it, but I think I had better see you there.
No, don’t worry,” as the man’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to give you
up. You seem to have been well beaten about, without my trying to get
you more punishment.”

The man sat motionless; the double shock of the stallion’s attack, and
being confronted by the victim of his brutal violence, for the moment
bereft him of speech and power to stir.

After a while, he attempted to rise, stammering that it was time he made
a move. His rescuer helped him up, and the man tried to feel in his
pockets. “All right, friend,” said the American, “I have got my own
back.”

As the injured man proceeded, his strength failed and he began to
stumble. The other had to support him, to prevent further injury to the
shattered arm. The road reached, the man sank by the wayside, exhausted.

A cart drawn by a forest pony came along. The driver stopped. “Why, who
be this? Not Bill Nokes again? What’s he been up to this time?” he asked
with emphasis. The American hastily explained that he had found the man
lying injured in the forest. “Put him in. I’ll soon have him in the
hospital at Lyndhurst.”

They laid the man on the floor and made him as comfortable as possible.
“You coming, sir?”—to the American. “No,” he replied. “I cannot be of
any further use, and I have to return for my property.”

He walked back with a splitting headache, a sore head, and a wonder in
his heart that among the kindly forest folk he should have encountered
an alien, and a black sheep at that. He found his goods where he had
left them, and seeing the cudgel lying near, added it to his burden as a
memento. He spied also a lock of chestnut and white hair, sawn from the
skewbald’s mane by the rope, and put it into an envelope. Then he said
to himself: “Better get out of this. My scalp wants seeing to, and the
people may wonder how I came by a broken head.”

He consulted a time-table and estimated (there were no hands to his
watch) that he could catch a train by walking across country, to
Southampton. “I’ll hunt up that doctor who treated me before, and get my
head patched up.”

When the American went to the surgery two days later for a final
inspection the doctor held out a local paper, saying, “Here are some
items which may interest you.” A pencil mark stood against a paragraph
entitled, “Strange Death of a Forest Pony,” which related how Skewbald
had been found by a keeper. The rope had caught in a snag near a deep
pit, and in his efforts to free himself, the pony had fallen down, and
broken his neck. “Well, doc.,” said the patient, “I did more mischief
than I expected, when I fooled around with that rope, but I will put it
right when I get to town.”

“Look at the next page,” said the other. This item was headed, “Forest
Man injured by a Pony?” and narrated that a man picked up grievously
injured, was doing well in hospital and pronounced out of danger. It
went on to say: “He is a somewhat notorious character and well known to
the police. Curiously, after his injuries had been seen to, and while in
a state of delirium, he frequently muttered imprecations on ‘that ——
skewbald.’ Elsewhere we detail particulars of the mysterious death of a
fine skewbald forest stallion belonging to a well-known forest commoner,
Mr. J. Smith. It is conjectured that the man may have lassooed the pony
(though it is not known that he possessed any such skill with a rope),
and in some way was taken at a disadvantage by the animal, which
attacked him, and escaped, only to meet its death shortly afterwards.
The man’s injuries are such as might have been caused by a stallion’s
teeth and hoofs. Such aggressive behaviour on the part of a forest pony
is of the rarest.”

A few days later, Skewbald’s owner received a letter with a London
postmark. “Dang me!” he said, turning it over; “who be this from?” and
getting no answer from the envelope, opened it, when out came a draft
for £40, and a letter in business terminology from a firm of solicitors
intimating that a client of theirs, having heard through the Press of
the death of his pony, hoped that the owner would accept the enclosed
sum as indemnity for his loss. “Well, well!” exclaimed the delighted but
bewildered man, “this beats all. The thing gets stranger and stranger.
I’m sure that varmint Bill Nokes never roped the poor beast. Now, these
people write as if someone owed me the money. I’d better harness the
pony and get this in the bank before anything else happens.” And not
until he had got the draft safely to the bank, and had seen the clerk
initial it, did he really believe that the skewbald’s loss had been made
good.



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                           TRANSCRIBER NOTES

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operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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