Chapter III. The Runaway
 

Grace cantered along the pleasant country road on the back of Prince. The noble animal had lost some of his fiery eagerness to cover the whole earth in one jump, and now was mindful of snaffle and curb, the latter of which Grace always applied with gentle hand. Prince seemed to know this, for he behaved in such style as not to need the cruel gripping, which so many horsemen-- and horsewomen too, for that matter, needlessly inflict.

"Oh, but it is glorious to ride!" exclaimed the girl, as she urged the animal into a gallop on a soft stretch of road beneath wonderful trees that interlaced their branches overhead. "Glorious-- glorious!"

"I hope those papers are not so valuable that it would be an object for-- for some one to try to take them away from me," she mused. Instinctively she glanced behind her, but the peaceful road was deserted save for the sunshine and shadows playing tag in the dust. Then Grace looked above. The sky was of rather a somber tint, that seemed to suggest a storm to come, and there was a sultriness and a silence, with so little wind that it might indicate a coming disturbance of the elements to restore the balance that now seemed so much on one side.

"But if any one tries to get them away from us, we-- we'll just-- run away; won't we, Prince?" and she patted the neck of the horse. Prince whinnied acquiescence.

"Grandmother will be surprised to see me," thought Grace, as she rode on. "But I'm glad I can do as well as Will in business matters. I hope papa won't be too severe with Will for not attending to this himself."

She passed a drinking trough-- a great log hollowed out, into which poured a stream of limpid water coming from a distant hill through a rude wooden pipe. It dripped over the mossy green sides of the trough, and Prince stretched his muzzle eagerly toward it.

"Of course you shall have a drink!" exclaimed Grace, as she let him have his head. Then she felt thirsty herself, and looked about for something that would serve as a mounting block, in case she got down. She saw nothing near; but a ragged, barefooted, freckled-faced and snub-nosed urchin, coming along just then, divined her desire.

"Want a drink, lady?" he asked, smiling.

"Yes," answered Grace, "but I have no cup."

"I kin make ye one."

Straightway he fashioned a natural flagon from a leaf of the wild grape vine that grew nearby, piercing the leaf with its own stem so that it formed a cup out of which a Druid might have quaffed ambrosia.

"There's a cup," he said. "I allers makes 'em that way when I wants a drink." He filled it from the running water and held it up. Grace drank thirstily, and asked for more.

"And here is something for you," she said with a smile, as she passed down some chocolates she had slipped into a small pocket of her riding habit.

"Say, is it Christmas, or Fourth of July?" gasped the urchin as he accepted them. "Thanks, lady."

Grace again smiled down at him, and Prince, having dipped his muzzle into the cool water again, for very pleasure in having all he wanted, swung about and trotted on.

The distance was not long now, and Grace, noting the gathering clouds, was glad of it.

"I'm sure I don't want to be caught in a storm," she said. "This stuff shrinks so," and she glanced down at her velvet skirt. "I wouldn't have it made up again. I hope the storm doesn't spoil Will's ball game,"

She urged Prince to a faster pace, and, cantering along a quiet stretch of road, was soon at the house of Mr. Ford's mother.

"Why Grace!" exclaimed the elderly lady, "I expected Will to come over. Your father said---- "

"I know, grandma, but Will-- well, he is wild about baseball, and I said I'd come for him."

"That was good of you."

"Oh, no it wasn't. I don't deserve any praise. Chocolates and Prince-- a big bribe, grandma."

"Oh, you young folks! Well, come in. Thomas will see to Prince."

"I can't stay long."

"No, I suppose not. Your father wanted these papers in a hurry. He would have come himself, but he had some matters to attend to. And, its being rather a family affair, he did not want to send one of his law clerks. Those young men tattle so."

"I wonder if they are any worse than girls, grandma?"

"Oh, much-- much! But come in, and I will have Ellen make you a cup of tea. It is refreshing on a hot day. Then I will get you the papers. It is very warm."

"Yes, I think we will have a shower."

"Then I must not keep you. Is everyone well?"

"Yes. How have you been?"

"Oh, well enough for an old lady."

"Old, grandma? I only hope I look as nice as you when I get---- "

"Now, my dear, no flattery. I had my share of that when I was younger, though I must say your grandfather knew how to turn a compliment to perfection. Ah, my dear, there are not many like him now-a-days. Not many!" and she sighed.

Tea was served in the quaint old dining room, for Mrs. Ford, though keeping up many old customs, had adopted some modern ones, and her house was perfection itself.

"I suppose your brother told you these papers were rather valuable; did he not?" asked Mrs. Ford a little later, as she brought Grace a rather bulky package.

"Yes, grandma."

"And if they should happen to fall into other hands it might make trouble-- at least for a time."

"Yes. I will take good care of them."

"How can you carry them?"

"In the saddle. Will had pockets, made especially for his needs. They will fit nicety. I looked before starting out."

"Very good. Then I won't keep you. Trot along. It does look as though we would have a storm. I hope you get back before it breaks. I would ask you to stay, but I know your father is waiting for those papers."

"Yes, Will said he wanted them quickly. Oh, well, I think I can out-race the storm," and Grace laughed.

She found that she really would have to race when, a little later, out on the main road, the distant rumble of thunder was heard.

"Come, Prince!" she called. "We must see what we can do. Your best foot foremost, old fellow!" The horse whinnied in answer, and swung into an easy gallop that covered the ground well.

The clouds gathered thicker and faster. Now and then their black masses would be split by jagged flashes of lightning, that presaged the rumbling report of heaven's artillery which seemed drawing nearer to engage in the battle of the sky.

"Prince, we are going to get wet, I'm very much afraid," Grace exclaimed. "And yet-- well, we'll try a little faster pace!"

She touched the animal lightly with the crop, and he fairly leaped into greater speed. But it was only too evident that they could not escape the storm. The clouds were more lowering now, and the bursts of thunder followed more quickly on the heels of the lightning flashes. Then came a few angry dashes of rain, as though to give sample of what was to follow.

"Come, Prince!" cried Grace.

Suddenly from behind there came another sound. It was the deep staccato of the exhaust of an automobile, with opened muffler. It was tearing along the road.

Grace glanced back and saw a low, dust-covered racing car, rakish and low-hung, swinging along. It was evident that the occupants-- two young men-- were putting on speed to get to some shelter before the storm broke in all its fury.

Prince jumped nervously and shied to one side at the sound of the on-coming car.

"Quiet, old fellow," said Grace, soothingly.

The car shot past her, and at the same moment Prince waltzed to one side, or else the car swerved, so that only by the narrowest margin was a terrible accident averted. Grace heard the men shout, and there was a wilder burst of the opened muffler. Then she felt a shock, and she knew that the machine had struck and grazed Prince.

She glanced down and saw a red streak on his off fore shoulder. He had been cut by some part of the car.

The next moment, as the racing auto swung out of sight around a bend in the road, Prince took the bit in his teeth and bolted. With all her strength Grace reined him in, but he was wildly frightened. She felt herself slipping from the saddle.

"Prince! Prince!" she cried, bracing herself in the stirrups, and gripping the reins with all her might. "Prince! Quiet, old fellow!"

But Prince was now beyond the reasoning power of any human voice. The thunder rumbled and crashed overhead. Grace, above it, could hear the whining decrease of the exhaust of the big car that had caused her steed to run away.

"Prince! Prince!" she pleaded.

He did not heed. Farther and farther she slipped from the saddle as his wild plunges threw her out of it. Then there came a crash that seemed to mark the height of the storm. A great light shone in front of Grace. Myriads of stars danced before her eyes.

She flashed towards a house. From it ran two little tots, and, even in that terror she recognized them as Dodo and Paul, the two Billette twins. They were visiting a relative who lived on this road, she dimly recalled hearing Mollie say. Evidently the children had run out in the storm. A nursemaid caught Paul, but Dodo eluded the girl, and ran straight for the road along which Grace was plunging.

"Go back! Go back!" screamed Grace. "Go back, Dodo!"

But Dodo came on. The next moment the child seemed to be beneath the feet of the maddened horse, which, a second later, slipped and fell, throwing Grace heavily. Her senses left her. All was black, and the rain pelted down while the lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled and roared.