Copyright © 2021 Robert Loney
The Distracted Gardener
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The Distracted Gardener

An excerpt from Chapter 7


Diana has been leading a hunting party on a wild chase by dragging a dead fox behind Roland. The huntsmen have found her out and a rowdy faction of the group is giving ravenous pursuit. She is trying desperately to lose them...

   Leaping stone walls with ease, Diana gave the band of hooligans a display of horsemanship that they had a hard time following. She led them over near the Dove River, the border with Staffordshire.
   'The road ahead of her takes a hairpin turn,' the ringleader informed his cronies. 'If she sticks to the road, we can head her off by cutting across the fields here. Lionel, Arthur - follow her. Henry, stay here and tell the others where we've gone. The rest of us will take to the field.'
   As Derbyshire turns into Staffordshire along this stretch of the Dove, the terrain falls steeply toward the river, in some places precipitously. The latter would better describe the decline facing Diana's road. It engaged in a switchback over half a mile long to ease the descent.
   The country was very open and so far Diana had not been able to get out of sight of the hunters. A stand of trees at the head of the hairpin seemed like a promising place to foil them. Looking behind, she saw only two horsemen on her tail and had reason to think she was outdistancing the bulk of the party.
   'A little farther, Roland,' she encouraged him. 'When we get around the bend we can hide in the trees.'
   Around the bend, the small, wooded area revealed itself as unsuitable for a hiding place. Cattle had browsed among the trees. To the height of a horse and rider, there was no cover.
   'We'll have to go on, Roland,' she said sorrowfully. 'Perhaps at Hartington we'll be safe.' The village lay two miles ahead.
   Diana rode on, the river off to her right, the high ground to her left transforming from precipitous and rocky to simply steep and arable. She looked back and saw that the two hunters on her tail had rounded the bend. Her route around the redundant curve took long enough to allow the other huntsmen to formulate a plan to cover all contingencies.
   The Dove gradually came closer until it ran alongside the road. Ahead of Diana, two scarlet horsemen emerged from some trees and stood ominously in her path. She drew rein and took Roland down into the river. Three more hunters appeared from the trees on the opposite bank. Diana regained the road and found her two previous pursuers close at hand. 'Now we've got you!' declared one. She took the only quarter left, to the high ground with the hunters in close pursuit.
   The steep slope presented a stone wall which fortunately had an opening. Her tired horse could not have leapt it going uphill. Beyond the wall she ascended only gradually, running more along the slope than up it to spare Roland. The seven hunters fanned out on the downhill side to right of her. A stone wall confronted them. Diana ran Roland at a low point in the structure and he cleared it, breaking the hunters' formation. They resumed it in the new field, forcing her to higher ground. The chase crossed a section of dilapidated wall and entered a field near the top of the slope. She let out a cry as the rest of the hunting party appeared to her left. Unlike Roland, their horses hadn't been winded regaining the high ground.
   A stone wall now constrained Diana on the right. The hunters fanned out behind her and to her left, forcing her toward the upcoming corner of the field. She charged at the intersecting wall but her exhausted horse balked at the jump.
   'Ro-land!' Diana cried in despair. She turned to face the hunters closing in on her, forming a quarter-circle with their prey in the corner. They leered at her wickedly, finding this sport ever so much more satisfying than fox hunting.
   'What now?' asked one hunter of the mastermind behind the pursuit.
   'We'll give her a good scare - something worthy of the chase she's brought us on.'
   Diana took a run at an opening in their rank. They promptly closed it and took pleasure in providing other openings which she tried with equal futility.
   'Enough dawdling,' the ringleader called out when she had given up. 'Who's first?'
   'Let's draw straws,' suggested one.
   'It's kind of open here,' said another. 'Let's take her over to that copse there.'
   'We'd better catch her first,' said the ringleader, moving in from the perimeter.
   'Stay away!' cried Diana, lashing at him with her reins.
   'Ho ho-o-o!' he replied, accompanied by sinister laughter from his colleagues. 'You vixen. We've never caught such a wild fox.'
   He grabbed her reins. Terrified, Diana kicked at him and beat him with her fist.
   'You little... That hurt!' He seized her arm savagely.
   'Please let me go,' Diana pleaded, crying pitifully. She broke free, moved to the perimeter of the group, and charged at a promising-looking declivity in the other wall. This time Roland did not balk. They were airborne a long moment. Her escape seemed certain as his hind feet cleared the stone barrier.
   What followed was frightening enough for anyone watching that Diana's own experience is troubling to contemplate. The men heard her shriek as Roland pitched forward into a complete somersault on the steep terrain, flinging her from his back.
   The hunters advanced to the wall to look over. Roland was getting to his feet, apparently unharmed by his gymnastics. He took a few steps and nuzzled inquisitively at the inert form of his mistress.
   Diana lay on her back, her right arm above her head, the other thrown out from her side - looking like a broken doll discarded. Stupefied, the hunters watched for some movement. Roland looked up at them and then back at her, seemingly lost in a world in which Diana's light had gone out.
   Suddenly one of the hunters dismounted, and then they all did. They scrambled over the wall and hurried down the slope to their quarry.
   She looked perversely peaceful. The hunters couldn't help but realize that they had done in an especially comely member of their species.
   As they stood around Diana, not knowing what to do, a cherry red rivulet crept out from her hairline, crossed her eyebrow, ran down her nose, and dripped onto the ground. Another traversed her cheek to the corner of her mouth where her parted lips held uncertain communion with the atmosphere.
   One hunter knelt beside her and carefully felt for a wound. When he lifted his hand from her hair, the palm was covered with blood. It had been pooling on her temple.
   Another man bent over her, his ear close to her nostrils.
   'Is she breathing?' someone asked him.
   'I don't know.'
   'We've got to get her to help.'
   'What can we do?'
   'Can we stop the bleeding?' One of them tried applying a handkerchief which quickly became completely reddened.
   Panic seized the group. The blood supply to the scalp is so plentiful that it can bleed with a profusion out of proportion to the severity of the wound. To these uninformed men, the extent of the flow of blood indicated at least a fractured skull and brain damage.
   The Duke's nephew rode up to the wall and quickly discerned the unknown woman's fate. Free of the guilt burdening the others, Spencer approached the matter with a cooler head. At her side, he knelt and studied the bloodied visage.
   'I know this girl,' he said quietly, as he applied a fresh handkerchief. 'What did you do to her?' he asked, anger rising in his voice.
   'We didn't do anything,' someone blubbered. 'We weren't going to hurt her. She got scared over nothing and tried to jump the wall.'
   Spencer put his face to her nostrils.
   'Is she breathing?'
   'I can't tell for sure,' he replied. 'I think so.'
   He placed two fingers on her wrist. 'She has a weak pulse.... We've got to get her home. We'll need a wagon. Someone go to a farm and see if you can get one.'
   Three men hurried off, their fight or flight mechanisms craving an outlet.
   'Someone else ride back to the house,' said Spencer. 'Have the doctor waiting.'
   Two more fled the scene.
   'Let's move her toward the road. One of you hold the handkerchief here.'
   Carefully, carefully - as if here were the only remaining woman in creation and the sole hope for the future of the race - Spencer lifted Diana from the ground and carried her down the fateful slope to a wall near the road by the Dove. Supportive hands were everywhere, eager to help, and she floated over the wall to a resting place beneath an ancient oak. Some of the men shed their jackets and they pillowed her lavishly.


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