'What firearms have we amongst us?' asked Saxon hurriedly.
'A dozen pistols at the most,' replied the elderly Puritan, who was addressed by his companions as Hope-above Williams. 'John Rodway, the coachman, hath his blunderbuss. There are also two godly men from Hungerford, who are keepers of game, and who have brought their pieces with them.'
'They are here, sir,' cried another, pointing to two stout, bearded fellows, who were ramming charges into their long-barrelled muskets. 'Their names are Wat and Nat Millman.'
'Two who can hit their mark are worth a battalion who shoot wide,' our leader remarked, 'Get under the waggon, my friends, and rest your pieces upon the spokes. Never draw trigger until the sons of Belial are within three pikes' length of ye.'
'My brother and I,' quoth one of them, 'can hit a running doe at two hundred paces. Our lives are in the hands of the Lord, but two, at least, of these hired butchers we shall send before us.'
'As gladly as ever we slew stoat or wild-cat,' cried the other, slipping under the waggon. 'We are keeping the Lord's preserves now, brother Wat, and truly these are some of the vermin that infest them.'
'Let all who have pistols line the waggon,' said Saxon, tying his mare to the hedge--an example which we all followed. 'Clarke, do you take charge upon the right with Sir Gervas, while Lockarby assists Master Pettigrue upon the left. Ye others shall stand behind with stones. Should they break through our barricades, slash at the horses with your scythes. Once down, the riders are no match for ye.'
A low sullen murmur of determined resolution rose from the peasants, mingled with pious ejaculations and little scraps of hymn or of prayer. They had all produced from under their smocks rustic weapons of some sort. Ten or twelve had petronels, which, from their antique look and rusty condition, threatened to be more dangerous to their possessors than to the enemy. Others had sickles, scythe-blades, flails, half-pikes, or hammers, while the remainder carried long knives and oaken clubs. Simple as were these weapons, history has proved that in the hands of men who are deeply stirred by religious fanaticism they are by no means to be despised. One had but to look at the stern, set faces of our followers, and the gleam of exultation and expectancy which shone from their eyes, to see that they were not the men to quail, either from superior numbers or equipment.
'By the Mass!' whispered Sir Gervas, 'it is magnificent! An hour of this is worth a year in the Mall. The old Puritan bull is fairly at bay. Let us see what sort of sport the bull-pups make in the baiting of him! I'll lay five pieces to four on the chaw-bacons!'
'Nay, it's no matter for idle betting,' said I shortly, for his light-hearted chatter annoyed me at so solemn a moment.
'Five to four on the soldiers, then!' he persisted. 'It is too good a match not to have a stake on it one way or the other.'
'Our lives are the stake,' said I.
'Faith, I had forgot it!' he replied, still mumbling his toothpick. '"To be or not to be?" as Will of Stratford says. Kynaston was great on the passage. But here is the bell that rings the curtain up.'
Whilst we had been making our dispositions the troop of horse--for there appeared to be but one--had trotted down the cross-road, and had drawn up across the main highway. They numbered, as far as I could judge, about ninety troopers, and it was evident from their three-cornered hats, steel plates, red sleeves, and bandoliers, that they were dragoons of the regular army. The main body halted a quarter of a mile from us, while three officers rode to the front and held a short consultation, which ended in one of them setting spurs to his horse and cantering down in our direction. A bugler followed a few paces behind him, waving a white kerchief and blowing an occasional blast upon his trumpet.
'Here comes an envoy,' cried Saxon, who was standing up in the waggon. 'Now, my brethren, we have neither kettle-drum nor tinkling brass, but we have the instrument wherewith Providence hath endowed us.