The Legend Of Wychwood Manor – Episode 21

Characters from the serial dancing

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Getting the saddle off wouldn’t be straightforward with Captain reacting so violently every time she touched his hot skin.

She moved round to the horse’s other side.

She could just reach the buckle of the girth from underneath if she leant against Captain’s flank.

Sweat trickled into her eyes and her neck got a crick from bending down at such an awkward angle, but she persevered, talking all the time to reassure Captain as she slowly pulled the leather strap free from its fastening.

Captain moved a few nervous steps, but then stood still again. She heaved a sigh of relief.

He hadn’t kicked or bucked, and she could only assume that undoing the buckle must have eased the pressure on the wound.

But what to do next? The saddle was heavy and Belle wasn’t sure she’d be able to lift it off.

She made her decision, knowing it was the only way although she shrank from inflicting more pain on her poor horse.

Stepping forward before she could change her mind, she took a firm hold of the pommel and smacked Captain on the rump.

Just as she had hoped, Captain, jittery from his ordeal, jumped forwards and with Belle pulling on the pommel with all her might, the saddle slipped from his back, landing on the ground with a thud.

Captain shook his mane and lowered his head to nibble the turf, clearly relieved to be free of it.

Belle knelt by the saddle and ran her fingers lightly over the surface, but it wasn’t till she heaved it over to the underside that she found the reason for the horse’s odd behaviour.

Almost hidden by the line of stitching was a wickedly sharp, curving thorn.

Belle winced, remembering how she’d sat down hard in the saddle, urging Captain to gallop.

It would have driven the thorn deep into the horse’s flesh. No wonder Captain had bolted.

The incident troubled her. A thorn in the upper side of the saddle could be more easily explained, but underneath and concealed by the seam?

That seemed much less like an accident.

She’d once heard a friend of her father’s from India recall a similar incident.

Since her mother’s death, Papa had got into the habit of letting Belle stay up late and so she’d been sitting quietly, playing with her doll, when Papa’s friend recounted an incident he’d witnessed while watching horseracing at the Maidan.

The horse had been the favourite to win and taken off like a rocket, but something had gone wrong.

The crowd had watched in horror as the horse bucked its rider off, before the others horses trampled him underfoot, and the riderless animal careered in a frenzy down the course before collapsing.

“Did they find out what happened?” Papa asked.

“Poison,” the friend had answered with relish.

“A thorn soaked in snake-venom hidden in the saddle. They never found the culprit.”

It was at that point that Belle had burst into tears of pity for the poor horse, only calming down after both men plied her with sugar comfits.

Belle shuddered at the memory. Captain was showing no other signs of ill health so she thought poison could be ruled out, but she still felt uneasy.

Was it possible that there was malicious intent behind this thorn, too? But why?

The saddle was too heavy to carry so Belle marked the spot where it lay by tying her white cambric handkerchief to a clump of broom bordering the track.

Walking back took a long time and she was hot and dusty by the time she reached Wychwood.

As she turned into the stable-yard, she saw Elias at the pump filling water buckets. When he saw her leading Captain, he came running.

“What’s happened, miss?” he asked. “Why aren’t you riding? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine. It’s Captain that’s hurt,” Belle said.

She hesitated, wondering if she should keep what had happened to herself, but something told her Elias could be trusted.

“There was a thorn in the saddle.”

“But how can that be?” Elias said. “We check them regular.”

“I don’t know, but the pain drove Captain out of his wits and he bolted.”

Elias’s concern deepened.

“’Tis as well you’re a good rider, miss, otherwise you might have come to harm.”

I very nearly did, Belle thought.

Elias bent down and looked at the puncture mark on Captain’s belly.

“Nasty. It’s gone quite deep. It must have been a rare big thorn, but it should heal cleanly.

“I’ve got a comfrey salve that will have the old fellow good as new in no time.”

“Thank you, Elias,” Belle said. She hesitated, feeling awkward. “Would you mind not telling anyone about what happened?

“I don’t want people over-reacting to what was just a silly accident.”

“If it was an accident . . .” Elias said soberly, “don’t you think you should at least tell your uncle?”

“I’d rather not. He might stop me riding and I think I’d go mad if I had to stay cooped up at Wychwood.”

“Well, I can understand that,” Elias said with feeling. “I’ll make sure it’s me who checks your saddle from now on.

“Meantime, I’ll make up a story about why Captain’s not to be ridden.

He looked worried.

“I’m not saying anybody’s making mischief, but you never know. Promise me you’ll be careful, miss.”

“I promise, Elias.”

To be continued…

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