Robert the Bruce—The Fight at the Ford
King Robert's little army grew smaller and smaller, until at last he had only sixty men. The English, knowing this, resolved to attack the band, kill them all, and take the King prisoner. They made quite sure of success, but in case Bruce should get away they took bloodhounds with them with which to trace him.
A bloodhound is a kind of dog which is trained to follow a man by the smell of his footsteps. Their sense of smell is so strong, that even if they have never seen the man upon whose track they are put, they can follow every turn he has gone, simply by smelling the path along which he has passed. The only way to escape from a bloodhound is to walk through running water. Then the scent is carried away and the hound loses the trace.
Bruce heard that his enemies were coming, so he encamped with his little army in a safe place, above the steep banks of a river. The river was swift and deep. There was no bridge across it, and only one ford in many miles.
A ford is a place in a river shallow enough to let men and horses walk over it. This ford was very narrow, so that only one man could cross at a time. The banks of the river were very high, and the path which led from the ford to the top of them, steep and dangerous.
When night came, Bruce made all his men lie down to sleep, and himself, taking only two soldiers with him, went to guard the ford. For some time they sat in silence, hearing nothing but the rushing of the water and the whispering of the night wind in the trees. Then suddenly, from far away came the baying of hounds.
The King listened eagerly. What was it? Was it the enemy or not? Should he awaken his men? "No," he said to himself at last, "I shall not awaken my men for the barking of some stray sheep dog. They are very tired. Let them sleep on until I make sure, at least, that something is really the matter."
So he waited and listened. Soon the baying of the hounds came nearer and nearer. Other noises too came to him from far across the river. Nearer and nearer they sounded, until at last he could make out the trampling of horses, the clatter of weapons and armour, and even the voices of men. The enemy, two hundred strong, were close to the ford.
"If we go back now to awaken my men," thought the King, "the English will be able to cross the river before we can return. That must not be. At all costs we must guard the ford." Then, turning to the two soldiers, he bade them run to the camp, awaken the men, and bring them to the ford as quickly as possible.
The two soldiers ran off as fast as they could, and the King was left alone by the ford—alone and on foot, in the face of two hundred men on horseback.
He looked to his armour and his weapons, saw that all was right, then calmly waited.
The enemy were now very near. The moon shone out, and Bruce could see the glint of steel armour and the glitter of many spears, as they crowded upon the opposite bank. They, as they looked across, saw that the ford was guarded by one man only, whose still dark figure showed clearly against the sky.
The ford was theirs! One man alone stood between them and certain victory. Without a moment's hesitation the foremost rider urged his horse into the river, dashing the water in a white spray all around him. He reached the further bank. Up the steep path he sprang. But as he gained the top a battle-axe flashed in the moonlight, and horse and rider fell crashing down the bank again.
Another and another rider followed. Again and again the King's mighty axe was raised. Again and again it fell, until the dead formed a ghastly barricade before him, over which no warrior could pass.
Below, in the river, all was confusion. The riders in front, unable to climb the bank, were thrown back upon those behind. Crowded upon the narrow ford, and unable to turn, the horses lost their footing and with their riders, were carried away by the swift current. Wild panic seized those who yet remained on the further bank, and at last, filled with a nameless terror, they turned to flee.
When at last Bruce's soldiers came up, they found their master sitting in the moonlight, alone, as they had left him. He was hot and tired, and had taken off his helmet in order to get cool. Around him lay heaps of dead, but he himself was not even wounded.