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  Ghosts and Restless Spirits

The Horse
by W. Towrie Cutt

The Horse: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

The annual meeting of the free Kirk had come to an end.

Doctor Windwick and his wife walked back the short distance to their house, which was also his surgery. He was in a black mood.

As treasurer, he had reported that the Kirk was five pounds short of meeting the minister’s salary, and he had urged that all put an extra threepenny bit in the plate next Sunday, and suggested that the children could help by putting in a penny or halfpenny of their sweet money.

But John Muir, a tight-fisted, well-to-do crofter, had risen to say he was giving all he could, and it would not hurt the big farmers, the doctor, and the schoolmaster to give a pound each. The children clapped their hands. As Windwick was giving generously of both time and money, he was annoyed; but two farmers rose and offered a pound, and then another, and the doctor and schoolmaster had to do the same.

That is why he went home in a black mood on a black and windy night.

The maid, Maggie Jean, met him at the door to say that Davie Marwick had called over an hour ago. He wanted the doctor to come quickly, for his young wife Jessie expected the baby any minute.

The time was eleven-thirty. With bitter thoughts of Kirk folks, mothers, and babies, Windwick took the lantern from Maggie Jean, went to the stable, and harnessed the horse. As the maid had lit the candles in the gig lamps, he was soon on his way, his little collie dog, who always went with him, bounding ahead gleefully in the wind. The pony was young and spirited, a dun half-blood with long pasterns.

Having been idle all day, he tried to break into a gallop, to catch the dog ahead, but his driver held him to the trot. Between the last few houses of the village they clipped, and out on the lonely plain of Fidge, the high gig rattling over the metalled road. This plain stretched for two miles north, links lying to each side. No houses or fences bordered the road, which ran between rabbit warrens and sand hills. But the telegraph poles marked it, and one after another flashed past.

The doctor having to hold his pony to the trot, his temper did not get better. About half-way across the plain, near an old shattered post that had stood there a long time, the horse suddenly stopped with a snort and almost sent Windwick out of his gig on the road. Snorting again, the pony reared up, trying to turn round first to the right and then to the left, but the doctor held him. The little collie bounded into the gig, crouched to its master’s feet, and lay there shaking and whimpering. Then the man became aware that his hair stood on end; he felt it push against his ears. But he held hard.

Forward the horse would not go. A faint sound came to Windwick’s ears, and as it neared it became louder, sounding like the thuds of a horse’s hooves over the links on the left. The pony had his head turned to the sound, his eyes glaring, his ears like bugles. Two clip-claps sounded on the road just in front of the pony, and then the thud of hooves on the links to the right. The sounds died as with a sigh. Dog and pony stopped trembling. The hairs on the doctor’s head lay down, and at his word the pony sped north over the plain, the dog six yards ahead.

Soon they came to the bay on which a big farm stood, and beyond, the cottage of Davie Marwick. The doctor tied the horse to the gatepost, told the dog to lie in the gig, and entered.

Davie showed him to the bedroom in which his young wife lay, her mother sitting by her side.

"Jessie’s easier now, Doctor," said the mother. "I thought the bairn would be born two hours ago."

Jessie was looking up wanly. Windwick asked her a few questions, felt her pulse, and examined her. Then he told the mother that it might be another two hours, and asked her to have plenty of hot water ready. Davie then conducted the doctor to the parlour where Jessie’s grandmother was sitting, small, pale, and wrinkled, a smile on her face that might mean welcome or amusement.

"Weel, Doctor," she chuckled softly, "You’ll have had a tiring day of it."

"Not very, Mrs Moodie, except for the kirk meeting tonight. I nearly resigned my job as treasurer. Folks want a Kirk, but give little, and give it grudgingly."

"Aye, aye," she chortled. "They think the minister gets plenty for his two hours on Sunday. This would have been the annual meeting."

"Yes, it should have been earlier. The last day of January is late to clew up the business of last year."

"The last day of January, is it?" She looked up, her pale blue eyes wide. "Met you with anything strange on Fidge, Doctor?"

He started."Why do you ask?"

"Weel, you would not be the first. Both Jimmie Skea and Geordie Sinclair have had the wits scared out of them on this very date, and weel I ken why. But heard you anything?"

"Why, yes, and not only me. My pony stopped dead, and shook like a reed in the wind, and my dog cowered to my feet. Then came the sound of horse’s feet on the links"

"Aye, that’s it. You heard the horse."

"The horse! What horse?"

"Andrew Elphinstone’s horse. This happened when I was little more than a bairn. Andrew of Copness was a hard man on his servants and tenants, and a hard drinker, drinking himself to destruction. He often came galloping home from the alehouse at night, lashing his grey horse to a lather. He was found dead on the first day of February, halfway across Fidge, near that old splintered post. His horse dead, too, a good bit away from him."

"Dead. He broke his neck, I suppose."

"No. His clothes were burned off him, and his horse, poor beast, its hair charred, lying about a furlong away."

"Struck by lightning?"

"Aye, that’s why the post is splintered."

"But it is not on the road."

"It was until they straightened out the road and put metal on it. A man long ago tried to make a farm out of the links, but could not make a living. That post is all that is left of his cot and fence."

"Wasn’t the horse killed with Andrew? Why was it that far from him?"

"Folks thought it went galloping round in a circle, its hairs burning till it dropped dead."

"Well, Mrs Moodie, that explains my ghostly encounter. Only one would think that Andrew would haunt the place. Not the horse."

"Hee, hee, hee," she cackled. "He’s roasting in hell for his sins. The lightning ended his cursing and drinking. But, Doctor," and the old voice whimpered, "I pity that horse. Not yet at rest, poor beast!"

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