Less than five minutes brought up Oak again, running at the same pace, with two halters dangling from his hand.
`Where did you find `em?' said Coggan, turning round and leaping upon the hedge without waiting for an answer.
`Under the eaves. I knew where they were kept,' said Gabriel, following him. `Coggan, you can ride bare- backed? there's no time to look for saddles.'
`Like a hero!' said Jan.
`Maryann, you go to bed,' Gabriel shouted to her from the top of the hedge.
Springing down into Boldwood's pastures, each pocketed his halter to hide it from the horses, who, seeing the men empty-handed, docilely allowed themselves to be seized by the mane, when the halters were dexterously slipped on. Having neither bit nor bridle, Oak and Coggan extemporized the former by passing the rope in each case through the animal's mouth and looping it on the other side. Oak vaulted astride, and Coggan clambered up by aid of the bank, when they ascended to the gate and galloped off in the direction taken by Bathsheba's horse and the robber. Whose vehicle the horse had been harnessed to was a matter of some uncertainty.
Weatherbury Bottom was reached in three or four minutes. They scanned the shady green patch by the roadside. The gipsies were gone.
`The villains!' said Gabriel. `Which way have they gone, I wonder?'
`Straight on, as sure as God made little apples,' said Jan.
`Very well; we are better mounted, and must overtake `era,' said Oak. `Now on at fall speed!'
No sound of the rider in their van could now be discovered. The road-metal grew softer and more clayey as Weatherbury was left behind, and the late rain had wetted its surface to a somewhat plastic, but not muddy state. They came to cross-roads. Coggan suddenly pulled up Moll and slipped off.
`What's the matter?' said Gabriel.
`We must try to track `era, since we can't hear 'em,' said Jan, fumbling in his pockets. He struck a light, and held the match to the ground. The rain had been heavier here, and all foot and horse tracks made previous to the storm had been abraded and blurred by the drops, and they were now so many little scoops of water, which reflected the flame of the match like eyes. One set of tracks was fresh and had no water in them; one pair of ruts was also empty, and not small canals, like the others. The footprints forming this recent impression were fall of information as to pace; they were in equidistant pairs, three or four feet apart, the right and left foot of each pair being exactly opposite one another.
`Straight on!' Jan exclaimed. `Tracks like that mean a stiff gallop. No wonder we don't hear him. And the horse is harnessed - look at the ruts. Ay, that's our mare, sure enough!'
`How do you know?'
`Old Jimmy Harris only shoed her last week, and I'd swear to his make among ten thousand.'
`The rest of the gipsies must ha' gone on earlier, or some other way,' said Oak. `You saw there were no other tracks?'
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