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Even though the plan was to leave at first light, they played cards until gone 2 o’clock in the morning, sitting up (or reclining) in their sleeping-bags as they did so.
“Mutton Broth used to have a nasty trick of hiding cards up his sleeve when he played”, said Farnol.
“Oh that’s frightfully bad form”, said Adam “NOT the hallmark of a gentleman”.
“The idea of Mutton being a gentleman!” Bengo laughed.
“He couldn’t even tie his own shoelaces until he was 12”, said Bardin.
“I taught him to do that”, said Rumble.
“You would”, Bengo muttered.
“I think we should make this the last round”, said Bardin.
“In that case I’m going to use the facilities”, said Umbert, ambling over to the bucket in the far corner, which constituted the ‘facilities’.
“Here”, Umbert shouted “There’s someone listening outside the door, I swear it”.
“It’s the rain”, said Bardin.
“It aint the rain”, said Umbert “They’re nearly putting me off my stroke, whoever they are”.
There was a plashing noise, as of someone running away through the puddles.
“Told you”, said Umbert.
Bardin woke up after the allotted daybreak time, and found Hoowie sleeping with his arm wrapped round Bengo, who was in the middle of the pair of them. Bardin decided to wake Hoowie up by clouting him round the ear.
“That was completely uncalled for”, Hoowie wailed.
“Time you were awake anyway”, said Bardin, with a marked lack of remorse.
“Now where are you going?” said Hoowie, as Bardin struggled out of his sleeping-bag.
“There’s someone knocking on the door”, said Bardin, pulling on his trousers.
“Bardy, take your gun with you”, said Bengo.
“What?” said Bardin “Just to answer the door?!”
He dragged open the barn doors to find Aimee standing outside in the watery sunshine. Aimee normally wore her dark tresses in an elaborate saucer-shaped plaited design at the back of her head, but this morning she was looking decidedly more casual, with her curls hanging down around her shoulders. Her customary sang-froid seemed to have defeated her too, and she looked nervous.
“Is everything OK?” said Bardin “Sorry if we’re a bit late leaving”.
Aimeed didn’t reply. Instead she held out a basket of rolls and jams to him.
“Breakfast”, she grunted.
Bardin was slightly taken aback at this, as he had been firmly led to believe the night before that breakfast wasn’t to be part of the deal. In fact, they had brought their own.
“I hope that’s alright”, said Aimee.
“That’ll be fine”, said Bardin.
Aimee peered over is shoulder, and then drifted back across the yard to the tavern. Bardin watched her for a while in perplexity, and then pulled the door shut again.
By now the others were all awake, and looking at him expectantly.
“We’ve been rumbled”, he said.
By the time the clowns and Hillyard had got the horses re-tethered to the cart to take them home, Adam and Lonts had emerged fro the inn, where they had been buying boxes of fruit and vegetables from Aimee.
“It was awful”, said Adam “It felt as though we had bubonic plague. She stood on the other side of the table and slid things across to us. I don’t understand what the problem is”.
“We’ve spooked her that’s all“, said Hillyard “Look at it from her point of view. She’s suddenly found she’s got a bunch of jerks who are immortal sleeping in her barn!”
But I wouldn’t have thought that Aimee was the sort of person to get spooked easily”, said Adam.
“We’ll talk about all this when we get home”, said Bardin, who had been scanning the stormy sky anxiously “Let’s get started”.
The track by the inn and the ones leading through the forest were a muddy quagmire after all the recent rain, and on more than one occasion Bardin had to order the clowns (assisted by Lonts) out of the cart in order to lever the wheels free with the planks of wood they had taken with them.
The sky was getting darker by the minute, and Bardin became increasingly disturbed by how long it was going to take them to get home. Having just freed the cart one more time, Bardin resumed his seat at the front between Hillyard (who was driving) and Adam. Ahead of them now on the track was a figure in a long dark trench-coat with a hood attached.
“You’ll have to move out in order to pass them”, said Bardin.
“Yeah alright I know!” said Hillyard “Did you think I was going to run them down instead!”
The figure had its back to them, and seemed oblivious to their approach As they passed it Adam leaned back to try and see who it was. The hood was pulled well forward over the figure’s face. Suddenly though it jerked its head up slightly, and Adam had a brief glimpse of the lower part of the face, which appeared to be exceptionally bony.
“My God”, said Adam “It looked as though its face was being eaten away!”
“A leper perhaps?” said Bardin.
“Anything seems possible in this part of the world”, said Hillyard.
In the back of the cart Lonts and the clowns watched silently as they pulled gradually pulled away from the figure, and it receded into the distance.
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