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.......The ................THE GATE ON THE HILL

page 15

THE WAGER

The autumn evening sun shone warmly on that little group of men gathered outside the Leopard Inn at West Milton near Bridport one hundred and fifty odd years ago. Villagers all, old men and young and a boychap or so. We shall never know their names but you can be sure there was a Gale or two, perhaps a Garland and a Northover. We do know there was a Wrixon. Samuel Wrixon.

They stood there in the warm sun’s rays laughing, talking and arguing among themselves. Perhaps they had been in to the cool kitchen of the Leopard to taste the cider or perhaps they had just met outside before the evening’s drinking began. They may have been sober or just a little merry for there was little to worry about now that harvest was over.

And they stood there talking in the balmy evening air. About what? Napoleon and the plans to take all the cattle and women to the top of Eggardon? Maybe, but it would seem not for there was an argument about who had the best pony and about which was the quickest way to the Red Lion. The old Red Lion that is, not the one that has just been closed and turned into a private house.

Wrixon was proud of his pony. It was a good pony, sure-footed and fleet. Not too high and not too low but just right. Just the right height in fact to kill Wrixon. Had it been shorter in the leg Wrixon would have lived for sure and may even have won the wager. Had it been an inch or so higher he would have been knocked off and broken a limb at the most. But no, it was just right.

Well, which was the quickest way to the Red Lion and which was the fastest pony? There was only one way to find out. A wager was laid. How much? Pence? Maybe, or maybe a large sum, a crown, more than a whole week’s wages! The two men mounted and a coin was tossed. Wrixon chose the cross-country route, down the lane beside Jonathan’s and past Lawrence’s Farm. Someone raised a stick and said: “Ready, Steady, GO!”

The ponies set off abreast down the lane, sparks from their shoes flying in the dusk. Wrixon swung sharply to the right into the lane whilst his rival galloped on down the slope towards Lynch Dairy. There was no sign of Wrixon when he arrived at the Red Lion. He turned back up the lane thinking to meet him halfway and claim his winnings. He found the horse cropping the bank but still no sign of Wrixon.

He rode back towards ]onathan’s and found him lying on the ground just outside an open shed, his skull split down the middle by a nail that had protruded below the edge of one of the beams of the shed. Wrixon had ridden under it and, as I said the pony was just the right height.

The wretched man lived for four days. Four tortuous days lying on a bed in his mean kitchen. Four tortuous days, his wife stood at his side, wringing her hands in despair. Their children gathered behind her, mute, their tiny hands tugging at the sack apron she wore about her waist. In that day and age there was nothing that could be done.

His - gravestone, time and weather worn, still stands against the tower, all that remains of the old Norman Church on the mound opposite Jonathan’s. It carries the legend:

All ye my friends who may pass by,
On this headstone cast an eye.
In perfect health he went from home,
Not thinking that his flask had run.

Look down upon the widow
and the fatherless,
Assist them when you see
them in distress.
And at the final Judgement
Day,
I hope to see you here
among the just.