We spoke of many things, and I gave him a full account of the composition and strength of our levies. When I left he paid me a compliment, which, coming from so sardonic a soul, gave me peculiar comfort.
"I have seen something of men and cities, sir," he said, "and I know well the foibles and the strength of my countrymen; but I have never met your equal for cold persistence. You are a trader, and have turned war into a trading venture. I do believe that when you are at your last gasp you will be found calmly casting up your accounts with life. And I think you will find a balance on the right side. God speed you, Mr. Garvald. I love your sober folly."
* * * * *
I had scarcely left him when I met a servant of the Blairs, who handed me a letter. 'Twas from Elspeth—the first she had ever written me. I tore it open, and found a very disquieting epistle. Clearly she had written it in a white heat of feeling. "You spoke finely of reverence," she wrote, "and how you had never named my name to a mortal soul. But to-night you have put me to open shame. You have offered yourself for a service which I did not seek. What care I for his Excellency's gifts? Shall it be said that I was the means of sending a man into deadly danger to secure me a foolish estate? You have offended me grossly, and I pray you spare me further offence, I command you to give up this journey. I will not have my name bandied about in this land as a wanton who sets silly youth by the ears to gratify her pride. If you desire to retain a shred of my friendship, go to his Excellency and tell him that by my orders you withdraw from the wager."
This letter did not cloud my spirits as it should. For one thing, she signed it "Elspeth," and for another, I had the conceited notion that what moved her most was the thought that I was running into danger. I longed to have speech with her, but I found from the servant that Doctor Blair had left that morning on a journey of pastoral visitation, and had taken her with him. The man did not know their destination, but believed it to be somewhere in the north. The thought vaguely disquieted me. In these perilous times I wished to think of her as safe in the coastlands, where a ship would give a sure refuge.
I met Grey that afternoon at the Half-way Tavern. In the last week he seemed to have aged and grown graver. There was now no hint of the light arrogance of old. He regarded me curiously, but without hostility.
"We have been enemies," I said, "and now, though there may be no friendship, at any rate there is a truce to strife. Last night I begged of you to come with me on this matter of the Governor's wager, but 'twas not the wager I thought of."
Then I told him the whole tale. "The stake is the safety of this land, of which you are a notable citizen. I ask you, because I know you are a brave man. Will you leave your comfort and your games for a season, and play for higher stakes at a more desperate hazard?"
I told him everything, even down to my talk with the Governor. I did not lessen the risks and hardships, and I gave him to know that his companions would be rough folk, whom he may well have despised. He heard me out with his eyes fixed on the ground. Then suddenly he raised a shining face.
"You are a generous enemy, Mr. Garvald. I behaved to you like a peevish child, and you retaliate by offering me the bravest venture that man ever conceived. I am with you with all my heart. By God, sir, I am sick of my cushioned life. This is what I have been longing for in my soul since I was born...."
That night I spent making ready. I took no servant, and in my saddle-bags was stored the little I needed. Of powder and shot I had plenty, and my two pistols and my hunting musket. I gave Faulkner instructions, and wrote a letter to my uncle to be sent if I did not return. Next morning at daybreak we took the road.
THE FORD OF THE RAPIDAN.
'Twas the same high summer weather through which I had ridden a fortnight ago with a dull heart on my way to the duel. Now Grey rode by my side, and my spirits were as light as a bird's. I had forgotten the grim part of the enterprise, the fate that might await me, the horrors we should certainly witness. I thought only of the joys of movement into new lands with tried companions. These last months I had borne a pretty heavy weight of cares. Now that was past. My dispositions completed, the thing was in the hands of God, and I was free to go my own road. Mocking-birds and thrushes cried in the thickets, squirrels flirted across the path, and now and then a shy deer fled before us. There come moments to every man when he is thankful to be alive, and every breath drawn is a delight; so at that hour I praised my Maker for His good earth, and for sparing me to rejoice in it.
Grey had met me with a certain shyness; but as the sun rose and the land grew bright he, too, lost his constraint, and fell into the same happy mood. Soon we were smiling at each other in the frankest comradeship, we two who but the other day had carried ourselves like game-cocks. He had forgotten his fine manners and his mincing London voice, and we spoke of the outland country of which he knew nothing, and of the hunting of game of which he knew much, exchanging our different knowledges, and willing to learn from each other. Long ere we had reached York Ferry I had found that there was much in common between the Scots trader and the Virginian cavalier, and the chief thing we shared was youth.
Mine, to be sure, was more in the heart, while Grey wore his open and fearless. He plucked the summer flowers and set them in his hat. He was full of catches and glees, so that he waked the echoes in the forest glades. Soon I, too, fell to singing in my tuneless voice, and I answered his "My lodging is on the cold ground" with some Scots ballad or a song of Davie Lindsay. I remember how sweetly he sang Colonel Lovelace's ode to Lucasta, writ when going to the wars:—
"True, a new mistress now I chase, The first foe in the field; And with a stronger faith embrace A sword, a horse, a shield."
"Yet this inconstancy is such As thou too shalt adore: I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not Honour more."
I wondered if that were my case—if I rode out for honour, and not for the pure pleasure of the riding. And I marvelled more to see the two of us, both lovers of one lady and eager rivals, burying for the nonce our feuds, and with the same hope serving the same cause.
We slept the night at Aird's store, and early the next morning found Ringan. A new Ringan indeed, as unlike the buccaneer I knew as he was unlike the Quaker. He was now the gentleman of Breadalbane, dressed for the part with all the care of an exquisite. He rode a noble roan, in his Spanish belt were stuck silver-hafted pistols, and a long sword swung at his side. When I presented Grey to him, he became at once the cavalier, as precise in his speech and polite in his deportment as any Whitehall courtier. They talked high and disposedly of genteel matters, and you would have thought that that red-haired pirate had lived his life among proud lords and high-heeled ladies. That is ever the way of the Highlander. He alters like a clear pool to every mood of the sky, so that the shallow observer might forget how deep the waters are.
Presently, when we had ridden into the chestnut forests of the Mattaponey, he began to forget his part. Grey, it appeared, was a student of campaigns, and he and Ringan were deep in a discussion of Conde's battles, in which both showed surprising knowledge. But the glory of the weather and of the woodlands, new as they were to a seafarer, set his thoughts wandering, and he fell to tales of his past which consorted ill with his former decorum. There was a madcap zest in his speech, something so merry and wild, that Grey, who had fallen back into his Tidewater manners, became once more the careless boy. We stopped to eat in a glade by a slow stream, and from his saddle-bags Ringan brought out strange delicacies. There were sugared fruits from the Main, and orange sirop from Jamaica, and a kind of sweet punch made by the Hispaniola Indians. As we ate and drank he would gossip about the ways of the world; and though he never mentioned his own doings, there was such an air of mastery about him as made him seem the centre figure of his tales, I could see that Grey was mightily captivated, and all afternoon he plied him with questions, and laughed joyously at his answers. As we camped that night, while Grey was minding his horse Ringan spoke of him to me.
"I like the lad, Andrew. He has the makings of a very proper gentleman, and he has the sense to be young. What I complain of in you is that you're desperate old. I wonder whiles if you ever were a laddie. For me, though I'm ten years the elder of the pair of you, I've no more years than your friend, and I'm a century younger than you. That's the Highland way. There's that in our blood that keeps our eyes young though we may be bent double. With us the heart is aye leaping till Death grips us. To my mind it's a lovable character that I fain would cherish. If I couldn't sing on a spring morning or say a hearty grace over a good dinner I'd be content to be put away in a graveyard."
And that, I think, is the truth. But at the time I was feeling pretty youthful, too, though my dour face and hard voice were a bad clue to my sentiments.
Next day on the Rappahannock we found Shalah, who had gone on to warn the two men I proposed to enlist. One of them, Donaldson, was a big, slow-spoken, middle-aged farmer, the same who had been with Bacon in the fight at Occaneechee Island. He just cried to his wife to expect him back when she saw him, slung on his back an old musket, cast a long leg over his little horse, and was ready to follow. The other, the Frenchman Bertrand, was a quiet, slim gentleman, who was some kin to the murdered D'Aubignys. I had long had my eye on him, for he was very wise in woodcraft, and had learned campaigning under old Turenne. He kissed his two children again and again, and his wife clung to his arms. There were tears in the honest fellow's eyes as he left, and I thought all the more of him, for he is the bravest man who has most to risk. I mind that Ringan consoled the lady in the French tongue, which I did not comprehend, and would not be hindered from getting out his saddle-bags and comforting the children with candied plums. He had near as grave a face as Bertrand when we rode off, and was always looking back to the homestead. He spoke long to the Frenchman in his own speech, and the sad face of the latter began to lighten.
I asked him what he said.
"Just that he was the happy man to have kind hearts to weep for him. A fine thing for a landless, childless fellow like me to say! But it's gospel truth, Andrew. I told him that his bairns would be great folks some day, and that their proudest boast would be that their father had ridden on this errand. Oh, and all the rest of the easy consolations. If it had been me, I would not have been muckle cheered. It's well I never married, for I would not have had the courage to leave my fireside."
We were now getting into a new and far lovelier country. The heavy forests and swamps which line the James and the York had gone, and instead we had rolling spaces of green meadowland, and little hills which stood out like sentinels of the great blue chain of mountains that hung in the west. Instead of the rich summer scents of the Tidewater, we had the clean, sharp smell of uplands, and cool winds relieved the noontide heat. By and by we struck the Rapidan, a water more like our Scots rivers, flowing in pools and currents, very different from the stagnant reaches of the Pamunkey. We were joined for a little bit by two men from Stafford county, who showed us the paths that horses could travel.
It was late in the afternoon that we reached a broad meadow hemmed in by noble cedars. I knew without telling that we were come to the scene of the tragedy, and with one accord we fell silent. The place had been well looked after, for a road had been made through the woods, and had been carried over marshy places on a platform of cedar piles. Presently we came to a log fence with a gate, which hung idly open. Within was a paddock, and beyond another fence, and beyond that a great pile of blackened timber. The place was so smiling and homelike under the westering sun that one looked to see a trim steading with the smoke of hearth fires ascending, and to hear the cheerful sounds of labour and of children's voices. Instead there was this grim, charred heap, with the light winds swirling the ashes.
Every man of us uncovered his head as he rode towards the melancholy place. I noticed a little rosary, which had been carefully tended, but horses had ridden through it, and the blossoms were trailing crushed on the ground. There was a flower garden too, much trampled, and in one corner a little stream of water had been led into a pool fringed with forget-me-nots. A tiny water-wheel was turning in the fall, a children's toy, and the wheel still turned, though its owners had gone. The sight of that simple thing fairly brought my heart to my mouth.
That inspection was a gruesome business. One of the doorposts of the house still stood, and it was splashed with blood. On the edge of the ashes were some charred human bones. No one could tell whose they were, perhaps a negro's, perhaps the little mistress of the water-wheel. I looked at Ringan, and he was smiling, but his eyes were terrible. The Frenchman Bertrand was sobbing like a child.
We took the bones, and made a shallow grave for them in the rosary. We had no spades, but a stake did well enough to dig a resting-place for those few poor remains. I said over them the Twenty-third Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff shall comfort me."
Then suddenly our mood changed. Nothing that we could do could help the poor souls whose bones lay among the ashes. But we could bring their murderers to book, and save others from a like fate.
We moved away from the shattered place to the ford in the river where the road ran north. There we looked back. A kind of fury seized me as I saw that cruel defacement. In a few hours we ourselves should be beyond the pale, among those human wolves who were so much more relentless than any beasts of the field. As I looked round our little company, I noted how deep the thing had bitten into our souls. Ringan's eyes still danced with that unholy blue light. Grey was very pale, and his jaw was set grimly. Bertrand had ceased from sobbing, and his face had the far-away wildness of the fanatic, such a look as his forbears may have worn at the news of St. Bartholomew. The big man Donaldson looked puzzled and sombre. Only Shalah stood impassive and aloof, with no trace of feeling on the bronze of his countenance.
"This is the place for an oath," I said. "We are six men against an army, but we fight for a holy cause. Let us swear to wipe out this deed of blood in the blood of its perpetrators. God has made us the executors of His judgments against horrid cruelty."
We swore, holding our hands high, that, when our duty to the dominion was done, we should hunt down the Cherokees who had done this deed till no one of them was left breathing. At that moment of tense nerves, no other purpose would have contented us.
"How will we find them?" quoth Ringan. "To sift a score of murderers out of a murderous nation will be like searching the ocean for a wave."
Then Shalah spoke.
"The trail is ten suns old, but I can follow it. The men were of the Meebaw tribe by this token." And he held up a goshawk's feather. "The bird that dropped that lives beyond the peaks of Shubash. The Meebaw are quick hunters and gross eaters, and travel slow. We will find them by the Tewawha."
"All in good time," I said. "Retribution must wait till we have finished our task. Can you find the Meebaw men again?"
"Yea," said Shalah, "though they took wings and flew over the seas I should find them."
Then we hastened away from that glade, none speaking to the other. We camped an hour's ride up the river, in a place secure against surprises in a crook of the stream with a great rock at our back. We were outside the pale now, and must needs adopt the precautions of a campaign; so we split the night into watches, I did my two hours sentry duty at that dead moment of the dark just before the little breeze which is the precursor of dawn, and I reflected very soberly on the slender chances of our returning from this strange wild world and its cruel mysteries.
I RETRACE MY STEPS.
Next morning we passed through the foothills into an open meadow country. As I lifted up my eyes I saw for the first time the mountains near at hand. There they lay, not more than ten miles distant, woody almost to the summit, but with here and there a bold finger of rock pointing skywards. They looked infinitely high and rugged, far higher than any hills I had ever seen before, for my own Tinto or Cairntable would to these have been no more than a footstool. I made out a clear breach in the range, which I took to be old Studd's Clearwater Gap. The whole sight intoxicated me. I might dream of horrors in the low coast forests among their swampy creeks, but in that clear high world of the hills I believed lay safety. I could have gazed at them for hours, but Shalah would permit of no delay. He hurried us across the open meadows, and would not relax his pace till we were on a low wooded ridge with the young waters of the Rapidan running in a shallow vale beneath.
Here we halted in a thick clump of cedars, while he and Ringan went forward to spy out the land. In that green darkness, save by folk travelling along the ridge, we could not be detected, and I knew enough of Indian ways to believe that any large party would keep the stream sides. We lit a fire without fear, for the smoke was hid in the cedar branches, and some of us roasted corn-cakes. Our food in the saddle-bags would not last long, and I foresaw a ticklish business when it came to hunting for the pot. A gunshot in these narrow glens would reverberate like a cannon.
We dozed peacefully in the green shade, and smoked our pipes, waiting for the return of our envoys. They came towards sundown, slipping among us like ghosts.
Ringan signalled to me, and we put our coats over the horses' heads to prevent their whinnying. He stamped out the last few ashes of the fire, and Shalah motioned us all flat on our faces. Then I crawled to the edge of the ridge, and looked down through a tangle of vines on the little valley.
Our precautions had been none too soon, for a host was passing below, as stealthily as if it had been an army of the sheeted dead. Most were mounted, and it was marvellous to see the way in which they managed their horses, so that the beasts seemed part of the riders, and partook of their vigilance. Some were on foot, and moved with the long, loping, in-toed Indian stride. I guessed their number at three hundred, but what awed me was their array. This was no ordinary raid, but an invading army. My sight, as I think I have said, is as keen as a hawk's, and I could see that most of them carried muskets as well as knives and tomahawks. The war-paint glistened on each breast and forehead, and in the oiled hair stood the crested feathers, dyed scarlet for battle. My spirits sank as I reflected that now we were cut off from the Tidewater.
When the last man had gone we crawled back to the clump, now gloomy with the dusk of evening. I saw that Ringan was very weary, but Shalah, after stretching his long limbs, seemed fresh as ever.
"Will you come with me, brother?" he said. "We must warn the Rappahannock."
"Who are they?" I asked.
"Cherokees. More follow them. The assault is dearly by the line of the Rappahannock. If we hasten we may yet be in time."
I knew what Shalah's hastening meant. I suppose I was the one of us best fitted for a hot-foot march, and that that was the reason why the Indian chose me. All the same my heart misgave me. He ate a little food, while I stripped off the garments I did not need, carrying only the one pistol. I bade the others travel slowly towards the mountains, scouting carefully ahead, and promised that we should join them before the next sundown. Then Shalah beckoned me, and I plunged after him into the forest.
On our first visit to Ringan at the land-locked Carolina harbour I had thought Shalah's pace killing, but that was but a saunter to what he now showed me. We seemed to be moving at right angles to the Indian march. Once out of the woods of the ridge, we crossed the meadows, mostly on our bellies, taking advantage of every howe and crinkle. I followed him as obediently as a child. When he ran so did I; when he crawled my forehead was next his heel. After the grass-lands came broken hillocks with little streams in the bottoms. Through these we twisted, moving with less care, and presently we had left the hills and were looking over a wide, shadowy plain.
The moon was three-quarters full, and was just beginning to climb the sky. Shalah sniffed the wind, which blew from the south-west, and set off at a sharp angle towards the north. We were now among the woods again, and the tangled undergrowth tried me sore. We had been going for about three hours, and, though I was hard and spare from much travel in the sun, my legs were not used to this furious foot marching. My feet grew leaden, and, to make matters worse, we dipped presently into a big swamp, where we mired to the knees and often to the middle. It would have been no light labour at any time to cross such a place, pulling oneself by the tangled shrubs on to the rare patches of solid ground. But now, when I was pretty weary, the toil was about the limit of my strength. When we emerged on hard land I was sobbing like a stricken deer. But Shalah had no mercy. He took me through the dark cedars at the same tireless pace, and in the gloom I could see him flitting ahead of me, his shoulders squared, and his limbs as supple as a race-horse's. I remember I said over in my head all the songs and verses I knew, to keep my mind from my condition. I had long ago got and lost my second wind and whatever other winds there be, and was moving less by bodily strength than by sheer doggedness of spirit. Weak tears were running down my cheeks, my breath rasped in my throat, but I was in the frame of mind that if death had found me next moment my legs would still have twitched in an effort to run.
At an open bit of the forest Shalah stopped and looked at the sky. I blundered into him, and then from sheer weakness rolled on the ground. He grunted and turned to me. I felt his cool hand passing over my brow and cheek, and his fingers kneading the muscles of my forlorn legs. 'Twas some Indian device, doubtless, but its power was miraculous. Under his hands my body seemed to be rested and revived. New strength stole into my sinews, new vigour into my blood. The thing took maybe five minutes—not more; but I scrambled to my feet a man again. Indeed I was a better man than when I started, for this Indian wizardry had given me an odd lightness of head and heart. When we took up the running, my body, instead of a leaden clog, seemed to be a thing of air and feathers.
It was now hard on midnight, and the moon was high in the heavens. We bore somewhat to the right, and I judged that our circuit was completed, and that the time had come to steal in front of the Indian route. The forest thinned, and we traversed a marshy piece, of country with many single great trees. Often Shalah would halt for a second, strain his ears, and sniff the light wind like a dog. He seemed to find guidance, but I got none, only the hoot of an owl or the rooty smell of the woodland.
At last we struck a little stream, and followed its course between high banks of pine. Suddenly Shalah's movements became stealthy. Crouching in every patch of shade, and crossing open spaces on our bellies, we turned from the stream, surmounted a knoll, and came down on a wooded valley. Shalah looked westwards, held up his hand, and stood poised for a minute like a graven image. Then he grunted and spoke. "We are safe," he said. "They are behind us, and are camped for the night," How he knew that I cannot tell; but I seemed to catch on the breeze a whiff of the rancid odour of Indian war-paint.
For another mile we continued our precautions, and then moved more freely in the open. Now that the chief peril was past, my fatigue came back to me worse than ever. I think I was growing leg-weary, as I had seen happen to horses, and from that ailment there is no relief. My head buzzed like a beehive, and when the moon set I had no power to pick my steps, and stumbled and sprawled in the darkness. I had to ask Shalah for help, though it was a sore hurt to my pride, and, leaning on his arm, I made the rest of the journey.
I found myself splashing in a strong river. We crossed by a ford, so we had no need to swim, which was well for me, for I must have drowned. The chill of the water revived me somewhat, and I had the strength to climb the other bank. And then suddenly before me I saw a light, and a challenge rang out into the night.
The voice was a white man's, and brought me to my bearings. Weak as I was, I had the fierce satisfaction that our errand had not been idle. I replied with the password, and a big fellow strode out from a stockade.
"Mr. Garvald!" he said, staring. "What brings you here? Where are the rest of you?" He looked at Shalah and then at me, and finally took my arm and drew me inside.
There were a score in the place—Rappahannock farmers, a lean, watchful breed, each man with his musket. One of them, I mind, wore a rusty cuirass of chain armour, which must have been one of those sent out by the King in the first days of the dominion. They gave me a drink of rum and water, and in a little I had got over my worst weariness and could speak.
"The Cherokees are on us," I said, and I told them of the army we had followed.
"How many?" they asked.
"Three hundred for a vanguard, but more follow."
One man laughed, as if well pleased. "I'm in the humour for Cherokees just now. There's a score of scalps hanging outside, if you could see them, Mr. Garvald."
"What scalps?" I asked, dumbfoundered.
"The Rapidan murderers. We got word of them in the woods yesterday, and six of us went hunting. It was pretty shooting. Two got away with some lead in them, the rest are in the Tewawha pools, all but their topknots. I've very little notion of Cherokees."
Somehow the news gave me intense joy. I thought nothing of the barbarity of it, or that white men should demean themselves to the Indian level. I remembered only the meadow by the Rapidan, and the little lonely water-wheel. Our vow was needless, for others had done our work.
"Would I had been with you!" was all I said. "But now you have more than a gang of Meebaw raiders to deal with. There's an invasion coming down from the hills, and this is the first wave of it, I want word sent to Governor Nicholson at James Town. I was to tell him where the trouble was to be feared, and in a week you'll have a regiment at your backs. Who has the best horse? Simpson? Well, let Simpson carry the word down the valley. If my plans are working well, the news should be at James Town by dawn to-morrow."
The man called Simpson got up, saddled his beast, and waited my bidding. "This is the word to send," said I. "Say that the Cherokees are attacking by the line of the Rappahannock. Say that I am going into the hills to find if my fears are justified. Never mind what that means. Just pass on the words. They will understand them at James Town. So much for the Governor. Now I want word sent to Frew's homestead on the South Fork. Who is to carry it?"
One old fellow, who chewed tobacco without intermission, spat out the leaf, and asked me what news I wanted to send.
"Just that we are attacked," I said.
"That's a simple job," he said cheerfully. "All down the Border posts we have a signal. Only yesterday we got word of it from the place you speak of. A mile from here is a hillock within hearing of the stockade at Robertson's Ford. One shot fired there will tell them what you want them to know. Robertson's will fire twice for Appleby's to hear, and Appleby's will send on the message to Dopple's. There are six posts between here and the South Fork, so when the folk at Frew's hear seven shots they will know that the war is on the Rappahannock."
I recognized old Lawrence's hand in this. It was just the kind of device that he would contrive. I hoped it would not miscarry, for I would have preferred a messenger; but after all the Border line was his concern.
Then I spoke aside to Shalah. In his view the Cherokees would not attack at dawn. They were more likely to wait till their supports overtook them, and then, to make a dash for the Rappahannock farms. Plunder was more in the line of these gentry than honest fighting. I spoke to the leader of the post, and he was for falling upon them in the narrows of the Rapidan. Their victory over the Meebaws had fired the blood of the Borderers, and made them contemptuous of the enemy. Still, in such a predicament, when we had to hold a frontier with a handful, the boldest course was likely to be the safest. I could only pray that Nicholson's levies would turn up in time to protect the valley.
"Time passes, brother," said Shalah. "We came by swiftness, but we return by guile. In three hours it will be dawn. Sleep till then, for there is much toil before thee."
I saw the wisdom of his words, and went promptly to bed in a corner of the stockade. As I was lying down a man spoke to me, one Rycroft, at whose cabin I had once sojourned for a day.
"What brings the parson hereaways in these times?" he asked.
"What parson?" I asked.
"The man they call Doctor Blair."
"Great God!" I cried, "what about him?"
"He was in Stafford county when I left, hunting for schoolmasters. Ay, and he had a girl with him."
I sat upright with a start. "Where is he now?" I asked.
"I saw him last at Middleton's Ford. I think he was going down the river. I warned him this was no place for parsons and women, but he just laughed at me. It's time he was back in the Tidewater."
So long as they were homeward-bound I did not care; but it gave me a queer fluttering of the heart to think that Elspeth but yesterday should have been near this perilous Border. I soon fell asleep, for I was mighty tired, but I dreamed evilly. I seemed to see Doctor Blair hunted by Cherokees, with his coat-tails flying and his wig blown away, and what vexed me was that I could not find Elspeth anywhere in the landscape.
OUR ADVENTURE RECEIVES A RECRUIT.
At earliest light, with the dew heavy on the willows and the river line a coil of mist, Shalah woke me for the road. We breakfasted off fried bacon, some of which I saved for the journey, for the Indian was content with one meal a day. As we left the stockade I noted the row of Meebaw scalps hanging, grim and bloody, from the poles. The Borderers were up and stirring, for they looked to take the Indians in the river narrows before the morning was old.
No two Indian war parties ever take the same path, so it was Shalah's plan to work back to the route we had just travelled, by which the Cherokees had come yesterday. This sounds simple enough, but the danger lay in the second party. By striking to right or left we might walk into it, and then good-bye to our hopes of the hills. But the whole thing was easier to me than the cruel toil of yesterday. There was need of stealth and woodcraft, but not of yon killing speed.
For the first hour we went up a northern fork of the Rappahannock, then crossed the water at a ford, and struck into a thick pine forest. I was feeling wonderfully rested, and found no discomfort in Shalah's long strides. My mind was very busy on the defence of the Borders, and I kept wondering how long the Governor's militia would take to reach the Rappahannock, and whether Lawrence could reinforce the northern posts in time to prevent mischief in Stafford county. I cast back to my memory of the tales of Indian war, and could not believe but that the white man, if warned and armed, would roll back the Cherokees. 'Twas not them I feared, but that other force now screened behind the mountains, who had for their leader some white madman with a fire in his head and Bible words on his lips. Were we of Virginia destined to fight with such fanatics as had distracted Scotland—fanatics naming the name of God, but leading in our case the armies of hell?
It was about eleven in the forenoon, I think, that Shalah dropped his easy swing and grew circumspect. The sun was very hot, and the noon silence lay dead on the woodlands. Scarcely a leaf stirred, and the only sounds were the twittering grasshoppers and the drone of flies. But Shalah found food for thought. Again and again he became rigid, and then laid an ear to the ground. His nostrils dilated like a horse's, and his eyes were restless. We were now in a shallow vale, through which a little stream flowed among broad reed-beds. At one point he kneeled on the ground and searched diligently.
"See," he said, "a horse's prints not two hours old—a horse going west."
Presently I myself found a clue. I picked up from a clump of wild onions a thread of coloured wool. This was my own trade, where I knew more than Shalah. I tested the thing in my mouth and between my fingers.
"This is London stuff," I said. "The man who had this on his person bought his clothes from the Bristol merchants, and paid sweetly for them. He was no Rappahannock farmer."
Shalah trailed like a bloodhound, following the hoof-marks out of the valley meadow to a ridge of sparse cedars where they showed clear on the bare earth, and then to a thicker covert where they were hidden among strong grasses. Suddenly he caught my shoulder, and pulled me to the ground. We crawled through a briery place to where a gap opened to the vale on our left.
A party of Indians were passing. They were young men with the fantastic markings of young braves. All were mounted on the little Indian horses. They moved at leisure, scanning the distance with hands shading eyes.
We wormed our way back to the darkness of the covert. "The advance guard of the second party," Shalah whispered. "With good fortune, we shall soon see the rest pass, and then have a clear road for the hills."
"I saw no fresh scalps," I said, "so they seem to have missed our man on the horse." I was proud of my simple logic.
All that Shalah replied was, "The rider was a woman.'
"How, in Heaven's name, can you tell?" I asked.
He held out a long hair. "I found it among the vines at the level of a rider's head."
This was bad news indeed. What folly had induced a woman to ride so far across the Borders? It could be no settler's wife, but some dame from the coast country who had not the sense to be timid. 'Twas a grievous affliction for two men on an arduous quest to have to protect a foolish female with the Cherokees all about them.
There was no help for it, and as swiftly as possible and with all circumspection Shalah trailed the horse's prints. They kept the high ground, in very broken country, which was the reason why the rider had escaped the Indians' notice. Clearly they were moving slowly, and from the frequent halts and turnings I gathered that the rider had not much purpose about the road.
Then we came on a glade where the rider had dismounted and let the beast go. The horse had wandered down the ridge to the right in search of grazing, and the prints of a woman's foot led to the summit of a knoll which raised itself above the trees.
There, knee-deep in a patch of fern, I saw what I had never dreamed of, what sent the blood from my heart in a cold shudder of fear: a girl, pale and dishevelled, was trying to part some vines. A twig crackled and she looked round, showing a face drawn with weariness and eyes large with terror.
It was Elspeth!
At the sight of Shalah she made to scream, but checked herself. It was well, for a scream would have brought all of us to instant death.
For Shalah at that moment dropped to earth and wriggled into a covert overlooking the vale. I had the sense to catch the girl and pull her after him. He stopped dead, and we two lay also like mice. My heart was going pretty fast, and I could feel the heaving of her bosom.
The shallow glen was full of folk, most of them going on foot. I recognized the Cherokee head-dress and the long hickory bows which those carried who had no muskets. 'Twas by far the biggest party we had seen, and, though in that moment I had no wits to count them, Shalah told me afterwards they must have numbered little short of a thousand. Some very old fellows were there, with lean, hollow cheeks, and scanty locks, but the most were warriors in their prime. I could see it was a big war they were out for, since some of the horses carried heavy loads of corn, and it is never the Indian fashion to take much provender for a common raid. In all Virginia's history there had been no such invasion, for the wars of Opechancanough and Berkeley and the fight of Bacon against the Susquehannocks were mere bickers compared with this deliberate downpour from the hills.
As we lay there, scarce daring to breathe, I saw that we were in deadly peril. The host was so great that some marched on the very edge of our thicket. I could see through the leaves the brown Skins not a yard away. The slightest noise would bring the sharp Indian eyes peering into the gloom, and we must be betrayed.
In that moment, which was one of the gravest of my life, I had happily no leisure to think of myself. My whole soul sickened with anxiety for the girl. I knew enough of Indian ways to guess her fate. For Shalah and myself there might be torture, and at the best an arrow in our hearts, but for her there would be things unspeakable. I remembered the little meadow on the Rapidan, and the tale told by the grey ashes. There was only one shot in my pistol, but I determined that it should be saved for her. In such a crisis the memory works wildly, and I remember feeling glad that I had stood up before Grey's fire. The thought gave me a comforting assurance of manhood.
Those were nightmare minutes. The girl was very quiet, in a stupor of fatigue and fear. Shalah was a graven image, and I was too tensely strung to have any of the itches and fervours which used to vex me in hunting the deer when stillness was needful. Through the fretted greenery, I saw the dim shadows of men passing swiftly. The thought of the horse worried me. If the confounded beast grazed peaceably down the other side of the hill, all might be well. So long as he was out of sight any movement he made would be set down by the Indians to some forest beast, for animals' noises are all alike in a wood. But if he returned to us, there would be the devil to pay, for at a glimpse of him our thicket would be alive with the enemy.
In the end I found it best to shut my eyes and commend our case to our Maker. Then I counted very slowly to myself up to four hundred, and looked again. The vale was empty.
We lay still, hardly believing in our deliverance, for the matter of a quarter of an hour, and then Shalah, making a sign to me to remain, turned and glided up lull. I put my hand behind me, found Elspeth's cheek, and patted it. She stretched out a hand and clutched mine feverishly, and thus we remained till, after what seemed an age, Shalah returned.
He was on his feet and walking freely. He had found the horse, too, and had it by the bridle.
"The danger is past," he said gravely. "Let us go back to the glade and rest."
I helped Elspeth to her feet, and on my arm she clambered to the grassy place in the woods. I searched my pockets, and gave her the remnants of the bread and bacon I had brought from the Rappahannock post. Better still, I remembered that I had in my breast a little flask of eau-de-vie, and a mouthful of it revived her greatly. She put her hands to her head, and began to tidy her dishevelled hair, which is a sure sign in a woman that she is recovering her composure.
"What brought you here?" I asked gently.
She had forgotten that I was in her black books, and that in her letter she forbade my journey. Indeed, she looked at me as a child in a pickle may look at an upbraiding parent.
"I was lost," she cried. "I did not mean to go far, but the night came down and I could not find the way back. Oh, it has been a hideous nightmare! I have been almost mad in the dark woods."
"But how did you get here?" I asked, still hopelessly puzzled.
"I was with Uncle James on the Rappahannock. He heard something that made him anxious, and he was going back to the Tidewater yesterday. But a message came for him suddenly, and he left me at Morrison's farm, and said he would be back by the evening. I did not want to go home before I had seen the mountains where my estate is—you know, the land that Governor Francis said he would give me for my birthday. They told me one could see the hills from near at hand, and a boy that I asked said I would get a rare view if I went to the rise beyond the river. So I had Paladin saddled, and crossed the ford, meaning to be back long ere sunset. But the trees were so thick that I could see nothing from the first rise, and I tried to reach a green hill that looked near. Then it began to grow dark, and I lost my head, and oh! I don't know where I wandered. I thought every rustle in the bushes was a bear or a panther. I feared the Indians, too, for they told me they were unsafe in this country. All night long I tried to find a valley running east, but the moonlight deceived me, and I must have come farther away every hour. When day came I tied Paladin to a tree and slept a little, and then I rode on to find a hill which would show me the lie of the land. But it was very hot, and I was very weary. And then you came, and those dreadful wild men. And—and——" She broke down and wept piteously.
I comforted her as best I could, telling her that her troubles were over now, and that I should look after her. "You might have met with us in the woods last night," I said, "so you see you were not far from friends." But the truth was that her troubles were only beginning, and I was wretchedly anxious. My impulse was to try to get her back to the Rappahannock; but, on putting this to Shalah, he shook his head.
"It is too late," he said. "If you seek certain death, go towards the Rappahannock. She must come with us to the mountains. The only safety is in the hill-tops."
This seemed a mad saying. To be safe from Indians we were to go into the heart of Indian country. But Shalah expounded it. The tribes, he said, dwelt only in the lower glens of the range, and never ventured to the summits, believing them to be holy land where a great manitou dwelt. The Cherokees especially shunned the peaks. If we could find a way clear to the top we might stay there in some security, till we learned the issue of the war, and could get word to our friends. "Moreover," he said, "we have yet to penetrate the secret of the hills. That was the object of our quest, brother."
Shalah was right, and I had forgotten all about it. I could not suffer my care for Elspeth to prevent a work whose issue might mean the salvation of Virginia. We had still to learn the truth about the massing of Indians in the mountains, of which the Cherokee raids were but scouting ventures. The verse of Grey's song came into my head:—
"I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not Honour more."
Besides—and this was the best reason—there was no other way. We had gone too far to turn back, and, as our proverb says, "It is idle to swallow the cow and choke on the tail."
I put it all to Elspeth.
She looked very scared. "But my uncle will go mad if he does not find me."
"It will be worse for him if he is never to find you again. Shalah says it would be as easy to get you back over the Rappahannock as for a child to cross a winter torrent. I don't say it's pleasant either way, but there's a good hope of safety in the hills, and there's none anywhere else."
She sat for a little with her eyes downcast. "I am in your hands," she said at last, "Oh, the foolish girl I have been! I will be a drag and a danger to you all."
Then I took her hand. "Elspeth," I said, "it's me will be the proud man if I can save you. I would rather be the salvation of you than the King of the Tidewater. And so says Shalah, and so will say all of us."
But I do not think she heard me. She had checked her tears, but her wits were far away, grieving for her uncle's pain, and envisaging the desperate future. At the first water we reached she bathed her face and eyes, and using the pool as a mirror, adjusted her hair. Then she smiled bravely, "I will try to be a true comrade, like a man," she said. "I think I will be stronger when I have slept a little."
All that afternoon we stole from covert to covert. It was hot and oppressive in the dense woods, where the breeze could not penetrate. Shalah's eagle eyes searched every open space before we crossed, but we saw nothing to alarm us. In time we came to the place where we had left our party, and it was easy enough to pick up their road. They had travelled slowly, keeping to the thickest trees, and they had taken no pains to cover their tracks, for they had argued that if trouble came it would come from the front, and that it was little likely that any Indian would be returning thus soon and could take up their back trail.
Presently we came to a place where the bold spurs of the hills overhung us, and the gap we had seen opened up into a deep valley. Shalah went in advance, and suddenly we heard a word pass. We entered a cedar glade, to find our four companions unsaddling the horses and making camp.
The sight of the girl held them staring. Grey grew pale and then flushed scarlet. He came forward and asked me abruptly what it meant. When I told him he bit his lips.
"There is only one thing to be done," he said. "We must take Miss Blair back to the Tidewater. I insist, sir. I will go myself. We cannot involve her in our dangers."
He was once again the man I had wrangled with. His eyes blazed, and he spoke in a high tone of command. But I could not be wroth with him; indeed, I liked him for his peremptoriness. It comforted me to think that Elspeth had so warm a defender.
I nodded to Shalah. "Tell him," I said, and Shalah spoke with him. He took long to convince, but at, the end he said no more, and went to speak to Elspeth. I could see that she lightened his troubled mind a little, for, having accepted her fate, she was resolute to make the best of it, I even heard her laugh.
That night we made her a bower of green branches, and as we ate our supper round our modest fire she sat like a queen among us. It was odd to see the way in which her presence affected each of us. With her Grey was the courtly cavalier, ready with a neat phrase and a line from the poets. Donaldson and Shalah were unmoved; no woman could make any difference to their wilderness silence. The Frenchman Bertrand grew almost gay. She spoke to him in his own tongue, and he told her all about the little family he had left and his days in far-away France. But in Ringan was the oddest change. Her presence kept him tongue-tied, and when she spoke to him he was embarrassed into stuttering. He was eager to serve her in everything, but he could not look her in the face or answer readily when she spoke. This man, so debonair and masterful among his fellows, was put all out of countenance by a wearied girl. I do not suppose he had spoken to a gentlewoman for ten years.
Next morning we came into Clearwater Glen.
Shalah spoke to me of it before we started. He did not fear the Cherokees, who had come from the far south of the range and had never been settled in these parts. But he thought that there might be others from the back of the hills who would have crossed by this gap, and might be lying in the lower parts of the glen. It behoved us, therefore, to go very warily. Once on the higher ridges, he thought we might be safe for a time. An invading army has no leisure to explore the rugged summits of a mountain.
The first sight of the place gave me a strong emotion of dislike. A little river brawled in a deep gorge, falling in pools and linns like one of my native burns. All its course was thickly shaded with bushes and knotted trees. On either bank lay stretches of rough hill pasture, lined with dark and tangled forests, which ran up the hill-side till the steepness of the slope broke them into copses of stunted pines among great bluffs of rock and raw red scaurs. The glen was very narrow, and the mountains seemed to beetle above it so as to shut out half the sunlight. The air was growing cooler, with the queer, acrid smell in it that high hills bring. I am a great lover of uplands, and the sourest peat-moss has a charm for me, but to that strange glen I conceived at once a determined hate. It is the way of some places with some men. The senses perceive a hostility for which the mind has no proof, and in my experience the senses are right.
Part of my discomfort was due to my bodily health. I had proudly thought myself seasoned by those hot Virginian summers, in which I had escaped all common ailments. But I had forgotten what old hunters had told me, that the hills will bring out a fever which is dormant in the plains. Anyhow, I now found that my head was dizzy and aching, and my limbs had a strange trembling. The fatigue of the past day had dragged me to the limits of my strength and made me an easy victim. My heart, too, was full of cares. The sight of Elspeth reminded me how heavy was my charge. 'Twas difficult enough to scout well in this tangled place, but, forbye my duty to the dominion, I had the business of taking one who was the light of my life into this dark land of bloody secrets.
The youth and gaiety were going out of my quest. I could only plod along dismally, attentive to every movement of Shalah, praying incessantly that we might get well out of it all. To make matters worse, the travelling became desperate hard. In the Tidewater there were bridle paths, and in the vales of the foothills the going had been good, with hard, dry soil in the woods, and no hindrances save a thicket of vines or a rare windfall. But in this glen, where the hill rains beat, there was no end to obstacles. The open spaces were marshy, where our horses sank to the hocks. The woods were one medley of fallen trees, rotting into touchwood, hidden boulders, and matted briers. Often we could not move till Donaldson and Bertrand with their hatchets had hewn some sort of road. All this meant slow progress, and by midday we had not gone half-way up the glen to the neck which meant the ridge of the pass.
This was an occasion when Ringan showed at his best. He had lost his awe of Elspeth, and devoted himself to making the road easy for her. Grey, who would fain have done the same, was no match for the seafarer, and had much ado to keep going himself. Ringan's cheery face was better than medicine. His eyes never lost their dancing light, and he was ready ever with some quip or whimsy to tide over the worst troubles. We kept very still, but now and again Elspeth's laugh rang out at his fooling, and it did my heart good to hear it.
After midday the glen seemed to grow darker, and I saw that the blue sky, which I had thought changeless, was becoming overcast. As I looked upwards I saw the high ridge blotted out and a white mist creeping down. I had noticed for some time that Shalah was growing uneasy. He would halt us often, while he went a little way on, and now he turned with so grim a look that we stopped without bidding.
He slipped into the undergrowth, while we waited in that dark, lonesome place. Even Ringan was sober now.
Elspeth asked in a low voice what was wrong, and I told her that the Indian was uncertain of the best road.
"Best road!" she laughed. "Then pray show me what you call the worst."
Ringan grinned at me ruefully. "Where do you wish yourself at this moment, Andrew?"
"On the top of this damned mountain," I grunted.
"Not for me," he said. "Give me the Dry Tortugas, on a moonlight night when the breaming fires burn along the shore, and the lads are singing 'Spanish Ladies.' Or, better still, the little isle of St. John the Baptist, with the fine yellow sands for careening, and Mother Daria brewing bobadillo and the trades blowing fresh in the tops of the palms. This land is a gloomy sort of business. Give me the bright, changeful sea."
"And I," said Elspeth, "would be threading rowan berries for a necklace in the heather of Medwyn Glen. It must be about four o'clock of a midsummer afternoon and a cloudless sky, except for white streamers over Tinto. Ah, my own kind countryside!"
Ringan's face changed.
"You are right, my lady. No Tortugas or Spanish isles for Ninian Campbell. Give him the steeps of Glenorchy on an October morn when the deer have begun to bell. My sorrow, but we are far enough from our desires—all but Andrew, who is a prosaic soul. And here comes Shalah with ugly news!"
The Indian spoke rapidly to me. "The woods are full of men. I do not think we are discovered, but we cannot stay here. Our one hope is to gain the cover of the mist. There is an open space beyond this thicket, and we must ride our swiftest. Quick, brother."
"The men?" I gasped. "Cherokees?"
"Nay," he said, "not Cherokees. I think they are those you seek from beyond the mountains."
The next half-hour is a mad recollection, wild and confused, and distraught with anxiety. The thought of Elspeth among savages maddened me, the more so as she had just spoken of Medwyn Glen, and had sent my memory back to fragrant hours of youth. We scrambled out of the thicket and put our weary beasts to a gallop. Happily it was harder ground, albeit much studded with clumps of fern, and though we all slipped and stumbled often, the horses kept their feet. I was growing so dizzy in the head that I feared every moment I would fall off. The mist had now come low down the hill, and lay before us, a line, of grey vapour drawn from edge to edge of the vale. It seemed an infinite long way off.
Shalah on foot kept in the rear, and I gathered from him that the danger he feared was behind. Suddenly as I stared ahead something fell ten yards in advance of us in a long curve, and stuck, quivering in the soil.
It was an Indian arrow.
We would have reined up if Shalah had not cried on us to keep on. I do not think the arrow was meant to strike us. 'Twas a warning, a grim jest of the savages in the wood.
Then another fell, at the same distance before our first rider.
Still Shalah cried us on. I fell back to the rear, for if we were to escape I thought there might be need of fighting there. I felt in my belt for my loaded pistols.
We were now in a coppice again, where the trees were short and sparse. Beyond that lay another meadow, and, then, not a quarter-mile distant, the welcome line of the mist, every second drawing down on us.
A third time an arrow fell. Its flight was shorter and dropped almost under the nose of Elspeth's horse, which swerved violently, and would have unseated a less skilled horsewoman.
"On, on," I cried, for we were past the need for silence, and when I looked again, the kindly fog had swallowed up the van of the party.
I turned and gazed back, and there I saw a strange sight. A dozen men or more had come to the edge of the trees on the hill-side. They were quite near, not two hundred yards distant, and I saw them clearly. They carried bows or muskets, but none offered to use them. They were tall fellows, but lighter in the colour than any Indians I had seen. Indeed, they were as fair as many an Englishman, and their slim, golden-brown bodies were not painted in the maniac fashion of the Cherokees. They stood stock still, watching us with a dreadful impassivity which was more frightening to me than violence. Then I, too, was overtaken by the grey screen.
"Will they follow?" I asked Shalah.
"I do not think so. They are not hill-men, and fear the high places where the gods smoke. Further-more, there is no need."
"We have escaped, then?" I asked, with a great relief in my voice.
"Say rather we have been shepherded by them into a fold. They will find us when they desire us."
It was a perturbing thought, but at any rate we were safe for the moment, and I resolved to say nothing to alarm the others. We overtook them presently, and Shalah became our guide. Not that more guiding was needed than Ringan or I could have given, for the lift of the ground gave us our direction, and there was the sound of a falling stream. To an upland-bred man mist is little of a hindrance, unless on a featureless moor.
Ever as we jogged upward the air grew colder. Rain was blowing in our teeth, and the ferny grass and juniper clumps dripped with wet. Almost it might have been the Pentlands or the high mosses between Douglas Water and Clyde. To us coming fresh from the torrid plains it was bitter weather, and I feared for Elspeth, who was thinly clad for the hill-tops. Ringan seemed to feel the cold the worst of us, for he had spent his days in the hot seas of the south. He put his horse-blanket over his shoulders, and cut a comical figure with his red face peeping from its folds.
"Lord," he would cry, "I wish I was in the Dry Tortugas or snug in the beach-house at the Isle o' Pines. This minds me painfully of my young days, when I ran in a ragged kilt in the cold heather of Cruachan. I must be getting an old man, Andrew, for I never thought the hills could freeze my blood."
Suddenly the fog lightened a little, the slope ceased, and we had that gust of freer air which means the top of the pass. My head was less dizzy now, and I had a momentary gladness that at any rate we had done part of what we set out to do.
"Clearwater Gap!" I cried. "Except for old Studd, we are the first Christians to stand on this watershed."
Below us lay a swimming hollow of white mist, hiding I knew not what strange country.
From the vales below I had marked the lie of the land on each side of the gap. The highest ground was to the right, so we turned up the ridge, which was easier than the glen and better travelling. Presently we were among pines again, and got a shelter from the driving rain. My plan was to find some hollow far up the mountain side, and there to make our encampment. After an hour's riding, we came to the very place I had sought. A pocket of flat land lay between two rocky knolls, with a ring of good-sized trees around it. The spot was dry and hidden, and what especially took my fancy was a spring of water which welled up in the centre, and from which a tiny stream ran down the hill. 'Twas a fine site for a stockade, and so thought Shalah and the two Borderers.
There was much to do to get the place ready, and Donaldson and Bertrand fell to with their axes to fell trees for the fort. Now that we had reached the first stage in our venture, my mind was unreasonably comforted. With the buoyancy of youth, I argued that since we had got so far we must get farther. Also the fever seemed to be leaving my bones and my head clearing. Elspeth was almost merry. Like a child playing at making house, she ordered the men about on divers errands. She was a fine sight, with the wind ruffling her hair and her cheeks reddened from the rain.
Ringan came up to me. "There are three Hours of daylight in front of us. What say you to make for the top of the hills and find Studd's cairn? I need some effort to keep my blood running."
I would gladly have stayed behind, for the fever had tired me, but I could not be dared by Ringan and not respond. So we set off at a great pace up the ridge, which soon grew very steep, and forced us to a crawl. There were places where we had to scramble up loose cliffs amid a tangle of vines, and then we would dip into a little glade, and then once again breast a precipice. By and by the trees dropped away, and there was nothing but low bushes and boulders and rank mountain grasses. In clear air we must have had a wonderful prospect, but the mist hung close around us, the drizzle blurred our eyes, and the most we saw was a yard or two of grey vapour. It was easy enough to find the road, for the ridge ran upwards as narrow as a hog's back.
Presently it ceased, and with labouring breath we walked a step or two in flat ground. Ringan, who was in front, stumbled over a little heap of stones about a foot high.
"Studd had a poor notion of a cairn," he said, as he kicked them down. There was nothing beneath but bare soil.
But the hunter had spoken the truth. A little digging in the earth revealed the green metal of an old powder-flask with a wooden stopper. I forced it open, and shook from its inside a twist of very dirty paper. There were some rude scratchings on it with charcoal, which I read with difficulty.
Salut to Adventrs. Robbin Studd on ye Sumit of Mountaine ye 3rd dy of June, yr 1672 hathe sene ye Promissd Lande.
Somehow in that bleak place this scrap of a human message wonderfully uplifted our hearts. Before we had thought only of our danger and cares, but now we had a vision of the reward. Down in the mists lay a new world. Studd had seen it, and we should see it; and some day the Virginian people would drive a road through Clearwater Gap and enter into possession. It is a subtle joy that which fills the heart of the pioneer, and mighty unselfish too. He does not think of payment, for the finding is payment enough. He does not even seek praise, for it is the unborn generations that will call him blessed. He is content, like Moses, to leave his bones in the wilderness if his people may pass over Jordan.
Ringan turned his flask in his hands. "A good man, this old Studd," he said. "I like his words, Salute to Adventurers. He was thinking of the folk that should come after him, which is the mark of a big mind, Andrew. Your common fellow would have writ some glorification of his own doings, but Studd was thinking of the thing he had done and not of himself. You say he's dead these ten years. Maybe he's looking down at us and nodding his old head well pleased. I would like fine to drink his health."
We ran down the hill, and came to the encampment at the darkening. Ringan, who had retained the flask, presented it to Elspeth with a bow.
"There, mistress," he says, "there's the key of your new estate."
THE STOCKADE AMONG THE PINES.
It took us a heavy day's work to get the stockade finished. There were only the two axes in the party, besides Shalah's tomahawk, and no one can know the labour of felling and trimming trees tin he has tried it. We found the horses useful for dragging trunks, and but for them should have made a poor job of it. Grey's white hands were all cut and blistered, and, though I boasted of my hardiness, mine were little better. Ringan was the surprise, for you would not think that sailing a ship was a good apprenticeship to forestry. But he was as skilful as Bertrand and as strong as Donaldson, and he had a better idea of fortification than us all put together.
The palisade which ran round the camp was six feet high, made of logs lashed to upright stakes. There was a gate which could be barred heavily, and loopholes were made every yard or so for musket fire. On one side—that facing the uplift of the ridge—the walls rose to nine feet. Inside we made a division. In one half the horses were picketed at night, and the other was our dwelling.
For Elspeth we made a bower in one corner, which we thatched with pine branches; but the rest of us slept in the open round the fire. It was a rough place, but a strong one, for our water could not be cut off, and, as we had plenty of ball and powder, a few men could hold it against a host. To each was allotted his proper station, in case of attack, and we kept watch in succession like soldiers in war. Ringan, who had fought in many places up and down the world, was our general in these matters, and a rigid martinet we found him. Shalah was our scout, and we leaned on him for all woodland work; but inside the palisade Ringan's word was law.
Our plan was to make this stockade the centre for exploring the hills and ascertaining the strength and purposes of the Indian army. We hoped, and so did Shalah, that our enemies would have no leisure to follow us to the high ridges; that what risk there was would be run by the men on their spying journeys; but that the stockade would be reasonably safe. It was my intention, as soon as I had sufficient news, to send word to Lawrence, and we thought that presently the Rappahannock forces would have driven the Cherokees southward, and the way would be open to get Elspeth back to the Tidewater.
The worst trouble, as I soon saw, was to be the matter of food. The supplies we had carried were all but finished by what we ate after the stockade was completed. After that there remained only a single bag of flour, another bag of Indian meal, and a pound or two of boucanned beef, besides three flasks of eau-de-vie, which Ringan had brought in a leather casket. The forest berries were not yet ripe, and the only food to be procured was the flesh of the wild game. Happily in Donaldson and Bertrand we had two practised trappers; but they were doubtful about success, for they had no knowledge of what beasts lived in the hills. I have said that we had plenty of powder and ball, but I did not relish the idea of shooting in the woods, for the noise would be a signal to our foes. Still, food we must have, and I thought I might find a secluded place where the echoes of a shot would be muffled.
The next morning I parcelled up the company according to their duties, for while Ringan was captain of the stockade, I was the leader of the venture. I sent out Bertrand and Donaldson to trap in the woods; Ringan, with Grey and Shalah, stayed at home to strengthen still further the stockade and protect Elspeth; while I took my musket and some pack-thongs and went up the hill-side to look for game. We were trysted to be back an hour before sundown, and if some one of us did not find food we should go supperless.
That day is a memory which will never pass from me. The weather was grey and lowering, and though the rain had ceased, the air was still heavy with it, and every bush and branch dripped with moisture. It was a poor day for hunting, for the eye could not see forty yards; but it suited my purpose, since the dull air would deaden the noise of my musket. I was hunting alone in a strange land among imminent perils, and my aim was not to glorify my skill, but to find the means of life. The thought strung me up to a mood where delight was more notable than care. I was adventuring with only my hand to guard me in those ancient, haunted woods, where no white man had ever before travelled. To experience such moments is to live with the high fervour which God gave to mortals before towns and laws laid their dreary spell upon them.
Early in the day I met a bear—the second I had seen in my life. I did not want him, and he disregarded me and shuffled grumpily down the hill-side. I had to be very careful, I remember, to mark my path, so that I could retrace it, and I followed the Border device of making a chip here and there in the bark of trees, and often looking backward to remember the look of the place when seen from the contrary side. Trails were easy to find on the soft ground, but besides the bear I saw none but those of squirrel and rabbit, and a rare opossum. But at last, in a marshy glen, I found the fresh slot of a great stag. For two hours and more I followed him far north along the ridge, till I came up with him in a patch of scrub oak. I had to wait long for a shot, but when at last he rose I planted a bullet fairly behind his shoulder, and he dropped within ten paces. His size amazed me, for he was as big as a cart-horse in body, and carried a spread of branching antlers like a forest tree. To me, accustomed to the little deer of the Tidewater, this great creature seemed a portent, and I guessed that he was that elk which I had heard of from the Border hunters. Anyhow he gave me wealth of food. I hid some in a cool place, and took the rest with me, packed in bark, in a great bundle on my shoulders.
The road back was easier than I had feared, for I had the slope of the hill to guide me; but I was mortally weary of my load before I plumped it down inside the stockade. Presently Bertrand and Donaldson returned. They brought only a few rabbits, but they had set many traps, and in a hill burn they had caught some fine golden-bellied trout. Soon venison steaks and fish were grilling in the embers, and Elspeth set to baking cakes on a griddle. Those left behind had worked well, and the palisade was as perfect as could be contrived. A runlet of water had been led through a hollow trunk into a trough—also hewn from a log—close by Elspeth's bower, where she could make her toilet unperplexed by other eyes. Also they had led a stream into the horses' enclosure, so that they could be watered with ease.
The weather cleared in the evening, as it often does in a hill country. From the stockade we had no prospect save the reddening western sky, but I liked to think that in a little walk I could see old Studd's Promised Land. That was a joy I reserved for myself on the morrow, I look back on that late afternoon with delight as a curious interlude of peace. We had forgotten that we were fugitives in a treacherous land, I for one had forgotten the grim purpose of our quest, and we cooked supper as if we were a band of careless folk taking our pleasure in the wilds. Wood-smoke is always for me an intoxication like strong drink. It seems the incense of nature's altar, calling up the shades of the old forest gods, smacking of rest and comfort in the heart of solitude. And what odour can vie for hungry folk with that of roasting meat in the clear hush of twilight? The sight of that little camp is still in my memory. Elspeth flitted about busied with her cookery, the glow of the sunset lighting up her dark hair. Bertrand did the roasting, crouched like a gnome by the edge of the fire. Grey fetched and carried for the cooks, a docile and cheerful servant, with nothing in his look to recall the proud gentleman of the Tidewater. Donaldson sat on a log, contentedly smoking his pipe, while Ringan, whistling a strathspey, attended to the horses. Only Shalah stood aloof, his eyes fixed vacantly on the western sky, and his ear intent on the multitudinous voices of the twilit woods.
Presently food was ready, and our rude meal in that darkling place was a merry one. Elspeth sat enthroned on a couch of pine branches—I can see her yet shielding her face from the blaze with one little hand, and dividing her cakes with the other. Then we lit our pipes, and fell to the long tales of the camp-fire. Ringan had a story of a black-haired princess of Spain, and how for love of her two gentlemen did marvels on the seas. The chief one never returned to claim her, but died in a fight off Cartagena, and wrote a fine ballad about his mistress which Ringan said was still sung in the taverns of the Main. He gave a verse of it, a wild, sad thing, with tears in it and the joy of battle. After that we all sang, all but me, who have no voice. Bertrand had a lay of Normandy, about a lady who walked in the apple-orchards and fell in love with a wandering minstrel; and Donaldson sang a rough ballad of Virginia, in which a man weighs the worth of his wife against a tankard of apple-jack. Grey sang an English song about the north-country maid who came to London, and a bit of the chanty of the Devon men who sacked Santa Fe and stole the Almirante's daughter. As for Elspeth, she sang to a soft Scots tune the tale of the Lady of Cassilis who followed the gipsy's piping. In it the gipsy tells of what he can offer the lady, and lo! it was our own case!—
"And ye shall wear no silken gown, No maid shall bind your hair; The yellow broom shall be your gem, Your braid the heather rare.
"Athwart the moor, adown the hill, Across the world away! The path is long for happy hearts That sing to greet the day, My love, That sing to greet the day."
I remember, too, the last verse of it:—
"And at the last no solemn stole Shall on thy breast be laid; No mumbling priest shall speed thy soul, No charnel vault thee shade. But by the shadowed hazel copse, Aneath the greenwood tree, Where airs are soft and waters sing, Thou'lt ever sleep by me, My love, Thou'lt ever sleep by me."
Then we fell to talking about the things in the West that no man had yet discovered, and Shalah, to whom our songs were nothing, now lent an ear.
"The first Virginians," said Grey, "thought that over the hills lay the western ocean and the road to Cathay. I do not know, but I am confident that but a little way west we should come to water. A great river or else the ocean."
Ringan differed. He held that the land of America was very wide in those parts, as wide as south of the isthmus where no man had yet crossed it. Then he told us of a sea-captain who had travelled inland in Mexico for five weeks and come to a land where gold was as common as chuckiestones, and a great people dwelt who worshipped a god who lived in a mountain. And he spoke of the holy city of Manoa, which Sir Walter Raleigh sought, and which many had seen from far hill-tops. Likewise of the wonderful kings who once dwelt in Peru, and the little isle in the Pacific where all the birds were nightingales and the Tree of Life flourished; and the mountain north of the Main which was all one emerald. "I think," he said, "that, though no man has ever had the fruition of these marvels, they are likely to be more true than false. I hold that God has kept this land of America to the last to be the loadstone of adventurers, and that there are greater wonders to be seen than any that man has imagined. The pity is that I have spent my best years scratching like a hen at its doorstep instead of entering. I have a notion some day to travel straight west to the sunset. I think I should find death, but I might see some queer things first."
Then Shalah spoke:—
"There was once a man of my own people who, when he came to man's strength, journeyed westward with a wife. He travelled all his days, and when his eyes were dim with age he saw a great water. His spirit left him on its shore, but on his road he had begotten a son, and that son journeyed back towards the rising sun, and came after many years to his people again. I have spoken with him of what he had seen."
"And what was that?" asked Ringan, with eager eyes.
"He told of plains so great that it is a lifetime to travel over them, and of deserts where the eagle flying from the dawn dies of drought by midday, and of mountains so high that birds cannot cross them but are changed by cold into stone, and of rivers to which our little waters are as reeds to a forest cedar. But especially he spoke of the fierce warriors that ride like the wind on horses. It seems, brother, that he who would reach that land must reach also the Hereafter."
"That's the place for me," Ringan cried. "What say you, Andrew? When this affair is over, shall we make a bid for these marvels? I can cull some pretty adventurers from the Free Companions."
"Nay, I am for moving a step at a time," said I. "I am a trader, and want one venture well done before I begin on another, I shall be content if we safely cross these mountains on which we are now perched."
Ringan shook his head. "That was never the way of the Highlands, 'Better a bone on the far-away hills than a fat sheep in the meadows,' says the Gael. What say you, mistress?" and he turned to Elspeth.
"I think you are the born poet," said she, smiling, "and that Mr. Garvald is the sober man of affairs. You will leap for the top of the wall and get a prospect while Mr. Garvald will patiently pull it down."
"Oh, I grant that Andrew has the wisdom," said Ringan. "That's why him and me's so well agreed. It's because we differ much, and so fit together like opposite halves of an apple.... Is your traveller still in the land of the living?" he asked Shalah.
But the Indian had slipped away from the fireside circle, and I saw him without in the moonlight standing rigid on a knoll and gazing at the skies.
* * * * *
Next day dawned cloudless, and Shalah and I spent it in a long journey along the range. We kept to the highest parts, and at every vantage-ground we scanned the glens for human traces. By this time I had found my hill legs, and could keep pace even with the Indian's swift stride. The ridge of mountains, you must know, was not a single backbone, but broken up here and there by valleys into two and even three ranges. This made our scouting more laborious, and prevented us from getting the full value out of our high station. Mostly we kept in cover, and never showed on a skyline. But we saw nothing to prove the need of this stealth. Only the hawks wheeled, and the wild pigeons crooned; the squirrels frisked among the branches; and now and then a great deer would leap from its couch and hasten into the coverts.
But, though we got no news, that journey brought to me a revelation, for I had my glimpse of Studd's Promised Land. It came to me early in the day, as we halted in a little glade, gay with willowherb and goldenrod, which hung on a shelf of the hills looking westwards. The first streamers of morn had gone, the mists had dried up from the valleys, and I found myself looking into a deep cleft and across at a steep pine-clad mountain. Clearly the valley was split by this mountain into two forks, and I could see only the cool depth of it and catch a gleam of broken water a mile or two below. But looking more to the north, I saw where the vale opened, and then I had a vision worthy of the name by which Studd had baptized it. An immense green pasture land ran out to the dim horizon. There were forests scattered athwart it, and single great trees, and little ridges, too, but at the height where we stood it seemed to the eye to be one verdant meadow as trim and shapely as the lawn of a garden. A noble river, the child of many hill streams, twined through it in shining links. I could see dots, which I took to be herds of wild cattle grazing, but no sign of any human dweller.
"What is it?" I asked unthinkingly.
"The Shenandoah," Shalah said, and I never stopped to ask how he knew the name. He was gazing at the sight with hungry eyes, he whose gaze was, for usual, so passionless.
That prospect gave me a happy feeling of comfort; why, I cannot tell, except that the place looked so bright and habitable. Here was no sour wilderness, but a land made by God for cheerful human dwellings. Some day there would be orchards and gardens among those meadows, and miles of golden corn, and the smoke of hearth fires. Some day I would enter into that land of Canaan which now I saw from Pisgah. Some day—and I scarcely dared the thought—my children would call it home.
A HAWK SCREAMS IN THE EVENING
Those two days in the stockade were like a rift of sun in a stormy day, and the next morn the clouds descended. The face of nature seemed to be a mirror of our fortunes, for when I woke the freshness had gone out of the air, and in the overcast sky there was a forewarning of storm. But the little party in the camp remained cheerful enough. Donaldson and Bertrand went off to their trapping; Elspeth was braiding her hair, the handsomest nymph that ever trod these woodlands, and trying in vain to discover from the discreet Ringan where he came from, and what was his calling. The two Borderers knew well who he was; Grey, I think, had a suspicion; but it never entered the girl's head that this debonair gentleman bore the best known name in all the Americas. She fancied he was some exiled Jacobite, and was ready to hear a pitiful romance. This at another time she would have readily got; but Ringan for the nonce was in a sober mood, and though he would talk of Breadalbane, was chary of touching on more recent episodes. All she learned was that he was a great traveller, and had tried most callings that merit a gentleman's interest.
The day before, Shalah and I had explored the range to the south, keeping on the west side where we thought the enemy were likely to gather. This day we looked to the side facing the Tidewater, a difficult job, for it was eaten into by the upper glens of many rivers. The weather grew hot and oppressive, and over the lowlands of Virginia there brooded a sullen thundercloud. It oppressed my spirits, and I found myself less able to keep up with Shalah. The constant sight of the lowlands filled me with anxiety for what might be happening in those sullen blue flats. Gone was the glad forgetfulness of yesterday. The Promised Land might smile as it pleased, but we were still on the flanks of Pisgah with the Midianites all about us.
My recollection of that day is one of heavy fatigue and a pressing hopelessness. Shalah behaved oddly, for he was as restive as a frightened stag. No covert was unsuspected by him, and if I ventured to raise my head on any exposed ground a long brown arm pulled me down. He would make no answer to my questions except a grunt. All this gave me the notion that the hills were full of the enemy, and I grew as restive as the Indian. The crackle of a branch startled me, and the movement of a scared beast brought my heart to my throat.
Then from a high place he saw something which sent us both crawling into the thicket. We made a circuit of several miles round the head of a long ravine, and came to a steep bank of red screes. Up this we wormed our way, as flat as snakes, with our noses in the dusty earth. I was dripping with sweat, and cursing to myself this new madness of Shalah's. Then I found a cooler air blowing on the top of my prostrate skull, and I judged that we were approaching the scarp of a ridge. Shalah's hand held me motionless. He wriggled on a little farther, and with immense slowness raised his head. His hand now beckoned me forward, and in a few seconds I was beside him and was lifting my eyes over the edge of the scarp.
Below us lay a little plain, wedged in between two mountains, and breaking off on one side into a steep glen. It was just such a shelf as I had seen in the Carolinas, only a hundred times greater, and it lay some five hundred feet below us. Every part of the hollow was filled with men. Thousands there must have been, around their fires and teepees, and coming or going from the valley. They were silent, like all savages, but the low hum rose from the place which told of human life.
I tried to keep my eyes steady, though my heart was beating like a fanner. The men were of the same light colour and slimness as those I had seen on the edge of the mist in Clearwater Glen. Indeed, they were not unlike Shalah, except that he was bigger than the most of them. I was not learned in Indian ways, but a glance told me that these folk never came out of the Tidewater, and were no Cherokees of the hills or Tuscaroras from the Carolinas. They were a new race from the west or the north, the new race which had so long been perplexing us. Somewhere among them was the brain which had planned for the Tidewater a sudden destruction.
Shalah slipped noiselessly backward, and I followed him down the scree slope, across the ravine, and then with infinite caution through the sparse woods till we had put a wide shoulder of hill between us and the enemy. After that we started running, such a pace as made the rush back to the Rappahannock seem an easy saunter. Shalah would avoid short-cuts for no reason that I could see, and make long circuits in places where I had to go on hands and feet. I was weary before we set out, and soon I began to totter like a drunken man. The Indian's arm pulled me up countless times, and his face, usually so calm, was now sharp with care. "You cannot fail here, brother," he would say, "On our speed hang the lives of all." That put me on my mettle, for it was Elspeth's safety I now strove for, and the thought gave life to my leaden limbs. Every minute the air grew heavier, and the sky darker, so that when about five in the afternoon we passed the Gap and struggled up the last hill to the stockade, it seemed as if night had already fallen.
Elspeth and Ringan were there, and the two trappers had just returned. I could do nothing but pant on the ground, but Shalah cried out for news of Grey. He heard that he had gone into the woods with his musket two hours past. At this he flung up his hands with a motion of despair. "We cannot wait," he said to Ringan. "Close the gate and put every man to his post, for the danger is at hand."
Ringan gave his orders. The big log gate was barred, the fire trampled out, and we waited in that thunderous darkness. A long draught of cold water had revived me, and I could think clearly of Elspeth. Her bower was in the safest part of the stockade, but she would not stay there, I could see terror in her eyes, but she gave no sign of it. She made ready our supper of cold meat as if she had no other thought in the world.
Waiting on an attack is a hard trial for mortal nerves. I am not ashamed to confess that in those minutes my courage was little to boast of. I envied Ringan his ease, and Bertrand his light cheerfulness, and Donaldson his unshaken gravity, and especially I envied Shalah his godlike calm. But most of all I envied Elspeth the courage which could know desperate fear and never show it. Most likely I did myself some wrong. Most likely my own face was firm enough, but, if it were, 'twas a poor clue to the brain behind it. I fell to wondering about Grey still travelling in the woods. Was there any hope for him? Was there hope, indeed, for any one of us penned in a wooden palisade fifty miles from aid, a handful against an army?
Presently in the lowering silence came the scream of a hawk.
An uncommon sound, half croak, half cry, which only hill dwellers know, but 'tis an eery noise in the wilderness. It came again, less near, and a third time from a great distance. I thought it queer, for a hawk does not scream twice in the same hour. I looked at Shalah, who stood by the gate, every sinew in his body taut with expectation. He caught my eye.
"That hawk never flew on wings," he said.
Then an owl hooted, and from near at hand came the cough of a deer. The thicket was alive with life, which mimicked the wild things of the woods.
Then came a sound which drowned all others. From the inky sky descended a jagged line of light, and in the same second the crash of the thunder broke. Never have I seen such a storm. Down in the Tidewater we had thunderstorms in plenty during the summer-time, but they growled and passed and scarce ruffled the even blue of the sky. But here it looked as if we had found the home of the lightnings, where all the thunderbolts were forged. It blazed around us like a steady fire. By a miracle the palisade was not struck, but I heard a rending and splintering in the forest where tall trees had met their doom. The noise deafened me, and confused my senses. Out of the loophole I could see the glade that sloped down to the Gap, and it was as bright as if it had been high noonday. The clumps of fern and grass stood out yellow and staring against the inky background of the trees. I remember I noted a rabbit run confusedly into the open, and then at a fresh flare of lightning scamper back.
Something was crouching and shivering at my side. I found it was Elspeth, whose courage was no match for the terrors of the heavens. She snuggled against me for companionship, and hid her face in the sleeve of my coat.
Suddenly came a cry from Shalah on my left. He pointed his hand to the glade, and in it I saw a man running. A new burst of light sprang up, for some dry tindery creepers had caught fire, and were blazing to heaven. It lit a stumbling figure which I saw was Grey, and behind him was a lithe Indian running on his trail.
"Open the gate," I cried, and I got my musket in the loophole.
The fugitive was all but spent. He ran, bowed almost to the ground, with a wild back glance ever and again over his shoulder. His pursuer gained on him with great strides, and in his hand he carried a bare knife. I dared not shoot, for Grey was between me and his enemy.
'Twas as well I could not, for otherwise Grey would never have reached us alive. We cried to him to swerve, and the sound of our voices brought up that last flicker of hope which waits till the end in every man. He seemed actually to gain a yard, and now he was near enough for us to see his white face and staring eyes. Then he stumbled, and the man with the knife was almost on him. But he found his feet again, and swerved like a hunted hare in one desperate bound. This gave me my chance: my musket cracked, and the Indian pitched quietly to the ground. The knife flew out of his hand and almost touched Grey's heel.
With the sound Shalah had leaped from the gate, picked up Grey like a child, and in a second had him inside the palisade and the bars down. He was none too soon, for as his pursuer fell a flight of arrows broke from the thicket, and had I shot earlier Grey had died of them. As it was they were too late. The bowmen rushed into the glade, and five muskets from our side took toll of them. My last vision was of leaping yellow devils capering from among blazing trees.
Then without warning it was dark again, and from the skies fell a deluge of rain. In a minute the burning creepers were quenched, and the whole world was one pit of ink, with the roar as of a thousand torrents about our ears. As the vividness of the lightning, so was the weight of the rain. Ringan cried to us to stand to our places, for now was the likely occasion for attack; but no human being could have fought in such weather. Indeed, we could not hear him, and he had to stagger round and shout his command into each several ear. The might of the deluge almost pressed me to the earth, I carried Elspeth into her bower, but the roof of branches was speedily beaten down, and it was no better than a peat bog.