That overwhelming storm lasted for maybe a quarter of an hour, and then it stopped as suddenly as it came. Inside the palisade the ground swam like a loch, and from the hill-side came the rumour of a thousand swollen streams. That, with the heavy drip of laden branches, made sound enough, but after the thunder and the downpour it seemed silence itself. Presently when I looked up I saw that the black wrack was clearing from the sky, and through a gap there shone a watery star.
Ringan took stock of our defences, and doled out to each a portion of sodden meat. Grey had found his breath by this time, and had got a spare musket, for his own had been left in the woods. Elspeth had had her wits sorely jangled by the storm, and in the revulsion was on the brink of tears. She was very tender towards Grey's condition, and the sight gave me no jealousy, for in that tense hour all things were forgotten but life and death. Donaldson, at Ringan's bidding, saw to the feeding of the horses as if he were in his own stable on the Rappahannock. It takes all sorts of men to make a world, but I thought at the time that for this business the steel nerves of the Borderer were worth many quicker brains and more alert spirits.
The hours marched sombrely towards midnight, while we stayed every man by his post. I asked Shalah if the enemy had gone, and he shook his head. He had the sense of a wild animal to detect danger in the forest when the eye and ear gave no proof. He stood like a stag, sniffing the night air, and peering with his deep eyes into the gloom. Fortunately, though the moon was all but full, the sky was so overcast that only the faintest yellow glow broke into the darkness of the hill-tops.
It must have been an hour after midnight when we got our next warning of the enemy. Suddenly a firebrand leaped from farther up the hill, and flew in a wide curve into the middle of the stockade. It fell on the partition between the horses and ourselves and hung crackling there. A shower of arrows followed it, which missed us, for we were close to the edges of the palisade. But the sputtering torch was a danger, for presently it would show our position; so Bertrand very gallantly pulled it down, stamped it out, and got back to his post unscathed.
Yet the firebrand had done its work, for it had showed the savages where the horses stood picketed. Another followed, lighting in their very midst, and setting them plunging at their ropes.
I heard Ringan curse deeply, for we had not thought of this stratagem. And the next second I became aware that there was some one among the horses. At first I thought that the palisade had been stormed, and then I heard a soft voice which was no Indian's. Heedless of orders, I flung myself at the rough gate, and in a trice was beside the voice.
Elspeth was busy among the startled beasts. She had a passion for horses, and had, as we say, the "cool" hand with them, for she would soothe a frightened stallion by rubbing his nose and whispering in his ear. By the time I got to her she had stamped out the torch, and was stroking Grey's mare, which was the worst scared. Her own fear had gone, and in that place of plunging hooves and tossing manes she was as calm as in a summer garden. "Let me be, Andrew," she said. "I am better at this business than you."
She had the courage of a lion, but 'twas a wild courage, without foresight. Another firebrand came circling through the darkness, and broke on the head of Donaldson's pony. I caught the girl and swung her off her feet into safety. And then on the heels of the torch came a flight of arrows, fired from near at hand.
By the mercy of God she was unharmed. I had one through the sleeve of my coat, but none reached her. One took a horse in the neck, and the poor creature screamed pitifully. Presently there was a wild confusion of maddened beasts, with the torch burning on the ground and lighting the whole place for the enemy. I had Elspeth in my arms, and was carrying her to the gate, when over the palisade I saw yellow limbs and fierce faces.
They saw it too—Ringan and the rest—and it did not need his cry to keep our posts to tell us the right course. The inner palisade which shut off the horses must now be our line of defence, and the poor beasts must be left to their fate. But Elspeth and I had still to get inside it.
Her ankle had caught in a picket rope, which in another second would have wrenched it cruelly, had I not slashed it free with my knife. This sent the horse belonging to it in wild career across the corral, and I think 'twas that interruption which saved our lives. It held back the savages for an instant of time, and prevented them blocking our escape. It all took place in the flutter of an eye-lid, though it takes long in the telling. I pushed Elspeth through the door, and with all my strength tore at the bars.
But they would not move. Perhaps the rain had swollen the logs, and they had jammed too tightly to let the bar slide in the groove. So I found myself in that gate, the mad horses and the savages before me, and my friends at my back, with only my arm to hold the post.
I had my musket and my two pistols—three shots, for there would be no time to reload. A yellow shadow slipped below a horse's belly, and there came the cry of an animal's agony. Then another and another, and yet more. But no one came near me in the gateway. I could not see anything to shoot at—only lithe shades and mottled shadows, for the torch lay on the wet ground, and was sputtering to its end. The moaning of the horses maddened me, and I sent a bullet through the head of my own poor beast, which was writhing horribly. Elspeth's horse got the contents of my second pistol.
And then it seemed that the raiders had gone. There was one bit of the far palisade which was outlined for me dimly against a gap in the trees. I saw a figure on it, and whipped my musket to my shoulder. Something flung up its arms and toppled back among the dying beasts.
Then a hand—Donaldson's, I think—clutched me and pulled me back. With a great effort the bars were brought down, and I found myself beside Elspeth. All her fortitude had gone now, and she was sobbing like a child.
Gradually the moaning of the horses ceased, and the whole world seemed cold and silent as a stone. We stood our watch till a wan sunrise struggled up the hill-side.
HOW A FOOL MUST GO HIS OWN ROAD.
It was a sorry party that looked at each other in the first light of dawn.
Our eyes were hollow with suspense, and all but Shalah had the hunted look of men caught in a trap. Not till the sun had got above the tree-tops did we venture to leave our posts and think of food. It was now that Elspeth's spirit showed supreme. The courage of that pale girl put us all to the blush. She alone carried her head high and forced an air of cheerfulness. She lit the fire with Donaldson's help, and broiled some deer's flesh for our breakfast, and whistled gently as she wrought, bringing into our wild business a breath of the orderly comfort of home. I had seen her in silk and lace, a queen among the gallants, but she never looked so fair as on that misty morning, her hair straying over her brow, her plain kirtle soiled and sodden, but her eyes bright with her young courage.
During the last hours of that dark vigil my mind had been torn with cares. If we escaped the perils of the night, I asked myself, what then? Here were the seven of us, pinned in a hill-fort, with no help within fifty miles, and one of the seven was a woman! I judged that the Indian force was large, and there was always the mighty army waiting farther south in that shelf of the hills. If they sought to take us, it must be a matter of a day or two at the most till they succeeded. If they only played with us—which is the cruel Indian way—we might resist a little, but starvation would beat us down. Where were we to get food, with the forests full of our subtle enemies? To sit still would mean to wait upon death, and the waiting would not be long.
There was the chance, to be sure, that the Indians would be drawn off in the advance towards the east. But here came in a worse anxiety. I had come to get news to warn the Tidewater. That news I had got. The mighty gathering which Shalah's eyes and mine had beheld in that upland glen was the peril we had foreseen. What good were easy victories over raiding Cherokees when this deadly host waited on the leash? I had no doubt that the Cherokees were now broken. Stafford county would be full of Nicholson's militia, and Lawrence's strong hand lay on the line of the Borders. But what availed it? While Virginia was flattering herself that she had repelled the savages, and the Rappahannock men were notching their muskets with the tale of the dead, a wave was gathering to sweep down the Pamunkey or the James, and break on the walls of James Town. I did not think that Nicholson, forewarned and prepared, could stem the torrent; and if it caught him unawares the proud Tidewater would break like a rotten reed.
I had been sent to scout. Was I to be false to the word I had given, and let any risk to myself or others deter me from taking back the news? The Indian army tarried; why, I did not know—perhaps some mad whim of their soothsayers, perhaps the device of a wise general; but at any rate they tarried. If a war party could spend a night in baiting us and slaying our horses, there could be no very instant orders for the road. If this were so, a bold man might yet reach the Border line. At that moment it seemed to me a madman's errand. Even if I slipped past the watchers in the woods and the glens, the land between would be strewn with fragments of the Cherokee host, and I had not the Indian craft. But it was very seriously borne in upon me that 'twas my duty to try. God might prosper a bold stroke, and in any case I should be true to my trust.
But what of Elspeth? The thought of leaving her was pure torment. In our hideous peril 'twas scarcely to be endured that one should go. I told myself that if I reached the Border I could get help, but my heart warned me that I lied. My news would leave no time there for riding hillward to rescue a rash adventure. We were beyond the pale, and must face the consequences. That we all had known, and reckoned with, but we had not counted that our risk would be shared by a woman. Ah I that luckless ride of Elspeth's! But for that foolish whim she would be safe now in the cool house at Middle Plantation, with a ship to take her to safety if the worst befell. And now of all the King's subjects in that hour we were the most ill-fated, islanded on a sand heap with the tide of savage war hourly eating into our crazy shelter.
Before the daylight came, as I stood with my cheek to my musket, I had come to a resolution. In a tangle of duties a man must seize the solitary clear one, and there could be no doubt of what mine was, I must try for the Tidewater, and I must try alone, Shalah had the best chance to get through, but without Shalah the stockade was no sort of refuge. Ringan was wiser and stronger than I, but I thought I had more hill-craft, and, besides, the duty was mine, not his. Grey had no knowledge of the wilds, and Donaldson and Bertrand could not handle the news as it should be handled, in the unlikely event of their getting through alive. No, there were no two ways of it. I must make the effort, though in that leaden hour of weariness and cold it seemed as if my death-knell were ringing.
Morn showed a grey world, strewn with the havoc of the storm. The eagles were already busy among the dead horses, and our first job was to bury the poor beasts. Just outside the stockade we dug as best we could a shallow trench, while the muskets of the others kept watch over us. There we laid also the body of the man I had shot in the night. He was a young savage, naked to the waist, and curiously tattooed on the forehead with the device of what seemed to be a rising or setting sun. I observed that Shalah looked closely at this, and that his face wore an unusual excitement. He said something in his own tongue, and, when the trench was dug, laid the dead man in it so that his head pointed westwards.
We wrought in a dogged silence, and Elspeth's cheery whistling was the only sound in that sullen morning. It fairly broke my heart. She was whistling the old tune of "Leezie Lindsay," a merry lilt with the hill wind and the heather in it. The bravery of the poor child was the hardest thing of all to bear when I knew that in a few hours' time the end might come. The others were only weary and dishevelled and ill at ease, but on me seemed to have fallen the burden of the cares of the whole earth.
Shalah had disappeared for a little, and came back with the word that the near forests were empty. So I summoned a council, and talked as we breakfasted. I had looked into the matter of the food, and found that we had sufficient for three days. We had boucanned a quantity of deer's flesh two days before, and this, with the fruit of yesterday's trapping, made a fair stock in our larder.
Then I announced my plan. "I am going to try to reach Lawrence," I said.
No one spoke. Shalah lifted his head, and looked at me gravely.
"Does any man object?" I asked sharply, for my temper was all of an edge.
"Your throat will be cut in the first mile," said Donaldson gruffly.
"Maybe it will, but maybe not. At any rate, I can try. You have not heard what Shalah and I found in the hills yesterday. Twelve miles south there is a glen with a plateau at its head, and that plateau is as full of Indians as a beehive. Ay, Ringan, you and Lawrence were right. The Cherokees are the least of the trouble. There's a great army come out of the West, men that you and I never saw the like of before, and they are waiting till the Cherokees have drawn the fire of the Borderers, and then they will bring hell to the Tidewater. You and I know that there's some sort of madman in command, a man that quotes the Bible and speaks English; but madman or not, he's a great general, and woe betide Virginia if he gets among the manors. I was sent to the hills to get news, and I've got it. Would it not be the part of a coward to bide here and make no effort to warn our friends?"
"What good would a warning do?" said Ringan. "Even if you got through to Lawrence—which is not very likely—d'you think a wheen Borderers in a fort will stay such an army? It would only mean that you lost your life on the South Fork instead of in the hills, and there's little comfort in that."
"It's not like you to give such counsel," I said sadly. "A man cannot think whether his duty will succeed as long as it's there for him to do it. Maybe my news would make all the differ. Maybe there would be time to get Nicholson's militia to the point of danger. God has queer ways of working, if we trust Him with honest hearts. Besides, a word on the Border would save the Tidewater folk, for there are ships on the James and the York to flee to if they hear in time. Let Virginia go down and be delivered over to painted savages, and some day soon we will win it back; but we cannot bring life to the dead. I want to save the lowland manors from what befell the D'Aubignys on the Rapidan, and if I can only do that much I will be content. Will you counsel me, Ringan, to neglect my plain duty?"
"I gave no counsel," said Ringan hurriedly. "I was only putting the common sense of it. It's for you to choose."
Here Grey broke in. "I protest against this craziness. Your first duty is to your comrades and to this lady. If you desert us we lose our best musket, and you have as little chance of reaching the Tidewater as the moon. Arc you so madly enamoured of death, Mr. Garvald?" He spoke in the old stiff tones of the man I had quarrelled with.
I turned to Shalah. "Is there any hope of getting to the South Fork?"
He looked me very full in the face. "As much hope as a dove has who falls broken-winged into an eyrie of falcons! As much hope as the deer when the hunter's knife is at its throat! Yet the dove may escape, and the deer may yet tread the forest. While a man draws breath there is hope, brother."
"Which I take to mean that the odds are a thousand against one," said Grey.
"Then it's my business to stake all on the one," I cried. "Man, don't you see my quandary? I hold a solemn trust, which I have the means of fulfilling, and I'm bound to try. It's torture to me to leave you, but you will lose nothing. Three men could hold this place as well as six, if the Indians are not in earnest, and, if they are, a hundred would be too few. Your danger will be starvation, and I will be a mouth less to feed. If I get to the Border I will find help, for we cannot stay here for ever, and how d'you think we are to get Miss Blair by ourselves to the Rappahannock with every mile littered with fighting clans? I must go, or I will never have another moment's peace in life." Grey was not convinced. "Send the Indian," he said.
"And leave the stockade defenceless," I cried. "It's because he stays behind that I dare to go. Without him we are all bairns in the dark."
"That's true, anyway," said Ringan, and fell to whittling a stick.
"For three days," I continued, "you have food enough, and if by the end of it you are not attacked you may safely go hunting for more. If nothing happens in a week's time you will know that I have failed, and you can send another messenger. Ringan would be the best."
"That can hardly be," he said, "because I'm coming with you now."
I could only stare blankly.
"Two's better than one for this kind of business, and I am no use here—only fruges consumere natus, as I learned from the Inveraray dominie. It's my concern as much as yours, for I brought you here, and I'm trysted with Lawrence to take back word. I'm loath to leave my friends, but my place is at your side, Andrew. So say no more about it."
I knew it was idle to protest. Ringan was as obstinate as a Spanish mule when he chose, and, besides, there was reason in what he said. Two were better than one both for speed in travel and for fighting if the need came, and though I had more woodcraft than he, he had ten times my wisdom. There was something about his matter-of-fact tone which took the enterprise out of the land of impossibilities into a more sober realm. I even began to dream of success.
But when. I looked at Elspeth her eyes were so full of grief and care that my spirits sank again.
"Tell me," I cried, "that you think I am doing right, God knows it is hard to leave you, and I carry the sorest heart in Virginia. But you would not have me stay idle when my plain duty commands. Say that you bid me go, Elspeth."
"I bid you go," she said bravely, "and I will pray God to keep you safe." But her eyes belied her voice, for they were swimming with tears. At that moment I got the conviction that I was more to her than a mere companion, that by some miracle I had won a place in that proud and loyal heart. It seemed a cruel stroke of fate that I should get this hope at the very moment when I was to leave her and go into the shadow of death.
But that was no hour to think of love, I took every man apart and swore him, though there was little need, to stand by the girl at all costs.
To Grey I opened my inmost thoughts.
"You and I serve one mistress," I said, "and now I confide her to your care. All that I would have done I am assured you will do. My heart is easier when I know that you are by her side. Once we were foes, and since then we have been friends, and now you are the dearest friend on earth, for I leave you with all I cherish."
He flushed deeply and gave me his hand.
"Go in peace, sir," he said. "If God wills that we perish, my last act will be to assure an easy passage to heaven for her we worship. If we meet again, we meet as honourable rivals, and may that day come soon."
So with pistols in belt, and a supply of cartouches and some little food in our pockets, Ringan and I were enfolded in the silence of the woods.
THE HORN OF DIARMAID SOUNDS.
We reached the gap, and made slantwise across the farther hill. I did not dare to go clown Clearwater Glen, and, besides, I was aiming for a point farther south than the Rappahannock. In my wanderings with Shalah I had got a pretty good idea of the lie of the mountains on their eastern side, and I had remarked a long ridge which flung itself like a cape far into the lowlands. If we could leave the hills by this, I thought we might strike the stream called the North Fork, which would bring us in time to the neighbourhood of Frew's dwelling. The ridges were our only safe path, for they were thickly overgrown with woods, and the Indian bands were less likely to choose them for a route. The danger was in the glens, where the trees were sparser and the broad stretches of meadow made better going for horses.
The movement of my legs made me pluck up heart. I was embarked at any rate in a venture, and had got rid of my desperate indecision. The two of us held close together, and chose the duskiest thickets, crawling belly-wise over the little clear patches and avoiding the crown of the ridge like the plague. The weather helped us, for the skies hung grey and low, with wisps of vapour curling among the trees. The glens were pits of mist, and my only guide was my recollection of what I had seen, and the easterly course of the streams.
By midday we had mounted to the crest of a long scarp which fell away in a narrow and broken promontory towards the plains. So far we had seen nothing to give us pause, and the only risk lay in some Indian finding and following our trail. We lay close in a scrubby wood, and rested for a little, while we ate some food. Everything around us dripped with moisture, and I could have wrung pints from my coat and breeches.
"Oh for the Dry Tortugas!" Ringan sighed. "What I would give for a hot sun and the kindly winds o' the sea! I thought I pined for the hills, Andrew, but I would not give a clean beach and a warm sou'-wester for all the mountains on earth."
Then again: "Yon's a fine lass," he would say.
I did not reply, for I had no heart to speak of what I had left behind.
"Cheer up, young one," he cried. "There was more lost at Flodden. A gentleman-adventurer must live by the hour, and it's surprising how Fortune favours them that trust her. There was a man I mind, in Breadalbane...." And here he would tell some tale of how light came out of black darkness for the trusting heart.
"Man, Ringan," I said, "I see your kindly purpose. But tell me, did ever you hear of such a tangle as ours being straightened out?
"Why, yes," he said. "I've been in worse myself, and here I am. I have been in a cell at Cartagena, chained to a man that had died of the plague, with the gallows preparing for me at cock-crow. But in the night some friends o' mine came into the bay, and I had the solemn joy of stepping out of yon cell over the corp of the Almirante. I've been mad with fever, and jumped into the Palmas River among the alligators, and not one of them touched me, though I was swimming about crying that the water was burning oil. And then a lad in a boat gave me a clout on the head that knocked the daftness out of me, and in a week I was marching on my own deck, with my bonnet cocked like a king's captain. I've been set by my unfriends on a rock in the Florida Keys, with a keg of dirty water and a bunch of figs, and the sun like to melt my brains, and two bullet holes in my thigh. But I came out of the pickle, and lived to make the men that put me there sorry they had been born. Ay, and I've seen my grave dug, and my dead clothes ready, and in a week I was making napkins out of them. There's a wonderful kindness in Providence to mettled folk."
"Ay, Ringan, but that was only the risk of your own neck. I think I could endure that. But was there ever another you liked far better than yourself, that you had to see in deadly peril?"
"No. I'll be honest with you, there never was. I grant you that's the hardest thing to thole. But you'll keep a stiff lip even to that, seeing you are the braver of the two of us."
At that I cried out in expostulation, but Ringan was firm.
"Ay, the braver by far, and I'll say it again. I'm a man of the dancing blood, with a rare appetite for frays and forays. You are the sedate soul that would be happier at home in the chimney corner. And yet you are the most determined of the lot of us, though you have no pleasure in it. Why? Just because you are the bravest. You can force yourself to a job when flesh and spirit cry out against it. I let no man alive cry down my courage, but I say freely that it's not to be evened with yours."
I was not feeling very courageous. As we sped along the ridge in the afternoon I seemed to myself like a midge lost in a monstrous net. The dank, dripping trees and the misty hills seemed to muffle and deaden the world. I could not believe that they ever would end; that anywhere there was a clear sky and open country. And I had always the feeling that in those banks of vapour lurked deadly enemies who any moment might steal out and encompass us.
But about four o'clock the weather lightened, and from the cock's-comb on which we moved we looked down into the lower glens. I saw that we had left the main flanks of the range behind us, and were now fairly on a cape which jutted out beyond the other ridges. It behoved us now to go warily, and where the thickets grew thin we moved like hunters, in every hollow and crack that could shelter a man. Ringan led, and led well, for he had not stalked the red deer on the braes of Breadalbane for nothing. But no sign of life appeared in the green hollows on either hand, neither in the meadow spaces nor by the creeks of the growing streams. The world was dead silent; not even a bird showed in the whole firmament.
Lower and lower we went, till the end of the ridge was before us, a slope which melted into the river plains. A single shaft of bright sunshine broke from the clouds behind us, and showed the tumbled country of low downs and shallow vales which stretched to the Tidewater border. I had a momentary gleam of hope, as sudden and transient as that ray of light. We were almost out of the hills, and, that accomplished, we were most likely free of the Indian forces that gathered there. I had come to share the Rappahannock men's opinion about the Cherokees. If we could escape the strange tribes from the west, I looked for no trouble at the hands of those common raiders.
The thicket ended with the ridge, and there was a quarter-mile of broken meadow before the forest began. It was a queer place, that patch of green grass set like an arena for an audience on the mountain side. A fine stream ran through it, coming down the glen on our right, and falling afterwards into a dark, woody ravine. I mistrusted the look of it, for there was no cover, and 'twas in full view of the whole flanks of the hills.
Ringan, too, was disturbed. "Twould be wiser like to wait for darkness before trying that bit," he said. "We'll be terrible kenspeckle to the gentry we ken of."
But I would not hear of delay. Now that we were all but out of the hills I was mad to get forward. I thought foolishly that every minute we delayed there we increased our peril, and I longed for the covering of the lowland forest. Besides, I thought that by using some of the crinkles in the meadow we could be sheltered from any eyes on the slopes.
Ringan poked his head out of the covert and took a long gaze. "The place seems empty enough, but I cannot like it. Have you your pistols handy, Andrew? I see what looks like an Indian track, and if we were to meet a brave or two, it would be a pity to let them betray us."
I looked at my pistols to see if the damp woods had spoiled the priming.
"Well, here's for fortune," said Ringan, and we scrambled off the ridge, and plunged into the lush grasses of the meadow.
Had we kept our heads and crossed as prudently as we had made the morning's journey, all might have been well. But a madcap haste seemed to possess us. We tore through the herbage as if we had been running a race in the yard of a peaceful manor. The stream stayed us a little, for it could not be forded without a wetting, and I went in up to the waist. As we scrambled up the far bank some impulse made me turn my head.
There, coming down the water, was a band of Indians.
They were still some distance off, but they saw us, and put their horses to the gallop. I cried to Ringan to run for the shelter of the woods, for in the open we were at their mercy. He cast one glance over his shoulder, and set a pace which came near to foundering me.
We got what we wanted earlier than we had hoped. The woods in front rose in a high bluff, and down a little ravine a burn trickled. The sides were too steep and matted for horses to travel, and he who stood in the ravine had his back and flanks defended.
"Now for a fight, Andrew lad," cried Ringan, his eyes dancing. "Stick you to the pistols, and I'll show them something in the way of sword-play."
The Indians wheeled up to the edge of the ravine, and I saw to my joy that they did not carry bows.
One had a musket, but it looked as if he had no powder left, for it swung idly on his back. They had tomahawks at their belts and long shining knives with deerhorn handles. I only got a glimpse of them, but 'twas enough to show me they were of that Western nation that I dreaded.
They were gone in an instant.
"That looks bad for us, Andrew," Ringan said. "If they had come down on us yelling for our scalps, we would have had a merry meeting. But they're either gone to bring their friends or they're trying to take us in the back. I'll guard the front, and you keep your eyes on the hinder parts, though a jackdaw could scarcely win over these craigs."
A sudden burst of sun came out, while Ringan and I waited uneasily. The great blue roll of mountain we had left was lit below the mist with a glory of emerald and gold. Ringan was whistling softly through his teeth, while I scanned the half moon of rock and matted vines which made our shelter. There was no sound in the air but the tap of a woodpecker and the trickling of the little runlets from the wet sides.
The mind in a close watch falls under a spell, so that while the senses are alert the thoughts are apt to wander. As I have said before, I have the sharpest sight, and as I watched a point of rock it seemed to move ever so slightly. I rubbed my eyes and thought it fancy, and a sudden noise above made me turn my head. It was only a bird, and as I looked again at the rock it seemed as if a spray of vine had blown athwart it, which was not there before. I gazed intently, and, following the spray into the shadow, I saw something liquid and mottled like a toad's skin. As I stared it flickered and shimmered. 'Twas only the light on a wet leaf, I told myself; but surely it had not been there before. A sudden suspicion seized me, and I lifted my pistol and fired.
There was a shudder in the thicket, and an Indian, shot through the head, rolled into the burn.
At the sound I heard Ringan cry out, and there came a great war-whoop from the mouth of the ravine. I gave one look, and then turned to my own business, for as the dead man fell another leaped from the matted cliffs.
My second pistol missed fire. In crossing the stream I must have damped the priming.
What happened next is all confusion in my mind. I dodged the fall of the knife, and struck hard with my pistol butt at the uplifted arm. I felt no fear, only intense anger at my folly in not having looked better to my priming. But the shock of the man's charge upset me, and the next I knew of it we were wrestling on the ground.
I had his right arm by the wrist, but I was no match for him in suppleness, and in the position in which we lay I could not use the weight of my shoulders. The most I could do was to keep him from striking, and to effect that my strength was stretched to its uttermost. My eyes filmed with weariness, and my breath came in gasps, for, remember, I had been up all night, and that day had already travelled many miles. I remember yet the sickly smell of his greasy skin and the red hate of his eyes. As we struggled I could see Ringan holding the mouth of the ravine with his sword. One of his foes he had shot, and the best blade in the Five Seas was now engaged with three Indian knives. I heard his happy whistling, and a grunt now and then from a wounded foe. He had enough to do, and could give me no aid. And as I realized this I felt the grip of my arms growing slacker, and knew that in a second or two I should feel that long Indian steel.
I made a desperate effort, and swung round so that I got my left shoulder on his knife arm. That brought my right shoulder close to his mouth, and he bit me to the bone. The wound did me good, for it maddened me, and I got a knee loose, and forced it into his loins. For a moment I dreamed of victory, but I had not counted on the wiles of a savage. He lay quite limp for a second, and, as I relaxed my effort a little, seized the occasion to slip from beneath me and let me roll into the burn. The next instant he was above me, and I saw the knife against the sky.
I thought that all was over. He pushed back his hair from his eyes, and the steel quivered. And then something thrust between me and the point, there was a leap and a shudder, and I was gazing at emptiness.
I lay gazing, for I seemed bereft of wits. Then a voice cried, "Are you hurt, Andrew?" and I got to my feet.
My enemy lay in the pool of the burn, with a hole through his throat from Ringan's sword. A little farther off lay the savage I had shot. At the mouth of the ravine lay three dead Indians. The last of the six must have fled.
Ringan had sheathed his blade, and was looking at me with a queer smile on his face.
"Yon was a merry bout, Andrew," he said, and his voice sounded very far away. Then he swayed into my arms, and I saw that his vest was dark with blood.
"What is it?" I cried in wild fear. "Are you hurt, Ringan?" I laid him on a bed of moss, and opened his shirt. In his breast was a gaping wound from which the bright blood was welling.
He lay with his eyes closed while I strove to stanch the flow. Then he choked, and as I raised his head there came a gush of blood from his lips.
"That man of yours...." he whispered. "I got his knife before he got my sword.... I doubt it went deep...."
"O Ringan," I cried, "it's me that's to blame. You got it trying to save me. You're not going to leave me, Ringan?"
He was easier now, and the first torrent of blood had subsided. But his breath laboured, and there was pain in his eyes.
"I've got my call," he said faintly. "Who would have thought that Ninian Campbell would meet his death from an Indian shabble? They'll no believe it at Tortuga. Still and on...."
I brought him water in my hat, and for a moment he breathed freely. He motioned me to put my ear close.
"You'll send word to the folk in Breadalbane.... Just say that I came by an honest end.... Cheer up, lad. You'll live to see happy days yet.... But keep mind of me, Andrew.... Man, I liked you well, and would have been blithe to keep you company a bit longer...."
I was crying like a child. There was a little gold charm on a cord round his neck, now dyed with his blood. He motioned me to look at it.
"Give it to the lass," he whispered. "I had once a lass like yon, and I aye wore it for her sake. I've had a roving life, with many ill deeds in it, but doubtless the Almighty will make allowances. Can you say a bit prayer, Andrew?"
As well as I could, I repeated that Psalm I had said over the graves by the Rapidan. He looked at me with eyes as clear and honest as a child's.
"'In death's dark vale I will fear no ill,'" he repeated after me. "That minds me of lang syne. I never feared muckle on earth, and I'll not begin now."
I saw that the end was very near. The pain had gone, and there was a queer innocence in his lean face. His eyes shut and opened again, and each time the light was dimmer.
Suddenly he lifted himself. "The Horn of Diarmaid has sounded," he cried, and dropped back in my arms.
That was the last word he spoke.
I watched by him till the dark fell, and long after. Then as the moon rose I bestirred myself, and looked for a place of burial. I would not have him lie in that narrow ravine, so I carried him into the meadow, and found a hole which some wild beast had deserted. Painfully and slowly with my knife I made it into a shallow grave, where I laid him, with some boulders above. Then I think I flung myself on the earth and wept my fill. I had lost my best of friends, and the ache of regret and loneliness was too bitter to bear. I asked for nothing better than to join him soon on the other side.
After a while I forced myself to rise. He had praised my courage that very day, and if I was to be true to him I must be true to my trust. I told myself that Ringan would never have countenanced this idle grief. I girt on his sword, and hung the gold charm round my neck. Then I took my bearings as well as I could, re-loaded my pistols, and marched into the woods, keeping to the course of the little river.
As I went I remember that always a little ahead I seemed to hear the merry lilt of Ringan's whistling.
I SUFFER THE HEATHEN'S RAGE
As I stumbled through the moonlit forest I heard Ringan's tunes ever crooning among the trees. First it was the old mad march of "Bundle and go," which the pipers play when the clans are rising. Then it changed to the lilt of "Colin's Cattle," which is an air that the fairies made, and sung in the ear of a shepherd who fell asleep in one of their holy places. And then it lost all mortal form, and became a thing as faint as the wind in the tree-tops or the humming of bees in clover. My weary legs stepped out to this wizard music, and the spell of it lulled my fevered thoughts into the dull patience of the desperate.
At an open space where I could see the sky I tried to take further bearings. I must move south-east by east, and in time I must come to Lawrence. I do not think I had any hope of getting there, for I knew that long ere this the man who escaped must have returned with others, and that now they would be hot on my trail. What could one lad do in a wide woodland against the cunningest trackers on earth? But Ringan had praised my courage, and I could not fail him. I should go on till I died, and I did not think that would be very long. My pistols, re-loaded, pressed against my side, and Ringan's sword swung by my thigh. I was determined to make a good ending, since that was all now left to me. In that hour I had forgotten about everything—about the peril of Virginia, even about Elspeth and the others in the fort on the hill-top. There comes a time to every one when the world narrows for him to a strait alley, with Death at the end of it, and all his thoughts are fixed on that waiting enemy of mankind.
My senses were blunted, and I took no note of the noises of the forest. As I passed down a ravine a stone dropped behind me, but I did not pause to wonder why. A twig crackled on my left, but it did not disquiet me, and there was a rustling in the thicket which was not the breeze. I marked nothing, as I plodded on with vacant mind and eye. So when I tripped on a vine and fell, I was scarcely surprised when I found I could not rise. Men had sprung up silently around me, and I was pinned by many hands.
They trussed me with ropes, binding my hands cruelly behind my back, and swathing my legs till not a muscle could move. My pistols hung idle, and the ropes drove the hafts into my flesh. This is the end, thought I, and I did not even grieve at my impotence. My courage now was of the passive kind, not to act but to endure. Always I kept telling myself that I must be brave, for Ringan had praised my courage, and I had a conviction that nothing that man could do would shake me. Thanks be to God, my quick fancy was dulled, and I did not try to look into the future. I lived for the moment, and I was resolved that the moment should find me unmoved.
They carried me to where their horses were tied up in a glade, and presently we were galloping towards the hills, myself an inert bundle strapped across an Indian saddle. The pain of the motion was great, but I had a kind of grim comfort in bearing it. After a time I think my senses left me, and I slipped into a stupor, from which I woke with a fiery ache at every joint and eyes distended with a blinding heat. Some one tossed me on the ground, where I lay with my cheek in a cool, wet patch of earth. Then I felt my bonds being unloosed, and a strong arm pulled me to my feet. When it let go I dropped again, and not till many hands had raised me and set me on a log could I look round at my whereabouts.
I was in a crook of a hill glen, lit with a great radiance of moonlight. Fires dotted the flat, and Indian tents, and there seemed to me hundreds of savages crowding in on me. I do not suppose that I showed any fear, for my bodily weakness had made me as impassive as any Indian.
Presently a voice spoke to me, but I could not understand the words. I shook my head feebly, and another spoke. This time I knew that the tongue was Cherokee, a speech I could recognize but could not follow. Again I shook my head, and a third took up the parable. This one spoke the Powhatan language, which I knew, and I replied in the same tongue.
There was a tall man wearing in his hair a single great feather, whom I took to be the chief. He spoke to me through the interpreter, and asked me whence I came.
I told him I was a hunter who had strayed in the hills. He asked where the other was.
"He is dead," I said, "dead of your knives. But five of your braves atoned for him."
"You speak truth," he said gravely. "But the Children of the West Wind do not suffer the death of, their sons to go unrewarded. For each one of the five, three Palefaces shall eat the dust in the day of our triumph."
"Be it so," said I stoutly, though I felt a dreadful nausea coming over me. I was determined to keep my head high, if only my frail body would not fail me.
"The Sons of the West Wind," he spoke again, "have need of warriors. You can atone for the slaughter you have caused, and the blood feud will be forgotten. In the space of five suns we shall sweep the Palefaces into the sea, and rule all the land to the Eastern waters. My brother is a man of his hands, and valour is dear to the heart of Onotawah. If he casts in his lot with the Children of the West Wind a wigwam shall be his, and a daughter of our race to wife, and six of our young men shall follow his commands. Will my brother march with us against those whom God has delivered to us for our prey?"
"Does the eagle make terms with the kite?" I asked, "and fly with them to raid his own eyrie? Yes, I will join with you, and march with you till I have delivered you to, perhaps, a score of the warriors of my own people. Then I will aid them in making carrion of you."
Heaven knows what wrought on me to speak like this, I, a poor, broken fellow, face to face with a hundred men-at-arms. I think my mind had forsaken me altogether, and I spoke like a drunken man with a tongue not my own. I had only the one idea in my foolish head—to be true to Ringan, and to meet the death of which I was assured with an unflinching face. Yet perhaps my very madness was the course of discretion. You cannot move an Indian by pity, and he will show mercy only to one who, like a gamecock, asks nothing less.
The chief heard me gravely, and spoke to the others. One cried out something in a savage voice, and for a moment a fierce argument was raised, which the chief settled with uplifted hand.
"My brother speaks bold words," he said. "The spirits of his fathers cry out for the companionship of such a hero. When the wrongs of our race have been avenged, I wish him good hunting in the Kingdom of the Sunset."
They took me and stripped me mother naked. Has any man who reads this tale ever faced an enemy in his bare feet? If so, he will know that the heart of man is more in his boots than philosophers wot of. Without them he feels lost and unprepared, and the edge gone from his spirit. But without his clothes he is in a far worse case. The winds of heaven play round his nakedness; every thorn and twig is his assailant, and the whole of him seems a mark for the arrows of his foes. That stripping was the thing that brought me to my senses. I recognized that I was to be the subject of those hellish tortures which the Indians use, the tales of which are on every Borderer's lips.
And yet I did not recognize it fully, or my courage must have left me then and there. My imagination was still limping, and I foresaw only a death of pain, not the horrid incidents of its preparation. Death I could face, and I summoned up every shred of my courage. Ringan's voice was still in my ear, his airy songs still sang themselves in my brain. I would not shame him, but oh! how I envied him lying, all troubles past, in his quiet grave!
The night was mild, and the yellow radiance of the moon seemed almost warmth-giving. I sat on that log in a sort of stupor, watching my enemies preparing my entertainment. One thing I noted, that there were no women in the camp. I remembered that I had heard that the most devilish tortures were those which the squaws devised, and that the Indian men were apt to be quicker and more merciful in their murderings.
Then I was lifted up and carried to a flat space beside the stream, where the trunk of a young pine had been set upright in the ground. A man, waving a knife, and singing a wild song, danced towards me. He seized me by the hair, and I actually rejoiced, for I knew that the pain of scalping would make me oblivious of all else. But he only drew the sharp point of the knife in a circle round my head, scarce breaking the skin.
I had grace given me to keep a stout face, mainly because I was relieved that this was to be my fate. He put the knife back in his girdle, and others laid hold on me.
They smeared my lower limbs with some kind of grease which smelt of resin. One savage who had picked up a brand from one of the little fires dropped some of the stuff on it, and it crackled merrily. He grinned at me—a slow, diabolical grin.
They lashed me to the stake with ropes of green vine. Then they piled dry hay a foot deep around me, and laid above it wood and green branches. To make the fuel still greener, they poured water on it. At the moment I did not see the object of these preparations, but now I can understand it. The dry hay would serve to burn my legs, which had already been anointed with the inflammable grease. So I should suffer a gradual torture, for it would be long ere the flames reached a vital part. I think they erred, for they assumed that I had the body of an Indian, which does not perish till a blow is struck at its heart; whereas I am confident that any white man would be dead of the anguish long ere the fire had passed beyond his knees.
I think that was the most awful moment of my life. Indeed I could not have endured it had not my mind been drugged and my body stupid with fatigue. Men have often asked me what were my thoughts in that hour, while the faggots were laid about my feet. I cannot tell, for I have no very clear memory. The Power which does not break the bruised reed tempered the storm to my frailty. I could not envisage the future, and so was mercifully enabled to look only to the moment. I knew that pain was coming; but I was already in pain, and the sick man does not trouble himself about degrees of suffering. Death, too, was coming; but for that I had been long ready. The hardest thing that man can do is to endure, but this was to me no passive endurance; it was an active struggle to show a fortitude worthy of the gallant dead.
So I must suppose that I hung there in my bonds with a motionless face and a mouth which gave out no cry. They brought the faggots, and poured on water, and I did not look their way. Some score of braves began a war dance, circling round me, waving their tomahawks, and singing their wild chants. For me they did not break the moonlit silence, I was hearing other sounds and seeing far other sights. An old sad song of Ringan's was in my ears, something about an exile who cried out in France for the red heather and the salt winds of the Isles.
"Nevermore the deep fern," it ran, "or the bell of the dun deer, far my castle is wind-blown sands, and my homelands are a stranger's."
And the air brought back in a flash my own little house on the grey hill-sides of Douglasdale, the cluck of hens about the doors on a hot summer morn, the crying of plovers in the windy Aprils, the smell of peatsmoke when the snow drifted over Cairntable. Home-sickness has never been my failing, but all at once I had a vision of my own land, the cradle of my race, well-beloved and unforgotten over the leagues of sea. Somehow the thought strengthened me. I had now something besides the thought of Ringan to keep my heart firm. If all hell laid hold on me, I must stand fast for the honour of my own folk.
The edge of the pile was lit, and the flames crackled through the hay below the faggots. The smoke rose in clouds, and made me sneeze. Suddenly there came a desperate tickling in my scalp where the knife had pricked. Little things began to tease me, notably the ache of my swollen wrists, and the intolerable cramp in my legs.
Then came a sharp burst of pain as a tongue of flame licked on my anointed ankles. Anguish like hell-fire ran through my frame. I think I would have cried out if my tongue had had the power. Suddenly I envisaged the dreadful death which was coming. All was wiped from my mind, all thought of Ringan, and home, and honour; everything but this awful fear. Happily the smoke hid my face, which must have been distraught with panic. The seconds seemed endless. I prayed that unconsciousness would come. I prayed for death, I prayed for respite. I was mad with the furious madness of a tortured animal, and the immortal soul had fled from me and left only a husk of pitiful and shrinking flesh.
Suddenly there came a lull. A dozen buckets of water were flung on the pile, and the flames fell to smouldering ashes. The smoke thinned, and I saw the circle of my tormentors.
The chief spoke, and asked me if my purpose still held.
With the cool shock of the water one moment of bodily comfort returned to me, and with it a faint revival of my spirit. But it was of no set intention that I answered as I did. My bones were molten with fright, and I had not one ounce of bravery in me. Something not myself took hold on me, and spoke for me. Ringan's tunes, a brisk one this time, lilted in my ear.
I could not believe my own voice. But I rejoice to say that my reply was to consign every Indian in America to the devil.
I shook with fear when I had spoken. I looked to see them bring dry fuel and light the pile again. But I had played a wiser part than I knew. The chief gave an order, the faggots were cleared, my bonds were cut, and I was led away from the stake.
The pain of my cramped and scorched limbs was horrible, but I had just enough sense left to shut my teeth and make no sound.
The chief looked at me long and calmly as I drooped before him, for there was no power in my legs. He was an eagle-faced savage, with the most grave and searching eyes.
"Sleep, brother," he said. "At dawn we will take further counsel."
I forced some kind of lightness into my voice, "Sleep will be grateful," I said, "for I have come many miles this day, and the welcome I have got this evening has been too warm for a weary man."
The Indian nodded. The jest was after his own taste.
I was carried to a teepee and shown a couch of dry fern. A young man rubbed some oil on my scorched legs, which relieved the pain of them. But no pain on earth could have kept me awake. I did not glide but pitched headforemost into sleep.
EVENTS ON THE HILL-SIDE.
My body was too sore to suffer me to sleep dreamlessly, but my dreams were pleasant. I thought I was in a sunny place with Elspeth, and that she had braided a coronet of wild flowers for her hair. They were simple flowers, such as I had known in childhood and had not found in Virginia—yarrow, and queen of the meadow, and bluebells, and the little eyebright. A great peace filled me, and Ringan came presently to us and spoke in his old happy speech. 'Twas to the accompaniment of Elspeth's merry laughter that I wakened, to find myself in a dark, strange-smelling place, with a buffalo robe laid over me, and no stitch of clothing on my frame.
That wakening was bitter indeed. I opened my eyes to another day of pain and peril, with no hope of deliverance. For usual I am one of those who rise with a glad heart and a great zest for whatever the light may bring. Now, as I moved my limbs, I found aches everywhere, and but little strength in my bones. Slowly the events of the last day came back to me—the journey in the dripping woods, the fight in the ravine, the death of my comrade, the long horror of the hours of torture. No man can be a hero at such an awakening. I had not the courage of a chicken in my soul, and could have wept with weakness and terror.
I felt my body over, and made out that I had taken no very desperate hurt. My joints were swollen with the bonds, and every sinew seemed as stiff as wire. The skin had been scorched on my shins and feet, and was peeling off in patches, but the ointment which had been rubbed on it had taken the worst ache out of the wounds. I tottered to my feet, and found that I could stand, and even move slowly like an old man. My clothes had been brought back and laid beside me, and with much difficulty I got into them; but I gave up the effort to get my stockings and boots over my scorched legs. My pistols, too, had been restored, and Ringan's sword, and the gold amulet he had entrusted to me. Somehow, in the handling of me, my store of cartouches had disappeared from my pockets. My pistols were loaded and ready for use, but that was the extent of my defences, for I was no more good with Ringan's sword than with an Indian bow.
A young lad brought me some maize porridge and a skin of water. I could eat little of the food, but I drank the water to the last drop, for my throat was as dry as the nether pit. After that I lay down on my couch again, for it seemed to me that I would need to treasure every atom of my strength. The meal had put a little heart in me—heart enough to wait dismally on the next happening.
Presently the chief whom they called Onotawah stood at the tent door, and with him a man who spoke the Powhatan tongue.
"Greeting, brother," he said.
"Greeting," I answered, in the stoutest tone I could muster.
"I come from the council of the young men, where the blood of our kin cries for the avenger. The Sons of the West Wind have seen the courage of the stranger, and would give him the right of combat as a free man and a brave. Is my brother ready to meet our young men in battle?"
I was about as fit to right as an old horse to leap a fence, but I had the wit to see that my only hope lay in a bold front. At any rate, a clean death in battle was better than burning, and my despair was too deep to let me quibble about the manner of leaving this world.
"You see my condition," I said. "I am somewhat broken with travel and wounds, but, such as I am, I am willing to meet your warriors. Send them one at a time or in battalions, and I am ready for them."
It was childish brag, but I think I must have delivered it with some spirit, for I saw approbation in his eye.
"When we fight, we fight not as butchers but as men-at-arms," he said. "The brother of one of the dead will take on himself the cause of our tribe. If he slay you, our honour is avenged. If he be slain, we save you alive, and carry you with us as we march to the rising sun."
"I am content," I said, though I was very little content. What earthly chance stood I against a lithe young brave, accustomed from his childhood to war? I thought of a duel hand-to-hand with knives or tomahawks, for I could not believe that I would be allowed to keep my pistols. It was a very faint-hearted combatant who rose and staggered after Onotawah into the clear morning. The cloudy weather had gone, and the glen where we lay was filled with sun and bright colours. Even in my misery I saw the fairness of the spectacle, and the cool plunge of the stream was grateful to my throbbing eyes.
The whole clan was waiting, a hundred warriors as tall and clean-limbed as any captain could desire. I bore no ill-will to my captors; indeed, I viewed them with a respect I had never felt for Indians before. They were so free in their walk, so slim and upstanding, so hawklike in eye and feature, and withal so grave, that I could not but admire them. If the Tidewater was to perish, 'twould be at the hands of no unworthy foes.
A man stood out from the others, a tall savage with a hard face, who looked at me with eyes of hate. I recognized my opponent, whom the chief called by some name like Mayoga.
Before us on the hill-side across the stream was a wood, with its limits cut as clear on the meadow as a coppice in a nobleman's park. 'Twas maybe half a mile long as it stretched up the slope, and about the same at its greatest width. The shape was like a stout bean with a hollow on one side, and down the middle ran the gorge of a mountain stream.
Onotawah pointed to the wood. "Hearken, brother, to the customs of our race in such combats. In that thicket the twain of you fight. Mayoga will enter at one end and you at the other, and once among the trees it is his business to slay you as he pleases and as he can."
"What, are the weapons?" I asked.
"What you please. You have a sword and your little guns."
Mayoga laughed loud. "My bow is sufficient," he cried. "See, I leave knife and tomahawk behind," and he cast them on the grass.
Not to be outdone, I took off my sword, though that was more an encumbrance than a weapon.
"I have but the two shots," I said.
"Then I will take but the two arrows," cried my opponent, shaking the rest out of his quiver; and at this there was a murmur of applause. There were some notions of decency among these Western Indians.
I bade him take a quiverful. "You will need them," said I, looking as truculent as my chicken heart would permit me.
They took me to the eastern side of the wood, and there we waited for the signal, which was a musket shot, telling me that Mayoga was ready to enter at the opposite end. My companions were friendly enough, and seemed to look on the duel as a kind of sport. I could not understand their tongue, but I fancy that they wagered among themselves on the issue, if, indeed, that was in doubt, or, at any rate, on the time before I should fall. They had forgotten that they had tortured me the night before, and one clapped me on the shoulder and seemed to encourage me. Another pointed to my raw shins, and wound some kind of soft healing fibre round my feet and ankles. I did my best to keep a stout face, and when the shot came, I waved my hand to them and plunged boldly into the leafy darkness.
But out of the presence of men my courage departed, and I became the prey of dismal fear. How was I, with my babyish woodcraft, to contend for a moment against an Indian who was as subtle and velvet-footed as a wild beast? The wood was mostly of great oaks and chestnuts, with a dense scrub of vines and undergrowth, and in the steepest parts of the hill-side many mossgrown rocks. I found every movement painful in that rough and matted place. For one thing, I made an unholy noise. My tender limbs shrank from every stone and twig, and again and again I rolled over with the pain of it. Sweat blinded my eyes, and the fatigues of yesterday made my breath labour like a foundered horse.
My first plan—if the instinct of blind terror can be called a plan— was to lie hid in some thick place and trust to getting the first shot at my enemy when he found me. But I realized that I could not do this. My broken nerves would not suffer me to lie hidden. Better the torture of movement than such terrible patience. So I groped my way on, starting at every movement in the thicket. Once I roused a deer, which broke off in front of me towards my adversary. That would tell him my whereabouts, I thought, and for some time I lay still with a palpitating heart. But soon the silence resumed its sway, a deathlike silence, with far off the faint tinkle of water.
By and by I reached the stream, the course of which made an open space a few yards wide in the trees. The sight of its cool foaming current made me reckless. I dipped my face in it, drank deep of it, and let it flow over my burning legs. Then I scrambled up the other bank, and entered my enemy's half of the wood. He had missed a fine chance, I thought, in not killing me by the water's edge; and this escape, and the momentary refreshment of the stream, heartened me enough to carry me some way into his territory.
The wood was thinner here, and the ground less cumbered. I moved from tree to tree, crawling in the open bits, and scanning each circle of green dusk before I moved. A red-bird fluttered on my right, and I lay long watching its flight. Something moved ahead of me, but 'twas only a squirrel.
Then came a mocking laugh behind me. I turned sharply, but saw nothing. Far up in the branches there sounded the slow flap of an owl's flight. Many noises succeeded, and suddenly came one which froze my blood—the harsh scream of a hawk. My enemy was playing with me, and calling the wild things to mock me.
I went on a little, and then turned up the hill to where a clump of pines made a darker patch in the woodland. All was quiet again, and my eyes searched the dusk for the sign of human life. Then suddenly I saw something which stiffened me against a trunk.
Forty paces off in the dusk a face was looking from behind a tree. It was to the west of me, and was looking downhill towards a patch of undergrowth. I noted the long feather, the black forelock, the red skin of the forehead.
At the sight for the first time the zest of the pursuit filled me, and I forgot my pain. Had I outwitted my wily foe, and by some miracle stolen a march on him? I dared not believe it; but yet, as I rubbed my eyes, I could not doubt it. I had got my chance, and had taken him unawares. The face still peered intently downhill. I lifted a pistol, took careful aim, and fired at the patch of red skin.
A thousand echoes rang through the wood. The bullet had grazed the tree trunk, and the face was gone. But whither? Did a dead man lie behind the trunk, or had a wounded man crawled into cover?
I waited breathlessly for a minute or two, and then went forward, with my second pistol at the cock.
There was nothing behind the tree. Only a piece of red bark with a bullet hole through it, some greasy horsehair, and a feather. And then from many quarters seemed to come a wicked laughter, I leaned against the trunk, with a deadly nausea clutching at my heart. Poor fool, I had rejoiced for a second, only to be dashed into utter despair!
I do not think I had ever had much hope, but now I was convinced that all was over. The water had made my burns worse, and disappointment had sapped the little remnants of my strength. My one desire was to get out of this ghoulish thicket and die by the stream-side. The cool sound of it would be a fitting dirge for a foolish fellow who had wandered far from his home.
I could hear the plunge of it, and struggled towards it. I was long past taking any care. I stumbled and slipped along the hill-side, my breath labouring, and a moaning at my lips from sheer agony and weakness. If an arrow sped between my ribs I would still reach the water, for I was determined to die with my legs in its flow.
Suddenly it was before me. I came out on a mossy rock above a deep, clear pool, into which a cascade tumbled. I knelt feebly on the stone, gazing at the blue depths, and then I lifted my eyes.
There on a rock on the other side stood my enemy.
He had an arrow fitted to his bow, and as I looked he shot. It struck me on the right arm, pinning it just above the elbow. The pistol, which I had been carrying aimlessly, slipped from my nerveless hand to the moss on which I kneeled.
That sudden shock cleared my wits. I was at his mercy, and he knew it. I could see every detail of him twenty yards off across the water. He stood there as calm and light as if he had just arisen from rest, his polished limbs shining in the glow of the sun, the muscles on his right arm rippling as he moved his bow. Madman that I was, ever to hope to contend with such dauntless youth, such tireless vigour! There was a cruel, thin-lipped smile on his face. He had me in his clutches like a cat with a mouse, and he was going to get the full zest of it. I kneeled before him, with my strength gone, my right arm crippled. He could choose his target at his leisure, for I could not resist. I saw the gloating joy in his eyes. He knew his power, and meant to miss nothing of its savour.
Yet in that fell predicament God gave me back my courage. But I took a queer way of showing it. I began to whimper as if in abject fear. Every limb was relaxed in terror, and I grovelled on my knees before him. I made feeble plucks at the arrow in my right arm, and my shoulder drooped almost to the sod. But all the time my other hand was behind my back, edging its way to the pistol. My fingers clutched at the butt, and slowly I began to withdraw it till I had it safe in the shadow of my pocket.
My enemy did not know that I was left-handed.
He fitted a second arrow to his bow, while his lips curved maliciously. All the demoniac, pantherlike cruelty of his race looked at me out of his deep eyes. He was taking his time about it, unwilling to lose the slightest flavour of his vengeance. I played up to him nobly, squirming as if in an agony of terror. But by this time I had got a comfortable posture on the rock, and my left shoulder was towards him.
At last he made his choice, and so did I. I never thought that I could miss, for if I had had any doubt I should have failed. I was as confident in my sureness as any saint in the mercy of God.
He raised his bow, but it never reached his shoulder. My left arm shot out, and my last bullet went through his brain.
He toppled forward and plunged into the pool. The grease from his body floated up, and made a scum on the surface.
Then I broke off the arrow and pulled it out of my arm, putting the pieces in my pocket. The water cleared, and I could see him lying in the cool blue depths, his eyes staring, his mouth open, and a little dark eddy about his forehead.
I came out of the wood a new being. My wounded arm and my torn and inflamed limbs were forgotten. I held my head high, and walked like a free man. It was not that I had slain my enemy and been delivered from deadly peril, nor had I any clearer light on my next step. But I had suddenly got the conviction that God was on my side, and that I need not fear what man could do unto me. You may call it the madness of a lad whose body and spirit had been tried to breaking-point. But, madness or no, it gave me infinite courage, and in that hour I would have dared every savage on earth.
I found some Indians at the edge of the wood, and told one who spoke Powhatan the issue of the fight. I flung the broken arrow on the ground.
"That is my token," I said. "You will find the other in the pool below the cascade."
Then I strode towards the tents, looking every man I passed squarely in the eyes. No one spoke, no one hindered me; every face was like a graven image.
I reached the teepee in which I had spent the night, and flung myself down on the rude couch. In a minute I was sunk in a heavy sleep.
I woke to see two men standing in the tent door. One was the chief Onotawah, and the other a tall Indian who wore no war paint.
They came towards me, and the light fell on the face of the second. To my amazement I recognized Shalah. He put a finger on his lip, and, though my heart clamoured for news, I held my peace.
They squatted on a heap of skins and spoke in their own tongue. Then Shalah addressed me in English.
"The maiden is safe, brother. There will be no more fighting at the stockade. Those who assaulted us were of my own tribe, and yesterday I reasoned with them."
Then he spoke to the chief, and translated for me.
"He says that you have endured the ordeal of the stake, and have slain your enemy in fight, and that now you will go before the great Sachem for his judgment. That is the custom of our people."
He turned to Onotawah again, and his tone was high and scornful. He spoke as if he were the chief and the other were the minion, and, what was strangest of all, Onotawah replied meekly. Shalah rose to his feet and strode to the door, pointing down the glen with his hand. He seemed to menace the other, his nostrils quivered with contempt, and his voice was barbed with passion. Onotawah bowed his head and said nothing.
Then he seemed to dismiss him, and the proud chief walked out of the teepee like a disconsolate schoolboy.
Instantly Shalah turned to me and inquired about my wounds. He looked at the hole in my arm and at my scorched legs, and from his belt took a phial of ointment, which he rubbed on the former. He passed his cool hands over my brow, and felt the beating of my heart.
"You are weary, brother, and somewhat scarred, but there is no grave hurt. What of the Master?"
I told him of Ringan's end. He bent his head, and then sprang up and held his hands high, speaking in a strange tongue. I looked at his eyes, and they were ablaze with fire.
"My people slew him," he cried. "By the shades of my fathers, a score shall keep him company as slaves in the Great Hunting-ground."
"Talk no more of blood," I said. "He was amply avenged. 'Twas I who slew him, for he died to save me. He made a Christian end, and I will not have his memory stained by more murders. But oh, Shalah, what a man died yonder!"
He made me tell every incident of the story, and he cried out, impassive though he was, at the sword-play in the neck of the gorge.
"I have seen it," he cried. "I have seen his bright steel flash and men go down like ripe fruit. Tell me, brother, did he sing all the while, as was his custom? Would I had been by his side!"
Then he told me of what had befallen at the stockade.
"The dead man told me a tale, for by the mark on his forehead I knew that he was of my own house. When you and the Master had gone I went into the woods and picked up the trail of our foes. I found them in a crook of the hills, and went among them in peace. They knew me, and my word was law unto them. No living thing will come near the stockade save the wild beasts of the forest. Be at ease in thy mind, brother."
The news was a mighty consolation, but I was still deeply mystified.
"You speak of your tribe. But these men were no Senecas."
He smiled gravely. "Listen, brother," he said. "The white men of the Tidewater called me Seneca, and I suffered the name. But I am of a greater and princelier house than the Sons of the Cat. Some little while ago I spoke to you of the man who travelled to the Western Seas, and of his son who returned to his own people. I am the son of him who returned. I spoke of the doings of my own kin."
"But what is your nation, then?" I cried.
"One so great that these little clanlets of Cherokee and Monacan, and even the multitudes of the Long House, are but slaves and horseboys by their side. We dwelt far beyond these mountains towards the setting sun, in a plain where the rivers are like seas, and the cornlands wider than all the Virginian manors. But there came trouble in our royal house, and my father returned to find a generation which had forgotten the deeds of their forefathers. So he took his own tribe, who still remembered the House of the Sun, and, because his heart was unquiet with longing for that which is forbidden to man, he journeyed eastward, and found a new home in a valley of these hills. Thine eyes have seen it. They call it the Shenandoah."
I remembered that smiling Eden I had seen from that hill-top, and how Shalah had spoken that very name.
"We dwelt there," he continued, "while I grew to manhood, living happily in peace, hunting the buffalo and deer, and tilling our cornlands. Then the time came when the Great Spirit called for my father, and I was left with the kingship of the tribe. Strange things meantime had befallen our nation in the West. Broken clans had come down from the north, and there had been many battles, and there had been blight, and storms, and sickness, so that they were grown poor and harassed. Likewise men had arisen who preached to them discontent, and other races of a lesser breed had joined themselves to them. My own tribe had become fewer, for the young men did not stay in our valley, but drifted back to the West, to that nation we had come from, or went north to the wars with the white man, or became lonely hunters in the hills. Then from the south along the mountain crests came another people, a squat and murderous people, who watched us from the ridges and bided their chance."
"The Cherokees?" I asked.
"Even so. I speak of a hundred moons back, when I was yet a stripling, with little experience in war. I saw the peril, but I could not think that such a race could vie with the Children of the Sun. But one black night, in the Moon of Wildfowl, the raiders descended in a torrent and took us unprepared. What had been a happy people dwelling with full barns and populous wigwams became in a night a desolation. Our wives and children were slain or carried captive, and on every Cherokee belt hung the scalps of my warriors. Some fled westwards to our nation, but they were few that lived, and the tribe of Shalah went out like a torch in a roaring river.
"I slew many men that night, for the gods of my fathers guided my arm. Death I sought, but could not find it; and by and by I was alone in the woods, with twenty scars and a heart as empty as a gourd. Then I turned my steps to the rising sun and the land of the white man, for there was no more any place for me in the councils of my own people.
"All this was many moons ago, and since then I have been a wanderer among strangers. While I reigned in my valley I heard of the white man's magic and of the power of his gods, and I longed to prove them. Now I have learned many things which were hid from the eyes of our oldest men. I have learned that a man may be a great brave, and yet gentle and merciful, as was the Master, I have learned that a man may be a lover of peace and quiet ways and have no lust of battle in his heart, and yet when the need comes be more valiant than the best, even as you, brother. I have learned that the God of the white men was Himself a man who endured the ordeal of the stake for the welfare of His enemies. I have seen cruelty and cowardice and folly among His worshippers; but I have also seen that His faith can put spirit into a coward's heart, and make heroes of mean men. I do not grudge my years of wandering. They have taught me such knowledge as the Sachems of my nation never dreamed of, and they have given me two comrades after my own heart. One was he who died yesterday, and the other is now by my side."
These words of Shalah did not make me proud, for things were too serious for vanity. But they served to confirm in me my strange exaltation. I felt as one dedicated to a mighty task.
"Tell me, what is the invasion which threatens the Tidewater?"
"The whole truth is not known to me; but from the speech of my tribesmen, it seems that the Children of the West Wind, twelve moons ago, struck their tents and resolved to seek a new country. There is a restlessness comes upon all Indian peoples once in every five generations. It fell upon my grandfather, and he travelled towards the sunset, and now it has fallen upon the whole race of the Sun. As they were on the eve of journeying there came to them a prophet, who told them that God would lead them not towards the West, as was the tradition of the elders, but eastwards to the sea and the dwellings of the Palefaces."
"Is that the crazy white man we have heard of?"
"He is of your race, brother. What his spell is I know not, but it works mightily among my people. They tell me that he hath bodily converse with devils, and that God whispers His secrets to him in the night-watches. His God hath told him—so runs the tale—that He hath chosen the Children of the Sun for His peculiar people, and laid on them the charge of sweeping the white men off the earth and reigning in their stead from the hills to the Great Waters."
"Do you believe in this madman, Shalah?" I asked.
"I know not," he said, with a troubled face. "I fear one possessed of God. But of this I am sure, that the road of the Children of the West Wind lies not eastward but westward, and that no good can come of war with the white man. This Sachem hath laid his magic on others than our people, for the Cherokee nation and all the broken clans of the hills acknowledge him and do his bidding. He is a soldier as well as a prophet, for he has drilled and disposed his army like a master of war."
"Will your tribe ally themselves with Cherokee murderers?"
"I asked that question of this man Onotawah, and he liked it little. He says that his people distrust this alliance with a race they scorn, and I do not think they pine for the white man's war. But they are under the magic of this prophet, and presently, when blood begins to flow, they will warm to their work. In time they will be broken, but that time will not be soon, and meanwhile there will be nothing left alive between the hills and the bay of Chesapeake."
"Do you know their plans?" I asked.
"The Cherokees have served their purpose," he said. "Your forecast was right, brother. They have drawn the fire of the Border, and been driven in a rabble far south to the Roanoke and the Carolina mountains. That is as the prophet planned. And now, while the white men hang up their muskets and rejoice heedlessly in their triumph, my nation prepares to strike. To-night the moon is full, and the prophet makes intercession with his God. To-morrow at dawn they march, and by twilight they will have swarmed across the Border."
"Have you no power over your own people?"
"But little," he answered. "I have been too long absent from them, and my name is half forgotten. Yet, were they free of this prophet, I think I might sway them, for I know their ways, and I am the son of their ancient kings. But for the present his magic holds them in thrall. They listen in fear to one who hath the ear of God."
I arose, stretched my arms, and yawned.
"They carry me to this Sachem," I said. "Well and good. I will outface this blasphemous liar, whoever he may be. If he makes big magic, I will make bigger. The only course is the bold course. If I can humble this prophet man, will you dissuade your nation from war and send them back to the sunset?"
"Assuredly," he said wonderingly. "But what is your plan, brother?"
"None," I answered. "God will show me the way. Honesty may trust in Him as well as madness."
"By my father's shade, you are a man, brother," and he gave me the Indian salute.
"A very weary, feckless cripple of a man," I said, smiling. "But the armies of Heaven are on my side, Shalah. Take my pistols and Ringan's sword. I am going into this business with no human weapons." And as they set me on an Indian horse and the whole tribe turned their eyes to the higher glens, I actually rejoiced. Light-hearted or light-headed, I know not which I was, but I know that I had no fear.
HOW I STROVE ALL NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL.
It was late in the evening ere we reached the shelf in the high glens which was the headquarters of the Indian host. I rode on a horse, between Onotawah and Shalah, as if I were a chief and no prisoner. On the road we met many bands of Indians hastening to the trysting-place, for the leader had flung his outposts along the whole base of the range, and the chief warriors returned to the plateau for the last ritual. No man spoke a word, and when we met other companies the only greeting was by uplifted hands.
The shelf was lit with fires, and there was a flare of torches in the centre. I saw an immense multitude of lean, dark faces—how many I cannot tell, but ten thousand at the least. It took all my faith to withstand the awe of the sight. For these men were not the common Indian breed, but a race nurtured and armed for great wars, disciplined to follow one man, and sharpened to a needle-point in spirit. Perhaps if I had been myself a campaigner I should have been less awed by the spectacle; but having nothing with which to compare it, I judged this a host before which the scattered Border stockades and Nicholson's scanty militia would go down like stubble before fire.
At the head of the plateau, just under the brow of the hill, and facing the half-circle of level land, stood a big tent of skins. Before it was a square pile of boulders about the height of a man's waist, heaped on the top with brushwood so that it looked like a rude altar. Around this the host had gathered, sitting mostly on the ground with knees drawn to the chin, but some few standing like sentries under arms. I was taken to the middle of the half-circle, and Shalah motioned me to dismount, while a stripling led off the horses. My legs gave under me, for they were still very feeble, and I sat hunkered up on the sward like the others. I looked for Shalah and Onotawah, but they had disappeared, and I was left alone among those lines of dark, unknown faces.
I waited with an awe on my spirits against which I struggled in vain. The silence of so vast a multitude, the sputtering torches, lighting the wild amphitheatre of the hills, the strange clearing with its altar, the mystery of the immense dusky sky, and the memory of what I had already endured—all weighed on me with the sense of impending doom. I summoned all my fortitude to my aid. I told myself that Ringan believed in me, and that I had the assurance that God would not see me cast down. But such courage as I had was now a resolve rather than any exhilaration of spirits. A brooding darkness lay on me like a cloud.
Presently the hush grew deeper, and from the tent a man came. I could not see him clearly, but the flickering light told me that he was very tall, and that, like the Indians, he was naked to the middle. He stood behind the altar, and began some incantation.
It was in the Indian tongue which I could not understand. The voice was harsh and discordant, but powerful enough to fill that whole circle of hill. It seemed to rouse the passion of the hearers, for grave faces around me began to work, and long-drawn sighs came from their lips.
Then at a word from the figure four men advanced, bearing something between them, which they laid on the altar. To my amazement I saw that it was a great yellow panther, so trussed up that it was impotent to hurt. How such a beast had ever been caught alive I know not. I could see its green cat's eyes glowing in the dark, and the striving of its muscles, and hear the breath hissing from its muzzled jaws.
The figure raised a knife and plunged it into the throat of the great cat. The slow lapping of blood broke in on the stillness. Then the voice shrilled high and wild. I could see that the man had marked his forehead with blood, and that his hands were red and dripping. He seemed to be declaiming some savage chant, to which my neighbours began to keep time with their bodies. Wilder and wilder it grew, till it ended in a scream like a seamew's. Whoever the madman was, he knew the mystery of Indian souls, for in a little he would have had that host lusting blindly for death. I felt the spell myself, piercing through my awe and hatred of the spell-weaver, and I won't say but that my weary head kept time with the others to that weird singing.
A man brought a torch and lit the brushwood on the altar. Instantly a flame rose to heaven, through which the figure of the magician showed fitfully like a mountain in mist. That act broke the wizardry for me. To sacrifice a cat was monstrous and horrible, but it was also uncouthly silly. I saw the magic for what it was, a maniac's trickery. In the revulsion I grew angry, and my anger heartened me wonderfully. Was this stupendous quackery to bring ruin to the Tidewater? Though I had to choke the life with my own hands out of that warlock's throat, I should prevent it.
Then from behind the fire the voice began again. But this time I understood it. The words were English. I was amazed, for I had forgotten that I knew the wizard to be a white man.
"Thus saith the Lord God," it cried, "Woe to the bloody city! I will make the pile great for fire. Heap on wood, kindle the fire, consume the flesh, and spice it well, and let the bones be burned."
He poked the beast on the altar, and a bit of burning yellow fur fell off and frizzled on the ground.
It was horrid beyond words, lewd and savage and impious, and desperately cruel. And the strange thing was that the voice was familiar.
"O thou that dwellest upon many waters," it went on again, "abundant in treasures, thine end is come, and the measure of thy covetousness. The Lord of Hosts hath sworn by Himself, saying, Surely I will fill thee with men as with caterpillars...."
With that last word there came over me a flood of recollection. It was spoken not in the common English way, but in the broad manner of my own folk.... I saw in my mind's eye a wet moorland, and heard a voice inveighing against the wickedness of those in high places.... I smelled the foul air of the Canongate Tolbooth, and heard this same man testifying against the vanity of the world.... "Cawterpillars!" It was the voice that had once bidden me sing "Jenny Nettles."
Harsh and strident and horrible, it was yet the voice I had known, now blaspheming Scripture words behind that gruesome sacrifice. I think I laughed aloud. I remembered the man I had pursued my first night in Virginia, the man who had raided Frew's cabin. I remembered Ringan's tale of the Scots redemptioner that had escaped from Norfolk county, and the various strange writings which had descended from the hills. Was it not the queerest fate that one whom I had met in my boyish scrapes should return after six years and many thousand miles to play once more a major part in my life! The nameless general in the hills was Muckle John Gib, once a mariner of Borrowstoneness, and some time leader of the Sweet-Singers. I felt the smell of wet heather, and the fishy odours of the Forth; I heard the tang of our country speech, and the swirl of the gusty winds of home.