Salute to Adventurers HTML version

17. 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.