Salute to Adventurers by John Buchan - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.

20. 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 seacaptain 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.