It was about eleven in the forenoon, I think, that Shalah dropped his easy swing and grew circumspect. The sun was very hot, and the noon silence lay dead on the woodlands. Scarcely a leaf stirred, and the only sounds were the twittering grasshoppers and the drone of flies. But Shalah found food for thought. Again and again he became rigid, and then laid an ear to the ground. His nostrils dilated like a horse’s, and his eyes were restless. We were now in a shallow vale, through which a little stream flowed among broad reed-beds. At one point he kneeled on the ground and searched diligently.
“See,” he said, “a horse’s prints not two hours old—a horse going west.”
Presently I myself found a clue. I picked up from a clump of wild onions a thread of coloured wool. This was my own trade, where I knew more than Shalah. I tested the thing in my mouth and between my fingers.
“This is London stuff,” I said. “The man who had this on his person bought his clothes from the Bristol merchants, and paid sweetly for them. He was no Rappahannock farmer.”
Shalah trailed like a bloodhound, following the hoof-marks out of the valley meadow to a ridge of sparse cedars where they showed clear on the bare earth, and then to a thicker covert where they were hidden among strong grasses. Suddenly he caught my shoulder, and pulled me to the ground. We crawled through a briery place to where a gap opened to the vale on our left.
A party of Indians were passing. They were young men with the fantastic markings of young braves. All were mounted on the little Indian horses. They moved at leisure, scanning the distance with hands shading eyes.
We wormed our way back to the darkness of the covert. “The advance guard of the second party,” Shalah whispered. “With good fortune, we shall soon see the rest pass, and then have a clear road for the hills.”
“I saw no fresh scalps,” I said, “so they seem to have missed our man on the horse.” I was proud of my simple logic.
All that Shalah replied was, “The rider was a woman.’
“How, in Heaven’s name, can you tell?” I asked.
He held out a long hair. “I found it among the vines at the level of a rider’s head.”
This was bad news indeed. What folly had induced a woman to ride so far across the Borders? It could be no settler’s wife, but some dame from the coast country who had not the sense to be timid. ’Twas a grievous affliction for two men on an arduous quest to have to protect a foolish female with the Cherokees all about them.
There was no help for it, and as swiftly as possible and with all circumspection Shalah trailed the horse’s prints. They kept the high ground, in very broken country, which was the reason why the rider had escaped the Indians’ notice. Clearly they were moving slowly, and from the frequent halts and turnings I gathered that the rider had not much purpose about the road.