Apart from these uncanny moods he was the most faithful helper in my task. Without him I must have been a mere child. I could not read the lore of the forest; I could not have found my way as he found it through pathless places. From him, too, I learned that we were not to make our preparations unwatched.
Once, as we were coming from the Rappahannock to the York, he darted suddenly into the undergrowth below the chestnuts. My eye could see no clue on the path, and, suspecting nothing, I waited on him to return. Presently he came, and beckoned me to follow. Thirty yards into the coppice we found a man lying dead, with a sharp stake holding him to the ground, and a raw, red mass where had been once his head.
“That was your messenger, brother,” he whispered, “the one who was to carry word from the Mattaponey to the north. See, he has been dead for two suns.”
He was one of the tame Algonquins who dwelt by Aird’s store.
“Who did it?” I asked, with a very sick stomach.
“A Cherokee. Some cunning one, and he left a sign to guide us.”
He showed me a fir-cone he had picked up from the path, with the sharp end cut short and a thorn stuck in the middle.
The thing disquieted me horribly, for we had heard no word yet of any movement from the West. And yet it seemed that our enemy’s scouts had come far down into the Tidewater, and knew enough to single out for death a man we had enrolled for service. Shalah slipped off without a word, and I was left to continue my journey alone. I will not pretend that I liked the business. I saw an Indian in every patch of shadow, and looked pretty often to my pistols before I reached the security of Aird’s house.
Four days later Shalah appeared at James Town. “They were three,” he said simply. “They came from the hills a moon ago, and have been making bad trouble on the Rappahannock. I found them at the place above the beaver traps of the Ooniche. They return no more to their people.”
After that we sent out warnings, and kept a close eye on the different lodges of the Algonquins. But nothing happened till weeks later, when the tragedy on the Rapidan fell on us like a thunderclap.
* * * * *
All this time I had been too busy to go near the town or the horse-racings and holiday meetings where I might have seen Elspeth. But I do not think she was ever many minutes out of my mind. Indeed, I was almost afraid of a meeting, lest it should shatter the bright picture which comforted my solitude. But one evening in June as I jogged home from Middle Plantation through the groves of walnuts, I came suddenly at the turn of the road on a party. Doctor James Blair, mounted on a stout Flanders cob, held the middle of the path, and at his side rode the girl, while two servants followed with travelling valises. I was upon them before I could rein up, and the Doctor cried a hearty good-day. So I took my place by Elspeth, and, with my heart beating wildly, accompanied them through the leafy avenues and by the green melon-beds in the clearings till we came out on the prospect of the river.