Again the forest changed, and the track, passing on higher ground, entered among firs. These, too, had killed each other by growing so thickly; the lower branches of many were dead, and there was nothing but a little green at the tops, while in many places there was an open space where they had decayed away altogether. Brambles covered the ground in these open places, brambles and furze now bright with golden blossom. The jays screeched loudly, startled as the riders passed under them, and fluttered away; rabbits, which they saw again here, dived into their burrows. Between the first the track was very narrow, and they could not conveniently ride side by side; Oliver took the lead, and Felix followed.
THE FOREST TRACK CONTINUED
Once as they trotted by a pheasant rose screaming from the furze and flew before them down the track. Just afterwards Felix, who had been previously looking very carefully into the firs upon his right hand, suddenly stopped, and Oliver, finding this, pulled up as quickly as he could, thinking that Felix wished to tighten his girth.
“What is it?” he asked, turning round in his saddle.
“Hush!” said Felix, dismounting; his horse, trained to hunting, stood perfectly still, and would have remained within a few yards of the spot by the hour together. Oliver reined back, seeing Felix about to bend and string his bow.
“Bushmen,” whispered Felix, as he, having fitted the loop to the horn notch, drew forth an arrow from his girdle, where he carried two or three more ready to hand than in the quiver on his shoulder. “I thought I saw signs of them some time since, and now I am nearly sure. Stay here a moment.”
He stepped aside from the track in among the firs, which just there were far apart, and went to a willow bush standing by some furze. He had noticed that one small branch on the outer part of the bush was snapped off, though green, and only hung by the bark. The wood cattle, had they browsed upon it, would have nibbled the tenderest leaves at the end of the bough; nor did they usually touch willow, for the shoots are bitter and astringent. Nor would the deer touch it in the spring, when they had so wide a choice of food.
Nothing could have broken the branch in that manner unless it was the hand of a man, or a blow with a heavy stick wielded by a human hand. On coming to the bush he saw that the fracture was very recent, for the bough was perfectly green; it had not turned brown, and the bark was still soft with sap. It had not been cut with a knife or any sharp instrument; it had been broken by rude violence, and not divided. The next thing to catch his eye was the appearance of a larger branch farther inside the bush.