And now—he glanced around. The Indians had a fire going, and a clay pot sitting by it. None of them paid him the least attention, though he was sure they were all aware of him.
Perhaps they had taken him from Fraser and the boy—why, though? More likely, Fraser had given him to the Indians. The man with the knife had said they didn’t mean to hurt him. What did they mean to do with him?
He looked around. It would be night, soon; already, the distant shadows under the oaks had thickened.
So what, sport? If you slope off after dark, where’re you going to? The only direction you know is down. The Indians were apparently ignoring him because they were confident that he wasn’t going anywhere.
Dismissing the uncomfortable truth of this observation, he stood up. First things first. It was the last thing he wanted to do at the moment, but his bladder was bursting. His fingers were slow and clumsy, congested with blood, but he managed to fumble loose the lacing of his breeches.
His first feeling was one of relief; it wasn’t as bad as it felt. Very sore, but ginger prodding seemed to indicate that he was basically intact and unruptured.
It was only as he turned back toward the fire that simple relief was succeeded by a burst of rage so pure and blinding as to burn away both pain and fear. On his right wrist was a smudged black oval—a thumbprint, clear and mocking as a signature.
“Christ,” he said, very softly. Fury burned hot and thick in the pit of his belly. He could taste it, sour in his mouth. He looked down the mountain-side behind him, not knowing whether he faced Fraser’s Ridge or not.
“Wait for me, bugger,” he said, under his breath. “Both of you—wait for me. I’m coming back.”
Not right away, though. The Indians allowed him to share the food—a sort of stew, which they scooped up with their hands in spite of its near-boiling temperature—but were otherwise indifferent to him. He tried them in English, French—even the small bits of German that he knew, but got no response.
They did tie him when they lay down to sleep; his ankles were bound and a noose put round his neck, tied to the wrist of one of his captors. Whether from indifference or because there wasn’t one, they didn’t give him a blanket, and he spent the night shivering, huddled as close to the dwindling fire as he could get without choking himself.
He hadn’t thought he could sleep, but did, exhausted with pain. It was a restless sleep, though, filled with violent, fragmentary dreams and broken by the constant illusion of being strangled.
In the morning, they set off again. No question of riding this time; he walked, and as fast as he could; the noose was left around his neck, hanging loose, but a short length of rope bound his wrists to the harness leathers of one of the horses. He stumbled and fell several times, but managed to scramble to his feet, in spite of bruises and aching muscles. He had the distinct impression that they would allow him to be dragged without compunction if he didn’t.
They were heading roughly north; he could tell as much by the sun. Not that that helped a lot, since he had no notion where they had started from. Still, they could be no great distance from Fraser’s Ridge; he couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a few hours. He looked at the churning hooves of the horse beside him, trying to estimate its speed. No more than two or three miles per hour; he was managing to keep up without great strain.
Landmarks. There was no telling where they meant to take him—or why—but if he was ever to get back, he had to memorize the shape of the terrain through which they passed.
A cliff, forty feet high and overgrown with shaggy plants, a twisted persimmon tree protruding from a crack in the rock like a jack-in-the-box popping out, covered in bright orange bobbles.
They emerged onto the crest of a ridge, to a breathtaking view of distant mountains; three sharp peaks, clustered together against a blazing sky, the left one higher than the other two. He could remember that. A stream—a river?—that fell through a small gorge; they drove the horses through a shallow ford, soaking Roger to the waist in icy water.
The routine of travel lasted for days, moving ever northward. His captors did not talk to him, and by the fourth day he realized that he was beginning to lose track of time, falling into a dreamlike trance, overcome by fatigue and the silence of the mountains. He pulled a long thread from the hem of his coat and began to knot it, one knot for each day, both as some small hold on reality, and as a crude method of estimating the distance traveled.
He was going back. Whatever it took, he was going back to Fraser’s Ridge.
It was on the eighth day that he found his chance. They were high in the mountains by now. They had crossed through one pass the day before, and come down a steep slope, the ponies grunting, slowing to brace each careful step as the loads on their saddles creaked and shifted.
Now they were headed up again, and the ponies slowed their pace still further as the ground sloped sharply upward. Roger was able to gain a little ground, to pull even with the pony’s side and cling to the harness leather, letting the tough little beast pull him along.
The Indians had dismounted, walking and leading the ponies. He kept a narrow eye on the long black scalp lock hanging down the back of the brave leading the pony he clung to. He held on with one hand; the other was busy under cover of a hanging flap of canvas, picking at the knot that bound him to the harness.
Strand by strand, the hemp came free, until no more than a single thread of rope held him to the pony. He waited, sweat streaming down his ribs from fear and the effort of the climb, rejecting one opportunity after another, worrying from moment to moment that he had left it too late, that they would stop to make camp, that the brave who led his pony would turn and see him, would think to check.
But they didn’t stop, and the brave didn’t turn. There, he thought, and his heart beat fast, seeing the first pony in the string step out along a narrow deer trail cut into the hillside. The ground fell away sharply below the trail, then leveled out about six feet down. Below was a thickly wooded slope, ideal for concealment.
One pony, then another, negotiated the narrow stretch of trail, putting down their feet with finicking care. A third, and then it was Roger’s turn. He squeezed in close to the pony’s side, smelling the sweet, pungent foam of its sweat. One step, then another, and they were on the narrow trail.
He jerked the rope loose and jumped. He hit with a jolt and sank halfway to his knees, sprang up and ran downhill. His shoes came off and he left them behind. He splashed across a tiny creek, scrabbled up its bank on hands and knees, and clambered to his feet, running before he’d got upright.
He heard calls behind him, then silence, but knew he was pursued. He had no breath to waste; neither would they.
The landscape slid past in a blur of leaves and rocks as he swung his head from side to side, looking for which way to go, someplace to hide. He chose a grove of birch, burst through and into a sloping meadow, careened down across the slippery grass, bare feet stubbing on roots and rocks. At the far side, he took a second to glance back. Two of them; he saw the round dark heads among the leaves.
On into another copse, out again, zigzagging madly through a field of broken rocks, breath coming hard in his throat. One thing the bloody past had done for him, he thought grimly; improved his wind. Then there was no room for any thought—nothing but the blind instincts of flight.
And down again, a scrambling drop down the wet, cracked face of a twenty-foot cliff, grabbing at the plants as he half fell past them, roots ripping, hands sinking into pockets of mud, blunting his fingers on unseen rocks. He landed hard at the bottom, bent over, gasping.
One of them was right behind him, coming backward down the cliff. He snatched off the noose still around his neck, and whipped it hard at the Indian’s hands. The man’s hold slipped; he let go and slithered down, landing askew. Roger flung the noose over the man’s head, gave it a vicious yank, and fled, leaving the man on his knees, choking and clawing at the rope round his neck.
Trees. He needed cover. He vaulted a fallen log, stumbled and rolled, was up again running. Up, a spruce thicket up a little way. Heart laboring, he jabbed his feet down hard, bounding up the slope.
He flung himself into the spruces, fighting through the pricks of a million needles, blind, eyes shut against the lashing twigs. Then the ground gave way underneath him and he fell in a blur of sky and branches.
He hit, half curled, his breath knocked out; had barely sense to curl up further and keep on rolling, bashing off rocks and saplings, setting off showers of dirt and fallen needles, bouncing and smashing his way to the bottom.
He fetched up with a crash amid a tangle of woody stems, hung a moment, then slid down, to end with a thud. Dazed and bleeding, he lay still for a moment, then rolled painfully onto his side, wiping dirt and blood from his face.
He looked up, searching. There they were. The two of them, at the top of the slope, coming carefully down beside the ledge he had fallen from.
On hands and knees, he dived between the woody stems, and crawled for his life. Twigs bent, sharp ends jabbed him, and cascades of dust, dead leaves and insects fell from the higher branches above as he heaved his way forward, forcing a passage through the close-grown stems, twisting and turning, following such openings as he found.
Hell was his first coherent thought. Then he realized that it was as much description as curse. He was in a rhododendron hell. With that belated realization, he slowed his flight—if crawling at roughly ten feet per hour could be called “flight.”
The tunnel-like opening in which he found himself was too narrow to allow him to turn around, but he managed to see behind him by thrusting his head to one side and craning his neck. There was nothing there; nothing but damp and musty darkness, illumined by a faint scatter of light, swirling with dust motes. Nothing was visible but the stems and limber branches of the rhododendron thicket.
His shaking limbs gave way, and he collapsed. He lay for a moment, curled up between the stems, breathing the musk of rotting leaves and damp earth.
“You wanted cover, mate,” he murmured to himself. Things were beginning to hurt. He was ripped and bleeding in a dozen places. Even in the dim light, the ends of his fingers looked like raw meat.
He took a slow inventory of the damage, listening all the while for sounds of pursuit. Not surprisingly, there were none. He had heard talk about rhododendron hells in the taverns in Cross Creek; half-boasting stories of hunting dogs who had chased a squirrel into one of the huge tangles and become hopelessly lost, never to be seen again.
Roger hoped there was a fair amount of exaggeration to these stories, though a good look around wasn’t reassuring. What light there was had no direction. Any way he looked, looked the same. Drooping clusters of cool, leathery leaves, thick stems and slender branches laced together in a nearly impenetrable snarl.
With a slight feeling of panic, he realized that he had no idea from which direction he had come.
He put his head on his knees and breathed deeply, trying to think. All right, first things first. His right foot was bleeding from a deep gash on the edge of the sole. He took off his tattered stockings and used one to bind his foot. Nothing else seemed bad enough to need a bandage, save the shallow gouge in his scalp; that was still seeping blood, wet and sticky to his touch.