THE FLIGHT IN THE HEATHER: THE ROCKS
Sometimes we walked, sometimes ran; and as it drew on to morning,
walked ever the less and ran the more. Though, upon its face,
that country appeared to be a desert, yet there were huts and
houses of the people, of which we must have passed more than
twenty, hidden in quiet places of the hills. When we came to one
of these, Alan would leave me in the way, and go himself and rap
upon the side of the house and speak awhile at the window with
some sleeper awakened. This was to pass the news; which, in that
country, was so much of a duty that Alan must pause to attend to
it even while fleeing for his life; and so well attended to by
others, that in more than half of the houses where we called they
had heard already of the murder. In the others, as well as I
could make out (standing back at a distance and hearing a strange
tongue), the news was received with more of consternation than
For all our hurry, day began to come in while we were still far
from any shelter. It found us in a prodigious valley, strewn
with rocks and where ran a foaming river. Wild mountains stood
around it; there grew there neither grass nor trees; and I have
sometimes thought since then, that it may have been the valley
called Glencoe, where the massacre was in the time of King
William. But for the details of our itinerary, I am all to seek;
our way lying now by short cuts, now by great detours; our pace
being so hurried, our time of journeying usually by night; and
the names of such places as I asked and heard being in the Gaelic
tongue and the more easily forgotten.
The first peep of morning, then, showed us this horrible place,
and I could see Alan knit his brow.
"This is no fit place for you and me," he said. "This is
they're bound to watch."
And with that he ran harder than ever down to the water-side, in
a part where the river was split in two among three rocks. It
went through with a horrid thundering that made my belly quake;
and there hung over the lynn a little mist of spray. Alan looked
neither to the right nor to the left, but jumped clean upon the
middle rock and fell there on his hands and knees to check
himself, for that rock was small and he might have pitched over
on the far side. I had scarce time to measure the distance or to
understand the peril before I had followed him, and he had caught
and stopped me.
So there we stood, side by side upon a small rock slippery with
spray, a far broader leap in front of us, and the river dinning
upon all sides. When I saw where I was, there came on me a deadly
sickness of fear, and I put my hand over my eyes. Alan took me
and shook me; I saw he was speaking, but the roaring of the falls
and the trouble of my mind prevented me from hearing; only I saw
his face was red with anger, and that he stamped upon the rock.
The same look showed me the water raging by, and the mist hanging
in the air: and with that I covered my eyes again and shuddered.
The next minute Alan had set the brandy bottle to my lips, and
forced me to drink about a gill, which sent the blood into my
head again. Then, putting his hands to his mouth, and his mouth
to my ear, he shouted, "Hang or drown!" and turning his back upon
me, leaped over the farther branch of the stream, and landed safe.
I was now alone upon the rock, which gave me the more room; the
brandy was singing in my ears; I had this good example fresh
before me, and just wit enough to see that if I did not leap at
once, I should never leap at all. I bent low on my knees and
flung myself forth, with that kind of anger of despair that has
sometimes stood me in stead of courage. Sure enough, it was but
my hands that reached the full length; these slipped, caught
again, slipped again; and I was sliddering back into the lynn,
when Alan seized me, first by the hair, then by the collar, and
with a great strain dragged me into safety.
Never a word he said, but set off running again for his life, and
I must stagger to my feet and run after him. I had been weary
before, but now I was sick and bruised, and partly drunken with
the brandy; I kept stumbling as I ran, I had a stitch that came
near to overmaster me; and when at last Alan paused under a great
rock that stood there among a number of others, it was none too
soon for David Balfour.
A great rock I have said; but by rights it was two rocks leaning
together at the top, both some twenty feet high, and at the first
sight inaccessible. Even Alan (though you may say he had as good
as four hands) failed twice in an attempt to climb them; and it
was only at the third trial, and then by standing on my shoulders
and leaping up with such force as I thought must have broken my
collar-bone, that he secured a lodgment. Once there, he let down
his leathern girdle; and with the aid of that and a pair of
shallow footholds in the rock, I scrambled up beside him.
Then I saw why we had come there; for the two rocks, being both
somewhat hollow on the top and sloping one to the other, made a
kind of dish or saucer, where as many as three or four men might
have lain hidden.
All this while Alan had not said a word, and had run and climbed
with such a savage, silent frenzy of hurry, that I knew that he
was in mortal fear of some miscarriage. Even now we were on the
rock he said nothing, nor so much as relaxed the frowning look
upon his face; but clapped flat down, and keeping only one eye
above the edge of our place of shelter scouted all round the
compass. The dawn had come quite, clear; we could see the stony
sides of the valley, and its bottom, which was bestrewed with
rocks, and the river, which went from one side to another, and
made white falls; but nowhere the smoke of a house, nor any
living creature but some eagles screaming round a cliff.
Then at last Alan smiled.
"Ay" said he, "now we have a chance;" and then looking
at me with
some amusement. "Ye're no very gleg at the jumping," said he.
At this I suppose I coloured with mortification, for he added at
once, "Hoots! small blame to ye! To be feared of a thing and yet
to do it, is what makes the prettiest kind of a man. And then
there was water there, and water's a thing that dauntons even me.
No, no," said Alan, "it's no you that's to blame, it's me."
I asked him why.
"Why," said he, "I have proved myself a gomeral this night.
first of all I take a wrong road, and that in my own country of
Appin; so that the day has caught us where we should never have
been; and thanks to that, we lie here in some danger and mair
discomfort. And next (which is the worst of the two, for a man
that has been so much among the heather as myself) I have come
wanting a water-bottle, and here we lie for a long summer's day
with naething but neat spirit. Ye may think that a small matter;
but before it comes night, David, ye'll give me news of it."
I was anxious to redeem my character, and offered, if he would
pour out the brandy, to run down and fill the bottle at the river.
"I wouldnae waste the good spirit either," says he. "It's
good friend to you this night; or in my poor opinion, ye would
still be cocking on yon stone. And what's mair," says he, "ye
may have observed (you that's a man of so much penetration) that
Alan Breck Stewart was perhaps walking quicker than his ordinar'."
"You!" I cried, "you were running fit to burst."
"Was I so?" said he. "Well, then, ye may depend upon it,
was nae time to be lost. And now here is enough said; gang you
to your sleep, lad, and I'll watch."
Accordingly, I lay down to sleep; a little peaty earth had
drifted in between the top of the two rocks, and some bracken
grew there, to be a bed to me; the last thing I heard was still
the crying of the eagles.
I dare say it would be nine in the morning when I was roughly
awakened, and found Alan's hand pressed upon my mouth.
"Wheesht!" he whispered. "Ye were snoring."
"Well," said I, surprised at his anxious and dark face, "and
He peered over the edge of the rock, and signed to me to do the
It was now high day, cloudless, and very hot. The valley was as
clear as in a picture. About half a mile up the water was a camp
of red-coats; a big fire blazed in their midst, at which some
were cooking; and near by, on the top of a rock about as high as
ours, there stood a sentry, with the sun sparkling on his arms.
All the way down along the river-side were posted other sentries;
here near together, there widelier scattered; some planted like
the first, on places of command, some on the ground level and
marching and counter-marching, so as to meet half-way. Higher up
the glen, where the ground was more open, the chain of posts was
continued by horse-soldiers, whom we could see in the distance
riding to and fro. Lower down, the infantry continued; but as
the stream was suddenly swelled by the confluence of a
considerable burn, they were more widely set, and only watched
the fords and stepping-stones.
I took but one look at them, and ducked again into my place. It
was strange indeed to see this valley, which had lain so solitary
in the hour of dawn, bristling with arms and dotted with the red
coats and breeches.
"Ye see," said Alan, "this was what I was afraid of, Davie:
they would watch the burn-side. They began to come in about two
hours ago, and, man! but ye're a grand hand at the sleeping!
We're in a narrow place. If they get up the sides of the hill,
they could easy spy us with a glass; but if they'll only keep in
the foot of the valley, we'll do yet. The posts are thinner down
the water; and, come night, we'll try our hand at getting by them."
"And what are we to do till night?" I asked.
"Lie here," says he, "and birstle."
That one good Scotch word, "birstle," was indeed the most of the
story of the day that we had now to pass. You are to remember
that we lay on the bare top of a rock, like scones upon a girdle;
the sun beat upon us cruelly; the rock grew so heated, a man
could scarce endure the touch of it; and the little patch of
earth and fern, which kept cooler, was only large enough for one
at a time. We took turn about to lie on the naked rock, which
was indeed like the position of that saint that was martyred on a
gridiron; and it ran in my mind how strange it was, that in the
same climate and at only a few days' distance, I should have
suffered so cruelly, first from cold upon my island and now from
heat upon this rock.
All the while we had no water, only raw brandy for a drink, which
was worse than nothing; but we kept the bottle as cool as we
could, burying it in the earth, and got some relief by bathing
our breasts and temples.
The soldiers kept stirring all day in the bottom of the valley,
now changing guard, now in patrolling parties hunting among the
rocks. These lay round in so great a number, that to look for
men among them was like looking for a needle in a bottle of hay;
and being so hopeless a task, it was gone about with the less
care. Yet we could see the soldiers pike their bayonets among
the heather, which sent a cold thrill into my vitals; and they
would sometimes hang about our rock, so that we scarce dared to
It was in this way that I first heard the right English speech;
one fellow as he went by actually clapping his hand upon the
sunny face of the rock on which we lay, and plucking it off again
with an oath. "I tell you it's 'ot," says he; and I was amazed
the clipping tones and the odd sing-song in which he spoke, and
no less at that strange trick of dropping out the letter "h."
be sure, I had heard Ransome; but he had taken his ways from all
sorts of people, and spoke so imperfectly at the best, that I set
down the most of it to childishness. My surprise was all the
greater to hear that manner of speaking in the mouth of a grown
man; and indeed I have never grown used to it; nor yet altogether
with the English grammar, as perhaps a very critical eye might
here and there spy out even in these memoirs.
The tediousness and pain of these hours upon the rock grew only
the greater as the day went on; the rock getting still the hotter
and the sun fiercer. There were giddiness, and sickness, and
sharp pangs like rheumatism, to be supported. I minded then, and
have often minded since, on the lines in our Scotch psalm: --
"The moon by night thee shall not smite,
Nor yet the sun by day;"
and indeed it was only by God's blessing that we were neither of
At last, about two, it was beyond men's bearing, and there was
now temptation to resist, as well as pain to thole. For the sun
being now got a little into the west, there came a patch of shade
on the east side of our rock, which was the side sheltered from
"As well one death as another," said Alan, and slipped over the
edge and dropped on the ground on the shadowy side.
I followed him at once, and instantly fell all my length, so weak
was I and so giddy with that long exposure. Here, then, we lay
for an hour or two, aching from head to foot, as weak as water,
and lying quite naked to the eye of any soldier who should have
strolled that way. None came, however, all passing by on the
other side; so that our rock continued to be our shield even in
this new position.
Presently we began again to get a little strength; and as the
soldiers were now lying closer along the river-side, Alan
proposed that we should try a start. I was by this time afraid
of but one thing in the world; and that was to be set back upon
the rock; anything else was welcome to me; so we got ourselves at
once in marching order, and began to slip from rock to rock one
after the other, now crawling flat on our bellies in the shade,
now making a run for it, heart in mouth.
The soldiers, having searched this side of the valley after a
fashion, and being perhaps somewhat sleepy with the sultriness of
the afternoon, had now laid by much of their vigilance, and stood
dozing at their posts or only kept a look-out along the banks of
the river; so that in this way, keeping down the valley and at
the same time towards the mountains, we drew steadily away from
their neighbourhood. But the business was the most wearing I had
ever taken part in. A man had need of a hundred eyes in every
part of him, to keep concealed in that uneven country and within
cry of so many and scattered sentries. When we must pass an open
place, quickness was not all, but a swift judgment not only of
the lie of the whole country, but of the solidity of every stone
on which we must set foot; for the afternoon was now fallen so
breathless that the rolling of a pebble sounded abroad like a pistol shot,
and would start the echo calling among the hills and cliffs.
By sundown we had made some distance, even by our slow rate of
progress, though to be sure the sentry on the rock was still
plainly in our view. But now we came on something that put all
fears out of season; and that was a deep rushing burn, that tore
down, in that part, to join the glen river. At the sight of this
we cast ourselves on the ground and plunged head and shoulders in
the water; and I cannot tell which was the more pleasant, the
great shock as the cool stream went over us, or the greed with
which we drank of it.
We lay there (for the banks hid us), drank again and again,
bathed our chests, let our wrists trail in the running water till
they ached with the chill; and at last, being wonderfullv
renewed, we got out the meal-bag and made drammach in the iron
pan. This, though it is but cold water mingled with oatmeal, yet
makes a good enough dish for a hungry man; and where there are no
means of making fire, or (as in our case) good reason for not
making one, it is the chief stand-by of those who have taken to
As soon as the shadow of the night had fallen, we set forth
again, at first with the same caution, but presently with more
boldness, standing our full height and stepping out at a good
pace of walking. The way was very intricate, lying up the steep
sides of mountains and along the brows of cliffs; clouds had come
in with the sunset, and the night was dark and cool; so that I
walked without much fatigue, but in continual fear of falling and
rolling down the mountains, and with no guess at our direction.
The moon rose at last and found us still on the road; it was in
its last quarter, and was long beset with clouds; but after
awhile shone out and showed me many dark heads of mountains, and
was reflected far underneath us on the narrow arm of a sea-loch.
At this sight we both paused: I struck with wonder to find myself
so high and walking (as it seemed to me) upon clouds; Alan to
make sure of his direction.
Seemingly he was well pleased, and he must certainly have judged
us out of ear-shot of all our enemies; for throughout the rest of
our night-march he beguiled the way with whistling of many tunes,
warlike, merry, plaintive; reel tunes that made the foot go
faster; tunes of my own south country that made me fain to be
home from my adventures; and all these, on the great, dark,
desert mountains, making company upon the way.
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