Chapter XII. The Settler's Hut.
 

Before starting they stood for a minute or two looking over the forest which they were to traverse. To Harold's eyes all appeared quiet and still. Here and there were clearings where settlers had established themselves; but, with these exceptions, the forest stretched away like a green sea.

"Tarnation!" Peter exclaimed. "We'll have all our work to get through safely; eh, chief?"

The Seneca nodded.

"What makes you say so?" Harold asked in surprise. "I see nothing."

Peter looked at him reproachfully.

"I'm downright ashamed of ye, lad. You should have been long enough in the woods by this time to know smoke when you see it. Why, there it is curling up from the trees in a dozen--ay, in a score of places. There must be hundreds of men out scouting or camping in them woods."

Harold looked fixedly again at the forests, but even now he could not detect the signs which were so plain to the scout.

"You may call me as blind as a bat, Peter," he said with a laugh, "but I can see nothing. Looking hard I imagine I can see a light mist here and there, but I believe it is nothing but fancy."

"It's clear enough to me, lad, and to the redskins. What do you say, chief?"

"Too much men," the Seneca replied sententiously.

For another minute or two he and Peter stood watching the forest, and then in a few words consulted together as to the best line to follow to avoid meeting the foe who, to their eyes, swarmed in the forest.

"It's mighty lucky," the hunter said as they turned to descend the hill, which was covered with trees to its very summit, "that they're white men and not redskins out in the woods, there. I don't say that there's not many frontiersmen who know the way of the woods as well as the redskins. I do myself, and when it comes to fighting we can lick 'em on their own ground; but in scouting we aint nowhere--not the best of us. The redskin seems to have an instinct more like that of an animal than a man. I don't say as he can smell a man a mile off as a dog can do, but he seems to know when the enemy's about; his ears can hear noises which we can't; his eyes see marks on the ground when the keenest-sighted white man sees nothing. If that wood was as full of redskins as it is of whites to-day, our sculps wouldn't be worth a charge of powder."

"You are not going to follow the shores of the lake, I suppose?" Harold asked.

"No," Peter said. "They'll be as thick as peas down there, watching for the first sight of our fleet. No, we must just keep through the woods and be as still and as silent as if the trees had ears. You'd best look to the priming of yer piece before we goes further, for it's likely enough you'll have to use it before the day's done, and a miss-fire might cost you yer life. Tell that nigger of yourn that he's not to open his mouth again till I gives him leave."

With a long stealthy tread the party descended the mountain and took their way through the woods. Every hundred yards or so they stopped and listened intently. When any noise, even of the slightest kind, was heard, all dropped to the ground until the chief had scouted round and discovered the way was clear. Once or twice they heard the sound of men's voices and a distant laugh, but they passed on without seeing those who uttered them.

Presently they again heard voices, this time raised as if in angry dispute. The Seneca would, as before, have made a long detour to avoid them, but Peter said.

"Let's have a squint at what's going on, chief."

With redoubled caution they again advanced until they stood at the edge of the clearing. It was a patch of land some hundred yards wide, and extending from the shore of the lake nearly a quarter of a mile inland. In the center stood a log hut, neatly and carefully built. A few flowers grew around the house, and the whole bore signs of greater neatness and comfort than was usual in the cabins of the backwood settlers.

The point where the party had reached the edge of the wood was immediately opposite the house. Near it stood a group of some twenty men, one of whom, apparently their leader, was gesticulating angrily as he addressed a man who stood facing him.

"I tell ye, ye're a darned royalist--ye're a traitor to the country, and I've a mind to hang ye and all belonging to ye to the nearest bough."

"I tell you," the man answered calmly, but in the still air every word he said could be heard by those at the edge of the forest, "I hae naething to do with the trouble ane way or the ither. I am a quiet settler, whose business only is to mak a hame for my wife and bairn; but, if you ask me to drink success to the Congress and confusion to the king's troops, I tell you I willna do it; not even if you are brutal enough, but this I canna believe possible, to carry your threats into execution. I hae served my time in a king's regiment. With the bounty I received instead o' pension on my discharge I settled here wi' my wife and bairn, and no one shall say that Duncan Cameron was a traitor to his king. We do no harm to anyone; we tak no part for or against you; we only ask to be allowed to live in peace."

"That ye shall not," the man said. "The king's troops have got Injuns with 'em, and they're going to burn and kill all those who won't take part with 'em. It's time we should show 'em as we can play at that game, too. Now ye've either got to swear to be faithful to the States of America or up you go."

"I canna swear," the settler said firmly. "You may kill me if you will, but, if you are men, you will nae harm my wife and girl."

"We'll just do to you as the redskins'll do to our people," the man said. "We'll make a sweep of the hull lot of you. Here, you fellows, fetch the woman and girl out of the house and then set a light to it."

Four or five men entered the house. A minute later screams were heard and a woman and child were dragged out. The settler sprang toward them, but three or four men seized him.

"Now," the man said, stepping toward the house, "we'll show 'em a bonfire."

As he neared the door a crack of a rifle was heard and the ruffian fell dead in his tracks. A yell of astonishment and rage broke from his followers.

"Jerusalem, youngster! you've got us into a nice fix. Howsomever, since you've begun it, here goes."

And the rifle of the hunter brought down another of the Americans. These, following the first impulse of a frontiersman when attacked, fled for shelter to the house, leaving the settler, with his wife and daughter, standing alone.

"Ye'd best get out of the way," Peter shouted, "or ye may get a bit of lead that wasn't intended for ye."

Catching up his child, Cameron ran toward the forest, making for the side on which his unknown friends were placed, but keeping down toward the lake, so as to be out of their line of fire.

"Make down to 'em, Harold," Peter said. "Tell 'em they'd best go to some neighbor's and stop there for a day or two. The army'll be here to-morrow or next day. Be quick about it, and come back as fast as ye can. I tell ye we're in a hornets' nest, and it'll be as much as we can do to get out of it."

A scattering fire was now being exchanged between the redskins behind the shelter of the trees and the Americans firing from the windows of the log house. Harold was but two or three minutes absent.

"All right, Peter!" he exclaimed, as he rejoined them.

"Come along, then," the hunter said. "Now, chief, let's make up round the top of this clearing and then foot it."

The chief at once put himself at the head of the party, and the nine men strode away again through the forest. It was no longer silent. Behind them the occupants of the hut were still keeping up a brisk fire toward the trees, while from several quarters shouts could be heard, and more than once the Indian war-whoop rose in the forest.

"That's just what I was afeared of," Peter muttered. "There's some of those darned varmint with 'em. We might have found our way through the whites, but the redskins'll pick up our trail as sartin as if we were driving a wagon through the woods."

Going along at a swinging, noiseless trot the party made their way through the forest. Presently a prolonged Indian whoop was heard in the direction from which they had come. Then there were loud shouts and the firing ceased.

"One of the red reptiles has found our trail," Peter said. "He's with a party of whites, and they've shouted the news to the gang in the clearing. Waal, we may, calculate we've got thirty on our trail, and, as we can hear them all round, it'll be a sarcumstance if we git out with our sculps."

As they ran they heard shouts from those behind, answered by others on both flanks. Shots, too, were fired as signals to call the attention of other parties. Several times the Seneca chief stopped and listened attentively, and then changed his course as he heard suspicious noises ahead. Those behind them were coming up, although still at some distance in the rear. They could hear the sound of breaking trees and bushes as their pursuers followed them in a body.

"Ef it was only the fellows behind," Peter said, "we could leave them easy enough, but the wood seems alive with the varmint."

It was evident the alarm had spread through the forest, and that the bands scattered here and there were aware that an enemy was in their midst. The dropping fire, which the pursuers kept up, afforded an indication as to the direction in which they were making, and the ringing war-whoop of the hostile Indians conveyed the intelligence still more surely.

Presently there was a shout a short distance ahead, followed by the sound of a rifle ball as it whizzed close to Harold's head and buried itself in a tree that he was passing. In a moment each of the party had sheltered behind a tree.

"It's of no use, chief," Peter said. "We'll have the hull pack from behind upon us in five minutes. We must run for it and take our chances of being hit."

Swerving somewhat from their former line, they again ran on; bullets whisked round them, but they did not pause to fire a shot in return.

"Tarnation!" Peter exclaimed, as the trees in front of them opened and they found themselves on the edge of another clearing. It was considerably larger than that which they had lately left, being three hundred yards across, and extending back from the lake fully half a mile. As in the previous case, a log hut stood in the center, some two hundred yards back from the lake.

"There's nothing for it, chief," Peter said. "We must take to the house and fight it out there. There's a hull gang of fellows in the forest ahead, and they'll shoot us down if we cross the clearing."

Without a moment's hesitation the party rushed across the clearing to the hut. Several shots were fired as they dashed across the open, but they gained the place of refuge in safety. The hut was deserted. It had probably belonged to royalists, for its rough furniture lay broken on the ground; boxes and cupboards had been forced open, and the floor was strewn with broken crockery and portions of wearing apparel.

Harold looked round. Several of the party were bleeding from slight wounds.

"Now to the windows," Peter said as he barred the door. "Pile up bedding and anything else that ye can find against the shutters, and keep yerselves well under cover. Don't throw away a shot; we'll want all our powder, I can tell ye. Quickly, now--there aint no time to be lost."

While some began carrying out his instructions below, others bounded upstairs and scattered themselves through the upper rooms. There were two windows on each side of the house--one at each end. Disregarding the latter, Peter and Harold took post at the windows looking toward the forest from which they had just come. The chief and another Indian posted themselves to watch the other side. At first no one was to be seen. The party who had fired at them as they ran across the open had waited for the coming up of the strong band who were following, before venturing to show themselves. The arrival of the pursuers was heralded by the opening of a heavy fire toward the house. As the assailants kept themselves behind trees, no reply was made, and the defenders occupied themselves by piling the bedding against the shutters, which they had hastily closed. Loop-holes had been left in the walls when the hut was first built; the moss with which they were filled up was torn out, and each man took his post at one of these. As no answering shot came from the house the assailants became bolder, and one or two ventured to show themselves from, behind shelter. In a moment Harold and Peter, whose rifles would carry more truly and much further than those of the Indians, fired.

"Two wiped out!" Peter said, as the men fell, and shouts of anger arose from the woods. "That'll make them careful."

This proof of the accuracy of the aim of the besieged checked their assailants, and for some time they were very careful not to expose themselves. From both sides of the forest a steady fire was maintained. Occasionally an answering shot flashed out from the house when one of the enemy incautiously showed an arm or a part of his body from behind the trees, and it was seldom the rifles were fired in vain. Four or five of the Americans were shot through the head as they leaned forward to fire, and after an hour's exchange of bullets the attack ceased.

"What are they going to do now?" Harold asked.

"I expect they're going to wait till nightfall," Peter said. "There's no moon, and they'll be able to work up all round the house. Then they'll make a rush at the door and lower windows. We'll shoot down a good many on 'em, and then they'll burst their way in or set fire to the hut, and there'll be an end of it. That's what'll happen."

"And you think there is no way of making our way out?" Harold asked.

"It's a mighty poor chance, if there's one at all," the hunter replied. "I should say by the fire there must be nigh a hundred of 'em now, and it's likely that, by nightfall, there'll be three times as many. As soon as it gets dusk they'll creep out from the woods and form a circle round the house and gradually work up to it. Now let's cook some vittles; we've had nothing to eat this morning yet, and it must be nigh eleven o'clock. I don't see why we should be starved, even if we have got to be killed to-night."

One of the party was left on watch on each side of the house, and the others gathered in the room below, where a fire was lit and the strips of dried deer flesh which they carried were soon frying over it. Harold admired the air of indifference with which his companions set about preparing the meat. Everyone was aware of the desperate nature of the position, but no allusion was made to it. The negro had caught the spirit of his companions, but his natural loquacity prevented his imitating their habitual silence.

"Dis bad affair, Massa Harold," he said. "We jess like so many coons up in tree, wid a whole pack ob dogs round us, and de hunters in de distance coming up wid de guns. Dis chile reckon dat some ob dem hunters will get hit hard before dey get us. Jake don't care one bit for himself, massa, but he bery sorry to see you in such a fix."

"It can't be helped, Jake," Harold said as cheerfully as he could. "It was my firing that shot which got us into it, and yet I cannot blame myself. We could not stand by and see those ruffians murder a woman and child."

"Dat's so, Massa Harold; dere was no possinbility of seeing dat. I reckon dat when dose rascals come to climb de stairs dey'll find it are bery hard work."

"I don't think they will try, Jake. They are more likely to heap brushwood against the door and windows and set it alight, and then shoot us down as we rush out. This hut is not like the one I had to defend against the Iroquois. That was built to repel Indians' attacks; this is a mere squatter's hut."

After the meal was over Peter and the Seneca chief went upstairs, looked through the loop-holes, and talked long and earnestly together; then they rejoined the party below.

"The chief and I are of opinion," Peter said to Harold, "that it are of no manner of use our waiting to be attacked here. They'd burn us out to a sartinty; we should have no show of a fight at all. Anything's better than that. Now, what we propose is that, directly it gets fairly dark, we'll all creep out and make for the lake. Even if they have formed their circle round us, they aint likely to be as thick there as they are on the other side. What they'll try to do, in course, is to prevent our taking to the forest; and there'll be such a grist of 'em that I don't believe one of us would get through alive if we tried it. Now they'll not be so strong toward the lake, and we might break through to the water. I don't say as there's much chance of our getting away, for I tell you fairly that I don't believe that there's any chance at all; but the chief, here, and his braves don't want their sculps to hang in the wigwams of the Chippewas, and I myself, ef I had the choice, would rather be drownded than shot down. It don't make much difference; but, of the two, I had rather. Ef we can reach the lake, we can swim out of gunshot range. I know you can swim like a fish, and so can Jake, and the Indians swim as a matter of course. Ef we dive at first we may get off; it'll be so dark they won't see us with any sartainty beyond fifty yards. When we're once fairly out in the lake we can take our chance."

"And is there a chance, Peter? Although, if there is none, I quite agree with you that I would rather be drowned than shot down. If one were sure of being killed by the first shot that would be the easiest death; but if we were only wounded they would probably hang us in the morning."

"That's so," the hunter said. "Waal, I can hardly say that there's a chance, and yet I can't say as how there aint. In the first place, they may have some canoes and come out after us; there's pretty safe to be some along the shore here. The settlers would have had 'em for fishing."

"But what chance will that give us?" Harold asked.

"Waal," the hunter replied, "I reckon in that case as our chance is a fair one. Ef we dive and come up close alongside we may manage to upset one of 'em, and, in that case, we might get off. That's one chance. Then ef they don't come out in canoes, we might swim three or four miles down the lake and take to land. They couldn't tell which way to go and would have to scatter over a long line. It's just possible as we might land without being seen. Once in the woods and we'd be safe. So you see, we have two chances. In course we must throw away our rifles and ammunition before we come to the water."

"At any rate," Harold said, "the plan is a hopeful one, and I agree with you that it is a thousand times better to try it than it is to stop here with the certainty of being shot down before morning."

The afternoon passed quietly. A few shots were fired occasionally from the wood, and taunting shouts were heard of the fate which awaited them when night approached.

A vigilant watch was kept from the upper windows, but Peter thought that it was certain the enemy would make no move until it became perfectly dark, although they would establish a strong cordon all round the clearing in case the besieged should try and break out. Harold trembled with impatience to be off as the night grew darker and darker. It seemed to him that at any moment the assailants might be narrowing the circle round the house, and, had he been a leader, he would have given the word long before the scout made a move.

At last Peter signaled that the time had come. It was perfectly dark when the bars were noiselessly removed from the door and the party stole out. Everything seemed silent, but the very stillness made the danger appear more terrible. Peter had impressed upon Harold and Jake the necessity for moving without making the slightest noise. As soon as they left the house the whole party dropped on their hands and knees. Peter and the Seneca chief led the way; two of the braves came next; Harold and Jake followed; the remaining Indians crawled in the rear. Peter had told his comrades to keep as close as possible to the Indians in front of them, and, grasping their rifles, they crept along the ground. As they led the way Peter and the Seneca carefully removed from before them every dried twig and threw it on one side.

The distance to be traversed from the hut to the water was about two hundred yards, and half of this was passed over before they encountered any obstacle. Then suddenly there was an exclamation, and Peter and the Seneca sprang to their feet, as they came in contact with two men crawling in the opposite direction. They were too close to use their rifles, but a crushing blow from the Seneca's tomahawk cleft down the man in front of him, while Peter drew his long knife from its sheath and buried it in the body of his opponent.

The others had also leaped to their feet, and each, as he did so, fired at the dark figures which rose around them. They had the advantage of the surprise; several scattered shots answered their volley, then, with their rifles clubbed, they rushed forward. For a moment there was a hand-to-hand fight. Harold had just struck down a man opposite to him when another sprang upon him; so sudden was the attack that he fell from the shock. But in an instant Jake buried his knife between his opponent's shoulders and dragged Harold to his feet.

"Run for your life, Massa Harold. De whole gang's upon us!"

And indeed the instant the first shot broke the silence of the woods a babel of sounds arose from the whole circuit of the clearing; shouts and yells burst out from hundreds of throats. There was no further use for concealment, and from all sides the men who had been advancing to the attack rushed in the direction where the conflict was taking place. This lasted but a few seconds. As Peter had expected, the line was thinner toward the lake than upon the other sides, and the rush of nine men had broken through it. Shouts were heard from the woods on either side extending down to the water, showing that the precaution had been taken by the assailants of leaving a portion of their force to guard the line of forest should the defenders break through the circle.

At headlong speed the little band rushed down to the water's side, dropped their ammunition pouches by its edge, threw their rifles a few yards into the water, to be recovered, perhaps, on some future occasion, and then dived in. The nearest of the pursuers were some thirty yards behind when they neared the water's edge. Swimming as far under water as they could hold their breath, each came to the surface for an instant, and then again dived. Momentarily as they showed themselves they heard the rattle of musketry behind, and the bullets splashed thickly on the water. The night, however, was so dark that the fire could only be a random one. Until far out from the shore they continued diving and then gathered together.

"We're pretty well out of range, now," Peter said, "and quite out of sight of the varmints. Now we can wait a bit and see what they do next."

The enemy were still keeping up a heavy fire from the shore, hallooing and shouting to each other as they fancied they caught a glimpse of their enemies.

"There must be two or three hundred of 'em," Peter said. "We've fooled 'em nicely, so far."

By the crashing of the bushes the fugitives could hear strong parties making their way along the shore in either direction. An hour passed, during which the fugitives floated nearly opposite the clearing.

"Hullo!" Peter exclaimed presently. "There's a canoe coming along the lake. I expect they got it from Cameron's."

As he spoke a canoe appeared round the point. Two men were standing up holding blazing torches; two others paddled; while two, rifle in hand, sat by them. Almost at the same moment another canoe, similarly manned, pushed out from the shore immediately opposite.

"I wish we had known of that canoe," Peter said; "it would have saved us a lot of trouble; but we had no time for looking about. I suspected them settlers must have had one laid up somewheres. Now," he went on, "let's make our plans. The canoes are sure to keep pretty nigh each other. They'll most likely think as we've gone down the lake and'll not be looking very sharply after us at present. It'll never do to let 'em pass us. Now Jake and I and two of the Injuns will take one canoe, and the chief and three of his braves the other. We must move round so as to get between 'em and the shore, and then dive and come up close to 'em. Now, Harold, do you swim out a bit further and then make a splash so as to call their attention. Do it once or twice till you see that they've got their eyes turned that way. Then be very quiet, so as to keep 'em watching for another sound. That'll be our moment for attacking 'em."

They waited till the two canoes joined each other and paddled slowly out from the shore. Then the eight swimmers started off to make their detour, while Harold swam quietly further out into the lake. The canoes were about three hundred yards from shore and were paddling very slowly, the occupants keeping a fixed look along the lake. There was perfect quiet on the shore now, and when Harold made a slight splash with his hand upon the water he saw that it was heard. Both canoes stopped rowing, the steerers in each case giving them a steer so that they lay broadside to the land, giving each man a view over the lake. They sat as quiet as if carved in stone. Again Harold made a splash, but this time a very slight one, so slight that it could hardly reach the ears of the listeners.

A few words were exchanged by the occupants of the boats.

"They are further out on the lake, Bill," one said.

"I am not sure," another answered. "I rather think the sound was further down. Listen again."

Again they sat motionless. Harold swam with his eyes fixed upon them. Every face was turned his way and none was looking shoreward. Then, almost at the same instant there was a shout from both boats. The men with torches seemed to lose their balance. The lights described a half circle through the air and were extinguished. A shout of astonishment broke from the occupants, mingled with the wild Seneca war-yell, and he knew that both canoes were upset.

There was a sound of a desperate struggle going on. Oaths and wild cries rose from the water. Heavy blows were struck, while from the shore arose loud shouts of dismay and rage. In two minutes all was quiet on the water. Then came Peter's shout:

"This way, Harold! We'll have the canoes righted and bailed in a minute. The varmin's all wiped out."

With a lightened heart Harold swam toward the spot. The surprise had been a complete success. The occupants of the canoes, intent only upon the pursuit and having no fear of attack--for they knew that the fugitives must have thrown away their rifles--were all gazing intently out on the lake, when, close to each canoe on the shore side, four heads rose from out of the water. In an instant eight hands had seized the gunwales, and, before the occupants were aware of their danger, the canoes were upset.

Taken wholly by surprise, the Americans were no match for their assailants. The knives of the latter did their work before the frontiersmen had thoroughly grasped what had happened. Two or three, indeed, had made a desperate fight, but they were no match for their opponents, and the struggle was quickly over.

On Harold reaching the canoes he found them already righted and half emptied of water. The paddles were picked up, and, in a few minutes, with a derisive shout of adieu to their furious enemy on the shore, the two canoes paddled out into the lake. When they had attained a distance of about half a mile from the shore they turned the boats heads and paddled north. In three hours they saw lights in the wood.

"There's the troops," Peter said. "Soldiers are never content unless they're making fires big enough to warn every redskin within fifty miles that they're coming."

As they approached the shore the challenge from the English sentinel came over the water:

"Who comes there?"

"Friends," Peter replied.

"Give the password."

"How on arth am I to give the password," Peter shouted back, "when we've been three days away from the camp?"

"If you approach without the password I fire," the sentinel said.

"I tell ye," Peter shouted, "we're scouts with news for the general."

"I can't help who you are," the sentinel said. "I have got my orders."

"Pass the word along for an officer," Harold shouted. "We have important news."

The sentry called to the one next him, and so the word was passed along the line. In a few minutes an officer appeared on the shore, and, after a short parley, the party were allowed to land, and Peter and Harold were at once conducted to the headquarters of General Burgoyne.