Chapter XV. The Island Refuge.
 

The night was intensely cold and still and the stars shone brightly through the bare boughs overhead. "Are you sure you are going all right?" Nelly asked Harold. "It is so dark here that it seems impossible to know which way we are going." "You can trust the Indians," Harold said. "Even if there was not a star to be seen they could find their way by some mysterious instinct. How you are grown, Nelly! Your voice does not seem much changed, and I am longing to see your face."

"I expect you are more changed than I am, Harold," the girl answered. "You have been going through so much since we last met, and you seem to have grown so tall and big. Your voice has changed very much, too; it is the voice of a man. How in the world did you find us here?"

Pearson had gone on ahead to speak to the Seneca, but he now joined them again.

"You mustn't talk," he said. "I hope there's no redskins within five miles of us now, but there's never any saying where they may be."

There was, Harold thought, a certain sharpness in the hunter's voice, which told of a greater anxiety than would be caused by the very slight risk of the quietly spoken words being heard by passing redskins, and he wondered what it could be.

They were now, he calculated, within a mile of the hiding place where they had left the boat, and they had every reason for believing that none of the Indians would be likely to have followed the shore so far. That they would be pursued and that, in so heavily laden a canoe, they would have great difficulty in escaping, he was well aware, but he relied on the craft of the hunters and Senecas for throwing their pursuers off the trail.

All at once the trees seemed to open in front, and in a few minutes the party reached the river. A cry of astonishment and of something akin to terror broke from Harold. As far as the eye could reach the lake was frozen. Their escape was cut off.

"That's jest what I've been expecting," Pearson said. "The ice had begun to form at the edge when we landed, and three days and nights of such frost as we've had since was enough to freeze Ontario. What on arth's to be done?"

No one answered. Peter and the redskins had shared Pearson's anxiety, but to Harold and Cameron the disappointment was a terrible one; as to Jake, he left all the thinking to be done by the others. Harold stood gazing helplessly on the expanse of ice which covered the water. It was not a smooth sheet, but was rough and broken, as if, while it had been forming, the wind had broken the ice up into cakes again and again, while the frost as often had bound them together.

They had struck the river within a few hundred yards of the place where the canoe was hidden, and, after a short consultation between the Seneca chief, Peter Lambton, and Pearson, moved down toward that spot.

"What are you thinking of doing?" Harold asked when they gathered round the canoe.

"We're going to load ourselves with the ammunition and deer's flesh," Peter said, "and make for a rocky island which lies about a mile off here. I noticed it as we landed. There's nothing to do but to fight it out to the last there. It are a good place for defense, for the redskins won't like to come out across the open, and, even covered by a dark night, they'd show on this white surface."

"Perhaps they won't trace us."

"Not trace us!" the trapper repeated scornfully. "Why, when daylight comes, they'll pick up our track and follow it as easy as you could that of a wagon across the snow."

They were just starting when Harold gave a little exclamation.

"What is it, lad?"

"A flake of snow fell on my face."

All looked up. The stars had disappeared. Another flake and another fell on the upturned faces of the party.

"Let's thank the great God," Peter said quietly. "There's a chance for our lives yet. Half an hour's snow and the trail 'll be lost."

Faster and faster the snowflakes came down. Again the leaders consulted.

"We must change our plans, now," Peter said, turning to the others. "So long as they could easily follow our tracks it mattered nothing that they'd find the canoe here; but now it's altogether different. We must take it along with us."

The weight of the canoe was very small. The greater part of its contents had already been removed. There was a careful look round to see that nothing remained on the bank; then four of the men lifted it on their shoulders, and the whole party stepped out upon the ice. The snow was now falling heavily, and to Harold's eyes there was nothing to guide them in the direction they were following. Even the Indians would have been at a loss had not the Seneca, the instant the snow began to fall, sent on one of his followers at full speed toward the island. Harold wondered at the time what his object could be as the Indian darted off across the ice, but now he understood. Every minute or two the low hoot of an owl was heard, and toward this sound the party directed their way through the darkness and snow.

So heavy was the fall that the island rose white before them as they reached it. It was of no great extent--some twenty or thirty yards across, and perhaps twice that length. It rose steeply from the water to a height of from ten to fifteen feet. The ground was rough and broken, and several trees and much brushwood grew in the crevices of the rock.

The Seneca and the hunters made a rapid examination of the island, and soon fixed upon the spot for their camp. Toward one end the island was split in two, and an indentation ran some distance up into it. Here a clear spot was found some three or four feet above the level of the water. It was completely hidden by thick bushes from the sight of anyone approaching by water. There the canoe was turned over, and the girls, who were both suffering from the intense cold, were wrapped up in blankets and placed under its shelter. The camp was at the lower end of the island and would, therefore, be entirely hidden from view of Indians gathered upon the shore. In such a snowstorm light would be invisible at a very short distance, and Peter did not hesitate to light a fire in front of the canoe.

For three hours the snow continued to fall. The fire had been sheltered by blankets stretched at some distance above it. Long before the snow ceased it had sunk down to a pile of red embers. A small tent had now been formed of blankets for the use of the girls; brushwood had been heaped over this, and upon the brushwood snow had been thrown, the whole making a shelter which would be warm and comfortable in the bitterest weather. A pile of hot embers was placed in this little tent until it was thoroughly heated; blankets were then spread, and the girls were asked to leave the shelter of the canoe and take their place there.

The canoe itself was now raised on four sticks three feet from the ground; bushes were laid round it and snow piled on, thus forming the walls of which the canoe was the roof. All this was finished long before the snow had ceased falling, and this added a smooth white surface all over, so that, to a casual eye, both tent and hut looked like two natural ridges of the ground. They were a cheerful party which assembled in the little hut. The remainder of the embers of the fire had been brought in, and, intense as was the cold outside, it was warm and comfortable within. Tea was made and pipes filled, and they chatted some time before going to sleep.

Duncan Cameron was like a man transfigured. His joy and thankfulness for the recovery of his daughter were unbounded. Harold's pleasure, too, at the rescue of his cousin was very great, and the others were all gratified at the success of their expedition. It was true that the Indians had as yet gained no scalps, but Harold had promised them before starting that, should the expedition be successful, they should be handsomely rewarded.

"We mustn't reckon as we are safe yet," Peter said in answer to one of Harold's remarks. "The redskins aint going to let us slip through their fingers so easy as all that. They've lost our trail and have nothing but their senses to guide 'em, but an Injun's senses aint easily deceived in these woods. Ef this snow begins again and keeps on for two or three days they may be puzzled; but ef it stops they'll cast a circle round their camp at a distance beyond where we could have got before the snow ceased, and ef they find no new trails they'll know that we must be within that circle. Then, as to the boats, when they find as we don't come down to the two as they've discovered, and that we've not made off by land, they'll guess as there was another canoe hidden somewhere, and they'll sarch high and low for it. Waal, they won't find it; and then they'll suppose that we may have taken to the ice, and they'll sarch that. Either they'll git to open water or to the other side. Ef there's open water anywhere within a few miles they may conclude that we've carried a canoe, launched it there, and made off. In that case, when they've sarched everywhere, they may give it up. Ef there aint no such open water, they'll sarch till they find us. It aint likely that this island will escape 'em. With nine good rifles here we can hold the place against the hull tribe, and as they'd show up against the snow, they can no more attack by night than by day."

"I don't think our food will hold out beyond seven or eight days," Harold said.

"Jest about that," Peter answered; "but we can cut a hole in the ice and fish, and can hold out that way, if need be, for weeks. The wust of it is that the ice aint likely to break up now until the spring. I reckon our only chance is to wait till we git another big snowstorm and then to make off. The. snow will cover our trail as fast as we make it, and, once across to the other shore, we may git away from the varmints. But I don't disguise from you, Harold, that we're in a very awk'ard trouble, and that it 'll need all the craft of the chief, here, and all the experience of Pearson and me to get us out of it."

"The guid God has been vera merciful to us sae far," Duncan Cameron said; "he will surely protect us to the end. Had he na sent the snow just when he did, the savages could hae followed our trail at once; it was a miracle wrought in our favor. He has aided us to rescue the twa bairns frae the hands of the Indians, and we may surely trust in his protection to the end. My daughter and her friend hae, I am very sure, before lying down to sleep, entreated his protection. Let us a' do the same."

And the old soldier, taking off his cap, prayed aloud to God to heed and protect them.

Harold and the frontiersmen also removed their caps and joined in the prayer, and the Senecas looked on, silent and reverent, at an act of worship which was rare among their white companions.

As Peter was of opinion that there was no chance whatever of any search on the part of the Indians that night, and therefore there was no need to set a watch, the whole party wrapped themselves up in their blankets and were soon asleep.

When Harold woke next morning it was broad daylight. The Senecas had already been out and had brought news that a strong party of Indians could be seen moving along the edge of the forest, evidently searching for a canoe. One of the Indians was placed on watch, and two or three hours later he reported that the Indians were now entirely out of sight and were, when last seen, scouting along the edge of the forest.

"Now," Peter said, "the sooner we git another snowstorm the better. Ef we'd been alone we could have pushed on last night, but the gals was exhausted and would soon have died of the cold. Now, with a fresh start they'd do. Ef we can't cross the lake I calculate that we're about thirty mile from a p'int on the north shore below the falls of Ste. Marie, and we could land there and strike across through the woods for the settlement. It'd be a terrible long journey round the north of Huron, but we must try it ef we can't get across."

"But we could go off by night, surely," Harold said, "even if there is no fresh snow."

"We could do that," Peter replied; "no doubt of it. But ef they were to find our track the next day, ay, or within three days, they'd follow us and overtake us afore we got to the settlements. Ef we was alone, it'd be one thing; but with the gals it'd be another altogether. No, we must stop here till a snowstorm comes, even if we have to stop for a month. There's no saying how soon some of them Injuns may be loafing round, and we daren't leave a trail for 'em to take up."

They had scarcely ceased speaking when a low call from the Indian placed on watch summoned the chief to his side. A minute later the latter rejoined the group below and said a few words to Peter.

"Jest as I thought!" the latter grumbled, rising with his rifle across his arm. "Here are some of the varmints coming out this 'ere way. Likely enough it's a party of young braves jest scouting about on their own account, to try and get honor by discovering us when their elders have failed. It would have been better for them to have stopped at home."

The party now crept up to the top of the rock, keeping carefully below its crest.

"Ef you show as much as a hair above the top line," Peter said, "they'll see you, sartin."

"Would it not be well," Harold asked, "for one of us to show himself? There is no possibility of further concealment, and if they go off without any of them being killed the others might be less bitter against us than they would if they had lost some of their tribe."

Peter laughed scornfully.

"Ye haven't had much to do with Injuns, lad, but I should have thought you'd have had better sense nor that. Haven't these Injuns been a-murdering and a-slaying along the frontier all the summer, falling on defenseless women and children? Marcy and pity aint in their natur, and, fight or no fight, our scalps will dry in their wigwams if they get us into their power. They know that we can shoot and mean to, and that 'll make 'em careful of attacking us, and every hour is important. Now," he said to the others, "each of you cover a man and fire straight through your sights when I gives the word. There's others watching 'em, you may be sure, and ef the whole five go down together, it'll make 'em think twice afore they attack us again."

Peering between some loose rocks, so that he could see without exposing his head above the line, Harold watched the five Indians approaching. They had evidently some doubts as to the wisdom of the course they were pursuing, and were well aware that they ran a terrible risk standing there in the open before the rifles of those concealed, should the fugitives be really there. Nevertheless, the hope of gaining distinction and the fear of ridicule from those watching them on shore, should they turn back with their mission unaccomplished, inspired them with resolution. When within three hundred yards of the island they halted for a long time. They stood gazing fixedly; but, although no signs of life could be perceived, they were too well versed in Indian warfare to gain any confidence from the apparent stillness. Throwing themselves flat on the snow and following each other in single line, by which means their bodies were nearly concealed from sight in the track which their leader made through the light, yielding snow, they made a complete circuit of the island. They paused for some time opposite the little forked entrance in which the camp was situated, but apparently saw nothing, for they kept round until they completed the circuit.

When they reached the point from which they had started there was, apparently, a short consultation among them. Then they continued their course in the track that they had before made until they reached a spot facing the camp. Then they changed order, and, still prone in the snow, advanced abreast toward the island.

"The varmints have guessed that, if we are here, this is the place where we'd be hid," Peter whispered in Harold's ear.

As the Indians made their circuit the party in the island had changed their position so as always to keep out of sight. They were now on the top of the island, which was a sort of rough plateau. The girls had been warned, when they left them, to remain perfectly quiet in their shelter whatever noise they might hear. Peter and the Seneca watched the Indians through holes which they had made with their ramrods through a bank of snow. The others remained flat in the slight depression behind it. At the distance of one hundred and fifty yards the Indians stopped.

"The varmints see something!" Peter said. "Maybe they can make out the two snow heaps through the bushes; maybe they can see some of our footsteps in the snow. They're going to fire!" he exclaimed. "Up, lads! They may send a bullet into the hut whar the gals is hid."

In an instant the line of men sprang to their feet. The Indians, taken by surprise at the sudden appearance of a larger number of enemies than they expected, fired a hasty volley and then sprang to their feet and dashed toward the shore. But they were deadly rifles which covered them. Peter, Harold, and Pearson could be trusted not to miss even a rapidly moving object at that distance, and the men were all good shots. Not in regular order, but as each covered his man, the rifles were discharged. Four out of the five Indians fell, and an arm of the fifth dropped useless by his side; however, he still kept on. The whites reloaded rapidly, and Harold was about to fire again when Pearson put his hand on his shoulder.

"Don't fire! We've shown them that we can shoot straight. It's jest as well at present that they shouldn't know how far our rifles will carry."

The four Senecas dashed out across the snow and speedily returned, each with a scalp hanging at his belt.

A loud yell of anger and lamentation had risen from the woods skirting the shore as the Indians fell, but after this died away deep silence reigned.

"What will be their next move?" Cameron asked Peter, as they gathered again in their low hut, having placed one of the Indians on watch.

"We'll hear nothing of 'em till nightfall," Peter said. "Their first move, now they know as we're here, will be to send off to fetch up all the tribe who're in search of us. When it comes on dark they'll send scouts outside of us on the ice to see as we don't escape--not that they'd much mind ef we did, for they could track us through the snow and come up with us whenever they chose. No, they may be sure we'll stay where we are. It may be they'll attack us to-night, maybe not. It'd be a thing more risksome than redskins often undertake to cross the snow under the fire of nine rifles. I aint no doubt they'd try and starve us out, for they must know well enough that we can have no great store of provisions. But they know as well as we do that, if another snowstorm comes on, we might slip away from 'em without leaving a foot-mark behind. It's jest that thought as may make 'em attack."

"Well, we can beat them off, if they do," Harold said confidently.

"Waal, we may and we may not," the scout answered. "Anyhow we can kill a grist of 'em afore they turn us out on this 'ere island."

"That's sartin enough," Pearson put in; "but they're a strong tribe, and ef they can harden their hearts and make a rush it's all up with us. I allow that it's contrary to their custom, but when they see no other way to do with, they may try."

"I suppose if they do try a rush," Harold said, "they will do it against this end of the island?"

"Yes, you may bet your money on that," the scout answered. "In other places the rock goes pretty nigh straight up from the water, but here it's an easy landing. Being so close to 'em they're sure to know all about it; but even if they didn't, the chap that got away would tell 'em. I don't much expect an attack to-night--the bands won't be back yet. They'll have a grand palaver to-night, and there'll be a big talk afore they decide what is best to be done; so I think we're safe for to-night. To-morrow we'll set to work and build a shelter for the pretty ones up above, where they'll be safe from stray shots. Then we'll throw up a breastwork with loose rocks on the top of the slope round this cove, so as to give it to 'em hot when they land."

"You have plenty of powder?" Harold asked.

"Dollops," Peter replied; "more'n we could fire away if we was besieged here for a month."

"Then you could spare me twenty pounds or so?"

"We could spare you a whole keg if you like; we've got three full. But what are you thinking of now, young un?"

"I was thinking," Harold answered, "of forming a line of holes, say three feet apart, in the ice across the mouth of the cove. If we were to charge them with powder and lay a train between them, we could, when the first dozen or so have passed the line, fire the train and break up the ice. This would prevent the others following, and give them such a bad scare that they would probably make off, and we could easily deal with those who had passed the line before we fired it."

"That's a good idea of yours, lad. A fust-rate idea. The ice must be a foot thick by this time, and ef you put in your charges eight inches and tamp 'em well down you'll shiver the ice for a long way round. The idea is a fust-rate one."

Pearson and Cameron assisted in the work, and the Indians, when Peter had explained the plan to them, gave deep gutteral exclamations of surprise and approval. The process of blasting was one wholly unknown to them.

"I will mak' the holes," Cameron said. "I hae seen a deal of blasting when I was in the army. I can heat the end of a ramrod in a fire and hammer it into the shape of a borer."

"A better way than that, Cameron," Harold said, "will be to heat the end of a ramrod white-hot. You will melt holes in the ice in half the time it would take you to bore them. That was what I was thinking of doing."

"Right you are, lad!" Pearson said. "Let's set about it at once."

A large fire was now lighted outside the hut, for there was no longer any occasion for secrecy. The ends of three or four of the ramrods were placed in the fire, and two lines of holes were bored in the ice across the mouth of the little cove. These lines were twelve feet apart, and they calculated that the ice between them would be completely broken up, even if the fractures did not extend a good way beyond the lines. The holes were of rather larger diameter than the interior of a gun barrel. It was found that the ice was about fifteen inches thick, and the holes were taken down ten inches. Three or four charges of powder were placed in each; a stick of a quarter of an inch in diameter was then placed in each hole, and pounded ice was rammed tightly in around it until the holes were filled up, a few drops of water being poured in on the top, so as to freeze the whole into a solid mass. There was no fear of the powder being wetted, for the frost was intense. Then the sticks were withdrawn and the holes left filled with powder. With the heated ramrods little troughs were sunk half an inch deep, connecting the tops of the holes; lines of powder were placed in these trenches; narrow strips of skin were laid over them, and the snow was then thrown on again. The two lines of trenches were connected at the ends at the shore, so that they could be fired simultaneously.

While the men were occupied with this work the girls had cooked some venison steaks and made some cakes.

It was just nightfall when they had finished, and all sat down and enjoyed a hearty meal. Peter and one of the Senecas undertook the watch for half the night, when they were to be relieved by Pearson and the chief. The early part of the night passed off quietly, but an hour before morning the party were aroused by the sharp crack of two rifles. Seizing their arms, all rushed out.

"What is it, Pearson?"

"Two of their scouts," Pearson answered, pointing to two dark bodies on the snow at a distance of about one hundred yards. "I suppose they wanted to see ef we was on the watch. We made 'em out almost as soon as they left the shore, but we let 'em come on until we was sartin of our aim. There aint no more about as we can see, so ye can all turn in again for another hour or two."

There was no fresh alarm before morning, and, when the sun rose, it shone over a wide expanse of snow, unbroken save where lay the bodies of the two Indians--whose scalps already hung at the belt of the Seneca--and those of their four comrades who had fallen in the first attack.

The day passed quietly. Toward the afternoon two Indians were seen approaching from the shore. They were unarmed and held their hands aloft as a sign of amity. Peter and Pearson at once laid down their guns, left the island, and advanced to meet them. They were Indian chiefs of importance.

"Why have my white brothers stolen in at night upon the village of War Eagle and slain his young men?"

"It is what you have been doing all last year, chief," Pearson, who spoke the dialect better than Peter, replied. "But we injured no one. We didn't kill women and children, as your warriors have done in the white villages. We only came to take what you had stolen from us, and ef your young men have been killed it's only because they tried to attack us."

"The white men must see," the chief said, "that they cannot get away. The water is hard, and their canoe will not swim in it. The snow is deep, and the tender feet cannot walk through it. My warriors are very numerous, and the white men cannot fight their way through them. The white settlements are very far away, and their friends cannot reach them; and it will be many months before the water softens, and long before that the white men will have eaten their moccasins."

"Waal, chief," Pearson said, "we're in a tight hole, I grant you; but I'm far from allowing that we aint no chances left to us yet. What do you propose? I suppose you've some proposition to make."

"Let the white men leave behind them their guns and their powder and the maidens they have taken from War Eagle's camp; then let them go in peace. They shall not be harmed."

Pearson gave a short laugh.

"War Eagle must think the white men are foolish. What's to prevent the red warriors from taking all our scalps when our arms are in their hands?"

"The word of a great chief," War Eagle said. "War Eagle never lies."

"You may not lie, chief," Pearson said bluntly, "but I've known many a treaty broken afore now. You and your people may not touch us, but there's other redskins about, and I wouldn't give a beaver's skin for our sculps ef we were to take the back trail to the settlements without arms in our hands. Besides that, we've among us the father of the gal who was stole far away off from Lake Champlain, and a relative of hers whose parents you've killed down on the lake. Ef we were to agree to give up our arms, it stands to reason it aint likely they'd agree to give up the gals. No, no, chief; your terms aren't reasonable. But I tell ye what we will do; ef you'll give us your word that neither you nor your tribe'll molest us in our retreat we'll go back to the settlements, and 'll engage that, when we get back there, we'll send you nine of the best rifles money can buy, with plenty of powder and ball, and blankets and such like."

The chief waved his hand in contemptuous refusal of the terms.

"There are six of my young men's scalps at your girdles, and their places are empty. War Eagle has spoken."

"Very well, chief," Pearson said. "Ef nothing but sculps will content you, to fighting it must come; but I warn you that your tribe'll lose a good many more afore they get ours."

So saying, without another word, they separated, each party making their way back to their friends.

"What on earth can he have proposed such terms as those for?" Harold asked, when Pearson had related what had taken place between him and the chief. "He must have known we should not accept them."

"I expect," Pearson said, "he wanted to see who we were and to judge what sort of spirit we had. It may be, too, that there was a party among the tribe who had no stomachs for the job of attacking this place, and so he was obliged to make a show of offering terms to please 'em; but he never meant as they should be accepted. No, I take it they'll wait a few days to see what hunger'll do. They must be pretty sure that we've not a very large supply of food."