True to the Old Flag by G. A. Henty
Chapter VI. Scouting.
A party of six men were seated around a fire in the forest which covered the slopes of the northern shore of Lake Champlain. The spot had been chosen because a great tree had fallen, bringing down several others in its course, and opening a vista through which a view could be obtained of the surface of the lake. The party consisted of Peter Lambton, Harold, Jake, Ephraim Potter, another old frontiersman, and two Indians.
The company under Captain Wilson had made its way safely to the St. Lawrence after undergoing considerable hardships in the forest. They had been obliged to depend entirely on what game they could shoot and such fish as they could catch in the rivers whose course they followed. They had, however, reached Montreal without loss, and there they found that General Carleton had in all about 500 regulars and about 200 volunteers who had recently been engaged.
It was clear that if the people of Canada were as hostile to the connection with England as were those of the other colonies, the little force at the disposal of the English general could do nothing to defend the colony against the strong force which the Americans were collecting for its invasion. Fortunately this was not the case. Although the Canadians were of French descent and the province had been wrested by arms from France, they for the most part preferred being under English rule to joining the insurgent colonies. They had been in no way oppressed by England, their property had been respected, and above all things no attempt had ever been made to interfere with their religion. In the New England provinces the hard Puritan spirit of the early fathers had never ceased to prevail. Those who had fled from England to obtain freedom of worship had been intolerant persecutors of all religion different from their own. The consequence was that the priests of Canada were wholly opposed to any idea of union with the insurgent colonists. Their influence over the people was great, and although these still objected to the English rule and would have readily taken up arms against it under other circumstances, they had too little sympathy with the New Englanders to join in their movement, which, if successful, would have placed Canada under the rule of the United States instead of that of England.
The upper classes of Canadians were almost to a man loyal to the English connection. They had been well treated and enjoyed a greater state of independence than had been the case under French rule. Moreover, they were for the most part descended from old French families, and their sympathies were entirely opposed to popular insurrection. Thus, when Captain Wilson and his party reached Montreal, they found that, in spite of the paucity of English troops under the command of General Carleton, the position was not so bad as had been feared by General Gage. It was possible, and indeed probable, that Upper Canada might fall into the hands of the Americans, and that even Quebec itself might be captured; but unless the people joined the Americans the success of the latter would be but temporary. With the spring the navigation of the river would be open and re-enforcements would arrive from England. The invaders would then be at a disadvantage. Separated from home by a wide tract of forest-covered country, they would have the greatest difficulty in transporting artillery, ammunition, and stores, and, fighting as an army in invasion, they would be placed in a very different position to that occupied by the colonists fighting on their own ground. It was probable that for a time the tide of invasion would succeed.
The Indians of the Five Nations, as those dwelling near the British frontier at this point were called, had volunteered their services to the general to cross the frontier to recapture Ticonderoga and Crown Point, which had been seized by the Americans, and to carry the war into the colonies. But General Carleton, an exceedingly humane and kind-hearted man, shrank from the horrors that such a warfare would entail upon the colonists. He accepted the services of the Indians as far as the absolute defense of Canada from invasion, but refused to allow them to cross the frontier.
On the arrival of Captain Wilson with his little force he was ordered to march at once to the fort of St. John's, which was held by a party of regular troops.
On arriving at that place the two scouts had been sent down toward Lake Champlain to watch the proceedings of the enemy. Harold had obtained leave from his father to accompany the scouts, and Jake had been permitted to form one of the party. Peter Lambton had grumbled a little at this last addition to the number. He knew Jake's affection for his young master, and the great strength of the negro would have rendered him useful in a hand-to-hand fight, but he was altogether unaccustomed to forest work, and his habit of bursting into fits of laughter on the smallest provocation, as is the manner of his race, enraged the scout to the last degree. Indeed, he had not left the fort above an hour when he turned savagely on the negro.
"Look-ee here," he said, "if that's the way ye're a-going on, the sooner ye turns yer face and tramps back to the fort the better. When you were at Concord it done no harm to make as much noise as a jackass braying whenever you opened that mouth of yours, but it won't do in the forests. It would cost us our har and your wool ef yer were to make that noise with the enemy anywhere within fifteen miles of yer. I aint a-going, if I knows it, to risk my sculp on such a venture as this; still less I aint a-going to see this young chap's life thrown away. His father hez put him in my charge, and I aint a-going to see him sacrificed in no such way. So ye've got to make up yer mind; yer have got to keep that mouth of yours shut tight or yer've got to tramp back to the fort."
Jake gave many promises of silence, and although at first he often raised his voice to a point far exceeding that considered by the hunters safe in the woods, he was each time checked by such a savage growl on the part of Peter, or by a punch in the ribs from Harold, that he quickly fell into the ways of the others and never spoke above a loud whisper.
At a short distance from the fort they were joined by the two Indians, who were also out on a scouting expedition on their own account. They had previously been well known both to Peter and Ephraim. They were warriors of the Seneca tribe, one of the Five Nations. They had now been for two days on the north shore of Lake Champlain. They were sitting round a fire eating a portion of a deer which had been shot by Harold that morning. So far they had seen nothing of the enemy. They knew that 3000 men, under Schuyler and Montgomery, had marched to the other end of the lake. The colonists had been sending proclamations across the frontier to the inhabitants, saying that they were coming as friends to free them from the yoke of England and calling upon them to arise and strike for freedom. They were also in negotiation with some of the chiefs of the Five Nations and with other Indian tribes to induce them to join with them.
"I propose," Peter said when the meal was finished and he had lighted his pipe, "to go down the lake and see what they're doing. Deer Tail here tells me that he knows where there's a canoe. He, Harold, and me will go and reconnoiter a bit; the other three had best wait here till we comes back with news. In course, chief," he continued to the other Indian, after explaining to him in his own language what he intended to do, "you'll be guided by circumstances--you can see a long way down the lake, and ef anything should lead you to think that we're in trouble, you can take such steps as may seem best to you. It's mighty little I should think of the crowd of colonists; but ef, as you say, a number of the warriors of the Five Nations, indignant at the rejection, of their offers by the English general, have gone down and joined the colonists, it'll be a different affair altogether."
The Elk, as the second Seneca chief was called, nodded his assent. In a few words Peter told Harold what had been arranged. Jake looked downcast when he heard that he was not to accompany his master, but as he saw the latter had, since leaving the fort, obeyed without questioning every suggestion of the scout, he offered no remonstrance.
A quarter of an hour later Peter rose, Deer Tail followed his example, and Harold at once took up his rifle and fell in in their steps. There was but little talk in the woods, and the matter having been settled, it did not enter the mind either of Peter or of the Indian to say a word of adieu to their comrades. Harold imitated their example, but gave a nod and a smile to Jake as he started.
Half an hour's tramp took them to the shore of the lake. Here they halted for a minute while the Indian closely examined the locality. With the wonderful power of making their way straight through the forest to the required spot, which seems to be almost an instinct among Indians, Deer Tail had struck the lake within two hundred yards of the point which he aimed at. He led the way along the shore until he came to a spot where a great maple had fallen into the lake; here he turned into the forest again, and in fifty yards came to a clump of bushes; these he pushed aside and pointed to a canoe which was lying hidden among them. Peter joined him, the two lifted the boat out, placed it on their shoulders, and carried it to the lake. There were three paddles in it. Peter motioned Harold to take his place in the stern and steer, while he and the Indian knelt forward and put their paddles in the water.
"Keep her along on the right shore of the lake, about fifty yards from the trees. There's no fear of anyone lurking about near this end."
The canoe was light and well made, and darted quickly over the water under the strokes of the two paddlers. It was late in the afternoon when they started, and before they had gone many miles darkness had fallen. The canoe was run in close to shore, where she lay in the shadow of the trees until morning. Just as the sun rose the redskin and Peter simultaneously dipped their paddles in the water and sent the canoe under the arches of the trees. They had at the same instant caught sight of four canoes making their way along the lake.
"Them's Injuns," Peter whispered. "They're scouting to see if the lake's free. If the general could have got a couple of gunboats up the Sorrel the enemy could never have crossed the lake, and it would have given them a month's work to take their guns round it. It's lucky we were well under the trees or we should have been seen. What had we best do, Deer Tail?"
For two or three minutes the scouts conversed together in the Indian tongue.
"The Seneca agrees with me," Peter said. "It's like enough there are Injuns scouting along both shores. We must lay up here till nightfall. Ef we're seen they'd signal by smoke, and we should have them canoes back again in no time. By their coming I expect the expedition is starting, but it won't do to go back without being sure of it."
The canoe was paddled to a spot where the bushes grew thickly by the bank. It was pushed among these, and the three, after eating some cooked deer's flesh which they had brought with them, prepared to pass the day.
"The Seneca and I'll keep watch by turns," the scout said. "We'll wake you if we want ye."
Harold was by this time sufficiently accustomed to the ways of the woods to obey orders at once without offering to take his turn at watching, as his inclination led him to do, and he was soon sound asleep. It was late in the afternoon when he was awoke by the scout touching him.
"There's some critters coming along the bank," he said in a whisper. "They aint likely to see us, but it's best to be ready."
Harold sat up in the canoe, rifle in hand, and, listening intently, heard a slight sound such as would be produced by the snapping of a twig. Presently he heard upon the other side of the bushes, a few yards distant, a few low words in the Indian tongue. He looked at his companions. They were sitting immovable, each with his rifle directed toward the sound, and Harold thought it would fare badly with any of the passers if they happened to take a fancy to peer through the bushes. The Indians had, however, no reason for supposing that there were any enemies upon the lake, and they consequently passed on without examining more closely the thicket by the shore. Not until it was perfectly dark did Peter give the sign for the continuance of the journey. This time, instead of skirting the lake, the canoe was steered out toward its center. For some time they paddled, and then several lights were seen from ahead.
"I thought so," the scout said. "They've crossed to the Isle La Motte and they're making as many fires as if they war having a sort of picnic at home. We must wait till they burns out, for we daren't go near the place with the water lit up for two or three hundred yards round. It won't be long, for I reckon it must be past eleven o'clock now."
The fires were soon seen to burn down. The paddles were dipped in the water and the canoe approached the island.
"I'd give something," Peter said, "to know whether there's any redskins there. Ef there are, our chance of landing without being seen aint worth talking of; ef there aint we might land a hull fleet; at any rate we must risk it. Now, Harold, the chief and me'll land and find out how many men there are here, and, ef we can, how long they're likely to stop. You keep the canoe about ten yards from shore, in the shadow of the trees, and be ready to move close the instant you hear my call. I'll jest give the croak of a frog. The instant we get in you paddle off without a word. Ef ye hears any shouts and judges as how we've been seen, ye must jest act upon the best of yer judgment."
The boat glided noiselessly up to the shore. All was still there, the encampment being at the other side of the island. The two scouts, red and white, stepped noiselessly on to the land. Harold backed the canoe a few paces with a quick stroke upon the paddle, and seeing close to him a spot where a long branch of a tree dipped into the water, he guided the canoe among the foliage and there sat without movement, listening almost breathlessly.
Ere many minutes had elapsed he heard footsteps coming along the shore. They stopped when near him. Three or four minutes passed without the slightest sound, and then a voice said, in tones which the speaker had evidently tried to lower, but which were distinctly audible in the canoe:
"I tell yer, redskin, it seems to me as how you've brought us here on a fool's errand. I don't see no signs of a canoe, and it aint likely that the British would be along the lake here, seeing as how there's a score of canoes with your people in them scouting ahead."
"I heard canoe," another voice said, "first at other end of the island and then coming along here."
"And ef yer did," the first speaker said, "likely enough it was one of the canoes of your people."
"No," the Indian answered. "If canoe come back with news, would have come straight to fires."
"Well, it aint here, anyway," the first speaker said, "and I don't believe yer ever heard a canoe at all. It's enough to make a man swear to be called up jest as we were making ourselves comfortable for the night on account of an Injun's fancies. I wonder at the general's listening to them. However, we've got our orders to go round the island and see ef there's any canoe on either shore; so we'd better be moving, else we shall not get to sleep before morning."
Harold held his breath as the group passed opposite to him. Fortunately the trunk of the tree grew from the very edge of the water, and there were several bushes growing round it, so that at this point the men had to make a slight detour inland. Harold felt thankful indeed that he had taken the precaution of laying his canoe among the thick foliage, for although the night was dark it would have been instantly seen had it been lying on the surface of the lake. Even as it was, a close inspection might have detected it, but the eyes of the party were fixed on the shore, as it was there, if at all, that they expected to find an empty canoe lying.
Harold was uneasy at the discovery that there were still some redskins on the island. It was possible, of course, that the one he had heard might be alone as a scout, but it was more likely that others of the tribe were also there.
After landing, Peter and the Seneca made their way across the island to the side facing the American shore. Creeping cautiously along, they found a large number of flat-bottomed boats, in which the Americans had crossed from the mainland, and which were, Peter thought, capable of carrying 2000 men. They now made their way toward the spot where the forces were encamped. The fires had burned low, but round a few of them men were still sitting and talking. Motioning to the Seneca to remain quiet, Peter sauntered cautiously out on to the clearing where the camp was formed. He had little fear of detection, for he wore no uniform, and his hunter's dress afforded no index to the party to which he was attached.
A great portion of the Americans were still in their ordinary attire, it having been impossible to furnish uniforms for so great a number of men as had been suddenly called to arms throughout the colonies.
From the arbors of boughs which had been erected in all directions, he judged that the force had been already some days upon the island. But large numbers of men were sleeping in the open air, and picking his way cautiously among them, he threw himself down at a short distance from one of the fires by which three or four men were sitting.
For some time they talked of camp matters, the shortness of food, and want of provisions.
"It is bad here," one said presently; "it will be worse when we move forward. Schuyler will be here tomorrow with the rest of the army, and we are to move down to Isle-aux-Noix, at the end of the lake, and I suppose we shall land at once and march against St. John's. There are only a couple of hundred Britishers there, and we shall make short work of them."
"The sooner the better, I say," another speaker remarked. "I am ready enough to fight, but I hate all this waiting about. I want to get back to my farm again."
"You are in a hurry, you are," the other said. "You don't suppose we are going to take Canada in a week's time, do you. Even if the Canadians join us, and by what I hear that aint so sartin after all, we shall have to march down to Quebec, and that's no child's play. I know the country there. It is now September 4. Another month and the winter will be upon us, and a Canadian winter is no joke, I can tell you."
"The more reason for not wasting any more time," the other one grumbled. "If Montgomery had his way we should go at them quickly enough, but Schuyler is always delaying. He has kept us waiting now since the 17th of last month. We might have been halfway to Quebec by this time."
"Yes," the other said, "if the Britishers had run away as we came; but we have got St. John's and Fort Chamblee to deal with, and they may hold out some time. However, the sooner we begin the job the sooner it will be over, and I am heartily glad that we move tomorrow."
Peter had now obtained the information he required, and rising to his feet again, with a grumbling remark as to the hardness of the ground, he sauntered away toward the spot where he had left the Indian. Just as he did so a tall figure came out from an arbor close by. A fire was burning just in front, and Peter saw that he was a tall and handsome man of about forty years of age. He guessed at once that he was in the presence of the colonial leader.
"You are, like myself," the newcomer said, "unable to sleep, I suppose?"
"Yes, general," Peter answered. "I found I could not get off, and so I thought I'd stretch my legs in the wood a bit. They're lying so tarnal thick down there by the fires, one can't move without treading on 'em."
"Which regiment do you belong to?"
"The Connecticut," Peter replied, for he knew by report that a regiment from this province formed part of the expedition.
"As good men as any I have," the general said cordially. "Their only fault is that they are in too great a hurry to attack the enemy."
"I agree with the rest, general," Peter said. "It's dull work wasting our time here when we're wanted at home. I enlisted for six months, and the sooner the time's up the better, say I."
"You have heard nothing moving?" the general asked. "One of the Chippewas told me that he heard a canoe out in the lake. Ah! here he is."
At that moment five or six men, headed by an Indian, issued from the wood close by. It was too late for Peter to try to withdraw, but he stepped aside a pace or two as the party approached.
"Well, have you found anything?" the general asked.
"No find," the Chippewa said shortly.
"I don't believe as there ever was a canoe there," the man who followed him said. "It was jest a fancy of the Injun's."
"No fancy," the Indian asserted angrily. "Canoe there. No find."
"It might have been one of our own canoes," Montgomery said in a conciliatory tone. "The Indians are seldom mistaken. Still, if no one has landed it matters not either way."
"Only as we have had a tramp for nothing," the colonist said. "However, there's time for a sleep yet. Hullo!" he exclaimed as his eye fell on Peter Lambton. "What, Peter! Why, how did you get here? Why, I thought as how----General," he exclaimed, sharply turning to Montgomery, "this man lives close to me at Concord. He's a royalist, he is, and went into Boston and joined the corps they got up there!"
"Seize him!" Montgomery shouted, but it was too late.
As the man had turned to speak to the general, Peter darted into the wood. The Chippewa, without waiting to hear the statement of the colonist, at once divined the state of things, and uttering his war-whoop dashed after the fugitive. Two or three of the colonists instantly followed, and a moment later three or four Indians who had been lying on the ground leaped up and darted like phantoms into the wood.
The general no sooner grasped the facts than he shouted an order for pursuit, and a number of the men most accustomed to frontier work at once followed the first party of pursuers. Others would have done the same, but Montgomery shouted that no more should go, as they would only be in the others' way, and there could not be more than two or three spies on the island.
After the Chippewa's first war-cry there was silence for the space of a minute in the forest. Then came a wild scream, mingled with another Indian yell; a moment later the leading pursuers came upon the body of the Chippewa. His skull had been cleft with a tomahawk and the scalp was gone.
As they were clustered round the body two or three of the Indians ran up. They raised the Indian wail as they saw their comrade and with the rest took up the pursuit.
Peter and the Seneca were now far among the trees, and as their pursuers had nothing to guide them, they reached the spot where they had left the canoe unmolested.
On the signal being given, Harold instantly paddled to the shore. Not a word was spoken until the canoe was well out in the lake. Occasional shots were heard on shore as the pursuers fired at objects which they thought were men. Presently a loud Indian cry rose from the shore.
"They see us," Peter said. "We're out of shot and can take it easy." The redskin said a few words. "You're right, chief. The chief says," he explained to Harold, "that as there are redskins on the island they have probably some canoes. The moon's jest getting up beyond that hill, and it'll be light enough to see us half across the lake. It would not matter if the water was free; but what with Injuns prowling along the shores and out on the lake, we shall have to use our wits to save our har. Look!" he exclaimed two or three minutes later as two columns of bright flame at a short distance from them shot up at the end of the island. "They're Injun signals. As far as they can be seen Injuns will know that there are enemies on the lake. Now, paddle your hardest, Harold, and do you, chief, keep your eyes and your ears open for sights and sounds."
Under the steady strokes of the three paddles the bark canoe sped rapidly over the water. When the moon was fairly above the edge of the hill they halted for a moment and looked back. The two columns of fire still blazed brightly on the island, which was now three miles astern, and two dark spots could be seen on the water about halfway between them and it.
"You can paddle, my lads," Peter Lambton said to the distant foes, "but you'll never ketch us. I wouldn't heed you if it weren't for the other varmint ahead."
He stood up in the canoe and looked anxiously over the lake.
"It's all clear as far as I can see at present," he said.
"Can't we land, Peter, and make our way back on foot?"
"Bless you," Peter said, "there aint a native along the shore there but has got his eye on this canoe. We might as well take her straight back to the island as try to land. Better; for we should get a few hours before they tried and shot us there, while the Injuns would not give us a minute. No, we must just keep to the water; and now paddle on again, but take it quietly. It's no odds to let them varmints behind gain on us a little. You needn't think about them. When the danger comes we shall want every ounce of our strength."
For half an hour they paddled steadily on. The pursuing canoes were now less than a mile behind them.
"I'd give a good deal," muttered the scout, "for a few black clouds over the moon; we'd make for shore then and risk it. It will be getting daylight before long. Ah!" he exclaimed, pausing suddenly as the chief stopped rowing, "a canoe on each side is rowing out to cut us off."
Harold was now paddling forward, while the scout had the place at the stern. The former was surprised to feel the canoe shooting off from its former course at right angles toward the shore; then, curving still more round, they began to paddle back along the lake. The canoes which had been pursuing them were nearly abreast of each other. They had embarked from opposite sides of the island, but they had been gradually drawing together, although still some distance apart, when Peter turned his canoe. Seeing his maneuver, both turned to head him off, but by so doing they occupied an entirely different position in relation to each other, one canoe being nearly half a mile nearer to them than the other.
"Take it easy," Peter said. "These varmints will cut us off and we've got to fight, but we can cripple the one nearest to us before the other comes up."
The boats were now darting over the water in a line which promised to bring the leading canoe almost in collision with that of Peter. When within two hundred yards of each other Peter ceased rowing.
"Now," he said, "Harold, see if you can pick one of them fellows off. It's no easy matter, traveling at the pace they are. You fire first."
Harold took a steady aim and fired. A yell of derision told that he had missed. The Indians stopped paddling. There was a flash and a ball struck the canoe. At the same moment Peter fired.
"There's one down!" he exclaimed.
The Seneca fired, but without result; and the three unwounded Indians in the canoe--for it had contained four men--replied with a volley.
Harold felt a burning sensation, as if a hot iron passed across his arm.
"Hit, boy?" Peter asked anxiously as he gave a short exclamation.
"Nothing to speak of," Harold replied.
"The varmints are lying by, waiting for' the other canoe. Paddle straight at 'em."
The Indians at once turned the boat and paddled to meet their companions, who were fast approaching.
"Now," Peter exclaimed, "we've got 'em in a line--a steady aim this time."
The three rifles spoke out; one of the Indians fell into the boat and the paddle of another was struck from his grasp.
"Now," the scout shouted, "paddle away! We've got 'em all fairly behind us."
Day broke just as they were again abreast of the island. One canoe was following closely, two others were a mile and a half behind, while the one with which they had been engaged had made for the shore.
"What do you mean to do?" Harold asked Peter.
"I mean to run as close as I can round the end of the island, and then make for the place where they must have embarked on the mainland. They may have seen the signal fires there, but will not know what has been going on. So now row your best. We must leave the others as far behind as possible."
For the first time since they started the three paddlers exerted themselves to the utmost. They had little fear that there were any more canoes on the island, for, had there been, they would have joined in the chase. It was only necessary to keep so far from the end of the island as would take them out of reach of the fire. Several shots were discharged as they passed, but these fell short as the canoe shot along at its highest rate of speed, every stroke taking it further from its nearest pursuer.
At the end of an hour's paddling this canoe was a mile and a half behind. Its rowers had apparently somewhat abated their speed in order to allow the other two boats to draw up to them, for the result of the encounter between their comrades and the fugitives had not been of a nature to encourage them to undertake a single-handed contest with them.