The Shadow of the North by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XV. The Forest Fight
Robert thought they would march at once, but annoying delays occurred. He had noticed that Hamilton, the governor of the great neighboring province of Pennsylvania, was not present at the council, but he did not know the cause of it until Stuart, the young Virginian, told him.
"Pennsylvania is in a huff," he said, "because General Braddock's army has been landed at Alexandria instead of Philadelphia. Truth to tell, for an expedition against Fort Duquesne, Philadelphia would have been a nearer and better place, but I hear that one John Hanbury, a powerful merchant who trades much in Virginia, wanted the troops to come this way that he might sell them supplies, and he persuaded the Duke of Newcastle to choose Alexandria. 'Tis a bad state of affairs, Lennox, but you and I can't remedy it. The chief trouble is between the general and the Pennsylvanians, many of whom are Quakers and Germans, as obstinate people as this world has ever produced."
The differences and difficulties were soon patent to all. A month of spring was passing, and the army was far from having the necessary supplies. Neither Virginia nor Pennsylvania responded properly. In Pennsylvania there was a bitter quarrel between the people and the proprietary government that hampered action. Many of the contractors who were to furnish equipment thought much more of profit than of patriotism. Braddock, brave and honest, but tactless and wholly ignorant of the conditions predominant in any new country, raged and stormed. He denounced the Virginia troops that came to his standard, calling shameful their lack of uniforms and what he considered their lack of discipline.
Robert heard that in these turbulent days young Washington, whom Braddock had taken on his staff as a colonel and for whom he had a warm personal regard, was the best mediator between the testy general and the stubborn population. In his difficult position, and while yet scarcely more than a boy, he was showing all the great qualities of character that he was to display so grandly in the long war twenty years later.
"Tis related," said Willet, "that General Braddock will listen to anything from him, that he has the most absolute confidence in his honesty and good judgment, and, judging from what I hear, General Braddock is right."
But to Robert, despite the anxieties, the days were happy. As he had affiliated readily with the young Virginians he was also quickly a friend of the young British officers, who were anxious to learn about the new conditions into which they had been cast with so little preparation. There was Captain Robert Orme, Braddock's aide-de-camp, a fine manly fellow, for whom he soon formed a reciprocal liking, and the son of Sir Peter Halket, a lieutenant, and Morris, an American, another aide-de-camp, and young William Shirley, the son of the governor of Massachusetts, who had become Braddock's secretary. He also became well acquainted with older officers, Gladwin who was to defend Detroit so gallantly against Pontiac and his allied tribes, Gates, Gage, Barton and others, many of whom were destined to serve again on one side or other in the great Revolution.
Grosvenor knew all the Englishmen, and often in the evenings, since May had now come they sat about the camp fires, and Robert listened with eagerness as they told stories of gay life in London, tales of the theater, of the heavy betting at the clubs and the races, and now and then in low tones some gossip of royalty. Tayoga was more than welcome in this group, as the great Thayendanegea was destined to be years later. His height, his splendid appearance, his dignity and his manners were respected and admired. Willet sometimes sat with them, but said little. Robert knew that he approved of his new friendships.
Willet was undoubtedly anxious. The delays which were still numerous weighed heavily upon him, and he confided to Robert that every day lost would increase the danger of the march.
"The French and Indians of course know our troubles," he said. "St. Luc has gone like an arrow into the wilderness with all the news about us, and he's not the only one. If we could adjust this trouble with the Pennsylvanians we might start at once."
An hour or two after he uttered his complaint, Robert saw a middle aged man, not remarkable of appearance, talking with Braddock. His dress was homespun and careless, but his large head was beautifully shaped, and his features, though they might have been called homely, shone with the light of an extraordinary intelligence. His manner as he talked to Braddock, without showing any tinge of deference, was soothing. Robert saw at once, despite his homespun dress, that here was a man of the great world and of great affairs.
"Who is he?" he said to Willet.
"It's Benjamin Franklin, of Pennsylvania," replied the hunter. "I hear he's one of the shrewdest men in all the colonies, and I don't doubt the report."
It was Robert's first sight of Franklin, certainly not the least in that amazing group of men who founded the American Union.
"They say," continued Willet, "that he's already achieved the impossible, that he's drawing General Braddock and the Pennsylvanians together, and that we'll soon get weapons, horses and all the other supplies we need."
It was no false news. Franklin had done what he alone could do. One of the greatest masters of diplomacy the world has ever known, he brought Braddock and Pennsylvania together, and smoothed out the difficulties. All the needed supplies began to flow in, and on the tenth of an eventful May the whole army started from Wills Creek to which point it had advanced, while Franklin was removing the difficulties. A new fort named Cumberland had been established there, and stalwart Virginians had been cutting a road ahead through the wilderness.
The place was on the edge of the unending forest. The narrow fringe of settlements on the Atlantic coast was left behind, and henceforth they must march through regions known only to the Indians and the woods rangers. But it was a fine army, two British regiments under Halket and Dunbar, their numbers reinforced by Virginia volunteers, and five hundred other Virginians, divided into nine companies. There was a company of British sailors, too, and artillery, and hundreds of wagons and baggage horses. Among the teamsters was a strong lad named Daniel Boone destined to immortality as the most famous of all pioneers.
Robert, Willet and Tayoga could have had horses to ride, but against the protests of Grosvenor and their other new English friends they declined them. They knew that they could scout along the flanks of an army far better on foot.
"In one way," said Willet, to Grosvenor, "we three, Robert, Tayoga and I, are going back home. The lads, at least have spent the greater part of their lives in the forest, and to me it has given a kindly welcome for these many years. It may look inhospitable to you who come from a country of roads and open fields, but it's not so to us. We know its ways. We can find shelter where you would see none, and it offers food to us, where you would starve, and you're a young man of intelligence too."
"At least I can see its beauty," laughed Grosvenor, as he looked upon the great green wilderness, stretching away and away to the far blue hills. "In truth 'tis a great and romantic adventure to go with a force like ours into an unknown country of such majestic quality."
He looked with a kindling eye from the wilderness back to the army, the greatest that had yet been gathered in the forest, the red coats of the soldiers gleaming now in the spring sunshine, and the air resounding with whips as the teamsters started their trains.
"A great force! A grand force!" said Robert, catching his enthusiasm. "The French and Indians can't stand before it!"
"How far is Fort Duquesne?" asked Grosvenor.
"In the extreme western part of the province of Pennsylvania, many days' march from here. At least, we claim that it's in Pennsylvania province, although the French assert it's on their soil, and they have possession. But it's in the Ohio country, because the waters there flow westward, the Alleghany and Monongahela joining at the fort and forming the great Ohio."
"And so we shall see much of the wilderness. Well, I'm not sorry, Lennox. 'Twill be something to talk about in England. I don't think they realize there the vastness and magnificence of the colonies."
That day a trader named Croghan brought about fifty Indian warriors to the camp, among them a few belonging to the Hodenosaunee, and offered their services as scouts and skirmishers. Braddock, who loved regularity and outward discipline, gazed at them in astonishment.
"Savages!" he said. "We will have none of them!"
The Indians, uttering no complaint, disappeared in the green forest, with Willet and Tayoga gazing somberly after them.
"'Twas a mistake," said the hunter. "They would have been our eyes and ears, where we needed eyes and ears most."
"A warrior of my kin was among them," said Tayoga. "Word will fly north that an insult has been offered to the Hodenosaunee."
"But," said Willet, "Colonel William Johnson will take a word of another kind. As you know, Tayoga, as I know, and, as all the nations of the Hodenosaunee know, Waraiyageh is their friend. He will speak to them no word that is not true. He will brush away all that web of craft, and cunning and cheating, spun by the Indian commissioners at Albany, and he will see that there is no infringement upon the rights of the great League."
"Waraiyageh will do all that, if he can reach Mount Johnson in time," said Tayoga, "but Onontio rises before the dawn, and he does not sleep until after midnight. He sings beautiful songs in the ears of the warriors, and the songs he sings seem to be true. Already the French and their allies have been victorious everywhere save at Fort Refuge, and they carry the trophies of triumph into Canada."
"But the time for us to strike a great blow is at hand, Tayoga," said Robert, who, with Grosvenor had been listening. "Behold this splendid army! No such force was ever before sent into the American wilderness. When we take Fort Duquesne we shall hold the key to the whole Ohio country, and we shall turn it in the lock and fasten it against the Governor General of Canada and all his allies."
"But the wilderness is mighty," said Tayoga. "Even the army of the great English king is small when it enters its depths."
"On the other hand so is that of the enemy, much smaller than ours," said Grosvenor.
Soon after Croghan and his Indians left the camp a figure tall, dark and somber, followed by a dozen men wild of appearance and clad in hunter's garb, emerged from the forest and walked in silence toward General Braddock's tent. The regular soldiers stared at them in astonishment, but their dark leader took no notice. Robert uttered an exclamation of surprise and pleasure.
"Black Rifle!" he said.
"And who is Black Rifle?" asked Grosvenor.
"A great hunter and scout and a friend of mine. I'm glad he's here. The general can find many uses for Black Rifle and his men."
He ran forward and greeted Black Rifle, who smiled one of his rare smiles at sight of the youth. Willet and Tayoga gave him the same warm welcome.
"What news, Black Rifle?" asked Robert.
"The French and Indians gather at Fort Duquesne to meet you. They are not in great force, but the wilderness will help them and the best of the French leaders are there."
"Have you heard anything of St. Luc?" asked Robert.
"We met a Seneca runner who had seen him. The Senecas are not at war with the French, and the man talked with him a little, but the Frenchman didn't tell him anything. We think he was on the way to Fort Duquesne to join the other French leaders there."
"Have you heard the names of any of these Frenchmen?"
"Besides St. Luc there's Beaujeu, Dumas, Ligneris and Contrecoeur who commands. French regulars and Canadian troops are in the fort, and the heathen are pouring in from the west and north."
"Those are brave and skillful men," said Willet, as he listened to the names of the French leaders who would oppose them. "But 'twas good of you, Black Rifle, to come with these lads of yours to help us."
After the men had enjoyed food and a little rest, they were taken into the great tent, where the general sat, Willet having procured the interview, and accompanying them. Robert waited near with Grosvenor and Tayoga, knowing how useful Black Rifle and his men could be to a wilderness expedition, and hoping that they would be thrown together in future service.
A quarter of an hour passed, and then Black Rifle strode from the tent, his face dark as night. His men followed him, and, almost without a word, they left the camp, plunged into the forest and disappeared. Willet also came from the tent, crestfallen.
"What has happened, Dave?" asked Robert in astonishment.
"The worst. I suppose that when unlike meets unlike only trouble can come. I introduced Black Rifle and his men to General Braddock. They did not salute. They did not take off their caps in his presence,--not knowing, of course, that such things were done in armies. General Braddock rebuked them. I smoothed it all over as much as I could. Then he demanded what they wanted there, as a haughty giver of gifts would speak to a suppliant. Black Rifle said he and his men came to watch on the front and flanks of the army against Indian ambush, knowing how much it was needed. Braddock laughed and sneered. He said that an army such as his did not need to fear a few wandering Indians, and, in any event, it had eyes of its own to watch for itself. Black Rifle said he doubted it, that soldiers in the woods could seldom see anything but themselves. There was blame on both sides, but men like General Braddock and Black Rifle can't understand each other, they'll never understand each other, and, hot with wrath Black Rifle has taken his band and gone into the woods. Nor will he come back, and we need him! I tell you, Robert, we need him! We need him!"
"It is bad," said Tayoga. "An army can never have too many eyes."
Robert was deeply disappointed. He regretted not only the loss of Black Rifle and his men, but the further evidence of an unyielding temperament on the part of their commander. His own mind however so ready to comprehend the mind of others, could understand Braddock's point of view. To the general Black Rifle and his men were mere woods rovers, savages themselves in everything except race, and the army that he led was invincible.
"We'll have to make the best of it," he said.
"They've gone and they're a great loss, but the rest of us will try to do the work they would have done."
"That is so," said Tayoga, gravely.
At last the army moved proudly away into the wilderness. Hundreds of axmen, going ahead, cut a road twelve feet wide, along which cavalry, infantry, artillery and wagons and pack horses stretched for miles. The weather was beautiful, the forest was both beautiful and grand, and to most of the Englishmen and Virginians the march appealed as a great and romantic adventure. The trees were in the tender green leafage of early May, and their solid expanse stretched away hundreds and thousands of miles into the unknown west. Early wild flowers, a shy pink or a modest blue, bloomed in the grass. Deer started from their coverts, crashed through the thickets, and the sky darkened with the swarms of wild fowl flying north. Birds of brilliant plumage flashed among the leaves and often chattered overhead, heedless of the passing army. Now and then the soldiers sang, and the song passed from the head of the column along its rippling red, yellow and brown length of four miles.
It was a cheerful army, more it was a gay army, enjoying the wilderness which it was seeing at one of the finest periods of the year, wondering at the magnificence of the forest, and the great number of streams that came rushing down from the mountains.
"It's a noble country," said Grosvenor to Robert. "I'll admit all that you claim for it."
"And there's so much of it, Grosvenor, even allowing for the portion, the very big portion, the French claim."
"But from which we are going to drive them very soon, Robert, my lad."
"I think so, too, Grosvenor."
Often Robert, Willet and Tayoga went far ahead on swift foot, searching the forest for ambush, and finding none, they would come back and watch the axmen, three hundred in number, who were cutting the road for the army. They were stalwart fellows, skilled in their business, and their axes rang through the woods. Robert felt regret when he saw the splendid trees fall and be dragged to one side, there to rot, despite the fact that the unbroken forest covered millions of square miles.
The camps at night were scenes of good humor. Scouts and flankers were thrown out in the forest, and huge fires were built of the fallen wood which was abundant everywhere. The flames, roaring and leaping, threw a ruddy light over the soldiers, and gave them pleasant warmth, as often in the hills the dusk came on heavy with chill.
Despite the favorable nature of the season some of the soldiers unused to hardships fell ill, and, more than a week later, when they reached a place known as the Little Meadows, Braddock left there the sick and the heavy baggage with a rear guard under Colonel Dunbar. A scout had brought word that a formidable force of French regulars was expected to reinforce the garrison at Fort Duquesne, and the general was anxious to forestall them. Young Washington, in whom he had great confidence, also advised him to push on, and now the army of chosen troops increased its speed.
Robert came into contact with Braddock only once or twice, and then he was noticed with a nod, but on the whole he was glad to escape so easily. The general brave and honest, but irritable, had a closed mind. He thought all things should be done in the way to which he was used, and he had little use for the Americans, save for young Washington, and young Morris, who were on his staff, and young Shirley who was his secretary. To them he was invariably kind and considerate.
The regular officers made no attempt to interfere with Robert, Tayoga and Willet, who, having their commissions as scouts, roamed as they pleased, and, even on foot, their pace being so much greater than that of the army, they often went far ahead in the night seeking traces of the enemy. Now, although the march was not resisted, they saw unmistakable signs that it was watched. They found trails of small Indian bands and several soldiers who straggled into the forest were killed and scalped. Braddock was enraged but not alarmed. The army would brush away these flies and proceed to the achievement of its object, the capture of Fort Duquesne. The soldiers from England shuddered at the sight of their scalped comrades. It was a new form of war to them, and very ghastly.
Robert, Tayoga and Willet were the best scouts and the regular officers soon learned to rely on them. Grosvenor often begged to go with them, but they laughingly refused.
"We don't claim to be of special excellence ourselves, Grosvenor," said Robert, "but such work needs a very long training. One, so to speak, must be born to it, and to be born to it you have to be born in this country, and not in England."
It was about the close of June and they had been nearly three weeks on the way when the three, scouting on a moonlight night, struck a trail larger than usual. Tayoga reckoned that it had been made by at least a dozen warriors, and Willet agreed with him.
"And behold the trace of the big moccasin, Great Bear," said the Onondaga, pointing to a faint impression among the leaves. "It is very large, and it turns in much. We do not see it for the first time."
"Tandakora," said Willet.
"It can be none other."
"We shouldn't be surprised at seeing it. The Ojibway, like a wolf, will rush to the place of killing."
"I am not surprised, Great Bear. It is strange, perhaps, that we have not seen his footsteps before. No doubt he has looked many times upon the marching army."
"Since Tandakora is here, probably leading the Indian scouts, we'll have to take every precaution ourselves. I like my scalp, and I like for it to remain where it has grown, on the top of my head."
They moved now with the most extreme care, always keeping under cover of bushes, and never making any sound as they walked, but the army kept on steadily in the road cut for it by the axmen. Encounters between the flankers and small bands still occurred, but there was yet no sign of serious resistance, and the fort was drawing nearer and nearer.
"I've no doubt the French commander will abandon it," said Grosvenor to Robert. "He'll conclude that our army is too powerful for him."
"I scarce think so," replied Robert doubtfully. "'Tis not the French way, at least, not on this continent. Like as not they will depend on the savages, whom they have with them."
They had been on the march nearly a month when they came to Turtle Creek, which flows into the Monongahela only eight miles from Fort Duquesne a strong fortress of logs with bastions, ravelins, ditch, glacis and covered ways, standing at the junction of the twin streams, the Monongahela and the Alleghany, that form the great Ohio. Here they made a little halt and the scouts who had been sent into the woods reported silence and desolation.
The army rejoiced. It had been a long march, and the wilderness is hard for those not used to it, even in the best of times. Victory was now almost in sight. The next day, perhaps, they would march into Fort Duquesne and take possession, and doubtless a strong detachment would be sent in pursuit of the flying French and Indians.
Full warrant had they for their expectations, as nothing seemed more peaceful than the wilderness. The flames from the cooking fires threw their ruddy light over bough and bush, and disclosed no enemy, and, as the glow of the coals died down, the peaceful tails of the night birds showed that the forest was undisturbed.
Far in the night, Robert, Tayoga and Willet crept through the woods to Fort Duquesne. They found many small trails of both white men and red men, but none indicating a large force. At last they saw a light under the western horizon, which they believed to come from Duquesne itself.
"Perhaps they've burned the fort and are abandoning it," said Robert.
Willet shook his head.
"Not likely," he said. "It's more probable that the light comes from great fires, around which the savages are dancing the war dance."
"What do you think, Tayoga?"
"That the Great Bear is right."
"But surely," said Robert, "they can't hope to withstand an army like ours."
"Robert," said Willet, "you've lived long enough in it to know that anything is possible in the wilderness. Contrecoeur, the French commander at Duquesne, is a brave and capable man. Beaujeu, who stands next to him, has, they say, a soul of fire. You know what St. Luc is, the bravest of the brave, and as wise as a fox, and Dumas and Ligneris are great partisan leaders. Do you think these men will run away without a fight?"
"But they must depend chiefly on the Indians!"
"Even so. They won't let the Indians run away either. We're bound to have some kind of a battle somewhere, though we ought to win."
"Do you know the general's plans for tomorrow?"
"We're to start at dawn. We'll cross the Monongahela for the second time about noon, or a little later, and then, if the French and Indians have run away, as you seemed a little while ago to believe they would, we'll proceed, colors flying into the fort."
"If the enemy makes a stand I should think it would be at the ford."
"Come! Come, Dave! Be cheerful. If they meet us at the ford or anywhere else we'll brush 'em aside. That big body of French regulars from Canada hasn't come--we know that--and there isn't force enough in Duquesne to withstand us."
Willet did not say anything more, but his steps were not at all buoyant as they walked back toward the camp. Robert, lying on a blanket, slept soundly before one of the fires, but awoke at dawn, and took breakfast with Willet, Tayoga, Grosvenor and the two young Virginians, Stuart and Cabell.
"We'll be in Duquesne tonight," said the sanguine Stuart.
"In very truth we will," said the equally confident Grosvenor.
The dawn came clear and brilliant, and the army advanced, to the music of a fine band. The light cavalry led the way, then came a detachment of sailors who had been loaned by Admiral Keppel, followed by the English regulars in red and the Virginians in blue. Behind them came the cannon, the packhorses, and all the elements that make up the train of an army.
It was a gay and inspiriting sight, especially so to youth, and Robert's heart thrilled as he looked. The hour of triumph had come at last. Away with the forebodings of Willet! Here was the might of England and the colonies, and, brave and cunning as St. Luc and Beaujeu and the other Frenchmen might be their bravery and cunning would avail them nothing.
They marched on all the morning, a long and brilliant line of red and blue and brown, and nothing happened. The forest on either side of them was still silent and tenantless, and they expected in a few more hours to see the fort they had come so far to take. The heavens themselves were propitious. Only little white clouds were to be seen in the sky of dazzling blue, and the green forest, stirred by a gentle wind, waved its boughs at them in friendly fashion.
About noon they approached the river, and Gage leading a strong advance guard across it, found no enemy on the other side, puzzling and also pleasing news. The foe, whom they had expected to find in this formidable position, seemed to have melted away. No trace of him could be found in the forest, and to many it appeared that the road to Fort Duquesne lay open.
"They've concluded our force is too great and have abandoned the fort," said Robert. "I can't make anything else of it, Dave."
"It does look like it," said the hunter doubtfully. "I certainly thought they would meet us here. The ford is the place of places for a defensive battle."
Gage made his report to Braddock, confirming the general in his belief that the French and Indians would not dare to meet him, and that the dangers of the wilderness had been overrated. The order to resume the march was given and the trumpets in the advance sang merrily, the silent woods giving back their echoes in faint musical notes. The afternoon that had now come was as brilliant as the morning. A great sun blazed down from a sky of cloudless blue, deepening and intensifying the green of the forest, the red uniforms of the British and the blue uniforms of the Virginians. Robert again admired the sight. The army marched as if on parade, and it presented a splendid spectacle.
The head of the column entered the shallows, and soon the long line was passing the river. Robert had a lingering belief that the bullets would rain upon them in the water, but nothing stirred in the forest beyond. The head of the column emerged upon the opposite bank, and then its long red and blue length trailed slowly after. Robert and his comrades crossed in a wagon. They had wanted to go into the woods, seeking for the enemy, but the orders of Braddock, who wished to keep all his force together, held them.
The entire army was now across, and, within the shade of the forest, the general ordered a short period for rest and food, before they completed the few miles that yet separated them from Fort Duquesne. The troops were in great spirits. They might have been held at the dangerous ford, they thought, but now that it had been passed without resistance the woods could offer nothing able to stop them.
"What has become of your warlike Frenchmen, Mr. Willet?" asked Grosvenor. "So far as this campaign is concerned they seem to excel as runners rather than warriors."
"I confess that I'm surprised, Mr. Grosvenor," replied the hunter. "Beaujeu, St. Luc and Dumas are not the men to make a carpet of roses for us to march on. There is something here that does not meet the eye. What say you, Tayoga?"
"I like it not," replied the Onondaga. "In war I fear the forest when it is silent."
Near them a small circle of land had been cleared and in it stood a house, lone and deserted. It had been built by a trader named Fraser and in it Washington, who had visited it once before on a former mission, and one or two others sat, during the period of rest and refreshment. The young Virginian, despite his great frame and gigantic strength, was so much wasted by fever that, when he came forth to remount, he was barely able to keep his place in his saddle.
Now the merry trumpets sang again and the red and blue column, lifting itself up, resumed its march along the trail through the forest toward Duquesne. The river was on one side and a line of high hills on the other, but the forest everywhere was dense and in its heaviest foliage. Braddock, despite the safe passage of the ford, was not reckless. A troop of guides and Virginia light horsemen led the way. A hundred yards behind them came the vanguard, then Gage with a picked body of British troops, after them the axmen, who had done such great work, behind them the main body of the artillery, the wagons and the packhorses, while a strong force of regulars and Virginians closed up the rear. Scouts and skirmishers ranged the flanks, though they were ordered to go not more than a few hundred yards away.
Robert, Tayoga and Willet were with the guides at the very apex of the column, and they continually searched the forests and the thickets with keen eyes for a possible enemy. But all was quiet there. The game, frightened by the advancing army, had gone away. Not a leaf, not a bough stirred. The blazing sun, now near the zenith, poured down fiery rays and it was hot in the shade of the great trees that grew so closely together.
Robert and the other scouts and guides in the apex marched on soundless feet, but he heard close behind him the tread of the Virginia light horsemen, behind them the steady march of the regulars under Gage, and behind them the deep hum and murmur of the army, the creaking of wheels and the clank of the great guns. Despite the following sounds he was conscious all the time of the deep, intense silence in the forest on either side of him. The birds, like the game, had gone away, and there was no flash of blue or of flame among the green leaves.
"There's a dip just ahead," said Willet, pointing to a wide ravine filled with bushes that ran directly across the trail.
They continued their steady advance, and Robert's heart fluttered, but when they came to the ravine they found it empty of everything save the bushes, and the scouts and guides, plunging into it, crossed to the other side. The light horsemen of Virginia followed, after them Gage's regulars and then the main army drew on its red and blue length, expecting to cross in the same way.
Robert, Tayoga and Willet, leading, entered the deep forest again. Some chance had put young Lennox slightly in advance of his comrades, but suddenly he stopped. A short distance ahead a figure bounded across the trail and disappeared in the thicket. It was only a flitting glimpse, but he recognized St. Luc, the athletic figure, the fair hair and the strong face.
"St. Luc!" he exclaimed. "Did you see, Dave? Did you see?"
"Aye, I saw," said the hunter, "and the enemy is here!"
He whirled about, threw up his arms and shouted to the column to stop. At the same moment, a terrible cry, the long fierce war whoop of the savages, burst from the forest, filled the air and came back in ferocious echoes. Then a deadly fire of rifles and muskets was poured from both right and left upon the marching column. Men and horses went down, and cries of pain and surprise blended with the war whoop of the savages which swelled and fell again.
Robert and his comrades had thrown themselves flat upon the ground at the first fire, and escaped the bullets. Now they rose to their knees, and began to send their own bullets at the flitting forms among the trees and bushes. Robert caught glimpses of the savages, naked to the waist, coated thickly with war paint, their fierce eyes gleaming, and now and then he saw a man in French uniform passing among them and encouraging them. He saw one gigantic figure which he knew to be that of Tandakora, and he raised his reloaded rifle to fire at him, but the Ojibway was gone.
Surprised in the ominous forest, the British and the Virginians nevertheless showed a courage worthy of all praise. Gage formed his regulars on the trail, and they sent volley after volley into the dense shades on either side, the big muskets thundering together like cannon. Leaves and twigs and little boughs fell in showers before their bullets, but whether they struck any of the foe they did not know. The smoke soon rose in clouds and added to the dimness and obscurity of the forest.
"A great noise," shouted Tayoga in Robert's ear, "but it does not hurt the enemy, who sees his target and sends his bullets against it!"
The soldiers were dropping fast and the bullets of the French and the savages were coming from their coverts in a deadly rain. Robert, Willet and Tayoga, with the wisdom of the wilderness, remained crouched at the edge of the trail, but in shelter, and did not fire until they saw an enemy upon whom to draw the trigger. Then a deeper roar was added to the thundering of the big muskets, as Braddock brought up the cannon, and they began to sweep the forest. The English troops, eager to get at the foe, crowded forward, shouting "God save the King!" and the cheers of the Virginians joined with them.
"We'll win! We'll win!" cried Robert. "They can't stop such brave men as ours!"
But the fire of the French and the savages was increasing in volume and accuracy. The bullets and cannon balls of the English and Americans fired almost at random were passing over their heads, but the great column of scarlet and blue on the trail formed a target which the leaden missiles could not miss. Continually shouting the war whoop, exultant now with the joy of expected triumph, the savages hovered on either flank of Braddock's army like a swarm of bees, but with a sting far more deadly. The brave and wily Beaujeu had been killed in the first minute of the battle, but St. Luc, Dumas and Ligneris, equally brave and wily, directed the onset, and the huge Tandakora raged before his warriors.
The head of the British column was destroyed, and the three crept back toward Gage's regulars, but the fire of the enemy was now spreading along both flanks of the column to its full length. Robert remembered the warning words of St. Luc. Every twig and leaf in the forest was spouting death. Gage's regulars, raked by a terrible fire, and in danger of complete destruction, were compelled to retreat upon the main body, and, to their infinite mortification, abandon two cannon, which the savages seized with fierce shouts of joy and dragged into the woods.
"It goes ill," said Willet, as the terrible forest, raining death from every side, seemed to close in on them like the shadow of doom. Braddock, hearing the tremendous fire ahead, rushed forward his own immediate troops as fast as possible, and meeting Gage's retreating men, the two bodies became a great mass of scarlet in the forest, upon which French and Indian bullets, that could not miss, beat like a storm of hail. The shouts and cheers of the regulars ceased. In an appalling situation, the like of which they had never known before, hemmed in on every side by an unseen death, they fell into confusion, but they did not lose courage. The savage ring now enclosed the whole army, and to stand and to retreat alike meant death.
The British charged with the bayonet into the thickets. The Indians melted away before them, and, when the exhausted regulars came back into the trail, the Indians rushed after them, still pouring in a murderous fire, and making the forest ring with the ferocious war whoop. The Virginians, knowing the warfare of the wilderness, began to take to the shelter of the trees, from which they could fire at the enemy. The brave though mistaken Braddock fiercely ordered them out again. A score lying behind a fallen trunk and, matching the savages at their own game, were mistaken by the regulars for the foe, and were fired upon with deadly effect. Other regulars who tried to imitate the hostile tactics were set upon by Braddock himself who beat them with the flat of his sword and drove them back into the open trail, where the rain of bullets fell directly upon them.
Robert looked upon the scene and he found it awful to the last degree. The bodies of the dead in red or blue lay everywhere. Officers, English and Virginian, ran here and there begging and praying their troops to stand and form in order. "Fire upon the enemy!" they shouted. "Show us somebody to fire at and we'll fire," the men shouted back. The confusion was deepening, and the signs of a panic were appearing. In the forest the circle of Indians, mad with battle and the greatest taking of scalps they had ever known, pressed closer and closer, and sent sheets of bullets into the huddled mass. Many of them leaped in and scalped the fallen before the eyes of the horrified soldiers. The yelling never ceased, and it was so terrific that the few British officers who survived declared that they would never forget it to their dying day.
Among the officers the mortality was now frightful. The brave Sir Peter Halket was shot dead, and his young son, the lieutenant, rushing to raise up his body, was killed and fell by his side. The youthful Shirley, Braddock's secretary, received a bullet in his brain and died instantly. Out of eighty-six officers sixty-three were down. Washington alone seemed to bear a charmed life. Two horses were killed under him and four bullets pierced his clothing. Braddock galloped back and forth, cursing and shouting to his men, and showing undaunted courage. Robert believed that he never really understood what was happening, that the deadly nature of the surprise and its appalling completeness left him dazed.
How long Robert stood at the edge of the circle of death and fired into the bushes he never knew, but it seemed to him that almost an eternity had passed, when Tayoga seized him by the arm and shouted in his ear.
"It is finished! Our army has perished! Come, Lennox!"
He wiped the smoke from his eyes, and saw that the mass in red and blue was much smaller. Braddock was still on his horse, and, at the insistence of his officers, he was at last giving the command to retreat. Just as the trumpet sounded that note of defeat he was shot through the body and fell to the ground where, in his rage and despair, he begged the men to leave him to die alone. But two of the Virginia officers lifted him up and bore him toward the rear. Then the army that had fought so long against an invisible foe broke into a panic, that is what was left of it, as two thirds of its numbers had already been killed or wounded. Shouting with horror and ignoring their officers, they rushed for the river.
Everything was lost, cannon and baggage were abandoned, and often rifles and muskets were thrown away. Into the water they rushed, and the Indians, who had followed howling like wolves, stopped, though they fired at the fleeing men in the stream.
As the retreat began, Robert, Tayoga and Willet, whom some miracle seemed to preserve from harm, joined the Virginians who covered the rear, and, as fast as they could reload their rifles, they fired at the demon horde that pressed closer and closer, and that never ceased to cut down the fleeing army. It was much like a ghastly dream to Robert. Nothing was real, except his overwhelming sense of horror. Men fell around him, and he wondered why he did not fall too, but he was untouched, and Willet and Tayoga also were unwounded. He saw near him young Stuart who had lost his horse long since, but who had snatched a rifle from a fallen soldier, and who was fighting gallantly on foot.
"Who would have thought it?" exclaimed the Virginian. "An army such as ours, to be beaten, nay, to be destroyed, by a swarm of savages!"
"But don't forget the Frenchmen!" shouted Robert in reply. "They're directing!"
"Which is no consolation to us," cried Stuart. He said something else, but it was lost in the tremendous firing and yelling of the Indians, who were now only a score of yards away from the devoted rear guard that was doing its best to protect the flying and confused mass of soldiers.
Robert discharged his bullet at a brown face and then, as he walked backward, he tripped and fell over a root. He sprang up at once, but in an instant a gigantic figure bounded out of the fire and smoke, and Tandakora, uttering a fierce shout of triumph, circled his tomahawk swiftly above his head, preparatory to the mortal blow. But Tayoga, quick as lightning, hurled his pistol with all his might. It struck the huge Ojibway on the head with such force that the tomahawk fell from his hand, and he staggered back into the smoke.
"Tayoga, again I thank you!" cried Robert.
"You will do the same for me," said the Onondaga, and then they too were lost in the smoke, as with the rear guard of Virginians they followed the retreating army.
Robert and his comrades, swept on in the press, crossed the river with the others and gained the farther shore unhurt. Willet looked back at the woods, which still flamed with the hostile rifles, and shuddered.
"It's worse than anything of which I ever dreamed," he said. "Now the tomahawk and the scalping knife will sweep the border from Canada to Carolina."
The panic was stopped at last and the broken remnants of the army, covered by the Virginians who understood the forest, began their retreat. Braddock died the next day, his last words being, "We shall know better how to deal with them another time." Washington, Orme, Morris and the others carried the news of the great defeat to Virginia and Pennsylvania, whence it was sent to England, to be received there at first with incredulity, men saying that such a thing was impossible. But England too was soon to be in mourning, because so many of her bravest had fallen at the hands of an invisible foe in the far American wilderness.
Robert, Willet and Tayoga followed the retreating army only a short distance beyond the Monongahela. They saw that Grosvenor, Stuart and Cabell had escaped with slight wounds, and, slipping quietly into the forest, they circled about Fort Duquesne, seeing the lights where the Indians were burning their wretched prisoners alive, and then plunging again into the woods.
Late at night they lay down in a dense covert, and exhausted, slept. They rose at dawn, and tried to shake off the horror.
"Be of good courage, Robert," said Willet. "It's a terrible blow, but England and the colonies have not yet gathered their full strength."
"That is so," said Tayoga. "Our sachems tell us that he who wins the first victory does not always win the last."
A bird on a bough over their heads began to sing a song of greeting to the new day, and Robert hoped and believed.