The Shadow of the North by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter II. The Ambush
Robert now had much experience of Indian attack and forest warfare, but it always made a tremendous impression upon his vivid and uncommon imagination. The great pulses in his throat and temples leaped, and his ear became so keen that he seemed to himself to hear the fall of the leaf in the forest. It was this acute sharpening of the senses, the painting of pictures before him, that gave him the gift of golden speech that the Indians had first noticed in him. He saw and heard much that others could neither hear nor see, and the words to describe it were always ready to pour forth.
Willet and Tayoga were crouched near him, their rifles thrust forward a little, and just beyond them was Captain Colden who had drawn a small sword, more as an evidence of command than as a weapon. The men, city bred, were silent, but the faces of some of them still expressed amazement and incredulity. Robert's quick and powerful imagination instantly projected itself into their minds, and he saw as they saw. To them the cry of a wolf was the cry of a real wolf, the forest was dark, lonely and uncomfortable, but it was empty of any foe, and the four who had come to them were merely trying to create a sense of their own importance. They began to move restlessly, and it required Captain Colden's whispered but sharp command to still them again.
The cry of the wolf, used much by both the Indians and the borderers as a signal, came now from the east, and after the lapse of a minute it was repeated from the west. Call and answer were a relief to Robert, whose faculties were attuned to such a high degree that any relief to the strain, though it brought the certainty of attack, was welcome.
"You're sure those cries were made by our enemies?" said young Colden.
"Beyond a doubt," replied Willet. "I can tell the difference between the note and that of a genuine wolf, but then I've spent many years in the wilderness, and I had to learn these things in order to live. They'll send forward scouts, and they'll expect to find you and your men around the fire, most of you asleep. When they miss you there they'll try to locate you, and they'll soon trail us to these bushes."
Captain James Colden had his share of pride, and much faith in himself, but he had nobility of soul, too.
"I believe you implicitly, Mr. Willet," he said. "If it had not been for you and your friends the enemy would have been upon us when we expected him not at all, and 'tis most likely that all of us would have been killed and scalped. So, I thank you now, lest I fall in the battle, and it be too late then to express my gratitude."
It was a little bit formal, and a little bit youthful, but Willet accepted the words in the fine spirit in which they were uttered.
"What we did was no more than we should have done," he replied, "and you'll pay us back. In such times as these everybody ought to help everybody else. Caution your soldiers, captain, won't you, not to make any noise at all. The wolf will howl no more, and I fancy their scouts are now within two or three hundred yards of the fire. I'm glad it's turned darker."
The troop, hidden in the bushes, was now completely silent. The Philadelphia men, used to contiguous houses and streets, were not afraid, but they were appalled by their extraordinary position at night, in the deep brush of an unknown wilderness with a creeping foe coming down upon them. Many a hand quivered upon the rifle barrel, but the heart of its owner did not tremble.
The moonlight was scant and the stars were few. To the city men trees and bushes melted together in a general blackness, relieved only by a single point of light where the fire yet smoldered, but Robert, kneeling by the side of Tayoga, saw with his trained eyes the separate trunks stretching away like columns, and then far beyond the fire he thought he caught a glimpse of a red feather raised for a moment above the undergrowth.
"Did you see!" he whispered to Tayoga.
"Yes. It was a painted feather in the scalp lock of a Huron," replied the Onondaga.
"And where he is others are sure to be."
"Well spoken, Dagaeoga. They have discovered already that the soldiers are not by the fire, and now they will search for them."
"They will lie almost flat on their faces and follow, a little, the broad trail the city men have left."
Willet had already warned Captain Colden, and the soldiers were ready. Tayoga was on Robert's right, and on his left was Black Rifle to whom his attention was now attracted. The man's eyes were blazing in his dark face, and his crouched figure was tense like that of a lion about to spring. Face and attitude alike expressed the most eager anticipation, and Robert shuddered. The ranger would add more lives to the toll of his revenge, and yet the youth felt sympathy for him, too. Then his mind became wholly absorbed in the battle, which obviously was so close at hand.
Their position was strong. Just behind them the thickets ended in a cliff hard to climb, and on the right was an open space that the enemy could not cross without being seen. Hence the chief danger was in front and on the left, and most of the men watched those points.
"I can see the bushes moving about a hundred yards away," whispered Tayoga. "A warrior is there, but to fire at him would be shooting at random."
"Let them begin it. They'll open soon. They'll know by our absence from the fire that we're looking for 'em."
"Spoken well, Dagaeoga. You'll be a warrior some day."
Robert smiled in the dark. Tayoga himself was so great a warrior that he could preserve his sense of humor upon the eve of a deadly battle. Robert also saw bushes moving now, but nothing was definite enough for a shot, and he waited with his fingers on the trigger.
"The enemy is at hand, Captain Colden," said Willet. "If you will look very closely at the thicket about one hundred yards directly in front of us you'll see the leaves shaking."
"Yes, I can make out some movement there," said Colden.
"They've discovered, of course, that we've left the fire, and they know also where we are."
"Do you think they'll try to rush us?"
"Not at all. It's not the Indian way, nor is it the way either of the French, who go with them. They know your men are raw--pardon me--inexperienced troops, and they'll put a cruel burden upon your patience. They may wait for hours, and they'll try in every manner to wear them out, and to provoke them at last into some rash movement. You'll have to guard most, Captain Colden, against the temper of your troop. If you'll take advice from one who's a veteran in the woods, you'd better threaten them with death for disobedience of orders."
"As I said before, I'm grateful to you for any advice or suggestion, Mr. Willet. This seems a long way from Philadelphia, and I'll confess I'm not so very much at home here."
He crawled among his men, and Willet and Robert heard him threatening them in fierce whispers, and their replies that they would be cautious and patient. It was well that Willet had given the advice, as a full hour passed without any sign from the foe. Troops even more experienced than the city men might well have concluded it was a false alarm, and that the forest contained nothing more dangerous than a bear. There was no sound, and Captain Colden himself asked if the warriors had not gone away.
"Not a chance of it," replied Willet. "They think they're certain of a victory, and they would not dream of retiring."
"And we have more long waiting in the dark to do?"
"I warned you. There is no other way to fight such enemies. We must never make the mistake of undervaluing them."
Captain Colden sighed. He had a gallant heart, and he and his troop had made a fine parade through the streets of Philadelphia, before he started for the frontier, but he had expected to meet the French in the open, perhaps with a bugle playing, and he would charge at the head of his men, waving the neat small sword, now buckled to his side. Instead he lay in a black thicket, awaiting the attack of creeping savages. Nevertheless, he put down his pride for the third time, and resolved to trust the four who had come so opportunely to his aid, and who seemed to be so thoroughly at home in the wilderness.
Another hour dragged its weary length away, and there was no sound of anything stirring in the forest. The skies lightened a little as the moon came out, casting a faint whitish tint over trees and bushes, but the brave young captain was yet unable to see any trace of the enemy.
"Do you feel quite sure that we're still besieged?" he whispered to Willet.
"Yes, Captain," replied the hunter, "and, as I said, patience is the commodity we need most. It would be fatal for us to force the action, but I don't think we have much longer to wait. Since they can't induce us to take some rash step they're likely to make a movement soon."
"I see the bushes waving again," said Tayoga. "It is proof that the warriors are approaching. It would be well for the soldiers to lie flat for a little while."
Captain Colden, adhering to his resolution to take the advice of his new friends, crept along the line, telling the men in sharp whispers to hug the earth, a command that they obeyed willingly, as the darkness, the silence and the mysterious nature of the danger had begun to weigh heavily upon their nerves.
Robert saw a bead of flame among the bushes, and heard a sharp report. A bullet cut a bough over his head, and a leaf drifted down upon his face. The soldiers shifted uneasily and began to thrust their rifles forward, but again the stern command of the young captain prompted by the hunter, held them down.
"'Twas intended merely to draw us," said Willet. "They're sure we're in this wood, but of course they don't know the exact location of our men. They're hoping for a glimpse of the bright uniforms, but, if the men keep very low, they won't get it."
It was a tremendous trial for young and raw troops, but they managed to still their nerves, and to remain crouched and motionless. A second shot was fired soon, and then a third, but like the first they were trial bullets and both went high. Black Rifle grew impatient. The memory of his murdered family began to press upon him once more. The night was black, but now it looked red to him. Lying almost flat, he slowly pulled himself forward like a great wild beast, stalking its prey. Colden looked at him, and then at Willet, who nodded.
"Don't try to stop him," whispered the hunter, "because he'll go anyhow. Besides, it's time for us to reply to their shots."
The dark form, moving forward without noise, had a singular fascination for Robert. His imagination, which colored and magnified everything, made Black Rifle sinister and supernatural. The complete absence of sound, as he advanced, heightened the effect. Not a leaf nor a blade of grass rustled. Presently he stopped and Robert saw the black muzzle of his rifle shoot forward. A stream of flame leaped forth, and then the man quickly slid into a new position.
A fierce shout came from the opposing thicket, and a half dozen shots were fired. Bullets again cut twigs and leaves over Robert's head, but all of them went too high.
"Do you think Black Rifle hit his mark?" whispered Robert to Tayoga.
"It is likely," replied the Onondaga, "but we may never know. I think it would be well, Dagaeoga, for you and me to go toward the left. They may try to creep around our flank, and we must meet them there."
Willet and Colden approved of the plan, and a half dozen of the best soldiers went with them, the movement proving to be wise, as within five minutes a scattering fire was opened upon that point. The soldiers fired two rash shots, merely aiming at the reports and the general blackness, but Robert and Tayoga quickly reduced them to control, insisting that they wait until they saw a foe, before pulling trigger again. Then they sank back among the bushes and remained quite still.
Tayoga suddenly drew a deep and very long breath, which with him was equivalent to an exclamation.
"What is it, Tayoga?" asked Robert.
"I saw a bit of a uniform, and I caught just a glimpse of a white face."
"An officer. Then we were right in our surmise that the French are here, leading the warriors."
"It was but a glimpse, but it showed the curve of his jaw and chin, and I knew him. He is one who is beginning to be important in your life, Dagaeoga."
"None other. I could not be mistaken. He is leading the attack upon us. Perhaps Tandakora is with him. The Frenchman does not like the Ojibway, but war makes strange comrades. That was close!"
A bullet whistled directly between them, and Tayoga, kneeling, fired in return. There was no doubt about his aim, as a warrior uttered the death cry, and a fierce shout of rage from a dozen throats followed. Robert, imaginative, ready to flame up in a moment, exulted, not because a warrior had fallen, but because the flank attack upon his own people had been stopped in the beginning. St. Luc himself would have admitted that the Americans, or the English, as he would have called them, were acting wisely. The soldiers, stirred by the successful shot, showed again a great desire to fire at the black woods, but Robert and the Onondaga still kept them down.
A crackling fire arose behind them, showing that the main force had engaged, and now and then the warriors uttered defiant cries. But Robert had enough power of will to watch in front, sure that Willet and Black Rifle were sufficient to guide the central defense. He observed intently the segment of the circle in front of them, and he wondered if St. Luc would appear there again, but he concluded that he would not, since the failure of the attempted surprise at that point would be likely to send him back to the main force.
"Do you think they'll go away and concentrate in front?" he asked Tayoga.
"No," replied the Onondaga. "They still think perhaps that they have only the soldiers from the city to meet, and they may attempt a rush."
Robert crept from soldier to soldier, cautioning every one to take shelter, and to have his rifle ready, and they, being good men, though without experience, obeyed the one who so obviously knew what he was doing. Meantime the combat behind them proceeded with vigor, the shots crashing in volleys, accompanied by shouts, and once by the cry of a stricken soldier. It was evident that St. Luc was now pushing the battle, and Robert was quite sure the attack on the flank would soon come again.
They did not wait much longer. The warriors suddenly leaped from the undergrowth and rushed straight toward them, a white man now in front. The light was sufficient for Robert to see that the leader was not St. Luc, and then without hesitation he raised his rifle and fired. The man fell, Tayoga stopped the rush of a warrior, and the bullets of the soldiers wounded others. But their white leader was gone, and Indians have little love for an attack upon a sheltered enemy. So the charge broke, before it was half way to the defenders, and the savages vanished in the thickets.
The soldiers began to exult, but Robert bade them reload as fast as possible, and keep well under cover. The warriors from new points would fire at every exposed head, and they could not afford to relax their caution for an instant.
But it was a difficult task for the youthful veterans of the forest to keep the older but inexperienced men from the city under cover. They had an almost overpowering desire to see the Indians who were shooting at them, and against whom they were sending their bullets. In spite of every command and entreaty a man would raise his head now and then, and one, as he did so, received a bullet between the eyes, falling back quietly, dead before he touched the ground.
"A brave lad has been lost," whispered Tayoga to Robert, "but he has been an involuntary example to the rest."
The Onondaga spoke in his precise school English, but he knew what he was saying, as the soldiers now became much more cautious, and controlled their impulse to raise up for a look, after every shot. Another man was wounded, but the hurt was not serious and he went on with his firing. Robert, seeing that the line on the flank could be held without great difficulty, left Tayoga in command, and crept back to the main force, where the bullets were coming much faster.
Two of the soldiers in the center had been slain, and three had been wounded, but Captain Colden had not given ground. He was sitting behind a rocky outcrop and at the suggestion of Willet was giving orders to his men. Oppressed at first by the ambush and weight of responsibility he was exulting now in their ability to check the savage onset. Robert was quite willing to play a little to his pride and he said in the formal military manner:
"I wish to report, sir, that all is going well on the southern flank. One of our men has been killed, but we have made it impossible for the enemy to advance there."
"Thank you, Mr. Lennox," said the young captain with dignity. "We have also had some success here, due chiefly to the good advice of Mr. Willet, and the prowess and sharpshooting of the extraordinary man whom you call Black Rifle. See him now!"
He indicated a dark figure a little distance ahead, behind a clump of bushes, and, as Robert looked, a jet of fire leaped from the muzzle of the man's rifle, followed almost immediately by a cry in the forest.
"I think he has slain more of our enemies than the rest of us combined," said Captain Colden.
Robert shuddered a little, but those who lived on the border became used to strange things. The constant struggle for existence hardened the nerves, and terrible scenes did not dwell long in the mind. He bent forward for a better look, and a bullet cut the hair upon his forehead. He started back, feeling as if he had been seared by lightning and Willet looked at him anxiously.
"The lead burned as it passed," the lad said, "but the skin is not broken. I was guilty of the same rashness, for which I have been lecturing the men on the flank."
"I caught a glimpse of the fellow who fired the shot," said Willet. "I think it was the Canadian, Dubois, whom we saw with St. Luc."
"Tayoga saw St. Luc himself on the flank," said Robert, "and so there is no doubt that he is leading the attack. The fact makes it certain that it will be carried on with persistence."
"We shall be here, still besieged, when day comes," said the hunter. "It's lucky that the cliff protects us on one side."
As if to disprove his assertion, all the firing stopped suddenly, and for a long time the forest was silent. Fortunately they had water in their canteens, and they were able to soothe the thirst of the wounded men. They talked also of victory, and, knowing that it was only two or three hours until dawn, Captain Colden's spirits rose to great heights. He was sure now that the warriors, defeated, had gone away. This Frenchman, St. Luc, of whom they talked, might be a great partisan leader, but he would know when the price he was paying became too high, and would draw off.
The men believed their captain, and, despite the earnest protest of the foresters, began to stir in the bushes shortly before dawn. A rifle shot came from the opposing thickets and one of them would stir no more. Captain Colden, appalled, was all remorse. He took the death of the man directly to himself, and told Willet with emotion that all advice of his would now be taken at once.
"Let the men lie as close as they can," said the hunter. "The day will soon be here."
Robert found shelter behind the trunk of a huge oak, and crouched there, his nerves relaxing. He did not believe any further movement of the enemy would come now. As the great tension passed for a time he was conscious of an immense weariness. The strain upon all the physical senses and upon the mind as well made him weak. It was a luxury merely to sit there with his back against the bark and rest. Near him he heard the soldiers moving softly, and now and then a wounded man asking for water. A light breeze had sprung up, and it had upon his face the freshness of the dawn. He wondered what the day would bring. The light that came with it would be cheerful and uplifting, but it would disclose their covert, at least in part, and St. Luc might lead both French and Indians in one great rush.
"Better eat a little," said Tayoga, who had returned to the center. "Remember that we have plenty of food in our knapsacks, nor are our canteens empty."
"I had forgotten it," said Robert, and he ate and drank sparingly. The breeze continued to freshen, and in the east the dawn broke, gray, turning to silver, and then to red and gold. The forest soon stood out, an infinite tracery in the dazzling light, and then a white fleck appeared against the wall of green.
"A flag of truce!" exclaimed Captain Colden. "What can they want to say to us?"
"Let the bearer of the flag appear first," suggested Willet, "and then we'll talk with 'em."
The figure of a man holding up a white handkerchief appeared and it was St. Luc himself, as neat and irreproachable as if he were attending a ball in the Intendant's palace at Quebec. Robert knew that he must have been active in the battle all through the night, but he showed no signs of it. He wore a fine close-fitting uniform of dark blue, and the handkerchief of lace was held aloft on the point of a small sword, the golden hilt of which glittered in the morning sunlight. He was a strange figure in the forest, but a most gallant one, and to Robert's eyes a chevalier without fear and without reproach.
"I know that you speak good French, Mr. Lennox," said Captain Colden. "Will you go forward and meet the Frenchman? You will perhaps know what to say to him, and, if not, you can refer to Mr. Willet and myself."
"I will do my best, sir," said Robert, glad of the chance to meet St. Luc face to face again. He did not know why his heart leaped so every time he saw the chevalier, but his friendship for him was undeniable. It seemed too that St. Luc liked him, and Robert felt sure that whatever hostility his official enemy felt for the English cause there was none for him personally.
Unconsciously he began to arrange his own attire of forest green, beautifully dyed and decorated deerskin, that he might not look less neat than the man whom he was going to meet. St. Luc was standing under the wide boughs of an oak, his gold hilted rapier returned to its sheath and his white lace handkerchief to its pocket. The smile of welcome upon his face as he saw the herald was genuine.
"I salute you, Mr. Lennox," he said, "and wish you a very good morning. I learned that you were in the force besieged by us, and it's a pleasure to see that you've escaped unhurt. When last we met the honors were yours. You fairly defeated me at the word play in the vale of Onondaga, but you will admit that the savage, Tandakora, played into your hands most opportunely. You will admit also that word play is not sword play, and that in the appeal to the sword we have the advantage of you."
"It may seem so to one who sees with your eyes and from your position," said Robert, "but being myself I'm compelled to see with my own eyes and from our side. I wish to say first, however, Chevalier de St. Luc, that since you have wished me a very good morning I even wish you a better."
St. Luc laughed gayly.
"You and I will never be enemies. It would be against nature," he said.
"No, we'll never be enemies, but why is it against nature?"
"Perhaps I was not happy in my phrase. We like each other too well, and--in a way--our temperaments resemble too much to engender a mutual hate. But we'll to business. Mine's a mission of mercy. I come to receive the surrender of your friends and yourself, since continued resistance to us will be vain!"
Robert smiled. His gift of golden speech was again making its presence felt. He had matched himself against St. Luc before the great League of the Hodenosaunee in the vale of Onondaga, and they had spoken where all might hear. Now they two alone could hear, but he felt that the test was the same in kind. He knew that his friends in the thickets behind him were watching, and he was equally sure that French and savages in the thickets before him were watching too. He had no doubt the baleful eyes of Tandakora were glaring at him at that very moment, and that the fingers of the Ojibway were eager to grasp his scalp. The idea, singularly enough, caused him amusement, because his imagination, vivid as usual, leaped far ahead, and he foresaw that his hair would never become a trophy for Tandakora.
"You smile, Mr. Lennox," said St. Luc. "Do you find my words so amusing?"
"Not amusing, chevalier! Oh, no! And if, in truth, I found them so I would not be so impolite as to smile. But there is a satisfaction in knowing that your official enemy has underrated the strength of your position. That is why my eyes expressed content--I would scarcely call it a smile."
"I see once more that you're a master of words, Mr. Lennox. You play with them as the wind sports among the leaves."
"But I don't speak in jest, Monsieur de St. Luc. I'm not in command here. I'm merely a spokesman a herald or a messenger, in whichever way you should choose to define me. Captain James Colden, a gallant young officer of Philadelphia, is our leader, but, in this instance, I don't feel the need of consulting him. I know that your offer is kindly, that it comes from a generous soul, but however much it may disappoint you I must decline it. Our resistance in the night has been quite successful, we have inflicted upon you much more damage than you have inflicted upon us, and I've no doubt the day will witness a battle continued in the same proportion."
St. Luc threw back his head and laughed, not loud, but gayly and with unction. Robert reddened, but he could not take offense, as he saw that none was meant.
"I no longer wonder at my defeat by you in the vale of Onondaga," said the chevalier, "since you're not merely a master of words, you're a master-artist. I've no doubt if I listen to you you'll persuade me it's not you but we who are besieged, and it would be wise for us to yield to you without further ado."
"Perhaps you're not so very far wrong," said Robert, recovering his assurance, which was nearly always great. "I'm sure Captain Colden would receive your surrender and treat you well."
The eyes of the two met and twinkled.
"Tandakora is with us," said St. Luc, "and I've a notion he wouldn't relish it. Perhaps he distrusts the mercy he would receive at the hands of your Onondaga, Tayoga. And at this point in our dialogue, Mr. Lennox, I want to apologize to you again, for the actions of the Ojibway before the war really began. I couldn't prevent them, but, since there is genuine war, he is our ally, and I must accord to him all the dignities and honors appertaining to his position."
"You're rather deft with words yourself, Monsieur de St. Luc. Once, at New York, I saw a juggler with balls who could keep five in the air at the same time, and in some dim and remote way you make me think of him. You'll pardon the illustration, chevalier, because I really mean it as a compliment."
"I pardon gladly enough, because I see your intentions are good. We both play with words, perhaps because the exercise tickles our fancy, but to return to the true spirit and essence of things, I warn you that it would be wise to surrender. My force is very much greater than Captain Colden's, and has him hemmed in. If my Indian allies suffer too much in the attack it will be difficult to restrain them. I'm not stating this as a threat--you know me too well for that--but to make the facts plain, and to avoid something that I should regret as much as you."
"I don't think it necessary to consult Captain Colden, and without doing so I decline your offer. We have food to eat, water to drink and bullets to shoot, and if you care to take us you must come and do so."
"And that is the final answer? You're quite sure you don't wish to consult your superior officer, Captain Colden?"
"Absolutely sure. It would waste the time of all of us."
"Then it seems there is nothing more to say, and to use your own fanciful way of putting it, we must go back from the play of words to the play of swords."
"I see no alternative."
"And yet I hope that you will survive the combat, Mr. Lennox."
"I've the same hope for you, Chevalier de St. Luc."
Each meant it, and, in the same high manner of the day, they saluted and withdrew. Robert, as he walked back to the thickets in which the defenders lay, felt that Indian eyes were upon him, and that perhaps an Indian bullet would speed toward him, despite St. Luc. Tandakora and the savages around him could not always be controlled by their French allies, as was to be shown too often in this war. His sensitive mind once more turned fancy into reality and the hair on his head lifted a little, but pride would not let him hasten his steps.
No gun was fired, and, with an immense relief, he sank down behind a fallen log, and by the side of Colden and Willet.
"What did the Frenchman want?" asked the young captain.
"Our instant and unconditional surrender. Knowing how you felt about it, I gave him your refusal at once."
"Well done, Mr. Lennox."
"He said that in case of a rush and heavy loss by his Indians he perhaps would not be able to control them in the moment of victory, which doubtless is true."
"They will know no moment of victory. We can hold them off."
"Where is Tayoga?" asked Robert of Willet.
The hunter pointed westward.
"Why, the cliff shuts off the way in that direction!" said Robert.
"Not to a good climber."
"Do you mean, then, that Tayoga is gone?"
"I saw him go. He went while you were talking with St. Luc."
"Why should Tayoga leave us?"
"He saw another smoke against the sky. It was but a faint trace. Only an extremely keen eye would have noticed it, and having much natural curiosity, Tayoga is now on his way to see who built the fire that made the smoke."
"And it may have been made by friends."
"That's our hope."
Robert drew a long breath and looked toward the west. The sky was now clear there, but he knew that Tayoga could not have made any mistake. Then, his heart high once more, he settled himself down to wait.