Chapter VI. The Return
 

It was near the close of a day that had been marked by little demonstration from the enemy, and the young officers, growing used to the siege, attained a philosophical state of mind. They felt sure they could hold the palisade against any number of enemies, and the foresight of Willet, Robert and Tayoga had been so great that by no possibility could they be starved out. They began now to have a certain exultation. They were inside comfortable walls, with plenty to eat and drink, while the enemy was outside and must forage for game.

"If it were not for Tayoga," said Wilton to Robert, "I should feel more than satisfied with the situation. But the fate of your Onondaga friend sticks in my mind. Mr. Willet, who knows everything, says we're surrounded completely, and I don't wish him to lose his life in an attempt to get through at a certain time, merely on a point of honor."

"It's no point of honor, Will. It's just the completion of a plan at the time and place chosen. Do you see anything in that tall tree to the east of the palisade?"

"Something appears to be moving up the trunk, but as it's on the far side, I catch only a glimpse of it."

"That's an Indian warrior, seeking a place for a shot at us. He'll reach the high fork, but he'll always keep well behind the body of the tree. It's really too far for a bullet, but I think it would be wise for us to slip back under cover."

The sharpshooter reached his desired station and fired, but his bullet fell short. He tried three more, all without avail, and then Willet picked him off with his long and deadly rifle. Robert shut his eyes when he saw the body begin its fall, but his vivid imagination, so easily excited, made him hear its thump when it struck the earth.

"And so ends that attempt!" he said.

An hour later he saw a white flag among the trees, and when Willet mounted the palisade two French officers came forward. Robert saw at once that they were De Courcelles and Jumonville, and his heart beat hard. They linked him with Quebec, in which he had spent some momentous days, and despite their treachery to him he did not feel hatred of them at that moment.

"Will you stay with me, Mr. Willet, and you also, Mr. Lennox, while I talk to them?" asked Captain Colden. "You know these Frenchmen better than I do, and their experience is so much greater than mine that I need your help."

Robert and the hunter assented gladly. Robert, in truth, was very curious to hear what these old friends and enemies of his had to say, and he felt a thrill when the two recognized and saluted him in the most friendly fashion, just as if they had never meant him any harm.

"Chance brings about strange meetings between us, Mr. Lennox," said De Courcelles. "It gives me pleasure to note that you have not yet taken any personal harm from our siege."

"Nor you nor Monsieur de Jumonville, from our successful defense," replied Robert in the same spirit.

"You have us there. The points so far are in your favor, although only superficially so, as I shall make clear to you presently."

Then De Courcelles turned his attention to Colden, who he saw was the nominal leader of the garrison.

"My name," he said, "is Auguste de Courcelles, a colonel in the service of His Majesty, King Louis of France. My friend is Captain Francois de Jumonville, and we have the honor to lead the numerous and powerful force of French and Indians now besieging you."

"And my name is Colden, Captain James Colden," replied the young officer. "I've heard of you from my friends, Mr. Lennox and Mr. Willet, and I have the honor of asking you what I can do for you."

"You cannot do for us more than you can do for yourself, Captain Colden. We ask the surrender of your little fort, and of your little garrison, which we freely admit has defended itself most gallantly. It's not necessary for us to make an assault. You're deep in the wilderness, we can hold you here all winter, and help cannot possibly come to you. We guarantee you good treatment in Canada, where you will be held until the war is over."

Young Colden smiled. They were standing before the single gate in the palisade, and he looked back at the solid buildings, erected by the hands of his own men, with the comfortable smoke curling up against the cold sky. And he looked also at the wintry forest that curved in every direction.

"Colonel de Courcelles," he said, "it seems to me that we are in and you are out. If it comes to holding us here all winter we who have good houses can stand it much better than you who merely have the forest as a home, where you will be rained upon, snowed upon, hailed upon, and maybe frozen. Why should we exchange our warm house for your cold forest?"

Colonel de Courcelles frowned. There was a humorous inflection in Colden's tone that did not please him, and the young officer's words also had a strong element of truth.

"It's not a time to talk about houses and forests," he said, somewhat haughtily. "We have here a formidable force capable of carrying your fort, and, for that reason, we demand your surrender. Indians are always inflamed by a long and desperate resistance and while Captain de Jumonville and I will do our best to restrain them, it's possible that they may escape from our control in the hour of victory."

Young Colden smiled again. With Willet at his right hand and Robert at his left, he acquired lightness of spirit.

"A demand and a threat together," he replied. "For the threat we don't care. We don't believe you'll ever see that hour of victory in which you can't control your Indians, and there'll be no need for you, Colonel de Courcelles, to apologize for a massacre committed by your allies, and which you couldn't help. We're also growing used to requests of surrender.

"There was your countryman, St. Luc, a very brave and skillful man, who asked it of us, but we declined, and in the end we defeated him. And if we beat St. Luc without the aid of a strong fort, why shouldn't we beat you with it, Colonel de Courcelles?"

Colonel de Courcelles frowned once more, and Captain de Jumonville frowned with him.

"You don't know the wilderness, Captain Colden," he said, "and you don't give our demand the serious consideration to which it is entitled. Later on, the truth of what I tell you may bear heavily upon you."

"I may not know the forest as you do, Colonel de Courcelles, but I have with me masters of woodcraft, Mr. Lennox and Mr. Willet, with whom you're already acquainted."

"We've had passages of various kinds with Colonel de Courcelles, both in the forest and at Quebec," said Robert, quietly.

Both De Courcelles and Jumonville flushed, and it became apparent that they were anxious to end the interview.

"This, I take it, is your final answer," the French Colonel said to the young Philadelphia captain.

"It is, sir."

"Then what may occur rests upon the knees of the gods."

"It does, sir, and I'm as willing as you to abide by the result."

"And I have the honor of bidding you good day."

"An equally great honor is mine."

The two French officers were ceremonious. They lifted their fine, three-cornered hats, and bowed politely, and Colden, Willet and Robert were not inferior in courtesy. Then the Frenchmen walked away into the forest, while the three Americans went inside the palisade, where the heavy gate was quickly shut behind them and fastened securely. But before he turned back Robert thought he saw the huge figure of Tandakora in the forest.

When the French officers disappeared several shots were fired and the savages uttered a long and menacing war whoop, but the young soldiers had grown used to such manifestations, and, instead of being frightened, they felt a certain defiant pleasure.

"Yells don't hurt us," said Wilton to Robert. "Instead I feel my Quaker blood rising in anger, and I'd rejoice if they were to attack now. A very heavy responsibility rests upon me, Robert, since I've to fight not only for myself but for my ancestors who wouldn't fight at all. It rests upon me, one humble youth, to bring up the warlike average of the family."

"You're one, Will, but you're not humble," laughed Robert. "I believe that jest of yours about the still, blood of generations bursting forth in you at last is not a jest wholly. When it comes to a pitched battle I expect to see you perform prodigies of valor."

"If I do it won't be Will Wilton, myself, and I won't be entitled to any credit. I'll be merely an instrument in the hands of fate, working out the law of averages. But what do you think those French officers and their savage allies will do now, Robert, since Colden, so to speak, has thrown a very hard glove in their faces?"

"Draw the lines tighter about Fort Refuge. It's cold in the forest, but they can live there for a while at least. They'll build fires and throw up a few tepees, maybe for the French. But their anger and their desire to take us will make them watch all the more closely. They'll draw tight lines around this snug little, strong little fort of ours."

"Which removes all possibility that your friend Tayoga will come at the appointed time."

Robert glared at him.

"Will," he said, "I've discovered that you have a double nature, although the two are never struggling for you at the same time."

"That is I march tandem with my two natures, so to speak?"

"They alternate. At times you're a sensible boy."

"Boy? I'm older than you are!"

"One wouldn't think it. But a well bred Quaker never interrupts. As I said, you're quite sensible at times and you ought to thank me for saying so. At other times your mind loves folly. It fairly swims and dives in the foolish pool, and it dives deepest when you're talking about Tayoga. I trust, foolish young, sir, that I've heard the last word of folly from you about the arrival of Tayoga, or rather what you conceive will be his failure to arrive. Peace, not a word!"

"At least let me say this," protested Wilton. "I wish that I could feel the absolute confidence in any human being that you so obviously have in the Onondaga."

The night came, white and beautiful. It was white, because the Milky Way was at its brightest, which was uncommonly bright, and every star that ever showed itself in that latitude came out and danced. The heavens were full of them, disporting themselves in clusters on spangled seas, and the forest was all in light, paler than that of day, but almost as vivid.

The Indians lighted several fires, well beyond rifle shot, and the sentinels on the palisade distinctly saw their figures passing back and forth before the blaze Robert also noticed the uniforms of Frenchmen, and he thought it likely that De Courcelles and Jumonville had with them more soldiers than he had supposed at first. The fires burned at different points of the compass, and thus the fort was encircled completely by them. Both young Lennox and Willet knew they had been lighted that way purposely, that is in order to show to the defenders that a belt of fire and steel was drawn close about them.

To Wilton at least the Indian circle seemed impassable, and despite the enormous confidence of Robert he now had none at all himself. It was impossible for Tayoga, even if he had triumphed over sleet and snow and flood and storm, to pass so close a siege. He would not speak of it again, but Robert had allowed himself to be deluded by friendship. He felt sorry for his new friend, and he did not wish to see his disappointment on the morrow.

Wilton was in charge of the guard until midnight, and then he slept soundly until dawn, awakening to a brilliant day, the fit successor of such a brilliant night. The Indian fires were still burning and he could see the warriors beside them sleeping or eating at leisure. They still formed a complete circle about the fort, and while the young Quaker felt safe inside the palisade, he saw no chance for a friend outside. Robert joined him presently but, respecting his feelings, the Philadelphian said nothing about Tayoga.

The winter, it seemed, was exerting itself to show how fine a day it could produce. It was cold but dazzling. A gorgeous sun, all red and gold, was rising, and the light was so vivid and intense that they could see far in the forest, bare of leaf. Robert clearly discerned both De Courcelles and Jumonville about six hundred yards away, standing by one of the fires. Then he saw the gigantic figure of Tandakora, as the Ojibway joined them. Despite the cold, Tandakora wore little but the breechcloth, and his mighty chest and shoulders were painted with many hideous devices. In the distance and in the glow of the flames his size was exaggerated until he looked like one of the giants of ancient mythology.

Robert was quite sure the siege would never be raised if the voice of the Ojibway prevailed in the allied French and Indian councils. Tandakora had been wounded twice, once by the hunter and once by the Onondaga, and a mind already inflamed against the Americans and the Hodenosaunee cherished a bitter personal hate. Robert knew that Willet, Tayoga and he must be eternally on guard against his murderous attacks.

The savages built their fires higher, as if in defiance and triumph. They could defend themselves against cold, because the forest furnished unending fuel, but rain or hail, sleet or snow would bring severe hardship. The day, however, favored them to the utmost. It had seemed at dawn that it could not be more brilliant, but as the morning advanced the world fairly glowed with color. The sky was golden save in the east, where it burned in red, and the trunks and black boughs of the forest, to the last and least little twig, were touched with it until they too were clothed in a luminous glow.

The besiegers seemed lazy, but Robert knew that the watch upon the fort and its approaches was never neglected for an instant. A fox could not steal through their lines, unseen, and yet he never doubted. Tayoga would come, and moreover he would come at the time appointed. Toward the middle of the morning the Indians shot some arrows that fell inside the palisade, and uttered a shout or two of defiance, but nobody was hurt, and nobody was stirred to action. The demonstration passed unanswered, and, after a while, Wilton called Robert's attention to the fact that it was only two hours until noon. Robert did not reply, but he knew that the conditions could not be more unfavorable. Rain or hail, sleet or snow might cover the passage of a warrior, but the dazzling sunlight that enlarged twigs two hundred yards away into boughs, seemed to make all such efforts vain. Yet he knew Tayoga, and he still believed.

Soon a stir came in the forest, and they heard a long, droning chant. A dozen warriors appeared coming out of the north, and they were welcomed with shouts by the others.

"Hurons, I think," said Willet. "Yes, I'm sure of it. They've undoubtedly sent away for help, and it's probable that other bands will come about this time." He reckoned right, as in half an hour a detachment of Abenakis came, and they too were received with approving shouts, after which food was given to them and they sat luxuriously before the fires. Then three runners arrived, one from the north, one from the west, and one from the east, and a great shout of welcome was uttered for each.

"What does it mean?" Wilton asked Robert.

"The runners were sent out by De Courcelles and Tandakora to rally more strength for our siege. They've returned with the news that fresh forces are coming, as the exultant shout from the warriors proves."

The young Philadelphian's heart sank. He knew that it was only a half hour until noon, and noon was the appointed time. Nor did the heavens give any favoring sign. The whole mighty vault was a blaze of gold and blue. Nothing could stir in such a light and remain hidden from the warriors. Wilton looked at his comrade and he caught a sudden glitter in his eyes. It was not the look of one who despaired. Instead it was a flash of triumph, and the young Philadelphian wondered. Had Robert seen a sign, a sign that had escaped all others? He searched the forest everywhere with his own eyes, but he could detect nothing unusual. There were the French, and there were the Indians. There were the new warriors, and there were the three runners resting by the fires.

The runners rose presently, and the one who had come out of the north talked with Tandakora, the one who had come out of the west stood near the edge of the forest with an Abenaki chief and looked at the fort. The one who had come out of the east joined De Courcelles himself and they came nearer to the fort than any of the others, although they remained just beyond rifle shot. Evidently De Courcelles was explaining something to the Indian as once he pointed toward the blockhouse.

Wilton heard Robert beside him draw a deep breath, and he turned in surprise. The face of young Lennox was tense and his eyes fairly blazed as he gazed at De Courcelles and the warrior. Then looking back at the forest Robert uttered a sudden sharp, Ah! the release of uncontrollable emotion, snapping like a pistol shot.

"Did you see it, Will? Did you see it?" he exclaimed. "It was quicker than lightning!"

The Indian runner stooped, snatched the pistol from the belt of De Courcelles, struck him such a heavy blow on the head with the butt of it that he fell without a sound, and then his brown body shot forward like an arrow for the fort.

"Open the gate! Open the gate!" thundered Willet, and strong arms unbarred it and flung it back in an instant. The brown body of Tayoga flashed through, and, in another instant, it was closed and barred again.

"He is here with five minutes to spare!" said Robert as he left the palisade with Wilton, and went toward the blockhouse to greet his friend.

Tayoga, painted like a Micmac and stooping somewhat hitherto, drew himself to his full height, held out his hand in the white man's fashion to Robert, while his eyes, usually so calm, showed a passing gleam of triumph.

"I said, Tayoga, that you would be back on time, that is by noon today," said Robert, "and though the task has been hard you're with us and you have a few minutes to spare. How did you deceive the sharp eyes of Tandakora?"

"I did not let him see me, knowing he would look through my disguise, but I asked the French colonel to come forward with me at once and inspect the fort, knowing that it was my only chance to enter here, and he agreed to do so. You saw the rest, and thus I have come. It is not pleasant to those who besiege us, as your ears tell you."

Fierce yells of anger and disappointment were rising in the forest. Jumonville and two French soldiers had rushed forward, seized the reviving De Courcelles and were carrying him to one of the fires, where they would bind up his injured head. But inside the fort there was only exultation at the arrival of Tayoga and admiration for his skill. He insisted first on being allowed to wash off the Micmac paint, enabling him to return to his true character. Then he took food and drink.

"Tayoga," said Wilton, "I believed you could not come. I said so often to Lennox. You would never have known my belief, because Lennox would not have told it to you, but I feel that I must apologize to you for the thought. I underrated you, but I underrated you because I did not believe any human being could do what you have done."

Tayoga smiled, showing his splendid white teeth. "Your thoughts did me no wrong," he said in his precise school English, "because the elements and chance itself seemed to have conspired against me."

Later he told what he had heard in the vale of Onondaga where the sachems and chiefs kept themselves well informed concerning the movements of the belligerent nations. The French were still the more active of the rival powers, and their energy and conquests were bringing the western tribes in great numbers to their flag. Throughout the Ohio country the warriors were on the side of the French who were continuing the construction of the powerful fortress at the junction of the Alleghany and the Monongahela. The French were far down in the province of New York, and they held control of Lake Champlain and of Lake George also. More settlements had been cut off, and more women and children had been taken prisoners into Canada.

But the British colonies and Great Britain too would move, so Tayoga said. They were slow, much slower than Canada, but they had the greater strength and the fifty sachems in the vale of Onondaga knew it. They could not be moved from their attitude of friendliness toward the English, and the Mohawks openly espoused the English side. The American, Franklin, was very active, and a great movement against Fort Duquesne would be begun, although it might not start until next spring. An English force under an English general was coming across the sea, and the might of England was gathering for a great blow.

The Onondaga had few changes in the situation to report, but he at least brought news of the outside world, driving away from the young soldiers the feeling that they were cut off from the human race. Wilton was present when he was telling of these things and when he had finished Robert asked:

"How did you make your way through the great snow, Tayoga?"

"It is well to think long before of difficulties," he replied. "Last year when the winter was finished I hid a pair of snow shoes in this part of the forest, and when the deep snow came I found them and used them."

Robert glanced at Wilton, whose eyes were widening.

"And the great rain and flood, how did you meet that obstacle?" asked Robert.

"That, too, was forethought. I have two canoes hidden in this region, and it was easy to reach one of them, in which I traveled with speed and comfort, until I could use it no longer. Then I hid it away again that it might help me another time."

"And what did you do when the hurricane came, tearing up the bushes, cutting down the trees, and making the forest as dangerous as if it were being showered by cannon balls?"

"I crept under a wide ledge of stone in the side of a hill, where I lay snug, dry and safe."

Wilton looked at Tayoga and Robert, and then back at the Onondaga.

"Is this wizardry?" he cried.

"No," replied Robert.

"Then it's singular chance."

"Nor that either. It was the necessities that confronted Tayoga in the face of varied dangers, and my knowledge of what he would be likely to do in either case. Merely a rather fortunate use of the reasoning faculties, Will."

Willet, who had come in, smiled.

"Don't let 'em make game of you, Mr. Wilton," he said, "but there's truth in what Robert tells you. He understands Tayoga so thoroughly that he knows pretty well what he'll do in every crisis."

After the Onondaga had eaten he wrapped himself in blankets, went to sleep in one of the rooms of the blockhouse and slept twenty-four hours. When he awoke he showed no signs of his tremendous journey and infinite dangers. He was once more the lithe and powerful Tayoga of the Clan of the Bear, of the nation Onondaga of the great League of the Hodenosaunee.

The besiegers meanwhile undertook no movement, but, as if in defiance, they increased the fires in the red ring around the fort and they showed themselves ostentatiously. Robert several times saw De Courcelles with a thick bandage about his head, and he knew that the Frenchman's mortification and rage at being tricked so by the Onondaga must be intense.

Now the weather began to grow very cold again, and Robert saw the number of tepees in the forest increase. The Indians, not content with the fires, were providing themselves with good shelters, and to every one it indicated a long siege. There was neither snow, nor hail, but clear, bitter, intense cold, and again the timbers of the blockhouse and outbuildings popped as they contracted under the lower temperature.

The horses were pretty well sheltered from the cold, and Willet, with his usual foresight, had suggested before the siege closed in that a great deal of grass be cut for them, though should the French and Indians hang on for a month or two, they would certainly become a problem. Food for the men would last indefinitely, but a time might arrive when none would be left for the horses.

"If the pinch comes," said Willet, "we know how to relieve it."

"How?" asked Colden.

"We'll eat the horses."

Colden made a wry face.

"It's often been done in Europe," said the hunter. "At the famous sieges of Leyden and Haarlem, when the Dutch held out so long against the Spanish, they'd have been glad enough to have had horseflesh."

"I look ahead again," said Robert, hiding a humorous gleam in his eyes from Colden, "and I see a number of young men behind a palisade which they have held gallantly for months. They come mostly from Philadelphia and they call themselves Quakers. They are thin, awfully thin, terribly thin, so thin that there is scarcely enough to make a circle for their belts. They have not eaten for four days, and they are about to kill their last horse. When he is gone they will have to live on fresh air and scenery."

"Now I know Lennox that you're drawing on your imagination and that you're a false prophet," said Colden.

"I hope my prediction won't come true, and I don't believe it will," said Robert cheerfully.

Several nights later when there was no moon, and no stars, Willet and Tayoga slipped out of the fort. Colden was much opposed to their going, fearing for their lives, and knowing, too, how great a loss they would be if they were taken or slain, but the hunter and the Onondaga showed the utmost confidence, assuring him they would return in safety.

Colden became quite uneasy for them after they had been gone some hours, and Robert, although he refused to show it, felt a trace of apprehension. He knew their great skill in the forest, but Tandakora was a master of woodcraft too, and the Frenchmen also were experienced and alert. As he, Colden, Wilton and Carson watched at the palisade he was in fear lest a triumphant shout from the Indian lines would show that the hunter and the Onondaga had been trapped.

But the long hours passed without an alarm and about three o'clock in the morning two shadows appeared at the palisade and whispered to them. Robert felt great relief as Willet and Tayoga climbed silently over.

"We're half frozen," said the hunter. "Take us into the blockhouse and over the fire we'll tell you all we've seen."

They always kept a bed of live coals on the hearth in the main building, and the two who had returned bent over the grateful heat, warming their hands and faces. Not until they were in a normal physical condition did Colden or Robert ask them any questions and then Willet said:

"Their ring about the fort is complete, but in the darkness we were able to slip through and then back again. I should judge that they have at least three hundred warriors and Tandakora is first among them. There are about thirty Frenchmen. De Courcelles has taken off his bandage, but he still has a bruise where Tayoga struck him. Peeping from the bushes I saw him and his face has grown more evil. It was evident to me that the blow of Tayoga has inflamed his mind. He feels mortified and humiliated at the way in which he was outwitted, and, as Tandakora also nurses a personal hatred against us, it's likely that they'll keep up the siege all winter, if they think in the end they can get us.

"Their camp, too, shows increasing signs of permanency. They've built a dozen bark huts in which all the French, all the chiefs and some of the warriors sleep, and there are skin lodges for the rest. Oh, it's quite a village! And they've accumulated game, too, for a long time."

Colden looked depressed.

"We're not fulfilling our mission," he said. "We've come out here to protect the settlers on the border, and give them a place of refuge. Instead, it looks as if we'd pass the winter fighting for our own lives."

"I think I have a plan," said Robert, who had been very thoughtful.

"What is it?" asked Colden.

"I remember something I read in our Roman history in the school at Albany. It was an event that happened a tremendously long time ago, but I fancy it's still useful as an example. Scipio took his army over to Africa to meet Hannibal, and one night his men set fire to the tents of the Carthaginians. They destroyed their camp, created a terrible tumult, and inflicted great losses."

Tayoga's eyes glistened.

"Then you mean," he said, "that we are to burn the camp of the French and their allies?"

"No less."

"It is a good plan. If Great Bear and the captain agree to it we will do it."

"It's fearfully risky," said Colden.

"If Great Bear and I can go out once and come back safely," said Tayoga, "we can do it twice."

The young captain looked at Willet.

"It's the best plan," said the hunter. "Robert hasn't read his Roman history in vain."

"Then it's agreed," said Colden, "and as soon as another night as dark as this comes we'll try it."

The plan being formed, they waited a week before a night, pitchy black, arrived.