The Lords of the Wild by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter IV. The Daring Attempt
Willet knew from their paint that the faces looking down were those of Huron warriors, but he was quite sure they had not seen anything, and that the men would soon pass on. It was impossible even for the sharpest eyes to pick out the three behind the evergreen screen. Nevertheless he put his rifle forward, ready for an instant shot, if needed, but remained absolutely still, waiting for them to make the next move.
His sensitive hearing brought down the faint voices again and once or twice the light crush of footsteps. Evidently, the warriors were moving slowly along the edge of the cliff, talking as they went, and the hunter surmised that the three were the subject of their attention. He imagined their chagrin at the way in which the chase had vanished, and he laughed softly to think that he and the lads lay so near their enemies, but invisible and so well hidden.
The voices became fainter and died away, the soft crush of footsteps came no more, and the world returned to all the seeming of peace, without any trace of cruelty in it; but Willet was not lured by such an easy promise into any rash act. He knew the savages would come again, and that unbroken vigilance was the price of life. Once more he settled himself into the easiest position and watched. He had all the patience of the Indians themselves, to whom time mattered little, and since sitting there was the best thing to be done he was content to sit there.
Robert and Tayoga slept on. The morning was far gone, but they still rambled happily in the land of dreams, and showed no signs of a wish to return to earth. Willet thought it better that they should sleep on, because youthful bodies demanded it, and because the delay which would be hard for Robert especially would thus pass more easily. He was willing for them to stay longer in the far, happy land that they were visiting.
The sun slowly climbed the eastern arch of the heavens. The day lost none of its intense, vivid quality. The waters of the lake glowed in wonderful changing colors, now gold, now silver, and then purple or blue. Willet even in those hours of anxiety did not forget to steep his soul in the beauty of Lake George. His life was cast amid great and continuous dangers, and he had no family that he could call his own. Yet he had those whom he loved, and if he were to choose over again the land in which to live he would choose this very majestic land in which he now sat. As human life went, the great hunter was happy.
The sound of a shot, and then of a second, came from the cliff above. He heard no cry following them, no note of the war whoop, and, thinking it over, he concluded that the shots were fired by Indians hunting. Since the war, game about the lake had increased greatly, and the warriors, whether attached to the French army or roving at their own will, relied chiefly upon the forest for food. But the reports were significant. The Indian ring about them was not broken, and he measured their own supplies of venison and hominy.
A little after noon Tayoga awoke, and he awoke in the Indian fashion, without the noise of incautious movements or sudden words, but stepping at once from complete sleep to complete consciousness. Every faculty in him was alive.
"I have slept long, Great Bear, and it is late," he said.
"But not too late, Tayoga. There's nothing for us to do."
"Then the warriors are still above!"
"I heard two shots a little while ago. I think they came from hunters."
"It is almost certainly so, Great Bear, since there is nothing in this region for them to shoot at save ourselves, and no bullets have landed near us."
"Yours has been a peaceful sleep. Robert too is now coming out of his great slumber."
The white lad stirred and murmured a little as he awoke. His reentry into the world of fact was not quite as frictionless as that of his Indian comrade.
"Do not fall down the cliff while you stretch yourself, Dagaeoga," said the Onondaga.
"I won't, Tayoga. I've no wish to reach the lake in such fashion. I see by the sun that it's late. What happened while I slept?"
"Two great attacks by Tandakora and his men were beaten off by the Great Bear and myself. As we felt ourselves a match for them we did not consider it necessary to awaken you."
"But of course if you had been pushed a bit harder you would have called upon me. I'm glad you've concluded to use me for tipping the scales of a doubtful combat. To enter at the most strenuous moment is what I'm fitted for best."
"And if your weapons are not sufficient, Dagaeoga, you can make a speech to them and talk them to death."
The hunter smiled. He hoped the boys would always be willing to jest with each other in this manner. It was good to have high spirits in a crisis.
"Take a little venison and hominy, lads," he said, "because I think we're going to spend some time in this most spacious and hospitable inn of ours."
They ate and then were thirsty, but they had no water, although it floated peacefully in millions of gallons below.
"We're dry, but I think we're going to be much dryer," said Willet.
"We must go down one by one in the night for water," said Tayoga.
"We are to reckon on a long stay, then!" said Robert.
"Yes," said Willet, "and we might as well make ourselves at home. It's a great climb down, but we'll have to do it."
"If I could get up and walk about it would be easier," said Robert. "I think my muscles are growing a bit stiff from disuse."
"The descent for water to-night will loosen them up," said Willet philosophically.
It was a tremendously long afternoon, one of the longest that Robert ever spent, and his position grew cramped and difficult. He found some relief now and then in stretching his muscles, but there was nothing to assuage the intense thirst that assailed all three. Robert's throat and mouth were dry and burning, and he looked longingly at the lake that shimmered and gleamed below them. The waters, sparkling in their brilliant and changing colors, were cool and inviting. They bade him come, and his throat grew hotter and hotter, but he would make no complaint. He must endure it in silence all the afternoon, and all the next day too, if they should be held there.
Late in the afternoon they heard shots again, but they were quite sure that the reports, as before, were due to Indian hunters. Rogers with rangers might be somewhere in the region of the lakes, but they did not think he was anywhere near them. If a skirmish was occurring on the cliff they would hear the shouts of the combatants.
"The warriors will have a feast to-night," said Tayoga.
"And they will have plenty of water to drink," said Robert ruefully. "You remember that time when we were on the peak, and we found the spring in the slope?"
"But there is no spring here," said Tayoga. "We know that because we came up the cliff. There is no water for us this side of the lake."
The afternoon, long as it was, ended at last. The intense burning sunlight faded, and the cool, grateful shadows came. The three stirred in the niche, and Robert felt a little relief. But his throat and mouth were still dry and hard, and they pained him whenever he talked. Yet they forced themselves to eat a scant supper, although the food increased their thirst, but they knew that without it their strength would decrease, and they expected to obtain water in the dark.
The twilight passed, night came, but they waited with infinite patience refusing to move too soon, despite their great thirst. Instead, Tayoga suggested that he go to the crest of the cliff and see if there was a possible way out for them in that direction. Willet agreed, and the Onondaga crept up, without sound, disappearing in a few seconds among the short bushes that hung in the face of the cliff.
Tayoga was a trailer of surpassing skill, and he reached the top without rustling a bush or sending a single pebble rolling. Then he peered cautiously over the rim and beheld a great fire burning not more than a hundred yards away. Thirty or forty warriors were sitting around it, eating. He did not see Tandakora among them, but he surmised, that it was an allied band and that the Ojibway was not far off.
The feast that the three had expected was in full progress. The hunt had been successful, and the Indians, with their usual appetites, were enjoying the results. They broiled or roasted great pieces of deer over the coals, and then devoured them to the last shred. But Tayoga saw that while the majority were absorbed in their pleasant task, a half dozen sentinels, their line extending on either side of the camp, kept vigilant watch. It would be impossible for the three to pass there. They would have to go down to the lake for water, and then hide in their niche.
Tayoga was about to turn back from the cliff, when he heard a shout that he knew was full of significance. He understood the meaning of every cry and he translated it at once into a note of triumph. It sounded like the whoop over the taking of a scalp or the capture of a prisoner, and his curiosity was aroused. Something had happened, and he was resolved to see what it was.
Several of the warriors by the fire replied to the whoop, and then it came again, nearer but with exactly the same note, that of triumph. The Onondaga flattened his body against the earth, and drew himself a little higher. In the dusk, his black eyes glowed with interest, but he knew that his curiosity would soon be gratified. Those who had sent forth the cry were swiftly approaching the camp.
Four warriors came through the undergrowth and they were pushing a figure before them. It was that of a man in a bedraggled and torn red uniform, his hands tied behind him, and all the color gone from his face. Powerful as was his self-control, Tayoga uttered a low cry of surprise. It was the young Englishman, Grosvenor, a prisoner of the hostile warriors, and in a most desperate case.
The Onondaga wondered how he had been taken, but whatever the way, he was in the hands of enemies who knew little mercy.
The warriors around the fire uttered a universal yell of triumph when they saw the captain, and many of them ran forward to meet Grosvenor, whirling their tomahawks and knives in his face, and dancing about as if mad with joy. It was a truly ferocious scene, the like of which was witnessed thousands of times in the great North American forests, and Tayoga, softened by long contact with high types of white men, felt pity. The light from the great fire fell directly on Grosvenor's face and showed its pallor. It was evident that he was weary through and through, but he tried to hold himself erect and he did not flinch when the sharp blades flashed close to his face. But Tayoga knew that his feelings had become blunted. Only the trained forest runner could keep steady in the face of such threats.
When they came near the fire, one of the warriors gave Grosvenor a push, and he fell amid cruel laughter. But he struggled to his feet again, stood a few minutes, and then sank down on a little hillock, where his captors left him alone for the present. Tayoga watched him thoughtfully. He knew that his presence in the Indian camp complicated their own situation. Robert would never hear of going away without an attempt at rescue and Tayoga's own good heart moved him to the same course. Yet it would be almost impossible to take the young Englishman from the center of the Indian camp.
Tayoga knew too what grief his news would cause to young Lennox, between whom and Grosvenor a great friendship had been formed. For the matter of that, both the Onondaga and the hunter also were very partial to the Englishman.
The warriors presently untied Grosvenor's hands and gave him some food. The captive ate a little--he had no appetite for more--and then tried to smooth out his hair and his clothing and to make himself more presentable. He also straightened his worn figure, and sat more erect. Tayoga gave silent approval. Here was a man! He might be a prisoner, and be in a most desperate plight, but he would present the best possible face to his foes. It was exactly what an Onondaga or a Mohawk warrior would do, and the young Englishman, though he knew little of the forest, was living up to its traditions.
"If he has to die," reflected Tayoga, "he will die well. If his people hear that he has gone they will have no cause to be ashamed of the way in which he went. Here is the making of a great white warrior."
The Onondaga knew that Robert and Willet were now expecting him back, but his interest in Grosvenor kept him a while longer, watching at the cliff's rim. He thought it likely that Tandakora might come, and he had not long to wait. The huge Ojibway came striding through the bushes and into the circle of the firelight, his body bare as usual save for breech cloth, leggins and moccasins, and painted with the hideous devices so dear to the savage heart.
The warriors received him with deference, indicating clearly to Tayoga that they were under his authority, but without making any reply to their salutation he strode up to the prisoner, and, folding his arms across his mighty breast, regarded him, smiling cruelly. The Onondaga did not see the smile, but he knew it was there. The man would not be Tandakora if it were not. In that savage heart, the chivalry that so often marked the Indians of the higher type found no place.
Grosvenor, worn to the bone and dazed by the extraordinary and fearful situation in which he found himself, nevertheless straightened up anew, and gave back defiantly the stare of the gigantic and sinister figure that confronted him. Then Tayoga saw Tandakora raise his hand and strike the young Englishman a heavy blow in the face. Grosvenor fell, but sprang up instantly and rushed at the Ojibway, only to find himself before the point of a knife.
The young officer stood still a few minutes, then turned with dignity and sat down once more. Tayoga knew and appreciated his feelings. He had suffered exactly the same humiliation from Tandakora himself, and he meant, with all his soul, that some day the debt should be paid in full. Now in a vicarious way he took upon himself Grosvenor's debt also. The prisoner did not have experience in the woods, his great merits lay elsewhere, but he was the friend of Robert, therefore of Tayoga, and the Onondaga felt it only right that he should pay for both.
Tandakora sat down, a warrior handed him a huge piece of deer meat, and he began to eat. All the others, interrupted for a few minutes by the arrival of the chief, resumed the same pleasant occupation. Tayoga deciding that he had seen enough, began to climb down with great care. The descent was harder than the ascent, but he reached the niche, without noise, and the sight of him was very welcome to Robert and the hunter who had begun to worry over his absence, which was much longer than they had expected.
"Did you see the warriors, Tayoga?" asked young Lennox.
"I saw them, Dagaeoga. They are at the top of the cliff, only two or three hundred yards away; they have a good fire, and they are eating the game they killed in the day."
"And there is no chance for us to pass?"
"None to-night, Dagaeoga. Nor would we pass if we could."
"Why not? I see no reason for our staying here save that we have to do it."
"One is there, Dagaeoga, whom we cannot leave a prisoner in their hands."
"Who? It's not Black Rifle! Nor Rogers, the ranger! They would never let themselves be taken!"
"No, Dagaeoga, it is neither of those. But while I watched at the cliff's rim I saw the warriors bring in that young Englishman, Grosvenor, whom you know and like so well."
"What! Grosvenor! What could he have been doing in this forest!"
"That, I know not, Dagaeoga, save that he has been getting himself captured; how, I know not either, but I saw him brought in a prisoner. Tandakora came, while I watched, and smote the captive heavily in the face with his hand. That debt I take upon myself, in addition to my own."
"You will pay both, Tayoga, and with interest," said the hunter with conviction. "But you were right when you assumed that we could not go away and leave Grosvenor a prisoner in their hands. Because we're here, and because you saw him, your Manitou has laid upon us the duty of saving him."
Robert's face glowed in the dusk.
"We're bound to see it that way," he said. "We'd be disgraced forever with ourselves, if we went away and left him. Now, how are we to do it?"
"I don't know how yet," replied the Onondaga, "but we must first go down to the water. We've forgotten our thirst in the news I bring, but it will soon be on us again, fiercer and more burning than ever. And we must have all our strength for the great task before us."
"I think it's better for all three of us to go down to the lake at once," said Willet. "If anything happens we'll be together, and we are stronger against danger, united than separated. I'll lead the way."
It was a long and slow descent, every step taken with minute care, and as they approached the lake Robert found that his thirst was up and leaping.
"I feel that I could drink the whole lake dry," he said.
"Do not do that, Dagaeoga," said Tayoga in his precise way. "Lake George is too beautiful to be lost."
"We might swim across it," said Willet, looking at the silvery surface of the water unbroken by the dark line of any canoe. "A way has opened to us here, but we can't follow it now."
Robert knelt at the margin, and took a little drink first, letting the cool water moisten his mouth and throat before he swallowed it. How grateful it was! How wonderfully refreshing! One must almost perish with thirst before he knew the enormous value of water. And when it was found, one must know how to drink it right. He took a second and somewhat larger drink. Then, waiting a while, he drank freely and as much as he wanted. Strength, courage, optimism flowed back into his veins. As they came down the cliff he had not seen any way to rescue Grosvenor, nor did he see it now, but he knew that they would do it. His restored body and mind would not admit the possibility of failure.
They remained nearly an hour in the shadow of the bushes at the water's edge, and then began the slow and painful ascent to the niche, which they reached without mishap. Another half hour there, and, having examined well their arms, they climbed to the cliff's rim, where they looked over, and Robert obtained his first view of the Indian camp.
The feasting was over, the fires had sunk far down, and most of the warriors were asleep, but Tandakora himself sat with his arms across his chest, glowering into the coals, and a line of sentinels was set. A red gleam from his uniform showed where Grosvenor, leaning against a log, had fallen at last into a happy slumber, in which his desperate case was forgotten for the time.
"I confess that I don't know how to do it, still it must be done," whispered the hunter.
"Yes, it must be done," the Onondaga whispered back. "We must steal our friend out of the hands of his enemies. Neither do I know how to do it, but perhaps Tododaho will tell me. See, there is his star!"
He pointed to a great star dancing in the sky, a star with a light mist across its face, which he knew to be the wise snakes that lay coil on coil in the hair of the Onondaga sage who had gone away four hundred years ago to his place in the heavens, and prayed for a thought, a happy thought that would tell him the way. In a moment, his mind was in a state of high spiritual exaltation. An electric current seemed to pass from the remote star to him. He shut his eyes, and his face became rapt. In a few minutes, he opened them again and said quietly:
"I think, Great Bear, that Tododaho has told us how to proceed. You and Dagaeoga must draw off the warriors, and then I will take Red Coat from those that may be left behind."
"It's mighty risky."
"Since when, Great Bear, have we been turned aside by risks! Besides, there is no other way."
"It seems that I can't think of any other."
Tayoga unfolded his plan. Robert and Willet must steal along the edge of the cliff and seek to pass to the north of the line of sentinels. If not detected, they would purposely cause an alarm, and, as a consequence, draw off the main portion of the band. Then it was their duty to see to it that they were not taken. Meanwhile Tayoga in the excitement and confusion was to secure the release of Grosvenor, and they would flee southward to the mouth of a small creek, in the lake, where Robert and Willet, after making a great turn, were to join them.
"It's complicated and it's a desperate chance," said Willet thoughtfully, "but I don't see anything else to do. Besides, we have got to act quickly. Being on the war-path, they won't hold him long, and you know the kind of death Tandakora will serve out to him."
Robert shuddered. He knew too well, and knowing so well he was ready to risk his life to save his friend.
"I think," said Tayoga, "that we had better wait until it is about two hours after midnight. Then the minds and bodies of the warriors will be at their dullest, and we will have the best chance."
"Right, Tayoga," said the hunter. "We'll have to use every trifle that's in our favor. Can you see Tandakora from here?"
"He is leaning against the big tree, asleep."
"I'm glad of that. He may be a bit confused when he awakes suddenly and rushes off after us, full tilt, with nearly all the warriors. If only two guards are left with the prisoner, Tayoga, you can dispose of 'em."
"Fortune may favor us."
"Provided we use our wits and strength to the utmost."
"That provision must always be made, Great Bear."
Using what patience they could, they remained at the edge of the cliff, crouched there, until they judged it was about two o'clock in the morning, the night being then at its darkest. Tandakora still slept against his tree, and the fires were almost out. The red gleam from the uniform of Grosvenor could no longer be seen, but Robert had marked well the place where he sat, and he knew that the young Englishman was there, sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion. Everything was still and peaceful.
"After all, we could escape through their lines, now," whispered Robert.
"So it turns out," said the hunter.
"But it looks as if we were held back in order that we might save Grosvenor."
"That too may be true."
"It is time to go," said Tayoga. "Farewell, Great Bear! Farewell, Dagaeoga! May we meet at the mouth of the creek as we have planned, and may we be four who meet there and not three!"
"May all the stars fight for us," said Robert with emotion, and then he and Willet moved away among the bushes, leaving Tayoga alone at the cliff's rim. Young Lennox knew that theirs was a most perilous venture. Had he given himself time to think about it he would have seen that the chances were about ten to one against its success, but he resolutely closed his mind against that phase of it and insisted upon hope. His was the spirit that leads to success in the face of overwhelming odds.
Willet was first, and Robert was close behind.
Neither looked back, but they knew that Tayoga would not move, until the alarm was given, and they could flee away with the pursuit hot upon their heels. Young Lennox saw again that they could now have slipped through the Indian lines, but the thought of deserting Grosvenor never entered his mind. It seemed though as if all the elements of nature were conspiring to facilitate the flight of the hunter and himself. The sentinels, whose dusky figures they were yet able to see, moved sleepily up and down. No dead wood that would break with a snap thrust itself before their feet. The wilderness opened a way for them.
"I think a warrior or two may be watching in the forest to the north of us," whispered Willet, "but we'll go through the line there. See that fellow standing under the tree, about a hundred yards to the south. He's the one to give the alarm."
But circumstances still favored them. Nature was peaceful. When they wished for the first time in their lives that their flight should be detected, nothing happened, and the vigilance of the warriors who usually watched so well seemed to be relaxed. Robert was conscious that they were passing unseen and unheard between the sentinel on the north and the sentinel on the south.
Two hundred yards farther on, and the hunter brought his moccasin sharply down upon a dead stick which broke with a sharp snap, a sound that penetrated far in the still night. Robert, glancing back, saw the sentinel on the south stiffen to attention and then utter a cry of alarm, a shout sufficient to awaken any one of the sleeping Indians. It was given back in an instant by several voices from the camp, and then the hunter and the youth sprang to their task.
"Now we're to run as we've never run before," exclaimed Willet. "But we must let 'em think they're going to catch us."
First, sending back a tremendous shout of defiance that he knew would enrage Tandakora's men to the utmost, he raced with long swift steps through the forest, and Robert was always close on his heels. The yells of the Indians behind them, who pushed forward in pursuit, were succeeded by silence, and Robert knew they now were running for their lives. Luckily, they were coming into a country with which the hunter had some acquaintance, and, turning a little to the south, he led the way into a ravine down which they took a swift course. After a mile or so he stopped, and the two rested their lungs and muscles.
"They can't see our trail to-night," said the hunter, "and they'll have to depend on eye and ear, but they'll stick to the chase for a long time. I've no doubt they think all three of us are here, and that they may take us in one haul. Ready to start on again, Robert?"
"My breath is all right now, and I'll run a race with anybody. You don't think they've lost us, do you?"
"Not likely, but in case they have I'll tell 'em where we are."
He uttered a shout so piercing that it made Robert jump. Then he led again at a great pace down the ravine, and a single cry behind them showed that the pursuit was coming. As nearly as Robert could calculate, the warriors were about three hundred yards away. He could not see them, but he was sure they would hang on as long as the slightest chance was left to overtake Willet and himself.
They fled in silence at least another mile, and then, feeling their breath grow difficult again, they stopped a second time, still in the ravine and among thick bushes.
"Our flight may be a joke on them, as we intend to draw them after us," said Robert, "but constant running turns it into a joke on us too. I've done so much of this sort of thing in the last few days that I feel as if I were spending my life, dodging here and there in the forest, trying to escape warriors."
Willet laughed dryly.
"It's not the sort of life for a growing youth," he said, "but you'll have to live it for a while. Remember our task. If they lose our trail it's our business to make 'em find it again. Here's another challenge to 'em."
He shouted once more, a long, defiant war cry, much like that of the warriors themselves, and then he and Robert resumed their flight, leaving the ravine presently, and taking a sharper course toward the south.
"I think we'd have lost 'em back there if it hadn't been for that whoop of mine," said Willet.
"Perhaps it's about time to lose them," said Robert hopefully. "The sooner we do it the happier I'll feel."
"Not yet, Robert, my lad. We must give Tayoga all the time he needs for the work he's trying to do. After all, his task is the main one, and the most dangerous. I think we can slow up a bit here. We have to save our breath."
They dropped down to a walk, and took another deep curve toward the south, and now also to the east. Their present course, if persisted in, would bring them back to the lake. The night was still dark, but their trained eyes had grown so used to it that they could see very well in the dusk. Both were looking back and at the same time they saw a shadowy figure appear in the forest behind them. Robert knew that it was the vanguard of the pursuit which was drawing uncomfortably close, at least for him. A shout from the warriors was followed by a shot, and a bullet cut its way through the leaves near them.
"I think we ought to give 'em a hint that they come too close, at their peril," said Willet, and raising his own rifle he sent back an answering shot which did not go astray. The first warrior fell, and others who had come forward in the undergrowth gave back for the time.
"They'll take the hint," said the hunter, "and now we'll increase our speed."
He reloaded, as they ran, and a little later Robert sent a bullet that struck the mark. Once more the warriors shrank back for the time, and the hunter and lad, using their utmost speed, fled toward the southwest at such a great rate that the pursuit, at length, was left behind and finally was lost. Day found their foes out of sight, and two or three hours later they came to the mouth of the creek, where they were to meet Tayoga, in case he succeeded.
"And now the rest is in other hands than ours," said Willet.
Forcing themselves to assume a patience they could scarcely feel, they sat down to wait.