The Lords of the Wild by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter V. Tayoga's Skill
They still had food left in their knapsacks, and they ate a portion, drinking afterward from the creek. Then they resumed their places in the dense undergrowth, where they could watch well and yet remain hidden. They could also see from where they lay the shimmering waters of Andiatarocte, and the lake seemed to be once more at peace. They felt satisfaction that they had completed their part of the great enterprise, but their anxiety nevertheless was intense. As Willet had truly said, Tayoga's share was the more dangerous and delicate by far.
"Do you think he will come?" Robert asked after a long silence.
"If any human being could come under such circumstances and bring Grosvenor with him, it is Tayoga," replied the hunter. "I think sometimes that the Onondaga is superhuman in the forest."
"Then he will come," said Robert hopefully.
"Best not place our hopes too high. The hours alone will tell. It's hard work waiting, but that's our task."
The morning drew on. Another beautiful day had dawned, but Robert scarcely noticed its character. He was thinking with all his soul of Tayoga and Grosvenor. Would they come? Willet was able to read his mind. He was intensely anxious himself, but he knew that the strain of waiting upon Robert, with his youthful and imaginative mind, was greater. He was bound to be suffering cruelly.
"We must give them time," he said. "Remember that Grosvenor is not used to the woods, and can't go through them as fast as we can. We must have confidence too. We both know what a wonder Tayoga is."
Robert sprang suddenly to his feet.
"What was that!" he exclaimed.
A sound had come out of the north, just a breath, but it was not the wind among the leaves, nor yet the distant song of a bird. It was the faint howl of a wolf, and yet Robert believed that it was not a wolf that made it.
"Did you hear it?" he repeated.
"Aye, lad, I heard it," replied the hunter. "'Tis a signal, and 'tis Tayoga too who comes. But whether he comes alone, or with a friend, I know not. To tell that we must bide here and see."
"Should not we send our answer?"
"Nay, lad. He knows where we are. This is the appointed place, and the fewer signals we give the less likely the enemy is to get a hint we're here. I don't think we will hear from Tayoga again until he shows in person."
Robert said no more, knowing full well the truth of the hunter's words, but his heart was beating hard, and he stirred nervously. He had been drawn strongly to Grosvenor, and he knew what a horrible fate awaited him at the hands of Tandakora, unless the Onondaga saved him. Nor would there be another chance for interruption by Tayoga or anybody else. But the minutes passed and he took courage. Tayoga had not yet come. If alone he would have arrived by this time. His slowness must be due to the fact that he had Grosvenor with him. More minutes passed and he heard steps in the undergrowth. Now he was sure. Tayoga was not alone. His moccasins never left any sound. He stood up expectant, and two figures appeared among the bushes. They were Tayoga, calm, his breath unhurried, a faint smile in his dark eyes, and Grosvenor, exhausted, reeling, his clothing worse torn than ever, but the light of hope on his face. Robert uttered a cry of joy and grasped the young Englishman's hand.
"Thank God, you are here!" he exclaimed.
"I thank God and I thank this wonderful young Indian too," panted Grosvenor. "It was a miracle! I had given up hope when he dropped from the skies and saved me!"
"Sit down and get your breath, man," said Willet. "Then you can tell us about it."
Grosvenor sank upon the ground, and did not speak again until the pain in his laboring chest was gone. Tayoga leaned against a tree, and Robert noticed then that he carried an extra rifle and ammunition. The Onondaga thought of everything. Willet filled his cap with water at the creek, and brought it to Grosvenor, who drank long and deeply.
"Tastes good!" said the hunter, smiling.
"Like nectar," said the Englishman, "but it's nectar to me too to see both of you, Mr. Willet and Mr. Lennox. I don't understand yet how it happened. It's really and truly a miracle."
"A miracle mostly of Tayoga's working," said the hunter.
"I thought the end of everything for me had come," said Grosvenor, "and I was only praying that it might not be harder for me than I could stand, when the alarm was heard in the forest, and nearly all the Indians ran off in pursuit of something or other. Only two were left with me. There was a shot from the woods, one of them fell, this wonderful friend of yours appeared from the forest, wounded the other, who took to his heels, then we started running in the other direction, and here we are. It's a marvel and I don't yet see how it was done."
"Tayoga's marvelous knowledge of the woods, his skill and his quickness made the greater part of the miracle," said the hunter, "and you see too, Lieutenant Grosvenor, that he even had the forethought to bring away with him the rifle and ammunition of the fallen warrior, that you might have arms now that you are strong enough to bear them again."
Tayoga without a word handed him the rifle and ammunition, and Grosvenor felt strength flowing back into his body when he took them.
"Could you eat a bite?" asked Willet.
"I think I could now," replied the Englishman, "although I'll confess I've had no appetite up to the present. My situation didn't permit hunger."
Willet handed him a piece of venison and he ate. Meanwhile Tayoga, who seemed to feel no weariness, and the others were watching. In a short time the hunter announced that it was time to go.
"We can't afford to delay here any longer and have 'em overtake us!" he said. "We're out of the ring now, and it's our affair to keep out. Lieutenant Grosvenor, you can tell us as we go along how you happened to be the prisoner of Tandakora."
"It needs only a few words," said the Englishman as they took their way southward through the woods. "I was at Albany with a body of troops, a vanguard for the force that we mean to march against the French at Ticonderoga. I was sent northward with ten men to scour the country, and in the woods we were set upon suddenly by savage warriors. My troopers were either killed or scattered, and I was taken. That was yesterday morning. Since then I have been hurried through the forest, I know not where, and I have had a most appalling experience. As I have said before, I'd long since given up hope for a miracle like the one that has saved me. What a horrible creature that giant Indian was!"
"Tandakora is all that you think him and more. He's been hunting us too, and when he comes back to his camp he'll be after us all four again. So, that's why we hurry."
"You're in no bigger hurry than I am," said Grosvenor with attempt at a smile. "If I could find the seven-league boots I'd put them on."
Tayoga once more led the way, and he examined the forest on all sides with eyes that saw everything.
Robert and Willet were greatly refreshed by their rest at the creek, and the promise of life that had been made again so wonderfully put new strength in Grosvenor's frame. So they were able to travel at a good pace, though the three listened continually for any sound that might indicate pursuit.
Yet as the morning progressed there was no hostile sign and their confidence rose.
Robert hoped most devoutly that they would soon come within the region of friends. While the French and Indians held the whole length of Lake Champlain and it was believed Montcalm would fortify somewhere near Ticonderoga, yet Lake George was debatable. It was generally considered within the British and American sphere, although they were having ample proof that fierce bands of the enemy roved about it at will.
Aside from the danger there was another reason why he wished so earnestly for escape from this tenacious pursuit. They were seeing the bottoms of their knapsacks. One could not live on air and mountain lakes alone, however splendid they might be, and, although the wilderness usually furnished food to three such capable hunters, they could not seek game while Tandakora and his savage warriors were seeking them. So, their problem was, in a sense, economic, and could not be fought with weapons only.
At a signal from Willet, who observed that Grosvenor was somewhat tired, they sank their pace to a slow walk, and in about three hours stopped entirely, sitting down on fallen timber which had been heaped in a windrow by a passing hurricane. They were still in dense forest and had borne away somewhat from Andiatarocte, but, through the foliage, they caught glimpses of the lake rippling peacefully in silver and blue and purple.
"Once more I want to thank you fellows for saving me," said Grosvenor.
"Don't mention it again," said the hunter. "In the wilderness we have to save one another now and then, or none of us would live. Your turn to rescue us may come before you think."
"I know nothing of the forest. I feel helpless here."
"Just the same, you don't know what weapon Tayoga's Manitou may place in your hands. The border brings strange and unexpected chances. But our present crisis is not over. We're not saved yet, and we can't afford to relax our efforts a particle. What is it, Tayoga?"
The Onondaga, rising from the fallen tree, had gone about twenty yards into the forest, where he was examining the ground, obviously with great concentration of both eye and mind. He waited at least a minute before replying. Then he said:
"Our friend, the lone ranger, Black Rifle, has passed here."
"How can you know that?" asked Grosvenor in surprise.
"Come and look at his traces," said Tayoga. "See where he has written his name in the earth; that is, he has left what you would call in Europe his visiting card."
Grosvenor looked attentively at the ground, but he saw only a very faint impression, and he never would have noticed that had not the Onondaga pointed it out to him.
"It might have been left by a deer," he objected.
"Impossible," said Tayoga. "The entire imprint is not made, but there is enough to indicate very clearly that a human foot and nothing else pressed there. Here is another trace, although lighter, and here another and another. The trail leads southward."
"But granting it to be that of a man," Grosvenor again objected, "it might be that of any one of the thousands who roam the wilderness."
The great red trailer who had inherited the forest lore of countless generations smiled.
"It is not any one of the thousands and it could not be," he said. "It is easy to tell that. The footsteps are those of a white man, because they turn out, and not in, as do ours of the red race. That is very easy; even Dagaeoga here, the great talker, knows it. The footsteps are far apart, so we are sure that they are those of a tall man; the imprints are deep, proving them to have been made by a heavy man, and at the outer edge of the heel the impression is deeper than on the inner edge. I noticed, when we last saw Black Rifle, which was not long ago, that he wore moccasins of moose hide, that he had turned them outward a little, through wear, and that a small strip of the hardest moose hide had been sewed on the right edge of each heel in order to keep them level. Those strips have made their marks here."
"Somebody else might have put strips of hide on his moccasin heels!"
"It is so, but Black Rifle is tall and large and heavy, and we know that the man who made this trail is tall, large and heavy. The chances are a hundred to one against the fact that any other man tall, large and heavy with moose hide strips to even the wear of his moccasin heels has passed here, especially as this is within the range of Black Rifle. I know that it is he as truly as I know that I am standing here."
"Of course," said Robert, who had never felt the slightest doubt of Tayoga's knowledge. "What was Black Rifle doing?"
"He was looking for St. Luc or Tandakora, because his trail does not lead straight on. See! here it comes, and here again. If Black Rifle had been on a journey he would have gone straight, but he is seeking something and so he turns about. Ah, he wishes to see if there are any canoes visible on the lake, for lo! the trail now leads toward the water! Here he found that none was to be seen and here he rested. Black Rifle had been long on his feet, two days and two nights perhaps, because it takes much to make him weary. He sat on this log. He left a strand from the fringe of his buckskin hunting shirt, caught on a splinter. Do you not see it, Lieutenant Grosvenor?"
"Now that you hold it up before my eyes I notice it But I should never have found it in the wilderness." "Minute observation is what every trailer has to learn," said Willet, "else you are no trailer at all, and you'll learn, Lieutenant, while you are with us, that Tayoga is probably the greatest trailer the world has ever produced."
"Peace, Great Bear! Peace!" protested the Onondaga.
"It's so, just the same. Now, what did Black Rifle do after he rested himself on the log?"
"He went back farther into the woods, turning away from the lake," replied Tayoga, "and he sat down again on another fallen log. Black Rifle was hungry, and he ate. Here is the small bone of a deer, picked quite clean, lying on the ground by the log. Black Rifle was a fortunate man. He had bread, too. See, here is a crumb in this crack in the log too deep down for any bird to reach with his bill. Black Rifle sat here quite a long time. He was thinking hard. He did not need so much time for resting. He remained sitting on the log while he was trying to decide what he would do. It is likely that Black Rifle thought a great force was behind him, and he turned back to see. Had he kept straight on toward the south, as he was going at first, he would not have needed so much time for thinking over his plans. Ah, he has turned! Lo! his trail goes almost directly back on his own course. It will lead to the top of the hillock there, because he wants to see far, and I think that after seeing he will turn again, and follow his original course."
"Why do you think that?" asked Grosvenor.
"Because, O Red Coat, it is likely that Black Rifle knew from the first which way he wanted to go and went that way. He has merely turned back, like a wise general, to scout a little, and see that no danger comes from the rear. Yes, he stood here on the hillock from which we can get a good view over the country, and walked to every side of the crest to find where the best view could be obtained. That, Red Coat, is the simplest of all things. Behold the traces of his moccasins as he walked from side to side. Nothing else could have made Black Rifle move about so much in the space of a few square yards. Now he leaves the hillock and goes down its side toward a low valley in which runs a brook. Black Rifle is thirsty and will drink deep."
"That you can't possibly know, Tayoga."
"But I do know it, Red Coat."
"You don't even know a brook is near."
"I know it, because I have seen it. My eyes are trained to the forest, and I caught the gleam of running water through the leaves to the west. Running water, of course, means a brook. Black Rifle's trail now leads toward it, and I assume that he was thirsty because he had just eaten well. We are nearly always thirsty after eating. But we shall see whether I am right. Here is the brook, and there are the faint traces made by Black Rifle's knees, when he knelt to reach the water. He started away, but found that he was still thirsty, so he came back and drank again. Here are his footprints about a yard from the others. This time, he will go back toward the south, and I think it is sure that he is looking for St. Luc, who must have gone in that direction with a strong force, Tandakora having stayed behind to take us. It is likely that Black Rifle went on, because a great British and American army is gathering below, which fact he knows well, and it is probable that Black Rifle follows St. Luc, because he will hunt the biggest game."
Grosvenor's eyes sparkled.
"I understand," he said. "It is a great art, that of trailing through the wilderness, and I can see how circumstances compel you to learn it."
"We have to learn it to live," said the hunter gravely, "but with Tayoga it is an art carried to the highest degree of perfection. He was born with a gift for it, a very great gift. He inherited all the learning accumulated by a thousand years of ancestors, and then he added to it by his own supreme efforts."
"Do not believe all that Great Bear tells you," said Tayoga modestly. "For unknown reasons he is partial to me, and enlarges my small merits."
"I think this would be a good place for all of you to wait, while I went back on the trail a piece," said the hunter. "If Black Rifle found it necessary to cover the rear, it's a much more urgent duty for us who know that we've been followed by Tandakora to do the same."
"The Great Bear is always wise," said Tayoga. "We will take our ease while we await him."
He flung himself down on the turf and relaxed his figure completely. He had learned long since to make the most of every passing minute, and, seeing Robert imitate him exactly, Grosvenor did likewise. The hunter had disappeared already in the bushes and the three lay in silence.
Grosvenor felt an immense peace. Brave as a young lion, he had been overwhelmed nevertheless by his appalling experiences, and his sudden rescue where rescue seemed impossible had taken him back to the heights. Now, it seemed to him that the three, and especially the Onondaga, could do everything. Tayoga's skill as a trailer and scout was so marvelous that no enemy could come anywhere near without his knowledge. The young Englishman felt that he was defended by impassable walls, and he was so free from apprehension that his nerves became absolutely quiet. Then worn nature took its toll, and his eyelids drooped. Before he was aware that he was sleepy he was asleep.
"You might do as Red Coat has done, Dagaeoga," said Tayoga. "I can watch for us all, and it is wise in the forest to take sleep when we can."
"I'll try," said Robert, and he tried so successfully that in a few minutes he too slumbered, with his figure outstretched, and his head on his arm. Tayoga made a circle about three hundred yards in diameter about them, but finding no hostile sign came back and lay on the turf near them. He relaxed his figure again and closed his eyes, which may have seemed strange but which was not so in the case of Tayoga. His hearing was extraordinarily acute, and, when his eyes were shut, it grew much stronger than ever. Now he knew that no warrior could come within rifle shot of them without his ears telling him of the savage approach. Every creeping footstep would be registered upon that delicate drum.
With eyes shut and brain rested, Tayoga nevertheless knew all that was going on near him. That eardrum of infinite delicacy told him that a woodpecker was tapping on a tree, well toward the north; that a little gray bird almost as far to the south was singing with great vigor and sweetness; that a rabbit was hopping about in the undergrowth, curious and yet fearful; that an eagle with a faint whirr of wings had alighted on a bough, and was looking at the three; that the eagle thinking they might be dangerous had unfolded his wings again and was flying away; that a deer passing to the west had caught a whiff of them on the wind and was running with all speed in the other direction; that a lynx had climbed a tree, and, after staring at them, had climbed down again, and had fled, his coward heart filled with terror.
Thus Tayoga, with his ears, watched his world. He too, his eyelids lowered, felt a peace that was soothing and almost dreamy, but, though his body relaxed, those wonderfully sensitive drums of his ears caught and registered everything. The record showed that for nearly two hours the life of the wilderness went on as usual, the ordinary work and play of animal and bird, and then the drums told him that man was coming. A footstep was registered very clearly, and then another and another, but Tayoga did not open his eyes. He knew who was coming as well as if he had seen him. The drums of his ears made signals that his mind recognized at once. He had long known the faint sound of those footsteps. Willet was coming back.
Tayoga, through the faculty of hearing, was aware of much more than the mere fact that the hunter was returning. He knew that Willet had found nothing, that the pursuit was still far away and that they were in no immediate danger. He knew it by his easy, regular walk, free from either haste or lagging delay. He knew it by the straight, direct line he took for the three young men, devoid of any stops or turnings aside to watch and listen. Willet's course was without care.
Tayoga opened his eyes, and lazily regarded the giant figure of his friend now in full view. Robert and Grosvenor slept on. "I am glad," said the Onondaga.
It was significant of the way in which they understood each other and the way they could read the signs of the forest that they could talk almost without words.
"So am I," said the hunter, "but I had hoped for it."
"Since it is so, we need not awaken them just yet."
"No, let them sleep another hour."
Tayoga meant that he was glad the enemy had not approached and Willet replied that he had hoped for such good luck. No further explanation was needed.
"You had the heaviest part of the burden to carry, last night," said the hunter, "so it would be wise for you to join them if you can, in the hour that's left. See if you can't follow them, at once."
"I think I can," said Tayoga. "At least I will try."
In five minutes he too had gone to the land of dreams and the hunter watched alone. Willet, although weary, was in high spirits. They had come marvelously through many perils, and Tayoga's achievement in rescuing Grosvenor, he repeated to himself, was well nigh miraculous. After such startling luck they could not fail, and an omen of continued good fortune was the fact they had encountered the trail of Black Rifle. He would be a powerful addition to their little force, when found, and Willet did not doubt that they would overtake him. The only problem that really worried him now was that of food. Small as was their army of four, it had to be provisioned, and, for the present, he did not see the way to do it.
He let the three sleep overtime, and when they awoke they were grateful to him for it.
"I am quite made over," said Grosvenor, "and I think that if I stay in the wilderness long enough I may learn to be a scout too. But as all my life has been spent in quite different kinds of country, I suppose it will take a hundred years to give me a good start."
"Not a hundred years," he said. "Red Coat has begun very well."
"And now with a lot of good solid food I'll feel equal to any march," continued Grosvenor. "Most Englishmen, you know, eat well."
Tayoga looked at Robert, who looked at Willet, who in his turn looked at the Onondaga.
"That's just what we'll have to do without," said the hunter gravely. "The bottoms of our knapsacks are looking up at us. We'll have a splendid chance to see how long we can do without food. One needs such a test now and then."
Grosvenor's face fell, but his was the true mettle. In an instant his countenance became cheerful again.
"I'm not hungry!" he exclaimed. "It was the delusion of a moment, and it passed as quickly as it came. I suffer from such brief spells."
The others laughed.
"That's the right spirit," said Willet, "and while we have nothing to eat we have lots of hope. I've been hungrier than this often, and, as you see, I've never starved to death a single time. There's always lots of food somewhere in the wilderness, if you only know how to put your hand on it."
"I think it is now best for us to follow on the trail of Black Rifle," said Tayoga.
"That's so," responded the hunter. "It's grown a lot colder, while you lads slept, though I think you can follow it without any trouble, Tayoga."
The red lad said nothing, but at once picked up the traces, which now led south, slanting back a little toward the lake.
"Black Rifle was going fast," he said. "His stride lengthens. He must have divined where St. Luc with his force lay, and he took a direct course for it. Ah, he turns suddenly aside and walks to and fro."
"That's curious," said the hunter. "I see the footprints all about. What did Black Rifle mean by moving about in such a manner?"
"It is not odd at all," said Tayoga. "Doubtless Black Rifle was suffering from the same lack that we are, and it was necessary for him to provision his army of one at once. He suddenly saw a chance to do so and he turned aside from his direct journey toward the south. So we shall soon see where Black Rifle shot his bear."
"And why not a deer?" said Grosvenor.
"Because his trail now leads toward that deep thicket on our right, a thicket made up of bushes and vines and briars. A deer could not have gone into it, but a bear could, and we know now it was a bear, because here are its tracks. Black Rifle killed the bear in the thicket."
"Are you sure of that, Tayoga?" asked Robert.
"Absolutely sure, Dagaeoga. It is in this case a matter of mind and not of eye. Black Rifle is too good a hunter to fire a useless shot, and too experienced to miss his game, when he needs it so badly. He would take every precaution for success. My mind tells me that it was impossible for him to miss."
"And he didn't miss," said Robert, as they entered the thicket. "See where the vines and briars were threshed about by the bear as he fell. Here are spots of blood, and here goes the path along which he dragged the body. All this is as plain as day."
"It was a fat bear too," said Tayoga. "Although it is early spring he had found so many good roots and berries that he had more than made up for the loss of weight in his long winter fast. We will soon find where Black Rifle cleaned his prize. A bear is too heavy to carry far. Ah, he did his work just beyond us in the little valley!"
"How do you know that?" asked Grosvenor. "We can't yet see into the valley."
The great red trailer smiled.
"This time, O Red Coat," he replied, "it is a combination of mind and eye. Mind tells me that Black Rifle could not clean and dress his bear unless he got it to water. Mind tells me that a brook is flowing in the valley just ahead of us, because there is scarcely a valley in the country that does not have its brook. Eye tells me that Black Rifle finished his task by the great oak there. Do you not see the huge buzzards flying above the tree? They are conclusive. Ah, the forest people gathered fast in numbers! They expected that Black Rifle would leave them a great feast."
They found a little brook of clear, cold water and, beside it, the place where Black Rifle had cleaned his bear, reserving afterward the choice portion for himself.
"When he went on," said Tayoga, "the forest people made a rush for what he did not want, which was much. Great birds came. We cannot see their trail through the air, but we can see where they hopped about here on the ground, tore at the flesh, and fought with one another for the spoil. A lynx came, and then another, and then wolves. The weasel and the mink too hung on the outskirts, waiting for what the bigger animals might leave. Among them they left nothing and they were not long in the task."
Only shining bones lay on the ground. They had been picked clean and all the forest people had gone after their brief banquet. The trails led away in different directions, but that of Black Rifle went on toward the south. The traces, however, were more distinct than they had been before he stopped for the bear.
"It is because he is carrying much weight," said Tayoga. "Black Rifle no longer skips along like a youth, as Red Coat here does."
"You can have all the sport with me you wish," said Grosvenor. "I don't forget that you saved my life, when by all the rules of logic it was lost beyond the hope of recovery."
"Black Rifle would not eat so much bear meat himself," said Tayoga, "nor would he carry such a burden, without good cause. It may be that he expects us. He has perhaps heard that we are in this region."
"It's possible," said the hunter.
Full of eagerness, they pressed forward on the trail.