The Lords of the Wild by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VII. The Forest Battle
"It is quite evident," said Robert, as they talked, "that we must follow on the trail of St. Luc. We've settled in our minds that he wants to keep our people busy along Lake George, while Montcalm fortifies higher up. Then it's our duty to find out what he's doing and stop it if we can."
All were in agreement upon the point, even Grosvenor, who did not yet feel at home in the woods.
"But we must wait until the fog lifts," said Willet. "If we moved now we might walk directly into the arms of the enemy, and we can afford to wait the night through, anyhow. Tayoga, we have got to keep you fresh, because your senses and faculties must be at their finest and most delicate pitch for trailing, so now you go to sleep. All the rest of you do the same, and I'll watch."
Soon four slumbered, and only the hunter was awake and on guard. But he was enough. His sight and hearing were almost as good as those of Tayoga himself and he too began to believe that the Onondaga's Manitou was a shield before them. Danger had come often and very near, but it had always passed, and, for the present, at least, he was not apprehensive. The fog might hang on all night if it chose. They could easily make up lost ground in the morning. Meanwhile they were accumulating fresh strength. The four were sleeping very placidly, and it was not likely that they would awake before dawn. Willet looked at their relaxed figures with genuine benevolence. There were the friends for whom he cared most, and he felt sure the young Englishman also would become an addition. Grosvenor was full of courage and he had already proved that he was adaptable. He would learn fast. The hunter had every reason to be satisfied with himself and the situation.
The fog did not go away. Instead, it thickened perceptibly, rolling up in new waves from the lake. The figures of the sleeping four were wrapped in it as in a white blanket, but Willet knew they were there. No air stirred, and, as he sat silent, he listened for sounds that might come through the white veil, hearing only the occasional stirring of some animal. Toward morning the inevitable change occurred. A wind arose in the south, gentle puffs in the beginning, then blowing steady and strong. The fog was torn away first at the top, where it was thinnest, floating off in shreds and patches, and then the whole wall of it yielded before the insistent breeze, driven toward the north like a mist, and leaving the woods and thickets free. Willet made a careful circle about the camp, at a range of several hundred yards, and found no sign of hostile presence. Then he resumed his silent vigil, and, an hour later, the sun rose in a shower of gold. Tayoga opened his eyes and Willet awakened the others.
"The fog is gone," said the hunter, "and eyes are useful once more. I've been around the camp and there is no immediate threat hanging over us. We can enjoy a good breakfast on Black Rifle's cold bear, and then we'll start on St. Luc's trail."
The path of the force that had marched past in the night was quite plain. Even Grosvenor, with his inexperience, could tell that many men had walked there. Most of the Frenchmen as well as the Indians had worn moccasins, but the imprints made by the boot heels of De Courcelles and Jumonville were clearly visible among the fainter traces.
"How many men would you say were in this force, Tayoga?" asked Willet.
"About fifty Frenchmen and maybe as many warriors," replied the Onondaga. "The Frenchmen stay together, but the warriors leave now and then in little parties, and the trail also shows where some of the parties came back. See, Red Coat, here is where two warriors returned. The French stay with St. Luc, not because they are not good scouts and trailers, but because the division of the work now allots this task to the Indians."
"You're right when you call the French good scouts and trailers," said Willet. "They seem to take naturally to forest life, and I know the Indians like them better than they do any other white people. As I often tell Robert, here, the French are enemies of whom anybody can be proud. There isn't a braver race in the world."
"I don't underrate 'em," said Grosvenor.
"It won't be long until we reach their camp," said Tayoga. "Sharp Sword is too great a leader to have carried his men very far in a blind fog. I do not think he went on more than a mile. It is likely that he stopped at the first brook, and the slope of the ground shows that we will come soon to a stream. More of the scouts that he sent out are returning to the main trail. They could not have gone far in the fog and of course they found nothing."
"We'll have, then, to beware lest we run into their camp before they've left it," said Willet.
"I don't think Sharp Sword would stay there after dawn," continued the Onondaga. "The fact that he marched at night in the fog shows that he is eager to get on, and I am quite sure we will find a cold camp. Here go the footsteps of St. Luc. I know they are his, because his foot is small and he wears moccasins. All the French soldiers have larger feet, and the other two Frenchmen, De Courcelles and De Jumonville, wear boots. Sharp Sword does not regard the two officers with favor. He does not associate with them more than is necessary. He keeps on the right side of the trail and they on the left. Here go his moccasins and there go their boots."
"And straight ahead is the brook by the side of which we'll find their camp," said Robert, who had caught the silver flash of water through the green foliage.
The trail, as he had said, led to the brook where the signs of an encampment were numerous.
"The fog was dense with them as it was with us," said Tayoga. "It is shown by the fact that they moved about a great deal, walking over all the ground, before they finally chose a place. If there had been no fog or even only a little they could have chosen at once what they wanted. Knowing that they had no enemy strong enough to be feared they kindled a fire here by this log, more for the sake of light than for warmth. Sharp Sword did not talk over anything with his lieutenants, De Courcelles and Jumonville. His trail leads to the north side of the camp, where he wrapped himself in his blanket and lay down. I imagine that the Canadian, Dubois, who goes with him, as an attendant, watched over him. De Courcelles and Jumonville slept on the other side of the camp. There go their boots. All the French soldiers but Dubois lay down to sleep, and only the warriors watched. They left at dawn, not stopping to eat breakfast. If they had eaten, birds would be here hunting shreds of flesh in the grass, but we do not see a single bird, nor has any wolf or other prowling animal been drawn by the odor of food. We were right in our surmise that Sharp Sword did not wish to delay. Perhaps there is some force of ours that he can catch in a trap, and he wishes to repeat his success against the Mountain Wolf."
"And it is our business to stop him," said Willet.
"If so, we must act promptly, Great Bear. When Sharp Sword makes up his mind to strike he strikes, quick and hard. After his brief camp here he continued his march toward the south. He threw out warriors as scouts and skirmishers. You can see their trail, leading off into the woods, and then his main force marched in a close and compact group. Just beyond the camp a little while after they made the new start he called De Courcelles and De Jumonville to him, and talked with them a little. Here is where his moccasins stood, and here is where their boots stood, facing him, while they received his orders. Then the boots walked back to the end of the line and St. Luc must have spoken to them very sharply."
"Why do you say that, Tayoga?" asked Grosvenor.
"You will notice that here where the trails of boots turn back the stems of grass in two or three places are broken off, not crushed down. De Courcelles and Jumonville kicked them in anger with the sharp toes of their boots, and they could have been angry only because Sharp Sword rebuked them."
"You must be right, Tayoga."
"It does not admit of any doubt, Red Coat. They took their places at the rear of the marching line, and Sharp Sword went on ahead. At no time does he permit them to walk beside him. He still regards the two Frenchmen with much disfavor, and he will continue to do so though he must use them in his expedition."
Tayoga spoke in his precise school English, in which he never omitted or abbreviated a word, but he was very positive. It did not occur to any of the others to doubt him. They had seen too many evidences of his surpassing skill on the trail. They swung along and Grosvenor noticed that many birds now appeared, hopping about in the path, as if searching among the bushes and in the grass for something.
"It looks as if they were seeking food dropped by our foes," he said.
"Did we not say that Red Coat would learn and learn fast!" exclaimed Tayoga. "He has in him the spirit of the forester, and, in time, he will make a great trailer. I have observed the birds, Red Coat, and your conclusion is correct. Sharp Sword's force did not pause to cook breakfast or even to eat it at the camp, but they took it as they walked along swiftly, dropping shreds of flesh or grains of hominy or bones picked clean as they walked. The birds have come to feast on their leavings. Doubtless, they have eaten all already and are merely hunting for more that does not exist. It is strange that no prowling wolf has come. Ah, I see the nose of one now in the thicket! Sharp Sword and his force cannot be very far ahead, and we shall have to be very cautious how we proceed."
"I think it likely," said Willet, "that Tandakora and his band will join him soon. If he is intending an attack upon us somewhere he will want to mass his full strength for it."
"Tandakora will join him before he makes his next camp," said Tayoga, in the most positive manner. "Great Bear reasons well. I expect to see the trail of the Ojibway chief, within an hour."
They went forward slowly, lest they walk into an ambush set by the foe, and, before they had gone two miles, the Onondaga pointed to a new trail coming out of the forest and merging into that of St. Luc.
"Dagaeoga knows who has walked here!" he said.
"Yes," replied Robert. "It's easy to tell where the great feet of Tandakora have passed. I suppose he leaves bigger footprints than any other man now in the province of New York. His warriors were with him too when he joined St. Luc. We were right in supposing that the French leader meditates an attack upon us somewhere."
"Tandakora talked a while with St. Luc," said Tayoga, when they had gone a hundred yards farther. "The big moccasins and the small moccasins stood together beside the trail. The earth was dampened much by the fog last night and it leaves the impressions. I think he talked longer with the Ojibway than he did with De Courcelles and Jumonville. Tandakora is an evil man but perhaps St. Luc feels less dislike for him than he does for the two white men. The Ojibway is only a savage from the region of the Great Lakes, but the Frenchmen should know that the straight way of life is the right way. You do not forget, Dagaeoga, how De Courcelles planned with the others that time we were in Quebec, to have you killed by the bully, Boucher!"
"I don't forget it," said Robert. "I can never forget it, nor do I forget how Dave took my place and sent the bully to a land where he can never more do murder. Much as I hate Tandakora, I don't blame St. Luc for hating him less than he does De Courcelles and Jumonville."
"After the talk they went on together to the head of the line," said Tayoga. "Now they increase their speed. The stride of St. Luc lengthens and as it lengthens so must those of all the rest. We are not now in any danger of running into them, but we may incur it before night."
They did not abate their own speed, but continued in the path without pause, until nearly noon. The broad trail led straight on, over hills, across valleys and always through deep forest, cut here and there by clear streams. The sun came out, and it was warm under the trees. Grosvenor, unused to such severe exertion of this kind, began to breathe with difficulty. But Tayoga called a halt in time at the edge of a brook, and all knelt to drink.
"St. Luc's men were tired and thirsty too, Red Coat," said the Onondaga. "All of them drank. You can see the prints of their knees and feet as they bent over the water. It is a good brook. Manitou has filled the wilderness with its like, that man and beast may enjoy them. We will rest here a while, if Great Bear and Black Rifle say so."
"We do," said the two men together.
They remained fully an hour by the little stream. Robert himself, used as he was to the wilderness, was glad of the rest, and Grosvenor fairly reveled in it, feeling that his nerves and muscles were being created anew. They also made further inroads on their bear and Grosvenor was glad to see the birds coming for the shreds they dropped. He had quite a kindly feeling for the little winged creatures.
"I don't want to think that everything in the woods is an enemy," he said.
When they resumed the pursuit they found another new trail merging into that of the main force. It was a mixed band, red and white as the character of the footprints showed, and numbered about twenty men.
"It is clear," said Tayoga, "that as we supposed, Sharp Sword is planning a heavy stroke. All the detached forces are coming in, under instructions, to join him. We know that Montcalm drew back into the north after his great blow at Fort William Henry, and we think he is going to fortify on Champlain or between the two lakes. Some of our people must be along the shores of Andiatarocte and Sharp Sword does not want them to find out too much about Montcalm."
"At any rate I think our own enterprise will culminate before night," said Willet. "We should overtake them by dusk if we try."
"Sharp Sword's men will make a new camp before long," said Tayoga, "and from that they will launch their attack upon whatever point or force of ours they intend to attack. They are not going so fast now, and the trail is growing very warm. Sharp Sword's stride is shortening and so, of course, is the stride of all the others. I think he now feels that the need of hurrying is over, and he is likely to become much more deliberate."
"And the ground is beginning to slope down toward a deep valley," said Willet. "Water and wood will be plentiful there, and I think that's where St. Luc will make his camp to-night."
"I think so too," said Tayoga. "And since the dusk is not far away maybe they have lighted the fire already. Suppose, Great Bear, we climb the hill on our right and see if our eyes can reach their smoke."
The crest of the hill was about three hundred feet above them, but when they reached it they could see a great distance on all sides, the lake a vast glittering bowl on their left and the mighty green wilderness of hills, mountains and woods on their right. Directly ahead of them was a faint dark line against the dazzling blue of the sky.
"Smoke!" said Tayoga.
"St. Luc's smoke," said Willet.
"The very smoke of the camp for which we were looking and which we were expecting!" said Black Rifle.
Robert's pulses beat hard, as they always did when he knew the great French Chevalier to be near. But that emotion soon passed and in its place came the thought of the enemy's presence. However much he admired St. Luc he was an official foe, to be met upon the battlefield.
"We must look into their camp," he said.
"So we must," said Willet, "and to do that we shall have to go much nearer. The risk is too great now, but it will soon be night, and then we can approach. We can see them well, then, because they'll build all the fires they like, since they think they have nothing to fear."
Then the five waited in silence among the thick woods on the crest of the hill, and Grosvenor prepared his mind for his first stalk. Full of courage, ambitious, eager to excel, he resolved to acquit himself with credit. But this was war, far different from that on the open fields of Europe for which his early training had fitted him. One must lie in the deep forest and depend upon the delicacy of eye and ear and an exceeding quickness of hand. It had not been long since he would have considered his present situation incredible, and, even now, it required some effort to convince himself that it was true.
But there beside him were the comrades whom he liked so well, Robert, Tayoga and the hunter whom he had known before and the strange dark figure of Black Rifle, that man of mystery and terror. Around him was the wilderness now in the glow of advancing twilight, and before him he knew well lay St. Luc and the formidable French and Indian force. Time and place were enough to try the soul of an inexperienced youth and yet Grosvenor was not afraid. His own spirit and willingness to dare peril made a shield for him. His comrades were only four in number, but Grosvenor felt that, in fact, they were twenty. He did not know what strange pass into which they would lead him, but he felt sure they would succeed.
He saw the red rim of the sun sink behind the western crests, and then the last twilight died into the night. Heavy darkness trailed over the forest, but soon moon and stars sprang out, and the sky became silver, the spire of smoke reappearing across its southern face. But Willet, who was in reality the leader of the little party, gave no sign. Grosvenor knew that they were waiting for the majority of St. Luc's force to go to sleep, leaving only the sentinels before they approached, but it was hard to sit there so long. His nerves were on edge and his muscles ached, but his spirit put a powerful rein over the flesh and he said never a word, until far in the night Willet gave the order to advance.
"Be careful, lads," he said, "and now is your chance, Lieutenant, to show how well you can keep up the start you've made as a trailer. That smoke over there which merges from several camp fires is our beacon."
They crept through the thickets. Grosvenor saw the dark gray tower against the sky grow larger and larger, and at last a luminous glow that came from the camp fires, rose under the horizon.
"To the edge of this last hill," whispered Willet, "and I think we can see them."
They redoubled their care as they advanced, and then, thrusting their heads through the bushes, looked down into the little valley in which the camp of St. Luc was pitched.
Several fires were burning, and Robert distinctly saw the French leader standing before one of them, not in forest green, but in his splendid officer's uniform of white and silver. A gallant and romantic figure he looked, outlined by the blaze, young, lithe and strong. Again the heart of the lad throbbed, and he was drawn powerfully toward St. Luc. What was it that caused this feeling and why had the Chevalier on more than one occasion and at risk shown himself to be his friend?
Not as many in the camp as they had expected had yet gone to sleep. Tandakora, somber and gigantic, gnawed the flesh from the big bone of a deer and then, throwing the bone into the fire, approached St. Luc. Robert saw them talking and presently De Courcelles and Jumonville came also. The four talked a little while and now and then the Chevalier pointed toward the south.
"That is where they intend their blow to fall," whispered Tayoga.
"Beyond a doubt, lad," the hunter whispered back, "but we may be able to anticipate 'em."
The wild scene, the like of which he had never looked upon before, cast a strange spell over Grosvenor. He too recognized, even at the distance, the power of St. Luc's personality, and Tandakora, looming, immense, in the firelight, was like some monster out of an earlier, primordial world. Warriors and soldiers asleep were scattered before the fires, and, at the edge of the forest, walked the sentinels. It was an alert and formidable camp, and the young Englishman felt that he and his comrades were grazing the extreme edge of danger.
De Courcelles and Jumonville presently left St. Luc and went to another fire, where they lay down and fell asleep, their military cloaks spread over them. Then the short, dark Canadian Dubois appeared and St. Luc spoke to him also. Dubois bowed respectfully and brought a blanket, which he spread before the fire. St. Luc lay down on it, and he too was soon asleep.
"It's time for us to go," whispered Willet, "but I'd feel safer if Tandakora also went to sleep. That savage is likely to send out scouts."
"Tandakora does not mean to sleep to-night," said Tayoga. "He suspects that we are somewhere near and he is troubled. If he were not uneasy he would take his rest, which is what a chief always does when the opportunity presents itself. But he has thrown his second bone into the fire, and he walks about, looking now at the sleepers and now at the forest. I think he will soon send two or three runners toward the south. See, he is speaking to them now, and two are starting."
Two Indians left the camp and glided silently into the woods. Then Tandakora stopped his restless pacing, and lay down on the ground. His face was in the shadow, but he seemed to be asleep.
The four on the hill crept away as cautiously as they had come, and they agreed that they would make a curve around St. Luc's camp, traveling all night toward the south. Willet was anxious about the two warriors whom Tandakora had sent out, and he felt that they might possibly encounter them on the way. He led his little group first toward the lake and then bore south, being quite sure that before noon the next day they would reach a British or American detachment of some kind. Everything indicated such proximity and they were agreed that they would find their friends on the shores of the lake. It was not likely that either colonials or regulars would leave the open water and go far into woods which furnished so many perils.
They were refreshed by sleep and plenty of food and they made good time. They walked in single file, Willet leading with Tayoga last and Grosvenor in front of him. The young Englishman's ambition, encouraged by success, was rising higher than ever, and he was resolved that this night trail which he was treading should be a good one, so far as he was concerned. Robert walked in front of him and he was careful to step exactly where young Lennox did, knowing that if he did so he would break no sticks and make no undue noise. The test was severe, but he succeeded. By and by his breath grew short once more. Nevertheless he was glad when Willet halted, and asked Tayoga if he heard any unusual sound in the forest. Before replying the Onondaga lay down and put his ear to the ground.
"I do hear a sound which is not that of the trees nor of an animal," he replied. "It is made by men walking, and I think they are the two warriors whom Tandakora sent out from the camp."
"And if you can hear them walking they must be very near. That is sure."
"It is true, Great Bear. These two warriors are sent south to spy upon whatever force of ours St. Luc means to attack, and it may be that they will strike our trail, although they are not looking for it. There is light enough now to show our traces to good trailers."
"Aye, Tayoga, you speak truly. Lie down, lads, we must not show ourselves. It's possible that they'll pass on and not dream of our presence here."
"It is in the hands of Manitou," said the Onondaga gravely. "They are still walking toward the south at an even pace, which shows that they have seen nothing. I can hear their footfalls, only a whisper against the earth, but unmistakable. Now, they are just behind us, and their course is the same as ours. Ah, the footfalls cease! They have stopped. They have seen our trail, Great Bear. Manitou has given his decree against us, and who are we to complain? He has done so much for us that now he would put us to the test, and see whether we are worthy of his favor. We shall have to fight the messengers."
"It should be easy enough for us who are five to beat two warriors," said Robert.
"We can surely beat two," said Tayoga, "but they will try to hold us while they call help. It will not be long before you hear the cry of a night bird, doubtless an owl."
"Have they begun to move again?" asked Robert.
"I cannot hear a sound. Perhaps they are stirring, but they creep so cautiously that they make no noise at all. It would be their object to make their own position uncertain and then we would go on at great peril from their bullets. It will be best for us to stay a while where we are."
Tayoga's words were accepted at once as wise by the others. It was impossible to tell where the two warriors now lay, and, if they undertook to go on, their figures would be disclosed at once by the brilliant moonshine. So they flattened themselves against the ground in the shadow of the bushes and waited patiently. The time seemed to Grosvenor to be forever, but he thrilled with the belief in coming combat. He still felt that he was in the best of all company for forest and midnight battle, and he did not fear the issue.
Willet was hopeful that the skies would darken, but they did not do so. The persistent moon and a host of stars continued to shine down, flooding the forest with light, and he knew that if any one of them stood up a bullet would be his instant welcome. At last came the cry of the night bird, the note of the owl, as Tayoga had predicted, rising from a point to their right and somewhat behind them, but too far away for rifle shot. It was a singular note, wild, desolate and full of menace.
"There may have been another band of warriors in this direction," whispered Tayoga, "perhaps a group of hunters who had not yet returned to St. Luc, and he is calling to them."
"No earthly doubt of it," said Black Rifle. "Can you hear the reply, Tayoga?"
"Now I hear it, though it is very faint. It is from the south and the warriors will soon be here. We shall have a band to fight."
"Then we'd better bear off toward the west," said Willet. "Come, lads, we have to creep for it."
They made their way very slowly on hands and knees away from the lake, Willet leading and Tayoga bringing up the rear. It was hard and painful work for Grosvenor, but again he succeeded in advancing without noise, and he began to think they would elude the vigilance of the savage scouts, when a sibilant whisper from Willet warned them to fall flat again. His command was just in time as a rifle cracked in the bushes ahead of them, and Grosvenor distinctly heard the bullet as it hissed over their heads. Willet threw his rifle to his shoulder but quickly took it down again. The Indian who had fired was gone and a little puff of smoke rising above the bushes told where he had been. Then the five crept away toward the right and drew into a slight hollow, rimmed around with bushes, where they lay hugging the earth.
"Our course took us almost directly into the path of that fellow," said Willet, "and of course he saw us. I'm sorry I didn't get a shot at him."
"Do not worry, Great Bear," said Tayoga. "You will find plenty of use for your bullets. The band has come. Hark to the war whoop!"
The long, piercing yell, so full of menace and most sinister in its dying note, swelled through the forest. Grosvenor, despite his courage and confidence in his comrades, shivered. He had heard that same yell many a time, when Braddock's army was cut down in the deep forest by an invisible foe. He could never forget its import. But he grasped his rifle firmly, and strove to see the enemy, who, he knew, was approaching. His four comrades lay in silence, but the muzzle of every weapon was thrust forward.
"It's fortunate we found this little hollow," said Willet. "It will give us shelter for a while."
"And we'll need it," said Black Rifle. "They know where we are, of course, but they'll take their time about attacking."
"Keep your heads down, lads," said Willet. "Don't be too eager to see. If they're too far away for us to shoot at we are too far away for them too."
Five minutes later and a flash came from a thicket on their left. Willet pulled trigger at the flash and a death cry came back.
"That's one out of the way," said Black Rifle calmly, "and they're mad clean through. Hear 'em yell!"
The fierce war whoop died in many echoes, and bullets spattered the rocks about them. The five made no further reply as yet, but the forest battle was now on.