Joseph A. Altsheler.

The Rulers of the Lakes A Story of George and Champlain online

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It was an hour until midnight, and the radius of his circle had
increased another fifty yards, when he came again to the great spaces
among the oaks and beeches. Halfway through and he sank softly down
behind the trunk of a huge oak. Either in fact or in a sort of mental
illusion, he had heard a moccasin brush a dry leaf far away. The command
of Tayoga, though spoken in jest, had been so impressive that his ear
was obeying it. Firm in the belief that his own dark shadow blurred
with the dark trunk, and that he was safe from the sight of a questing
eye, he lay there a long time, listening.

In time, the sound, translated from fancy into fact, came again, and now
he knew that it was near, perhaps not more than a hundred yards away,
the rustling of a real moccasin against a real dry leaf. Twice and
thrice his ear signaled to his brain. It could not be fancy. It was
instead an alarming fact.

He was about to creep from the tree, and return to his comrades with
word that the enemy was near, but he restrained his impulse, merely
crouching a little lower that his dark shadow might blend with the dark
earth as well as the dark trunk. Then he heard several rustlings and the
very low murmur of voices.

Gradually the voices which had been blended together, detached
themselves and Robert recognized those of Tandakora and De Courcelles.
Presently they came into the moonlight, followed by the savage band, and
they passed within fifty yards of the youth who lay in the shelter of
the trunk, pressing himself into the earth.

The Frenchman and the Ojibway were talking with great earnestness and
Robert's imagination, plumbing the distance, told him the words they
said. Tandakora was stating with great emphasis that the three whose
trail they had found had gone on very fast, obviously with the intention
of warning the garrison at the fort, and if they were to be cut off the
band must hasten, too. De Courcelles was replying that in his opinion
Tandakora was right, but it would not be well to get too far ahead. They
must throw out flankers as they marched, but there was no immediate
need of them. If the band spread out before dawn it would be sufficient.

Robert's fancy was so intense and creative that, beginning by imagining
these things so, he made them so. The band therefore was sure to go on
without searching the thickets on either right or left at present, and
all immediate apprehension disappeared from his mind. Tandakora and De
Courcelles were in the center of the moonlight, and although knowing
them evil, he was surprised to see how very evil their faces looked,
each in its own red or white way. He could remember nothing at that
moment but their wickedness, and their treacherous attacks upon his life
and those of his friends, and the memory clothed them about with a
hideous veil through which only their cruel souls shone. It was
characteristic of him that he should always see everything in extreme
colors, and in his mind the good were always very good and the bad were
very bad.

Hence it was to him an actual physical as well as mental relief, when
the Frenchman, the Ojibway and their band, passing on, were blotted from
his eyes by the forest. Then he turned back to the thicket in which his
comrades lay, and bent over them for the purpose of awakening them. But
before he could speak or lay a hand upon either, Tayoga sat up, his eyes
wide open.

"You come with news that the enemy has been at hand!"

"Yes, but how did you know it?"

"I see it in your look, and, also when I slept, the Keeper of Dreams
whispered it in my ear. An evil wind, too, blew upon my face and I knew
it was the breath of De Courcelles and Tandakora. They have been near."

"They and their entire band passed not more than four hundred yards to
the eastward of us. I lay in the bush and saw them distinctly. They're
trying to beat us to Fort Refuge."

"But they won't do it, because we won't let 'em," said Willet, who had
awakened at the talking. "We'll make a curve and get ahead of 'em again.
You watched well, Robert."

"I obeyed the strict injunctions of Tayoga," said young Lennox, smiling
faintly. "He bade me listen so intently that I should hear the rustle of
a dry leaf when a moccasin touched it a mile away in the forest. Well, I
heard it, and going whence the sound came I saw De Courcelles, Tandakora
and their warriors pass by."

"You love to paint pictures with words, Robert. I see that well, but
'tis not likely that you exaggerate so much, after all. I'm sorry you
won't get your share of sleep, but we must be up and away."

"I'll claim a double portion of it later on, Dave, but I agree with you
that what we need most just now is silence and speed, and speed and
silence."

The three, making a curve toward the east, traveled at high speed
through the rest of the night, Tayoga now leading and showing all his
inimitable skill as a forest trailer. In truth, the Onondaga was in his
element. His spirits, like Robert's, rose as dangers grew thicker around
them, and he had been affected less than either of his comrades by the
terrible slaughter of Braddock's men. Mentally at least, he was more of
a stoic, and woe to the vanquished was a part of the lore of all the
Indian tribes. The French and their allies had struck a heavy blow and
there was nothing left for the English and Americans to do but to strike
back. It was all very simple.

Day came, and at the suggestion of Willet they rested again in the
thickets. Robert was not really weary, at least the spirit uplifted him,
though he knew that he must not overtask the body. His enthusiasm, based
upon such a sanguine temperament, continued to rise. Again he foresaw
glittering success. They would shake off all their foes, reach the fort
in time, and lead the garrison and the people who had found refuge there
safely out of the wilderness.

Where they lay the bushes were very dense. Before hiding there they had
drunk abundantly at a little brook thirty or forty feet away, and now
they ate with content the venison that formed their breakfast. Over the
vast forest a brilliant sun was rising and here the leaves and grass
were not burned much by summer heat. It looked fresh and green, and the
wind sang pleasantly through its cool shadows. It appealed to Robert.
With his plastic nature he was all for the town when he was in town, and
now in the forest he was all for the forest.

"I can understand why you love it so well," he said to Tayoga, waving
his hand at the verdant world that curved about them.

"My people and their ancestors have lived in it for more generations
than anyone knows," said the Onondaga, his eyes glistening. "I have
been in the white man's schools, and the white man's towns, and I have
seen the good in them, but this is my real home. This is what I love
best. My heart beats strongest for the forest."

"My own heart does a lot of beating for the woods," said Willet,
thoughtfully, "and it ought to do so, I've spent so many years of my
life in them - happy years, too. They say that no matter how great an
evil may be some good will come out of it, and this war will achieve one
good end."

"What is that, Great Bear?"

"It will delay the work of the ax. Men will be so busy with the rifle
that they will have mighty little time for the ax. The trees will stop
falling for a while, and the forest will cover again the places where it
has been cleared away. Why, the game itself will increase!"

"How long do you think we'd better stay here?" asked Robert, his eager
soul anxious to be on again.

"Patience! patience, my lad," replied Willet. "It's one thing that
you'll have to practice. We don't want to run squarely into De
Courcelles, Tandakora and their band, and meanwhile we're very
comfortable here, gathering strength. Look at Tayoga there and learn
from him. If need be he could lie in the same place a week and be
happy."

"I hope the need will not come," laughed the Onondaga.

Robert felt the truth of Willet's words, and he put restraint upon
himself, resolved that he would not be the first to propose the new
start. He had finished breakfast and he lay on his elbow gazing up
through the green tracery of the bushes at the sky. It was a wonderful
sky, a deep, soft, velvet blue, and it tinted the woods with glorious
and kindly hues. It seemed strange to Robert, at the moment, that a
forest so beautiful should bristle with danger, but he knew it too well
to allow its softness and air of innocence to deceive him.

It was almost the middle of the morning when Willet gave the word to
renew the march, and they soon saw they had extreme need of caution.
Evidence that warriors had passed was all about them. Now and then they
saw the faint imprint of a moccasin. Twice they found little painted
feathers that had fallen from a headdress or a scalplock, and once
Tayoga saw a red bead lying in the grass where it had dropped, perhaps,
from a legging.

"We shall have to pass by Tandakora's band and perhaps other bands in
the night," said Tayoga.

"It's possible, too," said Willet, "that they know we're on our way to
the fort, and may try to stop us. Our critical time will soon be at
hand."

They listened throughout the afternoon for the signals that bands might
make to one another, but heard nothing. Willet, in truth, was not
surprised.

"Silence will serve them best," he said, "and they'll send runners from
band to band. Still, if they do give signals we want to know it."

"There is a river, narrow but deep, about five miles ahead," said
Tayoga, "and we'll have to cross it on our way to the fort. I think it
is there that Tandakora will await us."

"It's pretty sure to be the place," said Willet. "Do you know where
there's a ford, Tayoga?"

"There is none."

"Then we'll have to swim for it. That's bad. But you say it's a narrow
stream?"

"Yes, Great Bear. Two minutes would carry us across it."

"Then we must find some place for the fording where the trees lean over
from either side and the shadow is deep."

Tayoga nodded, and, after that, they advanced in silence, redoubling
their caution as they drew near to the river. The night was not so
bright as the one that had just gone before, but it furnished sufficient
light for wary and watching warriors to see their figures at a
considerable distance, and, now and then, they stopped to search the
thickets with their own eyes. No wind blew, their footsteps made no
sound and the intense stillness of the forest wove itself into the
texture of Robert's mind. His extraordinary fancy peopled it with
phantoms. There was a warrior in every bush, but, secure in the
comradeship of his two great friends, he went on without fear.

"There is no signal," whispered Tayoga at last. "They do not even
imitate the cry of bird or beast, and it proves one thing, Great Bear."

"So it does, Tayoga."

"You know as well as I do, Great Bear, that they make no sound because
they have set the trap, and they do not wish to alarm the game which
they expect to walk into it."

"Even so, Tayoga. Our minds travel in the same channel."

"But the game is suspicious, nevertheless," continued Tayoga in his
precise school English, "and the trap will not fall."

"No, Tayoga, it won't fall, because the game won't walk into it."

"Tandakora will suffer great disappointment. He is a mighty hunter and
he has hunted mighty game, but the game that he hunts now is more wary
than the stag or the bear, and has greater power to strike back than
either."

"Well spoken, Tayoga."

The hunter and the Onondaga looked at each other in the dark and
laughed. Their spirits were as wild as the wilderness, and they were
enjoying the prospect of the Ojibway's empty trap. Robert laughed with
them. Already in his eager mind success was achieved and the crossing
was made. After a while he saw dim silver through the trees, and he knew
they had come to the river. Then the three sank down and approached inch
by inch, sure that De Courcelles, Tandakora and their forces would be
watching on the other side.




CHAPTER II

THE KINDLY BRIDGE


The thicket in which the three lay was of low but dense bushes, with
high grass growing wherever the sun could reach it. In the grass tiny
wild flowers, purple, blue and white were in bloom, and Robert inhaled
their faint odor as he crouched, watching for the enemy who sought his
life. It was a forest scene, the beauty of which would have pleased him
at any other time, nor was he wholly unconscious of it now. The river
itself, as Tayoga had stated, was narrow. At some points it did not seem
to be more than ten or fifteen yards across, but it flowed in a slow,
heavy current, showing depths below. Nor could he see, looking up and
down the stream, any prospect of a ford.

Robert's gaze moved in an eager quest along the far shore, but he
detected no sign of Tandakora, the Frenchman or their men. Yet he felt
that Tayoga and Willet were right and that foes were on watch there. It
was inevitable, because it was just the place where they could wait best
for the three. Nevertheless he asked, though it was merely to confirm
his own belief.

"Do you think they're in the brush, Dave?"

"Not a doubt of it, Robert," the hunter whispered back. "They haven't
seen us yet, but they hope to do so soon."

"And we also, who haven't seen them yet, hope to do so soon."

"Aye, Robert, that's the fact. Ah, I think I catch a glimpse of them
now. Tayoga, wouldn't you say that the reflection in the big green bush
across the river is caused by a moonbeam falling on a burnished rifle
barrel?"

"Not a doubt of it, Great Bear. Now, I see the rifle itself! And now I
see the hands that hold it. The hands belong to a live warrior, an
Ojibway, or a Pottowattomie. He is kneeling, waiting for a shot, if he
should find anything to shoot at."

"I see him, too, Tayoga, and there are three more warriors just beyond
him. It's certainly the band of Tandakora and De Courcelles, and they've
set a beautiful trap for three who will not come into it."

"It is so, Great Bear. One may build a splendid bear trap but of what
use is it if the bear stays away?"

"But what are we to do?" asked Robert. "We can't cross in the face of
such a force."

"We'll go down the stream," replied Willet, "keeping hidden, of course,
in the thickets, and look for a chance to pass. Of course, they've sent
men in both directions along the bank, but we may go farther than any of
them."

He led the way, and they went cautiously through the thickets two or
three miles, all the time intently watching the other shore. Twice they
saw Indian sentinels on watch, and knew that they could not risk the
passage. Finally they stopped and waited a full two hours in the
thickets, the contest becoming one of patience.

Meanwhile the night was absolutely silent. The wind was dead, and the
leaves hung straight down. The deep, slow current of the river, although
flowing between narrow banks, made no noise, and Robert's mind, colored
by the conditions of the moment, began to believe that the enemy had
gone away. It was impossible for them to wait so long for foresters whom
they did not see and who might never come. Then he dismissed imagination
and impression, and turned with a wrench to his judgment. He knew enough
of the warriors of the wilderness to know that nobody could wait longer
than they. Patience was one of the chief commodities of savage life,
because their habits were not complex, and all the time in the world was
theirs.

He took lessons, too, from Tayoga and Willet. The Onondaga, an Indian
himself, had an illimitable patience, and Willet, from long practice,
had acquired the ability to remain motionless for hours at a time. He
looked at them as they crouched beside him, still and silent figures in
the dusk, apparently growing from the earth like the bushes about them,
and fixed as they were. The suggestion to go on that had risen to his
lips never passed them and he settled into the same immobility.

Another hour, that was three to Robert, dragged by, and Tayoga led the
way again down the stream, Robert and the hunter following without a
word. They went a long distance and then the Onondaga uttered a whisper
of surprise and satisfaction.

"A bridge!" he said.

"Where? I don't see it," said Robert.

"Look farther where the stream narrows. Behold the great tree that has
been blown down and that has fallen from bank to bank?"

"I see it now, Tayoga. It hasn't been down long, because the leaves upon
it are yet green."

"And they will hide us as we cross. Tododaho on his star has been
watching over us, and has put the bridge here for our use in this
crisis."

Tayoga's words were instinct with faith. He never doubted that the great
Onondaga who had gone away four hundred years ago was serving them now
in this, their utmost, need. Robert and Willet glanced at each other.
They, too, believed. An electric current had passed from Tayoga to them,
and, for the moment, their trust in Tododaho was almost as great as his.
At the same time, a partial darkening of the night occurred, clouds
floating up from the south and west, and dimming the moon and stars.

"How far would you say it is from one shore to the other?" asked Robert
of Willet.

"About sixty feet," replied the hunter, "but it's a long tree, and it
will easily bear the weight of the three of us all the way. We may be
attacked while we're upon it, but if so we have our rifles."

"It is the one chance that Tododaho has offered to us, and we must take
it," said Tayoga, as he led the way upon the natural bridge. Robert
followed promptly and Willet brought up the rear.

The banks were high at that point, and the river flowed rather more
swiftly than usual. Robert, ten feet beyond the southern shore, looked
down at a dark and sullen current, seeming in the dim moonlight to have
interminable depths. It was only about fifteen feet below him, but his
imagination, heightened by time and place, made the distance three or
fourfold greater.

He felt a momentary fear lest he slip and fall into the dark stream, and
he clung tightly to an upthrust bough.

The fallen tree swayed a little with the weight of the three, but Robert
knew that it was safe. It was not the bridge that they had to fear, but
what awaited them on the farther shore. Tayoga stopped, and the tense
manner in which he crouched among the boughs and leaves showed that he
was listening with all his ears.

"Do you hear them?" Robert whispered.

"Not their footsteps," Tayoga whispered back, "but there was a soft call
in the woods, the low cry of a night bird, and then the low cry of
another night bird replying. It was the warriors signaling to one
another, the first signal they have given."

"I heard the cries, too," said Willet, behind Robert, "and no doubt
Tandakora and De Courcelles feel they are closing in on us. It's a good
thing this tree was blown down but lately, and the leaves and boughs are
so thick on it."

"It was so provided by Tododaho in our great need," said Tayoga.

"Do you mean that we're likely to be besieged while we're still on our
bridge?" asked Robert, and despite himself he could not repress a
shiver.

"Not a siege exactly," replied Willet, "but the warriors may pass on the
farther shore, while we're still in the tree. That's the reason why I
spoke so gratefully of the thick leaves still clinging to it."

"They come even now," said Tayoga, in the lowest of whispers, and the
three, stopping, flattened themselves like climbing animals against the
trunk of the tree, until the dark shadow of their bodies blurred against
the dusk of its bark. They were about halfway across and the distance of
the stream beneath them seemed to Robert to have increased. He saw it
flowing black and swift, and, for a moment, he had a horrible fear lest
he should fall, but he tightened his grasp on a bough and turning his
eyes away from the water looked toward the woods.

"The warriors come," whispered Tayoga, and Robert, seeing, also
flattened himself yet farther against the tree, until he seemed fairly
to sink into the bark. Their likeness to climbing animals increased, and
it would have required keen eyes to have seen the three as they lay
along the trunk, deep among the leaves and boughs thirty feet from
either shore.

Tandakora, De Courcelles and about twenty warriors appeared in the
forest, walking a little distance back from the stream, where they could
see on the farther bank, and yet not be seen from it. The moon was still
obscured, but a portion of its light fell directly upon Tandakora, and
Robert had never beheld a more sinister figure. The rays, feeble, were
yet strong enough to show his gigantic figure, naked save for the
breech cloth, and painted horribly. His eyes, moreover, were lighted up
either in fact or in Robert's fancy with a most wicked gleam, as if he
were already clutching the scalps of the three whom he was hunting so
savagely.

"Now," whispered Tayoga, "Tododaho alone can save us. He holds our fate
in the hollow of his hand, but he is merciful as well as just."

Robert knew their danger was of the uttermost, but often, in the extreme
crises of life and death, one may not feel until afterward that fate has
turned on a hair.

De Courcelles was just behind Tandakora, but the light did not fall so
clearly upon him. The savage had a hideous fascination for Robert, and
the moon's rays seemed to follow him. Every device and symbol painted
upon the huge chest stood out like carving, and all the features of the
heavy, cruel face were disclosed as if by day. But Robert noticed with
extraordinary relief that the eyes so full of menace were seeking the
three among the woods on the farther shore, and were paying little
attention to the tree. It was likely that neither Tandakora nor De
Courcelles would dream that they were upon it, but it was wholly
possible that the entire band should seek to cross that way, and reach
the southern shore in the quest of their prey.

The three in the depths of the boughs and leaves did not stir. The
rising wind caused the foliage to rustle about them again. It made the
tree sway a little, too, and as Robert could not resist the temptation
to look downward once, the black surface of the river seemed to be
dancing back and forth beneath him. But, save the single glance, his
eyes all the while were for the Ojibway and the Frenchman.

Tandakora and De Courcelles came a little closer to the bank. Apparently
they were satisfied that no one was on the farther shore, and that they
were in no danger of a bullet, as presently they emerged fully into the
open, and stood there, their eyes questing. Then they looked at the
bridge, and, for a few instants, Robert was sure they would attempt the
crossing upon it. But in a minute or so they walked beyond it, and then
he concluded that the crisis had passed. After all, it would be their
plan to hold their own shore, and prevent the passage of the three.

Yet Tandakora and De Courcelles were cruelly deliberate and slow. They
walked not more than fifteen feet beyond the end of the tree, and then
stood a while talking. Half of the warriors remained near them, standing
stolidly in the background, and the others went on, searching among the
woods and thickets. The two glanced at the tree as they talked. Was it
possible that they would yet come back and attempt the crossing? Again
Robert quivered when he realized that in truth the crisis had not
passed, and that Tandakora and De Courcelles might reconsider. Once
more, he pressed his body hard against the tree, and held tightly to a
small bough which arched an abundant covering of leaves over his head.
The wind rustled among those leaves, and sang almost in words, but
whether they told him that Tandakora and De Courcelles would go on or
come upon the bridge he did not know.

Five minutes of such intense waiting that seemed nearer to an hour, and
the leaders, with the band, passed on, disappearing in the undergrowth
that lined the stream. But for another five minutes the three among the
boughs did not stir. Then Tayoga whispered over his shoulder:

"Great is the justice of Tododaho and also great is his mercy. I did not
doubt that he would save us. I felt within me all the time that he would
cause Tandakora and De Courcelles to leave the bridge and seek us
elsewhere."

Robert was not one to question the belief of Tayoga, his sagacious
friend. If it was not Tododaho who had sent their enemies away then it
was some other spirit, known by another name, but in essence the same.
His whole being was permeated by a sort of shining gratitude.


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Online LibraryJoseph A. AltshelerThe Rulers of the Lakes A Story of George and Champlain → online text (page 2 of 21)