Joseph A. Altsheler.

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

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"Three hours, maybe four," replied the Onondaga. "Tandakora and De
Courcelles may or may not know of this creek, but when they see it they
are sure to advance with caution, fearing a trap."

"What a pity our own people don't show the same wisdom!"

"You are thinking of the great slaughter at Duquesne. Every people has
its own ways, and the soldiers have not yet learned those of the forest,
but they _will_ learn."

"At a huge cost!"

"Perhaps there is no other way? You will notice the birds on the bushes
on the far side of the stream, Dagaeoga?"

"Aye, I see 'em. They're in uncommon numbers. What a fine lot of fellows
with glossy plumage! And some of 'em are singing away as if they lived
for nothing else!"

"I see that Dagaeoga looks when he is told to look and sees when he is
told to see. The birds are at peace and are enjoying themselves."

"That is, they're having a sunlight concert, purely for their own
pleasure."

"It is so. They feel joy and know that danger is not present. They are
protected by the instinct that Manitou, watching over the least of his
creatures, has given to them."

"Why this dissertation on birds at such a time, Tayoga?"

"Dissertation is a very long word, but I am talking for Dagaeoga's own
good. He has learned much of the forest, but he can learn more, and I am
here to teach him."

"Wondrous good of you, Tayoga, and, in truth, your modesty also appeals
to me. Proceed with your lesson in woodcraft, although it seems to me
that you have chosen a critical time for it."

"The occasion is most fitting, because it comes out of our present
danger. We wish to see the approach of our enemies who will lie down
among the grass and bushes, and creep forward very silently. We will not
see them, perhaps, but others will give warning."

"Oh, you mean that the birds, alarmed by the warriors, will fly away?"

"Nothing else, Dagaeoga."

"Then why so much circumlocution?"

"Circumlocution is another very long word, Dagaeoga. It is the first
time that I have heard it used since we left the care of our teacher in
Albany. But I came to the solution by a circular road, because I wished
you to see it before I told it to you. You did see it, and so I feel
encouraged over the progress of my pupil."

"Thanks, Tayoga, I appreciate the compliment, and, as I said before,
your modesty also appeals to me."

"You waste words, Dagaeoga, but you have always been a great talker.
Now, watch the birds."

Tayoga laughed softly. The Indian now and then, in his highest estate,
used stately forms of rhetoric, and it pleased the young Onondaga, who
had been so long in the white man's school, to employ sometimes the most
orotund English. It enabled him to develop his vein of irony, with
which he did not spare Robert, just as Robert did not spare him.

"I will watch the birds," said young Lennox. "They're intelligent,
reasoning beings, and I'll lay a wager that while they're singing away
there they're not singing any songs that make fun of their friends."

"Of that I'm not sure, Dagaeoga. Look at the bird with the red crest,
perched on the topmost tip of the tall, green bush directly in front of
us. I can distinguish his song from those of the others, and it seems
that the note contains something saucy and ironic."

"I see him, Tayoga. He is an impudent little rascal, but I should call
him a most sprightly and attractive bird, nevertheless. Observe how his
head is turned on one side. If we were only near enough to see his eyes
I'd lay another wager that he is winking."

"But his head is not on one side any longer, Dagaeoga. He has
straightened up. If you watch one object a long time you will see it
much more clearly, and so I am able to observe his actions even at this
distance. He has ceased to sing. His position is that of a soldier at
attention. He is suspicious and watchful."

"You're right, Tayoga. I can see, too, that the bird's senses are on the
alert against something foreign in the forest. All the other birds,
imitating the one who seems to be their leader, have ceased singing
also."

"And the leader is unfolding his wings."

"So I see. He is about to fly away. There he goes like a flash of red
flame!"

"And there go all the rest, too. It is enough. Tandakora, De Courcelles
and the savages have come."

Robert and Tayoga crouched a little lower and stared over the fallen
log. Presently the Onondaga touched the white youth on the arm. Robert,
following his gaze, made out the figure of a warrior creeping slowly
through a dense thicket toward the creek.

"It is likely that Great Bear sees him, too," said Tayoga, "but we will
not fire. He will not come nearer than fifty yards, because good cover
is lacking."

"I understand that the contest is to be one of patience. So they can
loose their bullets first. I see the bushes moving in several places
now, Tayoga."

"It is probable that their entire force has come up. They may wait at
least an hour before they will try a ford."

"Like as not. Suppose we eat a little venison, Tayoga, and strengthen
ourselves for the ordeal."

"You have spoken well, Dagaeoga."

They ate strips of venison contentedly, but did not neglect to keep a
wary watch upon the creeping foe. Robert knew that Tandakora and De
Courcelles were trying to discover whether or not the line of the creek
was defended, and if Willet and his men remained well hidden it would
take a long time for them to ascertain the fact. He enjoyed their
perplexity, finding in the situation a certain sardonic humor.

"The Ojibway and the Frenchman would give a good deal to know just what
is in the thickets here," he whispered to Tayoga. "But the longer they
must take in finding out the better I like it."

"They will delay far into the afternoon," said Tayoga. "The warriors
and the Frenchmen have great patience. It would be better for the
Americans and the English if they, too, like the French, learned the
patience of the Indians."

"The birds gave us a warning that they had come. You don't think it
possible, Tayoga, that they will also give the savages warning that we
are here?"

"No, Dagaeoga, we have been lying in the thickets so long now, and have
been so quiet that the birds have grown used to us. They feel sure we
are not going to do them any harm, and while they may have flown away
when we first came they are back now, as you can see with your own eyes,
and can hear with your own ears."

Almost over Robert's head a small brown bird on a small green bough was
singing, pouring out a small sweet song that was nevertheless clear and
penetrating. Within the radius of his sight a half dozen more were
trilling and quavering, and he knew that others were pouring out their
souls farther on, as the low hum of their many voices came to his ears.
Now and then he saw a flash of blue or brown or gray, as some restless
feathered being shot from one bough to another. The birds, unusual in
number and sure that there was no hostile presence, were having a grand
concert in honor of a most noble day.

Robert listened and the appeal to his imagination and higher side was
strong. Overhead the chorus of small sweet voices went on, as if there
were no such things as battle or danger. Tayoga also was moved by it.

"By the snakes in the hair of the wise Tododaho," he said, "it is
pleasant to hear! May the wilderness endure always that the birds can
sing in it, far from men, and in peace!"

"May it not be, Tayoga, that the warriors watching the thickets here
will see the birds so thick, and will conclude from it that no defenders
are lying in wait?"

"De Courcelles might, but Tandakora, who has lived his whole life in the
forest, will conclude that the birds are here, unafraid, because we have
been so long in the bushes."

Time went on very slowly and the forest on either side of the creek was
silent, save for the singing of the birds among the bushes in which the
defenders lay hidden. Robert, from whom the feeling of danger departed
for the moment, was almost tempted into? a doze by the warmth of the
thicket and the long peace. His impressions, the pictures that passed
before his mental and physical eye, were confused but agreeable. He was
lying on a soft bank of turf that sloped up to a huge fallen trunk, and
warm, soothing winds stole about among the boughs, rustling the leaves
musically. The birds were singing in increased volume, and, though his
eyes were half veiled by drooping lids, he saw them on many boughs.

"'Tis not their daily concert," he said to Tayoga "In very truth it must
be their grand, annual affair I believe that a great group on our right
is singing against another equally great group on our left. I can't
recall having heard ever before such a volume of song in the woods. It's
in my mind that a contest is going on, for a prize, perhaps. Doubtless
juicy worms are awaiting the winners."

Tayoga laughed.

"You are improving, Dagaeoga," he said in precise tones. "You do not
merely fight and eat and sleep like the white man. You are developing a
soul. You are beginning to understand the birds and animals that live in
the woods. Almost I think you worthy to be an Onondaga."

"I know you can pay me what is to you no higher compliment, but I have a
notion the end of the concert is not far away. It seems to me the volume
of song from the group on the left is diminishing."

"And you notice no decrease on our right?"

"No, Tayoga. The grand chorus there is as strong as ever, and unless my
ears go wrong, I detect in it a triumphant note."

"Then the test of song which you have created is finished, and the prize
has been won by the group on the right. It is a fine conceit that you
have about the birds, Dagaeoga. I like it, and we will see it to the
end."

The song on their left died, the one on their right swelled anew, and
then died in its turn. Soon the birds began to drift slowly away. Robert
watched some of them as they disappeared among the green boughs farther
on.

"I also am learning to read the signs, Tayoga," he said, "and, having
observed 'em, I conclude that our foes are about to make an advance, or
at least, have crept forward a little more. The birds, used to our
presence, know we are neither dangerous nor hostile, but they do not
know as much about those on the other side of the creek. While the
advance of the warriors is not yet sufficient to threaten 'em, it's
enough to make 'em suspicious, and so they are flying away slowly, ready
to return if it be a false alarm."

"Good! Very good, Dagaeoga! I can believe that your conclusions are
true, and I can say to you once more that almost you are worthy to be an
Onondaga. If you will look now toward the spot where the banks shelve
down, and the grass grows high you will see four warriors on their hands
and knees approaching the creek. If they reach the water without being
fired upon they will assume that we are not here. Then the entire force
will rush across the stream and take up the trail."

"But the creeping four will be fired upon."

"I think so, too, Dagaeoga, because there is no longer any reason for us
to delay, and the rifle of the Great Bear will speak the first word."

There was a report near them, and one of the warriors, sinking flat in
the grass, lay quite still. Robert, through the bushes, saw Willet,
smoking rifle in hand. The three savages who lived began a swift
retreat, and the others behind them uttered a great cry of grief and
rage. They fired a dozen shots or so, but the bullets merely clipped
leaves and twigs in the thickets. Nobody among the defenders save Willet
pulled trigger, but his single shot was a sufficient warning to
Tandakora and De Courcelles. They knew that the creek was held strongly.

Now ensued another long combat in which the skill, courage and ingenuity
of warriors and hunters were put to the supreme test. Many shots were
fired, but faces and bodies were shown only for an instant. Nevertheless
a bullet now and then went home. One of Willet's men was killed and
three more sustained slight wounds. Several of the warriors were slain,
and others were wounded, but Robert had no means of telling the exact
number of their casualties, as it was an almost invisible combat, which
Willet and Tayoga, as the leaders, used all their skill to prolong to
the utmost with the smallest loss possible. What they wanted was time,
time for the fugitive train, now far away among the hills.

So deftly did they manage the defense of the creek that the entire
afternoon passed and Tandakora and De Courcelles were still held in
front of it, not daring to make a rush, and Willet, Robert and Tayoga
glowed with the triumph they were achieving at a cost relatively so
small. Night arrived, fortunately for them thick and black, and Willet
gathered up his little force. They would have taken away with them the
body of the slain man, but that was impossible, and, covering it up with
brush and stones, they left it. Then still uplifted and exulting, they
slipped away on the trail of the wagons, knowing that the Indian horde
might watch for hours at the creek before they discovered the departure
of the defenders.

"You see, Dagaeoga," said Tayoga to Robert, "that there is more in war
than fighting. Craft and cunning, wile and stratagem are often as
profitable as the shock of conflict."

"So I know, Tayoga. I learned it well in the battle by Duquesne. What
right had a force of French and Indians which must have been relatively
small to destroy a fine army like ours!"

"No right at all," said Willet, "but it happened, nevertheless. We'll
learn from it, though it's a tremendous price to pay for a lesson."

"Do we make a third stand somewhere, Dave?" asked Robert, "and delay
them yet another time?"

"I scarcely see a chance for it," replied the hunter. "We must have
favorable ground or they'd outflank us. How old does the trail of the
wagons look, Tayoga?"

"They are many, many hours ahead," replied the Onondaga. "They have made
good use of the time we have secured for them."

"Another day and night and they should be safe," said Willet. "Tandakora
and De Courcelles will scarcely dare follow deep into the fringe of
settlements. What is it, Tayoga?"

The Onondaga had stopped and, kneeling down, he was examining the trail
as minutely as he could in the dusk.

"Others have come," he replied tersely.

"What do you mean by 'others'?" asked Willet.

"Those who belong neither to pursued nor pursuers, a new force, white
men, fifteen, perhaps. They came down from the north, struck this trail,
for which they were not looking, and have turned aside from whatever
task they were undertaking to see what it means."

"And so they're following the fugitive train. Possibly it's a band of
French."

"I do not think so, Great Bear. The French do not roam the forest alone.
The warriors are always with them, and this party is composed wholly of
white men."

"Then they must be ours, perhaps a body of hunters or scouts, and we
need 'em. How long would you say it has been since they passed?"

"Not more than two hours."

"Then we must overtake 'em. Do you lead at speed, Tayoga, but on the
bare possibility that they're French, look out for an ambush."

"The new people, whoever they are," said Robert, "are trailing the
train, we're trailing them, and the French and Indians are trailing us.
It's like a chain drawing its links through the forest."

"But the links are of different metals, Robert," said Willet.

They talked but little more, because they needed all their breath now
for the pursuit, as Tayoga was leading at great speed, the broad trail
in the moonlight being almost as plain as day. It was a pleasure to
Robert to watch the Onondaga following like a hound on the scent. His
head was bent forward a little, and now and then when the brightest rays
fell across them, Robert could see that his eyes glittered. He was
wholly the Indian, his white culture gone for the moment, following the
wilderness trail as his ancestors had done for centuries before him.

"Do the traces of the new group grow warmer?" asked Robert.

"They do," replied Tayoga. "We are advancing just twice as fast as they.
We will overtake them before midnight."

"White men, and only by the barest possibility French," said Robert.
"So the chances are nine out of ten that they're our own people. Now, I
wonder what they are and what they're doing here."

"Patience, Dagaeoga," said the young Onondaga. "We will learn by
midnight. How often have I told you that you must cultivate patience
before you are worthy to be an Onondaga?"

"I'll bear it in mind, O worthy teacher. Your great age and vast
learning compel me to respect your commands."

The new trail, which was like a narrow current in the broad stream of
that left by the flying train, was now rapidly growing warmer. The speed
of the thirty was so great that it became evident to Tayoga that they
would overtake the strange band long before midnight.

"They stopped here and talked together a little while," he said, when
they had been following the trail about two hours. "They stood by the
side of the path. Their footprints are gathered in a group. They knew by
the wagon tracks that white settlers, fleeing, were ahead of them, and
they may have thought of turning back to see who followed. That is why
they drew up in a group, and talked. At last they concluded to keep on
following the train, and they cannot be more than a half hour ahead
now."

Willet knelt down for the first time, and examined the traces with the
greatest care and attention.

"The leader stood here by this fallen log," he said, "He had big feet,
as anybody can see, and I believe I can make a good guess at his
identity. I hope to Heaven I'm right!"

"Whom do you mean?" exclaimed Robert eagerly.

"I won't say just yet, because if I'm wrong you won't know the mistake
I've made. But come on, lads. 'Twill not take long to decide the
question that interests us so much."

He led the way with confidence, and when they had gone about a mile he
sank down in a thicket beside the trail, the others imitating him. Then
the hunter emitted a sharp whistle.

"I think I'll soon get an answer to that," he said, "and it'll not come
from French or Indian."

They waited a minute or two and then the whistling note, clear and
distinct, rose from a point ahead of them. Willet whistled a second
time, and the second reply soon came in similar fashion.

"Now, lads," he said, rising from the bush, "we'll up and join 'em. It's
the one I expected, and right glad I am, too."

He led the way boldly, making no further effort at concealment. Robert
saw outlined in the moonlight on a low hill in front of them a group of
fifteen or sixteen white men, all in hunter's garb, all strong, resolute
figures, armed heavily. One, a little in advance of the others, and whom
the lad took at once to be the leader, was rather tall, with a very
powerful figure and a bold, roving eye. He was looking keenly at the
approaching group and as they drew near his eyes lighted up with
recognition and pleasure.

"By all that's glorious, it's Dave Willet, the Great Bear himself, the
greatest hunter and marksman in all the northern province! Of a
certainty it's none other!"

"Yes, Rogers, it's Willet," said the hunter, extending his hand,
"though you complimented me too prettily. But glad am I, too, to see you
here. You're no beauty, but your face is a most welcome sight."

Then Robert understood. It was Robert Rogers from the New Hampshire
grants, already known well, and destined to become famous as one of the
great partisan leaders of the war, a wild and adventurous spirit who was
fully a match for Dumas and Ligneris or St. Luc himself, a man whose
battles and hairbreadth escapes surpassed fiction. Around him gathered
spirits dauntless and kindred, and here already was the nucleus of the
larger force that he was destined to lead in so many a daring deed. Now
his fierce face showed pleasure, as he shook the hunter's powerful hand
with his own hand almost as powerful.

"It's a joy to meet you in these woods, Dave," he said. "But who are the
two likely lads with you? Lads, I call 'em because their faces are those
of lads, though their figures have the stature and size of men."

"Rogers, this is Tayoga, of the clan of the Bear, of the nation
Onondaga, of the great League of the Hodenosaunee, a friend of ours, and
no braver or more valiant youth ever trod moccasin. Tayoga, this is
Robert Rogers of the New Hampshire grants."

The sunburnt face of Rogers shone with pleasure.

"I've heard of the lad," he said, "and I know he's all that you claim
for him, Dave."

"And the other youth," continued Willet, "is Robert Lennox, in a way a
ward of mine, in truth almost a son to me. What Tayoga is among the
Onondagas, he is among the white people of New York. I can say no
more."

"That's surely enough," said Rogers, "and glad am I to meet you, Lennox.
I've come from the north and the east, from Champlain and George, with
my brave fellows, hearing of Braddock's defeat and thinking we might be
needed, and by chance we struck this broad trail. It's plain enough that
it's made by settlers withdrawing from the border, but whether 'tis a
precaution or they're pursued closely we don't know. We thought once of
turning back to see. But you know, Dave."

Willet explained rapidly and again the fierce face of Rogers shone with
pleasure.

"'Twas in truth a fortunate chance that guided us down here," he said.

"It was Tododaho himself," said Tayoga with reverence.

Then Willet also called rapidly the names of his hunters and scouts, who
had remained in a little group in the rear, while the leaders talked.

"Dave," said Rogers, "you and I will be joint leaders, if you say so.
We've now nearly two score stout fellows ready for any fray, and since
you've twice held back Tandakora, De Courcelles and their scalp hunters,
our united bands should be able to do it a third time. I agree with you
that the best way to save the train is to fight rear guard actions, and
never let the train itself be attacked."

"If we had about twenty more good men," said Willet, "we might not only
defend a line but push back the horde itself. What say you to sending
Tayoga, our swiftest runner, to the wagons for a third force?"

"A good plan, a most excellent plan, Dave! And while he's about it, tell
him to make it thirty instead of twenty. Then we'll burn the faces of
these Indian warriors. Aye, Dave, we'll scorch 'em so well that they'll
be glad to turn back!"

It was arranged in a minute or two and Tayoga disappeared like one of
his own arrows in the forest and the darkness, while the others
followed, but much more slowly. It would not escape the sharp eyes of
the warriors that a re├źnforcement had come, but, confident in their
numbers, they would continue the pursuit with unabated zeal.

The united bands of hunters and scouts fell back slowly, and for a long
time. Robert looked with interest at Rogers' men. They were the picked
survivors of the wilderness, the forest champions, young mostly, lean,
tough of muscle, darkened by wind and weather, ready to follow wherever
their leader led, ready to risk their lives in any enterprise, no matter
how reckless. They affiliated readily with Willet's own band, and were
not at all averse to being overtaken by the Indian horde.

After dawn they met Tayoga returning with thirty-five men, rather more
than they had expected, and also with the news that the train was making
great speed in its flight. Willet and Rogers looked over the seventy or
more brave fellows, with glistening eyes, and Robert saw very well that,
uplifted by their numbers, they were more than anxious for a third
combat. In an hour or so they found a place suitable for an ambush, a
long ravine, lined and filled with thickets which the wagons evidently
had crossed with difficulty, and here they took their stand, all of the
force hidden among the bushes and weeds. Robert, at the advice of
Willet, lay down in a secure place and went to sleep.

"You're young, lad," he said, "and not as much seasoned in the bark as
the rest of us who are older. I'll be sure to wake you when the battle
begins, and then you'll be so much the better for a nap that you'll be a
very Hercules in the combat."

Robert, trained in wilderness ways, knew that it was best, and he closed
his eyes without further ado. When he opened them again it was because
the hunter was shaking his shoulder, and he knew by the position of the
sun that several hours had passed.

"Have they come?" he asked calmly.


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Online LibraryJoseph A. AltshelerThe Rulers of the Lakes A Story of George and Champlain → online text (page 5 of 21)