Joseph A. Altsheler.

The Masters of the Peaks A Story of the Great North Woods online

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tender roots and wild honey with no stings of bees to torment him."

"You grow quite poetical, Tayoga."

"Although foes are hunting us, I feel the spirit of the forest and of peace
strong upon me, Dagaeoga. Moreover, Tododaho, as I told you, has whispered
to the animals that we are not to be feared tonight. Hark to the tiny
rustling just beyond the log against which we lie!"

"Yes, I hear it, and what do you make of it, Tayoga?"

"Rabbits seeking their nests. They, too, have snuffed about, noticing the
man odor, which man himself cannot detect, and once they started away in
alarm, but now they are reassured, and they have settled themselves down to
sleep in comfort and security."

"Tayoga, you talk well and fluently, but as I have told you before, you
talk out of a dictionary."

"But as I learned my English out of a dictionary I cannot talk otherwise.
That is why my language is always so much superior to yours, Dagaeoga."

"I'll let it be as you claim it, you boaster, but what noise is that now? I
seem to hear the light sound of hoofs."

The Onondaga raised himself to his full height and peered over the dense
masses of trunks and boughs, his keen eyes cutting the thick dusk. Then he
sank back, and, when he replied, his voice showed distinct pleasure.

"Two deer have come into a little open space, around which the arms of the
windrow stretch nearly all the way, and they have crouched there, where
they will rest, indifferent to the nearness of the bear. Truly, O Dagaeoga,
we have come into the midst of a happy family, and we have been accepted,
for the night, as members of it."

"It must be so, Tayoga, because I see a figure much larger than that of the
deer approaching. Look to the north and behold that shadow there under the
trees."

"I see it, Dagaeoga. It is the great northern moose, a bull. Perhaps he has
wandered down from Canada, as they are rare here. They are often
quarrelsome, but the bull is going to take his rest, within the shelter of
the windrow, and leave its other people at peace. Now he has found a good
place, and he will be quiet for the night."

"Suppose you sleep a while, Tayoga. You have done all the watching for a
long time, and, as I'm fit and fine now, it's right for me to take up my
share of the burden."

"Very well, but do not fail to awaken me in about three hours. We must not
be caught here in the morning by the warriors."

He was asleep almost instantly, and Robert sat in a comfortable position
with his rifle across his knees. Responsibility brought back to him
self-respect and pride. He was now a full partner in the partnership, and
will and strength together made his faculties so keen that it would have
been difficult for anything about the windrow to have escaped his
attention. He heard the light rustlings of other animals coming to comfort
and safety, and flutterings as birds settled on upthrust boughs, many of
which were still covered with leaves. Once he heard a faint shout deep in
the forest, brought by the wind a great distance, and he was sure that it
was the cry of their Indian pursuers. Doubtless it was a signal and had
connection with the search, but he felt no alarm. Under the cover of
darkness Tayoga and he were still motes in the wilderness, and, while the
night lasted, Tandakora could not find them.

When he judged that the three hours had passed he awoke the Onondaga and
they took their silent way north by east, covering much more distance by
dawn. But both were certain that warriors of Tandakora would pick up their
traces again that day. They would spread through the forest, and, when one
of them struck the trail, a cry would be sufficient to call the others.
But they pressed on, still adopting every possible device to throw off
their pursuers, and they continued their flight several days, always
through an unbroken forest, over hills and across many streams, large and
small. It seemed, at times, to Robert that the pursuit must have dropped
away, but Tayoga was quite positive that Tandakora still followed. The
Ojibway, he said, had divined the identity of the fugitives and every
motive would make him follow, even all the way across the Province of New
York and beyond, if need be.

They came at last to a lake, large, beautiful, extending many miles through
the wilderness, and Tayoga, usually so calm, uttered a little cry of
delight, which Robert repeated, but in fuller volume.

"I think lakes are the finest things in the world," he said. "They always
stir me."

"And that is why Manitou put so many and such splendid ones in the land of
the Hodenosaunee," said Tayoga. "This is Ganoatohale, which you call in
your language Oneida, and it is on its shores that I hid the canoe of which
I spoke to you. I think we shall find it just as I left it."

"I devoutly hope so. A canoe and paddles would give me much pleasure just
now, and Ganoatohale will leave no trail."

They walked northward along the shore of the lake, and they came to a place
where many tall reeds grew thick and close in shallow water. Tayoga plunged
into the very heart of them and Robert's heart rose with a bound, when he
reappeared dragging after him a large and strong canoe, containing two
paddles.

"It has rested in quiet waiting for us," he said. "It is a good canoe, and
it knew that I would come some time to claim it."

"Before we go upon our voyage," said Robert, "I think we shall have to pay
some attention to the question of food. My pouch is about empty."

"And so is mine. We shall have to take the risk, Dagaeoga, and shoot a
deer. Tandakora may be so far behind that none of his warriors will hear
the shot, but even so we cannot live without eating. We will, however, hunt
from the canoe. Since the war began, all human beings have gone away from
this lake, and the deer should be plentiful."

They launched the canoe on the deep waters, and the two took up the
paddles, sending their little craft northward, with slow, deliberate
strokes. They had the luck within the hour to find a deer drinking, and
with equal luck Robert slew it at the first shot. They would have taken the
body into the canoe, but the burden was too great, and Tayoga cut it up and
dressed it with great dispatch, while Robert watched. Then they made room
for the four quarters and again paddled northward. Fearing that Tandakora
had come much nearer, while they were busy with the deer, they did not dare
the wide expanse of the lake, but remained for the present under cover of
the overhanging forest on the western shore.

"If we put the lake between Tandakora and ourselves," said Robert, "we
ought to be safe."

"It is likely that they, too, have canoes hidden in the reeds," said
Tayoga. "Since the French and their allies have spread so far south they
would provide for the time when they wanted to go upon the waters of
Ganoatohale. It is almost a certainty that we shall be pursued upon the
lake."

They continued northward, never leaving the dark shadow cast by the dense
leafage, and, as they went slowly, they enjoyed the luxury of the canoe.
After so much walking through the wilderness it was a much pleasanter
method of traveling. But they did not forget vigilance, continually
scanning the waters, and Robert's heart gave a sudden beat as he saw a
black dot appear upon the surface of the lake in the south. It was followed
in a moment by another, then another and then three more.

"It is the band of Tandakora, beyond a doubt," said Tayoga with conviction.
"They had their canoes among the reeds even as we had ours, and now it is
well for us that water leaves no trail."

"Shall we hide the canoe again, and take to the woods?"

"I think not, Dagaeoga. They have had no chance to see us yet. We will
withdraw among the reeds until night comes, and then under its cover cross
Ganoatohale."

Keeping almost against the bank, they moved gently until they came to a
vast clump of reeds into which they pushed the canoe, while retaining their
seats in it. In the center they paused and waited. From that point they
could see upon the lake, while remaining invisible themselves, and they
waited.

The six canoes or large boats, they could not tell at the distance which
they were, went far out into the lake, circled around for a while, and then
bore back toward the western shore, along which they passed, inspecting it
carefully, and drawing steadily nearer to Robert and Tayoga.

"Now, let us give thanks to Tododaho, Areskoui and to Manitou himself,"
said the Onondaga, "that they have been pleased to make the reeds grow in
this particular place so thick and so tall."

"Yes," said Robert, "they're fine reeds, beautiful reeds, a greater bulwark
to us just now than big oaks could be. Think you, Tayoga, that you
recognize the large man in the first boat?"

"Aye, Dagaeoga, I know him, as you do also. How could we mistake our great
enemy, Tandakora? It is a formidable fleet, too strong for us to resist,
and, like the wise man, we hide when we cannot fight."

Robert's pulses beat so hard they hurt, but he would not show any
uneasiness in the presence of Tayoga, and he sat immovable in the canoe.
Nearer and nearer came the Indian fleet, partly of canoes and partly of
boats, and he counted in them sixteen warriors, all armed heavily. Now he
prayed to Manitou, and to his own God who was the same as Manitou, that no
thought of pushing among the reeds would enter Tandakora's head. The fleet
soon came abreast of them, but his prayers were answered, as Tandakora led
ahead, evidently thinking the fugitives would not dare to hide and lie in
waiting, but would press on in flight up the western shore.

"I could pick him off from here with a bullet," said Robert, looking at the
huge, painted chest of the Ojibway chief.

"But our lives would be the forfeit," the Onondaga whispered back.

"I had no intention of doing it."

"Now they have passed us, and for the while we are safe. They will go on up
the lake, until they find no trace of us there, and then Tandakora will
come back."

"But how does he know we have a canoe?"

"He does not know it, but he feels sure of it because our trail led
straight to the lake, and we would not purposely come up against such a
barrier, unless we knew of a way to cross it."

"That sounds like good logic. Of course when they return they'll make a
much more thorough search of the lake's edge, and then they'd be likely to
find us if we remained here."

"It is so, but perhaps the night will come before Tandakora, and then we'll
take flight upon the lake."

They pushed their canoe back to the edge of the reeds, and watched the
Indian boats passing in single file northward, becoming smaller and smaller
until they almost blended with the water, but both knew they would return,
and in that lay their great danger. The afternoon was well advanced, but
the sun was very brilliant, and it was hot within the reeds. Great
quantities of wild fowl whirred about them and along the edges of the
lake.

"No warriors are in hiding near us," said Tayoga, "or the wild fowl would
fly away. We can feel sure that we have only Tandakora and his band to
fear."

Robert had never watched the sun with more impatience. It was already going
down the western arch, but it seemed to him to travel with incredible
slowness. Far in the north the Indian boats were mere black dots on the
water, but they were turning. Beyond a doubt Tandakora was now coming back.

"Suppose we go slowly south, still keeping in the shadow of the trees," he
said. "We can gain at least that much advantage."

Fortunately the scattered fringe of reeds and bushes, growing in the water,
extended far to the south, and they were able to keep in their protecting
shadow a full hour, although their rate of progress was not more than
one-third that of the Indians, who were coming without obstruction in open
water. Nevertheless, it was a distinct gain, and, meanwhile, they awaited
the coming of the night with the deepest anxiety. They recognized that
their fate turned upon a matter of a half hour or so. If only the night
would arrive before Tandakora! Robert glanced at the low sun, and, although
at all times, it was beautiful, he had never before prayed so earnestly
that it would go over the other side of the world, and leave their own side
to darkness.

The splendor of the great yellow star deepened as it sank. It poured
showers of rays upon the broad surface of the lake, and the silver of the
waters turned to orange and gold. Everything there was enlarged and made
more vivid, standing out twofold against the burning western background.
Nothing beyond the shadow could escape the observation of the Indians in
the boats, and they themselves in Robert's intense imagination changed from
a line of six light craft into a great fleet.

Nevertheless the sun, lingering as if it preferred their side of the world
to any other, was bound to go at last. The deep colors in the water faded.
The orange and gold changed back to silver, and the silver, in its turn,
gave way to gray, twilight began to draw a heavy veil over the east, and
Tayoga said in deep tones:

"Lo, the Sun God has decided that we may escape! He will let the night come
before Tandakora!"

Then the sun departed all at once, and the brilliant afterglow soon faded.
Night settled down, thick and dark, with the waters, ruffled by a light
wind, showing but dimly. The line of Tandakora became invisible, and the
two youths felt intense relief.

"Now we will start toward the northeastern end of the lake," said Tayoga.
"It will be wiser than to seek the shortest road across, because Tandakora
will think naturally that we have gone that way, and he will take it also."

"And it's paddling all night for us," said Robert "Well, I welcome it."

They were interrupted by the whirring of the wild fowl again, though on a
much greater scale than before. The twilight was filled with feathered
bodies. Tayoga, in an instant, was all attention.

"Something has frightened them," he said.

"Perhaps a bear or a deer," said Robert.

"I think not. They are used to wild animals, and would not be startled at
their approach. There is only one being that everything in the forest
generally fears."

"Man?"

"Even so, Dagaeoga."

"Perhaps we'd better pull in close to the bank and look."

"It would be wise."

Robert saw that the Onondaga, with his acute instincts, was deeply alarmed,
and he too felt that the wild fowl had given warning. They sent the canoe
with a few silent strokes through the shallow water almost to the edge of
the land, and, as it nearly struck bottom, two dusky figures rising among
the bushes threw their weight upon them. The light craft sank almost to the
edges with the weight, but did not overturn, and both attackers and
attacked fell out of it into the lake.

Robert for a moment saw a dusky face above him, and instinctively he
clasped the body of a warrior in his arms. Then the two went down together
in the water. The Indian was about to strike at him with a knife, but the
lake saved him. As the water rushed into eye, mouth and nostril the two
fell apart, but Robert was able to keep his presence of mind in that
terrible moment, and, as he came up again, he snatched out his own knife
and struck almost blindly.

He felt the blade encounter resistance, and then pass through it. He heard
a choked cry and he shuddered violently. All his instincts were for
civilization and against the taking of human life, and he had struck merely
to save his own, but almost articulate words of thankfulness bubbled to his
lips as he saw the dark figure that had hovered so mercilessly over him
disappear. Then a second figure took the place of the first and he drew
back the fatal blade again, but a soft voice said:

"Do not strike, Dagaeoga. I also have accounted for one of the warriors who
attacked us, and no more have yet come. We may thank the wild fowl. Had
they not warned us we should have perished."

"And even then we had luck, or your Tododaho is still watching over us. I
struck at random, but the blade was guided to its mark."

"And so was mine. What you say is also proved to be true by the fact that
the canoe did not overturn, when they threw themselves upon us. The chances
were at least ninety-nine out of a hundred that it would do so."

"And our arms and ammunition and our deer?"

"All in the canoe, except the weapons that are in our belts."

"Then, Tayoga, it is quite sure that your Tododaho has been watching over
us. But where is the canoe?"

Robert was filled with alarm and horror. They were standing above their
knees in the water, and they no longer saw the little craft, which had
become a veritable ship of refuge to them. They peered about frantically
in the dusk and then Tayoga said:

"There is a strong breeze blowing from the land and waves are beginning to
run on the water. They have taken the canoe out into the lake. We must swim
in search of it."

"And if we don't find it?"

"Then we drown, but O Dagaeoga, death in the water is better than death in
the fires that Tandakora will kindle."

"We might escape into the woods."

"Warriors who have come upon our trail are there, and would fall upon us at
once. The attack by the two who failed proves their presence."

"Then, Tayoga, we must take the perilous chance and swim for the canoe."

"It is so, Dagaeoga."

Both were splendid swimmers, even with their clothes on, and, wading out
until the water was above their waists, they began to swim with strong and
steady strokes toward the middle of the lake, following with exactness the
course of the wind. All the time they sought with anxious eyes through the
dusk for a darker shadow that might be the canoe. The wind rose rapidly,
and now and then the crest of a wave dashed over them. Less expert swimmers
would have sunk, but their muscles were hardened by years of forest
life - all Robert's strength had come back to him - and an immense vitality
made the love of life overwhelming in them. They fought with all the
powers of mind and body for the single chance of overtaking the canoe.

"I hope you see it, Tayoga," said Robert.

"Not yet," replied the Onondaga. "The darkness is heavy over the lake, and
the mists and vapors, rising from the water, increase it."

"It was a fine canoe, Tayoga, and it holds our rifles, our ammunition, our
deer, my buffalo robe, and all our precious belongings. We have to find
it."

"It is so, Dagaeoga. We have no other choice. We truly swim for life. One
could pray at this time to have all the powers of a great fish. Do you see
anything behind us?"

Robert twisted his head and looked over his shoulder.

"I see no pursuit," he replied. "I cannot even see the shore, as the mists
and vapors have settled down between. In a sense we're out at sea, Tayoga."

"And Ganoatohale is large. The canoe, too, is afloat upon its bosom and is,
as you say, out at sea. We and it must meet or we are lost. Are you weary,
Dagaeoga?"

"Not yet. I can still swim for quite a while."

"Then float a little, and we can take the exact course of the wind again.
The canoe, of course, will continue to go the way the wind goes."

"Unless it's deflected by currents which do not always follow the wind."

"I do not notice any current, and to follow the wind is our only hope. The
mists and vapors will hide the canoe from us until we are very close to it"

"And you may thank Tododaho that they will hide something else also.
Unless I make a great mistake, Tayoga, I hear the swish of paddles."

"You make no mistake, Dagaeoga. I too hear paddles, ten, a dozen, or more
of them. It is the fleet of Tandakora coming back and it will soon be
passing between us and the shore. Truly we may be thankful, as you say, for
the mists and vapors which, while they hide the canoe from us, also hide us
from our enemies."

"I shall lie flat upon my back and float, and I'll blend with the water."

"It is a wise plan, Dagaeoga. So shall I. Then Tandakora himself would not
see us, even if he passed within twenty feet of us."

"He is passing now, and I can see the outlines of their boats."

The two were silent as the fish themselves, sustained by imperceptible
strokes, and Robert saw the fleet of Tandakora pass in a ghostly line. They
looked unreal, a shadow following shadows, the huge figure of the Ojibway
chief in the first boat a shadow itself. Robert's blood chilled, and it was
not from the cold of the water. He was in a mystic and unreal world, but a
world in which danger pressed in on every side. He felt like one living
back in a primeval time. The swish of the paddles was doubled and tripled
by his imagination, and the canoes seemed to be almost on him.

The questing eyes of Tandakora and his warriors swept the waters as far as
the night, surcharged with mists and vapors, would allow, but they did not
see the two human figures, so near them and almost submerged in the lake.
The sound of the swishing paddles moved southward, and the line of ghostly
canoes melted again, one by one, into the darkness.

"They're gone, Tayoga," whispered Robert in a tone of immense relief.

"So they are, Dagaeoga, and they will seek us long elsewhere. Are you yet
weary?"

"I might be at another time, but with my life at stake I can't afford to
grow tired. Let us follow the wind once more."

They swam anew with powerful strokes, despite the long time they had been
in the water, and no sailors, dying of thirst, ever scanned the sea more
eagerly for a sail than they searched through the heavy dusk for their lost
canoe. The wind continued to rise, and the waves with it. Foam was often
dashed over their heads, the water grew cold to their bodies, now and then
they floated on their backs to rest themselves and thus the singular chase,
with the wind their only guide, was maintained.

Robert was the first to see a dim shape, but he would not say anything
until it grew in substance and solidity. Nevertheless hope flooded his
heart, and then he said:

"The wind has guided us aright, Tayoga. Unless some evil spirit has taught
my eyes to lie to me that is our canoe straight ahead."

"It has all the appearance of a canoe, Dagaeoga, and since the only canoe
on this part of the lake is our canoe, then our canoe it is."

"And none too soon. I'm not yet worn out, but the cold of the water is
entering my bones. I can see very clearly now that it's the canoe, our
canoe. It stands up like a ship, the strongest canoe, the finest canoe, the
friendliest canoe that ever floated on a lake or anywhere else. I can hear
it saying to us: 'I have been waiting for you. Why didn't you come
sooner?'"

"Truly when Dagaeoga is an old, old man, nearly a hundred, and the angel of
death comes for him, he will rise up in his bed and with the rounded words
pouring from his lips he will say to the angel: 'Let me make a speech only
an hour long and then I will go with you without trouble, else I stay here
and refuse to die.'"

"I'm using words to express my gratitude, Tayoga. Look, the canoe is moving
slowly toward the center of the lake, but it stays back as much as the wind
will let it and keeps beckoning to us. A few more long, swift strokes,
Tayoga, and we're beside it."

"Aye, Dagaeoga, and we must be careful how we climb into it. It is no light
task to board a canoe in the middle of a lake. Since Tododaho would not let
it be overturned, when we fell out of it, we must not overturn it ourselves
when we get back into it, else we lose all our arms, ammunition and other
supplies."

The canoe was now not more than fifty feet in front of them, moving
steadily farther and farther from land before the wind that blew out of the
west, but, sitting upright on the waters like a thing of life, bearing its
precious freight. The mists and vapors had closed in so much now that their
chance of seeing it had been only one in a thousand, and yet that lone
chance had happened. The devout soul of Tayoga was filled with gratitude.
Even while swimming he looked up at the great star that he could not see
beyond the thick veil of cloud, but, knowing it was there, he returned
thanks to the mighty Onondaga chieftain who had saved them so often.

"The canoe retreats before us, Dagaeoga," he said, "but it is not to escape
us, it is to beckon us on, out of the path of Tandakora's boats which soon
may be returning again and which will now come farther out into the lake,
thinking that we may possibly have made a dash under the cover of the
mists."

"What you predict is already coming true, Tayoga," said Robert, "because I
hear the first faint dip of their paddles once more, and they can't be more


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Online LibraryJoseph A. AltshelerThe Masters of the Peaks A Story of the Great North Woods → online text (page 14 of 19)