The Lords of the Wild
By Joseph A. Altsheler
Public Domain Books
Chapter XIII: Eve of Battle
Robert awoke the next morning, well physically, but depressed mentally. He believed that a great battle–and a great victory for the Anglo-American army–was coming, and he would have no part in it. The losses of Braddock’s defeat and the taking of Fort William Henry by Montcalm would be repaired, once more the flag of his native land and of his ancestral land, would be triumphant, but he would be merely a spectator, even if he were as much as that. It was a bitter reflection, and again he thought of escape. But no plan seemed possible. He was held as firmly in the center of an army, as if he were in the jaws of a powerful vise. Nor was it possible for Tayoga, however great his skill and daring, to reach him there. He strove to be philosophical, but it is hard for youth to reconcile itself at first, though it may soon forget.
Breakfast was given to him, and he was permitted to go outside the tent into a small open space, though not beyond. On all sides of him stretched the impassable lines of the French army. There were several other prisoners within the enclosure, a ranger, a hunter, and three or four farmers who had been taken in forays farther south.
The fresh air and the brilliant sunshine revived Robert’s spirits. He looked eagerly about him, striving to divine the French intentions, but he could make nothing of them. He knew, however, upon reflection, that this would be so. The French would not put any prisoners in a position to obtain information that would be of great value in the possible event of escape.
He undertook to talk with the other prisoners, but they were a melancholy lot, not to be cheered. They were all thinking of a long, in truth, an indefinite, imprisonment in Canada, and they mourned. Many people had been taken into Canada by French and Indians in former forays and had been lost forever.
Robert turned away from his comrades and sat down on a stone, where he speculated idly on what was passing about him. He believed that the French would withdraw to Crown Point, at least, and might retreat all the way to Canada, leaving Lake Champlain, as well as Lake George, to the complete control of the Anglo-American forces. He expected to see preparations to that effect, and, when he saw none, he concluded that they were merely postponed for a day or two. So far as he could judge, the aspect of the French army was leisurely. He did not observe any signs of trepidation, but then, withdrawal was always easy in the great North American wilderness. There was yet plenty of time for it.
He noticed a complete absence of Indians, and the fact struck him with great surprise. While he was advancing various theories to account for it, young Captain Louis de Galissonnière came, and greeted him cordially.
“I hope you understand that we French know how to treat a prisoner," he said.
“I’ve nothing of which to complain,” replied Robert. “This is the second time that I’ve been with you, and on this occasion, as on the first, I seem to be more of a guest than a captive.”
“You’re the special prisoner of Colonel de St. Luc, who stands extremely high with the Marquis de Montcalm. The colonel wishes you to be treated well and seems to favor you. Why is it?”
“Frankly, I don’t know, but I learned long since that he was a most chivalrous foe. I suppose I am to be sent into Canada along with the other prisoners?”
“I suppose so, but there is no way for you to go just now.”
“Why can’t I go with your army?”
“With our army?”
“It retreats, of course, before our overwhelming force.”
De Galissonnière laughed.
“You are disposed to be facetious,” he said. “You will observe that we are not retreating. You see no preparations to do so, but that’s all I will tell you. More would be valuable information for the enemy, should you escape.”
“I’ve warned Colonel de St. Luc that I mean to escape in due time. I don’t like to reject such noble hospitality as you’re showing me, but my duty to my country demands it.”
Robert was now in a most excellent humor. His sanguine temperament was asserting itself to the full. What he wished to see he saw. He was slipping away from the French; and he was advancing with the English and Americans to a great and brilliant victory. His face was flushed and his eyes sparkled. De Galissonnière looked at him curiously, but said nothing.
“I observe one very significant fact,” continued Robert.
“What is that?”
“I see no Indians, who are usually so numerous about your camps. You needn’t tell me what has happened, but I’ve been among Indians a great deal. I know their ways, and I’ll tell you. They see that yours is a lost cause, and they’ve deserted you. Now, isn’t that so?”
The young Frenchman was silent, but it was the turn of his face to flush.
“I didn’t expect you to answer me in words,” continued Robert, triumphantly, “but I can see. The Indians never fight in a battle that they consider lost before it’s joined, and you know as well as I do, Captain de Galissonnière, that if the Marquis de Montcalm awaits our attack his army will be destroyed.”
“I do not know it at all.”
Then Robert felt ashamed because he had been led away by his enthusiasm, and apologized for a speech that might have seemed boastful to the young Frenchman, who had been so kind to him. But De Galissonnière, with his accustomed courtesy, said it was nothing, and when he left, presently, both were in the best of humors.
Robert, convinced that he had been right about the Indians, watched for them as the morning went on, but he never saw a single warrior. There could be no doubt now that they had gone, and while he could not consider them chivalric they were at least wise.
The next familiar face that he beheld was one far from welcome to him. It was that of a man who happened to pass near the enclosure and who stopped suddenly when he caught sight of Robert. He was in civilian dress, but he was none other than Achille Garay, that spy whose secret message had been wrested from him in the forest by Robert and Tayoga.
The gaze that Garay bent upon Robert was baleful. His capture by the three and the manner in which he had been compelled to disclose the letter had been humiliating, and Robert did not doubt that the man would seek revenge. He shivered a little, feeling that as a prisoner he was in a measure helpless. Then his back stiffened.
“I’m glad to see, Garay, that you’re where you belong–with the French,” he called out. “I hope you didn’t suffer any more from hunger in the woods when Willet, the Onondaga and I let you go.”
The spy came closer, and his look was so full of venom that young Lennox, despite himself, shuddered.
“Time makes all things even,” he said. “I don’t forget how you and your friends held me in your power in the forest, but here you are a prisoner. I have a good chance to make the score even.”
Robert remembered also how this man had attempted his life in Albany, for some reason that he could not yet fathom, and he felt that he was now, and, in very truth, a most dangerous enemy. Nevertheless, he replied, quietly:
“That was an act of war. You were carrying a message for the enemy. We were wholly within our rights when we forced you to disclose the paper.”
“It makes no difference,” said Garay. “I owe you and your comrades a debt and I shall pay it.”
Robert turned his back on him and walked to the other side of the enclosure. When he turned around, five minutes later, Garay was gone. But Robert felt uncomfortable. Here was a man who did not have the gallantry and chivalry that marked so many of the French. If he could he would strike some great blow.
He strove to dismiss Garay from his mind, and, in his interest in what was going on about him, he finally succeeded. He saw Frenchmen and Canadians leaving the camp and others returning. His knowledge of war made him believe that those coming had been messengers sent forth to watch the Anglo-American army, and those going were dispatched on the same service. Their alarm must be great, he reflected pleasantly, and none could bring to Montcalm any reassuring news. Once he saw Montcalm, and once St. Luc, but neither spoke to him.
He and his comrades, the other prisoners, slept that night in the open, the weather being warm. A blanket was allotted to every one by their captors, and Robert, long used to unlimited fresh air, preferred the outside to the inside of a tent. Nothing disturbed his slumbers, but he expected that the French retreat would begin the next day. On the contrary, Montcalm stayed in his camp, nor was there any sign of withdrawal on the second and third days, or on others that came. He inferred then that the advance of Abercrombie had been delayed, and the French were merely hanging on until their retreat became compulsory.
He had been in the camp about a week, and as he saw no more of Garay he concluded that the man had been sent away on some errand. It was highly probable that he was now in the south spying upon the Anglo-American army. It was for just such duties that he was fitted. Then he began to think of him less and less.
His old impatience and keen disappointment because he was a prisoner when such great days were coming, returned with doubled vigor. He chafed greatly and looked around again for an opportunity to escape, but did not see the remotest possibility of it. After all, he must reconcile himself. His situation could be far worse. He was well treated, and some of the French leaders, while official enemies, were personal friends.
His mind also dwelled upon the singular fact that the French army did not retreat. He tried to glean something from De Galissonnière, who talked with him several times, but the young captain would not depart from generalities. He invariably shut up, tight, when they approached any detail of the present military situation.
A dark night came with much wind and threat of rain. Robert thought that he and his fellow captives would have to ask the shelter of tents, but the rain passed farther to the west, though the heavy darkness remained. He was glad, as the weather was now oppressively warm, and he greatly preferred to sleep on a blanket in the open air.
The night was somewhat advanced when he lay down. The other prisoners were asleep already. He had not found any kindred minds among them, and, as they were apathetic, he had not talked with them much. Now, he did not miss them at all as he lay on his blanket and watched the wavering lights of the camp. It was still quite dark, with a moaning wind, but his experience of weather told him that the chance of rain was gone. Far in the west, lightning flickered and low thunder grumbled there now and then, but in the camp everything was dry. Owing to the warmth, the fires used for cooking had been permitted to burn out, and the whole army seemed at peace.
Robert himself shared this feeling of rest. The storm, passing so far away, soothed and lulled him. It was pleasant to lie there, unharmed, and witness its course at a far point. He dozed a while, fell asleep, and awoke again in half an hour. Nothing had changed. There was still an occasional flicker of lightning and mutter of thunder and the darkness remained heavy. He could dimly see the forms of his comrades lying on their blankets. Not one of them stirred. They slept heavily and he rather envied them. They had little imagination, and, when one was in bad case, he was lucky to be without it.
The figure lying nearest him he took to be that of the hunter, a taciturn man who talked least of them all, and again Robert felt envy because he could lose all care so thoroughly and so easily in sleep. The man was as still and unconcerned as one of the mountain peaks that looked down upon them. He would imitate him, and although sleep might be unwilling, he would conquer it. A resolute mind could triumph over anything.
He shut his eyes and his will was so strong that he held them shut a full ten minutes, although sleep did not come. When he opened them again he thought that the hunter had moved a little. After all, the man was mortal, and had human emotions. He was not an absolute log.
“Tilden!” he called–Tilden was the hunter’s name.
But Tilden did not stir, nor did he respond in any way when he called a second time. He had been mistaken. He had given the man too much credit. He was really a log, a dull, apathetic fellow to whom the extraordinary conditions around them made no appeal. He would not speak to him again as long as they were prisoners together, and, closing his eyes anew, he resolutely wooed slumber once more.
Robert’s hearing was not so wonderfully keen as Tayoga’s, but it was very keen, nevertheless, and as he lay, eyes shut, something impinged upon the drums of his ears. It was faint, but it did not seem to be a part of the usual sounds of the night. His ear at once registered an alarm on his brain.
His eyes opened. The man whom he had taken to be the hunter was bending over him, and, dark though it was, he distinctly saw the gleam of a knife in his hand. His first feeling, passing in a flash, was one of vague wonderment that anybody should menace him in such a manner, and then he saw the lowering face of Garay. He had been a fool to forget him. With a convulsive and powerful effort he threw his body to one side, and, when the knife fell, the blade missed him by an inch.
Then Robert sprang to his feet, but Garay, uttering an angry exclamation at his missed stroke, did not attempt another. Instead, agile as a cat, he ran lightly away, and disappeared in the darkness of the camp. Robert sat down, somewhat dazed. It had all been an affair of a minute, and it was hard for him to persuade himself that it was real. His comrades still slept soundly, and the camp seemed as peaceful as ever.
For a time Robert could not decide what to do. He knew that he had been threatened by a formidable danger, and that instinct, more than anything else, had saved him. He was almost prepared to believe that Tayoga’s Tododaho, looking down from his remote star, had intervened in his behalf.
The question solved itself. Although he knew that Garay had made a foul attempt upon his life he had no proof. His story would seem highly improbable. Moreover, he was a prisoner, while Garay was one of the French. Nobody would believe his tale. He must keep quiet and watch. He was glad to see that the night was now lightening. Garay would not come back then, at least. But Robert was sure that he would repeat the attack some time or other. Revenge was a powerful motive, and he undoubtedly had another as strong. He must guard against Garay with all his five senses.
The night continued to brighten. The lightning ceased to flicker, the storm had blown itself out in the distance, and a fine moon and a myriad of stars came out. Things in the camp became clearly visible, and, feeling that Garay would attempt nothing more at such a time, Robert closed his eyes again. He soon slept, and did not awaken until all the other prisoners were up.
“Mr. Tilden,” he said to the hunter, “I offer you my sincere apologies.”
“Apologies,” said the hunter in surprise. “What for?”
“Because I mistook a much worse man for you. You didn’t know anything about it at the time, but I did it, and I’m sorry I wronged you so much, even in thought.”
The hunter touched his forehead. Clearly the misfortunes of the young prisoner were weighing too heavily upon him. One must endure captivity better than that.
“Don’t take it so hard, Mr. Lennox,” he said. “It’s not like being in the hands of the Indians, and there is always the chance of escape.”
De Galissonnière visited him again that morning, and Robert, true to his resolution, said nothing of Garay. The captain did not speak of the Anglo-American army, but Robert judged from his manner that he was highly expectant. Surely, Abercrombie was about to advance, and the retreat of Montcalm could not be more than a day away. De Galissonnière stayed only ten minutes, and then Robert was left to his own devices. He tried to talk to Tilden, but the hunter lapsed again into an apathetic state, and, having little success, he fell back on his own thoughts and what his eyes might behold.
In the afternoon he saw Montcalm at some distance, talking with St. Luc and Bourlamaque, and then he saw a man whose appearance betokened haste and anxiety approach them. Robert did not know it then, but it was the able and daring French partisan, Langy, and he came out of the forest with vital news.
Meanwhile Langy saluted Montcalm with the great respect that his successes had won from all the French. When the Marquis turned his keen eye upon him he knew at once that his message, whatever it might be, was of supreme importance.
“What is it, Monsieur Langy?”
“A report on the movements of the enemy.”
“Come to my tent and tell me of it fully, and do you, St. Luc and Bourlamaque, come with me also. You should hear everything.”
They went into the tent and all sat down. St. Luc’s eyes never left the partisan, Langy. He saw that the man was full of his news, eager to tell it, and was impressed with its importance. He knew Langy even better than Montcalm did. Few were more skillful in the forest, and he had a true sense of proportion that did not desert him under stress. His eyes traveled over the partisan’s attire, and there his own great skill as a ranger told him much. His garments were disarranged. Burrs and one or two little twigs were clinging to them. Obviously he had come far and in haste. The thoughts of St. Luc, and, in truth, the thoughts of all of them, went to the Anglo-American army.
“Speak, Monsieur Langy,” said Montcalm. “I can see that you have come swiftly, and you would not come so without due cause.”
“I wish to report to you, sir,” said Langy, “that the entire army of the enemy is now embarked on the Lake of the Holy Sacrament, and is advancing against us.”
Montcalm’s eyes sparkled. His warlike soul leaped up at the thought of speedy battle that was being offered. A flame was lighted also in St. Luc’s blood, and Bourlamaque was no less eager. It was no lack of valor and enterprise that caused the French to lose their colonies in North America.
“You know this positively?” asked the commander-in-chief.
“I have seen it with my own eyes.”
“Tell it as you saw it.”
“I lay in the woods above the lake with my men, and I saw the British and Americans go into their boats, a vast flock of them. They are all afloat on the lake at this moment, and are coming against us.”
“Could you make a fair estimate of their numbers?”
“I obtained the figures with much exactitude from one or two stragglers that we captured on the land. My eyes confirm these figures. There are about seven thousand of the English regulars, and about nine thousand of the American colonials.”
“So many as that! Five to one!”
“You tell us they are all in boats,” said St. Luc. “How many of these boats contain their artillery?”
“They have not yet embarked the cannon. As nearly as we can gather, the guns will not come until the army is at Ticonderoga.”
“It is as I tell you,” replied Langy to St. Luc. “The guns cannot come up the lake until a day or two after the army is landed. Their force is so great that they do not seem to think they will need the artillery.”
St. Luc, his face glowing, turned to Montcalm.
“Sir,” he said, “I made to you the prophecy that some chance, some glorious chance, would yet help us, and that chance has come. Their very strength has betrayed them into an error that may prove fatal. Despising us, they give us our opportunity. No matter how great the odds, we can hold earthworks and abattis against them, unless they bring cannon, or, at least we may make a great attempt at it.”
The swarthy face of Montcalm was illumined by the light from his eyes.
“I verily believe that your gallant soul speaks truth, Chevalier de St. Luc!” he exclaimed. “I said once that we would stand and I say it again. We’ll put all to the hazard. Since they come without cannon we do have our chance. Go, Langy, and take your needed rest. You have served us well. And now we’ll have the others here and talk over our preparations.”
The engineers Lotbiniére and Le Mercier were, as before, zealous for battle at Ticonderoga, and their opinion counted for much with Montcalm. De Levis, held back by the vacillating Vaudreuil, had not yet come from Montreal, and the swiftest of the Canadian paddlers was sent down Lake Ticonderoga in a canoe to hurry him on. Then the entire battalion of Berry went to work at once with spade and pick and ax to prepare a breastwork and abattis, stretching a line of defense in front of the fort, and not using the fort itself.
Robert saw the Frenchmen attack the trees with their axes and the earth with their spades, and he divined at once the news that Langy had brought. The Anglo-American army was advancing. His heart throbbed. Victory and rescue were at hand.
“Mr. Tilden,” he said to the hunter, “listen to the ring of the ax and the thud of the spade!”
“Aye, I hear ’em,” was the apathetic reply; “but they don’t interest me. I’m a prisoner.”
“But it may mean that you won’t be a prisoner much longer. The French are fortifying, and they’ve gone to work with so much haste and energy that it shows an imminent need. There’s only one conclusion to be drawn from it. They’re expecting our army and a prompt attack.”
Tilden began to show interest.
“On my life, I think you’re right,” he said.
And yet Montcalm changed his mind again at the last moment. Two veteran officers, Montguy and Bernès, pointed out to him that his present position was dominated by the adjacent heights, and in order to escape that danger he resolved to retreat a little. He broke up his camp late in the afternoon of the next day, part of the army fell back through the woods more than a mile, and the rest of it withdrew in boats on the lake to the same point.
Robert and his comrades were carried with the army on land to the fort. There he became separated from the others, and remained in the rear, but luckily for his wishes, on a mount where he could see most that was passing, though his chance of escape was as remote as ever.
He stood on the rocky peninsula of Ticonderoga. Behind him the great lake, Champlain, stretched far into north and south. To the west the ground sloped gently upward a half mile and then sank again. On each side of the ridge formed thus was low ground, and the ridge presented itself at once to the military eye as a line of defense. Hugues, one of his officers, had already recommended it to Montcalm, and men under two of his engineers, Desandrouin and Pontleroy, were now at work there.
The final line of defense was begun at dawn, and Robert, whom no one disturbed, witnessed a scene of prodigious energy. The whole French army threw itself heart and soul into the task. The men, hot under the July sun, threw aside their coats, and the officers, putting their own hands to the work, did likewise. There was a continuous ring of axes, and the air resounded with the crash of trees falling in hundreds and thousands.
The tops and ends of the boughs were cut off the trees, the ends left thus were sharpened and the trees were piled upon one another with the sharp ends facing the enemy who was to come.
Robert watched as these bristling rows grew to a height of at least nine feet, and then he saw the men build on the inner side platforms on which they could stand and fire over the crest, without exposing anything except their heads. In front of the abattis more trees with sharpened boughs were spread for a wide space, the whole field with its stumps and trees, looking as if a mighty hurricane had swept over it.
Robert was soldier enough to see what a formidable obstruction was being raised, but he thought the powerful artillery of the attacking army would sweep it away or level it. He did not know that the big guns were being left behind. In truth, Langy’s first news that the cannon would not be embarked upon the lake was partly wrong. The loading of the cannon was delayed, but after the British and Americans reached their landing and began the march across country for the attack, the guns, although brought down the lake, were left behind as not needed. But the French knew all these movements, and whether the cannon were left at one point or another, it was just the same to them, so long as they were not used in the assault.
Robert’s intense mortification that he should be compelled to lie idle and witness the efforts of his enemies returned, but no matter how he chafed he could see no way out of it. Then his absorption in what was going on about him made him forget his personal fortunes.
The setting for the great drama was wild and picturesque in the extreme. On one side stretched the long, gleaming lake, a lake of wildness and beauty associated with so much of romance and peril in American story. Over them towered the crest of the peak later known as Defiance. To the south and west was Lake George, the Iroquois Andiatarocte, that gem of the east, and, on all sides, save Champlain, circled the forest, just beginning to wither under the fierce summer sun.
The energy of the French did not diminish. Stronger and stronger grew abattis and breastwork, the whole becoming a formidable field over which men might charge to death. But Robert only smiled to himself. Abercrombie’s mighty array of cannon would smash everything and then the brave infantry, charging through the gaps, would destroy the French army. The French, he knew, were brave and skillful, but their doom was sure. Once St. Luc spoke to him. The chevalier had thrown off his coat also, and he had swung an ax with the best.
“I am sorry, Mr. Lennox,” he said, “that we have not had time to send you away, but as you can see, our operations are somewhat hurried. Chance put you here, and here you will have to stay until all is over.”
“I see that you are expecting an army,” said Robert, “and I infer from all these preparations that it will soon be upon you.”
“It is betraying no military secret to admit that it is even so. Abercrombie will soon be at hand.”
“And I am surprised that you should await him. I judge that he has sufficient force to overwhelm you.”
“We are never beaten before battle. The Marquis de Montcalm would not stay, unless he had a fair chance of success.”
Robert was silent and St. Luc quickly went back to his work. All day the men toiled, and when the sun went down, they were still at their task. The ring of axes and the crash of falling trees resounded through the dark. Part of the soldiers put their kettles and pots on the fires, but the others labored on. In the night came the valiant De Levis with his men, and Montcalm gave him a heartfelt welcome. De Levis was a host in himself, and Montcalm felt that he was just in time. He expected the battle on the morrow. His scouts told him that Abercrombie would be at hand, but without his artillery. The Marquis looked at the formidable abattis, the rows and rows of trees, presenting their myriad of spiked ends, and hope was alive in his heart. He regretted once more the absence of the Indians who had been led away by the sulky Tandakora, but victory, won with their help, demanded a fearful price, as he had learned at William Henry.
Montcalm, St. Luc, De Levis, Bourlamaque, Lotbiniére and other trusted officers held a consultation far in the night. An important event had occurred already. A scouting force of French and Canadians under Trepezec and Langy had been trapped by rangers under Rogers and troops under Fitch and Lyman. The French and Canadians were cut to pieces, but in the battle the gallant young Lord Howe, the real leader of the Anglo-American army, had been killed. He had gone forward with the vanguard, exposing himself rashly, perhaps, and his life was the forfeit. Immediate confusion in the Anglo-American councils followed, and Montcalm and his lieutenants had noticed the lack of precision and directness.
Robert did not see the French officers going to the council, but he knew that the French army meant to stay. Even while the men were cutting down the trees he could not persuade himself wholly that Montcalm would fight there at Ticonderoga, but as the night advanced his last faint doubt disappeared. He would certainly witness a great battle on the morrow.
He could not sleep. Every nerve in him seemed to be alive. One vivid picture after another floated before his mind. The lake behind him grew dim. Before him were the camp fires of the French, the wooden wall, the dark line of the forest and hills, and the crest of Defiance looking solemnly down on them. Although held firmly there, within lines which one could not pass, nobody seemed to take any notice of him. He could rest or watch as he chose, and he had no choice but to watch.
He saw the French lie down on their arms, save for the numerous sentinels posted everywhere, and after a while, though most of the night was gone, the ring of axes and the fall of trees ceased. There was a hum of voices but that too died in time, and long after midnight, with his back against a tree, he dozed a little while.
He was awakened by a premonition, a warning out of the dark, and opening his eyes he saw Garay slinking near. He did not know whether the spy meant another attempt upon his life, but, standing up, he stared at him intently. Garay shrank away and disappeared in the further ranges of the camp. Robert somehow was not afraid. The man would not make such a trial again at so great a risk, and his mind turned back to its preoccupation, the great battle that was coming.
Near morning he dozed again for an hour or so, but he awoke before the summer dawn. All his faculties were alive, and his body attuned when he saw the sun rise, bringing with it the momentous day.