The Lords of the Wild
By Joseph A. Altsheler
Public Domain Books
Chapter III: In the Cliff
It was only a half mile to the promised land and Robert expected a quick and easy voyage, as they were powerful swimmers and could push the tree before them without trouble.
“When I reach the shore and get well back of the lake,” he said to Tayoga, “I mean to lie down in a thicket and sleep forty-eight hours. I am entitled now to a rest that long.”
“Dagaeoga will sleep when the spirits of earth and air decree it, and not before,” replied the Onondaga gravely. “Can you see anything of our foes in the south?”
“Not a trace.”
“Then your eyes are not as good as mine or you do not use them as well, because I see a speck on the water blacker than the surface of the lake, and it is moving.”
“Look toward the eastern shore, where the cliff rises tall and almost straight.”
“Ah, I see it now. It is a canoe, and it is moving.”
“So it is, Dagaeoga, and it is coming our way. Did I not tell you that Manitou, no matter how much he favors us, will not help us all the time? Not even the great and pious Tododaho, when he was on earth, expected so much. Now I think that after saving you with the bird and all of us with the empty canoe he means to leave us to our own strength and courage, and see what we will do.”
“And it will be strange, if after being protected so far by a power greater than our own we can’t protect ourselves now,” said Willet gravely.
“The canoe is coming fast,” said Tayoga. “I can see it growing on the water.”
“So it is, and I infer from its speed that it has at least four paddles in it. There’s no doubt they are disappointed in not finding us farther down, and their boat has come back to look for us.”
“This is not the only tree uprooted by the wind and afloat on the lake,” said Tayoga, “and now it must be our purpose to make the warriors think it has come into the water naturally.”
Long before the French word “camouflage” was brought into general use by a titanic war the art of concealment and illusion was practiced universally by the natives of the North American wilderness. It was in truth their favorite stratagem in their unending wars, and there was high praise for those who could use it best.
“Well spoken, Tayoga,” said Willet. “Luckily these living branches hide us, and, as the wind still blows strongly toward the south, we must let the tree float in that direction.”
“And not go toward the mainland!” said Robert.
“Aye, lad, for the present. It’s stern necessity. If the warriors in that canoe saw the tree floating against the wind they’d know we’re here. Trust ’em for that. I think we’re about to run another gauntlet.”
The trunk now drifted with the wind, though the three edged it ever so slightly, but steadily, toward the shore.
Meanwhile the canoe grew and grew, and they saw, as Willet had surmised, that it contained four paddles. It was evident too that they were on a quest, as the boat began to veer about, and the four Indians swept the lake with eager eyes.
The tree drifted on. Farther to the west and near the shore, another tree was floating in the same manner, and off to the east a third was beckoning in like fashion. There was nothing in the behavior of the three trees to indicate that one of them was different from the other two.
The eyes of the savages passed over them, one after another, but they saw no human being hidden within their boughs. Yet Robert at least, when those four pairs of eyes rested on his tree, felt them burning into his back. It was a positive relief, when they moved on and began to hunt elsewhere.
“They will yet bring their canoe much closer,” whispered Willet. “It’s too much to expect that they will let us go so easily, and we’ve got to keep up the illusion quite a while longer. Don’t push on the tree. The wind is dying a little, and our pace must be absolutely the pace of the breeze. They notice everything and if we were to go too fast they’d be sure to see it.”
They no longer sought to control their floating support, and, as the wind suddenly sank very much, it hung lazily on the crests of little waves.
It was a hard test to endure, while the canoe with the four relentless warriors in it rowed about seeking them. Robert paid all the price of a vivid and extremely brilliant imagination. While those with such a temperament look far ahead and have a vision of triumphs to come out of the distant future, they also see far more clearly the troubles and dangers that confront them. So their nerves are much more severely tried than are those of the ordinary and apathetic. Great will power must come to their relief, and thus it was with Robert. His body quivered, though not with the cold of the water, but his soul was steady.
Although the wind sank, which was against them, the darkness increased, and the fact that two other trees were afloat within view, was greatly in their favor. It gave them comrades in that lazy drifting and diverted suspicion.
“If they conclude to make a close examination of our tree, what shall we do?” whispered Robert.
“We’ll be at a great disadvantage in the water,” the hunter whispered back, “but we’ll have to get our rifles loose from their lashings and make a fight of it. I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”
The canoe approached the tree and then veered away again, as if the warriors were satisfied with its appearance. Certainly a tree more innocent in looks never floated on the waves of Lake George.
The three were masters of illusion and deception, and they did not do a single thing to turn the tree from its natural way of drifting. It obeyed absolutely the touch of the wind and not that of their hands, which rested as lightly as down upon the trunk. Once the wind stopped entirely and the tree had no motion save that of the swell. It wandered idly, a lone derelict upon a solitary lake.
Robert scarcely breathed when the canoe was sent their way. He was wholly unconscious of the water in which he was sunk to the shoulders, but every imaginative nerve was alive to the immense peril.
“If they return and come much nearer we must immerse to the eyes," whispered Willet. “Then they would have to be almost upon us before they saw us. It will make it much harder for us to get at our weapons, but we must take that risk too.”
“They have turned,” said Robert, “and here they come!”
It looked this time as if the savages had decided to make a close and careful inspection of the tree, bearing directly toward it, and coming so close that Robert could see their fierce, painted faces well and the muscles rising and falling on their powerful arms as they swept their paddles through the water. Now, he prayed that the foliage of the tree would hide them well and he sank his body so deep in the lake that a little water trickled into his mouth, while only the tips of his fingers rested on the trunk. The hunter and the Onondaga were submerged as deeply as he, the upper parts of their faces and their hair blending with the water. When he saw how little they were disclosed in the dusk his confidence returned.
The four savages brought the canoe within thirty feet, but the floating tree kept its secret. Its lazy drift was that of complete innocence and their eyes could not see the dark heads that merged so well with the dark trunk. They gazed for a half minute or so, then brought their canoe about in a half circle and paddled swiftly away toward the second tree.
“Now Tododaho on his star surely put it in their minds to go away," whispered the Onondaga, “and I do not think they will come back again.”
“Even so, we can’t yet make haste,” said the hunter cautiously. “If this tree seems to act wrong they’ll see it though at a long distance and come flying down on us.”
“The Great Bear is right, as always, but the wind is blowing again, and we can begin to edge in toward the shore.”
“So we can. Now we’ll push the tree slowly toward the right. All together, but be very gentle. Robert, don’t let your enthusiasm run away with you. If we depart much from the course of the wind they’ll be after us again no matter how far away they are now.”
“They have finished their examination of the second tree,” said Tayoga in his precise school English, “and now they are going to the third, which will take them a yet greater distance from us.”
“So they are. Fortune is with us.”
They no longer felt it necessary to keep submerged to the mouth, but drew themselves up, resting their elbows on the trunk, floating easily in the buoyant water. They had carefully avoided turning the tree in any manner, and their arms, ammunition and packs were dry and safe. But they had been submerged so long that they were growing cold, and now that the immediate danger seemed to have been passed they realized it.
“I like Lake George,” said Robert. “It’s a glorious lake, a beautiful lake, a majestic lake, the finest lake I know; but that is no reason why I should want to live in its waters.”
“Dagaeoga is never satisfied,” said Tayoga. “He might have been sunk in some shallow, muddy lake in a flat country, but instead he is put in this noble one with its beautiful cool waters, and the grand mountains are all about him.”
“But this is the second time I’ve been immersed in a very short space, Tayoga, and just now I crave dry land. I can’t recall a single hour or a single moment when I ever wanted it more than I do this instant.”
“I’m of a mind with you in that matter, Robert,” said the hunter, “and if all continues to go as well as it’s now going, we’ll set foot on it in fifteen minutes. That canoe is close to the third tree, and they’ve stopped to look at it. I think we can push a little faster toward the land. They can’t notice our slant at that distance. Aye, that’s right, lads! Now the cliffs are coming much nearer, and they look real friendly. I see a little cove in there where our good tree can land, and it won’t be hard for us to find our way up the banks, though they do rise so high. Now, steady! In we go! It’s a snug little cove, put here to receive us. Be cautious how you rise out of the water, lads! Those fellows see like owls in the dark, and they’d trace us outlined here against the shore. That’s it, Tayoga, you always do the right thing. We’ll crawl out of the lake behind this little screen of bushes. Now, have you lads got all your baggage loose from the tree?”
“Yes,” replied Robert.
“Then we’ll let it go.”
“It’s been a fine tree, a kind tree,” said Robert, “and I’ve no doubt Tayoga is right when he thinks a good spirit friendly to us has gone into it.”
They pushed it off and saw it float again on the lake, borne on by the wind. Then they dried their bodies as well as they could in their haste, and resumed their clothing. The hunter shook his gigantic frame, and he felt the strength pour back into his muscles and veins, when he grasped his rifle. It had been his powerful comrade for many years, and he now stood where he could use it with deadly effect, if the savages should come.
They rested several minutes, before beginning the climb of the cliff, and saw a second and then a third canoe coming out of the south, evidently seeking them.
“They’re pretty sure now that we haven’t escaped in that direction," said Willet, “and they’ll be back in full force, looking for us. We got off the lake just in time.”
The cliffs towered over them to a height of nearly two thousand feet, but they began the ascent up a slanting depression that they had seen from the lake, well covered with bushes, and they took it at ease, looking back occasionally to watch the futile hunt of the canoes for them.
“We’re not out of their ring yet,” said Willet. “They’ll be carrying on another search for us on top of the cliffs.”
“Don’t discourage us, Dave,” said Robert. “We feel happy now having escaped one danger, and we won’t escape the other until we come to it.”
“Perhaps you’re right, lad. We’ll enjoy our few minutes of safety while we can and the sight of those canoes scurrying around the lake, looking for their lost prey, will help along our merriment.”
“That’s true,” said Robert, “and I think I’ll take a glance at them now just to soothe my soul.”
They were about three quarters of the way up the cliff, and the three, turning at the same time, gazed down at a great height upon the vast expanse of Lake George. The night had lightened again, a full moon coming out and hosts of stars sparkling in the heavens. The surface of the lake gleamed in silver and they distinctly saw the canoes cruising about in their search for the three. They also saw far in the south a part of the fleet returning, and Robert breathed a sigh of thankfulness that they had escaped at last from the water.
They turned back to the top, but the white lad felt a sudden faintness and had he not clung tightly to a stout young bush he would have gone crashing down the slope. He quickly recovered himself and sought to hide his momentary weakness, but the hunter had noticed his stumbling step and gave him a keen, questing glance. Then he too stopped.
“We’ve climbed enough,” he said. “Robert, you’ve come to the end of your rope, for the present. It’s a wonder your strength didn’t give out long ago, after all you’ve been through.”
“Oh, I can go on! I’m not tired at all!” exclaimed the youth valiantly.
“The Great Bear tells the truth, Dagaeoga,” said the Onondaga, looking at him with sympathy, “and you cannot hide it from us. We will seek a covert here.”
Robert knew that any further effort to conceal his sudden exhaustion would be in vain. The collapse was too complete, but he had nothing to be ashamed of, as he had gone through far more than Willet and Tayoga, and he had reached the limit of human endurance.
“Well, yes, I am tired,” he admitted. “But as we’re hanging on the side of a cliff about fifteen hundred feet above the water I don’t see any nice comfortable inn, with big white beds in it, waiting for us.”
“Stay where you are, Dagaeoga,” said the Onondaga. “We will not try the summit to-night, but I may find some sort of an alcove in the cliff, a few feet of fairly level space, where we can rest.”
Robert sank down by the friendly bush, with his back against a great uplift of stone, while Willet stood on a narrow shelf, supporting himself against a young evergreen. Tayoga disappeared silently upward.
The painful contraction in the chest of the lad grew easier, and black specks that had come before his eyes floated away. He returned to a firm land of reality, but he knew that his strength was not yet sufficient to permit of their going on. Tayoga came back in about ten minutes.
“I have found it,” he said in his precise school English. “It is not much, but about three hundred feet from the top of the cliff is a slight hollow that will give support for our bodies. There we may lie down and Dagaeoga can sleep his weariness away.”
“Camping securely between our enemies above and our enemies below," said Robert, his vivid imagination leaping up again. “It appeals to me to be so near them and yet well hidden, especially as we’ve left no trail on this rocky precipice that they can follow.”
“It would help me a lot if they were not so close,” laughed the hunter. “I don’t need your contrasts, Robert, to make me rest. I’d like it better if they were a hundred miles away instead of only a few hundred yards. But lead on, Tayoga, and we’ll say what we think of this inn of yours when we see it.”
The hollow was not so bad, an indentation in the stone, extending back perhaps three feet, and almost hidden by dwarfed evergreens and climbing vines. It was not visible twenty feet above or below, and it would have escaped any eye less keen than that of the Onondaga.
“You’ve done well, Tayoga,” said Willet. “There are better inns in Albany and New York, but it’s a pretty good place to be found in the side of a cliff fifteen hundred feet above the water.”
“We’ll be snug enough here.”
They crawled into the hollow, matted the vines carefully in front of them to guard against a slip or an incautious step, and then the three lay back against the wall, feeling an immense relief. While not so worn as Robert, the bones and muscles of Willet and Tayoga also were calling out for rest.
“I’m glad I’m here,” said the hunter, and the others were forced to laugh at his intense earnestness.
Robert sank against the wall of the cliff, and he felt an immense peace. The arching stone over his head, and the dwarfed evergreens pushing themselves up where the least bit of soil was to be found, shut out the view before them, but it was as truly an inn to him at that moment as any he had ever entered. He closed his eyes in content and every nerve and muscle relaxed.
“Since you’ve shut down your lids, lad, keep ’em down,” said the hunter. “Sleep will do you more good now than anything else.”
But Robert quickly opened his eyes again.
“No,” he said, “I think I’ll eat first.”
“I might have known that you would remember your appetite,” he said. “But it’s not a bad idea. We’ll all have a late supper.”
They had venison and cold hominy from their knapsacks, and they ate with sharp appetites.
Then Robert let his lids fall again and in a few minutes was off to slumberland.
“Now you follow him, Tayoga,” said Willet, “and I’ll watch.”
“But remember to awake me for my turn,” said the Onondaga.
“You can rely upon me,” said the hunter.
The disciplined mind of Tayoga knew how to compel sleep, and on this occasion it was needful for him to exert his will. In an incredibly brief time he was pursuing Robert through the gates of sleep to the blessed land of slumber that lay beyond, and the hunter was left alone on watch.
Willet, despite his long life in the woods, was a man of cultivation and refinement. He knew and liked the culture of the cities in its highest sense. His youth had not been spent in the North American wilderness. He had tasted the life of London and Paris, and long use and practice had not blunted his mind to the extraordinary contrasts between forest and town.
He appreciated now to the full their singular situation, practically hanging on the side of a mighty cliff, with cruel enemies seeking them below and equally cruel enemies waiting for them above.
The crevice in which they lay was little more than a dent in the stone wall. If either of the lads moved a foot and the evergreens failed to hold him he would go spinning a quarter of a mile straight down to the lake. The hunter looked anxiously in the dusk at the slender barrier, but he judged that it would be sufficient to stop any unconscious movement. Then he glanced at Robert and Tayoga and he was reassured. They were so tired and sleep had claimed them so completely that they lay like the dead. Neither stirred a particle, but in the silence the hunter heard their regular breathing.
The years had not made Willet a skeptic. While he did not accept unquestioningly all the beliefs of Tayoga, neither did he wholly reject them. It might well be true that earth, air, trees and other objects were inhabited by spirits good or bad. At least it was a pleasing belief and he had no proof that it was not true. Certainly, it seemed as if some great protection had been given to his comrades and himself in the last day or two. He looked up through the evergreen veil at the peaceful stars, and gave thanks and gratitude.
The night continued to lighten. New constellations swam into the heavenly blue, and the surface of the lake as far as eye could range was a waving mass of molten silver. The portion of the Indian fleet that had come back from the south was passing. It was almost precisely opposite the covert now and not more than three hundred yards from the base of the cliff. The light was so good that Willet distinctly saw the paddlers at work and the other warriors sitting upright. It was not possible to read eyes at such a distance, but he imagined what they expressed and the thought pleased him. As Robert had predicted, the snugness of their hiding place with savages above and savages below heightened his feeling of comfort and safety. He was in sight and yet unseen. They would never think of the three hanging there in the side of the cliff. He laughed softly, under his breath, and he had never laughed with more satisfaction.
He tried to pick out Tandakora, judging that his immense size would disclose him, but the chief was not there. Evidently he was with the other part of the fleet and was continuing the vain search in the south. He laughed again and with the same satisfaction when he thought of the Ojibway’s rage because the hated three had slipped once more through his fingers.
“An Ojibway has no business here in the province of New York, anyway," he murmured. “His place is out by the Great Lakes.”
The canoes passed on, and, after a while, nothing was to be seen on the waves of Lake George. Even the drifting trees, including the one that had served them so well, had gone out of sight. The lake only expressed peace. It was as it might have been in the dawn of time with the passings of no human beings to vex its surface.
Something stirred in the bushes near the hunter. An eagle, with great spread of wing, rose from a nest and sailed far out over the silvery waters. Willet surmised that the nearness of the three had disturbed it, and he was sorry. He had a kindly feeling toward birds and beasts just then, and he did not wish to drive even an eagle from his home. He hoped that it would come back, and, after a while, it did so, settling upon its nest, which could not have been more than fifty yards away, where its mate had remained unmoving while the other went abroad to hunt.
There was no further sign of life from the people of the wilderness, and Willet sat silent a long time. Dawn came, intense and brilliant. He had hoped the day would be cloudy, and he would have welcomed rain, despite its discomfort, but the sun was in its greatest splendor, and the air was absolutely translucent. The lake and the mountains sprang out, sharp and clear. Far to the south the hunter saw a smudge upon the water which he knew to be Indian canoes. They were miles away, but it was evident that the French and Indians still held the lake, and there was no escape for the three by water. There had been some idea in Willet’s mind of returning along the foot of the cliffs to their own little boat, but the brilliant day and the Indian presence compelled him to put it away.
The sun, huge, red and scintillating, swung clear of the mighty mountains, and the waters that had been silver in the first morning light turned to burning gold. In the shining day far came near and objects close by grew to twice their size. To attempt to pass the warriors in such a light would be like walking on an open plain, thought the hunter, and, always quick to decide, he took his resolution.
It was characteristic of David Willet that no matter what the situation he always made the best of it. His mind was a remarkable mingling of vigor, penetration and adaptability. If one had to wait, well, one had to wait and there was nothing else in it. He sank down in the little cove in the cliff and rested his back against the stony wall. He, Robert and Tayoga filled it, and his moccasined feet touched the dwarfed shrubs which made the thin green curtain before the opening. He realized more fully now in the intense light of a brilliant day what a slender shelf it was. Any one of them might have pitched from it to a sure death below. He was glad that the white lad and the red lad had been so tired that they lay like the dead. Their positions were exactly the same as when they sank to sleep. They had not stirred an inch in the night, and there was no sign now that they intended to awake any time soon. If they had gone to the land of dreams, they were finding it a pleasant country and they were in no hurry to return from it.
The giant hunter smiled. He had promised the Onondaga to awaken him at dawn, and he knew that Robert expected as much, but he would not keep his promise. He would let nature hold sway; when it chose to awaken them it could, and meanwhile he would do nothing. He moved just a little to make himself more comfortable and reclined patiently.
Willet was intensely grateful for the little curtain of evergreens. Without it the sharp eyes of the warriors could detect them even in the side of the lofty cliff. Only a few bushes stood between them and torture and death, but they stood there just the same. Time passed slowly, and the morning remained as brilliant as ever. He paid little attention to what was passing on the lake, but he listened with all the power of his hearing for anything that might happen on the cliff above them. He knew that the warriors were far from giving up the chase, and he expected a sign there. About two hours after sunrise it came. He heard the cry of a wolf, and then a like cry replying, but he knew that the sounds came from the throats of warriors. He pressed himself a little harder against the stony wall, and looked at his two young comrades. Their souls still wandered in the pleasant land of dreams and their bodies took no interest in what was occurring here. They did not stir.
In four or five minutes the two cries were repeated much nearer and the hunter fairly concentrated all his powers into the organ of hearing. Faint voices, only whispers, floated down to him, and he knew that the warriors were ranging along the cliff just above them. Leaning forward cautiously, he peeped above the veil of evergreens, and saw two dark faces gazing over the edge of the precipice. A brief look was enough, then he drew back and waited.