The Lords of the Wild
By Joseph A. Altsheler
Public Domain Books
Chapter VI: Black Rifle
They had been following the trail about half an hour, when Tayoga noticed that it was growing deeper.
“Ah,” he said, “Black Rifle now walks much more slowly, so slow that he barely creeps, and his feet press down harder. I think he is going to make another stop.”
“Maybe he intends to cook a part of that fat bear,” said Grosvenor, struggling hard, though, to keep all trace of envy out of his voice. “You said a while back that he was going to kill the bear, because he was hungry, and it seems to me that he would be a very foolish man, if having got his bear, he didn’t make use of any portion of it.”
Tayoga laughed with sincere enjoyment.
“Red Coat reasons well,” he said. “If a man is eager to eat, and he has that which he can eat, then he would be a silly man if he did not eat. Red Coat has all the makings of a trailer. In a few more yards, Black Rifle will stop and cook himself a splendid dinner. Here he put his bear meat upon this log. The red stains show it. Then he picked up dead and fallen wood, and broke it into the right length over the log. You can see where he broke places in the bark at the same time. Then he heaped them all in the little hollow, where he has left the pile of ashes. But, before he lighted a fire, with his flint and steel, he made a wide circle all about to see if any enemy might be near. We knew he would do that because Black Rifle is a very cautious man, but his trail proves it to any one who wishes to look. Then, satisfied, he came back, and started the flame. But he kept the blaze very low lest a prowling foe see it. When the bed of coals was fanned he cooked large portions of the bear and ate, because Black Rifle was hungry, ah, so hungry! and the bear was very savory and pleasing to his palate!”
“Stop, Tayoga, stop!” exclaimed Grosvenor, “I can’t stand such torture! You’ll make me starve to death where I stand.”
“But as you are about to become a warrior of the woods, Red Coat," said the Onondaga gravely, “you must learn to endure. Among us a warrior will purposely put the fire to his hand or his breast and hold it there until the flesh smokes. Nor will he utter a groan or even wince. And all his people will applaud him and call him brave.”
Grosvenor shuddered. He did not see the lurking gleam of humor in the eye of Tayoga.
“I don’t need to pretend for the sake of practice that I am starving," he said. “I’m starving in fact and I do it without the need of applause.”
“But Black Rifle was enjoying himself greatly,” continued the Onondaga, “and we can rejoice in the joys of a friend. If we have not a thing ourselves it is pleasant to know that somebody else had it. He used his opportunities to the utmost. Here are more bones which he threw away, with shreds of flesh yet on them, and which the forest people came to pick clean. Lo, their tracks are everywhere about Black Rifle’s little camp. One of them became so persistent and bold–a wolf it was–that Black Rifle, not willing to shoot, seized a large stone, and threw it at him with great violence. There lies the stone at the edge of the wood, and as there is fresh earth on its under surface it was partly imbedded in the ground where Black Rifle snatched it up. There, just beyond your right foot, Red Coat, is a little depression, the place in the earth, from which he tore it. Black Rifle’s aim was good too. He struck the wolf. At the foot of the bank there are red stains where several drops of blood fell. The wolf was full of mortification, pain and anger, when he ran away. He would never have been so bold and venturesome, if his hunger had not made him forget his prudence. He was as hungry as you are this minute, Red Coat.”
“I suppose you are giving me preliminary practice in torture, Tayoga. Well, go on with it, old fellow. I’ll try to stand it.”
“No, that is enough as a beginning. We will follow the trail of Black Rifle again. After he had eaten so well he was so much refreshed that he will start again with a vigorous and strong step. Lo, it is as I said! He is taking a long stride, but I do not think he is walking fast. His pace is very slow. It may be that there is something in what Dagaeoga says. It is possible that Black Rifle is waiting for those who will not be unwelcome to him.”
Robert was quite able to fathom what was passing in the brain of the Onondaga. He saw that the trail was growing quite fresh, and his spirits became buoyant.
“And Red Coat is hungry,” said Tayoga, that lurking gleam of humor in his eye growing larger. “Let him remember that however he may suffer from lack of food he can suffer yet more. It is wonderful what the body can endure and yet live. Here Black Rifle stopped and rested on these stones, perhaps an hour. No, Red Coat, there are no signs to show it, but the trail on the other side is much fresher, which proves it. It is quite clear now that Black Rifle is waiting. He is not running away from anybody or anything. Ah! Red Coat, if we only had some of his precious bear steaks how welcome to us they would be!”
“Go on, Tayoga. As I told you, I’d try to stand it.”
“That is well, Red Coat. But it is not enough merely to wish for Black Rifle’s bear steaks. We will have a portion of them ourselves.”
“Now, Tayoga, your talk sounds a little wild to me.”
“But listen, Red Coat.”
The Onondaga suddenly put his fingers to his lips, and blew a shrill whistle that penetrated far in the forest. In a few instants, the answer, another whistle, came back from a point a few hundred yards ahead, and Tayoga said quietly:
“Red Coat, Black Rifle is waiting for us. We will now go forward and he will give us our dinner.”
They advanced without hesitation and the figure of the dark hunter rose up to meet them. His face showed pleasure, as he extended his hand first to Willet.
“Dave, old comrade,” he said, “the sight of you in the forest is always a pleasure to the eye. I thought you’d be coming with the lads, and I’ve been making ready for you. I knew that Tayoga, the greatest trailer the world has ever known, would be sure to strike my traces, and that he’d read them like print. And here’s Robert too, a fine boy, if I do say it to his face, and Lieutenant Grosvenor. You mayn’t know me, Lieutenant, though I recall you, and I can tell you you’re mighty lucky to fall into the hands of these three.”
“I think so too,” said Grosvenor earnestly.
“Red Coat is happy to see you,” said Tayoga, “but he will be happier to see your bear.”
“The Lieutenant is hungry,” said Black Rifle. “Then come; there is enough for all.”
“What made you wait for us?” asked Robert.
“You know how I roam the woods, doing as I please and under nobody’s command. I found that Tandakora was by the lake with warriors and that St. Luc was not far away. Tandakora’s men seemed to be trailing somebody, and hiding in the bushes, I spied on them. I was near enough to hear two warriors talking and I learned that it was you they were following. Then, coming on ahead, I left a trail for you to see. And I’ve got plenty of bear steaks already cooked for you.”
“God bless you, Mr. Black Rifle,” said Grosvenor fervently.
“Amen!” said Robert.
Black Rifle showed them his lair among dense bushes, and, after they had satisfied their hunger, the bear, divided in equal portions among all, was stored away in their knapsacks, Grosvenor luckily having retained his own as the Indians had not deprived him of it. They now had food enough for several days, and one great source of anxiety was removed.
“What had you found, Black Rifle?” asked Willet.
“St. Luc has a big force. He’s throwing a sort of veil before Montcalm, while the Marquis fortifies to meet the attack of the British and Americans that all know is coming. Perhaps the Lieutenant can tell us most about that force!”
“It’s to be a great one,” said Grosvenor.
“And we’ll go through to Quebec!” said Robert, his eyes flashing, his imagination at once alive. “We’ll put out forever the fire that’s always burning in the north and give our border peace.”
“Easy, lads, easy!” said Willet. “A thing’s never done until it’s done. I feel pretty sure we’ll do it, but we’ll reckon with present difficulties first. It seems to me it’s our duty now to follow St. Luc, and see what he means to do with his force. It’s hard on you, Lieutenant, because you’ll have to stay with us. You can’t go back to Albany just yet.”
Grosvenor glanced around at the unbroken forest. “I’m resigned,” he said. “After that wonderful escape I’m ready for anything. I see that this is my great chance to become a scout, and I’ll do the best I can.”
“I take it,” said Black Rifle, “that the main object of St. Luc is to clear the forest of all our scouts and skirmishers in order that we may be kept in complete ignorance of Montcalm’s movements. We’ll show him that he can’t do it. You have not forgotten any of your skill, have you, Tayoga?”
“So far from forgetting any of it he’s acquired more,” said Willet, answering for the Onondaga. “When it comes to trailing that boy just breathes it in. He adds some new tricks every day. But I think we’d better lie by, the rest of to-day, and to-night, don’t you, Black Rifle? We don’t want to wear out our lads at the start.”
“Well spoken, Dave,” responded Black Rifle. “It’s a camp in the enemy’s country we’ll have to make with the warriors all about us, but we must take the risk. We’d better go to the next brook and walk up it a long distance. It’s the oldest of all tricks to hide your trail, but it is still the best.”
They found the brook only a few hundred yards farther on, and extended their walk along its pebbly bed fully a mile and a half as a precaution, keeping to their wading until they could emerge on rocky ground, where they left no trail.
“It will be only chance now that will bring them down on us,” said Willet. “Do you think, Lieutenant, that after such a long walk you could manage another bear steak?”
“If the company will join me!” replied Grosvenor. “I don’t wish to show bad manners.”
“I’ll join you,” said Willet, speaking for the others, “and I think we’ll make a brief camp on that wooded hill there.”
“Why on a hill, Mr. Willet? Why not in a hollow where it seems to me we would be better hidden?”
“Because, besides hiding ourselves, we want to see, and you can see better from a height than from a valley. In the bushes there we’ll have a view all about us, and I don’t think our enemies can come too near, unseen by us. When we get into the thicket on the hill, Lieutenant, you can resume that pleasant nap that you did not finish. Eight or ten hours more of sleep will be just the thing for you.”
“All of you sleep a while,” said Black Rifle. “I’ll guard. I’m fresh. But be sure you walk on the stones. We must leave no trace.”
They found a fairly comfortable place in the thicket and soon all were asleep except Black Rifle, who sat with his rifle between his knees, and from his covert scanned the forest on all sides.
Black Rifle felt satisfaction. He was pleased to be with the friends for whom he cared most. An historical figure, solitary, aloof, he was a vivid personality, yet scarcely anything was known about him. His right name even had disappeared, and, to the border, far and near he was just Black Rifle, or Black Jack, a great scout and a terror to the Indians. In his way, he was fond of Willet, Tayoga and young Lennox, and he felt also that he would like Grosvenor when he knew him better. So, while they slept, he watched with a vigilance that nobody save Tayoga could surpass.
Black Rifle saw the life of the forest go on undisturbed. The birds on the boughs went about their business, and the little animals worked or played as usual in the bushes. Everything said to him that no enemy was near, and his own five senses confirmed it. The afternoon passed, and, about twilight, Tayoga awoke, but the others slept on.
“Sleep now, Black Rifle,” said the Onondaga. “I will take up the watch.”
“I don’t feel like closing my eyes just yet, Tayoga,” replied the scout, “and I’ll sit a while with you. Nothing has happened. Tandakora has not been able to find our trail.”
“But he will hunt long for it, Black Rifle. When my race hates it hates well. Tandakora feels his grudge against us. He has tried to do us much harm and he is grieved because we have not fallen before him. He blames us for it.”
“I know he does. Did you hear something walking in the thicket at the bottom of the hill?”
“It is only a bear. Perhaps he is looking for a good place in which to pass the night, but he will go much farther away.”
“Because the wind is shifting about a little, and, in another minute, it will take him a whiff of the human odor. Then he will run away, and run fast. Now he is running.”
“I don’t hear him, Tayoga, but I take it that you know what you are saying is true.”
“My ears are uncommonly keen, Black Rifle. It is no merit of mine that they are so. Why should a man talk about a gift from Manitou, when it really is the work of Manitou? Ah, the bear is going toward the south and he is well frightened because he never stops to look back, nor does he hesitate! Now he is gone and he will not come back again!”
Black Rifle glanced at the Onondaga in the dusk, and his eyes were full of admiration.
“You have wonderful gifts, Tayoga,” he said. “I don’t believe such eyes and ears as yours are to be found in the head of any other man.”
“But, as I have just told you, Black Rifle, however good they may be the credit belongs to Manitou and not to me. I am but a poor instrument.”
“Still you find ’em useful, and the exercise of such powers must yield a certain pleasure. They’re particularly valuable just now, as I’m thinking we’ll have an eventful night.”
“I think so too, Black Rifle. With the warriors and the French so near us it is not likely that it could pass in peace.”
“At any rate, Dave and the lads are not worrying about it. I never saw anybody sleep more soundly. I reckon they were pretty well worn out.”
“So they were, and, unless danger comes very close, we will not awaken them. That it will be near us soon I do not doubt because Tododaho warns me that peril is at hand.”
He was looking up at the star on which his patron saint sat and his face had that rapt expression which it always wore when his spirit leaped into the void to meet that of the great Onondaga chief who had gone away four hundred years ago. Black Rifle regarded him with respect. He too was steeped in Indian lore and belief, and, if Tayoga said he saw and heard what others could not hear or see, then he saw and heard them and that was all there was to it.
“What do you see, Tayoga?” he asked.
“Tododaho sits on his star with the wise snakes, coil on coil in his hair, and the great Mohawk, Hayowentha, who is inferior only to Tododaho, speaks to him from his own star across infinite space. They are talking of us, but it comes only as a whisper, like the dying voice of a distant wind, and I cannot understand their words. But both the great warriors look down warningly at us. They tell us to beware, that we are threatened by a great peril. I can read their faces. But a mist is passing in the heavens. The star of the Mohawk fades. Lo, it is gone! And now the vapors gather before the face of Tododaho too. Lo, he also has gone, and there are only clouds and mists in the far heavens! But the great chiefs, from their stars, have told us to watch and to watch well.”
“I believe you! I believe every word you say, Tayoga,” exclaimed Black Rifle, in a tone of awe. “The mist is coming down here too. I think it’s floating in from the lake. It will be all over the thickets soon. I reckon that the danger threatening us is from the warriors, and if we are in a veil of fog we’ll have to rely on our ears. I’m not bragging when I say that mine are pretty good, but yours are better.”
Tayoga did not reply. He knew that the compliment was true, but, as before, he ascribed the credit to Manitou because he had made the gift and not to himself who was merely an involuntary agent. The mist and vapors were increasing, drifting toward them in clouds from the lake, a vanguard of shreds and patches, already floating over the bushes in which they lay. It was evident that soon they would not be able to see five yards from there.
In ten minutes the mist became a fog, white and thick. The sleeping three were almost hidden, although they were at the feet of the watchers, and the two saw each other but dimly. They seemed to be in a tiny island with a white ocean circling about them. The Onondaga lay flat and put his ear to the earth.
“What do you hear, Tayoga?” whispered the scout.
“Nothing yet, Black Rifle, but the usual whispers of the wilderness, a little wind among the trees and a distant and uneasy deer walking.”
“Why should a deer be walking about at this time, and why should he be uneasy, Tayoga? Any deer in his right mind ought to be taking his rest now in the forest.”
“That is true, Black Rifle, but this deer is worried and when a deer is worried there is a cause. A deer is not like a man, full of fancies and creating danger when danger there is none. He is troubled because there are strange presences in the woods, presences that he dreads.”
“Maybe he scents us.”
“No, the wind does not blow from us toward him. Do not move! Do not stir in the least, Black Rifle! I think I catch another sound, almost as light as that made by a leaf when it falls! Ah, Manitou is good to me! He makes me hear to-night better than I ever heard before, because it is his purpose, I know not why, to make me do so! There comes the little sound again and it is real! It was a footstep far away, and then another and another and now many! It is the tread of marching men and they are white men!”
“How do you know they are white men, Tayoga?”
“Mingled with the sound of their footsteps is a little clank made by the hilts of swords and the butts of pistols striking against the metal on their belts. There is a slight creaking of leather, too, which could not possibly come from a band of warriors. I hear the echo of a voice! I think it is a command, a short, sharp word or two such as white officers give. The sounds of the footsteps merge now, Black Rifle, because the men are marching to the same step. I think there must be at least fifty of them. They are sure to be French, because we are certain our troops are not yet in this region, and because only the French are so active that they make these swift marches at night.”
“Unfortunately that’s so, Tayoga. Will they pass near us?”
“Very near us, but I do not think they will see us, as the fog is so thick.”
“Should we wake the others and move?”
“No, at least not yet. Now they are going very slowly. It is not because they do not know the way, but because the fog troubles them. It is St. Luc who leads them.”
“I don’t see how your ear can tell you that, Tayoga.”
“It is not my ear, it is my mind that tells me, Black Rifle. The French would not go through the forest to-night, unless they had warriors with them as guides, flankers and skirmishers. Only St. Luc could make them come, because we know that even the French have great trouble in inducing them to enter big battles. They like better ambush and foray. De Courcelles could not make them march on this journey nor could Jumonville. My reason tells me it could be only St. Luc. It must be!”
“Yes, I’m sure now it’s St. Luc up to some trick that we ought to meet.”
“But we do not know what the trick is, Black Rifle. Ah, they have stopped! All of them have stopped!”
“It is not possible that they have seen any traces of us, Tayoga! We left no trail. Besides, this fog is so thick and heavy; it’s like a blanket hiding everything!”
“No, it is not that. We left no trail. They are so near that we could see them if there were no fog. Now I hear some one walking alone in front of the company. His step is quick, sharp and positive. It is St. Luc, because, being the leader, he is the only one who would walk that way at such a time. I think he wants to see for himself or rather feel just where they are. Now he too stops, and some one walks forward to join him. It is a Frenchman, because he has on boots. I can hear just the faintest creak of the leather. It must be De Courcelles.”
“It may be his comrade Jumonville.”
“No, it is De Courcelles, because he is tall while Jumonville is not, and the stride of this man who is going forward to join St. Luc is long. It is surely De Courcelles. St. Luc does not like him, but he has to use him, because the Frenchmen are not many, and a leader can only lead those who are at hand to be led. Now they talk together. Perhaps they are puzzled about the direction.”
“Well, so would I be if I had to go anywhere in such a fog.”
“They walk back together to the soldiers, and now there is no noise of footsteps.”
“I take it that they’re waiting for something.”
“Aye, Black Rifle. They are waiting in the hope that the fog will rise. You know how suddenly a fog can lift and leave everything bright and clear.”
“And they would see us at once. They’ll be fairly on top of us.”
“So they would be, if the fog should go quickly away.”
“And do you think it will?” asked Black Rifle in alarm.
Tayoga laughed under his breath.
“I do not,” he replied confidently. “There is no wind to take it away. The great bank of mist and vapor will be heavy upon the ground and will increase in thickness. It would not be wise for us to move, because there may be ears among them as keen as ours, and they might hear us. Then blinded by the fog we might walk directly into the hands of prowling warriors. Although we are not many yards from them we are safest where we are, motionless and still.”
Black Rifle also lay down and put his ear to the earth.
“I hear very well myself, although not as well as you, Tayoga,” he whispered, “and I want to notice what they’re doing as far as I can. I make out the sound of a lot of footsteps, but I can’t tell what they mean.”
“They are sending groups in different directions, Black Rifle, looking for a way through the forest rather than for us. They are still uncertain where they are. Five or six men are going southward, about as many have turned toward the west, and two warriors and a Frenchman are coming toward us, the rest stay where they are.”
“It’s the three coming in our direction who are bothering me.”
“But remember, Black Rifle, that we are hidden in the deep fog as a fish is hidden in the water, and it will be almost as hard to find us. They must step nearly upon us before they could see us.”
Black Rifle, in his eventful life upon the border, had passed through many a crisis, but never any that tested his nerves more thoroughly than the one he now faced. He too heard the steps of the three warriors coming in their direction, cautiously feeling a way through the great bank of mist. It was true that they could pass near without seeing, but chance might bring them straight to the little group. He shifted his fingers to the lock and trigger of his rifle, and looked at the sleeping three whose figures were almost hidden, although they were not a yard away. He felt that they should be awake and ready but in waking, Grosvenor, at least, might make enough noise to draw the warriors upon them at once.
“They have shifted their course a little,” whispered Tayoga, “and it leads to our right. Now they change back again, and now they keep turning toward the left. I think they will pass eight or ten yards from us, which will be as good as five hundred or a thousand.”
The white man slowly raised his rifle, but did not cock it. That action would have made a clicking sound, sharp and clear in the fog, but the quick hands were ready for instant use. He knew, as Tayoga had said, that the chance of the warriors walking upon them in the blinding fog was small, but if the chance came it would have to be met with all their power and resource.
“I think they will come within about ten feet of us,” continued Tayoga, in his soft whisper. “There are two tall warriors and one quite short. The tall ones take about three steps to the short one’s four and even then the short man is always behind. They do not walk in single file as usual, but spread out that they may cover as much ground as possible. Now they are coming very near and I think it best, Black Rifle, that I talk no more for the present, but I will hold my rifle ready as you are doing, if unlucky chance should bring them upon us.”
The footsteps approached and passed a little to the left, but came so near that Black Rifle almost fancied he could see the dim figures in the fog. When they went on he drew a mighty breath and wiped the perspiration from his face.
“We fairly grazed the edge of death,” he whispered. “I’ll sit up now and you can do the rest of the listening all by yourself, Tayoga.”
“The three have rejoined the main body,” said the Onondaga, “and the other parties that went out have also gone back. I think the one that went south probably found the way in which they wanted to go, and they will now move on, leaving us safe for the while. Yes, I can hear them marching and the clank of the French weapons and equipment.”
He listened a few minutes longer, and then announced that they were quite beyond hearing.
“They are gone,” he said, “and Great Bear, Dagaeoga, and Red Coat have not even known that they were here.”
“In which they were lucky,” said Black Rifle.
The scout awoke the three, who were much astonished to learn that such danger had passed so near them. Then they considered what was best for them to do next.