The Lords of the Wild
By Joseph A. Altsheler
Public Domain Books
Chapter VIII: The Boat Builders
Robert and Grosvenor lay, side by side, propped up partly on their elbows, their rifles thrust well forward, and watching toward the north. They were not able to see anything, save the dark outline of the forest, and a little puff of smoke rising where an Indian had fired. The wilderness itself was absolutely still but Robert’s vivid imagination as usual peopled it thickly. Although his eye did not reach any human figure his mind pictured them everywhere, waiting patiently for a chance at his comrades and himself. He, more than any other of the five, realized the full extent of the danger. His extraordinary fancy pictured to him every possibility, and so his courage was all the greater, because he had the strength to face them with a tranquil mind.
A flash in the thicket and a bullet struck on a rock near Robert, glanced off and buried itself in a tree beyond them. He shivered a little. Fancy pictured the bullet not as missing, but as hitting him. Then he steadied himself, and was as ready as Willet or Black Rifle for whatever might come.
“I think that shot was fired by a sharpshooter who has crept forward ahead of the others,” whispered the hunter. “He’s lying behind that low bush to the west.”
“I’m of your mind about it,” said Black Rifle. “As soon as he reloads he’ll chance another shot at where he thinks we’re lying, and that will be his last.”
Robert heard the low words, and he shivered again a little. He could never grow used to the taking of human life, even in dire necessity. He knew that Willet had spoken the truth, and that the red sharpshooter would fire only one more shot. Soon he had the proof. The second flash came from the same point. Again the bullet glanced among the rocks, but, before the report of the rifle died, another answered. It was that of the hunter and he found his mark. A cry came from the bush, followed by a fierce yell of anger from those farther back, and then the sinister stillness settled again over the wilderness.
“The Indian has gone!” whispered Grosvenor in an awed tone to Robert.
“Yes, Dave fired at the flash, and he never misses. The cry showed it. But it will make the warriors all the more eager to take us.”
The silence lasted about a quarter of an hour, and then fire was opened upon them from three sides, bullets singing over their heads, or spattering upon the rocks.
“Lie flat, lads,” commanded Willet. “This is random lead, and if we keep close to the earth ’twill all pass us by. The warriors are seldom good marksmen.”
But one of the bullets, glancing from a rock, nipped Black Rifle in the shoulder. It was a very slight wound, though, and its only effect was to make him more eager to reach his enemy. In a few minutes his chance came as he caught a glimpse of a dusky but incautious figure among the trees, and, quick as a flash, drew trigger on it. There was no cry, but he saw the shadowy figure go down, not to rise again, and the fierce soul of Black Rifle was satisfied.
Scattered shots were fired, after another silence, and a bullet grazed the back of Grosvenor’s hand, drawing a drop or two of blood. It stung for a few moments, but, on the whole, he was proud of the little hurt. It was a badge of honor, and made him truly a member of this great forest band. It also stimulated his zeal, and he became eager for a shot of his own. He watched intently and when the warriors fired again he sent his bullet at the flash, as he had seen Willet and Black Rifle do. He did not know whether he had hit anything, but he hoped. Tayoga, who fired for the first time presently brought down a warrior, and Robert wounded another. But Willet and Black Rifle talked together in whispers and they were anxious.
“They won’t try to rush us so long as we keep among the rocks,” said the hunter. “They know now that we’re good shots, but they’ll hold us here until day when their main force will come up and then we’ll be finished.”
“It seems pretty certain that’s their plan now,” said the scout, “and between you and me, Dave, we’ve got to get away from here somehow. The moon has faded a bit, and that will help us a little. What do you think, Tayoga?”
“We did not escape other traps to remain here in this,” replied the Onondaga. “We must take the chance and go.”
“In half an hour, perhaps. When the clouds floating up there get well before the moon.”
Robert heard them distinctly and he glanced at the moon which was steadily growing paler, while the shadows were deepening over the forest. Yet it was obvious that it would not become very dark, and the half hour of which Willet had spoken would probably measure the limit of the increase.
“Can you hear them moving in the bush, Tayoga?” asked Willet.
The Onondaga put his ear to the ground.
“Only a light sound toward the north reaches me,” he replied. “Warriors there seem to be moving about. It may be that they have received more help. I think, Great Bear, that the time for us to go, if we go at all, is coming fast.”
Willet decided in a few minutes that it would not be any darker than it was then; and, choosing a southern direction, he crept from the rocks, the others following him in line, Tayoga as usual bringing up the rear. They made a hundred yards in silence, and, then, at a low signal from the hunter, they sank down, almost flat, every one listening for a sound from the besiegers. Only Tayoga was able to hear faint noises to right and left.
“They do not know yet that we have left the rocks,” he whispered, “and they are still watching that point. Manitou may carry us in safety between them.”
They were about to resume their painful creeping, when a half dozen rifles on their right flashed, and they dropped down again. But the bullets did not come their way, instead they rang among the rocks which they had just left. Tayoga laughed softly.
“They think we are still there,” he whispered, “and they send much lead against the inoffensive stone. The more the better for us.”
“I’m devoutly glad the rocks catch what is intended for us,” said Grosvenor, feeling intense relief. “How long do you think it will be, Tayoga, before I can stand up and walk like a man again?”
“No one can answer that question,” replied the Onondaga. “But remember, Red Coat, that you are getting splendid practice in the art of going silently along a trail on a dark night. It is what every forest runner must learn.”
Grosvenor in the dusk could not see the twinkle in Tayoga’s eye, but, drawing upon fresh founts of courage and resolution, he settled himself anew to his task. His elbows and knees ached and it was difficult to carry his rifle as he crawled along, but his ambition was as high as ever, and he would not complain. The lone hoot of an owl came from the point on the right, where one of the Indian groups lay, and it was promptly answered by a like sound from the left where another group was hidden.
“I think they’re beginning to suspect that we may have slipped away," said Willet, “and they’re talking to one another about it. Now they’ll stalk the rocks to see, but that will take time, which we can use handily. Come on, lads, we’ll go as fast as possible.”
Curving around a small hill, Willet rose to his feet and the others, with intense relief, did likewise. Robert’s and Grosvenor’s joints were young and elastic, and the stiffness quickly left them, but both had done enough creeping and crawling for one night. All stood listening for a minute or two. They heard no more shots fired at the rocks, but the two owls began to call again to each other.
“Do you understand them, Tayoga?” asked Willet.
“They talk the Huron language,” replied the Onondaga, in his precise fashion, “that is, their signals are those used by the Hurons. They are asking each other what has happened at the rocks, and neither can tell. Their expression is that of doubt, impatience and worry. They say to each other: ’Those whom we believed we held in a trap may have broken out of it. It will take time to see and also much peril if they are still in the trap, because they can use their rifles well.’ We annoy them much, Great Bear.”
The big hunter chuckled.
“I don’t mind that,” he said. “Their worries are not my worries. Ah, there they go again! What are they saying now, Tayoga?”
“Their tone grows more anxious. You can tell what they feel by the expression of the owl. Their fear that we may have stolen out of the trap is increasing, but they cannot know unless they go and see, and then they may be creeping into the muzzles of our rifles. It is a difficult problem that we have given them to solve, Great Bear.”
“We’ll leave it for ’em, lads. Now that we’re on our feet we’ll go at speed.”
They walked very rapidly, but they stopped when they heard once more the faint cries of the owls, now almost lost in the distance. Tayoga interpreted them.
“They are cries of anger,” he said. “They have discovered that we are not in the rocks, and now they will look around for our trail, which will be hard to find in the darkness of the night.”
“And the thing for us to do is to keep on toward the south as hard as we can.”
“So it would be, Great Bear, but others are coming up from the south, and we would go directly into their arms.”
“What do you mean, Tayoga?”
“A number of men are advancing, and I think they are warriors.”
“Then we have merely slipped out of one trap to fall into another.”
“It is possible, Great Bear. It is also possible that those who come are friends. Let me put my ear to the earth, which is the bringer of sound. It is clear to me that those who walk toward us are warriors. White men would not tread so lightly. I do not think, Great Bear, that any force of the Indians who are allied with the French would be coming up from the south, and the chances are that these be friends.”
He sent forth the call of a bird, a beautiful, clear note, and it was answered instantly with a note as clear and as beautiful.
“They are friends!” said Tayoga joyfully. “These be the Ganeagaono!”
“Ganeagaono?” exclaimed Grosvenor.
“Mohawks,” explained Robert. “The Keepers of the Eastern Gate. The leading warriors of the Six Nations and friends of ours. We are, in truth, in luck.”
Ten dusky figures came forward to meet them, and with great joy Robert recognized in the leader the fierce young Mohawk chief, Daganoweda, who once before had come to their help in a crisis. But it was Tayoga who welcomed him first.
“Daganoweda, of the clan of the Turtle, of the nation, Ganeagaono, of the great League of the Hodenosaunee, the sight of you is very pleasant to our eyes,” he said.
“Tayoga, of the clan of the Bear, of the Nation, Onondaga, of the great League of the Hodenosaunee, you are my brother and we are well met,” the chief rejoined.
They saluted each other and then Daganoweda greeted the others, all of whom were known to him of old save Grosvenor, but who was presented duly in the ceremonious style loved by the Iroquois.
“We are pursued by men of Tandakora,” said Willet. “They are not far away now. We do not wish to fight them because we would hasten below with a warning.”
The black eyes of the fierce Mohawk flashed.
“Will the Great Bear give us his battle?” he said.
He asked for it as if for a favor.
“We usually fight our own quarrels through,” replied Willet, “but as I said, duty calls us from here in haste. Then, since you wish it, Daganoweda, we pass the fight to you. But have you enough men?”
“Ten Mohawks are enough to meet any wandering band of our enemies that may be in the woods,” replied the young chief, proudly. “Let Great Bear and his friends go in peace. This fight is ours.”
Despite the dusk, Robert saw Daganoweda’s eyes glisten. He thoroughly understood the fierce soul of the young Mohawk chief, who would not let such a brilliant opportunity for battle pass him.
“Then farewell, Daganoweda,” said Willet. “You have been a friend at the right moment.”
He led again in the flight toward the south and the five saw the chief and his warriors passing the other way sink into the dusk. Soon they heard shots behind them and they knew that the Mohawks were engaged in battle with the Hurons and their friends. They sped on for a long time, and when they stopped they were close to the shores of the lake, the water showing dimly through the trees.
“I think we may rest easy for a while now,” said Willet. “I’m certain not one of those warriors was able to get by the Mohawks, and it’s not likely that an enemy is within several miles of us. Can you hear anything, Tayoga?”
“Nothing,” replied the Onondaga. “Tododaho, on his star, tells me that we have this part of the forest to ourselves.”
“That being so, we’ll stay here a long time. Lads, you might unroll your blankets and make the best of things.”
Grosvenor’s blanket had not been taken from him when he was a prisoner, and it was still strapped on his back. He and Robert found the rest most welcome and they were not slow in wrapping the blankets around their bodies and making themselves comfortable. Without willing it, they fell asleep, but were awakened shortly after dawn.
“See!” said Willet, pointing toward the south.
A filmy trail of blue smoke rose across the clear, blue sky.
“That, whatever it is,” said the hunter, “is what St. Luc is advancing against, but in spite of all the risks we’ve run we’ll be there in time to give warning.”
Robert looked with the deepest interest at the smoke, which was a long way off, but it seemed to rise from the lake’s edge and he thought it must be a British or American post. It was at a most exposed and dangerous point, but his heart thrilled at Willet’s words. Yes, in spite of every danger that had been thrown across their path, they would be able to carry word in time.
“We’ll be there in half an hour, and we’ll know what’s going forward," said Willet.
“We’ll know before then,” said Grosvenor confidently. “Our marvelous Indian friend here will tell us when we’re half way.”
Tayoga smiled, but said nothing, and they started again, Willet, as usual, leading, and the Onondaga bringing up the rear. The spire of smoke thickened and darkened, and, to Robert and Grosvenor, it seemed most friendly and alluring. It appeared to rise from a little point of land thrust into the lake but they could not yet see its base, owing to an intervening hill. Just before they reached the crest of the hill Tayoga said:
“Wait a moment, Great Bear. I think I hear a sound from the place where the smoke rises, and we may be able to tell what it means.”
They stopped promptly, and the Onondaga put his ear to the earth.
“I hear the sounds very distinctly now,” he said. “They are of a kind not often occurring on these shores.”
“What are they?” asked Robert eagerly.
“They are made by axes biting into wood. Many men are cutting down trees.”
“They’re building a fort, and they’re in a hurry about it or they would not be felling trees so early in the morning.”
“Your reasoning about the hurry is good, Dagaeoga. The white man will not go into the forest with his ax at daybreak, unless the need of haste is great, but it is not a fort they build. Mingled with the fall of the axes I hear another note. It is a humming and a buzzing. It is heard in these forests much less often than the thud of the ax. Ah! I was in doubt at first, but I know it now! It is the sound made by a great saw as it eats into the wood.”
“A saw mill, Tayoga!”
“Yes, Dagaeoga, that is what it is, and now mind will tell us why it is here. The logs that the axes cut down are sawed in the mill. The saw would not be needed if the logs were to be used for building a fort. The ax would do it all. The logs are being turned into planks and boards.”
“Which shows that they’re being used for some purpose requiring much finer finish than the mere building of a fort.”
“Now the mind of Dagaeoga is working well. Great Bear and I have been on the point where the new saw mill stands.”
“And the timber there is fine,” interrupted Willet.
“Just the kind that white men use when they build long boats for traveling on the lakes, boats that will carry many men and armband supplies. We know that a great army of red coats is advancing. It expects to come up George and then probably to Champlain to meet Montcalm and to invade Canada. It is an army that will need hundreds of boats for such a purpose, and they must be built.”
“And they’re building some of ’em right here on this point, before us!” exclaimed Robert.
“It is so,” he said precisely. “There cannot be any doubt of it. A saw mill could not be here for any other purpose. But if we had not come it would be destroyed or captured before night by St. Luc.”
“Come on, lads, and we’ll soon be among ’em,” said Willet.
From the crest of a hill they looked down upon a scene of great activity. The sun was scarcely risen but more than fifty men were at work on the forest with axes, and, at the very edge of the water, a saw mill was in active operation. Along the shore, where as many more toiled, were boats finished and others in all stages of progress. Soldiers in uniform, rifles on shoulder, walked about.
It was a pleasant sight, refreshing to the eyes of Robert and Grosvenor. Here were many men of their own race, and here were many activities, telling of great energy in the war. After so much peril in the forest they would be glad to be in the open and with their own kind again.
“Look, Robert,” said Willet, “don’t you know them?”
“Know whom?” asked young Lennox.
“The officers of this camp. The lads in the brave uniforms. If my eyes make no mistake, and they don’t make any, the fine, tall young fellow standing at the edge of the water is our Philadelphia friend, Captain Colden.”
“Beyond a doubt it is, Dave, and right glad am I to see him, and there too is Wilton, the fighting Quaker, and Carson also. Why this is to be, in truth, a reunion!”
Willet put his hands to his mouth trumpet fashion, and uttered a long, piercing shout. Then the five advanced and marched into the camp of their friends, where they received a welcome, amazed but full of warmth, Grosvenor, too, being made to feel at home.
“Have you dropped from the skies?” asked Colden.
“Scarcely that,” replied Robert, laughing with pleasure, “but we’ve been shot out of the forest, and very glad we are to be here. We’ve come to tell you also that we’ve been pursued by a strong French and Indian force, led by St. Luc himself, and that it will be upon you before nightfall.”
“And I, trained in my boyhood not to fight, will have to fight again," said Wilton.
“I know that none will do it better,” said Robert.
“But we will give you breakfast,” said Colden, “and while you are eating I will put the camp in a posture of defense. We are here building boats to be used by the army in its advance against Montcalm, and we didn’t know that the enemy in force was south of Crown Point.”
There were several sheds and in one of these a most abundant breakfast was served to them, including coffee and white bread, neither of which they had seen in a long time, and which were most welcome. While they ate, they saw the young Pennsylvania officers arranging their forces with skill and rapidity.
“They’ve learned a lot since we were with ’em that time at Fort Refuge,” said Robert.
“They’ve had to learn,” said Willet. “The forests in these times are a hard teacher, but they’re bright and good boys, just the same. Nobody would learn faster.”
“Even as Red Coat has learned to be a scout and to know the trail," said Tayoga, “but he is not sorry to come among white men and to have good food once more.”
“No, I’m not,” said Grosvenor emphatically. “My ambition to be a fine trailer was high last night, and it’s still with me, but I had enough of creeping and crawling to last me a long time, and if we have to fight again I think I can fight better standing up.”
“We will have to fight again. Be sure of that,” said Tayoga decisively.
Before breakfast was over Colden came to them, and Robert told, in detail and with great vividness, all they had seen. The young Philadelphia captain’s face became very grave.
“It was you who warned us before Fort Refuge,” he said, “and now you come again. You helped us to success then, and you’ll help us now. Even if your coming does bring news of danger I’ll consider it a good omen.”
“We’ll be proud to stand in line with you once more,” said Robert, although he felt that, with St. Luc in command, the attack of the French and Indians would be formidable. Colden would have available for battle between one hundred and fifty and two hundred men, about fifty of whom were soldiers. But all the others, the boat builders and the rest, were capable fighters too. They could certainly make a powerful resistance even to the daring and skillful French Chevalier, and, with a certain number of boats finished, the lake also was open to them, in case retreat became necessary. Luckily, too, St. Luc had no cannon. Courageous Captain Colden considered their situation far from desperate. There was hope too that Daganoweda and his Mohawks might come, not only those he had with him in the night battle, but others as well. The Mohawks, loving a combat, would not let go by such a one as that now threatening.
Willet rose from his breakfast and surveyed the position. There were no real buildings, only sheds, the largest covering the saw mill, and the others used for the protection of tools and of the men, when they slept, against the weather. All the trees for a distance well beyond rifle shot had been cut away for timber, a lucky fact, as the hostile Indians could not now use them for ambush. Stout arms were throwing the fallen trees into a long line of breastworks, and the place already began to look like a fortified point. Willet’s eyes glistened.
“Although St. Luc beat us when we were with Rogers,” he said, “I think we’ll hold him here. We’ve certain advantages that will help us mightily.”
“Thanks to you and your comrades for bringing us such timely warning," repeated Colden. “I’ll confess that I did not suspect any enemy was nearer than Champlain, and neither we nor our superiors at Albany have feared an attack here.”
“It’s sure to come,” said Willet.
Grosvenor, refreshed and reinvigorated, was taking an active share in the preparations. He had smoothed and brushed his uniform with scrupulous care, and despite the great hardships through which he had passed, looked once more neat and trim. He had returned to his incarnation as a trim young British officer. Adaptable and liking the Americans, equipped moreover with a certain experience of the border, he was at once on the best of terms with Colden, Wilton, Carson and the others, and was, in truth, one of them. Wilton found him a belt and a small sword, which he buckled on, and which as a badge of office gave him a certain moral strength, making him in fact a thoroughly happy man that morning.
Black Rifle, after food, had slid quietly into the forest to spy out the enemy. Robert, flexible, vivid, his imagination always alive, was with Tayoga, helping him with the breastworks, and keeping an eye at the same time on the forest. The lake behind him stretched away, vast, peaceful and beautiful, but he seldom looked at it now. He did not anticipate danger that way. It would come through the woods.
A gradual slope, hemmed in on either side by high cliffs and only a few hundred yards wide, led to the point on which the saw mill stood. St. Luc must approach by the slope. The cliffs were impossible, and, the longer he looked at it, the better Robert liked the position. Daring men such as Colden had could hold it against a much larger force. Let St. Luc come, he would find a brave and ready defense.
“Dagaeoga thinks we can hold the saw mill even against Sharp Sword," said Tayoga.
“How do you know I think it?”
“Because it is printed on Dagaeoga’s face. When Dagaeoga’s fancy is alive, which is nearly all the time, his eyes speak and they tell one very clearly what he thinks. His eyes say that the slope is narrow; St. Luc can come that way only; we have here more than one hundred and fifty good rifles; and in face of the storm of lead that we can send against him he cannot rush us. That is what the eyes and face of Dagaeoga say.”
“You’re right, Tayoga, that is what my brain thinks, though I didn’t know it was printed on my face. But it’s all the easier for you to read it, because you’re probably thinking the same that I do.”
“I do, Dagaeoga. Since St. Luc is not able to effect a surprise, he has a great task before him, though he will persist in it, because he wants to destroy our force and our boats also.”
But the morning passed without any demonstration from the forest. Many of the boat builders began to believe it was a false alarm, and murmured at the continuous and hard labor on the breastworks, but Colden, knowing that Willet and his friends were to be trusted implicitly, held them to their tasks. The hunter also looked into the question of food supply and found it ample. They had brought much food with them from Albany and the forest had furnished much more. There was no occasion for alarm on that point, since the siege could not be a long one. Noon came and no sign of the enemy. Willet began to think the attack would be postponed until night, as St. Luc doubtless had learned already that he could not carry the place by surprise. But he relied most upon the word of Black Rifle who had not yet returned from the forest. The dark scout came back about the middle of the afternoon, and he told Colden and Willet that he had seen nothing of Daganoweda and his Mohawks, though there were indications in the forest that they had defeated the Hurons the night before. But St. Luc Was at hand, not much more than a mile away, where he had pitched a camp. More French and Canadians had arrived and he now led a force of at least five hundred men, the great majority of whom were warriors. He thought an attack would be made after dark, but in what form it was impossible to say.
“Which means,” said Colden, “that I must have sentinels who will never relax their vigilance.”
“Particularly as the night is going to be dark,” said Willet. “There’s a haze over the lake now, and the sun will set in a mist.”
The twilight was heavy as he had predicted, and it was soon black on the mountains and the lake. But within the camp fires were burning, throwing a cheerful light, and many guards were posted. Crude but effective fortifications stretched all along the forest side of the camp, and Willet, Black Rifle and Tayoga were among the stumps in front of them. No enemy would be able to hide there even in the night. Wagons in which they had brought their supplies were drawn up in a circle, and would form an inner line of defense. Robert was with Grosvenor and Wilton near the center of the camp.
“Knowing the French and Indians as I now do,” said Wilton, “I never doubt for an instant that an attack will come before morning. My experience at Fort Refuge is sufficient indication. It is strange that I, who was reared not to believe in fighting, should now be compelled to do it all the time.”
“And while my profession is fighting,” said Grosvenor, “I always expected to fight in the open fields of Europe and now I’m learning my trade in the deep forests of North America, where it’s quite another sort of business. How long do you think it will be, Lennox, before we hear the owls hoot and the wolves bark?”
“We’ve had a lot of such signals in the last few days,” he replied, “but in this country battles are not always opened with ’em. Still, I dare say we’ll hear ’em.”
Out of the forest in front of them came a long, lonely hoot.
“Speak of the owl and you hear his voice,” said Wilton.
“If Tayoga were here he could tell us exactly what that owl, who is no owl but an Indian, meant,” said Grosvenor, “also the tribe of the Indian, his age, his complexion, what he had for supper, how he is feeling and whether he is married or single. Oh, I assure you, Wilton, you needn’t smile! I’ve seen the Onondaga do things much more marvelous. Nothing short of trailing a bird through the air would really test his wilderness powers.”
“I wasn’t smiling at your belief, Grosvenor,” said the young Quaker, “I was merely smiling at your earnestness. When you tell me anything about Tayoga’s skill on the trail I shall believe it, I don’t care what it is. I saw him do marvelous things when we were at Fort Refuge.”
The owl ceased its melancholy cry, and no other sound came from the forest, while the camp waited, with as much patience as it could muster, for the attack.