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The night was admirably suited to their purpose--otherwise they would not have dared to leave Fort Refuge--and Willet, Tayoga and Robert alone undertook the task. Wilton, Carson and others were anxious to go, but, as an enterprise of such great danger required surpassing skill, the three promptly ruled them out. The hunter and young Lennox would have disguised themselves as Indians, but as they did not have any paint in the fort they were compelled to go forth in their own garb.
The cold had softened greatly, and, as heavy clouds had come with it, there was promise of snow, which in truth the three hoped would fall, since it would be an admirable cloak for their purpose. But in any event theirs was to be a perilous path, and Colden shook hands with the three as they lowered themselves softly from the palisade.
"Come back," he whispered. "If you find the task too dangerous let it go and return at once. We need you here in the fort."
"We'll come back as victors," Robert replied with confidence. Then he and his comrades crouched, close against the palisade and listened. The Indian fires showed dimly in the heavy dusk, and they knew that sentinels were on watch in the woods, but still keeping in the shadow of the palisade they went to the far side, where the Indian line was thinner. Then they dropped to hand and knee and crept toward the forest.
They stopped at intervals, lying flat upon the ground, looking with all their eyes and listening with all their ears. They saw ahead but one fire, apparently about four hundred yards away, and they heard only a light damp wind rustling the dry boughs and bushes. But they knew they could not afford to relax their caution by a hair, and they continued a slow creeping progress until they reached the woods. Then they rested on their elbows in a thicket, and took long breaths of relief. They had been a quarter of an hour in crossing the open and it was an immense relief to sit up again. They kept very close together, while their muscles recovered elasticity, and still used their eyes and ears to the utmost. It was impossible to say that a warrior was not near crouching in the thicket as they were, and they did not intend to run any useless risk. Moreover, if the alarm were raised now, they would escape into the fort, and await another chance.
But they neither heard nor saw a hostile presence. In truth, they saw nothing that betokened a siege, save the dim light flickering several hundred yards ahead of them, and they resumed their advance, bent so low that they could drop flat at the first menace. Their eyes looked continually for a sentinel, but they saw none.
"Don't you think the wind is rising a bit, Tayoga?" whispered the hunter.
"Yes," replied the Onondaga.
"And it feels damper to the face?"
"Yes, Great Bear."
"And it doesn't mean rain, because the air's too cold, but it does mean snow, for which the air is just right, and I think it's coming, as the clouds grow thicker and thicker all the time."
"Which proves that we are favored. Tododaho from his great and shining star, that we cannot see tonight, looks down upon us and will help us, since we have tried to do the things that are right. We wish the snow to come, because we wish a veil about us, while we confound our enemies, and Tododaho will send it."
He spoke devoutly and Robert admired and respected his faith, the center of which was Manitou, and Manitou in the mind of the Christian boy was the same as God. He also shared the faith of Tayoga that Tododaho would wrap the snow like a white robe about them to hide them from their enemies. Meanwhile the three crept slowly toward the fire, and Robert felt something damp brush his face. It was the first flake of snow, and Tododaho, on his shining star, was keeping his unspoken promise.
Tayoga looked up toward the point in the heavens where the great chief's star shone on clear nights, and, even in the dark, Robert saw the spiritual exaltation on his face. The Onondaga never doubted for an instant. The mighty chief who had gone away four centuries ago had answered the prayer made to him by one of his loyal children, and was sending the snow that it might be a veil before them while they destroyed the camp of their enemies. The soul of Tayoga leaped up. They had received a sign. They were in the care of Tododaho and they could not fail.
Another flake fell on Robert's face and a third followed, and then they came down in a white and gentle stream that soon covered him, Willet and Tayoga and hung like a curtain before them. He looked back toward the fort, but the veil there also hung between and he could not see it. Then he looked again, and the dim fire had disappeared in the white mist.
"Will it keep their huts and lodges from burning?" he whispered to the hunter.
Willet shook his head.
"If we get a fire started well," he said, "the snow will seem to feed it rather than put it out. It's going to help us in more ways than one, too. I'd expected that we'd have to use flint and steel to touch off our blaze, but as they're likely to leave their own fire and seek shelter, maybe we can get a torch there. Now, you two boys keep close to me and we'll approach that fire, or the place where it was."
They continued a cautious advance, their moccasins making no sound in the soft snow, all objects invisible at a distance of twelve or fifteen feet. Yet they saw one Indian warrior on watch, although he did not see or hear them. He was under the boughs of a small tree and was crouched against the trunk, protecting himself as well as he could from the tumbling flakes. He was a Huron, a capable warrior with his five senses developed well, and in normal times he was ambitious and eager for distinction in his wilderness world, but just now he did not dream that any one from the fort could be near. So the three passed him, unsuspected, and drew close to the fire, which now showed as a white glow through the dusk, sufficient proof that it was still burning. Further progress proved that the warriors had abandoned it for shelter, and they left the next task to Tayoga.
The Onondaga lay down in the snow and crept forward until he reached the fire, where he paused and waited two or three minutes to see that his presence was not detected. Then he took three burning sticks and passed them back swiftly to his comrades. Willet had already discerned the outline of a bark hut on his right and Robert had made out another on his left. Just beyond were skin tepees. They must now act quickly, and each went upon his chosen way.
Robert approached the hut on the left from the rear, and applied the torch to the wall which was made of dry and seasoned bark. Despite the snow, it ignited at once and burned with extraordinary speed. The roar of flames from the right showed that the hunter had done as well, and a light flash among the skin tepees was proof that Tayoga was not behind them.
The besieging force was taken completely by surprise. The three had imitated to perfection the classic example of Scipio's soldiers in the Carthaginian camp. The confusion was terrible as French and Indians rushed for their lives from the burning huts and lodges into the blinding snow, where they saw little, and, for the present, understood less. Tayoga who, in the white dusk readily passed for one of their own, slipped here and there, continually setting new fires, traveling in a circle about the fort, while Robert and Willet kept near him, but on the inner side of the circle and well behind the veil of snow.
The huts and lodges burned fiercely. Where they stood thickest each became a lofty pyramid of fire and then blended into a mighty mass of flames, forming an intense red core in the white cloud of falling snow. French soldiers and Indian warriors ran about, seeking to save their arms, ammunition and stores, but they were not always successful. Several explosions showed that the flames had reached powder, and Robert laughed to himself in pleasure. The destruction of their powder was a better result than he had hoped or foreseen.
The hunter uttered a low whistle and Tayoga throwing down his torch, at once joined him and Robert who had already cast theirs far from them.
"Back to the fort!" said Willet. "We've already done 'em damage they can't repair in a long time, and maybe we've broken up their camp for the winter! What a godsend the snow was!"
"It was Tododaho who sent it," said Tayoga, reverently. "They almost make a red ring around our fort. We have succeeded because the mighty chief, the founder of the great League of the Hodenosaunee, who went away to his star four centuries ago, willed for us to succeed. How splendidly the fires burn! Not a hut, not a lodge will be left!"
"And it's time for us to be going," said the hunter. "Men like De Courcelles, Jumonville and Tandakora will soon bring order out of all that tumult, and they'll be looking for those who set the torch. The snow is coming down heavier and heavier and it hides our flight, although it is not able to put out the fires. You're right, Tayoga, about Tododaho pouring his favor upon us."
It was easy for the three to regain the palisade, and they were not afraid of mistaken bullets fired at them for enemies, since Colden and Wilton had warned the soldiers that they might expect the return of the three. Tododaho continued to watch over, them as they reached the palisade, at the point where the young Philadelphia captain himself stood upon the raised plank behind it.
"Captain Colden! Captain Colden!" called Willet through the white cloud.
"Is it you, Mr. Willet?" exclaimed Colden. "Thank God you've come. I've been in great fear for you! I knew that you had set the fires, because my own eyes tell me so, but I didn't know what had become of you."
"I'm here, safe and well."
"And Mr. Lennox?"
"Here, unhurt, too," replied Robert.
"And the Onondaga?"
"All right and rejoicing that we have done even more than we hoped to do," said Tayoga, in his measured and scholastic English.
The three, coated with snow until they looked like white bears, quickly scaled the wall, and received the joyous welcome, given to those who have done a great deed, and who return unhurt to their comrades. Colden, Wilton and Carson shook their hands again and again and Robert knew that it was due as much to pleasure at the return as at the destruction of the besieging camp.
The entire population of Fort Refuge was at the palisade, heedless of the snow, watching the burning huts and lodges. There was no wind, but cinders and ashes fell near them, to be covered quickly with white. Fierce yells now came from the forest and arrows and bullets were fired at the fort, but they were harmless and the defenders did not reply.
The flames began to decline by and by, then they sank fast, and after a while the snow which still came down as if it meant never to stop covered everything. The circling white wall enveloped the stronghold completely, and Robert knew that the disaster to the French and Indians had been overwhelming. Probably all of them had saved their lives, but they had lost ammunition--the explosions had told him that--much of their stores, and doubtless all of their food. They would have to withdraw, for the present at least.
Robert felt immense exultation. They had struck a great blow, and it was he who had suggested the plan. His pride increased, although he hid it, when Willet put his large hand on his shoulder and said:
"'Twas well done, Robert, my lad, and 'twould not have been done at all had it not been for you. Your mind bred the idea, from which the action flowed."
"And you think the French and Indians have gone away now?"
"Surely, lad! Surely! Indians can stand a lot, and so can French, but neither can stand still in the middle of a snow that bids fair to be two feet deep and live. They may have to travel until they reach some Indian village farther west and north."
"Such being the case, there can be no pressing need for me just at present, and I think I shall sleep. I feel now as if I were bound to relax."
"The best thing you could do, and I'll take a turn between the blankets myself."
Robert had a great sleep. Some of the rooms in the blockhouse offered a high degree of frontier comfort, and he lay down upon a soft couch of skins. A fine fire blazing upon a stone hearth dried his deerskin garments, and, when he awoke about noon, he was strong and thoroughly refreshed. The snow was still falling heavily. The wilderness in its white blanket was beautiful, but it did not look like a possible home to Robert now. His vivid imagination leaped up at once and pictured the difficulties of any one struggling for life, even in that vast white silence.
Willet and Tayoga were up before him, and they were talking of another expedition to see how far the besieging force had gone, but while they were discussing it a figure appeared at the edge of the forest.
"It's a white man," exclaimed Wilton, "and so it must be one of the Frenchmen. He's a bold fellow walking directly within our range. What on earth can he want?"
One of the guards on the palisade raised his rifle, but Willet promptly pushed down the muzzle.
"That's no Frenchman," he said.
"Then who is it?" asked Wilton.
"He's clothed in white, as any one walking in this snow is bound to be, but I could tell at the first glimpse that it was none other than our friend, Black Rifle."
"Coming to us for refuge, and so our fort is well named."
"Not for refuge. Black Rifle has taken care of himself too long in the wilderness to be at a loss at any time. I suspect that he has something of importance to tell us or he would not come at all."
At the command of Colden the great gate was thrown open that the strange rover might enter in all honor, and as he came in, apparently oblivious of the storm, his eyes gleamed a little at the sight of Willet, his friend.
"You've come to tell us something," said the hunter.
"So I have," said Black Rifle.
"Brush off the snow, warm yourself by the fire, and then we'll listen."
"I can tell it now. I don't mind the snow. I saw from a distance the great fire last night, when the camp of the French and Indians burned. It was clever to destroy their huts and lodges, and I knew at once who did it. Such a thing as that could not have happened without you having a hand in it, Dave Willet. I watched to see what the French and Indians would do, and I followed them in their hurried retreat into the north. I hid in the snowy bushes, and heard some of their talk, too. They will not stop until they reach a village a full hundred miles from here. The Frenchmen, De Courcelles and Jumonville are mad with anger and disappointment, and so is the Indian chief Tandakora."
"And well they may be!" jubilantly exclaimed Captain Colden, off whose mind a great weight seemed to have slid. "It was splendid tactics to burn their home over their heads. I wouldn't have thought of it myself, but since others have thought of it, and, it has succeeded so admirably, we can now do the work we were sent here to do."
Tayoga and Willet made snow-shoes and went out on them a few days later, confirming the report of Black Rifle. Then small parties were sent forth to search the forest for settlers and their families. Robert had a large share in this work, and sometimes he looked upon terrible things. In more than one place, torch and tomahawk had already done their dreadful work, but in others they found the people alive and well, still clinging to their homes. It was often difficult, even in the face of imminent danger, to persuade them to leave, and when they finally went, under mild compulsion, it was with the resolve to return to their log cabins in the spring.
Fort Refuge now deserved its name. There were many axes, with plenty of strong and skillful arms to wield them, and new buildings were erected within the palisade, the smoke rising from a half dozen chimneys. They were rude structures, but the people who occupied them, used all their lives to hardships, did not ask much, and they seemed snug and comfortable enough to them. Fires always blazed on the broad stone hearths and the voices of children were heard within the log walls. The hands of women furnished the rooms, and made new clothes of deerskin.
The note of life at Fort Refuge was comfort and good cheer. They felt that they could hold the little fortress against any force that might come. The hunters, Willet, Tayoga and Black Rifle at their head, brought in an abundance of game. There was no ill health. The little children grew mightily, and, thus thrown together in a group, they had the happiest time they had ever known. Robert was their hero. No other could tell such glorious tales. He had read fairy stories at Albany, and he not only brought them all from the store of his memory but he embroidered and enlarged them. He had a manner with him, too. His musical, golden voice, his vivid eyes and his intense earnestness of tone, the same that had impressed so greatly the fifty sachems in the vale of Onondaga, carried conviction. If one telling a tale believed in it so thoroughly himself then those who heard it must believe in it too.
Robert fulfilled a great mission. He was not the orator, the golden mouthed, for nothing. If the winter came down a little too fiercely, his vivid eyes and gay voice were sufficient to lift the depression. Even the somber face of Black Rifle would light up when he came near. Nor was the young Quaker, Wilton, far behind him. He was a spontaneously happy youth, always bubbling with good nature, and he formed an able second for Lennox.
"Will," said Robert, "I believe it actually gives you joy to be here in this log fortress in the snow and wilderness. You do not miss the great capital, Philadelphia, to which you have been used all your life."
"No, I don't, Robert. I like Fort Refuge, because I'm free from restraints. It's the first time my true nature has had a chance to come out, and I'm making the most of the opportunity. Oh, I'm developing! In the spring you'll see me the gayest and most reckless blade that ever came into the forest."
The deep snow lasted a long time. More snowshoes were made, but only six or eight of the soldiers learned to use them well. There were sufficient, however, as Willet, Robert, Tayoga and Black Rifle were already adepts, and they ranged the forest far in all directions. They saw no further sign of French or Indians, but they steadily increased their supply of game.
Christmas came, January passed and then the big snow began to melt. New stirrings entered Robert's mind. He felt that their work at Fort Refuge was done. They had gathered into it all the outlying settlers who could be reached, and Colden, Wilton and Carson were now entirely competent to guard it and hold it. Robert felt that he and Willet should return to Albany, and get into the main current of the great war. Tayoga, of course, would go with them.
He talked it over with Willet and Tayoga, and they agreed with him at once. Black Rifle also decided to depart about the same time, and Colden, although grieved to see them go, could say nothing against it. When the four left they received an ovation that would have warmed the heart of any man. As they stood at the edge of the forest with their packs on their backs, Captain Colden gave a sharp command. Sixty rifles turned their muzzles upward, and sixty fingers pulled sixty triggers. Sixty weapons roared as one, and the four with dew in their eyes, lifted their caps to the splendid salute. Then a long, shrill cheer followed. Every child in the fort had been lifted above the palisade, and they sent the best wishes of their hearts with those who were going.
"That cheer of the little ones was mostly for you, Robert," said Willet, when the forest hid them.
"It was for all of us equally," said Robert modestly.
"No, I'm right and it must help us to have the good wishes of little children go with us. If they and Tododaho watch over us we can't come to much harm."
"It is a good omen," said Tayoga soberly. "When I lie down to sleep tonight I shall hear their voices in my ear."
Black Rifle now left them, going on one of his solitary expeditions into the wilderness and the others traveled diligently all the day, but owing to the condition of the earth did not make their usual progress. Most of the snow had melted and everything was dripping with water. It fell from every bough and twig, and in every ravine and gully a rivulet was running, while ponds stood in every depression. Many swollen brooks and creeks had to be forded, and when night came they were wet and soaked to the waist.
But Tayoga then achieved a great triumph. In the face of difficulties that seemed insuperable, he coaxed a fire in the lee of a hill, and the three fed it, until it threw out a great circle of heat in which they warmed and dried themselves. When they had eaten and rested a long time they put out the fire, waited for the coals and ashes to cool, and then spread over them their blankets, thus securing a dry base upon which to sleep. They were so thoroughly exhausted, and they were so sure that the forest contained no hostile presence that all three went to sleep at the same time and remained buried in slumber throughout the night.
Tayoga was the first to awake, and he saw the dawn of a new winter day, the earth reeking with cold damp and the thawing snow. He unrolled himself from his blankets and arose a little stiffly, but with a few movements of the limbs all his flexibility returned. The air was chill and the scene in the black forest of winter was desolate, but Tayoga was happy. Tododaho on his great shining star had watched over him and showered him with favors, and he had no doubt that he would remain under the protection of the mighty chief who had gone away so long ago.
Tayoga looked down at his comrades, who still slept soundly, and smiled. The three were bound together by powerful ties, and the events of recent months had made them stronger than ever. In the school at Albany he had absorbed much of the white man's education, and, while his Indian nature remained unchanged, he understood also the white point of view. He could meet both Robert and Willet on common ground, and theirs was a friendship that could not be severed.
Now he made a circle about their camp, and, being assured that no enemy was near, came back to the point where Robert and Willet yet slept. Then he took his flint and steel, and, withdrawing a little, kindled a fire, doing so as quietly as he could, in order that the two awaking might have a pleasant surprise. When the little flames were licking the wood, and the sparks began to fly upwards, he shook Robert by the shoulder.
"Arise, sluggard," he said. "Did not our teacher in Albany tell us it was proof of a lazy nature to sleep while the sun was rising? The fire even has grown impatient and has lighted itself while you abode with Tarenyawagon (the sender of dreams). Get up and cook our breakfast, Oh, Heavy Head!"
Robert sat up and so did Willet. Then Robert drew his blankets about his body and lay down again.
"You've done so well with the fire, Tayoga, and you've shown such a spirit," he said, "that it would be a pity to interfere with your activity. Go ahead, and awake me again when breakfast is ready."
Tayoga made a rush, seized the edge of his blanket and unrolled it, depositing Robert in the ashes. Then he darted away among the bushes, avoiding the white youth's pursuit. Willet meanwhile warmed himself by the fire and laughed.
"Come back, you two," he said. "You think you're little lads again at your school in Albany, but you're not. You're here in the wilderness, confronted by many difficulties, all of which you can overcome, and subject to many perils, all of which you know how to avoid."
"I'll come," said Robert, "if you promise to protect me from this fierce Onondaga chief who is trying to secure my scalp."
"Tayoga, return to the fire and cook these strips of venison. Here is the sharp stick left from last night. Robert, take our canteens, find a spring and fill them with fresh water. By right of seniority I'm in command this morning, and I intend to subject my army to extremely severe discipline, because it's good for it. Obey at once!"
Tayoga obediently took the sharpened stick and began to fry strips of venison. Robert, the canteens over his shoulder, found a spring near by and refilled them. Like Tayoga, the raw chill of the morning and the desolate forest of winter had no effect upon him. He too, was happy, uplifted, and he sang to himself the song he had heard De Galissonniere sing:
"Hier sur le pont d'Avignon J'ai oui chanter la belle, Lon, la, J'ai oui chanter la belle, Elle chantait d'un ton si doux Comme une demoiselle, Lon, la, Comme une demoiselle."
All that seemed far away now, yet the words of the song brought it back, and his extraordinary imagination made the scenes at Bigot's ball pass before his eyes again, almost as vivid as reality. Once more he saw the Intendant, his portly figure swaying in the dance, his red face beaming, and once more he beheld the fiery duel in the garden when the hunter dealt with Boucher, the bully and bravo.
Quebec was far away. He had been glad to go to it, and he had been glad to come away, too. He would be glad to go to it again, and he felt that he would do so some day, though the torrent of battle now rolled between. He was still humming the air when he came back to the fire, and saluting Willet politely, tendered a canteen each to him and Tayoga.
"Sir David Willet, baronet and general," he said, "I have the honor to report to you that in accordance with your command I have found the water, spring water, fine, fresh, pure, as good as any the northern wilderness can furnish, and that is the best in the world. Shall I tender it to you, sir, on my bended knee!"
"No, Mr. Lennox, we can dispense with the bended knee, but I am glad, young sir, to note in your voice the tone of deep respect for your elders which sometimes and sadly is lacking."
"If Dagaeoga works well, and always does as he is bidden," said Tayoga, "perhaps I'll let him look on at the ceremonies when I take my place as one of the fifteen sachems of the Onondaga nation."
While they ate their venison and some bread they had also brought with them, they discussed the next stage of their journey, and Tayoga made a suggestion. Traveling would remain difficult for several days, and instead of going directly to Albany, their original purpose, they might take a canoe, and visit Mount Johnson, the seat of Colonel William Johnson, who was such a power with the Hodenosaunee, and who was in his person a center of important affairs in North America. For a while, Mount Johnson might, in truth, suit their purpose better than Albany.
The idea appealed at once to both Robert and Willet. Colonel Johnson, more than any one else could tell them what to do, and owing to his strong alliance, marital and otherwise, with the Mohawks, they were likely to find chiefs of the Ganeagaono at his house or in the neighborhood.
"It is agreed," said Willet, after a brief discussion. "If my calculations be correct we can reach Mount Johnson in four days, and I don't think we're likely to cross the trail of an enemy, unless St. Luc is making some daring expedition."
"In any event, he's a nobler foe than De Courcelles or Jumonville," said Robert.
"I grant you that, readily," said the hunter. "Still, I don't think we're likely to encounter him on our way to Mount Johnson."
But on the second day they did cross a trail which they attributed to a hostile force. It contained, however, no white footsteps, and not pausing to investigate, they continued their course toward their destination. As all the snow was now gone, and the earth was drying fast, they were able almost to double their speed and they pressed forward, eager to see the celebrated Colonel William Johnson, who was now filling and who was destined to fill for so long a time so large a place in the affairs of North America.
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