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THE FARTHER SLOPE.
Barboux's complexion had turned to a sick yellow beneath its mottles. He had been walking hard, and had eaten too much throughout the voyage; no doubt, too, the sunset light painted his colour deeper. But the man fairly twittered.
Menehwehna muttered an Indian name.
"Eh? Speak low, for the love of God!" The sergeant swept the cliffs above and around with a shuddering glance.
"Les Agniers, as you call them--but Iroquois for certain. The man, you see, is Canayan--" Menehwehna began coolly to handle the corpse. "He has been dead for hours, but not many hours." He lifted an arm and let it fall, after trying the rigidity of the muscles. "Not many hours," he repeated; and signed to Muskingon, who began to crawl forward and, from the gap of the pass, to reconnoitre the slope below.
"And in the interval they have been tracking us, belike?"
"They may, indeed, have spied us coming from the cliffs above," answered Menehwehna unperturbed. "If so, they are watching us at this moment, and there is no escaping; but this we shall learn within twenty paces, since between the rocks here they have us at their will. You, O illustrious, they might suffer to promenade yourself for a while in the open, for the sake of better sport; with us, who are Ojibways, they would deal while yet they could be sure."
He said it without any show of vanity, nor did he trouble himself to glance around or above for signs of the foe. "We had best make trial of this without delay," he added. "For if they fire the noise may reach the other two and warn Bateese, who is clever and may yet save himself."
"What the devil care I for Bateese?" snarled Barboux. "If they have tracked us, they have tracked all. I run no risks for a bossu and a useless prisoner."
"I did not say that they have tracked us. Him they tracked beyond a doubt; and at the end he knew they were after him. See--" Again he lifted the arm of the corpse, and invited the sergeant to feel its shirt along the ribs and under the armpits. "See you how stiff it is; that is where the sweat has dried, and men sweat so when they are in a great hurry. Perhaps he was the last of his company, and they overtook him here. Now, see again--I tell you they have not been tracking us, and I will prove it. In the first place I am no fool, and if one--two--three men have tracked me close (it cannot be far) a day long without my knowing, it will be the first time in Menehwehna's life. But let that pass. See these marks; they overtook him here, and they did with him--so. But where is any mark on the path behind us? Look well; there is only one path and no trail in it at all, else I had not cried out as I did. No man has passed within less time than it takes the moss to grow. Very good; then whoever killed him followed him up from yonder, and here stopped and turned back--I think, in a hurry. To place the body so--that is an Iroquois trick when few and in a hurry; otherwise they take him away and do worse."
"Iroquois? But que diable! The Six Nations are at peace with us! Why on earth should the Iroquois meddle with this man, by the dress of him a coureur de bois?"
"And unarmed, too!" pursued Menehwehna with fine irony, "since they have taken away his gun. Ask me riddles that I can read. The Six Nations are never at peace; there were five hundred of them back at Ticonderoga, seated on a hill opposite and only waiting. Yes, and in peace they have never less reasons than fingers and toes for killing a man. Your questions are for a child; but I say that the Iroquois have been here and killed this man, and in a hurry. Now answer me; if, after killing him, they wished to spy down upon our coming, and were in a hurry, why did they not take the short way through the pass?"
"That is simple. Any fresh track of men at the entrance, or close within it, would warn us back; therefore they would say, 'Let us climb to the ridge and watch, though it take longer.'"
"Good; now you talk with a clear head, and I have less fear for you. They may be aloft there, as you say, having drawn us into their trap. Yet I do not think it, for why should they be expecting us? It is now two days since you killed the moose. They could not have been near in a body to hear that shot fired, for it is hours since they overtook this man, following him up from the other slope. But a scout might have heard it and climbed across to warn them; yes, that is possible."
But here Muskingon came crawling back. He had inspected the ground by the lip of the descent, and in his belief the dead man's pursuers were three or four at the most, and had hurried down the hill again when their work was done.
Menehwehna nodded gravely. "It is as I thought, and for the moment we need not fear; but we cannot spend the night in this trap--for trap it is, whether watched or not. Do we go forward then, or back?"
Barboux cursed. "How in the name of twenty devils can I go back! Back to the Richelieu?--it would be wasting weeks!" His hand went up to his breast, then he seemed to recollect himself and turned upon John roughly. "Step back, you, and find if the others are in sight. We, here, have private matters to discuss."
John obeyed. The first turn of the cliff shut off the warm westerly glow, and he went back through twilight. He knew now why Barboux had lagged behind on the Richelieu, in scorn of discipline. The man must be entrusted with some secret missive of Montcalm's, and, being puffed up with it, had in a luckless hour struck out a line of his own. To turn back now would mean his ruin; might end in his standing up to be shot with his back to a wall. . . .
Between the narrow walls of the pass night was closing down rapidly. John lifted his face towards the strip of sky aloft, greenish-blue and tranquil. . . .
He fell back--his heart, after one leap, freezing--slowly freezing to a standstill; his hands spreading themselves against the face of the rock.
What voice was that, screaming? . . . one--two--three--horrible human screams, rending the twilight, beating down on his ears, echoing from wall to wall. . . .
The third and last scream died out in a low, bubbling wail. Close upon it rose a sound which John could not mistake--the whoop of Indians. He plucked his hands from the rock, and ran; but, as he turned to run, in the sudden silence a body thudded down upon the path behind him.
In twenty strides he was back again at the issue of the pass. The two Indians had vanished. Barboux's gross body alone blocked the pale daylight there. Barboux lingered a moment, stooping over the murdered man; but he too ran at the sound of John's footsteps, and the corpse, as John came abreast of it, slid over in a silly heap, almost rolling against his legs.
He leaped aside and cleared it, and in a moment was pelting down the slope after the sergeant, who flung back an agonised doubtful glance, and recognising his pursuer grunted with relief. At their feet, and far below, spread a wide plain--a sea of forest rolling, wave upon wave, with a gleam of water between. The river, then--Bateese's river--was near at hand.
Fifty yards down the slope, which was bare of cover, he saw the two Indians. Muskingon led by a few strides, and the pair seemed to be moving noiselessly; yet, by the play of their shoulders, both were running for their lives. John raced past the lumbering sergeant and put forth all his strength to catch up with Menehwehna. The descent jarred his knees horribly, and still, as he plunged deeper into the shadow of the plain, the stones and bushes beneath his feet grew dimmer and the pitfalls harder to avoid. His ears were straining for the Indian war-whoop behind him; he wondered more and more as the seconds grew into minutes and yet brought no sounds but the trickle and slide of stones dislodged by Barboux thundering in the rear.
They were close upon the outskirts of the forest. He had caught up with Menehwehna and was running at his heels, stride for stride.
In the first dark shadow of the trees Menehwehna checked himself, came to a sudden halt, and swung round, panting. Somehow, although unable to see his face, John knew him to be furiously angry--with the cold fury of an Indian.
"Englishman, you are a fool!"
"But why?" panted John innocently. "Is it the noise I made? I cannot run as you Indians can."
Menehwehna grunted. "What matters noise more or less, when he is anywhere near?"
"They have not seen us!" gasped Barboux, blundering up at this moment and almost into John's arms.
"To be sure," answered Menehwehna sardonically, "they have not seen us. It may even be that the great Manitou has smitten them with deafness and they have not heard you, O illustrious!--and with blindness, that they cannot trace your footmarks; yes, and perchance with folly, too, so that, returning to a dead man whom they left, they may wonder not at all that he has tumbled himself about!"
"Peste! It was this Englishman's fault. He came running behind and hurried me. But you Indians do not know everything. I found--" but here Barboux checked himself on the edge of a boast.
The Indian had sunk on one knee and laid his ear to the ground. "It will be of great price," said he, "if what you found will take us out of this. They are not following as yet, and the water is near."
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