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True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence, a novel by George Alfred Henty

Chapter 7. In The Forest

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"See, Peter!" Harold exclaimed; "there is a whole fleet of boats ahead."

"I sees 'em," Peter said, "and have seed 'em for the last quarter of an hour. It's Schuyler, with the rest of what they calls their army. Steer a little out of the course; we must pass close by 'em. They won't suspect nothing wrong and will suppose we are merely carrying a message."

In half an hour they were abreast of the flotilla, consisting of flatboats laden with troops. With them were two or three Indian canoes. Peter steered so as to pass at a distance of a hundred and fifty yards. They rowed less strongly now, but still vigorously. There was a shout from the boat.

"All well on the island?"

"All well," Peter shouted back, waving his hand, and without further word the canoe passed on. "There! do you hear that?" Peter exclaimed. "They're firing shots from the canoes to call their attention. The chances are they won't hear them, for the rattle of their oars and the talking and the row they're making are enough to drown the sound of a cannon. Now put it on again as hard as you can. Another hour will take us to the landing place."

They could see, when the flotilla came up to the pursuing boats, that the canoes which accompanied it turned their heads and joined in the pursuit, but they were now near three miles ahead and there was no chance whatever of their being overtaken. They slackened their speed slightly as they approached the land, and rowed up to the landing place without any signs of extraordinary haste. A few men were loitering about.

"What's the news from the island?" one asked as they landed.

"All well there," Peter said.

"Did you see anything of Schuyler?"

"Yes, we met him about halfway across."

"What have you come for?"

"General Montgomery says that no spare flints have been sent over for the firelocks."

"I'll swear that some went," one of the men exclaimed, "for I packed a sack of them myself in one of the boats."

"I s'pose they have been mislaid," Peter said. "Perhaps some of the stores have got heaped over 'em. Ef you are quite sartin, we have had our journey for nothing."

"As sartin as life," the man replied. "I'll swear to the sackful of flints; and tarnation heavy they was, too."

"Well, then, I need not trouble about it further," Peter said. "We'll take a rest and paddle back in an hour or two. Was there any marks on the sack, so as I may tell the general how to look for it?"

"Marks!" the man repeated. "Why, it had 'Flints' written on it in big black letters six inches long. It must turn up, anyhow. They'll find it when they come to shift the stores."

Then, accompanied by his two companions, Peter strolled quietly through the little village. Stopping at a small store, he purchased some flour and tea; then he followed the road inland and was soon out of sight of the village; he stopped for a moment and then shook his head.

"It's no use trying to hide our trail here," he said. "The road's an inch thick in dust, and do what we will they'll be able to see where we turn off. It's our legs as we have got to trust to for a bit. We've got a good half hour's start of the canoes; they were a long three miles behind when we struck the shore."

Leaving the road, he led the way with a long, swinging stride across the cultivated land. Twenty minutes' walk took them into the forest, which extended from the shore of the lake many miles inland.

"Take off your boots, Harold," he said as he entered the wood. "Them heels will leave marks that a redskin could pick up at a run. Now tread, as near as you can, in the exact spot where the Seneca has trodden before you. He'll follow in my track, and you may be sure that I'll choose the hardest bits of ground I can come across. There, the varmints are on shore!"

As he spoke an angry yell rose from the distant village. At a long, steady pace, which taxed to the utmost Harold's powers as a walker, they kept their way through the woods, not pursuing a straight course, but turning, winding, and zigzagging every few minutes. Harold could not but feel impatient at what seemed to him such a loss of time, especially when a yell from the edge of the wood told that the Indians had traced them thus far--showed, too, that they were far nearer than before. But, as Peter, afterward explained to him, all this turning and winding made it necessary for the Indians to follow every step, as they would an animal, to guess the direction they had taken. The weather had been dry and the ground was hard; therefore the most experienced trapper would be obliged to proceed very slowly on the trail and would frequently be for a time at fault; whereas, had they continued in a straight line, the Indians could have followed at a run, contenting themselves with seeing the trail here and there. They came across two or three little streams running down toward the lake. These they followed, in some cases up, in others down, for a considerable distance, leaving the bed where the bushes grew thick and hid the marks of their feet as they stepped out from the water. Harold would gladly have gone at a run, but Peter never quickened his pace. He knew that the Indians could not pick up the trail at a rate faster than that at which they were going, and that great delay would be caused at each of the little streams, as it would be uncertain whether they had passed up or down.

As the time passed the Indian yells, which had, when they first entered the wood, sounded so alarmingly near, died away, and a perfect stillness reigned in the forest. It was late in the afternoon before Peter halted.

"We can rest now," he said. "It'll be hours before the critters can be here. Now let us have some tea."

He began to look for some dried sticks. Harold offered to assist.

"You sit down," the scout said. "A nice sort of fire we should get with sticks of your picking up! Why, we should have a smoke that would bring all the Injuns in the woods on to us. No, the sticks as the Seneca and me'll pick up won't give as much smoke as you can put in a teacup; but I wouldn't risk even that if we was nigh the lake, for it might be seen by any redskins out in a canoe. But we are miles back from the lake, and there aint no other open space where they could get a view over the tree-tops."

Harold watched the Indian and the scout collecting dry leaves and sticks, and took particular notice, for future use, of the kinds which they selected. A light was struck with a flint and steel, and soon a bright blaze sprang up, without, so far as Harold could see, the slightest smoke being given off. Then the hunter produced some food from his wallet, and a tin pot. He had at the last spring they passed filled a skin which hung on his shoulder with water, and this was soon boiling over the fire. A handful of tea was thrown in and the pot removed. Some flour, mixed with water, was placed on a small iron plate, which was put on the red-hot ashes. A few cakes were baked, and with these, the cold venison, and the tea an ample meal was made.

After nearly an hour's halt they again proceeded on their way. A consultation had taken place between Peter and the Seneca as to the best course to be pursued. They could, without much difficulty or risk, have continued the way through the woods beyond the lake, but it was important that they should reach the other side by the evening of the following day, to give warning of the intended attack by the Americans. There were, they knew, other redskins in the woods besides those on their trail, and the nearer they approached the shore the greater the danger. They had determined that they would at all hazards endeavor to obtain another canoe and cross the lake. Until nightfall they continued their course, and then, knowing that their trail could no longer be followed, they made down to the lake. They were many miles distant from it, and Harold was completely worn out when at last he saw a gleam of water through the trees. He was not yet to rest. Entering the lake, they began wading through it at a few feet from the edge.

After an hour's walking thus they entered the bushes, which thickly covered the shore, and made their way through these until they came to a spot sufficiently open for them to lie down; and Harold, wrapping himself in the blanket which he carried over his shoulder, was sound asleep in less than a minute. When he woke the sun was shining brightly.

"Get up, youngster! We're in luck," the scout said. "Here's a canoe with two of the varmints making toward the shore. By the way they're going they'll land not far off."

The scout led the way, crawling on his hands and knees, to the water's edge, to where the Seneca was sitting watching the canoe through a cover of green leaves. The course that the boat was taking would lead it to a point some three hundred yards from where they were sitting.

"We shall have no difficulty in managing them," Harold said, and grasped his rifle eagerly.

"Not too fast," Peter said. "The chances are that the varmints have friends on shore. Like enough they have been out fishing."

The shore formed a slight sweep at this point, and the bushes in which they were hidden occupied the point at one extremity. In the center of the little bay there was a spot clear from bushes; to this the canoe was directed. As it approached the shore two other Indians appeared at the water's edge. One of them asked a question, and in reply a paddler held up a large bunch of fish.

"Just as I thought. Like enough there are a dozen of them there," said Peter.

On reaching the shore the men sprang out, taking their fish with them. The canoe was fastened by its head-rope to the bushes, and the Indians moved a short distance inland.

"There is their smoke," Peter said, indicating a point some thirty feet from the lake, but so slight was it that, even when it was pointed out to him, Harold could hardly make out the light mist rising from among the bushes. Presently he looked round for the Seneca, but the Indian had disappeared.

"He's gone scouting," Peter said in answer to Harold's question. "Ef there are only four of them it would be an easy job, but I expect there's more of the red varmints there."

In ten minutes the Seneca returned as noiselessly as he had gone. He opened his hand and all the fingers twice; the third time he showed only three fingers.

"Thirteen," Peter said. "Too many of them even for a sudden onslaught."

The Indian said a few words to Peter; the latter nodded, and Deer Tail again quietly stole away.

"He's going to steal the boat," Peter said. "It's a risky job, for where it lies it can be seen by 'em as they sit. Now, you and me must be ready with our shooting irons to cover him, if need be. Ef he's found out before he gets the boat he'll take to the woods and lead them away from us; but ef he's fairly in the boat, then we must do our best for him. Ef the wust comes to the wust, I reckon we can hold these bushes agin 'em for some time; but in the end I don't disguise from ye, youngster, they'll beat us."

Harold now sat intently watching the canoe. It seemed an age to him before he saw a hand emerge from the bushes and take hold of the head-rope. The motion given to the canoe was so slight as to be almost imperceptible; it seemed as if it was only drifting gently before the slight breeze which was creeping over the surface of the lake. Half its length had disappeared from the open space, when an Indian appeared by the edge of the water. He looked at the canoe, looked over the lake, and withdrew again. The hand had disappeared in the bushes on his approach. The movement of the canoe, slight as it was, had caught his eye, but, satisfied that it was caused only by the wind, he had returned to his fire again. The hand appeared again through the bushes, and the canoe was drawn along until hidden from the sight of those sitting by the fire. Again the watchful Indian appeared, but the boat was lying quietly by the bushes at the full length of its head-rope. He stooped down to see that this was securely fastened and again retired. Harold held his breath, expecting that every moment the presence of the Seneca would be discovered. Scarcely had the Indian disappeared than the Seneca crawled out from the bushes. With a sweep of his knife he cut the rope of the canoe and noiselessly entered it, and as he did so gave a shove with his foot, which sent it dancing along the shore toward the spot where Harold and his companion were hidden. Then he seized the paddle, and in half a dozen strokes brought it within reach of them. Harold and Peter stepped into it; as they did so there was a sudden shout. The Indian had again strolled down to look at the canoe, whose movements, slight as they had been, had appeared suspicious to him. He now, to his astonishment, saw it at the point with two white men and an Indian on board. He had left his gun behind him and, uttering his war-cry, bounded back for it.

"Round the p'int, quick!" Peter exclaimed. "They'll riddle us in the open."

Two strokes took the canoe round the projecting point of bushes, and she then darted along the shore, driven by the greatest efforts of which the three paddlers were capable. Had the shore been open the Indians would have gained upon them, but they were unable to force their way through the thick bushes at anything like the rate at which the canoe was flying over the water. The first start was upward of a hundred yards, and this was increased by fifty before the Indians, arriving at the point, opened fire. The distance was beyond anything like an accurate range with Indian guns. Several bullets struck the water round the canoe.

"Now steer out," Peter said as the firing suddenly ceased. "They're making a _detour_ among the bushes, and 'll come down ahead of us if we keep near the shore."

Two or three more shots were fired, but without effect, and the canoe soon left the shore far behind.

"Now," Peter said, "I think we're safe. It's not likely they've another canoe anywhere near on this side, as most of 'em would have gone with the expedition. Ef the firing has been heard it will not attract much attention, being on this side, and I see nothing in the way of a boat out in the lake. Still, these redskins' eyes can see 'most any distance. Now, chief," he went on to the Indian in his native language, "the young un and I'll lie down at the bottom of the boat; do you paddle quietly and easily, as ef you were fishing. The canoe with a single Indian in it will excite no suspicion, and even ef you see other canoes, you had better keep on in that way unless you see that any of 'em are intending to overhaul you."

The chief nodded assent. Peter and Harold stretched themselves at full length in the canoe, and the Indian paddled quietly and steadily on. For an hour not a word was spoken in the canoe. Harold several times dozed off to sleep. At last the Seneca spoke:

"Many boats out on water--American army."

Harold was about to raise his head to look out when Peter exclaimed: "Lie close, Harold! Ef a head were shown now it would be wuss than ef we had sat up all the time. We know there are Injun canoes with the flats, and they may be watching us now. We may be a long way off, but there's no saying how far a redskin's eyes can carry. Can you see where they are going to, chief?" he asked the Seneca. "Are they heading for Isle-aux-Noix, as we heard 'em say they were going to do?"

The Seneca nodded.

"Going to island."

"Then," Peter said, "the sooner we're across the lake the better."

The Seneca again spoke, and after a consultation with Peter laid in his paddle.

"What is he doing now?" Harold asked.

"Our coarse lies pretty near the same way as theirs," Peter said. "The island is but a short distance from the shore, near the mouth of the Sorrel, so where we're going would take us right across their line. We fooled them yesterday, but are not likely to do it again to-day. So the chief has stopped paddling and makes as if he were fishing. I doubt whether it will succeed, for he would hardly be fishing so far out. But we'll soon see. It's better so than to turn and paddle in any other direction, as that would be sure to excite their suspicions."

The fleet of boats had already passed the spot where the canoe would have crossed had she been going directly across the lake when she was first seen, and was therefore now ahead of it. The great flotilla kept on as if the canoe with its single occupant in its rear had not excited suspicion. The Seneca, however, knew that sharp eyes must be upon him. The manner in which the canoe had baffled pursuit the day before must have inflicted a severe blow upon the pride of the Indians, and although, having driven them off the lake, they could have no reason for suspecting that their foes could have obtained a fresh canoe, the Seneca knew that their vigilance would not sleep for a moment. Therefore, although bending over the side of the canoe as if watching his lines, his eyes were never off the boats.

"There are canoes making for the shore both ways," he said at last. "It is time that my white brother should take the paddle."

Peter and Harold at once sat up in the boat and looked round the lake, which at this point was about ten miles wide. The canoe was four miles from the eastern side; the flotilla was a mile further up the lake and the same distance nearer to the western shore. Four or five canoes were detaching themselves from the flotilla, apparently rowing direct for the shore. It would have been easy for the canoe to have regained the eastern side long before she could have been cut off, but here they might find the Chippewas. The Indians whose boat they had taken would assuredly follow along the shores of the lake in hopes that something might occur to drive them back. Besides, had they landed there, they would be unable to carry in time the news of the approaching attack upon St. John's. For the same reason it was important to land up the lake near the Canadian end.

Peter rapidly took in the situation. He saw that it was possible, and only just possible, to reach the shore at a point opposite to that at which they now were before the hostile canoes could cut them off from it. If they headed them there they would be obliged to run down to the other end of the lake before effecting a landing, while he could not calculate on being able to beat all the canoes, most of which carried four paddlers, who would strain every nerve to retrieve their failure of the previous day.

Not a word was spoken as the boat darted through the water. Harold, unaccustomed to judge distances, could form no idea whether the distant canoes would or would not intercept them. At present both seemed to him to be running toward the shore on nearly parallel courses, and the shorter distance that the Indians would have to row seemed to place them far ahead. The courses, however, were not parallel, as the Indians were gradually turning their canoes to intercept the course of that which they were pursuing. As the minutes went by and the boats converged more and more toward the same point, Harold saw how close the race would be. After twenty minutes' hard paddling the boats were within a quarter of a mile of each other, and the courses which they were respectively taking seemed likely to bring them together at about a quarter of a mile from the shore. There were three Indian canoes, and these kept well together. So close did the race appear that Harold expected every moment to see Peter sweep the head of the canoe round and make a stern chase of it by running down the lake. This Peter had no intention of doing. The canoes, he saw, traveled as fast as his own and could each spare a man to fire occasionally, while he and his companions would be obliged to continue paddling. Better accustomed to judge distances than Harold, he was sure, at the speed at which they were going, he would be able to pass somewhat ahead of his foes.

"Row all you know, Harold," he said. "Now, chief, send her along."

Harold had been rowing to the utmost of his strength, but he felt by the way the canoe quivered at every stroke that his companions were only now putting out their extreme strength. The boat seemed to fly through the water, and he began to think for the first time that the canoe would pass ahead of their pursuers. The latter were clearly also conscious of the fact, for they now turned their boats' heads more toward the shore, so that the spot where the lines would meet would be close to the shore itself. The canoes were now within two hundred yards of each other. The Indians were nearer to the shore, but the oblique line that they were following would give them about an equal distance to row to the point for which both were making. Harold could not see that there was the slightest difference in the rate at which they were traveling. It seemed to him that the four canoes would all arrive precisely at the same moment at the land, which was now some five or six hundred yards distant.

Another two minutes' paddling, and when the canoes were but seventy or eighty yards apart, Peter, with a sweep with his paddle, turned the boat's head nearly half round and made obliquely for the shore, so throwing his pursuers almost astern of him. The shore was but three hundred yards distant; they were but fifty ahead of their pursuers. The latter gave a loud yell at seeing the change in the position in the chase. They had, of course, foreseen the possibility of such a movement, but had been powerless to prevent it. But they were prepared, for on the instant one man in each canoe dropped his paddle and, standing up, fired. It is a difficult thing to take aim when standing in a canoe dancing under the vigorous strokes of three paddlers. It was the more difficult since the canoes were at the moment sweeping round to follow the movement of the chase. The three balls whistled closely round the canoe, but no one was hit.

The loss of three paddlers for even so short a time checked the pace of the canoes. The Indians saw that they could not hope to overtake their foes, whose canoe was now but a few lengths from shore. They dropped their paddles, and each man seized his rifle. Another moment, and the nine pieces would have poured their fire into the canoe about fifty yards ahead of them, when from the bushes on the shore three puffs of smoke shot out, and three of the Indians fell, one of them upsetting his boat in his fall. A yell of surprise and dismay broke from them, the guns were thrown down, the paddles grasped again, and the heads of the canoes turned from the shore. The Indians in the overturned boat did not wait to right it, but scrambled into the other canoes, and both were soon paddling at the top of their speed from the shore, not without further damage, for the guns in the bushes again spoke out, and Peter and the Seneca added their fire the instant they leaped from the boat to shore, and another of the Indians was seen to fall. Harold was too breathless when he reached the bank to be able to fire. He raised his gun, but his hands trembled with the exertion that he had undergone, and the beating of his heart and his short, panting breath rendered it impossible for him to take a steady aim. A minute later Jake burst his way through the bushes.

"Ah, Massa Harold!" he exclaimed. "Bress de Lord dat we was here! What a fright you hab giben me, to be sure! We hab been watching you for a long time. Ephraim and de redskin dey say dey saw little spot far out on lake, behind all dose boats; den dey say other boats set off in chase. For a long time Jake see nothing about dat, but at last he see dem. Den we hurry along de shore, so as to get near de place to where de boats row; ebery moment me tink dat dey catch you up. Ephraim say no, bery close thing, but he tink you come along first, but dat we must shoot when dey come close. We stand watch for some time, den Ephraim say dat you no able to get to dat point. You hab to turn along de shore, so we change our place and run along, and sure 'nough de boat's head turns, and you come along in front of us. Den we all shoot, and the redskins dey tumble over."

"Well, Jake, it is fortunate indeed that you were on the spot, for they could scarcely have missed all of us. Besides, even if we had got to shore safely, they would have followed us, and the odds against us would have been heavy."

"That ar war a close shave, Peter," Ephraim said; "an all-fired close shave I call it."

"It war, Ephraim, and no mistake."

"Why didn't yer head down along the lake?"

"Because I got news that the colonists air going to attack St. John's to-morrow, and I want to get to the fort in time to put 'em on their guard. Besides, both sides of the lake are sure to be full of hostile Injuns. Those canoes paddled as fast as we did, and in the long run might have worn us out."

"Did you have a fight on the lake two nights ago? Me and the redskin thought we heard firing."

"We had a skirmish with 'em," Peter said; "a pretty sharp shave it war, too, but we managed to slip away from them. Altogether we've had some mighty close work, I can tell yer, and I thought more than once as we were going to be wiped out."

While they were speaking the men had already started at a steady pace through the woods, away from the lake, having first drawn up the canoe and carefully concealed it.

It was late at night when they reached Fort St. John. A message was at once dispatched to a party of the Senecas who were at their village, about sixteen miles away. They arrived in the morning and, together with a portion of the garrison, moved out and took their place in the wooded and marshy ground between the fort and the river. Scouts were sent along the Sorrel, and these returned about one o'clock, saying that a large number of boats were coming down the lake from Isle-aux-Noix. It had been determined to allow the colonists to land without resistance, as the commander of the fort felt no doubt of his ability, with the assistance of his Indian allies, to repulse their attack. Some twelve hundred men were landed, and these at once began to advance toward the fort, lead by their two generals, Schuyler and Montgomery. Scarcely had they entered the swamp, when from every bush a fire was opened upon them. The invaders were staggered, but pushed forward, in a weak and undecided way, as far as a creek which intercepted their path. In vain General Montgomery endeavored to encourage them to advance. They wavered and soon began to fall back, and in an hour from the time of their landing they were again gathered on the bank of the river. Here they threw up a breastwork, and, as his numbers were greatly inferior, the British officer in command thought it unadvisable to attack them. After nightfall the colonists took to their boats and returned to Isle-aux-Noix, their loss in this their first attempt at the invasion of Canada being nine men.

A day or two later the Indians again attempted to induce General Carleton to permit them to cross the frontier and carry the war into the American settlements, and upon the general's renewed refusal they left the camp in anger and remained from that time altogether aloof from the contest.

St. John's was now left with only its own small garrison. Captain Wilson was ordered to fall back with his company to Montreal, it being considered that the garrison of St. John's was sufficient to defend that place for a considerable time. As soon as the Indians had marched away, having sent word to the colonists that they should take no further part in the fight, Montgomery--who was now in command, Schuyler having fallen sick--landed the whole of the force and invested the fort. An American officer, Ethan Allen, had been sent with a party to try to raise the colonists in rebellion in the neighborhood of Chamblee. He had with him 30 Americans and was joined by 80 Canadians. Dazzled by the success which had attended the surprise of Ticonderoga, he thought to repeat the stroke by the conquest of Montreal. He crossed the river in the night about three miles below the city. Peter and some other scouts, who had been watching his movements, crossed higher up and brought the news, and 36 men of the Twenty-sixth Regiment, Captain Wilson's company, and 200 or 300 loyal Canadians, the whole under the command of Major Campbell, attacked Ethan Allen. He was speedily routed and, with 38 of his men, taken prisoner. The siege of St. John's made but little progress. The, place was well provisioned, and the Americans encamped in the low, swampy ground around it suffered much from ill health. The men were mutinous and insolent, the officers incapable and disobedient. So far the invasion of Canada, of which such great things had been hoped by the Americans, appeared likely to turn out a complete failure. _

Read next: Chapter 8. Quebec

Read previous: Chapter 6. Scouting

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