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

Chapter 14. Rescued!

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Harold was deeply touched at the evidences of the fate which had befallen the occupants of his cousin's plantation.

"If there are any more of these to be found," pointing to their remains, "we might learn for a certainty whether the same fate befell them all."

The Seneca spoke a word to his followers and the four Indians spread themselves over the clearing. One more body was found--it was lying down near the water as if killed in the act of making for the canoe.

"The others are probably there," Peter said, pointing to the ruins. "The three hands was killed in the fields, and most likely the attack was made at the same moment on the house. I'm pretty sure it was so, for the body by the water lies face downward, with his head toward the lake. He was no doubt shot from behind as he was running. There must have been Injuns round the house then, or he would have made for that instead of the water."

The Seneca touched Peter on the shoulder and pointed toward the farm. A figure was seen approaching. As it came nearer they could see that he was a tall man, dressed in the deerskin shirt and leggings usually worn by hunters. As he came near Harold gave an exclamation:

"It is Jack Pearson!"

"It are Jack Pearson," the hunter said, "but for the moment I can't recollect ye, though yer face seems known. Why!" he exclaimed in changed tones, "it's that boy Harold growed into a man."

"It is," Harold replied, grasping the frontiersman's hand.

"And ye may know me, too," Peter Lambton said, "though it's twenty year since we fought side by side against the Mohawks."

"Why, old hoss, are you above ground still?" the hunter exclaimed heartily. "I'm glad to see you again, old friend. And what are you doing here, you and Harold and these Senecas? For they is Senecas, sure enough. I've been in the woods for the last hour, and have been puzzling myself nigh to death. I seed them Injuns going about over the clearing sarching, and for the life of me I couldn't think what they were a-doing. Then I seed 'em gathered down here, with two white men among 'em, so I guessed it was right to show myself."

"They were searching to see how many had fallen in this terrible business," Harold said, pointing to the ruins. The hunter shook his head.

"I'm afeared they've all gone under. I were here a week afterward; it were just as it is now. I found the three hands lying killed and sculped in the fields; the others, I reckon, is there. I has no doubt at all about Bill Welch and his wife, but it may be that the gal has been carried off."

"Do you think so?" Harold exclaimed eagerly. "If so, we may find her, too, with the other."

"What other?" Pearson, asked.

Harold gave briefly an account of the reason which had brought them to the spot and of the object they had in view.

"You can count me in," Pearson said. "There's just a chance that Nelly Welch may be in their hands still; and in any case I'm longing to draw a bead on some of the varmints to pay 'em for this," and he looked round him, "and a hundred other massacres round this frontier."

"I'm glad to hear ye say so," Peter replied. "I expected as much of ye, Jack. I don't know much of this country, having only hunted here for a few weeks with a party of Delawares twenty year afore the Iroquois moved so far west."

"I know pretty nigh every foot of it," Jack Pearson said. "When the Iroquois were quiet I used to do a deal of hunting in their country. It are good country for game."

"Well! shall we set out at once?" Harold asked, impatient to be off.

"We can't move to-night," Pearson answered; and Harold saw that Peter and the Indians agreed with him.

"Why not?" he asked. "Every hour is of importance."

"That's so," Peter said, "but there's no going out on the lake to-night. In half an hour we'll have our first snowstorm, and by morning it will be two foot deep."

Harold turned his eyes toward the lake and saw what his companions had noticed long before. The sky was overcast and a thick bank of hidden clouds was rolling up across the lake, and the thick mist seemed to hang between the clouds and the water.

"That's snow," Peter said. "It's late this year, and I'd give my pension if it was a month later."

"That's so," Pearson said. "Snow aint never pleasant in the woods, but when you're scouting round among Injuns it are a caution. We'd best make a shelter afore it comes on."

The two canoes were lifted from the water, unloaded, and turned bottom upward; a few charred planks, which had formed part of the roof of the outhouses, were brought and put up to form a sort of shelter. A fire was lit and a meal prepared. By this time the snow had begun to fall. After the meal was over pipes were lit and the two hunters earnestly talked over their plans, the Seneca chief throwing in a few words occasionally; the others listened quietly. The Indians left the matter in the hands of their chief, while Harold and Cameron knew that the two frontiersmen did not need any suggestion from them. As to Jake, the thought of asking questions never entered his mind. He was just at present less happy than usual, for the negro, like most of his race, hated cold, and the prospect of wandering through the woods in deep snow made him shudder as he crouched close to the great fire they had built.

Peter and Jack Pearson were of opinion that it was exceedingly probable that the Welches had been destroyed by the very band which had carried off little Janet Cameron. The bodies of Indians who had been on the war-path with the army had retired some six weeks before, and it was about that time, Pearson said, that the attack on the settlements had been made.

"I heard some parties of redskins who had been with the British troops had passed through the neighborhood, and there was reports that they were greatly onsatisfied with the results of the campaign. As likely as not some of that band may have been consarned in the attack on this place three year ago, and, passing nigh it, may have determined to wipe out that defeat. An Injun never forgives. Many of their braves fell here, and they could scarcely bring a more welcome trophy back to their villages than the scalps of Welch and his men."

"Now, the first thing to do," Peter said, "is to find out what particular chief took his braves with him to the war; then we've got to find his village; and there likely enough we'll find Cameron's daughter and maybe the girl from here. How old was she?"

"About fifteen," Pearson said, "and a fine girl, and a pretty girl, too. I dun know," he went on after a pause, "which of the chiefs took part in the war across the lakes, but I suspect it were War Eagle. There's three great chiefs, and the other two were trading on the frontier. It was War Eagle who attacked the place afore, and would be the more likely to attack it again if he came anywheres near it. He made a mess of it afore and 'd be burning to wipe out his failure if he had a chance."

"Where is his place?"

"His village is the furthest of them all from here. He lives up near the falls of Sault Ste. Marie, betwixt Lakes Superior and Huron. It's a village with nigh three hundred wigwams."

"It aint easy to see how it's to be done. We must make to the north shore of the lake. There'll be no working down here through the woods; but it's a pesky difficult job--about as hard a one as ever I took part in."

"It is that," Pearson said; "it can't be denied. To steal two white girls out of a big Injun village aint a easy job at no time; but with the snow on the ground it comes as nigh to an impossibility as anything can do."

For another hour or two they talked over the route they should take and their best mode of proceeding. Duncan Cameron sat and listened with an intent face to every word. Since he had joined them he had spoken but seldom; his whole soul was taken up with the thought of his little daughter. He was ever ready to do his share and more than his share of the work of paddling and at the portages, but he never joined in the conversation; and of an evening, when the others sat round the fire, he would move away and pace backward and forward in anxious thought until the fire burned low and the party wrapped themselves in their blankets and went off to sleep.

All the time the conversation had been going on the snow had fallen heavily, and before it was concluded the clearing was covered deep with the white mantle. There was little wind, and the snow fell quietly and noiselessly. At night the Indians lay down round the fire, while the white men crept under the canoes and were soon fast asleep. In the morning it was still snowing, but about noon it cleared up. It was freezing hard, and the snow glistened as the sun burst through the clouds. The stillness of the forest was broken now by sharp cracking sounds as boughs of trees gave way under the weight of the snow; in the open it lay more than two feet deep.

"Now," Peter said, "the sooner we're off the better."

"I'll come in my own canoe," Pearson said. "One of the Injuns can come with me and we'll keep up with the rest."

"There is room for you in the other canoes," Harold said.

"Plenty of room," the hunter answered. "But you see, Harold, the more canoes the better. There aint no saying how close we may be chased, and by hiding up the canoes at different places we give ourselves so much more chance of being able to get to one or the other. They're all large canoes, and at a pinch any one of them might hold the hull party, with the two gals throwed in. But," he added to Harold in a low voice, "don't you build too much on these gals, Harold. I wouldn't say so while that poor fellow's listening, but the chance is a desperate poor one, and I think we'll be mighty lucky ef we don't leave all our scalps in that 'ere redskin village." The traps were soon placed in the canoes, and just as the sun burst out the three boats started. It was a long and toilsome journey. Stormy weather set in, and they were obliged to wait for days by the lake till its surface calmed. On these occasions they devoted themselves to hunting and killed several deer. They knew that there were no Indian villages near, and in such weather it would be improbable that any redskins would be in the woods. They were enabled, therefore, to fire without fear of the reports betraying their presence. The Senecas took the opportunity of fabricating snowshoes for the whole party, as these would be absolutely necessary for walking in the woods. Harold, Jake, and Duncan Cameron at once began to practice their use. The negro was comical in the extreme in his first attempts, and shouted so loudly with laughter each time that he fell head foremost into the snow that Peter said to him angrily:

"Look-a-here, Jake; it's dangerous enough letting off a rifle at a deer in these woods, but it has to be done because we must lay in a supply of food; but a musket-shot is a mere whisper to yer shouting. Thunder aint much louder than you laughing--it shakes the hull place and might be heard from here well-nigh to Montreal. Ef you can't keep that mouth of your'n shut, ye must stop up the idee of learning to use them shoes and must stop in the canoe while we're scouting on shore."

Jake promised to amend, and from this time when he fell in the soft snow-wreaths he gave no audible vent to his amusement; but a pair of great feet, with the snow-shoes attached, could be seen waving above the surface until he was picked up and righted again.

Harold soon learned, and Cameron went at the work with grim earnestness. No smile ever crossed his face at his own accidents or at the wild vagaries of Jake, which excited silent amusement even among the Indians. In a short time the falls were less frequent, and by the time they reached the spot where they were determined to cross the lake at the point where Lakes Huron and Michigan join, the three novices were able to make fair progress in the snow-shoes.

The spot fixed upon was about twelve miles from the village of War Eagle, and the canoes were hidden at distances of three miles apart. First Pearson, Harold, and Cameron disembarked; Jake, Peter, and one of the Indians alighted at the next point; and the Seneca chief and two of his followers proceeded to the spot nearer to the Indian village. Each party as they landed struck straight into the woods, to unite at a point eight miles from the lake and as many from the village. The hunters had agreed that, should any Indians come across the tracks, less suspicion would be excited than would have been the case were they found skirting the river, as it might be thought that they were made by Indians out hunting.

Harold wondered how the other parties would find the spot to which Pearson had directed them, but in due time all arrived at the rendezvous. After some search a spot was found where the underwood grew thickly, and there was an open place in the center of the clump. In this the camp was established. It was composed solely of a low tent of about two feet high, made of deer's hides sewed together, and large enough to shelter them all. The snow was cleared away, sticks were driven into the frozen ground, and strong poles laid across them; the deerskin was then laid flat upon these. The top was little higher than the general level of the snow, an inch or two of snow was scattered over it, and to anyone passing outside the bushes the tent was completely invisible.

The Indians now went outside the thicket and with great care obliterated, as far as possible, the marks upon the snow. This could not be wholly done, but it was so far complete that the slightest wind which would send a drift over the surface would wholly conceal all traces of passage.

They had, before crossing the lake, cooked a supply of food sufficient for some days. Intense as was the cold outside, it was perfectly warm in the tent. The entrance as they crept into it was closed with a blanket, and in the center a lamp composed of deer's fat in a calabash with a cotton wick gave a sufficient light.

"What is the next move?" Harold asked.

"The chief 'll start, when it comes dusk, with Pearson," Peter said. "When they git close to the village he'll go in alone. He'll paint Iroquois before he goes."

"Cannot we be near at hand to help them in case of a necessity," Harold asked.

"No," Peter said. "It wouldn't be no good at all. Ef it comes to fighting they're fifty to one, and the lot of us would have no more chance than two. If they're found out, which aint likely, they must run for it, and they can get over the snow a deal faster than you could, to say nothing of Cameron and Jake. They must shift for themselves and 'll make straight for the nearest canoe. In the forest they must be run down sooner or later, for their tracks would be plain. No, they must go alone."

When night came on the Seneca produced his paints, and one of his followers marked his face and arms with the lines and flourishes in use by the Iroquois; then without a word of adieu he took his rifle and glided out from the tent, followed by Pearson. Peter also put on his snow-shoes and prepared to follow.

"I thought you were going to stay here, Peter."

"No, I'm going halfway with 'em. I'll be able to hear the sound of a gun. Then, ef they're trapped, we must make tracks for the canoes at once, for after following 'em to the lake they're safe to take up their back track to see where they've come from; so, ef I hear a gun, I'll make back here as quick as I can come."

When the three men had started silence fell on the tent. The redskins at once lay down to sleep, and Jake followed their example. Harold lay quiet thinking over the events which had happened to him in the last three years, while Cameron lay with his face turned toward the lamp with a set, anxious look on his face. Several times he crawled to the entrance and listened when the crack made by some breaking bough came to his ear. Hours passed and at last Harold dozed off, but Cameron's eyes never closed until about midnight the blanket at the entrance moved and Peter entered.

"Hae ye seen the ithers?" Cameron exclaimed.

"No, and were not likely to," Peter answered. "It was all still to the time I came away, and afore I moved I was sure they must have left the village. They won't come straight back, bless ye; they'll go 'way in the opposite direction and make a sweep miles round. They may not be here for hours yet; not that there's much chance of their tracks being traced. It has not snowed for over a week, and the snow round the village must be trampled thick for a mile and more, with the squaws coming and going for wood and the hunters going out on the chase. I've crossed a dozen tracks or more on my way back. Ef it wasn't for that we daren't have gone at all, for ef the snow was new fallen the sight of fresh tracks would have set the first Injun that come along a-wondering; and when a redskin begins to wonder he sets to to ease his mind at once by finding out all about it, ef it takes him a couple of days' sarch to do so. No, you can lie down now for some hours. They won't be here till morning."

So saying, the scout set the example by wrapping himself up and going to sleep, but Cameron's eyes never closed until the blanket was drawn on one side again and in the gray light of the winter morning the Seneca and Pearson crawled into the tent.

"What news?" Harold asked, for Cameron was too agitated to speak.

"Both gals are there," Pearson answered.

An exclamation of thankfulness broke from Harold. A sob of joy issued from the heart of the Scotchman, and for a few minutes his lips moved as he poured forth his silent thankfulness to God.

"Waal, tell us all about it," Peter said. "I can ask the chief any questions afterward."

"We went on straight enough to the village," the hunter began. "It are larger than when I saw it last, and War Eagle's influence in the tribe must have increased. I didn't expect to find no watch, the redskins having, so far as they knew, no enemies within five hundred mile of 'em. There was a lot of fires burning and plenty of redskins moving about among 'em. We kept on till we got quite close, and then we lay up for a time below a tree at the edge of the clearing. There were a sight too many of 'em about for the Seneca to go in yet awhile. About half an hour arter we got there we saw two white gals come outen one of the wigwams and stand for a while to warm theirselves by one of the fires. The tallest of the two, well-nigh a woman, was Nelly Welch. I knew her, in course. The other was three or four years younger, with yaller hair over her shoulders. Nelly seemed quiet and sad-like, but the other 'peared more at home--she laughed with some of the redskin gals and even jined in their play. You see," he said, turning to Cameron, "she'd been captured longer and children's spirits soon rise again. Arter a while they went back to the wigwam." When the fires burned down and the crowd thinned, and there was only a few left sitting in groups round the embers, the Seneca started. For a long time I saw nothing of him, but once or twice I thought I saw a figure moving among the wigwams. Presently the fires burned quite down and the last Injun went off. I had begun to wonder what the chief was doing, when he stood beside me. We made tracks at once and have been tramping in a long circle all night. The chief can tell ye his part of the business hisself."

"Well, chief, what have you found out?" Peter asked.

The Indian answered in his native tongue, which Peter interpreted from time to time for the benefit of his white companions:

"When Deer Tail left the white hunter he went into the village. It was no use going among the men, and he went round by the wigwams and listened to the chattering of the squaws. The tribe were all well contented, for the band brought back a great deal of plunder which they had picked up on their way back from the army. They had lost no braves and everyone was pleased. The destruction of the settlement of the white man who had repulsed them before was a special matter for rejoicing. The scalps of the white man and his wife are in the village. War Eagle's son, Young Elk, is going to marry the white girl. There are several of the braves whose heads have been turned by the white skin and her bright eyes, but Young Elk is going to have her. There have been great feastings and rejoicings since the return of the warriors, but they are to be joined tomorrow by Beaver's band, and then they will feast again. When all was quiet I went to the wigwam where the white girls are confined. An old squaw and two of War Eagle's daughters are with them. Deer Tail had listened while they prepared for rest and knew on which side of the wigwam the tall white maiden slept. He thought that she would be awake. Her heart would be sad and sleep would not come to her soon, so he crept round there and cut a slit in the skin close to where she lay. He put his head in at the hole and whispered, 'Do not let the white girl be afraid; it is a friend. Does she hear him?' She whispered, 'Yes.' 'Friends are near,' he said. 'The young warrior Harold, whom she knows, and others, are at hand to take her away. The Iroquois will be feasting to-morrow night. When she hears the cry of a night-owl let her steal away with her little white sister and she will find her friends waiting.' Then Deer Tail closed the slit and stole away to his friend the white hunter. I have spoken."

"Jest what I expected of you, chief," Peter said warmly. "I thought as how you'd manage to git speech with 'em somehow. If there's a feast to-night, it's hard ef we don't manage to get 'em off."

"I suppose we must lie still all day, Peter."

"You must so," the hunter said. "Not a soul must show his nose outside the tent except that one of the redskins'll keep watch to be sure that no straggler has come across our tracks and followed 'em up. Ef he was to do that, he might bring the hull gang down on us. Ye'd best get as much sleep as ye can, for ye don't know when ye may get another chance."

At nightfall the whole party issued from the tent and started toward the Indian village. All arrangements had been made. It was agreed that Pearson and the Seneca should go up to the village, the former being chosen because he was known to Nelly. Peter and one of the redskins were to take post a hundred yards further back, ready to give assistance in case of alarm, while the rest were to remain about half a mile distant. Cameron had asked that he might go with the advance party, but upon Peter pointing out to him that his comparatively slow rate of progression in snow-shoes would, in case of discovery, lead to the recapture of the girls, he at once agreed to the decision. If the flight of the girls was discovered soon after leaving the camp, it was arranged that the Seneca and Peter should hurry at once with them to the main body, while the other two Indians should draw off their pursuers in another direction. In the event of anything occurring to excite the suspicion of the Indians before there was a chance of the girls being brought safely to the main body, they were to be left to walk quietly back to camp, as they had nothing to fear from the Indians. Peter and the Seneca were then to work round by a circuitous route to the boat, where they were to be joined by the main body, and to draw off until another opportunity offered for repeating the attempt.

It was eight o'clock in the evening when Pearson and the Seneca approached the village. The fires were burning high, and seated round them were all the warriors of the tribe. A party were engaged in a dance representing the pursuit and defeat of an enemy. The women were standing in an outer circle, clapping their hands and raising their voices in loud cries of applause and excitement as the dance became faster and faster. The warriors bounded high, brandishing their tomahawks. A better time could not have been chosen for the evasion of the fugitives. Nelly Welch stood close to a number of Indian girls, but slightly behind them. She held the hand of little Janet Cameron.

Although she appeared to share in the interest of the Indians in the dance, a close observer would have had no difficulty in perceiving that Nelly was preoccupied. She was, indeed, intently listening for the signal. She was afraid to move from among the others lest her absence should be at once detected, but so long as the noise was going on she despaired of being able to hear the signal agreed upon. Presently an Indian brave passed close to her, and as he did so whispered in her ear in English, "Behind your wigwam--friends there." Then he passed on and moved round the circle as if intending to take his seat at another point.

The excitement of the dance was momentarily increasing, and the attention of the spectators was riveted to the movements of the performers. Holding Janet's hand, Nelly moved noiselessly away from the place where she had been standing. The movement was unnoticed, as she was no longer closely watched, a flight in the depth of winter appearing impossible. She kept round the circle till no longer visible from the spot she had left. Then, leaving the crowd, she made her way toward the nearest wigwams. Once behind these the girls stole rapidly along under their shelter until they stood behind that which they usually inhabited. Two figures were standing there. They hesitated for a moment, but one of them advanced.

"Jack Pearson!" Nelly exclaimed, with a low cry of gladness.

"Jest that same, Nelly, and right glad to see you. But we've no time for greeting now; the hull tribe may be after us in another five minutes. Come along, pretty," he said, turning to Janet. "You'll find somebody ye know close at hand."

Two minutes later the child was in her father's arms, and after a moment's rapturous greeting between father and child and a very delighted one between Nelly Welch and her Cousin Harold, the flight was continued.

"How long a start do you think we may have?"

"Half an hour, maybe. The women may be some time afore they miss her, and they'll sarch for her everywhere afore they give the alarm, as they'll be greatly blamed for their carelessness."

There had been a pause in the flight for a few seconds when the Seneca and Pearson arrived with the girls at the point where Peter and the other Indian were posted, two hundred yards from the camp. Up to this point the snow was everywhere thickly trampled, but as the camp was left further behind the footprints would naturally become more scarce. Here Pearson fastened to the girls' feet two pairs of large moccasins; inside these wooden soles had been placed. They therefore acted to some extent like snowshoes and prevented the girls' feet from sinking deeply, while the prints which they left bore no resemblance to their own. They were strapped on the wrong way, so that the marks would seem to point toward the village rather than away from it. Both girls protested that they should not be able to get along fast in these encumbrances, but one of the men posted himself on either side of each and assisted them along, and as the moccasins were very light, even with the wooden soles inside, they were soon able to move with them at a considerable pace.

Once united the whole party kept along at the top of their speed. Peter Lambton assisted Cameron with Janet, and the girl, half-lifted from the ground, skimmed over the surface like a bird, only touching the snow here and there with the moccasins. Nelly Welch needed no assistance from Harold or Pearson. During the long winters she had often practiced on snow-shoes, and was consequently but little encumbered with the huge moccasins, which to some extent served the same purpose.

They had been nearly half an hour on their way when they heard a tremendous yell burst from the village.

"They've missed you," Peter said. "Now it's a fair race. We've got a good start and 'll git more, for they'll have to hunt up the traces very carefully, and it may be an hour, perhaps more, before they strike upon the right one. Ef the snow had been new fallen we should have had 'em arter us in five minutes; but even a redskin's eye will be puzzled to find out at night one track among such hundreds."

"I have but one fear," Pearson said to Harold.

"What is that?"

"I'm afeared that without waiting to find the tracks they may send off half a dozen parties to the lake. They'll be sure that friends have taken the gals away, and will know that their only chance of escape is by the water. On land we should be hunted down to a certainty, and the redskins, knowing that the gals could not travel fast, will not hurry in following up the trail. So I think they'll at once send off parties to watch the lake, and 'll like enough make no effort to take up the trail till to-morrow morning."

This was said in a low whisper, for although they were more than two miles from the village it was necessary to move as silently as possible.

"You had best tell the others what you think, Pearson. It may make a difference in our movements."

A short halt was called, and the Seneca and Peter quite agreed with Pearson's idea.

"We'd best make for the canoe that's furthest off. When the redskins find the others, which they're pretty sure to do, for they'll hunt every bush, they're likely to be satisfied and to make sure they'll ketch us at one or the other."

This much decided upon, they continued their flight, now less rapidly, but in perfect silence. Speed was less an object than concealment. The Indians might spread, and a party might come across them by accident. If they could avoid this, they were sure to reach their canoe before morning and unlikely to find the Indians there before them.

It was about twelve miles to the spot where they had hidden the canoe, and although they heard distant shouts and whoops ringing through the forest, no sound was heard near them. _

Read next: Chapter 15. The Island Refuge

Read previous: Chapter 13. Saratoga

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