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

Chapter 16. The Great Storm

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"Let us overhaul our packages," Harold said, "and see what provisions we have left. It would be as well to know how we stand."

It was found that they had a sufficient supply of flour to last, with care, for a fortnight. The meal was nearly exhausted; of tea they had an abundance; the sugar was nearly out, and they had three bottles of spirits.

"Could we not make the flour last more than the fourteen days by putting ourselves on half rations?" Harold asked.

"We might do that," Peter said, "but I tell you the rations would be small even for fourteen days. We've calkilated according to how much we eat when we've plenty of meat, but without meat it'd be only a starvation ration to each. Fortunately we've fish-hooks and lines, and by making holes in the ice we can get as many fish as we like. Waal, we can live on them alone, if need be, and an ounce or two of flour, made into cakes, will be enough to go with 'em. That way the flour would last us pretty nigh two months. I don't say that, if the wust comes to the wust, we might not hold on right to the spring on fish. The lake's full of 'em, and some of 'em have so much oil in 'em that they're nigh as good as meat."

"Do you think, Peter, that if the Indians make one great attack and are beaten off they will try again?"

"No one can say," Peter answered. "Injun natur' can't never be calkilated on. I should say if they got a thundering beating they aint likely to try again; but there's never no saying."

"The sooner they attack and get it o'er the better," Cameron said. "I hae na slept a wink the last twa nights. If I doze off for a moment I wake up, thinking I hear their yells. I am as ready to fight as ony o' you when the time comes, but the thought o' my daughter, here, makes me nervous and anxious. What do you say, Jake?"

"It all de same to Jake, Massa Cameron. Jake sleeps bery sound, but he no like de tought ob eating nothing but fish for five or six months. Jake neber bery fond ob fish."

"You'll like it well enough when you get used to it, Jake," Pearson said. "It's not bad eating on a pinch, only you want to eat a sight of it to satisfy you. Well, let's see how the fish'll bite."

Four holes were cut in the ice at a short distance apart. The hooks were attached to strong lines and baited with deer's flesh, and soon the fishing began. The girls took great interest in the proceeding. Nelly was an adept at the sport, having generally caught the fish for the consumption of the household at home. She took charge of one of the lines, Harold of another, while Jake and one of the Senecas squatted themselves by the other holes. There had been some discussion as to whether the fishing should take place on the side of the island facing the shore or behind the rocks, but the former was decided upon. This was done because all were anxious that the expected attack should take place as soon as possible, and the event was likely to be hastened when the Indians saw that they were provided with lines and were thus able to procure food for a considerable time.

It was soon manifest that, if they could live upon fish, they need feel no uneasiness as to its supply. Scarcely had the lines been let down than fish were fast to them. Harold and the other men soon had trout, from three to six pounds, lying on the ice beside them, but Nelly was obliged to call Pearson to her assistance, and the fish, when brought to the surface, was found to be over twenty pounds in weight. An hour's fishing procured them a sufficient supply for a week's consumption. There was no fear as to the fish keeping, for in a very short time after being drawn from the water they were frozen stiff and hard. They were hung up to some boughs near the huts, and the party were glad enough to get into shelter again, for the cold was intense.

As before, the early part of the night passed quietly; but toward morning Peter, who was on watch, ran down and awakened the others.

"Get your shooting-irons and hurry up," he said. "The varmints are coming this time in arnest."

In a minute everyone was at the post assigned to him. A number of dark figures could be seen coming over the ice.

"There's nigh two hundred of 'em," Peter said. "War Eagle has brought the whole strength of his tribe."

Contrary to their usual practice the Indians did not attempt to crawl up to the place they were about to attack, but advanced at a run across the ice. The defenders lost not a moment in opening fire, for some of their rifles would carry as far as the shore.

"Shoot steady," Peter said. "Don't throw away a shot."

Each man loaded and fired as quickly as he could, taking a steady aim, and the dark figures which dotted the ice behind the advancing Indians showed that the fire was an effectual one. The Indians did not return a shot. Their chief had, no doubt, impressed upon them the uselessness of firing against men lying in shelter, and had urged them to hurry at the top of their speed to the island and crush the whites in a hand-to-hand fight.

It was but three or four minutes from the time the first shot was fired before they were close to the island. They made, as Peter had expected, toward the little cove, which was indeed the only place at which a landing could well be effected. Harold ran down and hid himself in a bush at the spot where the train terminated, carrying with him a glowing brand from the fire.

"War Eagle means to have our sculps this time," Peter said to Pearson. "I never seed an uglier rush. White men couldn't have done better."

The Indians had run in scattered order across the ice, but they closed up as they neared the cove. As they rushed toward it four fell beneath the shots of half the defenders, and another four a few seconds later from a volley by the other section.

In a wonderfully short time the first were ready again, and the Indians wavered at the slaughter and opened fire upon the breastwork, behind which the defenders were crouching. Those behind pressed on, and, with terrific yells, the mass of Indians bounded forward.

Harold had remained inactive, crouching behind the bush. He saw the head of the dark mass rush past him and then applied the brand to the train.

There was a tremendous explosion. Yells and screams rent the air, and in an instant a dark line of water, twenty feet wide, stretched across the mouth of the cove.

In this were pieces of floating ice and numbers of Indians struggling and yelling. Some made only a faint struggle before they sank, while others struck out for the side furthest from the island.

The main body of the Indians, appalled by the explosion, checked themselves in their course and at once took to flight; some, unable to check their impetus, fell into the water upon the wounded wretches who were struggling there. Those who had crossed stood irresolute, and then, turning, leaped into the water. As they struggled to get out on the opposite side the defenders maintained a deadly fire upon them, but, in two or three minutes, the last survivor had scrambled out, and all were in full flight toward the shore.

"I think we've seen the last of the attacks," Peter said, as they came down from their breastwork and joined Harold in the cove. "That was a first-rate notion of yours, lad. Ef it hadn't been for that we should have been rubbed out, sure enough; another minute and we'd have gone down. They were in arnest and no mistake; they'd got steam up and was determined to finish with us at once, whatever it cost 'em."

The instant the attack had ceased Cameron had hastened to the hut where the girls were lying, to assure them that all danger was over and that the Indians were entirely defeated. In an hour a fresh skim of ice had formed across the streak of water, but, as through its clear surface many of the bodies of the Indians could be seen, the men threw snow over it, to spare the girls the unpleasantness of such a sight every time they went out from the cove. The bodies of all the Indians who had fallen near the island were also covered with snow. Those nearer the shore were carried off by the Iroquois in their retreat.

"I suppose, Peter," Harold said as they sat round the fire that evening, "you have been in quite as awkward scrapes as this before and have got out all right?"

"Why, this business aint nothing to that affair we had by Lake Champlain. That were as bad a business, when we was surrounded in that log hut, as ever I went through--and I've been through a good many. Pearson and me nigh got our har raised more nor once in that business of Pontiac's. He were a great chief and managed to get up the biggest confederation agin us that's ever been known. It were well for us that that business didn't begin a few years earlier when we was fighting the French; but you see, so long as we and they was at war the Indians hoped as we might pretty well exterminate each other, and then they intended to come in and finish off whoever got the best of it. Waal, the English they drove the French back and finally a treaty was made in Europe by which the French agreed to clear out.

"It was jest about this time as Pontiac worked upon the tribes to lay aside their own quarrels and jine the French in fighting agin us. He got the Senecas, and the Delawares, and the Shawnees, the Wyandots, and a lot of other tribes from the lakes and the hull country between the Niagara River and the Mississippi.

"Jack Pearson and me, we happened to be with the Miamis when the bloody belt which Pontiac were sending round as a signal for war arrived at the fort there. Jack and me knew the redskins pretty well, and saw by their manner as something unusual had happened. I went to the commandant of the fort and told him as much. He didn't think much of my news. The soldier chaps always despises the redskins till they see 'em come yelling along with their tomahawks, and then as often as not it's jest the other way. Howsumdever, he agreed at last to pay any amount of trade goods I might promise to the Miamis if the news turned out worth finding out. I discovered that a great palaver was to be held that evening at the chief's village, which was a mile away from the fort.

"I'd seen a good deal of the Miamis and had fought with 'em against the Shawnees, so I could do as much with 'em as most. Off Pearson and I goes to the chief; and I says to him, 'Look ye here, chief, I've good reasons to believe you've got a message from Pontiac and that it means trouble. Now don't you go and let yourself be led away by him. I've heard rumors that he's getting up a great confederation agin the English. But I tell you, chief, if all the redskins on this continent was to jine together, they couldn't do nothing agin the English. I don't say as you mightn't wipe out a number of little border forts, for no doubt you might; but what would come of it? England would send out as many men as there are leaves in the forest, who would scorch up the redskin nations as a fire on the prairie scorches up the grass. I tell yer, chief, no good can come on it. Don't build yer hopes on the French; they've acknowledged that they're beaten and are all going out of the country. It'd be best for you and your people to stick to the English. They can reward their friends handsomely, and ef you jine with Pontiac, sooner or later trouble and ruin will come upon you. Now I can promise you, in the name of the officer of the fort, a good English rifle for yerself and fifty guns for your braves and ten bales of blankets ef yer'll make a clean breast of it, and first tell us what deviltry Pontiac is up to and next jine us freely--or anyway hold aloof altogether from this conspiracy till yer see how things is going.'

"Waal, the chief he thought the matter over and said he'd do his best at the palaver that night, but till that was over, and he knew what the council decided on, he couldn't tell me what the message was. I was pretty well satisfied, for Prairie Dog were a great chief in his tribe, and I felt pretty sartin he'd git the council to go the way he wanted. I told him I'd be at the fort and that the governor would expect a message after the council was over.

"It was past midnight when the chief came with four of his braves. He told us that the tribe had received a bloody belt from Pontiac and a message that the Mingoes and Delawares, the Wyandots and Shawnees were going to dig up the hatchet against the whites, and calling upon him and his people to massacre the garrison of the fort and then march to jine Pontiac, who was about to fall upon Detroit and Fort Pitt. They were directed to send the belt on to the tribes on the Wabash, but they loved the English and were determined to take no part against them; so they delivered the belt to their friend the white commander, and hoped that he'd tell the great king in England that the Miamis were faithful to him. The governor highly applauded their conduct and said he'd send the news to the English governor at New York, and at once ordered the presents which I promised to be delivered to the chief for himself and his braves. When they'd gone he said:

"'You were right, Peter. This news is important indeed, and it's clear that a terrible storm's about to bust upon the frontier. Whether the Miamis will keep true is doubtful; but now I'm on my guard they'll find it difficult to take the fort. But the great thing is to carry the news of what's happened to Detroit, to put them on their guard. Will you and Pearson start at once?'

"In course we agreed, though it was clear that the job was a risksome one, for it wouldn't be no easy matter to journey through the woods with the hull redskin tribes on the war-path.

"The commander wanted me to carry the belt with me, but I said, 'I might jest as well carry my death warrant to the first redskins as I come across.' Major Gladwin, who commanded at Detroit, knew me, and I didn't need to carry any proof of my story. So, afore the Miamis had been gone half an hour, Jack and me took the trail for Detroit. We had got a canoe hid on the lake a few miles away, and we was soon on board. The next morning we seed a hull fleet of canoes coming down the lake. We might have made a race with 'em, but being fully manned the chances was as they'd have cut us off, and seeing that at present war had not been declared, we judged it best to seem as if we weren't afeared. So we paddles up to 'em and found as they were a lot of Wyandots whose hunting-grounds lay up by Lake Superior. In course I didn't ask no questions as to whar they was going, but jest mentioned as we was on our way down to Detroit. 'We're going that way, too,' the chief said, 'and 'll be glad to have our white brothers with us.' So we paddled along together until, about noon, they landed. Nothing was said to us as how we were prisoners, but we could see as how we was jest as much captives as ef we'd been tied with buckskin ropes.

"Jack and me talked it over and agreed as it was no manner o' use trying to make our escape, but that as long as they chose to treat us as guests we'd best seem perfectly contented and make no show of considering as they was on the war-path; although, seeing as they had no women or children with 'em, a baby could have known as they were up to no good.

"The next morning they started again at daybreak, and after paddling some hours landed and hid away their canoes and started on foot. Nothing was said to us, but we saw as we was expected to do as they did. We went on till we was within ten mile of Detroit and then we halted. I thought it were best to find out exactly how we stood, so Jack and I goes up to the chief and says that as we was near Detroit we would jest say good-by to him and tramp in.

"'Why should my white brothers hurry?' he said. 'It is not good for them to go on alone, for the woods are very full of Indians.' 'But,' I said, 'the hatchet's buried between the whites and the redskins, so there's no danger in the woods.' The chief waved his hand. 'My white brothers have joined the Wyandots, and they will tarry with them until they go into Detroit. There are many redskins there, and there will be a grand palaver. The Wyandots will be present.'

"Jack and me made no signs of being dissatisfied, but the position weren't a pleasant one, I can tell you. Here was the redskins a-clustering like bees around Detroit, ready to fall upon the garrison and massacre 'em, and we, who was the only men as knew of the danger, was prisoners among the redskins. It was sartin, too, that though they mightn't take our lives till they had attacked the garrison, they was only keeping us for the pleasure of torturing us quietly arterward. The situation was plain enough; the question was, what were to be done? There was about sixty of the varmints around us sitting by their fires and looking as ef they didn't even know as we was there, but we knew as sharp eyes was watching us and that, afore we'd gone five yards, the hull lot would be on our track.

"Jack and me didn't say much to each other, for we knew how closely we was watched and didn't want 'em to think as we was planning our escape, so after a few words we sat down by one of the fires till it got time to lie down for the night; but we had both been a-thinking. We saw, when we lay down, that the Injuns lay pretty well around us, while two on 'em, with their rifles ready to hand, sat down by a fire close by and threw on some logs, as if they intended to watch all night.

"It was a goodish-size clearing as they'd chose for a camping-ground, and we should have had to run some distance afore we got to the shelter of the trees. The moon too was up, and it were well-nigh as light as day, and anxious as we was to git away, we agreed that there were no chance of sliding off, but that it'd be better to wait till next day.

"When we woke our guns was gone. We complained to the chief, who said coldly that his young men would carry the guns and give 'em back to us when we got to Detroit. It were no use saying more, for he might at any moment have ordered us to be bound, and it were better to keep the use of our legs as long as we could.

"For two days we stayed there, not seeing the shadow of a chance of gitting away. Several redskin runners come in and spoke to the chief, and we got more and more anxious to be off. We was still allowed to walk about, provided we didn't go near the edge of the clearing; whenever we went that way two Injuns, who kept guard by turns over us, shouted to us to go no furder.

"The third morning, after a runner had come in, the chief gave the word for a move and we set out. We saw they wasn't taking the direct line to Detroit, although still going in that direction, and after two hours' marching through the woods we got down on to the Detroit River. Here was a big encampment, and some three or four hundred Shawnees and Delawares was gathered here. A chief come up to us as we entered the open. He gave an order to the Wyandots, and in a minute we was bound hand and foot, carried to a small wigwam, and chucked down inside like two logs of wood.

"After a little talk Jack and I agreed as after all we had a better chance of escaping now than when we was watched by a hull tribe, and we concluded that there weren't no time to be lost. The Wyandots had no doubt been brought up in readiness to strike the blow, and even if we'd known nothing about the belt we'd have been, sure that mischief was intended when these three bands of red varmints had gathered so close to the fort. It was sartin we couldn't do nothing till night, but we both strained our cords as much as possible to get 'em to stretch a bit and give us a better chance of slipping out of 'em. No one come near us for some time, and as we could hear the sound of voices we guessed that a great council was taking place, and we agreed at once to loosen the knots, so as to be in readiness for work, as like enough they'd put a sentry over us at night.

"It was a risky thing to try, for we might be disturbed at any minute. Still we thought it were our only chance, so Jack set to work with his teeth at my knots and in a quarter of an hour had loosened them; then I undone his. We unbound our thongs and then fastened 'em up again so that to the eye they looked jest the same as before but really with a jerk they'd fall off.

"I must teach you how to do that, Harold, some time; ye may find it of use. The knots was tied up as tightly as before, and it would have needed a close examination to see that we was not tied as tight as ever. Not a word was spoken and, we was as quiet as mice, for we could hear two redskins talking outside. You may guess we was pretty slick about it; and I don't know as ever I felt so thankful as when we laid ourselves down again, jest as we had been throwed, without the slit in the tent having opened and a red face peered in.

"A quarter of an hour later a redskin come in and looked at us. Seeing, as it seemed to him, as we hadn't moved, he went out again. Jest before nightfall two on 'em came in together, rolled us over, and looked at the knots; they found as these was all right; then one sat down jest in the door of the tent and the other took his place outside. We waited some hours.

"At last the fires burned low and the camp got quiet. We knew it was well-nigh hopeless to wait for 'em all to be asleep, for redskin natur' is a restless one, and especially when there's anything on hand they'll turn out two or three times in the night to smoke their pipes by the fires, and they'd be the more restless since, as we'd seen, there was only four or five wigwams and all would be sleeping on the ground. At last I thought the time were come and gave Jack a nudge, and we both sat up.

"It were a ticklish moment, young un, I can tell ye, for we knew that it were scarce possible to get off without the alarm being raised. Ef the wigwam had stood close to the edge of the forest it would have been compar'tively easy, for once among the trees we might have hoped to have outrun 'em, though the moon was so pesky bright; but unfortunately it was built not far from the river, and we should have to cross the hull clearing to gain the woods. The chances weren't good, I can tell you, but it was clear as we had to try 'em. We had purposely moved about pretty often, so that our movements would not attract the attention of the Injun now. It didn't take a minute to slip out of the cords, which, tight as they looked, really were not fastened at all, there being two loose double ends between our arms and our bodies. We could see the outside sentry through the open door, and we waited till he turned his back and looked out on the river. Then suddenly I gripped the redskin sitting at the entrance by the neck with both my hands, pretty tight, as you may reckon, and Jack ketched his knife from his belt and buried it in his body.

"That was soon over, and not a sound made as would have startled a mouse. Then, standing up, I made a spring on to the sentry, while Jack used his knife as before. We let him drop softly down and prepared to bolt, when of a sudden the war-whoop sounded not twenty feet away. One of the redskins, finding the ground hard, I suppose, was strolling up to speak to the sentry when he saw us tackle him. For a moment he were too much surprised to holler, but when he did he gave a yell as brought the hull tribe to their feet. Jack had taken up the sentry's rifle.

"'Ye'd better have held yer tongue,' he said as he leveled on the redskin, and before the whoop was out of his lips the bullet hit him and he went down like a log. It didn't need to look round to see as there was no chance of getting to the trees, for two hundred redskins was between us and them. 'We must take to the river, Jack,' I said. It were but thirty yards away. I expected every moment, as we run, to hear the rifle bullets whistle round us, but I guess Pontiac had given orders that no gun was to be fired lest it might be heard at the fort. Anyhow, not a shot was fired and we got down safe to the bank." _

Read next: Chapter 17. The Scout's Story

Read previous: Chapter 15. The Island Refuge

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