Read CHAPTER VI - PUPILS OF THE BEAR of The Masters of the Peaks A Story of the Great North Woods, free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on ReadCentral.com.

When Robert and Tayoga returned to the camp and told Willet what they had done the hunter laughed a little.

“Garay doesn’t want to face St. Luc,” he said, “but he will do it anyhow.  He won’t dare to come back on the trail in face of bullets, and now we’re sure to deliver his letter in ample time.”

“Should we go direct to Albany?” asked Robert.

The hunter cupped his chin in his hand and meditated.

“I’m all for Colonel Johnson,” he replied at last.  “He understands the French and Indians and has more vigor than the authorities at Albany.  It seems likely to me that he will still be at the head of Lake George where we left him, perhaps building the fort of which they were talking before we left there.”

“His wound did not give promise of getting well so very early,” said Robert, “and he would not move while he was in a weakened condition.”

“Then it’s almost sure that he’s at the head of the lake and we’ll turn our course toward that point.  What do you say, Tayoga?”

“Waraiyageh is the man to have the letter, Great Bear.  If it becomes necessary for him to march to the defense of Albany he will do it.”

“Then the three of us are in unanimity and Lake George it is instead of Albany.”

They started in an hour, and changing their course somewhat, began a journey across the maze of mountains toward Andiatarocte, the lake that men now call George, and Robert’s heart throbbed at the thought that he would soon see it again in all its splendor and beauty.  He had passed so much of his life near them that his fortunes seemed to him to be interwoven inseparably with George and Champlain.

They thought they would reach the lake in a few days, but in a wilderness and in war the plans of men often come to naught.  Before the close of the day they came upon traces of a numerous band traveling on the great trail between east and west, and they also found among them footprints that turned out.  These Willet and Tayoga examined with the greatest care and interest and they lingered longest over a pair uncommonly long and slender.

“I think they’re his,” the hunter finally said.

“So do I,” said the Onondaga.

“Those long, slim feet could belong to nobody but the Owl.”

“It can be only the Owl.”

“Now, who under the sun is the Owl?” asked Robert, mystified.

“The Owl is, in truth, a most dangerous man,” replied the hunter.  “His name, which the Indians have given him, indicates he works by night, though he’s no sloth in the day, either.  But he has another name, also, the one by which he was christened.  It’s Charles Langlade, a young Frenchman who was a trader before the war.  I’ve seen him more than once.  He’s mighty shrewd and alert, uncommon popular among the western Indians, who consider him as one of them because he married a good looking young Indian woman at Green Bay, and a great forester and wilderness fighter.  It’s wonderful how the French adapt themselves to the ways of the Indians and how they take wives among them.  I suppose the marriage tie is one of their greatest sources of strength with the tribes.  Now, Tayoga, why do you think the Owl is here so far to the eastward of his usual range?”

“He and his warriors are looking for scalps, Great Bear, and it may be that they have seen St. Luc.  They were traveling fast and they are now between us and Andiatarocte.  I like it but little.”

“Not any less than I do.  It upsets our plans.  We must leave the trail, or like as not we’ll run squarely into a big band.  What a pity our troops didn’t press on after the victory at the lake.  Instead of driving the French and Indians out of the whole northern wilderness we’ve left it entirely to them.”

They turned from the trail with reluctance, because, strong and enduring as they were, incessant hardships, long traveling and battle were beginning to tell upon all three, and they were unwilling to be climbing again among the high mountains.  But there was no choice and night found them on a lofty ridge in a dense thicket.  The hunter and the Onondaga were disturbed visibly over the advent of Langlade, and their uneasiness was soon communicated to the sympathetic mind of Robert.

The night being very clear, sown with shining stars, they saw rings of smoke rising toward the east, and outlined sharply against the dusky blue.

“That’s Langlade sending up signals,” said the hunter, anxiously, “and he wouldn’t do it unless he had something to talk about.”

“When one man speaks another man answers,” said Tayoga.  “Now from what point will come the reply?”

Robert felt excitement.  These rings of smoke in the blue were full of significance for them, and the reply to the first signal would be vital.  “Ah!” he exclaimed suddenly.  The answer came from the west, directly behind them.

“I think they’ve discovered our trail,” said Willet.  “They didn’t learn it from Garay, because Langlade passed before we sent him back, but they might have heard from St. Luc or Tandakora that we were somewhere in the forest.  It’s bad.  If it weren’t for the letter we could turn sharply to the north and stay in the woods till Christmas, if need be.”

“We may have to do so, whether we wish it or not,” said Tayoga.  “The shortest way is not always the best.”

Before morning they saw other smoke signals in the south, and it became quite evident then that the passage could not be tried, except at a risk perhaps too great to take.

“There’s nothing for it but the north,” said Willet, “and we’ll trust to luck to get the letter to Waraiyageh in time.  Perhaps we can find Rogers.  He must be roaming with his rangers somewhere near Champlain.”

At dawn they were up and away, but all through the forenoon they saw rings of smoke rising from the peaks and ridges, and the last lingering hope that they were not followed disappeared.  It became quite evident to their trained observation and the powers of inference from circumstances which had become almost a sixth sense with them that there was a vigorous pursuit, closing in from three points of the compass, south, east and west.  They slept again the next night in the forest without fire and arose the following morning cold, stiff and out of temper.  While they eased their muscles and prepared for the day’s flight they resolved upon a desperate expedient.

It was vital now to carry the letter to Johnson and then to Albany, which they considered more important than their own escape, and they could not afford to be driven farther and farther into the recesses of the north, while St. Luc might be marching with a formidable force on Albany itself.

“With us it’s unite to fight and divide for flight,” said Robert, divining what was in the mind of the others.

“The decision is forced upon us,” said Willet, regretfully.

Tayoga nodded.

“We’ll read the letter again several times, until all of us know it by heart,” said the hunter.

The precious document was produced, and they went over it until each could repeat it from memory.  Then Willet said: 

“I’m the oldest and I’ll take the letter and go south past their bands.  One can slip through where three can’t.”

He spoke with such decision that the others, although Tayoga wanted the task of risk and honor, said nothing.

“And do you, Robert and Tayoga,” resumed the hunter, “continue your flight to the northward.  You can keep ahead of these bands, and, when you discover the chase has stopped, curve back for Lake George.  If by any chance I should fall by the way, though it’s not likely, you can repeat the letter to Colonel Johnson, and let’s hope you’ll be in time.  Now good-by, and God bless you both.”

Willet never displayed emotion, but his feeling was very deep as he wrung the outstretched hand of each.  Then he turned at an angle to the east and south and disappeared in the undergrowth.

“He has been more than a father to me,” said Robert.

“The Great Bear is a man, a man who is pleasing to Areskoui himself,” said Tayoga with emphasis.

“Do you think he will get safely through?”

“There is no warrior, not even of the Clan of the Bear, of the Nation Onondaga, of the great League of the Hodenosaunee, who can surpass the Great Bear in forest skill and cunning.  In the night he will creep by Tandakora himself, with such stealth, that not a leaf will stir, and there will be not the slightest whisper in the grass.  His step, too, will be so light that his trail will be no more than a bird’s in the air.”

Robert laughed and felt better.

“You don’t stint the praise of a friend, Tayoga,” he said, “but I know that at least three-fourths of what you say is true.  Now, I take it that you and I are to play the hare to Langlade’s hounds, and that in doing so we’ll be of great help to Dave.”

“Aye,” agreed the Onondaga, and they swung into their gait.  Robert had received Garay’s pistol which, being of the same bore as his own, was now loaded with bullet and powder, instead of bullet and paper, and it swung at his belt, while Tayoga carried the intermediary’s rifle, a fine piece.  It made an extra burden, but they had been unwilling to throw it away ­a rifle was far too valuable on the border to be abandoned.

They maintained a good pace until noon, and, as they heard no sound behind them, less experienced foresters than they might have thought the pursuit had ceased, but they knew better.  It had merely settled into that tenacious kind which was a characteristic of the Indian mind, and unless they could hide their trail it would continue in the same determined manner for days.  At noon, they paused a half hour in a dense grove and ate bear and deer meat, sauced with some fine, black wild grapes, the vines hanging thick on one of the trees.

“Think of those splendid banquets we enjoyed when Garay was sitting looking at us, though not sharing with us,” said Robert.

Tayoga smiled at the memory and said: 

“If he had been able to hold out a little longer he would have had plenty of food, and we would not have had the letter.  The Great Bear would never have starved him.”

“I know that now, Tayoga, and I learn from it that we’re to hold out too, long after we think we’re lost, if we’re to be the victors.”

They came in the afternoon to a creek, flowing in their chosen course, and despite the coldness of its waters, which rose almost to their knees, they waded a long time in its bed.  When they went out on the bank they took off their leggings and moccasins, wrung or beat out of them as much of the water as they could, and then let them dry for a space in the sun, while they rubbed vigorously their ankles and feet to create warmth.  They knew that Langlade’s men would follow on either side of the creek until they picked up the trail again, but their maneuver would create a long delay, and give them a rest needed badly.

“Have you anything in mind, Tayoga?” asked Robert.  “You know that the farther north and higher we go the colder it will become, and our flight may take us again into the very heart of a great snow storm.”

“It is so, Dagaeoga, but it is also so that I do have a plan.  I think I know the country into which we are coming, and that tells me what to do.  The people of my race, living from the beginning of the world in the great forest, have not been too proud to learn from the animals, and of all the animals we know perhaps the wisest is the bear.”

“The bear is scarcely an animal, Tayoga.  He is almost a human being.  He has as good a sense of humor as we have, and he is more careful about minding his own business, and letting alone that of other people.”

“Dagaeoga is not without wisdom.  We will even learn from the bear.  A hundred miles to the north of us there is a vast rocky region containing many caves, where the bears go in great numbers to sleep the long winters through.  It is not much disturbed, because it is a dangerous country, lying between the Hodenosaunee and the Indian nations to the north, with which we have been at war for centuries.  There we will go.”

“And hole up until our peril passes!  Your plan appeals to me, Tayoga!  I will imitate the bear!  I will even be a bear!”

“We will take the home of one of them before he comes for it himself, and we will do him no injustice, because the wise bear can always find another somewhere else.”

“They’re fine caves, of course!” exclaimed Robert, buoyantly, his imagination, which was such a powerful asset with him, flaming up as usual.  “Dry and clean, with plenty of leaves for beds, and with nice little natural shelves for food, and a pleasant little brook just outside the door.  It will be pleasant to lie in our own cave, the best one of course, and hear the snow and sleet storms whistle by, while we’re warm and comfortable.  If we only had complete assurance that Dave was through with the letter I’d be willing to stay there until spring.”

Tayoga smiled indulgently.

“Dagaeoga is always dreaming,” he said, “but bright dreams hurt nobody.”

When night came, they were many more miles on their way, but it was a very cold darkness that fell upon them and they shivered in their blankets.  Robert made no complaint, but he longed for the caves, of which he was making such splendid pictures.  Shortly before morning, a light snow fell and the dawn was chill and discouraging, so much so that Tayoga risked a fire for the sake of brightness and warmth.

“Langlade’s men will come upon the coals we leave,” he said, “but since we have not shaken them off it will make no difference.  How much food have we left, Dagaeoga?”

“Not more than enough for three days.”

“Then it is for us to find more soon.  It is another risk that we must take.  I wish I had with me now my bow and arrows which I left at the lake, instead of Garay’s rifle.  But Areskoui will provide.”

The day turned much colder, and the streams to which they came were frozen over.  By night, the ice was thick enough to sustain their weight and they traveled on it for a long time, their thick moosehide moccasins keeping their feet warm, and saving them from falling.  Before they returned to the land it began to snow again, and Tayoga rejoiced openly.

“Now a white blanket will lie over the trail we have left on the ice,” he said, “hiding it from the keenest eyes that ever were in a man’s head.”

Then they crossed a ridge and came upon a lake, by the side of which they saw through the snow and darkness a large fire burning.  Creeping nearer, they discerned dusky forms before the flames and made out a band of at least twenty warriors, many of them sound asleep, wrapped to the eyes in their blankets.

“Have they passed ahead of us and are they here meaning to guard the way against us?” whispered Robert.

“No, it is not one of the bands that has been following us,” replied the Onondaga.  “This is a war party going south, and not much stained as yet by time and travel.  They are Montagnais, come from Montreal.  They seek scalps, but not ours, because they do not know of us.”

Robert shuddered.  These savages, like as not, would fall at midnight upon some lone settlement, and his intense imagination depicted the hideous scenes to follow.

“Come away,” he whispered.  “Since they don’t know anything about us we’ll keep them in ignorance.  I’m longing more than ever for my warm bear cave.”

They disappeared in the falling snow, which would soon hide their trail here, as it had hidden it elsewhere, and left the lake behind them, not stopping until they came to a deep and narrow gorge in the mountains, so well sheltered by overhanging bushes that no snow fell there.  They raked up great quantities of dry leaves, after the usual fashion, and spread their blankets upon them, poor enough quarters save for the hardiest, but made endurable for them by custom and intense weariness.  Both fell asleep almost at once, and both awoke about the same time far after dawn.

Robert moved his stiff fingers in his blanket and sat up, feeling cold and dismal.  Tayoga was sitting up also, and the two looked at each other.

“In very truth those bear caves never seemed more inviting to me,” said young Lennox, solemnly, “and yet I only see them from afar.”

“Dagaeoga has fallen in love with bear caves,” said the Onondaga, in a whimsical tone.  “The time is not so far back when he never talked about them at all, and now words in their praise fall from his lips in a stream.”

“It’s because I’ve experienced enlightenment, Tayoga.  It is only in the last two or three days that I’ve learned the vast superiority of a cave to any other form of human habitation.  Our remote ancestors lived in them two or three hundred thousand years, and we’ve been living in houses of wood or brick or stone only six or seven thousand years, I suppose, and so the cave, if you judge by the length of time, is our true home.  Hence I’m filled with a just enthusiasm at the thought of going back speedily to the good old ways and the good old days.  It’s possible, Tayoga, that our remote grandfathers knew best.”

“When Dagaeoga comes to his death bed, seventy or eighty years from now, and the medicine man tells him but little more breath is left in his body, what then do you think he will do?”

“What will I do, Tayoga?”

“You will say to the medicine man, ’Tell me exactly how long I have to live,’ and the medicine man will reply:  ’Ten minutes, O Dagaeoga, venerable chief and great orator.’  Then you will say:  ’Let all the people be summoned and let them crowd into the wigwam in which I lie,’ and when they have all come and stand thick about your bed, you will say, ’Now raise me into a sitting position and put the pillows thick behind my back and head that I may lean against them.’  Then you will speak to the people.  The words will flow from your lips in a continuous and golden stream.  It will be the finest speech of your life.  It will be filled with magnificent words, many of them, eight or ten syllables long.  It will be mellow like the call of a trumpet.  It will be armed with force, and it will be beautiful with imagery; it will be suffused and charged with color, it will be the very essence of poetry and power, and as the aged Dagaeoga draws his very last breath so he will speak his very last word, and thus, in a golden cloud, his soul will go away into infinite space, to dwell forever in the bosom of Manitou, with the immortal sachems, Tododaho and Hayowentha!”

“Do you know, Tayoga, I think that would be a happy death,” said Robert earnestly.

The Onondaga laughed heartily.

“Thus does Dagaeoga show his true nature,” he said.  “He was born with the spirit and soul of the orator, and the fact is disclosed often.  It is well.  The orator, be he white or red, will lose himself sometimes in his own words, but he is a gift from the gods, sent to lift up the souls, and cheer the rest of us.  He is the bugle that calls us to the chase and we must not forget that his value is great.”

“And having said a whole cargo of words yourself Tayoga, now what do you propose that we do?”

“Push on with all our strength for the caves.  I know now we are on the right path, because I recall the country through which we are passing.  At noon we will reach a small lake, in which the fish are so numerous that there is not room for them all at the same time in the water.  They have to take turns in getting the air above the surface on top of the others.  For that reason the fish of this lake are different from all other fish.  They will live a full hour on the bank after they are caught.”

“Tayoga, in very truth, you’ve learned our ways well.  You’ve become a prince of romancers yourself.”

At the appointed time they reached the lake.  There were no fish above its surface, but the Onondaga claimed it was due to the fact that the lake was covered with ice which of course kept them down, and which crowded them excessively, and very uncomfortably.  They broke two big holes in the ice, let down the lines which they always carried, the hooks baited with fragments of meat, and were soon rewarded with splendid fish, as much as they needed.

Tayoga with his usual skill lighted a fire, despite the driving snow, and they had a banquet, taking with them afterward a supply of the cooked fish, though they knew they could not rely upon fish alone in the winter days that were coming.  But fortune was with them.  Before dark, Robert shot a deer, a great buck, fine and fat.  They had so little fear of pursuit now that they cut up the body, saving the skin whole for tanning, and hung the pieces in the trees, there to freeze.  Although it would make quite a burden they intended to carry practically all of it with them.

Many mountain wolves were drawn that night by the odor of the spoils, but they lay between twin fires and had no fear of an attack.  Yet the time might come when they would be assailed by fierce wild animals, and now they were glad that Tayoga had kept Garay’s rifle, and also his ammunition, a good supply of powder and bullets.  It was possible that the question of ammunition might become vital with them, but they did not yet talk of it.

On the second day thereafter, bearing their burdens of what had been the deer, they reached the stony valley Tayoga had in mind, and Robert saw at once that its formation indicated many caves.

“Now, I wonder if the bears have come,” he said, putting down his pack and resting.  “The cold has been premature and perhaps they’re still roaming through the forest.  I shouldn’t want to put an interloper out of my own particular cave, but, if I have to do it, I will.”

“The bears haven’t arrived yet,” said Tayoga, “and we can choose.  I do not know, but I do not think a bear always occupies the same winter home, so we will not have to fight over our place.”

It was a really wonderful valley, where the decaying stone had made a rich assortment of small caves, many of them showing signs of former occupancy by large wild animals, and, after long searching, they found one that they could make habitable for themselves.  Its entrance was several feet above the floor of the valley, so that neither storm nor winter flood could send water into it, and its own floor was fairly smooth, with a roof eight or ten feet high.  It could be easily defended with their three rifles, the aperture being narrow, and they expected, with skins and pelts, to make it warm.

It was but a cold and bleak refuge for all save the hardiest, and for a little while Robert had to use his last ounce of will to save himself from discouragement.  But vigorous exertion and keen interest in the future brought back his optimism.  The hide of the deer they had slain was spread at once upon the cave floor and made a serviceable rug.  They spoke hopefully of soon adding to it.

A brook flowed less than a hundred yards away, and they would have no trouble about their water supply, while the country about seemed highly favorable for game.  But on their first day there they did not do any hunting.  They rolled several large stones before the door of their new home, making it secure against any prying wild animals, and then, after a hearty meal, they wrapped themselves in their blankets and slept prodigiously.

Tayoga went into the forest the next day and set traps and snares, while Robert worked in the valley, breaking up fallen wood to be used for fires, and doing other chores.  The Onondaga in the next three or four days shot a large panther, a little bear, and caught in the traps and snares a quantity of small game.  The big pelts and the little pelts, after proper treatment, were spread upon the floor or hung against the walls of the cave, which now began to assume a much more inviting aspect, and the flesh of the animals that were eatable, cured after the primitive but effective processes, was stored there also.

Providence granted them a period of good weather, days and nights alike being clear and cold.  The game, evidently not molested for a long time, fairly walked into their traps, and they were compelled to draw but little upon their precious supply of ammunition.  Food for the future accumulated rapidly, and the floor and walls of the cave were soon covered entirely with furs.

Not one of the numerous caves and hollows about them contained an occupant and Robert wondered if their presence would frighten away the wild animals, so many of which had hibernated there so often.  Yet he had a belief that the bears would come.  His present mode of life and his isolation from the world gave him a feeling almost of kinship with them, and in some strange way, and through some medium unknown to him, they might reciprocate.  He and Tayoga had killed several bears, it was true, but far from the cave, and they made up their minds to molest nothing in the valley or just about it.

It was a land of many waters and they caught with ease numerous fish, drying all the surplus and storing it with the other food in the cave.  They also made soft beds for themselves of the little branches of the evergreen, over which they spread their blankets, and when they rolled the stone before the doorway at night they never failed to sleep soundly.

They did their cooking in front of the cave door, but it was always a smothered fire.  While they felt safe from wandering bands in that lofty and remote region, they took no unnecessary risks.  The valley itself, though deep, was much broken up into separate little valleys, and most of the caves were hidden from their own.  It was this fact that made Robert still think the bears would come, despite coals and flame.  In the evenings they would talk of Willet, and both were firm in the opinion that the hunter had got through to Lake George and that Johnson and Albany had been warned in time.  Each was confirmed in his opinion by the other and in a few days it became certainty.

“I think Tododaho on his star whispered in my ear while I slept that Great Bear has passed the hostile lines,” said Tayoga with conviction, “because I know it, just as if the Great Bear himself had told it to me, though I do not know how I know it.”

“It’s some sort of mysterious information,” said Robert in the same tone of absolute belief, “and I don’t worry any more about Dave and the letter.  The men of the Hodenosaunee seem to have a special gift.  You know the old chief, Hendrik, foretold that he would die on the shores of Andiatarocte, and it came to pass just as he had said.”

“It was a glorious death, Dagaeoga, and it was, perhaps, he who saved our army, and made the victory possible.”

“So it was.  There’s not a doubt of it, but, here, I don’t feel much like taking part in a war.  The great struggle seems to have passed around us for a while, at least.  I appear to myself as a man of peace, occupied wholly with the struggle for existence and with preparations for a hard winter.  I don’t want to harm anything.”

“Perhaps it’s because nothing we know of wants to harm us.  But, Dagaeoga, if the bears come at all they will come quickly, because in a few days winter will be roaring down upon us.”

“Then, Tayoga, we must hurry our labors, and since the mysterious message brought in some manner through the air has told us that Dave has reached the lake, I’m rather anxious for it to rush down.  While it keeps us here it will also hold back the forces of St. Luc.”

“That’s true, Dagaeoga.  It’s a poor snow that doesn’t help somebody.  Now, I will make a bow and arrow to take the place of my great bow and quiver, which await me elsewhere, because we must draw but little upon our powder and bullets.”

The Onondaga had hatchet and knife and he worked with great rapidity and skill, cutting and bending a bow in two or three days, and making a string of strong sinews, after which he fashioned many arrows and tipped them with sharp bone.  Then he contemplated his handiwork with pride.

“Hasty work is never the best of work,” he said, “and these are not as good as those I left behind me, but I know they will serve.  The game here, hunted but little, is not very wary and I can approach near.”

His skill both in construction and use was soon proved, as he slew with his new weapons a great moose, two ordinary deer, and much smaller game, while the traps caught beaver, otter, fox, wolf and other animals, with fine pelts.  Many splendid furs were soon drying in the air and were taken later into the cave, while they accumulated dried and jerked game enough to last them until the next spring.

Both worked night and day with such application and intensity that their hands became stiff and sore, and every bone in them ached.  Nevertheless Robert took time now and then to examine the little caves in the other sections of the valley, only to find them still empty.  He thought, for a while, that the presence of Tayoga and himself and their operations with the game might have frightened the bears away, but the feeling that they would come returned and was strong upon him.  As for Tayoga he never doubted.  It had been decreed by Tododaho.

“The animals have souls,” he said.  “Often when great warriors die or fall in battle their souls go into the bodies of bear, or deer, or wolf, but oftenest into that of bear.  For that reason the bear, saving only the dog which lives with us, is nearest to man, and now and then, because of the warrior soul in him, he is a man himself, although he walks on four legs ­and he does not always walk on four legs, sometimes he stands on two.  Doubt not, Dagaeoga, that when the stormy winter sweeps down the bears will come to their ancient homes, whether or not we be here.”

The winds grew increasingly chill, coming from the vast lakes beyond the Great Lakes, those that lay in the far Canadian north, and the skies were invariably leaden in hue and gloomy.  But in the cave it was cozy and warm.  Furs and skins were so numerous that there was no longer room on the floor and walls for them all, many being stored in glossy heaps in the corners.

“Some day these will bring a good price from the Dutch traders at Albany,” said Robert, “and it may be, Tayoga, that you and I will need the money.  I’ve been a scout and warrior for a long time, and now I’ve suddenly turned fur hunter.  Well, that spirit of peace and of a friendly feeling toward all mankind grows upon me.  Why shouldn’t I be full of brotherly love when your patron saint, Tododaho, has been so kind to us?”

He swept the cave once more with a glance of approval.  It furnished shelter, warmth, food in abundance, and with its furs even a certain velvety richness for the eye, and Tayoga nodded assent.  Meanwhile they waited for the fierce blasts of the mountain winter.