Read CHAPTER IX - THE SIGN 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.

Robert returned with Langlade to the partisan’s camp at the edge of the forest adjoining that of the main French army, where the Indian warriors had lighted fires and were cooking steaks of the deer.  He was disposed to be silent, but Langlade as usual chattered volubly, discoursing of French might and glory, but saying nothing that would indicate to his prisoner the meaning of the present military array in the forest.

Robert did not hear more than half of the Owl’s words, because he was absorbed in those of Montcalm, which still lingered in his mind.  Why should the Marquis wish to send him to France, and to have him treated, when he was there, more as a guest than as a prisoner?  Think as he would he could find no answer to the question, but the Owl evidently had been impressed by his reception from Montcalm, as he treated him now with distinguished courtesy.  He also seemed particularly anxious to have the good opinion of the lad who had been so long his prisoner.

“Have I been harsh to you?” he asked with a trace of anxiety in his tone.  “Have I not always borne myself toward you as if you were an important prisoner of war?  It is true I set the Dove as an invincible sentinel over you, but as a good soldier and loyal son of France I could do no less.  Now, I ask you, Monsieur Robert Lennox, have not I, Charles Langlade, conducted myself as a fair and considerate enemy?”

“If I were to escape and be captured again, Captain Langlade, it is my sincere wish that you should be my captor the second time, even as you were the first.”

The Owl was gratified, visibly and much, and then he announced a visitor.  Robert sprang to his feet as he saw St. Luc approaching, and his heart throbbed as always when he was in the presence of this man.  The chevalier was in a splendid uniform of white and silver unstained by the forest.  His thick, fair hair was clubbed in a queue and powdered neatly, and a small sword, gold hilted, hung at his belt.  He was the finest and most gallant figure that Robert had yet seen in the wilderness, the very spirit and essence of that brave and romantic France with which England and her colonies were fighting a duel to the death.  And yet St. Luc always seemed to him too the soul of knightly chivalry, one to whom it was impossible for him to bear any hostility that was not merely official.  His own hand went forward to meet the extended hand of the chevalier.

“We seem destined to meet many times, Mr. Lennox,” said St. Luc, “in battle, and even under more pleasant conditions.  I had heard that you were the prisoner of our great forest ranger, Captain Langlade, and that you would be received by our commander-in-chief, the Marquis de Montcalm.”

“He made me a most extraordinary offer, that I go as a prisoner of war to Paris, but almost in the state of a guest.”

“And you thought fit to decline, which was unwise in you, though to be expected of a lad of spirit.  Sit down, Mr. Lennox, and we can have our little talk in ease and comfort.  It may be that I have something to do with the proposition of the Marquis de Montcalm.  Why not reconsider it and go to France?  England is bound to lose the war in America.  We have the energy and the knowledge.  The Indian tribes are on our side.  Even the powerful Hodenosaunee may come over to us in time, and at the worst it will become neutral.  As a prisoner in France you will have no share in defeat, but perhaps that does not appeal to you.”

“It does not, but I thank you, Chevalier de St. Luc, for your many kindnesses to me, although I don’t understand them.  Your solicitude for my welfare cannot but awake my gratitude, but it has been more than once a source of wonderment in my mind.”

“Because you are a young and gallant enemy whom I would not see come to harm.”

Robert felt, however, that the chevalier was not stating the true reason, and he felt also with equal force that he would keep secret in the face of all questions, direct or indirect, the motives impelling him.  St. Luc asked him about his life in the Indian village with Langlade, and then came back presently to Paris and France, which he described more vividly than even Montcalm had done.  He seemed to know the very qualities that would appeal most to Robert, and, despite himself, the lad felt his heart leap more than once.  Paris appeared in deeper and more glowing colors than ever as the city of light and soul, but he was firm in his resolution not to go there as a prisoner, if choice should be left to him.  St. Luc himself became enamored of his own words as he spoke.  His eyes glowed, and his tone took on great warmth and enthusiasm.  But presently he ceased and when he laughed a little his laugh showed a slight tone of disappointment.

“I do not move you, Mr. Lennox,” he said.  “I can see by your eye that your will is hardening against my words, and yet I could wish that you would listen to me.  You will believe me when I say I mean you only good.”

“I am wholly sure of it, Monsieur de St. Luc,” said Robert, trying to speak lightly, “but a long while ago I formed a plan to escape, and if I should go to France it would interfere with it seriously.  It would not be so easy to leave Paris, and come back to the province of New York, and while I am in North America it is always possible.  I informed Captain Langlade that I meant to escape, and now I repeat it to you.”

The chevalier laughed.

“Time will tell,” he said.  “Your ambition to leave is a proper and patriotic motive on your part, and I should be the last to accuse it.  But ’tis not easy of accomplishment.  I betray no military secret when I say our army marches quickly and you will, of necessity, march with us.  Captain Langlade will still keep a vigilant watch over you, and you may be in readiness to depart tomorrow morning.”

Robert slept that night in Langlade’s little section of the camp, but, before he went to sleep, he spent much time wondering which way they would go when the dawn came.  Evidently no attack upon Albany was meant, as they were too far west for such a venture, and he had reason to believe, also, that with the coming of spring the Colonials would be in such posture of defense that Montcalm himself would hesitate at such a task.  He made another attempt to draw the information from Langlade, but failed utterly.  Garrulous as he was otherwise, the French partisan would give no hint of his general’s plans.  Yet he and his warriors made obvious preparations for battle, and, before Robert went to sleep, a gigantic figure stalked into the firelight and regarded him with a grim gaze.  The young prisoner’s back was turned at the moment, but he seemed to feel that fierce look, beating like a wind upon his head, and, turning around, he looked full into the eyes of Tandakora.

The huge Ojibway was more huge than ever.  Robert was convinced that he was the largest man he had ever seen, not only the tallest, but the broadest, and the heaviest, and his very lack of clothing ­he wore only a belt, breech cloth, leggings and moccasins ­seemed to increase his size.  His vast shoulders, chest and arms were covered with paint, and the scars of old wounds, the whole giving to him the appearance of some primeval giant, sinister and monstrous.  He carried a fine, new rifle of French make and two double barreled pistols; a tomahawk and knife swung from his belt.

Robert, nevertheless, met that full gaze firmly.  He shut from his mind what he might have had to suffer from Tandakora had the Ojibway held him a captive in the forest, but here he was not Tandakora’s prisoner, and he was in the midst of the French army.  Centering all his will and soul into the effort he stared straight into the evil eyes of the Indian, until those of his antagonist were turned away.

“The Owl has a prisoner whom I know,” said Tandakora to Langlade.

“Aye, a sprightly lad,” replied the partisan.  “I took him before the winter came, and I’ve been holding him at our village on Lake Ontario.”

“It was he who, with the Onondaga, Tayoga, and the hunter, Willet, whom we call the Great Bear, carried the letters from Corlear at New York to Onontio at Quebec.  The nations of the Hodenosaunee call him Dagaeoga, and he is a danger to us.  I would buy him from you.  I will send to you for him fifty of the finest buffalo robes taken from the great western plains.”

“Not for fifty buffalo robes, Tandakora, no matter how fine they are.”

“Ten packs of the finest beaver skins, fifty in each pack.”

“It’s no use to bid for him, Tandakora.  I don’t sell captives.  Moreover, he has passed out of my hands.  I have had my reward for him.  His fate rests now with the Chevalier de St. Luc and the Marquis de Montcalm.”

The Ojibway’s face showed foiled malice.  “It is a snake that the Owl warms in his bosom,” he said, and strode away.  The partisan followed him with observant eyes.

“It is evident that the Ojibway chief bears you no love, young Monsieur Lennox,” he said.  “Now that you have served the purposes for which I held you I wish you no harm, and so I bid you beware of Tandakora.”

“Your advice is good and well meant, and for it I thank you,” said Robert; “but I’ve known Tandakora a long time.  My friends and I have met him in several encounters and we’ve not had the worst of them.”

“I judged so by his manner.  All the more reason then why you should beware of him.  I repeat the warning.”

Robert was not bound, and he was permitted to roll himself in a blanket and sleep with his feet to the fire, an Indian on either side of him.  Save where a space had been cleared for the French army, the primeval forest, heavy in the foliage of early spring, was all about them, and the wind that sang through the leaves united with the murmuring of a creek, beside which Langlade had pitched his camp.

Slumber was slow in coming to Robert.  Too much had occurred for his faculties to slip away at once into oblivion.  His interview with Montcalm, his meeting with St. Luc, and the appearance of Tandakora at the camp fire, stirred him mightily.  Events were certainly marching, and, while he tried to coax slumber to come, he listened to the noises of the camp and the forest.  Where the French tents were spread, men were softly singing songs of their ancient land, and beyond them sentinels in neat uniforms were walking back and forth among trees that had never beheld uniforms before.

The sounds sank gradually, but Robert did not yet sleep.  He found a peculiar sort of interest in detaching these murmurs from one another, the stamp of impatient horses, the moving of arms, the last dying, notes of a song, the whisper of the creek’s waters, and then, plainly separate from the others, he heard a faint, unmistakable swish, a noise that he knew, that of an arrow flying through the air.  Langlade knew it too, and sprang up with an angry cry.

“Now, has some warrior got hold of whiskey to indulge in this madness?” he exclaimed.

The faint swish came a second time, and Robert, who had risen to his feet, saw two arrows standing upright in the earth not twenty feet away.  Langlade saw them also and swore.

“They must have come in a wide curve overhead,” he said, “or they would not be standing almost straight up in the earth, and that does not seem like the madness of liquor.”

He looked suspiciously at the forest, in which Indian sentinels had been posted, but which, nevertheless, was so dark that a cunning form might pass there unseen.

“There is more in this than meets the eye,” muttered the partisan, and drawing the arrows from the earth he examined them by the light of the fire.  Robert stood by, silent, but his eyes fell on fresh marks with a knife, near the barb on each weapon, and the great pulse in his throat leaped.  The yellow flame threw out in distinct relief what the knife had cut there, and he saw on each arrow the rude but unmistakable outline of a bear.

The Owl might not determine the meaning of the picture, but the captive comprehended it at once.  It was the pride of Tayoga that he was of the clan of the Bear, of the nation Onondaga, of the great League of the Hodenosaunee, and here upon the arrows was his totem or sign of the Bear.  It was a message and Robert knew that it was meant for him.  Had ever a man a more faithful comrade?  The Onondaga was still following in the hope of making a rescue, and he would follow as long as Robert was living.  Once more the young prisoner’s hopes of escape rose to the zenith.

“Now what do these marks mean?” said the partisan, looking at the arrows suspiciously.

“It was merely an intoxicated warrior shooting at the moon,” replied Robert, innocently, “and the cuts signify nothing.”

“I’m not so sure of that.  I’ve lived long enough among the Indians to know they don’t fire away good arrows merely for bravado, and these are planted so close together it must be some sort of a signal.  It may have been intended for you.”

Robert was silent, and the partisan did not ask him any further questions, but, being much disturbed, sent into the forest scouts, who returned presently, unable to find anything.

“It may or it may not have been a message,” he said, speaking to Robert, in his usual garrulous fashion, “but I still incline to the opinion that it was, though I may never know what the message meant, but I, Charles Langlade, have not been called the Owl for nothing.  If it refers to you then your chance of escape has not increased.  I hold you merely for tonight, but I hold you tight and fast.  Tomorrow my responsibility ceases, and you march in the middle of Montcalm’s army.”

Robert made no reply, but he was in wonderful spirits, and his elation endured.  His senses, in truth, were so soothed by the visible evidence that his comrade was near that he fell asleep very soon and had no dreams.  The French and Indian army began its march early the next morning, and Robert found himself with about a dozen other prisoners, settlers who had been swept up in its advance.  They had been surprised in their cabins, or their fields, newly cleared, and could tell him nothing, but he noticed that the march was west.

He believed they were not far from Lake Ontario, and he had no doubt that Montcalm had prepared some fell stroke.  His mind settled at last upon Oswego, where the Anglo-American forces had a post supposed to be strong, and he was smitten with a fierce and commanding desire to escape and take a warning.  But he was compelled to eat his heart out without result.  With French and Indians all about him he had not the remotest chance and, helpless, he was compelled to watch the Marquis de Montcalm march to what he felt was going to be a French triumph.

Swarms of Indian scouts and skirmishers preceded the army and Canadian axmen cut a way for the artillery, but to Robert’s great amazement these operations lasted only a short time.  Almost before he could realize it they had emerged from the deep woods and he looked again upon the vast, shining reaches of Lake Ontario.  Then he learned for the first time that Montcalm’s army had come mostly in boats and in detachments, and was now united for attack.  As he had surmised, Oswego, which the English and Americans had intended to be a great stronghold and rallying place in the west, was the menaced position.

Robert from a hill saw three forts before the French force, the largest standing upon a plateau of considerable elevation on the east bank of the river, which there flowed into the lake.  It was shaped like a star, and the fortifications consisted of trunks of trees, sharpened at the ends, driven deep into the ground, and set as close together as possible.  On the west side of the river was another fort of stone and clay, and four hundred yards beyond it was an unfinished stockade, so weak that its own garrison had named it in derision Rascal Fort.  Some flat boats and canoes lay in the lake, and it was a man in one of these canoes who had been the first to learn of the approach of Montcalm’s army, so slender had been the precautions taken by the officers in command of the forts.

“We have come upon them almost as if we had dropped from the clouds,” said Langlade, exultingly, to Robert.  “When they thought the Marquis de Montcalm was in Montreal, lo! he was here!  It is the French who are the great leaders, the great soldiers and the great nation!  Think you we would allow ourselves to be surprised as Oswego has been?”

Robert made no reply.  His heart sank like a plummet in a pool.  Already he heard the crackling fire of musketry from the Indians who, sheltered in the edge of the forest, were sending bullets against the stout logs of Fort Ontario, but which could offer small resistance to cannon.  And while the sharpshooting went on, the French officers were planting the batteries, one of four guns directly on the strand.  The work was continued at a great pace all through the night, and when Robert awoke from an uneasy sleep, in the morning, he saw that the French had mounted twenty heavy cannon, which soon poured showers of balls and grape and canister upon the log fort.  He also saw St. Luc among the guns directing their fire, while Tandakora’s Indians kept up an incessant and joyous yelling.

The defenders of the stockade maintained a fire from rifles and several small cannon, but it did little harm in the attacking army and Robert was soldier enough to know that the log walls could not hold.  While St. Luc sent in the fire from the batteries faster and faster, a formidable force of Canadians and Indians led by Rigaud, one of the best of Montcalm’s lieutenants, crossed the river, the men wading in the water up to their waists, but holding their rifles over their heads.

Tandakora was in this band, shouting savagely, and so was Langlade, but Robert and the other prisoners, left under guard on the hill, saw everything distinctly.  They had no hope whatever that the chief fort, or any of the forts, could hold out.  Fragments of the logs were already flying in the air as the stream of cannon balls beat upon them.  The garrison made a desperate resistance, but the cramped place was crowded with women ­settlers’ wives ­as well as men, the commander was killed, and at last the white flag was hoisted on all the forts.

Then the Indians, intoxicated with triumph and the strong liquors they had seized, rushed in and began to ply the tomahawk.  Montcalm, horrified, used every effort to stop the incipient butchery, and St. Luc, Bourlamaque and, in truth, all of his lieutenants, seconded him gallantly.  Tandakora and his men were compelled to return their tomahawks to their belts, and then the French army was drawn around the captives, who numbered hundreds and hundreds.

It was another French and Indian victory like that over Braddock, though it was not marked by the destruction of an army, and Robert’s heart sank lower and lower.  He knew that it would be appalling news to Boston, to Albany and to New York.  The Marquis de Montcalm had justified the reputation that preceded him.  He had struck suddenly with lightning swiftness and with terrible effect.  Not only this blow, but its guarantee of others to come, filled Robert’s heart with fear for the future.

The sun sank upon a rejoicing army.  The Indians were still yelling and dancing, and, though they were no longer allowed to sink their tomahawks in the heads of their defenseless foes, they made imaginary strokes with them, and shouted ferociously as they leaped and capered.

Robert was on the strand near the shore of the lake, and wearied by his long day of watching that which he wished least in the world to see, he sat down on a sand heap, and put his head in his hands.  Peculiarly sensitive to atmosphere and surroundings, he was, for the moment, almost without hope.  But he knew, even when he was in despair, that his courage would come back.  It was one of the qualities of a temperament such as his that while he might be in the depths at one hour he would be on the heights at the next.

Several of the Indians, apparently those who had got at the liquor, were careering up and down the sands, showing every sign of the blood madness that often comes in the moment of triumph upon savage minds.  Robert raised his face from his hands and looked to see if Tandakora was among them, but he caught no glimpse of the gigantic Ojibway.  The French soldiers who were guarding the prisoners gazed curiously at the demoniac figures.  They were of the battalions Béarn and Guienne and they had come newly from France.  Plunged suddenly into the wilderness, such sights as they now beheld filled them with amazement, and often created a certain apprehension.  They were not so sure that their wild allies were just the kind of allies they wanted.

The sun set lower upon the savage scene, casting a dark glow over the ruined forts, the troops, the leaping savages and the huddled prisoners.  One of the Indians danced and bounded more wildly than all the rest.  He was tall, but slim, apparently youthful, and he wore nothing except breech cloth, leggings and moccasins, his naked body a miracle of savage painting.  Robert by and by watched him alone, fascinated by his extraordinary agility and untiring enthusiasm.  His figure seemed to shoot up in the air on springs, and, with a glittering tomahawk, he slew and scalped an imaginary foe over and over again, and every time the blade struck in the air he let forth a shout that would have done credit to old Stentor himself.  He ranged up and down the beach, and presently, when he was close to Robert, he grew more violent than ever, as if he were worked by some powerful mechanism that would not let him rest.  He had all the appearance of one who had gone quite mad, and as he bounded near them, his tomahawk circling about his head, the French guards shrank back, awed, and, at the same time, not wishing to have any conflict with their red allies, who must be handled with the greatest care.

The man paused a moment before the young prisoner, whirled his tomahawk about his head and uttered a ferocious shout.  Robert looked straight into the burning eyes, started violently and then became outwardly calm, though every nerve and muscle in him was keyed to the utmost tension.  “To the lake!” exclaimed the Indian under his breath and then he danced toward the water.

Robert did not know at first what the words meant, and he waited in indecision, but he saw that the care of the guards, owing to the confusion, the fact that the battle was over, and the rejoicing for victory, was relaxed.  It would seem, too, that escape at such a time and place was impossible, and that circumstance increased their inattention.

The youth watched the dancing warrior, who was now moving toward the water, over which the darkness of night had spread.  But the lake was groaning with a wind from the north, and several canoes near the beach were bobbing up and down.  The dancer paused a moment at the very edge of the water, and looked back at Robert.  Then he advanced into the waves themselves.

All the young prisoner’s indecision departed in a flash.  The signal was complete and he understood.  He sprang violently against the French soldier who stood nearest him and knocked him to the ground.  Then with three or four bounds he was at the water’s edge, leaping into the canoe, just as Tayoga settled himself into place there, and, seizing a paddle, pushed away with powerful shoves.

Robert nearly upset the canoe, but the Onondaga quickly made it regain its balance, and then they were out on the lake under the kindly veil of the night.  The fugitive said nothing, he knew it was no time to speak, because Tayoga’s powerful back was bending with his mighty efforts and the bullets were pattering in the water behind them.  It was luck that the canoe was a large one, partaking more of the nature of a boat, as Robert could remain concealed on the bottom without tipping it over, while the Onondaga continued to put all his nervous power and skill into his strokes.  It was equally fortunate, also, that the night had come and that the dusk was thick, as it distracted yet further the hasty aim of the French and Indians on shore.  One bullet from a French rifle grazed Robert’s shoulder, another was deflected from Tayoga’s paddle without striking it from his hand, but in a few minutes they were beyond the range of those who stood on the bank, although lead continued to fall in the water behind them.

“Now you can rise, Dagaeoga,” said the Onondaga, “and use the extra paddle that I took the precaution to stow in the boat.  Do not think because you are an escaped prisoner that you are to rest in idleness and luxury, doing no work while I do it all.”

“God bless you, Tayoga!” exclaimed Robert, in the fullness of his emotion.  “I’ll work a week without stopping if you say so.  I’m so glad to see you that I’ll do anything you say, and ask no questions.  But I want to tell you you’re the most wonderful dancer and jumper in America!”

“I danced and jumped so well, Dagaeoga, because your need made me do so.  Necessity gives a wonderful spring to the muscles.  Behold how long and strong you sweep with the paddle because the bullets of the enemy impel you.”

“Which way are we going, Tayoga?  What is your plan?”

“Our aim at this moment, Dagaeoga, is the middle of the lake, because the sons of Onontio and the warriors of Tandakora are all along the beach, and would be waiting for us with rifle and tomahawk should we seek to land.  This is but a small boat in which we sit and it could not resist the waves of a great storm, but at present it is far safer for us than any land near by.”

“Of course you’re right, Tayoga, you always are, but we’re in the thick of the darkness now, so you rest awhile and let me do the paddling alone.”

“It is a good thought, Dagaeoga, but keep straight in the direction we are going.  See that you do not paddle unconsciously in a curve.  We shall certainly be pursued, and although our foes cannot see us well in the dark, some out of their number are likely to blunder upon us.  If it comes to a battle you will notice that I have an extra rifle and pistol for you lying in the bottom of the canoe, and that I am something more than a supple dancer and leaper.”

“You not only think of everything, Tayoga, but you also do it, which is better.  I shall take care to keep dead ahead.”

Robert in his turn bent forward and plied the paddle.  He was not only fresh, but the wonderful thrill of escape gave him a strength far beyond the normal, and the great canoe fairly danced over the waters toward the dusky deeps of the lake, while the Onondaga crouched at the other end of the canoe, rifle in hand, intently watching the heavy pall of dusk behind them.

Their situation was still dangerous in the extreme, but the soul of Tayoga swelled with triumph.  Tandakora, the Ojibway, had rejoiced because he had expected a great taking of scalps, but the purer spirit of the Onondaga soared into the heights because he had saved his comrade of a thousand dangers.  He still saw faintly through the darkness the campfires of the victorious French and Indian army, and he heard the swish of paddles, but he did not yet discern any pursuing canoe.  He detached his eyes for a moment from the bank of dusk in front of him, and looked up at the skies.  The clouds and vapors kept him from seeing the great star upon which his patron saint, Tododaho, sat, but he knew that he was there, and that he was watching over him.  He could not have achieved so much in the face of uttermost peril and then fail in the lesser danger.

The canoe glided swiftly on toward the wider reaches of the lake, and the Onondaga never relaxed his watchfulness, for an instant.  He was poised in the canoe, every nerve and muscle ready to leap in a second into activity, while his ears were strained for the sounds of paddles or oars.  Now he relied, as often before, more upon hearing than sight.  Presently a sound came, and it was that of oars.  A boat parted the wall of dusk and he saw that it contained both French and Indians, eight in all, the warriors uttering a shout as they beheld the fugitive canoe.

“Keep steadily on, Dagaeoga,” said the Onondaga.  “I have my long barreled rifle, and it will carry much farther than those of the foe.  In another minute it will tell them they had best stop, and if they will not obey its voice then I will repeat the command with your rifle.”

Robert heard the sharp report of Tayoga’s weapon, and then a cry from the pursuing boat, saying the bullet had found its mark.

“They still come, though in a hesitating manner,” said Tayoga, “and I must even give them a second notice.”

Now Robert heard the crack of the other rifle, and the answering cry, signifying that its bullet, too, had sped home.

“They stop now,” said Tayoga.  “They heed the double command.”  He rapidly reloaded the rifles, and Robert, who saw an uncommonly thick bank of dusk ahead, paddled directly into the heart of it.  They paused there a few moments and neither saw nor heard any pursuers.  Tayoga put down the rifles, now ready again for his deadly aim, and the two kept for a long time a straight course toward the center of the lake.