Willet hailed them joyfully when they returned.
"I'll wager that only one arrow was shot," he said, smiling.
"Just one," said Robert. "It struck the stag in the heart and he did not move ten feet from where he stood."
"And the Great Bear has the fire ready," said Tayoga. "I breathe the smoke."
"I knew you would notice it," said Willet, "although it's only a little fire yet and I've built it in a hollow."
Dry sticks were burning in a sunken place surrounded by great trees, and they increased the fire, veiling the smoke as much as possible. Then they broiled luscious steaks of the deer and ate abundantly, though without the appearance of eagerness. Robert had been educated carefully at Fort Orange, which men were now calling Albany, and Tayoga and the hunter were equally fastidious.
"The deer is the friend of both the red man and the white," said Willet, appreciatively. "In the woods he feeds us and clothes us, and then his horn tips the arrow with which you kill him, Tayoga."
"It was so ordered by Manitou," said the young Onondaga, earnestly. "The deer was given to us that we might live."
"And that being the case," said Willet, "we'll cook all you and Robert have brought and take it with us in the canoe. Since we keep on going north the time will come when we won't have any chance for hunting."
The fire had now formed a great bed of coals and the task was not hard. It was all cooked by and by and they stowed it away wrapped in the two pieces of skin. Then Willet and Tayoga decided to examine the country together, leaving Robert on guard beside the canoe.
Robert had no objection to remaining behind. Although circumstances had made him a lad of action he was also contemplative by nature. Some people think with effort, in others thoughts flow in a stream, and now as he sat with his back to a tree, much that he had thought and heard passed before him like a moving panorama and in this shifting belt of color Indians, Frenchmen, Colonials and Englishmen appeared.
He knew that he stood upon the edge of great events. Deeply sensitive to impressions, he felt that a crisis in North America was at hand. England and France were not yet at war, and so the British colonies and the French colonies remained at peace too, but every breeze that blew from one to the other was heavy with menace. The signs were unmistakable, but one did not have to see. One breathed it in at every breath. He knew, too, that intrigue was already going on all about him, and that the Iroquois were the great pawn in the game. British and French were already playing for the favor of the powerful Hodenosaunee, and Robert understood even better than many of those in authority that as the Hodenosaunee went so might go the war. It was certain that the Indians of the St. Lawrence and the North would be with the French, but he was confident that the Indians of the Long House would not swerve from their ancient alliance with the British colonies.
Two hours passed and Willet and Tayoga did not return, but he had not expected them. He knew that when they decided to go on a scout they would do the work thoroughly, and he waited with patience, sitting beside the canoe, his rifle on his knees. Before him the creek flowed with a pleasant, rippling noise and through the trees he caught a glimpse of the lake, unruffled by any wind.
The rest was so soothing, and his muscles and nerves relaxed so much that he felt like closing his eyes and going to sleep, but he was roused by the sound of a footstep. It was so distant that only an ear trained to the forest would have heard it, but he knew that it was made by a human being approaching, and that the man was neither Willet nor Tayoga.
He put his ear to the earth and heard three men instead of one, and then he rose, cocking his rifle. In the great wilderness in those surcharged days a stranger was an enemy until he was proved to be otherwise, and the lad was alert in every faculty. He saw them presently, three figures walking in Indian file, and his heart leaped because the leader was so obviously a Frenchman.
His uniform was of the battalion Royal Roussillon, white faced with blue, and his hat was black and three-cornered, but face and manner were so unmistakably French that Robert did not think of his uniform, which was neat and trim to a degree not to be expected in the forest. He bore himself in the carelessly defiant manner peculiar to the French cadets and younger sons of noble families in North America at the time, an accentuation of the French at home, and to some extent a survival of the spirit which Richelieu partially checked. Even in the forest he wore a slender rapier at his belt, and his hand rested now upon its golden hilt.
He was about thirty years old, tall, slender, and with the light hair and blue eyes seen so often in Northern France, telling, perhaps, of Norman blood. His glance was apparently light, but Robert felt when it rested upon him that it was sharp, penetrating and hard to endure. Nevertheless he met it without lowering his own gaze. The man behind the leader was swart, short, heavy and of middle years, a Canadian dressed in deerskin and armed with rifle, hatchet and knife. The third man was an Indian, one of the most extraordinary figures that Robert had ever seen. He was of great stature and heavy build, his shoulders and chest immense and covered with knotted muscles, disclosed to the eye, as he was bare to the waist. All the upper part of his body was painted in strange and hideous designs which Robert did not recognize, although he knew the fashions of all the tribes in the New York and St. Lawrence regions. His cheek bones were unusually high even for an Indian and his gaze was heavy, keen and full of challenge. Robert judged that he belonged to some western tribe, that he was a Pottawatomie, an Ojibway or a Chippewa or that perhaps he came from the distant Sioux race.
He was conscious that all three represented strength, each in a different way, and he felt the gaze of three pairs of eyes resting upon him in a manner that contained either secret or open hostility. But he faced them boldly, a gallant and defiant young figure himself, instinct with courage and an intellectual quality that is superior to courage itself. The Frenchman who confronted him recognized at once the thinker.
"I bid you good day," said Robert politely. "I did not expect to meet travelers in these woods."
The Frenchman smiled.
"We are all travelers," he said, "but it is you who are our guest, since these rivers and mountains and lakes and forests acknowledge the suzerainty of my royal master, King Louis of France."
His tone was light and bantering and Robert, seeing the advantage of it, chose to speak in the same vein.
"The wilderness itself is king," he said, "and it acknowledges no master, save perhaps the Hodenosaunee. But I had thought that the law of England ran here, at least where white men are concerned."
He saw the eyes of the great savage flash when he mentioned the Hodenosaunee, and he inferred at once that he was a bitter enemy of the Iroquois. Some of the tribes had a hereditary hatred toward one another more ferocious than that which they felt against the whites.
The Frenchman smiled again, and swept his hand in a graceful curve toward the green expanse.
"It is true," he said, "that the forest is yet lord over these lands, but in the future I think the lilies of France will wave here. You perhaps have an equal faith that the shadow of the British flag will be over the wilderness, but it would be most unfitting for you and me to quarrel about it now. I infer from the canoe and the three paddles that you did not come here alone."
"Two friends are with me. They have gone into the forest on a brief expedition. They should return soon. We have food in abundance, a deer that we killed a few hours ago. Will you share it?"
"Gladly. Courtesy, I see, is not lost in the woods. Permit me to introduce ourselves. The chief is Tandakora of the Ojibways, from the region about the great western lake that you call Superior. He is a mighty warrior, and his fame is great, justly earned in many a battle. My friend in deerskin is Armand Dubois, born a Canadian of good French stock, and a most valiant and trustworthy man. As for me, I am Raymond Louis de St. Luc, Chevalier of France and soldier of fortune in the New World. And now you know the list of us. It's not so long as Homer's catalogue of the ships, nor so interesting, but it's complete."
His manner had remained light, almost jesting, and Robert judged that it was habitual with him like a cloak in winter, and, like the cloak, it would be laid away when it was not needed. The man's blue eyes, even when he used the easy manner of the high-bred Frenchman, were questing and resolute. But the youth still found it easier than he had thought to meet him in like fashion. Now he replied to frankness with frankness.
"Ours isn't and shouldn't be a hostile meeting in the forest, Chevalier de St. Luc," he said. "To you and your good friends I offer my greetings. As for myself, I am Robert Lennox, with two homes, one in Albany, and the other in the wilderness, wherever I choose to make it."
He paused a moment, because he felt the gaze of St. Luc upon him, very intent and penetrating, but in an instant he resumed:
"I came here with two friends whom you shall see if you stay with me long enough. One is David Willet, a hunter and scout, well known from the Hudson to the Great Lakes, a man to whom I owe much, one who has stood to me almost in the place of a father. The other I can truly call a brother. He is Tayoga, a young warrior of the clan of the Bear, of the nation Onondaga, of the League of the Hodenosaunee. My catalogue, sir, is just the same length as yours, and it also is complete."
The Chevalier Raymond Louis de St. Luc laughed, and the laugh was genuine.
"A youth of spirit, I see," he said. "Well, I am glad. It's a pleasure to meet with wit and perception in the wilderness. One prefers to talk with gentlemen. 'Tis said that the English are heavy, but I do not always find them so. Perhaps it's merely a slur that one nation wishes to cast upon another."
"It's scarcely correct to call me English," said Robert, "since I am a native of this country, and the term American applies more properly."
The eyes of St. Luc glistened.
"I note the spirit," he said. "The British colonies left to themselves grow strong and proud, while ours, drawing their strength from the King and the government, would resent being called anything but Frenchmen. Now, I'll wager you a louis against any odds that you'll claim the American to be as good as the Englishman anywhere and at any time."
"Certainly!" said Robert, with emphasis.
St. Luc laughed again and with real pleasure, his blue eyes dancing and his white teeth flashing.
"And some day that independence will cause trouble for the good British mother," he said, "but we'll pass from the future to the present. Sit down, Tandakora, and you too, Dubois. Monsieur Lennox is, for the present, our host, and that too in the woods we claim to be our own. But we are none the less grateful for his hospitality."
Robert unwrapped the venison and cut off large slices as he surmised that all three were hungry. St. Luc ate delicately but the other two did not conceal their pleasure in food. Robert now and then glanced a little anxiously at the woods, hoping his comrades would return. He did not know exactly how to deal with the strangers and he would find comfort in numbers. He was conscious, too, that St. Luc was watching him all the time intently, reading his expression and looking into his thoughts.
"How are the good Dutch burghers at Albany?" asked the chevalier. "I don't seek to penetrate any of your secrets. I merely make conversation."
"I reveal nothing," replied Robert, "when I say they still barter with success and enjoy the pleasant ways of commerce. I am not one to underrate the merchant. More than the soldier they build up a nation."
"It's a large spirit that can put the trade of another before one's own, because I am a soldier, and you, I judge, will become one if you are not such now. Peace, Tandakora, it is doubtless the friends of Monsieur Lennox who come!"
The gigantic Indian had risen suddenly and had thrust forward the good French musket that he carried. Robert had never beheld a more sinister figure. The lips were drawn back a little from his long white teeth and his eyes were those of a hunter who sought to kill for the sake of killing. But at the chiding words of St. Luc the tense muscles relaxed and he lowered the weapon. Robert was compelled to notice anew the great influence the French had acquired over the Indians, and he recognized it with dread, knowing what it might portend.
The footsteps which the savage had heard first were now audible to him, and he stood up, knowing that Tayoga and Willet were returning, and he was glad of it.
"My friends are here," he said.
The Chevalier de St. Luc, with his customary politeness, rose to his feet and Dubois rose with him. The Ojibway remained sitting, a huge piece of deer meat in his hand. Tayoga and Willet appeared through the bushes, and whatever surprise they may have felt they concealed it well. The faces of both were a blank.
"Guests have come since your departure," said Robert, with the formal politeness of the time. "These gentlemen are the Chevalier Raymond Louis de St. Luc, from Quebec, Monsieur Armand Dubois, from the same place, I presume, and Tandakora, a mighty Ojibway chief, who, it seems, has wandered far from his own country, on what errand I know not. Chevalier my friends of whom I spoke, Mr. David Willet, the great hunter, and Tayoga of the clan of the Bear, of the nation Onondaga, of the League of the Hodenosaunee, my brother of the forest and a great chief."
He spoke purposely with sonority, and also with a tinge of satire, particularly when he alluded to the presence of Tandakora at such a great distance from his tribe. But St. Luc, of course, though noticing it, ignored it in manner. He extended his hand promptly to the great hunter who grasped it in his mighty palm and shook it.
"I have heard of you, Mr. Willet," he said. "Our brave Canadians are expert in the forest and the chase, and the good Dubois here is one of the best, but I know that none of them can excel you."
Robert, watching him, could not say that he spoke without sincerity, and Willet took the words as they were uttered.
"I've had a long time for learning," he said modestly, "and I suppose experience teaches the dullest of us."
Robert saw that the Ojibway had now risen and that he and the Onondaga were regarding each other with a gaze so intent and fierce, so compact of hatred that he was startled and his great pulses began to beat hard. But it was only for an instant or two that the two warriors looked thus into hostile eyes. Then both sat down and their faces became blank and expressionless.
The gaze of St. Luc roved to the Onondaga and rested longest upon him. Robert saw the blue eyes sparkle, and he knew that the mind of the chevalier was arrested by some important thought. He could almost surmise what it was, but for the present he preferred to keep silent and watch, because his curiosity was great and natural, and he wondered what St. Luc would say next.
The Onondaga and the hunter sat down on a fallen tree trunk and inspected the others with a quiet but observant gaze. Each in his own way had the best of manners. Tayoga, as became a forest chief, was dignified, saying little, while Willet cut more slices from the deer meat and offered them to the guests. But it was the Onondaga and not St. Luc who now spoke first.
"The son of Onontio wanders far," he said. "It is a march of many days from here to Quebec."
"It is, Tayoga," replied St. Luc gravely, "but the dominions of the King of France, whom Onontio serves, also extend far."
It was a significant speech, and Robert glanced at Tayoga, but the eyes of the young chief were veiled. If he resented the French claim to the lands over which the Hodenosaunee hunted it was in silence. St. Luc paused, as if for an answer, but none coming he continued:
"Shadows gather over the great nations beyond the seas. The French king and the English king begin to look upon each other with hostile eyes."
Tayoga was silent.
"But Onontio, who stands in the French king's place at Quebec, is the friend of the Hodenosaunee. The French and the great Six Nations are friends."
"There was Frontenac," said Tayoga quietly.
"It was long ago."
"He came among us when the Six Nations were the Five, burned our houses and slew our warriors! Our old men have told how they heard it from their fathers. We did not have guns then, and our bows and arrows were not a match for the muskets of the French. But we have muskets and rifles now, plenty of them, the best that are made."
Tayoga's eyes were still veiled, and his face was without expression, but his words were full of meaning. Robert glanced at St. Luc, who could not fail to understand. The chevalier was still smooth and smiling.
"Frontenac was a great man," he said, "but he has been gathered long since to his fathers. Great men themselves make mistakes. There was bad blood between Onontio and the Hodenosaunee, but if the blood is bad must it remain bad forever? The evil was gone before you and I were born, Tayoga, and now the blood flows pure and clean in the veins of both the French and the Hodenosaunee."
"The Hodenosaunee and Corlear have no quarrel."
"Nor have the Hodenosaunee and Onontio. Behold how the English spread over the land, cut down the forests and drive away all the game! But the children of Onontio hunt with the Indians, marry with their women, leave the forests untouched, and the great hunting grounds swarm with game as before. While Onontio abides at Quebec the lands of the Hodenosaunee are safe."
"There was Frontenac," repeated Tayoga.
St. Luc frowned at the insistence of the Onondaga upon an old wound, but the cloud passed swiftly. In an instant the blue eyes were smiling once more.
"The memory of Frontenac shall not come between us," he said. "The heart of Onontio beats for the Hodenosaunee, and he has sent me to say so to the valiant League. I bring you a belt, a great belt of peace."
Dubois handed him a large knapsack and he took from it a beautiful belt of pure white wampum, uncommon in size, a full five feet in length, five inches wide, and covered with many thousands of beads, woven in symbolic figures. He held it up and the eyes of the Onondaga glistened.
"It is a great belt, a belt of peace," continued St. Luc. "There is none nobler, and Onontio would send no other kind. I give it to you, Tayoga."
The young warrior drew back and his hands remained at his sides.
"I am Tayoga, of the clan of the Bear, of the nation Onondaga, of the great League of the Hodenosaunee," he said, "but I am not yet a chief. My years are too few. It is a great matter of which you speak, St. Luc, and it must be laid before the fifty sachems of the allied tribes in the Long House. The belt may be offered to them. I cannot take it."
The flitting cloud passed again over the face of St. Luc, but he did not allow any change to show in his manner. He returned the splendid belt to Dubois, who folded it carefully and put it back in the great knapsack.
"Doubtless you are right, Tayoga," he said. "I shall go to the Long House with the belt, but meantime we thank you for the courtesy of yourself and your friends. You have given us food when we were hungry, and a Frenchman does not forget."
"The Onondagas keep the council fire in their valley, and the sachems will gather there," said Tayoga.
"Where they will receive the belt of peace that I shall offer them," said St. Luc.
The Onondaga was silent. St. Luc, who had centered his attention upon Tayoga, now turned it to Robert.
"Mr. Lennox," he said, "we dwell in a world of alarms, and I am French and you are English, or rather American, but I wish that you and I could remain friends."
The frankness and obvious sincerity of his tone surprised Robert. He knew now that he liked the man. He felt that there was steel in his composition, and that upon occasion, and in the service to which he belonged, he could be hard and merciless, but the spirit seemed bright and gallant.
"I know nothing that will keep us from being friends," replied the lad, although he knew well what the Frenchman meant.
"Nor do I," said St. Luc. "It was merely a casual reference to the changes that affect us all. I shall come to Albany some day, Mr. Lennox. It is an interesting town, though perhaps somewhat staid and sober."
"If you come," said Robert sincerely, "I hope I shall be there, and it would please me to have you as a guest."
St. Luc gave him a sharp, examining look.
"I believe you mean it," he said. "It's possible that you and I are going to see much of each other. One can never tell what meetings time will bring about. And now having accepted your hospitality and thanking you for it, we must go."
He rose. Dubois, who had not spoken at all, threw over his shoulder the heavy knapsack, and the Ojibway also stood up, gigantic and sinister.
"We go to the Vale of Onondaga," said St. Luc, turning his attention back to Tayoga, "and as you advised I shall lay the peace belt before the fifty sachems of the Hodenosaunee, assembled in council in the Long House."
"Go to the southwest," said Tayoga, "and you will find the great trail that leads from the Hudson to the mighty lakes of the west. The warriors of the Hodenosaunee have trod it for generations, and it is open to the son of Onontio."
The young Indian's face was a mask, but his words and their tone alike were polite and dignified. St. Luc bowed, and then bowed to the others in turn.
"At Albany some day," he said to young Lennox, and his smile was very winning.
"At Albany some day," repeated Robert, and he hoped the prophecy would come true.
Then St. Luc turned away, followed by the Canadian, with the Indian in the rear. None of the three looked back and the last Robert saw of them was a fugitive gleam of the chevalier's white uniform through the green leaves of the forest. Then the mighty wilderness swallowed them up, as a pebble is lost in a lake. Robert looked awhile in the direction in which they had gone, still seeing them in fancy.
"How much does their presence here signify?" he asked thoughtfully.
"They would have the Hodenosaunee to forget Frontenac," replied Tayoga.
"And will the Six Nations forget him?"
"The fifty sachems in council alone can tell."
Robert saw that the young Onondaga would not commit himself, even to him, and he did not ask anything more, but the hunter spoke plainly.
"We must wake up those fat Indian commissioners at Albany," he said. "Those Dutchmen think more of cheating the tribes than they do of the good of either white man or red man, but I can tell you, Robert, and you too, Tayoga, that I'm worried about that Frenchman coming down here among the Six Nations. He's as sharp as a razor, and as quick as lightning. I could see that, and there's mischief brewing. He's not going to the Onondaga Valley for nothing."
"Tandakora, the Ojibway, goes with a heavy foot," said the Onondaga.
"What do you mean, Tayoga?" asked Willet.
"He comes of a savage tribe, which is hostile to the Hodenosaunee and all white men. He has seen three scalps which still grow on the heads of their owners."
"Which means that he might not keep on following St. Luc. Well, we'll be on our guard and now I don't see any reason why we should stay here longer."
"Nor I," said Robert, and, Tayoga agreeing with them, they returned the canoe to the stream, paddling back into the lake, and continuing their course until they came to its end. There they carried the canoe across a portage and launched it on a second lake as beautiful as the first. None of the three spoke much now, their minds being filled with thoughts of St. Luc and his companions.
They were yet on the water when the day began to wane. The green forest on the high western shore was touched with flame from the setting sun. Then the surface of the lake blazed with red light, and in the east the gray of twilight came.
"It will be night in half an hour," said Robert, "and I think we'd better make a landing, and camp."
"Here's a cove on the right," said Willet. "We'll take the canoe up among the trees, and wrap ourselves in our blankets. It's a good thing we have them, as the darkness is going to bring a chill with it."
They found good shelter among the trees and bushes, a small hollow protected by great trees and undergrowth, into which they carried the canoe.
"Since it's not raining this is as good as a house for us," said Willet.
"I think it's better," said Robert. "The odor of spruce and hemlock is so wonderful I wouldn't like to have it shut away from me by walls."
The Onondaga drew in deep inhalations of the pure, healing air, and as his black eyes gleamed he walked to the edge of the little hollow and looked out in the dusk over the vast tangled wilderness of mountain and lake, forest and river. The twilight was still infused with the red from the setting sun, and in the glow the whole world was luminous and glorified. Now the eyes of Tayoga, which had flashed but lately, gave back the glow in a steady flame.
"Hawenneyu, the Divine Being whom all the red people worship, made many great lands," he said, "but he spent his work and love upon that which lies between the Hudson and the vast lakes of the west. Then he rested and looking upon what he had done he was satisfied because he knew it to be the best in all the world, created by him."
"How do you know it to be the best, Tayoga?" asked Willet. "You haven't seen all the countries. You haven't been across the sea."
"Because none other can be so good," replied the Iroquois with simple faith. "When Hawenneyu, in your language the Great Spirit, found the land that he had made so good he did not know then to whom to give it, but in the greatness of his wisdom he left it to those who were most fitted to come and take it. And in time came the tribes which Tododaho, helped by Hayowentha, often called by the English Hiawatha, formed into the great League of the Hodenosaunee, and because they were brave and far-seeing and abided by the laws of Tododaho and Hayowentha, they took the land which they have kept ever since, and which they will keep forever."
"I like your good, strong beliefs, Tayoga," said the hunter heartily. "The country does belong to the Iroquois, and if it was left to me to decide about it they'd keep it till the crack of doom. Now you boys roll in your blankets. I'll take the first watch, and when it's over I'll call one of you."
But Tayoga waited a little until the last glow of the sun died in the west, looking intently where the great orb had shone. Into his religion a reverence for the sun, Giver of Light and Warmth, entered, and not until the last faint radiance from it was gone did he turn away.
Then he took from the canoe and unfolded eyose, his blanket, which was made of fine blue broadcloth, thick and warm but light, six feet long and four feet wide. It was embroidered around the edges with another cloth in darker blue, and the body of it bore many warlike or hunting designs worked skillfully in thread. If the weather were cold Tayoga would drape the blanket about his body much like a Roman toga, and if he lay in the forest at night he would sleep in it. Now he raked dead leaves together, spread the blanket on them, lay on one half of it and used the other half as a cover.
Robert imitated him, but his blanket was not so fine as Tayoga's, although he found it soft and warm enough. Willet sat on a log higher up, his rifle across his knees and gazed humorously at them.
"You two lads look pretty snug down there," he said, "and after all you're only lads. Tayoga may have a head plumb full of the wisdom of the wilderness, and Robert may have a head stuffed with different kinds of knowledge, but you're young, mighty young, anyhow. An' now, as I'm watching over you, I'll give a prize to the one that goes to sleep first."
In three minutes deep regular breathing showed that both had gone to the land of slumber, and Willet could not decide which had led the way. The darkness increased so much that their figures looked dim in the hollow, but he glanced at them occasionally. The big man had many friends, but young Lennox and Tayoga were almost like sons to him, and he was glad to be with them now. He felt that danger lurked in the northern wilderness, and three were better than two.