The Hunters of the Hills

by Joseph A. Altsheler

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Chapter III. The Tomahawk

Willet awakened Robert about two o'clock in the morning--it was characteristic of him to take more than his share of the work--and the youth stood up, with his rifle in the hollow of his arm, ready at once.

"Tayoga did more yesterday than either of us," said the hunter, "and so we'll let him sleep."

But the Onondago had awakened, though he did not move. Forest discipline was perfect among them, and, knowing that it was Robert's time to watch, he wasted no time in vain talk about it. His eyes closed again and he returned to sleep as the white lad walked up the bank, while the hunter was soon in the dreams that Tarenyawagon, who makes them, sent to him.

Robert on the bank, although he expected no danger, was alert. He had plenty of wilderness skill and his senses, naturally acute, had been trained so highly that he could discern a hostile approach in the darkness. The same lore of the forest told him to keep himself concealed, and he sat on a fallen tree trunk between two bushes that hid him completely, although his own good eyes, looking through the leaves, could see a long distance, despite the night.

It was inevitable as he sat there in the silence and darkness with his sleeping comrades below that his thoughts should turn to St. Luc. He had recognized in the first moment of their meeting that the young Frenchman was a personality. He was a personality in the sense that Tayoga was, one who radiated a spirit or light that others were compelled to notice. He knew that there was no such thing as looking into the future, but he felt with conviction that this man was going to impinge sharply upon his life, whether as a friend or an enemy not even Tarenyawagon, who sent the dreams, would tell, but he could not be insensible to the personal charm of the Chevalier Raymond Louis de St. Luc.

What reception would the fifty sachems give to the belt that the chevalier would bring? Would they be proof against his lightness, his ease, his fluency and his ability to paint a glowing picture of French might and French gratitude? Robert knew far better than most of his own race the immensity of the stake. He who roamed the forest with Tayoga and the Great Bear understood to the full the power of the Hodenosaunee. It was true, too, that the Indian commissioners at Albany had not done their duty and had given the Indians just cause of complaint, at the very moment when the great League should be propitiated. Yet the friendship between the Iroquois and the English had been ancient and strong, and he would not have feared so much had it been any other than St. Luc who was going to meet the sachems in council.

Robert shook his head as if the physical motion would dismiss his apprehensions, and walked farther up the hill to a point where he could see the lake. A light wind was blowing, and little waves of crumbling silver pursued one another across its surface. On the far side the bank, crowned with dense forest showing black in the dusk, rose to a great height, but the lad's eyes came back to the water, his heart missing a beat as he thought he saw a shadow on its surface, but so near the opposite shore that it almost merged with a fringe of bushes there.

Then he rebuked himself for easy alarm. It was merely the reflection from a bough above in the water below. Yet it played tricks with him. The shadow reappeared again and again, always close to the far bank, but there were many boughs also to reproduce themselves in the mirror of the lake. He convinced himself that his eyes and his mind were having sport with him, and turning away, he made a little circle in the woods about their camp. All was well. He heard a swish overhead, but he knew that it was a night bird, a rustling came, and an ungainly form lumbered through a thicket, but it was a small black bear, and coming back to the hollow, he looked down at his comrades.

Tayoga and Willet slept well. Neither had stirred, and wrapped in their blankets lying on the soft leaves, they were true pictures of forest comfort. They were fine and loyal comrades, as good as anybody ever had, and he was glad they were so near, because he began to have a feeling now that something unusual was going to occur. The shadows on the lake troubled him again, and he went back for another look. He did not see them now, and that, too, troubled him. It proved that they had been made by some moving object, and not by the boughs and bushes still there.

Robert examined the lake, his eyes following the line where the far bank met the water, but he saw no trace of anything moving, and his attention came back to the woods in which he stood. Presently, he crouched in dense bush, and concentrated all his powers of hearing, knowing that he must rely upon ear rather than eye. He could not say that he had really seen or heard, but he had felt that something was moving in the forest, something that threatened him.

His first impulse was to go back to the little hollow and awaken his comrades, but his second told him to stay where he was until the danger came or should pass, and he crouched lower in the undergrowth with his hand on the hammer and trigger of his rifle. He did not stir or make any noise for a long time. The forest, too, was silent. The wind that had ruffled the surface of the lake ceased, and the leaves over his head were still.

But he understood too well the ways of the wilderness to move yet. He did not believe that his faculties, attuned to the slightest alarm, had deceived him, and he had learned the patience of the Indian from the Iroquois themselves. His eyes continually pierced the thickets for a hostile object moving there, and his ears were ready to notice the sound of a leaf should it fall.

He heard, or thought he heard after a while, a slight sliding motion, like that which a great serpent would make as it drew its glistening coils through leaves or grass. But it was impossible for him to tell how near it was to him or from what point it came, and his blood became chill in his veins. He was not afraid of a danger seen, but when it came intangible and invisible the boldest might shudder.

The noise, real or imaginary, ceased, and as he waited he became convinced that it was only his strained fancy. A man might mistake the blood pounding in his ears or the beat of his own pulse for a sound without, and after another five minutes, taking the rifle from the hollow of his arm, he stood upright. Certainly nothing was moving in the forest. The leaves hung lifeless. His fancies had been foolish.

He stepped boldly from the undergrowth in which he had knelt, and a glimpse of a flitting shadow made him kneel again. It was instinct that caused him to drop down so quickly, but he knew that it had saved his life. Something glittering whistled where his head had been, and then struck with a sound like a sigh against the trunk of a tree.

Robert sank from his knees, until he lay almost fiat, and brought his rifle forward for instant use. But, for a minute or two, he would not have been steady enough to aim at anything. His tongue was dry in his mouth, and his hair lifted a little at his marvelous escape.

He looked for the shadow, his eyes searching every thicket; but he did not find it, and now he believed that the one who had sped the blow had gone, biding his time for a second chance. Another wait to make sure, and hurrying to the hollow he awoke Tayoga and the hunter, who returned at once with him to the place where the ambush had miscarried.

"Ah!" said the Onondaga, as they looked about. "Osquesont! Behold!"

The blade of an Indian tomahawk, osquesont, was buried deep in the trunk of a tree, and Robert knew that the same deadly weapon had whistled where his head had been but a second before. He shuddered. Had it not been for his glimpse of the flitting shadow his head would have been cloven to the chin. Tayoga, with a mighty wrench, pulled out the tomahawk and examined it. It was somewhat heavier than the usual weapon of the type and he pronounced it of French make.

"Did it come from Quebec, Tayoga?" asked Willet.

"Perhaps," replied the young warrior, "but I saw it yesterday."

"You did! Where?"

"In the belt of Tandakora, the Ojibway."

"I thought so," said Robert.

"And he threw it with all the strength of a mighty arm," said the Onondaga. "There is none near us in the forest except Tandakora who could bury it so deep in the tree. It was all I could do to pull it out again."

"And seeing his throw miss he slipped away as fast as he could!" said Willet.

"Yes, Great Bear, the Ojibway is cunning. After hurling the tomahawk he would not stay to risk a shot from Lennox. He was willing even to abandon a weapon which he must have prized. Ah, here is his trail! It leads through the forest toward the lake!"

They were able to follow it a little distance but it was lost on the hard ground, although it led toward the water. Robert told of the shadow he had seen near the farther bank, and both Willet and Tayoga were quite sure it had been a small canoe, and that its occupant was Tandakora.

"It's not possible that St. Luc sent the Ojibway back to murder us!" exclaimed Robert, his mind rebelling at the thought.

"I don't think it likely," said Willet, but the Onondaga was much more emphatic.

"The Ojibway came of his own wish," he said. "While the sons of Onontio slept he slipped away, and it was the lure of scalps that drew him. He comes of a savage tribe far in the west. An Iroquois would have scorned such treachery."

Robert felt an immense relief. He had become almost as jealous of the Frenchman's honor as of his own, and knowing that Tayoga understood his race, he accepted his words as final. It was hideous to have the thought in his mind, even for a moment, that a man who had appeared so gallant and friendly as St. Luc had sent a savage back to murder them.

"The French do not control the western tribes," continued Tayoga, "though if war comes they will be on the side of Onontio, but as equals they will come hither and go thither as they please."

"Which means, I take it," said the hunter, "that if St. Luc discovers what Tandakora has been trying to do here tonight he'll be afraid to find much fault with it, because the Ojibway and all the other Ojibways would go straight home?"

"It is so," said the Onondaga.

"Well, we're thankful that his foul blow went wrong. You've had a mighty narrow escape, Robert, my lad, but we've gained one good tomahawk which, you boys willing, I mean to take."

Tayoga handed it to him, and with an air of satisfaction he put the weapon in his belt.

"I may have good use for it some day," he said. "The chance may come for me to throw it back to the savage who left it here. And now, as our sleep is broken up for the night, I think we'd better scout the woods a bit, and then come back here for breakfast."

They found nothing hostile in the forest, and when they returned to the hollow the thin gray edge of dawn showed on the far side of the lake. Having no fear of further attack, they lighted a small fire and warmed their food. As they ate day came in all its splendor and Robert saw the birds flashing back and forth in the thick leaves over his head.

"Where did the Ojibway get his canoe?" he asked.

"The Frenchmen like as not used it when they came down from Canada," replied the hunter, "and left it hid to be used again when they went back. It won't be worth our while to look for it. Besides, we've got to be moving soon."

After breakfast they carried their own canoe to the lake and paddled northward to its end. Then they took their craft a long portage across a range of hills and launched it anew on a swift stream flowing northward, on the current of which they traveled until nightfall, seeing throughout that time no sign of a human being. It was the primeval wilderness, and since it lay between the British colonies on the south and the French on the north it had been abandoned almost wholly in the last year or two, letting the game, abundant at any time, increase greatly. They saw deer in the thickets, they heard the splash of a beaver, and a black bear, sitting on a tiny island in the river, watched them as they passed.

On the second day after Robert's escape from the tomahawk they left the river, made a long portage and entered another river, also flowing northward, having in mind a double purpose, to throw off the trail anyone who might be following them and to obtain a more direct course toward their journey's end. Knowing the dangers of the wilderness, they also increased their caution, traveling sometimes at night and lying in camp by day.

But they lived well. All three knew the importance of preserving their strength, and to do so an abundance of food was the first requisite. Tayoga shot another deer with the bow and arrow, and with the use of fishing tackle which they had brought in the canoe they made the river pay ample tribute. They lighted the cooking fires, however, in the most sheltered places they could find, and invariably extinguished them as soon as possible.

"You can't be too careful in the woods," said Willet, "especially in times like these. While the English and French are not yet fighting there's always danger from the savages."

"The warriors from the wild tribes in Canada and the west will take a scalp wherever there's a chance," said the young Onondaga.

Robert often noticed the manner in which Tayoga spoke of the tribes outside the great League. To him those that did not belong to the Hodenosaunee, while they might be of the same red race, were nevertheless inferior. He looked upon them as an ancient Greek looked upon those who were not Greeks.

"The French are a brave people," said the hunter, "but the most warlike among them if they knew our errand would be willing for some of their painted allies to drop us in the wilderness, and no questions would be asked. You can do things on the border that you can't in the towns. We might be tomahawked in here and nobody would ever know what became of us."

"I think," said Tayoga, "that our danger increases. Tandakora after leaving the son of Onontio, St. Luc, might not go back to him. He might fear the anger of the Frenchman, and, too, he would still crave a scalp. A warrior has followed an enemy for weeks to obtain such a trophy."

"You believe then," said Robert, "that the Ojibway is still on our trail?"

Tayoga nodded. After a moment's silence he added:

"We come, too, to a region in which the St. Regis, the Caughnawaga, the Ottawa and the Micmac, all allies of Onontio, hunt. The Ojibway may meet a band and tell the warriors we are in the woods."

His look was full of significance and Robert understood thoroughly.

"I shall be glad," he said, "when we reach the St. Lawrence. We'll then be in real Canada, and, while the French are undoubtedly our enemies, we'll not be exposed to treacherous attack."

They were in the canoe as they talked and Tayoga was paddling, the swiftness of the current now making the efforts of only one man necessary. A few minutes later he turned the canoe to the shore and the three got out upon the bank. Robert did not know why, but he was quite sure the reason was good.

"Falls below," said Tayoga, as they drew the canoe upon the land. "All the river drops over a cliff. Much white water."

They carried the canoe without difficulty through the woods, and when they came to the falls they stopped a little while to look at the descent, and listen to the roar of the tumbling water.

"I was here once before, three years ago," said Willet.

"Others have been here much later," said the Onondaga.

"What do you mean, Tayoga?"

"My white brother is not looking. Let him turn his eyes to the left. He will see two wild flowers broken off at the stem, a feather which has not fallen from the plumage of a bird, because the quill is painted, and two traces of footsteps in the earth."

"As surely as the sun shines, you're right, Tayoga! Warriors have passed here, though we can't tell how many! But the traces are not more'n a half day old."

He picked up the feather and examined it carefully.

"That fell from a warrior's scalplock," he said, "but we don't know to what tribe the warrior belonged."

"But it's likely to be a hostile trail," said Robert.

Tayoga nodded, and then the three considered. It was only a fragment of a trail they had seen, but it told them danger was near. Where they were traveling strangers were enemies until they were proved to be friends, and the proof had to be of the first class, also. They agreed finally to turn aside into the woods with the canoe, and stop until night. Then under cover of the friendly darkness they would resume their journey on the river.

They chose the heavily wooded crest of a low hill for the place in which to wait, because they could see some distance from it and remain unseen. They put the canoe down there and Robert and Tayoga sat beside it, while Willet went into the woods to see if any further signs of a passing band could be discovered, returning in an hour with the information that he had discovered more footprints.

"All led to the north," he said, "and they're well ahead of us. There's no reason why we can't follow. We're three, used to the wilderness, armed well and able to take care of ourselves. And I take it the night will be dark, which ought to help us."

The Onondaga looked up at the skies, which were of a salmon color, and shook his head a little.

"What's the matter?" asked Robert.

"The night will bring much darkness," he replied, "but it will bring something else with it--wind, rain."

"You may be right, Tayoga, but we must be moving, just the same," said Willet.

At dusk they were again afloat on the river and, all three using the paddles, they sent the canoe forward with great speed. But it soon became apparent that Tayoga's prediction would be justified. Clouds trailed up from the southwest and obscured all the heavens. A wind arose and it was heavy and damp upon their faces. The water seemed black as ink. Low thunder far away began to mutter. The wilderness became uncanny and lonely. All save forest rovers would have been appalled, and of these three one at least felt that the night was black and sinister. Robert looked intently at the forest on either shore, rising now like solid black walls, but his eyes, unable to penetrate them, found nothing there. Then the lightning flamed in the west, and for a moment the surface of the river was in a blaze.

"What do you think of it, Tayoga?" asked Willet, anxiety showing in his tone, "Ought we to make a landing now?"

"Not yet," replied the Onondaga. "The storm merely growls and threatens at present. It will not strike for perhaps an hour."

"But when it does strike it's going to hit a mighty blow unless all signs fail. I've seen 'em gather before, and this is going to be a king of storms! Hear that thunder now! It doesn't growl any more, but goes off like the cracking of big cannon."

"But it's still far in the west," persisted Tayoga, as the three bent over their paddles.

The forest, however, was groaning with the wind, and little waves rose on the river. Now the lightning flared again and again, so fierce and bright that Robert, despite his control of himself, instinctively recoiled from it as from the stroke of a saber.

"Do you recall any shelter farther on, Tayoga?" asked the hunter.

"The overhanging bank and the big hollow in the stone," replied the Onondaga. "On the left! Don't you remember?"

"Now I do, Tayoga, but I didn't know it was near. Do you think we can make it before that sky over our heads splits wide open?"

"It will be a race," replied the young Iroquois, "but we three are strong, and we are skilled in the use of the paddle."

"Then we'll bend to it," said Willet. And they did. The canoe shot forward at amazing speed over the surface of the river, inky save when the lightning flashed upon it. Robert paddled as he had never paddled before, his muscles straining and the perspiration standing out on his face. He was thoroughly inured to forest life, but he knew that even the scouts and Indians fled for shelter from the great wilderness hurricanes.

There was every evidence that the storm would be of uncommon violence. The moan of the wind rose to a shriek and they heard the crash of breaking boughs and falling trees in the forest. The river, whipped continually by the gusts, was broken with waves upon which the canoe rocked with such force that the three, expert though they were, were compelled to use all their skill, every moment, to keep it from being overturned. If it had not been for the rapid and vivid strokes of lightning under which the waters turned blood red their vessel would have crashed more than once upon the rocks, leaving them to swim for life.

"That incessant flare makes me shiver," said Robert. "It seems every time that I'm going to be struck by it, but I'm glad it comes, because without it we'd never see our way on the river."

"Manitou sends the good and evil together," said Tayoga gravely.

"Anyhow," said Willet, "I hope we'll get to our shelter before the rain comes. Look out for that rock on the right, Robert!"

Young Lennox, with a swift and powerful motion of the paddle, shot the canoe back toward the center of the river, and then the three tried to hold it there as they sped on.

"Three or four hundred yards more," said Tayoga, "and we can draw into the smooth water we wish."

"And not a minute too soon," said Willet. "It seems to me I can hear the rain coming now in a deluge, and the waves on the river make me think of some I've seen on one of the big lakes. Listen to that, will you!"

A huge tree, blown down, fell directly across the stream, not more than twenty yards behind them. But the fierce and swollen waters tearing at it in torrents would soon bear it away on the current.

"Manitou was watching over us then," said Tayoga with the same gravity.

"As sure as the Hudson runs into the sea, he was," said Willet in a tone of reverence. "If that tree had hit us we and the canoe would all have been smashed together and a week later maybe the French would have fished our pieces out of the St. Lawrence."

Robert, who was farthest forward in the canoe, noticed that the cliff ahead, hollowed out at the base by the perpetual eating of the waters, seemed to project over the stream, and he concluded that it was the place in Tayoga's mind.

"Our shelter, isn't it?" he asked, pointing a finger by the lightning's flare.

Tayoga nodded, and the three, putting their last ounce of strength into the sweep of the paddles, sent the canoe racing over the swift current toward the haven now needed so badly. As they approached, Robert saw that the hollow went far back into the stone, having in truth almost the aspects of a cave. Beneath the mighty projection he saw also that the water was smooth, unlashed by the wind and outside the sweep of the current, and he felt immense relief when the canoe shot into its still depths and he was able to lay the paddle beside him.

"Back a little farther," said Tayoga, and he saw then, still by the flare of lightning, that the water ended against a low shelf at least six feet broad, upon which they stepped, lifting the canoe after them.

"It's all that you claimed for it, and more, Tayoga," said the hunter. "I fancy a ship in a storm would be glad enough to find a refuge as good for it as this is for us."

Tayoga smiled, and Robert knew that he felt deep satisfaction because he had brought them so well to port. Looking about after they had lifted up the canoe, he saw that in truth nature had made a good harbor here for those who traveled on the river, its waters so far never having been parted by anything but a canoe. The hollow went back thirty or forty feet with a sloping roof of stone, and from the ledge, whenever the lightning flashed, they saw the river flowing before them in a rushing torrent, but inside the hollow the waters were a still pool.

"Now the rain comes," said Tayoga.

Then they heard its sweep and roar and it arrived in such mighty volume that the surface of the river was beaten almost flat. But in their snug and well-roofed harbor not a drop touched them. Robert on the ledge with his back to the wall had a pervading sense of comfort. The lightning and the thunder were both dying now, but the rain came in a steady and mighty sweep. As the lightning ceased entirely it was so dark that they saw the water in front of them but dimly, and they had to be very careful in their movements on the ledge, lest they roll off and slip into its depths.

"Robert," said Willet in a whimsical tone, "one of the first things I tried to teach you when you were a little boy was always to be calm, and under no circumstances to let your calm be broken up when there was nothing to break it up. Now, we've every reason to be calm. We've got a good home here, and the storm can't touch us."

"I was already calm, Dave," replied Robert lightly. "I took your first lesson to heart, learned it, and I've never forgotten it. I'm so calm that I've unfolded my blanket and put it under me to soften the stone."

"To think of your blanket is proof enough that you're not excited. I'll do the same. Tayoga, in whose country is this new home of ours?"

"It is the land of no man, because it lies between the tribes from the north and the tribes from the south. Yet the Iroquois dare to come here when they choose. It's the fourth time I have been on this ledge, but before I was always with my brethren of the clan of the Bear of the nation Onondaga."

"Well, Tayoga," said Willet, in his humorous tone, "the company has grown no worse."

"No," said Tayoga, and his smile was invisible to them in the darkness. "The time is coming when the sachems of the Onondagas will be glad they adopted Lennox and the Great Bear into our nation."

Willet's laugh came at once, not loud, but with an inflection of intense enjoyment.

"You Onondagas are a bit proud, Tayoga," he said.

"Not without cause, Great Bear."

"Oh, I admit it! I admit it! I suppose we're all proud of our race--it's one of nature's happy ways of keeping us satisfied--and I'm free to say, Tayoga, that I've no quarrel at having been born white, because I'm so used to being white that I'd hardly know how to be anything else. But if I wasn't white--a thing that I had nothing to do with--and your Manitou who is my God was to say to me, 'Choose what else you'll be,' I'd say, and I'd say it with all the respect and reverence I could bring into the words, 'O Lord, All Wise and All Powerful, make me a strong young warrior of the clan of the Bear, of the nation Onondaga, of the League of the Hodenosaunee, hunting for my clan and fighting to protect its women and children, and keeping my word with everybody and trying to be just to the red races and tribes that are not as good as mine, and even to be the same to the poor white men around the towns that get drunk, and steal, and rob one another,' and maybe your Manitou who is my God would give to me my wish."

"The Great Bear has a silver tongue, and the words drop from his lips like honey," said Tayoga. But Robert knew that the young Onondaga was intensely gratified and he knew, too, that Willet meant every word he said.

"You'd better make yourself comfortable on the blanket, as we're doing, Tayoga," the youth said.

But the Onondaga did not intend to rest just yet. The wildness of the place and the spirit of the storm stirred him. He stood upon the shelf and the others dimly saw his tall and erect young figure. Slowly he began to chant in his own tongue, and his song ran thus in English:

"The lightning cleaves the sky,
 The Brave Soul fears not;
 The thunder rolls and threatens,
 Manitou alone speeds the bolt;
 The waters are deep and swift,
 They carry the just man unhurt."

"O Spirit of Good, hear me,
 Watch now over our path,
 Lead us in the way of the right,
 And, our great labors finished,
 Bring us back, safe and well,
 To the happy vale of Onondaga."

"A good hymn, Tayoga, for such I take it to be," said Willet. "I haven't heard my people sing any better. And now, since you've done more'n your share of the work you'd better take Robert's advice and lie down on your blanket."

Tayoga obeyed, and the three in silence listened to the rushing of the storm.

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