The surface of the snow had frozen again in the night, and Henry found good footing for his shoes. For a while he leaned most on the right ankle, but, as his left developed no signs of soreness, he used them equally, and sped forward, his spirits rising at every step. The air was cold, and there was but little breeze, but his own motion made a wind that whipped his face. The hollows were mostly gone from his cheeks, and his eyes no longer had the fierce, questing look of the famishing wild animal in search of prey. A fine red color was suffused through the brown of his face. He had chosen his course with due precaution. The broad surface, smooth, white, and glittering, tempted, but he put the temptation away. He did not wish to run any chance whatever of another Iroquois pursuit, and he kept in the forest that ran down close to the water's edge. It was tougher traveling there, but he persisted.
But all thought of weariness and trouble was lost in his glorious freedom. With his crippled ankle he had been really like a prisoner in his cell, with a ball and chain to his foot. Now he flew along, while the cold wind whipped his blood, and felt what a delight it was merely to live. He went on thus for hours, skirting down toward the cliffs that contained "The Alcove." He rested a while in the afternoon and ate the last of his rabbit, but before twilight he reached the creek, and stood at the hidden path that led up to their home.
Henry sat down behind thick bushes and took off his snowshoes. To one who had never come before, the whole place would have seemed absolutely desolate, and even to one not a stranger no sign of life would have been visible had he not possessed uncommonly keen eyes. But Henry had such eyes. He saw the faintest wisp of smoke stealing away against the surface of the cliff, and he felt confident that all four were there. He resolved to surprise them.
Laying the shoes aside, he crept so carefully up the path that he dislodged no snow and made no noise of any kind. As be gradually approached "The Alcove" he beard the murmur of voices, and presently, as he turned an angle in the path, he saw a beam of glorious mellow light falling on the snow.
But the murmur of the voices sent a great thrill of delight through him. Low and indistinct as they were, they had a familiar sound. He knew all those tones. They were the voices of his faithful comrades, the four who had gone with him through so many perils and hardships, the little band who with himself were ready to die at any time, one for another.
He crept a little closer, and then a little closer still. Lying almost flat on the steep path, and drawing himself forward, he looked into "The Alcove." A fire of deep, red coals glowed in one corner, and disposed about it were the four. Paul lay on his elbow on a deerskin, and was gazing into the coals. Tom Ross was working on a pair of moccasins, Long Jim was making some kind of kitchen implement, and Shif'less Sol was talking. Henry could hear the words distinctly, and they were about himself.
"Henry will turn up all right," he was saying. "Hasn't he always done it afore? Then ef he's always done it afore he's shorely not goin' to break his rule now. I tell you, boys, thar ain't enough Injuns an' Tories between Canady an' New Orleans, an' the Mississippi an' the Atlantic, to ketch Henry. I bet I could guess what he's doin' right at this moment."
"What is he doing, Sol?" asked Paul.
"When I shet my eyes ez I'm doin' now I kin see him," said the shiftless one. "He's away off thar toward the north, skirtin' around an Injun village, Mohawk most likely, lookin' an' listenin' an' gatherin' talk about their plans."
"He ain't doin' any sech thing," broke in Long Jim.
"I've sleet my eyes, too, Sol Hyde, jest ez tight ez you've shet yours, an' I see him, too, but he ain't doin' any uv the things that you're talkin' about."
"What is he doing, Jim?" asked Paul.
"Henry's away off to the south, not to the north," replied the long one, "an' he's in the Iroquois village that we burned. One house has been left standin', an' he's been occupyin' it while the big snow's on the groun'. A whole deer is hangin' from the wall, an' he's been settin' thar fur days, eatin' so much an' hevin' such a good time that the fat's hangin' down over his cheeks, an' his whole body is threatenin' to bust right out uv his huntin' shirt."
Paul moved a little on his elbow and turned the other side of his face to the fire. Then he glanced at the silent worker with the moccasins.
"Sol and Jim don't seem to agree much in their second sight," he said. "Can you have any vision, too, Tom?"
"Yes," replied Tom Ross, "I kin. I shet my eyes, but I don't see like either Sol or Jim, 'cause both uv 'em see wrong. I see Henry, an' I see him plain. He's had a pow'ful tough time. He ain't threatenin' to bust with fat out uv no huntin' shirt, his cheeks ain't so full that they are fallin' down over his jaws. It's t'other way roun'; them cheeks are sunk a mite, he don't fill out his clothes, an' when he crawls along he drags his left leg a leetle, though he hides it from hisself. He ain't spyin' on no Injun village, an' he ain't in no snug camp with a dressed deer hangin' by the side uv him. It's t'other way 'roan'. He's layin' almost flat on his face not twenty feet from us, lookin' right in at us, an' I wuz the first to see him."
All the others sprang to their feet in astonishment, and Henry likewise sprang to his feet. Three leaps, and he was in the mellow glow.
"And so you saw me, Tom," he exclaimed, as he joyously grasped one hand after another. "I might have known that, while I could stalk some of you, I could not stalk all of you."
"I caught the glimpse uv you," said Silent Tom, while Sol an' Jim wuz talkin' the foolish talk that they most always talk, an' when Paul called on me, I thought I would give 'em a dream that 'wuz true, an' worth tellin'."
"You're right," said Henry. "I've not been having any easy time, and for a while, boys, it looked as if I never would come back. Sit down, and I will tell you all about it."
They gave him the warmest place by the fire, brought him the tenderest food, and he told the long and thrilling tale.
"I don't believe anybody else but you would have tried it, Henry," said Paul, when they heard of the fearful slide.
"Any one of you would have done it," said Henry, modestly.
"I'm pow'ful glad that you done it for two reasons," said Shif'less Sol. "One, 'cause it helped you to git away, an' the other, 'cause that scoundrel, Braxton Wyatt, didn't take you. 'Twould hurt my pride tre-men-jeous for any uv us to be took by Braxton Wyatt."
"You speak for us all there, Sol," said Paul.
"What have all of you been doing?" asked Henry.
"Not much of anything," replied Shif'less Sol. We've been scoutin' several times, lookin' fur you, though we knowed you'd come in some time or other, but mostly we've been workin' 'roun' the place here, fixin' it up warmer an' storin' away food."
"We'll have to continue at that for some time, I'm afraid," said Henry, "unless this snow breaks up. Have any of you heard if any movement is yet on foot against the Iroquois?"
"Tom ran across some scouts from the militia," replied Paul, "and they said nothing could be done until warm weather came. Then a real army would march."
"I hope so," said Henry earnestly.
But for the present the five could achieve little. The snow lasted a long time, but it was finally swept away by big rains. It poured for two days and nights, and even when the rain ceased the snow continued to melt under the warmer air. The water rushed in great torrents down the cliffs, and would have entered "The Alcove" had not the five made provision to turn it away. As it was, they sat snug and dry, listening to the gush of the water, the sign of falling snow, and the talk of one another. Yet the time dragged.
"Man wuz never made to be a caged animile," said Shif'less Sol. "The longer I stay shet up in one place, the weaker I become. My temper don't improve, neither, an' I ain't happy."
"Guess it's the same with all uv us," said Tom Ross.
But when the earth came from beneath the snow, although it was still cold weather, they began again to range the forest far in every direction, and they found that the Indians, and the Tories also, were becoming active. There were more burnings, more slaughters, and more scalpings. The whole border was still appalled at the massacres of Wyoming and Cherry Valley, and the savages were continually spreading over a wider area. Braxton Wyatt at the head of his band, and with the aid of his Tory lieutenant, Levi Coleman, had made for himself a name equal to that of Walter Butler. As for "Indian" Butler and his men, no men were hated more thoroughly than they.
The five continued to do the best they could, which was much, carrying many a warning, and saving some who would otherwise have been victims. While they devoted themselves to their strenuous task, great events in which they were to take a part were preparing. The rear guard of the Revolution was about to become for the time the main guard. A great eye had been turned upon the ravaged and bleeding border, and a great mind, which could bear misfortune-even disaster-without complaint, was preparing to send help to those farther away. So mighty a cry of distress had risen, that the power of the Iroquois must be destroyed. As the warm weather came, the soldiers began to march.
Rumors that a formidable foe was about to advance reached the Iroquois and their allies, the Tories, the English, and the Canadians. There was a great stirring among the leaders, Thayendanegea, Hiokatoo, Sangerachte, the Johnsons, the Butlers, Claus, and the rest. Haldimand, the king's representative in Canada, sent forth an urgent call to all the Iroquois to meet the enemy. The Tories were' extremely active. Promises were made to the tribes that they should have other victories even greater than those of Wyoming and Cherry Valley, and again the terrible Queen Esther went among them, swinging her great war tomahawk over her head and chanting her song of death. She, more than any other, inflamed the Iroquois, and they were eager for the coming contest.
Timmendiquas had gone back to the Ohio country in the winter, but, faithful to his promise to give Thayendanegea help to the last, he returned in the spring with a hundred chosen warriors of the Wyandot nation, a reenforcement the value of which could not be estimated too highly.
Henry and his comrades felt the stir as they roamed through the forest, and they thrilled at the thought that the crisis was approaching. Then they set out for Lake Otsego, where the army was gathering for the great campaign. They were equipped thoroughly, and they were now so well known in the region that they knew they would be welcome.
They traveled several days, and were preparing to encamp for the last night within about fifteen miles of the lake when Henry, scouting as usual to see if an enemy were near, heard a footstep in the forest. He wheeled instantly to cover behind the body of a great beech tree, and the stranger sought to do likewise, only he had no convenient tree that was so large. It was about the twelfth hour, but Henry could see a portion of a body protruding beyond a slim oak, and he believed that he recognized it. As he held the advantage he would, at any rate, hail the stranger.
"Ho, Cornelius Heemskerk, Dutchman, fat man, great scout and woodsman, what are you doing in my wilderness? Stand forth at once and give an account of yourself, or I will shoot off the part of your body that sticks beyond that oak tree!"
The answer was instantaneous. A round, plump body revolved from the partial shelter of the tree and stood upright in the open, rifle in hand and cap thrown back from a broad ruddy brow.
"Ho, Mynheer Henry Ware," replied Cornelius Heemskerk in a loud, clear tone, "I am in your woods on perhaps the same errand that you are. Come from behind that beech and let us see which has the stronger grip."
Henry stood forth, and the two clasped hands in a grip so powerful that both winced. Then they released hands simultaneously, and Heemskerk asked:
"And the other four mynheers? Am I wrong to say that they are near, somewhere ?"
"You are not wrong," replied Henry. "They are alive, well and hungry, not a mile from here. There is one man whom they would be very glad to see, and his name is Cornelius Heemskerk, who is roaming in our woods without a permit."
The round, ruddy face of the Dutchman glowed. It was obvious that he felt as much delight in seeing Henry as Henry felt in seeing him.
"My heart swells," he said. "I feared that you might have been killed or scalped, or, at the best, have gone back to that far land of Kentucky."
"We have wintered well," said Henry, "in a place of which I shall not tell you now, and we are here to see the campaign through."
"I come, too, for the same purpose," said Heemskerk. "We shall be together. It is goot." "Meanwhile," said Henry, "our camp fire is lighted. Jim Hart, whom you have known of old, is cooking strips of meat over the coals, and, although it is a mile away, the odor of them is very pleasant in my nostrils. I wish to go back there, and it will be all the more delightful to me, and to those who wait, if I can bring with me such a welcome guest."
"Lead on, mynheer," said Cornelius Heemskerk sententiously.
He received an equally emphatic welcome from the others, and then they ate and talked. Heemskerk was sanguine.
"Something will be done this time," he said. "Word has come from the great commander that the Iroquois must be crushed. The thousands who have fallen must be avenged, and this great fire along our border must be stopped. If it cannot be done, then we perish. We have old tales in my own country of the cruel deeds that the Spaniards did long, long ago, but they were not worse than have been done here."
The five made no response, but the mind of every one of them traveled back to Wyoming and all that they had seen there, and the scars and traces of many more tragedies.
They reached the camp on Lake Otsego the next day, and Henry saw that all they had heard was true. The most formidable force that they had ever seen was gathering. There were many companies in the Continental buff and blue, epauletted officers, bayonets and cannon. The camp was full of life, energy, and hope, and the five at once felt the influence of it. They found here old friends whom they had known in the march on Oghwaga, William Gray, young Taylor, and others, and they were made very welcome. They were presented to General James Clinton, then in charge, received roving commissions as scouts and hunters, and with Heemskerk and the two celebrated borderers, Timothy Murphy and David Elerson, they roamed the forest in a great circle about the lake, bringing much valuable information about the movements of the enemy, who in their turn were gathering in force, while the royal authorities were dispatching both Indians and white men from Canada to help them.
These great scouting expeditions saved the five from much impatience. It takes a long time for an army to gather and then to equip itself for the march, and they were so used to swift motion that it was now a part of their nature. At last the army was ready, and it left the lake. Then it proceeded in boats down the Tioga flooded to a sufficient depth by an artificial dam built with immense labor, to its confluence with the larger river. Here were more men, and the five saw a new commander, General James Sullivan, take charge of the united force. Then the army, late in August, began its march upon the Iroquois.
The five were now in the van, miles ahead of the main guard. They knew that no important movement of so large a force could escape the notice of the enemy, but they, with other scouts, made it their duty to see that the Americans marched into no trap.
It was now the waning summer. The leaves were lightly touched with brown, and the grass had begun to wither. Berries were ripening on the vines, and the quantity of game had increased, the wild animals returning to the land from which civilized man had disappeared. The desolation seemed even more complete than in the autumn before. In the winter and spring the Iroquois and Tories had destroyed the few remnants of houses that were left. Braxton Wyatt and his band had been particularly active in this work, and many tales had come of his cruelty and that of his swart Tory lieutenant, Coleman. Henry was sure, too, that Wyatt's band, which numbered perhaps fifty Indians and Tories, was now in front of them.
He, his comrades, Heemskerk, Elerson, Murphy, and four others, twelve brave forest runners all told, went into camp one night about ten miles ahead of the army. They lighted no fire, and, even had it been cold, they would not have done so, as the region was far too dangerous for any light. Yet the little band felt no fear. They were only twelve, it is true, but such a twelve! No chance would either Indians or Tories have to surprise them.
They merely lay down in the thick brushwood, three intending to keep watch while the others slept. Henry, Shif'less Sol, and Heemskerk were the sentinels. It was very late, nearly midnight; the sky was clear, and presently they saw smoke rings ascending from high hills to their right, to be answered soon by other rings of smoke to their left. The three watched them with but little comment, and read every signal in turn. They said: "The enemy is still advancing," "He is too strong for us...... We must retreat and await our brethren."
"It means that there will be no battle to-morrow, at least," whispered Heemskerk. " Brant is probably ahead of us in command, and he will avoid us until he receives the fresh forces from Canada."
"I take it that you're right," Henry whispered back. "Timmendiquas also is with him, and the two great chiefs are too cunning to fight until they can bring their last man into action."
"An' then," said the shiftless one, "we'll see what happens."
"Yes," said Henry very gravely, "we'll see what happens. The Iroquois are a powerful confederacy. They've ruled in these woods for hundreds of years. They're led by great chiefs, and they're helped by our white enemies. You can't tell what would happen even to an army like ours in an ambush."
Shif'less Sol nodded, and they said no more until an hour later, when they heard footsteps. They awakened the others, and the twelve, crawling to the edge of the brushwood, lay almost flat upon their faces, with their hands upon the triggers of their rifles.
Braxton Wyatt and his band of nearly threescore, Indians and Tories in about equal numbers, were passing. Wyatt walked at the head. Despite his youth, he had acquired an air of command, and he seemed a fit leader for such a crew. He wore a faded royal uniform, and, while a small sword hung at his side, he also carried a rifle on his shoulder. Close behind him was the swart and squat Tory, Coleman, and then came Indians and Tories together.
The watchful eyes of Henry saw three fresh scalps hanging from as many belts, and the finger that lay upon the trigger of his rifle fairly ached to press it. What an opportunity this would be if the twelve were only forty, or even thirty! With the advantage of surprise they might hope to annihilate this band which had won such hate for itself on the border. But twelve were not enough and twelve such lives could not be spared at a time when the army needed them most.
Henry pressed his teeth firmly together in order to keep down his disappointment by a mere physical act if possible. He happened to look at Shif'less Sol, and saw that his teeth were pressed together in the same manner. It is probable that like feelings swayed every one of the twelve, but they were so still in the brushwood that no Iroquois heard grass or leaf rustle. Thus the twelve watched the sixty pass, and after they were gone, Henry, Shif'less Sol, and Tim Murphy followed for several miles. They saw Wyatt proceed toward the Chemung River, and as they approached the stream they beheld signs of fortifications. It was now nearly daylight, and, as Indians were everywhere, they turned back. But they were convinced that the enemy meant to fight on the Chemung.