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The Lords of the Wild: A Story of the Old New York Border

The Lords of the Wild: A Story of the Old New York Border

Author:Joseph A. Altsheler


The tall youth, turning to the right, went down a gentle slope until he came to a little stream, where he knelt and drank. Despite his weariness, his thirst and his danger...
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  The tall youth, turning to the right, went down a gentle slope untilhe came to a little stream, where he knelt and drank. Despite hisweariness, his thirst and his danger he noticed the silvery color ofthe water, and its soft sighing sound, as it flowed over its pebblybed, made a pleasant murmur in his ear. Robert Lennox always had aneye for the beautiful, and the flashing brook, in its setting of deep,intense forest green, soothed his senses, speaking to him of comfortand hope.

  He drank again and then sat back among the bushes, still breathingheavily, but with much more freedom. The sharp pain left his chest,new strength began to flow into his muscles, and, as the body wasrenewed, so the spirit soared up and became sanguine once more. He puthis ear to the earth and listened long, but heard nothing, save soundsnatural to the wilderness, the rustling of leaves before the lightwind, the whisper of the tiny current, and the occasional sweet noteof a bird in brilliant dress, pluming itself on a bough in its pride.He drew fresh courage from the peace of the woods, and resolved toremain longer there by the stream. Settling himself into the bushesand tall grass, until he was hidden from all but a trained gaze, hewaited, body and soul alike growing steadily in vigor.

  The forest was in its finest colors. Spring had never brought to it amore splendid robe, gorgeous and glowing, its green adorned with wildflowers, and the bloom of bush and tree like a gigantic stretch oftapestry. The great trunks of oak and elm and maple grew in endlessrows and overhead the foliage gleamed, a veil of emerald lace beforethe sun.

  Robert drank in the glory, eye and ear, but he never failed to watchthe thickets, and to listen for hostile sounds. He knew full well thathis life rested upon his vigilance and, often as he had been in dangerin the great northern woods, he valued too much these precious days ofhis youth to risk their sudden end through any neglect of his own.

  He looked now and then at the bird which still preened itself on alittle bough. When the shadows from the waving foliage fell uponits feathers it showed a bright purple, but when the sunlight pouredthrough, it glowed a glossy blue. He did not know its name, but it wasa brave bird, a gay bird. Now and then it ceased its hopping back andforth, raised its head and sent forth a deep, sweet, thrilling note,amazing in volume to come from so small a body. Had he dared to make asound Robert would have whistled a bar or two in reply. The bird was afriend to one alone and in need, and its dauntless melody made hisown heart beat higher. If a creature so tiny was not afraid in thewilderness why should he be!

  He had learned to take sharp notice of everything. On the border andin such times, man was compelled to observe with eye and ear, with allthe five senses; and often too with a sixth sense, an intuition, anoutgrowth of the other five, developed by long habit and training,which the best of the rangers possessed to a high degree, and in whichthe lad was not lacking. He knew that the minutest trifle must notescape his attention, or the forfeit might be his life.

  While he relaxed his own care not at all, he felt that the bird was awary sentinel for him. He knew that if an enemy came in haste throughthe undergrowth it would fly away before him. He had been warned inthat manner in another crisis and he had full faith now in the cautionof the valiant little singer. His trust, in truth, was so great thathe rose from his covert and bent down for a third drink of the clearcool water. Then he stood up, his figure defiant, and took long, deepbreaths, his heart now beating smoothly and easily, as if it had beenput to no painful test. Still no sound of a foe, and he thought thatperhaps the pursuit had died down, but he knew enough of the warriorsof the woods to make sure, before he resumed a flight that wouldexpose him in the open.

  He crept back into the thicket, burying himself deep, and was carefulnot to break a twig or brush a leaf which to the unerring eyes ofthose who followed could mark where he was. Hidden well, but yet lyingwhere he could see, he turned his gaze back to the bird. It was nowpouring out an unbroken volume of song as it swayed on a twig, likea leaf shaken in the wind. Its voice was thrillingly sweet, and itseemed mad with joy, as its tiny throat swelled with the burden of itsmelody. Robert, in the thicket, smiled, because he too shared in somuch gladness.

  A faint sound out of the far west came to him. It was so slightthat it was hard to tell it from the whisper of the wind. It barelyregistered on the drum of the ear, but when he listened again and withall his powers he was sure that it was a new and foreign note. Then heseparated it from the breeze among the leaves, and it seemed to himto contain a quality like that of the human voice. If so, it mightbe hostile, because his friends, Willet, the hunter, and Tayoga, theOnondaga, were many miles away. He had left them on the shore of thelake, called by the whites, George, but more musically by the Indians,Andiatarocte, and there was nothing in their plans that would nowbring them his way. However welcome they might be he could not hopefor them; foes only were to be expected.

  The faint cry, scarcely more than a variation of the wind, registeredagain though lightly on the drum of his ear, and now he knew that itcame from the lungs of man, man the pursuer, man the slayer, and so,in this case, the red man, perhaps Tandakora, the fierce Ojibway chiefhimself. Doubtless it was a signal, one band calling to another, andhe listened anxiously for the reply, but he did not hear it, the pointfrom which it was sent being too remote, and he settled back into hisbed of bushes and grass, resolved to keep quite still until hecould make up his mind about the next step. On the border as well aselsewhere it was always wise, when one did not know what to do, to donothing.

  But the tall youth was keenly apprehensive. The signals indicated thatthe pursuing force had spread out, and it might enclose him in a fatalcircle. His eager temperament, always sensitive to impressions, waskindled into fire, and his imagination painted the whole forestscene in the most vivid colors. A thought at first, it now became aconviction with him that Tandakora led the pursuit. The red leader hadcome upon his trail in some way, and, venomous from so many failures,would follow now for days in an effort to take him. He saw the hugeOjibway again with all the intensity of reality, his malignant face,his mighty body, naked to the waist and painted in hideous designs.He saw too the warriors who were with him, many of them, and they werefully as eager and fierce as their chief.

  But his imagination which was so vital a part of him did not paintevil and danger alone; it drew the good in colors no less deep andglowing. It saw himself refreshed, stronger of body and keener of mindthan ever, escaping every wile and snare laid for his ruin. It sawhim making a victorious flight through the forest, his arrival at theshining lake, and his reunion with Willet and Tayoga, those faithfulfriends of many a peril.

  He knew that if he waited long enough he would hear the Indian callonce more, as the bands must talk to one another if they carried outa concerted pursuit, and he decided that when it came he would go. Itwould be his signal too. The only trouble lay in the fact that theymight be too near when the cry was sent. Yet he must take the risk,and there was his sentinel bird still pluming itself in brilliantcolors on its waving bough.

  The bird sang anew, pouring forth a brilliant tune, and Robert fromhis covert smiled up at it again. It had a fine spirit, a gay spiritlike his own and now it would surely warn him if danger crept tooclose. While the thought was fresh in his mind the third signalcame, and now it was so clear and distinct that it indicated a rapidapproach. But he was still unable to choose a way for his flight andhe lingered for a sign from the bird. If the warriors were stealingthrough the bushes it would fly directly from them. At least hebelieved so, and fancy had so much power over him, especially in sucha situation that belief became conviction.

  The bird stopped singing suddenly, but kept his perch on the wavingbough. Robert always insisted that it looked straight at him before ituttered two or three sharp notes, and then, rising in the air, hoveredfor a few minutes above the bough. It was obvious to him that hiscall had come. Steeped in Indian lore he had seen earth and air workmiracles, and it was not less wonderful that a living creature shouldperform one now, and in his behalf.

  For a breathless instant or two he forgot the warriors and watched thebird, a flash of blue flame against the green veil of the forest. Itwas perched there in order to be sure that he saw, and then it wouldshow the way! With every pulse beating hard he stood up silently,his eyes still on the blue flash, confident that a new miracle was athand.

  The bird uttered three or four notes, not short or sharp now, butsoft, long and beckoning, dying away in the gentlest of echoes. Hisimagination, as vivid as ever, translated it into a call to him tocome, and he was not in the least surprised, when the blue flame likethe pillow of cloud by day moved slowly to the northeast, and towardthe lake. Stepping cautiously he followed his sign, thrilled at thedoing of the miracle, his eyes on his flying guide, his ears attunedto warn him if any danger threatened from the forest so near.

  It never occurred to Robert that he might not be led aright. His faithand confidence were supreme. He had lived too much with Tayoga not toshare his belief that the hand of Manitou was stretched forth now tolead those who put their trust in him.

  The blue flame that was a living bird flew slowly on, pausing aninstant or two on a bough, turning for a short curve to right orleft, but always coming back to the main course that pointed towardAndiatarocte.

  He walked beside the little brook from which he had drunk, then acrossit and over a low hill, into a shallow valley, the forest everywhere,but the undergrowth not too dense for easy passage. His attentive earbrought no sound from either flank save those natural to the woods,though he was sure that a hostile call would come soon. It would betime for the bands to talk to one another. But he had no fear. Thesupreme intervention had been made in his favor, and he kept his eyeson his flying guide.

  They crossed the valley and began the ascent of another and high hill,rough with rocky outcrops and a heavy growth of briars and vines. Hispace became slower of necessity and once or twice he thought he hadlost the blue flame, but it always reappeared, and, for the firsttime since its flight from the bough, it sang a few notes, a clearmelodious treble, carrying far through the windy forest.

  The lad believed that the song was meant for him. Clearly it said tohim to follow, and, with equal clearness, it told him that safety layonly in the path he now traveled. He believed, with all the ardor ofhis soul, and there was no weariness in his body as he climbed thehigh hill. Near the summit, he heard on his right the long dyingIndian cry so full of menace, its answer to the left, and then a thirdshout directly behind him. He understood. He was between the horns ofa crescent, and they were not far away. He left faint traces only ashe fled, but they had so much skill they could follow with speed, andhe was quite sure they expected to take him. This belief did not keephis heart from beating high. They did not know how he was protectedand led, and there was the blue flame before him always showing himthe way. He reached the crest of the hill, and saw other hills, foldon fold, lying before him. He had hoped to catch a glimpse of the lakefrom the summit, but no glint of its waters came, and then he knew itmust yet be miles away. His heart sank for a moment. Andiatarocte hadappealed to him as a refuge. Just why he did not know, but he vaguelyexpected to find safety there. Perhaps he would meet Willet and Tayogaby its shore, and to him the three united always seemed invincible.

  His courage was gone only an instant or two. Then it came backstronger than ever. The note of his guide, clear and uplifting, roseagain, and he increased his speed, lest he be enclosed within thosehorns. The far slope was rocky and he leaped from one stony outcrop toanother. Even if he could hide his trail only a few yards it wouldbe so much time gained while they were compelled to seek it. He wasforced to watch his steps here, but, when he was at the bottom andlooked up, the blue flame was still before him. On it went over thenext slope and he followed at speed, noticing with joy that the rockynature of the ground continued, and the most skillful warrior who everlived must spend many minutes hunting his traces. He had no doubt thathe was gaining and he had proof of it in the fact that the pursuersnow uttered no cry. Had they been closing in on him they would havecalled to one another in triumph.

  Well for him that he was so strong and sound of heart and lung! Wellfor him too that he was borne up by a great spirit and by his beliefthat a supreme power was working in his behalf. He felt littleweariness as he climbed a ridge. His breath was easy and regular andhis steps were long and swift. His guide was before him. Whatever hispace, whether fast or slow, the distance between them never seemed tochange. The bird would dart aside, perhaps to catch an insect, but italways returned promptly to its course.

  His eyes caught a gleam of silver from the crest of the fourth ridgethat he crossed, and he knew it was a ray of sunlight striking uponthe waters of the lake. Now his coveted haven was not so far away, andthe great pulses in his temples throbbed. He would reach the lake, andhe would find refuge. Tandakora, in all his malice, would fail oncemore. The thought was so pleasant to him that he laughed aloud, andnow feeling the need to use the strength he had saved with such carehe began to run as fast as he could. It was his object to open upa wide gap between himself and the warriors, one so great that, ifoccasion came, he might double or turn without being seen.

  The forest remained dense, a sea of trees with many bushes andclinging vines in which an ignorant or incautious runner would havetripped and fallen, but Robert was neither, and he did not forget, ashe fled, to notice where his feet fell. His skill and presence of mindkept him from stumbling or from making any noise that would draw theattention of possible pursuers who might have crept up on his flank.While they had only his faint trail to guide them the pursuit wasimpeded, and, as long as they did not see him, his chance to hide wasfar greater.

  He lost sight of his feathered guide two or three times, but the birdnever failed to reappear, a brilliant blue flame against the greenwall of the wilderness, his emblem of hope, leading him over the hillsand valleys toward Andiatarocte. Now he saw the lake from a crest, nota mere band of silver showing through the trees, but a broad surfacereflecting the sunlight in varied colors. It was a beacon to him, and,summoning the last ounce of his strength and will, he ran at amazingspeed. Once more he heard the warriors behind him calling to oneanother, and they were much farther away. His mighty effort had notbeen in vain. His pulses beat hard with the throb of victory not yetwon, but of which he felt sure, and he rejoiced too, because he hadcome again upon rocky ground, where his flight left so little tracethat Tandakora himself would be baffled for a while.

  He knew that the shores of the lake at the point he was nearing werecomparatively low, and a vague plan to hide in the dense foliage atthe water's edge came into his mind. He did not know just how he woulddo it, but he would be guided by events as they developed. The birdsurely would not lead him on unless less to safety, and no doubtentered his mind. But it was highly important to widen yet more thedistance between him and the warriors, and he still ran with all thespeed at his command.

  The last crest was reached and before him spread the splendid lake inits deep green setting, a glittering spectacle that he never failed toadmire, and that he admired even now, when his life was in peril, andinstants were precious. The bird perched suddenly on a bough, uttereda few thrilling notes, and was then gone, a last blue flash into thedense foliage. He did not see it again, and he did not expect todo so. Its work was done. Strong in the faith of the wilderness, hebelieved and always believed.

  He crouched a few moments on a ledge and looked back. Tandakora andhis men had not yet come in sight, nor could he hear them. Doubtlessthey had lost his trail, when he leaped from one stone to another, andwere now looking for it. His time to hide, if he were to have one, wasat hand, and he meant to make the most of the chance. He bent lowerand remained there until his breathing became regular and easy afterhis mighty effort, all his five senses and the sixth that was instinctor divination, alert to every sound.

  Two or three birds began to sing, but they were not his bird and hegave them no attention. A rabbit leaped from its nest under the bushesand ran. It went back on his trail and he considered it a sure signthat his pursuers were yet distant. He might steal another preciousminute or two for his overworked lungs and heart. He knew the need ofdoing everything to gain a little more strength. It was his experiencein border war and the stern training of Willet and Tayoga that madehim able to do so, and he was ruler enough of himself to wait yet alittle longer than he had planned. Then when he felt that Tandakoramust be near, he straightened up, though not to his full height, andran swiftly down the long slope to the lake.

  He found at the bottom a narrow place between cliff and water, grownthickly with bushes, and he followed it at least half a mile, untilthe shores towered above him dark and steep, and the lake came upagainst them like a wall. He could go no farther and he waded into adense growth of bushes and weeds, where he stood up to his waist inwater and waited, hidden well.

  He knew that if the warriors followed and saw him he would have littleopportunity to escape, but the chances were a hundred to one againsttheir finding him in such a covert. Rock and water had blotted out histrail and he felt safe. He secured his belt, containing his smallerweapons and ammunition, about his shoulders beyond touch of water, andput his rifle in the forks of two bushes, convenient to his hands.

  It was a luxury to rest, even if one did stand half-sunken in a lake.The water was cold, but he did not yet feel the chill, and he listenedfor possible sounds of pursuit. He heard, after a while, the calls ofwarriors to one another and he laughed softly to himself. The shoutswere faint and moreover they came from the crest of the cliff. Theyhad not found his trail down the slope and they were hunting for himon the heights. He laughed again with sheer satisfaction. He had beenright. Rock and water had come to his aid, and he was too well hiddeneven for the eager eyes of Tandakora and his warriors to follow him.

  He waited a long time. He heard the cries nearer him, then fartheraway, and, at last, at such a great distance that they could barelybe separated from the lap of the waters. He was growing cold now; thechill from the lake was rising in his body, but with infinite patiencebred by long practice of the wilderness he did not stir. He knew thatsilence could be deceptive. Some of the warriors might come back,and might wait in a thicket, hoping that he would rise and disclosehimself, thinking the danger past. More than one careless wandererin the past had been caught in such a manner, and he was resolved toguard against the trick. Making the last call upon his patience, hestood motionless, while the chill crept steadily upward through hisveins and muscles.

  He could see the surface of the open lake through the veil of bushesand tall grass. The water broke in gentle waves under a light wind,and kept up a soft sighing that was musical and soothing. Had he beenupon dry land he could have closed his eyes and gone to sleep, but,as it was, he did not complain, since he had found safety, if notcomfort. He even found strength in himself, despite his situation, toadmire the gleaming expanse of Andiatarocte with its shifting colors,and the far cliffs lofty and dim.

  Much of Robert's life, much of its most eventful portion, was passingaround this lake, and he had a peculiar affection for it. It alwaysaroused in him a sense of beauty, of charm and of majesty, and he hadgrown too to look upon it as a friend and protector. He believed thatit had brought him good luck, and he did not doubt that it would do soagain.

  He looked for a canoe, one perhaps that might contain Willet andTayoga, seeking him and keeping well beyond the aim of a lurkingmarksman on the shore, but he saw no shadow on the water, nothingthat could be persuaded into the likeness of a boat, only wild fowlcircling and dipping, and, now and then, a gleam where a fish leapedup to fall swiftly back again. He was alone, and he must depend uponhimself only.

  He began to move a little, to lift one foot and then the other,careful to make no splash in the water, and the slight exercisechecked the creeping chill. Encouraged, he increased it, stopping atintervals to listen for the approach of a foe. There was no soundand he walked back and forth a little. Presently his eyes, trained toobserve all things, noticed a change in the air. A gray tint, so far amatter of quality rather than color, was coming into it, and hisheart leaped with joy. Absorbed in his vital struggle he had failed toreckon the passage of time. The day was closing and blessed, coveringnight was at hand. Robert loved the day and the sun, but darkness wasalways a friend of those who fled, and now he prayed that it wouldcome thick and dark.

  The sun still hung over the eastern shores, red and blazing, butbefore long it went down, seeming to sink into the lake, and the nightthat Robert had wished, heavy and black, swept over the earth. Then heleft the water, and stood upon dry land, the narrow ledge between thecliff and the waves, where he took off his lower garments, wrung themas nearly dry as he could, and, hanging them on the bushes, waitedfor the wind to do the rest. His sense of triumph had never been sostrong. Alone and relying only upon his own courage and skill, he hadescaped the fierce Tandakora and his persistent warriors. He couldeven boast of it to Willet and Tayoga, when he found them again.

  It was wonderful to feel safe, after great peril, and his brightimagination climbed the heights. As he had escaped them then, so hewould slip always from the snares of his foes. It was this quality inhim, the spirit of eternal hope, that appealed so strongly to all whoknew him, and that made him so attractive.

  After a while, he took venison and hominy from his knapsack and atewith content. Then he resumed his clothing, now dried completely bythe wind, and felt that he had never been stronger or more fitted tocope with attack.

  The darkness was intense and the surface of the lake showed throughit, only a fitful gray. The cliff behind him was now a black bank, andits crest could not be seen at all. He was eager to go, but he stillused the patience so necessary in the wilderness, knowing that thelonger he waited the less likely he was to meet the band of Tandakora.

  He lay down in a thicket of tall grass and bushes, resolved not tostart before midnight, and he felt so much at peace that before heknew he was going to sleep he was sleeping. When he awoke he felt alittle dismay at first, but it was soon gone. After all, he had passedthe time of waiting in the easiest way, and no enemy had come. Themoon and stars were not to be seen, but instinct told him that it wasnot beyond midnight.

  He arose to go, but a slight sound came from the lake, and he stayed.It was merely the cry of the night bird, calling to its mate, onewould have said, but Robert's attention was attracted by an oddinflection in it, a strain that seemed familiar. He listened with theutmost attention, and when it came a second time, he was so sure thathis pulses beat very fast.

  Willet and Tayoga, as he had hoped in the day, were out there on thelake. It had been foolish of him to think they would come in the fullsunlight, exposed to every hostile eye. It was their natural course toapproach in the dark and send a signal that he would know. He imitatedthe call, a soft, low note, but one that traveled far, and soon theanswer came. No more was needed. The circle was complete. Willet andTayoga were on the lake and they knew that he was at the foot of thecliff, waiting.

  He took a long breath of intense relief and delight. Tandakora wouldresume the search for him in the morning, hunting along the crest,and he might even find his way to the narrow ledge on which Robert nowstood, but the lad would be gone across the waters, where he left notrail.

  He saw a stout young bush growing on the edge of the lake, and,leaning far out while he held on to it with one hand, he watched. Hedid not repeat the call. One less cautious would have done so, but heknew that his friends had located him already and he meant to runno risk of telling the warriors also where he stood. Meanwhile, helistened attentively for the sound of the paddles, but many longminutes passed before he heard the faint dip, dip that betokened theapproach of Willet and Tayoga. He never doubted for an instant thatit was their canoe and again his heart felt that triumphant feeling.Surely no man ever had more loyal or braver comrades! If he hadmalignant enemies he also had staunch friends who more than offsetthem.

  He saw presently a faint shadow, a deeper dark in the darkness, andhe uttered very low the soft note of the bird. In an instant came theanswer, and then the shadow, turning, glided toward him. A canoe tookform and shape and he saw in it two figures, which were unmistakablythose of Willet and Tayoga, swinging their paddles with powerfulhands. Again he felt a thrill of joy because these two trusty comradeshad come. But it was absurd ever to doubt for an instant that theywould come!

  He leaned out from the tree to the last inch, and called in apenetrating whisper:

  "Dave! Tayoga! This way!"

  The canoe shifted its course a little, and entered the bushes bythe side of Robert, the hunter and the Onondaga putting down theirdripping paddles, and stepping out in the shallow water. In thedusk the great figure of Willet loomed up, more than ever a tower ofstrength, and the slender but muscular form of Tayoga, the very modelof a young Indian warrior, seemed to be made of gleaming bronze. HadRobert needed any infusion of courage and will their appearance alonewould have brought it with them.

  "And we have found Dagaeoga again!" said the Onondaga, in a whimsicaltone.

  "No I have found you," said Robert. "You were lost from me, I was notlost from you."

  "It is the same, and I think by your waiting here at midnight that youhave been in great peril."

  "So I have been, and I may be yet--and you too. I have been pursuedby warriors, Tandakora at their head. I have not seen them, but I knowfrom the venom and persistence of the pursuit that he leads them. Ieluded them by coming down the cliff and hiding among the bushes here.I stood in the water all the afternoon."

  "We thought you might be somewhere along the western shore. After wedivided for our scout about the lake, the Great Bear and I met as wehad arranged, but you did not come. We concluded that the enemy hadgot in the way, and so we took from its hiding place a canoe which hadbeen left on a former journey, and began to cruise upon Andiatarocte,calling at far intervals for you."

  He spoke in his usual precise school English and in a light playfultone, but Robert knew the depth of his feelings. The friendship of thewhite lad and the red was held by hooks of steel like that of Damonand Pythias of old.

  "I think I heard your first call," said Robert. "It wasn't very loud,but never was a sound more welcome, nor can I be too grateful for thathabit you have of hiding canoes here and there in the wilderness. It'ssaved us all more than once."

  "It is merely the custom of my people, forced upon us by need, and Ibut follow."

  "It doesn't alter my gratitude. I see that the canoe is big enough forme too."

  "So it is, Dagaeoga. You can enter it. Take my paddle and work."

  The three adjusted their weight in the slender craft, and Robert,taking Willet's paddle instead of Tayoga's, they pushed out into thelake, while the great hunter sat with his long rifle across his knees,watching for the least sign that the warriors might be coming.