The Bushfighters/Chapter 2
THE HOUSE WITH RED EYES
DARTING from his captain, Willis commenced a methodical search of the town. The houses for the greater part were uniformly of Dutch design, the front door being divided. In the upper half of each door, or—and this less frequently—in the transom, were two bull's-eyes of thick green glass. These glowed softly when the candles were burning within.
His quest was for a house with red bull's-eyes. Where houses showed lights he could eliminate them at a glance; where houses were in darkness it was necessary for him to inspect closely, even to the extent of striking a spark with his steel and flint. Beginning at the river he worked rapidly. The tall, steep roofs suggested the sharp-pointed hats of the early New Englanders, and the glowing green eyes hinted at the sinister. While given to none of the superstitions which had caused the Salem furor of half a century back Willis could not help but think of witches as he glided along, soft-footed as a padded cat.
For an hour he searched, and then as he neared the top of the hill he glimpsed two spots of red pricking through the trees on the opposite side of the main street. He crossed over and halted behind a tree before the house. It was much like its neighbors except for the red glass in the upper half of the door.
Somewhere in the immediate neighborhood lived the daughter of Jan the Rogue. He leaned against the tree for a minute to meditate on the girl, whose charms were sufficient to push the disaster of Oswego to the back of his mind. It was a terrible thing when the French secured full control of Ontario and the west and were free to concentrate all their strength on the Lake George country....And the girl had flouted him most outrageously.
Only a few weeks before, fifty Canadians, painted like the red allies accompanying them, had audaciously shown themselves across the river opposite the town and had carried off two captives. What would not their boldness permit them to dare now that there was no water gate on Ontario to guard?....And she had led him on only to make game of him....Elizabeth Lidindick....He sighed lugubriously. His personal troubles were outweighing those of the colonies.
He vowed to himself he would humble her pride. In the crucible of his hot thoughts he mixed anger with his hopeless devotion. He berated the girl under his breath and at the same time feared he loved her with all his soul.
The sound of a door closing brought him back to realities and the realization that he had no business to tarry. Some one had come through the spy's door. Had he been on the alert when the door stood open for a fraction of a moment and allowed the light to shine over the threshold he might have made a discovery. Now the door was closed and he could only make out a dark figure approaching down the walk.
Instead of coming to the street the figure turned aside and remained motionless on the little green. The watcher behind the tree caught a sound that suggested some one sighing in deep distress. With the stealth of an Iroquois he glided from the tree and on to the green and was startled to find himself an eavesdropper to a woman's sobbing.
This was a sorry plight for a man to find himself in. To take his luck in a running fight with a hundred painted warriors was a part of the game, but a woman in tears melted the heart out of him. Only by remembering the terrible blow to the colonies' fortunes through the fall of Oswego could he restrain himself from making his presence known and offering sympathy. He began to withdraw, but now the woman detected his presence, and with a startled little cry ran toward him a few steps and in a low voice demanded
“Who are you standing there? I see you. Who are you?”
“May the —— cage me!” choked the ranger under his breath.
Aloud he managed to explain—
“Ephraim Willis, always at your service, Elizabeth Lidindick.”
“The Connecticut lad!” she softly whispered, gliding to his side and running her fingers over the fringed seams of his hunting-shirt to make sure of his identity. “Ephraim Willis, who was kind to me, whom I used badly. Oh, lad, lad! Why should I act perverse with you, an honest man! God forgive me! I am a sad case.”
“You seem to be in trouble,” faltered Willis, still tingling from the swift touch of her light fingers.
“In deep trouble,” she murmured. “Sad truth. In deep trouble.”
“If I can help you——”
“You can not. My father is dying.”
“Dying? I will go for aid.”
“No, no. Nothing cam help him. It's heart malady. -He has known it would take him some day. The hour has struck. We have not been as close as some fathers and daughters; still he is my father. I find I shall need him and miss him.”
“Who stays with him while you are out here?” He reddened with shame at thus spying upon the unhappy household, but he was remembering Putnam's business.
“There is no one with us. He sent me out. He wished to be alone for a spell.”
“Then may the good Lord forgive, but I fear I must bring you more trouble,” groaned the ranger. “I'm sent, to find a house with red bull's-eyes. I never dreamed it was your house until you spoke to me.”
“Sent to find? Sent by whom?” she whispered.
“And finding us—what then?”
“He must be told. I must report to him at once.”
“He—they—suspect my father of something?”
“Cap'n Putnam wishes to talk with him. I'd rather roast at the stake than fetch such news to you.”
“It is nothing. My father is dying. That only counts. Your Captain Putnam can harm him none.”
“Of course not. When this is all over you'll let me see you?”
“Where do you go now?”
“To report to Cap'n Putnam.”
“What? Your report can not even wait for a man to die?”
“You don't understand. A woman can't. A man would. Your father would.”
“You would bring your captain tramping up to a death-bed?”
“My part is done when I report that this is the house. Doubtless Cap'n Putnam will wait—may not come—when he knows how it is. Yet I have no right to speak for him. It's a bad business. Afterwards some time——”
“There will be no 'afterwards',” she broke in, “There will be no 'sometimes'. If you bring any one to disturb my father you will never see me again with my permission. You say you are my friend, and you ask me to help you spy on me and on a dying man.”
“Good Heavens! I spy on you? I spy on no one. I run an errand. If Cap'n Putnam comes here——”
“He will find a dead man,” she sobbed, turning back to the door. “And I hope I shall never see you again.”
As she opened the door she stood revealed for a moment. She was wearing a long black cloak that enveloped her from head to toe.
Willis braced himself to do his duty and made for the town-house. Excited groups of citizens and soldiers surged back and forth about the hall. Messengers arrived and departed. All sorts of rumors filled the ear.
“Montcalm's coming by the way of the Great Carrying-Place and the Mohawk,” babbled a citizen.
“General Webb's retreating from German Flats with two thousand Indians at his heels,” cried another.
“——'s loose for Albany if we don't stop de Levis,” bawled a drunken soldier. “He's coming from old Ti to pinch off overyteas north of Albany.”
“Guess all the Western Indians is coming down the big lakes by this time.”
But most sinister of all forebodings was the whispered word that the Long House, only apathetic in espousing the cause of the colonies, was now painting for war and would join with the Canadian Indians in driving the English from the country.
THROUGH this mélange of depressing rumors Willis moodily elbowed his way; his thought focused on the girl and a the dying man.
Putnam saw his tall form in the crowd buffeted a path to his side, his eyes demanding the report.
“I've found it,” Willis quietly informed Putnam.
As the two passed beyond the jabbering crowd the ranger continued:
“A man is dying there. Jan Lidindick. Jan the Rogue, the Dutch call him.”
“Trader and smuggler. Sorry he's dying. We planned to hang him. Who's with him?”
“His daughter Elizabeth. She came here from New York.”
“The girl Elizabeth!” exclaimed Captain Putnam. “Why, the wench dressed as a man and visited tap-rooms and tea-houses in New York. Spent twenty pounds at the Blue Swan one night. Captain Lucie made a fool of himself and was reprimanded. He was heard to tell her things that never should have been intrusted to his feeble mind. 'Tis the same!”
“Same what?” feebly asked Willis, his blood congealing as the dynamic man at his side increased his stride.
“The same spy who milked young Lucie about Webb's plans to reinforce Oswego. She, or her father, sent the news through to Vaudreuil in Montreal. It's all as plain as my nose. Well! That leak will be stopped.”
“But, Cap'n Putnam, this girl Elizabeth—” spluttered Willis.
“Yes, yes; this girl Elizabeth, whose mother was French, whose father was a smuggler before he turned spy. Yes? What about her?”
“She can't be a spy,” groaned Willis. “Just a wild little thing, but there's no hurt in her.”
“So that's the way the wind blows,” muttered Putnam. “You've met her and she's made a fool of you. Thank —— you didn't have a budget of news to tell.”
“She's no spy,” hoarsely persisted Willis.
“She's no 'wild little thing',” retorted Putnam. “Her wearing breeches in New York was part and parcel of her father's game for her to get information. Old lady Patrick, her aunt, was also in the game. Sent home in disgrace? Sent home to find more fools up here. Now, lad, what did you tell her?”
Willis drew a deep breath and doggedly repeated:
“She's no spy. I let on we would move on Ticonderoga in force. She never asked for any information. I gave it. But she's no spy.”
“If so certain, why so worried?” grimly demanded Putnam. “Now, look you; you've talked. You've blabbed. Even if you are Daniel Willis' boy you're not the man I want to help me, if that hussy has milked you as she did Lucie.”
“We'll never move against Ticonderoga in force now Oswego's falling. Whatever I said can help the French none, not even if it was shouted from wall the roofs in Montreal. But she's no spy.”
They were now before the red bull's-eyes. Without a word Putnam ran to the door and raised the latch. Willis halted at the threshold as if wishing to run away. The light from the open door cut the walk under the shade-trees and afforded the ranger a glimpse of a forest runner in fringed shirt making by the house and down the hill.
“Ahead of me, sir,” sternly ordered Putnam, catching Willis by the wrist and shoving him through the door. “A colored petticoat can raise more deviltry in his Majesty's forces than all the French praying Indians that Vaudreuil can ever let loose. Through the house, and see she does not get away.”
Search as closely as they would they could find no trace of the girl, and it was not until they entered the garret that they came to Jan the Rogue. He was dead, with his arms crossed on his breast, his long figure covered with the flag of France.
Putnam made to snatch the flag away, then withdrew his hand, mumbling:
“Well, why not? He served it at the risk of his neck. Let it cover him dead if he wishes it. No English flag can serve him.”
Turning to Willis, he sharply cried:
“The girl, man! If she gets word to Vaudreuil that Albany is panic-stricken we'll have the French down on us in no time. And this border is ripe for a panic.”
“We've searched everywhere.”
“Except the loft and cock-loft. Up we go!”
They ransacked the loft, even opening the ponderous Dutch chests. Willis breathed in great relief as they failed to find any trace of her. Ascending to the cock-loft, a glance was sufficient. But here Willis noticed a green cloth petticoat and the gaudy waistcoat on a stool. These were the same as those she had worn in the afternoon.
“She's not in the house,” Willis whispered.
“Worse luck. Down-stairs and scurry the streets while I call a guard. Albany must be sealed up till she's found.”
“Hush,” begged Willis. “The poor girl went to call in the neighbors. I can hear them below.”
The two rangers hurriedly descended and found a little group of men and women standing just inside the door.
“Elizabeth Lidindick sent word that her father was dead and would we come. We are here,” spoke up a man. “Where is the girl? Is Jan the—Is Mynheéer Lidindick—really dead?”
“He awaits you up-stairs—dead,” replied Putnam. “The girl is not here. Did she come to you?”
The man repeated—
“She sent word.”
Pointing to Willis, he added:
“I thought it was that man who came. Now I see it was not. He was a ranger and only called at the door. He only said Elizabeth Lidindick wished us to come as her father was dead. He was not dressed like our rangers, but like that man.”
And he nodded again toward Willis.
Putnam ran from the house with Willis at his heels.
“A fine kettle of fish!” cried the exasperated Putnam. “Now who in the fiend's name can this strange ranger be?”
Willis gave a little cry and stood as if petrified, staring down at the black blotch on the grass at his feet. The light streaming through the open door made the thing very obvious. Putnam snatched it up and shook it out—a long black cloak.
Willis knew it to be the same as that which the girl had worn when he surprized her in the dark. She had worn it into the house; now she had worn it out and had discarded it. Why? Because without it she hoped he would not recognize her.
Then she must have passed near him; she must have been quitting the premises when he and Captain Putnam came up the walk. He remembered the slim figure of the forest ranger, the fringed hunting-shirt and the fur cap.
“We must save her,” he told Putnam in a trembling voice.
“Save her?” snapped Putnam.
“It was she who asked the neighbors here. When we entered the house I saw her passing. I thought she was a ranger. She must have stood behind a tree when we came up. She knew I would know her in the cloak and she threw it aside. Now. she is gone and we must find her before she wanders into the Indian country.”
“Find her we will—to save the colonies. To save her? Why, you scatter-brain, the girl is more at home in the forest than she was in the tap-rooms. She is not the first Albany woman to go unafraid among the heathens. More than once a vrouw has gone to the Iroquois to barter and drive sharp bargains. They have a knack of picking up the lingo, too.
“This girl had the ranger's dress for a purpose, just as she wore breeches in New York for a purpose. She turns ranger to get more information across the line.
“Scout the outskirts while I call some men. She is out of the town by this time and we must take her trail at once. Meet me on the road to Van Woert's farm.”
“But so young! So helpless! God help us find her and protect her,” prayed Willis.
“Amen,” heartily cried Putnam. “My temper was to put you under arrest for a babbling fool. But now I think you'll be very valuable; very keen to catch the lass. Fear nothing as to her getting lost. She's played ranger before. I'm afraid she knows the way to Montreal better than we do.”
IN A frenzy of alternating hope and fear Willis made for the foot of the hill, pursuing footsteps through the darkness, abruptly halting various dim figures and with muttered excuse speeding away again. He prayed he might find her, and yet he was afraid to do so.
Did he balk her tonight she would never think of him again except with hatred. But if he did not stop her flight this night she might become a captive to Johnson's Mohawks, who still smarted for revenge over the death of old Hendrick and other chiefs.
Or worse, she might wander into the clutches of the ferocious Western savages, who would tear off her fair hair and learn afterward that she was an ally to their great, good master Marquis de Vaudreuil. For Willis did not share Putnam's belief that the girl was safe among the red men.
“Failed, of course,” was Putnam's greetings as he led a squad of rangers along the river road and came upon Willis. “You're to stick with me. These are to scout up the Mohawk. She's either making up the Mohawk, intending to cut through over the mountains to the Richelieu, or else she is striking direct for Ticonderoga. Not suspecting we know she is playing at being a ranger, she is likely to take the military road until near Fort William Henry. Then she'll round the lake on foot, or steal a canoe and make it at night.”
“It's a horrible thing she is doing—if she is a spy. But God help me, I love her!” moaned Willis.
“You're a big calf,” growled Putnam; and yet his voice was not overharsh. “As for the merits of the vixen's case perhaps we're too prejudiced to judge. Her mother was French; her father had no love for the English. But if Lidindick sent the information that led to the capture of Oswego he canceled lots of old scores.”
“Oswego! Does it mean ruin to the colonies?”
“Ruin us? Nothing can ruin us except we ruin ourselves. But it gives the French both ends of the rope and a cursedly strong grip on the middle. But you and this girl—I don't know about having a love-sick ranger-with me. Especially when it's his sweetheart we follow.”
“I'm fool, a calf, as you said,” was the dismal rejoinder. “She has no thought for me except to laugh at me. As to following her, there isn't any one so keen to stop her mad errand.”
“That will hardly do,” mused Putnam. “I've been thinking. The minx will carry some news unless she's locked up. I guess we're best off to have her carry some false news.
“She goes to tell Vaudreuil that Lord Loudoun will attack Ticonderoga in force. A few hours ago I would have stopped her at all cost. But now with Loudoun sitting tight, determined to make no move, it's for the best that she gets through. The French will at least think we're about to attack, and that may spare us an attack in force from them.
“Yes, we'll follow her. We'll see she takes her budget through. So far as we're concerned the campaign is ended for this year. Best to have Montcalm marking time.”
“I can't bear to think of her going to Montreal,” protested Willis.
“Either that, or under lock and key. Small love she'll grow for you if she's locked up. This is the time she must run the lines. Another time and it might mean another Oswego. Now best foot forward. We may learn something at Van Woert's farm.”