The Bushfighters/Chapter 3

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Bushfighters by Hugh Pendexter
III. The Messenger Who Failed

pp. 13–18

CHAPTER III

THE MESSENGER WHO FAILED.

PUTNAM'S small band of rangers ascended the Mohawk with instructions to turn north after passing Schenectady. The captain and Willis, held on through Stillwater, Saratoga and Upper Falls without finding a trace of the girl.

“I've either guessed wrong or the girl is good enough ranger to serve with Rogers,” fumed Putnam as inquiry after inquiry see to bring them any information.

“She must have gone up the Mohawk,” sighed Willis.

“Then my men will find her trail and keep tabs on her. But reason tells me she must have come the most direct way. She didn't know she was suspected and would be trailed. She would try to run the lines before the forts and outposts could be warned to head her off. If she went up the Mohawk I'm disappointed in her. But if she come this way may the —— find her.”

Ahead of them was Fort Edward, so christened by William Johnson in honor of the King's grandson, although the New England provincials were better pleased with the original name of Lyman, the fighting Connecticut general. If they got no trace of the girl here they must trust entirely to luck as the lake with its thick forests was but fourteen miles away.

Once the girl got into the brush she could reach Ticonderoga by following either side of the lake or by stealing a canoe and traveling at night. Only the chance meeting with some of Rogers' rangers could stop her.

Putnam still insisted he wished the girl to get through the lines with her news that the English were to advance in force, but he was just as insistent on being at her heels so as to know when she entered the fort. Willis' fears that harm had befallen her were scoffed at by Putnam; yet the captain knew he would feel better once he learned she was clear of the bush. Spy she might be, yet she was a white woman, and should be kept from the Indians. As the two men approached the fort Putnam exlaimed:

“There is General Lyman! But what's the matter with him? I've know Phineas long enough to tell when he's upset. See how he swing his fists as he walks back and forth! Must be taking the Oswego matter mighty hard. You can hold back a minute.”

As he approached the agitated general, Putnam was cordially greeted, Lyman's face lighting up as he gazed into the strong, open countenance of the ranger. Putnam from the beginning, when he had enlisted as a private, had made good. He bore a conspicuous part in the “bloody morning scout” and the defeat of Dieskau. Like Lyman he had urged pursuit of the baron's shattered forces, At bushfighting he had proven himself such an adept as to attract the attention of Rogers, who, no matter what weaknesses he was guilty of as a man, was invaluable to the colonies as leader of the rangers.

“Bad business, general,” said Putnam.

“Bad because it's so foolish. Now they'll blame Shirley, and he at least tried to make Oswego stout and to capture Niagara and Frontenac.”

“The damage should be repaired by a stout stroke,” declared Putnam, speaking with the freedom of a neighbor.

“That's what we're up here for,” was the terse rejoinder.

Then angrily:

“But —— me! I've lost another sentinel. The fourth to disappear within as many days.”

Putnam's eyes widened; so it was the loss of a sentinel rather than the calamity of Oswego that was disturbing the general.

Lyman read his thoughts and growled:

“Oswego isn't my affair yet. The missing sentinel is. It was at the small outpost below us; and it puts my wig in buckle. It makes a man's nerves cut up all sorts of capers.”

“The fourth to disappear. Not shot with an arrow as they do it at Fort William Henry, but disappears?”

“Just that. That's what riles me. When the first was reported missing, with neither hair nor hide of him to be found, I put him down as a deserter. The next morning the second vanished—and some blood was found. The mystery of it fretted the men. None was keen to stand guard that night.

“Number three goes into the air, More blood, but no sound of a struggle, no call for help. Now they report the fourth man has gone. I've given orders for the sentinels to always call out three times 'Who goes there?' at the least sound and then fire. Not one of the four men has fired his gun.

“The men have volunteered for the duty, but now the leftenant reports it'll be necessary to draft a man for each night, as no more are volunteering. It's bad for the men. They don't mind fighting against big odds but this business takes away their courage.”

“Any other news?”

“A vast deal of it. Every party brings in an abundance, but it's all different,” dryly replied the general. “But I'm glad you're back, Israel. That reminds me. A slip of a ranger, little more'n a boy, sought you here last night. Name, Ephraim Willis. Said he just come from New York to join your company.

“I only got half a glimpse at him as I was fussed up over the Oswego affair. Nothing more'n a boy, and too good-looking at that. They must teach 'em young on the Pennsylvania frontier. Told me he was with Braddock on the Monongahela. I'd intended to talk with him this morning, but he too had vanished when I got round to it. Probably on his way back to Albany to meet you.'

Captain Putnam's face had been very grave as he listened; now his eyes twinkled, and he motioned for his companion to advance.

“General Lyman,” he said, “let me call your attention to a son of Daniel Willis, of Connecticut. This is Ephraim Willis, who came from New York to serve under me. He was with Braddock, serving with Colonel Washington's Virginians.”

“Devils for fiddlers!” exploded the general. “I've no time nor notion for foolishness, captain.”

“The Ephraim Willis of last night is the daughter of Jan Lidindick, on her way with information to Vaudreuil.”

General Lyman grew apopletic of countenance.

—— and fury!” he gasped. “Jan the Rogue's wench!. And slipped right through my hands! And goes to report her discoveries at Ticonderoga! By Heavens, she shall be overhauled! I'll give orders to my men! ——! I forgot. My men are no good in the woods. Putnam, you must——

“Just a word, general,” begged Putnam. “It is best she goes through. She knows nothing of our orders to hold back an advance on Ticonderoga. She will tell Montcalm or Levis that we plan to attack in force. The news will halt the French till we can get our feet braced.”

“It's best she be caught. Better she be hung than that she reach Ticonderoga,” roared Lyman. “She talked but little with me, but taking her for your man I told my officers there would be no move against Ticonderoga, and she heard me. And the ——'s to pay if she gets through with that budget.”

“That's a hoss of different color,” slowly admitted Putnam. “No; she mustn't get through. She can't be far ahead. She doesn't know she's chased. She'll keep to the bush and move slowly to dodge the troops. Willis and I will cut her off.”

It was not until they were back in the Lake George road that Willis found his voice.

“Think of it! She passed herself off as me,” were his first words.

“And keen enough not to go to Lyman till candle-light,” sighed Putnam. “You know the country from here to Fort William Henry?”

“As well as the road by my father's farm.”

“Then take to the bush on the west side of it and I'll scout to the east. We'll meet before sundown at old Fort Anne at the tail of Shone Creek: If you find her, take her to Fort Edward and send a messenger to me. Tell General Lyman I ordered you to take her back to Albany. And if you love her don't let her slip through your fingers.”

“She must be found, but I hope it's you who finds her,” said Willis as he slipped into the forest.


BOTH were moving parallel to the road chopped out the year before by Johnson's axmen; and although many heavy wagons, many troops and the ordnance had passed over it the stumps of trees remained. It was only a raw gash through the primeval woods. Putnam first traveled it as a private, and had seen the genial Johnson leisurely pausing to drink his “fresh lemon punch” and wine, supplemented by “broken bread and cheese.”

Seth Pomeroy, a gunsmith of Northampton, had been his companion during that trying campaign, also John Stark, who was to make the name of Bennington one to be remembered. Among the officers had been Ephraim Williams, a Massachusetts colonel, who had felt a premonition of evil while in Albany and who had drawn the will which laid the foundation of Williams College.

And the rustics of 1755 were now veterans. Pomeroy, Stark and many others of their kind were serving, like Putnam, in Major Robert Rogers' independent command of rangers.

As Putnam scouted the thick forest, ever casting about for some trace of the girl, he wished the country were more open, such as the West was said to be. Then there would be no ghastly tragedies of troops lost and bewildered in the somber woods, but a rattling, smashing campaign in God's sunlight, a mode of attack the Indians were chary to resist.

The Canadians and Indians were of scant value in the open, just as the regulars and provincials got in each other's way and allowed themselves to be massacred like so many sheep once the interlacing boughs shut, out the light of the high heavens.

Sagacious in thought as he was reckless and daring in warfare, the Connecticut captain realized that the great danger from the fall of Oswego was not so much the loss of the fort itself as its effect upon the Long House. Sir William Johnson was working night and day to hold the Iroquois neutral where they refused to fight for the English. The French must be whipped if the Iroquois were to continue at peace with the English.

He was measurably sure of his Mohawks, who guarded the eastern door, but the keepers of the western door, the Senecas, were independent and irritable under any dictation. Whoever won this war won the Iroquois. The nation that had the Long House behind it could dominate the continent.

For many, many years the Iroquois controlled the region from Albany to Lake Erie. Without the consent of the Five Nations travel on the upper Hudson, the Mohawk, the Delaware and upper Susquehanna was at the risk of life. The governors of Maryland and Pennsylvania, as well as of Virginia and New York, journeyed through the wilderness to treat with the Long House when lesser nations would have been commanded to come to them.

One hundred and forty-six years before Israel Putnam enlisted in this war, one Samuel Champlain had highly delighted his wild Huron companions, and probably satisfied his own sporting propensity, by trying his firearms on a band of Iroquois, killing six. This was the first introduction of the Long House to the “hang-sticks,” and they never forgave the French for taking this advantage of them. Their resentment became a racial memory.

In the ordinary course of events they would have turned to the French rather than to the English. The French were never brusk with them. The French would live with them, marry their women, adopt their customs and be generous with presents. French goods were not as satisfactory as the Dutch and English wares, but French brandy was strong and French manners much more to the Indian's liking than the treatment received at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons.

But the marksmanship of the first Frenchman left a lasting impress upon them; and although at times priest and adventurers gained a transient influence over certain sections of the League there was but little lessening of the heritage of hate handed down from generation to generation. Verily Champlain's little hunting-venture was most costly to France!

Did the Iroquois join the French as allies, then France would hold Canada and control the continent. Now after a century and a half the terrible handicap of Champlain's indiscretion might be lifted. The Long House had no heart to war against Canada so long as many of their converted brothers fought for the lilies of Louis the Fifteenth.

The League's relations with the colonies were never based on affection. The League in its relations with England held itself to be at the least on an equal plane with the colonies, and England admitted this status by treating direct with the Five Nations.

The boundary disputes between the colonies, especially those of New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and their continual jealousies and refusals to cooperate pleased the Long House immensely. Out of so much bickering and confusion the Indian's influence held strong, his pressure always mandatory; and for decades the colonists traveled up and down the hundred and fifty mile wide strip of seaboard before daring to cross the Alleghanies in numbers.

Putnam was one to turn subjects over in his shrewd mind and view them from all angles. It made his heart ache to know what a muddle the colonies had made of the war. He groaned and exclaimed vehemently under his breath as he recalled how Johnson had allowed Dieskau's shattered force to escape to Ticonderoga when they could have been cut off at South Bay.


IT WAS late in the afternoon when Putnam came to the tangled clearing which surrounded old Fort Anne. Bushes had sprung up about the ruins of the abandoned post, through which ran narrow game-trails and Indian paths. He kept within the cover of the forest until north of the fort, looking for signs of Willis or the girl. Deciding that he was ahead of Willis, he was seating himself to await the young ranger's coming when his keen eye glimpsed a brown patch through the bushes near the eastern edge of the woods. It might have been a bear, or some other animal, but instinct warned Putnam it was an Indian and a hostile one.

Stooping low, he struck into a winding path and soon reached the spot where he had detected the movement. Passing into the strong timber, he had no difficulty in locating the trail.

The occasional imprint of a moccasin in the forest mold suggested haste on the part of the Indian, as if he had observed the white man and wished to withdraw without being discovered. A friendly Indian would be scouting north of William Henry and not back here on the road to Fort Edward.

Putnam followed the trail along the east and northern borders of the clearing and soon concluded that the man had discovered he was being pursued. He was now taking pains to hide his trail, and only one equal in woodcraft to an aborigine could have followed it to and across Shone Creek, holding due west.

Suddenly Putnam dropped flat in the mire and heard a ball whistle over him. Rolling to one side, he came up behind a tree and for a moment beheld a furtive form flitting among the shadows of the deep woods. Putnam gave chase and fairly glimpsed the fugitive as he passed through a shaft of sunlight.

“French Mohawk or I'll eat my gun,” he told himself, throwing forward his smooth-bore but unable to draw a bead on the dancing figure.

Increasing his pace, he covered only a few rods when he was halted again, this time by an arrow whipping by his face and quivering in a pine.

“Ambush!” he exclaimed, taking a head dive for cover behind a log.

A glistening brown body showed itself at the side of a huge pitch-pine, and the smooth-bore belched out a handful of buckshot.

“He won't yank no more Christian hair,” growled Putnam, working in a half-circle to the body. “Didn't have time to reload, and planned to send me to Kingdom Come with his arrows.”

He was much astonished on reaching the dead warrior to fail to find a gun or any accouterments which went with firearms.

“So there was two of them!” he exclaimed, slipping behind a tree.

Cautiously peering forth, he surveyed the prostrate form. The buffalo-horns worn for a headdress was positive proof of the dead brave's country.

“Western Indian. T'other one was a Mohawk.”

Two guns sullenly boomed in the west, speaking almost together, the woods muffling the sound. Putnam eagerly streaked through the darkening growth, straining his ears and fearing to hear the scalp-yell of a French Mohawk. The tomb-like quiet of the forest continued. If one of the combatants was Willis it would require a most cunning savage to get any advantage of him.

“That is, when he's himself. But his fool notions may have upset him so that he's lost his ears and eyes,” Putnam muttered.

A gun clicked and Putnam vanished.

“That you, cap'n?” Softly called a voice.

“Maybe. Who the —— are you? Show yourself,” returned Putnam.

“I know it's you, cap'n,” was the reply; and the figure of Willis rose from the ground, holding his long Kentucky rifle in one hand and a fresh scalp in the other.

“Lad, you fooled me,” admiringly admitted Putnam. “Thought sure you was two rods to the right and behind the bushes. I won't worry about you any more.”

“One of Montcalm's Mohawks,” murmured Willis. “French ax in his belt. Painted and all fussed up with feathers and oil. I've hid the gun where we can get it again.”

“You're sure he ain't one of our Mohawks?” anxiously asked Putnam.

“Sure. French ax tells that. He shot at me first. Oh, I know the keepers of the eastern door. But take a look and satisfy yourself.”

“You found no trace of her?” asked Putnam.

“Nary a sign,” sighed Willis. “And I scouted closer'n I ever did before. But take a look at the blood-thirsty beast and we'll look for her farther.

“We almost met head on. I let him shoot first, because I hankered for cover. I jumped and he fired a second too late. Made a hole in my hat. I shot him without lifting my rifle from the hip. Drilled him right between the eyes. Mighty pretty shot. Here he is.”

Putnam gave a look and nodded his head.

“Yes, He's one of Montcalm's praying Indians. His leather belt is French as well as his ax. No Indian ever made that belt and the wallet hitched to it.”

“You came along before I'd time to peek into the wallet. Probably holds his paints,” said Willis as he kneeled and opened the leather pouch. “Well, if that don't chase the devil round a stump!” he exclaimed, holding up a strip of birch-bark. “Some one writ on it with a charred stick.”

Putnam snatched it studied it with puckered brows for a few moments, then disgustedly confessed—

“Can't make head nor tail out of it.”

“It's French. Let me try my eye on it,” said Willis.

He ran his eyes over it several times, his lips moving silently. Then his face went gray with pain and fear. Turning to Putnam, he muttered:

“I don't understand. It can't be she wrote it!”

“Read it,” ordered Putnam.

“It can't be she done it,” groaned Willis. “it goes like this:

“M. de Vaudreuil or M. de Montcalm. The English fear much—or much afraid. They will not attack Ticonderoga. A swift stroke now will give you a great victory

“'At the Sign of the Red Bull's-Eyes.'”

“She did write it!” muttered Putnam, rubbing his strong chin. “This Mohawk was her messenger. She made good use of her little visit to General Lyman. But where did she meet this dead Indian? I flushed him east of Fort Anne.

“Did he meet her farther east? If so why was he coming round the foot of the lakes? If she be east of the lake why doesn't she take her own message to Ticonderoga?”

“She was afraid of being caught. She was doubling her chances of getting word through,” said Willis, and he heaved a love-sick sigh.

This did not satisfy Putnam, who shook his head and scowled in deep meditation. Then without lifting his head he slowly informed the other:

“She's south of Lake George. She doesn't want to go to Ticonderoga. She figures she's of more value to the French down here. She plans to pick up information and send it in. She doesn't know we've been to Fort Edward, It's like her impudence to go back there to get more news from General Lyman. We'll camp here. To-morrow you will scout to the lake and call at Fort William Henry and see if she has been there. If so, follow her. If you find no trace return to old Fort Anne. I'll go back to Fort Edward. She's either hiding between here and the fort, or else she's inside of Ticonderoga.”


CAPTAIN PUTNAM arrived at Fort Edward three hours after sunrise, having failed to find any signs of the girl on Te way. He at once sought General Lyman and found him pacing back and forth behind the fort, scowling fiercely, his fists clenched and arms swinging.

As Putnam halted and waited to be addressed Lyman groaned—

“Make's the fifth.”

“Another sentinel, sir?” spoke up Putnam.

“Glad to see you, Israel. Yes; makes the fifth. Poor fellow was killed during the night. His body was picked up some distance back in the woods. Scalped. Only body that we've found.”

“No alarm given?”

“Not a sound. His gun was found loaded just below the stockade. Just as if something reached down from the sky and snatched him up. Men are in a panic. And they're brave men, too.”

“I haven't the heart to draft a man for to-night, yet it must be done. However, I can throw a string of troops round the post.”

“General Lyman, let me volunteer. Let me act as sentinel tonight,” eagerly said Putnam.

“Major Rogers wouldn't thank me if I let you, one of his best captains, be killed while standing sentry duty at an outpost,” slowly reminded Lyman.

“This is Indian work. It's work for one of Rogers' rangers. Major Rogers would approve; and he never sends men where he wouldn't readily go,” insisted Putnam.

Lyman paced back and forth a few times. Then he said:

“The killings must be stopped, else the outpost must be abandoned. Not only are we our men but we're poisoning their minds with a terrible fear of the red devils. If we quit the post the Long House will know about it and laugh at us and call us women, same as they laughed at us for burning our fort at Saratoga.”

“It will never do to quit the post,” insisted Putnam firmly. “If we can't stop a handful of redskins murdering our men down «here at Fort Edward we might as well quit the lakes and go back to our farms and wait to be attacked there.”

“All right. You shall stand guard, but you do so on your own responsibility. I'll draft another man, so there won't be any questions about you being asked to do post duty.”

“Figuring I may get killed,” laughed Putnam. Then very earnestly:

“General Lyman, I ask you to reconsider. There is but one Indian in these night attacks. If there was more the whole post would be destroyed. I want to match my wits against his. If you draft one of your men he will be in my way and my chances of catching the fellow will be greatly reduced. Let me go on alone and if he shows up you shall have his pelt this time tomorrow morning, or: may you never enjoy another noggin of rum.”

Lyman studied the determined face, and smiled as he dwelt on the fighting jaw and the indomitable eyes. This was the Putnam who had crawled into the wolf's den and had killed the marauder and won the name of Wolf Putnam.

“Israel, I guess you'll do it if any one can. Go ahead, and go it alone,” surrendered the general. “My poor fellows have waited for the —— red to come to them. I know you'll get him if it's possible. And now it's settled I feel a heap easier in my mind. What are your plans?”

“I haven't any, except to go on guard and keep my ears open. Your men are all right, but their hearing isn't up to catching Indians. I'll match my ears against any Potawatomi, Lorette Huron, St. Francis Abnaki, or Caughnawaga Iroquois. May my scalp pay if I don't bag our visitor. Now I'll scout down to the outpost and look about a bit.”

An hour later he was waiting upon the lieutenant commanding the small post and explaining his purpose. Leaving the officer greatly relieved in mind, he entered the forest and commenced an examination of the surrounding terrain.

The woods were gloomy for lack of sunshine. The floor was moist and oozed water at almost every step. Putnam followed the slope of land until he came to a sluggish creek, whose waters were black.

Starting at a point due north of the post, he followed the creek westward until he came to a trail. At first sight one might have pronounced it the track of a bear, so large was the imprint.

Putnam studied it sharply, and knew that a human foot, unshod, had left the sign. He moved back from the creek until he found two impressions a stride apart. And such a stride!

“A mighty big Indian,” he mused. “He had to be to carry away in his arms the men he killed. Now for the saddest part of it. Poor lads! poor lads!”

And he retraced his steps to the creek and without any hesitation kneeled where the surface soil had broken from the bank and left exposed a mass of rotting roots. For nearly a minute he stared down into the inky waters; then, lying flat, he thrust down an arm, and his hand grasped an arm, and he knew where the nocturnal visitor had concealed his victims.

“If I don't have his hair before cock-crow it'll be because he don't show up,” he gritted between his teeth.