The Bushfighters/Chapter 9
INTO THE DANGER ZONE AGAIN
“ DID you hear that?” Willis whispered, seizing Putnam's arm.
“You're trembling like a poplar leaf. Get back your control, or you'll find yourself in a dish.”
“Did you hear her—calling out something?” fiercely persisted Willis, giving Putnam's arm a vigorous shake.
“You forget you're yanking the arm of your officer, sir. Yes, Ephraim, I heard the minx. Another trick to get you into the woods where some of her friends will catch you.”
“No! Never!” cried Willis. “She has said it. By Heavens, the impossible has happened. I'm off.”
“You'll come to the fort with me,” Putnam ordered.
“I'm going to find the woman who's to be my wife,” retorted Willis.
“You'll come pretty near obeying orders so long as you stay in this piece of the woods. Now you hark to me.”
Putnam ceased speaking and swept his gun-barrel about in a circle.
“——'s burning! The young pup has quit me. How's that for discipline?”
With scarcely a sound to betray his abrupt withdrawal Willis had heeded the lure of the voice and was now threading his way through the forest in search of the one woman. With a grunt of disgust Putnam struck out for Fort William Henry.
He should have been immensely pleased with the success of his adventure. He had recovered two most important papers. Willis already had recovered the third. Only by a miracle could the girl or her confederates again secure such valuable information. Yet his triumph was soured by Willis' behavior.
“Good boy. Home folks,” he muttered as he used his gun as a staff in picking his way back to the fort. “But the minute a woman, the woman, comes along he throws aside everything to chase her. The tarnation fool!”
This characterization soothed his irritated nerves, and he repeated it; but inasmuch as its application was based on the woman his mood gradually became speculative and he lifted his heavy brows and pondered. After all there was no knowing what a man might do when the only woman entered his life and called to him. Putnam's own courtship and marriage had been after the orderly New England fashion; but had the trail to his woman taken him amid dangers and against great odds would he have held back? He smiled grimly and admitted:
“I'd been a 'tarnal fool, too. Well, well, I only hope the spit-fire isn't playing any game on him.”
Arriving at the edge of the abatis, Putnam called his name to a nervous sentry and was passed through a narrow, winding path which led down to the lake shore where burned the camp-fires of the rangers. He found Major Rogers overhauling a gun while five of the men lounged around the blaze smoking and awaiting their orders. AS Putnam strode into the circle Rogers sprang to his feet, exclaiming:
“Just the man I want, captain! I've sent several scouts to find you. Rather, I hoped you'd run across one of them. You have nothing of importance to report since sending in your prisoner, I suppose, and I have very important work for you to do. That paper you sent in by Whitten rather sets General he Winslow's teeth on edge. You're to go after a prisoner.”
“He must have a good start,” said Putnam dubiously.
“Oh, there's several small bands out after him, trying to pick up his trail. You're to strike direct for Ticonderoga and pick him up right under the walls of the fort if he manages to get through. General Winslow now fears he may have the original paper hidden on him. He escaped almost as soon as he was locked up and before the general realized the importance of the capture and could have him thoroughly searched. The general was just examining the paper when John Dilly brought word the man was gone. ——'s own luck!”
“General Winslow can rest easy about the paper. There was the 'riginal and two copies. Ephraim Willis got one back in Albany. I got one from the prisoner. And here is this.”
He pulled out the fragments of the paper that had been concealed in the girl's gun. Smoothing out the pieces, the two examined them briefly. Rogers said:
“This is the original. No question about it. I'll take it to General Winslow myself. How and where did you get it?”
“In a dugout under the ruins of old Fort Anne. Found it tucked in a gun-barrel.”
“Who'd the gun belong to?”
Putnam cast a glance at the deeply interested loungers and replied—
“To the Albany spy.”
Rogers' fierce countenance grew troubled.
“I understand,” he slowly observed. “You have great prudence, Captain Putnam.”
The rangers accepted this as a tribute to Putnam's excellent common sense. Putnam knew it referred to his forbearance in naming the spy.
“Willis is trailing that spy now,” he informed.
Rogers' eyes lighted and he responded:
“Good! Now as to Captain Pean. We must get him dead or alive. He probably memorized some of the figures.
“You will start at once and make the foot of the lake as fast as possible. I've a band over at South Bay to pick up the fellow if he tries to get back by that route. Remember you are to kill him if you can't capture him.”
“Very good, sir. I'm off at once. Do I pick my men?”
“If you wish. These men here are well known to you. I had planned to take them with me if you hadn't come in.”
“If they suit you they'll suit me. I see John Dilly is among them. Good! Swing your packs down to the whale-boat, men. You're to head for North West Bay and stay there till I join you. I shall go ahead in a canoe. John Dilly, you speak French?”
“Good as English, sir. I lived ten years at Montreal when a younker. No New Hampshire man knows their lingo better.”
And he spat to clean his mouth after the confession.
“Then you shall go with me in the canoe.”
Exchanging a few words with Rogers, Putnam selected a birch and directed Dilly to put their blankets and rations into it. With a final reminder to the men to make all speed with the whale-boat he took his position in the bow of the canoe, and under the impetus of the two paddles the light craft darted over the placid waters and rapidly left the boat and the light of the camp-fire far behind.
It was a clear, starlit night and Putnam chose to hold to the middle of the lake until near Sloop Island, six miles from Fort William Henry. On sighting the black mass against the sky-line he swerved inshore and informed
“We have plenty of time. So we'll scout the hind side of this and Long Island.”
“I come down from here this morning and seen nothing.”
“We'll take a look to fill in the time.”
“So derned dark we'll get snagged grunted Dilly. “Better land at the head of Sloop and scout across. The back side is filled with drift. Hard to get through in the day-time.”
Putnam was silent for a moment, then agreed:
“All right. We'll do that. And here we are, and it's black as inside your hat.”
THE canoe drifted up to the tip of the island very slowly, the two men concentrating their senses on the wooded shore, now discernible as a black wall. Except for the occasional plop of a fish, or the cry of a loon, there were no sounds to disturb the drowsy quiet of the night.
The birch took the sand gently and the scouts stepped into the water. Putnam lifted the craft half its length up on the tiny beach.
“I'll go one way. You go t'other. We'll meet on the back side,” he whispered.
“I'm off round this end,” at Dilly, turning to the south.
Putnam entered the bushes and soon found an old trail. He followed this some rods, then halted. and listened suspiciously. He could hear nothing but the usual night-sounds. Still he seemed loath to advance, and instead he rapidly retraced his steps until opposite the canoe.
Here he indulged in another spell of listening. The starlight permitted him vaguely to make out objects in the open, such as the graceful lines of the birch. Coming to a decision, he swiftly glided to the canoe and, lifting it from the sand, carried it a score of feet to a clump of bushes. Having concealed it to his satisfaction, he turned back to the woods but followed after Dilly rather than rounding the northern end of the island.
Old Indian trails skirted the shores of all waters, and the islands of Lake George were worn deep with ancient paths. Striking into one of these, Putnam passed silently and swiftly around the southernmost point and came to the back of the island in less than half the time it would have taken had he followed the trail north. Between the island the mainland were several islets, famous hiding-places for partizans of either side.
The path now broke from the woods to the shore. As he reached the last line of bushes he halted and sank on his heels. There was a red glow emanating from the nearest islet. It was less than a quarter of a mile from Sloop, and he could plainly make out the figures of men when they passed between him and the blaze. Dilly was somewhere ahead of him; and, returning to the cover of the woods, he pressed forward until fairly abreast of the islet.
A gentle scraping sound drew his attention to the immediate foreground. Some one was either dragging a canoe up the beach or was pushing one into the water. Then the faint dip of a paddle told him the canoe was afloat.
The glare of the fire bothered him but by lying flat and shading his eyes he could see the birch. Gliding down to the water's edge, he ran his fingers over the wet sand and found the tracks left by the man in the canoe.
From the fire a lane of gold extended across the water. Lying prone, he waited until the canoe entered this lane and then drew a bead upon it.
“John Dilly,” he softly called out.
There was a pause of a few seconds; then came back—
“Who is it?”
Hardly had the name been spoken before a gun cracked in the canoe and a ball whistled over Putnam's head. A second later he fired at the middle of the black shape. The man yelled out and then burst into profanity.
This lasted for only a few moments, however. Then the voice was pitched high and shrill and commenced shouting:
“Loudoun takes his men to Louisbourg! Loudoun takes his men to Louisbourg!”
This twice in English; then the stricken man began shouting it in French. and concluded by appealing for help.
With the first shot there had come a great outcry from the fire. Now the confusion was giving away to order before harshly shouted commands.
In the sounds of activity Putnam recognized the rattling of oars. Dropping his rifle, he waded into the lake and swam for the drifting canoe. He came up to it and thrust his hand armed with a knife over the side. He met with no resistance.
Reaching in, Putnam felt of the body. It was clothed as a ranger and there was no sign of life. Working to the other end, he drew himself aboard and found the paddle.
With a few strokes he was back at the beach and had secured his gun. Reembarking, he paddled swiftly round the southern point and to his hidden canoe.
“Loudoun takes his men to Louisbourg!” rang through his ears as he hastily searched the dead man. Inside the hunting-shirt he found a folded piece of birch-bark and within this was a piece of paper and make slow progress, feeling their way round the island. He believed he would have ample warning of their approach. He must identify the dead man beyond any doubt, and he must know the contents of the paper.
In his canoe was torch material and a tinder-box. Regardless of the risk he found the tinder and with his steel and flint managed to light one of the torches.
The dead man was, as he had supposed, John Dilly, ten years a citizen of Montreal.
“When he picked the shortest way and wanted me, his cap'n, to take the long leg of it I guessed something was wrong,”Putnam. “And he was the one who discovered Cap'n Pean had escaped.”
He smoothed out the paper. It contained a dozen odd words in French and was signed “Pean, a prisoner.” Putnam readily deciphered it to read:
“Loudoun takes the army to Louisbourg. Be ready to strike.”
He thrust the torch into the water and placed the paper in the bosom of his shirt. Pean knew Lord Loudoun's plan to use the bulk of his re in a campaign against Louisbourg and Cape Breton Island. Dilly was Pean's confederate and had hastened to release him. To double his chances of getting his message through to Montcalm, Pean had written down his information and had delivered it to Dilly to deliver.
On being discovered in the canoe Dilly had chosen to risk discovery in exchange for a chance to kill Putnam. To slay so famous a scout as Putnam would count as a big coup.
“The —— traitor!” gritted Putnam as he dumped the body on the shore and hitched the canoe to his own. “He figured I was on to his game when I showed up at his heels instead of going round t'other way. He didn't dare risk coming back to explain why he was in the canoe making for the light. And he believed he could drop me.
“Well, well. Even if we get Pean it won't stop Montcalm from learning Lord Loudoun's plans. Pean has told every Frenchman and Caughnawaga red that he's met. Still, the news won't do them any good once we send word back to Winslow that Montcalm knows all about our game.”
There was a chance of course that Pean might be among those camping on the islet, and if so it might be possible to make a master-stroke. Opposed to this thought was the knowledge that Dilly had no idea Pean was there, else there would have been no need to shout out the message he could not deliver in person. And who was more likely to know of Pean's plans than Dilly?
Putnam weighed the pros and cons as he paddled toward the middle of the lake, towing the captured canoe. Second thought convinced him that his little force of four men could scarcely cope with the enemy. There was at least one bateau.
And he had no doubts, as to the red allies. They were sure to be with the French, scouting ahead and on all sides in their canoes.
He had covered half the distance between Sloop Island and the western shore when he heard oars ahead of him. He whistled softly and was answered by several guns clicking.
“Who comes?” demanded a low voice.
“The king and the provinces.”
With that he dashed alongside the boat.
“We thought we heard a gun, cap'n. And where is Dilly?”
“You heard a gun. Should have heard two. You were using your oars carelessly. There is one or more bateaux south of Sloop, and the Lord only knows how many Indians. Muffle your oars!
“John Dilly is dead on Sloop Island. Shot by me after he tried to kill me. He was a spy for the French. He helped Pean escape.
“Here is a paper. Randall will take this extra canoe and will hustle it down to Major Rogers. If Rogers ain't there give it to General Winslow.
“Say I took it from Dilly's body as he was trying to deliver it to the enemy. I suggest he sends a strong force in bateaux and canoes, armed with several wall-pieces, to capture those fellows back of Sloop.
“The rest of you work your boat along near shore and make North West Bay if you can. If you're chased hide the boat and take to the woods. Unless pressed too hard stay hidden near shore so you can take the boat to the bay.
“I'm off to finish my errand. If I don't find you at the bay I'll know you had to return to the fort. But if you have to do that, take more boats and come right back to meet me. I may have a prisoner.”
“You'll find us there, or else some of Montcalm's barbers will be dancing our hair,” was the grim assurance.
“Don't run foolish risks just to prove you're brave. Every one knows Rogers' men don't mind a fuss.”
WITH that they parted and Putnam turned his canoe back toward the north end of Sloop Island. While his major purpose was to find Pean and capture or kill him, and although he no longer believed that Pean could be tarrying back of the island, he could not resist the temptation to spy a bit further upon this band of the enemy. So long as he did not run into an ambush he did not consider himself to be in much danger.
There was no light except what filtered down from the stars, but this was sufficient for him to detect any craft in motion by the time gun-fire would be dangerous. As to pursuit he would rather enjoy that. It would be confined to the Indians in their canoes, and he fancied he could discourage them unless they came in considerable numbers. Yet he was a cautious man and frequently ceased paddling to check up his surroundings.
As his canoe danced in toward the north end of the island he could discover nothing that suggested an enemy's presence. When some thirty rods from the shore he stayed his advance.
The water lapped gently against the canoe. Half-way between him and shore an uprooted berry-bush lay half-submerged.
Putnam's interest was in the woods fringing the shore. What was behind it? Were fierce eyes watching him and hoping he would draw within striking distance? He practised his keenest attention but failed to discern any sign or. sound that hinted at an enemy presence. Either they were at the lower end of the island, or else they had returned to their camp.
The latter possibility was hard to entertain. Dilly's wild outcry and the prompt response of the French did not square with the suggestion that the partizans would remain inactive so long as the mystery of Dilly's death was unexplained. Still, if they were at the southern end of the island they were deathly quiet.
“Just common sense tells me they ain't down there where they found the body. They're up here. They see me coming. They're watching me now,” he told himself.
As he decided this point he gave a sudden dip and propelled his birch backward to be safe from a possible volley. After increasing the distance to his satisfaction he resumed studying the dark forest wall, and incidentally noted that the bush in the water was as close as, if not closer than, when he first spied it. The drift of the bush had been pronounced and could not have resulted from any slight current making round the point, as its advance would be at right angles with such a current.
There was scarcely any movement of the air. He wet his finger and held it up and the back of it felt cold. The almost imperceptible breeze was from the west. The bush was drifting against it.
He stooped low and studied the vague shape curiously. He could see that it was a bush, and that was all. A slight splash near it might have been a fish breaking water. And it might be something entirely different. He gently advanced his gun and brought it to bear on the floating mass. Now its drift suddenly ceased. It was scarcely twenty feet from the canoe and seemed to be stationary. In less suspicious times he would have believed the submerged branches had caught on a sandbar.
All speculation was abruptly terminated as the bush became alive with motion, as if a gigantic fish had become entangled in its web of branches. There was a loud splash; then the foliage seemed to elongate, and with a sullen swish a long war-arrow plumped into the gunwale within a few inches of the ranger's head. He discharged his gun, and from the heart of the bush rang out a prolonged howl, the death-cry of a warrior mortally wounded.
Putnam snatched up the paddle to increase the distance between him and the woods, and he wondered why the shore was not streaked with gun-fire. The canoe moved sluggishly; and instantly he remembered the loud splash preceding the discharge of the arrow. Drawing his ax, he crouched low.
The stern of the craft began settling. Next there appeared the dripping scalp-knot of a warrior, and an outstretched hand was lunging a knife at him.
He felt the point rip the front of his shirt, and then he struck with his ax. With his head smashed in like a pumpkin the warrior slipped back into the water without a sound.
Taking the paddle and working desperately, Putnam sent the canoe deeper into the night. A sharp command in French, and a volley of balls hurtled around him,
He continued his flight for half a mile before taking time to reload. He could not see that he was pursued. He upbraided himself for not suspecting that there was more than one savage hidden behind the bush. One had dived to gain the canoe while the other was treading water and using his bow. Those ashore withheld their fire until convinced that the second warrior had failed.
“If he'd had brains enough to rip open the canoe they might 'a' had me,” mused Putnam. “Their gun-fire showed there was at least a dozen of them, and probably as many more Indians.
“They won't try to chase me in the boat, but the red devils may come in their canoes. Probably left them at the south end of the island.
Assuming that the Indians would expect him to continue across the lake to the western shore, he shifted his course back to the north-east and ran for Long Island, a mile north of Sloop. He made the island without detecting any signs of the enemy.
His first thought was to remain there and spy on the band. But men were stationed at South Bay to intercept any of Montcalm's spies, and General Winslow would soon be sending men to deal with these intruders.
This realization left but one course for Putnam to pursue. He must make for the Carrying-Place at the foot of the lake and cross to the vicinity of Ticonderoga. Then he must lie in wait for Pean and incidentally collect information about the fort and the outposts.
Thus there would be three barriers erected against Pean's entering Ticonderoga: one at South Bay, where the rangers were holding the sack for all stragglers; one composed of the various small bands of rangers beating the forest and compelling the spy to move on; and this one under the walls of Ticonderoga itself.
He coasted along the western shore of Long Island, and, being satisfied that the savages were not seeking him, struck across the lake to Round Island. On nearing this he heard the click of a hammer being drawn back and hurriedly called out the word for the night, “The king and the provinces.”
As he had suspected he had again come upon his rangers in the whale-boat. On inquiring why they had taken refuge there instead of proceeding to the mouth of North West Bay, two miles above, he was informed that two bateaux heavily loaded with men had given them a hard chase and had driven them well across the lake. They had feared the Indians in their canoes more than they did the big boats, but had encountered none of the red men.
“They was hunting for me,” said Putnam. “There's two less since I saw you last. The lake seems to be clear. You can make Squaw Island in a few minutes. You must get off as close to the bay as possible before light. I'll scout ahead in the canoe.”
The men pulled smartly for Squaw Island and on running into a cove were rejoined by Putnam, who cautioned them about building and explained:
“Some one has started a blaze across at the Narrows. I'm going over to look at it. Be ready to cover my retreat if I come flying. I'll give the word so you'll know it's me.”
The men took their guns and settled down to wait and watch. Their attention was divided between the faint light from the fire across the Narrows and the danger of the enemy creeping upon them from the south.
Gradually the east began to lighten, and they were beginning to give up hope of Putnam's return before-another night when they beheld his canoe streaking toward them, the paddle flying as if pursued by death. Instantly they were at attention, their guns ready; only they failed to discover anything from which Putnam should flee.
With a swirl of the paddle Putnam brought the birch dancing sidewise into the shore and was softly calling out:
“Take the boat and follow. A capture! Muffle the oars well and pull like the ——!”
They piled into the boat and did as bidden. Putnam kept a pistol-shot ahead of them until they were close to a rocky wall, when he picked up speed and darted off to reconnoiter.
For a few minutes he was lost behind a shoulder of granite; then he reappeared and beckoned energetically for them to come on. They bore down on him and he placed a finger to his lips. As they glided along he whispered:
“A camp of five. They'll be waking now. Each select a man and be ready to fire if they do not surrender.”
With that he glided behind the jutting wall, and as. the boat followed the rangers found themselves in a tiny cove. Leaving the boat, the men stole after Putnam up a slope, where he brought them to a halt and motioned for them to peer through the bushes.
They beheld five blanketed forms stretched in a row. Beside one of the sleepers was the black three-cornered hat of an officer. A shoulder and arm of the sleeper revealed the white coat and black facings of the troupes de la marine, or the French colonial regulars.
“We must capture the officer alive for Winslow,” whispered Putnam.
Then he lifted a hand for attention, and one of the men dropped a ramrod. It had no more than clattered against a rock before one of the sleepers sprang to his feet and called—
“Surrender!” roared Putnam.
THE five sprang to their feet and jumped for the guns, the officer pulling a brace of pistols and shooting as Putnam led his men from cover. Putnam yelled for his men to fire, and before the four three men went down dead and another with a ball through his thigh.
The officer was unharmed and sought to escape. Putnam gave chase. The officer turned and threw his empty pistols, one of them tearing a hole through the ranger's scalp, and then resumed his flight. He ran most nimbly.
Putnam pulled his ax, then thrust it back in his belt and plucked the ramrod from his gun. With a spurt of speed he drew close and hurled the ramrod at the man's legs. It landed between the flying feet, and the man tripped over it and fell headlong. Before he could rise Putnam was upon him with his ax raised and ready to strike.
“Ten thousand devils! I surrender,” panted the officer in English. “Who are you? How many of you are there?”
“There was four of us,” Putnam dryly answered, and he took the officer by the arm and led him limping back to the camp.
To his men he called out—
“Get that wounded man into the boat.”
“He can't travel. Best end him,” urged a ranger.
“He won't bother you any if you make it by boat,” said Putnam, observing the wounded man was scarcely more than a youth. “If hard pressed and forced to take to the bush you can leave him for his friends to care for. Those are your orders.”
He examined the wounded man, bandaged the hole in his thigh and assured him through the officer that there was no danger of his bleeding to death. The officer was searched, but no papers were found upon him. He informed Putnam that although he belonged with the colonial regulars this was his first scout with a small party.
“Did you meet Cap'n Pean on you way down?” Putnam asked.
The man eyed him blankly for a moment, then stiffly replied—
“I refuse to answer.”
“You have answered,” chuckled Putnam. “You haven't met him. But be careful at Fort William Henry. If you refuse to answer down there you'll be handed over to our Mohawks. And they have a rare way of making men talk.
“Now, men, this affair changes our plans. You must take these two men to the fort. Keep to the boat unless hard pressed. If you go ashore abandon the wounded man but take this other fellow with you. If he doesn't keep up, kill him.”
“M'sieur, I shall exceedin'ly keep up,” assured the officerwith a deep bow to Putnam.
“What about meeting you, cap'n?” anxiously asked a ranger.
“Come back here with a couple of boats and a dozen' men. Wait for me 'two days. If I don't show up within that time report me as missing. Now you're off; and be careful in passing Long and Sloop Islands.”
Silently the boat moved away with the rangers and their prisoners.