The Refugees/Chapter XXXIV
Chapter XXXIV: The Men of Blood
So unexpected was the blow that even De Lhut, hardened from his childhood to every shock and danger, stood shaken and dismayed. Then, with an oath, he ran at the top of his speed towards the line of figures, his companions following at his heels.
As they drew nearer they could see through the dusk that it was not indeed a line. A silent and motionless officer stood out some twenty paces in front of his silent and motionless men. Further, they could see that he wore a very high and singular head-dress. They were still rushing forward, breathless with apprehension, when to their horror this head-dress began to lengthen and broaden, and a great bird flapped heavily up and dropped down again on the nearest tree-trunk. Then they knew that their worst fears were true, and that it was the garrison of Poitou which stood before them.
They were lashed to low posts with willow withies, some twenty of them, naked all, and twisted and screwed into every strange shape which an agonised body could assume. In front where the buzzard had perched was the gray-headed commandant, with two cinders thrust into his sockets and his flesh hanging from him like a beggar's rags. Behind was the line of men, each with his legs charred off to the knees, and his body so haggled and scorched and burst that the willow bands alone seemed to hold it together. For a moment the four comrades stared in silent horror at the dreadful group. Then each acted as his nature bade him. De Catinat staggered up against a tree-trunk and leaned his head upon his arm, deadly sick. Du Lhut fell down upon his knees and said something to heaven, with his two clenched hands shaking up at the darkening sky. Ephraim Savage examined the priming of his gun with a tightened lip and a gleaming eye, while Amos Green, without a word, began to cast round in circles in search of a trail.
But Du Lhut was on his feet again in a moment, and running up and down like a sleuth-hound, noting a hundred things which even Amos would have overlooked. He circled round the bodies again and again. Then he ran a little way towards the edge of the woods, and then came back to the charred ruins of the blockhouse, from some of which a thin reek of smoke was still rising.
"There is no sign of the women and children," said he.
"My God! There were women and children?"
"They are keeping the children to burn at their leisure in their villages. The women they may torture or may adopt as the humour takes them. But what does the old man want?"
"I want you to ask him, Amos," said the seaman, "why we are yawing and tacking here when we should be cracking on all sail to stand after them?"
Du Lhut smiled and shook his head. "Your friend is a brave man," said he, "if he thinks that with four men we can follow a hundred and fifty."
"Tell him, Amos, that the Lord will bear us up," said the other excitedly. "Say that He will be with us against the children of Jeroboam, and we will cut them off utterly, and they shall be destroyed. What is the French for 'slay and spare not'? I had as soon go about with my jaw braced up, as with folk who cannot understand a plain language."
But Du Lhut waved aside the seaman's suggestions. "We must have a care now," said he, "or we shall lose our own scalps, and be the cause of those at Sainte Marie losing theirs as well."
"Sainte Marie!" cried De Catinat. "Is there then danger at Sainte Marie?"
"Ay, they are in the wolf's mouth now. This business was done last night. The place was stormed by a war-party of a hundred and fifty men. This morning they left and went north upon foot. They have been _cached_ among the woods all day between Poitou and Sainte Marie."
"Then we have come through them?"
"Yes, we have come through them. They would keep their camp to-day and send out scouts. Brown Moose and his son were among them and struck our trail. To-night--"
"To-night they will attack Sainte Marie?"
"It is possible. And yet with so small a party I should scarce have thought that they would have dared. Well, we can but hasten back as quickly as we can, and give them warning of what is hanging over them."
And so they turned for their weary backward journey, though their minds were too full to spare a thought upon the leagues which lay behind them or those which were before. Old Ephraim, less accustomed to walking than his younger comrades, was already limping and footsore, but, for all his age, he was as tough as hickory, and full of endurance. Du Lhut took the lead again and they turned their faces once more towards the north.
The moon was shining brightly in the sky, but it was little aid to the travellers in the depths of the forest. Where it had been shadowy in the daytime it was now so absolutely dark that De Catinat could not see the tree-trunks against which he brushed. Here and there they came upon an open glade bathed in the moonshine, or perhaps a thin shaft of silver light broke through between the branches, and cast a great white patch upon the ground, but Du Lhut preferred to avoid these more open spaces, and to skirt the glades rather than to cross them. The breeze had freshened a little, and the whole air was filled with the rustle and sough of the leaves. Save for this dull never-ceasing sound all would have been silent had not the owl hooted sometimes from among the tree-tops, and the night-jar whirred above their heads.
Dark as it was, Du Lhut walked as swiftly as during the sunlight, and never hesitated about the track. His comrades could see, however, that he was taking them a different way to that which they had gone in the morning, for twice they caught a sight of the glimmer of the broad river upon their left, while before they had only seen the streams which flowed into it. On the second occasion he pointed to where, on the farther side, they could see dark shadows flitting over the water.
"Iroquois canoes," he whispered. "There are ten of them with eight men in each. They are another party, and they are also going north."
"How do you know that they are another party?"
"Because we have crossed the trail of the first within the hour."
De Catinat was filled with amazement at this marvellous man who could hear in his sleep and could detect a trail when the very tree-trunks were invisible to ordinary eyes. Du Lhut halted a little to watch the canoes, and then turned his back to the river, and plunged into the woods once more. They had gone a mile or two when suddenly he came to a dead stop, snuffing at the air like a hound on a scent.
"I smell burning wood," said he. "There is a fire within a mile of us in that direction."
"I smell it too," said Amos. "Let us creep up that way and see their camp."
"Be careful, then," whispered Du Lhut, "for your lives may hang from a cracking twig."
They advanced very slowly and cautiously until suddenly the red flare of a leaping fire twinkled between the distant trunks. Still slipping through the brushwood, they worked round until they had found a point from which they could see without a risk of being seen.
A great blaze of dry logs crackled and spurtled in the centre of a small clearing. The ruddy flames roared upwards, and the smoke spread out above it until it looked like a strange tree with gray foliage and trunk of fire. But no living being was in sight and the huge fire roared and swayed in absolute solitude in the midst of the silent woodlands. Nearer they crept and nearer, but there was no movement save the rush of the flames, and no sound but the snapping of the sticks.
"Shall we go up to it?" whispered De Catinat. The wary old pioneer shook his head. "It may be a trap," said he.
"Or an abandoned camp?"
"No, it has not been lit more than an hour."
"Besides, it is far too great for a camp fire," said Amos.
"What do you make of it?" asked Du Lhut.
"Yes, I daresay that you are right. This light is not a safe neighbour, so we shall edge away from it and then make a straight line for Sainte Marie."
The flames were soon but a twinkling point behind them, and at last vanished behind the trees. Du Lhut pushed on rapidly until they came to the edge of a moonlit clearing. He was about to skirt this, as he had done others, when suddenly he caught De Catinat by the shoulder and pushed him down behind a clump of sumach, while Amos did the same with Ephraim Savage.
A man was walking down the other side of the open space. He had just emerged, and was crossing it diagonally, making in the direction of the river. His body was bent double, but as he came out from the shadow of the trees they could see that he was an Indian brave in full war-paint, with leggings, loin-cloth, and musket. Close at his heels came a second, and then a third and a fourth, on and on until it seemed as if the wood were full of men, and that the line would never come to an end. They flitted past like shadows in the moonlight, in absolute silence, all crouching and running in the same swift stealthy fashion. Last of all came a man in the fringed tunic of a hunter, with a cap and feather upon his head. He passed across like the others, and they vanished into the shadows as silently as they had appeared. It was five minutes before Du Lhut thought it safe to rise from their shelter.
"By Saint Anne," he whispered, "did you count them?"
"Three hundred and ninety-six," said Amos.
"I made it four hundred and two."
"And you thought that there were only a hundred and fifty of them!" cried De Catinat.
"Ah, you do not understand. This is a fresh band. The others who took the blockhouse must be over there, for their trail lies between us and the river."
"They could not be the same," said Amos, "for there was not a fresh scalp among them."
Du Lhut gave the young hunter a glance of approval. "On my word," said he, "I did not know that your woodsmen are as good as they seem to be. You have eyes, monsieur, and it may please you some day to remember that Greysolon du Lhut told you so."
Amos felt a flush of pride at these words from a man whose name was honoured wherever trader or trapper smoked round a camp fire. He was about to make some answer when a dreadful cry broke suddenly out of the woods, a horrible screech, as from some one who was goaded to the very last pitch of human misery. Again and again, as they stood with blanched cheeks in the darkness, they heard that awful cry swelling up from the night and ringing drearily through the forest.
"They are torturing the women," said Du Lhut.
"Their camp lies over there."
"Can we do nothing to aid them?" cried Amos.
"Ay, ay, lad," said the captain in English. "We can't pass distress signals without going out of our course. Let us put about and run down yonder."
"In that camp," said Du Lhut slowly, "there are now nearly six hundred warriors. We are four. What you say has no sense. Unless we warn them at Sainte Marie, these devils will lay some trap for them. Their parties are assembling by land and by water, and there may be a thousand before daybreak. Our duty is to push on and give our warning."
"He speaks the truth," said Amos to Ephraim. "Nay, but you must not go alone!" He seized the stout old seaman by the arm and held him by main force to prevent him from breaking off through the woods.
"There is one thing which we can do to spoil their night's amusement," said Du Lhut. "The woods are as dry as powder, and there has been no drop of rain for a long three months."
"And the wind blows straight for their camp, with the river on the other side of it."
"We should fire the woods!"
"We cannot do better."
In an instant Du Lhut had scraped together a little bundle of dry twigs, and had heaped them up against a withered beech tree which was as dry as tinder. A stroke of flint and steel was enough to start a little smoulder of flame, which lengthened and spread until it was leaping along the white strips of hanging bark. A quarter of a mile farther on Du Lhut did the same again, and once more beyond that, until at three different points the forest was in a blaze. As they hurried onwards they could hear the dull roaring of the flames behind them, and at last, as they neared Sainte Marie, they could see, looking back, the long rolling wave of fire travelling ever westward towards the Richelieu, and flashing up into great spouts of flame as it licked up a clump of pines as if it were a bundle of faggots. Du Lhut chuckled in his silent way as he looked back at the long orange glare in the sky.
"They will need to swim for it, some of them," said he. "They have not canoes to take them all off. Ah, if I had but two hundred of my _coureurs-de-bois_ on the river at the farther side of them not one would have got away."
"They had one who was dressed like a white man," remarked Amos.
"Ay, and the most deadly of the lot. His father was a Dutch trader, his mother an Iroquois, and he goes by the name of the Flemish Bastard. Ah, I know him well, and I tell you that if they want a king in hell, they will find one all ready in his wigwam. By Saint Anne, I have a score to settle with him, and I may pay it before this business is over. Well, there are the lights of Sainte Marie shining down below there. I can understand that sigh of relief, monsieur, for, on my word, after what we found at Poitou, I was uneasy myself until I should see them."