The Frontier Fort; Stirring Times in the North-West Territory of British America, by W H G Kingston.
Another well-written yarn by Kingston, with a background of Indian territory in the Red River area of North America. Plenty of action, ambushes, shootings, fast rides on horseback, and other incidents apparently typical of the life of those days and in such a place.
THE FRONTIER FORT; STIRRING TIMES IN THE NORTH-WEST TERRITORY OF BRITISH AMERICA, BY W H G KINGSTON.
A party of travellers were wending their way across a wide-spreading prairie in the north-west territory of America. As far as the eye could reach, the ground was covered with waving tufts of dark-green grass, interspersed with flowers of varied hue, among which could be distinguished the yellow marigold and lilac bergamot, with bluebells, harebells, and asters, innumerable; while here and there rose-bushes, covered with gorgeous bloom, appeared above the particoloured carpet spread over the country. On the north side the prairie was bounded by softly rounded knolls, between which tiny lakelets were visible, shining in the bright rays of the glowing sun. To the northward a silvery stream could be seen meandering, bordered by willows, aspens, osiers, and other trees of considerable height, breaking the line of the horizon.
"I am delighted with your country, Burnett; I had no idea such lovely scenery and so much rich soil existed on this side of the Rocky Mountains," said one of the travellers, addressing another, who rode alongside him.
"I hope, before many years are over, to see this fair region covered with populous towns and villages, and flourishing farms."
"That time is far distant, I suspect," answered Mr Burnett, a head clerk of the Hudson's Bay Company, in charge of the party; "and I can only say that I hope so, for when it comes, our vocation will be well-nigh gone, as the Company will have to shut up shop—"
"And retire on well-won fortunes," laughingly added the first speaker, Reginald Loraine. He was a young Englishman of good fortune and family, who had lately come out to make a tour in Canada; but having heard conflicting reports of the north-west territory, he had been induced to continue his journey westward, intending to proceed as far as the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and to return, before the termination of the summer, from Fort Edmonton, down the Saskatchewan, and through Lake Winnipeg to the Red River.
His intelligence, high spirits, and good humour made him an agreeable companion. He was never put out by any mishaps or inconveniences. His personal appearance was also much in his favour; while he was a good rider, and possessed of activity and endurance, equal, if not superior, to any of the rest of the party, long accustomed though they were to the mode of life they were leading.
From the sentiments he uttered, and the expression of his handsome countenance, it might have been surmised that he possessed many other qualities of a higher character. Young Hector Mackintosh, who had come with him from Toronto, declared, indeed, that he never wished to have a stauncher fellow at his back in a skirmish with Redskins, or in a fight with a grizzly, and that he was as high-minded and generous as he was brave.
Hector, who was now curvetting over the prairie on a tough little mustang, had been at school at Toronto, whence he was returning to rejoin his father, Captain Mackintosh, now a chief officer, or factor, in charge of Fort Duncan, a Company's post to the south-west, situated on the borders of the Blackfeet territory. It was a somewhat dangerous position, which only a man of courage and resolution would willingly have occupied.
Following at some little distance those who have been mentioned, came three other horsemen, whose shouts of laughter, interspersed occasionally with snatches of songs, could be heard far across the prairie. The centre of the three was a short, portly gentleman, with a somewhat rubicund countenance—Doctor McCrab, just appointed surgeon to one of the forts in the west. On either side of him rode two young clerks. One of them was Dan Maloney, a light-hearted Irishman, with whom the jolly Doctor amused himself by exchanging jokes, capping verses, and singing duets which set all the laws of harmony at defiance.
The other was Allan Keith, who, from similarity of taste and mental qualities, had won the regard of Reginald Loraine; indeed, except in point of wealth, the two young men greatly resembled each other.
Some way behind the gentlemen came a long team of Red River wooden carts, escorted by several persons on horseback, under charge of Jacques Leblanc, a French half-breed, who, from his reputed knowledge of the country in all directions, had been selected to act as guide to the whole party.
The carts, which had only two wheels, were built entirely of wood, and each was dragged by a single horse. Some carried the travellers' tents, cooking utensils, a tool-chest, and additional axletrees, their arms and ammunition, together with their clothes, spare blankets, and waterproofs. The other carts were laden with stores of all sorts for the forts to the westward.
Accompanying the carts was a drove of loose horses—the animals now rearing and kicking and biting at each other—now moving along steadily, under the management of a single driver, Francois Chabot, also a French half-breed. He had seldom to use his long whip to keep them in order; and even the most restless showed no inclination to leave their companions. They were intended to supply the travellers with a change of steeds once or twice in the day; for in making long journeys, when day after day forty or fifty miles have to be got over between sunrise and sunset, one horse seldom possesses sufficient strength and endurance to carry his rider the whole distance.
When a horse shows signs of fatigue, his saddle is removed to the back of another, and he contentedly runs on with the herd. The horses were mostly small, and many of them sorry-looking steeds; but they had, notwithstanding, carried their riders without showing signs of fatigue, or growing thinner. Their only food was the grass they could pick up while the party were encamped at night, or during their noon-day halt, neither beans nor corn being given them.
Reginald Loraine and the Doctor had provided themselves with English saddles; the rest of the party bestrode those of native manufacture, which were merely large pads of dressed leather, stuffed with hair or grass, and having a broad and fringed crupper. Several of them were trimmed and handsomely adorned with quills, the talent of the manufacturer being especially exerted in ornamenting the saddle-cloths. The stirrups were formed of curved pieces of wood, hanging by leather thongs to the primitive saddle. The bridles might more properly be called halters. They consisted of a thong of raw hide, thirty feet in length, called an atscacha. One end was tied round the animal's lower jaw, and the other, after being brought over the neck to the rider's hand, was allowed to drag on the ground some fifteen feet behind. It requires care, particularly by those in the rear, not to tread on the thongs trailing behind. By so doing, the mouth of the horse receives a jerk which seldom fails to make it rear and curvet from side to side.
The object of this long thong is to enable the rider, when he dismounts, to hold his horse while he fires at a foe; or, should he be thrown by the animal stumbling in a rabbit-burrow, to prevent it running off. The long thong serves also as a halter, ever ready to tie it up, or to catch it when at liberty. Even the gentlemen who used English bridles found it convenient to have these halters secured to their horses' heads.
Day after day the travellers had been making their way along the Fertile Belt, the name given to a broad tract of country extending between the Red River and the base of the Rocky Mountains, bordered on the north by forests, lakes, and rivers, and on the south by that sandy and desert region which extends along the whole frontier of the United States.
The party rode steadily on, every man carrying his rifle at his back; for although the natives were generally friendly, it was considered wise to be prepared, lest so rich a booty as the carts would afford might tempt them. At night, too, a constant watch was kept on the horses, as the Crees roaming over that part of the country are notorious horse-stealers, and would have considered it a creditable feat to have carried off as many of the travellers' steeds as they could catch.
They had proceeded some distance, when, shading his eyes with his hand, Mr Burnett looked out eagerly ahead.
"What is it you see?" asked Loraine, imitating his example.
"A party of horsemen, whom I at first thought might be Blackfeet on the war-path, but I am satisfied they are Red River men, on a buffalo hunt," answered Burnett. "We shall soon know. See, Leblanc has gone forward to ascertain who they are."
The guide in a short time returned, saying that the strangers were Red River hunters; that they had just sighted buffalo, and would be glad if any of the gentlemen of the party would join them.
Loraine and Hector were delighted to accept the invitation, and Allan Keith and Maloney were anxious to try their skill as hunters. While they galloped on to join the half-breeds, Burnett and his men moved towards the spot which had been fixed on for camping at night.
The buffalo hunt need not be described, except to say that the young Englishmen won the admiration of their new friends by their courage and dexterity, each having brought a couple of the shaggy monsters to the ground.
The travellers spent the evening with their new friends, the hunters, who, as soon as the buffalo they had last killed had been turned into pemmican, intended to return to the Red River. Next morning they continued their journey westward, pushing on at greater speed than usual, to make up for lost time, Burnett being very anxious to reach the fort by the day he was expected.
The country was generally lovely, being well wooded, with numerous lakelets, now rising into softly rounded knolls, and occasionally opening out into a wide, fair landscape. The soil was of rich loam, and the vegetation luxuriant, sprinkled with flowers of many tints.
They had been moving on for a couple of hours or more, when Loraine, looking to the southward, observed a remarkable appearance in the horizon, which wore an unearthly ashen hue. Pointing it out to Burnett, he asked—
"Can that be produced by a prairie fire?"
"No; but if I mistake not, we shall have, before long, a flight of locusts passing over our heads. That peculiar look of the sky is produced by the light reflected from their transparent wings."
As he spoke, the whole sky appeared to be changing from blue to silvery white, then to ashy grey and lead colour; while, opposite to the sun, the prevailing hue was a silver white—perceptibly flashing, the air seeming as if rilled with flakes of snow.
"The insects are flying from five hundred to a thousand feet above our heads; and I hope we may get clear of them before we camp, or they will play mischief with everything made of leather, which is left exposed," observed Burnett.
He was, however, disappointed; for, in a short time, the locusts descended—the whole air became filled with them, until they reached the ground, where they clung to the blades of grass in countless multitudes.
During the remainder of the day the creatures continued coming on; and when the party at length stopped at night, they had to clear away the ground to form their camp.
The voracity of the insects was proved by the way they attacked and destroyed several articles of clothing, which had carelessly been left on the grass. The travellers found, indeed, that the only way to protect their property was to pile it up in the carts out of reach. Dan Maloney appeared with a melancholy countenance, exhibiting a leather bag and a pair of woollen trousers, which he had thrown down outside the tent, eaten through and through in all directions. At night the insects, fortunately, did not move. Early in the morning they were found busily feeding; but as soon as the sun had evaporated the dew, they began taking short flights, and then cloud after cloud rose, and pursued their way to the northward.
Burnett assured his companions that he had never seen so large a flight before; and, as far as he could ascertain, many years had passed without the country receiving a similar visitation.
Scarcely had the locusts disappeared, than what looked like a thick, black fog-bank was seen rising from the direction whence they had come. It approached nearer and nearer. Leblanc, riding forward, pointed it out to Burnett.
"The prairie is on fire," he remarked.
"I know it is; I saw it from the first. But I don't think it will come near us."
"I am not quite so sure of that. It comes on fast, and the grass here is very long," said the guide.
"Then we'll make our way to yonder knoll, where it is shorter," said Burnett, who was not to be put out by Indians, locusts, or prairie fires.
The word was given to drag the carts towards the spot Burnett had indicated.
"A fire on the prairie is a serious matter, is it not?" observed Loraine, in a tone of inquiry.
"I do not much fear it, notwithstanding," answered Burnett. "We shall have a storm before long, I suspect, and that will fight the flames."
"I should have thought that a storm would be more likely to fan them into greater fury," remarked Loraine, who considered that Burnett was not sufficiently alive to the dangers they might have to encounter from the fire.
"Not if it rains as I expect it will," observed Burnett. "Look at that cloud ahead. It contains a torrent sufficient to extinguish the fiercest flames."
Loraine had hitherto been admiring the beautiful appearance of the sky. To the south it was of that bright blue such as is seldom seen in the British Isles. To the west it was bordered with vast, billowy clouds of the softest, snowy white. Beneath the black cloud, which was every instant extending, were grey masses whirling on at a terrific rate; while, suddenly, to the north and east the expanse of heaven assumed a dun-coloured hue, vivid with lightning, where rain appeared to be descending in torrents. The whole atmosphere was charged with electricity. The lightning rushed towards the earth, in straight and zig-zag currents, the thunder varying from the sharp rattle of musketry to the roar of artillery. Still no rain had fallen from overhead, while scarcely a breath of air was blowing.
Meantime, however, the fire came rushing on across the prairie, the flames, as they caught the tall grass, growing brighter and brighter, every now and then rising and expanding, as they seized on shrubs and trees in their onward course.
Burnett at last seemed to think that matters were growing serious, and made a signal to the drivers of the carts to push forward. There was no necessity, as they were doing their utmost to urge on their steeds by uttering strange oaths and by the liberal use of their whips.
"We must try and get to the other side of the knoll, and camp; for we as yet have only seen the beginning of the storm," remarked Burnett.
Scarcely had he said this, than, with the suddenness of a tornado, the wind came rushing down upon them; at first, without a drop of rain, but so fiercely that the horses were forced from the track. Again and again it seemed hopeless to drive against it. The lightning flashed more vividly than before; the thunder roared; while the fire advanced across the prairie like a fiery host bent on their destruction.
"I say, I don't see why we should lose our lives, even though Burnett thinks it is his duty to stick by the carts," said Hector, riding up to Loraine. "We can gallop ahead, in spite of the wind; it will be better than being turned into Guy Fawkeses."
Loraine was much inclined to follow his young friend's advice; indeed, he suspected the rest of the party would soon leave the carts to their fates, and try to save themselves by flight from the fiery sea, which was tossing and heaving not a quarter of a mile away from them. He would not go, however, without first urging Burnett, the other clerks, and the Doctor to try and save themselves.
He had turned his horse for the purpose, when the rain came down thick and furious, with even greater suddenness than the wind had arisen. They saw that it almost immediately produced an effect on the fire. It was a struggle between the two elements. At first it seemed doubtful, however, which would prove victorious; but water, they trusted, had gained the day; for, mingled with the rain came hail, not only ordinary hail, but mixed with lumps half an inch to an inch across.
"Och! I'd as soon have a whack from an honest shillaly as be pelted by thim threacherous lumps," cried Dan Maloney.
The travellers in vain raised their hands to protect their heads from the hail. The long line of horses and carts was broken. Some of the poor creatures clung to the road, struggling desperately. Others were driven on to the prairie, and turning their backs to the storm, stood still or moved sideways, with cowering heads, their manes and tails floating wildly, like those of Highland shelties.
Hector declared that he could hear the hissing of the rain as it fell on the hitherto victorious fire, effectually, however, quenching it. A few minutes after the storm had broken, the whole ground to the left was a blackened expanse. The danger was passed, and they hastened on to the foot of the knoll, where a lakelet, fringed by aspens and poplars, afforded them good camping ground. With astonishing speed the arrangements for the night were made; every man exerted himself. The horses were unharnessed, the erratic ones hobbled, the tents pitched, and the travellers assembled round the blazing fires which were quickly lighted to dry their saturated clothing.
Almost before these arrangements were made, the storm passed away. The setting sun burst forth again until not a blot was left in the sky, save fragments of mist to the south and south-east. It was too late to think of moving on again, and Leblanc was glad of the opportunity of halting to repair some of the carts with the ever serviceable "Shaganappi," a large supply of which was carried for the purpose, as also to mend the harness and other gear which had been broken by the restive movements of the horses during the storm.
In the mean time, while Francois, another Canadian, who acted as cook, was preparing the evening meal, Loraine and Hector took their guns to shoot some ducks which were seen on the other side of the lakelet. Having knocked over several birds, before returning they took a refreshing plunge in the water, which was sufficiently deep for the purpose.
The twilight had faded away into darkness before the whole party were seated round the camp-fires, discussing their suppers with such appetites as few fail to obtain while travelling in that region. Supper was over; and "early to bed, and early to rise" being a standing order, those of the party who enjoyed the luxury of tents retired within, while the rest lay down, wrapped in their blankets, beneath the carts arranged, as usual, in a circle to serve as a defence against any attacks of hostile Indians. Although Burnett did not expect any annoyance of the sort, he considered it his duty to take the precautions which no traveller at that period omitted to make. Two or three men were also stationed as sentries to keep watch, especially on the horses.
Loraine had seen Hector, who shared his tent, fall fast asleep; but not being inclined to close his own eyes, he stepped out of his tent to take a look at the stars which shone from the heavens, undimmed by a single cloud. Happening to turn his eyes towards the summit of the knoll, he was somewhat surprised to see what he felt sure was a human figure, the outline being distinctly marked against the sky. The man was evidently taking a survey of the camp. Loraine, thinking it possible that he might be a scout sent out by a party of Blackfeet, made his way to the nearest sentry to tell him to be on the watch, and to ask his opinion on the subject. By the time he had reached the sentry, however, the figure had disappeared. The sentry thought he might have been mistaken; but when Loraine made him understand what he had seen, he went round to the other men on watch, and urged them to be on the alert and to keep the horses well together. Loraine was just going back to his tent, when he heard a shout. It was answered by the sentry on the south side of the camp; and a conversation in a language he could not understand took place. On going up to them, he could dimly distinguish an Indian of somewhat diminutive size and of deformed figure.
"What does he want?" inquired Loraine.
"He says, as far as I can make out, that his chief, who will be here directly, sent him to find out who we are; for he thought at first, when he saw our camp-fire, that we might be Crees, or a party of Blackfeet, for such he knows are at present out on the war-path," answered the sentry.
"Tell him that we shall be glad to see his chief, whoever he is, if he comes as a friend," said Loraine. "Until I know his business, I will not arouse Mr Burnett, who requires a good rest; and I dare say it will keep until to-morrow morning."
The sentry spoke to the hump-backed Indian, who quickly disappeared in the gloom; and Loraine walked up and down, waiting for his return.
"You must not be thrown off your guard, Pierre, lest some trick should be intended," he remarked, recollecting the numberless tales of Indian treachery he had heard.
"I know the coquins (rogues) too well for that," answered Pierre.
In a short time, Loraine saw through the gloom two persons on horseback, with a couple of led horses, approaching. They rode fearlessly up to the camp. The first, from the white hair hanging down under his fur cap, and his snowy beard, and wrinkled, weather-beaten features, though he sat upright and firmly in his saddle, was apparently an old man. His costume, consisting of a leathern coat and leggings, fringed in the usual fashion, and the rifle slung at his back, showed that he was one of the free white hunters, or trappers, who have been wont for many a year to roam amid the prairies and forests in the north-west in search of peltries. The other person, leading the two pack horses, Loraine recognised as the hump-backed Indian who had just before come to the camp.
"I am glad to have fallen in with you, friends," said the old man, dismounting. "You keep early hours and a careful watch. I expected to have seen you carousing, and quaffing the accursed fire-water, as so many of you travellers from the Far East are wont to do. To say the truth, when I first caught sight of your camp-fires, I was uncertain whether they were those of Crees or Blackfeet; and as I had no fancy to fall in with the one or the other, I sent on my lad Greensnake to learn the state of the case."
"Then he was the person I saw at the top of the hillock out there," observed Loraine.
"Not he; he would not have exposed himself in that fashion," said the old man.
"Then my eyes must have deceived me, after all," said Loraine. "I'm sure Mr Burnett, the leader of our party, will welcome you to the camp; but he is asleep at present, and I should be sorry to disturb him unnecessarily. I will, however, call up one of the men to get ready some supper for you and your attendant."
"I shall be glad of some food, for I have not fired a shot for the last three days, and my stock of provisions has run short," replied the old man.
He now called up Greensnake, took off the saddles from the led horses, and unloaded the baggage animals, placing the packs inside the circle of carts.
Meantime, Loraine found out where Francois was sleeping, and, arousing him, told him to get some food ready for their unexpected guests.
Francois at first eyed the strangers askance. Satisfied, however, at length, that he was a white man, and perhaps a person of more importance than his costume might betoken, he set diligently to work to boil the kettle and fry some buffalo meat; the old hunter, who had taken a seat on a pile of wood near the fire, looking complacently on.
Loraine having assisted Francois in preparing the supper, prompted by good feeling, and perhaps slightly by curiosity, took a seat by the side of the stranger, that he might attend to his wants. Immediately afterwards, the lad who has been introduced as Greensnake glided noiselessly up in a fashion appropriate to his name, and squatted down close to his master, waiting patiently until Loraine handed him a share of the food. Having no cause to conceal the object of their journey, Loraine explained that he and his companions were bound for Fort Edmonton, and were pushing on as fast as they could travel, without the risk of knocking up their horses.
"I wish that you were directing your course rather to Fort Duncan, for I suspect that Captain Mackintosh and his small garrison are greatly in want of assistance. From some information brought me by Greensnake, I suspect that the Blackfeet have formed a plot to take it. Hearing that the Captain holds the Indians cheaply, and is not likely to be warned by what I might tell him, I am on my way to Fort Edmonton to advise that he should be put on his guard, and that assistance may be sent him without delay."
Loraine was struck by the old man's mode of expressing himself—so different to the slang language used in general by the rough trappers and traders of the Far West.
"This is important information, indeed!" he said, feeling anxious about the safety of his young friend's family, and especially of that young friend's two sisters; for although he had never seen them, Hector had shown him their portraits, one of which, called Sybil, possessed a face of rare loveliness. Effie, the younger, was very attractive; but Hector declared that there never was, or never could be, anybody like Sybil. Hector had told him that the portrait, not being his own, he could not give it to him, but that he was welcome to look at it as often as he liked—a privilege of which, it must be confessed, Reginald frequently took advantage; and he had resolved, if possible, to pay a visit to the residence of the fair original. Even had this not been the case, his chivalry would have made him eager to set off to the assistance of Hector's relatives. He felt that the matter was of so much importance that he should be justified in calling up Mr Burnett to discuss what measures should be taken. He, of course, knew that Hector would be as anxious to go as he was; he, therefore, let him sleep on. Burnett, who did not appear very well satisfied at being aroused from his slumbers, came and sat down to hear the old man's account. He questioned him narrowly, apparently not altogether crediting his statements.
"You may think what you will, Mr Burnett; but people are not apt in general to doubt the word of Isaac Sass," said the old man at length, in an offended tone.
"Are you Isaac Sass?" exclaimed Burnett. "I have often heard of you. Then, I say, I don't doubt your word. But why are you so sure that the fort will be attacked?"
"For a strong reason, which, as I don't wish to keep you longer from your rest, I will give in the morning."
"A word for yourself, friend Sass, I ken?" observed Burnett.
"No, no; I can do without sleep," answered Isaac Sass; "but before I lie down, I wish to know—yes or no—whether you will direct your course towards Fort Duncan, instead of going on to Edmonton."
"I wish that I could do as you suggest," answered Burnett. "If Captain Mackintosh wants help, I should like to give it him; but I must carry out my instructions, at all costs. It would not do to run the risk of getting our train plundered, as both stores and ammunition are much wanted at Edmonton."
"But will you allow one of your factors to be exposed to the danger our friend here has spoken of?" exclaimed Loraine. "I should be unwilling under any other circumstances to part company; but I feel bound, whether or not I can get anybody to go with me, to set off with my friend, young Mackintosh, to warn his family, and give them such assistance as we can."
"You, of course, are at liberty to go, Mr Loraine; and, as young Mackintosh was committed to your care, to take him with you," answered Burnett, somewhat stiffly. "But duty is duty. I must obey my orders, and those are, to conduct this train to Edmonton with as little delay as possible. I have no discretionary power to go out of the way, under any excuse whatever."
"But, surely, you would not object to one of the clerks, and some few of the men who could be spared, accompanying me!" exclaimed Loraine. "Even a small addition to the number would be of consequence in the defence of the fort, should it be attacked; and that it will be so, our friend here seems to think there is every probability."
"I have explained how I am situated in the matter, Mr Loraine," said Mr Burnett, in the same tone as before; "and I think it right to say, that, without a guide and a body of men well-armed, you and young Mackintosh will be unable to accomplish the journey. You will either lose yourselves and be starved, or be attacked and cut off by the Blackfeet. The Crees are not to be trusted either; for though they are civil enough to us, knowing that we have the power to punish them, yet they would steal our horses if they could; and, looking upon you as strangers, they would not only take your horses, but your scalps into the bargain."
"I shall not be afraid of meeting either them or the Blackfeet," answered Loraine. "What do you say, friend?" he added, turning to Isaac Sass. "Can I, or can I not, get to Fort Duncan, and warn the garrison of the danger which threatens them?"
The old hunter looked up at the countenance of the young Englishman, without speaking for a few seconds. He then said, "If pluck and courage would enable a man to do it, you would; but I cannot say how much you know about the country and the ways of the Redskins. It would not be an easy matter for any man, as there are several war parties out—of that I have certain knowledge; and I had no small difficulty in keeping clear of them. I wish that I could go with you, but I cannot get along as fast as I used to do, and my beasts are pretty well knocked up. But this is what I'll do: I'll send my lad Greensnake with you; whatever I tell him to do, he'll do, and prove as true as steel. People call him an idiot; but he's no more an idiot than I am, if a person knows how to get the sense out of him, and that's what I do."
Greensnake, on hearing his name mentioned, glanced up with a pleased look, and nodded at his master, as a dog often does when spoken about.
"I gladly accept your offer, and will give him any reward you think right for his services," said Loraine. "I should like to set off to-night."
"That would be impossible, as the lad and your horses want rest," answered the old trapper. "To-morrow morning he shall be at your service, and perhaps by that time Mr Burnett will have thought the matter over, and will send two or three of his men to accompany you. I will take the duties of those who go, and he knows I am worth something."
"Well, well, I'll think it over, and to-morrow morning let you know my decision," said Burnett. "Now, Mr Loraine, I'd advise you to lie down and get some rest, or you won't be fit for the work you propose to undertake."
Loraine, hoping that Burnett would consent to spare him a few men, followed his advice, and turned into his camp bed, while the old hunter, wrapping himself in his buffalo robe, lay down with his feet to the fire, as did Greensnake in a horse-cloth, which he took from the baggage he had deposited inside the camp.
Burnett was duly impressed with a sense of his responsibilities. He really wished to send assistance to Fort Duncan, but felt the importance of conveying his charge safely to Fort Edmonton, and he was too prudent to run any risk, by weakening his escort. He, therefore, determined to commence the journey at an earlier hour than usual, and to push forward as fast as possible. He recollected the half-breeds from whom they had parted only three days before, and whom they had left encamped. If they could be overtaken, some of them might be induced to go to Fort Duncan by the prospect of a brush with their sworn enemies, the Blackfeet. "Perhaps this young Englishman will agree to go back and obtain their assistance, and he will render far greater service to the captain than if he were to go alone," thought Burnett. "I will propose the plan to him to-morrow morning, and allow Allan Keith to accompany him. The two seem to pull well together; and as soon as we get to Edmonton we will send off as many men as can be spared."
Satisfied with his plan, Burnett pulled his blanket round him, and was just dropping off to sleep, when he heard the distant neigh of a horse.
"That was not one of our animals!" he exclaimed, starting to his feet. As he did so, he saw the old man and his Indian boy sitting up.
"What sound was that, Sass?" he asked.
"Blackfeet are not far off, I guess," was the answer.
Loraine, who had been unable to sleep, hearing what was said, came out of his tent.
"Is there a chance of the camp being attacked?" he asked.
"They'll not attack the camp, but they'll steal our horses if they can," answered Burnett.
"Depend on that; if we don't keep a look-out they'll have half of them away before morning," observed Sass; and turning to Loraine, he added, "You said just now that you caught sight of a figure on the top of the hill, and as that was not Greensnake or me, I have a notion that it was one of the Blackfeet."
"Why didn't you tell me of that before?" inquired Burnett.
"Because I thought I was mistaken, and that it was not of sufficient consequence to arouse you," answered Loraine.
"It may be of the greatest importance; even now the rascals may have enticed off some of our horses," exclaimed Burnett, taking his gun, and going up to where the men lay asleep.
A light touch on the shoulder, and a whisper in the ear, were sufficient to arouse them. He having also called up the Doctor and the two clerks, hurried on to where the men were on watch outside. They also had heard the sounds, and were on the alert. They were certain that as yet all the horses were safe. They were joined by most of the other men; two or three only, by Burnett's orders, having remained behind to extinguish the fires.
Just at this juncture several horses, feeding on the rich pasture not a hundred yards off, came galloping up, and would have passed the camp had not the men rushed out and stopped them. This proved without doubt that enemies were in the neighbourhood. Accordingly, several men, well-armed, went out and brought up the remainder of the horses, which they at once tethered either to the carts or to stakes firmly fixed in the ground; then each with his gun loaded with buck-shot, crawled out through the long grass, so that they could not be seen, even by the sharp eyes of the Blackfeet, and arranged themselves in a circle at the distance of about eighty yards from the camp. The night was dark, and perfect silence was maintained, so that even the most watchful enemy could not have discovered what the travellers were about.
Burnett having thus made all necessary arrangements for the security of the camp, directed Allan Keith and Maloney each to take his turn in watching, and again lay down, his example being followed by the rest of the party who were not required on duty. The most sharp-eyed Redskins would have found it difficult to discover what the travellers were about. Allan Keith was the only person who remained on foot. Having visited the horses, and ascertained that the men in charge of them were awake, he went on, intending to make the circuit of the camp, to assure himself that the men were on the alert. Thinking it unnecessary to crawl along the ground, from supposing that in the darkness he could not be seen at any distance, he walked upright, and had just got close to the outer circle where he expected to find one of the men on watch, when an arrow whistled close to his head. The scout, who must have been close in front of him, immediately began to crawl along, like a snake through the grass, in the direction whence the arrow had come.
Allan was as courageous as most persons; but it would have been folly to have exposed himself to the risk of another shot. He, therefore, wisely crouched down in the spot which had been occupied by the man who had gone forward in pursuit of the intruder. He listened with open ears, but not a sound could he hear, nor could his eyes pierce the darkness beyond a few yards from where he lay. He waited and waited, until he began to fear that the scout must have been caught by the savages, and killed before he had had time to cry out. That the other scouts were on the watch, he had no doubt, and would take care that no Indians approached without being discovered. He had remained in his recumbent position for some time, when he at length heard a rustling in the grass, and the scout rejoined him.
"The coquin has escaped us, monsieur," whispered the Canadian. "I wish that I had shot him, but by firing I should have discovered our position, and we should have had a score of arrows or bullets flying about our ears."
After the warning he had received, Allan, imitating the example of the scout, crawled along the ground to the different posts, and finding all the men on the alert, returned in the same fashion to the camp.
Night went by, and no other alarm was raised. At early dawn Burnett, having aroused the whole camp, gave them the information Isaac Sass had brought.
There was no lack of volunteers, among whom was Allan Keith, eager to accompany Loraine to Fort Duncan. He was somewhat less disappointed than would otherwise have been the case at being refused permission to go, when Burnett explained his plan of sending him in search of the half-breed hunters, to collect among them as many recruits as he could obtain to increase the garrison at Fort Duncan.
"I, at all events, will go with you!" exclaimed Hector, turning to Loraine. "We have a compass, and as I know the direction in which the fort lies, I shall not be afraid of missing my way."
"You forget the Redskins, and that you must be on your guard at night, or you'll have your horses stolen," observed old Sass. "You will also have to look out for game to support yourselves. However, if you take Greensnake with you, he'll help you to kill game, and will give due notice if enemies are near you."
"Yes, although I should have been glad to have had more companions, I am ready to set out at once," said Loraine.
"I am sorry I cannot spare any of my men," observed Burnett. "Two or three, indeed, would make but little difference, and the smaller your party the better for safety's sake. However, you must let your horses breakfast, for they got but little feeding last night, thanks to the Blackfeet."
While these and other arrangements were being made, the scouts came in. It was evident, they reported, from the tracks round the camp, that they had been surrounded by a large band, who would probably have stolen all their horses had they not been on their guard. The scouts, they added, had followed to a considerable distance the tracks which led away to the westward, and it was their opinion that the Indians would keep ahead, and not make another attempt to steal the horses till they fancied that the party were off their guard. It was so far satisfactory to have discovered the direction the Indians had taken, as Loraine might thus proceed southward and Allan Keith make his way eastward on the trail of the buffalo hunters, without the risk of encountering them.
"I will spare no exertion to get as soon as possible to the fort with as many men as I can induce to accompany me," said Allan, as he warmly shook hands with Loraine. "I heartily wish that I could have gone with you; but I must obey the orders of my chief. I am well acquainted with the family of Captain Mackintosh; pray give them my respects, and say how deeply I regret not being able to proceed at once to the fort."
Allan looked somewhat conscious as he said this. Loraine promised to deliver his messages; and the horses having now had time to feed, the three parties separated. Allan, accompanied by Pierre, rode off to the eastward; Mr Burnett and the train continued their journey to the west; while Loraine and his two companions took a southerly course.
"Good-bye, good-bye, my young friends," cried Dr McCrab, after riding a short distance with Loraine and Hector. "Whatever you do; don't let the Redskins take your scalps, my boys. Keep your powder dry, and your larder well stored, and you'll get through. I heartily wish that I could go with you; but I ride too heavy a weight, and should certainly delay you if we had to run for it with a pack of howling savages at our tails: the chances are, I should come off second best," said the good-natured medico, when, shaking hands, he turned his horse's head and galloped off to overtake the train brought up by Isaac Sass and his pack animals. The country being level, the train could be seen for a long distance, creeping on like a huge snake through the grass.
As Loraine looked round, a uniform and well-defined horizon met his eye. So destitute was the country in general of all landmarks, that he was thankful to have a good compass to guide his course, in addition to the assistance of the young hump-backed Indian, who depended on his instinct alone. Loraine and Hector had each a spare horse, which carried their changes of clothes, a store of powder and shot, and such provisions and cooking utensils as they were likely to require.
The young Indian frequently raised himself in his stirrups, and sometimes even stood upon the back of his horse, to take a look round, but dropped quickly down again into his saddle, satisfied that no foes were in the neighbourhood.
"It was fortunate that the Blackfeet came about the camp last night, and then took themselves off to the westward, as we are the less likely to have them on our trail," observed Hector, who was highly delighted to be able to go home at once, instead of having to make a long circuit, as he had expected, through Edmonton. Though he had heard the report of old Sass, he had not realised the danger in which his family might be placed.
He rattled on as was his wont, never failing to find subjects of conversation. "I did not suppose that there would be much risk, or I should not have proposed your coming with me," observed Loraine. "I was, besides, unwilling to make my appearance at the fort without you, lest Captain Mackintosh should look upon me as an impostor."
"I am very sure my father would not do that, or my mother or sister either, or Sybil. They'll make a good deal of you, I can tell you; for it is not often they see a gentleman at the fort, except Allan Keith, who comes whenever he can. He is, I suspect, a great admirer of my sister; and I am not surprised, for she is a dear, good girl, and worthy of the best fellow in the country."
"Which sister?" very naturally asked Loraine. "You showed me the portraits of two."
"I have only one. Sybil is not really my sister, though I called her so, and she is like a sister to us all. My father and mother adopted her before Effie or any of us were born; and as they were as fond of her as they could have been had she been their own child, she has lived on with us ever since. She's as pretty as she looks in her portrait, and as good and bright as she is pretty, and we boys love her as much as we do Effie."
This account naturally increased Loraine's desire to see the original of the beautiful picture; but a sense of delicacy prevented him further questioning his young companion about her, being well assured that he would before long tell him all he knew. Hector, indeed, talked away for the whole party, for Greensnake never uttered a word except from absolute necessity, and then it was in Cree. Hector, however, remembered enough to make out the meaning, having known the language before he went to school, and he translated what was said to Loraine. They had got to some distance from the camp, when Hector, turning round, observed two animals following.
"Holloa! What are these?" he exclaimed. "Can they be wolves?"
"If they are," said Loraine, "and they come near enough, we must shoot them, or they may interfere with our horses at night, especially as they are likely to pick up companions on the way."
"Very well; then we will stop at once, and do you fire at one of the brutes, and I will try to kill the other," said Hector. "What do you say, Greensnake?" he asked in Cree.
The hump-backed Indian grunted out an unintelligible reply, and pointed ahead.
"He doesn't think it worth while to stop," remarked Hector.
"Nor do I," said Loraine; and they accordingly pushed on at the pace they had before been going.
After a while, Hector, looking back, exclaimed, "Why, they are not wolves at all, but a couple of dogs—Old Buster, who belongs to the Doctor, and Dan Maloney's Muskey! They took a great fancy to me, for I used to play with them; but I had no idea of enticing them away from their masters."
"They must have found out that we are not with the train, and bolting, followed up our trail," remarked Loraine. "We cannot drive them back now."
The dogs were quickly up to the riders, and seemed highly delighted to find Hector, jumping up on either side of him.
The prairie which Loraine and his companions were traversing was almost treeless; but not many years before it had been covered with a pine forest, destroyed by one of the ruthless prairie fires which so often sweep over the north-west territory. Here and there, however, by the sides of streams, or pools, numerous aspens—the fastest growing trees in that region—had again sprung up, their stems being of considerable thickness, while their light foliage gave a cheerful aspect to the otherwise dreary scenery. When the ground allowed it, they occasionally put their horses into a gallop—a pace well suited to their tempers. At the same time, they knew that they must not run the risk of knocking up their animals, or they would fail in their object of making a quick journey.
They had gone on for some time, when Hector's tough little horse suddenly came down, and threw him over its head.
"Don't care for me," he cried; "but I'm afraid my horse has broken its leg."
The animal had put its foot into a badger-hole. After making some violent struggles, however, it recovered itself, and Hector, getting hold of its bridle, remounted.
"We must keep a better look-out for the badger-holes. It wouldn't be pleasant to have to continue our journey on foot," he said, laughing.
Having stopped by the side of a pool to take a mid-day meal, give their horses water, and allow them to crop as much grass as they could during the time, the travellers pushed on until nightfall, when they encamped under shelter of a grove of aspens, close to a stream, which flowed into the South Saskatchewan. By Greensnake's advice, only a small fire was lighted, which was to be put out when they had cooked their supper.
As soon as he had finished his meal, the Indian, taking his blanket, went and lay down close to where the horses which had been hobbled were feeding; while Loraine and Hector rolled themselves in their buffalo robes, leaving the two dogs to keep watch by their sides.
Fort Duncan, to which it is time the reader should be introduced, lay bathed in the ruddy glow of the setting sun, whose rays tinged the branches of the groves of aspen, birch, poplar, and spruce, which could be seen at some distance away, both to the east and west. It stood on the top of some high ground, rising abruptly from the margin of a stream flowing by on the north side.
The fort consisted of a square palisade, thirty feet or so in height, with rough wooden towers at each angle, connected by a narrow platform, which ran round inside the walls, a few feet below their summit. The only entrance was by a gate, flanked by two additional towers. This could be secured by strong bars, but was destitute of ditch, draw-bridge, or portcullis. The interior of the quadrangle was occupied by the residence of the chief factor and clerks, a hall used as an audience room, and a store-house, besides the dwellings of the hunters and their wives and children, and other persons forming the garrison. The land immediately round the fort had been cleared of trees; but there was a forest on one side, and scattered groups of timber on the other, affording abundance of wood for building purposes and fuel.
There was much beauty in the surrounding scenery, especially when the roses were in full bloom, and other flowers of varied hue enamelled the prairie. In a room of the fort, furnished with far more elegance than is generally seen in the north-west territory, sat two young ladies. Though both attractive, they differed greatly from each other. The youngest, of small figure, was fair, with light hair and blue, laughing eyes, her rosy mouth constantly wreathed in smiles. The elder was somewhat taller, of a richer colour, with dark brown hair, and was even more attractive in appearance than her companion. They were busily employed with their needles, talking in the mean time on some interesting subject, when their conversation was interrupted by the entrance of a fine lad, who, although a couple of years older, might have been known by his strong resemblance to be the brother of Hector Mackintosh.
"Come along, Sybil—come along, Effie—if you want to see a war-chief, thoroughly got up in his finest toggery," exclaimed Norman. "He is Mysticoose, or the Roaring Bull, not a very romantic name—a great leader among the Blackfeet. He has come to sell several packages of peltries and a whole lot of buffalo robes. He'll probably take his departure before long; so if you want to inspect him, you must come at once."
"Do you, Sybil, wish to see this savage chief?" asked Effie.
"By all means," answered Sybil. "I should like to make a sketch of him while he is bartering his peltries." And she took up a sketchbook and pencil from the table.
"Let me bring your paint-box," said Effie, "for you will make a much more interesting drawing if you colour it."
"I will try, if Norman will get a mug of water and hold it for me. We must not let the chief discover what we are about, or the poor savage may fancy we are bewitching him," said Sybil, laughing.
On going out of the house, they proceeded to the spot in front of the store where the trading business was transacted. Captain Mackintosh, a fine-looking man of middle age, and two of his clerks, stood on one side, a quantity of goods piled up near them; while on the other was seen an Indian chief, standing near several bales of peltries, and attended by a band of nearly twenty followers. His appearance was picturesque in the extreme. His head was adorned with a circlet of tall plumes. His dress consisted of a coat of dressed deer-skin, tastefully ornamented with beads and quill-work, as were his leggings, with long tassels, while a white wolf-skin cloak hung over one shoulder, and necklaces, composed of the teeth of bears and other animals, hung about his neck. He had been keenly bargaining with his host; but no sooner did the young ladies appear than he glanced towards them, his eyes wandering from one to the other, until they settled on Sybil with a look of evident admiration. She, however having begun her sketch, continued drawing, regarding the Indian much as if he had been a lay figure dressed up to copy.
Captain Mackintosh had at length to recall his attention to the matter they were engaged on. The assistants on each side continued to weigh the peltries, and hand over the articles given in exchange; but the young chief seemed to have lost all the interest he had previously shown, and instead of haggling as before over the price, made no objection to any of the goods offered him, which his attendants packed up as they received them, and carried out of the fort.
The trading being over, instead of following his people, the young chief advanced to Captain Mackintosh, and addressed him in a long speech, the meaning of which neither Sybil nor Effie could understand. Had they done so, they would have been very much surprised to find that Mysticoose was offering to make Sybil his wife, and to give in exchange for her, peltries and robes sufficient to fill the store-house of the fort. Captain Mackintosh answered, with due caution, that it was not the custom of English ladies to marry unless they could give their hearts to the persons who desired to possess them, nor that of fathers to receive payment; but that he would tell his daughter of the honour the chief intended her, although he would hold out no prospect that she would consent to quit her home, and become the bride of one whose people differed so much in their habits and customs, as well as in their religion, from his.
On this, Mysticoose declared that he would be ready to learn the religion of the pale-faces and adopt their customs, and entreated that he might be allowed the opportunity of declaring his sentiments to the maiden.
Captain Mackintosh, though very much annoyed, kept his countenance as well as his temper, and endeavoured to persuade the chief that he could find a far more suitable wife among his own people, with whose beauty he would be satisfied, and who would labour for him like her sisters in general. All he could say, however, did not appear to have any effect in turning the young chief from his purpose; but, on the contrary, he grew more and more eager, as if determined to succeed.
All the time Sybil, unconscious that she was the subject of conversation, went on with her sketch; and as she drew rapidly, she succeeded in producing a very exact portrait of the savage warrior.
Norman, who had been attending to his duties in the store, now returned, and looking over Sybil's shoulder exclaimed—
"Capital! It's Mysticoose himself." Snatching it from her hand, he held it up to the chief, saying, "What do you think of that, my friend? It's wonderfully like you, isn't it?"
Mysticoose started as he saw it, without making any reply; and rapidly advancing towards the young lady, endeavoured to take her hand. She instinctively drew back, and stepped behind Effie.
On meeting with this rebuff, the chief stopped short, and addressed Sybil, expressing in glowing language his admiration of her charms. Though she could not understand his words, she could not fail to suspect their meaning. Norman, however, who was sufficiently acquainted with the language of the Blackfeet to make out the meaning of the speech— though the expressions were too elaborate for him to follow—not possessing the discretion of his father, burst out laughing.
"What's all that you're saying?" he exclaimed. "Just face-about, and march out of this fort in double-quick time, or we may be obliged to send you off in a way you may not be pleased with."
Scarcely had Norman uttered these words, than the chief, placing his hand on the hilt of his scalping-knife, cast a glance full of anger at the speaker, but had so far command of himself as not to draw it.
Captain Mackintosh now saw that it was time to interfere, and, speaking in Indian, rebuked Norman for uncourteously treating their guest: and then, placing his hand in a friendly way on the shoulder of the chief, told him that he would consider the matter, advising him to retire, as it would be soon time for closing the gates of the fort, and expressing his regret that he could not, under the circumstances, afford him the hospitality he would have desired.
The chief appeared to be pacified, his countenance assuming its usual calm expression; and after he had cast another look of admiration at Sybil, he walked with a dignified step towards the gate.
Captain Mackintosh, who accompanied him, shook hands in a cordial way, and expressed a hope that nothing which had been said would cause a feeling of irritation to remain on his mind, and that he would continue to trade at the fort on the same friendly terms as hitherto. The chief made no reply, but stalked on towards his tents, which were pitched at some little distance from the fort. As soon as he had reached them, the gate was shut, and the usual guard placed to watch the proceedings of the Indians outside. The young ladies, who had agreed to take a ride with Norman, were somewhat disappointed on finding that Captain Mackintosh considered it would be imprudent for them to go outside the fort while Sybil's admirer remained in the neighbourhood.
"He is really a handsome fellow," said Norman, laughing, as he looked on the portrait. "You've done him justice too. Perhaps some day you may change your mind; though I cannot say that I should approve of his carrying you off to become Queen of the Roaring Bulls."
"Don't talk such nonsense, Norman," said Sybil. "I am vexed with myself for having gone out to take his portrait. I had no idea that the savage would even have looked at me. I have a great mind to tear up the picture."
"Pray don't do that," said Effie; "it is too well drawn to be destroyed, and I want to show it to mamma, who will, I am sure, admire it."
Mrs Mackintosh, who had been somewhat unwell, had not left her chamber; but in the evening she came into the sitting-room, when the portrait was shown her; and Norman related in his own way what had happened.
"I am sorry for it," she remarked. "I do not trust the Indians, and I am afraid that this savage chief may cause us some annoyance. I wish that you had not vexed him, Norman. You must in future be more cautious, and pray do not, on any account, go to a distance from the fort for some time to come. Sybil and Effie must give up their rides for the present, unless they go out with a strong party."
"My father doesn't think the fellow will trouble us, as we parted on good terms with him," answered Norman. "The chances are that he takes himself off to-morrow, and will speedily forget all about Sybil."
When Captain Mackintosh afterwards came in, though he tried to make light of the matter, his wife fancied that he looked much more anxious than usual.
Still Norman insisted that Mysticoose and his people would take their departure the next morning, and that they should then no longer be troubled by them.
Strict watch was kept at night, and all remained quiet in the Indian camp. Next morning the tents were still there, and no sign was perceived that the occupants had any intention of moving.
The day went by; but though the tents remained, the young chief did not make his appearance.
Norman was considerably put out. "I have no notion that the girls should be kept prisoners on account of an impudent Redskin," he exclaimed. "I will go out to the tents, and advise the chief and his party, now that they have transacted their business, to take themselves off."
"No, no, Norman, stay quiet, my lad," answered his father; "they'll not go faster for being ordered off; and it is just possible that the young chief may take it into his head to do you some harm. It will be a poor satisfaction to punish him afterwards."
"I am not afraid of him, or of any other savage like him," said Norman.
"Well, well, stay within the fort until I give you leave to go out," said his father. "Young blood quickly gets up, and a quarrel may ensue, which it is better to avoid."
Norman promised to obey; and, to vent his feelings by himself, went up to the platform, which was dignified by being called the ramparts, that he might take a look cut, and ascertain if there were any signs of moving in the camp of the Blackfeet. He watched in vain, though he made out in the far distance two figures on the prairie going in a south-westerly direction. The sun was nearly setting when he returned to the house. He found his mother and Sybil engaged in their usual work.
"It is too provoking to have that fellow stopping out there, as if he were laying siege to the fort. My father won't allow me to go out, but I must get some one to inquire the chief's intentions. It is absurd in him to suppose that Sybil would ever be induced to marry him. He can have no object in remaining, as his admiration cannot be very deep, for he has only seen her once for a few minutes."
"I am not quite certain about that," remarked Sybil; "I think that he has seen me more than once. Don't you remember, when we were out riding, meeting with an Indian, whom you said was one of the Blackfeet, and who made Effie and me a long speech, though as we did not understand a word he said, we could not reply, but you talked to him, and laughed in his face. I thought that I recognised his features, though he was dressed and painted in so different a way that I may have been mistaken."
"I remember perfectly, but it never struck me that he was Mysticoose, though I cannot positively say that he was not," answered Norman. "I don't exactly remember what he said, but I fancy that he was praising the pale-faces generally, and expressing his desire to be their friend."
"Well, we cannot account for the wayward fancies of the Red men," observed Mrs Mackintosh; "but your father is anxious to retain their friendship, and would be unwilling to do anything to offend them. You must have patience; and I dare say in a day or two we shall be rid of our visitors."
"I am very sorry to have been the cause of the annoyance; and had I dreamed of the result, I would have kept out of the way of the chief," said Sybil, half laughing.
"Well, if the Blackfeet don't go to-morrow, something must be done to make them move off," exclaimed Hector.
Captain Mackintosh, though he did not say so, was really as much annoyed as his son.
No buffalo were to be seen in the neighbourhood, and it was evident, therefore, that the Indians did not remain for the sake of hunting. Among the men in the fort was an experienced voyageur and trapper, Le Brun by name, well versed in all Indian ways.
The captain having consulted him, he volunteered to go out at night, and try to ascertain what the Indians were about.
"We must never trust those Redskins," he observed; "they don't remain here without an object."
His offer was accepted. Soon after dark he lowered himself down at the rear of the fort, and crept round, making a wide circuit, so that, should any of the Blackfeet be on the watch, he might escape observation. Captain Mackintosh directed a man to wait with a rope, to help him in again on the same side.
A careful look-out was kept during his absence round the fort. Some time having passed, and Le Brun not making his appearance, Captain Mackintosh began to fear that he had been discovered by the Indians, and captured. They would scarcely, however, he thought, venture to put him to death. Two hours or more went by; still he did not return. The Captain, therefore, began to consider whether it would be expedient to send out another man to try and ascertain what had happened. He was turning over in his mind who he should employ in this somewhat dangerous service, when Norman came up to him.
"Let me go," he said; "I am sure that I can get up to the camp without being discovered, and I will be exceedingly cautious. It is not, indeed, likely that the Indians will be on the watch; for, should they have caught Le Brun, they will not suppose that we shall send another person to look for him. I will only get near enough to hear what they are saying, and creep away again as noiselessly as a lynx."
"No, no, Norman; I am convinced of your courage and discretion, but I cannot allow you to risk your life for such an object," said his father.
"But I run no risk of losing my life," answered Norman; "they would not venture to kill me."
"They would not if they knew who you were; but finding a spy in their neighbourhood, they might shoot you down without inquiry," observed Captain Mackintosh.
"I don't want to be shot," said Norman; "depend upon it, I'll take good care to avoid that."
At length, Captain Mackintosh, reflecting that he could not send any one else on an expedition to the dangers of which he was unwilling to expose his own son, gave permission, charging Norman to approach the camp with the greatest possible caution, and only to do so provided he could hear the voices of the Indians, and had reason to believe that they were sitting in council.
Norman, well pleased at the confidence placed in him, hurried off to prepare for his expedition, by putting on a dark suit, which would assist in concealing him from view. Taking his gun, and sticking a brace of pistols in his belt, he descended, as Le Brun had done; but, to reach the camp, he took a route on the side opposite that which the scout had chosen. At first he walked upright, that he might the better ascertain the course to take. There were lights in each of the towers of the fort, which assisted him. No other objects were visible, even at the distance of a hundred yards. As he got nearer the tents, he hoped to be able to make them out against the sky. After he had gone some distance, he stooped down and began to creep along in the Indian fashion, trailing his gun. Every now and then he stopped to listen for sounds. He was, he calculated, approaching the camp, when he fancied he heard a rustling near him. It approached. He lay perfectly quiet. It might be a snake or some animal. His eyes were of but little assistance. "Should it be an Indian, I must try to take the fellow prisoner; but it may be a hard matter to do that, unless he is unarmed, and then I must hold a pistol to his head, and threaten to shoot him if he cries out."
He had scarcely thought this, when he saw the head of a man lifted up as if going to gaze around. Strong and active, with good nerves, he was about to spring on the person, and seize him by the throat, when the other must have made him out, and he heard a voice whisper—
"C'est moi, Le Brun!"
Norman, greatly relieved, made himself known.
"Venez avec moi, vite!" and the Canadian led the way, crawling along the ground towards the lights glimmering from the fort. It was not until they had been hauled up, and were safe inside, that Le Brun spoke. He had, he told Captain Mackintosh, got close up to the camp, where he heard the sounds of many voices, and the tramp of feet, as if a large number of persons were collected, although only one fire burned in the midst of the tents. He was afraid of approaching nearer, lest he should be discovered. He waited in the expectation that the leaders would gather round the fire, as is their wont, to discuss their plans. He was rewarded for his patience, although they were too far off to enable him to see them distinctly. He, however, counted at least six warriors, who took their places at the fire, and one after the other got up and addressed their companions. A few words only reached him; but he heard enough to be convinced that they were discussing a plan to take possession of the fort, but its details he was unable to make out. He had gone round the camp, and while returning on the side opposite to that from which he had set off, had fallen in with Norman.
"We must take care to be doubly vigilant, then," said Captain Mackintosh.
He at once cautioned the men to be on the watch; but before the ladies he made light of the matter, not wishing to cause them unnecessary anxiety. He felt pretty certain, indeed, that the Blackfeet would not openly attempt to take the fort, even though their numbers had, as Le Brun supposed, been much increased.
Night passed away without the slightest alarm. The next day matters remained to all appearance as on the preceding one. The tents were there, and a few Indians only—some on horseback, others on foot—were seen moving about in the neighbourhood, but none came near the fort. Le Brun suggested that if they had any treacherous design in view, they were probably waiting until the hunters, who made excursions to bring in game two or three times a week, had been seen to leave the fort, and that they would then, when fewer people were within, try and carry out their plan, whatever that might be. He suggested that a party should leave the fort after mid-day with several pack horses, as if they intended to make a long excursion. That they should go away to the south-east, and, as soon as they were out of sight, cross the river and come back again after dark, on the north side. If the Indians really intended treachery, they would certainly take the opportunity of attempting to carry it out.
Captain Mackintosh approved of the plan, and Norman thought it an excellent one. "I should so like to disappoint those rascals, and catch them in their own trap," he said.
The horses (or the guard, as the stud belonging to a fort is called) were kept in a meadow on the opposite side of the river, where they were tolerably safe from any attempts which the marauding bands on the south might make to carry them off. Some time passed before those required could be brought across. As soon as they arrived, Le Brun, with eight well-armed men, with as many spare horses, set off on their pretended hunting expedition. They took care to pass sufficiently near the Indian camp to be easily seen.
"Le Brun was right in his suspicions!" exclaimed Norman from the ramparts, addressing his father, who was walking below. "Here comes Mysticoose with a dozen followers, dressed in their gayest attire, for I can see their ornaments glistening in the rays of the sun. Perhaps he has come to ask for Sybil's answer to his offer; if so, we can give him a very short one."
"We will say nothing to offend him," answered Captain Mackintosh, who had joined his son; "but it will be prudent, knowing what we do, not to admit these gentlemen inside the gate. I will go out and meet them, and you and the other men cover me with your rifles. Let the Indians have a glimpse of your arms, and I am sure that they will attempt no violence." The arrangements were quickly made. As soon as the chief and his party drew near, Captain Mackintosh went out of the fort, directing the men at the gate to close it should the Indians show any intention of making a rush to get in.
Advancing a short distance, he called to Mysticoose to dismount, and explain the object of his visit. The chief looked up at the ramparts, and, seeing the gleaming rifle-barrels, did as he was directed. Giving the bridle of his horse to one of his followers, he then advanced, and, putting out his hand in a cordial manner, said—
"Why does my white brother look upon me as an enemy? I have traded fairly, and wish to trade again. I have now brought some more peltries, not to trade, but to present to him as an earnest of my goodwill. Let him, then, admit me and my followers within the gates, that I may offer my present as presents should be offered, and have the happiness of gazing once more on the fair lily of the prairie, after whom my heart pants, as does the weary stag for the refreshing stream." Mysticoose uttered much more in the same strain before he stopped.
Captain Mackintosh replied that he was always glad to see his friend, but as it was late in the day he regretted that he could not admit the chief and his followers, but that the next morning, if they wished to come, he should be happy to receive them; and although he would not refuse the present they had brought, he must insist on returning one of equal value in goods, as he could not promise that the fair lily, as he described his daughter, would be willing to show herself, and begged the chief to understand clearly that she had sufficiently considered the matter, and could not become his bride.
Whatever were the Indian's feelings, he concealed them, and made an equally courteous reply, intimating that, notwithstanding what his white brother had said, he should come as proposed with a larger present, and a greater number of followers to convey it. He then, shaking hands as before, returned to his horse, and remounting, rode off with his companions.
"I hope, after all, that the Indian intends no treachery," observed Captain Mackintosh, as he re-entered the fort; and the gates were closed for the night. "Still we must be on our guard."
"I should think so, sir," said Norman; "and we shall soon hear what Le Brun has to say on the subject."
About a couple of hours after dark, Le Brun and his party arrived, and, having left their horses on the other side of the stream, noiselessly entered the fort.
At an early hour the next day the young chief, with nearly twenty followers, was seen approaching. Captain Mackintosh at once placed his men in positions commanding the entrance, so that, should the Indians show any treacherous intentions, the gate might forthwith be shut. His great object was to prevent bloodshed; at the same time, while showing that he was not unprepared for treachery, he did not wish to offend his guest.
As a precautionary measure, he resolved not to admit more than half their number, and he placed men ready to close the gates directly the party had entered. Mysticoose rode up with the air of a gallant in days of yore, and throwing the rein to one of his attendants, he, with the larger number of his followers, dismounted and advanced towards Captain Mackintosh, who stood ready to receive him.
"I can only allow ten to enter," said the captain; "the rest must remain outside with the horses."
The chief, appearing not to think this unreasonable, directed the rest of his followers to keep back. His countenance fell, however, when, having entered the gate, he looked round and saw the hunters whom he supposed to be at a distance, standing on either side with arms in their hands. He hesitated and stopped short.
"Does my white brother think I come intending treachery?" he asked. "He has been deceived by some one. My object is to present these peltries to him, hoping that he will give me, not the goods he spoke of, but the fair lily, his daughter, and I will promise to bring him ten times the amount before another summer has begun."
Captain Mackintosh replied that he had already said all that he could say on that subject.
But the chief was not satisfied with his refusal, and began another long speech, which, as Norman remarked, "Though it might have a head, there seemed but little chance of seeing its tail." He advised his father to try and cut it short.
Meantime, Le Brun, having slipped away, unseen by the Indians, had gone up on the ramparts, crept round to a part whence he could observe their tents. He had not been long there when he saw a large body of men issuing forth, and rapidly approaching the fort. Hurrying down, he gave the information to Captain Mackintosh.
"There is no time to lose, monsieur," he said. "If we don't turn these fellows out, they'll try to obtain possession of the fort, as I suspect they all along intended to do."
On hearing this, Captain Mackintosh ordered his men, who had been drawn up on either side, to close round their visitors, and some, who had been concealed, to show themselves.
The chief, on seeing this, stopped short in his speech, knowing that his treacherous design, it such he had intended, must have been discovered.
"What does this mean?" he asked, in a tone which showed that his self-confident air was more assumed than real.
"It means, my friend, that you must quit the fort if you do not wish to be shut up within it, and come another day to finish your address," answered Captain Mackintosh. "I wish to be your friend, but I must be obeyed."
The appearance of the garrison showed the chief that the captain was in earnest; and though he and his followers looked as if they were about to make a rush, thinking better of it, they beat a hasty retreat, when the gate was closed behind them. This was not done too soon, for they had got but a short distance off when a number of warriors from the camp, uttering loud shouts, galloped up, evidently expecting to indulge in the plunder of the fort. The young chief, no longer able to constrain the rage he felt at his disappointment, turning round, made gestures significant of his intended vengeance; then, putting spurs to his horse, he galloped off beyond range of any rifle-shot which he might well have expected would be sent after him. He was seen at a distance haranguing his people; but if he was urging them at once to attack the fort, they did not appear willing to risk their lives in an attempt which was likely to prove a failure.
The following day, having struck camp, they moved away to the southward, and Le Brun, who followed them to a considerable distance, reported that they appeared to have no intention of stopping in the neighbourhood, but were probably returning to the lodges of their tribe.
Greatly relieved by this information, the inmates of Fort Duncan pursued their usual avocations without any apprehension of further annoyance from Mysticoose and his people.
We must now return to the two travellers and their strange guide. Although Loraine had slept but little the previous night, he could not close his eyes. He enjoyed the excitement of the life he was leading, but he did not hide from himself its dangers, and he felt the responsibility of having induced young Hector to accompany him. He was also anxious to arrive at the fort, for he had become much interested in its inmates. Although it was supposed that the Blackfeet had gone to the westward, he thought it possible that some of them might have remained behind, and followed up the trail of his party. He had, however, great confidence in the watchfulness of Greensnake, and he hoped also that the dogs would give due notice should any enemies approach.
"If we pass over this night in safety, I think that we shall get through the rest of our journey without difficulty," he said to himself. "We have accomplished well-nigh fifty miles to-day, and, as our horses will have a good feed to-night, we may ride another fifty to-morrow, and by keeping that up, we shall, as far as I can calculate, reach Fort Duncan in four or five days."
He was about to drop off to sleep, when he was again aroused by a continuous howl in the distance. After listening for some time, he was convinced that it was produced by wolves. He fancied from the sound that there must have been hundreds of them. It grew nearer and nearer. The animals were coming that way. They might attack him and Hector, or, at all events, the horses, and either kill them or put them to flight.
He looked at the fire. By their guide's advice he had allowed it to burn low, so that no flames casting their light around should betray the position of the camp to prowling Indians. Still it was better, he thought, to run even that risk than to allow the savage brutes to get into the camp. He, therefore, having thrown some more sticks on the fire, which quickly blazed up, awoke Hector, who naturally inquired what was the matter.
"Do you not hear the howling of wolves?" asked Loraine. "Get your rifle ready."
"But Greensnake advised us not to fire, lest we should discover our camp to the Indians," said Hector; "and I don't fancy that at this time of the year wolves would be daring enough to attack us."
"They may, however, attack the horses," answered Loraine. "I will go and warn him, so that he may collect them."
"He is on the alert, depend upon that," said Hector; "and well knows what to do."
"It is wise to be on the safe side," answered Loraine, getting up. "Stay by our saddles and provisions, and I will try to find him." He set off towards where he supposed the horses were feeding.
As soon as he had got beyond the range of the light thrown from the fire, the darkness became so great that he could with difficulty avoid running against the trunks of the trees. He stretched out his gun before him to try and feel the way. Two or three times he saved himself by this precaution. At last he thought that he must have reached the spot where Greensnake ought to be found; but though he called out to him, no answer came. He shouted louder and louder, still there was no reply, nor could he distinguish the forms of any of the horses against the sky. He could hear, however, the sound of the yelping and barking of the wolves, apparently much nearer than before. Still he went on, forgetting that he ran the risk of losing sight of the fire. At length, turning round to look for it, intending to go back to the camp, what was his dismay on being unable to discover the slightest glimmering of light in any direction! He had proceeded further than he had supposed, and regretted his folly, for he was well aware how easily he might lose himself. The sky overhead was obscured, so that the stars afforded him no guide. He thought that he had turned completely round, but of this he could not be quite certain, and he feared that by going on he might only get further and further from the fire. He shouted out—
"Hector, Hector, don't move; but only shout in return, that I may know where to find you."
Instead of Hector's voice, the barking and yelping of the wolves alone reached his ear. Probably his shouts had been drowned by the fearful din they had been making. They served, however, partly to guide him; but they seemed so near that he expected every moment to be assailed by them; and in the darkness it would be a difficult matter to defend himself. Still, being a man of courage and determination, he resolved to face the danger; and keeping as direct a course as the impediments in his way would allow, he directed his steps towards the spot whence it appeared to him the sounds proceeded. He, of course, could move but slowly. He had gone, as he supposed, far enough to reach the camp, or, at all events, to be in sight of the fire, when he heard a shot, which came, it seemed to him, from a point rather more to the left than that towards which he was making his way. He had no doubt that it had been fired by Hector, and he immediately turned, hoping soon to catch sight of the fire. He was unwilling to discharge his own gun, not knowing at what moment he might require it to defend himself from the wolves. He, therefore, only shouted as before. He listened, and fancied that above the yelping chorus he could distinguish Hector's voice. Presently, to his infinite relief, he caught sight of the gleam of the fire, more distant, however, than he had supposed it could possibly be. He made towards it as fast as he could venture to move; notwithstanding his caution, he first ran against a tree, and soon afterwards stumbled at a fallen log.
He could now clearly distinguish the spot where the fire was burning, by the lurid light which it cast on the neighbouring trees; and, with more confidence than before, he was hurrying on, when he saw to his right a number of glowing eyeballs, and the yelping of the wolves sounded closer than ever.
Waiting until a pair of the glowing balls were only a few feet off, he fired. They disappeared. A fearful yell from the whole pack followed. He could see a number of dark forms surrounding him. There was no time to reload, so, clubbing his rifle, he swept it round and round on every side. He felt it striking every now and then on the heads of the creatures which were thus providentially kept at bay. The fire became more distinct; but the wolves continued to leap and snarl and yelp as savagely as at first; and, notwithstanding the blows he was dealing about, one of the brutes seized him by the coat, and another, still more daring, flew at his throat, and though it failed to bite him, caught him by the collar, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he saved himself from being dragged down. He was afraid that Hector, hearing the sound of the wolves, and not seeing him, might fire; he, therefore, shouted at the top of his voice, to show his whereabouts. Presently, he saw his young friend holding a couple of flaming brands in his hands, come rushing towards him, accompanied by the two dogs, who, springing forward with furious barks, attacked his savage assailants. The assistance came only just in time, for the wolves had nearly succeeded in pulling him to the ground. The dogs at once sprang upon the brute hanging to his collar, which let go its hold to defend itself, when a blow on its head from Loraine's rifle prevented it from offering further resistance. The dogs then flew at the other wolf, which also let go; while Hector, dashing the burning brands in the faces of the rest of the pack, put them to flight, enabling him and Loraine to get back almost breathless to the camp. The brave dogs were following the wolves, and would probably soon have been torn to pieces had they not promptly been called back.
"What can have become of Greensnake?" exclaimed Hector, as soon as they had time and breath to speak. "I hope that he has not played us false, and gone off with the horses."
"I have no fear of that," answered Loraine. "The old hunter would not have sent him with us unless he had perfect confidence in his honesty. Perhaps he heard the wolves coming long before we did, and took them to some place of security."
"He was more likely to have driven them into the camp, where we could have assisted in protecting them," observed Hector. "I am afraid that he has been surprised by a band of Blackfeet, or Sircees, who are notorious horse-stealers, and that they have carried off him as well as the animals. If so, we shall be left in a pretty plight."
"We have our guns and dogs, and a fair stock of ammunition, to obtain food, and our compass to guide us; and if we find that we have lost our horses, we must push forward on foot," answered Loraine. "But I am grievously annoyed at the prospect of being unable to reach the fort as soon as we expected; however, we must try to make our way on foot, and although we may be longer about it than we had hoped, we may still arrive in time to be of service. It is useless, however, talking over the matter at present. The best thing you can do is to lie down, and get some sleep while I keep watch."
"No, no," said Hector. "I have had my share already; but pray do you lie down, and I will watch."
At length Loraine consented to do this, expecting to be able to arouse himself in a short time; while Hector, taking his rifle in hand, began to walk up and down, anxiously looking out for Greensnake. The wolves, however, still snarling and yelping a short distance off, would, it at length occurred to him, prevent the guide from making his appearance till the morning. Having now time for thought, he recollected the warning Greensnake had given; and he reflected that possibly at any moment, should a party of Blackfeet have been in the neighbourhood, and heard the reports of their rifles, guided by the light of their fire, they might come suddenly upon them. He kept, therefore, a vigilant watch with his ears rather than his eyes, listening for any sound which might indicate their approach, and trusting also to the dogs, which were on the alert, and accompanied him whenever he moved a few feet from the camp. When he returned they went back again, and lay down near the fire, with their noses on their paws, and ears erect, showing that they were wide awake.
At length Loraine awoke, and insisted on Hector's lying down, who, before he did so, mentioned the ideas which had occurred to him.
"Never mind now what you think, but go to sleep," said Loraine. "I'll keep a bright look-out; depend upon that."
Soon after this the wolves, attracted possibly by a passing stag or some other game, greatly to his relief, scampered off, their cries becoming less and less distinct as they got to a distance.
The night seemed interminably long, but the morning came at length. Loraine aroused Hector, and having made up the fire, intending to come back for breakfast, he charged the dogs to watch over the baggage, and then set out in search of Greensnake and the horses. Loraine endeavoured to trace the course he had taken during the night, but the trail was so indistinct that he could not be certain in what direction he had gone. As he and Hector advanced, they looked round for the horses, but they were not near the spot to which Greensnake had taken them on the previous evening, nor were they anywhere to be seen. They came, however, upon what Hector believed were their tracks; but as they were scattered about over a wide space of ground, he could not be positive as to what course they had taken. Loraine still argued that the guide would return, and that it would be prudent to go back to camp and wait for his appearance. This they accordingly did, shooting on their way a couple of ducks, which served them for breakfast, the remains being given to the dogs. After some time Loraine went to the top of the highest point near at hand—a small knoll or hillock—that he might take a look-out for the missing horses, but he soon came back without having seen them.
"I think we should wait a little longer," he observed. "The young Indian may have thought it prudent to go to a considerable distance on account of the wolves. He may have slept until the morning, or may have stopped to catch and cook some food."
"I will have another look round," said Hector. "A few ducks won't come amiss, if I can kill them on the way, either to us or our dogs, before we finally make a start;" and, calling the two dogs, he set off, they willingly accompanying him.
While Hector was away from the camp Loraine thoughtfully employed himself in examining their baggage, and in selecting such articles of food and clothing as they could carry on their backs, and in doing them up in two packs, making the heaviest for himself. He was thus engaged when he heard a couple of shots, but concluding that Hector had fired at some ducks, as he proposed, went on with his occupation. As he looked at their saddle-bags and valises, he regretted having to leave them, but without horses he saw no possibility of carrying them. Noon was approaching, Hector had not returned, and he became seriously anxious; so, taking his gun, he set out to look for him. "If he returns while I am away, he will, I hope, guess why I have gone, and will remain quietly here for my return," he said to himself. As he walked along he searched on every side, but Hector was nowhere to be seen. The dreadful thought occurred that his young friend might have met with some accident, or that, should Indians have carried off Greensnake, they might have entrapped him also. His own position was trying in the extreme; but being a man of courage, he nerved himself up to encounter whatever might happen. As he was casting his eyes around, he caught sight of a small, dark object on the ground. He hastened on. It was a powder-flask. It, however, was certainly not Hector's. He had no doubt that it belonged to Greensnake. A short distance beyond he came on a ramrod. The ground was covered with a rich grass, and there were signs of horses having fed on it, so that no doubt remained on his mind that it was here Greensnake had been during the night, and on further examination he discovered traces of the animals' feet moving to the eastward, but he was unable to ascertain whether Hector had passed that way. Had he done so, he would probably have followed up the trail of the horses. Loraine, therefore, hurried on in the same direction. He marked as carefully as he could the course he was taking, examining his compass to guide himself. Several times he thought that it would be better to retrace his steps, lest Hector should have returned during his absence to the camp. He was at length on the point of doing so when he saw before him a wood. At the same instant, he fancied that he heard the bark of a dog. He hurried forward, feeling sure that it was that either of Muskey or Buster, and he hoped that, if so, Hector was not far off, and had escaped being captured by Indians. In a short time he again heard the dogs bark, and as he approached the wood a voice, which he knew was Hector's, shouted out—
"Take care, there's a big she-grizzly, with a couple of cubs, in that thicket. I wounded her, and she's very savage."