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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter64)

2006-09-08 19:58

  CHAPTER LXIV War

  Eighteen hundred and twelve had passed away. President Madison, driven by wrongs to his countrymen and indignities that no nation should meekly accept, had in the midsummer declared war on Great Britain. Unfitted to cope with the situation and surrounded by unfit counsellors, his little army of heroic men led by unfit commanders had suffered one reverse after another.

  The loss of Fort Mackinaw, Chicago, Detroit, Brownstown, and the total destruction of the American army that attacked Queenstown were but poorly offset by the victory at Niagara and the successful defence of Ogdensburg.

  Rolf and Quonab had repaired to Albany as arranged, but they left it as United States scouts, not as guides to the four young sportsmen who wished to hark back to the primitive.

  Their first commission had been the bearing of despatches to Plattsburg.

  With a selected light canoe and a minimum of baggage they reached Ticonderoga in two days, and there renewed their acquaintance with General Hampton, who was fussing about, and digging useless entrenchments as though he expected a mighty siege. Rolf was called before him to receive other despatches for Colonel Pike at Plattsburg. He got the papers and learned their destination, then immediately made a sad mistake. " Excuse me, sir," he began, "if I meet with —— "

  "Young man," said the general, severely, "I don't want any of your 'ifs' or 'buts'; your orders are 'go.' 'How' and 'if' are matters for you to find out; that's what you are paid for."

  Rolf bowed; his cheeks were tingling. He was very angry at what he thought a most uncalled for rebuke, but he got over it, and he never forgot the lesson. It was Si Sylvanne that put it into rememberable form.

  "A fool horse kin follow a turnpike, but it takes a man with wits to climb, swim, boat, skate, run, hide, go it blind, pick a lock, take the long way, round, when it's the short way across, run away at the right time, or fight when it's wise —— all in one afternoon." Rolf set out for the north carrying a bombastic (meant to be reassuring) message from Hampton that he would annihilate any enemy who dared to desecrate the waters of the lake.

  It was on this trip that Rolf learned from Quonab the details of the latter's visit to his people on the St. Regis. Apparently the joy of meeting a few of his own kin, with whom he could talk his own language, was offset by meeting with a large number of his ancient enemies the Mohawks. There had been much discussion of the possible war between the British and the Yankees. The Mohawks announced their intention to fight for the British, which was a sufficient reason for Quonab as a Sinawa remaining with the Americans; and when he left the St. Regis reserve the Indian was without any desire to reenter it.

  At Plattsburg Rolf and Quonab met with another Albany acquaintance in General Wilkinson, and from him received despatches which they brought back to Albany, having covered the whole distance in eight days.

  When 1812 was gone Rolf had done little but carry despatches up and down Lake Champlain. Next season found the Americans still under command of Generals Wilkinson and Hampton, whose utter incompetence was becoming daily more evident.

  The year 1813 saw Rolf, eighteen years old and six feet one in his socks, a trained scout and despatch bearer.

  By a flying trip on snowshoes in January he took letters, from General Hampton at Ticonderoga to Sackett's Harbour and back in eight days, nearly three hundred miles. It made him famous as a runner, but the tidings that he brought were sad. Through him they learned in detail of the total defeat and capture of the American army at Frenchtown. After a brief rest he was sent across country on snowshoes to bear a reassuring message to Ogdensburg. The weather was much colder now, and the single blanket bed was dangerously slight; so "Flying Kittering," as they named him, took a toboggan and secured Quonab as his running mate. Skookum was given into safe keeping. Blankets, pots, cups, food, guns, and despatches were strapped on the toboggan, and they sped away at dawn from Ticonderoga on the I8th of February 1813, headed northwestward, guided by little but the compass. Thirty miles that day they made in spite of piercing blasts and driving snow. But with the night there began a terrible storm with winds of zero chill. The air was filled with stinging, cutting snow. When they rose at daylight they were nearly buried in drifts, although their camp was in a dense, sheltered thicket. Guided wholly by the compass they travelled again, but blinded by the whirling white they stumbled and blundered into endless difficulties and made but poor headway. After dragging the toboggan for three hours, taking turns at breaking the way, they were changing places when Rolf noticed a large gray patch on Quonab's cheek and nose.

  "Quonab, your face is frozen," he said.

  "So is yours," was the reply.

  Now they turned aside, followed a hollow until they reached a spruce grove, where they camped and took an observation, to learn that the compass and they held widely different views about the direction of travel. It was obviously useless to face the storm. They rubbed out their frozen features with dry snow and rested by the fire.

  No good scout seeks for hardship; he avoids the unnecessary trial of strength and saves himself for the unavoidable. With zero weather about them and twenty-four hours to wait in the storm, the scouts set about making themselves thoroughly comfortable.

  With their snowshoes they dug away the snow in a circle a dozen feet across, piling it up on the outside so as to make that as high as possible. When they were

  down to the ground, the wall of snow around them was five feet high. Now they went forth with the hatchets, cut many small spruces, and piled them against the living spruces about the camp till there was a dense mass of evergreen foliage ten feet high around them, open only at the top, where was a space five feet across. With abundance of dry spruce wood, a thick bed of balsam boughs, and plenty of blankets they were in what most woodmen consider comfort complete.

  They had nothing to do now but wait. Quonab sat placidly smoking, Rolf was sewing a rent in his coat, the storm hissed, and the wind-driven ice needles rattled through the trees to vary the crackle of the fire with a "siss" as they fell on the embers. The low monotony of sound was lulling in its evenness, when a faint crunch of a foot on the snow was heard. Rolf reached for his gun, the fir tree screen was shaken a little, and a minute later there bounded in upon them the snow covered form of little dog Skookum, expressing his good-will by excessive sign talk in which every limb and member had a part. They had left him behind, indeed, but not with his consent, so the bargain was incomplete.

  There was no need to ask now, What shall we do with him? Skookum had settled that, and why or how he never attempted to explain.

  He was wise who made it law that "as was his share who went forth to battle, so shall his be that abode with the stuff," for the hardest of all is the waiting. In the morning there was less doing in the elemental strife. There were even occasional periods of calm and at length it grew so light that surely the veil was breaking.

  Quonab returned from a brief reconnoitre to say, " Ugh! —— good going."

  The clouds were broken and flying, the sun came out at times, but the wind was high, the cold intense, and the snow still drifting. Poor Skookum had it harder than the men, for they wore snowshoes; but he kept his troubles to himself and bravely trudged along behind. Had he been capable of such reflection he might have said, "What delightful weather, it keeps the fleas so quiet."

  That day there was little to note but the intense cold, and again both men had their cheeks frost-bitten on the north side. A nook under an overhanging rock gave a good camp that night. Next day the bad weather resumed, but, anxious to push on they faced it, guided chiefly by the wind. It was northwest, and as long as they felt this fierce, burning cold mercilessly gnawing on their hapless tender right cheek bones, they knew they were keeping their proper main course.

  They were glad indeed to rest at dusk and thaw their frozen faces. Next day at dawn they were off; at first it was calm, but the surging of the snow waves soon began again, and the air was filled with the spray of their lashing till it was hard to see fifty yards in any direction. They were making very bad time. The fourth day should have brought them to Ogdensburg, but they were still far off; how far they could only guess, for they had not come across a house or a settler.

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