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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter71)

2006-09-08 19:59

  CHAPTER LXXI Scouting in Canada

  Thar is two things," said Si Sylvanne to the senate, "that every national crisis is bound to show up: first, a lot o' dum fools in command; second a lot o great commanders in the ranks. An' fortunately before the crisis is over the hull thing is sure set right, and the men is where they oughter be."

  How true this was the nation was just beginning to learn. The fools in command were already demonstrated, and the summer of 1813 was replete with additional evidence. May, June, and July passed with many journeyings for Rolf and many times with sad news. The disasters at Stony Creek, Beaver Dam, and Niagara were severe blows to the army on the western frontier. In June on Lake Champlain the brave but reckless Lieutenant Sidney Smith had run his two sloops into a trap. Thus the Growler and the Eagle were lost to the Americans, and strengthened by that much the British navy on the lake.

  Encouraged by these successes, the British north of Lake Champlain made raid after raid into American territory, destroying what they could not carry off.

  Rolf and Quonab were sent to scout in that country and if possible give timely notice of raiders in force.

  The Americans were averse to employing Indians in warfare; the British entertained no such scruples and had many red-skinned allies. Quonab's case, however, was unusual, since he was guaranteed by his white partner, and now he did good service, for he knew a little French and could prowl among the settlers without anyone suspecting him of being an American scout.

  Thus he went alone and travelled far. He knew the country nearly to Montreal and late in July was lurking about Odletown, when he overheard scattered words of a conversation that made hin eager for more. "Colonel Murray - - twelve hundred men —— four hundred men ——"

  Meanwhile Rolf was hiding in the woods about La Colle Mill. Company after company of soldiers he saw enter, until at least five hundred were there. When night came down, he decided to risk a scarer approach. He left the woods and walked cautiously across the open lands about.

  The hay had been cut and most of it drawn in, but there was in the middle of the field a hay-cock. Rolf was near this when he heard sounds of soldiers from the mill. Soon large numbers came out, carrying their blankets. Evidently there was not room for them in the mill, and they were to camp on the field.

  The scout began to retreat when sounds behind showed that another body of soldiers was approaching from that direction and he was caught between the two. There was only one place to hide and that was beneath the haycock. He lifted its edge and crawled under, but it was full of thistles and brambles; indeed, that was why it was left, and he had the benefit of all the spines about him.

  His heart beat fast as he heard the clank of arms and the trampling; they came nearer, then the voices became more distinct. He heard unmistakable evidence too that both bodies were camping for the night, and that he was nearly surrounded. Not knowing what move was best he kept quiet. The men were talking aloud, then they began preparing their beds and he heard some one say, "There's a hay-cock; bring some of that."

  A soldier approached to get an armful of the hay, but sputtered out a chapter of malediction as his bare hands touched the masses of thistle and briers. His companions laughed at his mishap. He went to the fire and vowed he'd stick a brand in it and back he came with a burning stick.

  Rolf was all ready to make a dash for his life as soon as the cover should take fire, and he peered up into the soldier's face as the latter blew on the brand; but the flame had died, the thistles were not dry, and the fire was a failure; so, growling again, the soldier threw down the smoking stick and went away. As soon as he was safely afar, Rolf gathered a handful of soil and covered the red embers.

  It was a critical moment and his waiting alone had saved him.

  Two soldiers came with their blankets and spread them near. For a time they smoked and talked. One of them was short of tobacco; the other said, "Never mind, we'll get plenty in Plattsburg," and they guffawed.

  Then he heard, "As soon as the colonel" and other broken phrases.

  It was a most difficult place for Rolf; he was tormented with thistles in his face and down his neck; he dared not change his position; and how long he must stay was a problem. He would try to escape when all was still.

  The nearer soldiers settled to rest now. All was very quiet when Rolf cautiously peeped forth to see two dreadful things: first, a couple of sentries pacing up and down the edges of the camp; second, a broad, brilliant, rising moon. How horrible that lovely orb could be Rolf never before knew.

  Now, what next? He was trapped in the middle of a military camp and undoubtedly La Colle Mill was the rendezvous for some important expedition.

  He had ample time to think it all over. Unless he could get away before day he would surely be discovered. His uniform might save his life, but soldiers have an awkward, hasty way of dealing summarily with a spy —— then discovering too late that he was in uniform.

  From time to time he peered forth, but the scene was unchanged —— the sleeping regiment, the pacing sentries, the ever-brightening moon. Then the guard was changed, and the sentries relieved selected of all places for their beds, the bank beside the hay-cock. Again one of them went to help himself to some hay for a couch; and again the comic anger as he discovered it to be a bed of thorns. How thankful Rolf was for those annoying things that pricked his face and neck.

  He was now hemmed in on every side and, not knowing what to do, did nothing. For a couple of hours he lay still, then actually fell asleep. He was awakened by a faint rustling near his head and peered forth to see a couple of field mice playing about.

  The moon was very bright now, and the movements of the mice were plain; they were feeding on the seeds of plants in the hay-cock, and from time to time dashed under - the hay. Then they gambolled farther off and were making merry over a pod of wild peas when a light form came skimming noiselessly over the field. There was a flash, a hurried rush, a clutch, a faint squeak, and one of the mice was borne away in the claws of its feathered foe. The survivor scrambled under the hay over Rolf's face and somewhere into hiding.

  The night passed in many short naps. The bugle sounded at daybreak and the soldiers arose to make breakfast. Again one approached to use a handful of hay for fire-kindler, and again the friendly thistles did their part. More and more now his ear caught suggestive words and sounds —— "Plattsburg" —— "the colonel" —— etc.

  The breakfast smelt wonderfully captivating —— poor Rolf was famished. The alluring aroma of coffee permeated the hay-cock. He had his dried meat, but his need was water; he was tormented with thirst, and stiff and tortured; he was making the hardest fight of his life. It seemed long, though doubtless it was less than half an hour before the meal was finished, and to Rolf's relief there were sounds of marching and the noises were drowned in the distance.

  By keeping his head covered with hay and slowly raising it, he was safe to take a look around. It was a bright, sunny morning. The hay-cock, or thistle-cock, was one of several that had been rejected. It was a quarter-mile from cover; the soldiers were at work cutting timber and building a stockade around the mill; and, most dreadful to relate, a small dog was prowling about, looking for scraps on the scene of the soldiers' breakfast. If that dog came near his hiding-place, he knew the game was up. At such close quarters, you can fool a man but not a dog.

  Fortunately the breakfast tailings proved abundant, and the dog went off to assist a friend of his in making sundry interesting smell analyses along the gate posts of the stockade.

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