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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter65)

2006-09-08 19:58

  CHAPTER LXV Ogdensburg

  The same blizzard was raging on the next day when Skookum gave unequivocal sign talk that he smelled something.

  It is always well to find out what stirs your dog. Quonab looked hard at Skookum. That sagacious mongrel was sniffing vigorously, up in the air, not on the ground; his mane was not bristling, and the patch of dark hair that every gray or yellow dog has at the base of his tail, was not lifted.

  "He smells smoke," was the Indian's quick diagnosis. Rolf pointed Up the wind and made the sign-talk query. Quonab nodded.

  It was their obvious duty to find out who was their smoky neighbour. They were now not so far from the St. Lawrence; there was a small chance of the smoke being from a party of the enemy; there was a large chance of it being from friends; and the largest chance was that it came from some settler's cabin where they could get necessary guidance.

  They turned aside. The wind now, instead of on the right cheek, was square in their faces. Rolf went forward increasing his pace till he was as far ahead as was possible without being out of sight. After a mile their way led downward, the timber was thicker, the wind less, and the air no more befogged with flying snow. Rolf came to a long, deep trench that wound among the trees; the snow at the bottom of it was very hard. This was what he expected; the trail muffled under new, soft snow, but still a fresh trail and leading to the camp that Skookum had winded.

  He turned and made the sign for them to halt and wait. Then strode cautiously along the winding guide line.

  In twenty minutes the indications of a settlement increased, and the scout at length was peering from the woods across the open down to a broad stream on whose bank was a saw mill, with the usual wilderness of ramshackle shanties, sheds, and lumber piles about.

  There was no work going on, which was a puzzle till Rolf remembered it was Sunday. He went boldly up and asked for the boss. His whole appearance was that of a hunter and as such the boss received him.

  He was coming through from the other side and had missed his way in the storm, he explained.

  "What are ye by trade?"

  "A trapper."

  "Where are ye bound now?"

  "Well, I'll head for the nearest big settlement, whatever that is."

  "It's just above an even thing between Alexandria Bay and Ogdensburg."

  So Rolf inquired fully about the trail to Alexandria Bay that he did not want to go to. Why should he be so careful? The mill owner was clearly a good American, but the scout had no right to let any outsider know his business. This mill owner might be safe, but he might be unwise and blab to some one who was not all right.

  Then in a casual way he learned that this was the Oswegatchie River and thirty miles down he would find the town of Ogdensburg.

  No great recent events did he hear of, but evidently the British troops across the river were only awaiting the springtime before taking offensive measures.

  For the looks of it, Rolf bought some tea and pork, but the hospitable mill man refused to take payment and, leaving in the direction of Alexandria Bay, Rolf presently circled back and rejoined his friends in the woods.

  A long detour took them past the mill. It was too cold for outdoor idling. Every window was curtained with frost, and not a soul saw them as they tramped along past the place and down to continue on the ice of the Oswegatchie.

  Pounded by the ceaseless wind, the snow on the ice was harder, travel was easier, and the same tireless blizzard wiped out the trail as soon as it was behind them.

  Crooked is the river trail, but good the footing, and good time was made. When there was a north reach, the snow was extra hard or the ice clear and the scouts slipped off their snow shoes, and trotted at a good six-mile gait. Three times they halted for tea and rest, but the fact that they were the bearers of precious despatches, the bringers of inspiring good news, and their goal ever nearer, spurred them on and on. It was ten o'clock that morning when they left the mill, some thirty miles from Ogdensburg. It was now near sundown, but still they figured that by an effort they could reach the goal that night. It was their best day's travel, but they were nerved to it by the sense of triumph as they trotted; and the prospective joy of marching up to the commandant and handing over the eagerly looked for, reassuring documents, gave them new strength and ambition. Yes! they must push on at any price that night. Day was over now; Rolf was leading at a steady trot. In his hand he held the long trace of his toboggan, ten feet behind was Quonab with the short trace, while Skookum trotted before, beside, or behind, as was dictated by his general sense of responsibility.

  It was quite dark now. There was no moon, the wooded shore was black. Their only guide was the broad, wide reach of the river, sometimes swept bare of snow by the wind, but good travelling at all times. They were trotting and walking in spells, going five miles an hour; Quonab was suffering, but Rolf was young and eager to finish. They rounded another reach, they were now on the last big bend, they were reeling off the miles; only ten more, and Rolf was so stirred that, instead of dropping to the usual walk on signal at the next one hundred yards spell, he added to his trot. Quonab, taken unawares, slipped and lost his hold of the trace. Rolf shot ahead and a moment later there was the crash of a breaking air-hole, and Rolf went through the ice, clutched at the broken edge and disappeared, while the toboggan was dragged to the hole.

  Quonab sprung to his feet, and then to the lower side of the hole. The toboggan had swung to the same place and the long trace was tight; without a moment's delay the Indian hauled at it steadily, heavily, and in a few seconds the head of his companion reappeared; still clutching that long trace he was safely dragged from the ice-cold flood, blowing and gasping, shivering and sopping, but otherwise unhurt.

  Now here a new danger presented itself. The zero wind would soon turn his clothes to boards. They stiffened in a few minutes, and the Indian knew that frozen hands and feet were all too easy in frozen clothes.

  He made at once for the shore, and, seeking the heart of a spruce thicket, lost no time in building two roaring fires between which Rolf stood while the Indian made the bed, in which, as soon as he could be stripped, the lad was glad to hide. Warm tea and warm blankets made him warm, but it would take an hour or two to dry his clothes. There is nothing more damaging than drying them too quickly. Quonab made racks of poles and spent the next two hours in regulating the fire, watching the clothes, and working the moccasins.

  It was midnight when they were ready and any question of going on at once was settled by Quonab. "Ogdensburg is under arms," he said. "It is not wise to approach by night."

  At six in the morning they were once more going, stiff with travel, sore-footed, face-frozen, and chafed by delay; but, swift and keen, trotting and walking, they went. They passed several settlements, but avoided them. At seven-thirty they had a distant glimpse of Ogdensburg and heard the inspiring roll of drums, and a few minutes later from the top of a hill they had a complete view of the heroic little town to see —— yes! plainly enough —— that the British flag was flying from the flag pole.

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