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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter66)

2006-09-08 19:58

  CHAPTER LXVI Saving the Despatches

  Oh, the sickening shock of it! Rolf did not know till now how tired he was, how eager to deliver the heartening message, and to relax a little from the strain. He felt weak through and through. There could be no doubt that a disaster had befallen his country's arms.

  His first care was to get out of sight with his sled and those precious despatches.

  Now what should he do? Nothing till he had fuller information. He sent Quonab back with the sled, instructing him to go to a certain place two miles off, there camp out of sight and wait.

  Then he went in alone. Again and again he was stung by the thought, "If I had come sooner they might have held out."

  A number of teams gathered at the largest of a group of houses on the bank suggested a tavern. He went in and found many men sitting down to breakfast. He had no need to ask questions. It was the talk of the table. Ogdensburg had been captured the day before. The story is well known. Colonel MacDonnell with his Glengarry Highlanders at Prescott went to drill daily on the ice of the St. Lawrence opposite Ogdensburg. Sometimes they marched past just out of range, sometimes they charged and wheeled before coming too near. The few Americans that held the place watched these harmless exercises and often cheered some clever manceuvre. They felt quite safe behind their fortification. By an unwritten agreement both parties refrained from firing random shots at each other. There was little to suggest enemies entrenched; indeed, many men in each party had friends in the other, and the British had several times trotted past within easy range, without provoking a shot.

  On February 22d, the day when Rolf and Quonab struck the Oswegatchie, the British colonel directed his men as usual, swinging them ever nearer the American fort, and then, at the nearest point, executed a very pretty charge. The Americans watched it as it neared, but instead of wheeling at the brink the little army scrambled up with merry shouts, and before the garrison could realize that this was war, they were overpowered and Ogdensburg was taken.

  The American commander was captured. Captain Forsyth, the second in command, had been off on a snowshoe trip, so had escaped. All the rest were prisoners, and what to do with the despatches or how to get official instructions was now a deep problem. "When you don't know a thing to do, don't do a thing," was one of Si Sylvanne's axioms; also, "In case of doubt lay low and say nothing." Rolf hung around the town all day waiting for light. About noon a tall, straight, alert man in a buffalo coat drove up with a cutter. He had a hasty meal in an inside room. Rolf sized him up for an American officer, but there was a possibility of his being a Canadian. Rolf tried in vain to get light on him but the inner door was kept closed; the landlord was evidently in the secret. When he came out he was again swaddled in the buffalo coat. Rolf brushed past him —— here was something hard and long in the right pocket of the big coat.

  The landlord, the guest, and the driver had a whispered conference. Rolf went as near as he dared, but got only a searching look. The driver spoke to another driver and Rolf heard the words "Black Lake." Yes, that was what he suspected. Black Lake was on the inland sleigh route to Alexandria Bay and Sackett's Harbour.

  The driver, a fresh young fellow, was evidently interested in the landlord's daughter; the stranger was talking with the landlord. As soon as they had parted, Rolf went to the latter and remarked quietly: "The captain is in a hurry." The only reply was a cold look and: "Guess that's his business." So it was the captain. The driver's mitts were on the line back of the stove. Rolf shook them so that they fell in a dark corner. The driver missed his mitts, and glad of a chance went back in, leaving the officer alone. "Captain Forsyth," whispered Rolf, "don't go till I have talked with you. I'll meet you a mile down the road."

  "Who are you and what do you want?" was the curt and hostile reply, evidently admitting the identification correct however.

  Rolf opened his coat and showed his scout badge.

  "Why not talk now if you have any news —— come in side." So the two went to the inner room. "Who is this?" asked Rolf cautiously as the landlord came in.

  "He's all right. This is Titus Flack, the landlord."

  "How am I to know that?"

  "Haven't you heard him called by name all day?" said the captain.

  Flack smiled, went out and returned with his license to sell liquor, and his commission as a magistrate of New York State. The latter bore his own signature. He took a pen and reproduced it. Now the captain threw back his overcoat and stood in the full uniform of an army officer. He opened his satchel and took out a paper, but Rolf caught sight of another packet addressed to General Hampton. The small one was merely a map. "I think that packet in there is meant for me," remarked Rolf.

  "We haven't seen your credentials yet," said the officer. "I have them two miles back there," and Rolf pointed to the woods.

  "Let's go," said the captain and they arose. Kittering had a way of inspiring confidence, but in the short, silent ride of two miles the captain began to have his doubts. The scout badge might have been stolen; Canadians often pass for Americans, etc. At length they stopped the sleigh, and Rolf led into the woods. Before a hundred yards the officer said, "Stop," and Rolf stopped to find a pistol pointed at his head. "Now, young fellow, you've played it pretty slick, and I don't know yet what to make of it. But I know this; at the very first sign of treachery I'll blow your brains out anyway." It gave Rolf a jolt. This was the first time he had looked down a pistol barrel levelled at him. He used to think a pistol a little thing, an inch through and a foot long, but he found now it seemed as big as a flour barrel and long enough to reach eternity. He changed colour but quickly recovered, smiled, and said: "Don't worry; in five minutes you will know it's all right."

  Very soon a sharp bark was heard in challenge, and the two stepped into camp to meet Quonab and little dog Skookum.

  "Doesn't look much like a trap," thought the captain after he had cast his eyes about and made sure that no other person was in the camp; then aloud, "Now what have you to show me? "

  "Excuse me, captain, but how am I to know you are Captain Forsyth? It is possible for a couple of spies to give all the proof you two gave me."

  The captain opened his bag and showed first his instructions given before he left Ogdensburg four days ago; he bared his arm and showed a tattooed U. S. A., a relic of Academy days, then his linen marked J. F., and a signet ring with similar initials, and last the great packet of papers addressed to General Hampton. Then he said: "When you hand over your despatches to me I will give mine to you and we shall have good guarantee each of the other."

  Rolf rose, produced his bundle of papers, and exchanged them for those held by Forsyth; each felt that the other was safe. They soon grew friendly, and Rolf heard of some stirring doings on the lake and preparations for a great campaign in the spring.

  After half an hour the tall, handsome captain left them and strode away, a picture of manly vigour. Three hours later they were preparing their evening meal when Skookum gave notice of a stranger approaching. This was time of war; Rolf held his rifle ready, and a moment later in burst the young man who had been Captain Forsyth's driver.

  His face was white; blood dripped from his left arm, and in his other hand was the despatch bag. He glanced keenly at Rolf. "Are you General Hampton's scout?" Rolf nodded and showed the badge on his breast. "Captain Forsyth sent this back," he gasped. "His last words were, 'Burn the despatches rather than let the British get them.' They got him —— a foraging party —— there was a spy at the hotel. I got away, but my tracks are easy to follow unless it drifts. Don't wait."

  Poor boy, his arm was broken, but he carried out the dead officer's command, then left them to seek for relief in the settlement.

  Night was near, but Rolf broke camp at once and started eastward with the double packet. He did not know it then, but learned afterward that these despatches made clear the weakness of Oswego, Rochester, and Sackett's Harbour, their urgent need of help, and gave the whole plan for an American counter attack on Montreal. But he knew they were valuable, and they must at once be taken to General Hampton.

  It was rough, hard going in the thick woods and swamps away from the river, for he did not dare take the ice route now, but they pushed on for three hours, then, in the gloom, made a miserable camp in a cedar swamp.

  At dawn they were off again. To their disgust the weather now was dead calm; there was no drift to hide their tracks; the trail was as plain as a highway wherever they went. They came to a beaten road, followed that for half a mile, then struck off on the true line. But they had no idea that they were followed until, after an hour of travel, the sun came up and on a far distant slope, full two miles away, they saw a thin black line of many spots, at least a dozen British soldiers in pursuit.

  The enemy was on snowshoes, and without baggage evidently, for they travelled fast. Rolf and Quonab burdened with the sled were making a losing race. But they pushed on as fast as possible —— toiling and sweating at that precious load. Rolf was pondering whether the time had not yet come to stop and burn the packet, when, glancing back from a high ridge that gave an outlook, he glimpsed a row of heads that dropped behind some rocks half a mile away, and a scheme came into his mind. He marched boldly across the twenty feet opening that was in the enemy's view, dropped behind the spruce thickets, called Quonab to follow, ran around the thicket, and again crossed the open view. So he and Quonab continued for five minutes, as fast as they could go, knowing perfectly well that they were watched. Round and round that bush they went, sometimes close together, carrying the guns, sometimes dragging the sled, sometimes with blankets on their shoulders, sometimes with a short bag or even a large cake of snow on their backs. They did everything they could to vary the scene, and before five minutes the British officer in charge had counted fifty-six armed Americans marching in single file up the bank with ample stores, accompanied by five yellow dogs. Had Skookum been allowed to carry out his ideas, there would have been fifty or sixty yellow dogs, so thoroughly did he enter into the spirit of the game.

  The track gave no hint of such a troop, but of course not, how could it? since the toboggan left all smooth after they had passed, or maybe this was a reinforcement arriving. What could he do with his ten men against fifty of the enemy? He thanked his stars that he had so cleverly evaded the trap, and without further attempt to gauge the enemy's strength, he turned and made all possible haste back to the shelter of Ogdensburg.

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