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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter78)

2006-09-08 20:01

  CHAPTER LXXVIII Scouting for Macomb

  General Macomb knew that Sir George Prevost was a cautious and experienced commander. The loss of his fleet would certainly make a radical change in his plans, but what change? Would he make a flank move and dash on to Albany, or retreat to Canada, or entrench himself to await reinforcements at Plattsburg, or try to retrieve his laurels by an overwhelming assault on the town?

  Whatever his plan, he would set about it quickly, and Macomb studied the enemy's camp with a keen, discerning eye, but nothing suggesting a change was visible when the sun sank in the rainy west.

  It was vital that he know it at once when an important move was begun, and as soon as the night came down, a score of the swiftest scouts were called for. All were young men; most of them had been in McGlassin's band. Rolf was conspicuous among them for his tall figure, but there was a Vermont boy named Seymour, who had the reputation of being the swiftest runner of them all.

  They had two duties laid before them: first, to find whether Prevost's army was really retreating; second, what of the regiment he sent up the Saranac to perform the flank movement.

  Each was given the country he knew best. Some went westerly, some followed up the river. Rolf, Seymour, and Fiske, another Vermonter, skimmed out of Plattsburg harbour in the dusk, rounded Cumberland Bend, and at nine o'clock landed at Point au Roche, at the north side of Treadwell's Bay.

  Here they hid the canoe and agreeing to meet again at midnight, set off in three different westerly directions to strike the highway at different points. Seymour, as the fast racer, was given the northmost route; Rolf took the middle. Their signals were arranged —— in the woods the barred-owl cry, by the water the loon; and they parted.

  The woods seemed very solemn to Rolf that historic September night, as he strode along at speed, stopping now and again when he thought he heard some signal, and opened wide his mouth to relieve his ear-drums of the heart-beat or to still the rushing of his breath.

  In half an hour he reached the high-road. It was deserted. Then he heard a cry of the barred owl:

  Wa —— wah —— wa —— wah Wa - wah —— wa —— hooooo-aw.

  He replied with the last line, and the answer came a repeat of the whole chant, showing that it might be owl, it might be man; but it was not the right man, for the final response should have been the hooooo-aw. Rolf never knew whence it came, but gave no further heed.

  For a long time he sat in a dark corner, where he could watch the road. There were sounds of stir in the direction of Plattsburg. Then later, and much nearer, a couple of shots were fired. He learned afterward that those shots were meant for one of his friends. At length there was a faint tump ta tump ta. He drew his knife, stuck it deep in the ground, then held the handle in his teeth. This acted like a magnifier, for now he heard it plainly enough —— the sound of a horse at full gallop —— but so far away that it was five minutes before he could clearly hear it while standing. As the sound neared, he heard the clank of arms, and when it passed, Rolf knew that this was a mounted British officer. But why, and whither?

  In order to learn the rider's route, Rolf followed at a trot for a mile. This brought him to a hilltop, whither in the silent night, that fateful north wind carried still the sound

  te —— rump te —— rump te —— rump.

  As it was nearly lost, Rolf used his knife again; that brought the rider back within a mile it seemed, and again the hoof beat faded, te —— rump te —— rump.

  "Bound for Canada all right," Rolf chuckled to himself. But there was nothing to show whether this was a mere despatch rider, or an advance scout, or a call for reinforcements.

  So again he had a long wait. About half-past ten a new and larger sound came from the south. The knife in the ground increased but did not explain it. The night was moonless, dark now, and it was safe to sit very near the road. In twenty minutes the sound was near at hand in five, a dark mass was passing along the road. There is no mistaking the language of drivers. There is never any question about such and such a voice being that of an English officer. There can be no doubt about the clank of heavy wheels —— a rich, tangy voice from some one in advance said: "Oui. Parbleu, tows ce que je sais, c'est par la." A body of about one hundred Britishers, two or three wagons, guns, and a Frenchman for guide. Rolf thought he knew that voice; yes, he was almost sure it was the voice of Francios la Colle.

  This was important but far from conclusive. It was now eleven. He was due at the canoe by midnight. He made for the place as fast as he could go, which, on such a night, was slow, but guided by occasional glimpses of the stars he reached the lake, and pausing a furlong from the landing, he gave the rolling, quivering loon call:

  Ho-o-o-o-ooo-o Ho-o-o-o-ooo-o. Hooo-ooo.

  After ten seconds the answer came:

  Ho-o-o-o-o-o-o-o Hoo-ooo.

  And again after ten seconds Rolf's reply:

  Hoo-ooo.

  Both his friends were there; Fiske with a bullet-hole through his arm. It seemed their duty to go back at once to headquarters with the meagre information and their wounded comrade. But Fiske made light of his trouble —— it was a mere scratch —— and reminded them that their orders were to make sure of the enemy's movements. Therefore, it was arranged that Seymour take back Fiske and what news they had, while Rolf went on to complete his scouting.

  By one o'clock he was again on the hill where he had marked the horseman's outward flight and the escorted guns. Now, as he waited, there were sounds in the north that faded, and in the south were similar sounds that grew. Within an hour he was viewing a still larger body of troops with drivers and wheels that clanked. There were only two explanations possible: Either the British were concentrating on Chazy Landing, where, protected from MacDonough by the north wind, they could bring enough stores and forces from the north to march overland independent of the ships, or else they were in full retreat for Canada. There was but one point where this could be made sure, namely, at the forks of the road in Chazy village. So he set out at a jog trot for Chazy, six miles away.

  The troops ahead were going three miles an hour. Rolf could go five. In twenty minutes he overtook them and now was embarrassed by their slowness. What should he do? It was nearly impossible to make speed through the woods in the darkness, so as to pass them. He was forced to content himself by marching a few yards in their rear.

  Once or twice when a group fell back, he was uncomfortably close and heard scraps of their talk.

  These left little doubt that the army was in retreat. Still this was the mere chatter of the ranks. He curbed his impatience and trudged with the troop. Once a man dropped back to light his pipe. He almost touched Rolf, and seeing a marching figure, asked in unmistakable accents "Oi soi matey, 'ave ye a loight?"

  Rolf assumed the low south country English dialect, already familiar through talking with prisoners, and replied: "Naow, oi oin't a-smowking," then gradually dropped out of sight.

  They were nearly two hours in reaching Chazy where they passed the Forks, going straight on north. Without doubt, now, the army was bound for Canada! Rolf sat on a fence near by as their footsteps went tramp, tramp, tramp —— with the wagons, clank, clank, clank, and were lost in the northern distance.

  He had seen perhaps three hundred men; there were thirteen thousand to account for, and he sat and waited. He did not have long to wait; within half an hour a much larger body of troops evidently was approaching from the south; several lanterns gleamed ahead of them, so Rolf got over the fence, but it was low and its pickets offered poor shelter. Farther back was Judge Hubbell's familiar abode with dense shrubbery. He hastened to it and in a minute was hidden where he could see something of the approaching troops. They were much like those that had gone before, but much more numerous, at least a regiment, and as they filled the village way, an officer cried "Halt!" and gave new orders. Evidently they were about to bivouac for the night. A soldier approached the picket fence to use it for firewood, but an officer rebuked him. Other fuel, chiefly fence rails, was found, and a score or more of fires were lighted on the highway and in the adjoining pasture. Rolf found himself in something like a trap, for in less than two hours now would be the dawn.

  The simplest way out was to go in; he crawled quietly round the house to the window of Mrs. Hubbell's room. These were times of nervous tension, and three or four taps on the pane were enough to arouse the good lady. Her husband had come that way more than once.

  "Who is it?" she demanded, through a small opening of the sash.

  "Rolf Kittering," he whispered, "the place is surrounded by soldiers; can't you hide me?"

  Could she? Imagine an American woman saying "No" at such a time.

  He slipped in quietly.

  "What news?" she said. "They say that MacDonough has won on the Lake, but Plattsburg is taken."

  "No, indeed; Plattsburgh is safe; MacDonough has captured the fleet. I am nearly sure that the whole British army is retiring to Canada."

  "Thank God, thank God," she said fervently, "I knew it must be so; the women have met here and prayed together every day, morning and night. But hush!" she laid a warning finger on her lips and pointed up toward one of the rooms —— "British officer."

  She brought two blankets from a press and led up to the garret. At the lowest part of the roof was a tiny door to a lumber closet. In this Rolf spread his blankets, stretched his weary limbs, and soon was sound asleep.

  At dawn the bugles blew, the camp was astir. The officer in the house arose and took his post on the porch. He was there on guard to protect the house. His brother officers joined him. Mrs. Hubbell prepared breakfast. It was eaten silently, so far as Rolf could learn. They paid for it and, heading their regiment, went away northward, leaving the officer still on the porch.

  Presently Rolf heard a stealthy step in his garret, the closed door was pushed open, and Mrs. Hubbell's calm, handsome face appeared, as, with a reassuring nod, she set down a mug of coffee, some bread, and a bowl of mush and milk. And only those who have travelled and fasted for twelve hours when they were nineteen know how good it tasted.

  From a tiny window ventilator Rolf had a view of the road in front. A growing din of men prepared him for more troops, but still he was surprised to see ten regiments march past with all their stores —— a brave army, but no one could mistake their looks; they wore the despondent air of an army in full retreat.

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