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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter80)

2006-09-08 20:02

  CHAPTER LXXX Rolf Unmasks the Ambush

  Rolf's information was complete now, and all that remained was to report at Plattsburg. Ten regiments he had counted from his peep hole. The rear guard passed at ten o'clock. At eleven Mrs. Hubbell did a little scouting and reported that all was quiet as far as she could see both ways, and no enemy in sight anywhere.

  With a grateful hand shake he left the house to cover the fourteen miles that lay between Chazy and Plattsburg.

  Refreshed and fed, young and strong, the representative of a just and victorious cause, how he exulted in that run, rejoicing in his youth, his country, his strength, his legs, his fame as a runner. Starting at a stride he soon was trotting; then, when the noon hour came, he had covered a good six miles. Now he heard faint, far shots, and going more slowly was soon conscious that a running fight was on between his own people and the body of British sent westward to hold the upper Saranac.

  True to the instinct of the scout, his first business was to find out exactly what and where they were. From a thick tree top he saw the red-coats spotting an opening of the distant country. Then they were lost sight of in the woods. The desultory firing became volley firing, once or twice. Then there was an interval of silence. At length a mass of red-coats appeared on the highway within half a mile. They were travelling very fast, in full retreat, and were coming his way. On the crest of the hill over which the road ran, Rolf saw them suddenly drop to the ground and take up position to form a most dangerous ambuscade, and half a mile away, straggling through the woods, running or striding, were the men in the colours he loved. They had swept the enemy before them, so far, but trained troops speedily recover from a panic, if they have a leader of nerve, and seeing a noble chance in the angle of this deep-sunk road, the British fugitives turned like boars at bay. Not a sign of them was visible to the Americans. The latter were suffering from too much success. Their usual caution seemed to have deserted them, and trotting in a body they came along the narrow road, hemmed in by a forest and soon to be hedged with cliffs of clay. They were heading for a death-trap. At any price he must warn them. He slid down the tree, and keeping cover ran as fast as possible toward the ambush. It was the only hill near —— Beekman's Rise, they call it. As far as possible from the red-coats, but still on the hill that gave a view, he leaped on to a high stump and yelled as he never did before: "Go back, go back! A trap! A trap!" And lifting high his outspread hands he flung their palms toward his friends, the old-time signal for "go back."

  Not twice did they need warning. Like hunted wolves they flashed from view in the nearest cover. A harmless volley from the baffled ambush rattled amongst them, and leaping from his stump Rolf ran for life.

  Furious at their failure, a score of red-coats, reloading as they ran, came hot-footed after him. Down into cover of an alder swamp he plunged, and confident of his speed, ran on, dashing through thickets and mudholes. He knew that the red- coats would not follow far in such a place, and his comrades were near. But the alder thicket ended at a field. He heard the bushes crashing close at hand, and dashed down a little ravine at whose lower edge the friendly forest recommenced. That was his fatal mistake. The moment he took to the open there was a rattle of rifles from the hill above, and Rolf fell on his face as dead.

  It was after noontide when he fell; he must have lain unconscious for an hour; when he came to himself he was lying still in that hollow, absolutely alone. The red-coats doubtless had continued their flight with the Yankee boys behind them. His face was covered with blood. His coat was torn and bloody; his trousers showed a ragged rent that was reddened and sopping. His head was aching, and in his leg was the pain of a cripplement. He knew it as soon as he tried to move; his right leg was shattered below the knee. The other shots had grazed his arm and head; the latter had stunned him for a time, but did no deeper damage.

  He lay still for a long time, in hopes that some of his friends might come. He tried to raise his voice, but had no strength. Then he remembered the smoke signal that had saved him when he was lost in the woods. In spite of his wounded arm, he got out his flint and steel, and prepared to make a fire. But all the small wood he could reach was wet with recent rains. An old pine stump was on the bank not far away; he might cut kindling-wood from that to start his fire, and he reached for his knife. Alas! its case was empty. Had Rolf been four years younger, he might have broken down and wept at this. It did seem such an unnecessary accumulation of disasters. Without gun or knife, how was he to call his friends?

  He straightened his mangled limb in the position of least pain and lay for a while. The September sun fell on his back and warmed him. He was parched with thirst, but only thirty yards away was a little rill. With a long and fearful crawling on his breast, he dragged himself to the stream and drank till he could drink no more, then rested, washed his head and hands, 'and tried to crawl again to the warm place. But the sun had dropped behind the river bank, the little ravine was in shadow, and the chill of the grave was on the young man's pain-racked frame.

  Shadows crossed his brain, among them Si Sylvanne with his quaint sayings, and one above all was clear:

  "Trouble is only sent to make ye do yer best. When ye hev done yer best, keep calm and wait. Things is comin' all right." Yes, that was what he said, and the mockery of it hurt him now.

  The sunset slowly ended; the night wind blew; the dragging hours brought gloom that entered in. This seemed indeed the direst strait of his lot. Crippled, dying of cold, helpless, nothing to do but wait and die, and from his groaning lips there came the half-forgotten prayer his mother taught him long ago, "O God, have mercy on me!" and then he forgot.

  When he awoke, the stars were shining; he was numb with cold, but his mind was clear.

  "This is war," he thought, "and God knows we never sought it." And again the thought: "When I offered to serve my country, I offered my life. I am willing to die, but this is not a way of my choosing," and a blessed, forgetfulness came upon him again.

  But his was a stubborn-fibred race; his spark of life was not so quickly quenched; its blazing torch might waver, wane, and wax again. In the chill, dark hour when the life- lamp flickers most, he wakened to hear the sweet, sweet music of a dog's loud bark; in a minute he heard it nearer, and yet again at hand, and Skookum, erratic, unruly, faithful Skookum, was bounding around and barking madly at the calm, unblinking stars.

  A human "halloo" rang not far away; then others, and Skookum barked and barked.

  Now the bushes rustled near, a man came out, kneeled down, laid hand on the dying soldier's brow, and his heart. He opened his eyes, the man bent over him and softly said, "Nibowaka! it's Quonab."

  That night when the victorious rangers had returned to Plattsburg it was a town of glad, thankful hearts, and human love ran strong. The thrilling stories of the day were told, the crucial moment, the providential way in which at every hopeless pass, some easy, natural miracle took place to fight their battle and back their country's cause. The harrying of the flying rear-guard, the ambuscade over the hill, the appearance of an American scout at the nick of time to warn them —— the shooting, and his disappearance —— all were discussed.

  Then rollicking Seymour and silent Fiske told of their scouting on the trail of the beaten foe; and all asked, "Where is Kittering?" So talk was rife, and there was one who showed a knife he had picked up near the ambuscade with R. K. on the shaft.

  Now a dark-faced scout rose up, stared at the knife, and quickly left the room. In three minutes he stood before General Macomb, his words were few, but from his heart:

  "It is my boy, Nibowaka; it is Rolf; my heart tells me. Let me go. I feel him praying for me to come. Let me go, general. I must go."

  It takes a great man to gauge the heart of a man who seldom speaks. "You may go, but how can you find him tonight?"

  "Ugh, I find him," and the Indian pointed to a little, prick-eared, yellow cur that sneaked at his heels.

  "Success to you; he was one of the best we had," said the general, as the Indian left, then added: "Take a couple of men along, and, here, take this," and he held out a flask.

  Thus it was that the dawning saw Rolf on a stretcher carried by his three scouting partners, while Skookum trotted ahead, looking this way and that —— they should surely not be ambushed this time.

  And thus the crowning misfortune, the culminating apes of disaster —— the loss of his knife —— the thing of all others that roused in Rolf the spirit of rebellion, was the way of life, his dungeon's key, the golden chain that haled him from the pit.

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