Lieutenant Cuyler’s visit had at least the good result that it was a salutary warning to sign Christie and his garrison, to be on their guard; at the same time she made known to them very important events which they did not know.
It was a flash of light that shone light on the gigantic conspiracy of Pontiac, and the imminent danger threatening isolated garrisons in the desert. In fact, these detached bodies, lost hundreds of miles in the depths of the woods, could easily be attacked by clouds of savages; once they were stuck in their rustic citadels, it was only a matter of time for them; sooner or later he had to succumb.
Christie, at the turn of things, was perfectly expecting her turn to come. He was a noble and valiant man of war, unable to falter, ready to be chopped to pieces rather than giving the Indians an inch of ground. He stood wonderfully on his guard; he had been able to animate his men with his courageous breath; everyone around him was ready to fight to the last ray of hope, to the last breath of life.
The only point that distressed him was the weakness of the citadel from the point of view of location. He knew too well that the Indians, who, moreover, were perfecting themselves every day in the art of war, would perfectly enjoy all the advantages of the ground for shelter; and that, behind the natural earthworks which dominated the fort, they could brave a hail of bullets, while overwhelming the besieged with a murderous shooting.
The day after Cuyler’s departure, Ensign Christie was standing on the far end of the peninsula, busy throwing small pebbles with the tip of his foot, and meditating on the darkness of the future.
It was one of those splendid mornings, as the sky frequently likes to give to the countries placed under this latitude. At any other time, the commander of the fort would have felt light and happy; but that day his mind was oppressed by a sort of vague and sinister presentiment, which gradually enveloped him like a fog of melancholy.
A sound of light footsteps struck his ear; he turned around and saw Basil Veghte approaching.
“I do not know what it would take to distract you,” said the latter, gesturing with his pipe he had just removed from his mouth; I have been examining you for an hour, and you are still bowed, stirring the little pebbles, as absorbed by your meditations as a hunter on the lookout for the beaver. You have something in your mind that troubles you.
Ah! it’s you Basil! I am very glad to see you; my mind will recover in your society. Since this unfortunate Cuyler and his men have passed by here, I have only thought of their adventure and their speeches; I can not get rid of the idea that Fort Detroit and all those on the frontier will be annihilated successively.
“Where does this opinion come from, Ensign?
“All the commanders are mad enough to fall asleep in some kind of careless indifference; they indulge, so to speak, themselves in the Indians. Major Gladwyn, perhaps, is on his guard, but since his post is the most important, Pontiac has taken charge of it himself, and he is furiously besieging it. If Cuyler and his men with their ammunition had managed to reach Detroit, the major and his garrison would have been saved, today all is lost.
-I agree that not everything is pink; but I fear nothing for us. Remember that the fort Presqu’ile was built to ward off some unfortunate eventuality similar to ours; he has resisted well a first time, he will resist a good second; as for me, I find him very capable of enduring a hand. I will even say, as far as I am concerned, that I would not be sorry to have a good skirmish with the Redskins: I have a good feeling of what would happen.
-Oh! my God! I am not only in pain for our fort. What will happen to the English possessions in America, if the frontier posts all fall like Fort Sandusky? You can well believe it, the French are at the bottom of it all; every citadel that is taken from us is won for them: there is more, all these successive disasters, inspire the Indians with the scorn of our power, and increase their respect for the power of their “French Father.”
Basil did not answer; for a few minutes he had stubbornly probed the depths of the lake. His persistence in looking like this attracted the attention of Christie who asked him:
-Do you see anything suspicious?
-I see a boat on the water; we will still have visitors.
Lake Erie’s surface was calm and ice-smooth; on his shiny tablecloth a black dot was found, which at first sight could be mistaken for a sleeping bird on the waves.
A closer look revealed the shapes of a canoe; after a few seconds, Basil Veghte declared that it contained two people.
“Perhaps unfortunate people have escaped the ruin of some fort,” said Christie.
-Yes it’s possible; they have been chased to the shore, and arrive from a very remote point; from the north, no doubt.
-They will be here soon: do you distinguish the furrow of the oars?
-Yes, and the maneuvering man knows his job: I think it must be a Redskin.
The two friends remained for some time motionless and attentive, watching the course of the boat:
Suddenly Basil went on:
“I am sure of it now, it is an Indian who paddles; he who sits is a white man.
-What can it be? It seems to me that they are not unknown to me.
Le Forestier uttered an exclamation, he had just recognized the two navigators.
-Look well, Teach! Can not you put their name on their faces?
“Faith, no, and yet I find a certain resemblance to it-see Basil, you have recognized these beings?
-Certainly! but say at least, by supposition …!
-Eh! no; I could not.
-Make a bet.
-What’s the point? If you do not want to talk, I’ll wait for them to come.
-Well! Sir, Basil said in an expressive tone, the seated man is Horace Johnson; and the all-colored Indian is that old rabble of Balkblalk!
-Is it possible? Yes you are right. What the hell can they want us?
-We are going to learn it because they are approaching.
Indeed, after a few minutes, the boat landed almost at their feet. Johnson sprang nimbly and took Basil’s hand without ceremony; Balkblalk remained behind with a sly and silent air.
“You do not expect me at this moment, I suppose? said Johnson with a smile.
“No,” said the Forestier curtly; we were even less expecting the tattooed rogue who is behind you.
-What? he’s a good boy! What do you have against him?
-Almost nothing, except that I would rather see the devil in the skin of a panther, or a panther in the skin of the devil, your choice.
Master Horace laughed and turned to the Wild.
“You can go Balkblalk,” he said.
The Wildman obeyed on the spot. With a robust rowing he rolled the canoe back into the water, and in less than a minute the light boat disappeared into the distance with the rapidity of a bird.
“I am going to take a short break here,” said Johnson, “I have not visited the fort for a long time.
“Have not you come lately to the neighborhood? Christie asked.
“Yes, me and this Red-skin we were hunting last week, in these parts; we even wanted to give you signals, but it was late and time was pressing.
This statement, in addition to its indisputable stamp of truth, carried with it a frankness and spontaneity which somewhat disconcerted Christie and Veghte. In addition, Master Johnson had such a good-natured appearance, his big face was so open, that suspicions vanished on their own just looking at him.
“When I left you last winter,” remarked Basil, still suspicious, “I thought I would never see you again in this world.
-My faith! retorted Johnson, I thought I would never meet, neither you nor anyone in the future. I think I have never seen death so close.
-How did you escape?
– Escape , is not the word: you know in what position I was! I made the Indians sign to calm their fire, announcing to them that I was making myself prisoner. I had little hope of being seen, yet they seemed to have noticed my gestures; an Indian came to me, a little on the ice, a little while swimming, and brought the boat to the opposite shore; then all the companions embarked in their turn, and we followed the current to their village. There they gave me care that I had a scary need, it must be agreed.
This story seemed a little surprising to Basil, who knew himself as a savage, and knew that they did not often show such leniency to their prisoners.
Nevertheless he wanted to push the conversation further.
-Have you managed to escape quickly? He asked.
-Not too soon, I am free only for about a month.
-What were the circumstances of your escape?
-Oh! of incredible simplicity: one fine morning, in my head, I escaped; and I escaped!
This explanation astonished Basil by his simplicity ; his suspicions returned at full gallop.
“But what are you talking about with this abominable Indian now running on the lake?”
-Peuh! I met him by chance one fine day, and my impression was that it would be better to have him as a friend than as an enemy.
-Yes, it was the best. Where has he gone now, this old monster?
He left for a long hunting expedition; we will not see him for a month.
“John,” Christie asked, “have you heard of the disaster experienced by Lieutenant Cuyler and his men?
-No; what do you know?
He landed at the other end of the lake, with a hundred men; the Indians attacked him and killed half of his world.
-Is it possible? exclaimed Master Horace, with the signs of the most astonishment; I had not heard a single word.
“You do not know anything about the Detroit which is besieged by Pontiac?
-Absolutely nothing. And what is happening with the Indians?
What’s going on there, the devil! replied the Commandant, in a dejected tone, vigorously throwing a stone into the lake with his foot, “I suspect it will be hot here before long.”
-Well! it’s not my opinion, “said Johnson meditatively;” there will be, perhaps, a few troubles here and there, as always, but nothing more. “Scuffles similar to those we have just heard. speak…
-Not! what is happening at the moment is very serious, quite extraordinary, quite alarming. I have long dreaded what is happening now.
“Are you afraid? Johnson asked, tying Christie a sharp look.
-Afraid of what? An attack? Christie replied.
“Certainly, and I am not wrong; my apprehensions will only be too justified.
Horace Johnson burst out laughing:
-I would like to know the cause of your fear? he said; what better fortress could you want? Which garrison could be braver than yours?
-Yes you are right; I have nothing to fear, nothing to desire, if it is not another position. But, come and rest with us, it is almost noon.
-I can only stay here until tomorrow.
The Sign showed the way, and all three entered the interior.
Johnson was well known to the whole garrison; he was cordially welcomed. As he was a great talker, communicative, always ready to tell a story, they made him a joyful company; the whole afternoon was spent in babbling, in laughter, in endless stories of hunting or war.
When night came, Basil, like everyone else, was thinking of rest, and was going back to his room, when Christie approached him mysteriously and invited him in a low voice to accompany him to the fort’s lookout, to throw a shot eye on the surroundings.
“There is something going on that I do not understand,” he told him. I have been watching for half an hour.
-What is there?
-You will see it in a moment.
Where is Horace Johnson?
-He sleeps: midnight is over.
Are you sure he’s sleeping? Basil observed; watch your movements!
“I have charged a man to spy on him and report to his slightest movements. I begin to believe, Basil, that we have nothing to fear from him.
-Maybe yes maybe no. I would be wrong: but I do not think much to trust this individual.
After a few moments the two friends were at the belvedere of the block-house. Christie asked the sentry:
Where are we, Jim?
“We have just disappeared, sir, no! here he is reappearing.
On the far side of Lake Erie there was a bright spot that looked like a star in the water. At first glance it was difficult to determine the nature of it; sometimes this doubtful gleam was fixed, sometimes agitated; sometimes it disappeared as if tossed by the waves, sometimes it rose as if an invisible hand had raised it in the air.
“Since when does it last, Jim? asked Veghte.
“About an hour and a half ago I took care,” replied the sentinel; which does not mean that the thing did not exist long ago: I have not always had my eyes fixed on this point, it is unfortunate because I could have said the precise moment where it began. What idea do you have of that, sir? Jim added with a lively movement of curiosity.
It’s difficult to say exactly; but it is easy to suspect. You can put it in your mind that this is some Indian devilry.
“Do you think that an Indian would venture to put a light in this light, with the certainty that we would see it? Christie observed.
“Perhaps they have no other desire than to make us see it,” said Basil Veghte sententiously.
-Ah but! exclaimed the commander with animation, “perhaps they are the survivors of some garrison; that of Fort Sandusky, for example. They probably did not dare land, fearing that the Indians had sacked the Fort Presqu’ile.
-No, it’s not my idea: I argue it’s a signal for people who are scattered on the coast.
Detachments of Frenchmen or Indians, who weave their gloomy raillery against us, and display signs of intelligence. Or, there is in the fort some traitor to whom they address themselves: do you suspect anyone, commander?
-No, on my honor! answered Christie seriously; all our men are faithful and honest. Is not it Jim?
The sentry hesitated and did not answer. The commander was going to insist on his question, when Basil said to him in a low voice:
-Teaches! look at this light again: it rises and falls in a strange way. I’ll take a canoe and see what it is.
-It will run a big risk, my friend; but, after all, you are in a position to get by.
-It’s my opinion.
The Forester was a man of few words and much action. He went out on the spot, descended on the shore without being accompanied by anybody, and, throwing himself into a canoe, always ready when necessary, set off boldly for his perilous journey.
While settling in the boat, he glanced back and saw on the edge a man of tall stature who seemed to follow him with his eyes: the night prevented him from recognizing him.
“Is it you, Ensign? he asked cautiously.
-Yes. Go quickly! he replied.
The voice was that of a stranger, and Basil saw it very well: but there was no time to retreat; the best was to pretend:
-Farewell! everything is fine! he replied, rowing and disappearing in the shadows. “Who, devil! can be this big giant …? he wondered as he walked; I never heard that voice; there is no one in the fort who looks like that fellow.