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    Chapter 9

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    Chapter 10
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    Weary as they were, there could be no thought of halting. The river and the plain lay far below them yet, and they must push on through the darkness.

    Hitherto the forest had awed John by its loneliness; its night-voices, falling at rare intervals on his ear and awaking him from dreams beside the camp-fire, had seemed to cry and challenge across immense distances as though the very beasts were far astray. But now, as he crouched behind Menehwehna, he felt it to be no less awfully inhabited. A thousand creeping things stirred or slunk away through the undergrowth; roosting birds edged towards one another in the branches, ever on the point of flapping off in panic; the thickets were warm from the flanks of moose and deer. And all this wild life, withdrawing, watched the four fugitives with a thousand eyes.

    These imaginary terrors did him one service. They kept him awake. By and by his brain began to work clearly, as it often will when the body has passed a certain point of fatigue. "If these Indians on the ridge are Iroquois, why should I run? The Iroquois are friends of England, and would recognise my red coat. The man they killed was a Canadian, a coureur de bois; they will kill Barboux if they catch him, and also these two Ojibways. But to me capture will bring release."

    He understood now why Menehwehna had called him a fool. Nevertheless, as he went, the screams on the cliff rang in his ears again, closing the argument.

    Muskingon still led. He had struck a small mountain stream and was tracking it down towards the river--keeping wide of it to avoid the swampy ground, relying on his ears and the lie of the slope. Menehwehna followed close, ready to give counsel if needed; but the young Indian held on in silence, never once hesitating.

    The debate in John's brain started afresh. "These Iroquois mean me no harm. I am sure enough of that, at any rate, to face the risk of it. Barboux is my enemy--my country's enemy--and I dislike in him the little I don't despise. As for Menehwehna and Muskingon--they, I suppose, are my enemies, and the Iroquois my friends." Somehow John felt that when civilised nations employ uncivilised allies, the simplest questions of ethics may become complicated. He remembered a hundred small acts of kindness, of good-fellowship; and he recalled, all too vividly, the murdered man and his gory head.

    But might he not escape back and show himself without lessening his comrades' chances? It was a nuisance that he must always be thinking of them as comrades. Was he not their prisoner? Would their comradeship help him at the end of the journey? . . .

    The moon had risen over the hills when Muskingon's piloting brought them out once more under open sky, at a point where the mountain stream met and poured itself into a larger one hurrying down from the northeast. A few yards below their confluence the riverbed narrowed, and the waters, gathering speed, were swept down through a rocky chasm towards a cataract, the noise of which had been sounding in John's ears while he debated.

    Hitherto he had weighed the question as one between himself and his three companions. For the moment he saw no chance of giving them the slip; and, if a chance occurred, the odds must be terribly unequal. Still, supposing that one occurred, ought he to take it? Putting aside the insane risk, ought he to bring death--and such a death-- down upon these three men, two of whom he looked upon as friends? Did his country, indeed, require this of him? He wished he had his cousin Dick beside him for counsellor, or could borrow Dick's practical mind. Dick always saw clearly.

    And behold! as he stepped out upon the river bank, his wish was given him. He remembered suddenly that this Barboux carried a message--of what importance he could not tell, nor was it for him to consider. Important or not, it must be to England's detriment, and as a soldier, he had no other duty than to baulk it. Why had he not thought of this before? It ruled out all private questions, even that of escape or of saving his own life. The report of a gun would certainly be heard on the ridge above; and if, by forcing Barboux to shoot, he could draw down the Iroquois, why then--live or die--the signal must be given.

    He scanned the chasm. It could not measure less than twenty feet across, and the current whirled through it far below--thirty feet perhaps. He eyed his companions. Barboux leaned on his gun a few paces from the brink, where the two Indians stood peering down at the dim waters. John dropped on one knee, pretending to fasten a button of his gaiters, and drew a long breath while he watched for his chance. Presently Muskingon straightened himself up and, as if satisfied with his inspection, began to lead the way again, slanting his course away from the bank and back towards the selvage of the woods. Menehwehna followed close, and Barboux shouldered his musket and fell into third place, grunting to John to hurry after.

    And so John did--for a dozen paces back from the river. Then, swinging quickly on his heel, he dashed for the brink, and leapt.

    So sudden was the manoeuvre that not until his feet left the rock--it seemed, at that very instant--did he hear the sergeant's oath of dismay. Even as he flew across the whirling darkness, his ear was listening for the shot to follow.

    The take-off--a flat slab of rock--was good, and the leap well timed. But he had allowed too little, perhaps, for his weariness and his recent wound; and in the darkness he had not seen that of the two brinks the far one stood the higher by many inches. In mid-air he saw it, and flung his arms forward as he pitched against it little more than breast-high. His fingers clutched vainly for hold, while his toes scraped the face of the rock, but found no crevice to support them.

    Had his body dropped a couple of inches lower before striking the bank, or had the ledge shelved a degree or two more steeply, or had it been smooth or slippery with rain, he must have fallen backward into the chasm. As it was, his weight rested so far forward upon his arms that, pressing his elbows down upon the rock, he heaved himself over on the right side of the balance, fell on his face and chest, and so wriggled forward until he could lift a knee.

    The roar of the waters drowned all other noise. Only that faint cry of Barboux had followed him across. But now, as he scrambled to his feet, he heard a sudden thud on the ledge behind him. A hand clutched at his heel, out of the night. At once he knew that his stratagem had failed, that Barboux would not fire, that Muskingon was upon him. He turned to get at grips; but, in the act of turning, felt his brain open and close again with a flame and a crash, stretched out both arms, and pitched forward into darkness.

    It seemed--for he knew no break in his sensations--that the ground, as he touched it, became strangely soft and elastic. For a while he wondered at this idly, then opened his eyes--but only to blink and close them again, for they were met by broad daylight.

    He was lying on the grass; he was resting in Muskingon's arms amid a roaring of many waters; he was being carried between Muskingon and Menehwehna beneath a dark roof of pines--and yet their boughs were transparent, and he looked straight through them into blue sky. Was he dead? Had he passed into a world where time was not, that all these things were happening together? If so, how came the two Indians here? And Barboux? He could hear Barboux muttering: no, shouting aloud. Why was the man making such a noise? And who was that firing? . . . Oh, tell him to stop! The breastwork will never be carried in this way--haven't the troops charged it again and again? Look at Sagramore, there: pull him off somebody and let him die quiet! For pity's sake fetch the General, to make an end of this folly! Forty-sixth! Where are the Forty-sixth? . . .

    He was lying in a boat now--a canoe. But how could this be, when the boat was left behind on the other side of the mountain? Yet here it was, plain as daylight, and he was lying in it; also he could remember having been lifted and placed here by Muskingon--not by Menehwehna. To be sure Menehwehna crouched here above him, musket in hand. Between the shouting and firing he heard the noise of water tumbling over rapids. The noise never ceased; it was all about him; and yet the boat did not move. It lay close under a low bank, with a patch of swamp between it and the forest: and across this swamp towards the forest Muskingon was running. John saw him halt and lift his piece as Barboux came bursting through the trees with an Indian in pursuit. The two ran in line, the Indian lifting a tomahawk and gaining at every stride; and Muskingon had to step aside and let them come abreast of him before he fired at close quarters. The Indian fell in a heap; Barboux struggled through the swamp and leapt into the canoe as Muskingon turned to follow. But now three--four--five Indians were running out of the woods upon him; four with tomahawks only, but the fifth carried a gun; and, while the others pursued, this man, having gained the open, dropped swiftly on one knee and fired. At that instant Menehwehna's musket roared out close above John's head; but as the marksman rolled over, dead, on his smoking gun, Muskingon gave one leap like a wounded stag's, and toppled prone on the edge of the bank close above the canoe.

    And with that, and even as Menehwehna sprang to his feet to reach and rescue him, Barboux let fly an oath, planted the butt of his musket against the bank, and thrust the canoe off. It was done in a second. In another, the canoe had lurched afloat, the edge of the rapid whirled her bow round, and she went spinning down-stream.

    All this John saw distinctly, and afterwards recalled it all in order, as it befell. But sometimes, as he recalled it, he seemed to be watching the scene with an excruciating ache in his brain; at others, in a delicious languor of weakness. He remembered too how the banks suddenly gathered speed and slid past while the boat plunged and was whirled off in the heart of the rapid. Muskingon had uttered no cry: but back--far back--on the shore sounded the whoops of the Iroquois.

    Then--almost at once--the canoe was floating on smooth water and Menehwehna talking with Barboux.

    "It had better be done so," Menehwehna was saying. "You are younger than I, and stronger, and it will give you a better chance."

    "Don't be a fool," growled Barboux. "The man was dead, I tell you. They are always dead when they jump like that. Que diable! I have seen enough fighting to know."

    But Menehwehna replied, "You need much sleep and you cannot watch against me. I have reloaded my gun, and the lock of yours is wet. Indeed, therefore, it must be as I say."

    After this, Barboux said very little: but the canoe was paddled to shore and the two men walked aside into the woods. The sun was setting and they cast long shadows upon the bank as they stepped out.

    John lay still and dozed fitfully, waking up now and then to brush away the mosquitoes that came with the first falling shadows to plague him.

    By and by in the twilight Menehwehna returned and stood above the bank. He tossed a bundle into the canoe, stepped after it, and pushed off without hurry.

    John laughed, as a child might laugh, guessing some foolish riddle.

    "You have killed him!"

    "He did wickedly," answered Menehwehna. "He was a fool and past bearing."

    John laughed again; and, being satisfied, dropped asleep.
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