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   Chapter 35 THE FALL OF THE GIANT

The Radio Detectives By A. Hyatt Verrill Characters: 15111

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


As the wait might be long, the party decided to snatch a few minutes' sleep, one of them remaining on the lookout for the arrival of the Chief of Minong. It was some time after midnight, when Keneu, who was doing guard duty, discerned something moving on the lake, coming down shore. He laid his hand on the half-breed boy's forehead, and Blaise woke at once.

"A canoe," the Indian whispered.

Blaise raised his head to look. "The men from the Grand Portage. What idiots! Why not keep closer in?"

The Indian's hand pressed the lad's shoulder warningly. "Wait," he breathed. "Let them go by."

Secure in the black shelter of the alders that overhung the bit of beach, Blaise watched the approaching canoe. It came on rapidly, confidently. As it drew close in the darkness of the channel between mainland and island, the boy's eyes could make out no details. But his ears caught something that made him heartily glad he had not signalled that canoe as had been his first thought. What he heard was an order spoken in Ojibwa, in the unmistakable, high-pitched, nasal voice of Ohrante. In obedience to the command, the canoe swung away from the mainland towards the Island of Torture, and disappeared in the blackness of its margin.

Blaise drew a long breath and whispered in Keneu's ear, "Go watch the camp and see what they do."

Keneu made no reply, but Blaise knew he was gone, though he heard no sound as the Indian slipped through the bushes. In the same quiet way that Keneu had waked him, by laying his hand on the forehead of each, Blaise aroused his companions. In a few minutes all were sitting up, wide awake, staring at the dark water and the impenetrable blackness of the island. There were no stars or moon. The air was unusually warm and sultry. A pale flash lit up the dark sky for an instant. Some moments later a low rumbling came to their ears. A storm now might spoil all their plans, thought Hugh anxiously.

A gleam of light shone through the trees at the farther end of the island. A fire had been kindled as a signal that the Chief of Minong had arrived. Again the sky was lit by a white flash. Again the thunder rolled and rumbled. From down the channel came a sound of splashing water. No canoe, paddled by Indians, ever made such a splashing as that. "Have they all jumped in? Are they swimming across?" thought Hugh.

Rolling over, he crawled down the beach. His head almost in the water, he gazed down the channel. Another flash of lightning swept the sky. Hugh crouched low, but in the instant of the illumination, he saw, crossing from mainland to island, a canoe with several men, and in its wake something black rising above the water. Hugh could not believe that the swimming thing was really what, in the instant's flash of light, it appeared to be.

He turned to slip up the beach again, and found Blaise at his side. In silence the two went back to their place beside the canoe. A few minutes later, Blaise felt a hand on his shoulder, and Keneu's voice spoke in his ear, in a low, hissing whisper.

"They have left their camp. They have crossed to the island, where a fire now burns."

"How many canoes?"

"Only one."

"Are other men coming?"

"I think not. I think they are the only ones."

Hugh was growing impatient. It had been his intention to wait to put his plan into operation until the party on the island had feasted and drunk and were sleeping. The coming storm, however, threatened to thwart his strategy. Bad weather might drive Ohrante and his band to the mainland in search of better shelter. Even if they remained on the island, a violent storm would delay action. In daylight he could not carry out his scheme, and dawn was not far off. There was grave risk in acting now, but to delay might mean to lose all chance of success. Again the lightning flashed more brightly, the thunder rolled louder and at a shorter interval. He must act now if at all. He put his mouth to his younger brother's ear.

"We must get those canoes. A storm may spoil our chance. We dare not wait."

"Yes," agreed Blaise. He understood the situation quite as well as Hugh. There was no need for more than the one word.

"You and I and Keneu will go," Hugh went on. "When we get across, Keneu must remain with our canoe. The others must stay here to stop the men from the Grand Portage when they come."

"Yes," Blaise replied again, and rose to his feet. "Come," he said briefly to the Indian.

In a few whispered words, Hugh explained to Baptiste that he and Manihik must remain where they were. The Frenchman was inclined to grumble. He did not like the idea of the boys' going into action without his support. Hugh was firm, however, and as the whole plan was his, he was by right the leader, so Baptiste was forced to submit. By the time Hugh had finished his explanation, Blaise and Keneu had the canoe in the water.

Just as Hugh, as leader, took his place in the bow, a flash of lightning lit up the sky. The moment the flash was over, the canoe was off, Blaise in the center and Keneu in the stern. The paddling was left to the Indian, Hugh dipping his blade only now and then on one side or the other, as a signal to the steersman.

The natural clearing, where the fire now blazed bright, was at the other end of the little island. If the Indians were all gathered around the fire, they could not see the canoe crossing from the mainland. Someone might be down at the shore, but the attacking party had to take a chance of that. Luckily the short passage was accomplished before the next flash.

On the inner side of the little island, the trees and bushes grew down to the water. In absolute silence, the canoe slipped along, close in. Another bright flash of lightning, quickly followed by a peal of thunder, caused Keneu to hold his blade motionless. The boat was well screened by the trees, however, and there was no sign that it had been observed.

That flash of lightning had revealed something to Hugh. Just ahead was a little curve in the margin of the island, and beyond it, a short, blunt projection, a bit of beach with alders growing well down upon it. On the beach were two canoes. To reach the spot, however, it would be necessary to pass an open gap, a sort of lane leading up from the shore to the place where the fire burned. Through the gap the firelight shone out upon the water. It would never do to try to pass in the canoe.

Hugh dipped his paddle and gave it a twist. The Indian understood. He too saw the firelight on the water. The canoe swerved towards shore and slowed down. Before it could touch and make a noise, Hugh was overside, stepping quickly but carefully, to avoid the slightest splash. Blaise followed. Keneu remained in the boat. He allowed his end to swing in far enough so he could grasp an overhanging branch and hold the craft steady.

Now came the most difficult part of the undertaking, to creep in the darkness through the dense growth, which came clear to the water line, around to the beach where the canoe lay. Hugh, as leader, intended to go first, but he did not get the chance. Before he realized what the younger boy was about, Blaise had slipped past him and taken the lead. It was well he did so for Blaise, slender and agile, was an adept at wriggling his way snake-like, and he seemed to have a sixth sense in the darkness that Hugh did not possess. So Hugh was constrained to let his younger brother pick the route. He had all he could do to follow without rustling or crackling the thick growth. Progress w

as necessarily very slow, only a few feet or even inches at a time. Whenever there came a lightning flash, both lay flat. The flashes were less revealing in the dense growth, and luckily the trees stood thick between the two lads and the fire.

Blaise had reached the edge of the gap through which the yellow-red firelight shone. He could see the fire itself, a big, roaring pile, and the figures moving around it. The sound of voices speaking Ojibwa and Iroquois came to his ears. Reaching back with one foot, he gave Hugh a little warning kick, then looked for some way to cross the open space.

The Island of Torture, like most of the islands off the northwest shore of the lake, consisted of a low, flat-topped, rock ridge descending gradually to the water on one side and more abruptly on the other. The lane was a natural opening down a steep slope from the ridge top to the water. Just at the base of the open rock lane, at the very edge of the water, grew a row of low shrubs, so low that they did not shut off the light of the fire, but cast only a narrow line of shadow. The one way to cross that gap without being seen was to crawl along in the shadow of those bushes. The water might be shallow there or it might be deep. Lying flat, Blaise put one hand into the shadowed water. His fingers touched bottom. He felt around a little, then crawled forward. The water proved to be only a few inches deep. Prostrate, he wriggled along the rock bottom in the narrow band of shadow. When Blaise had reached the shelter of the woods beyond, Hugh followed, taking extreme care to slip along like an eel, without a splash.

The brothers were now but a short distance from the canoes. The thick growing alders fringing the pebbles shut off the firelight. The chief peril was that someone might be guarding the boats. Eyes and ears strained for the slightest sign of danger, the two crawled forward on hands and knees. They reached the first canoe without alarm and went on to the second. Still hidden from the Indians around the fire, the boys lifted the canoe and turned it bottom side up. Blaise drew his knife from the sheath and carefully, without a sound of ripping, cut a great hole in the bark, removing a section between the ribs. Then the two carried the boat out a few feet and deposited it upon the water. It began to fill immediately, the water entering the big hole with only a slight gurgling noise. Even that sound alarmed the lads. They beat a hasty retreat and lay close under the alders. The Indians around the fire, however, were too engrossed in their own affairs to heed the sound, if indeed it carried that far.

A man with a full, deep voice was speaking at length, his tones reaching the boys where they lay hidden. Every now and then his listeners broke in with little grunts and ejaculations of approval or assent. A crash of thunder, following close upon a bright flash, drowned his voice. When the rumbling ceased, he was no longer speaking. Something else was happening now. Little cries and grunts, accompanied by the beating together of wood and metal and the click of rattles in rude rhythm, came to the boys' ears.

"They are dancing," thought Hugh. "What fools to make such an exhibition here where a boat may pass at any moment! Ohrante is certainly insane or very sure he is invincible. It is time we finished our work."

He missed Blaise from his side, and crept down to the remaining canoe, supposing his younger brother had gone that way. Blaise was not there. Hugh waited several minutes, listening to the grunts and cries, which, low voiced at first, were growing louder and faster as the dancers warmed to their work. Suddenly one of them uttered a yell, which was followed by quite a different sound, an animal's bellow of rage or pain. Hugh was both alarmed and curious. What was going on up there, and what had become of Blaise?

The elder brother crept back across the pebbles, pushed his way cautiously among the alders, and crawled up a short, steep slope topped by more bushes and trees, through which the firelight flickered. The noises of the dance, broken by louder cries and angry bellows, continued. Crouching low in the shadow, Hugh peeped through at the strangest scene he had ever looked upon.

In the open space a big fire blazed, casting its reddish-yellow glare over the picture. Between the fire and the boy, the dancing figures of the Indians passed back and forth, crouching, stamping, gesticulating, to the rhythm of their hoarse cries and the clicking of their weapons and rattles. All were naked to the waist and some entirely so. Their faces and bodies were streaked and daubed with black and white, yellow and red. Near by, in dignified immobility, stood the self-styled Chief of Minong, his tall feather upright in his head band, his face and breast fantastically painted in black and vermilion. His bronze body was stripped to the waist, displaying to advantage the breadth of his shoulders and the great muscles of his long arms. A little shudder passed down Hugh's spine as his eyes rested upon that huge, towering form and the set, cruel face. Yet it was neither the war dance nor Ohrante that held his surprised gaze longest.

A little to one side of the fire, the tall birch rose straight and high above its fellows. To its white stem was tied, not a human victim this time, but the dark form of an animal, a moose. As the beast tossed its head about in frenzy, Hugh could see that its antlers, still covered with the fuzzy velvet, had no broad palms and bore but two points on either side. It was a crotch horn or two year old. Every few moments one or another of the dancers would utter a yell or war whoop, dart towards the captive animal, strike it a swift blow with knife, spear or firebrand, then leap nimbly out of the way of its tossing antlers and flying forefeet. A favorite sport seemed to be to strike the beast upon the sensitive end of the nose with a burning pole. The moose was wild with rage and pain, plunging madly about, swaying the birch almost to breaking. The bonds were strong and the tree failed to snap, yet the boy wondered how long it would be before something gave and freed the frenzied beast. He thought the young moose did not realize his own strength, but when he should find it out, Hugh did not want to be in the way.

The watcher was just about to retreat to the beach, when the dancing suddenly stopped. Drops of rain were beginning to fall, but the shower was not the reason for the cessation of the dancing. Ohrante had raised his arm in an impressive gesture. The dancers lowered their weapons and rattles and drew back to the other side of the fire. Majestically Ohrante stalked forward and confronted the plunging moose. Lightning flashed, thunder pealed, there came a sharp dash of rain, the fire hissing and spitting like a live thing as the drops struck it. But Ohrante did not intend to be deprived of his cruel sport by a mere thunder shower. He held in his right hand a long pole with a knife lashed to the end. Standing just out of reach of the enraged beast's antlers and forefeet, he lunged directly at its throat.

There came a dazzling flash, a flare of light, a stunning crash that seemed to shatter Hugh's ear-drums. Even as the flash blinded his eyes, they received a momentary impression of a great black object hurtling at and over the giant Indian, as he toppled backward into the fire. The next instant a huge bulk crashed through the bushes almost on top of the boy. A tremendous splash followed.

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