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CHAPTER V OFF ON A SCOUT
When Seth communicated his design to the commander of the fort, the latter at first made fun of him. Then, finding he was in thorough earnest, sought to dissuade him from it; but at last, realizing the seriousness of the young fellow's purpose, and coming to think that, after all, he might carry it through successfully and gain some valuable information, he consented to him and Reuben making the venture.

They set out in the early morning of a December day, each having a blanket and a knapsack, containing four days' provisions, strapped on his back, and the rest of the garrison gave them a cheer as they glided away northward.

They were both in high spirits, for the restraint of garrison life had become very wearisome, and the outing they had now started upon was very much to their mind, despite its probability of peril.

"I wonder will any of the French be thinking of the same thing," said Seth as with strong steady strokes they sped over the glistening ice. "Their Canadians must be good skaters even if they're not themselves, and you'd think they'd be curious to know what we've been doing since we sent them back so much sadder and wiser than they came."

"We must keep a sharp lookout for them," answered Reuben, "for we certainly don't want to get into any such trap as our fellows did at first in the fight when they walked right into the ambush the French had laid for us."

"No, indeed," responded Seth emphatically. "They mustn't catch us like that, and, what's more, they're not going to."

All through the morning they skated on at their ease, because there was not the slightest chance of any of the enemy being below the Narrows, which they had fixed upon as the limit of that day's advance.

At noon they halted for dinner and a good rest. They could have only a cold bite, for it would not have been wise to light a fire; but they munched their meat and biscuits contentedly, and quenched their thirst at a hole cut in the ice.

While they lay curled up in their blankets in a sheltered nook several deer came out of the forest near by, and their hunter's instinct was at once aroused.

"What a splendid shot!" murmured Reuben under his breath as his hand went out toward his gun. "Just see that fine buck!"

"Not for your life!" exclaimed Seth in so emphatic a tone that it reached the acute ears of the deer, and they bounded away out of danger. "When we do fire, it must be at another kind of game," he added, and Reuben meekly accepted the reproof.

When refreshed and rested, they set off again, and skated pretty steadily through the afternoon, reaching the Narrows on the early dusk of the winter's day.

Although not a very cold night, it was cheerless enough without a fire; but they were both so tired that they soon fell asleep, and forgot all the discomforts of their situation.

Between the Narrows and Ticonderoga spread the broadest part of the lake, and it behooved them to be very wary in their further advance lest they should be discovered by hostile scouts venturing southward. Accordingly the following day they closely skirted the eastern border, holding themselves ready to dodge ashore and seek concealment in the forest, or to dart out toward the centre of the lake according as danger might threaten from either direction.

Several times, as they eagerly scanned the country ahead, they thought they caught a glimpse of figures moving through the trees; but it always proved to be a false alarm, or nothing more to be feared than, perhaps, a deer slipping silently out of sight.

Once they saw a big bear that they might easily have shot had they been out for that purpose, and Reuben quite grudged having to let him go in peace, for he had particularly fine fur.

The farther north they pushed the more cautious they must needs be, and it was a positive relief to both when the shadows of night again fell around them without any appearance of their foes.

"We must be pretty close to the fort now," said Seth as, having sought out the snuggest spot within reach, they settled down to spend another fireless night wrapped up in their blankets. "There don't seem to be any of their scouts moving round. I wonder what they find to do with themselves? I guess it's about as tiresome up there as it is down with us."

"You may be sure it is," replied Reuben. "This garrison duty is dull work for everybody. I'll be very glad when the winter's over, and things get moving again. What are you thinking of doing in the morning, Seth?"

"Well, I just want to get a good look at Fort Ticonderoga, and if possible find out how big a garrison they have there," Seth answered, and then after a little pause he added: "If it be that the French have left only a handful of men in charge, it might be worth while our fellows coming up on their skates and attacking the place."

Reuben gave a whistle of mingled surprise and admiration at the audacity of the idea.

"You'd want to know right well just how many there are in the fort, wouldn't you?" he suggested.

"Yes, of course I would, and that's exactly what we must do our best to find out to-morrow morning."

The programme for the next day having thus been made clear, they talked together about other things until they fell asleep.

At dawn they were astir, and now they must no longer trust to their skates, but make their way overland with utmost caution, lest at any moment a Canadian scout or Iroquois brave should be upon them from behind a tree.

Seth had only a general idea of the position of that fort and its relation to the surrounding country; but he was a scout by instinct, and Reuben followed him with admiration and implicit obedience as he skilfully made his way through the thick forest, his object being to reach an elevation from which he could command a clear view of Ticonderoga.

Advancing slowly and with many detours the two daring youths at last accomplished their purpose without their presence being discovered or suspected by the enemy, shortly before mid-day gaining a point of view that was precisely what they sought.

They were on the high bluffs immediately opposite Ticonderoga, from which they were separated only by a narrow stretch of water, and, while keeping themselves perfectly concealed among the trees, they could see everything that was going on in and around the fort.

"This is fine!" exclaimed Seth gleefully as he lay flat on the ground and fixed his gaze upon the enemy's stronghold. "What would they think if they knew that we were up here watching them? I reckon they'd send a party after us pretty quick."

"That they would," said Reuben, with a pretence of a shiver, for he was not really in any fear, "and they'd not deal any too gently with us either, would they?"

"No, sir," responded Seth. "That's not their way, but they're not going to have the chance if I can help it."

For several hours they remained in their eyrie, noting every movement at the fort, and carefully studying its position, so as to be able to give information to those at Fort William as to the chances of an attack.

They could see the garrison going about their duties, and from the number of them came to the conclusion that it would be folly to attempt an attack without a great many more men than could be spared from their own fort.

"But it wouldn't be a hard place to take if you went about it the right way and had a strong enough force, would it, Reuben?" said Seth after he had thoroughly sun-eyed the fort and its surroundings, and then he proceeded to outline a plan of attack that certainly did credit to his wits.

Reuben listened approvingly to it all, and, when he had finished, mildly asked:

"How much longer shall we stay here, Seth? We've about seen all there is to see. Had we not better be starting back?"

"To be sure we had," replied Seth, whose enthusiasm over the possibility of successfully attacking the fort had caused him to be oblivious of the flight of time. "Come along; we mustn't stay here any longer."

Just as they were about to start they saw a party set out from the fort on skates and speed away southward.

"Whew!" exclaimed Seth. "I wonder what that means. Are they going off to do a little scouting on their own account? In that case we'll have to keep a sharp lookout or we may fall into their hands."

There was certainly need for using the utmost precaution in their movements, and it was with a keener sense of danger than they had felt before that the two New Englanders began their return journey.

So long as they were concealed by the woods they were safe enough from discovery, but once they took to the ice, which they must do as soon as possible, for their provisions were running low, and would not by any means last for a long journey overland, then they ran the risk of being sighted and pursued.

But there was no help for it, and no time to be lost, so they urged their way through the forest until they reached the edge of the lake.

Then with eager eyes and fast-beating pulses they scanned the glistening surface before them. Not a living thing was in view, but at any moment from around one of the wooded points the enemy might appear.

"I wish I knew which side they're on," said Seth, the anxious expression of his countenance showing his state of mind. "The farther away we can keep from them the better chance we'll have, for I'm sure we can skate as fast or faster than any of them."

"They'll most likely be on the other side I should think," responded Reuben; "so we had better keep to this one."

This seemed reasonable enough, so they put on all speed and dashed down the lake.

The exhilarating motion restored their spirits, and confident of their ability to hold their own on skates against any of the enemy, they flew along over the smooth ice for mile after mile without encountering any cause for alarm until as they rounded a point beyond which was a deep cove, they saw something which sent their hearts into their mouths.

It was the very party whose departure from Fort Ticonderoga they had witnessed, and it consisted of six Canadians on skates, who were just starting off again after having rested for a while in the snug shelter of the cove.

They sighted the New Englanders at once, and with fierce cries, which sent a shiver through the two youths, began the chase.

Happily their guns were not ready, for since Seth and Reuben were at first within range they would of course, have fired at them, but now they had to depend upon their skill and strength as skaters to effect the capture of the daring scouts.

Straight southward darted the Colonials, their pursuers a couple of hundred yards in the rear, and following with grim determination.

Seth and Reuben, although they fully realized the seriousness of the situation, felt no very great apprehension as to the outcome. They had entire confidence in their ability to more than hold their own while on the ice, and if they were compelled to take to the land, they did not doubt but that they could find a place of concealment until the danger was passed, or make their way through the forest with sufficient speed to distance pursuit.

The two contingencies they had to fear were that in their rapid flight one or other might trip and fall, injuring himself or his skates, or that there might be another party of the enemy lower down the lake into whose hands they would be driven by those coming after them.

Both these possibilities, so unpleasant to contemplate, had presented themselves to Seth; but they did not daunt his brave spirit, nor did he mention them to Reuben, who no doubt had his own thoughts.

The early dusk of mid-winter drew on as mile after mile of the flawless ice was covered without the pursuers making any gain. By dint of frequent spurting the New Englanders might have widened the gap, and Reuben was anxious that they should do so; but Seth thought differently.

So long as they kept out of range of the French it seemed to him best to reserve their strength and wind, for at any moment the appearance of Canadians in front might render necessary a supreme effort to evade them.

If they should be thus caught between two parties, Seth's mind was made up to fight to the last gasp, as he would rather die fighting his foe than be taken alive only to suffer death subsequently by hideous torture.

"Thank God, it's getting dark!" exclaimed Seth, breaking the silence which had lasted for some time. "If we can keep on as we are now, we'll be able to put ashore and hide ourselves among the trees."

"We can't do it any too soon to suit me," panted Reuben breathlessly, for the tremendous strain was beginning to tell upon him. "I'm tiring fast, and another couple of miles will finish me completely."

"Cheer up—cheer up, Reuben!" responded Seth, giving him an affectionate pat on the shoulder. "They're farther behind than they were, and we'll soon be able to make a dash for the woods."

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