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CHAPTER XV FORT WILLIAM HENRY IN DANGER.
It was about two o'clock when the first volley fell upon the startled Rangers, and through the long afternoon they had fought doggedly, repelling the successive assaults of their antagonists on flank and centre, and taking toll of them for every gap in their own ranks at the rate of two to one.

The Indian allies of the French had at the first been very active, gliding hither and thither as silently as snakes, or whooping fiercely as they darted from tree to tree in their endeavors to close in on the stubborn provincials. But when the deadly aim of the latter had cost them a score of their number they lost heart, and in spite of the urging of the French sulked at a safe distance.

After Major Rogers was wounded Seth had kept at his side, for he felt a kind of presentiment of further harm to his leader, which a little before sunset was fulfilled by a stray bullet wounding the Major in his hand and wrist so badly that he could no longer use his gun.

"You had better lie down, sir, where they cannot see you," Seth begged of him, "and I will fire your gun as well as my own."

It was hard for the Major to follow this sound advice, but his wounds compelled him, and for the rest of the day Seth did double duty not only as far as firing went, but in carrying his commander's orders to the other officers who were farther away.

As darkness drew near, the French redoubled their endeavors to rush the position held by the Rangers; and more than once it seemed as if they might succeed, but by the most heroic bravery and the wonderfully effective use of their guns the Rangers kept them off until at last the shadows of night enveloped the battlefield and compelled a cessation of the struggle.

Gathering his officers about him the wounded leader announced his purpose.

"We're in a pretty bad fix, I reckon," he said in a tone whose gravity showed how critical he considered the situation. "The rascals have trapped us like rats, but we're not the men to die like rats, even if we've lost a good part of our number and our ammunition is nearly used up. Ticonderoga is so close that there'll be sure to be reinforcements brought against us in the morning and we must get out of this to-night by hook or by crook. After an hour's rest we'll make a start, and if we've to fight every foot of the way we'll do it, for we're not going to surrender, are we, Rangers?"

"No, no, we'll die first," was the unanimous response heartily given and then the officers returned to their men to give them directions.

About seven o'clock the Rangers began their difficult, dangerous retreat. The rain had ceased to fall, but the snow was water-soaked and the trees dripped from every branch. Even if the men had been in good condition they could not have moved rapidly; but wearied as they were, and some of them having to be carried on extemporized litters, rudely made of boughs, their progress necessarily could be little better than a crawl, and yet at any moment out of the surrounding darkness a horde of merciless savages might burst upon them ravening for their blood.

Despite his wounds Major Rogers took the lead; and as he strode forward with head erect and firm, set figure Seth followed in a spirit of unstinted admiration, ready to lay down his own life in defence of his heroic leader.

Halting frequently for the rest that was imperative they tramped on through the dreary winter night, their hope of escape strengthening as they got farther and farther away without being attacked.

At one of their halts Seth asked the Major:

"If they leave us alone to-night, sir, do you think they're likely to follow us to-morrow? We'll be a good way from Ticonderoga by daybreak and maybe they'll not care to go very far in case we should get reinforced."

"If we can keep clear of the villains to-night we'll have no more trouble with them this time," responded the Major with a grim smile. "They'll not care to follow us any farther than they can help, I'm sure of that."

And as it turned out he was right in his surmise. Left unmolested all night, the Rangers neither saw nor heard anything of the enemy on the following day, and kept steadily on their way back to Fort William Henry, which they ultimately reached at cost of great exertion, but happily without having to leave behind any of their wounded.

Out of the seventy-five which had gone forth one week before, less than fifty returned uninjured, and six more wounded, the remainder having been either killed or taken prisoners.

It was the first severe loss the Rangers had sustained since their organization, and they felt it deeply, but it did not chill the enthusiasm of the survivors. On the contrary, it only inspired them to greater zeal, and so soon as their leader had recovered from his wounds, they would be ready for fresh service against the enemy, to whom they now owed a greater grudge than ever.

It chanced, however, that Major Rogers' wounds resulted in a serious illness, upon the head of which followed an attack of smallpox, and this led to a change in Seth's circumstances, as with a number of the Rangers he was assigned to strengthen the garrison at Fort William Henry. He did not like this, for the monotony of garrison life was irksome to one of his restless nature; but he had no option in the matter, and accepted the situation as cheerfully as possible.

If he had known what was in the mind of Vandreuil, the Governor of Canada, he would have been more content at the change, as the French commander-in-chief, having been apprised of the preparations the English were making all too deliberately for the assault and destruction of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, resolved to anticipate their action by striking an unexpected blow, and accordingly set about getting ready at Montreal a strong force for the attack of Fort William Henry.

The work was well done, no pains or expense being spared in the equipment of the expedition, which comprised regular soldiers, Canadians, and Indians. They were provided with overcoats for the day and blankets and bearskins for the night, with ample supplies of spare moccasins and mittens, with kettles, axes, flints and steels, and many miscellaneous articles, together with twelve days' provision, the whole being packed on light Indian sledges, which were easily dragged along. No less than a million francs, equal in value to as many dollars of the present time, were spent upon their force, which reached Lake Champlain before the end of February.

At Ticonderoga they rested for a week, and made ready more than three hundred short scaling ladders, so constructed that two or more could be joined into one long one. Then marching for three days on the ice of Lake George they neared Fort William Henry on the evening of the 18th of March, and prepared for a general assault at break of day. They were sixteen hundred in all, and being pretty well informed of the strength of the English garrison,............
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