They had made their little circuit to the left, and were already inclining again toward the right, having, as Heyward thought, got over nearly half the distance to the friendly works, when his ears were saluted with the fierce summons, apparently within twenty feet of them, of:
"Qui va la?"
"Push on!" whispered the scout, once more bending to the left.
"Push on!" repeated Heyward; when the summons was renewed by a dozen voices, each of which seemed charged with menace.
"C'est moi," cried Duncan, dragging rather than leading those he supported swiftly onward.
"Bete! - qui? - moi!"
"Ami de la France."
"Tu m'as plus l'air d'un ennemi de la France; arrete ou pardieu je te ferai ami du diable. Non! feu, camarades, feu!"
The order was instantly obeyed, and the fog was stirred by the explosion of fifty muskets. Happily, the aim was bad, and the bullets cut the air in a direction a little different from that taken by the fugitives; though still so nigh them, that to the unpractised ears of David and the two females, it appeared as if they whistled within a few inches of the organs. The outcry was renewed, and the order, not only to fire again, but to pursue, was too plainly audible. When Heyward briefly explained the meaning of the words they heard, Hawkeye halted and spoke with quick decision and great firmness.
"Let us deliver our fire," he said; "they will believe it a sortie, and give way, or they will wait for reinforcements."
The scheme was well conceived, but failed in its effects. The instant the French heard the pieces, it seemed as if the plain was alive with men, muskets rattling along its whole extent, from the shores of the lake to the furthest boundary of the woods.
"We shall draw their entire army upon us, and bring on a general assault," said Duncan: "lead on, my friend, for your own life and ours."
The scout seemed willing to comply; but, in the hurry of the moment, and in the change of position, he had lost the direction. In vain he turned either cheek toward the light air; they felt equally cool. In this dilemma, Uncas lighted on the furrow of the cannon ball, where it had cut the ground in three adjacent ant-hills.
"Give me the range!" said Hawkeye, bending to catch a glimpse of the direction, and then instantly moving onward.
Cries, oaths, voices calling to each other, and the reports of muskets, were now quick and incessant, and, apparently, on every side of them. Suddenly a strong glare of light flashed across the scene, the fog rolled upward in thick wreaths, and several cannons belched across the plain, and the roar was thrown heavily back from the bellowing echoes of the mountain.
"'Tis from the fort!" exclaimed Hawkeye, turning short on his tracks; "and we, like stricken fools, were rushing to the woods, under the very knives of the Maquas."
The instant their mistake was rectified, the whole party retraced the error with the utmost diligence. Duncan willingly relinquished the support of Cora to the arm of Uncas and Cora as readily accepted the welcome assistance. Men, hot and angry in pursuit, were evidently on their footsteps, and each instant threatened their capture, if not their destruction.
"Point de quartier aux coquins!" cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.
"Stand firm, and be ready, my gallant Sixtieths!" suddenly exclaimed a voice above them; "wait to see the enemy, fire low and sweep the glacis."
"Father! father!" exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist: "it is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! Spare, oh! save your daughters!"
"Hold!" shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in solemn echo. "'Tis she! God has restored me to my children! Throw open the sally-port; to the field, Sixtieths, to the field; pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel."
Duncan heard the grating of the rusty hinges, and darting to the spot, directed by the sound, he met a long line of dark red warriors, passing swiftly toward the glacis. He knew them for his own battalion of the Royal Americans, and flying to their head, soon swept every trace of his pursuers from before the works.
For an instant, Cora and Alice had stood trembling and bewildered by this unexpected desertion; but before either had leisure for speech, or even thought, an officer of gigantic frame, whose locks were bleached with years and service, but whose air of military grandeur had been rather softened than destroyed by time, rushed out of the body of mist, and folded them to his bosom, while large scalding tears rolled down his pale and wrinkled cheeks, and he exclaimed, in the peculiar accent of Scotland:
"For this I thank thee, Lord! Let danger come as it will, thy servant is now prepared!"