Cognac was happy to get out of the camp with Roland Hebert on a scouting mission. He preferred the hunt to the canoe trip. As usual, they took snowshoes. Cognac took his bow as well as his musket. He was an expert archer, taught by the Huron, and one never knew when the bow might prove the superior weapon. Especially now when they wanted, at all costs, to be silent and undetected.
The rapids were terraced rocks, and the land restated the rapids, so that a moderately high ridge of rock or ground gave way to a steep gully and that led up a steeper ravine. These, in turn, gave way to a small hill and then another gully, perhaps with a stream.
The footing was treacherous.
Cognac and Hebert wore the snowshoes over gullies and crossing ravines where the snow was still deep. Climbing the steep embankments they took them off and slung them, with their muskets, over their shoulders, leaving their hands free for grabbing rocks, scrub bushes and trees.
Suddenly Cognac, who was slightly ahead on the climb of a ridge, gasped and pulled back down the ridge almost knocking Hebert over. Before Hebert could cry out, Cognac silenced him with a hand across his mouth. He motioned Hebert to creep up to the ridge and together they did so. They saw two Mohawks walking in their direction.
“What the hell are they doing?” asked Hebert.
“Probably just going to go up to the crest of the rapid and look over it…see if the coast is clear before they come down in their canoe.”
“God, do they always do that?…because if they do…they’ll see us at the Long Sault, and we’ll be discovered.”
“No,” said Cognac. “No, they don’t, but there are only two of them. They’d be more cautious.”
“Are they the advance for the massive war party we heard about from the other Iroquois.”
“How the hell would I know?” said Cognac. “Anyway we’ve got to decide what to do.”
“Should we shoot them when they’re in range?” Asked Hebert.
“The noise would alert our camp, but it would also alert theirs if there are more of them. I think we should capture them if we can.” He scanned the terrain quickly. “Give me your toque.”
Hebert’s cap, or toque, which he handed to Cognac, was an inverted and elongated cone with a tassel. Multicolored, long and fanciful in the fort, it would be easy to spot in the forest, so most of the men wore dark wool ones on this military venture. But some of the young men, like Hebert, considered the bright colored toques as a kind of badge. Cognac moved down a slope into a small ravine and, taking off his jacket, pillowed it and placed it leaning upwards against the ridge. He placed the toque on the jacket with the top just rising above the ridge line. Behind the place he selected was a huge boulder, and he motioned that he’d get up there with his bow. He pointed to a curvature in the rock where he wanted Hebert to conceal himself. He would even be out of view if the Iroquois came around the ridge to surprise the dupe.
Cognac and others had used this trick before but usually it was to draw fire, to discover where the enemy was hidden. Sometimes, though, it drew an enemy seeking a scalp right up to the spot.
Cognac prepared the dupe and moved behind the rock and climbed on it at the rear so that he could see the approach of the Iroquois. Herbert turned left and left again and slid between two boulders. Concealed completely. He couldn’t see the enemy’s approach, but he could signal Cognac.
Cognac motioned Hebert to take the man closest to his left while Cognac took the man on the right. Hebert drew his knife but checked his pistol too just in case. They waited silently. They knew the keen eyes of the Iroquois would soon see the splash of color against the emerging gray of the woods in spring.
The Mohawks were not expecting to see anything, were carrying out their surveillance more as a matter of habit than anything else when one saw the red of the toque. Cognac had judged it well; there was just a slight color flare emerging over the rocks suggesting a careless Frenchman.
The taller of the two Mohawks stopped, motioned to his companion. They stood motionless, listening for a sound, watching for movement. They waited minutes, completely still. Cognac had anticipated this. He didn’t expect the Iroquois to start simply shooting at the cap because no action had begun. That was more likely when people were firing at one another, and a man simply failed to get down far enough out of sight. In this case, though, Cognac hoped that since nothing had yet happened the enemy would think that the French were lying in wait for them and that closing in on the victim and surprising him would be the better option.
Cognac took a small branch and threw it at his coat. Hitting the coat, the branch moved the toque slightly, suggesting a shift of position on the part of the waiting Frenchman to the watching Indians. The Mohawks knew the French could not remain as still as they for long periods so this provided them with the confidence to move in. The Mohawks weren’t enthusiastic about approaching, but they didn’t like the alternative. If they turned and tried to get away, they risked being shot.
Cautiously, silently, they moved closer to the tell-tale color. The taller one circled from his left which meant he’d come into his target from Cognac’s right. The other came in from the right that would bring him from Hebert’s left. They were silent on the snow base and the soaked crushed leaves of the previous fall. Even when they stepped on a twig, it was so wet, so supple, it did not break, made no noise.
Hebert was sweating. He had little experience in hand-to-hand fighting in the woods and relied on Cognac’s experience for this ruse. He hoped it would work because if it didn’t they would be in too close to use muskets. The Iroquois would have the advantage with their hatchets. Cognac, above on the boulder, actually was enjoying the moment. He was confident, knew they were in the stronger position, and would also have the advantage of surprise. But the timing had to be right. He hoped the Iroquois would maximize what they thought was their advantage and come upon the dupe toque simultaneously. They would want to do that so that they could attack from both sides and kill in the moment of terror that often rendered the victim inactive when he saw he was trapped. He prepared his bow and selected an arrow, putting several others on the rock beside him so he wouldn’t have to remove them from the quiver. There would be no time to do it if his first arrow missed.
The Iroquois approached, and now they were at another disadvantage because of the ridge. They couldn’t see each other as they each approached from opposite sides so they couldn’t time their approach with hand signals. They would have to hope that they each made it around the ridge simultaneously. The tall one, coming in from Cognac’s left made it around the ridge just ahead of the other. He leaped down, saw immediately that the jacket and cap had no owner, and raised his body to look around. Cognac stood up on the rock, and only ten feet from the startled Mohawk, let fly. The arrow went right to his heart.
I could hardly miss from here, thought Cognac.
The second Mohawk had come upon his fellow, and he turned to his right and saw Cognac rise, but he had only his hatchet and had no time to throw it before the arrow struck. He was about to hurl it, arm back, chest exposed, just as Hebert stepped out, knife raised. Frightened himself, but full of adrenaline, he thrust the knife deep into the chest of the brave, who fell, dropping his hatchet and moaning.
Cognac jumped down from the boulder, saying, “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!”
The brave lay on the ground mortally wounded. Cognac said, “Get up on that ridge. See if there are others!” Hebert did so while Cognac pulled the brave’s head up the ridge a little, so it was about the rest of his body. Cognac asked the brave in French, then Huron, then, in desperation, in rough Algonquian: What they were doing, How many others were near, Was there a large attack? But the Mohawk spoke none of these languages and Cognac knew only a few words in Iroquois. Interrogating the unfortunate Mohawk, he pounded on the man’s chest in frustration.
Cognac wanted to throttle the man, but he saw he was dead. He raised his head to the sky and could have screamed to heaven, but he had the presence of mind to remember himself and, enraged and frustrated, he howled silently. Hebert, on the ridge, watched in terror and fascination his eyes going from his friend to the place from which the Iroquois had emerged. There were no others.
They pulled the bodies behind the boulder and stuffed them in a hole, covering the entrance with smaller rocks and tree limbs. They took the Mohawk hatchets and knives, then carefully retraced the Mohawks’ steps until they found their canoe. They hid in a shelter thinking it would be crazy to go over the rapids with it only to have to portage it back if Dollard decided to use it.
They headed back to camp. A thousand yards from the camp they thought they saw the first of the guards. Pilote whistled, a strange, low-pitched trill, like a tired bird. A whistle came back.
Jean Valets called the ‘qui vivre’, and the two scouts replied. Minutes later they were back in the camp which was bustling quietly with activity. They made their report to Dollard and Robert Jurie..
“Too many things unknown to attack them,” Dollard said. “But their presence here worries me. Those people and the ones at Nun’s Island. Maybe this much activity is normal. How would we know? Stuffed in our fort like pigs in a pen.”
It began to rain.