Sunday, November 02, 2008

Gamesters of the Wilderness - Part II

Then each man recharged his musket lest the swamp mists had dampened the powder. De Troyes led his soldiers round to the fore to make a feint of furious onslaught from the water-front. Iberville posted his Indians along each flank to fire through the embrasures of the pickets. Then with a wild yell the French soldiers swooped upon the English fort. Iberville and his brothers Sainte-Helene and Maricourt were over the rear pickets and across the courtyard, swords in hand. Before the sleepy gunner behind the main gate could get his eyes open, one blow of Sainte-Helene's sabre split the fellow's head to the collar-bone. The trunk of a tree had rammed in the gate. Iberville's Indians had hacked down the rear pickets, and he himself led the way into the main house. Before the sixteen inmates, dashing out in their shirts, had realized what had happened, the raiders were masters of Moose Factory. Only one other man besides the gunner was killed; and he was a Frenchman, slain by the cross-fire of his comrades over the courtyard. The cellars were searched, but there was small loot of fur. Furs were stored elsewhere; but the French were the richer by sixteen captives, twelve portable cannon, and three thousand pounds of powder. Flag unfurled, muskets firing, sod heaved in air, Chevalier de Troyes took possession of the fort for the Most Redoubtable, Most Mighty, Most Christian King of France, though a cynic might wonder how such an act was accomplished in time of peace, when the sole object of the raid had been the rescue of Monsieur Pere, imprisoned as a spy.

Eastward of Moose, a hundred miles along the south coast of the bay, on Rupert's River, was another fort, stronger, the bastions of stone, with a dock where the Hudson's Bay Company's ship commonly anchored for the summer. Northwestward of Moose, a hundred miles, was a third fort, Albany, the citadel of the English fur traders' strength, forty paces back from the water, unassailable by sea, and the storehouse of the best furs. It was decided to attack the fort on Rupert's River first. Staying only long enough at Moose to build a raft to carry Chevalier de Troyes and his prisoners along the coast, the raiders set out by sea on the 27th of June. Iberville led the way with two canoes and eight or nine men. By the 1st of July he had caught a glimpse of Rupert's bastions. Concealing his Indians, he went forward to reconnoitre. To his delight he espied the company's ship with the H.B.C. ensign flying, that signified Governor Bridgar was on board. Choosing the night, as usual, for attack, Iberville stationed his bandits where they could fire on the decks if necessary, and glided across the water to the schooner. Hand over fist, he was up the ship's side, when the sleeping sentinel awakened with a spring at Iberville's throat. On cleave of his sword, and the fellow rolled dead at the Frenchman's feet, Iberville stamping on the deck to call the crew aloft, and killing three men in turn as they tumbled up the hatchway, till the fourth, Governor Bridgar himself, threw up his hands in unconditional surrender of the ship and crew of fourteen. Meanwhile the din had alarmed the fort. Though the bastions were dismantled fore repairs, gates were hard shut and musketry poured hot shot through the embrasures, that kept the raiders at a distance. Again it was the le Moyne brothers who led to victory. The bastions served the usual twofold purpose of defence and barracks. Extemporizing ladders, Iberville clambered to the roofs of these, hacked holes through the rough thatch, and threw down hand-grenades at the imminent risk of blowing himself as well as the enemy to eternity. "It was," says the old chronicle, "with an effect most admirable." - which depends on the point of view; for when the sharpshooters were driven from the bastions to the main house inside, gates were rammed down, palisades hacked out, and Iberville with his followeres was on the rood of the main house, throwing down more bombs. The raid became a rout. The French had Rupert, though little the richer except for the ship and thirty prisoners.

The wild wood-rovers were now strong enough to attempt Albany, one hundred miles northeast of Moose. It was at Albany that the French spy Pere was supposed to be lying panting for rescue. It was also at Albany that the English fur traders had their greatest store of pelts. As usual, Iberville led off in the canoes, de Troyes, the French fur traders, the soldiers, and the captives following with the cannon on the ship. It was sunset when the canoes launched out from Rupert's River. To save time by crossing the south end of the bay diagonally, they had sheered out from the coast, when there blew down from the upper bay one of those bitter northeast gales that at once swept a maelstrom of churning ice-floes about the cockle-shell birch canoes. To make matters worse, a fog fell, thick as night. A birch canoe in a cross-sea is bad enough. With ice-floes it was destruction. Some made for the main shore and took refuge on land. The le Moyne's two canoes kept on. The first of August saw his Indians and woodlopers below the embankmanet of Albany. A few days later came de Troyes on the boat with soldiers and cannon.

Governor Sargeant of Albany had had warning of the raiders from Indian coureurs. The fort looked as shut as a locked box. Neither side gave a sign. Not till the French began trundling their cannon ashore by all sorts of clumsy contrivance, to get them in range of the fort forty yards back, was there a sign of life, when forty-three big guns inside the wall of Albany simultaneously let go forty-three bombs in midair that flattened the raiders to earth under shelter of the embankment. Chevalier de Troyes then mustered all the pomp and fustian of court pageantry, flag flying, drummer beating to the fore, guard in line, and, marching forward, demanded of the English traders, come half-way out to meet him, satisfaction for and the delivery of Sieur Pere, a loyal subject of France suffering imprisonment on the shores of Hudson's Bay at the hands of the English. One may wonder, perhaps, what those raiders would have done without the excuse of Pere. The messenger came back from Governor Sargeant with word that Pere had been sent home to France by way of England long ago. (That Pere had been delayed in an English prison was not told...) De Troyes then pompously demanded the surrender of the fort. Sargeant sent back word such a demand was an insult in time of peace. Under cover of night, the French retired to consider. With an extravagance now lamented they had used at Rupert most of their captured ammunition. Cannon they had in plenty, but few rounds of balls. They had thirty prisoners, but no provisions; a ship, but no booty of furs. Between them and home lay a wilderness of forest and swamps for one thousand miles. They must capture the fort by an escalade, or retreat empty-handed.