"We'll all sleep," said Henry. "As Tom says, we're as safe as if we were in a stone fort, and we don't need any guard."
An hour later all of the valiant five were slumbering peacefully within their warm walls, and when they ate a good hot breakfast the next morning, cooked in Jim Hart's best fashion, they laughed heartily and often over the night's great event.
"I guess Mr. Braxton Wyatt will hev to work hard ag'in to prove to them savages that he's real smart," said Shif'less Sol. "This is another time that he's led 'em right out o' the little end o' the horn."
They luxuriated that day, resting most of the time In the hut, but on the following day Henry and Ross went on a longer scouting expedition than usual, this time in the direction of the Shawnee villages. The three who were left behind broke fresh holes in the thick ice, and by the use of much patience succeeded in catching several fine fish, which made a pleasant addition to their daily diet.
Henry and Ross were gone nearly a week, but their comrades did not become alarmed over their long absence. When they returned they brought with them a budget of news from the Shawnee villages. Braxton Wyatt had returned to the Shawnees, much disgusted with his stay among the Miamis, but still resolved to form the great Indian alliance, and send it in the spring against the white settlements in Kentucky.
"It's too late for them to do anything this winter," said Henry, and a little exultation showed in his tone, "we've put that spoke in their wheel; but they mean to hit us a terrible blow on the flank when warm weather comes."
"What do you mean by 'on the flank'?" asked Paul.
"They've learned in some manner, maybe by way of Canada, that a big wagon train is coming up through the Wilderness Road in the spring, to join our settlements. If it gets there it will double our strength, but the Indians mean to make a great curve to the south and east and strike it just as it leaves the mountains."
"They're smart in that," said Shif'less Sol. "They'd be sure to hit them wagons when they ain't expected."
"Yes," said Henry Ware, "if the train is not warned."
Paul looked at him and saw that his eyes were full of meaning.
"Then we are to warn that train," said Paul.
"Yes, when the time comes."
"It's the greatest work that we can do," said Paul, with emphasis, and the others nodded their agreement. It was all that was needed to bind the five together in the mighty task that they had begun.
Nothing more was said upon the subject for days, but Paul's mind was full of it. His comrades and he had impeded the making of the great war trail, and now they were to see that reenforcements safely reached their own. It was a continuing task, and it appealed powerfully to the statesman so strong in Paul.
A very cold winter moved slowly along, and they remained on the island, though Henry and Ross ranged far and wide. On one of these expeditions the two scouts met a wandering trapper, by whom they sent word again to their people in the south that they were safe.
Henry and Ross also learned that Yellow Panther would lead the Miamis, Red Eagle the Shawnees, and there would be detachments of Wyandots and others. They would fall like a thunderbolt upon the wagon train, and destroy it utterly.
"And Braxton Wyatt will be with them?" said Paul indignantly.
"Of course," replied Henry.
"Henry, we've got to save that wagon train, if every one of us dies trying!" exclaimed Paul, with the greatest possible emphasis.
"Of course," said Henry again, quietly, but with the stern determination that meant with him do or die.
"It's a part o' our job," drawled Shif'less Sol, "but it must be nigh a thousand miles to the place whar the Wilderness Road comes out o' the mountains. I see a terrible long journey ahead fur a tired man."
Henry smiled. They all knew that none would be more zealous on the march, none more lion-hearted in battle, than this same Solomon Hyde, nicknamed the shiftless one.
"When do we start?" asked Jim Hart.
"Not before the cold weather passes," replied Henry. "It wouldn't be worth while. The emigrant train won't come through the mountains until spring, and we can do better work here, watching the savages."
So they abode long in the hut on the haunted island, and had food and warmth in plenty. But in the Indian villages there was the stir of preparation for the great war trail in the spring, and also the sense of mystery and oppression. Yellow Panther, the Miami, and Red Eagle, the Shawnee, both felt in some strange, unaccountable way that they were watched. Half-lost tracks of unknown feet were seen in the snow; strange trails that ended nowhere were struck; three warriors, every one at a different time, claimed to have seen a gigantic figure speeding in a pale moonlight through the leafless forest; one of the bravest of the Shawnee warriors was found dead, his head cleft so deep that they knew a mighty hand, one of almost marvelous strength, had wielded the tomahawk. There were signs of a terrible struggle in the snow, but who had attacked and who defended they did not know, and the trail of the survivor was soon lost. A mysterious dread filled both Shawnees and Miamis.
Braxton Wyatt raged at heart in the Shawnee village, and had theories of his own, but he dared not tell them. It was known there that it was he who had led the Miamis into the sacrilegious invasion of the haunted island, and it would take his credit some time to recover from such a blow. To reestablish himself thoroughly he must do valuable work for his red friends on the coming great war trail. So he remained discreetly silent about the haunted island, and told all he knew of the white settlements, the Wilderness Road, and the way to trap the emigrant train. Here he could really be of great assistance to the alliance, and he told the chiefs all about the emigrants, how they marched, and how they would be encumbered with women and children.
Meanwhile, the five never ceased their vigilance. Henry and Ross bought a large quantity of ammunition from a Canadian trader whom they met on a trip far to the north, and however much they used in the winter, they were now assured of an abundance when they started southeast in the spring.
The winter was long and very cold. One snow fell upon another; one freeze after another thickened the ice upon the lake; and when the wind blew, it had the edge of a knife. But this could not last forever. One day the wind shifted around and blew from the south. Paul, who was outside the hut helping Jim Hart, felt a soft, warm breath on his face.
"Why, Jim!" he said, "the cold seems to be going away."
"So it is," said Jim Hart, "or at least it's gittin' ready. Spring ain't far off, an' I'm glad, Paul. I'm tired uv winter, an' I want to be strikin' out on the great war trail."
"So do I," said Paul.
"Wa'al, fur the matter o' that," said Shif'less Sol, "we've been on the great war trail fur three or four months now. There ain't to be no change except in the shiftin' o' the trail."
The warm wind continued to blow for days, the surface of the ice on the lake softened, and the snow began to melt. Still it blew, and the melted snow ran in rivers, the ice broke up into great sheets and chunks, and these, too, rapidly dissolved. Then a warm rain came, pouring for a day and a night, and the ice and snow were swept away entirely. But the whole earth ran water. Lakes stood in the forest, and every brook and creek, rushing in torrents, leaped its banks.
The five had remained in their hut when the rain came down, but two days later Henry and Ross were rowed over in the canoe, and went away to spy out the country. When they returned they said that the great war party of the allied tribes would soon be in motion, and it was time for the five to take their flight.
A warm sun had been shining for days, and the earth had dried again. The turbulent brooks and creeks had withdrawn to their accustomed beds, and faint touches of green were beginning to show in the wilderness.
"We'll leave our house just as we have built it," said Henry.
"Unless a white man should come wandering here, and that isn't likely, it won't be disturbed. It's been a good place for us."
"Yes," said Paul, "it has been a good home to us. I've spent a happy winter here, and I want to see it again."
But they had little time for sentiment. They were making the fast touches of preparation for the second stage of the great war trail—arranging clothing, light supplies of food, and, above all, ammunition. Then they left at night in their canoe. As they approached the mainland, all, as if by involuntary impulse, looked back at the haunted island, looming darkly in the night.
"It was no haunted island for us," said Paul.
"No," said Henry.
They landed, hid the canoe, and then, plunging into the forest, sped far to the south and east on tireless feet.
Meanwhile war belts were passing through all the forest, from tribe to tribe, to Shawnee, Miami, Ottawa, Wyandot—to every band, large or small. Another great effort would be made to drive back the thin white vanguard that was now entering the finest hunting ground savages had ever known—the vast green wilderness of the Mississippi Valley, where the warriors had roamed and killed game for unknown generations. Northern and southern tribes had often met and fought in Kain-tuck-ee, but always each retreated after the conflict to north or to south, leaving Kain-tuck-ee as it was before—a land of forest and canebrake, inhabited only by the wild beast.
Now, every warrior felt that the coming of the white stream over the mountains, however slender it might be at first, threatened a change, great and disastrous to them, unless checked at once. These white men cut down the forest, built houses that were meant to stay in one place—houses of logs—and plowed up the fields where the forest had been. They felt in some dim, but none the less certain, way that not only their favorite hunting grounds, but they and their own existence, were threatened.
They had failed the year before in a direct attack upon the new settlements, but these little oases in the wilderness must in time perish unless the white stream coming over the mountains still reached them, nourishing them with fresh bone and sinew, and making them grow. A great wagon train was coming, and this they would strike, surprising it in the vast, dark wilderness when it was not dreaming that even a single warrior was near.
A great defeat they had suffered at Wareville the year before still stung, and the spur of revenge was added to the spur of need. What they felt they ought to do was exactly what they wanted to do, and they were full of hope. They did not know that the stream flowing over the mountains, now so small, was propelled by a tremendous force behind it, the great white race always moving onward, and they expected nothing less than a complete triumph.
Active warriors passed through the deep woods, bearing belts and messages. Their faces were eager, and always they urged war. A long journey lay before them, but the blow would be a master stroke. They were received everywhere with joy and approval. The tomahawks were dug up, the war dances were danced, the war songs sung, and the men began to paint their faces and bodies for battle. A hum and a murmur ran through the northwestern forests, the hum and murmur of preparation and hope. Only the five, on their little island in the lake, yet heard this hum and murmur, so ominous to the border, but they were ready to carry the message through the wilderness to those to whom the warning meant the most.
* * * * *
The largest wagon train that had yet crossed the mountains into Kain-tuck-ee toiled slowly along the Wilderness Road among the foothills, bearing steadily toward the Northwest. The line of canvas covers stretched away more than a hundred in number, and contained five hundred souls, of whom, perhaps, half were men and boys capable of bearing arms, the rest women and children.
They looked upon mountain, hill and forest, river and brook, with much the same eyes as those with which Henry and Paul had beheld them not so very long before, but they were not seeking at random in the wilderness as the Wareville people had done. No, they moved forward now to a certain mark. They were to join their brethren at Wareville and Marlowe, and double the strength of the settlements. Word had come to them over the mountains that the little outposts in the vast wilderness lived and flourished, and the country was good. Moreover, they and their strength were needed. Wareville and Marlowe looked for them as eagerly as they looked for Wareville and Marlowe.
Spring was deepening, and already had drawn its robe of green over all the earth, but Daniel Poe, the commander of the wagon train, paid little attention to its beauty. He was nearly sixty years of age, but in the very prime of his strength—a great, square-shouldered man, his head and face covered with thick, black beard. His eyes had their habitual look of watchful care. They had seen no Indian sign as they crossed the mountains, but he knew now that they were on the Dark and Bloody Ground, and the lives of five hundred human beings were a heavy responsibility.
"You are sure the country is entirely safe?" he said to Dick Salter, one of his guides.
"I don't know no reason to doubt it," replied Salter. "The savages don't often get down here. The villages uv the northwestern tribes must be close on to a thousand miles from here, an' besides they were beat off last year, an' beat badly, when they tried to rush Wareville."
"That is so," said Daniel Poe thoughtfully; "we had word of it. But, Dick, we can't afford to take all these people into danger here in the woods. Look at the women and children."
They had just begun to stop for the night, and to draw the wagons into a circle in a convenient, slightly hollowed, open place. The women and children were trooping about upon the grass, and the air was filled with the sound of merry voices. All were browned by the sun, but they were healthy and joyous, and they looked forward with keen delight to meeting kin who had gone on before at Wareville. They had no fear of the mighty forests, when more than two hundred pairs of strong arms fenced them about.
"That is shorely a pleasant sight," said Dick Salter. "I've seed the same many evenin's, an' I hope to see it many more evenin's. We'll get 'em through, Mr. Poe, we'll get 'em through!"
"I hope so," said Daniel Poe earnestly.
They had begun to light the evening fires, and in the west a great red sun blazed just above the hills. Daniel Poe suddenly put his hand upon Dick Salter's arm.
"Dick, what is that?" he said, pointing with a long forefinger.
A black silhouette had appeared on the crest of a hill in the very eye of the sun, and Dick Salter, shading his brow with his hand, gazed long and anxiously.
"It's a man," he said at last, "an' ef I'm any judge uv a human bein' it's about the finest specimen uv a man that ever trod green grass. Look, Mr. Poe!"
The figure, outlined against its brilliant background, seemed to grow and come nearer. Others had seen now, and the whole wagon train gazed with intent and curious eyes. They saw in the blazing light every detail of an erect and splendid figure, evidently that of a youth, but tall beyond the average of men. He was clad in forest garb—fringed hunting shirt and leggings and raccoon-skin cap. He stood erect, but easily, holding by the muzzle a long, slender-barreled rifle, which rested, stock upon the ground. Seen there in all the gorgeous redness of the evening sunlight, there was something majestic, something perhaps weird and unreal, in the grand and silent figure.
"He's white, that's shore!" said Dick Salter.
"He looks like a wilderness god," murmured Daniel Poe, in his beard.
"Look!" exclaimed Dick Salter. "There's another!"
A second figure appeared suddenly beside the first, that of a youth, also, not so tall as the first; but he, too, stood erect, silent and motionless, gazing at the wagon train.
"And a third!" exclaimed Daniel Poe.
"And a fourth and fifth!" added Dick Salter. "See, there are five uv 'em!"
Three other figures had appeared, seeming to arise in the sunlight as if by Arabian magic; and now all five stood there in a row, side by side, everyone silent and motionless, and everyone holding by the muzzle a long, slender-barreled rifle, its stock upon the ground, as he gazed at the train.
A deep breath ran through the crowd of emigrants, and all—men, women, and children—moved forward for a better look. There was something mysterious and uncanny in this sudden apparition of the five there in the blazing light of the setting sun, which outlined their figures in every detail and raised them to gigantic proportions. On those hills only was light; everywhere else the mighty curving wilderness, full of unknown terrors, was already dark with the coming night.
"It is our omen of danger. I feel it, I feel it In every bone of me," murmured Daniel Poe into his great black beard.
"We must find out what this means, that's shore," said Dick Salter.
But as he spoke, the first figure, that of the great, splendid youth, stepped right out of the eye of the sun, and he was followed in single file by the four others, all stepping in unison. They came down the hill, and directly toward the travelers. Again that deep breath ran through the crowd of emigrants, and the chief note of it was admiration, mingled with an intense curiosity.
All the five figures were strange and wild, sinewy, powerful, almost as dark as Indians, their eyes watchful and wary and roving from side to side, their clothing wholly of skins and furs, singular and picturesque. They seemed almost to have come from another world. But Daniel Poe was never lacking either in the qualities of hospitality or leadership.
"Friends," he said, "as white men—for such I take you to be—you are welcome to our camp."
The first of the five, the great, tall youth with the magnificent shoulders, smiled, and it seemed to Daniel Poe that the smile was wonderfully frank and winning.
"Yes, we are white, though we may not look it," he said in a clear, deep voice, "and we have come near a thousand miles to meet you."
"To meet us?" repeated Daniel Poe, in surprise, while Dick Salter, beside him, was saying to himself, as he looked at one of the five: "Ef that ain't Tom Ross, then I'll eat my cap."
"Yes," repeated Henry Ware, with the most convincing emphasis, "it's you that we've come to meet. We belong at Wareville, although we've been far in the North throughout the winter. My name is Henry Ware, this is Paul Cotter, and these are Tom Ross, Sol Hyde, and Jim Hart. We must have a word with you at once, where the others cannot hear."
Tom Ross and Dick Salter, old friends, were already shaking hands. Henry Ware glanced at the emigrants pressing forward in a great crowd, and sympathy and tenderness showed in his eyes as he looked at the eager, childish faces so numerous among them.
"Will you keep them back?" he said to Daniel Poe. "I must speak to you where none of those can hear."
Daniel Poe waved away the crowd, and then took a step forward.
"We have come," said Henry Ware, in low, intense tones, "to warn you that you are going to be attacked by a great force of warriors, furnished by the league of the northwestern tribes. They mean that you shall never reach Wareville or Marlowe, to double the strength of those settlements. They would have laid an ambush for you, but we have been among them and we know their plans."
A shiver ran through the stalwart frame of Daniel Poe—a shiver of apprehension, not for himself, but for the five hundred human lives intrusted to his care. Then he steadied himself.
"We can fight," he said, "and I thank you for your warning; I cannot doubt its truth."
"We will stay with you," said Henry Ware. "We know the signs of the forest, and we can help in the battle that is sure to come, and also before and after."
His voice was full of confidence and courage, and it sent an electric thrill through the veins of Daniel Poe. Henry Ware was one of those extraordinary human beings whose very presence seems to communicate strength to others.
"We'll beat 'em off," said Daniel Poe sanguinely.
"Yes, we'll beat 'em off," said Henry Ware. Then he continued: "You must tell all the men, and of course the women and children will hear of if, but it's best to let the news spread gradually."
Daniel Poe went back with the messengers to the wagons, and soon it was known to everybody that the Indians were laying an ambush for them all. Some wails broke forth from the women, but they were quickly suppressed, and all labored together to put the camp in posture of defense. The strangers were among them, cheering them, and predicting victory if battle should come. Paul, in particular, quickly endeared himself to them. He was so hearty, so full of jests, and he quoted all sorts of scraps of old history bearing particularly upon their case, and showing that they must win if attacked.
"There was a race of very valiant people living a very long, long time ago," he said, "who always made their armies intrench at night. Nobody could take a Roman camp, and we've got to imitate those old fellows."
Under the guidance of Paul and his friends, the Roman principle was followed, at least in part. The wagons were drawn up in a great circle in an open space, where they could not be reached by a rifle shot from the trees, and then more than two hundred men, using pick and spade, speedily threw up an earthwork three feet high that inclosed the wagons. Henry Ware regarded it with the greatest satisfaction.
"I don't know any Indian force," he said, "that will rush such a barrier in the face of two or three hundred rifles. Now, Mr. Poe, you post guards at convenient intervals, and the rest of you can take it easy inside."
The guards were stationed, but inside the ring of wagons many fires burned brightly, and around them was a crowd that talked much, but talked low. The women could not sleep, nor could the children, whose curiosity was intensely aroused by the coming of these extraordinary-looking strangers. The larger of the children understood the danger, but the smaller did not, and their spirits were not dampened at all.
The night came down, a great blanket of darkness, in the center of which the camp fires were now fused together into a cone of light. A few stars came out in the dusky heavens, and twinkled feebly. The spring wind sighed gently among the new leaves of the forest. The voices of women and children gradually died. Some slept in blankets before the fires, and others in the wagons, whose stout oak sides would turn any bullet.
Daniel Poe walked just outside the circle of the wagons, and his heart was heavy with care. Yet he was upborne by the magnetic personality of Henry Ware, who walked beside him.
"How far from us do you think they are now?" he asked.
"Fifty miles, perhaps, and they are at least a thousand strong. It was their object to fall suddenly upon you in the dark, but when their scouts find that you fortify every night, they will wait to ambush you on the day's march."
"Undoubtedly," said Daniel Poe, "and we've got to guard against it as best we can."
"But my comrades and I and Dick Salter will be your eyes," said Henry. "We'll be around you in the woods, watching all the time."
"Thank God that you have come," said Daniel Poe devoutly. "I think that Providence must have sent you and your friends to save us. Think what might have happened if you had not come."
He shuddered. Before him came a swift vision of red slaughter—women and children massacred in the darkness. Then his brave heart swelled to meet the coming danger. The night passed without alarm, but Henry, Ross, and Shif'less Sol, roaming far in the forest, saw signs that told them infallibly where warriors had passed.
"The attack will come," said Henry.
"As sure as night follows day," said Ross, "an' it's our business to know when it's about to come."
Henry nodded, and the three sped on in their great circle about the camp, not coming in until a little before day, when they slept briefly before one of the fires. When the people arose and found that nothing had happened, they were light-hearted. Nothing had happened, so nothing would happen, they said to themselves; they were too strong for the danger that had threatened, and it would pass them by. Day was so much more cheerful than night.
They ate breakfast, their appetites brisk in the crisp morning air, and resumed the march. But they advanced slowly, the wagons in a close, triple file, with riflemen on either side. But Daniel Poe knew that their chief reliance now was the eyes of the five strangers, who were in the forest on either side and in front. They had made a deep impression upon him, as they had upon every other person with whom they came into contact. He had the most implicit confidence in their courage, skill, and faith.
The wagons went slowly on through the virgin wilderness, Daniel Poe and Dick Salter at their head, the riflemen all along the flanks.
"We'll strike a river some time to-morrow," said Salter. "It's narrow and deep, and the ford will be hard."
"I wish we were safely on the other side," said Daniel Poe.
"So do I," said Dick Salter, and his tone was full of meaning.
Yet the day passed as the night had passed, and nothing happened. They had safely crossed the mountains, and before them were gentle, rolling hills and open forest. The country steadily grew more fertile, and often game sprang up from the way, showing that man trod there but little. The day was of unrivaled beauty, a cloudless blue sky overhead, green grass under foot, and a warm, gentle wind always blowing from the south. How could danger be threatening under such a smiling guise? But the "eyes" of the train, which nothing escaped, the five who watched on every side, saw the Indian sign again and again, and always their faces were grave.
"The train carries many brave men," said Henry, "but it will need every one of them."
"Yes," said Tom Ross; "an' ef the women, too, kin shoot, so much the better."
That night they encamped again in one of the openings so numerous throughout the country, and, as before, they fortified; but the women and children were getting over their fear. They were too strong. The Indians would not dare to attack a train defended by three hundred marksmen—two hundred and fifty men and at least fifty women who could and would shoot well. So their voices were no longer subdued, and jest and laughter passed within the circle of the wagons.
Paul remained by one of the fires, Henry and Shif'less Sol suggesting that he do so because he was already a huge favorite with everybody. He was sitting comfortably before the coals, leaning against a wagon wheel, and at least a score of little boys and girls were gathered about him. They wanted to know about the great wilderness, and the fights of himself and his comrades with the red warriors. Paul, though modest, had the gift of vivid narrative. He described Wareville, that snug nest there in the forest, and the great battle before its wooden walls; how the women, led by a girl, had gone forth for water; how the savages had been beaten off, and the dreadful combat afterward in the forest through the darkness and the rain. He told how he had been struck down by a bullet, only to be carried off and saved by his comrade, Henry Ware—the bravest, the most skillful, and the strongest hunter, scout, and warrior in all the West. Then he told them something of their life in the winter just closed, although he kept the secret of the haunted island, which was to remain the property of his comrades and himself.
The children hung upon his words. They liked this boy with the brilliant eyes, the vivid imagination, and the wonderful gift of narrative, that could make everything he told pass before their very eyes.
"And now that's enough," said Paul at last. "You must all go to sleep, as you are to start on your journey again early in the morning. Now, off with you, every one of you!"
He rose, despite their protests, this prince of story tellers, and, bidding them good-night, strolled with affected carelessness outside the circle of wagons. The night was dark, like the one preceding, but the riflemen were on guard within the shadows of the wagons.
"Do you see anything?" Paul asked of one.
"Nothing but the forest," he replied.
Paul strolled farther, and saw a dark figure among the trees. As he approached he recognized Shif'less Sol.
"Any news, Sol?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the shiftless one, "we've crossed trails of bands three times, but the main force ain't come up yet. I guess it means to wait a little, Paul. I'm awful glad we've come to help out these poor women an' children."
"So am I," said Paul, glancing at the black forest. "They've got to go through a terrible thing, Sol."
"Yes, an' it's comin' fast," said the shiftless one.
But nothing happened that night, at least so far as the camp was concerned. The sentinels walked up and down outside, and were not disturbed. The women and children slept peacefully in the wagons, or in their blankets before the fires, and the clear dawn came, silver at first and then gold under a sky of blue.
The "eyes" of the train had come in as before, and taken their nap, and now were up and watching once more. Breakfast over, the drivers swung their whips, called cheerfully to their horses, and the wagons, again in three close files, resumed the march.
"We'll strike the ford about noon to-day," said Dick Salter to Daniel Poe.
"I wish we were safely on the other side," said Daniel Poe, in the exact words of the day before.
"So do I," repeated Dick Salter.
The wagons moved forward undisturbed, their wheels rolling easily over the soft turf, and some of the women, forgetting their alarms, softly sang songs of their old homes in the East. The children, eager to see everything in this mighty, unknown land, called to each other; but all the time, as they marched through the pleasant greenwood, danger was coming closer and closer.
THE TERRIBLE FORD
"The ford ain't much more than an hour's march farther on," said Dick Salter to Daniel Poe, "an' the way to it leads over purty smooth groun'."
"And we have not seen anything of the warriors yet, except the trails of small bands," said Daniel Poe hopefully. "It may be that our new friends are mistaken."
Dick Salter shook his head.
"Tom Ross never makes a mistake in matters uv that kind," he said, "an' that boy, Henry Ware, couldn't ef he tried. He's wonderful, Mr. Poe."
"Yes," said Daniel Poe. "Nobody else ever made such an impression upon me. And the one they call Paul is a fine fellow, too. I wish I had a son like that."
"He's the most popular fellow in the train already," said Dick Salter.
Both looked admiringly at Paul, who was walking near the head of the line, a group of lithe, strong-limbed boys and girls surrounding him and begging him for stories of the wilderness. Paul remained with the train by arrangement. It was his business to cheer, invigorate, and hearten for a great task, while his comrades roamed the forest and looked for the danger that they knew would surely come. Never did youth succeed better at his chosen task, as confidence spread from him like a contagion.
Paul presently quickened his steps, and came quite to the head of the line, where Daniel Poe and Dick Salter were walking, both circling the forest ahead of them with anxious eyes. They and Paul at the same time saw a figure emerge from the woods in front. It was Henry, and he was coming on swift foot. In an instant he was before them, and Paul knew by his look that he had news.
"They are waiting?" said Paul.
"Yes," replied Henry. "They are in the thickets at the ford, less than two miles ahead."
Daniel Poe shuddered again—for the five hundred lives in his charge—and then his heart rose. The waiting, the terrible suspense, were over, and it was battle now. The fact contained relief.
"Shall we halt?" he said to Henry. Unconsciously, he, too, was submitting to the generalship of this king of forest runners.
"No," replied Henry; "we've got to go on some time or other, and they can wait as long as we can. We must force the passage of the ford. We can do it."
He spoke with confidence, and courage seemed to leap like sparks from him and set fire to the others.
"Then it's go ahead," said Daniel Poe grimly. "We'll force the passage."
"Put all the little children, and all the women who don't fight, in the wagons, and make them lie down," said Henry. "The men must swarm on either flank. My comrades will remain in the front, watching until we reach the river."
Then a great bustle and the chatter of many voices arose; but it soon died away before stern commands and equally stern preparations, because they were preparing to run as terrible a gantlet as human beings ever face, these dauntless pioneers of the wilderness. The children were quickly loaded in the wagons, and all the weaker of the women; but with the men on the flanks marched at least two-score grim Amazons, rifle in hand.
Then the train resumed its slow march, and nothing was heard but the rolling of the wheels and the low cluck of the drivers to their horses. The way still led through an open, parklike country, and the road was easy. Soon those in front saw a faint streak cutting across the forest. The streak was silvery at first, and then blue, and it curved away to north and south among low hills.
"The river!" said Daniel Poe, and he shut his teeth hard.
All the men and the Amazons drew a long, deep breath, like a sigh; but they said nothing, and continued to march steadily forward. The river broadened, the blue of its waters deepened, and from the high ground on which they marched they could see the low banks on the farther shore, crowned by clustering thickets.
Three men emerged from the undergrowth. They were Tom Ross, Shif'less Sol, and Long Jim Hart. The shiftless one looked lazy and careless, and Jim Hart, stretching himself, looked longer and thinner than ever.
"We found it, Henry," said Ross. "Little more'n a mile to the south, men wadin' to the waist kin cross."
"Good!" said Henry. "We're lucky!"
He began to give rapid, incisive commands, and everyone obeyed as a matter of course, and without jealousy. Daniel Poe was the leader of the wagon train, but Henry Ware, whom they had known but a few days, was its leader in battle.
"Take fifty men," he said to Ross, "the best marksmen and the stanchest fighters, and cross there. Then come silently among the thickets up the bank, to strike them when they strike us."
Paul listened with admiration. He knew Henry's genius for battle, and, like the others, he was inspired by his comrade's confidence. The fifty men were quickly told off behind the wagons, and, headed by Tom Ross and Jim Hart, they disappeared at once in the woods. Shif'less Sol remained with Henry and Paul.
"Now, forward!" said Henry Ware, and the terrible, grim march was begun again. There was the river, growing broader and broader and bluer and bluer as they came closer. The children and women—except the Amazons—saw nothing because they were crouched upon the floors of the wagon beds, but the drivers, every one of whom had a rifle lying upon the seat beside him, were at that moment the bravest of them all, because they faced the greatest danger.
"Slowly!" said Henry, to the leading wagons. "We must give Sol and his men time for their circuit."
He noted with deep joy that the ford was wide. At least five wagons could enter it abreast, and he made them advance in five close lines.
"When you reach the water," he said to the drivers, "lie down behind the front of the wagon beds, and drive any way you can. Now, Sol, you and I and Dick Salter must rouse them from the thickets."
The three crept forward, and looked at the peaceful river under the peaceful sky. So far as the ordinary eye could see, there was no human being on its shores. The bushes waved a little in the gentle wind, and the water broke in brilliant bubbles on the shallows.
But Henry Ware's eyes were not ordinary. There was not a keener pair on the continent, and among the thickets on the farther bank he saw a stir that was not natural. The wind blew north, and now and then a bush would bend a little toward the south. He crept closer, and at last he saw a coppery face here and there, and savage, gleaming eyes staring through the bushes.
"Tell the wagons to come on boldly," he said to Shif'less Sol, and the shiftless one obeyed.
"Now, Sol," he said, when the man returned, "take fifty more riflemen, and hide in that thicket, at the highest part of the bank. Stay there. You will know what else to do."
"I think I will," said the shiftless one, and every trace of indifference or laziness was gone from him. He was the forester, alert and indomitable—a fit second to Henry Ware. Then Henry and Jim Hart alone were left near the river's brink. Henry did not look back.
"Are the wagons coming fast?" he asked.
"Yes," said Jim Hart, "but I'm beckonin' to 'em to come still faster. They'll be in the water in three minutes. Listen! The drivers are whippin' up the horses!"
The loud cracking of whips arose, and the horses advanced at a trot toward the ford. At the same instant Henry Ware raised his rifle, and fired like a flash of lightning at one of the coppery faces in the thicket on the opposite shore. The death cry of the savage rose, but far above it rose the taunting shout of the white youth, louder and more terrible than their own. The savages, surprised, abandoned their ambush. The leading wagons dashed into the water, and down upon them dashed the picked power of the allied western tribes.
In an instant the far edge of the water was swarming with coppery bodies and savage faces, and the war whoop, given again and again, echoed far up and down the stream, and through the thickets and forest. Rifles cracked rapidly, and then blazed into volleys. Bullets sighed as they struck on human flesh or the wood of wagons, and now and then they spattered on the water. Cries of pain or shouts of defiance rose, and the furious conflict between white man and red rapidly thickened and deepened, becoming a confused and terrible medley.
Henry Ware and Jim Hart ran down into the stream by the side of the leading wagons, and loaded and fired swiftly into the dense brown mass before them. Nor did they send a bullet amiss. Henry Ware was conscious at that moment of a fierce desire to see the face of Braxton Wyatt amid the brown horde. He knew he was there, somewhere, and in the rage of conflict he would gladly have sent a bullet through the renegade's black heart. He did not see him, but the dauntless youth pressed steadily forward, continually shouting encouragement and showing the boldest example of them all.
A bank of blue and white smoke arose over the stream, shot through by the flashes of the rifle firing, and out of this bank came the defiant shouts of the combatants. Suddenly, from the high bank, on the shore that they had just left, burst a tremendous volley—fifty rifles fired at once. A yell of pain and rage burst from the savages. Those rifles had mowed a perfect swath of death among them.
"Good old Sol! Good old Sol!" exclaimed Henry, twice through his shut teeth. "On, men, on! Trample them down! Drive the wagons into them!"
A second time the unexpected volley burst from the hill, and a storm of bullets beat upon the packed mass of the savages at the edge of the water. Henry Ware had been a true general that day. Shif'less Sol and his men, from their height and hid among the bushes, poured volley after volley into the savages below, spurred on by their own success and the desperation of the cause.
The front wagons advanced deeper into the water and the smoke bank, and the others came, closely packed behind in a huddle. Unearthly screams arose—the cries of wounded or dying horses, shot by the savages.
"Cut them loose from the gear," cried Henry, "and on! always on!"
Swift and skillful hands obeyed him, and some of the wagons, in the wild energy of the moment, were carried on, partly by a single horse and partly by the weight of those behind them. The shouts of the savages never ceased, but above them rose the cry of the dauntless soul that now led the wagon train. More than one savage fired at the splendid figure, never more splendid than when in battle; but always the circling smoke or the hand of Providence protected him, and he still led on, unhurt. They were now near the middle of the river, and Shif'less Sol and his men never ceased to pour their fire over their heads and into the red ranks.
"Now! Now!" muttered Henry, through his shut teeth. He was praying for Tom Ross and the first fifty, and as he prayed his prayer was answered.
A great burst of fire came from the thickets on their own side of the river, and the savages were smitten on the flanks, as if by a bolt of lightning. It seemed to them at the same moment as if the fire of the men with the wagon train, and of those on the high bluff, doubled. They recoiled. They gave back and they shivered as that terrible fire smote them a second and a third time on the flank. The soul of Shawnee, Miami, and Wyandot alike filled with dread. In vain Yellow Panther and Red Eagle, great war chiefs, raged back and forth, and encouraged their warriors to go on. In vain they risked their lives again and again. The great bulk of the wagons bore steadily down upon them, and they were continually lashed by an unerring fire from three points. Well for the people of the wagon train that a born leader had planned their crossing and had led them that day!
"They give, they give!" shouted Henry Ware. "We win, we win!"
"They give, they give! We win, we win!" shouted the brave riflemen, and they pressed forward more strongly than ever. By their side waded the bold Amazons, fighting with the best.
The wagons themselves offered great shelter for the pioneers. As Henry had foreseen, they were driven forward in a mass, which was carried partly by its own impetus. If the Indians had thought to fire chiefly upon the horses they would have accomplished more, but the few of these that were slain did not check the progress of the others. Meanwhile, the riflemen lurked amid the wheels and behind the wagon beds, incessantly pouring their deadly hail of bullets upon the exposed savages, and the drivers from sheltered places did the same. The train became a moving fort, belching forth fire and death upon its enemies.
The defenders did not advance without loss. Now and then a man sank and died in the stream, many others suffered wounds, and even the women and children did not escape; but through it all, through all the roar and tumult, all the shouting and cries, the train drew steadily closer to the western bank.
"Now, boys," shouted Shif'less Sol to his faithful fifty, "they're about to run! Pour it into 'em!"
At the same time Tom Ross was giving a similar command to his own equally faithful fifty, and they closed up on the flank of the allied tribes, and stung and stung. Henry Ware, through the drifting clouds of smoke and vapor, saw the savages waver again, and, shouting to the boldest to follow, he rushed forward. Then Shawnees, Miamis, and Wyandots, despite the fierce commands of Yellow Panther and Red Eagle, broke and fled from the water to the shore. There Tom Ross stung them more fiercely than ever on the flank, and the fire of Shif'less Sol from the high bluff reached them with deadly aim. They broke again, and, filled with superstitious terror at their awful losses, fled, a panic horde, into the woods.
"On, on!" shouted Henry Ware, in tremendous tones. "They run, they run!"
The whole train seemed to heave forward, as if by one convulsive but triumphant movement. Shif'less Sol and his men came down from the bluff and dashed into the water behind them; Ross and his fifty came forward from the thicket to meet them; and thus, dripping with water, smoke, blood, and sweat, the whole train passed up the western bank. The terrible ford had been won!
THE FLIGHT OF LONG JIM
Although the terrible ford had been won, Henry Ware knew that the danger was far from over. The savages, caught on the flank and shot down from above, had yielded to momentary panic, but they would come again. To any souls less daring than this band of pioneers, the situation would have been truly appalling. They were in the vast and unknown wilderness, surrounded everywhere by the black forest, with the horde, hungry for slaughter, still hanging upon their flanks; but among them all, scarce one woman or child showed a craven heart.
Led by Henry Ware, the wagons filed into an open space—a plain or little prairie—about a quarter of a mile beyond the ford, and there, still following his instructions, they drew up in a circle. He considered this open space a godsend, as no marksmen hidden in the woods could reach them there with a bullet. As soon as the circle was completed, the women and children poured forth from the wagons, and began to join the men in fortifying. There was mingled joy for victory and grief for loss. They had left dead behind in the river, and they had brought more with them; of wounds, except those that threatened to be mortal, they took little count. Even as they worked, scattering shots were fired from the forest, but they paid no heed to them, as all the bullets fell short.
Right in the center of the circle, inclosed by the wagons, a half dozen chosen spademen dug a deep hole, and then the dead were brought forth, ready for burial. A minister prayed and the women sang. Overhead, the late sun burned brilliant and red, and from the forest, as a kind of stern chorus, came the pattering rifle shots. But the last ceremony, all the more solemn and impressive because of these sights and sounds, went on unbroken. The dead were buried deep, then covered over, and the ground trodden that none might disturb their rest. Then all turned to the living need.
The five, barring slight scratches suffered by Ross and Shif'less Sol, had escaped unhurt, and now they labored with the others to throw up the wall of earth about the wagons. A spring took its rise in the center of the plain, and flowed down to the river. This spring was within the circle of the wagons, and they were assured of plenty of water.
Henry Ware looked over the crowd, and he rejoiced at their spirits, which had not been dampened by the sight of their dead. They had fought magnificently, and they were ready to fight again. Already fires were burning within the circle of the wagons, and the women were cooking supper. The pleasant odor of food arose, and men began to eat. Daniel Poe, as usual, turned to Henry.
"You are sure that they will make a new attack?" he said.
"Yes," replied Henry. "They have not come so far to retire after one repulse. We outflanked them there at the river, but they think that they will certainly get us, burdened as we are with the women and children. It's still a long road to Wareville."
"We can never repay the debt we owe to you and your comrades," said Daniel Poe.
"Don't think of it. It's the thing that we were bound to do."
Daniel Poe looked at the setting sun, now red like blood. Far over the western forest twilight shadows were coming.
"I wish this night was over," he said.
"If they attack we'll beat them off," said Henry confidently.
"But the cost, the cost!" murmured Daniel Poe.
Paul meanwhile was within the circle of wagons, in his great role of sustainer. He had fought like a paladin in the battle, and now he was telling what a great fight they had made, and what a greater one they could make, if need be. High spirits seemed to flow spontaneously from him, and the others caught the infection. More than one Amazon looked at him affectionately, as she would have looked at a son. Shif'less Sol joined him as he stood by one of the fires.
"I've been workin' out thar with a spade more'n an hour," said the shiftless one in a tone of deep disgust, "an' I'm tired plumb to death. I'll lay down before that fire an' sleep till mornin', ef every one uv you will promise not to say a word an' won't disturb me."
A laugh arose.
"Why, Mr. Hyde," exclaimed one of the Amazons, "they say there was not a more industrious man in the battle than you."
"Wa'al," said Shif'less Sol, slowly and reflectively, "a man, ef he's crowded into a corner, will fight ef his life depends on it, but I kin come purty near to livin' without work."
"You deserve your sleep, Mr. Hyde," said the woman. "Just stretch out there before the fire."
"I'll stretch out, but I won't sleep," said the shiftless one.
He was as good as his word, and admiring hands brought him food, which he ate contentedly. Presently he said in a low voice to Paul:
"That's right, Paul, hearten 'em up. They've got a lot to stand yet, an' it's courage that counts."
Paul knew this truth full well, and he went back and forth in the circle, ever performing his chosen task, while Henry outside planned and labored incessantly for the defense against a new attack. Fifty men, sharp of eye and ear, were selected to watch through half the night, when fifty more, also sharp of eye and ear, were to take their places. All the others were to sleep, if they could, in order that they might be strong and fresh for what the next day would bring forth.
The scattering fire from the forest ceased, and everything there became silent. No dusky forms were visible to the defenders. The sun dropped behind the hills, and night, thick and dark, came over the earth. The peace of the world was strange and solemn, and those in the beleaguered camp felt oppressed by the darkness and the mystery. They could not see any enemies or hear any, and after a while they began to argue that since the savages could no longer be seen or heard, they must have gone away. But Henry Ware only laughed as they told him so.
"They have not gone," he said to Daniel Poe, "nor will they go to-night nor to-morrow nor the next night. This train, when it starts in the morning, must be a moving fort."
Daniel Poe sighed. As always, he believed what Henry Ware said, and the prospect did not invite.
The darkness and the silence endured. The keenest of the watchers saw and heard nothing. The moon came out and the earth lightened, then darkened again as clouds rolled across the heavens; the camp fires sank, and, despite their alarms, many slept. The wounded, all of whom had received the rude but effective surgery of the border, were quiet, and the whole camp bore the aspect of peace. Paul slipped from the circle, and joined Henry outside the earthwork.
"Do you see anything, Henry?" he said.
"No, but I've heard," replied Henry, who had just come out of the darkness. "The Shawnees are before us, the Miamis behind us, and the warriors of the smaller tribes on either side. The night may pass without anything happening, or it may not. But we have good watchers."
Paul stayed with him a little while, but, at Henry's urgent request, he went back inside the circle, wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down, his face upturned to the cloudy skies which he did not see. He did not think he could sleep. His brain throbbed with excitement, and his vivid imagination was wide awake. Despite the danger, he rejoiced to be there; rejoiced that he and his comrades should help in the saving of all these people. The spiritual exaltation that he felt at times swept over him. Nevertheless, all the pictures faded, his excited nerves sank to rest, and, with his face still upturned to the cloudy skies, he slept.
Far after midnight a sudden ring of fire burst from the dark forest, and women and children leaped up at the crash of many rifles. Shouting their war whoop, the tribesmen rushed upon the camp; but the fifty sentinels, sheltered by the earthwork, met them with a fire more deadly than their own, and in a moment the fifty became more than two hundred.
Red Eagle and Yellow Panther had hoped for a surprise, but when the unerring volleys met them, they sank back again into the forest, carrying their dead with them.
"You were right," said Daniel Poe to Henry Ware; "they will not leave us."
"Not while they think there is a chance to overpower us. But we've shown 'em they can't count on a surprise."
The camp, except the watchers, went back to sleep, and the night passed away without a second alarm. Dawn came, gray and cloudy, and the people of the train awoke to their needs, which they faced bravely. Breakfast was cooked and eaten, and then the wagons, in a file of four, took up their march, a cloud of keen-eyed and brave skirmishers on every side. The train had truly become what Henry said it must be, a moving fort; and, though the savages opened fire in the woods, they dared not attack in force, so resolute and sure-eyed were the skirmishers and so strong a defense were the heavy wagons.
All day long this terrible march proceeded, the women and children sheltered in the wagons, and the savages, from the shelter of the forest, keeping up an irregular but unceasing fire on the flanks. The white skirmishers replied often with deadly effect, but it grew galling, almost unbearable. The Indians, who were accustomed either to rapid success or rapid retreat, showed an extraordinary persistence, and Henry suspected that Braxton Wyatt was urging them on. As he thought of the effect of these continued attacks upon the train, he grew anxious. The bravest spirit could be worn down by them, and he sought in vain for a remedy.
They camped the second night in an open place, and fortified, as before, with a circular earthwork; but they were harried throughout all the hours of darkness by irregular firing and occasional war whoops. Fewer people slept that night than had slept the night before. Nerves were raw and suffering, and Paul found his chosen task a hard one. But he worked faithfully, going up and down within the fortified circle, cheering, heartening, and predicting a better day for the morrow.
That day came, cloudless and brilliant above, but to the accompaniment of shouts, shots, and alarms below. Once more the terrible march was resumed, and the savages still hung mercilessly on their flanks. Henry, with anxious heart, noticed a waning of spirit, though not of courage, in the train. The raw nerves grew rawer. This incessant marching forward between the very walls of death could not be endured forever. Again he sought a way out. Such a way they must have, and at last he believed that he had found it. But he said nothing at present, and the train, edged on either side with fire and smoke, went on through the woods.
A third time they camped in an open space, a third time they fortified; but now, after the supper was over, Henry called a council of the leaders.
"We cannot go on as we have been going," he said. "The savages hang to us with uncommon tenacity, and there are limits to human endurance."
Daniel Poe shook his head sadly. The awful lacerating process had never ceased. More men were wounded, and the spirits of all grew heavier and heavier. Paul still walked among the fires, seeking to cheer and inspire, but he could do little. Dread oppressed the women and children, and they sat mostly in silence. Outside, an occasional whoop came from the depths of the forest, and now and then a rifle was fired. The night was coming on, thick and ominous. The air had been heavy all the day, and now somber clouds were rolling across the sky. At intervals flashes of lightning flared low down on the black forest. Heavy and somber, like the skies, were the spirits of all the people. A wounded horse neighed shrilly, and in an almost human voice, as he died.
"We must take a new step," said Henry; "things cannot go on this way. It is yet a hundred and fifty miles, perhaps, to Wareville, and if the savages continue to hang on, we can never reach it."
"What do you propose?" asked Daniel Poe.
Henry Ware stood erect. The light of the council fire flared upon his splendid, indomitable face. All relied upon him, and he knew it.
"I have a plan," he said. "To-morrow we can reach an unforested hill that I know of, with a spring flowing out of the side. It is easy to hold, and we shall have plenty of water. We will stop there and make our stand. Meanwhile, we will send to Wareville for help. The messenger must leave to-night. Jim Hart, are you ready?"
Jim Hart had been sitting on a fallen tree, all humped together. Now he unfolded himself and stood up, stretched out to his complete length, six feet four inches of long, slim man, knotted and jointed, but as tough as wire—the swiftest runner in all the West. Long Jim, ugly, honest, and brave, said nothing, but his movement showed that he was ready.
"Jim Hart was made for speed," continued Henry. "At his best he is like the wind, and he can run all the way to Wareville. He'll leave in a half hour, before the moon has a chance to rise."
"He'll never get through!" exclaimed Daniel Poe.
"Oh, yes, he will!" said Henry confidently. "Bring all the men Wareville can spare, Jim, and fall upon them while they are besieging us at the Table Rock."
Little more was said. Had the train afforded paint, they would have stained Jim's face in the Indian way; but the utmost that they could do was to draw up his hair and tie it in a scalp lock, like those of the Shawnees. Fortunately, his hair was dark, and his face was so thoroughly tanned by weather that it might be mistaken in the night for an Indian's. Then Long Jim was ready. He merely shook the hands of his four comrades and of Daniel Poe, and without another word went forth.
The night was at its darkest when Jim Hart slipped under one of the wagons and crept across the open space. The heavy clouds had grown heavier, and now and then low thunder muttered on the horizon. The fitful lightning ceased, and this was occasion for thanks.
Jim Hart crept about twenty yards from the circle of the wagons, and then he lay flat upon the earth. He could see nothing in the surrounding rim of forest, nor could he hear anything. A light hum from the camp behind him was all that came to his ears. He slipped forward again in a stooping position, stopped a moment when he heard a rifle shot from the other side of the camp, and then resumed his shambling, but swift, journey. Now he passed the open space and gained the edge of the woods. Here the danger lay, but the brave soul of Long Jim never faltered.
He plunged into the gloom of the bushes and trees, slipping silently among them. Two warriors glanced curiously at him in the dark, but in a moment he was gone; a third farther on spoke to him, but he shook his head impatiently, as if he bore some message, and only walked the faster. Now his keen eyes saw savages all around him, some talking, others standing or lying down, quite silent. He was sorry now that he was so tall, as his was a figure that would cause remark anywhere; but he stooped over, trying to hide his great height as much as possible. He passed one group, then two, then three, and now he was a full four hundred yards from the camp. His curving flight presently brought him near three men who were talking earnestly together. They noticed Hart at the same time, and one of them beckoned to him. Long Jim pretended not to see, and went on. Then one of them called to him angrily, and Jim recognized the voice of Braxton Wyatt.
Long Jim stopped a moment, uncertain what to do at that critical juncture, and Braxton Wyatt, stepping forward, seized him by the arm. It was dark in the woods, but the renegade, looking up, recognized the face and figure.
"Jim Hart!" he cried.
Long Jim's right hand was grasping the stock of his rifle, but his left suddenly flashed out and smote Braxton Wyatt full in the face. The renegade gasped and went down unconscious, and then Long Jim turned, and ran with all the speed that was in him, leaping over the low bushes and racing among the tree trunks more like a phantom than a human being. A shout arose behind him, and a dozen rifle shots were fired. He felt a sting in his arm, and then blood dripped down; but it was only a flesh wound, and he was spurred to greater speed.
A terrible yell arose, and many warriors, trained runners of the forest, with muscles of steel and a spirit that never tired, darted after him. But Long Jim, bending his head a little lower, raced on through the dark, his strength growing with every leap and his brain on fire with energy. He passed two or three savages—far-flung outposts—but before they could recover from their surprise he was by them and gone. Bullets sang past him, but the long, slim figure cut the air like an arrow in the wind. After him came the savages, but now he was beyond the last outposts, and the footsteps of his pursuers were growing fainter behind. Now he opened his mouth, and emitted a long, quavering, defiant yell—answer to their own. After that he was silent, and sped on, never relaxing, tireless like some powerful machine. The pursuit died away behind him, and though some might hang on his trail, none could ever overtake him.
The low thunder still muttered, and the fitful lightning began to flare again. Now and then there were gusts of rain, swept by the wind; but through all the hours of rain and dark the runner sped on, mile upon mile.
Day dawns and finds him still flitting! But now there is full need of thy speed, Jim Hart! Five hundred lives hang upon it!
Speed ye, Long Jim, speed ye!
THE LAST STAND
Henry Ware and the others, listening at the circle of the wagons, heard the flare of shots, and then, a little later, a lone but long and defiant cry, that seemed to be an answer to the others.
"That's Jim Hart, and he's through!" exclaimed Henry exultantly. "Now he'll fairly eat up the ground between here and Wareville."
That night another attack, or rather feint, was made upon the train; but it was easily beaten off, and then morning came, raw and wet. The woods and grass were dripping with the showers, and a sodden, gray sky chilled and discouraged. The fires were lighted with difficulty and burned weakly. The women and children ate but little, casting fearful glances at the rain-soaked forest that circled about them. But Paul, as usual, with his bright face and brighter words, walked among them, and he told them a good tale. Long Jim Hart, with muscles and a soul of steel, had gone forth that night, and he would bring help. They were to march to a place called the Table Rock, where they would stay until the relief came. Gradually downcast heads were lifted and sunken spirits rose.
The gantlet began in the usual fashion an hour later, and throughout all that long, dismal morning it was a continual skirmish. The savages pressed closer than ever, and all the vigilance and accuracy of the riflemen were needed to drive them off. One man was killed and several were wounded, but the borderers merely shut their teeth down the harder and marched on.
Toward noon they saw a flat-topped hill, with a stony surface, a little stream running down its side, and Henry uttered a cheerful shout.
"The Table Rock!" he said. "Here we can hold off all the savages in the West!"
The train increased its slow gait, and all hearts grew lighter. The savages, as if determined that the wagons should not gain the shelter, pressed forward, but after a short but fierce combat were driven off, and the train circled triumphantly up the slope.
It was indeed all that Henry had claimed for it—an ideal place for a protected camp, easy to defend, difficult to take. Not all the surface was stone, and there was abundant grazing ground for the horses. The spring that gushed from the side of the hill was inside the lines, and neither horse nor man lacked for pure water.
Now they fortified more strongly than ever, throwing up earthworks higher than before and doubling the sentinels. Fallen wood was plentiful, and at Henry's direction the fires were built high and large in order that they might drive away discouragement. Then a semblance of cheerfulness made its appearance, and the women and children began to talk once more.
"Long Jim will go through if any mortal man can," said Henry Ware to Daniel Poe.
"Pray God that he succeeds," said Daniel Poe. "Surely, no wagon train ever before ran the deadly gantlet that ours has run."
Shif'less Sol strolled into the circle of fires, and sat down with Paul.
"Now, this is what I call true comfort fur a tired man," he said. "Here we are with nuthin' to do but set here an' rest, until somebody comes an' takes us to Wareville. Them savages out thar might save theirselves a heap o' trouble by goin' peacefully away. Makes me think o' that siege o' Troy you wuz talkin' about, Paul, only we won't let any wooden horse in."
"Maybe there is some likeness," said Paul.
"Maybe thar is," continued Shif'less Sol, in his cheerful tones; "but Tom Ross wuz right when he said the way them Greeks an' Trojans fought was plumb foolish. Do you think that me, Sol Hyde, is goin' to take a tin pan an' go beatin' on it down thar among the bushes, an' callin' on the biggest boaster o' all the savages to come out an' fight me? No, sir; I wouldn't go fifty yards before I'd tumble over, with a bullet through me."
Most of the people laughed, and the shiftless one continued with random, cheery talk, helping Paul to hearten them. The two succeeded to a great degree. There was mourning for the dead, but it was usually silent. The borderers were too much accustomed to hardship and death to grieve long over the past. They turned themselves to present needs.
The night was rainy, and unusually cold for that time of the year, and Henry Ware rejoiced because of it. The savages in the thickets, despite their hardiness, would suffer more than the emigrants in the shelter of the wagons. Henry himself, although he caught little naps here and there, seemed to the others able to do without sleep. He kept up an incessant watch, and his vigilance defeated two attempts of the warriors to creep up in the darkness and pour a fire into the train.
A second day came, and then a third, and the savages resumed their continuous skirmishing. A single warrior would creep up, fire a shot, and then spring away. They did little damage, but they showed that no one was safe for a moment outside the circle of wagons. If help did not come, they would never leave their rock.
Time wore on, and the beleaguered camp became again a prey to gloom. Women and children fell sick, and the hearts of the men were heavy. The ring of savages drew closer, and more than once bullets fell inside the circle of the wagons. It was hard work now for Paul and Shif'less Sol to keep up the spirits of the women and children, and once, at a council, some one talked of surrender. They might at least get good treatment.
"Never think of such a thing!" said Henry Ware. "All the men would be killed, tortured to death, and all the women and children would be taken away into slavery. Hold on! Jim Hart will surely get through."
But the warriors steadily grew bolder. They seemed to be animated by the certainty of triumph. Often through the day and night they uttered taunting shouts, and now and then, in the day time, they would appear at the edge of the woods and make derisive gestures. Daniel Poe grew gloomy, and sadly shook his head.
"Help must come soon," he said, "or our people will not have spirit to beat back the savages the next time they try to rush the camp."
"It will come, it will surely come!" said Henry confidently.
The worst night of all arrived. More of the women and children fell sick, and they did not have the energy to build up bright fires. It was to Ross and Shif'less Sol that this task fell; but, though they kept the fires high, they accomplished little else. Paul lay down about midnight and slept several hours, but it was a troubled night. The savages did not rest. They were continually flitting about among the trees at the foot of the hill, and firing at the sentinels. Little flashes of flame burst out here and there in the undergrowth, and the crackle of the Indian rifles vexed continually.
Paul rose at the first coming of the dawn, pale, unrested, and anxious. He walked to the earthwork, and saw Henry there, watching as always, seemingly tireless. The sun was just shooting above the hills, and Paul knew that a brilliant day was at hand.
"At any rate, Henry," Paul said, "I prefer the day to the night while we are here."
Henry did not reply. A sudden light had leaped into his eye, and he was bent slightly forward, in the attitude of one who listens intently.
"What is it, Henry?" asked Paul.
Henry lifted his hand for silence. His attitude did not change. Every nerve was strained, but the light remained in his eye.
"Paul," he cried, "don't you hear them? Rifle shots, far away and very faint, but they are coming toward us! Long Jim is here, and Wareville with him!"
Then Paul heard it—the faint, distant patter, as welcome sounds as ever reached human ears. He could not mistake it now, as he was too much used to the crackle of rifle shots to take it for anything else. His face was transfigured, his eyes shone with vivid light. He sprang upon the earthwork, and cried in tones that rang through all the camp:
"Up, up, men! Long Jim and the Wareville riflemen are coming!"
The train blazed into action. Forth poured the hardy borderers in scores, surcharged now with courage and energy. The firing in front of them had risen into a furious battle, and above the roar and the tumult rose the cheering of white men.
"Long Jim has surprised them, and he is half way through already!" cried Henry exultantly. "Now, men, we'll smite 'em on the flank!"
In a moment the whole force of the train, the Amazons included, were into the very thick of it, while Long Jim and two hundred riflemen, dealing out death on every side, were coming to meet them. The battle was short. Surprised, caught on both flanks, the savages gave way. There was a tremendous firing, a medley of shouts and cries for a few minutes, and then the warriors of the allied tribes fled deep into the woods, not to stop this time until they were on the other side of the Ohio River.
Forth from the smoke and flame burst a tall, gaunt frame.
"Long Jim!" cried Henry, seizing his hand. "It's you that's saved us, Jim!"
After him came a fine, ascetic face—the Reverend Silas Pennypacker—and he fairly threw himself upon his beloved pupil, Paul. And then the brave men from Wareville pressed forward, and some from Marlowe, too, welcoming these new people, whom they needed so badly, and who had needed them. But Daniel Poe said solemnly, in the presence of all:
"It is these who saved us in the first instance!"
He indicated the valiant five—Henry Ware, Paul Cotter, Tom Ross, Shif'less Sol Hyde, and Long Jim Hart. And the whole camp, seeing and hearing him, burst into a roar of applause.
The next morning the train resumed its march in peace and safety.
* * * * *
It was a month later, and spring had fully come. Once more the vast wilderness was in deep green, and little wild flowers sprang up here and there where the sun could reach them. Two youths, unusually alert in face and figure, were loading pack horses with heavy brown sacks filled to bursting.
"This powder has kept dry and good all through the winter," said the larger of the youths.
"Yes, Henry," replied the other, "and we are lucky to come back here and be able to take it into Marlowe, after all."
Henry Ware laughed. It was a low, satisfied laugh.
"We have certainly been through many trials, Paul," he said; "but, with Tom, Sol, and Jim, we bore our part in turning the allied tribes back from the great war trail."
Paul Cotter's face was illumined.
"Kentucky is saved," he said, "and I shall be happy all my life because of the knowledge that we helped."
"It is surely a pleasant thought," said Henry.
Then they whistled to their loaded horses, and marched away through the greenwood, this time to reach Marlowe in safety.