Absolute silence greeted me. I had risked all on the hazard.
The executioner had staggered to his feet again, and now stood outside the circle leaning against a young oak-tree, half stunned, mechanically rubbing the twigs and dead leaves from the sticky black paint that masked his visage. I wheeled on him and bade him remain where he was until the council's will was made known; then I walked into the circle; and when they cried out that I had no franchise, I laughed at them, challenging them to deny me my right to stand here for the entire Oneida nation.
For there was nothing now to do but to carry the desperate enterprise through or perish. I dared not stop to consider; to attempt to remember precedents. I turned on the Mohawks haughtily, demanding that privilege which even they could not refuse; I claimed clan-brotherhood from every Wolf in the Long House; and when the council accorded it, I spoke:
"Now I say to you, O you wise men and sachems, that this Oneida shall not die, because the four classes speak through my mouth! Who is there to give me the lie? Why are your eight score Oneidas absent—the eight score who still remain in the Long House? Surely, brothers, there are sachems among them? Why are they not here? Do you fear they might not agree to the punishment of the Oneida nation?"
I folded my arms and stared at the Mohawks.
"Clan ties are close, national ties closer, but strongest and closest of all, the six iron links that form the Great League! Why do you punish now? How can you punish now? Is it well to break the oldest League law to punish those who have broken the law of the League?"
A Mohawk sachem answered in a dozen stinging words that the League itself was broken; but ere he could finish I stopped him with a gesture.
Then, summoning all my powers, I burst out into a passionate protest, denying that the Great League was broken, glorying in its endurance, calling on every nation to uphold it. And instantly, although not a muscle moved nor a word was uttered, I felt that I had the council with me, that my passion was swaying them, that what I asserted they believed. I laughed at the neutrality of the Tuscaroras, at the half-hearted attitude of the Onondagas; I made light of the rebellion of the greater portion of the Oneida nation.
"It is a passing fancy, a whim. The battle-breeze from this white man's war has risen to a tempest, unroofing the Long House, scattering you for the moment, creating a disorder, inciting a passion foreign to the traditions of the Iroquois. I tell you to let the tempest pass and blame no one, neither Tuscarora, Onondaga, nor Oneida. And when the storm has died out, let the Six Nations gather again from their hiding-places and build for the Long House a new roof, and raise new lodge-poles, lest the sky fall down and the Confederacy lie in ashes forever!"
I had ended. A profound hush followed, broken by a low word of approval, then another, then another. Excited, scarcely knowing what I had done, incredulous that I alone had actually stemmed the tide, and, in a breath, overturned the entire plan of the Butlers and of the demoralized Iroquois, I seated myself beside the Tuscaroras, breathing heavily, alert for a sound that might indicate how my harangue had been received.
Muttered expressions of approval, an emphatic word here and there, and not an orator to dispute me!—why, this was victory—though, until the clans had deliberated, I could not know the Federal verdict. But gradually it dawned on me that I had at least stopped the murder of my Oneida, and had lulled all suspicion concerning myself. With a thrill of joy I heard the Seneca spokesman call for the youth to be raised in place of the dead chief; with a long-drawn breath of relief I saw the ancient belts brought, and listened to the reading of the archives from them.
The council ended. One by one the sachems spoke to me kindly, then went their way, some taking to canoes, others filing off through the forest, until I found myself standing there alone before the smoldering fire, the forest before me, the noon sun blazing overhead.
The Oneida, motionless now in the midst of those who had but an hour before decreed his death, watched the plumed sachems pass him in silence. Neither he nor they uttered a word; but when the last canoe had glided off down the Dead Water toward the Sacandaga, and the last tall form faded from view in thicket, marsh, and forest, Little Otter turned and came quietly to me, laying my hands on his heart, and looking me steadily in the eyes. Then together we returned, picking our path through the marsh, until we came to Lyn Montour. As she rose to meet us, a distant sound in the forest attracted the Oneida's attention. I heard it, too; it was the gallop of horses, coming from the north. No Iroquois rode a horse.
Nearer, nearer sounded the drumming thud of the hoofs. I could feel the sodden marsh jarring now—hear the brush crackle and snap.
Suddenly a horseman galloped out of the forest's edge, drew bridle at the clearing, bent and examined the covered fire, struck his forehead, and stared around him.
The horseman was Walter Butler.
THENDARA NO MORE
Astounded at the apparition, yet instantly aware of his purpose, I sprang forward to meet him. That he did not immediately know me in my forest dress was plain enough, for he hastened my steps with an angry and imperious gesture, flung himself from his saddle, laid down his rifle, and strode to the heap of ashes that had once been the council-fire of Thendara—now Thendara no more.
His face was still flushed with passion when I came up, my rifle cradled in the hollow of my left arm; his distorted features worked silently as he pointed at the whitening ashes. Suddenly he burst out into a torrent of blasphemy.
"What in God's name does this mean?" he shouted. "Have the Iroquois dared leave this fire before I've had my say?"
His rifle rested between him and me, barrel tilted across a rotting log, butt in the wet marsh grass. I took a quick step forward and dislodged the weapon, as though by accident, so that it lay where I could set my foot upon it if necessary. Instantly he faced me, alert, menacing; his dusky eyes lighted to a yellow glare; but when his gaze met mine sheer astonishment held him dumb.
"Captain Butler," I said, controlling the fierce quiver in my voice, "it is not this dead council-fire of Thendara that concerns a Yellow Wolf-whelp."
"No," he said, drawing a long breath, "it is not this fire that concerns us—" The voice died in his throat. Astonishment still dominated; he stared and stared. Then a ghastly laugh stretched his features—a soundless, terrible laugh.
"So you have come to Thendara after all!" he said. "In your fringes and thrums and capes and bead-work I did not know you, Mr. Renault, nor did I understand that Gretna Green is sometimes spelled Thendara!" He pointed at the ashes; an evil laugh stretched his mouth again:
"Thendara was! Thendara will be! Thendara—Thendara no more! And I am too late?"
The evil, silent laugh grew terrible: "Well, Mr. Renault, I had business elsewhere; yet, had I known you had taken to forest-running, I would have come to meet you at Thendara. However, I think there is still time to arrange one or two small differences of opinion that have arisen between you and me."
"There is still time," I said slowly.
He cast an involuntary glance at his rifle; made the slightest motion; hesitated, looking hard at me. I shook my head.
"Not that way?" he inquired blandly. "Well," with a cool shrug, "that was one way to arrange matters, Mr. Renault—and remember I offered it! Remember that, Mr. Renault, when men speak of you as they speak of Boyd!"
The monstrous insult of the menace left me outwardly unmoved; yet I wondered he had dared, seeing how helpless he must be did I but raise my rifle.
"Well, Mr. Renault," he sneered, "I was right, it seems, concerning that scrap o' treason unearthed in your chambers. God! how you flouted that beast, Sir Henry, and his fat-headed adjutant!"
He studied me coldly: "Do you mean to let me have my rifle?"
"Oh! you mean murder?"
"I am no executioner," I said contemptuously. "There are those a-plenty who will paint black for a guinea—after a court martial. There are those who paint for war, too, Mr. Butler."
I talked to gain time; and, curiously enough, he seemed to aid me, being in nowise anxious to force my hand. Ah! I should have been suspicious at that—I realized it soon enough—yet the Iroquois, leaving Thendara for the rites at the Great Tree, were not yet out of sound of a shout, or of a rifle-shot—though I meant to take him alive, if that were possible. And all the while I watched his every careless gesture, every movement, every flutter of his insolent eyelids, ready to set foot upon his rifle and hold him to the spot. He no longer appeared to occupy himself with the recovery of his rifle; he wore neither pistol nor knife nor hatchet; indeed, in his belt I saw a roll of paper, closely scribbled, and knew it to be a speech composed for delivery at this fire, now burned out forever.
He placed his hands on his hips, pacing to and fro the distance between the fire and the edge of the Dead Water, now looking thoughtfully up into the blue sky, now lost in reverie. And every moment, I believed, was a precious moment gained, separating him more and more hopelessly from his favorite Senecas, whom he might even now summon by a shout.
Presently he halted, with an absent, upward glance, then his gaze reverted to me; he drew out a handsome gold watch, examined it with expressionless interest, and slowly returned it to the fob-pocket.
"Well, sir," he inquired, "do I take it that you desire to further detain me here, or do you merely wish to steal my rifle?"
"I think, truly, that you no longer require your rifle, Mr. Butler," I said quietly.
"A question—a matter of opinion, Mr. Renault." He waved his hand gracefully. "Who are your red friends yonder?" pointing toward the two distant forms at the edge of the willows.
"An Oneida and a quarter-breed."
"Oh—a squaw? By the head-gear I take the smaller one to be a Huron squaw. Which reminds me, Mr. Renault," he added, with a dull stare, "that the last time I had the pleasure of seeing your heels you were headed for the nearest parson!"
That awful, soundless laugh distorted his mouth again:
"I could scarcely be expected to imagine," he added, "that it was as far as this to Gretna Green. Is the Hon. Miss Grey with you here?"
"No, Mr. Butler, but your wife is with me."
"Oh!" he sneered; "so you have learned at last what she is?"
"You do not understand," I continued patiently. "I speak of your wife, Mr. Butler. Shall I name her?"
He looked at me narrowly. Twice his lips parted as though to speak, but no sound came.
"The woman yonder is Lyn Montour," I said in a low voice.
The yellow flare that lighted his black eyes appalled me.
"Listen to me," I went on. "That I do not slay you where you stand is because she is yonder, watching us. God help her, you shall do her justice yet! You are my prisoner, Mr. Butler!" And I set my foot upon his rifle.
He did not seem to hear me; his piercing gaze was concentrated on the two distant figures standing beside the horse.
I waited, then spoke again; and, at the sound of my voice, he wheeled on me with a snarl.
"You damned spy!" he stammered; "I'll stop your dirty business now, by God!" and, leaping back, whipped a ranger's whistle to his lips, waking the forest echoes with the piercing summons ere I had bounded on him and had borne him down, shoulder-deep in moss and marsh-grass.
Struggling, half smothered by the deep and matted tangle, I heard the startled shout of the Oneida; the distant crashing of many men running in the underbrush; and, throttling him with both hands, I dragged him to his feet and started toward the Oneida, pulling my prisoner with me. But a yell from the wood's edge seemed to put fresh life into him; he bit and scratched and struggled, and I labored in vain to choke him or stun him. Then, in very desperation and fear of life, I strove to kill him with my hands, but could not, and at last hurled him from me to shoot him; but he had kicked the flint from my rifle, and, as I leveled it, he dropped on the edge of the Dead Water and wriggled over, splash! into the dark current, diving as my hatchet hit the waves. Then I heard the loud explosion of rifles behind me; bullets tore through the scrub; I turned to run for my life. And it was time.
"Ugh!" grunted the Oneida, as I came bursting headlong through the willows. "Follow now!" He seized the horse by the bridle; the girl mounted; then, leading the horse at a trot, we started due south through the tossing bushes.
A man in a green uniform, knee-deep in the grass, fired at us from the Stacking-Ridge as we passed, and the Oneida shook his rifle at him with a shout of insult. For now at last the whole game was up, and my mission as a spy in this country ended once and forever. No chance now to hobnob with Johnson's Greens, no chance to approach St. Leger and Haldimand. Butler was here, and there could be no more concealment.
Such an exhilaration of savage happiness seized me that I lost my head, and begged the Oneida to stop and let me set a flint and give the Royal Greens a shot or two; but the wily chief refused; and he was wise, for I should have known that the Sacandaga must already be a swarming nest of Johnson's foresters and painted savages.
The heat was terrific in the willows; sweat poured from the half-naked Oneida as he ran, and my hunting-shirt hung soaked, flapping across my thighs.
We had doubled on them now, going almost due west. Far across the Vlaie I could see dark spots moving along the Dead Water, and here and there a distant rifle glimmering as the sun struck it. Now and then a faint shout was borne to our ears as we halted, dripping and panting in the birches to reconnoiter some open swale ahead, or some cranberry-bog crimsoning under the October sun.
We swam the marshy creek miles to the west, coming out presently into a rutty wagon-trail, which I knew ran south to Mayfield; but we dared not use it, so steered the dripping horse southeast, chancing rather to cross Frenchman's Creek, four miles above Varicks, and so, by a circle bearing east and south, reaching the Broadalbin trail, or some safe road between Galway and Perth, or, if driven to it, making for Saratoga as a last resort.
My face was burned deep red, and I was soaked from neck to heels, so that my moccasins rubbed and chafed at every step. The girl had sat her saddle while the horse swam, so that her legs only were wet. As for the Oneida, his oiled and painted skin shed water like the plumage of a duck. Lord knows, we left a trail broad and wet enough for even a Hessian to follow; and for that reason dared not halt north of Frenchman's Creek or short of Vanderveer's grist-mill.
As I plodded on, rifle atrail, I began to comprehend the full import of what had occurred since the day before, when I, with soul full of bitterness, had left Burke's Inn. Was it only a day ago? By Heaven, it seemed a year since I had looked upon Elsin Grey! And what a change in fortune had come upon us in these two score hours! Free to wed now—if we dared accept the heart-broken testimony of this poor girl—if we dared deny the perjured testimony of a dishonored magistrate, leagued with his fellow libertine, who, thank God, had at length learned something of the fury he used on others. Strange that in all this war I had never laid a rifle level save at him; strange that I had never seen blood shed in anger, through all these battle years, except the blood that now dried, clotting on my cheek-bone, where his shoulder-buckle had cut me in the struggle. His spurs, too, had caught in the skirt of my hunting-shirt, tearing it to the fringed hem, and digging a furrow across my instep; and the moccasin on that foot was stiff with blood.
Ah, if I might only have brought him off; if I might only have carried this guilty man to Johnstown! Yet I should have known that Sir John's men were likely to be within hail, fool that I was to take the desperate chance when a little parley, a little edging toward him, a sudden blow might have served. Yet I was glad in my heart that I had not used craft; cat traits are not instinctive with me; craft, stealth, a purring ambush—faugh! I was no coward to beat him down unawares. I had openly declared him prisoner, and I was glad I had done so. Why, I might have shot him as we talked, had I been of a breed to do murder—had I been inhuman enough to slay him, unwarned, before the very eyes of the woman he had wronged, and who still hoped for mercy from him lest she pass her life a loathed and wretched outcast among the people who had accepted her as an Iroquois.
Thinking of these things which so deeply concerned me, I plodded forward with the others, hour after hour, halting once to drink and to eat a little of our parched corn, then to the unspotted trail once more, imperceptibly gaining the slope of that watershed, the streams of which feed the Mayfield Creek, and ultimately the Hudson.
Varicks we skirted, not knowing but Sir John's scouts might be in possession, the peppery, fat patroon having closed his house and taken his flock to Albany; and so traveling the forest east by south, made for the head waters of that limpid trout-stream I had so often fished, spite of the posted warnings and the indignation of the fat patroon, who hated me.
I think it was about four o'clock in the afternoon when, pressing through brush and windfall, we came suddenly out into a sunny road. Beside the road ran a stream clattering down-hill over its stony bed—a clear, noisy stream, with swirling brown trout-pools and rapids, rushing between ledges, foaming around boulders, a joyous, rolicking, dashing, headlong stream, that seemed to cheer us with its gay clamor; and I saw the Oneida's stern eyes soften as he bent his gaze upon it. Poor little Lyn Montour slipped, with a sigh, from her saddle, while my horse buried his dusty nose in the sparkling water, drawing deep, cold draughts through his hot throat. And here by the familiar head waters of Frenchman's Creek we rested in full sight of the grist-mill above us, where the road curved west. The mill-wheel was turning; a man came to the window overlooking the stream and stood gazing at us, and I waved my hand at him reassuringly, recognizing old Vanderveer.
Beyond the mill I could see smoke rising from the chimneys of the unseen settlement. Presently a small barefoot boy came out of the mill, looked at us a moment, then turned and legged it up the road tight as he could go. The Oneida, smoking his pipe, saw the lad's hasty flight, and smiled slightly.
"Yes, Little Otter," I said, "they take us for some of Sir John's people. You'll see them coming presently with their guns. Hark! There goes a signal-shot now!"
The smacking crack of a rifle echoed among the hills; a conch-horn's melancholy note sounded persistently.
"Let us go on to the Yellow Tavern," I said; and we rose and limped forward, leading the horse, whose head hung wearily.
Before we reached the Oswaya mill some men in their shirt-sleeves shot at us, then ran down through an orchard, calling on us to halt. One carried a shovel, one a rifle, and the older man, whom I knew as a former tenant of my father, bore an ancient firelock. When I called out to him by name he seemed confused, demanding to know whether we were Whigs or Tories; and when at length he recognized me he appeared to be vastly relieved. It seemed that he, Wemple, and his two sons had been burying apples, and that hearing the shot fired, had started for their homes, where already the alarm had spread. Seeing us, and supposing we had cut him off from the settlement, he had decided to fight his way through to the mill.
"I'm mighty glad you ain't shot, Mr. Renault," he said in his thin, high voice, scratching his chin, and staring hard at the Oneida. "Seein' these here painted injuns sorter riled me up, an' I up an' let ye have it. So did Willum here. Lord, sir, we've been expecting Sir John for a month, so you must kindly excuse us, Mr. Renault!"
He shook his white head and looked up the road where a dozen armed men were already gathered, watching us from behind the fences.
"Sir John is on the Sacandaga," I said. "Why don't you go to Johnstown, Wemple? This is no place for your people."
He stood, rubbing his hard jaw reflectively.
"Waal, sir," he piped, "it's kind er hard to leave all you've got in the world." He added, looking around at his fields: "I'd be a pauper if I quit. Mebbe they won't come here, after all. Mebbe Sir John will go down the Valley."
"Besides, we ain't got our pumpkins in nor the winter corn stacked," observed one of his sons sullenly.
We all turned and walked slowly up the road in the direction of the big yellow tavern, old Wemple shaking his head, and talking all the while in a thin, flat, high-pitched voice: "It seems kind'r hard that Sir John can't quit his pesterin' an' leave folks alone. What call has he to come back a-dodgin' 'round here year after year, a-butcherin' his old neighbors, Mr. Renault? 'Pears to me he's gone crazy as a mad dog, a-whirlin' round and round the same stump, buttin' and bitin' and clawin' up the hull place. Sakes alive! ain't he got no human natur'? Last Tuesday they come to Dan Norris's, five mile down the creek, an' old man Norris he was in the barn makin' a ladder, an' Dan he was gone for the cow. A painted Tory run into the kitchen an' hit the old woman with his hatchet, an' she fetched a screech, an' her darter, 'Liza, she screeched, too. Then a Injun he hit the darter, and he kep' a-kickin' an' a-hittin', an' old man Norris he heard the rumpus out to the barn, an' he run in, an' they pushed him out damn quick an' shot him in the legs. A Tory clubbed him an' ripped his skelp off, the old man on his knees, a-bellowin' piteous, till they knifed him all to slivers an' kicked what was left o' him into the road. The darter she prayed an' yelled, but 'twan't no use, for they cut her that bad with hatchets she was dead when Dan came a-runnin'. 'God!' he says, an' goes at the inimy, swingin' his milk-stool—but, Lord, sir, what can one man do? He was that shot up it 'ud sicken you, Mr. Renault. An' then they was two little boys a-lookin' on at it, too frightened to move; but when the destructives was a-beatin' old Mrs. Norris to death they hid in the fence-hedge. An' they both of 'em might agot clean off, only the littlest one screamed when they tore the skelp off'n the old woman; an' he run off, but a Tory he chased him an' ketched him by the fence, an' he jest held the child's legs between his'n, an' bent him back an' cut his throat, the boy a-squealin' something awful. Then the Tory skelped him an' hung him acrost the fence. The only Norris what come out of it was the lad who lay tight in the fence-scrub—Jimmy. He's up at my house; you'll see him. He come here that night to tell us of them goin's on. He acts kinder stupid, like he ain't got no wits, an' he jests sets an' sets, starin' at nothin'—leastways at nothin' I kin see——"
His high-pitched, garrulous chatter, and the horrid purport of it, were to me indescribably ghastly. To hear such things told without tremor or emphasis or other emotion than the sullen faces of his two strapping sons—to hear these incredible horrors babbled by an old man whose fate might be the same that very night, affected me with such an overpowering sense of helplessness that I could find no word to reassure either him or the men and boys who now came crowding around us, asking anxiously if we had news from the Sacandaga or from the north.
All I could do was to urge them to leave their homes and go to Johnstown; but they shook their heads, some asserting that Johnstown was full of Tories, awaiting the coming of Walter Butler to rise and massacre everybody; others declaring that the Yellow Tavern, which had been fortified, was safer than Albany itself. None would leave house or land; and whether these people really believed that they could hold out against a sudden onslaught, I never knew. They were the usual mixture of races, some of low Dutch extraction, like the Vanderveers and Wemples, some high Dutch, like the Kleins; and, around me, I saw, recognized, and greeted people who in peaceful days had been settled in these parts, and some among them had worked for my father—honest, simple folk, like Patrick Farris, with his pretty Dutch wife and tow-headed youngsters; and John Warren, once my father's head groom, and Jacob Klock, kinsman of the well-known people of that name.
The Oneida, pressed and questioned on every side, replied in guarded monosyllables; poor Lyn Montour, wrapped to the eyes in her blanket, passed for an Iroquois youth, and was questioned mercilessly, until I interposed and opened the tavern door for her and for Little Otter.
"I tell you, Wemple," I said, turning on the tavern porch to address the people, "there is no safety here for you if Walter Butler or Sir John arrive here in force. It will be hatchet and torch again—the same story, due to the same strange Dutch obstinacy, or German apathy, or Yankee foolhardiness. In the grain belt it is different; there the farmers are obliged to expose themselves because our army needs bread. But your corn and buckwheat and pumpkins and apples can be left for a week or two until we see how this thing is going to end. Be sensible; stack what you can, but don't wait to thresh or grind. Bury your apples; let the cider go; harness up; gather your cattle and sheep; pack up the clock and feather bed, and move to Johnstown with your families. In a week or two you will know whether this country is to be given to the torch again, or whether, by God's grace, Colonel Willett is to send Walter Butler packing! I'll wait here a day for you. Think it over.
"I have seen the Iroquois at the Sacandaga Vlaie. I saw Walter Butler there, too; and the woods were alive with Johnson's Greens. The only reason why they have not struck you here is, no doubt, because there was more plunder and more killing to be had along the Sacandaga. But when there remain no settlements there—when villages, towns, hamlets are in ashes, like Currietown, like Minnesink, Cherry Valley, Wyoming, Caughnawaga, then they'll turn their hatchets on these lone farms, these straggling hamlets and cross-road taverns. I tell you, to-day there is not a house unburned at Caughnawaga, except the church and that villain Doxtader's house—not a chimney standing in the Mohawk Valley, from Tribes Hill to the Nose. Ten miles of houses in ashes, ten miles of fields a charred trail!
"Now, do as you please, but remember. For surely as I stand here the militia call has already gone out, and this country must remain exposed while we follow Butler and try to hunt him down."
The little throng of people, scarcely a dozen in all, received my warning in silence. Glancing down the road, I saw one or two women standing at their house doors, and children huddled at the gate, all intently watching us.
"I want to send a message to Colonel Willett," I said, turning to the Oneida. "Can you go? Now?"
The tireless fellow smiled.
"Give us what you have to eat," I said to Patrick Farris, whose round and rosy little wife had already laid the board in the big room inside. And presently we sat down to samp, apple-sauce, and bread, with a great bowl of fresh milk to each cover.
The Oneida ate sparingly; the girl mechanically, dull eyes persistently lowered. From the first moment that the Oneida had seen her he had never addressed a single word to her, nor had he, after the first keen glance, even looked at her. This, in the stress of circumstances, the forced and hasty marches, the breathless trail, the tension of the Thendara situation, was not extraordinary. But after excitement and fatigue, and when together under the present conditions, two Iroquois would certainly speak together.
Anxious, preoccupied as I was, I could not help but notice how absolutely the Oneida ignored the girl; and I knew that he regarded her as an Oneida invariably regards a woman no longer respected by the most chaste of all people, the Iroquois nation.
That she understood and passionately resented this was perfectly plain to me, though she neither spoke nor moved. There was nothing for me to do or say. Already I had argued the matter with myself from every standpoint, and eagerly as I sought for solace, for a ray of hope, I could not but understand how vain it were to ask a cynical world to believe that this young girl was Walter Butler's wife. No; with his denial, with the averted faces of the sachems on the Kennyetto, as she herself had admitted, with the denial of Sir John, what evidence could be brought forward to justify me in wedding Elsin Grey? Another thing: even if Sir John should admit that, acting in capacity of a magistrate of Tryon County, he had witnessed the marriage of Walter Butler and Lyn Montour, what civil powers had a deposed magistrate; a fugitive who had broken parole and fled?
No, there was no legal tie here. I was not now free to wed; I understood that as I sat there, staring out of the window into the red west, kindling to flame behind the Mayfield hills.
The Oneida, rolling himself in his blanket, had stretched out on the bare floor by the hearth; the girl, head buried in her hands, sat brooding above the empty board. Farris fetched me ink and quill and the only sheet of paper in the settlement; but it was sufficiently large to tear in half; and I inked my rusty quill and wrote:
"Yellow Tavern, Oswaya on Frenchman's Creek.
"COLONEL MARINUS WILLETT:
"Sir—I have the honor to report that the scout of two, under my command, proceeded, agreeable to orders, as far as the Vlaie, called Sacandaga Vlaie, arriving there at dawn and in time for the council and rites of Thendara, which were held at the edge of the Dead Water or Vlaie Creek.
"I flatter myself that the Long House has abandoned any idea of punishing the Oneidas for the present—the council recognizing my neutral right to speak for the Oneida nation. The Oneidas dissenting, naturally there could be no national unanimity, which is required at Thendara before the Long House embarks upon any Federal policy.
"Whether or not this action of mine was wise, you, sir, must judge. It may be that what I have done will only serve to consolidate the enemy in the next enterprise they undertake.
"My usefulness as a spy in Sir John's camp must prove abortive, as I encountered Captain Walter Butler at the Dead Water, who knows me, and who is aware of my business in New York. Attempting to take him, I made a bad matter of it, he escaping by diving. Some men in green uniforms, whom I suppose were foresters from Sir John's corps, firing on us, I deemed it prudent to take to my heels as far as the settlement called Oswaya, which is on Frenchman's Creek, some five miles above Varicks.
"The settlement is practically defenseless, and the people hereabout expect trouble. If you believe it worth while to send some Rangers here to complete the harvest, it should, I think, be done at once. Patrick Farris, landlord at the Yellow Tavern, estimates the buckwheat at five thousand bushels. There is also a great store of good apples, considerable pitted corn, and much still standing unstacked, and several acres of squashes and pumpkins—all a temptation to the enemy.
"I can form no estimate of Sir John's force on the Sacandaga. This letter goes to you by the Oneida runner, Little Otter, who deserves kind treatment for his services. I send you also, under his escort, an unfortunate young girl, of whom you have doubtless heard. She is Lyn Montour, and is by right, if not by law, the wife of Captain Walter Butler. He repudiates her; her own people disown her. I think, perhaps, some charitable lady of the garrison may find a home for her in Johnstown or in Albany. She is Christian by instinct if not by profession.
"Awaiting your instructions here, I have the honor to remain, Your humble and ob't servant,
"CARUS RENAULT, "Regt. Staff Capt."
The sun had set. Farris brought a tallow dip. He also laid a fire in the fireplace and lighted it, for the evening had turned from chill to sheer dry cold, which usually meant a rain for the morrow in these parts.
Shivering a little in my wet deerskins, I sanded, folded, directed, and sealed the letter, laid it aside, and drew the other half-sheet toward me. For a few moments I pondered, head supported on one hand, then dipped quill in horn and wrote:
"Beloved—There is a poor young girl here who journeys to-night to Johnstown under escort of my Oneida. Do what you can for her in Johnstown. If you win her confidence, perhaps we both may help her. Her lot is sad enough.
"Dearest, I am to acquaint you that I am no longer, by God's charity, a spy. I now hope to take the field openly as soon as our scouts can find out just exactly where Major Ross and Butler's Rangers are.
"To my great astonishment, disgust, and mortification, I have learned that Walter Butler is near here. He evidently rode forward, preceding his command, in order to be present at an Iroquois fire. He was too late to work anybody a mischief in that direction.
"It is now our duty to watch for his Rangers and forestall their attack. For that purpose I expect Colonel Willett to send me a strong scout or to recall me to Johnstown. My impatience to hold you in my arms is tempered only by my hot desire to wash out the taint of my former duties in the full, clean flood of open and honorable battle.
"Time presses, and I must wake my Oneida. See that my horse is cared for, dearest. Remember he bore me gallantly on that ride for life and love.
"I dare not keep Colonel Willett's report waiting another minute. Good night, my sweet Elsin. All things must come to us at last.
I dried the letter by the heat of the blazing logs. The Indian stirred, sat up in his blanket, and looked at me with the bright, clear eyes of a hound.
"I am ready, brother," I said gently.
It was cold, clear starlight when Farris brought my horse around. I set Lyn Montour in the saddle, and walked out into the road with her, my hand resting on her horse's mane.
"Try not to be sad," I whispered, as she settled herself in the stirrups like a slim young trooper, and slowly gathered bridle.
"I am no longer sad, Mr. Renault," she said tremulously. "I comprehend that I have no longer any chance in the world."
"Not among your adopted people," I said, "but white people understand. There is no reason, child, why you should not carry your head proudly. You are guiltless, little sister."
"I am truly unconscious of any sin," she said simply.
"You have committed none. His the black shame of your betrayal! And now that you know him for the foul beast he is, there can be no earthly reason that you should suffer either in pride or conscience. You are pitifully young; you have life before you—the life of a white woman, with its chances, its desires, its aims, its right to happiness. Take it! I bid you be happy, little sister; I bid you hope!"
She turned her face and looked at me; the ghost of a smile trembled on her lips; then, inclining her head in the sweetest of salutes, she wheeled her horse out into the tremulous starlight. And after her stole the tall Oneida, rifle slanted across his naked shoulders, striding silently at her stirrup as she rode. I had a momentary glimpse of their shadowy shapes moving against the sky, then they were blotted out in the gloom of the trees, leaving me in the road peering after them through the darkness, until even the far stroke of the horse's feet died out, and there was no sound in the black silence save the hushed rushing of the stream hurrying through the shrouded hollow below.
Not a light glimmered in the settlement. The ungainly tavern, every window sealed with solid shutters, sprawled at the cross-roads, a strange, indistinct silhouette; the night-mist hung low over the fields of half-charred stumps, and above the distant bed of the brook a band of fog trailed, faintly luminous.
Never before had I so deeply felt the desolation of the northland. In a wilderness there is nothing forbidding to me; its huge earth-bedded, living pillars supporting the enormous canopy of green, its vastness, its mystery, its calm silence, may awe yet nothing sadden. But a vague foreboding enters when man enters. Where his corn grows amid the cinders of primeval things, his wanton gashes on tree and land, his beastly pollution of the wild, crystal waters, all the restlessness, and barrenness, and filth, and sordid deformity he calls his home—these sadden me unutterably.
I know, too, that Sir William Johnson felt as I do, loving the forest for its own beautiful, noble sake; and the great Virginian, who cared most for the majestic sylvan gardens planted by the Almighty, grieved at destruction, and, even in the stress of anxiety, when his carpenters and foresters were dealing pitilessly with the woods about West Point in order to furnish timber for the redoubts and the floats for the great chain, he thought to warn his engineers to beware of waste caused by ignorance or wantonness.
Where rich and fertile soil is the reward for the desperate battle with an iron forest, I can comprehend the clearing of a wilderness, and admire the transformation into gentle hills clothed in green, meadows, alder-bordered waters, acres of grain, and dainty young orchards; but here, in this land, only the flats along the river-courses are worthy of cultivation; the rest is sand and rock deeply covered with the forest mast, and fertile only while that lasts. And the forest once gone, land and water shrivel, unnourished, leaving a desert amid charred stumps and the white phantoms of dead pines. I was ever averse to the cutting of the forests here, except for selected crops of ripened timber to be replaced by natural growth ere the next crop had ripened; and Sir William Johnson, who was wise in such matters, set us a wholesome example which our yeomen have not followed. And already lands cleared fifty years since have run out to the sandy subsoil; yet still the axes flash, still the great trees groan and fall, crashing through and smashing their helpless fellows; and in God's own garden waters shrink, and fire passes, and the deer flee away, and rain fails, because man passes in his folly, and the path of the fool is destruction.
Where Thendara was, green trees flourish to the glory of the Holder of Heaven.
Where the forest whitens with men, the earth mourns in ashes for the lost Thendara—Thendara! Thendara no more!
THE BATTLE OF JOHNSTOWN
Two weeks of maddening inactivity followed the arrival at the Yellow Tavern of an express from Colonel Willett, carrying orders for me to remain at Oswaya until further command, bury all apples, pit the corn, and mill what buckwheat the settlers could spare as a deposit for the army.
Not a word since that time had I heard from Johnstown, although it was rumored in the settlement that the Rangers had taken the field in scouts of five, covering the frontier to get into touch with the long-expected forces that might come from Niagara under Ross and Walter Butler, or from the east under St. Leger and Sir John, or even perhaps under Haldimand.
Never had I known such hot impatience, such increasing anxiety; never had I felt so bitterly that the last chance was vanishing for me to strike an honest blow in a struggle wherein I, hitherto inert, had figured so meanly, so ingloriously.
To turn farmer clodhopper now was heart-breaking. Yet all I could do was to organize a sort of home guard there, detail a different yokel every day to watch the road to Varicks, five miles below, by which the enemy must arrive if they marched with artillery and wagons, as it was rumored they would. At night I placed a sentinel by the mill to guard against scalping parties, and another on the hill to watch the West and South. Meager defenses, one might say, and even the tavern was unstockaded, and protected only by loops and oaken shutters; but every man and woman was demanded for the harvest; even the children staggered off to the threshing-barns, laden with sheaves of red-stemmed buckwheat, or rolled pumpkins and squashes to the wagons, or shook down crimson apples for the men to cart away and bury.
The little Norris boy labored with the others—a thin, sallow child, heavy-eyed and silent. He had recovered somewhat from the shock of the tragedy he had witnessed, and strove to do what was asked of him, but when spoken to, seemed confused and slow of comprehension; and the tears were ever starting or smeared over his freckled face from cheek to chin.
Being an officer, the poor, heavy-witted folk looked to me for the counsel and wisdom my inexperience lacked. All I could do for them was to arrange their retreat to the tavern at the first signal of danger, and to urge that the women and children sleep there at night. My advice was only partly followed. As the golden October days passed, with no fresh alarm from the Sacandaga, their apathetic fatalism turned to a timid confidence that their homes and lands might yet be spared.
Wemple sold his buckwheat on promise of pay in paper dollars, and we milled it and barreled it, and made a deposit in Klein's sugar-bush.
Distant neighbors came a-horseback to the mill with news from neighbors, still more distant, that Sir John had retreated northward from the Sacandaga, toward Edward; that the Tories threatened Ballston; that Indians had been seen near Galway; that the garrison at Schenectady had been warned to take the field against St. Leger; that on Champlain General Haldimand had gathered a great fleet, and his maneuvers were a mystery to the scouts watching him. But no rumors were carried to us concerning Ross and Butler, except that strange vessels had been seen leaving Bucks Island.
The tension, the wearing anxiety, and harrowing chagrin that I had been left here forgotten, waxed to a fever that drove me all day restlessly from field to field, from house to barn, and back to the tavern, to sit watching the road for sign of a messenger to set me free of this dreary, hopeless place.
And on one bright, cold morning in late October, when to keep warm one must seek the sunny lee of the tavern, I sat brooding, watching the crimson maple-leaves falling from the forest in showers. Frost had come, silvering the stiffened earth, and patches of it still lingered in shady places. Oaks were brown, elms yellow; birches had shed their leaves; and already the forest stretched bluish and misty, set with flecks of scarlet maple and the darker patches of the pine.
On that early morning, just after sunrise, I sensed a hint of snow in the wind that blew out of the purple north; and the premonition sickened me, for it meant the campaign ended.
In an ugly and sullen mood I sat glowering at the blackened weeds cut by the frost, when, hearing the sound of horses' feet on the hill, I rose and stood on tiptoe to see who might be coming at such a pace.
People ran out to the rear to look; nearer and nearer came the dull, battering gallop, then a rider rushed into view, leaning far forward, waving his arm; and a far cry sounded: "Express, ho! News for Captain Renault!"
An express! I sprang to the edge of the road as the horse thundered by; and the red-faced rider, plastered with mud, twisted in his saddle and hurled a packet at me, shouting: "Butler is in the Valley! Turn out! Turn out!" sweeping past in a whirlwind of dust and flying stones.
As I caught up the packet from the grass Farris ran out and fired his musket, then set the conch-horn to his mouth and sent a long-drawn, melancholy warning booming through the forest.
"Close up those shutters!" I said, "and fill the water-casks!"
Men came running from barn and mill, shouting for the women and children; men ran to the hill to look for signs of the enemy, to drive in cattle, to close and latch the doors of their wretched dwellings, as though bolt and bar could keep out the red fury now at last unloosened.
I saw a woman, to whose ragged skirts three children clung, toiling across a stump-field, staggering under a flour-sack full of humble household goods. One of the babies carried a gray kitten clasped to her breast.
Pell-mell into the tavern they hurried, white-faced, panting, pushing their terrified children into dark corners and under tables.
"Tell that woman to let her cow go!" I shouted, as a frightened heifer dashed up the road, followed by its owner, jerked almost off her feet by the tether-rope. Old Wemple seized the distracted woman by the shoulder and dragged her back to the tavern, she weeping and turning her head at every step.
In the midst of this howling hubbub I ripped open my despatches and read:
"JOHNSTOWN, October 25, 1781.
"Sir—Pursuant to urgent orders this instant arrived by express from Col. Willett at Fort Rensselaer, I have the honor to inform you that Major Ross and Capt. Walter Butler have unexpectedly struck the Valley at Warren's Bush with the following forces:
Eighth Regiment 25 Thirty-fourth Regiment 100 Eighty-fourth Highlanders Regiment 36 Sir John's Royal Greens Regiment 120 Yagers Regiment 12 Butler's Rangers 150 Indians 130 Renegades 40
With bat-horses, baggage-wagons, and camp-trains, including forces amounting to a thousand rifles.
"What portion of the invading army this flying column may represent is at present unknown to me.
"The militia call is out; expresses are riding the county to warn every post, settlement, and blockhouse; Colonel Willett, with part of the garrison at Fort Rensselaer, is marching on Fort Hunter to join his forces with your Rangers, picking up the scouts on his way, and expects to strike Butler at the ford below Tribes Hill.
"You will gather from this, sir, that Johnstown is gravely menaced, and no garrison left except a few militia. Indeed, our situation must shortly be deplorable if Colonel Willett does not deliver battle at the ford.
"Therefore, if you can start at once and pick up a post of your riflemen at Broadalbin Bush, it may help us to hold the jail here until some aid arrives from Colonel Willett.
"The town is panic-stricken. All last night the people stood on the lawn by Johnson Hall and watched the red glare in the sky where the enemy were burning the Valley. Massacre, the torch, and hatchet seem already at our thresholds. However, the event remains with God. I shall hold the jail to the last.
"Your ob't serv't,
"ROWLEY, Major Com'nd'g."
For one dreadful moment every drop of blood seemed to leave my body. I sank into a chair, staring into the sunshine, seeing nothing. Then the pale face of Elsin Grey took shape before me, gazing at me sorrowfully; and I sprang up, shuddering, and looking about me. What in God's name was I to do? Go to her and leave these women and babies?—leave these dull-witted men to defend themselves? Why not? Every nerve in me tightened with terror at her danger, every heart-beat responded passionately to the appeal. Yet how could I go, with these white-faced women watching me in helpless confidence; with these frightened children gathering around me, looking up into my face, reaching trustfully for my clenched hands?
In an agony of indecision I turned to the door and gazed down the road, an instant only, then leaped back and slammed the great oaken portal, shooting the bars.
Destiny had decided; Fate had cut the knot!
"Every man to a loop!" I called out steadily. "Wemple, take your sons to the east room; Klein, you and Farris and Klock take the west and south; Warren, look out for the west. They may try to fire the wooden water-leader. Mrs. Farris, see that the tubs of water are ready; and you, Mrs. Warren, take the women and children to the cellar and be ready to dip up buckets of water from the cistern."
Silence; a trample on the stairs as the men ran to their posts; not a cry, not a whimper from the children.
I climbed the stairs, and lying at full length beside the loop, cocked my rifle, and peered out. Almost instantly I saw a man dodge into Klein's house too quickly for me to fire. Presently the interior of the house reddened behind the windows; a thin haze of smoke appeared as by magic, hanging like a curtain above the roof. Then, with a crackling roar that came plainly to my ears, the barn behind the house was buried in flame, seeming almost to blow up in one huge puff of bluish-white smoke.
I heard Wemple's ancient firelock explode, followed by the crack of his sons' rifles, and I saw an Indian running across the pasture.
Klein's house was now curtained with blackish smoke; Wemple's, too, had begun to burn, the roof all tufted with clear little flames, that seemed to give out no smoke in the sunshine. An Indian darted across the door-yard, and leaped into the road, but at the stunning report of Warren's rifle he stopped, dropping his gun, and slowly sank, face downward, in the dust.
Then I heard the barking scalp-yelp break out, and a storm of bullets struck the tavern, leaving along the forest's edge a low wall of brown vapor, which lingered as though glued to the herbage; and through it, red as candle-flames in fog, the spirting flicker of the rifles played, and the old tavern rang with leaden hail. Suddenly the fusillade ceased. Far away I heard a ranger's whistle calling, calling persistently.
Wemple's barn was now burning fiercely; the mill, too, had caught fire, and an ominous ruddy glare behind Warren's windows brightened and brightened.
Behind me, and on either side of me, the frenzied farmers were firing, maddened by the sight of the destruction, until I was obliged to run among the men and shake them, warning them to spare their powder until there was something besides the forest to shoot at. The interior of the tavern was thick with powder-smoke. I heard people coughing all around me.
And now, out of rifle-range, I caught my first good view of the marauders passing along the red stubble-fields north of Warren's barn—some hundred Indians and Tories, marching in columns of fours, rifles atrail, south by east. To my astonishment, instead of facing, they swung around us on a dog-trot, still out of range, pressing steadily forward across the rising ground. Then suddenly I comprehended. They cared nothing for Oswaya when there was prime killing and plunder a-plenty to be had in the Valley. They were headed for Johnstown, where the vultures were already gathering.
Old Wemple had run down-stairs and flung open the door to watch them. I followed, rifle in hand, and we sped hotfoot across the stump-lot and out upon the hill. Surely enough, there they were in the distance, hastening away to the southward at a long, swinging lope, like a pack of timber-wolves jogging to a kill.
"Hold the tavern to-night and then strike out for Saratoga with all your people," I said hurriedly. "They're gone, and I mean to follow them."
"Be ye goin', sir?" quavered the old man. He turned to gaze at the blazing settlement below, tears running down his cheeks.
"Oh, Lord! Thy will be done—I guess," he said.
Farris, Warren, and Klock came up on the run. I pointed at the distant forest, into which the column was disappearing.
"Keep the tavern to-night," I said hoarsely; "there may be a skulking scalp-hunter or two prowling about until morning, but they'll be gone by sunrise. Good-by, lads!"
One by one they extended their powder-blackened, labor-torn hands, then turned away in silence toward the conflagration below, to face winter in the wilderness without a roof.
Rifle at trail, teeth set, I descended the hill, dodging among the blackened stumps, and entered the woods on a steady run. I had no need of a path save for comfort in the going, for this region was perfectly familiar to me from the Sacandaga to the Kennyetto, and from Mayfield Creek to the Cayadutta—familiar as Broadway, from the Battery to Vauxhall. No Indian knew it better, nor could journey by short cuts faster than could I. For this was my own country, and I trusted it. The distance was five good miles to the now-abandoned settlement of Broadalbin, or Fonda's Bush, which some still call it, and my road lay south, straight as the bee flies, after I had once crossed the trail of the Oswaya raiders.
I crossed it where I expected to, in a soft and marshy glade, unblackened by the frost, where blue flowers tufted the swale, and a clear spring soaked the moss and trickled into a little stream which, I remembered, was ever swarming with tiny troutlings. Here I found the print of Cayuga and Mohawk moccasins and white man's boots a-plenty; and, for one fierce instant, burned to pick up the raw trail, hanging on their rear to drive one righteous bullet into them when chance gave me an opportunity. But the impulse fled as it came. Sick at heart I pressed forward once more, going at a steady wolf-trot; and so silently, so noiselessly, that twice I routed deer from their hemlock beds, and once came plump on a tree-cat that puffed up into fury and backed off spitting and growling, eyes like green flames, and every hair on end.
Tree after tree I passed, familiar to me in happier years—here an oak from which, a hundred yards due west, one might find sulphur water—there a pine, marking a clean mile from the Kennyetto at its nearest curve, yonder a birch-bordered gulley, haunted of partridge and woodcock—all these I noted, scarcely seeing them at all, and plodded on and on until, far away through the trees, I heard the Kennyetto roaring in its gorge, like the wind at Adriutha.
A stump-field, sadly overgrown with choke-cherry, sumach, and rabbit-brier, warned me that I was within rifle-hail of the Rangers' post at Broadalbin. I swung to the west, then south, then west again, passing the ruins of the little settlement—a charred beam here, an empty cellar there, yonder a broken well-sweep, until I came to the ridge above the swamp, where I must turn east and ford the stream, under the rifles of the post.
There stood the chimney of what had once been my father's house—the new one, "burned by mistake," ere it had been completed.
I gave it one sullen glance; looked around me, saw but heaps of brick, mortar, and ashes, where barns, smoke-houses, granaries, and stables had stood. The cellar of my old home was almost choked with weeds; slender young saplings had already sprouted among the foundation-stones.
Passing the orchard, I saw the trees under which I had played as a child, now all shaggy and unpruned, tufted thick with suckers, and ringed with heaps of small rotting apples, lying in the grass as they had fallen. With a whirring, thunderous roar, a brood of crested grouse rose from the orchard as I ran on, startling me, almost unnerving me. The next moment I was at the shallow water's edge, shouting across at a blockhouse of logs; and a Ranger rose up and waved his furry cap at me, beckoning me to cross, and calling to me by name.
"Is that you, Dave Elerson?" I shouted.
"Yes, sir. Is there bad news?"
"Butler is in the Valley!" I answered, and waded into the cold, brown current, ankle-deep in golden bottom-sands. Breathless, dripping thrums trailing streams of water after me, I toiled up the bank and stood panting, leaning against the log hut.
"Where is the post?" I breathed.
"Out, sir, since last night."
"Which way?" I groaned.
"Johnstown way, Mr. Renault. The Weasel, Tim Murphy, and Nick Stoner was a-smellin' after moccasin-prints on the Mayfield trail. About sunup they made smoke-signals at me that they was movin' Kingsboro way on a raw trail."
He brought me his tin cup full of rum and water. I drank a small portion of it, then rinsed throat and mouth, still standing.
"Butler and Ross, with a thousand rifles and baggage-wagons, are making for the Tribes Hill ford," I said. "A hundred Cayugas, Mohawks, and Tories burned Oswaya just after sunrise, and are this moment pushing on to Johnstown. We've got to get there before them, Elerson."
"Yes, sir," he said simply, glancing at the flint in his rifle.
"Is there any chance of our picking up the scout?"
"If we don't, it's a dead scout for sure," he returned gravely. "Tim Murphy wasn't lookin' for scalpin' parties from the north."
I handed him his cup, tightened belt and breast-straps, trailed rifle, and struck the trail at a jog; and behind me trotted David Elerson, famed in ballad and story, which he could not read—nor could Tim Murphy, either, for that matter, whose learning lay in things unwritten, and whose eloquence flashed from the steel lips of a rifle that never spoke in vain.
Like ice-chilled wine the sweet, keen mountain air blew in our faces, filtering throat and nostrils as we moved; the rain that the frost had promised was still far away—perhaps not rain at all, but snow.
On we pressed, first breath gone, second breath steady; and only for the sickening foreboding that almost unnerved me when I thought of Elsin, I should not have suffered from the strain.
Somewhere to the west, hastening on parallel to our path, was strung out that pack of raiding bloodhounds; farther south, perhaps at this very instant entering Johnstown, moved the marauders from the north. A groan burst from my dry lips.
Slowing to a walk we began to climb, shoulder to shoulder, ascending the dry bed of a torrent fairly alive with partridges.
"Winter's comin' almighty fast; them birds is a-packin' and a-buddin' already. Down to the Bush I see them peckin' the windfall apples in your old orchard."
I scarcely heard him, but, as he calmly gossiped on, hour after hour, a feeling of dull surprise grew in me that at such a time a man could note and discuss such trifles. Ah, but he had no sweetheart there in the threatened town, menaced by death in its most dreadful shape.
"Are the women in the jail?" I asked, my voice broken by spasmodic breathing as we toiled onward.
"I guess they are, sir—leastways Jack Mount was detailed there to handle the milishy." And, after a pause, gravely and gently: "Is your lady there, sir?"
"Yes—God help her!"
He said nothing; there was nothing of comfort for any man to say. I looked up at the sun.
"It's close to noontide, sir," said Elerson. "We'll make Johnstown within the half-hour. Shall we swing round by the Hall and keep cover, or chance it by the road to Jimmy Burke's?"
"What about the scout?" I asked miserably.
He shook his head, and over his solemn eyes a shadow passed.
"Mayhap," he muttered, "Tim Murphy's luck will hold, sir. He's been fired at by a hundred of their best marksmen; he's been in every bloody scrape, assault, ambush, retreat, 'twixt Edward and Cherry Valley, and never a single bullet-scratch. We may find him in Johnstown yet."
He swerved to the right: "With your leave, Captain Renault, we'll fringe the timber here. Look, sir! Yonder stands the Hall against the sky!"
We were in Johnstown. There, across Sir William's tree-bordered pastures and rolling stubble-fields, stood the baronial hall. Sunlight sparkled on the windows. I saw the lilacs, the bare-limbed locusts, the orchards, still brilliant with scarlet and yellow fruit, the long stone wall and hedge fence, the lawns intensely green.
"It is deserted," I said in a low voice.
"Hark!" breathed Elerson, ear to the wind. After a moment I heard a deadened report from the direction of the village, then another and another; and, spite of the adverse breeze, a quavering, gentle, sustained sound, scarce more than a vibration, that hung persistently in the air.
"By God!" gasped Elerson, "it's the bell at the jail! The enemy are here! Pull foot, sir! Our time has come!"
Down the slope we ran, headed straight for the village. Gunshots now sounded distinctly from the direction of the Court-House; and around us, throughout the whole country, guns popped at intervals, sometimes a single distant report, then a quick succession of shots, like hunters shooting partridges; but we heard as yet no volley-firing.
"Tories and scalpers harrying the outlying farms," breathed Elerson. "Look sharp, sir! We're close to the village, and it's full o' Tories."
Right ahead of us stood a white house; and, as we crossed the hay-field behind it, a man came to the back door, leveled a musket, and deliberately shot at us. Instantly, and before he could spring back, Elerson threw up his rifle and fired, knocking the man headlong through the doorway.
"The impudent son of a slut!" he muttered to himself, coolly reloading. "Count one more Tory in hell, Davy, lad!"
Priming, his restless eyes searched the road-hedge ahead, then, ready once more, we broke into a trot, scrambled through the fence, and started down the road, which had already become a village street. It was fairly swarming with men running and dodging about.
The first thing I saw clearly was a dead woman lying across a horse-block. Then I saw a constable named Hugh McMonts running down the street, chased closely by two Indians and a soldier wearing a green uniform. They caught him as we fired, and murdered him in a doorway with hatchet and gun-stock, spattering everything with the poor wretch's brains.
Our impulsive and useless shots had instantly drawn the fire of three red-coated soldiers; and, as the big bullets whistled around us, Elerson grasped my arm, pulled me back, and darted behind a barn. Through a garden we ran, not stopping to load, through another barnyard, scattering the chickens into frantic flight, then out along a stony way, our ears ringing with the harsh din of the jail bell.
"There's the jail; run for it!" panted Elerson, as we came in sight of the solid stone structure, rising behind its palisades on the high ground.
I sprang across the road and up the slope, battering at the barricaded palings with my rifle-stock, while Elerson ran around the defenses bawling for admittance.
"Hurry, Elerson!" I cried, hammering madly for entrance; "here come the enemy's baggage-wagons up the street!"
"Jack Mount! Jack Mount! Let us in, ye crazy loon!" shouted Elerson.
Somebody began to unbolt the heavy slab gate; it creaked and swung just wide enough for a man to squeeze through. I shoved Elerson inside and followed, pushing into a mob of scared militia and panic-stricken citizens toward a huge buckskinned figure at a stockade loophole on the left.
"Jack Mount!" I called, "where are the women? Are they safe?"
He looked around at me, nodded in a dazed and hesitating manner, then wheeled quick as a flash, and fired through the slit in the logs.
I crawled up to the epaulment and peered down into the dusty street. It was choked with the enemy's baggage-wagons, now thrown into terrible confusion by the shot from Mount's rifle. Horses reared, backed, swerved, swung around, and broke into a terrified gallop; teamsters swore and lashed at their maddened animals, and some batmen, carrying a dead or wounded teamster, flung their limp burden into a wagon, and, seizing the horses' bits, urged them up the hill in a torrent of dust.
I fumbled for my ranger's whistle, set it to my lips, and blew the "Cease firing!"
"Let them alone!" I shouted angrily at Mount. "Have you no better work than to waste powder on a parcel of frightened clodhoppers? Send those militiamen to their posts! Two to a loop, yonder! Lively, lads; and see that you fire at nothing except Indians and soldiers. Jack, come up here!"
The big rifleman mounted the ladder and leaped to the rifle-platform, which quivered beneath his weight.
"I thought I'd best sting them once," he muttered. "Their main force has circled the town westward toward the Hall. Lord, sir, it was a bad surprise they gave us, for we understood that Willett held them at Tribes Hill!"
I caught his arm in a grip of iron, striving to speak, shaking him to silence.
"Where—where is Miss Grey?" I said hoarsely. "You say the women are safe, do you not?"
"Mr. Renault—sir—" he stammered, "I have just arrived at the jail—I have not seen your wife."
My hand fell from his arm; his appalled face whitened.
"Last night, sir," he muttered, "she was at the Hall, watching the flames in the sky where Butler was burning the Valley. I saw her there in a crowd of townsfolk, women, children—the whole town was on the lawn there——"
He wiped his clammy face and moistened his lips; above us, in the wooden tower, the clamor of the bell never ceased.
"She spoke to me, asking for news of you. I—I had no news of you to tell her. Then an officer—Captain Little—fell a-bawling for the Rangers to fall in, and Billy Laird, Jack Shew, Sammons, and me—we had to go. So I fell in, sir; and the last I saw she was standing there and looking at the reddening sky——"
Blindly, almost staggering, I pushed past him, stumbling down the ladder, across the yard, and into the lower corridor of the jail. There were women a-plenty there; some clung to my arm, imploring news; some called out to me, asking for husband or son. I looked blankly into face after face, all strangers; I mounted the stairs, pressing through the trembling throng, searching every whitewashed corridor, every room; then to the cellar, where the frightened children huddled, then out again, breaking into a run, hastening from blockhouse to blockhouse, the iron voice of the bell maddening me!
"Captain Renault! Captain Renault!" called out a militiaman, as I turned from the log rampart.
The man came hastening toward me, firelock trailing, pack and sack bouncing and flopping.
"My wife has news of your lady," he said, pointing to a slim, pale young woman who stood in the doorway, a shawl over her wind-blown hair.
I turned as she advanced, looking me earnestly in the face.
"Your lady was in the fort late last night, sir," she began. A fit of coughing choked her; overhead the dreadful clangor of the bell dinned and dinned.
Dumb, stunned, I waited while she fumbled in her soiled apron, and at last drew out a crumpled letter.
"I'll tell you what I know," she said weakly. "We had been to the Hall; the sky was all afire. My little boy grew frightened, and she—your sweet lady—she lifted him and carried him for me—I was that sick and weak from fright, sir——"
A fit of coughing shook her. She handed me the letter, unable to continue.
And there, brain reeling, ears stunned by the iron din of the bell which had never ceased, I read her last words to me:
"Carus, my darling, I don't know where you are. Please God, you are not at Oswaya, where they tell me the Indians have appeared above Varicks. Dearest lad, your Oneida came with your letter. I could not reply, for there were no expresses to go to you. Colonel Willett had news of the enemy toward Fort Hunter, and marched the next day. We hoped he might head them, but last night there was an alarm, and we all went out into the street. People were hastening to the Hall, and I went, too, being anxious, now that you are out there alone somewhere in the darkness.
"Oh, Carus, the sky was all red and fiery behind Tribes Hill; and women were crying and children sobbing all around me. I asked the Ranger, Mount, if he had news of you, and he was gentle and kind, and strove to comfort me, but he went away with his company on a run, and I saw the militia assembling where the drummers stood beating their drums in the torchlight.
"Somebody—a woman—said: 'It's hatchet and scalping again, and we women will catch it now.'
"And then a child screamed, and its mother was too weak to carry it, so I took it back for her to the jail.
"I sat in the jailer's room, thinking and thinking. Outside the barred window I heard a woman telling how Butler's men had already slain a whole family at Caughnawaga—an express having arrived with news of horrors unspeakable.
"Dearest, it came to me like a flash of light what I must do—what God meant me to do. Can you not understand, my darling? We are utterly helpless here. I must go back to this man—to this man who is riding hither with death on his right hand, and on his left hand, death!
"Oh, Carus! Carus! my sin has found me out! It is written that man should not put asunder those joined together. I have defied Him! Yet He repays, mercifully, offering me my last chance.
"Sweetheart, I must take it. Can you not understand? This man is my lawful husband; and as his wife, I dare resist him; I have the right to demand that his Indians and soldiers spare the aged and helpless. I must go to him, meet him, and confront him, and insist that mercy be shown to these poor, terrified people. And I must pay the price!
"Oh, Carus! Carus! I love you so! Pray for me. God keep you! I must go ere it is too late. My horse is at Burke's. I leave this for you. Dear, I am striving to mend a shattered life with sacrifice of self—the sacrifice you taught me. I can not help loving you as I do; but I can strive to be worthy of the man I love. This is the only way!
The woman had begun to speak again. I raised my eyes.
"Your sweet lady gave me the letter—I waited while she wrote it in the warden's room—and she was crying, sir. God knows what she has written you!—but she kissed me and my little one, and went out into the yard. I have not seen her since, Mr. Renault."
Would the din of that hellish bell never cease its torture? Would sound never again give my aching brain a moment's respite? The tumult, men's sharp voices, the coughing of the sick woman, the dull, stupid blows of sound were driving me mad! And now more noises broke out—the measured crash of volleys; cheers from the militia on the parapet; an uproar swelling all around me. I heard some one shout, "Willett has entered the town!" and the next instant the smashing roll of drums broke out in the street, echoing back from facade and palisade, and I heard the fifes and hunting-horns playing "Soldiers' Joy!" and the long double-shuffling of infantry on the run.
The icy current of desperation flowed back into every vein. My mind cleared; I passed a steady hand over my eyes, looked around me, and, drawing the ranger's whistle from my belt, set it to my lips.
The clear, mellow call dominated the tumult. A man in deerskin dropped from the rifle-platform, another descended the ladder, others came running from the log bastions, all flocking around me like brown deer herding to the leader's call.
"Fall in!" I scarce knew my own voice.
The eager throng of riflemen fell away into a long rank, stringing out across the jail yard.
"Shoulder arms! Right dress! Right face! Call off!"
The quick responses ran along the ranks: "Right! left! right! left!——"
"Right double!" I called. Then, as order followed order, the left platoon stepped forward, halted, and dressed.
"Take care to form column by platoons right, right front. To the right—face! March!"
The gates were flung wide as we passed through, and, wheeling, swung straight into the streets of Johnstown with a solid hurrah!
A battalion of Massachusetts infantry was passing St. John's Church, filling William Street with the racket of their drums. White cross-belts and rifles shining, the black-gaitered column plodded past, mounted officers leading. Then a field-piece, harness and chains clanking, came by, breasting the hill at a gallop, amid a tempest of cheers from my riflemen. And now the Tryon County men were passing in dusty ranks, and more riflemen came running up, falling in behind my company.
"There's Tim Murphy!" cried Elerson joyously. "He has your horse, Captain!"
Down the hill from Burke's Inn came Murphy on a run, leading my horse; behind him sped the Weasel and a rifleman named Sammons, and Burke himself, flourishing a rifle, all greeted lustily by the brown ranks behind me, amid shouts of laughter as Jimmy Burke, in cap and fluttering forest-dress, fell in with the others.
"Captain Renault, sorr—" I turned. Murphy touched his raccoon cap.
"Sorr, I hov f'r to repoort thot ye're sweet lady, sorr, is wid Butler at Johnson Hall."
"Safe?" My lips scarcely moved.
"Safe so far, sorr. She rides wid their Major, Ross, an' the shtaff-officers in gold an' green."
I sprang to the saddle, raised my rifle and shook it, A shrill, wolfish yelling burst from the Rangers.
"Forward!" And "Forward! forward!" echoed the sergeants, as we swung into a quick step.
The rifles on the hill by the Hall were speaking faster and faster now. A white cloud hid the Hall and the trees, thickening and spreading as a volley of musketry sent its smoke gushing into the bushes. Then, in the dun-colored fog, a red flame darted out, splitting the air with a deafening crash, and the thunder-clap of the cannon-shot shook the earth under our hurrying feet.
We were close to the Hall now. Behind a hedge fence running east our militia lay, firing very coolly into the wavering mists, through which twinkled the ruddy rifle-flames of the enemy. The roar of the firing was swelling, dominated by the tremendous concussions of the field-piece. I saw officers riding like mounted phantoms through the smoke; dead men in green, dead men in scarlet, and here and there a dead Mohawk lay in the hedge. A wounded officer of Massachusetts infantry passed us, borne away to the village by Schoharic militia.
As we started for the hedge on a double, suddenly, through the smoke, the other side of the hedge swarmed with men. They were everywhere, crashing through the thicket, climbing the fence, pouring forward with shouts and hurrahs. Then the naked form of an Indian appeared; another, another; the militia, disconcerted and surprised, struck at them with their gunstocks, wavered, turned, and ran toward us.
I had already deployed my right into line; the panic-stricken militia came heading on as we opened to let them through; then we closed up; a sheet of flame poured out into the very faces of Butler's Rangers; another, another!
Bolt upright in the stirrups, I lifted my smoking rifle: "Rangers! Charge!"
Beneath my plunging horse a soldier in green went down screaming; an Indian darted past, falling to death under a dozen clubbed rifles; then a yelling mass of green-coated soldiers, forced and crushed back into the hedge, turned at bay; and into this writhing throng leaped my riflemen, hatchets flashing.
"Hold that hedge, Captain Renault!" came a calm voice near me, and I saw Colonel Willett at my elbow, struggling with his frantic horse.
A mounted officer near him cried: "The rest of the militia on the right are wavering, Colonel!"
"Then stop them, Captain Zielie!" said Willett, dragging his horse to a stand. His voice was lost in the swelling roar of the fusillade where my Rangers were holding the hedge. On the extreme right, through an open field, I saw the militia scattering, darting about wildly. There came a flash, a roar, and the scene was blotted out in a huge fountain of flame and smoke.
"They've blown up the ammunition-wagon! Butler's men have taken our cannon!" yelled a soldier, swinging his arms frantically. "Oh, my God! the militia are running from the field!"
It was true. One of those dreadful and unaccountable panics had seized the militia. Nothing could stop them. I saw Colonel Willett spur forward, sword flashing; officers rode into the retreating lines, begging and imploring them to stand. The pressure on my riflemen was enormous, and I ordered them to fall back by squads in circles to the fringe of woods. They obeyed very coolly and in perfect order, retiring step by step, shot by shot.
Massachusetts infantry were holding the same woods; a few Tryon militia rallied to us, and Colonel Gray took command. "For God's sake, Renault, go and help Willett stop the militia!" he begged. "I'll hold this corner till you can bring us aid!"
I peered about me through the smoke, gathered bridle, wheeled through the bushes into the open field, and hurled my horse forward along the line of retreat.
Never had I believed brave men could show such terror. Nobody heeded me, nobody listened. At my voice they only ran the faster, I galloping alongside, beseeching them, and looking for Willett.
Straight into the streets of Johnstown fled the militia, crowding the town in mad and shameless panic, carrying with them their mounted officers, as a torrent hurls chips into a whirlpool.
"Halt! In Heaven's name, what is the matter? Why, you had them on the run, you men of Tryon, you Ulster men!" cried Colonel Willett.
A seething mass of fugitives was blocked at the old stone church. Into them plunged the officers, cursing, threatening, imploring, I among them, my horse almost swept from his legs in the rushing panic.
"Don't run, lads," I said; "don't put us all to this shame! Why, what are you afraid of? I saw nothing to scare a child on the hill. And this is my first battle. I thought war was something to scare a man. But this is nothing. You wouldn't leave the Rangers there all alone, would you? They're up there drilling holes in the Indians who came to murder your wives and children. Come on, boys! You didn't mean it. We can't let those yagers and Greens take a cannon as easily as that!"
They were listening to Willett, too; here and there a sergeant took up the pleading. I found an exhausted drummer-boy sitting on the steps of the church, and induced him to stand up and beat the assembly. Officer after officer struggled through the mob, leading out handfuls of men; lines formed; I snatched a flag from an ensign and displayed it; a company, at shoulder arms, headed by a drummer, emerged from the chaos, marching in fair alignment; another followed more steadily; line after line fell in and paraded; the fifes began to squeal, and the shrill quickstep set company after company in motion.
"It's all right, lads!" cried Willett cheerily, as he galloped forward. "We are going back for that cannon we lost by mistake. Come on, you Tryon County men! Don't let the Rangers laugh at you!"
Then the first cheer broke out; mounted officers rode up, baring their swords, surrounding the Colonel. He gave me a calm and whimsical look, almost a smile:
"D'ye hear that firing to the left? Well, that's Rowley's flanking column of levies and the Massachusetts men. Hark! Listen to that rifle music! Now we'll drive them! Now we've got them at last!"
I caught him by the sleeve, and bent forward from my saddle:
"Do you know that the woman I am to marry is with the enemy?" I demanded hoarsely.
"No. Good God, Carus! Have they got her?"
His shocked face paled; he laid his hand on my shoulder, riding in silence as I told him what I knew.
"By Heaven!" he said, striking his gloved hands together, "we'll get her yet, Carus; I tell you, we'll get her safe and sound. Do you think I mean to let these mad wolves slink off this time and skulk away unpunished? Do you suppose I don't know that the time has come to purge this frontier for good and all of Walter Butler? You need not worry, Carus. It is true that God alone could have foreseen the strange panic that started these militiamen on a run, as though they had never smelled powder—as though they had not answered a hundred alarms from Oriskany to Currietown. I could not foresee that, but, by God, we've stopped it! And now I tell you we are going to deal Walter Butler a blow that will end his murdering career forever! Look sharp!"
A racket of rifle-fire broke out ahead; two men dropped.
We were in the smoke now. Indians rose from every thicket and leaped away in retreat; the column broke into a run, mounted officers trotting forward, pistol and sword in hand.
"Why, there's our cannon, boys!" cried Colonel Lewis excitedly.
A roar greeted the black Colonel's words; the entire line sprang forward; a file of Oneidas sped along our flanks, rifles a-trail.
Through the smoke I saw the Hall now, and in a field to the east of it a cannon which some Highlanders and soldiers in green uniforms were attempting to drag off.
At the view the yelling onset was loosed; the kilted troops and the green-coated soldiers took to their legs, and I saw our militia swarming around the field-piece, hugging it, patting it, embracing it, while from the woods beyond my Rangers cheered and cheered. Ah! now the militia were in it again; the hedge fence was carried with a rush, and all around us in the red sunset light shouting militia, Royal Greens, and naked, yelling Indians were locked in a death struggle, hatchet, knife, and rifle-butt playing their silent and awful part.
An officer in a scarlet coat galloped at me full tilt, snapped his pistol as he passed, wheeled, and attempted to ride me down at his sword's point, but Colonel Willett pistoled him as I parried his thrust with my rifle-barrel; and I saw his maddened horse bearing him away, he swaying horridly in his saddle, falling sidewise, and striking the ground, one spurred heel entangled in his stirrup.
Sickened, I turned away, and presently sounded the rally for my Rangers. For full twenty minutes militia and riflemen poured sheets of bullets into the Royal Greens from the hedge fence; their flank doubled, wavered, and broke as the roaring fire of Rowley's men drew nearer. Twilight fell; redder and redder leaped the rifle-flames through the smoky dusk. Suddenly their whole line gave way, and we broke through—riflemen, militia, Massachusetts men—broke through with a terrific yell. And before us fled Indian and Tory, yager and renegade, Greens, Rangers, Highlanders, officers galloping madly, baggage-wagons smashed, horses down, camp trampled to tatters and splinters as the vengeance of Tryon County passed in a tornado of fury that cleansed the land forever of Walter Butler and his demons of the North!
In that furious onslaught through the darkness and smoke, where prisoners were being taken, Indians and Greens chased and shot down, a steady flicker of rifle-fire marked the course of the disastrous rout, and the frenzied vengeance following—an awful vengeance now, for, in the blackness, a new and dreadful sound broke—the fiercely melancholy scalp-yell of my Oneidas!
Galloping across a swampy field, where the dead and scalped lay in the ooze, I shouted the Wolf Clan challenge; and a lone cry answered me, coming nearer, nearer, until in the smoke-shot darkness I saw the terrific painted shape of an Indian looming, saluting me with uplifted and reeking hatchet.
"Brother! brother!" I groaned, "by the Wolf whose sign we wear, and by the sign of Tharon, follow her who is to be my wife—follow by night, by day, through the haunts of men, through the still places! Go swiftly, O my brother the Otter—swiftly as hound on trail! I charge you by that life you owe, by that clan tie which breaks not when nations break, by the sign of Tharon, that floats among the stars forever, find me this woman whom I am to wed! Your life for hers, O brother! Go!"
For four breathless days the broad, raw trail of a thousand men in headlong flight was the trampled path we traveled. Smashing straight through the northern wilderness, our enemy with horses, wagons, batmen, soldiers, Indians burst into the forest, tearing saplings, thickets, underbrush aside in their mad northward rush for the safety of the Canadas and the shelter denied them here. Threescore Oneida hatchets glittered in their rear; four hundred rifles followed; for the Red Beast was in flight at last, stricken, turning now and again to snarl when the tireless, stern-faced trackers drew too near, then running on again, growling, impotent. And the Red Beast must be done to death.
What fitter place to end him than here in the wild twilight of shaggy depths, unlighted by the sun or moon?—here where the cold, brawling streams smoked in the rank air; where black crags crouched, watching the hunting—here in these awful deeps, shunned by the deer, unhaunted by wolf and panther—depths fit only for the monstrous terror that came out of them, and now, wounded, and cold heart pulsing terror, was scrambling back again into the dense and dreadful twilight of eternal shadow-land.
One by one their pack-laden horses fell out exhausted; and we found them, heads hanging, quivering and panting beside the reeking trail; one by one their gaunt cattle, mired in bog and swamp, entangled in windfalls, greeted us, bellowing piteously as we passed. The forest itself fought for us, reaching out to jerk wheels from axle, bringing wagon and team down crashing. Their dead lay everywhere uncared for, even unscalped and unrobbed in the bruised and trampled path of flight; clothing, arms, provisions were scattered pell-mell on every side; and now at length, hour after hour, as we headed them back from trail and highway, and blocked them from their boats at Oneida Lake, driving, forcing, scourging them straight into the black jaws of a hungry wilderness, we began to pass their wounded—ghastly, bloody, ragged things, scarce animate, save for the dying brilliancy of their hollowed eyes.
On, on, hotfoot through the rain along the smoking trail; twilight by day, depthless darkness by night, where we lay panting in starless obscurity, listening to the giant winds of the wilderness—vast, resistless, illimitable winds flowing steadily through the unseen and naked crests of forests, colder and ever colder they blew, heralding the trampling blasts of winter, charging us from the north.
On the fifth day it began to snow at dawn. Little ragged flakes winnowed through the clusters of scarlet maple-leaves, sifted among the black pines, coming faster and thicker, driving in slanting, whirling flight across the trail. In an hour the moss was white; crimson sprays of moose-bush bent, weighted with snow and scarlet berries; the hurrying streams ran dark and somber in their channels between dead-white banks; swamps turned blacker for the silvery setting; the flakes grew larger, pelting in steady, thickening torrents from the clouds as we came into a clearing called Jerseyfield, on the north side of Canada Creek; and here at last we were met by a crackling roar from a hundred rifles.