"It was well that the Indians led us to this place, eh, Levi?" said Wyatt.
"I'm glad the fire spared a part of it," said Coleman. "Looks as if it was done just for us, to give us a shelter some cold winter night when we come along. I guess the Iroquois Aieroski is watching over us."
"You're a man that I like, Levi," he said. "You can see to the inside of things. It would be a good idea to use this place as a base and shelter, and make a raid on some of the settlements east of the hills, eh, Levi?"
"It could be done," said Coleman. "But just listen to that wind, will you! On a night like this it must cut like a saber's edge. Even our Iroquois are glad to be under a roof."
Henry still gazed in at the crack with eyes that were lighted up by an angry fire. So here was more talk of destruction and slaughter! His gaze alighted upon an Indian who sat in a corner engaged upon a task. Henry looked more closely, and saw that he was stretching a blonde-haired scalp over a small hoop. A shudder shook his whole frame. Only those who lived amid such scenes could understand the intensity of his feelings. He felt, too, a bitter sense of injustice. The doers of these deeds were here in warmth and comfort, while the innocent were dead or fugitives. He turned away from the window, stepping gently upon the snowshoes. He inferred that the remainder of Wyatt's band were quartered in the other house from which he had seen the smoke rising. It was about twenty rods away, but he did not examine it, because a great idea had been born suddenly in his brain. The attempt to fulfill the idea would be accompanied by extreme danger, but he did not hesitate a moment. He stole gently to one of the half-fallen outhouses and went inside. Here he found what he wanted, a large pine shelf that had been sheltered from rain and that was perfectly dry. He scraped off a large quantity of the dry pine until it formed almost a dust, and he did not cease until he had filled his cap with it. Then he cut off large splinters, until he had accumulated a great number, and after that he gathered smaller pieces of half-burned pine.
He was fully two hours doing this work, and the night advanced far, but he never faltered. His head was bare, but he was protected from the wind by a fragment of the outhouse wall. Every two or three minutes he stopped and listened for the sound of a creaking, sliding footstep on the snow, but, never hearing any, he always resumed his work with the same concentration. All the while the wind rose and moaned through the ruins of the little village. When Henry chanced to raise his head above the sheltering wall, it was like the slash of a knife across his cheek.
Finally he took half of the pine dust in his cap and a lot of the splinters under his arm, and stole back to the house from which the light had shone. He looked again through the crevice at the window. The light had died down much more, and both Wyatt and Coleman were asleep on the floor. But several of the Iroquois were awake, although they sat as silent and motionless as stones against the wall.
Henry moved from the window and selected a sheltered spot beside the plank wall. There he put the pine dust in a little heap on the snow and covered it over with pine splinters, on top of which he put larger pieces of pine. Then he went back for the remainder of the pine dust, and built a similar pyramid against a sheltered side of the second house.
The most delicate part of his task had now come, one that good fortune only could aid him in achieving, but the brave youth, his heart aflame with righteous anger against those inside, still pursued the work. His heart throbbed, but hand and eye were steady.
Now came the kindly stroke of fortune for which he had hoped. The wind rose much higher and roared harder against the house. It would prevent the Iroquois within, keen of ear as they were, from hearing a light sound without. Then he drew forth his flint and steel and struck them together with a hand so strong and swift that sparks quickly leaped forth and set fire to the pine tinder. Henry paused only long enough to see the flame spread to the splinters, and then he ran rapidly to the other house, where the task was repeated-he intended that his job should be thorough.
Pursuing this resolve to make his task complete, he came back to the first house and looked at his fire. It had already spread to the larger pieces of pine, and it could not go out now. The sound made by the flames blended exactly with the roaring of the wind, and another minute or two might pass before the Iroquois detected it.
Now his heart throbbed again, and exultation was mingled with his anger. By the time the Iroquois were aroused to the danger the flames would be so high that the wind would reach them. Then no one could put them out.
It might have been safer for him to flee deep into the forest at once, but that lingering desire to make his task complete and, also, the wish to see the result kept him from doing it. He merely walked across the open space and stood behind a tree at the edge of the forest.
Braxton Wyatt and his Tories and Iroquois were very warm, very snug, in the shelter of the old house with the great bed of coals before them. They may even have been dreaming peaceful and beautiful dreams, when suddenly an Iroquois sprang to his feet and uttered a cry that awoke all the rest.
"I smell smoke!" he exclaimed in his tongue, "and there is fire, too! I hear it crackle outside!"
Braxton Wyatt ran to the window and jerked it open. Flame and smoke blew in his face. He uttered an angry cry, and snatched at the pistol in his belt.
"The whole side of the house is on fire!" he exclaimed. "Whose neglect has done this?"
Coleman, shrewd and observing, was at his elbow.
"The fire was set on the outside," he said. "It was no carelessness of our men. Some enemy has done this!"
"It is true!" exclaimed Wyatt furiously. "Out, everybody! The house burns fast!"
There was a rush for the door. Already ashes and cinders were falling about their heads. Flames leaped high, were caught by the roaring winds, and roared with them. The shell of the house would soon be gone, and when Tories and Iroquois were outside they saw the remainder of their band pouring forth from the other house, which was also in flames.
No means of theirs could stop so great a fire, and they stood in a sort of stupefaction, watching it as it was fanned to greatest heights by the wind.
All the remaining outbuildings caught, also, and in a few moments nothing whatever would be left of the tiny village. Braxton Wyatt and his band must lie in the icy wilderness, and they could never use this place as a basis for attack upon settlements.
"How under the sun could it have happened?" exclaimed Wyatt.
"It didn't happen. It was done," said Coleman. "Somebody set these houses on fire while we slept within. Hark to that!"
An Iroquois some distance from the houses was bending over the snow where it was not yet melted by the heat. He saw there the track of snowshoes, and suddenly, looking toward the forest, whither they led, he saw a dark figure flit away among the trees.
CHAPTER XVIII. HENRY'S SLIDE
Henry Ware, lingering at the edge of the clearing, his body hidden behind one of the great tree trunks, had been watching the scene with a fascinated interest that would not let him go. He knew that his work there was done already. Everything would be utterly destroyed by the flames which, driven by the wind, leaped from one half-ruined building to another. Braxton Wyatt and his band would have enough to do sheltering themselves from the fierce winter, and the settlements could rest for a while at least. Undeniably he felt exultation as he witnessed the destructive work of his hand. The border, with its constant struggle for-life and terrible deeds, bred fierce passions.
In truth, although he did not know it himself, he stayed there to please his eye and heart. A new pulse beat triumphantly every time a timber, burned through, fell in, or a crash came from a falling roof. He laughed inwardly as the flames disclosed the dismay on the faces of the Iroquois and Tories, and it gave him deep satisfaction to see Braxton Wyatt, his gaudy little sword at his thigh, stalking about helpless. It was while he was looking, absorbed in such feelings, that the warrior of the alert eye saw him and gave the warning shout.
Henry turned in an instant, and darted away among the trees, half running, half sliding over the smooth, icy covering of the snow. After him came warriors and some Tories who had put on their snowshoes preparatory to the search through the forest for shelter. Several bullets were fired, but he was too far away for a good aim. He heard one go zip against a tree, and another cut the surface of the ice near him, but none touched him, and he sped easily on his snowshoes through the frozen forest. But Henry was fully aware of one thing that constituted his greatest danger. Many of these Iroquois had been trained all their lives to snowshoes, while he, however powerful and agile, was comparatively a beginner. He glanced back again and saw their dusky figures running among the trees, but they did not seem to be gaining. If one should draw too near, there was his rifle, and no man, white or red, in the northern or southern forests, could use it better. But for the present it was not needed. He pressed it closely, almost lovingly, to his side, this best friend of the scout and frontiersman.
He had chosen his course at the first leap. It was southward, toward the lake, and he did not make the mistake of diverging from his line, knowing that some part of the wide half circle of his pursuers would profit by it.
Henry felt a great upward surge. He had been the victor in what he meant to achieve, and he was sure that he would escape. The cold wind, whistling by, whipped his blood and added new strength to his great muscles. His ankles were not chafed or sore, and he sped forward on the snowshoes, straight and true. Whenever he came to a hill the pursuers would gain as he went up it, but when he went down the other side it was he who gained. He passed brooks, creeks, and once a small river, but they were frozen over, many inches deep, and he did not notice them. Again it was a lake a mile wide, but the smooth surface there merely increased his speed. Always he kept a wary look ahead for thickets through which he could not pass easily, and once he sent back a shout of defiance, which the Iroquois answered with a yell of anger.
He was fully aware that any accident to his snowshoes would prove fatal, the slipping of the thongs on his ankles or the breaking of a runner would end his flight, and in a long chase such an accident might happen. It might happen, too, to one or more of the Iroquois, but plenty of them would be left. Yet Henry had supreme confidence in his snowshoes. He had made them himself, he had seen that every part was good, and every thong had been fastened with care.
The wind which bad been roaring so loudly at the time of the fire sank to nothing. The leafless trees stood up, the branches unmoving. The forest was bare and deserted. All the animals, big and little, had gone into their lairs. Nobody witnessed the great pursuit save pursuers and pursued. Henry kept his direction clear in his mind, and allowed the Iroquois to take no advantage of a curve save once. Then he came to a thicket so large that he was compelled to make a considerable circle to pass it. He turned to the right, hence the Indians on the right gained, and they sent up a yell of delight. He replied defiantly and increased his speed.
But one of the Indians, a flying Mohawk, had come dangerously near-near enough, in fact, to fire a bullet that did not miss the fugitive much. It aroused Henry's anger. He took it as an indignity rather than a danger, and he resolved to avenge it. So far as firing was concerned, he was at a disadvantage. He must stop and turn around for his shot, while the Iroquois, without even checking speed, could fire straight at the flying target, ahead.
Nevertheless, he took the chance. He turned deftly on the snowshoes, fired as quick as lightning at the swift Mohawk, saw him fall, then Whirled and resumed his flight. He had lost ground, but he had inspired respect. A single man could not afford to come too near to a marksman so deadly, and the three or four who led dropped back with the main body.
Now Henry made his greatest effort. He wished to leave the foe far behind, to shake off his pursuit entirely. He bounded over the ice and snow with great leaps, and began to gain. Yet he felt at last the effects of so strenuous a flight. His breath became shorter; despite the intense cold, perspiration stood upon his face, and the straps that fastened the snowshoes were chafing his ankles. An end must come even to such strength as his. Another backward look, and he saw that the foe was sinking into the darkness. If he could only increase his speed again, he might leave the Iroquois now. He made a new call upon the will, and the body responded. For a few minutes his speed became greater. A disappointed shout arose behind him, and several shots were fired. But the bullets fell a hundred yards short, and then, as he passed over a little hill and into a wood beyond, he was hidden from the sight of his pursuers.
Henry knew that the Iroquois could trail him over the snow, but they could not do it at full speed, and he turned sharply off at an angle. Pausing a second or two for fresh breath, he continued on his new course, although not so fast as before. He knew that the Iroquois would rush straight ahead, and would not discover for two or three minutes that they were off the trail. It would take them another two or three minutes to recover, and he would make a gain of at least five minutes. Five minutes had saved the life of many a man on the border.
How precious those five minutes were! He would take them all. He ran forward some distance, stopped where the trees grew thick, and then enjoyed the golden five, minute by minute. He had felt that he was pumping the very lifeblood from his heart. His breath had come painfully, and the thongs of the snowshoes were chafing his ankles terribly. But those minutes were worth a year. Fresh air poured into his lungs, and the muscles became elastic once more. In so brief a space he had recreated himself.
Resuming his flight, he went at a steady pace, resolved not to do his utmost unless the enemy came in sight. About ten minutes later he heard a cry far behind him, and he believed it to be a signal from some Indian to the others that the trail was found again. But with so much advantage he felt sure that he was now quite safe. He ran, although at decreased speed, for about two hours more, and then he sat down on the upthrust root of a great oak. Here he depended most upon his ears. The forest was so silent that he could hear any noise at a great distance, but there was none. Trusting to his ears to warn him, he would remain there a long time for a thorough rest. He even dared to take off his snowshoes that he might rub his sore ankles, but he wrapped his heavy blanket about his body, lest he take deep cold in cooling off in such a temperature after so long a flight.
He sat enjoying a half hour, golden like the five minutes, and then he saw, outlined against the bright, moonlit sky, something that told him he must be on the alert again. It was a single ring of smoke, like that from a cigar, only far greater. It rose steadily, untroubled by wind until it was dissipated. It meant "attention!" and presently it was followed by a column of such rings, one following another beautifully. The column said: "The foe is near." Henry read the Indian signs perfectly. The rings were made by covering a little fire with a blanket for a moment and then allowing the smoke to ascend. On clear days such signals could be seen a distance of thirty miles or more, and he knew that they were full of significance.
Evidently the Iroquois party had divided into two or more bands. One had found his trail, and was signaling to the other. The party sending up the smoke might be a half mile away, but the others, although his trail was yet hidden from them, might be nearer. It was again time for flight.
He swiftly put on the snowshoes, neglecting no thong or lace, folded the blanket on his back again, and, leaving the friendly root, started once more. He ran forward at moderate speed for perhaps a mile, when he suddenly heard triumphant yells on both right and left. A strong party of Iroquois were coming up on either side, and luck had enabled them to catch him in a trap.
They were so near that they fired upon him, and one bullet nicked his glove, but he was hopeful that after his long rest he might again stave them off. He sent back no defiant cry, but, settling into determined silence, ran at his utmost speed. The forest here was of large trees, with no undergrowth, and he noticed that the two parties did not join, but kept on as they had come, one on the right and the other on the left. This fact must have some significance, but he could not fathom it. Neither could he guess whether the Indians were fresh or tired, but apparently they made no effort to come within range of his rifle.
Presently he made a fresh spurt of speed, the forest opened out, and then both bands uttered a yell full of ferocity and joy, the kind that savages utter only when they see their triumph complete.
Before, and far below Henry, stretched a vast, white expanse. He had come to the lake, but at a point where the cliff rose high like a mountain, and steep like a wall. The surface of the lake was so far down that it was misty white like a cloud. Now he understood the policy of the Indian bands in not uniting. They knew that they would soon reach the lofty cliffs of the lake, and if he turned to either right or left there was a band ready to seize him.
Henry's heart leaped up and then sank lower than ever before in his life. It seemed that he could not escape from so complete a trap, and Braxton Wyatt was not one who would spare a prisoner. That was perhaps the bitterest thing of all, to be taken and tortured by Braxton Wyatt. He was there. He could hear his voice in one of the bands, and then the courage that never failed him burst into fire again.
The Iroquois were coming toward him, shutting him out from retreat to either right or left, but not yet closing in because of his deadly rifle. He gave them a single look, put forth his voice in one great cry of defiance, and, rushing toward the edge of the mighty cliff, sprang boldly over.
As Henry plunged downward he heard behind him a shout of amazement and chagrin poured forth from many Iroquois throats, and, taking a single glance backward, he caught a glimpse of dusky faces stamped with awe. But the bold youth had not made a leap to destruction. In the passage of a second he had calculated rapidly and well. While the cliff at first glance seemed perpendicular, it could not be so. There was a slope coated with two feet of snow, and swinging far back on the heels of his snowshoes, he shot downward like one taking a tremendous slide on a toboggan. Faster and faster he went, but deeper and deeper he dug his shoes into the snow, until he lay back almost flat against its surface. This checked his speed somewhat, but it was still very great, and, preserving his self-control perfectly, he prayed aloud to kindly Providence to save him from some great boulder or abrupt drop.
The snow from his runners flew in a continuous shower behind him as he descended. Yet he drew himself compactly together, and held his rifle parallel with his body. Once or twice, as he went over a little ridge, he shot clear of the snow, but he held his body rigid, and the snow beyond saved him from a severe bruise. Then his speed was increased again, and all the time the white surface of the lake below, seen dimly through the night and his flight, seemed miles away.
He might never reach that surface alive, but of one thing lie was sure. None of the Iroquois or Tories had dared to follow. Braxton Wyatt could have no triumph over him. He was alone in his great flight. Once a projection caused him to turn a little to one side. He was in momentary danger of turning entirely, and then of rolling head over heels like a huge snowball, but with a mighty effort he righted himself, and continued the descent on the runners, with the heels plowing into the ice and the snow.
Now that white expanse which had seemed so far away came miles nearer. Presently he would be there. The impossible had become possible, the unattainable was about to be attained. He gave another mighty dig with his shoes, the last reach of the slope passed behind him, and he shot out on the frozen surface of the lake, bruised and breathless, but without a single broken bone.
The lake was covered with ice a foot thick, and over this lay frozen snow, which stopped Henry forty or fifty yards from the cliff. There he lost his balance at last, and fell on his side, where he lay for a few moments, weak, panting, but triumphant.
When he stood upright again he felt his body, but he had suffered nothing save some bruises, that would heal in their own good time. His deerskin clothing was much torn, particularly on the back, where he had leaned upon the ice and snow, but the folded blanket had saved him to a considerable extent. One of his shoes was pulled loose, and presently he discovered that his left ankle was smarting and burning at a great rate. But he did not mind these things at all, so complete was his sense of victory. He looked up at the mighty white wall that stretched above him fifteen hundred feet, and he wondered at his own tremendous exploit. The wall ran away for miles, and the Iroquois could not reach him by any easier path. He tried to make out figures on the brink looking down at him, but it was too far away, and he saw only a black line.
He tightened the loose shoe and struck out across the lake. He was far away from "The Alcove," and he did not intend to go there, lest the Iroquois, by chance, come upon his trail and follow it to the refuge. But as it was no more than two miles across the lake at that point, and the Iroquois would have to make a great curve to reach the other side, he felt perfectly safe. He walked slowly across, conscious all the time of an increasing pain in his left ankle, which must now be badly swollen, and he did not stop until he penetrated some distance among low bills. Here, under an overhanging cliff with thick bushes in front, he found a partial shelter, which he cleared out yet further. Then with infinite patience he built a fire with splinters that he cut from dead boughs, hung his blanket in front of it on two sticks that the flame might not be seen, took off his snowshoes, leggins, and socks, and bared his ankles. Both were swollen, but the left much more badly than the other. He doubted whether he would be able to walk on the following day, but he rubbed them a long time, both with the palms of his hands and with snow, until they felt better. Then he replaced his clothing, leaned back against the faithful snowshoes which had saved his life, however much they had hurt his ankles, and gave himself up to the warmth of the fire.
It was very luxurious, this warmth and this rest, after so long and terrible a flight, and he was conscious of a great relaxation, one which, if he yielded to it completely, would make his muscles so stiff and painful that he could not use them. Hence he stretched his arms and legs many times, rubbed his ankles again, and then, remembering that he had venison, ate several strips.
He knew that he had taken a little risk with the fire, but a fire he was bound to have, and he fed it again until he had a great mass of glowing coals, although there was no blaze. Then he took down the blanket, wrapped himself in it, and was soon asleep before the fire. He slept long and deeply, and although, when he awoke, the day had fully come, the coals were not yet out entirely. He arose, but such a violent pain from his left ankle shot through him that he abruptly sat down again. As he bad feared, it had swollen badly during the night, and he could not walk.
In this emergency Henry displayed no petulance, no striving against unchangeable circumstance. He drew up more wood, which he had stacked against the cliff, and put it on the coals. He hung up the blanket once more in order that it might hide the fire, stretched out his lame leg, and calmly made a breakfast off the last of his venison. He knew he was in a plight that might appall the bravest, but he kept himself in hand. It was likely that the Iroquois thought him dead, crushed into a shapeless mass by his frightful slide of fifteen hundred feet, and he had little fear of them, but to be unable to walk and alone in an icy wilderness without food was sufficient in itself. He calculated that it was at least a dozen miles to "The Alcove," and the chances were a hundred to one against any of his comrades wandering his way. He looked once more at his swollen left ankle, and he made a close calculation. It would be three days, more likely four, before he could walk upon it. Could he endure hunger that long? He could. He would! Crouched in his nest with his back to the cliff, he had defense against any enemy in his rifle and pistol. By faithful watching he might catch sight of some wandering animal, a target for his rifle and then food for his stomach. His wilderness wisdom warned him that there was nothing to do but sit quiet and wait.
He scarcely moved for hours. As long as he was still his ankle troubled him but little. The sun came out, silver bright, but it had no warmth. The surface of the lake was shown only by the smoothness of its expanse; the icy covering was the same everywhere over hills and valleys. Across the lake he saw the steep down which he had slid, looming white and lofty. In the distance it looked perpendicular, and, whatever its terrors, it had, beyond a doubt, saved his life. He glanced down at his swollen ankle, and, despite his helpless situation, he was thankful that he had escaped so well.
About noon he moved enough to throw up the snowbanks higher all around himself in the fashion of an Eskimos house. Then he let the fire die except some coals that gave forth no smoke, stretched the blanket over his head in the manner of a roof, and once more resumed his quiet and stillness. He was now like a crippled animal in its lair, but he was warm, and his wound did not hurt him. But hunger began to trouble him. He was young and so powerful that his frame demanded much sustenance. Now it cried aloud its need! He ate two or three handfuls of snow, and for a few moments it seemed to help him a little, but his hunger soon came back as strong as ever. Then he tightened his belt and sat in grim silence, trying to forget that there was any such thing as food.
The effort of the will was almost a success throughout the afternoon, but before night it failed. He began to have roseate visions of Long Jim trying venison, wild duck, bear, and buffalo steaks over the coals. He could sniff the aroma, so powerful had his imagination become, and, in fancy, his month watered, while its roof was really dry. They were daylight visions, and he knew it well, but they taunted him and made his pain fiercer. He slid forward a little to the mouth of his shelter, and thrust out his rifle in the hope that he would see some wild creature, no matter what; he felt that he could shoot it at any distance, and then he would feast!
He saw nothing living, either on earth or in the air, only motionless white, and beyond, showing but faintly now through the coming twilight, the lofty cliff that had saved him.
He drew back into his lair, and the darkness came down. Despite his hunger, he slept fairly well. In the night a little snow fell at times, but his blanket roof protected him, and he remained dry and warm. The new snow was, in a way, a satisfaction, as it completely hid his trail from the glance of any wandering Indian. He awoke the next morning to a gray, somber day, with piercing winds from the northwest. He did not feel the pangs of hunger until he had been awake about a half hour, and then they came with redoubled force. Moreover, he had become weaker in the night, and, added to the loss of muscular strength, was a decrease in the power of the will. Hunger was eating away his mental as well as his physical fiber. He did not face the situation with quite the same confidence that he felt the day before. The wilderness looked a little more threatening.
His lips felt as if he were suffering from fever, and his shoulders and back were stiff. But he drew his belt tighter again, and then uncovered his left ankle. The swelling had gone down a little, and he could move it with more freedom than on the day before, but he could not yet walk. Once more he made his grim calculation. In two days he could certainly walk and hunt game or make a try for "The Alcove," so far as his ankle was concerned, but would hunger overpower him before that time? Gaining strength in one direction, he was losing it in another.
Now he began to grow angry with himself. The light inroad that famine made upon his will was telling. It seemed incredible that he, so powerful, so skillful, so self reliant, so long used to the wilderness and to every manner of hardship, should be held there in a snowbank by a bruised ankle to die like a crippled rabbit. His comrades could not be more than ten miles away. He could walk. He would walk! He stood upright and stepped out into the snow, but pain, so agonizing that he could scarcely keep from crying out, shot through his whole body, and he sank back into the shelter, sure not to make such an experiment again for another full day.
The day passed much like its predecessor, except that he took down the blanket cover of his snow hut and kindled up his fire again, more for the sake of cheerfulness than for warmth, because he was not suffering from cold. There was a certain life and light about the coals and the bright flame, but the relief did not last long, and by and by he let it go out. Then be devoted himself to watching the heavens and the surface of the snow. Some winter bird, duck or goose, might be flying by, or a wandering deer might be passing. He must not lose any such chance. He was more than ever a fierce creature of prey, sitting at the mouth of his den, the rifle across his knee, his tanned face so thin that the cheek bones showed high and sharp, his eyes bright with fever and the fierce desire for prey, and the long, lean body drawn forward as if it were about to leap.
He thought often of dragging himself down to the lake, breaking a hole in the ice, and trying to fish, but the idea invariably came only to be abandoned. He had neither hook nor bait. In the afternoon he chewed the edge of his buckskin hunting shirt, but it was too thoroughly tanned and dry. It gave back no sustenance. He abandoned the experiment and lay still for a long time.
That night he had a slight touch of frenzy, and began to laugh at himself. It was a huge joke! What would Timmendiquas or Thayendanegea think of him if they knew how he came to his end? They would put him with old squaws or little children. And how Braxton Wyatt and his lieutenant, the squat Tory, would laugh! That was the bitterest thought of all. But the frenzy passed, and he fell into a sleep which was only a succession of bad dreams. He was running the gauntlet again among the Shawnees. Again, kneeling to drink at the clear pool, he saw in the water the shadow of the triumphant warrior holding the tomahawk above him. One after another the most critical periods of his life were lived over again, and then he sank into a deep torpor, from which he did not rouse himself until far into the next day.
Henry was conscious that he was very weak, but he seemed to have regained much of his lost will. He looked once more at the fatal left ankle. It had improved greatly. He could even stand upon it, but when he rose to his feet he felt a singular dizziness. Again, what he had gained in one way he had lost in another. The earth wavered. The smooth surface of the lake seemed to rise swiftly, and then to sink as swiftly. The far slope down which he had shot rose to the height of miles. There was a pale tinge, too, over the world. He sank down, not because of his ankle, but because he was afraid his dizzy head would make him fall.
The power of will slipped away again for a minute or two. He was ashamed of such extraordinary weakness. He looked at one of his hands. It was thin, like the band of a man wasted with fever, and the blue veins stood out on the back of it. He could scarcely believe that the hand was his own. But after the first spasm of weakness was over, the precious will returned. He could walk. Strength enough to permit him to hobble along had returned to the ankle at last, and mind must control the rest of his nervous system, however weakened it might be. He must seek food.
He withdrew into the farthest recess of his covert, wrapped the blanket tightly about his body, and lay still for a long time. He was preparing both mind and body for the supreme effort. He knew that everything hung now on the surviving remnants of his skill and courage.
Weakened by shock and several days of fasting, he had no great reserve now except the mental, and he used that to the utmost. It was proof of his youthful greatness that it stood the last test. As he lay there, the final ounce of will and courage came. Strength which was of the mind rather than of the body flowed back into his veins; he felt able to dare and to do; the pale aspect of the world went away, and once more he was Henry Ware, alert, skillful, and always triumphant.
Then he rose again, folded the blanket, and fastened it on his shoulders. He looked at the snowshoes, but decided that his left ankle, despite its great improvement, would not stand the strain. He must break his way through the snow, which was a full three feet in depth. Fortunately the crust had softened somewhat in the last two or three days, and he did not have a covering of ice to meet.
He pushed his way for the first time from the lair under the cliff, his rifle held in his ready hands, in order that he might miss no chance at game. To an ordinary observer there would have been no such chance at all. It was merely a grim white wilderness that might have been without anything living from the beginning. But Henry, the forest runner, knew better. Somewhere in the snow were lairs much like the one that he had left, and in these lairs were wild animals. To any such wild animal, whether panther or bear, the hunter would now have been a fearsome object, with his hollow cheeks, his sunken fiery eyes, and his thin lips opening now and then, and disclosing the two rows of strong white teeth.
Henry advanced about a rod, and then he stopped, breathing hard, because it was desperate work for one in his condition to break his way through snow so deep. But his ankle stood the strain well, and his courage increased rather than diminished. He was no longer a cripple confined to one spot. While he stood resting, he noticed a clump of bushes about half a rod to his left, and a hopeful idea came to him.
He broke his way slowly to the bushes, and then he searched carefully among them. The snow was not nearly so thick there, and under the thickest clump, where the shelter was best, he saw a small round opening. In an instant all his old vigorous life, all the abounding hope which was such a strong characteristic of his nature, came back to him. Already he had triumphed over Indians, Tories, the mighty slope, snow, ice, crippling, and starvation.
He laid the rifle on the snow and took the ramrod in his right hand. He thrust his left hand into the hole, and when the rabbit leaped for life from his warm nest a smart blow of the ramrod stretched him dead at the feet of the hunter. Henry picked up the rabbit. It was large and yet fat. Here was food for two meals. In the race between the ankle and starvation, the ankle had won.
He did not give way to any unseemly elation. He even felt a momentary sorrow that a life must perish to save his own, because all these wild things were his kindred now. He returned by the path that he had broken, kindled his fire anew, dexterously skinned and cleaned his rabbit, then cooked it and ate half, although he ate slowly and with intervals between each piece. How delicious it tasted, and how his physical being longed to leap upon it and devour it, but the power of the mind was still supreme. He knew what was good for himself, and he did it. Everything was done in order and with sobriety. Then he put the rest of the rabbit carefully in his food pouch, wrapped the blanket about his body, leaned back, and stretched his feet to the coals.
What an extraordinary change had come over the world in an hour! He had not noticed before the great beauty of the lake, the lofty cliffs on the farther shore, and the forest clothed in white and hanging with icicles.
The winter sunshine was molten silver, pouring down in a flood.
It was not will now, but actuality, that made him feel the strength returning to his frame. He knew that the blood in his veins had begun to sparkle, and that his vitality was rising fast. He could have gone to sleep peacefully, but instead he went forth and hunted again. He knew that where the rabbit had been, others were likely to be near, and before he returned he had secured two more. Both of these he cleaned and cooked at once. When this was done night had come, but he ate again, and then, securing all his treasures about him, fell into the best sleep that he had enjoyed since his flight.
He felt very strong the next morning, and he might have started then, but he was prudent. There was still a chance of meeting the Iroquois, and the ankle might not stand so severe a test. He would rest in his nest for another day, and then he would be equal to anything. Few could lie a whole day in one place with but little to do and with nothing passing before the eyes, but it was a part of Henry's wilderness training, and he showed all the patience of the forester. He knew, too, as the hours went by, that his strength was rising all the while. To-morrow almost the last soreness would be gone from his ankle and then he could glide swiftly over the snow, back to his comrades. He was content. He had, in fact, a sense of great triumph because he had overcome so much, and here was new food in this example for future efforts of the mind, for future victories of the will over the body. The wintry sun came to the zenith, then passed slowly down the curve, but all the time the boy scarcely stirred. Once there was a flight of small birds across the heavens, and he watched them vaguely, but apparently he took no interest. Toward night he stood up in his recess and flexed and tuned his muscles for a long time, driving out any stiffness that might come through long lack of motion. Then he ate and lay down, but he did not yet sleep.
The night was clear, and he looked away toward the point where he knew "The Alcove" lay. A good moon was now shining, and stars by the score were springing out. Suddenly at a point on that far shore a spark of red light appeared and twinkled. Most persons would have taken it for some low star, but Henry knew better. It was fire put there by human hand for a purpose, doubtless a signal, and as he looked a second spark appeared by the first, then a third, then a fourth. He uttered a great sigh of pleasure. It was his four friends signaling to him somewhere in the vast unknown that they were alive and well, and beckoning him to come. The lights burned for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then all went out together. Henry turned over on his side and fell sound asleep. In the morning he put on his snowshoes and started.
CHAPTER XIX. THE SAFE RETURN
The surface of the snow had frozen again in the night, and Henry found good footing for his shoes. For a while he leaned most on the right ankle, but, as his left developed no signs of soreness, he used them equally, and sped forward, his spirits rising at every step. The air was cold, and there was but little breeze, but his own motion made a wind that whipped his face. The hollows were mostly gone from his cheeks, and his eyes no longer had the fierce, questing look of the famishing wild animal in search of prey. A fine red color was suffused through the brown of his face. He had chosen his course with due precaution. The broad surface, smooth, white, and glittering, tempted, but he put the temptation away. He did not wish to run any chance whatever of another Iroquois pursuit, and he kept in the forest that ran down close to the water's edge. It was tougher traveling there, but he persisted.
But all thought of weariness and trouble was lost in his glorious freedom. With his crippled ankle he had been really like a prisoner in his cell, with a ball and chain to his foot. Now he flew along, while the cold wind whipped his blood, and felt what a delight it was merely to live. He went on thus for hours, skirting down toward the cliffs that contained "The Alcove." He rested a while in the afternoon and ate the last of his rabbit, but before twilight he reached the creek, and stood at the hidden path that led up to their home.
Henry sat down behind thick bushes and took off his snowshoes. To one who had never come before, the whole place would have seemed absolutely desolate, and even to one not a stranger no sign of life would have been visible had he not possessed uncommonly keen eyes. But Henry had such eyes. He saw the faintest wisp of smoke stealing away against the surface of the cliff, and he felt confident that all four were there. He resolved to surprise them.
Laying the shoes aside, he crept so carefully up the path that he dislodged no snow and made no noise of any kind. As he gradually approached "The Alcove" he beard the murmur of voices, and presently, as he turned an angle in the path, he saw a beam of glorious mellow light falling on the snow.
But the murmur of the voices sent a great thrill of delight through him. Low and indistinct as they were, they had a familiar sound. He knew all those tones. They were the voices of his faithful comrades, the four who had gone with him through so many perils and hardships, the little band who with himself were ready to die at any time, one for another.
He crept a little closer, and then a little closer still. Lying almost flat on the steep path, and drawing himself forward, he looked into "The Alcove." A fire of deep, red coals glowed in one corner, and disposed about it were the four. Paul lay on his elbow on a deerskin, and was gazing into the coals. Tom Ross was working on a pair of moccasins, Long Jim was making some kind of kitchen implement, and Shif'less Sol was talking. Henry could hear the words distinctly, and they were about himself.
"Henry will turn up all right," he was saying. "Hasn't he always done it afore? Then ef he's always done it afore he's shorely not goin' to break his rule now. I tell you, boys, thar ain't enough Injuns an' Tories between Canady an' New Orleans, an' the Mississippi an' the Atlantic, to ketch Henry. I bet I could guess what he's doin' right at this moment."
"What is he doing, Sol?" asked Paul.
"When I shet my eyes ez I'm doin' now I kin see him," said the shiftless one. "He's away off thar toward the north, skirtin' around an Injun village, Mohawk most likely, lookin' an' listenin' an' gatherin' talk about their plans."
"He ain't doin' any sech thing," broke in Long Jim.
"I've sleet my eyes, too, Sol Hyde, jest ez tight ez you've shet yours, an' I see him, too, but he ain't doin' any uv the things that you're talkin' about."
"What is he doing, Jim?" asked Paul.
"Henry's away off to the south, not to the north," replied the long one, "an' he's in the Iroquois village that we burned. One house has been left standin', an' he's been occupyin' it while the big snow's on the groun'. A whole deer is hangin' from the wall, an' he's been settin' thar fur days, eatin' so much an' hevin' such a good time that the fat's hangin' down over his cheeks, an' his whole body is threatenin' to bust right out uv his huntin' shirt."
Paul moved a little on his elbow and turned the other side of his face to the fire. Then he glanced at the silent worker with the moccasins.
"Sol and Jim don't seem to agree much in their second sight," he said. "Can you have any vision, too, Tom?"
"Yes," replied Tom Ross, "I kin. I shet my eyes, but I don't see like either Sol or Jim, 'cause both uv 'em see wrong. I see Henry, an' I see him plain. He's had a pow'ful tough time. He ain't threatenin' to bust with fat out uv no huntin' shirt, his cheeks ain't so full that they are fallin' down over his jaws. It's t'other way roun'; them cheeks are sunk a mite, he don't fill out his clothes, an' when he crawls along he drags his left leg a leetle, though he hides it from hisself. He ain't spyin' on no Injun village, an' he ain't in no snug camp with a dressed deer hangin' by the side uv him. It's t'other way 'roan'. He's layin' almost flat on his face not twenty feet from us, lookin' right in at us, an' I wuz the first to see him."
All the others sprang to their feet in astonishment, and Henry likewise sprang to his feet. Three leaps, and he was in the mellow glow.
"And so you saw me, Tom," he exclaimed, as he joyously grasped one hand after another. "I might have known that, while I could stalk some of you, I could not stalk all of you."
"I caught the glimpse uv you," said Silent Tom, "while Sol an' Jim wuz talkin' the foolish talk that they most always talk, an' when Paul called on me, I thought I would give 'em a dream that 'wuz true, an' worth tellin'."
"You're right," said Henry. "I've not been having any easy time, and for a while, boys, it looked as if I never would come back. Sit down, and I will tell you all about it."
They gave him the warmest place by the fire, brought him the tenderest food, and he told the long and thrilling tale.
"I don't believe anybody else but you would have tried it, Henry," said Paul, when they heard of the fearful slide.
"Any one of you would have done it," said Henry, modestly.
"I'm pow'ful glad that you done it for two reasons," said Shif'less Sol. "One, 'cause it helped you to git away, an' the other, 'cause that scoundrel, Braxton Wyatt, didn't take you. 'Twould hurt my pride tre-men-jeous for any uv us to be took by Braxton Wyatt."
"You speak for us all there, Sol," said Paul.
"What have all of you been doing?" asked Henry.
"Not much of anything," replied Shif'less Sol. "We've been scoutin' several times, lookin' fur you, though we knowed you'd come in some time or other, but mostly we've been workin' 'roun' the place here, fixin' it up warmer an' storin' away food."
"We'll have to continue at that for some time, I'm afraid," said Henry, "unless this snow breaks up. Have any of you heard if any movement is yet on foot against the Iroquois?"
"Tom ran across some scouts from the militia," replied Paul, "and they said nothing could be done until warm weather came. Then a real army would march."
"I hope so," said Henry earnestly.
But for the present the five could achieve little. The snow lasted a long time, but it was finally swept away by big rains. It poured for two days and nights, and even when the rain ceased the snow continued to melt under the warmer air. The water rushed in great torrents down the cliffs, and would have entered "The Alcove" had not the five made provision to turn it away. As it was, they sat snug and dry, listening to the gush of the water, the sign of falling snow, and the talk of one another. Yet the time dragged.
"Man wuz never made to be a caged animile," said Shif'less Sol. "The longer I stay shet up in one place, the weaker I become. My temper don't improve, neither, an' I ain't happy."
"Guess it's the same with all uv us," said Tom Ross.
But when the earth came from beneath the snow, although it was still cold weather, they began again to range the forest far in every direction, and they found that the Indians, and the Tories also, were becoming active. There were more burnings, more slaughters, and more scalpings. The whole border was still appalled at the massacres of Wyoming and Cherry Valley, and the savages were continually spreading over a wider area. Braxton Wyatt at the head of his band, and with the aid of his Tory lieutenant, Levi Coleman, had made for himself a name equal to that of Walter Butler. As for "Indian" Butler and his men, no men were hated more thoroughly than they.
The five continued to do the best they could, which was much, carrying many a warning, and saving some who would otherwise have been victims. While they devoted themselves to their strenuous task, great events in which they were to take a part were preparing. The rear guard of the Revolution was about to become for the time the main guard. A great eye had been turned upon the ravaged and bleeding border, and a great mind, which could bear misfortune-even disaster-without complaint, was preparing to send help to those farther away. So mighty a cry of distress had risen, that the power of the Iroquois must be destroyed. As the warm weather came, the soldiers began to march.
Rumors that a formidable foe was about to advance reached the Iroquois and their allies, the Tories, the English, and the Canadians. There was a great stirring among the leaders, Thayendanegea, Hiokatoo, Sangerachte, the Johnsons, the Butlers, Claus, and the rest. Haldimand, the king's representative in Canada, sent forth an urgent call to all the Iroquois to meet the enemy. The Tories were' extremely active. Promises were made to the tribes that they should have other victories even greater than those of Wyoming and Cherry Valley, and again the terrible Queen Esther went among them, swinging her great war tomahawk over her head and chanting her song of death. She, more than any other, inflamed the Iroquois, and they were eager for the coming contest.
Timmendiquas had gone back to the Ohio country in the winter, but, faithful to his promise to give Thayendanegea help to the last, he returned in the spring with a hundred chosen warriors of the Wyandot nation, a reenforcement the value of which could not be estimated too highly.
Henry and his comrades felt the stir as they roamed through the forest, and they thrilled at the thought that the crisis was approaching. Then they set out for Lake Otsego, where the army was gathering for the great campaign. They were equipped thoroughly, and they were now so well known in the region that they knew they would be welcome.
They traveled several days, and were preparing to encamp for the last night within about fifteen miles of the lake when Henry, scouting as usual to see if an enemy were near, heard a footstep in the forest. He wheeled instantly to cover behind the body of a great beech tree, and the stranger sought to do likewise, only he had no convenient tree that was so large. It was about the twelfth hour, but Henry could see a portion of a body protruding beyond a slim oak, and he believed that he recognized it. As he held the advantage he would, at any rate, hail the stranger.
"Ho, Cornelius Heemskerk, Dutchman, fat man, great scout and woodsman, what are you doing in my wilderness? Stand forth at once and give an account of yourself, or I will shoot off the part of your body that sticks beyond that oak tree!"
The answer was instantaneous. A round, plump body revolved from the partial shelter of the tree and stood upright in the open, rifle in hand and cap thrown back from a broad ruddy brow.
"Ho, Mynheer Henry Ware," replied Cornelius Heemskerk in a loud, clear tone, "I am in your woods on perhaps the same errand that you are. Come from behind that beech and let us see which has the stronger grip."
Henry stood forth, and the two clasped hands in a grip so powerful that both winced. Then they released hands simultaneously, and Heemskerk asked:
"And the other four mynheers? Am I wrong to say that they are near, somewhere?"
"You are not wrong," replied Henry. "They are alive, well and hungry, not a mile from here. There is one man whom they would be very glad to see, and his name is Cornelius Heemskerk, who is roaming in our woods without a permit."
The round, ruddy face of the Dutchman glowed. It was obvious that he felt as much delight in seeing Henry as Henry felt in seeing him.
"My heart swells," he said. "I feared that you might have been killed or scalped, or, at the best, have gone back to that far land of Kentucky."
"We have wintered well," said Henry, "in a place of which I shall not tell you now, and we are here to see the campaign through."
"I come, too, for the same purpose," said Heemskerk. "We shall be together. It is goot." "Meanwhile," said Henry, "our camp fire is lighted. Jim Hart, whom you have known of old, is cooking strips of meat over the coals, and, although it is a mile away, the odor of them is very pleasant in my nostrils. I wish to go back there, and it will be all the more delightful to me, and to those who wait, if I can bring with me such a welcome guest."
"Lead on, mynheer," said Cornelius Heemskerk sententiously.
He received an equally emphatic welcome from the others, and then they ate and talked. Heemskerk was sanguine.
"Something will be done this time," he said. "Word has come from the great commander that the Iroquois must be crushed. The thousands who have fallen must be avenged, and this great fire along our border must be stopped. If it cannot be done, then we perish. We have old tales in my own country of the cruel deeds that the Spaniards did long, long ago, but they were not worse than have been done here."
The five made no response, but the mind of every one of them traveled back to Wyoming and all that they had seen there, and the scars and traces of many more tragedies.
They reached the camp on Lake Otsego the next day, and Henry saw that all they had heard was true. The most formidable force that they had ever seen was gathering. There were many companies in the Continental buff and blue, epauletted officers, bayonets and cannon. The camp was full of life, energy, and hope, and the five at once felt the influence of it. They found here old friends whom they had known in the march on Oghwaga, William Gray, young Taylor, and others, and they were made very welcome. They were presented to General James Clinton, then in charge, received roving commissions as scouts and hunters, and with Heemskerk and the two celebrated borderers, Timothy Murphy and David Elerson, they roamed the forest in a great circle about the lake, bringing much valuable information about the movements of the enemy, who in their turn were gathering in force, while the royal authorities were dispatching both Indians and white men from Canada to help them.
These great scouting expeditions saved the five from much impatience. It takes a long time for an army to gather and then to equip itself for the march, and they were so used to swift motion that it was now a part of their nature. At last the army was ready, and it left the lake. Then it proceeded in boats down the Tioga flooded to a sufficient depth by an artificial dam built with immense labor, to its confluence with the larger river. Here were more men, and the five saw a new commander, General James Sullivan, take charge of the united force. Then the army, late in August, began its march upon the Iroquois.
The five were now in the van, miles ahead of the main guard. They knew that no important movement of so large a force could escape the notice of the enemy, but they, with other scouts, made it their duty to see that the Americans marched into no trap.
It was now the waning summer. The leaves were lightly touched with brown, and the grass had begun to wither. Berries were ripening on the vines, and the quantity of game had increased, the wild animals returning to the land from which civilized man had disappeared. The desolation seemed even more complete than in the autumn before. In the winter and spring the Iroquois and Tories had destroyed the few remnants of houses that were left. Braxton Wyatt and his band had been particularly active in this work, and many tales had come of his cruelty and that of his swart Tory lieutenant, Coleman. Henry was sure, too, that Wyatt's band, which numbered perhaps fifty Indians and Tories, was now in front of them.
He, his comrades, Heemskerk, Elerson, Murphy, and four others, twelve brave forest runners all told, went into camp one night about ten miles ahead of the army. They lighted no fire, and, even had it been cold, they would not have done so, as the region was far too dangerous for any light. Yet the little band felt no fear. They were only twelve, it is true, but such a twelve! No chance would either Indians or Tories have to surprise them.
They merely lay down in the thick brushwood, three intending to keep watch while the others slept. Henry, Shif'less Sol, and Heemskerk were the sentinels. It was very late, nearly midnight; the sky was clear, and presently they saw smoke rings ascending from high hills to their right, to be answered soon by other rings of smoke to their left. The three watched them with but little comment, and read every signal in turn. They said: "The enemy is still advancing," "He is too strong for us...... We must retreat and await our brethren."
"It means that there will be no battle to-morrow, at least," whispered Heemskerk. "Brant is probably ahead of us in command, and he will avoid us until he receives the fresh forces from Canada."
"I take it that you're right," Henry whispered back. "Timmendiquas also is with him, and the two great chiefs are too cunning to fight until they can bring their last man into action."
"An' then," said the shiftless one, "we'll see what happens."
"Yes," said Henry very gravely, "we'll see what happens. The Iroquois are a powerful confederacy. They've ruled in these woods for hundreds of years. They're led by great chiefs, and they're helped by our white enemies. You can't tell what would happen even to an army like ours in an ambush."
Shif'less Sol nodded, and they said no more until an hour later, when they heard footsteps. They awakened the others, and the twelve, crawling to the edge of the brushwood, lay almost flat upon their faces, with their hands upon the triggers of their rifles.
Braxton Wyatt and his band of nearly threescore, Indians and Tories in about equal numbers, were passing. Wyatt walked at the head. Despite his youth, he had acquired an air of command, and he seemed a fit leader for such a crew. He wore a faded royal uniform, and, while a small sword hung at his side, he also carried a rifle on his shoulder. Close behind him was the swart and squat Tory, Coleman, and then came Indians and Tories together.
The watchful eyes of Henry saw three fresh scalps hanging from as many belts, and the finger that lay upon the trigger of his rifle fairly ached to press it. What an opportunity this would be if the twelve were only forty, or even thirty! With the advantage of surprise they might hope to annihilate this band which had won such hate for itself on the border. But twelve were not enough and twelve such lives could not be spared at a time when the army needed them most.
Henry pressed his teeth firmly together in order to keep down his disappointment by a mere physical act if possible. He happened to look at Shif'less Sol, and saw that his teeth were pressed together in the same manner. It is probable that like feelings swayed every one of the twelve, but they were so still in the brushwood that no Iroquois heard grass or leaf rustle. Thus the twelve watched the sixty pass, and after they were gone, Henry, Shif'less Sol, and Tim Murphy followed for several miles. They saw Wyatt proceed toward the Chemung River, and as they approached the stream they beheld signs of fortifications. It was now nearly daylight, and, as Indians were everywhere, they turned back. But they were convinced that the enemy meant to fight on the Chemung.
CHAPTER XX. A GLOOMY COUNCIL
The next night after Henry Ware and his comrades lay in the brushwood and saw Braxton Wyatt and his band pass, a number of men, famous or infamous in their day, were gathered around a low camp fire on the crest of a small hill. The most distinguished of them all in looks was a young Indian chief of great height and magnificent build, with a noble and impressive countenance. He wore nothing of civilized attire, the nearest approach to it being the rich dark-blue blanket that was flung gracefully over his right shoulder. It was none other than the great Wyandot chief, Timmendiquas, saying little, and listening without expression to the words of the others.
Near Timmendiquas sat Thayendanegea, dressed as usual in his mixture of savage and civilized costume, and about him were other famous Indian chiefs, The Corn Planter, Red jacket, Hiokatoo, Sangerachte, Little Beard, a young Seneca renowned for ferocity, and others.
On the other side of the fire sat the white men: the young Sir John Johnson, who, a prisoner to the Colonials, had broken his oath of neutrality, the condition of his release, and then, fleeing to Canada, had returned to wage bloody war on the settlements; his brother-in-law, Colonel Guy Johnson; the swart and squat John Butler of Wyoming infamy; his son, Walter Butler, of the pallid face, thin lips, and cruel heart; the Canadian Captain MacDonald; Braxton Wyatt; his lieutenant, the dark Tory, Coleman; and some others who had helped to ravage their former land.
Sir John Johnson, a tall man with blue eyes set close together, wore the handsome uniform of his Royal Greens; he had committed many dark deeds or permitted them to be done by men under his command, and he had secured the opportunity only through his broken oath, but he had lost greatly. The vast estates of his father, Sir William Johnson, were being torn from him, and perhaps he saw, even then, that in return for what he had done he would lose all and become an exile from the country in which he was born.
It was not a cheerful council. There was no exultation as after Wyoming and Cherry Valley and the Minisink and other places. Sir John bit his lip uneasily, and his brother-in-law, resting his hand on his knee, stared gloomily at the fire. The two Butlers were silent, and the dark face of Thayendanegea was overcast.
A little distance before these men was a breastwork about half a mile long, connecting with a bend of the river in such a manner that an enemy could attack only in front and on one flank, that flank itself being approached only by the ascent of a steep ridge which ran parallel to the river. The ground about the camp was covered with pine and scrub oaks. Many others had been cut down and added to the breastwork. A deep brook ran at the foot of the hill on which the leaders sat. About the slopes of this hill and another, a little distance away, sat hundreds of Indian warriors, all in their war paint, and other hundreds of their white allies, conspicuous among them Johnson's Royal Greens and Butler's Rangers. These men made but little noise now. They were resting and waiting.
Thayendanegea was the first to break the silence in the group at the fire. He turned his dark face to Sir John Johnson and said in his excellent English: "The king promised us that if we would take up arms for him against the Yankees, he would send a great army, many thousands, to help us. We believed him, and we took up the hatchet for him. We fought in the dark and the storm with Herkimer at the Oriskany, and many of our warriors fell. But we did not sulk in our lodges. We have ravaged and driven in the whole American border along a line of hundreds of miles. Now the Congress sends an army to attack us, to avenge what we have done, and the great forces of the king are not here. I have been across the sea; I have seen the mighty city of London and its people as numerous as the blades of grass. Why has not the king kept his promise and sent men enough to save the Iroquois?"
Sir John Johnson and Thayendanegea were good friends, but the soul of the great Mohawk chief was deeply stirred. His penetrating mind saw the uplifted hand about to strike-and the target was his own people. His tone became bitterly sarcastic as he spoke, and when he ceased he looked directly at the baronet in a manner that showed a reply must be given. Sir John moved uneasily, but he spoke at last.
"Much that you say is true, Thayendanegea," he admitted, "but the king has many things to do. The war is spread over a vast area, and he must keep his largest armies in the East. But the Royal Greens, the Rangers, and all others whom we can raise, even in Canada, are here to help you. In the coming battle your fortunes are our fortunes."
Thayendanegea nodded, but he was not yet appeased. His glance fell upon the two Butlers, father and son, and he frowned.
"There are many in England itself," he said, "who wish us harm, and who perhaps have kept us from receiving some of the help that we ought to have. They speak of Wyoming and Cherry Valley, of the torture and of the slaughter of women and children, and they say that war must not be carried on in such a way. But there are some among us who are more savage than the savages themselves, as they call us. It was you, John Butler, who led at Wyoming, and it was you, Walter Butler, who allowed the women and children to be killed at Cherry Valley, and more would have been slain there had I not, come up in time."
The dark face of "Indian" Butler grew darker, and the pallid face of his son grew more pallid. Both were angry, and at the same time a little afraid.
"We won at Wyoming in fair battle," said the elder Butler.
"But afterwards?" said Thayendanegea.
The man was silent.
"It is these two places that have so aroused the Bostonians against us," continued Thayendanegea. "It is because of them that the commander of the Bostonians has sent a great army, and the Long House is threatened with destruction."
"My son and I have fought for our common cause," said "Indian" Butler, the blood flushing through his swarthy face.
Sir John Johnson interfered.
"We have admitted, Joseph, the danger to the Iroquois," he said, calling the chieftain familiarly by his first Christian name, "but I and my brother-in-law and Colonel Butler and Captain Butler have already lost though we may regain. And with this strong position and the aid of ambush it is likely that we can defeat the rebels."
The eyes of Thayendanegea brightened as he looked at the long embankment, the trees, and the dark forms of the warriors scattered numerously here and there.
"You may be right, Sir John," he said; "yes, I think you are right, and by all the gods, red and white, we shall see. I wish to fight here, because this is the best place in which to meet the Bostonians. What say you, Timmendiquas, sworn brother of mine, great warrior and great chief of the Wyandots, the bravest of all the western nations?"
The eye of Timmendiquas expressed little, but his voice was sonorous, and his words were such as Thayendanegea wished to hear.
"If we fight—and we must fight—this is the place in which to meet the white army," he said. "The Wyandots are here to help the Iroquois, as the Iroquois would go to help them. The Manitou of the Wyandots, the Aieroski of the Iroquois, alone knows the end."
He spoke with the utmost gravity, and after his brief reply he said no more. All regarded him with respect and admiration. Even Braxton Wyatt felt that it was a noble deed to remain and face destruction for the sake of tribes not his own.
Sir John Johnson turned to Braxton Wyatt, who had sat all the while in silence.
"You have examined the evening's advance, Wyatt," he said. "What further information can you give us?"
"We shall certainly be attacked to-morrow," replied Wyatt, "and the American army is advancing cautiously. It has out strong flanking parties, and it is preceded by the scouts, those Kentuckians whom I know and have met often, Murphy, Elerson, Heemskerk, and the others."
"If we could only lead them into an ambush," said Sir John. "Any kind of troops, even the best of regulars, will give way before an unseen foe pouring a deadly fire upon them from the deep woods. Then they magnify the enemy tenfold."
"It is so," said the fierce old Seneca chief, Hiokatoo. "When we killed Braddock and all his men, they thought that ten warriors stood in the moccasins of only one."
Sir John frowned. He did not like this allusion to the time when the Iroquois fought against the English, and inflicted on them a great defeat. But he feared to rebuke the old chief. Hiokatoo and the Senecas were too important.
"There ought to be a chance yet for an ambuscade," he said. "The foliage is still thick and heavy, and Sullivan, their general, is not used to forest warfare. What say you to this, Wyatt?"
Wyatt shook his head. He knew the caliber of the five from Kentucky, and he had little hope of such good fortune.
"They have learned from many lessons," he replied, "and their scouts are the best. Moreover, they will attempt anything."
They relapsed into silence again, and the sharp eyes of the renegade roved about the dark circle of trees and warriors that inclosed them. Presently he saw something that caused him to rise and walk a little distance from the fire. Although his eye suspected and his mind confirmed, Braxton Wyatt could not believe that it was true. It was incredible. No one, be he ever so daring, would dare such a thing. But the figure down there among the trees, passing about among the warriors, many of whom did not know one another, certainly looked familiar, despite the Indian paint and garb. Only that of Timmendiquas could rival it in height and nobility. These were facts that could not be hidden by any disguise.
"What is it, Wyatt?" asked Sir John. "What do you see? Why do you look so startled?"
Wyatt sought to reply calmly.
"There is a warrior among those trees over there whom I have not seen here before," he replied, "he is as tall and as powerful as Timmendiquas, and there is only one such. There is a spy among us, and it is Henry Ware."
He snatched a pistol from his belt, ran forward, and fired at the flitting figure, which was gone in an instant among the trees and the warriors.
"What do you say?" exclaimed Thayendanegea, as he ran forward, "a spy, and you know him to be such!"
"Yes, he is the worst of them all," replied Wyatt. "I know him. I could not mistake him. But he has dared too much. He cannot get away."
The great camp was now in an uproar. The tall figure was seen here and there, always to vanish quickly. Twenty shots were fired at it. None hit. Many more would have been fired, but the camp was too much crowded to take such a risk. Every moment the tumult and confusion increased, but Thayendanegea quickly posted warriors on the embankment and the flanks, to prevent the escape of the fugitive in any of those directions.
But the tall figure did not appear at either embankment or flank. It was next seen near the river, when a young warrior, striving to strike with a tomahawk, was dashed to the earth with great force. The next instant the figure leaped far out into the stream. The moonlight glimmered an instant on the bare head, while bullets the next moment pattered on the water where it had been. Then, with a few powerful strokes, the stranger reclaimed the land, sprang upon the shore, and darted into the woods with more vain bullets flying about him. But he sent back a shout of irony and triumph that made the chiefs and Tories standing on the bank bite their lips in anger.
CHAPTER XXI. BATTLE OF THE CHEMUNG
Paul had been sleeping heavily, and the sharp, pealing notes of a trumpet awoke him at the sunburst of a brilliant morning. Henry was standing beside him, showing no fatigue from the night's excitement, danger, and escape, but his face was flushed and his eyes sparkled.
"Up, Paul! Up!" he cried. "We know the enemy's position, and we will be in battle before another sun sets."
Paul was awake in an instant, and the second instant he was on his feet, rifle in hand, and heart thrilling for the great attack. He, like all the others, had slept on such a night fully dressed. Shif'less Sol, Long Jim, Silent Tom, Heemskerk, and the rest were by the side of him, and all about them rose the sounds of an army going into battle, commands sharp and short, the rolling of cannon wheels, the metallic rattle of bayonets, the clink of bullets poured into the pouches, and the hum of men talking in half-finished sentences.
It was to all the five a vast and stirring scene. It was the first time that they had ever beheld a large and regular army going into action, and they were a part of it, a part by no means unimportant. It was Henry, with his consummate skill and daring, who had uncovered the position of the enemy, and now, without snatching a moment's sleep, he was ready to lead where the fray might be thickest.
The brief breakfast finished, the trumpet pealed forth again, and the army began to move through the thick forest. A light wind, crisp with the air of early autumn, blew, and the leaves rustled. The sun, swinging upward in the east, poured down a flood of brilliant rays that lighted up everything, the buff and blue uniforms, the cannon, the rifles, the bayonets, and the forest, still heavy with foliage.
"Now! now!" thought every one of the five, "we begin the vengeance for Wyoming!"
The scouts were well in front, searching everywhere among the thickets for the Indian sharpshooters, who could scorch so terribly. As Braxton Wyatt had truly said, these scouts were the best in the world. Nothing could escape the trained eyes of Henry Ware and his comrades, and those of Murphy, Ellerson, and the others, while off on either flank of the army heavy detachments guarded against any surprise or turning movement. They saw no Indian sign in the woods. There was yet a deep silence in front of them, and the sun, rising higher, poured its golden light down upon the army in such an intense, vivid flood that rifle barrels and bayonets gave back a metallic gleam. All around them the deep woods swayed and rustled before the light breeze, and now and then they caught glimpses of the river, its surface now gold, then silver, under the shining sun.
Henry's heart swelled as he advanced. He was not revengeful, but he had seen so much of savage atrocity in the last year that he could not keep down the desire to see punishment. It is only those in sheltered homes who can forgive the tomahawk and the stake. Now he was the very first of the scouts, although his comrades and a dozen others were close behind him.
The scouts went so far forward that the army was hidden from them by the forest, although they could yet hear the clank of arms and the sound of commands.
Henry knew the ground thoroughly. He knew where the embankment ran, and he knew, too, that the Iroquois had dug pits, marked by timber. They were not far ahead, and the scouts now proceeded very slowly, examining every tree and clump of bushes to see whether a lurking enemy was hidden there. The silence endured longer than he had thought. Nothing could be seen in front save the waving forest.
Henry stopped suddenly. He caught a glimpse of a brown shoulder's edge showing from behind a tree, and at his signal all the scouts sank to the ground.
The savage fired, but the bullet, the first of the battle, whistled over their heads. The sharp crack, sounding triply loud at such a time, came back from the forest in many echoes, and a light puff of smoke arose. Quick as a flash, before the brown shoulder and body exposed to take aim could be withdrawn, Tom Ross fired, and the Mohawk fell, uttering his death yell. The Iroquois in the woods took up the cry, pouring forth a war whoop, fierce, long drawn, the most terrible of human sounds, and before it died, their brethren behind the embankment repeated it in tremendous volume from hundreds of throats. It was a shout that had often appalled the bravest, but the little band of scouts were not afraid. When its last echo died they sent forth a fierce, defiant note of their own, and, crawling forward, began to send in their bullets.
The woods in front of them swarmed with the Indian skirmishers, who replied to the scouts, and the fire ran along a long line through the undergrowth. Flashes of flames appeared, puffs of smoke arose and, uniting, hung over the trees. Bullets hissed. Twigs and bark fell, and now and then a man, as they fought from tree to tree. Henry caught one glimpse of a face that was white, that of Braxton Wyatt, and he sought a shot at the renegade leader, but he could not get it. But the scouts pushed on, and the Indian and Tory skirmishers dropped back. Then on the flanks they began to hear the rattle of rifle fire. The wings of the army were in action, but the main body still advanced without firing a shot.
The scouts could now see through the trees the embankments and rifle pits, and they could also see the last of the Iroquois and Tory skirmishers leaping over the earthworks and taking refuge with their army. Then they turned back and saw the long line of their own army steadily advancing, while the sounds of heavy firing still continued on both flanks. Henry looked proudly at the unbroken array, the front of steel, and the cannon. He felt prouder still when the general turned to him and said:
"You have done well, Mr. Ware; you have shown us exactly where the enemy lies, and that will save us many men. Now bigger voices than those of the rifles shall talk."
The army stopped. The Indian position could be plainly seen. The crest of the earthwork was lined with fierce, dark faces, and here and there among the brown Iroquois were the green uniforms of the Royalists.
Henry saw both Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas, the plumes in their hair waving aloft, and he felt sure that wherever they stood the battle would be thickest.
The Americans were now pushing forward their cannon, six three-pounders and two howitzers, the howitzers, firing five-and-a-half-inch shells, new and terrifying missiles to the Indians. The guns were wheeled into position, and the first howitzer was fired. It sent its great shell in a curving line at and over the embankment, where it burst with a crash, followed by a shout of mingled pain and awe. Then the second howitzer, aimed well like the first, sent a shell almost to the same point, and a like cry came back.
Shif'less Sol, watching the shots, jumped up and down in delight.
"That's the medicine!" he cried. "I wonder how you like that, you Butlers an' Johnsons an' Wyatts an' Mohawks an' all the rest o' your scalp-taking crew! Ah, thar goes another! This ain't any Wyomin'!"
The three-pounders also opened fire, and sent their balls squarely into the rifle pits and the Indian camp. The Iroquois replied with a shower of rifle bullets and a defiant war whoop, but the bullets fell short, and the whoop hurt no one.
The artillery, eight pieces, was served with rapidity and precision, while the riflemen, except on their flanks, where they were more closely engaged, were ordered to hold their fire. The spectacle was to Henry and his comrades panoramic in its effect. They watched the flashes of fire from the mouths of the cannon, the flight of the great shells, and the bank of smoke which soon began to lower like a cloud over the field. They could picture to themselves what was going on beyond the earthwork, the dead falling, the wounded limping away, earth and trees torn by shell and shot. They even fancied that they could hear the voices of the great chiefs, Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas, encouraging their men, and striving to keep them in line against a fire not as deadly as rifle bullets at close quarters, but more terrifying.
Presently a cloud of skirmishers issued once more from the Indian camp, creeping among the trees and bushes, and seeking a chance to shoot down the men at the guns. But sharp eyes were watching them.
"Come, boys," exclaimed Henry. "Here's work for us now."
He led the scouts and the best of the riflemen against the skirmishers, who were soon driven in again. The artillery fire had never ceased for a moment, the shells and balls passing over their heads. Their work done, the sharpshooters fell back again, the gunners worked faster for a while, and then at a command they ceased suddenly. Henry, Paul, and all the others knew instinctively what was going to happen. They felt it in every bone of them. The silence so sudden was full of meaning.
"Now!" Henry found himself exclaiming. Even at that moment the order was given, and the whole army rushed forward, the smoke floating away for the moment and the sun flashing off the bayonets. The five sprang up and rushed on ahead. A sheet of flame burst from the embankment, and the rifle pits sprang into fire. The five beard the bullets whizzing past them, and the sudden cries of the wounded behind them, but they never ceased to rush straight for the embankment.
It seemed to Henry that he ran forward through living fire. There was one continuous flash from the earthwork, and a continuous flash replied. The rifles were at work now, thousands of them, and they kept up an incessant crash, while above them rose the unbroken thunder of the cannon. The volume of smoke deepened, and it was shot through with the sharp, pungent odor of burned gunpowder.
Henry fired his rifle and pistol, almost unconsciously reloaded, and fired again, as he ran, and then noticed that the advance had never ceased. It had not been checked even for a moment, and the bayonets of one of the regiments glittered in the sun a straight line of steel.
Henry kept his gaze fixed upon a point where the earthwork was lowest. He saw there the plumed head of Thayendanegea, and he intended to strike if he could. He saw the Mohawk gesticulating and shouting to his men to stand fast and drive back the charge. He believed even then, and he knew later, that Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas were showing courage superior to that of the Johnsons and Butters or any of their British and Canadian allies. The two great chiefs still held their men in line, and the Iroquois did not cease to send a stream of bullets from the earthwork.
Henry saw the brown faces and the embankment coming closer and closer. He saw the face of Braxton Wyatt appear a moment, and he snapped his empty pistol at it. But it was hidden the next instant behind others, and then they were at the embankment. He saw the glowing faces of his comrades at his side, the singular figure of Heemskerk revolving swiftly, and behind them the line of bayonets closing in with the grimness of fate.
Henry leaped upon the earthwork. An Indian fired at him point blank, and he swung heavily with his clubbed rifle. Then his comrades were by his side, and they leaped down into the Indian camp. After them came the riflemen, and then the line of bayonets. Even then the great Mohawk and the great Wyandot shouted to their men to stand fast, although the Royal Greens and the Rangers had begun to run, and the Johnsons, the Butlers, McDonald, Wyatt, and the other white men were running with them.
Henry, with the memory of Wyoming and all the other dreadful things that had come before his eyes, saw red. He was conscious of a terrible melee, of striking again and again with his clubbed rifle, of fierce brown faces before him, and of Timmendiquas and Thayedanegea rushing here and there, shouting to their warriors, encouraging them, and exclaiming that the battle was not lost. Beyond he saw the vanishing forms of the Royal Greens and the Rangers in full flight. But the Wyandots and the best of the Iroquois still stood fast until the pressure upon them became overwhelming. When the line of bayonets approached their breasts they fell back. Skilled in every detail of ambush, and a wonderful forest fighter, the Indian could never stand the bayonet. Reluctantly Timmendiquas, Thayendanegea and the Mohawks, Senecas, and Wyandots, who were most strenuous in the conflict, gave ground. Yet the battlefield, with its numerous trees, stumps, and inequalities, still favored them. They retreated slowly, firing from every covert, sending a shower of bullets, and now and then tittering the war whoop.
Henry heard a panting breath by his side. He looked around and saw the face of Heemskerk, glowing red with zeal and exertion.
"The victory is won already!" said he. "Now to drive it home!"
"Come on," cried Henry in return, "and we'll lead!"
A single glance showed him that none of his comrades had fallen. Long Jim and Tom Ross had suffered slight wounds that they scarcely noticed, and they and the whole group of scouts were just behind Henry. But they now took breath, reloaded their rifles, and, throwing themselves down in Indian fashion, opened a deadly fire upon their antagonists. Their bullets searched all the thickets, drove out the Iroquois, and compelled them to retreat anew.
The attack was now pressed with fresh vigor. In truth, with so much that the bravest of the Indians at last yielded to panic. Thayendanegea and Timmendiquas were carried away in the rush, and the white leaders of their allies were already out of sight. On all sides the allied red and white force was dissolving. Precipitate flight was saving the fugitives from a greater loss in killed and wounded-it was usually Indian tactics to flee with great speed when the battle began to go against them-but the people of the Long House had suffered the greatest overthrow in their history, and bitterness and despair were in the hearts of the Iroquois chiefs as they fled.
The American army not only carried the center of the Indian camp, but the heavy flanking parties closed in also, and the whole Indian army was driven in at every point. The retreat was becoming a rout. A great, confused conflict was going on. The rapid crackle of rifles mingled with the shouts and war whoops of the combatants. Smoke floated everywhere. The victorious army, animated by the memory of the countless cruelties that had been practiced on the border, pushed harder and harder. The Iroquois were driven back along the Chemung. It seemed that they might be hemmed in against the river, but in their flight they came to a ford. Uttering their cry of despair, "Oonali! Oonali!" a wail for a battle lost, they sprang into the stream, many of them throwing away their rifles, tomahawks, and blankets, and rushed for the other shore. But the Scouts and a body of riflemen were after them.
Braxton Wyatt and his band appeared in the woods on the far shore, and opened fire on the pursuers now in the stream. He alone among the white men had the courage, or the desperation, to throw himself and his men in the path of the pursuit. The riflemen in the water felt the bullets pattering around them, and some were struck, but they did not stop. They kept on for the bank, and their own men behind them opened a covering fire over their heads.
Henry felt a great pulse leap in his throat at the sight of Braxton Wyatt again. Nothing could have turned him back now. Shouting to the riflemen, he led the charge through the water, and the bank's defenders were driven back. Yet Wyatt, with his usual dexterity and prudence, escaped among the thickets.