The Scouts of the Valley by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XII. The Shades of Death
"The Shades of Death" is a marsh on a mountain top, the great, wet, and soggy plain of the Pocono and Broad mountains. When the fugitives from Wyoming entered it, it was covered with a dense growth of pines, growing mostly out of dark, murky water, which in its turn was thick with a growth of moss and aquatic plants. Snakes and all kinds of creeping things swarmed in the ooze. Bear and panther were numerous.
Carpenter did not know any way around this terrible region, and they were compelled to enter it. Henry was again devoutly thankful that it was summer. In such a situation with winter on top of it only the hardiest of men could survive.
But they entered the swamp, Carpenter silent and dogged, still leading. Henry and his comrades kept close to the crowd. One could not scout in such a morass, and it proved to be worse than they bad feared. The day turned gray, and it was dark among the trees. The whole place was filled with gloomy shadows. It was often impossible to judge whether fairly solid soil or oozy murk lay before them. Often they went down to their waists. Sometimes the children fell and were dragged up again by the stronger. Now and then rattle snakes coiled and hissed, and the women killed them with sticks. Other serpents slipped away in the slime. Everybody was plastered with mud, and they became mere images of human beings.
In the afternoon they reached a sort of oasis in the terrible swamp, and there they buried two more of their number who had perished from exhaustion. The rest, save a few, lay upon the ground as if dead. On all sides of them stretched the pines and the soft black earth. It looked to the fugitives like a region into which no human beings had ever come, or ever would come again, and, alas! to most of them like a region from which no human being would ever emerge.
Henry sat upon a piece of fallen brushwood near the edge of the morass, and looked at the fugitives, and his heart sank within him. They were hardly in the likeness of his own kind, and they seemed practically lifeless now. Everything was dull, heavy, and dead. The note of the wind among the leaves was somber. A long black snake slipped from the marshy grass near his feet and disappeared soundlessly in the water. He was sick, sick to death at the sight of so much suffering, and the desire for vengeance, slow, cold, and far more lasting than any hot outburst, grew within him. A slight noise, and Shif'less Sol stood beside him.
"Did you hear?" asked the shiftless one, in a significant tone.
"Hear what?" asked Henry, who had been deep in thought.
"The wolf howl, just a very little cry, very far away an' under the horizon, but thar all the same. Listen, thar she goes ag'in!"
Henry bent his ear and distinctly heard the faint, whining note, and then it came a third time.
He looked tip at Shif'less Sol, and his face grew white -- but not for himself.
"Yes," said Shif'less Sol. He understood the look. We are pursued. Them wolves howlin' are the Iroquois. What do you reckon we're goin' to do, Henry?"
"Fight!" replied the youth, with fierce energy. "Beat 'em off!"
Henry circled the little oasis with the eye of a general, and his plan came.
"You'll stand here, where the earth gives a footing," he said, "you, Solomon Hyde, as brave a man as I ever saw, and with you will be Paul Cotter, Tom Ross, Jim Hart, and Henry Ware, old friends of yours. Carpenter will at once lead the women and children on ahead, and perhaps they will not hear the battle that is going to be fought here."
A smile of approval, slow, but deep and comprehensive, stole over the face of Solomon Hyde, surnamed, wholly without fitness, the shiftless one. "It seems to me," he said, "that I've heard o' them four fellers you're talkin' about, an' ef I wuz to hunt all over this planet an' them other planets that Paul tells of, I couldn't find four other fellers that I'd ez soon have with me."
"We've got to stand here to the death," said Henry.
"You're shorely right," said Shif'less Sol.
The hands of the two comrades met in a grip of steel.
The other three were called and were told of the plan, which met with their full approval. Then the news was carried to Carpenter, who quickly agreed that their course was the wisest. He urged all the fugitives to their feet, telling them that they must reach another dry place before night, but they were past asking questions now, and, heavy and apathetic, they passed on into the swamp.
Paul watched the last of them disappear among the black bushes and weeds, and turned back to his friends on the oasis. The five lay down behind a big fallen pine, and gave their weapons a last look. They had never been armed better. Their rifles were good, and the fine double-barreled pistols, formidable weapons, would be a great aid, especially at close quarters.
"I take it," said Tom Ross, "that the Iroquois can't get through at all unless they come along this way, an' it's the same ez ef we wuz settin' on solid earth, poppin' em over, while they come sloshin' up to us."
"That's exactly it," said Henry. "We've a natural defense which we can hold against much greater numbers, and the longer we hold 'em off, the nearer our people will be to Fort Penn."
"I never felt more like fightin' in my life," said Tom Ross.
It was a grim utterance, true of them all, although not one among them was bloodthirsty.
"Can any of you hear anything?" asked Henry. "Nothin'," replied Shif'less Sol, after a little wait, "nothin' from the women goin', an' nothin' from the Iroquois comin'."
"We'll just lie close," said Henry. "This hard spot of ground isn't more than thirty or forty feet each way, and nobody can get on it without our knowing it."
The others did not reply. All lay motionless upon their sides, with their shoulders raised a little, in order that they might take instant aim when the time came. Some rays of the sun penetrated the canopy of pines, and fell across the brown, determined faces and the lean brown hands that grasped the long, slender-barreled Kentucky rifles. Another snake slipped from the ground into the black water and swam away. Some water animal made a light splash as he, too, swam from the presence of these strange intruders. Then they beard a sighing sound, as of a foot drawn from mud, and they knew that the Iroquois were approaching, savages in war, whatever they might be otherwise, and expecting an easy prey. Five brown thumbs cocked their rifles, and five brown forefingers rested upon the triggers. The eyes of woodsmen who seldom missed looked down the sights.
The sound of feet in the mud came many times. The enemy was evidently drawing near.
"How many do you think are out thar?" whispered Shif'less Sol to Henry.
"Twenty, at least, it seems to me by the sounds." "I s'pose the best thing for us to do is to shoot at the first head we see."
"Yes, but we mustn't all fire at the same man."
It was suggested that Henry call off the turns of the marksmen, and he agreed to do so. Shif'less Sol was to fire first. The sounds now ceased. The Iroquois evidently had some feeling or instinct that they were approaching an enemy who was to be feared, not weak and unarmed women and children.
The five were absolutely motionless, finger on trigger. The American wilderness had heroes without number. It was Horatius Cocles five times over, ready to defend the bridge with life. Over the marsh rose the weird cry of an owl, and some water birds called in lonely fashion.
Henry judged that the fugitives were now three quarters of a mile away, out of the sound of rifle shot. He had urged Carpenter to marshal them on as far as be could. But the silence endured yet a while longer. In the dull gray light of the somber day and the waning afternoon the marsh was increasingly dreary and mournful. It seemed that it must always be the abode of dead or dying things.
The wet grass, forty yards away, moved a little, and between the boughs appeared the segment of a hideous dark face, the painted brow, the savage black eyes, and the hooked nose of the Mohawk. Only Henry saw it, but with fierce joy-the tortures at Wyoming leaped up before him-he fired at the painted brow. The Mohawk uttered his death cry and fell back with a splash into the mud and water of the swamp. A half dozen bullets were instantly fired at the base of the smoke that came from Henry's rifle, but the youth and his comrades lay close and were unharmed. Shif'less Sol and Tom were quick enough to catch glimpses of brown forms, at which they fired, and the cries coming back told that they had hit.
"That's something," said Henry. "One or two Iroquois at least will not wear the scalp of white woman or child at their belts."
"Wish they'd try to rush us," said Shif'less Sol. "I never felt so full of fight in my life before."
"They may try it," said Henry. "I understand that at the big battle of the Oriskany, farther up in the North, the Iroquois would wait until a white man behind a tree would fire, then they would rush up and tomahawk him before he could reload."
"They don't know how fast we kin reload," said Long Jim, "an' they don't know that we've got these double-barreled pistols, either."
"No, they don't," said Henry, "and it's a great thing for us to have them. Suppose we spread out a little. So long as we keep them from getting a lodging on the solid earth we hold them at a great disadvantage."
Henry and Paul moved off a little toward the right, and the others toward the left. They still had good cover, as fallen timber was scattered all over the oasis, and they were quite sure that another attack would be made soon. It came in about fifteen minutes. The Iroquois suddenly fired a volley at the logs and brush, and when the five returned the fire, but with more deadly effect, they leaped forward in the mud and attempted to rush the oasis, tomahawk in hand.
But the five reloaded so quickly that they were able to send in a second volley before the foremost of the Iroquois could touch foot on solid earth. Then the double barreled pistols came into play. The bullets sent from short range drove back the savages, who were amazed at such a deadly and continued fire. Henry caught sight of a white face among these assailants, and he knew it to be that of Braxton Wyatt. Singularly enough he was not amazed to see it there. Wyatt, sinking deeper and deeper into savagery and cruelty, was just the one to lead the Iroquois in such a pursuit. He was a fit match for Walter Butler, the infamous son of the Indian leader, who was soon to prove himself worse than the worst of the savages, as Thayendanegea himself has written.
Henry drew a bead once on Braxton Wyatt-he had no scruples now about shooting him-but just as he was about to pull the trigger Wyatt darted behind a bush, and a Seneca instead received the bullet. He also saw the renegade, Blackstaffe, but he was not able to secure a shot at him, either. Nevertheless, the Iroquois attack was beaten back. It was a foregone conclusion that the result would be so, unless the force was in great numbers. It is likely, also, that the Iroquois at first had thought only a single man was with the fugitives, not knowing that the five had joined them later.
Two of the Iroquois were slain at the very edge of the solid ground, but their bodies fell back in the slime, and the others, retreating fast for their lives, could not carry them off. Paul, with a kind of fascinated horror, watched the dead painted bodies sink deeper. Then one was entirely gone. The hand of the other alone was left, and then it, too, was gone. But the five had held the island, and Carpenter was leading the fugitives on toward Fort Penn. They had not only held it, but they believed that they could continue to hold it against anything, and their hearts became exultant. Something, too, to balance against the long score, lay out there in the swamp, and all the five, bitter over Wyoming, were sorry that Braxton Wyatt was not among them.
The stillness came again. The sun did not break through the heavy gray sky, and the somber shadows brooded over "The Shades of Death." They heard again the splash of water animals, and a swimming snake passed on the murky surface. Then they heard the wolf's long cry, and the long cry of wolf replying.
"More Iroquois coming," said Shif'less Sol." Well, we gave them a pretty warm how d'ye do, an' with our rifles and double-barreled pistols I'm thinkin' that we kin do it ag'in."
"We can, except in one case," said Henry, " if the new party brings their numbers up to fifty or sixty, and they wait for night, they can surround us in the darkness. Perhaps it would be better for us to slip away when twilight comes. Carpenter and the train have a long lead now."
"Yes," said Shif'less Sol," Now, what in tarnation is that?"
"A white flag," said Paul. A piece of cloth that had once been white had been hoisted on the barrel of a rifle at a point about sixty yards away.
"They want a talk with us," said Henry.
"If it's Braxton Wyatt," said Long Jim, "I'd like to take a shot at him, talk or no talk, an' ef I missed, then take another."
"We'll see what they have to say," said Henry, and he called aloud: "What do you want with us?"
"To talk with you," replied a clear, full voice, not that of Braxton Wyatt.
"Very well," replied Henry, "show yourself and we will not fire upon you."
A tall figure was upraised upon a grassy hummock, and the hands were held aloft in sign of peace. It was a splendid figure, at least six feet four inches in height. At that moment some rays of the setting sun broke through the gray clouds and shone full upon it, lighting up the defiant scalp lock interwoven with the brilliant red feather, the eagle face with the curved Roman beak, and the mighty shoulders and chest of red bronze. It was a genuine king of the wilderness, none other than the mighty Timmendiquas himself, the great White Lightning of the Wyandots.
"Ware," he said, "I would speak with you. Let us talk as one chief to another."
The five were amazed. Timmendiquas there! They were quite sure that he had come up with the second force, and he was certain to prove a far more formidable leader than either Braxton Wyatt or Moses Blackstaffe. But his demand to speak with Henry Ware might mean something.
"Are you going to answer him?" said Shif'less Sol.
"Of course," replied Henry.
"The others, especially Wyatt and Blackstaffe, might shoot."
"Not while Timmendiquas holds the flag of truce; they would not dare."
Henry stood up, raising himself to his full height. The same ruddy sunlight piercing the somber gray of the clouds fell upon another splendid figure, a boy only in years, but far beyond the average height of man, his hair yellow, his eyes a deep, clear blue, his body clothed in buckskin, and his whole attitude that of one without fear. The two, the white and the red, kings of their kind, confronted each other across the marsh.
"What do you wish with me, Timmendiquas?" asked Henry. In the presence of the great Wyandot chief the feeling of hate and revenge that had held his heart vanished. He knew that Paul and Shif'less Sol would have sunk under the ruthless tomahawk of Queen Esther, if it had not been for White Lightning. He himself had owed him his life on another and more distant occasion, and he was not ungrateful. So there was warmth in his tone when he spoke.
"Let us meet at the edge of the solid ground," said Timmendiquas, "I have things to say that are important and that you will be glad to hear."
Henry walked without hesitation to the edge of the swamp, and the young chief, coming forward, met him. Henry held out his hand in white fashion, and the young chief took it. There was no sound either from the swamp or from those who lay behind the logs on the island, but some of the eyes of those hidden in the swamps watched both with burning hatred.
"I wish to tell you, Ware," said Timmendiquas, speaking with the dignity becoming a great chief, "that it was not I who led the pursuit of the white men's women and children. I, and the Wyandots who came with me, fought as best we could in the great battle, and I will slay my enemies when I can. We are warriors, and we are ready to face each other in battle, but we do not seek to kill the squaw in the tepee or the papoose in its birch-bark cradle."
The face of the great chief seemed stirred by some deep emotion, which impressed Henry all the more because the countenance of Timmendiquas was usually a mask.
"I believe that you tell the truth," said Henry gravely.
"I and my Wyandots," continued the chief, "followed a trail through the woods. We found that others, Senecas and Mohawks, led by Wyatt and Blackstaffe, who are of your race, had gone before, and when we came up there had just been a battle. The Mohawks and Senecas had been driven back. It was then we learned that the trail was made by women and little children, save you and your comrades who stayed to fight and protect them."
"You speak true words, Timmendiquas," said Henry.
"The Wyandots have remained in the East to fight men, not to kill squaws and papooses," continued Timmendiquas. "So I say to you, go on with those who flee across the mountains. Our warriors shall not pursue you any longer. We will turn back to the valley from which we come, and those of your race, Blackstaffe and Wyatt, shall go with us."
The great chief spoke quietly, but there was an edge to his tone that told that every word was meant. Henry felt a glow of admiration. The true greatness of Timmendiquas spoke.
"And the Iroquois?" he said, "will they go back with you?"
"They will. They have killed too much. Today all the white people in the valley are killed or driven away. Many scalps have been taken, those of women and children, too, and men have died at the stake. I have felt shame for their deeds, Ware, and it will bring punishment upon my brethren, the Iroquois. It will make so great a noise in the world that many soldiers will come, and the villages of the Iroquois will cease to be."
"I think it is so, Timmendiquas," said Henry. "But you will be far away then in your own land."
The chief drew himself up a little.
"I shall remain with the Iroquois," he said. "I have promised to help them, and I must do so."
"I can't blame you for that," said Henry, "but I am glad that you do not seek the scalps of women and children. We are at once enemies and friends, Timmendiquas."
White Lightning bowed gravely. He and Henry touched hands again, and each withdrew, the chief into the morass, while Henry walked back toward his comrades, holding himself erect, as if no enemy were near.
The four rose up to greet him. They had heard part of what was said, and Henry quickly told them the rest.
"He's shorely a great chief," said Shif'less Sol. He'll keep his word, too. Them people on ahead ain't got anything more to fear from pursuit."
He's a statesman, too," said Henry. "He sees what damage the deeds of Wyoming Valley will do to those who have done them. He thinks our people will now send a great army against the Iroquois, and I think so, too."
"No nation can stand a thing like that," said Paul, and I didn't dream it could happen."
They now left the oasis, and went swiftly along the trail left by the fugitives. All of them had confidence in the word of Timmendiquas. There was a remote chance that some other band had entered the swamp at a different point, but it was remote, indeed, and it did not trouble them much.
Night was now over the great swamp. The sun no longer came through the gray clouds, but here and there were little flashes of flame made by fireflies. Had not the trail been so broad and deep it could easily have been lost, but, being what it was, the skilled eyes of the frontiersmen followed it without trouble.
"Some uv 'em are gittin' pow'ful tired," said Tom Ross, looking at the tracks in the mud. Then he suddenly added: "Here's whar one's quit forever."
A shallow grave, not an hour old, had been made under some bushes, and its length indicated that a woman lay there. They passed it by in silence. Henry now appreciated more fully than ever the mercy of Timmendiquas. The five and Carpenter could not possibly have protected the miserable fugitives against the great chief, with fifty Wyandots and Iroquois at his back. Timmendiquas knew this, and he had done what none of the Indians or white allies around him would have done.
In another hour they saw a man standing among some vines, but watchful, and with his rifle in the hollow of his arm. It was Carpenter, a man whose task was not less than that of the five. They were in the thick of it and could see what was done, but he had to lead on and wait. He counted the dusk figures as they approached him, one, two, three, four, five, and perhaps no man ever felt greater relief. He advanced toward them and said huskily:
"There was no fight! They did not attack!"
"There was a fight," said Henry, "and we beat them back; then a second and a larger force came up, but it was composed chiefly of Wyandots, led by their great chief, Timmendiquas. He came forward and said that they would not pursue women and children, and that we could go in safety."
Carpenter looked incredulous.
"It is true," said Henry, "every word of it."
"It is more than Brant would have done," said Carpenter, "and it saves us, with your help."
"You were first, and the first credit is yours, Mr. Carpenter," said Henry sincerely.
They did not tell the women and children of the fight at the oasis, but they spread the news that there would be no more pursuit, and many drooping spirits revived. They spent another day in the Great Dismal Swamp, where more lives were lost. On the day after their emergence from the marsh, Henry and his comrades killed two deer, which furnished greatly needed food, and on the day after that, excepting those who had died by the way, they reached Fort Penn, where they were received into shelter and safety.
The night before the fugitives reached Fort Penn, the Iroquois began the celebration of the Thanksgiving Dance for their great victory and the many scalps taken at Wyoming. They could not recall another time when they had secured so many of these hideous trophies, and they were drunk with the joy of victory. Many of the Tories, some in their own clothes, and some painted and dressed like Indians, took part in it.
According to their ancient and honored custom they held a grand council to prepare for it. All the leading chiefs were present, Sangerachte, Hiokatoo, and the others. Braxton Wyatt, Blackstaffe, and other white men were admitted. After their deliberations a great fire was built in the center of the camp, the squaws who had followed the army feeding it with brushwood until it leaped and roared and formed a great red pyramid. Then the chiefs sat down in a solemn circle at some distance, and waited.
Presently the sound of a loud chant was heard, and from the farthest point of the camp emerged a long line of warriors, hundreds and hundreds of them, all painted in red and black with horrible designs. They were naked except the breechcloth and moccasins, and everyone waved aloft a tomahawk as he sang.
Still singing and brandishing the tomahawks, which gleamed in the red light, the long procession entered the open space, and danced and wheeled about the great fire, the flames casting a lurid light upon faces hideous with paint or the intoxication of triumph. The glare of their black eyes was like those of Eastern eaters of hasheesh or opium, and they bounded to and fro as if their muscles were springs of steel. They sang:
We have met the Bostonians* in battle, We slew them with our rifles and tomahawks. Few there are who escaped our warriors. Ever-victorious is the League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee.
[*Note: All the Americans were often called Bostonians by the Indians as late as the Revolutionary War.]
Mighty has been our taking of scalps, They will fill all the lodges of the Iroquois. We have burned the houses of the Bostonians. Ever-victorious is the League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee. The wolf will prowl in their corn-fields, The grass will grow where their blood has soaked; Their bones will lie for the buzzard to pick. Ever-victorious is the League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee. We came upon them by river and forest; As we smote Wyoming we will smite the others, We will drive the Bostonians back to the sea. Ever-victorious is the League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee.
The monotonous chant with the refrain, "Ever-victorious is the League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee," went on for many verses. Meanwhile the old squaws never ceased to feed the bonfire, and the flames roared, casting a deeper and more vivid light over the distorted faces of the dancers and those of the chiefs, who sat gravely beyond.
Higher and higher leaped the warriors. They seemed unconscious of fatigue, and the glare in their eyes became that of maniacs. Their whole souls were possessed by the orgy. Beads of sweat, not of exhaustion, but of emotional excitement, appeared upon their faces and naked bodies, and the red and black paint streaked together horribly.
For a long time this went on, and then the warriors ceased suddenly to sing, although they continued their dance. A moment later a cry which thrilled every nerve came from a far point in the dark background. It was the scalp yell, the most terrible of all Indian cries, long, high-pitched, and quavering, having in it something of the barking howl of the wolf and the fiendish shriek of a murderous maniac. The warriors instantly took it up, and gave it back in a gigantic chorus.
A ghastly figure bounded into the circle of the firelight. It was that of a woman, middle-aged, tall and powerful, naked to the waist, her body covered with red and black paint, her long black hair hanging in a loose cloud down her back. She held a fresh scalp, taken from a white head, aloft in either band. It was Catharine Montour, and it was she who had first emitted the scalp yell. After her came more warriors, all bearing scalps. The scalp yell was supposed to be uttered for every scalp taken, and, as they had taken more than three hundred, it did not cease for hours, penetrating every part of the forest. All the time Catharine Montour led the dance. None bounded higher than she. None grimaced more horribly.
While they danced, six men, with their hands tied behind them and black caps on their heads, were brought forth and paraded around amid hoots and yells and brandishing of tomahawks in their faces. They were the surviving prisoners, and the black caps meant that they were to be killed and scalped on the morrow. Stupefied by all through which they had gone, they were scarcely conscious now.
Midnight came. The Iroquois still danced and sang, and the calm stars looked down upon the savage and awful scene. Now the dancers began to weary. Many dropped unconscious, and the others danced about them where they lay. After a while all ceased. Then the chiefs brought forth a white dog, which Hiokatoo killed and threw on the embers of the fire. When it was thoroughly roasted, the chiefs cut it in pieces and ate it. Thus closed the Festival of Thanksgiving for the victory of Wyoming.