The Scouts of the Valley by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIII. A Forest Page
When the survivors of the band of Wyoming fugitives that the five had helped were behind the walls of Fort Penn, securing the food and rest they needed so greatly, Henry Ware and his comrades felt themselves relieved of a great responsibility. They were also aware how much they owed to Timmendiquas, because few of the Indians and renegades would have been so forbearing. Thayendanegea seemed to them inferior to the great Wyandot. Often when Brant could prevent the torture of the prisoners and the slaughter of women and children, he did not do it. The five could never forget these things in after life, when Brant was glorified as a great warrior and leader. Their minds always turned to Timmendiquas as the highest and finest of Indian types.
While they were at Fort Penn two other parties came, in a fearful state of exhaustion, and also having paid the usual toll of death on the way. Other groups reached the Moravian towns, where they were received with all kindness by the German settlers. The five were able to give some help to several of these parties, but the beautiful Wyoming Valley lay utterly in ruins. The ruthless fury of the savages and of many of the Tories, Canadians, and Englishmen, can scarcely be told. Everything was slaughtered or burned. As a habitation of human beings or of anything pertaining to human beings, the valley for a time ceased to be. An entire population was either annihilated or driven out, and finally Butler's army, finding that nothing more was left to be destroyed, gathered in its war parties and marched northward with a vast store of spoils, in which scalps were conspicuous. When they repassed Tioga Point, Timmendiquas and his Wyandots were still with them. Thayendanegea was also with them here, and so was Walter Butler, who was destined shortly to make a reputation equaling that of his father, "Indian" Butler. Nor had the terrible Queen Esther ever left them. She marched at the head of the army, singing, horrid chants of victory, and swinging the great war tomahawk, which did not often leave her hand.
The whole force was re-embarked upon the Susquehanna, and it was still full of the impulse of savage triumph. Wild Indian songs floated along the stream or through the meadows, which were quiet now. They advanced at their ease, knowing that there was nobody to attack them, but they were watched by five woodsmen, two of whom were boys. Meanwhile the story of Wyoming, to an extent that neither Indians nor woodsmen themselves suspected, was spreading from town to town in the East, to invade thence the whole civilized world, and to stir up an indignation and horror that would make the name Wyoming long memorable. Wyoming had been a victory for the flag under which the invaders fought, but it sadly tarnished the cause of that flag, and the consequences were to be seen soon.
Henry Ware, Paul Cotter, Sol Hyde, Tom Ross, and Jim Hart were thinking little of distant consequences, but they were eager for the present punishment of these men who had committed so much cruelty. From the bushes they could easily follow the canoes, and could recognize some of their occupants. In one of the rear boats sat Braxton Wyatt and a young man whom they knew to be Walter Butler, a pallid young man, animated by the most savage ferocity against the patriots. He and Wyatt seemed to be on the best of terms, and faint echoes of their laughter came to the five who were watching among the bushes on the river bank. Certainly Braxton Wyatt and he were a pair well met.
"Henry," said Shif'less Sol longingly, "I think I could jest about reach Braxton Wyatt with a bullet from here. I ain't over fond o' shootin' from ambush, but I done got over all scruples so fur ez he's concerned. Jest one bullet, one little bullet, Henry, an' ef I miss I won't ask fur a second chance."
"No, Sol, it won't do," said Henry. "They'd get off to hunt us. The whole fleet would be stopped, and we want 'em to go on as fast as possible."
"I s'pose you're right, Henry," said the shiftless one sadly, "but I'd jest like to try it once. I'd give a month's good huntin' for that single trial."
After watching the British-Indian fleet passing up the river, they turned back to the site of the Wyoming fort and the houses near it. Here everything had been destroyed. It was about dusk when they approached the battlefield, and they heard a dreadful howling, chiefly that of wolves.
I think we'd better turn away," said Henry. " We couldn't do anything with so many."
They agreed with him, and, going back, followed the Indians up the Susquehanna. A light rain fell that night, but they slept under a little shed, once attached to a house which had been destroyed by fire. In some way the shed had escaped the flames, and it now came into timely use. The five, cunning in forest practice, drew up brush on the sides, and half-burned timber also, and, spreading their blankets on ashes which had not long been cold, lay well sheltered from the drizzling rain, although they did not sleep for a long time.
It was the hottest period of the year in America, but the night had come on cool, and the rain made it cooler. The five, profiting by experience, often carried with them two light blankets instead of one heavy one. With one blanket beneath the body they could keep warmer in case the weather was cold.
Now they lay in a row against the standing wall of the old outhouse, protected by a six- or seven-foot slant of board roof. They had eaten of a deer that they had shot in the morning, and they had a sense of comfort and rest that none of them had known before in many days. Henry's feelings were much like those that he had experienced when he lay in the bushes in the little canoe, wrapped up from the storm and hidden from the Iroquois. But here there was an important increase of pleasure, the pattering of the rain on the board roof, a pleasant, soothing sound to which millions of boys, many of them afterwards great men, have listened in America.
It grew very dark about them, and the pleasant patter, almost musical in its rhythm, kept up. Not much wind was blowing, and it, too, was melodious. Henry lay with his head on a little heap of ashes, which was covered by his under blanket, and, for the first time since he had brought the warning to Wyoming, he was free from all feeling of danger. The picture itself of the battle, the defeat, the massacre, the torture, and of the savage Queen Esther cleaving the heads of the captives, was at times as vivid as ever, and perhaps would always return now and then in its original true colors, but the periods between, when youth, hope, and strength had their way, grew longer and longer.
Now Henry's eyelids sank lower and lower. Physical comfort and the presence of his comrades caused a deep satisfaction that permeated his whole being. The light wind mingled pleasantly with the soft summer rain. The sound of the two grew strangely melodious, almost piercingly sweet, and then it seemed to be human. They sang together, the wind and rain, among the leaves, and the note that reached his heart, rather than his ear, thrilled him with courage and hope. Once more the invisible voice that had upborne him in the great valley of the Ohio told him, even here in the ruined valley of Wyoming, that what was lost would be regained. The chords ended, and the echoes, amazingly clear, floated far away in the darkness and rain. Henry roused himself, and came from the imaginative borderland. He stirred a little, and said in a quiet voice to Shif'less Sol:
"Did you hear anything, Sol?"
"Nothin' but the wind an' the rain."
Henry knew that such would be the answer.
"I guess you didn't hear anything either, Henry," continued the shiftless one, "'cause it looked to me that you wuz 'bout ez near sleep ez a feller could be without bein' ackshooally so."
"I was drifting away," said Henry.
He was beginning to realize that he had a great power, or rather gift. Paul was the sensitive, imaginative boy, seeing everything in brilliant colors, a great builder of castles, not all of air, but Henry's gift went deeper. It was the power to evoke the actual living picture of the event that bad not yet occurred, something akin in its nature to prophecy, based perhaps upon the wonderful power of observation, inherited doubtless, from countless primitive ancestors. The finest product of the wilderness, he saw in that wilderness many things that others did not see, and unconsciously he drew his conclusions from superior knowledge.
The song had ceased a full ten minutes, and then came another note, a howl almost plaintive, but, nevertheless, weird and full of ferocity. All knew it at once. They had heard the cry of wolves too often in their lives, but this had an uncommon note like the yell of the Indian in victory. Again the cry arose, nearer, haunting, and powerful. The five, used to the darkness, could see one another's faces, and the look that all gave was the same, full of understanding and repulsion.
"It has been a great day for the wolf in this valley," whispered Paul, "and striking our trail they think they are going to find what they have been finding in such plenty before."
"Yes," nodded Henry, "but do you remember that time when in the house we took the place of the man, his wife and children, just before the Indians came?"
"Yes," said Paul.
"We'll treat them wolves the same way," said Shif'less Sol.
"I'm glad of the chance," said Long Jim.
"Me, too," said Tom Ross.
The five rose up to sitting positions against the board wall, and everyone held across his knees a long, slender barreled rifle, with the muzzle pointing toward the forest. All accomplished marksmen, it would only be a matter of a moment for the stock to leap to the shoulder, the eye to glance down the barrel, the finger to pull the trigger, and the unerring bullet to leap forth.
"Henry, you give the word as usual," said Shif'less Sol.
Presently in the darkness they heard the pattering of light feet, and they saw many gleaming eyes draw near. There must have been at least thirty of the wolves, and the five figures that they saw reclining, silent and motionless, against the unburned portion of the house might well have been those of the dead and scalped, whom they had found in such numbers everywhere. They drew near in a semicircular group, its concave front extended toward the fire, the greatest wolves at the center. Despite many feastings, the wolves were hungry again. Nothing had opposed them before, but caution was instinctive. The big gray leaders did not mind the night or the wind or the rain, which they had known all their lives, and which they counted as nothing, but they always had involuntary suspicion of human figures, whether living or not, and they approached slowly, wrinkling back their noses and sniffing the wind which blew from them instead of the five figures. But their confidence increased as they advanced. They had found many such burned houses as this, but they had found nothing among the ruins except what they wished.
The big leaders advanced more boldly, glaring straight at the human figures, a slight froth on their lips, the lips themselves curling back farther from the strong white teeth. The outer ends of the concave semicircle also drew in. The whole pack was about to spring upon its unresisting prey, and it is, no doubt, true that many a wolfish pulse beat a little higher in anticipation. With a suddenness as startling as it was terrifying the five figures raised themselves, five long, dark tubes leaped to their shoulders, and with a suddenness that was yet more terrifying, a gush of flame shot from five muzzles. Five of the wolves-and they were the biggest and the boldest, the leaders-fell dead upon the ashes of the charred timbers, and the others, howling their terror to the dark, skies, fled deep into the forest.
Henry strode over and pushed the body of the largest wolf with his foot.
"I suppose we only gratified a kind of sentiment in shooting those wolves," he said, " but I for one am glad we did it."
"So am I," said Paul.
"Me, too," said the other three together.
They went back to their positions near the wall, and one by one fell asleep. No more wolves howled that night anywhere near them.
When the five awakened the next morning the rain had ceased, and a splendid sun was tinting a blue sky with gold. Jim Hart built a fire among the blackened logs, and cooked venison. They had also brought from Fort Penn a little coffee, which Long Jim carried with a small coffee pot in his camp kit, and everyone had a small tin cup. He made coffee for them, an uncommon wilderness luxury, in which they could rarely indulge, and they were heartened and strengthened by it.
Then they went again up the valley, as beautiful as ever, with its silver river in the center, and its green mountain walls on either side. But the beauty was for the eye only. It did not reach the hearts of those who had seen it before. All of the five loved the wilderness, but they felt now how tragic silence and desolation could be where human life and all the daily ways of human life had been.
It was mid-summer, but the wilderness was already reclaiming its own. The game knew that man was gone, and it had come back into the valley. Deer ate what had grown in the fields and gardens, and the wolves were everywhere. The whole black tragedy was written for miles. They were never out of sight of some trace of it, and their anger grew again as they advanced in the blackened path of the victorious Indians.
It was their purpose now to hang on the Indian flank as scouts and skirmishers, until an American army was formed for a campaign against the Iroquois, which they were sure must be conducted sooner or later. Meanwhile they could be of great aid, gathering news of the Indian plans, and, when that army of which they dreamed should finally march, they could help it most of all by warning it of ambush, the Indian's deadliest weapon.
Everyone of the five had already perceived a fact which was manifest in all wars with the Indians along the whole border from North to South, as it steadily shifted farther West. The practical hunter and scout was always more than a match for the Indian, man for man, but, when the raw levies of settlers were hastily gathered to stem invasion, they were invariably at a great disadvantage. They were likely to be caught in ambush by overwhelming numbers, and to be cut down, as had just happened at Wyoming. The same fate might attend an invasion of the Iroquois country, even by a large army of regular troops, and Henry and his comrades resolved upon doing their utmost to prevent it. An army needed eyes, and it could have none better than those five pairs. So they went swiftly up the valley and northward and eastward, into the country of the Iroquois. They had a plan of approaching the upper Mohawk village of Canajoharie, where one account says that Thayendanegea was born, although another credits his birthplace to the upper banks of the Ohio.
They turned now from the valley to the deep woods. The trail showed that the great Indian force, after disembarking again, split into large parties, everyone loaded with spoil and bound for its home village. The five noted several of the trails, but one of them consumed the whole attention of Silent Tom Ross.
He saw in the soft soil near a creek bank the footsteps of about eight Indians, and, mingled with them, other footsteps, which he took to be those of a white woman and of several children, captives, as even a tyro would infer. The soul of Tom, the good, honest, and inarticulate frontiersman, stirred within him. A white woman and her children being carried off to savagery, to be lost forevermore to their kind! Tom, still inarticulate, felt his heart pierced with sadness at the tale that the tracks in the soft mud told so plainly. But despair was not the only emotion in his heart. The silent and brave man meant to act.
"Henry," he said, "see these tracks here in the soft spot by the creek."
The young leader read the forest page, and it told him exactly the same tale that it had told Tom Ross.
"About a day old, I think," he said.
"Just about," said Tom; "an' I reckon, Henry, you know what's in my mind."
"I think I do," said Henry, " and we ought to overtake them by to-morrow night. You tell the others, Tom."
Tom informed Shif'less Sol, Paul, and Long Jim in a few words, receiving from everyone a glad assent, and then the five followed fast on the trail. They knew that the Indians could not go very fast, as their speed must be that of the slowest, namely, that of the children, and it seemed likely that Henry's prediction of overtaking them on the following night would come true.
It was an easy trail. Here and there were tiny fragments of cloth, caught by a bush from the dress of a captive. In one place they saw a fragment of a child's shoe that had been dropped off and abandoned. Paul picked up the worn piece of leather and examined it.
"I think it was worn by a girl," he said, "and, judging from its size, she could not have been more than eight years old. Think of a child like that being made to walk five or six hundred miles through these woods!"
"Younger ones still have had to do it," said Shif'less Sol gravely, "an' them that couldn't-well, the tomahawk."
The trail was leading them toward the Seneca country, and they had no doubt that the Indians were Senecas, who had been more numerous than any others of the Six Nations at the Wyoming battle. They came that afternoon to a camp fire beside which the warriors and captives had slept the night before.
"They ate bar meat an' wild turkey," said Long Jim, looking at some bones on the ground.
"An' here," said Tom Ross, "on this pile uv bushes is whar the women an' children slept, an' on the other side uv the fire is whar the warriors lay anywhars. You can still see how the bodies uv some uv 'cm crushed down the grass an' little bushes."
"An' I'm thinkin'," said Shif'less Sol, as he looked at the trail that led away from the camp fire, "that some o' them little ones wuz gittin' pow'ful tired. Look how these here little trails are wobblin' about."
"Hope we kin come up afore the Injuns begin to draw thar tomahawks," said Tom Ross.
The others were silent, but they knew the dreadful significance of Tom's remark, and Henry glanced at them all, one by one.
"It's the greatest danger to be feared," he said, "and we must overtake them in the night when they are not suspecting. If we attack by day they will tomahawk the captives the very first thing."
"Shorely,', said the shiftless one.
"Then," said Henry, " we don't need to hurry. "We'll go on until about midnight, and then sleep until sunrise."
They continued at a fair pace along a trail that frontiersmen far less skillful than they could have followed. But a silent dread was in the heart of every one of them. As they saw the path of the small feet staggering more and more they feared to behold some terrible object beside the path.
"The trail of the littlest child is gone," suddenly announced Paul.
"Yes," said Henry, "but the mother has picked it up and is carrying it. See how her trail has suddenly grown more uneven."
"Poor woman," said Paul. "Henry, we're just bound to overtake that band."
"We'll do it," said Henry.
At the appointed time they sank down among the thickest bushes that they could find, and slept until the first upshot of dawn. Then they resumed the trail, haunted always by that fear of finding something terrible beside it. But it was a trail that continually grew slower. The Indians themselves were tired, or, feeling safe from pursuit, saw no need of hurry. By and by the trail of the smallest child reappeared.
"It feels a lot better now," said Tom Ross. "So do I."
They came to another camp fire, at which the ashes were not yet cold. Feathers were scattered about, indicating that the Indians had taken time for a little side hunt, and had shot some birds.
"They can't be more than two or three hours ahead," said Henry, "and we'll have to go on now very cautiously."
They were in a country of high hills, well covered with forests, a region suited to an ambush, which they feared but little on their own account; but, for the sake of extreme caution, they now advanced slowly. The afternoon was long and warm, but an hour before sunset they looked over a hill into a glade, and saw the warriors making camp for the night.
The sight they beheld made the pulses of the five throb heavily. The Indians had already built their fire, and two of them were cooking venison upon it. Others were lying on the grass, apparently resting, but a little to one side sat a woman, still young and of large, strong figure, though now apparently in the last stages of exhaustion, with her feet showing through the fragments of shoes that she wore. Her head was bare, and her dress was in strips. Four children lay beside her' the youngest two with their heads in her lap. The other two, who might be eleven and thirteen each, had pillowed their heads on their arms, and lay in the dull apathy that comes from the finish of both strength and hope. The woman's face was pitiful. She had more to fear than the children, and she knew it. She was so worn that the skin hung loosely on her face, and her eyes showed despair only. The sad spectacle was almost more than Paul could stand.
"I don't like to shoot from ambush," he said, "but we could cut down half of those warriors at our firs fire and rush in on the rest."
"And those we didn't cut down at our first volley would tomahawk the woman and children in an instant," replied Henry. " We agreed, you know, that it would be sure to happen. We can't do anything until night comes, and then we've got to be mighty cautious."
Paul could not dispute the truth of his words, and they withdrew carefully to the crest of a hill, where they lay in the undergrowth, watching the Indians complete their fire and their preparations for the night. It was evident to Henry that they considered themselves perfectly safe. Certainly they had every reason for thinking so. It was not likely that white enemies were within a hundred miles of them, and, if so, it could only be a wandering hunter or two, who would flee from this fierce band of Senecas who bad taken revenge for the great losses that they' had suffered the year before at the Oriskany.
They kept very little watch and built only a small fire, just enough for broiling deer meat which they carried. They drank at a little spring which ran from under a ledge near them, and gave portions of the meat to the woman and children. After the woman had eaten, they bound her hands, and she lay back on the grass, about twenty feet from the camp fire. Two children lay on either side of her, and they were soon sound asleep. The warriors, as Indians will do when they are free from danger and care, talked a good deal, and showed all the signs of having what was to them a luxurious time. They ate plentifully, lolled on the grass, and looked at some hideous trophies, the scalps that they carried at their belts. The woman could not keep from seeing these, too, but her face did not change from its stony aspect of despair. Then the light of the fire went out, the sun sank behind the mountains, and the five could no longer see the little group of captives and captors.
They still waited, although eagerness and impatience were tugging at the hearts of every one of them. But they must give the Indians time to fall asleep if they would secure rescue, and not merely revenge. They remained in the bushes, saying but little and eating of venison that they carried in their knapsacks.
They let a full three hours pass, and the night remained dark, but with a faint moon showing. Then they descended slowly into the valley, approaching by cautious degrees the spot where they knew the Indian camp lay. This work required at least three quarters of an hour, and they reached a point where they could see the embers of the fire and the dark figures lying about it. The Indians, their suspicions lulled, had put out no sentinels, and all were asleep. But the five knew that, at the first shot, they would be as wide awake as if they had never slept, and as formidable as tigers. Their problem seemed as great as ever. So they lay in the bushes and held a whispered conference.
"It's this," said Henry. " We want to save the woman and the children from the tomahawks, and to do so we must get them out of range of the blade before the battle begins." "How?" said Tom Ross.
"I've got to slip up, release the woman, arm her, tell her to run for the woods with the children, and then you four must do the most of the rest."
"Do you think you can do it, Henry ?" asked Shif'less Sol.
I can, as I will soon show you. I'm going to steal forward to the woman, but the moment you four hear an alarm open with your rifles and pistols. You can come a little nearer without being heard."
All of them moved up close to the Indian camp, and lay hidden in the last fringe of bushes except Henry. He lay almost flat upon the ground, carrying his rifle parallel with his side, and in his right hand. He was undertaking one of the severest and most dangerous tests known to a frontiersman. He meant to crawl into the very midst of a camp of the Iroquois, composed of the most alert woodsmen in the world, men who would spring up at the slightest crackle in the brush. Woodmen who, warned by some sixth sense, would awaken at the mere fact of a strange presence.
The four who remained behind in the bushes could not keep their hearts from beating louder and faster. They knew the tremendous risk undertaken by their comrade, but there was not one of them who would have shirked it, had not all yielded it to the one whom they knew to be the best fitted for the task.
Henry crept forward silently, bringing to his aid all the years of skill that he had acquired in his life in the wilds. His body was like that of a serpent, going forward, coil by coil. He was near enough now to see the embers of the fire not yet quite dead, the dark figures scattered about it, sleeping upon the grass with the long ease of custom, and then the outline of the woman apart from the others with the children about her. Henry now lay entirely flat, and his motions were genuinely those of a serpent. It was by a sort of contraction and relaxation of the body that he moved himself, and his progress was absolutely soundless.
The object of his advance was the woman. He saw by the faint light of the moon that she was not yet asleep. Her face, worn and weather beaten, was upturned to the skies, and the stony look of despair seemed to have settled there forever. She lay upon some pine boughs, and her hands were tied behind her for the night with deerskin.
Henry contorted himself on, inch by inch, for all the world like a great snake. Now he passed the sleeping Senecas, hideous with war paint, and came closer to the woman. She was not paying attention to anything about her, but was merely looking up at the pale, cold stars, as if everything in the world had ceased for her.
Henry crept a little nearer. He made a slight noise, as of a lizard running through the grass, but the woman took no notice. He crept closer, and. there he lay flat upon the grass within six feet of her, his figure merely a slightly darker blur against the dark blur of the earth. Then, trusting to the woman's courage and strength of mind, he emitted a hiss very soft and low, like the warning of a serpent, half in fear and half in anger.
The woman moved a little, and looked toward the point from which the sound had come. It might have been the formidable hiss of a coiling rattlesnake that she heard, but she felt no fear. She was too much stunned, too near exhaustion to be alarmed by anything, and she did not look a second time. She merely settled back on the pine boughs, and again looked dully up at the pale, cold stars that cared so little for her or hers.
Henry crept another yard nearer, and then he uttered that low noise, sibilant and warning, which the woman, the product of the border, knew to be made by a human being. She raised herself a little, although it was difficult with her bound hands to sit upright, and saw a dark shadow approaching her. That dark shadow she knew to he the figure of a man. An Indian would not be approaching in such a manner, and she looked again, startled into a sudden acute attention, and into a belief that the incredible, the impossible, was about to happen. A voice came from the figure, and its quality was that of the white voice, not the red.
"Do not move," said that incredible voice out of the unknown. "I have come for your rescue, and others who have come for the same purpose are near. Turn on one side, and I will cut the bonds that hold your arms."
The voice, the white voice, was like the touch of fire to Mary Newton. A sudden fierce desire for life and for the lives of her four children awoke within her just when hope had gone the call to life came. She had never heard before a voice so full of cheer and encouragement. It penetrated her whole being. Exhaustion and despair fled away.
"Turn a little on your side," said the voice.
She turned obediently, and then felt the sharp edge of cold steel as it swept between her wrists and cut the thongs that held them together. Her arms fell apart, and strength permeated every vein of her being.
"We shall attack in a few moments," said the voice, "but at the first shots the Senecas will try to tomahawk you and your children. Hold out your hands."
She held out both hands obediently. The handle of a tomahawk was pressed into one, and the muzzle of a double-barreled pistol into the other. Strength flowed down each hand into her body.
"If the time comes, use them; you are strong, and you know how," said the voice. Then she saw the dark figure creeping away.