The Scouts of the Valley by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XVII. The Deserted Cabin
When the last soldier had disappeared among the trees, Henry turned to the others. "Well, boys," he asked, "what are you thinking about?"
"I?" asked Paul. "I'm thinking about a certain place I know, a sort of alcove or hole in a cliff above a lake."
"An' me?" said Shif'less Sol. "I'm thinkin' how fur that alcove runs back, an' how it could be fitted up with furs an' made warm fur the winter."
"Me?" said Tom Ross. "I'm thinkin' what a snug place that alcove would be when the snow an' hail were drivin' down the creek in front of you."
"An' ez fur me," said Long Jim Hart, "I wuz thinkin' I could run a sort uv flue from the back part uv that alcove out through the front an' let the smoke pass out. I could cook all right. It wouldn't be ez good a place fur cookin' ez the one we hed that time we spent the winter on the island in the lake, but 'twould serve."
"It's strange," said Henry, " but I've been thinking of all the things that all four of you have been thinking about, and, since we are agreed, we are bound to go straight to 'The Alcove' and pass the winter there."
Without another word he led the way, and the others followed. It was apparent to everyone that they must soon find a winter base, because the cold had increased greatly in the last few days. The last leaves had fallen from the trees, and a searching wind howled among the bare branches. Better shelter than blankets would soon be needed.
On their way they passed Oghwaga, a mass of blackened ruins, among which wolves howled, the same spectacle that Wyoming now afforded, although Oghwaga had not been stained by blood.
It was a long journey to "The Alcove," but they did not hurry, seeing no need of it, although they were warned of the wisdom of their decision by the fact that the cold was increasing. The country in which the lake was situated lay high, and, as all of them were quite sure that the cold was going to be great there, they thought it wise to make preparations against it, which they discussed as they walked in, leisurely fashion through the woods. They spoke, also, of greater things. All felt that they had been drawn into a mightier current than any in which they had swam before. They fully appreciated the importance to the Revolution of this great rearguard struggle, and at present they did not have the remotest idea of returning to Kentucky under any circumstances.
"We've got to fight it out with Braxton Wyatt and the Iroquois," said Henry. "I've heard that Braxton is organizing a band of Tories of his own, and that he is likely to be as dangerous as either of the Butlers."
"Some day we'll end him for good an' all," said Shif'less Sol.
It was four or five days before they reached their alcove, and now all the forest was bare and apparently lifeless. They came down the creek, and found their boat unharmed and untouched still among the foliage at the base of the cliff.
"That's one thing safe," said Long Jim, "an' I guess we'll find 'The Alcove' all right, too."
"Unless a wild animal has taken up its abode there," said Paul.
"'Tain't likely," replied Long Jim. "We've left the human smell thar, an' even after all this time it's likely to drive away any prowlin' bear or panther that pokes his nose in."
Long Jim was quite right. Their snug nest, like that of a squirrel in the side of a tree, had not been disturbed. The skins which they had rolled up tightly and placed on the higher shelves of stone were untouched, and several days' hunting increased the supply. The hunting was singularly easy, and, although the five did not know it, the quantity of game was much greater in that region than it had been for years. It had been swept of human beings by the Iroquois and Tory hordes, and deer, bear, and panther seemed to know instinctively that the woods were once more safe for them.
In their hunting they came upon the ruins of charred houses, and more than once they saw something among the coals that caused them to turn away with a shudder. At every place where man had made a little opening the wilderness was quickly reclaiming its own again. Next year the grass and the foliage would cover up the coals and the hideous relics that lay among them.
They jerked great quantities of venison on the trees on the cliff side, and stored it in "The Alcove." They also cured some bear meat, and, having added a further lining of skins, they felt prepared for winter. They had also added to the comfort of the place. They had taken the precaution of bringing with them two axes, and with the heads of these they smoothed out more of the rough places on the floor and sides of "The Alcove." They thought it likely, too, that they would need the axes in other ways later on.
Only once during these arrangements did they pass the trail of Indians, and that was made by a party of about twenty, at least ten miles from "The Alcove." They seemed to be traveling north, and the five made no investigations. Somewhat later they met a white runner in the forest, and he told them of the terrible massacre of Cherry Valley. Walter Butler, emulating his father's exploit at Wyoming, had come down with a mixed horde of Iroquois, Tories, British, and Canadians. He had not been wholly successful, but he had slaughtered half a hundred women and children, and was now returning northward with prisoners. Some said, according to the runner, that Thayendanegea had led the Indians on this occasion, but, as the five learned later, he had not come up until the massacre was over. The runner added another piece of information that interested them deeply. Butler had been accompanied to Cherry Valley by a young Tory or renegade named Wyatt, who had distinguished himself by cunning and cruelty. It was said that Wyatt had built up for himself a semi-independent command, and was becoming a great scourge.
"That's our Braxton," said Henry. "He is rising to his opportunities. He is likely to become fully the equal of Walter Butler."
But they could do nothing at present to find Wyatt, and they went somewhat sadly back to "The Alcove." They had learned also from the runner that Wyatt had a lieutenant, a Tory named Coleman, and this fact increased their belief that Wyatt was undertaking to operate on a large scale.
"We may get a chance at him anyhow," said Henry. "He and his band may go too far away from the main body of the Indians and Tories, and in that case we can strike a blow if we are watchful."
Every one of the five, although none of them knew it, received an additional impulse from this news about Braxton Wyatt. He had grown up with them. Loyalty to the king had nothing to do with his becoming a renegade or a Tory; he could not plead lost lands or exile for taking part in such massacres as Wyoming or Cherry Valley, but, long since an ally of the Indians, he was now at the head of a Tory band that murdered and burned from sheer pleasure.
"Some day we'll get him, as shore as the sun rises an' sets," said Shif'less Sol, repeating Henry's prediction.
But for the present they "holed up," and now their foresight was justified. To such as they, used to the hardships of forest life, "The Alcove" was a cheery nest. From its door they watched the wild fowl streaming south, pigeons, ducks, and others outlined against the dark, wintry skies. So numerous were these flocks that there was scarcely a time when they did not see one passing toward the warm South.
Shif'less Sol and Paul sat together watching a great flock of wild geese, arrow shaped, and flying at almost incredible speed. A few faint honks came to them, and then the geese grew misty on the horizon. Shif'less Sol followed them with serious eyes.
"Do you ever think, Paul," he said, "that we human bein's ain't so mighty pow'ful ez we think we are. We kin walk on the groun', an' by hard learnin' an' hard work we kin paddle through the water a little. But jest look at them geese flyin' a mile high, right over everything, rivers, forests any mountains, makin' a hundred miles an hour, almost without flappin' a wing. Then they kin come down on the water an' float fur hours without bein' tired, an' they kin waddle along on the groun', too. Did you ever hear of any men who had so many 'complishments? Why, Paul, s'pose you an' me could grow wings all at once, an' go through the air a mile a minute fur a month an' never git tired."
"We'd certainly see some great sights," said Paul, "but do you know, Sol, what would be the first thing I'd do if I had the gift of tireless wings?"
"Fly off to them other continents I've heard you tell about."
"No, I'd swoop along over the forests up here until I picked out all the camps of the Indians and Tories. I'd pick out the Butlers and Braxton Wyatt and Coleman, and see what mischief they were planning. Then I'd fly away to the East and look down at all the armies, ours in buff and blue, and the British redcoats. I'd look into the face of our great commander-in-chief. Then I'd fly away back into the West and South, and I'd hover over Wareville. I'd see our own people, every last little one of them. They might take a shot at me, not knowing who I was, but I'd be so high up in the air no bullet could reach me. Then I'd come soaring back here to you fellows."
"That would shorely be a grand trip, Paul," said Shif'less Sol, " an' I wouldn't mind takin' it in myself. But fur the present we'd better busy our minds with the warnin's the wild fowl are givin' us, though we're well fixed fur a house already. It's cu'rus what good homes a handy man kin find in the wilderness."
The predictions of the wild fowl were true. A few days later heavy clouds rolled up in the southwest, and the five watched them, knowing what they would bring them. They spread to the zenith and then to the other horizon, clothing the whole circle of the earth. The great flakes began to drop down, slowly at first, then faster. Soon all the trees were covered with white, and everything else, too, except the dark surface of the lake, which received the flakes into its bosom as they fell.
It snowed all that day and most of the next, until it lay about two feet on the ground. After that it turned intensely cold, the surface of the snow froze, and ice, nearly a foot thick, covered the lake. It was not possible to travel under such circumstances without artificial help, and now Tom Ross, who had once hunted in the far North, came to their help. He showed them how to make snowshoes, and, although all learned to use them, Henry, with his great strength and peculiar skill, became by far the most expert.
As the snow with its frozen surface lay on the ground for weeks, Henry took many long journeys on the snowshoes. Sometimes be hunted, but oftener his role was that of scout. He cautioned his friends that he might be out-three or four days at a time, and that they need take no alarm about him unless his absence became extremely long. The winter deepened, the snow melted, and another and greater storm came, freezing the surface, again making the snowshoes necessary. Henry decided now to take a scout alone to the northward, and, as the others bad long since grown into the habit of accepting his decisions almost without question, be started at once. He was well equipped with his rifle, double barreled pistol, hatchet, and knife, and he carried in addition a heavy blanket and some jerked venison. He put on his snowshoes at the foot of the cliff, waved a farewell to the four heads thrust from "The Alcove" above, and struck out on the smooth, icy surface of the creek. From this he presently passed into the woods, and for a long time pursued a course almost due north.
It was no vague theory that had drawn Henry forth. In one of his journeyings be had met a hunter who told him of a band of Tories and Indians encamped toward the north, and he had an idea that it was the party led by Braxton Wyatt. Now he meant to see.
His information was very indefinite, and he began to discover signs much earlier than he had expected. Before the end of the first day he saw the traces of other snowshoe runners on the icy snow, and once he came to a place where a deer had been slain and dressed. Then he came to another where the snow had been hollowed out under some pines to make a sleeping place for several men. Clearly he was in the land of the enemy again, and a large and hostile camp might be somewhere near.
Henry felt a thrill of joy when he saw these indications. All the primitive instincts leaped up within him. A child of the forest and of elemental conditions, the warlike instinct was strong within him. He was tired of hunting wild animals, and now there was promise of a' more dangerous foe. For the purposes that he had in view he was glad that be was alone. The wintry forest, with its two feet of snow covered with ice, contained no terrors for him. He moved on his snowshoes almost like a skater, and with all the dexterity of an Indian of the far North, who is practically born on such shoes.
As he stood upon the brow of a little hill, elevated upon his snowshoes, he was, indeed, a wonderful figure. The added height and the white glare from the ice made him tower like a great giant. He was clad completely in soft, warm deerskin, his hands were gloved in the same material, and the fur cap was drawn tightly about his head and ears. The slender-barreled rifle lay across his shoulder, and the blanket and deer meat made a light package on his back. Only his face was uncovered, and that was rosy with the sharp but bracing cold. But the resolute blue eyes seemed to have grown more resolute in the last six months, and the firm jaw was firmer than ever.
It was a steely blue sky, clear, hard, and cold, fitted to the earth of snow and ice that it inclosed. His eyes traveled the circle of the horizon three times, and at the end of the third circle he made out a dim, dark thread against that sheet of blue steel. It was the light of a camp fire, and that camp fire must belong to an enemy. It was not likely that anybody else would be sending forth such a signal in this wintry wilderness.
Henry judged that the fire was several miles away, and apparently in a small valley hemmed in by hills of moderate height. He made up his mind that the band of Braxton Wyatt was there, and he intended to make a thorough scout about it. He advanced until the smoke line became much thicker and broader, and then he stopped in the densest clump of bushes that he could find. He meant to remain there until darkness came, because, with all foliage gone from the forest, it would be impossible to examine the hostile camp by day. The bushes, despite the lack of leaves, were so dense that they hid him well, and, breaking through the crust of ice, he dug a hole. Then, having taken off his snowshoes and wrapped his blanket about his body, he thrust himself into the hole exactly like a rabbit in its burrow. He laid his shoes on the crust of ice beside him. Of course, if found there by a large party of warriors on snowshoes he would have no chance to flee, but he was willing to take what seemed to him a small risk. The dark would not be long in coming, and it was snug and warm in the hole. As he sat, his head rose just above the surrounding ice, but his rifle barrel rose much higher. He ate a little venison for supper, and the weariness in the ankles that comes from long traveling on snowshoes disappeared.
He could not see outside the bushes, but he listened with those uncommonly keen ears of his. No sound at all came. There was not even a wind to rustle the bare boughs. The sun hung a huge red globe in the west, and all that side of the earth was tinged with a red glare, wintry and cold despite its redness. Then, as the earth turned, the sun was lost behind it, and the cold dark came.
Henry found it so comfortable in his burrow that all his muscles were soothed, and he grew sleepy. It would have been very pleasant to doze there, but he brought himself round with an effort of the will, and became as wide awake as ever. He was eager to be off on his expedition, but he knew how much depended on waiting, and he waited. One hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, still and dark, passed in the forest before he roused himself from his covert. Then, warm, strong, and tempered like steel for his purpose, he put on his snowshoes, and advanced toward the point from which the column of smoke had risen.
He had never been more cautious and wary than he was now. He was a formidable figure in the darkness, crouched forward, and moving like some spirit of the wilderness, half walking, half gliding.
Although the night had come out rather clear, with many cold stars twinkling in the blue, the line of smoke was no longer visible. But Henry did not expect it to be, nor did he need it. He had marked its base too clearly in his mind to make any mistake, and he advanced with certainty. He came presently into an open space, and he stopped with amazement. Around him were the stumps of a clearing made recently, and near him were some yards of rough rail fence.
He crouched against the fence, and saw on the far side of the clearing the dim outlines of several buildings, from the chimneys of two of which smoke was rising. It was his first thought that he had come upon a little settlement still held by daring borderers, but second thought told him that it was impossible. Another and more comprehensive look showed many signs of ruin. He saw remains of several burned houses, but clothing all was the atmosphere of desolation and decay that tells when a place is abandoned. The two threads of smoke did not alter this impression.
Henry divined it all. The builders of this tiny village in the wilderness bad been massacred or driven away. A part of the houses had been destroyed, some were left standing, and now there were visitors. He advanced without noise, keeping behind the rail fence, and approaching one of the houses from the chimneys of which the smoke came. Here be crouched a long time, looking and listening attentively; but it seemed that the visitors had no fears. Why should they, when there was nothing that they need fear in this frozen wilderness?
Henry stole a little nearer. It had been a snug, trim little settlement. Perhaps twenty-five or thirty people had lived there, literally hewing a home out of the forest. His heart throbbed with a fierce hatred and, anger against those who had spoiled all this, and his gloved finger crept to the hammer of his rifle.
The night was intensely cold. The mercury was far below zero, and a wind that had begun to rise cut like the edge of a knife. Even the wariest of Indians in such desolate weather might fail to keep a watch. But Henry did not suffer. The fur cap was drawn farther over chin and ears, and the buckskin gloves kept his fingers warm and flexible. Besides, his blood was uncommonly hot in his veins.
His comprehensive eye told him that, while some of the buildings had not been destroyed, they were so ravaged and damaged that they could never be used again, save as a passing shelter, just as they were being used now. He slid cautiously about the desolate place. He crossed a brook, frozen almost solidly in its bed, and he saw two or three large mounds that had been haystacks, now covered with snow.
Then he slid without noise back to the nearest of the houses from which the smoke came. It was rather more pretentious than the others, built of planks instead of logs, and with shingles for a roof. The remains of a small portico formed the approach to the front door. Henry supposed that the house had been set on fire and that perhaps a heavy rain had saved a part of it.
A bar of light falling across the snow attracted his attention. He knew that it was the glow of a fire within coming through a window. A faint sound of voices reached his ears, and he moved forward slowly to the window. It was an oaken shutter originally fastened with a leather strap, but the strap was gone, and now some one had tied it, though not tightly, with a deer tendon. The crack between shutter and wall was at least three inches, and Henry could see within very well.
He pressed his side tightly to the wall and put his eyes to the crevice. What he saw within did not still any of those primitive feelings that had risen so strongly in his breast.
A great fire had been built in the log fireplace, but it was burning somewhat low now, having reached that mellow period of least crackling and greatest heat. The huge bed of coals threw a mass of varied and glowing colors across the floor. Large holes had been burned in the side of the room by the original fire, but Indian blankets had been fastened tightly over them.
In front of the fire sat Braxton Wyatt in a Loyalist uniform, a three-cornered hat cocked proudly on his head, and a small sword by his side. He had grown heavier, and Henry saw that the face had increased much in coarseness and cruelty. It had also increased in satisfaction. He was a great man now, as he saw great men, and both face and figure radiated gratification and pride as he lolled before the fire. At the other corner, sitting upon the floor and also in a Loyalist uniform, was his lieutenant, Levi Coleman, older, heavier, and with a short, uncommonly muscular figure. His face was dark and cruel, with small eyes set close together. A half dozen other white men and more than a dozen Indians were in the room. All these lay upon their blankets on the floor, because all the furniture had been destroyed. Yet they had eaten, and they lay there content in the soothing glow of the fire, like animals that had fed well. Henry was so near that he could hear every word anyone spoke.
"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.