The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIV. The Return
Wareville lay in its pleasant valley, rejoicing in the young spring, so kind with its warm rains that the men of the village foresaw a great season for crops. The little river flowed in a silver current, smoke rose from many chimneys, and now and then the red homemade linsey dress of a girl gleamed in the sunlight like the feathers of the scarlet tanager. To the left were the fields cleared for Indian corn, and to the right were the gardens. Beyond both were the hills and the unbroken forest. Now and then a man, carrying on his shoulder the inevitable Kentucky rifle, long and slender-barreled, passed through the palisade, but the cardinal note of the scene was peace and cheerfulness. The town was prospering, its future no longer belonged to chance; there would be plenty, of the kind that they liked.
In the Ware house was a silent sadness, silent because these were stern people, living in a stern time, and it was the custom to hide one's griefs. The oldest son was gone; whether he had perished nobody knew, nor, if he had perished, how.
John Ware was not an emotional man, feelings rarely showed on his face, and his wife alone knew how hard the blow had been to him-she knew because she had suffered from the same stroke. But the children, the younger brother Charles and the sister Mary could not always remember, and with them the impression of the one who was gone would grow dimmer in time. The border too always expected a certain percentage of loss in human life, it was one of the facts with which the people must reckon, and thus the name of Henry Ware was rarely spoken.
To-day was without a cloud. New emigrants had come across the mountains, adding welcome strength to the colony, and extending the limits of the village. But danger had passed them by, they had heard once or twice more of the great war in the far-away East, but it was so distant and vague that most of them forgot it; the Indians across the Ohio had never come this way, and so far Henry Ware was the only toll that they had paid to the wilderness. There was cause for happiness, as human happiness goes.
A slim girl bearing in her hand a wooden pail came through the gate of the palisade. She was bare headed, but her wonderful dark-brown hair coiled in a shining mass was touched here and there with golden gleams where the sunshine fell upon it. Her face, browned somewhat, was yet very white on the forehead, and the cheeks had the crimson flush of health. She wore a dress of homemade linsey dyed red, and its close fit suggested the curves of her supple, splendid young figure. She walked with strong elastic step toward the spring that gushed from a hillside, and which after a short course fell into the little river.
It was Lucy Upton, grown much taller now, as youth develops rapidly on the border, a creature nourished into physical perfection first by the good blood that was in her, then developed in the open air, and by work, neither too little nor too much.
She reached the spring, and setting the pail by its side looked down at the cool, gushing stream. It invited her and she ran her white rounded arm through it, making curves and oblongs that were gone before they were finished. She was in a thoughtful mood. Once or twice she looked at the forest, and each time that she looked she shivered because the shadow of the wilderness was then very heavy upon her.
Silas Pennypacker, the schoolmaster, came to the spring while she was there, and they spoke together, because they were great friends, these two. He was unchanged, the same strong gray man, with the ruddy face. He was not unhappy here despite the seeming incongruity of his presence. The wilderness appealed to him too in a way, he was the intellectual leader of the colony and almost everything that his nature called for met with a response.
"The spring is here, Lucy," he said, "and it has been an easy winter. We should be thankful that we have fared so well."
"I think that most of us are," she replied. "We'll soon be a big town."
She glanced at the spreading settlement, and this launched Mr. Pennypacker upon a favorite theme of his. He liked to predict how the colony would grow, sowing new seed, and already he saw great cities to be. He found a ready listener in Lucy. This too appealed to her imagination at times, and if at other times interest was lacking, she was too fond of the old man to let him know it. Presently when she had finished she filled the pail and stood up, straight and strong.
"I will carry it for you," said the schoolmaster.
"Why should I let you?" she asked. "I am more able than you."
Most men would have taken it ill to have heard such words from a girl, but she was one among many, above the usual height for her years; she created at once the impression of great strength, both physical and mental; the heavy pail of water hung in her hand, as if it were a trifle that she did not notice. The master smiled and looked at her with eyes of fatherly admiration.
"I must admit that you tell the truth," he said. "This West of ours seems to suit you."
"It is my country now," she said, "and I do not care for any other."
"Since you will not let me carry the water you will at least let me walk with you?" he said.
She did not reply, and he was startled by the sudden change that came over her.
First a look of wonder showed on her face, then she turned white, every particle of color leaving her cheeks. The master could not tell what her expression meant, and he followed her eyes which were turned toward the wilderness.
From the forest came a figure very strange to Silas Pennypacker, a figure of barbaric splendor. It was a youth of great height and powerful frame, his face so brown that it might belong to either the white or the red race, but with fine clean features like those of a Greek god. He was clad in deerskins, ornamented with little colored beads and fringes of brilliant dyes. He carried a slender-barreled rifle over his shoulder, and he came forward with swift, soundless steps.
The master recoiled in alarm at the strange and ominous figure, but as the red flooded back into the girl's cheeks she put her hand upon his arm.
"It is he! I knew that he was not dead!" she said in an intense tremulous whisper. The words were indefinite, but the master knew whom she meant, and there was a surge of joy in his heart, to be followed the next moment by doubt and astonishment. It was Henry Ware who had come back, but not the same Henry Ware.
Henry was beside them in a moment and he seized their hands, first the hands of one and then of the other, calling them by name.
The master recovering from his momentary diffidence threw his arms around his former pupil, welcomed him with many words, and wanted to know where he had been so long.
"I shall tell you, but not now," replied Henry, "because there is no time to spare; you are threatened by a great danger. The Shawnees are coming with a thousand warriors and I have hastened ahead to warn you."
He hurried them inside the palisade, his manner tense, masterful and convincing, and there he met his mother, whose joy, deep and grateful, was expressed in few words after the stern Puritan code. The father and the brother and sister came next, but the younger people like Lucy felt a little fear of him, and his old comrade Paul Cotter scarcely knew him.
He told in a few words of his escape from a far Northwestern tribe, of the coming of the Shawnees, and of the need to take every precaution for defense.
"There is no time to spare," he said. "All must be called in at once."
A man with powerful lungs blew long on a cow's horn, those who were at work in the fields and the forest hastened in, the gates were barred, the best marksmen were sent to watch in the upper story of the blockhouses and at the palisade, and the women began to mold bullets.
Henry Ware was the pervading spirit through all the preparations. He knew everything and thought of everything, he told them the mode of Indian attack and how they could best meet it, he compelled them to strengthen the weak spots in the palisade, and he encouraged all those who were faint of heart and apprehensive.
Lucy's slight fear of him remained, but with it now came admiration. She saw that his was a soul fit to lead and command, the work that he was about to do he loved, his eyes were alight with the fire of battle; a certain joy was shining there, and all, feeling the strength of his spirit, obeyed him without asking why.
Only Braxton Wyatt uttered doubts with words and sneered with looks. He too had become a hunter of skill, and hence what he said might have some merit.
"It seems strange that Henry Ware should come so suddenly when he might have come before," he remarked with apparent carelessness to Lucy Upton.
She looked at him with sharp interest. The same thought had entered her mind, but she did not like to hear Braxton Wyatt utter it.
"At all events he is about to save us from a great danger," she said.
Wyatt laughed and his thin long features contracted in an ugly manner.
"It is a tale to impress us and perhaps to cover up something else," he replied. "There is not an Indian within two hundred miles of us. I know, I have been through the woods and there is no sign."
She turned away, liking his words little and his manner less. She stopped presently by a corner of one of the houses on a slight elevation whence she could see a long distance beyond the palisade. So far as seeming went Braxton Wyatt was certainly right. The spring day was full of golden sunshine, the fresh new green of the forest was unsullied, and it was hard to conjure up even the shadow of danger.
Wyatt might have ground for his suspicion, but why should Henry Ware sound a false alarm? The words "perhaps to cover up something else" returned to her mind, but she dismissed them angrily.
She went to the Ware house and rejoiced with Mrs. Ware, to whom a son had come back from the dead, and in whose joy there was no flaw. According to her mother's heart a wonder had been performed, and it had been done for her special benefit. The village was in full posture of defense, all were inside the walls and every man had gone to his post. They now awaited the attack, and yet there was some distrust of Henry Ware. Braxton Wyatt, a clever youth, had insidiously sowed the seeds of suspicion, and already there was a crop of unbelief. By indirection he had called attention to the strange appearance of the returned wanderer, the Indian like air that he had acquired, his new ways unlike their own, and his indifference to many things that he had formerly liked. He noticed the change in Henry Ware's nature and he brought it also to the notice of others.
It seemed as the brilliant day passed peacefully that Wyatt was right and Henry, for some hidden purpose of his own, perhaps to hide the secret of his long absence, had brought to them this sounding alarm. There was the sun beyond the zenith in the heavens, the shadows of afternoon were falling, and the yellow light over the forest softened into gray, but no sign of an enemy appeared.
If Henry Ware saw the discontent he did not show his knowledge; the light of the expected conflict was still in his eyes and his thoughts were chiefly of the great event to come; yet in an interval of waiting he went back to the house and told his mother of much that had befallen him during his long absence; he sought to persuade himself now that he could not have escaped earlier, and perhaps without intending it he created in her mind the impression that he sought to engrave upon his own; so she was fully satisfied, thankful for the great mercy of his return that had been given to her.
"Now mother!" he said at last, "I am going outside."
"Outside!" she cried aghast, "but you are safe here! Why not stay?"
He smiled and shook his head.
"I shall be safe out there, too," he said, "and it is best for us all that I go. Oh, I know the wilderness, mother, as you know the rooms of this house!"
He kissed her quickly and turned away. John Ware, who stood by, said nothing. He felt a certain fear of his son and did not yet know how to command him.
As Henry passed from the house into the little square Lucy Upton overtook him.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I think I can be of more help out there than in here," he replied pointing toward the forest.
"It would be better for you to stay," she said.
"I shall be in no danger."
"It is not that; do you know what some of them here are saying of you-that you are estranged from us, that there is some purpose in this, that no attack is coming! Your going now will confirm them in the belief."
His dark eyes flashed with a fierceness that startled her, and his whole frame seemed to draw up as if he were about to spring. But the emotion passed in a moment, and his face was a brown mask, saying nothing. He seemed indifferent to the public opinion of his little world.
"I am needed out there," he said, pointing again toward the dark line of the forest, "and I shall go. Whether I tell the truth or not will soon be known; they will have to wait only a little. But you believe me now, don't you?"
She looked deep into his calm eyes, and she read there only truth. But she knew even before she looked that Henry Ware was not one who would ever be guilty of falsehood or treachery.
"Oh yes I know it," she replied, "but I wish others to know it as well."
"They will," he said, and then taking her hand in his for one brief moment he was gone. His disappearance was so sudden and soundless that he seemed to her to melt away from her sight like a mist before the wind. She did not even know how he had passed through the palisade, but he was certainly outside and away, There was something weird about it and she felt a little fear, as if an event almost supernatural had occurred.
The sudden departure of Henry Ware to the forest started the slanderous tongues to wagging again, and they said it was a trap of some kind, though no one could tell how. A sly report was started that he had become that worst of all creatures in his time, a renegade, a white man who allied himself with the red to make war upon his own people. It came to the ears of Paul Cotter, and the heart of the loyal youth grew hot within him. Paul was not fond of war and strife, but he had an abounding courage, and he and Henry Ware had been through danger together.
"He is changed, I will admit," he said, "but if he says we are going to be attacked, we shall be. I wish that all of us were as true as he."
He touched his gun lock in a threatening manner, and Braxton Wyatt and the others who stood by said no more in his presence. Yet the course of the day was against Henry's assertion. The afternoon waned, the sun, a ball of copper, swung down into the west, long shadows fell and nothing happened.
The people moved and talked impatiently inside their wooden walls. They spoke of going about their regular pursuits, there was work that could be done on the outside in the twilight, and enough time had been lost already through a false alarm. But some of the older men, with cautious blood, advised them to wait and their counsel was taken. Night came, thick and black, and to the more timid full of omens and presages.
The forest sank away in the darkness, nothing was visible fifty yards from the palisade and in the log houses few lights burned. The little colony, but a pin point of light, was alone in the vast and circling wilderness. One of the greatest tests of courage to which the human race has ever been subjected was at hand. In all directions the forest curved away, hundreds of miles. It would be a journey of days to find any other of their own kind, they were hemmed in everywhere by silence and loneliness, whatever happened they must depend upon themselves, because there was none to bring help. They might perish, one and all, and the rest of the world not hear of it until long afterwards.
A moaning wind came up and sighed over the log houses, the younger children-and few were too young not to guess what was expected-fell asleep at last, but the older, those who had reached their thinking years could not find such solace. In this black darkness their fears became real; there was no false alarm, the forest around them hid their enemy, but only for the time. There was little noise in the station. By the low fires in the houses the women steadily molded bullets, and seldom spoke to each other, as they poured the melted lead into the molds. By the walls the men too, rifle in hand, were silent, as they sought with intent eyes to mark what was passing in the forest. Lucy Upton was molding bullets in her father's house and they were melting the lead at a bed of coals in the wide fireplace. None was steadier of hand or more expert than she. Her face was flushed as she bent over the fire and her sleeves were rolled back, showing her strong white, arms. Her lips were discolored, but as the bullets shining like silver from the mold they would part now and slight smile. She too had in her the spirit of warlike ancestors and it was aroused now. Girl, though she was, she felt in her own veins a little of the thrill of coming conflict.
But her thoughts were not wholly of attack and defense; they followed as well him who had come back so suddenly and who was now gone again into the wilderness from which he had emerged. His appearance and manner had impressed her deeply. She wished to hear more from him of the strange wild life that he had led; she too felt, although in a more modified form, the spell of the primeval.
Her task finished she went to the door, and then drawn by curiosity she continued until her walk brought her near the palisade where she watched the men on guard, their dusky figures touched by the wan light that came from the slender crescent of a moon, and seeming altogether weird and unreal. Paul Cotter in one of his errands found her there.
"You had better go back," he said. "We may be attacked at any time, and a bullet or arrow could reach you here."
"So you believe with me that an attack will be made as he said?"
"Of course I do," replied Paul with emphasis. "Don't I know Henry Ware? Weren't he and I lost together? Wasn't he the truest of comrades?"
Several men, talking in low tones, approached them. Braxton Wyatt was with them and Lucy saw at once that it was a group of malcontents.
"It is nothing," said Seth Lowndes, a loud, arrogant man, the boaster of the colony. "There are no Indians in these parts and I'm going out there to prove it."
He stood in the center of a ray of moonlight, as he spoke, and it lighted up his red sneering face. Lucy and Paul could see him plainly and each felt a little shiver of aversion. But neither said anything and, in truth, standing in the dark by themselves they were not noticed by the others.
"I'm going outside," repeated Lowndes in a yet more noisy tone, "and if I run across anything more than a deer I'll be mighty badly fooled!"
One or two uttered words of protest, but it seemed to Lucy that Braxton Wyatt incited him to go on, joining him in words of contempt for the alleged danger.
Lowndes reached the palisade and climbed upon it by means of the cross pieces binding it together, and then he stood upon the topmost bar, where his head and all his body, above the knees, rose clear of the bulwark. He was outlined there sharply, a stout, puffy man, his face redder than ever from the effect of climbing, and his eyes gleaming triumphantly as, from his high perch, he looked toward the forest.
"I tell you there is not-" But the words were cut short, the gleam died from his eyes, the red fled from his face, and he whitened suddenly with terror. From the forest came a sharp report, echoing in the still night, and the puffy man, throwing up his arms, fell from the palisade back into the enclosure, dead before he touched the ground.
A fierce yell, the long ominous note of the war whoop burst from the forest, and its sound, so full of menace and fury, was more terrible than that of the rifle. Then came other shots, a rapid pattering volley, and bullets struck with a low sighing sound against the upper walls of the blockhouse. The long quavering cry, the Indian yell rose and died again and in the black forest, still for aught else, it was weird and unearthly.
Lucy stood like stone when the lifeless body of the boaster fell almost at her feet, and all the color was gone from her face. The terrible cry of the savages without was ringing in her ears, and it seemed to her, for a few moments, that she could not move. But Paul grasped her by the arm and drew her back.
"Go into your house!" he cried. "A bullet might reach you here!"
Obedient to his duty he hastened to the palisade to bear a valiant hand in the defense, and she, retreating a little, remained in the shadow of the houses that she might see how events would go. After the first shock of horror and surprise she was not greatly afraid, and she was conscious too of a certain feeling of relief. Henry Ware had told the truth, he knew of what he spoke when he brought his warning, and he had greatly served his own.