The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XV. The Siege
It was not Lucy Upton alone who felt relief when the attack upon the stockade came, hideous and terrifying though it might be; the suspense so destructive of nerves and so hard to endure was at an end, and the men rushed gladly to meet the attack, while the women with almost equal joy reloaded empty rifles with the precious powder made from the cave dust and passed them to the brave defenders. The children, too small to take a part, cowered in the houses and listened to the sounds of battle, the lashing of the rifle fire, the fierce cry of the savages in the forest, and the answering defiance of the white men. Amid such scenes a great state was founded and who can wonder that its defenders learned to prize bravery first of all things?
The attack was in accordance with the savage nature, a dash, irregular volleys, shots from ambush, an endeavor to pick off the settlers, whenever a head was shown, but no direct attempt to storm the palisade, for which the Indian is unfitted. A bullet would not reach from the forest, but from little hillocks and slight ridges in the open where a brown breast was pressed close to the earth came the flash of rifles, some hidden by the dusk, but the flame showing in little points of fire that quickly went out. The light of the moon failed somewhat, and the savages in ambush were able to come nearer, but now and then a sharpshooter behind the wall, firing at the flash of the concealed rifle, would hear an answering death cry.
Lucy Upton behind the barricade with other girls and women was reloading rifles and passing them to her father and Paul Cotter who stood in a little wooden embrasure like a sally port. For a time the fire of battle burned as fiercely in her veins as in those of any man, but after a while she began to wonder what had become of Henry Ware, and presently from some who passed she heard comments upon him again; they found fault with his absence; he should have been there to take a part in the defense, and while she admitted that their criticisms bore the color of truth, she yet believed him to be away for some good purpose.
For two hours the wild battle in the dark went on, to the chorus of shouts from white man and red, the savages often coming close to the walls, and seeking to find a shelter under them in the dark, but always driven back. Then it ceased so suddenly that the intense silence was more pregnant with terror than all the noise that had gone before. Paul Cotter, looking over the palisade, could see nothing. The forest rose up like a solid dark wall, and in the opening not a blade of grass stirred; the battle, the savage army, all seemed to have gone like smoke melting into the air, and Paul was appalled, feeling that a magic hand had abruptly swept everything out of existence.
"What do you see?" asked Lucy, upon whose ears the silence too was heavy and painful.
"Nothing but darkness, and what it hides I cannot guess."
A report ran through the village that the savage army, beaten, had gone, and the women, and the men with little experience, gave it currency, but the veterans rebuked such premature rejoicing; it was their part, they said, to watch with more vigilance than ever, and in nowise to relax their readiness.
Then the long hours began and those who could, slept. Braxton Wyatt and his friends again impeached the credit of Henry Ware, insinuating with sly smiles that he must be a renegade, as he had taken no part in the defense and must now be with his savage friends. To the slur Paul Cotter fiercely replied that he had warned them of the attack; without him the station would have been taken by surprise, and that surely proved him to be no traitor.
The hours between midnight and day not only grew in length, but seemed to increase in number as well, doubling and tripling, as if they would never end for the watchers in the station. The men behind the wooden walls and some of the women, too, intently searched the forest, seeking to discover movements there, but nothing appeared upon its solid black screen. Nor did any sound come from it, save the occasional gentle moan of the wind; there was no crackling of branches, no noise of footsteps, no rattle of arms, but always the heavy silence which seemed so deadly, and which, by its monotony, was so painful to their ears.
Lucy Upton went into her father's house, ate a little and then spreading over herself a buffalo robe tried to sleep. Slumber was long in coming, for the disturbed nerves refused to settle into peace, and the excited brain brought back to her eyes distorted and over-colored visions of the night's events. But youth and weariness had their way and she slept at last, to find when she awakened that the dawn was coming in at the window, and the east was ablaze with the splendid red and yellow light of the sun.
"Are they still there?" was her first question when she went forth from her father's house, and the reply was uncertain; they might or might not be there; the leaders had not allowed anyone to go out to see, but the number who believed that the savages were gone was growing; and also grew the number who believed that Henry Ware was gone with them.
Even in the brilliant daylight that sharpened and defined everything as with the etcher's point, they could see nothing save what had been before the savages came. Their eyes reached now into the forest, but as far as they ranged it was empty, there was no encampment, not a single warrior passed through the undergrowth. It seemed that the grumblers were right when they said the besieging army was gone.
Lucy Upton was walking toward the palisade where she saw Paul Cotter, when she heard a distant report and Paul's fur cap, pierced by a bullet, flew from his head to the earth. Paul himself stood in amaze, as if he did not know what had happened, and he did not move until Lucy shouted to him to drop to the ground. Then he crawled quickly away from the exposed spot, although two or three more bullets struck about him.
The station thrilled once more with excitement, but the new danger was of a kind that they did not know how to meet. It was evident that the firing came from a high point, one commanding a view inside the walls, and from marksmen located in such a manner the palisade offered no shelter. Bullets were pattering among the houses, and in the open spaces inclosed by the walls, two men were wounded already, and the threat had become formidable.
Ross and Shif'less Sol, the best of the woodsmen, soon decided that the shots came from a large tree at the edge of the forest northeast from the stockade, and they were sure that at least a half-dozen warriors were lying sheltered among its giant boughs, while they sent searching bullets into the enclosure. There had been some discussion about the tree at the time the settlement was built, but expert opinion held that the Indian weapons could not reach from so great a distance, and as the task of cutting so huge a trunk when time was needed, seemed too much they had left it, and now they saw their grievous and perhaps mortal error.
The side of the palisade facing the tree was untenable so long as the warriors held their position, and it was even dangerous to pass from one house to another. The terrors of the night, weighty because unknown, were gone, but the day had brought with it a more certain menace that all could see.
The leaders held a conference on the sheltered side of one of the houses, and their faces and their talk were full of gloom. The schoolmaster, Ross and Sol were there, and so were John Ware and Lucy's father. The schoolmaster, by nature and training a man of peace, was perhaps the most courageous of them all.
"It is evident that those savages have procured in some manner a number of our long-range Kentucky rifles," he said, "but they are no better than ours. Nor is it any farther from us to that tree than it is from that tree to us. Why can't our best marksmen pick them off?"
He looked with inquiry at Ross and Sol, who shook their heads and abated not a whit of their gloomy looks.
"They are too well sheltered there," replied Ross, "while we would not be if we should try to answer them. Our side would get killed while they wouldn't be hurt and we can't spare the men."
"But we must find a way out! We must get rid of them somehow!" exclaimed Mr. Ware.
"That's true," said Upton, and as he spoke they heard a bullet thud against the wall of the house. From the forest came a wild quavering yell of triumph, full of the most merciless menace. Mr. Ware and Mr. Upton shuddered. Each had a young daughter, and it was in the minds of each to slay her in the last resort if there should be no other way.
"If those fellows in the tree keep on driving us from the palisade," said Ross, setting his face in the grim manner of one who forces himself to tell the truth, "there's nothin' to prevent the main band from makin' an attack, and while the other fellows rain bullets on us they'll be inside the palisade."
They stared at each other in silent despair, and Ross going to the corner of the house, but keeping himself protected well, looked at the fatal tree. No one was firing, then, and he could see nothing among its branches. In the fresh green of its young foliage it looked like a huge cone set upon a giant stem, and Ross shook his fist at it in futile anger. Nor was a foe visible elsewhere. The entire savage army lay hidden in the forest and nothing fluttered or moved but the leaves and the grass.
The others, led by the same interest, followed Ross, and keeping to the safety of the walls, stole glances at the tree. As they looked they heard the faint report of a shot and a cry of death, and saw a brown body shoot down from the green cone of the tree to the ground, where it lay still.
"There is a marksman among us who can beat them at their own trick," cried the schoolmaster in exultation. "Who did it? Who fired that shot, Tom?"
Ross did not answer. First a look of wonder came upon his face, and then he began to study the forest, where all but nature was yet lifeless. The faint sound Of a second shot came and what followed was a duplicate of the sequel to the first. Another brown body shot downward, and lay lifeless beside its fellow on the grass.
The master cried out once more in exultation, and wished to know why others within the palisade did not imitate the skillful sharpshooter. But Ross shook his head slowly and spoke these slow words:
"A great piece of luck has happened to us, Mr. Pennypacker, an' how it's happened I don't know, at least not yet. Them shots never come from any of our men. We've got a friend outside an' he's pickin' off them ambushed murderers one by one. The savages think we're doin' it, but they'll soon find out the difference."
There was a third shot and the tree ejected a third body.
"What wonderful shootin'," exclaimed Ross in a tone of amazement. " Them shots come from a long distance, but all three of 'em plugged the mark to the center. Them savages was dead before they touched the ground. I never saw the like."
The others waited expectantly, as if he could give them an explanation, but if he had a thought in his mind he kept it to himself.
"There, they've found it out," he said, when a terrific yell full of anger came from the forest, "but they haven't got him, whoever he is. They'd shout in a different way if they had."
"Why do you say him?" asked Mr. Pennypacker. "Surely a single man has not been doing such daring and deadly work!"
"It's one man, because there are not two in all this wilderness who can shoot like that. I'd hate to be in the place of the savages left in that tree."
The wonder of the new and unknown ally soon spread through Wareville, and reached Lucy Upton as it reached others. A thought came to her and she was about to speak of it, but she stopped, fearing ridicule, and merely listened to the excited talk going on all about her.
An hour later a fourth Indian was shot from the tree, and less than fifteen minutes afterwards a fifth fell a victim to the terrible rifle. Then two, the only survivors, dropped from the boughs and ran for the forest. Ross, Sol and Paul Cotter were watching together and saw the flight.
"One of them brown rascals will never reach the woods,", said Ross with the intuition of the borderer.
The foremost savage fell just at the edge of the forest, shot through the heart, and the other, the sole survivor of the tree, escaped behind the sheltering trunks.
The cry of the angry savages swelled into a terrible chorus and bullets beat upon the stockade, but the attack was quickly repulsed, and again quiet and treacherous peace settled down upon this little spot, this pin point in the mighty wilderness, whose struggle must be carried on unaided, and, in truth, unknown to all the rest of the world.
When the savages were driven back they melted again into the forest, and the old silence and peace laid hold of everything, the brilliant sunshine gilding every house, and dyeing into deeper colors the glowing tints of the wilderness. The huge tree, so fatal to those who had sought to use it, stood up, a great green cone, its branches waving softly before the wind.
In the little fortress the wonder and excitement yet prevailed, but mingled with it was a devout gratitude for this help from an unknown quarter which had been so timely and so effective. The spirits of the garrison, from the boldest ranger down to the most timid woman, took a sudden upward heave and they felt that they should surely repel every attack by the savage army.
The remainder of the day passed in silence and with the foe invisible, but the guard at the palisade, now safe from ambushed marksmen, relaxed its vigilance not at all. These men knew that they dealt with an enemy whose uncertainty made him all the more terrible, and they would not leave the issue to shifting chance.
The day waned, the night came, heavy and dark again, and full, as it was bound to be, of threats and omens for the beleaguered people. Lucy Upton with Mary Ware slipped to the little wooden embrasure where Paul Cotter was on watch.
They found Paul in the sheltered nook, watching the forest and the open, through the holes pierced for rifles, and he did not seek to hide his pleasure at seeing them. Two other men were there, but they were middle-aged and married, the fathers of increasing families, and they were not off ended when Paul received a major share of attention.
He told them that all was quiet, his own eyes were keen, but they failed to mark anything unusual, and he believed that the savages, profiting by their costly experience, would make no new attempt yet a while. Then he spoke of the mysterious help that had come to them, and the same thought was in his mind and Lucy's, though neither spoke of it. They stood there a while, talking in low tones and looking for excuses to linger, when one of the older men moved a little and held up a warning hand. He had just taken his eyes from a loophole, and he whispered that he thought he had seen something pass in the shadow of the wall.
All in the embrasure became silent at once, and Lucy, brave as she was, could hear her heart beating. There was a slight noise on the outside of the wall, so faint that only keen ears could hear it, and then as they looked up they saw a hideous, painted face raised above the palisade.
One of the older men threw his rifle to his shoulder, but, quick as a flash, Paul struck his hand away from the trigger. He knew who had come, when he looked into the eyes that looked down at him, though he felt fear, too-he could not deny it-as he met their gaze, so fierce, so wild, so full of the primitive man.
"Don't you see?" he said,"it is Henry! Henry Ware!"
Even then Lucy Upton, intimate friend though she had been, scarcely saw, but laughing a low soft laugh of intense satisfaction, Henry dropped lightly among them. Good excuse had these men for not knowing him as his transformation was complete! He stood before them not a white man, but an Indian warrior, a prince of savages. His hair was drawn up in the defiant scalp lock, his face bore the war paint in all its variations and violent contrast of colors, the dark-green hunting shirt and leggings with their beaded decorations were gone, and in their place a red Indian blanket was wrapped around him, drooping in its graceful folds like a Roman toga.
His figure, erect in the moonlight, nearly a head above the others, had a certain savage majesty, and they gazed upon him in silence. He seemed to know what they felt and his eyes gleamed with pride out of his darkly painted face. He laughed again a low laugh, not like that of the white man, but the almost inaudible chuckle of the Indian.
"It had to be," he said, glancing down at his garb though not with shame. " To do what I wished to do, it was necessary to pass as an Indian, at least between times, and, as all the Shawnees do not know each other, this helped."
"It was you who shot the Indians in the tree; I knew it from the first," said the voice of the guide, Ross, over their shoulders. He had come so softly that they did not notice him before.
Henry did not reply, but laughed again the dry chuckle that made Lucy tremble she scarcely knew why, and ran his hand lovingly along the slender barrel of his rifle.
"At least you do not complain of it," he said presently.
"No, we do not," replied Ross, "an' I guess we won't. You saved us, that's sure. I've lived on the border all my life, but I never saw such shootin' before."
Then Henry gave some details of his work and Lucy Upton, watching him closely, saw how he had been engrossed by it. Paul Cotter too noticed, and feeling constraint, at least, demanded that Henry doff his savage disguise, put on white men's clothes and get something to eat.
He consented, though scarce seeing the necessity of it, but kept the Indian blanket close to hand, saying that he would soon need it again. But he was very gentle with his mother telling her that she need have no fear for him, that he knew all the wiles of the savage and more; they could never catch him and the outside was his place, as then he could be of far more service than if he were merely one of the garrison.
The news of Henry Ware's return was throughout the village in five minutes, and with it came the knowledge of his great deed. In the face of such a solid and valuable fact the vague charge that he was a renegade died. Even Braxton Wyatt did not dare to lift his voice to that effect again, but, with sly insinuation, he spoke of savages herding with savages, and of what might happen some day.
When night came Henry resuming his Indian garb and paint slipped out again, and so skillful was he that he seemed to melt away like a mist in the darkness.
The savage army beleaguering the colony now, found it was assailed by a mysterious enemy, one whom all their vigilance and skill could not catch. They lost warrior after warrior and many of them began to think Manitou hostile to them, but the leaders persisted with the siege. They wished to destroy utterly this white vanguard, and they would not return to their villages, far across the Ohio, until it was done.
They no longer made a direct attack upon the walls, but, forming a complete circle around, hung about at a convenient distance, waiting and hoping for thirst and famine to help them. The people believed themselves to have taken good precautions against these twin evils, but now a terrible misfortune befell them. No rain fell and the well inside the palisade ran dry. It was John Ware himself who first saw the coming of the danger and he tried to hide it, but it could not, from its very nature, be kept a secret long. The supply for each person was cut down one half and then one fourth, and that too would soon go, unless the welcome rains came; and the sky was without a cloud. Men who feared no physical danger saw those whom they loved growing pale and weak before their eyes, and they knew not what to do. It seemed that the place must fall without a blow from the enemy.