The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XVI. A Girl's Way
Lucy left her father's house one of these dry mornings, and stood for a few moments in the grounds, inclosed by the palisade, gazing at the dark forest, outlined so sharply against the blue of the sky. She could see the green of the forest beyond the fort, and she knew that in the open spaces, where the sun reached them, tiny wild flowers of pink and purple, nestled low in the grass, were already in bloom. From the west a wind sweet and soft was blowing, and, as she inhaled it, she wanted to live, and she wanted all those about her to live. She wondered, if there was not some way in which she could help.
The stout, double log cabins, rude, but full of comfort, stood in rows, with well-trodden streets, between, then a fringe of grass around all, and beyond that rose the palisade of stout stakes, driven deep into the ground, and against each other. All was of the West and so was Lucy, a tall, lithe young girl, her face tanned a healthy and becoming brown by the sun, her clothing of home-woven red cloth, adorned at the wrists and around the bottom of the skirt with many tiny beads of red and yellow and blue and green, which, when she moved, flashed in the brilliant light, like the quivering colors of a prism. She had thrust in her hair a tiny plume of the scarlet tanager, and it lay there, like a flash of flame, against the dark brown of her soft curls.
Where she stood she could see the water of the spring near the edge of the forest sparkling in the sunlight, as if it wished to tantalize her, but as she looked a thought came to her, and she acted upon it at once. She went to the little square, where her father, John Ware, Ross and others were in conference.
"Father," she exclaimed, "I will show you how to get the water!"
Mr. Upton and the other men looked at her in so much astonishment that none of them replied, and Lucy used the opportunity.
"I know the way," she continued eagerly. "Open the gate, let the women take the buckets-I will lead-and we can go to the spring and fill them with water. Maybe the Indians won't fire on us!"
"Lucy, child!" exclaimed her father. "I cannot think of such a thing."
Then up spoke Tom Ross, wise in the ways of the wilderness.
"Mr. Upton," he said, "the girl is right. If the women are willing to go out it must be done. It looks like an awful thing, but-if they die we are here to avenge them and die with them, if they don't die we are all saved because we can hold this fort, if we have water; without it every soul here from the oldest man down to the littlest baby will be lost."
Mr. Upton covered his face with his hands.
"I do not like to think of it, Tom," he said.
The other men waited in silence.
Lucy looked appealingly at her father, but he turned his eyes away.
"See what the women say about it, Tom," he said at last.
The women thought well of it. There was not one border heroine, but many; disregarding danger they prepared eagerly for the task, and soon they were in line more than fifty, every one with a bucket or pail in each hand. Henry Ware, looking on, said nothing. The intended act appealed to the nature within him that was growing wilder every day.
A sentinel, peeping over the palisade, reported that all was quiet in the forest, though, as he knew, the warriors were none the less watchful.
"Open the gate," commanded Mr. Ware.
The heavy bars were quickly taken down, and the gate was swung wide. Then a slim, scarlet-clad figure took her place at the head of the line, and they passed out.
Lucy was borne on now by a great impulse, the desire to save the fort and all these people whom she knew and loved. It was she who had suggested the plan and she believed that it should be she who should lead the way, when it came to the doing of it.
She felt a tremor when she was outside the gate, but it came from excitement and not from fear-the exaltation of spirit would not permit her to be afraid. She glanced at the forest, but it was only a blur before her.
The slim, scarlet-clad figure led on. Lucy glanced over her shoulder, and she saw the women following her in a double file, grave and resolute. She did not look back again, but marched on straight toward the spring. She began to feel now what she was doing, that she was marching into the cannon's mouth, as truly as any soldier that ever led a forlorn hope against a battery. She knew that hundreds of keen eyes there in the forest before her were watching her every step, and that behind her fathers and brothers and husbands were waiting, with an anxiety that none of them had ever known before.
She expected every moment to hear the sharp whiplike crack of the rifle, but there was no sound. The fort and all about it seemed to be inclosed in a deathly stillness. She looked again at the forest, trying to see the ambushed figures, but again it was only a blur before her, seeming now and then to float in a kind of mist. Her pulses were beating fast, she could hear the thump, thump in her temples, but the slim scarlet figure never wavered and behind, the double file of women followed, grave and silent.
"They will not fire until we reach the springs," thought Lucy, and now she could hear the bubble of the cool, clear water, as it gushed from the hillside. But still nothing stirred in the forest, no rifle cracked, there was no sound of moving men.
She reached the spring, bent down, filled both buckets at the pool, and passing in a circle around it, turned her face toward the fort, and, after her, came the silent procession, each filling her buckets at the pool, passing around it and turning her face toward the fort as she had done.
Lucy now felt her greatest fear when she began the return journey and her back was toward the forest. There was in her something of the warrior; if the bullet was to find her she preferred to meet it, face to face. But she would not let her hands tremble, nor would she bend beneath the weight of the water. She held herself proudly erect and glanced at the wooden wall before her. It was lined with faces, brown, usually, but now with the pallor showing through the tan. She saw her father's among them and she smiled at him, because she was upheld by a great pride and exultation. It was she who had told them what to do, and it was she who led the way.
She reached the open gate again, but she did not hasten her footsteps. She walked sedately in, and behind her she heard only the regular tread of the long double file of women. The forest was as silent as ever.
The last woman passed in, the gate was slammed shut, the heavy bars were dropped into place, and Mr. Upton throwing his arms about Lucy exclaimed:
"Oh, my brave daughter!"
She sank against him trembling, her nerves weak after the long tension, but she felt a great pride nevertheless. She wished to show that a woman too could be physically brave in the face of the most terrible of all dangers, and she had triumphantly done so.
The bringing of the water, or rather the courage that inspired the act, heartened the garrison anew, and color came back to men's faces. The schoolmaster discussed the incident with Tom Ross, and wondered why the Indians who were not in the habit of sparing women had not fired.
"Sometimes a man or a crowd of men won't do a thing that they would do at any other time," said Ross, "maybe they thought they could get us all in a bunch by waitin' an' maybe way down at the bottom of their savage souls, was a spark of generosity that lighted up for just this once. We'll never know."
Henry Ware went out that night, and returning before dawn with the same facility that marked all his movements in the wilderness, reported that the savage army was troubled. All such forces are loose and irregular, with little cohesive power, and they will not bear disappointment and waiting. Moreover the warriors having lost many men, with nothing in repayment were grumbling and saying that the face of Manitou was set against them. They were confirmed too in this belief by the presence of the mysterious foe who had slain the warriors in the tree, and who had since given other unmistakable signs of his presence.
"They will have more discouragement soon," he said, "because it is going to rain to-day."
He had read the signs aright, as the sun came up amid the mists and vapors, and the gentle wind was damp to the face; then dark clouds spread across the western heavens, like a vast carpet unrolled by a giant hand, and the wilderness began to moan. Low thunder muttered on the horizon, and the somber sky was cut by vivid strokes of lightning.
Nature took on an ominous and threatening hue but within the village there was only joy; the coming storm would remove their greatest danger, the well would fill up again, and behind the wooden walls they could defy the savage foe.
The sky was cut across by a flash of lightning so bright that it dazzled them, the thunder burst with a terrible crash directly overhead, and then the rain came in a perfect wall of water. It poured for hours out of a sky that was made of unbroken clouds, deluging the earth, swelling the river to a roaring flood, and rising higher in the well than ever before. The forest about them was, almost hidden by the torrents of rain and they did not forget to be thankful.
Toward afternoon the fall abated somewhat in violence, but became a steady downpour out of sodden skies, and the air turned raw and chill. Those who were not sheltered shivered, as if it were winter. The night came on as dark as a well, and Henry Ware went out again. When he came back he said tersely to his father:
"They are gone."
"Gone?" exclaimed Mr. Ware scarcely able to believe in the reality of such good news.
""Yes; the storm broke their backs. Even Indians can't stand an all-day wetting especially when they are already tired. They think they can never have any luck here, and they are going toward the Ohio at this minute. The storm has saved us now just as it saved our band in the flight from the salt works."
They had such faith in his forest skill that no one doubted his word and the village burst into joy. Women, for they were the worst sufferers gave thanks, both silently and aloud. Henry took Ross, Sol and others to the valley in the forest, where the savages had kept their war camp. Here they had soaked in the mire during the storm, and all about were signs of their hasty flight, the ground being littered with bones of deer, elk and buffalo.
"They won't come again soon," said Henry, "because they believe that the Manitou will not give them any luck here, but it is well to be always on the watch."
After the first outburst of gratitude the people talked little of the attack and repulse; they felt too deeply, they realized too much the greatness of the danger they had escaped to put it into idle words. But nearly all attributed their final rescue to Henry Ware though some saw the hand of God in the storm which had intervened a second time for the protection of the whites. Braxton Wyatt and his friends dared say nothing now, at least openly against Henry, although those who loved him most were bound to confess that there was something alien about him, something in which he differed from the rest of them.
But Henry thought little of the opinion, good or bad in which he was held, because his heart was turning again to the wilderness, and he and Ross went forth again to scout on the rear of the Indian force.