True to the Old Flag by G. A. Henty
Chapter I. A Frontier Farm.
"Concord, March 1, 1774.
"MY DEAR COUSIN: I am leaving next week with my husband for England, where we intend to pass some time visiting his friends. John and I have determined to accept the invitation you gave us last summer for Harold to come and spend a few months with you. His father thinks that a great future will, ere many years, open in the West, and that it is therefore well the boy should learn something of frontier life. For myself, I would rather that he stayed quietly at home, for he is at present over-fond of adventure; but as my husband is meditating selling his estate here and moving West, it is perhaps better for him.
"Massachusetts is in a ferment, as indeed are all the Eastern States, and the people talk openly of armed resistance against the Government. My husband, being of English birth and having served in the king's army, cannot brook what he calls the rebellious talk which is common among his neighbors, and is already on bad terms with many around us. I myself am, as it were, a neutral. As an American woman, it seems to me that the colonists have been dealt with somewhat hardly by the English Parliament, and that the measures of the latter have been high-handed and arbitrary. Upon the other hand, I naturally incline toward my husband's views. He maintains that, as the king's army has driven out the French, and gives protection to the colony, it is only fair that the colonists should contribute to its expenses. The English ask for no contributions toward the expense of their own country, but demand that, at least, the expenses of the protection of the colony shall not be charged upon the heavily taxed people at home. As to the law that the colony shall trade only with the mother country, my husband says that this is the rule in the colonies of Spain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands, and that the people here, who can obtain what land they choose and till it without rent, should not grumble at paying this small tax to the mother country. However it be, I fear that troubles will come, and, this place being the head and focus of the party hostile to England, my husband, feeling himself out of accord with all his neighbors, saying a few loyal gentlemen like himself, is thinking much and seriously of selling our estate here and of moving away into the new countries of the West, where he will be free from all the disputation and contentious talk which occupies men's time here.
"Indeed, cousin, times have sadly changed since you were staying here with us five years ago. Then our life was a peaceful and quiet one; now there is nothing but wrangling and strife. The dissenting clergy are, as my husband says was the case in England before the great civil war, the fomenters of this discontent. There are many busybodies who pass their time in stirring up the people by violent harangues and seditious writings; therefore everyone takes one side or the other, and there is neither peace nor comfort in life.
"Accustomed as I have always been to living in ease and affluence, I dread, somewhat, the thought of a life on the Indian frontier. One has heard so many dreadful stories of Indian fights and massacres that I tremble a little at the prospect; but I do not mention this to John, for as other women are, like yourself, brave enough to support these dangers, I would not appear a coward in his eyes. You will see, cousin, that, as this prospect is before us, it is well that Harold should learn the ways of a frontier life. Moreover, John does not like the thought of leaving him here while we are in England; for, as he says, the boy might learn to become a rebel in his absence; therefore, my dear cousin, we have resolved to send him to you. An opportunity offers, in the fact that a gentleman of our acquaintance is, with his family, going this week West, with the intention of settling there, and he will, he tells us, go first to Detroit, whence he will be able to send Harold forward to your farm. The boy himself is delighted at the thought, and promises to return an accomplished backwoodsman. John joins me in kind love to yourself and your husband, and believe me to remain,
"Your Affectionate Cousin,
Four months after the date of the above letter a lad some fifteen years old was walking with a man of middle age on the shores of Lake Huron. Behind them was a large clearing of about a hundred acres in extent; a comfortable house, with buildings for cattle, stood at a distance of some three hundred yards from the lake; broad fields of yellow corn waved brightly in the sun; and from the edge of the clearing came the sound of a woodsman's ax, showing that the proprietor was still enlarging the limits of his farm. Surrounding the house, at a distance of twenty yards, was a strong stockade some seven feet in height, formed of young trees, pointed at the upper end, squared, and fixed firmly in the ground. The house itself, although far more spacious and comfortable than the majority of backwood farmhouses, was built in the usual fashion, of solid logs, and was evidently designed to resist attack.
William Welch had settled ten years before on this spot, which was then far removed from the nearest habitation. It would have been a very imprudent act, under ordinary circumstances, to have established himself in so lonely a position, so far removed from the possibility of assistance in case of attack. He settled there, however, just after Pontiac, who was at the head of an alliance of all the Indian tribes of those parts, had, after the long and desperate siege of Fort Pitt, made peace with us upon finding that his friends, the French, had given up all thought of further resistance to the English, and had entirely abandoned the country. Mr. Welch thought, therefore, that a permanent peace was likely to reign on the frontier, and that he might safely establish himself in the charming location he had pitched upon, far removed from the confines of civilization.
The spot was a natural clearing of some forty acres in extent, sloping down to the water's edge, and a more charming site could hardly have been chosen. Mr. Welch had brought with him three farm laborers from the East, and, as time went on, he extended the clearing by cutting down the forest giants which bordered it.
But in spite of the beauty of the position, the fertility of the soil, the abundance of his crops, and the advantages afforded by the lake, both from its plentiful supply of fish and as a highway by which he could convey his produce to market, he had more than once regretted his choice of location. It was true that there had been no Indian wars on a large scale, but the Indians had several times broken out in sudden incursions. Three times he had been attacked, but, fortunately, only by small parties, which he had been enabled to beat off. Once, when a more serious danger threatened him, he had been obliged to embark, with his wife and child and his more valuable chattels, in the great scow in which he carried his produce to market, and had to take refuge in the settlements, to find, on his return, his buildings destroyed and his farm wasted. At that time he had serious thoughts of abandoning his location altogether, but the settlements were extending rapidly toward him, and, with the prospect of having neighbors before long and the natural reluctance to give up a place upon which he had expended so much toil, he decided to hold on; hoping that more quiet times would prevail, until other settlers would take up land around him.
The house had been rebuilt more strongly than before. He now employed four men, and had been unmolested since his return to his farm, three years before the date of this story. Already two or three locations had been taken up on the shores of the lake beyond him, a village had grown up thirty-five miles away, and several settlers had established themselves between that place and his home.
"So you are going out fishing this morning, Harold?" Mr. Welch said. "I hope you will bring back a good supply, for the larder is low. I was looking at you yesterday, and I see that you are becoming a first-rate hand at the management of a canoe."
"So I ought to be," the boy said, "considering that for nearly three months I have done nothing but shoot and fish."
"You have a sharp eye, Harold, and will make a good backwoodsman one of these days. You can shoot nearly as well as I can now. It is lucky that I had a good stock of powder and lead on hand; firing away by the hour together, as you do, consumes a large amount of ammunition. See, there is a canoe on the lake; it is coming this way, too. There is but one man in it; he is a white, by his clothes."
For a minute or two they stood watching the boat, and then, seeing that its course was directed toward the shore, they walked down to the edge of the lake to meet it.
"Ah, Pearson! is that you?" Mr. Welch asked. "I thought I knew your long, sweeping stroke at a distance. You have been hunting, I see; that is a fine stag you have got there. What is the news?"
"About as bad as can be, Master Welch," the hunter said. "The Iroquois have dug up the tomahawk again and are out on the war-path. They have massacred John Brent and his family. I heard a talk of it among some hunters I met ten days since in the woods. They said that the Iroquois were restless and that their chief, War Eagle, one of the most troublesome varmints on the whole frontier, had been stirring 'em up to war. He told 'em, I heard, that the pale-faces were pushing further and further into the Injun woods, and that, unless they drove 'em back, the redskin hunting grounds would be gone. I hoped that nothing would come of it, but I might have known better. When the redskins begin to stir there's sure to be mischief before they're quiet again."
The color had somewhat left Mr. Welch's cheeks as the hunter spoke.
"This is bad news, indeed, Pearson," he said gravely. "Are you sure about the attack on the Brents?"
"Sartin sure," the hunter said. "I met their herder; he had been down to Johnson's to fetch a barrel of pork. Just when he got back he heard the Injun yells and saw smoke rising in the clearing, so he dropped the barrel and made tracks. I met him at Johnson's, where he had just arrived. Johnson was packing up with all haste and was going to leave, and so I said I would take my canoe and come down the lake, giving you all warning on the way. I stopped at Burns' and Hooper's. Burns said he should clear out at once, but Hooper talked about seeing it through. He's got no wife to be skeary about, and reckoned that, with his two hands, he could defend his log hut. I told him I reckoned he would get his har raised if the Injuns came that way; but, in course, that's his business."
"What do you advise, Pearson? I do not like abandoning this farm to the mercy of the redskins."
"It would be a pity, Master Welch, that's as true as Gospel. It's the likeliest clearing within fifty miles round, and you've fixed the place up as snug and comfortable as if it were a farm in the old provinces. In course the question is what this War Eagle intends to do. His section of the tribe is pretty considerable strong, and although at present I aint heard that any others have joined, these Injuns are like barrels of gunpowder: when the spark is once struck there's no saying how far the explosion may spread. When one band of 'em sees as how another is taking scalps and getting plunder and honor, they all want to be at the same work. I reckon War Eagle has got some two hundred braves who will follow him; but when the news spreads that he has begun his work, all the Iroquois, to say nothing of the Shawnees, Delawares, and other varmint, may dig up the hatchet. The question is what War Eagle's intentions are. He may make a clean sweep down, attacking all the outlying farms and waiting till he is joined by a lot more of the red reptiles before attacking the settlements. Then, on the other hand, he may think himself strong enough to strike a blow at Gloucester and some other border villages at once. In that case he might leave the outlying farms alone, as the news of the burning of these would reach the settlements and put 'em on their guard, and he knows, in course, that if he succeeds there he can eat you all up at his leisure."
"The attack upon Brent's place looks as if he meant to make a clean sweep down," Mr. Welch said.
"Well," the hunter continued thoughtfully, "I don't know as I sees it in that light. Brent's place was a long way from any other. He might have wished to give his band a taste of blood, and so raise their spirits, and he might reasonably conclude that naught would be known about it for days, perhaps weeks to come. Then, again, the attack might have been made by some straggling party without orders. It's a dubious question. You've got four hands here, I think, and yourself. I have seen your wife shoot pretty straight with a rifle, so she can count as one, and as this young un, here, has a good idea, too, with his shooting-iron, that makes six guns. Your place is a strong one, and you could beat off any straggling party. My idea is that War Eagle, who knows pretty well that the place would make a stout fight, won't waste his time by making a regular attack upon it. You might hold out for twenty-four hours; the clearing is open and there aint no shelter to be had. He would be safe to lose a sight of men, and this would be a bad beginning, and would discourage his warriors greatly. No, I reckon War Eagle will leave you alone for the present. Maybe he will send a scout to see whether you are prepared; it's as likely as not that one is spying at us somewhere among the trees now. I should lose no time in driving in the animals and getting well in shelter. When they see you are prepared they will leave you alone; at least, for the present. Afterward there's no saying--that will depend on how they get on at the settlements. If they succeed there and get lots of booty and plenty of scalps, they may march back without touching you; they will be in a hurry to get to their villages and have their feasts and dancing. If they are beaten off at the settlements I reckon they will pay you a visit for sure; they won't go back without scalps. They will be savage like, and won't mind losing some men for the sake of having something to brag about when they get back. And now, Master Welch, I must be going on, for I want to take the news down to the settlements before War Eagle gets there, and he may be ahead of me now, for aught I know. I don't give you no advice as to what you had best do; you can judge the circumstances as well as I can. When I have been to the settlements and put them on their guard, maybe I shall be coming back again, and, in that case, you know Jack Pearson's rifle is at your disposal. You may as well tote this stag up to the house. You won't be doing much hunting just for the present, and the meat may come in handy."
The stag was landed, and a minute later the canoe shot away from shore under the steady stroke of the hunter's powerful arms. Mr. Welch at once threw the stag over his shoulders and, accompanied by Harold, strode away toward the house. On reaching it he threw down the stag at the door, seized a rope which hung against the wall, and the sounds of a large bell, rung in quick, sharp strokes, summoned the hands from the fields. The sound of the woodman's ax ceased at once, and the shouts of the men, as they drove the cattle toward the house, rose on the still air.
"What is the matter, William?" Mrs. Welch asked as she ran from the house.
"I have bad news, my dear. The Indians are out again, and I fear we may have trouble before us. We must hope that they will not come in this direction, but must be prepared for the worst. Wait till I see all the hands and beasts in the stockade, and then we can talk the matter over quietly."
In a few minutes the hands arrived, driving before them the horses and cattle.
"What is it, boss?" they asked. "Was that the alarm bell sure enough?"
"The Indians are out again," Mr. Welch said, "and in force. They have massacred the Brents and are making toward the settlements. They may come this way or they may not; at any rate, we must be prepared for them. Get the beasts into the sheds, and then do you all take scythes and set to work to cut down that patch of corn, which is high enough to give them shelter; there's nothing else which will cover them within a hundred yards of the house. Of course you will take your rifles with you and keep a sharp lookout; but they will have heard the bell, if they are in the neighborhood, and will guess that we are on the alert, so they are not likely to attempt a surprise. Shut one of the gates and leave the other ajar, with the bar handy to put up in case you have to make a run for it. Harold will go up to the lookout while you are at work."
Having seen that all was attended to, Mr. Welch went into the house, where his wife was going about her work as usual, pale, but quiet and resolute.
"Now, Jane," he said, "sit down, and I will tell you exactly how matters stand, as far as Pearson, who brought the news, has told me. Then you shall decide as to the course we had better take."
After he had told her all that Pearson had said, and the reasons for and against expecting an early attack, he went on:
"Now, it remains for you, my dear, to decide whether we shall stay and defend the place till the last against any attack that may be made, or whether we shall at once embark in the scow and make our way down to the settlements."
"What do you think, William?" his wife asked.
"I scarcely know, myself," he answered; "but, if I had quite my own way, I should send you and Nelly down to the settlements in the scow and fight it out here with the hands."
"You certainly will not have your own way in that," his wife said. "If you go of course I go; if you stay I stay. I would a thousand times rather go through a siege here, and risk the worst, than go down to Gloucester and have the frightful anxiety of not knowing what was happening here. Besides, it is very possible, as you say, that the Indians may attack the settlement itself. Many of the people there have had no experience in Indian war, and the redskins are likely to be far more successful in their surprise there than they would be here. If we go we should have to leave our house, our barns, our stacks, and our animals to the mercy of the savages. Your capital is pretty nearly all embarked here now, and the loss of all this would be ruin to us. At any rate, William, I am ready to stay here and to risk what may come if you are. A life on the frontier is necessarily a life of danger, and if we are to abandon everything and to have to commence life afresh every time the Indians go on the war-path, we had better give it up at once and return to Massachusetts."
"Very well, my dear," her husband said gravely. "You are a true frontiersman's wife; you have chosen as I should have done. It is a choice of evils; but God has blessed and protected us since we came out into the wilderness--we will trust and confide in him now. At any rate," he went on more cheerfully, "there is no fear of the enemy starving us out. We got in our store of provisions only a fortnight since, and have enough of everything for a three-months' siege. There is no fear of our well failing us; and as for ammunition, we have abundance. Seeing how Harold was using powder and ball, I had an extra supply when the stores came in the other day. There is plenty of corn in the barn for the animals for months, and I will have the corn which the men are cutting brought in as a supply of food for the cows. It will be useful for another purpose, too; we will keep a heap of it soaked with water and will cover the shingles with it in case of attack. It will effectually quench their fire arrows."
The day passed off without the slightest alarm, and by nightfall the patch of corn was cleared away and an uninterrupted view of the ground for the distance of a hundred yards from the house was afforded. When night fell two out of the four dogs belonging to the farm were fastened out in the open, at a distance of from seventy to eighty yards of the house, the others being retained within the stockade. The garrison was divided into three watches, two men being on the alert at a time, relieving each other every three hours. Mr. Welch took Harold as his companion on the watch. The boy was greatly excited at the prospect of a struggle. He had often read of the desperate fights between the frontier settlers and the Indians, and had longed to take a share in the adventurous work. He could scarcely believe that the time had come and that he was really a sharer in what might be a desperate struggle.
The first watch was set at nine, and at twelve Mr. Welch and Harold came on duty. The men they relieved reported that all was silent in the woods, and that they had heard no suspicious cries of any kind. When the men had returned to their room Mr. Welch told Harold that he should take a turn round the stockade and visit the dogs. Harold was to keep watch at the gate, to close it after he went out, to put up the bar, and to stand beside it ready to open it instantly if called upon.
Then the farmer stepped out into the darkness and, treading noiselessly, at once disappeared from Harold's sight. The latter closed the gate, replaced the heavy bar, and stood with one hand on this and the other holding his rifle, listening intently. Once he thought he heard a low growling from one of the dogs, but this presently ceased, and all was quiet again. The gate was a solid one, formed of strong timbers placed at a few inches apart and bolted to horizontal bars.
Presently he felt the gate upon which his hand rested quiver, as if pressure was applied from without. His first impulse was to say, "Is that you?" but Mr. Welch had told him that he would give a low whistle as he approached the gate; he therefore stood quiet, with his whole attention absorbed in listening. Without making the least stir he peered through the bars and made out two dark figures behind them. After once or twice shaking the gate, one took his place against it and the other sprang upon his shoulders.
Harold looked up and saw a man's head appear against the sky. Dim as was the light, he could see that it was no European head-gear, a long feather or two projecting from it. In an instant he leveled his rifle and fired. There was a heavy fall and then all was silent. Harold again peered through the bars. The second figure had disappeared, and a black mass lay at the foot of the gate.
In an instant the men came running from the house, rifles in hand.
"What is it?" they exclaimed. "Where is Mr. Welch?"
"He went out to scout round the house, leaving me at the gate," Harold said. "Two men, I think Indians, came up; one was getting over the gate when I shot him. I think he is lying outside--the other has disappeared."
"We must get the master in," one of the men said. "He is probably keeping away, not knowing what has happened. Mr. Welch," he shouted, "it is all safe here, so far as we know; we are all on the lookout to cover you as you come up."
Immediately a whistle was heard close to the gate. This was cautiously opened a few inches, and was closed and barred directly Mr. Welch entered.
Harold told him what had happened.
"I thought it was something of the sort. I heard Wolf growl and felt sure that it was not at me. I threw myself down and crept up to him and found him shot through the heart with an Indian arrow. I was crawling back to the house when I heard Harold's shot. Then I waited to see if it was followed by the war-whoop, which the redskins would have raised at once, on finding that they were discovered, had they been about to attack in force. Seeing that all was quiet, I conjectured that it was probably an attempt on the part of a spy to discover if we were upon the alert. Then I heard your call and at once came on. I do not expect any attack to-night now, as these fellows must have been alone; but we will all keep watch till the morning. You have done very well, Harold, and have shown yourself a keen watchman. It is fortunate that you had the presence of mind neither to stir nor to call out when you first heard them; for, had you done so, you would probably have got an arrow between your ribs, as poor Wolf has done."
When it was daylight, and the gate was opened, the body of an Indian was seen lying without; a small mark on his forehead showed where Harold's bullet had entered; death being instantaneous. His war-paint and the embroidery of his leggings showed him at once to be an Iroquois. Beside him lay his bow, with an arrow which had evidently been fitted to the string for instant work. Harold shuddered when he saw it and congratulated himself on having stood perfectly quiet. A grave was dug a short distance away, the Indian was buried, and the household proceeded about their work.
The day, as was usual in households in America, was begun with prayer, and the supplications of Mr. Welch for the protection of God over the household were warm and earnest. The men proceeded to feed the animals; these were then turned out of the inclosure, one of the party being always on watch in the little tower which they had erected for that purpose some ten or twelve feet above the roof of the house. From this spot a view was obtainable right over the clearing to the forest which surrounded it on three sides. The other hands proceeded to cut down more of the corn, so as to extend the level space around the house.