True to the Old Flag by G. A. Henty
Chapter III. The Redskin Attack.
Mr. Welch was with the men, two or three hundred yards away from the house, when the Indians suddenly sprang out and opened fire. One of the men fell beside him; the farmer stooped to lift him, but saw that he was shot through the head. Then he ran with full speed toward the house, shouting to the hands to make straight for the gate, disregarding the cattle. Several of these, however, alarmed at the sudden outburst of fire and the yells of the Indians, made of their own accord for the stables as their master rushed up at full speed. The Indians were but fifty or sixty yards behind when Mr. Welch reached his gate. They had all emptied their pieces, and after the first volley no shots had been fired save one by the watchman on the lookout. Then came the crack of Pearson's rifle just as Mr. Welch shut the gate and laid the bar in its place. Several spare guns had been placed in the upper chambers, and three reports rang out together, for Mrs. Welch had run upstairs at the first alarm to take her part in the defense.
In another minute the whole party, now six in all, were gathered in the upper room.
"Where are Nelly and Harold?" Mr. Welch exclaimed. "I saw the canoe close to the shore just before the Indians opened fire," the watchman answered.
"You must have been asleep," Pearson said savagely. "Where were your eyes to let them redskins crawl up through the corn without seeing 'em? With such a crowd of 'em the corn must have been a-waving as if it was blowing a gale. You ought to have a bullet in yer ugly carkidge, instead of its being in yer mate's out there."
While this conversation was going on no one had been idle. Each took up his station at a loop-hole, and several shots were fired whenever the movement of a blade of corn showed the lurking place of an Indian.
The instant the gate had been closed War Eagle had called his men back to shelter, for he saw that all chance of a surprise was now over, and it was contrary to all redskin strategy to remain for one moment unnecessarily exposed to the rifles of the whites. The farmer and his wife had rushed at once up into the lookout as the Indians drew off and, to their joy, saw the canoe darting away from shore.
"They are safe for the present, thank God!" Mr. Welch said. "It is providential indeed that they had not come a little further from the shore when the redskins broke out. Nothing could have saved them, had they fairly started for the house."
"What will they do, William?" asked his wife anxiously.
"I cannot tell you, my dear. I do not know what I should do myself under the circumstances. However, the boy has got a cool head on his shoulders, and you need not be anxious for the present. Now let us join the others. Our first duty is to take our share in the defense of the house. The young ones are in the hands of God. We can do nothing for them." "Well?" Pearson asked, looking round from his loop-hole as the farmer and his wife descended into the room, which was a low garret extending over the whole of the house. "Do you see the canoe?"
"Yes, it has got safely away," William Welch said; "but what the lad will do now is more than I can say."
Pearson placed his rifle against the wall. "Now keep your eyes skinned," he said to the three farm hands.
"One of yer's done mischief enough this morning already, and you'll get your har raised, as sure as you're born, unless you look out sharp. Now," he went on, turning to the Welches, "let us go down and talk this matter over. The Injuns may keep on firing, but I don't think they'll show in the open again as long as it's light enough for us to draw bead on 'em. Yes," he went on, as he looked through a loop-hole in the lower story over the lake, "there they are, just out of range."
"What do you think they will do?" Mrs. Welch asked.
The hunter was silent for a minute.
"It aint a easy thing to say what they ought to do, much less what they will do; it aint a good outlook anyway, and I don't know what I should do myself. The whole of the woods on this side of the lake are full of the darned red critters. There's a hundred eyes on that canoe now, and, go where they will, they'll be watched."
"But why should they not cross the lake and land on the other side?" Mr. Welch said.
"If you and I were in that canoe," the hunter answered, "that's about what we should do; but, not to say that it's a long row for 'em, they two young uns would never get across; the Injuns would have 'em before they had been gone an hour. There's my canoe lying under the bushes; she'd carry four, and would go three feet to their two."
"I had forgotten about that," William Welch said, and then added, after a pause: "The Indians may not find it."
"You needn't hope that," the hunter answered; "they have found it long before this. I don't want to put you out of heart; but I tell ye ye'll see them on the water before many minutes have passed."
"Then they are lost," Mrs. Welch said, sinking down in her chair and bursting into tears.
"They air in God's hands, ma'am," the hunter said, "and it's no use trying to deceive you."
"Would it be of any use," William Welch asked, after a pause, "for me to offer the redskins that my wife and I will go out and put ourselves in their hands if they will let the canoe go off without pursuit?"
"Not it," the hunter replied decidedly. "You would be throwing away your own lives without saving theirs, not to mention, although that doesn't matter a straw, the lives of the rest of us here. It will be as much as we can do, when they attack us in earnest, to hold this place with six guns, and with only four the chance would be worth nothing. But that's neither here nor there. You wouldn't save the young ones if you gave yourselves up. You can't trust the word of an Injun on the war-path, and if they went so far as not to kill 'em they would carry 'em off; and, after all, I aint sure as death aint better for 'em than to be brought up as Injuns. There," he said, stopping suddenly as a report of a musket sounded at some little distance off, "the Injuns are trying their range against 'em. Let's go up to the lookout."
The little tower had a thick parapet of logs some three feet high, and, crouching behind this, they watched the canoe. "He's coming nearer in shore, and the girl has got the paddle," Pearson muttered. "What's he doing now?" A puff of smoke was seen to rise near the border of the lake; then came the sharp crack of Harold's rifle. They saw an Indian spring from the bushes and fall dead.
"Well done, young un!" Pearson exclaimed. "I told yer he'd got his head screwed on the right way. He's keeping just out of range of their guns, and that piece of his can carry twice as far as theirs. I reckon he's thought of the canoe, and means to keep 'em from using it. I begins to think, Mr. Welch, that there's a chance for 'em yet. Now let's talk a little to these red devils in the corn."
For some little time Pearson and William Welch turned their attention to the Indians, while the mother sat with her eyes fixed upon the canoe.
"He is coming closer again," she exclaimed presently.
"He's watching the canoe, sure enough," Pearson said. Then came the volley along the bushes on the shore, and they saw an Indian rise to his feet.
"That's just where she lies!" Pearson exclaimed; "he's getting into it. There! well done, young un."
The sudden disappearance of the Indian and the vengeful yell of the hidden foe told of the failure of the attempt.
"I think they're safe, now, till nightfall. The Injuns won't care about putting themselves within range of that 'ere rifle again."
Gradually the fire of the Indians ceased, and the defenders were able to leave the loop-holes. Two of the men went down and fastened up the cattle, which were still standing loose in the yard inside the stockade; the other set to to prepare a meal, for Mrs. Welch could not take her eyes off the canoe.
The afternoon seemed of interminable length. Not a shot was fired. The men, after taking their dinner, were occupied in bringing some great tubs on to the upper story and filling them to the brim with water from the well. This story projected two feet beyond the one below it, having been so built in order that, in case of attack, the defenders might be able to fire down upon any foe who might cross the stockade and attack the house itself; the floor boards over the projecting portion were all removable. The men also brought a quantity of the newly cut corn to the top of the house, first drenching it with water.
The sun sank, and as dusk was coming on the anxious watchers saw the canoe paddle out far into the lake.
"An old frontiersman couldn't do better," Pearson exclaimed. "He's kept them out of the canoe as long as daylight lasted; now he has determined to paddle away and is making down the lake," he went on presently. "It's a pity he turned so soon, as they can see the course he's taking."
They watched until it was completely dark; but, before the light quite faded, they saw another canoe put out from shore and start in the direction taken by the fugitives.
"Will they catch them, do you think?" Mrs. Welch asked.
"No, ma'am," Pearson said confidently. "The boy's got sense enough to have changed his course after it gets dark, though whether he'll make for shore or go out toward the other side is more than I can say. You see, they'll know that the Injuns are all along this side of the lake; but then, on the other hand, they'll be anxious about us and 'll want to keep close at hand. Besides, the lad knows nothing of the other side; there may be Injuns there, for aught he knows, and it's a skeary thing for a young un to take to the forest, especially with a gal in his charge. There aint no saying what he'll do. And now we've got to look after ourselves; don't let us think about 'em at present. The best thing as we can do for them, as well as for ourselves, is to hold this here place. If they live they'll come back to it sooner or later, and it 'll be better for 'em to find it standing, and you here to welcome 'em, than to get back to a heap of ruins and some dead bodies."
"When will the redskins attack, do you think?" the farmer asked.
"We may expect 'em any time, now," the hunter answered. "The Injuns' time of attack is generally just before dawn, but they know well enough they aint likely to ketch us asleep any time, and, as they know exactly what they have got to do they'll gain nothing by waiting. I wish we had a moon; if we had, we might keep 'em out of the stockade. But there--it's just as well it's dark, after all; for, if the moon was up, the young ones would have no chance of getting away."
The garrison now all took their places at the loop-holes, having first carried the wet fodder to the roof and spread it over the shingles. There was nothing to do now but to wait. The night was so dark that they could not see the outline of the stockade. Presently a little spark shot through the air, followed by a score of others. Mr. Welch had taken his post on the tower, and he saw the arrows whizzing through the air, many of them falling on the roof. The dry grass dipped in resin, which was tied round the arrow-heads, was instantly extinguished as the arrows fell upon the wet corn, and a yell arose from the Indians.
The farmer descended and told the others of the failure of the Indians' first attempt.
"That 'ere dodge is a first-rate un," Pearson said. "We're safe from fire, and that's the only thing we've got to be afeared on. You'll see 'em up here in a few minutes."
Everything was perfectly quiet. Once or twice the watchers thought that they could hear faint sounds, but could not distinguish their direction. After half an hour's anxious waiting a terrible yell was heard from below, and at the doors and windows of the lower rooms came the crashing blows of tomahawks.
The boards had already been removed from the flooring above, and the defenders opened a steady fire into the dark mass that they could faintly make out clustered round the windows and doors. At Pearson's suggestion the bullets had been removed from the guns and heavy charges of buckshot had been substituted for them, and yells of pain and surprise rose as they fired. A few shots were fired up from below, but a second discharge from the spare guns completed the effect from the first volley. The dark mass broke up and, in a few seconds, all was as quiet as before.
Two hours passed, and then slight sounds were heard. "They've got the gate opened, I expect," Pearson said. "Fire occasionally at that; if we don't hit 'em the flashes may show us what they're doing."
It was as he had expected. The first discharge was followed by a cry, and by the momentary light they saw a number of dark figures pouring in through the gate. Seeing that concealment was no longer possible, the Indians opened a heavy fire round the house; then came a crashing sound near the door.
"Just as I thought," Pearson said. "They're going to try to burn us out."
For some time the noise continued, as bundle after bundle of dried wood was thrown down by the door. The garrison were silent; for, as Pearson said, they could see nothing, and a stray bullet might enter at the loop-holes if they placed themselves there, and the flashes of the guns would serve as marks for the Indians.
Presently two or three faint lights were seen approaching.
"Now," Pearson said, "pick 'em off as they come up. You and I'll take the first man, Welch. You fire just to the right of the light, I will fire to the left; he may be carrying the brand in either hand."
They fired together, and the brand was seen to drop to the ground. The same thing happened as the other two sparks of light approached; then it was again quiet. Now a score of little lights flashed through the air.
"They're going to light the pile with their flaming arrows," Pearson said. "War Eagle is a good leader."
Three or four of the arrows fell on the pile of dry wood. A moment later the flames crept up and the smoke of burning wood rolled up into the room above. A yell of triumph burst from the Indians, but this changed into one of wrath as those above emptied the contents of one of the great tubs of water on to the pile of wood below them. The flames were instantly extinguished.
"What will they do next?" Mrs. Welch asked.
"It's like enough," Pearson replied, "that they'll give the job up altogether. They've got plenty of plunder and scalps at the settlements, and their attacking us here in such force looks as if the hull of 'em were on their way back to their villages. If they could have tuk our scalps easy they would have done it; but War Eagle aint likely to risk losing a lot of men when he aint sartin of winning, after all. He has done good work as it is, and has quite enough to boast about when he gets back. If he were to lose a heap of his braves here it would spoil the success of his expedition. No, I think as he will give it up now."
"He will be all the more anxious to catch the children," Mrs. Welch said despondently.
"It can't be denied, ma'am, as he will do his best that way," Pearson answered. "It all depends, though, on the boy. I wish I was with him in that canoe. Howsomever, I can't help thinking as he will sarcumvent 'em somehow."
The night passed without any further attack. By turns half the garrison watched while the other lay down, but there was little sleep taken by any. With the first gleam of daylight Mrs. Welch and her husband were on the lookout.
"There's two canoes out on the lake," Pearson said. "They're paddling quietly; which is which I can't say."
As the light became brighter Pearson pronounced, positively, that there were three men in one canoe and four in the other.
"I think they're all Injuns," he said. "They must have got another canoe somewhere along the lake. Waal, they've not caught the young uns yet."
"The boats are closing up to each other," Mrs. Welch said. "They're going to have a talk, I reckon. Yes, one of 'em's turning and going down the lake, while the other's going up. I'd give a heap to know where the young uns have got to."
The day passed quietly. An occasional shot toward the house showed that the Indians remained in the vicinity and, indeed, dark forms could be seen moving about in the distant parts of the clearing.
"Will it be possible," the farmer asked Pearson, when night again fell, "to go out and see if we can discover any traces of them?"
"Worse than no use," Pearson said positively. "We should just lose our har without doing no good whatever. If the Injuns in these woods--and I reckon altogether there's a good many hundred of 'em--can't find 'em, ye may swear that we can't. That's just what they're hoping, that we'll be fools enough to put ourselves outside the stockade. They'll lie close round all night, and a weasel wouldn't creep through 'em. Ef I thought there was jest a shadow of chance of finding them young uns I'd risk it; but there's no chance--not a bit of it."
A vigilant watch was again kept up all night, but all was still and quiet. The next morning the Indians were still round them.
"Don't ye fret, ma'am!" Pearson said, as he saw how pale and wan Mrs. Welch looked in the morning light. "You may bet your last shilling that they're not caught 'em."
"Why are you so sure?" Mrs. Welch asked. "They may be dead by this time."
"Not they, ma'am! I'm as sartin as they're living and free as I am that I'm standing here. I know these Injuns' ways. Ef they had caught 'em they'd jest have brought 'em here and would have fixed up two posts, jest out of rifle range, and would have tied them there and offered you the choice of giving up this place and your scalps or of seeing them tortured and burned under your eyes. That's their way. No, they aint caught 'em alive, nor they aint caught 'em dead neither; for, ef they had they'd have brought their scalps to have shown yer. No, they've got away, though it beats me to say how. I've only got one fear, and that is that they might come back before the Injuns have gone. Now I tell ye what we had better do--we better keep up a dropping fire all night and all day to-morrow, and so on, until the redskins have gone. Ef the young uns come back across the lake at night, and all is quiet, they'll think the Injuns have taken themselves off; but, if they hear firing still going on, they'll know well enough that they're still around the house."
William Welch at once agreed to this plan, and every quarter of an hour or so all through the night a few shots were fired. The next morning no Indians could be seen, and there was a cessation of the dropping shots which had before been kept up at the house.
"They may be in hiding," Pearson said in the afternoon, "trying to tempt us out; but I'm more inclined to think as how they've gone. I don't see a blade of that corn move; I've had my eyes fixed on it for the last two hours. It are possible, of course, that they're there, but I reckon not. I expect they've been waiting, ever since they gave up the attack, in hopes that the young uns would come back; but now, as they see that we're keeping up a fire to tell them as how they're still round us, they've given it up and gone. When it gets dark to-night I'll go out and scout round."
At ten o'clock at night Pearson dropped lightly from the stockade on the side opposite to the gate, as he knew that, if the Indians were there, this would be the point that they would be watching; then, crawling upon his stomach, he made his way slowly down to the lake. Entering the water and stooping low, he waded along the edge of the bushes for a distance of a mile; then he left the water and struck into the forest. Every few minutes he could hear the discharge of the rifles at the house; but, as before, no answering shots were heard. Treading very cautiously, he made a wide detour and then came down again on the clearing at the end furthest from the lake, where the Indians had been last seen moving about. All was still. Keeping among the trees and moving with great caution, he made his way, for a considerable distance, along the edge of the clearing; then he dropped on his hands and knees and entered the cornfield, and for two hours he crawled about, quartering the ground like a dog in search of game. Everywhere he found lines where the Indians had crawled along to the edge nearest to the house, but nowhere did he discover a sign of life. Then, still taking great care, he moved down toward the house and made a circuit of it a short distance outside the stockade; then he rose to his feet.
"Yer may stop shooting," he shouted. "The pesky rascals are gone." Then he walked openly up to the gate; it was opened at once by William Welch.
"Are you sure they have gone?" he asked.
"Sure as gospel," he answered, "and they've been gone twenty-four hours at least."
"How do you know that?"
"Easy enough. I found several of their cooking places in the woods; the brands were out, and even under the ashes the ground was cold, so they must have been out for a long time. I could have walked straight on to the house, then, but I thought it safer to make quite sure by searching everywhere, for they might have moved deeper into the forest, and left a few men on guard here, in case the young uns should come back. But it aint so; they've gone, and there aint a living soul anywhere nigh the clearing. The young uns can come back now, if they will, safely enough."
Before doing anything else the farmer assembled the party together in the living room, and there solemnly offered up thanks to God for their deliverance from danger, and implored his protection for the absent ones. When this was over he said to his wife:
"Now, Jane; you had better lie down and get a few hours' sleep. It is already two o'clock, and there is no chance whatever of their returning tonight, but I shall go down to the lake and wait till morning. Place candles in two of the upper windows. Should they be out on the lake they will see them and know that the Indians have not taken the house."
Morning came, without any signs of the absent ones. At daybreak Pearson went out to scout in the woods, and returned late in the afternoon with the news that the Indians had all departed, and that, for a distance of ten miles at least, the woods were entirely free.
When it became dark the farmer again went down to the lake and watched until two, when Pearson took his place. Mr. Welch was turning to go back to the house when Pearson placed his hand on his shoulder.
"Listen!" he said; and for a minute the men stood immovable.
"What was it?" the farmer asked.
"I thought I heard the stroke of a paddle," Pearson said; "it might have been the jump of a fish. There! there it is again!" He lay down and put his ear close to the water. "There's a canoe in the lake to the north'ard. I can hear the strokes of the paddle plainly."
Mr. Welch could hear nothing. Some minutes passed, then Pearson exclaimed:
"There! I saw a break in the water over there! There it is!" he said, straining his eyes in the darkness. "That's a canoe, sure enough, although they have ceased paddling. It's not a mile away."
Then he rose to his feet and shouted "Halloo!" at the top of his voice. An answering shout faintly came back across the water. He again hailed loudly, and this time the answer came in a female voice.
"It's them, sure enough. I can swear to Nelly's voice."
William Welch uncovered his head and, putting his hand before his face, returned fervent thanks to God for the recovery of his child. Then he dashed off at full speed toward the house. Before he reached it however, he met his wife running down to meet him, the shouts having informed her that something was seen. Hand in hand they ran down to the water's edge. The canoe was now swiftly approaching. The mother screamed:
"Nelly! is that you?"
"Mamma! mamma!" came back in the girl's clear tones.
With a low cry of gladness Mrs. Welch fell senseless to the ground. The strain which she had for four days endured had been terrible, and even the assurances of Pearson had failed to awaken any strong feeling of hope in her heart. She had kept up bravely and had gone about her work in the house with a pale, set face, but the unexpected relief was too much for her. Two minutes later the bow of the canoe grated on the shore, and Nelly leaped into her father's arms.
"Where is mamma?" she exclaimed. "She is here, my dear, but she has fainted. The joy of your return has been too much for her."
Nelly knelt beside her mother and raised her head, and the farmer grasped Harold's hand.
"My brave boy," he said, "I have to thank you for saving my child's life. God bless you!"
He dipped his hat in the lake and sprinkled water in his wife's face. She soon recovered and, a few minutes afterward, the happy party walked up to the house, Mrs. Welch being assisted by her husband and Pearson. The two young ones were soon seated at a table, ravenously devouring food, and, when their hunger was satisfied, they related the story of their adventures, the whole of the garrison being gathered round to listen. After relating what had taken place up to the time of their hiding the canoe, Harold went on:
"We walked about a quarter of a mile until we came to a large clump of underwood. We crept in there, taking great pains not to break a twig or disturb a leaf. The ground was, fortunately, very dry, and I could see that our footprints had not left the smallest marks. There we have lain hid ever since. We had the fish and the berries, and, fortunately, the fruit was ripe and juicy and quenched our thirst well enough, and we could, sometimes, hear the firing by day, and always at night. On the day we took refuge we heard the voices of the Indians down toward the lake quite plainly, but we have heard nothing of them since. Last night we heard the firing up to the middle of the night, and then it suddenly stopped. To-day I crept out and went down to the lake to listen; but it seemed that everything was still. Nelly was in a terrible way, and was afraid that the house had been taken by the Indians, but I told her that could not be, for that there would certainly have been a tremendous lot of firing at last, whereas it stopped, after a few shots, just as it had been going on so long. Our provisions were all gone and Nelly was getting very bad for want of water. I, of course, got a drink at the lake this morning. So we agreed that, if everything was still again to-night, we would go back to the place where we had hidden the canoe, launch it, and paddle here. Everything was quiet, so we came along as we had arranged. When I saw the lights in the windows I made sure all was right: still it was a great relief when I heard the shout from the shore. I knew, of course, that it wasn't a redskin's shout. Besides, Indians would have kept quiet till we came alongside."
Very hearty were the commendations bestowed on the boy for his courage and thoughtfulness.
"You behaved like an old frontiersman," Pearson said. "I couldn't have done better myself. You only made one blunder from the time you set out from shore."
"What was that?" Harold asked.
"You were wrong to pick the berries. The redskins, of course, would find where you had landed, they'd see the marks where you lay down, and would know that you had paddled away again. Had it not been for their seeing the tracks you made in picking the berries they might have, supposed you had started before daybreak, and had gone out of sight across the lake; but them marks would have shown 'em that you did not take to your canoe until long after the sun was up, and therefore that you couldn't have made across the lake without their seeing you, but must either have landed or be in your canoe under shelter of the trees somewhere along the shore. It's a marvel to me that they didn't find your traces, however careful you were to conceal 'em. But that's the only error you made, and I tell you, young un, you have a right to be proud of having outwitted a hull tribe of redskins."