The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XX. The Terrible Ford
"The ford ain't much more than an hour's march farther on," said Dick Salter to Daniel Poe, "an' the way to it leads over purty smooth groun'."
"And we have not seen anything of the warriors yet, except the trails of small bands," said Daniel Poe hopefully. "It may be that our new friends are mistaken."
Dick Salter shook his head.
"Tom Ross never makes a mistake in matters uv that kind," he said, "an' that boy, Henry Ware, couldn't ef he tried. He's wonderful, Mr. Poe."
"Yes," said Daniel Poe. "Nobody else ever made such an impression upon me. And the one they call Paul is a fine fellow, too. I wish I had a son like that."
"He's the most popular fellow in the train already," said Dick Salter.
Both looked admiringly at Paul, who was walking near the head of the line, a group of lithe, strong-limbed boys and girls surrounding him and begging him for stories of the wilderness. Paul remained with the train by arrangement. It was his business to cheer, invigorate, and hearten for a great task, while his comrades roamed the forest and looked for the danger that they knew would surely come. Never did youth succeed better at his chosen task, as confidence spread from him like a contagion.
Paul presently quickened his steps, and came quite to the head of the line, where Daniel Poe and Dick Salter were walking, both circling the forest ahead of them with anxious eyes. They and Paul at the same time saw a figure emerge from the woods in front. It was Henry, and he was coming on swift foot. In an instant he was before them, and Paul knew by his look that he had news.
"They are waiting?" said Paul.
"Yes," replied Henry. "They are in the thickets at the ford, less than two miles ahead."
Daniel Poe shuddered again--for the five hundred lives in his charge--and then his heart rose. The waiting, the terrible suspense, were over, and it was battle now. The fact contained relief.
"Shall we halt?" he said to Henry. Unconsciously, he, too, was submitting to the generalship of this king of forest runners.
"No," replied Henry; "we've got to go on some time or other, and they can wait as long as we can. We must force the passage of the ford. We can do it."
He spoke with confidence, and courage seemed to leap like sparks from him and set fire to the others.
"Then it's go ahead," said Daniel Poe grimly. "We'll force the passage."
"Put all the little children, and all the women who don't fight, in the wagons, and make them lie down," said Henry. "The men must swarm on either flank. My comrades will remain in the front, watching until we reach the river."
Then a great bustle and the chatter of many voices arose; but it soon died away before stern commands and equally stern preparations, because they were preparing to run as terrible a gantlet as human beings ever face, these dauntless pioneers of the wilderness. The children were quickly loaded in the wagons, and all the weaker of the women; but with the men on the flanks marched at least two-score grim Amazons, rifle in hand.
Then the train resumed its slow march, and nothing was heard but the rolling of the wheels and the low cluck of the drivers to their horses. The way still led through an open, parklike country, and the road was easy. Soon those in front saw a faint streak cutting across the forest. The streak was silvery at first, and then blue, and it curved away to north and south among low hills.
"The river!" said Daniel Poe, and he shut his teeth hard.
All the men and the Amazons drew a long, deep breath, like a sigh; but they said nothing, and continued to march steadily forward. The river broadened, the blue of its waters deepened, and from the high ground on which they marched they could see the low banks on the farther shore, crowned by clustering thickets.
Three men emerged from the undergrowth. They were Tom Ross, Shif'less Sol, and Long Jim Hart. The shiftless one looked lazy and careless, and Jim Hart, stretching himself, looked longer and thinner than ever.
"We found it, Henry," said Ross. "Little more'n a mile to the south, men wadin' to the waist kin cross."
"Good!" said Henry. "We're lucky!"
He began to give rapid, incisive commands, and everyone obeyed as a matter of course, and without jealousy. Daniel Poe was the leader of the wagon train, but Henry Ware, whom they had known but a few days, was its leader in battle.
"Take fifty men," he said to Ross, "the best marksmen and the stanchest fighters, and cross there. Then come silently among the thickets up the bank, to strike them when they strike us."
Paul listened with admiration. He knew Henry's genius for battle, and, like the others, he was inspired by his comrade's confidence. The fifty men were quickly told off behind the wagons, and, headed by Tom Ross and Jim Hart, they disappeared at once in the woods. Shif'less Sol remained with Henry and Paul.
"Now, forward!" said Henry Ware, and the terrible, grim march was begun again. There was the river, growing broader and broader and bluer and bluer as they came closer. The children and women--except the Amazons--saw nothing because they were crouched upon the floors of the wagon beds, but the drivers, every one of whom had a rifle lying upon the seat beside him, were at that moment the bravest of them all, because they faced the greatest danger.
"Slowly!" said Henry, to the leading wagons. "We must give Sol and his men time for their circuit."
He noted with deep joy that the ford was wide. At least five wagons could enter it abreast, and he made them advance in five close lines.
"When you reach the water," he said to the drivers, "lie down behind the front of the wagon beds, and drive any way you can. Now, Sol, you and I and Dick Salter must rouse them from the thickets."
The three crept forward, and looked at the peaceful river under the peaceful sky. So far as the ordinary eye could see, there was no human being on its shores. The bushes waved a little in the gentle wind, and the water broke in brilliant bubbles on the shallows.
But Henry Ware's eyes were not ordinary. There was not a keener pair on the continent, and among the thickets on the farther bank he saw a stir that was not natural. The wind blew north, and now and then a bush would bend a little toward the south. He crept closer, and at last he saw a coppery face here and there, and savage, gleaming eyes staring through the bushes.
"Tell the wagons to come on boldly," he said to Shif'less Sol, and the shiftless one obeyed.
"Now, Sol," he said, when the man returned, "take fifty more riflemen, and hide in that thicket, at the highest part of the bank. Stay there. You will know what else to do."
"I think I will," said the shiftless one, and every trace of indifference or laziness was gone from him. He was the forester, alert and indomitable--a fit second to Henry Ware. Then Henry and Jim Hart alone were left near the river's brink. Henry did not look back.
"Are the wagons coming fast?" he asked.
"Yes," said Jim Hart, "but I'm beckonin' to 'em to come still faster. They'll be in the water in three minutes. Listen! The drivers are whippin' up the horses!"
The loud cracking of whips arose, and the horses advanced at a trot toward the ford. At the same instant Henry Ware raised his rifle, and fired like a flash of lightning at one of the coppery faces in the thicket on the opposite shore. The death cry of the savage rose, but far above it rose the taunting shout of the white youth, louder and more terrible than their own. The savages, surprised, abandoned their ambush. The leading wagons dashed into the water, and down upon them dashed the picked power of the allied western tribes.
In an instant the far edge of the water was swarming with coppery bodies and savage faces, and the war whoop, given again and again, echoed far up and down the stream, and through the thickets and forest. Rifles cracked rapidly, and then blazed into volleys. Bullets sighed as they struck on human flesh or the wood of wagons, and now and then they spattered on the water. Cries of pain or shouts of defiance rose, and the furious conflict between white man and red rapidly thickened and deepened, becoming a confused and terrible medley.
Henry Ware and Jim Hart ran down into the stream by the side of the leading wagons, and loaded and fired swiftly into the dense brown mass before them. Nor did they send a bullet amiss. Henry Ware was conscious at that moment of a fierce desire to see the face of Braxton Wyatt amid the brown horde. He knew he was there, somewhere, and in the rage of conflict he would gladly have sent a bullet through the renegade's black heart. He did not see him, but the dauntless youth pressed steadily forward, continually shouting encouragement and showing the boldest example of them all.
A bank of blue and white smoke arose over the stream, shot through by the flashes of the rifle firing, and out of this bank came the defiant shouts of the combatants. Suddenly, from the high bank, on the shore that they had just left, burst a tremendous volley--fifty rifles fired at once. A yell of pain and rage burst from the savages. Those rifles had mowed a perfect swath of death among them.
"Good old Sol! Good old Sol!" exclaimed Henry, twice through his shut teeth. "On, men, on! Trample them down! Drive the wagons into them!"
A second time the unexpected volley burst from the hill, and a storm of bullets beat upon the packed mass of the savages at the edge of the water. Henry Ware had been a true general that day. Shif'less Sol and his men, from their height and hid among the bushes, poured volley after volley into the savages below, spurred on by their own success and the desperation of the cause.
The front wagons advanced deeper into the water and the smoke bank, and the others came, closely packed behind in a huddle. Unearthly screams arose--the cries of wounded or dying horses, shot by the savages.
"Cut them loose from the gear," cried Henry, "and on! always on!"
Swift and skillful hands obeyed him, and some of the wagons, in the wild energy of the moment, were carried on, partly by a single horse and partly by the weight of those behind them. The shouts of the savages never ceased, but above them rose the cry of the dauntless soul that now led the wagon train. More than one savage fired at the splendid figure, never more splendid than when in battle; but always the circling smoke or the hand of Providence protected him, and he still led on, unhurt. They were now near the middle of the river, and Shif'less Sol and his men never ceased to pour their fire over their heads and into the red ranks.
"Now! Now!" muttered Henry, through his shut teeth. He was praying for Tom Ross and the first fifty, and as he prayed his prayer was answered.
A great burst of fire came from the thickets on their own side of the river, and the savages were smitten on the flanks, as if by a bolt of lightning. It seemed to them at the same moment as if the fire of the men with the wagon train, and of those on the high bluff, doubled. They recoiled. They gave back and they shivered as that terrible fire smote them a second and a third time on the flank. The soul of Shawnee, Miami, and Wyandot alike filled with dread. In vain Yellow Panther and Red Eagle, great war chiefs, raged back and forth, and encouraged their warriors to go on. In vain they risked their lives again and again. The great bulk of the wagons bore steadily down upon them, and they were continually lashed by an unerring fire from three points. Well for the people of the wagon train that a born leader had planned their crossing and had led them that day!
"They give, they give!" shouted Henry Ware. "We win, we win!"
"They give, they give! We win, we win!" shouted the brave riflemen, and they pressed forward more strongly than ever. By their side waded the bold Amazons, fighting with the best.
The wagons themselves offered great shelter for the pioneers. As Henry had foreseen, they were driven forward in a mass, which was carried partly by its own impetus. If the Indians had thought to fire chiefly upon the horses they would have accomplished more, but the few of these that were slain did not check the progress of the others. Meanwhile, the riflemen lurked amid the wheels and behind the wagon beds, incessantly pouring their deadly hail of bullets upon the exposed savages, and the drivers from sheltered places did the same. The train became a moving fort, belching forth fire and death upon its enemies.
The defenders did not advance without loss. Now and then a man sank and died in the stream, many others suffered wounds, and even the women and children did not escape; but through it all, through all the roar and tumult, all the shouting and cries, the train drew steadily closer to the western bank.
"Now, boys," shouted Shif'less Sol to his faithful fifty, "they're about to run! Pour it into 'em!"
At the same time Tom Ross was giving a similar command to his own equally faithful fifty, and they closed up on the flank of the allied tribes, and stung and stung. Henry Ware, through the drifting clouds of smoke and vapor, saw the savages waver again, and, shouting to the boldest to follow, he rushed forward. Then Shawnees, Miamis, and Wyandots, despite the fierce commands of Yellow Panther and Red Eagle, broke and fled from the water to the shore. There Tom Ross stung them more fiercely than ever on the flank, and the fire of Shif'less Sol from the high bluff reached them with deadly aim. They broke again, and, filled with superstitious terror at their awful losses, fled, a panic horde, into the woods.
"On, on!" shouted Henry Ware, in tremendous tones. "They run, they run!"
The whole train seemed to heave forward, as if by one convulsive but triumphant movement. Shif'less Sol and his men came down from the bluff and dashed into the water behind them; Ross and his fifty came forward from the thicket to meet them; and thus, dripping with water, smoke, blood, and sweat, the whole train passed up the western bank. The terrible ford had been won!