The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XXII. The Last Stand
Henry Ware and the others, listening at the circle of the wagons, heard the flare of shots, and then, a little later, a lone but long and defiant cry, that seemed to be an answer to the others.
"That's Jim Hart, and he's through!" exclaimed Henry exultantly. "Now he'll fairly eat up the ground between here and Wareville."
That night another attack, or rather feint, was made upon the train; but it was easily beaten off, and then morning came, raw and wet. The woods and grass were dripping with the showers, and a sodden, gray sky chilled and discouraged. The fires were lighted with difficulty and burned weakly. The women and children ate but little, casting fearful glances at the rain-soaked forest that circled about them. But Paul, as usual, with his bright face and brighter words, walked among them, and he told them a good tale. Long Jim Hart, with muscles and a soul of steel, had gone forth that night, and he would bring help. They were to march to a place called the Table Rock, where they would stay until the relief came. Gradually downcast heads were lifted and sunken spirits rose.
The gantlet began in the usual fashion an hour later, and throughout all that long, dismal morning it was a continual skirmish. The savages pressed closer than ever, and all the vigilance and accuracy of the riflemen were needed to drive them off. One man was killed and several were wounded, but the borderers merely shut their teeth down the harder and marched on.
Toward noon they saw a flat-topped hill, with a stony surface, a little stream running down its side, and Henry uttered a cheerful shout.
"The Table Rock!" he said. "Here we can hold off all the savages in the West!"
The train increased its slow gait, and all hearts grew lighter. The savages, as if determined that the wagons should not gain the shelter, pressed forward, but after a short but fierce combat were driven off, and the train circled triumphantly up the slope.
It was indeed all that Henry had claimed for it--an ideal place for a protected camp, easy to defend, difficult to take. Not all the surface was stone, and there was abundant grazing ground for the horses. The spring that gushed from the side of the hill was inside the lines, and neither horse nor man lacked for pure water.
Now they fortified more strongly than ever, throwing up earthworks higher than before and doubling the sentinels. Fallen wood was plentiful, and at Henry's direction the fires were built high and large in order that they might drive away discouragement. Then a semblance of cheerfulness made its appearance, and the women and children began to talk once more.
"Long Jim will go through if any mortal man can," said Henry Ware to Daniel Poe.
"Pray God that he succeeds," said Daniel Poe. "Surely, no wagon train ever before ran the deadly gantlet that ours has run."
Shif'less Sol strolled into the circle of fires, and sat down with Paul.
"Now, this is what I call true comfort fur a tired man," he said. "Here we are with nuthin' to do but set here an' rest, until somebody comes an' takes us to Wareville. Them savages out thar might save theirselves a heap o' trouble by goin' peacefully away. Makes me think o' that siege o' Troy you wuz talkin' about, Paul, only we won't let any wooden horse in."
"Maybe there is some likeness," said Paul.
"Maybe thar is," continued Shif'less Sol, in his cheerful tones; "but Tom Ross wuz right when he said the way them Greeks an' Trojans fought was plumb foolish. Do you think that me, Sol Hyde, is goin' to take a tin pan an' go beatin' on it down thar among the bushes, an' callin' on the biggest boaster o' all the savages to come out an' fight me? No, sir; I wouldn't go fifty yards before I'd tumble over, with a bullet through me."
Most of the people laughed, and the shiftless one continued with random, cheery talk, helping Paul to hearten them. The two succeeded to a great degree. There was mourning for the dead, but it was usually silent. The borderers were too much accustomed to hardship and death to grieve long over the past. They turned themselves to present needs.
The night was rainy, and unusually cold for that time of the year, and Henry Ware rejoiced because of it. The savages in the thickets, despite their hardiness, would suffer more than the emigrants in the shelter of the wagons. Henry himself, although he caught little naps here and there, seemed to the others able to do without sleep. He kept up an incessant watch, and his vigilance defeated two attempts of the warriors to creep up in the darkness and pour a fire into the train.
A second day came, and then a third, and the savages resumed their continuous skirmishing. A single warrior would creep up, fire a shot, and then spring away. They did little damage, but they showed that no one was safe for a moment outside the circle of wagons. If help did not come, they would never leave their rock.
Time wore on, and the beleaguered camp became again a prey to gloom. Women and children fell sick, and the hearts of the men were heavy. The ring of savages drew closer, and more than once bullets fell inside the circle of the wagons. It was hard work now for Paul and Shif'less Sol to keep up the spirits of the women and children, and once, at a council, some one talked of surrender. They might at least get good treatment.
"Never think of such a thing!" said Henry Ware. "All the men would be killed, tortured to death, and all the women and children would be taken away into slavery. Hold on! Jim Hart will surely get through."
But the warriors steadily grew bolder. They seemed to be animated by the certainty of triumph. Often through the day and night they uttered taunting shouts, and now and then, in the day time, they would appear at the edge of the woods and make derisive gestures. Daniel Poe grew gloomy, and sadly shook his head.
"Help must come soon," he said, "or our people will not have spirit to beat back the savages the next time they try to rush the camp."
"It will come, it will surely come!" said Henry confidently.
The worst night of all arrived. More of the women and children fell sick, and they did not have the energy to build up bright fires. It was to Ross and Shif'less Sol that this task fell; but, though they kept the fires high, they accomplished little else. Paul lay down about midnight and slept several hours, but it was a troubled night. The savages did not rest. They were continually flitting about among the trees at the foot of the hill, and firing at the sentinels. Little flashes of flame burst out here and there in the undergrowth, and the crackle of the Indian rifles vexed continually.
Paul rose at the first coming of the dawn, pale, unrested, and anxious. He walked to the earthwork, and saw Henry there, watching as always, seemingly tireless. The sun was just shooting above the hills, and Paul knew that a brilliant day was at hand.
"At any rate, Henry," Paul said, "I prefer the day to the night while we are here."
Henry did not reply. A sudden light had leaped into his eye, and he was bent slightly forward, in the attitude of one who listens intently.
"What is it, Henry?" asked Paul.
Henry lifted his hand for silence. His attitude did not change. Every nerve was strained, but the light remained in his eye.
"Paul," he cried, "don't you hear them? Rifle shots, far away and very faint, but they are coming toward us! Long Jim is here, and Wareville with him!"
Then Paul heard it--the faint, distant patter, as welcome sounds as ever reached human ears. He could not mistake it now, as he was too much used to the crackle of rifle shots to take it for anything else. His face was transfigured, his eyes shone with vivid light. He sprang upon the earthwork, and cried in tones that rang through all the camp:
"Up, up, men! Long Jim and the Wareville riflemen are coming!"
The train blazed into action. Forth poured the hardy borderers in scores, surcharged now with courage and energy. The firing in front of them had risen into a furious battle, and above the roar and the tumult rose the cheering of white men.
"Long Jim has surprised them, and he is half way through already!" cried Henry exultantly. "Now, men, we'll smite 'em on the flank!"
In a moment the whole force of the train, the Amazons included, were into the very thick of it, while Long Jim and two hundred riflemen, dealing out death on every side, were coming to meet them. The battle was short. Surprised, caught on both flanks, the savages gave way. There was a tremendous firing, a medley of shouts and cries for a few minutes, and then the warriors of the allied tribes fled deep into the woods, not to stop this time until they were on the other side of the Ohio River.
Forth from the smoke and flame burst a tall, gaunt frame.
"Long Jim!" cried Henry, seizing his hand. "It's you that's saved us, Jim!"
After him came a fine, ascetic face--the Reverend Silas Pennypacker--and he fairly threw himself upon his beloved pupil, Paul. And then the brave men from Wareville pressed forward, and some from Marlowe, too, welcoming these new people, whom they needed so badly, and who had needed them. But Daniel Poe said solemnly, in the presence of all:
"It is these who saved us in the first instance!"
He indicated the valiant five--Henry Ware, Paul Cotter, Tom Ross, Shif'less Sol Hyde, and Long Jim Hart. And the whole camp, seeing and hearing him, burst into a roar of applause.
The next morning the train resumed its march in peace and safety.
* * * * *
It was a month later, and spring had fully come. Once more the vast wilderness was in deep green, and little wild flowers sprang up here and there where the sun could reach them. Two youths, unusually alert in face and figure, were loading pack horses with heavy brown sacks filled to bursting.
"This powder has kept dry and good all through the winter," said the larger of the youths.
"Yes, Henry," replied the other, "and we are lucky to come back here and be able to take it into Marlowe, after all."
Henry Ware laughed. It was a low, satisfied laugh.
"We have certainly been through many trials, Paul," he said; "but, with Tom, Sol, and Jim, we bore our part in turning the allied tribes back from the great war trail."
Paul Cotter's face was illumined.
"Kentucky is saved," he said, "and I shall be happy all my life because of the knowledge that we helped."
"It is surely a pleasant thought," said Henry.
Then they whistled to their loaded horses, and marched away through the greenwood, this time to reach Marlowe in safety.