The Spirit of the Border by Zane Grey
One evening a week or more after the disappearance of Jim and the girls, George Young and David Edwards, the missionaries, sat on the cabin steps, gazing disconsolately upon the forest scenery. Hard as had been the ten years of their labor among the Indians, nothing had shaken them as the loss of their young friends.
"Dave, I tell you your theory about seeing them again is absurd," asserted George. "I'll never forget that wretch, Girty, as he spoke to Nell. Why, she just wilted like a flower blasted by fire. I can't understand why he let me go, and kept Jim, unless the Shawnee had something to do with it. I never wished until now that I was a hunter. I'd go after Girty. You've heard as well as I of his many atrocities. I'd rather have seen Kate and Nell dead than have them fall into his power. I'd rather have killed them myself!"
Young had aged perceptibly in these last few days. The blue veins showed at his temples; his face had become thinner and paler, his eyes had a look of pain. The former expression of patience, which had sat so well on him, was gone.
"George, I can't account for my fancies or feelings, else, perhaps, I'd be easier in mind," answered Dave. His face, too, showed the ravages of grief. "I've had queer thoughts lately, and dreams such as I never had before. Perhaps it's this trouble which has made me so nervous. I don't seem able to pull myself together. I can neither preach nor work."
"Neither can I! This trouble has hit you as hard as it has me. But, Dave, we've still our duty. To endure, to endure--that is our life. Because a beam of sunshine brightened, for a brief time, the gray of our lives, and then faded away, we must not shirk nor grow sour and discontented."
"But how cruel is this border life!"
"Nature itself is brutal."
"Yes, I know, and we have elected to spend our lives here in the midst of this ceaseless strife, to fare poorly, to have no pleasure, never to feel the comfort of a woman's smiles, nor the joy of a child's caress, all because out in the woods are ten or twenty or a hundred savages we may convert."
"That is why, and it is enough. It is hard to give up the women you love to a black-souled renegade, but that is not for my thought. What kills me is the horror for her--for her."
"I, too, suffer with that thought; more than that, I am morbid and depressed. I feel as if some calamity awaited us here. I have never been superstitious, nor have I had presentiments, but of late there are strange fears in my mind."
At this juncture Mr. Wells and Heckewelder came out of the adjoining cabin.
"I had word from a trustworthy runner to-day. Girty and his captives have not been seen in the Delaware towns," aid Heckewelder.
"It is most unlikely that he will take them to the towns," replied Edwards. "What do you make of his capturing Jim?"
"For Pipe, perhaps. The Delaware Wolf is snapping his teeth. Pipe is particularly opposed to Christianity, and--what's that?"
A low whistle from the bushes near the creek bank attracted the attention of all. The younger men got up to investigate, but Heckewelder detained them.
"Wait," he added. "There is no telling what that signal may mean."
They waited with breathless interest. Presently the whistle was repeated, and an instant later the tall figure of a man stepped from behind a thicket. He was a white man, but not recognizable at that distance, even if a friend. The stranger waved his hand as if asking them to be cautious, and come to him.
They went toward the thicket, and when within a few paces of the man Mr. Wells exclaimed:
"It's the man who guided my party to the village. It is Wetzel!"
The other missionaries had never seen the hunter though, of course, they were familiar with his name, and looked at him with great curiosity. The hunter's buckskin garments were wet, torn, and covered with burrs. Dark spots, evidently blood stains, showed on his hunting-shirt.
"Wetzel?" interrogated Heckewelder.
The hunter nodded, and took a step behind the bush. Bending over he lifted something from the ground. It was a girl. It was Nell! She was very white--but alive. A faint, glad smile lighted up her features.
Not a word was spoken. With an expression of tender compassion Mr. Wells received her into his arms. The four missionaries turned fearful, questioning eyes upon the hunter, but they could not speak.
"She's well, an' unharmed," said Wetzel, reading their thoughts, "only worn out. I've carried her these ten miles."
"God bless you, Wetzel!" exclaimed the old missionary. "Nellie, Nellie, can you speak?"
"Uncle dear--I'm--all right," came the faint answer.
"Kate? What--of her?" whispered George Young with lips as dry as corn husks.
"I did my best," said the hunter with a simple dignity. Nothing but the agonized appeal in the young man's eyes could have made Wetzel speak of his achievement.
"Tell us," broke in Heckewelder, seeing that fear had stricken George dumb.
"We trailed 'em an' got away with the golden-haired lass. The last I saw of Joe he was braced up agin a rock fightin' like a wildcat. I tried to cut Jim loose as I was goin' by. I s'pect the wust fer the brothers an' the other lass."
"Can we do nothing?" asked Mr. Wells.
"Wetzel, has the capturing of James Downs any significance to you?" inquired Heckewelder.
"I reckon so."
"Pipe an' his white-redskin allies are agin Christianity."
"Do you think we are in danger?"
"I reckon so."
"What do you advise?"
"Pack up a few of your traps, take the lass, an' come with me. I'll see you back in Fort Henry."
Heckewelder nervously walked up to the tree and back again. Young and Edwards looked blankly at one another. They both remembered Edward's presentiment. Mr. Wells uttered an angry exclamation.
"You ask us to fail in our duty? No, never! To go back to the white settlements and acknowledge we were afraid to continue teaching the Gospel to the Indians! You can not understand Christianity if you advise that. You have no religion. You are a killer of Indians."
A shadow that might have been one of pain flitted over the hunter's face.
"No, I ain't a Christian, an' I am a killer of Injuns," said Wetzel, and his deep voice had a strange tremor. "I don't know nothin' much 'cept the woods an' fields, an' if there's a God fer me He's out thar under the trees an' grass. Mr. Wells, you're the first man as ever called me a coward, an' I overlook it because of your callin'. I advise you to go back to Fort Henry, because if you don't go now the chances are aginst your ever goin'. Christianity or no Christianity, such men as you hev no bisness in these woods."
"I thank you for your advice, and bless you for your rescue of this child; but I can not leave my work, nor can I understand why all this good work we have done should be called useless. We have converted Indians, saved their souls. Is that not being of some use, of some good here?"
"It's accordin' to how you look at it. Now I know the bark of an oak is different accordin' to the side we see from. I'll allow, hatin' Injuns as I do, is no reason you oughtn't to try an' convert 'em. But you're bringin' on a war. These Injuns won't allow this Village of Peace here with its big fields of corn, an' shops an' workin' redskins. It's agin their nature. You're only sacrificin' your Christian Injuns."
"What do you mean?" asked Mr. Wells, startled by Wetzel's words.
"Enough. I'm ready to guide you to Fort Henry."
"I'll never go."
Wetzel looked at the other men. No one would have doubted him. No one could have failed to see he knew that some terrible anger hovered over the Village of Peace.
"I believe you, Wetzel, but I can not go," said Heckewelder, with white face.
"I will stay," said George, steadily.
"And I," said Dave.
Wetzel nodded, and turned to depart when George grasped his arm. The young missionary's face was drawn and haggard; he fixed an intense gaze upon the hunter.
"Wetzel, listen;" his voice was low and shaken with deep feeling. "I am a teacher of God's word, and I am as earnest in that purpose as you are in your life-work. I shall die here; I shall fill an unmarked grave; but I shall have done the best I could. This is the life destiny has marked out for me, and I will live it as best I may; but in this moment, preacher as I am, I would give all I have or hope to have, all the little good I may have done, all my life, to be such a man as you. For I would avenge the woman I loved. To torture, to kill Girty! I am only a poor, weak fellow who would be lost a mile from this village, and if not, would fall before the youngest brave. But you with your glorious strength, your incomparable woodcraft, you are the man to kill Girty. Rid the frontier of this fiend. Kill him! Wetzel, kill him! I beseech you for the sake of some sweet girl who even now may be on her way to this terrible country, and who may fall into Girty's power--for her sake, Wetzel, kill him. Trail him like a bloodhound, and when you find him remember my broken heart, remember Nell, remember, oh, God! remember poor Kate!"
Young's voice broke into dry sobs. He had completely exhausted himself, so that he was forced to lean against the tree for support.
Wetzel spoke never a word. He stretched out his long, brawny arm and gripped the young missionary's shoulder. His fingers clasped hard. Simple, without words as the action was, it could not have been more potent. And then, as he stood, the softer look faded slowly from his face. A ripple seemed to run over his features, which froze, as it subsided, into a cold, stone rigidity.
His arm dropped; he stepped past the tree, and, bounding lightly as a deer, cleared the creek and disappeared in the bushes.
Mr. Wells carried Nell to his cabin where she lay for hours with wan face and listless languor. She swallowed the nourishing drink an old Indian nurse forced between her teeth; she even smiled weakly when the missionaries spoke to her; but she said nothing nor seemed to rally from her terrible shock. A dark shadow lay always before her, conscious of nothing present, living over again her frightful experience. Again she seemed sunk in dull apathy.
"Dave, we're going to loose Nell. She's fading slowly," said George, one evening, several days after the girl's return. "Wetzel said she was unharmed, yet she seems to have received a hurt more fatal than a physical one. It's her mind--her mind. If we cannot brighten her up to make her forget, she'll die."
"We've done all within our power. If she could only be brought out of this trance! She lies there all day long with those staring eyes. I can't look into them. They are the eyes of a child who has seen murder."
"We must try in some way to get her out of this stupor, and I have an idea. Have you noticed that Mr. Wells has failed very much in the last few weeks?"
"Indeed I have, and I'm afraid he's breaking down. He has grown so thin, eats very little, and doesn't sleep. He is old, you know, and, despite his zeal, this border life is telling on him."
"Dave, I believe he knows it. Poor, earnest old man! He never says a word about himself, yet he must know he is going down hill. Well, we all begin, sooner or later, that descent which ends in the grave. I believe we might stir Nellie by telling her Mr. Wells' health is breaking."
"Let us try."
A hurried knock on the door interrupted their conversation.
"Come in," said Edwards.
The door opened to admit a man, who entered eagerly.
"Jim! Jim!" exclaimed both missionaries, throwing themselves upon the newcomer.
It was, indeed, Jim, but no answering smile lighted his worn, distressed face while he wrung his friends' hands.
"You're not hurt?" asked Dave.
"No, I'm uninjured."
"Tell us all. Did you escape? Did you see your brother? Did you know Wetzel rescued Nell?"
"Wingenund set me free in spite of many demands for my death. He kept Joe a prisoner, and intends to kill him, for the lad was Wetzel's companion. I saw the hunter come into the glade where we camped, break through the line of fighting Indians and carry Nell off."
"Kate?" faltered Young, with ashen face.
"George, I wish to God I could tell you she is dead," answered Jim, nervously pacing the room. "But she was well when I last saw her. She endured the hard journey better than either Nell or I. Girty did not carry her into the encampment, as Silvertip did Joe and me, but the renegade left us on the outskirts of the Delaware town. There was a rocky ravine with dense undergrowth where he disappeared with his captive. I suppose he has his den somewhere in that ravine."
George sank down and buried his face in his arms; neither movement nor sound betokened consciousness.
"Has Wetzel come in with Nell? Joe said he had a cave where he might have taken her in case of illness or accident."
"Yes, he brought her back," answered Edwards, slowly.
"I want to see her," said Jim, his haggard face expressing a keen anxiety. "She's not wounded? hurt? ill?"
"No, nothing like that. It's a shock which she can't get over, can't forget."
"I must see her," cried Jim, moving toward the door.
"Don't go," replied Dave, detaining him. "Wait. We must see what's best to be done. Wait till Heckewelder comes. He'll be here soon. Nell thinks you're dead, and the surprise might be bad for her."
Heckewelder came in at that moment, and shook hands warmly with Jim.
"The Delaware runner told me you were here. I am overjoyed that Wingenund freed you," said the missionary. "It is a most favorable sign. I have heard rumors from Goshocking and Sandusky that have worried me. This good news more than offsets the bad. I am sorry about your brother. Are you well?"
"Well, but miserable. I want to see Nell. Dave tells me she is not exactly ill, but something is wrong with her. Perhaps I ought not to see her just yet."
"It'll be exactly the tonic for her," replied Heckewelder. "She'll be surprised out of herself. She is morbid, apathetic, and, try as we may, we can't interest her. Come at once."
Heckewelder had taken Jim's arm and started for the door when he caught sight of Young, sitting bowed and motionless. Turning to Jim he whispered:
"Girty did not take her into the encampment," answered Jim, in a low voice. "I hoped he would, because the Indians are kind, but he didn't. He took her to his den."
Just then Young raised his face. The despair in it would have melted a heart of stone. It had become the face of an old man.
"If only you'd told me she had died," he said to Jim, "I'd have been man enough to stand it, but--this--this kills me--I can't breathe!"
He staggered into the adjoining room, where he flung himself upon a bed.
"It's hard, and he won't be able to stand up under it, for he's not strong," whispered Jim.
Heckewelder was a mild, pious man, in whom no one would ever expect strong passion; but now depths were stirred within his heart that had ever been tranquil. He became livid, and his face was distorted with rage.
"It's bad enough to have these renegades plotting and working against our religion; to have them sow discontent, spread lies, make the Indians think we have axes to grind, to plant the only obstacle in our path--all this is bad; but to doom an innocent white woman to worse than death! What can I call it!"
"What can we do?" asked Jim.
"Do? That's the worst of it. We can do nothing, nothing. We dare not move."
"Is there no hope of getting Kate back?"
"Hope? None. That villain is surrounded by his savages. He'll lie low now for a while. I've heard of such deeds many a time, but it never before came so close home. Kate Wells was a pure, loving Christian woman. She'll live an hour, a day, a week, perhaps, in that snake's clutches, and then she'll die. Thank God!"
"Wetzel has gone on Girty's trail. I know that from his manner when he left us," said Edwards.
"Wetzel may avenge her, but he can never save her. It's too late. Hello---"
The exclamation was called forth by the appearance of Young, who entered with a rifle in his hands.
"George, where are you going with that gun?" asked Edwards, grasping his friend by the arm.
"I'm going after her," answered George wildly. He tottered as he spoke, but wrenched himself free from Dave.
"Come, George, listen, listen to reason," interposed Heckewelder, laying hold of Young. "You are frantic with grief now. So are all of us. But calm yourself. Why, man, you're a preacher, not a hunter. You'd be lost, you'd starve in the woods before getting half way to the Indian town. This is terrible enough; don't make it worse by throwing your life away. Think of us, your friends; think of your Indian pupils who rely so much on you. Think of the Village of Peace. We can pray, but we can't prevent these border crimes. With civilization, with the spread of Christianity, they will pass away. Bear up under this blow for the sake of your work. Remember we alone can check such barbarity. But we must not fight. We must sacrifice all that men hold dear, for the sake of the future."
He took the rifle away from George, and led him back into the little, dark room. Closing the door he turned to Jim and Dave.
"He is in a bad way, and we must carefully watch him for a few days."
"Think of George starting out to kill Girty!" exclaimed Dave. "I never fired a gun, but yet I'd go too."
"So would we all, if we did as our hearts dictate," retorted Heckewelder, turning fiercely upon Dave as if stung. "Man! we have a village full of Christians to look after. What would become of them? I tell you we've all we can do here to outwit these border ruffians. Simon Girty is plotting our ruin. I heard it to-day from the Delaware runner who is my friend. He is jealous of our influence, when all we desire is to save these poor Indians. And, Jim, Girty has killed our happiness. Can we ever recover from the misery brought upon us by poor Kate's fate?"
The missionary raised his hand as if to exhort some power above.
"Curse the Girty's!" he exclaimed in a sudden burst of uncontrollable passion. "Having conquered all other obstacles, must we fail because of wicked men of our own race? Oh, curse them!"
"Come," he said, presently, in a voice which trembled with the effort he made to be calm. "We'll go in to Nellie."
The three men entered Mr. Wells' cabin. The old missionary, with bowed head and hands clasped behind his back, was pacing to and fro. He greeted Jim with glad surprise.
"We want Nellie to see him," whispered Heckewelder. "We think the surprise will do her good."
"I trust it may," said Mr. Wells.
"Leave it to me."
They followed Heckewelder into an adjoining room. A torch flickered over the rude mantle-shelf, lighting up the room with fitful flare. It was a warm night, and the soft breeze coming in the window alternately paled and brightened the flame.
Jim saw Nell lying on the bed. Her eyes were closed, and her long, dark lashes seemed black against the marble paleness of her skin.
"Stand behind me," whispered Heckewelder to Jim.
"Nellie," he called softly, but only a faint flickering of her lashes answered him.
"Nellie, Nellie," repeated Heckewelder, his deep, strong voice thrilling.
Her eyes opened. They gazed at Mr. Wells on one side, at Edwards standing at the foot of the bed, at Heckewelder leaning over her, but there was no recognition or interest in her look.
"Nellie, can you understand me?" asked Heckewelder, putting into his voice all the power and intensity of feeling of which he was capable.
An almost imperceptible shadow of understanding shone in her eyes.
"Listen. You have had a terrible shock, and it has affected your mind. You are mistaken in what you think, what you dream of all the time. Do you understand? You are wrong!"
Nell's eyes quickened with a puzzled, questioning doubt. The minister's magnetic, penetrating voice had pierced her dulled brain.
"See, I have brought you Jim!"
Heckewelder stepped aside as Jim fell on his knees by the bed. He took her cold hands in his and bent over her. For the moment his voice failed.
The doubt in Nell's eyes changed to a wondrous gladness. It was like the rekindling of a smoldering fire.
"Jim?" she whispered.
"Yes, Nellie, it's Jim alive and well. It's Jim come back to you."
A soft flush stained her white face. She slipped her arm tenderly around his neck, and held her cheek close to his.
"Jim," she murmured.
"Nellie, don't you now me?" asked Mr. Wells, trembling, excited. This was the first word she had spoken in four days.
"Uncle!" she exclaimed, suddenly loosening her hold on Jim, and sitting up in bed, then she gazed wildly at the others.
"Was it all a horrible dream?"
Mr. Wells took her hand soothingly, but he did not attempt to answer her question. He looked helplessly at Heckewelder, but that missionary was intently studying the expression on Nell's face.
"Part of it was a dream," he answered,impressively.
"Then that horrible man did take us away?"
"Oh-h! but we're free now? This is my room. Oh, tell me?"
"Yes, Nellie, you're safe at home now."
"Tell--tell me," she cried, shudderingly, as she leaned close to Jim and raised a white, imploring face to his. "Where is Kate?--Oh! Jim--say, say she wasn't left with Girty?"
"Kate is dead," answered Jim, quickly. He could not endure the horror in her eyes. He deliberately intended to lie, as had Heckewelder.
It was as if the tension of Nell's nerves was suddenly relaxed. The relief from her worst fear was so great that her mind took in only the one impression. Then, presently, a choking cry escaped her, to be followed by a paroxysm of sobs.