Betty Zane/Chapter 11
THE following afternoon the sun shone fair and warm; the sweet smell of the tan-bark pervaded the air and the birds sang their gladsome songs. The scene before the grim battle-scarred old fort was not without its picturesqueness. The low vine-covered cabins on the hill side looked more like picture houses than like real habitations of men; the mill with its burned-out roof—a reminder of the Indians—and its great wheel, now silent and still, might have been from its lonely and dilapidated appearance a hundred years old.
On a little knoll carpeted with velvety grass sat Isaac and his Indian bride. He had selected this vantage point because it afforded a fine view of the green square where the races and the matches were to take place. Admiring women stood around him and gazed at his wife. They gossiped in whispers about her white skin, her little hands, her beauty. The girls stared with wide open and wondering eyes. The youngsters ran round and round the little group; they pushed each other over, and rolled in the long grass, and screamed with delight.
It was to be a gala occasion and every man, woman and child in the settlement had assembled on the green. Col. Zane and Sam were planting a post in the center of the square. It was to be used in the shooting matches. Capt. Boggs and Major McColloch were arranging the contestants in order. Jonathan Zane, Will Martin, Alfred Clarke—all the young men were carefully charging and priming their rifles. Betty was sitting on the black stallion which Col. Zane had generously offered as first prize. She was in the gayest of moods and had just coaxed Isaac to lift her on the tall horse, from which height she purposed watching the sports. Wetzel alone did not seem infected by the spirit of gladsomeness which pervaded. He stood apart leaning on his long rifle and taking no interest in the proceedings behind him. He was absorbed in contemplating the forest on the opposite shore of the river.
"Well, boys, I guess we are ready for the fun," called Col. Zane, cheerily. "Only one shot apiece, mind you, except in case of a tie. Now, everybody shoot his best."
The first contest was a shooting match known as "driving the nail." It was as the name indicated, nothing less than shooting at the head of a nail. In the absence of a nail—for nails were scarce—one was usually fashioned from a knife blade, or an old file, or even a piece of silver. The nail was driven lightly into the stake, the contestants shot at it from a distance as great as the eyesight permitted. To drive the nail hard and fast into the wood at one hundred yards was a feat seldom accomplished. By many hunters it was deemed more difficult than "snuffing the candle," another border pastime, which consisted of placing in the dark at any distance a lighted candle, and then putting out the flame with a single rifle ball. Many settlers, particularly those who handled the plow more than the rifle, sighted from a rest, and placed a piece of moss under the rife-barrel to prevent its spring at the discharge.
The match began. Of the first six shooters Jonathan Zane and Alfred Clarke scored the best shots. Each placed a bullet in the half-inch circle round the nail.
"Alfred, very good, indeed," said Col. Zane. "You have made a decided improvement since the last shooting-match."
Six other settlers took their turns. All were unsuccessful in getting a shot inside the little circle. Thus a tie between Alfred and Jonathan had to be decided.
"Shoot close, Alfred," yelled Isaac. "I hope you beat him. He always won from me and then crowed over it."
Alfred's second shot went wide of the mark, and as Jonathan placed another bullet in the circle, this time nearer the center, Alfred had to acknowledge defeat.
"Here comes Miller," said Silas Zane. "Perhaps he will want a try."
Col. Zane looked round. Miller had joined the party. He carried his rifle and accoutrements, and evidently had just returned to the settlement. He nodded pleasantly to all.
"Miller, will you take a shot for the first prize, which I was about to award to Jonathan?" said Col. Zane.
"No. I am a little late, and not entitled to a shot. I will take a try for the others," answered Miller.
At the arrival of Miller on the scene Wetzel had changed his position to one nearer the crowd. The dog, Tige, trotted closely at his heels. No one heard Tige's low growl or Wetzel's stern word to silence him. Throwing his arm over Betty's pony, Wetzel apparently watched the shooters. In reality he studied intently Miller's every movement.
"I expect some good shooting for this prize," said Col. Zane, waving a beautifully embroidered buckskin bullet pouch, which was one of Betty's donations.
Jonathan having won his prize was out of the lists and could compete no more. This entitled Alfred to the first shot for second prize. He felt he would give anything he possessed to win the dainty trifle which the Colonel had waved aloft. Twice he raised his rifle in his exceeding earnestness to score a good shot and each time lowered the barrel. When finally he did shoot the bullet embedded itself in the second circle. It was a good shot, but he knew it would never win that prize.
"A little nervous, eh?" remarked Miller, with a half sneer on his swarthy face.
Several young settlers followed in succession, but their aims were poor. Then little Harry Bennet took his stand. Harry had won many prizes in former matches, and many of the pioneers considered him one of the best shots in the country.
"Only a few more after you, Harry," said Col. Zane. "You have a good chance."
"All right, Colonel. That's Betty's prize and somebody'll have to do some mighty tall shootin' to beat me," said the lad, his blue eyes flashing as he toed the mark.
Shouts and cheers of approval greeted his attempt. The bullet had passed into the wood so close to the nail that a knife blade could not have been inserted between.
Miller's turn came next. He was a fine marksman and he knew it. With the confidence born of long experience and knowledge of his weapon, he took a careful though quick aim and fired. He turned away satisfied that he would carry off the coveted prize. He had nicked the nail.
But Miller reckoned without his host. Betty had seen the result of his shot and the self-satisfied smile on his face. She watched several of the settlers make poor attempts at the nail, and then, convinced that not one of the other contestants could do so well as Miller, she slipped off the horse and ran around to where Wetzel was standing by her pony.
"Lew, I believe Miller will win my prize," she whispered, placing her hand on the hunter's arm. "He has scratched the nail, and I am sure no one except you can do better. I do not want Miller to have anything of mine."
"And, little girl, you want me to shoot fer you," said Lewis.
"Yes, Lew, please come and shoot for me."
It was said of Wetzel that he never wasted powder. He never entered into the races and shooting-matches of the settlers, yet it was well known that he was the fleetest runner and the most unerring shot on the frontier. Therefore, it was with surprise and pleasure that Col. Zane heard the hunter say he guessed he would like one shot anyway.
Miller looked on with a grim smile. He knew that, Wetzel or no Wetzel, it would take a remarkably clever shot to beat his.
"This shot's for Betty," said Wetzel as he stepped to the mark. He fastened his keen eyes on the stake. At that distance the head of the nail looked like a tiny black speck. Wetzel took one of the locks of hair that waved over his broad shoulders and held it up in front of his eyes a moment. He thus ascertained that there was not any perceptible breeze. The long black barrel started slowly to rise—it seemed to the interested onlookers that it would never reach a level and when, at last, it became rigid, there was a single second in which man and rifle appeared as if carved out of stone. Then followed a burst of red flame, a puff of white smoke, a clear ringing report.
Many thought the hunter had missed altogether. It seemed that the nail had not changed its position; there was no bullet hole in the white lime wash that had been smeared round the nail. But on close inspection the nail was found to have been driven to its head in the wood.
"A wonderful shot!" exclaimed Col. Zane. "Lewis, I don't remember having seen the like more than once or twice in my life."
Wetzel made no answer. He moved away to his former position and commenced to reload his rifle. Betty came running up to him, holding in her hand the prize bullet pouch.
"Oh, Lew, if I dared I would kiss you. It pleases me more for you to have won my prize than if any one else had won it. And it was the finest, straightest shot ever made."
"Betty, it's a little fancy for redskins, but it'll be a keepsake," answered Lewis, his eyes reflecting the bright smile on her face.
Friendly rivalry in feats that called for strength, speed and daring was the diversion of the youth of that period, and the pioneers conducted this good-natured but spirited sport strictly on its merits. Each contestant strove his utmost to outdo his opponent. It was hardly to be expected that Alfred would carry off any of the laurels. Used as he had been to comparative idleness he was no match for the hardy lads who had been brought up and trained to a life of action, wherein a ten mile walk behind a plow, or a cord of wood chopped in a day, were trifles. Alfred lost in the foot-race and the sackrace, but by dint of exerting himself to the limit of his strength, he did manage to take one fall out of the best wrestler. He was content to stop here, and, throwing himself on the grass, endeavored to recover his breath. He felt happier today than for some time past. Twice during the afternoon he had met Betty's eyes and the look he encountered there made his heart stir with a strange feeling of fear and hope. While he was ruminating on what had happened between Betty and himself he allowed his eyes to wander from one person to another. When his gaze alighted on Wetzel it became riveted there. The hunter's attitude struck him as singular. Wetzel had his face half turned toward the boys romping near him and he leaned carelessly against a white oak tree. But a close observer would have seen, as Alfred did, that there was a certain alertness in that rigid and motionless figure. Wetzel's eyes were fixed on the western end of the island. Almost involuntarily Alfred's eyes sought the same direction. The western end of the island ran out into a long low point covered with briars, rushes and saw-grass. As Alfred directed his gaze along the water line of this point he distinctly saw a dark form flit from one bush to another. He was positive he had not been mistaken. He got up slowly and unconcernedly, and strolled over to Wetzel.
"Wetzel, I saw an object just now," he said in a low tone. "It was moving behind those bushes at the head of the island. I am not sure whether it was an animal or an Indian."
"Injuns. Go back and be natur'l like. Don't say nothin' and watch Miller," whispered Wetzel.
Much perturbed by the developments of the last few moments, and wondering what was going to happen, Alfred turned away. He had scarcely reached the others when he heard Betty's voice raised in indignant protest.
"I tell you I did swim my pony across the river," cried Betty. "It was just even with that point and the river was higher than it is now."
"You probably overestimated your feat," said Miller, with his disagreeable, doubtful smile. "I have seen the river so low that it could be waded, and then it would be a very easy matter to cross. But now your pony could not swim half the distance."
"I'll show you," answered Betty, her black eyes flashing. She put her foot in the stirrup and leaped on Madcap.
"Now, Betty, don't try that foolish ride again," implored Mrs. Zane. "What do you care whether strangers believe or not? Eb, make her come back."
Col. Bane only laughed and made no attempt to detain Betty. He rather indulged her caprices.
"Stop her!" cried Clarke.
"Betty, where are you goin'?" said Wetzel, grabbing at Madcap's bridle. But Betty was too quick for him. She avoided the hunter, and with a saucy laugh she wheeled the fiery little pony and urged her over the bank. Almost before any one could divine her purpose she had Madcap in the water up to her knees.
"Betty, stop!" cried Wetzel.
She paid no attention to his call. In another moment the pony would be off the shoal and swimming.
"Stop! Turn back, Betty, or I'll shoot the pony," shouted Wetzel, and this time there was a ring of deadly earnestness in his voice. With the words he had cocked and thrown forward the long rifle.
Betty heard, and in alarm she turned her pony. She looked up with great surprise and concern, for she knew Wetzel was not one to trifle.
"For God's sake!" exclaimed Colonel Zane, looking in amazement at the hunter's face, which was now white and stern.
"Why, Lew, you do not mean you would shoot Madcap?" said Betty, reproachfully, as she reached the shore.
All present in that watching crowd were silent, awaiting the hunter's answer. They felt that mysterious power which portends the revelation of strange events. Col. Zane and Jonathan knew the instant they saw Wetzel that something extraordinary was coming. His face had grown cold and gray; his lips were tightly compressed; his eyes dilated and shone with a peculiar lustre.
"Where were you headin' your pony?" asked Wetzel.
"I wanted to reach that point where the water is shallow," answered Betty.
"That's what I thought. Well, Betty, hostile Injuns are hidin' and waitin' fer you in them high rushes right where you were makin' fer," said Wetzel. Then he shouldered his rifle and walked rapidly away.
"Oh, he cannot be serious!" cried Betty. "Oh, how foolish I am."
"Get back up from the river, everybody," commanded Col. Zane.
"Col. Zane," said Clarke, walking beside the Colonel up the bank, "I saw Wetzel watching the island in a manner that I thought odd, under the circumstances, and I watched too. Presently I saw a dark form dart behind a bush. I went over and told Wetzel, and he said there were Indians on the island."
"This is most d——n strange," said Col. Zane, frowning heavily. "Wetzel's suspicions, Miller turns up, teases Betty attempting that foolhardy trick, and then—Indians! It may be a coincidence, but it looks bad."
"Col. Zane, don't you think Wetzel may be mistaken?" said Miller, coming up. "I came over from the other side this morning and I did not see any Indian sign. Probably Wetzel has caused needless excitement."
"It does not follow that because you came from over the river there are no Indians there," answered Col. Zane, sharply. "Do you presume to criticise Wetzel's judgment?"
"I saw an Indian!" cried Clarke, facing Miller with blazing eyes. "And if you say I did not, you lie! What is more, I believe you know more than any one else about it. I watched you. I saw you were uneasy and that you looked across the river from time to time. Perhaps you had better explain to Col. Zane the reason you taunted his sister into attempting that ride."
With a snarl more like that of a tiger than of a human being, Miller sprang at Clarke. His face was dark with malignant hatred, as he reached for and drew an ugly knife. There were cries of fright from the children and screams from the women. Alfred stepped aside with the wonderful quickness of the trained boxer and shot out his right arm. His fist caught Miller a hard blow on the head, knocking him down and sending the knife flying in the air.
It had all happened so quickly that everyone was as if paralyzed. The settlers stood still and watched Miller rise slowly to his feet.
"Give me my knife!" he cried hoarsely. The knife had fallen at the feet of Major McColloch, who had concealed it with his foot.
"Let this end right here," ordered Col. Zane. "Clarke, you have made a very strong statement. Have you anything to substantiate your words?"
"I think I have," said Clarke. He was standing erect, his face white and his eyes like blue steel. "I knew him at Ft. Pitt. He was a liar and a drunkard there. He was a friend of the Indians and of the British. What he was there he must be here. It was Wetzel who told me to watch him. Wetzel and I both think he knew the Indians were on the island."
"Col. Zane, it is false," said Miller, huskily. "He is trying to put you against me. He hates me because your sister——"
"You cur!" cried Clarke, striking at Miller. Col. Zane struck up the infuriated young man's arm.
"Give us knives, or anything," panted Clarke.
"Yes, let us fight it out now," said Miller.
"Capt. Boggs, take Clarke to the block-house. Make him stay there if you have to lock him up," commanded Col. Zane. "Miller, as for you, I cannot condemn you without proof. If I knew positively that there were Indians on the island and that you were aware of it, you would be a dead man in less time than it takes to say it. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and twenty-four hours to leave the Fort."
The villagers dispersed and went to their homes. They were inclined to take Clarke's side. Miller had become disliked. His drinking habits and his arrogant and bold manner had slowly undermined the friendships he had made during the early part of his stay at Ft. Henry; while Clarke's good humor and willingness to help any one, his gentleness with the children, and his several acts of heroism had strengthened their regard.
"Jonathan, this looks like some of Girty's work. I wish I knew the truth," said Col. Zane, as he, his brothers and Betty and Myeerah entered the house. "Confound it! We can't have even one afternoon of enjoyment. I must see Lewis. I cannot be sure of Clarke. He is evidently bitter against Miller. That would have been a terrible fight. Those fellows have had trouble before, and I am afraid we have not seen the last of their quarrel."
"If they meet again—but how can you keep them apart?" said Silas. "If Miller leaves the Fort without killing Clarke he'll hide around in the woods and wait for a chance to shoot him."
"Not with Wetzel here," answered Col. Zane. "Betty, do you see what your——" he began, turning to his sister, but when he saw her white and miserable face he said no more.
"Don't mind, Betts. It wasn't any fault of yours," said Isaac, putting his arm tenderly round the trembling girl. "I for another believe Clarke was right when he said Miller knew there were Indians over the river. It looks like a plot to abduct you. Have no fear for Alfred. He can take care of himself. He showed that pretty well."
An hour later Clarke had finished his supper and was sitting by his window smoking his pipe. His anger had cooled somewhat and his reflections were not of the pleasantest kind. He regretted that he lowered himself so far as to fight with a man little better than an outlaw. Still there was a grim satisfaction in the thought of the blow he had given Miller. He remembered he had asked for a knife and that his enemy and he be permitted to fight to the death. After all to have ended, then and there, the feud between them would have been the better course; for he well knew Miller's desperate character, that he had killed more than one white man, and that now a fair fight might not be possible. Well, he thought, what did it matter? He was not going to worry himself. He did not care much, one way or another. He had no home; he could not make one without the woman he loved. He was a Soldier of Fortune; he was at the mercy of Fate, and he would drift along and let what came be welcome. A soft footfall on the stairs and a knock on the door interrupted his thoughts.
"Come in," he said.
The door opened and Wetzel strode into the room.
"I come over to say somethin' to you," said the hunter taking the chair by the window and placing his rifle over his knee.
"I will be pleased to listen or talk, as you desire," said Alfred.
"I don't mind tellin' you that the punch you give Miller was what he deserved. If he and Girty didn't hatch up that trick to ketch Betty, I don't know nothin'. But we can't prove nothin' on him yet. Mebbe he knew about the redskins; mebbe he didn't. Personally, I think he did. But I can't kill a white man because I think somethin'. I'd have to know fer sure. What I want to say is to put you on your guard against the baddest man on the river."
"I am aware of that," answered Alfred. "I knew his record at Ft. Pitt. What would you have me do?"
"Keep close till he's gone."
"That would be cowardly."
"No, it wouldn't. He'd shoot you from behind some tree or cabin."
"Well, I'm much obliged to you for your kind advice, but for all that I won't stay in the house," said Alfred, beginning to wonder at the hunter's earnest manner.
"You're in love with Betty, ain't you?"
The question came with Wetzel's usual bluntness and it staggered Alfred. He could not be angry, and he did not know what to say. The hunter went on:
"You needn't say so, because I know it. And I know she loves you and that's why I want you to look out fer Miller."
"My God! man, you're crazy," said Alfred, laughing scornfully. "She cares nothing for me."
"That's your great failin', young feller. You fly off'en the handle too easy. And so does Betty. You both care fer each other and are unhappy about it. Now, you don't know Betty, and she keeps misunderstandin' you."
"For Heaven's sake! Wetzel, if you know anything tell me. Love her? Why, the words are weak! I love her so well that an hour ago I would have welcomed death at Miller's hands only to fall and die at her feet defending her. Your words set me on fire. What right have you to say that? How do you know?"
The hunter leaned forward and put his hand on Alfred's shoulder. On his pale face was that sublime light which comes to great souls when they give up a life long secret, or when they sacrifice what is best beloved. His broad chest heaved: his deep voice trembled.
"Listen. I'm not a man fer words, and it's hard to tell. Betty loves you. I've carried her in my arms when she was a baby. I've made her toys and played with her when she was a little girl. I know all her moods. I can read her like I do the moss, and the leaves, and the bark of the forest. I've loved her all my life. That's why I know she loves you. I can feel it. Her happiness is the only dear thing left on earth fer me. And that's why I'm your friend."
In the silence that followed his words the door opened and closed and he was gone.
Betty awoke with a start. She was wide awake in a second. The moonbeams came through the leaves of the maple tree near her window and cast fantastic shadows on the wall of her room. Betty lay quiet, watching the fairy-like figures on the wall and listening intently. What had awakened her? The night was still; the crow of a cock in the distance proclaimed that the hour of dawn was near at hand. She waited for Tige's bark under her window, or Sam's voice, or the kicking and trampling of horses in the barn—sounds that usually broke her slumbers in the morning. But no such noises were forthcoming. Suddenly she heard a light, quick tap, tap, and then a rattling in the corner. It was like no sound but that made by a pebble striking the floor, bounding and rolling across the room. There it was again. Some one was tossing stones in at her window. She slipped out of bed, ran, and leaned on the window-sill and looked out. The moon was going down behind the hill, but there was light enough for her to distinguish objects. She saw a dark figure crouching by the fence.
"Who is it?" said Betty, a little frightened, but more curious.
"Sh-h-h, it's Miller," came the answer, spoken in low voice.
The bent form straightened and stood erect. It stepped forward under Betty's window. The light was dim, but Betty recognized the dark face of Miller. He carried a rifle in his hand and a pack on his shoulder.
"Go away, or I'll call my brother. I will not listen to you," said Betty, making a move to leave the window.
"Sh-h-h, not so loud," said Miller, in a quick, hoarse whisper. "You'd better listen. I am going across the border to join Girty. He is going to bring the Indians and the British here to burn the settlement. If you will go away with me I'll save the lives of your brothers and their families. I have aided Girty and I have influence with him. If you won't go you'll be taken captive and you'll see all your friends and relatives scalped and burned. Quick, your answer."
"Never, traitor! Monster! I'd be burned at the stake before I'd go a step with you!" cried Betty.
"Then remember that you've crossed a desperate man. If you escape the massacre you will beg on your knees to me. This settlement is doomed. Now, go to your white-faced lover. You'll find him cold. Ha! Ha! Ha!" and with a taunting laugh he leaped the fence and disappeared in the gloom.
Betty sank to the floor stunned, horrified. She shuddered at the malignity expressed in Miller's words. How had she ever been deceived in him? He was in league with Girty. At heart he was a savage, a renegade. Betty went over his words, one by one.
"Your white-faced lover. You will find him cold," whispered Betty. "What did he mean?"
Then came the thought. Miller had murdered Clarke. Betty gave one agonized quiver, as if a knife had been thrust into her side, and then her paralyzed limbs recovered the power of action. She flew out into the passage-way and pounded on her brother's door.
"Eb! Eb! Get up! Quickly, for God's sake!" she cried. A smothered exclamation, a woman's quick voice, the heavy thud of feet striking the floor followed Betty's alarm. Then the door opened.
"Hello, Betts, what's up?" said Col. Zane, in his rapid voice.
At the same moment the door at the end of the hall opened and Isaac came out.
"Eb, Betty, I heard voices out doors and in the house. What's the row?"
"Oh, Isaac! Oh, Eb! Something terrible has happened!" cried Betty, breathlessly.
"Then it is no time to get excited," said the Colonel, calmly. He placed his arm round Betty and drew her into the room. "Isaac, get down the rifles. Now, Betty, time is precious. Tell me quickly, briefly."
"I was awakened by a stone rolling on the floor. I ran to the window and saw a man by the fence. He came under my window and I saw it was Miller. He said he was going to join Girty. He said if I would go with him he would save the lives of all my relatives. If I would not they would all be killed, massacred, burned alive, and I would be taken away as his captive. I told him I'd rather die before I'd go with him. Then he said we were all doomed, and that my white-faced lover was already cold. With that he gave a laugh which made my flesh creep and ran on toward the river. Oh! he has murdered Mr. Clarke."
"Hell! What a fiend!" cried Col. Zane, hurriedly getting into his clothes. "Betts, you had a gun in there. Why didn't you shoot him? Why didn't I pay more attention to Wetzel's advice?"
"You should have allowed Clarke to kill him yesterday," said Isaac. "Like as not he'll have Girty here with a lot of howling devils. What's to be done?"
"I'll send Wetzel after him and that'll soon wind up his ball of yarn," answered Col. Zane.
"Please—go—and find—if Mr. Clarke——"
"Yes, Betty, I'll go at once. You must not lose courage, Betty. It's quite probable that Miller has killed Alfred and that there's worse to follow."
"I'll come, Eb, as soon as I have told Myeerah. She is scared half to death," said Isaac, starting for the door.
"All right, only hurry," said Col. Zane, grabbing his rifle. Without wasting more words, and lacing up his hunting shirt as he went he ran out of the room.
The first rays of dawn came streaking in at the window. The chill gray light brought no cheer with its herald of the birth of another day. For what might the morning sun disclose? It might shine on a long line of painted Indians. The fresh breeze from over the river might bring the long war whoop of the savage.
No wonder Noah and his brother, awakened by the voice of their father, sat up in their little bed and looked about with frightened eyes. No wonder Mrs. Zane's face blanched. How many times she had seen her husband grasp his rifle and run out to meet danger!
"Bessie," said Betty. "If it's true I will not be able to bear it. It's all my fault."
"Nonsense! You heard Eb say Miller and Clarke had quarreled before. They hated each other before they ever saw you."
A door banged, quick footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Isaac came rushing into the room. Betty, deathly pale, stood with her hands pressed to her bosom, and looked at Isaac with a question in her eyes that her tongue could not speak.
"Betty, Alfred's badly hurt, but he's alive. I can tell you no more now," said Isaac. "Bessie, bring your needle, silk linen, liniment—everything you need for a bad knife wound, and come quickly."
Betty's haggard face changed as if some warm light had been reflected on it; her lips moved, and with a sob of thankfulness she fled to her room.
Two hours later, while Annie was serving breakfast to Betty and Myeerah, Col. Zane strode into the room. "Well, one has to eat whatever happens," he said, his clouded face brightening somewhat. "Betty, there's been bad work, bad work. When I got to Clarke's room I found him lying on the bed with a knife sticking in him. As it is we are doubtful about pulling him through."
"May I see him?" whispered Betty, with pale lips.
"If the worst comes to the worst I'll take you over. But it would do no good now and would surely unnerve you. He still has a fighting chance."
"Did they fight, or was Mr. Clarke stabbed in his sleep?"
"Miller climbed into Clarke's window and knifed him in the dark. As I came over I met Wetzel and told him I wanted him to trail Miller and find if there is any truth in his threat about Girty and the Indians. Sam just now found Tige tied fast in the fence corner back of the barn. That explains the mystery of Miller's getting so near the house. You know he always took pains to make friends with Tige. The poor dog was helpless; his legs were tied and his jaws bound fast. Oh, Miller is as cunning as an Indian! He has had this all planned out, and he has had more than one arrow to his bow. But, if I mistake not he has shot his last one."
"Miller must be safe from pursuit by this time," said Betty.
"Safe for the present, yes," answered Col. Zane, "but while Jonathan and Wetzel live I would not give a snap of my fingers for Miller's chances. Hello, I hear some one talking. I sent for Jack and the Major."
The Colonel threw open the door. Wetzel, Major McColloch, Jonathan and Silas Zane were approaching. They were all heavily armed. Wetzel was equipped for a long chase. Double leggins were laced round his legs. A buckskin knapsack was strapped to his shoulders.
"Major, I want you and Jonathan to watch the river," said Col. Zane. "Silas, you are to go to the mouth of Yellow Creek and reconnoiter. We are in for a siege. It may be twenty-four hours and it may be ten days. In the meantime I will get the Fort in shape to meet the attack. Lewis, you have your orders. Have you anything to suggest?"
"I'll take the dog," answered Wetzel. "He'll save time for me. I'll stick to Miller's trail and find Girty's forces. I've believed all along that Miller was helpin' Girty, and I'm thinkin' that where Miller goes there I'll find Girty and his redskins. If it's night when I get back I'll give the call of the hoot-owl three times, quick, so Jack and the Major will know I want to get back across the river."
"All right, Lewis, we'll be expecting you any time," said Col. Zane.
"Betty, I'm goin' now and I want to tell you somethin'," said Wetzel, as Betty appeared. "Come as far as the end of the path with me."
"I'm sorry you must go. But Tige seems delighted," said Betty, walking beside Wetzel, while the dog ran on before.
"Betty, I wanted to tell you to stay close like to the house, fer this feller Miller has been layin' traps fer you, and the Injuns is on the war-path. Don't ride your pony, and stay home now."
"Indeed, I shall never again do anything as foolish as I did yesterday. I have learned my lesson. And Oh! Lew, I am so grateful to you for saving me. When will you return to the Fort?"
"Mebbe never, Betty."
"Oh, no. Don't say that. I know all this Indian talk will blow over, as it always does, and you will come back and everything will be all right again."
"I hope it'll be as you say, Betty, but there's no tellin', there's no tellin'."
"You are going to see if the Indians are making preparations to besiege the Fort?"
"Yes, I am goin' fer that. And if I happen to find Miller on my way I'll give him Betty's regards."
Betty shivered at his covert meaning. Long ago in a moment of playfulness, Betty had scratched her name on the hunter's rifle. Ever after that Wetzel called his fatal weapon by her name.
"If you were going simply to avenge I would not let you go. That wretch will get his just due some day, never fear for that."
"Betty, 'taint likely he'll get away from me, and if he does there's Jonathan. This mornin' when we trailed Miller down to the river bank Jonathan points across the river and says: 'You or me,' and I says: 'Me,' so it's all settled."
"Will Mr. Clarke live?" said Betty, in an altered tone, asking the question which was uppermost in her mind.
"I think so, I hope so. He's a husky young chap and the cut wasn't bad. He lost so much blood. That's why he's so weak. If he gets well he'll have somethin' to tell you."
"Lew, what do you mean?" demanded Betty, quickly.
"Me and him had a long talk last night and——"
"You did not go to him and talk of me, did you?" said Betty, reproachfully.
They had now reached the end of the path. Wetzel stopped and dropped the butt of his rifle on the ground. Tige looked on and wagged his tail. Presently the hunter spoke.
"Yes, we talked about you."
"Oh! Lewis. What did—could you have said?" faltered Betty.
"You think I hadn't ought to speak to him of you?"
"I do not see why you should. Of course you are my good friend, but he—it is not like you to speak of me."
"Fer once I don't agree with you. I knew how it was with him so I told him. I knew how it was with you so I told him, and I know how it is with me, so I told him that too."
"With you?" whispered Betty.
"Yes, with me. That kind of gives me a right, don't it, considerin' it's all fer your happiness?"
"With you?" echoed Betty in a low tone. She was beginning to realize that she had not known this man. She looked up at him. His eyes were misty with an unutterable sadness.
"Oh, no! No! Lew. Say it is not true," she cried, piteously. All in a moment Betty's burdens became too heavy for her. She wrung her little hands. Her brother's kindly advice, Bessie's warnings, and old Grandmother Watkins' words came back to her. For the first time she believed what they said—that Wetzel loved her. All at once the scales fell from her eyes and she saw this man as he really was. All the thousand and one things he had done for her, his simple teaching, his thoughtfulness, his faithfulness, and his watchful protection—all came crowding on her as debts that she could never pay. For now what could she give this man to whom she owed more than her life? Nothing. It was too late. Her love could have reclaimed him, could have put an end to that solitary wandering, and have made him a good, happy man.
"Yes, Betty, it's time to tell it. I've loved you always," he said softly.
She covered her face and sobbed. Wetzel put his arm round her and drew her to him until the dark head rested on his shoulder. Thus they stood a moment.
"Don't cry, little one," he said, tenderly. "Don't grieve fer me. My love fer you has been the only good in my life. It's been happiness to love you. Don't think of me. I can see you and Alfred in a happy home, surrounded by bright-eyed children. There'll be a brave lad named fer me, and when I come, if I ever do, I'll tell him stories, and learn him the secrets of the woods, and how to shoot, and things I know so well."
"I am so wretched—so miserable. To think I have been so—so blind, and I have teased you—and—it might have been—only now it's too late," said Betty, between her sobs.
"Yes, I know, and it's better so. This man you love rings true. He has learnin' and edication. I have nothin' but muscle and a quick eye. And that'll serve you and Alfred when you are in danger. I'm goin' now. Stand here till I'm out of sight."
"Kiss me goodbye," whispered Betty.
The hunter bent his head and kissed her on the brow. Then he turned and with a rapid step went along the bluff toward the west. When he reached the laurel bushes which fringed the edge of the forest he looked back. He saw the slender gray clad figure standing motionless in the narrow path. He waved his hand and then turned and plunged into the forest. The dog looked back, raised his head and gave a long, mournful howl. Then, he too disappeared.
A mile west of the settlement Wetzel abandoned the forest and picked his way down the steep bluff to the river. Here he prepared to swim to the western shore. He took off his buckskin garments, spread them out on the ground, placed his knapsack in the middle, and rolling all into a small bundle tied it round his rifle. Grasping the rifle just above the hammer he waded into the water up to his waist and then, turning easily on his back he held the rifle straight up, allowing the butt to rest on his breast. This left his right arm unhampered. With a powerful back-arm stroke he rapidly swam the river, which was deep and narrow at this point. In a quarter of an hour he was once more in his dry suit.
He was now two miles below the island, where yesterday the Indians had been concealed, and where this morning Miller had crossed. Wetzel knew Miller expected to be trailed, and that he would use every art and cunning of woodcraft to elude his pursuers, or to lead them into a death-trap. Wetzel believed Miller had joined the Indians, who had undoubtedly been waiting for him, or for a signal from him, and that he would use them to ambush the trail.
Therefore Wetzel decided he would try to strike Miller's tracks far west of the river. He risked a great deal in attempting this because it was possible he might fail to find any trace of the spy. But Wetzel wasted not one second. His course was chosen. With all possible speed, which meant with him walking only when he could not run, he traveled northwest. If Miller had taken the direction Wetzel suspected, the trails of the two men would cross about ten miles from the Ohio. But the hunter had not traversed more than a mile of the forest when the dog put his nose high in the air and growled. Wetzel slowed down into a walk and moved cautiously onward, peering through the green aisles of the woods. A few rods farther on Tige uttered another growl and put his nose to the ground. He found a trail. On examination Wetzel discovered in the moss two moccasin tracks. Two Indians had passed that point that morning. They were going northwest directly toward the camp of Wingenund. Wetzel stuck close to the trail all that day and an hour before dusk he heard the sharp crack of a rifle. A moment afterward a doe came crashing through the thicket to Wetzel's right and bounding across a little brook she disappeared.
A tree with a bushy, leafy top had been uprooted by a storm and had fallen across the stream at this point. Wetzel crawled among the branches. The dog followed and lay down beside him. Before darkness set in Wetzel saw that the clear water of the brook had been roiled; therefore, he concluded that somewhere upstream Indians had waded into the brook. Probably they had killed a deer and were getting their evening meal.
Hours passed. Twilight deepened into darkness. One by one the stars appeared; then the crescent moon rose over the wooded hill in the west, and the hunter never moved. With his head leaning against the log he sat quiet and patient. At midnight he whispered to the dog, and crawling from his hiding place glided stealthily up the stream. Far ahead from the dark depths of the forest peeped the flickering light of a camp-fire. Wetzel consumed a half hour in approaching within one hundred feet of this light. Then he got down on his hands and knees and crawled behind a tree on top of the little ridge which had obstructed a view of the camp scene.
From this vantage point Wetzel saw a clear space surrounded by pines and hemlocks. In the center of this glade a fire burned briskly. Two Indians lay wrapped in their blankets, sound asleep. Wetzel pressed the dog close to the ground, laid aside his rifle, drew his tomahawk, and lying flat on his breast commenced to work his way, inch by inch, toward the sleeping savages. The tall ferns trembled as the hunter wormed his way among them, but there was no sound, not a snapping of a twig nor a rustling of a leaf. The nightwind sighed softly through the pines; it blew the bright sparks from the burning logs, and fanned the embers into a red glow; it swept caressingly over the sleeping savages, but it could not warn them that another wind, the Wind-of-Death, was near at hand.
A quarter of an hour elapsed. Nearer and nearer; slowly but surely drew the hunter. With what wonderful patience and self-control did this cold-blooded Nemesis approach his victims! Probably any other Indian slayer would have fired his rifle and then rushed to combat with a knife or a tomahawk. Not so Wetzel. He scorned to use powder. He crept forward like a snake gliding upon its prey. He slid one hand in front of him and pressed it down on the moss, at first gently, then firmly, and when he had secured a good hold he slowly dragged his body forward the length of his arm. At last his dark form rose and stood over the unconscious Indians, like a minister of Doom. The tomahawk flashed once, twice in the firelight, and the Indians, without a moan, and with a convulsive quivering and straightening of their bodies, passed from the tired sleep of nature to the eternal sleep of death.
Foregoing his usual custom of taking the scalps, Wetzel hurriedly left the glade. He had found that the Indians were Shawnees and he had expected they were Delawares. He knew Miller's red comrades belonged to the latter tribe. The presence of Shawnees so near the settlement confirmed his belief that a concerted movement was to be made on the whites in the near future. He would not have been surprised to find the woods full of redskins. He spent the remainder of that night close under the side of a log with the dog curled up beside him.
Next morning Wetzel ran across the trail of a white man and six Indians. He tracked them all that day and half of the night before he again rested. By noon of the following day he came in sight of the cliff from which Jonathan Zane had watched the sufferings of Col. Crawford. Wetzel now made his favorite move, a wide detour, and came up on the other side of the encampment.
From the top of the bluff he saw down into the village of the Delawares. The valley was alive with Indians; they were working like beavers; some with weapons, some painting themselves, and others dancing war-dances. Packs were being strapped on the backs of ponies. Everywhere was the hurry and bustle of the preparation for war. The dancing and the singing were kept up half the night.
At daybreak Wetzel was at his post. A little after sunrise he heard a long yell which he believed announced the arrival of an important party. And so it turned out. Amid thrill yelling and whooping, the like of which Wetzel had never before heard, Simon Girty rode into Wingenund's camp at the head of one hundred Shawnee warriors and two hundred British Rangers from Detroit. Wetzel recoiled when he saw the red uniforms of the Britishers and their bayonets. Including Pipe's and Wingenund's braves the total force which was going to march against the Fort exceeded six hundred. An impotent frenzy possessed Wetzel as he watched the orderly marching of the Rangers and the proud bearing of the Indian warriors. Miller had spoken the truth. Ft. Henry vas doomed.
"Tige, there's one of them struttin' turkey cocks as won't see the Ohio," said Wetzel to the dog. Hurriedly slipping from round his neck the bullet-pouch that Betty had given him, he shook out a bullet and with the point of his knife he scratched deep in the soft lead the letter W. Then he cut the bullet half through. This done he detached the pouch from the cord and running the cord through the cut in the bullet he bit the lead. He tied the string round the neck of the dog and pointing eastward he said: "Home."
The intelligent animal understood perfectly. His duty was to get that warning home. His clear brown eyes as much as said: "I will not fail." He wagged his tail, licked the hunter's hand, bounded away and disappeared in the forest.
Wetzel rested easier in mind. He knew the dog would stop for nothing, and that he stood a far better chance of reaching the Fort in safety than did he himself.
With a lurid light in his eyes Wetzel now turned to the Indians. He would never leave that spot without sending a leaden messenger into the heart of someone in that camp. Glancing on all sides he at length selected a place where it was possible he might approach near enough to the camp to get a shot. He carefully studied the lay of the ground, the trees, rocks, bushes, grass,—everything that could help screen him from the keen eye of savage scouts. When he had marked his course he commenced his perilous descent. In an hour he had reached the bottom of the cliff. Dropping flat on the ground, he once more started his snail-like crawl. A stretch of swampy ground, luxuriant with rushes and saw-grass, made a part of the way easy for him, though it led through mud, and slime, and stagnant water. Frogs and turtles warming their backs in the sunshine scampered in alarm from their logs. Lizards blinked at him. Moccasin snakes darted wicked forked tongues at him and then glided out of reach of his tomahawk. The frogs had stopped their deep bass notes. A swamp-blackbird rose in fright from her nest in the saw-grass, and twittering plaintively fluttered round and round over the pond. The flight of the bird worried Wetzel. Such little things as these might attract the attention of some Indian scout. But he hoped that in the excitement of the war preparations these unusual disturbances would escape notice. At last he gained the other side of the swamp. At the end of the cornfield before him was the clump of laurel which he had marked from the cliff as his objective point. The Indian corn was now about five feet high. Wetzel passed through this field unseen. He reached the laurel bushes, where he dropped to the ground and lay quiet a few minutes. In the dash which he would soon make to the forest he needed all his breath and all his fleetness. He looked to the right to see how far the woods was from where he lay. Not more than one hundred feet. He was safe. Once in the dark shade of those trees, and with his foes behind him, he could defy the whole race of Delawares. He looked to his rifle, freshened the powder in the pan, carefully adjusted the flint, and then rose quietly to his feet.
Wetzel's keen gaze, as he swept it from left to right, took in every detail of the camp. He was almost in the village. A tepee stood not twenty feet from his hiding-place. He could have tossed a stone in the midst of squaws, and braves, and chiefs. The main body of Indians was in the center of the camp. The British were lined up further on. Both Indians and soldiers were resting on their arms and waiting. Suddenly Wetzel started and his heart leaped. Under a maple tree not one hundred and fifty yards distant stood four men in earnest consultation. One was an Indian. Wetzel recognized the fierce, stern face, the haughty, erect figure. He knew that long, trailing war-bonnet. It could have adorned the head of but one chief—Wingenund, the sachem of the Delawares. A British officer, girdled and epauletted, stood next to Wingenund. Simon Girty, the renegade, and Miller, the traitor, completed the group.
Wetzel sank to his knees. The perspiration poured from his face. The mighty hunter trembled, but it was from eagerness. Was not Girty, the white savage, the bane of the poor settlers, within range of a weapon that never failed? Was not the murderous chieftain, who had once whipped and tortured him, who had burned Crawford alive, there in plain sight? Wetzel revelled a moment in fiendish glee. He passed his hands tenderly over the long barrel of his rifle. In that moment as never before he gloried in his power—a power which enabled him to put a bullet in the eye of a squirrel at the distance these men were from him. But only for an instant did the hunter yield to this feeling. He knew too well the value of time and opportunity.
He rose again to his feet and peered out from under the shading laurel branches. As he did so the dark face of Miller turned full toward him. A tremor, like the intense thrill of a tiger when he is about to spring, ran over Wetzel's frame. In his mad gladness at being within rifle-shot of his great Indian foe, Wetzel had forgotten the man he had trailed for two days. He had forgotten Miller. He had only one shot—and Betty was to be avenged. He gritted his teeth. The Delaware chief was as safe as though he were a thousand miles away. This opportunity for which Wetzel had waited so many years, and the successful issue of which would have gone so far toward the fulfillment of a life's purpose, was worse than useless. A great temptation assailed the hunter.
Wetzel's face was white when he raised the rifle; his dark eye, gleaming vengefully, ran along the barrel. The little bead on the front sight first covered the British officer, and then the broad breast of Girty. It moved reluctantly and searched out the heart of Wingenund, where it lingered for a fleeting instant. At last it rested upon the swarthy face of Miller.
"Fer Betty," muttered the hunter, between his clenched teeth as he pressed the trigger.
The spiteful report awoke a thousand echoes. When the shot broke the stillness Miller was talking and gesticulating. His hand dropped inertly; he stood upright for a second, his head slowly bowing and his body swaying perceptibly. Then he plunged forward like a log, his face striking the sand. He never moved again. He was dead even before he struck the ground.
Blank silence followed this tragic denouement. Wingenund, a cruel and relentless Indian, but never a traitor, pointed to the small bloody hole in the middle of Miller's forehead, and then nodded his head solemnly. The wondering Indians stood aghast. Then with loud yells the braves ran to the cornfield; they searched the laurel bushes. But they only discovered several moccasin prints in the sand, and a puff of white smoke wafting away upon the summer breeze.