Betty Zane/Chapter 12
ALFRED CLARKE lay between life and death. Miller's knife-thrust, although it had made a deep and dangerous wound, had not pierced any vital part; the amount of blood lost made Alfred's condition precarious. Indeed, he would not have lived through that first day but for a wonderful vitality. Col. Zane's wife, to whom had been consigned the delicate task of dressing the wound, shook her head when she first saw the direction of the cut. She found on a closer examination that the knife-blade had been deflected by a rib, and had just missed the lungs. The wound was bathed, sewed up, and bandaged, and the greatest precaution taken to prevent the sufferer from loosening the linen. Every day when Mrs. Zane returned from the bedside of the young man she would be met at the door by Betty, who, in that time of suspense, had lost her bloom, and whose pale face showed the effects of sleepless nights.
"Betty, would you mind going over to the Fort and relieving Mrs. Martin an hour or two?" said Mrs. Zane one day as she came home, looking worn and weary. "We are both tired to death, and Nell Metzar was unable to come. Clarke is unconscious, and will not know you, besides he is sleeping now."
Betty hurried over to Capt. Boggs' cabin, next the blockhouse, where Alfred lay, and with a palpitating heart and a trepidation wholly out of keeping with the brave front she managed to assume, she knocked gently on the door.
"Ah, Betty, 'tis you, bless your heart," said a matronly little woman who opened the door. "Come right in. He is sleeping now, poor fellow, and it's the first real sleep he has had. He has been raving crazy forty-eight hours."
"Mrs. Martin, what shall I do?" whispered Betty.
"Oh, just watch him, my dear," answered the elder woman. "If you need me send one of the lads up to the house for me. I shall return as soon as I can. Keep the flies away—they are bothersome—and bathe his head every little while. If he wakes and tries to sit up, as he does sometimes, hold him back. He is as weak as a cat. If he raves, soothe him by talking to him. I must go now, dearie."
Betty was left alone in the little room. Though she had taken a seat near the bed where Alfred lay, she had not dared to look at him. Presently conquering her emotion, Betty turned her gaze on the bed. Alfred was lying easily on his back, and notwithstanding the warmth of the day he was covered with a quilt. The light from the window shone on his face. How deathly white it was! There was not a vestige of color in it; the brow looked like chiseled marble; dark shadows underlined the eyes, and the whole face was expressive of weariness and pain.
There are times when a woman's love is all motherliness. All at once this man seemed to Betty like a helpless child. She felt her heart go out to the poor sufferer with a feeling before unknown. She forgot her pride and her fears and her disappointments. She remembered only that this strong man lay there at death's door because he had resented an insult to her. The past with all its bitterness rolled away and was lost, and in its place welled up a tide of forgiveness strong and sweet and hopeful. Her love, like a fire that had been choked and smothered, smouldering but never extinct, and which blazes up with the first breeze, warmed and quickened to life with the touch of her hand on his forehead.
An hour passed. Betty was now at her ease and happier than she had been for months. Her patient continued to sleep peacefully and dreamlessly. With a feeling of womanly curiosity Betty looked around the room. Over the rude mantelpiece were hung a sword, a brace of pistols, and two pictures. These last interested Betty very much. They were portraits; one of them was a likeness of a sweet-faced woman who Betty instinctively knew was his mother. Her eyes lingered tenderly on that face, so like the one lying on the pillow. The other portrait was of a beautiful girl whose dark, magnetic eyes challenged Betty. Was this his sister or—someone else? She could not restrain a jealous twinge, and she felt annoyed to find herself comparing that face with her own. She looked no longer at that portrait, but recommenced her survey of the room. Upon the door hung a broad-brimmed hat with eagle plumes stuck in the band. A pair of hightopped riding-boots, a saddle, and a bridle lay on the floor in the corner. The table was covered with Indian pipes, tobacco pouches, spurs, silk stocks, and other articles.
Suddenly Betty felt that some one was watching her. She turned timidly toward the bed and became much frightened when she encountered the intense gaze from a pair of steel-blue eyes. She almost fell from the chair; but presently she recollected that Alfred had been unconscious for days, and that he would not know who was watching by his bedside.
"Mother, is that you?" asked Alfred, in a weak, low voice.
"Yes, I am here," answered Betty, remembering the old woman's words about soothing the sufferer.
"But I thought you were ill."
"I was, but I am better now, and it is you who are ill."
"My head hurts so."
"Let me bathe it for you."
"How long have I been home?"
Betty bathed and cooled his heated brow. He caught and held her hands, looking wonderingly at her the while.
"Mother, somehow I thought you had died. I must have dreamed it. I am very happy; but tell me, did a message come for me to-day?"
Betty shook her head, for she could not speak. She saw he was living in the past, and he was praying for the letter which she would gladly have written had she but known.
"No message, and it is now so long."
"It will come to-morrow," whispered Betty.
"Now, mother, that is what you always say," said the invalid, as he began to toss his head wearily to and fro. "Will she never tell me? It is not like her to keep me in suspense. She was the sweetest, truest, loveliest girl in all the world. When I get well, mother, I aM going to find out if she loves me."
"I am sure she does. I know she loves you," answered Betty.
"It is very good of you to say that," he went on in his rambling talk. "Some day I'll bring her to you and we'll make her a queen here in the old home. I'll be a better son now and not run away from home again. I've given the dear old mother many a heartache, but that's all past now. The wanderer has come home. Kiss me good-night, mother."
Betty looked down with tear-blurred eyes on the haggard face. Unconsciously she had been running her fingers through the fair hair that lay so damp over his brow. Her pity and tenderness had carried her far beyond herself, and at the last words she bent her head and kissed him on the lips.
"Who are you? You are not my mother. She is dead," he cried, starting up wildly, and looking at her with brilliant eyes.
Betty dropped the fan and rose quickly to her feet. What had she done? A terrible thought had flashed into her mind. Suppose he were not delirious, and had been deceiving her. Oh! for a hiding-place, or that the floor would swallow her. Oh! if some one would only come.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs and Betty ran to the door. To her great relief Mrs. Martin was coming up.
"You can run home now, there's a dear," said the old lady. "We have several watchers for to-night. It will not be long now when he will commence to mend, or else he will die. Poor boy, please God that he gets well. Has he been good? Did he call for any particular young lady? Never fear, Betty, I'll keep the secret. He'll never know you were here unless you tell him yourself."
Meanwhile the days had been busy ones for Col. Zane. In anticipation of an attack from the Indians, the settlers had been fortifying their refuge and making the block-house as nearly impregnable as possible. Everything that was movable and was of value they put inside the stockade fence, out of reach of the destructive redskins. All the horses and cattle were driven into the inclosure. Wagon-loads of hay, grain and food were stored away in the block-house.
Never before had there been such excitement on the frontier. Runners from Ft. Pitt, Short Creek, and other settlements confirmed the rumor that all the towns along the Ohio were preparing for war. Not since the outbreak of the Revolution had there been so much confusion and alarm among the pioneers. To be sure, those on the very verge of the frontier, as at Ft. Henry, had heretofore little to fear from the British. During most of this time there had been comparative peace on the western border, excepting those occasional murders, raids, and massacres perpetrated by the different Indian tribes, and instigated no doubt by Girty and the British at Detroit. Now all kinds of rumors were afloat: Washington was defeated; a close alliance between England and the confederated western tribes had been formed; Girty had British power and wealth back of him. These and many more alarming reports travelled from settlement to settlement.
The death of Col. Crawford had been a terrible shock to the whole country. On the border spread an universal gloom, and the low, sullen mutterings of revengeful wrath. Crawford had been so prominent a man, so popular, and, except in his last and fatal expedition, such an efficient leader that his sudden taking off was almost a national calamity. In fact no one felt it more keenly than did Washington himself, for Crawford was his esteemed friend.
Col. Zane believed Ft. Henry had been marked by the British and the Indians. The last runner from Ft. Pitt had informed him that the description of Miller tallied with that of one of the ten men who had deserted from Ft. Pitt in 1778 with the tories Girth, McKee, and Elliott. Col. Zane was now satisfied that Miller was an agent of Girty and therefore of the British. So since all the weaknesses of the Fort, the number of the garrison, and the favorable conditions for a siege were known to Girty, there was nothing left for Col. Zane and his men but to make a brave stand.
Jonathan Zane and Major McColloch watched the river. Wetzel had disappeared as if the earth had swallowed him. Some pioneers said he would never return. But Col. Zane believed Wetzel would walk into the Fort, as he had done many times in the last ten years, with full information concerning the doings of the Indians. However, the days passed and nothing happened. Their work completed, the settlers waited for the first sign of an enemy. But as none came, gradually their fears were dispelled and they began to think the alarm had been a false one.
All this time Alfred Clarke was recovering his health and strength. The day came when he was able to leave his bed and sit by the window. How glad it made him feel to look out on the green woods and the broad, winding river; how sweet to his ears were the songs of the birds; how soothing was the drowsy hum of the bees in the fragrant honeysuckle by his window. His hold on life had been slight and life was good. He smiled in pitying derision as he remembered his recklessness. He had not been in love with life. In his gloomy moods he had often thought life was hardly worth the living. What sickly sentiment! He had been on the brink of the grave, but he had been snatched back from the dark river of Death. It needed but this to show him the joy of breathing, the glory of loving, the sweetness of living. He resolved that for him there would be no more drifting, no more purposelessness. If what Wetzel had told him was true, if he really had not loved in vain, then his cup of happiness was overflowing. Like a far-off and almost forgotten strain of music some memory struggled to take definite shape in his mind; but it was so hazy, so vague, so impalpable, that he could remember nothing clearly.
Isaac Zane and his Indian bride called on Alfred that afternoon.
"Alfred, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you up again," said Isaac, earnestly, as he wrung Alfred's hand. "Say, but it was a tight squeeze! It has been a bad time for you."
Nothing could have been more pleasing than Myeerah's shy yet eloquent greeting. She gave Alfred her little hand and said in her figurative style of speaking, "Myeerah is happy for you and for others. You are strong like the West Wind that never dies."
"Myeerah and I are going this afternoon, and we came over to say good-bye to you. We intend riding down the river fifteen miles and then crossing, to avoid running into any band of Indians."
"And how does Myeerah like the settlement by this time?"
"Oh, she is getting on famously. Betty and she have fallen in love with each other. It is amusing to hear Betty try to talk in the Wyandot tongue, and to see Myeerah's consternation when Betty gives her a lesson in deportment."
"I rather fancy it would be interesting, too. Are you not going back to the Wyandots at a dangerous time?"
"As to that I can't say. I believe, though, it is better that I get back to Tarhe's camp before we have any trouble with the Indians. I am anxious to get there before Girty or some of his agents."
"Well, if you must go, good luck to you, and may we meet again."
"It will not be long, I am sure. And, old man," he continued, with a bright smile, "when Myeerah and I come again to Ft. Henry we expect to find all well with you. Cheer up, and good-bye."
All the preparations had been made for the departure of Isaac and Myeerah to their far-off Indian home. They were to ride the Indian ponies on which they had arrived at the Fort. Col. Zane had given Isaac one of his pack horses. This animal carried blankets, clothing, and food which insured comparative comfort in the long ride through the wilderness.
"We will follow the old trail until we reach the hickory swale," Isaac was saying to the Colonel, "and then we will turn off and make for the river. Once across the Ohio we can make the trip in two days."
"I think you'll make it all right," said Col. Zane.
"Even if I do meet Indians I shall have no fear, for I have a protector here," answered Isaac as he led Myeerah's pony to the step.
"Good-bye, Myeerah; he is yours, but do not forget he is dear to us," said Betty, embracing and kissing the Indian girl.
"My sister does not know Myeerah. The White Eagle will return."
"Good-bye, Betts, don't cry. I shall come home again. And when I do I hope I shall be in time to celebrate another event, this time with you as the heroine. Good-bye. Goodbye."
The ponies cantered down the road. At the bend Isaac and Myeerah turned and waved their hands until the foliage of the trees hid them from view.
"Well, these things happen naturally enough. I suppose they must be. But I should much have preferred Isaac staying here. Hello! What the deuce is that? By Lord! It's Tige!"
The exclamation following Col. Zane's remarks had been called forth by Betty's dog. He came limping painfully up the road from the direction of the river. When he saw Col. Zane he whined and crawled to the Colonel's feet. The dog was wet and covered with burrs, and his beautiful glossy coat, which had been Betty's pride, was dripping with blood.
"Silas, Jonathan, come here," cried Col. Zane. "Here's Tige, back without Wetzel, and the poor dog has been shot almost to pieces. What does it mean?"
"Indians," said Jonathan, coming out of the house with Silas, and Mrs. Zane and Betty, who had heard the Colonel's call.
"He has come a long way. Look at his feet. They are torn and bruised," continued Jonathan. "And he has been near Wingenund's camp. You see that red clay on his paws. There is no red clay that I know of round here, and there are miles of it this side of the Delaware camp."
"What is the matter with Tige?" asked Betty.
"He is done for. Shot through, poor fellow. How did he ever reach home?" said Silas.
"Oh, I hope not! Dear old Tige," said Betty as she knelt and tenderly placed the head of the dog in her lap. "Why, what is this? I never put that there. Eb, Jack, look here. There is a string around his neck," and Betty pointed excitedly to a thin cord which was almost concealed in the thick curly hair.
"Good gracious! Eb, look! It is the string off the prize bullet pouch I made, and that Wetzel won on Isaac's wedding day. It is a message from Lew," said Betty.
"Well, by Heavens! This is strange. So it is. I remember that string. Cut it off, Jack," said Col. Zane.
When Jonathan had cut the string and held it up they all saw the lead bullet. Col. Zane examined it and showed them what had been rudely scratched on it.
"A letter W. Does that mean Wetzel?" asked the Colonel.
"It means war. It's a warning from Wetzel—not the slightest doubt of that," said Jonathan. "Wetzel sends this because he knows we are to be attacked, and because there must have been great doubt of his getting back to tell us. And Tige has been shot on his way home."
This called the attention to the dog, which had been momentarily forgotten. His head rolled from Betty's knee; a quiver shook his frame; he struggled to rise to his feet, but his strength was too far spent; he crawled close to Betty's feet; his eyes looked up at her with almost human affection; then they closed, and he lay still. Tige was dead.
"It is all over, Betty. Tige will romp no more. He will never be forgotten, for he was faithful to the end. Jonathan, tell the Major of Wetzel's warning, and both of you go back to your posts on the river. Silas, send Capt. Boggs to me."
An hour after the death of Tige the settlers were waiting for the ring of the meeting-house bell to summon them to the Fort.
Supper at Col. Zane's that night was not the occasion of good-humored jest and pleasant conversation. Mrs. Zane's face wore a distressed and troubled look; Betty was pale and quiet; even the Colonel was gloomy; and the children, missing the usual cheerfulness of the evening meal, shrank close to their mother.
Darkness slowly settled down; and with it came a feeling of relief, at least for the night, for the Indians rarely attacked the settlements after dark. Capt. Boggs came over and he and Col. Zane conversed in low tones.
"The first thing in the morning I want you to ride over to Short Creek for reinforcements. I'll send the Major also and by a different route. I expect to hear tonight from Wetzel. Twelve times has he crossed that threshold with the information which made an Indian surprise impossible. And I feel sure he will come again."
"What was that?" said Betty, who was sitting on the doorstep.
"Sh-h!" whispered Col. Zane, holding up his finger.
The night was warm and still. In the perfect quiet which followed the Colonel's whispered exclamation the listeners heard the beating of their hearts. Then from the river bank came the cry of an owl; low but clear it came floating to their ears, its single melancholy note thrilling them. Faint and far off in the direction of the island sounded the answer.
"I knew it. I told you. We shall know all presently," said Col. Zane. "The first call was Jonathan's, and it was answered."
The moments dragged away. The children had fallen asleep on the bearskin rug. Mrs. Zane and Betty had heard the Colonel's voice, and sat with white faces, waiting, waiting for they knew not what.
A familiar, light-moccasined tread sounded on the path, a tall figure loomed up from the darkness; it came up the path, passed up the steps, and crossed the threshold.
"Wetzel!" exclaimed Col. Zane and Capt. Boggs. It was indeed the hunter. How startling was his appearance! The buckskin hunting coat and leggins were wet, torn and bespattered with mud; the water ran and dripped from him to form little muddy pools on the floor; only his rifle and powder horn were dry. His face was ghastly white except where a bullet wound appeared on his temple, from which the blood had oozed down over his cheek. An unearthly light gleamed from his eyes. In that moment Wetzel was an appalling sight.
"Col. Zane, I'd been here days before, but I run into some Shawnees, and they gave me a hard chase. I have to report that Girty, with four hundred Injuns and two hundred Britishers, are on the way to Ft. Henry."
"My God!" exclaimed Col. Zane. Strong man as he was the hunter's words had unnerved him.
The loud and clear tone of the church-bell rang out on the still night air. Only once it sounded, but it reverberated among the hills, and its single deep-toned ring was like a knell. The listeners almost expected to hear it followed by the fearful war-cry, that cry which betokened for many desolation and death.