All preparations having been made, the colonel took his place. The seconds removed a little distance away from their principals to be out of range.
"Are you ready, gentlemen?" said the colonel.
"Ready, sir!" answered both men, promptly.
They both stood slightly turned, their right sides presented, their arms depending, with the cocked pistol in the right hand.
"You know the conditions. I shall count 'one, two,' and then give the word 'fire!'" continued the colonel. "After the order is given you may discharge your weapons at will."
The colonel had a third pistol in hand, for what purpose no one quite understood. The silence was absolutely breathless.
"One!" said the old soldier, his voice ringing hollow through the apartment.
"Two!" he said, more strongly.
"Fire!" he snapped out at last.
Instantly there was a flash of light, a cloud of smoke, a crashing report from Gardner's pistol. Mason's second, closely watching his principal, thought he saw a flick of dust rise from his coat. The Virginian staggered slightly, raised his left arm and laid it across his breast, but still stood erect, his pistol in his half-extended hand.
"Great God!" cried Gardner, hoarsely, as he saw his rival standing before him apparently unharmed. "Have I missed him?"
He put his hand in bewilderment to his head and staggered back from his position.
"Back to the card, sir!" thundered the colonel, cocking and raising his pistol and pointing it directly at Gardner.
"Of course, sir," returned the sailor, dauntlessly, stepping back to the card as he spoke. "I trust no gentleman here will think I shrank from the return bullet. 'Twas but surprise. Take your shot, I beg of you, Captain Mason."
His face was deadly pale, yet he forced a smile to his lips.
"You still have a shot, Captain Mason. Take it. We acquit Lieutenant Gardner of any timidity whatever," said the colonel, lowering his weapon.
Mason, who had grown as white as his rival, deliberately raised his pistol and took long and careful aim. The men in the room gazed breathlessly. They shifted about uneasily. Gardner stood with the smile petrified upon his face. Mason at last pressed the trigger, but the pistol missed fire and there was no discharge. The soldier lowered his arm and recocked his weapon.
"By heavens, it looks like murder!" burst forth one of the men.
"Silence, gentlemen!" shouted the colonel, handling his pistol again; "the man is entitled to his shot, and he shall have it. I'll kill the first man that interferes!"
"I beg him to take it," cried Gardner, with splendid courage, for if ever man could read his death-warrant in another's face, he saw it in the countenance of his antagonist.
Once more Mason raised his pistol. This time nothing prevented the discharge. His deliberate aim had been successful, and Gardner fell dead instantly, the bullet in his heart.
Mason, with the smoking pistol clenched in his hand, and with his left arm still pressed against his heart, walked over to the table and stood by it, leaning heavily upon it as he stared at the little group bending over his dead rival. At that moment the door was flung open and Marian, dressed as she had been at the dance, but with tear-stained face, frightened looks, and dishevelled hair, burst into the room. She happened to face Mason, and, her back being turned to the other end of the room, she did not see the body of Gardner.
"I heard shots," she cried; "have they – where is he?"
"Colonel and gentlemen," said Mason, faintly, coming forward with that left hand still pressed against his breast, "'tis an unseemly moment to announce it, but Miss Fletcher has honored me with a promise of herself to me to-night. We are – "
The girl turned to him with a look of abject horror and repulsion. She screamed faintly. The man was half blind apparently; he did not seem to realize.
"Have no fear for me, Marian dear," he went on, softly, "I am – "
"What have you done?" she shrieked. "Where is Robert Gardner? 'Tis he I love, not you!"
Her eyes instinctively followed the glances of those about her.
"Oh!" she cried. "What is that? Robert! Oh, my God, and I have killed you!"
Her voice rang through the room in such an awful note of agony that every man's heart stood still. The colonel moved toward her, but her living lover was quicker. He caught her arm.
"Don't touch me!" she cried, shrinking away from him. "There is blood on your hand! His blood! You are a murderer!"
Her bitter words recalled him in a measure to himself.
"No, madam," he answered, smiling faintly, "'Tis my own."
He tore open his coat, showing the bosom of his shirt and waistcoat stained with blood. He had been hit, but the loose coat had deceived his opponent's aim, and the bullet had missed the heart. He had so controlled himself that no one suspected that he was wounded, and he had almost bled to death in the effort.
The woman, the roses all shuddered out of her cheeks, a ghastly picture, stared from the dead to the living with dazed, terrified glances.
"You," continued Mason, swaying as he spoke, – "you have trifled with two honest men, and from your cursed coquetry one lies dead yonder and one – and one – dies – at your feet!"
He suddenly collapsed before her, caught feebly at her white satin skirt with his bloody hands as he lay upon the floor and strove to carry it to his lips.
"He loved you," he murmured, "and I, too – we were fools – for a woman."
That was all.
"When greater perils men environ,
Then women show a front of iron;
And, gentle in their manner, they
Do bold things in a quiet way."
Thomas Dunn English
The Indians were out again!
The sharp rattling of a drum frantically beaten rolled through the little hamlet. The silent, pine-clad hills rising above the clearing on the bank sent the echoes clattering back over the river.
Scarcely had the peacefulness of the evening been broken by the first note of the clamor when from every door of hut or cabin the excited people poured out into the clearing and ran toward the stockade.
First came half-grown boys and girls, yelling half in terror, half in sport; then frightened mothers clasping crying babies to their troubled breasts with one hand, and with the other dragging stumbling little children. Then the men of the settlement, coatless, hatless, clad as they were in the various occupations in which they had been engaged at the moment, brought up the rear.
Some of the men endeavored to drive a few bewildered cattle; others helped to bring the younger children; but, whatever his action, each one carried a long, deadly rifle, as with grim, set faces they hurried toward the open gate of the fort on the shore. A panting horse stood by the gate, his drooping head giving evidence of the exhaustion following a desperate ride.
Inside the fort a young man, dressed in the usual fringed hunting-shirt and leggings, eternal garment of the Western pioneer, leaned upon his tall rifle and with eager gestures poured out the details of that message which had started the rolling of the drum.
The Indians were out, – the fierce Wyandotte, the bloody Mingo, the ruthless Shawnee. A huge war-party accompanying a band of British rangers from Detroit had been discovered in the woods early that September morning in 1777. They were marching toward Fort Patrick Henry on the banks of the Ohio, a rude white-oak stockade some sixteen feet high, extending along the river where now the mighty furnaces of Wheeling toss smoke and flame high into the air.
The Indians were yet some distance away; but the messenger, young Hugh McCullough, the bravest, most daring, most gallant young man among the thirty families clustered about the fort, and the one surest to hit his mark with the rifle, could not tell how soon they might be there. But they might appear at any moment; and Colonel Sheppard, the commander, deemed it best to bring all of the settlement people into the fort at once. Hence the sudden alarm and call to arms.
Presently the little enclosure was filled with crying children, boastful boys, frightened girls, serious women, and thoughtful men. The gates were shut; the younger children, under the care of the older women, sent to the safest room in the four corner block-houses, while the matrons set about preparing food, moulding bullets, making cartridges, and lending to the contemplated defence such other assistance as they could. The men and youths fell in with their respective companies and repaired immediately to their several stations, long practice and frequent alarms having made them familiar with the duties expected of them.
A long time they watched that evening, but no plumed, painted, savage figure could be seen through the trees, no sound broke the wonted stillness of the hills. Some of the little band of frontiersmen looked askance at young McCullough. Had he given a false alarm? himself deceived, taken them from their needed labors only to array them against some imaginary peril?
But no; he was the keenest scout and best woods-man in the settlement. A long row of sinister notches on the stock of his rifle marked the red marauders he had sent to their last account. It could not be; yet, if the Indians were coming, why did they not present themselves?
Old Colonel Sheppard and Major Ebenezer Zane, his second, did not hesitate; they trusted the young man. Requests to return to their homes were refused, the gates were kept closed, and by and by the women and children who could do so disposed themselves for the troubled sleep of an anxious night. There were keen watchers on the walls, but nothing broke the usual stillness.
The morning was dull and gray. Clouds of mist and fog dropped silently from the crest of the hills, sending down long, ghostlike arms writhing through the treetops over the town; still no sign of the enemy.
Smarting under the curious glances and sneers of some of the men, McCullough at last volunteered to go out and reconnoitre. Colonel Sheppard accepted his offer. While some one saddled his magnificent black horse, he broke from the group surrounding him and walked across the parade toward the farthest block-house, a room in which had been allotted to the family of Major Zane.
A tall, striking-looking young woman stood in the door-way. Most of the women in the fort wore linsey-woolsey frocks of the plainest cut, and, while some had Indian moccasins on their feet, the majority were barefoot. This girl was dressed in the fashion of, say, some six months before. There was a touch of brightness and color in her smart frock, albeit a few months of frontier wear had sadly dimmed its gayety. Shining silver buckles overspread her small, daintily shod, arched instep. Her short sleeves, extending only to the elbow, left bare her young brown arms, which had been white when she came to the settlement. The kerchief, crossed over her breast, but open at the neck, afforded a ravishing glimpse of her beautiful throat. Under her fair hair blue eyes sparkled, lighting, in spite of herself, with feeling as she comprehended the manly figure of young McCullough.
He was fluent enough in speech ordinarily; but now he blushed, hesitated, and stumbled awkwardly, as he dragged off his coonskin cap and bowed low before her.
"Good-morning, Mistress Elizabeth," he at length managed to stammer out; "how passed you the night?"
"As well, sir, as one could on a hard floor 'twixt crying children, frightened mothers, and quarrelling lads."
"'Tis not like Philadelphia, mistress?"
"No, indeed. To think that six months gone I was there, a girl in school, and now – "
"Now you are a teacher yourself, Mistress Zane, and we be all learning from you."
"Learning what, pray?"
"The game of hearts."
"Faith, Master McCullough, if rumor belie you not, I think you must have been a past master at that game before I came upon the scene."
"Nay, not so. Dame Rumor does me wrong, but – "
"Well, let it pass, Master McCullough. You brought the alarm, I believe. Was it real? Are there any Indians about?"
"We have not seen any as yet in the valley, but – "
"And was it you, sir, who tramped all night on the block-house over our heads?"
"I did, indeed, watch over – you, but – "
"Could you not have done it more softly, sir, and not add to the confusion the clatter of your feet and the thud of your gunstock? I knew it was you."
"Knew you my step, Mistress Elizabeth?" he queried eagerly, flushing with hope.
"Nay, sir," she answered, coolly; "none other had been so foolish; but the Indians?"
"I go to seek them now and would fain say good-by."
"What!" cried the girl, breathlessly, dropping her mood of airy banter, her face gone white in a moment. "What! you leave the stockade?"
"Ay, Mistress Elizabeth, and I am come to beg you – to wish you – to bid me good-speed."
"Where are you going and why?"
"Up the valley to beat up the red devils; to find them if they be not gone."
"Why, sir, you will be in danger!" cried the girl, piteously, stepping from the door-way and coming nearer to him.
"I am in more danger from your bright eyes than from any Indian that walks."
"A truce to this trifling, sir!"
"Nay, 'tis no trifling. My heart's gone to you. You have known it long since. Is it not so?"
She stopped with downcast head before him.
"They – they did not teach us things – like that – in Philadelphia."
"Nay, 'twas Mother Eve taught you, I'm thinking; and, as I may be – " he hesitated, and then continued softly, "a long time in coming back, I thought I must tell you now or you might never hear it. I love you." He turned away. "That's all."
She sprang toward him and grasped him by the arm.
"Go not," she whispered, her eyes brimming. "Stay." Her head sank forward; she trembled as if she would fall. Unmindful of all others, he slipped his arm around her waist. "Stay," she continued so softly that he could scarce hear her words, though he bent his head eagerly to catch them. "Stay – for me."
"Then you love, too, thank God!" he cried. "Nay, I must go; but I go for you."
His horse was ready at the gate now. The place was filled with men; yet, reckless of all who might note, he bent his head low and kissed her unresisting. Then he tore himself away and sprang to the saddle. With a wave of his hand toward the assemblage, a long glance at the girl who stood with clasped hands and white, upturned face staring after him, he struck spur to his horse and dashed out through the gate. They followed him with their gaze for a short distance up the road until he was lost in the trees which covered its winding course.
And so the morning wore on. About noon the watchers saw three or four Indians in the trees. The little band halted out of rifle range on the edge of the clearing, and scanned the deserted settlement and the fort with its starry banner drooping idly from its staff. The mist was heavier now; it was almost a fog.
Two men were ordered to go out the postern gate under cover of the river bank, creep along the shore until they gained the trees, and then endeavor to discover whether or not there were more Indians there. A little party of twelve, under Captain Mason, was assembled near the gate, ready to dash out and attack the Indians in sight if it were deemed advisable. It often happened that such a swift, sharp blow diverted a more serious attack.
Nothing had as yet been heard of McCullough. Elizabeth Zane had passed a morning of agonized apprehension. She was a motherless girl, who lived with her brother, the major; but she had spent most of her life in quiet Quaker Philadelphia at school. Only recently had she come to the frontier; this was her first experience in war – or love.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the sharp crack of a rifle. One of the Indians was seen to fall. The scouts had evidently attacked them. The fire was returned by the group of savages. There was a sharp fusillade in the woodland. Captain Mason and his comrades tore out of the fort and ran toward the sound of the firing. A wave of mist rolled down and shut them in.
The eager watchers on the walls could hear the rattle of the rifles and see the dark shadows cast by the forest shot with flashes of fire. The engagement seemed to be getting heavier. What was happening? They were not able to tell. The fog completely hid from their view the ravine in which the firing was going on.
Presently a man broke out of the mist and ran toward the fort. He was hatless; his gun was gone. He was bleeding from several wounds. His face was ghastly pale.
"Help!" he cried, brokenly. "The Indians are on us, hundreds of 'em!"
As he spoke he pitched forward and fell dead on his face just outside the gate. The fort was filled with excitement. The wife of the man who had just fallen shrieked with anguish, while the other women strove to comfort her and to hush the whimpering of the children.
Colonel Sheppard turned to another officer.
"Captain Ogle," he said, quickly, "take your company of twelve men, deploy them to the edge of the woods, and try to cover the retreat or bring off Mason and his men. Be careful, and do not be ambushed. We are but eleven men left here after you go to defend this post and one hundred women and children."
Again the gates were opened and a little band of determined hunters stole noiselessly toward the clearing. The rifle shots had ceased by this time, but they had been superseded by fierce Indian yells and a chorus of shrieks and cries from struggling men. Ogle's company stole rapidly forward, but before they could reach the place of conflict they were met by a fire which seemed to come from every direction. Out of the fog and smoke appeared the Indians, tomahawk in hand.
There was a fierce, wild mêlée for a moment, and then silence. A sudden breeze blew down the valley, lifting the fog; and the dismayed garrison saw the ground strewn with the bodies of their friends and neighbors, while just out of range the Indians danced, yelling frantically, jumping high into the air, and flourishing gory scalps, which they had wrenched from the heads of the fallen while some of them were yet alive. Four or five desperately wounded men gained the fort under a rattling rifle fire.
As the day cleared the Indians sought cover in the deserted houses on the edge of the woods and opened fire on the stockade. A perfect storm of bullets was hurled upon the fort; but the defenders, well protected, suffered no loss, and, firing slowly and deliberately in return, strove to make every shot tell and with good effect. The Indians could not expose themselves for a moment without being hit.
Presently down the mountain came a party of rangers under the British flag, militia from Canada. With drums beating and fifes squealing they marched up the road, dragging a small cannon, with which they opened an ineffectual fire upon the fort. After a while, however, wearying of this fruitless duel, the assailants withdrew out of range and the roar of the battle died away, although the investment of the place was still vigorously maintained.
About four o'clock a burst of yells and shouts attracted the attention of the garrison to the top of the hill overlooking the fort. A single horseman suddenly appeared on the brink above the clearing, his tall figure plainly silhouetted against the sky-line. The hill where he overlooked it was some three hundred feet high and almost perpendicular, although the rough slope was broken here and there by drifts and ledges. He reined in his horse abruptly on the very brink and gazed backward.
Elizabeth Zane stood by her brother on the roof of one of the block-houses. With eyes lighted by affection, she knew McCullough instantly. Presently others recognized him also. They could hear the yelling drawing nearer. They saw McCullough look to the right and the left and shake his head; they saw him turn and discharge his rifle at his unseen pursuers.
They realized the situation at once. There was a lost man on the brink of that hill, his gun discharged, weaponless, surrounded by Indians, who were closing in upon him to take him alive and torture him. Death at the stake! There was no salvation for him!
What could he do? Would he dismount and face them? Would he try to ride over them? A moment would tell. Elizabeth closed her eyes, and her anguished lips strove in vain to form the words of a prayer.
"He is going to try the hill!" cried Major Zane, suddenly.
The bold hunter shortened the bridle, backed his horse away from the hill a few feet, and then launched him into the air. The cry of defiance that he gave as he dropped down the steep slope could have been heard for miles around. Scarcely had he vanished from the crest of the hill when the faces of the Indians appeared over it. The edge of the bluff was instantly ringed with fire.
"He falls!" cried one from the fort.
"He is down!" screamed another.
"No, he makes it!"
"They've hit him!"
"He's reached the ground safe!"
"They've got him!"
"No, he's up again!"
"He's coming here!"
"To the gate! to the gate!"
The bold hunter had actually leaped, scrambled, fallen down that mighty precipice; and horse and man apparently were both unharmed at the bottom. It was a feat of daring horsemanship which has been the pride of the vicinity ever since.
Between him and the fort, however, lay the Indians. Startled and surprised by the hardihood and success of the descent, they stood dazed for a moment. Grasping his rifle by the barrel, with the butt up, McCullough swept down upon them. The first man who laid hand upon the bridle he brained with the rifle-butt. Dropping the rein, he cut at the next with his hunting-knife. The excited horse struck out savagely and beat out the brains of a third. The rest gave back for a moment. He was through!
In another second, bending low over the saddle, he was galloping madly toward the fort. Again the rifles cracked around him. They saw him falter in the saddle, sway uneasily. At the same time his horse gave a great bound forward. They had both been hit, then.
The Indians in their excitement ran after him, forgetting they were within range until the riflemen on the walls sent bullet after bullet straight to the mark. The brave horse staggered and fell outside the gate, pitching the man heavily on his head.
Under cover of the rifle fire, two men ran out of the open gate, and one woman, Elizabeth Zane, followed after. They picked up McCullough and brought him within the stockade and laid him on the ground. The young girl, white-faced, despairing, dropped by his side and took his head in her arms. Her kisses and piteous pleadings seemed to revive him, and a draught of spirits restored him.
"Safe, safe, Elizabeth!" he murmured. "Keep up a good heart, all," he added as soon as he could speak clearly. "Colonel Sheppard, I found the Indians out there."
"I see you did, my boy," said the colonel, smiling grimly. "What then?"
"I rode off to Colonel Swearingen and told him you were beleaguered, sir."
"Yes, and what did he say?"
"He'll raise a force and be with you in the morning. Where are the rest of the men?" he cried, looking around at the little handful of people. "Why are the women using the rifles?" he went on, noticing that the weakness of the garrison had compelled some of the women to take the places of the dead soldiers. "I'm needed here, I see. I am not hurt," he continued; "let me up!"
"But you are wounded!" cried Elizabeth. "You cannot."
"Nay, 'tis nothing," he exclaimed; "a flesh wound in the arm and a graze along the chest. When the horse fell he threw me so heavily that it stunned me. When my arm is bound up I'll be all right."
"Water here," called the colonel, "and some linen!"
"We have none in the fort, sir," answered Major Zane.
"A woman's petticoat, then."
"Take mine," cried Elizabeth, rising and lifting her outside skirt and tearing a strip off her underskirt.
"Nay, not your city finery, Mistress Elizabeth," protested McCullough, sitting up as well.
"Nothing is too fine for a brave man, sir," she answered, smiling proudly down at him.
"Not even Elizabeth Zane?" he questioned, cunningly.
"Not even Elizabeth Zane," she replied, bravely, in spite of her blushes.
"Thank God!" he whispered, as she bent down and bound up the wound.
"Zane," said the colonel, laughing at the oblivious pair, "did you ever know a peril so deadly that it could prevent two young people from making love?"
The wound, from which he had lost much blood, would have incapacitated a modern man from further fighting; but that little handful could not afford to lose a single member if they hoped to stand off the three hundred savages around the fort, so McCullough took his place on the walls with the rest. For some little time the interchange of fire was kept up, with further loss on the part of the Indians, but none at all to the Americans; but it was evident that some plan was being matured. The rangers were seen manœuvring through the trees; the cannon was dragged to a point where it could do greater execution.
Meanwhile Colonel Sheppard and Major Zane, with McCullough to second their efforts, were looking carefully to their defences. Every rifle, musket, and ancient pistol was brought out, charged, and laid at hand, ready for use. At this moment, however, a startling discovery was made: the powder had all but given out! Without powder they would be helpless to resist the assault which would apparently be delivered in a short time.
As the news spread among the men and the women, a panic filled their hearts. Was that crowded enclosure, filled with women and children, to be delivered to the ruthless passions of those ferocious Indians and the half-breed rangers? God forbid! Yet what was to be done?
"Oh, that we had some powder! I'd give my life for a keg of it!" exclaimed Colonel Sheppard, in despair. "Has every recess been searched?"
"We ransacked the fort, sir; there is none here," was the reply.
"I know where there is some," suddenly cried Major Zane. "In my cabin yonder there is a small keg of it; enough for us all. I had forgotten it until this moment. I'll go and get it."
The cabin was some sixty yards from the gate, and within easy rifle range of the busy enemy.
"'Tis sure death to venture there," cried the colonel; "besides, you are next in charge here. I cannot let you go."
"Let me go!" cried McCullough.
"Nay, you've done enough, and with your wounded arm you could not carry it. Besides, we need you."
"I'll go," cried one and another, as the old colonel looked about him in an agony of indecision.
"We need you all; I can't spare a man," he muttered, hoarsely. "I don't see how we can hold the walls against another assault, as it is, with but a dozen able men here. Was ever man in such a position?"
"I will go, colonel," cried a clear voice from the women about the group of men.
"Elizabeth!" exclaimed her brother.
"Mistress Zane!" interrupted McCullough; "nay, you shall not. 'Tis no woman's work! I – "
"Silence, sir!" interrupted the colonel. "Who commands this garrison? 'Tis not woman's work, indeed; but we can spare no men. I cannot risk a single rifle. The maid shall go, and God bless her! If she falls, why, she but anticipates the fate of the rest of us."
"Elizabeth! Elizabeth!" cried McCullough, appealingly, still unconvinced; "you can't go! Think what your life is to me!"
"No more than yours is to me, Master Hugh," she answered, bravely, "and yet you went."
"Elizabeth, sister," cried Zane, "I can't let you go! You must not take this fearful risk!"
"Nay, gentlemen," interrupted Elizabeth, stoutly, "I will go! Open the gate. Do you cover me with your rifles as best you can. Good-by."
"Stay!" cried McCullough, grasping her by the arm. "Gentlemen, I love her and she loves me. Would you send away my promised wife? Must I see her killed before my eyes? Oh, let me try?"
"Nay, you shall not!" said the girl, kissing him and suddenly thrusting him from her, crying, "Forgive me!"
There was a flash of skirts through the open gate, and she was gone. Forgetful of his wounds, McCullough sprang to the top of the block-house nearest the gate. His own rifle in hand, and sweeping one or two others within reach, in spite of the pain from his injured arm, he knelt on the roof, peering eagerly down the hill.
As she left the block-house Elizabeth ran with the speed of a deer straight to her brother's house. She knew exactly where the powder lay concealed. She felt little fear in the advance. Seeing a woman running toward them, and ignorant of her purpose, the Indians probably would not attempt to harm her; but when she started back with the heavy keg of powder in her arms they would detect the reason for her movement and open fire upon her at once. Her comparatively slow progress under her burden would make her position exceedingly dangerous then. But that was a chance she realized she would have to take.
It happened just as she had anticipated. She gained the house without molestation and disappeared within the door-way for a moment, though it seemed hours to the men and women who watched from the fort until she appeared with the keg of powder on her shoulder. One glance she cast back toward the Indians standing gazing in startled surprise; one long look she threw toward the fort where, although she could not detect him in her excitement, she knew her lover was on guard, and then she started up the hill.
As she came out from the cover of the house the Indians saw the keg of powder upon her shoulder and at once realized what she was attempting to do. With roars of rage they opened fire. The bullets whistled and sang about her ears; they spattered the earth about her flying feet; one grazed her neck; another tipped her arm; a third glanced off the iron hoop of the keg she carried. If one struck the powder fairly, she would probably be blown to atoms. A new peril!
Her breath came quickly, her heart rose in her throat and seemed to choke her, mists swam before her eyes as she ran up the hill. Blindly she struggled on. She swayed to and fro over the rough ploughed ground, and the watchers thought she would have fallen or dropped her burden, but something superhuman in her enabled her to hold tight and press on.