E-text prepared by Al Haines
WHEN WILDERNESS WAS KING
A Tale of the Illinois Country
Author of "My Lady of the North"
A. L. Burt Company, Publishers New York Copyright by A. C. McClurg & Co. 1904 Published March 26, 1904 Second Edition, April 20, 1904 Third Edition, July 2, 1904 Fourth Edition, September 20, 1904 Fifth Edition, October 20, 1904 Sixth Edition, January 2, 1905 Seventh Edition, December, 1905 Entered at Stationers' Hall, London All Rights Reserved
I. A Message from the West II. The Call of Duty III. A New Acquaintance IV. Captain Wells of Fort Wayne V. Through the Heart of the Forest VI. From the Jaws of Death VII. A Circle in the Sand VIII. Two Men and a Maid IX. In Sight of the Flag X. A Lane of Peril XI. Old Fort Dearborn XII. The Heart of a Woman XIII. A Wager of Fools XIV. Darkness and Surprise XV. An Adventure Underground XVI. "Prance wins, Monsieur!" XVII. A Contest of Wits XVIII. Glimpses of Danger XIX. A Conference and a Resolve XX. In the Indian Camp XXI. A Council of Chiefs XXII. The Last Night at Dearborn XXIII. The Death-Shadow of the Miamis XXIV. The Day of Doom XXV. In the Jaws of the Tiger XXVI. The Field of the Dead XXVII. A Ghostly Vision XXVIII. An Angel in the Wilderness XXIX. A Soldier of France XXX. The Rescue at the Stake XXXI. A Search, and its Reward XXXII. The Pledge of a Wyandot XXXIII. An Intervention of Fate XXXIV. A Stumble in the Dark XXXV. The Battle on the Shore XXXVI. In the New Gray Dawn
"I saw a dot upon the map, and a housefly's filmy wing— They said 'twas Dearborn's picket-flag, when Wilderness was King.
* * * * * *
I heard the block-house gates unbar, the column's solemn tread, I saw the Tree of a single leaf its splendid foliage shed To wave awhile that August morn above the column's head; I heard the moan of muffled drum, the woman's wail of fife, The Dead March played for Dearborn's men just marching out of life; The swooping of the savage cloud that burst upon the rank And struck it with its thunderbolt in forehead and in flank, The spatter of the musket-shot, the rifles' whistling rain,— The sandhills drift round hope forlorn that never marched again."
—Benjamin F. Taylor.
When Wilderness Was King
A MESSAGE FROM THE WEST
Surely it was no longer ago than yesterday. I had left the scythe lying at the edge of the long grass, and gone up through the rows of nodding Indian corn to the house, seeking a draught of cool water from the spring. It was hot in the July sunshine; the thick forest on every side intercepted the breeze, and I had been at work for some hours. How pleasant and inviting the little river looked in the shade of the great trees, while, as I paused a moment bending over the high bank, I could see a lazy pike nosing about among the twisted roots below.
My mother, her sleeves rolled high over her round white arms, was in the dark interior of the milk-house as I passed, and spoke to me laughingly; and I could perceive my father sitting in his great splint-bottomed chair just within the front doorway, and I marked how the slight current of air toyed with his long gray beard. The old Bible lay wide open upon his knee; yet his eyes were resting upon the dark green of the woods that skirted our clearing. I wondered, as I quaffed the cool sweet water at the spring, if he was dreaming again of those old days when he had been a man among men. How distinct in each detail the memory of it remains! The blue sky held but one fleecy white cloud in all its wide arch; it seemed as if the curling film of smoke rising from our chimney had but gathered there and hung suspended to render the azure more pronounced. A robin peeked impudently at me from an oak limb, and a roguish gray squirrel chattered along the low ridge-pole, with seeming willingness to make friends, until Rover, suddenly spying me, sprang hastily around the comer of the house to lick my hand, with glad barkings and a frantic effort to wave the stub of his poor old tail. It was such a homely, quiet scene, there in the heart of the backwoods, one I had known unchanged so long, that I little dreamed it was soon to witness the turning over of a page of destiny in my life, that almost from that hour I was to sever every relation of the past, and be sent forth to buffet with the rough world alone.
There were no roads, in those days, along that valley of the upper Maumee,—merely faint bridle-paths, following ancient Indian trails through dense woods or across narrow strips of prairie land; yet as I hung the gourd back on its wooden peg, and lifted my eyes carelessly to the northward, I saw a horseman riding slowly toward the house along the river bank. There were flying rumors of coming Indian outbreaks along the fringe of border settlements; but my young eyes were keen, and after the first quick thrill of suspicion I knew the approaching stranger to be of white blood, although his apparel was scarcely less uncivilized than that of the savage. Yet so unusual were visitors, that I grasped a gun from its pegs in the kitchen, and called warningly to my mother as I passed on to meet the new-comer.
He was a very large and powerful man, with a matted black beard and an extremely prominent nose. A long rifle was slung at his back, and the heavy bay horse he bestrode bore unmistakable signs of hard travelling. As he approached, Rover, spying him, sprang out savagely; but I caught and held him with firm grip, for to strangers he was ever a surly brute.
"Is this yere Major Wayland's place?" the man questioned, in a deep, gruff voice, reining in his tired horse, and carelessly flinging one booted foot across the animal's neck as he faced me.
"Yes," I responded with caution, for we were somewhat suspicious of stray travellers in those days, and the man's features were not pleasing. "The Major lives here, and I am his son."
He looked at me intently, some curiosity apparent in his eyes, as he deliberately drew a folded paper from his belt.
"No? Be ye the lad what downed Bud Eberly at the meetin' over on the Cow-skin las' spring?" he questioned, with faintly aroused interest.
I blushed like a school-girl, for this unexpected reference was not wholly to my liking, though the man's intentions were evidently most kind.
"He bullied me until I could take no more," I answered, doubtfully; "yet I hurt him more seriously than I meant."
He laughed at the trace of apology in my words.
"Lord!" he ejaculated, "don't ever let that worry ye, boy. The hull settlement is mighty glad 'twas done. Old Hawkins bin on the p'int o' doin' it himself a dozen o' times. Told me so. Ye 're quite a lad, ain't ye? Weigh all o' hundred an' seventy, I 'll bet; an' strong as an ox. How old be ye, anyhow?"
"Twenty," I answered, not a little mollified by his manner. "You must live near here, then?"
"Wal, no, but been sorter neighbor o' yourn fer a month er so back; stoppin' up at Hawkins's shebang, at the ford, on the Military Road, visitin'; but guess I never met up with none o' your folks afore. My name 's Burns, Ol' Tom Burns, late o' Connecticut. A sojer from out West left this yere letter fer yer father at Hawkins's place more nor a week ago. Said as how it was mighty important; but blamed if this was n't the fust chance he 's hed to git it over yere sence. I told him I 'd fetch it, as it was n't more nor a dozen miles er so outer my way."
He held out a square paper packet; and while I turned it over curiously in my hand,—the first letter I had ever seen,—he took some loose tobacco from an outside pocket and proceeded leisurely to fill his pipe.
My mother rolled my father's chair forward into the open doorway, and stood close behind him, as was her custom, one arm resting lightly upon the quaintly carved chair-back.
"What is it, John?" she questioned gently. Instantly aroused by her voice, I crossed quickly over and placed the packet in my father's thin hands. He turned it over twice before he opened it, looking at the odd seal, and reading the superscription carefully aloud, as if fearful there might be some mistake:
"Major David Wayland, Along the Upper Maumee. Leave at Hawkins Ford on Military Road." "Important."
I can see him yet as he read it, slowly feeling his way through the rude, uneven writing, with my mother leaning over his shoulder and helping him, her rosy cheeks and dark tresses making strange contrast beside his pain-racked features and iron-gray hair.
"Read it aloud, Mary," he said at last. "I shall understand it better. 'T is from Roger Matherson, of whom you have heard me speak."
My mother was a good scholar, and she read clearly, only hesitating now and, then over some ill-written or misspelled word.
At FORT DEARBORN, near the head of the Great Lake. Twelfth June, 1812.
My DEAR OLD FRIEND:
I have come to the end of life; they tell me it will be all over by the morrow, and there remains but one thing that greatly troubles me—my little girl, my Elsa. You know I have never much feared death, nor do I in this hour when I face it once more; for I have ever tried to honor God and do my duty as both man and soldier. David, I can scarcely write, for my mind wanders strangely, and my fingers will but barely grasp the pen. 'T is not the grip of the old sword-hand you knew so well, for I am already very weak, and dying. But do you yet remember the day I drew you out of the rout at Saratoga, and bore you away safely, though the Hessians shot me twice? God knows, old friend, I never thought to remind you of the act,—'twas no more than any comrade would have done,—yet I am here among strangers, and there is no one else living to whom I may turn in my need. David, in memory of it, will you not give my little orphan child a home? Your old comrade, upon his death-bed, begs this of you with his final breath. She is all alone here, save for me, and there is no blood kin in all the world to whom I may appeal. I shall leave some property, but not much. As you love your own, I pray you be merciful in this hour to my little girl.
Your old comrade, ROGER MATHERSON.
This had been endorsed by another and bolder hand:
Captain Roger Matherson, late of the Massachusetts Continental Line, died at this fort, of fever, fourteenth June, 1812. His daughter is being cared for by the ladies of the garrison.
NATHAN HEALD, Capt. First Regt. Inf., Commanding.
The tears were clinging to my mother's long lashes as she finished the reading; she was ever tender of heart and sympathetic with sorrow. My father sat in silence, looking far off at the green woods. Presently he took the paper again into his hands, folded it carefully in the old creases, and placed it safely away between the Bible leaves. I saw my mother's fingers steal along the arm of the chair until they closed softly over his.
"The poor little lamb!" she said gently.
My father's old sword hung over the fireplace, and I saw his glance wander toward it, as something seemed to rise choking in his throat. He was always a man who felt deeply, yet said but little; and we both knew he was thinking about the old days and the strong ties of comradeship.
The stranger struck flint and steel to light his pipe; the act instantly recalled my father to the demands of hospitality.
"Friend," he said, speaking firmly, "hitch to the stump yonder, and come in. You have brought me sad news enough, yet are no less welcome, and must break bread at our board. John," and he turned toward me, "see to friend Burns's horse, and help your mother to prepare the dinner."
Out in the rude shed, which, answered as a kitchen during summer weather, I ventured to ask:
"Mother, do you suppose he will take the little girl?"
"I hope so, John," she answered, soberly; "but your father must decide himself. He will not tell us until he has thought it all out alone."
THE CALL OF DUTY
It was upon my mind all through that long afternoon, as I swung the scythe in the meadow grass. I saw Burns ride away up the river trail soon after I returned to work, and wondered if he bore with him any message from my father. It was like a romance to me, to whom so few important things had ever happened. In some way, the coming of this letter out of the great unknown had lifted me above the narrow life of the clearing. My world had always been so small, such a petty and restricted circle, that this new interest coming within its horizon had widened it wonderfully.
I had grown up on the border, isolated from what men term civilization; and I could justly claim to know chiefly those secrets which the frontier teaches its children. My only remembrance of a different mode of life centred about the ragged streets of a small New England village, where I had lived in earlier childhood. Ever since, we had been in the depths of the backwoods; and after my father's accident I became the one upon whom the heavier part of the work fell. I had truly thrived upon it. In my hunting-trips, during the dull seasons, I learned many a trick of the forest, and had already borne rifle twice when the widely scattered settlements were called to arms by Indian forays. There were no schools in that country; indeed, our nearest neighbor was ten miles distant as the crow flies. But my mother had taught me, with much love and patience, from her old treasured school-books; and this, with other lore from the few choice volumes my father clung to through his wanderings, gave me much to ponder over. I still remember the evenings when he read to us gravely out of his old Shakespeare, dwelling tenderly upon passages he loved. And he instructed me in other things,—in honor and manliness, in woodcraft, and many a pretty thing at arms, until no lad in the settlements around could outdo me in rough border sport. I loved to hear him, of a boisterous winter night,—he spoke of such matters but seldom,—tell about his army life, the men he had fought beside and loved, the daring deeds born of his younger blood. In that way he had sometimes mentioned this Roger Matherson; and it was like a blow to me now to hear of his death. I wondered what the little girl would be like; and my heart went out to her in her loneliness. Scarcely realizing it, I was lonely also.
"Has he spoken yet?" I questioned anxiously of my mother, as I came up to the open kitchen door when the evening chores were done.
"No, John," she answered, "he has been sitting there silently looking out at the woods ever since the man left. He is thinking, dear, and we must not worry him."
The supper-table had been cleared away, and Seth, the hired man, had crept up the creaking ladder to his bed under the eaves, before my father spoke. We were all three together in the room, and I had drawn his chair forward, as was my custom, where the candle-light flickered upon his face. I knew by the look of calm resolve in his gray eyes that a decision had been reached.
"Mary," he began gravely, "and you, John, we must talk together of this new duty which has just come to us. I hardly know what to decide, for we are so poor and I am now so helpless; yet I have prayed earnestly for guidance, and can but think it must be God's will that we care for this poor orphan child of my old friend."
My mother crossed the room to him, and bent down until her soft cheek touched his lips.
"I knew you would, David," she whispered, in the tender way she had, her hand pressing back his short gray hair. "She shall ever be unto us as our own little girl,—the one we lost come back to us again."
My father bent his head wearily upon one hand, his eyes upon the candle flame, his other hand patting her fingers.
"It must be all of ten years," he said slowly, "since last I had word of Roger Matherson. He was in Canada then, yet has never since been long out of my mind. He saved my life, not once alone, as he would seem to remember, but three separate times in battle. We were children together in the blue Berkshire hills, and during all our younger manhood were more than brothers. His little one shall henceforth be as my own child. God hath given her unto us, Mary, as truly as if she had been born of our love. I knew that Roger had married, yet heard nothing of the birth of the child or the loss of his wife. However, from this hour the orphan is to be our own; and we must now decide upon some safe means of bringing her here without delay."
He paused. No one of us spoke. His glance slowly wandered from the candle flame, until it settled gravely upon my face as I sat resting on a rude bench fitted into the chimney corner. He looked so intently at me that my mother seemed instantly to interpret his thought.
"Oh, surely not that, David?" she exclaimed, pleadingly. "Not John?"
"I know of no other fit messenger, little woman," he answered soberly. "It has indeed troubled me far more than all the rest, to decide on this; yet there is no one else whom I think equal to the task. John is a good boy, mother, and has sufficient experience in woodcraft to make the journey."
"But the savages!" she insisted. "'T is said we are upon the verge of a fresh outbreak, stirred up by this new war with England, that may involve the settlements at any time. You know Burns told you just now,—and he is an old scout, familiar with the West,—that British agents were active along the whole border, and there was great uneasiness among the Indian tribes."
"There is serious promise of danger, 't is true," he admitted, a flash of the old fire in his eyes. "Yet that is scarce likely to halt David Wayland's son. Indeed, it is the greater reason why this helpless orphan child should be early brought to our protection. Think of the defenceless little girl exposed alone to such danger! Nor have we means of judging, Mary, of the real seriousness of the situation to the north and west. War between the nations may very likely arouse the spirit of the savages, yet rumors of Indian outbreak are always on the lips of the settlers. Burns himself was upon his return westward, and did not seem greatly troubled lest he fail to get through. He claimed to live at Chicagou Portage, wherever that may be. I only know it is the extreme frontier."
My mother did not answer; and now I spoke, my cheeks aflame with eagerness.
"Do you truly mean, sir, that I am to go in search of the little girl?" I asked, barely trusting my own ears.
"Yes, John," my father replied gravely, motioning me to draw closer to his chair. "This is a duty which has fallen to you as well as to your mother and me. We can, indeed, but poorly spare you from the work at this season; yet Seth will be able to look after the more urgent needs of the farm while you are absent, while he would prove quite useless on such a mission as this. Do not worry, Mary. Friend Burns is well acquainted with all that western country, and he tells me there is scarcely a week that parties of soldiers, or friendly Indians, do not pass along the trail, and that by waiting at Hawkins's place for a few days John will be sure to find some one with whom he may companion on the long journey westward. He would himself have accompanied him, but must first bear a message to friends at Vincennes. It is now some weeks since Roger Matherson died, and we shall prove unworthy of our trust if we delay longer in sending for his daughter."
Though my mother was a western woman, patient and long habituated to sacrifice and peril, still her eyes, fixed upon my face, were filled with tears, and the color had deserted her cheeks.
"I know not why it should be so, David," she urged softly; "but in my heart I greatly fear this trip for John. Yet you have ever found me ready to yield wherever it seemed best, and I doubt not you are right in your decision."
At any other time I should have gone to her with words of comfort and good cheer; but now my ambition was so aroused by this impending adventure as to permit me to think of nothing else.
"Is it so very far, father, to where I must go?" I questioned, eagerly. "Where is this Fort Dearborn, and how am I to journey in reaching there? 'T is no garrison of which I have ever heard."
"Bring me the map your mother made of this country, and the regions to the westward," he said. "I am not over clear in regard to the matter myself, although friend Burns, who claims to know all that country, gave me some brief description; but I found him most chary of speech."
I got the map out of the great square cupboard in the corner, and spread the paper flat upon the table, placing knives at each corner to hold it open. I rolled his chair up before it, and the three of us bent our heads over the map together, our faces glowing in the candle flame. It was a copy made by a quill from a great government map my mother had seen somewhere in her journeying westward; and, though only a rude design, it was not badly done, and was sufficiently accurate for our purpose. Much of it was still blank; yet the main open trails had been traced with care, the principal fords over the larger streams were marked, and the various government posts and trading settlements distinctly located and named. Searching for the head of the Great Lake, we were not long in discovering the position of the fort called Dearborn, which seemingly was posted upon the western shore, nearly opposite another garrison point at the mouth of the St. Joseph river. We were able to trace with clearness the military road that had been constructed northward from Fort Wayne, our nearest government post; but the map failed to exhibit evidence of any beaten track, or used trail, leading westward and around the head of the lake. There were numerous irregular lines which denoted unnamed streams, but by far the larger portion of the territory extending to the west beyond Fort Wayne had been simply designated as "forest land" and "unexplored."
"Friend Burns tells me there is a trail used by both troops and savages, which he has traversed several times," my father explained, as he lifted his eyes from the map; "but it is not over plain, nor easily followed, as communication with the Fort is mostly maintained by means of the waterways to the northward. The overland journey, however, will prove speedier, besides being less liable to disaster for one unaccustomed to boats. How soon can John be ready, mother?"
Her voice trembled, and I felt the pressure of her hand upon my sleeve.
"It will take all of the morrow, David, to prepare his clothing properly," she replied, with the patient resignation of the frontier. "There is much that will need seeing after."
"Then John will start the next dawn. You had best ride the brown colt, my son; he is of good breed, and speedy. Seth shall accompany you until you find suitable companionship at Hawkins's. He will bring back word of how you started, and that knowledge will greatly comfort your mother."
He paused, and held out his thin hands.
"You go upon this strange journey willingly, my son?"
"You will be both kind and thoughtful with Roger Matherson's little girl?"
"She shall be to me as my own sister."
I felt the confiding clasp of his fingers, and realized how much to him would be a successful termination of my journey.
"Kiss your mother, John," he said, a trustful look coming into his kindly eyes. "We must all be astir early on the morrow."
Beneath the rived shingles of my little room, under the sloping roof, how I turned and tossed through those long night hours! What visions, both asleep and awake, came to me, thronging fast upon my heated brain, each more marvellous than its fellow, and all alike pointing toward that strange country which I was now destined by fate to travel! Vague tales of wonder and mystery had come floating to me out of that unknown West, and now I was to behold it all with my own eyes. But marvellous as were my dreams, the reality was to be even more amazing than these pictures of boyish imagination. Had I known the truth that night, I doubt greatly whether I should have had the courage to face it.
At last the gray dawn came, stealing in at the only window, and found me eager for the trial.
A NEW ACQUAINTANCE
I drew rein upon the upper river bank, before we finally plunged into the dark woods beyond, and glanced back. I had to brush the gathering tears from my eyes before I could see clearly; and when I finally rode away, the picture of that dear old home was fixed in my memory forever. Our house stood near the centre of an oak opening,—a little patch of native prairie-land, with a narrow stream skirting it on one side, and a dense fringe of forest all about. The small story-and-a-half cabin of hewn logs, with its lean-to of rough hand-riven planks, fronted to the southward; and the northern expanse of roof was green with moss. My father sat in the open doorway, his uplifted hand shading his eyes as he gazed after us; while my mother stood by his side, one arm resting upon the back of his chair, the other extended, waving a white cloth in farewell. Rover was without, where I had bidden him remain, eagerly watching for some signal of relenting upon my part. Beyond stood the rude out-buildings, silhouetted against the deep green. It was a homely, simple scene,—yet till now it had been all the world to me.
With a final wave of the hand, I moved forward, until the intervening trees, like the falling of a curtain, hid it all from view. Seth was astride the old mare, riding bareback, his white goat-like beard hanging down his breast until it mingled with her mane, while his long thin legs were drawn up in the awkward way he had. He was a strange, silent, gloomy man, as austere as his native hills; and we rode on with no exchange of speech. Indeed, my thoughts were of a nature that I had no wish to share with another; so it was some time before the depth of loneliness which oppressed my spirits enabled me to feel even passing interest in the things at hand.
"I 'd hate like thunder ter be a-goin' on your trip, Maester John," volunteered Seth at last, solemnly turning on the mare's broad back to face me.
"And why?" I asked, wonderingly; for the man's rare gift of silence had won him a certain reputation for deep, occult knowledge which I could not wholly ignore. "It will bring me the sight of some wonderful country, no doubt."
His shrewd gimlet eyes seemed fairly to pierce me, as he deliberately helped himself to tobacco from a pouch at his waist.
"Wal, that may all be, Maester John; but I've heerd tell ther is some most awful things goes on out yonder," and he swung his long arm meaningly toward the west. "Animyles sich as don't prowl raound yere, man-yeatin' snakes as big as thet tree, an' the blood-thirstiest salvages as ever was. An' arter a while ther ain't no more trees grows, ther lan' is thet poor, by gosh! jist a plumb dead levil er' short grass, an' no show ter hide ner nuthin'."
"Were you ever there, Seth?" I questioned with growing anxiety, for I had heard some such vague rumors as these before.
"Me? Not by a dinged sight!" he replied, emphatically. "This yere is a long way further west thin I keer 'bout bein'. Ol' Vermont is plenty good 'nough fer this chicken, an' many 's ther day I wish I was back ther. But I hed a cousin onct who tuk ter sojerin' 'long with Gineral Clarke, an' went 'cross them ther prairies ter git Vincennes frum the British. Lor'! it must a' bin more ner thirty year ago! He tol' me thet they jist hed ter wade up ter ther neck in water fer days an' days. I ain't so durn fond o' water as all thet. An' he said as how rattlesnakes was everywhere; an' ther Injuns was mos' twice es big es they be yere."
"But Clarke, and nearly all of his men, got back safely," I protested.
"Oh, I guess some on 'em got back, 'cause they was an awful lot in thet army, mighty nigh two thousand on 'em, Ephriam said; but, I tell ye, they hed a most terrible tough time afore they did git hum. I seed my cousin whin he kim back, an' he was jist a mere shadder; though he was bigger ner you whin he went 'way."
"But Fort Dearborn is much farther to the north. Perhaps it will be better up there."
"Wuss," he insisted, with a most mournful shake of the head, "a dinged sight wuss. Ephriam said es how the further north ye wint, the tougher it got. He saw an Injun from up near the big lake—a Pottamottamie, or somethin' like thet—what was nine fut high, an' he told him es how the rivers in his kintry was all full o' man-eatin' critters like snakes, an' some on 'em hed a hundred legs ter crawl with, an' cud travel a dinged sight faster ner a hoss. By gosh! but you bet I don't want none on it. Your father must 'a' been plum crazy fer ter sind ye way out ther all 'lone,—jist a green boy like you. What ye a-goin' fer, enyhow?"
I explained to him the occasion and necessity for my trip, but he shook his head dubiously, his long face so exceedingly mournful that I could not remain unaffected by it.
"Wal," he said at length, carefully weighing his words, "maybe it's all right 'nough, but I 've got my doubts jist the same. I 'll bet thet ther gal is jist one o' them will-o'-the-wisps we hear on, an' you never will find her. You 'll jist wander 'round, huntin' an' huntin' her, till ye git old, or them monsters git ye. An' I 'll be blamed if ever I heerd tell o' no sich fort as thet, nohow."
Seth was certainly proving a Job's comforter; and I was already sufficiently troubled about the final outcome of my adventure. Hence my only hope of retaining any measure of courage was to discountenance further conversation, and we continued to jog along in silence, although I caught him looking at me several times in a manner that expressed volumes.
We camped that night in the dense heart of some oak woods, beside a pleasant stream of clear, cool water. Late the following evening, just as the sun was disappearing behind the trees, our wearied horses emerged suddenly upon the bank of a broad river, and we could discern the dim outlines of Hawkins's buildings amid the deepening shadows of the opposite shore.
Upon one thing I was now fully determined. Seth should start back with the first streak of the next dawn. His long face and dismal croakings kept me constantly upon nettles, and I felt that I should face the uncertain future with far stouter heart if he were out of my sight. Firm in this resolve, I urged my horse to splash his reluctant way through the shallows of the ford; and as our animals rose on the steep bank of the western shore, we found ourselves at once in the midst of a group of scattered buildings. It seemed quite a settlement in that dim light, although the structures were all low and built of logs. The largest and most centrally located of these was evidently the homestead, as it had a rudely constructed porch in front, and a thin cloud of smoke was drifting from its chimney. As I drew nearer, I could perceive the reflection of a light streaming out through the open doorway.
No one appeared in answer to our shouting,—not even a stray dog; and, in despair of thus arousing the inhabitants, I flung my rein to Seth, and, mounting the doorstep, peered within. As I did so, a shiny, round, black face, with whitened eyes and huge red lips, seemed to float directly toward me through the inner darkness. It was so startling an apparition that I sprang back in such haste as nearly to topple over backward from the steps. Heaven alone knows what I fancied it might be; indeed, I had little enough time in which to guess, for I had barely touched the ground,—my mind still filled with memories of Seth's grotesque horrors,—when the whole figure emerged into view, and I knew him instantly for a negro, though I had never before seen one of his race. He was a dandified-looking fellow, wearing a stiff white waistcoat fastened by gilded buttons, with a pair of short curly mustaches, waxed straight out at the ends; and he stood there grinning at me in a manner that showed all his gleaming teeth. Before I could recover my wits enough to address him, I heard a voice from within the house,—a soft, drawling voice, with a marked foreign accent clinging to it.
"Sam," it called, "have you found either of the scoundrelly rascals?"
The darkey started as if shot, and glanced nervously back over his shoulder.
"No, sah," he replied with vigor, "dat Mistah Hawkins am not yere, sah. An' dat Mistah Burns has gone 'way fer gud, sah. But dar am a gemman yere, sah,—"
"What!" came a surprised ejaculation that caused the negro to jump, and I heard a chair overturned within. "A gentleman? Sam, don't deceive me! For the love of Heaven, let me see him. May I be bastinadoed if it hasn't been three months since my eyes beheld the last specimen! Sam, where was it I saw the last one?"
"By Saint Guise! 'tis gospel truth," and the speaker strode forward, candle in hand. "Here, now, you ace of spades," he cried impatiently, "hold the flame until I bid this paragon of the wilderness fit welcome in the name of Hawkins, who strangely seems to have vanished from the sylvan scene. Alas, poor Hawkins! two gentlemen at one time, I greatly fear, will be the death of him. Would that his good friend Burns might be with him on this festive occasion. Ye gods, what a time it would be!"
As the black hastily reached out for the candlestick, his erratic master as quickly changed his mind.
"No," he muttered thoughtfully, drawing back within the hall; "'tis far more fit that such formal greeting should occur within, where the essentials may be found with which to do full courtesy. I will instead retire. Sam, bid the gentleman meet me in the banquet hall, and then, mark you, thou archfiend of blackness, seek out at once that man Hawkins in his hidden lair, and bid him have ample repast spread instantly, on pain of my displeasure. By all the saints! if it be not at once forthcoming I will toast the scoundrel over his own slow fire."
"Seth," I said to my staring companion, as soon as I could recover from my own surprise, "find a place for the horses somewhere in the stables, and come in."
"Where is your master to be found?" I questioned of the black, whose air of self-importance had been resumed the moment he was left alone.
"Second door to de right, sah," he answered, gazing curiously at my deerskin hunting-shirt as I pressed by.
I had little difficulty in finding it, for all that the way was totally dark, as the fellow within was lustily carolling a French love-song. I hung back for a moment, striving vainly to distinguish the words.
Without pausing to make my presence known, I opened the door quietly, and stepped within. The room was not a large one, though it occupied the full width of the house; and the two lighted candles that illumined it, one sitting upon a table otherwise bare, the other occupying the rude dresser in the far corner, revealed clearly the entire interior.
The sole occupant of the room sat upon a corner of the table, one foot resting on the floor, the other dangling carelessly. Hardly more than a year my elder, he bore in his face the indelible marks of a life vastly different. His features were clear-cut, and undeniably handsome, with a curl of rare good-humor to his lips and an audacious sparkle within his dark eyes. His hat, cocked and ornamented in foreign fashion, lay beside him; and I could not help noting his long hair, carefully powdered and arranged with a nicety almost conspicuous, while his clothing was rich in both texture and coloring, and exhibited many traces of vanity in ribbon and ornament. Within his belt, fastened by a large metal clasp, he wore a pearl-handled pistol with long barrel; and a rapier, with richly jewelled hilt, dangled at his side. Altogether he made a fine figure of a man, and one of a sort I had never met before.
If he interested me, doubtless I was no less a study to him. I could see the astonishment in his eyes, after my first entrance, change to amusement as he gazed. Then he brought a white hand down, with a smart slap, upon the board beside him.
"By all the saints!" he exclaimed, "but I believe the black was right. 'Tis the face of a gentle, or I know naught of the breed, though the attire might fool the very elect. Yet, parbleu! if memory serves, 't is scarcely worse than what I wore in Spain."
He swung down upon his feet and faced me, extending one hand with all cordiality, while lips and eyes smiled pleasantly.
"Monsieur," he said, bowing low, and with a grace of movement quite new to me, "I bid you hearty welcome to whatsoever of good cheer this desert may have to offer, and present to you the companionship of Villiers de Croix. It may not seem much, yet I pledge you that kings have valued it ere now."
It was a form of introduction most unfamiliar to me, and seemed bristling with audacity and conceit; but I recognized the heartiness of his purpose, and hastened to make fit response.
"I meet you with much pleasure," I answered, accepting the proffered hand. "I am John Wayland."
The graceful recklessness of the fellow, so conspicuous in each word and action, strongly attracted me. I confess I liked him from his first utterance, although mentally, and perhaps morally as well, no two men of our age could possibly be more unlike.
"Wayland?" he mused, with a shrug, as if the sound of the word was unpleasant. "Wayland?—'t is a harsh name to my ears, yet I have heard it mentioned before in England as that of a great family. You are English, then?"
I shook my head emphatically; for the old wounds of controversy and battle were then being opened afresh, and the feeling of antagonism ran especially high along the border.
"I am of this country," I protested with earnestness, "and we call ourselves Americans."
He laughed easily, evidently no little amused at my retort, twisting his small mustache through his slender fingers as he eyed me.
"Ah! but that is all one to me; it is ever the blood and not the name that counts, my friend. Now I am French by many a generation, Gascon by birth, and bearing commission in the Guard of the Emperor; yet sooth, 't is the single accursed drop of Irish blood within my veins that brings me across the great seas and maroons me in this howling wilderness. But sit down, Monsieur. There will be both food and wine served presently, and I would speak with you more at ease."
As he spoke he flung himself upon a low settee, carelessly motioning me toward another.
"On my word," he said, eying me closely as I crossed over to the bench, "but you are a big fellow for your years, and 't is strength, not flabby flesh, or I know not how to judge. You would make a fine figure of a soldier, John Wayland. Napoleon perchance might offer you a marshal's baton, just to see you in the uniform. Parbleu! I have seen stranger things happen."
"You are now connected with the French army?" I questioned, wondering what could have brought him to this remote spot.
"Ay, a Captain of the Guard, yet an exile, banished from the court on account of my sins. Sacre! but there are others, Monsieur. I have but one fault, my friend,—grave enough, I admit, yet but one, upon my honor, and even that is largely caused by that drop of Irish blood. I love the ladies over-well, I sometimes fear; and once I dared to look too high for favor."
"And have you stopped here long?"
"Here—at Hawkins's, mean you? Ten days, as I live; would you believe I could ever have survived so grievous a siege?" and he looked appealingly about upon the bare apartment. "Ten days of Hawkins and of Sam, Monsieur; ay! and of Ol' Burns; of sky, and woods, and river, with never so much as a real white man even to drink liquor with. By Saint Louis! but I shall be happy enough to face you across the board to-night. Yet surely it is not your purpose to halt here long?"
"Only until I succeed in joining some party travelling westward to the Illinois country."
"No! is that your aim? 'T is my trip also, if Fate be ever kind enough to bring hither a guide. Sacre! there was one here but now, as odd a devil as ever bore rifle, and he hath taken the western trail alone, for he hated me from the start. That was Ol' Burns. Know you him?"
"'T was he who brought the message that sent me here; yet he said little of his own journey. But you mention not where you are bound?"
"I seek Fort Dearborn, on the Great Lake."
"That likewise is to be the end of my journey. You go to explore?"
"Explore? Faith, no," and he patted his hand upon the bench most merrily. "There are but two reasons to my mind important enough to lure a French gentleman into such a hole as this, and send him wandering through your backwoods,—either war or love, Monsieur; and I know of no war that calleth me."
Love, as he thus spoke of it, was almost an unknown term to me then; and, in truth, I scarcely grasped the full significance of his meaning.
"You seek some lady, then, at Fort Dearborn?" I asked, for his tone seemed to invite the inquiry.
"Ay!" with quickened enthusiasm; "'tis there Toinette has hidden herself for this year or more,—Toinette, on my word as a French soldier, the fairest maid of Montreal. I have just discovered her whereabouts, yet I shall win her ere I traverse these trails again, or I am not Villiers de Croix."
"I travel thither to bring back a little orphan child with me," I explained simply, in response to his look, "and will most gladly aid you where I can."
Before he could answer, Hawkins, a gaunt, silent frontiersman, together with Sam, entered the room, bearing between them our evening meal.
CAPTAIN WELLS OF FORT WAYNE
We tarried at the table a considerable time,—not because of any tempting variety in the repast, as the food furnished was of the coarsest, but for the sake of companionship, and because we discovered much of passing interest to converse about. De Croix had travelled widely, and had seen a great variety of life both in camp and court. He proved a vivacious fellow, full of amusing anecdote,—a bottle of rich wine drawn from his own private stock so stimulating his imagination that I had little to do but sit and listen. Yet he contrived to learn from me,—how, I hardly know,—the simple story of my life, and, indeed, assumed a certain air of patronizing superiority, boasting unduly of his wider experience and achievements in a way that somewhat nettled me at last, as I began to comprehend that he was merely showing off his genteel graces the better to exhibit his contempt for my provincial narrowness. I did not permit this really to anger me, for our views upon such matters were totally different, and I could not help feel admiration for the brilliant and audacious fellow.
The black waited upon us while we ate and drank, moving noiselessly across the rough floor, so keenly observant of his master's slightest wish as to convince me the latter possessed a temper which upon occasion burst its bounds. Yet now he was surely in the best of humors; and with the coming of our second bottle, after the remains of the repast had been removed, he sang several love-songs in his native tongue, the meaning of which I could only guess at.
"Saint Guise!" he exclaimed at last, flinging one booted foot over the table corner. "You are a very sphinx of a fellow. You deny being English, yet you have all the silence of that nation. I am hungry, Monsieur, for the sweet sound of the French tongue."
"'T is a language of which I know little," I answered, striving to speak pleasantly, although his manner was becoming less and less to my liking. "I have met with your coureurs de bois in plenty, and picked up sufficient of their common phrases to enable me to converse on ordinary themes with them; yet I confess I find it difficult to follow your speech."
"Canaille," he returned, in tone of undisguised contempt, "Canadian half-breeds, the very offscourings of our people. Sacre! but you should know us at home, Monsieur,—we are the conquerors of the world!"
I wish I could picture to you how he said this. Simple as it now reads, he made it vital with meaning. The insolent boast was uttered with such a swagger that my face instantly flushed, and he noted it.
"Is it not true, Monsieur?" he asked quickly, his own blood heated by the wine. "I tell you, the whole of Europe has trembled, and will again, at the nod of our Napoleon. Why, even over here we had to come with our legions to help you repel the redcoats. Saint Guise! but it was the Frenchmen who made you a nation."
"Ay! but only that they might revenge themselves upon England," I retorted blindly, "and the force sent merely hurried a result already inevitable; yet we gave you a slight touch of our own quality in '98 that stung a bit, I warrant."
"Bah! a ship or two. 'Twas well for you that our army was so closely engaged elsewhere, or the story would have a different ending."
We were both of us upon our feet by this time, glaring at each other across the board, our faces hot with the ill-restrained passion of youth. A word more from either would surely have precipitated matters; but before it could be spoken the door leading into the hallway was hurriedly flung aside, and, without apology for the intrusion, two men strode forward into the glare of light.
"Serve supper here, Hawkins," commanded the first, his back still turned toward us. "Anything you may chance to have in the house,—only let there be little delay."
He was a tall, dark-featured man, smoothly shaven, as swarthy as an Indian, with stern dark eyes, thick coarse hair, and an abrupt manner born of long command. His companion, of lighter build and younger face, was attired in a travel-stained uniform of blue and buff; but he who was evidently the leader was so completely wrapped within the folds of a riding-cloak as to reveal nothing of rank other than his unmistakable military presence and bearing. Turning from the door, he swept a penetrating glance over us, loosening the clasp of his cloak as he did so.
"I regret having thoughtlessly interrupted your quarrel, gentlemen," he said brusquely, "but this appears to be the sole excuse for a public-room in the place. However, my services are at your command if they be desired in any way."
De Croix laughed, perfectly at his ease in a moment.
"'T is scarce so serious," he explained lightly. "A mere interchange of compliments over the respective merits of our nations in war."
The stranger looked at him intently, and with some manifest disapproval.
"And yours, no doubt, was France," he said shortly.
De Croix bowed, his hand upon his heart.
"I have worn her uniform, Monsieur."
"I thought as much, and fear my sympathies may be altogether with your antagonist in the controversy. Yet what's the use of wasting life like that? Surely there is fighting enough in this world of ours for such young blades, without inventing cause for quarrel. Come, sit down once more, and join with us in whatsoever cheer our landlord may provide."
As he spoke, he flung aside his cloak, revealing beneath merely the well-worn dress of a frontiersman, with an army sword-belt buckled about the waist.
"Come, Walter," he called to his companion, who remained standing, "there is to be no touch of ceremony here to-night. Gentlemen, I am Captain Wells, formerly of the army, now Indian agent at Fort Wayne; and this is Sergeant Jordan."
The Frenchman bowed gracefully, and extended a card across the table. The other glanced at it carelessly.
"Ah! De Croix; pleased to meet you. Think I heard some of our officers speak of seeing you a month ago at Detroit,—McBain or Ramsey, I have forgotten which."
"I recall a game of cards with a Lieutenant Ramsey, a rather choleric Scotchman, with a magnificent capacity for strong whiskey."
The Captain turned inquiringly toward me, and I hastened to name myself.
"Wayland, did you say?" he asked, with deepened interest. "'T is not a common appellation, yet I once knew a Major by that name in Wayne's command."
"My father, sir," I asserted proudly.
With quick impulsiveness he extended his hand.
"As noble a soldier as I have ever known," he exclaimed heartily. "I served with him in two campaigns. But what are you two young fellows doing here? for it would be hard to conceive of a more disheartening place of residence. Surely, De Croix, you are not permanently located in this delightful spot?"
"The saints forbid!" ejaculated the other, with an expression of horror that caused the younger officer to smile. "Yet I have already survived ten days of it. We seek to join some party bound westward, either to Fort Dearborn or beyond."
The elder officer smiled gravely, as his stern eyes wandered thoughtfully over our faces in the candle-light.
"You will scarcely find those who go beyond," he said, at last, slowly. "That is our extreme frontier; and even this post, I hear it rumored, is to be abandoned shortly. Indeed, I am now proceeding thither, hoping to escort a niece safely eastward because of that very probability. I can offer you naught save companionship and guidance upon the journey; yet if you needs must go, you may ride with us and welcome. But 't is my first duty to advise you strongly against it."
"You look for trouble?" I asked, for his words and manner were grave.
"I am not one easily alarmed," he answered, scanning our faces as we fronted him; "but I have lived long among the Indians, and know them well. This new war with England will not pass without atrocities along the border, and in my judgment we are now on the eve of a general uprising of the savages. It will surely come with the first news of British success, and 't is the fear of reverses at Dearborn that has hurried me westward. You, sir," and he turned toward me, "are young, but it is evident you have been bred to the frontier, so you will realize what it may mean to us if we be caught in the Illinois country by such an uprising."
I bowed, deeply impressed by his earnestness.
"I have, indeed, seen something of savage warfare, and know much of its horror," I replied stoutly. "Yet what you say of the possible future only makes more urgent my duty to press on."
"And you?" he asked De Croix.
"Faith, Captain," was the instant reply, "it is the gentle hand of love which leads me westward, and never yet did a true Frenchman hesitate in such a quest because danger lurked between."
Wells smiled grimly.
"Then my conscience is left clear," he exclaimed heartily; "and if you ride with me to death, 'tis of your own choosing. However, glad enough we have cause to be thus to gain two more fighting men. I have a party of Miamis travelling with me, and I doubt not there will be ample work for all before we return. Here comes supper; let us eat, drink, and be merry, even though to-morrow it be our fate to die. 'T is the best border philosophy."
THROUGH THE HEART OF THE FOREST
We lingered long over the wine,—for that which De Croix had furnished proved excellent, and greatly stimulated our discourse. Yet, I must confess, it was drunk chiefly by the Frenchman and Jordan; for Wells barely touched his glass, while I had never acquired a taste for such liquor. De Croix waxed somewhat boastful, toward the last; but we paid small heed to him, for I was deeply interested in Captain Wells's earlier experiences among the savages, which he related gravely and with much detail. Jordan proved himself a reckless, roistering young fellow, full of high spirits when in liquor; yet I formed an impression that he stood well in his commander's favor, for the latter warned him kindly to be more abstemious.
However late it may have been when we finally sought rest, we were early astir the next morning. I despatched Seth upon his return journey to the farm, bearing under his girdle as cheerful a note of farewell as I could frame; and then, though it was scarce later than sun-up, the rest of us were fairly upon the westward trail. There were in the party thirty Miami Indians, strong, lusty-looking warriors, most of them. The larger portion of them travelled in our advance, under command of one of their chiefs; a smaller detachment acting in similar manner as a rear-guard. The white men, as well as the negro, who controlled a pack animal heavily laden with his master's baggage, were on horseback; and it pleased me greatly,—for I was young and easily flattered,—to have Captain Wells rein in his horse at my side as soon as we were safely across the ford, leaving the Frenchman either to companion with Jordan or ride alone.
I looked at De Croix curiously, as he moved forward with slow carelessness in our front, for he had kept the entire company waiting outside the house for half an hour in the gray dawn while he curled and powdered his hair. Doubtless this was what so disgusted Wells, whose long black locks were worn in a simple queue, tied somewhat negligently with a dark cord. I almost smiled at the scowl upon his swarthy face, as he contemplated the fashionably attired dandy, whose bright-colored raiment was conspicuous against the dark forest-leaves that walled us round.
"I have heard it claimed these gay French beaux fight well when need arises," he commented at last, thoughtfully; "but 't is surely a poor place here for flaunting ribbons and curling locks. Possibly my fine gentleman yonder may have occasion to test his mettle before we ride back again. Sure it is that if that time ever comes he will not look so sweet."
"You make me feel that we go forward into real peril," I said, wondering that he should seem so fearful of the outcome. "Have you special reason?"
"The Miamis have already been approached by Indian runners, and their young men are restless. It was only because I am the adopted son of Big Turtle, and a recognized warrior of their tribe, that these have consented to accompany me; and I fear they may desert at the first sign of a hostile meeting," he answered gravely. "There is an Indian conspiracy forming, and a most dangerous one, involving, so far as I can learn, every tribe north of the Ohio. Now that war with England has actually been declared, there can no longer be doubt that the chiefs will take sides with the British. They have everything to gain and little to lose by such action. The rumor was at Fort Wayne, even before we left, that Mackinac had already fallen; and if that prove true, every post west of the Alleghanies is in danger. I fear that death and flame will sweep the whole frontier; and I frankly acknowledge, Wayland, my only hope in this expedition is that, by hard travel, we may be able to reach Chicagou and return again before the outbreak comes. Tom Burns, an old scout of Wayne's, and a settler in that country, was at Fort Wayne a month since with an urgent message from the commandant at Dearborn. I tell you frankly, it will be touch and go with us."
"Chicagou?" I questioned, for the word was one I had heard but once before and was of an odd sound.
"Ay! old Au Sable called it the Chicagou portage long before the fort named Dearborn was ever established there. 'T is the name the French applied to a small river entering the Great Lake from the west at that point."
"Have you journeyed there before?"
"Once, in 1803. I held Indian council on the spot, and helped lay out the government reservation. 'T is a strange flat country, with much broken land extending to the northward."
Little by little our conversation lapsed into silence; for the narrow trail we followed was a most difficult one, and at times taxed our ingenuity to the utmost. It led through dense dark woods, fortunately free from underbrush, skirted the uncertain edges of numerous marshes in the soft ooze of which the hoofs of our horses sank dangerously, and for several miles followed the sinuous course of a small but rapid stream, the name of which I have forgotten. There were few openings in the thick forest-growth, and the matted branches overhead, interlaced with luxuriant wild vines, so completely shut out all vestige of the sun that we toiled onward, hour after hour, in continuous twilight.
What mysterious signs our guides followed, I was not sufficiently expert in woodcraft to determine. To my eyes,—and I sought to observe with care,—there was nowhere visible the slightest sign that others had ever preceded us; it was all unbroken, virgin wilderness, marked only by slow centuries of growth. The accumulation of moss on the tree-trunks, as well as the shading of the leaves, told me that we continued to journey almost directly westward; and there was no perceptible hesitancy in our steady progress, save as we deviated from it here and there because of natural obstacles too formidable to be directly surmounted.
We skirted immense trees, veritable monarchs of the ages, hoary with time, grim guardians of such forest solitudes; climbed long hills roughened by innumerable boulders with sharp edges hidden beneath the fallen leaves, that lamed our horses; or descended into dark and gloomy ravines, dank with decaying vegetation, finally halting for a brief meal upon the southern edge of a small lake, the water of which was as clear and blue as the cloudless August sky that arched it. The sand of the shore where we rested was white as snow, yet De Croix had his man spread a cloak upon it before he ventured to sit down, and with care tucked a lace handkerchief about his throat to prevent stray crumbs from soiling the delicate yellow of his waistcoat.
"One might fancy this was to be your wedding day, Monsieur," observed Wells, sarcastically, as he marked these dainty preparations, and noted with disgust the attentive negro hovering near. "We are not perfumed courtiers dancing at the court of Versailles."
De Croix glanced about him carelessly.
"Mon Dieu, no," he said, tapping the lid of a richly chased silver snuff-box with his slender fingers. "Yet, my dear friend, a French gentleman cannot wholly forget all that belongs to the refinements of society, even in the heart of the wilderness. Sam, by any foul chance did you overlook the lavender water?"
"No, sah; it am safe in de saddle-bags."
"And the powder-puff, the small hand-mirror, and the curling-iron?"
"I saw to ebery one ob dem, sah."
De Croix gave a deep sigh of relief, and rested back upon the cloak, negligently crossing his legs.
"Captain," he remarked slowly and thoughtfully, "you 've no idea the trouble that negro is to me. Would you believe it? he actually left my nail-brush behind at Detroit, and not another to be had for love or money this side of Montreal! And only last night he mislaid a box of rouge, and, by Saint Denis! I hardly dare hope there is so much as an ounce of it in the whole party."
"I rather suspect not," was the somewhat crusty reply; "yet if a bit of bear's grease could be made to serve your turn, we might possibly find some among us."
"I know not its virtue," admitted the Frenchman gravely; "yet if it reddens the lips it might be useful. But that which I had came from the shop of Jessold in Paris, and is beyond all price."
We were ten days upon this forest journey, from the time of our crossing the Maumee; and they were hard days, even to those of us long habituated to the hardships of border travel. Indeed, I know few forms of exertion that so thoroughly test the mettle of men as journeying across the wilderness. There are no artificial surroundings, either to inspire or restrain; and insensibly humanity returns to natural conditions, permitting the underlying savage to gain ascendency. I have seen more than one seemingly polished gentleman, resplendent with all the graces of the social code, degenerate into a surly brute with only a few hours of such isolation and the ceaseless irritation of the trail. Yet I must acknowledge that De Croix accepted it all without a murmur, and as became a man. His entire plaint was over the luxuries he must forego, and he made far more ado about a bit of dust soiling his white linen than about any real hardship of the march. 'T is my memory that he rather grew upon us; for his natural spirits were so high that he sang where others swore, and found cause for amusement and laughter in much that tested sorely even the Indian-like patience of Wells. He was like a boy, this gayly perfumed dandy of the French court; but beneath his laces and ribbons, his affectations and conceits, there hid a stout heart that bade him smile where other men would lie down and die. He companioned mostly with Jordan as we journeyed, for Wells never could become reconciled to his mincing ways; yet I confess now that I began to value him greatly, and longed more than once to join with the two who rode in our advance, cheering their wearisome way with quips of fancy and snatches of song. He knew it too, the tantalizing rascal, and would frequently send back a biting squib over his shoulder, hoping thus to draw me away from the silent grim-faced soldier beside whom I held place.
It was truly a rough and wild journey, full enough of hardship, and without adventure to give zest to the ceaseless toil. I know now that we made a wide detour to the southward, trusting thus to avoid any possible contact with prowling bands of either Pottawattomies or Wyandots, whom our friendly Miamis seemed greatly to dread. This took us far from the regular trail, rough and ill-defined as that was, and plunged us into ah untrodden wilderness; so that there were times when we fairly had to cut our way through the twisted forest branches and tangled brakes of cane with tomahawks and hunting-knives. We skirted rocky bluffs, toiled painfully over fallen timber, or waded ankle deep in softened clay, in the black gloomy shadows of dense woods which seemed interminable, meeting with nothing human, yet constantly startling wild game from the hidden coverts, and feeling more and more, as we advanced, the loneliness and danger of our situation,—realizing that each league we travelled only added to the length and peril of our retreat if ever disaster came or Fort Dearborn were found deserted.
Captain Wells, naturally grave and silent from his long training among savages, grew more and more reticent and watchful as we progressed, riding often at my side for hours without uttering a word, his keen eyes warily searching the dark openings upon every hand as if suspecting that each spot of gloom might prove the chosen place for an ambuscade. Our Indian allies moved like shadows, gliding over the ground noiselessly; and the occasional outbursts of merriment from De Croix and his equally reckless companion grew gradually less frequent, and appeared more forced. The constant and never-ending toil of our progress, the depressing gloom of the sombre primeval forest on every side of us, the knowledge of possible peril lurking in each league of this haunted silence, weighed upon us all, and at last closed the lips of even the most jovial of our number.
It was the tenth day, as I remember,—though it may have been later, for I have no writing to guide me concerning dates,—when we emerged into a broad valley, treeless save for a thin fringe of dwarfed growth skirting the bank of a shallow stream which ran almost directly westward. I cannot describe how sweet, after our gloomy journey, the sunlight appeared, as we first marked it play in golden waves over the long grass; or the relief we felt at being able to gaze ahead once more and see something of the country that we were traversing. 'Twas like a sudden release from prison. Our jaded horses felt with us the exhilaration of the change, and moved with greater sprightliness than they had shown for days. As the sun began its circle downward, vast rolling hills of white and yellow sand arose upon the right of our line of march,—huge mounds, many of them, glistening in the sunshine, some jagged at the summit, others rounded as if by art, so unusual in form and presence that I ventured to address our leader regarding them, as he rode with his head bent low and a far-off look in his eyes.
"The sand?" he questioned, glancing up as if startled at the sound of my voice. "Why, it has been cast there by the stormy waves of the Great Lake, my lad, and beaten into those strange and fantastic shapes by the action of the wind. Doubtless 'tis the work of centuries of storms."
"Are we, then, so close to the lake?" I asked eagerly,—for I had never yet seen so large a body of water, and his description fired my imagination.
"'T is but just beyond those dunes yonder, and will be still nearer when we come to camp. Possibly you might reach the shore before dark if you exercise care,—for there is danger of becoming lost in that sand desert. Those hills seem all alike when once you are among them."
"What is it that so greatly disturbs your Miamis?" I ventured to ask, for I had been noticing for some time that they were restless and travelling poorly. "They have been counselling now for two hours."
He glanced aside at me in apparent surprise.
"Why, boy, I thought you were bred to the border; and can you ask me such a question? Do you observe nothing, like that fine gentleman yonder? What have we been following since first we entered this valley?"
"An old Indian trail."
"True," he exclaimed, "and one that has been traversed by a large war-party, bound west, within twelve hours."
"How know you this?"
"By a hundred signs far plainer than print will ever be to my eyes. In faith, I thought those fellows out yonder would have summoned me to council long ere this, instead of threshing it out among themselves. They are bolder warriors than I deemed, though they will doubtless revolt in earnest when we camp. We shall have to guard them well to-night."
As he paused, his eyes fixed anxiously upon our Indian allies, De Croix began to hum a popular tune of the day, riding meanwhile, hat in hand, with one foot out of the stirrup to beat the time. Then Jordan caught up the refrain, and sang a verse. I saw one or two of the older Indians glance around at him in grave displeasure.
"The young fools!" muttered Wells, uneasily. "I shall enjoy seeing if that French popinjay keeps all of his fine airs when the hour for stern work comes."
He lifted his voice.
The young soldier instantly ceased his song, and turned in his saddle to glance back.
"The time has come when I must insist on less noise, and more decorum upon the march," Wells said sternly. "This is not Fort Wayne, nor is our road devoid of danger. Captain de Croix, I shall have to request you also to cease your singing for the present."
There was that in his voice and manner which forbade remark, and we rode on silently. I asked:
"But you have not explained to me how you learned all this of which you spoke?"
"By the use of my eyes, of course. It is all simple; there are marks beside the beaten trail, as well as in its track, which prove clearly the party ahead of us to be moving westward, that it travelled rapidly, and was certainly not less than a hundred strong, with ponies and lodge-poles. Not more than a league back we passed the evidences of a camp that had not been deserted longer than twelve hours; and when we crossed the river, a feather from a war-bonnet was lying in the grass. These are small details, yet they tell the story. That feather, for instance, was dropped from a Pottawattomie head-dress, and no doubt there are warriors among those Indians yonder who could name the chief who wore it. It simply means, my lad, that the savages are gathering in toward Dearborn, and we may reach there all too late."
"Is the way yet long?" and my eyes sought the horizon, where the sun hung like a red ball of fire.
"We should be there by the morrow," he answered, "for we are now rounding the head of the Great Lake. I wish to God I might see what fate awaits us there."
Young and thoughtless as I was in those days, I could not fail to realize the depth of feeling which swayed this stern, experienced man; and I rode on beside him, questioning no more.
FROM THE JAWS OF DEATH
I think it must be in the blood of all of New England birth to love the sea. They may never have seen it, nor even heard its wild, stern music; yet the fascination of great waters is part of their heritage. The thought of that vast inland ocean, of the magnitude and sublimity of which I had only the vaguest conception, haunted me all that afternoon; and I scarcely removed my eyes from those oddly constructed mounds of drifted sand, striving vainly to gain, through some depression between them, a fleeting glimpse of the restless waters that had helped to shape them into such fantastic forms.
As the sun sank, angry red in our faces, presaging a storm, the course of the little stream we had been following drew in closer toward these grotesque piles, and the trail we followed became narrower, with the sluggish current pressing upon one side and that odd bank of gleaming sand upon the other. In a little open space, where quite a carpet of coarse yellowish grass had found lodgment, beneath the protecting shadow of a knot of cottonwoods, we finally made camp, and proceeded to prepare our evening meal. Determined to strike north through those guarding sand-dunes, and reach the shore of the lake if possible before final darkness fell, I hastily crowded my pockets with food, and looked eagerly around for some congenial companion. Captain Wells, whom I should have preferred to be with me, was deep in conference with one of the Miami chiefs, and not to be disturbed; Jordan had seemingly been detailed to the command of the night-guard; so, as a last resort, I turned aside and sought De Croix. I found him seated cross-legged on a blanket beneath one of the cottonwoods, a silver-backed mirror propped against a tree-butt in his front, while the obsequious darkey was deliberately combing out his long hair and fashioning it anew. The Frenchman glanced up at me with a welcoming smile of rare good-humor.
"Ah, sober-face! and have you at last mustered courage to break away from the commander of this most notable company?" he cried mockingly. "'T is passing strange he does not chain you to his saddle! By Saint Guise! 'twould indeed be the only way in which so dull a cavalier would ever hold me loyal to his whims. Friend Wayland, I scarce thought you would ever thus honor me again; and yet, 't is true, I have had an ambition within my heart ever since we first met. 'T is to cause you to fling aside those rough habiliments of the wilderness, and attire yourself in garments more becoming civilized man. Would that I might induce you, even now, to permit Sam to rearrange those heavy blond locks a la Pompadour. Bless me! but it would make a new man of you."
"Such is not at all my desire, Monsieur," I answered, civilly. "I came now merely to learn if you would walk with me through these dunes of sand before the daylight fades."
He looked out, idly enough, across that dreary expanse of desolation, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Use the other powder, Sam, the lighter colored," he murmured languidly, as if the sight had wearied him; "and mind you drop not so much as a pinch upon the waistcoat."
Then he lifted his eyes inquiringly to mine.
"For what?" he asked.
"To look forth upon the Great Lake. Captain Wells tells me 't is but a brief and safe walk from here to the shore-line."
"The lake?—water?" and the expression upon his face made me smile. "Mon Dieu, man! have you become crazed by the hard march? What have I ever said in our brief intercourse that could cause you to conceive I care greatly for that? If it were only wine, now!"
"You have no desire to go with me, then?"
"Lay out the red tie, Sam; no, the one with the white spots in it, and the small curling-iron. No, Monsieur; what you ask is impossible. I travel to the west for higher purpose than to gaze upon a heaving waste of water. Sacre! did I not have a full hundred days of such pleasure when first I left France? My poor stomach has not fairly settled yet from its fierce churning. Know ye not, Master Wayland, that we hope to be at this Fort Dearborn upon the morrow, and 't is there I meet again the fair Toinette? Saints! but I must look my best at such a time, not worn and haggard from tramping through the sand. She was ever a most critical maid in such matters, and has not likely changed. 'T is curled too high upon the right brow, you black imp! and, as I live, there is one hair you have missed entirely."
Realizing the uselessness of waiting longer, I turned my back upon his vanity, and strode off alone. It is not my nature to swerve from a purpose merely because others differ in desires; and I was now determined to carry out my plan. I took one of the narrow depressions between two mounds of sand and plunged resolutely forward, endeavoring to shape my course as directly northward as the peculiarities of the path would admit. To my mind, there was little to fear from the hostile Indians, as every sign proved them to be hastening westward in advance of us; while I was too long accustomed to adventure to be easily confused, even in the midst of that lonely desolation.
I soon found the walking difficult; for I sank to the ankles with each step, while the soft sliding sand rolled beneath me so as to yield no solid foothold. The irregularity of the mounds continually blocked my passage, and caused me to deviate in direction, so that I grew somewhat bewildered, the entire surface bearing such uniformity of outline as to afford little guide. Yet I held to my original course fairly well, for I could pilot somewhat by the dim north star; and it was not long before my alert ears caught the pounding of surf along the shore-line. Much encouraged, I pressed forward with greater rapidity, ignoring the lanes between the dunes, and clambering over the mounds themselves in my eagerness to reach the lake before the complete closing down of night.
At last I topped a particularly high ridge that felt solid to the feet; and as I did so the wind came, hard and biting, against my face. There, just below me, not fifty feet away, were rolling the great waves, white-capped and roaring, pounding like vast sledges upon the anvil of the sand. My entire being thrilled at the majestic sight, and for the moment I forgot everything as I gazed away across those restless, heaving waters, seemingly without limit, stretching forth into the dim northward as far as the eye could reach, until water and sky imperceptibly met and blended. Each advancing wave, racing toward the beach, was a white-lipped messenger of mystery; and the vast tumultuous sea, rolling in toward me out of that dark unknown, with its deep voice of thunder and high-bursting spray, breathed the sublimest lessons of the Infinite to my soul. It awed, impressed, silenced with the sense of its solemn power. No dream of ocean grandeur had ever approached the reality now outspread before me, as this vast inland sea tossed and quivered to the lashing of the storm-wind that swept its surface into fury.
To the left and right of where I stood motionless, curved the shore-line, a seemingly endless succession of white shining sand-hills, with the sloping shingle up which the huge breakers tossed and rolled in continuous thunder and foam, rising, breaking, receding, chasing each other in gigantic play. How savagely strong it all looked! what uncontrollable majesty lived in every line of the scene! The very suggestion of tremendous power in it was, to my imagination, immeasurably increased by its unutterable loneliness, its seemingly total absence of life; for not a fin rose above the surface, not a wing brushed the air overhead. The sun, sinking slowly behind the rim of sand, shot one golden-red ray far out into that tumbling waste, forming a slender bridge of ever-changing light that seemed to rest suspended upon the breaking crests of the waves it spanned. Then, gradually, stealthily, silently, the denser curtain of the twilight drew closer and closer, and my vista narrowed, as the shadows swept toward me like black-robed ghosts.
I turned about reluctantly, to retrace my steps while the dim light yet lingered. Some unseen angel of mercy it must have been that bade me pause, and led me gently down the steep bank to the waters edge, where the sharp spray lashed my cheeks. If this be not the cause, then I know not why I went; or why, once being there, I should have turned to the right, and rounded the edge of the little bay. Yet all of this I did; and God knows that many a time since I have thanked Him for it upon my knees.
I saw first the thing bobbing up and down behind a bare wave-washed rock that lifted a hoary crown close beside the water's edge. A branch from off some tree, I thought, until I had taken a half-dozen curious steps nearer, and felt my heart bound as I knew it to be a boat. My first thought, of course, was of hostile Indians; and I swept the sand-hills anxiously for any other sign of human presence. The world about me was soundless except for the ceaseless roaring of the waves, and there was not even a leaf within my sight to flutter. I crept forward cautiously, seeing no footprints on the smooth sand, until my searching eyes rested upon a white hand, dangling, as if lifeless, over the boat's gunwale. Forgetting everything else in the excitement of this discovery, I sprang hastily forward and peered within the boat.
It was an awkward and rudely-formed water-craft, with neither mast nor oars, yet of fair size, broad-beamed and seaworthy. In the forward part lay the body of a woman; curled up and resting upon the boat's bottom, the head buried upon the broad seat so that no face was visible, with one hand hidden beneath, the other outstretched above the rail. So huddled was her posture that I could distinguish few details in the fading light; yet I noted that she wore a white upper garment, and that her thick hair flowed in a dense black mass about her shoulders.
For a moment I stood there helpless, believing I gazed upon death. She either moved slightly, or the waves rocked the boat so as to somewhat disturb her posture. That semblance of life sent my blood leaping once more within my veins, and I leaned over and touched her cautiously.
"Oh, go away! Please go away!" she cried, not loudly, but with a stress of utterance that caused me to start back half in terror. "I am not afraid of you, but either take my soul or go away and leave me."
"For whom do you mistake me?" I asked, my hand closing now over hers.
"For another devil come out of the black night to torture me afresh!" she answered, never once moving even to my touch. "Ah, what legions there must be to send forth so many after the soul of one poor girl! 'T is not that I shrink from the end. Death! why, have I not died a hundred deaths already? Yet do I trust the Christ and Mother Mary. But why does the angel of their mercy hold back from me so long?"
Was she crazed, driven mad by some extremity of suffering at which I could only guess? That oarless boat, beached amid the desolation of sand and the waste of water, alone told a story to make the heart sick. I hesitated, not knowing what I had best say. She lifted her head slowly, and gazed at me. I caught one glimpse of a pale young face framed in masses of black dishevelled hair, and saw large dark eyes that seemed to glow with a strange fire.
"You,—you cannot be a devil also," she said, stammeringly. "You do not look like those others,—are you a man?"
I bowed in silence, astounded by her words and appearance.
"Yet you are not of the garrison,—not of Dearborn. I have never seen your face before. Yet you are surely a man, and white. Holy Mother! can it indeed be that you have come to save me?"
"I am here to serve you by every means in my power," I answered soberly, for the wildness of her speech almost frightened me. "God, I truly think, must have led me to you."
Her wonderful eyes, questioning, anxious, doubtful, never once left my face.
"Who are you? How came you here?"
"I am named John Wayland," I replied, striving to speak as simply as might be, so that she would comprehend, "and form one of a small party travelling overland from the east toward the Fort. We are encamped yonder at the edge of the sand. I left the camp an hour ago, and wandered hither that I might look out upon the waters of the Great Lake; and here, through the strange providence of God, I have found you."
She glanced apprehensively backward over her shoulder across the darkened waters, and her slight form shook.
"Oh, please, take me away from it!" she cried, a note of undisguised terror in her voice, and her hands held out toward me in a pitiful gesture of appeal. "Oh, that horrible, cruel water! I have loved it in the past, but now I hate it; how horribly it has tortured me! Take me away, I beg,—anywhere, so that I can neither see nor hear it any more. It has neither heart nor soul." And she hid her face behind the streaming hair.
"You will trust me, then?" I asked, for I had little knowledge of women. "You will go with me?"
She flung the clinging locks back from her eyes, with an odd, imperious gesture which I thought most becoming, holding them in place with one hand, while extending the other frankly toward me.
"Go with you? Yes," she replied, unhesitatingly. "I have known many men such as you are, men of the border, and have always felt free to trust them; they are far more true to helpless womanhood than many a perfumed cavalier. You have a face that speaks of honor and manliness. Yes, I will go with you gladly."
I was deeply impressed by her sudden calmness, her rapid repression of that strange wildness of demeanor that had at first so marked her words and manner. As I partially lifted her from the boat to the sand, she staggered heavily, and would have fallen had I not instantly caught her to me. For a single moment her dark eyes looked up confidingly into mine, as she rested panting against my shoulder, and I could feel her slender form tremble within my arms.
"You are ill—faint?" I questioned anxiously.
She drew back from me with all gentleness, and did not venture again to attempt standing entirely without support.
"I am ashamed so to exhibit my weakness," she murmured. "I fear I am greatly in need of food. What day is this?"
"The twelfth of August."
"And it was the night of the tenth when I drifted out of the mouth of the river. Ever since then I have been drifting, the sport of the winds and waves."
"Sit you down here, then," I commanded, now fully awakened to her immediate need. "The sand is yet warm from the sun, and I have food with me in my pockets."
A CIRCLE IN THE SAND
I have since thought it almost providential that my food supply was so limited; for, after first asking me if I had eaten all I required, she fell upon it like a famished thing, and did not desist until all was gone. A threatening bank of dark cloud was creeping slowly up the northern sky as we were resting, but directly overhead the stars were shining brilliantly, yielding me sufficient light for the study of her face. She was certainly less than my own age by two or three years, a girl barely rounding into the slender beauty of her earliest womanhood, with hints of both in face and form. She was simply dressed, as, indeed, might naturally be expected in a wilderness far removed from marts of trade; but her clothing was of excellent texture, and became her well in spite of its recent exposure, while a bit of rather expensive lace at the throat and a flutter of gay ribbons about the wrists told plainly that she did not disdain the usual adornments of her sex. And this was quickly shown in another way. She had not yet completed her frugal meal when her mind reverted to her personal appearance, and she paused, with heightened color, to draw back her loosened hair and fasten it in place with a knot of scarlet cord. It was surely a winsome face that smiled up at me then.
"I feel almost guilty of robbery," she said, "in taking all this food, which was no doubt intended for your own supper."
"Merely what chanced to be left of it," I answered heartily. "Had I so much as dreamed this stretch of sand was to yield me such companionship, I should have stinted myself more."
An expression of bewildered surprise crept into her eyes as I spoke.
"Surely you are not a mere coureur de bois, as I supposed from your dress," she exclaimed. "Your expression is that of an educated gentleman."
I smiled; for I was young enough to feel the force of her unconscious flattery.
"I believe I can prove descent from an old and honorable race," I said; "but it has been my fortune to be reared in the backwoods, and whatever education has come to me I owe to the love and skill of my mother."
My frankness pleased her, and she made no attempt to disguise her interest.
"I am so glad you told me," she said simply. "My mother died when I was only ten, yet her memory has always been an inspiration. Are you a Protestant?"
This unexpected question took me by surprise; yet I answered unhesitatingly, "Yes."
"I was educated at the Ursuline Convent in Montreal. It was my mother's dearest wish that I should take the vows of that order, but I fear I am far too frivolous for so serious a life. I love happy things too well, and the beautiful outside world of men and women. I ran away from the Sisters, and then my father and I voyaged to this country, where we might lead a freer life together."
"Here?" and I glanced questioningly about me into those darkening shadows which were momentarily hemming us in more closely.
"To Fort Dearborn," she explained. "We came by boat through the straits at the north; and 'twas a trip to remember. My father brought out goods from Canada, and traded with the Indians. I have been in their villages. Once I was a week alone with a tribe of Sacs near Green Bay, and they called me the White Queen. I have met many famous warriors of the Wyandots and Pottawattomies, and have seen them dance at their council. Once I journeyed as far west as the Great River, across leagues and leagues of prairie," and her face lighted up at the remembrance. "Father said he thought I must be the first white woman who had ever travelled so far inland. We have been at Dearborn for nearly a year."
She rose to her feet, and swept her eyes, with some anxiety, around upon dim mounds of sand that appeared more fantastic than ever in the darkness.
"Had we not better be going?" she asked. "There is surely a storm gathering yonder."
"Yes," I answered, for I had not been indifferent to the clouds steadily banking up in the north. "Yet you have not told me your name, and I should be most glad to know it."
The girl courtesied mockingly, as though half inclined to laugh at my insistence.
"What is a name?" she exclaimed. "'Tis not that for which we greatly care. Now I—I am simply Mademoiselle Antoinette,—at least, so most of those I care for call me; and from now on, the very good friend of Master John Wayland."
I was deeply conscious that I blushed at her words and manner; but with it there arose an instant query in my mind: could this be the fair Toinette whom De Croix sought so ardently? I greatly feared it; yet I resolved I would not mention his name to her.
"It has a decided French sound," I stammered.
She laughed at my tone, with a quick shrug of her shoulders.
"And pray, why not, Monsieur? Have you such a prejudice against that great people that you need speak of them with so glum a voice? Ah, but if I must, then I shall endeavor to teach you a higher regard for us."
"That may not prove so hard a task," I hastened to assure her; "though I was surprised,—you speak English with so pure an accent that I had not dreamed you other than of my own race."
"My father was of English blood," she answered more gravely; "but I fear you will find me quite of my mother's people, if ever we come to know each other well. But hark! that was surely thunder! We have loitered too long; the storm is about to break."
It was indeed upon us almost before she ceased speaking. A sudden rush of wind sent my hat flying into the darkness, and whipped her long black hair loose from its restraining knot. I had barely time to wrap my hunting-jacket closely around her shoulders, when the rain came dashing against our faces.
I drew her unresistingly around the edge of the nearest sand-pile; but this supplied poor protection against the storm, the wind lashing the fine grit into our faces, stinging us like bits of fire. I tried to excavate some sort of cave that might afford us at least a partial shelter; but the sand slid down almost as rapidly as I could dig it out with my hands.
"Oh, let us press on!" she urged, laying her hand upon my arm, in entreaty. "We shall become no wetter moving, and your camp, you said, was only a short distance away."
"But are you strong enough to walk?" And as I leaned forward toward her, a quick flash of vivid lightning, directly overhead, lit both our faces. I marked she did not shrink, and no look of fear came into her eyes.
"I am quite myself once more," she answered confidently. "It was despair and loneliness that so disheartened me. I have never been timid physically, and your presence has brought back the courage I needed."
There was a natural frankness, a peculiar confidence, about this girl, that robbed me of my usual diffidence; and as we struggled forward through the dampening sand, her dress clinging about her and retarding progress, I dared to slip one arm about her waist to help in bearing her along. She accepted this timely aid in the spirit with which it was offered, without so much as a word of protest; and the wind, battering at our backs, pushed us forward.
"Oh, that troublesome hair!" she exclaimed, as the long tresses whipped in front of our faces, blinding us both. "I have never before felt so much like sacrificing it."
"I beg that you will not consider such an act now," I protested, aiding her to reclaim the truants, "for as I saw it before the darkness fell, your hair was surely worthy of preservation."
"You laugh at me; I know I must have been a far from pretty sight."
"Do you wish me to say with frankness what I thought of your appearance under such disadvantages?"
She glanced at me almost archly, in the flash of lightning that rent the sky.
"I am really afraid to answer yes,—yet perhaps I am brave enough to venture it."
"I have never been at court, Mademoiselle, and so you may not consider my judgment in such matters of much moment; but I thought you rarely beautiful."
For a moment she did not attempt to speak, but I could distinctly feel the heaving of her bosom as I held her hard against the assault of the wind, and bent low hoping to catch an answer.
"You are sincere and honest," she said at last, slowly, and I felt that the faint trace of mockery had utterly vanished from her soft voice. "'T is manifest in your face and words. You speak not lightly, nor with mere empty compliment, as would some gilded courtiers I have known; and for that reason I do value your opinion."
"You are not angry at my presumption?"
"Angry?—I?" and she stopped and faced me, holding back her hair as she did so. "I am a woman, Monsieur; and all women, even those of us hidden here in the wilderness, like best those who admire them. I do not know that I am as beautiful as you say, yet other men have often said the same without being pressed for their opinion. No, I am not angry,—I am even glad to know you think so."
"And you surely do know?" I insisted, with a courage strange to me.
"Yes," she answered, but her eyes fell before my eagerness; "you are not one who has yet learned to lie, even to women. 'T is a relief to know there are such men still in the world."
We had come to a full halt by this time.
"Do you have any idea where we may be?" she asked, peering anxiously about, and perhaps glad to change the tone of our conversation. "I cannot note a landmark of any kind. These sand-hills seem all alike."
"I believe we have kept to the southward, for we have merely drifted with the storm; but I confess my sole guidance has been the direction of the wind, as these sand-lanes are most confusing. If there were the slightest shelter at hand, I should insist upon your waiting until the rain was over."
"No, it is better to go on. I am now wet to the skin, and shall be warmer moving than resting on this damp sand."
We must have been moving for an hour, scarcely speaking a word, for the severe exertion required all our breath. The rain had ceased, and stars began to glimmer amid the cloud-rifts overhead; but I knew now that we were lost. She stopped suddenly, and sank down upon the sand.
"I am exhausted," she admitted, "and believe we are merely moving about in a circle."
"Yes," I said, reluctantly; "we are wasting our strength to no purpose. 'T will be better to wait for daylight here."
It was a gloomy place, and the silence of those vast expanses of desolate sand was overwhelming. It oppressed me strangely.
"Let me feel the touch of your hand," she said once. "It is so desperately lonely. I have been on the wide prairie, at night and alone; yet there is always some sound there upon which the mind may rest. Here the stillness is like a weight."
Possibly I felt this depressing influence the more because of my long forest training, where at least the moaning of limbs, fluttering of leaves, or flitting of birds brings relief to the expectant senses; while here all was absolute solitude, so profound that our breathing itself was startling. The air above appeared empty and void; the earth beneath, lifeless and dead. Although neither of us was cowardly of heart, yet we instinctively drew closer together, and our eyes strained anxiously over the black sand-ridges, now barely discernible through the dense gloom. We tried to talk, but even that soon grew to be a struggle, so heavily did the suspense rest upon our spirits, so oppressed were we by imaginings of evil. I remember telling her my simple story, gaining in return brief glimpses of her experiences in Canada and the farther West. She even informed me that orders had been received, the day before she became lost upon the lake, to abandon Fort Dearborn; that an Indian runner—whom she named Winnemeg—had arrived from General Hull at Detroit, bringing also news that Mackinac had fallen.
"Doubtless your absence has greatly worried them also," I said.
"Oh, no; none of them knew my plight. Possibly some may miss me, but they will naturally suppose I have been at Mr. Kinzie's house all this time. I have been there often for weeks together, and they have frequently urged me to take shelter with them. You see it is far safer there than at the Fort, for even the most hostile Indians remain on friendly terms with Mr. Kinzie and his family. He has been there so many years, and is so just a man in his dealings with them. 'T is really strange to see how he leaves his house unguarded, while the garrison at the Fort is almost in a state of siege. It makes it hard to realize how imminent is the danger. Yet they are terribly alarmed at the Fort, and I fear with cause. Even Mr. Kinzie feels the situation to be critical. There were fully three hundred Pottawattomie warriors encamped without the Fort two days ago; and they were becoming bold and impudent,—one chief even firing his gun in Captain Heald's office, thinking to frighten him into furnishing them with liquor."
"But the Fort is strong?" I asked. "It is capable of resisting an attack?"
"I should suppose so," she answered, hesitatingly; "but that is not a matter upon which a girl may judge. I fear, however, all is not harmony among its defenders. I know that Captain Heald and Ensign Ronan do not agree, and I have heard bitter words spoken by other officers of the garrison."
I thought she did not care to speak more about this matter, and we drifted off upon other topics, until I felt her head sink slowly down upon my shoulder, and knew she slept. I sat there still, pillowing her tenderly upon my arm, when the gray light of the dawn stole slowly toward us across the ridges of sand and revealed the upturned face.
TWO MEN AND A MAID
The emotion I felt was new and strange to me; for though I had known little of young women, yet as I looked upon her in that dim light of dawn I found myself wondering if I already loved this strange girl. Fair as her face certainly was, its beauty rendered even more striking by the pallor of her late exposure and the blackness of her dishevelled hair, it was her frankness and confidence which most appealed to me. She had held all my thoughts through the long hours of watchfulness as I sat there quietly, feeling the rise and fall of her regular breathing, and thrilled by the unconscious caress of stray tresses as they were blown against my cheek. How she trusted me, stranger though I was! Yet it was through no lack of knowledge of the great world of men, for this young girl had known court gallants and rough soldiery, soft-spoken courtiers and boastful men-at-arms. So the night through I dreamed of what might be; and when the light finally came slowly reddening the eastern sky, I feasted my eyes unchecked upon that sweet upturned face, and made a rash vow that I would win her heart.
I was still mirroring her image in my memory, forgetful of all else,—the broad white brow, the long dark lashes resting in such delicate tracery against the smooth velvet of the cheek now slightly flushed, the witching pink of the ear, the softly parted lips between which gleamed the small and regular teeth of ivory, the round white throat swelling ever so slightly to her breathing,—when a sudden shout of surprised recognition aroused me from my reverie, and I looked up to see Jordan topping the sand-bank in our front, and waving his hand to some one beneath him and out of sight.