At War with Pontiac; Or, The Totem of the Bear: A Tale of Redcoat and Redskin
A glorious midsummer day was drawing to a close; its heat had passed; the tall forest trees, whose leaves were pleasantly rustled by the cool breeze of approaching night, flung a bridge of tremulous shadows across the surface of Loch Meg, and all nature was at peace. The tiny lake, though bearing an old-world name, was of the new world, and was one of the myriad forest gems that decked the wilderness of western New York a century and a half ago. It was embraced in a patent recently granted by the English king to his well-approved servant Graham Hester, whose bravery and wounds had won for him an honorable retirement, with the rank of major in a Highland regiment, ere he was forty years of age. Being thus provided with an ample estate, Major Hester, with his young wife and half a dozen trusty followers, left the old world for the new, and plunged into its wilderness. Though somewhat dismayed to find his property located a score of leagues beyond that of his nearest white neighbor, the major was at the same time gratified to discover in that neighbor his old friend and comrade, William Johnson, through whose diplomacy the powerful Iroquois tribes of the Six Nations were allied to the English and kept at peace.
On a crest of land overlooking and sloping gently down to the blue lakelet which Major Hester had named in honor of his wife, he erected a substantial blockhouse of squared timbers. Behind it were ranged a number of log outbuildings about three sides of a square, in the centre of which was dug a deep well. Having thus in a time of peace prepared for war, the proprietor began the improvement of his estate with such success that, within three years from the felling of the first tree, several acres of gloomy forest were replaced by smiling fields. A young orchard was in sturdy growth, a small herd of cattle found ample pasturage on the borders of the lake, and on all sides were evidences of thrift and plenty.
The military instinct of the proprietor caused all forest growth to be cleared from a broad space entirely around the rude fortress that held his life's treasures; but within the enclosure he left standing two superb oaks. These not only afforded a grateful shade, but gave a distinctive feature to the place that was quickly recognized by the surrounding Indians. Thus they always spoke of it as the house of the two trees, or two-tree house, a name that soon became "Tawtry House," under which designation it was known from the unsalted seas to the tide waters of the distant Shattemuc.
Tawtry House not only offered a ready welcome and bountiful hospitality to the occasional hunter, trader, or traveller tempted by business or curiosity into that wild region, but to the Indians who still roamed the forest at will and had established one of their villages at no great distance from it. With these, by the exercise of extreme firmness and an inflexible honesty, Major Hester succeeded in maintaining friendly relations, in spite of their jealousy of his presence among them. At the same time, his wife, through her gentleness and ready sympathy in their times of sickness or distress, gained their deep-seated affection.
Although the Iroquois were thus at peace with their English neighbors, there was a bitter enmity between them and the French settlers of Canada, who had espoused the cause of their hereditary foes, the tribes dwelling along the St. Lawrence and on both shores of the great fresh-water lakes. Most prominent of these were the Ottawas, Hurons or Wyandots, Ojibwas and Pottawattamies, who were allied in a defensive league against their powerful enemies. Their ancient hatred of the Iroquois, animated by the traditions of generations, was ever fanned into a blaze by Jesuit priests eager for the triumph of their faith, French traders anxious to monopolize the immensely profitable fur business of the new world, and French soldiers determined at any cost to extend the empire of their king. Thus, on one pretext or another, war parties were constantly coming and going, destroying or being destroyed, and it well behooved the adventurous frontier settler to intrench himself strongly behind massive timbers and stout palisades.
Under these conditions and amid such scenes, in the year 1743, when Tawtry House was still sweet-scented with odors of the forest from which it had been so recently hewn, was born Donald Hester, as sturdy a young American as ever kicked in swaddling clothes, and the hero of this tale of the forest.
On the midsummer evening with which our story opens, Major Hester and his wife walked, hand in hand, beyond the palisades of their fortress home, enjoying the marvellous beauty of their surroundings and talking of many things. Already had this wilderness home become very dear to them; for, representing years of toil and privation as it did, it was their very own and the heritage of their boy, now two years of age, who toddled behind them in charge of a ruddy-cheeked Scotch nurse. While they rejoiced over what had been accomplished, they planned for the future, and discussed the details of many projected improvements. At the outlet of the lake a grist-mill should be built, and the low lands beyond should be drained to afford increased pasturage for their multiplying herd.
As they talked there came a sound from the forest depths that caused them to pause and listen. Borne faintly on the evening breeze, was a distant firing of guns, and they fancied that it was accompanied by a confusion of yells from human throats.
"Oh, Graham! what can it mean?" exclaimed Mrs. Hester, as she clasped her husband's arm and glanced instinctively back, to make sure of the safety of her child.
"Nothing that need alarm you, my dear," answered the major, reassuringly. "It is only a token of some jollification among our Indian friends: a war dance, or a scalp dance, or the advent among them of a new lot of wretched captives, or something of that kind. I remember Truman mentioning, more than a week ago, that another war party had gone out. I do wish though that the Senecas would take it into their heads to move their village farther away. I used to think five miles quite a respectable distance, but now—"
"I would that this horrible fighting were ended," interrupted Mrs. Hester. "Will not the time ever come, Graham, when these poor heathen will cease from their dreadful wars, and live at peace with each other, like civilized beings?"
"Like civilized beings, my dear?" laughed Major Hester. "Yes, I think I may safely prophesy that if the time ever comes when those nations which we call civilized give over fighting, then even the red Indians may be persuaded to follow their example. As for their methods of warfare, they are but the counterparts of those practised by our own savage ancestors a few centuries ago; while in their torture of captives they are only reproducing the acts of civilized Romans, mediaeval knights, and the Holy Inquisition. It is not long since, even in England, Elizabeth Gaunt was burned to death at Tyburn for yielding to the dictates of compassion and giving shelter to a political offender; nor are the cries for mercy of the martyrs tortured at Smithfield stakes yet forgotten. The torture of New England witches is recent history, while the dismal record of devilish tortures inflicted by white men upon Indian captives is unbroken from the days of Columbus. Did not Frontenac cause an Iroquois warrior to be burned alive in order to terrorize his fellows? Did not—"
The honest major was so warmed to his subject that he might have discoursed upon it indefinitely, had he not been startlingly interrupted. He and his wife were retracing their steps toward the house, and, as before, the Scotch maid, with her toddling charge, was some paces behind them. At a wild scream from the girl those in advance turned in time to see the flying form of a young Indian, who had just emerged from the near-by forest, fall headlong at her feet. His naked body was pierced by wounds, and his strength was evidently exhausted. As he fell, a second Indian, in whose right hand gleamed a deadly tomahawk, leaped from the woodland shadows, and, with a yell of triumph, bounded toward his intended victim. He was closely followed by two others.
As the Scotch girl stood motionless with terror, little Donald, evidently believing this to be some new form of game provided for his especial edification, ran forward with a gurgle of delight, stumbled, and fell directly across the head of the prostrate Indian. But for the child's sudden movement the keen-bladed hatchet in the hand of the foremost pursuer, already drawn back for the deadly throw, would have sped on its fatal mission.
With a cry of anguish Mrs. Hester sprang toward her baby; but quicker than she, with a leap like that of a panther, Major Hester gained the spot first, snatched up his child, and, over the body of the young Indian, sternly confronted his scowling pursuers.
THE MAJOR GAINS A FRIEND AND MAKES AN ENEMY
For some seconds the three Indians, who were panting heavily from the effect of their long chase through the forest, gazed in silence at the white man who with the child in his arms so fearlessly confronted them. Then the foremost of them, an evil-looking savage who bore the name of Mahng (the Diver), motioned the major aside with a haughty wave of the hand, saying: "Let the white man step from the path of Mahng, that he may kill this Ottawa dog who thought to escape the vengeance of the Senecas."
Without retreating an inch from his position, and still holding the little Donald, who crowed with delight at sight of the Indians, Major Hester replied:—
"Not even if the whole Seneca tribe demanded it would I allow this man to be murdered in the presence of my wife. Nor, since my child has saved his life, will I deliver him into your hands for torture. He has sought my protection, and it shall be granted him until he is proved unworthy of it. Let the sachems of your tribe lay this grievance before Sir William Johnson. If the white chief decides that the prisoner must be restored to them, and so orders, then will I give him up, but not before. Now go, ere my young men, who are already approaching, reach this place and drive you from it with whips, like yelping curs."
Being sufficiently acquainted with the English language to comprehend the purport of these remarks, the scowling savage made answer:—
"Who gave the white man the right to step between an Indian and an Indian? This land is Indian land. The long house in which the white man dwells belongs to the Indians, as did the forest trees from which it is built. If the Indian says stay, then may you stay; if he says go, then must you go. Let one of your young men but lift a hand against Mahng, and this ground that has known the tread of the white man shall know it no more forever. His house shall become a hooting place for owls, and Seneca squaws shall gather the harvest of his fields. Restore then to Mahng his prisoner, that there may be no bad blood between him and his white brother."
"Never," replied Major Hester, who was sufficiently versed in the Indian tongue to catch the general drift of these remarks.
He had hardly uttered the word ere Mahng stooped, darted forward with deadly intent like a wild serpent, and sought to bury his gleaming hatchet in the brain of his still prostrate foe.
Like a flash the major's strong right foot shot out; the heavy, hob-nailed walking-shoe caught the savage squarely under the chin; he was lifted from the ground, and, falling on his back, lay as one who is dead.
The remaining savages made as though to take instant vengeance for this deadly insult and, as they imagined, murder of their leader, but their impulse was checked by a stern command from behind. Glancing in that direction, they saw themselves covered by a long, brown rifle-barrel, held by a white man clad in the leathern costume of the backwoods. At the same time half a dozen laborers who, home-returning from the fields, had noticed that something unusual was taking place, came hurrying to the scene of disturbance. Wisely concluding that under these circumstances discretion was the better part of valor, the Senecas picked up their helpless comrade and, retreating as rapidly as their burden would permit, disappeared amid the darkening shadows of the forest.
The tableau presented at this moment by those who remained was that of the tall major standing above the prostrate form of the escaped captive, holding his laughing child in one arm while his trembling wife clung to the other. Close beside them knelt the terror-stricken maid, with her face buried in her hands, and a few paces in the rear were grouped the laborers, armed with various implements of toil. In the foreground, Truman Flagg, the hunter, white by birth, Indian by association and education, leaned on his rifle and gazed silently after the disappearing savages. As they vanished in the forest, he remarked quietly:—
"'Twas handsomely done, major, and that scoundrel Mahng deserved all he got. But ef he's as dead as he looks, I'm fearful that kick may get you into trouble with the tribe, though he's not a Seneca by blood, nor overly popular at that."
"You know him, then?" queried the major.
"Not edzackly what you might call know him; but I know something of him."
"Very well; come up to the house and tell me what you know, while we consider this business. Some of you men carry this poor fellow to the tool-house, where we will see what can be done for him. Now, my dear, the evening meal awaits us, and I for one shall partake of it with a keener relish that this unfortunate affair has terminated so happily."
"I pray God, Graham, that it may be terminated," replied Mrs. Hester, fervently, as she took the child from its father's arms and strained him to her bosom.
The whole of this dramatic scene had transpired within the space of a few minutes, and when the men approached to lift the prostrate Indian they found him so recovered from his exhaustion as to be able to stand, and walk feebly with the aid of some support.
Major Hester's first duty, after conveying his wife and child to the shelter of the blockhouse, was to visit the guest so strangely thrust upon his hospitality and inquire into his condition. He found him lying on a pallet of straw, over which a blanket had been thrown, and conversing with Truman Flagg in an Indian tongue unknown to the proprietor. The hunter was bathing the stranger's wounds with a gentleness that seemed out of keeping with his own rude aspect, and administering occasional draughts of cool well water, that appeared to revive the sufferer as though it were the very elixir of life.
"What do you make of the case?" asked the major, as he watched Truman Flagg apply to each of the many gashes in the Indian's body a healing salve made of bear's grease mixed with the fragrant resin of the balsam fir. "Will he pull through, think you?"
"Bless you, yes, major! He'll pull through all right; for, bad as his hurts look, none of em's dangerous. They warn't meant to be. He was nighest dead from thirst. You see, he's been under torture most of the day, without nary a drop to wash down his last meal, which war a chunk of salted meat give to him yesterday evening. He'll pick up fast enough now, though. All he needs to make him as good as new is food and drink, and a night's rest. After that you'll find him ready to go on the war-path again, ef so be he's called to do it. He's the pluckiest Injun ever I see, and I've trailed, fust and last, most of the kinds there is. Ef he warn't, I wouldn't be fussin' over him now, for his tribe is mostly pizen. But true grit's true grit, whether you find it in white or red, and a man what values hisself as a man, is bound to appreciate it whenever its trail crosses his'n."
"A sentiment in which I must heartily concur," assented the major. "A brave enemy is always preferable to a cowardly friend. But is this Indian an enemy? To what tribe does he belong?"
"Ottaway," was the laconic answer.
"Ottawa!" exclaimed the major, greatly disconcerted. "Why, the Ottawas are the firmest allies of France and the most inveterate enemies of the English. Are you certain he is an Ottawa?"
"Sartain," replied the hunter, with a silent laugh at the other's evident dismay. "And not only that, but he's the best fighter and best man in the whole Ottaway tribe. They call him Songa, the strong heart, and I consate Sir William would be passing glad to exchange one hundred pounds of the king's money for his scalp to-morrow."
"Why don't you earn it, then?" asked, the other. "Surely one hundred pounds could not be gained more easily, nor is it a sum of money to be despised even by an independent American woods-ranger like yourself."
For answer the hunter rose slowly to his full height, and, holding a candle above his head, so that its light shone full on the proprietor's face, regarded him intently for a score of seconds.
"You don't mean it, Major Hester! Thank God, you don't mean it! for your face belies your words, and proves you to be an honest man," he said at length. "Ef I thought you meant what you just said, and was one to tempt a poor man to commit a murder for the sake of gold, I would never again sit at your table, nor set foot in your house, nor look upon your face, nor think of you save with the contempt an honest man must always feel for a villain."
"No, Truman. I did not mean what I said," replied the major, holding out a hand that was heartily grasped by the other. "I spoke out of curiosity to hear your reply, though I might have known it would have the ring of true steel. Now I must return to my wife, and if you will join us, after you have done what you can for this poor fellow, we will consult concerning the situation, for it is no light thing to hold Songa the Ottawa as prisoner in one's house."