A New Keeper of the Wampum
A New Keeper
of the Wampum
JIM CAMERON, a blond giant of a man, whose reputation as a forest-ranger was second only to that of Jo Martin's, rested on one elbow in the sweet June grass and surveyed his long, powerful limbs complacently. As his gaze shifted to Martin, his companion on many a scout, his mouth twitched with a little smile, then hardened. Martin, slight of build and several inches under Cameron's stature, sat with his lithe body curving forward over his knees and was staring at the toes of his moccasins. His dark features wore an expression of deep dejection.
All day the two had lounged about the Blanchard cabin, standing guard till Blanchard returned from the little mill at Devens Farms. Inside the open door Betty Blanchard tossed her pretty head as she helped her mother, and proudly told herself there was not another girl on all the New York frontier in this Summer of 1778 who could boast two such cavaliers.
Both men knew the girl was a coquette and loved her the more distractedly for the tantalizing fault; and both inwardly vowed their loitering should end once Blanchard returned. For with the father to act as intermediary the girl would be brought to book and announce her choice. Border wooings were bruskly terminated at times in these stirring days, when Sir Henry Clinton was retreating from Philadelphia to New York with General Washington at his heels. "Big Cameron" was confident the girl was as good as his wife. Martin believed the same, but would not withdraw until told as much by the maid.
"Think I'll scout up Oriskany way again. Ain't been there since we had the brush with the Mohawks," lazily remarked Cameron after a long silence. "Go along?"
Before the girl came between them this question would not have been put; each taking it for granted the two of them must follow the same trail.
"Don't think so," jerkily replied Martin without lifting his head. "Mebbe I'll drift out Mich'limack'nac way."
Cameron's pleasant face clouded for a moment: he and Martin had had some rare old times together. Of course old ties must loosen when a ranger settled down with a wife. But, Lord, how the trail would call him in the years to come. Then he caught a flutter of Betty's skirts as she switched by the door and he could only think of the maid. Another period of silence, and then both men were on their feet, bowing and scraping, only to find it was the mother and not the girl. Mrs. Blanchard smiled and the girl snickered inside the cabin.
"Look after Betty while I go up to Cotton's," said Mrs. Blanchard. "Don't let the Injuns carry her off."
"The whole Iroquois League can't harm a hair of her head," cried Big Cameron.
"I reckon she'll be here when you git back," quietly assured Martin.
With a smile for each to show her impartiality Mrs. Blanchard walked up the river trail that led to the nearest neighbor's; and the two men, still standing, looked at each other coldly.
Martin spoke first, saying:
"Cameron, we've followed our last trail together. I'm tired of uncertainties. Let's have it settled."
Cameron dropped into the grass, replying—
"I'm in no hurry."
"I am," grimly retorted Martin; and the face he showed at the door was haggard and determined. "Betty, come here and settle something for us," he peremptorily demanded.
All their words had fed through the small, square hole serving as a window. Perhaps the girl resented Martin's arbitrary tone and manner. Anyway, there were danger signals in her cheeks as she appeared in the doorway and with hands on her hips bent her gaze on the two men. Martin, although usually nonplussed in her presence, desperately requested:
"Which is it, Betsy? Him or me? Let's have it settled and done with."
The girl's eyes snapped ominously and she coldly returned—
"Lor'! Jo Martin; I never knew anything had been commenced."
"Mebbe not. That means two fools 'stead of one. But here's Cameron, who I fetched here last Winter. Here's me; who's been coming here for a year every chance I could git. Which one's wasting his time? Say which shall stop coming."
"I never asked either of you to come here," she slowly answered. "Quite a few forest-rangers go up and down the Schoharie and stop to see us. The trail's open at both ends for them that want to come—for them who're keen to go."
Cameron chuckled. Martin's dark face grew hot and he declared—
"Well, the trail's closed for me unless you say for Jim Cameron to stay away."
Oblivious to the fact a new world was being created from the primeval solitudes, that the destiny of a continent was being indexed by such sturdy characters as they, the girl braced her slender shoulders and sharply informed:
"It'll never be for you, nor no man, to say who shall come and who shall keep clear of Blanchard's. Mister Cameron has more sense than to talk that way."
"Cameron," choked Martin, his eyes growing lurid under the taunting smile of the big fellow. He checked himself with difficulty and muttered, "so it's Cameron, eh? Three's a crowd. I'll be going."
"But, Jo, you're acting silly," she protested as he turned away. "Ain't Jim Cameron always been your friend? Can't you see it's wicked for you two to fall out this way?"
"I ain't doing any falling out," defended Cameron, feeling a trifle uneasy at the thought of walking the forests alone after all the years of Martin's companionship. Over his shoulder Martin passionately shot back:
"He was my friend till I fetched him here. He knew how I felt. But that didn't bother him any once he'd seen you."
"If you're going to look at it that way, Jo Martin, why should anything bother me?" cried Cameron. "Think you can go through the world and blaze trees what take your liking and expect folks not to touch 'em even if you can't chop 'em down? Now you've put a name to it, I'll say that since I seen Betty nothing else can ever count."
Martin made no response, but dropped his long rifle across his left arm and hurried up the trail, his cup of misery overflowing.
THE gracious warmth of the June sun could not dispel the blighting paralysis from the valleys of the Mohawk and Schoharie. Only the Blanchard and Cotton families remained in this section, and they had been repeatedly warned to fall back to the settlements.
Aside from their Anglo-Saxon tenacity to start a harvest the seasonal assurance of fecundity found no crops planted. No hopeful husbandmen were plying the advantage of the month. From Fonda's Bush to the eastern waters of the Susquehanna a strange apathy rested on the land; and fields grew rank with trash, orchards blossomed with no chance of being harvested, while spiders spun webs in the doorways of abandoned homes.
Dread of the Iroquois had put a stop to all peaceful pursuits along the border. Fear of the Long House and their white allies had brought a hush to the country; and only those were abroad who fought for or against King George upon his throne. Mothers quieted their children's whimpering by whispering the one word "Iroquois."
Troublous times. A strange time for wooing a maid, with the brooding calm more wearing on men's nerves than the crash of actual battle. The few border folks who dwelt outside the forts, such as the Blanchards and Cottons, might well tremble of nights and expect to hear the pattering reconnaissance of the red men, followed by their horrible screams as they sounded the doom of their victims.
According to Martin's views, however, the times were not out of joint. He was accustomed to these waves of terror. Settlers alternately flocked to their little farms and fled in terror to the nearest garrison post. Indians always had been a factor in the ranger's life and their depredations could scarcely interfere with flights of amiable fancy.
Now he was flogged on by one wild desire; to leave the country and in new regions and amid new perils strive to forget. His mind boiled with rage at Cameron, and he cursed the Winter's day he had led the giant to the Blanchard cabin. Prior to that Betty had been glad enough to see him. He was enraged at the girl, too, for playing with his love. If Cameron had been wiped out in that last fight on the Oriskany—but that was too evil a thought, especially seeing it was useless.
He had been an hour on the trail when the pounding of hoofs ahead aroused him from his black thoughts. He drew aside, dully wondering who might be riding so hard and fast. With an exclamation of alarm he jumped to the middle of the trail and raised his hand for her to stop; for it was Mrs. Blanchard. She pointed behind her and gestured for him to run back; and there was the glare of insanity in her eyes.
Behind her ran one of the Cotton boys, striving to cling to the stirrup, and his face was ghastly with fright. As Mrs. Blanchard swept by, screaming something the ranger did not catch, the boy tripped and sprawled at his feet. On swept horse and rider.
Yanking the boy to his feet Martin shook him fiercely and stilled his blubbering. When he could speak the lad gasped:
"Iroquois! Devens Farms! The miller and Blanchard killed. Miller's hired man made our cabin and fetched the word. Our fambly's started for the settlement. Father give Mrs. Blanchard the hoss to git home. I'm to go with 'em. The red hellions will be along any minute."
He broke off and with a faint scream pointed up the trail, then turned and scuttled off.
Martin beheld a shaft of smoke slowly rising above the forest crown. The Iroquois had reached the Cotton clearing and were at work. The tragedy made him forget his own troubles. Blanchard dead! It seemed impossible. He always had liked the man. He carefully selected a position on the river-bank and slipped several bullets into his mouth. They would come down the trail and if he could hold them back a bit Mrs. Blanchard and Betty would stand a good chance of escaping.
The volume of smoke increased and he thought the faint breeze brought on its fragrant breath the sound of triumphant yells, but it might have been the murmuring of the river. Minutes passed, each sixty seconds adding to the fugitives' security, then with much awkward plunging a cow came down the trail, behind her ran two savages, their painted faces making them devils. Martin picked off the rearmost with a ball through his shaven head, but before he could reload and bag the other a rifle cracked near-by and the fleeing savage crashed on his face.
Martin looked 'round and beheld Cameron reloading.
"The women?" he barked.
"Making east with the boy. They know the way. Thought I could do more good up here."
"You oughter gone with 'em," growled Martin.
"Guess I know what to do when it comes to taking care of Betty," snarled the big fellow.
"You can go to —— after this is over. I never 'lowed to fight by your side ag'in," growled Martin.
Cameron's big face grimaced with rage, then he clicked a bullet against his white teeth and glared up the trail. Now they were coming, a hideous, whooping throng, with the leader wildly brandishing a gray scalp. Martin shuddered and prayed Betty might never see it, and forthwith bowled over the bearer. A second later Cameron brought down another; but instead of holding back, the Iroquois came on, taking a chance, there were but two, and knowing they would not have time to reload.
Martin ducked low and ran toward them, rising and discharging his two pistols into their midst and throwing them into confusion. But Cameron, relying on his great strength, rushed up the open trail, bellowing like a bull and using his rifle for a club and breaking it on a skull at the first swing. An Indian landed on Martin's back and a hand clutched his scalplock. Ducking low he threw his assailant over his head and knifed him just as another warrior dashed into him full-tilt. He glimpsed Cameron going down beneath a mass of savages, then rolled into the river, taking his assailant with him.
MARTIN lay in the bush with his rifle covering the doorway of the Blanchard cabin. He knew Betty and her mother reached Schenectady. He believed Cameron must have died that day in the trail, although he had found no determining proof after searching the woods from Devens Farms to this clearing. While he prowled through forest and deserted farmsteads he had felt guilty of trying on a dead man's shoes. Were he positive Cameron were alive he would have lost no time in making for far-off Michilimackinac. Now the cabin held his attention because he had detected a movement inside. He hoped it might be a straggling Iroquois bent on loot.
Again something stirred inside, and a sudden horror enveloped him. What if Big Cameron had escaped, and, like himself, had wandered back to his sweetheart's home? The girl was in Dutch Schenectady, and if Cameron be alive and here.... The ranger tried to push the thought from him, yet all the time telling himself that should the big fellow die on the doorsill of the abandoned cabin it would be charged up to the Iroquois.
He had accepted his loss of the girl as final till after the fight in the trail, when he took it for granted his former friend had gone to his death. Believing that, he had permitted a bit of hope to grow up in his heart. But if intuition were right, and Cameron were here.... And again he endeavored to retreat deeper into the bush and away from the horrible temptation. Something in his soul shrieked out for him to kill the beastly thought, while louder and louder his mad love dinned in his ears—
"With Cameron dead you may win her."
A figure began drawing toward the doorway and a familiar coonskin cap emerged from the shadows, the cap Cameron wore the day Blanchard was killed. With a loud groan Martin threw down his rifle and clenched his hands and thrust the bloody opportunity from him!
"Who's there?" asked a voice.
With a gasp of incredulity Martin crawled from cover and glared at the pale face and sorrow-filled eyes of Betty Blanchard. And she was wearing the cap Cameron had left behind when he ran up the trail to check the onrush of the Iroquois. Recognizing him she lowered the rifle she had held in readiness, and demanded—
"Jo Martin, where's your friend, Jim Cameron?"
He plucked at the fringe of his hunting-shirt and tried to find words. She continued:
"You two were together the day the Injuns came. Where is he?"
"I don't know. He went down with a dozen on top of him," he dully answered. "Dead, prob'ly. I had troubles of my own 'bout that time."
"He is not dead," she astounded him by informing. "He was taken alive. I want to know where he's held prisoner. He was last heard of at Cayuga Castle."
"At Gayagaanhe!" exclaimed Martin. "Who says that?"
"Black Bear, the friendly Oneida my father saved from freezing two Winters ago. He talked with me in Schenectady. He was carrying dispatches from Colonel Gansevoort at Fort Stanwix. He said one of our Oneida scouts brought the news to Stanwix. He must be rescued. He must be ransomed."
And she sank down in the doorway as though very weak.
"Ransomed? They'd rather have him than all the goods and rum a dozen bateaus could float up the Mohawk."
"He must be freed," she muttered in a peculiar little sing-song. "He fought that mother and me might escape. Black Bear said they would probably take him to Onondaga—for the torture. Oh, that must not be, that must not be! I went to the officers in Schenectady. They could do nothing. So I came here, thinking to find some of our rangers. We have a little store of silver in Albany. We'll give it all gladly to get him free."
He thought rapidly while she was speaking. Had he not met her Cameron would have been done to death at Onondaga without his knowledge, and in the course of time she would learn to welcome his love. Now he believed he must drive a bargain, or lose the one chance.
He looked aside to escape her clear gaze and doggedly began—
"What'll you give to have Cameron rescued?"
"Anything," was the prompt answer.
"Which means nothing but a little silver. See here, Betty, I've hated Cameron ever since he came between you and me. If the Iroquois take him to Onondaga and he still lives there is one small chance for him, providing the man who goes to get him uses the scheme I have in my head and is willing to risk the stake. If that man goes and fails there will be two fires lighted in front of the council-house instead of one."
She shivered at his words and twisted her hands convulsively.
"I can't send a man to his death," she muttered.
"If the price is right for his going and he goes and fails he can't find no fault. It's part of the bargain—the price if he wins."
"I don't understand what you mean."
Still refusing to meet her gaze he hoarsely completed:
"With what I know of Onondaga, coupled to the plan simmering in my mind, I'd stand a better chance of fetching him out then any man I know of. But I have my price. If I git him clear will you forget you ever loved him, and marry me?"
She eyed him wildly for nearly a minute, then whispered—
"You'd—you'd make me marry you even if I liked some one else better?"
His tanned face burned with shame, but he doggedly replied:
"I ain't making any one marry me. We're talking of ransoming Cameron. The Injuns won't dicker. You can ransom him from me. If I fail, you pay no price. I'll take you to Stanwix and you can offer all yours and your mother's silver to the men there for them to go and git him. None will try to earn the price. And Gansevoort will send you down the Mohawk to Schenectady on the first bateau.
"Only three days ago two soldiers were butchered within sight of the garrison. Night and day they prowl about the fort and even our Oneidas keep close to cover. You can reckon how much worse it would be to try and sneak into Onondaga. And yet it might be done—but I know of no man but myself who would try it, let alone doing it. And I don't want your silver."
"You'd make a woman marry you?" she fiercely cried.
The scorn in her voice stung him to greater passion.
"I'd make you," he gritted. "You seemed to like me till I brought him here. Then you picked him. Then you sent me packing. You've had your way, picking and choosing. Cameron would do the same as I if our positions was swapped 'round. Didn't he say that after seeing you that nothing else counted? Well, he's trapped. Why should I risk my hair for the man who's bested me in the only game I ever set my heart on winning?"
"But to take a woman that way!" she moaned.
"It it's the only way, and the woman is you—yes."
"And I'd always hate you for it," she passionately cried. "You ought to feel ashamed enough to die for saying such things to me. You must be mad. I'll go to Stanwix. Surely there'll be one man there, red or white."
"And be sent down the river under guard to your mother. And meanwhile the Iroquois will be roasting Cameron."
"Don't, don't!" she begged, clapping her hands to her face to shut out some vision. A fury seized upon him as he observed her grief for Cameron. He wanted to punish her for preferring Cameron, and began babbling:
"They'll cut off his finger-nails with clam-shells. They'll make him last for days and——"
She leaped to her feet and clutched him by the wrists, and in a broken voice cried:
"Are you a devil? Mohawk or Seneca? Aye, look away from me arid never look at a decent woman again. Listen to me, for you can't stop your ears as you hide your eyes. I'll not go to Stanwix to be sent down the river. I'll go to Onondaga. I'll go after Cameron myself. And if I die, the Iroquois can't be more cruel than you have been."
Her anguish brought him to his senses and his better self. As he stole a glance at her hard, set face a new fear gripped him. She had her father's spirit; and did she determine to enter the gloomy depths of the Onondaga woods no one could prevent her.
"I have been mad," he faintly confessed. "But it was all for love of you, Betty Blanchard. For my poor love for you. I'll go after Cameron—and there shall be no price."
SIR WILLIAM JOHNSON, former Indian superintendent for the Crown and a mighty influence in the Long House, was dead these four years. By dying at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War he had escaped the necessity of making the great decision which the war would have demanded of him. Whether he would have cast his lot with the Royal Government, which had given him his all, or would have swung his red brood to the defense of the colonies he so loved, or would have essayed to hold his fierce children neutral, who can say? He died when the Summer was mellow and warm along the Mohawk, hastened to his grave, his friends believed, by the question ever confronting his soul.
Could his spirit return to his old haunts this Mid-Summer day he would have found to be widely scattered the dusky race that had given gentle names to wood and stream, from the Sacondaga to the Genesee. For more than three centuries the Iroquois were the Romans of the new world, conquering, colonizing and assimilating. And yet not entirely Roman, for there was a suggestion of the Saxon in their federal system of government, their care to prevent a concentration of power, and their efforts to develop the individual, and promote personal liberty. If not for the coming of the white race they would have shared the Western world with the Aztecs.
But the fallen fortunes of the Long House interested Jo Martin none as he stole through the interlacing lights and shadows of the silent forest. That a mighty race was fighting its last fight never dawned upon his intelligence as he scanned the damp forest floor for the imprint of a hostile moccasin. Even had his mind been receptive to philosophical musings he would have deemed it madness to suggest that race, language and history were virtually doomed to extinction within the life of three generations.
The ranger was purely objective. His thoughts refused to quit the girl Betty. His wicked madness had passed from him and he knew it was better for him to join Cameron at the stake than to leave any trick untried. He had behaved monstrously, and only the rescue of Cameron could palliate his offense. He passed near enough to Fort Stanwix to hear the dull pur-r-r of a drum, then turned south to avoid the skulking savages he knew were fringing the post. It was not till several miles from Stanwix and well within hostile country that he became conscious of being trailed.
He must have made his discovery subconsciously, for one moment he was flitting down a forest aisle, his heart in an ache for the wrong he had done Betty Blanchard, and the next he was behind a tree. He had heard nor seen nothing that he knew of; yet the moment he was behind the tree he was noiselessly working his way under a tangle of wild-grape vines and rejoicing to find his body slipping down a declivity. Completing the descent he found himself in a little gulley and at once started to run along this.
When he deemed it prudent to emerge from the gulley he took time to wonder why his tracker had not sounded an alarm. As he mulled over this puzzling phase of the situation an Indian brave suddenly stepped before him and raised an empty hand in a token of well-meaning. Before Martin could think to take the defensive his startled eyes noted the painted Oneida totem on the savage's chest, and in great relief asked—
"Why does the Black Bear of the Oneidas follow his white brother?"
"The white girl whose eyes are the color of the cornflower asked the Bear to find the white man who dares walk alone through the Long House. The Black Bear owes a life to the father of the white girl. He met her on the Mohawk. She grows thin like a starved deer, and white, like the first snow. She said find and give this talk to the white man who goes to find the man Cameron."
As he spoke this in the Oneida tongue he produced from his paint-bag a small roll of birchbark tied with a blue ribbon, and Martin's heart skipped a beat at the sight of the ribbon. In accepting it he read the words, "For Jas. Cameron," written with a charred stick on the outside.
"She sends this by me to Cameron?" asked Martin.
"To the man Cameron, who now is held at Onondaga," grunted the Oneida.
He had hardly spoken before he was vanishing into a tangle of bushes. Martin gaped blankly for a moment, the abrupt disappearance preventing various queries he desired to put. A soft hiss back of him brought him to the right-about, his hand on his ax. The Black Bear's visage showed for a moment from beneath some underbrush and he was pointing behind the ranger. Martin lost no time in taking his cue to efface himself, but it required several minutes to locate the danger, a dusky form slipping from tree to tree. Farther back were other forms. He had the Oneida to thank for escaping a surprise attack.
Securing the roll of bark in his belt he concentrated all his cunning on escaping. He was convinced there were but a handful of the enemy, else there would have been a loud outcry and an attempt to encircle him. Returning to the gulley he utilized its cover for a hot sprint. When a long drawn-out yell warned him the Iroquois had discovered where he descended to the gulley he climbed the bank and struck off at top speed toward the eastern end of Oneida Lake.
He had now penetrated well behind the mass of warriors surrounding Stanwix and every stride was plunging him deeper into the Iroquois country. But given his liberty until night and he believed the odds were in his favor; for he was on familiar ground and had various hiding-places. It was growing dusk when he caught the soft lap-lap of the lake and knew the race was won. At no time during his flight had he glimpsed Black Bear of the Oneida Bear clan.
FOR years a wooden structure known as the Royal Blockhouse stood at this end of the lake. It had withstood many Indian assaults but for more than a decade had been abandoned by troops and left to the elements. The early morning mists were rising in tenuous shapes from the lake, suggesting quadrilles by ghosts, when Martin peered through a loop-hole and studied the silent woods.
Satisfied no enemy was lurking behind the forest screen he passed the open door and its silken barrier of spider-webs and proceeded to the end of the building nearest the lake. Here he removed a section of a log, cunningly prepared for such an emergency, and passed into the sweet air. A thicket of saplings concealed him as he rose to his feet, and the grove extended to the shore of the lake. Stealing to the water the ranger spread his blanket on the ground and disrobed to the waist, hung a trade mirror before him and emptied a paint-bag between his crossed legs.
The brushes of bark he made more pliable by chewing them. Next he mixed his paints and proceeded to transform himself into an aborigine. On his breast he painted a Cayuga totem, a bear standing erect, the clan of the bear being common to the tribes of the Long House. Although he had utilized his cache of paints in the blockhouse more than once for turning himself into a savage it required time and patience to hack off his long hair and partially shave his head. But when he had finished Jo Martin, ranger, was gone and Dancing Black Bear, Cayuga, stood in his place.
Now that he was ready for the final test of his scheme his courage weakened. Not that he feared for himself, for he would have gone to the stake if by so doing he could fully atone for the black thoughts he had harbored. He worried lest the Oneida's intelligence was wrong, and that Cameron had been put to death at Gayagaanhe. The success of his bizarre scheme demanded that his rival be at Onondaga, where the Great Council-Fire ever burned.
So for once his heart grew glad when he discovered Indians approaching from the direction of Stanwix. He knew they were hurrying to Onondaga and that only one errand could call them there—to enjoy the spectacle of a white man put to the torture. As they moved in a course parallel to his and as there was no danger of their crossing his trail he secured a vantage-point and watched them. They were Mohawks, and filed by with the precision of a machine and with no more noise than a snake would make. One warrior carried two scalps stretched on hoops, and the ranger knew these trophies were furnished by the soldiers killed a few days before.
Throughout the long afternoon and under the stars of early evening the painted white man hung to the heels of the Mohawks. When the glow of fires bloomed rosily ahead he knew the great adventure was about to be staged; for he was on the outskirts of dread Onondaga. A loud chorus of welcome was given the Mohawks, and, as though the man Cameron's ordeal had been postponed till this arrival, there next rose a monotonous chanting.
Confident because of his paint and the obscurity of the night Martin glided closer and gained a position near the great bark council-house and crouched in some bushes. The council-house stood on a gentle slope, overlooking the place of torture. An old man, the hereditary keeper of the wampum, stood in the doorway awaiting the spectacle, his slight figure sharply outlined by the flaming torch in the wall behind him.
Groups of warriors were congregating near the torture-stake and the ring of fire surrounding, but not touching it. This flaming circle contained the calendar of Cameron's mortal life; for the ranger knew his rival would be brought forth when the dancing fire had subsided into beds of coals.
Leaving his long rifle in the brush, Martin dropped his blanket from his shoulders and allowed it to hang from his loins. Then he struck boldly into the open. The Mohawk who carried the scalps taken at Stanwix gave him greeting, which the ranger returned and passed on. The Mohawk, without suspecting the truth, was impelled to follow him. Martin discerned this much and came to a halt as though waiting to enjoy the preliminaries. Every nerve was strung as taut as the cord of a war bow as he fancied himself in danger of discovery even before he could fairly enter upon his project.
He had no time to give to finesse if he were to make a try for Cameron's life, for already the flames were shortening and the ridge of coals climbing higher. Groups of the various tribes were steadily growing larger, Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga and Mohawk. Now the groups extended and came in contact, forming a large and compact body. Wizened hags were coursing back and forth in a frenzy of blood-lusting and contributing the only note of impatience.
"He killed my son at Oriskany! Let me fondle him! Let me play with him!" shrieked the leader of the witch band.
The cry was caught up and tossed about with fiendish gusto. Despite the warmth of the night Martin felt chilly, for he had been with Cameron at Oriskany.
The warriors held themselves in dignified restraint, although their eyes glittered brightly as dry fuel was thrown on various fires to illuminate the scene. Martin searched the assemblage closely and was relieved at not beholding Walter Butler, tutelary devil to the Senecas. A warrior beside the ranger grunted loudly and smacked his lips in satisfaction.
Following the direction of his gaze Martin trembled at beholding the tall, superb figure of Cameron advancing through an aisle of warriors, stripped to the buff, his arms fastened behind his back. His blond head was held high, but the dew of death glistened on his forehead. That his eyes narrowed at sight of the stake and ring of coals discredited his manhood none. Two warriors walked beside him, holding him by the arms to prevent his drawing back. With a sudden twist of his massive shoulders he shunted these aside, and with steady step continued his approach.
"Ho! Ho!" resounded in approval from many throats.
"A man comes to die!" cried an aged chief.
"Ho! Ho! A man comes to die!" The fierce shout rolled down the valley and through the black arches of the forest.
The Mohawk with the scalps pressed forward to obtain a better view of the entertainment. Martin edged toward the council-house. Again the Mohawk felt a vague misgiving tainting his pleasure, and he took a step after the masquerader. Whereat Martin gutturally cried:
"Ho! Ho! We owe the brave man thanks!"
The Mohawk halted and resumed watching the prisoner. As a preface to the more exquisite torture a young brave seized one of Cameron's hands and thrust a finger deep into the bowl of a lighted pipe. With no betrayal of pain the prisoner stared complacently over the heads of his captors for a moment, then kicked out behind him and hurled his tormentor into the coals.
Yells of joy greeted the warrior's discomfiture, as gasping for breath he crawled from the fiery mass like a scorched snake. Martin felt a twinge of the old comradeship warm his blood; and within himself he muttered—
"'Fore God, he's a brave man!"
"Ho! Ho! A brave man comes to die the death of brave men!" shouted the savages; and axes were held aloft in honorable salute to the victim.
Martin dropped back and passed through the outer circle.
He was safe from all eyes except those of the Mohawk. The latter could not rid himself of the feeling that the Cayuga was acting in a peculiar manner in withdrawing from the delectable spectacle. Martin, however, could not afford to waste another minute; and being in the shadows he ran swiftly to the rear of the council-house. He knew the Mohawk was following him but did not stay his steps till at the end of the shed, in which the Onondagas stored their Winter's wood and war supplies for the league.
"Why does my brother come here when a man is about to die?" challenged the Mohawk, placing a heavy hand on Martin's shoulder.
With a swing of his ax Martin felled him lifeless, and grunted:
"Right, my nosey friend. A man has died."
Rolling the body under a bush he entered the shed and after stumbling over some logs found what he knew was always stored there. Picking up a keg he groped through the darkness to the door opening into the council-house. Throwing this back he sped down the long passageway till he reached the edge of the torch-light. There he deposited the keg on the floor. The keeper of the wampum sensed his presence, and, turning, discovered him.
"Go out!" the sachem angrily commanded. "You can not bring rum here." And pointed to the keg. "Has the Cayuga's ears grown so thick he never heard that the wampum of the Six Nations is kept here?"
Martin bowed meekly before the rebuke and picking up the keg advanced as though to leave by the front door, only on reaching the door he quickly closed it. Stupefied by such behavior the aged guardian blinked foolishly for a few moments, then sought to cry out. A blanket dropped over his head and smothered him. He was dazed by the time Martin finished tying him up. The ranger next knocked the head from the keg, then taking the torch began searching the various apartments opening off the central passageway. In the third room he entered he found what he so eagerly desired.
THE night was hideous with the horrible din of the blood-mad. The screaming hags were fighting like demons to get at the prisoner, and they would have spoiled the play prematurely if not held back by force. Cameron's feet were hobbled with a small chain. Then two warriors, protecting themselves against the heat with robes of green hide, dragged him to the edge of the coals and forced him to a sitting posture. The heat scorched the bare flesh. Cameron's eyes became distended and his tongue worked desperately to find moisture in his dry mouth.
This slow baking process, continued for some minutes, was so cunningly regulated as to do the victim no serious harm, albeit inflicting exquisite pain. At last one of the torturers, as though moved by compassion, held out a small kettle of water while the other yanked Cameron to his feet. Cameron greedily lunged his head forward to secure a mouthful. The warrior snatched it back, drank heartily and poured what remained on to the ground. This bit of play, a mere preliminary to the real and lasting agony, was greeted with prolonged howls of approval. Cameron bit his lips and braced his shoulders.
"Ho! Ho!" roared the onlookers.
Again the prisoner was forced close to the coals, this time so near that his flesh began to shrivel. Then he was drawn back a pace and another brave offered him water. Cameron ignored the kettle until it was pressed almost against his lips, when his suffering drove him to try once more. This time he was permitted to bury his mouth in the fluid only to jerk back his head with a groan of pain. It was scalding hot.
"Ho! Ho! The white man does not like the drink of the Iroquois," exulted the warrior.
A crescendo of fiendish approval lasted for nearly a minute and was only stilled when the deep voice of the master of ceremonies called for silence. This was the signal for the torture to begin in earnest. Two braves seized the victim and made a chain fast about his waist and prepared to hurl him inside the glowing circle. The stake, a large sapling trimmed of its branches, was sizzling as the heat dried up the oozing sap.
The savage spectators glared expectantly. Even the brood of hags ceased their clamor. Now was come the real test between the prisoner's defiant bearing and the resources of the Iroquois. It was to be a duel, such as the Indians ever loved to witness; shrinking flesh and raw nerves against all the devices for inflicting physical suffering the diabolism of the Long House could put in practise.
When the chain was firmly fastened about Cameron's waist the warriors bent their knees and made ready to hurl him inside the fatal ring. From the opposite side a brave drew a long breath and leaped the hurdle of coals to catch the slack of the chain and make it secure about the stake. But something shot over the victim's head and twined like a snake about the neck of the brave.
With a yelp of astonishment the young brave tore the thing loose and leaped from the circle. As he held it above his head the spectators glared incredulously. The warriors holding Cameron released him to gape in amazement, and he worked back from the fierce heat unrebuked. A new and unthinkable climax had been thrust into the scene.
What so miraculously dropped from the velvet heavens was a wampum belt, and, at that, one the Iroquois recognized as a cherished possession of the federated tribes. It was seven rows of beads wide and several hundred beads long. It contained the figure of a man at one end and a cross at the other, both in white against a dark ground, and connected by a single row of white beads. There was none who did not identify it as a French belt, the markings recording the great distance the envoy traveled in order to present his "talk" to the Long House.
But the reasons for the envoy's coming, as "talked" by him into the wampum, was known only to the hereditary keeper of the wampum. It was in wampum that the Six Nations recorded their speeches, treaties, laws, tribal and intertribal history. It was the last step before hieroglyphics, and perhaps on a par with and yet more subtle than picture-writing. The pattern of the beads associated the sign or object with some historical fact or epochal idea. Therefore the office of the hereditary keeper was semi-sacred and its inviolability was to be maintained at all costs.
While each savage mind was struggling to find an explanation for the belt flying through the night there rang out a mocking voice up the slope, the words falling like the crack of a whip.
"Ho! Ho! A white man comes to trade!" it proclaimed.
With an inarticulate, primitive cry of rage the Iroquois emerged from their stupor.
"Ho! Ho!" continued the mocking voice. "Who trades for kanasa (wampum)? Who will give white flesh for white and black and purple wampum? Six strings is the price of a life. The white man offers seven strings."
The stake and its victim were forgotten as the Indians fixed their astounded gaze on the figure of Martin standing in the brightly illumined doorway of the council. If not for his confession that his flesh was white they would have accepted him for a Cayuga, with the totem of a dancing bear showing on his oily chest.
"Ho! Who trades for Onondaga belts? Who trades for the records of the Long House?"
With a terrific yell the savages sprang forward in a mass, now realizing a stranger stood in the place of the keeper of the sacred wampum; but before they could swarm up the slope and wipe out the profanation Martin pulled the keg into view and held his pistol to it, loudly warning:
"Keep back, ye dogs! Keep far back, or I blow up this council-house and your wampum. This is gunpowder."
As he spoke his left hand piled the precious records about the keg. The onrush halted abruptly. Having impressed upon the Iroquois the need of prudence Martin resumed his taunts and boisterously called out:
"I see six strings of purple beads bound together—the Six Nations." And he held up the cluster of strings symbolic of the Long House. "Here are seven of purple and a handful of white—the voice of the Onondagas. And strings that speak for the Cayugas, the Mohawks and the Senecas. Who has a white man called Cameron to trade for strings and belts of wampum?"
A tall savage, wearing the insignia of the hereditary chiefship of the Onondaga Bear clan, lifted his right hand, palm outward, and slowly advanced beyond his fellows to act as spokesman, as befitted him who headed the roll of the federal chiefs.
"What does the white man do here, painted like a Cayuga?" he demanded.
"He comes to trade with Wathatotarho," answered Martin, giving him his official name and title.
"What has he to trade?"
"Belts of the Onondaga, of every tribe in the Six Nations; the records of the Long House. For good measure he will throw in the hereditary keeper of the wampum." As he spoke Martin reached aside and dragged a kicking bundle into view.
Wathatotarho faced the warriors and solemnly announced:
"He has been touched by the Great Spirit. He shall go in peace."
"Ho, he shall go in peace," was the rumbling response.
"The Great Spirit sent the white man here in an Indian skin to trade with the Iroquois," calmly corrected the ranger. "He must remain till he has made a bargain. Many moons ago the French talked with you with thirty-six belts, the greatest wampum talk ever held till now. Behold! I talk to you with more than a hundred belts. I talk with this one, sent to the Long House long ago by the Wagunhas (Ottawa); I talk with this one, black, with rows of white between, with the white council-fire in the middle, and the white road, leading to Johnson Hall—Sir William Johnson's friendship belt, given when he first met the Iroquois."
There rose dolorous howls from the Mohawks, who still mourned the dead superintendent. Martin held up another, ragged at the ends, obviously an ancient belt, and said:
"Or I talk with this, a peace belt sent the Onondaga by the Cherokee Nation. Who wants to buy? I give kanasa for a white man called Cameron."
"The white man has gunpowder in the keg?" from Wathatotarho.
For an answer Martin selected a small belt such as the Senecas used in the White Dog Sacrifice, and dipped it in a gourd of water and then sprinkled it liberally with the powder. Wadding it into a ball he suddenly hurled it toward the fire. With cries of dismay a dozen hands stretched out to catch the consecrated object, but failed, and the belt fell at the edge of the coals. Instantly there came a swish and a bright flash that removed all doubt as to the nature of the black sand.
"Back of this council-house is a dead Mohawk dog. Take that belt in payment," cried Martin.
The savages stared aghast. Mutterings of ferocious rage rippled through the dark ranks, and several braves at the ends of the lines detached themselves and slipped into the undergrowth. Martin pulled the keg and belts back from the door and warned:
"Listen, ye Iroquois, to my last words. The man Cameron is to be set free now, or I blow myself and this council-house and these belts into the sky. Call back your young men who foolishly think to take me by surprise. Your answer? Shall I fire?" And he tightened his grip on the pistol.
Wathatotarho threw up both hands in a gesture of surrender.
"The man Cameron shall go with you. Take him and leave us our wampum."
With an exclamation of joy Cameron advanced up the slope with no hand attempting to stay his steps, but he became bewildered when the ranger sharply ordered him to halt.
"It's one of their tricks, Jim Cameron," fiercely explained Martin. "Stay where you are till they bring your clothes. They must take you to Fort Stanwix. On arriving send back a written word that I may know you are safe."
"Jo Martin! Old Jo!" choked the big fellow, rubbing his eyes.
"Dancing Black Bear of the Cayugas!" corrected Martin frigidly. "Here's something I was to give you. Take it, and be——"
Then to Wathatotarho:
"Let your braves take the prisoner to Stanwix and guard him from harm. He will send a talking paper to me. Then, and not till then, you shall have back your belts and your wampum-keeper."
With that he closed the door and made it fast.
"THE white man has his talking paper. Why does he not leave us in peace?" demanded Wathatotarho outside the closed door.
Martin reread the scrawl which had been shoved under the door. He knew it was genuine, for Cameron had written:
We fought side by side at Oriskany and on the river trail to Cotton's.
Striking his ax against the door the ranger ordered—
"Stand far away, Wathatotarho."
The chief retired to the long line of warriors. It was night and several fires brought the long lines into half-relief. And Martin knew the lines completely encircled the council-house. As he heard the chief retreat the ranger stooped over the sachem and pressed the point of his knife to the man's throat, and, removing the gag, hissed:
"Say again the words, 'He's in the shed.' But say them softly."
The sachem groaned in a paroxysm of rage, limbered up his jaws and did as told. Martin clapped back the gag and tested his imitation of the sachem's voice. There was a peculiar, shrill, crackling note that was hard to get, but he believed he had it. Already he had adorned himself with the sachem's necklace of beads and other insignia, and by means of the paint-bag had counterfeited the sachem's facial decorations. He also had further thinned his hair by a Spartan use of the knife and was now ready to trust his luck to the night.
Placing a kettle of water beside the powder and throwing the sachem's painted skin cloak over his shoulders he sagged his shoulders and bent his back in a semblance of old age. Then he drew a deep breath and threw back the door violently.
Wathatotarho and his warriors surged forward as the door flew open, then remembered the keg and fell back. But instead of the intruder's erect figure they beheld the bowed form of the hereditary keeper of the wampum; and even as they gazed and wondered how he became free he seized the kettle of water and dashed it over the powder and in a shrill voice screeched:
"He's in the shed! The powder is wet."
And with one frightened glance over his shoulder he scuttled down the slope toward the savages.
"AN ATTACK," yelled a sentinel as a splutter of rifle-shots aroused the woods before Fort Stanwix.
"Don't shoot!" yelled Cameron, knocking up the rifle as a painted savage reeled into the opening with a war arrow flapping from his left shoulder. "It's Jo Martin. Come on, fellers!"
And he dropped over the stockade with several scouts at his heels.
Martin, streaked with blood and sweat and dirt, hobbled , toward them. Out of the forest burst three Iroquois, a Mohawk, an Onandaga, and a Seneca, each striving to count a coup by securing the mad white man's scalp. They were at Martin's heels while Cameron and his followers were several hundred yards distant. Martin realized he must do his own fighting for a bit longer. He wheeled, and holding the long rifle with one hand shot the Onondaga, who went down with a gush of blood stifling his death-cry.
Dropping the rifle and summoning all his strength the ranger plucked the ax from his belt and spun it in a glittering circle full into the face of the Seneca, who dropped with no semblance of features left. The Mohawk hurled his ax and missed and turned to flee, but tripped and sprawled headlong. As he regained his feet Cameron caught him by the neck, and, thus holding him, swung him clear of the ground and about his head and hurled him with sickening force against a stump.
They carried Martin, more dead than alive, inside the fort and placed him on a pallet. His shoulders and chest bore testimony to the fight he had made in winning through to Stanwix. As they washed and dressed his wounds he opened his eyes and scowled feebly on beholding Cameron.
"Don't say it, Jo," huskily begged Cameron. "The birchbark she sent me. Listen. It says, 'I love the man who fetched you back.' Betty sent it. She wouldn't give me an answer the day I went to help you hold 'em back on the river trail. But it was you—you all the time."
There was a flutter of skirts through the open door and Cameron was pushed aside that Betty herself might kneel by the ranger and lay her cheek against his hideously painted face.
"Always you, Jo," she sobbed. "But you angered me by trying to dictate. A maid's a maid but once—and shouldn't be hurried. Then you said you'd force me to marry you—and never made love to me—or gave me a chance."
Cameron reached over the girl's shoulder and seized the ranger's right hand, saying:
"You saved me from the stake, Jo. You've got the girl I wanted. I owe you a life, Jo. It's yours at the call. Good luck and good fortune—I'm off for Mich'limack'nac."