The Bushfighters/Chapter 12
THE BLACK PACK'S LAST HUNT
“ WHERE are you leading me?” asked Putnam after he had followed the boy along a rough trail for an hour.
“To a lake. We are half-way there.”
“Are the Indians camped near there?”
“The girl is there.”
“Where are the Potawatomi?”
“They are making for the Hatirontaks.”
“They will pass between the mountains and Champlain and strike into Canada. They do not want to meet any French soldiers as they have no belly for fighting. They do not want to swing very far from the lake for fear of meeting my people. If it were not for the Laughing One the pig should roast. He struck me, a Mohawk.”
“If you hadn't knifed him through the leg, you young ——, he'd never been caught,” growled Putnam.
“If you hadn't scalped the Potawatomi medicine-man your friend wouldn't now be waiting to go into their kettles,” jeered the boy.
“What in sin do you mean by such talk?”
“The Potawatomi lost their belly for fighting after you killed and scalped their medicine-man. They deserted the French to go home. They scouted west and south of this lake to get a few scalps to give to their new medicine. And the ranger ran into their hands.”
“What was he doing?”
The boy refused to answer. Putnam asked several questions with the same lack of result. Suddenly the boy viciously muttered:
“Rogers had better talk soft about killing the Blind Seneca and his dogs. Let the whites fight each other and not stir up the Long House.”
“We can't have a crazy man chasing our rangers with his wild dogs,” said Putnam.
“Once he gets this little white dog he will go back to his people. His pack is black. With this puppy he can breed white dogs again, and the cloud will pass away from him.”
Putnam had heard fragments of woods gossip about the Blind Seneca and his pets, but as the man had never wandered so far east before he had accepted him as part myth or as a greatly exaggerated fact. He was curious to learn more and asked several questions over the boy's shoulder. Young Brant was through with talking, however; and they traveled for an hour without further conversation.
At last Brant halted and gave a low signal. From the darkness at his very side there emerged a slim figure, and Putnam felt a hand rest on his arm. Instinctively he seized the hand, but found it small and slim, and sheepishly released it.
“The Laughing One moves like a lynx,” approved the boy.
“It is really you, Captain Putnam?” came the tremulous query.
“Very much at your service when it concerns Ephraim Willis, ma'am.”
“The moon will be up in another hour. If you had not arrived I should have gone alone,” she whispered.
“You said I was to bring no one. You still think that's wise?”
“One of two things we must do,” she replied with a click of her small feet. “We must rescue him by stealth, or you must risk capture by sending a ball through his brave heart. Oh, it is horrible! Horrible!”
“It may be very bad, but let's wait till we get to it,” gravely advised Putnam. “What about this youngster?”
“He is not to go with us,” she ruled.
“I am no boy,” passionately protested young Brant. “I am a warrior. I have been on the war-path. I was by Chief Hendrick when he was stabbed to death. I am a Mohawk. You are in the country of my people. You can not say where a Mohawk shall go on his own land. I have a talk for the Blind Seneca; then I shall take care of the Laughing One.”
“You will return to your people, Joseph Brant. You have served me well, but you can not go farther with me,” said the girl.
“I have a talk for the Blind Seneca,” haughtily repeated the boy. The dog gave a sleepy little bark as if approving. The startled girl whispered—
“What is it?”
Brant slung the blanket to the front and placed the soft bundle in her hands, and as she petted it explained—
“It is my talk to the Blind Seneca.”
Then she felt the dog taken from her hands. The bushes rustled softly, and the boy was gone.
“We must hurry,” said the girl, leading the way along an old trail.
“What do you know of this Blind Seneca?” asked Putnam, hoping to divert her thoughts from the tragedy ahead of them.
“He is a Seneca who refused to contribute a white dog as a sacrifice to Teharonhiawagon—the Sky-Holder. He refused to sacrifice according to their ancient custom to the conquerer of the Hunchback, Hadui—Disease and Death—although he had many dogs. He would have fared ill—horribly—but was said to be touched by Teharonhiawagon.
“He fled to the forests, keeping far north near the foot of Ontario. His white dogs must have been killed off by wolves, for it soon became known that his pack was black.
“For two years he has wanted to go back to his people, but dares not till he can carry a pure white dog for the New Year's sacrifice. So he wanders the forests, hoping a white dog will appear in a litter.”
Putnam rapidly told of the puppy's adventures and explained that he was nearly white. The girl resumed:
“The Blind Seneca will be overjoyed to receive him. He will care for him most tenderly, hoping to breed a white strain that will remove the anger of the Sky-Holder.
“Twice I have seen him running through the forest with his brutes—two leaders on a leash, the others following close. Once they got away from him and I stayed in a tree till he came and called them off. He made me come down first, however, and said I was not to fear the dogs. Then he made them know me. Now I'm not afraid of them.”
“Never knew Indian dogs was dangerous,” skeptically mused Putnam.
“Oh, these are entirely-different from the Indian curs. Very big and powerful. Mastiff strain, I think. My father said the Blind Seneca got the first pair while visiting Albany with a delegation from the Long House. They are terrible beasts.”
“Now we feel better acquainted, will you kindly tell me about my friend?” abruptly asked Putnam
“Last night he was captured near here. I was ahead, watching him searching the woods.”
“Searching for you,” sternly accused Putnam.
“May the good God forgive me, yes.”
“You led that poor boy into an Indian trap——”
“Stop!” she hissed, her face so close to his that he jerked back his head and blinked his eyes at the darkness.
“But you hid from him—kept him chasing you,” he persisted.
“I hid from him, led him on, yet ran from him—because I love him.” There was no angry vehemence in her voice now; and he knew she was weeping.
His heart, tender as a woman's, was instantly touched by her silent grief. The voice that thundered and roared in battle and was worth many guns, now became gentle and caressing; and the thick, muscular hand that found her slim shoulder and patted it soothingly was as light and soft as a mother's.
“We're on different sides of the fence, ma'am,” he murmured. “But I've climbed over to your side to help Eph Willis out of this hole. Tell me what you think the savages plan.”
“They will torture him hideously,” she whispered. “After he was captured I crept near and could have shot two or three of them, but that would have meant death for him. There was about a score of them. They had their packs, and I knew they were making for home, sick of the fighting.
“I knew that unless attacked they would take Willis along with them until they could make a safe camp and take their time in him. Such a place would be at the foot of the Adirondacks.
“I called out to him, You heard me call to him-once. I said it again, even if it be to my shame. I told him I loved him and was following to save him.
“The Indians ran to find me. I was making for the lake to get a canoe and find you or Major Rogers when Joseph Brant cut across my trail, coming from the West. I've known the boy nearly all his life. I've been among his people often. They rather like me. My father always said I could drive a better bargain with them than he could.
“Young Brant held a torch while I wrote the message. That is all, except we must hurry and overtake them by the time they make their camp at the mountains.”
“If you'd gone to the fort they'd clapped you under guard and sent you to Albany. Young woman, you've raised hob for the provinces. I'll work with you to get Willis clear; but after that you'll either quit your foresting and sending news to Vaudreuil, or you'll get into some lasting trouble.”
“It is my right. I am not ashamed of what I do. France is my country. I'm like the Mohawks; I trace my blood through the mother,” she muttered.
“Cap'n Pean is dead. Killed, trying to take your information inside Ticonderoga.”
She gave a little gasp, then firmly said:
“He died in his duty. He died clean, and he was not a good man. His death will make up for much. You risk your life daily, but luck was against him. Montcalm would give much to have you a prisoner.”
“Or to have my hair at a Caughnawaga belt.”
“But yes. It is the result of war. Men make all the wars. I will do what I can for France. It is written.”
“Yet you love a Connecticut Yankee, one of your enemies,” was the blunt reminder.
“True,” she faltered. “The heart knows no country when it comes to love. My head tells me to love a Frenchman. I am helpless. M'sieu Willis is all that I always believed I could never tolerate. But behold! It is very queer.”
“Derned queer,” mumbled Putnam. “Not queer that any sensible woman should have a hankering for Willis, but that you, half-French, half-Dutch, against the provinces, should be taken with him.”
She gave him no answer, and for several miles they pressed forward without speaking, the path very dark under the forest crown, the moon lighting the openings. At last she halted, and he asked how far they must travel before overtaking the Indians.
“They will make their camp in the first hills of the mountains, about twenty miles from where you and Joseph Brant found me. We have come a fourth of the way. They are traveling much slower than we. They will have scouts out over their back trail. We must not follow too close.
“The rescue must be tried at night. I think we'd better sleep and take up the trail early in the morning.”
“What particular plan have you thought up?”
“Not any. I will pray to Our Lady. The plan must grow out of what we find at the Indian camp.”
He was alone. Feeling about at one side of the trail, he selected a bed of pine needles, but for once he could not command slumber. His thoughts ranged far into the forest, seeking Willis and worrying about his fate.
He blamed himself for not compelling the young man to accompany him instead of pursuing the girl; and this, although he knew only a bullet could have stopped the ranger's quest for this wild sprig of a forest-runner. Finally his lids closed.
THE touch on the shoulder brought him to his feet. It was the gray of early morning, with the sun yet hiding behind the eastern mountains. He stared at her intently until the color suffused her pale face.
“Excuse me, ma'am,” he bruskly apologized, turning away and pretending to examine his gun; “but it's the first time I've had a square look at you in daylight. Still wearing them black clothes, I see.”
“The others were too much like some of your rangers'. If captured I didn't want it said that I was wearing an enemy's clothes. I have some dried meat. We can eat by the brook beyond.”
As he walked behind her and observed the slim figure she appeared very much of a child, very delicate and frail for the hazardous life she was living. There was a pathos in the small hands carrying the gun, in the small moccasins picking steps over fallen trunks and moss-covered rocks.
His great heart insisted that so sweet a creature was never intended for this wild questing, this roaming at night through gloomy and terror-haunted forests. And what spirit must animate her, what assurance and self-dependence to send her on the track of the savage Potawatomi!
The call of love was strong, and pioneer women of New England were renowned for their steady, level gaze when confronting horrible risks. But he knew of none among the splendid women in the colonies who had dared more than this chit of a maid was now venturing.
“You must be tired,” he remarked.
His tone told her much, and she turned her head and flashed a friendly glance and a pathetic little smile. It was very pleasing to know she had such a companion for her task. There was none she would have chosen before him.
Love had been a great leveler; it had made friends of the redoubtable Israel Putnam and Vaudreuil's spy. She had never dreamed that white wampum could ever hang between her and this man.
“Not tired now,” she replied. “Last night, yes. We will eat. Shall I or m'sieu serve?”
And she brought from under some firs a parcel containing the meat.
“You,” he gravely decided.
He was fascinated to watch her daintiness in preparing him a strip of birch-bark for a plate, in apportioning him a share of the meat and in fashioning him a drinking-cup from a roll of bark.
“You can take care of yourself in the woods,” he commented. “Are you never afraid?”
“Oh, often,” she confessed. “Not at the trees nor the wolves, but when I am silly enough to remember some of the stories told in the Mohawk castles. The Iroquois have sad stories for nervous ears. Nothing of beauty and love, but always of dead men and giants and Flaming Heads.”
“You slept here last night,” he said, glancing toward the covert where she had procured the meat.
“It was wisest. I sleep so light. A leaf falling would awaken me, I believe. An outpost is always best, although I don't believe the Potawatomi will scout their back trail anywhere near this far.”
“And now you plan what?”
“By dusk we must reach the neighborhood of their camp unseen and rescue M'sieu Willis this night. If he be still alive.”
There was no longer any suggestion of the child. The lips were hard and straight, the eyes burning through their half-closed lids.
Putnam munched the tough meat and waited.
At last she murmured:
“He was kind to me in New York and saved me from great trouble. Afterward in Albany I mocked him. I played upon him to get information.
“Then—and this is very hard to tell—I struck him down from behind. May I be forgiven! My heart will never forgive me. I did not know it was he. But I struck him down. It was to rescue Captain Pean.
“Then when I looked on him lying there bleeding something broke in my heart. You don't mind my saying these things?”
“Bless you, no!”
“That is about all. You know what happened at the old fort. How he came to my rescue when he believed I was in danger. Oh, how my heart upbraided me when I was safe in the woods and he was there, fighting in the darkness! You two were friends, but you might kill each other before you knew. So I called back to him. It was all I could do.”
“And it made him disobey my orders and follow after you,” sighed Putnam. “Well, I little thought I should ever work with you, young woman; but the Almighty's ways of doing things are strange. We should be going.”
“It is time. We must scout carefully. They may be nearer than I've thought. It will never do to be discovered
And she shivered and crossed herself; for both knew that premature discovery would send the ax into Willis' head.
At first she would have had Putnam follow some distance behind her, but after he had cast about on both sides of the beaten path, reading signs which the average ranger would have overlooked, she found a new respect for him and was glad to have him assume full responsibility for their advance.
Nothing occurred to disturb their cautious progress until late afternoon, when Putnam halted and pointed to a stick in the middle of the trail. It was two inches wide and about eight inches long.
On its flat surfaces were carved certain arbitrary characters, the first of which was heart-shaped. The girl stooped to pick it up as Putnam held back, but he caught her hand, and warned:
“Do not touch it. We must move back and leave no signs.”
He retreated a rod and led the way into the thicket.
“How could a stick hurt us?” she protested.
“It can't hurt us. It may tell us things. It is one of the prayer-song sticks the Potawatomi use. The marks on it help them remember the prayer they wish to sing. I've seen a captive Potawatomi howling his song and following the signs with his fingers while some of our Mohawks were getting ready to roast him. The owner of that stick will come back for it unless the band is too far advanced on its way.”
They waited until the girl grew worried.
“Joseph Brant would say it was the dead sorcerer's medicine to delay us until after Ephraim Willis is killed,” she whispered.
“If no one shows up after I've slowly counted twenty we'll go on,” surrendered Putnam.
He started his count and was not half through when the girl caught his arm, her small face seeming to be all eyes as she stared up the trail. A solitary Indian, coming at a trot, was running toward them. He carried a bow and arrows, and at first sight might be supposed to be wearing a black mask.
As he ran he swung his head from side to side and searched the ground. Then with a grunt of joy he observed the stick and pounced upon it and thrust it into his breech-clout string of beaten bark, and turned and raced swiftly up the trail.
With a sharp intake of the breath the girl poked her gun through the bushes and sighted it on the bounding figure. Putnam clamped a hand over the hammer before she could raise it.
“Are we to lose a chance of wiping out one of M'sieu Willis' captors?” she fiercely demanded.
“It would only hurry Willis to the stake,” was the quiet reply. “The man's face is painted black. He is wearing mourning for the sorcerer I killed. He will wear it until Willis is killed.
“His black face makes me take new courage. The boy hasn't been harmed yet.
“If you had shot that Indian there would have been the risk of the gun being heard. If the band is too far away for that, then would be the wonder why the man did not come back. Either others would have been sent after him to discover where he fell and bled, or else they would be afraid, thinking him killed, and they would kill Willis offhand.”
“You are right,” she tremulously whispered. “I only saw a fiend that held my dear love prisoner.”
“Recently one of your allies,” he firmly reminded.
“No! Not one of my allies. France has used them, as it was either that or have the English use them.
“Let us be fair, Captain Putnam. I hate war. I hate all this cruelty, this killing of women and little children. What a beautiful country if men would only receive it from the hands of the good God and love it! God soon send the time when French and English can stand side by side and not face each other in battle. Oh, may God soon send that time!”
“Amen,” softly murmured Putnam, deeply touched by her outburst.
THEY came to a hardwood growth that extended wedge shape up the slope and made a détour to escape treading on the carpet of last year's dead leaves. Entering the evergreens, they reached the top of the ridge and gazed down on the camp of the Potawatomi.
A natural abatis of prostrated trees and boulders lay between them and the fire. Already a blaze was necessary to oust the shadows in the gorge, as the sun was now setting and only the heights of the mountains retained the glory of the day.
The girl gave a little cry, then clapped a hand over her mouth and pointed a finger. But Putnam already had seen it—the figure of a man, naked to the waist and tied to a spruce which had been trimmed into a post. In the flickering half-lights there was no identifying the prisoner, but both the ranger and the girl knew it must be Willis. The head was slumped forward on the breast and the whole body seemed to be sagging heavily.
“Is he already dead?” she asked with a half-strangled cry.
“He's tuckered out. He sleeps,” whispered Putnam, scowling at the débris between them and the edge of the camp. “We're on the wrong side to attempt anything. We must go back and cross the mouth of the gorge and crawl along in the timber on the other side.
“See, they have their faces blacked. They haven't commenced on him yet.”
More fuel was cast on the fire and the flare of the flames lighted the camp brilliantly. It also aroused the prisoner, who slowly lifted his head and stared around at the warriors.
Seeing that he was awake, an Indian ran to him and seized one of his hands which was tied to his side. He bent over it to bite off a fingernail.
The girl groaned as she guessed the horrid purpose and cocked her gun. Putnam thrust a finger under the hammer that she might not discharge it.
But the prisoner's feet, while tied to the stake, were not so tightly secured as to prevent his drawing up his leg. His left knee came up and smashed heavily into the face of his tormentor.
With a scream of rage the warrior staggered back, blood pouring from his mouth and nose; and he would have knifed Willis then and there had not some of his companions seized him and dragged him away. In the bright firelight Putnam observed that his young friend's face was haggard; but the pose of the uplifted head was as confident and bold as ever.
“They ain't touched his nerve yet,” whispered Putnam. “Do you hear that loon?”
The girl nodded, still watching the prisoner.
“Well, don't get nervous when I give a loon call. The Indians won't notice it as that loon's been crying out for some time.”
He waited a moment, then threw back his head and gave the weird call of the loon. The girl kept her gaze fastened on Willis and saw his head give a little jerk. Then it slowly sank on his breast only to be lifted high the next moment.
“He heard. He understands. He signals to us that he knows we are near,” she murmured.
“'Course he knows. That's why I run the risk. I wanted to put lots of heart into him so he won't bait them into killing him outright. He knows I'm here and that I'll shoot him before I'll let them kill him by inches. Now to get on the other side.”
They moved rapidly, satisfied that no scouts were back of the ridge. The danger point would be when they crossed the trail leading into the gorge.
To escape any outposts they moved back a quarter of a mile into the deep woods before turning to cross the trail. No sentinels were discovered, and it was plain that the Potawatomi had no fears of being discovered by any enemy.
They were traveling parallel to the trail and toward the gorge when the sweep of scurrying feet through the dead leaves in a copse of maple and beech alarmed them. Putnam reached out a hand and swung the girl behind him and attempted to penetrate the darkness and discover what this extraordinary peril could be. For danger it must be, although it was not like the patter of moccasins, nor was there the usual savage outcry advertising the discovery of a victim. This alarm was more like a drove of animals rushing through the woods.
“It can't be wolves at this time of year,” whispered Putnam.
“Dogs! The Blind Seneca's dogs!” exclaimed the girl under her breath. “Up a tree, quick! They know me and will not harm me.”
“Dogs!” snapped Putnam. “I'd look pretty climbing a tree to get away from a parcel of dogs!”
“Don't talk,” she begged. “Up a tree! These are worse than mad wolves. I vow candles. Our Lady help us!”
Putnam was far from being foolhardy, and the girl's great fear warned him that this was no common forest danger approaching. Reaching above his head, he located a big branch; and, dropping his gun, he tossed the girl upon it. Then, recovering his weapon, he swarmed up the trunk.
He had barely settled himself in the crotch of a mighty limb when the ground beneath him became alive with motion. He heard the sinister snaps leaping high to get at him, and he could picture the slavering jaws and cruel fangs.
“Don't shoot,” warned the girl. “The Blind Seneca must be close at hand. But what of Ephraim Willis? What are they doing to the poor lad now? I must go to him.”
He felt the bough give and heard her moccasins strike the ground in the midst of the jumble below. Without any hesitation he pulled his ax and leaped after her.
“They're muzzled. Don't hurt them,” she cried out as he grasped a throat a felt a hot breath in his face and raised his ax.
Then he realized that, although several forms had leaped against him, the very pressure of the pack holding him erect, he had felt no teeth.
“Stand perfectly still,” she warned. “They remember me. They pay no attention to me.”
Next he heard her tearing a branch from a tree.
She waded among the brutes, switching them smartly and talking softly in the Seneca tongue. The big brutes whined and persisted in leaping upon the ranger for a bit, then heeded her voice and whip and finally squatted in a circle about her.
“Now I think they will stay here till their master comes. It is time for you and me, m'sieu, to be hurrying on to save Ephraim Willis,” she panted.
“Do these dogs usually go muzzled?”
“No. The Iroquois keep clear of the Blind Seneca's camp. It would be bad for their medicine if they harmed his pets. And he, although he is crazy, knows enough to keep the pack away from the villages of the Long House.
“I do not understand why they ran away. But let us go!”
“How many are there?”
“There was a dozen in the pack. Wait. I will count.
She plied her switch till all the brutes were cowering at her feet, then swiftly passed her hands over their heads.
“I count ten,” she said. “What of it?”
“I was thinking,” he mumbled absent-mindedly.
A soft whistle disturbed his meditations, and every dog was erect and making over the back trail
“It's Joseph Brant's signal,” cried the girl; and she replied to it.
THE boy glided through the bush and stood between them; the dogs meekly grouped behind him.
“They got way from me,” he panted. “I had the leaders on a rope. They broke loose; then all went. I have run for miles.
“The ranger who struck me, Joseph Brant, the red brother of Sir William Johnson, Joseph Brant of the Mohawks—is he dead?”
“God forbid! We go to rescue him,” said Putnam.
“Then he shall owe part of his life to me,” said the boy. “I will show him I can save as well as kill. I am sending the pack up the trail at the throats of the Potawatomi. All the sorcerers in their nation can not save them once I take off the muzzles. The Blind Seneca is making medicine for the white puppy, which is now with its mother. So I borrowed the black pack.”
“That was what I was thinking,” softly exulted Putnam.
And the boy seized a panther shape and dragged it to Putnam and rubbed the muzzle against the ranger's leg, all the time talking sharply in Seneca.
This was repeated with the others, and Putnam checked off ten, just as the girl had counted them in the darkness.
“Now they understand you are a friend of mine,” haughtily the boy informed them.
“Good. That will make it much pleasanter,” said Putnam. “The Laughing One and I will go up the right-hand side of the gorge where the cover is good. The other side is choked by fallen timber. We will creep very close. Get the dogs to the mouth of the gorge but do not send them in until you hear the cry of a loon. Then send them flying.”
The boy found the thongs trailing from the necks of the leaders, tied them round a sapling and began removing the muzzles. The pack showed no disposition to precede the leaders, and the Blind Seneca's discipline had been too severe to encourage useless baying. At young Brant's suggestion Putnam paused to help in removing the rawhide muzzles so that the dogs might thoroughly identify him as a friend.
“They have run far. I can manage them now,” said the boy, walking between the leaders. “When you call, we come.”
Putnam took the lead and soon sighted the fire up the gorge. He swung deeper into the wood, the girl keeping close behind him and gritting her teeth to keep from screaming. Well concealed by the heavy growth, they worked their way through the mouth. They heard low voices of sentinels.
Once through the opening, they stole down to the floor of the gorge and advanced more swiftly. When they halted they were within ten rods of Willis.
The savages were placing a circle of brush around the prisoner, taking care it should not be close enough to end the sport prematurely. And they mixed a certain amount of green boughs with the dry so that there should be the torture of smoke without the relief of asphyxiation.
“They are releasing his feet and arms,” whispered the girl. “Call the dogs.”
“Keep quiet,” sternly ordered Putnam. “We don't want the dogs till the red hellions get so interested in their work that they won't see them coming.”
He knew full well the meaning of the loosened thongs. It was to permit the prisoner to sway his body ahead and to one side to escape the scorching flames. His efforts to escape being roasted would afford exquisite amusement to the spectators and would be futile once the fire had run around the circle.
Willis too understood the motive, being a veteran in Shawnee warfare; and as a brave kneeled to lengthen the cord about his ankles he brought up a foot and stamped it on the warrior's head, driving it into the dirt. Shifting his weight, he held the man a prisoner for a few moments, kicking and squirming and nailed down by the neck. On extricating himself the enraged brave snatched out an ax and was for braining the captive at once, but laughing warriors pulled him back.
“Lord, but that boy's got the right spirit!” whispered Putnam.
The girl, watching Willis' defiance, pressed the gun to her bosom and mumbled:
“He is a very brave man. The good God sustain him!”
“He will. And we'll help,' murmured Putnam.
The work of arranging the fuel proceeded rapidly, the savages now keeping a sharp eye on their victim, for as surely as one drew within reach of the tethered feet he as surely received a kick and a string of caustic abuse. Once the girl clapped her hands to her ears as Willis caught a man under the jaw with a short kick and in provincial vernacular loudly expressed his opinion of him.
“He doesn't know you're near,” apologized Putnam. “I must correct him later. But the best of men get careless of speech when in great danger. I swore fearfully on the morning of the bloody scout, when we caught Dieskau.”
“He is a very brave man,” she murmured. “Oh! They bring coals from the fire to light the brush. I will shoot!”
“No, no. It will take a little time for the fire to run round the circle. They've hitched him up loose so he can draw away and escape hurt till the circle is all ablaze. They're taking their time.
“There comes a man from the mouth of the gorge. He looks back. He has a companion. I want them all here together when I give the signal. The dogs must fall on them like so many thunderbolts.”
Two more men now came from the mouth of the gorge, making three sentinels that Putnam and the girl had passed. The fire now burned briskly in front of the prisoner, sending out red tongues on each side.
The sweat stood on Willis' face and he often turned his gaze toward the ridge where Putnam had stood when sounding his call. As the smoke swept into his face he bowed his head. The wind turned it aside and his head came erect.
As the heat began to bite into his flesh he took advantage of the slack, and swung out to one side and backward. As yet he had suffered no serious hurt or pain. But he knew that a fiery furnace was infinitely more merciful than this slow baking process. Once the heat became equal at all points he would pray for death.
The cry of a loon rang out. Willis threw up his head. The flames had gained ground on his right, so now he could only sway to the left and backward. Lifting his voice as if shouting his death-song, he loudly called:
“Israel Putnam, don't let them roast me. You can't save me. Don't try. When the fire gets on my left shoot me and run like —— if you love Connecticut.”
The girl was muttering over and over. “He suffers! He suffers! Oh, poor lad! Poor lad!”
Once more Putnam gave the signal, this time so loudly that one or two of the savages jerked up their heads as if suspicious. The sport before them, however, was too good to neglect. They were drunk with the lust to torment. And they formed a circle and danced grotesquely around the straining form. They gibed and jeered, and one leaped over the fiery barrier to tear off the scalp and dash it into the prisoner's face; but angry hands pulled him back for a spoil-sport.
Putnam's face was gray with the strain. Where was young Brant with the dogs? To shoot one of the savages would mean immediate death to the prisoner.
“I'm going to nail the man that seems to be the leader; then rush in and club my gun,” he muttered. “If I can't get to the boy I'll go down fighting; and you must shoot him.”
“Something moves down there,” she hysterically whispered, shaking his arm and pointing toward the mouth of the gorge.
Through the flames and the smoke Putnam glimpsed motion, a dark patch that approached with undulating movement. Then he made out the slight figure of the boy racing behind the pack.
Around the stake and the struggling figure of the captive shrieked and danced the Potawatomi, nearly a score of them, their stark figures doubling over until their filthy hair dragged on the ground. As they pranced stiff-legged they cut down imaginary foes, lunged and scalped the air with lusting knives and howled in an ecstasy of bestial passion. Onward swept the fell black pack of the Blind Seneca, unmuzzled and racing with slavering jaws straight as an arrow toward the game which would not be denied them.
ONE of the dancers lifted his head from between his knees and flung it far back, yowling like a woods-cat, and through his half-closed lids beheld the onrushing beast with many heads. He came to a staggering halt and the man behind bumped into him and hurled him from the line. He tried to cry out, but the words froze on his snarling lips; and the next moment he was bowled over with inexorable fangs buried in his throat.
Into the fire and through it again leaped the huge beasts, their short-haired coats of black making each a four-legged devil, their blazing eyes and dripping jaws unlike anything the Potawatomi ever had encountered in the wide forests. On the edge of the mad mélange of screaming warriors and mouthing brutes danced the imp of a boy, shrieking commands and encouragement, and shooting with bow and arrow whenever a warrior rolled clear of the fray. Ten dogs and twenty warriors. Ten devils and a score of terrified red men. Putnam shouted to the girl to remain in hiding and dashed into the fight, gun in one hand and ax in the other.
The black pack and the warriors had wallowed back and forth through the burning brush, scattering it in smoking heaps. Putnam leaped a confused mass of brutes, two and four-legged, and landed by the side of Willis. The latter was gazing wildly on the scene.
With blows of his ax Putnam freed him and then pushed him toward the girl's hiding-place. unhampered by a dog ran toward them. Putnam saved his head by driving the butt of his gun into the evil face.
A dog leaped up on Putnam and caught him by the shoulder. The ranger hoarsely commanded him to “down.” A glimmer of sense reminded the maddened creature that this was a friend, and he swerved back to where the hunting was legitimate. Pushing and half-carrying Willis, the ranger got him under cover and into the caressing hands of the weeping girl.
“Get him out of here. Down the trail, We'll pick you up,” panted Putnam.
And he was back to the fight.
Now the Indians were beginning to battle more valiantly. The edge of the surprize was worn off. All were armed with axes and knives; and as Putnam ran in he saw several of the dogs stretched out dead, one of the leaders lying with his teeth through the throat of the brave who had stabbed him through the heart. Of the surviving dogs several were mortally wounded but were still able to do mischief.
Had each brute selected a warrior and after finishing him made for another, the pack would have soon whipped the Indians. But some continued to worry dead bodies; two would unite in mauling a warrior already dying.
The Potawatomi found themselves free to glance about and inventory the situation. Young Brant gave ground, while from his lips repeatedly pealed the terrible war-cry of his people. As a dog made a kill he would frenziedly shout:
“Here do you receive it! Ku!”
Putnam shot a Potawatomi through the head as he was about to hurl his ax at the lad, and the latter yelled back to him—
“He who dwells in the sky shall be pleased with you, white man.”
Putnam swung his gun by the barrel and battered a way to the youth, caught him by the arm and commanded:
“Come away. Most of the dogs are dead.”
“See! See! Another kill!” shrieked the boy, tossing up his bow and twanging the empty string. “Ku!”
It was the second of the leaders. Torn and stabbed until barely able to stand, he had reared up by a supreme effort and caught a bronzed throat and with a final effort closed the vise and extinguished the savage life.
Putnam seized the boy by leg and shoulder, threw him on his back and raced for cover.
“I can not leave them. Let me go,” screamed the boy.
Then to the surviving dogs
“Let him have it! Let Sim have it! Ku! Ku! Brave kill!”
“You young devil!” panted Putnam, swinging Brant to the ground and tearing the boy's hand from his hair. “Trying to scalp me? Can't you remember you are a Mohawk? Be you a wild, Western Indian that hoots and howls and loses his head?
“The dogs are done for. There'll be eight or ten warriors left. We must get the girl and the man out of this.”
“I am a Mohawk. Take your hand from me,” gasped the boy.
“You have acted like a mighty war chief. Your name will be sung in many Mohawk castles,” warmly declared Putnam. “But it must not be said you let the man be recaptured after setting him free. The girl is trying to get him out of the gorge. She will need help. Where is your gun?”
“Loaded, and at the mouth of this place. I left it to handle the dogs. We will go.”
They reached the edge of the woods, where Willis had joined the girl, and glanced back. The fight was still in progress around the stake, seven or eight Indians striking knives and axes at the few surviving dogs.
“A round dozen Indians dead or badly wounded,” rejoiced Putnam. “T'others ain't got much fight left in them. Now to find the girl and Willis.”
Once away from the camp-fire, the night closed them in a closet; but the cry of the loon needed no torch, and the first signal was promptly answered from down the gorge. From the fluttering, nervous timbre Putnam knew the girl had answered instead of Willis.
They ran as fast as the woods and the darkness would permit, Putnam occasionally giving the signal so the fugitives would not mistake them for the enemy. After they had passed out of the gorge the girl called to them softly, and they found her seated with Willis' head in her lap.
“Is he dying?” she faintly asked.
“He don't dare die after all the trouble we've took and after all the dogs we've used up,” growled Putnam. “Joseph Brant, take my hat and bring water. You'll find some somewhere.”
As the boy departed there came from the gorge the death-cry of the Potawatomi, announcing the end of the fearful conflict.
“Good dogs!” mumbled Putnam. “They had a glorious finish. Now I wonder if the redskins got enough, or will try to follow us.”
“Water!” faintly whispered Willis.
The bushes rustled, and young Brant handed Putnam the hat brimming over with water. Putnam allowed the sufferer to drink half, and poured the rest over the scorched head and face. Handing the hat back to the boy, he directed:
“Fill it again and overtake us on the trail. Only a Mohawk chief could find water on a night like this.
“Come, Ephraim Willis. No more time for fooling. You've got to travel.”