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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesReckoning - Chapter 15. Butler's Ford
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Reckoning - Chapter 15. Butler's Ford Post by :CalGolden Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2391

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Reckoning - Chapter 15. Butler's Ford

CHAPTER XV. BUTLER'S FORD

For four breathless days the broad, raw trail of a thousand men in headlong flight was the trampled path we traveled. Smashing straight through the northern wilderness, our enemy with horses, wagons, batmen, soldiers, Indians burst into the forest, tearing saplings, thickets, underbrush aside in their mad northward rush for the safety of the Canadas and the shelter denied them here. Threescore Oneida hatchets glittered in their rear; four hundred rifles followed; for the Red Beast was in flight at last, stricken, turning now and again to snarl when the tireless, stern-faced trackers drew too near, then running on again, growling, impotent. And the Red Beast must be done to death.

What fitter place to end him than here in the wild twilight of shaggy depths, unlighted by the sun or moon?--here where the cold, brawling streams smoked in the rank air; where black crags crouched, watching the hunting--here in these awful deeps, shunned by the deer, unhaunted by wolf and panther--depths fit only for the monstrous terror that came out of them, and now, wounded, and cold heart pulsing terror, was scrambling back again into the dense and dreadful twilight of eternal shadow-land.

One by one their pack-laden horses fell out exhausted; and we found them, heads hanging, quivering and panting beside the reeking trail; one by one their gaunt cattle, mired in bog and swamp, entangled in windfalls, greeted us, bellowing piteously as we passed. The forest itself fought for us, reaching out to jerk wheels from axle, bringing wagon and team down crashing. Their dead lay everywhere uncared for, even unscalped and unrobbed in the bruised and trampled path of flight; clothing, arms, provisions were scattered pell-mell on every side; and now at length, hour after hour, as we headed them back from trail and highway, and blocked them from their boats at Oneida Lake, driving, forcing, scourging them straight into the black jaws of a hungry wilderness, we began to pass their wounded--ghastly, bloody, ragged things, scarce animate, save for the dying brilliancy of their hollowed eyes.

On, on, hotfoot through the rain along the smoking trail; twilight by day, depthless darkness by night, where we lay panting in starless obscurity, listening to the giant winds of the wilderness--vast, resistless, illimitable winds flowing steadily through the unseen and naked crests of forests, colder and ever colder they blew, heralding the trampling blasts of winter, charging us from the north.

On the fifth day it began to snow at dawn. Little ragged flakes winnowed through the clusters of scarlet maple-leaves, sifted among the black pines, coming faster and thicker, driving in slanting, whirling flight across the trail. In an hour the moss was white; crimson sprays of moose-bush bent, weighted with snow and scarlet berries; the hurrying streams ran dark and somber in their channels between dead-white banks; swamps turned blacker for the silvery setting; the flakes grew larger, pelting in steady, thickening torrents from the clouds as we came into a clearing called Jerseyfield, on the north side of Canada Creek; and here at last we were met by a crackling roar from a hundred rifles.

The Red Beast was at bay!

Up and down, through the dense snowy veil descending, the orange-tinted rifle-flames flashed and sparkled and flickered; all around us a shower of twigs and branches descended in a steady rain. Then our brown rifles blazed their deadly answer. Splash! spatter! splash! their dead dropped into the stream; and, following, dying and living took to the dark water, thrashing across through snowy obscurity. I heard their horses wallowing through the fords, iron hoofs frantically battering the rocky, shelving banks for foothold; I heard them shriek when the Oneida tigers leaped upon them; I heard their wounded battling and screaming as they drowned in the swollen waters!

We lay and fired at their phantom lines, now attempting to retreat at a dog-trot in single file; and as we knocked man after man from the plodding rank the others leaped over their writhing, fallen comrades, neither turning nor pausing in their dogged flight. The snow slackened, falling more thinly to the west; and, as the dazzling curtain grew transparent, a mass of men in green suddenly rose from the whitened hemlock-scrub and fired at our riflemen arriving in column.

Then ensued a scene nigh indescribable. With one yelling bound, Ranger and Oneida were on them, shooting, stabbing, dragging them down; and, as they broke cover, their mounted officers, dashing out of the thicket, wheeled northward into galloping flight; and among them at last I saw my enemy, and knew him.

A dozen Oneidas were after him. His horse, spurred to a gallop, crashed through the brush, and was in the water at a leap; and he turned in midstream and shook his pistol at them insultingly.

By Heaven, he rode superbly as the swollen waters of the ford boiled to his horse's straining shoulders, while the bullets clipped the gilded cocked-hat from his head and struck his raised pistol from his hand.

"Head him!" shouted Elerson; "don't let that man get clear!" Indians and Rangers raced madly along the bank of the creek, pacing the fugitive as he galloped.

"Take him alive!" I cried, as Butler swung his horse with a crash straight into the willow thickets on the north. We lost him to view as I spoke; and I sounded the rally-whistle, and ran up the bank of the creek, leading my horse at a trot behind me.

The snowfall had ceased; the sun glimmered, then blazed out in the clearing, flooding the whitened ground with a dazzling radiance. Running, stumbling, falling, struggling through brush and brake and brier-choked marsh, I saw ahead of me three Oneida Indians swiftly cross my path to the creek's edge and crouch, scanning the opposite shore. Almost immediately the Rangers Murphy, Renard, and Elerson emerged from the snowy bushes beside them; and at the same instant I saw Walter Butler ride up on the opposite side of the creek, glance backward, then calmly draw bridle in plain sight. He was fey; I knew it. His doom was upon him. He flung himself from his horse close to the ford where, set in the rock, a living spring of water mirrored the sun; then he knelt down, drew his tin cup from his belt, bent over, and looked into the placid silver pool. What he saw reflected there Christ alone knows, for he sprang back, passed his hand across his eyes, and reached out his cup blindly, plunging it deep into the water.

Never, never shall I forget that instant picture as it broke upon my view; my deadly enemy kneeling by the spring, black hair disheveled, the sunshine striking his tin cup as he raised it to his lips; the three naked Oneidas, in their glistening scarlet paint, eagerly raising their rifles, while the merciless weapons of Murphy and Elerson slowly fell to the same level, focused on that kneeling figure across the dark waters of the stream.

A second only, then, God knows why, I could not endure to witness a justice so close allied with murder, and sprang forward, crying out: "Cease fire! Take him alive!" But, with the words half-sped, flame after flame parted from those leveled muzzles; and through the whirling smoke I saw Walter Butler fall, roll over and over, his body and limbs contracting with agony; then on all fours again, on his knees, only to sink back in a sitting posture, his head resting on his hand, blood pouring between his fingers.

Into the stream plunged an Oneida, rifle and knife aloft, glittering in the sun. The wounded man saw him coming, and watched him as he leaped up the bank; and while Walter Butler looked him full in the face the savage trembled, crouching, gathering for a leap.

"Stop that murder!" I shouted, plunging into the ford as Butler, aching head still lifted, turned a deathly face toward me. One eye had been shot out, but the creature was still alive, and knew me--knew me, heard me ask for the quarter he had not asked for; saw me coming to save him from his destiny, and smiled as the Oneida sprang on him with a yell and ripped the living scalp away before my sickened eyes.

"Finish him, in God's mercy!" bellowed the Ranger Sammons, running up. The Oneida's hatchet, swinging like lightning, flashed once; and the severed soul of Walter Butler was free of the battered, disfigured thing that lay oozing crimson in the trampled snow.

Dead! And I heard the awful scalp-yell swelling from the throats of those who had felt his heavy hand. Dead! And I heard cheers from those whose loved ones had gone down to death to satiate his fury. And now he, too, was on his way to face those pale accusers waiting there to watch him pass--specters of murdered men, phantoms of women, white shapes of little children--God! what a path to the tribunal behind whose thunderous gloom hell's own lightning flared!

As I gazed down at him the roar of the fusillade died away in my ears. I remembered him as I had seen him there at New York in our house, his slim fingers wandering over the strings of the guitar, his dark eyes drowned in melancholy. I remembered his voice, and the song he sang, haunting us all with its lingering sadness--the hopeless words, the sad air, redolent of dead flowers--doom, death, decay!

The thrashing and plunging of horses roused me. I looked around to see Colonel Willett ride up, followed by two or three mounted officers in blue and buff, pulling in their plunging horses. He looked down at the dead, studying the crushed face, the uniform, the blood-drenched snow.

"Is that Butler?" he asked gravely.

"Yes," I said; and drew a corner of his cloak across the marred face.

Nobody uncovered, which was the most dreadful judgment those silent men could pass.

"Scalped?" motioned Colonel Lewis significantly.

"He belongs to your party," observed Willett quietly. Then, looking around as the rifle-fire to the left broke out again: "The pursuit has ended, gentlemen. What punishment more awful could we leave them to than these trackless solitudes? For I tell you that those few among them who shall attain the Canadas need fear no threat of hell in the life to come, for they shall have served their turn. Sound the recall!"

I laid my hand upon his saddle, looking up into his face:

"Pardon," I said, in a low voice; "_I must go on!"

"Carus! Carus!" he said softly, "have they not told you?"

"Told me?" I stared. "What? What--in the name of God?"

"She was taken when we struck their rear-guard at one o'clock this afternoon! Was there no one to tell you, lad!"

"Unharmed?" I asked, steadying myself against his stirrup.

"Faint with fatigue, brier-torn, in rags--his vengeance, but--_nothing worse_. That quarter-breed Montour attended her, supported her, struggled on with her through all the horrors of this retreat. He had herded the Valley prisoners together, guarded by Cayugas. The executioner lies dead a mile below, his black face in the water. And here _he lies!"

He swung his horse, head sternly averted. I flung myself into my saddle.

"This way, lad. She lies in a camp-wagon at headquarters, asleep, I think. Mount and your Oneida guard her. And the girl, Montour, lies stretched beside her, watching her as a dog watches a cradled child."

The hunting-horns of the light infantry were sounding the recall as we rode through the low brush of Jerseyfield, where the sunset sky was aflame, painting the tall pines, staining the melting snow to palest crimson.

From black, wet branches overhead the clotted flakes fell, showering us as we came to the hemlock shelter where the camp-wagon stood. A fire burned there; before it crowded a shadowy group of riflemen; and one among them moved forward to meet me, touching his fur cap and pointing.

As I reached the rough shelter of fringing evergreen Mount and Little Otter stepped out; and I saw the giant forest-runner wink the tears away as he laid his huge finger across his lips.

"She sleeps as sweetly as a child," he whispered. "I told her you were coming. Oh, sir, it will tear your heart out to see her small white feet so bruised, and the soft, baby hands of her raw at the wrists, where they tied her at night.... _Is he surely dead, sir, as they say?"

"I saw him die, thank God!"

"That is safer for him, I think," said Mount simply. "Will you come this way, sir? Otter, fetch a splinter o' fat pine for a light. Mind the wheel there, Mr. Renault--this way on tiptoe!"

He took the splinter-light from the Oneida, fixed it in a split stick, backed out, and turned away, followed by the Indian.

At first I could not see, and set the burning stick nearer. Then, as I bent over the rough wagon, I saw her lying there very white and still, her torn hands swathed with lint, her bandaged feet wrapped in furs. And beside her, stretched full length, lay Lyn Montour, awake, dark eyes fixed on mine.

She smiled as she caught my eye; then something in my face sobered her. "He is dead?" she motioned with her lips. And my lips moved assent.

Gravely, scarcely stirring, she reached up and unbound her hair, letting it down over her face. I understood, and, stepping to the fire, returned with a charred ember. She held out first one hand, then the other, and I marked the palms with the ashes, touched her forehead, her breast, her feet. Thus, in the solemn presence of death itself, she claimed at the tribunal of the Most High the justice denied on earth, signing herself a widow with the ashes none but a wedded wife may dare to wear.

Lower and lower burned the tiny torch, sank to a spark, and went out. The black curtains of obscurity closed in; redder and redder spread the glare from the camp-fire; crackling and roaring, the flames rose, tufted with smoke, through which a million sparks whirled upward, showering the void above. Dark shapes moved in the glow with a sparkle of spur and sword as they turned; the infernal light fell on the naked bodies of Oneidas, sitting like demons, eyes blinking at the flames. And through the roar of the fire I heard their chanting undertone, monotonous, interminable, saluting their dead:


"_Cover the White Throat at Carenay,
Lest evil fall at Danascara,
Lay the phantom away,
Men of Thendara,
Trails of Kayaderos
And Adriutha
Cover our loss!
Tree of Oswaya,
From Garoga
To Caroga
Cover the White Throat
For the sake of the Silver Boat afloat
In the Water of Light, O Tharon!
This for the pledge of Aroronon
Lest the Long House end
And the Tree bend
And our dead ascend in every trail
And the Great League fail.
Now by the brotherhood ye've sworn
Let the Oneida mourn._"


And I heard from the forest the deadened blows of mattock and spade, and saw the glimmer of burial torches; and, through the steady chanting of the Oneida, the solemn voice of the chaplain in prayer for dead and living:

"Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us. And establish Thou the work of our hands upon us--yea, the work of our hands, establish Thou it!"

* * * * *

It lacked an hour to dawn when the harsh, stringy drums rolled from the forest and the smoky camp awoke; and I, keeping my vigil, there in the shadow where she lay, listening and bending above her, was aware of a bandaged hand touching me--a feverish arm about my neck, drawing my head lower, closer, till, in the darkness, my face lay on hers, and our tremulous lips united.

"Is all well, my beloved?"

"All is well."

"And we part no more?"

"No more."

Silence, then: "Why do they cheer so, Carus?"

"It is a lost soul they are speeding, child."

"His?"

"Yes."

She breathed feverishly, her little bandaged hands holding my face. "Lift me a little, Carus; I can not move my legs. Did you know he abandoned me to the Cayugas because I dared to ask his mercy for the innocent? I think his reason was unseated when I came upon him there at Johnson Hall--so much of blood and death lay on his soul. His own men feared him; and, Carus, truly I do not think he knew me else he had never struck me in that burst of rage, so that even the Cayugas interposed--for his knife was in his hands." She sighed, nestling close to me in the rustling straw, and closed her eyes as the torches flared and the horses were backed along the pole.

In the ruddy light I saw Jack Mount approaching. He halted, touched his cap, and smiled; then his blue eyes wandered to the straw where Lyn Montour lay, sleeping the stunned sleep of exhaustion; and into his face a tenderness came, softening his bold mouth and reckless visage.

"The Weasel drives, sir. Tim and Dave and I, we jog along to ease the wheels--if it be your pleasure, sir. We go by the soft trail. A week should see you and yours in Albany. The Massachusetts surgeon is here to dress your sweet lady's hurts. Will you speak with him, Mr. Renault?"

I bent and kissed the bandaged hands, the hot forehead under the tangled hair, then whispering that all was well I went out into the gray dawn where the surgeon stood unrolling lint.

"Those devils tied their prisoners mercilessly at night," he said, "and the scars may show, Mr. Renault. But her flesh is wholesome, and the torn feet will heal--are healing now. Your lady will be lame."

"For life?"

"Oh--perhaps the slightest limp--scarce to be noticed. And then again, she is so sound, and her blood so pure--who knows? Even such tender little feet as hers may bear her faultlessly once more. Patience, Mr. Renault."

He parted the hanging blankets and went in, emerging after a little while to beckon me.

"I have changed the dressing; the wounds are benign and healthy. She has some fever. The shock is what I fear. Go to her; you may do more than I could."

As the sun rose we started, the Weasel driving, I crouching at her side, her torn hands in mine; and beside us, Lyn Montour, watching Jack Mount as he strode along beside the wagon, a new angle to his cap, a new swagger in his step, and deep in his frank blue eyes a strange smile that touched the clean, curling corners of his lips.

"Look!" breathed Murphy, gliding along on the other side, "'tis the gay day f'r Jack Mount whin Lyn Montour's black eyes are on him--the backwoods dandy!"

I looked down at Elsin. The fever flushed her cheeks. Into her face there crept a beauty almost unearthly.

"My darling, my darling!" I whispered fearfully, leaning close to her. Her eyes met mine, smiling, but in their altered brilliancy I saw she no longer knew me.

"Walter," she said, laughing, "your melancholy suits me--yet love is another thing. Go ask of Carus what it is to love! He has my soul bound hand and foot and locked in the wall there, where he keeps the letters he writes. If they find those letters some man will hang. I think it will be you, Walter, or perhaps Sir Peter. I'm love-sick--sick o' love--for Carus mocks me! Is it easy to die, Walter? Tell me, for you are dead. If only Carus loved me! He kissed me so easily that night--I tempting him. So now that I am damned--what matter how he uses me? Yet he never struck me, Walter, as you strike!"

Hour after hour, terrified, I listened to her babble, and that gay little laugh, so like her own, that broke out as her fever grew, waxing to its height.

It waned at midday, but by sundown she grew restless, and the surgeon, Weldon, riding forward from the rear, took my place beside her, and I mounted my horse which Elerson led, and rode ahead, a deadly fear in my heart, and Black Care astride the crupper, a grisly shadow in the wilderness, dogging me remorselessly under pallid stars.

And now hours, days, nights, sun, stars, moon, were all one to me--things that I heeded not; nor did I feel aught of heat or cold, sun or storm, nor know whether or not I slept or waked, so terrible grew the fear upon me. Men came and went. I heard some say she was dying, some that she would live if we could get her from the wilderness she raved about; for her cry was ever to be freed of the darkness and the silence, and that they were doing me to death in New York town, whither she must go, for she alone could save me.

Tears seemed ever in my eyes, and I saw nothing clearly, only the black and endless forests swimming in mists; the silent riflemen trudging on, the little withered driver, in his ring-furred cap and caped shirt, too big for him; the stolid horses plodding on and on. Medical officers came from Willett--Weldon and Jermyn--and the surgeon's mate, McLane; and they talked among themselves, glancing at her curiously, so that I grew to hate them and their whispers. A fierce desire assailed me to put an end to all this torture--to seize her, cradle her to my breast, and gallop day and night to the open air--as though that, and the fierce strength of my passion must hold back death!

Then, one day--God knows when--the sky widened behind the trees, and I saw the blue flank of a hill unchoked by timber. Trees grew thinner as we rode. A brush-field girdled by a fence was passed, then a meadow, all golden in the sun. Right and left the forest sheered off and fell away; field on field, hill on hill, the blessed open stretched to a brimming river, silver and turquoise in the sunshine, and, beyond it, crowning three hills, the haven!--the old Dutch city, high-roofed, red-tiled, glimmering like a jewel in the November haze--Albany!

And now, as we breasted the ascent, far away we heard drums beating. A white cloud shot from the fort, another, another, and after a long while the dull booming of the guns came floating to us, mixed with the noise of bells.

Elsin heard and sat up. I bent from my saddle, passing my arm around her.

"Carus!" she cried, "where have you been through all this dreadful night?"

"Sweetheart, do you know me?"

"Yes. How soft the sunlight falls! There is a city yonder. I hear bells." She sank down, her eyes on mine.

"The bells of old Albany, dear. Elsin, Elsin, do you truly know me?"

She smiled, the ghost of the old gay smile, and her listless arms moved.

Weldon, riding on the other side, nodded to me in quiet content:

"Now all she lacked she may have, Renault," he said, smiling. "All will be well, thank God! Let her sleep!"

She heard him, watching me as I rode beside her.

"It was only you I lacked, Carus," she murmured dreamily; and, smiling, fell into a deep, sweet sleep.

Then, as we rode into the first outlying farms, men and women came to their gates, calling out to us in their Low Dutch jargon, and at first I scarce heeded them as I rode, so stunned with joy was I to see her sleeping there in the sunlight, and her white, cool skin and her mouth soft and moist.

Gun on gun shook the air with swift concussion. The pleasant Dutch bells swung aloft in mellow harmony. Suddenly, far behind where our infantry moved in column, I heard cheer on cheer burst forth, and the horns and fifes in joyous fanfare, echoed by the solid outbreak of the drums.

"What are they cheering for, mother?" I asked an old Dutch dame who waved her kerchief at us.

"For Willett and for George the Virginian, sir," she said, dimpling and dropping me a courtesy.

"George the Virginian?" I asked, wondering. "Do you mean his Excellency?"

And still she dimpled and nodded and bobbed her white starched cap, and I made nothing of what she said until I heard men shouting, "Yorktown!" and "The war ends! Hurrah!"

"Hurrah! Hurrah!" shouted a mounted officer, spurring past us up the hill; "Butler's dead, and Cornwallis is taken!"

"Taken?" I repeated incredulously.

The booming guns were my answer. High against the blue a jeweled ensign fluttered, silver, azure and blood red, its staff and halyards wrapped in writhing jets of snow-white smoke flying upward from the guns.

I rode toward it, cap in hand, head raised, awed in the presence of God's own victory! The shouting streets echoed and reechoed as we passed between packed ranks of townspeople; cheers, the pealing music of the bells, the thunderous shock of the guns grew to a swimming, dreamy sound, through which the flag fluttered on high, crowned with the golden nimbus of the sun!

"Carus!"

"Ah, sweetheart, did they wake you? Sleep on; the war is over!" I whispered, bending low above her. "Now indeed is all well with the world, and fit once more for you to live in."

And, as we moved forward, I saw her blue eyes lifted dreamily, watching the flag which she had served so well.

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