Read Chapter XX. of Wyandotte, free online book, by James Fenimore Cooper, on ReadCentral.com.

  “His hand was stay’d ­he knew not why;
  ’Twas a presence breathed around ­
  A pleading from the deep-blue sky,
  And up from the teeming ground. 
  It told of the care that lavish’d had been
  In sunshine and in dew ­
  Of the many things that had wrought a screen
  When peril round it grew.”

  Mrs. Seba Smith.

The desertions gave not only the captain, but his great support and auxiliary, the serjeant, the gravest apprehensions.  A disposition of that nature is always contagious, men abandoning a failing cause much as rats are known to quit a sinking ship.  It is not a matter of surprise, therefore, that the distrust which accompanied the unexpected appearance of the Tuscarora, became associated with this falling off in the loyalty of the garrison, in the minds of the two old soldiers.

“I do think, your honour,” said Joyce, as they entered the court together, “that we may depend on O’Hearn, and Jamie, and Strides.  The latter, as a matter of course, being a corporal, or serjeant as he calls himself; and the two first, as men who have no ties but such as would be likely to keep them true to this family.  But here is the corporal to speak for himself.”

As this was said, corporal Strides, as the serjeant persisted in terming Joel, on the ground that being but one step higher himself, the overseer could justly claim no rank of greater pretension, approached the captain, taking care to make the military salute which Joyce had never succeeded before in extracting from him, notwithstanding a hundred admonitions on the subject.

“This is a distressing affair, captain Willoughby,” observed Joel, in his most jesuitical manner; “and to me it is altogether onaccountable!  It does seem to me ag’in natur’, for a man to desart his own household and hum’ (Joel meant ‘home’) in the hour of trial.  If a fellow-being wunt (Anglice ‘wont’) stand by his wife and children, he can hardly be expected to do any of his duties.”

“Quite true.  Strides,” answered the confiding captain, “though these deserters are not altogether as bad as you represent, since, you will remember, they have carried their wives and children with them.”

“I believe they have, sir ­yes, that must be allowed to be true, and that it is, which to me seems the most extr’or’nary.  The very men that a person would calcilate on the most, or the heads of families, have desarted, while them that remain behind are mostly single!”

“If we single men have no wives and children of our own to fight for, Strides,” observed Joyce, with a little military stiffness, “we have the wife and children of captain Willoughby; no man who wishes to sell his life dearly, need look for a better motive.”

“Thank you, serjeant,” the captain said, feelingly ­“On you, I can rely as on myself.  So long as I have you, and Joel, here, and Mike and the blacks, and the rest of the brave fellows who have stood by me thus far, I shall not despair. We can make good the house against ten times our own number.  But, it is time to look to the Indians.”

“I was going to speak to the captain about Nick,” put in Joel, who had listened to the eulogium on his own fidelity with some qualms of conscience.  “I can’t say I like the manner he has passed between the two parties; and that fellow has always seemed to me as if he owed the captain a mortal grudge; when an Injin does owe a grudge, he is pretty sartain to pay it, in full.”

“This has passed over my mind, too, I will confess, Joel; yet Nick and I have been on reasonably good terms, when one comes to remember his character, on the one side, and the fact that I have commanded a frontier garrison on the other.  If I have had occasion to flog him a few times, I have also had occasion to give him more rum than has done him good, with now and then a dollar.”

“There I think the captain miscalcilates,” observed Joel with a knowledge of human nature that would have been creditable to him, had he practised on it himself.  “No man is thankful for rum when the craving is off, sin’ he knows he has been taking an inimy into his stomach; and as for the money, it was much the same as giving the liquor, seem’ that it went for liquor as soon as he could trot down to the mill.  A man will seek his revenge for rum, as soon as for anything else, when he gets to feel injuries uppermost.  Besides, I s’pose the captain knows an injury will be remembered long a’ter a favour is forgotten.”

“This may be true, Strides, and certainly I shall keep my eyes on the Indian.  Can you mention any particular act, that excites your suspicion?”

“Don’t the captain think Nick may have had suthin’ to do with the desartions? ­A dozen men would scarce desart all at once, as it might be, onless someone was at the bottom of it.”

This was true enough, certainly, though Joel chose to keep out of view all his own machinations and arts on the subject.  The captain was struck by the suggestion, and he determined to put his first intention in respect to Nick in force immediately.  Still, it was necessary to proceed with caution, the state of the Hut rendering a proper watch and a suitable prison difficult to be obtained.  These circumstances were mentioned to the overseer, who led the way to the part of the buildings occupied by his own family; and, throwing open the doors, ostentatiously exhibited Phoebe and her children in their customary beds, at a moment when so many others had proved recreant.  His professed object was to offer a small closet in his own rooms as a prison for Nick, remarking he must be an ingenious savage indeed, if he could escape the vigilance of as many watchful eyes as would then be on him.

“I believe you, Strides,” said the captain, smiling as he walked away from the place; “if he can escape Phoebe and her children, the fellow must be made of quicksilver.  Still, I have a better prison in view.  I am glad to see this proof, however, of your own fidelity, by finding all your family in their beds; for those are not wanting who would have me suspect even you

“Me! ­Well, if the captain can’t count on his own overseer, I should like to ask such persons on whom he can count?  Madam Willoughby and the young ladies isn’t more likely to remain true than I am, myself, I should think ­What in reason, or natur’, or all lawful objects, could make me ­”

Joel was about to run into that excess of vindication that is a little apt to mark guilt; but, the captain cut him short, by telling him it was unnecessary, recommending vigilance, and walking away in search of Nick.

The Indian was found standing beneath the arch of the gateway, upright, motionless, and patient.  A lantern was kept burning here, the place being used as a sort of guard-house; and, by its light, it was easy to perceive the state of the still unhung leaf of the passage.  This leaf, however, was propped in its place, by strong timbers; and, on the whole, many persons would think it the most secure half of the gate.  Captain Willoughby observed that the Indian was studying this arrangement when he entered the place himself.  The circumstance caused him uneasiness, and quickened his determination to secure the Indian.

“Well, Nick,” he said, concealing his intention under an appearance of indifference, “you see our gates are well fastened, and steady hands and quick eyes will do the rest.  It is getting late, and I wish to have you comfortably lodged before I lie down myself.  Follow me, and I will show you to a place where you will be at your ease.”

The Tuscarora understood the captain’s object the instant he spoke of giving him comfortable lodgings, a bed being a thing that was virtually unknown to his habits.  But, he raised no objections, quietly treading in the other’s footsteps, until both were in the bed-room of the absent Mr. Woods.  The apartments of the chaplain were above the library, and, being in the part of the house that was fortified by the cliff, they had dormer windows that looked toward the forest.  The height of these windows the captain thought would be a sufficient security against flight; and by setting Mike and one of the Plinys on the look-out, to relieve each other at intervals of four hours, he thought the Tuscarora might be kept until the return of light.  The hour when he most apprehended danger was that which just precedes the day, sleep then pressing the heaviest on the sentinel’s eyelids, and rest having refreshed the assailants.

“Here, Wyandotte, I intend you shall pass the night,” said the captain, assuming as much courtesy of manner as if he were doing the honours of his house to an invited and honoured guest.  “I know you despise a bed, but there are blankets, and by spreading them on the floor, you can make your own arrangements.”

Nick made a gesture of assent, looking cautiously around him, carefully avoiding every appearance of curiosity at the same time, more in pride of character, however, than in cunning.  Nevertheless, he took in the history of the locality at a glance.

“It is well,” he said; “a Tuscarora chief no t’ink of sleep.  Sleep come standing, walking; where he will, when he will.  Dog eats, den lie down to sleep; warrior always ready.  Good bye, cap’in ­to-morrow see him ag’in.”

“Good night, Nick.  I have ordered your old friend Mike, the Irishman, to come and sit in your room, lest you might want something in the night.  You are good friends with Mike, I believe; I chose him on that account.”

The Indian understood this, too; but not an angry gleam, no smile, nor any other sign, betrayed his consciousness of the captain’s motives.

“Mike good” he answered, with emphasis.  “Long tongue ­short t’ink.  Say much; mean little.  Heart sound, like hard oak ­mind, like spunk ­burn quick, no too much strong.”

This sententious and accurate delineation of the county Leitrim-man’s characteristics induced a smile in the captain; but, O’Hearn entering at the moment, and possessing his entire confidence, he saw no use in replying.  In another minute the two worthies were left in possession of the bed-room, Michael having received a most solemn injunction not to be tempted to drink.

It was now so late, the captain determined to let the regular watches of the night take their course.  He held a short consultation with Joyce, who took the first ward, and then threw himself on a mattrass, in his clothes, his affectionate wife having done the same thing, by the side of her daughters and grandson in an adjoining room.  In a short time, the sounds of footsteps ceased in the Hut; and, one unacquainted with the real state of the household, might have fancied that the peace and security of one of its ancient midnights were reigning about the Knoll.

It was just two in the morning, when the serjeant tapped lightly at the door of his commanding officer’s room.  The touch was sufficient to bring the captain to his feet, and he instantly demanded the news.

“Nothing but sentry-go, your honour,” replied Joyce.  “I am as fresh as a regiment that is just marching out of barracks, and can easily stand the guard till daylight.  Still, as it was orders to call your honour at two, I could do no less, you know, sir.”

“Very well, serjeant ­I will just wash my eyes, and be with you in a minute.  How has the night gone?”

“Famously quiet, sir.  Not even an owl to trouble it.  The sentinels have kept their eyes wide open, dread of the scalping-knife being a good wakener, and no sign of any alarm has been seen.  I will wait for your honour, in the court, the moment of relieving guard being often chosen by a cunning enemy for the assault.”

“Yes,” sputtered the captain, his face just emerging from the water ­“if he happen to know when that is.”

In another minute, the two old soldiers were together in the court, waiting the return of Jamie Allen with his report, the mason having been sent round to the beds of the fresh men to call the guard.  It was not long, however, before the old man was seen hastening towards the spot where Joyce had bid him come.

“The Lord ha’ maircy on us, and on a’ wretched sinners!” exclaimed Jamie, as soon as near enough to be heard without raising his voice on too high a key ­“there are just the beds of the three Connecticut lads that were to come into the laird’s guard, as empty as a robin’s nest fra’ which the yang ha’ flown!”

“Do you mean, Jamie, that the boys have deserted?”

“It’s just that; and no need of ca’ing it by anither name.  The Hoose o’ Hanover wad seem to have put the de’il in a’ the lads, women and children included, and to have raised up a spirit o’ disaffection, that is fast leaving us to carry on this terrible warfare with our ain hearts and bodies.”

“With your honour’s permission,” said the serjeant, “I would ask corporal Allen if the deserters have gone off with their arms and accoutrements?”

“Airms?  Ay, and legs, and a’ belonging to ’em, with mair that is the lawfu’ property of the laird.  Not so much as a flint is left behind.”

“Then we may count on seeing all the fellows in the enemy’s ranks,” the serjeant quietly remarked, helping himself to the tobacco from which he had refrained throughout the previous hours of the night, Joyce being too much of a martinet to smoke or chew on duty.  “It’s up-hill work, your honour, when every deserter counts two, in this manner.  The civil wars, however, are remarkable for this sort of wheeling, and facing to the right-about; the same man often changing his colours two or three times in a campaign.”

Captain Willoughby received the news of this addition to his ill luck with an air of military stoicism, though he felt, in reality, more like a father and a husband on the occasion than like a hero.  Accustomed to self-command, he succeeded in concealing the extent of his uneasiness, while he immediately set about inquiring into the extent of the evil.

“Joel is to join my watch,” he said, “and he may throw some light on this affair.  Let us call him, at once, for a few minutes may prove of importance.”

Even while speaking, the captain crossed the court, accompanied by the serjeant and mason; and, ceremony being little attended to on such occasions, they all entered the quarters of Strides, in a body.  The place was empty!  Man, woman, and children had abandoned the spot, seemingly in a body; and this, too, far from empty-handed.  The manner in which the room had been stripped, indeed, was the first fact which induced the captain to believe that a man so much and so long trusted would desert him in a strait so serious.  There could be no mistake; and, for a moment, the husband and father felt such a sinking of the heart as would be apt to follow the sudden conviction that his enemies must prevail.

“Let us look further, Joyce,” he said, “and ascertain the extent of the evil at once.”

“This is a very bad example, your honour, that corporal Strides has set the men, and we may expect to hear of more desertions.  A non-commissioned officer should have had too much pride for this!  I have always remarked, sir, in the army, that when a non-commissioned officer left his colours, he was pretty certain to carry off a platoon with him.”

The search justified this opinion of the serjeant.  A complete examination of the quarters of all the men having been made, it was ascertained that every white man in the Hut, the serjeant, Jamie Allen, and a young New England labourer of the name of Blodget excepted, had abandoned the place.  Every man had carried off with him his arms and ammunition, leaving the rooms as naked of defence as they had been before they were occupied.  Women and children, too, were all gone, proving that the flights had been made deliberately, and with concert.  This left the Hut to be defended by its owner, the serjeant, the two Plinys and a young descendant of the same colour, Jamie Allen, Blodget and Mike, who had not yet been relieved from his ward over the Indian; eight men in all, who might possibly receive some assistance from the four black females in the kitchen.

The captain examined this small array of force, every man but Mike being up and in the line, with a saddened countenance; for he remembered what a different appearance it made only the previous day, when he had his gallant son too, with him, a host in himself.  It added mortification to regret, also, when he remembered that this great loss had been made without a single blow having been struck in defence of his precious family, and his lawful rights.

“We must close the gate of the court, and bar it at once, Joyce,” the captain said, as soon as fully apprised of the true state of his force.  “It will be quite sufficient if we make good the house, with this handful of men; giving up all hope of doing anything with the stockade.  It is the facility offered by the open gateway that has led to all this mischief.”

“I don’t know, your honour.  When desertion once fairly gets into a man’s mind, it’s wonderful the means he will find to bring about his wishes.  Corporal Strides, no doubt has passed his family and his kit through both gates; for, being in authority, our people were hardly disciplined enough to understand the difference between a non-commissioned officer on guard and one off guard; but, there were a hundred ways to mischief, even had there been no gate.  Jamie, take one of the blacks, and bar the inner gate.  What is your honour’s pleasure next?”

“I wish my mind were at ease on the subject of the Tuscarora.  With Nick’s assistance as a runner and spy, and even as a sharp-shooter, we should be vastly stronger.  See to the gate yourself, serjeant, then follow me to Mr. Woods’ room.”

This was done, the captain waiting for his companion on the threshold of the outer door.  Ascending the narrow stairs, they were soon on the floor above, and were happy to find the door of the Tuscarora’s prison fastened without, as they had left it; this precaution having been taken as a salutary assistance to O’Hearn’s sagacity.  Undoing these fastenings, the serjeant stepped aside to allow his superior to precede him, as became their respective stations.  The captain advanced, holding the lantern before him, and found an empty room.  Both Nick and Mike were gone, though it was not easy to discover by what means they had quitted the place.  The door was secure, the windows were down, and the chimney was too small to allow of the passage of a human body.  The defection of the Irishman caused the captain great pain, while it produced surprise even in the serjeant.  Mike’s fidelity had been thought of proof; and, for an instant, the master of the place was disposed to believe some evil spirit had been at work to corrupt his people.

“This is more than I could have expected, Joyce!” he said, as much in sorrow as in anger.  “I should have as soon looked for the desertion of old Pliny as that of Mike!”

“It is extr’or’nary, sir; but one is never safe without in-and-in discipline.  A drill a week, and that only for an hour or two of a Saturday afternoon, captain Willoughby, may make a sort of country militia, but it will do nothing for the field.  ’Talk of enlisting men for a year, serjeant Joyce,’ said old colonel Flanker to me, one day in the last war ­’why it will take a year to teach a soldier how to eat.  Your silly fellows in the provincial assemblies fancy because a man has teeth, and a stomach, and an appetite, that he knows how to eat; but eating is an art, serjeant; and military eating above all other branches of it; and I maintain a soldier can no more learn how to eat, as a soldier, the colonel meant, your honour, than he can learn to plan a campaign by going through the manual exercise.’  For my part, captain Willoughby, I have always thought it took a man his first five years’ enlistment to learn how to obey orders.”

“I had thought that Irishman’s heart in the right place, Joyce, and counted as much on him as I did on you!”

“On me, captain Willoughby!” answered the serjeant, in a tone of mortification.  “I should think your honour would have made some difference between your old orderly ­a man who had served thirty years in your own regiment, and most of the time in your own company, and a bit of a wild Hibernian of only ten years’ acquaintance, and he a man who never saw a battalion paraded for real service!”

“I see my error now, Joyce; but Michael had so much blundering honesty about him, or seemed to have, that I have been his dupe.  It is too late, however, to repine; the fellow is gone; it only remains to ascertain the manner of his flight.  May not Joel have undone the fastenings of the door, and let him and the Indian escape together, in common with the rest of the deserters?”

“I secured that door, sir, with my own hands, in a military manner, and know that it was found as I left it.  The Rev. Mr. Woods’ bed seems to have been disturbed; perhaps that may furnish a clue.”

A clue the bed did furnish, and it solved the problem.  The bed-cord was removed, and both the sheets and one of the blankets were missing.  This directed the inquiry to the windows, one of which was not closed entirely.  A chimney stood near the side of this window, and by its aid it was not difficult to reach the ridge of the roof.  On the inner side of the roof was the staging, or walk, already mentioned; and, once on that, a person could make the circuit of the entire roof, in perfect safety.  Joyce mounted to the ridge, followed by the captain, and gained the staging with a little effort, whence they proceeded round the buildings to ascertain if the rope was not yet hanging over the exterior, as a means of descent.  It was found as expected, and withdrawn lest it might be used to introduce enemies within the house.

These discoveries put the matter of Michael’s delinquency at rest.  He had clearly gone off with his prisoner, and might next be looked for in the ranks of the besiegers.  The conviction of this truth gave the captain more than uneasiness; it caused him pain, for the county Leitrim-man had been a favourite with the whole family, and most especially with his daughter Maud.

“I do not think you and the blacks will leave me, Joyce,” he observed, as the serjeant and himself descended, by the common passage, to the court.  “On you I can rely, as I would rely on my noble son, were he with me at this moment.”

“I beg your honour’s pardon ­few words tell best for a man, deeds being his duty ­but, if your honour will have the condescension just to issue your orders, the manner in which they shall be obeyed will tell the whole story.”

“I am satisfied of that, serjeant; we must put shoulder to shoulder, and die in the breach, should it be necessary, before we give up the place.”

By this time the two old soldiers were again in the court, where they found all their remaining force, of the male sex; the men being too uneasy, indeed, to think of going to their pallets, until better assured of their safety.  Captain Willoughby ordered Joyce to draw them up in line again, when he addressed them once more in person.

“My friends,” the captain commenced, “there would be little use in attempting to conceal from you our real situation; nor would it be strictly honest.  You see here every man on whom I can now depend for the defence of my fireside and family.  Mike has gone with the rest, and the Indian has escaped in his company.  You can make up your own opinions of our chances of success, but my resolution is formed.  Before I open a gate to the merciless wretches without, who are worse than the savages of the wilderness, possessing all their bad and none of their redeeming qualities, it is my determination to be buried under the ruins of this dwelling.  But you are not bound to imitate my example; and, if any man among you, black or white, regrets being here at this moment, he shall still have arms and ammunition, and food given him, the gates shall be opened and he may go freely to seek his safety in the forest.  For God’s sake let there be no more desertions; he that wishes to quit me, may now quit me unmolested; but, after this moment, martial law will be, enforced, and I shall give orders to shoot down any man detected in treachery, as I would shoot down a vicious dog.”

This address was heard in profound silence.  No man stirred, nor did any man speak.

“Blodget,” continued the captain, “you have been with me a shorter time than any other person present, and cannot feel the same attachment to me and mine as the rest.  You are the only native American among us, Joyce excepted ­for we count the blacks as nothing in respect to country ­may feel that I am an Englishman born, as I fear has been the case with the rest of your friends.  Perhaps I ought not to ask you to remain.  Take your arms, then, and make the best of your way to the settlements.  Should you reach Albany, you might even serve me essentially by delivering a letter I will confide to you, and which will bring us effectual succour.”

The young man did not answer, though his fingers worked on the barrel of his musket, and he shifted his weight, from leg to leg, like one whose inward feelings were moved.

“I believe I understand you, captain Willoughby,” he said, at length, “though I think you don’t understand me.  I know you old country people think meanly of us new country people, but I suppose that’s in the nature of things; then, I allow Joel Strides’ conduct has been such as to give you reason to judge us harshly.  But there is a difference among us, as well as among the English; and some of us ­won’t say I am such a man, but actions speak louder than words, and all will be known in the end ­but some of us will be found true to our bargains, as well as other men.”

“Bravely answered, my lad,” cried the serjeant, heartily, and looking round at his commander with exultation, to congratulate him on having such a follower ­“This is a man who will obey orders through thick and thin, I’ll answer for it, your honour.  Little does he care who’s king or who’s governor, so long as he knows his captain and his corps.”

“There you are mistaken, serjeant Joyce,” the youth observed, firmly.  “I’m for my country, and I’d quit this house in a minute, did I believe captain Willoughby meant to help the crown.  But I have lived long enough here to know he is at the most neutral; though I think he rather favours the side of the colonies than that of the crown.”

“You have judged rightly, Blodget,” observed the captain.  “I do not quite like this declaration of independence, though I can scarce blame congress for having made it.  Of the two, I think the Americans nearest right, and I now conceive myself to be more of an American than an Englishman.  I wish this to be understood, Joyce.”

“Do you, sir? ­It’s just as your honour pleases.  I didn’t know which side it was your pleasure to support, nor does it make any great difference with most of us.  Orders are orders, let them come from king or colonies.  I would take the liberty of recommending, your honour, that this young man be promoted.  Strides’ desertion has left a vacancy among the corporals, and we shall want another for the guard.  It would hardly do to make a nigger a corporal.”

“Very well, Joyce, have it as you wish,” interrupted the captain, a little impatiently; for he perceived he had a spirit to deal with in Blodget that must hold such trifles at their true value.  “Let it be corporal Allen and corporal Blodget in future.”

“Do you hear, men? ­These are general orders.  The relieved guard will fall out, and try to get a little sleep, as we shall parade again half an hour before day.”

Alas! the relieved guard, like the relief itself, consisted of only two men, corporal Blodget and Pliny the younger; old Pliny, in virtue of his household work, being rated as an idler.  These five, with the captain and the serjeant, made the number of the garrison seven, which was the whole male force that now remained.

Captain Willoughby directed Joyce and his two companions to go to their pallets, notwithstanding, assuming the charge of the look-out himself, and profiting by the occasion to make himself better acquainted with the character of his new corporal than circumstances had hitherto permitted.