Read CHAPTER XIV - SIX FIGURES IN THE DUSK of The Riflemen of the Ohio, A Story of the Early Days along "The Beautiful River", free online book, by Joseph A. Altsheler, on ReadCentral.com.

The hours moved slowly, and Henry began to believe that his grandiloquent speech ­purposely so ­had met with some success.  No attack was made, and delay was what he wanted.  The woods seemed to remain the home of peace and quiet.  Major Braithwaite had a pair of strong military glasses, and, as an additional precaution, he and Henry searched the woods with them from the upper windows of the blockhouse.  Still there was no evidence of Indian attack, and Henry turned the glasses upon the river.  He could now make out definitely the canoes, half hidden under the foliage on the far bank, but no stir was there.  All things seemed to be waiting.

Henry turned the glasses down the river.  He had a long view, but he saw only the Ohio and its yellow ripples.  He lowered the glasses with an impatient little movement and handed them back to their owner.

“Why are you disappointed?” asked Major Braithwaite.

“I was hoping that the fleet might be coming, which would be a vast help to you here, but I see no sign of its approach.  Of course it’s slow work for rowers and oarsmen to come week after week against a strong current, and they have been delayed, too, by storms.”

The news, confined hitherto to a few, spread through the fort, that a fleet might come soon to their help, and there was a wonderful revival of spirits.  People were continually climbing to the cupola of the blockhouse, and the Major’s glasses were in unbroken use.  Always they were pointed down the stream, and women’s eyes as well as men’s looked anxiously for a boat, a boat bearing white men, the vanguard of the force that would come to save them.  The sight of these women so eagerly studying the Ohio moved Henry.  He knew, perhaps better than they, that they had the most to fear, and he resolved never to desert them.

In this interval of quiet Henry went down to the little spring which was just east of the last row of houses, but a full twenty yards from the palisade.  The ground sank away abruptly there, leaving a little bluff of stone three or four feet high.  The stream, two inches deep and six inches broad, beautifully clear and almost as cold as ice, flowed from an opening at the base of the bluff.  A round pool, five or six feet across and two feet deep, had been cut in the stone at the outlet of the spring, and a gourd lay beside it for the use of all who wished to drink.

Henry drank from the pool and sat down beside it with his back against a rock.  He watched the water, as it overflowed the pool, trickle away toward the river, and then, closing his eyes, he thought of his comrades, the faithful four.  Where were they now?  He felt a powerful temptation, now that he had warned Fort Prescott, to slip away in the darkness of the night that was to come and seek them.  Three of them were wounded and Paul, who alone was unhurt, did not have the skill of the others in the forest.  But powerful as the temptation was, it was a temptation only and he put it away.  They must wait, as he himself would have been glad to wait, had it been Shif’less Sol or any other who had arrived instead of himself.

He kept his eyes shut a long while.  It seemed to him at this time that he could think more strongly and clearly with all external objects shut out.  He saw now without any flattery to self that his presence in the fort was invaluable.  Major Braithwaite did not understand forest strategy, but nature and circumstance combined had compelled the boy to learn them.  He knew, too, of the fleet of Adam Colfax and its elements, and the plans of the allied tribes and their elements.  He seemed to hold the very threads of fate in his hands, whether for good or ill.

Henry Ware opened his eyes, and chance directed that he should open them when his gaze would rest up the stream.  There was a black beam in the very center of the circle of vision, and he stared at it.  It was moving, and he rose to his feet.  He knew that the object was a boat, but it was much larger than an Indian canoe, much larger even than the great war canoes that they sometimes built, capable of carrying thirty or forty men.  It was not long, slim, and graceful, but broad of beam, and came slowly and heavily like one of the large square flatboats in which the pioneers sometimes came down the Ohio.

Henry believed this boat an object to be dreaded, and he walked swiftly toward the blockhouse, where Major Braithwaite was standing.  The Major noticed his manner and asked: 

“Is it anything alarming?”

“I am afraid so.  It’s the big boat that you see out there in the river.  Suppose we go to the top of the blockhouse and look at it through your glasses.”

The Major went without a word.  He was unconsciously relying more and more upon the boy whom he variously addressed as “Young sir” and “My young friend.”  Nor did he take the first look.  He handed the glasses to Henry, who made a long examination of the boat and then, sighing, passed them back to the Major.

Major Braithwaite’s survey was not so long and he looked puzzled when he took the glasses down.

“Now, what in the name of Neptune do you make of it, young sir?” he asked.

“It’s a flatboat that once belonged to an emigrant party,” said Henry.  “Such boats, built for long voyages and much freight, are of heavy timbers and this is no exception.  They have mounted upon it two cannon, twelve pounds at least.  I can see their muzzles and the places that have been cut away in the boat’s side to admit them.”

Major Braithwaite’s face whitened.

“Cannon here in the wilderness!” he exclaimed.

“One of our stations in Kentucky has been attacked with cannon.”

“Where do they get them?”

“They are brought all the way from Canada and they are worked by the renegades and white men from Canada.”

“This is a great danger to us.”

“It is certainly a very great danger, Major.”

Henry took another look through the glasses.  The boat, driven by great sweeps, came on in a diagonal course across the river, bearing down upon the fort.  Nobody on board it could yet be seen, so well protected were they by the high sides.  It was near enough now to be observed by everybody in the fort, and many curious eyes were turned upon it, although the people did not yet know, as Henry and the Major did, the deadly nature of its burden.

The two descended from the blockhouse.  The boat was now much nearer, still coming on, black and silent, but behind it at some distance, hovered a swarm of canoes filled with warriors.

The big boat stopped and swayed a little in the current.  There was a flash of flame from her side, a puff of smoke, and a crash that traveled far up and down the river.  A cannon ball struck inside the palisade, but buried itself harmlessly in the ground, merely sending up a shower of dirt.  There was a second flash, a second puff and crash, and another cannon ball struck near its predecessor, like the first doing no harm.

But consternation spread inside the fort.  They could reply to rifles with rifles, but how were they to defend themselves from cannon which from a safe range could batter them to pieces?

While the terrible problem was yet fresh in their minds, the attack on land was resumed.  Hundreds of the warriors issued from the woods and began to fire upon the palisade, while the cannon shot were sent at intervals from the floating fortress.

Major Braithwaite retained his courage and presence of mind.  All the women and children were told to remain within the heavy log houses, which were thick enough to turn cannon balls, and the best shots of the garrison manned the palisade, replying to the Indian fire.

Henry did not yet take much part in the combat.  He believed that the attack upon the palisade was largely in the nature of a feint, intended to keep the defenders busy while the cannon did the real work.  Not even Wyandots would storm in broad daylight walls held by good riflemen.  He soon knew that he was right, as the rifle fire remained at long range with little damage to either side, while the flatboat was steadily drawing nearer, and the cannon were beginning to do damage.  One man was killed and another wounded.  Several houses were struck, and here and there stakes in the palisade were knocked away.

Major Braithwaite, despite his courage, showed alarm.

“How can we fight those cannons?” he said.

“Who is the best marksman you have?” asked Henry.

“Seth Cole?” replied the Major promptly.

“Will you call Seth Cole?”

Seth Cole came promptly.  He was a tall, thin man, cool of eye and slow of speech.

“Are you ready to go with me anywhere, Mr. Cole?” asked Henry.

“I’m thinkin’ that what another feller kin stand I kin, too,” replied Seth.

“Then you’re ready,” said Henry, and he quickly told his plan.

Major Braithwaite was astonished.

“How in the name of Neptune do you ever expect to get back again, my young friend?” he exclaimed.

“We’ll get back,” replied the boy confidently.  “Let us slip out as quietly as we can, Major, but if you see any movement of the Indians to gain that side you might open a covering fire.”

“I’ll do it,” said the Major, “and God bless you both.”

He wrung their hands and they slipped away.

The palisade fronting the river ran along the very edge of the cliff, which rose at a sharp angle and was covered with bushes clustering thickly.  It was impossible for a formidable Indian force to approach from that side, climbing up the steep cliff, and but little attention was paid to it.

Henry and Seth Cole waited until one of the cannon was fired, hiding the flatboat in its smoke, and then they leaped lightly over the palisade, landing among the bushes, where they lay hidden.

“You’re sure that no one saw us?” said Henry.

“I’m thinkin’ that I’m shore,” replied Seth.

“Then we’ll go on down the cliff.”

Nimble and light-footed, they began the descent, clinging to rocks and bushes and sedulously keeping under cover.  Luckily the bushes remained thick, and three-fourths of the way to the bottom they stopped, Henry resting in the hollow of a rock and Seth lying easily in a clump of bushes.  They were now much nearer the flatboat, and while hidden themselves they could see easily.

Henry had uncommonly keen sight, and the eyes of the sharpshooter Seth Cole were but little inferior to his.  He now saw clearly the muzzles of the two cannon, elevated that they might pitch their balls into the fort, and he marked those who served them, renegades and men from Canada, gunners, spongers, and rammers.  He could even discern the expression upon their faces, a mingling of eagerness and savage elation.  Behind the flatboat, at a distance of fifty or sixty yards, still hovered the swarm of canoes filled with Wyandots, Shawnees, Miamis, Illinois, Ottawas, and Delawares, raising a fierce yell of joy every time a shot struck within the palisade.

“Do you think you can reach them with a bullet, Seth Cole?” asked Henry Ware.

“I’m thinkin’ I kin.”

“I’m sure I can.  See them reloading the cannon.  You take the fellow with the sponge and I’ll attend to the gunner himself.”

“I’m thinkin’ I’ll do it,” said Seth Cole.  “Jest you give the word when to pull the trigger.”

The two remained silent, each settling himself a little firmer in his position in the thick shrubbery.  The sponger ran his sponge into the muzzle of the cannon, cleaned out the barrel, and an Indian next to him, evidently trained for the purpose, handed him a fresh charge.  The gunner took aim, but he did not fire.  A bullet struck him in the heart, and he fell beside the gun.  The sponger, hit in the head, fell beside him.  Both died quietly.  The Indian, staring for a few moments, snatched up the sponge, but Henry had reloaded swiftly, and a third shot struck him down.

There was consternation on the flatboat.  The light wisps of white smoke made by the rifles of the sharpshooters were lost in the dusky cloud raised by the cannon fire, and they did not know whence these deadly bullets came.

The second cannon was ready a couple of minutes later, but, like the first, its load was not discharged at the fort.  The gunner was struck down at his gun and the rammer, hit in the shoulder, fell into the stream.  Two Indians standing near were wounded, and panic seized the warriors at the sweep.  The Ohio had seldom witnessed such sharpshooting, and Manitou was certainly turning his face away from them.  They began to use the sweeps frantically, and the boat with its cannon sheered away to escape the deadly bullets.

Henry and Seth were reloading with quickness and dispatch.

“These are good rifles of ours that carry far, and they’re still within range,” said Henry.

“I’m thinkin’ that we kin reach ’em,” said Seth.

“I’ll take the warrior near the head of the boat.”

“I’ll take the one a leetle further down.”

“Ready, Seth?”

“I’m thinkin’ I am.”

The two pulled trigger at the same time, and both warriors fell.  The boat, rocking heavily under the efforts of many hands at the sweeps, was driven furiously out of range, and Henry and Seth laughed low, but with pleased content.  This was war, and they were fighting for the lives of women and children.

“I’m thinkin’ that we’ve put ’em to guessin’ for a while,” said Seth.

“We surely have,” said Henry, “and as those cannon won’t come into action again for some time we’d better get back into the fort.”

“Yes, we had,” said Seth, “but I’m thinkin’ I’m mighty glad you brought me along.  Don’t know when I’ve enjoyed myself so much.  Curious, though, they didn’t spot us there.”

“Too much of their own cannon smoke floating about.  Anyway, we’ve beat cannon balls with rifle bullets ­that is, for the present.  See, all the canoes, too, are going back to the other side of the river.”

“Yes, an’ the firin’ on the fur side o’ the fort’s dyin’ down.  They must have seen what’s happened, and are changin’ tactics.”

The ascent of the cliff was more difficult, but they managed to make it, still keeping under cover, and scaled the palisade.  Major Braithwaite greeted them with joy and gratitude.

“I was afraid that neither of you would ever come back,” he said, “but here you are and you’ve driven off the cannon with rifles.  It was great work, in the name of Neptune, it was!”

“No work at all,” said Seth Cole, “jest play.  Enjoyed myself tremenjeously.”

The attack from the woods now ceased, as Henry reckoned it would when the cannon were driven off.  He believed that there was concerted action on land and water, and that Timmendiquas had arrived.  All the movements of the besieging force showed the mind of a general.

When the last shot was fired the Major and Henry made a tour about the fort.  Three more lives had been lost and there were wounds, some serious, but they were upborne by a second success and the courage of the garrison grew.  Several of the houses had been struck by cannon balls, but they were not damaged, and three or four small boys were already playing with a ball that they had dug from the earth.

“I wish we had cannon with which to reply to them,” said Major Braithwaite.  “Every fort in this wilderness should have at least one.  You have driven away the boat with its guns, but it will come back, and when it returns it will be on guard against your sharpshooting.”

“It will certainly come back if it has a chance,” said Henry.

There was significance in his tone, and the Major looked at him.

“If it has a chance?  What do you mean by those words?” he asked.

“We’ve got to put that boat out of action.”

“Sink it?”

“No, if we sank it they might raise it again and have the cannon ready for action again in a few hours.  We’ve got to burn the boat and then the cannon will be warped and twisted so they can’t fix it short of a foundry.”

“But we can’t get at the boat.”

“It must be done or this fort will surely be taken to-morrow.  You know what that means.”

Major Braithwaite groaned.  He had a vision of his own wife and children, but he thought of the others, too.

“How?” he asked.

Henry talked to him earnestly, but the Major shook his head.

“Too dangerous!” he said.  “You would all be lost.  I cannot sanction such an enterprise.  The fort cannot spare good men, nor could I let you go in this way to your death.”

Henry talked more earnestly.  He urged the necessity, the cruel necessity, of such an attempt, and the Major yielded at last, although with great reluctance.

“You want volunteers, I suppose?” he said.

“Yes.  I know that Seth Cole will go, and I’m sure that others, too, will be willing to do so.”

The remainder of the day passed without any demonstration from the besiegers, and Henry noticed with pleasure that the coming night promised to be dark.  Already he had selected his assistants, Seth Cole and four others, all powerful swimmers, but the enterprise was kept a secret among the six and Major Braithwaite.

He ate a hearty supper, lay down and slept a while.  When he awoke, he found that the promise of the night was fulfilled.  It was quite dark, with clouds and light flurries of rain.  There was no moon.

It was past midnight, and the Indian encampment, both on land and water, showed no sign of movement.  The woods were without camp fires, but at the far bank of the river several lights could be seen.  The river itself was in shadow.  Most of the people at the fort, exhausted by their long labors and watches, were asleep, but Henry and his five comrades gathered near the spring, carrying with them three little iron pots, carefully covered with tin tops.

“It’s a pity we haven’t two or three hand grenades,” said Major Braithwaite.  “These are rather cumbrous things.”

“I’ve heard Paul say that they used pots like these in ancient times,” said Henry, “and I guess that if they did so, we can, too.  What do you say, Seth?”

“I’m thinkin’ that we kin,” said Seth confidently.  “Leastways, I’m thinkin’ that we’re ready to try.”

“That is surely the right spirit,” said Major Braithwaite, with a little tremor in his voice.  “You lads are about to embark upon a desperate undertaking.  I would not say that the chances are against you, if you did not know it already, but there is nothing truer than the fact that fortune favors those who dare much.  I pray that all of you may come back.”

He shook hands with them all, and stood by the palisade as, one by one, they climbed over it and dropped into the dark.

Henry and his five comrades on the outside of the palisade remained for a little space crouched against the wooden wall.  All six searched the thickets on the slope with eye and ear, but they could neither see nor hear anything that betokened the presence of an enemy.  It was not likely that Indian scouts would be lying in such a place, practically hanging to the side of the cliff between the palisade and the river, but Henry was not willing to neglect any precaution.  The slightest mischance would ruin all.  He gave silent but devout thanks that this night of all nights should prove to be so dark.

It was a singular file that made its way down the cliff through the thick brush, six dusky figures carrying rifles, and three of them, in addition, gingerly bearing small iron pots.  When nearly to the bottom of the cliff their singularity increased.  They stopped in a little alcove of the rocks, hid their rifles and ammunition among the bushes, took off every particle of clothing, all of which they hid, also, except their belts.

They buckled the belts tightly around their bare waists, but every belt carried in it a tomahawk and hunting knife.  They still bore the three little iron pots which they handled so gingerly.

Six white figures slipped through the remaining bushes, six white figures reached the edge of the river, and then all six slid silently into the water, which received them and enveloped them to the chin.  Henry, Seth Cole, and a man named Tom Wilmore bore the three iron pots above their heads, swimming with a single hand.