Read CHAPTER XXX of The Watchers of the Plains A Tale of the Western Prairies , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

THE LAST STAND

Sunrise brought the alarm. The call to arms came in the midst of breakfast. But it came to men who were discussing possibilities with smiling faces, and to women who were no longer held silent by the dread of the last few days. For all had shared in Seth’s news. And if ever words were graven on the hearts of human beings, Seth’s announcement, “Troops are comin’ from the north,” would most certainly have been found inscribed on the hearts of the defenders of White River Farm.

The attack began as the sun cleared the horizon, and continued all day. Like the first few raindrops of a storm-shower the enemy’s bullets hissed through the air or spattered upon the buildings. Their long-range firing did little harm, for Indians are notoriously bad marksmen.

The sun mounted; the hours crept by. The attack was general, and each minute diminished the enveloping circle. The Indians had learned many lessons during the past six days, and not the least of them the utter folly of recklessness. Now they crawled upon their bellies through the grass, offering the smallest possible target to the keen-eyed garrison. But even so their death-roll was enormous. The plainsmen held them at their mercy, and it was only their vast numbers that gave them headway. Death had no terrors for them. As each man drooped his head upon the earth another was there to take his place; and so the advance was maintained.

Noon drew near; the ever-narrowing circle was close upon the farm.

There was no sound of voices, only the sharp cracking of rifles, or the ping of bullets whistling through the air as the Indians returned the biting fire of their intended victims. It was a life and death struggle against time, and both besieged and besiegers knew it.

Seth watched with quiet eyes but with mind no less anxious that he did not show it. He had no fixed station like the others. He moved here, there, and everywhere watching, watching, and encouraging with a quiet word, or lending his aid with a shot wherever pressure seemed to be greatest.

Noon passed. The whole plain was now alive with the slowly creeping foe stealing upon the doomed fort. The head of the advance was within three hundred yards of the stockade.

Parker was at Seth’s side. Both were aiming at a party of young braves, endeavoring to outstrip their fellows by a series of short rushes. For some moments they silently picked them off, like men breaking pipes in a shooting gallery. The last had just fallen.

“It’s red-hot this time,” observed the Agent, turning his attention in a fresh direction. “We’ll be lucky if we hold out until to-night.” He was blackened with perspiration and dust. He wore three bandoliers bristling with ammunition over a torn and stained shirt.

“Guess so,” Seth replied. “This ‘ll last another two hours, I’m figgerin’, then we’ll git busy.”

A fresh rush had started and the two rifles were kept at work. The Indians fell like ninepins, but there were always more to come on.

Hargreaves joined them a moment. He, too, was terribly war-worn. He still wore his clerical stock, but it had lost all semblance to its original shape.

“They’re rushing us everywhere, Seth,” he said.

Seth replied while he aimed at another daring warrior.

“I know,” he said, and fired.

Hargreaves went back to his post. There must be no waste of time. This gentle pastor had little of gentleness about him now. A good Christian in every way, he still had no thought of turning the other cheek when women were in peril.

By three o’clock in the afternoon the rush became general. The defenders had no time even to keep their rifles cool. A steady fire was kept up, and the Indians were picked off like flies. But the gaps were filled by men beyond all description in their recklessness. Nothing could stem the tide. They drew nearer and nearer like the waters of an oncoming sea. The end was looming. It was very near.

Suddenly, in response to an order from Seth, some of the women left the shelter of the house and followed him. A few minutes later the well was working, and a chain of buckets was passing up to the roof of the house. A process of saturation was put into operation. The thatch was soaked until the water ran through the ceilings.

While this was going on a cry came from the northern extremity. The first Indian had reached the stockade and paid the penalty of his temerity.

Now orders, swift and sharp, passed from lip to lip. Seth was everywhere. The battle would be in full swing in a minute.

Suddenly Rube and Nevil appeared from a small outhouse rolling two large barrels. These were stood on end and the heads knocked out of them. The pails used for water were requisitioned; a fresh saturation went forward; this time it was the log stockade, and the saturation was being performed with coal-oil.

The sun was already dropping over the western horizon when a party of the enemy, in face of the fiercest fire, reached the defences. It was the moment Seth had awaited. From the stockade he called out a sharp order to the women in the upper parts of the house, and the loyal creatures, distracted with the nervous tension of inaction, poured out a deadly volley.

The terrible bombardment of short range weapons had instant effect. The enemy fell back under the withering hail. Headed by Seth a dozen men mounted the ramparts, and the next instant the vast corral formed a circle of leaping flame in the faces of the besiegers. The coal-oil had done its work, and the resinous pine logs yielded to the demands of those who needed their service.

The defence was consummate. For the great walls were sufficiently far from the buildings to render life possible within the fiery circle.

Baffled and furious, the Indians fell back before a foe they were powerless to combat. At a respectful distance they watched the conflagration with wonder. The magical abruptness of it filled them for a moment with superstitious awe. But this phase did not last long.

The gates were the weak spot, and they quickly burnt through. In half an hour they crashed from their hinges, and the lynx-eyed foe beheld the breach thus open before them. They charged to the assault, while inside the defenders stood ready for them just beyond the range of the fierce heat.

Now was given an example of that strange, fanatical courage for which the red man is so famous. To pass the breach was like passing through a living furnace, for the fire was raging at its full height upon each side. There was no hesitation, no shrinking.

Those nearest it charged the opening, and as they came were mowed down by the rifles waiting for them. Again and again was the gateway besieged, and the roasting human flesh sent up a nauseous reek upon the smoke-laden air. Nothing could exceed the insensate fearlessness of these benighted creatures, nothing the awful slaughter which the white defenders dealt out.

But the superior intelligence and skill of the white men served them for only a time against the daring horde. Dozens rushed to the sacrifice, but ever there were more behind asking for the death of their comrades. And inch by inch they drove through the opening to within striking distance. They had abandoned their firearms, and, with hatchet and tomahawk, their natural close-quarter weapons, the final struggle began.

All that had gone before was as nothing to the fight that waxed now. The howling mob were within the defences, and there was only one possible outcome. The position was one of those when the true spirit of the frontiersman is at its highest and grandest pitch.

Gradually the riflemen on each flank dropped back before the raging mob.

The rank, of which Rube was the centre, stood. Here was no rifle practice. Revolvers were at work with the rapidity of maxim guns. As they were emptied, they were passed back and reloaded by the women. But even this was inadequate to hold the mob.

Suddenly Rube, prompted by that feeling which is in the heart of every man of mighty muscle, abandoned his revolver, and, clubbing his rifle, reverted to the methods of the old savage. He swung it around his head like a flail, and crashed it amongst those directly in front of him. And his action became an example for the rest. Every rifle was clubbed, and by sheer might, and desperate exertion, the defenders cleared a space before them. The great Rube advanced, his rugged face fiercely alight. He could no longer wait for attack; he went to meet it, his giant form towering amidst the crowd, and the rest following.

The scene was one never to be forgotten. He hewed a road for himself through the living crush, his rifle butt crashing amongst heads recklessly, indiscriminately, but urged with all the might of his giant strength. Seth and the Agent, and Nevil and the minister were his chief supporters. And there was a light in the cleric’s eyes, such as had never been seen there before by any of his flock, and a devilish joy in his heart as he felt the concussion of his blows upon heads that crushed beneath them.

Back they drove the howling throng, back toward the fiery gateway. It literally crumpled before their furious attack. But as the warriors fell back the progress of the white men slowed and finally ceased altogether, for the masses beyond were pressing, and so packed were the savages that they could not retreat.

Darkness was settling over the land. The Indians rallied as the first fury of the white men’s onslaught spent itself. The red men, stern fighters at all times, were quick to seize upon the advantage. And their counter was no less furious than the defenders’ assault had been. Step by step, with hatchets gleaming in the yellow light, they regained their lost ground.

Slowly the white men were beaten back; all but Rube, whose fury was unabated. He had cleared a space for himself, from which the fiercest efforts of the enemy could not dislodge him.

Shouting to those behind to care for the women, Seth sprang to the old man’s side, and, setting his back to his, stood to help him. Retreat was cut off, but, all unconcerned for everything, like a maddened bull, Rube sought only to slay, to crush, to add to the tally of the dying and dead.

How the last moments of that terrible final stand were passed, Seth could never have told. His long illness was telling on him. His weakness affected him sorely. All he was aware of were his companion’s mighty blows, and the fury that was driving him. That, and the necessity to defend him on his unprotected side. He fought as he could. No skill guided him. Now, at last, he had no cunning, and he was hazily conscious of his ineffectiveness.

Once he was forced to his knees by the blow of a hatchet, which, glancing down his clubbed rifle, took him in the neck with its flat. It was at that moment that his senses became aware of a distant bugle call. He scarcely recognized it, and, certainly, at the moment, it brought him no understanding.

Instinctively he struggled to his feet and fought on. Curiously enough, a moment later, his dulled senses made him aware of a shudder passing over his companion’s frame. He knew that Rube staggered, just as he was made aware that he recovered, and, with a sudden access of fury, renewed the fight. He knew that his friend had been badly hit, and was putting forth his last reserve of strength.

In the midst of this last struggle he heard the bugle again, but this time it was louder. Its note rose high above the noise of battle, the roar of the flames. But even so, he did not take its meaning until he heard a mighty cheer go up from his comrades within the defences.

He roused; a great joy thrilled him. His head suddenly became clear, and his weakness passed from him like the lifting of some depressing cloud. He found himself able to put forth a last exertion, and at this juncture he was somehow standing at Rube’s side, instead of at his back.

Of one accord, and without a word, they charged the howling mob. They smote with their heavy rifles in every direction, shouting as they went, driving all before them. A mighty triumph was in Seth’s heart; he had no room for anything else, no thought for anything else. Even he was blinded to the old man’s condition. It was not until he was joined by the rest of the defenders, and the Indians were wildly struggling over one another to escape through the still blazing gateway, and the old man fell like a log at his side in the midst of the pursuit, that he realized what had happened. Rube was bleeding from a gaping wound at the base of his neck.

Just for one instant he saw the gateway fill with uniformed horsemen, then Seth fell on his knees at his foster-father’s side.

There was no attempt to pursue the Indians. Weary and exhausted the little garrison gathered mutely round the fallen man. Ma was at Seth’s side. She had raised her husband’s head, and her old gray eyes were peering tenderly anxious into his. While she was still supporting him, some one pushed a way to her side. One bare white arm was thrust through hers, and a hand was gently laid on the old man’s rugged forehead. Ma turned inquiringly upon the intruder, and found herself staring into a pair of tearful, violet eyes.

“Rosebud!” she cried. And instantly the tears slowly rolled down her worn cheeks, the first tears, she had shed during that last terrible week.