Read CHAPTER XV of Nick of the Woods, free online book, by Robert M. Bird, on ReadCentral.com.

The enemy, twice repulsed, and on both occasions with severe loss, had been taught the folly of exposing themselves too freely to the fire of the travellers; but although driven back, they manifested little inclination to fly further than was necessary to obtain shelter, and as little to give over their fierce purposes. Concealing themselves severally behind logs, rocks, and bushes, and so disposing their force as to form a line around the ruin, open only towards the river, where escape was obviously impracticable, they employed themselves keeping a strict watch upon the hovel, firing repeated volleys, and as often uttering yells, with which they sought to strike terror into the hearts of the besieged. Occasionally some single warrior, bolder than the rest, would creep near the ruins, and obtaining such shelter as he could, discharge his piece at any mouldering beam, or other object, which his fancy converted into the exposed body of a defender. But the travellers had taken good care to establish themselves in such positions among the ruins as offered the best protection; and although the bullets whistled sharp and nigh, not a single one had yet received a wound; nor was there much reason to apprehend injury so long as the darkness of night befriended them.

Yet it was obvious to all that this state of security could not last long, and that it existed only because the enemy was not yet aware of his advantage. The condition of the ruins was such that a dozen men of sufficient spirit, dividing themselves, and creeping along the earth, might at any moment make their way to any and every part of the hovel without being seen, when a single rush must put it in their power. An open assault indeed from the whole body of besiegers, whose number was reckoned by Nathan at full fifteen or twenty, must have produced the same success, though with the loss of several lives. A random shot might at any moment destroy or disable one of the little garrison, and thus rob one important corner of the hovel, which, from its dilapidated state was wholly indefensible from within of defence. It was indeed, as Roland felt, more than folly to hope that all should escape unharmed for many hours longer. But the worst fear of all was that previously suggested by Nathan: all might survive the perils of the night; but what fate was to be expected when the coming of day should expose the party, in all its true weakness, to the eyes of the enemy? If relief came not before morning, Roland’s heart whispered him, it must come in vain. But the probabilities of relief, what were they? The question was asked of Nathan, and the answer went like iron through Roland’s soul. They were in the deepest and most solitary part of the forest, twelve miles from Bruce’s Station, and at least eight from that at which the emigrants were to lodge; with no other places within twice the distance, from which help could be obtained. They had left, three or four miles behind, the main and only road on which volunteers, summoned from the Western Stations to repel the invasion, of which the news had arrived before Roland’s departure from Bruce’s village, could be expected to pass; if indeed the strong force of the enemy posted at the Upper Ford had not cut off all communication between the two districts. From Bruce’s Station little or no assistance could be hoped, the entire strength of its garrison, as Roland well knew, having long since departed to share in the struggle on the north side of Kentucky. Assistance could be looked for only from his late companions, the emigrants, from whom he had parted in an evil hour. But how were they to be made acquainted with his situation?

The discussion of these questions almost distracted the young man. Help could only come from themselves. Would it not be possible to cut their way through the besiegers? He proposed a thousand wild schemes of escape; now he would mount his trusty steed, and dashing among the enemy, receive their fire, distract their attention, and perhaps draw them in pursuit, while Nathan and the others galloped off with the women in another quarter; and again, he would plunge with them into the boiling torrent below, trusting to the strength of the horses to carry them through in safety.

To these and other frantic proposals, uttered in the intervals of combat, which was still maintained, with occasional demonstrations on the part of the enemy of advancing to a third assault, Nathan replied only by representing the certain death they would bring upon all, especially “the poor helpless women,” whose condition, with the reflection that he had brought them into it, seemed ever to dwell upon his mind, producing feelings of remorseful excitement not inferior even to the compunctions which he expressed at every shot discharged by him at the foe. Indeed his conscience seemed sorely distressed and perplexed; now he upbraided himself with being the murderer of the two poor women, and now of his Shawnee fellow-creatures; now he wrung the soldier by the hand, begging him to bear witness that he was shedding blood, not out of malice or wantonness, or even self-defence, but purely to save the innocent scalps of poor women, whose blood would be otherwise on his head; and now beseeching the young man with equal fervour to let the world know of his doings, that the blame might fall, not upon the faith of which he was an unworthy professor, but upon him, the evil-doer and backslider. But with all his remorse and contrition, he manifested no inclination to give over the work of fighting; but, on the contrary, fired away with extreme good-will at every evil Shawnee creature that showed himself, encouraging Roland to do the same, and exhibiting throughout the whole contest the most exemplary courage and good conduct.

But courage and good conduct, although so unexpectedly manifested in the time of need by all his companions, Roland felt could only serve to defer for a few hours the fate of his party. The night wore away fast, the assailants grew bolder; and from the louder yells and more frequent shots coming from them, it seemed as if their numbers, instead of diminishing under his own fire, were gradually increasing by the dropping in of their scouts from the forest. At the same time, he became sensible that his stores of ammunition were fast decreasing.

“Friend,” said Nathan, wringing the soldier’s hand for the twentieth time, when made acquainted with the deficiency, “it is written, that thee women shall be murdered before thee eyes! Nevertheless I will do my best to save them. Friend, I must leave thee! Thee shall have assistance. Can thee hold out the hovel till morning? But it is foolish to ask thee: thee must hold it out, and with none save the coloured person and the man Dodge to help thee; for I say to thee, it has come to this at last, as I thought it would: I must break through the lines of thee Injun foes, and find thee assistance.”

“It is impossible,” said Roland in despair; “you will only provoke your destruction.”

“It may be, friend, as thee says,” responded Nathan; “nevertheless, friend, for thee women’s sake, I will adventure it; for it is I, miserable sinner that I am, that have brought them to this pass, and that must bring them out of it again, if man can do it.”

At a moment of less grief and desperation, Roland would have better appreciated the magnitude of the service which Nathan thus offered to attempt, and even hesitated to permit what must have manifestly seemed the throwing away of a human life. But the emergency was too great to allow the operation of any but selfish feelings. The existence of his companions, the life of his Edith, depended upon procuring relief, and this could be obtained in no other way. If the undertaking was dangerous in the extreme, he saw it with the eyes of a soldier as well as a lover: it was a feat he would himself have dared without hesitation, could it have promised, in his hands, any relief to his followers.

“Go, then, and God be with you,” he muttered, eagerly “you have our lives in your hand. But it will be long, long before you can reach the band on foot. Yet do not weary or pause by the way. I have but little wealth; but with what I have I will reward you.”

“Friend,” said Nathan proudly, “what I do I do for no lucre of reward, but for pity of thee poor women; for truly I have seen the murdering and scalping of poor women before, and the seeing of the same has left blood upon my head, which is a mournful thing to think of.”

“Well, be not offended: do what you can our lives may rest on a single minute.”

“I will do what I can, friend,” replied Nathan; “and if I can but pass safely through thee foes, there is scarce a horse in thee company, were it even thee war-horse, that shall run to thee friends more fleetly. But, friend, do thee hold out the house: use thee powder charily; keep up the spirits of thee two men, and be of good heart theeself, fighting valiantly, and slaying according to thee conscience; and then, friend, if it be Heaven’s will, I will return to thee, and help thee out of thee troubles.”

With these words, Nathan turned from the soldier, setting out upon his dangerous duty with a courage and self-devotion of which Roland did not yet know all the merit. He threw himself upon the earth, and muttering to little Peter, “Now, Peter, as thee ever served thee master well and truly, serve him well and truly now,” began to glide away amongst the ruins, making his way from log to log, and bush to bush, close behind the animal, who seemed to determine the period and direction of every movement. His course was down the river, the opposite of that by which the party had reached the ruin, in which quarter the woods were highest, and promised the most accessible, as well as the best shelter; though that could be reached only in the event of his successfully avoiding the different barbarians hidden among the bushes on its border. He soon vanished, with his dog, from the eyes of the soldier; who now, in pursuance of instructions previously given him by Nathan, caused his two followers to let fly a volley among the trees, which had the expected effect of drawing another in return from the foes, accompanied by their loudest whoops of menace and defiance. In this manner Nathan, as he drew nigh the wood, was enabled to form correct opinions as to the different positions of the besiegers, and to select that point in the line which seemed the weakest; while the attention of the foe was in a measure drawn off, so as to give him the better opportunity of advancing on them unobserved. With this object in view, a second and third volley were fired by the little garrison; after which they ceased making such feints of hostility, and left him, as he had directed, to his fate.

It was then that, with a beating heart, Roland awaited the event; and as he began to figure to his imagination the perils which Nathan must necessarily encounter in the undertaking, he listened for the shout of triumph that he feared would, each moment, proclaim the capture or death of his messenger. But he listened in vain, at least, in vain for such sounds as his skill might interpret into evidences of Nathan’s fate: he heard nothing but the occasional crack of a rifle aimed at the ruin, with the yell of the savage that fired it, the rush of the breeze, the rumbling of the thunder, and the deep-toned echoes from the river below. There was nothing whatever occurred, at least for a quarter of an hour, by which he might judge what was the issue of the enterprise; and he was beginning to indulge the hope that Nathan had passed safely through the besiegers, when a sudden yell of a peculiarly wild and thrilling character was uttered in the wood in the quarter in which Nathan had fled; and this, exciting, as it seemed to do, a prodigious sensation among his foes, filled him with anxiety and dread. To his ears the shout expressed fury and exultation such as might well be felt at the sudden discovery and capture of the luckless messenger; and his fear that such had been the end of Nathan’s undertaking was greatly increased by what followed. The shots and whoops suddenly ceased, and, for ten minutes or more, all was silent, save the roar of the river, and the whispering of the fitful breeze. “They have taken him alive, poor wretch!” muttered the soldier, “and now they are forcing from him a confession of our weakness!”

It seemed as if there might be some foundation for the suspicion; for presently a great shout burst from the enemy, and the next moment a rush was made against the ruin as if by the whole force of the enemy. “Fire!” shouted Roland to his companions: “if we must die, let it be like men;” and no sooner did he behold the dark figures of the assailants leaping among the ruins, than he discharged his rifle and a pair of pistols which he had reserved in his own hands, the other pair having been divided between Dodge and the negro, who used them with equal resolution, and with an effect that Roland had not anticipated; the assailants, apparently daunted by the weight of the volley, seven pieces having been discharged in rapid succession, instantly beat a retreat, resuming their former positions. From these, however, they now maintained an almost incessant fire; and by and by several of them, stealing cautiously up, effected a lodgment in a distant part of the ruins, whence, without betraying any especial desire to come to closer quarters, they began to carry on the war in a manner that greatly increased Roland’s alarm, their bullets flying about and into the hovel so thickly that he became afraid lest some of them should reach its hapless inhabitants. He was already debating within himself the propriety of transferring Edith and her companion from this ruinous and now dangerous abode to the ravine, where they might be sheltered from all danger, at least for a time, when a bolt of lightning, as he at first thought it, shot from the nearest group of foes, flashed over his head, and striking what remained of the roof, stood trembling in it, an arrow of blazing fire. The appearance of this missile, followed, as it immediately was, by several others discharged from the same tow, confirmed the soldier’s resolution to remove the females, while it greatly increased his anxiety; for although there was little fear that the flames could be communicated from the arrows to the roof so deeply saturated by the late rains, yet each, while burning, served, like a flambeau, to illuminate the ruins below, and must be expected before long to reveal the helplessness of the party, and to light the besiegers to their prey.

With such fears on his mind, he hesitated no longer to remove his cousin and her companion to the ravine; which was effected with but little risk or difficulty, the ravine heading, as was mentioned before, under the floor of the hovel itself, and its borders being so strewn with broken timbers and planks, as to screen the party from observation. He concealed them both among the rocks and brambles with which the hollow abounded, listened a moment to the rush of the flood as it swept the precipitous bank, and the roar with which it seemed struggling among rocky obstructions above, and smiling with the grim thought, that, when resistance was no longer availing, there was yet a refuge for his kinswoman within the dark bosom of those troubled waters, to which he felt, with the stern resolution of a Roman father rather than of a Christian lover, that he could, when nothing else remained, consign her with his own hands, he returned to the ruins, to keep up the appearance of still defending it, and to preserve the entrance of the ravine.