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

The flaming arrows were still shot in vain at the water-soaked roof, and the combustibles with which they were armed, burning out very rapidly, produced hut little of that effect in illuminating the ruins which Roland had apprehended, and for which they had been perhaps in part designed; and, in consequence, the savages soon ceased to shoot them. A more useful ally to the besiegers was promised in the moon, which was now rising over the woods, and occasionally revealing her wan and wasted crescent through gaps in the clouds. Waning in her last quarter, and struggling amid banks of vapour, she yet retained sufficient, magnitude and lustre, when risen a few more degrees, to dispel the almost sepulchral darkness that had hitherto invested the ruins, and thus proved a more effectual protection to the travellers than their own courage. Of this Roland was well aware; and he watched the increasing light with sullen and gloomy forebodings; though still exhorting his two supporters to hope and courage, and setting them a constant example of vigilance and resolution. But neither hope nor courage, neither vigilance nor resolution, availed to deprive the foe of the advantage he had gained in effecting a lodgment among the ruins, where four or five different warriors still maintained a hot fire upon the hovel, doing, of course, little harm, as it was entirely deserted, but threatening mischief enough, when it should fall into their hands, a catastrophe that was deferred only in consequence of the extreme cautiousness with which they now conducted hostilities, the travellers making only a show of defending it, though sensible that it almost entirely commanded the ravine.

It was now more than an hour and a half since Nathan had departed, and Roland was beginning himself to feel the hope he encouraged in the others, that the man of peace had actually succeeded in effecting his escape, and that the wild whoop which he at first esteemed the evidence of his capture or death, and the assault that followed it, had been caused by some circumstance having no relation to Nathan whatever, perhaps by the arrival of a reinforcement, whose coming had infused new spirit into the breasts of the so long baffled assailants. “If he have escaped,” he muttered, “he must already be near the camp: a strong man and fleet runner might reach it in an hour. In another hour, nay, perhaps in half an hour, for there are good horses and bold hearts in the band, I shall hear the rattle of their hoofs in the wood, and the yells of these cursed bandits, scattered like dust under their footsteps. If I can but hold the ravine for an hour! Thank Heaven, the moon is a second time lost in clouds, the thunder is again rolling through the sky! A tempest now were better than gales of Araby, a thunder-gust were our salvation.”

The wishes of the soldier seemed about, to be fulfilled. The clouds, which for half an hour had been breaking up, again gathered, producing thicker darkness than before; and heavy peals of thunder, heralded by pale sheets of lightning that threw a ghastly but insufficient light over objects, were again heard rattling at a distance over the woods. The fire of the savages began to slacken, and by and by entirely ceased. They waited perhaps for the moment when the increasing glare of the lightning should enable them better to distinguish between the broken timbers, the objects of so many wasted volleys, and the crouching bodies of the defenders.

The soldier took advantage of this moment of tranquillity to descend to the river to quench his thirst, and to bear back some of the liquid element to his fainting followers. While engaged in this duty he cast his eyes upon the scene, surveying with sullen interest the flood that cut off his escape from the fatal hovel. The mouth of the ravine was wide and scattered over with rocks and bushes, that even projected for some little space into the water, the latter vibrating up and down in a manner that proved the strength and irregularity of the current. The river was here bounded by frowning cliffs, from which, a furlong or two above, had fallen huge blocks of stone that greatly contracted its narrow channel; and among these the swollen waters surged and foamed with the greatest violence, producing that hollow roar, which was so much in keeping with the solitude of the ruin, and so proper an accompaniment to the growling thunder and the wild yells of the warriors. Below these massive obstructions, and opposite the mouth of the ravine, the channel had expanded into a pool; in which the waters might have regained their tranquillity and rolled along in peace, but for the presence of an island, which, growing up in the centre of the expanse, consolidated by the roots of a thousand willows and other trees that delight in such humid soils, and, in times of flood, covered by a raft of drift timber entangled among its trees, presented a barrier, on either side of which the current swept with speed and fury, though, as it seemed, entirely unopposed by rocks. In such a current, as Roland thought, there was nothing unusually formidable; a daring swimmer might easily make his way to the island opposite, where, if difficulties were presented by the second channel, he might as easily find shelter from enemies firing on him from the banks. He gazed again on the island, which, viewed in the gloom, revealed to his eyes only a mass of shadowy boughs, resting in peace and security. His heart beat high with hope, and he was beginning to debate the chances of success in an attempt to swim his party across the channel on the horses, when a flash of lightning, brighter than usual, disclosed the fancied island a cluster of shaking tree-tops, whose trunks as well as the soil that supported them, were buried fathoms deep in the flood. At the same moment, he heard coming on a gust that repelled and deadened for a time the louder tumult from the rocks above, other roaring sounds, indicating the existence of other rocky obstructions at the foot of the island, among which as he could now see, the same flash having shown him the strength of the current in the centre of the channel, the swimmer must be dashed, who failed to find footing on the island.

“We are imprisoned, indeed,” he muttered, bitterly: “Heaven itself has deserted us.”

As he uttered these repining words, stooping to dip the canteen with which he was provided, in the water, a little canoe, darting forward with a velocity that seemed produced by the combined strength of the current and the rower, shot suddenly among the rocks and bushes at the entrance of the ravine, wedging itself fast among them, and a human figure leaped from it to the shore. The soldier started back aghast, as if from a dweller of another world; but recovering his courage in an instant, and not doubting that he beheld in the unexpected visitor a Shawnee and foe, who had thus found means of assailing his party on the rear, he rushed upon the stranger with drawn sword, for he had laid his rifle aside, and taking him at a disadvantage, while stooping to drag the boat further ashore, he smote him such a blow over the head, as brought him instantly to the ground, a dead man to all appearance, since, while his body fell upon the earth, his head, or at least a goodly portion of it, sliced away by the blow, went skimming into the water.

“Die, dog!” said Roland, as he struck the blow; and not content with that, he clapped his foot on the victim’s breast, to give him the coup-de-grace when, wonder of wonders, the supposed Shawnee and dead man opened his lips, and cried aloud, in good choice Salt-River English, “’Tarnal death to you, white man! what are you after?”

It was the voice, the never-to-be-forgotten voice, of the captain of horse-thieves; and as Roland’s sword dropped from his hand in the surprise, up rose Roaring Ralph himself, his eyes rolling, as Roland saw by a second flash of lightning, with thrice their usual obliquity, his left hand scratching among the locks of hair exposed by the blow of the sabre, which had carried off a huge slice of his hat, without doing other mischief, while his right brandished a rifle, which he handled as if about to repay the favour with interest. But the same flash that revealed his visage to the astonished soldier, disclosed also Roland’s features to him, and he fairly yelled with joy at the sight. “’Tarnal death to me!” he roared, first leaping into the air and cracking’ his heels together, then snatching at Roland’s hand, which he clutched and twisted with the gripe of a bear, and then cracking his heels together again, “’tarnal death to me, sodger, but I know’d it war you war in a squabblification! I heard the cracking and the squeaking; “‘Tarnal death to me!’ says I, ‘thar’s Injuns!’ And then I thought, and says I, ’"Tarnal death to me, who are they after?’ and then, ’tarnal death to me, it came over me like a strick of lightning, and says I, ’Tarnal death to me, but its anngelliferous madam that helped me out of the halter!’ Strannger!” he roared, executing another demivolte, “h’yar am I, come to do anngelliferous madam’s fighting ag’in all critturs human and inhuman, Christian and Injun, white, red, black, and party-coloured. Show me anngelliferous madam, and then show me the abbregynes; and if you ever seed fighting, ’tarnal death to me, but you’ll say it war only the squabbling of seed-ticks and blue-bottle flies! I say, sodger, show me anngelliferous madam: you cut the halter, and you cut the tug; but it war madam the anngel that set you on: wharfo’, I’m her dog and her niggur from now to etarnity, and I’m come to fight for her, and lick her enemies till you shall see nothing left of ’em but ha’rs and nails!”

Of these expressions, uttered with extreme volubility and the most extravagant gestures, Roland took no notice; his astonishment at the horse-thief’s appearance was giving way to new thoughts and hopes, and he eagerly demanded of Ralph how he had got there.

“In the dug-out," said Ralph; “found her floating among the bushes, ax’d me out a flopper with my tom-axe in no time, jumped in, thought of anngelliferous madam, and came down the falls like a cob in a corn-van ar’n’t I the leaping trout of the waters? Strannger, I don’t want to sw’ar; but I reckon if there ar’n’t hell up thar among the big stones, thar’s hell no other whar all about Salt River! But I say, sodger, I came here not to talk nor cavort, but to show that I’m the man, Ralph Stackpole, to die dog for them that pats me. So, whar’s anngelliferous madam? Let me see her, sodger, that I may feel wolfish when I jumps among the redskins; for I’m all for a fight, and thar ar’n’t no run in me.”

“It is well, indeed, if it shall prove so,” said Roland, not without bitterness; “for it is to you alone we owe all our misfortunes.”

With these words, he led the way to the place, where, among the horses, concealed among brambles and stones, lay the unfortunate females, cowering on the bare earth. The pale sheets of lightning, flashing now with greater frequency, revealed them to Ralph’s eyes, a ghastly and melancholy pair, whose situation and appearance were well fitted to move the feelings of a manly bosom; Edith lying almost insensible across Telie’s knees, while the latter, weeping bitterly, yet seemed striving to forget her own distresses, while ministering to those of her companion.

“’Tarnal death to me!” cried Stackpole, looking upon Edith’s pallid visage and rayless eyes with more emotion than would have been expected from his rude character, or than was expressed in his uncouth phrases, “if that don’t make me eat a niggur, may I be tetotaciously chawed up myself! Oh, you anngelliferous madam! jist look up and say the word, for I’m now ready to mount a wild-cat: jist look up, and don’t make a die of it, for thar’s no occasion: for ar’n’t I your niggur-slave, Ralph Stackpole? and ar’n’t I come to lick all that’s agin you, Mingo, Shawnee, Delaware, and all! Oh, you anngelliferous crittur! don’t swound away, but look up, and see how I’ll wallop ’em!”

And here the worthy horse-thief, seeing that his exhortations produced no effect upon the apparently dying Edith, dropped upon his knees, and began to blubber and lament over her, as if overcome by his feelings, promising her a world of Indian scalps, and a whole Salt River full of Shawnee blood, if she would only look up and see how he went about it.

“Show your gratitude by actions, not by words,” said Roland, who, whatever his cause for disliking the zealous Ralph, was not unrejoiced at his presence, as that of a valuable auxiliary: “rise up, and tell me, in the name of heaven, how you succeeded in reaching this place, and what hope there is of leaving it?”

But Ralph was too much afflicted by the wretched condition of Edith, whom his gratitude for the life she had bestowed had made the mistress paramount of his soul, to give much heed to any one but herself; and it was only by dint of hard questioning that Roland drew from him, little by little, an account of the causes which had kept him in the vicinity of the travellers, and finally brought him to the scene of combat.

It had been, it appeared, an eventful and unlucky day with the horse-thief, as well as the soldier. Aside from his adventure on the beech-tree, enough in all truth to mark the day for him with a black stone, he had been peculiarly unfortunate with the horses to which he had so unceremoniously helped himself. The gallant Briareus, after sundry trials of strength with his new master, had at last succeeded in throwing him from his back; and the two-year-old pony, after obeying him the whole day with the docility of a dog, even when the halter was round his neck, and carrying him in safety until within a few miles of Jackson’s Station, had attempted the same exploit, and succeeded, galloping off on the back track towards his home. This second loss was the more intolerable, since Stackpole, having endured the penalty for stealing him, considered himself as having a legal, Lynch-like right to the animal, which no one could now dispute. He therefore returned in pursuit of the pony, until night arrested his footsteps on the banks of the river, which, the waters still rising, he did not care to cross in the dark. He had, therefore, built a fire by the road-side, intending to camp-out till morning.

“And it was your fire, then, that checked us?” cried Roland, at this part of the story, “it was your light we took for the watch-fire of Indians?”

“Injuns you may say,” quoth Stackpole, innocently, “for thar war a knot of ’em I seed sneaking over the ford; and jist as I was squinting a long aim at ’em, hoping I might smash two of ’em at alick, slam-bang goes a feller that had got behind me, ’tarnal death to him, and roused me out of my snuggery. Well, sodger, then I jumps into the cane, and next into the timber; for I reckoned all Injun creation war atter me. And so I sticks fast in a lick; and then to sumtotalise, I wallops down a rock, eend foremost, like a bull-toad: and, ’tarnal death to me, while I war scratching my head, and wondering whar I came from, I heerd the crack of the guns across the river, and thought of anngelliferous madam. ’Tarnal death to me, sodger, it turned me wrong side out! and while I war axing all natur’ how I war to get over, what should I do but see the old sugar-trough floating in the bushes, I seed her in a strick of lightning. So pops I in, and paddles I down, till I comes to the rocks, and ar’n’t they beauties? ’H’yar goes for grim death and massacreation,’ says I, and tuck the shoot; and if I didn’t fetch old dug-out through slicker than snakes, and faster than a well-greased thunderbolt, niggurs ar’n’t niggurs, nor Injuns Injuns: and, strannger, if you axes me why, h’yar’s the wharfo’ ’twar because I thought of anngelliferous madam! Strannger, I am the gentleman to see her out of a fight; and so jist tell her thar’s no occasion for being uneasy; for, ’tarnal death to me, I’ll mount Shawnees, and die for her, jist like nothing.”

“Wretch that you are,” cried Roland, whose detestation of the unlucky cause of his troubles, revived by the discovery that it was to his presence at the ford they owed their last and most fatal disappointment, rendered him somewhat insensible to the good feelings and courage which had brought the grateful fellow to his assistance, “you were born for our destruction; every way you have proved our ruin: but for you my poor kinswoman would have been now in safety among her friends. Had she left you hanging on the beech, you would not have been on the river, to cut off her only escape, when pursued close at hand by murderous savages.”

The reproach, now for the first time acquainting Stackpole with the injury he had, though so unintentionally and innocently, inflicted upon his benefactress; and the sight of her, lying apparently half-dead at his feet, wrought up the feelings of the worthy horse-thief to a pitch of desperate compunction, mingled with fury.

“If I’m the crittur that holped her into the fix, I’m the crittur to holp her out of it. ’Tarnal death to me, whar’s the Injuns? H’yar goes to eat ’em!”

With that, he uttered a yell, the first human cry that had been uttered for some time, for the assailants were still resting on their arms, and rushing up the ravine, as if well acquainted with the localities of the Station, he ran to the ruin, repeating his cries at every step, with a loudness and vigour of tone that soon drew a response from the lurking enemy.

“H’yar you ’tarnal-temporal, long-legged, ’tater-headed paint-faces!” he roared, leaping from the passage floor to the pile of ruins before the door of the hovel (where Emperor yet lay ensconced, and whither Roland followed him), as if in utter defiance of the foemen whom he hailed with such opprobrious epithets, “h’yar you bald head, smoke-dried, punkin-eating red-skins! you half-niggurs! you ’coon-whelps! you snakes! you varmints! you raggamuffins what goes about licking women and children, and scar’ring-anngelliferous madam! git up and show your scalp-locks; for ’tarnal death to me, I’m the man to take ’em cock-a-doodle-doo!”

And the valiant horse-thief concluded his warlike defiance with such a crow as might have struck consternation to the heart not merely of the best game-cock in Kentucky, but of the bird of Jove itself. Great was the excitement it produced among the warriors. A furious hubbub was heard to arise among them, followed by many wrathful voices exclaiming in broken English, with eager haste, “Know him dah! cuss’ rascal! Cappin Stackpole! steal Injun hoss!” And the’ “steal Injun hoss!” iterated and reiterated by a dozen voices, and always with the most iracund emphasis, enabled Roland to form a proper conception of the sense in which his enemies held that offence, as well as of the great merits and wide-spread fame of his new ally, whose mere voice had thrown the red-men into such a ferment.

But it was not with words alone they vented their displeasure. Rifle-shots and exécrations were discharged together against the notorious enemy of their pinfolds; who nothing daunted, and nothing loath, let fly his own “speechifier,” as he denominated his rifle, in return, accompanying the salute with divers yells and malédictions, in which latter he showed himself, to say the truth, infinitely superior to his antagonists. He would even, so great and fervent was his desire to fight the battles of his benefactress to advantage, have retained his exposed stand on the pile of ruins, daring every bullet, had not Roland dragged him down by main force, and compelled him to seek a shelter like the rest, from which, however, he carried on the war, loading and firing his piece with wonderful rapidity, and yelling and roaring all the time with triumphant fury, as if reckoning upon every shot to bring down an enemy.

It was not many minutes, however, before Roland began to fear that the fatality which had marked all his relations with the intrepid horse-thief, had not yet lost its influence, and that Stackpole’s present assistance was anything but advantageous to his cause. It seemed, indeed, as if the savages had been driven to increased rage by the discovery of his presence; and that the hope of capturing him, the most daring and inveterate of all the hungerers after Indian horseflesh, and requiting his manifold transgressions on the spot, had infused into them new spirit and fiercer determination. Their fire became more vigorous, their shouts more wild and ferocious: those who had effected a lodgment among the ruins crept higher, while others appeared dealing their shots from other quarters close at hand; and in fine, the situation of his little party became so precarious, that Roland, apprehending every moment a general assault, and despairing of being again able to repel it, drew them secretly off from the ruin, which he abandoned entirely, and took refuge among the rocks at the head of the ravine.

It was then, while unconscious of the sudden evacuation of the hovel, but not doubting they had driven the defenders into its interior, tho enemy poured in half a dozen or more volleys, as preliminaries to the assault which the soldier apprehended, that he turned to the unlucky Ralph; and arresting him as he was about to fire upon the foe from his new cover, demanded, with much agitation, if it were not possible to transport the hapless females in the little canoe, which his mind had often reverted to as a probable means of escape, to a place of safety.

“’Tarnal death to me,” said Ralph, “thar’s a boiling-pot above and a boiling pot below; but ar’n’t I the crittur to shake old Salt by the fo’-paw? Can take anngelliferous down ’ar a shoot that war ever seed!”

“And why, in Heaven’s name,” cried the Virginian, “did you not say so before, and relieve her from this horrible situation?”

“’Tarnal death to me, ar’nt I to do her fighting first?” demanded the honest Ralph. “Jist let’s have another crack at the villians, jist for madam’s satisfaction; and then, sodger, if you’re for taking the shoot, I’m jist the salmon to show you the way. But I say, sodger, I won’t lie,” he continued, finding Roland was bent upon instant escape, while the savages were yet unaware of their flight from the hovel, “I wont lie, sodger; thar’s rather a small trough to hold madam and the gal, and me and you and the nigger and the white man” (for Stackpole was already acquainted with the number of the party); “and as for the hosses, ’twill be all crucifixion to get ’em through old Salt’s fingers.”

“Think not of horses, nor of us,” said Roland. “Save but the women, and it will be enough. For the rest of us, we will do our best. We can keep the hollow till we are relieved; for, if Nathan be alive, relief must be now on the way.” And in a few hurried words, he acquainted Stackpole with his having despatched the man of peace to seek assistance.

“Thar’s no trusting the crittur, Tiger Nathan,” said Ralph; “though at a close hug, a squeeze on the small ribs, or a kick up of heels, he’s all splendiferous. Afore you see his ugly pictur’ ag’in, ’tarnal death to me, strannger, you’ll be devoured; the red niggurs thar won’t make two bites at you. No, sodger, if we run, we run, thar’s the principle; we takes the water, the whole herd together, niggurs, hosses, and all, particularly the hosses; for, ’tarnal death to me, it’s ag’in my conscience to leave so much as a hoof. And so, sodger, if you conscientiously thinks thar has been walloping enough done on both sides, I’m jist the man to help you all out of the bobbery; though, cuss me, you might as well have cut me out of the beech without so much hard axing!”

These words of the worthy horse-thief, uttered as hurriedly as his own, but far more coolly, animated the spirits of the young soldier with double hope; and taking advantage of the busy intentness with which the enemy still poured their fire into the ruin, he despatched Ralph down the ravine, to prepare the canoe for the women, while he himself summoned Dodge and Emperor to make an effort for their own deliverance.