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

By dint of chafing and bathing in the spring, still foul and red with the blood of the Piankeshaws, the limbs of the soldier soon recovered their strength, and he was able to rise, to survey the scene of his late sufferings and liberation, and again recur to the harassing subject of his kinswoman’s fate. Again he beset Nathan with questions, which soon recalled the disturbed looks which his deliverer had worn when first assailed with interrogatories. He adjured him to complete the good work he had so bravely begun, by leaving himself to his fate, and making his way to the emigrants, or to the nearest inhabited Station, whence assistance might be procured to pursue the savages and their captives, before it might be too late. “Lead the party first to the battleground,” he said: “I am now as a child in strength, but I can crawl thither to meet you; and once on a horse again, be assured no one shall pursue better or faster than I.”

“If thee thinks of rescuing the maiden,” said Nathan

“I will do so, or die,” exclaimed Roland, impetuously; “and would to Heaven I could die twice over, so I might snatch her from the murdering monsters. Alas! had you but followed them, instead of these three curs; and done that service to Edith you have done to me!”

“Truly,” said Nathan, “thee talks as if ten men were as easily knocked on the head as ten rabbits. But, hearken, friend, and do thee have patience for a while! There is a thing in this matter that perplexes me; and, verily, there is two or three. Why did thee desert the ruin? and who was it led thee through the canes? Let me know what it was that happened thee; for, of a truth, there is more in this same matter than thee thinks.”

Thus called upon, Roland acquainted Nathan with the events that had succeeded his departure from the ruin, the appearance of Ralph Stackpole, and the flight of the party by the river, circumstances that moved the wonder and admiration of Nathan, and with all the other occurrences up to the moment of the defeat of the Kentuckians, and the division of the plunder among the victorious Indians. The mention of these spoils, the rifles, rolls of cloth, beads, bells, and other gewgaw trinkets, produced an evident impression on Nathan’s mind; which was greatly increased when Roland related the scene betwixt Telie Doe and her reprobate father, and repeated those expressions which seemed to show that the attack upon the party was by no means accidental, but the result of a previously formed design, of which she was not ignorant.

“Where Abel Doe is, there, thee may be sure, there is knavery!” said Nathan; demanding earnestly if Roland had seen no other white man in the party.

“I saw no other,” he replied: “but there was a tall man in a blanket, wearing a red turban, who looked at me from a distance; and I thought he was a half-breed, like Doe, for so, at first, I supposed the latter to be.”

“Well, friend! And he seemed to command the party, did he not?” demanded Nathan, with interest.

“The leader,” replied Roland, “was a vile, grim old rascal, that they called Kenauga, or Kenauga, or ”

“Wenonga!” cried Nathan, with extraordinary vivacity, his whole countenance, in fact, lighting up with the animation of intense interest, “an old man tall and raw-boned, a scar on his nose and cheek, a halt in his gait, his left middle-finger short of a joint, and a buzzard’s beak and talons tied to his hair? It is Wenonga, the Black-Vulture. Truly, little Peter! thee is but a dolt and a dog, that thee told me nothing about it!”

The soldier remarked, with some surprise, the change of Nathan’s visage, and with still more, his angry reproaches of the trusty animal, the first he had heard him utter.

“And who then is the old Black-Vulture,” he asked, “that he should drive from your mind even the thought of my poor wretched Edith?”

“Thee is but a boy in the woods, if thee never heard of Wenonga, the Shawnee,” replied Nathan hastily, “a man that has left the mark of his axe on many a ruined cabin along the frontier, from the Bloody Run of Bedford to the Kenhawa and the Holston. He is the chief that boasts he has no heart: and, truly, he has none, being a man that has drunk the blood of women and children Friend! thee kinswoman’s scalp is already hanging at his girdle!”

This horrible announcement, uttered with a fierce earnestness that proved the sincerity of the speaker, froze Roland’s blood in his veins, and he stood speechless and gasping; until Nathan, noting his agitation, and recovering in part from his own ferment of spirits, exclaimed, even more hastily than before “Truly, I have told thee what is false thee kinswoman is safe, a prisoner, but alive and safe.”

“You have told me she is dead murdered by the foul assassins,” said Roland; “and if it be so, it avails not to deny it. If it be so, Nathan,” he continued, with a look of desperation, “I call Heaven and earth to witness, that I will pursue the race of the slayers with thrice the fury of their own malice, never to pause, never to rest, never to be satisfied with vengeance, while an Indian lives with blood to be shed, and I with strength to shed it.”

“Thee speaks like a man!” said Nathan, grasping the soldier’s hand, and fairly crushing it in his gripe, “that is to say,” he continued, suddenly letting go his hold, and seeming somewhat abashed at the fervour of his sympathy, “like a man, according to thee own sense of matters and things. But do thee be content; thee poor maid is alive, and like to be so; and that thee may be assured of it, I will soon tell thee the thing that is on my mind. Friend, do thee answer me a question, Has thee any enemy among the Injuns? that is to say, any reprobate white man like this Abel Doe, who would do thee a wrong?”

The soldier started with surprise, and replied in the negative.

“Has thee no foe, then, at home, whom thee has theeself wronged to that point that he would willingly league with murdering Injuns to take thee life?”

“I have my enemies, doubtless, like all other men,” said Roland, “but none so basely, so improbably malignant.”

“Verily, then, thee makes me in a perplexity as before,” said Nathan; “for as truly as thee stands before me, so truly did I see, that night when I left thee at the ruins, and crawled through the Injun lines, a white man that sat at a fire with Abel Doe, the father of the maid Telie, apart from the rest, and counselled with him how best to sack the cabin, without killing the two women. Truly, friend, it was a marvel to myself, there being so many of the murdering villains, that they did us so little mischief: but, truly, it was because of the women. And, truly, there was foul knavery between these two men; for I heard high words and chaffering between them, as concerning a price or reward which Abel Doe claimed of the other for the help he was rendering him, in snapping thee up, with thee kinswoman. Truly, thee must not think I was mistaken; for seeing the man’s red shawl round his head gleaming in the fire, and not knowing there was any one nigh him (for Abel Doe lay flat upon the earth), a wicked thought came into my head; ‘for, truly,’ said I, ’this man is the chief, and, being alone, a man might strike him with a knife from behind the tree he rests against, and being killed, his people will fly in fear, without any more blood-shed;’ but creeping nearer, I saw that he was but a white man in disguise; and so, having listened awhile, to hear what I could, and hearing what I have told thee, I crept away on my journey.”

The effect of this unexpected revelation upon the young Virginian was as if an adder had suddenly fastened upon his bosom. It woke a suspicion, involving indeed an improbability such as his better reason revolted at, but full of pain and terror. But wild and incredible as it seemed, it received a kind of confirmation from what Nathan added.

“The rifle-guns, the beads, and the cloth,” he said, “that were distributed after the battle, does thee think they were plunder taken from the young Kentuckians they had vanquished? Friend, these things were a price with which the white man in the red shawl paid the assassin villains for taking thee prisoner, thee and thee kinswoman. His hirelings were vagabonds of all the neighbouring tribes, Shawnees, Wyandots, Delawares, and Piankeshaws, as I noted well when I crept among them; and old Wenonga is the greatest vagabond of all, having long since been degraded by his tribe for bad luck, drunkenness, and other follies, natural to an Injun. My own idea is, that that white man thirsted for thee blood, having given thee up to the Piankeshaws, who, thee says, had lost one of their men in the battle; for which thee would certainly have been burned alive at their village: but what was his design in captivating thee poor kinswoman that thee calls Edith, truly I cannot divine, not knowing much of thee history.”

“You shall hear it,” said Roland, with hoarse accents, “at least so much of it as may enable you to confirm or disprove your suspicions. There is indeed one man whom I have always esteemed my enemy, the enemy also of Edith, a knave capable of any extremity, yet never could I have dreamed of a villany so daring, so transcendent as this!”

So saying, Roland, smothering his agitation as he could, proceeded to acquaint his rude friend, now necessarily his confidant, with so much of his history as related to Braxley, his late uncle’s confidential agent and executor; a man whom Roland’s revelations to the gallant and inquisitive Colonel Bruce, and still more, perhaps, his conversations with Edith in the wood, may have introduced sufficiently to the reader’s acquaintance. But of Braxley, burning with a hatred he no longer chose to subdue, the feeling greatly exasperated, also, by the suspicion Nathan’s hints had infused into his mind, he now spoke without restraint; and assuredly, if one might have judged by the bitterness of his invectives, the darkness of the colours with which he traced the detested portrait, a baser wretch did not exist on the whole earth. Yet to a dispassionate and judicious hearer it might have seemed that there was little in the evidence to bear out an accusation so sweeping and heavy. Little, indeed, had the soldier to charge against him save his instrumentality in defeating hopes and expectations which had been too long indulged to be surrendered without anger and pain. That this instrumentality, considering all the circumstances, was to be attributed to base and fraudulent motives, it was natural to suspect; but the proofs were far from being satisfactory, as they rested chiefly on surmises and assumptions.

It will be recollected, that on the death of Major Forrester, Braxley had brought to light a testament of undoubted authenticity, but of ancient date, in which the whole estate of the deceased was bequeathed to his own infant child, an unfortunate daughter, who, however, it had never been doubted, had perished many years before among the flames of the cabin of her foster-mother, but who Braxley had made oath was, to the best of his knowledge, still alive. His oath was founded, he averred, upon the declaration of a man, the husband of the foster-mother, a certain Atkinson, whom tory principles and practices, and perhaps crimes and outrages for such were charged against him had long since driven to seek refuge on the frontier, but who had privily returned to the major’s house, a few weeks before the latter’s death, and made confession that the girl was still living; but, being recognised by an old acquaintance, and dreading the vengeance of his countrymen, he had immediately fled again to the frontier, without acquainting any one with the place of the girl’s concealment. The story of Atkinson’s return was confirmed by the man who had seen and recognised him, but who knew nothing of the cause of his visit; and Braxley declared he had already taken steps to ferret him out, and had good hopes through his means of recovering the lost heiress.

This story Roland affected to believe a vile fabrication, the result of a deep-laid, and, unfortunately, too successful design on Braxloy’s part to get possession, in the name of an imaginary heiress, of the rich estates of his patron. The authenticity of the will, which had been framed at a period when the dissensions between Major Forrester and his brothers were at the highest, Roland did not doubt; it was the non-existence of the individual in whose favour it had been executed, a circumstance which he devoutly believed, that gave a fraudulent character to its production. He even accused Braxley of having destroyed a second will (by which the former was of course annulled, even supposing the heiress were still living), a testament framed a few months before his uncle’s death; in which the latter had bequeathed all his possessions to Edith, the child of his adoption. That such a second will had been framed, appeared from the testator’s own admissions; at least, he had so informed Edith, repeating the fact on several different occasions. The fact, indeed, even Braxley did not deny; but he averred, that the second instrument had been destroyed by the deceased himself, as soon as the confession of Atkinson had acquainted him with the existence of his own unfortunate daughter. This explanation Roland rejected entirely, insisting that during the whole period of Atkinson’s visit, and for some weeks before, his uncle had been in a condition of mental imbecility and unconsciousness, as incapable of receiving and understanding the supposed confession as he was of acting on it. The story was only an additional device of Braxley to remove from himself the suspicion of having destroyed the second will.

But whatever might have been thought of these imputations, it was evident that the young soldier had another cause for his enmity, one, indeed, that seemed more operative on his mind and feelings than even the loss of fortune. The robber and plunderer, for these were the softest epithets he had for his rival, had added to his crimes the enormity of aspiring to the affections of his kinswoman; whom the absence of Roland and the helpless imbecility of her uncle left exposed to his presumption and his arts. Had the maiden smiled upon his suit, this indeed might have seemed a legitimate cause of hatred on the part of Roland; but Edith had repelled the lover with firmness, perhaps even with contempt. The presumption of such a rival Roland might perhaps have pardoned; but he saw in the occurrences that followed, a bitter and malignant revenge of the maiden’s scorn, which none but the basest of villains could have attempted. It was this consideration which gave the sharpest edge to the young man’s hatred: and it was his belief that a wretch capable of such a revenge, was willing to add to it any other measure of villany, however daring and fiendish, that had turned his thoughts upon Braxley, when Nathan’s words first woke the suspicion of a foeman’s design and agency in the attack on his party. How Braxley, a white man and Virginian, and therefore the foe of every western tribe, could have so suddenly and easily thrown himself into the arms of the savages, and brought them to his own plans, it might have been difficult to say. But anger is credulous, and fury stops not at impossibilities. “It is Braxley himself!” he cried, at the close of his narration; “how can it be doubted? He announced publicly his intention to proceed to the frontier, to the Kenhawa settlements, in search of the fabulous heiress, and was gone before our party had all assembled in Fincastle. Thus, then, he veiled his designs, thus concealed a meditated villany. But his objects it was not my miserable life he sought what would that avail him? they aimed at my cousin, and she is now in his power!”

“Truly, then,” said Nathan, who listened to the story with great interest, and now commented on Roland’s agitation with equal composure, “thee doth make a great fuss for nothing; for, truly, the maid will not be murdered Truly, thee has greatly relieved my mind. Thee should not think the man, being a white man, will kill her.”

“Kill her!” cried Roland “Would that twenty bullets had pierced her heart, rather than she should have fallen alive into the hands of Braxley! Miserable wretch that I am! what can I do to save her? We will rescue her, Nathan; we will seek assistance; we will pursue the ravisher; it is not yet too late. Speak to me I shall go distracted: what must we do? what can we do?”

“Truly,” said Nathan, “I fear me, we can do nothing. Don’t thee look so frantic, friend; I don’t think thee has good sense. Thee talks of assistance what is thee thinking about? where would thee seek assistance? Has thee forgot the Injun army is on the north side, and all the fighting-men of the Stations gone to meet them? There is nobody to help thee.”

“But the emigrants, my friends? they are yet nigh at hand ”

“Truly,” said Nathan, “thee is mistaken. The news of the Injuns, that brought friend Thomas the younger into the woods, did greatly dismay them, as the young men reported; and, truly, they did resolve to delay their journey no longer, but start again before the break of day, that they might the sooner reach the Falls, and be in safety with their wives and little ones. There is no help for thee. Thee and me is alone in the wilderness, and there is no friend with us. Leave wringing thee hands, for it can do thee no good.”

“I am indeed friendless, and there is no hope,” said Roland, with the accents of despair; “while we seek assistance, and seek it vainly, Edith is lost, lost for ever! Would that we had perished together! Hapless Edith! wretched Edith! Was ever wretch so miserable as I?”

With such expressions, the young man gave a loose to his feelings, and Nathan surveyed, first with surprise and then with a kind of gloomy indignation, but never, as it seemed, with anything like sympathy, the extravagance of his grief.

“Thee is but a madman!” he exclaimed at last, and with a tone of severity that arrested Roland’s attention: “does thee curse thee fate, and the Providence that is above thee, because the maid of thee heart is carried into captivity unharmed? Is thee wretched, because thee eyes did not see the Injun axe struck into her brain? Friend, thee does not know what such a sight is; but I do yes, I have looked upon such a thing, and I will tell thee what it is; for it is good thee should know. Look, friend,” he continued, grasping Roland by the arm, as if to command his attention, and surveying him with a look both wild and mournful, “thee sees a man before thee who was once as young and as happy as thee, yea, friend, happier, for I had many around me to love me, the children of my body, the wife of my bosom, the mother that gave me birth. Thee did talk of such things to me in the wood, thee did mention them one and all, wife, parent, and child! Such things had I; and men spoke well of me But thee sees what I am! There is none of them remaining, none only but me; and thee sees me what I am! Ten years ago I was another man, a poor man, friend, but one that was happy. I dwelt upon the frontiers of Bedford thee may not know the place; it is among the mountains of Pennsylvania, and far away. There was the house that I did build me; and in it there was all that I held dear, ’my gray old mother,’ (that’s the way thee did call her, when thee spoke of her in the wood!) ’the wife of my bosom,’ and ’the child of my heart,’ the children, friend, for there was five of them, sons and daughters together, little innocent babes that had done no wrong; and, truly, I loved them well. Well, friend, the Injuns came around us: for being bold, because of my faith that made me a man of peace and the friend of all men, I sat me down far on the border. But the Shawnees came upon me, and came as men of war, and their hands were red with the blood of my neighbours, and they raised them against my little infants. Thee asked me in the wood, what I would do in such case, having arms in my hand? Friend, I had arms in my hand, at that moment, a gun that had shot me the beasts of the mountain for food, and a knife that had pierced the throats of bears in their dens. I gave them to the Shawnee chief, that he might know I was a friend. Friend! if thee asks me now for my children, I can tell thee With my own knife he struck down my eldest boy! with my own gun he slew the mother of my children! If thee should live till thee is gray, thee will never see the sight I saw that day! When thee has children that Injuns murder, as thee stands by, a wife that clasps thee legs in the writhing of death, her blood, spouting up to thee bosom, where she has slept, an old mother calling thee to help her in the death-struggle: then, friend, then thee may see then thee may know then thee may feel then thee may call theeself wretched, for thee will be so! Here was my little boy, does thee see? there his two sisters thee understands? there Thee may think I would have snatched a weapon to help them then! Well, thee is right: but it was too late! All murdered, friend! all all, all cruelly murdered!”

It is impossible to convey an idea of the extraordinary vehemence, the wild accents, the frantic looks, with which Nathan ended the horrid story, into which he had been betrayed by his repining companion. His struggles to subdue the passions that the dreadful recollections of a whole family’s butchery awoke in his bosom, only served to add double distortion to his changes of countenance, which, a better index of the convulsion within than were his broken, incoherent, half-inarticulate words, assumed at last an appearance so wild, so hideous, so truly terrific, that Roland was seized with horror, deeming himself confronted with a raging maniac. He raised his hand to remove that of Nathan, which still clutched his arm, and clutched it with painful force; but while in the act, the fingers relaxed of themselves, and Nathan dropped suddenly to the earth, as if struck down by a thunderbolt, his mouth foaming, his eyes distorted, his hands clenched, his body convulsed, in short, exhibiting every proof of an epileptic fit, brought on by overpowering agitation of mind. As he fell, little Peter sprang to his side, and throwing his paws on his unconscious master’s breast, stood over him as if to protect him, growling at Roland; who, though greatly shocked at the catastrophe, did not hesitate to offer such relief as was in his power. Disregarding the menace of the dog, which seemed at last to understand the purpose was friendly, he raised Nathan’s head upon his knee, loosened the neckcloth that bound his throat, and sprinkled his face with water from the spring. While thus engaged, the cap of the sufferer fell from his head, and Roland saw that Nathan carried with him a better cause for the affliction than could be referred to any mere temporary emotion, however overwhelming to the mind. A horrible scar disfigured the top of his head, which seemed to have been, many years before, crushed by the blows of a heavy weapon; and it was equally manifest that the savage scalping-knife had done its work on the mangled head.

The soldier had heard that injuries to the head often resulted in insanity of some species or other; he could now speculate, on better grounds, and with better reason, upon some of those singular points of character which seemed to distinguish the houseless Nathan from the rest of his fellow-men.