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A Soldier of Virginia by Burton Egbert Stevenson

Part 5 out of 5

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from Dorothy, I fired again at the Indians, some of whom were swarming up
the steps. As I did so, I stared an instant in amazement, for at the shot
two men had fallen. As I turned back for another musket, I saw Mrs.
Stewart at the other loophole, a smoking rifle in her hands, into which
she was feverishly ramming another charge. It was a sight that made my
heart leap, and I found myself suddenly admiring her. But before either
of us could fire again, the Indians were gone, and a chorus of yells and
sharp firing told me they were attacking Brightson's side of the house.
The noise died away after a moment, and they appeared again borne
distance off, looking back eagerly as though expecting something.

I saw with a start that their firebrands were no longer in their hands,
and a moment later a puff of smoke from the corner of the house and the
exultant yells of the savages warned me of our new danger. As I turned
from the door, I met Brightson coming to seek me with an anxious face.

"They have fired the house, Captain Stewart," he said.

"I fear so. We must find the place and put out the flames."

Without a word he turned and followed me, and we opened the shutters a
little here and there and looked out. We soon found what we were seeking.

As the Indians had dashed around the house from front to rear, they had
approached the side and piled their burning brands against the boards. We
looked down from the window and saw that the house had already caught
fire. In a few moments the flames would be beyond control. I was back to
the hall in an instant.

"Is there any water in the house?" I asked of Mrs. Marsh, who was seated
on the floor reloading our guns with a coolness which told me where her
son had got his gallantry.

She looked at me an instant with face whitened by a new fear.

"Do you mean that the house is on fire?" she asked.

I nodded.

"There is no water," she said very quietly. "The well is a hundred yards
from the house."

I beckoned to the negroes, who were listening in an anxious group, and
hastened back to Brightson.

"There is no water," I said to him briefly. "I am going to open the
shutter, drop down, and knock the fire away from the house. Do you be
ready to pull me back in again, when I have finished."

"But it is death to do that," he exclaimed.

"No, no," I said. "You and the boys can keep them off. There is no
other way."

He turned from me and looked about the room.

"This will save you," he cried, and ran to a heavy oak table which stood
in one corner. I looked at him for a moment without understanding.

"We will throw it through the window," he explained. "You can drop behind
it, and the Indians' bullets cannot reach you."

I saw his plan before he had finished, and we had the table at the window
in an instant.

"Now, boys, all together," I cried, and as I threw the shutter back, they
lifted the table to the sill and pushed it through. Before the Indians
understood what was happening, I had dropped beside it, pulled it around
to screen me, and was kicking the brands away from the building. Then
they understood, and made a rush for the house, but met so sharp a
reception from Brightson and his men that they fell back, and contented
themselves with keeping up a sharp fusilade upon my place of
concealment. It was the work of only a few moments to kick away the
brands and beat out the flames which were running along the side of the
house. I signaled to Brightson that I was ready to return, and he opened
a heavy fire upon the savages, which drove them for a moment out of
musket range. Then throwing the shutter back, he leaned out, grasped my
hands, and pulled me into the house without a scratch.

"That's what I call genius," he observed, as he clapped the shutter tight
and shot the bar into place. "I fancy they're getting about enough."

"I trust so," I answered. "But in any event, our troops will be here in
two or three hours more."

We stood for some time in silence and watched the Indians. They drew
together near one of the burning buildings, apparently for a
consultation, and then running to a cabin which had not yet been
consumed, they tore off the heavy door and shutters.

"They haven't given it up yet," remarked Brightson grimly, "but they're
going to advance under cover this time."

Evidently some further preparation was necessary, for half a dozen of
them worked away busily for some time, though we could not see what they
were doing.

"What new deviltry are they up to now?" I heard Brightson mutter to
himself, but I could find no answer to his question, for I knew little of
this kind of warfare.

It was soon answered by the Indians themselves. A dozen of them ran
around the house in different directions, each carrying a board, while
the others, after paying a last visit to the cask of rum, grouped
themselves opposite the rear door, but well out of range. We watched them
in breathless silence. Those who were armed with shields approached
nearer and nearer, until within perhaps fifty yards. We fired at them,
but seemingly without effect. Then there was a moment of anxious waiting,
and almost together a dozen streamers of fire rose high into the air and
descended toward the house. Some fell harmlessly on the ground without,
and we saw that they were arrows tipped with burning tow, but the most
must have fallen upon the roof. A second and third shower of fire
followed, and then the Indians withdrew behind their shields and quietly
awaited the result.

"They have set fire to the roof," I gasped. "We must put it out at once,
or we are lost."

"Leave that to me, Captain Stewart," said Brightson quietly, and I
never admired the courage of a man more than I did his at that moment.
"I will get out on the roof, and throw the arrows down. I don't believe
they can hit me."

It was the only thing to do, and he was gone even as I nodded my assent.
Five minutes passed, and then the Indians began to yell again, and I knew
that Brightson had reached the roof. Almost at the same instant, the main
body of the savages advanced at a run, some of them carrying a heavy
log, the others holding boards in front of them. We sent a dozen bullets
among them before they reached the door, but they came on without
faltering. One man, very tall and clad in a suit of fringed buckskin, ran
in front and urged them on. I fired at him twice, but he came on as
before, and I knew that I had wasted the bullets.

Up the steps they came, yelling like devils fresh from hell, and brought
the log crashing against the door, while others thrust their muskets
through the loopholes and fired into the hallway. One of the negroes sank
down without a groan, the blood spurting from his neck, and another
dropped his gun with a yell, and, clapping his hands to his face, ran
shrieking down the hall.

Again the log thundered against the door, one of the bars sprung loose,
and half a dozen shots were fired into the hallway. I saw that the door
could hold but a moment longer, and shouting to the negroes to fall
back, I retreated to the stair, grabbing up a hanger as I passed the
place where we had piled the arms. Running back again, I caught up a
bag of powder and another of ball, so that we might not be utterly
without ammunition, and with these sped up the stair, pushing the women
before me.

We were not an instant too soon, for the door crashed down at the next
blow, and the savages poured over the threshold. They paused a moment to
see what had become of us, and this gave us opportunity to pour a volley
into them. Then on they came, the man in buckskin still leading them. As
they reached the foot of the stair, I took steady aim at him with my
pistol and pulled the trigger. But he seemed to have some intuition of
his danger, for he stooped suddenly, and it was the man behind him who
threw up his hands, sprang into the air, and fell backward. They faltered
only for an instant, and then swarmed up the steps, their greased faces
gleaming in the powder flashes. I thought it as good as ended, and
throwing down my musket, caught up my hanger for a final stand, when
something was thrown past me and bounded down the stair. It swept half
the Indians off their feet and carried them down before it, and the
others, not knowing what had happened, turned and ran down after them.
Nor, indeed, did I know until afterward, when I learned that Brightson,
coming down from the roof and taking in our peril at a glance, had caught
up a great log from the fireplace in the upper hall, where it was
awaiting the winter lighting, and, with a strength little short of
superhuman, had hurled it down upon the savages.

It gave us respite for a moment, but it was certain they would charge
again, and I knew too well what the result would be, for the last of the
negroes had flung down his gun and run away, leaving only Brightson and
me to guard the women. It was Mrs. Marsh who spoke the saving word.

"Why not retreat to the roof?" she said. "They could not get at us
there."

It was the only chance of safety, so to the roof we went, the women
first, and we two bringing up the rear. Once there, we closed the trap
and waited. In a moment we heard the yell which told us that our retreat
had been discovered, and then again came silence.

"This is no ordinary Indian attack," said Brightson, who was wiping the
sweat and powder stains from his face. "There's a Frenchman leading
them, and maybe two or three. Did you see that fellow in buckskin who
ran in front?"

"Yes," I answered gloomily. "I have fired at him three times, but always
missed him."

"Well, he is no Indian," said Brightson, "in spite of his painted face.
If they hadn't had that cask of rum and him to lead them, they would have
cleared out of this long ago. They have no stomach for this kind of work,
unless they are full of liquor."

The sky in the east was turning from black to gray, and the dawn was not
far distant.

"Our troops will soon be here," I said, and went to the women where they
were crouching behind a protecting gable. Dorothy, her mother, and Mrs.
Marsh were sitting side by side, and they all smiled at me as I
approached.

"I think we are safe here," I said as cheerily as I could, "and the
reinforcements cannot be far away. I know Colonel Washington too well
to think he would delay a moment longer than necessary to start to
our relief."

"You have made a brave defense, Captain Stewart," said Mrs. Marsh
earnestly. "I realize what would have been our fate long ere this, had
you not been here."

"Nay, madame," I interrupted, "I could have done little by myself. I
have learned to-night that the women of Virginia are no less gallant
than the men."

"Come, come," laughed Dorothy, "this is not a drawing-room that you need
think you must flatter us, Tom."

I glanced at Mrs. Stewart, and saw with some surprise that she too
was smiling.

"'Twas not flattery," I protested, "but a simple statement of fact. And
there is another here," I added, turning to Mrs. Marsh, "whose conduct
should be remembered. I have never seen a braver man," and I glanced at
Brightson where he sat, his musket across his knees.

"I shall remember it," she said, as she followed my eyes.

A burst of yells and a piercing cry from below interrupted us.

"What was that?" asked Dorothy, white to the lips.

"They have found one of the negroes," I answered, as calmly as I could.
"They ran away, and must have hidden somewhere in the house."

We sat listening, the women pale and horror-stricken, and even Brightson
and I no little moved. The yells and the single shrill cry were repeated
a second time and then a third, and finally all was still again save for
the negro women wailing softly, as they rocked themselves to and fro
behind the gable, their arms about their knees. I crept back to my
station by the trap and waited feverishly for what should happen next.
We could hear steps in the hall below, a short consultation and a
clanking of arms, and then all was still.

"Here they come," said Brightson, between his teeth, and even as he
spoke, the trap was thrown outward by a great force from below, and the
savage swarm poured forth upon the roof. I struck madly at the first man,
and saw another fall, pierced by a bullet from Brightson's gun, and then
he was down and I heard the sough of a knife thrust into him.

"They are coming! They are coming!" screamed a shrill voice behind me,
and I turned to see Dorothy upright on the roof, pointing away to the
southward. And there, sure enough, at the edge of the clearing, was a
troop of Virginians, galloping like mad. Ah, how welcome were those blue
uniforms! We could hear them cheering, and, with a leaping heart, I saw
it was Colonel Washington himself who led them.

For an instant the Indians stood transfixed, and then, with a yell,
turned back toward the trap. All save one. I saw him raise his musket to
his shoulder and take deliberate aim at Dorothy as she stood there
outlined in white against the purple sky. I sprang at him with a cry of
rage, and dragged his gun toward me as he pulled the trigger. There was a
burst of flame in my face, a ringing in my ears, I felt the earth
slipping from me, and knew no more.

CHAPTER XXVII

I COME INTO MY OWN

It was long before I realized that that white, bandaged thing lying on
the bed before me was my hand. I gazed at it curiously for a while and
stirred it slightly to make sure,--what a mighty effort that little
motion cost me!--and then I became aware that a breeze was passing across
my face, and a peculiar thing about it was that it came and went
regularly like the swinging of a pendulum. And when I raised my eyes to
see what this might mean, I found myself looking straight into the
astonished face of Sam, my boy.

He stared at me for a moment, his eyes starting from his head, and then
with a loud cry he dropped the fan he had been wielding and ran from the
room, clapping his hands together as he went, as I had heard negroes do
under stress of great excitement. What could it mean? Again my eyes fell
upon the queer, bandaged thing which must be my hand. Had there been an
accident? I could not remember, and while my mind was still wrestling
with the question in a helpless, flabby way, I heard the swish of skirts
at the door, and there entered who but Dorothy!

"Why, Dorothy!" I cried, and then stopped, astonished at the sound of my
own voice. It was not my voice at all,--I had never heard it before,--and
it seemed to come from a great way off. And what astonished me more than
anything else was that Dorothy did not seem in the least surprised by it.

"Yes, Tom," she said, and she came to the bedside and laid her hand upon
my head. Such a cool, soft little hand it was. "Why, the fever is quite
gone! You will soon be well again."

I tried to raise my hand to take hers, but it lay there like a great
dead weight, and I could scarcely move it. I know not what it was, but
at the sight of her standing there so strong and brave and sweet, and
the thought of myself so weak and helpless, the tears started from my
eyes and rolled down my cheeks in two tiny rivulets. She seemed to
understand my thought, for she placed one of her hands in mine, and with
the other wiped my tears away. I love to think of her always as I saw
her then, bending over me with infinite pity in her face and wiping my
tears away. The moment of weakness passed, and my brain seemed clearer
than it had been.

"Have I been ill?" I asked.

"Very ill, Tom," she said. "But now you will get well very quickly."

"What was the matter with me, Dorothy?"

She looked at me a moment and seemed hesitating for an answer.

"I think you would better go to sleep now, Tom," she said at last, "and
when you wake again, I will tell you all about it."

"Very well," I answered submissively, and indeed, at the time, my brain
seemed so weary that I had no wish to know more.

She gently took her hand from mine and went to a table, where she poured
something from a bottle into a glass. I followed her with my eyes, noting
how strong and confident and beautiful she was.

"Drink this, Tom," she said, bringing the glass back to the bed and
holding it to my lips. I gulped it down obediently, and then watched
her again as she went to the window and drew the blind. She came back
in a moment and sat down in the chair from which I had startled Sam.
She picked up the fan which he had dropped, and waved it softly to and
fro above me, smiling gently down into my face. And as I lay there
watching her, the present seemed to slip away and leave me floating in
a land of clouds.

But when I opened my eyes again, it all came back to me in an instant,
and I called aloud for Dorothy. She was bending over me almost before the
sound of my voice had died away.

"Oh, thank God!" I cried. "It was only a dream, then! You are safe,
Dorothy,--there were no Indians,--tell me it was only a dream."

"Yes, I am quite safe, Tom," she answered, and took my hand in
both of hers.

"And the Indians?" I asked.

"Were frightened away by Colonel Washington and his men, who killed
many of them."

I closed my eyes for a moment, and tried to reconstruct the drama of
that dreadful night.

"Dorothy," I asked suddenly, "was Brightson killed?"

"Yes, Tom," she answered softly.

I sighed.

"He was a brave man," I said. "No man could have been braver."

"Only one, I think," and she smiled down at me tremulously, her eyes
full of tears.

"Yes, Colonel Washington," I said, after a moment's thought. "Perhaps he
is braver."

"I was not thinking of Colonel Washington, Tom," and her lips began
to tremble.

I gazed at her a moment in amazement.

"You do not mean me, Dorothy?" I cried. "Oh, no; I am not brave. You do
not know how frightened I grow when the bullets whistle around me."

She laid her fingers on my lips with the prettiest motion in the world.

"Hush," she said. "I will not listen to such blasphemy."

"At least," I protested, "I am not so brave as you,--no, nor as your
mother, Dorothy. I had no thought that she was such a gallant woman."

"Ah, you do not know my mother!" she cried. "But you shall know her some
day, Tom. Nor has she known you, though I think she is beginning to know
you better, now."

There were many things I wished to hear,--many questions that I
asked,--and I learned how Sam had galloped on until he reached the fort,
how he had given the alarm, how Colonel Washington himself had ridden
forth twenty minutes later at the head of fifty men,--all who could be
spared,--and had spurred on through the night, losing the road more than
once and searching for it with hearts trembling with fear lest they
should be too late, and how they had not been too late, but had saved
us,--saved Dorothy.

"And I think you are dearer to the commander's heart than any other man,"
she added. "Indeed, he told me so. For he stayed here with you for three
days, watching at your bedside, until he found that he could stay no
longer, and then he tore himself away as a father leaves his child. I had
never seen him moved so deeply, for you know he rarely shows emotion."

Ah, Dorothy, you did not know him as did I! You had not been with him at
Great Meadows, nor beside the Monongahela, nor when we buried Braddock
there in the road in the early morning. You had not been with him at
Winchester when wives cried to him for their husbands, and children for
their parents, nor beside the desolated hearths of a hundred frontier
families. And of a sudden it came over me as a wave rolls up the beach,
how much of sorrow and how little of joy had been this man's portion.
Small wonder that his face seemed always sad and that he rarely smiled.

Dorothy had left me alone a moment with my thoughts, and when she came
back, she brought her mother with her. I had never seen her look at me
as she looked now, and for the first time perceived that it was from her
Dorothy got her eyes. She stood in the doorway for a moment, gazing down
at me, and then, before I knew what she was doing, had fallen on her
knees beside my bed and was kissing my bandaged hand.

"Why, aunt!" I cried, and would have drawn it from her.

"Oh, Tom," she sobbed, and clung to it, "can you forgive me?"

"Forgive you, aunt?" I cried again, yet more amazed. "What have you done
that you should stand in need of my forgiveness?"

"What have I done?" she asked, and raised her face to mine. "What have I
not done, rather? I have been a cold, hard woman, Tom. I have forgot what
right and justice and honor were. But I shall forget no longer. Do you
know what I have here in my breast?" she cried, and she snatched forth a
paper and held it before my eyes. "You could never guess. It is a letter
you wrote to me."

"A letter I wrote to you?" I repeated, and then as I saw the
superscription, I felt my cheeks grow hot. For it read, "To be delivered
at once to Mrs. Stewart."

"Ay," she said, "a letter you wrote to me, and which I should never have
received had you not forgot it and left it lying on my table in my study
at Riverview. Can you guess what I felt, Tom, when they brought it to me
here, and I opened it and read that you had gone to the swamp alone
amongst those devils? I thought that you were dead, since the letter had
been delivered, and the whole extent of the wrong I had done you sprang
up before me. But they told me you were not dead,--that Colonel
Washington had come for you, and that you had ridden hastily away with
him. I could guess the story, and I should never have known that you had
saved the place but for the chance which made you forget this letter."

I had tried to stop her more than once. She had gone on without heeding
me, but now she paused.

"It was nothing," I said. "Nothing. There was no real danger. Thank Long.
He was with me. He is a better man than I."

"Oh, yes," she cried, "they are all better men than you, I dare say! Do
not provoke me, sir, or you will have me quarreling with you before I
have said what I came here to say. Can you guess what that is?" and she
paused again, to look at me with a great light in her eyes.

But I was far past replying. I gazed up at her, bewildered, dazzled. I
had never known this woman.

"I see you cannot guess," she said. "Of course you cannot guess! How
could you, knowing me as you have known me? 'Tis this. Riverview is
yours, Tom, and shall be always yours from this day forth, as of right it
has ever been."

Riverview mine? No, no, I did not want Riverview. It was something
else I wanted.

"I shall not take it, aunt," I said quite firmly. "I am going to make a
name for myself,--with my sword, you know," I added with a smile, "and
when I have once done that, there is something else which I shall ask you
for, which will be dearer to me--oh, far dearer--than a hundred
Riverviews."

What ailed the women? Here was Dorothy too on her knees and kissing my
bandaged hand.

"Oh, Tom, Tom," she cried, "do you not understand?"

"Understand?" I repeated blankly. "Understand what, Dorothy?"

"Don't you remember, dear, what happened just before the troops came?"

"Oh, very clearly," I answered. "The Indians got Brightson down and
stabbed him, and just then you sprang up and cried the troops were
coming, and sure enough, there they were just entering the clearing, and
the Indians paused only for one look and then fled down the stairs as
fast as they could go. 'T was you who saved us all, Dorothy."

"Oh, but there was something more!" she cried. "There was one Indian who
did not run, Tom, but who stopped to aim at me. I saw him do it, and I
closed my eyes, for I knew that he would kill me, and I heard his gun's
report, but no bullet struck me. For it was you whom it struck, dear,
through your hand and into your side, and for long we thought you dying."

"Yes," I said, "but you see I am not dying, nor like to die, dear
Dorothy, so that I may still rejoin the troops erelong."

She was looking at me with streaming eyes.

"Do you mean that I am not going to get well, Dorothy?" I asked, for I
confess her tears frightened me.

"Oh, not so bad as that, dear!" she cried. "Thank God, not so bad as
that! But your hand, Tom, your right hand is gone. You can never
wield a sword again, dear, never go to war. You will have to stay at
home with me."

I know not how it was, but she was in my arms, and her lips were on mine,
and I knew that was no more parting for us.

CHAPTER XVIII

AND SO, GOOD-BY

Well, a right hand is a little price to pay for the love of a wife like
mine, and if I have made no name in the world, I at least live happy in
it, which is perhaps a greater thing. And I have grown to use my left
hand very handily. I have learnt to write with it, as the reader
knows,--and when I hold my wife to me, I have her ever next my heart.

It is the fashion, I know well, to stop the story on the altar's steps,
and leave the reader to guess at all that may come after, but as I turn
over the pages I have writ, they seem too much a tale of failure and
defeat, and I would not have it so. For the lessons learned at Fort
Necessity and Winchester and at Duquesne have given us strength to drive
the French from the continent and the Indian from the frontier. So that
now we dwell in peace, and live our lives in quiet and content, save for
some disagreements with the king about our taxes, which Lord Grenville
has made most irksome.

And even to my dearest friend, whose life, as I have traced it here, has
been so full of sorrow and reverse, has come great happiness. He is
honored of all men, and has found love as well, for he has brought a wife
home to Mount Vernon. Dorothy declares that Mistress Washington is the
very image of that Mary Cary who used him so ill years ago,--but this
may be only a woman's leaning toward romance.

Indeed, we have a romance in our own home,--a bright-eyed girl of
twenty, who, I fear, is soon to leave us, if a certain pert young blade
who lives across the river has his way. It will be I who give her away
at the altar, for her father lies dead beside the Monongahela,--brave,
gentle-hearted Spiltdorph. My eyes grow dim even now when I think of
you, yet I trust that I have done as you would have had me do. For I
found the girl at Hampton, after a weary search,--perhaps some day I
shall tell the story.

It is in the old seat by the river's edge I write these words, and as I
lay down the pen, my hand falls on those carved letters, T and D, with a
little heart around them,--very faint, now, and worn with frequent
kisses,--and as I lift my head, I see coming to me across the grass the
woman who carved them there and whom I love.

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