American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

The Heroine of Fort Henry

Betty Zane was a girl just out of school when she went with her parents to live in the Ohio country. Her father was a restless, daring man, fond of the woods and afraid of no danger. The new home which he had chosen for his family was at the place where the city of Wheeling has since grown up. It was near the bank of the Ohio River and in the heart of the great western wilderness.

Going by way of Pittsburg, the Zanes floated down the river on a rude flatboat. Some of their old neighbors were with them, intent like themselves, to find a new home in the wild, unsettled West. All were full of courage and hope, for all felt as though they were entering a strange new world where life was to be very different from what it had been before.

Betty Zane's eyes were full of wonder when the company landed. The only building that she saw was a square fort with high palisades of logs on every side of it. It stood in the midst of a clearing, a little way from the river. It was entered by a gate on the east side, and at each of its four corners there was a strong blockhouse with loopholes for the guns. Inside of the inclosure there were small cabins for the women and children, a storehouse, a well, stables for the horses, and sheds for the cattle.

"Well, how do you like ti, my dear?' asked Mr. Zane.

"I think it is very odd," said Betty, "but I shall like it better and better every day."

And so she did. Life at Fort Henry, as the place was called, was no play day. Everybody was busy. The men were at work outside, enlarging the clearing, chopping and burning logs, planting corn and beans, planning for the comfort of their families. Some of them went hunting, to provide meat for the fort; but game was so plentiful that they did not need to go far. Inside the fort, the women and girls were doing a thousand things, cooking and washing, sewing and mending, spinning and weaving. It was not a place in which to feel lonesome.

Yet as to the fort itself, no place could be more lonely. On every side of the clearing the thick woods lay. North, south, east, west, for miles and miles, there seemed to be nothing else. Under the trees the startled deer ran swiftly, the squirrels played among the branches, and at night Betty could hear the wolves howling in the thickets. Now and then some Indians would stroll that way to see what the white men were doing and to smoke the pipe of peace with them.

Soon other families came to Fort Henry, and half a dozen cabins were built in the clearing for them to live in. Indeed, quite a little village sprang up, with a street leading through it straight from the gate of the fort.

"If the Indians ever take the warpath," were the orders, "then every person must hasten inside."

Just then the Revolutionary War began. The battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill were fought. The news of these battles was carried quickly even to the wild Ohio country on the other side of the mountains.

General Hamilton, who was then the lieutenant governor of Canada, was charged with the task of persuading the Indians to help the British. It was easy for him to do this. The red men did not like the Americans to come into their hunting grounds and build forts and make clearings. They were therefore quite ready to join the British and make war upon them. And so, band after band of painted savages were sent skulking through the woods to attack and destroy the settlements along the Ohio.

"I will pay a good price for the scalp of every settler that you bring me," said Hamilton; and this made the savages al the more eager to burn and kill.

It was early in autumn. The woods were just beginning to put on their wonderful colorings of purple and gold. The air was calm and mild. The sun shone gently everyday through a soft mist, giving to the landscape a dreamy, peaceful appearance, such as prevails in the West during what is known as Indian summer.

One morning a messenger came in great haste to Fort Henry. He was from the settlements in Kentucky, and he brought important news.

"Simon Girty, with five hundred painted Indians, is coming up the river," he said. "The savages are traveling fast; they may be here at any hour."

Instantly all was alarm and bustle. The settlers in the village hurried into the fort, taking with them everything they could carry. The cattle also were driven in. The palisade was strengthened. The blockhouses were overhauled. Everything was made ready for a siege.

A little while later, a sentinel on the west side of the fort gave the alarm. Betty Zane, peeping out through a narrow crack in the wall, could see the savages approaching. They came, skulking silently through the woods, dodging behind trees, hiding beneath the underbrush. Soon the forest seemed to be alive with them. The men in the blockhouses began to fire upon them; but they still kept silent, creeping around to the shelter of the cabins in the village.

Then Girty, the leader of the band, came boldly forward, waving a dirty white flag above his head. Betty Zane saw him standing at the window of one of the cabins and calling out that he wished to say something. He was a white man. His hair was long, his face was covered with a rough beard, and he wore an old red coat that had once belonged to a British officer.

All the settlers knew Simon Girty. He had lived with the Indians since childhood. He hated all white people, and especially the settlers in the Ohio country. He was more cruel, more treacherous, more savage, than any Indian.

As soon as the men in the fort saw the white flag, they stopped firing. Then Girty began to read a paper, which he said was from General Hamilton.

"If you will lay down your arms and surrender," said the paper, "no harm shall come to you. You may go back in safety to your old homes on the other side of the mountains. But if you will not do this, your fort will be attacked and destroyed, and every man, woman, and child will be put to death."

"Now, what do you mean to do?" asked Girty. "If you are wise, you will surrender at once."

Colonel Shepherd, the commander of the fort, answered him.

"We all know you, Girty," he said. "Never will we surrender to such a rascal. Never shall you get into this fort so long as there is one person alive to defend it."

The people in the fort shouted, "That's true, Colonel Shepherd!" and clapped their hands in approval. A young man in one of the blockhouses fired at Girty, and caused him to dodge quickly back into the cabin.

Then the fighting began in earnest. The yells of the Indians were dreadful to hear. From behind bushes, rocks, and trees, they fired into the fort. The men in the blockhouses fired back, but only when some careless redskin showed himself within range of their deadly bullets. Many of the Indians were killed, while not a single white man was touched.

After an hour's fighting of this kind, the firing stopped and the savages ran, pell-mell, back into the woods.

"The cowards have given up the fight," cried one of the young men.

"Not at all," said Colonel Shepherd, who knew them better. "They have not gone far, and they'll be back when we least expect them. This is one of their tricks."

Then he went from one blockhouse to another to tell the men what to do.

"How much powder have we?" he asked.

They looked and were dismayed to find that there was but very little in the fort. The hunters had been careless and had used more than belonged to them.

Then one remembered that he had a little keg of powder in his cabin in the village. "It has never been opened," he said, "and if we only had it now, it would supply all our needs."

"But why did you leave the powder in your cabin? Why didn't you bring it into the fort?" asked the colonel.

"May it please you, sir," was the answer, "I was in such haste that I forgot everything."

"Then," said the colonel, "it is for you to go to the cabin and bring the powder to the fort now."

"It is certain death, Colonel," answered the man.

All knew that the spoke the truth. Although not an Indian was in sight, yet it was felt that every place was closely watched. The cabin where the powder was hidden was sixty yards from the gate of the fort. Before a man could reach it a dozen Indian guns would be leveled at him.

Colonel Shepherd understood this well, but he knew that the lives of all in the fort depended upon getting that powder.

"Who will volunteer to go after it?" he asked.

The men looked at one another and grew pale, but no one answered.

Then the colonel explained that as soon as the little powder which was then in the blockhouses was used up, they would all be at the mercy of the savages. But if they could secure the keg that had been left in the cabin, they might still win the day.

"Will no one volunteer?" he asked again.

Three or four boys and young men answered, "Yes. We will go."

"But I cannot spare so many of you," said the colonel. "There are not more than twenty of us, all told, and to lose three or four would be almost as bad as to lose the powder. Only one can go. Who will it be?"

"I!" "I!" "I!" cried each of the young men.

"I will go," said one.

"No, you won't. I spoke first, and I will go," said another.

Thus they began to dispute; and the time was passing. Even now, a few Indians could be seen skulking back among the trees. Soon it would be too late to make the attempt.

Then it was that Betty Zane came forward.

"Let me go," she said. "I am of no use here in the fort. I cannot fight, but I can bring the powder."

"There is great danger," said Colonel Shepherd. "It would be at the risk of your life."

"Yes," said the young men; "and it is for us to protect the women and children from harm. We cannot allow you to go. What if you should be killed?"

"That is the very question," said Betty. "If I should be killed it would be but a small loss, for I am useless here. But if one of you should be killed, the fort would lose a protector. Let me go! I must go."

Betty's father then came forward. "I guess you'd better let her go, Colonel," he said.

It was not time to parley, every moment was precious. Colonel Shepherd saw that the child was determined. "Open the gate, boys," he said.

The gate was opened a very little. Betty pushed through it and ran like a frightened deer toward the cabin. Some Indians who were sneaking about the village saw her. They stopped and looked at her curiously, but did not shoot. Perhaps they were so surprised at the sight that they did not think of their guns. Perhaps they, too, were short of powder and did not wish to waste it on a mere girl. Perhaps they thought it a trick to draw them into some kind of trap or ambush.

At any rate, Betty reached the cabin and found the precious keg of powder. It was not large. She wrapped her apron around it, and holding it close with both arms, started back to the fort.

As she ran, some other Indians saw her. They leveled their guns and fired. The bullets whistled about her ears, but she ran all the faster. Before the Indians could reload, she was inside of the fort and the gate was closed. All the men and boys shouted as they saw her safe, with the keg of powder in her arms.

"My brave girl!" cried her father. He had not time to say more, for there was a great yelling outside and the Indians were seen rushing in a body upon the fort.

The men in the blockhouses were calm and cool. Every shot that they fired counted. The ground was soon strewn with dead and wounded savages. Their companions were obliged to retreat again into the woods.

All that day and all night, the Indians made attack after attack upon the fort. But colonel Shepherd and his handful of men were always on the alert and could not be taken by surprise. Early the next morning a band of about forty hunters and settlers, all well armed, came cautiously toward the fort from the east. They kept out of sight of the Indians, but made signals to the people in the fort.

Colonel Shepherd saw the signals and answered them. Then the hunters and settlers made a swift rush toward the fort. The gate was opened just in the nick of time, and the forty men hastened in. all this was done so quickly and silently that the Indians were taken entirely by surprise. They were discouraged.

"We can never take this fort," they said to Girty. "We shall try no longer, for we should lose everything and gain nothing. We are going back to our own wigwams and our own hunting grounds."

Simon Girty knew that it was useless to argue with them. So he caused the village to be burned, and then returned into the woods with his savage host. Before another day all were many miles on their way toward their homes in the Northwest.

When Colonel Shepherd was asked, "Who saved the day at Fort Henry?" his answer was, "Betty Zane. God bless her!"