The breakfast in the barn was dispatched speedily and in silence; and then Graham, drawing his pipe from his pocket, and lighting it by a flash from his pistol, seated himself upon an upturned bushel measure, and called his men to order for consultation. As to their own movements, they must wait, of course, for David's return before they could decide. Meanwhile another inquiry, of no less importance, was, what should be done with their captive? They could not talk of this very freely in his presence; so one of their number was directed to take him aside to one of the stables, where he would be out of hearing.
Their meeting with him was the one misfortune which threatened to upset all their skillfully devised plans. They had so arranged their proceedings the night before, that the alarm awakened by the robbery should be turned in an entirely different direction, and believed that nobody would think of looking for the perpetrators of it in this out-of-the way region. Three of the party belonged here; two others had relations in the vicinity; so that their presence would occasion no suspicion. Graham and Martin might easily be concealed, it was thought, till a convenient opportunity should be afforded for getting away. But now that they had stumbled upon Chauncey, all this went for naught. If he was released, he would disclose their secret and concealment would be impossible. If he was not released, his disappearance itself would create an alarm, in that very neighborhood, which would surely lead to a discovery.
The consultation was earnest, but brief. The exigencies of the situation were too obvious to need long consideration. It was very clear that they could not stay in Gunntown, and equally clear that they must not release their prisoner. But what should they do with him? He might be kept in confinement at Mr. Wooster's, or some of the other tory houses, till they could get away; but this would be at the utmost peril of their friends, or whoever should be engaged in it. They might take him along with them; but he would encumber their flight, and expose them every moment to discovery. To every suggestion they could think of, there were insuperable objections.
At last Graham, waxing impatient, exclaimed, with an oath,–
What a fuss you make about the boy! I say
now, there's only one thing to be done, and if it an't
pleasant, you have to come to it. We must put him
out of the way, and then run for it. Dead men tell
no tales, you know. In time of war, it's kill or be
killed; and when it comes to that, I an't long in
choosing which. Probably it is something worse
than that now. It is kill or – Newgate, or some such
cursed nonsense as that.
The rest of the party at first stood aghast at this speech. Bad as they were, they were not yet prepared for downright murder. And yet, it was easier to object than it was to find any other way out of the difficulty. Graham was resolute, and, as he was wont to be when opposed, overbearing. They needn't soil their lily hands, he said; he would do the job himself. Let them show him a place where the body might be easily disposed of, and he would soon relieve them of the burden. He only wished he could get rid of the whole Yankee race as easily.
At that time the low grounds adjacent to Mr. Gunn's house, now a beautiful meadow, were covered with a thicket of alders and swamp willows. Through this ran the Longmeadow Brook, a good-sized millstream, then, under the melting of the snows and copious March rains, flowing in full banks, and with a swift and strong current. In this thicket a deed of crime like that suggested might be committed without molestation, and any one of the numerous eddies of the brook would afford a place where a body might be sunk out of sight. After a little more demurring from some of the party, it was concluded to take the lad thither.
The distance from the barn to the swamp was only a few rods, down a lane, between two stone walls, which served the cattle as a path to water. Calling Chauncey and his keeper from the stable, the men set off down the lane, after reconnoitering the house and road, to ascertain that nobody was in sight. The young man perceived, from the manner of his captors, that something final had been decided on his fate, and began to beg for release. He promised most solemnly that he would keep his meeting with them a secret, but it was without avail. Little was said to him in reply, and the whole party only hurried forward as fast as possible.
An open spot was found among the bushes, near where the stream made a deep pool of dark water, flecked with foam from the rapids above. Chauncey was dragged to the brink, and bidden to fall upon his knees, while Graham, with a loaded musket, withdrew a short distance from him.
Young man, he said, in a low, but determined
you must prepare to die! We are very sorry
it has come to this, – sorry that we met you at all, –
but it can't be helped now. It's hard, I admit; but
you are young, and haven't so much to answer for as
some that are older, and that's in your favor. So you
must make the best of it and submit. Say your
prayers as quick as you can. We have no time to
waste, but will give you ten minutes to do it in.
We cannot attempt to depict the consternation of the poor lad at this announcement. Dark as his forebodings had been, he had not dreamed of this, and the sudden shock almost deprived him reason as well as speech. Rallying again in a moment, he instinctively fell on his knees to beg for his life. He besought them to have pity upon him. He protested that he had no wish to injure them, and repeated the most solemn promises, that if they would release him, he would never reveal their presence in the neighborhood to any human being. He turned to the young men with whom he had been acquainted, and whom he had met at huskings and merry-makings, and entreated them to save him. All seemed in vain. Graham stood immovable, with his watch held forth in his open hand, counting off the minutes as they passed.
Three, four, five!
God in heaven! cried the boy, frantically,
me! Oh, mother, mother! – for in the hour of mortal
anguish, the heart leaps unconsciously to hide itself
upon the bosom which was so oft a safe place from
infancy's fears –
save me! save your boy!
Seven, eight! said Graham, in unaltered tones.
The agonizing cry of the lad sank into a low inarticulate moan of despair. The robbers stood like statues in silence, but with faces that revealed some misgivings within. It must have been a hard heart indeed that could resist such pleadings of innocence and helplessness unmoved.
Nine, ten! time's up! exclaimed the captain,
returning the watch to his pocket, and raising the
musket to his shoulder.
At that moment Henry Wooster sprang forward and clapped his hand over the muzzle.
No, captain, said he,
don't fire; it's too bad!
Get out of the way! thundered the ruffian,
I'll blow your hand off!
Almost at the same moment both Cady and Scott interposed, rushing in between him and Chauncey. Wooster seized the gun and raised the muzzle into the air. He was, though slender, a powerful young man, and once roused to his full energy, was not to be trifled with. With an oath that outdid for the moment the captain's own, he said,–
You shan't kill him! He hasn't done us any
harm, and it's a mean, cowardly trick to shoot an unarmed
boy like him, just to save your precious carcass.
You've got to shoot me first!
And me too! cried the others;
and the planted themselves firmly as a screen before
the kneeling figure of the youth.
Graham was pale with rage. He vented his anger in the most passionate curses. But he saw that he must desist from his purpose, at least for that time. Great as was his influence over men ordinarily, there was a point beyond which they would not go. That point was reached, and he was obliged sulkily to acquiesce.
Before the altercation had subsided, a rustling was heard in the thicket near by, and suddenly David Wooster sprang into the open space among them.
Are you crazy, men? he shouted, in a hoarse
I heard you swearing clear up to the barn,
and in that way found out where you were. If you
are going to wrangle like this, we shall have all the
rebels in Waterbury down upon us before night.
What's the row, anyway?
Oh, David! cried the respited boy,
Don't let them shoot me!
Shoot you? Of course he won't I say, Captain,
Judd shan't be hurt. He's an old schoolfellow and
neighbor of mine, and I'll stand by him if he is a
Come, fellows, he added;
I've seen the old
folks, and the coast is clear. We can stay there safely
till night, and then we'll see what's to be done. But
don't go back to the barn now. Keep along here in
the swamp, out of sight, till you get near the house,
and then mind your chance, and you will get in without
being seen. Our things will be safe where they
are for a while, and father will send a team, by and
by, to take them home.
So saying, he led the way, by paths with which he was familiar, through the swamp and the adjacent fields, till they all arrived safely at Mr. Wooster's. Henry and David kept Chauncey near to them, not only to prevent his escape, but to secure him from harm by Graham, who muttered imprecations on his soul, if he was going to be foiled by a set of white-livered cowards like them.