Western Characters Part 9

Five days afterward the troops took up the line of march for the frontier. Hull had not yet surrendered Michigan; but Proctor had so stirred up the Indians (who, until then, had been quiet since the battle of Tippecanoe), as to cut off all communication with the advanced settlements, and even to threaten the latter with fire and slaughter.

Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, were then overrun by British and Indians; for Hopkins had not yet commenced his march from Kentucky, and Congress was still debating measures for protection. Hull's surrender took place on the sixteenth of August, eighteen hundred and twelve, and in the following month, General Harrison, having been appointed to the chief command in the northwest, proceeded to adopt vigorous measures for the defence of the country. It was to one of the regiments organized by him, that our friends from Virginia found themselves attached. They had raised a company of spies, and in this both Stone and Cutler held commissions.

They marched with the regiment, or rather in advance of it, for several weeks. By that time, they had penetrated many miles beyond the settlements, and Harrison began to feel anxious to ascertain the position of General Hopkins, and open communications with him. For this service Cutler volunteered, and was immediately selected by the general. On the following morning, he set out with five men to seek the Kentuckians. He found them without difficulty and delivered his despatches; but from that day he was not seen, either in the camp of Hopkins or in that of Harrison! It was supposed that he had started on his return, and been taken or killed by the Indians, parties of whom were prowling about between the lines of the two columns.

Stone remained with his company two or three months longer, when, the enterprise of Hopkins having failed, and operations being suspended for the time, it was thought inexpedient to retain them for the brief period which remained of their term of enlistment, and they were discharged.

Stone returned home, and, full of antic.i.p.ations, the growth of a long absence, hastened at once to his own house. The door was closed, no smoke issued from the chimney, there was no one there! After calling in vain for a long time, he ran away to her father's, endeavoring to feel certain that he would find her there. But the old man received him with a mournful shake of the head. Margaret had been gone more than a month, no one knew whither or with whom!

A report had been in circulation that Cutler was seen in the neighborhood, a few days before her disappearance; but no news having been received of his absence from the army, it had not been generally credited. But now, it was quite clear!

The old man invited Stone to enter, but he declined. Sitting down on a log, he covered his face with his hands, for a few moments, and seemed buried in grief. It did not last long, however: he rose almost immediately, and going a little aside, calmly loaded his rifle. Without noticing the old man, who stood gazing at him in wonder, he turned away, and, with his eyes fixed upon the ground, took the path toward his own house. He was seen to break the door and enter, but he remained within only a few minutes. On coming out, he threw his rifle over his shoulder, and walked away through the forest. Half an hour afterward, smoke was seen issuing from the roof of the house in several places, and on repairing thither, the neighbors found the whole place in a bright flame! It was of no use to attempt to save it or any of its contents. An hour afterward, it was a heap of smouldering ruins, and its owner had disappeared from the country!

Seven years pa.s.sed away.

The war was over: the Indians had been driven to the north and west, and the tide of emigration had again set toward the Mississippi. The northwestern territory--especially that part of it which is now included within the limits of Illinois and Indiana--was rapidly filling up with people from the south and east. The advanced settlements had reached the site of Springfield, in the "Sangamon country,"[78] now the capital of Illinois, and a few farms were opened in the north of Madison county--now Morgan and Scott. The beautiful valley, most inaptly called, of the _Mauvaisterre_, was then an unbroken wilderness.

The gra.s.s was growing as high as the head of a tall man, where now well-built streets and public squares are traversed by hurrying crowds.

Groves which have since become cla.s.sic were then impenetrable thickets; and the only guides the emigrant found, through forest and prairie, were the points of the compa.s.s, and the courses of streams. But in the years eighteen hundred and seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, the western slope of the Sangamon country began rapidly to improve. Reports had gone abroad of "the fertility of its soil, the beauty of its surface, its genial climate, and its many advantages of position"--and there is certainly no country which more richly deserves these praises.

But the first emigrant who made his appearance here, in the autumn of eighteen hundred and nineteen, was probably moved by other considerations. It was none other than Abram Cutler! And his family consisted of a wife and three young children! That wife was Margaret Roberts--or rather Margaret Stone; for, notwithstanding the representations of Cutler, her union with Stone had been perfectly legal. By what arts he had succeeded in inducing her to elope with him, we can only judge from his previous proceedings; but this is certain, that resentment toward Stone, who, she probably believed, had unfairly trapped her, was as likely to move her impulsive and unstable spirit, as any other motive. Add to this, the wound given to her vanity by the sudden departure of her young husband upon a long campaign, with the acuteness given to this feeling by the arts of Cutler, and we shall not be at a loss to explain her action.

Whether she had not bitterly repented her criminal haste, we know not; but that hardship and suffering of some sort had preyed upon her spirit, was evident in her appearance. Her beauty was much faded; she had grown pale and thin; and though she was scarcely yet in the prime of womanhood, her step was heavy and spiritless. She was not happy, of course, but her misery was not only negative: the gnawings of remorse were but too positive and real!

Cutler was changed almost as much as his victim. The lapse of seven years had added a score to his apparent age; and, if we are to credit the representations of persons who were probably looking for signs of vice, the advance of time had brought out, in well-marked lineaments, upon his countenance, the evil traits of his character. His cheeks were sunken, his features attenuated, and his figure exceedingly spare, but he still exhibited marks of great personal strength and activity. His glance, always of doubtful meaning, was now unsettled and furtive; and I have heard one of the actors in this history a.s.sert, that it had a scared, apprehensive expression, as if he were in constant expectation of meeting a dangerous enemy.

Nor is this at all improbable, for during the seven years which had elapsed since the consummation of his design upon Margaret, he had emigrated no less than three times--frightened away, at each removal, by some intimation, or suspicion, that the avenger was on his track! No wonder that his look was wary, and his face pale and haggard!

On this, his fourth migration, he had crossed the prairies from the waters of the Wabash; and having placed the wide expanse of waving plain between him and the settlements, he at length considered himself safe from pursuit. Pa.s.sing by the little trading-station, where Springfield now stands, he traversed the beautiful country lying between that and the Mauvaisterre. But the alternation of stately timber and lovely prairie had no charms for him: he sought not beauty or fertility, but seclusion; for his pilgrimage had become wearisome, and his step was growing heavy. Remorse was at his heart, and fear--the appealing face of his patient victim kept his crime in continual remembrance--and he knew, that like a blood-hound, his enemy was following behind. It was a weary load! No wonder that his cheeks were thin or his eyes wild!

He pa.s.sed on till he came to a quiet, secluded spot, where he thought himself not likely soon to be disturbed by emigration. It was sixteen miles west of the place where Jacksonville has since been built, upon the banks of the lower Mauvaisterre, seven miles from the Illinois river. The place was long known as Cutler's grove, but a town grew up around it, and has been christened by the sounding name of Exeter. Those who visit it now, and have heard the story of Cutler, will commend his judgment in selecting it for retirement; for, town as it is, a more secluded, dreamy little place is nowhere to be found. It would seem that the pa.s.sage of a carriage through its _street_--for it has but one--would be an event in its history; and the only things which redeem it, in the fancy, from the category of visionary existences, are a blacksmith's shop and a mill!

But Cutler's trail was seen upon the prairies, and the course of many an emigrant was determined by the direction taken by his predecessor. It was not long before others came to "settle" in the neighborhood.

Emigration was gradually encroaching, also, from the south; families began to take possession of the river "bottoms;" the smoke from frontier cabins ascended in almost every point of timber; and by the summer of eighteen hundred and twenty, Cutler found himself as far from the frontier as ever! But he was resolved not to move again: a dogged spirit--half weariness, half despair--had taken possession of him. "I have moved often enough," he said to Margaret, "and here I am determined to remain, come what may!"

Actuated by such feelings--goaded by a fear which he could not conquer, and yet was resolute not to indulge--the lurking devil in his nature could not long remain dormant. Nothing develops evil tendencies so rapidly as the consciousness of wrong and the fear of punishment. His life soon became reckless and abandoned, and the first sign of his degradation was his neglect of his household. For days together Margaret saw nothing of him; his only companions were the worthless and outlawed; and, when intoxicating liquors could be procured, which was, fortunately, not often, he indulged in fearful excesses.

Of evil company, there was, unhappily, but too much; for the settlement was cursed with a band of desperadoes, exiles from organized society, who had sought the frontier to obtain impunity for their misdeeds. The leaders of this band were three brothers, whom no law could control, no obligation restrain; and with these men Cutler soon formed a close and suspicious intimacy. The eyes of the citizens had been for some time directed toward the companions, by circ.u.mstances attending various depredations; and, though unknown to themselves, they were constantly watched by many of their neighbors. It is uncertain whether Cutler was acquainted with the character of the men when his a.s.sociation with them first commenced, for in none of the places where he had lived, had he hitherto been suspected of crime. It is most probable that he sought their company because they were "dissipated" like himself; and that, in the inception of their acquaintance, there was no other bond between them than the habit of intoxication.

Had we time and s.p.a.ce, we would fain pause here to reflect upon the position and feelings of the false wife--deserted, in her turn, by him for whom she had given up truth and honor--alone in the wilderness with her children, whose birth she could not but regret, and hara.s.sed by thoughts which could not but be painfully self-condemning. But we must hasten on.

In the autumn of eighteen hundred and twenty, information was brought to the settlement, that a store at Springfield (as it is now called), had been entered and robbed--that the leaders of the desperadoes above alluded to, were suspected--and that the goods stolen were believed to be concealed in Cutler's grove, where they lived. Warrants were issued, and the three were arrested; but the magistrate before whom they were taken for examination, was a timid and ignorant man; and by the interference of Cutler, who a.s.sumed to be a lawyer, they were examined separately, and allowed to testify, each for the other! An officer who knew no more than to permit this, of course could do no less than discharge them. The arrest and examination, however, crude and informal as they were, confirmed the suspicions of the citizens, and directed them, more vehemently than ever, against Cutler, as well as his friends.

It satisfied them, moreover, that they would never be able to reach these men through the ordinary forms of law, and strengthened the counsels of those who had already suggested the organization of a company of regulators.

While these things were fermenting in the minds of the people, the desperadoes, encouraged by their success, and rendered bold by impunity, committed their depredations more frequently and openly than ever. It was remarked, too, that Cutler, having committed himself at the examination of friends, was now more constantly and avowedly their a.s.sociate; and, since he was not a man to play a second part, that they deferred to him on all occasions, never moving without him, and treating him at all times as an acknowledged leader. The people observed, moreover, that from being, like his neighbors, a small farmer of limited possessions, he rose rapidly to what, on the frontier, was considered affluence. He soon ceased to labor on his lands, and set up a very considerable "store," importing his goods from Saint Louis, and, by means of the whiskey he sold, collecting all the idle and vicious of the settlement constantly about him. His "store" was in exceedingly bad repute, and the scanty reputation which he had retained after the public part he had taken before the magistrate, was speedily lost.

Things were in this state in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty-one, when an old gentleman of respectable appearance, who had emigrated to this country by water, having been pleased with the land in the neighborhood of the place where the town of Naples now stands, landed his family and effects, and settled upon the "bottom." It was soon rumored in the settlement, that he had brought with him a large amount of money; and it was also remarked that Cutler and his three companions were constantly with him, either at the "Grove" or on the "bottom." Whether the rumor was the cause of their attention, or their a.s.siduity the foundation of the report, the reader must determine for himself.

One evening in May, after a visit to this man, where Cutler had been alone, he came home in great haste, and suddenly announced to Margaret his intention to "sell out," and move further westward! His unhappy victim supposed she knew but too well the meaning of this new movement: she asked no questions, but, with a sigh of weariness, a.s.sented. On the following day, he commenced hastily disposing of his "store," his stock, his cabin--everything, in fact, save a few farming utensils, his furniture, and a pair of horses. It was observed--for there were many eyes upon him--that he never ventured out after twilight, and, even in the broad sunshine, would not travel far, alone or unarmed. In such haste did he seem, that he sold many of his goods at, what his friends considered, a ruinous sacrifice. The fame of great bargains brought many people to his counter, so that, within ten days, his arrangements were complete; and, much to the satisfaction of his neighbors, he set out toward the river.

Two of his a.s.sociates accompanied him on his journey--a precaution for which he would give no reason, except that he wished to converse with them on the way. He crossed the Illinois near the mouth of the Mauvaisterre, and, turning northward, in the evening reached a cabin on the banks of M'Kee's creek, not more than ten miles from his late residence. This house had been abandoned by its former occupant, on account of the forays of the Indians; but was now partially refitted, as for a temporary abode. Here, the people about "the grove" were surprised to learn, a few days after Cutler's departure, that he had halted with the apparent intention to remain, at least for some time.

Their surprise was dissipated, however, within a very few weeks. The old gentleman, spoken of above, had left home upon a visit to Saint Louis; and during his absence, his house had been entered, and robbed of a chest containing a large amount of money--while the family were intimidated by the threats of men disguised as savages.

This was the culmination of villany. The settlement was now thoroughly aroused; and, when one of these little communities was once in earnest, it might safely be predicted that _something_ would be _done_!

The first step was to call "a meeting of the friends of law and order;"

but no proclamation was issued, no handbills were circulated, no notices posted: not the least noise was made about the matter, lest those against whom it was to act, might hear of and prepare for it. They came together quietly but speedily--each man, as he heard of the appointment, going forthwith to his neighbor with the news. They a.s.sembled at a central point, where none need be late in coming, and immediately proceeded to business. The meeting was not altogether a formal one--for purposes prescribed by law--but it was a characteristic of those men, to do everything "decently and in order"--to give all their proceedings the sanction and solemnity of mature deliberation. They organized the a.s.semblage regularly--calling one of the oldest and most respectable of their number "to the chair" (which, on this occasion, happened to be the root of a large oak), and appointing a younger man secretary (though they gave him no desk on which to write). There was no man there who did not fully understand what had brought them together; but one who lived in the "bottom," and had been the mover of the organization, was still called upon to "explain the object of the meeting." This he did in a few pointed sentences, concluding with these significant words: "My friends, it is time that these rascals were punished, and it is our duty to punish them."

He sat down, and a silence of some moments ensued, when another arose, and, without any preliminary remarks, moved that "a company of regulators be now organized, and that they be charged with the duty of _seeing the law administered_." The motion was seconded by half a dozen voices--the question was put in due form by the chairman, and decided unanimously in the affirmative.

A piece of paper was produced, and the presiding officer called on the meeting for volunteers. Ten young men stepped forward, and gave their names as rapidly as the secretary could enrol them. In less than five minutes, the company was complete--the chairman and four of the meeting, as a committee, were directed to retire with the volunteers, and see that they were fully organized--and the meeting adjourned. All, except the volunteers and the committee, went directly home--satisfied that the matter needed no further attention. Those who remained entered the house and proceeded to organize in the usual manner.

A "compact" was drawn up, by the terms of which the regulators bound themselves to each other, and to their neighbors, to ferret out and punish the perpetrators of the offences, which had recently disturbed the peace of the settlement, and to rid the country of such villains as were obnoxious to the friends of law and order. This was then signed by the volunteers as princ.i.p.als, and by the committee, as witnesses; and was placed in the hands of the chairman of the meeting for safekeeping.

It is said to be still in existence, though I have never seen it, and do not know where it is to be found.

When this arrangement was completed, the committee retired, and the company repaired to the woods, to choose a leader. They were not long in selecting a certain Major B----, who had, for some weeks, made himself conspicuous, by his loud denunciations of Cutler and his a.s.sociates, and his zealous advocacy of "strong measures." They had--one or two of them, at least--some misgivings about this appointment; for the major was inclined to be a bl.u.s.terer, and the courage of these men was eminently silent. But after a few minutes' discussion, the matter was decided, and the leader was chosen without opposition. They at once dispersed, to make arrangements for the performance of their duties--having first appointed an hour and a place of meeting. They were to a.s.semble at sunset on the same day, at the point where the state road now crosses the "bluff;" and were to proceed thence, without delay, to Cutler's house on M'Kee's creek, a distance of little more than eight miles. There they were to search for the stolen property, and whether they found it or not, were resolved to notify Cutler to leave the country. But under no circ.u.mstances were they to take his life, unless it became necessary in self-defence.

The hour came, and with it, to the bluff, came all the regulators--_save one_. But that one was a very important personage--none other, indeed, than the redoubtable major, who was to head the party. The nine were there a considerable time before sunset, and waited patiently for their captain's arrival; though, already, there were whisperings from those who had been doubtful of him in the outset, that he would not keep his appointment. And these were right--for, though they waited long beyond the time, the absentee did not make his appearance. It was afterward ascertained that he excused himself upon the plea of sudden illness; but he was very well again on the following day, and his excuse was not received. The ridicule growing out of the affair, and his reduction from the rank of major to that of captain, in derision, finally drove him in disgrace from the country.

His defection left the little company without a leader; and though they were determined not to give up the enterprise, an obstacle to its prosecution arose, in the fact that no one was willing to replace the absent captain. Each was anxious to play the part of a private, and all had come prepared to discharge the duties of the expedition, to the utmost of their ability. But they were all young men, and no one felt competent to take the responsibility of command.

They were standing in a group, consulting eagerly about their course, and, as one of them afterward said, "nearly at their wits' end," when the circle was suddenly entered by another. He had come upon them so noiselessly, and they had been so much absorbed in their council, that no one saw him until he stood in their midst. Several of them, however, at once recognised him, as a hunter who had recently appeared in the southern part of the county, and had lived a singularly solitary life.

No one knew his name, but, from his mode of life, he was already known among those who had heard of him, as "the wild hunter." He was but little above the medium height, and rather slender in figure; but he was well and firmly built, and immediately impressed them with the idea of great hardihood and activity. His face, though bronzed by exposure, was still handsome and expressive; but there was a certain wildness in the eye, and a compression about the mouth, which gave it the expression of fierceness, as well as resolution. He was dressed in a hunting-shirt and "leggings" of deer-skin, fringed or "fingered" on the edges; and his head and feet were covered, the one by a cap of panther's hide, and the others by moccasins of dressed buckskin. At his belt hung a long knife, and in his hand he carried a heavy "Kentucky rifle."

As he entered the circle, he dropped the breech of the latter to the ground, and, leaning calmly upon the muzzle, quietly surveyed the countenances of the group, in profound silence. The regulators were too much surprised to speak while this was going on; and the stranger seemed to be in no haste to open the conversation. When he had finished his scrutiny, however, he stepped back a pace or two, and resuming his easy att.i.tude, addressed them:--

"You must pardon me, my friends," he commenced, "when I tell you, that I have overheard all you have said in the last half hour. I did not remain in that thicket, however, for the purpose of eaves-dropping; but having accidentally heard one of you mention a name, the sound of which touches a chord whose vibrations you can not understand, I remained, almost against my own will, to learn more. I thus became acquainted with the object of your meeting, and the dilemma in which you find yourselves placed by the absence of your leader. Now, I have but little interest in this settlement, and none in the preservation of peace, or the vindication of law, anywhere: but I have been seeking this man, Cutler, of whom you spoke, nearly nine years. I supposed, a few days ago, that I had at last found him; but on going to his house, I learned that he had once more emigrated toward the west. You seem to know where he is to be found, and are without a leader: I wish to find him, and, if you will accept my services, will fill the place of your absent captain!"

He turned away as he finished, allowing them an opportunity for consultation among themselves. The question was soon decided: they called him back--announced their willingness to accept him as their leader--and asked his name.

"My name is _Stone_," he replied.

It was after nightfall when the little party set out from the bluff.

Receive SMS and Send Text Online for free >>

« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»

Novel »
Next  »