Gessler was dead, slain by an arrow from the bow of William Tell. As soon as the news became spread abroad, signal fires were lighted on every mountain, and the hardy mountaineers came together from every direction, armed and ready to fight for liberty. They were determined that Switzerland should be free of the Austrian oppression.
One morning early, a band of men approached the castle of Landenburg, one of the oppressive Austrian governors. He was on the point of leaving his castle, when he was met by this band of twenty mountaineers, who said to him, "Sir, according to our custom, we are bringing you a gift of calves, goats, sheep, fowls and hares. We pray you to accept this gift and let us take it into the court-yard of your castle."
Landenburg was much pleased with the present, and ordered the gates to be opened that the men might enter. No sooner, however, had they entered than one of them blew a horn very loudly, and at once each of them drew from behind his doublet a steel blade, which he attached to the end of his staff. Other men rushed from the neighboring wood and made for the open gates. In a few minutes the garrison was overpowered and the castle was captured.
Landenburg and his men fled in haste, but were soon overtaken and brought back to the castle. The patriots made them promise to leave Switzerland and never return, on the condition that they would spare their lives. To this they very cheerfully consented and for awhile Switzerland was free of the Austrian governors.
All this did not stop Albert of Austria, who claimed the land of Switzerland as his own.
"I shall teach those rebels a lesson," said he, and proceeded to raise an army to march against them. But Albert had his own enemies to deal with, and among them was his nephew, the Duke of Swabia. As the Austrian forces marched into Swabia, they approached a river over which Albert and his forces had to be ferried. A few of them had crossed the river when the Duke of Swabia suddenly rushed upon Albert and buried his lance in his neck, exclaiming, "This is the end of you and of your unjust tyranny!"
Others rode upon the unfortunate Albert, stabbing him with daggers, while one of his followers cleft his head in twain with his sword. The conspirators fled, leaving the dying man to breathe his last, with his head supported in the lap of a peasant woman, who had witnessed the murder and had hurried to the scene.
It is needless to say that all this pleased the Swiss very much. They now had time to cement their government and to form their confederacy, which was the foundation of the liberty that they enjoy to the present day.
A number of years passed before the Austrians undertook to reduce the Swiss to subjection. One morning a band of Austrian horsemen went slowly up the Swiss mountains with their spears and lances gleaming in the sun, intent upon invading the Swiss territory. There were knights clad in armor and valiant soldiers who, up to this time, had not known defeat. At the head of the group rode Leopold, one of the bravest knights of Austria, and following him came the rank and file of the Austrian army.
Landenburg was with them, also; he who had been driven from Switzerland seven years before and now swore vengeance against those who had seized his castle and expelled him from his possessions. He had been set free, with the understanding that he would never return to Switzerland, but in defiance of his vow he was coming back. There were also several members of the family of Gessler, the tyrant that Tell's arrow had slain.
Up the mountain pass went the knights and soldiers very gaily. It was a beautiful day in early autumn and there were no signs or sounds of the Swiss near-by. The Austrians were confident of victory, and their voices rang out in laughter and in disdain as they contemplated the vengeance which they would wreak upon the Swiss, who they thought were no soldiers and would flee before them like chaff before the wind.
Duke Leopold was astride a noble horse. Attached to his saddle was a long coil of rope. One of the knights said to him, "My lord, what do you intend to do with that rope which I see is attached to your saddle-bow?"
"With this rope I intend to hang the leaders of the rebels. I think I have enough to hang every mountaineer that shall come against us," said he laughingly.
Still there was no sign of the Swiss on any side. The Austrian army rode forward more like a pleasure excursion than an army bound upon conquest.
"I fear the Swiss have fled over their mountains or have crawled into their cliffs," said Duke Leopold. "We shall have to rout them out, if we expect to capture them."
A knight riding by his side remarked, "They have killed one governor and expelled another, but they shall find that the eagle of Austria will descend upon them and take its bloody vengeance."
Thus the Austrians were too confident of victory. By the middle of the day they found themselves at the entrance to a pass or gap in the mountains, such as is frequent in the Swiss highlands. The road was narrow, and on both sides, for quite a distance, the cliffs rose precipitously. It was a narrow and dangerous ravine wedged between the hills. Silence fell upon the advancing host, as if they had a premonition of disaster. They were now in the pass of Morgarten. The duke remarked, "This looks dangerous to me, and if I were not marching against so ignorant a body of soldiers, I should fear the pass; but let us spur on, for beyond is the open land with villages of the peasantry."
In a short while, most of the advance guard was in the middle of the pass. It was the flower of the Austrian army and nobility. Suddenly the stillness was broken by loud cries from the cliffs about them on both sides. Answering the cries, the knights looked up in alarm, and saw immense boulders beginning to loosen themselves from the sides of the mountains and roll down with irresistible force. It was too late to turn back, because in an instant the descending rocks were upon them. They came plunging down the mountain side and fell upon the mail-clad and crowded ranks in the narrow pass. The helmets of the knights cracked like shells. The armor was no protection, and men were crushed into shapeless masses, and buried beneath the weight of the rocks and dirt as it descended upon them in great masses.
There were no means to fight this unseen foe, with its avalanche of stones against which there was no resistance. The pass was closed in front of them and behind them; horses began to rear and plunge and crushed the knights beneath them. Still death-dealing rocks came down, smashing the armor as if it were pasteboard. Soon the pass was filled with dead and dying men.
Strange to say, all this had been accomplished by fifty men who, on learning that Switzerland was in danger, had stationed themselves among the cliffs in the mountain pass and had provided themselves with means for loosening the great stones which lay plentifully around them. As a matter of fact, these patriots, when they were apprised of the approach of the Austrians, had taken the advice of an old Swiss mountaineer, named Redin, who was too old and infirm to be among the party and yet who had much reputation for skill and strategy in war. The warriors stopped by his door on their march against the Austrians and asked, "What can fifty men do to repel the attack of a thousand Austrian horsemen?"
Then old Redin said, "The Swiss passes can be defended against the multitudes if you have faith and but know how. My children, you must block the road and fight them from the clouds. The Morgarten pass is where you will catch them unawares."
Rocks came plunging down the mountain-side.
Hearing the advice of the old warrior and patriot, the fifty men hastened forward and stationed themselves as we have seen.
The Austrian forces were rapidly slain in that narrow passage, unable to escape the descending stones. With rearing horses trampling them underfoot, the knights and men were crushed beyond recognition, and it seemed as if the whole army would be annihilated.
Landenburg fell, instantly killed. Two of the relatives of Gessler were also slain. The Duke Leopold himself narrowly escaped from the vengeance of the mountaineers. Managing to climb over the stones which blocked his path, he fled at full speed before the pursuit of the Swiss soldiers, which were stationed on either side of the pass to attack those who fled from it.
The poor duke managed to escape his pursuers, and calling upon a peasant, who did not recognize him, said, "For heaven's sake, my good sir, show me a pass through this ravine and I shall pay you well. My pursuers are upon me and I am no enemy of this country."
The peasant, deceived by the duke's words and desiring to help a stranger, led him through the pass and brought him to safety. He returned to his own land in the utmost dejection, leaving most of his army dead in the pass, or strewn by the side of the lake where they had been attacked and killed by the Swiss patriots.
There was now great rejoicing in Switzerland. A few men hurling stones, assisted by a body of others ready to avenge their country's wrongs, had overwhelmed a great Austrian army. Peace was concluded between the hardy mountaineers and their oppressors, and that portion of Switzerland was free, and from that day to this they have never surrendered their liberty.