The Scouts of the Valley by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter II. The Mysterious Hand
Henry slept until a rosy light, filtering through the leaves, fell upon his face. Then he sprang up, folded the blanket once more upon his back, and looked about him. Nothing had come in the night to disturb him, no enemy was near, and the morning sun was bright and beautiful. The venison was exhausted, but he bathed his face in the brook and resumed his journey, traveling with a long, swift stride that carried him at great speed.
The boy was making for a definite point, one that he knew well, although nearly all the rest of this wilderness was strange to him. The country here was rougher than it usually is in the great valley to the west, and as he advanced it became yet more broken, range after range of steep, stony hills, with fertile but narrow little valleys between. He went on without hesitation for at least two hours, and then stopping under a great oak he uttered a long, whining cry, much like the howl of a wolf.
It was not a loud note, but it was singularly penetrating, carrying far through the forest. A sound like an echo came back, but Henry knew that instead of an echo it was a reply to his own signal. Then he advanced boldly and swiftly and came to the edge of a snug little valley set deep among rocks and trees like a bowl. He stopped behind the great trunk of a beech, and looked into the valley with a smile of approval.
Four human figures were seated around a fire of smoldering coals that gave forth no smoke. They appeared to be absorbed in some very pleasant task, and a faint odor that came to Henry's nostrils filled him with agreeable anticipations. He stepped forward boldly and called:
"Jim, save that piece for me!"
Long Jim Hart halted in mid-air the large slice of venison that he had toasted on a stick. Paul Cotter sprang joyfully to his feet, Silent Tom Ross merely looked up, but Shif'less Sol said:
"Thought Henry would be here in time for breakfast."
Henry walked down in the valley, and the shiftless one regarded him keenly.
"I should judge, Henry Ware, that you've been hevin' a foot race," he drawled.
"And why do you think that?" asked Henry.
"I kin see where the briars hev been rakin' across your leggins. Reckon that wouldn't happen, 'less you was in a pow'ful hurry."
"You're right," said Henry. "Now, Jim, you've been holding that venison in the air long enough. Give it to me, and after I've eaten it I'll tell you all that I've been doing, and all that's been done to me."
Long Jim handed him the slice. Henry took a comfortable seat in the circle before the coals, and ate with all the appetite of a powerful human creature whose food had been more than scanty for at least two days.
"Take another piece," said Long Jim, observing him with approval. "Take two pieces, take three, take the whole deer. I always like to see a hungry man eat. It gives him sech satisfaction that I git a kind uv taste uv it myself."
Henry did not offer a word 'of explanation until his breakfast was over. Then lie leaned back, sighing twice with deep content, and said:
"Boys, I've got a lot to tell."
Shif'less Sol moved into an easier position on the leaves.
"I guess it has somethin' to do with them scratches on your leggins."
"It has," continued Henry with emphasis," and I want to say to you boys that I've seen Timmendiquas, the great White Lightning of the Wyandots."
"Timmendiquas!" exclaimed the others together.
"No less a man than he," resumed Henry. " I've looked upon his very face, I've seen him in camp with warriors, and I've had the honor of being pursued by him and his men more hours than I can tell. That's why you see those briar scratches on my leggins, Sol."
"Then we cannot doubt that he is here to stir the Six Nations to continued war," said Paul Cotter, "and he will succeed. He is a mighty chief, and his fire and eloquence will make them take up the hatchet. I'm glad that we've come. We delayed a league once between the Shawnees and the Miamis; I don't think we can stop this one, but we may get some people out of the way before the blow falls."
"Who are these Six Nations, whose name sounds so pow'ful big up here?" asked Long Jim.
"Their name is as big as it sounds," replied Henry. They are the Onondagas, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Senecas, Cayugas, and Tuscaroras. They used to be the Five Nations, but the Tuscaroras came up from the south and fought against them so bravely that they were adopted into the league, as a new and friendly tribe. The Onondagas, so I've heard, formed the league a long, long time ago, and their head chief is the grand sachem or high priest of them all, but the head chief of the Mohawks is the leading war chief."
"I've heard," said Paul, "that the Wyandots are kinsmen of all these tribes, and on that account they will listen with all the more friendliness to Timmendiquas."
"Seems to me," said Tom Ross, "that we've got a most tre-men-je-ous big job ahead."
"Then," said Henry, "we must make a most tremendous big effort."
"That's so," agreed all.
After that they spoke little. The last coals were covered up, and the remainder of the food was put in their pouches. Then they sat on the leaves, and every one meditated until such time as he might have something worth saying. Henry's thoughts traveled on a wide course, but they always came back to one point. They had heard much at Pittsburgh of a famous Mohawk chief called Thayendanegea, but most often known to the Americans as Brant. He was young, able, and filled with intense animosity against the white people, who encroached, every year, more and more upon the Indian hunting grounds. His was a soul full kin to that of Timmendiquas, ;and if the two met it meant a great council and a greater endeavor for the undoing of the white man. What more likely than that they intended to meet?
"All of you have heard of Thayendanegea, the Mohawk?" said Henry.
"It's my opinion that Timmendiquas is on the way to meet him. I remember hearing a hunter say at Pittsburgh that about a hundred miles to the east of this point was a Long House or Council House of the Six Nations. Timmendiquas is sure to go there, and we must go, too. We must find out where they intend to strike. What do you say?"
"We go there!" exclaimed four voices together.
Seldom has a council of war been followed by action so promptly.
As Henry spoke the last word he rose, and tile others rose with him. Saying no more, he led toward the east, and the others followed him, also saying no more. Separately every one of them was strong, brave, and resourceful, but when the five were together they felt that they had the skill and strength of twenty. The long rest at Pittsburgh had restored them after the dangers and hardship of their great voyage from New Orleans.
They carried in horn and pouch ample supplies of powder and bullet, and they did not fear any task.
Their journey continued through hilly country, clothed in heavy forest, but often without undergrowth. They avoided the open spaces, preferring to be seen of men, who were sure to be red men, as little as possible. Their caution was well taken. They saw Indian signs, once a feather that had fallen from a scalp lock, once footprints, and once the bone of a deer recently thrown away by him who had eaten the meat from it. The country seemed to be as wild as that of Kentucky. Small settlements, so they had heard, were scattered at great distances through the forest, but they saw none. There was no cabin smoke, no trail of the plow, just the woods and the hills and the clear streams. Buffalo had never reached this region, but deer were abundant, and they risked a shot to replenish their supplies.
They camped the second night of their march on a little peninsula at the confluence of two creeks, with the deep woods everywhere. Henry judged that they were well within the western range of the Six Nations, and they cooked their deer meat over a smothered fire, nothing more than a few coals among the leaves. When supper was over they arranged soft places for themselves and their blankets, all except Long Jim, whose turn it was to scout among the woods for a possible foe.
"Don't be gone long, Jim," said Henry as he composed himself in a comfortable position. "A circle of a half mile about us will do."
"I'll not be gone more'n an hour," said Long Jim, picking up his rifle confidently, and flitting away among the woods.
" Not likely he'll see anything," said Shif'less Sol, but I'd shorely like to know what White Lightning is about. He must be terrible stirred up by them beatin's he got down on the Ohio, an' they say that Mohawk, Thayendanegea is a whoppin' big chief, too. They'll shorely make a heap of trouble."
"But both of them are far from here just now," said Henry, "and we won't bother about either."
He was lying on some leaves at the foot of a tree with his arm under his head and his blanket over his body. He had a remarkable capacity for dismissing trouble or apprehension, and just then he was enjoying great physical and mental peace. He looked through half closed eyes at his comrades, who also were enjoying repose, and his fancy could reproduce Long Jim in the forest, slipping from tree to tree and bush to bush, and finding no menace.
"Feels good, doesn't it, Henry?" said the shiftless one. " I like a clean, bold country like this. No more plowin' around in swamps for me."
Yes," said Henry sleepily, " it's a good country."
The hour slipped smoothly by, and Paul said:
" Time for Long Jim to be back."
"Jim don't do things by halves," said the shiftless one. "Guess he's beatin' up every squar' inch o' the bushes. He'll be here soon."
A quarter of an hour passed, and Long Jim did not return; a half hour, and no sign of him. Henry cast off the blanket and stood up. The night was not very dark and he could see some distance, but he did not see their comrade.
"I wonder why he's so slow," he said with a faint trace of anxiety.
"He'll be 'long directly," said Tom Ross with confidence.
Another quarter of an hour, and no Long Jim. Henry sent forth the low penetrating cry of the wolf that they used so often as a signal.
"He cannot fail to hear that," he said, "and he'll answer."
No answer came. The four looked at one another in alarm. Long Jim had been gone nearly two hours, and he was long overdue. His failure to reply to the signal indicated either that something ominous had happened or that- he had gone much farther than they meant for him to go.
The others had risen to their feet, also, and they stood a little while in silence.
"What do you think it means?" asked Paul.
"It must be all right," said Shif'less Sol. "Mebbe Jim has lost the camp."
Henry shook his head.
"It isn't that," he said. "Jim is too good a woodsman for such a mistake. I don't want to look on the black side, boys, but I think something has happened to Jim."
"Suppose you an' me go an' look for him," said Shif'less Sol, "while Paul and Tom stay here an' keep house."
"We'd better do it," said Henry. "Come, Sol."
The two, rifles in the hollows of their arms, disappeared in the darkness, while Tom and Paul withdrew into the deepest shadow of the trees and waited.
Henry and the shiftless one pursued an anxious quest, going about the camp in a great circle and then in another yet greater. They did not find Jim, and the dusk was so great that they saw no evidences of his trail. Long Jim had disappeared as completely as if he had left the earth for another planet. When they felt that they must abandon the search for the time, Henry and Shif'less Sol looked at each other in a dismay that the dusk could not hide.
"Mebbe be saw some kind uv a sign, an' has followed it," said the shiftless one hopefully. "If anything looked mysterious an' troublesome, Jim would want to hunt it down."
"I hope so," said Henry, "but we've got to go back to the camp now and report failure. Perhaps he'll show up to-morrow, but I don't like it, Sol, I don't like it!"
"No more do I," said Shif'less Sol. "'Tain't like Jim not to come back, ef he could. Mebbe he'll drop in afore day, anyhow."
They returned to the camp, and two inquiring figures rose up out of the darkness.
"You ain't seen him?" said Tom, noting that but two figures had returned.
"Not a trace," replied Henry. "It's a singular thing."
The four talked together a little while, and they were far from cheerful. Then three sought sleep, while Henry stayed on watch, sitting with his back against a tree and his rifle on his knees. All the peace and content that be had felt earlier in the evening were gone. He was oppressed by a sense of danger, mysterious and powerful. It did not seem possible that Long Jim could have gone away in such a noiseless manner, leaving no trace behind. But it was true.
He watched with both ear and eye as much for Long Jim as for an enemy. He was still hopeful that he would see the long, thin figure coming among the bushes, and then hear the old pleasant drawl. But he did not see the figure, nor did he hear the drawl.
Time passed with the usual slow step when one watches. Paul, Sol, and Tom were asleep, but Henry was never wider awake in his life. He tried to put away the feeling of mystery and danger. He assured himself that Long Jim would soon come, delayed by some trail that he had sought to solve. Nothing could have happened to a man so brave and skillful. His nerves must be growing weak when he allowed himself to be troubled so much by a delayed return.
But the new hours came, one by one, and Long Jim came with none of them. The night remained fairly light, with a good moon, but the light that it threw over the forest was gray and uncanny. Henry's feeling of mystery and danger deepened. Once he thought he heard a rustling in the thicket and, finger on the trigger of his rifle, he stole among the bushes to discover what caused it. He found nothing and, returning to his lonely watch, saw that Paul, Sol, and Tom were still sleeping soundly. But Henry was annoyed greatly by the noise, and yet more by his failure to trace its origin. After an hour's watching he looked a second time. The result was once more in vain, and he resumed his seat upon the leaves, with his back reclining against an oak. Here, despite the fact that the night was growing darker, nothing within range of a rifle shot could escape his eyes.
Nothing stirred. The noise did not come a second time from the thicket. The very silence was oppressive. There was no wind, not even a stray puff, and the bushes never rustled. Henry longed for a noise of some kind to break that terrible, oppressive silence. What he really wished to hear was the soft crunch of Long Jim's moccasins on the grass and leaves.
The night passed, the day came, and Henry awakened his comrades. Long Jim was still missing and their alarm was justified. Whatever trail lie might have struck, he would have returned in the night unless something had happened to him. Henry had vague theories, but nothing definite, and he kept them to himself. Yet they must make a change in their plans. To go on and leave Long Jim to whatever fate might be his was unthinkable. No task could interfere with the duty of the five to one another.
"We are in one of the most dangerous of all the Indian countries," said Henry. "We are on the fringe of the region over which the Six Nations roam, and we know that Timmendiquas and a band of the Wyandots are here also. Perhaps Miamis and Shawnees have come, too."
"We've got to find Long Jim," said Silent Tom briefly.
They went about their task in five minutes. Breakfast consisted of cold venison and a drink from a brook. Then they began to search the forest. They felt sure that such woodsmen as they, with the daylight to help them, would find some trace of Long Jim, but they saw none at all, although they constantly widened their circle, and again tried all their signals. Half the forenoon passed in the vain search, and then they held a council.
I think we'd better scatter," said Shif'less Sol, "an' meet here again when the sun marks noon."
It was agreed, and they took careful note of the place, a little hill crowned with a thick cluster of black oaks, a landmark easy to remember. Henry turned toward the south, and the forest was so dense that in two minutes all his comrades were lost to sight. He went several miles, and his search was most rigid. He was amazed to find that the sense of mystery and danger that he attributed to the darkness of the night did not disappear wholly in the bright daylight. His spirit, usually so optimistic, was oppressed by it, and he had no belief that they would find Long Jim.
At the set time he returned to the little hill crowned with the black oaks, and as he approached it from one side he saw Shif'less Sol coming from another. The shiftless one walked despondently. His gait was loose and shambling-a rare thing with him, and Henry knew that he, too, had failed. He realized now that he had not expected anything else. Shif'less Sol shook his head, sat down on a root and said nothing. Henry sat down, also, and tile two exchanged a look of discouragement.
"The others will be here directly," said Henry, "and perhaps Long Jim will be with one of them."
But in his heart he knew that it would not be so, and the shiftless one knew that he had no confidence in his own words.
" If not," said Henry, resolved to see the better side, we'll stay anyhow until we find him. We can't spare good old Long Jim."
Shif'less Sol did not reply, nor did Henry speak again, until lie saw the bushes moving slightly three or four hundred yards away.
"There comes Tom," he said, after a single comprehensive glance, "and he's alone."
Tom Ross was also a dejected figure. He looked at the two on the hill, and, seeing that the man for whom they were searching was not with them, became more dejected than before.
"Paul's our last chance," he said, as he joined them. He's gen'rally a lucky boy, an' mebbe it will be so with him to-day."
I hope so," said Henry fervently. " He ought to be along in a few minutes."
They waited patiently, although they really had no belief that Paul would bring in the missing man, but Paul was late. The noon hour was well past. Henry took a glance at the sun. Noon was gone at least a half hour, and he stirred uneasily.
"Paul couldn't get lost in broad daylight," he said.
"No," said Shif'less Sol, "he couldn't get lost!"
Henry noticed his emphasis on the word "lost," and a sudden fear sprang up in his heart. Some power had taken away Long Jim; could the same power have seized Paul? It was a premonition, and he paled under his brown, turning away lest the others see his face. All three now examined the whole circle of the horizon for a sight of moving bushes that would tell of the boy's coming.
The forest told nothing. The sun blazed brightly over everything, and Paul, like Long Jim, did not come. He was an hour past due, and the three, oppressed already by Long jim's disappearance, were convinced that he would not return. But they gave him a half hour longer. Then Henry said:
"We must hunt for him, but we must not separate. Whatever happens we three must stay together."
I'm not hankerin' to roam 'roun jest now all by myself," said the shiftless one, with an uneasy laugh.
The three hunted all that afternoon for Paul. Once they saw trace of footsteps, apparently his, in some soft earth, but they were quickly, lost on hard ground, and after that there was nothing. They stopped shortly before sunset at the edge of a narrow but deep creek.
"What do you think of it, Henry?" asked Shif'less Sol.
"I don't know what to think," replied the youth, "but it seems to me that whatever took away Jim has taken away Paul, also."
"Looks like it," said Sol, "an' I guess it follers that we're in the same kind o' danger."
"We three of us could put up a good fight," said Henry, " and I propose that we don't go back to that camp, but spend the night here."
"Yes, an' watch good," said Tom Ross.
Their new camp was made quickly in silence, merely the grass under the low boughs of a tree. Their supper was a little venison, and then they watched the coming of the. darkness. It was a heavy hour for the three. Long Jim was gone, and then Paul-Paul, the youngest, and, in a way, the pet of the little band.
"Ef we could only know how it happened," whispered Shif'less Sol, "then we might rise up an' fight the danger an' git Paul an' Jim back. But you can't shoot at somethin' you don't see or hear. In all them fights o' ours, on the Ohio an' Mississippi we knowed what wuz ag'inst us, but here we don't know nothin'."
" It is true, Sol," sighed Henry. "We were making such big plans, too, and before we can even start our force is cut nearly in half. To-morrow we'll begin the hunt again. We'll never desert Paul and Jim, so long as we don't know they're dead."
"It's my watch," said Tom. "You two sleep. We've got to keep our strength."
Henry and the shiftless one acquiesced, and seeking the softest spots under the tree sat down. Tom Ross took his place about ten feet in front of them, sitting on the ground, with his hands clasped around his knees, and his rifle resting on his arm. Henry watched him idly for a little while, thinking all the time of his lost comrades. The night promised to be dark, a good thing for them, as the need of hiding was too evident.
Shif'less Sol soon fell asleep, as Henry, only three feet away, knew by his soft and regular breathing, but the boy himself was still wide-eyed.
The darkness seemed to sink down like a great blanket dropping slowly, and the area of Henry's vision narrowed to a small circle. Within this area the distinctive object was the figure of Tom Ross, sitting with his rifle across his knees. Tom had an infinite capacity for immobility. Henry had never seen another man, not even an Indian, who could remain so long in one position contented and happy. He believed that the silent one could sit as he was all night.
His surmise about Tom began to have a kind of fascination for him. Would he remain absolutely still? He would certainly shift an arm or a leg. Henry's interest in the question kept him awake. He turned silently on the other side, but, no matter how intently he studied the sitting figure of his comrade, he could not see it stir. He did not know how long he had been awake, trying thus to decide a question that should be of no importance at such a time. Although unable to sleep, be fell into a dreamy condition, and continued vaguely to watch the rigid and silent sentinel.
He suddenly saw Tom stir, and he came from his state of languor. The exciting question was solved at last. The man would not sit all night absolutely immovable. There could be no doubt of the fact that he had raised an arm, and that his figure had straightened. Then he stood up, full height, remained motionless for perhaps ten seconds, and then suddenly glided away among the bushes.
Henry knew what this meant. Tom had heard something moving in the thickets, and, like a good sentinel, be had gone to investigate. A rabbit, doubtless, or perhaps a sneaking raccoon. Henry rose to a sitting position, and drew his own rifle across his knees. He would watch while Tom was gone, and then lie would sink quietly back, not letting his comrade know that lie had taken his place.
The faintest of winds began to stir among the thickets. Light clouds drifted before the moon. Henry, sitting with his rifle across his knees, and Shif'less Sol, asleep in the shadows, were invisible, but Henry saw beyond the circle of darkness that enveloped them into the grayish light that fell over the bushes. He marked the particular point at which he expected Tom Ross to appear, a slight opening that held out invitation for the passage of a man.
He waited a long time, ten minutes, twenty, a half hour, and the sentinel did not return. Henry came abruptly out of his dreamy state. He felt with all the terrible thrill of certainty that what happened to Long Jim and Paul had happened also to Silent Tom Ross. He stood erect, a tense, tall figure, alarmed, but not afraid. His eyes searched the thickets, but saw nothing. The slight movement of the bushes was made by the wind, and no other sound reached his ears.
But he might be mistaken after all! The most convincing premonitions were sometimes wrong! He would give Tom ten minutes more, and he sank down in a crouching position, where he would offer the least target for the eye.
The appointed time passed, and neither sight nor sound revealed any sign of Tom Ross. Then Henry awakened Shif'less Sol, and whispered to him all that he had seen.
"Whatever took Jim and Paul has took him," whispered the shiftless one at once.
"An' we're bound to look for him right now," continued Shif'less Sol.
" Yes," said Henry, " but we must stay together. If we follow the others, Sol, we must follow 'em together."
It would be safer," said Sol. " I've an idee that we won't find Tom, an' I want to tell you, Henry, this thing is gittin' on my nerves."
It was certainly on Henry's, also, but without reply he led the way into the bushes, and they sought long and well for Silent Tom, keeping at the same time a thorough watch for any danger that might molest themselves. But no danger showed, nor did they find Tom or his trail. He, too, had vanished into nothingness, and Henry and Sol, despite their mental strength, felt cold shivers. They came back at last, far toward morning, to the bank of the creek. It was here as elsewhere a narrow but deep stream flowing between banks so densely wooded that they were almost like walls.
"It will be daylight soon," said Shif'less Sol, "an' I think we'd better lay low in thicket an' watch. It looks ez ef we couldn't find anything, so we'd better wait an' see what will find us."
"It looks like the best plan to me," said Henry, " but I think we might first hunt a while on the other side of the creek. We haven't looked any over there."
"That's so," replied Shif'less Sol, "but the water is at least seven feet deep here, an' we don't want to make any splash swimmin'. Suppose you go up stream, an' I go down, an' the one that finds a ford first kin give a signal. One uv us ought to strike shallow water in three or four hundred yards."
Henry followed the current toward the south, while Sol moved up the stream. The boy went cautiously through the dense foliage, and the creek soon grew wider and shallower. At a distance of about three hundred yards lie came to a point where it could be waded easily. Then he uttered the low cry that was their signal, and went back to meet Shif'less Sol. He reached the exact point at which they had parted, and waited. The shiftless one did not come. The last of his comrades was gone, and he was alone in the forest.