The Scouts of the Valley by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter III. The Hut on the Islet
Henry Ware waited at least a quarter of an hour by the creek on the exact spot at which he and Solomon Hyde, called the shiftless one, had parted, but he knew all the while that his last comrade was not coming. The same powerful and mysterious hand that swept the others away had taken him, the wary and cunning Shif'less Sol, master of forest lore and with all the five senses developed to the highest pitch. Yet his powers had availed him nothing, and the boy again felt that cold chill running down his spine.
Henry expected the omnipotent force to come against him, also, but his instinctive caution made him turn and creep into the thickest of the forest, continuing until he found a place in the bushes so thoroughly hidden that no one could see him ten feet away. There he lay down and rapidly ran over in his mind the events connected with the four disappearances. They were few, and he had little on which to go, but his duty to seek his four comrades, since he alone must do it, was all the greater. Such a thought as deserting them and fleeing for his own life never entered his mind. He would not only seek them, but he would penetrate the mystery of the power that had taken them.
It was like him now to go about his work with calmness and method. To approach an arduous task right one must possess freshness and vigor, and one could have neither without sleep. His present place of hiding seemed to be as secure as any that could be found. So composing himself he took all chances and sought slumber. Yet it needed a great effort of the will to calm his nerves, and it was a half hour before he began to feel any of the soothing effect that precedes sleep. But fall asleep he did at last, and, despite everything, he slept soundly until the morning.
Henry did not awake to a bright day. The sun had risen, but it was obscured by gray clouds, and the whole heavens were somber. A cold wind began to blow, and with it came drops of rain. He shivered despite the enfolding blanket. The coming of the morning had invariably brought cheerfulness and increase of spirits, but now he felt depression. He foresaw heavy rain again, and it would destroy any but the deepest trail. Moreover, his supplies of food were exhausted and he must replenish them in some manner before proceeding further.
A spirit even as bold and strong as Henry's might well have despaired. He had found his comrades, only to lose them again, and the danger that had threatened them, and the elements as well, now threatened him, too. An acute judge of sky and air, he knew that the rain, cold, insistent, penetrating, would fall all day, and that he must seek shelter if he would keep his strength. The Indians themselves always took to cover at such times.
He wrapped the blanket around himself, covering his body well from neck to ankle, putting his rifle just inside the fold, but with his hand upon it, ready for instant use if it should be needed. Then he started, walking straight ahead until he came to the crown of a little hill. The clouds meanwhile thickened, and the rain, of the kind that he had foreseen and as cold as ice, was blown against him. The grass and bushes were reeking, and his moccasins became sodden. Despite the vigorous walking, lie felt the wet cold entering his system. There come times when the hardiest must yield, and be saw the increasing need of refuge.
He surveyed the country attentively from the low hill. All around was a dull gray horizon from which the icy rain dripped everywhere. There was no open country. All was forest, and the heavy rolling masses of foliage dripped with icy water, too.
Toward the south the land seemed to dip down, and Henry surmised that in a valley he would be more likely to find the shelter that he craved. He needed it badly. As he stood there he shivered again and again from head to foot, despite the folds of the blanket. So he started at once, walking fast, and feeling little fear of a foe. It was not likely that any would be seeking him at such a time. The rain struck him squarely in the face now. Water came from his moccasins every time his foot was pressed against the earth, and, no matter how closely he drew the folds of the blanket, little streams of it, like ice to the touch, flowed down his neck and made their way under his clothing. He could not remember a time when he had felt more miserable.
He came in about an hour to the dip which, as he had surmised, was the edge of a considerable valley. He ran down the slope, and looked all about for some place of shelter, a thick windbreak in the lee of a hill, or an outcropping of stone, but he saw neither, and, as he continued the search, he came to marshy ground. He saw ahead among the weeds and bushes the gleam of standing pools, and he was about to turn back, when he noticed three or four stones, in a row and about a yard from one another, projecting slightly above the black muck. It struck him that the stones would not naturally be in the soft mud, and, his curiosity aroused, he stepped lightly from one stone to another. When he came to the last stone that he had seen from the hard ground he beheld several more that had been hidden from him by the bushes. Sure now that he had happened upon something not created by nature alone, he followed these stones, leading like steps into the very depths of the swamp, which was now deep and dark with ooze all about him. He no longer doubted that the stones, the artificial presence of which might have escaped the keenest eye and most logical mind, were placed there for a purpose, and he was resolved to know its nature.
The stepping stones led him about sixty yards into the swamp, and the last thirty yards were at an angle from the first thirty. Then he came to a bit of hard ground, a tiny islet in the mire, upon which he could stand without sinking at all. He looked back from there, and he could not see his point of departure. Bushes, weeds, and saplings grew out of the swamp to a height of a dozen or fifteen feet, and he was inclosed completely. All the vegetation dripped with cold water, and the place was one of the most dismal that he had ever seen. But he had no thought of turning back.
Henry made a shrewd guess as to whither the path led, but he inferred from the appearance of the stepping stones-chiefly from the fact that an odd one here and there had sunk completely out of sight-that they had not been used in a long time, perhaps for years. He found on the other side of the islet a second line of stones, and they led across a marsh, that was almost like a black liquid, to another and larger island.
Here the ground was quite firm, supporting a thick growth of large trees. It seemed to Henry that this island might be seventy or eighty yards across, and he began at once to explore it. In the center, surrounded so closely by swamp oaks that they almost formed a living wall, he found what he had hoped to find, and his relief was so great that, despite his natural and trained stoicism, he gave a little cry of pleasure when he saw it.
A small lodge, made chiefly of poles and bark after the Iroquois fashion, stood within the circle of the trees, occupying almost the whole of the space. It was apparently abandoned long ago, and time and weather had done it much damage. But the bark walls, although they leaned in places at dangerous angles, still stood. The bark roof was pierced by holes on one side, but on the other it was still solid, and shed all the rain from its slope.
The door was open, but a shutter made of heavy pieces of bark cunningly joined together leaned against the wall, and Henry saw that he could make use of it. He stepped inside. The hut had a bark floor which was dry on one side, where the roof was solid, but dripping on the other. Several old articles of Indian use lay about. In one corner was a basket woven of split willow and still fit for service. There were pieces of thread made of Indian hemp and the inner bark of the elm. There were also a piece of pottery and a large, beautifully carved wooden spoon such as every Iroquois carried. In the corner farthest from the door was a rude fireplace made of large flat stones, although there was no opening for the smoke.
Henry surveyed it all thoughtfully, and he came to the conclusion that it was a hut for hunting, built by some warrior of an inquiring mind who had found this secret place, and who had recognized its possibilities. Here after an expedition for game he could lie hidden from enemies and take his comfort without fear. Doubtless he had sat in this hut on rainy days like the present one and smoked his pipe in the long, patient calm of which the Indian is capable.
Yes, there was the pipe, unnoticed before, trumpet shaped and carved beautifully, lying on a small bark shelf. Henry picked it tip and examined the bowl. It was as dry as a bone, and not a particle of tobacco was left there. He believed that it had not been used for at least a year. Doubtless the Indian who had built this hunting lodge had fallen in some foray, and the secret of it had been lost until Henry Ware, seeking through the cold and rain, had stumbled upon it.
It was nothing but a dilapidated little lodge of poles and bark, all a-leak, but the materials of a house were there, and Henry was strong and skillful. He covered the holes in tile roof with fallen pieces of bark, laying heavy pieces of wood across them to hold them in place. Then he lifted the bark shutter into position and closed the door. Some drops of rain still came in through the roof, but they were not many, and he would not mind them for the present. Then he opened the door and began his hardest task.
He intended to build a fire on the flat stones, and, securing fallen wood, he stripped off the bark and cut splinters from the inside. It was slow work and he was very cold, his wet feet sending chills through him, but be persevered, and the little heap of dry splinters grew to a respectable size. Then he cut larger pieces, laying them on one side while he worked with his flint and steel on the splinters.
Flint and steel are not easily handled even by the most skillful, and Henry saw the spark leap up and die out many times before it finally took hold of the end of the tiniest splinter and grew. He watched it as it ran along the little piece of wood and ignited another and then another, the beautiful little red and yellow flames leaping up half a foot in height. Already he felt the grateful warmth and glow, but he would not let himself indulge in premature joy. He fed it with larger and larger pieces until the flames, a deeper and more beautiful red and yellow, rose at least two feet, and big coals began to form. He left the door open a while in order that the smoke might go out, but when the fire had become mostly coals he closed it again, all except a crack of about six inches, which would serve at once to let any stray smoke out, and to let plenty of fresh air in.
Now Henry, all his preparations made, no detail neglected, proceeded to luxuriate. He spread the soaked blanket out on the bark floor, took off the sodden moccasins and placed them at one angle of the fire, while he sat with his bare feet in front. What a glorious warmth it was! It seemed to enter at his toes and proceed upward through his body, seeking out every little nook and cranny, to dry and warm it, and fill it full of new glow and life.
He sat there a long time, his being radiating with physical comfort. The moccasins dried on one side, and he turned the other. Finally they dried all over and all through, and he put them on again. Then he hung the blanket on the bark wall near the fire, and it, too, would be dry in another hour or so. He foresaw a warm and dry place for the night, and sleep. Now if one only had food! But he must do without that for the present.
He rose and tested all his bones and muscles. No stiffness or soreness had come from the rain and cold, and he was satisfied. He was fit for any physical emergency. He looked out through the crevice. Night was coming, and on the little island in the swamp it looked inexpressibly black and gloomy. His stomach complained, but he shrugged his shoulders, acknowledging primitive necessity, and resumed his seat by the fire. There he sat until the blanket had dried, and deep night had fully come.
In the last hour or two Henry did not move. He remained before the fire, crouched slightly forward, while the generous heat fed the flame of life in him. A glowing bar, penetrating the crevice at the door, fell on the earth outside, but it did not pass beyond the close group of circling trees. The rain still fell with uncommon steadiness and persistence, but at times hail was mingled with it. Henry could not remember in his experience a more desolate night. It seemed that the whole world dwelt in perpetual darkness, and that he was the only living being on it. Yet within the four or five feet square of the hut it was warm and bright, and he was not unhappy.
He would forget the pangs of hunger, and, wrapping himself in the dry blanket, he lay down before the bed of coals, having first raked ashes over them, and he slept one of the soundest sleeps of his life. All night long, the dull cold rain fell, and with it, at intervals, came gusts of hail that rattled like bird shot on the bark walls of the hut. Some of the white pellets blew in at the door, and lay for a moment or two on the floor, then melted in the glow of the fire, and were gone.
But neither wind, rain nor hail awoke Henry. He was as safe, for the time, in the hut on the islet, as if he were in the fort at Pittsburgh or behind the palisades at Wareville. Dawn came, the sky still heavy and dark with clouds, and the rain still falling.
Henry, after his first sense of refreshment and pleasure, became conscious of a fierce hunger that no amount of the will could now keep quiet. His was a powerful system, needing much nourishment, and he must eat. That hunger became so great that it was acute physical pain. He was assailed by it at all points, and it could be repelled by only one thing, food. He must go forth, taking all risks, and seek it.
He put on fresh wood, covering it with ashes in order that it might not blaze too high, and left the islet. The stepping stones were slippery with water, and his moccasins soon became soaked again, but he forgot the cold and wet in that ferocious hunger, the attacks of which became more violent every minute. He was hopeful that he might see a deer, or even a squirrel, but the animals themselves were likely to keep under cover in such a rain. He expected a hard hunt, and it would be attended also by much danger - these woods must be full of Indians - but be thought little of the risk. His hunger was taking complete possession of his mind. He was realizing now that one might want a thing so much that it would drive away all other thoughts.
Rifle in hand, ready for any quick shot, he searched hour after hour through the woods and thickets. He was wet, bedraggled, and as fierce as a famishing panther, but neither skill nor instinct guided him to anything. The rabbit hid in his burrow, the squirrel remained in his hollow tree, and the deer did not leave his covert.
Henry could not well calculate the passage of time, it seemed so fearfully long, and there was no one to tell him, but he judged that it must be about noon, and his temper was becoming that of the famished panther to which he likened himself. He paused and looked around the circle of the dripping woods. He had retained his idea of direction and he knew that he could go straight back to the hut in the swamp. But he had no idea of returning now. A power that neither he nor anyone else could resist was pushing him on his search.
Searching the gloomy horizon again, he saw against the dark sky a thin and darker line that he knew to be smoke. He inferred, also, with certainty, that it came from an Indian camp, and, without hesitation, turned his course toward it. Indian camp though it might be, and containing the deadliest of foes, he was glad to know something lived beside himself in this wilderness.
He approached with great caution, and found his surmise to be correct. Lying full length in a wet thicket he saw a party of about twenty warriors-Mohawks he took them to be-in an oak opening. They had erected bark shelters, they had good fires, and they were cooking. He saw them roasting the strips over the coals-bear meat, venison, squirrel, rabbit, bird-and the odor, so pleasant at other times, assailed his nostrils. But it was now only a taunt and a torment. It aroused every possible pang of hunger, and every one of them stabbed like a knife.
The warriors, so secure in their forest isolation, kept no sentinels, and they were enjoying themselves like men who had everything they wanted. Henry could hear them laughing and talking, and he watched them as they ate strip after strip of the delicate, tender meat with the wonderful appetite that the Indian has after long fasting. A fierce, unreasoning anger and jealousy laid hold of him. He was starving, and they rejoiced in plenty only fifty yards away. He began to form plans for a piratical incursion upon them. Half the body of a deer lay near the edge of the opening, he would rush upon it, seize it, and dart away. It might be possible to escape with such spoil.
Then he recalled his prudence. Such a thing was impossible. The whole band of warriors would be upon him in an instant. The best thing that he could do was to shut out the sight of so much luxury in which he could not share, and he crept away among the bushes wondering what he could do to drive away those terrible pains. His vigorous system was crying louder than ever for the food that would sustain it. His eyes were burning a little too brightly, and his face was touched with fever.
Henry stopped once to catch a last glimpse of the fires and the feasting Indians under the bark shelters. He saw a warrior raise a bone, grasping it in both hands, and bite deep into the tender flesh that clothed it. The sight inflamed him into an anger almost uncontrollable. He clenched his fist and shook it at the warrior, who little suspected the proximity of a hatred so intense. Then he bent his head down and rushed away among the wet bushes which in rebuke at his lack of caution raked him across the face.
Henry walked despondently back toward the islet in the swamp. The aspect of air and sky had not changed. The heavens still dripped icy water, and there was no ray of cheerfulness anywhere. The game remained well hidden.
It was a long journey back, and as he felt that he was growing weak he made no haste. He came to dense clumps of bushes, and plowing his way through them, he saw a dark opening under some trees thrown down by an old hurricane. Having some vague idea that it might be the lair of a wild animal, he thrust the muzzle of his rifle into the darkness. It touched a soft substance. There was a growl, and a black form shot out almost into his face. Henry sprang aside, and in an instant all his powers and faculties returned. He had stirred up a black bear, and before the animal, frightened as much as he was enraged, could run far the boy, careless how many Indians might hear, threw up his rifle and fired.
His aim was good. The bear, shot through the head, fell, and was dead. Henry, transformed, ran up to him. Bear life had been given up to sustain man's. Here was food for many days, and he rejoiced with a great joy. He did not now envy those warriors back there.
The bear, although small, was very fat. Evidently he had fed well on acorns and wild honey, and he would yield up steaks which, to one with Henry's appetite, would be beyond compare. He calculated that it was more than a mile to the swamp, and, after a few preliminaries, he flung the body of the bear over his shoulder. Through some power of the mind over the body his full strength had returned to him miraculously, and when he reached the stepping stones he crossed from one to another lightly and firmly, despite the weight that he carried.
He came to the little bark hut which he now considered his own. The night had fallen again, but some coals still glowed under the ashes, and there was plenty of dry wood. He did everything decently and in order. He took the pelt from the bear, carved the body properly, and then, just as the Indians had done, he broiled strips over the coals. He ate them one after another, slowly, and tasting all the savor, and, intense as was the mere physical pleasure, it was mingled with a deep thankfulness. Not only was the life nourished anew in him, but he would now regain the strength to seek his comrades.
When he had eaten enough he fastened the body of the bear, now in several portions, on hooks high upon the walls, hooks which evidently had been placed there by the former owner of the hut for this very purpose. Then, sure that the savor of the food would draw other wild animals, he brought one of the stepping stones and placed it on the inside of the door. The door could not be pushed aside without arousing him, and, secure in the knowledge, he went to sleep before the coals.