The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XI. The Forest Spell
When the adventurers returned, the rifle and ax were laid aside at Wareville, for the moment, because the supreme test was coming. The soil was now to respond to its trial, or to fail. This was the vital question to Wareville. The game, in the years to come, must disappear, the forest would be cut down, but the qualities of the earth would remain; if it produced well, it would form the basis of a nation, if not, it would be better to let all the work of the last year go and seek another home elsewhere.
But the settlers had little doubt. All their lives had been spent close to the soil, and they were not to be deceived, when they came over the mountains in search of a land richer than any that they had tilled before. They had seen its blackness, and, plowing down with the spade, they had tested its depth. They knew that for ages and ages leaf and bough, falling upon it, had decayed there and increased its fertility, and so they awaited the test with confidence.
The green young shoots of the wheat, sown before the winter, were the first to appear, and everyone in Wareville old enough to know the importance of such a manifestation went forth to examine them. Mr. Ware, Mr. Upton and Mr. Pennypacker held solemn conclave, and the final verdict was given by the schoolmaster, as became a man who might not be so strenuous in practice as the others, but who nevertheless was more nearly a master of theory.
"The stalks are at least a third heavier than those in Maryland or Virginia at the same age," he said, "and we can fairly infer from it that the grain will show the same proportion of increase. I take a third as a most conservative estimate; it is really nearer a half. Wareville can, with reason, count upon twenty-five bushels of wheat to the acre, and it is likely to go higher."
It was then no undue sense of elation that Wareville felt, and it was shared by Henry and Paul, and even young Lucy Upton.
"It will be a rich country some day when I'm an old, old woman," she said to Henry.
"It's a rich country now," replied he proudly, "and it will be a long, long time before you are an old woman."
They began now to plow the ground cleared the autumn before - "new ground" they called it - for the spring planting of maize. This, often termed "Indian corn" but more generally known by the simple name corn, was to be their chief crop, and the labor of preparation, in which Henry had his full share, was not light. Their plows were rude, made by themselves, and finished with a single iron point, and the ground, which had supported the forest so lately, was full of roots and stumps. So the passage of the plow back and forth was a trial to both the muscles and the spirit. Henry's body became sore from head to foot, and by and by, as the spring advanced and the sun grew hotter, he looked longingly at the shade of the forest which yet lay so near, and thought of the deep, cool pools and the silver fish leaping up, until their scales shone like gold in the sunshine, and of the stags with mighty antlers coming down to drink. He was sorry for the moment that he was so large and strong and was so useful with plow and hoe. Then he might be more readily excused and could take his rifle and seek the depths of the forest, where everything grew by nature's aid alone, and man need not work, unless the spirit moved him to do so.
They planted the space close around the fort in gardens and here after the ground was broken up or plowed, the women and the girls, all tall and strong, did the work.
The summer was splendid in its promise and prodigal in its favors. The rains fell just right, and all that the pioneers planted came up in abundance. The soil, so kind to the wheat, was not less so to the corn and the gardens. Henry surveyed with pride the field of maize cultivated by himself, in which the stalks were now almost a foot high, looking in the distance like a delicate green veil spread over the earth. His satisfaction was shared by all in Wareville because after this fulfillment of the earth's promises, they looked forward to continued seasons of plenty.
When the heavy work of planting and cultivating was over and there was to be a season of waiting for the harvest, Henry went on the great expedition to the Mississippi.
In the party were Ross, Shif'less Sol, the schoolmaster, Henry and Paul. Wareville had no white neighbor near and all the settlements lay to the north or east. Beyond them, across the Ohio, was the formidable cloud of Indian tribes, the terror of which always overhung the settlers. West of them was a vast waste of forest spreading away far beyond the Mississippi, and, so it was supposed, inhabited only by wild animals. It was thought well to verify this supposition and therefore the exploring expedition set out.
Each member of the party carried a rifle, hunting knife and ammunition, and in addition they led three pack horses bearing more ammunition, their meal, jerked venison and buffalo meat. This little army expected to live upon the country, but it took the food as a precaution.
They started early of a late but bright summer morning, and Henry found all his old love of the wilderness returning. Now it would be gratified to the full, as they should be gone perhaps two months and would pass through regions wholly unknown. Moreover he had worked hard for a long time and he felt that his holiday was fully earned; hence there was no flaw in his hopes.
It required but a few minutes to pass through the cleared ground, the new fields, and reach the forest and as they looked back they saw what a slight impression they had yet made on the wilderness. Wareville was but a bit of human life, nothing more than an islet of civilization in a sea of forest.
Five minutes more of walking among the trees, and then both Wareville and the newly opened country around it were shut out. They saw only the spire of smoke that had been a beacon once to Henry and Paul, rising high up, until it trailed off to the west with the wind, where it lay like a whiplash across the sky. This, too, was soon lost as they traveled deeper into the forest, and then they were alone in the wilderness, but without fear.
"When we were able to live here without arms or ammunition it's not likely that we'll suffer, now is it?" said Paul to Henry.
"Suffer!" exclaimed Henry. "It's a journey that I couldn't be hired to miss."
"It ought to be enjoyable," said Mr. Pennypacker; "that is, if our relatives don't find it necessary to send into the Northwest, and try to buy back our scalps from the Indian tribes."
But the schoolmaster was not serious. He had little fear of Indians in the western part of Kentucky, where they seldom ranged, but he thought it wise to put a slight restraint upon the exuberance of youth.
They camped that night about fifteen miles from Wareville under the shadow of a great, overhanging rock, where they cooked some squirrels that the shiftless one shot in a tall tree. The schoolmaster upon this occasion constituted himself cook.
"There is a popular belief," he said when he asserted his place, "that a man of books is of no practical use in the world. I hereby intend to give a living demonstration to the contrary."
Ross built the fire, and while the schoolmaster set himself to his task, Henry and Paul took their fish hooks and lines and went down to the creek that flowed near. It was so easy to catch perch and other fish that there was no sport in it, and as soon as they had enough for supper and breakfast they went back to the fire where the tempting odors that arose indicated the truth of the schoolmaster's assertion. The squirrels were done to a turn, and no doubt of his ability remained.
Supper over, they made themselves beds of boughs under the shadow of the rock, while the horses were tethered near. They sank into dreamless sleep, and it was the schoolmaster who awakened Paul and Henry the next morning.
They entered that day a forest of extraordinary grandeur, almost clear of undergrowth and with illimitable rows of mighty oak and beech trees. As they passed through, it was like walking under the lofty roof of an immense cathedral. The large masses of foliage met overhead and shut out the sun, making the space beneath dim and shadowy, and sometimes it seemed to the explorers that an echo of their own footsteps came back to them.
Henry noted the trees, particularly the beeches which here grow to finer proportions than anywhere else in the world, and said he was glad that he did not have to cut them down and clear the ground, for the use of the plow.
After they passed out of this great forest they entered the widest stretch of open country they had yet seen in Kentucky, though here and there they came upon patches of bushes.
"I think this must have been burned off by successive forest fires," said Ross. "Maybe hunting parties of Indians put the torch to it in order to drive the game."
Certainly these prairies now contained an abundance of animal life. The grass was fresh, green and thick everywhere, and from a hill the explorers saw buffalo, elk, and common deer grazing or browsing on the bushes.
As the game was so abundant Paul, the least skillful of the party in such matters, was sent forth that evening to kill a deer and this he triumphantly accomplished to his own great satisfaction. They again slept in peace, now under the low-hanging boughs of an oak, and continued the next day to the west. Thus they went on for days.
It was an easy journey, except when they came to rivers, some of which were too deep for fording, but Ross had made provision for them. Perched upon one of the horses was a skin canoe, that is, one made of stout buffalo hide to be held in shape by a slight framework of wood on the inside, such as they could make at any time. Two or three trips in this would carry themselves and all their equipment over the stream while the horses swam behind.
They soon found it necessary to put their improvised canoe to use as they came to a great river flowing in a deep channel. Wild ducks flew about its banks or swam on the dark-blue current that flowed quietly to the north. This was the Cumberland, though nameless then to the travelers, and its crossing was a delicate operation as any incautious movement might tip over the skin canoe, and, while they were all good swimmers, the loss of their precious ammunition could not be taken as anything but a terrible misfortune.
Traveling on to the west they came to another and still mightier river, called by the Indians, so Ross said, the Tennessee, which means in their language the Great Spoon, so named because the river bent in curves like a spoon. This river looked even wilder and more picturesque than the Cumberland, and Henry, as he gazed up its stream, wondered if the white man would ever know all the strange regions through which it flowed. Vast swarms of wild fowl, as at the Cumberland, floated upon its waters or flew near and showed but little alarm as they passed. When they wished food it was merely to go a little distance and take it as one walks to a cupboard for a certain dish.
Now, the aspect of the country began to change. The hills sank. The streams ceased to sparkle and dash helter-skelter over the stones; instead they flowed with a deep sluggish current and always to the west. In some the water was so nearly still that they might be called lagoons. Marshes spread out for great distances, and they were thronged with millions of wild fowl. The air grew heavier, hotter and damper.
"We must be approaching the Mississippi," said Henry, who was quick to draw an inference from these new conditions.
"It can't be very far," replied Ross, "because we are in low country now, and when we get into the lowest the Mississippi will be there."
All were eager for a sight of the great river. Its name was full of magic for those who came first into the wilderness of Kentucky. It seemed to them the limits of the inhabitable world. Beyond stretched vague and shadowy regions, into which hunters and trappers might penetrate, but where no one yet dreamed of building a home. So it was with some awe that they would stand upon the shores of this boundary, this mighty stream that divided the real from the unreal.
But traveling was now slow. There were so many deep creeks and lagoons to cross, and so many marshes to pass around that they could not make many miles in a day. They camped for a while on the highest hill that they could find and fished and hunted. While here they built themselves a thatch shelter, acting on Ross's advice, and they were very glad that they did so, as a tremendous rain fell a few days after it was finished, deluging the country and swelling all the creeks and lagoons. So they concluded to stay until the earth returned to comparative dryness again in the sunshine, and meanwhile their horses, which did not stand the journey as well as their masters, could recuperate.
Two days after they resumed the journey, they stood on the low banks of the Mississippi and looked at its vast yellow current flowing in a mile-wide channel, and bearing upon its muddy bosom, bushes and trees, torn from slopes thousands of miles away. It was not beautiful, it was not even picturesque, but its size, its loneliness and its desolation gave it a somber grandeur, which all the travelers felt. It was the same river that had received De Soto's body many generations before, and it was still a mystery.
"We know where it goes to, for the sea receives them all," said Mr. Pennypacker, "but no man knows whence it comes."
"And it would take a good long trip to find out," said Sol.
"A trip that we haven't time to take," returned the schoolmaster.
Henry felt a desire to make that journey, to follow the great stream, month after month, until he traced it to the last fountain and uncovered its secret. The power that grips the explorer, that draws him on through danger, known and unknown, held him as he gazed.
They followed the banks of the stream at a slow pace to the north, sweltering in the heat which seemed to come to a focus here at the confluence of great waters, until at last they reached a wide extent of low country overgrown with bushes and cut with a broad yellow band coming down from the northeast.
"The Ohio!" said Ross.
And so it was; it was here that the stream called by the Indians "The Beautiful River"-though not deserving the name at this place-lost itself in the Mississippi and at the junction it seemed full as mighty a river as the great Father of Waters himself.
They did not stay long at the meeting of the two rivers, fearing the miasma of the, marshy soil, but retreated to the hills where they went into camp again. Yet Ross, and Henry, and Sol crossed both the Ohio and the Mississippi in the frail canoe for the sake of saying that they had been on the farther shores. The three, leaving Paul and the schoolmaster to guard the camp, even penetrated to a considerable distance in the prairie country beyond the Ohio. Here Henry saw for the first time a buffalo herd of size. Buffaloes were common enough in Kentucky, but the country being mostly wooded they roamed there in small bands. North of the Ohio he now beheld these huge shaggy animals in thousands and he narrowly escaped being trampled to death by a herd which, frightened by a pack of wolves, rushed down upon him like a storm. It was Ross who saved him by shooting the leading bull, thus compelling them to divide when they came to his body, by which action they left a clear space where he and Henry stood. After that Henry, as became one of fast-ripening experience and judgment, grew more cautious.
All the party were in keen enjoyment of the great journey, and felt in their veins the thrill of the wilderness. Paul's studious face took on the brown tan of autumn, and even the schoolmaster, a man of years who liked the ways of civilization, saw only the pleasures of the forest and closed his eyes to its hardships. But there was none who was caught so deeply in the spell of the wilderness as Henry, not even Ross nor the shiftless one. There was something in the spirit of the boy that responded to the call of the winds through the deep woods, a harking back to the man primeval, a love for nature and silence.
The forest hid many things from the schoolmaster, but he knew the hearts of men, and he could read their thoughts in their eyes, and he was the first to notice the change in Henry or rather less a change than a deepening and strengthening of a nature that had not found until now its true medium. The boy did not like to hear them speak of the return, he loved his people and he would serve them always as best he could, but they were prosperous and happy back there in Wareville and did not need him; now the forest beckoned to him, and, speaking to him in a hundred voices, bade him stay. When he roamed the woods, their majesty and leafy silence appealed to all his senses. The two vast still rivers threw over him the spell of mystery, and the secret of the greater one, its hidden origin, tantalized him. Often he gazed northward along its yellow current and wondered if he could not pierce that secret. Dimly in his mind, formed a plan to follow the yellow stream to its source some day, and again he thrilled with the thought of great adventures and mighty wanderings, where men of his race had never gone before.
Knowledge, too, came to him with an ease and swiftness that filled with surprise experienced foresters like Ross and Sol. The woods seemed to unfold their secrets to him. He learned the nature of all the herbs, those that might be useful to man and those that might be harmful, he was already as skillful with a canoe as either the guide or the shiftless one, he could follow a trail like an Indian, and the habits of the wild animals he observed with a minute and remembering eye. All the lore of those faraway primeval ancestors suddenly reappears in him at the voice of the woods, and was ready for his use.
"It will not be long until Henry is a man," said Ross one evening as they sat before their camp fire and saw the boy approaching, a deer that he had killed home upon his shoulders.
"He is a man now," said the schoolmaster with gravity and emphasis as he looked attentively at the figure of the youth carrying the deer. No one ever before had given him such an impression of strength and physical alertness. He seemed to, have grown, to have expanded visibly since their departure from Wareville. The muscles of his arm stood up under the close-fitting deerskin tunic, and the length of limb and breadth of shoulder in the boy indicated a coming man of giant mold.
"What a hunter and warrior he will make!" said Ross.
"A future leader of wilderness men," said Mr. Pennypacker softly, "but there is wild blood in those veins; he will have to be handled well."
Henry threw down the deer and greeted them with cheerful words that came spontaneously from a joyful soul. They had built their fire, not a large one, in an oak opening and all around the trees rose like a mighty circular wall. The red shadows of a sun that had just set lingered on the western edge of the forest, but in the east all was black. Out of this vastness came the rustling sound of the wind as it moved among the autumn leaves. In the opening was a core of ruddy light and the living forms of men, but it was only a tiny spot in the immeasurable wilderness. The schoolmaster and he alone felt their littleness. The autumn night was crisp, and from his seat on a log he held out his fingers to the warm blaze. Now and then a yellow or red leaf caught in the light wind drifted to his feet and he gazed up half in fear at the great encircling wall of blackness. Then he uttered silent thanks that he was with such trusty men as the guide and the shiftless one.
The effect upon Henry was not the same. He had become silent while the others talked, and he half reclined against a tree, looking at the sky that showed a dim and shadowy disk through the opening. But there was nothing of fear in his mind. A delicious sense of peace and satisfaction crept over him. All the voices of the night seemed familiar and good. A lizard slipped through the grass and the eye and ear of Henry alone noticed it; neither the guide nor the shiftless one had seen or heard its passage. He measured the disk of the heavens with his glance and foretold unerringly whether it would be clear or cloudy on the morrow, and when something rustled in the woods, he knew, without looking, that it was a hare frightened by the blaze fleeing from its covert. A tiny brook trickled at the far edge of the fire's rim, and he could tell by the color of the waters through what kind of soil it had come.
Paul sat down near him, and began to talk of home. Henry smiled upon him indulgently; his old relation of protector to the younger boy had grown stronger during this trip; in the forest he was his comrade's superior by far, and Paul willingly admitted it; in such matters he sought no rivalry with his friend.
"I wonder what they are doing way down there?" said Paul, waving his hand toward the southeast. "Just think of it, Henry! They are only one little spot in the wilderness, and we are only, another little spot way up here! In all the hundreds of miles between, there may not be another white face!"
"It is likely true, but what of it?" replied Henry. "The bigger the wilderness the more room in it for us to roam in. I would rather have great forests than great towns."
He turned lazily and luxuriously on his side, and, gazing into the red coals, began to see there visions of other forests and vast plains, with himself wandering on among the trees and over the swells. His comrades said nothing more because it was comfortable in their little camp, and the peace of the wilds was over them all. The night was cold, but the circling wall of trees sheltered the opening, and the fire in the center radiated a grateful heat in which they basked. The scholar, Mr. Pennypacker, rested his face upon his hands, and he, too, was dreaming as he stared into the blaze. Paul, his blanket wrapped around him and his head pillowed upon soft boughs, was asleep already. Ross and Sol dozed.
But Henry neither slept nor wished to do so. His gaze shifted from the red coals to the silver disk of the sky. The world seemed to him very beautiful and very intimate. These illimitable expanses of forest conveyed to him no sense of either awe or fear. He was at home. He had become for the time a being of the night, piercing the darkness with the eyes of a wild creature, and hearkening to the familiar voices around him that spoke to him and to him alone. Never was sleep farther from him. The shifting firelight in its flickering play fell upon his face and revealed it in all its clear young boyish strength, the firm neck, the masterful chin, the calm, resolute eyes set wide apart, the lean big-boned fingers, lying motionless across his knees. Mr. Pennypacker began to nod, then he, too, wrapped himself in his blanket, lay back and soon fell fast asleep; in a few minutes Sol followed him to the land of real dreams, and after a brief interval Ross, too, yielded. Henry alone was awake, drinking deep of the night and its lonely joy.
The silver disk of the sky turned into gray under a cloud, the darkness swept up deeper and thicker, the light of the fire waned, but the boy still leaned against the log, and upon his sensitive mind every change of the wilderness was registered as upon the delicate surface of a plate. He glanced at his sleeping comrades and smiled. The smile was the index to an unconscious feeling of superiority. Ross and Sol were two or three times his age, but they slept while he watched, and not Ross himself in all his years in the wilderness had learned many things that came to him by intuition.
Hours passed and the boy was yet awake. New feelings, vague and undetermined came into his mind, but through them all went the feeling of mastery. He, though a boy, was in many respects the chief, and while he need not assert his leadership yet a while, he could, never doubt its possession.
The light died far down and only a few smoldering coals were left. The blackness of the night, coming ever closer and closer, hovered over his companions and hid their faces from him. The great trunks of the trees grew shadowy and dim. Out of the darkness came a sound slight but not in harmony with the ordinary noises of the forest. His acute senses, the old inherited primitive instinct, noticed at once the jarring note. He moved ever so little but an extraordinary change came over his face. The idle look of luxury and basking warmth passed away and the eyes became alert, watchful, defiant. Every feature, every muscle was drawn, as if he were at the utmost tension. Almost unconsciously his figure sank down farther against the log, until it blended perfectly with the bark and the fallen leaves below. Only an eye of preternatural keenness could have separated the outline of the boy from the general scene.
For five minutes he lay and moved not a particle. Then the discordant note came again among the familiar sounds of the forest and he glanced at his comrades. They slept peacefully. His lip curled slightly, not with contempt but with that unconscious feeling of superiority; they would not have noticed, even had they been awake.
His hands moved forward and grasped his rifle. Then he began to slip away from the opening and into the forest, not by walking nor altogether by crawling, but by a curious, noiseless, gliding motion, almost like that of a serpent. Always he clung to the shadows where his shifting body still blended with the dark, and as he advanced other primitive instincts blazed up in him. He was a hunter pursuing for the first time the highest and most dangerous game of all game and the thrill through his veins was so keen that he shivered slightly. His chin was projected, and his eyes were two red spots in the night. All the while his comrades by the fire, even the trained foresters, slumbered in peace, no warning whatever coming to their heavy heads.
The boy reached the wall of the woods, and now his form was completely swallowed up in the blackness there. He lay a while in the bushes, motionless, all his senses alert, and for the third time the jarring note came to his ears. The maker of it was on his right, and, as he judged, perhaps a couple of hundred yards away. He would proceed at once to that point. It is truth to say that no thought of danger entered his mind; the thrills of the present and its chances absorbed him. It seemed natural that he should do this thing, he was merely resuming an old labor, discontinued for a time.
He raised his head slightly, but even his keen eyes could see nothing in the forest save trunks and branches, ghostly and shapeless, and the regular rustle of the wind was not broken now by the jarring note. But the darkness heavy and ominous, was permeated with the signs of things about to happen, and heavy with danger, a danger, however, that brought no fear to Henry for himself, only for others. A faint sighing note as of a distant bird came on the wind, and pausing, he listened intently. He knew that it was not a bird, that sound was made by human lips, and once more a light shiver passed over his frame; it was a signal, concerning his comrades and himself, and he would turn aside the danger from those old friends of his who slept by the fire, in peace and unknowing.
He resumed his cautious passage through the undergrowth, and, the inherited instinct blossoming so suddenly into full flower, was still his guide. Not a sound marked his advance, the forest fell silently behind him, and he went on with unerring knowledge to the spot from which the discordant sounds had come.
He approached another opening among the trees, like unto that in which his comrades slept, and now, lying close in the undergrowth, he looked for the first time upon the sight which so often boded ill to his kind. The warriors were in a group, some sitting others standing, and though there was no fire and the moonlight was slight he could mark the primitive brutality of their features, the nature of the animal that fought at all times for life showing in their eyes. They were hard, harsh and repellent in every aspect, but the boy felt for a moment a singular attraction, there was even a distant feeling of kinship as if he, too, could live this life and had lived it. But the feeling quickly passed, and in its place came the thought of his comrades whom he must save.
The older of the warriors talked in a low voice, saying unknown words in a harsh, guttural tongue, and Henry could guess only at their meaning. But they seemed to be awaiting a signal and presently the low thrilling note was heard again. Then the warriors turned as if this were the command to do so, and came directly toward the boy who lay in the darkest shadows of the undergrowth.
Henry was surprised and startled but only for a moment, then the primeval instinct came to his aid and swiftly he sank away in the bushes in front of them, as before, no sound marking his passage. He thought rapidly and in all his thoughts there was none of himself but as the savior of the little party. It seemed to come to him naturally that he should be the protector and champion. When he had gone about fifty yards he uttered a shout, long, swelling and full of warning. Then he turned to his right and crashed through the undergrowth, purposely making a noise that the pursuing warriors could not fail to hear. Ross and the others, he knew, would be aroused instantly by his cry and would take measures of safety. Now the savages would be likely to follow him alone, and he noted by the sounds that they had turned aside to do so.
At this moment Henry Ware felt nothing but exultation that he, a boy, should prove himself a match for all the cunning of the forest-bred, and he thought not at all of the pursuit that came so fiercely behind him.
He ran swiftly and now directly more than a mile from the camp of his friends. Then the inherited instinct that had served him so well failed; it could not warn him of the deep little river that lay straight across his path flowing toward the Mississippi. He came out upon its banks and was ready to drop down in its waters, but he saw that before he could reach the farther shore he would be a target for his pursuers. He hesitated and was about to turn at a sharp angle, but the warriors emerged from the forest. It was then too late.
The savages uttered a shout of triumph, the long, ferocious, whining note, so terrible in its intensity and meaning, and Henry, raising his rifle, fired at a painted breast. The next moment they were hurled upon him in a brown mass. He felt a stunning blow upon the head, sparks flew before his eyes, and the world reeled away into darkness.