The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIII. The Call of Duty
They arrived at their valley and prepared for the second winter there, returning to the place for several reasons, chief among them being the right of prescription, to which the other tribes yielded tacit consent. The Indian recks little of the future, but in his reversion to primitive type Henry had taken with him much of the acquired and modern knowledge of education. He looked ahead, and, under his constant suggestion, advice and pressure they stored so much food for the winter that there was no chance of another famine, whatever might happen to the game.
Before they went into winter quarters Henry clearly perceived one thing, he was first in the little tribe; even Black Cloud, the chief, willingly took second place to him. He was first alike in strength and wisdom and it was patent to all. He was now, although only a boy in years, nearly at his full height, almost a head above an ordinary warrior, with wonderfully keen eyes, set wide apart, and a square projecting chin, so firm that it seemed to be carved of brown marble. His shoulders were of great breadth, but his lean figure had all the graceful strength and case of some wild animal native to the forest. He was scrupulous in his attire, and wore only the finest skins and furs that the village could furnish.
Henry felt the deference of the tribe and it pleased him. He glided naturally into the place of leader, feeling the responsibility and liking it. He was tactful, too, he would not push Black Cloud from his old position, but merely remained at his right hand and ruled through him. The chief was soothed and flattered, and the arrangement worked to the pleasure of both, and to the great good of the village which now enjoyed a winter of prosperity hitherto unknown to such natives of the woods. Nobody had to go hungry, there was abundant provision against the cold. Henry, though not saying it, knew that with him the credit lay, and just now the world seemed very full. As human beings go he was thoroughly happy; the life fitted him, satisfied all his wants, and the memory of his own people became paler and more distant; they could do very well without him; they were so many, one could be spared, And when the chance came he would send word to them that he was alive and well, but that he would not come back.
When the buds began to burst they traveled eastward, until they came to the Mississippi. The sight of its stream brought back to Henry a thought of those with whom he had first seen it and he felt a pang of remorse. But the pang was fleeting, and the memory too he resolutely put aside.
They crossed the Mississippi and advanced into the land of little prairies, a green, rich region, pleasant to the eye and full of game. They wandered and hunted here, drifting slowly to the eastward, until they came upon a great encampment of the fierce and warlike nation, known as the Shawnees. The Shawnees were in their war paint and were singing warlike songs. It was evident to the most casual visitor that they were going forth to do battle.
It was late in the afternoon when Henry, Black Cloud and two others came upon this encampment. His own band had pitched its lodges some miles behind, but the kinship of the forest and the peace between them, made the four the guests of the Shawnee as long as they chose to stay.
At least a thousand warriors were in all the hideous varieties of war paint, and the scene, in the waning light, was weird and ominous even to Henry. The war songs in their very monotony were chilling, and full of ferocity, and in all the thousand faces was not one that shone with the light of kindness and mercy.
Long glances were cast at Henry, but even their keen eyes failed to notice that he was not an Indian, and he stood watching them, his face impassive, but his interest aroused. A dozen warriors naked to the waist and hideously painted were singing a war song, while they capered and jumped to its unrhythmic tune. Suddenly one of them snatched something from his girdle and waved it aloft in triumph. Henry knew that it was a scalp, many of which he had seen, and paid little attention, but the Indian came closer, singing and dancing, and waving his hideous trophy.
The scalp flashed before Henry's eyes, and it displayed not the coarse black locks of the savage, but hair long, fine and yellow like silk. He knew that it was the scalp of a white girl, and a sudden, shuddering horror seized him. It had belonged to one of his own kind, to the race into which he had been born and with which he had passed his boyhood. His heart filled with hatred of these Shawnees, but the warriors of his own little tribe would take scalps, if occasion came, the scalps of white people, yes, of white women and white girls! He tried to dismiss the thought or rather to crush it down, but it would not yield to his will; always it rose up again.
He walked back to the edge of the encampment, where some of the warriors were yet singing the war songs that with all of their monotony were so weird and chilling. Twilight was over the forest, save in the west, where a blood-red tint from the sunken sun lingered on trunk and bough, and gleamed across the faces of the dancing warriors. In this lurid light Henry suddenly saw them savage, inhuman, implacable. They were truly creatures of the wilderness, the lust of blood was upon them, and they would shed it for the pleasure of seeing it flow. Henry's primeval world darkened as he looked upon them.
He was about to leave with Black Cloud and his friends when it occurred to him to ask which way the war party was going and who were the destined victims. He spoke to two or three warriors until he came to one who understood the tongue of his little tribe.
The man waved his hand toward the south.
"Off there; far away," he said. " Beyond the great river."
Henry knew that in this case "great river meant the Ohio and he was somewhat surprised; it was still a long journey from the Ohio to the land of the Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws with whom the Northern tribes sometimes fought, and he spoke of it to the warrior, but the man shook his head, and said they were going against the white people; there was a village of them in a sheltered valley beside a little river, they had been there three or four years and had flourished in peace; freedom so long from danger had made them careless, but the Shawnee scouts had looked from the woods upon the settlement, and the war band would slay or take them all with ease.
The man had not spoken a half dozen words before Henry knew that Wareville was the place, upon which the doom was so soon to fall. The chill of horror that had seized him at sight of the yellow haired scalp passed over him again, deeper, stronger and longer than before. And the colony would fall! There could be no doubt of it! Nothing could save it! The hideous band, raging with tomahawk and knife, would dash without a word of warning, like a bolt from the sky upon Wareville so long sheltered and peaceful in its valley. And he could see all the phases of the savage triumph, the surprise, the triumphant and ferocious yells, the rapid volleys of the rifles, the flashing of the blades, the burning buildings, the shouts, the cries, and men, women and children in one red slaughter. In another year the forest would be springing up where Wareville had been, and the wolf and the fox would prowl among the charred timbers. And among the bleaching bones would be those of his own mother and sister and Lucy Upton-if they were not taken away for a worse fate.
He endured the keenest thrill of agony that life had yet held for him. All his old life, the dear familiar ties surged up, and were hot upon his brain. His place was there! With them! Not here! He had yielded too easily to the spell of the woods and the call of the old primeval nature. He might have escaped long ago, there had been many opportunities, but he could not see them. His blindness had been willful, the child of his own desires. He knew it too well now. He saw himself guilty and guilty he was.
But in that moment of agony and fear for his own he was paying the price of his guilt. The sense of helplessness was crushing. In two hours the war party would start and it would flit southward like the wind, as silent but far more deadly. No, nothing could save the innocent people at Wareville; they were as surely doomed as if their destruction had already taken place. But not one of these emotions, so tense and so deep, was written on the face of him whom even the Shawnees did not know to be white. Not a feature changed, the Indian stoicism and calm, the product alike of his nature and cultivation, clung to him. His eyes were veiled and his movements had their habitual gravity and dignity.
He walked with Black Cloud to the edge of the encampment, said farewell to the Shawnees, and then, with a great surge of joy, his resolution came to him. It was so sudden, so transforming that the whole world changed at once. The blood-red tint, thrown by the sunken sun, was gone from the forest, but instead the silver sickle of the moon was rising and shed a radiant light of hope.
He said nothing until they had gone a mile or so and then, drawing Black Cloud aside, spoke to him words full of firmness, but not without feeling. He made no secret of his purpose, and he said that if Black Cloud and the others sought to stay him with force with force he would reply. He must go, and he would go at once.
Black Cloud was silent for a while, and Henry saw the faintest quiver in his eyes. He knew that he held a certain place in the affections of the chief, not the place that he might hold in the regard of a white man, it was more limited and qualified, but it was there, nevertheless.
"I am the captive of the tribe I know," said Henry. "It has made me its son, but my white blood is not changed and I must save my people. The Shawnees march south to-night against them, and I go to give warning. It is better that I go in peace."
He spoke simply, but with dignity, and looked straight into the eyes of the chief, where he saw that slight pathetic quiver come again.
"I cannot keep you now if you would go," said Black Cloud, "but it may be when you are far away that the forest and we with whom you have lived and hunted so many seasons will call to you again, in a voice to which you must listen."
Henry was moved; perhaps the chief was telling the truth. He saw the hardships and bareness of the wilderness but the life there appealed to him and satisfied the stronger wants of his nature; he seemed to be the reincarnation of some old forest dweller belonging to a time thousands of years ago, yet the voice of duty, which was in this case also the voice of love, called to, him, too, and now with the louder voice. He would go, and there must be no delay in his going.
"Farewell, Black Cloud," he said with the same simplicity. "I will think often of you who have been good to me."
The chief called the other warriors and told them their comrade was going far to the south, and they might never see him again. Their faces expressed nothing, whatever they may have felt. Henry repeated the farewell, hesitated no longer and plunged into the forest. But he stopped when he was thirty or forty yards away and looked back. The chief and the warriors stood side by side as he had left them, motionless and gazing after him. It was night now and to eyes less keen than Henry's their forms would have melted into the dusk, but he saw every outline distinctly, the lean brown features and the black shining eyes. He waved his hands to them-a white man's action-and resumed his flight, not looking back again.
It was a dark night and the forest stretched on, black and endless, the trunks of the trees standing in rows like phantoms of the dusk. Henry looked up at the moon and the few stars, and reckoned his course. Wareville lay many hundred miles away, chiefly to the south, and he had a general idea of the direction, but the war party would know exactly, and its advantage there would perhaps be compensation for the superior speed of one man. But Henry, for the present, would not think of such a disaster as failure; on the contrary he reckoned with nothing but success, and he felt a marvelous elation.
The decision once taken, the rebound had come with great force, and he felt that he was now about to make atonement for his long neglect, and more than neglect. Perhaps it had been ordained long ago that he should be there at the critical moment, see the danger and bring them the warning that would save. There was consolation in the thought.
He increased his pace and sped southward in the easy trot that he had learned from his red friends, a gait that he could maintain indefinitely, and with which he could put ground behind him at a remarkable rate. His rifle he carried at the trail, his head was bent slightly forward, and he listened intently to every sound of the forest as he passed; nothing escaped his ear, whether it was a raccoon stirring among the branches, a deer startled from its covert, or merely the wind rustling the leaves. Instinct also told him that the forest was at peace.
To the ordinary man the night with its dusk, the wilderness with its ghostly tree trunks, and the silence would have been full of weirdness and awe, black with omens and presages. Few would not have chilled to the marrow to be alone there, but to Henry it brought only hope and the thrill of exultation. He had no sense of loneliness, the forest hid no secrets for him; this was home and he merely passed through it on a great quest.
He looked up at the moon and stars, and confirmed himself in his course, though he never slackened speed as he looked. He came out of the forest upon a prairie, and here the moonlight was brighter, touching the crests of the swells with silver spear points. A dozen buffaloes rose up and snorted as he flitted by, but he scarcely bestowed a passing glance upon the black bulk of the animals. The prairie was only two or three miles across, and at the far edge flowed a shallow creek which he crossed at full speed, and entered the forest again. Now he came to rough country, steep little hills, and a dense undergrowth of interlacing bushes, and twining thorny vines. But he made his way through them in a manner that only one forest-bred could compass, and pressed on with speed but little slackened.
When the night became darkest, in the forest just before morning he lay down in the deepest shadow of a thicket, his hand upon his rifle, and in a few minutes was sleeping soundly. It was a matter of training with him to sleep whenever sleep was needed and he had no nerves. He knew, too, despite his haste that he must save his strength, and he did not hesitate to follow the counsels of prudence.
It was his will that he should sleep about four hours, and, his system obeying the wish, he awoke at the appointed time. The sun was rising over the vast, green wilderness, lighting up a world seemingly as lonely and deserted as it had been the night before. The unbroken forest, touched with the tender tints of young spring and bathed in the pure light of the first dawn, bent gently to a west wind that breathed only of peace.
Henry stood up and inhaled the odorous air. He was a striking figure, yet a few yards away he would have been visible only to the trained eye; his half savage garb of tanned deerskin, stained green and trimmed at the edges with green beads and little green feathers, blended with the colors of the forest and merely made a harmonious note in the whole. His figure compact, powerful and always poised as if ready for a spring swayed slightly, while his eyes that missed nothing searched every nook in the circling woods. He was then neither the savage nor the civilized man, but he had many of the qualities of both.
The slight swaying motion of his body ceased suddenly and he remained as still as a rock. He seemed to be a part of the green bushes that grew around him, yet he was never more watchful, never more alert. The indefinable sixth sense, developed in him by the wilderness, had taken alarm; there was a presence in the forest, foreign in its nature; it was not sight nor hearing nor yet smell that told him so, but a feeling or rather a sort of prescience. Then an extraordinary thrill ran through him; it was an emotion partaking in its nature of joy and anticipation; he was about to be confronted by some danger, perhaps a crisis, and the physical faculties, handed down by a far-off ancestor expanded to meet it. He knew that he would conquer, and he felt already the glow of triumph.
Presently he sank down in the undergrowth so gently that not a bush rustled; there was no displacement of nature, the grass and the foliage were just as they had been, but the figure, visible before to the trained eye at a dozen paces, could not have been seen now at all. Then he began to creep through the grass with a swift easy gliding motion like that of a serpent, moving at a speed remarkable in such a position and quite soundless. He went a full half mile before he stopped and rose to his knees, and then his face was hidden by the bushes, although the eyes still searched every part of the forest.
His look was now wholly changed. He might be the hunted, but he bore himself as the hunter. All vestige of the civilized man, trained to humanity and mercy, was gone. Those who wished to kill were seeking him and he would kill in return. The thin lips were slightly drawn back, showing the line of white teeth, the eyes were narrowed and in them was the cold glitter of expected conflict. Brown hands, lean but big-boned and powerful, clasped a rifle having a long slender barrel and a beautifully carved stock. It was a figure, terrible alike in its manifestation of physical power and readiness, and in the fierce eye that told what quality of mind lay behind it.
He sank down again and moved in a small circle to the right. His original thrill of joy was now a permanent emotion; he was like some one playing an exciting game into which no thought of danger entered. He stopped behind a large tree, and sheltering himself riveted his eyes on a spot in the forest about fifty yards away. No one else could have found there anything suspicious, anything to tell of an alien presence, but he no longer doubted.
At the detected point a leaf moved, but not in the way it should have swayed before the gentle wind, and there was a passing spot of brown in the green of the bushes. It was visible only for a moment, but it was sufficient for the attuned mind and body of Henry Ware. Every part of him responded to the call. The rifle sprang to his shoulder and before the passing spot of brown was gone, a stream of fire spurted from its slender muzzle, and its sharp cracking report like the lashing of a whip was blended with the long-drawn howl, so terrible in its note, that is the death cry of a savage.
The bullet had scarcely left his gun before he fell back almost flat, and the answering shot sped over his head. It was for this that he sank down, and before the second shot died he sprang to his feet and rushed forward, drawing his tomahawk and uttering a shout that rolled away in fierce echoes through the forest.
He knew that his enemies were but two; in his eccentric course through the forest he had passed directly over their trail, and he had read the signs with an infallible eye. Now one was dead and the other like himself had an unloaded gun. The rest of his deed would be a mere matter of detail.
The second savage uttered his war cry and sprang forward from the bushes. He might well have recoiled at the terrible figure that rushed to meet him; in all his wild life of risks he had never before been confronted by anything so instinct with terror, so ominous of death. But he did not have time to take thought before he was overwhelmed by his resistless enemy.
It was an affair of but a few moments. The Indian threw his tomahawk but Henry parried the blade upon the barrel of his rifle which he still carried in his left hand, and his own tomahawk was whirled in a glittering curve about his head. Now it was launched with mighty force and the savage, cloven to the chin, sank soundless to the earth; he had been smitten down by a force so sudden and absolute that he died instantly.
The victor, elated though he was, paused, and quickly reloaded his rifle-wilderness caution would allow nothing else-and afterwards advancing looked first at the savage whom he had slain in the open and then at the other in the bushes. There was no pity in him, his only emotion was a great sense of power; they had hunted him, two to one, and they born in the woods, but he had outwitted and slain them both. He could have escaped, he could have easily left them far behind when he first discovered that they were stalking him, but he had felt that they should be punished and now the event justified his faith.
It was not his first taking of human life, and while he would have shuddered at the deed a year ago he felt no such sensation now; they were merely dangerous wild animals that had crossed his path, and he had put them out of it in the proper way; his feeling was that of the hunter who slays a grizzly bear or a lion, only he had slain two.
He stood looking at them, and save for the rustling of the young grass under the gentle western wind the wilderness was silent and at peace. The sun was shooting up higher and higher and a vast golden light hung over the forest, gilding every leaf and twig. Henry Ware turned at last and sped swiftly and silently to the south, still thrilling with exultation over his deed, and the sequel that he knew would quickly come. But in the few brief minutes his nature had reverted another and further step toward the primitive.
When he had gone a half mile in his noiseless flight he stopped, and, listening intently, heard the faint echo of a long-drawn, whining cry. After that came silence, heavy and ominous. But Henry only laughed in noiseless mirth. All this he had expected. He knew that the larger party to which the two warriors belonged would find the bodies, with hasty pursuit to follow after the single cry. That was why he lingered. He wanted them to pursue, to hang upon his trail in the vain hope that they could catch him; he would play with them, he would enjoy the game leading them on until they were exhausted, and then, laughing, he would go on to the south at his utmost speed.
A new impulse drove him to another step in the and, raising his head, he uttered his own long piercing shout that died in distance at once a defiance, and an invitation to them where they might find him, and then, mirth in his eyes, he resumed his flight, although, for the present, he chose to keep an unchanging distance between his pursuers and himself.
That party of warriors may have pursued many a man before and may have caught most of them, but the greatest veteran of them all had never hung on the trail of such another annoying fugitive. All day, he led them in swift flight toward the south, and at no time was he more than a little beyond their reach; often they thought their hands were about to close down upon him, that soon they would enjoy the sight of his writhings under the fagot and the stake, but always he slipped away at the fatal moment, and their savage hearts were filled with bitterness that a lone fugitive should taunt them so. His footsteps were those of the white man, but his wile and cunning were those of the red, and curiosity was added to the other motives that drew them on.
At the coming of the twilight one of their best warriors who pursued at some distance from the main band was slain by a rifle shot from the bushes, then came that defiant war cry again, faint, but full of irony and challenge, and then the trail grew cold before them. He whom they pursued was going now with a speed that none of them could equal, and the darkness itself, thick and heavy, soon covered all sign of his flight.
Henry Ware's expectations of joy had been fulfilled and more; it was the keenest delight that had yet come into his life. At all times he had been master of the situation, and as he drew them southward, he fulfilled his duty at the same time and enjoyed his sport. Everything hid fallen out as he planned, and now, with the night at hand, he shook them off.
Through the day he had eaten dried venison from his pouch as he ran, and he felt no need to stop for food. So, he did not cease the flight until after midnight when he lay down again in a thicket and slept soundly until daylight. He rose again, refreshed, and faster than ever sped on his swift way toward Wareville.