The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XVIII. The Test
The people of Wareville had good reason alike for pride and for sorrow, pride for victory, and sorrow for the fallen, but they spent no time in either, at least openly, resuming at once the task of founding a new state.
Henry Ware, the hero of the hour and the savior of the village, laid aside his wild garb and took a place in his father's fields. The work was heavy, the Indian corn was planted, but trees were to be felled, fences were to be cut down, and as he was so strong a larger share than usual was expected of him. His own father appreciated these hopes and was resolved that his son should do his full duty.
Henry entered upon his task and from the beginning he had misgivings, but he refused to indulge them. He handled a hoe on his first day from dawn till dark in a hot field, and all the while the mighty wilderness about him was crying out to him in many voices. While the sun glowed upon him, and the sweat ran down his face he could see the deep cool shade of the forest-how restful and peaceful it looked there! He knew a sheltered glade where the buffalo were feeding, he could find the deer reposing in a thicket, and to the westward was a new region of hills and clear brooks, over which he might be the first white man to roam.
His blood tingled with his thoughts, but he never said a word, only bending lower to his task, and hardening his resolve. The voices of the wilderness might call, and he could not keep from hearing them, but he need not go. The amount of work he did that day was wonderful to all who saw, his vast strength put him far ahead of all others and back of his strength was his will. But they said nothing and he was glad they did not speak.
When he went home in the dusk he overtook Lucy Upton near the palisade. She was in the same red dress that she wore when she ran the gauntlet and in the twilight it seemed to be tinged to a deeper scarlet. She was walking swiftly with the easy, swinging grace of a good figure and good health, but when he joined her she went more slowly.
He did not speak for a few moments, and she gave him a silent glance of sympathy. In her woman's heart she guessed the cause of his trouble, and while she had been afraid of him when he appeared suddenly as the Indian warrior yet she liked him better in that part than as she now saw him. Then he was majestic, now he was prosaic, and it seemed to her that his present role was unfitting.
"You are tired," she said at last.
"Well, not in the body exactly, but I feel like resting."
There was no complaint in his tone, but a slight touch of irony.
"Do you think that you will make a good farmer?" she asked.
"As good as the times and our situation allow," he replied. "Wandering parties of the savages are likely to pass near here and in the course of time they may send back an army. Besides one has to hunt now, as for a long while we must depend on the forest for a part of our food."
It seemed to her that these things did not cause him sorrow, that he turned to them as a sort of relief: his eyes sparkled more brightly when he spoke of the necessity for hunting and the possible passage of Indian parties which must be repelled. Girl though she was, she felt again a little glow of sympathy, guessing as she did his nature; she could understand how he thrilled when he heard the voices of the forest calling to him.
They reached the gate of the palisade and passed within. It was full dusk now, the forest blurring together into a mighty black wall, and the outlines of the houses becoming shadowy. The Ware family sat awhile that evening by the hearth fire, and John Ware was full of satisfaction. A worthy man, he had neither imagination nor primitive instincts and he valued the wilderness only as a cheap place in which to make homes. He spoke much of clearing the ground, of the great crops that would come, and of the profit and delight afforded by regular work year after year on the farm. Henry Ware sat in silence, listening to his father's oracular tones, but his mother, glancing at him, had doubts to which she gave no utterance.
The days passed and as the spring glided into summer they grew hotter. The sun glowed upon the fields, and the earth parched with thirst. In the forest the leaves were dry and they rustled when the wind blew upon them. The streams sank away again, as they had done during the siege, and labor became more trying. Yet Henry Ware never murmured, though his soul was full of black bitterness. Often he would resolutely turn his eyes from the forest where he knew the deep cool pools were, and keep them on the sun-baked field. His rifle, which had seemed to reproach him, inanimate object though it was, he hid in a corner of the house where he could not see it and its temptation. In order to create a counter-irritant he plunged into work with the most astonishing vigor.
John Ware, in those days, was full of pride and satisfaction, he rejoiced in the industrial prowess of his son, and he felt that his own influence had prevailed, he had led Henry back to the ways of civilization, the only right ways, and he enjoyed his triumph. But the schoolmaster, in secret, often shook his head.
The summer grew drier and hotter, it was a period of drought again and the little children gasped through the sweating nights. Afar they saw the blaze of forest fires and ashes and smoke came on the wind. Henry toiled with a dogged spirit, but every day the labor grew more bitter to him; he took no interest in it, he did not wish to calculate the result in the years to come, when all around him, extending thousands of miles, was an untrodden wilderness, in which he might roam and hunt until the end, although his years should be a hundred.
It was worst at night, when he lay awake by a window, breathing the hot air, then the deep cool forest extended to him her kindest invitation, and it took all his resolution to resist her welcome. The wind among the trees was like music, but it was a music to which he must close his ears. Then he remembered his vast wanderings with Black Cloud and his red friends, how they had crossed great and unnamed rivers, the days in the endless forest and the other days on the endless plains, and of the mighty lake, they had reached in their northernmost journey. How cool and pleasant that lake seemed now! His mind ran over every detail of the great buffalo hunts, of those trips along the streams to trap the beaver and the events in the fight with the hostile tribe.
All these recollections seemed very vivid and real to him now, and the narrow life of Wareville faded into a mist out of which shone only the faces of those whom he loved-it was they alone who had brought him back to Wareville, but he knew that their ways were not his ways, and it was hard to confine his spirit within the narrow limits of a settlement.
But his long martyrdom went on, the summer was growing old, with the work of planting and cultivating almost done and the harvest soon to follow, and whatever his feelings may have been he had never flinched a single time. Nourished by his great labors the Ware farm far surpassed all others, and the pride of John Ware grew. He also grew more exacting with his pride, and this quality brought on the crisis.
Henry was building a fence one particularly hot afternoon, and his father coming by, cool and fresh, found fault with his work, chiefly to show his authority, because the work was not badly done. Mr. Ware was a good man, but like other good men he had a rare fault-finding impulse. The voices in the woods had been calling very loudly that day, and Henry's temper suddenly flashed into a flame. But he did not give way to any external outburst of passion, speaking in a level, measured voice.
"I am sorry you do not like it," he said, "because it is the last work I am going to do here."
"Wh-what do you mean?" exclaimed his father in astonishment.
"I am done," replied Henry in his firm tones, and dropping the fence rail that he held he walked to the house, every nerve in him thrilling with expectation of the pleasure that was to come. His mother was there, and she started in fear at his face.
"It is true, mother," he said, "I am not going to deceive you, I am going into the forest, but I will come again and often. It is the only life that I can lead, I was made for it I suppose; I have tried the other out there in the fields, and I have tried hard, but I cannot stand it."
She knew too well to seek to stop him. He took his rifle from its secluded comer, and the feeling of it, stock and barrel, was good to his hands. He put on the buckskin hunting shirt, leggings and moccasins, fringed and beaded, and with them he felt all his old zest and pride returning. He kissed his mother and sister good-by, shook hands with his younger brother, did the same with his astonished father at the door, and then, rifle on shoulder, disappeared in the circling forest.
That night Braxton Wyatt sneered and said that a savage could not keep from being a savage, but Paul Cotter turned upon him so fiercely that he took it back. The schoolmaster made no comment aloud, but to himself he said, "It was bound to come and perhaps it is no loss that it has come."
Meanwhile Henry Ware was tasting the fiercest and keenest joy of his life. The great forest seemed to reach out its boughs like kind arms to welcome and embrace. How cool was the shade! How the shafts of sunlight piercing the leaves fell like golden arrows on the ground! How the little brooks laughed and danced over the pebbles! This was his world and he had been too long away from it. Everything was friendly, the huge tree trunks were like old comrades, the air was fresher and keener than any that he had breathed in a long time, and was full of new life and zest. All his old wilderness love rushed back to him, and now after many months he felt at home.
Strong as he was already new strength flowed into his frame and he threw back his head, and laughed a low happy laugh. Then rifle at the trail he ran for miles among the trees from the pure happiness of living, but noting as he passed with wonderfully keen eyes every trail of a wild animal and all the forest signs that he knew so well. He ran many miles and he felt no weariness. Then he throw himself down on Mother Earth, and rejoiced at her embrace. He lay there a long time, staring up through the leaves and the shifting sunlight, and he was so still that a hare hopped through the undergrowth almost at his feet, never taking alarm. To Henry Ware then the world seemed grand and beautiful, and of all things in it God had made the wilderness the finest, lingering over every detail with a loving hand.
He watched the setting of the sun and the coming of the twilight. The sun was a great blazing ball and the western sky flowed away from it in circling waves of blue and pink and gold, then long shadows came over the forest, and the distant trees began to melt together into a gigantic dark wall. To the dweller in cities all this vast loneliness and desolation would have been dreary and weird beyond description; he would have shuddered with superstitious awe, starting in fear at the slightest sound, but there was no such quality in it for Henry Ware. He saw only comradeship and the friendly veil of the great creeping shadow. His eye could pierce the thickest night, and fear, either of the darkness or things physical, was not in him.
He rose after a while, when the last sign of day was gone, and walked on, though more slowly. He made no noise as he passed, stepping lightly, but with sure foot like one with both genius and training for the wilderness. He knelt at a little brook to slake his thirst, but did not stop long there. His happiness decreased in nowise. The familiar voices of the night were speaking to him. He heard the distant hoot of an owl, a deer rustled in the bush, a lizard scuttled over the leaves, and he rejoiced at the sounds. He did not think of hunger but toward midnight he raked some of last year's fallen leaves close to the trunk of a big tree, lay down upon them, and fell in a few moments into happy and dreamless sleep.
He awoke with the first rays of the dawn, shot a deer after an hour's search, and then cooked his breakfast by the side of one of the little brooks. It was the first food that had tasted just right to him in many weeks and afterwards he lay by the camp fire awhile and luxuriated. He had the most wonderful feeling of peace and ease; all the world was his to go where he chose and to do what he chose, and he began to think of an autumn camp, a tiny lodge in the deepest recess of the wilderness, where he could store spare ammunition, furs and skins and find a frequent refuge, when the time for storms and cold came. He would build at his ease-there was plenty of time and he would fill in the intervals with hunting and exploration.
He ranged that day toward the north and the west, moving with deliberation, and not until the third or the fourth day did he come to the place that he had in mind. In the triangle between the junction of two streams was a marshy area, thickly grown with bushes and slim trees, that thrust their roots deep down through the mire into more solid soil. The marsh was perhaps two acres in extent; right in the heart of it was a piece of firm earth about forty feet square and here Henry meant to build his lodge. He alone knew the path across the marsh over fallen logs lying near enough to each other to be reached by an agile man, and on the tiny island all his possessions would be safe.
He worked a week at his hut, and it was done, a little lean-to of bark and saplings, partly lined with skins, but proof against rain or snow. On the floor he spread the skins and furs of animals that he killed, and on the walls he hung trophies of the hunt.
Two weeks after his house was finished he used it at its full value. Summer was gone and autumn was coming, a great rain poured and the wind blew cold. Dead leaves fell in showers from the trees, and the boughs swaying before the gale creaked dismally against each other. But it all gave to Henry a supreme sense of physical comfort. He lay in his snug hut, and, pulling a little to one side the heavy buffalo robe that hung over the doorway, watched the storm rage through the wilderness. He had no sense of loneliness, his mind was in perfect tune with everything about him, and delighted in the triumphant manifestation of nature.
He stayed there all day, content to lie still and meditate vaguely of anything that came of its own accord into his mind. About the twilight hour he cooked some venison, ate it and then slept a dreamless sleep through the night.
The rain ceased the next day but the air became crisp and cold, and autumn was fully come. In a week the forest was dyed into the most glowing colors, red and yellow and brown, and the shades between. The heavens were pure blue and gold, and it was a poignant delight to breathe the keen air. Again he ranged far and rejoiced in the hunting. His infallible rifle never missed, and in the little hut in the marsh the stock of furs and skins grew so fast that scarcely room for himself was left. He hid a fresh store at another place in the forest, and then he returned to Wareville for a day. His father greeted him with some constraint, not with coldness exactly, but with lack of understanding. His mother and his sister wept with joy and Mrs. Ware said: "I was expecting you about this time and you have not disappointed me."
He stayed two days and his keen eyes, so observant of material matters, noted that the colony was not doing well for the time, the drought having almost ruined the crops and there was full promise of scanty food and a hard winter. Now came his opportunity. He had looked upon his month in the forest as in part a holiday, and he never intended to throw aside all responsibility for others, roving the wilderness absolutely free from care. He knew that he would have work to do, he felt that he should have it, and now he saw the way to do the kind of work that he loved to do.
He replenished his supply of ammunition, took up his rifle again and returned to the forest. Now he used all his surpassing knowledge and skill in the chase, and game began to pour into the colony, bear, deer, buffalo and the smaller animals, until he alone seemed able to feed the entire settlement through the winter.
He experienced a new thrill keener and more delightful than any that had gone before; he was doing for others and the knowledge was most pleasant. Winter came on, fierce and unyielding with almost continuous snow and ice, and Henry Ware was the chief support of that little village in the wilderness. The game wandering with its fancy, or perhaps taking alarm at the new settlement had drifted far, and he alone of all the hunters could find it. The voices that had been raised against him a second time were stilled again, because no one dared to accuse when his single figure stood between them and starvation.
He took Paul Cotter with him on some of his hunts, but never even to Paul did he tell the secret of his hut in the morass; that was to be guarded for himself alone. He was fond of Paul, but Paul able though he was fell far behind Henry in the forest.
The debt of Wareville to him grew and none felt privileged to criticize him now, as he appeared from the forest and disappeared into it again on his self-chosen tasks.
The winter broke up at last, but with the spring came a new and more formidable danger. Small parties of Indians, not strong enough to attack Wareville itself but sufficient for forest ambush, began to appear in the country, and two or three lives that could be ill spared were lost. Now Henry Ware showed his supreme value; he was a match and more than a match for the savages at all their own tricks, and he became the ranger for the settlement, its champion against a wild and treacherous foe.
The tales of his skill and prowess spread far through the wilderness. Single handed he would not hesitate in the depths of the forest to attack war parties of half a dozen, and while suffering heavily themselves, they could never catch their daring tormentor. These tales even spread across the Ohio to the Indian villages, where they told of a blond and giant white youth in the South who was the spirit of death, whom no runner could overtake, whom no bullet could slay and who raged against the red man with an invincible wrath.
As his single hand had fed them through the winter so, his single hand protected them from death in the spring. He seemed to know by instinct when the war parties were coming and where they would appear. Always he confronted them with some devious attack that they did not know how to meet, and Wareville remained inviolate.
Then, in the summer, when the war bands were all gone he came back to Wareville to stay a while, although, everyone, himself included, knew that he would always remain a son of the wilderness, spending but part of his time in the houses of men.