The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter IV. The Haunted Forest
As the two boys sat before their camp fire that night, after making their plan, they were far from feeling gloomy. Another revulsion had come. Safe, for the moment, after their recent run for life, it seemed to them that they were safe for all time. They were rested, they had eaten good food in plenty, and the fire was long since but a dim red blur on the horizon. Ashes, picked up by wandering puffs of wind, still floated here and there among the burned tree trunks, and now and then a shower of sparks burst forth, as a bough into which the flames had eaten deep, broke and fell to the ground; but fear had gone from the lads, and, in its place, came a deep content. They were used to the forest, and in the company of each other they felt neither loneliness nor despair.
"It's good here," said Paul who was a reader and a philosopher. "I guess a fellow's life looks best to him just after he's thought he was going to lose it, but didn't."
"I think that's true," said Henry, glancing toward the far horizon, where the red blur still showed under the twilight. "But that was just a little too close for fun."
But his satisfaction was even deeper than Paul's. The wilderness and its ways made a stronger appeal to him. Paul, without Henry, would have felt loneliness and fear, but Henry alone, would have faced the night undaunted. Already the great forest was putting upon him its magic spell.
"Have you eaten enough, Paul?" he asked.
"I should like to eat more, but I'm afraid I cannot find a place for it," replied Paul ruefully.
Henry laughed. He felt himself more than ever Paul's protector and regarded all his weaknesses with kindly tolerance. There the two lay awhile, stretched out on the soft, warm earth, watching the twilight deepen into night. Henry was listening to the voice of the wilderness, which spoke to him in such pleasant tones. He heard a faint sighing, like some one lightly plucking the strings of a guitar, and he knew that it was the wandering breeze among the burned boughs; he heard now and then a distant thud, and he knew that it was the fall of a tree, into whose trunk the flames had bit deeply; as he lay with his ear to the earth he heard more than once a furtive footfall as light as air, and he knew that some wild animal was passing. But he had no fear, the fire was a ring of steel about them.
Paul heard few of these sounds, or if hearing them he paid no heed. The wilderness was not talking to him. He was merely in the woods and he was very glad indeed to have his strong and faithful comrade beside him.
The twilight slipped away and the night came, thick and dark. The red blur lingered, but the faintest line of pink under the dark horizon, and the scorched tree trunks that curved like columns in a circle around them became misty and unreal. Despite himself Paul began to feel a little fear. He was a brave boy, but this was the wilderness, the wilderness in the dark, peopled by wild animals and perhaps by wilder men, and they were lost in it. He moved a little closer to his comrade. But Henry, into whose mind no such thoughts had come, rose presently, and heaped more wood on the fire. He was merely taking an ordinary precaution, and this little task finished, he spoke to Paul in a vein of humor, purposely making his words sound very big.
"Mr. Cotter," he said, "it seems to me that two worthy gentlemen like ourselves who have had a day of hard toil should retire for the night, and seek the rest that we deserve."
"What you say is certainly true, Mr. Ware," responded Paul who had a lively fancy, "and I am glad to see that we have happened upon an inn, worthy of our great merits, and of our high position in life. This, you see, Mr. Ware, is the Kaintuckee Inn, a most spacious place, noted for its pure air, and the great abundance of it. In truth, Mr. Ware, I may assert to you that the ventilation is perfect."
"I agree, Mr. Cotter," said Henry, pursuing the humor. "It is indeed a noble place. We are not troubled by any guest, beneath us in quality, nor, are we crowded by any of our fellow lodgers."
"True! True!" said Paul, his bright eyes shining with his quick spirit, "and it is a most noble apartment that we have chosen. I have seldom been in one more spacious. My eyes are good, but good as they are I cannot see the ceiling, it is so high. I look to right and left, and the walls are so far away that they are hidden in the dark."
"Correctly spoken, Mr. Cotter," said Henry taking up the thread of talk, "and our inn has more than size to speak for it. It is furnished most beautifully. I do not know of another that has in it so good a larder. Its great specialty is game. It has too a most wonderful and plenteous supply of pure fresh water and that being so I propose that we get a drink and go to bed."
The two boys went down to the little brook that ran near, and drank heartily. They then returned within the ring of fire.
They were thoroughly tired and sleepy, and they quickly threw themselves down upon the soft warm earth, pillowing their heads on their arms, and the great Kaintuckee Inn bent over them a roof of soft, summer skies.
But the wilderness never sleeps, and its people knew that night that a stranger breed was abroad among them. The wind rose a little, and its song among the burned branches became by turns a music and a moan. The last cinder died, the earth cooled, and the forest creatures began to stir in the woodland aisles where the fire had passed. The disaster had come and gone, and perhaps it was already out of their memories forever. Rabbits timidly sought their old nests. A wild cat climbed a tree, scarcely yet cool beneath his claws, and looked with red and staring eyes at the ring of fire that formed a core of light in the forest, and the two extraordinary beings that slept within its shelter. A deer came down to the brook to drink, snorted at the sight of the red gleam among the trees, and then, when the strange odor came on the wind to its nostrils, fled in wild fright through the forest.
The news, in some way unknown to man, was carried to all the forest creatures. A new species, strange, unattainable, had come among them, and they were filled with curiosity. Even the weak who had need to fear the strong, edged as near as they dared, and gazed at the singular beings who lay in the midst of the red blaze. The wild cat crawled far out on bare bough, and stared, half afraid, half curious, and angry at the intrusion. He could see over the red blaze, and he saw the boys stretched upon the their faces, very white to the eye of the forest, upturned to the sky. To human gaze they would have seemed as two dead, but the keen eyes of the wild cat saw their chests rising and falling with deep regular breaths.
The darkness deepened and then after a while began to lighten. A beautiful clear moon came out and sheathed all the burned forest in gleaming silver.
The boys were still far away in a happy slumber. The wild cat fled in alarm at the light, and timid things drew back farther among the trees. Time passed, and the red ring of fire about Paul Henry sank. Hasty and tired, they had not laid up enough wood to last out the night, and the flames now died, one by one. Then the coals smoldered and after a while they too began to go out, one by one. The red ring of fire that inclosed the two boys, was slowly going away. It broke into links, and then the links went out.
Light clouds came up from the west, and were drawn, like a veil, across the sky. The moon began to fade, the silver armor melted away from the trees, and the wild cat that had come back could scarcely see the two strange beings, keen though his eyes were, so dense was the shadow where they lay. The wild things, still devoured with curiosity, pressed nearer. The terrible red light that filled their souls with dread, was gone, and the forest had lost half its terror. There was a ring of eyes about Henry and Paul, but they yet abode in glorious slumberland, peaceful and happy.
Suddenly a new note came into the sounds of the wilderness, one that made the timid creatures tremble again with dread. It was faint and very far, more like a quaver brought down upon the wind, but the ring of eyes drew back into the forest, and then, when the quaver came a second time, the rabbits and the deer fled, not to return. The lips of the wild cat contracted into a snarl, but his courage was only of the moment, he scampered away and he did not stop until he had gone a full mile. Then he swiftly climbed the tallest tree that he could find, and hid in its top.
The ring of eyes was gone, as the ring of fire had died, but Henry and Paul slept on, although there was full need for them to be awake. The long, distant quaver, like a whine, but with something singularly ferocious in its note came again on the wind, and, far away, a score of forms, phantom and dusky, in the shadow were running fast, with low, slim bodies, and outstretched nostrils that had in them a grateful odor of food, soon to come. Nature had given to Henry Ware a physical mechanism of great strength, but as delicate as that of a watch. Any jar to the wheels and springs was registered at once by the minute hand of his brain. He stirred in his sleep and moved one hand in a troubled way. He was not yet awake, but the minute hand was quivering, and through all his wonderfully sensitive organism ran the note of alarm. He stirred again and then abruptly sat up, his eyes wide open, and his whole frame tense with a new and terrible sensation. He saw the dead coals, where the fire had been; the long, quavering and ferocious whine came to his ears, and, in an instant, he understood. It was well for the two that Henry was by nature a creature of the forest. He sprang to his feet and with one sweeping motion pulled Paul to his also.
"Up! Up, Paul!" he cried. "The fire is out, and the wolves are coming!"
Paul's physical senses were less acute and delicate than Henry's, and he did not understand at once. He was still dazed, and groping with his hands in the dusk, but Henry gave him no time.
"It's our lives, Paul!" he cried. Another enemy as bad as the fire is after us!"
Not twenty feet away grew a giant beech, spreading out low and mighty boughs, and Henry leaped for it, dragging Paul after him.
"Up you go!" he cried, and Paul, not yet fully awake, instinctively obeyed the fierce command. Then Henry leaped lightly after him and as they climbed higher among the boughs the ferocious whine burst into a long terrible howl, and the dusky forms, running low, gaunt and ghostly in the shadow, shot from the forest, and hurled themselves at the beech tree.
Henry, despite all his courage, shuddered, and while he clutched a bough tightly with one hand put the other upon his comrade to see that he did not fall. He could feel Paul trembling in his grasp.
The two looked down upon the inflamed red eyes, the cruelly sharp, white teeth and slavering mouths, and, still panting from their climb, each breathed a silent prayer of thankfulness. They had been just in time to escape a pack of wolves that howled horribly for a while, and then sat upon their haunches, staring silently up at the sweet new food, which they believed would fall at last into their mouths.
Paul at last said weakly:
"Henry, I'm mighty glad you're a light sleeper. If it had been left to me to wake up first I'd have woke up right in the middle of the stomachs of those wolves."
"Well, we're here and we're safe for the present," said Henry who never troubled himself over what was past and gone, "and I think this is a beech tree. I know that you and I, Paul, will never see another so big and friendly and good as it is."
Paul laughed, now with more heart.
"You are right, Henry," he said. "You are a mighty good friend, Mr. Big Beech Tree, and as a mark of gratitude I shall kiss you right in the middle of your honest barky old forehead," and he touched his lips lightly to the great trunk. Paul was an imaginative boy, and his whim pleased him. Such a thought would not have come to Henry, but he liked it in Paul.
"I think it's past midnight, Paul," said Henry, and we've been lucky enough to have had several hours sleep."
"But they'll go away as soon as they realize they can't get us," said Paul, and then we can climb down and build a new and bigger ring of fire about us."
Henry shook his head.
"They don't realize it," he replied. "I know they expect just the contrary, Paul. They are as sure as a wolf can be that we will drop right into their mouths, just ready and anxious to be eaten. Look at that old fellow with his forepaws on the tree! Did you ever see such confidence?"
Paul looked down fearfully, and the eyes of the biggest of the wolves met his, and held him as if he were charmed. The wolf began to whine and lick his lips, and Paul felt an insane desire to throw himself down.
"Stop it, Paul!" Henry cried sharply.
Paul jerked his eyes away, and shuddered from head to foot.
"He was asking me to come," he said hysterically, "and I don't know how it was, but for a moment I felt like going."
"Yes and a warm welcome he would have given you," said Henry still sharply. "Remember that your best friend just now is not Mr. Big Wolf, but Mr. Big Beech Tree, and it's a wise boy who sticks to his best friend."
"not likely to forget it," said Paul.
He shuddered again at the memory of the terrible, haunting eyes that had been able for a brief moment to draw him downward. Then he clasped the friendly tree more tightly in his arms, and Henry smiled approval.
"That's right, Paul," he said, "hold fast. I'd a heap rather be up here than down there."
Paul felt himself with his hand.
"I'm all in one piece up here," he said, "and I think that's good for a fellow who wants to live and grow."
Henry laughed with genuine enjoyment. Paul was getting back his sense of humor, and the change meant that his comrade was once more strong and alert. Then the larger boy looked down at their besiegers, who were sitting in a solemn circle, gazing now at the two lads and now at the venison, hanging from the boughs of another tree very near. In the dusk and the shadows they were a terrible company, gaunt and ghostly, gray and grim.
For a long time the wolves neither moved nor uttered a sound; they merely sat on their haunches and stared upward at the living prey that they felt would surely be theirs. The clouds, caught by wandering breezes, were stripped from the face of the sky, and the moonlight came out again, clear, and full, sheathing the scorched trunks once more in silver armor, and stretching great blankets of light on the burned and ashy earth. It fell too on the gaunt figures of the gray wolves, but the silent and deadly circle did not stir. In the moonlight they grew more terrible, the red eyes became more inflamed and angry, because they had to wait so long for what they considered theirs by right, the snarling lips were drawn back a little farther, and the sharp white teeth gleamed more cruelly.
Time passed again, dragging slowly and heavily for the besieged boys in the tree, but the wolves, though hungry, were patient. Strong in union they were lords of the forest, and they felt no fear. A shambling black bear, lumbering through the woods, suddenly threw up his nose in the wind, and catching the strong pungent odor, wheeled abruptly, lumbering off on another course. The wild cat did not come back, but crouched lower in his tree top; the timid things remained hidden deep in their nests and burrows.
It was a new kind of game that the wolves had scented and driven to the boughs, something that they had never seen before, but the odor was very sweet and pleasant in their nostrils. It was a tidbit that they must have, and, red-eyed, they stared at the two strange, toothsome creatures, who, stirred now and then in the tree, and who made queer sounds to each other. When they heard these occasional noises the pack would reply with a long ferocious whine that seemed to double on itself and give back echoes from every point of the compass. In the still night it went far, and the timid things, when they heard it, trembled all over in their nests and burrows. Then the leader, the largest and most terrible of the pack would stretch himself upon the tree trunk, and claw at the scorched bark, but the food he craved was still out of reach.
They noticed that the strange creatures in the tree began to move oftener, and to draw their limbs up as if they were growing stiff, and then their longdrawn howl grew longer and more ferocious than ever; the game, tired out, would soon drop into their mouths. But it did not, the two creatures made sounds as if they were again encouraging each other, and the hearts of the wolves filled with rage and impatience that they should be cheated so long.
The night advanced; the moonlight faded again and the dark hours that come before the dawn were at hand. The forest became black and misty like a haunted wood, and the dim forms of the wolves were the ghosts that lived in it. But to their sharp red eyes the dark was nothing; they saw the two beings in the tree do a very queer thing; they tore strips from themselves, so it seemed to the wolves, from their clothing in fact, and wound it about their bodies and a bough of the tree against which they rested. But the wolves did not understand, only they knew that the creatures did not stir again or make any kind of noise for a long time.
When the darkness was thickest the wolves grew hot with impatience. Already they smelled the dawn and in the light their courage would ooze. Could it be that the food they coveted would not fall into their mouths? The dread suspicion filled every vein of the old leader with wrath, and he uttered a long terrible howl of doubt and anger; the pack took up the note and the lonely forest became alive with its echoes. But the creatures in the tree stirred only a little, and made very few sounds. They seemed to be safe and content, and the wolves raged back and forth, leaping and howling.
The old leader felt the dark thin and lighten, and the scent of the coming dawn became more oppressive to him. A little needle of fear shot into his heart, and his muscles began to grow weak. He saw afar in the east the first pale tinge, faint and gray, of the dreadful light that he feared and hated. His howl now was one of mingled anger and disappointment, and the pack imitated the note of the king.
The black veil over the forest gave way to one of gray. The dreadful bar of light in the east broadened and deepened, and became beaming, intense and brilliant. The needle of terror at the heart of the gray wolf stabbed and tore. His red eyes could not face the great red sun that swung now above the earth, shooting its fierce beams straight at him. The dark, so kindly and so encouraging, beloved of his kind, was gone, and the earth swam in a hideous light, every ray of which was hostile. His blood changed to water, his knees bent under him, and then, to turn fear to panic, came a powerful odor on the light, morning wind. It was like the scent of the two strange, succulent creatures in the tree, but it was the odor of many-many make strength he knew-and the great gray wolf was sore afraid.
The sun shot higher and the world was bathed in a luminous golden glow. The master-wolf cast one last, longing look at the lost food in the tree, and then, uttering a long quavering howl of terror, which the pack took up and carried in many echoes, fled headlong through the forest with his followers close behind, all running low and fast, and with terror hot at their heels. Their gaunt, gray bodies were gone in a moment, like ghosts that vanish at the coming of the day.
"Rouse up, Paul!" cried Henry. "They are gone, afraid of the sun, and it's safe for us now on the ground."
"And mighty glad I am!" said Paul. "The great Inn of Kaintuckee was not so hospitable after all, or at least some of our fellow guests were too hungry."
"It's because we were careless about our fire," said Henry. "If we had obeyed all the rules of the inn, we should have had no trouble. jump down, Paul!"
Henry dropped lightly and cheerfully to the ground. As usual he let the past and its dangers slip, forgotten, behind him. Paul alighted beside him and the wilderness witnessed the strange sight of two stout boys, running up and down, pounding and rubbing their hands and arms, uttering little cries of pain, as the blood flowed at first slowly and with difficulty in their cramped limbs, and then of delight, as the circulation became free and easy.
"Now for breakfast," said Henry. "It will be easy, as Mr. Landlord has kept the venison hanging on the tree there for us."
Henry was breathing the fresh morning air, and rejoicing in the sunlight. His wonderful physical nature had cast away all thought of fear, but Paul, who had the sensitive mind and delicate fancy, was still troubled.
"Henry," he said, "I'm not willing to stay here, even to eat the deer meat. All through those hours we were up there it was a haunted forest for me. I don't want to see this spot any more, and I'd like to get away from it just as soon as I can."
Was it some instinct? or an unseen warning given to Paul, and registered on his sensitive mind, as a photographic plate takes light? To the keen nose of the old wolf leader an alarming odor had come with the dawn! Was a kindred signal sent to Paul? Henry stared at his comrade in surprise, but he knew that he and Paul were different, and he respected those differences which might be either strength or weakness.
"All right, if you wish it, Paul," he said, lightly. "There are many rooms in the Kaintuckee Inn, and if the one we have doesn't suit us we'll just take another. Wait till I cut this venison down, and we'll move without paying our score."
"I guess we paid that to the wolves," said Paul, smiling a little.
Henry detached the venison and divided it. Then each took his share, and they moved swiftly away among the trees, still keeping to the general course of the river. They came presently to a large area of unburned forest, thick with foliage and undergrowth and, without hesitation, they plunged into it. Henry was in front and suddenly to his keen ears came a sound which he knew was not one of the natural noises of the forest. He listened and it continued, a beat, faint but regular and steady. He knew that it was made by footfalls, and he knew, too, that in the wilderness everyone is an enemy until he is proved to be a friend. They were in the densest of the undergrowth, and thought and action came to him on the heels of each other, swift as lightning.
"Sink down, Paul! Sink down!" he cried, and grasping his comrade by the shoulder he bore him down among the thick bushes, going down with him.
"Don't move for your life!" he whispered. Men are about to pass and they cannot be our kind!"
Paul at once became as still as death. He too under the strain of the wilderness life and the need of caring for oneself was becoming wonderfully acute of the senses and ready of action. The two boys crouched close together, their heads below the tops of the bushes, although they could see between the leaves and twigs, and neither moved a hair.
Almost hidden in the foliage a line of Indian warriors, like dusky phantoms, passed, in single file, and apparently stepping in one another's tracks. Well for the boys that Paul had felt his impulse to leave the vicinity of the besieged tree, because the course of the warriors would carry them very near it, and they could not fail to detect the alien presence.
But no such suspicion seemed to enter their minds now, and, like the wolves, they were traveling fast, but southward.
The boys stared through the leaves and twigs, afraid but fascinated. They were fourteen in all. Henry counted them-but never a warrior spoke a word, and the grim line was seen but a moment and then gone, though their dark painted faces long remained engraved, like pictures, on the minds of both. But to Paul it was, for the instant, like a dream. He saw them, and then he did not. The leaves of the bushes rustled a little when they passed, and then were still.
"They must be Southern Indians," whispered Henry. "Cherokees most likely. They come up here now and then to hunt, but they seldom stay long, for fear of the more warlike and powerful Northern Indians, who come down to Kaintuckee for the same purpose, at least that's what I heard Ross and Sol say.
"Well, they did seem to be traveling fast," breathed Paul, "and I'm mighty glad of it. Do you think, Henry, they could have done any harm at Wareville?"
Henry shook his head.
"I have no such fear," he said. "We are a good long distance from home, and they've probably gone by without ever hearing of the place. Ross has always said that no danger was to be dreaded from the south."
"I guess it's so," said Paul with deep relief, "but I think, Henry, that you and I ought to go down to the river's bank, and build that raft as soon as we can."
"All right," said Henry calmly. "But we'll first eat our venison."
They quickly did as they agreed, and felt greatly strengthened and encouraged after a hearty breakfast. Then with bold hearts and quick hands they began their task.