The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter V. Afloat
The boys began at once the work on their raft, a rude structure of a few fallen logs, fastened together with bark and brush, but simple, strong and safe. They finished it in two days, existing meanwhile on the deer meat, and early the morning afterwards, the clumsy craft, bearing the two navigators, was duly intrusted to the mercy of the unknown river. Each of the boys carried a slender hickory pole with which to steer, and they also fastened securely to the raft the remainder of their deer, their most precious possession.
They pushed off with the poles, and the current catching their craft, carried it gently along. It was a fine little river, running in a deep channel, and Henry became more sure than ever that it was the one that flowed by Wareville. He was certain that the family resemblance was too strong for him to be mistaken.
They floated on for hours, rarely using their poles to increase the speed of the raft and by and by they began to pass between cliffs of considerable height. The forest here was very dense. Mighty oaks and hickories grew right at the water's edge, throwing out their boughs so far that often the whole stream was in the shade. Henry enjoyed it. This was one of the things that his fancy had pictured. He was now floating down an unknown river, through unknown lands, and, like as not, his and Paul's were the first human eyes that had ever looked upon these hills and splendid forests. Reposing now after work and danger he breathed again the breath of the wilderness. He loved it-its silence, its magnificent spaces, and its majesty. He was glad that he had come to Kentucky, where life was so much grander than it was back in the old Eastern regions. Here one was not fenced in and confined and could grow to his true stature.
They ate their dinner on the raft, still floating peacefully and tried to guess how far they had come, but neither was able to judge the speed of the current. Paul fitted himself into a snug place on their queer craft and after a while went to sleep. Henry watched him, lest he turn over and fall into the river and also kept an eye out for other things.
He was watching thus, when about the middle of the afternoon he saw a thin dark line, lying like a thread, against the blue skies. He studied it long and came to the conclusion that it was smoke.
"Smoke!" said he to himself. "Maybe that means Wareville."
The raft glided gently with the current, moving so smoothly and peacefully that it was like the floating of a bubble on a summer sea. Paul still lay in a dreamless sleep. The water was silver in the shade and dim gold where the sunshine fell upon it, and the trees, a solid mass, touched already by the brown of early autumn, dropped over the stream. Afar, a fine haze, like a misty veil, hung over the forest. The world was full of peace and primitive beauty.
They drifted on and the spire of smoke broadened and grew. The look of the river became more and more familiar. Paul still slept and Henry would not awaken him. He looked at the face of his comrade as he slumbered and noticed for the first time that it was thin and pale. The life in the woods had been hard upon Paul. Henry did not realize until this moment how very hard it had been. The sight of that smoke had not come too soon.
There was a shout from the bank followed by the crash of bodies among the undergrowth.
"Smoke me, but here they are a-floatin' down the river in their own boat, as comfortable as two lords!"
It was the voice of Shif'less Sol, and his face, side-by-side with that of Ross, the guide, appeared among the trees at the river's brink. Henry felt a great flush of joy when he saw them, and waved his hands. Paul, awakened by the shouts, was in a daze at first, but when he beheld old friends again his delight was intense.
Henry thrust a pole against the bottom and shoved the raft to the bank. Then he and Paul sprang ashore and shook hands again and again with Ross and Sol. Ross told of the long search for the two boys. He and Mr. Ware and Shif'less Sol and a half dozen others had never ceased to seek them. They feared at one time that they had been carried off by savages, but nowhere did they find Indian traces. Then their dread was of starvation or death by wild animals, and they had begun to lose hope.
Both Henry and Paul were deeply moved by the story of the grief at Wareville. They knew even without the telling that this sorrow had never been demonstrative. The mothers of the West were too much accustomed to great tragedies to cry out and wring their hands when a blow fell. Theirs was always a silent grief, but none the less deep.
Then, guided by Ross and the shiftless one, they proceeded to Wareville which was really at the bottom of the smoke spire, where they were received, as two risen from the dead, in a welcome that was not noisy, but deep and heartfelt. The cow, the original cause of the trouble, had wandered back home long ago.
"How did you live in the forest?" asked Mr. Ware of Henry, after the first joy of welcome was shown.
"It was hard at first, but we were beginning to learn," replied the boy. "If we'd only had our rifles 'twould have been no trouble. And father, the wilderness is splendid!"
The boy's thoughts wandered far away for a moment to the wild woods where he again lay in the shade of mighty oaks and saw the deer come down to drink. Mr. Ware noticed the expression on Henry's face and took reflection. "I must not let the yoke bear too heavy upon him," was his unspoken thought.
But Paul's joy was unalloyed; he preferred life at Wareville to life in the wilderness amid perpetual hardships, and when they gave the great dinner at Mr. Ware's to celebrate the return of the wanderers he reached the height of human bliss. Both Ross and Shif'less Sol were present and with them too were Silas Pennypacker who could preach upon occasion for the settlement and did it, now and then, and John Upton, who next to Mr. Ware was the most notable man in Wareville, and his daughter Lucy, now a shy, pretty girl of twelve, and more than twenty others. Even Braxton Wyatt was among the members although he still sneered at Henry.
Theirs was in very truth a table fit for a king. In fact few kings could duplicate it, without sending to the uttermost parts of the earth, and perhaps not then. Meat was its staple. They had wild duck, wild goose, wild turkey, deer, elk, beaver tail, and a half dozen kinds of fish; but the great delicacy was buffalo hump cooked in a peculiar way - that is, served up in the hide of a buffalo from which the hair had been singed off, and baked in an earthen oven. Ross, who had learned it from the Indians, showed them how to do this, and they agreed that none of them had ever before tasted so fine a dish. When the dinner was over, Henry and Paul had to answer many questions about their wanderings, and they were quite willing to do so, feeling at the moment a due sense of their own importance.
A shade passed over the faces of some of the men at the mention of the Indians, whom Henry and Paul had seen, but Ross agreed with Henry go that they were surely of the South, going home from a hunting trip, and so they were soon forgotten.
Henry's work after their return included an occasional hunting excursion, as game was always needed. His love of the wilderness did not decrease when thus he ranged through it and began to understand its ways. Familiarity did not breed contempt. The magnificent spaces and mighty silence appealed to him with increasing force. The columns of the trees were like cathedral aisles and the pure breath of the wind was fresh with life. The first part of the autumn was hot and dry. The foliage died fast, the leaves twisted and dried up and the brown grass stems fell lifeless to the earth. A long time they were without rain, and a dull haze of heat hung over the simmering earth. The river shrank in its bed, and the brooks became rills.
Henry still hunted with his older comrades, though often at night now, and he saw the forest in a new phase. Dried and burned it appealed to him still. He learned to sleep lightly, that is, to start up at the slightest sound, and one morning after the wilderness had been growing hotter and dryer than ever he was awakened by a faint liquid touch on the roof. He knew at once that it was the rain, wished for so long and talked of so much, and he opened the shutter window to see it fall.
The sun was just rising, but showed only a faint glow of pink through the misty clouds, and the wind was light. The clouds opened but a little at first and the great drops fell slowly. The hot earth steamed at the touch, and, burning with thirst, quickly drank in the moisture. The wind grew and the drops fell faster. The heat fled away, driven by the waves of cool, fresh air that came out of the west. Washed by the rain the dry grass straightened up, and the dying leaves opened out, springing into new life. Faster and faster came the drops and now the sound they made was like the steady patter of musketry. Henry opened his mouth and breathed the fresh clean air, and he felt that like the leaves and grass he, too, was gaining new life.
When he went forth the next day in the dripping forest, the wilderness seemed to be alive. The game swarmed everywhere and he was a lazy man who could not take what he wished. It was like a late touch of spring, but it did not last long, for then the frosts came, the air grew crisp and cool and the foliage of the forest turned to wonderful reds and yellows and browns. From the summit of the blockhouse tower Henry saw a great blaze of varied color, and he thought that he liked this part of the year best. He could feel his own strength grow, and now that cold weather was soon to come he would learn new ways to seek game and new phases of the wilderness.
The autumn and its beauty deepened. The colors of the foliage grew more intense and burned afar like flame. The settlers lightened their work and most of them now spent a large part of the time in hunting, pursuing it with the keen zest, born of a natural taste and the relaxation from heavy labors. Mr. Ware and a few others, anxious to test the qualities of the soil, were plowing up newly cleared land to be sown in wheat, but Henry was compelled to devote only a portion of his time to this work. The remaining hours, not needed for sleep, he was usually in the forest with Paul and the others.
The hunting was now glorious. Less than three miles from the fort and about a mile from the river Henry and Paul found a beaver dam across a tributary creek and they laid rude traps for its builders, six of which they caught in the course of time. Ross and Sol showed them how to take off the pelts which would be of value when trade should be opened with the east, and also how to cook beaver tail, a dish which could, with truth, be called a rival of buffalo hump.
Now the settlers began to accumulate a great supply of game at Wareville. Elk and deer and bear and buffalo and smaller animals were being jerked and dried at every house, and every larder was filled to the brim. There could be no lack of food the coming winter, the settlers said, and they spoke with some pride of their care and providence.
The village was gaining in both comfort and picturesqueness. Tanned skins of the deer, elk, buffalo, bear, wolf, panther and wild cat hung on the walls of every house, and were spread on every floor. The women contrived fans and ornaments of the beautiful mottled plumage of the wild-turkey. Cloth was hard to obtain in the wilderness, as it might be a year before a pack train would come over the mountains from the east, and so the women made clothing of the softest and lightest of the dressed deer skin. There were hunting shirts for the men and boys, fastened at the waist by a belt, and with a fringe three or four inches long, the bottom of which fell to the knees. The men and boys also made themselves caps of raccoon skin with the tail sewed on behind as a decoration. Henry and Paul were very proud of theirs.
The finest robes of buffalo skin were saved for the beds, and Ross gave warning that they should have full need of them. Winters in Kentucky, he said, were often cold enough to freeze the very marrow in one's bones, when even the wildest of men would be glad enough to leave the woods and hover over a big fire. But the settlers provided for this also by building great stacks of firewood beside each house. They were as well equipped with axes-keen, heavy weapons-as they were with rifles and ammunition, and these were as necessary. The forest around Wareville already gave great proof of their prowess with the ax. Now the autumn was waning. Every morning the wilderness gleamed and sparkled beneath a beautiful covering of white frost. The brown in the leaves began to usurp the yellows and the reds. The air, crisp and cold, had a strange nectar in it and its very breath was life. The sun lay in the heavens a ball of gold, and a fine haze, like a misty golden veil, hung over the forest. It was Indian summer.
Then Indian summer passed and winter, which was very early that year, came roaring down on Wareville. The autumn broke up in a cold rain which soon turned to snow. The wind swept out of the northwest, bitter and chill, and the desolate forest, every bough stripped of its leaves, moaned before the blast.
But it was cheerful, when the sleet beat upon the roof and the cold wind rattled the rude shutters, to sit before the big fires and watch them sparkle and blaze.
There was another reason why Henry should now begin to spend much of his time indoors. The Rev. Silas Pennypacker opened his school for the winter, and it was necessary for Henry to attend. Many of the pioneers who crossed the mountains from the Eastern States and founded the great Western outpost of the nation in Kentucky were men of education and cultivation, with a knowledge of books and the world. They did not intend that their children should grow up mere ignorant borderers, but they wished their daughters to have grace and manners and their sons to become men of affairs, fit to lead the vanguard of a mighty race. So a first duty in the wilderness was to found schools, and this they did.
The Reverend Silas was no lean and thin body, no hanger-on upon stronger men, but of fine girth and stature with a red face as round as the full moon, a glorious laugh and the mellowest voice in the colony. He was by repute a famous scholar who could at once give the chapter and text of any verse in the Bible and had twice read through the ponderous history of the French gentleman, M. Rollin. It was said, too, that he had nearly twenty volummes of some famous romances by a French lady, one Mademoiselle de Scudery, brought over the mountains in a box, but of this Henry and Paul could not speak with certainty, as a certain wooden cupboard in Mr. Pennypacker's house was always securely locked. But the teacher was a favorite in the settlement with both men and women. A sight of his cheerful face was considered good enough to cure chills and fever, and for the matter of that he was an expert hand with both ax and rifle. His uses in Wareville were not merely mental and spiritual. He was at all times able and willing to earn his own bread with his own strong hands, though the others seldom permitted him to do so.
Henry entered school with some reluctance. Being nearly sixteen now, with an unusually powerful frame developed by a forest life, he was as large as an ordinary man and quite as strong. He thought he ought to have done with schools, and set up in man's estate but his father insisted upon another winter under Mr. Pennypacker's care and Henry yielded.
There were perhaps thirty boys and girls who sat on the rough wooden benches in the school and received tuition. Mr. Pennypacker did not undertake to guide them through many branches of learning, but what he taught he taught well. He, too, had the feeling that these boys and girls were to be the men and women who would hold the future of the West in their hands, and he intended that they should be fit. There were statesmen and generals among those red-faced boys on the benches, and the wives and mothers of others among the red-faced girls who sat near them, and he tried to teach them their duty as the heirs of a wilderness, soon to be the home of a great race.
Among his favorite pupils was Paul who had not Henry's eye and hand in the forest, but who loved books and the knowledge of men. He could follow the devious lines of history when Henry would much rather have been following the devious trail of a deer. Nevertheless, Henry persisted, borne up by the emulation of his comrade, and the knowledge that it was his last winter in school.