The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VI. The Voice of the Woods
To study now was the hardest task that Henry had ever undertaken. It was even easier to find food when he and Paul were unarmed and destitute in the forest. The walls of the little log house in which he sat inclosed him like a cell, the air was heavy and the space seemed to grow narrower and narrower. Then just when the task was growing intolerable he would look across the room and seeing the studious face of Paul bent over the big text of an ancient history, he would apply himself anew to his labor which consisted chiefly of "figures," a bit of the world's geography, and a little look into the history of England.
Mr. Pennypacker would neither praise nor blame, but often when the boy did not notice he looked critically at Henry. "I don't think your son will be a great scholar," he said once to Mr. Ware," but he will be a Nimrod, a mighty hunter before men, and a leader in action. It's as well, for his is the kind that will be needed most and for a long time in this wilderness, and back there in the old lands, too."
"It is so," replied Mr. Ware, "the clouds do gather."
Involuntarily he looked toward the east, and Mr. Pennypacker's eyes followed him. But both remained silent upon that portion of their thoughts.
"Moreover I tell you for your comfort that the lad has a sense of duty," added the teacher.
Henry shot a magnificent stag with great antlers a few days later, and mounting the head he presented it to Mr. Pennypacker. But on the following day the master looked very grave and Henry and Paul tried to guess the cause. Henry heard that Ross had arrived the night before from the nearest settlement a hundred miles away, but had stayed only an hour, going to their second nearest neighbor distant one hundred and fifty miles. He brought news of some kind which only Mr. Ware, Mr. Upton, the teacher and three or four others knew. These were not ready to speak and Paul and Henry were well aware that nothing on earth could make them do so until they thought the time was fit.
It was a long, long morning. Henry had before him a map of the Empire of Muscovy but he saw little there. Instead there came between him and the page a vision of the beaver dam and the pool above it, now covered with a sheet of ice, and of the salt spring where the deer came to drink, and of a sheltered valley in which a herd of elk rested every night.
Mr. Pennypacker was singularly quiet that morning. It was his custom to call up his pupils and make them recite in a loud voice, but the hours passed and there were no recitations. The teacher seemed to be looking far away at something outside the schoolroom, and his thoughts followed his eyes. Henry by and by let his own roam as they would and he was in dreamland, when he was aroused by a sharp smack of the teacher's homemade ruler upon his homemade desk.
But the blow was not aimed at Henry or anybody in particular. It was an announcement to all the world in general that Mr. Pennypacker was about to speak on a matter of importance. Henry and Paul guessed at once that it would be about the news brought by Ross.
Mr. Pennypacker's face grew graver than ever as he spoke. He told them that when they left the east there was great trouble between the colonies and the mother country. They had hoped that it would pass away, but now, for the first time in many months, news had come across the mountains from their old home, and had entered the great forest. The troubles were not gone. On the contrary they, had become worse. There had been fighting, a battle in which many had been killed, and a great war was begun. The colonies would all stand together, and no man could tell what the times would bring forth.
This was indeed weighty news. Though divided from their brethren in the east by hundreds of miles of mountain and forest the patriotism of the settlers in the wilderness burned with a glow all the brighter on that account. More than one young heart in that rude room glowed with a desire to be beside their countrymen in the far-off east, rifle in hand.
But Mr. Pennypacker spoke again. He said that there was now a greater duty upon them to hold the west for the union of the colonies. Their task was not merely to build homes for themselves, but to win the land that it might be homes for others. There were rumors that the savages would be used against them, that they might come down in force from the north, and therefore it was the part of everyone, whether man, woman or child to redouble his vigilance and caution. Then he adjourned school for the day.
The boys drew apart from their elders and discussed the great news. Henry's blood was on fire. The message from that little Massachusetts town, thrilled him as nothing in his life had done before. He had a vague idea of going there, and of doing what he considered his part, and he spoke to Paul about it, but Paul thought otherwise.
"Why, Henry!" he said. "We may have to defend ourselves here and we'll need you."
The people of Wareville knew little about the causes of the war and after this one message brought by Ross they heard no more of its progress. They might be fighting great battles away off there on the Atlantic coast, but no news came through the wall of woods. Wareville itself was peaceful, and around it curved the mighty forest which told nothing.
Mountains and forest alike lay under deep snow, and it was not likely that they would hear anything further until spring, because the winter was unusually cold and a man who ventured now on a long journey was braver than his fellows.
The new Kentuckians were glad that they had provided so well for winter. All the cupboards were full and there was no need for them now to roam the cold forests in search of game. They built the fires higher and watched the flames roar up the chimneys, while the little children rolled on the floor and grasped at the shadows.
Though but a bit of mankind hemmed in by the vast and frozen wilderness theirs was not an unhappy life by any means. The men and boys, though now sparing their powder and ball, still set traps for game and were not without reward. Often they found elk and deer, and once or twice a buffalo floundering in the deep snowdrifts, and these they added to the winter larder. They broke holes in the ice on the river and caught fish in abundance. They worked, too, about the houses, making more tables and benches and chairs and shelves and adding to their bodily comforts.
The great snow lasted about a month and then began to break up with a heavy rain which melted all the ice, but which could not carry away all the snow. The river rose rapidly and overflowed its banks but Wareville was safe, built high on the hill where floods could not reach. Warm winds followed the rain and the melting snow turned great portions of the forest into lakes. The trees stood in water a yard deep, and the aspect of the wilderness was gloomy and desolate. Even the most resolute of the hunters let the game alone at such a time. Often the warm winds would cease to blow when night came and then the great lagoons would be covered with a thin skim of ice which melted again the next day under the winds and the sun. All this brought chills and fever to Wareville and bitter herbs were sought for their cure. But the strong frame of Henry was impervious to the attacks and he still made daily journeys to his traps in the wet and steaming wilderness.
Henry was now reconciled to the schoolroom. It was to be his last term there and he realized with a sudden regret that it was almost at its end. He was beginning to feel the sense of responsibility, that he was in fact one of the units that must make up the state.
Despite these new ideas a sudden great longing lay hold of him. The winds from the south were growing warmer and warmer, all the snow and ice was gone long ago, faint touches of green and pink were appearing on grass and foliage and the young buds were swelling. Henry heard the whisper of these winds and every one of them called to him. He knew that he was wanted out there in the woods. He began to hate the sight of human faces, he wished to go alone into the wilderness, to see the deer steal among the trees and to hear the beaver dive into the deep waters. He felt himself a part of nature and he would breathe and live as nature did.
He grew lax in his tasks; he dragged his feet and there were even times when he was not hungry. When his mother noticed the latter circumstance she knew surely that the boy was ill, but her husband shrewdly said:
"Henry, the spring has come; take your rifle and bring us some fresh venison."
So Henry shouldered his rifle and went forth alone upon the quest, even leaving behind Paul, his chosen comrade. He did not wish human companionship that day, nor did he stop until he was deep in the wilderness. How he felt then the glory of living! The blood was flushing in his veins as the sap was rising in the trees around him. The world was coming forth from its torpor of winter refreshed and strengthened. He saw all about him the signs of new life-the tender young grass in shades of delicate green, the opening buds on the trees, and a subtle perfume that came on the edge of the Southern wind. Beyond him the wild turkeys on the hill were calling to each other.
He stood there a long time breathing the fresh breath of this new world, and the old desire to wander through illimitable forests and float silently down unknown rivers came over him. He would not feel the need of companionship on long wanderings. Nature would then be sufficient, talking to him in many tongues.
The wind heavy, with perfumes of the South, came over the hill and on its crest the wild turkeys were still clucking to each other. Henry, through sheer energy and rush of life, ran up the slope, and watched them as they took flight through the trees, their brilliant plumage gleaming in the sunshine.
It was the highest hill near Wareville and he stood a while upon its crest. The wilderness here circled around him, and, in the distance, it blended into one mass, already showing a pervading note of green with faint touches of pink bloom appearing here and there. The whole of it was still and peaceful with no sign of human life save a rising spire of smoke behind him that told where Wareville stood.
He walked on. Rabbits sprang out of the grass beside him and raced away into the thickets. Birds in plumage of scarlet and blue and gold shot like a flame from tree to tree. The forest, too, was filled with the melody of their voices, but Henry took no notice.
He paused a while at the edge of a brook to watch the silver sunfish play in the shallows, then he leaped the stream and went on into the deeper woods, a tall, lithe, strong figure, his eyes gazing at no one thing, the long slender-barreled rifle lying forgotten across his shoulder.
A great stag sprang up from the forest and stood for a few moments, gazing at him with expanding and startled eyes. Henry standing quite still returned the look, seeking to read the expression in the eyes of the deer.
Thus they confronted each other a half minute and then the stag turning fled through the woods. There was no undergrowth, and Henry for a long time watched the form of the deer fleeing down the rows of trees, as it became smaller and smaller and then disappeared.
All the forest glowed red in the setting sun when he returned home.
"Where is the deer?" asked his father.
"Why-why I forgot it!" said Henry in confused reply.
Mr. Ware merely smiled.