The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VIII. The Wild Turkey's Gobble
Henry had conducted himself so well on his first scout and, had shown such signs of efficiency that Ross concluded to take him again the next day. Henry's heart swelled with pride, and he was no longer worried about Paul, because he saw that the latter's interest and ambitions were not exactly the same as his own. Henry could, not have any innate respect for heaps of "old bones," but if Paul and the master found them worthy of such close attention, they must be right.
Henry and Ross slipped away into the undergrowth, and Henry soon noticed that the guide's face, which was tense and preoccupied, seemed graver than usual. The boy was too wise to ask questions, but after they had searched through the forest for several hours Ross remarked in the most casual way:
"I heard the gobble of a wild turkey away off last night."
"Yes," said Henry, "there are lots of 'em about here. You remember the one I shot Tuesday?"
Ross did not reply just then, but in about five minutes he vouchsafed:
"I'm looking for the particular wild turkey I heard last night."
"Why that one, when there are so many, and how would you know him from the others if you found him?" asked Henry quickly, and then a deep burning flush of shame broke through the tan of his cheeks. He, Henry Ware, a rover of the wilderness to ask such foolish questions a child of the towns would have shown as much sense. Ross who was looking covertly at him, out of the comer of his eye, saw the mounting blush, and was pleased. The boy had spoken impulsively, but he knew better.
"You understand, I guess," said Ross.
"Yes," replied Henry, "I know why you want to find that wild turkey, and I know why you said last night we ought to leave the salt springs just as soon as we can."
The smile on the face of the scout brightened. Here was the most promising pupil who had ever sat at his feet for instruction; and now they redoubled their caution, as their soundless bodies slipped through the undergrowth. Everywhere they looked for the trail of that wild turkey. It may be said that a turkey can and does fly in the air and leaves no trail, but Henry knew that the one for which they, looked might leave no trail, but it did not fly in the air.
Time passed; noon and part of the afternoon were gone, and they were still curving in a great circle about the camp, when Ross, suddenly stopped beside a little brook, or branch, as he and his comrades always called them, and pointed to the soft soil at the edge of the water. Henry followed the long finger and saw the outline of a footstep.
"Our turkey has passed here."
The guide nodded.
"Most likely," he said, "and if not ours, then one of the same flock. But that footprint is three or four hours old. Come on, we'll follow this trail until it grows too warm."
The footsteps led down the side of the brook, and when they curved away from it Ross was able to trace them on the turf and through the undergrowth. A half mile from the start other footsteps joined them, and these were obviously made by many men, perhaps a score of warriors.
"You see," said Ross, "I guess they've just come across the Ohio or we wouldn't be left all these days b'il'n salt so peaceful, like as if there wasn't an Indian in the whole world."
Henry drew a deep breath. Like all who ventured into the West he expected some day to be exposed to Indian danger and attack, but it had been a vague thought. Even when they came north to the Big Bone Lick it was still a dim far-away affair, but now he stood almost in its presence. The Shawnees, whose name was a name of terror to the new settlements, were probably not a mile away. He felt tremors but they were not tremors of fear. Courage was an instinctive quality in him. Nature had put it there, when she fashioned him somewhat in the mold of the primitive man.
"Step lighter than you ever did afore in your life," said Ross, "an' bend low an' follow me. But don't you let a single twig nor nothin' snap as you pass."
He spoke in a sharp, emphatic whisper, and Henry knew that he considered the enemy near. But there was no need to caution the boy, in whom the primal man was already awakened. Henry bent far down, and holding his rifle before him in such a position that it could be used at a moment's warning, was following behind Ross so silently that the guide, hearing no sound, took an instant's backward glance. When he saw the boy he permitted another faint smile of approval to pass over his face.
They advanced about three-quarters of a mile and then at the crest of a hill thickly clothed in tall undergrowth the guide sank down and pointed with a long ominous forefinger.
"Look," he said.
Henry looked through the interlacing bushes and, for the second time in his life, gazed upon a band of red men. And as he looked, his blood for a moment turned cold. Perhaps thirty in number, they were sitting in a glade about a little fire. All of them had blankets of red or blue about them and they carried rifles. Their faces were hideous with war paint and their coarse black hair rose in the defiant scalp lock.
"Maybe they don't know that our men are at the Lick," said Ross, "or if they do they don't think we know they've come, an' they're planning for an attack to-night, when they could slip up on us sleepin'."
The guide's theory seemed plausible to Henry, but he said nothing. It did not become him to venture opinions before one who knew so much of the wilderness.
"It can't be more'n two o'clock," whispered Ross, "an' they'd attack about midnight. That gives us ten hours. Henry, the Lord is with us. Come."
He slid away through the bushes and Henry followed him. When they were a half mile from the Indian camp they increased their speed to an astonishing gait and in a half hour were at the Big Bone Lick.
"Have 'em to load up all the salt at once," said Ross to Shif'less Sol, "an' we must go gitin' back to Wareville as if our feet was greased."
Shif'less Sol shot him a single look of comprehension and Ross nodded. Then the shiftless one went to work with extraordinary diligence and the others imitated his speed. To the schoolmaster Ross breathed the one word "Shawnees," and Henry in a few sentences told Paul what he had seen.
Fortunately the precious salt was packed-they had no intention of deserting it, however close the danger-and it was quickly transferred to the backs of the horses along with the food for the way. In a little more than a half hour they were all ready and then they fled southward, Shif'less Sol, this time, leading the way, the guide Ross at the rear, eye and ear noticing everything, and every nerve attuned to danger.
The master cast back one regretful glance at his beloved giant bones, and then, with resignation, turned his face permanently toward the south and the line of retreat.
"0 Henry," whispered Paul, half in delight, half in terror, "did you really see them?"
"Yes," replied Henry, "twenty or more of 'em, and an ugly lot they were, too, I can tell you, Paul. I believe we could whip 'em in a stand-up fight, though they are three to our one, but they know more of these woods than we do and then there's the salt; we've got to save what we've come for."
He sighed a little. He did not wholly like the idea of running away, even from a foe thrice as strong. Yet he could not question the wisdom of Ross and Shif'less Sol, and he made no protest.
The men looked after the heavily laden horses-nobody could ride except as a last resort-and southward they went in Indian file as they had come. Henry glanced around him and saw nothing that promised danger. It was only another beautiful afternoon in early spring. The forest glowed in the tender green of the young buds, and, above them arched the sky a brilliant sheet of unbroken blue. Never did a world look more attractive, more harmless, and it seemed incredible that these woods should contain men who were thirsting for the lives of other men. But he had seen; he knew; he could not forget that hideous circle of painted faces in the glade, upon which he and Ross had looked from the safe covert of the undergrowth.
"Do you think they'll follow us, Henry?" asked Paul.
"I don't know," replied Henry, "but it's mighty likely. They'll hang on our trail for a long time anyway."
"And if they overtake us, there'll be a fight?"
Henry, watching Paul keenly, saw him grow pale. But his lips did not tremble and that passing pallor failed to lower Paul in Henry's esteem. The bigger and stronger boy knew his comrade's courage and tenacity, and he respected him all the more for it, because he was perhaps less fitted than some others for the wild and dangerous life of the border.
After these few words they sank again into silence, and to Paul and the master the sun grew very hot. It was poised now at a convenient angle in the heavens, and poured sheaves of fiery rays directly upon them. Mr. Pennypacker began to gasp. He was a man of dignity, a teacher of youth, and it did not become him to run so fast from something that he could not see. Ross's keen eye fell upon him.
"I think you'd better mount one of the horses," he said; "the big bay there can carry his salt and you too for a while until you are rested."
"What! I ride, when everybody else is afoot!" exclaimed Mr. Pennypacker, indignantly.
"You're the only schoolmaster we have and we can't afford to lose you," said Ross without the suspicion of a grin.
Mr. Pennypacker looked at him, but he could not detect any change of countenance.
" Hop up," continued Ross, "it ain't any time to be bashful. Others of us may have to do it afore long."
Mr. Pennypacker yielded with a sigh, sprang lightly upon the horse, and then when he enjoyed the luxury of rest was glad that he had yielded. Paul, and one or two others took to the horses' backs later on, but Henry continued the march on foot with long easy strides, and no sign of weakening. Ross noticed him more than once but he never made any suggestion to Henry that he ride; instead the faint smile of approval appeared once more on the guide's face.
The sun began to sink, the twilight came, and then night. Ross called a halt, and, clustered in the thickest shadows of the forest, they ate their supper and rested their tired limbs. No fire was lighted, but they sat there under the trees, hungrily eating their venison, and talking in the lowest of whispers. Mr. Pennypacker was much dissatisfied. He had been troubled by the hasty flight and his dignity suffered.
"It is not becoming that white men should run away from an inferior race," he said.
"Maybe it ain't becomin', but it's safe,", said Ross.
"At least we are far enough away now," continued the master, "and we might rest here comfortably until dawn. We haven't seen or heard a sign of pursuit."
"You don't know the nature of the red warriors, Mr. Pennypacker," said the leader deferentially but firmly, "when they make the least noise then they're most dangerous. Now I'm certain sure that they struck our trail not long after we left Big Bone Lick, an' in these woods the man that takes the fewest risks is the one that lives the longest."
It was a final statement. In the present emergency the leader's authority was supreme. They rested about an hour with no sound save the shuffling feet of the horses which could not be kept wholly quiet; and then they started on again, not going so quickly now, because the night was dark, and they wished to make as little noise as possible, threshing about in the undergrowth. Paul pressed up by the side of Henry.
"Do you think we shall have to go on all night, this way?" he asked. "Wasn't Mr. Pennypacker right, when he said we were out of danger?"
A sound, coming in the utter silence of the night, had in it something ominous.
"It was the cry of a wolf," said Paul.
"And his brother wolf answered," said Henry.
Shif'less Sol was just behind them, and they heard him laugh, a low laugh, but full of irony. Paul wheeled about at once, his pride aflame at the insinuation that he did not know the wolf's long whine.
"Well, wasn't it a wolf-and a wolf that answered?" he asked.
"Yes, a wolf an' a wolf that answered," replied Shif'less Sol with sardonic emphasis, "but they had only four legs between 'em. Them was the signal cries of the Shawnees, an', as Tom has been tellin' you all the time, they're hot on our trail. It's a mighty lucky thing for us we didn't undertake to stay all night back there where we stopped."
Paul turned pale again, but his courage as usual came back. "Thank God it will be daylight soon," he murmured to himself, "and then if they overtake us we can see them."
Faint and far, but ominous and full of threat came the howl of the wolf again, first from the right and then from the left, and then from points between. Henry noticed that Ross and Shif'less Sol seemed to draw themselves together, as if they would make every nerve and muscle taut, and then his eyes shifted to Mr. Pennypacker, and seeing him, he knew at once that the master did not understand; he had not heard the words of Shif'less Sol.
"It seems that we are pursued by a pack of wolves instead of a war party," said Mr. Pennypacker. " At least we are numerous enough to beat off a lot of cowardly four-footed assailants."
Henry smiled from the heights of his superior knowledge.
"Those are not wolves, Mr. Pennypacker," he said, "those are the Shawnees calling to one another."
"Then, why in Heaven's name don't they speak their own language!" exclaimed the exasperated schoolmaster, "instead of using that which appertains only to the prowling beast?"
Henry, despite himself, was forced to smile, but he turned his face and hid the smile-he would not offend the schoolmaster whom he esteemed sincerely.
The dawn now began to brighten. The sun, a flaming red sword, cleft the gray veil, and then poured down a torrent of golden beams upon the vast, green wilderness of Kentucky. Henry, as he looked around upon the little band, realized what a tiny speck of human life they were in all those hundreds of miles of forest, and what risks they ran.
Ross gave the word to halt, and again they ate of cold food. While the others sat on fallen timber or leaned against tree trunks, Ross and Sol talked in low tones, but Henry could see that all their words were marked by the deepest earnestness. Ross presently turned to the men and said in tones of greatest gravity:
"All of you heard the howlin' just afore dawn, an' I guess all of you know it was not made by real wolves, but by Shawnees, callin' to each other an' directin' the chase of us. We've come fast, but they've come faster, an' I know that by noon we'll. have to fight."
The schoolmaster's eyes opened in wonder.
"Do you really mean to say that they are overhauling us?" he asked.
"I shore do," replied Ross. "You see, they're better trained travelers for woods than we are, an' they are not hampered by anythin'."
Mr. Pennypacker said nothing more, but his lips suddenly closed tightly and his eyes flashed. In the great battle ground of the white man and the red man, called Kentucky, the early schoolmaster was as ready as any one else to fight.
Ross and Sol again consulted and then Ross said:
"We think that since we have to fight it would be better to fight when we are fresh and steady and in the best place we can find."
All the men nodded. They were tired of running and when Ross gave the word to stop again they did so promptly. The questioning eyes of both Ross and Sol roamed round the forest and finally and simultaneously the two uttered a low cry of pleasure. They had come into rocky ground and they had been ascending. Before them was a hill with a rather steep ascent, and dropping off almost precipitously on three sides.
"We couldn't find a better place," said Ross loud enough for all to hear. "It looks like a fort just made for us."
"But there is no line of retreat," objected the schoolmaster.
"We had a line of a retreat last night and all this mornin' an' we've been followin' it all the time," rejoined the leader. "Now we don't need it no more, but what we do need to do is to make a stan'-up fight, an' lick them fellers."
"And save our salt," added the master.
"Of course," said Ross emphatically. "We 'didn't come all these miles an' work all these days just to lose what we went so far after an' worked so hard for."
They retreated rapidly upon the great jutting peninsula of rocky soil, which fortunately was covered with a good growth of trees, and tethered the horses in a thick grove near the end.
"Now, we'll just unload our salt an' make a wall," said Ross with a trace of a smile. "They can shoot our salt as much as they please, just so they don't touch us."
The bags of salt were laid in the most exposed place across the narrowest neck of the peninsula and they also dragged up all the fallen tree trunks and boughs that they could find to help out their primitive fortification. Then they sat down to wait, a hard task for men, but hardest of all for two boys like Henry and Paul.
Two of the men went back with the horses to watch over them and also to guard against any possible attempt to scale the cliff in their rear, but the others lay close behind the wall of salt and brushwood. The sun swung up toward the zenith and shone down upon a beautiful world. All the wilderness was touched with the tender young green of spring and nothing stirred but the gentle wind. The silky blue sky smiled over a scene so often enacted in early Kentucky, that great border battle ground of the white man and the red, the one driven by the desire for new and fertile acres that he might plow and call his own, the other by an equally fierce desire to retain the same acres, not to plow nor even to call his own, but that he might roam and hunt big game over them at will.
The great red eye of the sun, poised now in the center of the heavens, looked down at the white men crouched close to the earth behind their low and primitive wall, and then it looked into the forest at the red men creeping silently from tree to tree, all the eager ferocity of the man hunt on the face of everyone.
But Paul and Henry, behind their wall, saw nothing and heard nothing but the breathing of those near them. They fingered their rifles and through the crevices between the bags studied intently the woods in front of them, where they beheld no human being nor an' trace of a foe. Henry looked from tree to tree, but he could see no flitting shadow. Where the patches of grass grew it moved only with the regular sweep of the breeze. He began to think that Ross and Sol must be mistaken. The warriors had abandoned the pursuit. He glanced at Ross, who was not a dozen feet away, and the leader's face was so tense, so eager and so earnest that Henry ceased to doubt, the man's whole appearance indicated the knowledge of danger, present and terrible.
Even as Henry looked, Ross suddenly threw up his rifle, and, apparently without aim, pulled the trigger. A flash of fire leaped from the long slender muzzle of blue steel, there was a sharp report like the swift lash of a whip, and then a cry, so terrible that Henry, strong as he was, shuddered in every nerve and muscle. The short high-pitched and agonizing shout died away in a wail and after it came silence, grim, deadly, but so charged with mysterious suspense that both Henry and Paul felt the hair lifting itself upon their heads. Henry had seen nothing, but he knew well what had happened.
"They've come and Ross has killed one of 'em," he whispered breathlessly to Paul.
"That yell couldn't mean anything else," said Paul trembling. "I'll hear it again every night for a year."
"I hope we'll both have a chance to hear it again every night for a year," said Henry with meaning.
The master crouched nearer to the boys. He was one of the bravest of the men and in that hour of danger and suspense his heart yearned over these two lads, his pupils, each a good boy in his own way. He felt that it was a part of his duty to get them safely back to Wareville and their parents, and he meant to fulfill the demands of his conscience.
"Keep down, lads," he said, touching Henry on his arm, "don't expose yourselves. You are not called upon to do anything, unless it comes to the last resort."
"We are going to do our best, of course, we are!" replied Henry with some little heat.
He resented the intimation that he could not perform a man's full duty, and Mr. Pennypacker, seeing that his feelings were touched, said no more.
A foreboding silence followed the death cry of the fallen warrior, but the brilliant sunshine poured down on the woods, just as if it were a glorious summer afternoon with no thought of strife in a human breast anywhere. Henry again searched the forest in front of them, and, although he could see nothing, he was not deceived now by this appearance of silence and peace. He knew that their foes were there, more thirsty than ever for their blood, because to the natural desire now was added the tally of revenge.
More than an hour passed, and then the forest in front of them burst into life. Rifles were fired from many points, the sharp crack blending into one continuous ominous rattle; little puffs of white smoke arose, whistling bullets buried themselves with a sighing sound in the bags of salt, and high above all rang the fierce yell, the war whoop of the Shawnees, the last sound that many a Kentucky pioneer ever heard.
The terrible tumult, and above all, the fierce cry of the warriors sent a thrill of terror through Paul and Henry, but their disciplined minds held their bodies firm, and they remained crouched by the primitive breastwork, ready to do their part.
"Steady, everybody! Steady!" exclaimed Ross in a loud sharp voice, every syllable of which cut through the tumult. "Don't shoot until you see something to shoot at, an' then make your aim true!"
Henry now began to see through the smoke dusky figures leaping from tree to tree, but always coming toward them. It was his impulse to fire, the moment a flitting figure appeared, gone the next instant like a shadow, but remembering Ross's caution and their terrible need he restrained himself although his finger already lay caressingly on the trigger. Around him the rifles had begun to crack. Ross and Sol were firing with slow deliberate aim, and then reloading with incredible swiftness, and down the line the others were doing likewise. Bullets were spattering into trunks and boughs, or burying themselves with a soft sigh in the salt, but Henry could not see that anybody was yet hurt.
He saw presently a dark figure passing from one tree to another and the passage was long enough for him to take a good aim at a hideously painted breast. He pulled the trigger and then involuntarily he shut his eyes-he was a hunter, but he had never hunted men before. When he looked again he saw a blur upon the ground, and despite himself and the fight for life, he shuddered.
Paul beside him was now in a state of wild excitement. The smaller boy's nerves were not so steady and he was loading and firing almost at random. Finally he lifted himself almost unconsciously to his full height, but he was dragged down the next instant, as if he had been seized from below by a bear.
"Paul!" fiercely exclaimed the schoolmaster, all the instincts of a pedagogue rising within him, "if you jump up that way again exposing yourself to their bullets, I'll turn you over my knee right here, big as you are, and give you a licking that you'll remember all your life!"
The master was savagely in earnest and Paul did not jump up again. Henry fired once more, and a third time and the tumult rose to its height. Then it ceased so suddenly and so absolutely that the silence was appalling. The wind blew the smoke away, a few dark objects lay close to the ground among the trees before them, but not a sound came from the forest, and no flitting form was there.