The Young Trailers by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter IX. The Escape
Henry and Paul, with their eyes at the crevices, stared and stared, but they saw only those dark, horrible forms lying close to the earth, and heard again the peaceful wind blowing among the peaceful trees. The savage army had melted away as if it had never been, and the dark objects might have been taken for stones or pieces of wood.
"We beat 'em off, an' nobody on our side has morein a scratch," exclaimed Shif'less Sol jubilantly.
"That's so," said Ross, casting a critical eye down the line, "it's because we had a good position an' made ready. There's nothin' like takin' a thing in time. How're you, boys?"
"All right, but I've been pretty badly scared I can tell you," replied Paul frankly. "But we are not hurt, are we, Henry?"
"Thank God," murmured the schoolmaster under his breath, and then he said aloud to Ross: "I suppose they'll leave us alone now."
Ross shook his head.
"I wish I could say it," he replied, "but I can't. We've laid out four of 'em, good and cold, an' the Shawnees, like all the other redskins, haven't much stomach for a straightaway attack on people behind breastworks; I don't think they'll try that again, but they'll be up to new mischief soon. We must watch out now for tricks. Them's sly devils."
Ross was a wise leader and he gave food to his men, but he cautioned them to lie close at all times. Two or three bullets were fired from the forest but they whistled over their heads and did no damage. They seemed safe for the present, but Ross was troubled about the future, and particularly the coming of night, when they could not protect themselves so well, and the invaders, under cover of darkness, might slip forward at many points. Henry himself was man enough and experienced enough to understand the danger, and for the moment, he wondered with a kind of impersonal curiosity how Ross was going to meet it. Ross himself was staring at the heavens, and Henry, following his intent eyes, noticed a change in color and also that the atmosphere began to have a different feeling to his lungs. So much had he been engrossed by the battle, and so great had been his excitement, that such things as sky and air had no part then in his life, but now in the long dead silence, they obtruded themselves upon him.
The last wisp of smoke drifted away among the trees, and the sunlight, although it was mid-afternoon, was fading. Presently the skies were a vast dome of dull, lowering gray, and the breeze had a chill edge. Then the wind died and not a leaf or blade of grass in the forest stirred. Somber clouds came over the brink of the horizon in the southwest, and crept threateningly up the great curve of the sky. The air steadily darkened, and suddenly the dim horizon in the far southwest was cut by a vivid flash of lightning. Low thunder grumbled over the distant hills.
"It's a storm, an' it's to be a whopper," said Shif'less Sol.
"Ay," returned Ross, who had been back among the horses, "an' it may save us. All you fellows be sure to keep your powder dry."
There would be little danger of that fatal catastrophe, the wetting of the powder, as it was carried in polished horns, stopped securely, nor would there be any danger either of the salt being melted, as it was inclosed in bags made of deerskin, which would shed water.
"One of the men," continued Ross, "has found a big gully running down the back end of the hill, an' I think if we're keerful we can lead the horses to the valley that way. But just now, we'll wait."
Henry and Paul were watching, as if fascinated. They had seen before the great storms that sometimes sweep the Mississippi Valley, but the one preparing now seemed to be charged with a deadly power, far surpassing anything in their experience. It came on, too, with terrible swiftness. The thunder, at first a mere rumble, rose rapidly to crash after crash that stunned their ears. The livid flash of lightning that split the southwest like a flaming sword appeared and reappeared with such intensity that it seemed never to have gone. The wind rose and the forest groaned. From afar came a sullen roar, and then the great hurricane rushed down upon them.
"Lie flat!" shouted Ross.
All except four or five who held the struggling and frightened horses threw themselves upon the ground, and, although Henry and Paul hugged the earth, their ears were filled with the roar and scream of the wind, and the crackle of boughs and whole tree trunks snapped through, like the rattle of rifle fire. The forest in front of them was quickly filled with fallen trees, and fragments whistled over their heads, but fortunately they were untouched.
The great volley of wind was gone in a few moments, as if it were a single huge cannon shot. It whistled off to the eastward, but left in its path a trail of torn and fallen trees. Then in its path came the sweep of the great rain; the air grew darker, the thunder ceased to crash, the lightning died away, and the water poured down in sheets over the black and mangled forest.
"Now boys, we'll start," said Ross. "Them Shawnees had to hunt cover, an' they can't see us nohow. Up with them bags of salt!"
In an incredibly short time the salt was loaded on the pack horses and then they were picking their way down the steep and dangerous gully in the side of the hill. Henry, Paul and the master locked hands in the dark and the driving rain, and saved each other from falls. Ross and Sol seemed to have the eyes of cats in the dark and showed the way.
"My God!" murmured Mr. Pennypacker, "I could not have dreamed ten years ago that I should ever take part in such a scene as this!"
Low as he spoke, Henry heard him and he detected, too, a certain note of pride in the master's tone, as if he were satisfied with the manner in which he had borne himself. Henry felt the same satisfaction, although he could not deny that he had felt many terrors.
After much difficulty and some danger they reached the bottom of the hill unhurt, and then they sped across a fairly level country, not much troubled by undergrowth or fallen timber, keeping close together so that no one might be lost in the darkness and the rain, Ross, as usual, leading the line, and Shif'less Sol bringing up the rear. Now and then the two men called the names of the others to see that all were present, but beyond this precaution no word was spoken, save in whispers.
Henry and Paul felt a deep and devout thankfulness for the chance that had saved them from a long siege and possible death; indeed it seemed to them that the hand of God had turned the enemy aside, and in their thankfulness they forgot that, soaked to the bone, cold and tired, they were still tramping through the lone wilderness, far from Wareville.
The darkness and the pouring rain endured for about an hour, then both began to lighten, streaks of pale sky appeared in the east, and the trees like cones emerged from the mist and gloom. All of the saltworkers felt their spirits rise. They knew that they had escaped from the conflict wonderfully well; two slight wounds, not more than the breaking of skin, and that was all. Fresh strength came to them, and as they continued their journey the bars of pale light broadened and deepened, and then fused into a solid blue dawn, as the last cloud disappeared and the last shower of rain whisked away to the northward. A wet road lay before them, the drops of water yet sparkling here and there, like myriads of beads. Ross drew a deep breath of relief and ordered a halt.
"The Shawnees could follow us again," he said, but they know now that they bit off somethin' a heap too tough for them to chaw, an' I don't think they'll risk breaking a few more teeth on it, specially after havin' been whipped aroun' by the storm as they must 'a been."
"And to think we got away and brought our salt with us, too!" said Mr. Pennypacker.
Dark came soon, and Ross and Sol felt so confident they were safe from another attack that they allowed a fire to be lighted, although they were careful to choose the center of a little prairie, where the rifle shots of an ambushed foe in the forest could not reach them.
It was no easy matter to light a fire, but Ross and Sol at last accomplished it with flint, steel and dry splinters cut from the under side of fallen logs. Then when the blaze had taken good hold they, heaped more brushwood upon it and never were heat and warmth more grateful to tired travelers.
Henry and Paul did not realize until then how weary and how very wet they were. They basked in the glow, and, with delight watched the great beds of coals form. They took off part of their clothing, hanging it before the fire, and when it was dry and warm put it on again. Then they served the rest the same way, and by and by they wore nothing but warm garments.
"I guess two such terrible fighters as you," said Ross to Henry and Paul, "wouldn't mind a bite to eat. I've allers heard tell as how the Romans after they had fought a good fight with them Carthaginians or Macedonians or somebody else would sit down an' take some good grub into their insides, an' then be ready for the next spat."
"Will we eat? will we eat? Oh, try us, try us," chanted Henry and Paul in chorus, their mouths stretching simultaneously into wide grins, and Ross grinned back in sympathy.
The revulsion had come for the two boys. After so much danger and suffering, the sense of safety and the warmth penetrating their bones made them feel like little children, and they seized each other in a friendly scuffle, which terminated only when they were about to roll into the fire. Then they ate venison as if they had been famished. Afterwards, when they were asleep on their blankets before the fire, Ross said to Mr. Pennypacker:
"They did well, for youngsters."
"They certainly did, Mr. Ross," said the master. "I confess to you that there were times to-day when learning seemed to offer no consolation."
Ross smiled a little, and then his face quickly became grave.
"It's what we've got to go through out here," he said. "Every settlement will have to stand the storm."
A vigilant watch was kept all the long night but there was no sign of a second Shawnee attack. Ross had reckoned truly when he thought the Shawnees would not care to risk further pursuit, and the next day they resumed their journey, under a drying sun.
They were not troubled any more by Indian attacks, but the rest of the way was not without other dangers. The rivers were swollen by the spring rains, and they had great trouble in carrying the salt across on the swimming horses. Once Paul was swept down by a swift and powerful current, but Henry managed to seize and hold him until others came to the rescue. Men and boys alike laughed over their trials, because they felt now all the joy of victory, and their rapid march south amid the glories of spring, unfolding before them, appealed to the instincts of everyone in the band, the same instincts that had brought them from the East into the wilderness.
They were passing through the region that came to be known in later days as the Garden of Kentucky. Then it was covered with magnificent forest and now they threaded their way through the dense canebrake. Squirrels chattered in every tree top, deer swarmed in the woods, and the buffalo was to be found in almost every glen.
"I do not wonder," said the thoughtful schoolmaster, "that the Indian should be loath to five up such choice hunting grounds, but, fight as cunningly and bravely as he will, his fate will come."
But Henry, with only the thoughts of youth, could not conceive of the time when the vast wilderness should be cut down and the game should go. He was concerned only with the present and the words of Mr. Pennypacker made upon him but a faint and fleeting impression.
At last on a sunny morning, whole, well fed, with their treasure preserved, and all fresh and courageous, they approached Wareville. The hearts of Henry and Paul thrilled at the signs of white habitation. They saw where the ax had bitten through a tree, and they came upon broad trails that could be made only by white men, going to their work, or hunting their cattle.
But it was Paul who showed the most eagerness. He was whole-hearted in his joy. Wareville then was the only spot on earth for him. But Henry turned his back on the wilderness with a certain reluctance. A primitive strain in him had been awakened. He was not frightened now. The danger of the battle had aroused in him a certain wild emotion which repeated itself and refused to die, though days had passed. It seemed to him at times that it would be a great thing to live in the forest, and to have knowledge and wilderness power surpassing those even of Shif'less Sol or Ross. He had tasted again the life of the primitive man and he liked it.
Mr. Pennypacker was visibly joyful. The wilderness appealed to him in a way, but he considered himself essentially a man of peace, and Wareville was becoming a comfortable abode.
"I have had my great adventure," he said, "I have helped to fight the wild men, and in the days to come I can speak boastfully of it, even as the great Greeks in Homer spoke boastfully of their achievements, but once is enough. I am a man of peace and years, and I would fain wage the battles of learning rather than those of arms."
"But you did fight like a good 'un when you had to do it, schoolmaster," said Ross.
Mr. Pennypacker shook his head and replied gravely:
"Tom, you do right to say' when I had to do it,' but I mean that I shall not have to do it any more."
Ross smiled. He knew that the schoolmaster was one of the bravest of men.
Now they came close to Wareville. From a hill they saw a thin, blue column of smoke rising and then hanging like a streamer across the clear blue sky.
"That comes from the chimneys of Wareville," said Ross, "an' I guess she's all right. That smoke looks kinder quiet, as if nothin' out of the way had happened."
They pressed forward with renewed speed, and presently a shout came from the forest. Two men ran to meet them, and rejoiced at the sight of the men unharmed, and every horse heavily loaded with salt. Then it was a triumphal procession into Wareville, with the crowd about them thickening as they neared the gates. Henry's mother threw her arms about his neck, and his father grasped him by the hand. Paul was in the center of his own family, completely submerged, and all the space within the palisade resounded with joyous laugh and welcome, which became all the more heartfelt, when the schoolmaster told of the great danger through which they had passed.
That evening, when they sat around the low fire in his father's home-the spring nights were yet cool-Henry had to repeat the story of the salt-making and the great adventure with the Shawnees. He grew excited as he told of the battle and the storm, his face flushed, his eyes shot sparks, and, as Mrs. Ware looked at him, she realized, half in pride, half in terror, that she was the mother of a hunter and warrior.