The Last Trail by Zane Grey
Twilight of a certain summer day, many years ago, shaded softly down over the wild Ohio valley bringing keen anxiety to a traveler on the lonely river trail. He had expected to reach Fort Henry with his party on this night, thus putting a welcome end to the long, rough, hazardous journey through the wilderness; but the swift, on-coming dusk made it imperative to halt. The narrow, forest-skirted trail, difficult to follow in broad daylight, apparently led into gloomy aisles in the woods. His guide had abandoned him that morning, making excuse that his services were no longer needed; his teamster was new to the frontier, and, altogether, the situation caused him much uneasiness.
"I wouldn't so much mind another night in camp, if the guide had not left us," he said in a low tone to the teamster.
That worthy shook his shaggy head, and growled while he began unhitching the horses.
"Uncle," said a young man, who had clambered out from the wagon, "we must be within a few miles of Fort Henry."
"How d'ye know we're near the fort?" interrupted the teamster, "or safe, either, fer thet matter? I don't know this country."
"The guide assured me we could easily make Fort Henry by sundown."
"Thet guide! I tell ye, Mr. Sheppard----"
"Not so loud. Do not alarm my daughter," cautioned the man who had been called Sheppard.
"Did ye notice anythin' queer about thet guide?" asked the teamster, lowering his voice. "Did ye see how oneasy he was last night? Did it strike ye he left us in a hurry, kind of excited like, in spite of his offhand manner?"
"Yes, he acted odd, or so it seemed to me," replied Sheppard. "How about you, Will?"
"Now that I think of it, I believe he was queer. He behaved like a man who expected somebody, or feared something might happen. I fancied, however, that it was simply the manner of a woodsman."
"Wal, I hev my opinion," said the teamster, in a gruff whisper. "Ye was in a hurry to be a-goin', an' wouldn't take no advice. The fur-trader at Fort Pitt didn't give this guide Jenks no good send off. Said he wasn't well-known round Pitt, 'cept he could handle a knife some."
"What is your opinion?" asked Sheppard, as the teamster paused.
"Wal, the valley below Pitt is full of renegades, outlaws an' hoss-thieves. The redskins ain't so bad as they used to be, but these white fellers are wusser'n ever. This guide Jenks might be in with them, that's all. Mebbe I'm wrong. I hope so. The way he left us looks bad."
"We won't borrow trouble. If we have come all this way without seeing either Indian or outlaw--in fact, without incident--I feel certain we can perform the remainder of the journey in safety." Then Mr. Sheppard raised his voice. "Here, Helen, you lazy girl, come out of that wagon. We want some supper. Will, you gather some firewood, and we'll soon give this gloomy little glen a more cheerful aspect."
As Mr. Sheppard turned toward the canvas-covered wagon a girl leaped lightly down beside him. She was nearly as tall as he.
"Is this Fort Henry?" she asked, cheerily, beginning to dance around him. "Where's the inn? I'm so hungry. How glad I am to get out of that wagon! I'd like to run. Isn't this a lonesome, lovely spot?"
A camp-fire soon crackled with hiss and sputter, and fragrant wood-smoke filled the air. Steaming kettle, and savory steaks of venison cheered the hungry travelers, making them forget for the time the desertion of their guide and the fact that they might be lost. The last glow faded entirely out of the western sky. Night enveloped the forest, and the little glade was a bright spot in the gloom.
The flickering light showed Mr. Sheppard to be a well-preserved old man with gray hair and ruddy, kindly face. The nephew had a boyish, frank expression. The girl was a splendid specimen of womanhood. Her large, laughing eyes were as dark as the shadows beneath the trees.
Suddenly a quick start on Helen's part interrupted the merry flow of conversation. She sat bolt upright with half-averted face.
"Cousin, what is the matter?" asked Will, quickly.
Helen remained motionless.
"My dear," said Mr. Sheppard sharply.
"I heard a footstep," she whispered, pointing with trembling finger toward the impenetrable blackness beyond the camp-fire.
All could hear a soft patter on the leaves. Then distinct footfalls broke the silence.
The tired teamster raised his shaggy head and glanced fearfully around the glade. Mr. Sheppard and Will gazed doubtfully toward the foliage; but Helen did not change her position. The travelers appeared stricken by the silence and solitude of the place. The faint hum of insects, and the low moan of the night wind, seemed accentuated by the almost painful stillness.
"A panther, most likely," suggested Sheppard, in a voice which he intended should be reassuring. "I saw one to-day slinking along the trail."
"I'd better get my gun from the wagon," said Will.
"How dark and wild it is here!" exclaimed Helen nervously. "I believe I was frightened. Perhaps I fancied it--there! Again--listen. Ah!"
Two tall figures emerged from the darkness into the circle of light, and with swift, supple steps gained the camp-fire before any of the travelers had time to move. They were Indians, and the brandishing of their tomahawks proclaimed that they were hostile.
"Ugh!" grunted the taller savage, as he looked down upon the defenseless, frightened group.
As the menacing figures stood in the glare of the fire gazing at the party with shifty eyes, they presented a frightful appearance. Fierce lineaments, all the more so because of bars of paint, the hideous, shaven heads adorned with tufts of hair holding a single feather, sinewy, copper-colored limbs suggestive of action and endurance, the general aspect of untamed ferocity, appalled the travelers and chilled their blood.
Grunts and chuckles manifested the satisfaction with which the Indians fell upon the half-finished supper. They caused it to vanish with astonishing celerity, and resembled wolves rather than human beings in their greediness.
Helen looked timidly around as if hoping to see those who would aid, and the savages regarded her with ill humor. A movement on the part of any member of the group caused muscular hands to steal toward the tomahawks.
Suddenly the larger savage clutched his companion's knee. Then lifting his hatchet, shook it with a significant gesture in Sheppard's face, at the same time putting a finger on his lips to enjoin silence. Both Indians became statuesque in their immobility. They crouched in an attitude of listening, with heads bent on one side, nostrils dilated, and mouths open.
One, two, three moments passed. The silence of the forest appeared to be unbroken; but ears as keen as those of a deer had detected some sound. The larger savage dropped noiselessly to the ground, where he lay stretched out with his ear to the ground. The other remained immovable; only his beady eyes gave signs of life, and these covered every point.
Finally the big savage rose silently, pointed down the dark trail, and strode out of the circle of light. His companion followed close at his heels. The two disappeared in the black shadows like specters, as silently as they had come.
"Well!" breathed Helen.
"I am immensely relieved!" exclaimed Will.
"What do you make of such strange behavior?" Sheppard asked of the teamster.
"I'spect they got wind of somebody; most likely thet guide, an'll be back again. If they ain't, it's because they got switched off by some signs or tokens, skeered, perhaps, by the scent of the wind."
Hardly had he ceased speaking when again the circle of light was invaded by stalking forms.
"I thought so! Here comes the skulkin' varmints," whispered the teamster.
But he was wrong. A deep, calm voice spoke the single word: "Friends."
Two men in the brown garb of woodsmen approached. One approached the travelers; the other remained in the background, leaning upon a long, black rifle.
Thus exposed to the glare of the flames, the foremost woodsman presented a singularly picturesque figure. His costume was the fringed buckskins of the border. Fully six feet tall, this lithe-limbed young giant had something of the wild, free grace of the Indian in his posture.
He surveyed the wondering travelers with dark, grave eyes.
"Did the reddys do any mischief?" he asked.
"No, they didn't harm us," replied Sheppard. "They ate our supper, and slipped off into the woods without so much as touching one of us. But, indeed, sir, we are mighty glad to see you."
Will echoed this sentiment, and Helen's big eyes were fastened upon the stranger in welcome and wonder.
"We saw your fire blazin' through the twilight, an' came up just in time to see the Injuns make off."
"Might they not hide in the bushes and shoot us?" asked Will, who had listened to many a border story at Fort Pitt. "It seems as if we'd make good targets in this light."
The gravity of the woodsman's face relaxed.
"You will pursue them?" asked Helen.
"They've melted into the night-shadows long ago," he replied. "Who was your guide?"
"I hired him at Fort Pitt. He left us suddenly this morning. A big man, with black beard and bushy eyebrows. A bit of his ear had been shot or cut out," Sheppard replied.
"Jenks, one of Bing Legget's border-hawks."
"You have his name right. And who may Bing Legget be?"
"He's an outlaw. Jenks has been tryin' to lead you into a trap. Likely he expected those Injuns to show up a day or two ago. Somethin' went wrong with the plan, I reckon. Mebbe he was waitin' for five Shawnees, an' mebbe he'll never see three of 'em again."
Something suggestive, cold, and grim, in the last words did not escape the listeners.
"How far are we from Fort Henry?" asked Sheppard.
"Eighteen miles as a crow flies; longer by trail."
"Treachery!" exclaimed the old man. "We were no more than that this morning. It is indeed fortunate that you found us. I take it you are from Fort Henry, and will guide us there? I am an old friend of Colonel Zane's. He will appreciate any kindness you may show us. Of course you know him?"
"I am Jonathan Zane."
Sheppard suddenly realized that he was facing the most celebrated scout on the border. In Revolutionary times Zane's fame had extended even to the far Atlantic Colonies.
"And your companion?" asked Sheppard with keen interest. He guessed what might be told. Border lore coupled Jonathan Zane with a strange and terrible character, a border Nemesis, a mysterious, shadowy, elusive man, whom few pioneers ever saw, but of whom all knew.
"Wetzel," answered Zane.
With one accord the travelers gazed curiously at Zane's silent companion. In the dim background of the glow cast by the fire, he stood a gigantic figure, dark, quiet, and yet with something intangible in his shadowy outline.
Suddenly he appeared to merge into the gloom as if he really were a phantom. A warning, "Hist!" came from the bushes.
With one swift kick Zane scattered the camp-fire.
The travelers waited with bated breaths. They could hear nothing save the beating of their own hearts; they could not even see each other.
"Better go to sleep," came in Zane's calm voice. What a relief it was! "We'll keep watch, an' at daybreak guide you to Fort Henry."