The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter I. Paul
Paul stopped in a little open space, and looked around all the circle of the forest. Everywhere it was the same--just the curving wall of red and brown, and beyond, the blue sky, flecked with tiny clouds of white. The wilderness was full of beauty, charged with the glory of peace and silence, and there was naught to indicate that man had ever come. The leaves rippled a little in the gentle west wind, and the crisping grass bowed before it; but Paul saw no living being, save himself, in the vast, empty world.
The boy was troubled and, despite his life in the woods, he had full right to be. This was the great haunted forest of Kain-tuck-ee, where the red man made his most desperate stand, and none ever knew when or whence danger would come. Moreover, he was lost, and the forest told him nothing; he was not like his friend, Henry Ware, born to the forest, the heir to all the primeval instincts, alive to every sight and sound, and able to read the slightest warning the wilderness might give. Paul Cotter was a student, a lover of books, and a coming statesman. Fate, it seemed, had chosen that he and Henry Ware should go hand in hand, but for different tasks.
Paul gazed once more around the circle of the glowing forest, and the shadow in his eyes deepened. Henry and the horses, loaded with powder for the needy settlement, must be somewhere near, but whether to right or left he could not tell. He had gone to look for water, and when he undertook to return he merely went deeper and deeper into the forest. Now the boughs, as they nodded before the gentle breeze, seemed to nod to him in derision. He felt shame as well as alarm. Henry would not laugh at him, but the born scholar would be worth, for the time, at least, far less than the born trailer.
Yet no observer, had there been any, would have condemned Paul as he condemned himself. He stood there, a tall, slender boy, with a broad, high brow, white like a girl's above the line of his cap, blue eyes, dark and full, with the width between that indicates the mind behind, and the firm, pointed chin that belongs so often to people of intellect.
Paul and Henry were on their way from Wareville, their home, with horses hearing powder for Marlowe, the nearest settlement, nearly a hundred miles away. The secret of making powder from the nitre dust on the floors of the great caves of Kentucky had been discovered by the people of Wareville, and now they wished to share their unfailing supply with others, in order that the infant colony might be able to withstand Indian attacks. Henry Ware, once a captive in a far Northwestern tribe, and noted for his great strength and skill, had been chosen, with Paul Cotter, his comrade, to carry it. Both rejoiced in the great task, which to them meant the saving of Kentucky.
Paul's eyes were apt at times to have a dreamy look, as if he were thinking of things far away, whether of time or place; but now they were alive to the present, and to the forest about him. He listened intently. At last he lay down and put his ear to the earth, as he had seen Henry do; but he heard nothing save a soft, sighing sound, which he knew to be only the note of the wilderness. He might have fired his rifle. The sharp, lashing report would go far, carried farther by its own echoes; but it was more likely to bring foe than friend, and he refrained.
But he must try, if not one thing, then another. He looked up at the heavens and studied the great, red globe of the sun, now going slowly down the western arch in circles of crimson and orange light, and then he looked hack at the earth. If he had not judged the position of the sun wrong, their little camp lay to the right, and he would choose that course. He turned at once and walked swiftly among the trees.
Paul stopped now and then to listen. He would have uttered the long forest shout, as a signal to his comrade, but even that was forbidden. Henry had seen signs in the forest that indicated more than once to his infallible eye the presence of roving warriors from the north, and no risk must be taken. But, as usual, it was only the note of the wilderness that came to his ears. He stopped also once or twice, not to listen, but to look at the splendid country, and to think what a great land it would surely be.
He walked steadily on for miles, but the region about him remained unfamiliar. No smoke from the little camp-fire rose among the trees, and no welcome sight of Henry or the horses came to his eyes. For all he knew, he might be going farther from the camp at every step. Putting aside caution, he made a trumpet of his two hands, and uttered the long, quavering cry that serves as a signal in the forest. It came back in a somber echo from the darkening wilderness, and Paul saw, with a little shiver, that the sun was now going down behind the trees. The breeze rose, and the leaves rustled together with a soft hiss, like a warning. Chill came into the air. The sensitive mind of the boy, so much alive to abstract impressions, felt the omens of coming danger, and he stopped again, not knowing what to do. He called himself afraid, but he was not. It was the greater tribute to his courage that he remained resolute where another might well have been in despair.
The sun went down behind the black forest like a cannon shot into the sea, and darkness swept over the wilderness. Paul uttered the long cry again and again, but, as before, no answer came back; once he fired his rifle, and the sharp note seemed to run for miles, but still no answer.
Then he decided to take counsel of prudence, and sleep where he was. If he walked on, he might go farther and farther away from the camp, but if he stopped now, while he might not find Henry, Henry would certainly find him. Any wilderness trail was an open road to his comrade.
He hunted a soft place under one of the trees, and, despising the dew, stretched himself between two giant roots, his rifle by his side. He was tired and hungry, and he lay for a while staring at the blank undergrowth, but by and by all his troubles and doubts floated away. The note of the wind was soothing, and the huge roots sheltered him. His eyelids drooped, a singular feeling of peace and ease crept over him, and he was asleep.
It was yet the intense darkness of early night, and the outline of his figure was lost between the giant roots, but after a while a silver moon brought a gray tint to the skies, and the black bank over the forest began to thin and lighten. Then two figures, hideous in paint, crept from the undergrowth, and stared at the sleeping boy with pitiless eyes.
Paul slept on, and mercifully knew nothing of his danger; yet it would have been hard to find in the world two pairs of eyes that contained more savagery than those now gazing upon him. Their owners crept nearer, looking with fierce joy through the darkness at the sleeping boy who was so certainly their prey. Their code contained nothing that taught them to spare a foe, and this youth. In the van of the white invasion, was the worst of foes.
The boy still slept, and his slumber was deep, sweet, and dreamless. No warning came to him while the savage eyes, bright with cruel fire, crept closer and closer, and the merciful darkness, coming again, tried to close down and hide the approaching tragedy of the forest.
Paul returned with a jerk from his peaceful heaven. Hands and feet were seized suddenly and pinned to the earth so tightly that he could not move, and he gazed up at two hideous, painted faces, very near to his own, and full of menace. The boy's heart turned for a moment to water. He saw at once, through his vivid and powerful imagination, all the terrors of his position, and in the same instant he leaped forward also to the future, and to the agony it had in store for him. But in a moment his courage came back, the strong will once more took command of the body and the spirit, and he looked up with stoical eyes at his captors. He knew that resistance now would be in vain, and, relaxing his muscles, he saved his strength.
The warriors laughed a little, a soundless laugh that was full of menace, and bound him securely with strips of buckskin cut from his own garments. Then they stood up, and Paul, too, rose to a sitting position, gazing intently at his captors. They were powerful men, apparently warriors of middle age, and Paul knew enough of costume and paint to tell that they were of the Shawnee nation, bitterly hostile to him and his kind.
His terrors came back upon him in full sweep. He loved life, and, scholar though he was, he loved his life in the young wilderness of Kentucky, where he was at the beginnings of things. Every detail of what they would do to him, every incident of the torture was already photographed upon his sensitive mind, but again the brave lad called up all his courage, and again he triumphed, keeping his body still and his face without expression. He merely looked up at them, as if placidly waiting their will.
The two warriors talked together a little, and then, seeming to change their minds, they unbound the boy's feet. One touched him on the shoulder, and, pointing to the north, started in that direction. Paul understood, and, rising to his feet, followed. The second warrior came close behind, and Paul was as securely a prisoner as if he were in the midst of a band of a hundred. Once or twice he looked around at the silent woods and thought of running, but it would have been the wildest folly. His hands tied, he could have been quickly overtaken, or, if not that, a bullet. He sternly put down the temptation, and plodded steadily on between the warriors, the broad, brown back of the one in front of him always leading the way.
It seemed to him that they sought the densest part of the undergrowth, where the night shadows lay thickest, and he was wise enough to know that they did it to hide their trail from possible pursuit. Then he thought of Henry, his comrade, the prince of trailers! He might come! He would come! Paul's blood leaped at the thought, and his head lifted with hope.
Clouds swept up, the moon died, and in the darkness Paul had little idea of direction. He only knew that they were still traveling fast amid the thick bushes, and that when he made too much noise in passing one or other of the brown savages would prod him with the muzzle of a gun as a hint to be more careful. His face became bruised and his feet weary, but at last they stopped in an opening among the trees, by the side of a little brook that trickled over shining pebbles.
The warriors wasted little time. They rebound Paul's feet in such tight fashion that he could scarcely move, and then, lying down near him, went to sleep so quickly that it seemed to Paul they accomplished the feat by some sort of a mechanical arrangement. Tired as he was, he could not close his own eyes yet, and he longed for his comrade. Would he come?
Paul's sensitive nerves were again keenly alive to every phase of his cruel situation. The warriors, lying almost at his feet, were monsters, not men, and this wilderness, which in its finer aspects he loved, was bristling in the darkness with terrors known and unknown. Yet his clogged and weary brain slept at last, and when he awoke again it was day--a beautiful day of white and gold light, with the autumnal tints of the forest all about him, and the leaves rustling in a gentle wind.
But his heart sank to the uttermost depths when he looked at the warriors. By day they seemed more brutal and pitiless than at night. From their long, narrow eyes shone no ray of mercy, and the ghastly paint on their high cheek bones deepened their look of ferocity. It was not the appearance of the warriors alone, it was more the deed for which they were preparing that appalled Paul. They were raking dead leaves and fallen brushwood of last year around a small but stout sapling, and they went on with their task in a methodical way.
Paul knew well, too well. Hideous tales of such doings had come now and then to his ears, but he had never dreamed that he, Paul Cotter, in his own person would be such a victim. Even now it seemed incredible in the face of this beautiful young world that stretched away from him, so quiet and so peaceful. He, who already in his boyhood was planning great things for this splendid land, to die such a death!
The warriors did not cease until their task was finished. It was but a brief one after all, for Paul had made no mistake in his guess. There was not time, perhaps, to take a prisoner beyond the Ohio, and they could not forego a savage pleasure. They dragged the hoy to the sapling, stood him erect against the slim trunk, and hound him fast with green withes. Then they piled the dead leaves and brushwood high about him above his knees, and, this done, stood a little way off and looked at their work.
The warriors spoke together for the first time since Paul had awakened, and their black eyes lighted up with a hideous glow of anticipation. Paul saw it, and an icy chill ran through all his veins. Had not the green withes held him, he would have fallen to the ground. Once more his active mind, foreseeing all that would come, had dissolved his strength for the moment; but, as always, his will brought his courage back, and he shut his eyes to put away the hateful sight of the gloating savages.
He had never asked in any way for mercy, he had never uttered a word of protest, and he resolved that he would not cry out if he could help it. They should not rejoice too much at his sufferings; he would die as they were taught to die, and he would show to them that the mind of a white boy could supply the place of a red man's physical fortitude. But Henry might come! Would he come? Oh, would he come? Resigned to death, Paul yet hoped for life.
He opened his eyes, and the warriors were still standing there, looking at him; but in a moment one approached, and, bending down, began to strike flint and steel amid the dry leaves at the boy's feet. Again, despite himself, the shivering chill ran through Paul's veins. Would Henry come? If he came at all, he must now come quickly, as only a few minutes were left.
The leaves were obstinate; sparks flew from the flint and steel, but there was no blaze. Paul looked down at the head of the warrior who worked patiently at his task. The second warrior stood on one side, watching, and when Paul glanced at him he saw the savage move ever so little, but as if driven by a sudden impulse, and then raise his head in the attitude of one who listened intently. Heat replaced the ice in Paul's veins. Had something moved in the forest? Was it Henry? Would he come?
The standing warrior uttered a low sound, and he who knelt with the flint and steel raised his head. Something had moved in the forest! It might be Henry. For Paul, the emotions of a life were concentrated in a single moment. Fear and hope tripped over each other, and the wilderness grew dim to his sight. A myriad of little black specks danced before his eyes, and the blood was beating a quick march in his ears.
The two savages were motionless, as if carved of brown marble, and over all the wilderness hung silence. Then out of the silence came a sharp report, and the warrior who stood erect, rifle in hand, fell to the earth, stricken by instant death. Henry had come! His faithful comrade had not failed him! Paul shouted aloud in his tremendous relief and joy, forgetful of the second warrior.
The kneeling savage sprang to his feet, but he had made a fatal mistake. To light the fire for the torture, he had left his rifle leaning against the trunk of a tree twenty feet away, and before he could regain it a terrible figure bounded from the bushes, the figure of a great youth, clad in buckskin, his face transformed with anger and his eyes alight. Before the savage could reach his weapon he went down, slain by a single blow of a clubbed rifle, and the next moment Henry was cutting Paul loose with a few swift slashes of his keen hunting knife.
"I knew you would come! I knew it!" exclaimed Paul joyously and wildly, as he stood forth free. "Nobody in the world but you could have done it, Henry!"
"I don't know about that, Paul," said Henry, "but I'd have had you back sooner if it hadn't been for the dark. I followed you all night the best way I could, but I couldn't come up to you until day, and they began work then."
He glanced significantly at the leaves and brushwood, and then, handing Paul's rifle to him, looked at those belonging to the savages.
"We'll take 'em," he said. "It's likely we'll need 'em, and their powder and bullets will be more than welcome, too."
Paul was rubbing his wrists and ankles, where the blood flowed painfully as the circulation was restored, but to him the whole affair was ended. His life had been saved at the last moment, and the world was more brilliant and beautiful than ever. His imagination went quickly to the other extreme. There was no more danger.
But Henry Ware did not lose his eager, wary look. It did not take him more than a minute to transfer the ammunition of the warriors to the pouches and powder-horns of Paul and himself. Then he searched the forest with keen, suspicious glances.
"Come, Paul," he said, "we must run. The woods are full of the savages. I've found out that there's a great war party between us and Marlowe, and I've hid the powder in a cave. I turned the horses loose, hoping that we'll get 'em some time later; but just now you and I have to save ourselves."
Paul came back to earth. Danger still threatened! But he was free for the time, and he was with his comrade!
"You lead the way, Henry," he said. "I'll follow, and do whatever you say."
Henry Ware made no reply, but bent his ear again, in the attitude of one who listens. Paul watched his face attentively, seeking to read his knowledge there.
"The big war band is not far away," said Henry, "and it's likely that they've heard my shot. It would carry far on such a still, clear morning as this. I didn't want them to hear it."
"But I'm glad you did shoot," said Paul. "It was a mighty welcome sound to me."
"Yes," said Henry, with grim humor, "it was the right thing at the right time. Hark to that!" A single note, very faint and very far, rose and was quickly gone, like the dying echo of music. Only the trained ranger of the wilderness would have noticed it at all, but Henry Ware knew.
"Yes, they've heard," he said, "and they're telling it to each other. They are also telling it to us. They're between us and Marlowe, and they are between us and Wareville, so we must run to the north, and run as fast as we can."
He led the way with swift, light footsteps through the forest, and Paul followed close behind, each boy carrying on his shoulder two rifles and at his waist a double stock of bullets and powder.
Paul scarcely felt any fear now for the future. The revulsion from the stake and torture was so great that it did not seem to him that he could be taken again. Moreover, they had seized him the first time when he was asleep. They had taken an unfair advantage.
The sun rose higher, gilding the brown forest with fine filmy gold, like a veil, and the boys ran silently on among the trees and the undergrowth. Behind them, and spread out like a fan, came many warriors, fierce for their lives. Amid such scenes was the Great West won.