The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter X. The Island in the Lake
When Paul awoke the others were munching the usual breakfast of dried venison, and Henry handed him a piece, which he ate voraciously. Henry was sitting on the ground, with his back against a fallen log, and he regarded Paul contemplatively.
"Paul," he said, in the dryest possible tones, "I don't see how you could have been so hard-hearted."
Paul looked at him, startled. "Why, what do you mean?"
"To tear yourself away, as you did, from a loving father and mother. Why, Sol, here, tells me that you actually threw your mother from you."
"Truth, Gospel truth," put in Shif'less Sol. "I never seen sech a cruel, keerless person. He gives her jest one fling into the south, an' then he bolts off into the north, like an arrow out o' the bow. I follows him lickety-split to bring him back, but he runs so fast I can't ketch him."
"I've one father and mother already," he said, "and so I have no use for two. Rather than cause embarrassment, I came away as quickly as I could."
"You did come fast," said Henry dryly.
"It was mighty fine of all of you to come after me," said Paul earnestly, "and to risk your lives to save me from the Shawnees. But I knew you'd do it."
"Uv course," said Tom Ross simply. "The rest uv our party would hev come, too, but they were needed back thar in Kentucky. Besides, we could spare 'em, ez it took cunnin' an' not numbers to do what we had to do."
"What's our next step?" asked Paul, who was in the highest of spirits--his imagination, with its usual vivid rebound, now painted everything in glowing colors.
"We are going northward," said Henry.
"Yes, it's necessary. There's some great movement on foot among the tribes. It's not the Shawnees alone, but the Miamis and Wyandots and others as well, though the Shawnees are leaders. War belts are passing between all the tribes, and we think they are joining together to destroy all the white settlements in Kentucky."
"An' some renegades are helpin' 'em," said Tom Ross. "They may hev better luck than they did when they attacked Wareville."
"Yes, an' there's Braxton Wyatt," said Shif'less Sol sorrowfully, "He's cunnin' an' revengeful, an' he'll do us a power o' harm. Paul, you ought to a-let me put a knife in atween his ribs when I had the chance. I might a-saved some good lives an' a power o' sufferin'."
Paul did not reply, but he was not sorry that he had interfered. He could not see a bound youth killed.
"I think we'd better be goin' now," said Tom Ross. "We've got to keep to the north, to throw the Shawnees off the track, an' then we'll come back an' spy on 'em."
"An' me with only ten hours o' rest got to git up an' start to runnin' ag'in," said Shif'less Sol plaintively.
"Wa'al, no, you needn't run," said Tom Ross, grinning. "You can jest walk for about forty hours without stoppin'!"
Shif'less Sol heaved a deep sigh, but made ready. Jim Hart undoubled himself, cracked his joints, and said deliberately:
"Ef I wuz ez lazy ez Shif'less Sol Hyde, I'd a-stayed back thar in the East, whar a feller might jest sleep hisself to death, an' no Injuns to torment him."
"Ef I wuz es mean an' onchristian ez Jim Hart, I'd go an' join Braxton Wyatt an' become a renegade myself," rejoined Shif'less Sol.
Paul smiled. He enjoyed the little spats of Sol and Jim, but he knew that the two were as true as steel, and the best of friends to each other. Moreover, he was about to take up again the mission which Fate seemed so constantly to interrupt. The scene of action had been shifted to the great northern woods, and it now seemed to Paul that perhaps Fortune had been kind in bringing him there. If a league of the tribes were being attempted for a new attack upon the settlements, the powder for Marlowe might well rest, for the present, in its hiding-place in the woods, while his comrades and he undertook more important action elsewhere.
Before they started, Henry and Ross took stock of their ammunition, of which they had a plentiful supply, replenished more than once from their enemies, and also gave an abundance to Paul. The extra rifle given to him, one of those taken from the two warriors that Henry had slain, was a fine weapon, carrying far and true, and he was perfectly satisfied with it.
Then they started, and they traveled all day northward, through a fine rolling country, with little prairies and great quantities of game. It was fully equal to Kentucky, but Paul knew they were in the heart of the chosen home of the northern Indians, and it behooved them to be cautious. But there were no signs of pursuit, and they went on all day undisturbed.
Late in the afternoon they entered a dense forest, and walked through it about two hours, when Paul saw an opening among the trees. It was a great flash of silver that all at once greeted his eyes. But as he looked it turned to gold under the late sun.
"Another of those little prairies," he said.
"No, Paul," he said, "that's not a prairie. The sun and the sky together have fooled you. It's a lake, and we're going to live in it for a little while."
"A lake," echoed Paul, "and we're going to live in it? Come on, I want to see it!"
Kentucky was not a country of lakes, and Paul did not know much about them. Hence, as he hastened forward, he was thinking more of the lake itself than of Henry's somewhat enigmatic words, "We're going to live in it."
They soon reached its margin, and Paul uttered a little cry of delight. It was a splendid sheet of water, shaped like a half moon, seven miles long, perhaps, and two miles across at the center. But at the widest part stood a gem of a wooded island, covered with giant trees. High hills, clothed with magnificent forest, rose all around the lake.
The beauty of the scene penetrated the souls of all. Uneducated men like Shif'less Sol and Jim Hart felt it as well as Paul. The five stood in silence, gazing at the lake and the gem of a wooded island. The light from the sinking sun gleamed in red and gold flame across the silver waters, and on the wooded island the boughs of the trees seemed to be touched with fire.
"That's where we are to stay," said Henry, pointing to the little island. "No Indian will ever trouble us there."
"Why?" asked Paul, looking at him questioningly.
"Wait and you'll see," replied Henry.
Henry led the way along the shore, and from a dense thicket at the water's edge he took a light canoe.
"I captured this once," he said; "brought it across the woods and hid it here, thinking it might be useful some day, and now you see I am right. Get in! Light as it is, it will hold us all."
Henry and Ross took the paddles, and they pushed out into the lake. Shif'less Sol uttered a long and deep sigh of satisfaction.
"Now, this jest suits a tired man," he said. "Henry, you an' Tom can paddle jest ez long ez you please. I'd like to do all my travelin' this way."
"An' you'd get so lazy you'd want somebody to come an' feed you with a spoon," said Jim Hart.
"An' it would jest suit me to have you do it. That's jest the kind uv a job you're fit fur, Jim Hart."
"Shet up, you two," said Ross. "You hurt my ears, a-buzzin' an' a-buzzin'."
Shif'less Sol sank back a little and closed his eyes. An expression of heavenly luxury and ease came over his face, but it could not last long because in a few minutes the boat reached the wooded island. Shif'less Sol opened his eyes, to find that the sun was almost gone, and that the shadows had come among the great trees.
"Cur'us kind o' place," he said. "Gives me a sort o' shiver."
Paul had felt the same sensation, but he said nothing. Before them lay the little island, a solid, black blot, its trees blended together, and behind them the lake shone somberly in the growing darkness.
"All out!" said Henry cheerfully. "This is home for a while, and we need rest."
They sprang upon the narrow beach, and Henry and Ross dragged the canoe into some thick bushes, where they hid it artfully. Paul meanwhile was looking about him, and trying to keep down the ghostly feeling that would assail him at times. The island, so far as he could judge, was perhaps two hundred yards long, half as broad, and thickly covered with forest. But he could see nothing of the interior.
"Come," said Henry Ware, in the same tone of cheerful confidence, as he led the way.
The others followed, stepping lightly among the great tree trunks, and Henry did not stop until he came to a small, open space in the very center of the island, where a spring bubbled up among some rocks, and flowed away in a tiny brook in a narrow channel to the lake. The open space was almost circular, and the great trees grew so thickly around that they looked like a wall.
"Here is the place to rest," said Henry. "There is no need for anybody to watch."
They lay down upon the ground, disposing themselves on the softest spots that they could find. Paul stared up for a few moments at the great circular wall of trees, and the weird, chilly sensation came again, but he was too tired and sleepy to think about it long. In fifteen minutes he slumbered soundly, and so did all the others. They lay with their faces showing but faintly in the dusk, and as they lay in the sheltered cove a soft wind breathed gently over them.
All were up early in the morning, and Paul was surprised to see Henry lighting a fire with flint and steel.
"Why do you do that, Henry?" he said. "Will not the smoke give warning to our enemies that we are here?"
"We shall send up but little smoke," replied Henry; "but if they should see it, they will not come."
He went on with the fire, and Paul, although mystified, would not ask anything more, too proud to show ignorance, and confident that anyhow he would soon learn the cause of these strange proceedings. The fire was lighted, and burned brightly, but cast off little smoke. Then Henry turned to Paul.
"Let's go up to the north end of the island," he said.
It was a walk of but a few minutes, and Henry, stopping before they reached the margin of the lake, said:
"Look up, Paul!"
Paul did so, and saw many dark objects in the forks of trees about him, or tied to the boughs. They looked like shapeless bundles, and he did not know what they were.
"A burying ground," said Henry, in answer to his inquiring look.
Paul felt the same weird little shiver that had assailed him the night before.
"A burying ground!"
"Yes, but by some old, old tribe before the Shawnees or Miamis. What you see are only bundles of sticks and skeletons. No bodies have been left here in a long time, and the Indians think the island is haunted by the ghosts of those who died and were left here long, long ago. That is why we needed to keep no watch last night. I discovered this place on a hunting trip, and I've always kept it in mind.
"Let's go back," said Paul, who did not like to look at this burying ground in the air.
Henry laughed a little, but he did willingly as Paul requested, and when they returned to the fire they found that Jim Hart, falling easily into his natural position, had already cooked the venison. Paul's spirits at once went up with a bound. The bright fire, the pleasant odor of the venison, the cheerful faces of his comrades, and assured safety appealed to his vivid imagination, and made the blood leap in a sparkling torrent through his veins.
"Graveyard or no graveyard, I'm glad I'm here," he said energetically.
They laughed, and Shif'less Sol, who, as usual, had found the softest place and had stretched himself upon it, said, with drawling emphasis:
"You're mighty right, Paul, an' I'm a'gin' movin' from here afore cold weather comes. I'm pow'ful comf'table."
"If you don't git up an' stir aroun', how do you expect to eat?" said Jim Hart indignantly. "We ain't got venison enough for more'n ten more meals."
"Henry an' Tom will shoot it, an' you'll cook it fur me," said Sol complacently.
Jim Hart growled, but Henry and Ross were already discussing this question of a food supply, and Paul listened.
"The Indians don't come about the lake much," said Henry, "and it will be easy enough to find deer, but we must hunt at night. We mustn't let the savages see us, as it might break the island's spell."
"We'll take the canoe and go out to-night," said Ross.
"And this lake ought to be full of fish," said Paul. "We might draw on it, too, for a food supply."
"Looks likely," said Ross. "But we'd best not try that, either, till dusk."
But they worked in the course of the day at the manufacture of their rude fishing tackle, constructed chiefly of their clothing, the hooks being nothing more than a rough sort of pin bent to the right shape. This done, they spent the rest of the day in loafing and lolling about, although Paul took a half hour for the thorough exploration of the island, which presented no unusual features beyond those that he had already seen. After that he came back to the little cove and luxuriated, as the others were doing. It was the keenest sort of joy now just to rest, to lie at one's ease, and to feel the freedom from danger. The old burying ground was a better guard about them than a thousand men.
But when night came, Henry and Ross took out the canoe again, and Paul asked to go with them.
"All right," said Henry, "you come with us, and Sol, you and Jim Hart can do the fishing and the quarreling, with nobody to bother you."
"Jest my luck," said Shif'less Sol, "to be left on a desert island with an ornery cuss like Jim Hart."
Henry, setting the paddle against the bank, gave the canoe a great shove, and it shot far out into the lake. Paul looked back. Already their island was the solid dark blot it had been the night before, while the waters moved darkly under a light, northern wind.
"Sit very quiet, Paul," said Henry. "Tom and I will do the paddling."
Paul was more than content to obey, and he remained very still while the other two, with long, sweeping strokes, sent the canoe toward a point where the enclosing bank was lowest.
"Don't you think we'd better stay in the boat, Henry?" said Ross.
"Yes; game must be thick hereabouts, and if we wait long enough we're sure to find a deer coming down to drink."
They cruised for a while along the shore, keeping well in the darkest shadow until they reached a point where the keen eyes of Henry Ware saw, despite the darkness, that many hoofs had trampled.
"This is a favorite drinking place," he said. "Back us into those bushes, Tom, and we'll wait."
Ross pushed the canoe into some bushes until it was hidden, though the occupants could see through the leaves whatever might come to the water to drink, and they took up their rifles. They lay a little to the north of the drinking place, and the wind blew from the south.
"I don't think we'll have to wait long," said Henry.
Then they remained absolutely silent, but within fifteen minutes they heard a heavy trampling in the woods. It steadily grew louder, and was mingled with snortings and puffings. Whatever animal made it--and it was undoubtedly a big one--was coming toward them. Paul was filled with curiosity, but he knew too much to do more just now than breathe.
A huge bull buffalo stumbled from the trees to the edge of the lake, where the moonlight had just begun to come. He was a monstrous fellow, and Paul knew by his snapping red eyes that he was in no good humor. Henry shook his head to indicate that he was no game for them, and Paul understood. Whatever they killed they intended to put in the canoe, and then clean and dress it on the island. The angry monster, an outcast from some herd, was safe.
The buffalo drank, puffing and snorting between drinks, and then stamped his way back into the forest. Still the hunters waited in ambush. Some other animal, with a long, sinuous body, crept down to the margin and lapped the water. Paul did not know what it was, and he could not break the silence to ask the others; but after drinking for a few minutes it drew its long, lithe body back through the undergrowth, and passed out of sight. Then nothing came for a while, because this was a ferocious beast of prey, and to the harmless creatures of the wilderness the air about the drinking place was filled for a space with poison.
But as the wind continued to blow lightly from the south, the dread odor passed away and the air became pure and fresh again. Back in the deeps of the forest the timid creatures found courage once more, and they crept down to the water's edge to slake their thirst. But they were small, and the ambushed marksmen in the boat still waited, silent and motionless. Paul saw them sometimes, and sometimes he did not. Then his eyes would wander to the surface of the lake, now pale, heaving silver in the moonlight, and to the wall of black forest that circled it round.
A heavier step came again, and a light puff! puff! Paul knew now that a great animal was approaching, and that the timid little ones would give it room. He looked with all his eyes, and a magnificent stag stepped into the moonlight, antlers erect, waiting and listening for a moment before he bowed his head to drink. Paul almost leaped up in the boat as a rifle cracked beside him, and he saw the stag spring into the air and fall dead, with his feet in the water.
Henry and Ross promptly shoved the boat from the bushes, and the three of them lifted the body into it, disposing it in the center with infinite care. Then, with food enough to last for days, they rowed back across the lake to the haunted island. Shif'less Sol and Jim Hart, with their rude tackle, had succeeded in catching four fish, of a species unknown to Paul, but large and to all appearances succulent.
"We'll eat the fish to-morrow, because they won't keep," said Sol, "but Jim Hart here kin jerk the venison. It will give him somethin' to do, an' Jim is a sight better off when he has to work. He ain't got no time fur foolishness."
"An' you can tan its hide," growled Jim Hart, "although your own needs tannin' most."
A few minutes later the two were amicably dressing the body of the stag, but Paul was already asleep. He assisted the next morning at a conference, and then he learned what Henry and Ross intended to do. The powder for Marlowe, as Paul had surmised, must be left for the present in its hidden place while they spied upon the great northern confederacy, now being formed for the destruction of the white settlements, and they would do what they could to impede it. Henry, Ross, and Sol would leave that night on an expedition of discovery, while Paul and Jim Hart held the haunted island. Paul, in this case, did not object to being left behind, because he had, for the present at least, enough of danger, and he knew that he was better suited to other tasks than the one on which the three great woodsmen were now departing.
Jim Hart was to row them over to the mainland, and they were to signal their return with three plaintive, long-drawn cries of the whip-poor-will. They departed at the first coming of the dusk with short good-bys, leaving Paul alone on the island. He stood near the margin under the foliage of a great beech and watched them go. The boat, as it left a trailing wake of melting silver, became a small black dot at the farther shore, and then vanished.
Paul turned back toward the center of his island, inexpressibly lonely for the while. Again he was a solitary being in the vast, encircling wilderness, and, in feeling at least, no one was nearer than a thousand miles away. He walked as swiftly as he could to the cove, where the supper fire still smoldered, and he sought companionship in the light and warmth that came from the bed of coals. No amount of hardship, no amount of experience could change Paul's vivid temperament, so responsive to the influences of time and place. He sat there, his knees drawn up to his chin, and the ring of darkness came closer and closer; but out of it presently arose the tread of footsteps, and all the brightness and cheeriness returned at once to the boy's face.
Jim Hart walked into the rim of the firelight, and his long, thin, saplinglike figure looked very consoling to Paul. He doubled into his usual jackknife formation and, sitting down by the fire, looked into the coals.
"Well, Paul," he said, "I've seen 'em off, an' a-tween you and me, I'd rather be right here on this here haunted islan', a-hobnobbin' with Injun ghosts an' havin' a good, comfortable, easy time, than be dodgin' braves, an' feelin' every minute to see ef my scalp is on out thar among the Injun villages."
"You don't think they'll be taken?" asked Paul, in some alarm.
Long Jim Hart laughed scornfully.
"Them fellers be took?" he said. "Why, they are the best three woodsmen in North Ameriky, an', fur that, in the hull world. Nobody can take 'em, an' if they wuz took, nobody could hold 'em. You could have Henry Ware tied to the stake, with fifty Shawnees holdin' him an' a thousand more standin' aroun', an' he'd get away, certain sure."
Paul smiled. It was an extravagant statement, but it restored his confidence.
"And meanwhile we are safe here, protected by ghosts," he said. "Do you believe in ghosts, Jim?"
Jim Hart looked up at the black rim of the forest, and then edged a little closer to the fire.
"No, I don't," he said, "but sometimes I'm afeard of 'em, jest the same."
"That's about the way I feel, too," he said, "but they're mighty handy just now, Jim. They're keeping us safe on this island. You won't deny that?"
"No, I won't," said Jim; "but at night time I'm goin' to leave 'em all by themselves in the trees over at their end uv of the island."
"So am I," said Paul; and ten minutes later both were sound asleep.