The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XII. The Belt Bearers
Paul and Jim Hart waited several days, never once venturing from the protecting shadows of the woods, and they found the burden very great. The little island was like a cage, and Jim Hart groaned, moreover, because he could not exercise his skill in the art of cooking.
"These cold victuals," he said, "besides bein' unpleasant to the inside, are a disgrace to me. I jest got to cook somethin'."
Finally, he built up a bed of coals on a very dark night, when it was impossible for anyone to see either their sheltered glow or the smoke they sent out, and he broiled juicy steaks from the body of a deer that they had hung up in a tree.
"Isn't it fine, Paul?" he said, as they ate hungrily.
"Fine's no name for it," replied Paul. "It's great, splendid, grand, magnificent, surpassing, unapproachable! Are those the terms, Jim?"
"I don't know jest what all uv 'em mean," replied Jim Hart, "but they shorely sound right to me."
They saw the Indian canoes on the lake once more, but the Miamis seemed to be fishing, and did not come anywhere near the island. Paul appreciated then how great had been their continual need of caution.
A day or two later there was a magnificent thunder storm, despite the lateness of the season. The heavenly artillery roared grandly, and lakes, hills, and forest swam at times in a glare that dazzled Jim Hart. After that it rained hard, and they clung to the shelter of their hut, which was fortunately water-tight now. The rain ceased by and by, but the clouds remained in the sky, and night came very thick and dark. Jim Hart suggested that it would be a good time to do a little fishing, and Paul was ready and willing.
They paddled out silently a short distance from the island, where the water was not too shallow, and let down the lines.
They waited some time and received no bites; but as this was nothing unusual, owing to the crudity of their fishing tackle, they persisted patiently. The night deepened and darkened, and they could not see the surface of the lake fifty yards away. The water, moved by a light wind, bubbled faintly against the sides of the canoe. Neither spoke, but sat in silence, waiting hopefully for a pull on the lines.
Presently Paul heard a faint, wailing sound, coming from the mainland, but at first he paid little attention to it. Then he noticed that Jim Hart had raised his head and was listening intently. Naturally Paul then listened, too, with the same eager attention, and the faint wailing sound, singularly weird and strange in the night, came a second, and presently a third time. But after that it was not repeated. Long Jim Hart looked at the boy.
"You know what that is?" he said.
"The cry of the whip-poor-will."
"The cry of the whip-poor-will, given three times! The signal! The boys are thar, an' we must go fur 'em."
"Of course," said Paul. "Do we need to return to the island for anything?"
"No; we have our rifles an' ammunition with us. We got to start right now, an' Paul, don't you splash any water with your paddle."
Paul understood as well as Jim Hart the need of extreme caution, as the Miamis might be abroad, and he made every stroke steady and sure. Jim Hart emitted the lonesome cry of the whip-poor-will once in return--signal for signal--and then they cut their way in silence through the dark.
They laid their course, according to agreement, for the drinking place at the mouth of the brook, and Paul's heart beat with relief and gladness. His comrades had come back, safe and sound. It did not occur to him that any one of them might have fallen in the venture. Half way to the mainland Jim Hart stopped the canoe, and listened a moment.
"I thought I heard somethin' down the lake that sounded like a splash," he said.
But he did not hear it again, and they resumed their progress. Paul now saw the loom of the land, a darker outline in the darkness, and his heart, already beating fast, began to beat faster. Suppose there should be some trick in the signal! Suppose they should find the Miamis, and not their comrades, waiting for them! He sought hard to pierce the darkness and see what might be there on the land before him.
The outline of the shore rose more distinctly out of the darkness, and the prow of the boat struck softly on the margin. Then Paul saw a figure rise from the bushes, and after it another, and then a third, and then no more. He could not see their faces, but it was the right number, and a vast relief surged up. The three figures came down confidently to the canoe, and then the welcome voice of Henry Ware said in a low tone:
"You are here, Paul! You and Jim are on time to the minute!"
"An' mighty glad I am, too," said Shif'less Sol, in the same tone. "I wuz never so tired before in all my life. I think I must have trotted a thousan' miles, an' now I'm willin' to let Jim Hart paddle me the rest o' the way in a canoe."
Tom Ross said nothing, merely showing his white teeth in a smile.
"The Miamis are about," said Paul. "They have been around the lake, and on it, for days, looking for something."
"We know it," said Henry. "In fact, we've seen some of them not so long since, though none of them saw us. There are big doings afoot, Paul, and we must have our part in them."
"Should we go back to the island, then?"
"For the present, yes. We need a base, and the island is safest and best."
The five got cautiously into the canoe, disposing their weight carefully, and Shif'less Sol, who had taken the paddle from Paul, raised it for the first sweep. But it did not come down into the water. Instead, he stopped it in its fall, and he and all the others listened. The same splash that Jim Hart thought he had heard came now to their ears, and it was repeated. Paul knew that it was made by paddles sweeping through water, and it was coming nearer.
"Push back into the bushes," whispered Henry.
They gently shoved the canoe far among the bushes in the shallow water, and waited. They were completely hidden, but even if seen they could spring instantly to the land. They waited, and the splashing steadily grew louder. Paul felt the pressure of Henry's hand on his arm, and he looked with all his eyes. The Miami navy was abroad that night! A canoe, a long one with seven or eight warriors in it, was abreast of them, and behind it came five others. They were not twenty yards away, and Paul, in fancy at least, saw the savage eyes and the painted faces. What had brought them out on the lake, what suspicion or precaution, Paul never knew, but there they were. All were brave hearts in the hidden canoe, but they held their breath while that silent file passed by. Then, when the last had gone and was lost in the darkness, they pushed out a little and listened, with all the keenness of forest-bred ears. Hearing no splash, they paddled in a straight course for the haunted island.
"I think they've gone toward the north end of the lake, and as they are likely to keep on their way, now is our time," said Henry.
They pushed farther into the lake, Ross and Shif'less Sol now handling the paddles with wonderful dexterity. They went very slowly, not wishing to make the faintest splash, and meanwhile the darkness thickened and deepened again. It felt very damp to the face, and Paul saw now that fog from the rain of the day was mingled with it. They could not see the faintest outline of the island, but held their course from memory.
They had been out about ten minutes when Ross and Sol, as if by simultaneous impulse, ceased paddling, and Henry whispered; "Don't anybody make any noise; it's for our lives!"
They heard that faint splash, which Paul had learned to hate, coming back. The Miami navy, from some unknown cause, had turned in its course. How Paul blessed the thick, fog-charged darkness!
"It's all chance now," whispered Henry, ever so low, and Paul understood.
Then they held their breath, and the Miami canoes steadily drew nearer. Would they come directly upon the white canoe or would they pass? They passed, but they passed so near that Paul could hear the Indians in the boats talking to each other. He also heard his heart beating in his body as the invisible file went by, and the loud beat did not cease until no more splashing of the paddles was heard.
"Is all my hair gray?" whispered Shif'less Sol.
Paul wanted to laugh in a kind of nervous relief, but he did not dare. Instead he whispered back:
"I can't see, Sol, but I'm sure mine is."
Ross and Shif'less Sol took up the paddles again, and now they reached the island without interruption. The boat was hidden again, and soon all were in the hut in the sheltered cove. Henry spoke with approval of the industry and forethought of Paul and Jim in their absence.
"This hut is a mighty good place on a raw night like this," he said. "Now, I'm going to sleep, and I'd advise you to do the same, Paul. I'll tell you to-morrow all that we've done and have seen and know."
While the others slept, Jim Hart, long-legged and captious, but brave, faithful, and enduring, watched. He saw the fog and the darkness clear away, and the moonlight came out, crisp and cold. A light wind blew and dead leaves fell from the trees, rustling dryly as they fell. Autumn was waning and cold weather would soon be at hand. When pale dawn showed, Jim roused his comrades, and they ate breakfast, though no fire was lighted. Then Henry talked.
"It's true," he said, "about a great league of all the tribes being formed to destroy forever the white settlements in Kentucky. They are alarmed about their hunting grounds, and they think they must all strike together now, and strike hard. We've spied upon several of their villages, and we know. Some renegades are with them, pointing the way, and among them is Braxton Wyatt, the most venomous of them all. I don't see how one who is born white can do such a thing."
But Paul had read books, and his mind was always leaping forward to new knowledge.
"It is the bad blood of some far-off ancestor showing," he said. "It is what they call a reversion. You know, Henry, that Braxton was always mean and sulky. I never saw anybody else so spiteful and jealous as he is, and maybe he thinks he will be a big man among the Indians."
"That's so," said Henry. "I can understand why anybody should love a life in the forest. Ah, it's such a glorious thing!"
He expanded his chest, and the light leaping into his eyes told that Henry Ware was living the life he loved.
"But," he added, "I can't see how anybody could ever turn against his own people."
"It's moral perversity," said Paul.
"Moral perversity," said Jim Hart, stumbling over the syllables. "Them words sound mighty big, Paul. Would you mind tellin' us what they mean?"
"They mean, Jim," put in Shif'less Sol, "that you won't be what you ought to be, an' that you won't, all the time."
"That's a good enough explanation," laughed Paul.
"Whatever is the reason," said Tom Ross, who used words as rarely as if they were precious jewels, "the tribes are comin' together to destroy the white settlements. Braxton is givin' them all kinds uv useful information, an' we've got to hinder these doin's, ef we kin."
The others agreed once more, and talked further of the new league. They did not go into much detail about their adventures while spying on the villages, rather looking now to the future.
"I told you, Paul, we ought to a-put a knife in that Braxton Wyatt when we had the chance," growled Shif'less Sol.
"I couldn't do it, Sol," replied Paul.
Later they held a conference beside a bed of coals that threw out no smoke, and Paul listened with absorbed attention while Henry stated the case fully.
"The Shawnees were somewhat daunted by their repulse at Wareville last year," he said, "but they hope yet to crush the white settlement before we grow too strong. They are seeking to draw the Miamis, Wyandottes, and all the other tribes up here into a league for that purpose, and they want to have it formed and strike while our people are not expecting it. Wareville, owing to her victory of last year, thinks she's safe, and it is not the custom of Indians to raid much in winter. See, cold weather is not far away."
Henry looked up, and the eyes of the others followed. The trees were still clothed in leaves, but the blazing reds and yellows and the dim mist on the horizon showed that Indian summer was at hand.
"Any day," continued Henry, "a cold wind may strip off all these leaves, and winter, which can be very cold up here, will come roaring down. Now, the Shawnees are more than willing to cross the Ohio again to attack us, but the Miamis, while ready enough to take white scalps up here, have not yet made up their minds to go south on the war trail. The Shawnees are sending war belts to them, because the Miamis are a powerful tribe and have many warriors. The first thing for us to do is to take the messengers with the war belts."
"An' to do that," said Shif'less Sol, "we've got to git off this islan' ez soon ez we kin, an' shake off the band o' Miamis. Thar is always work fur a tired man to do."
Paul laughed at his tone of disgust. The boy's spirits were high now; in fact, he was exuberant over the safe return of his comrades, and the entire enterprise appealed with steadily increasing force to him. To hinder and prevent the Indian alliance until the white settlements were strong enough to defy all the tribes! This was in truth a deed worth while! It was foresight, statesmanship, a long step in the founding of a great state, and he should have a part in it! Already his vivid mind painted the picture of his comrades and himself triumphant.
"We must go to-night, if it is dark," said Henry.
"That's so," said Tom Ross emphatically.
The three had captured fresh supplies of ammunition while they were gone, and they replenished the powder-horns and bullet pouches of Paul and Jim Hart. Moreover, they had taken blankets, of a fine, soft, light but warm make, probably bought by the Indians from European traders, and they gave one each to Paul and Jim Hart.
"It's getting too cold now," said Henry, "to sleep in our clothes only on the ground in the forest."
They made up the blankets in tight little rolls, which they fastened on their backs, and Paul and Jim Hart put in a tanned deerskin with each of theirs.
"They're pow'ful light, an' they may come in mighty handy," said Long Jim.
The night fortunately was dark, as they had hoped, and about eleven o'clock they embarked in the canoe, paddling straight for the western shore. Paul looked back with some regret at the island, which at times had been a snug little home. The ancient, mummified bodies in the trees had protected them, as if with a circle of steel, and he was grateful to those dead of long ago.
They saw no sign of the Indian canoes, and both Henry and Ross were certain that they were in camp somewhere on the eastern shore. The little party reached the dense woods on the west without incident whatever, and there they partly sank the canoe in shallow water among dense bushes. Then they plunged into the forest, and traveled fast. Shif'less Sol spoke after a while, and apparently his groaning voice was drawn up from the very bottom of his chest.
"Oh, that blessed canoe!" he said. "I wuz so happy when I wuz a-ridin' in it, an' somebody else wuz a-paddlin'. Now I hev to do all my own work."
"You wouldn't be truly happy, Sol Hyde," said Jim Hart, "'less you wuz ridin' in a gilt coach drawed by four white horses, right smack through the woods here."
"That's heaven," said the shiftless one, with a deep sigh. "I don't ever dream o' sech a thing ez that, and please don't call it up to my mind, Jim Hart; the contras' between that an' footin' it ez I am now is too cruel an' too great."
Paul smiled. The little by-play between those two good friends amused and brightened him, but nothing else was said for a long time. Then it was Henry who spoke, and he called a halt.
"The big Miami village is not more than a dozen miles away," he said, "and the warriors there are expecting messengers from the Shawnees, with war belts. The messengers will pass near here, and we'll wait for them. The rest of you will go to sleep, and Tom and I will watch."
Paul, Jim Hart, and Shif'less Sol rolled themselves in their blankets and lay down under a tree, the shiftless one murmuring, "Now, this is what I like," and the others saying nothing. Paul was devoutly grateful for the blanket, because the air was now quite cold, but in five minutes all emotions were lost in deep and dreamless sleep.
When Paul awoke from his slumber he started up in horror. Three powerful, painted Shawnees stood over him. He was so much overwhelmed by the catastrophe that he could only utter a kind of gasp. But the blood flowed back from his heart into his veins when he heard the dry laugh of Long Jim Hart.
"Paul," said Jim, "I'd like to introduce you to the three new Shawnee warriors that you used to know, when they were white, an' that you called then Henry Ware, Tom Ross, and Sol Hyde."
"Why, what has happened?" asked Paul, still in the depths of astonishment.
Then Henry spoke, and he spoke gravely.
"Sol did not sleep long, Paul," he said, "and when he awoke he joined us. Then we went to meet the three Shawnee messengers, carrying war belts and peace belts, for the Miamis to choose. It was not a business for you, Paul. We met them, there was a fight--well, they will never appear in the Miami village, and we are here in their place."
Paul understood, and he shuddered a little at the deadly conflict that must have raged out there in the forest while he slept. Then he looked curiously at the three. He never would have known any one of them anywhere. They were savages in every aspect--painted and garbed like them, and with their hair drawn up in the defiant scalp lock.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"Deliver the belts at the Miami village," replied Henry Ware, "but they will be peace belts, not war belts."
"It is death," said Paul in protest.
"It is not death," replied Henry. "We will come back safely, and it is for a great stake. You and Jim must remain here in the woods, waiting for us again, and we'll trust to your skill and caution not to be caught. If the warriors become too thick around here you might retreat to the island. Anyway, the signal will be as before--three wails of the whip-poor-will."
Paul was impressed by his words, which were spoken with gravity and emphasis.
"Yes, it's in a great cause, Henry," he said, "and we'll wait, expecting you to come back."
Five minutes later the three newly made warriors took their path through the forest, and they never looked back. Yet Henry Ware felt emotion. Although he regarded Paul Cotter almost as a younger brother, he respected him as a high type of one kind of being, and they were comrades true as steel. Moreover, he knew that he and Ross and Sol were engaged upon the most dangerous of tasks, and the chances were that they would not come back. Yet he faced them with a high heart and dauntless courage.
The three walked swiftly and silently in single file, and neither Shawnee nor Miami eye would have known that they were not Indian. They walked, toes in, as Indians do, and they had every trick of manner or gesture that the red men have. All trace of civilization was gone. Henry Ware, Thomas floss, and Solomon Hyde had disappeared. In their places were Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat, Shawnee warriors who bore belts to the Miami village, and who would talk about the war to be made upon the white intruders far to the south of the Ohio.
Shortly before noon Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat approached the Miami village, pitched in a pleasant valley, where wood and water were in plenty. Then they uttered the long whoop of the Shawnees, and it was answered from the Miami village; but Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat, assured of a welcome, never stopped, keeping straight on for the village. Squaws and children clustered around them, and openly spoke their admiration of the three stalwart, splendidly proportioned warriors who had come from the friendly tribe; but Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat, in accordance with the Indian nature, took no notice. It was only warriors and chiefs to whom they would condescend to speak, and they were silent and expressionless until the right moment should come. They passed straight through the swarm of old men, women, children, and dogs, toward the center of the village, where a long, low cabin of poles stood. An ancient and reverend figure stood in the doorway to meet them. It was that of Gray Beaver, head chief of the Miamis, an old, old man, gray with years and wise like the beaver, from which he took his name.
"My Shawnee brethren are welcome to the Council House," he said. "You have come far, and you shall rest, and the squaws shall bring you food before we talk."
"It is sufficient to us to see the great and wise chief, Gray Beaver," said Henry. "Though we come from a long journey, it makes us strong and brave again."
The old chief bowed, but his grave features did not relax. Nevertheless, he was pleased in his secret soul at the gallant bearing and polite words of the young warrior who addressed them. He led the way into the Council House, and a half dozen underchiefs followed them, hiding their interest beneath their painted masks of faces.
The Council House was large--fifty warriors could have sat in it--and robes of the buffalo, beaver, and other animals were spread about. Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat sat down gravely, each upon a mat of skins, and were served by the warriors with food and drink, which the squaws had brought to the door, but beyond which they could not pass. The three Shawnee belt bearers ate and drank in silence and dignity, and they appreciated the rest and refreshment so needful to those who had traveled far. Neither did anyone else speak. The venerable Gray Beaver sat on a couch of skins a little higher than the others, and his eyes rested steadily on the belt bearers. The subchiefs, silent and motionless on their mats of skins, also watched the belt bearers. At one end of the great room, in a kind of rude chimney, smoldered the council fire, a bed of coals.
More than half an hour passed, and when the guests had eaten and drunk sufficiently, the venerable chief waved his hands, and the remains of the food and drink were taken away. Then Gray Beaver drew from beneath his robe a beautifully ornamented pipe, with a curved horn stem and a carven bowl. He pressed into the bowl a mixture of tobacco and aromatic herbs, which he also drew from beneath his robe, and lighted it with a coal which one of the chiefs brought from the fire. Then he took three whiffs and gravely and silently passed the pipe to the chief of the Shawnee belt bearers, Big Fox. It was a curious fact, but no one had said that Big Fox was the chief of the three. Something in his manner made all take it for granted, and Big Fox, too, unconsciously accepted it as a matter of course.
The magnificent young warrior took three whiffs at the pipe of peace, and passed it to Brown Bear, who, after doing the same, handed it in his turn to The Bat. Then it was passed on to all the subchiefs, and everyone smoked it in gravity and silence. The smoke circled up in rings against the low roof, and every man sat upon his mat of skins, painted, motionless, and wordless. The young chief, Big Fox, waited. Though his eyes never turned, he saw every detail of the scene, and he was conscious of the tense and breathless silence. He was conscious, too, of the immense dangers that surrounded his comrades and himself, but fear was not in his heart.
"My brethren have come to the Miami village with a message from their friends, the Shawnees," said the ancient chief at last.
"It is so," said Big Fox.
"The hearts of the Shawnees are filled with hatred of the white men, who have come into the hunting grounds beyond the Ohio, and who cut down trees and build houses there."
"It is so."
Big Fox's gaze never wavered. He continued to look straight at the council fire, and the tense silence came again. Big Fox was conscious that the air in the Council House was heavy, and that all were watching him with black, glittering eyes.
"The Shawnees would destroy the white villages, and would seek the help of all the tribes that know them," continued Gray Beaver.
Then Big Fox spoke.
"It is true," he said gravely and slowly, "that the Shawnees would wish the white settlements destroyed, every house burned, and every warrior, squaw, and child killed, that the forest might grow again where they live, and the deer roam again unafraid."
Big Fox paused, and for the first time looked away from the council fire. His piercing gaze swept the circle of the Miamis, and every man among them drew a deep breath. There was something extraordinary in this belt bearer, a majesty and magnetism that all of them felt, and they hung upon his words, listening intently.
"The Shawnees are warriors," resumed Big Fox, "and they do not fear battle. They went last year against the white settlements, and they went alone. The Miamis know that."
There was a deep murmur of assent.
"The Shawnees are wise as well as brave," resumed Big Fox. "Their old chiefs have talked over it long. It is a great war trail upon which we would go, and he who would travel far and long should prepare well. The white men are brave. From their wooden walls last year they beat us off, and many Shawnees fell afterwards in the battle with them in the forest."
Big Fox paused, and swept the circle again with his glittering eyes. As before, every man among them drew a deep breath when that hypnotic gaze fell upon him. But they were hearing words that they had not expected to hear, and after the tremendous gaze had passed there came a faint murmur of surprise. But Big Fox did not seem to notice it. Instead he continued:
"The winter is at hand. Already the dead leaves fall, and soon the bitter winds will sweep the forests and the prairies. The warrior would go forth to battle, chilled and stiff. The gun would fall from his frozen hands."
Again he paused and looked straight at Gray Beaver. The old chief stirred in his furred robe beneath that piercing gaze.
"We would not go forth to war until we are ready for war, until the season is ripe for war," resumed Big Fox. "When we would strike, we would strike with all the strength of all the allied tribes, that nothing of the white man might be left. We would send to Canada for more rifles, more powder, and more bullets, and to do all these things it must be long before we go on the great war trail. So I bring you, for the present, peace."
He took from beneath his robe the peace belts, message of the Shawnee nation, and handed them to the old, old chief, Gray Beaver. The murmur from the Miamis became deep and long, but Big Fox gazed once more at the fire, painted, silent, and immovable.
"It was war when I was in the Shawnee village, a moon ago," said a chief, Yellow Panther, "and it was war belts that we expected. Why have the Shawnees changed their minds?"
Murmurs of approval greeted his words, but Big Fox never stirred.
"The old men, the wise men of the Shawnees have so decided," he replied. "It is not for the bearer of the belts to question their wisdom."
"If the Shawnees wish to wait long to prepare, the Miamis must wait, too," said the chief, Gray Beaver, in whose veins flowed the cold and languid blood of old age.
The younger chiefs murmured again. Big Fox was conscious that a powerful faction of the Miamis wished to go on a winter war path, and strike the settlements at once. But Big Fox was still unafraid. He was a forest diplomatist as well as a forest warrior, and he played for the most precious of all stakes, the lives of his people.
"The great chiefs of the Shawnees have lived long," he said. "Their heads are heavy with age and with wisdom. It is not well to waste our strength with a blow which will not reach the mark, but it is good to wait until we can strike true."
The chief, Yellow Panther, arose. He was a tall and ferocious savage, with a cunning countenance.
"The Shawnees change their minds quickly," he said, in tones of subtle and insulting insinuation. "There is one here who came from their village but three days since, and then they looked not so kindly upon the peace belts. It is well to bring him to this council of the Miamis."
He glanced at Gray Beaver and the ancient chief nodded. Then Yellow Panther stepped from the Council House.
The heart of Big Fox stirred within him ever so slightly. What did Yellow Panther mean by "one who had come but three days since"? A new factor was entering the terrible game. But he showed no emotion, nor did his comrades, the other two belt bearers, Brown Bear and The Bat. Neither of the latter had spoken since he entered the Council House.
The murmurs ceased, and all sank back on their skin mats. Silence resumed absolute sway in the long room. The little eddies of smoke still curled against the roof, and the air was surcharged with suspense.
The buffalo robe over the entrance was lifted, and Yellow Panther returned. Behind him came a second figure.
The eyes of Big Fox turned slowly from the council fire, and looked straight into those of Braxton Wyatt.