The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIII. Braxton Wyatt's Ordeal
The blood of Big Fox leaped for a moment in his veins, but it did not show under the paint of his face. His figure never quivered. He still knew all the danger, and he knew, moreover, how it had increased since the entrance of Braxton Wyatt, but he said, in slow, cold tones, full of deadly meaning:
"It is the white youth who left his own people to come to our village and join our people. We have received him, but the eyes of the warriors are still upon him."
The insinuation was evident. The renegade could not be trusted. Already, with the first words spoken, Big Fox was impeaching his character.
Braxton Wyatt stood with his back to the buffalo robe, which had fallen again over the entrance, and looked around at the circle of chiefs who had resumed their seats on the skin mats. Then his eyes met the stern, accusing gaze of Big Fox, the Shawnee belt bearer, and were held there as if fascinated. But Braxton Wyatt was not without courage. He wrenched his eyes away, turned them upon the ancient chief, Gray Beaver, and said:
"I have been long in the Shawnee lodges, great chief of the Miamis, but I do not know these belt bearers."
There was a murmur, and a stir on the skin mats.
Big Fox scorned to look again at Braxton Wyatt. He gazed steadily at the council fire, and said in tones of indifference:
"The white youth who left his own people has been in the lodges, where the old men and women stay; we have been on the war trail with the warriors. The day we returned to the village we were chosen to bring the peace belts to our good friends, the Miamis."
"The belt bearers are Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat," said Yellow Panther, looking at Braxton Wyatt. "You have heard of them? The Shawnee villages are full of their fame."
"I never saw them, and I never heard of them before," replied Braxton Wyatt, in a tone of mingled anger and bewilderment, "but I do know that all the Shawnees wish the Miamis to go south with them at once, on the great war trail against the white settlements."
The old chief, Gray Beaver, looked from the belt bearers to Braxton Wyatt and from Braxton Wyatt to the belt bearers. His aged brain was bewildered by the conflicting tales, but he put little trust in the white youth. Already Big Fox had sowed in his mind the seeds of unbelief in the words of Braxton Wyatt.
"Scarcely a moon ago the Shawnees, as we all know, wished to go on the great war trail at once," said Yellow Panther, "but now three come, who say they are from them, bearing peace belts. Moreover, here is another who says that the Shawnees would send war belts. What shall the Miamis think?"
There was another murmur, and then silence. The surcharged air was heavy in the great lodge. But Big Fox merely shrugged his shoulders slightly, and answered in tones of lofty indifference:
"Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat were sent by the old chiefs of the Shawnees to deliver peace belts to the chiefs of the Miamis, and they have delivered them."
Brown Bear and The Bat nodded, but said nothing. Yellow Panther looked at Braxton Wyatt, who was shaken by varying emotions. As he truly said, he had long been in the Shawnee villages, but he had never seen or heard of the three warriors who now sat calmly before him--Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat. Yet he could not say that no such men existed, because small parties had roved far and long on the hunt or the war trail. He gazed at them before answering. He, too, was struck by the splendid figure and pose of Big Fox, and he was impressed, moreover, by a sense of something familiar, though he could not name it. It haunted him and troubled him, but remained a mystery. He collected his shrewd wits and said:
"As I told you, the warriors who bring the peace belts are strangers to me. Yet the Shawnees, when I left the head village, but a few days ago, wished war at once against the white settlements, and the Shawnees do not change their minds quickly."
"Is the word of a renegade, of one who would slay his own people, to be weighed against that of a warrior?"
Big Fox spoke with lofty contempt, not gazing at Braxton Wyatt, but straight into the eyes of Gray Beaver. The old chief felt the power of that look, and wavered under it.
"It is true," he said, "that the Shawnees, a moon ago, were for war; but Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat have come, bearing peace belts from them, and what our eyes see must be true."
There was a murmur again, but it was very faint now. The authority of Gray Beaver, in his time a mighty warrior, and now wise with years and experience, was great, and the under chiefs were impressed--all but Yellow Panther, whose eyes flashed vindictively at the belt bearers. Angry blood also flushed Braxton Wyatt's face, and he did not know at the moment what to say or do.
"It is true that I was born white," he said, "but I have become one of the Shawnees, and I shall be faithful to them. I have spoken no lies. The Shawnees were for war, and I believe they are so yet."
"The Shawnees from whom I have come," said Big Fox, in his grave tones, wholly ignoring Braxton Wyatt, "expect peace belts in return. Will the messengers depart with them to-morrow?"
He spoke directly to Gray Beaver, and his powerful gaze still rested upon him. The withered frame of the old chief trembled a little within his furred robe, and then he yielded to the spell.
"The Miami messengers will start to-morrow with peace belts for the Shawnees," he said.
A thrill of triumph ran through the frame of Big Fox, but he said nothing. The eyes of both Braxton Wyatt and Yellow Panther flashed vindictively, but they, too, said nothing. Big Fox judged that they were not yet wholly beaten, but he had accomplished much; if each tribe received peace belts from the others, it would take a long time to untangle the snarl, and unite them for war. Meanwhile, the white settlements were steadily growing stronger.
"Our Shawnee brethren, the belt bearers, will stay with us a while," said the crafty Yellow Panther. "They have traveled far, and they need rest."
Big Fox knew that it would not do to be too hasty; a desire to depart at once would only arouse suspicion, and he and his comrades, moreover, had further work to do in the Miami village. So he gravely accepted the offer of hospitality, and he and Brown Bear and The Bat were conducted to a lodge in the center of the village, where they ate again, and reclined luxuriously upon buffalo robes and deerskins. Yellow Panther followed them there, and was very solicitous for their comfort. All his attentions they received with grave courtesy, and when there was nothing more that he could do or say he withdrew, letting the covering of the lodge door fall behind him. Then the three belt bearers, putting their ears against the skin walls of the lodge, listened intently. Nothing was stirring without. If any person was at hand, or listened there, they would have known it; so they spoke to each other in low tones.
"Your plan seems to have worked so far, Henry," said Ross, "even if Braxton Wyatt did come."
"Yes--so far," replied Henry Ware; "but Braxton is sure that something is wrong, and so is that cunning wolf, Yellow Panther. They want to hold us here in the village until they find out the truth; but we are willing to stay, that we may checkmate what they do. I can work on old Gray Beaver, whose age makes him favor caution and peace."
"An' while you are thinkin' it over," said Shif'less Sol, "jest remember that I'm a belt bearer who has traveled a long way, an' that I'm pow'ful tired; so I guess I'll take a nap."
He rolled over on the softest of the skins, and was as good as his word. In five minutes he was sound asleep. Tom Ross leaned back against the skin wall and meditated. Henry Ware arose and walked in the village; but the moment he stepped from the lodge, all trace of the white youth was gone, and he was again Big Fox, the chief of the belt bearers from the Shawnees.
The village was the scene of an active savage life. It had been a season of plenty. Game and fish abounded, and, according to the Indian nature, they ate and overate of that plenty, thinking little of the morrow. Hence this life, besides being active, was also happy in its wild way. Big Fox noticed the fact, with those keen eyes of his that nothing escaped.
And all in their turn noticed Big Fox here, as he had been noticed in the Council House. Old and young alike admired him. They thought that no such splendid warrior had ever before entered their village. Surely the Shawnees were a nation of men when they could produce such as he. His height, his straight, commanding glance, the wonderful, careless strength and majesty of his figure, all impressed them. He looked to them like one without fear, and moreover, with such strength and quickness as his, he seemed one who had little to fear. But as he walked there, Yellow Panther came again, and spoke to him with sly, insinuating manner:
"The belt bearer is not weary, though he has traveled far."
"No," replied Big Fox. "Manitou has been kind to me, and has given me strong limbs and muscles that do not tire."
"Did Big Fox, in his journey from the Shawnee village, hear of white men? It is said that a band of them have been in this region about the lake, there to the southward. One of our warriors was slain, but we could not find those whom we pursued."
Big Fox wondered if it was a chance shot, but he looked straight into the eyes of Yellow Panther, which fell before the gaze of his, and replied:
"I came bearing belts, and I thought only of them. If there are white men in the Miami woods, the Miamis are warriors enough to take them."
Yellow Panther turned aside, but he followed the tall figure with a look of the most vindictive hate. Like Braxton Wyatt, he felt that something was wrong, but what it was he did not yet know. Big Fox mingled freely in the village life throughout the day, and never once did he make a mistake. All the Indian ways were familiar to him, and when he talked with the warriors about the Northwestern tribes, he showed full knowledge. Old Gray Beaver was delighted with him. The deference of this splendid young warrior was grateful to his heart.
That night the three belt bearers, calm and unconcerned, lay down in the great lodge that had been assigned to them, and slept peacefully. Far in the darkness, Yellow Panther and Braxton Wyatt crept to the side of the lodge and listened. They heard nothing from within, and at last the Miami carefully lifted the buffalo hide over the entrance. His sharp eyes, peering into the shadows, saw the three belt bearers lying upon their backs and sleeping soundly. Apparently they were men without fear, men without the cause of fear, and Yellow Panther, letting the tent flap fall softly back, walked away with Braxton Wyatt, both deeply disappointed.
They did not know that a pair of hands had lifted the tent flap ever so little, and that a pair of keen eyes were following them. The wonderful instinct of Henry Ware had warned him, and he had awakened the moment they looked in. But his eyes had not opened. He had merely felt their presence with the swish of cold air on his face, and now, after they had disappeared among the lodges, he wished to deepen the impression the belt bearers had made. Then he and his comrades must go back to Paul and Jim Hart, who lay out there in the forest, patiently waiting.
The next morning Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat saw three Miami belt bearers depart with peace belts for the Shawnee village, but as for themselves, they would remain a while longer, enjoying the Miami hospitality.
In an open space just north of the village, Miami boys were practicing with the bow and arrow, shooting at the bodies of some owls tied on the low boughs of trees. Warriors were looking on, and the belt bearers, Big Fox, Brown Bear, and The Bat, joined them. By and by some of the warriors began to take a share in the sport and practice, using great war bows and sending the arrows whistling to the mark. At last the chief, Yellow Panther, himself handled a bow and surpassed all who had preceded him in skill. Then, turning with a malicious eye to Big Fox, he said:
"Perhaps the Shawnee belt bearers would like to show how well they can use the bow. Surely they are not less in skill than the Miamis?"
His look was full of venom. Shawnees, though armed now with rifles, were good bowmen, and whatever he suspected might be confirmed by the failure of the belt bearers to show skill, or not to shoot at all. He held in his hand the great bow that he had used, and, barring the malice of his eyes, his gesture was full of politeness.
Big Fox did not hesitate a moment. He stepped forward, took the bow and arrow from the hand of Yellow Panther, glanced at the great owl at which the chief had shot, and then walked back fifteen yards farther from it. A murmur of applause came from the crowd. He would shoot at a much greater distance than Yellow Panther had shot, and the chief and Braxton Wyatt, too, who had drawn near, frowned.
Big Fox glanced once more at the body of the great owl, and then, fitting the arrow to the string, he bent the bow. An involuntary cry of admiration came from a people who valued physical strength and skill when they saw the ease and grace with which he bent the tough wood. Not in vain had nature given Big Fox a figure of power and muscles of steel! Not in vain had nature given him an eye the like of which was not to be found on all the border! Not in vain had he achieved surpassing skill with the bow in his life among the Northwestern Indians!
There was silence as the bow bent and the arrow was drawn back to the head. Then that silence was broken only by the whizz of the feathered shaft as it shot through the air. But a universal shout arose as the arrow struck fairly in the center of the owl, pierced it like a bullet, and flew far beyond.
Big Fox turned and handed back the bow to Yellow Panther.
"Is it enough?" he asked gravely. "Can the Shawnee belt bearers use the bow and arrow?"
"It is enough," replied the chief, seeking in vain to hide his chagrin.
"It wuz great luck," whispered The Bat to Brown Bear, a little later, "that the challenge to the bow an' arrow should a-been made to perhaps the only white in all the West who could a-done sech a thing."
The belt bearers spent a second night in the same lodge, and on the morning of the third day they announced that they must depart for their own village. Gray Beaver hospitably, and Yellow Panther craftily, urged them to stay longer, but Big Fox replied that the Shawnees were going on a great hunt into the Northwest before the winter came, and the belt bearers would be needed. Braxton Wyatt knew nothing of the projected hunt, but for the present he was silent. Throughout the contest he had shown at a disadvantage against the diplomacy of Big Fox. Now the belt bearers courteously invited him to return home with them, but he declined, replying that he would not depart for some days. He did not say it aloud, but nothing could have induced him to go with the belt bearers.
Big Fox noticed that neither Yellow Panther nor Braxton Wyatt made any opposition to their going, and it was a fact that he did not forget, drawing from it his own inference. His power to read the faces of men was scarcely inferior to his wonderful skill in reading every sign of the forest.
Gray Beaver, and behind him a rabble, accompanied the Shawnee belt bearers to the edge of the woods, and there the aged chief said graciously to Big Fox:
"My son, my heart is warm toward you, and I am glad to have seen you in the lodges of the Miamis."
"Farewell, Gray Beaver," said Big Fox.
Then he and his two comrades turned, and disappeared like phantoms in the forest, so swiftly they went.
Autumn had made further advance. The dying leaves were falling fast, and the wilderness was more open. A crisp wind blew in the faces of the three belt bearers--now belt bearers no longer, but Henry Ware, Tom Ross, and Solomon Hyde, white of skin and white of heart. They sped forward on fleet foot many miles, and it was Shif'less Sol who spoke first.
"Shall we stop at this spring," he said, "an' wash the paint off our faces? I want to look like a white man agin, jest ez I am. I don't feel nat'ral at all ez an Injun."
"Neither do I," said Tom Ross, "I don't like to change faces, an' right here I wash mine."
The three stooped down to the spring, and as they rubbed off the paint they felt their right natures returning.
"I'm thankful I wuz born white," said Shif'less Sol. "Why, what is it, Henry?"
Henry Ware had raised his head in the attitude of one who listens. His eyes were intent and nostrils distended like those of a deer that suspects an enemy.
"We're followed," he said. "I thought we would be."
"Yellow Panther, uv course!" said Tom Ross, with emphasis.
"Of course! And like as not Braxton Wyatt is among those who are with him."
Sol Hyde looked at Henry. There was a queer light in the eyes of the shiftless one.
"Do we want 'em to ketch us?" he asked.
"I think we'd better wait and see."
It was in no tone of boasting that either spoke. Three borderers such as they could shake off the pursuit of any men who lived.
"S'pose we lead 'em on a while," said Tom Ross.
Henry nodded, and the three ran in a sort of easy trot toward the southeast. They took no trouble to hide their trail, and as the forest at this point was free from undergrowth, they were visible at a considerable distance. This easy trot they kept up for hours, and the extraordinary powers, or intuition, of Henry Ware told him that the Miamis were always there, a quarter of a mile, perhaps, behind. But the three men were never troubled. There was no fear in their minds. This was only sport to them.
They crossed brooks and little creeks, and at last, when they came to one of the latter a little larger than the others, Henry Ware said:
"I think it's time to bother 'em now. We'll wade here."
They entered the creek, which had a hard, pebbly bed, and walked rapidly against the stream for at least a quarter of a mile. Then they emerged in dense undergrowth, and turned backward in a course parallel to that by which they had come. But before going far they sank down in a dense thicket, and lay quite still. Then they saw the Miami band pass--fifteen or sixteen warriors, led by Yellow Panther, with Braxton Wyatt trailing at the rear. "The renegade!" said Shif'less Sol savagely, under his breath.
The band passed on, but the three borderers did not stir. They knew that the trail would be lost presently, and some, at least, of the warriors would come back seeking it.
Fifteen minutes, a half hour, passed, and then they heard distant footsteps. Henry Ware, peering above the bushes, saw a face that belonged to a white youth, and suddenly a daring project formed itself in his mind. Braxton Wyatt was alone! Other members of the Miami band must be near, but they were not in sight, and, above all, Braxton Wyatt was for the present alone! Only a few minutes were needed!
"Watch what I do!" whispered Henry Ware to his comrades--he knew that their keen minds would need no other hint.
Braxton Wyatt came back, looking on the ground, his rifle lying loosely across his shoulder. He dreamed of no danger. The three suspected belt bearers must be fleeing fast. Moreover, Yellow Panther and his Miami friends were near. He walked on, and the fiend he served gave him no warning.
He came to a dense clump of bushes, and turned to go around it. There was a sudden rustling in those bushes, and he looked up. A terrifying form threw itself upon him and bore him to the ground. A heavy hand was clapped upon his mouth, and the cry that had risen to his lips died in his throat. He looked up and saw the face of Henry Ware. Beside him stood two others whom he knew--Tom Ross and Shif'less Sol. He became blue about the lips, and expected a quick death.
"Listen!" said Henry Ware, and every word that he said was burned into Braxton Wyatt's wretched soul. "You are not to die, not at this time. But you are to do what we say. Go back there, under those trees by the big rock, and when Yellow Panther and the other Miamis come up, tell them that you have lied! We were the belt bearers, and you are to say to Yellow Panther that you knew us as real Shawnees, but you were so anxious for the war that you denied us. Tell it as if it were true. Don't tremble! Don't look once at these bushes! Our three rifles will be aimed at you all the time, and if you say a single word that will make them suspect, we fire, and you know that no one of us ever misses. Do as we say!"
He was released, the heavy hand was taken away from his mouth, and his captors disappeared so suddenly and silently in the bushes that it was almost unbelievable. Then Braxton Wyatt rose to his feet and trembled violently. Though he could not see them now, he must believe. He could feel that powerful grasp yet upon his arms, and that heavy hand yet upon his mouth. He knew, too, as well as he knew that he was living, that the unseen muzzles were there, trained upon him. As Henry Ware truly said, no one of the three ever missed, and he had no chance.
He stopped his trembling with an effort of the will and walked to the rock under the trees, thirty or forty yards away. Already he saw Yellow Panther and the other Miamis coming, and he rebelled at the deadly menace from the bushes. But the love of life was strong within him. He looked at Yellow Panther, who was approaching with five or six warriors, and then he tried to form a rapid plan. He would talk with the chief, saying at first what his terrible enemies wished, and then, gradually drawing him away, he would tell the truth, and thus achieve the destruction of the three whom he hated and feared so horribly.
Braxton Wyatt raised one hand and wiped the perspiration from his face. Then, when a deadly fear struck him, he composed his features. Henry Ware had said he must tell a tale that seemed true. There must be no suspicion. The fatal muzzles were trained on him, he well knew, and the sharpest of eyes and ears were watching. He longed to cast one look at the bushes, only one, but he dared not for his life. It was forbidden!
Yellow Panther was at hand now, plainly showing annoyance. The lost trail could not be found, and wrath possessed him. He looked at the renegade, and uttered his discontent.
Braxton Wyatt longed more than ever to tell; they were there so near, it seemed he must tell; but the deadly rifles held him back. No one of their bullets would miss!
"Yellow Panther," he said, and his voice faltered, "let us abandon the trail and go back."
Yellow Panther looked at him, astonished by words and manner alike.
"Go back!" he said. "Did you not tell me that they were false, that there were no such warriors in the Shawnee village?"
Braxton Wyatt trembled, and the cold sweat came again on his forehead. If only those rifles were not there in the thicket! A mighty power seemed to draw him about for one look, only one! But he did not dare--it was death!--and with a supreme effort he wrenched himself away.
"I was wrong," he said. "I was eager for war, eager to see the Shawnees and Miamis go together against the white settlements in the south--so eager that I forgot the men. But I remember them now."
"Have you a crooked tongue?" asked Yellow Panther.
"No, no!" cried Braxton Wyatt, in mortal terror of the three rifles. "I had, but I have not now! I am telling you the truth! As I live I am, Yellow Panther! I was anxious for the war, anxious as you are, and it brought a cloud before my eyes. I could not remember then, but I remember now! The men were true Shawnees, and the Shawnee nation does not wish to go on the great war trail this year."
Yellow Panther looked at him with indignation and contempt, and hesitated. Braxton Wyatt trembled once more. Would the chief believe? He must believe! He must make him believe, or he would die!
"I wished to tell you before we started, Yellow Panther," he said, "but I feared then your just anger. Now we have lost the trail, and I must save you from further trouble. Why should I tell you this now if it is not true? Why else should I avow that I have spoken false words?"
Yellow Panther looked at the unhappy figure and face, and believed.
"It is enough," he said. "We will go back to our own village. Come!"
He spoke to his warriors, and they returned swiftly on their own tracks to the Miami village. Braxton Wyatt went with them, and he dared not look back once at that fateful clump of bushes.
When they were gone far beyond sight, Henry Ware, Tom Ross, and Shif'less Sol rose up, looked at each other, and laughed.
"That wuz well done, Henry," said Shif'less Sol lazily. "I never knowed a purtier trick to be told. He's clean caught in his own net. If he wuz to tell the truth now to the chief, Yellow Panther wouldn't believe him."
"And if he were to believe him, Yellow Panther, in his anger, would tomahawk him," said Henry Ware, "No, Braxton Wyatt will not dare to tell."
"And now we may take it easy," said Tom Ross. "But I wouldn't like to be in your place, Henry, ef ever you wuz to fall into the hands uv Yellow Panther an' that renegade."
"I'll take care that I don't have any such bad luck," said Henry. "And now we must find Paul and Jim."
Serenely satisfied, they resumed their journey, but now they went at a slower gait.