The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XVIII. What the Warriors Saw
A few nights later a strong band of warriors left the Miami village, led by the bold chief, Yellow Panther, and the renegade, Braxton Wyatt. The party was about thirty in number, and it included the most daring spirits among them. They were going against the wishes of the aged Gray Beaver, who foresaw only disaster from such a desecration; but Yellow Panther favored the venture, and Braxton Wyatt had urged it for a long time.
Wyatt was no coward, and he did not believe in spirits. They had seen tracks, white tracks, in the snow, and the sight confirmed him in his suspicion that those whom he hated were hiding on the island in the lake. He burned for revenge upon Henry Ware and his friends, but he had to fight all the influence of Gray Beaver and the power of Indian superstition. He was about to despair of moving them when they saw the tracks--tracks that led almost to the edge of the water. He considered this proof of his theory, and he urged it incessantly. He called attention to the encounter in the woods near the lake, and the later affair with the belt bearers. The latter had particular weight, as enough messengers had now passed between the Miamis and Shawnees to show that both had been the victims of a clever and daring trick. Wyatt, therefore, was reinstated in the good graces of the savages, and his words had meaning to them. At last, with the aid of Yellow Panther and the more daring spirits among the younger warriors, he prevailed, and the expedition started.
It was a really formidable war party, thirty warriors or more, all well armed with rifles and ammunition bought from the Canadian traders, all hideous with paint, and all skilled in the lore and devices of the wilderness. Braxton Wyatt had talked to them so much, he had told them so often that their superstitions were mere moonshine, that they began to believe, and they thrilled, moreover, with the hope of securing white scalps.
The cold was intense, and the frozen surface of the snow was very smooth; but the warriors, in thick moccasins of buffalo hide, with the hair underneath, sped with sure step toward the lake. As Henry and Ross had done, they kept in the thickest of the forest, passing from tree trunk to tree trunk, because the Indian loves a surprise, an easy victory being the greatest of triumphs to him. It was such that they expected now, and the blood of every one of them was inflamed by the logic and eloquence of Braxton Wyatt and Yellow Panther.
They reached the shores of the lake when the twilight had merged into the night and the darkness was deep. They had foreseen that it would be such a night, otherwise they would have waited; but all seemed admirably suited now to their purpose. They paused on the bank, and gathered in a close group. Across the white gleam of the snow they could barely see the dusky outline of the island, and, despite the courageous frame of mind into which they had lashed themselves, despite the boldness of their leaders, they felt a tremor. The savage mind is prone to superstitions, and it is not easy to cure it of them. That dim, dark outline out there in the middle of the lake, now that they beheld it again with their own eyes, still had its unknown and mysterious terrors for them.
But Braxton Wyatt and Yellow Panther knew too well to let them hesitate at the very margin of their great exploit. They urged them forward, and the two themselves led the way, stepping upon the frozen surface of the lake, and advancing directly toward the island. Then the warriors came after them in a close cluster, their fur-shod feet making no sound, and their forms invisible thirty yards away. Before them the black bulk of the island, with its great trees, now loomed more distinctly, and they gathered courage as nothing happened.
All knew that the ancient burying ground was on the north end of the island, and so Braxton Wyatt and Yellow Panther led the way to the south end, intending to make a gradual approach to the other portion.
Braxton Wyatt half expected, as he came near, that he might see a light among the trees. In weather so cold one must have a fire, and, relying upon the ghostly protection, Henry Ware and his band would light it. But he saw nothing, and he began to fear that he might be mistaken. If there was nobody on the island his credit with the Indians would be shaken, and he was anxious to establish his power among his red friends. But he and Yellow Panther pressed boldly on, and they could now see dimly the outlines of individual tree trunks standing up in rows.
The low shores of the island rose before them only thirty yards away, then twenty, then ten, then they were there. But another moment of hesitation came. Not in a generation had a Miami or any other Indian, so far as they knew, set foot upon this haunted island, and the beliefs of many years are not to be swept away in a breath.
It was Braxton Wyatt who took the lead again, and he boldly stepped upon the haunted soil. Then a terrible thing happened. Every warrior all at once saw two white figures perched upon the low bough of an oak. They were shaped like men, but the outlines of arms and legs could not be seen. Rather they were the bodies of warriors completely enclosed in buffalo robes or deerskins for the grave, and these figures, swaying back and forth in the moonlight, and bearing all the aspects of supernatural visitors, filled the superstitious hearts of the Miamis with the terrors of the unknown and invincible. The two shapes showed a ghostly white in the pale rays, and the Miamis, in fancy at least, saw fiery and accusing eyes looking down at the sacrilegious men who had presumed to put foot on the island dedicated to Manitou and the departed.
A gentle wind brought a low groan to the ears of every man among them.
The blood of the warriors chilled quickly in their veins. All their superstitions, all the inherited beliefs of many generations, all the lore of the old squaws, told about innumerable camp fires, came crashing back upon them as those two ghostly white shapes, hovering there in the darkness, continued to transfix them with an accusing gaze. There was an involuntary shudder, a sudden clustering together of the whole party, and then, with a simultaneous cry of horror, they broke and fled in a wild pellmell far out upon the icy surface of the lake, and then on, bearing with them in the rout both Yellow Panther and Braxton Wyatt. Nor did they dare to look back, because they knew that the terrible eyes of the long departed, upon whose territory they had intended to commit sacrilege, were boring into their backs. The island was haunted, and would remain so for many a year, despite all that Braxton Wyatt and Yellow Panther had said.
About the time the Miamis reached the mainland, and darted among the trees in the race for their own village, Paul Cotter and Long Jim Hart leaped lightly from the low bough of the oak, took off the enfolding robes of white tanned deerskin, with holes for the eyes.
"Jehoshaphat!" said Long Jim, as he threw the robes on the ground, "I'm glad that's over. Bein' a ghost jest about a minute is enough fur me. I wuz scared to death lest I didn't groan good an' horrible."
"But you never did a better job in your life, Jim," said Henry, as he came from behind a tree. "You and Paul were the finest ghosts I ever saw, and no Indian will dare to set foot on this island in the next hundred years."
"It shorely was a sight to see them braves run," said Shif'less Sol. "Thar's many a tired man in that lot now. I think some o' 'em didn't hit the ice an' snow more'n twice between here an' the lan'."
"Paul's made the islan' ez safe fur us ez a stone fort ez long ez we want to stay," said Tom Ross.
"It was a great plan, well done," said Henry.
Paul's face shone with the most intense delight. His imagination, leaping forward to meet a crisis, had served them all greatly, and he was happy. He had fought not with rifle and knife, but with the weapon of the intellect.
"Now that this job is over, an' we're the big winners," said Shif'less Sol, "I'm goin' to do what a tired man ought to do: go to sleep, wrapped up in buffalo robes, an' sleep about forty hours."
"We'll all sleep," said Henry. "As Tom says, we're as safe as if we were in a stone fort, and we don't need any guard."
An hour later all of the valiant five were slumbering peacefully within their warm walls, and when they ate a good hot breakfast the next morning, cooked in Jim Hart's best fashion, they laughed heartily and often over the night's great event.
"I guess Mr. Braxton Wyatt will hev to work hard ag'in to prove to them savages that he's real smart," said Shif'less Sol. "This is another time that he's led 'em right out o' the little end o' the horn."
They luxuriated that day, resting most of the time In the hut, but on the following day Henry and Ross went on a longer scouting expedition than usual, this time in the direction of the Shawnee villages. The three who were left behind broke fresh holes in the thick ice, and by the use of much patience succeeded in catching several fine fish, which made a pleasant addition to their daily diet.
Henry and Ross were gone nearly a week, but their comrades did not become alarmed over their long absence. When they returned they brought with them a budget of news from the Shawnee villages. Braxton Wyatt had returned to the Shawnees, much disgusted with his stay among the Miamis, but still resolved to form the great Indian alliance, and send it in the spring against the white settlements in Kentucky.
"It's too late for them to do anything this winter," said Henry, and a little exultation showed in his tone, "we've put that spoke in their wheel; but they mean to hit us a terrible blow on the flank when warm weather comes."
"What do you mean by 'on the flank'?" asked Paul.
"They've learned in some manner, maybe by way of Canada, that a big wagon train is coming up through the Wilderness Road in the spring, to join our settlements. If it gets there it will double our strength, but the Indians mean to make a great curve to the south and east and strike it just as it leaves the mountains."
"They're smart in that," said Shif'less Sol. "They'd be sure to hit them wagons when they ain't expected."
"Yes," said Henry Ware, "if the train is not warned."
Paul looked at him and saw that his eyes were full of meaning.
"Then we are to warn that train," said Paul.
"Yes, when the time comes."
"It's the greatest work that we can do," said Paul, with emphasis, and the others nodded their agreement. It was all that was needed to bind the five together in the mighty task that they had begun.
Nothing more was said upon the subject for days, but Paul's mind was full of it. His comrades and he had impeded the making of the great war trail, and now they were to see that reenforcements safely reached their own. It was a continuing task, and it appealed powerfully to the statesman so strong in Paul.
A very cold winter moved slowly along, and they remained on the island, though Henry and Ross ranged far and wide. On one of these expeditions the two scouts met a wandering trapper, by whom they sent word again to their people in the south that they were safe.
Henry and Ross also learned that Yellow Panther would lead the Miamis, Red Eagle the Shawnees, and there would be detachments of Wyandots and others. They would fall like a thunderbolt upon the wagon train, and destroy it utterly.
"And Braxton Wyatt will be with them?" said Paul indignantly.
"Of course," replied Henry.
"Henry, we've got to save that wagon train, if every one of us dies trying!" exclaimed Paul, with the greatest possible emphasis.
"Of course," said Henry again, quietly, but with the stern determination that meant with him do or die.
"It's a part o' our job," drawled Shif'less Sol, "but it must be nigh a thousand miles to the place whar the Wilderness Road comes out o' the mountains. I see a terrible long journey ahead fur a tired man."
Henry smiled. They all knew that none would be more zealous on the march, none more lion-hearted in battle, than this same Solomon Hyde, nicknamed the shiftless one.
"When do we start?" asked Jim Hart.
"Not before the cold weather passes," replied Henry. "It wouldn't be worth while. The emigrant train won't come through the mountains until spring, and we can do better work here, watching the savages."
So they abode long in the hut on the haunted island, and had food and warmth in plenty. But in the Indian villages there was the stir of preparation for the great war trail in the spring, and also the sense of mystery and oppression. Yellow Panther, the Miami, and Red Eagle, the Shawnee, both felt in some strange, unaccountable way that they were watched. Half-lost tracks of unknown feet were seen in the snow; strange trails that ended nowhere were struck; three warriors, every one at a different time, claimed to have seen a gigantic figure speeding in a pale moonlight through the leafless forest; one of the bravest of the Shawnee warriors was found dead, his head cleft so deep that they knew a mighty hand, one of almost marvelous strength, had wielded the tomahawk. There were signs of a terrible struggle in the snow, but who had attacked and who defended they did not know, and the trail of the survivor was soon lost. A mysterious dread filled both Shawnees and Miamis.
Braxton Wyatt raged at heart in the Shawnee village, and had theories of his own, but he dared not tell them. It was known there that it was he who had led the Miamis into the sacrilegious invasion of the haunted island, and it would take his credit some time to recover from such a blow. To reestablish himself thoroughly he must do valuable work for his red friends on the coming great war trail. So he remained discreetly silent about the haunted island, and told all he knew of the white settlements, the Wilderness Road, and the way to trap the emigrant train. Here he could really be of great assistance to the alliance, and he told the chiefs all about the emigrants, how they marched, and how they would be encumbered with women and children.
Meanwhile, the five never ceased their vigilance. Henry and Ross bought a large quantity of ammunition from a Canadian trader whom they met on a trip far to the north, and however much they used in the winter, they were now assured of an abundance when they started southeast in the spring.
The winter was long and very cold. One snow fell upon another; one freeze after another thickened the ice upon the lake; and when the wind blew, it had the edge of a knife. But this could not last forever. One day the wind shifted around and blew from the south. Paul, who was outside the hut helping Jim Hart, felt a soft, warm breath on his face.
"Why, Jim!" he said, "the cold seems to be going away."
"So it is," said Jim Hart, "or at least it's gittin' ready. Spring ain't far off, an' I'm glad, Paul. I'm tired uv winter, an' I want to be strikin' out on the great war trail."
"So do I," said Paul.
"Wa'al, fur the matter o' that," said Shif'less Sol, "we've been on the great war trail fur three or four months now. There ain't to be no change except in the shiftin' o' the trail."
The warm wind continued to blow for days, the surface of the ice on the lake softened, and the snow began to melt. Still it blew, and the melted snow ran in rivers, the ice broke up into great sheets and chunks, and these, too, rapidly dissolved. Then a warm rain came, pouring for a day and a night, and the ice and snow were swept away entirely. But the whole earth ran water. Lakes stood in the forest, and every brook and creek, rushing in torrents, leaped its banks.
The five had remained in their hut when the rain came down, but two days later Henry and Ross were rowed over in the canoe, and went away to spy out the country. When they returned they said that the great war party of the allied tribes would soon be in motion, and it was time for the five to take their flight.
A warm sun had been shining for days, and the earth had dried again. The turbulent brooks and creeks had withdrawn to their accustomed beds, and faint touches of green were beginning to show in the wilderness.
"We'll leave our house just as we have built it," said Henry.
"Unless a white man should come wandering here, and that isn't likely, it won't be disturbed. It's been a good place for us."
"Yes," said Paul, "it has been a good home to us. I've spent a happy winter here, and I want to see it again."
But they had little time for sentiment. They were making the fast touches of preparation for the second stage of the great war trail--arranging clothing, light supplies of food, and, above all, ammunition. Then they left at night in their canoe. As they approached the mainland, all, as if by involuntary impulse, looked back at the haunted island, looming darkly in the night.
"It was no haunted island for us," said Paul.
"No," said Henry.
They landed, hid the canoe, and then, plunging into the forest, sped far to the south and east on tireless feet.