The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIX. The Warning
Meanwhile war belts were passing through all the forest, from tribe to tribe, to Shawnee, Miami, Ottawa, Wyandot--to every band, large or small. Another great effort would be made to drive back the thin white vanguard that was now entering the finest hunting ground savages had ever known--the vast green wilderness of the Mississippi Valley, where the warriors had roamed and killed game for unknown generations. Northern and southern tribes had often met and fought in Kain-tuck-ee, but always each retreated after the conflict to north or to south, leaving Kain-tuck-ee as it was before--a land of forest and canebrake, inhabited only by the wild beast.
Now, every warrior felt that the coming of the white stream over the mountains, however slender it might be at first, threatened a change, great and disastrous to them, unless checked at once. These white men cut down the forest, built houses that were meant to stay in one place--houses of logs--and plowed up the fields where the forest had been. They felt in some dim, but none the less certain, way that not only their favorite hunting grounds, but they and their own existence, were threatened.
They had failed the year before in a direct attack upon the new settlements, but these little oases in the wilderness must in time perish unless the white stream coming over the mountains still reached them, nourishing them with fresh bone and sinew, and making them grow. A great wagon train was coming, and this they would strike, surprising it in the vast, dark wilderness when it was not dreaming that even a single warrior was near.
A great defeat they had suffered at Wareville the year before still stung, and the spur of revenge was added to the spur of need. What they felt they ought to do was exactly what they wanted to do, and they were full of hope. They did not know that the stream flowing over the mountains, now so small, was propelled by a tremendous force behind it, the great white race always moving onward, and they expected nothing less than a complete triumph.
Active warriors passed through the deep woods, bearing belts and messages. Their faces were eager, and always they urged war. A long journey lay before them, but the blow would be a master stroke. They were received everywhere with joy and approval. The tomahawks were dug up, the war dances were danced, the war songs sung, and the men began to paint their faces and bodies for battle. A hum and a murmur ran through the northwestern forests, the hum and murmur of preparation and hope. Only the five, on their little island in the lake, yet heard this hum and murmur, so ominous to the border, but they were ready to carry the message through the wilderness to those to whom the warning meant the most.
* * * * *
The largest wagon train that had yet crossed the mountains into Kain-tuck-ee toiled slowly along the Wilderness Road among the foothills, bearing steadily toward the Northwest. The line of canvas covers stretched away more than a hundred in number, and contained five hundred souls, of whom, perhaps, half were men and boys capable of bearing arms, the rest women and children.
They looked upon mountain, hill and forest, river and brook, with much the same eyes as those with which Henry and Paul had beheld them not so very long before, but they were not seeking at random in the wilderness as the Wareville people had done. No, they moved forward now to a certain mark. They were to join their brethren at Wareville and Marlowe, and double the strength of the settlements. Word had come to them over the mountains that the little outposts in the vast wilderness lived and flourished, and the country was good. Moreover, they and their strength were needed. Wareville and Marlowe looked for them as eagerly as they looked for Wareville and Marlowe.
Spring was deepening, and already had drawn its robe of green over all the earth, but Daniel Poe, the commander of the wagon train, paid little attention to its beauty. He was nearly sixty years of age, but in the very prime of his strength--a great, square-shouldered man, his head and face covered with thick, black beard. His eyes had their habitual look of watchful care. They had seen no Indian sign as they crossed the mountains, but he knew now that they were on the Dark and Bloody Ground, and the lives of five hundred human beings were a heavy responsibility.
"You are sure the country is entirely safe?" he said to Dick Salter, one of his guides.
"I don't know no reason to doubt it," replied Salter. "The savages don't often get down here. The villages uv the northwestern tribes must be close on to a thousand miles from here, an' besides they were beat off last year, an' beat badly, when they tried to rush Wareville."
"That is so," said Daniel Poe thoughtfully; "we had word of it. But, Dick, we can't afford to take all these people into danger here in the woods. Look at the women and children."
They had just begun to stop for the night, and to draw the wagons into a circle in a convenient, slightly hollowed, open place. The women and children were trooping about upon the grass, and the air was filled with the sound of merry voices. All were browned by the sun, but they were healthy and joyous, and they looked forward with keen delight to meeting kin who had gone on before at Wareville. They had no fear of the mighty forests, when more than two hundred pairs of strong arms fenced them about.
"That is shorely a pleasant sight," said Dick Salter. "I've seed the same many evenin's, an' I hope to see it many more evenin's. We'll get 'em through, Mr. Poe, we'll get 'em through!"
"I hope so," said Daniel Poe earnestly.
They had begun to light the evening fires, and in the west a great red sun blazed just above the hills. Daniel Poe suddenly put his hand upon Dick Salter's arm.
"Dick, what is that?" he said, pointing with a long forefinger.
A black silhouette had appeared on the crest of a hill in the very eye of the sun, and Dick Salter, shading his brow with his hand, gazed long and anxiously.
"It's a man," he said at last, "an' ef I'm any judge uv a human bein' it's about the finest specimen uv a man that ever trod green grass. Look, Mr. Poe!"
The figure, outlined against its brilliant background, seemed to grow and come nearer. Others had seen now, and the whole wagon train gazed with intent and curious eyes. They saw in the blazing light every detail of an erect and splendid figure, evidently that of a youth, but tall beyond the average of men. He was clad in forest garb--fringed hunting shirt and leggings and raccoon-skin cap. He stood erect, but easily, holding by the muzzle a long, slender-barreled rifle, which rested, stock upon the ground. Seen there in all the gorgeous redness of the evening sunlight, there was something majestic, something perhaps weird and unreal, in the grand and silent figure.
"He's white, that's shore!" said Dick Salter.
"He looks like a wilderness god," murmured Daniel Poe, in his beard.
"Look!" exclaimed Dick Salter. "There's another!"
A second figure appeared suddenly beside the first, that of a youth, also, not so tall as the first; but he, too, stood erect, silent and motionless, gazing at the wagon train.
"And a third!" exclaimed Daniel Poe.
"And a fourth and fifth!" added Dick Salter. "See, there are five uv 'em!"
Three other figures had appeared, seeming to arise in the sunlight as if by Arabian magic; and now all five stood there in a row, side by side, everyone silent and motionless, and everyone holding by the muzzle a long, slender-barreled rifle, its stock upon the ground, as he gazed at the train.
A deep breath ran through the crowd of emigrants, and all--men, women, and children--moved forward for a better look. There was something mysterious and uncanny in this sudden apparition of the five there in the blazing light of the setting sun, which outlined their figures in every detail and raised them to gigantic proportions. On those hills only was light; everywhere else the mighty curving wilderness, full of unknown terrors, was already dark with the coming night.
"It is our omen of danger. I feel it, I feel it In every bone of me," murmured Daniel Poe into his great black beard.
"We must find out what this means, that's shore," said Dick Salter.
But as he spoke, the first figure, that of the great, splendid youth, stepped right out of the eye of the sun, and he was followed in single file by the four others, all stepping in unison. They came down the hill, and directly toward the travelers. Again that deep breath ran through the crowd of emigrants, and the chief note of it was admiration, mingled with an intense curiosity.
All the five figures were strange and wild, sinewy, powerful, almost as dark as Indians, their eyes watchful and wary and roving from side to side, their clothing wholly of skins and furs, singular and picturesque. They seemed almost to have come from another world. But Daniel Poe was never lacking either in the qualities of hospitality or leadership.
"Friends," he said, "as white men--for such I take you to be--you are welcome to our camp."
The first of the five, the great, tall youth with the magnificent shoulders, smiled, and it seemed to Daniel Poe that the smile was wonderfully frank and winning.
"Yes, we are white, though we may not look it," he said in a clear, deep voice, "and we have come near a thousand miles to meet you."
"To meet us?" repeated Daniel Poe, in surprise, while Dick Salter, beside him, was saying to himself, as he looked at one of the five: "Ef that ain't Tom Ross, then I'll eat my cap."
"Yes," repeated Henry Ware, with the most convincing emphasis, "it's you that we've come to meet. We belong at Wareville, although we've been far in the North throughout the winter. My name is Henry Ware, this is Paul Cotter, and these are Tom Ross, Sol Hyde, and Jim Hart. We must have a word with you at once, where the others cannot hear."
Tom Ross and Dick Salter, old friends, were already shaking hands. Henry Ware glanced at the emigrants pressing forward in a great crowd, and sympathy and tenderness showed in his eyes as he looked at the eager, childish faces so numerous among them.
"Will you keep them back?" he said to Daniel Poe. "I must speak to you where none of those can hear."
Daniel Poe waved away the crowd, and then took a step forward.
"We have come," said Henry Ware, in low, intense tones, "to warn you that you are going to be attacked by a great force of warriors, furnished by the league of the northwestern tribes. They mean that you shall never reach Wareville or Marlowe, to double the strength of those settlements. They would have laid an ambush for you, but we have been among them and we know their plans."
A shiver ran through the stalwart frame of Daniel Poe--a shiver of apprehension, not for himself, but for the five hundred human lives intrusted to his care. Then he steadied himself.
"We can fight," he said, "and I thank you for your warning; I cannot doubt its truth."
"We will stay with you," said Henry Ware. "We know the signs of the forest, and we can help in the battle that is sure to come, and also before and after."
His voice was full of confidence and courage, and it sent an electric thrill through the veins of Daniel Poe. Henry Ware was one of those extraordinary human beings whose very presence seems to communicate strength to others.
"We'll beat 'em off," said Daniel Poe sanguinely.
"Yes, we'll beat 'em off," said Henry Ware. Then he continued: "You must tell all the men, and of course the women and children will hear of if, but it's best to let the news spread gradually."
Daniel Poe went back with the messengers to the wagons, and soon it was known to everybody that the Indians were laying an ambush for them all. Some wails broke forth from the women, but they were quickly suppressed, and all labored together to put the camp in posture of defense. The strangers were among them, cheering them, and predicting victory if battle should come. Paul, in particular, quickly endeared himself to them. He was so hearty, so full of jests, and he quoted all sorts of scraps of old history bearing particularly upon their case, and showing that they must win if attacked.
"There was a race of very valiant people living a very long, long time ago," he said, "who always made their armies intrench at night. Nobody could take a Roman camp, and we've got to imitate those old fellows."
Under the guidance of Paul and his friends, the Roman principle was followed, at least in part. The wagons were drawn up in a great circle in an open space, where they could not be reached by a rifle shot from the trees, and then more than two hundred men, using pick and spade, speedily threw up an earthwork three feet high that inclosed the wagons. Henry Ware regarded it with the greatest satisfaction.
"I don't know any Indian force," he said, "that will rush such a barrier in the face of two or three hundred rifles. Now, Mr. Poe, you post guards at convenient intervals, and the rest of you can take it easy inside."
The guards were stationed, but inside the ring of wagons many fires burned brightly, and around them was a crowd that talked much, but talked low. The women could not sleep, nor could the children, whose curiosity was intensely aroused by the coming of these extraordinary-looking strangers. The larger of the children understood the danger, but the smaller did not, and their spirits were not dampened at all.
The night came down, a great blanket of darkness, in the center of which the camp fires were now fused together into a cone of light. A few stars came out in the dusky heavens, and twinkled feebly. The spring wind sighed gently among the new leaves of the forest. The voices of women and children gradually died. Some slept in blankets before the fires, and others in the wagons, whose stout oak sides would turn any bullet.
Daniel Poe walked just outside the circle of the wagons, and his heart was heavy with care. Yet he was upborne by the magnetic personality of Henry Ware, who walked beside him.
"How far from us do you think they are now?" he asked.
"Fifty miles, perhaps, and they are at least a thousand strong. It was their object to fall suddenly upon you in the dark, but when their scouts find that you fortify every night, they will wait to ambush you on the day's march."
"Undoubtedly," said Daniel Poe, "and we've got to guard against it as best we can."
"But my comrades and I and Dick Salter will be your eyes," said Henry. "We'll be around you in the woods, watching all the time."
"Thank God that you have come," said Daniel Poe devoutly. "I think that Providence must have sent you and your friends to save us. Think what might have happened if you had not come."
He shuddered. Before him came a swift vision of red slaughter--women and children massacred in the darkness. Then his brave heart swelled to meet the coming danger. The night passed without alarm, but Henry, Ross, and Shif'less Sol, roaming far in the forest, saw signs that told them infallibly where warriors had passed.
"The attack will come," said Henry.
"As sure as night follows day," said Ross, "an' it's our business to know when it's about to come."
Henry nodded, and the three sped on in their great circle about the camp, not coming in until a little before day, when they slept briefly before one of the fires. When the people arose and found that nothing had happened, they were light-hearted. Nothing had happened, so nothing would happen, they said to themselves; they were too strong for the danger that had threatened, and it would pass them by. Day was so much more cheerful than night.
They ate breakfast, their appetites brisk in the crisp morning air, and resumed the march. But they advanced slowly, the wagons in a close, triple file, with riflemen on either side. But Daniel Poe knew that their chief reliance now was the eyes of the five strangers, who were in the forest on either side and in front. They had made a deep impression upon him, as they had upon every other person with whom they came into contact. He had the most implicit confidence in their courage, skill, and faith.
The wagons went slowly on through the virgin wilderness, Daniel Poe and Dick Salter at their head, the riflemen all along the flanks.
"We'll strike a river some time to-morrow," said Salter. "It's narrow and deep, and the ford will be hard."
"I wish we were safely on the other side," said Daniel Poe.
"So do I," said Dick Salter, and his tone was full of meaning.
Yet the day passed as the night had passed, and nothing happened. They had safely crossed the mountains, and before them were gentle, rolling hills and open forest. The country steadily grew more fertile, and often game sprang up from the way, showing that man trod there but little. The day was of unrivaled beauty, a cloudless blue sky overhead, green grass under foot, and a warm, gentle wind always blowing from the south. How could danger be threatening under such a smiling guise? But the "eyes" of the train, which nothing escaped, the five who watched on every side, saw the Indian sign again and again, and always their faces were grave.
"The train carries many brave men," said Henry, "but it will need every one of them."
"Yes," said Tom Ross; "an' ef the women, too, kin shoot, so much the better."
That night they encamped again in one of the openings so numerous throughout the country, and, as before, they fortified; but the women and children were getting over their fear. They were too strong. The Indians would not dare to attack a train defended by three hundred marksmen--two hundred and fifty men and at least fifty women who could and would shoot well. So their voices were no longer subdued, and jest and laughter passed within the circle of the wagons.
Paul remained by one of the fires, Henry and Shif'less Sol suggesting that he do so because he was already a huge favorite with everybody. He was sitting comfortably before the coals, leaning against a wagon wheel, and at least a score of little boys and girls were gathered about him. They wanted to know about the great wilderness, and the fights of himself and his comrades with the red warriors. Paul, though modest, had the gift of vivid narrative. He described Wareville, that snug nest there in the forest, and the great battle before its wooden walls; how the women, led by a girl, had gone forth for water; how the savages had been beaten off, and the dreadful combat afterward in the forest through the darkness and the rain. He told how he had been struck down by a bullet, only to be carried off and saved by his comrade, Henry Ware--the bravest, the most skillful, and the strongest hunter, scout, and warrior in all the West. Then he told them something of their life in the winter just closed, although he kept the secret of the haunted island, which was to remain the property of his comrades and himself.
The children hung upon his words. They liked this boy with the brilliant eyes, the vivid imagination, and the wonderful gift of narrative, that could make everything he told pass before their very eyes.
"And now that's enough," said Paul at last. "You must all go to sleep, as you are to start on your journey again early in the morning. Now, off with you, every one of you!"
He rose, despite their protests, this prince of story tellers, and, bidding them good-night, strolled with affected carelessness outside the circle of wagons. The night was dark, like the one preceding, but the riflemen were on guard within the shadows of the wagons.
"Do you see anything?" Paul asked of one.
"Nothing but the forest," he replied.
Paul strolled farther, and saw a dark figure among the trees. As he approached he recognized Shif'less Sol.
"Any news, Sol?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the shiftless one, "we've crossed trails of bands three times, but the main force ain't come up yet. I guess it means to wait a little, Paul. I'm awful glad we've come to help out these poor women an' children."
"So am I," said Paul, glancing at the black forest. "They've got to go through a terrible thing, Sol."
"Yes, an' it's comin' fast," said the shiftless one.
But nothing happened that night, at least so far as the camp was concerned. The sentinels walked up and down outside, and were not disturbed. The women and children slept peacefully in the wagons, or in their blankets before the fires, and the clear dawn came, silver at first and then gold under a sky of blue.
The "eyes" of the train had come in as before, and taken their nap, and now were up and watching once more. Breakfast over, the drivers swung their whips, called cheerfully to their horses, and the wagons, again in three close files, resumed the march.
"We'll strike the ford about noon to-day," said Dick Salter to Daniel Poe.
"I wish we were safely on the other side," said Daniel Poe, in the exact words of the day before.
"So do I," repeated Dick Salter.
The wagons moved forward undisturbed, their wheels rolling easily over the soft turf, and some of the women, forgetting their alarms, softly sang songs of their old homes in the East. The children, eager to see everything in this mighty, unknown land, called to each other; but all the time, as they marched through the pleasant greenwood, danger was coming closer and closer.