The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter II. In the River
Paul, while not the equal of Henry in the woods, was a strong and enduring youth. His muscles were like wire, and there were few better runners west of the mountains. Although the weight of the second rifle might tell after a while, he did not yet feel it, and with springy step he sped after Henry, leaving the choice of course and all that pertained to it to his comrade. After a while they heard a second cry--a wailing note--and Henry raised his head a little.
"They've come to the two who fell," he said.
But after the single lament, the warriors were silent, and Paul heard nothing more in the woods but their own light footsteps and his own long breathing. Little birds flitted through the boughs of the trees, and now and then a hare hopped up and ran from their path. The silence became terrible, full of omens and presages, like the stillness before coming thunder.
"It means something," said Henry; "I think we've stumbled into a regular nest of those Shawnees, and they're likely to be all about us."
As if confirming his words, the far, faint note came from their right, and then, in reply, from their left. Henry stopped so quickly that Paul almost ran into him.
"I was afraid it would be that way," he said. "They're certainly all around us except in front, and maybe there, too."
Visions of the torture rose before Paul again.
"What are we to do?" he said.
"We must hide."
"Hide I Why, they could find us in the forest, as I would find a man in an open field."
"I don't mean hide here," said Henry; "the river is just ahead, and I think that if we reach it in time we can find a place. Come, Paul, we must run as we never ran before."
The two boys sped with long, swift bounds through the forest as only those who run for their lives can run. Now the voices of the pursuit became frequent, and began to multiply. Henry, with his instinctive skill in the forest, read their meaning. The pursuers were sure of triumph. But Henry shut his lips tightly, and resolved that he and Paul should yet elude them.
"The river is not more than a half mile ahead," he said. "Come, Paul, faster! A little faster, if you can!"
Paul obeyed, and the two, bending their heads lower, sped on with astonishing speed. Trees and bushes slid behind them. Before them appeared a blue streak, that broadened swiftly and became a river.
"We must not let them see us," said Henry. "Bend as low as you can, and be as quiet as you can!"
Paul obeyed, and in a few more minutes they were at the river's edge.
"Fasten your bullets and powder around your neck," said Henry, "and keep the rifle on your shoulder."
Paul did so, following Henry's quick example, and the two stepped into the water, which soon reached to their waists. Henry had been along this river before, and at this crisis in the lives of his comrade and himself he remembered. Dense woods lined both banks of the stream, which was narrow here for miles, and a year or two before a hurricane had cut down the trees as a reaper mows the wheat. The surface of the water was covered with fallen trunks and boughs, and for a half mile at least they had become matted together like a great raft, out of which grass and weeds already were growing. But Paul did not know it, and suddenly he stopped.
"Why, what has become of the river?" he exclaimed, pointing ahead.
The stream seemed to stop against a bank of logs and foliage.
Henry laughed softly.
"It is the great natural raft," he said. "There is where we are to hide."
He hastened his steps, wading as rapidly as he could, and Paul kept by his side. He comprehended Henry's plan, their last and desperate chance. In a few moments more they were at the great raft, and in the bank, amid a dense, almost impenetrable mass of foliage, they hid their rifles and ammunition. Henry uttered a deep sigh as he did it.
"I hate like everything to leave them," he said, "but if we come to close quarters with any of those fellows, we must trust to our knives and hatchets."
Then he turned reluctantly away. It was not a deep river, nowhere above their necks, and he pushed a way amid the trees and foliage that were packed upon the surface, Paul, as usual, following closely. Now and then he dived under a big log, and came up on the other side, his head well hidden among upthrust boughs and among the weeds and grass that had grown in the soil formed by the silt of the river. And Paul always carefully imitated him.
When they were about thirty yards into the mass Paul felt Henry's hand on his shoulder. "Look back, Paul," was whispered in his ear, "but be sure not to move a single bough." Paul slowly and cautiously turned his head, and saw a sight that made him quiver.
Running swiftly, savage warriors were coming into view on either bank of the river--tall men, dark with paint, and, as he well knew, hot with the desire to take life.
"I thank God that this place is here!" breathed Paul.
"Yes, it was just made for us," said Henry, and he laughed ever so little. "Come, Paul, we must get farther into it. But be sure you don't shake any boughs."
They waded on, only their heads above the current, and these always hidden by the interlacing trunks and branches. A great shout, fierce with triumph, rose behind them.
"They've found where our trail entered the water, and they think they've got us," whispered Henry. "Now, be still, Paul; we'll hide here."
They pushed themselves into a mass of debris, where logs and boughs, swept by the current, formed a little arch over the stream. There they stood up to their chins in water, with their heads covered by the arch. Through the slits between the trunks and boughs they could see their pursuers.
It was a numerous band--thirty or forty men--and they divided now into several parties. Some ran along the banks of the stream and others sprang from log to log over the raft, searching everywhere, with keen, black eyes trained to note every movement of the wilderness.
Paul felt Henry's hand again on his shoulder, but neither boy spoke. Both felt as if they were in a little cage, with the fiercest of all wild animals around it and reaching long paws through the bars at them. Each sank a little deeper into the water, barely leaving room to breathe, and watched their enemies still searching, searching everywhere. They heard the patter of moccasins on the logs, and now and then they saw brown, muscular legs passing by. Two warriors stopped within ten feet of them and exchanged comment. Henry, who understood their language, knew that they were puzzled and angry. But Paul, without knowing a word that they said, understood, too. His imagination supplied the place of knowledge. They were full of wrath because they had lost the trail of the two whom they had regarded as certainly theirs, and to seek them in the vast maze of logs and brush was like looking for one dead leaf among the millions.
The two warriors stood still for a full minute, and then moved on out of sight. Paul drew a deep breath of relief, like a sigh, and Henry's hand was pressed once more upon his shoulder.
"Not a sound yet, not a sound, Paul!" he whispered ever so softly. "They will hunt here a long time."
More warriors, treading on the logs, showed that his caution was not misplaced. They poked now and then in the water, amid the great mass of debris, and one stood on a log so near to the two lads that they could have reached out and touched his moccasined feet. But their covert was too close to be suspected, and soon the man passed on.
Presently all of them were out of sight; but Henry, a true son of caution and the wilderness, would not yet let Paul stir.
"They will come back this way," he said. "We risk nothing by waiting, and we may save much."
Paul made no protest, but he was growing cold. The chill from the water of the river was creeping into his veins, and he longed for the dry land and a chance to stir about. Yet he clenched his teeth and resolved to endure. He would not move until Henry gave the word.
He saw what a wise precaution it was, when, a half hour later, seven or eight warriors came walking back on the logs, and thrust with sticks into the little patches of open water between them. Henry and Paul crouched closer in their covert, and the warriors stalked back and forth, still searching.
Henry knew that the Shawnees, failing to find a place beyond the debris where the fugitives had emerged upon the bank, would believe that they might be hidden under the logs, and would not give up the hunt there. If they should happen to find the rifles and ammunition, they would certainly be confirmed in the conclusion, but so far they had not found them. Henry, looking between the logs, saw them pass near the place of concealment, but they did not stop, and were soon near the other bank. It would have bitterly hurt his pride if they had found the rifles, even had he and Paul escaped.
An hour more they waited, and then the last warrior was out of sight, gone up the river.
"I think we may crawl out now," whispered Henry; "but we've still got to be mighty careful about it."
Pad took a step and fell over in the water. His legs were stiff with the wet and cold; but Henry dragged him up, and before trying it again he stretched first one leg and then the other, many times.
"We must make our way back through the logs and brush to the rifles," whispered Henry, "and then take to the woods once more."
"I think I've lived in a river long enough to last me the rest of my life," Paul said.
Henry laughed. He, too, was stiff and cold; but, a born woodsman, he now dismissed their long hiding in the water as only an incident. The two reached the precious rifles and ammunition, drew them forth from concealment, and stepped upon the bank, rivulets pouring from their clothing, and even their hair.
"I think we'd better go back on our own trail now," said Henry. "The war party has passed on, and is still looking for us far ahead."
"We've got to dry ourselves, and somehow or other get that powder to Marlowe," said Paul.
"That's so," said Henry. "We came to do it, and we will do it."
He spoke with quiet emphasis, but Paul knew that he meant to perform what he had set out to do, come what might, and Paul was willing to go with him through anything. Neither would abandon the great task of helping to save Kentucky. But they were still in a most serious position. They had been many hours in water which was not now warmed by summer heat, and they were bound to feel the effect of it soon in every bone. Henry glanced up at the heavens. It was far past noon, and the golden sun was gliding down the western arch.
"I think," said Henry, "that it would be best for us to walk, as fast as we can on the back track, and then try to dry out our clothing a little."
He started at once, and Paul walked swiftly by his side. The rivulets that ran from their clothing decreased to tiny streams, and then only drops fell. The sinking sun shot sheaves of brilliant beams upon them, and soon Paul felt a grateful warmth, driving for the time the chill from his bones. He swung his arms as he walked, as much as the rifles would allow, and nearly every muscle in his frame felt the touch of vigorous exercise. His clothing dried rapidly.
Two hours and three hours passed, and they heard no more the cries of the warriors calling to each other. Silence again hung over the wilderness. Rabbits sprang up from the thickets. A deer, frightened by the sound of the boys' footsteps, held up his head, listened a moment, and then fled away among the trees. Henry took his presence as a sign that no other human being had passed that way in the last hour.
The sun sank, the twilight came and died, and darkness clothed the wilderness. Then Henry stopped.
"Paul," he said, "I've got some venison in my knapsack, but you and I ought to have a fire. While our clothes are drying outside they are still wet inside and we can't afford to have a chill, or be so stiff that we can't run. You know we may have another run or two yet."
"But do we dare make a fire?" asked Paul.
"I think so. I can hide the blaze, and the night is so dark that the smoke won't show."
He plunged deeper into the thickets, and came to a rocky place, full of gullies and cavelike hollows. It was so dark that Paul could see only his dim form ahead. Presently their course led downward, and Henry stopped in one of the sheltered depressions.
"Now we'll make our fire," he said.
It was pitchy black where they stood. The walls of the hollow rose far above their heads, and its crest was lined on every side with giant trees and dense undergrowth.
The two boys dragged up dead leaves and brushwood, and Henry patiently ignited the heap with his flint and steel. A tiny blaze arose, but he did not permit it to grow into a flame. Heavier logs were placed upon the top, and the fire only burned beneath, amid the small boughs. Smoke arose, but it was lost in the black heavens. The fire, thus confined, burned fiercely and rapidly within its narrow limits, and a fine bed of coals soon formed. It was time! The night had come on cold, and the chill returned to Paul's veins. Before the fire was lighted he had begun to shiver, but when the deep bed of coals was formed, he sat before it and basked in the grateful and glowing heat.
"I think we'd better take off our clothing and dry it," said Henry, and both promptly did so. They hung part of their garments before the fire, on a stick thrust in the ground, until they were dry, and then, putting them on again, replaced them with the remainder, to dry in their turn. Meanwhile they ate of the venison that Henry carried in his knapsack, and felt very happy. It was a wonderful experience for Paul. This was comfort and safety. They were only a pin point in the wilderness, but for the present the stony hollow fenced them about, and the hidden fire gave forth warmth and pleasure.
"Do you think you could sleep, Paul?" asked Henry, when they had put on again the last of the dried clothing.
"Could I sleep?" he said. "Would a hungry wolf eat? Will water run down hill? I don't think I could do anything else just now."
"Then try it," said Henry. "After a while I'll wake you up for your watch, and take a turn at it myself."
Paul said not another word, but sank back on the grass and leaves, with his feet to the great bed of coals. He saw their glow for a moment or two, then his eyelids shut down, and he was wafted away on a magic carpet to a dreamless region of happy peace. Henry's eyes, grown used to the dark, looked at him for a moment or two, and then the larger boy smiled. Paul, his faithful comrade, filled a great place in his heart--they liked each other all the better because they were so unlike--and he was silently, but none the less devoutly thankful that he had come.
Henry was warm and dry, and as he tested his muscles he found them supple and strong. Now he took precautions, thinking he had let the fire burn as long as was safe. He scattered the coals with a stick, and then softly crushed out each under the stout heel of his moccasin. With the minute patience that he had learned from his forest life, he persisted in his task until not a single spark was left anywhere. Then he sat down in Turkish fashion, with his rifle lying across his lap and the other rifles near, listening, always listening, with the wonderful ear that noted every sound of the forest, and piercing the thickets with eyes whose keenness those of no savage could surpass. He knew that they were in the danger zone, that the Shawnees were on a great man-hunt, and regarded the two boys as stilt within their net, although they could not yet put their hands upon them. That was why he listened and watched so closely, and that was why he would break his word to Paul and not waken him, keeping the nightlong vigil himself.
The night advanced, the darkness shredded away a little before a half moon, and Henry was very glad that he had put out the last remnant of the fire. Yet the trees still enclosed the hollow like a black wall, and he did not think a foe had one chance in a thousand of finding them there while the night lasted. But he never ceased to watch--a silent, powerful figure, with the rifle lying across his lap, ready to be used at a moment's notice. His stillness was something marvelous. Even had it been light, an ordinary observer would not have seen him move a hair's breadth. He was a part of the silent wilderness.
Midnight, and then the long hours. Faint noises arose in the thickets, bet the ear of the gray statue was alive, and he knew. The rabbits were hopping about, at play, perhaps, in the moonlight; a deer was passing; perhaps a panther stirred somewhere; but these were things that neither he nor Paul feared; it was only man that they dreaded. After a while a faint, clear note rose, far to the east, and to it came three replies like it, and also far away. Henry laughed low. They were the familiar signals, but he and Paul were well hidden, and they would escape through the lines before morning. They might easily go back to Wareville, too, but he was resolved not to abandon either the horses or the powder. The powder was needed at Marlowe, and it would be a bitter humiliation not to take it there.
Two hours more passed, and then Henry heard the signals again, but now closer. By chance, perhaps, the Shawnees had formed their ring about the right place, and it was time to act. Paul had slept well and was rested, so Henry leaned over and shook him. Paul opened his eyes, and any question that he might have wished to ask was cut short at his lips by Henry's low, but commanding,
"It is far after midnight, and we must move, Paul," said Henry. "They may have blundered on our trail before it was dark, and they are still looking for us. I think they are coming this way."
Paul understood in a moment, but he asked no question; if Henry said so, it was true, it did not matter how he knew. He rose, imitating Henry, taking his two rifles, and they stole silently away from the little cove that had been so full of comfort for both.
"We'll go toward the south now," said Henry, "and on your life, Paul, don't stumble!"
Paul knew the worth of this advice, and he was woodsman enough to avoid tripping on the vines and bushes, despite the darkness. One mile dropped behind them, then two, then three, and Henry suddenly put his hand upon the shoulder of Paul, who, understanding the signal, sank down at once beside his comrade.
The bushes were thick there, but Paul soon saw the danger, of which Henry's ear had already warned him. A dozen warriors marched in a silent file through the undergrowth. Well for the two that they were some distance away, and that the bushes grew thick and long! And well for them, too, that it was night! The warriors looked keenly on every side as they passed, apparently seeking out the last little leaf and twig; but, acute as were their eyes, they did not see the boys in the bushes. And perhaps it was well for some of them that they did not find what they sought, as the wilderness furnished no more formidable antagonist than Henry Ware, and Paul Cotter, too, was both brave and skillful.
But the warriors passed, and the black wilderness hid them. Henry watched a little bush that one had brushed against, swinging in the moonlight with short jerks that became shorter until it grew quite still again. But he did not yet go. He and Paul knew that they must not move for many minutes. A warrior might turn on his track, see their risen forms, and with his cry bring the whole band back again. They yet lay motionless and still, while the moonlight filtered through the leaves and the silence of the forest endured. Henry rose at last, and led the way again.
"They are certainly beating up the woods for us," said he, "and I think that party will stumble right upon the little hollow where we rested. It was well we moved."
They increased their southward pace, and when it was scarcely two hours to the dawn Henry said:
"I know of a good place in which to rest, and a still better place in which to fight if they should find us."
"Holt's lone cabin. It's less than half a mile from here. I've had it in mind."
Paul did not know what he meant by Holt's lone cabin, but he was always willing to trust Henry without questions. His imagination, flowering at once into splendor, depicted it as some kind of an impregnable fortress.
"Come, we mustn't lose time!" said Henry, and he suddenly increased his speed, running so fast that Paul had much to do to keep pace with him. Paul looked up, and he saw why Henry hastened. The black curtain was rolled back a little in the east, and a splendid bar of gray appeared just at the horizon's edge. As Paul looked, it broadened and turned to silver, and then gold. Paul thought it a very phantasy of fate that the coming of day, which is like life, should bring such terrors.
They reached a clearing--a high, stony piece of ground--and in its center Paul saw a little old log cabin, with a heavy open door that sagged on rude wooden hinges.
"Come," said Henry, and they crossed the clearing to the cabin, pushing open the door. Paul looked around at the narrow place, and the protecting walls gave him much comfort. Evidently it had been abandoned in great haste. In one corner lay a tiny moccasin that had been a baby's shoe, and no one had disturbed it. On a hook on the wall hung a woman's apron, and two or three rude domestic utensils lay on the floor. The sight had Its pathos for Paul, but he was glad that the Holts had gone in time. He was glad, too, that they had left their house behind that he and Henry might use it when they needed it most, because he began to be conscious now of a great weakness, both of body and spirit.
Hooks and a stout wooden bar still remained, and as Henry closed the door and dropped the bar into place, he exclaimed exultantly:
"They may get us, Paul, but they'll pay a full price before they do it."
"I'd rather they wouldn't get us at all," said Paul.
Nevertheless his imagination, leaping back to the other extreme, made the lone cabin the great fortress that he wished. And a fortress it was in more senses than one. Built of heavy logs, securely chinked, the single window and the single door closed with heavy oaken shutters, no bullet could reach them there. Paul sat down on a puncheon bench, and breathed laboriously, but joyously. Then he looked with inquiry at Henry.
"It was built by a man named Holt," said Henry. "He was either a great fool or a very brave man to come out here and settle alone. But a month ago, after the Indian wars began, he either became wiser or less brave, and he went into Marlowe with his family, leaving the place just as it is."
"He left in time," said Paul.