The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XXI. The Flight of Long Jim
Although the terrible ford had been won, Henry Ware knew that the danger was far from over. The savages, caught on the flank and shot down from above, had yielded to momentary panic, but they would come again. To any souls less daring than this band of pioneers, the situation would have been truly appalling. They were in the vast and unknown wilderness, surrounded everywhere by the black forest, with the horde, hungry for slaughter, still hanging upon their flanks; but among them all, scarce one woman or child showed a craven heart.
Led by Henry Ware, the wagons filed into an open space--a plain or little prairie--about a quarter of a mile beyond the ford, and there, still following his instructions, they drew up in a circle. He considered this open space a godsend, as no marksmen hidden in the woods could reach them there with a bullet. As soon as the circle was completed, the women and children poured forth from the wagons, and began to join the men in fortifying. There was mingled joy for victory and grief for loss. They had left dead behind in the river, and they had brought more with them; of wounds, except those that threatened to be mortal, they took little count. Even as they worked, scattering shots were fired from the forest, but they paid no heed to them, as all the bullets fell short.
Right in the center of the circle, inclosed by the wagons, a half dozen chosen spademen dug a deep hole, and then the dead were brought forth, ready for burial. A minister prayed and the women sang. Overhead, the late sun burned brilliant and red, and from the forest, as a kind of stern chorus, came the pattering rifle shots. But the last ceremony, all the more solemn and impressive because of these sights and sounds, went on unbroken. The dead were buried deep, then covered over, and the ground trodden that none might disturb their rest. Then all turned to the living need.
The five, barring slight scratches suffered by Ross and Shif'less Sol, had escaped unhurt, and now they labored with the others to throw up the wall of earth about the wagons. A spring took its rise in the center of the plain, and flowed down to the river. This spring was within the circle of the wagons, and they were assured of plenty of water.
Henry Ware looked over the crowd, and he rejoiced at their spirits, which had not been dampened by the sight of their dead. They had fought magnificently, and they were ready to fight again. Already fires were burning within the circle of the wagons, and the women were cooking supper. The pleasant odor of food arose, and men began to eat. Daniel Poe, as usual, turned to Henry.
"You are sure that they will make a new attack?" he said.
"Yes," replied Henry. "They have not come so far to retire after one repulse. We outflanked them there at the river, but they think that they will certainly get us, burdened as we are with the women and children. It's still a long road to Wareville."
"We can never repay the debt we owe to you and your comrades," said Daniel Poe.
"Don't think of it. It's the thing that we were bound to do."
Daniel Poe looked at the setting sun, now red like blood. Far over the western forest twilight shadows were coming.
"I wish this night was over," he said.
"If they attack we'll beat them off," said Henry confidently.
"But the cost, the cost!" murmured Daniel Poe.
Paul meanwhile was within the circle of wagons, in his great role of sustainer. He had fought like a paladin in the battle, and now he was telling what a great fight they had made, and what a greater one they could make, if need be. High spirits seemed to flow spontaneously from him, and the others caught the infection. More than one Amazon looked at him affectionately, as she would have looked at a son. Shif'less Sol joined him as he stood by one of the fires.
"I've been workin' out thar with a spade more'n an hour," said the shiftless one in a tone of deep disgust, "an' I'm tired plumb to death. I'll lay down before that fire an' sleep till mornin', ef every one uv you will promise not to say a word an' won't disturb me."
A laugh arose.
"Why, Mr. Hyde," exclaimed one of the Amazons, "they say there was not a more industrious man in the battle than you."
"Wa'al," said Shif'less Sol, slowly and reflectively, "a man, ef he's crowded into a corner, will fight ef his life depends on it, but I kin come purty near to livin' without work."
"You deserve your sleep, Mr. Hyde," said the woman. "Just stretch out there before the fire."
"I'll stretch out, but I won't sleep," said the shiftless one.
He was as good as his word, and admiring hands brought him food, which he ate contentedly. Presently he said in a low voice to Paul:
"That's right, Paul, hearten 'em up. They've got a lot to stand yet, an' it's courage that counts."
Paul knew this truth full well, and he went back and forth in the circle, ever performing his chosen task, while Henry outside planned and labored incessantly for the defense against a new attack. Fifty men, sharp of eye and ear, were selected to watch through half the night, when fifty more, also sharp of eye and ear, were to take their places. All the others were to sleep, if they could, in order that they might be strong and fresh for what the next day would bring forth.
The scattering fire from the forest ceased, and everything there became silent. No dusky forms were visible to the defenders. The sun dropped behind the hills, and night, thick and dark, came over the earth. The peace of the world was strange and solemn, and those in the beleaguered camp felt oppressed by the darkness and the mystery. They could not see any enemies or hear any, and after a while they began to argue that since the savages could no longer be seen or heard, they must have gone away. But Henry Ware only laughed as they told him so.
"They have not gone," he said to Daniel Poe, "nor will they go to-night nor to-morrow nor the next night. This train, when it starts in the morning, must be a moving fort."
Daniel Poe sighed. As always, he believed what Henry Ware said, and the prospect did not invite.
The darkness and the silence endured. The keenest of the watchers saw and heard nothing. The moon came out and the earth lightened, then darkened again as clouds rolled across the heavens; the camp fires sank, and, despite their alarms, many slept. The wounded, all of whom had received the rude but effective surgery of the border, were quiet, and the whole camp bore the aspect of peace. Paul slipped from the circle, and joined Henry outside the earthwork.
"Do you see anything, Henry?" he said.
"No, but I've heard," replied Henry, who had just come out of the darkness. "The Shawnees are before us, the Miamis behind us, and the warriors of the smaller tribes on either side. The night may pass without anything happening, or it may not. But we have good watchers."
Paul stayed with him a little while, but, at Henry's urgent request, he went back inside the circle, wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down, his face upturned to the cloudy skies which he did not see. He did not think he could sleep. His brain throbbed with excitement, and his vivid imagination was wide awake. Despite the danger, he rejoiced to be there; rejoiced that he and his comrades should help in the saving of all these people. The spiritual exaltation that he felt at times swept over him. Nevertheless, all the pictures faded, his excited nerves sank to rest, and, with his face still upturned to the cloudy skies, he slept.
Far after midnight a sudden ring of fire burst from the dark forest, and women and children leaped up at the crash of many rifles. Shouting their war whoop, the tribesmen rushed upon the camp; but the fifty sentinels, sheltered by the earthwork, met them with a fire more deadly than their own, and in a moment the fifty became more than two hundred.
Red Eagle and Yellow Panther had hoped for a surprise, but when the unerring volleys met them, they sank back again into the forest, carrying their dead with them.
"You were right," said Daniel Poe to Henry Ware; "they will not leave us."
"Not while they think there is a chance to overpower us. But we've shown 'em they can't count on a surprise."
The camp, except the watchers, went back to sleep, and the night passed away without a second alarm. Dawn came, gray and cloudy, and the people of the train awoke to their needs, which they faced bravely. Breakfast was cooked and eaten, and then the wagons, in a file of four, took up their march, a cloud of keen-eyed and brave skirmishers on every side. The train had truly become what Henry said it must be, a moving fort; and, though the savages opened fire in the woods, they dared not attack in force, so resolute and sure-eyed were the skirmishers and so strong a defense were the heavy wagons.
All day long this terrible march proceeded, the women and children sheltered in the wagons, and the savages, from the shelter of the forest, keeping up an irregular but unceasing fire on the flanks. The white skirmishers replied often with deadly effect, but it grew galling, almost unbearable. The Indians, who were accustomed either to rapid success or rapid retreat, showed an extraordinary persistence, and Henry suspected that Braxton Wyatt was urging them on. As he thought of the effect of these continued attacks upon the train, he grew anxious. The bravest spirit could be worn down by them, and he sought in vain for a remedy.
They camped the second night in an open place, and fortified, as before, with a circular earthwork; but they were harried throughout all the hours of darkness by irregular firing and occasional war whoops. Fewer people slept that night than had slept the night before. Nerves were raw and suffering, and Paul found his chosen task a hard one. But he worked faithfully, going up and down within the fortified circle, cheering, heartening, and predicting a better day for the morrow.
That day came, cloudless and brilliant above, but to the accompaniment of shouts, shots, and alarms below. Once more the terrible march was resumed, and the savages still hung mercilessly on their flanks. Henry, with anxious heart, noticed a waning of spirit, though not of courage, in the train. The raw nerves grew rawer. This incessant marching forward between the very walls of death could not be endured forever. Again he sought a way out. Such a way they must have, and at last he believed that he had found it. But he said nothing at present, and the train, edged on either side with fire and smoke, went on through the woods.
A third time they camped in an open space, a third time they fortified; but now, after the supper was over, Henry called a council of the leaders.
"We cannot go on as we have been going," he said. "The savages hang to us with uncommon tenacity, and there are limits to human endurance."
Daniel Poe shook his head sadly. The awful lacerating process had never ceased. More men were wounded, and the spirits of all grew heavier and heavier. Paul still walked among the fires, seeking to cheer and inspire, but he could do little. Dread oppressed the women and children, and they sat mostly in silence. Outside, an occasional whoop came from the depths of the forest, and now and then a rifle was fired. The night was coming on, thick and ominous. The air had been heavy all the day, and now somber clouds were rolling across the sky. At intervals flashes of lightning flared low down on the black forest. Heavy and somber, like the skies, were the spirits of all the people. A wounded horse neighed shrilly, and in an almost human voice, as he died.
"We must take a new step," said Henry; "things cannot go on this way. It is yet a hundred and fifty miles, perhaps, to Wareville, and if the savages continue to hang on, we can never reach it."
"What do you propose?" asked Daniel Poe.
Henry Ware stood erect. The light of the council fire flared upon his splendid, indomitable face. All relied upon him, and he knew it.
"I have a plan," he said. "To-morrow we can reach an unforested hill that I know of, with a spring flowing out of the side. It is easy to hold, and we shall have plenty of water. We will stop there and make our stand. Meanwhile, we will send to Wareville for help. The messenger must leave to-night. Jim Hart, are you ready?"
Jim Hart had been sitting on a fallen tree, all humped together. Now he unfolded himself and stood up, stretched out to his complete length, six feet four inches of long, slim man, knotted and jointed, but as tough as wire--the swiftest runner in all the West. Long Jim, ugly, honest, and brave, said nothing, but his movement showed that he was ready.
"Jim Hart was made for speed," continued Henry. "At his best he is like the wind, and he can run all the way to Wareville. He'll leave in a half hour, before the moon has a chance to rise."
"He'll never get through!" exclaimed Daniel Poe.
"Oh, yes, he will!" said Henry confidently. "Bring all the men Wareville can spare, Jim, and fall upon them while they are besieging us at the Table Rock."
Little more was said. Had the train afforded paint, they would have stained Jim's face in the Indian way; but the utmost that they could do was to draw up his hair and tie it in a scalp lock, like those of the Shawnees. Fortunately, his hair was dark, and his face was so thoroughly tanned by weather that it might be mistaken in the night for an Indian's. Then Long Jim was ready. He merely shook the hands of his four comrades and of Daniel Poe, and without another word went forth.
The night was at its darkest when Jim Hart slipped under one of the wagons and crept across the open space. The heavy clouds had grown heavier, and now and then low thunder muttered on the horizon. The fitful lightning ceased, and this was occasion for thanks.
Jim Hart crept about twenty yards from the circle of the wagons, and then he lay flat upon the earth. He could see nothing in the surrounding rim of forest, nor could he hear anything. A light hum from the camp behind him was all that came to his ears. He slipped forward again in a stooping position, stopped a moment when he heard a rifle shot from the other side of the camp, and then resumed his shambling, but swift, journey. Now he passed the open space and gained the edge of the woods. Here the danger lay, but the brave soul of Long Jim never faltered.
He plunged into the gloom of the bushes and trees, slipping silently among them. Two warriors glanced curiously at him in the dark, but in a moment he was gone; a third farther on spoke to him, but he shook his head impatiently, as if he bore some message, and only walked the faster. Now his keen eyes saw savages all around him, some talking, others standing or lying down, quite silent. He was sorry now that he was so tall, as his was a figure that would cause remark anywhere; but he stooped over, trying to hide his great height as much as possible. He passed one group, then two, then three, and now he was a full four hundred yards from the camp. His curving flight presently brought him near three men who were talking earnestly together. They noticed Hart at the same time, and one of them beckoned to him. Long Jim pretended not to see, and went on. Then one of them called to him angrily, and Jim recognized the voice of Braxton Wyatt.
Long Jim stopped a moment, uncertain what to do at that critical juncture, and Braxton Wyatt, stepping forward, seized him by the arm. It was dark in the woods, but the renegade, looking up, recognized the face and figure.
"Jim Hart!" he cried.
Long Jim's right hand was grasping the stock of his rifle, but his left suddenly flashed out and smote Braxton Wyatt full in the face. The renegade gasped and went down unconscious, and then Long Jim turned, and ran with all the speed that was in him, leaping over the low bushes and racing among the tree trunks more like a phantom than a human being. A shout arose behind him, and a dozen rifle shots were fired. He felt a sting in his arm, and then blood dripped down; but it was only a flesh wound, and he was spurred to greater speed.
A terrible yell arose, and many warriors, trained runners of the forest, with muscles of steel and a spirit that never tired, darted after him. But Long Jim, bending his head a little lower, raced on through the dark, his strength growing with every leap and his brain on fire with energy. He passed two or three savages--far-flung outposts--but before they could recover from their surprise he was by them and gone. Bullets sang past him, but the long, slim figure cut the air like an arrow in the wind. After him came the savages, but now he was beyond the last outposts, and the footsteps of his pursuers were growing fainter behind. Now he opened his mouth, and emitted a long, quavering, defiant yell--answer to their own. After that he was silent, and sped on, never relaxing, tireless like some powerful machine. The pursuit died away behind him, and though some might hang on his trail, none could ever overtake him.
The low thunder still muttered, and the fitful lightning began to flare again. Now and then there were gusts of rain, swept by the wind; but through all the hours of rain and dark the runner sped on, mile upon mile.
Day dawns and finds him still flitting! But now there is full need of thy speed, Jim Hart! Five hundred lives hang upon it!
Speed ye, Long Jim, speed ye!