The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter III. The Lone Cabin
Henry was deeply thankful for this shelter because he knew how badly it was needed. He went to the single little window, which sagged half open on hinges made of the skin of the buffalo. He pushed it back in place, and fastened it, too, with a smaller bar, which he was lucky enough to find lying on the floor.
"Well, Paul, we are here," he said.
As he spoke he looked keenly and anxiously at his comrade.
"Yes, Henry," Paul replied. "Here we are, and mighty glad am I. It's good to be in a house again after that river."
Henry noticed at once that his voice was thinner and weaker than usual, and he saw also that the color on Paul's face was high--the rest and the little fire in the forest had not been enough. Again he was deeply grateful for the presence of the cabin. He looked around, with inquiring eyes that could see everything. It was dusky in the cabin with both door and window closed, but he observed with especial pleasure, among the abandoned articles, a small iron pot, suitable for cooking purposes, and a large water bowl. When he summed up all, it seemed to this resourceful son of the wilderness that Fortune had been very kind to them. Then he looked at Paul and distinctly saw a tremor pass over his frame.
"Paul," he said, "are you cold?"
"A little," replied Paul reluctantly. It hurt his pride to confess that he felt on the verge of physical collapse.
"Then we must have a fire, and I'm going to build it now."
"Won't it be dangerous?" asked Paul. "Won't it be seen?"
"Oh, no," replied Henry lightly. "We are alone in the forest now."
His tone was convincing to Paul, but Henry himself was aware that they were taking great risks. Yet they must be taken.
"Now, Paul," he said cheerfully, "you keep a good watch while I bring in deadwood. But first we will rake clean the welcoming hearth of our good friends who departed so quickly."
Ashes and dead coals were lying in the fireplace, and he raked them carefully to one side. Then he unbarred the door. The crisp October air rushed into the close, confined space, and it felt very welcome to Henry, but Paul shivered again.
"Sit down in one of those chairs and rest, Paul," he said, as he pointed to two homemade chairs that stood by the wall. "I'll be back in a minute or two."
Then he shut the door behind him.
"I must take the risk," he murmured. It was characteristic of Henry Ware, that in this emergency not even a vague thought of deserting his comrade entered his mind. And faithful as he was to Paul, Paul would have been as faithful to him. Both meant to finish together their great errand.
Henry looked around. The settler had made but little impression upon the surrounding forest. The trees had been cut away for a distance of fifteen or twenty paces on every side, but the wilderness still curved in solid array about the lone cabin, as if it would soon reclaim its own and blot out the sole sign of man's intrusion. Everywhere the foliage glowed with the deep reds and yellows and browns of October, and afar hung a faint bluish haze, like an early sign of Indian summer. The slight wind among the leaves had a soothing note, and breathed of nothing but peace. Peace Henry Ware devoutly hoped that it would be.
His task was easy. The forest all about was littered with the fallen and dead wood of preceding years, and in a few moments he gathered up an armful, with which he returned to the house. Then he brought in dry leaves, and heaped leaves and wood together in the chimney-place. He glanced at Paul and saw him trembling. As if by chance he touched his comrade's hand, and it felt ice-cold. But he did not depart one jot from his cheerful manner, all his words showing confidence.
"Now, Paul," he said, "In less than a minute you'll see burning before you the finest, warmest, glowingest and most comfortable fire in all the West."
Paul's eyes glistened.
Henry drew forth flint and steel, and with a few strokes sent out the vivifying spark. The dry leaves caught, a light flame formed, the wood caught in its turn, and then the blaze, leaping high, roared up the chimney. In a moment the hearth was glowing, and presently a bed of deep red coals began to grow.
Paul uttered a low laugh of joy, and spread out his hands to the flames. The red light glowed across the delicately cut but strong face of the boy, and Henry noticed now that all his color was gone, leaving his features white and drawn.
"Sit a little closer, Paul, a little closer," he said, still in tones of high, good cheer. "Isn't it the most beautiful fire you ever saw?"
"Yes," said Paul, "it is. It looks mighty good, but it's curious that it doesn't warm me more."
Henry had closed the door, and it was already very hot in the cabin; but he decided now on another step--one that would take more time, but it must be taken.
"Paul," he said, "I'm going out in the woods to look for something, and I may be gone at least half an hour. Take good care of our house while I'm away."
"All right," said Paul. But as he spoke his teeth struck together.
Henry closed the door once more, with himself on the outside. Then he walked to the edge of the clearing, and looked back at the cabin. He had been careful to choose the kind of wood that would give out the least smoke, and only a thin column rose from the chimney. The wind caught it before it rose far, and it was lost among the great trees of the wilderness. It seemed again to Henry Ware that Fortune was kind to them.
The single look sufficed, and then, drawing his long-bladed hunting knife from its sheath, he began to search the forest. Henry Ware had been long a captive among the Northwestern Indians, and he had learned their lore. He had gained from the medicine men and old squaws a knowledge of herbs, and now he was to put it to use. He sought first for the bitter root called Indian turnip, and after looking more than twenty minutes found it. He dug it up with his sharp knife, and then, with another search of a quarter of an hour, he found the leaves of wild sage, already dried in the autumn air. A third quarter of an hour and he added to his collection two more herbs, only the Indian names of which were known to him. Then he returned to the house, to find that the icy torrent in Paul's blood had now become hot.
"I can't stand this, Henry," he said. "We've got the door and window closed and a big fire burning, and I'm just roasting hot."
"Only a little while longer," said Henry. "The truth is, Paul, you've had a big chill, and now the fever's come on you. But I'm Dr. Ware, and I'm going to cure you. When I was up there among the Indians, I learned their herb remedies, and mighty good some of 'em are, too. They're particularly strong with chills and fever, and I'm going to make you a tea that'll just lay hold of you and drive all the fever out of your veins. What you want to do, Paul, is to sweat, and to sweat gallons."
He spoke in rapid, cheerful tones, wishing to keep up Paul's spirits, in which effort he succeeded, as Paul's eyes sparkled, and a gleam of humor lighted up his face.
"Well, Dr. Ware," he said, "I'm mighty glad to know what's the matter with me. Somehow you always feel better when you know, and I'll trust to your tea."
He meant what he said. He knew Henry too well to doubt him. Any assertion of his inspired him with supreme confidence.
"Now, Paul," Henry resumed, "you keep house again, and I'll find where our unknown friend got his drinking water."
He took the iron pot that he had noticed and went forth into the forest. It was an instinctive matter with one bred in the wilderness like Henry Ware to go straight to the spring. The slope of the land led him, and he found it under the lee of a little hill, near the base of a great oak. Here a stream, six inches broad, an inch deep, but as clear as burnished silver, flowed from beneath a stony outcrop in the soil, and then trickled away, in a baby stream, down a little ravine. There was a strain of primitive poetry, the love of the wild, in Henry's nature, and he paused to admire.
He saw that human hands had scraped out at the source a little fountain, where one might dip up pails of water, and looking down into the clear depths he beheld his own face reflected back in every detail. It seemed to Henry Ware, who knew and loved only the wilderness, that the cabin, with its spring and game at its very doors, would have made a wonderfully snug home in the forest. Had it been his own, he certainly would have undertaken to defend it against any foe who might come.
But all these thoughts passed in a second, treading upon one another's heels. Henry was at the fountain scarcely a moment before he had filled the pot and was on the way back to the cabin. Then he cast in the herbs, put it upon a bed of red coals, and soon a steam arose. He found an old, broken-sided gourd among the abandoned utensils, and was able to dip up with it a half dozen drinks of the powerful decoction. He induced his comrade to swallow these one after another, although they were very bitter, and Paul made a wry face. Then he drew from the corner the rude bedstead of the departed settler, and made Paul lie upon it beside the fire.
"Now go to sleep," he said, "while I watch here."
Paul was a boy of great sense, and he obeyed without question, although it was very hot before the fire. But it was not a dry, burning heat that seemed to be in the blood; it was a moist, heavy heat that filled the pores. He began to feel languid and drowsy, and a singular peace stole over him. It did not matter to him what happened. He was at rest, and there was his faithful comrade on guard, the comrade who never failed. The coals glowed deep red, and the sportive flames danced before him. Happy visions passed through his brain, and then his eyes closed. The red coals passed away and the sportive flames ceased to dance. Paul was asleep.
Henry Ware sat in silence on one of the chairs at the corner of the hearth, and when Paul's breathing became long, deep, and regular, he saw that he had achieved the happy result. He rose soundlessly, and put his hand upon Paul's forehead. It came back damp. Paul was in a profuse perspiration, and his fever was sinking rapidly. Henry knew now that it was only a matter of time, but he knew equally well that in the Indian-haunted wilderness time was perhaps the most difficult of all things to obtain.
No uneasiness showed in his manner. Now the lad, born to be a king of the wilderness, endowed with all the physical qualities, all the acute senses of a great, primitive age, was seen at his best. He was of one type and his comrade of another, but they were knitted together with threads of steel. It had fallen to his lot to do a duty in which he could excel, and he would shirk no detail of it.
He brought in fresh wood and piled it on the hearth. At a corner of the cabin stood an old rain barrel half full of water. He emptied the barrel and brought it inside. Then, by means of many trips to the little spring with the iron pot, he filled it with fresh water. All the while he moved soundlessly, and Paul's deep, peaceful slumber was not disturbed. He took on for the time many of the qualities that he had learned from his Indian captors. Every sense was alert, attuned to hear the slightest sound that might come from the forest, to feel, in fact, any alien presence as it drew near.
When the store of water was secure he looked at their provisions. They had enough venison in their knapsacks to last a day or two, but he believed that Paul would need better and tenderer food. The question, however, must wait a while.
The day was now almost gone. Great shadows hovered over the eastern forest, and in the west the sun glowed in its deepest red as it prepared to go. Henry put his hand upon Paul's forehead again. The perspiration was still coming, but the fever was now wholly gone. Then he took his rifle and went to the door. He stood there a moment, a black figure in the red light of the setting sun. Then he slid noiselessly into the forest. The twilight had deepened, the red sun had set, and only a red cloud in the sky marked its going. But Henry Ware's eyes pierced the shadows, and none in the forest could have keener ears than his. He made a wide circle around the cabin, and found only silence and peace. Here and there were tracks and traces of wild animals, but they would not disturb; it was for something else that he looked, and he rejoiced that he could not find it. When he returned to the cabin the last fringe of the red cloud was gone from the sky, and black darkness was sweeping down over the earth. He secured the door, looked again to the fastenings of the window, and then sat down before the fire, his rifle between his knees.
Paul's slumber and exhaustion alike were so deep that he would not be likely to waken before morning, so Henry judged, and presently he took out a little of the dried venison and ate it. He would boil some of it in the pot in the morning for Paul's breakfast, but for himself it was good enough as it now was. His strong white teeth closed down upon it, and a deep feeling of satisfaction came over him. He, too, was resting from great labors, and from a task well done. He realized now, for the first time, how great a strain had been put upon him, both mind and body.
The night was sharp and chill, but it was very warm and comfortable in the little cabin. Paul slept on, his breathing as regular as the ticking of a clock, healthy color coming back into his pale face as he slept. Henry's own eyes began to waver. A deep sense of peace and rest soothed him, heart and brain. He had meant to watch the night through, but even he had reached the limit of endurance. The faint moaning of the wind outside, like the soft, sweet note of a violin, came to his ears, and lulled him to slumber. The fire floated far away, and, still sitting in his chair with his rifle between his knees, he slept.
Outside the darkness thickened and deepened. The forest was a solid black, circling wall, and the cabin itself stood in deepest shadow. Inside a fresh piece of wood caught, and the blaze burned brighter and higher. It threw a glow across the faces of the two boys, who slept, the one lying upon the bed and the other sitting in the chair, with the rifle between his knees. It was a scene possible only in the great wilderness of Kain-tuck-ee.
Meanwhile word was sent by unknown code through the surrounding forest to all its inhabitants that a great and portentous event had occurred. Not long before they had welcomed the departure of the strange intruder, who had come and cut down the forest and built the house. Then, with the instinct that leaped into the future, they saw the forest and themselves claiming their own again; the clearing would soon be choked with weeds and bushes, the trees would grow up once more, the cabin would rot and its roof fall, and perhaps the bear or the panther would find a cozy lair among its timbers.
Now the strange intruders had come again. The fox, creeping to the edge of the clearing, saw with his needlelike eyes a red gleam through the chinks of the cabin. The red gleam smote him with terror, and he slunk away. The wolf, the rabbit, and the deer came; they, too, saw the red gleam, and fled, with the same terror striking at their hearts. All, after the single look, sank back into the shadows, and the forest was silent and deserted. Paul and Henry, as they slept, were guarded by a single gleam of fire from all enemies save human kind.
But as the night thickened there had been a whirring in the air not far away. An hour earlier the twilight had been deepened by something that looked like a great cloud coming before the sun. It was a cloud that moved swiftly, and it was made of a myriad of motes, closely blended. It resolved itself soon into a vast flock of wild pigeons, millions and millions flying southward to escape the coming winter.
Presently they settled down upon the forest for the night, and all the trees were filled with the chattering multitude. Often the bough bent almost to the ground beneath the weight of birds, clustered so thick that they could scarcely find a footing. The fox and the wolf that had looked at the lone cabin came back now to seek, an easier prey.
Henry Ware slept until far after midnight, and then he awoke easily, without jerk or start. The fire had burned down, and a deep bed of coals lay on the hearth. Paul still slept, and when Henry touched him he found that he had ceased to perspire. No trace of the fever was left. Yet he would be very weak when he awoke, and he would need nourishing food. It was his comrade's task to get it. Henry took his rifle and went outside. The moon was shining now, and threw a dusky silver light over all the forest. He might find game, and, if so, he resolved to risk a shot. The chances were that no human being save himself would hear it. He felt rather than saw that nothing had happened while he slept. No enemy to be feared had come, while all his own strength and elasticity had returned to him. Never had he felt stronger or more perfectly attuned in body and mind.
He moved again in a circuit about the cabin, watching carefully, and now and then looking up among the trees. Perhaps an opossum might be hanging from a bough! But he saw nothing until he widened his circuit, and then he ran directly into the myriads of wild pigeons. Here was food for an army, and he quickly secured plenty of it. The danger of the rifle report was gone, as he had nothing to do but take a stick and knock off a bough as many of the pigeons as he wished. Then he hastened back to the cabin with his welcome burden. Paul still slept, and it pleased Henry to give him a surprise. He kindled the fire afresh, cleaned two of the youngest, fattest, and tenderest of the pigeons, and began to boil them in the pot.
When the water simmered and pleasant odors arose, he was afraid that Paul would awake, as he turned once or twice on his bed and spoke a few incoherent words. But he continued to sleep, nevertheless, and at last the pigeon stew was ready, throwing out a savory odor.
The day was now coming, and Henry opened the window. The forest, wet with morning dew, was rising up into the light, and afar in the east shone the golden glory of the sun. He drew a deep breath of the fresh, good air, and decided to leave the window open. Then he filled the broken gourd with the grateful stew, and, holding it in his right hand, shook Paul violently with his left. Paul, who had now slept his fill, sat up suddenly and opened his eyes.
"Here, Paul, open your mouth," said Henry commandingly, "and take this fine stew. Dr. Ware has prepared it for you specially, and it is sure to bring hack your strength and spirits. And there's plenty more of it."
Paul sniffed hungrily, and his eyes opened wider and wider.
"Why--why, Henry!" he exclaimed. "How long have I slept, and where did you get this?"
"You've slept about twenty hours, more or less," replied Henry, laughing with satisfaction, "and this is wild pigeon stew. Fifteen or twenty millions roosted out there in the forest last night, and they won't miss the dozen or so that I've taken. Here, hurry up; I'm hungry, and it's my turn next."
Paul said no more, but, thankful enough, took the stew and ate it. Then, by turns, they used the broken gourd and ate prodigiously, varied by drinks from the water barrel. They had fasted long, they had undergone great exertions, and it took much to remove the sharp edge from their appetites. But it was done at last, and they rested content.
"Henry," said Paul, upon whose mind the fortunate advent of the wild pigeons made a deep impression, "while we have had great mischances, it seems to me also that we have been much favored by Providence. Our finding of this cabin was just in time, and then came the pigeons as if specially for us. You remember in the Bible how the Lord sent the manna in the wilderness for the Israelites; it seems to me that He's doing the same thing for us."
"It looks so," replied Henry reverently. "The Indians with whom I once lived think that the Great Spirit often helps us when we need it most, and I suppose that their Great Spirit--or Manitou, as they call Him--is just the same as our God."
Both boys were now silent for a while. They had been reared by devout parents. Life in the forest deepens religious belief, and it seemed to them that there had been a special interposition in their favor.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Paul at length.
"We can't take up our journey again for a day or two," replied Henry. "We've got to get that powder to Marlowe some time or other. Wareville sent us to do the job, and we'll do it; but you are yet too weak, Paul, to start again. You don't know how really weak you are. Just you get up and walk about a little."
Paul rose and walked back and forth across the room, but in a few moments he became dizzy and had to sit down. Then he uttered an impatient little cry.
"You're right, Henry," he said, "and I can't help it. Find the horses and take the powder to Marlowe by yourself. I guess I can get back to Wareville, or come on later to Marlowe."
"You know I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing, Paul," he said. "Besides, I don't think they need to be in any hurry at Marlowe for that powder. We'll rest here two or three days, and then take a fresh start."
Paul said no more. It would have been a terrible blow to him to have no further share in the enterprise, but he had forced himself nevertheless to make the offer. Now he leaned back luxuriously, and was content to wait.
"Of course," said Henry judicially, "we run risks here. You know that, Paul"
"Everybody who lives in Kentucky runs risks, and big ones," said Paul.
"Then we'll sit here for the present and watch the forest. I don't like to keep still, but it's a fine country to look at, isn't it, Paul?"
The love of the wilderness was upon Henry, and his eyes glowed as he looked at the vast surrounding forest, the circling wall of deep-toned, vivid colors. For him, danger, if absent, did not exist, and there was inspiration in the crisp breeze that came over a thousand miles of untenanted woods. He sat in the doorway, the door now open, and stretched his long legs luxuriously. He was happy; while he might be anxious to go on with the powder, he pined for neither Wareville nor Marlowe for their own sakes.
Paul looked at his comrade with understanding and sympathy. The forest made its appeal to him also, but in another way; and since Henry was content, he would be content, too. Used as he was to hardships and narrow quarters, the little cabin would not be a bad place in which to pass two or three days. He turned back to the fire and held out his hands before the mellow blaze.
Henry examined the forest again, widening his circle, and saw no traces of an enemy. He judged that they had passed either to east or west, and that he and Paul would not be molested just yet, although he had no confidence in their permanent security. He saw a deer, but in view of their bountiful supply of pigeons he did not risk a shot, and returned before noon, to find Paul rapidly regaining his strength. He cooked two more of the pigeons in their precious iron pot, and then they rested.
They left both door and window open now, and they could see forest and sky. Henry called attention to a slight paleness in the western heavens, and then noted that the air felt damp.
"It will rain to-night, Paul," he said, "and it is a good thing for you, in your weakened condition, that we have a roof."
They ate pigeon again for supper, and their wilderness appetites were too sharp to complain of sameness. They had barred window and door, and let the fire die down to a bed of glowing coals, and while they ate, Paul heard the first big drops of rain strike on the board roof. Other drops came down the chimney, fell in the coals, and hissed as they died. Paul shivered, and then felt very good indeed in the dry little cabin.
"You were a real prophet, Henry," he said. "Here's your storm."
"Not a storm," said Henry, "but a long, cold, steady rain. Even an Indian would not want to be out in it, and bear and panther will hunt their holes."
The drops came faster, and then settled into a continuous pour. Paul, after a while, opened the window and looked out. Cold, wet air struck his face, and darkness, almost pitchy, enveloped the cabin. Moon and stars were gone, and could not see the circling wail of the forest. The rain beat with a low, throbbing sound on the board roof, and, with a kind of long sigh, on the ground outside. It seemed to Paul a very cold and a very wet rain indeed, one that would be too much for any sort of human beings, white or red.
"I think, we're safe to-night, Henry," he said, as he closed and fastened the window.
"Yes, to-night," replied Henry.
Paul slept a dreamless sleep, lulled by the steady pour of the rain on the roof, and when he awoke in the morning the sun was shining brightly, without a cloud in the sky. But the forest dripped with rain. He was strong enough now to help in preparing the breakfast, and Henry spoke with confidence of their departure the next morning.
The hours passed without event, but when Henry went as usual through the forest that afternoon, he came upon a footprint. He followed it and found two or three more, and then they were lost on rocky ground. The discovery was full of significance to him, and he thought once of hurrying back to the cabin, and of leaving with Paul at once. But he quickly changed his mind. In the forest they would be without defense save their own strong arms, while the cabin was made of stout logs. And perhaps the danger would pass after all. Already the twilight was coming, and in the darkness his own footprints would not be seen.
Paul was at the door when Henry returned, and he did not notice anything unusual in his comrade's face, but Henry advised that they stay inside now. Then he looked very carefully to the bars of the door and the window, and Paul understood. The danger flashed instantly on his mind, but his strong will prepared him to meet it.
"You think we are likely to be besieged?" he said.
"Yes," replied Henry.
Paul did not ask why Henry knew. It was sufficient that he did know, and he examined his arms carefully. Then began that long period of waiting so terrible to a lad of his type. It seemed that the hours would never pass. The coals on the hearth were dead now, and there was no light at all in the cabin. But his eyes grew used to the dusk, and he saw his comrade sitting on one of the benches, one rifle across his lap and the other near, always listening.
Paul listened, too. The night before the rain had fallen on the board roof with a soothing sound, but now he could hear nothing, not even the wind among the trees. He began to long for something that would break this ominous, deadly silence, be it ever so slight--the sound of a falling nut from a tree, or of a wild animal stirring in the undergrowth--but nothing came. The same stillness, heavy with omens and presages, reigned in all the forest.