The Forest Runners by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter IX. A Change of Places
Now came a time which Paul did not wholly understand, but which seemed to him a period of test. The repulse of the old couple was not permanent. They came back again and again, inviting him to be their son, and patiently endured all his rebuffs until he began to feel a kind of pity for them. After that he was always gentle to them, but he remained firm in his resolve that he would not become a savage, either in reality or pretense.
After a week he was allowed to walk in the village and to look upon barbaric life, but he saw not the remotest chance of escape. The place contained perhaps five hundred souls--men, women, children, and papooses--and at least fifty mangy curs, every one of whom, including the papooses and curs, seemed to Paul to be watching him. Black eyes followed him everywhere. Nothing that he did escaped their attention. Every step was noted, and he knew that if he went a yard beyond the village he would bring a throng of warriors, squaws, and dogs upon him. But he was grateful for this bit of freedom, the escape from the confinement of close walls, and the forest about them, glowing with autumnal foliage, looked cool and inviting. He saw nothing of Braxton Wyatt, but Red Eagle told him one day that he had gone northward with a band, hunting. "He good boy," said Red Eagle. Paul shuddered with disgust.
More than two weeks passed thus, and it seemed to Paul that he was not only lost to his own world, but forgotten by it. Kentucky and all his friends had dipped down under the horizon, and would never reappear. Henry and Ross and Shif'less Sol would certainly have come for him if they could, but perhaps they had fallen, slain in the night battle. His heart stood still at the thought, but he resolutely put it away. It did not seem to him that one of such strength and skill as Henry Ware could be killed.
Paul sat on a rock about the twilight hour one day, and watched the sun sinking into the dark forest. He was inexpressibly lonely, as if forsaken of men. Savage life still left him untouched. It made no appeal to him anywhere, and he longed for Wareville, and his kind, which he was now sure he would never see again. Behind him rose the usual hum of the village--the barking of dogs, the chatter of squaws, and the occasional grunt of a warrior. In their way, these people were cheerful. Unlike Paul, they were living the only life they knew and liked, and had no thoughts of a better.
The lonely boy rose from the rock and walked back toward the pole hut, in which they fastened him every night. It had become a habit with him now, and he knew that it saved useless resistance and a lot of trouble. Had he taken a single step toward the forest instead of his own prison hut, a score of watchful eyes would have been upon him.
The twilight melted into the dark, and fires gleamed here and there in the village. Dusky figures passed before and behind the fires--those of squaws cooking the suppers. Paul's eyes wandered, idle and unobserving, over the savage scene, and then he uttered a little cry of impatience as a hulking warrior lurched against him. The man seemed to have tripped upon a root, an unusual thing for these sure-footed sons of the forest, and Paul drew back from him. But the savage recovered himself, and in a low voice said:
Paul Cotter started violently. It was the first word in good English that he had heard in a time that seemed to be eternity--save those of Braxton Wyatt, whom he hated--and the effect upon him was overpowering. It was like a voice of hope coming suddenly from another world.
"Paul," continued the voice, now warningly, "don't speak. Go on to your hut. Friends are by."
Then the hulking and savage figure walked away, and Paul knew enough to take no apparent notice, but to continue on as if that welcome voice Had not come out of the darkness. Yet a thousand little pulses within him were throbbing, throbbing with joy and hope.
But whose was the voice? In his excitement he had not noticed the tone except to note that it was a white man's. He glanced back and saw the hulking form near the outskirts of the village, but the light was too dim to disclose anything. Henry? No, it was not Henry's figure. Then who was it? A friend, that was certain, and he had said that other friends were by.
Paul walked with a light step to his prison hut, sedulously seeking to hide the exultation in his face. He was not forgotten in his world! His friends were ready to risk their lives for him! His heart was leaping as he looked through the dusk at the smoking camp fires, the dim huts and tepees, and the shadowy figures that passed and repassed. He would soon be leaving all that savage life. He never doubted it.
He came to his prison hut, went calmly inside, and a few minutes later, the regular time being at hand, the door was fastened on the outside by Red Eagle or some of his people. He might perhaps have forced the door in the night, but he had not considered himself a skillful enough woodsman to slip from the village unobserved, and accordingly he had waited. Now he was very glad of his restraint.
Paul lay down on the couch of skins, but he was not seeking sleep. Instead he was waiting patiently, with something of Indian stoicism. He saw through the cracks in his hut the Indian fires, yet burning and smoking, and the dim figures still passing and repassing. There was also the faint hum to tell him that savage life did not yet sleep, and now and then a mongrel cur barked. But all things end in time, and after a while these noises ceased; even the cure barked no more, and the smoking fires sank low.
The Indian village lay at peace, but Paul's heart throbbed with expectation. Nor did it throb in vain. A muffled sound appeared in time at his door. It was some one at work on the fastenings, and Paul listened with every nerve a-quiver. Presently the noise ceased, a shaft of pale night light showed, and then was gone. But the door had been opened, and then closed, and some one was inside.
Paul waited without fear. He could barely see a dark, shapeless outline within the dimness of his hut, but he was sure it was the figure of the slouching warrior who had bumped against him. The man stood a moment or two, seeking to pierce the dusk with his own eyes, and then he said in a low voice:
"Paul! Paul! Is it you?"
"Yes," replied Paul, in the same guarded tone, "but I don't know who you are."
The figure swayed a little and laughed low, but with much amusement.
"It 'pears to me that we are forgot purty soon," it said. "An' I've worked hard fur a tired man."
Then Paul knew the familiar, whimsical tone. The light had burst upon him all at once.
"Shif'less Sol!" he exclaimed.
"Jest me," said Sol; "an' ain't I about the purtiest Shawnee warrior you ever saw? Why, Paul, I'm so good at playin' a loafin' savage from some other village that nary a Shawnee o' them all has dreamed that I am what I ain't. If ever I go back thar in the East, I'm goin' to be a play-actor, Paul."
"You can be anything on earth you want to be, Sol!" said Paul jubilantly. "It was mighty good of you to come."
"You'd a-thought Henry would a-come," whispered Sol; "but we decided that he was too tall an' somehow too strikin'-lookin' to come in here ez a common, everyday Injun, so it fell to me to loaf in, me bein' a tired-lookin' sort o' feller, anyway. But they're out thar in the woods a-waitin', Henry an' Tom Ross an' that ornery cuss, Jim Hart."
"I knew that you fellows would never desert me!" exclaimed Paul.
"Why, o' course not!" said Sol. "We never dreamed o' leavin' you. Now, Paul, we've got to git through this village somehow or other. Lucky it's purty dark, an' you'll have to do your best to walk an' look like a Red. Maybe we kin git fur enough to make a good run fur it, and then, with the woods an' the night helpin' us, we may give them the slip. Here, take this."
He pressed something cold and hard into Paul's hand, and Paul slipped the pistol into his belt, standing erect and feeling himself much of a man.
"It's time to be goin'," said Shif'less Sol.
"I'm ready," said Paul.
But neither took more than a single step forward, stopping together as they heard a light noise at the door.
"Thunder an' lightnin'!" said Shif'less Sol, under his breath. "Somebody's suspectin'."
"It looks like it," breathed Paul.
"Lay down on the skins and pretend to be asleep," said Shif'less Sol.
Paul lay down on the couch at once, in the attitude of one who slumbers, and closed his eyes--all but a little. Shif'less Sol shoved himself into the corner, and blotted out his figure against the wall.
The door opened and Braxton Wyatt stepped in. What decree of fate had caused him to be spying about that night, and what had caused him to find the door of Paul's prison hut unfastened? He stood a few moments, trying to accustom his eyes to the dark, and he plainly heard the regular breathing of Paul on the bed of skins. Presently he saw the dim, recumbent figure also. But he was still suspicious, and he took a step nearer. Then a big form, projected somewhere from the dark, hurled itself upon him, and he was thrown headlong to the earthen floor. Strong fingers compressed his throat, and he gasped for breath.
"Here, Paul," said Sol, "tear off a piece o' that skin an' stuff it into his mouth."
Paul, who had leaped to his feet, obeyed at once.
"An' cut off some stout strips o' the same with this knife o' mine," said Shif'less Sol.
Paul again obeyed at once, and in three minutes Braxton Wyatt lay bound and gagged on the earthen floor. Shif'less Sol Hyde and Paul Cotter stood over him, and looked down at him, and even in the dark they saw the terror of all things in his eyes.
"The Lord has been good to us to-night, Paul," said Shif'less Sol, with a certain solemnity, "an' He wuz best o' all when He sent this hound here a-spyin'."
"You know what he is?" said Paul.
"Ef I don't know, I've guessed."
Then the two stood silent for a little space, still gazing down at Braxton Wyatt, bound and gagged. Paul had never before seen such stark dread in the eyes of any one, and he shuddered. Despite himself, he felt a certain amount of pity.
"He would have lured a boat-load of our people into the hands of the savages," he said.
"I'll put this knife in his foul heart, Paul," said Shif'less Sol.
The bound figure quivered in its bonds, and the eyes became wild and appealing.
"No, not that," replied Paul; "I couldn't bear to see anyone helpless put to death."
"It was just the thought uv a moment," said Shif'less Sol. "We've got a better use fur him. It's the one that the Lord sent him here fur. Now, Paul, help me strip off his huntin' shirt."
They took off Braxton Wyatt's hunting shirt, leggins, and cap, and Paul put them on, his own taking their place on the form of the gagged youth.
"Now, Paul," said Shif'less Sol, "you're Braxton Wyatt--for a little while, at least, you've got to stand it--an' he's you. Help me roll him up thar on your bed o' skins, an' he kin sleep in calm an' peace until they bring him his breakfast in the mornin'."
They put Wyatt on the couch, and his eyes glared fiercely at them. He struggled to speak, but they did not care to hear him. Sol took the weapons from his belt and gave them to Paul.
"Good-night, Braxton," said Shif'less Sol pleasantly. "Fine dreams to you. We're glad you came. You happened in jest in time."
Wyatt quivered convulsively on his bed of skins. Paul was filled with repugnance, but he would not exult. His nature would not permit him. Shif'less Sol opened the door, and the two stepped out into the open air and a dark night. No one was about, and the shiftless one deliberately fastened the doors on the outside in the usual manner. Then he and Paul strolled away through the village.
"Remember that you are Braxton Wyatt," whispered Shif'less Sol. "Walk ez near like him ez you kin. You've seen him often enough to know."
The two sauntered lazily forward. An old squaw, crouched by a low and smoking fire, gave one glance at them, but no more. She went on dreaming of the days when she was young, and when the braves fought for her. A mangy cur barked once, and then lay down again at the foot of a deer-skin lodge. A warrior, smoking a pipe in his own doorway, looked up, but saw nothing unusual, and then looked down again.
The coolness of Shif'less Sol was something wonderful to see. He merely loafed along, as if he had no object in the world but to pass away the time, and there was nothing in the course he chose to indicate that he meant to reach the forest. Now and then he spoke apparently casual words to Paul, and the boy, in the faint light, wearing Braxton Wyatt's clothes, might easily pass for Braxton Wyatt himself, even to the keen eyes of the Shawnees.
Presently they reached the northern end of the village, the one nearest to the forest, and it was here that Shif'less Sol intended to make the escape. Paul kept close to him, and he noticed with joy that all the time the light, already faint, was growing fainter. The friendly forest seemed to curve very near. Paul's heart throbbed with painful violence.
Shif'less Sol passed the last wigwam, and he took a step into the open space that divided them from the forest. Paul stepped with him, but a gaunt and weazened figure rose up in their path. It was that of the old squaw who wished a new son, and she stared for a few moments at the clothes of Braxton Wyatt, and the figure within them. Then she knew, and she uttered a shrill cry that was at once a lament and a warning. At the same time she flung her arms around Paul in a gesture that was intended alike for affection and detention.
"Run, Paul, run!" exclaimed Shif'less Sol.
Paul attempted to throw off the old woman, but she clung to him like a wild cat, showing marvelous strength and tenacity for one so little and weazened and old. Shif'less Sol saw the difficulty and, seizing her in his powerful grasp, tore her loose.
"Don't hurt her, Sol!" cried Paul.
Shif'less Sol understood, and he cast her from them, but not with violence. Then the two ran with utmost speed and desperate need toward the forest, because the village behind them was up and alive. Lights flared, dogs barked, men shouted, and before the friendly trees were reached rifles began to crack.
"Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!" cried Shif'less Sol, as a bullet whistled past his ear. "Ef that don't put life into a tired man, I don't know what will."
He ran with amazing swiftness, and Paul, light-footed, kept beside him. But the alert Shawnee warriors, ever quick to answer an alarm, were already in fleet pursuit, and only the darkness kept their bullets from striking true. Paul looked back once--even in the moment of haste and danger he could not help it--and he saw three warriors in advance of the others, coming so fast that they must overtake them. He and Sol might beat them off, but one cannot fight well and at the same time escape from a multitude. His heart sank. He would be recaptured, and with him the gallant Shif'less Sol.
Flashes of fire suddenly appeared in the forest toward which they ran, and death cries came from the two warriors who pursued. Shif'less Sol uttered an exultant gasp.
"The boys!" he said. "They're thar in the woods, a-helpin'."
Daunted by the sudden covering fire, the pursuing mob fell back for a few moments, and the two fugitives plunged into the deep and friendly shadows of the woods. Three figures, all carrying smoking rifles, rose up to meet them. The figures were those of Henry Ware, Tom Ross, and Jim Hart. Henry reached out his hand and gave Paul's a strong and joyous grasp.
"Well, Sol has brought you!" he said.
"But Sol's not goin' to stop runnin' yet for a long time, tired ez he is," gasped the shiftless one.
"Good advice," said Henry, laughing low, and without another word the five ran swiftly and steadily northward through the deep woods. Henry had on his shoulder an extra rifle, which he had brought for Paul, so confident was he that Sol would save him; but he said nothing about it for the present, preferring to carry the added weight himself. They heard behind them two or three times the long-drawn, terrible cry with which Paul was so familiar, but it did not now send any quiver through him. He was with the ever-gallant comrades who had come for him, and he was ready to defy any danger.
Henry Ware, after a while, stopped very suddenly, and the others stopped with him.
"I think we'd better turn here," he said, unconsciously assuming his natural position of leader. "It's not worth while to run ourselves to death. What we've got to do is to hide."
"Them's blessed words!" gasped Shif'less Sol. "I wuz never so tired in all my born days. Seems to me I've been chased by Shawnees all over this here continent of North Ameriky!"
Paul laughed low, from pure pleasure--pleasure at his escape and pleasure in the courage, loyalty, and skill of his comrades.
"You may be tired, Sol," he said, "but there was never a braver man than you."
"It ain't bravery," protested the shiftless one. "I get into these things afore I know it, an' then I've got to kick like a mule to get out o' 'em."
But Paul merely laughed low again.
Henry turned from the north to the west, and led now at a pace that was little more than a walk. Paul and Sol drew deep breaths, as they felt the heavenly air flowing back into their lungs and the spring returning to their muscles. They went in Indian file, five dusky figures in the shadow, a faint moonlight touching them but wanly, and all silent. Thus they marched until past midnight, and they heard nothing behind them. Then their leader stopped, and the others, without a word, stopped with him.
"I think we've shaken 'em off," said Henry, "and we'd better rest and sleep. Then we can make up our plans."
"Good enough," said Shif'less Sol. "An' ef any man wakes me up afore next week, I'll hev his scalp."
He sank down at once in his buckskins on a particularly soft piece of turf, and in an incredibly brief space of time he was sound asleep. Jim Hart, doubling up his long, thin figure like a jackknife, imitated him, and Paul was not long in following them to slumberland. Only Henry and Ross remained awake and watchful, and by and by the moonlight came out and silvered their keen and anxious faces.